The History of a Good Idea: or Documenting Your Work

by Mistress Ariel de Courtenay (reproduced with permission)

Our Society is made rich by the work of thousands of people, intricately recreating the Middle Ages all around us. As the SCA grows, there are more and more avenues for the display and recognition of good work - from low-key, non-competitive displays to major kingdom competitions. Whether your piece is a simple cross stitch favour or an elaborate 12th Night ensemble; a first attempt at mail or a full Renaissance plate, entering it in public forums such as these is always a growing experience. One way to get more out of recreating the Middle Ages - both for yourself and others - is to research the kind of work you want to do, and then to record what you discover so that others can learn from your process. Developing habits of documentation can give you a feeling of confidence and expertise which really add to the pleasure of creating and sharing your work.

Instead of being a pleasure, however, research and documentation have become for many a frustrating and onerous task. Documentation required can make entering a contest very intimidating - specially since, while many contests ask for documentation, few give detailed or any indication of what they expect. I have been involved with many major kingdom competitions, especially in the bardic arts and costuming, both as a competitor and a judge. I have heard judges, contest organizers, and contestants all express concern, frustration, and even outrage about the lack of clear expectations and standards for contest documentation. To attempt to create some clear documentation guidelines, I have begun distributing a simple, user-friendly chart. Any SCA publication or individual has my permission to reproduce it as often as needed. I am hoping both to provide information and to inspire discussion.

This chart reflects my experience and observations both in competing and judging. I have most often been involved with contests in the bardic realm, so my thoughts were especially inspired by the difficulties of documenting performance, which, by the way, is in my opinion one of the most unresearched and difficult to research areas of recreation in the Society.

For instance, most of us know that a frontier-style calico dress and bonnet has no place in the Society, but very few notice that an Appalachian folk ballad is just as much out of place. This is not to say that I do not support entertainers' right to play what audiences want to hear-- performer's duty indeed-- only that for contest specifically geared toward recreating Medieval performance, I encourage finding and researching period materials.

Most people tend to avoid the frightening and arduous task of documentation. But give it another look. Even if you disliked research in school, learning about your well-loved hobby is alredy second nature. This documentation chart is my attempt to convey that there can be good (and bad) documentation on every level of involvement from novice to master. Even very short or verbal-only docuemntation can present a good idea of worthwhile information. I attempt to clarify what kinds of information and presentation are most useful, and I hope to dispel the myth that a full three-ring binder is the only way, or even the best way, to do good docuemntation. My goal for this chart is to further disucssion about documentation standards, and to create a quick, easy reference that contest and non-competitive display sponsorts can send out with their literature to encourage people to give research a try. It is import that to recognize that this chart really only coveres half the documentation process - the second half. This chart is focused on how to present information, and how much information to present after it has been acquired. Of course the most important reasearch incept is that research only works in one direction: research first and then choose a period style or selection based on that research. This is a concept that most of us keep relearning project after project. Even more important, perhaps,is the inherent reward and excitement which many people find in research, which almost inevitably leads to a richer experiences of the Middle Ages as we celebrate them in the SCA.

I hope this chart can give contest and display entrants (and anyone else interested in sharing what they learn) some additional guidance in doing reasearch and in presenting it in a way that judges can really use in the short amount of time usually available during contest judging or giving feedback. Remember that this chart conveys only thes second half of the research process. That initial stage: the discovery of finding books and information which reflect our passions, and the joy inherent in honing our expertise, is less easily reduced to a chart. Please feel free to copy and pass this chart on to anyone you think might be interested.

revised 2/6/98

Mistress Ariel de Courtenay lives on a manor near Shrewsbury, but enjoys the season in London where she plays music with friends and catches the latest shows at The Globe.

Ariel Caspe-Detzer teaches English and history in Bellingham, WA where she lives with her husband and son.

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