Sunday, 19 May 2013

Historical Re-enactment: how I got started

Over on the Living History Forum there's a discussion of how various re-enactors got started with this - well, more than a hobby and more like a way of life. For some it seems to be a fascination with swords, or the Sharpe novels, or playing on World War Two tanks as a child.

For me, it started with a Viking on a bus.

I was eleven, and on holiday on the Isle of Man. Every year, they hold a big Viking Festival in Peel, complete with longship races across the bay (yes, they have more than one!). My family were staying in Douglas, so we got the bus across the island to see what it was all about.
Sitting on the bus in front of me, so close I could have reached out to touch the fur on his collar if I'd dared, was one of the Vikings, in his costume, with his shield and weapons.
Looking back on it, his kit owed more to Hollywood than historical research, but I was hooked. I wanted to be the sort of person who dressed in costume, on the bus.

When I got to university, studying history and archaeology, the only re-enactment group on campus was the Sealed Knot. They were a division of Gilbert de Haughton's regiment, Royalists, and I went to pike drill behind the halls of residence, and climbed up Pendle Hill on Hallowe'en looking for witches to burn, and shouted "The King and the Cause" at the Battle of Nantwich - which terrified the life out of me. It was a big battle, with cannon, and there I was, in the middle of a pike push (which is like a rugby scrum with added sixteen foot long poles), with my helmet askew.
The following year, I joined the Gilbert and Sullivan society instead, and became a fairy in Iolanthe!

There was still something about re-enactment that attracted me, though, so when the grandson of the lady I was working for was going through problems at school, I suggested re-enactment to get him away from the computer and out in the open air, with interesting people and things to do. He was interested in history, so that was a good start. I found a local medieval group, brushed up my rusty sewing skills to make the kit, and off we went.
The lad dropped out after a season or so, having discovered an interest in archery, which he could do with his grandad locally, and I stayed on, learned spinning and weaving, and basic swordplay, to go with my knowledge of the history and archaeology of the period - and I've been doing it ever since.

And whenever I get the chance, I travel on the bus or train in kit. You never know when an impressionable child might be watching, and be inspired for life!

Thursday, 16 May 2013


When I was at Llancaiach Fawr the other day, the young man taking the part of the music master played a bowed psaltery for us as he explained about his job of providing music in the house and teaching the daughters of the Colonel. It's a fascinating instrument, triangular, with each string running a bit further up the middle of the instrument to the top, and each string tuned to a single note. It sounds, and looks, wonderfully medieval. I had a vision of myself, sitting on camp when I was tired of spinning, making music by the fire.
When I got home, I did a little research, and found to my disappointment that the bowed psaltery was invented by a German school teacher in 1890.
However, down in the kitchen of the manor house, they had another sort of psaltery on display. This one was known as a "pig's snout" psaltery, and the strings were plucked with a feather or the fingers - and that one really was medieval. There were pictures from medieval manuscripts of people playing them. I had a listen to one being played on YouTube, and it sounds very like a harp - in fact, I saw it referred to as a lap harp as I looked further.
This looked far more promising.
Then I started looking at websites for musical instrument makers. Psalteries count as folk music instruments, and seem to be quite popular in the United States. They also start at a rock bottom price of around £80, plus the postage and packing from the States, which is quite high.
I am not a musician. One of the things that attracted me to the idea of a bowed psaltery is that everyone said that it was extremely easy to play. There is no point in me spending out in excess of £100 for something which will look nice on the shelf, but which I will not be able to get the best use out of as an instrument.
However, similar instruments are marketed as toys. Obviously, they don't produce the same quality of sound, but all I want is something to plunk away at by the campfire - and some of the toy psalteries come with tunes printed out on a piece of paper that you push under the strings, and you follow the dots to make the tune.
I can do that.
It should arrive next week.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Coach Trip to the Past

It's a pity it was such a wet and dismal day - it would have been lovely to stroll around the 17thC formal garden at the home of the fourth richest man in Wales (and the richest in Glamorgan). Colonel Pritchard and his wife Mary Mansell owned two thirds of Glamorgan between them, and they lived at Llancaiach Fawr, a fortified manor house which has been restored to its appearance in 1645, when King Charles came to visit.
The guides, all in period costume and speaking period English, are superb. We saw the music master, head groom, under dairymaid and the Colonel's agent and surveyor, but there are other guides who play different parts as well. The Colonel's agent particularly impressed me - having discovered our party were from Hay-on-Wye, he said that it was probably best that we were away from home, as the Scottish Covenanters had been seen marching on Hereford! And having seen the music master demonstrate, I now have a desire to attempt to play the psaltery!
From the head groom, we learned of the usefulness of pigeons in sending messages from besieged houses, and why so many manor houses built new, wider staircases around 1620 (the big staircase in this manor house was built in 1628).* We also discovered how the news of fashions in London travelled around the country - with the drovers, who also carried all sorts of news, and were welcome everywhere as they were known to be of good character.
This was a house with 11 staircases, some of them blocked up when they went out of use, and a great luxury - indoor privies, in a latrine tower which dropped the effluent into a stream that runs below the house.
We saw the bedroom of the lady of the house, where she would entertain her "chat-mates" with music and gossip, and the master's bedroom, where he would conduct late night business (presumably having just wined and dined his associates in the grand hall and withdrawing room beyond). One of our party embarrassed the guide by asking where the master and the lady got together to make babies, if they had separate bedrooms! (It may have been revenge for him suggesting that women had smaller brains earlier!)

The Master Bedroom

They have a website at

*the answer being - women's fashions! Skirts for fashionable ladies became too wide to fit easily up the narrow medieval staircases that had been in use up till then!

Saturday, 11 May 2013


Herefordshire County Council have just announced massive cuts (75%!) to their library and museum services. The powers that be think that libraries, museums and other cultural activities are luxuries to be given up when they run out of money. The reasons why they have run out of money are not the point here - the point I want to make is that libraries are not a luxury. They are a necessity for a civilised country - and they are rather more than a random collection of books looked after by volunteers, which seems to be the model that the county councillors favour (if they favour anything at all).

I spent a large part of my childhood in libraries. I read far more books than my family could possibly have bought for me to read - and I watched every episode of Jackanory for years. In fact, I spent so much time in my local branch library that I became a volunteer there, at the age of eleven. I had my own coat hook in the staff cubby hole, got to stamp the books, and they even tried to teach me the Dewey decimal system! (Unsuccessfully, I fear).
We used to spend all the school holidays in a caravan by the sea, and I joined the local library there (we had to argue a bit - the librarian on duty said that I wouldn't make good use of my tickets, and I'd get bored of coming in, but I soon proved her wrong).
My ambition was to be a librarian, and my favourite places in all the world were full of books.

Then I discovered archaeology, and I never did get to do any librarianship training, but I have worked in a library.

When I was working on a dig in London, and having a fairly miserable time living in temporary accommodation, the local library there was a lifeline. I was living away from home, pretty much camping out for the duration of the dig, so I couldn't bring any of my own books with me.

When I was researching local history (a local group wrote a book for the Millennium called Nobody Had Heard of Hay), I used the local library.
When I was reading theology for fun, I used the local library.
When I was unemployed, and had time to kill before I caught the bus back from town, I used the local library.

These days, computers have moved into libraries. I have occasionally used a library computer (though that phrase always makes me think of Majel Barrett's voice giving information on the original Star Trek), but there are people who rely on the library for a connection to the internet - and use of the internet is essential now for so much, including claiming benefits and applying for jobs.

Libraries are not a luxury.

“A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life-raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. On a cold rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen instead” - Caitlin Moran

“There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration. ” ~Andrew Carnegie

“Libraries are our future – to close them would be a terrible, terrible mistake – it would be stealing from the future to pay for today which is what got us into the mess we’re in now.”
Neil Gaiman - winner of the Carngie Medal 2010

Thursday, 9 May 2013

The Descent of Woman

According to this morning's 'i', a group of scientists, academics and medics are coming together today to discuss the Aquatic Ape theory of human evolution. It's a theory that has been marginalised and ignored over the years, and the last time it was discussed seriously was at a conference in 1992.
In spite of this, it's a theory that just won't go away.
When I was studying archaeology at university, I came across a book called The Descent of Woman, by Elaine Morgan, which set out the Aquatic Ape theory, and when I read it I saw that it made a lot of sense.
The standard theory at the time, and one which still carried a lot of weight today, was that the apes came down from the trees and spread out across the African savannah, where Man the Mighty Hunter learned to run fast on two legs and chuck spears at antelopes.
This is all very well, but what were the apes doing while they were learning to run fast? And how did they get the hand/eye co-ordination to be able to chuck spears at antelopes? I knew about Lucy, the little hominid who could walk upright - but certainly not run fast, since her hips weren't that well adapted at that point. As Elaine Morgan points out, if our hominid ancestors who looked like Lucy were venturing out onto the savannah, they were becoming a leopard's dinner rather than Man the Mighty Hunter.
It's a lot easier to walk upright if you have some support, such as wading in water, and a reason to go into the water, such as lots of slow-moving (or stationary) food, like shellfish or crabs. Proboscis monkeys do this in the swamps today. We are the only great ape to enjoy swimming. We have subcutaneous fat and very little body hair, like marine mammals. We cry, like marine mammals, and our larynx is adapted so that we can hold our breaths - and this change meant that we could develop language, unlike any other great ape.
And when we waded out of the swamps, we were fully bipedal, and had bigger brains (from eating all those fish) and were able to go out across the savannah to chuck spears at antelopes.
Elaine Morgan was writing in 1972, and though she was popularising a theory first posited by Sir Alister Hardy, she herself wasn't a scientist. She was a good writer, though, and she took each of the points where we differ from gorillas and chimps one by one, and gave a sensible explanation - which some of the standard theories didn't even attempt. Sir Alister was intending to write a more scholarly version of the theory, but in the end it never happened.
Sir David Attenborough will be at the conference that started today, and if he's interested enough to take it seriously, maybe there is something in it after all?

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Medieval and Canal Fair

When I was eleven years old, I went on holiday with my family to the Isle of Man, and we made the bus journey across the island from Douglas to Peel to see the Viking Festival. Sitting on the bus just in front of me, close enough that I could have reached out and touched his fur collar, was one of the Vikings. Looking back on it, the kit he was wearing owed more to Hollywood than history, but I was hooked. I wanted to grow up and do that!
So these days, I travel on buses and trains in kit as much as I can. You never know who will be inspired.

This weekend, I was able to go to Droitwich Spa for one day of a three day show. As it's Bank Holiday, and a busy time in the shop, I couldn't take any more time off. I went to Droitwich Spa last year, and loved it. The show was put on in a little park next to the canal, and I got chatting to some lovely Indian grannies, who saw the group's quernstone and remembered grinding corn like that in their villages back in India when they were young. There were no Indian grannies this year, but three young boys took over the quernstone, and made so much flour that they ended up making flat breads with it, and having them cooked over our open fire.
Over on the other side of the tref (the modern Welsh word for town, which we use to describe our encampment), people were trying on chainmail and handling weapons. Re-enactment weapons are exactly like medieval weapons, apart from being blunted. When we re-enact battles we don't actually want to kill the people on the other side - but we are still holding swords which are basically big lumps of steel, or swinging axes and spears, so we have to be trained to do it as safely as possible. We like to give members of the public an up-close view of the weapons that were used, so they can feel the weight, and understand more of what it felt like to fight. Callum the Callous also does a very good talk on the different sorts of arrow heads available.
I was doing spinning and weaving and making cords with a lucet, and my new venture of bringing along examples of natural dyes and talking about them was a great success. Talking about what people wore - and how long it took to make cloth - also gets people thinking about what it was like to live in the Middle Ages. I got several people commenting on how good it was that there were some people who were carrying on the old traditions - just in case civilisation as we know it fell apart, in which case we would need people who knew how to do things in the old ways. I even sold one lady a lucet. She thought cord making would be something relaxing to do while she was watching telly in the evenings.

The rest of the fair (there was another medieval group at the far end, but they seemed to be from the Wars of the Roses period, about a hundred years after us) was made up mostly of local groups and canal related groups. There were some very small Scouts - I'm sure they had to be eleven to join when I was young, but these seemed younger than that. There were charities relating to different waterways, as well as ferret racing (they were raising money for animal charities). Those were some very laid back ferrets, who loved being handled between races!
There was also a big real ale tent - I had a very nice pint from there while we were putting the tents up, but we don't drink alcohol during shows, and I had to disguise my Fairtrade milky coffee in a wooden goblet!
One tent was publicising the Canal and River Trust. They were set up quite recently when British Waterways stopped having responsibility for maintaining the rivers and canals as a cost-cutting measure by the government, leaving the work in the hands of volunteers and local charities. The young man who was manning the stall feared a return to the 1960s, when a lot of canals were derelict because of lack of maintenance. A lot of them have been brought back into use, but without regular maintenance they could be lost again.

I had to pack up and leave the show early, so I came back on the train and bus in my medieval dress - though I did take my sharp eating knife off my belt (it's surprising how useful a knife can be on camp, when you would never think of carrying one around in daily life!). I also removed my medieval head-dress, a hairnet which is held in place by a length of silk under my chin, and with a linen 'crown' topping it off - this is the fashion that Gerald of Wales described for the Welshwomen of his day, and it also means I am portraying a respectable woman. Another lady of the group, Rowan, always goes bareheaded, and takes great delight in pointing out to the public that she is not a respectable woman!

Here I am in last year's costume, a linen dress with a wool over-tunic. This year I have a new black wool dress with 'angel' sleeves. I embroidered round the neck and the edges of the sleeves with the brightest colours I could find in my sewing box - red, yellow and green - only for one of the ladies at the local Stitch and Bitch group to exclaim; "Rasta colours!"