Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Authenticity: Where Edyth Lived

You may recall that at the beginning of the year I stated I wanted to pay more attention to my personal authenticity this year. The fact of the matter is that true medieval authenticity is absolutely impossible to obtain. We have neither the correct set of materials nor the definitive set of evidence available to claim anything more than a best guess. But close accuracy can be obtained if we pay more attention to specifics, and find ways to integrate those details into our recreation. This means that authenticity comes by knowing not just what we would have worn and how we made it, but also in where we lived, when that was, what we did, who we associated with, and more.

Now I recognize that I'm at an advantage with my chosen persona period, and that not everyone has the amount of primary and secondary sources available for their time or place. For those with less than ideal amounts of evidence, your best guess needs to rely a bit more on scholarly analysis and crowd-sourced agreement. In other words, those who also do your time and place will be your best authenticity advocates, and the closer you all are to each other, and the more you share your findings with each other, the better your recreation will be. In smaller "niche" persona groups, such as late-period Eastern European or New World, the thumbs-up from those in your persona group doing research is going to be your best bet for determining if you're close to what that group believes is correct. Whether or not it actually is correct can really only be determined by primary source evaluations scholars are making available. And in the end, you (and your group) need to be willing to accept if your long-held ideas of authenticity are challenged or refuted by new evidence. Which, really, is just as true for everyone else.

So, as a start, an authentic approach to your persona recreation should account for where you lived. A few years ago I came across a persona worksheet (I don't know who created it, unfortunately) that asked a few questions that focused on place. It asked for not only where you live, but also how far you have traveled in your life, and how long it takes you to get to your local church. It forced me to stop and question the sort of broad-sweeping location statements we always make. It was after seeing that worksheet that I refined my persona from " in Flanders..." to "... living in an urban house in Bruges near the art district...."

There are very few places left from the known medieval world that haven't been researched in some way, archaeologically speaking. Even if the exact locations of buildings in a Norse settlement can't be determined, there are maps available that share where settlements have been found, and records of when they may have been founded (or overtaken.) A few searches on Google for more specific maps or location information can get you started. In some cases, you might not find exactly what you need online, but you should eventually find out where you can go off-line for it. The bottom line is that honing in on authenticity entails making less generic statements about where you live and what your local community is. Instead of being a "Norse woman in England", maybe you're a "Danish woman living in Jorvik." The difference provides the potential for greater authenticity.

I originally chose Bruges because I knew it was the place to be if you were English, in Flanders, and had anything to do with wool (all elements of my persona story that haven't changed in the past 7 years.) However, I knew squat about the city otherwise. Luckily, Bruges' history is pretty well documented. I have available a map of Bruges by Marcus Gheeraerts, drawn in 1562, which was obviously not going to be entirely accurate for 1400, but is certainly a good place to start (and is really cool to boot.)

Bird's Eye View of Bruges, 1562, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder. Click here to zoom in and explore.

With that map in one hand, and Google Maps in the other, I started to "stroll" around the city to get my bearings. I located the central Markt and the Belfry- easily the best landmark in the city. I navigated from there to the Beursplein, the intersection where the Italians set up their banking centers (found by matching it to a drawing from 1641 by Antonius Sanderus.)

I even stumbled across one of only two buildings with intact wooden facades from the 15th century. The Google street view image wasn't the best, but I did locate a good image online:


The other 15th century facade is known as Houtin Huis (on Genthof street a bit further north) and is just as gorgeous:

I'd wanted some way to be able to account for my SCA foray into award scroll illumination, so I decided that living near the art district in Bruges would work. I had no clue where that was, though, or even if one existed. I searched around online, and eventually found a brochure for an "off the beaten path" tour of Bruges that included Gouden-Handstraat, labeling it the "Homebase of Workman and Artists". Apparently, Jan van Eyck's Bruges studio was located here, but in the early years of the 15th century, there may not have been a great number of artists there yet. It's close enough for my purposes, however. There's not much now to see on the street, but around back, where one of Bruges' many a canals runs, you can see how enchanting Bruges might have been during its Golden Age in the 14th and 15th centuries.

A few blocks further north is Saint Giles' Church (Sint-Gilliskerk), built in the 13th century. If I was living anywhere in the vicinity of Gouden-Handstraat, this would have been my church.

I wandered around the area between Saint Giles and Gouden-Handstraat, trying to get a sense of the neighborhood. Obviously, I won't know if any of the houses I saw were stone originally, or looked like the two wooden facades. Google's aerial view helped me locate spans of homes with inner courtyards. A mid-sized house with a "back yard" would have been appropriate for my persona, and would have provided a plot for a kitchen garden and space for poultry. In addition, quick access to the canal would have also been preferred for my family. In my persona story, my husband is heavily involved in the wool industry, and his need for traveling through the city would have been fulfilled by proximity to the canals.

The house at 13 Langerei is not medieval to look at. According to the Flemish Architectural Heritage Inventory, the facade is 18th century, and doesn't it look it? However, the inventory also states that the older core stayed intact. The shape certainly suggests that the front was older, what with the offset gothic arch on the left. The house does appear in the 1562 map.

I don't believe the outbuilding is original, but the courtyard certainly is. On the corner, facing the canal and a mere minute's walk from Saint Giles', this home would have been a pretty ideal place to live. Not large (the neighboring building in much bigger by comparison), but stately and no doubt prominent, it seems possible that a moderately wealthy bourgeois family would have found the home to be just grand enough to make the statements necessary to maintain their social status.

Unless I can find more in-depth information on the exact history and nature of 13 Langerei, this is all best guess. I can certainly do more research, but at this point, I believe that to be splitting hairs. As far as establishing anything for the purposes of hobby recreation, I've found all I really need to at least feel comfortable that I've found a plausible home for Edyth Miller.

While there's really no easy way to integrate this into a more authentic persona directly, it does provide a key component to greater accuracy- context. I can, from here, begin looking at urban interiors, knowing that the southern-facing windows of my home would have provided great light and beautiful views of the canal and street beyond. I can now know that the activities of and around the church would have impacted my daily life. I would clearly hear the church bells whenever they rang. Living in urban Bruges, I would have had a unique experience as a medieval person. The countryside, agriculture, distances between towns would have all been somewhat foreign to me. The hustle of Saint Giles' Quarter, the noises, the smells and the people, would have been comforts, and my sense of community would have encompassed not only the joys of having neighbors to associate with, but also that unique feeling of private isolation that only comes with living in a large city.

I encourage you to try making the same sort of "trips" for your persona location. Virtually walking the streets of Bruges has given me a great sense of the city, and a greater ownership of my persona.

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