The Fight Between Carnival and Lent: Or, a personal metaphor for the struggle to balance the Creative with the Historical
I have no shame in high-jacking the title off of a celebrated Bruegel painting to frame my current state of mind. In my mind its fitting, especially since this internal battle is indeed occurring in the first full week of Lent. My medieval counterpart would currently be abstaining from eating meat (excluding fish) and dairy (including eggs), as well as being extra pious; while I’m sitting here debating whether to pin or sew the sets into the new ruffs I’m making.
It seems like a shallow and easy to answer question, but the underlying currents have me asking some rather difficult questions about the “creative” part of the SCA versus the history that we allegedly should be striving towards. Throw in practicality, as well as the overarching modern mindset into the mix and the question isn’t quite so shallow any more.
In context, I’ve been reading Ruth Goodman’s new book, How to be a Tudor: The Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Tudor Life. It is really fantastic and has me re-thinking most of the ways that I approach the SCA – especially since I feel like I’ve been treading water for some time in the oft coined “persona development” side of things. Reading this book feels like a whole new world of possibilities have been opened to me on the historical front, and I’m only about half way done on the first read through. (Expect a full blog post write up when I finish on the second read through after notes have been taken, right now I’m just reveling in the joy of it all.) This book takes the information presented in the similar experimental archeology programs Tudor Monastery Farm and Tales From the Green Valley, to a whole new level.
Enter: the description of preparing a ruff. Goodman describes the process as starching the ruff, drying, smoothing the ruff and starch to a sheen, and then finally setting the actual ‘sets’ with a hot poking rod and pinning in place. Pins were used so that the ruffs could be easily laundered and the process repeated. Styles of sets could quickly change from one preparation to the next as well. Sometimes a bit of warmed beeswax would be used to hold the sets in place in lue of the pins. Fast forward to today and most ruffs used in costuming and historical portrayal have sewn sets and are starched and worked out to give a lovely even set every time with the conservation of time spent on the preparation of the ruff to a minimum. But that is one of the problems, time and labor are worth so much more today then they were in the 16th century. It is assumed that us modern persons will take the “creative approach” to our projects for practicalities sake. What do we do when modern practicalities contradict reasonable historical ones? Historically it would have been more practical to pin the ruff, yet today we see it as an inconvenience. Or, even worse, as laziness or sloppiness.
On my first ruff, I had read that indeed pins were used to set ruffs. Granted I had intended to sew the sets shut but lack of time indeed prevailed, so I left the pins in anyway – it was after all a period choice thing, right? When questioned about the pins, I explained that in the period they were one option used to set ruffs – oh the raised eyebrows and skepticism! (In no form or fashion am I saying that this ruff was perfect, it wasn’t, amusingly it was the pins that people had problems about – not the actual wrongness of the ruff shape, etc.) And even worse, the self consciousness of “Oh no, they are going to think that I’m horrible and lazy and never look at anything I make with a shred of belief ever again!” Granted, after reading Goodman’s work, I feel a bit more validated about my previous pin preference. Except, and it is a big one, I feel that I’m more torn than before about the ever present fight between making the historical choice (as odd as it might seem to others) or going with the “creative” side of the SCA and not coming off as a nutter. Well, maybe not that drastic, but when researching an era that is not as well pursued as others, “pretty” tends to come across as correct – and that’s not always the case. Which, that opens up another can of worms in regard to SCA philosophy as to whether things should be encouraged to fit into our modern “pretty” sensibilities, or the ideal that authenticity itself is beautiful?
But that is not the heart of this battle in my mind tonight. Tonight, it is about whether to pin, or not to pin. Throw myself into the history of the period and the mindset of those that truly thought much differently than we do now? Or remain at a safe, comfortable, pre-set ruff distance? Granted, if I take this first step, a marvelously period kit isn’t going to materialize over night. But a step is a step. If I pin, then I can make more batches of homemade starch (no, not the pre-made powder type, the good stinky stuff). A glass smoothing stone can be commissioned from the local glassblower, and a board won’t be hard to find. A metal worker can make a poking stick, and viola! a period ruff setting set up. But what about everything else?
Ruffs weren’t the only things pined. Hundreds of thousands of pins were being shipped into England at any given time. According to Goodman, pinning ones ensemble together was especially necessary if you were a woman who at the time was most likely either pregnant, in between pregnancies, or had a body that was no longer the one you had on your wedding day. Stomachers helped hide gaps in the clothing of the torso, as well as could be easily adjusted on a daily basis to conform to a changing body. These and other accessories were often pinned on, and women went through a lot of them – pins that is. Skirts that had a neat little pleat at the end of a wheel farthingale – yes, those too are thought to have been pinned in place. How do we cope with this vastly different concept of wearing clothing in context of the expectations of the SCA? I don’t have an answer, but I think that it is an important question that any person engaged in any sort of historical reenactment or recreation has to ask themselves – or at the very least, engage in an internal dialogue once in a while.