When Sandi Cartwright's second marriage ended three months ago, she moved into "a small but comfortable" studio apartment with her French poodle, Micki -- short for Michelangelo.

But four centuries ago, the tiny, talkative secretary from Trenton, N.J., said, she didn't have to take dictation to pay the bills. She didn't have to worry about meeting nice men. In that life she spent her days playing the harp in the castle she shared with her husband, an English nobleman.

"I cannot tell thee of those days without a rush of tears," she said, her accent part British, part Brooklyn. "Aaah, the days of merriment with the kings and queens. Such frolic. I tell thee, my body is in the 20th century, but my heart is still in the Renaissance."

Every September for the last five years Cartwright has taken the bus to Columbia, Md., for the opening of the annual Maryland Renaissance Festival. Dressed in a colorful gauze blouse and velvet skirt, she has romped among wandering minstrels, puppeteers, musicians, wenches and rakes.

Festival operators Jack Sias and Jules Smith expect about 80,000 people to visit the grounds at the Merriweather Post Pavilion over the next six weekends. Some customers, such as Cartwright, see the festival as a celebration of past lives. Most, however, come to have fun and escape the tension of the modern world for a few hours.

"I feel as though I've been transported into another time," said Shelly Grove, of Long Island. "It really makes me wish I had been alive then."

This is the third year John and Barbara Verleun of Falls Church, Va., have visited the festival. John especially enjoys the crafts displays and Barbara likes the music. "It's so much more interesting than rock 'n' roll," she said.

Their son, 2-year-old Joshua, waddled up to Gerald Farnham, a singing troubadour in purple tights, and dropped a quarter in his hat.

On Saturday -- opening day -- the gray, cloudy skies threatened to erupt at any moment, but that did not discourage the patrons. They strolled by the booths and chatted with merchants selling pottery, leather goods, chimes and porcelain knickknacks. By 3 o'clock the wooded grounds looked like a suburban shopping mall on a weekend afternoon. Harried parents weaved through the crowds with children in strollers.

Gladys Price of Miami filled her two canvas shopping bags with souvenirs for her grandchildren. In less than 20 minutes she had spent all of her cash.

No problem. They take ye olde MasterCard.

Mud-covered Zarbulon McEgar, one of the village beggars, roamed the grounds, offering to suck a rock for only 75 cents.

"Ye have never seen anyone suck a rock," he coaxed passers-by. "Please, I beg ye."

Someone gave him three quarters. McEgar put the entire rock (which he provided) in his mouth, as promised. The crowd laughed.

In real life McEgar is Ken Snedegar, 22, an economics student on leave from Northwestern University.

"During the travels, ye must do what ye can to make money," he said.

A few feet away, Ruth Blood, a gray-haired court jester from Cape Cod, delighted passers-by with her grandmotherly smile and comical monologues. "I like being a jester," she said matter-of-factly. "Jesters are fools and fools can say anything they want to. They can do anything they want to."

Her "master" and business partner, Allen Bjorkman, was born 39 years ago of common parentage in Worcester, Mass. He was graduated from Clark University and worked as an English teacher and a librarian before realizing his talent for printmaking. The two travel from fair to fair selling Renaissance designs.

"These festivals have added such dimension to my life," said Bjorkman. "I can't imagine ever doing anything else."

About 50 people gathered around Mandrogoras the Wizard, watching the wiry man in the black robe put a needle through a balloon without popping it. He also pulled coins out of the air. The crowd oohed and aahed.

Mandrogoras, known as Jim Van Liew in Auburn, N.Y., said he has been performing magic since he was a child. When he graduated from college with a degree in broadcasting and could not find a job, he turned his hobby into a way of supporting himself.

"It's very natural for me to be doing this," he said. "I've always had an attraction to magic, fantasy, unicorns and the like." Besides, he says, he was previously incarnated as a wizard during the Renaissance period.

Van Liew travels to festivals with his tent and a box that holds all his belongings. "I don't have much money, but I'm really happy. Being rich isn't important." He paused. "Then again, maybe it is."

A 15-year-old executioner wearing black tights and Adidas sneakers chomped on an enormous turkey leg and washed it down with several gulps of ale. The three fair maidens sitting with him nibbled on little pieces of apple sprinkled with cinnamon. They delicately sipped their mead.

"Thou art a real pig," a girl in typical Elizabethan dress -- a black velvet skirt with a patchwork apron -- told the executioner. The maiden's name is Jill, but she said that when she gets older she plans to change it to something more "Renaissancy," like Anne.

"Thou make fun of the wrong fellow, my lovely lady," replied the executioner, waving his plastic sword. "Would thou join me for pizza this evening?"

The sandy-haired girl blushed. "I must ask my lord."

Her lord, whom she called Dad, gave his permission. "He looks like a polite, clean-cut executioner," he said with a laugh.

Her father, a Washington insurance agent, introduced himself as Theocritis. His family, he explained, travels to about seven or eight festivals each year.

"Obviously, we love every minute of it," he said. "Sometimes we forget we're pretending. Even my mother calls me Theo."

The constant activity on the fair grounds -- as many as 200 performers were entertaining at once -- seemed spontaneous. "We want it to appear that way," said coordinator Marlene Weinberg. "Actually, everything has been closely choreographed."

Two California schoolteachers held the first such Renaissance fair in the 1960s. Now there are about 15 major fairs throughout the country. Sias and Smith chose Columbia as their site because of its accessibility from Washington and Baltimore.

For its first several years, the Maryland Renaissance Festival was a financial failure, but is now starting to make a profit. Sias recently left his law practice in Minneapolis and has moved to Baltimore to concentrate exclusively on the fair.

"Every year, the turnout is larger," said Weinberg. "People enjoy living a fantasy for a few hours. Of course, we stress only the good points of the Renaissance. We don't play up the plague or anything."

Next September, Sandi Cartwright said, resting on a bale of hay with a mime, she might "throw in the steno pad" and never return to Trenton.

"I feel so alive here. Why not become a full-time wench?"