Continuing the freshly-minted tradition of virtual sharing in these times of plague, the Kingdom Office of Arts & Sciences once again reached out to our fabulous Arts & Sciences Championship artisans to share their work with the populace at large on a more personal level. The virtual Kingdom Championship was also a juried competition, and included a week’s worth of face to face judging – with judges especially selected for their knowledge and background – as well as an online populace “meet and greet the artisans.” Master Hrólfr and I, your Kingdom Arts & Sciences officers, enjoy finding new ways to inspire and motivate our artisans in these trying times and we are happy to see the Championship ran so smoothly!
Today’s interview is with Caleb Reynolds, who entered the Kingdom of Æthelmearc Arts and Sciences Championship with his research paper “What the Norse Greenlanders ate.”
Could you tell me a little about you, your persona?
I am Caleb Reynolds. I joined the SCA in November 1984 after seeing an armored combat demonstration at the Texas Renaissance Festival. I tracked down my local chapter (Barony of the Stargate) by looking up Richard Lionheart’s number in the phone book. My persona is a late 11th century Norman in occupied Saxon England. My paper is about the diet of the Norse who occupied Greenland: I think it is possible my Norman alter-ego might have heard of Greenland, but would never have visited.
What inspired you to make your entry?
I am fascinated by the minutiae of medieval life. Most book concentrate on battles and who became King or Queen. I am interested in the little things: table forks, pretzels, weathercocks, bowling, fried fish, horseshoes, law suits, water mills. I was reading a book about the Norse expansion and the book devoted three or four paragraphs to Greenland. The Norse occupied Greenland for around 450 years and this book could only mention that Eric the Red discovered it; his son discovered America, and that the Greenlanders couldn’t grow anything because Greenland wasn’t green (ha ha, wasn’t that a scam to get people to Greenland), so they only ate seal meat and cheese. I was surprised since the details on Iceland, Shetland, and Dublin were very well written. My research took me to Jerald Diamond’s “Collapse”, which has a sizable section about the start and end of the colony. Some of his statements didn’t sit well with me and inspired me to do an more in depth search. The majority of the popular press only mention a diet of protein and dairy, but humans can’t live on a 100% protein diet: they must have eaten something other than meat and I wanted to know what they could have eaten.
Did the entry throw up any unexpected issues?
This was a straight up research project. Since I don’t have access to primary sources, and I don’t read Latin, Danish or other languages, my sources were primarily English ones. There is most likely a wealth of information that could have helped me but has never been translated. With the pandemic, JSTOR and Academic.edu opened up their libraries to everyone. This gave me access to a lot of information that I would not have known existed a year ago. The major hurdle I encountered was all of the rabbit holes this topic opened up. The paper was primarily a discussion on what food was available to eat on the island. But I had to reign myself in from running off on extended tangents.
Funny enough, two days after I was judged, I was recommended a paper titled: “Palynology supports ‘Old Norse’ introductions to the flora of Greenland” which details the plants the Norse brought to their new home.
The subject is rife with future papers, either for myself or for others:
- Danish flour and iron subsidies to Greenland, Iceland and the Shetland Islands.
- Norse donations of wine for Greenland church services.
- What was the method of making wine from crowberries that King Sverrir taught to his son?
- Were Cogs used to transport cargo to and from Greenland, or only knarrs and other longships?
- What was the cost of trade goods on Greenland?
- What was the markup of Walrus Ivory on the Continent?
- Was salt produced in bulk on Greenland? If so, how?
- Cooking over manure: pros and cons.
- Were there people who to traveled to Greenland for a year or two just to make a fortune hunting walrus? Like wildcats in ’49 Gold Rush.
- How long does a lamp fueled by blubber last compared to olive oil?
- Why were the Norse such jerks to the Dorset, Thule, and the first nation people of modern day Canada?
- How the Black Death and attacks by the Victual Brothers destroyed Bergen’s ability to send ships to the far colonies and how that impacted the survivability of the Greenlanders.
Did you learn something specific, something you would do differently, or would recommend others to do again?
One of the things I have discovered over the years is that pretty much every time you hear or read an absolute statement about the past, it is usually wrong, and the truth is far more interesting and a great topic of research.
“No one in the middle ages ever bathed.” What about all of the bath houses throughout Europe? Most of which were closed down during the Renaissance. The city of Bath was named for it’s hot springs and bath houses. (Or, baths were named after Bath. Someone should research that.)
“There were no pain killers.” What about all of the medieval manuscripts that talk about the pain relief properties of various plants and mushrooms?
“Everyone ate rotten meat, that’s why they used spices.” Really? Spices were expensive. If you could afford spices from the literal other side of the planet, you could afford fresh meat.
“Few people traveled more than 5 miles from where they were born.” What about traveling merchants? What about pilgrims? What about soldiers and crusaders? How did salt travel from the Mediterranean to the north seas to salt cod which was then moved throughout Europe? It didn’t fly.
Absolute statements are generally a jumping off point for a fun bit of research. For people new to research papers, I would recommend picking a topic and writing a few pages about it. A research project does not have to be book length. Nor does it have to be unique: you can write on a topic that others have also used; just present your own experience and interpretation. Are you interested in a strange image in a manuscript: write about it. A recipe you want to try: write about it. Did you come across an interesting duel: write about it. Every SCA newsletter would be happy with two or three pages of something interesting about the middle ages.
Here is my suggestion: if you have access to old newsletters or old editions of the TI, like 20 or 30 years old, look through them for anything interesting: Medieval wrapping paper. Cosplay during the Middle Ages. Obscure recipes for food or beverages. Modern veggies vs period ones. Soap or “tooth paste”. Use that as a starting point for your own journey: what new information has been uncovered since the old paper was published? How would you present that thing, today. Our A&S community is not just about one person writes something and then it’s fixed in stone; the SCA is living history. That article about a recipe for ale; the author said to use malt extract and whatever hops you can get. How would you make it using whole barley? What hops would have been used at that time and place? That recipe says to use a non-stick pan over a stove top; how would you make it over a fire? Period sources call for an egg to determine how salty a brine is, or how much sugar is an a wort: Tell me how that would have been done. You do not have to be the first person to research something; just tell us your experience and your methods.
What did you think of the virtual face to face judging concept?
I like the face-to-face judging. I’ve been on both sides of the table in previous Arts & Sciences Faires and Championships. As a judge, it’s really nice to ask the author a question about some point not covered in the documentation. As a victim…. I mean competitor, it is an opportunity to explain a point that you either didn’t cover in the documentation or expound on a different tact. The Zoom method was good: not perfect but it was good opportunity to talk to old friends. There also were no interruptions from passer bys or noise from adjacent tables. Perhaps next time, I will be one of the judges.
What motivated you to enter the Kingdom Championship?
I had no expectation other than to present a paper on a topic that I found fascinating. I hope that I can inspire others to not only do a deep dive on an unusual topic but to share their passion with others. I was not expecting to win (although I had a 50/50 chance for the first two or three weeks: at least until a third person threw in their hat). Those of you who know me, know that I love obscure topics and know that I love asking stupid questions that have complicated and interesting answers. I was also drawn to the chance to talk about my paper and be spun around and pointed towards new topics that I had not thought of. This was a far better process than just having a score assigned to a judging sheet.
Are you interested in reading more about the entry after this appetizing interview? You can! All entries including documentation and images are available at the Kingdom Office of Arts and Sciences website.