If you've ever been to a Renaissance Faire you've seen them. They're everywhere. Usually it's just one, but I've seen close to a dozen at one time. They're usually white or brown or black, sometimes red, but they come in blue, green, yellow and rainbow. Most often they hang from a belt, but if you watch they'll appear in a hat or on a stick. They're about 10 to 12 inches long, but I've seen them longer and shorter. Some baby had one the other day. Yes, you've got fox tails. Though never seen in any Renaissance art and never discussed in Renaissance literature, they have begun to multiply at a rate that would shock students of the plague. But where do they come from?
Okay, foxes, obviously, but what I wanted to know was where the style came from of every Tom, Dick and Mary wearing them all over faire. To give credit where due, the first person to bring this conundrum to my attention was our gallant former pilot, Galleon O'Galleon. From his research, done during his recuperation following the Great Monkey Incident, and adding my feeble attempts at scholarly inquiry, I have pieced together the real reason so many Rennies are wearers of the tail. To be sure, there were a number of rabbit trails. (Though very few rabbit tails.)
The most common story at your local faire is that tails were worn for hygienic reasons. The story goes that as Renaissance folk rarely bathed, they were subject to a variety of infestations. Lice, bed bugs, the crabs and all manner of creepy, tiny monsters found the taste of dry, filthy, flakey human flesh a gourmet delight. And while we know the average pub wench enjoys a little nibble now and again, she usually expects that to be from a swarthy pirate, don't ya know. So, the story continues, the tail was tied because for some obscure reason the mini varmints would move, lemming like, to the furry confines of the tail and be disposed of the in the nearest fiery holocaust. Now why the little blighters left a perfectly healthy fold of flesh to migrate to a poofy but dry and desolate tail, no one seems to know. Nor do they recall actually seeing any real documentation to support the story. And why do these bitey-mites not return with a jump as the tail is removed, no one alive today actually knows.
There are other explanations to be sure. And surely that aforementioned plague has given us a great one. We have documentation of Italian doctors wearing grotesque masks with huge hooked noses to filter the vapors as they comforted the dying and the dead. One village believed that their good fortune was due to good humor so they laughed. They laughed day and night without sleep until they passed out from exhaustion. Then they died. And we all learned a little poem in childhood related to the plague. But did you know that "a pocket full of posies" refers to the practice of carrying flowers believing that "the good air" would kill the "bad". Into that mix is also thrown the story that the tail was worn to keep the fleas at bay. The thought being that if the critters stay on the tail, they won't creep onto the human, leaving the dread "ring around the rosies", referring to the circle left around the pustules of a plague victim. Now that thought might work for some hairless youth, but our First Mate, Phil, was hairier than the average fox so he would have been bitten faster than John Crow the cook, can hump the leg of a birthday girl. Oh, yes. No record of that either.
Our next fable of the founding goes back to Celtic times. Yes, those blue splotched berserkers of the Highlands. Roman record does tell us of these fearsome and fearless warriors from the north of Britannia. They were a wild and ferocious conglomeration of clans and tribes who would fight anyone who dared step upon their lands, and each other when no one else was handy. Some of you may have even been told that Hadrian's legions reported that they would pound the drum, scream and run naked at an opposing force, their blue bottoms bouncing like besotted baboons as they ran. Now, that's all well and good. But did they wear the tail? I was told by an ancient Rennie, with teeth the color of the Mississippi , what they did to distinguish themselves when inter-clan fighting broke out. How do they tell Clan Aaargh from Clan Whoopass. Was it long hair flying as they ran blue body paint like Avatar ????, of the relative size of "the little barbarian"? (It was cold in the Highlands.) No, it was the color of your fox tail, I was told. Each clan claimed a different color multiples when clans intermarried. Oh, you laugh. I did too, until he explained that the intermingling of colors eventually led (along with weaving) to the development of the tartan. Not so crazy now, right? And when wearing the tartan "the little barbarian" remained free. Well that's what the old Rennie told me.
There are other stories, to be sure. Every dealer in fox tails has two or three and stopping the most casual fox tail wearer along the lanes will give you stories of ancient fox tail wearing clans battling eagle feather aficionados for some sacred soil or how wearing of the tail indicated your particular sexual predilection based on the size and coloring much like latex bracelets a few years back. I however have taken the search for fox tail truth like a quest for the Holy Grail from village to city, from castle to farm, from river to cove and have divined the true source of this fashion phenomenon sweeping the faire grounds of the Ren-faire world. Here then is your enlightenment. Other may scoff and many will argue and staunchly defend their well rehearsed fable, but this story's headwaters spring from the very fabric of American entrepreneurship and not from European Renaissance popular custom.
A certain pelt dealer went to his critter-hide wholesaler in need of fur to accent various characters from Royals to barbarians. While he waited for his order of rabbit, squirrel and sheep to be prepared, he noted a large container of tails resting idly in the corner. He asked his dealer the destination of the contents and learned that since jalopies no longer sported fox tails from the radio antenna, and the market was at new lows with the want of "coon-skinned" caps, that the tails were for probable discard. Being the creative sort and not fully beholden to the Ren-faire fashion Nazis that patrol most faires, he made an offer for the lot. He set out for his booth without his cow but with a retired school bus of veritable magic beans. But how, he wondered, was he to get those beans to grow into a financial beanstalk to steal the golden goose. As he pondered his predicament, two charming lasses appeared in his shop and discovered his new found treasure. Flirtatiously, one suggested that a fuzzy tail mayhap be the exclamation point to her own tale or tail as the case may be.
Laughing they started to exit when one merchant was visited by the muse and suggested that they might have a tail each if they sent those who may make inquiry back to his establishment. When they asked the significance of the tail, the first story was born. As tails spread, so did stories. Soon every other citizen of the village was "betailed" and each new vendor tried variations of color, size and, of course, story to enhance their sales. There you have it. 'Twas not fashion, hygiene or valor that drove the tale of tails, but that most historic of American values: greed. So the next foray you make into the world of faire be sure to look about you. You'll see wench tails, knight tails, barbarian tails, Viking tails, ogre tails and even royal tails. Strangely enough, I've ne'er seen a fairy tail.