Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Repeal Day

December 5 is Repeal Day, the day the odious 18th Amendment was repealed by the 21st Amendment. Tonight, in the midst of grading papers, I will celebrate by mixing a Roosevelt. FDR is not my favorite president, but for this he deserves credit.

Prohibition was perhaps the most foolish and failed political experiment in American political history (unless you count electing Jimmy Carter, I guess). A high-minded attempt to force everyone to conform to the standards of a bunch of early health fascists, it failed as it deserved to, and cast violaters of the law of the land (almost everyone) as heroes, with effects on American's attitude toward law down to today. Remember that when someone wants to ban smoking, or when you look at the regrettable legal results of the war on drugs. These things don't work, and cast the law in disrepute.

But this is a blog on medieval and SCA topics, and I try not to stray too far, so let's examine a related topic that is at least a little closer. I have coveted for some time a bottle of Rothman and Winter creme de violette, an old liqueur made from Alpine violets and an ingredient in some European confections and in some old cocktails. It just came back on the market in the US again, but is not distributed in Michigan. Finding a distributor who carried it, had it in stock and would ship to Michigan all at the same time was fairly difficult, but it came today, along with a bottle of Chartreuse, the famous herbal liqueur made by Carthusian monks. Chartreuse is generally available in Michigan, but with the dollar-euro exchange rate highly unfavorable right now, is quite expensive. It too is an ingredient in quite a few old cocktails.

Liqueurs of this type have a long history, certainly reaching back to the end of the Middle Ages or before. It is too much to imagine that either of these are based on recipes quite that old, but Chartreuse is made from a secret recipe (although hyssop is widely suspected) of 130 Alpine herbs and is said to be based on a 1605 formula. Creme de violette is probably not so old, although it was made in the 19th century and was once very popular. Creme Yvette was the American version, but ceased production many years ago after highballs, the ubiquitous dry martini and various vodka drinks pretty much drove the old cocktail "up" and usually made with fresh fruit juices out of style. Certainly there is no reasons to suppose there wasn't something similar by the Renaissance.

So raise a glass tonight in honor of Repeal Day and the return of common sense to these shores, once benighted by Prohibition!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Echo of Middle Ages in Holiday Drinks

Eric Felten's How's Your Drink column in the Saturday Wall Street Journal is a favorite part of the week in the newspaper for me. Yesterday, November 17, he spent his column discussing Thanksgiving drinks and lamenting that there weren't more. So he suggested two: Metheglin Punch and Samoset, both made with honey and spices. They aren't meads or metheglins in the official sense, but they are polite nods in their direction. I may try the Punch this week.

Here's the link, but it is likely subscribers-only. (As an aside, email links to the article last for seven days. My email address is balian at chartermi dot net for anyone who wishes to peruse the article.)

I can't strongly enough recommend, by the way, How's Your Drink, Felten's recent book collecting his columns.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Another Take on Beowulf

The Wall Street Journal reviewer saw a 3-D version and liked it. In fact, much of what the National Review writer didn't like is exactly what he was impressed with. The link is here, but non-subscribers may not be able to see it. (Rumor has it that Rupert Murdoch will take the online service free when he fully takes over; might be a good idea, but the Journal is so good I'm happy to subscribe, I'll admit.)

What's more, as if more is needed, the movie's animation and 3-D techniques offer a seductive vision of the medium's future.

We've seen a glimpse of that future before, and it didn't work. Mr. Zemeckis used an earlier version of "Beowulf's" motion-capture technology, or digitally-enhanced live action, in "The Polar Express," a ponderous Christmas fantasy that seemed to be populated by overachieving glove puppets with dead eyes. But that was then and this is now. The passing years -- all three of them -- have brought significant changes: facial features moving with a subtlety that's near-human rather than nonhuman, bodies conducting cross-border raids between the concrete and the abstract. Lapses still occur -- an occasional face will make you wonder if they had plastic surgery in the seventh century -- but the look of the film as a whole is literally captivating.

Beowulf Review

National Review (what other political magazine would bother, I wonder, or have a Beowulf scholar on staff) has a good review of Beowulf here.

Not planning to see the movie. I almost always wait for the DVD anyway, but I'm afraid that while I read Beowulf in college, of course, my interest in the Middle Ages before the 12th century was always quite minimal.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Free Access

Sage Publications has free access to scholarly docs, including articles on medieval topics, until November 30. (Via SCA Today.)

Liz's Golden Age

Speaking of movies, Professor Muhlberger hasn't seen Elizabeth: The Golden Age, but has some brief thoughts. My impression from ads and trailers is similar.

Beowulf Coverage

Unlocked Wordhoard has lots to say about the Beowulf movie due for release soon.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

25th Anniversary Combat Pt. 3

L to R: Skalla-Geirmundr Ulfsson and Tsunamei Kenjiro Torashi

25th Anniversary Combat Pt. 2

L to R: Tsunamei Kenjiro Torashi and Nagatatsu Satto.

25th Anniversary Combat Pt. 1

L to R: Tsunamei Kenjiro Torashi and Erevon FitzGerald.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Founders Day Luminaries

Front row, left to right: Lady Terryl MacAodhagain, Lord Eduard von Schonberg, Lady Aisha al'Zarqa. Back row: Lord Balian de Brionne, Lord Skalla-Geirmundr Ulfsson, Lord Erevon FitzGerald, Lady Eron Crowfford, Lord Tsunamei Kenjiro Torashi.

25th Anniversary

Stormvale celebrated its 25th anniversary on Saturday the 20th. The actual anniversary is next Saturday, the 27th. I have mixed feelings. A number of members of the branch did not appear, but most did, and there was a pleasant celebration.

We should all thank Lady Terryl for hosting the party. She gave up her whole day, and essentially her weekend, and had been preparing for weeks. A lot of people put a lot of work into this, including Lady Eron.

Lord Eduard von Schonberg came for the first time in quite a few years, and it was very agreeable to see him again. I missed him, and it was fun to talk over old times.

The various tournaments and competitions took up the afternoon - I don't have a complete list, but Lord Torashi reclaimed his armored combat championship. Lady Femke from Three Hills was teaching a class on illumination when we arrived, which was very kind of her. (And it was nice to finally meet her in person.)

My contribution to the festivities was smaller than it would have been in previous years. I obtained a very fine bottle of champagne, however, and in the evening, when most of the old timers and long-time hard workers could be gathered without disrupting the festivities, we opened it and toasted our 25 years. Some photos are going to follow, but Blogger is glitching on me just at the moment, so I'll do another post later.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

What is Panforte?

Strong bread, of course. (Pan is bread and forte is strong.) A return trip to Morgan & York yesterday yielded a treat I had not encountered before: Panforte Nero from an Italian maker. It was a small flat cake in a really beautiful medieval wrapper with nice art, and I wasn't sure what it was. I almost balked when it turned out to be $11.00 - the clerk apologetically pointed out that the difference between the dollar and the euro was making imports quite pricey right now, and the cakes had just come in. This web page has a picture that gives an impression, although the image doesn't do the wrapper justice. Unfortunately, the page is in Italian.

Well, it was delicious, and I was very happy to have spent the money, because I believe I can make these. I'd heard of it, of course, but medieval desserts, as I believe I've mentioned before, are not my forte. It turned out to be a chewy fruit and nut composition, very dark and spicy. My friend thought it tasted like mincemeat; my wife was immediately put in mind of fruitcake, which she dislikes. (My friend and I ate half of it happily while still on the trip; my wife made a face and began looking for a drink to get rid of the taste.)

Coincidentally, we ran into our old friend Becky, formerly Arianwen, who lives in Ann Arbor, and she and another friend had just gotten back from Italy. Also on the European front, I bought a small bottle of Noilly Prat, the original French dry vermouth. I didn't realize it was affordable, never having encountered anything more exotic than the familiar (and very satisfactory) Italian version, Martini and Rossi. I haven't tried it yet, but will report if there is a substantial difference - some authors on cocktails say yes. Quite a post medieval topic, but perhaps readers will find it interesting.

Monday, October 01, 2007


Verjuice is a very common cooking ingredient in Medieval cuisine. When I first encountered cookbooks on the topic, there was still a lot of debate about exactly what it was, although most agreed it was a type of vinegar made with unripe grapes. (It's not fermented and therefore non-alcoholic and not really the same thing as vinegar.) I've known for a while that verjuice was commercially available, but I had never actually seen any, nor, obviously, cooked with it.

This weekend Melisande and I spent the day in Ann Arbor and stopped at a gourmet food and wine shop, Morgan and York (incongruously, it used to be the Big Ten Party Store - party store for the wine and brie set, I would say!). It was a delightful experience, although I was disappointed not to see any artisanal gins I haven't tried yet. Wine was clearly their emphasis. We bought a few odds and ends I hadn't seen elsewhere, along with some chocolate truffles, but the main find from my perspective was a bottle of verjuice. The maker is a South Australian outfit called Maggie Beer. By the way, Morgan and York is one of the pricier shops of its kind I've seen in Michigan. Well worth a visit, though.

I haven't used the verjuice yet. At the price I paid for 375 ml (they are selling it as a gourmet item for salads and sauces like balsamic vinegar), I hope it is useful for medieval dishes. I'll report here when I try it.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Better Heraldry

Courtesy of Master Edward of Effingham, a better version of the arms to the left. He checked my blog to see how the image worked, wasn't satisfied, and sent two more versions for me to try out. Really very kind and generous of him.

SCA Cocktails

Well, one SCA cocktail, at least. That would be an interesting set of recipes to collect, though. I might have to invent one! I was looking for the recipe of a cocktail my handy references didn't have, and came across this on the front page at Conn's Fruity Beverage, which is said to be popular at SCA events in the south. Ok, I'm not going to pretend that it sounds good to me at all, but perhaps it will interest some.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

New Heraldry

See the new and glorious coat of arms to the left? Spiffy, ain't it?

If you'd like your own, I recommend contacting Master Edward of Effingham. He says he started doing heraldic avatars for friends on the Armour Archive forums and decided to turn it into a little business. He's fast and reasonably priced, and provides several different sizes for various purposes - I actually wanted a nice rendering of my heraldry for the MidRealm Forum and similar venues, but it immediately seemed apparent I could use good looking heraldry for many purposes, such as here on the blog.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Coolest Blog Ever?

Maybe. Try Curious Expeditions.

Beautiful Libraries

This link was provided by a bookbinding list I get. If there is a heaven, the chambers look like this.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Lots of News

Lots of bloggy goodness over at Skalla's Steading. This link is also over in my links column to the left. Skalla Geirmundr has been keeping track of local activities at the artisan's guild workshops and fighting practices.

Friday, September 07, 2007

What I'm Reading IV

The Battle of Crecy 1346. Andrew Ayton and Sir Philip Preston, et al. Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press, 2005.

I've been on an early and mid 14th century tear. I neglected to note my recent reading of The Perfect King by Ian Mortimer and Queen Isabella by Alisoun Weir, but I'll come back to the first one, at least. Two very worthwhile books, at any rate.

Ayton and Preston, with help from several other authors, conduct a very detailed examination of all the Battle of Crecy, in which Edward III and a relatively small English army heavily defeated the royal army of France on a hillside in the County of Ponthieu. I love this sort of thing, a serious and calm examination of all the arguments and issues, without grinding any axes. Very persuasive, and I'm glad to see that these authors, together with Iain Mortimer and Clifford Rogers, are engaged in rehabilitating the military reputation of one of England's greatest kings, indeed perhaps the greatest, Edward III.

I'm only about half way through, so I may have more comments later. But this is highly recommended. There is a lot more to the story than the usual set of assumptions, which suggest that Edward invaded France, blundered around until being cornered and then beat off the French with tactical brilliance. This always seemed to me to be a rather silly story. Ayton and company demonstrate quite convincingly that Edward was seeking a decisive battle on ground that favored English tactics, as had proved decisive at Dupplin Moor, Halidon Hill and Morlaix.

English Longbow Site

This is a very nice and informative site on the English longbow, or "warbow". I found this via the wonderful SCA Today site.

Artisan's Guild Again

On Tuesday, I was able to attend the local Artisan's Guild again. I've had Tuesday night classes for many months, but I should be free to attend regularly until next April.

There was a good turnout, with lots of youngsters doing youth combat, and adults busy with various projects, especially stained glass. I worked on my somewhat ragged aventail and completely repaired it. In fact, I plan to replace it entirely with a new aventail with a brass ring edge, but simple repairs will do for now.

More on armor shortly.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Bayeux Tapestry Animated

Breac drew my attention to this some time ago. Really splendid.

September Arms Practice

Lord Skalla Geirmundr Ulfsson is hosting arms practice for heavy and light weapons. Everyone in the mid-Michigan/Thumb area is welcome to attend.

Here's the schedule for September:

Practice is on Sunday afternoon from 2 pm to 5 pm at 5481 N. State Rd. north of Davison. Each practice will feature a class and then a general activity. Armoring will go on concurrently, especially in bad weather.

Sept. 2. Basic sword and shield work. Open sparring.
Sept. 9. Slow work and targeting. Open sparring.
Sept. 16. No practice.
Sept. 23. Melee conventions/differences. Open sparring.
Oct. 7. Melee shield work/teams (numbers permitting). Team combat.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Kerrytown Book Festival

The Kerrytown Book Festival is being held on September 9 in the Ann Arbor neighborhood ( a little north or northwest of the downtown area). There are some activities of interest to those interested in book arts.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Templar's Treasure Cancelled

The October 13 Templar's Treasure event, which was also to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Stormvale, has been cancelled. It was the second event scheduled for this October that Stormvale has successively scheduled and cancelled.

I understand that we will instead have some kind of revel and invite the neighboring groups. The Artisan's Guild decided a schedule for the fall, and I will note coming classes and workshops here.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Library Acquisition

Crecy 1346 from Osprey by David Nicolle and illustrated by Graham Turner. The usual charming illustrations and a very decent text. Especially satisfying because I bought a used copy for a derisory fee and rather expected it to be battered - it is nearly perfect. I love that.


I am guessing that most of the folks who find this blog interesting also like Harry Potter. We therefore depart from the usual topic to note this column which notes the classical and religious allusions in the books. Actually rather inspiring.

Video of Pennsic 36

From Legio Draconis, a list of YouTube videos of Pennsic. Haven't had time to watch any yet. If any reader sees any local folks in the videos, or anything else of special note, perhaps you might note it in the comments here.

Pennsic Update

Here is Geirmundr's report on his late visit to the Pennsic War, complete with a photo of all the Stormvale soldiers. From left to right: Lord Tsunamei Kenjiro Torashi in the Stormvale Champion tabard, Nagatatsu Satto, Lady Juana de Leon in the Cynnabar tabard and Lord Skalla Geirmundr Ulfsson in the (Mark III) Stormvale Militia tabard.

Update: Link added.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Congratulations and Thanks

A hearty thank you is owed to Lady Maryska Daciana de la Mare, the Web Minister of the Shire of Stormvale. Her handiwork was an advancement over previous versions of the site, including my own. She included slideshows, music, nice graphics and kept it up to date.

My old comrade Lord Breac Mac Finnein is taking over as the Web Minister, and I'm sure he'll have fun adding his particular touch to the operation.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Pennsic 36 News

Well, we won. Not sure of the final score, but the Middle was up by enough points as of Friday that no combination of additional scoring could result in a surprise win for the East and its allies. So Hoobah! to my fellow Midrealmers!

I kept up on a daily basis by subscribing to the web edition of the Pennsic Independent, which I heartily endorse. Only $6 and one can read the daily newspaper of Pennsic town in the comfort of one's home that same day - or in moments at work, to be sure.

Melisande made some wistful remarks during the war about how she rather misses going, and my father has expressed a wish to go next year, likely basing his operation out of a trailer in a nearby campground and visiting during the day. Melisande's allergies are much worse than they were years ago when we camped at Pennsic more frequently, so a hotel room or perhaps in my parent's trailer would seem indicated.

My own situation is problematic. I have had the curious misfortune (in this regard, anyway) to first study and then teach at two different institutions with unusual academic schedules. Pennsic was scheduled for early August in order to make it easier for college students to attend. This has never worked for me, alas. I had a narrow window of opportunity in the late 80s and early 90s during which I regularly attended for the second week, but the last time I was able to spend a whole week at Pennsic was in 1997. I've only been able to visit for a day or two a couple of times since.

It would take some arranging. I will likely have three classes to teach, and I can't just blithely wander off on vacation during the term. I might be able to arrange substitutes or something of the kind. At any rate, I am presently planning to attend for - well, as much of the second week as possible, let's say. Let's say long enough to set up camp and fight in as many battles as possible. 51 weeks away! I'm looking forward to raising my banner in Aethelmarc again.

Monday, July 23, 2007

MidRealm Forum

The Middle Kingdom's provider of all good web things, Master Dafydd Blaidd, has established a web based forum for discussion. I don't think there is a link on the front page at MidRealm yet, so here's the link.

Geirmundr alerted me that this had been done earlier today. I had signed off on the Middlebridge several months ago, because there was just way too much noise to signal. I'm really very interested in keeping up on what's going on in the kingdom, but the Middlebridge, unfortunately, wasn't quite the place for that. The splendid Legio Draconis site, where all the armored combat discussion moved, seems like a better model. I have actually always tended to prefer email to web forums, but there's no denying the advantages of being able to look at all the subject lines and decide what to read and what not to.

I just signed up - I hope many do and the experiment is a success. Also established - an email list for the non-medieval, non-SCA chat that is, to me at least, the least appealing part of the Middlebridge. That seems like an excellent idea. Not that I don't like to talk politics, I certainly do, but not on lists dedicated to other topics.

Friday, July 20, 2007

New Tournaments Illuminated

Tournaments Illuminated 163, the 2007 Summer issue, arrived today. It was a pleasant surprise. The amateurish and plain style TI has affected for many years long ago became tedious to the eye and difficult to be interested in. This issue has a slicker, more professional look. I would have preferred a photo to the painting on the cover, I think, but that's merely personal preference. The painting is nice. It may be the superior presentation, but the articles seemed more interesting, as well. There are good articles on tournament etiquette and food preparation safety, both useful things to reiterate every once in a while in our SCA quarterly magazine, and a pattern for an armor repair station. The armor chest looks like it would pass for a decent thing to have around the list field without looking modern. On the whole, a considerable upgrade for the venerable TI. The new editor is Doria Tecla.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Household Emblem?

After a discussion of some import this evening, regarding my future in the Society, I went for a walk in the handsome park near to my manse, to think on what I had heard and to consider what was to be done. In particular I mulled over many heraldic options for a new household.

As I walked down the path beside a creek near to the end of my walk, there was a sudden crashing in the underbrush, and then a flash of golden lightning across the path, as a huge deer appeared and disappeared, apparently leaping the creek and climbing the bank on the other side in an instant. If I had been a few feet farther along, he would have trampled me. A family taking a leisurely stroll in the other direction stopped, startled, and remarked among themselves that I had been very fortunate, and that the animal had barely missed me. Only a slight exaggeration.

After pausing to be certain that more deer were not going to appear quite so suddenly on their trail as I traversed it, my thoughts turned again to heraldic symbols.

Yes, dear reader, I can be a little slow on the uptake. But after a moment, it occurred to me that I was not thinking like a medieval nobleman. Perhaps a golden stag or hart would be the thing, and thanks to the deer for suggesting the notion.

Monday, July 09, 2007

My Bearengaer Story

Back in the early 1980s, I became Stormvale's Minister of Sciences. Yes, boys and girls, the office used to be separated into Minister of Sciences and Minister of Arts. Earl Bearengaer was the Pentamere regional Minister. I spoke to him at a Valentine's Day Massacre event to mention that I had entered the post and would be glad of any advice he had to offer, or intructions to convey.

As always, Bearengaer was very helpful, and spent some time acquainting me with my duties and discussing the sciences. We were standing beside the lists, as neither of us were in armor that day. I may actually not have authorized until a couple of months later, if I recall correctly. As often happens in the vigorous four-man melee team tourneys they always used in those days, a crowd of armored fighters suddenly careened up nearly into the ropes, rattan thrashing everywhere. Sir Bearengaer kept talking to me as though nothing untoward was happening, and merely held up an arm to shield his head from a stray blow. I had the strange notion that we ought to move back a bit, as it happened, but, well, I was there to take instruction, so I did as he did and held up my own arm and kept listening closely. Although in fact I don't quite recall what he was saying at just that moment. The marshals just looked at us like we were crazy when they moved the combat away.

He was quite a fellow.

Sir Bearengaer hinn Rauthi

Lord Gavin of Blackwood, one of Earl Sir Bearengaer's squires, reports that his knight has passed away. I take the liberty of repeating the message being circulated below:
Harken to these awful words, wail and rend your garments! Earl Sir Bearengaer hinn Rauthi has gone to his ancestors in Valhalla on this 9th day of July, A.S. XLII. Let all pay heed to to the passing of a mighty warrior and a person who enriched the Current Middle Ages.

Bearengaer had been a member of the SCA for almost 40 years. He was the 8th Knight of the Middle Kingdom, the 9th King of the MidRealm He was King of the Middle Kingdom for Pennsic 3. He was second Prince of Drachenwald. In more recent years, as ill health kept him from the list fields, he served the Kingdom of AEthelmearc by training new fighters, marshaling, being an MOL and helping Lady Leah Janette (the Evil Book Lady) run her book business. For several years, he was Grimm's liaison at Pennsic.

Those wishing to honor him, pray for him or confirm his death should present themselves on July 14, in Stormsport (Erie, PA) at the Burton Funeral Home, 602 W. 10th St. A reception will follow at the home of Viscount Alexander and Viscountess Rannveigr. As he had no particular religious affiliation or close mundane relatives to be offended, the funeral will have an SCA theme. SCA attendees are requested to wear garb. Since "You can't take it with you" is not a Viking concept, people may bring mementos to put in the coffin.

Those who wish crash space or direction should contact Viscount Sir Bear the Wallsbane at or 814-454-3262. Leah Janette (his lady) can be contacted at or 814-451-0250.

This e-mail may be forwarded to any other SCA list.
Bearengaer was the patron and sponsor of the Canton of Withermoor in Flint, Michigan, in the 1970s. In 1982, when Stormvale, a second group in Flint, had its first event, Earl Bearengaer and Viscountess Nige of the Cleftlands appeared and were a gracious and noble presence for our revels. Sir Bearengaer took our first authorized fighter, Lord Garth Brandon, as his squire. He was a noble man as well as a nobleman, and will be missed. RIP.

Sunday, July 08, 2007


I don't like to give up. Never have. It isn't even a matter of practicality. Basically, I've always been the kind of person who'd rather fight than switch. My longevity at what has become my major effort in the SCA will reach 25 years this October. It's not just that I was there at the beginning (which I was, quite literally), but also that many times over the intervening years I was just too stubborn to quit. Much more stubborn than others.

Strangely enough, I've reached the end now, right at the end of that quarter century. It's complicated, and I'm certainly not going to write about the whole business elaborately here. But suffice to say that it got to the point where I threatened to join a walkout, and finally the moment came where the threat had to be carried out, when promises had to be kept.

Tonight, I did what had to be done, and I feel somewhat sick. It doesn't seem as though it can really have happened at long last. How can I have allowed them to drive me out?

But promises have to be kept.

The reader who knows what I'm talking about may be wondering - what about that function I've been talking about here on the blog? Oh, I'm still doing that, because that promise has to be kept, too. Asssuming the function is still wanted, we'll go right ahead with that as though nothing is wrong.

But something is very much wrong.

I'm not one of those SCA members who goes on and on about honor. When someone starts going on about "My honor!" I generally roll my eyes. And yet, some things are dishonorable, and one does not wish to be associated with them. Really, one cannot. Perhaps I waited too long to cast down my gauntlet on this matter, and perhaps then I fought too long after it was clear I could not effect a solution at just this moment.

The first I will always regret, and the second I will never regret. Truly, I would cheerfully go on fighting, because that's pretty much me, but I said I would do something, and now I must, because my allies are ready. Can't really wait until October, no matter what else I agreed to do. So now an awkward straddle while the clock runs out.

Well, nothing is forever, right? Not 25 years - I could never have imagined that in October of 1982! - and not the present circumstances, either.

Things change, and I am patient. My honor is intact, I think. It will suffice for now, and the wilderness may hold new challenges. I have a defunct household, I seem to recall...

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Medieval Institute Congress 2008

I've been hearing about the Medieval Institute Congress every May at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo every since I've been in the SCA. And strangely enough, I have never gone. Not sure why, just never got around to it, even though I would likely enjoy it as much or more than the average SCA event. I am told they have an excellent vendor's hall.

Next year I have decided to attend, and probably to make a weekend of it, get a hotel room, etc. The conference lasts from Thursday to Sunday on May 8-11 next year.

Book Review

Richard II and the English Nobility by Anthony Tuck. Edward Arnold, 1973.

This is a survey of the relationship between Richard II and the higher nobility of England. As we noted in the previous review, the relationship ended in disaster for Richard with the Lancastrian usurpation in 1399.

Tuck takes the view, not unlike our previous author, that Richard was not the mentally unstable figure of tragedy, but an able ruler with a plan for the development of the monarchy that differed from what his nobles preferred.

Successful English monarchs during this period, modern scholars tend to agree, worked in concert with their nobles - Edward III was the exemplar. Richard, however, chose to model his rule after his great-grandfather, Edward II, heedless of the historical lesson there. He attempted to sideline the great landed magnates and to create his own court party, using the administrative machinery of the royal household in innovative ways to get around relying on the nobles. There was substantial resistance, and it is possible to read biographies or studies of Richard II and feel one wants to slap him for what seem like unnecessary provocations. The author even addresses the question of whether Richard and his contemporaries were aware of the historical parallels with Edward II and his deposition (he demonstrates that they were.)

Tuck traces the phases of Richard's rule: first the period of his youth when the court party was formed, then its destruction in 1387 when the Appelant nobles defeated Richard's favorite Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, and very nearly deposed the king. Then a period of relative calm in which Richard managed to balance more assertive rule without provoking the nobles in the early 1390s. Finally the end of the reign, in which Richard had his aristocratic enemies killed or exiled, achieved a period of dominance that even sympathetic writers like Tuck acknowledge was tyranny; which ended in the deposition discussed in more detail in the previous book.

This is, like Three Armies in Britain, a scholarly study, not a popular history. Tuck assumes his audience knows the basics and makes only occasional reference to the Peasant's Revolt, the military events of the reign or Richard's marriages. But it is a first class piece of academic writing. Although uncompromising in academic quality, Tuck is a skilled writer, and the book is an enjoyable read, unlike many drier accounts. Scholarly works on any topic have a reputation for being boring and filled with jargon. (I once amused myself in a peer review exercise by accurately predicting which law article would win the competition - the one with the most uses of the word "heuristic." I don't think my sarcasm was appreciated, as they didn't ask me back the next year.) But Tuck demonstrates that it is possible to write a serious scholarly study that is actually a pleasure to read. I might add that unlike the more recent book, this volume is completely free of misspellings, typographical errors, and shows signs of expert editing - which is to say that you can't see that the editor did anything and you don't notice what the editor didn't do.

A highly recommended book for the late 14th century enthusiast.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Book Review

Three Armies in Britain: The Irish Campaign of Richard II and the Usurpation of Henry IV, 1397-1399 by Douglas Biggs. 2006. This is vol. 39 in the History of Warfare series.

In my studies of the 14th century, I've always been a trifle weak on Richard II's reign. My core area of interest was always the reign of his grandfather Edward III and the life of his son the Black Prince. Not that I haven't read the usual biographies and histories, but I actually have a bookshelf full of histories and studies of the earlier period, and relatively little on Richard of Bordeaux, and I've been meaning to correct that.

I have always been fairly well persuaded that the traditional view of Richard as effeminate, unsoldierly, and perhaps mentally unstable was an exaggeration at best. Stubborn, haughty and his own worst enemy, yes. The author of this scholarly work makes the case for the military and political sense of Richard's actions in 1399, and attempts to demolish the traditional view of Henry of Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster as a heroic military figure.

For those not familiar, in 1399, King Richard II of England took an army to Ireland to pacify the Anglo-Irish territories there. While he was out of the country, his cousin Henry of Bolingbroke, who had been exiled and disinherited from the Duchy of Lancaster, reentered the country, quickly brought most of the political class of England to his side, and captured the hapless Richard upon his return. Richard was deposed in his favor by Parliament, and died in 1400 under suspicious circumstances. Shakespeare's tragedy on the topic is undoubtedly more familiar than the actual events to most people today. The author examines the rationale for Richard's expedition to Ireland, the progress of Henry's reentry into England and the Duke of York's rather unconvincing and brief resistance to Henry.

This is not a general history and the casual reader would not have an easy time keeping up, I would think. The author assumes his reader is familiar with the events of Richard's reign and the scholarly controversies about who, where, when and why. He engages in a close examination of the extant records to determine the movements and actions of the principal actors in the drama, and I find his conclusions persuasive.

What I don't find quite as persuasive is that this is fundamentally a work of military history. As an exploration and analysis of the documentary evidence for a complex political event which had military ramifications and features, it is highly successful. But it is rather unpersuasive in the military sense. The author has a tendency to assert the military wisdom of various actions without explaining why he thinks so. I would concede that he is perhaps merely assuming that he is writing for an audience likely to comprehend his observations, but it had rather a feel of being interjected because the work would be published as part of a series on military history. Further, the title itself, "Three Armies in Britain", is a trifle misleading. Certainly Henry and his allies comprise one army. The other two melt away at once, however. Richard's army is really left behind in Ireland. There is very little fighting and no battles worth mentioning, and the major issues are not really military in character.

Another flaw in the book is not Biggs' fault. This volume has the highest proportion of typographical errors I have ever seen in a professionally produced work, much less one produced for an academic audience. I have become inured over the last couple of decades to the declining standards for editing and proofreading in the publishing world, but this is startling. As I read, I gradually became distracted to the degree of looking for the next typo. Toward the end of the book, there are as many as two or more per page, often of the type that would be missed by a spell check program. I also found it weird that Henry "Hotspur" Percy, a figure frequently mentioned using his famous nickname because he shares his given name with his father the Duke of Northumberland, also alive at the time, is invariably referred to as "hotspur" unless the name begins a sentence. I realize that recent academic publishing standards have tended to use lower case for words like "duke" and "king", but this seems to me to be getting carried away and is quite jarring. Names are rendered with an upper case initial, and nicknames generally are as well. I don't see why this should change.

On the whole, however, a worthy and interesting addition to the corpus of Richard II study.

The Stormvale Populace Meeting

We had a good turnout for the populace meeting, although everyone wasn't there at the same time - we sort of had two shifts of attendees. Early in the evening, we were working on armor, so we regrettably only got to the October event discussion after the Miller clan departed.

I did a PowerPoint presentation on the main topic of the meeting, and I can't readily link to it here, so I will be happy to email it to anyone who wants to see it.

The consensus of the meeting was that we would hold an event on October 13 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Stormvale. The suggestions of the 25th Anniversary Committee were generally accepted.

Event Steward: me.
Head Cook: Diego.
Lunch Tavern: Eron.

(We are working on the details of whether we'll do a full feast, a dessert revel or something in between.)

We had two sites to choose from, and the consensus was the the Elba Lions Club was the appropriate choice, as it is closer to I 69 and therefore likely attendees from other groups, and we can fight indoors in case of inclement weather.

Those present expressed enthusiasm for Cobb Hall, and hope the shire can use it for a future event, perhaps during a time of the year when we are more sure of the weather.

Thanks to Lord Joseff for looking into Cobb Hall for us!

The name of the event remains undecided, and we'd like some input from the group in email about that. My three suggestions are in the presentation. The members also noted that October 13 is the anniversary of the arrest of the Templars by Phillip the Fair in 1307, so we might be able to work that in somehow. We'll need to decide soon, as we need to get back on the calendar right away.

I will contact the hall on Monday and make sure they are still available on that date and give them a check. (Actually, I'll try to reach someone tomorrow.)

The suggestion that we should wrap up the event fairly early and adjourn to a private party to complete the celebration was accepted, although it was noted that we'll have to work out the logistics.

Many thanks to Lord Geirmundr and Lady Giovanna and their family for hosting the meeting, as always, and here's hoping we can do it again soon.

A couple of extra highlights of the evening:

It was Lady Maryska's birthday, so we had some treats to celebrate, and Geirmundr didn't sing... much.

And Geirmundr gave two beautiful medieval wooden chairs he had made to Lord Erevon and Lady Eron.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Armor Update

My effort to get my kit back up to par is proceeding - slowly, very slowly. However, some progress has been made recently. Geirmundr and I bent a shield blank last night. I'm going to take it off the press tonight and put another on. I propose to have three blanks this week. The plywood I like to use for shields is quite light, so I want to have spares ready for use.

My gambeson arrived on Saturday, and it is beautiful. It fits nicely, and I'm looking forward to wearing it. Revival Clothing is the vendor.

Thursday, June 21, 2007


They said I was crazy to wait! Why not black, or red? No, I said it had to be blue. Revival Clothing just emailed me to tell me that my medium blue linen gambeson is being sent Priority Mail this week. I can't wait. The one I ordered that was too small was beautiful. I hope that by the end of June, I can be back in something resembling a decent looking kit. Much work to do.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

SCA Photo Banned

There now, that's a sensationalistic headline for this audience. I'm proud of myself. Anyway, there is an article on pages A6-7 of the Flint Journal today, June 16, that is interesting. It's an AP story by Ray Henry if you don't get the Journal. Zero Tolerance, Zero Sense is the headline, and it is a fairly typical catalog of the dimwitted zero tolerance policies in public schools that result in expulsions for bringing aspirin or butter knives to school. There is a photo of Patrick Agin, a Portsmouth, Rhode Island high school student in a nice suit of chainmail described in the caption as "his Society for Creative Anachronism outfit". It seems the photo was submitted for the yearbook and was not allowed because the young man was depicted carrying a sword and a dagger. Mind you, not bringing the weapons to school, merely photographed with them.

Now, those who know me well will be sighing deeply and preparing to batten down the hatches, because this presses pretty much all of my buttons: the emasculated culture of dogmatic relativism in the public schools, the embarrassing lack of quality of public school administrators, and the meek, frightened liberal mind set for which even the representation of a weapon is too, too much. But I will restrain myself.

Joan of Arc

Smithsonian Magazine has a nice article on Joan of Arc, prompted by the discovery that her extant relics are 19th century fakes.

Friday, June 15, 2007

25th Anniversary Event

Regrettably, the Harvest of Souls event scheduled for October 6 this year is being cancelled. The event staff has decided to withdraw from continued preparations and notified the shire in a timely fashion. There were several problems, among them the fact that four other groups in Michigan and Ohio were staging events that day.

However, this turned out to be good timing for the Stormvale 25th Anniversary Celebration Committee. We met the Sunday following the Harvest of Souls announcement, and the committee decided to put together a proposal for an event to mark the anniversary, which my readers will recall is October 27, 2007. We are looking into sites right now, and should have a report for the branch shortly. We're thinking of October 13.

Frustratingly, I wasn't there for the meeting, after calling it. I was less than a mile away trapped in a monumental traffic jam after graduation at my college. We had one of the biggest graduating classes we've ever had, and there was another such function later in the afternoon, and getting out proved difficult. So I sat on the grass chatting with former students, thankfully relieved of the old robe, hood and cap at that point, and kept in touch with the meeting by phone.

We have lots of other ideas, and I'll air most or all of them on Clarion Hall in due course.

The Middle Kingdom Great Book

In the 1980s, various talented artists and artisans in the Middle Kingdom were commissioned to produce the Great Book of the Middle Kingdom, a hand-bound illuminated manuscript with the kingdom's important ceremonies and lists of sovereigns, etc. I gather one of the original ideas was to produce something that would actually be toted around to kingdom events for ceremonial use, so the Dragon Herald wasn't reading out of an ordinary binder. But inevitably, the book was quickly perceived as one of the, perhaps the, superlative treasure of the kingdom, and was eventually housed in the Western Michigan University Library's Rare Books Room.

To my mind, this is one of the more splendid and interesting projects in the kingdom's history. It includes some of the finest work of many of our Laurels and other talented artists, it more closely resembles a de luxe medieval object for court use than most reproductions we use, and the illumination is gorgeous. It has a wooden case to protect the book and a leather case to carry the case. The work of artists no longer active or gone with new kingdoms are reproduced forever with the item.

The artwork is now reproduced at the Middle Kingdom web site, more or less in full, with explanatory pictures and the entire text. It can be viewed here.

Now, I would pay quite a lot for a hardbound reproduction in a modern binding, personally. I hope that will someday be done.

Monday, April 23, 2007

SCA Reference

There is an amusing Little Dee comic strip here, which refers to the SCA. (Neither very flatteringly or accurately, but still funny.) The date for the strip is April 23, if you follow the link after today.

Update: Here's an up to date link.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Background Checks

The article describing the policy is here.

It appears that the SCA will require background checks of all officers and
members supervising youth activities. Apparently the background check is
cursory, as such things go. A fee of $10 per check has been mentioned.
There is an FAQ at the link.

My view: distressing, but such is the modern world. The SCA really can't go
on having people designated as officers supervising youth activities without
making some sort of effort to vet them, as all schools and institutions
dealing with the young must do today.

I am aware of some critics in the SCA complaining that this is more about
CYA for the SCA than protecting young people. Well, yes. That's what the
Board of Directors is supposed to do, protect the SCA's legal status and
reputation. However, it is not true that this does nothing - it assures the
group and the SCA that the officers and members who volunteer to supervise
young people are not obviously unqualified. That is a plus even if it does
not solve every conceivable problem. No one in any organization can solve
every conceivable problem.

Assuming the information about the amount for the checks is accurate and
assuming that payment arrangements are not going to be handled in some other
way - there seems to be some question about exactly how it will be done - I
would be happy to pay for any background checks that are called for in

Friday, March 23, 2007

Event Dates

Stormvale's Hallowe'en event, Harvest of Souls, has been creeping back farther in the month of October for a while. We had reached the middle of the month the last couple of times, and that was the plan this year as well, but apparently there is a conflict with the desired site. It was mentioned at the revel that the planners are thinking of moving back another week, to the 6th. I've been thinking about this, and I wonder if we ought not to consider some possible problems:

1st: This is pretty far from Hallowe'en. How far away do we get in time before the event doesn't make nearly as much sense? Shouldn't we consider getting closer to the date? The weekend of the 20th is Crown, but the weekend of the 27th is open, much closer to the appropriate date. We once had the event on the actual date of the holiday, and were worried that it would be a problem for attendance, but we did fine.

2nd: On the 6th, there are two other events fairly close by - Vineyard Raids in Westmere (Paw Paw, Michigan) and Pounce VI in Catteden (Findlay, OH). These are outside the 100-mile rule, so there is no problem with stepping on anyone's toes, but I wonder if three rather smallish events, the other two sponsored by sizable nearby baronies (Andelcrag and Red Spears) is not going to divide the event-going population in Pentamere that day pretty comprehensively. Aren't we trying to attract more people to this event?

3rd: Here's the clincher. I understand we feel it is necessary to send a letter to Andelcrag mentioning our plan and expressing our regret for having an event on the same day as one of theirs. I don't think anyone will think ill of us - they are on the other side of the state, but... if we think it is necessary to excuse our action, should we be taking the action to begin with? We're a long way out from October. We could use a different site, or move our date in the other direction, or even change to a different theme, in theory. If we were in a jam about the date or site, then ok, of course. But I'm not sure we're in a jam yet.

Just my idle thoughts on the topic.

Thursday, March 22, 2007


Just took a look at the Coronation site. The event is taking place on April 28, 2007, and hosted by Roaring Wastes and Northwoods. I think this is very nearly a model site - I found all my questions quickly answered. I'm excited about both the unique (in my experience) noon feast and the rules for the bear-pit tourney, which incentivizes period display and armor rather than demanding them. Excellent idea in my opinion. I think I can meet all or virtually all of the rules, by then, too.

Clancy Day and Canadian Trips

Over on the Stormvale list, we're discussing Clancy Day and trips to Canada. Over the years, I have noticed there is perhaps a little less interaction between the SCA in Canada and the US than there used to be. When Ealdormere was part of the Middle Kingdom (indeed, at one time part of Pentamere), we used to head over pretty regularly. Even after the separation, it was no big deal to hop over the Blue Water Bridge into Sarnia for an event or a practice. Since 9/11 and the possibility of long lines and more intrusive checks at the border, there has perhaps been a little less contact.

Clancy Day is an event of very long standing held by the Shire of Starleaf Gate in Windsor. Starleaf Gate is the only Ontario group not to go with Ealdormere. Windsor is of course much closer to Roaring Wastes and Detroit than to the Ealdormere population center around Toronto. I don't know whether the Starleaf Gate crew feels a bit isolated since 9/11 or not - I actually haven't been to a Canadian event since the late 1990s. Melisande and I went quite frequently in those days and made good friends; our apartment hosted parties of event-goers from Toronto on a regular basis in return.

We never had any trouble going back and forth over the border. The only incident was one time, the Canadian border guard asked whether we had any weapons, and to my flabbergasted surprise, Melisande innocently volunteered the fact that she was carrying mace in her purse. Mace is illegal in Canada - it had never occurred to me that she might not have realized that. There was a brief delay at that point... but actually they didn't give us a hard time, just made us go back over the border and get rid of the mace and come back.

No passports are required yet unless you're flying, but I've been planning to get passports for us soon anyway. (Not before Clancy Day, obviously.) Strange that I've never had one, but I've never needed one, having travelled only in North and Central America. But we want to go to England in the forseeable future, Canada will be an issue sooner or later, and passports make remarkably good ID no matter where you are.

Not sure about Clancy Day. Definitely going to Coronation at the end of April.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

History Posters

Nothing quite medieval, but perhaps some of my readers might find something amusing.

March Stormvale Revel

Another delightful afternoon and evening at Lady Terryl's for the March revel! We met on Sunday afternoon, the 18th. We counted 30+ attendees. The food was wonderful - I saw (and in some cases sampled) sauerkraut and sausage, chicken, three kinds of cheese tarts, scotch eggs, meatballs and lots of other delightful things.

There were four heavy combatants and a couple of folks interested. I missed the youth combat, but I gather there was some. No fencing, as far as I know. Where are all the fencers?!

I was the recipient of a couple of gifts. Carrie gave me a splendid covered dish for feast gear. She told me she was sufficiently impressed with my feast gear talk, which featured several modern pieces that sufficiently resemble period items, to seek out her own. Having done so, she was kind enough to give me one, too! Thank you, Carrie! (She also gave me tips about how to find them on eBay - I'd had no luck at that for years.)

Later, THL Skalla-Geirmundr gave me two magnificent painted banner stands for Melisande (purple and black) and me (blue and white). Thank you, Geirmundr!

It wasn't even my birthday!

Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Pale Youth Issue

The March issue of The Pale came today, and it is loaded with useful information and articles on youth activities. This seems particularly interesting in Stormvale these days. For anyone who isn't subscribed and would like to read the articles, please let me know at

Good News for Pennsic

SCAToday reports that the Kingdom of Atlantia will be allied with the Middle this summer. Former MidRealm monarch Valharic is Atlantia's prince and will be king at Pennsic. Good news.

Friday, March 02, 2007


Is it time for Stormvale to rethink its habit of having most meetings in private homes?

We actually almost always met in public locations throughout most of our history. Revels were sometimes in private homes, but we were fortunate in being able to obtain meeting space at the University of Michigan-Flint, Red Dragon Hobby Shop, Mundy Presbyterian Church, Flint Public Library, Mott Middle College, and the Grand Blanc MacFarlane Library. We also met for a long time at the Black Dragon Farm location, although that was also a private home.

So our recent rotation of populace meetings and revels in private homes, with the occasional revel in semi-public rooms at the Collingwood Village Apartments in Davison, is a relative change. It doesn't seem to be a problem, exactly. For a long time, the SCA generally discouraged meetings of this kind simply because experience tends to show that it discourages some new members, who are more shy about introducing themselves in someone's home rather than a public place. I haven't heard complaints about this, but maybe we wouldn't.

A more immediate question is whether we may have literally outgrown the practice. There were a reported 17 attendees at the February 17 populace meeting, and about 33 people at the February 19 revel. There were 17 at a recent Artisan's Guild meeting, too. I haven't heard about attendance at either the February 24 meeting or tonight's March 2 meeting, but I wonder whether we may not have reached the point where we will effectively cap our membership at the number that will rationally fit in one of our homes!

I'm not suggesting a solution, just asking the question.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Stormvale's February Revel

The revel last Sunday was quite a success. It was at the home of Lord Gerard, and it nearly overwhelmed the available space. It was so crowded that when it was time to leave, I did something I never do and went home in garb just to avoid staying in everyone's way while I gathered my kit and occupied a bathroom. There were 33 by my count.

There were some little problems to solve. We need to take care about providing suitable activities for youngsters. And we might be outgrowing our custom of using private homes for revels if attendance is going to stay up near the levels we used to attain back in the early 90s.

My dish was Bourbelier de Sanglier (Loin of Pork in Boars Tail Sauce). I've done it before, many times, but there are always refinements. This was one of my finer efforts, if I may say so. I basted the roast, which I usually don't bother with, and the sauce turned out better than usual. A highly satisfactory dish.

Cooking Ambitions

Well, I've cooked a dozen feasts or so for Stormvale, plus a good many dishes for revels and what not. I could cook many more dishes without getting tired of the cuisine, but it occurs to me to consider what I actually need to work on.

First, I've never baked bread. Never even tried it. The topic is a complete mystery to me.

Second, candy-making. While I've cooked many period desserts of the pudding or tart variety, candy-making (other than chocolate truffles, which are both easy and entirely non-period) has always been a disaster. I've literally never successfully cooked a piece of medieval candy. Marzipan was a failure, orengat produced nothing edible, and sugar-coated spices... well, left me wondering about the relationship of any of the recipes to the physical world I live in. Even springerle cookies completely defeated me the first time I tried them. I may have a couple of problems here - I tend to cook recklessly, adding or subtracting here and there, using eye and judgment rather than strict adherance to recipe or temperature. But this is, I gather, not the attitude to take about candy. Temperatures need more exactness, I am told, time and quantities are not to be casually tampered with. Well, ok.

Third, pie dough. Ok, I'm impatient about pie dough. When you can buy it cheaply and get good quality (and note that you generally can't do that with the average medieval ingredient of any kind), it's hard to resist just moving on to something less annoying. The damn stuff just doesn't want to roll out the way I want it to. Practice makes perfect, I suppose.

So, three additional skills to master.

Taste of Diversity

For the Taste of Diversity function, I made Sir Kenelm Digby's Excellent Cake from Cariadoc's Miscellany, Fruit Rissoles from Early French Cooking and Tarts de Bry from Pleyn Delit.

The cake is an old favorite that I have cooked many times. This time I cut the currants in half (Cariadoc's, or perhaps Digby's, recipe is so absurdly currant heavy that the currants actually diminish the physical integrity of the cake) so that seemed to work well. The icing was not a huge success - it wanted to stay runny instead of setting up, but that was not a major problem, just made the top of the bar cookies sticky.

Next were the brie tarts. I bought a tartlette pan for this (I've been meaning to buy one), and made pie dough from scratch. Jesus, what a pain. The filling came out salty, and too eggy to suit me. Next time less egg and more brie, I think. Either that or sugar them. Still, they looked and smelled good.

The fruit rissoles were successful. I cut the sugar in half (Early French Cooking's quantities need to be evaluated carefully in my experience) and added dates. I'm not a tremendous hand at pie dough, so after the experience making the tart dough, I ran to the store and bought rolled pie dough. Cheating, but frankly, I don't care that much. I baked them instead of frying, as usual, and brushed them with egg yolk.

Unfortunately, after dropping the food off at the function (where everyone was appeciative), I had to dash off on another errand, so I don't know what the reaction was, nor did I have a chance to see what else was being provided. Hopefully I'll get some feedback soon.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Unusual Venue

They are having a cooking diversity day at my college, which I think is a pretty nifty idea, and invited the faculty to contribute dishes. I figured you couldn't get more diverse than medieval English! Not sure what I'm cooking yet, but some sort of finger food - perhaps small fruit pies of some sort.

No Val Day for Me!

The week ended with many meetings and a lot of work. In particular, a project that didn't have a deadline (and consequently wasn't on the front burner), suddenly acquired a deadline - now - so I won't be going to Val Day after all. Ides of March looks like the next event opportunity, realistically.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Medieval Cooking Sites

Skalla Geirmundr inquires about useful medieval cooking or food sites, particularly regarding food cooked in the field or on campaign. Most medieval cookbooks, of course, refer to dishes for aristocrats, but a good start would be a SCA publication called Traveling Dysshes, which discusses medieval cooking from that very perspective.

Some other favorite sites:

Gode Cookery
Medieval and Renaissance Food Hompage
Cariadoc's Miscellany
Marijah's Bibliography
Cindy Renfrow

To tell the truth, I've never explored the web for medieval cooking sites very carefully. I've got a fairly substantial collection of cookbooks and books on medieval cooking in general, and haven't come anywhere close to exhausting the possibilities there.

Choices on Feast Planning

There are several important decisions which have to be made about a feast early on.

How many to feed? A typical small event in Pentamere may expect 40-50 would-be diners under normal circumstances. A larger event may expect 50-100. Stormvale should consider 100 or more only if hosting a kingdom event such as crown or coronation.

Budget? Most of our feasts are budgeted based on a feast fee of $8-$10. For example, selling 40 $10 tickets will yield a gross revenue of $400. This gives us an indication of a maximum expediture for the feast. The head cook should remember that he should shoot for spending only 50-75% of this, in order to ensure that we will at least break even if we do not sell out, as not infrequently happens. There are, of course, other considerations. For a special feast, we may want to pull out the stops and spend the expected revenues, or even lose money. This should only be done with the full groups approval.

Menu? There are several possibilities for a menu. Stormvale prides itself on serving period feasts - even if the recipes are not strictly drawn from period cookbooks, we like for all our food to be composed of period ingredients. We have a lengthy list of favorite recipes from past feasts to draw on, and several members have extensive collections of recipes and books on medieval cooking. A theme is also a possibility - all Italian recipes, or Norse, or Middle Eastern. Remember to avoid New World foods - no potatoes, no tomatoes, no chocolate, no corn. If you want to be picky (and some of us do), you could be still more careful about food choice - iceberg lettuce and orange carrots would be out, for example.

Courses? You may have heard them called removes, but course is the medieval word. Most SCA feasts consist of from two to five courses. Often the first course are appetizers and the last are sweet dishes. For the main courses in between, it may be wise to structure them like mini-meals. For example, you might have one meat, fish or fowl type main dish in each course, along with a vegetarian dish, and something with some color, like greens or other vegetables, and no more than one exotic dish per course. It is probably wise to have no more than one salad, one soup and one savory pie per feast, though of course there are exceptions. But the idea is to have some balance and some sense of timing. You may be tempted to interject sweet dishes during the feast, because they did in the Middle Ages, but it is probably not a good idea - modern American diners have got it in their bones that they aren’t supposed to have sweets until the end of the meal, and they will feel full if they get the cookies or cakes too soon.

Vegetarians? A certain proportion of diners at any SCA feast will either need or prefer vegetarian dishes. It is wise to prepare at least one dish per course without meat products. Trying to be more accomodating than this is a chancy business. Many vegetarians are merely trying to avoid red meat, but others won’t eat fish or fowl, either, and some won’t eat any animal products, which removes eggs and dairy products from the equation. A casual glance at any collection of real medieval recipes would reveal that a meatless dish is easy to prepare, since the medievals had many holy days with restricted diets, but doing without eggs and dairy products is far more difficult, and it should be remembered that these ingredients enable the cook to prepare rich foods at low cost. Also, if you get carried away with vegetarian dishes, you will disappoint the many diners who expect meat as a necessary part of any meal.

Special Requests? It is customary to ask people with special dietary needs to contact the head cook, but it may not really be very wise to invite this. If you do, you may find yourself trying to prepare not one coherent meal but to be prepared to be a short order cook. You should try to accomodate people with especially detailed needs or problems - you want them to enjoy the feast, too. But you should face the fact that you can’t actually please everyone, and you’re not running a professional restaurant. If you can plan ahead to leave the cheese out of one pie, for example, great, but remember that you’re adding to your organizational burden and you’ll have to make sure that the one special pie gets to the special diner - and what if they don’t show up after all? You do this sort of thing at your extreme peril, and it may be better to simply anticipate the vegetarians and people with delicate stomachs and provide a suitable variety of dishes to begin with and not yield to complications.

Cholesterol and etc.? If you prepare a rich feast with lots of red meat, elaborate sauces and vast quantities of eggs and cream, some people will inevitably complain that it isn’t healthy. Remind such persons that you are preparing a special meal for a festive occasion, not trying to model a healthy diet for daily use. If they are really that worried, they can eat small quantities. If real butter, saturated fats or red meat must never touch their lips, they’re in the wrong place and they should go out for dinner.

Exotic Dishes? How adventurous should you be when planning the feast? Do visions of oxtail soup, oysters on the half--shell and grilled eel dance in your head? It is ok to try a few exotic foods, but you should space them out and stage them early in the feast when the diners are still hungry enough to eat nearly anything. If something unusual is in a main dish, you may want to consider serving it in small quantities. In particular, greens and seafood should be served with some care as to quantity. (Of course, you run the risk of getting just the crowd that will unexpectedly devour your steamed asparagus and fish with lemon sauce, and not have enough.) The fact is, SCA members are modern Americans, and are pretty picky about food. The same people who could name the parts of every suit of armor in Old French or are eager to wear only the latest Milanese fashions of 1470 are quite capable of becoming as stubborn as a child who will only eat hot dogs and macaroni and cheese when they get to the feast table. Few SCA members transfer their enthusiasm for the Middle Ages to food, so don’t shock their sensibilities. Feed them roast meats and fowls, and salads and soups and stews, with sweet dishes toward the end, and slip in a few exotic items here and there. You’re feeding people who may have trouble dealing with something as simple as the taste of ground meat and fruit in the same dish, a staple of many medieval recipes. Take it easy on them - they had a long day on the list field or need some carbohydrates before they go dancing, and they’re only going to be just so adventurous. They’ll probably enjoy and appreciate the one odd thing you do in each remove, but if it’s all weird, you’re going to bomb. We served a fine cooked pig’s head, complete with snout and ears, to an astonished tournament winner one time, which was funny, but you had to feel for the young lady who turned green when it was put down next to her in a crowded feasthall. On the other hand, don’t cater to the people who would be happy with pizza in the feasthall - this is a medieval feast, not just an everyday meal. Don’t be afraid to cook medieval dishes - just choose at least a few that will look, smell and taste sufficiently like modern food that people will eat it. This is supposed to be a meal, not an arts and sciences exercise.

Beverages? Water and lemonade are conventionally served at all our feasts. Apple cider and other fruit juices are also possibilities, but cost becomes an issue. Most people will bring their own wine, beer, cola or other tipple of their choice, so water and lemonade will usually do the job. We could consider serving alcohol if we do not charge directly for it, do not spend shire monies directly on it, and are careful to card. We have done this for the high table on at least one occasion.

Service? Most of our feasts are served on platters directly to tables seating either six or eight. There are other possibilities. Smaller feasts in particular may be easy to serve buffet-style (which presents portion-control problems), or the feast could be served tavern fashion, with diners ordering from a menu or choosing dishes from different booths (this might be manpower-heavy.) Another option is the so-called Above/Below the Salt arrangement, in which an elaborate feast is prepared at a higher price for some diners and simpler fare for a lower price for others. Stormvale has not had very great success with this idea, since most people who bother with the feast at all often prefer to pay more for the more elaborate feast. The idea has been used with success by other groups, however.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Armor Project So Far

My plan to completely refurbish my harness and kit is in the early stages.

1. The cuisses. Haven't been able to get back to the repair project again. However, bought a new set of leg harness from James River Armoury. Within two weeks, that problem should be completely solved. I will still finish repairing the old set, which will be used for loaners.

2. My half gauntlets are a disgrace. Battered, rusty and the straps are failing. I resorted to the brute force method here, too. Bought new ones from Sussen Armory.

3. Helm, full gauntlets, leather vambraces and segmented breastplate are all fine. I even have an old spare breastplate for practice. Some polishing and general upkeep will be sufficient here, although a new mail aventail is needed, and I will at some point have to do something about a more period padding system for the helm, which deserves better than the foam lining it has.

4. New dressy arm and leg harness have been on order for some time from a custom armorer. Hope to hear about that soon. These will get worn for tournaments only.

That's it so far. I need new fighting surcoats or tabards, the swords need retaping, etc., and I mentioned the arming doublet problem which will have to get prioritized. When will I fight at a tournament again? I'm thinking the Ides of March event in Iron Oak in March, considering the calendar, the list of things I need to do and the degree with which work and other concerns tend to delay matters.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Arms and the Heraldry Geek

I've been moving the furniture around a bit at Clarion Hall... the blog, not the bricks and mortar location. And it occurs to me that I need to do something about the little picture of me in armor. That is a bright new tabard circa 1997 with my arms of the time, and it is no longer accurate.

I'm on my third set of arms at this point. I began in the mid 80s with a design I felt was handsome. It was, let's see now, ahem, Azure, a tyger statant between in chief an arch of five estoiles and in base a clarion argent. Pretty, but you can tell from the lengthy blazon, not the epitome of medieval elegance. Too many charges, and the arch of charges isn't medieval. It would never be registered today, as the standard of scholarship in the SCA College of Arms is much higher. Also, the tyger is the badge of the East Kingdom, and therefore inconvenient.

So I wanted something simpler, or at any rate more appealing. By the early 1990s, I was an active herald, and knew a lot more. So I put together some nicer designs and took them to a couple of events at which I buttonholed every senior herald I could find. I just showed them the designs and asked them which they preferred, thinking I would rely on their collective taste. Without much fuss, they all preferred Per pale argent and azure, three clarions counterchanged. So that's the one I registered. I was very pleased with it; it would have not have looked out of place on a battlefield circa, oh, say 1350. That was what I was looking for - elegant and authentic.

Funny story: what I really wanted was the much simpler Azure, three clarions argent. Ok, you perhaps have to be a herald to understand why a smile comes to my face merely to type a four word blazon. That's a design that wouldn't have looked out of place just as early as they began to use clarions in heraldry, probably about 1285 (according to Bruce Draconarius of Mistholme and Akagawa Yoshio, the authors of the fine SCA heraldry publication A Pictorial Dictionary of Heraldry, and I imagine they're right). But somebody named Robin Clarian had Per chevron azure and argent, three clarions counterchanged, and I thought, foolish young lad, that it conflicted with the simpler design. But a couple of years ago, I decided to try to find Robin Clarian and see if he would grant me permission to conflict with his elegant arms (which are actually one of the examples in the Pic Dic, and well they might be.) But when I put the word out, a helpful herald in the CoA pointed out to me that I had failed to understand a subtlety about the rule of conflict. Suffice to say that there actually were two clear differences between Robin Clarian and my preferred design. Oh joy!

So I registered Azure, three clarions argent, somewhat gleefully.

People have occasionally asked me why I picked clarions. Do they have some special meaning for me? Am I a musician? No. No damn reason at all, except they date from 1285 and are distinctive. And I like the sound of the word: clarion. They were also called claricords and claricymbals. And clarions are suggestive, to me, anyway, of chivalry and horns blowing in a stricken field.

Arming Doublet Mishap

I mentioned below that I had received a beautiful blue gambeson or arming doublet from Revival Clothing, but that it was too small. Yesterday, I spoke to the nice lady at Revival about exchanging the item for a medium. Unfortunately, they may not have the blue medium for many weeks, perhaps as long as late summer. This is dismaying news. Red or natural are available, but... it must be blue.

So I am sending it back, and will wait patiently. In the meantime, because my old arming doublet is in sad shape, I will have to make a new one. What the heck, maybe I'll make it out of some absurd and costly fabric and hope it holds up until the blue one comes. The problem is, I can't sew a lick and Melisande has tendonitis. So we will see if I can make it while she supervises.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

What I'm Reading III

Heraldry, Pageantry and Social Display in Medieval England, edited by Peter Coss and Maurice Keen. This is an academic collection of articles on the topic. I've actually read it before, or most of it, but I'm particularly enjoying "Knighthood, Heraldry and Social Exclusion in Edwardian England" by Peter Coss (that's the first three Edwards, not Edward VI, by the way) and "Heraldry in Medieval England: Symbols of Politics and Progaganda" by Adrian Ailes.

I just finished re-reading Living and Dining in Medieval Paris: The Household of a Fourteenth Century Knight by Nicole Crossley-Holland. So useful and entertaining I decided at last to order my own copy and to stop monopolizing the MSU library copy.

More Arts

Wow! The second session of the Stormvale Artisan's Guild drew 17 attendees! I gather there was a great deal of sawdust as Geirmundr led everyone in making medieval boxes and chests.

I had a panel discussion on regional cooperation to attend. I was going to blow it off, as originally I was supposed to give a talk on medieval tableware before the box session, but one of my colleagues reminded me that some of my suggestions and interests guided the selection of topics and speakers, and I felt I ought to attend. (In my non-SCA life, I am, among other things, a fiend for land use topics and New Urbanism.) It went very well.

So, I'll give the feast gear talk next time, and I'll have to start on my chest project before our next meeting, too.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Armor in Progress

My beautiful blue arming doublet from Revival Clothing came today. Unfortunately, as I had feared, I guessed wrong on the size. From their chart, I'm right on the cusp between the sizes, but it looked like small was a better bet. Nope. So there will be a further delay as I exchange it. But it is a thing of beauty, and I'm certain I'll be very pleased with the medium.

Tomorrow, more work on the aforementioned cuisses. I did buy new power shears - they were actually less expensive than replacing the blades for the old one that belongs to Stormvale.

Progress of a Student of Arms IV (Or How Insults Can Be Compliments)

Well, my last fighting story was a bit of a downer. Here's a more cheerful one.

In the fall of 2001, we were having an armored combat practice at the Black Dragon Farm site, and I was having a rather prolonged sparring match with my friend Kveld-Ulfr Hersir inn Berserkr, of Stormvale, Iron Oak and more recently Northwoods. Kveld-Ulfr has a relaxed defensive style, very hard to get past, and an offensive style of waiting for his opponent to come into range and make a mistake. A good combination, and a bad match-up for me, with a relatively sophisticated offense but relatively poor defense. I had trouble getting past his guard, and staying in range to do so was likely to prove fatal. No point in dancing around with Kveld-Ulfr, my usual style, he would just stand and wait for me to come to him.

On this occasion, we stood in each other's range and whacked away somewhat cautiously, and a few other combatants were standing around watching. It was a highly satisfactory bout, one which went on for a long time and in which neither participant made any serious mistakes.

At last we paused, still in close range, and looked calmly at each other, for quite a long time (by combat standards, meaning it seemed like a long time to me but probably wasn't really all that long). We each waited for the other to do something. The circumstances called for something heroic. One of us, sooner or later, would snipe the other and hit the miniscule opening we might provide with a violent, perfectly delivered snap. That was how this bout ought to end.

Instead, and I don't know what possessed me, because I rarely use this particular tactic - it must have been the time I had to think it over - I brought the hilt of my sword smoothly before my face, let the tip fall so that it pointed toward him and gently poked him in the face. It was without a doubt the most elegant face thrust I've ever delivered, all so perfectly calm and relaxed that he never reacted.

Down went his sword and shield, and Kveld-Ulfr cried "Balian, you dick!" and began to laugh. Ever since, that has been my favorite insult. Kveld-Ulfr was always one for the bon mot.

NPR Story on Medieval Book

NPR did a nice story last year about a medieval book which conceals a lost text by Archimedes under the prayers.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Progress of a Student of Arms III

I was just thinking about the worst mistake I ever made in armor.

It was in 1996, and I had fought at the Red Dragon Tournament in Tirnewydd the day before. I was fighting more than I had in years, and having a wonderful time. I got a little beaten up, mostly the result of an unexpected encounter with a couple of fighting styles I hadn't seen before, having mostly fought in Pentamere. In particular, I got hit several times in my left bicep, where I had no armor (I fought almost exclusively in the so-called Florentine style for about a decade, with reasonable success, and my usual sparring partners either didn't hunt for that opening out of habit, or they knew my style and used other methods to get me). I never got hit there, so I was pretty sore.

In Stormvale the next evening, I probably would not have armored up for the practice, but we had a new young man in armor for the first time, and I was the only one handy, so I got in harness to spar with him. I was making several kinds of mistake without realizing it.

First, I was tired and bruised, more so than I realized. Second, it was dark, and we were fighting under a floodlight. I have always had difficulty fighting in anything other than natural daylight or very well-lit halls, and I wear contact lenses. The only time I had ever fought without them (at that time) was a disaster, and I had sworn never to do that again. But I didn't realize how much trouble I was going to be in.

The young man turned out to be an athlete. He was strong and fast, and he grasped the essentials immediately. I literally could not stop him from hitting my left leg. I mean, literally. I had been fighting for 12 years by then and was no slouch, but this kid could hit my leg at will with perfectly timed blows and excellent force. I could not shift my shield fast enough to stop him. (And I probably had not picked up a shield in months.)

Now, here's the thing. Damn near everybody is faster than me. I'm not that athletic, have no more than ordinary upper body strength, if that. So why don't I always have this problem? Well, because in a normal fight with someone with experience, I can manuever, I can time my blows to take advantage of relative inexperience (that was the only way I could ever lay rattan on Aileran O Faelain, years later), I can charge and keep my opponent too busy to hit me back, I can feint, I can play head games (yeah, look at my nice armor and smooth body language - are you sure you know what you're getting into? God, I've won dozens of fights with that.) I'm pretty good at manipulating range, especially with two weapons, and if I'm not the best fighter around, I actually have rather a lot of "helmet time" and can almost always adjust if I have time and opportunity. Hell, I've adopted styles I've never used before but merely heard described out of desperation to cope with sparring partners who were giving me trouble.

But a newby? It wasn't fair to pull out the bag of tricks just to salve my ego, or even spare me a bruise or two. Our iron rule in Stormvale, and I am the one who literally wrote it down, is "don't break the newby!" So he was faster than me. Good! We would make him a really good fighter in short order. If he surpassed us all, then we would be proud!

No, we wouldn't. Because I couldn't adjust, and I couldn't see, and really ought not to have been in armor that night at all, I stood there and let him beat the hell out of me. And afterwards, he had beat up one the local pros, so to speak, and his head swelled a bit. At the next week's practice, full of himself, the other fighters in the shire had little choice but to do what I had chosen not to do that night: they showed him that there was a whole universe of things to do to him that did not involve standing in his range and suffering his admittedly great speed and strength. And he was surprised and discouraged and never came back.

I assign this as my fault. The moment I realized he could hit me at will, I should have started manuevering and ramped up the pressure on him, even if it was breaking my own rule. I could then have stopped and told him that he was doing great, and kept everything in its proper perspective. Instead, I stubbornly stuck to our usual plan, which was of course designed to help ordinary beginners by not throwing the kitchen sink at them, not a stud like this guy. And then he had a week to have the wrong impression instead of minutes, and had to have it beaten out of him.

That wasn't all. Within a day, my overdoing it that weekend had resulted in a dreadful case of tendonitis that kept me out of armor for over six months and pretty much ended my serious fighting career. It took codeine to keep me upright before long, and I never recovered that enthusiasm I had the day before in Tirnewydd.

I don't know what happened to the kid. Maybe he rediscovered the SCA and is a knight in some other kingdom. Or maybe he has forgotten all about a brief flirtation with our hobby. But I haven't forgotten him, or how badly I messed us both up.

Skalla's Steading

My brother-in-arms now has his own blog: Skalla's Steading. He just started, so check back every now and then. (By the way, this is the Geirmundr not infrequently mentioned below. He is the Honorable Lord Skalla-Geirmundr Ulfsson, CDH, APF, AoA. Everyone else calls him Skalla, and I have always called him Geirmundr.)

Armoring Concerns

Well, I got in armor for the first time in a while on Sunday, and while the fighting was fine (aside from conditioning issues, which are easy enough to correct), I was greatly dissatisfied with the state of my harness, which has become rusty, dented and ragged.

So I have begun to refit and rebuild. An immediate issue is getting my leg harness shaped up. There are three problems: they need urgently to be polished; the belt-based pointing won't do anymore, especially since I actually have a nice new pourpoint to attach them to; and the left cuisse is so battered that it is really rather unseemly. (Early in its life it did more duty as a loaner for newbies than I ought to have allowed for my primary gear.)

The cuisse was the first priority. Geirmundr helped me remove it; I flattened it out and used it for a pattern for a replacement piece. We immediately ran into problems about cutting out the replacement, but nothing we can't solve by Friday night, our probable next stab at at. I hope to have a new cuisse cut, polished, bent and attached by the end of the weekend. A trip to MidState Bolt for the right size of rivet is indicated tomorrow, along with an attempt to purchase a replacement set of shears for the shire's power shears. (Or judging by prices I'm seeing online, I may just buy a new set of shears...)

The second problem is the pointing arrangement. I plan to use the method described in Brian Price's Techniques of Medieval Armour Reproduction at p. 307. Geirmundr has done something like this and reports it works well.

The polishing, well, that's easy enough, if tedious.

Beyond that, of course, there remains much to do. My new arming doublet from Revival Clothing should be here by the end of the week (and I hope to God I ordered the right size). My helmet needs some short term adjustments and will need a lot of work later to substitute a period padding scheme. I need a new shield, need to retape all my swords, and my gauntlets are in a disgraceful condition.

With luck and effort, I hope to be in decent shape by the weekend of February 2-4, and back in the style I prefer to present by the end of February (see the picture above for what I looked like at the peak of my form). My new brass-trimmed arms and legs are supposed to be done soon, or so I hope, so that will be a major upgrade.

My other ambition is to effectively have a somewhat plainer rig for practice and save the nicer equipment for tournaments. Also, I will during February attempt to substitute proper kit down to the skin, including hosen, a medieval shirt and shoes, the whole bit.

Monday, January 22, 2007

January Revel Report

We had a good turnout at the revel, although many regulars were absent. New member Carrie brought her young sons – I may have lost track, but I think there were four or five, and some youth combat practice was done. We had surprise visitors at the practice, longtime member and former seneschal Lord Gavin and Sir Jocelyn le Jongleur. Gavin, Lord Torashi, Lord Geirmundr and I all donned armor and practiced a bit. Lady Terryl’s garage is as promised, highly suitable for single combat, with plenty of room for others to stand back and watch the fighting in reasonable safety.

In the evening, we dined on stew, delicious sauerkraut and sausage, meatballs, roast chicken and other delicacies. I provided mulled wine, which was not that timely, considering the number of young men in attendance. We discussed upcoming projects, and I proposed, as suggested below, that I form a committee to plan a somewhat upgraded version of Founders Day for the 25th Anniversary of the shire. This met with agreement. We will report back on our plans, I hope, at the February Revel and business meeting.

Lady Eron suggested that we might want to consider new t-shirts and the like for the shire to commemorate the occasion, and Geirmundr and I were able to report that we have already been looking into this. is a very convenient method, cost free for set up, but we need suitable art. Eron, of course, is just the person for this, so we will consult. In my opinion, we’ll need both regular Stormvale wares, hats, t-shirts, cups and so forth, and also specialized items to commemorate the 25th year.