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.

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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 TeufelsAlpdr√ľcken F√§hnlein 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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