ANST - irrefutable/acceptable sources

Mjccmc01 at Mjccmc01 at
Fri Aug 8 17:30:31 PDT 1997

Siobhan here.  Thanks, Dieterich.  Good thread to start.

There are some works that most people accept as nigh-unto-irrefutable (great
goddess Janet Arnold for Elizabethan costuming comes to mind).  There are
also some works that a lot of people consider nigh-unto-unacceptable (Braun &
Schneider comes to mind).  However, if there is any large scale "Laurel
agreement" on sources  (or any other issue), I didn't get the memo.  Baron
Edwin and I can't even agree on _exactly_ what constitutes a primary source,
but we have a good time discussing it.  I'll say more about primary,
secondary, and tertiary in another post.

But, as I always caution my apprentices and anyone who comes to one of my
Research 101 classes, be extremely wary of words like "always" and "never,"
when discussing a period practice.  Now, for the logicians among you,
statements concerning the SCA period that contain "always" and "never" can be
quite valid:  "They never watched television in London in 1325."  However,
this is usually such an obvious fact that it never gets discussed.

No, I'm talking about statements along the lines of "they never wore pink in
period," "they always used cochineal to obtain this color," etc.  Statements
like this, for many (me included), have the sound of a gauntlet hitting the
floor.  The fact is, for every item that survived the period, there are
thousands that did not, and we just don't have enough information to make
sweeping pronouncements about what they "always" or "never" did in many

Now, I have been known to say that I think a practice is highly unlikely
based upon the knowledge we have of the time and customs, but I try to avoid
the term "never."  It's too easy to end up being made to look foolish by
someone who takes up the challenge.  The same goes for "always."  For an
admittedly modern example, look at women's slacks.  You can walk into any
department store and find at least ten variations in construction of a pretty
basic garment.  Granted, we are far richer in consumer goods that our
medieval counterparts, but I think the logic can apply.  Who is to say that a
group of reasonably well-to-do Elizabethan merchants' wives didn't see a
noble lady riding through the London streets one day, and, human nature being
what it is, decide to make a garment emulating the lady's.  I daresay that,
working only from visual impression of the lady's garment, somewhat different
garments emerged from each of  their workrooms.

What I am taking far too long to say is, don't let's be arrogant enough to
presume that we know "the way" things were done.  An excellent book I think
anyone serious about historical recreation should read is "Motel of the
Mysteries" by David McCauley.  It's about the future archaeological
excavation of a modern-day motel, complete with anthropological/sociological
interpretations about our culture.  All of the conclusions in "Motel" were
reached using generally accepted practice in these fields that are commonly
used in historical interpretation today.  Some of the conclusions are, to say
the least, laughable.  It's hard not to wonder just how much of our
"knowledge" of other cultures is equally skewed.

So, how does this apply to documentation/research?  Given the above, isn't it
a pretty futile endeavor?  Not so.  (Disclaimer:  This is my opinion, not a
conclusion reached by the Laurels.)  I think if we look at our "uncertainties
combined with some specific and general knowledge" circumstances positively,
 they can allow for a certain flexibility and creativity.   I don't have to
demand  "irrefutable" proof that your work was done in the precisely correct
period method with correct materials, because I don't know that such proof
exists.  What I do want to see is enough supporting data to make me believe
your work could reasonably have been a product of a given culture.  To use an
example from the area of cooking:  You can document that 16th century Spain
had cocoa.  You can document that they brewed the cocoa into a somewhat
bitter hot drink.  Now, were someone to look at me and say, "No, I don't have
documentation for this, but, coffee is a bitter hot drink, and we put milk
and sugar in it, and in 16th century Spain they had access to milk and sugar
as well as cocoa, so it seems reasonable to me that they might have added
milk and sugar to the cocoa," I would conclude that you had made a pretty
good  case for hot chocolate in period.  We are supposed to be creative,
after all, and anything that allows for chocolate consumption is by
definition good.

At the same time, please don't use the above example to come up with
something like "They had fur in period.  They had leather.  They used both
fur and leather in garments in Italy.  It got really, really, hot in Italy;
therefore, I think it's reasonable to assume that they wore fur bikinis in
Italy."  On a good day, this will elicit a bemused smile, but do you want to
take that chance?

Apologies, Dieterich, for such an ambiguous, lengthy answer to such a
specific question, but such is life.



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