Over the years I have heard from many SCAdians that they just do not have the skills or patience to sit down and write a research paper and, by extension, write documentation for an A&S project. There appears to be an unfounded fear that documentation, or a research paper, has to be 100 pages long and ready to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. This is not the case. No one in the SCA expects every person in the SCA to spend a year or more writing a paper. But this fear does keep many people from even trying their hand at doing some research and some writing. Huge research papers are nice, but they are not for everyone. Also, large papers are too long to be published in local newsletters, and newsletters are always looking for articles for publication.
My recommendation? Micro-research. Small papers about limited topics.
Writing about the entirety of the Battle of Agincourt would be a monumental task. Writing a half a page describing the pay scales Henry used for his army would be a far more manageable task for a novice writer, and would be a nice glimpse into a very complicated subject. Foot soldiers were paid 3 pennies a day but archers were paid 6 pennies a day. What were the requirements of getting archer pay? Henry had a legal contract describing how ransom would be split; one could certainly write a half a page describing that.
There are a whole host of topics for micro-research; everything from your experience in cooking a single recipe, to the different weights and measures used in the SCA time period, to a bird’s eye view of a battle, to an introduction to a person from history. Researching a limited topic, and writing a page or two about it, should be within the reach of most people. All information is useful and, again, every newsletter would welcome content for publication.
There are some things to keep in mind.
1) Write your paper in your words, even if you are getting your information from a single source. If you are making a thing from a recipe from Medieval Cookery, which provides translations and redactions, write how you made it: what steps you took and why you made any changes. This is your project, please write your thoughts in your own words.
2) While half a page describing Henry VIII’s bowling alley doesn’t require the research standards of a PhD thesis, it should be well-written and include your sources. Please feel free to pester a friendly Fleur or a lovable Laurel for editing and proofreading.
3) You do not have to be the first SCAdian to write about your topic. Do not think that just because Mistress So-and-So wrote a paper on medieval gift wrapping 30 years ago that you can’t add something new. Make sure that you give credit where credit is due.
4) Above all else, the SCA is an educational organization. The fighting, fencing, archery, courts, awards, and pageantry are the showy side of the SCA, but all of it is hollow without the arts and sciences that have been part of the Dream since the beginning. We need to do research and share what we find with others, even if it is just your interpretation of a 1,000 year old joke.
Another thing to consider: micro-research can inspire you, or others, to do a deeper dive into the subject. You might write a page describing Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch of a water-powered automatic saw. This might inspire you to do more research, which might lead you to discover that Leonardo most likely copied the design from the sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt, who drew it about a century before Leonardo was born. Then you might want to build a scale model of his hydraulic saw. Or, you might be drawn into the exciting world of how artists shared their sketchbooks with one another. Or it might lead you to other water-powered machinery. Writing about small subjects can send you down so many rabbit holes as you do your research.
You might take some pictures of pilgrim badges you found in a museum and then write up a brief paper on what you saw. This might lead you to a longer paper on a wider variety of pilgrim badges. And that might lead you down the rabbit hole towards lead casting and sandstone molds. Anything is possible.
One more consideration: micro-research can be used in larger papers. I wrote a small paper, 4 paragraphs – sort of a “fact of the month” article, on the varieties of sugar available in the middle ages. I can incorporate those 4 paragraphs into any paper I write that involves sugar. I already did the research, the writing, and the bibliography; no sense in re-inventing the wheel anytime I want to explain why I’m using a particular variety of sugar in a recipe. Research that you do for one paper, can be reused in other papers. I wrote documentation for some red wine that I made. In my research I found some very nice references that described how England imported a ton of red wine from France, particularly from Bordeaux. Years later, I was making mustard from an English recipe, which called for wine. But, what kind of wine would a 14th century English-type person use? How about some of that red Bordeaux wine that I already had the research for? Those two or three paragraphs can also be published on their own in my local newsletter.
You can also go through old newsletters looking for A&S articles that inspire you to revisit the topic. Is there more information available today? Thanks to the Internet, reference material is available to us through Project Gutenberg, Google Books, Academia, JSTOR, and other sites. Can you make an improvement to a recipe with a better redaction or more appropriate ingredients? Long ago, when I was the Chronicler of the Hael, I published an A&S issue of our newsletter. I published a recipe for a meat pie that called for pre-packaged bread dough and margarine. I know why the cook used the two (for cost and convenience for the former and dietary restriction for the later), however, if you wanted to make a more period meat pie based on that particular recipe, tell me how you would make it. Again, always give credit to everyone, and their work, that inspires you.
I have in front of me issue #124 of Tournaments Illuminated (Autumn 1997). On pages 24 and 25 is a nice article by Diane Harper (Siglinde Harfinerstochter) titled “Drinking Vessels (Mostly Glass) of the Middle Ages.” It is a nice article and it does inspire me to use Siglinde’s overview on glass cups to do some of my own research. The article includes some crude drawings of drinking vessels with notes that some of them can be found at the Corning Museum of Glass, which is about a two hour drive from my house. I can certainly drive out to Corning and see these vessels for myself and write about them. Siglinde also has a small bibliography to lead me to additional resources to help me with my future research. I don’t know if Siglinde ever thought that anyone would be reading her article 25 years later, but here we are.
In the same issue of the TI, there is a redaction of a 14th Century German recipe by Debra A Hense (Kateryn de Develyn, page 15). The recipe is for marinated veggies that call for balsamic vinegar. Would a 14th Century German use a 17th Century Italian vinegar? I’m not saying that it wouldn’t taste nice, but I don’t think balsamic vinegar would be the best choice to use. I would use cider vinegar. It is perfectly acceptable to springboard off of someone else’s work because you disagree with their conclusion or methods. (Yes, documents describing the vinegar from the Balsamic region of Italy date back to around 1000AD, but I believe that the balsamic style vinegar that we can buy today only dates back to the 17th century. Don’t agree with me, do some research and prove me wrong. I look forward to your article.)
There are a lot of surviving broadsheet ballads from the end of the SCA time period. Find a high resolution image of a broadsheet and transcribe it into modern English (or other languages if you wish). At the very least, convert it into modern spelling. You can also take the time to make footnotes explaining any unusual words or phrases. You might be the first person to transcribe it. I transcribed two broadsheets into modern English, the Case For and Against Coffee. It was a fun project.
Micro-research doesn’t have to be 100% written for a newsletter. Remember, the Æthelmearc Gazette would happily welcome any short articles (ed. note: Yes, please!). Especially if there are nice pictures. There are several late-period manuscripts that explain how men and women should bow and/or curtsy. If you have nice garb and a partner to hold the camera, make a photo spread of the steps necessary to show that one was properly trained to behave in court. Re-create the woodcuts with pictures from multiple angles.
With YouTube, you can make video research “papers”. Do you know how to wrap “viking” leg wraps? Or how to properly roll chausses so that they don’t fall down? Make a video and upload it.
And I highly recommend that you create an A&S blog so that you can keep track of what you work on. WordPress and Blogger are two of the most popular. If you keep your research online, you will be able to, at an event, tell someone, “I know the answer to that. Just go to my blog at www. blablabla.com. and search for medieval pop tarts.”
Here are some ideas that might inspire you; either for a small paper, or for a deeper dive for a broader research paper:
- Describe the White Ship.
- Who was Black Agnes?
- The wheelbarrow was invented in China and Europe at the same time: how were they different? Same with the stern-mounted rudder.
- Describe a medieval fire arrow.
- Did Shakespeare invent the Knock-knock joke?
- Where do “crocodile tears” come from?
- Who were the Green Children of Woolpit?
- How would you make a given recipe “kosher” for lent?
- How were coiners paid?
- Describe England’s archery law.
- How expensive were spices? Or pigments?
- Tell me about Mahometta.
- Explain a medieval idiom or phrase. (Were door nails really dead?)
- What is the difference between a friar and a monk?
- How did Mansa Musa cause an economic disaster in the 14th Century?
- What was a mappa mundi?
- How much profit could one get by buying sheep and then selling the fleece?
- Who was Mayor Nicholas Brembre?
- In “Romeo and Juliet”, why did one Italian tell a second Italian that a third Italian fights in an Italian style all the while standing in an Italian city?
I hope that I have inspired you, my readers, to take your first steps on the road of research, and I look forward to reading what you have discovered.
Baron Caleb Reynolds