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.

Read this entry on entry page

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