On Authenticity

Authenticity from a Pan-Historic Viewpoint - is it possible, does it matter?

One of the topics raised at the various Courts and meetings held during Foundation and Independence Revel 1989 was that of authenticity – that is, creating the feeling that the Far Isles is a mediæval realm inhabited by mediæval people, and encouraging the improvement in terms of accuracy of recreation of all our activities. As the Society grows we will obviously find new members who have no mediæval society experience at all, or who have perhaps belonged to one of the numerous “rugby/drinking clubs in armour” which constitute the bulk of British historic recreation groups. These members may not at first have either much conception of what we regard as authenticity, or much of an opinion of its importance. Even older members, well versed in our customs, may be carried away by the pleasure of seeing someone they have not seen mundanely for months, and start a blatantly mundane conversation during an event.

How can we get over this? Doesn't the very construction of the society, with people and ideas of many different periods coming together at events, make authenticity impossible? I think not. One of the things that makes the Far Isles a uniquely enjoyable place is that we welcome everyone with an interest in the Middle Ages, be they fanatical Dark-Age pagan, detached Renaissance humanist, lofty Byzantine noble or humble Saxon peasant, equally. You don’t have to be a great swordsman or craftsman, dancer or seamster to be accepted in our group; nor do you have to adhere to just one period in history. Yet you can still be as authentic a historical recreationist as you personally wish within this broad framework. Many people have come into the Far Isles with no historical or other formal qualifications, yet have worked and studied and become fine craftsmen, researchers and in the process, historians. Each of us is simply trying to get as close as we can to our idea of authentic equipment and behaviour for our chosen mediæval persona. By doing this, we help to create an overall feeling of authenticity in the Society.

Of course we must first accept our limitations. True authenticity, i.e. knowing, and being able to convey how mediæval people really lived, thought and felt, is absolutely impossible. No–one, including historians and archaeologists, can ever achieve this. Even if you shear wool with Viking shears from a breed of sheep which existed in Viking times, spin and weave it on Viking implements and dye it using Viking dye recipes, you still can't say with certainty (nor will you ever be able to say) that your cloth is exactly as the Vikings used to make it. Musical instruments made to mediæval patterns from mediæval materials may look and sound beautiful but we will never be certain that they sound the same as true mediæval instruments would have done when new, or that our musicians interpret music or pronounce song lyrics in the same way as their forefathers did. However, once we have accepted this, we can attain a high degree of authenticity and still keep our unique structure. What's more, we can continue to enjoy it.

I find that for me, the first stage in constructing an authentic world in which Heloisa Malett of Wortham, Princess of the Far Isles, can feel at home is formulating a philosophy to make sense of the numerous different time periods, races and nations which she would not have encountered had she lived in real historical time – to explain the Far Isles in terms she can accept. Heloisa thinks of past and future periods of history in exactly the same way as she thinks of the various different races and nations who inhabit her own time – “the past is another country; they do things differently there”.

Time and distance are similar (almost identical) concepts to her. She knows that the Japans exist although few have ever been there, and though China and Russia are fabulous places she gets silks and furs from them by trade and would not be unduly surprised to meet one of their inhabitants, despite the long time involved in travelling from their lands to her own. In the same way, Saxons and Normans, Celts and all folk from other periods are simply from far distant places, like the Russ or Japanese, and though their journey may have taken hundreds of years rather than three, they have still, in her eyes, only made a long journey which has ended in the Far Isles. Their tales of kings and popes, gods and goddesses, political struggles and artistic triumphs, are no stranger in her ears for being from a distant century than they would be for being from a distant land. The world is still a place of infinite variety and wonder to Heloisa, and there are so many strange things in it that she does not make distinction between strangeness caused by great distances of space or of time.

She can therefore cheerfully adopt fashions of earlier or later periods, just as she might choose to wear clothes from Germany or France, because she has seen and admired them on other ladies at her own court in the Far Isles. She can converse about their way of life with tenth-century Vikings, sixteenth-century Japanese or fifth-century Picts as easily as with fifteenth-century Chinese or Turks, who come from her own period yet still have very different ways of life. This makes it easy to hold conversations at revels, even if she is not sitting with her usual group of people – in her case, the Court – but is on a tableful of strangers.

In the same way, local groups in the Far Isles and their members can just as easily belong to a single period or place in history or be mixed. In either case one thing which can be a big help in building or maintaining an atmosphere of authenticity in the group is the writing down of the group's history. When was it chartered? Who keeps the charter? What are its own and its members’ arms, and does the group have a roll of arms for past and new members? Are events in the group’s life and the history of its individual members talked about, told as tales, made into songs and poems? Do the members know each others persona history and geography – travels, lands, possessions? When other groups tell tales funny or heroic about their past exploits, can your group join in, or doesn’t it see itself as having a real ongoing mediæval life within the Far Isles? Examples of groups which have both created and made public a group history are Ringthorne (formerly Chadwell) and Endore’s Keep. If groups see themselves and their story as part of the history of the Far Isles, in the same way as the story of London and its people is part of the history of England, they have already created a framework in which individual member can work towards their own level of authenticity, without feeling it strange that a wandering Norwegian seaman should be in the same place as a Florentine merchant or Red Indian maiden. They are all travellers who have banded together to make a home for themselves here in the Far Isles.

This “unified” view of place/time in history also allows for the fact that different periods still have certain things in common. Almost without exception every mediæval person believed in the existence of some form of God and Devil, and saw good and evil as active principals rather than abstract concepts. Science and technology were more advanced in some areas than others – the Chinese had gunpowder, the Muslim world its superior mathematics and great physicians – but by and large a low-impact technology prevailed overall. Industry was more dominant in some areas and periods than others – Venice early on had a large and complex network of industrialists and trade Guilds supporting its vast fabric industry, while England’s wool trade did not become dominated by the entrepreneur as opposed to the individual craftsman until the later Middle Ages – and imports and exports shuttled worldwide from the earliest times, but agriculture was still the mainstay of every nation's economy and self-sufficiency in basic foods was the norm.

Of course this last was largely due to the difficulty of preserving food, which was common throughout the world and meant that only the rarest and most expensive commodities were worth importing, since so much spoilage and ensuing loss occurred. When this self-sufficiency broke down the consequences were both terrible and inevitable. The twin spectres of plague and famine haunted rich and poor alike across Europe and the East; however much money or power you had, you couldn't buy corn which had not been grown or cure diseases beyond the scope of your knowledge. Most people had limited horizons – the poor would not expect to travel far out of their own village or county except in times of great disturbance – and yet wealthy travellers or intrepid preachers covered vast distances and returned to tell their tales. It is my opinion that a gentlewoman of a small estate in Europe in the fifteenth-century had a far better chance of relating to a Saxon peasant of five hundred years earlier and understanding the basic pattern of his way of life and thought than a twentieth-century Western working woman like myself has of relating to a Indian slave labourer who lives in the same century, but inhabits a totally different world.

There are also, of course, certain things common to our mundane world which are entirely unknown in the Middle Ages; their removal is another vital step towards authenticity. Plastic bottles, zip fasteners, wrist watches, four-pronged forks were alien to the mediæval world. Buckles existed but Velcro did not. Hoods and cloaks shielded the wearer from the rain but only certain parts of the East had found the umbrella, and it was most commonly used to keep off sun or snow, not rain. Spectacles had been known since the twelfth-century but they were not plastic-framed nor did they have tinted lenses. (Of course, those who can’t see three feet in front of them without glasses and can’t afford a wire-rimmed pair specially for Far Isles use will probably resign themselves to some degree of inauthenticity…)

Authenticity in garb is obviously a very important element. Sewing is a bone of contention here. I think that while hand sewing is obviously the most authentic way to put cloth together (and doesn’t take so very long, and is relaxing to do) the use of the sewing machine can’t be frowned on simply because so many people’s garbmaking time and expertise is limited; in the same way, purchased braids can be substituted for the proper trimmings used at the time, which were very different in construction though the visual effect is not too dissimilar. I personally draw the line at using machine embroidery! Good quality man-made fibres are used by many people for garb but I prefer naturals on grounds of comfort and good looks, and find them very hardwearing - I have worn my blue silk gown indoors and out for eight years and it still looks fresh. Certainly colours should always be mediæval, i.e. as close to natural dye shades as possible. Any female who cares about authenticity (or, in persona, modesty) should cover her hair in most costume periods once she is adult or married, and certainly if her hair is short she must have had the plague and had it cut by her physician, have taken a religious vow, or be a loose woman whose hair has been publicly shorn as a punishment – in all of which cases she would probably cover it anyway!

Our Great Revels – those occasions on which the whole Society comes together, transacts its formal mediæval business at Court and holds tourneys, arts and crafts days, and so on for all corners – are, of course, not usually period-specific. However, local groups or Guilds sometimes hold events which are specifically set in one period or culture, not with the intention of excluding any member but simply to demonstrate more aspects of that period of culture than are possible at a larger revel. A previous Winter Revel, at which the then Village of Chadwell held a Celtic Winter feast, and this years Lenten Revel at which we ate like 14th/15th century North European Christians in Lent and entertained in the same rather restricted way, are cases in point, and some older hands may remember the night many years ago when my alternate persona, Koh-i-Manazar Khatun, hosted an Eastern revel, complete with authentic Eastern food and dancing, in St. John’s Hall in what was then the County of Camber's Well. Such revels in all their variety are an important part of what we do in the Far Isles. Neither kind is “better” or “more authentic” than the other – they simply provide opportunities to do different things in different ways. Any one of us might personally prefer one kind of revel, or even one group’s revels, to another, but we should all still recognise that it is the variety of skills and preferences that exist in the Far Isles which make the Society what it is.

Attitude is vital. If you don’t care about playing this game properly, according to the rules agreed by your fellow-members, why do you want to join this Society? If you feel that belonging to a multi-period group means you can be as sloppy as you like about your chosen persona, wear jeans to revel under your T-tunic and put a fruit juice carton or beer can on the feast table, then your best bet is either to join a single-period group where you will be obliged to conform to someone else’s rigid idea of accuracy, or go to one of the aforementioned boozers-in-armour groups. The Far Isles is obviously about having fun, but it’s about having fun in a specific way, which we have all agreed on over the eleven years of the Society’s history. If your idea of fun is something different, why do you want to join us? If your idea of fun is roughly the same, then please believe me – and all those who’ve joined the Society and enjoyed it – that it’s more fun to do it properly and IT ISN’T DIFFICULT.

Authenticity really IS more fun than the alternatives, ISN’T restrictive or a cunning and devious High Council plot to cramp you personal style, and ISN’T hard to learn or expensive to maintain. It’s also what makes the Far Isles work. I hope these thoughts have helped to explain my view of the concept and its importance. If you have any views, ideas or ways in which you deal with the questions raised here, please let the rest of the Far Isles know about them, either through ThreeE or Far Horizons (Three A or Quill and Cauldron now - Court Jester) or through discussion in your local group and larger gatherings; for, most importantly, an atmosphere of authenticity should be our collective creation.

Authored by Heloisa Malett of Wortham when Princess of the Far Isles