Research and Documentation for Beginners

by Mistress Linnet Kestrel
Introduction I Research I Getting Started in Research I Creation I Documentation

Research and documentation frighten a number of otherwise confident people. The major reason for this is lack of knowledge and understanding of what these words mean in an SCA context.
Research is, essentially, learning about your craft. Documentation is explaining what you've learned and what you've done. If you love your craft, you should be willing to learn about it. If you love your craft, you should be eager to tell others what you've learnt, and teach them if they are interested. Part of the duty of a champion is to teach and demonstrate, and to encourage others. Documentation is a vital tool in this duty.

You can (and many do) lead a long, happy and productive SCA life, without ever opening a book or writing a single sentence of documentation. You can even win a number of contests. Despite everything we claim about the educational aspects of the SCA, there are very few areas where scholarship is actually rewarded. A&S championships and persona development contests are among those few.
You can make a really cool thing without doing any research or documentation. You can get lots of oohs and aahs. You can win local contests. You can't win Kingdom A&S. In the same way, you can go through your entire SCA career with a t-tunic and a name, and you can create an elaborate and improbable persona story (kidnapped from Mongolia by Vikings who abandoned me on the shores of North America, where I walked overland to Russia ...). Both of these are fine and fun, but won't help you win a persona development contest.
Just as many of us begin our lives with a "kidnapped by Vikings" persona, most of us begin our careers as SCA artists with the same attitude as a modern artist: that the past is a giant clip art source, from which we can pick and compile motifs and techniques, to create something entirely new and original. Again, this is fine and fun. But to win Kingdom A&S, you have to make the next step, to a different level of craftsmanship.

The key to the next level is context. It is not enough to make a cool thing. It needs to be a cool thing that could reasonably have existed in a specific time and place. At the least, century and country, though once you get into it, you can probably fine it down to 50 years and region. To discover this context, you need to start with research.
In carpentry, there is a saying "Measure twice, cut once". Similarly, it is vital that you research first, then create. Research gives you access to the expertise of generations of craftsmen who came before you. Why make 400 years worth of mistakes when you can just make your own? Never, ever, make the thing first and then try to prove it. This does not work and it is painfully obvious to the judges.

Introduction I Research I Getting Started in Research I Creation I Documentation


Talent you're born with, skill takes practice, but anyone who can read can do research. Even if you live in an isolated area, you can find books through interlibrary loan, write to museums and art galleries, and perhaps search online. It will take you longer than it might someone attending a well-stocked university, but it can be done.

Learning about your craft will not inhibit your creativity. It will enhance it, stocking your mind with images, styles, motifs and techniques that will give you far more to be creative with. Learning different dance steps doesn't damage your ability to create an original dance, it improves it. Learning to work within the structure of a poetic form such as sonnet or triolet doesn't keep you from writing original poetry, but improves your chances of writing a good and original poem in a period form.

Don't pin yourself down to a project before you've done the research. Look at a lot of visual sources for the times and places that appeal to you. Listen to music, read poetry or prose, and find what speaks to you. I strongly recommend that you decide what you want to enter based on what you want to have, or learn, or make for yourself. That way, you will end up with cool things that you wanted, and possibly a lot of new knowledge and skills, whether you win the contest or not. This is the wonderful part about Kingdom A&S - it allows you to enter what you want, rather than making the best 16th century Castilian stumpwork footstool. If this causes problems with the category system, don't worry. The categories are only a suggestion, meant to encourage breadth. They are not carved in stone. It is far more important that the judge know what s/he is judging, than which of several arbitrary categories it might fit.

Introduction I Research I Getting Started in Research I Creation I Documentation

Getting Started in Research

My bias is toward books, so I would start at a library. Think of various subjects that might cover what you're looking for, and try them in the catalogue (online or card). My preference is to find three or so call numbers, in different subject areas, and browse through the book stacks in those areas, looking at titles. If you find a book that has anything useful, look at its bibliography for other titles that look promising. When you find and study those books, check their bibliographies in the same way. If you don't have a good library at hand, you can start this process with very general books, even by looking up encyclopedia articles (which should also have bibliographies). If your library isn't very good or very large, you can get almost anything you need through interlibrary loan. Just remember that this can add weeks to your research time, and start early.
You can, of course, find much interesting and possibly helpful material online. Just be aware that there is as much garbage and mistaken information on the Web as there is anywhere else, sometimes more. It's a good way to track down the more elusive books, though.

Sources come in several varieties, including primary, secondary, and bloody awful. The ideal primary source is the thing itself, that is, a surviving example of what you want to make. Instructions and recipes from the time and place are also primary sources, and many of these are available in translation and reprint, from publishers such as Dover Books. Since very few of us can pop over to Europe and examine a piece in the Louvre and flip it over to look at the back, photographs and catalogue descriptions of the thing itself are usually accepted as primary sources, for SCA purposes, as are illustrations and descriptions from that time and place. This is where interpretation becomes an issue.

Secondary sources are someone's description or account or depiction of the thing, particularly descriptions that are not contemporary with the thing. The reason this matters is that you are having to trust this other person's judgement. Say, for instance, that you want to make an early period costume. If you use a costume history book meant for the theatre, it will show you clothing that may have been redrawn, where the position of the wearer may have been changed without the hang of the clothes being accounted for, where any patterns will be worked out for speed and effect, rather than economic use of cloth, as they would have been in period. Whereas if you go to art from that period, you may find pictures of stone carvings and manuscript drawings of people in that garment. Ideally you would have a surviving garment in a museum, but if you don't, representations from the time are the next stop.You will still have to make interpretations and judgements, but you will only be making your own mistakes, not taking on someone else's.

Even a primary source is awful if you don't use it properly. A source is only as good as the knowledge and observations you draw from it. Try to be as clear-eyed and open as you can, and try not to filter what the source is telling you through what you want to be true.

What if you just can't find the information? This is a particular problem with research on early period and non-mainstream cultures. And this is also where understanding context gives you an advantage. The more you understand the particular time and place, the more informed the guesses you can make. For instance, knowing that all cloth was spun and woven by hand, tells you that clothing would be cut in the most economical way, so you would work out a pattern based on rectangular construction and piecing. Unless you were working out a garment for someone wealthy and ostentatious, in a time and place when extravagant cut demonstrated status.
Think about your assumptions - can you defend them? Perhaps you want to make a Norse tunic, and you know the Norse liked bright colours and decoration. Before you start to embroider a Viking longship on the front of the tunic, ask yourself some questions. Have you looked at surviving examples of Norse art from your period? There may be no surviving clothing, but are there carvings in stone or wood of people wearing the type of tunic you want to make? Is there any apparent decoration on the tunics? If there is, where is it placed? On the chest, or on the hem, or on the sleeves? Is it pictorial, or abstract patterns? Is it isolated motifs, or bands of interlocking repeat designs?
Then you can ask yourself whether what you've found is likely to be embroidery, or if it could be tablet weaving or some other method. Read about Norse material culture - are there references to needles as a common possession? Do descriptions of everyday activity include stitchery, or weaving, or something else?
Think about the motifs you want to use. Don't assume that an image found on a runestone or in a manuscript would necessarily have been used in textiles. Yes, crafts borrowed from each other, but can you show that these or similar motifs were used in wood as well as stone, or metalwork, or manuscripts; that they were part of the vocabulary of images?

Introduction I Research I Getting Started in Research I Creation I Documentation


Decide what your creation is - give it a purpose, a time, and a place. Decorative art, in the modern sense of useless art, was vanishingly rare in period. Decoration was applied to, or inherent in a useful thing. What this means is that it's better to enter an embroidered handkerchief than an embroidered piece of cloth. Materials were expensive in period, and labour was cheap. You wouldn't waste valuable materials on showing off a technique to no purpose. What is your piece for, how was it used?
Ask yourself when and where your piece would have been created, and who would have owned or ordered it. Is it a luxury item, or a cheaper imitation of expensive goods? Was it used mostly by the upper classes or the lower, by men or by women?

Don't cut and paste - create coherence, not clip art. Modern artists can mix and match from different times and cultures, taking a motif from Viking York, a framework from Ming dynasty Peking, and execute it all with dayglo fabric paint. Many SCA artists start the same way - Celtic cross-stitch is an obvious example. If you want to take the next step, you need to think about context and coherence. The materials, motifs, colour choices and techniques should come from the same time and place.

By the way, it isn't necessary to "grow the sheep", that is, to make every part of your piece yourself. When I made my little book, I bought the parchment and the linen for the cover, just as a medieval scribe would have. If your medieval counterpart would have bought any of his materials from other craftsmen (the parcheminer and the weavers), you can too. Conversely, it can be good to make some of your own tools, which the medieval artisan often would have done. I cut my own quills and cast a lead plummet for ruling. Neither of these was at all difficult, but it showed attention to detail.

Introduction I Research I Getting Started in Research I Creation I Documentation


When you document your work, what you are doing is explaining what you did. Explain how it was created in period, as far as you were able to discover. Explain where you followed period practice, and where you didn't. It is okay to have used non-period techniques and materials, as long as you make it clear that you know what the period format would have been, and what your reasons were for changing it (that you're allergic to wool, or can't have a wood fire in your apartment). Do not try to BS the judges on these points. It might work, but it's not worth the risk.

If you are concerned about your English skills, it is okay to have a more skilled friend edit your documentation, or even write it with you. Do work closely with him or her, to make sure that the technical terms are used correctly, and that you know what information you're giving the judges.
A&S documentation is not a B.A. or Ph.D. thesis. The page limit for Kingdom has varied from 2 pages to 7 pages. If you can cover your information in a page or two, that's great. Remember that the judges will have a limited amount of time to examine your work, skim your documentation, and ask you questions. For written documentation, shorter is better, short and clear is best.

Say what your entry is. Don't enter it as two mutually exclusive things. If you've taken the embroidery pattern from a silk altarcloth and applied it to linen, find out whether you're making a low-end knockoff altarcloth, or whether the design is widespread enough that it could be used for a linen hand towel. Don't try to have it both ways.
Explain your entry's function. The way Kingdom and Kingdom-type judging forms are set up, an object is judged on how well it fills its purpose. A plank with linen-fold carving has no usefulness, however skilfully it is carved. A crude but complete chest, with minimal carving, will gain more points, because it has a purpose.
Explain your entry's context. Place it in time and space. Describe who would have owned it, eaten it, been entertained by it. Was it made by a craftsman who worked for kings and archbishops, or by a humble village artisan?

Footnotes and bibliographies are fiddly but vital. The judge needs to know where you found your information, otherwise s/he's going to have to ask you about every relevant point, and you'll feel harassed. There are several different formats for doing footnotes and bibliographies. You can check out a high-school or college style guide, or you can look at the research material you've been using, which should have footnotes and bibliography (if it's any good). Pick a format that you like and use it. If the rules specify a particular format, obviously you should follow the rules.

Photocopies and illustrations should be used carefully. Do provide pictures of primary sources - say, the page of lute music from a reproduction of an Elizabethan music book. Don't provide photocopies of secondary sources - no to the page from a 1970s book discussing whether the singers stood or sat. When you are choosing pictures to include, make sure they are relevant and support your choices.

Make it easy for the judges: Most judges have less time than they would like to go through your information and to ask you questions. They may have 20 minutes or less to evaluate work that has lasted over months. The great majority of judges do want to do you justice, so make sure your documentation does you justice.
Organise your information    List the points you want to cover, and decide what order makes sense. For instance, you might want to explain what your entry is, where and when it would exist, then where you found your design elements and why they fit together, then describe the process of construction (chronological order is good here) and how close it was to period techniques, explaining where and why you changed things.
Mark your main points
   The judges will often want to know about a specific aspect of your work, and it saves everyone time if they can find that information quickly. Decide what the important points are (for instance, design sources, choice of fabric and threads, types of stitch and finishing techniques) and make them easy to find on the page. It doesn't matter whether this is as headings, boldface or italic, or plain highlighting, as long as the important words stand out.
Stay focussed
   Documentation should be as short as it can be and still make all the necessary points. While it is important to provide a context for your work, don't go beyond the immediate context. If you're performing a troubador song from 13th century Provence, you don't need to give a complete history of the troubador movement throughout Europe. Explain who might have performed this particular song, to what sort of audience, with what sort of accompaniment. If you're presenting stamped and gilded leather gloves, don't provide a detailed discussion of steel gauntlets (unless it's relevant to design influences). Similarly, if you are including pictures of period examples, make sure they are relevant and support what you are presenting. Don't show carvings of soldiers carrying round shields to support your entry of a heater shield.
Be concise
   Keep your writing as simple and clear as you can. Keep your sentences and words short. Resist any temptation to pad or to impress by using inflated language (eg: utilise for use, facilitate for ease). While it is fine to have a more skilful friend help you with your writing, make sure that your friend isn't a victim of bureaucratic or academic jargon.
Back up your claims
   This is where footnotes come in handy, though you can include the information in the main text if you prefer (eg: "As Kasperson says in his descriptive catalogue "). If you state that something is so, note where you found that information. If you can't find a source that confirms what you've said, maybe your information isn't correct. If you discovered it by personal experimentation, say so.
Give your sources
   This is where the bibliography comes in. I like to see the publisher as well as the author and title, because that will often tell me more about the source. If the book is published by Oxford University Press, I will probably put more faith in it than in one put out by Celtic Crystal Vision Publishing.

Sample pseudo-documentation for a bardic performance:
Music: the music for my performance can be found in The Merry Lutanist, a popular Merovingian songbook published 3 times in the late 1200s (see attached photocopy). The tune continued to be used, with various lyrics, into the early 1500s (Glombottom p.43) under various titles, including "My Lady's Farthing", "The Jovial Pig", and "Sour Ale".
Lyrics: as mentioned, several sets of lyrics have been set to this tune. I chose the lyrics from a 1402 broadsheet commemorating the trial of Robert Flounder for barratry (see attached photocopy) where the tune is given as "Iofyall Pygge".
Performance: I perform the piece in the style popularized in Spain in the late 1300s, where the singer stands in a bucket of water to improve his tremolo (Sadsack p.82), a style which was briefly popular in the German court of Johannes XX, until the colder climate induced fatalities among several performers (Sadsack p.101).
Bibliography: Glombottom, V. The Merry Lutanist in its Time Toronto 1984
Sadsack, T. Performing Pigs in the Courts of Europe London 1899
Turbot, L. Broadsheet Publication Before Gutenberg New York, 1973

Introduction I Research I Getting Started in Research I Creation I Documentation
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