I dug a hole: adventures in quarantine madness

Spoiler for the rest of this post: I made these using dirt from my yard! And fire! Ha ha!

Hey so this whole global plague this is fun, yeah? Economic collapse, feeling of hopelessness, constant threat of debilitating illness and/or death? So fun! And I live in the US, so I am definitely 100% not terrified that the literal criminals running the country are going to get me killed! Ha ha! o_o

ANYWAY, while I’ve been home I’ve started actually diving into some of the particularly wacky “someday!” projects that I’ve been dreaming about for years. I love learning by doing, and I’ve always been really drawn to “deep wisdom” types of things like making cordage from tree bark and harvesting wild plants. We’ve been dealing with a major rat infestation in our entire neighborhood, and I was starting to seriously consider learning to tan tiny hides and make myself a cool apocalypse cape, but my wife strongly vetoed that. (Incidentally, before COVID hit, this winter I let a student talk me into mummifying a chicken toe as a little class side project, which inspired me to mummify an entire chicken foot, which I just remembered is in my garage somewhere because I tried to hide it from my wife so she wouldn’t throw it away — I should probably find that.)

One of those things I’ve always wanted to try was digging my own clay and making primitive pottery. I think a lot of people have this on their bucket list, actually; we must all read the same formative books. Lockdown gave me the motivation I needed to actually give it a go — with nowhere to go, why not do weird projects in the yard? It was time-consuming, but not actually that difficult, and every part of this project was 100% free. I’m hoping to do a how-to video at some point, but for now here’s a rough description of my process in case you want to try something like this yourself.

Bonus: this project resulted in me now having a fire pit in the yard

The first step is to dig a hole. It should be a relatively big hole, and the soil should have a high clay content. Save the dirt you dig out of the hole. If you want to use the same hole to pit-fire the clay, you can make it a bit fancier by lining it with bricks, as shown here.

To separate the clay from the rest of the dirt, you’ll take advantage of the fact that clay particles are much, much smaller than the other stuff in your dirt. Put some of the dirt you dug into a bucket and cover it completely with water. Let it soak about a day and stir it every so often. When you’re ready, give it a really vigorous stir and pour the dirty water through a screen into another bucket. This gets the big stuff out. Discard that big stuff and rinse the first bucket well.

Let the dirty water sit for 10-15 minutes. This allows the larger particles (sand, silt) to settle, but leaves the clay behind. While you wait, put a basket or colander in the first bucket and line it with cloth, an old bed sheet folded in half is ideal. Then, carefully pour the water-and-clay suspension into the cloth and let it drain to dry. Full disclosure: I found I had to pour the clay suspension into a third bucket while I waited for the water level in my cloth strainer to go down enough to add more to it, so be flexible about this part; the goal is to have the water catch the clay. It’s sort of like draining cheese. Let the clay drip dry until it’s pliable enough to use. For me this took many days, probably about a week all told.

You can wedge the clay to get the air bubbles out, which I didn’t really know how to do so I sort of half-assed that part, then build whatever you want to make. I made pinch pots, a goddess figurine, and used a leaf to make an impression on a thin slab of clay. It’s important to keep your pieces thin enough to dry easily. Once you’re happy with what you’ve made, put them in a safe, covered space and let them air dry as long as you can stand it. I think I made my first round of stuff in like April and didn’t fire them until July. Steam is what makes pots explode, so if you know you didn’t do a great job getting the air bubbles out, drying is crucial.

To fire your pots, line the bottom of your fire pit with wood shavings or sawdust, and use this to fill any spaces in the pots themselves. Arrange the pots in the pit and cover them with flammable stuff — paper, sticks, kindling, wood, etc. Light it on fire (yay!) and make sure the fire gets big and hot, because the clay needs to glow red to undergo the chemical changes of firing.

I obviously said “COOOOOOL!!!!” out loud when I peered down into my fire pit and saw a glowing pot.

Let the fire burn down to coals, and make sure the pottery is completely covered. I took the photo above when I was moving stuff around to get coals over that pot. If you want, you can smother the fire at this point by dumping dirt or sand on it. This causes the clay to turn black, which looks really cool. It also means you don’t have to hang out and watch your fire burn all the way down, and it gives your pottery a chance to slowly cool down, which reduces breakage.

The next day, when the sand / dirt is cooled off and you can easily dig into it with your bare hands without fear, it’s time to find out if it worked.

I like the natural red color and the black together.

I was so astonished that my pots didn’t break and that they were actually fired that I laughed out loud when I dug them up.

My two-year-old helped dig out the finished pottery. He was most interested in the “puhsun” (person) and “eef” (leaf). Although parts of it aren’t suitable for kids, a lot of this project was something that he and I could do together. He helped me dig the hole, he helped me with stirring and straining all that muddy water, he loved squishing the clay in his hands, and he helped me pick a leaf and press a ball of clay onto it for a second leaf plate (which is still drying). Older kids could have even more fun with this, and the opportunities for learning about history, archeology, art, physics, and chemistry are immense.

I hope this post inspires you to do a project that you’ve always wanted to try, especially if it’s something you’re not an expert at. I knew basically nothing about any of this when I started; I sort of understood some of the science behind it, which probably helped, but really when it comes down to it I just read a lot of guides online and then let myself experiment. You, too, can do the thing! And if you make a cape out of rat pelts, let me know how it goes, because I’m honestly still considering it.

Medieval Games Box with Painted Gluckhaus Board Lid

Games Box with Gluckhaus Board
A painted glückhaus or house of fortune board on the lid of a wooden box used to store medieval games

I just finished a fun, simple project — painting a glückhaus board on the lid of a wooden box that I can use to store all my historical games! I’ve been thinking about a better way to store my historical games for a while. I had used various pouches and bags in the past, but didn’t like the feeling of infinitely nesting bags. At some point I must have seen someone else’s games box with a board painted on the lid and fallen in love with the idea.

Glückhaus (also spelled glückshaus) happens to be my very favorite historical game. It’s dead simple and clearly designed to be played while drinking and talking, requiring no strategy or even your full attention. Here’s a nice one-page guide to gameplay; roll the dice, place or take a coin, and several numbers have special actions. Most of the examples I’ve seen of historical (and re-enactor made) glückhaus boards are rather complex, but I liked the more simple design of one shown in the Wikipedia article linked above and used that as the basis for mine.

Can’t wait to play at events! You can use any dice and counters you want, I like playing with my replica groats and resin “bone” dice but have also had a grand time with plastic modern dice and standard US pennies.

I used a wine gift box and a set of primary color acrylic paints, and aside from procrastination it was easy to finish by stealing a few minutes here and there during the evenings after my baby went to bed. It took me a while to find a box that I liked, but otherwise all the supplies for this are readily available at any craft store, or easily ordered from Amazon.

I’ve put together a list of supplies and tips for making your own (on the assumption that you know how to do basic SCA scribal painting). In my next post, I’ll be giving you more information about putting together a historical gaming collection of your own, including links to information/research and some specific products.

(Reminder that I get a small kickback when you purchase products from the Amazon links in my posts.)

Supplies list for a medieval games box with a painted lid:

Wine gift box — there are lots of box options, but this was the only one I found that was large enough to make a good game board but still inexpensive

Acrylic paint set (option 1) — I used a set of just primary colors but even for this simple project wished I had had more options, so I’ve linked to a slightly better set that I’ll be getting to replace my basic one. If you want to go all out, here’s a set with lots of colors!

Basic inexpensive detail paint brushes, at minimum round size 1 and size 0.

Plus a pencil, eraser, ruler, ultra fine permanent black marker, and access to some inspiration images.

Tips for making your own:

Use pencil to sketch the game board and any designs you want to do; this is where inspiration images are helpful, so have your Googlin’ fingers ready. (You are more than welcome to use mine as the basis for your own! Please copy me!) For glückhaus, the design elements are numbers on each square, and images on the three “special” spaces — a pig on 2, something to symbolize a wedding on 7, and a crown for the royal 12. Historical game boards were often quite lavish, with every bit of space filled up with lush art. That’s not my style, though, and I think that’s okay.

From there this is just like doing scribal painting, but with acrylics and wood instead of paper and gouache. Start with solid colors, layer on any shading and whitework you want, finish by outlining everything in black. I opted to leave the backgrounds blank and keep the design simplified. I also chose to do a generic Gothic style to be more in keeping with my gear and persona even though glückhaus is a Renaissance German game.

I opted for Roman numerals to look more historical and “pips” for those who have a hard time reading them. My pig has a roasting spit (that he’s running away from, ha ha) and I did simple interlocked rings for the wedding; a more historical option for the wedding space would be clasped hands or a fede ring. I added some vinework to fill the space on the 12, and did a simple blue with whitework border around everything.

There are a few things I’d change if I do another one, but overall I am pleased with this addition to my event gear. History was fun! Medieval games are fun! Having my own personalized and fairly nice glückhaus board is a great feeling. Plus, the box has all my other games. Again, I’m working on a follow-up post with more general information about stocking your own historical games box. Stay tuned 🙂

 

I’ve been spinning

I’ve gotten pretty hooked on distaff spinning. Here’s my latest batch after plying, still on the niddy-noddy:

I keep meaning to do a longer write up on spinning but never getting around to it. The short version is, spinning with a distaff is FUN! Plus, super historical.

You can find some good distaff tutorials on YouTube, which I highly suggest if you want to try it out. I also learned a ton from this excellent blog post.

It’s also given me an excuse to buy new craft supplies! Yay! 😂

Spice Mixes for an Auction, and an Announcement

When the Queen calls, you answer.

Her Majesty Sha’ya of An Tir laid a challenge on our Kingdom, and in particular upon the Laurels: produce a work to be auctioned off to benefit RAINN during the Knights Auction (all donations are sponsored by a Knight) at 12th Night.

I was moved — this is an incredible organization whose mission I believe in. I wanted to produce something worthy of auction. I found a sponsor, Sir Philip de Mantel, and proposed to put together a set of spice mixes for period cooking.

And I did make a set of spice mixes, a rather nice set if I do say so myself:

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Most of these (4/6) were made using actual period recipes. The remaining two (powder douce and powder fort) are more “generic” spice blends that I have my own versions of. You can see I found cute bottles and a cute basket and even made little labels for them.

Here are the sources for each one, and their ingredients:

  • Powder Fort: Black pepper, cubeb, cassia cinnamon, mace, clove
  • Powder Douce: Sugar, ginger, Ceylon cinnamon, nutmeg
  • Duke’s Powder (Menagier, 14th c. French): Sugar, ginger, grains of paradise, Ceylon cinnamon, nutmeg, galangal
  • Clarée Spices (Two Anglo-Norman Culinary… 13th/14th c English): Spikenard, cinnamon, ginger, mace, clove, nutmeg, fennel, anise, caraway, cardamom
  • Fine Spices 1 (Libro di Cucina, 14th/15th c. Italian): Black pepper, Ceylon cinnamon, ginger, clove, saffron
  • Fine Spices 2 (Livre Fort, 16th c. French): Ginger, Ceylon cinnamon, black pepper, long pepper, nutmeg, clove, grains of paradise, galangal

Fun, right?

But here’s the thing: I didn’t feel like it was enough. I got it into my head that spices are okay, but you need recipes to know how to use them.

So, long story short, I kind of wrote a cookbook.

No, really:

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That’s a screenshot of the cover. I wrote a cookbook, and I got a copy of it printed, and I put it and the spices together as one lot for the auction. The winning bidder currently owns the only copy of this cookbook in existence.

For now.

Yeah, soooo… I’ve given myself a year. I’m going to edit what I have and add more recipes to it if I can (my goal is 1 new tested recipe every 1-2 weeks), then I plan to release it for sale. I’m not planning a big run, and I’m planning to self-publish for a few reasons (although, um, if you work for a publishing house and want to talk me out of that and offer me $$$$ to change my mind and publish through you, let’s talk!)

To get you excited, here is the table of contents so far:

  • Preface    4
  • Brief Notes on Some Ingredients    5
    • On Salt    5
    • On Spices    5
    • On Verjus    5
    • On Vinegar    5
    • On Saba    5
    • On Almond Milk    6
    • On Rose Water    6
  • Spice Mixes for All Manner of Dishes    7
    • Powder Fort    7
    • Powder Douce    7
    • Clarée Spices    8
    • Fine Spices 1    8
    • Fine Spices 2    8
  • Beverages    9
    • Quick Mead    9
    • Hippocras / Ypocras / Clarée / Piment (Spiced Wine)    9
    • Oxymel / Posca (Vinegar/Honey Drink)    10
    • Clarée D’eau / Clarea de Agua (Water with Honey and Spices)    10
    • Rose Drink Concentrate    10
  • Finger Foods, Nibbles, and Snacks    11
    • Pescods (Peas in the pod)    11
    • To Churn Your Own Butter    11
    • Whole Pickled Onions    11
    • Pickled Onion Rings    12
    • Pickled Champignons (Mushrooms)    12
    • Fried Livers with Saba    13
    • Hais (Date and Nut Balls)    13
  • Meats, Fishes, and Their Sauces    14
    • Sour Grape Juice with Fried Summer Fish    14
    • To Dresse a Crabbe (Crab with Butter and Verjus)    14
    • Peiouns Ystewed (Stewed Pigeons)    14
    • Grilled Quail with Lemon Sauce    15
    • Good and Perfect Hens with Sumac    16
    • Roasted Chicken with Orange Sauce    16
    • Limonia (Chicken in Lemon Sauce)    16
    • To Make Stekys of Venson or Bef (Steaks of Venison or Beef)    17
    • Alows de Boef (Herbed Rolled Beef)    17
    • Fresh Lamb Sausage with Cilantro Sauce    18
    • Pork Loin with Peach Sauce    19
    • Cormarye (Spiced Pork Loin)    19
    • Salt Pork    20
    • Mustard Sauce    20
  • Egg and Pasta Dishes    21
    • Erbolat (Medieval English Frittata)    21
    • Sphoungata (Byzantine Omelettes)    21
    • Cressée of Noodles (Heraldic Chequy Noodles)    22
    • Cheese Gnocchi    22
    • Makerouns (Baked Noodles with Cheese)    23
  • Vegetables, Grains, and Legumes    24
    • A Dish of Leeks    24
    • Onion salad    24
    • Asparagus    24
    • Parsnips in Pottage    25
    • Basic Green Salad    25
    • Sprouts of Life    25
    • Carrot Puree    26
    • Chyches (Seasoned Chickpeas)    26
    • Green Chickpeas    26
    • Fresh Fava Beans    27
    • A Dish of Rice    27
    • Almond Porridge    28
    • Oatcakes    28
  • Pies of All Sorts    29
    • Basic Self-Supporting Hot Water Pastry    29
    • To Raise Coffins    29
    • Coffins Another Way    30
    • To Build a Large Coffin    30
    • General Baking Instructions for Coffins    31
    • Richer Hot Water Pastry for Molded Pies    31
    • Paest Royall    32
    • Short Paste for Tarts    32
    • A Formula for Meat Pies    33
    • Crustardes of Flessh (Birds in a Pie)    33
    • Cheshire Pork Pie    34
    • Simple Pork Pies    35
    • Une Tourte (Greens Tart)    35
    • Leche Frys of Fische Daye (Cheese Tart)    36
    • Tarte of Apples    37
    • To Bake Pippins (Elizabethan Apple Pie)    37
    • Daryols (Mini Cream Custard Tarts)    38
    • A Formula for Fruit Tarts    38
  • Sweets and Desserts    39
    • Dulcia Domestica (Candied Stuffed Dates)    39
    • Payn Ragoun (Pine Nut Candy)    39
    • Marzipan    39
    • Nucato (Honey-Nut Candy)    40
    • Suckets 1 (Candied Citron Peel)    40
    • Suckets 2 (Candied Orange Peels)    41
    • Pears in Confit (Poached Pears)    41
    • Quince Paste    42
    • Sweet Dessert Yogurt    42
    • Gingerbrede    43
    • Stamped Shortbread Cookies    43
    • A Jellied Ypocras, or, Elizabethan Jelly Shots    43
  • Assorted Useful Non-Edible Things to Make    45
    • Herb Water    45
    • Basic Lard Soap    45
    • Tooth Powder    46

Next addition will be a chapter on recreating medieval bread in a home kitchen (with a normal oven).

I look forward to posting updates as this project develops 🙂

My Life Philosophy

Last year at Twelfth Night, I had just declared that I’d be entering KASC and was thinking about how I had to learn to be more serious. Then I spent the weekend charging around the hotel hanging toast in people’s showers and pouring cider through a glass funnel into the mouths of excited bystanders. 

And I figured myself out: I am a golden retriever, all full of love and enthusiasm and maybe a little slobber. I can’t help but be excited and bouncy. I love to meet people and learn about them and introduce them to other people and help them when I can. I am goofy, and I like warm hugs.

And these things are okay. In fact, they are better than okay, they’re great! Instead of trying to repress this aspect of my personality and make myself more serious, I began then to accept and embrace it. As I see again and again, I’ve had so many incredible experiences as a result of being this open and enthusiastic.

I actually think my life might have changed with that understanding. Since then I’ve felt so much more loving and kind toward myself; I think I finally crossed the threshold of radical self-acceptance. In the past year, I have come to finally see that while I am allowed to improve and change, I am also allowed to be enough exactly as I am in this moment. That’s a really nice feeling.

The lesson in the heart of this that I hope I can hold on to always is that love makes us glow. When you’re passionate about something, you light up a room (yes YOU!) and are unstoppable (yes YOU!) Honestly, this is why I love the SCA: I get to see people doing things they love, and I get to do things I love, and there’s just so much squee-ing.

I charge everyone to make more of those moments. Let’s let our lights shine when we talk about our research and projects. If you are working on a thing, come sit next to me and talk to me about it.

Also, let’s hug. Like, all the time. (Or as much as you can stand.)

More glass painting, and a new Pinterest board

I’ve continued my glass painting experiments:

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I have to say, I’m quite pleased with this. The glass itself came from Crate & Barrel, who have a pretty good selection of glassware that looks passably historical:

Since the last time I posted about glass painting, I’ve switched paint brands. I got a set of Martha Stewart multi-surface craft paints. They are much cheaper than Pebeo and I personally like the colors better (especially this gold!). I am sure they are not as high quality as Pebeo paints, and time will tell how well they hold up. But they work very similarly in that you paint them on the glass, let them dry fully, and cure them in the oven.

I used a stencil for the quatrefoils, and I think I’m getting better with my stencil technique too:

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Notice that my paint is bubbly. I don’t know if that’s the paint or user error.

Otherwise, the big breakthrough since the last time I posted about glass painting is switching to using more dots than lines. With my skill level and the gloppy consistency of the paint, this has been a much better way to yield something that looks decent.

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This particular design is inspired by some of the patterns on this Italian hanging lamp.

I have started a board on Pinterest for examples of period painted glass — check it out. Unfortunately, most of the really beautiful figural paintings are utterly beyond me (at least for now!), but there are a few examples on there with simpler geometric designs that I’m inspired to try out.

This glass is going to be a volunteer thank you at An Tir’s Twelfth Night. Volunteer and you could be the one to take it home 🙂

Making Your Own Paints: A Beginner’s Guide

The paints I made (plus some modern gold paint for comparison)
Paints I’ve made (plus some modern gold paint for comparison)

Pigments available to the medieval/renaissance illuminator included mineral and organic ones. The typical palette consisted of:

  • Black: from lamp soot, charred bone, other carbon sources (e.g. vine black, made from charred grape vines)
  • White: lead white; Cennini specifically mentions that other sources of white, such as chalk, have limited value to the artist
  • Browns: typically from various earth sources such as umber
  • Yellows: orpiment (arsenic sulphide), various ochres/earths, tin, saffron
  • Greens: verdigris (copper acetate produced via various chemical reactions), some earths, malachite (a mineral that also derives its color from copper)
  • Blues: lazurite (lapis lazuli, which yielded the expensive and desirable ultramarine blue), azurite, some copper compounds (including some forms of verdigris), indigo
  • Purple: turnsole
  • Reds: madder, minium (lead oxide), vermilion (cinnabar / mercuric sulphide), possibly kermes and cochineal

Continue reading “Making Your Own Paints: A Beginner’s Guide”

Recommended Reading: A Selected Scribal Bibliography

These are some of the books and other sources that I consulted for my scribal project for Kingdom Arts and Sciences, and that I recommended as part of the classes I taught recently. Take a look, hopefully you’ll find something helpful. I have put my top picks in bold:

A page from a French book of hours from around 1400.
A French book of hours from around 1400. Pop quiz if you read the last post: what style is this?

Continue reading “Recommended Reading: A Selected Scribal Bibliography”

Major Styles of Manuscript Illumination: An Art Historical Survey

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.

This is a broad overview of major styles in manuscript production in Western Europe. It is NOT a comprehensive list of every type of book art practiced in our time period, although I would love to put that together someday 🙂 This is intended as a guide for scribes, especially charter painters, to begin to recognize distinct styles and make their artwork fit more closely within a target style.

Continue reading “Major Styles of Manuscript Illumination: An Art Historical Survey”