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.