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…

1 comment:

  1. The diary of an Elizabethan lady; Margaret Hoby, (1571-1633)is the book you want, for the day to day routines and occupations of the time. She does mention working in the still room, dispensing herbal cures to the poor people etc.