How Not to be Medieval

(With Some Reasons)

2nd Edition

The Far Isles (God Bless its little cotton1 socks) is supposed to be a recreation – in the words of the old sciffy tenet, a g*d*mn hobby, as opposed to A Way Of Life – that is, fun.
That said, and accepting that, therefore, there are going to be those who want it easy, there are corners which one can cut and corners which, rather like turning sharp right on a pushbike across the main street of Monte Carlo just as the Monaco Grand Prix sets off, it can be ill-advised to cut.
This, then, is an attempt, in all humility, and from one who has, in his time, endeavoured to cross and number of roads which turned out to bear a singular resemblance to a Formula One circuit in the busy season, to forewarn of one or two of the more dangerous short cuts. Just as, you will recall, half a century after the Far Isles’ period, but still in a like milieu, Bunyan had the pilgrim Christian warned what was down the broad roads before he took them, thus saving the need for the puritan equivalent of a D&D™ cleric armed with a plethora of Resurrection spells.
If you find it useful, please feel free to adopt its philosophy: if not, please don’t think too unkindly of my efforts. You will find some footnotes at the end, because the scribe who originally calligraphed this, Sphinx, found it easier to put them there than at the bottom of pages that kept changing length as bits got added. (which have now been hyperlinked using the magic of the interwebs)
So, let us start with some notes on:
No-one (or, at least, no-one I know) enjoys being humiliated. So, of course, there is within the Society, some slight disaffection for playing to the full the rôle of bondslave or pagan prisoner, being whipped and beaten, made to eat only scraps, and obliged to live in filth and squalor at which even a pig would cavil2.
The inevitable question (Well, it’s what I asked me at an early stage) is: how can I ensure I get the sort of status I deserve within this hobby of mine? A number of solutions come to mind: pardon me if I analyse one or two.
The first is simply to be grander than anyone else: to make yourself more important than them, from the start. That way no-one gets to tell you what to do. The problem here is simple: you can’t – the rules forbid it3. And, anyway, whatever you can think of to be, HRH would always be able to top it4.
All right, then, let’s move to a second option: to be as grand as you can. The catch here is that you have to be able to justify it – you have to have the accoutrements to match. That means, if you say (for example) that you’re a very, very, very rich ship-captain you will need (at the least): a large amount of rich clothes to wear, plenty of jewellery, both to wear and (seeing as how you are so fabulously incredibly rich) to give away. Not to mention at least half a dozen servants around you (more, if you can manage it). You’ll also need to explain why you aren’t out sailing the seas and getting richer, and unless you’re married (and can produce your wife and her train of servants (and her even more magnificent jewellery et cetera)) a good reason why you aren’t, before the Monarch marries you off to one of the Court demoiselles so that they get a good start in life. The Monarch will also expect rich gifts at every revel, or else you’ll find him/her musing, aloud, in public, and in the presence of the Chancellor, about the possibility of taxes on imports, and the paucity of something like the “Pure Silk Coronation Chemise Fund”.
If aquatic endeavour doesn’t attract then perhaps you’d rather be famous for having slain a dragon? Fine, they exist in authentic documents – people did go out and kill them, and it would be a notable feat for you to have achieved. Moreover it is not obligatory for a dragon-slayer to be immensely wealthy. So it looks like a starter. So, let’s just check that everything else is in order. You will, of course, be expected to be a fighter of unsurpassed skill (How else did you kill the thing?) – which will mean that, sooner or later, you will have to prove that fact, in public, before an audience, and against people who are, if not of unsurpassed skill, then certainly pretty excellent. And you will have to be able to describe the dragon – I mean, exactly and precisely, well enough to distinguish it from any other dragon anyone else might claim to have slain. It might also be useful if you had something to prove that you’re telling the truth – a foot, or a talon, or better still a head (one which will stand up to inspection5, I mean). You may be called on to demonstrate how you achieved your noteworthy victory6 -- even, maybe, when a peasant turns up at Court (funny how they do, isn’t it?) with news of another dragon, to go and repeat the feat (with, again, evidence). And are you sure it is/was the biggest et cetera dragon ever – otherwise someone will go one better and your reputation will be gone. Petty? You wanted grandeur from fame, and fame is a fleeting thing unless it can be cast in iron.7
Perhaps then, it’s better to go for status based on uniqueness, then? You come from somewhere of which no-one else had heard. This one sounds good to begin with – you are, after all, by definition, the be-all and end-all of information about yourself. Then the catches start: you’ll need to know where you came from, and when you came from, and why the place isn’t in any historical document. You’ll need to know its entire history and, whenever that coincides with recorded history (the Visigoth/ Mongol/Tartar invasions, the Black Death, religion) or conflicts with it (unusually high technology, knowledge of events post-dating your supposed period, inappropriate patterns of behaviour), to have a very good reason for it. And to have it then and there, not after a month or so to think it up (After all, you’re supposed to have lived this, aren’t you?). And unless you’re far-sighted enough to have two or three other people ready to back your story up, you may well face the danger that, seeing as how you’ve found a comfortable niche for yourself8, you may find other people who want to move in and claim to come from the same place. And their ideas of how your homeland runs may not agree with yours, and then you’re in the middle of the “Porkies, porkies, who’s telling the …” sort of plotline.
Of course, you may find that they are willing to play things your way. In which case, congratulations: you’ve just started (depending on size) your own household or shire.

Now let us (all right, let me) pass on to:
Why worry about authenticity? Buy your garb off-the-peg in Next or Top Shop, and swear blind that you’ve got an original medieval manuscript at home that says they had Levi 501s and Raybans in 1284. Or use modern fabrics, machine-sewing, zip-fasteners and velcro – they’re so much easier than researching what the fabrics ought to be (or asking the Garb or Needleworkers’ Guilds) and then using things like contrasting lacing, embroidered braidings, hooks-and-eyes and decorative clasps and brooches. Of course, the way that the Society lives puts strain on what you wear and you may find that modern fabrics are harder to mend invisibly, that they attract static electricity and they frequently have that indefinable look about them that says they’re wrong. On the other hand at least you have the satisfaction of knowing that while everybody else spent a little longer to make things look right, you did it cheaply and easily, and still looked like a wally (Sorry, a Walter do Cocquoup9).
And why worry if what you wear doesn’t match who you say you are? Why not mix costumes from different periods? If it looks good and it feels comfortable, why shouldn’t a Viking wear a houpelande, or a serf wear cloth-of-gold? Well, for one thing it confuses the hell out of other people, who aren’t sure who, let alone what, you are – and for another thing misunderstandings like that can cause you not a little embarrassment. If what you wear proclaims you come from one particular walk of life (say you’re a courtly noble youth interested in fine wine and beautiful women, but you’ve chosen to dress like a bloodthirsty Celtic slayer) then people will treat you appropriately (you get served raw ale or bad mead, and whenever you go near the fair sex, people start making pointed comments about rabbits, horses or other beastly creatures). The only way to avoid this is, I’m afraid, to see that your garb is consistent with your persona. Or, if you’re dead set on a particular piece of garb, that your persona justifies it10. Can you stand the boredom ?

(To everything) Turn, Turn, Turn, to:
Never serve unless your persona demands it – for one thing it’s so much easier just sitting there getting the food brought to you; for another it’s so medieval for the kitchen staff to be overworked, and the food to arrive cold and slow. And what sort of person wants to have to dash about, obeying orders, waiting on tables, bowing and scraping? What advantage is there to be gained from humility when everyone around seems to be concentrating on how grand they can manage to be?
Well, for a start, you can tell how little the servers are respected – many autocrats let them in at half-rate, and they’re given a hearty vote of thanks at every revel. And, if you saw behind the scenes, you would find that they get their food hot, fresh and tasty – admittedly sometimes eaten standing up, but they never go short. And they’re the ones who get to talk to High Table (or whoever they want to) every time they come into the hall and who don’t get dragged into any foolery unless they want to.
Then there are the tiresome rules about not bringing “proper” alcohol, not leaving mundane bottles and so forth laying about, not smoking11. Why should you bother with minutiae like that? Apart from the mundane matter that some of the venues the Society has used actually ban alcohol, but occasionally turn a blind eye to the relatively mild forms we habituate, and apart from the fact that it ruins (or certainly crimps) the fantasy that everyone is trying to create, the straight-forward answer has to be finance. If you want to drink, smoke and so forth, there is no need to join the Far Isles – a local pub will suffice as well, and far more cheaply and more easily than paying revel fees and then travelling halfway across England with a bag-full of funny clothes.
And why bother making up medieval conversation to have with the people around you, or join in their games – dice, or morris, or whatever – after all, aren’t things like the football results or the latest soap opera plot far more important, far more interesting? On the other hand, if they can carry on conversations in persona and you can’t, then you’re going to have to sit there, bored stiff, because you don’t understand anything of the things that they are talking about.12 And, frankly, the mundane soap operas have nothing whatsoever to compare with what’s going on under the surface (and sometimes, on, over, through, and interwoven with the surface) of the Isles.
So, determined to do things your way, (after all, the food itself justifies a little extra effort), you import half-a-dozen like-minded friends, at guest rates, so that you can sit together and talk about what you want to. The rest, you say, can just get on with the medieval stuff they do. Of course, you’re going to have to pick your friends. Some of them might get their attention taken by the interesting conversations of the real medievalists, or by the extremely attractive serving wenches (or noblewomen, for that matter). Or perhaps by the chance to try their hand at axe-wrestling or other sportive pastimes. And there you are: another ‘friend’ learns what to say, and how to say it, and doesn’t mind putting Arsenal and Oprah aside for a moment, and exploring what the Society is about. And you? You’re back on your own again.

Talking of what to say and how to say it.

The Written Word:
Don’t just try to think medieval (after all, they were hundreds of years ago: they hadn’t the benefits of modern technology or Hollywood’s contribution to historical re-creation), write it as well. Stick extra letters in your words, especially those ‘e’s beloved of shop(pe) sign(e)-writers. And go in for creative mis-spellings – after all, it wasn’t till Doctor Johnson published that dictionary of his that anyone thought words ought only to be spelled one way.
So lette your letteres bee fylled wyth alle sortes of strangenesses and be blowed to thee manne who finds ytt harde to comprehende. The extra benefits are that after a while no-one will bother to read a thing you write (unless you promise them that it is in C21 English on the other side of the paper) and you’ll probably find you’ve been given a nickname that everyone else finds screamingly funny13.

The Spoken Word:
Now is your chance to use all those convoluted phrases and obscure oaths we have all got stored up from childhood stories of knights and (better yet) pirates. Who cares that Captain Morgan was a century and a half too late – he sounds good, doesn’t he? By the way, don’t try pretending to speak in obscure and classical languages unless you really do – if the new Monarch doesn’t know them, and HRH doesn’t know them14 (and that’s a poor bet), then one of her [associates] will (that’s one of the things they’re picked for, you know). There was once a very fine gentleman, who claimed to hail from one of the Wessex kingdoms before William the Conqueror, if I remember aright. Introduced to her, he chose (for reasons best known to him) to address her in either Greek or Hebrew (it was many years ago, so some details escape me). He had but finished his address when HRH left him flat by replying in the same tongue, but at a speed with which his ear could not cope, and then suggesting two places at which his phrasing could have been more felicitous. Later, and in private, she admitted that, had he actually made his address in early English, she might have had to shorten her reply in order not to be left a fraction out of her depth.

It ought not to be necessary to point out that even if you think you know better than the High Marshal (or, indeed, any of the Marshals) it is best to do as they say. For one thing the fighters and field heralds will listen to them not you, for another what they say is the distilled wisdom of twenty years plus of experience, and for a final point, even rattan can accidentally KILL, and I do not mean kill in play, I mean kill to the extent that you won’t need to worry about remembering any of the above crap ever again.
That said, what about new and different fighting techniques? Why should you settle for the long-sword and heater school of battle? What is wrong with trying something new, and mightn’t you be able to beat the sheboygan out of the other fighters ? Well, in my experience there is one activity which seems to be of constant and absorbing interest in the Far Isles: and that’s better ways to win in tourneys. The wisdom I’ve received is that so long as you follow the Marshals’ instructions, they will let you try anything at your own risk, and there is nearly always someone who will talk through what you’re planning with you15. Anyway, at least if you talk about it first, you’ll find out if anyone is likely to stop you doing it before you have started making the expensive preparations.

That’s about it – as usual, I’ve probably left out the bit you think is most important. Well, in that case you have scope to write something for Far Horizons (or Quill and Cauldron for that matter): I’ve never known them to turn back offerings, and there’s certainly no copyright on saying what a prat I am.
The footnotes come next, and finally there’s a self-indulgent bit. Since I know that many of you won’t want to be bothered with that, I put it right at the end, and that way you are totally at liberty to ignore it altogether.

October 2001

1 Yes, I do know that cotton isn’t really in period – please use your nonce and substitute the fabric which best fits the persona you are currently using.

2 After all, in the medieval society, the pig is worth considerably more than your average thrall-scum.

3 Otherwise everyone would start off declaring themselves to be Galactic Emperor and things would become very very dull.

4 Believe me – she can.

5 By which I mean close inspection and by sceptics.

6 In fact, let’s be honest – you undoubtedly will be, and you may have to hold lessons for the “admiring masses”.

7 Since steel hasn’t really been invented yet.

8 Well, I sincerely hope you made sure it was comfortable: this is supposed to be about having a hobby you can enjoy.

9 A little-known gentleman about whom a great deal more might well come to be heard, unless Certain People get very lucky.

10 I knew that there had to be a reason for second personae. (On the subject of which, and the problems of mixing one age with another, see Peter S. Beagle, “The Folk of the Air”, especially Chapter XII, regarding the metamorphoses of Janet of Carterhaugh, Darja the Tartar, and Margrethe von der Vogelweide).

11 This is a tricky one: tobacco was in use within our period. The problem is that a lot of people find its use near food offensive, some people are actually allergic to the smoke, and the repair bills for halls you burn down with a smouldering butt badly discarded can be excessively high.

12 “I know – I was that boy” — and I was trying to think of things to say.

13 And which, I suppose, after eight or nine pints of very rough cider, you might find vaguely amusing in an offensive sort of way (if you understood what they meant). What is, perhaps, worse is that other people do know what they mean.

14 Fluently, and with particular reference to their chief authors and orators.

15 If you’re really unlucky, you’ll find out that what has occurred to you, also occurred to someone in 1480-something, and he wrote notes about it in some book or other, and it is in the library at the Tower of London, or in the British Library, and someone was looking at it last week. They’ll be able to tell you all about it. Really luck is when they tell you before you’ve tried it, and got the bruises.

The Self-Indulgent Bit
- or why I wrote this in the first place (and updated to 2001).

So, what was the purpose of this load of unmitigated dingo’s kidneys? Put simply, what I was hoping to achieve, when I originally wrote this, was to pass on to those who read this some hint of why, though twice I’ve left the Society (and on points of principle not finance), I keep coming back.
Yes, I am a Rôle-Player, in hobbies and in Real Life: what I can’t experience for myself I either try to experience vicariously, through books or media, or try to work out through “simulation”. But I’m also pig-headed and prideful enough to want the best simulation I can get.
Take the Far Isles. It’s all pretence, yes – but like the constant striving for improved quality in sound recordings (from cylinder to disc, to magnetic tape, to laser compact disc and DVD), the satisfaction you get out of it rises as you invest more in it. And it is, I find, a mutual process: if you simply treat it as a morsel, you get little back, but if you act as though you believe in it, then you get some positive feedback, and the more people around you who also “believe” in the whole thing, the better and better the feedback becomes.
I am not saying that I want to point fingers (especially as things have moved on since the first version of this, over ten years ago) and say that individuals aren’t trying hard enough, rather that I (still) can’t help thinking that the more of us there are who keep trying harder and harder, the better the whole experience will be. And, having, as I’ve said, come up from the complete de Cocquoup, and found as much enjoyment as I have, I still have the suspicion that out there are people who want to have more fun, but are hampered by fear of the sorts of mistakes I used to make (though they will have the joy of knowing that I made most of them at the same time, and kept doing it for quite a while).
The thing that saves all of this, and on which I touched in the last paragraph of the main article, on which I reckon the prosperity of the Society is bedded, is the willingness of people to help you. There isn’t a problem I’ve had that someone couldn’t have helped me with – I may not have listened to them, but they were there.
What I was originally trying to say was that I wanted to help other people get as much out of the Society as I did. Now I want to help them help other people.