Wednesday, February 10, 2021

2020 Projects In Review

Four years later and a lot has happened! It's been a while since I last published a blog article; I would not have guessed in 2017 (the last time I published a post here) that four years later we'd be dealing with a global pandemic.

I'm a bit late to this, but I've been meaning to type up something of a "year in review" for 2020. Despite the pandemic, a lot's happened and I've branched out to even more time periods (as if I needed that). I've also decided to pick up this blog and write some more posts: how-tos on historical crafting as well as some educational advice for living history. If you're tired of other folks' years in review, just scroll to the bottom and check out what I'm planning to write about next. This article is just for fun inasmuch as it is something for me to look back on in years to come.


While still blissfully enjoying life before lockdown, we conducted our annual civilian weekend at Historic London Town, MD. To further develop my persona, I made a new kit based on a painting of a publican from the Continent. The frock coat and matching breeches are Kochan & Phillips wool, and the coat is lined with linen, interlined with linen buckram. The waistcoat is some other wool broadcloth, lined in linen and interlined with linen buckram. The buttons on everything are Najecki repro casts of an original civilian set from the same period.

My persona is that of the historical tavern keep at London Town: William Brown. My main historical interests are in food culture, so I created a bill of fare for the weekend and with a team of indentured servants, we cooked everyone's meals. While this was my third year being involved with this, I realized I had been missing out on representing a sizeable part of the historic London Town community. To represent the black--mostly enslaved--population of historic London Town, I drafted the bill of fare to include a couple dishes that, while a tavern might not have historically offered them, would be excellent points of interpretation and stepping stones to addressing the history of London Town's black community. So in addition to game pies, scotch collops, hodge-podge, apple fritters, waffles, and hasty pudding, we also made fried corn cakes and salt-cod stew--these latter two representing a couple dishes that were typical for enslaved black people in the Chesapeake during the winter months. While again, I have no evidence for either dish being served as tavern food in the 1770s, I felt that my role as overseeing the meals that weekend was far more than representing the tavern, but as representing the culinary life of the town in general. I found that explaining those dishes gave me an excellent starting place from which to discuss the black history of the town as well as slavery around the Chesapeake. I'm planning to always include this element in my interpretation from now on.

April & May

By this month, the realities of COVID hit us all like a brick. I switched from preparing for the year's events to going on socially-distanced hikes with friends and foraging the spring veggies. Notably, I was introduced to garlic mustard with which I made some delicious not-horseradish sauce, dolmas (but with garlic mustard leaves), and garlic-mustard pesto. We also discovered the deliciousness of chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms, especially when braised for a couple hours in a beef stock/wine/tomato sauce.

It was also sometime around this month that I was lured into a couple new time periods: the Federal Era and the 15th century. From May on into the summer, I joined my friends on some socially-distanced Federal Era fun at picnics and at a beach. While I had made a kit for this period a couple years prior so I could join in a Regency ball, I decided to update things and so made a new kit. The unlined coatee is made from wool broadcloth and fashioned after some Krimmel paintings. The striped waistcoat is cotton lined with linen and interlined with buckram. The trousers are cotton corduroy and are based on some runaway ads descriptions from the 1810s. The hat is straw made by Matt Brenckle who also made a wool one for me.


This is when we finally got serious about our 15th century group. By the end of the summer, we decided that we'd portray the Paston household (a wealthy family from Norfolk, England) towards the end of the Wars of the Roses. So starting in June, I ordered a sword and buckler from a blacksmith in the Czech Republic and an ash longbow from a bowyer in the UK. The sword is a copy of one recovered from the battlefield of Castillon (1453) and the bow is a copy of the Mary Rose bows with side-nocked ox horn nocks. I also banged out my shirt and braies (both in linen), doublet, hose, hood, and acorn hat (not shown). The doublet, hose, and hood are made from wool twill and the doublet is lined in linen (hidden beneath my gown in this picture). The acorn hat is thick broadcloth lined in linen. I also decided that, with the pandemic lockdown and my itch to make stuff, I should make my ow shoes as well. After exhausting the Museum of London's shoes and shoe-fragments, I whipped up a set of lasts, made a pattern, and then just dove in. Long story short, I was so pleased with how well they turned out, I made a pair for my wife, will be making a pair for a friend, and will make some ankle boots for myself in the near future. I also plan to write up a how-to article sometime soon.

Once my basic kit was made, I also made a 15th century purse (veg tanned leather), wood core scabbard (veg tanned leather over poplar core) for my sword when it arrived, as well as a dozen arrows and an arrow bag (hemp canvas, hemp rope, and a veg tanned leather spacer). After chatting with Will Sherman of Medieval Arrows (more like humbly receiving information from him), I made six practice arrows (with modern field points but otherwise historically constructed) and six with broadheads (the broadheads were made by Miloslav in Slovakia--"Medieval Style Arrowheads" on Facebook). I modeled the arrows off of the Westminster Abbey arrow, dated no later than 1437. The shafts are poplar, tapered from the head to the nock, have a cow horn nock insert, graylag goose feathers fletched with red silk thread, and the thread covered with an iron oxide compound (I have to give Will Sherman credit for his recipe for the compound as well as his advice--I can't imagine what sort of disaster my arrows would have ended up as without Will). The heads are Westminster Type 16s with hardened edges (Miloslav used an historical process with bone and horn as the sources of carbon).


As the summer with its socially-distanced picnics and hiking came to a close, I returned to the classroom for a new school year. I also took on a project to reproduce rush lights ahead of a November event. Using a little experimental archaeology, my wife and I made a couple dozen rush lights which worked surprisingly well (I think I'm going to write up a short how-to in the near future on this).


Transitioning back to the other end of my timeline, my friends and I participated in a small living history event at the Frontier Culture Museum, portraying German-Americans around 1820. Masked and socially-distanced, we showed cider making, fiber-dying, cooking, and baking. It was a fantastic weekend, especially as I was able to use my new-to-me antique sausage maker (pictured above). The menu included bratwurst with hog intestine casings, roasted pigeons/Cornish hens, boiled salat, and a boiled apple pudding. It was wonderful to spend time at a museum with friends doing history stuff in historical clothes.

Besides the event, I also made a leather belt for my 15th century kit which is absolutely brag-worthy. The buckle and strap end were made from a bar stock of bronze and hand-tooled by friend and craftsman-extraordinaire Michael Buck. In addition to making an exact copy of each historical item, he also etched the linear design on the pieces, matching the originals. Additionally, he hand-cut a steel leather-stamp for me with a basket weave pattern so I could tool the belt with it. In putting it all together, I stamped the 1" wide veg tanned leather strap, dyed it an ox-blood red, and then riveted the metal parts with copper nails.

Right at the end of the month, a couple weeks out from our first 15th century event, I brewed up a five gallon batch of medieval ale (no hops, Nottingham and Windsor yeast, and about 12 pounds of fermentables: pale, chocolate, and smoked malts and a few pounds of oats), then did a second running to make a five gallon batch of small ale.


After about a week in the primary fermenter, I racked the ales (both strong and small) to bottles. I had hoped to rack the strong ale to my wood barrel but alas, despite my care, it grew some awful mold inside it. The strong ale measured in around a respectable 6% and tasted wonderful. The small ale was like drinking malty water (for obvious reasons) and was definitely not very alcoholic (probably 1% or less) but so refreshing. I then saved the barm from the strong ale and used it to make around 10 loaves of trencher bread (mixture of fine stone ground wheat flour, rye, and some flour locally ground by an actual 19th century watermill).

Our first medieval event--halfway through November--took place at Henricus. It's about as close as we can get this side of the Atlantic to 15th century style buildings. Our goal was to just come together, interpret 15th century cooking, dyeing fabric, and military service within a household. This was the perfect site for this as it's large and spread out, allowing us the space to likewise socially-distance ourselves from each other and the visitors. I cooked up a hare stew (the hare was hunted in Scotland and exported here), golden leeks, custard pie, eel pies, and fried quails--everything but the custard and eel pies were served on the trencher bread halves. I was pleased with all of the dishes and was excited by how well the trenchers turned out (edible and bio-degradable plates!) but I was disappointed by the leeks--they were far too onion-y for me. We also set up a target and demonstrated some archery practice.

General Remarks

I've been super fortunate that the pandemic has had little effect on me--I'm happily employed and am still able to enjoy my hobbies. While 2020 disappointed me in many ways, it also gave me opportunities to expand my interests and to complete projects. Already this new year, I've made myself an arming doublet and am about to start constructing a brigandine--something I never saw myself doing. If you read through all this, I hope you enjoyed my review of the year and are looking forward to some more articles from me in the near future.

Upcoming Articles

  • How to make rush lights
  • Making 15th century turn shoes
  • Making my 15th century brigandine
  • Making Westminster Abbey arrows
  • Historical waffles

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Reenactments and the Realities of Historical Warfare

Do reenactments convey the realities of historical warfare? Well that's a question I tackled over at The Activist History Review this week. I was honored to have been asked by one of the editors to write up an article that discusses how reenactments do or don't show the realities of war, during a time that we honor our veterans--past and present. Since the article is on a topic I would normally address on this blog, I'm sharing the link here. As always, I hope you enjoy reading it and--more importantly--I hope it sparks conversation and contemplation.
While you're there, be sure to also check out some of the other articles!

"Who Are The Good Guys?": The Role of Reenactments in Conveying the Realities of Historical Warfare

Finally, and most importantly, to the veterans reading this article, I thank you for your service. While I can never truly understand or relate to the hardships you may have experienced, please know that your service--the sacrifices both seen and unseen and the lost comrades--will never be forgotten.