Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Catching Up

I’ve been quiet here for a while, mostly due to employment stuff. But that does not mean I have not been engaging with history.

Shortly after recovering from the Connecticut Renaissance Faire a few of us were lucky enough to be invited to a time line event at Higgins Armory Museum where we represented the 16th Century. Since we were in an armory museum most of our fellow reenactors had armor and weapons to show as well as some daily life props. We brought out the medical tools and charts, as well as cards, dice and other gambling games. The games and medical stuff proved incredibly popular, and made for a fun day.

Since I did not get to make a colonial gown this summer, a friend who is also a costumer came up for a day and helped me fit a colonial gown from books and images of extant gowns. I hope to have it done by January 12th, but there is a lot going on between now and then, so we’ll see how much I actually get accomplished.

We are progressing on our plans to reenact the 12th century. We’ve had a few meetings, done some research, and I’m making up the persona of an herb-wife. I get to use my herb knowledge in a reenacting setting! Now I’ve got to make some clothes, collect some kit, and do a lot more research!

I’m in the middle of a couple of Living History books and papers, and have a few more to add to the bibliography. Hopefully I’ll have time to do that soon, when I am not in the sewing room, doing some piecework for a merchant friend.

The most unexpected and exciting thing on the history front is a chance for the family to go to Israel next month. I’m hugely excited. There is soooo much history in that part of the world, I can not wait to experience a place with more human history than I have been able to experience thus far in my life. I promise to blog all about it when I get back. Read this entry on entry page

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Reischach Bed

Stephen puts our bed to its intended use. Photo by Marc Andryuk
The first year of the Guild of Saint Morritz Stephen embarked on a very ambitious carptentry project, making us a rope bed. He did a lot of research and watched a lot of YouTube videos on rope-bed tightening, and finished up the bed just before our first event as Landsknecht at CTRF in the fall of 2009. In the three years since then we’ve gotten a lot of compliments on our bed as well as comments of amazement that we sleep on something so primitive. The bed is popular with folks in camp, and many a guild member has been known to take a nap in the middle of the day, cause napping is totally period! But it has always been just another piece of furniture along with the tents, tables, and everything else in camp.

This year at the fall show of the Connecticut Renaissance Faire the bed was on center stage, sometimes literally. It all started when friends of ours were getting married at the faire, and the Fahnlein were asked to escort  the bride to the wedding. On opening weekend we were moving the bed from our old tent (that we sold to a friend) where we had set it up the weekend before into our new tent which was up the road in our camp. While marching up the road with the bed (not so different from marching around with pikes) one of us (I remember it as being me but some folks have different memories) mentioned that it might be fun to put the bride on our bed when marching her from our camp to the wedding site. The bride thought it would be fun, so we kept the plan a secret from her husband-to-be, and planed on arrival by bed.

When the time came it was a little tricky getting the bride into position on the bed, but once she was kneeling in the center of all her skirts the bed was hoisted by the men of the fahnlein while the women marched with pikes in front. The two folks carrying the back of the bed were so tall, the the two people in the front had to hold the front legs at shoulder height, so the bride did not just get marched in, she floated above the heads of the guests into the wedding. The groom loved it! The bed was a big hit with everyone involved, and folks talked about it for the rest of the weekend.

The woman hired to sing at the wedding got a big kick out of it, and approached Stephen the last weekend of faire about the bed possibly making another appearance. At the Reanissance Faire there was a variety act/finale show and when the cast of the faire came up on stage, the actor playing Merlin would decline to sit, no matter what the MC brought him to sit upon. So on the very last day when Merlin refused to sit she called for the landsknecht who marched our bed up on to the stage to quite a bit of applause. Afterwards, we got a few comments from departing cast on the great impression our bed made, but it being the last day of faire, everyone was spending what little energy they had left in packing up. Still, enough people stopped by to remark on the coolness of our bed.

In both cases the bed's appearance was really more for the insiders than it was for the visitor to the faire. In the first case it made a friend's special day even more special, and in the second it helped remove a little of the separation between us in the historical section of the faire, and the performers and cast of the faire. It gave us a chance to be good (if a bit silly) neighbors. I never would have guessed it of the bed.

Me and the dog enjoy a rare moment of quiet. Photo by Marc Andryuk

Read this entry on entry page

Friday, October 21, 2011

Am I a Living Historian?

Once, when I was 28 and unemployed I was confronted by my landlord in an awkward driveway encounter. It was the middle of the afternoon, when most adults are at work and on seeing me arrive at home to enter my apartment my landlord asked me what I did for a living. I told him I was a historian doing freelance work, mostly working for theater companies as a dramaturge. In reality I had just finished a stint as Production Manager of a Renaissance faire and was applying for any job I could find. I was doing a lot of history writing, but it was mostly for small stipends, and most real historians would look for the nearest vat of hot tar if they’d heard me say it. But my landlord’s reaction was mostly surprise, and definitely a higher level of respect. I look younger than I am, and I suppose one does rather expect historians to have grey beards and sit in armchairs while smoking pipes. So putting myself in the category of a learned academic meant that I was not going to be questioned about if I could pay my rent, or why I was returning home in the middle of the day.

I have been thinking about this recently because of all the stories about the unemployed who spent 20 years in the same industry but since they have been laid off have lost part of their identity. Can you call yourself a stockbroker if you don’t actually get paid to broker stocks? At the time what little money I had coming in was made by working in the field of history. But not everyone who works in the field of surgery is a surgeon.
In Stacy Roth’s book “Past into Present” at the beginning of her chapter on the Visitor she purposefully evokes the professional when talking about visitor relations.

“From a business angle, interpreters [which Roth defines as one who: translates material culture and human or natural phenomena to the public] provide a service and visitors are the customer. While such a statement sounds crassly commercial and clinical, it is a notion that cannot be ignored by anyone who earns a livelihood from historical interpretation. It separates the professional from the dabbler. Admittedly, many interpreters forget or ignore this responsibility. But the concerned professional interpreter, salaried or independent, and the serious hobbyist or volunteer care about the visitor experience.” - Stacy Roth, Past into Present

So while at first it might seem like Roth defines the professional as those earning their livelihood from LH she then does leave room for those not employed at museums (the independent) and those who don’t make money at it (the serious hobbyist and volunteer.) I’m encouraged that there might be room for me in Roth’s definition of the professional.

If I again find myself in the situation where I need a professional moniker but don’t have a full time job would I consider telling folks I’m a historian? Probably, though I do like the sound of Living Historian almost as much.

Read this entry on entry page

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Coming Out

I’m reading Mark Shanks’ dissertation called: Very Civil Wars: Reenactors, Academics, and the Performance of the Past. In the beginning of chapter two Dr. Shanks remarks on the ubiquity of Civil War reenacting and how all he has to do is mention Civil War reenacting and he gets an understanding response from most people. This brought to mind for me all the times I’ve had conversations where I have explained that I spend my weekends dressing up and living as if in another timeperiod. In most cases, I’m still waiting for the understanding.

This could be because I reenact some fairly obscure times. I do not do Civil War, or even Revolutionary War so most Americans are less familiar with the history of the times I reenact. Also there are fewer of us reenacting non-American history in the United states, and those of us who do are spread out in times ranging from the iron age to the present. Those times when I get a glimmer of recognition it is often because the person I am talking to has a relative that goes to Renaissance Faires, or once saw a RevWar group participating in a town parade. I’m not sure I have actually encountered on the street a random person who also does this sort of thing. Sure, I meet tons of them at LH events and online in LH spaces, but the closest I’ve gotten in real life was a few emails exchanged with the fencing coach at the college where I work who used to be in the SCA.

At least now all the folks I work with know that when they ask me if I have weekend plans they probably involve making a 16th century meal or attending an 18th century dance. They are no longer surprised, even if they still do not understand. The times I find much more awkward are when I need to explain to folks who I do not see on a regular basis. I recently had my yearly checkup and I know I explained my hobbies to my doctor last year, but she only sees my once a year so I had to sit there in the cold paper gown and again go over the costuming, the demonstrations, the locations where events are held, and the frequency with which I do this sort of thing.  Times like that it almost feels like coming out, but instead of just being gay I’m coming out as only interested in an obscure gender that most people have never heard of.

Hi my name is Alena and I participate in an esoteric hobby commonly called reenacting, but I don’t do any of the things you think I do.

In fact, I don’t even consider myself just a hobbyist. But that is a tale for another time.

Read this entry on entry page

Friday, October 7, 2011


While I always love LH there are some times when I spend more time thinking about it, and others when I spend more time thinking about laundry.  Last weekend was reunion weekend at the college where I work, and I did a pretty dismal job (in my own opinion) of organizing the weekend. But I’ve got to put it behind me, finish cleaning up the messes and get back to the everyday tasks, and back to dreaming about a day when I can spend most of my time and energy on LH.

A couple things have brought LH to the forefront of my mind. One is Stephen quitting his steady full-time job to become a consultant, so he can pick the engaging projects that best use his expertise. I am behind him 100% and a bit jealous, though I think I might find it a bit more nerve wracking than I could handle. We’re helping Alysa with her college planning and having conversations about how one finds one’s passion and how one gets motivated to do things like get up every morning and go to work. I’m getting the itch to finally do something definitive about getting a master’s degree in some sort of history field.

 I’ve started down that path twice but never gotten beyond a few classes. I took some classes in Public History at UMass just after college, and I’ve taken some classes in Museum Studies at Tufts a few years ago (which was the prompting for this blog.) My dad has been encouraging me to think more seriously about a masters and I’m inclined towards that end myself. I’ve been making spreadsheets of the public history programs out there, tracking the teaching locations of prominent authors in the field (okay, anyone in academia who has written on LH) and dreaming up dissertation topics but I have not yet found the perfect program. Especially not one within driving distance that will accommodate a full-time work schedule. But since it is unlikely I’m going to win the lottery, I can’t quit my job just to go back to school. So the search is still on.

Meanwhile we’re halfway through the run of the Connecticut Renaissance Faire’s fall show, and our last LH event of the season. We’ve got two weekends left, this one is a three day weekend (the faire is open Columbus Day) and I’m in charge of cooking for the weekend. A couple of good friends are also getting married at the faire on Sunday, so that should be fun. I’ve got a half-finished project that I’m going to try and make real progress on for these final weekends, before we get to pack all of it up until April. But before then we’ve got a series of meetings and workshops on our newest venture: we’re heading into the 12th century!

And this morning on my blog feed was a series of portraits of the Yeoman Gaoler at the Tower of London  that included this brilliant photo.
Alan Kingshott, Yeoman Gaoler at the Tower of London, Photo by Martin Usborne

Someday, I’m going to have an office in an old tower and a uniform that was popular many centuries before this one.

Read this entry on entry page

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Book Review: Seize the Day

I found Seize The Day! How to wring more satisfaction from your Civil War reenacting events by Wm. J. Watson while adding a different book to my Amazon wish list. That darn website knows so much about my reading habits, when this book was suggested I added it to my wish list as well. I was given a copy as a gift not long after. It is such a small book that I sat down right away to read it, then carried it around for a few weeks (it fit in my purse!) and finally dug it out to write the review.

How-to books for the beginning reenactor are actually quite common, but vary in quality and concentration. I promise I'll review some of those soon. This book is not for the beginner. It is for the folks who already have a basic kit, are already attending Civil War events, who feel like they've got the basics under control and want to take the next step.

The style of Seize is based loosely on the works of a 19th century author who was writing how-to manuals for 19th century soldiers, but the author is speaking directly to the 21st century reenactor to the purpose of increasing the reader's authenticity, enjoyment, and immersion. Watson sets his chapters out by military rank and manages to cover a lot of ground very quickly. He does not tell you how to drill or cook or guard, he talks about the importance of all the different military tasks, about the expectations of each rank, and about how to be the best in any rank. This could come off as ridiculous or preachy, but I found the advice in this book was well thought out and delivered in a friendly and not at all condescending way. At the end of each chapter I found myself wanting to be a great civil war corporal (or whatever chapter I happened to be reading) even though I have absolutely no desire to reenact the life of a civil war solider. Some chapters are meatier than others. The Clerk chapter includes role-playing scenarios and character types. In chapter 13 the author addresses reenacting recruitment and what is missing from current big events.

There was a lot of useful advice for any era military reenactment: those in charge need to keep an eye out for those folks who may be struggling etc. and it is your job to make sure tasks get done, not necessarily to do them all yourself. There is limited but good advice for those attending reenactment events that are not necessarily military in nature about sharing tasks and keeping camp tidy. The author goes quite in depth on work details and how important they are since setting up and tearing down is something the reenactor must do as well. He is very clear that there are people in charge of making sure this stuff gets done, people who are responsible, people who do their share of work, and consequences in the chain of command for slackers. What a boon for the reenactors as well as being period correct. This removes some of the modern ego from the work detail. The book seems to say: if you are not willing to work, find another hobby with quotes like "we are trying to take everything good that has been done by a lot of hard-working, thoughtful people and take it a step further... It operates like a regiment, not like a reenacting club."

The most exciting part for me came at the very end when Watson recommends that the reader document those methods that work for their group because, "documenting the methods used to achieve success is what this little book is all about, by the way." Read this entry on entry page

Monday, September 12, 2011

Book Review: Intrepid Women

Intrepid Women: Cantinières and Vivandières of the French Army, by Thomas Cardoza, 2010

There are a few books out there on women’s roles in the armies of the past, but not so many that a new book on the scene does not make me happy. Last year when I came across Intrepid Women: Cantinières and Vivandières of the French Army, by Thomas Cardoza I read what I could of the preview on Amazon, then I put it on my wishlist. After a year of waiting for it, I bought it as a birthday gift for myself. I’m so glad that I did! Cardoza has scoured the primary sources for women of the French army. He has not depended on old secondary sources, nor has he given full credence to the accounts written by the detractors of the Cantinieres and Vivandieres. The stories he tells, and the lives he portrays are rich and real. Even if France is not your area, even if the timeperiod covered in Intrepid Women is not your focus, I highly recommend this book.

Intrepid Women follows the official female participants in army life (but touches on the unofficial too) from the 17th century, through the French Revolution, Napoleon, all the way to World War I. Women played an important role in most early armies especially when it came to provisioning the new professional armies of Europe. Women acted in official capacities in the French army as laundresses, keeping the army clothed, and as sutlers keeping the army fed far from their home turf. Wives of soldiers were given leave to gather supplies in the countryside whether by purchase or pillage, then to follow the army with pack animals or wagons from which they would dispense hot meals and alcohol to soldiers who were often not provided with rations and were not allowed to leave the confines of camp. These women not only provided food; their wagons often held army baggage, they provided shelter when the men were not given tents, they provided companionship, children to work in the army, and even fighters when threatened. Though often a source of tension, drama, and discomfort to army officials, the women of a unit were often a cohesive force, something for the troops to rally around when threatened, and relax around when hard pressed by their environment.

In Intrepid Women Cardoza tells some great stories like this delightful one of “the Cossack who tried to rob the cantinere of the Neuchatel Battalion when she fell behind the column after the Battle of Leipzig. Sensing easy prey, the Cossack approached, whereupon the cantinere ‘produced her pistol and shot him out of the saddle. She rejoined the battalion mounted on the Cossack’s horse, to the applause of all the column.’” What a telling account! Not only did the cantinieres travel at the back of their units, they were also often heavily burdened and not as fast moving as the soldiers. But the thing about being surrounded by soldiers all day is that you often learn how to use weapons, almost by default. And when selling to those soldiers I imagine that coin is sometimes scarce, but weapons can be found in abundance. With all the men armed, I am not surprised that the women of the army were armed too.

Cardoza also takes the time to tackle questions about sex and prostitution: “Like the extent of their marital devotion, cantiniere’s sexual habits during this period are difficult if not impossible to accurately assess from surviving sources.” I like that Cardoza is being so honest, and not depending on sources he can not verify. He does go on: “Clearly they were not celibate. They were all married, legitimately or otherwise, and the large number of children they bore attest to their sexual activity. Less easily answered are questions about the extent of their sexual relations outside marriage.  Captain Elzear Blaze hinted that pretty cantinieres slept with virtually everyone in their unit, but offered no evidence….There may indeed have been cantinieres who moved from man to man, as well as cantinieres who ran prostitution rings, but no verifiable records remain of either their existence or suppression.”

Even with the lack of records, Cardoza tells a compelling story across hundreds of years about a type of woman very far outside of the norm.

Read this entry on entry page

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Another Post About Storage

The thing about acquiring historic stuff, is you then need historic methods of storage. I had started to gather historic storage methods before the Guild, I bought a wooden chest as a prop for faire one year, and my mother bought me a beautiful pack basket, and has been supplying me with various other baskets for years. The first year of Das Geld Fahnlein I used the wooden prop box and bought an unfinished simple toy chest as my period storage, everything else got hidden in the corner of our tent.

At the beginning of last year storage was even more on my mind as we tried to become even more historical and get rid of as many modern intrusions as we could. I made big canvas duffels for Stephen and I to hide our hiking backpacks. Now the packs go under the bed in their sacks and even the kids who crawl into our tent will not catch a glimpse of the modern stuff. During the first season my lovely prop box slid out of the back of our truck at an intersection and got pretty smashed up. It is not repairable since it is plasterboard and was not too durable to begin with. But Stephen had been inspired by the folks at Das TeufelsAlpdrücken Fähnlein  who sat down for dinner on chests and bundles (much more historical than chairs.) Stephen made me a beautiful wooden box where I store all my accessories: modern toiletries, historical sewing projects, playing cards, gloves etc. He also held a guild workshop to help people make their own boxes. Three more people in the guild got theirs completed, a few are still in progress, including the two Stephen started for himself! Fellow guild member Magda also got into the historical packing thing. She had already owned two wooden boxes, but she made canvas sacks for her bedding, plus sacks for other members of the guild who would arrive each morning with their things in plastic bags or backpacks. She also bought an unfinished toy chest like mine, and she bought a large beautiful pack basket to add to her impression.

I painted my toy chest in Reischach colors so we could tell mine apart from Magda’s, and filled it with tent accouterments like the rope bed tightener, our religious paintings, and our game boards. I dug out three big baskets that were also left over from my days as RenFaire Props Master to hold our clothing and some of our bedding plus all the random stuff that got thrown in at the last minute. We were given a chest as part of a wedding gift so Stephen used it for his accessories and personal items.

At the end of last year I started to seriously think about storage for our bedding. I get cold very easily, so we not only pack sheets and pillows for our bed, but we packed at least three wool blankets, a couple of fleece blankets, some linen blankets, an electric blanket, and a historical sort of coverlet to throw over the whole thing. Yes, this is probably excessive, but I hate being cold. In the spring I bought waterproof canvas to cut and sew into bundles and I bought cotton webbing to wrap around the bundles and make them into backpacks. Then I tried to figure out how to sew them together to make them look like historical bundles. I even got Stephen to help and we both decided that not only were the bundles probably not sewn together at all, but they were most likely made of tent canvas or bedding material with everything else bundled up inside it. Why carry more things than you absolutely need? But I was determined to have dry bedding that could be transported in the back of the truck, so Stephen and I wrapped our bedding up like burritos in a tortilla then wrapped the webbing around like ribbons on a gift package, and did manage to get it on people’s backs! This spring we had an in-period set-up day and marched in to the Connecticut Renaissance Faire with bundles on our backs.

The packs were not perfect, if you needed one thing from inside you had to take the whole thing apart. Also the webbing slipped around on the waterproof canvas. After the May show I stitched three of them into big "u" shapes with one end open, my next step is to sew two horizontal lines of webbing on to the sacks, leaving open spots through which to thread the vertical webbing. That will secure the sack and make it into a pack. I have not done this yet, but it is on my list before the end of September.

Meanwhile I am totally jealous of fellow guild member Magda, who proved at our last two events that she can unpack and pack up all her gear in a completely period way. Her boxes, baskets and bundles just sit on top of her little rug (that goes on the floor inside her tent) in a pile until the cars are allowed on site. Magda is the person that has the next largest amount of stuff next to Stephen and I, and keeps her tent open for the public during the day just like we do. She and I go back and forth in some very low-scale competition to up our historical game, though really we stay pretty well even, and the more historical we are, the entire guild benefits. In this case, Magda has reached the goal before me, but I hope I’m not too far behind. As of the spring my last major things in modern containers were the kitchen stuff and the tents.

Since our niece recently came to live with us, we had to clear out our spare bedroom, which was really the place for all of our LH supplies. A lot of them went into our bedroom and the sewing room, but I knew the 4 plastic bins of kitchen gear would never make it into either room. So one bin of barely used stuff went into the attic, some of the nicer looking stuff that I did not want to bring to every show went on shelves in the den. For the stuff that goes to every event where we are cooking, I bought another toy chest, but stained it this time. And put all of the cooking utensils in it. If I want to cook with it, it has to fit in the one box (or be a big cast iron pot, which does not belong in a box in the first place.) All of our historical eating gear has gone into a basket, so when the high table needs to be set for dinner, anyone can do it, and when the dishes are done, the stuff for Stephen, Alysa and myself can go right back in the basket. I even sewed little pouches for the plates and bowls out of scrap wool so they have padding in the box and basket. Which leaves only one kitchen item left, and that is the food itself. This fall I want to be much better about removing plastic bags before getting to camp if possible, and using plain canvas tote bags or baskets to carry groceries in. My newest purchase is a really cool cooler basket in which to hide our perishables. It holds 5 gallons, the basket supports 300 lbs if someone sits on it, and the cooler liner is removable when it needs to be washed. I can't wait to use it!
Brown box for cooking stuff, basket for eating gear, the basket is really a cooler.

We’ve still got to come up with historical methods for hauling around tents, ropes and stakes, but I’m feeling that finishing up the bedding bundles, plus urging Stephen to finish his two wooden chests are good steps to move us into the fall.

Read this entry on entry page

Friday, August 26, 2011

Hanne's Bibliography

As an American reenacting with a group doing 16th Century Central European history, we do not have a lot of good written resources, and what we do have has taken me quite a while to track down. So others do not have to search as hard as I have, and so I do not have to repeat myself quite as often I am adding a new bibliography here. I hope to put up book reviews too. Those of you who read my blog but reenact other time periods, I hope you’ll bear with me through these posts, I promise to keep writing on as many different time periods as I reenact, and  on Living History in general.

Hanne von Reischach, a Bibliography
I'm including books and articles that I have read in my quest to make the character I portray as part of Das Geld Fahnlein, Hanne von Reischach, as full a person as possible. I hope the list will be helpful for other folks who want to know more about life in 16th Century Germany, the Landsknecht, camp followers, the Reformation, and the Renaissance mindset.

Read this entry on entry page

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Double Life, Professional Life

I recently decided to join LinkedIn for professional networking reasons. But as soon as I did I was up against one of the realities of my life. I have two different professions, two different networks, with two different job histories. I spend a lot of my effort on Living History ventures and I do make a little of my money that way, but most of the past 10 years I have also held down other jobs that pay the bills and spark my interests in different ways. They seem incredibly separate sometimes, but I am really a whole person, I have a lot of skills that I use in all aspects of my life, a lot of my interests in history overlap with my interests in working in the non-profit field. Right now my interests seem to be as close to overlapping as they have been in quite a while since I currently work at an educational institution (in fundraising) and a big driver of my involvement in Living History is education. So I've come up with a vague sort of statement that talks about education in the broadest sense, and hopefully covers as many of my bases as possible.

LinkedIn is also a place to put up your resume, so I've been updating that document (which always seems to me like a chore similar to doing one's taxes.) I don't want my resume to look too cluttered, but I've done a lot of very different things in the past ten years, especially if you count all the different LH things I've been paid for (or at least held responsibility for.) Lucky for me a lot of them were work done under the umbrella of Autumn Tree Productions and I always include that on a resume, I guess the other stuff will have to get lumped in under general LH pursuits.

The other big part of LinkedIn (like all social media) is connecting to to other people. I've been trying to locate past co-workers, former bosses, and professional connections, but it seems like most of my connections are with people in the RenFaire and LH world. Another mixing of my two sides. At first I was worried about mixing the two, but from the different types of people that have accepted my "connection request" I guess the practice is not all that uncommon.

Are many of you on LinkedIn? Do you include your LH stuff? How separate is the LH stuff from the rest of your life? Read this entry on entry page

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


I have heard through the grapevine that many Civil War reenactment groups are having trouble recruiting new members. I have rather written off thier complaints as aging groups having trouble attracting a younger croud, but Das Geld Fahnlein is not growing like it needs to. And now I'm getting worried.

Our initial recruitment was a group of five friends getting together and talking about the fact that we still wanted to participte in the Renaissance Faire, but we were much more interested in the history than the entertainment, and wouldn't it be fun to start our own group? Once the planning was underway we notified all our friends, and asked the faire to put the word out along thier communication channels. Our first year group was just fantastic. Everyone was enthousiastic, fun, more than a little quirky and our first year was a rousing success. Last year most of the recruitment that happened were friends of friends. A current member would convice a friend to come to a workshop and they'd be hooked.

This year, we have not had as much luck with friends of friends, and although we have had some interested folks we've met at events or who have found our web page, none of them have stuck around for more than a single workshop. Now I'm wondering if we're too intimidating? Everyone says we look so good that they will have to wait to join us until they are up to our standards. But really, we're a relatively new group, and would rather loan people the gear they need, and steer them towards the best research materials, and have them join in as soon as possible and not three years from now.

Is it the economy? This is definitely not a cheap hobby. A few of my friends have asked how much it costs to make an outfit in order to join and the answer is around $300 if you shop around and do a lot of it yourself, but not much cheaper unless you are an incredible bargain hunter.

Do we need to do market research? Should we poll all the folks we know to see why they are not rushing to join the guild? Stephen and I ask all the LH folks we know about recruitment and we're getting the picture that maybe it is just a slow sort of thing. Maybe there are not more reenactors because it really is a very small proportion of the population that is interested in taking part.

We have so much fun though, I am hoping we can get more people to join so I have more cool friends to hang out with.
Read this entry on entry page

Friday, August 12, 2011

Family Changes

I'm getting a family! Yes, I've still got my childhood family that supports me in my Living History schemes, and Stephen and I have been partnering on LH stuff for years before we got married. But we're gaining a family member. Stephen's (and mine through marriage) niece is moving in with us and making our family of two into a fun new family of three. 

This will change every aspect of our lives. Our home life, work schedules, our diet, our interactions with friends and neighbors. The good thing about adopting someone who is older, and not bringing a baby into our family is that we can warn her about what she is getting into. But how much can you get across with conversations, or event event visits? I think that there is very little that can prepare someone for the exhaustion of a full day at an event. Or the amount of knowledge one needs to know in order to do this LH thing. She is a teenager, and like a lot of teenagers is sure she knows more than she does. Her grandmother has taught her a lot about sewing, but that does not mean she's ready to create historical outfits.

I think I'm ready for the learning curve, I am looking forward to learning and growing. I'm also extremely nervous about the changes to her life and our lives, but I'm hopeful that change will be good. Wish us luck with introducing a new person to our crazy world!
Read this entry on entry page

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Getting the Itch

I'm feeling like it has been too long since I last dressed up. It was July 9th in fact, more than a month ago. I have done LH work, I've done a lot of research, gardening, some construction. We've attended LH events as members of the public. All of that is good, but it is not the same as dressing up and doing it. Luckily we'll be attending an event in a little over a week. Actually, we could go in regular clothes, we're not required to dress up and take part, but since there are members of our group dressing up and taking part, I have a hard time imagining that I could go and not want to jump in. It is time to shake out the wrinkles from my dress and sew back together all the stuff that has come apart since the spring. Read this entry on entry page

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Is the Magic "period" moment really all that important?

Since we just did a podcast on making evaluations I've been evaluating my own involvement in Living History. There are so many things that I hope to get out of any LH venture I undertake. Here are the 4 main ones I’ve come up with:
1. I want to learn,
2. I want to teach others,
3. I want to have meaningful social interactions (have fun with my friends),
4. I want to experience something real.
I am finding that though many folks may have similar entries on their lists, most do not list them in the order I have, nor do most people include all of those entries.

I’m reading a little book called “Seize the Day” and its purpose is to help Civil War reenactors achieve more moments when the reenactment “feels real.” Some people call these magic moments, or even a period-gasm. This is one of the main reasons why people get involved in Living History. It is the topic of an entire book (even if it is a little book.) The most interesting thing about reading this book at the time as I am making my own evaluations, and just after visiting a couple LH events as a member of the public (podcasted here) is that teaching others and expiring something “real” are often in direct conflict.

Let’s face it, having folks dresses in jeans and t-shirts, taking our pictures with digital cameras (or their phones) and asking us what year it is (or more intelligent questions) does ruin the period atmosphere. As close as we get in our surroundings and ourselves, as long as sneakered individuals expecting interaction are in the picture the picture is never going to be all that accurate. But I love the chance to interact with and educate the public! I know this make me very different from most reenactors, or at least most reenactors on Living History Worldwide click here for a summary. But I really do value the times I interact with others who might have some level of interest in history, and to widen a few world views. And no, I have no desire to teach the federally decided curriculum to a very small age demographic; I want to reach anyone who wants to learn, not just in the usual prescribed ways.

What if the public are just spectators?
I’ve seen this done in battle scenarios, where the public stays on the outside and the historical folks on the other. Some groups prefer to put up a rope line to keep members of the public a bit separate. But they’re still there. They are not hiding behind an invisible barrier, and to ignore them completely seems fairly rude to me if you are not doing a theatrical performance.

So how important is achieving those period moments?
Since it seems like on my list numbers 2 and 4 are fairly incompatible, does that mean I have to drop one or the other? I think not. Not every day, activity or event is going to fulfill all my wants (or even my needs) but going forward I’m going to try to evaluate my LH endeavors based on the 4 criteria and make sure I have a balance. Some events are geared mostly towards educating others, but I might learn something, or at least have some fun social interactions. And I might just be more inclined to put some events in my schedule that are not about educating the public, and are more about those magic “period” or “real” moments, as opposed to the magic teaching moments, the magic learning moments or the magic bonding moments shared with friends.

Since we’re talking about LH endeavors, there is one more kind I need to point out when talking about evaluations, and those are the endeavors we undertake for other people. Being kind, sharing, helping our friends and family are all very important. If I attend an event for the benefit of someone else and don’t actually achieve any of my goals for LH endeavors, it does not mean it was an unsuccessful event, just as long as someone got something out if it, then I’m ok with that too.

Read this entry on entry page

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Old Houses

I have a complex relationship with old houses. And by old houses I mean those that were built 300 to 100 years ago that are commonly found here in New England. I grew up in old houses and have many time said I would never want to live in one again. They are dusty, which means that I have trouble breathing in old houses. They are often very drafty which means I’m constantly cold (or pay a lot to heat them) and they are constantly in need of repair, which I generally don’t feel like doing. But I LOVE old houses! I love looking at them as we drive past and guessing how old they are, and when the additions or changes were made, I love staying in hotels that were old houses.

I especially love working in them. My current office is in the upstairs room of a big farmhouse built right around 1800. The walls are plaster and wood paneling, the windows let in a ton of light, even if they rattle in a strong wind. All the placement of rooms and halls make sense to me. It feels comforting and happy in a way that the cinderblock office buildings I’ve worked in never could.

When at the herb workshops at Plimoth Plantation a couple weeks ago I got to spend quite a bit of time in Plomoth's Horticulture Building, which is where I used to work. It was originally built a hundred years ago as a carriage house. It had a big room for the carriages, and a smaller room for stalls, there were more stalls in the basement as well as a second floor that was half hayloft half caretaker’s lodgings. I love the feel of the building, working and relaxing in it; washing in the soapstone sink, potting plants in the glass-and-wood greenhouse that was attached to the carriage house. Yes, they are dusty and drafty, but somehow I don’t mind as much during the work day.

I hope in my future there are many more workplaces in lovely old structures. They make me happy.

Read this entry on entry page

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

My Horrible Friday

I did not have a history-filled weekend.
Early this spring I found out about a workshop being offered through Burnley and Trowbridge, on making an 18th century fitted-back gown the proper 18th century way. Stephen and I have been doing more 18th century events but it is not my main area of research and here was a chance to learn from an expert and get a cool dress out of it! Stephen got me the plane ticket and hotel room for my birthday and I eagerly signed up, bought fabric and waited for the workshop date to arrive. The workshop took place this past weekend, from 2-5 on Friday 9-5 on Saturday and 9:30 – 3:30 on Sunday. I was not there. Here is my saga.

I took Thursday off from work to mow the lawn and pack, try to do some last minute sewing before the class. On Friday I left my house at 4:30 am for the airport and I arrived at 5 am for my 6:10 flight out of Manchester, NH on Sout West Airlines. When checking my bag I discovered that my driver’s license was not in my wallet. That was the thing that set the whole horrible chain of events going. I hauled my suitcase back out to the long-term parking lot, drove home roused Stephen, and tore the place apart looking for my license.  Found it in a rarely-used coat pocket, raced back to the airport.

I arrived back at the airport at 6:05. Since I could not get my bag on my original flight, and it was unlikely that I would make it, they agreed to try to get me out on the next flight. But that flight was at 6:30 and had a long layover in Tampa, whereas the 10:30 did not have a long layover and would get me to the Norfolk, VA airport a half an hour before the class started. With drive time etc included I would probably be an hour late, but I would have to live with that. I had a nice breakfast at the airport and finished the sewing I had not finished the day before.

When the 10:30 flight lined up I found out it was a full flight, I was on stand-by and there was another person on stand-by too. All the ticketed passengers showed up. There was no room for me. The guy at the counter who had been so friendly before the plane boarded was sullen after it was full and instead of being helpful just told me I’d have to wait for the 1:45.  I’d gone online when it looked like the plane was full and I’d seen a 3:30 to Norfolk but not a 1:45. He grudgingly agreed to tell me that the 1:45 went to Baltimore, not Norfolk but that almost all Southwest flights into Norfolk went through Baltimore and I was bound to find something then. So I was stuck with an unknown arrival time or a well past the end of the Friday class time. I called Stephen and he told me to go look for another airline with flights that could get me in sooner. None of the other airlines had flights that would get me in before class was over, so I waited for the 1:45.

I had an unsatisfactory lunch, listened to some audiobook, played some Plants versus Zombies, read some blog feeds. I was not far from the gate where the 1:45 flight was, and not too long after noon I noticed a lot of commotion. A flight to Orlando had just been delayed from 1pm to 7 pm. Folks were pissed. They were trying to re-route as many of them on to the 1:45 to Baltimore as possible! In a panic I went up to the counter and it was actually the woman who in the morning had been at the counter to witness me not finding my license, then to tell me I’d make it on the 10:30 even though it was a full flight. I explained that I had not made it out yet, she recognized me and I asked if there was really a chance of me getting on the 1:45. She said there was very little chance but that the 3:30 was a direct to Norfolk, the plane would stop in Baltimore but I would not need to leave the plane. She took me off standby status for the 1:45 and gave me a definite seat on the 3:30.

I went back to my spot, tried to nap, tried to concentrate on anything and just got more uncomfortable and desperate. The 1:45 was not full, but by the time I found that out they were making urgent leaving noises and since that flight only went as far as Baltimore with no guaranteed second flight, I did not change my ticket. At 2:30 they announced that the 3:30 was delayed. Twenty minutes later they called all passengers going on to Norfolk over to the counter and gave us new boarding passes because apparently the flight was no longer direct, but would go only to Baltimore, then we would transfer to a different plane going to Norfolk. I was positively sick to my stomach. At 4:30 they announced that the 3:30 plane was delayed again and that there were no more flights to Norfolk out of Baltimore that we would be able to make. They were recommending that we all spend the night in New Hampshire and then they would put us all on the first plane out, which would get us into Norfolk at 9:30 am. The workshop started at 9 on Saturday and I did not want to miss all of the Friday class and 2.5 hours of the Saturday class with travel time. I cried. I blubbered at the unsympathetic woman at the counter who said there was no alternative so I asked her to cancel my ticket. Because I had three different boarding passes she could not do it but told me to write a letter (write a letter!!) to the address she handed me and they would refund my ticket. I went home sobbing the whole way.

Stephen had been updated on my status every step of the way by text and phone so was waiting with sympathetic arms when I got home. He let me cry for a while and then asked me how badly I wanted to go to Virginia, I told him I wanted to very badly but was not going to drive at that late a time and could not see another option. He said there were two more flights out of Manchester that evening both going to Norfolk, from airlines other than South West. We called Norfolk to make sure my bag had arrived (it had) I still had hotel reservations, and United Airlines sold us a decently priced ticket for a 7:30 flight thru Washington, DC to Norfolk, Virginia. Stephen drove me back to the airport.

Back in line, this time at the United counter, they were talking about long delays in Chicago, and how there were a lot of planes that had not yet arrived in Manchester, so I was fairly prepared when I got up to the counter. Yes, the flight we had just booked had been delayed, no I could not get into Norfolk before 10 am the next morning. The United woman was much more sympathetic though and she said there was an 8:30 offered by American Airlines that was only slightly delayed what was going through Philadelphia and if I ran I could make a connection in Philly. I agreed so she printed me a voucher and sent me to the American Airlines counter. The craziest thing of the whole evening happened then. As I turned away from the United counter and paid attention to the endless announcements for the first time since returning to the airport I heard my name. Southwest was calling me to hurry and board or they were going to close the doors. I looked at my watch, it was 7pm. I guess the 3:30 was finally getting off the ground and no one had been able to completely cancel my ticket. I did not run to the gate, that plane could not get me to my destination, though it was the strangest thing, my name being broadcast over the entire airport letting me know that I was going to miss my flight.

At the American Airlines counter there were two nice women. One was not so sure I could make it, but the other one was confident since I did not have any bags and I was energetic that I’d make the connection, no problem. They printed me a ticket for the 8:30 American flight (now scheduled to leave at 9pm) and I went through security for the 3rd time that day. The airport had mostly cleared out by that point, there were no lines at security, half the restaurants were closed and only a few gates had upcoming flights listed. I went to one of the few remaining open bars and actually ordered myself an alcoholic beverage. I also got a sandwich (cold, the kitchen was closed) and ate half of the sandwich and a 3rd of the drink before heading to my gate. 2 more flights had departed and there was almost no one left. There were 8 people sitting at the gate. As I sat down there was an announcement that the flight was now delayed until 9:30 but the gentleman at the counter assured us we’d be off the ground by 9:10. Twenty minutes later I got an automated call saying the plane was now delayed until 10:10 pm. I asked the man at the counter if that was true, he said yes, our plane had not yet left Philadelphia to come to Manchester. I asked him to cancel my ticket. He did, I called Stephen and he picked me up at 9 pm.

I did not go back to the airport until Monday afternoon, and then only to pick up my suitcase, which had been in Virginia all weekend without me.

Not a successful historical vacation.

Read this entry on entry page

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Plants as Common Knowledge

During the workshops at Plimoth I got the feeling that one of the many things we’re missing as part of our portrayal of the Renaissance mentality (music and formality highest among them) is a general knowledge of plants.

There are a lot of machines that are a part of our general knowledge today, the different makes of cars, types of cell phones, operating systems on computers, ways to get around the internet. These are things that generally you can expect the average American to know. There are definitely people out there who can name and identify more different types of cars, and there are folks with more in depth knowledge of cell phones, but if you asked a group of Americans to pick a flip-type cell phone out of a line-up of phones, they could generally have no problems with that task.

This weekend I heard stories of a new pilgrim being sent out into the garden to find carrots, and she could not find them because she had no idea carrots grew underground, or one who was given a tray of cabbages to plant in her garden and she planted the leaves in the ground, and the roots sticking up. These are extreme examples, but serve to illustrate my point. People in the past would have known a lot more about plants. They would have been able to identify a good number of plants, or at least plant types, they would have known what plants are harvested at what time of year if only by the regularity that such things showed up on the dinner table. Just like today we all know which over-the-counter meds cure headaches, and how to put on a Band-Aid everyone would have known which plants are best for small cuts, and which are good for stomach troubles.

I re-learned a lot about plants and herbs this weekend, and will be happy to share what I know. Would anyone be interested in a list of common historical herb remedies or a common vegetable harvest/availability chart? Read this entry on entry page

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Translating Workshops into Living History

I went to a fabulous workshop this past weekend at Plimoth Plantation. They brought in an herb expert, Christina Stapley from England, and held 5 days of workshops in the gardens  making historic herbal concoctions. I have done a little work with herbs in the past, I took an “herbal apprenticeship” program one summer about 12 years ago which was much more modern in focus. Since then I've read up on medieval uses of herbs, as much as is possible with some of the wildly translated books available out there, and I've learned a whole lot more about garden and village lay-out, and about food and medicine in the Middle Ages. So even though the classes focused on the 17th and 18th centuries, there is a ton I’m going to take into my current Living History portrayals.

For research and verification purposes I’m basically using the information gathered in the workshop as a secondary source, so I can take anything Tina told us as a starting off point, but it would be good to verify, especially in my specific context. Of the new things that I learned, I am most interested in the concept of the noble woman as country pharmacist. Tina talked a lot about the fact that in the late 16th and all of the 17th century noble women were expected to keep large physic gardens from which they would make medicines, not only to administer to their families, but also to all of the people working in their households and their tenants, and surrounding villagers. I had definitely heard this concept before, Jane Austin’s noble heroines often go to visit the sick and destitute, I’ve read two novels set in medieval times that the noble women concocted and doled out medicine, but now I’m determined to find at least another secondary source that can verify the practice in England in the 15th century if not on the continent.

I want to try out almost every type of herbal concoction we made this weekend: Gillyflower water, mixes for fresh bedding, honeys, salves, teas, poultices, baths… But there are two that I want to make to use in our LH encampment this fall and going forward. We made a couple of salves this past weekend now I really want to make a salve for soothing sunburns. We’re out in the sun all day, and even though we wear big hats and reapply sunscreen, inevitably we will miss some spots, or some person. I’ve got some small green glazed jars that would be perfect for pulling out at the end of the day. Tina nicely shared a sunburn soothing recipe with me so I can make it at home, since she is a modern herbalist as well as a historian I have fair confidence for its soothing properties. First I’ll verify that they’re using salves in my particular time and place, then I’ll verify that they’re growing/using the plants, though if they would usually use the plants for a different ailment I’m not going to worry about it. I also want to make a mix for sweet smelling bedding. I’d like the folks who enter our tent to add smell to their range of experiences, and our bedding could use some herbs, I’m sure. Plus if it allows Stephen and I to sleep better on the must old bed, I’ll be delighted. Since I know herbs were strewn in the house, and packed in trunks, and scattered around I don’t need to worry about their application. I will make sure that the herbs I pick are appropriate both for our wellbeing and for historical accuracy.

How cool would it be to head from the kitchen fire with all its smells to the tent and get a whole new set of smells? Smells that would make someone from the Renaissance feel right at home. Then if those go well I might try to convince our captain that at the end of a long day an herbal foot bath (for him) might be in order…

Read this entry on entry page

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Book Review: Confederates in the Attic

When looking for books on reenacting Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horowitz, 1998 inevitably comes up. But Confederates is not a book about reenacting, it is a journalist’s look at the South and its relationship with history, specifically the Civil War. Horowitz talks about race, about the psychology of defeat, about economics and memory. I found the book a fairly uncomfortable read, but Horowitz’s subject is a fairly uncomfortable one for most Americans. I found fascinating the parts of the book that focused on different interpretations of the same history: the different experiences of black and white students, of authors and archaeologists, of rich and poor folks. Living historians experience this dichotomy all the time since we are so often caught in the middle between academic historians and the public perception of history. I also paid much closer attention to the parts of the book that focused on reenacting.

In the Introduction Horowitz writes that his boyhood interest in the Civil War was re-sparked when he met a group of “hardcore” reenactors who were acting as extras on a movie being shot just outside his home. He developed the idea for the book after joining the same group of reenactors for a weekend drilling in a cold and damp field.

He comes back to reenacting in Chapter 6, where he participates in a reenactment event of a more typical variety. At the reenactment he participates in a battle, peels vegetables with civilians and gets a pretty good picture of Civil War reenacting. A lot of the views he expresses are fairly stereotypical; but they are well articulated which makes the chapter to me a good starting off place for those of us who are looking for language to describe reenacting. He talks about hardcores, farbs and all the rest of the people in between, about the battle part of the reenactment and the civilian part around the edges, about the multiple Abraham Lincolns one might run into, about women’s roles on the outskirts of the reenactment. He encounters a lot of people who tell him they love reenacting because “life was simpler back then.” Throughout the chapter he explores the friction created by folks “playing” with a deadly serious topic, and basically ignoring the racial strife of the civil war. He captured some of his observations in the form of participant quotes:

"We're here to preserve the experience on the common soldier, North and South," said Ray Gill a gray-clad Connecticut Accountant. "I hate to call it a hobby, because it's so much more than that. We're here to find the real answers, to read between the lines in the history books, and then share our experience with spectators."

He ends up summarizing Civil War reenacting as: “a grand spectacle that glorified battlefield valor and the stoicism of civilians.” I agree that there is definitely a high quotient of spectacle in reenactment.

Reenacting shows up in several other chapters. Horowitz participates in a whirl-wind tour of Virginia sites with Civil War significance with a reenactor who insists the tour be done in garb. While Horowitz might not be terribly comfortable in the clothes himself, he is even more uncomfortable with the reactions of the public to their appearance at historic sites. As folks in costume, they get comments and stares, they also get questions and become experts just because they are dressed up. While it makes the author uncomfortable to be placed in the role of expert, his companion appears used to it, and has a routine all worked out. I think that we in the reenacting community need to come up with a proverb or an adage that warns folks who put on the clothes about what they will be expected to know.

In his chapter on Georgia (specifically Atlanta) Horowitz discovers the reenactment of fictional events when he looks at locals’ relationship with “Gone with the Wind”. He meets a professional “Scarlet” who mostly does her act for groups of Japanese tourists, and he meets the owner of “the real Tara” though there actually never was a real Tara. Anyone who has attended a Jane Austin tea or a Charles Dickens Christmas party can understand the allure of a literary history that, while based in fact, may be much more poetic than real life, and colorful, and evocative. Again, Horowitz is not a reenactor and his audience is not mainly reenactors, so he does not necessarily dwell on the connections, but they are there for those of us who see the world through a LH lens.

Horowitz also comes back to reenactment in his conclusion. He again joins in a reenactment and asks of himself and the people around him: what is the allure of the Civil War? Why this obsession? That is the question that LH folks often end up asking themselves. Horowitz does not have an answer. I don’t either, but I’m glad he asked the question. Read this entry on entry page

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

2 Great Moments from this Spring

I won an award for Best Camp Follower
This past spring I have been involved in a number of really fun Living History events. We had an all-historical set-up day, we had a cool sword master come to teach some workshops, we went back to my favorite middle school, and we attended a LH timeline event we’d never attended before. All the events were full of good friends, laughs and tons of education but two moments were very personally rewarding.

At the school we have a grand finale where we set up all our Landsknecht stuff in different stations, and the kids come around and visit, then they all sit on the hillside for an armored combat tournament, which is often their favorite part. I’ve been helping with Autumn Tree Armored Combat Company since 2002, and some of my first speaking roles at Renfaires were taking part in the armored combat demos. But it has been years since ATACC was really active, and for the most part I’ve always played assistant type roles. This year on the drive south to the school Stephen turned to me and asked if I thought I could do all of the speaking part, no prep time at all. He had to be an armored combatant, and we had not sent the script on to our usual squires, I was probably the person who knew the script almost as well as he did. So after spending all morning at my station I stood in the middle of the ring, stared up at the 600 middle schoolers and used all my projection skills to ask if they could all hear me. The answer was yes, so I launched into talking about knights, armor, swords and all the rest. I talked, the squires dressed the knights, the knights demonstrated techniques, then bashed each other about to the delight of the crowd. At the end all the kids were cheering and the knights were smiling so I gave myself a little pat on the back. It had been a long time since I had done that script, I don’t think I had ever done it in its entirety, and I managed to keep up the timing of the show, as well as be heard by the entire outdoor audience. Definitely a “go me” moment!
Stephen accepting the Best Overall Impression Award

A week and a half later we set up at the Living History Associations’s 25th annual Timeline event. We’d never been there before and had not heard a lot about the event beforehand other than that it existed. We spent the weekend doing our thing, talking to the few visitors and all the other participants. We cooked and drilled, and some of us napped, we were our usual busy selves. On Sunday we found out that there was a bit of a competition and that awards would be handed out at the end of the event. Though it had been a fun event before, now it seemed positively thrilling! What if we actually won something? Well I won’t keep you waiting, not only did our group win Best Overall Impression, I won Best Camp Follower! Afterwards, the judges told our group that all the females did such a good job it was tough to decide between us, and it is true, our Frauen are great. We all work really hard, and we work together. I think all our camp followers do a fantastic job and it was so cool to be picked as one of the best.

Now I’m all motivated to make our camp even better, our events even more educational, and to make sure that we’re all having as much fun as possible as we get ready for the fall.

Read this entry on entry page

Monday, June 20, 2011

When Myth, Fact and the Average Citizen Collide

When I heard the news about Sarah Palin getting her facts wrong about Paul Revere I heard it first from a history blog. Since I don’t watch TV, I missed most of the major hype, and read about the scandal at a much more sedate pace. It struck me even in that first reading, that while the whole story she was telling was not accurate, there were bits of fact, and bits of myth mixed up together in a way that fit into her own narrative, and it struck me that she is not all that different from the normal tourists who get the tour, and that maybe it was partially the fault of the tour guide.

The person who gave the tour, Vicar Stephen T. Ayres, has since responded here and I was right about the Palin entourage being very similar to the average tourist, “They didn't strike me as very different from the 500,000 other visitors we see each year” and even the vicar himself wonders,   “Perhaps it was too much information in too short a period of time to digest properly.”

The average citizen/tourist gets their history from a variety of sources: schooling when they are young, stories they heard growing up, media portrayals (books, news, event cartoons) and, if we are lucky, visits to historic sites where they hear from trained tour guides or enthusiastic volunteers. But the average person can only absorb so much information at a time. Add to that the fact that while that information is being absorbed, it is being processed into what the person already knows, it is being fit into a larger narrative constructed over a lifetime. When talking to the public in Living History settings I often worry about how much of what I am saying will be heard the way I mean it to be heard.

What can we do about this? Those of us who want to educate the public, and hope to better people’s understanding of life in different times and places? We can keep our narratives simple, we can mention the myths and the well known facts, and most importantly (in my opinion) we can ask questions. While most folks might be embarrassed to be asked to give a history lesson before we start our own, we can ask specific questions, ask what the visitors are interested in, ask for their own list of facts, then we can fit our talk in around those points, and into their current narrative, into the vocab words they have absorbed at various points in their lives. Hopefully in the process we will improve the accuracy and deepen the understanding of everyone we talk to.

Read this entry on entry page

Monday, June 13, 2011

Second -Class Citizen

I feel really lucky that as a female interested in Living History, all of my first experiences with Living History were very egalitarian. My first experience was in the classroom where everyone was included, no matter what, my second was at a museum where a wide variety of stories were told, and women filled a variety of roles, including leadership ones. At the renaissance faire I did not feel like a second class citizen: wenches have power, female sword slingers are sexy, and often everyone is ruled over by a queen. It has only been recently that I’ve attended the more usual type of reenactment dominated by battles, soldiers and a much more gender segregated feeling. I must say, I don’t like it one bit.

I don’t mind cooking, I like making our camp cozy and tidy, I have no interest in shooting guns or swinging swords, but I don’t like to be left on the sidelines. I don’t like knowing that in order to start up a revolutionary war unit we have to have seven male members, female members do not count. I’d like to get more involved in local 18th Century Living History. Does anybody out there know of any less gender biased 18th C events (preferably late summer) in the New Hampshire or Northern Massachusetts region?

Read this entry on entry page

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Breaking News: People are Human

A few days ago on the way home from work I was (as usual) listening to NPR. They were playing an interview with an Egyptian protester who is visiting the US and right at the end the host, Michelle Norris asked if he had learned anything during his time in New York that he will take back to Egypt. And this is how he answered:
"Well, I - and this was a very short time. I'm leaving on Wednesday, so I haven't had much time to get any insight. But I was in New York last month, actually when Osama bin Laden was assassinated. And I got a very deep insight because if I was in Egypt while this was happening and I opened the news, and I saw, you know, Americans dancing, celebrating this death and like this feeling the news all the time, so I would have been really annoyed.
But I was here in New York, and I realized there are these other people who were, you know, hit by the terrorist attack that this guy caused, and they weren't actually celebrating the death. Media was overblowing it completely.
People were going about their lives. And there many that didn't feel it was that significant. They feel that, you know, there's a lost sense of justice, people I talked to in the streets and so on. And so I don't know how to say that the insight was that the Americans are, you know, more human than the image we have of them, or New Yorkers at least."

Whole transcript here.

That last bit at the end struck me. The insight he came away with was that New Yorkers are human too. They have their daily lives, their worries, their mixed feelings, the same as people in Egypt.

When we set up our encampment at public venues, when we dress up go into schools, when we strike up conversations with ordinary folks, one of the things we are trying to do is show modern folks that the people back then, though living different lives, were human too. As Hanne I occasionally complain about life on the road with my husband the soldier, about the weather or the cookfire etc. because I am not only teaching facts about Hanne’s life, I am trying to get across that she is human and far from perfect, but possibly a bit easier to connect with (‘cause who doesn’t complain about the weather?)

Read this entry on entry page

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Book Review: The Building of The Green Valley

Is there a living history enthusiast out there who has not wished they could have their own historical manor house, castle, farm, village, etc.? Stuart Peachey has a 17th century farm, and wrote a book about the experience. The Building of The Green Valley: A Reconstruction of an Early 17th Century Rural Landscape (By Stuart Peachey, 2006, Heritage Publications) is not a really polished book, but it is a pleasant read, and for all of us history junkies it like reading our fantasies come to fruition. Stuart Peachey has been reenacting since the late 1970s and not too long into his reenacting career came into a bit of a windfall and with a group of friends bought some land in Wales on which there was the ruins of a17th century farm.

They bought it in order to have a place to do living history and reenactments and to that end they set about restoring the land, buildings, gardens, and fields to how it looked in the 17th century. The book is mostly a chronicle of the work that went into restoring the farm (or farms, really) and a chronicle of those people who invested a large part of their lives into the farm. The later chapters are guides to the research, animals, plants and infrastructure that went into the project (should one wish to attempt something like this one's self.)

One of the things that I noticed about the book is that someone (possibly Peachy himself) kept very good track of every person that contributed labor to the project. The main section of the book chronicles from 1987 until 2003 when the farm was complete enough to be used as the site for a reality TV show. All the work that was done on the site was done by volunteers. Hundreds of volunteers over more than a decade, and sometimes it seems like Peachey names them all by name. This can get a little tedious, but it also illustrates the fact that "the valley" project was very much a community project. The is politics, and personalities, there is real life. But still the project moved forward.

 And throughout the project  not a single person profited monetarily from the restoration. Everyone was content with the fact that they were building up a really cool historical setting. All the events held on the site were done with the intention to educate and possibly further invest in the site. The whole thing was done with very little money but a ton of labor. And a ton of historical research.

There is not very much info in the book on life in the 17th century, that is not the point of the book. But the amount of work that went into researching the buildings, their uses, the types of plants and animals re-introduced to the valley, and the people who lived and worked there all comes through in the stories and pictures. The book left me wanting fairly badly to visit the valley, especially during a living history event, but even more (and more dangerously) it gave me faith that a project like theirs is achievable. With enough goodwill and sweat equity, it is possible to have your own living history farm. Read this entry on entry page

Friday, May 13, 2011

It's Not a Costume

Over the past season I’ve noticed that I have a growing sensitivity to the use of the word “costume” to describe the historical clothing that I am re-creating. True, it is not the clothing that I wear on a regular basis, and only wear on special occasions; but the folks who originally designed, made, and wore the styles did not consider them special. They considered it clothing. I am not re-creating the special occasion clothing, I am trying to get as close as possible to the every-day wear.

There are certainly tons of folks dressing up in historical styles that I do consider to be wearing costumes. Folks who are clearly dressing up in something they are not used to can be considered to be “in costume”. Clothing that is made of the incorrect materials: polyester is the worst, but I consider even modern cottons to be more of a costume, and not really clothing.

I understand that the folks who say: “what a cool costume!” are trying to compliment me, I promise to take it as a compliment as long as I can say in response: “Thanks but it is not a costume. It is clothing.”

Read this entry on entry page

Thursday, April 28, 2011

On Medievalists

A few weeks ago I attended the Medieval and Renaissance Forum at Plymouth State University, It was an incredibly interesting experience. The Forum is an academic conference, most of the presenters were English professors who specialize in Chaucer, Middle English, some fairly obscure old texts. I was there as a volunteer, I assisted the organizer and her assistant by running errands, staffing the registration desk, and by looking pretty in my kick a$$ landsknecht clothing during the Medieval Feast on Saturday evening. I also got to meet a ton of cool medievalists, attend some fascinating sessions, and hear a totally titillating talk on sex in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

But, I have a confession to make: I have never studied Medieval or Renaissance European history in a classroom setting. Well, not since about the 4th grade. I have never read Canterbury Tales, or Beowulf, I’m scared to death of Dante, Dunn, and Milton. I have quite a bit of academic learning in American History, but I came to the Middle Ages once I was out of college, so I’m practically completely self-taught when it comes to my current area of expertise. I’ve done a lot of studying, I know how to do my own research and can slog my way through most academic papers. So while I was not lost in any of the sessions that I attended, I did feel bad when any of the attendees would ask me where I taught or if I was a student.

Despite feeling like an interloper I had a great time! So many of the people giving talks at the conference were energetic young professors. They were all a bit on the nerdy side; they made Chaucer jokes, and laughed at Chaucer jokes. Some of them did not have the highest level of social skills, which made me feel right at home. I had great conversations about reenacting and Living History, about clothing and textiles, about sources and resources. I got some good book recommendations, and I am a lot less scared of Milton. It made me really want to take some college courses in Chaucer and the like, because I’d get so much more out of a class than I would trying to read it on my own. Maybe I’ll have to try to arrange something for a summer course or the fall semester.

One thing that I’ve taken away from my attendance at the forum is that just because I do not know about a medieval text on some subject or another, does not mean that it does not exist. The disconnect between academic scholarship and what information is available to me as a non-scholar is an even wider chasm that I had suspected. I have done quite a few database searches at college libraries for articles and research on Medieval and Renaissance Germany, and I have not come up with a whole lot. But I met two scholars studying Germany at this tiny conference in Northern NH. They both have published themselves, and have extensive bibliographes, of books and articles I have never heard of! When I got back I went into the library of the college where I work intending to talk to a reference librarian about finding some of these sources that had eluded me thus far and hopefully picking up some tips for future searches I may run. But it is finals time, and I am not the highest priority. I’ll try back in the summer when they’re bored.

I was also amazed that no one asked me if I was a member of the SCA. When I told people that I did Living History, that I was a reenactor and dressed up to perform daily tasks and learn about the timeperiod by doing, most people were politely interested and asked about the sorts of venues in which I did these things, about the other folks who did it with me, about the types of research I was doing. I got very little of the stereotypical responses to reenacting. It was refreshing, though it did perpetuate some of the stereotypes I have of sheltered academics.
After all the presentation sessions and hands-on workshops (most of which were lead by Plymouth State professors or the Medieval and Renaissance Society (PSU’s undergraduate club))there was a “Medieval Feast” on Saturday night were “costumes were encouraged.” Other than the undergrad club (who were all dressed up in various levels of in-authenticity) there were only about 8 attendees total who were dressed up in anything resembling a costume. Two of the female attendees had polyester satin and velvet costumes, they were very much costumes, but fairly well done. One woman had an outfit that looked like it had come from the costume closet of a theater and one male attendee was in a velvet Cote, but unfortunately he was wearing women’s pantyhose. There was a pair of reenactors, a father and daughter I think who had found out about the feast online and wore renfaire standard garb, then I had dressed the organizer in my blue linen “Medieval” dress which is not totally period in the lacing, but with a fairly standard basic shape. I wore my Kampfrau get-up which I have been improving in the three years since I made it with a lot of additional accessories, hats and undergarments. I turned quite a few heads.

The most surprising development for me was at the end when the conference organizer, who I had been helping all weekend proclaimed to the table where we were sitting at the feast that I was now her go-to person for historical information. I knew more about daily life in the Middle Ages and Renaisasance than she did, since she was an English professor so she mostly knew about Chaucer, Shakespeare and other literary sources. I’m not sure that was an entirely true statement, but it was flattering and made me feel good about the studying and learning I’ve done on my own even if it also spurred me to do a ton more research. Read this entry on entry page

Monday, April 25, 2011

Inspiration - Colby Junior College Yearbooks

I work in the Alumni Office of a small college in New Hampshire. My job does not normally have a lot to do with my obsession with history, but sometimes it does, and those times can be really magic. Last fall I got to pick up a visiting alum at the airport, she had gone to school just after World War II and told great stories the whole drive north.
Colby Jr. students during WWII

I occasionally get to work with the school’s archives, tracking down photos, or looking up facts about the college from way back. The archivist is really friendly and loves to talk about the history of the school, and the newest photos they are digitizing, or the latest bunch of letters that have come in. Last year I was tasked with making a valentine card for all the alumni who are married to other alumni, so I asked the archivist if there was anything valentine related in the archives. She found a charming 19th Century card that was a lovely patterned orange and red with a poem in the middle. It was a bit cheesy, but Valentines Day is a bit cheesy and I got to explain inside the card that it came from the archives, which was a nice college connection.

There is a long-standing college tradition, one day in the fall the president rings the college bell and cancels class so that everyone can go climb the local mountain. Mountain Day goes back fairly far and I love the photos from the 1890s and early 1900s of the sporting types exploring the great outdoors. Then there are the photos of May Day, where the ladies of Colby Junior College dress in white and dance barefoot in the fields.

May Day 1949
Occasionally the Alumni Office gets an inquiry that can only be answered by going back to the old yearbooks. In January I got a call from a gentleman who was trying to locate his wife’s college roommate. His wife had just passed away and he wanted to contact her roommate, who had been the maid of honor at their wedding, and had been close for many years after college. He could not remember the roomate’s name, only her college nickname! Though we have a lot of alumni information in a database, it is not an easily searchable database, and not all the nickname information is in there, so the easiest way to find her was to go to the yearbooks. I found his wife’s record in our database, which gave me the class year: 1949, then I went to the yearbooks. I am totally a braids and knee socks kind of gal, and I admit by the time I was through turning every page of that yearbook, I was wondering how hard it would be to make a Colby Junior College blazer.

Read this entry on entry page

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Remembering Diana Wynne Jones

A few days ago a friend let me know that my favorite author, Diana Wynne Jones had passed away. I’m actually pretty devastated by this. No, this has nothing to do with Living History, but I felt I could not let this moment go by without telling everyone about this amazing author.

I came across my first novel by Diana Wynne Jones on the bargain table at a bookstore near my grandmother’s house. That day I purchased Jones’ Charmed Life, Still life with Wings, by Susan Kohn Green and Ashar of Quarious by Clare Cooper. I read them all voraciously, and have re-read them since. The one I re-read the most times was Charmed Life. Then a few years later I was browsing the little shelf of paperbacks that the 10th grade English teacher kept in his classroom. I picked up a Tale of Time City without realizing it was by the same author as Charmed Life. I devoured the book, I loved the characters, the story, the intense sense of danger mixed with amazing amounts of fun. I read it again. I read it again and kind of forgot to return it. I’m sorry Mr. Brandt.

A few years later I was working at a bookstore and playing around in the Books-In-Print database and decided to type in Tale of Time City to see what else I could find. This was in a time before wide internet availability, before Amazon, before Google. I was amazed to learn that the person who wrote Time City had also written Charmed Life, and many other books too! In fact, the store I was working in had copies of all of the books in the Dalemark Quartet. I think I hid them on the shelves until I could purchase them all. These books were a little different, a little more melancholy with a sense of the historic about them, but as a high school senior that suited me fine.

Over the next bunch of years I collected as many Diana Wynne Jones books as I could find. When came along I even splurged on shipping and got some of the ones I could not find in the US. Many years later while living on Cape Cod and working at a different bookstore I found Deep Secret. It is to this day my favorite book. When my brother came to visit me, I asked if I could read aloud to him. I knew it was a strange request, he was a teenager, and we only had a few days before he went home, but he agreed and I started in on Deep Secret. Once we started, we did almost nothing else for days. He’d read sometimes, but most of the time he let me read, and I so enjoyed every minute. We actually did not finish the book until we were in the parking lot where were met up with Mom so she could pick him up and bring him home, but it was so worth it. I hear he has since read it aloud to a few female friends, lucky girls.

Not too long after, the Miyazaki movie version of Howl’s Moving Castle came out. There was only one theater on Cape Cod that played it, I think there were only three people in the theater the night I saw it. The main parts of the plot were there, but the characters were Miyazaki characters. They were not flawed yet lovable, they were not funny. The magic was so predictable, and not breathtakingly original like the book.  But I guess for a book adaptation it was not bad, it meant that the bookstore I was working at stocked more of her books, and I was able to pick up a few more of the tough to find titles.

When I met Stephen, one of the first gifts I gave him was a copy of Dogsbody. At the time he might not have realized that I was sharing with him a deep love in my life, but since then he’s figured it out. On the nights that we are laying in bed reading and I start hooting uncontrollably, or if he has to rush into the living room where I’ve been quietly reading for hours because he’s worried I’m hyperventilating, he inevitably discovers me reading a Diana Wynne Jones book. LOL has become a horrible cliché, but her books truly do make me gasp and roll about, even on the 2nd reading. Even on the 10th. I LOVE her sense of humor, it jumps right off the page at me.

I took Conrad’s Fate and Merlin Conspiracy with me to Ireland on vacation. When Stephen bought us both kindles, I got most of the Chrestomanci series in electronic format so I could always carry them around with me. During my first Christmas with nieces and nephews, I got the oldest girl copies of the first 4 Chrestomanci books, and let her know there were plenty more if she wanted them. In times of great stress I will almost inevitably curl up with a Diana Wynne Jones book, one that I have read 6 or 7 times, and am planning to read at least 100 more.

I know I will always have her books, that they will still comfort me and delight me, but it still makes me so very sad to think that she is gone from this world.

Neil Gaiman's Tribute
Emma Bull's Tribute
The School Library Journal

I also recommend typing "remembering Diana Wynne Jones" into Google. She may not have been incredibly well known, but by those who know her works she is extremely loved.

Read this entry on entry page