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

IN LOVE WITH EVERYDAY LIFE IN THE PAST Part 2

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!

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