I don’t live in the past—I only visit—and so can you!

Archive for January, 2013

The Enchanted Land–in a Warm Dry Hotel

Almost ready for my favorite event of the year! Need to gather clothes==very simple–and carry a couple boxes out to the car. And then four days of partying with people who have a clew! Supposed to be bigger than ever this year, and you can easily join in if you are in the Chicagoland area!  Hope to see ya there!

See what will be offered!

(We still call it ReenactorFest, and Mike is offering t-shirts that say that very thing this year!)


This week, we turn to Julie Watkins, who wrote this a while ago at my behest when I heard her talking about it to MoPs at an event. This is reprinted from New Member Times 28:

When I got into the NWTA, they were talking about the culture and the influences, and I had encountered very little of this in the SCA. In the NWTA, the default was the ordinary everyday person. That was more comfortable for me and strongly influenced my appreciation of living history. Quite frankly, everyday life and its aspects fascinated me. For example, I learned about the dance-master, someone very important in elite households: he was not teaching you how to dance; he was teaching you how to behave. How someone comported himself indicated what class he is a member of. Someone in those days who came to a new city and tried to pass himself off—for whatever reason—as a member of the nobility had to move like a noble. That had never come up in the SCA, and I realized that this might have been a reason the upper-class medieval costuming made me feel a little weird. I was slouching and behaving in a common-folk way not moving in a graceful noble manner, not holding myself upright at attention because my dress indicated that I was better than most of the rest of the people. Things began to fall into place.

Because being a member of the medieval upper class means that you had to move and act like a member of the upper class of the Middle Ages and not like someone from the twentieth-century wearing a fancy costume. Until you point this out, this point escapes many in the modern world, but it is less encountered in most places because too many people are trying to go egalitarian or, in many cases, frugal, which means cheap in too many cases. The wearer is trying to make an adequate attempt as cheaply as possible, without realizing, as Beth Gilgun points out, the proof is in te details, and no one is paying much attention to any details at all!

In modern life, I’m kind of a slob who always wants to be relaxed. I realized that I never wanted to project the image that I knew better, that I was superior, that I was in charge. I don’t want to be in charge in modern life, and I certainly did not want to be in charge in reenacted culture. I wanted—and still want—to relax and to have fun. So if I was in an upper-class costume, I was going to look like a poser because I was not going to be standing right or moving right or acting right! I get frazzled too easily and want to be comfortable doing what I love to do.

I realized that it did not make me feel special to wear a nice dress, or to use a special title or to wear a fancy coronet. In fact, whenever I had been in front of a large number of people, I got stage fright! It just wasn’t important to me, and I had much more fun talking one on one on the ropeline. I found that I preferred talking about everyday life instead of about how I longed to live in a more “romantic” time. In fact, I get the feeling that I wouldn’t have liked to live back then!

I never plunged into the arts practiced in the NWTA. Instead, I got into the costumes. I had to make accurate clothing for both my husband and myself. With an understanding of what needed to be done in creating an accurate costume, I approached it on a different level than I had approached the clothing in the SCA. As I look back, I think I was somehow gratified that I was re-creating middle-class dress. Subconsciously, I was getting closer to what the clothing would have really been like.

It would be unfair to claim that there were no politics in the NWTA, just that it was totally different than the politics encountered in the SCA. NWTA politics seemed to center on whose interpretation of history culture was correct. They were having what seemed to me to be silly arguments about how a reenactor should one thing and not the other. The NWTA was, at that time, portrayed exclusively in its by-laws as a military reenactment group, even though there were civilian members and the by-laws were later amended to specifically include them. I thought, “Well, you can’t treat civilian clothing the same way that you treat military uniforms. Variations that would be unthinkable among members of a military unit would be expected in the civilian portrayal.” When it became apparent that the authorities had no idea what life was like for vendors and were trying to lecture them on what they had to produce—and keep in mind that my husband was then commander of the NWTA’s sutler unit—I began to write down what was required for a civilian portrayal.

Actually, I started with a bare-bones outline, and I asked a dozen people who had strong opinions to review it, to correct it and to augment it. I listened to what they had to say, and when I had incorporated and made a sense of all the changes, I sent it out again. This kept on until there was a certain amount of agreement, I was very happy that I was able to take so many responses and to come up with a broad overview that is apparently still useful!


This week, we turn to Julie Watkins, who wrote this a while ago at my behest when I heard her talking about it to MoPs at an event. This is reprinted from New Member Times 28:

Almost forty years ago, when I was starting in the SCA, we called it medieval reenacting. Until I got into RevWar reenacting in the NWTA, I had no idea that what we were doing was not reenacting. In fact, it was barely living history—or whatever term we used back then to describe the re-creation of the past. What I was doing in the SCA was not really portraying anything historical. The SCA was building its own “medievalish” subculture. I was doing generic medieval, with a little bit applied technology along the edges. This was because I was an artist, interested in calligraphy and the design of illuminated manuscripts. The combat people were creating a new sport.

One thing about the SCA is that the default status of any member is the nobility. You can choose to portray a lesser class, but almost no one takes that decision seriously. SCA is an organization where you might perform a rather lower-class task as you sit there in your best purple costume and a coronet. In that kind of context, any sense of historical reality is tenuous when it is there at all. I realized later—after I encountered reenacting of ordinary, lower class life—that the pretensions and logical inconsistencies made me unsatisfied. I was trying to portray someone that I was not, and I never even realized how far short my portrayal fell. Most of the designs put in front of me and most of what the members were trying to do were a generic medieval, taken from upper-class manuscript illumination if not from Hollywood or children’s books. People were trying to sew clothes using fabrics that were too cheap and too inappropriate, using too little fabric to do the job because using the right amount would have been too expensive and incorporating parts of modern culture because the wearer did not recognize anything else as attractive. That included me. I didn’t like the darts and the curves, and I see now that I didn’t do a very good job. I had dresses made of black polyester, with fake fur and a modern pattern.

Those dresses fit in perfectly with much of what surrounded me. The situation might be, in many cases, much less so today, but there is still no guiding officer who can tell you to do it right, and even when this item here is very accurate, the maker feels no compunction about having that item there being—to use a term almost unknown in the SCA but virtually ubiquitous in most living-history organizations—farby.

At the time, I was interested in calligraphy and illumination. But the way that I was studying and approaching the subject, I was approaching it in a very broad manner. I was not trying to think and to behave like a scribe of a certain era. I was a modern artist who was trying to acquire a disparate but wide range of historical knowledge to create scrolls, adapting historical designs (meant for decorating books of many pages) for SCA court use (single sheets).

For people unfamiliar with the SCA, the concept of SCA scrolls was one of the most prominent ways that Scadians have created a new subculture that is only tangentially history. In period, I discovered, the scrolls that came with rank were not considered pieces of valuable artwork. They weren’t illustrated or visually special. The important thing was the lands that they conveyed. If you did something good, the king took lands away from someone he disliked and gave them to you; you appreciated them, and you were an obedient vassal—killing the people that the king wanted you to kill—because you didn’t want to have the lands taken from you.

The SCA kings can’t give anyone a paying job. He can’t give them money. He certainly can’t give them land. The award scroll developed into what you get that is important and valuable, especially if you’re in a kingdom—a bureaucratic and geographic subdivision of the corporation—that does not use pre-printed scroll blanks. I think that the politics for giving out awards in the SCA court culture is the same as the politics that would have been back then, to reward someone’s faithful service. If you do something for me, I’ll do something for you, and so forth.

Because the scrolls have a totally different purpose than historical scrolls might have had, they were much more ornate and ornamented. In the Middle Ages, what were flashy and illuminated and showed that you were important were the illuminated manuscripts that you commissioned, paid for and displayed. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, you’d have lots of illustrations and decorations scattered through the whole volume. SCA scribes often tried to get ideas from these efforts and then made a conscious or unconscious attempt to condense the important illustrations that might have been in a full codex down to a single sheet.

The words are important, but the border designs are what attract praise and glowing comments. Most of the time, when a modern artist sees an SCA scroll, that artist is flabbergasted by the quality of the artwork that goes into the border and see the calligraphy itself and go yuck. And when they learn that artists are doing gratis an effort that would be worth in their opinion several hundred or a thousand dollars, these artists—who are doing commercial artistic endeavors that are calculated to bring them the highest payment—go “you guys are crazy” and wander away. When academics see this, they often just shake their heads at the lack of understanding that created it, even if they are in awe of the creation—as a modern piece of artwork incorporating medieval motifs—itself.

I never considered any of this when I was caught up in the SCA. It never occurred to me to even think about that. Instead of caring what the effort said about the culture we were re-creating, I was more concerned interacting with other court scribes, trying to figure out why my speed and accuracy got worse instead of better, matching a scroll design with the recipient — I was more concerned with the sub-culture than with the idea of history—Living or otherwise.


“Farb” is the term used in living history to describe anything that is not historically accurate. It was originally used in American Civil War reenacting in the 1960s, but there is debate about how the term came about. There re several good articles talking about it, including Jonah Begone’s “Who was the Founding Father of Farb?”  and Kathleen Smith’s “An Introduction to Farby.”

In the decades since its origin, it has proven its worth and been adopted by most other eras of living history in the United States and abroad, and we became acquainted with the term in the 1980s in RevWar reenacting and have used it in Micel Folcland since the founding.

Farb is, in many cases, anti-educational. As Smith notes: “Can you choose a book by its cover? Do first impressions really matter? Hard-core…reenactors will answer: you can and they do. Reenactors, regardless of what period they choose to reenact, have to be very mindful of how they are perceived, not only by the public, but by their fellow reenactors as well.” However, in another sense, farb can be very educational. It can teach the reenactor what not to create, wear or approve.

What we have discovered is that compiling instances and cases of farb as a scrap book—called the Bok of Pharb—can be an illuminating experience for a viewer. With that in mind, we have compiled a Book of Farb, in which we have assembled photographs that are readily available on the internet that exemplify what the member should avoid. A good many are illustrations taken from such festivities as Up Helly Aa  that make no pretense of being accurate, from LARP organizations, whose accuracy is not required and when it occurs is merely incidental, and, most disturbingly, from societies which brag about their accuracy but whose standards fall sadly short.

It should be noted and understood in this last example that farbiness is not permanent by any means. Accuracy in living history is an evolutionary matter. As people learn more, their level of farbiness can diminish. It is not expected that anyone is perfect (especially at the beginning of their living-history experience) or that what was considered normal at one point will later be avoided. It is expected that a reenactor—a good reenactor at least—will not backslide and go from a good to a more farby interpretation. Because of this, the faces of the individuals are blacked out; we are not trying to castigate the individual and full realize—even expect—that this individual will get better in the future. As if to prove this point beyond all doubt, we have included photos from our own reenactments, showing what is wrong and what has now been corrected!

Some of the farbiness is obvious. Some of it is overwhelming. Some might be just one anachronism in the midst of everything else that is accurate. Some of the inaccuracies are very subtle, The persons who are looking at it must think and must use what they have learned in their own impressions. And hopefully, they will return to their accumulation of kit with a new wisdom and perspective.

I should not here that farbiness, especially for our era, is not universal. Interpretations might differ and still be legitimate, and the interpretation might be incorrect for what our society’s regulations call for, while they are legitimate for those of another society. If you or your society assembles a Book of Farb, you should no only make certain that it follows your society’s accuracy regs but not apologize for its interpretation!

While the accumulation of a Book of Farb is, unfortunately, quite easy and educational, it might be seen as negative. For that reason, we have accumulated a second volume, a collection of correct interpretations. It is called, in our instance, What Dreams are Made Of (a reference to one of my favorite Humphrey Bogart films). Its compilation was much more difficult, to be certain, but the result is much happier and affirmative. Faces are not blacked out, of course, and we hope that seeing what is possible will encourage and guide readers, not discourage them with thoughts that they will never be good! Especially because, if they are dedicated enough, they no doubt will be!

While not dealing specifically with accumulating examples of what is wrong and what is right in historical reenacting, Kelsey at “Historically Speaking” has written a very thought-provoking essay on “Things I Wish Reenactors Would Stop/Start Doing.” While I do not agree with everything she says, I agree with a lot and appreciate everything that she says. You might as well!