Longtime readers of my work and visitors to my website and my blog will know that as one of my threads of research I re-enact with living history society Regia Anglorum. I recently worked out that I've been a member for about 15 years now, ever since catching a performance by them at Nottingham Castle. There was a guard on the gate in Norman costume and I was so taken by his outfit that I went up to talk to him and find out where he had obtained it. He told me that he belonged to early medieval re-enactment society Regia Anglorum and that their ethos was to present the equipment and crafts of the period around the Norman conquest as accurately as possible. They portrayed Anglo Saxons, Vikings and Normans. I was immediately aware that this was something very useful for a novelist to investigate because it was bringing history off the page and into the living, fully realised 3D.
Now, you might say that we are products of our own century and we can't truly know what it was like back then just by putting on the trappings of the era and swanning about in them... and you'd be right. But there's more to this re-enactment lark than that. There are many in the re-enactment fraternity who strive to understand the past and rediscover what we've lost and forgotten by recreating artefacts and techniques and by experimental archaeology and thus understand how things worked and fitted into the environment. I won't deny that there's also great fun to be had hanging out with re-enactors, but it's also a wonderful opportunity to listen and learn too.
During a recent weekend event at Nottingham Castle, I talked coins, moneyers and mints with one of the most knowledgeable numismatists in Britain, who tells me that the people about whom we have the most information in 12th century society are the moneyers. Here's his brief history of coins and coin production on his website:
http://livinghistory.co.uk/homepages/grunalmoneta/history.html I talked to an expert potter and observed him using a medieval potter's wheel to craft a wonderful little bowl. http://www.trinitycourtpotteries.co.uk/I talked medieval embroidery with another expert, and mail shirts with someone else who is chummy with the chaps at Leeds armoury. I also discussed shoes with a guy who is a leather expert with an archaeology degree. Purchase-wise, I came away from the event with a replica drinking glass from the mid 12thC - something that my John Marshal might just have used while entertaining mercenary captain Hubert FitzWalter at Marlborough - see the scene in A Place Beyond Courage!
There's an entire community out there bursting with knowledge and enthusiasm. Re-enactors and the craftsmen, often re-enactors themselves, who serve the industry. It is so fantastic to be a part of it. As with anything one researches, one has to have a nose for the authentic versus the bull manure, but I have a reasonable working knowledge and a good sense of who to trust and who to take with a pinch of salt.
I've mentioned before that it's one thing to look at a cooking pot in a museum or in the pages of a text book and quite another to use one to cook a barley broth over an open fire. One thing to see a mail shirt displayed in a glass case, another to wear it. To walk up (and down!) a twisting medieval staircase wearing a pair of turn shoes and a long dress. And for the things I don't do, such as fighting, riding and sailing, to find out from those who do, what it feels like.
I was fascinated this week to see that Regia Anglorum members Ian and Hazel Uzzell had been making some 12th century kit. One of the garments is a cloak made of vair which is Russian grey squirrel fur. Cloaks of such are often mentioned in medieval inventories and miniver-lined cloaks are frequently depicted in medieval manuscripts - see below. So to see one recreated in the fur so to speak was extremely interesting.
I leave you with a gallery of photographs of recent re-enactment moments, all of which have their place in my novels - or will have. Look out for miniver cloaks in Hugh and Mahelt's story!
Miniver as portrayed
by Eleanor of Aquitaine:
Fresco at Chinon
I knew I'd seen this somewhere
when I was looking to post to
my blog and then I remembered
that it's on the front of Sharon
Kay Penman's new novel
As modelled in the
21st C by Snorri!
Note too the gorgeous
embroidery on his
A toast to John Marshal using
a replica mid 12thC drinking glass
Jim the Pot at work
at Nottingham Castle
Yours truly, about to
salt the stew!
Hose and braies
For anyone who has wondered
about these sexy garments
Row, row row
A mark of silver
Photographs courtesy of Regia Anglorum, Ian and Hazel Uzzell and Ian Hicks.