Delivered at Nipissing University
October 30, 2014
as part of the History Department Seminar Series
I am very pleased to be here before my beloved colleagues and other friends of the History Department, and to have the opportunity to discuss my work and my interests. I hope this will not come across as merely an exercise in self-aggrandizement or nostalgia. It’s meant as a reflection on one person’s meandering path through the vast country that is history, and on the variety of ways that history can be approached. My path is probably more eccentric than most but I think that all of you working historians out there have a tale to tell of how your engagement in the past is not restricted within the boundaries of the notional career path of the so-called “average academic historian.” At least, I hope so.
Reflecting back on my career at Nipissing University and before that at University of Toronto, I consider that I have been very lucky having the freedom to pursue my extraordinarily diverse intellectual interests. I began as a graduate student with a very intense project in which I took long-known late ancient chronicles, key sources for the understanding of the fall of the Roman Empire, and reconstructed the mental universe of the men who wrote them. The standard view of these works was that they were defective fragments of lost official records. My task was to turn the chroniclers from being incompetent historians to being valuable witnesses, who were more closed mouth than we might like, but still people who had something to say for themselves, and whose silences said as much about late Roman times as their explicit statements. Thanks to my supervisor Walter Goffart it was an absolutely first class introduction to an extraordinarily difficult historiographical problem, where analyzing the scholarly tradition surrounding the questions was just as important as reconstructing contemporary accounts of the era.
I was and am very proud of my first book The Fifth-Century Chroniclers because I did not avoid the hardest questions of source interpretations. I believe it is one of those books that is good to argue with and will prove useful to researchers for decades to come. Nevertheless, when I finished the Fifth- Century Chroniclers, I had no desire to take on another highly technical puzzle of that sort. About the time I was hired at Nipissing University, I found another historiographical problem worth exploring. It was 1989; the Iron Curtain was falling, and millions were occupying Tien An Men Square and erecting a statue of the Goddess of Democracy. What did it all mean?
As usual, a pessimistic view of human society emerged very quickly. Specifically an old notion was trotted out are not, in an effort explain away the clear demands of people on every continent for democracy to replace autocracy.
My friend Phil Paine and I found such arguments sour and self-serving. Together we wrote the article “Democracy’s Place in World History” for the Journal of World History, in which we demonstrated that proto-democratic institutions, especially at the local level, are documentable in many parts of the world; the potential for democracy can be found in many parts of the world. Particularly interesting was the comparison between the experience of ancient urban democracy in India and in Greece. The Greek democratic experience is often rated as a crucial moment in world history; ancient Indian democracy is not very well known even in India. Phil and I argued that they were of similar significance – both demonstrating potential for democracy without however guaranteeing it.
This was a daring project and depended on faith that big, difficult historiographical questions could be tackled by historians of normal intelligence and training if they used a careful comparative methodology and paid critical attention to the historiographical tradition. Phil Paine and I had ambitions to do more with the history of democracy but circumstances prevented us working together closely. Our output of the last 20 years on the subject is rather restricted as a result. In the 1990s I was once again looking for direction. I found it in the best place, at home.
Some of you know and others do not that I have been a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism as long as I have been a student of the Middle Ages, that is, for over 40 years. The SCA can be seen as one of the many historical reenactment organizations that have grown up in the last half-century. Except it isn’t much like most of the rest. The normal reenactment organization seeks to re-create a specific time and place. Participants appropriately and accurately dressed and equipped re-create a battle or a scene from daily life. The participants are usually in the position of actors putting on a show for paying customers who, as in most theatre, are a passive audience.
The SCA, however, is not a show for an audience. Rather the audience is identical with the participants. It can be seen as a roving theme party that has been going on in various locales since May 1, 1966. On that day a number of Californians put on in a backyard party which they called an “international tournament.” Guests were encouraged to dress in the style of “any age when swords were used.” The party featured mock ceremony, music and combat with a variety of swords. The winner of the tournament crowned a simple peasant girl queen, and a promising young squire was knighted. And when it was all over they all said “let’s do it again!” And they did.
The SCA evolved into a society focused not on reenacting such historic events as the Battle of Bosworth Field, but the world of the 12 century romances where an ideal king and queen preside over a court of knights and ladies and those who aspire to be such. In the evolving SCA as in the early romances, the tournament remained the focus of activity. Thus the SCA can be seen as a recreation of medieval literature rather than of actual history. Yet there was an early commitment by the individual members and the organization they founded to do things “right,” meaning that an SCA event would aspire to get the visual and physical aspects right – armour, food, costuming, tents and pavilions, beer, mead and cider. The desire to get the props right and the respect given to artists and artisans -- all of whom must necessarily be seen as amateur researchers-- are among the chief things that keeps the SCA from being just a fantasy role playing activity, of the sort now called a LARP (live action role-playing game).
The SCA is a role playing game, an embodied reimagining –in Paul Monahan’s elegant phrase –of some aspects of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. But it is not an attempt to re-create a full and accurate and consistent historical environment. It is important to remember that the first SCA event gave invitees free choice of what historical or even fictional era they wished to portray –one person came as Queen Lucy of Narnia, and there were hobbits as well. That principle of the individual choice of “persona” or in-game identity has continued ever since, although purely fantasy identities have been phased out long ago. Indeed, the most serious efforts at accurate reenactment are located in the individual person. There is next to no effort to maintain a consistent time that embraces everybody at a given event or in the society as a whole. I may come to an event as a 10th century Viking, while you come to the same event in a costume modeled on one worn by Anne Boleyn. The success of the re-creation, in the judgment of those present, doesn’t have anything to do with consistent portrayals of either the 10th century or the 16th. While participants may carefully put together a consistent and accurate persona for themselves as individuals, the social environment they create is a fictional kingdom -- say Ealdormere – and a fictional time -- AS 49, the year of the Society 49. To do an excellent job of embodied reimagining, there is no particular reason that the individual participant needs to know a lot about the actual history of the Middle Ages or even the history of a given country, such as 10th-century Norway. Better one should know how to make or acquire authentically styled shoes or boots.
I realized long ago that my scholarly knowledge of the Middle Ages was going to be of only limited application to my SCA participation. The only advantage of knowing medieval history in any detail is that you can occasionally contribute a decorative element, as for instance in showing people how a medieval heraldic display would differ from a modern logo. Or you can use your knowledge to say, as so many fans of historical fiction and movies do, “that’s not right!” A strategy with a very limited lifespan. The social structures and practices of SCA members are formed by the needs of the 21st century society they are creating and re-creating. For instance, monarchs in the SCA are chosen by combat in tournament. This was never done in the actual Middle Ages, and nobody thinks it was. Why the divergence between re-creation and actual history? To have an hereditary monarch for life would be boring; competition for the crown on the other hand binds society members with an ongoing drama.
But scholarship and hobby, research and re-enactment came together for me in the late 1990s anyway.
I owned an old hardback edition of the Chronicles of Jean Froissart, a famous historian who lived during and wrote about the first half of the Hundred Years War (in the late 14th century). I had bought the book for $20 back when $20 was a lot of money. One day, years later, I picked it up and started reading it cover to cover and was fascinated by the fact that the so-called “chronicle” read more like a novel than the chronicles I was used to from late antiquity or the early Middle Ages. (All the smart people already knew this, but I didn’t.) Since Froissart’s main historical interest was in recording what he called “deeds of arms” (we might also say “chivalric combats”) there were many little anecdotes and a fair number of very substantial stories which illustrated the attitudes and actions of “men at arms” during the Hundred Years War. In other words, Froissart’s historical characters were largely the kind of people that SCA warriors were trying to imitate. This too was common knowledge. Yet very few SCA members, with the honorable exception of an amateur scholar named Will McLean had actively been working with late medieval chronicles with the intention of shedding light on the central activity of the SCA, our tournament combat. SCA members do not read primary materials, at least not very carefully. My reaction on reading Froissart again was that if the proper interpreter took this material and spread it around the SCA, there would be widespread interest among the warrior community. Will McLean already done some of this, as had others such as Brian Price and Daryl Pompeo. So I took it upon myself to excerpt Froissart as I read along and put the best pieces on the website here at Nipissing University, which I called “Tales from Froissart.” It was and is a list of very interesting stories, not all of them the best examples of what we would like chivalry to be, but at least examples of contemporary praise and criticism of noble warriors in action.
I also became aware of a text from the 14th century that had been fearfully neglected, both by amateurs and professional scholars, Geoffrey de Charny’s Questions on the Joust Tournaments and War. The Questions are a collection, compiled by a famous French knight in the 1350s, of questions about legal matters that might arise in both sport fighting (jousts and tournaments) and actual warfare. In some ways this should be a high profile source of information on 14th century chivalry, because Charny was a close associate of the reigning King of France and an active warrior. His opinions as to what chivalry and the laws of arms (as he called them) should be very important to modern scholars. But the Questions are not very helpful if one simply reads them through. Charny provided no answers to the 134 questions he raised. That fact and the fact that there are no obvious parallels to the collection of questions during his time, have seemingly discouraged work on that material. Maybe scholars hate to be wrong? Or perhaps they hate to take chances?
Charny’s questions and my close reading of Froissart’s Chronicles had a common focus. In both cases I was mostly interested in what chivalric combat was like from the contemporary’s point of view. What was a “deed of arms?” What exactly did the participants in such deeds do? And finally, why did they do it? I had a dual interest in answering these questions. Having taken part in what might be called “deeds of arms” in the SCA context for many years, I was interested in how close we had come to the spirit and the actuality of the medieval practice. It was quite clear that we had not come very close to medieval practice. People had known this for a long time. But to what degree was there similarity, both in spirit and in practice? Second, I was interested in the analysis of the historical practice. Back in the 19th century there had been some interest among scholars, mostly amateur ones, in the nuts and bolts and sweat and blood aspects of individual combats and duels. Indeed, duels were not entirely extinct in that century. But since about the First World War, there had been little serious scholarly interest. People tended to follow the lead of the eminent Dutch medievalist Johan Huizinga when he said that chivalric combats – jousts and tournaments and individual challenges – were a preoccupation of the nobility and not taken seriously by anybody else. I was pretty sure he was wrong about that, but at least his dismissal had left a gap in the literature that I felt could and should be filled by somebody like me.
Here is some of the material I have produced since I made the decision. First was a short book called Jousts and Tournaments, which is a translation and interpretation of those of Charny’s Questions which concerned chivalric sports in the 14th century, in an effort to reconstruct the rules used by contemporaries. It is not so easy to see what those rules really were, because as I said, Charny's Questions are unanswered. However, the Questions do show how extraordinarily important horses were to 14th century knights. There are 41 questions about jousts and tournaments, and all but one of them can be boiled down to "in such and such a situation, who gets the horse?" If nothing else, the book reminds us of how central to the identity of the noble warrior his horse was.
The next project was the book Deeds of Arms, in which I investigated the era in which Froissart wrote; thanks to his literary talent he has tremendously influenced our cultural memory of the Middle Ages. In this book I tried to put contemporary descriptions of chivalric sport and chivalric challenges in the context of the politics of England and France during the Hundred Years War. The book was in part an argument that there is no thing in real life that corresponds to "mere sport." One might like to think that sports or re-creations are something of a timeout from real life. But there is no such thing. 14th century jousts, 21st-century SCA tournaments, and the World Series are all parts of so-called real life. What happens in them counts for something. It may not count quite the same way that events in so-called real life count, but they do count. The book was a monograph-length demonstration of how chivalric sport counted, its psychology and symbolism and even its political importance.
Deeds of Arms the monograph inspired a series called “Deeds of Arms,” of which I am the editor and Freelance Academy Press is the publisher. The idea behind this series was that it would present translations of medieval accounts of chivalric combats in a very attractive illustrated format. There was hope that they would appeal to a wide audience, including people who just like attractive books and were not necessarily tremendously interested in the details of medieval combat. The series Deeds of Arms currently includes three books, two of which are basically my work, Royal Jousts and the Combat of the Thirty. I have another one: Will A Frenchman Fight? ready to go whenever the publisher is.
Two more books have come out in the last year or so. One of them is frankly an experiment, a collection of three conference papers on deeds of arms, repackaged as an e-book entitled Formal Combats in the Fourteenth Century. I wanted to see if there was in fact a market for cheap electronic publication of material that otherwise be too slight for publication. This was a no-risk project for me – I had a publisher anxious to do all the work.
This past summer finally saw the appearance of a book that I had essentially finished in my last sabbatical, Charny’s Men-at-Arms. It can be considered the expanded version of Jousts and Tournaments. Jousts and Tournaments used Charny’s Questions to reconstruct the rules for chivalric sport; the new book reviewed that material and added an investigation of the Questions on War, 93 cases about the laws of arms and issues of honor. The result is a group portrait of Charny’s military class and what they thought was important about “the life in arms.”
But my exploration of more authentic, more medieval styles of sport combat was not restricted to the page. At about the same time it began to write Jousts and Tournaments, I started to promote what I hoped would be more authentic styles of sport combat within the SCA. This was to some degree a joint effort with my wife Ruta, because together we hosted an SCA event on our rural property and Bonfield, Ontario, something we did for twenty Labor Day weekends in a row. Much of what we did on those weekends were standard SCA activities, but because we had so much space and the whole long weekend, we were able to experiment, to hold challenges and tournaments and for a while at least equestrian games both modern and medieval. We had some jousting on one occasion. The spirit of the event and some of the activities we put on resulted in a certain amount of influence in the SCA community. People came from as far away as St. Louis Missouri to take part. (Repeatedly!) Some of them brought their own elaborate, non-martial re-enactments. One group forged iron and set up a glass-bead furnace. Another group erected a medieval-style barn.
As these last activities indicate, it was not just a matter of me and of my wife dispensing wisdom to our friends and visitors. In our encouragement of higher quality reenactment leading (perhaps) to a better understanding of the Middle Ages, I began to discover that there were plenty of other individuals and small groups doing similar things. One example will suffice. Early on, when I was particularly interested in witnessing some actual jousting, I discovered a non-SCA group in Ontario which was putting on jousting shows. It was led by a man named Shane Adams who was a veteran of Medieval Times, the medieval dinner theater show. Shane from childhood wanted to joust and when Medieval Times came to Ontario from Florida, he signed up. He was disappointed to find that Medieval Times jousting was not the real thing and he became dissatisfied enough with just acting in their show to form his own troupe. In 2002 I witnessed them joust in Elgin, Ontario; the next year I was part of the show in the exalted role of Squire – since I actually had some experience in handling horses they were glad to have me. One thing I learned from the experience of working with Shane's troupe was how dangerous and exciting and thrilling jousting was even in a modern context. When the experienced, fully armored knights came riding out on their huge horses for the climactic contests at the end of the show, the audience went completely wild, filling the arena with sound. Clearly, even in the 21st-century, jousting was not a trivial pursuit. It is or can be a true embodiment of one aspect of medieval culture.
This was just the beginning of my contacts with jousters and other non-SCA re-enactors.
These re-enactors (and I want to be clear that I mean in general military and chivalric re-enactors) come in a variety of flavors. One way to distinguish them would be to divide those who began with a fascination with armor from those who were fascinated by the sword. The first group wants first-class, authentic armor, and when they get it (through vast trouble and expense), they want to use it as it was meant to be used. The sword-lovers learn how to use their weapons in the manner of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance; sooner or later they want to use techniques that are appropriate to armored combat, and they begin acquiring armor. You can see how the groups can come close to merging; but thing that distinguishes them is the fact that in the half-century since the founders of the SCA re-invented medieval tournament on the basis of a few mostly-inaccurate assumptions, actual treatises written in the fourteenth century have been discovered, republished, translated, and interpreted. These sword manuals are the key to the sword-lovers’ practice. There are a variety of schools of HEMA or WMA – Historic European Martial Arts or Western Martial Arts -- based on the Holy Scriptures of the Italian master Fiore or the German master Lichtenaur or some other historic master-at-arms.
The armor-lovers are not necessarily less learned than the sword lovers, but tend to be interested in a rougher, all-out form of combat; there's much less interest in theory and systematic training, and more on bringing an opponent down to the ground. This kind of conduct does not look like fencing, medieval or modern, but much more like wrestling. The most prominent example of this kind of fighting reenactment is the Battle of Nations competition invented in Ukraine and for most of its history a competition chiefly between Eastern European "national teams." When I first heard of Battle of Nations my immediate reaction was "I would hate to be the official who tries to referee Russian reenactors fighting Polish reenactors.” And sure enough the reality did not disappoint. The Russians in particular had no hesitation in using tactics designed to seriously injure their opponents. Stories circulated that the Russians were in fact sponsored by gambling interests, illegal ones that that. When Americans with an SCA background first attended Battle of Nations, there was an immediate culture conflict between the brutal young Russians and the Americans who had come up in a tradition in which fighters “didn’t break their toys” (opposing fighters) so that there would be no shortage of opponents. There was a schism in which many of the national organizations left the old umbrella organization and formed a new one which purported to be more honest and transparent in regard to business affairs and more – chivalrous?—on the tournament field. One result of this conflict is that American veterans of Battle of Nations formed a new US-based league which featured a rougher style of competition than SCA tournament combat, taking on as it did certain features of Battle of Nations.
I have mixed feelings about the Battle of Nations and other “real combat” activities. Perhaps I should heartily disapprove, but I can't escape the connection. This summer I ran into a prominent SCA fighter who was instrumental in setting up the new American organization for “real combat.” He thanked me for making available the phrase "deed of arms" which he found very useful for describing the activities that he and his friends were engaged in. He felt that the interaction between my scholarship and his style of re-creating medieval combat was teaching him and his friends a great deal about the actual past.
Who am I to say he is wrong? There should be some intellectual gain, however limited, however biased towards the modern, in all the creation of imaginary medieval kingdoms I have indulged in over the last four decades. As Dr. Janice Liedl of Laurentian University points out in a forthcoming article, both science fiction and historical fiction have their place in coming to grips with the scattered pieces of historical evidence which is all any of us have to anchor our understanding of the actual past. The facts are always too few and we always have to conjure up connective tissue make a coherent picture of what used to be. In the era of Game of Thrones and Assassin’s Creed historians and their scholarly methods are only a segment of creative historical inquiry. The conclusions we reach using them are no longer quite so privileged. We can moan about this or we can adjust. The adjustment is not so radical. It is merely a recognition that if the past is important it will not attract the attention of sober historians sober historians only. All kinds of imaginative energy will be generated by the widespread interest of all sorts of people. If our expertise is not going to become ignored and irrelevant, we will have to learn to live with popular, one might even say poetic interpretations of the facts. It won't be so hard; after all historians have been doing this for thousand years.
That’s one view of the challenges facing historians in our changing intellectual world. It probably isn’t yours. Variety is the spice of life, or rather an essential aspect of reality and of our efforts to deal with it. Wish me well on my highway – I will continue to work; I wish you well on yours.
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