5 Entertaining Shows to Inspire your Renaissance Burning Man Spirit

The man burns in 25 days…. Are you ready?!??!  There isn’t much time to start new art projects or make an obscure purchase from China, but there is still time to get inspired by this year’s theme!  As I finish up art for my theme camp, it’s beginning to dawn on me that this year’s Burning Man theme: Da Vinci’s Workshop, is going to be an exciting and amazing thing to experience!

When it was announced, I was already giddy because our theme camp, The Hangry Bishop, was “founded” in the Middle Ages and would fit right in with the Renaissance-inspired Burn theme.

The Hangry Bishop is my grilled-cheese-slinging theme camp, voted the best Medieval Diner in Black Rock City.  Our household was started in 1300’s England, around the same time and place that Cheddar Cheese was invented.  We serve Grilled Cheeses and Virgin Mary’s every day for wandering playa pilgrims.  

As a first year camp in 2015, the Medieval inspiration didn’t exactly translate from concept to reality.  We had grand plans, believe me, but most of the work in year one was to cover the basics like setting up shade and serving grilled cheese.  We told people we were from the Middle Ages, but no one really guessed it without the pre-amble.  There was no elaborate decor or period-realistic costumes. 

But now in 2016, the year of Da Vinci’s Workshop, you’ll bet your dusty butt that The Hangry Bishop is stepping up the Medieval inspiration.  In preparation, over the past year I’ve been saturating my burner brain with Middle Ages entertainment, from books to TV shows.  It started with The White Queen, which is a TV series based on a book with the same title.  

I wasn’t much of a reader, but I took on a very boring, graveyard shift desk job and had the chance to read for hours a night.  After a free book find about the Black Plague, I went on a Medieval reading spree!  I found a few authors who wrote historical fiction, and they focused on the lives of noble women.  Noble women in the Middle Ages is a ridiculously interesting topic, because despite having money and status they were very much imprisoned by their families.  I’ve raced through about 15 Medieval fiction books in the past year, and those stories will definitely reflect in look and feel of our 2016 camp.  

So while you’re making lists and packing this month, you’ll probably need some entertainment.  Here are five shows that I’ve been obsessing over in the past year.  They helped me feed my Medieval & Renaissance inspiration, maybe they’ll give you ideas, too!

The White Queen on Amazon Prime

The White Queen is the British TV series that got my Middle-Ages fascination in-gear.  I found the 10 episode show on Amazon Prime a year ago, and gulped it up in a single weekend.  

The thing I like most about this show is the story line, which shows several women in 1300’s England with various positions and life outlooks.  One is the elderly mother to the king, the other a wife who becomes queen through a wildly unusual love marriage.  Some females are simply pawns in their families political machinations.  But regardless of status or position, all the women must live within the bounds of a male-dominated society.  The show feels realistic and gritty, covering ten years of battles for the throne.  

After finishing the TV show in a short weekend, I followed up by reading all five books in Philippa Gregory’s Cousin’s War Series.  Each book is told by one of the women introduced in the TV series.  I thought I’d be bored to read the same story told by different people, but Gregory was wonderful at creating strong characters in each book.  It was nice to read more detail about the women’s individual philosophies and strategies.  While the book series isn’t on this TV show list, I definitely recommend it.   

Vikings on Amazon Prime

I wanted to love this show, with the intense intro, intruiging premise about the clash between Vikings and Christians, and the always-gray Scandinavian visual backdrop.   The story itself was a little slow, with simple storylines and a few twists.  There are a few anachronistic elements that made me cringe.  I highly recommend Vikings as background TV, which is what I call any show that I can watch while doing other things.  You may want to binge watch while you’re packing!

The show is about Ragnaw Lothbrook, an intense historical character who lead Viking raids in the 1000s.  He is married to a shieldmaiden, interesting because the Viking females could fight alongside the men in battle.  The first cringe-worthy part for me happened in the first episode, when the husband and wife fought while discussing if their son was old enough to fight in battles.  It felt like a conversation plucked from modern life, and kind of lost me.  

What I do love about Vikings is seeing the comparison of Viking Pagan and European Catholic cultures.  The Vikings often talk about the many gods, and which god may be angry based on what events are unfolding.  They also offer sacrifices and eat psychedelic mushrooms when fighting battles.  Meanwhile, the Catholics have strict views of what’s right and wrong, and are completely surprised when the violent Pagans come running through their villages.  It’s a part of history I’ve always been enamored with, so I’m glad there’s a show where I get to explore that.

The Borgias on Netflix

The Borgias was my guilty pleasure, a show inspired by history but not-quite showing it realistically.  The series is about the church (and state) of corruption in Renaissance Italy.  Corruption in the Medieval Church was always a favorite topic after studying religious history in my Catholic high school, and certainly one of the inspirations for The Hangry Bishop.  

The show follows one family, the Borgias, after the patriarch becomes Pope through dubious methods.  Throughout the show, the Pope and everyone surrounding him acts in treachery, deceit, and an unquenchable hunger for power.  His only three children are bastards (common for “men of the cloth” in the era, since they were not allowed to wed) and he lives with a young mistress alongside the mother of his children.  

In portraying the corruption of the Catholic church, the show is pretty accurate.  But in the modern way people have sex and otherwise live their daily lives, the show drives me a little batty.  Luckily the show throws in a bit of actual history, like the invention of double entry bookkeeping in Florence and the growing popularity of the fork in 1400s Italy (because pasta is better with a fork).  

So many story elements seemed out of place when they came up in the show, that I was always running to Wikipedia to confirm they were accurate.  It seems like many story lines, especially about members of the Borgia family, are rooted in history.  For instance, Lucrezia was considered a femme fatale because of a handful of husbands reaching an early demise.  Also, her brother Cesare was burdened by his desire to be a soldier rather than his birthright as a Cardinal.  

One thing that drove me crazy: the Roman characters in the Papacy have British accents.  (while the French characters, inexplicably, have French accents...)  I could not get over the accents… Don’t even get me started on the recurring line “….I’m a Borgia”, it made me laugh every time! While I understand that it was it was a creative decision made by the producers of the show, it seemed wrong.  The dialog tries to sound fancy and old, like how people may have actually spoken in the time period.   Instead it draws attention and feels like a modern script adapted for an older time period.

The Borgias is a guilty pleasure, and I certainly made fun of it despite binge watching it in a couple weeks time.  The clothing, castles, and other visual treats are wonderful.  The dialog, storyline, and accents can be laughable.  But if you’re looking for inspiration from the Renaissance, it’s a great place to start.  

World Without End on Netflix

Since I’m only two episodes into this show, I can offer an early opinion.  Of the shows I’ve watched, World Without End shows the most realistic and gritty view of the Middle Ages.  In the first episode alone, there was one murder by poison, three examples of corporal punishment, and two attempted or successful rapes.  I definitely had to turn my head away from some of the bodily injury happening on screen.  Nonetheless, the show feels realistic in a way others fall short.  I’m looking forward to seeing more of the twisted Medieval world in Kingsbridge.

Tales of Irish Castles 

This show is a little different than the rest.  In six episodes, it covers stories of castles and Irish history from Medieval - Modern days.  It’s intriguing, especially because I don’t know much about the English ruling Ireland and all the effects of that.  There are stories of battles, parties, sieges, and kidnappings.  If you prefer a documentary to a ridiculous show like The Borgias, this will be your jam!