Potions, Swords, and Farthingales – Living History and Why it Matters

So I read an article that will BLOW YOUR MIND. Prepare yourself.

Seriously it’s so cool.

The title of the article was: “Anglo-Saxon cow bile and garlic potion kills MRSA.” That’s right, an Anglo-Saxon expert recreated a medical recipe found in a tenth century manuscript and researchers at Nottingham University found that the recipe could kill MRSA. You know, the super bacteria that normal antibiotics cannot kill. Yes, the Anglo-Saxons had an antibiotic that’s more potent than our modern drugs. Mind blown? Mine sure was.

Although, for me, I think I was more surprised by the fact that scientists actually tried to recreate the recipe, and that it worked so well. From my passing research into Medieval medicine, it seems that they had a mixed bag of effective and ineffective recipes. But I genuinely applaud the scientists who decided to try out this medieval salve. They were making a big leap to put time, money, and effort into trying the recipe the “authentic” way, and their success can inform not only the historical community but hopefully the scientific community as well. The success of this experiment may even open the door for a wider acceptance of older “remedies” as having actual merit.

It’s one of my long held pet peeves that the modern world generally dismisses the Middle Ages as the being a time of ignorance, rather than appreciating how much the early achievements of our ancestors have shaped the modern age. It was in fact the “great” thinkers of the Enlightenment who coined the term “Dark Ages,” thinking that their time was the best, or most advanced. This kind of thinking has tainted our modern view of the Middle Ages. But it was not dark at all. Sure they were not as advanced as the Romans before them, but even as early as the Viking Age Scandinavia we see exquisite artwork and impressive ship engineering. In England in the same period we see the first proto-state with a monetary system ahead of its time. Scandinavia was a downright democracy until Christianity came around.  The “Twelfth Century Renaissance” – when universities were first founded in France, Germany, and England – ushered in a new era of education and study of the older Greek and Roman texts which paved the way for the more famous fifteenth and sixteenth century Renaissance. And huge cathedrals were built which are so high tech that we’re still trying to figure out how they made them. So why is it so surprising that the Medievals knew what they were doing in the realm of medicine? They weren’t stupid. They were as intelligent as we are today.

So, having read this article, and having just come off of a three day medieval sword fighting conference, AND having just gotten my period accurate Viking drop spindle, I thought I would discuss the current trend of “living history,” and how this differs from the perhaps tainted term “reenactment.”

So what’s all the fuss about?

I’m going to start this discussion off by saying straight out that I am very much a part of the living history/reenactment world. I worked at the Bristol Renaissance Faire for two summers, I go to Civil War reenactment events, I sew period garments, and I now am part of a Medieval Italian sword fighting guild. Like, real medieval longsword fighting. I just spent a weekend learning how to use a spear and medieval short sword, as well as how to fight in armor (I didn’t have armor but the instructors and several of the upper level members did).


(The dress on the left is a 1540’s Tudor gown that I made entirely myself. The second photo is me as a servant at Bristol Renaissance Faire, 2012. *Photo credits Dennis Zernite and Merry Gardner respectively.)

The big debate about any of these sorts of events is how “authentic” it is. You’ll here certain people scoff that “x” outfit is “farby” (i.e. not authentic) or that “x” thing would not have been said then or that the port-o-privies really take away from the atmosphere. Okay, yes, that person at the Ren Faire dressed in fairy wings isn’t authentic. Fine. But it’s a Ren Faire. And that’s a mixed bag. But I think a lot of people when they hear “reenactment” think of that mix of “stitch Nazis” and chainmail bikinis and dismiss the whole thing as being a purely recreational activity without educational merit.  In actuality it depends on where you go and what you want to get out of it. But there are certain individuals, communities, and living history centers who genuinely try to bring history to life, whether its through clothing, warfare, or hand crafts. These people really do their homework, and I don’t just mean that they read a ton. That’s an important element. But they also live it. They make the clothing they wear to look and feel as close to the original as possible, even sewing it entirely by hand. They learn how to sword fight in the armor or shoot a bow from horseback. They get the most period looking drop spindle so that when they spin they know they’re using the real thing. And if you think this is just an amateur hobby, then you’d be wrong.

Sure there are awesome people like “Curious Frau” who does youtube videos on how to fold a linen headdress, or “Missingspindle” who will show you how to use a Viking drop spindle and then sell these spindles to you. But there are also people like Mike Loades, who is a Military Historian and also an expert horseman and archer. He recreates the weapons and studies medieval techniques in order to learn more about ancient warfare. (He worked with the History Channel to make “Going Medieval,” a show which actually lives up to the original mission of the “History” Channel. Go watch it if you have the chance.) There are also historians, archeologists, and other experts in Scandinavia who recreate sea-worthy Viking ships in order to test their capabilities and to make copies of the extant ships which have been found in burials. I got the chance to talk with a few of these recreators in Tonsberg, Norway, who were working on a copy of the Oseberg burial ship (the cover image of this blog is a photo I took of the ship). They told me that the ship was made exactly to scale so that if the original decays experts can still have the copy to study. When I was there this past summer (2014) they were still making the small life boats that came with the large Oseberg ship, and were testing animal dyes like blood and various animal urines to see what worked best for the ship’s sail. They were also making a waterproof coating for the sail made out of tar and sheep fat they got from their own sheep! They were just lovely people and I was glad my cousin was able to translate for me so I could chat with them.


(There they are, painting the tar onto the sail.)

We, in fact, learned about this group when we visited the Midgard Historic Center in Børre, where they had recreated a Viking longhall based on the size of the post holes of a hall they excavated nearby.


And if that’s not impressive enough, there’s some really skilled costumers out there. Two of them are Jane Malcolm-Davies and Ninya Mikhaila of Tudor Tailor, who I got the chance to meet this fall when they came to Chicago. Their books are top notch and they’ve based all of their work on period inventories, statuary, and extant textiles. Another site for great costuming is the Globe Theater in London, whose costume designers create all of the costumes for their Shakespeare productions as they would have in Shakespeare’s era. Meaning that both the Globe Theater and Tudor Tailor make their costumes BY HAND. Can you imagine how many hours that must take? I actually got to try one of the outfits during a demonstration at the Globe and let me tell you it felt authentic as hell.


(Both photos were taken during my trip in 2012.)

But what do I mean by “authentic”? Well, from my research, I knew that the Elizabethans wore several layers of clothing, wore stiff corsets, pinned on their collars and cuffs, and used certain fibers and fabrics. Since the costumers at the Globe did all of these things (and presumably have done far more research than myself), then from an academic standpoint we can say that it is as close as we can possibly get to how they would have dressed. Same for the Oseberg recreation – or any of the other Viking ship recreations that Scandinavian museums have sponsored in recent years – which was made in order to have an exact copy in case the original decayed. Same goes for the York Mystery Plays that are held every year in York, England, or the many medieval music groups who play the original manuscripts on recreated instruments, or the medieval martial arts groups who read the medieval fighting manuals and then go out there and actually fight with metal weapons and armor.

These people are not just making copies of historical artifacts, or making new objects based on what we know of ancient techniques, but they are LEARNING about history through doing this work. Mike Loades has learned how to shoot like a medieval archer, and so he can tell you what their capabilities might have been in battle (I mean, he can shoot an arrow up into the arrow slot windows of a castle from the ground below!). Remaking the Anglo-Saxon eye salve showed modern scientists how effective their medicine was at killing bacteria. Fighting with a sword has taught me why armor was made the way it was, and how sword fighters then learned to work around the advantages and limitations of armored combat. And wearing 1500s gowns has taught me so much about daily life in the Elizabethan Era (like, you can’t do anything productive with your arms in the 1540 double sleeves.)

This research also informs and engages the general public who otherwise would not be able to relate to history. Queen Elizabeth’s reign may seem very remote to most people, but see a few people in costume at Hampton Court Palace in England and you can start to envision how the palace used to be used. Walk through Plymouth Village in the States and you get the similar sense of what life was like for the Pilgrims.

With this in mind, it shocked me when I learned in a Material Culture class this past semester that there are some academics who scoff at “hand knowledge” – that being things you learn by doing, not just by reading. For example, some Material Cultural historians would argue that the knowledge a man learned through carving wood as a hobby is not applicable to the study of Victorian chairs. Why not? He knows how to carve wood, how can he not look at the chair and say “Ah, they used this technique! How did this technique help them make a better chair? What can we learn from their past knowledge?” As a sewer, I found I noticed so many more details in the Victorian garments I handled as part of my work at a local museum. I could see where they had altered the original gown and speculate why they may have made those changes. In some cases, knowing how they wore the garments helped me figure out whether the piece I was holding was right-side up or not (some clothes look very different when they’re not on a person)!

Now, would someone who had just read about Victorian clothing have the same eye for detail? Maybe. But as for me, I think that no amount of reading would be able to help me understand how hard it is to create an antique chair, or paint a renaissance masterpiece, or how to sword fight. I learned how to use a longsword not just by reading a book, but by standing there day after day, month after month, hitting people with the sword and getting hit in return. I gained an appreciation for the daily life of women in the past by spending literally hours and hours knitting, sewing by hand, spinning with a drop spindle, and embroidering. And I don’t do it just to pass the time at reenactments; I do it because I feel it helps me connect with the past in a visceral way. Then, when I see a spindle whirl in an exhibit, or hold a Victorian gown, or see a piece of armor, I can say “they used it like this!” And that’s just as informative as reading a book!  Learning about daily life in the past is still learning about history. That’s how more people in the past experienced “history” than the few people we know by name. There were far more farmers than bishops, tradesmen than knights, fishermen than kings. So why ignore them? And why ignore the people who are trying to study them and bring awareness about them to the general public?

Of course, the historical accurateness of any reenactment can be debated. We cannot fully recreate the past, no matter how much research we do. And do some reenactors have their facts wrong? Sure. But so do some people at universities. Sometimes we don’t have time to do all the homework necessary. And sometimes we will never know if they used “x” thing at that specific time or wore “x” color or “x” garment in that exact way. Like I have said in other posts, sometimes we’ll just never know. I think the great value of reenactments and living history is that we can make as best an approximation as we can, and that this effort can engage an audience in the study of history. It makes history fun while still making it educational. So what if a little boy wants to see the cannon get shot at a Civil War event? Can’t he also learn about how cannons were made and how they were used in battle? That’s all a military historian does! And why in the world does physically practicing the sword techniques found in medieval manual not help you understand something of what it was like to fight in the Middle Ages? I certainly think it does. And I know a whole community of people who would agree.

Anyway, that’s today’s rant. I know I have a lot more to say on this topic, but for now I’ll leave you with this little taster. If you want to know more about this topic or anything specific I mentioned here, please feel free to leave a comment below. As for now, here’s a picture of my new Viking drop spindle, which is super pretty and is based off one found in the Oseberg burial. (Spindle made by Lois Swales, missingspindle on Etsy.)

viking drop spindle

-The Valkyrie

For more information:

For the original article: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/11504166/Anglo-Saxon-cow-bile-and-garlic-potion-kills-MRSA.html

The Tudor Tailor: http://www.tudortailor.com/

The Curious Frau: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCottAiHUgOCGsbJ79N2sgsA

Viking Spindle: http://missingspindle.blogspot.com/

Also the Viking Spindle Etsy site: https://www.etsy.com/shop/missingspindle?ref=pr_faveshops

The York Waits, a great late medieval/early Renaissance band: http://www.whitecottagewebsites.co.uk/york/

Mary Arden’s Farm, a British living history museum: http://www.shakespeare.org.uk/visit-the-houses/mary-ardens-farm.html

On the Globe Theatre: http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/exhibition

The Museum where I saw the recreated Viking Hall: http://midgardsenteret.no/en/

Mike Loades: http://www.mikeloades.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/mikeloades?fref=ts


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