Wednesday, October 26, 2005

More Book Talk

For readers in the Flint area, check out the Flint Public Library Book Sale this week, which has three more days to run, Thursday 6-8:30 pm, Friday 11 am-3 pm and Saturday 10 am-5 pm. Prices go down on Friday and Saturday. A huge sale with lots of good stuff, both library discards and donations.

(Yes, I already got the best stuff. But I might have missed something. It's conceivable - I 'm feeling under the weather, so my infamous book-finding sense may have flickered once or twice.)

As Melisande was discussing on her blog, Citadel of Stars (listed in the links to the left), we spent the weekend in Traverse City. She described all the wonderful food, so I'll mention the books. I bought a nice history - Richard II and the Revolution of 1399 by Michael Bennett on sale - the sort of thing one couldn't quite afford if not on sale. (Horizon Books on Front Street has a huge and very sophisticated sale section in the basement.)

But my real find was a huge oversized volume from Taschen, the bargain art book people, Masterpieces of Illumination by Ingo F. Walther and Norbert Wolf. The volume surveys, describes and selects beautifully reproduced miniatures or full-page photos from major illuminated manuscripts from 400 to 1600.

I saw it when I was rather tired the night we got there and it didn't really register at first, then I said to myself "Hey, dummy! You collect books on illumination, right? Check that puppy out!" Yeah, I talk to myself like that, baby. Not out loud. Might scare people.

The volume was shrink-wrapped, immaculate, and on sale for $25, allegedly down from $200. I don't know whether it was the last copy or whether $200 was perhaps a reference to the brand-new price in 2001. Probably the latter - this volume was reprinted in 2005. But it was of a size to suggest that it probably was that sort of genuine bargain, and I trust Taschen - I was certain the book was filled with high-quality reproductions on glossy paper.

When I got it back to the hotel room, I was not disappointed. It was a 25 year anniversary production for Taschen and it is gorgeous. Even the binding was of high quality, something that should worry someone buying a modern book at either $200 or $25. For an illumination nut, it would certainly be worth $200. Not to me, perhaps, but only because I can't afford to go around paying $200 for individual books. I'm presently balking at $150 for a volume on medieval bookbinding that I actually need. I'll do it sooner or later, but the illumination book is just a luxury, since I don't illuminate scrolls anymore. Bookbinding is something I want to get into, however.

Well, enough book rambling. Back to grading papers.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Crispin's Day

October 25 is St. Crispin's Day, the anniversary of the great victory of Agincourt, at which an outnumbered English army led in person by King Henry V defeated a much larger French army.

What better time for a comparative movie review?!

My friends are groaning as they read this, because I'm getting on a hobby horse of mine, but here goes.

Kenneth Branagh's 1990s version of Henry V is very popular in SCA circles. Branagh has made a number of Shakespeare plays, and some are very good. His Hamlet is generally excellent, for example. I also find Branagh to be a good actor in general. I like him in Dead Again and as the superlatively evil Nazi convening the discussion of the Final Solution at the Wannsee Conference in the recent HBO production.

However, I do not like this version of Henry V. The film has some virtues - the costumes are pretty good, and the youth of Henry's court is interesting - probably very like the reality. But Branagh's acting is wooden, which is unlike him. He shouts a lot - that's all he can do with the great Crispin's Day speech, for example. Also, the armor is poorly done and looks like there was a limited budget. Essex walks around in the kind of plate all the leaders and knights were likely wearing, but Henry himself and everyone else wears what appears to be a coat of plates. I don't think so. The battle scene at Agincourt is awful, the worst sort of Hollywood dreck. Everyone takes their helmets off, and then they wrestle around in the mud. Some sort of anti-war statement, no doubt.

But, gentle reader, you're in luck, because there is a much better option if you want a filmed version of Henry V!

In 1944, Laurence Olivier made a film version of Henry V, largely as a patriotic effort during World War II. This version, which is available on DVD from the Criterion Collection in a beautiful edition, is justly famed as one of the most innovative and remarkable films of all time.

The film starts out as a stage play in the Globe Theatre in London in Elizabethan times, with wonderful little bits of business in every scene. Olivier is shockingly good in this, playing an actor playing the role he's playing once the movie really gets going. The scene with the tennis balls is incredible. Olivier smiles and everyone laughs. He keeps the smile and suddenly the laughter dies away uneasily. I'd like to see Branagh pull that scene off.

Later, as the fleet is about to sail, Chorus introduces the wildest gimmick I've ever seen in a film: as he tells the audience to imagine the vasty fields of France, he also supplies a suitable backdrop for the imagination. The film goes to period costumes for the early 15th century for the rest of the story, but it doesn't become an ordinary period piece. Oh, no. The backdrops are still beautifully stagy, all taken from miniatures in period manuscripts.

The battle scenes are splendid - superb armor all around, everyone keeps their helmets on like sensible people and are instead identified by heraldry (what a concept!) Admittedly, the Frenchmen are winched into their saddles before the battle, but the producers are just making a point - the English leap into the saddle for contrast. (For the uninitiated, nobody was ever winched into the saddle of a horse before a battle - armor wasn't that heavy.) When the English archers let fly, the effect is incredible - a cloud of death blackens the sky.

But best of all is Olivier. When he gives the Crispin's Day speech that Branagh merely shouts, he expresses the full range that made him the greatest actor of his generation. He talks to the soldiers around him, argues with them, flatters them, encourages them. He's not just declaiming the legendary speech, he's making it his own. When he gives it, you want to get up and go with him to fight the French.

The costumes, both the stage 16th century stuff and the medieval outfits, are stunning and inspiring. There really isn't anything to complain about in this movie. Even the bit players have magnificent scenes. The elderly Charles VI is delightfully mad, which heightens the effect when he achieves lucidity for just a moment during the chilling "Of that black name, Edward, Black Prince of Wales" scene, where his dread for his kin and country stand in sharp contrast to the gleaming confidence of the mighty Henry. The actors playing his son and brothers are deliciously dismissive of the old man.

There is nothing like this in the Branagh version. It is just a modern movie, with all the faults of Hollywood and none of the virtues. I recommend the Olivier version emphatically.

(And lest I be thought biased about the actors or the times, I would entirely reverse my recommendation about Hamlet. Olivier's version I find tedious, Branagh's quite good, except for the soliloquys, which Branagh just seems to have trouble with.)

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Remote Blogging

Ha! I am blogging from the Shire of Donnershafen (Traverse City)! Isn't technology wonderful?

We dropped in on Crown earlier today. Count Felix the Just won.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Shrinking Scope for Nomenclature

A curious phenomenon over the years has changed to some degree the freedom with which participants in the Middle Kingdom can identify their self-chosen roles without reference to a kingdom award of some kind or a relationship with senior armored combatants. I'm not saying it's a bad thing, exactly, just an interesting thing.

The terms I have in mind are sergeant, captain, company and man-at-arms.

When I joined the SCA in 1982, none of these were official designators. That is, they didn't describe roles that the kingdom as an official body took an interest in, nor was there any custom associated with them.

Sergeant was understood at the time to designate any sort of sub-commander in the melee field. The leader of a group of fighters might choose to call himself a captain, or be referred to as such. A company was little-used at the time, but over the years came to refer to a group of any kind, but usually an armored combat unit that modelled itself on late medieval lines. Man-at-arms was used in the period sense: any armored combatant who wore full harness of the sort that knights of his period wore was by definition a man-at-arms, even if he was in fact a knight or a squire.

Of course, no one went around calling themself Sergeant Blank, but it was useful to be able to say "that's Lord Blank. He makes a good sergeant." It was easy to designate the leader of your unit (perhaps a company) as a captain, and sometimes even call them Captain Blank. And if one wasn't a knight or squire, man-at-arms was a good, dignified description that was more satisfying than "fighter."

This began to change in the early 1990s when the kingdom introduced the Order of the Red Company and chose to designate the members as Sergeants. Naturally, the very people one thought of as sergeants in melee combat were the first to be put in this order, but it removed the descriptor as a general term. If one wasn't a member of the Red Company, it was no longer convenient to say "I'm usually a sergeant." This was probably the easiest of these changes to swallow, because in the Middle Ages, there really were Sergeants-at-Arms who were officials of the crown.

Later, the kingdom added the Order of the Gold Mace (ironically, sergeants traditionally bore maces), and these were sergeants who were promoted out of the Red Company Order to be Captains. This effectively made these two orders, together with the chivalry, the official officer structure of the Middle Kingdom's army. It was clever, but it took away another private means of describing roles. You can't readily call yourself "Captain Blank", without having people perhaps assume that you are claiming to be a member of a kingdom order.

Obviously, both these orders and the not-yet-mentioned Order of the Greenwood Company have made calling one's melee unit a company a slightly more sensitive matter. It's still ok to do this, and less problematic than using the terms sergeant or captain, but one may occasionally have to explain to some people that no, you're not calling your group an order, you're just using a period descriptor.

Finally, a recent innovation, and this is more custom than an official change, is to use the term man-at-arms not generally to designate all those not a knight, squire, sergeant or captain, but instead more specifically to describe only those in that category who are students of a senior fighter, not necessarily a knight. So a man-at-arms is not a person of substance who wears expensive harness and is experienced and competent, but instead another kind of dependant. One can no longer say to a question regarding fighting rank "I am a man-at-arms" if one lacked a specific role or title and yet was a person of some consequence. The rejoinder would now be "Oh? Whose?" And then one would have to explain no, you mean it as a general term, which might puzzle the questioner, who isn't likely to understand anymore without further explanation.

I'm not complaining, exactly. I just find it a trifle inconvenient. Stormvale, without any resident knights or captains or active squires or sergeants, nevertheless has at least half-a-dozen experienced combatants who don't have an easy period designator, because we are half a step outside the regular kingdom structure. Nor can we call our leader of the moment a captain without potentially ruffling feathers. The real answer is to get more integrated into the kingdom and regional fighting community and grow our own conventional relationships, of course.

What does it all mean? Well, the SCA has always been a rather hierarchical community, and the Middle Kingdom is not behindhand in that phenomenon. As the years go by, perhaps it is inevitable that more structure should be imposed or agreed upon. There was very little structure in the fighting community when I joined. Knights were rare, god-like creatures, and there weren't enough of them to go around as teachers, leaders and examples. That made being a squire practically a junior knight, as squires were also necessarily rather rare. The changes since then are clearly a species of improvement, and are also closely tied to the kingdom's desire to foster a more competitive army at Pennsic, since we've been having trouble competing with an East Kingdom that had become more militarily adept for quite a while there.

And that's a topic for another post.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Feast at Harvest of Souls V

Three days later, and my calves still ache.

But I had a very good time cooking, and I was gratified that it went so well. Hey, I know, maybe I should blog about it!

After I agreed to cook, I got promoted at work, and the week of the event then turned out to be the week of the Flint Area Public Affairs Debate kickoff (I'm Baker's rep on the committee); the week of the first session of the Baker Colloquium (a reading group on philosophy); and some daylong meetings at work I was supposed to attend and managed to slip out of at the last minute. So my usual time for preparation was not all it could be.

There are some flaws in my methodology. There were some little things that we ought to have done that usually aren't necessary for the 40 seat feasts I've done so many times, but would have been nice for 60. I've written a lot of it down over the years, but I get casual because I've done it so often and it always works out. I should produce a short document and a checklist.

So, instead of setting up completely Friday night, and giving the serving trays a quick wash, I was still buying food and doing some planning that ought to have been done earlier in the week.

On Saturday, I always think things are going to be more leisurely than they are. I always bring little treats for the kitchen staff, and then inevitably, as the day wears on and I watch the clock, there's never time for that sort of thing, and they sit forgotten in the cooler or boxes. I barely eat at these things - no time. There are dishes I've cooked more than once over the years that I've actually never tasted. Last year, I think the only thing I had all day was half a can of Slim Fast. This year, I actually tasted most things - had to, really, as I'd never cooked some of the dishes before - and I had to have a lamb pie after it was all over.

Late in the morning, my partner arrived after a difficult experience on US 23. Lady A'isha al Zarqa has for the last two years journeyed all the way up from the Barony of the Flame to cook for Harvest of Souls. We had regretted that while she was in Stormvale, we never actually cooked together, and it has turned out to be a highly successful partnership. We planned this feast together - Middle Eastern food is her thing, of course - and while I always feel a little bad that she comes all this way and spends most of the day in the kitchen, at least I get to monopolize her!

We work together well. Very little planning or coordination seems necessary. She finishes my dishes, I finish hers, her decisions are always things I agree with, and vice versa (unless she's too polite to tell me otherwise.) She is a terrific cook - her lamb pies were the first thing mentioned by everyone the moment we announced the menu would be Middle Eastern. A'isha also had cordials with her - a fruit, an apricot and a cherry. Difficult to say which was best, but the mixed fruit had a subtle taste.

A'isha, of course, is why we did Middle Eastern this year. If she's coming all the way from Kentucky to work, I figured, we were doing her cuisine. Besides, I'd never done it and wanted to give it a try. As expected, her pies, the chicken and lemon dishes and the buttered dates were hits. The Melokhia soup, the cinnamon fish and the lentil/wheat dish were all well received. We didn't have time for hand-made vegetarian grape leaves, but the canned ones were a revelation - really quite good.

We had a lot of efficient help in the kitchen. John (of the green hair) was in and out all day and evening, doing whatever was asked of him. Margaid and Lily came in late afternoon and made the whole effort of salad and relish prep and then tray dressing and serving very smooth and easy. Melisande had to leave early in the day but made a key shopping run for us. A young lady named Elizabetta helped serve and kept John busy. Terryl was helpful as always and then washed tremendous numbers of dishes after the feast. Dante, Desi (in character as Death the whole darn time) and Gerard also served, and Gerard imposed order on a serving effort that started out a little chaotic. Skalla-Geirmundr was available all day for errands and various difficult jobs, especially keeping the slightly cranky gas stove range and ovens working and processing the onions.

Most of all, Sarah was in the kitchen all day (when she wasn't arranging classes and doing other work), washing dishes, helping arrange dishes, serving, making all the hummus, helping supervise, anything and everything. As usual, we would have had a difficult time without her.

Late in the afternoon, from about 4 on, it was panic time in the kitchen. These things are relative - I have done this too often to actually panic, or even get very uneasy. But there was a faint sense of unease - did I plan badly? Did I forget anything? Will the dishes come together and get to the table hot? Is that damn water for the rice ever going to boil?

No, not much, yes and yes.

That last half hour before a feast is always the tight moment. Everyone has questions, I'm tired and I probably look like an idiot while trying to switch tracks between a dozen dishes, the feast hall layout and the schedule. For that last half hour, every question gets an uncomprehending look while I find the right file folder in my head and then give an answer as definitive as possible. While I'm trying to come up with the answer, I'm also wondering whether the rice is burning or whether people have spread over more tables than we have planned for - you have to watch the diners, or they will do that. The food is all there for them, but trays that should therefore be split between half-full tables are instead whole and going to one table, and then someone tells us in the kitchen that there's a problem, and I have to go out in the hall and count heads and tables and correct. Yeesh.

Normally, we have someone who stage-manages the feast hall layout and ramrods the serving. I like for this to be Melisande, but she was sick, and Gerard stepped in, as I mentioned above, and got it squared away.

Of course, with A'isha doing half the work of head cook, and the very effective staff, it all went fine.

By 6, it was effectively all over. We missed the 6 pm deadline by a few minutes, but I doubt anyone noticed much. It was clear that we would get everything done and out of the kitchen in an orderly fashion. After that, it was all fun. I was trying to cook something when they wanted us for a toast and tried to send A'isha out to take her well-deserved plaudits, but she's too modest, so we both went out and took a bow.

There were requests for the recipes to be posted on the website. That seems like a good idea, so we'll do that this week sometime, if Mariska has time.

Monday, October 17, 2005

More on Kingdom of Heaven

My Stormvale colleague Mike makes some thoughtful comments on my previous post:

I will have to differ slightly here. If this was just a fictional story it would be ok. The history they play with and screw up are what I think hurts the film. That and Orlando Bloom can be annoying. Needless to say Balian, do not slam Orlando too much when in company of some ladies. That is the main reason he was cast. I think.
He was actually a better Paris in "Troy".

The extras to this film which include some history lessons are very good.

Keep in mind that I had not ever heard of the historical person till I came to Stormvale.

Its ok but you can save your money and buy Batman this week or better yet Age Of Empires 3 comes out thursday.

Actually, I think even as a fictional story about the Crusades it suffers from depicting period personalities in a manner I find unbelievable. The speech Bloom gives to rally the troops is something no sane person of the period, and especially a warrior in charge of the holy city of Jerusalem, would give. Pure modern nonsense. A more skilful script could have modernized the story and characters more subtly, like "Lawrence of Arabia", but that kind of subtlety is lost on Hollywood these days.

I don't really mind Orlando Bloom in and of himself, although the casting is annoying. The real Balian d'Ibelin was a formidable figure respected by both sides - Bloom should stick to playing Paris. And yes, his Paris was just fine in "Troy", which I thought was a surprisingly good film.

My real annoyance is that to any degree this film achieves popularity with SCA members, people might assume I had chosen my name to emulate the Bloom character. I haven't been very active outside Stormvale for years. Petty of me, I'm sure, but one has one's vanity.

And I know that most SCA members, recent or older, had never heard of the historical character, but that just adds to my frustration. I wish they'd left him alone, quite aside from embarrassing me.

And to Melisande: no, I don't know how serious I'm going to be about changing my name unless I do have to hear about Orlando Bloom for months or years to come. After all these years, it's difficult to imagine being anyone but Balian.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Kingdom of Heaven on DVD?

Not sure what annoys me more about this movie:

1. Orlando Bloom.
2. Balian of Ibelin as a blacksmith.
3. Balian of Ibelin as a politically correct bonehead who wouldn't have been trusted with a blacksmith's hammer, let alone a sword, if he had talked the ludicrous piffle he does in this movie.
4. Ridley Scott's gorgeous cinematography, which I'd like to see if not for points 1-3.

This wretched movie is what is causing me to consider changing my SCA name. I thought I was completely safe choosing to admire such an obscure but interesting and admirable medieval figure by using his name, but no, 25 years later Hollywood has rubbished him like they do everything.

Popular culture is a vile thing. Don't buy this crummy film.

Friday, October 07, 2005

MiddleWiki, etc.

Haven't been blogging much lately, partly because the fall term at Baker started a couple of weeks ago, and together with pre-term work, I've been furiously busy. Also, because in the last few days, I've been enjoying putting lots and lots of stuff from my aforementioned Middle Kingdom Dictionary into the MiddleWiki. What a delightful project! Skalla-Geirmundr has been doing tremendous amounts of work, too. In just a week and a half, we (mostly he - I only weighed in this week) and a few other people, populated the wiki sufficiently that Master Daffyd, who originated and organized the idea of a wiki for the Middle Kingdom, took it live and advertised it on the Middlebridge.

I'll try to post here more frequently. Thanks, by the way, Geirmundr, for cleaning up after me on the armor term project.