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