Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Humanities are Important

The academic blogs I read have been blowing up lately with the talk of budget cutbacks and how they are affecting the humanities at schools and universities in Britain and in the US. Here is a letter to the president of SUNY Albany who cut 5 whole programs of study, almost all in humanities. The letter is really quite clever, and addresses all the reasons for the cuts using examples from literature found commonly in classes in the departments that have been cut. Meaning: your reasons are faulty as you would have known, had you actually taken any of the classes in departments that you’re cutting.

I found that link on a blog that also has an article on the value of learning history that says the value of learning history is critical thinking skills, learning to question what you are told, and learning to look for the bias in all sources. At least, that is what I took out of the rather long entry. You’ve got to get past the first couple paragraphs to get to the good stuff (which is a lot like my blog posts, actually.)

I am not an academic, but I think that teaching is important, and I think that the humanities are very very important. Yes to help us make decisions, yes to think critically, but for me the important thing that the humanities do is give meaning to everything that we do. I look to history to answer the eternal why.
Why are food and meals important?
Why are families structured the way they are?
Why are there different forms of government all around the world?
Why do I get up and go to work every morning?

Some people find these answers in the study of biology and animal and human behavior, some people find them in religion or any number of other places. Some people do not ask these questions, and those I think are the saddest of all. When I ask those questions I see a long horizon of history stretching out in front of me where all the possible answers for all the possible whys can be found, if only I look hard enough.

Last night on the way home from work I was listening to Fresh Air, to Terry Gross interview Carlos Eire about his new memoir. Terry was talking to Eire about how he became a historian and about his studies of religious iconography. All my thinking about the importance of history, about education, about the humanities gelled when he said:

"You know, symbols encode, deep deep truths and allow us to perceive them in a non-rational way. And by non-rational, I don't mean irrational. I actually mean that these symbols speak to us at a level that is deeper, and affects us and shapes our personality much more than any logical discourse could. You know, the United States is a very symbolically impoverished culture. So most Americans have trouble understanding symbols and how symbols affect them. But people who are in advertising have it all figured out."

Especially the part about the US being a symbolically impoverished culture. To me it was the same as saying we are a historically impoverished culture, because the history that we claim as ours only goes back a couple hundred years. I’m sure Eire might explain it differently, but to me a symbol is anything that one can draw meaning from, and I look for meaning in everything! I find meaning by looking at history, and not just American history, not just European history.

Because I am asking why and am actively searching for meaning and because I think others out there might be too; that is why I spend so much of my time on Living History. Sure, there is the escapism, and the social circle, but I could get the escapism from novels, and the social circle from any number of other geeky pastimes. I’ve talked here on the blog about the fact that I do living history in order to educate myself and educate others, but I don’t think I’ve answered completely the question: why is education important? There are so many answers to that one, but the important one to me, the one that I think might need to be pointed out to those making important budgetary decisions, is that history helps bring meaning to our lives and helps us answer the whys we might encounter in our daily lives.

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Friday, November 12, 2010

Where Are You From?

I have spent a lot of the past two years reenacting a geographical area that does not conform to today’s geo-political rules. When someone asks me where I am from when I am in character the answer is: “the Barony of Reischach in Bavaria, that is a part of the Holy Roman Empire.” If I’m not in costume in character and someone asks me what I’ve been spending my time on lately I’ll tell them Renaissance Germany. Today, there is no Holy Roman Empire, and technically, there is no Germany during the time of the European Renaissance. This makes for all sorts of challenges, but presents a pretty good lesson too.
When in costume, in character, we’ve got to find unique ways of telling people we’re from the area that they think of as Germany. We talk about the German speaking lands, we mention Bavaria hoping that some adults will recognize it as a region in Germany, We talk about being north of the Italian city-states and south of the Low-Countries. Some make jokes when people ask if we are from Germany and say stuff like: “What a preposterous notion that all the German-speaking lands would be united. Next you will be saying that all the Italian speaking lands are under one government!”

It doesn’t always work the way we want it to. We set up at a school last spring. We had different stations focusing on different aspects of military and daily life in 1528, and as the students shuffled around we tried to give them things to see, things to do, opportunities to ask questions, and tons of knowledge. But in the bathroom after the event was over I heard a group of girls talking (they did not know I was in there) saying how they loved our Russian accents and wondered how hard the accent was to learn. They then did horrible fake Russian accents until I came out in my huge dress and hat with my Bavarian accent (it is different from a Swiss German, or Austrian, or northern German accent) and shocked them all into silence. I did not really feel like explaining while washing my hands, the context was just too weird and they were probably too embarrassed to hear me as they pushed each other out of the restroom.

The opportunity in presenting a past from a place that today has a very different identity is we are letting people know that our modern nation-states are inventions. Many would like us to believe that our current countries are almost inevitable. But by reenacting times when most of our modern countries did not exist, when the definition of a nation and one’s sense of place were far different, we can bring to life the concept of a paradigm shift. We can show that people thought differently about the places they lived in how we react, in what we say, in how we define ourselves. And that is a discussion worth having, an idea worth exploring.

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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Hitting the Wall

Our house is draped in canvas right now.  It rained on the Sunday of our last reenacting weekend of the season, so we had to pack up all the tents wet. In fact, we transported all of the tents back to our house, because Stephen and I had the only vehicle that could accommodate all the tents and poles, so even the ones that are owned by other people ended up at our house. Wet canvas is subject to mildew and mold which can completely ruin a tent, so as soon as it stopped raining (almost a week after we packed them up) Stephen took all the tents back out and laid them all over our yard. In the evening when I’d look up the hill they’d look positively ghostly, their indistinct forms were so amazingly white against the greys and blacks of twilight. Once the tents were on the lawn it rained at least a little every other day, and it is cold enough at night that there is frost. The things just were not drying. When we heard the weather report threaten snow on Sunday night Stephen and I dragged all the canvas inside: 1 large wedge tent, 1 dining fly, 2 pavillion roofs, 2 very long walls and 4 shorter walls. The ground cloths and rugs are still out on the lawn. We draped tents in the garage (one over the band saw and workbench, one over the motorcycles), one in the guest bedroom, one in the sewing room, one in the den, one in the upstairs office, one over the bannister, 3 in the downstairs bathroom. Stephen has already put out the word that next year the only tents coming home with us will either belong to us or to the guild, but not to any individuals; unless those individuals are willing to pay rent, prices not negotiable.

The canvas is such an apt image of the way I feel about reenacting right now. It is the end of the season and I am exhausted by all the reenacting, though we still have cleanup to do and podcasts to record, and blog entries to write, not to mention all the projects that I started during the season and never managed to finish!

In fact, we skipped our last event of the year. After 5 weekends of faire we were going to spend last weekend in the Pocconos with other people who reenact the same time that we do. But by the middle of last week two of the folks going on the trip had bailed out, and we were burnt out and not recovered from Faire. The thought of unpacking and re-packing just to un-pack again was heartbreaking, and the thought of camping in temperatures that were threatening below freezing had me really scared. We tendered our regrets, and I’ve felt relieved and guilty ever since. I still think it was the right decision, but it is really too bad we missed the chance to hang out and network with other folks who are interested in the same stuff we’re interested in!

A few weekends ago I did a bunch of interviews at a Colonial event for the Podcast and I asked one of the folks who agreed to talk to me if he was involved in other reenacting groups. He told me that he was, that he probably was involved in too many groups, that he participated in too many events, and had probably taken the hobby too far. It struck me that that is totally an end-of-the-season sort of answer. That I’m not the only one looking back and wishing I’d had a few more days at home, that I’m not the only one who is tired, and looking forward to a slow-down if not an absolute break.

During the last few weeks of faire, Stephen valiantly carried on the podcast without me. I was tired and the thought of talking for a half an hour or more about Living History on top of doing it every weekend (and our normal jobs and lives on top of that) was just too much for me. When faire ended even Stephen seemed reluctant to head up to the “studio” and talk about Living History. We both love it, but I think we’ve hit a wall.

Don’t worry, all you listeners, all you blog readers, this is only temporary. Already I’m planning all the projects to do over the slower months. We’ve got spring events marked in our calendars. We’re putting together some new workshops and discussions to have at Reenactorfest in February. Tonight I am glad that reenacting follows the earth cycles. It may seem like we’ve slowed down for a bit, but we’ve just got to do a little re-charging. We’ll do a little historical research, read some books, maybe sleep in. And we’ll get through the winter, then emerge in the spring ready to jump back in to history with both feet.

At some point we’ll probably even fold up all those tents.

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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Student of History

Yesterday at a favorite blog of mine there was a post on How to be Professor Awesome, PhD. This appealed to me not from an advice perspective, but from the perspective of someone who is a member of the public who might attend lectures given by professors. I read it especially for descriptive words, to figure out what Professor Awesome, PhD would use to describe folks like me. For the most part he is describing the audience at a lecture that is open to the public, so “audience” or “audience member” work but I’m interested in the ways to describe us as those interested in history, but not of the establishment. Right at the beginning he is talking about “popular outreach” and “popular medievalists”. I don’t generally call myself a popular historian, because I do not have a degree in popular history (they do exist.) When addressing snobby professors, Professor Awesome, PhD described us as: “the plebs who are interested in your scholarship” I’m cool with being one of the common people of uncommon interest, but if I described myself that way to non-reenactors, I would need to do a lot of explaining and if I told that to reenactors they would think I reenact Roman times. Interesting food for thought, but much more useful for the blog entry’s intended purpose.

This morning on the radio there was an interview with Gen. David Petraeus. The host, Renee Montagne decribed Gen. Petraeus as a student of history, “and “quite a serious one.” ‘I ruminated on that descriptive phrase through quite a bit of my drive to work. When googling the phrase I’ve discovered that President Obama has used it to describe himself, and that bloggers use it with some frequency.

I’m not a historian, in that I am not paid to disseminate history and I do not have any advanced degrees. I am not an academic since I am neither a matriculated student nor a professor of any kind. I reenact history, but don’t necessarily call myself a reenactor, since I don’t recreate battles, and don’t do the Civil War or Revolutionary War. In the Podcast Stephen and I describe ourselves and our listeners as Living Historians, but we’ve never tried to define it, and I’m not sure that most people would know what I meant if I used it in the course of conversation. I certainly do like learning about history, so I feel it is fair to say that I am a student of history but does that really go far enough? Maybe for conversations with most people, it does.

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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Historical Cooking: The Steep Part of the Curve

Detail of a camp kitchen from a 1551 painting by Matthias Gerung

Part 1 and Part 2 bring us up to this spring, now it is almost fall. The faire is less than a month away and I am in full panic mode about cooking at the faire. You’d think with a year under my belt I’d be less nervous, but I am totally not. I still don’t cook much at home, and last year I let myself get away with some things that I will not myself get away with in the long run. Now that I have a little more experience I really only want to cook historical recipes. Last year I used any old historical recipe from the couple of cookbooks I’ve got, now I want to be able to trace the lineage of all my recipes.

It started this summer with fritters.  Last year Amanda cooked fritters. She does it with her 1830s cooking lessons, and she found medieval recipes too. She slaved over the fire cooking those fritters, and everyone loves them. Amanda will not be joining us in camp this fall and fritters seemed too ubiquitous to leave off our menu. They are seriously ubiquitous. The historic cooking blog I read did a whole series of posts on fritters, and most of the medieval cookbooks in my collection had recipes for fritters. I decided to photocopy and organize all the different recipes on fritters that I could find, so that I would not have to drag my recipe books to faire when making the recipes, and so I could decide exactly which recipe to use. While I was photocopying the fritter recipes, I decided to photocopy the recipes that I had used last year for similar reasons: I could take a photocopy to the grocery store when buying ingredients, and I could compare the similar recipes and see which one I liked best and which one was the most historically appropriate. Since I was photocopying all those I decided to photocopy other recipes I had already identified as ones I wanted to try this year, and once I was in this far I decided to photocopy recipes from my medieval cook books that looked like the ones I had made last year that I had found in non-historic circumstances. Over the past two weeks I have made a lot of photocopies (I’m sorry environment.)

I put all those recipes in sleeve protectors in a three ring binder, organized by recipe type. I also made sure to write on each recipe: what book I had gotten it from and where that book had gotten it (the original source.) I was really lucky that a lot of my cookbooks not only noted the source of the original recipes, but included the original text along with modern cooking methods. By looking up one of those original sources I found out that a lot of these medieval cook books have been transcribed (written out in modern English) and put on the web. Also at the same time I was madly immersed in cookbooks we went to Pennsic. I’ll write more about Pennsic later, but one of the more enjoyable things I did while there was attend a number of classes on cooking. While normally I am leery of using stuff posted on the web by random SCAdians, once I have met a person I feel much better about trusting their historical research. And a lot of the people I met do have web pages full of recipes. Needless to say I spent way too much time last week reading and printing out recipes.

While I was tracking down sources I was looking in particular for ways to justify the Alton Brown Lamb and Barley stew recipe that I’d made last year, so I was looking at a lot of mutton recipes and at meat cooking methods. I was looking for instances of directions for browning meat before cooking it and the use of carrots. I learned that browning usually only happened after everything had been boiled once, and that the further back you go the less carrots are a foodstuff, the more they are a medicine (at least according to the cookbooks.) I also figured out that the cookbooks I was predominantly looking at were written in the 14th century, whereas we portray the year 1528. Also, though I was finding cookbooks from Fance, Italy, Spain and England, it seemed like none of the German cookbooks (of which there are several) had modern recipe redactions in English. A few of them have been transcribed on the web, but I’m not feeling confident enough to do my own redactions.

Now I’ve gone through a few more cookbooks (Julie loaned me some) I’ve made a few more photocopies (my three-ring binder has grown from a half inch binder to a 1-inch binder) and I’ve figured out the new things I want to try this fall. Along with all the recipes that I’ve done before I would like to make:

Sweet & Sour White Fish
Stuffed Eggs
Cherry Soup
Poached Pears
Compost (a type of mixed pickles)
Ash Roasted carrots
Emperor’s Fritters (cheese)
Apple Fritters

Wish me luck!

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Monday, August 30, 2010

Historical Cooking Learning curve

I grew up steeped in history (check out this entry for more on that) especially “daily life” type history so popular at museums and among historians of the 1970s and 1980s.  I was not yet out of college when I got my first museum job (entries about that here and here.) which involved talking about a lot of women’s daily tasks, of which food production and cooking played a major role. So when reading history books or thinking about history I have gravitated toward the study of food as a window into whatever time and place I was studying. However, that does not mean I did a lot of cooking.

I don’t cook a lot in my mundane life either. Usually by the time I think to cook I am too hungry to take the time to make something. I can cook, and I don’t mind doing it, but I lived alone for a number of years, then Stephen and I moved in together and he actually likes to cook, so I let him do most of that while my chore is cleaning up after his kitchen experiments.

So when Stephen started talking about doing a historical encampment and I volunteered to cook, I was embarking on a very new sort of endeavor. I had read a lot, I had attended a lot of museum workshops, I had even assisted at some of those workshops, but my experience level was negligible. I think I fooled everyone except Stephen into thinking I was old hat at all this. I had a couple of historical cooking books, a book on how to cook over a fire, and years of camping experience. Two other members of the guild volunteered to cook as well, and we practiced a few times at rehearsals before we actually had to prepare a meal for the entire group to eat.

The first thing that I attempted to cook was made of historical ingredients, but it was a modern recipe: Alton Brown’s Lamb and Barley Stew. I watched the Good Eats episode about barley several times, and I even made the dish at home on our modern stove before I attempted it over the cookfire at rehearsals. Stephen taught me how to cut up the leg of lamb and suggested an addition of fennel to give it that sweet and spicy flavor so common among medieval recipes. It was a huge hit with the guild. The next things that I cooked were from the book: The Magic of Fire. While the recipes were not necessarily historical, most of them were based on incredibly old styles of cooking. So I string roasted a chicken, ash roasted some onions, and made a couple of fritattas over the course of the run.

Das Geld Fahnlein preparing for the mid-day meal.
I did attempt some traditional medieval recipes as well. We had 9 days of faire during which we had to provide a meal, I did not want to repeat anything more than twice during that time. I used a recipe for buttered cabbage, and one for Apple Moye out of the book Sallets, Humbles and Shrewsbury Cakes and I made a Garlic Walnut sauce for fish out of The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy. These books were great for me because they had modern versions of the recipes as well as the original Medieval texts. The modern version included exact ingredient lists and measurements as well as cooking times. They were written with the idea the recipes would be cooked in a modern kitchen with things like food processors and ovens, so I had to pick recipes that did not call for those things, or alternate the recipes to use renaissance tools and cooking fires. Some recipes were more successful than others, but none of them were complete disasters. And as far as I know no one starved.

In the spring I had another brief chance to cook, we were going to attend Marching Trough Time in Maryland in April and we needed to do some cooking, but since we were only taking two vehicles, we did not want to bring the entire kitchen set-up. I made and froze a number of things to bring with us, so all we would have to do was heat them up over the fire, and not actually do a lot of chopping, butchering and prep-work. I made the lamb stew again, then I made an herb soup out of The Medieval Kitchen book. I also really wanted to make a Pea Pottage. As one of the quintessentially “old timey” foods, pea porridge is one of those foods that just about everyone calls to mind when they picture an old-timey family huddled around a smoky fireplace. I know it is a horrible cliché, and that not everyone ate peas porridge all the time. But it was eaten with a fair degree of frequency, and could easily be cooked up ahead of time and frozen. I looked up the recipe in a couple of my medieval cook books, but there were a lot of conflicting directions. There were too many choices on how it could be cooked, seasoned, and thickened. I got a package of split peas at the grocery store (because whole dried peas are not that easy to find) and thought about just following the recipe on the back of the bag, but I wanted to do better than that. Finally, the day I was going cook up the peas I was checking some of my favorite blogs, and a blog that usually concentrates on 17th and 18th century cooking had for her most recent post a renaissance era recipe, a recipe for Pease Pottage! The author of the blog got the recipe from a book on King Henry the VIII’s  kitchen at Hampton court that she was reading. She wrote out the renaissance version with the old text, then wrote it out in modern English. There were no ingredient amounts or cooking times, but I had the back of the bag to tell me how much water to use and how long it took to cook the peas until tender. The transcription of the original was just what I needed, and it is exactly what I made when I went home. I did cheat a little, since I was preparing it at home, and used an immersion blender to smooth out some of the soup. I will not have that option when I make the whole thing in camp this fall, I’ll have to come up with a renaissance smoothing method, I’ve already got some ideas.

This is Part 2 of a series of entries on Historical Cooking. Read Part 1 here. Part 3 coming soon!

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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

My Interest in Historical Encampments

Or, why I started Cooking
Being an Incredibly Biased Rendition of the Birth of the Guild of Saint Morritz

I originally wrote this as background to a post about cooking, but that turned into a multi-part post about cooking, and this intro turned into its own entry.

When Stephen decided he wanted to start a historical encampment, I told him I wanted to cook at it. Actually, that is not how all this started. The first summer I met Stephen we were both working Renaissance Faires. In fact, the first time we got to spend any time together was when he invited me to help out with a tiny little faire where his armored combat troupe had been invited to participate. I borrowed a friend’s renfaire garb and went to help “squire” for the knights in armour. The knights were required to perform two shows for the day, which meant there was a lot of hanging out time when they were not bashing each other about with swords. They spent a lot of that time sitting in front of a historical tent, teasing me just to get me to blush.

After that single day at a small event I was determined to hang out with the Armored combat troupe a lot more often, and not because of the teasing. I wanted to squire for the guys, I wanted to sit in front of historical tents, I wanted to bring more history to events that did not have a lot of real history. I convinced Stephen that squires could be a nice addition to their armored combat demonstration, and it turned out there were plenty of women in bodices willing to “squire” even there were not a lot of 6 to 12 year old boys. I convinced them that the tent might be more than a convenient changing room, it could also represent the home of a traveling knight. Two years later I was able to suggest that an encampment be included in the storyline of the Connecticut Renaissance Faire (though with Vikings instead of knights) and the year after that the knights took the encampment over. We still just had the single tent, now a sad rag of its former self, but we had a canvas fly set up in front to keep the rain off, a table and some historical chairs, and a copper fire dish where we warmed apple cider.  Pretty good for an endeavor that was really just a side project. Lest you think I was doing the entire thing on my own, I certainly was not. The other folks involved in the armored combat troupe thought an encampment was a pretty good idea and spent much more time on the faire days making the camp a lively and engaging place. By the end of the run that fall we were ambitious enough to try cooking a stew over our little fire, we all brought ingredients to the final Saturday, but before everyone arrived on site a dam broke upstream of the faire. It washed good portions of the faire away. We did not open that final weekend.

Things changed after that, the faire moved, our energies were directed elsewhere, some folks joined us, some folks left. Though we tried to make up a knight’s encampment over the next few years, it was never as successful at the one we did in 2005. But Stephen and I kept doing more historical endeavors, finding other ways to bring history to life, and when working with the cast of CTRF was no longer the focus for either of us, we got to think about starting a new history adventure. THAT was when Stephen said he wanted to start a historical encampment and I said I wanted to cook.

This is the intro to a series of posts about cooking. Part 2 is here, and part three is coming soon!

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Sunday, August 1, 2010


Many years ago I was lucky enough to work as a costumed interpreter at Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, NH. My first role was that of the Widow Wheelwright. At first I would sit in the dim kitchen sewing on a piece of cloth and thinking about how miserable Martha Wheelwright must have been, but as the summer grew warmer I was given permission to move my chair out to the yard where the light for my sewing was better, and where I could see more of what was going on in the busy museum around me. The Wheelwright yard was not much --a patch of grass, a few flowers around the door and some fruit trees taking up most of the space—but I loved it especially on sunny days. Not too long after I started I was given a wooden wash tub and told I could interpret laundry day. I could not have any fire, and I could only have water and soap out in the yard so I would not damage any of the period furniture inside, but it was something else to do, and very nice on a hot day to splash about and strew laundry all over the fruit trees. At one point a small pile of firewood showed up in the yard, I don’t remember who put it there or why (since I definitely was not allowed to burn it) but I had fun stacking it, and telling visitors how I had no income but a neighbor was nice enough to give me some wood for use in cooking and laundry etc.

I spent a year as a costumed interpreter then went back to school, but I returned the next summer to work in the gardens at SBM. I did not get to do much in the Wheelwright yard, it was a pretty sparse yard, but I got to work in a number of different yards and gardens all over the museum:  the 17th century raised beds, the 1940s victory garden, the Victorian flowerbeds and glass house, the early 20th century immigrant yard (complete with vegetable patch and clothesline!) At the same time I was taking classes at schools and museums all over the Pioneer Valley about museum work and public history. In a small amount of time I managed to take three classes on Material Culture, I became good at studying people by studying the stuff they’d left behind. I looked at baroque chairs, early colonial houses, grave markers, tools for harvesting a cranberry bog, and more.

I finally managed to put it all together in a series of papers on the place of the yard in Colonial American life. I was (and still am) convinced that before the age of central heating/AC and electric lighting, people spent much more time doing the sorts of chores we now consider to be indoor chores in an outdoor location. Why in the world would someone sit inside to sew when it was so much brighter outside? Why would one do the messy jobs like laundry and butchery indoors when the cleanup is so much easier outside? I looked at archaeological evidence of paved yards, outbuildings and trash heaps, I studied art history for drawings and paintings of yards in active use, I looked at laws governing fences in 18th Century New England, and much more. I think of all the academic papers I’ve written I am still most proud of those works on the material culture of the Yard.

Just a few mornings ago, when looking at the artwork of the day that is delivered to me electronically by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was struck by this 17th century drawing:

At first I was thrilled because it was only a century off from the lives we are portraying over at Das Geld Fahnlein but upon looking at the drawing, it actually was not much use for us. The details are indistinct, and we’re not portraying peasants doing harvesting sorts of tasks. But I took the time to go look for other drawing from the same series and took a good look at the October drawing:

and looking at that one I realized what had struck me about the first image. They are both yard scenes! Scenes of people working at their daily tasks in an out of doors (but not far from buildings) setting. Looking at the yard scenes made me feel all warm and happy.

A historical movie can have varying levels of historicity but to me if it contains a yard scene, it will have a space in my heart. Ever After has an early scene showing laundry being spread out on the hedges to dry, and the recent Pride and Prejudce movie has some delightful scenes set in the yard, including a montage showing the passage of the seasons reflected in the different sorts of farm work going on in the yard. Pure magic in my opinion!

Some people like to re-create the great battles of the past, some folks focus on clothing, or skills, or on the buildings of the past. If I could re-create anything from the past with no restrictions, I think I would have to make myself a yard. A simple, working yard, paved with cobblestones or hard packed dirt. With chickens and a plot for vegetables and herbs. A nice sturdy fence and some fruit trees. Buildings for the animals, harvest storage, maybe a workshop. And plenty of space to bring out chairs and baskets of sewing so I could sit in the sun and enjoy my yard. Read this entry on entry page

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Living History Bibliography

As part of this blog I've put up a page which is a bibliography of all the books on Living History that I know of. To see it click on the Bibliography link on the left side of the page. I could only find 17 entries to put on my bibliography. That does not seem like very many to me, do my readers out there know of any others?

I am determined to read all the books I can find on living history and reenacting. As a reader, and someone interested in the culture of living History I really feel I've got to. Wish me luck, I'll be posting my reviews both here and as part of the Living History Podcast, then I'll be putting the links on my the bibliography page so you can tell how far I've gotten in my quest. Read this entry on entry page

Monday, July 26, 2010

Book Review: Knights Next Door

A few months ago I read a book similar to I Believe in Yesterday  in premise but completely different in feeling. The Knights Next Door by Patrick O'Donnell is about O’Donnell’s experiences spending a year in as a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, or SCA. O’Donnell is a journalist writing from an outside perspective, but his girlfriend is in the SCA, and he has been to one or two events with her before he decides to jump in. He does join up expecting to write a book, but he seems to do so with a better understanding of what he is getting into, and a genuine interest in participating than anything shown in I Believe in Yesterday.

The prologue and every chapter of Knights Next Door starts with a quote from Shakespeare’s Henry V, which sets the historical mood, but also lets you know that the concentration is going to be on the more martial aspects of the Modern Middle Ages. The writer is from the mid-west and is able to join up with an SCA group called Darkyard, well known in the SCA for their fighting prowess, and gets help with his endeavors from a Cleveland group called “SFU” which stand for “Something For Us.” Over evenings and weekends they help O’Donnel with clothes, they lend him armor then help him make his own. He attends fight practices with his new friends, and learns all about the lives of the SCAdians he meets.
My favorite part of O’Donnell’s tale is that he gives voice to an amazing array of people that me meets. His chapter headings include The Contessa’s Tale, The Tale of Brannos’ Keep, The Teacher’s Tale and many more. Though we learn about the author’s first wobbly steps on the path to becoming an SCA fighter, he also gets his reader involved in the lives of those people who make the SCA a large part of their lives. We get to learn a little about a lot of different people, but we also meet a few individuals that O’Donnell follows for the year, and weaves throughout the book. We learn about their mundane jobs, about their love lives, about the trials and awards that are so important to some in the SCA. O’Donnell’s empathetic portrayal of some very real people made this into an enjoyable read as well as an informative one.

I also appreciated the frank discussions about the differences in what the SCA does and what we know of Medieval history. He discusses different levels of accuracy, and what different groups hope to get out of their involvement in the SCA. He discusses his transition from army surplus boots to some historical footwear, and how modern accoutrements will never be left completely behind. When discussing a visit to a spring time event in Mississippi called Gulf Wars he writes:
 “It takes about 2 hours for the SCA’s time warp illusion to kick in… for the garb, the people and the events to gradually pull me along. But eventually, my eyes start skipping over the modern tents, dismissing them as irrelevant background, while I focus on the more medieval items… The shift of mindset is crucial for anyone pursuing this hobby. There will always be anachronisms. Members see the full half of the glass rather than the empty half. If that moment never happens, if you can’t suspend belief just a little, you go home and dismiss the Society for Creative Anachronism as a waste of time.” (p. 107)

And towards the end of the book he justifies the open but forgiving tone in which he discusses most anachronisms and, un-period attempts:
 “I had scoffed at some of the makeshift equipment, at the passion many display for this game and at many of the “attempts” at clothing. But somewhere along the way, I had started looking beyond those shortcomings and started seeing things in a more forgiving light. It is easier to criticize something you don’t know and never try, I realized, than it is after you have struggled through the same, often difficult tasks.” (p.284)

He does not hide the less pleasant things he runs into: bitter internal politics, slighted members, a casual relationship with the history of the Middle Ages. But he manages to tell a sympathetic story all the same. I only have a few issues with his writing style: the clichés are a little thick, he repeats stock phrases a little too often for my comfort.  The chapters are broken into small chunks so he has or do a lot of re-introducing and repeating when we get to the next section about something or someone he has not visited in a while. He hints at story outcomes I could have waited to find out about. Still the book was easy to read and the story kept me engaged.

While I have attended many SCA events, and have friends and colleagues involved on many different levels in the SCA I am not an SCA member, I have never been a part of an SCA group. From my position as a well-informed outsider I learned quite a bit from The Knights Next Door. Read this entry on entry page

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Book Review: I Believe in Yesterday

I am always delighted and a bit scared when I find out there is a new book out there on Living History. I am delighted because there are not a lot of books out there on living history, and scared because not all of them are the most flattering to our quirky community. I am especially scared when a book is written by someone who is not even tangentially involved in the community, because I know we look like weirdos from the outside. I’m not sure someone on the outside can understand why so many of us are so passionate about history and about re-creating it. I am even more on alert when I find out the author of a new LH book is not an academic or anyone who studies people in order to find out about people. He is a journalist who writes quirky and often dark travel type books about his misadventures in foreign lands. Well, I always knew we were a tourist destination, how bad can it be?

I got the book: I Believe in Yesterday in audio format because it was the only format available in the US and because I have a very long commute so I like audio books. While the audio format has the subtitle: A 2000-Year Tour Through the Filth and Fury of Living History, the paperback has the subtitle: My Living Hell in Living History. And that really sums up this guy’s story.

Tim Moore is happy in his suburban life in an old house that he had extensively modernized, but one day he feels the pull of nostalgia, and wonders if he can make it as his ancestors had to live. I also wonder if he was desperate for another book idea since his previous books all seem designed to put him in awkward positions, what could be more awkward than going back in time when everyone knows it was rough and miserable? He visits 7 different centuries in seven chapters. Actually, instead of visiting the centuries, because as far as I know no one has yet to invent a time machine-- he visits, and participates in, reenactments of those different times and places. He goes in woefully unprepared and manages to make an ass out of himself in almost every situation. If you enjoy reading about someone else’s misery, then I recommend this book.

To be fair, I think he treats all the reenactors, living historians, and quirky characters that he meets very fairly. He does not make fun of them in writing, really only himself. He does manage to lie to them, a lot. He leaves folks with the impression that he knows what he is doing, then writes about how he tells the public all the disinformation he can make up, he ignores people’s warnings, does not do what they tell him to do (even if he has volunteered to do it in the first place) and generally makes himself and those around him more miserable in the process. The book would not be a bad book, if the author/narrator was not trying to be such a dumbass.

I enjoyed his descriptions of a wide variety of historical levels, of timeperiods, of types of reenactors, and environments. He managed to find seven very different experiences, each one had something unique to say about Living History and the folks who participate in living history. The first chapter was an Iron Age settlement that had been sold by the folks who built it to a guy who didn’t care, the second chapter he joined a group of Roman reenactors from France at an event in Denmark, the third chapter he spent a weekend with some crazy Vikings. The next few chapters he spent with more established living history enterprises, chapter 4 he spent at a Burgundian castle, and actually enjoyed himself playing with the cannon crew, chapter 5 he spent a week as a servant at a well established Tudor manor house. This chapter was the one that infuriated me the most. He got a job, got training, had someone make him a great set of clothes. And he totally blew it. He was surrounded by 300 other people, all reenacting the same thing that he was, and the best thing he did during the whole week was run and hide! He did the most damage to other people during this chapter, and I was so disgusted by the fact that he could have had a grand time and totally muffed it that I could not go back to the book for some time once this chapter was over. Chapters 6 and 7 were a little better in that by then he was a little less scared of bugs, he did not try to fight, he was never put in a position of any responsibility. For the last two chapters he tagged along at two reenactments in the USA, the first on a walk with a wagoner from the 1770s the second he shuffled around a Civil War reenactment in Louisiana as a war correspondent. He was lost for most of the chapter, but folks were so nice to him, and by the final chapter he had stopped complaining.

He had also, it seemed to me, stopped trying to find out what drew folks to re-live these rougher times, he had stopped trying to figure out if he could survive and just let other people do the surviving for him. The lessons were there if you are willing to look hard, but the end of the book still felt abrupt to me. I wish the dolt had learned more than the fact that it is possible to sleep under the stars with your head in an ant hill. I know I learn more and experience more every time I go out and do this, and I have not had nearly the opportunities for adventure that this guy had.

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Thinking about Food

At the end of a recent British cooking show that I found via the Historic Cookery blog a bunch of historians sit around a table and get to have a meal of recipes from a 14th century cookbook. Right at the end the only male at the table gets quite emotional (for a British academic on television) about experiencing the recipes he has before only studied as words on a page. The cook who had prepared the recipes comes back at him, “You enjoyed it!” and he admits to enjoying it and that it brought to life something he otherwise could only read about.

We’ve been working on food in the Living History Podcast. Last month we did an overview of why food is important and what adding cooking can add to an historical portrayal. Then we followed it up with an episode specifically on cookfires and what one needs to cook over an open flame. Some day we’ll have to do an episode on food storage and keeping in a time before refrigeration, or maybe the class conscious or religious uses of food.

This weekend is our first guild workshop for the upcoming fall season and we’re planning to talk cooking in preparation for the upcoming event schedule. This fall we’ll be cooking for the guild five weekends in a row, sometimes three days per weekend; sometimes one meal per day, sometimes two. I’m thinking about meal planning and our daily schedule, weekend attendance as well as what new receipts I want to try.

So, dear reader, have you any suggestions for me? Any historical dishes that tickled your fancy, or any books on food that made you want to waltz into the kitchen and never come back out?

On a related note. A great article recently came out of Colonial Williamsburg talking about why they recreate historical skills and not just historical objects. I think this totally applies to cooking and eating, so I’m including it here. Read this entry on entry page

Friday, June 18, 2010

First Person Blogs

Some blog entries are easy to write. Others, for no particular reason, I agonize over and the writing just comes out all stilted and weird. This is one of those posts. I am determined to put it up though! So here goes:

Among all my blog searches, rss feeds, and quest for all things Living History related on the internet I come across some beauties every once in a while. Today I want to tell you about blogs from the first person perspective. Yup, blogs written as if they were in a different time, far removed from our own. There are basically two different styles these blogs can take: actual historical text, just digitized in blog form; or reenactors and modern folks writing as if they were a historical character.

Historical texts
Every day I learn about more and more primary source material that is being digitized and made available on the web. Most of these are in archives or library collections, but some of them --particularly those that were written as diary entries in the first place-- are put up bit by bit, blog-style. A blog that I have been enjoying written by "Two Nerdy History Girls" had a post that contains a good list to be starting with here check the comments of this post  too, tons more are mentioned.

Modern Interpretations
There are a few reenactors out there that are writing blogs from the perspective of the persona they are portraying. My favorite is this colonial impression and this later impression, of a doctor both done by the same individual. He wavers between totally history based posts, and some the wink at the current era, but I find he does a great job balancing both.

There are a few blogs that I’m not sure if the writers are reenactors, or what their relationship is to the history they are writing about this Mozart blog is a bit of a mystery to me, but still fascinating. A now solved mystery is about the author of Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog in fact, there was so much mystery and hype about that blog, that a bunch of medieval scholars have written a book about it! I have not yet read the book, but it is on my Amazon wish list!
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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Early Inspirations

As a senior in high school and my first few years of college I did not do much with history. Distracted by grades and friends, I did some of the normal teenage things, but I still dabbled in the historical arts. I took classes in the history of science, which seemed the most engaging and interesting way to study history (high school and Freshman hist. classes are not, generally the most riveting classes.) I still did class projects that involved my own historical interpretations – dressing up as Marie Antoinette, and writing a Hesiod style epic poem on Pandora, with a feminist twist.

And, while working at a local bookstore I picked up a notecard with a painting on it. A painting called “The Shepherdess", that seemed to me to leap off the card and speak to me about a girl and about a place and time in history. I knew enough even then to realize that the painting the notecard depicted was a Victorian representation of a much older time, but I still loved the image. I wanted to step into the image. Even if the girl was only wearing a costume of an older time, well that was exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to wear that costume. I wanted to stare soulfully at an artist, walk the path with a herd of sheep. I always pictured it to be set in a dusty corner of France in mid-summer. I purchased the notecard, and pinned it up in several dorm rooms and apartments for years after.

The painting of which I speak is one of many Shepherdess paintings by William Adolphe Bouguereau, this one done in 1889. I still plan some day to make myself that outfit, and try to capture a historical moment akin to what Bouguereau captured, and what drew even my distractible teen-aged self into a world where the past and the present slide a little closer together. Read this entry on entry page

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Positive Interactions

A bit ago an acquaintance of many years remarked on the fact that us renfaire performers (and even the merchants (we’re all performers at the renfaire)) are great at creating the illusion of intimacy. We are inviting and engaging, we walk up to complete strangers and ask them to participate in our lives, or our made-up lives. After years of training folks to do this, we’ve had people come back and say that they are better at their real jobs, better at working retail, better at communicating with clients, than they were before learning how to be a renfaire performer. Renfaire folks quickly get over their fears of approaching strangers or they do not last as performers.

We are also trained to go with the flow. There is a popular renfaire training game called: “Yes, and…” where you are forced to agree with the most outrageous statements, then expound on them. It means you can throw weird scenarios at us and we’ll probably toss them right back. I’ve got a friend who says wacky things to see what other people will do, so the other day he asked me what would happen if rain fell up from the ground instead of down, I said we’d all have to wear clown shoes to keep dry. He thinks it is one of my endearing habits, that I can keep up with him in a conversation, I think it is partially training.

A while ago on the radio there was a story about a troupe of improvisational actors who create their own reality and invite others to participate in New York City. The scenario that the radio show particularly concentrated on was a fake birthday party for an unsuspecting bystander. The entire troupe went to a bar, picked a mark, and threw him a birthday party, like they knew him. They picked a fake name, made up a backstory, and everyone gave him giftcards and paid attention to him all night. Their mark protested for a long time, but even after he stopped trying to tell them that he was not who they thought he was, he still felt awful and like reality had skewed on him. I have to imagine if you had put a renfaire performer in that spot, they’d have absolutely no problem being someone else for the night.

Does that make us skewed, just because we could easily fall into someone else’s fake reality? Does it give us an edge that we can engage with complete strangers? I am by no means suggesting that there are not people in the world who do this naturally. Really effective sales people,  nomads and travelers, group organizers all have to have a level of empathy and consensus building. Is it worse somehow if some folks are trained to it instead of developing it on their own? I know I am grateful for the training.

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Stages of Historical Accuracy

I’ve been having an online conversation about accurate items, that not only look right from afar, but are constructed using historical methods. Also this past weekend we learned that this fall’s Connecticut Renaissance Faire will be open into the evening: until 8 pm on certain evenings, so we’ll need to add historical lighting methods that will not burn the camp down. I had quite an involved conversation trying to convince a guild member that we could acquire period-looking implements in the next few months. Both conversations sparked a thought pattern about the “stages” of reenacting. Just like the stages of teenagers or the stages of grief when we are building our living history kit and props we tend to go through stages. Sometime we combine stages, or skip a few, but I think many of you will find these fairly familiar. In fact, even once we have established ourselves on the path to historical accuracy, sometimes adding just a little new bit (like, lighting, say) you might have to go through at least some of the steps all over again. And really, we’ll never be spot-on there will always be room for improvement.

1.    They did this so I will do this.
When first starting out we were probably all pretty sad in our attempts to mimic history. We often got only the basic gist right. We do things like, say: they wore corsets back then, so I will wear a corset. The first attempt we’ll probably end up in a corset from the wrong period, made out of the wrong materials, we’ll wear it on the outside instead of on the inside, but gosh darn it, they worse corsets so I am too. Or maybe you said: they hunted with bow and arrow, so you go to the sporting goods store and get a modern compound bow, a Native American style quiver, and a Robin Hood hat for accessory. This is a good and natural first step, and should be mocked only gently and with the passage of years.

2.    Others reenacting something similar to me did it this way.
OK, we’ve figured out the corset looks wrong, and someone hissed at us that that bow is too modern. We’re taking the next step down the path to historical accuracy. Luckily, many people have trod these paths before us, and some are willing to sell us all that we desire, or look good in their own portrayal and are willing to share what they know. Amazingly, there are quite a few conventions in the Living History world, that have little to do with historical accuracy. Viking chairs stick in my mind; one medieval reenactor thought it was a good way to make a chair, and had some info to back it up, now the darn things show up in all sorts of reenactments from a thousand years worth of European history. Eventually we all learn this lesson: even if another reenactor says it is right for your period, ask for documentation, or search for your own documentation, cause they may not be right!

3.    I saw something that looked similar in a woodcut.
Now we’re getting down to it. We are not content to read about it in books, or copy the other reenactors, we want to copy the people of the time, or at least look like they did. So let’s look at pictures! Photographs are all well and good after a certain date, but what if you are reenacting something before folks had the capability of photographing every little thing? Well there are still visual representations in the form of paintings, woodcuts, illustrations, sculpture. But just because all of Lucas Cranach’s women wear red dresses does not mean every woman in Saxony in the 16th century wore red. Still, we’re getting closer, especially if we use more than one visual source, say both a painting and a woodcut, from a relatively small timeframe and geographic area around which we our portrayal springs. Once you’ve got the look down, you’re moving along nicely, but we’re not there yet.

4.    They used these materials
That beautiful flowing dress, just like all the tapestries, and that funky shoe, just like all the woodcuts are still going to come off as not quite right if the dress is polyester and the shoe is vinyl. OK, that might be an extreme example, but we’ve all seen folks make something really pretty, but out of the completely wrong materials that make everyone feel slightly uncomfortable. This is especially true when one uses modern synthetics, but is still true even if one is just using the wrong type of wood in your woodworking projects, or a different type of clay in your ceramics. In our guild, we use a lot of redware pottery, because we’ve got a good supplier. We’ve got more evidence for whiteware pottery though, so over the next while I hope to replace a lot of the redware. Since pottery has the tendency to break with rough handling I’ll probably replace what I’ve got as it becomes necessary to do so.

5.    This was constructed using period methods, from an extant piece.
Since we’re talking about reenacting and re-creation, and not using actual historical pieces (see this post for my opinions on that) we are creating, or commissioning objects from the past. Once you’ve already gotten so your things are looking right, and feeling right, there is still another step down the road to historical accuracy, and that is making those objects using period constructions methods. It will not really be right, until it is made in the same method that it would have been made in the time and location you are portraying. We are not always able to do this, it cost more money, takes more time, and sometimes is simply unavailable, but everyone striving for accuracy will sigh and moon over this stage, even if not all of our items ever achieve it.

Different portrayals of mine have different levels of accuracy, heck, different items among my historical stuff are at differing levels, even if I use them for the same portrayal. There sometimes comes a point where I will tolerate different levels and not others, and certainly not all in the order that I have listed them here. But the stages are good for me to think about when I am thinking about picking up any new item to add to my stash.

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Friday, May 21, 2010

The Most Popular Thing in Camp

A few Mondays ago at the Connecticut Renaissance Faire’s spring show was School Day. The day when buses of kids descend on the grounds for mayhem and a little bit of learning if we can cram it past their stimulation soaked brains.

I have plenty of experience with school groups in historical settings, At Strawbery Banke I enjoyed field trips when I was a regular interpreter (tour guide) but had a few bad experiences as a costumed role player. At Plimoth Plantation I was only working in the gardens, not in costume, so I’d hide in the decorative borders and weed or water while observing the flustered teachers trying to line up their kids and follow all the rules in order to get them through the visitor center before the kids could even get to the 1627 village. Then I’d watch from the herb garden and the nature walk as the kids screamed past on their run to the village itself. For two years I ran CTRF’s school program. This time was my first in the encampment on school day. The experience was different from what I expected, and it was the same.

At the faire our encampment is set up on a back row that has only the games, a couple of stages, and us. It is a wide, grassy row with plenty of visibility and no shops, so you can tell that our set-up is different from a long way off. In fact, I’d say a lot of the kids never made it into our encampment. I know that the rowdy groups I heard about and encountered when I ventured out of camp either calmed down before they got to us, or didn’t bother stepping inside our camp. Since we’re set up in a very open semi-circle people come in and have a good view of all the things on offer. Ilsa and Wilhemina were tending the fire with Magda, who was also beading some paternosters. Sibalda was doing some copperwork at her worktable, Albert spent a lot of his time standing at the gate with a pike (and showing off the military prowess of the Landsknecht,) Gustav spent most of his time on the stage not too far off with his kid’s show called Master At Arms. I cycled around as needed and spent a lot of time sitting on a bench in front of the Houptman’s tent, which we had open a bit so people could see inside, and so Stephen’s dog Freke can see out, and get his share of the attention.

And that is one huge share.

Freke joined us on site last fall on dress rehearsal weekend, but we had planned during the faire itself to tie him up at the treeline in the wooded participant parking lot, behind all the trailers where he would not disturb anyone. We thought we were not supposed to have pets on site during open hours. But one of the owners likes dogs and saw him in camp during dress rehearsal, saw how well behaved he was, and decided to let him stay in camp for the run. One of our friends made him a metal studded collar (round studs, they just look pretty, they are not painful) and we tied him to one leg of the rope bed (much safer than tying him to a tent pole.) All through the fall he guarded the entrance to the Hauptmant’s tent, and proved a very popular addition to our camp.

He was the hit of this spring’s school day. Folks would come in and make a beeline for the cook fire, but when it turned out we were only boiling turnips, they’d spot the dog and run for him instead. Freke was great. He stood at the door of the tent, at the limit of his rope and wag his tail and stick his tongue out the side of his mouth. Some asked if they could pet him, I told those folks that he liked to lick, so they would get licked if they petted him. Most kids did not mind.  They would kneel in front of him in big groups and pet his head, scratch his back, and get him to shake hands. He has a horrible habit where, if you stop petting and turn away he puts a paw up on you to remind you to pay attention to him. It is incredibly endearing the first couple of times, and most people who do not know him find it charming, while Stephen and I have to put up with it every evening whenever he wants attention.

One group of kids that came to visit the dog took a look inside the tent and said: “look, this is his house, and there is his bed.” Meaning the tent and double size rope bed was for the dog. I corrected them, that it was my husband’s tent, and our bed, that the dog slept under the bed at night. A few made silly remarks about folks having dogs in the Middle-Ages. The most memorable group came by with a worksheet I wrote up a bunch of years ago, called “You’re the Journalist” it is a series of questions they are supposed to ask a “person on the street” i.e. a participant at faire. A human participant. The entire group interviewed the dog.

Now, I was stationed near the dog at the door of our tent to both keep people out of the tent (because part of it still has modern stuff in it, blocked off so that it is not visible from the door; and because we’d rather our nice stuff not get stolen) and to make sure the dog behaved. He is still a dog, and a rescue dog at that. He loves people, but we are never completely confidant that he will not react badly, or that a stupid person might not be mean to him. So all these people with worksheets could have interviewed anyone in the camp. Heck, they could have interviewed me and petted the dog at the same time. But no, they wanted to interview the dog.

The first questions is: “Are you a noble or a peasant?” the kids asked each other, but I butted in figuring if this is going to be the way it is I’d cram some information in there whichever way I could. I answered that Freke’s master is a baron, so that makes Freke a noble dog. They then asked me: “How does Freke spend his days?” “What does he eat?” “What would he do if he met the king?” For the last one I said that we are very respectful of the king so Freke would sit, or possibly lay down just like we would bow or curtsey. The last question on the shees is: “Do you have any advice for me?” so the kids asked me if I thought Freke would have any advice for them. I said he would probably tell them to pet him some more and be nice to dogs. Well, it is some sort of lesson, right?

I have told a lot of people the story of the kids interviewing the dog, and I think I’ve figured out why the dog is so popular. He is entirely approachable. To kids it is tough to approach adult strangers, especially ones that are dressed up and talk funny. That is why kids in costume in Living History situations will sometimes be mobbed by fellow kids. Well dogs are also approachable, they are not adults. Heck, other than a leather collar Freke is not dressed up either. He just pants and sticks his tongue out, and licks hands and faces. In a world of strange experiences, sometimes something familiar and non-threatening is just what the kids need as a key to unlock everything else.

Photo at top of CTRF’s Robin Hood Faire School Day. Photo in middle of our youngest guild member with her favorite pal Freke taken by Jennifer DeBeniditto.

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Stuff of History

At Marching Through Time we ran into a gentleman who is legendary among our crew. Back in 2007 Reenactorfest held an East Coast conference in Gettysburg. It was not terribly successful in terms of attendance, but we had a good time and met a bunch of new people that don’t attend the event out in Chicago. While we were there  all the ladies were seduced by a charming chap in a gold wool coat and green wool jacket (from an Irish regiment, you know.) He offered us chocolate cigarettes out of an antique silver cigarette case and asked us to dance one by one and could he dance! We also found out that he was a singer and played the bagpipes. We’ve talked gushingly about him ever since.

The thing about indoor conferences, is that you don’t really get to see the elaborate set-ups that can accompany a reenactor’s presentation, so all we got to experience was the dashing uniform and charming manners. That is not the case at outdoor events that showcase entire encampments! We ran into Mick again at Marching Through Time (Julie told us he’d been there the year before) and this time we got to see Mick’s full encampment set-up. Mick and a mate of his had a lovely tent set-up portraying the life of an officer in the British campaigns in Africa in the 1880s. While being as charming as ever Mick was delighted to show off the amazing campaign furniture: mahogany beds, and clever folding tables, ostentatious candle holders and lovely sets for mixing drinks. The most amazing stuff that they showed us were the antique items that they had. An extraordinarily well preserved shaving kit, some incredibly effective ice chests, even some of their uniform pieces!

At first I was a bit jealous of the amazing things that are still available to a reenactor who is portraying a time less than 150 in the past, but then I thought about the wear and tear even the best preserved items must go through when they are packed in cars and carted around to outdoor weekend-long events. It is not just the wear and tear, this year at MTT the Vietnam camp went up in smoke. Their Vietnam era tent caught fire and was quickly reduced to ashes, many of the historical items inside were damaged too. There is a good eyewitness account of the blaze here. I heard that the leader was devastated at the loss, and I totally can not blame him. But the fact is, if you bring items to outdoor events, there is a good chance they are going to be damaged, if not irreparably.

I have had a rule for the past five years: any item that I bring with me to any sort of living history venue, I have to be ok if it does not come back home, or at least does not come back home in the same shape it left in. Pottery gets broken, clothing gets ripped, mold and mildew get into everything. Items walk off, they get damaged in transit, they get lost for months at a time. This is not to say that I would not bring nice things with me, but I just make sure I would not be broken-hearted if I never saw it again, and would not be sad it if became a little bruised and banged up in the Living History process. This is all coming from direct experience, and in our case applies only to recreated objects, but what of the folks bringing historical objects out to play?

I am museum trained. That does not mean that I think every item over 50 years old should be locked away in a climate controlled vault. In fact, I think that if the public does not have access to the stuff of history it will cease to have meaning, and we as a society will be much poorer for it. I guess if the objects exist in a quantity that makes them easy to find and affordable to replace, then it is a good thing that they are used as they were originally meant to be used. I'm not sure I could ever do it unless I was assured of the item's survival in the longer term. There are tons of items out there that deserve preserving, and sometimes that means not using the items, just caring for them in ways that will make them last for generations to come.

I’m not going to make a fuss, I’m not even going to bring it up at the next event where there is some old, gorgeous object being subjected to the weather and sticky fingered handling. But I did want to mention it here, and reaffirm that I will stick with reproductions.
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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Engaged Visitor

Not that long ago me and the gang went down to Marching Through Time, a timeline event hosted at Marietta House in Glenn Dale, MD. It was the first timeline event I’ve ever participated in, and it was fascinating. I have tons of commentary, that I will probably spread over the next month by topic. I hope other folks find it as interesting to read as I found it to contemplate and write.

The point of us going was to network, not just with reenactors in general, but with folks who reenact the same stuff that we do. It was really interesting to see how another group does it. --We’ll have to get out to California at some point, I’d love to see their take on the Landknecht as well. And a trip to Europe at some point is a must, of course-- When we got to the event it felt very much like an event put on by reenactors, for reenactors. It was only open to the public from 11am to 4pm, which is an incredibly short amount of time to fit in all the demonstrations and to see all the different encampments. There was a reenactors mock battle on Sunday morning for which the public was not invited.

But the purpose of the event, according to the literature, was as a fundraiser for the historic property. As a fundraising professional I have to question the event’s efficacy based on the low visitor turnout. As an educator I was amazed at the level of engagement of the visitors that we did encounter.

Almost every member of the public who walked through our gate into the Landsknecht encampment seemed genuinely interested in what we were doing. Most of them had a handout with questions they could ask at each encampment, and the shortest interactions usually involved those who only came to ask the specific question. But there were a number of other interactions where the folks stuck around for quite a while, they asked in-depth questions, and got some of the more nuanced bits of history that we, as Landsknecht, deal with. They instantly got that we were experiencing the protestant reformation as it was happening, and how that influenced our views on Christianity. I’ve had more than one interaction where folks understood we were speaking from a 16th century perspective, but could not get it that there wasn’t a specific ideology called Lutheranism in the time when Luther was still formulating his opinions. People also asked good questions about the peasant rebellions: how did the peasants figure out how to form armies and fight? This was an awesome jumping off point for us because the peasant bands were often trained by former Landsknecht, and it gave us a chance to explain how pike formations are not that tough to learn, and pike are pretty easy to construct. We also got to talk about the nuances of being a fighting unit that was formed for the purposes of a single barony, but fought for the overall ruler of the Holy Roman Emperor, but only if they were paid; and they might be paid better by an enemy of the HRE and what that would mean as far as money and loyalty. There were more, I could go on, but the point is that these visitors were way more engaged than your average event visitor.

What I want to know is: where did Marietta House find all these incredibly interested visitors? Where did they advertise this event, and how did local folks who love history find out about MTT? Are people in the greater DC more interested in history (specifically obscure European history) than people in other regions? Or was it that since there were such a small group of visitors that it weeded out the casual visitor with only a passing interest, so the interactions we got were all higher caliber, even if we only got a few interactions per day?

 Next year I might have to get out of camp and ask some of the organizers and employees about the audience, how they find it and how it finds them.

Photo of a member of Das TeufelsAlpdrücken Fähnlein from Drifting Focus. Read this entry on entry page

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Tribulations of Being a Trendsetter

The reenacting guild that I’m in, we’re a new guild. We had our first meeting in May of last year, and our first event in September. That is not to say that I’m new to living history, far from it, but most of what I’ve been doing recently has been a mish-mash of different periods with varying levels of historical accuracy. I first started making my own historical clothing back in 1999, and made my first Landsknecht outfit in 2003. I started belt weaving in 2001 using 1970s craft books and loom from my mother. I started collecting cookware for historical cooking demonstrations (of an indeterminate time period) in 2005. In 2008 Stephen purchased historical tents that could pass for both the middle ages and the 18th century.

When setting up the guild last year we put a big emphasis on historical accuracy, in timeperiod and in place, but we only have so much time and money to put into building an entire encampment, so Stephen and I told each other and the guild that we would not achieve perfect (or even exemplary) historical accuracy the first year. For the first year we’d go for passable and getting the overall look down, while we spent the next few years making steady improvements. We do not have anyone officially in charge of historical accuracy, and we don’t have hard and fast rules. Since everyone was making new clothing we did set very specific clothing guidelines, both written and verbal, and asked that all clothing designs and materials be OKed by Stephen or me before anyone got too far into their outfit, but for furniture, cookware, accessories and much else, we all made do for our first event.

Other than “clothing OKer” I don’t have an official role in the guild structure. But I am Stephen’s partner, and I have been doing this history stuff for a very long time. I like to think that my vision has shaped the formation of the guild since a good number of the initial camp accessories were mine, and I came up with a cooking demonstration as one of our initial focus points. As someone in charge of clothing decisions I made my outfit up ahead of the first guild meeting (well the bits and pieces were done, I had not quite finished the whole thing) so new folks would have something to look at. And look at it they did! This spring one person went so far as to copy my dress practically in its entirety in her initial sketch, we convinced her to change it up a little in the design, I have not seen the finished product yet.

So now I find myself in a conundrum that I should have seen coming, but did not grasp fully until fairly recently. It is assumed by most folks that not only do I OK dress designs, but that what I do and what I have must be kosher within the group.

For the initial cooking demonstration I pulled out a bunch of my 19th century cast iron cooking pots, a grill I bought off a colonial suttler, my renfaire eating knife, and some modern wooden bowls and plates. While I yearned for copper cookware and pottery pipkins, I bought pottery from Old Sturbridge Village, which does Early American redware. Halfway through last fall it became apparent that some more cookware would be helpful, and before I knew it other guild members had bought more colonial and early American stuff to supplement what we already had. I knew the stuff they were buying was wrong for our time, but I’m not sure I had made it clear to the other guild members exactly how wrong it was! I felt horribly guilty that other people were spending their money (none of us are rich here) on items that they will not be able to use in the encampment in a couple of years. At this point we are acquiring better items, and I think there are no hard feelings about the items we’ve already got, but I know I will not feel safe until we have an actual written-out set of guidelines (or images) about accuracy in foodways presentations.

A few weeks ago a member of the guild asked me to weave her a belt like the belts that I wear. At first I was absolutely delighted, I have not woven a new belt in a while and am looking forward to it as a fun, yet productive, diversion. I also don’t mind making a little money (or barter credit) on historical stuff. But now that I’m sitting down to weave the darn thing I am questioning its historical accuracy. The woodcuts we have definitely show women wearing belts, but I have not done any research (or come across anything specific) to tell me what those belts are made of. I know the technology to make the sorts of belts that I do is in use, but as far as I know the narrow fabric bands that I produce are more likely to be used as reinforcement in a waistband or skirt bottom, or thin ones as lacing, or short ones as garters to hold up stockings, or as trim on hats. If someone asked me to prove that wearing colorful woven bands as belts was done, I could not do it.

I think I’ve got to go back to my prospective client and fellow guild member and let her know I have no historical documentation for my choice of belt, and offer to withdraw the commission if she is so inclined. But my trouble is this: should I continue to wear my own belt knowing that the women did wear belts, but of unknown (to me) material; or do I skip the belt altogether until I can figure out exactly what belt would have been worn? Especially given my role as unofficial trendsetter?

Photo from Drifting Focus

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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Making Judgements, Part 3: My Criterion

Read Part 1 or Part 2.

My Own Criterion
In all of my living History presentations, I try to make a good presentation, whether that is an entire encampment, a personal presentation, or a small part of a larger whole. But what makes up a good presentation? I think a good presentation must include Accuracy, Empathy, and Education. And if you have high levels of all three, only then can you call your presentation an authentic representation of Living History.

I think accuracy is the biggest contention of the Living History world. To some people accuracy is everything, and to those folks if you do not have accuracy then you do not have anything. I think history is a puzzle composed of a thousand pieces, but for which we only have 1/3 of the pieces! I do think that striving for accuracy is important, but that sometimes certain details might be sacrificed for the whole picture.

At a museum where I was working in the gardens, there was a long term debate about the well in the back yard. There were records indicating a well, but the spot archaeological work had not found its location, so when the back yard was restored, a well was not included. In my opinion, a more accurate picture might have been achieved if a well had been included somewhere in the yard, even if it was not the original spot, as opposed to leaving it out altogether.

For me it is important to get the feel of a time and not just the look. You might have the best looking outfit, but for reenactors often the best part is putting that outfit on, moving around in it, and recreating tasks that a person wearing that outfit might have done. I recently attended a Living History Presentation where the person presenting was wearing a horrible version of a nineteenth century outfit. It was so modern it was really jarring. But her presentation really captured something of the person she was presenting, so that by the end I had forgiven her for the outfit. She definitely had the feel in her word choice, her tone of voice, her physicality which made it a fair presentation. It would have been really good presentation if she had had a more accurate outfit, but was decent without it.

If nothing is gained by your presentation then it looses its meaning for me. However, that does not mean the educational gains have to be huge. If I am learning something, then the presentation is a success, if I can teach something to other people, then the presentation is a success. If I have read something then I put that into practice or if I interact with someone else who teaches me something, then it is all good! But if I just get dressed up and wander around and no one’s knowledge is increased, then I’ve got to question the validity of that presentation.

In order to produce an authentic living history presentation, I think you must combine accuracy, education, and empathy. If you are accurate but there is no life behind your presentation then I am not convinced; if there are things that are obviously out of time and place I have trouble buying in; if neither you nor others gain anything from the presentation, again, I might question your motives. But a really great presentation can transport me, teach me, and make me feel, at least a little, like what it must have been like in a different time and place.

All that is what I believe makes a good presentation, but I don’t yet think I’ve answered the question about why I do it. I gain so many things beyond the search for the perfect Living History presentation. I make connections with other people who are kooky like me. I have friends all over the US because of reenacting and living history. I have fun doing it, dressing up and presenting life in times long past. And very occasionally I make money at it, though at this point that is a minor note in the overall experience.

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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Making Judgements, Part 2: How Museums Do It

Read Part 1.

How do museums do it?
Obviously, most of us reenacting out here are not professionals, but professionals rate themselves all the time, in order to get grants, satisfy shareholders, attract consumers, make better products, so I was wondering if we can apply some learning from any sort of professional organizations to reenacting and living history. The first group that pops into mind is actually already included, at least in part, under the Living History umbrella and that is museums. I feel slightly qualified to talk about museums because I have worked at them and studied them in an academic setting. Heck, if I was still doing the school thing I could probably get a paper out of rating museums, but I’m not, so you blog readers are stuck with my ramblings. In fact, I’m going to throw in some terms that I’ve gleaned from my work in other not-for-profit fields that seem to apply to museums (thus, to Living History) as well.

Mission and Goals
Most business books for dummies start by making a big deal out of having some sort of statement of your goals. My Museums 101 course also started with a study of museum missions statements. It is good to write down or at least articulate your goals, what you are trying to do and, very briefly, why you are doing it. Since for most people LH is a hobby, very few of us do this individually, but it might be a good idea to ask ourselves, do we have goals we are trying to accomplish? LH Groups are more likely to have this sort of thing since having more people involved means you need to communicate more. How will a new recruit know whether or not they want to join unless you have something to tell them about the group?

Preservation and Education
Most museums have preservation and education as part of their mission statements. Children’s museums might only have education, and there are some history and art museums that might concentrate more on preservation, but most museums try to do both. It is my opinion that a Living History person or group should also try to do both, but in different ways than museums do it. Museums usually concentrate on preserving the artifacts of history, other than those concentrating on the last 100 years of history most reenactors can not afford actual artifacts, and are probably not as well set up as museums to care for those artifacts (I know there are exceptions to this rule, I’m speaking in huge broad generalizations here) but we do work to preserve the past by bringing it to life. For me, history has to be a part of why you are doing this, even if it is not the only part. I am also a big fan of education too. At least educating yourself and the other members of your group if you never plan on educating others, (but what a noble goal it is, to educate others!)

But how do museums judge their effectiveness? Well, most other nonprofits (a lot of businesses too) judge themselves by quantifying what they do, then comparing it to years past or to others in the same field. That is a really simple way to define benchmarking. There are entire industries out there dedicated to benchmarking, I’m no going to be able to do it justice in a few sentences, but I think it is a good thing to keep in mind as a LH participant we can up our goals or accomplishments into little chunks that can be measured. We can measure off our own numbers from years past, and many of us do this subconsciously or in passing conversation. It is also good to remember there are other folks/groups out there doing our same period, or reaching our same audiences. They may not be exactly the same, they might be in a different geographical area, have different types of participants, even be concentrating on a different time-period; but I bet if we break down what we are doing we can compare some if not all of the things that we do.

Audience satisfaction
For a museum this is the big one. How many people are coming through your front doors, how many visitors come back, how are you impacting the community that you are a part of? Museums spend a ton of time and money trying to figure this stuff out, and I think LH folks should not ignore it either. This can apply to those groups focused outward, did the public at the event seem to be having fun? Do they come back every year? Are you seeing more of the public at your event? Are they learning something? I think this applies equally to the inward focused reenactor: Are you having fun? Are you learning something? Is the hobby enriching your life?

I know that a lot of this might seem like more work than a hobby should take, but don’t we already take up tons of our vacation time, weekends and evenings working on our kit, our clothing and our next event? Maybe while you are hand-sewing your next undergarment you can take some time and think about this stuff, I think you’ll be amazed by what you learn.

Read Part 3.

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