Friday, February 26, 2021

The Matrix of Recreation

I've spent much of the past few months ruminating about how I can improve the ways I combine my research into the projects I create. It's all well and good to be able to make a thing because I have the skills and technical knowledge, but if I'm making things without genuinely good research, I find that later on down the road, I regret the item or I feel salty that I didn't do as much research legwork as I should have.

When we're talking about medieval recreation, there's an understanding that the picture we can paint is never going to be fully accurate or correct. All we can do is aim for our "best reasonable guess" based on credible research efforts. We have to do the best we can with what we have access to. Sometimes what we have access to is incomplete or hard to interpret. Sometimes we really don't know what we're looking at. Sometimes we're working off incorrect assumptions. This is all part of the hobby, and we must accept that we never really know for sure.

We can, however, follow very basic guidelines in our efforts to research and recreate with as much accuracy as possible. We can make sure we're looking at period sources, that those sources are relevant to the place and time we're interested in, and that we understand how to interpret the stylistic choices from that time. Once we have these research habits under our belt, we can get to the heart of why we research to begin with- finding what's likely correct in order to recreate it. Which is when we can use something like my Matrix of Recreation.

The four quadrants of the Matrix define the relative suitability of recreation. This vetting process allows us to determine if the item/process/technique we’re looking at is potentially worth the time, resources & effort to recreate and add to our portrayal.

The Matrix is based on relative ratios between how many sources there are in the period and place we're looking and how many instances we find of the thing we're looking for. For earlier periods, the numbers involved in "low" and "high" are lower as a whole than those of later periods. This could also be true when looking at specific topics. There are more instances of fashion than there are of herbology, for example. So the low and high scale adjusts to these. You chose the numbers you'll assign to them based on what you're researching.

The horizontal axis of the Matrix looks at the body of sources we’ve collected to look for the thing we’re researching, i.e. primary sources. These include visual, written, and extant items from the period and place, such as manuscript contents, structures, paintings, and archeological evidence. While in a perfect world, this would be ALL sources in existence, we know that’s impossible, especially for the layman hobbyist. So we scale this down to what’s most relevant, useful, AND accessible for our purposes. We don’t need to bend over backward to find 40 manuscripts in the rare books department of the local medieval library when 10 reasonably complete, high-res manuscript facsimiles available on the internet will probably do.

The vertical axis of the Matrix looks at the total number of instances we can find inside our collection of sources of what we’re looking for. Crucial to this is our ability to understand what we’re looking for and at, and to be able to interpret the literal and visual languages in use. An understanding of art history, basic manuscript studies, and some idea of how to see like an archeologist are bedrock skills we need to learn as historical recreators. Once we can be more certain that we’re seeing the evidence well, we can count up the instances we find.

Let's look at each quadrant in turn.

Likely: High # of Sources & High # of Instances

When we can collect a large body of sources and find high quantities of the item within those sources, then we're looking at those items that are most likely accurate and useful to recreate. These are the things that feel the most medieval to us because they are easily visible in the historical record. What we must keep an eye on, however, is how these items shift within the Matrix when we take a deeper look. For example, we know that the close-fitting garment we call a kirtle or cote is a likely item in use during the Late Middle Ages, but how it's created and what details it has must be vetted independently. Buttons on the forearms are likely, but embroidery around the neckline may fall elsewhere in the Matrix.

Exception: High # of Sources & Low # of Instances

When we only find a few examples of something within a large body of sources, we're looking at what can be considered either an exception to the rule or potentially a symbolic or fantastical item. We have to be careful that when we chose to recreate things in this category we're clear that they are exceptions. We also have to challenge ourselves not to get into the habit of justifying these exceptions and allow them to dominate our kits and portrayals. A recreation of the exceptions to the rules just compounds upon itself, taking that recreation further and further away from what might be more "normal" or accurate for our period and place. Remember that the typical medieval person across most of the period valued belonging and inclusion with their community over being cast out as different or unique. (For more on this, I recommend The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer.)

Caution: Low # of Sources & High # of Instances

When the pool of sources shrinks, but within that smaller pool we can find many examples of the item, we can consider these likely but with caution. Similar to a scientific research study, smaller numbers of data sets to review produce less reliable conclusions. There are a number of things that may be going on within this quadrant. The item/technique, etc. may be likely, or it may be a regional thing that only works for certain areas. It may be a stylistic thing or a side effect of the way medieval people kept or recorded the item. Bread, for example, is clearly an item that was used and prevalent in the medieval period but recorded bread recipes are hard to find. So we can make a judgment call here, and be willing to update our item if and when more sources become available to add to our research.

Anomaly: Low # of Sources & Low # of Instances

In the final quadrant, we come to those items that 9 times out of 10 we'll want to pass on recreating. These are items that show up rarely in a small pool of sources. In essence, there's little to go in here. For the most part, these things are novelties that may add flavor or interest to our knowledge set, but if our goal is to present as accurately as possible a typical portrayal, these things begin to muddy the water. We may be looking at a one-off choice made by an artist or craftsman due to any number of unknowable factors. We may be looking at someone's idea of a joke. We may be looking at something that we simply can't interpret correctly because we are out of time and context from the original intent. There are times when the anomalies can be the focus of our research to add to our knowledgebase (that 1 out of the 10 times), so the Matrix doesn't discount the usefulness of these items altogether. We simply must acknowledge that what we're looking at here is less likely to be widely accurate.

Sources should be Relevant, Useful & Available

For either end of the Sources scale, remember that we're dealing in relative terms based on the number of relevant, useful, and available sources, and it's up to us to determine the perimeters of that for any individual item we're vetting. We can decide that in order to understand how accurate one item is, we have to limit our sources a bit differently than we might with another item. The example I can give here is that when I went looking for data to write my essay on Early 15th Century Women's Clothing, instead of choosing all early 15th century manuscripts as sources, I outlined a set of specific criteria that limited the sources I would refer to down to what I felt was the most useful and relevant. Number one on the list, of course, was that in order to be considered a source, the manuscript had to contain depictions of women.

How you determine your sources is always going to be dependent on what you're researching and how specific you need to be. If you want to look for "furniture", you're going to look at a larger number of sources than if you were looking for "trestle tables". You're going to limit your sources down to only those that may be likely to show tables.

You have to be careful here, though. When you limit your sources too much, you begin skewing the matrix toward also limiting instances. We can discount viable instances simply because we've put too strict of a boundary around our sources. Therefore, the perimeters of what we use as a source should always seek to include all the relevant and useful instances for the specific thing we're looking for. It's a balancing act.

Anomaly, Exception, or Just Plain Wrong?

I think we also need to look a bit closer at the bottom portion of the Matrix- those areas where the number of instances are low. These are the areas where we're treading close to the line between what is and isn't accurate to portray, but also those areas when sources simply aren't available or useful. There are several portions of historical recreation where the data is lacking. If you study a culture that isn't well documented, you'll consistently encounter Anomalies and mostly nothing else when using the Matrix. In these cases, my suggestion is to ditch the Matrix and beware of dragons. You're in uncharted territory.

If, however, you're researching something that is inside the more studied areas of history, the Matrix is useful to help understand if you're starting to go a bit off course. Especially in later periods, when finding sources is less difficult, we might be inclined to believe that we're not encountering Anomalies in our research, but finding a bunch of Exceptions instead. If our source count is always relatively high, the answer is to adjust the focus to make sure that we're not looking at more sources than we need to. This brings the source count down, shifting the scale toward the lower end. So now, when we find an item in this new source pool that shows up one time only we can be fairly certain we're looking at an Anomaly.

The other item that exists down around here as well are those items that are just wrong. Wrong because they are not historical, or wrong because inside the boundaries of our source limitations, they just don't exist. These things don't fall on the Matrix of Recreation because they should not be recreated. I want to point out that this also applies to items that may exist under a different source pool or a different set of criteria, but that for what you're trying to accomplish they don't show up. Let's say you're looking to see if women wore an item worn by men. Your sources should include all sources likely to show that clothing item. The instances you'll look for will be women wearing that item. It doesn't matter how many sources you're using, if instances don't exist, the most likely conclusion is that women didn't wear that item.

Inherently Ahistorical Situations

Layered on top of any process we use to vet the potential accuracy of what we recreate is the nature, goals, and standards of the communities within which we're recreating. While living history groups generally hold authenticity and accurate portrayal as a cornerstone of their organization, there are other groups for whom that is less strict. The SCA, for example, has room for authentic recreation but does not hold it as a core principle. In these types of situations (and here I'll mainly speak through my SCA experience), we will encounter a whole separate layer that we'll call "Community Material Culture". These are the things that have developed in a historic recreation community that belong exclusively to that community and are an integral part of it. In the SCA, that includes the ways in which peers can be visually recognized, items with years of use and history passed from one person to another, and the deep and extensive use of personal heraldry. When we want to be a part of this group, we also must allow room for the group's material culture to enter and exist in our kits and portrayal.

In these situations, if authenticity and accuracy are our goals (which, I would hope is at least partially the case for the majority of people interesting in portraying medieval life), then before we turn to the Matrix of Recreation, we should identify if the item in question is one of these Community Material Culture items. If so, we then must ask a single question: Can I create this item in a manner consistent with my period and place?

If the answer is Yes, you can utilize the Matrix to find the most likely accurate method of creating the item, or to at least understand if it's more exceptional than likely.

If the answer is No, you have two options. You can skip the item altogether and explain to anyone who asks that it's not correct for your portrayal, and that authenticity is important to you. Or you can create the item anyway with the understanding and acknowledgment that it's not accurate for your portrayal but that its purpose in the community is important to you.

Caveat Emptor

The Matrix of Recreation isn't meant to be a strict guideline. There are simply too many variables, too many topics, and too many exceptions across the board for it to fit all circumstances of historical recreation. It will break down under certain perimeters, and since you must use your best judgment and set your own relative scales, you can always bend it a bit to your will and justify your choices no matter what if you really wanted to. I hope you don't, though. I think it works its best as a gut-check. A quick way to understand if you're on the right track and headed in the right direction.  

I'm a big proponent of self-evaluation, and since I developed this Matrix out of a sense that I, myself was veering off course, I feel like a great way to close this out is to offer examples from my own kit for each of the four quadrants. These are projects that I have created and/or designed that I'm now going to review in retrospect in terms of where they fall in the Matrix of Recreation.

Likely: Open Hoods

Long-time readers will not be shocked to see the open hood as my pick in the Likely category. We can find examples of open hoods throughout the entirety of the Late Middle Ages in the Franco-Flemish region. There's still a lot of nuances to their styles and usages through that period (a 1460 open hood is wildly different from a 1350 open hood), but there are many sources we can use and many instances within those sources, making the open hood a likely accurate item in my wardrobe. Of all the open hoods I've created over the years, I feel that my light pink hood, though perhaps a bit too pale in color, is the best, with the correct weight, shape, scale, and liripipe length.

Caution: Buckled Turnshoes

As a Late Medieval recreator, I find that the Caution category is quite rare (within the things I'm researching). There are so many useable and accessible sources that it's unusual I come across something that falls under the low source/high instance quadrant. One item of mine that does seem to fall here, however, is shoes.

Undoubtedly, women wore shoes, but the style of the shoe they wore is where caution comes into play. When we condense all the sources available for women's shoes specifically, we're not left with much, especially compared to the sources for men's shoes and for women's clothing. Women's footwear was often left out of depictions because it was concealed, and we have very few ways of determining what extant shoes or shoe pieces belonged to female feet.

That said, when the chance for a shoe to show up on a women's foot is present, there's a shoe to be seen. When I reviewed the shoes depicted in my collection of women's manuscript depictions, I discovered that black shoes that covered most of the forward top portion of the foot with a very slight point were those most often painted on the women in my class range. Beyond that, however, I had to turn to non-gendered shoe pieces in the extant record to determine anything more. I ultimately opted to design a shoe that covered the majority of my foot with a buckled strap to keep it tight. This is a best guess with a healthy dose of personal preference, that I feel is what we can call cautiously possible in terms of authenticity.

Exception: Woman's Belt Pouch

Recreators like bags and pouches because our hobby tends to make us mobile, and without pockets, bags are the next best thing. Which holds true for medieval people as well. Pouches themselves are not exceptions and there are hundreds of examples in my period (high number of sources). Filtering for women's use of pouches, however, the number dwindles to a low amount. I took the time to locate every instance of a belt pouch I could find in my manuscript depictions of women research, and there were a total of 14. So while it's not incorrect to have a belt pouch, and I made every attempt to create a pouch in line with the style of those I found, wearing that pouch is an exception to the rule, and should be done in moderation.

Anomaly: Square Hood (worn on a woman)

Anomalies can be hard to accept, especially after we've created the item. Most of my choices in recent years have steered me away from this quadrant, but that is not always the case. The square hood, or hunting hood, is a specific style of hood with straps under the arms, rather than the more traditionally-seen cowl draped over the shoulders. There aren't a great number of examples of the square hood to begin with. In my original research I primarily found depictions of the square hood on men, but there was one effigy of a woman with a hood that looked similar. This, along with my own (probably vain) desires to be cool and have one of these hoods led me to make one. I have used it quite often since, and it's a favorite piece of mine. However, I have to admit that with only one source pointing toward the possible use of this hood by a woman, it's an anomaly that creates a less accurate (even if cool) portrayal.

I hope the Matrix of Recreation helps you steer the course as you build your kit and persona. Remember that we're all learning as we go, so give yourself margin to have Anomalies and Exceptions, to navigate Cautions, and of course to celebrate your Likelies.

[Please feel free to share the Matrix, but be sure to include the link back to this post so the explanation can also be read!]


  1. Wow. In retrospect, particularly as I come from a science background, the recommendation of defining a sampling strategy and using this to select evidence seems ... horrendously obvious. However, I have never considered it before.

    Bravo, Edyth! You once again present something novel, revolutionary and truly inspiring. I will definitely be using this methodology in the future. THANK YOU!