ANST - Why I do research

Mjccmc01 at Mjccmc01 at
Fri Aug 8 18:40:06 PDT 1997

Hello from Siobhan.

Let me start this with a great big disclaimer:  These are my opinions about
research and sources, and they don't necessarily reflect the opinions of
other Laurels, or anyone else.  They are also a set of opinions I have
developed for use pretty exclusively in the SCA.  I go by different criteria
for academic research, but that's not really relevant here.

I think it's important to understand that the terms primary, secondary, and
tertiary do not refer to the quality of the source; they are referring to the
distance of the relationship between the source and an actual item existing
in period.  To use a very simplified example:  A garment from 1530 is a
primary source.  (I would also include a painting of a garment done in 1530
as a primary source, but several disagree with me.)  A pattern draft taken
from that garment and published in Janet Arnold is a secondary source.  An
article discussing the quality of the line drawing would be a tertiary
source.  Which type of source is best?  Again, it's not a question of the
quality of the source per se.  It is more helpful to frame the question as
"which type of source will tell me what I need to know?"

If what you need to know is how to construct the garment, the most helpful
source is likely to be the secondary one.  It is extremely easy to look at a
painting, or even an actual garment if it's behind glass and you can't flip
and turn it, and come up with a construction method different from the one
used in the original.  You are more likely to duplicate the cut if you are
working from a pattern drafted from the actual piece.

Tertiary sources, too, can be invaluable.  I would consider a tertiary source
to be something like a critical essay, or perhaps a bibliography.  For
example, a critical overview of the 20 most readily available costume books,
if written by someone knowledgeable, can save you many wasted hours with an
inaccurate book, and can send you to the one that's best in your area first.
 Literary critics discussing the literature of the period and its symbolism
will help you look for the unspoken ideas hidden within the plot of an epic.

If you are trying to learn about their sense of design, what they thought was
beautiful,  color combination, decorative methods/motifs, etc., there is
absolutely no substitute for immersing yourself in the actual art from the
period.  Spend hours looking at it.  Even if you're only interested in
costuming, read what they wrote about everything.  Love poetry will give you
insight into their ideals of feminine beauty, which in turn will give you
insight into what women aspired to look like.  No instruction manuals,
archaeological site reports, or learned essays can substitute for this.  It's
the best way I know to connect with these people we strive to recreate, to
"see with their eyes and think with their minds."   

And that, in the end, is the purpose of all the research I do.  One of the
most striking comments I ever read was in my college existential philosophy
textbook; this statement has shaped my SCA endeavors ever since.  The author
stated that, no matter how well-versed we were in the culture, we could never
read Dante's "Divine Comedy" the way his contemporaries read it, because the
images of Heaven and Hell don't hold the same power and meaning for 20th
century men and women.  The gauntlet hit the floor, and ever since that
moment, I've felt challenged to try to transcend the intervening scientific,
technological and philosophical changes that shaped me as surely as their
culture shaped them; to reach out across the centuries and react like a woman
of their culture rather than mine. 

Look at the prow of a Norse ship, with its fierce carved dragon.  Try to
imagine how an Irish peasant woman with two small children felt when she saw
it sailing up the river at dawn.  Read the poetry of cloistered nuns, who
wrote of their visions of nursing the infant Jesus, and realize how very
immediate and concrete their God was.  Try to cast aside the judgement of
history on the Crusades or the Inquisition, and see if you can follow the
cultural processes that gave rise to them.  Try to judge them on their
adherence to their belief system, not ours.  

I've given this discourse on research to try to explain why an area that
seems like the "dull, tedious" part of A&S is, for me, the very heart and
soul of what we do.  Please, instead of worrying about how to "get enough
documentation" for an entry, get excited by the challenge of creating
something they might have created, and look at research as something that
shows, not what you can't do, but you how many things you can.

As always, friends, I welcome your thoughts on the subject.


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