Gram-Letter11-art - 7/19/15
"Gram letters: The Conclusion" by Lady Shara of Starwood, OVO, CMC, AoA. A series of articles on various crafts and medieval life written in first-person style. This is number 11 of 11 articles in this series.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set
of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at:
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be
reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first
or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris
AKA: Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
This article was originally published in the "Tal-Mere Tidings", the newsletter of the Shire of Tal-Mere, Kingdom of Meridies.
Gram letters: The Conclusion
by Shara of Starwood, OVO, CMC, AoA
As I put quill to parchment toward the end of the month of May, knowing this will not be read until July, I write as Shara, the reluctant author, and no longer as 'Gram', the loving grandparent. I have been about this a full year by now; a year in the life of a older woman, who at 55 or so, by today's standards would merely be barely middle-aged, but in her own, was looking toward the end of her Earthly years, while I am in truth, not to either place, but the very middle. I claim to have been reluctant about this project, because it came about with no real experience, and quite by an accident of circumstances. Baron John wanted us to have a newsletter and so asked for articles. I had a few un-published how-tos laying about that had a common theme of the Medieval Pilgrim, so I decided to contribute those, and just to make them more interesting, wove a bit of a story with them to tie them together. There was no grand master plan to a serious epic story to be told over any real length of time; no other character's laid out, not anything but a chance to help jump-start a new shire project, and then sit back later, and enjoy the contributions of others after my own was finished. Alas, that never happened. Just when I'd kicked back to relax, I got a left field phone call from our charming editor, demanding to know where the "next Gram letter" was??! 'uh...not even in my head yet....'. I didn't have the heart to tell him that I was no writer of fiction, and "Gram" was through writing.... Within days he had a 'letter' and I had a new career to prove myself in. The bad news was I wasn't being paid, the good that he couldn't fire me for falling on my face. We had an understanding. I'd like to use this opportunity to tie up loose ends and answer some questions that some of the readers of Gram's letters have tossed my way.
Re. A 'time-frame':
Pick one, almost any one, during the Middle-Ages when the pilgrimage roads and waterways were moderately safe from wars and plague to travel on for a young girl and her pious companions. This would be roughly between the 10th and 16th century, with peak activity during the 14th and 15th, and less, after the 16th due to the rise in Protestantism causing many areas to break with Catholicism. Consequently the Protestants tried to reduce the Catholic church's power by breaking up the Monasteries, resulting in a greatly reduced number of hospices for travelers to safely stay in, along the Pilgrim Routes. Regular travel along the routes would not resume again until the end of the 16th and early 17th centuries. The Pilgrims by the way, before they came to be called that, were early on known as 'Peregrines' or wanderers.
I have purposely not mentioned rulers, wars, or other events of recorded history so as to not pin-point any given time nor cloud my story with anything to distract from the simplicity of it's historical pattern of life, as it was, for my characters.
While it's a fact that at most any given time there were wars fought, sickness and famine about somewhere, before the age of global communications these things were often unknown of, save by word of messenger, herald or visitor/traveler.
This is a window into a year in the everyday life of the respected lady of a manor house and the people and events around her. A family which was neither royal, nor common peasant, but somewhat middle-class.
As to 'where'? Gram's "Starwood" is someplace about two or three day's travel North of York, Eng., just south of the Scottish border where Samuel the Shepherd is from, and where Robert, her brother, prefers to abide when he isn't needed elsewhere. (and my own 'Starwood' in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains) Rebecca and her family live just South of London on a much smaller holding that produces just enough to supply the needs of her immediate family, with some left over to take to market. There is also, an older couple who has been with her family for some years in the capacity of doing whatever farm and house things need doing in their seasons. As to the route Rebecca would most likely have taken: She would have traveled to the port at London and crossed the channel to France, landing at Calais (in Northern France) to travel down to Paris, Chartres, down to Tours, Portiers, Bordeaux, and then, hugging the coastline tightly, near Bayonne to get past/over the Pyrenees Mountains. From there they would have hugged the Norther Spanish coast closely going through the towns of Bilbao, Oviedo, and on to Santiago de Compostela about 15 miles inland from the sea. Rebecca's return trip would have been N.E. of there to the seaside town of La Coruna, to travel by ship across the Bay of Biscay, into the English Channel to the Southern English town of Southhampton, to continue the rest of her journey overland to home again. A round trip, if my map scale is correct, of over a thousand miles. Quite a long, continuous trip, even with today's luxuries of car travel, smooth highways, comfortable rest-stops, and clean motel rooms.
When I set about this project, it was meant to go no further than those first 3 or so how-to articles, thinly disguised as a part of a story. After that, I had no more lessons to teach, no more 'advice from Gram' to impart, (until perhaps closer to Rebecca's departure time, in the Spring)... But, it seems that Baron John had reserved the space for me, and expected me to fill it, on time, regularly,...preferably with the Gram letters which he'd already received favorable comments on. Hence I then was to become a 'reluctant' writer of fiction and the Gram letters were to be my very first written creation. I was deer-in-the-headlights frozen in fear, and not sure I could do it. While it was true that he couldn't fire me, the bad news was that no-one wants to put their name to a bad creation, especially so publicly, so I was under a lot of pressure to do the impossible.
Alas Winter was quickly approaching and I had no more sage advice to pass on to a granddaughter at that time regarding her trip, so I decided to look around me, at my own daily activities, many of which were history-related, and start to talk about those day to day things, as I would in any normal letter to anyone. It just so happened that I'd recently acquired a pair of antique spinning wheels and had finally laid my hands on a goodly bunch of raw (and very dirty) wool, which I had been busily washing and teasing and air-drying, so I decided to write about those activities into the next letter, as 'right now' late Fall activities that 'Gram' was busily doing, and provided an explanation as to how the wool had been stored with moth-repelling herbs from my garden (herbs I do grow in my very real Medieval herb garden, and which were used as moth repellents with stored clothes etc. of the time)
Then I got an un-expected letter from a shire member who's main craft is as a spinner. She was fascinated to 'learn' that wool was stored that way, till Fall, and not spun right away, after spring shearings. Uh-oh,.....I'd run into an un-expected snag, already. I'd been speaking of my own daily activities, trying to fill space, without regard to actual time-tables of the period/place. It was time to hit the books in my vast personal research library and do some serious digging/seasonal note-taking before I wrote the next letter. I was learning. Now, I had a plan. (at the end of this, I will list most of the books I consulted in the writing ofthe rest of the letters, with special note to one, with which I could not have done any of this.) I also, did as any real writer does, and started contacting people to ask actual advice about things and started fleshing out assorted people who might have been part of Gram's household, doing needed tasks around a manor house having a goodly amount of land, and livestock. Sarah was the first of several to come. She was based on no-one real, that I can consciously recall, and yet she quickly became a 'real person' in my mind's eye, to the point that I could almost draw a portrait of her un-ruly black hair, her snub nose, her deep-set almost black eyes, and her thin moist lips smacking with anticipation over her next potential meal, and of course, a smudge of 'something' on her cheek, a tear or two, in her questionably clean clothes, and thick, heavy shoes which she drags about with a shuffling noise in winter and filthy bare feet in summer. Her personality is generally quiet and all too often, darkly brooding. I've seen her clearly, all along. Maybe she was real, in another lifetime. And then there was Gwen. A new daughter in my SCA family, and a joy to finally have,....though she, an 18 yr. old, newly graduating high school isn't quite sure how to re-act to my having made her name-sake a convent-dwelling nun of late 20 something, while she is a normal teen with a normal interest in boys and college not so far away. Dear Adam is based on one of my wood-carving students, looks and personality wise, in the guise of a teen-age fosterling learning some skills of the blacksmith trade from Gram's lord husband. (an interest the real Adam has indicated learning from the real Hastar)
'Gram's' brother and sisters are my own, and very close to the way I've portrayed them. My brother is actually Catholic, and from him I've regularly asked advice regarding info on that subject, so he's always been a great deal of help. Sasha, the cat, often sat atop my lord's huge antique bellows while he worked at his forge, (I have photographs) alas she died of old age, but a tiny duplicate of her presently sits purring on my shoulder, as I write now, green eyes and all. One thing I don't mention is that my actual work is that of a wood-carver with over 30 years experience, a craft rarely practiced by women in period much less by an old woman with more important domestic duties to tend to.
As a real history student, I had not an ounce of interest in who did what, when and where, as I never understood how the dry facts of a stranger's name, and place they accomplished anything, actually made anyone's life any richer for the knowing, and consequently I barely passed the subject. What my instructors didn't understand was that I did have an interest in history. I had a passionate curiosity about the one thing they weren't touching on; I had a driving 'need' to know 'how' they, those common, everyday, un-named people did things. How the bread was baked, the bricks made, the cloth woven, the food cooked, the ships built, the trees cut, the clothes made,.....I wanted to learn it ALL. But they weren't teaching that sort of thing.
Not only did I want to learn it, I wanted to do it. I wanted to experience it. I wanted to hold it in my hands and eyes, and soak up every bit of sweat, tears, and frustrating moment of the learning, doing, and the accomplishment of it, and know I'd successfully done the impossible, I'd learned to time-travel.
I was already artistic, from a very young age, pencil and paper always at hand. Later on, while still in my teens, someone would give me a 10$ gift that would buy my very first set of wood-carving tools, which I still have, along with my first carving,...a low-relief Viking ship, on a plank of redwood, my fate appeared to be sealed. The coming years would have me on a pursuit for even more hands-on knowledge, and an ever growing library, long before I discovered the sca. In my time I have milked cows by hand, used antique tools to fell trees, split them into boards and/or carving slabs, erected a couple of small historical-type buildings, exclusively with hand tools, grown vegetables and fruits, woven a short length of cloth, spun, dyed wool, grown and used Medieval herbs for culinary and healing, made inks and pigments, carved wood-cuts, put my hand to the blacksmith's hammer and anvil (and will again), cast pewter, made fresh butter with my great grandmother's churn and help, skinned a muskrat, learned quilting from another great grandmother, cooked oatcakes on a real, antique heavy iron Welsh griddle (and other foods) over open fires, baked bread, done some primitive pottery, and so much more I have done and will do, time allowing. I've been to Paris, Venice, Athens, Edinburgh, Dublin, Amsterdam, London, Hidelburg, Vienna, the Greek Isles, Wales, Rome, York, and many other places. I've soaked up the contents of the museums like a sponge. I’ve made notebooks full of sketches and notes with measurements, I've brought back suitcases full of books for my library (and seriously pushed the luggage limits). I've explored Medieval castles and stood on the stony shore of Waterville, Ireland, in the middle of gale-force winds in the late evening, where Vikings once landed, and peered through the stinging wind and rain out to sea, trying to 'see' the dragon-headed ships struggling in toward the place I stood, and I almost could,.....and in the future, I will build Medieval bake ovens with clay and fresh cow dung, and straw and burnt oyster shells and green saplings, and then I will bake bread. I will build a Viking longhouse, and it will have a hearth of slate slabs and a stone oven and timbered walls and soapstone and forged iron oil lamps and iron cooking tools, and a low door with a high draft board, so 'intruders' will both have to step high and duck low, to enter, and thus be vulnerable to the waiting sword. I will make pottery, and it will be fired in a kiln dug into a hillside. I will make a Viking tapestry loom, and the bobbins and weaving sword and pick to weave a tapestry from yarns I've spun and dyed with dye herbs from my garden. Have no doubt that I shall do all of this, and more, for much of what I've already mentioned has already been begun, in some assorted stage already.
And all of this has helped come about the rest of what's happened in the Gram letters since their beginning.
I've tried to word them in the manner of speaking from the times themselves, and sometimes the words just flowed as if another used my hands to tell a real story, as in the last letter, while telling of the children and old Samuel, it seemed so real, that reading it later brought tears to myown eyes, as though I'd never seen the words before. When I've written, I've become the fine lady of the manor, and could 'see' Adam's fair head of tousled gold as he eagerly sets about any task good-naturedly, but that's easy, because I know the real Adam. But Sarah is just as real, in the telling, and that's come as a surprise, for she's more like a memory, than a creation.
For the time being, the Gram letters have come to an end. By the time you read this Rebecca will be either on the homeward leg of her journey, or already on her way to, or already here, at Starwood. This story will have come full circle, in any case, and the need for my letters of advice, or reports of daily activities, with the seasons, either no-longer needed, or already covered, only the 'people' will go on,...Young Adam will learn sufficient skills of the blacksmith's trade to return home in a few years and help his widowed mother financially, but when he leaves, he will take with him Cook's sweet Anne as his new bride. Sarah will have long since run off with a passing bard and will one day, several years down the road, show up at our door, a changed person from the one who left, with a babe in her arms and one clinging urchin at her skirts, humbled and begging a home once more, and she will be welcomed. Cook will be lost to consumption and Abigale will be mostly bed-ridden with painful joints, but treated kindly still, for all her years of faithful service. Rebecca will eventually marry someone she met on her second pilgrimage, and move to Dublin. Gwen will continue in her convent, and become a healer and a teacher. As for Gram and her beloved Hastar, they will merely grow older together and stay in reasonably good health for the rest of their long days, though 'Gram' may still write an occasional letter here or there.
I've tried to give a pretty fair window view of Gram's world, of the people and sights around her and a glimpse of her personal thoughts, not to mention the joys and frustrations, of a woman of her times. So if I have made her 'real' enough, then I've accomplished a goal I wasn't sure I knew how to achieve. For sure, it hasn't been easy, but there have been times when the story was simply 'there' waiting to be unfolded, and I, merely the translator. I have not attempted to teach history, as such, but as I've written the letters, I've been forced to learn more about the world that would have been hers, and with the learning has come a certain amount of personal satisfaction. I want to thank everyone for their kind words of encouragement and appreciation, regarding the 'letters' and add that I haven't stopped writing, only that I'm now going back to my regularly scheduled program of how-to articles.
And as they say, at the end of many PBS children's specials, 'if you'd like to learn more about everyday life, in the Middle Ages, or more about the Pilgrims of the times, please try to find some of the following books at your local library' (because mine don't leave my library any more, except by my own feet)
(Enjoy. It's been a great year.)
Shara of Starwood, aka Asa of the Wood, mka R.D. Wertz,
asa.wood at excite.com
On day to day/seasonal life in the Middle Ages, I can't recommend the following book strongly enough, one I found in a shop in Barnstaple England, on the Cornwall coast:
HARTLEY, Dorothy. LOST COUNTRY LIFE, MacDonald & James Pub. Ltd., London 1979
Another helpful one I found in Dublin:
SHARKEY, Olive. OLD DAYS, OLD WAYS, The O'Brien Press Ltd. Dublin, Ire. 1985
And this one in a rare book shop in Ny:
QUENNELL, Marjorie & C.H.B. 1066-1499 A HISTORY OF EVERYDAY THINGS IN ENGLAND Charles Scribner's Sons, Ny. 1989
And these rest have been additional help:
ASTON, Margaret. THE 15TH CENTURY - THE PROSPECT OF EUROPE, Thames & Hudson, London 1968
BAILEY, Ann. THE WEST IN THE MIDDLE AGES (VOL. 6), Western Pub. Co., NY 1966
CARDINI, Franco. EUROPE 1492, Facts on File, Oxford, England, 1984
COMTE, Suzanne. EVERY DAY LIFE IN THE MIDDLE AGES, (no Pub) Minerva, Italy 1978
GIES, Francesco & Joseph. DAILEY LIFE IN MEDIEVAL TIMES, Black Dog & Levanthal Pub. NY 1990
GREER, John. LIFE IN A MEDIEVAL CASTLE AND VILLAGE, Constable & Co. Ltd., London 1990
HILLYER, V.M. THE MEDIEVAL WORLD, Meredith Press, NY, 1966
HOLMES, George. THE OXFORD HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL EUROPE Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, Eng. 1988
KELLEHER, Bradford D. EUROPE IN THE MIDDLE AGES, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Ny 1986
LEVENSON, J. A. CIRCA 1492, Yale University Press, London, 1992
MATTHEW, Donald. ATLAS OF MEDIEVAL EUROPE Facts on File, Ny. 1983
MORGAN, Gwyneth. LIFE IN A MEDIEVAL VILLAGE Cambridge University Press, London 1975
PORTER, Valerie. FIELDCRAFT AND FARMYARD Swan Hill Press, Shrewsbury, Eng. 1992
SEYMOUR, John. THE FORGOTTEN CRAFTS Dorling Kindersley Ltd. London 1984
VIRGOE, Roger. PRIVATE LIFE IN THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Ny. 1989
FOR BOOKS ON THE SUBJECT OF MEDIEVAL PILGRIMS, THE FOLLOWING ARE A 'MUST':
BOORSTIN, Daniel J. THE DISCOVERERS
CAMUSSO, Lorenzo. GUIDA AI VIAGGI; NEL' EUROPA DEL 1492 ( TRAVEL GUIDE TO
EUROPE IN 1492) Henry & Holt, Ny. 1992
CHAUCER, Geoffrey. THE CANTURBURY TALES Philip Wilson Ltd. London 1996
COUSINEAU, Phil. THE ART OF PILGRIMAGE Fine Communications Books, Ny. Ny. 1986
COX, Ian. THE SCALLOP 'Shell' Transport & Trading Co. London 1959 (this is a Fascinating book,..well worth hunting down!)
FEIFER, Maxine. TOURISM IN HISTORY Stein & Day Pub. Ny. 1986
FREMANTLE, Anne. AGE OF FAITH Time Life, Ny. 1965
FRONCK, M. & BROWNSTONE, David M. THE EUROPEAN OVERLAND ROUTES Facts on File, Ny., Ny. 1990
LABARGE, Margaret Wade. MEDIEVAL TRAVELERS W.W. Norton & Co. London 1982
STRAYER, Joseph R. THE MIDDLE AGES 395-1500 Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc. Ny. 1942
SUMPTON, Jonathan. PILGRIMAGE - An Image Made of Religion Rowan & Littlefield, N.J. 1975
TATE, Brian & Marcus. THE PILGRIM'S ROUTE TO SANTIAGO Phaidon Press Ltd. Oxford, Eng. 1987
THORNDIKE, Ph.D. Lynn. THE HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL EUROPE Houghton Mifflin Co., Mass.1917
WEDGEWOOD, C. V. THE SPOILS OF TIME Doubleday & Co. Inc. Ny. 1985
WILSON, Colin. THE ATLAS OF HOLY PLACES & SACRED SITES Dorling Kindersley Ltd., London 1996
AS TO LEATHER BOTTLES:
WATERER, John. LEATHER CRAFTSMANSHIP G. Bell & Sons, Ltd. London, Eng. 1968
(ill. Of leather water pilgrim bottles may be seen on ill. 93,94,96 ) (Plus asking a craftsman, who made them, how it was done, and my own personal experience.)
AS TO POTTERY BOTTLES :
BOURGUET, Pierre M. THE ART OF THE COPTS Holle Verlag Gmbh., Baden Baden, Germany 1997 (fig. 17)
STARKEY, David. HENRY VIII Cross River Press, Ny. 1991 (ILL. p. 11, 22)
Herbs used for moth repellent, cleansing wool, & wool processing:
BROWN, Rachel. THE WEAVING, SPINNING, AND DYEING BOOK Alfred A. Knopf, Ny .1994
(and numerous other herbal books in my library, for which I've run out of
room to list)
Copyright 2001 by R.D. Wertz. <windsingersmoon at yahoo.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.