On Critical Research and Documentation

Magistra Nicolaa de Bracton

It's easy to do research for the first time. Just go down to the library, check out a few books, make some notes and some pertinent photocopies, and you're done, right? But it's taking that next step which proves difficult for many people and which ends up turning some people off of advanced research forever. This is the point at which the researcher stops simply copying down all that he or she sees in books as being absolutely true and starts being critical.

Developing a critical eye is a declaration of independence. You are saying, in essence, that it is no longer good enough for you to trust absolutely what the author of a book says. The critical reader begins to appreciate the value of a good argument backed up by evidence, and thus becomes intimately involved in the research process, rather than acting as a passive recipient of knowledge. Once one develops the skills of critical thinking, they can be applied, with a little work, to any discipline.

At the introductory level, critical thinking involves a lot of common sense. For instance, if someone hands you a glass of what they say is water and what your nose tells you is concentrated sulfuric acid, you're not going to drink it, are you? If you can pass that test, you can start learning to think critically. For SCA research, a second component must be added: reading everything in your subject area you can get your hands on. I still remember about a year ago a friend of mine passing around a newsletter done by a non-SCA special interest group devoted to the Middle Ages. In it was an article on medieval food which asserted that all medieval food was ground to a pulp and was all either terribly bland or overspiced to cover up the fact that the meat was invariably rotten. The problem? The author of the article had gotten all of his information out of one coffee-table book, which he took as an authority because the writer of the book sounded like he knew what he was talking about. A little more research and a bit of common sense could have helped immensely.

I suppose I should mention primary, secondary, and tertiary sources at this point. I often hear it incorrectly stated that primary sources are "good" (and tertiary sources are thus "bad"). This is not true. A primary source is one written or produced in the period in question. The same work or piece can be a primary source for one thing and not for another--for instance, a Renaissance history of the world might be a primary source for contemporary events or for gauging attitudes about the past in the Renaissance, but would not be a primary source for the history of ancient Rome. There is often confusion about what constitutes a primary source as well. Strictly speaking, a reference to costume in a contemporary history or a painting would be a secondary source; the primary source would be the actual item. Secondary sources are those one step removed (which can include both depictions of items in another medium, translations of literary works into another language, or modern scholarly works examining primary sources to draw conclusions); tertiary are those two or more steps removed. There a quite a number of fields where we have no primary sources, using the strict definition, but this does not mean necessarily that there are no period references or depictions, either. As I hope you can see, the question here is not how old the source is, or how far removed from actual artifacts or events, but how reliable the source is, and the way in which it is used. And this is where critical research comes into play.

I mentioned a moment ago that thinking critically involves what I call "active research". In other words, you do not just read the words and look at the pictures; but rather look at the whole picture. First, you check the author or artist's background. What kind of training does he or she have? What biases does he or she bring to the table? How long ago was a book or article written, and is this important? In the case of pictorial works, where does reality end and the artists' rendering begin? And for SCA purposes, if a practical skill is under discussion, you might also want to ask whether the author has tried the skill in question. ( I think a good many of the errors made by authors of books on costume over the years are due in part to the fact that some of them hadn't a clue as to the way fabric actually works).

The next step is to examine the evidence the author (if modern) uses. It isn't enough that the author sounds like an authority, or even that he or she has the credentials to prove it. Are there footnotes or an index in the book, or does the author simply state things without providing proof? Is the author relying on the works of others (not necessarily a bad thing, just an indication that there might be more books you should have a look at)? If you are dealing with a period source, is the information likely to be trustworthy? Does the work purport to be a factual account, a story which could be factual, or complete fantasy? For pictorial evidence, is the original source cited? If line drawings are used, are you told what original they are drawn from (once again, line drawings are not necessarily bad, but ARE heavily dependent on the skill of the artist in rendering what he or she sees accurately)? Ask questions. Make the author prove his or her point, and if he or she cannot do so, do not blindly accept his or her word as truth. Continue your own research, and see if the evidence YOU find supports or rejects the author's hypothesis. Check the footnotes and bibliography, and look at the sources cited there--see if you reach the same conclusions.

The third step is the process of comparison. This is the most time-consuming step, and is why I recommend that you read every book you can find on your subject, even the ones which everyone else says are "bad". It is very difficult to develop an eye for good evidence and a good argument unless you know what skimpy evidence or a badly-constructed argument looks like. Few books are completely error free, and by the same token, few books are completely without value. Sometimes authors get in over their heads for a chapter or two in an otherwise brilliant work; the process of comparison will help you learn to recognize this when it happens. When you exhaust the books available on your subject, broaden your search to include related fields which will help place your subject into context.

One tip I might suggest is to keep a loose-leaf binder of useful material. If you can't afford to buy, say, that wonderful book on jewellery you've got out from the library, photocopy the parts most pertinent to you, note the source on the first page, and put them in the binder. This will help you to build a pictorial library and will allow you to make critical comparisons simply by flipping through the binder. Such a binder will also come in VERY handy if you ever want to enter an Arts and Sciences competition that requires documentation--so much easier than having to retrace your steps and find all of those books a second time!

Comparison also means talking with your fellow researchers, be they beginners or seasoned explorers. This is the perfect time to float theories you're developing, to share the results of practical experience, and to trade information. Every researcher is different. Some are better at the "bookish" end of the research equation, while others excel in the "doing" end. Others still will have seen books you haven't , or will bring a different perspective into the picture.

Since the people who actually experienced what we1re trying to recreate lived, at the very least, 500 years ago, all of us are bound to make mistakes from time to time. If someone criticizes your research, don't take it personally; ask the person where he or she got his or her information. You might find a new source or new perspective you hadn't considered before. The secret to success in research is to be open to ideas and to never let yourself be convinced that you know all there is to know.

Formal Arts and Sciences competitions are a chance for artisans to compare their work with a set standard -- a chance to prove that they can turn their resources towards research and production of an authentic item. Doing documentation for an A&S competition can be a logical extension of the process of gaining a critical appreciation of your field, especially if you have done the research before starting your project. The same process can apply to documentation after the fact, but it is likely to be more difficult to prove an item or technique is period once a project is already complete than it is to research ahead of time and then make up the item based on your findings. Following are a few fairly straightforward steps and an outline I might offer as guides to writing good documentation.

1. Before you begin anything, read the criteria, both the general guidelines and the specific ones for your category. This is what the judges will be looking for; most will quite literally be holding a copy of the criteria in their hands. In brief, judges are interested in knowing what you did and why you did it, with reference to the points mentioned in the criteria. This should help your direct your research, and may even help your craftsmanship improve, as you now will know on which techniques to concentrate.

2. Be succinct. You can assume your judges have at least a general knowledge of your field unless yours is a unique or highly specialized field. You should not assume, however, that they are experts. You do not need to prove, for instance, that sheep are period, or that food was cooked in the Middle Ages, to document a lamb dish. You also do not need a doctoral thesis on the history of spinning since antiquity to document your spinning samples. Stick to the specific topic at hand, being as detailed as possible on this particular field . A short introductory paragraph putting your project into a general historical context is fine for most projects. If in doubt, you could always include a more detailed narrative as an appendix to your documentation. Remember that most judges are likely judging multiple entries and multiple categories. Anything beyond 3 or 4 single-spaced or 6 or 7 double-spaced pages will likely not be read closely.

3. Cite your sources correctly. Look at one of the major style manuals (Chicago Manual of Style or Kate Turabian's Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations; or the MLA Handbook) to find out how cite unusual sources (films, lectures, conversations with friends, etc.) in your bibliography. If you are quoting from a written work and do not provide photocopies of the pertinent section, make sure to quote enough of the text so that your point is proved. Don't just say "Joe Blow says that widgets are period"-- quote him; if the section is too long to quote, photocopy the page(s) and include them with your documentation. The same goes for pictorial sources--either make sure the book is there on the table with your project with the page bookmarked, or provide clear photocopies. Thus when you say "note the sleeve on the gown on p. 46", the judges can do just that.

I have found that the best documentation follows the course of the project from conception to realization. You might try the following format:
---Start off with the context--not just the historical grounding, but why you are doing it. This might include, for instance, information on the persona the project was intended for; clothing, for instance, explicitly presented as "lower class" would not be expected to be as elaborate as upper class clothing, and should be judged accordingly. --If this is the continuation of a continuing project, mention it ("I hadn't had much success making widgets in this way, so I decided to do more research and try a new method"). Mention also if you are a newcomer to the field--judges will often be able to give you hints on sources or craftsmanship.
--Move on to the project itself. Tell the judges about the materials used in period, citing sources to back up your statements, and then those that you used, noting any substitutions you made from period materials because of cost, safety, or availability, Do NOT assume, for example, that the judges know you are using synthetic satin because silk was too expensive--tell them!
---Next, detail the method of construction in period and your approach, paying special attention to the criteria at this point, and citing sources along the way. If you've gone out of your way to do a period method, play it up! Mention if you had any difficulties at this point, and what you did to fix them (this is often what the criteria means by "logical innovation"); all the better if you can prove that your innovations were or could have been period as well.
--In all cases make it clear that you have learned the period way things were done and that you know that your concessions to modernity are just that. In costuming categories, for instance, you are not expected to have woven your own cloth (although if you did, mention it!), but you are expected to have researched period fabric appropriate to the garment and to have tried to find something that approximates it, if possible. Judges are not expecting perfect authenticity, but rather medieval verisimilitude.
--Follow up your narrative with a bibliography, and any photocopies you might have. Make sure to make it clear on these copies the source from which they were taken.

A final note on what constitutes doing "your own research" (which is mentioned in the Middle Kingdom criteria): What this means is that you should not have a friend do all the research for you, with you simply making up the item--after all, part of the point of the competition is to learn about the Middle Ages. It does NOT mean that you are not allowed to use books written by other people, or to talk to other artisans (especially on matters tangential to your project)--so long as you cite your sources; this is standard practice in the academic world. There is no need to reinvent the wheel; we all stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before, and if you jump off, it's going to be a lot more difficult to see.

Copyright 1997, Susan Carroll-Clark. All rights reserved.