How to be a Historian at Pennsic

Magistra Nicolaa de Bracton

Have you ever read the accounts of Froissart dealing with the Hundred Years' War and been fascinated? Or perhaps you have read the Fourth Crusade accounts of Villehardoun, or Joinville's Life of St. Louis, and wondered how one might bring SCA history to life. Have you ever considered writing your own eyewitness history of the Pennsic Wars? If that idea appeals to you, read on.

To be a Pennsic historian, all you really need are your senses. Your eyes will witness the battles, the deeds of valour, the pomp and circumstance, and the wonders to be seen in the marketplace. Your ears will hear the tales told around the evening campfires of deeds done, and of great heroes of history, the songs which are sung, and the rumours which will fly. Your nose will be greeted with the smells of the marketplace, of cooking dinner, or the smell of silk, sweet perfumes--or well-worn gambeson. Your sense of touch will feel the rocks beneath your feet on the roads, the feel of luxurious fabrics and costly gems, or the hardness of a spear thrust. And finally, you will taste the taste of mead at a Known World party, or of strange yellow-green liquids on the battlefield, or that wonder of wonders, "chocolate milk", to be found at the store.

You can be a Pennsic historian without ever writing a thing. Although the rest of this article will deal with written history, you can also aspire to be an oral historian--by noting events and concocting stories to tell and retell at the fire or at bardic circles. Although written histories have the benefit of being always available, there is nothing that brings our SCA past to life like a good storyteller. I've found that many of the suggestions I will offer for written histories can also help the oral historian.

Have I hooked you yet? If so, here are some things which may help you in the construction of a history:

1) A note pad or sketch book. Use this to jot down jars to the memory, or particularly memorable lines, or to do quick renderings of memorable scenes. There's no need for these to be instant literary or artistic masterpieces--just so long as they help you remember when it's time to write.

You may find it useful to actually keep a journal at Pennsic, taking a few moments out of each day to record your thoughts, impressions, and so forth.

2) A small tape recorder. If you know your best friend is to be knighted, or that storytellers are likely to be congregating around the fire on a particular night, an audio tape can be a wonderful record which will help you with your work (as well as a nifty souvenir). The one time I used such a device, I used it only so that I could enjoy the stories being told without having to worry about getting all of the details. Of course, medieval chroniclers did not have tape recorders; but if you find it helps, by all means use one.

3) A camera. Yes, another thing they didn't have in the Middle Ages, but if you wish to describe the heraldry of a group of fighters, or the appearance of some fabulous garb, or the situation of a particular camp or shop, the camera can help. If you are writing your history after the fact (the way most histories were in the Middle Ages), look at your friends' pictures as well. Which leads me to.....

4) Friends. Friends may have gone where you did not. They may have witnessed from the hillside that final assault on the battlefield you were actually IN, or vice versa. They may help to jar memories of particularly interesting songs or stories, or have attended courts you skipped. They will add their own perspective on things, which can make your history more complete.

5) This newspaper. If you buy the Chronicle every day, you will get even more perspectives on the battles, the courts, the shopping, and so forth. I've used past Pennsic Daily Tidings/Independents in the writing of my own histories quite extensively.

You should also decide what kind of historiographical approach you wish to take. (For those of you who have not seen this term before, historiography is the science of the methods of writing history). Do you wish your history to be a very personal account of your own experiences at Pennsic? Do you wish it to chronicle the exploits of your knight, or baron, or Kingdom? Or do you want it to be a wide-sweeping account of the entire War? Each of these are going to have their own challenges and demand certain kinds of information, often at the cost of others. Similarly, are you aiming for a relatively objective account, or something much more intimate and personalized? Both approaches are equally valid and were used by historians in the Middle Ages. You might also want to think about a format. Do you wish to put into writing your own literary concoctions--stories you might tell at future campfires? Do you wish to use a particular literary or poetic form--such as the saga format, or the epic poem? Do you wish a narrative history where self-contained stories are the focus, or a fleshed-out chronicle, where the main concern is getting everything in the right order? Do you wish to focus on any one person or activity? You should probably decide on your ultimate goal before you start collecting information, so that you make the best use of your time and resources.

I would recommend waiting until after the War is over to sit down to do your actual writing. Histories in period were a type of literature, and were meant not just to report what happened, but to do so in a way that brought to the reader a sense of the atmosphere. In a way, it's difficult to appreciate this until it's over and you've had time to reflect on things. You may note how events earlier in the week led to later ones only in retrospect. This also gives you time to look at all of your resources, and to find if there are any gaps you need to fill.

When you're ready to write, start with an outline. List off the main things you want to cover, and make sure they're in the order you want them. If they need to be changed later, feel free. Make use of artistic license, another thing used freely by medieval historians. Even if the sun wasn't really glinting off the weapons of the massed armies, it provides a lovely piece of imagery, and consists merely of embroidery on the actual facts. And don't be afraid to have an opinion on things. Medieval historians often had very definite opinions on the events they wrote about, and it is often these opinions that turn a history from a dry narrative to an evocative one.

When you're done, share your history. Publish it in a newsletter (chroniclers will often kiss your feet in gratitude), or on a web page, or simply circulate it amongst your friends. In this way, you may continue to get feedback, and, if you wish, to revise and expand it. If your history is of your group, barony, household, or Kingdom, consider donating a copy to these folks for their own archives.

Most importantly of all, have fun! Those who take the time to care about our history prepare the way for the generations of newcomers which will follow. SCA history is unique, as it belongs to us alone. You are following in the footsteps of our medieval ancestors by writing about the history you have lived. Good luck!

Copyright 1996, Susan Carroll-Clark. All rights reserved.