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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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