Within the Far Isles we try to recapture the feel of medieval life; we dress in period costumes, eat food based on recipes we have extracted from ancient manuscripts and try to put the modern, mundane world to one side. However, recreating an atmosphere of the past requires more than fancy dress and strange foods. To recapture authentically the aura of a bygone time, you have to try to behave and think like a person from that period or as we say 'act in persona'. The first thing you need then is a persona, that is the character you will be at our events.
Choosing a Persona
The persona consists of at least a name, but can include the country from which the person originates, and the time period (must be within 500-1603AD) and lifestyle (peasant, merchant, clergy, military, or anything else you fancy) of the persona. Over time the persona can develop an entire history - from birth to how they found themselves in the Kingdom of the Far Isles, and so on. For example,
Alessandra Melusine de Medici was born in the town of Assisi in the Papal States but spent most of her life in Florence. On being made a widow she found refuge in the Kingdom of the Far Isles. Her time period is late fifteenth century.
In creating a persona there are only two rules which must be obeyed:
- The persona may not be an actual historical character or a character taken from a work of fiction. This restraint shall apply both to name, and to any distinction in dress or conduct which would suggest an identification.
- The persona may not take any rank or title of nobility, or equivalent titles suggesting high social status including religious titles. Titles, ranks and other distinctions have to be earned in the Far Isles.
The society's long historical period, running from the fall of the Roman Empire to the death of Queen Elizabeth, gives you a wide range of cultures to choose between - especially as you don't necessarily have to take on a European persona.
The basics of your persona will require a little thought, research, and a LOT of imagination. An easy start is to base the character around your interests; if you are mad keen on calligraphy become a monk or scribe, should you like fighting become a warrior and so on. You can then pick a period of history you know something about, find a name for yourself, and hey presto you have a persona!
If you don't have a particular interest try glancing through a book on costume until you find one that appeals to you. Failing that try a book on armour or browse through a history book until something catches your eye and use that as your starting point.
Above all choose a character that you can have fun with! If you're always dreamed of being a knight in shining armour or a high born lady dazzling the world in silks and satins, then use this as the basis of your persona and enjoy your fantasises to the FULL. Make sure, though, that the persona is one you feel comfortable with and can live up to. you may well find that a roguish character suits you more than a grovelling courtier or that a tavern wench is more fun (and cheaper!) then a wealthy widow.
An additional note. As described the Far Isles is a slightly magical place as people from 900 years of history come together and talk to each other. Because of this you have two real routes once in the Far Isles, regarding authenticity (how realistic you are to your starting time period before you came to our shores). You can either take on parts of other cultures as you encounter them, say by buying viking jewelry when you are actually a 14th century swordsman, or you can reinforce your own persona's time period by sticking to how you came to the Far Isles and the customs that come with that. In a melting pot like our group there is room for both and even a society run by Melanie Wilson (Real Name, not persona) called Chamberlayne, rewarding those who choose to make their persona even more period and historically accurate. The whole point is to have fun, so you have the choice of which path to choose.
You will obviously need a period name for your persona. These generally come in two parts the first being your personal name and the second either a family name, a nickname or a description of what you do or where you come from. My name for example is James Docker, and I work on the Forest Hall dock collecting taxes and whacking people who don't pay up. Good places to look for ideas on names are the indexes that tend to lurk in the back of books like the Penguin Classics series.
Developing Your Persona
After developing your persona you should know precisely who you are, when and where you come from, the nature of your profession, what has happened previously in your life and your current social standing. Don't rush it - its fun simply to let your persona evolve as you interact with other society members. A good source of information for character development is the Life in... Times series of books which can be found lurking in the kiddies section of your local library. One thing you may have to work out is how you arrived in the Far Isles; especially if you have a non-European persona. To quote an example, Eagleswing, our first Red Indian (Beothuk), arrived from Vinland as a present from Leif Eriksson.
Note: If a member writes-up their persona's history, then a copy of the history can be sent to the editor of Quill and Cauldron for publication (and to the Webmaster aswell, pretty please, thank you - Court Jester).
Getting Rid of a Persona
OK so after reading all this you have decided you no longer like the name you scribbled on the membership form or after your first revel you've found the role of a deaf-mute, lame, drunken leper somehow just doesn't fit... what do you do? Answer- scrap the persona and try again (simple eh?) - better do it fast though as people are trying to remember who you are! Eventually you will find a persona you can slip into as automatically as you slip into your garb, leaving behind Fred Bloggs and Gloria Jones and becoming instead Frederick the Fair, the renowned German mercenary and Madeleyne de la Gloria, heiress to half a county and determined to enjoy herself before following her father's wishes and settling down. If you do have problems inventing or developing a persona contact the High Alderman.
Constitution allows members to have up to two personas in any given membership year and a member may change their persona each year. Taking on a second, low class, persona is useful if your first gets promoted to the nobility. You can then have a character who can still 'slum it', serve and make a fool or himself on the low tables. However, there are two points to bear in mind:
- The alternative personas should be made as distinctive as possible (different costume, different attitudes, different period, etc).
- Other members might still call you by the first name they know you as - regardless of which persona you might be portraying.
Garb, which is what we call medieval clothing when we want to distinguish it from modern dress, is probably one of the biggest contributors to the atmosphere of our events and a great aid to getting into and staying in persona. Good garb helps make an event; awful garb reduces everything to the level of a Hollywood B-picture!
Dressing For Your First Event
Unless you're an expert seamstress, or seamster, who can rapidly run up authentic costume, or are lucky enough to have some medieval style clothing lying about the house, then you need to find some garb quickly. You have two options; you can try to borrow something off a friend or the person running the event or else you can knock up a quick T-tunic and buy some plain black leggings for it. It's what I did and I still use them now.
In many ways the fabric you use is more important than the precise cut of your garb. Here are some points to bear in mind:
- Colour Colours were obtained from natural materials and therefore bright, pure colours were difficult to obtain. In particular bright lime and emerald greens were impossible as were bright pinks, bright turquoise and dense black. Bright red, a surprisingly bright purple and pure white were possible but very expensive. White was difficult because of the absence of efficient bleaches; material had to be bleached in the sun and this was a long process. All shades of yellow and brown were available, along with surprisingly bright blues (from woad), soft pinks and purples and dull greens. Because of the cost of bright colours they would often be used to weave decorative braids or to embroider decoration on an otherwise plain and dull garment.
- Texture Once again, only natural materials were available. Wool was used frequently, but linen was much more common than cotton as linen can be grown in cold climates. For our purposes however cotton cloth does not look out of place. Cheap unbleached calico is actually very useful for shirts, chemises and other undergarments, but remember that it shrinks and softens when washed for the first time. Silk was used but was, as now, expensive. Velvet was VERY expensive and was the subject of sumptuary laws on several occasions! Most modern cloth is in fact a mixture of natural and man made fibres, but with careful choice this is not a real problem; just choose cloth that looks natural. All medieval materials were hand woven from hand spun threads so even the best crafter might produce slightly uneven work; beware quite a few materials these days are knitted!
- Patterns and Designs Unless you have a Far Eastern persona printed cloth is OUT! Patterns WOVEN into the cloth were used at various times such as strips and checks. Research your particular period to din out what was in use at the time, for example the V&A museum has some excellent examples of blackwork and crewel embroidered textiles from the Tudor period, as does the Bath Museum of Costume.
Your local library should have some books on costume patterns or better still ask about because a number of people have been researching authentic patterns based on period artwork and surviving garments.
When making your garb remember that zips, Velcro and elastic did not exist in the middle ages. No matter how carefully you fit a zip it will show and spoil the line of the costume, Use hooks and eyes (which can be purchased on long strips of tape for easy sewing), lacing, buttons or brooches to hold things together. Small wooden beads make good buttons (please don't use modern plastic ones) and cotton piping, dyed to the correct shade, is fine for lacing. A nice touch is to hand stitch where the stitching is visible. If you want to decorate your garment with braid then use one with a geometric rather than a floral pattern.
Where to Find Useful Bits
Market stalls and remnant shops will sell you cloth cheaper than your local haberdashery shop. Modern cloth is often too light to hang well in medieval designs so furnishing fabrics are worth looking at as well. Brooches, useful bits of material, old curtains and easily convertible clothing can be found in charity shops, junk shops, village fetes, remnant boxes and the like. IT NEVER HURTS TO LOOK!
A Medieval Wardrobe
Once you have solved the immediate problem of what to wear, you can start thinking about your long term wardrobe plans - the posh court garb, the cloak to keep you warm, the light tunic for summer, and all the rest. Build you wardrobe up over a period of time and don't worry - there are plenty of people who will happily advise you on what you need and how to make it; if you have two left thumbs there are even a few people who will make it for you at a not altogether extortionate price!
Shoes For most periods the black canvas shoes sold by Chinese shops look good. Monks can go barefoot as can peasants! Otherwise you will have to learn to make your own shoes or sandals. Medieval shoes are in fact fairly simple to make; ask someone wearing an interesting pair for the pattern. Do try and get proper shoes, modern ones look badly out of place!
Pouch Medieval costume tends to lack pockets so you will need something to hold your money (car keys, watch...) in. A simple belt to hold a leather pouch does nicely. You will also need a belt to hold anything else up and while you are at it you might as well hang your eating knife from it too...
Jewellery Nearly everyone wears brooches, clasps and the like; if only to hold their cloaks up or their tunics shut. Several members make and/or sell authentic styled jewellery as do many museums and shops like Past Times. Please don&'t wear modern jewellery especially ear-rings and wristwatches - they are surprisingly obvious.
Storage Having gone to all the trouble of making lovely, practical, authentic garb, don't just stuff it in a modern bag. You can easily make a suitable bag of plain cloth, or, if you can run to it leather, with a strap and buckle or drawstring closure. Separate bags for jewellery, shoes and feast gear can then sit inside and stop the garb getting snagged and dirtied. Between events keep your garb clean and store it away with lavender, herb bags or scented wooden balls.
To allow us to use lots of pretty banners, shield emblems, surcoats, and the like we have developed our own system of Heraldry. The next thing to do, therefore, is to design the arms for your persona (or a badge if you come from a period before heraldry existed).
You can use the following colours Red, Blue, Green, Purple, Blood Red, Orange and Black and the two metals Gold (yellow) and Silver (white). You can also use the furs Vair (silver and blue), Ermine (black tails on white), Ermines (white on black), Erminois (black on gold) and Pean (gold on black).
The basic rule of heraldry is: You can't put a coloured thing on a coloured background or a metal on a metal UNLESS your object is coloured as it would be in real life (i.e. proper).
You can have almost any symbol for your device; it doesn’t have to come out of a heraldry book. In fact inventing your own can be fun (…two headed squirrel proper…). One of the School of Heralds would be only too happy to help you design your arms – just ask. You can then make a banner (maximum size two foot square) to display them on. But note:
- You have to invent the arms yourself – you can’t use a real coat of arms or the same one as another member.
- Try to avoid using purple as this was most often used by the church and Ermine unless you are designing the arms of a Shire or similar group.
Becoming a Herald
If you would like to join the School of Heralds to assist people with their arms, make announcements at court and help devise ceremonies see the School of Heralds page.
P.S. There is also a junior class of heralds called Pages suitable for children who like rushing about...
Acting in period
Here are some ideas on how to make the switch from mundane to medieval. When you arrive at an event make a deliberate break from the mundane; as soon as you don your garb assume the identity of your persona. Remove any obvious modern paraphernalia (such as wrist watches) from your person; this will help put you in the right frame of mind. Talk about things medieval; most people would rather talk about the forthcoming tourney than the traffic enroute. If possible call people by their persona name and only respond to your own persona name. If you don’t know (or can’t remember) someone's name then you cannot go wrong by addressing them as ‘My Lord’ or ‘My Lady’. Be courteous, if you are a gentleman you should act with grace especially in the presence of ladies. If you are a lady you should act in a manner worthy of respect and praise (if you are a wench be cuddly). Enter into the spirit of things and enjoy yourself; the medieval atmosphere comes best when we all work at it together.
Every society, even those we now consider as barbaric, developed their own customs, standards and codes of honour, many of which differ from our modern ideas of polite behaviour. The Far Isles (being a hodgepodge of over one thousand years of medieval culture) has developed its own ideas of courtesy drawn, hopefully, from the best virtues of each age. Briefly these ideas are:
Generosity An ability to share one’s good fortune so as to enjoy one friendships with others.
Gentleness The knowledge that one does not need constantly to prove oneself and that it is through kindness and restraint that ones true strengths are revealed.
Honour The ability to keep one’s word; to be virtuous; to be true.
Humour To have gladness of heart; to be cheerful and joyful.
Loyalty Be able to keep allegiance to one's lord, comrades and friends.
Measure To have self control, be calm, be reticent.
Pity Be sensitive to the feelings of others and help them when required.
Renown The desire to do great deeds and follow noble causes!
This is THE THING which 'makes' any event run by the society. It helps create the right medieval atmosphere which in turn adds to the enjoyment of the event by all present. The details of authenticity we leave up to you as you need only be as authentic as YOU want but consider this; what's the point of belonging to a society which is trying to re-create a medieval environment and turning up to events wearing jeans under your kirtle, eating out of a Pyrex casserole dish or drinking out of a glass with 'Sunny Torremolinos' blazoned on it? Nobody expects a new member to go insane over authenticity. We certainly DON'T expect you to suddenly start speaking Norman French or to take off those modern glasses that you need for seeing ... However we DO ask that you have some consideration for those members (hopefully including yourself) who do not look upon the society as a fancy dress drinking club! All it takes is a few moments thought about such things as wearing wrist watches (especially the ones that go Beeep!), smoking (nothing spoils the medieval 'atmosphere' faster), wandering around chatting to people who are in garb while you are NOT, leaving mundane bits scattered over the revel hall or firing off flash guns and waving cameras about!
Try, if you can to look right. You will then find that, as you get used to wearing period garb, being medieval will come naturally every time you make the transition from the mundane. As time passes we hope that your attitude to authenticity will develop, perhaps to the stage where you even begin to equip yourself with the tools of your persona's trade, so when Fernando the fifteenth century fisherman from Florence turns up, he looks as though he's just stepped off his boat (though hopefully without the fish!!)