Monday, December 31, 2012

The Rules

This is a journey of personal enlightenment that I hope you will join in for or at least follow from time to time. I fully intend to push my skills and talents into realms I have never explored, and fully expect to fail from time to time. It is a lot about discovery, a little about scholarship, and a good deal about making neat things.
  • I intended the word "school" to mean a group of like-minded individuals working toward a common goal. If you cannot see past the modern connotation of teacher and pupil, then at least bear in mind that I am not the teacher here, I am the student, an apprentice to every master I encounter in their crafts.
  • I won't always be in costume as I'm working unless it affects the outcome in some way.
  • I will be prejudiced toward period or near-period methods and tools, which means that if I can't get the exact right thing, I'll opt for the closest approximate item.
  • However, I had to promise my wife I would not die or make myself seriously ill doing this. If the actual item is dangerous, poisonous (Elizabethans sometimes seem a bit overfond of toxic materials), or for that matter if it is unattainable within the confines of the project time and the budget, I will opt for the next closest safe alternative that affords the correct results.
  • The goal is for this to be fun or I wouldn't be doing it.
  • I intend for this project to draw attention to the masters of these crafts still up and at it in the modern era. Whenever possible, I will tap into their wisdom (many wonderful craftspeople have reached out to me already) and will link to and call attention to their efforts as they will be inevitably superior to my own amateur mucking about.
  • I will be wrong from time-to-time. The research materials are seemingly inexhaustible, but the time to prepare is not so I am bound to miss something. Being wrong is part of the process of learning. Please feel free to point it out. I ask only that you observe a certain base level of politeness. This is a learning experience and no one learns from being insulted or having a finger wagged at them.
I'm sure more things will occur to me as we go along, but this is a foundation good enough for going on with.

See you in the first week of the new year!

- Scott
31 December 2012

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The City of London: The ancient and very odd institution...

I'm rapidly becoming an avid follower of the Youtube channel of  CGP Grey, who basically explains things. I'm a huge fan of people explaining things in a clear and concise manner. If they can use cartoons, so much the better.

Anyway, Grey recently turned his animated flashlight on the ancient and honorable and rather strange entity that forms a backdrop for what I'm doing here: the Livery Companies and how they still govern the City of London.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

News: Plus Stuff and Tools and OMG all the STUFF!!!

Beard = Serious Scholar
I've been silent for awhile as I do important things like acquire hard-to-find tools, rare books, and grow a new beard (very important, I am told for these historical research projects). Seriously, I've been travelling all over the country, visiting family, haunting antique stores, and generally ramp up the behind-the-scenes portions of this effort and tie off a bunch of projects both personally and professionally that will be on-hold while I'm doing this.

I seriously think that at some point in the recent past all of the antique tools in America were loaded in trucks and hauled to rural Missouri.

My studio is starting to look like Brueghel's Satire of a Merchant's Greed.  Which might be the nerdiest reference I've made in recent memory... Also, Amazon has started sending me emails that say things like "Special sale for our customers who like hammers..."


Oh, and while doing this, I've been applying and interviewing for a full-time job at the college where I am currently working part-time. Which will seriously change the dynamic of this project if I get it.

And I really hope I do get it. Not because a potential background checker might see this post but because it sounds like an awesome job that I'd really enjoy that would allow me to actually use the skills I paid tuition dollars to learn.


I bring this up because I haven't before, and we need to start this with everyone knowing that I will be fitting this project in the spaces around my "Real Life". Yes, I will be "getting 500 years behind" in my free time, which is an unfortunately limited commodity. This project is about pursuing my deep and abiding desire to LEARN ALL THE THINGS (as we say on the interwebs) not about putting food on the table, so anything that pays will inevitably take first chair.

Image Inserted to Meet the guidelines set forth in the International Treaty 
for Internet Meme Propagation, 921.4, section C, subsection L9
The upshot being that I might actually be ready for this.

(Panics and runs to re-check that everything is in order for the umpteen millionth time.)

Monday, October 29, 2012


Why am I doing this?  I ponder that a lot. And there are a lot of reasons why I decided to do this and why I'm doing it exactly the way I have chosen to.  Primarily, I think, it's because I make things.

Stories, gardens, paintings, toys, furniture, clothing, messes, mistakes... it's all part of the same creative impulse that's driven me throughout my life. It comes from the frustration with what's there not living up to what could be there.

This project is about celebrating the people Who Made All the Things.

When I was a kid, I made many of my own toys.  All of my favorite toy guns came from the crates of miscellaneous junk beneath my grandfather's work bench, not Toys-R-Us.  This isn't because we were particularly poor, and it wasn't because I grew up in 1936 (though it felt like it sometimes). It was because the toys I envisioned in my head were just that much cooler than the ones you could buy at the toy store.

Thankfully, my parents and grandparents encouraged this sort of thing.  At least until I went as far as getting into pounding heated nails into tiny swords for my GI Joes.  Dad drew the line at me becoming an  eight-year-old blacksmith.


Even those toys I did buy or that was given would eventually go under the screwdriver.  All of my favorite GI Joe and Star Wars characters and vehicles were custom amalgamations to suit my own fancy, characters in my own extended story lines.

As an adult, I transferred this into sculpture and artwork, but really these are all extensions of the same brain frequency, the translation of a mental picture into a three-dimensional object.  I've made props for renaissance faires and small theatrical productions and science fiction conventions.

This isn't to toot my own horn.

For one thing, I never got the hang of playing a brass instrument and if I did toot a horn, you wouldn't want to listen to it. My sister got the lion's share of musical talent in this family.  This isn't horn-tooting, it's about the philosophy of what I'm up to, what I'm about.

This is a project about makers.  It's about doers.  It's about pulling the spotlight away from the princes and generals and artists who dominate the history books and shining it on the people in their shadows. I've always found that the trouble with teaching or even talking about history is that it keeps boiling down to bold-face names and red letter dates, which are ultimately meaningless: "William the Conqueror defeated King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings in 1066."

I came out of school with my head packed to the hair follicles with dates and names like this. But I couldn't have told you what they ate. Or who prepared it. Or how. I could not have told you, beyond the broadest outlines, how their houses were built, or what their daily lives were like.

And it's just getting worse because history is getting bigger and we're spending less time learning it. Encouraging evermore the approach that exemplified the teaching of history as I went through school: Invasion! Battle! New king. Red ink, memorize the boldface names, pass the test and move on. How did they bake bread? Who cares! No time! Look at the shiny armor, memorize the battles, we have more facts to memorize tomorrow.

I came to terms with the fact long ago that if I was to get a deeper understanding of how humankind got from there to here, it was up to me to figure it out on my own. Thankfully, we have the reenactors and their groups to help us out. Vast societies have sprung up in recent decades to keep alive the martial arts of Europe, breathe life into the illustrations of the fighting manuals of Germany, Italy, France, and Spain.

I don't want to denigrate their efforts. There's some amazing things coming out of their salons, vast tracts of forgotten knowledge reawakened by their scholarship. But strength at arms are not my strengths. One reason I've never joined a reenactment society is because I can't find one that focuses solely upon the homelife of the world that was, a society that doesn't spin breathlessly around the rehearsal for a half-forgotten war.

I know the names and dates of the kings and princes and generals that we are told got us to this point in history. Too much of my brain is taken up with the records of destruction. Time for me to turn over those vaults to the records of creating. Because while the kings and generals were off crusading, there were people keeping the rushlights lit back home.

I've studied the fine art of killing people for king and country and personal honor; now I want to  study the things that kept everyone alive between duels and wars. The people who made the renaissance.

Making things. It's what fires me up.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Excitement and trepidation: Looking Ahead

Looking at the Big List and trying to map out how and when I will discuss each of the trades. Obviously, there will be overlaps and repetition, and it only makes sense to reduces that as much as possible in order not to bore myself or you, my readers.

One of the things I am thinking about doing is taking a more holistic approach by tracking back from the marketplace to the people creating the goods. I can do this by creating "cells" that consist of overlapping trades/goods so that I can discuss and investigate how certain trades that were reliant on one another. On the whole, I think it would be more interesting to discuss the curriers (who turned skins into leather) in the context of those who would use their leathers to make goods (shoemakers, for instance) and then sell them (the leathersellers).

One of the aspects of this project that has been a stumbling block for me has been how to explore the service trades. It's easy to discuss the dyers and the fishmongers, but how do you explore the plumbers and inholders? By starting with the marketplace and working backwards, it would be easier to put these tradesmen in context with their time and their fellow tradesmen. The innholder could be a jumping off point for exploring brewing, for instance.

There's also the matter of the cottage trades that had not acquired guild status such as the knitters. If I start with those who use the goods (knitters) I could include them in the wider discussion of the liveried trades (the woolmen).

Also, there are parts of this project I am most looking forward to spending time with are the brewers, cooks, and bakers. All things that tweak my interests. The trick then, will be not to give short shrift to the trades that I am not looking forward to or that I find personally boring so that I can spend more time at the hearth.

That will be a very real temptation and could really be a yearlong project all its own without needing to stretch overmuch.  I think cooking and baking are themes we will return to repeatedly throughout the project.

All very much reminding me that this is a work in progress, even as January draws closer.

- Scott

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Make a Joint Stool with Peter Follansbee

If you've been around period woodworking for any length of time, the name Peter Follansbee will keep cropping up. He's an historical joiner that works with Plimoth Plantation and is the author of numerous articles on the history of woodworking, including the recent "Make a Joint Stool from a Tree: An Introduction to 17th Century Joinery" which is near the top of my Christmas list.

Recently, Peter dropped by the Old Woodwright's Shop and discussed the ins and outs of period joinery with Roy Underhill. The result was woodworking magic and valuable research for this project.  I plan to order his book soon and I follow Peter's blog: which is well worth following if you've even a passing interest in either history or turning wood into furniture.

Not sure if I'll make a joint stool since that's obviously been "done" by just about everyone at this point, but there's loads to learn from this book and this video about period joinery.

PBS has several seasons of Woodwright's Shop available to watch online at


Monday, October 15, 2012

Chateau de Guedelon: A medieval castle for the modern era

My friend Jon reminded me the other day of this effort to build a castle in France using artisans pursuing only the period techniques circa 1200 or so.  There was a BBC article updating the world on their progress recently (link below) and it's always something to learn from things like this.

The craftsmanship is amazing, the dedication astounding. It predates my project by hundreds of years, but nonetheless... wow.

Recent BBC coverage:

The Official Website (English edition):

The article on Wikipedia:

Some videos from YouTube:

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Livery Companies: A list in progress

This is a work in progress, with the beginnings of details and possible projects being sketched out along with critical resources for completion.  All advice, feedback, and suggestions of source material are appreciated at this stage of things.

Not all of the projects will happen in this order and not all are set in stone. Everything is an idea at this point and I'm not done with the list either. (Hey, I still have a few months, right?) Nevertheless, I'm looking for all the help I can get.

Critical Online Source for Background info: The Records of London's Livery Companies Online:  Apprentices and Freemen 1400-1900

Section 1.01: What shall we eat?

(a)     The Worshipful Company of Salters
Modern Iteration:

The salters began in the manufacture and trade of salt, a key commodity in a time when salt-curing was the only real way to preserve meat for any length of time.

" By the fourteenth century, salt was an essential commodity in England. It was used mainly for preserving meat and fish before the advent of tin cans and refrigeration. Other uses included any operation where ‘chemical’ action was required, such as cleaning, dyeing fabric, bleaching, degreasing, dehairing and softening leather and in the formulation of medicines and ointments.  As well as dealing in salt, Salters were experts in the dry salting of fish and meat and also dealt with flax, hemp, logwood, cochineal, potashes and chemical preparations. The modern day association of The Salters’ Company with chemistry and science can therefore be traced right back to its roots."
- From the modern guild's website
Project: Curing meat. Make some bacon.

(b)    The Worshipful Company of Grocers
Modern Iteration:

Originally the Guild of Pepperers, the grocers became the merchant guild supporting the importation and sale of bulk foodstuffs.Projects: Wheat -- from the field to the ovens. Also the tao of peppercorns.

(c)     The Worshipful Company of Fishmongers
Modern Iteration:

The Fishmongers were granted a royal monopoly on the sale of fish in the city of London in 1399 by Richard II. Through most of the period before the Reformation, Three days a week were 'fast days' not counting Lent, making fish (not considered a meat by doctrinal standards) a supremely lucrative market to corner.

Project: Get on a boat and go catch a fish.  No, really. Out to sea with you! Then bring it home and cook it.

(d)    The Worshipful Company of Brewers
Modern Iteration:

Brewers brewed beer on an industrial scale, setting the standards and trade practices for an important comestible in the days before water purification. Historians estimate that northern Europeans drank an average of three liters of beer a day; it was of widely variant alcohol content (hence Henry VI proposing that drinking 'small beer' be a crime in Shakespeare's play) but that's still a lot of beer.
Research Note: Strangely, the spectacles makers first aligned under the brewer's banner before being granted their own charter in the next century.

Project: Period beer brewed in a proper oak barrel. Maybe some spectacles as a bonus project?

(e)     The Worshipful Company of Bakers
Modern Iteration: 
The other half of the twin staples of the medieval and renaissance diet: bread and beer, the bakers were immensely powerful in early modern society. Most villagers could not afford an oven of their own, so communal ovens were often created or the village baker would bake the loaves of the village goodwives for a nominal fee.

Note: The function and nature of yeast was not understood until the latter half of the 18th century. The brewers and bakers worked together in this mystery, the bakers obtaining their yeast from the brewers stocks as often as from natural sources such as apple trees, oddly enough.
Project: Build a wood-fired oven and bake some bread

(f)      The Worshipful Company of Cooks
Modern Iteration:

Near and dear to my foodie heart (especially considering the inspiration of this project) this is also the smallest of the livery companies, the cooks were a confederation of those who made food for others.

Project: Cooking in ceramic vessels over open flames. (Demo)Project: Cooking in ceramic vessels over open flames. (Demo)

(g)     The Worshipful Company of Butchers
Modern Iteration: (website currently inactive 09/21/2012)

They are just as you might think they are, those who guide and control the slaughter of livestock and the sale of their meat. A crucial force in a time before refrigeration, it was the butchers who held their members responsible for selling meats that had been properly cured or freshly killed and punished those who sold bad meat to the detriment of public health.

Project: Meat in the Elizabethan diet. Cooking demo on the rotisserie.

(h)    The Worshipful Company of Poulterers
Modern Iteration:

The poulters were responsible in much the same way as the butchers for the regulation of trade and husbandry for all poultry, including chickens, ducks, swans, pigeons, as well as rabbits.
Project: Count your chickens before they hatch.

(i)      The Worshipful Company of Fruiterers
Modern Iteration:

The orchards and gardens of England produced many fruits for the tables of the renaissance. The fruiterers governed the trade and quality of the fruits both fresh and preserved imported into the city.
Project: Cider from the tree to the press to the bottle.  Get thee to Yakima!

Section 1.02 What shall we wear?

(a)     The Worshipful Company of Dyers
Modern Iteration:

Those who held and protected the mysteries of dyed cloth and traded in the dyestuffs used for same.Project: Experiment with period dyestuffs, maybe a madder and an indigo.

(b)    The Worshipful Company of Clothworkers
Modern Iteration:

The combination of the Shearmen and the Fullers, combining two aspects of the creation of woolen cloth. Taking the woolens from the weaver and then fulling and trimming it into the material used for darn near everything in the 16th century.

Project: Time for a discussion of the many period forms of woolen cloth available in the 16th century and how they differ from the modern ideas of wool.

(c)     The Worshipful Company of Merchant Tailors
Modern Iteration:

Tailors and creators of clothing, both made to measure and off the rack (though little of it was off the rack unless it was used, the province of the fripperer.)
Project: Patter drafting and draping techniques with Joel Reid, who has graciously volunteered.

(d)    The Worshipful Company of Skinners
Modern Iteration:

Trade in furs and the management of the trade of furs and fur garments in a time when the wearing or possession of same could be a crime.

Projects: Zibellini and the Victorian imagination -- the myth of the flea fur.

(e)     The Worshipful Company of Mercers
Modern Iteration:
See the Haberdasher's, below.

Project: ??? Yeah, not sure about this one.

(f)      The Worshipful Company of Drapers
Modern Iteration:

See the Haberdasher's, below.

Project: ???

(g)     The Worshipful Company of Haberdashers
Modern Iteration:

Three associations of merchants and purveyors of cloth, the Mercers, Drapers, and Haberdashers are weirdly intertwined and overlapping, often to the point of creating confusion even in their own ranks.  The haberdashers at least had a focus on sewing supplies, needles, pins, and cetera.
This one will be a dawdle to demonstrate, but a b**** to explain in a non-wonky manner.

Great Google Books source material here.
Project: Create and demonstrate the proper use of period sewing kit and various basic tradegoods.

(h)    The Worshipful Company of Leathersellers
Modern Iteration:

A guild that controls the sale of leather goods and inspects every hide and leather good in London to verify quality and origin, punishing imposters who attempt to substitute one skin for another. This gives them control over the crucial supplies that are the lifeblood of  those whose livelihoods require leather, including the Cordwainers, Curriers, Girdlers, Glovers, Glovers, and Saddlers as well as some of the ancillary goods that arise from the manufacture of leather, such as the Tallow Chandlers.

It's interesting to note that despite their prominence on the Leatherseller's website, the making of leather bottles was the province of the Horners Company.

General leatherworking. Gloves or a purse, perhaps?

(i)       The Worshipful Company of Girdlers
Modern Iteration:

Makers of luxury goods: fine belts for the gentry, including sword belts and hangers.

Project: Swordhanger.a cloth one Discussion: The myth of the Hollywood BIG BUCKLE SWASHBUCKLER BELT.

(j)      The Worshipful Company of Cordwainers
Modern Iteration:

Fine leather used in the production of shoes and other luxury goods, mostly from cordovan, a goat leather developed in Spain and considered to be the finest available in the period.

Projects: Shoes -- Need to track down and get an introduction to a proper shoemaker working in a period style and methodology.

(k)    The Worshipful Company of Weavers (The Most Ancient)
Modern Iteration:

Quite possibly the earliest craft mastered by human hands, the weavers style themselves "The Most Ancient" for good reason.  Originally the most powerful of all the textile guilds, the weavers waned in power as the specialist textile guilds rose: the mercers especially.
Projects: Warm up that loom that's in the living room.

(l)      The Worshipful Company of Woolmen
Modern Iteration:

Spinning, sheep, and selling raw wool. Wool was England's strongest and most important industry up to the Industrial revolution. "So concerned was Queen Elizabeth I about the wool trade that she had Parliament make everyone over the age of six (except the wealthiest) wear on Sundays "a cap of wool knit and dressed in England". Under Charles II Parliament passed a law requiring coffins to be lined in fleece and shrouds to be made of wool. Later, carriages had to be lined with it." - Guild website

Project: Herding, Shearing, Carding, and Spinning. THEN, knit something because the knitters never formed a guild and deserve some notice. A nice hat, perhaps.

(m)  The Worshipful Company of Curriers
Modern Iteration:

Those who cured leather for eventual use by others to create trade goods.
Project: Cure a hide? I am so very much not looking forward to this one.

(n)    The Worshipful Company of Broderers
Modern Iteration:

The broderers were artists in thread, the embroiderers who adorned everything from tapestries to clothing, even creating home embroidery kits reminiscent of modern cross stitch kits.
Stitch demos, simple blackwork

Section 1.03 Makers of Hard Goods

(a)     The Worshipful Company of Pewterers

Project: Soapstone casting -- make a pendant or a hat badge.

(b)    The Worshipful Company of GoldsmithsIncluded workers in silver.

Project: Yeah, I still dunno.

(c)     The Worshipful Company of Cutlers

Project: Hilt an eating knife or cooking knife?

(d)    The Worshipful Company of Wax Chandlers

Project: Beekeeping and wax candles.

(e)     The Worshipful Company of Tallow Chandlers

Project: Rushlights! LARD; it's not just for dinner anymore.

(f)      The Worshipful Company of Armorers & Brasiers

(g)     The Worshipful Company of Saddlers
Modern Iteration:

Obvious, isn't it? They made saddles but not usually tack.
Project: No ideas. All of the horse-related items together in one. I think I might need to discuss this with Neb & Gordon first. They're the most knowledgeable people I know about these things...             
(i)     Loriners (edited)- Makers of tack. A Loriner produced horse furnishings in leather, fabric and metal such as traces, bridles, bits and spurs. (via Leatherworking Rev)
I didn't know that bit about the spurs, but it certainly makes sense. Their status as an independent entity is uncertain (to me) at this time, but tied to the saddlers.

(h)    The Worshipful Company of Founders (Brass and Bronze)

Project: Lost wax casting in Brass.

(i)      The Worshipful Company of Coopers

Project: Make a Mary Rose stein and maybe a butter churn.

(j)      The Worshipful Company of Bowyers

Project: Visit Patrick's Friend. Maybe a trip to Maryland?
(k)    The Worshipful Company of fletchers
Project: Learn to shoot the bow and arrow from Robin Hood. Yes, Robin Hood. If he will deign to teach me, of course...

(l)      The Worshipful Company of Joiners & Ceilerers

Project: The hand-jointed X-chair sans nails.

(m)  The Worshipful Company of Stationers

Project: Making paper.

(n)    The Worshipful Company of Upholders

Project: Upholster an X-chair?

(o)    The Worshipful Company of Turners

Project: Human-powered lathe

(p)    The Worshipful Company of Basketmakers

Project: Weave a basket, of course.

(q)    The Worshipful Company of Glaziers

Project: Glass in an Elizabethan home.

(r)     The Worshipful Company of Horners (And Bottlers)

Project: Beaker, Spoon, leather Bottel

Section 1.04 Services & Labor

(a)     The Worshipful Company of Barbers

(b)    The Worshipful Company of Carpenters

Making period nails and assembling something with them. Perhaps a nice chest or something?

(c)     The Worshipful Company of Painter-Stainers

(d)    The Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths

Make some stuff: Pinking chisels, stonemason's chisels, hinges, hasps, etcetera...

                (i)     Farriers are still in the mix in this period, I think. Once again, I should email Gordon for leads on this one...

(e)     The Worshipful Company of Masons

Projects: Carve a Mortar & Pestle? Not really a mason's main gig, but still it's pretty fiddly as stonecutting goes...

(f)      The Worshipful Company of Plumbers

(g)     The Worshipful Company of Innholders

(h)    The Worshipful Company of Tilers & Bricklayers

Project: Build a brick hearth for the back yard.

(i)      The Worshipful Company of Scriveners

Project: Quills, inks, and the strange mysteries of Elizabethan secretary script.

(j)      The Worshipful Company of Plaisterers

Project: Would this include plaster moulding or maybe just painting a fresco?

(k)    The Worshipful Company of Musicians

Project: Recorder lessons

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Things We Can Learn from Jamestown

Elizabeth I was dead when Jamestown was founded in 1607 (which explains it not being Elizabethtown, I suppose), putting anything found there ever-so-slightly post-period for this project. However, as I mentioned the other day, the lives of the common people changed very little just because there was a new butt on the throne.

In the kitchens especially, I am seeing the forms and functions of the cookware from the reign of Elizabeth to the reign of James I didn't change much except in materials.

Necessity being the mother of invention, when something already works there's no necessity to drive innovation. When changes were made, they were mostly changed based on differing climates and the availability of materials. For instance the half-timber "wattle & daub" methods of construction persisted in Europe well into the 18th century, but were set aside in America due to the ready availability of timber resources and substantial climate differences. Yet the ovens in the American colonies were almost identical to the ovens of old Europe.

Not to get too wonky on this, but the most obvious advances in technology between the late 16th and early 17th centuries were metallurgic. Advances in casting techniques and the efficiency of furnaces, however, suddenly made large-scale iron casting possible and cost-effective. James's rule saw the beginning of the cast iron age and the decline of bronze and brass as the go-to metals for every little thing. Foundries started turning out quality cast iron in the late 16th century, leading to things like bronze cookware being shouldered aside in favor of cheaper, easier to maintain cast iron.

Anyway, back to Jamestown. The preservationists and archeologists at the Jamestown site have a Youtube channel, documenting their discoveries and highlighting the murky time at the dawn of the European presence (for better or worse) on this continent.

Fascinating stuff.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Progress Report: Volunteers and A Growing Library

Research is a drug for me. Mostly because it means acquiring more books and shoehorning them into the groaning shelves of my home library.

Comments on Facebook have inspired me to move forward and post the bibliography of books I've been consulting here on the blog. To keep it from getting lost, it will be added as a "page" (the tabs across the top of the blog).

I will post links when I can to places like Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive where available.

At the moment, my reading is dominated by textiles, blacksmithing, and food.  A reading list that has raised the eyebrow of many a local librarian, let me tell you.

As we get closer to the start of the project, these posts will generally have a single topic, but for the moment, I'm all over the place trying to line things up before January.

In the spring edition of Piecework magazine's "Knitting Traditions" special, The Engineer found a lovely article on knitting and knitted goods of the 16th century, focusing on the 'Monmouth cap', mentioned by Shakespeare in Henry V, it is a knitted and fulled wool cap that was favored by laborers, soldiers, and sailors of the period. Pretty much anyone who needed to keep their ears warm.

I will be learning to knit as part of this and it's all I can do not to cheat and practice ahead of time so as not to make a total fool of myself come time to do it for the project. The Engineer has bravely stepped forward to teach me how to do this.

She is a brave, brave woman.

Looking at the photos in the article, I could wear a cap like this through any shopping mall in America and no one would bat an eyelash.  It's amazing how persistent a simple, elegant design can be.

Speaking of the simple things that haven't changed much, I tagged along when my friend and colleague Cory recently brewed a batch of beer in his kitchen. Other than the occasional brewery tour, I've never really watched the process of brewing up close.

The processes of brewing were pretty much established in medieval times and hasn't changed greatly. As I am finding in many cases, it's mostly a matter of refining the recipes for modern tastes (not to mention production on an industrial scale) but the technology we use in modern brewing is just a surrogate for the exact same processes the monks were using in the 12th century.

Oh, and I suppose we actually know what yeast is, so we have that going for us.

Cory also has a line on a Tacoma brewer that's doing small-batch brewing in barrels! So I'm one step closer on that front as well.  I'm sure we'll be seeing more of Cory in the course of this project. The man knows everybody!

Also, I have a firm commitment to demonstrate the art of the Merchant Tailor. Yes, I am a costumer, but I costume for myself, which is a different animal entirely from clothing another. Therefore, I have prevailed upon Seattle costumer Joel Reid to demonstrate the subtle arts of fitting period garments and discuss with us the foundations of Elizabethan dress. As soon as he has a website available, I shall link to it.

Mental Note: Even more than a list of links, I really need a cast of characters, don't I?

Also, I have several lines on gold/silver smiths, bowyers, blacksmiths, and armourers but cannot announce those folks until I have a hard commitment.  Anyone know where I can find a good 16th century barber surgeon?

Off to do more research before the weekend's honey-do list steals me away!


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Planning ahead: A Bread Oven

A lot of this project is going to involve planning ahead to have the facilities set up to do the tasks I need to perform in order to check something off my list. One of the things I'll need is a place to perform cooking and baking and the first step on that road is building an oven.

A wood-fired oven, to be exact.

I have no affiliation with these fine folks, but I am a big fan of the wares sold by the historical wares sold by Jas Townsend and was delighted when a friend sent me this video, along with the many others they've put up in a series dedicated to breathing life into a kitchen of the 1800's.

More after the video...

It is interesting to me that cooking changed so little between the 14th century and the 19th. The Jas Townsend folks concentrate in the 1800's, but the oven they made in that video would be right at home in any renaissance village.

This is, essentially, the oven I am planning to build in my back garden.  (BTW: I checked with The Engineer and she's cool with it because after the project, we'll use it to make woodfired pizza. Ohhhhh yeah.)

But before I can start planning any pizza parties, I have to build the darn thing.

Project List:

  • "Shed" roof to protect the worksite from the Washington rains.
  • Source refractory brick for the base.
  • Sourcing clay, sand, straw
  • Building the oven.

English Bread and Yeast Cookery by Elizabeth David

Build Your Own Earth Oven, 3rd Edition by Kiko Denzer
The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens by Daniel Wing

Various baking and recipe books.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Clothes Make the Man

"Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society."
                                                              - Mark Twain
Going into this, I honestly did not give much thought to clothes. I am mostly known as a costumer, of course I was going to be doing most if not all of this garbed in the period manner. As much as possible and a bit more, please.

I live near Seattle, so a lot of this will be undertaken in the Pacific Northwest. But it might well be necessary (or just more fun) to take this show on the road. Which might make costuming a bit dicey.  I'll be traveling in places and talking to people where I am not known. Places where wandering about in trunkhose and doublet might not be taken as well as you might hope.

For all that I love making a scene, I can't imagine my life would be made easier or the project made better if I wore costumes to the library on a research trip.

While I won't be wearing a costume the whole time ( I do have to go to work once in awhile, you know) there will be times when the outcome of that day's project will be altered subtly by my manner of dress. Even if only in tone. There are also times when wearing or not wearing a full costume might be safer.  I'm more than happy to take my lumps for your amusement, but dying is right out.

This woodcut is the inspiration for the workingman's outfit I am about to make.

An English chap of the mid 1560's stands against a tree, a working stiff of some sort, tools arrayed in a pile at his feet. I've heard him called a surveyor because of the dividers in the foreground, but  I'm not so sure. There's also a pick axe, handsaw, and claw hammer. Not to mention the apron the man's wearing, which makes more sense for a carpenter or something than for a surveyor.

I like the elegant simplicity of it. I read this as galligaskins ('Gascon hose', probably of wool), plus a doublet and jerkin. Worn with a vestigial ruff at the collar, probably attached to the shirt collar. Made in appropriate fabrics and with the correct accouterments, it should pass unnoticed in any tavern, field, or guildhall of the 16th century.

It's simple and looks made to stay out of the way while working. Perfect for my needs.

The first version I plan to make will be grey wool bottoms and white fustian or wool top. A simple color scheme that works well and adheres well to what we know from the research being done into English wills of the period by UK historians and seamstresses Ninya Mikhaila and Jane Malcolm-Davies. According to their research into the wills of the county Essex, 40% of doublets mentioned were leather,  24% linen canvas, and 21% fustian.

You will note that linen was the watchword of the time -- 100% cotton cloth (calico) was virtually unknown in Northern Europe at the time due to the technical difficulties posed by the short fibers of the plant.  Fustian was as close as we got, a fabric woven of linen and cotton. The longer warp threads are linen because the English didn't have the technology to make strong enough threads of short-fiber cotton, so it was used for the shorter width-wise strands on the loom.

Clockwise from the upper left, in our fabric stash I found a nice grey wool, a heavy unbleached fustian canvas, a lighter white fustian, and a pale green linen tablecloth to use as a lining.

Yes, a table cloth. Why not?  It will make a nice lining for the Gascon hose.

The wool is a safety measure as well as being chosen for its warmth. Wool is apparently slightly more fire-retardant than most untreated cloth, which will be nice when we get to the cooking, baking, and blacksmithing portions of our curriculum. Also the Pac Northwest is typically damp and cold, so woolens are ideal.

This is the outfit you will be seeing me wear in most of the photos and videos to come.  All that needs to happen now is for me to sit down and make the things...

Thursday, September 6, 2012

What are we doing here?

"Cooking is a craft, I like to think, and a good cook is a craftsman -- not an artist. There's nothing wrong with that: the great cathedrals of Europe were built by craftsmen -- though not designed by them. Practicing your craft in expert fashion is noble, honorable and satisfying."   
- Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential

Welcome to the School  of the Renaissance Artisan. A place where we're going to celebrate the craftsmanship that (literally) built the renaissance. For the record: you are not the students at this school, I am. Or maybe you're fellow students... I leave that up to you.

This project is at least in part the product of a mid-sentence epiphany that arrived earlier this year as I was re-reading Anthony Bordain’s memoir. In the middle of the quote above, I dropped out of the narrative and my brain made a noise.


I sat back in the chair and took a long sip of my coffee. I turned to my wife, Kristin, who was sitting next to me on the sofa knitting something horrifyingly complicated with yarn the size of sewing thread, and with portentous understatement, I said: “I want to learn all the crafts of the renaissance.

Kris didn’t drop a stitch or even really look up. After knowing me for twenty years, she’s used to this sort of thing.

“Okay. Why?”

“Because I think that the artisans that actually built the renaissance are lost in the glitz of the Shakespeares and the Davincis. Someone needs to speak for the working stiffs that showed up day in and day out, the real craftsmen that were stuck executing the grandiose dreams of the artists and nobles that get all the press! It is time to show the world just how hard it was to live and thrive in that time period! To celebrate the skills and traditions that set the craftsmen apart from the serf and allowed them to build the independence and wealth to educate themselves and their children, giving rise to the middle class that would one day break the backs of the monarchies!”

…is what I wish I’d said.

What I really said was “Because it would be cool.”

“Uh huh.”

“And I could write a book about it.”

“Would anyone read it?”

(Silence while I examine the cat’s teeth and ears as though I’d developed a sudden interest in veterinary science and pretend not to have heard.)

“Well, I guess you read that book about the guy that read the Encyclopedia Britannica.” She shared her favorite There’s No Accounting for Taste look. “All of the crafts of the renaissance?”

“Sure, why not?”

“Knitting? Weaving? Cooking? Brewing? Bookbinding? Butcher, baker, candlestick maker?”


“And how long do you expect this to take?”

She had me there. I hazarded a guess. I remembered the Encyclopedia Britannica guy.

“I dunno, a year?”

“A year,” she repeated.  She gave me that artfully raised eyebrow that she has perfected over the decades and said something to the effect of “I think you probably need to narrow the scope of your project a bit.”

She was right. 

She’s an engineer, so she’s paid to be right about things like this.

When I first envisioned this project it was to explore and examine all the arts and crafts of the renaissance. To learn how to do everything. It was a neat idea. It would be fun to write about. I could do a blog and even a book from something like that. Learning and failing and picking yourself up and carrying on at a breakneck pace is inherently good writing material. Farce scattered with moments of epiphany.[1]

All the same, she was right -- if I ever expected to finish this project of mine in a defined period, I would need a plan.

I hate plans.  I prefer to just set a goal and run until I reach it.

Screw plans. What I really needed was a framework to hang this thing from, a goal to strive toward that would have inherent boundaries. A goal that in and of itself would limit how far afield I could run.

You know… a plan.[2]

So I went online and poked around. I checked some books out of the library. I walked around the project and kicked the tires to see if the whole thing would collapse. I putzed around and set up a blog. Designed a website. Created a YouTube account (because why not?). A Facebook page. Sketched out some of the projects I wanted to get out of this. Did all the things writers do when they want to feel productive without actually producing anything.

In the end, a month had passed and I still didn’t have any idea how I was going to do this in a way that would give a definite finish line. All the crafts of the renaissance? How would I measure that? What am I going to do, build a cathedral?

That’s about the time I picked up my friend Maggie Secara’s book and read the chapters about Elizabethan tradecrafts. It turns out that during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603), there were around 54 trade guilds (“Livery Companies” as they are called) in operation. 

Coincidentally, there are 52 weeks in a year.

That’s the kind of math even I can do. Enough of those guilds overlap that I can knock some of them out two at a time! A ready-made framework if ever there was one!

So that’s what we’re going to do. For one year, I'm going to delve into each of the trade guilds of 16th century England. I'm going to bring you along as I learn some new skills and hopefully we're all going to learn something. As I go I will share with you the resources I'm using, building a sort of virtual library of 16th century source material and related sundry for anyone else who wants to acquire these skills. 

If nothing else, I invite you to watch me fail in a spectacular and possibly amusing manner. 

A few of these projects will overlap or build one upon the other. Some I already know how to do. Some might be a bit hard to manage. There’s a grocer’s guild; not sure how that’s going to work. And a goldsmith’s company, a voice that sounds suspiciously like The Engineer’s whispers in my head.  Have you seen the price of gold lately?

I’ll figure it out. I know people. I know people with skills that deserve to be appreciated and trumpeted, people keeping alive crafts and skills that would die out completely were it not for them.

So I invite you to please join me here as I take you with me back to school in a possibly impossible attempt to become a real renaissance man. Not a Davinci or a Michelangelo, but a 'Bill, the man who fixes the roof when it rains'. Because as I said, I think we forget that the renaissance wasn't just artists and soldiers and kings and popes, but a groundswell of normal, ordinary people advancing their lot generation by generation, building themselves up through the sweat of their own brows and the callouses of their own hands and, for better or worse, creating the modern world.

Between now and January, this blog will track my preparations for the project and on January 2nd (give me a day to sleep in, won't you?) school will be in session.

[1] It’s a disease, this ‘dreamer’ thing. We should scare up some mid-level stars and have ourselves a telethon: “The Nathan Fillion Telethon, Turning Dreamers Into Productive Citizens (or at least making them amusing to the productive citizens) Since 2012”
[2] Don’t judge me.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Coming Soon: Hand-crafted Blogging

Greetings, Netizen!

You have wandered into a construction zone where some hand-crafted blogging is being prepared.  Coming soon to an Internet near you: one man's quest to become a true renaissance man. Not the sort that designs the cathedral, but the sort that builds one.

Check back soon!

Scott Walker Perkins
Lead Pupil: The Schole of the Renaissance Artisan