Many gnome enthusiasts believe that gnomes originated in Germany in the early 1800s and that the first gnomes appeared in England in the 1840s. However, as I attended my very first Renaissance Fair in Bristol Wisconsin, I couldn’t help but notice gnomish influences all around me.
But wait! The Renaissance is categorized as the period of European history between the 1300s and the 1600s. So how did gnomes begin sneaking their way into these festival celebrations?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “gnome” comes from Renaissance Latin gnomus, which first appears in the works of a 16th century Swiss alchemist named Paracelsus. He described gnomes as diminutive spirits that were small, lived underground, and appeared in Renaissance magic and alchemy. In his publications, Paracelsus wrote that gnomes were about a foot tall, could move through solid earth, and were weary of human contact. You can read more about Paracelsus’ gnomes in Alan G. Hefner’s essay, “Paracelus’ Natural Spirits,” and Princeton’s history of gnomes.
But as I walked around the Renaissance Fair chomping on an oversized turkey leg and admiring the costumes, I couldn’t help but notice more trolls, wizards, fairies, and elves than gnomes for sale. One fair vendor selling mushrooms had a lovely lady gnome with her two children on display. The vendor revealed that he and his wife used to run a Renaissance fair booth that was all about gnomes and sold gnomes in all shapes and sizes. I tried to convince him to bring that booth back next year…we’ll see.
I visited another fair vendor who created handmade pottery sculptures of all kinds. As you can see in this photo, gnomes sat alongside wizards, Santas, and leprechauns. Just as I find with Christmas markets each year, identifying true gnomes in crowds like this is always a challenge.
So I ask again, do gnomes belong at Renaissance Fairs?
As I see it, the purpose of a Renaissance Fair is to take a step back in history to enjoy a day in another place and time. So while the true origin of gnomes is still debated, gnomes have a special place in history and I think they would really enjoy the Renaissance Fair activities. And if wizards, elves, and trolls are allowed to attend, then I see no reason for gnomes to be left out of the celebration! Cheers!
Roxy the Gnome
*A version of this story is scheduled to be published in the upcoming International Gnome Club Newsletter!