Mistress Arianna of Wynthrope interviewed Master John Michael Thorpe about his new Guild Hall. Here’s his original announcement, posted on December 15, 2016:
I have been thinking for a while about how best to promote the growth of medieval and renaissance material culture (The tangible items that are part of the daily experience of the people and cultures that we as members of the SCA try to emulate). My personal view is that we can greatly enhance our shared experience as members of the society, as well as make it more authentic if we promote the idea and practice of producing period items using period (or as close as we can approximate) tools and materials and using them as they would have been used. Æthelmearc has guilds both at a Kingdom and local level, as well as artisans, and hobbyists (and just people who are interested in learning how to do something, or saw something cool that they want to try in a book) so after briefly bouncing the concept off of Their Majesties and Their Highnesses, and basing the concept on the Guild Hall in the Medieval City of York (Jorvik) where all of the guilds would meet. I have created the Æthelmearc Guild Hall as an informal organization.
This organization will be dedicated to communication between artisans of all genres, whether it be cooking, ceramics, metals, tailoring whatever. The Guild Hall will be run by and for the artisans, outside of the structure of the formal A&S community, answering as the medieval guilds did directly to the Crown. As we grow more members we can decide as a body how formally or informally we as a group want to do things, but the first step is to set up a forum where we can all communicate. Facebook is the easiest way to do this so I have created a public group.
All who are Æthelmearc subjects and are interested in the material trades are welcome to join. The usual prohibitions on mundane politics and being a jerk apply. Until this is up and running I will retain the right to ban anyone who is acting like a jerk so be nice
Master John Michael Thorpe
Guildmaster, Royal Guild of Æthelmearc Metalsmiths
Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Master Thorpe. What prompted you to create the Guild Hall, and what do you hope people get out of it?
One of the things that I have been noticing consistently in my 32 years in the SCA is that there is a real dearth of material culture evident. While you see newbies invariably outfitting themselves with various props that to their mind signify that they are in the SCA version of what was called “Theater Space” when I was working as an actor, the cheesy Chinese-made, junk vendor-supplied “dagger” comes to mind… (yes I had one or three as well when I was new) the use of objects that were commonly used in period as part of our daily life while we are at events is lacking. When I see people making things as A&S competition entries, so many times they are using modern tools and modern materials in modern ways to make something that in their interpretation looks like a period item. Additionally, there are people who are working on making things that were done by artisans in the middle ages. Some of them are working together in groups, whether they be Kingdom guilds, local group guilds, or just a weekly “stitch and bitch,” and some are working alone. There is not really a single group where (for instance) the threadworkers, the cooks, and the metalsmiths communicate to organize ways of increasing their visibility, building an event together, or looking for artisans who can help them figure out something outside of their discipline. I initially considered applying to the Æthelmearc Gazette to become a “trades” correspondent after my term as Kingdom Chronicler was over as a means of helping to increase the visibility of the trades, but ultimately decided that a better role would be organizing within the guild structure.
What kinds of things do you consider “material trades?” What was your reason for choosing that particular group of activities?
The things that I consider “Material Trades” are things like Carpentry, Joinery, Blacksmithing, Leatherworking, Weaving, Goldsmithing, Bookbinding; pretty much anything that produces material goods that was practiced as a profession in our period of study. Technically, even bread baking and sausage making were guild-controlled activities in some medieval cultures (It was illegal in medieval England, for instance, to bake your own bread according to some accounting records if I remember correctly). My focus, both in the SCA and mundanely, has been making things. I am known mostly for my metalwork, but I have experience from an early age working in leather, wood, metal, plastic, and glass. My attraction to the material arts has been the fact that when you make something tangible, it has not just a physical form, but if it is a recreation of a period item and it is made well and used in a period manner, it brings a measure of authenticity to that which it touches. It is easy to assess the tangible merits of an item, (is it well crafted, does it look finished) and the functional merits (if it is a tool, does it perform the task that it was meant for well, and without injuring the hand that wields it?) but there is another dimension (intrinsic?) – using a good reproduction to perform the task that the original would have been used for in the manner that the original would have been applied lends an element of authenticity to what we as a society are trying to do, and as such elevates what we are doing beyond just another “Ren Faire.”
Why was it important to you that the Guild Hall be “outside of the structure of the formal A&S community?”
I really want the Guild Hall to be something run by and for the tradespeople, and something that is dedicated to promoting the material arts. The Ministry of Arts and Sciences is a very well-meaning group, but their focus is providing a reporting structure for verifying that people do arts as part of their local culture, and organizing specific activities. I want to take a more encompassing approach. As the type of people who are most likely to drive what I am looking for (myself included) are not the type given to rigid deadlines and quarterly reports, I want to have the freedom to let the Guild Hall grow in whatever direction fits the community.
You say that material culture is “often lacking” in the SCA. What do you feel we need but don’t have? How would you like to fix that lack?
I see a lot of people who are wearing their garb like a costume, often without the accessories that would complete an outfit in period (myself included), and using modern substitutions for items that would have been in daily use in period. This can be because they are not aware of what the item would have been, or there is not a proper period piece available that they are aware of, or there is not sufficient awareness of the role that a given item played. Also, and I am guilty of this as well, camping events have very modern items and furnishings scattered pretty much everywhere, unless you are in an authenticity-high setting like Enchanted Ground. One thing that helps to establish the illusion is replacing modern items and processes with the proper period equivalents, and the easiest way to make that happen is to provide encouragement and education for people to make the pieces. Not just a one-off A&S competition entry, but individually or as groups people producing all sorts of goods.
I am all for people learning their craft well enough to do it professionally if that appeals to them. I [have] an unattainable goal [of] events like Ice Dragon having all of the merchant spaces filled with people making all or most the merchandise that they sell,and all of that merchandise being reasonably documentable. But on a practical level, I want to help spread the knowledge of how material goods were produced and used, and encourage people to do that as a regular part of what we all do.
One of the things I have noticed is that awareness of the methods and tools used to craft common items, and the aesthetics common to period items, is often missing. I see people using power tools to knock huge chunks of material down into something that loosely approximates the shape of something they have seen photographed face on in a book. I have found that it is often easier to create a proper period form of something if you recreate the tools that would have been used and try to use the materials that the original was made with. Many times if you approach a task as you think a period tradesman would have, the tools and material guide you to a period form as that is the path of least resistance. For instance, if you try to bull a gothic arched window frame out of plywood with power tools it will look clumsy and unfinished no mater what you do, and will not be strong. On the other hand if you rive green oak splints and steam them into form with pins and tenons to hold them top and bottom you end up with a marvelously light and graceful yet extremely strong form with all of the right geometry. You can take that insight to almost all of the trades.
What do you mean when you say the Guild Hall would “answer directly to the Crown?”
When I started the Royal Guild of Æthelmearc Metalsmiths, I read a lot about the medieval guilds, particularly the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. Virtually all guilds were established by Royal charter and were charged by the King to maintain the standards of quality of goods and services, but also to collect or provide a tax or a tithe to the Crown. When I established the Royal Guild of Æthelmearc Metalsmiths, our charter was signed by Malcolm I and Tessa I. It pledged to serve and advise the Crown and populace of the Kingdom of Æthelmearc . I have included His Majesty and Their Highnesses in the initial Guild Hall Facebook group (I couldn’t directly include Her Majesty, I assume due to privacy settings, but I tried) so that they would have direct access to the members both to observe what level of activity the Guild Hall members were engaged in, and to have a direct link to suggesting ideas or projects that would enrich the Kingdom as a whole.
Do you envision the group expanding beyond Facebook to in-person meetings, or even hosting events?
Absolutely! When the ideas that this grew out of initially formed, I was talking with Master Angus (OL East, housewright work), Master Simon de Okewode (OL Æthelmearc, pottery and metalcrafts) Master Erwilliom MacFergus (OL Æthelmearc, metal crafts) and a few others about starting a “Trades Company.” It would be sort of like the Tournament Companies, doing event space inside of events that had workshops set up, with only documentable tools and processes being used, starting out at a 25-foot authenticity level, and evolving over a period of time to “sight and feel” authenticity of tools, processes, and materials. Life intervened and we all got extremely busy, so that never came into being, but the Metalsmiths guild efforts to hold events within the events of local groups have a good track record, so I would like in the future to find groups that have events with enough room that we could add a Guild Hall meeting and trades demonstration as an additional attendance draw.
Do you expect the Guild Hall to end up with a formal structure – perhaps the “apprentice/journeyman/master” structure of medieval guilds?
At some point that will likely happen. I want to avoid the term “Master” for anything involved in a ranking system as that term is already formally linked to Bestowed Peerages, and the term “Apprentice” is already in use to describe the pledged vassal of a Laurel, so at some point I am sure that the Guilds will sort out some sort of universally acknowledged means of addressing who is an experienced mentor, who is a novice, and who is well on their journey, but I have no strong desire to push it. If people are merely looking to add a new title to their alphabet soup, they are probably looking in the wrong place
For those who don’t already know you, could you provide a brief SCA resumé?
I initially joined the SCA in Myrkfaelinn in 1982, and fought heavy until a motorcycle accident wiped out my left knee. After that I was kind of fringy until, as an RIT student in 1986, I stumbled on a Thescorre fencing practice at RIT. I made myself a fencing sword hilt because what was available at the time commercially was junk. After I moved back to Ithaca, I continued fencing, and made my second rapier hilt under the careful tutelage of Master Roberto di Milano (Mac the Armorer).
I started making swept-hilt fencing rapiers in 1991 back before schlager was an experimental weapons form, and as they got more accepted and eventually became the main fencing weapon of the SCA, my business making them kind of grew. At that point I was still focused on the rapier world. I became a rapier marshal, then group rapier marshalI, and eventually Seneschal of Myrkfaelinn. At one point early on, I entered an A&S competition at Sergeants and Yeomen’s, had a bad judge, and swore off any and all A&S involvement in the SCA. Mundanely I had been working as a bench goldsmith on and off since I had worked up from being the polisher at a wholesale jewelry repair trade shop.
Around the time I became Seneschal of Myrkfaelinn, I approached Don Ivan ap Myrddin about becoming a cadet. He told me that, because of politics, I would never become a White Scarf, and took me as a protegé instead. He told me that to become a candidate for Pelican, I would have to broaden my service beyond Rapier. Since I was already mundanely a goldsmith and bladesmith, the metal arts seemed like a good fit, so I started teaching and demonstrating metalsmithing in the SCA as well as researching period practices. Part of that service was setting up the Royal Guild of Æthelmearc Metalsmiths and organizing multi-Kingdom metal symposiums. Long story short, I got a Laurel for metalsmithing, metallurgy, and jewelry manufacturing, and abandoned the Pelican path. Oh, and for a couple of years I was heavily involved as a musician in trying to bring back European dancing to events, and helped organize a couple of dance events.
Master John Michael Thorpe currently lives in the Barony of Delftwood. Despite his claim to have “abandoned” a service path, he has served as a rapier marshal at the local and deputy Kingdom levels, as a local chatelain, and as seneschal for both Myrkfaelinn and Delftwood. He just stepped down as Kingdom Chronicler this fall.