Master John the Artificer of the Barony-Marche of the Debatable Lands passed away unexpectedly in his home on November 25th, A.S. LV, at the age of 66.
John was an SCA member for over 40 years, and was honored with the East Kingdom Orders of the Silver Crescent (service) and Maunche (arts) as well as a Laurel in 1987. In 1999 he received a Millrind from Æthelmearc. Until her passing almost three years ago, he was champion and companion of Mistress Achren of the Debatable Lands.
Lady Bronwyn Jourdemaine notes “More recently, John had retired, and was enjoying himself. He had become involved with Mistress Siobhan ingen Ragnaill, a fellow companion of the Order of the Laurel, originally from the Kingdom of Trimaris. They traveled together to New Zealand and England, and were planning a trip to Scotland next year.
Master John had a keen interest in medieval sciences. Mistress Kris Gilibari recalls: “John really was about investigating medieval technology, he was always up to some project or other. I once remember Master John doing a demo in Mistress Achren’s living room, to show how cochineal was made. This is a messy, chemical process that can even “boil over”, which is to say it can foam up and you end up with pink dye everyplace. Chemicals and raw materials went in, and out came some bright pink goop that will later dry out and become a useful pigment. But he did it, and made a rather complicated operation look pretty simple. This is what he was about, investigating old processes and recipes, drawing from ancient accounts of how to build, make, or brew countless concoctions and devices just for the sake of knowing, and then explaining to others how to do the same.”
Lady Bronwyn said, “An engineer, it would surprise no one that his interests included alchemy and other medieval sciences. His researches in those subjects were known throughout the Known World. It was through them that he got to know Mistress Achren. who would be his partner until she died three years ago. He would be a large help to Achren’s family, including her two children who live abroad now.” Lady Bronwyn also notes, “John was truly a renaissance man, interested in brewing, cooking, dye making, metal working, printing, painting, and theater.”
Master John was probably best known for the replica Norwegian stave church that served as his merchant booth at Pennsic. Before he purchased it, the stave church was used at the Carnegie Mellon University annual Spring Carnival. Mistress Kris remembers: “His little stave-church shop was a fixture for so many years at Pennsic, serving as both a store and as a meeting place for any and all comers, and the benches out front provided shade and rest for weary Pennsic shoppers. At night, the warm golden lights inside the tiny building made it look so inviting and joyous, and more often than not, laughter or song could be heard from within. To be honest, once you stepped inside it was difficult to leave, since one story or joke just led to another, and on into the summer evenings. And that is how I’m always going to remember him, laughing and telling his tales, explaining how things worked, there in the shop of many things.”
In that booth John sold a variety of goods, many of them scribal. Mistress Kris continues, “John kept the scribes and artists of the Barony well supplied with pigments and other period tools. In fact, I have a piece of sterling silver rod that I bought from him years ago for silverpoint drawing, and I still use it at my desk every day.”
Mistress Filipia Cupbreaker shared John’s merchant booth and also traveled to Europe with him. “I will always treasure the time I had with him at the stave church, putting period materials into artist’s hands and knowledge into their heads. “Cennini-weight gold leaf – go on, touch it.” He provided a cornerstone for the community and a nexus for information exchange.”
Mistress Una de St. Luc remembers how hot it was in the church at Pennsic. “The filtered light through the wood, surrounded by various artistic things. John was such a lover of the arts and supporting artists. I remember he was really getting into trying to make block prints. We would talk about block print scrolls and designs. I think some people received some of his block print scrolls. For scribes, I feel like for a long time he was the place to go to buy pigments. I went there many times and sat with Master Brendan Brisbane and John, taking notes on art. Master John… was one of the foundation stones for the scribal community by providing the artists with needed supplies. He helped to bridge the gap for many scribes to go from modern day artist to using medieval equipment.”
Mistress Ts’vee’a bas Tseepora recalls, “I remember one time he tried to grow flax to make linen, but the smell of the retting flax made his neighbors complain. The stave church he sold out of was originally built for CMU carnival. It made him happy to have people come in and let him [explain] what it was modeled after. The pigments he sold, he ground himself.”
John was also involved with one of the first theatrical troupes in what is now Æthelmearc, called Commedia Forensica. Master Dani of the Seven Wells recounted an incident when Comedia Forensica was rehearsing on Mistress Achren’s lawn. “John felt the frolicking wasn’t up to snuff (the play was “Undine”), so he demonstrated how to frolic – a combination of dance, leap, and make a bad landing. Okay, the bad landing may not have been intended. When they asked him in the emergency room how he’d hurt his ankle, he said “frolicking”, and that’s what they wrote on his chart.”
Mistress Filipia took a trip with John to Italy, and says “John and I often looked at the same artifact and had a different intellectual experience/association. My favorite memory, though, was climbing the newly restored and opened tower of Pisa, and laughing as we wondered if it was safe to have both of our massive egos on the same side on top.”
Sir Maghnus an Chnoic na n’Iora recalls that, together with Mistress Achren, Master John founded the Chiurgeons, Hermeticists, Alchemists and Thaumaturgist’s (or CHAT) Guild, which met monthly in the Debatable Lands. “I went to several [meetings]. I remember a lot of talk about Hermès Trismagistus, as one would expect. I also remember the discussion of the high level of technology indicated by the Antikytheria Mechanism, and the terrible impact that the Pompei eruption must have had on the civilization of the Mediterranean Basin.”
Lady Arcana, daughter of Mistress Achren, recalls “I was an apprentice to the erudite Master for Artificing; the myriad projects were ever shifting from notorious Lexan armour (stormtrooper-esque, which appalled authenticity police) to astrolabes to massive period pavilions. Not to mention Viking oar tents, rope beds, hand ground illumination pigments, the Pennsic Stave Church, a gigantic bread oven for giant feast loaves, leatherwork belts and shoes, metalwork, to printing, exploding mead, and a beautiful and loud bronze calyx. This is but a sample.”
Lady Arcana also noted, “John used to sneak ferrets into Pennsic, codename ‘Geraniums’. People thought he was horticulturally minded as he often nipped out to ‘water the geraniums’. He was in fact into gardening as well and grew some of his plants for dye paints though never gave me the long promised blue turnsole. His mind flit rapidly from subject to subject, thus he was well matched with SCAdian life. ”
Lady Arcana continues, “John was mundanely part of my family and remained so unto the end. We traveled on Medieval and Renaissance research in US, Ireland, France, Belgium, Germany, Spain and Portugal. We toured obscure museums and sites of historic interest. He always had thoroughly studied for these trips, and made travel plan packs with maps and highlights. Life without John will be considerably less interesting. He was rather eccentric, thorny at times, yet generous of nature with an unusual brand of kindness. There was inside a good heart.”
Lady Arcana’s children also recall Master John fondly. Her son Arden said, “Master John the Artificer, with his partner Baroness Achren, graciously hosted me at Pennsic many times since the 80s. He got me my first ever job, as an SCA paper boy in the early 90s, and brought me to my first sword fighting tourney. I assisted Master John with his stave church for a couple years in the early 2000s. A beautiful Norse treasure chest on wheels; gems and gold, precious pigments and scrolls, incense and all manner of craft and luxury items occupied every dark cool corner of it.
At Pennsics 25 and 30 each Scadian received an astrolabe designed by Master John the Artificer as their ID band medallion. These beautiful works, engraved in metal, were functional for star gazing and navigation. Master John’s diverse skills and learning were a great light for many, and our loss is deeply felt.”
Her other son, Art, has “fond memories of John at the war helping him in his church. He would be selling all kinds or interesting and wonderful things including limpet shells as paint tins, which I would collect for him from when I was a young age back in Ireland at Streedagh beach (where 3 Spanish Armada ships had crashed).”
At this time funeral arrangements are not known.