Five Tips to Make Your Charters Look More Historical

This is adapted from a handout from a class I taught at a Dragon’s Mist Arts and Sciences day in late April. The full handout is available in the Files section of this blog.

Sketching and inking an image from a period original

  1. Pick a style and stick to it. Look at multiple examples from the same time period and place as the finished piece that you are basing your work off of or what you are aiming for. Choose similar colors and use the same types of decorative elements. For more information, see my post of an art historical survey of illumination styles.
  2. Use historical or at least historically plausible colors. Avoid layering white over green, and spend enough time studying manuscripts and pigments that you have a sense of what colors were actually available. Scribes in specific time periods and places used distinct color palettes. Spend time looking at accurate facsimiles of medieval illuminations to determine what colors and combinations they found appealing.
  3. Use gold paint or gold leaf, not both. I have found almost no examples were gold paint and gold leaf were both used in the same page, although I’m sure they exist. Leaf was more commonly used prior to the 15th century, after which gold paint seems to be more common. (I’m still researching this and welcome corrections.)
  4. Go through the process of creating an illumination from start to finish, including planning and ruling out the page, at least once. This will help you see how medieval artists conceptualized the page: manuscript art is unique in that it blends both textual and visual elements. Your painting on a charter needs to reflect the artistic style of the design and be somehow united with the text itself.
  5. Keep in mind the purpose of this art form. Illuminated manuscripts were used devotionally both within public spaces of worship and by private individuals. The aesthetic of illumination grew out of this context. Arguably, this is why manuscript illumination was more stylized than realistic. The artwork that we produce within the SCA is wholly secular; however, it does follow the same stylistic conventions. Additionally, the charters and scrolls we produce are intended to produce strong emotions in their viewers, and are physical relics that our Crowns and Coronets provide to those they value highly. SCA scribes surely take their work just as seriously as medieval scribes did!

Verily, Thou Canst Blog

Here’s a written version of the class I just gave on blogging in the SCA. Enjoy!


  • Advantages of blogging
    • Educate others. For me personally this has been really meaningful and satisfying. This I believe: 1) Period food is yummy! 2) Authenticity is achievable! These deeply held beliefs inform how I approach blogging, and I’ve found that I’ve been able to spread my message, as it were, much farther through blogging than I could have done through more traditional means.
    • Improve your work, research, and writing. Again, speaking from personal experience, I had never entered an SCA competition when I started blogging, and this was a way for me to figure out how to write SCA documentation in a “lower stakes” environment.
    • It’s fun! I meet people at events who read my blog, I make myself laugh, and more. Blogging is just neat.
  • Types of SCA blogs


How to Get Started:

  • Decide what you want to write about, pick a platform, and do it!
  • Platforms:
    • Blogger (formerly blogspot) —
      • Through Google now, this used to be basically the only game in town if you wanted to blog. I used to use blogger but moved away from it due to ongoing frustrations with the commenting features and just feeling like I had outgrown it.
    • Tumblr —
      • Technically a “microblogging” platform, Tumblr is ideal for connecting to others writing about similar topics; you can easily re-share (with built in attribution) something someone else has shared, kind of like Twitter. Tumblr is very social and often image-heavy. I haven’t seen a lot of SCAdians using it, but that doesn’t mean there’s not potential there.
    • Livejournal —
      • Livejournal makes me feel old. Back in my day… Anyway, Livejournal was really one of the earliest “blogging” platforms, before anyone thought of what they were doing as blogging. There’s a surprisingly large SCA community on Livejournal, still. LJ is great for connecting socially and for more “diary-esque” writing, but otherwise does not do most of the things I think people want out of blogging.
    • WordPress —
      • This quickly became the standard platform for nearly all bloggers. Free basic hosting and multiple options to get more by paying a little money. Easy and elegant. I use WordPress and I pay for my own domain through them; I have been very, very happy with WordPress.
  • Driving traffic to your blog
    • Start by having great content. There’s no point in getting people to your blog if you don’t have anything to offer them once they’re there. Write interesting articles, post good photos, cover topics that are relevant to SCAdians, give instructions for how to make something, showcase your research. Make it good!
    • Post regularly. I am really bad about this, but it is really important if having a dedicated readership / lots of views is important to you, or if you are thinking you’d like to turn your blogging into a professional endeavor. Posting on a schedule is one of the best things you can do to take your blog to the next level. Like I said, I don’t do this well, but I know it makes a difference.
    • Tell people about it. Print business cards to bring to events. Insert your blog name into every conversation (sorry, friends). Post links to related Facebook groups (sorry). If you use Pinterest and Twitter, you can start to build a “brand” that matches your blog; I Pin lots of things about the SCA and the Middle Ages, so my blog links fit seamlessly into that. I’m laurelfactorial (my mundane name is Laurel) on Pinterest, FYI.

If you have an SCA blog, feel free to post a link in the comments. I’d love to build my reading list!

If you have an SCA blog, feel free to post a link in the comments. I’d love to build my reading list!

Just for fun: my Jas. Townsend and Sons wishlist

I’m a big fan of Jas. Townsend and Sons, in particular their historical cooking blog and their 18th cooking videos on YouTube. Although they are post-medieval, a lot of the tools they sell work well for medieval and renaissance cooking. Mostly for my own amusement, here’s my current wishlist of items I covet from their catalog: Part 1: things I really need / might actually buy in the foreseeable future:

  • Birch twig whisk — does what it says on the label
  • Linen towel (for boiled puddings!)
  • Hardwood masher which they specifically note can be used as a pie dolly! I was poking around their website and wondered if they had a pie dolly, then I discovered this, and my little heart went all a-squee.
  • Redware pie pan. It’s for pie! How do I not already own this???

Part 2: things I like, but which would be definite “splurges”

  • American Heritage Chocolate. It’s not medieval at all, but I would love to play around with some colonial chocolate recipes.
  • Redware chocolate pot. Okay, apparently in spite of my claims to the contrary I actually do like chocolate. Again, this one is post-medieval, but I have a deep affection for real hot chocolate made with milk and cocoa (or maybe grated American Heritage Chocolate!), especially when I make it with fresh almond milk and a little cinnamon and some real vanilla bean and okay now I’m drooling.
  • Redware milk pan. I think this would be wonderful for mixing things, especially with the pouring lip.
  • All of the 18th Century Cooking DVDs. YouTube is great but I love these enough that I want to watch them on my actual TV.

Part 3: things that I could only own if I won the lottery:

Hmm… all right, I think the whisk and the masher might be about to be ordered. Anyone have other favorite historical cooking equipment purveyors to share?

Edit: They now offer free shipping in the contiguous US on orders over $30, so I totes just bought myself a whisk and a masher/pie dolly. Maybe I’ll post an “unboxing” video when they arrive! (Ha ha, not really.)

Not too Mean, Not too Nice, Just Right: How to be a Good SCA A&S Judge

I’ve had a few opportunities to judge local arts and sciences competitions lately, as well as to be judged at our Kingdom arts and sciences championship, and it’s caused me to think a lot about how this process works. I find the experience of being judged to be incredibly valuable, and I think a lot of that has been I’ve had very good judges (especially recently!); I spent some time thinking about what judges have done that has been useful to me and looked for ways to incorporate it into how I judge entries. I’ve previously (on my old blog) written about how to prepare to compete in the arts and sciences, now I’d like to share my thoughts on the other side of competition.

It’s easy to be judgmental, but it’s hard to be a judge. When you are approached to be a judge at a local competition, you are being tasked with something pretty mighty: you are going to assess another person’s best work, and you have the potential to dramatically shape how they approach their next project. Your job as a judge is not to show off your knowledge, to advance your personal agenda or pet theories, or even to critique a piece. Not surprisingly, my professional experience as a teacher has really colored how I view all of this — judging is exactly like grading! You have to be fair, you have to be honest, and you have to be kind. It’s not about assigning a score, it’s about assessing the quality of the work against the established standard and providing meaningful feedback to the creator. Here are some of my strategies for how to be a great judge:

  • First and foremost, be courteous. True courtesy and honor are the best parts of the Society — be a model of our shared virtues.
  • Go in with the right mindset. See above! The thought that should be uppermost in your mind is that it is your job to promote the arts and sciences. How can you best do that in your role as judge?
  • Give the entrant their due. Read their documentation (in advance if possible), listen to their whole presentation, and give them your full attention. I find it helps me to take notes during presentations. (I do the same thing when my students present in class.) I write down what I like, and what questions I have. This helps me give specific comments later.
  • Ask good questions. Questioning is an incredibly important intellectual strategy that I think can be easily overlooked. The questions you ask should allow the entrant to demonstrate their knowledge (they should not be “gotcha!” questions), or help them consider aspects of their work more deeply. Some ideas to get you started: What was your main goal with this entry? What do you feel like was your biggest success? What was your most significant learning? What was one challenge that you faced and how did you overcome it? What do you have planned next? What will you do differently on your next project as a result of this one?
  • BE. HONEST. Being courteous does not mean you are not allowed to point out areas for improvement — your comments must go beyond “great job” and a pat on the head. If it helps, think less about what they did wrong and more about what they could improve for next time, and use that to frame what you say. Normally, here is where this type of guide would tell you to try a “compliment sandwich,” but I happen to think that isn’t actually that helpful. Imagine this is the feedback you get from a judge: “I like the colors. Your embroidery needs a lot of work. Good job using wool thread instead of cotton.” The sandwich approach doesn’t actually soften the blow much, and these comments don’t help you get better.Here’s a hypothetical example of what I think is a better approach: let’s say I’m judging an entry of delicious and perfectly made suckets that use grapefruit peels. The maker consulted a few websites written by SCAdians, some of which included period recipes (although they didn’t use one specific recipe in their recreation), and they read The Medieval Kitchen and Early French Cookery for some general background information.
    • Here is an example of the type of comments I’d be likely to give them: “These were really delicious, and making suckets is a hard skill to master, which makes it all the more impressive. I was also happy to see that you started with some period recipes, and the secondary sources you looked at are both ones that I trust. Have you tried other types of citrus peels? Grapefruits date to after the SCA’s time period — I can help you find resources on what kinds of peels would be more historical. Now that you’ve gotten good at the general process, your next step could be to research this more deeply, then pick one specific historical recipe to recreate, or a set of them (maybe from different time periods?) to compare, depending on what your overall goals are.” Yes, that’s long. Yes, the forms don’t give you a lot of room. But if I were a competitor, I’d find that so much more useful — the feedback is all specific and actionable, and I think that’s essential.
  • Connect. Give entrants your contact information so they can talk with you more — this is a great way to mentor or work with someone with shared interests. Talk personally with entrants after the competition is over. Just as I would with my students, I find that I tend to say things that praise effort and hard work, encouraging growth rather than “genius;” this can help competitors see the day of competition as one step on their journey to A&S excellence instead of the culmination of something. Also, praising effort is much harder for someone to argue with than other forms of compliments! Here’s one frame if you aren’t used to this: “I hope you had a great experience today! You should feel proud — competing is hard work and takes a lot of bravery. I was really impressed with [a specific aspect of their project, display, or presentation] — it’s clear you’ve worked hard. I’ll look forward to seeing your next project.”
  • Spread the wordfame of the competitors. Tell people about the cool projects you got to judge, and what you liked about them. Introduce competitors to other people who share their interests, and who can help them with research. Shine the spotlight on someone!

This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means. Feel free to leave your own thoughts in the comments. If you found this list useful, please share the link. Also, if you are interested in publishing a version of this in a branch newsletter, use the contact form to get in touch with me and I’d be happy to send you a more usable version.