by Adelaide de Beaumont (Lisa Theriot)
The Nature of the Beast
Documentation is, to many bards, a necessary evil of arts competitions. After all, your piece is no more or less entertaining whether you have 20 pages of research accompanying it or not. So why do we do documentation? Simple—we do it to make the judges give us the score we think we deserve.
Unfortunately, taking an adversarial approach to documentation is a problem on several levels. First and foremost, the more you hate documentation, the worse your documentation will be. We humans don’t spend our time and passion on things we don’t like, and that’s doubly true for artists. But second, and ultimately more damaging, you’re wasting a terrific opportunity. If your documentation is an afterthought, you’ve voluntarily given away one of the best roadmaps available for making yourself better at your craft.
As performers, it is seductively easy to believe our fans who tell us that everything we do is great. Sadly, many of our fans have really poor taste! Any seasoned bardic performer knows that popular songs are often not very good songs, at least by competitive standards. You CAN have a stellar bardic career by singing rousing songs about your kingdom’s prowess in battle, the Queen’s beauty, and amusing anecdotes of life in the SCA, sung to tunes indistinguishable from Top 40 Pop music, and if that’s what you want to do, stop reading now. Not only will writing documentation annoy you, but since your style is fixed, you’re unlikely to learn anything you’ll incorporate in future works. Have fun, and I’ll see you around the fire!
Are they gone? Okay. Here’s the secret: Most people started that way. I’m old enough to have 60’s era folk albums (on vinyl, you know, those black things that look like big CDs?) that provided a lot of my early material. I still do some of it, because not only do people like it, I’m knowledgeable enough now to know the good stuff from the not-so-good stuff. That’s the key. Even if you know zilch about medieval and renaissance music, not everything you’re doing will turn out to be wrong. Musical tastes haven’t changed so much in the last 500 years that you need to develop a radically different sense of what sounds good to produce A-1 documentable-as-pre-1600-in-style pieces. And your documentation is the syllabus for acquiring the all-important knowledge of what you’ve been doing right all along (and fixing the stuff you’ve been doing wrong).
Know the Territory
Absolutely the first step in good documentation is to know the criteria on which you will be judged. Happily, most kingdoms have their judging forms posted on the web. The basic criteria are pretty consistent between kingdoms, but there are subtle differences, so you should be aware of the exact wording used in your kingdom. Remember that not every competition has the luxury of judges intimately familiar with each category, so if your piece is judged by a costuming or armoring Laurel, you can bet that the judging form will be their Holy Writ. Believe me, the less qualified the judges, the more detail you want in the judging criteria.
One place where there is HUGE variation between kingdoms is the level of detail in the direction to the judges. The direction under “Documentation” can vary from the minimum “How well did the entrant document their entry?” to a multi-part discussion on rating the quality of cited sources, discussing primary and secondary sources, etc. Most people qualified to judge in any category should have enough familiarity with the idea of documentation, but a minimalist judging instruction in the “technique” category can kill you. If you live in a minimalist kingdom, you might want to check out the forms from other kingdoms to get an idea of what they’re looking for. Remember if you enter pieces at Pennsic, Gulf Wars, etc., you may well encounter different forms and standards than you are used to.
This article, of necessity, details what I do and what I like to see as a judge. I’ve lived in seven kingdoms, so I think I have a pretty broad viewpoint, but you have to know your own neighborhood. Talk to some of your local Laurels and/or people you know tend to judge a lot. You’ll find they all have their own ideas, but you might be able to average out a good idea of what’s typical in your kingdom or area for documentation. Here are some questions to ask:
Should I place my documentation in a folder? Binder? How many copies should I provide? What’s the average size in pages of documentation for my category? Do judges like to see a lot of background or do they want more specific information? Complete sentences or bullets? What’s a good number of sources to cite? (Enough, I know, but really?) How likely is it that my judge will be familiar with my category?
Organizing Your Documentation
The order in which you present what you have to say is critical. You are not writing an essay; in fact, most of the rules of writing with which you are familiar are likely to hurt rather than help you. Many people start out with “Background” like we were all taught in writing research papers; however, background does not get you more than a couple of points for “historic context” so you shouldn’t force a judge to wade through, for example, five pages on the poetry of Renaissance Italy before you get down to detailing what makes a period sonnet and how your piece perfectly duplicates those factors.
I like to document under headers corresponding to the judge’s form. If I’m lucky enough to have detailed instruction on the form, I’m going to use as many of the EXACT words as possible from the form. If the judge is familiar with the category, they will recognize the truth of what you say; if not, they will be hunting madly for key words. Make sure they can find them easily.
I’ll follow with some general headers that seem to be fairly consistent from kingdom to kingdom and address specific ideas under each.
When you think about it, every point you get except those for execution/performance (and some of those do, too) really comes from documentation. Sure, Authenticity is a big chunk, but how do you get your points for being authentic if you don’t document your work as authentic? Likewise workmanship, technique, and creativity all have to be supported to get maximum points. So for this section we’ll talk about background information and types of sources, remembering that we’ll really be talking about Documentation straight through to the end.
In Ansteorra, the judging form punts immediately by saying, “How well does the documentation support the categories below?” To me, that says that anything written had better relate to authenticity, complexity, etc. as detailed in the other categories. I still see a lot of “background” in people’s documentation, and I have been told by more than one judge that they expect it. By contrast, Atlantia’s judging standard requires “historical context” in the Documentation section, so there I’d definitely plan to include background discussion. So assuming that you’re going to write background, what do you write? The Caidan A&S website offers this good advice:
Tell the judges what you are entering, i.e., “This is a Cavalier dress.” Tell them who might have used it (peasant, noble, merchant, etc.). Tell them when it would have been used, either an exact year based on your research, or a span of time. For example, “This is a Cavalier dress representative of middle class women’s dress of 1620-1625.”
Extrapolating this to bardic purposes, I’d say these are good starting points:
This is a song celebrating a victory in battle, similar in tone and structure to “The Agincourt Carol” written shortly after Henry V’s victory on October 25, 1415. The language and grammar, however, are more consistent with the 16th century as found in pieces like “Greensleeves,” published in 1580. This would have been a popular piece sung by everyone from the nobility to a common man in the street, accordingly, it has quite a simple tune…
This is a drinking song similar in tone, style and language to several published by Thomas Ravenscroft in _Pammelia_, 1609. Ravenscroft dedicated this work “to the well disposed to reade and to the merry disposed to sing,” so he obviously meant it for a wide audience…
This is a story of two lovers with supernatural elements, similar in style and content to the lais of Marie de France, written in the 12th century. The language is 16th century English, similar to Ralph Robinson’s 1551/1556 translation of Utopia by Sir Thomas More (published in Latin in 1515), though I have modernized spelling for clarity. Such a story would likely have been written by a well-educated upper- or upper-middle class person and read by people of the same class…
That’s it. Really. You’ll need to address the specifics of what you mean by “structure” and “tone” when you get into Authenticity/Workmanship/Technique discussion, so don’t get too heavy up front. But as you see, there are historical models for most types of pieces popular with SCA bards, so don’t just assume that what you’ve done is hopelessly modern. The more you learn about pre-1600 songs, stories and poetry, the more things will sound familiar.
If you’re not familiar with the idea of “primary” and “secondary” sources in documentation, it’s pretty simple. Basically, a primary source is a thing that existed in period, a secondary source is a painting, reproduction, transcription, or translation of something that existed in period, a tertiary source is a translation of a transcription, etc. There are primary sources available for documenting music; extant manuscripts like the Cantigas de Santa Maria and published works like Pammelia are available online. Heck, if you’re willing to wrap your brain around the challenge of a four-line staff and early neume notation, you can find 10th century tunes written down. Of course, if you don’t read music, you’re in trouble; a recording can’t be pinned down as to how many steps removed from the original it truly is (unless you compare it to a period transcription, and oh, that means you have to read music…), so it’s valueless as documentation.
If you’re writing music for the SCA and you don’t read music at all, get yourself a beginning book (“Beginning Theory” or “Teach Yourself Piano”, etc.) and start learning. In the meantime, make friends with someone who can read music and knows some theory and beg them to keep you out of melodic trouble until you can get up to speed. Or enter your songs as poetry.
Primary sources for poems and stories are easier to come by, but even then, you have to be careful. Just because it says it was written in 1515 doesn’t mean some well-meaning editor hasn’t “corrected” the spelling, and sometimes the word choice, grammar and punctuation. Before you use a written piece as a model, make sure it’s original. Here’s a blurb from Edmund Spenser’s Shepherd’s Calendar, published 1579:
A Shepeheards boye (no better doe him call)
when Winters wastful spight was almost spent,
All in a sunneshine day, as did befall,
Led forth his flock, that had been long ypent.
So faynt they woxe, and feeble in the folde,
That now vnnethes their feete could them vphold.
And this from a 1557 printing of Sir Thomas More’s history of Richard III (written in 1513):
Kyng Edwarde of that name the fowrth, after that hee hadde lyued fiftie and three yeares, seven monethes, and five dayes, and thereof reygned two and twentye yeres, one moneth, and eighte dayes, dyed at Westmynster the nynth daye of Aprill, the yere of oure redempcion, a thowsande foure houndred foure score and three, leavinge muche fayre yssue…
If you’re looking at a supposedly period piece and nothing looks misspelled to you, suspect an editor has been at work.
Be honest about your sources. The Fitzwilliam Virginal book is a wealth of period tunes, and it’s available widely, but in a modern copy. It’s got one song for which they reproduce the actual period page, so that’s primary, but the rest are rendered into modern musical notation (silly people, they assumed that’s what customers would want!), making them secondary. Likewise, if you’re working from a modern English translation of Marie de France, or a modern translation of Chaucer, fess up. Someone will call your bluff eventually, and your credibility will be shot.
Written research works are obviously well-removed from primary sources, but they are often excellent documentation. An author who can tell you that he has looked at 5000 pieces of 16th century music and found that 95% of them are purely modal has given you much better information than you can get from looking at three primary sources. General sources, like an encyclopedia, aren’t much good; there’s just too much higher-quality info out there to be had. Scholarly sources are sometimes hard to rate; I’ve seen an entrant come off looking foolish because they found an impressive-sounding but actually valueless book on which they based most of their documentation (the lesson—never base conclusions on one source!). Talk to someone else familiar with bardic sources; most of the good ones are widely known. When all else fails, check the publisher: if it was printed by Oxford University Press, Cambridge, Princeton, Berkeley, etc., it’s probably reliable scholarship, or at least it was when it was published. Some previously esteemed sources have fallen out of favor in the light of later research; again, talk to other people in your discipline.
And if you never did in school, learn to write a proper bibliography. It’s not hard. One other note about bibliographies in general: Some people try to look scholarly by padding out their bibliography with books they didn’t use. This can really come back to bite you. Wherever possible, use numbered references or footnotes to tie a statement directly to a cited work. It will impress a judge far more if you can say, “On page 59 the author notes that…,” rather than just listing the book in your bibliography.
At the conclusion of this article, I’ve listed a variety of sources. Some of these sources (among the websites particularly) aren’t necessarily a good idea for your finished bibliography, but they’ll give you an excellent starting point for research. They’ll also allow you to use the time-honored method for finding good sources: read other researchers’ bibliographies. After awhile, you’ll notice the works that turn up repeatedly, and that will help you learn which works are widely respected in the field.
Drumroll, please. Okay, we know a piece you wrote last month isn’t authentic in the slightest, right? Hey, they don’t penalize a costumer who went to Fabric Barn and bought wool off the bolt just because she didn’t card and weave it herself. If your materials, so to speak, are authentic, then it doesn’t matter where you got them. Consider your efforts to learn about pre-1600 style and look for it in your work to be analogous to a novice costumer who happily discovers that she accidentally picked an authentic fabric for her first gown. Yes, you will have unsalvageable pieces that have the bardic equivalent of polyester or a zipper, but you’ll be surprised how many times you can say, “I had it perfect except for one little thing…”
Think about the elements of your work that you can argue are authentic:
|Story line/Subject matter||X||X|
If you can’t come up with three pages of documentation by addressing every one of these points, you’re just not trying. Let’s look at each one, because they aren’t all obvious.
Story line/Subject matter
Is it about a pre-1600 event or person? Then say so. If not, is there an analog? The example I used above where I cited the Agincourt Carol works here: I wrote a song about how my kingdom rocked in the last war; lookie, they did that in medieval Europe, and here’s my example. Just because it’s about Calontir and not England doesn’t mean you can’t draw obvious parallels.
Many judging forms ask the judges to imagine the submitted work being included in a collection of pre-1600 works, and to determine whether the work would look out-of-place. It’s your job to prove to them that your work is typical (preferably without undermining yourself later in the Creativity or Complexity category where you have to prove your work is special!). Unless you’re telling a story about 100 uses for duct tape, I’ll bet you there’s a pre-1600 model, and you need to point that out to the judges. If you wrote about how loud your Baron farts, you cite The Summoner’s Tale from Chaucer and throw in “Sumer is Icumen In” (wherein the goats are farting) for good measure. I’m telling you, NEVER bet that you can’t find a medieval example of a story element. The Canterbury Tales alone cover sex, revenge, love triangles, the battle of the sexes, magic, bodily functions, and talking animals. (And if a judge tells you to kiss their a@@, you say, “You know, that’s an element from the Miller’s Tale.” Really.)
There are a variety of pre-1600 sources for stories about King Arthur, Robin Hood, Hercules, and many other guys (and a few girls) we’re still making movies about today. If you’ve written a work about an archetypal hero from a bygone era, you are more likely than not to find a model work. Heroes didn’t just fall out of fashion for 1000 years to be magically revived by Steven Spielberg. If you think it’s a ripping yarn, your medieval forebears probably thought so, too.
Popular topics offer another piece of evidence you can exploit: theft is period. Sorry, respectful study and reinterpretation is period, that’s what I meant to say. Chaucer wrote about Hercules in The Monk’s Tale, which he got almost entirely from Boccaccio’s work, “De Casibus Virorum Illustrium.” (“Examples of Illustrious Men”) Boccaccio got it from reading Ovid. Admitting to stealing an idea from Shakespeare is not only NOT a negative thing, it establishes your place in the eternal chain of retelling the great stories, because Shakespeare (and Marlowe and Chaucer and Boccaccio and…) rarely had a truly original idea himself.
If all else fails, surely you can reduce your piece to broad themes. Is it about love? Gosh, they never wrote about that in period… Tragic flaws? Cautionary themes like “Pride goeth before the fall?” Common as mud in period. Again, unless you wrote a sonnet about rutabagas, you can almost certainly correlate it to period works. If you have no idea what people wrote about in period, I highly recommend hitting your favorite University bookstore and looking for the Cliffs Notes and Spark Notes racks (or just hit their web sites). Pick up as many as you can that are based on classical or medieval works; I recommend The Canterbury Tales, The Bible (yes, the Bible—great stories known to virtually every person living in Europe during the medieval period), The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Iliad, Beowulf, Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Divine Comedy. Wikipedia has a nice summary of the Decameron. Obviously, if in reviewing the Cliffs Notes for Beowulf you decide there’s something you need to cite in your documentation, I’d pick up the real thing; Cliffs Notes are great, but they don’t look good in your bibliography.
And while you’re learning what they wrote about, learn what they DIDN’T write about. Documenting a sonnet about love or death is fine unless the reality is that the sonnet is titled “To My Vampire Lover” or “You Dwell in Summerland” or the like. I can document a lover come back from the dead, even a living lover voluntarily dying for a kiss from a revenant (walking dead) lover, but happy to see a vampire? No can do. I can document folk practices left over from pagan days, but someone openly espousing religious views contrary to the state religion? Again, no can do. While you’re looking for things you can point to with pride as period, be on the lookout for things the judges can point to and giggle.
Poets (and lyricists) have both the best and the worst of reverse-engineer documentation. Textbooks abound detailing pre-1600 poetic forms, and a huge amount of info is available on the web. The downside is, because structure is so basic to a poem, you’ll have a lot of bardic zippers. If you wrote a piece without consideration of meter and form, you’re unlikely to have a product that you can do much with. On the other hand, your thoughts are already organized; you might find turning your structureless poem into an ottava rima isn’t as hard as you thought.
If you feel like working within the structure of a sonnet or a sestina is just too tough, remember that not all poetic forms are very strict. Plenty of medieval works were written in simple rhyming couplets, and many others were written in rhythmic, though unrhymed, lines. If you are literate, there’s absolutely no reason you can’t write “period poetry.” Pick up a poetry TEXTBOOK at your favorite used book store and start familiarizing yourself with all the stuff you slept through in High School (sorry now, aren’t you?).
Okay, really, you can’t count syllables, and you don’t know what a stress is? Check out this excerpt from the Anglo-Saxon classic “The Seafarer” (from the Exeter Book, 10th c.):
|Mæg ic be me sylfum soðgied wrecan,||May I for my own self song’s truth reckon,|
|siþas secgan, hu ic geswincdagum||Journey’s jargon, how I in harsh days|
|earfoðhwile oft þrowade,||Hardship endured oft.|
|bitre breostceare gebiden hæbbe,||Bitter breast-cares have I abided,|
|gecunnad in ceole cearselda fela,||Known on my keel many a care’s hold,|
|atol yþa gewealc, þær mec oft bigeat||And dire sea-surge, and there I oft spent|
|nearo nihtwaco æt nacan stefnan,||Narrow nightwatch nigh the ship’s head|
|þonne he be clifum cnossað…||While she tossed close to cliffs…|
No rhyme, varying line length, varying number of stressed syllables. But is it totally without structure? Of course not. It’s written in short phrases, almost free of articles (except the ones the translator, Ezra Pound, couldn’t stop himself from inserting). The lines are broken in two by a gap called a caesura (from the Latin for ‘cut’). It also makes heavy use of alliteration and kennings (see poetic devices for further discussion). These features are typical of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Not all cultures are as regimented in their poetic rules, so citing a specific period model rather than a form (e.g., sonnet, sestina) is just as useful and often allows you greater freedom.
When looking at structure, it’s not even always important to know what it means. What can you observe about this short poem from 9th century Ireland even if you don’t read Old Irish?
benar i n-aidchi gaíthe:
ba ferr lim dul ina dáil
indás i n-dáil mná baíthe.
Four lines, with odd-numbers of syllables, in this case 3, 7, 7, 7 (you may have to trust me here, but the three is pretty clear, right?). Lots of alliteration (note the many “b” and “d” words, and even the repetition of whole words) and an obvious (even if you can’t pronounce it) rhyme in lines 2 and 4. If you’re really good, you may notice that the first word (which is ‘bell’, the main idea of the poem) is deliberately not alliterated, i.e., no other words in the poem begin with “c.”
I have not personally seen a pre-1600 poem that looked like modern stream-of-consciousness free verse poetry, or as I like to call it, PTF (prose typed funny). You know, stuff like:
Is just a bowl of cherries,
And the pits
Are in need
In your heart of hearts, you know this isn’t poetry; it’s just pretentious prose, and not even very good prose. Now, I would not bet money that if I looked hard enough, I couldn’t find an Old Irish poem of five lines with a 1, 7, 3, 3, 5 syllable count (the Irish loooove odd numbers of syllables in their poetic lines), but it would probably have alliteration, interesting imagery, and some kind of rhyme scheme. The idea of studying period poetry is to learn what is typical of the particular style and to incorporate that into your own work. It’s possible to spend 100 hours researching obscure pieces until you find the oddball piece of doggerel that supports a piece you dashed off in five minutes, but in less than half that time, you could learn about a period style and adapt your piece to fit it, and you’ll have both time and artistic satisfaction as a reward.
If your work is dedicated to someone in particular, you might be able to claim an additional feature of period verse. A dedication, often known as the envoi, appears before many longer verse works; in the later Middle Ages, several fixed poetry forms developed which include the envoi as an integral part of the work. The envoi is a poetic piece of sucking-up that the author has done to honor their patron, monarch, or the embodiment of their inspiration. The envoi sometimes also included an introduction to the story to tempt the reader or listener further. Chrétien de Troyes wrote lengthy envois, and he was famous for describing in the third person the sort of story that Chrétien was about to tell.
Songs may or may not have a structure indistinguishable from poetry. A ballad-style narrative that moves from verse to verse looks just like a poem; in fact, most poetry texts will include some traditional ballads, written of course by the prolific “Anonymous.” If your song was based on the work of U2 and has verses, a chorus, a bridge, and an instrumental interlude, you’ll have a tough time finding a period model. Verses and a chorus, no problem. The church has been singing psalms and antiphons for 1000 years, so it’s a form any medieval person would be familiar with. The Agincourt Carol (as well as many period carols for Christmas and other holy days) features verses and a repeated chorus. Choruses, like antiphons, are typically shorter than the verses.
Another popular period song layout is the rhyming couplet with burden/refrain. The very oldest ballads were rhyming couplets:
What is sharper than is the thorn?
What is louder than is the horn?
–“Riddles Wisely Expounded” (Child #1)
from Rawlinson MS D.328, Bodleian Library, Oxford (dated to 15th c., spelling modernized for clarity)
When the popular verse length for ballads changed to four lines, burdens were added to existing couplets to turn them into four-line verses. These burden lines typically have nothing to do with the actual ballad, and indeed are used interchangeably between different ballads:
Or what is louder than a horn?
Lay the bent to the bonny broom
Or what is sharper than a thorn?
–“Riddles Wisely Expounded” (Child #1) from a 17th c. broadside sheet
Note the burden lines were of varying lengths according to the needs of the melody; they can be longer, shorter, or the same length as the substantive line.
Storytellers have some unique problems. First and foremost, many medieval “storytellers” on whom you might base your work were really poets. Before you use any “story” or play that has been translated, including pieces from older forms of English, as a model, check a piece of original text. Translators usually choose to come as close as they can to the original words without respect to the rhythm or rhyme of the original, so translations of pieces which were originally verse often end up as prose. Beowulf, Gawain and the Green Knight, and the Norse Elder Eddas, as well as the works of Marie de France, Chrétien de Troyes and Chaucer were all written in verse. The good news is that at least there’s evidence that many were intended to be performed, i.e. read aloud. People like Malory who undeniably wrote prose, sadly did not apparently ever intend such work to be performed live.
Remember two things about “story verse”: first, much of it doesn’t rhyme. Beowulf gets its rhythm from a pattern of stressed syllables, and it may not be hard to tweak your story into similar shape. Second, it still has a layout. If your story is long enough to be divided into chapters, you can cite Beowulf, Malory, and anything else you’ve seen divided into chapters.
Folk tales in English are in the same boat with traditional ballads; by the time people decided they were worth preserving, much of the earliest material on them was long gone, if it ever existed. Fortunately, there’s that old standby the Bible, offering prose stories that were told aloud from the pulpit every Sunday. Æsop’s Fables were also translated into English prose in period, and it’s a good bet they were recited and retold. Neither of these, though, are very good models for original work; you might slip in a “forgotten” fable unnoticed, but authoring “the untold parables of Christ” might get you into a lot of trouble!
Many non-English cultures had much higher regard for their folk stories. In Norse, there are prose eddas, and the sagas are frequently prose bodies with verse making regular guest appearances (people in sagas frequently break into verse the way people in musicals spontaneously break into song). There are plenty of period Chinese stories, though since I don’t read Chinese, I can’t tell you what the originals look like. Ditto with Arabic and the wealth of material that is One Thousand Nights and a Night (The Arabian Nights). If as a Western European, you had the education to be exposed to stories from other cultures, you’d probably be among the verse-writing highborn likes of Marie and Chrétien, but if your persona happens to be from one of these storytelling-friendly cultures, congratulations!
Be sure that you read enough of the original stories from your culture to understand the formulaic bits; just as we have “Once upon a time” and “They lived happily ever after” in Western stories, most cultures have their own expected salutations and conclusions, and often archetypal characters that keep turning up in various stories. You may not be able to give the true flavor of the original language in English (and I presume that’s the language you’ll be performing in), but you may be able to pick up other features. If you’re telling me a Norse-themed story, and something sad happens to the main character, and you say “Bjorn sang a stave” and then you launch into a few lines of verse, you’ll have me completely.
Try also to get a sense of how fixed the language is. Are there many extant copies? Does the wording vary between copies? I have seen Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), the Irish epic, which like the sagas has both prose and verse portions, used to document original stories. “Cooley” was certainly often performed aloud, at least in part. But bards in Ireland were schooled for years and expected to memorize huge amounts of material, including myths, lives of saints, royal genealogies, etc. If “Cooley” is your model, I expect you to do your story in well-flowing lines and do it the same way every time from memory. It’s unsuitable for supporting a “no sh*t, there we were” tale told on the fly.
I’ll fess up right here that I haven’t done a lot of looking to document prose stories because I don’t write them. But I’ve also not seen someone adequately document an orally-delivered prose story (in English) as many SCA bards perform them, that is, unstructured to the point where you could be talking about how your day went. If you can, I’m happy to be wrong, but I’m inclined to believe that any tale worth telling is worth telling well, as though you thought about it and practiced it before presenting it to an audience.
If you’ve at least got a consistent meter in your verse, you should be able to find a period model. “Ballad meter,” more properly called “alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter” by poetry geeks, is easy to document to period:
|Wherfore schote, archers, for my sake,||Wherefore, shoot, archers, for my sake|
|And let scharpe arowes flee;||And let sharp arrows flee|
|Mynstrells, playe vp for your waryson,||Minstrels, play up your warison|
|And well quyt it schall bee.||And well quit it shall be|
–“The Battle of Otterburn” (Child #161)
from Cotton MS Cleopatra C.iv, British Library (ca. 1550), modern spelling alongside
Plain old iambic tetrameter is even better, as the Agincourt Carol (ca. 1415) or the lais of Marie de France (ca.1170):
|Owre kynge went forth to Normandy,||Ki Deus ad doné escïence|
|With grace and myyt of chivalry;||E de parler bon’ eloquence|
|The God for hym wrouyt marvelously,||Ne s’en deit taisir ne celer,|
|Wherefore Englonde may calle, and cry||Ainz se deit volunters mustrer.|
Chaucer wrote much of the Canterbury Tales (ca. 1400) in rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter:
Whilom, as olde stories tellen us,
Ther was a duc that highte Theseus
Of Atthenes he was lord and governour
And in his tyme swich a conquerour
Shakespeare of course wrote most of his plays in “blank verse” or iambic pentameter, unrhymed. If you don’t understand what I mean by iambic, or pentameter, get a poetry text and learn. You can survive without musical knowledge and without rhyme, but without rhythm, you are sunk if you want to write poetry in a style appropriate for most medieval cultures (and quite a few of the ancient ones— we owe most of our concepts and vocabulary of fixed meter to the Greeks).
[Short course: an iamb is a two-beat poetic foot composed of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, as in the words today, before, below, and above. Trimeter is a line of three poetic feet; iambic trimeter: That saved a wretch like me. Tetrameter is a line of four feet; iambic tetrameter: Amazing grace how sweet the sound. Pentameter is a line of five feet; iambic pentameter: I think he went to Wal-Mart when he left. Iambic is the natural rhythm of English (and French, as it happens). Know it, love it, stick to it, at least until you know enough that you don’t need to reverse engineer your documentation anymore.]
Some early poetry, including Norse and Anglo-Saxon, didn’t follow a regular meter, but rather measured a line length by the number of stressed syllables, so if a regular meter feels too restrictive to you, your best model may be in a non-English speaking culture. If you truly have no sense of rhythm and cannot tell a stressed syllable from an unstressed syllable, you may need to look for models to cultures where the total syllable count is more important, like Irish.
Rhyme is a relatively late innovation in English poetry. Rhymed poetry seems to have come into fashion in English around the late 14th century. William Langland’s Piers Plowman published ca. 1360 isn’t rhymed, but Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales published about 20 years later, is. (Poetry geek alert: Interestingly, the fashion of rhyming poetry seems to have gone hand-in-hand with a shift in preference for iambic over trochaic meter. This makes a good deal of sense, since trochaic feet leave an unstressed syllable at the end of the line, and a rhyme of an unstressed syllable makes far less impact on the ear than a rhyme of a stressed syllable. Earlier poetry, though it was irregular in its number and placement of unstressed syllables, frequently started a line with a stress.)
If you’re modeling a piece from a culture that didn’t rhyme its poetry, there’s probably another element of style common to the culture, like measured stresses and alliteration. Anglo-Saxon and Norse poetry didn’t end rhyme, but it was extremely common to create a type of rhyme by repeating the first sounds of stressed syllables. From Piers Plowman:
In a somer seson, whan softe was the sonne,
I shoop me into shroudes as I a sheep were,
In habite as an heremite unholy of werkes,
Wente wide in this world wondres to here.
The stressed syllables also show alliteration, i.e., they begin with the same sound. Rather than rhyming the end of his lines, Langland “rhymed” the initial sounds of his stressed syllables; in this quatrain (four lines of poetry), he used only “s”, “sh”, “h”, and “w” for 16 stresses. The rhythm here is created by a regular pattern of stressed syllables.
Looking at the earlier example of “The Seafarer” you can see how many words begin with the same sound, but you have to look even deeper. Norse is full of compound words, namely, two recognizable words squished together to make one, like “weekend” and “football” (some of these compounds are a special type called a “kenning”—more in a moment on that). When you see a compound word, it’s as likely that the second half is also meant to alliterate, so a line like “Fred failed badly at football” would show double alliteration to a Norse poet, both in the use of “f” in Fred, failed, and foot, but also in the use of “b” in badly and ball.
Likewise, all the words you see starting with “ge-” do so for reasons of grammar, so while the Norse poet is happy they alliterate, he’s also looking to alliterate the underlying root, so “gebiden” ‘I bided’ alliterates with “gecunnad” ‘I knew’, but also with “bitre” ‘bitter’ and “breost” ‘breast’, and “gecunnad” alliterates with “ceole” ‘keel’ and “ceare” ‘care’. Fun, huh?
Kennings are special compound words used as poetic substitutions, usually for the effect on either imagery or alliteration. Here, the poet uses “breastcare” where he means sorrow. Why? He’s got and “bide” in the same line, so he wants something that means sorrow, but starts with “b”, so he makes it up or uses a familiar kenning. Kennings that turn up frequently include “swanroad” for ocean or “corpsebeer” for blood (plus you’ve got to admit, “corpsebeer” is pretty cool!). If you can’t find the right word, make one up!
You probably did a little bit of alliterating without being conscious of it (we grew up with “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,” we can’t help ourselves), so pointing out that it’s a period thing to do is better than NOT pointing it out. There are many poetic devices that turn up in period works besides alliteration, including allusion, personification, and internal rhyme. No, I’m not going to explain them all. What would become of man’s search for knowledge? Go back and make friends with that poetry text!
Most of us write in modern English. We (should) know this isn’t period, but as we’re writing for an audience composed almost entirely of modern English speakers, we figure it’s a good idea. If you do nothing more than point out this obvious fact, you will be scored higher than another entrant who didn’t. Some people just don’t think about it, and some people have worked with so many normalized versions of late-period documents that they may actually not realize that there’s a difference between Tudor English and Elizabethan English, let alone between Elizabethan English and modern English.
If you want to really spice things up, though, converting your pieces to Elizabethan English is often as easy as changing the spelling and excising the out-of-period words. Check the list of web sources at the end for a few non-edited pieces of 16th century writing, and make yourself a “dictionary” of odd spellings and words that sound unusual to you. Do NOT use an odd word if you aren’t sure you know what it means; most unabridged dictionaries list archaic word forms, so you should be able to find it if you look hard enough.
When you are starting out, try to get a more experienced bard to glance over your work and look for post-1600 words. If you are unsure of a word, you can check your library for the Oxford English Dictionary (or find a friend who has access to the online version). The OED cites the earliest known usage of a word in English, and if that turns out to be 1754, pick another word. You might be surprised. “Housewife” is a pre-1600 word, but “banister” (the rail around the stairs) is not.
If you have already written the piece and want to check whether a word is plausibly Elizabethan, there’s a great online resource at Rhyme Zone (www.rhymezone.com). Enter the word (in the search block marked “word”). The next block is a drop-down menu; the next-to-last choice is “Search in Shakespeare.” Click the “Go get it!” button and it will bring up every use of that word in the Complete Works, cited by sonnet number, or play title, act number, and scene number. Beware: note HOW the word is used; read the whole line. “Moonshine” is only Elizabethan when you’re talking about moonlight, not booze. Likewise Shakespeare uses “spray” to mean “sprout” or “sprig” and refers to new growth on a plant, or, metaphorically, to children or offspring; nothing to do with water, and not used as a verb.
If you return no examples, then Shakespeare didn’t use the word, at least not in that spelling. If you believe in your word, try other forms and spellings. I was surprised not to find “angrily” so I put in “anger” and the spelling “angerly” popped up, which turns out to be the spelling Shakespeare preferred. (Most of the spellings at rhymezone are normalized, but they don’t change a spelling if it seems to affect the sound of the word, since sound is what they are all about.) If you still get no hits, then likely Shakespeare didn’t use the word. This doesn’t mean absolutely that the word isn’t period, but it definitely narrows your chances, considering how many words Shakespeare did use. Sadly, the database of Shakespeare from which Rhyme Zone draws is normalized for spelling, so you’ll have to look elsewhere to verify period spellings. But hey, unlike the online OED, Rhyme Zone is free!
If you know the piece you’re doing should be in another language, don’t be afraid to talk about it. For example, the poetic form of the villanelle, still very popular today, wasn’t used in English until the 1800s, but the defining example (“J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle” ‘I have lost my turtledove’ by Jean Passerat) is period. Of course, it’s written in late-period French, but the judges aren’t necessarily going to expect you to write French. You might get extra points and be able to justify using the French example better by noting other similarities; English villanelles are typically written in iambic pentameter, but Passerat’s poem is in catalectic trochaic tetrameter (look it up!).
There are many language elements that you can still use even if you’re writing in modern English. Anglo-Saxon and Norse-style kennings are readily incorporated into a modern English piece. They’re completely comprehensible to your audience (watch the faces at the fire the first time you use “corpse-beer”!) and they lend an undeniably foreign “flavor” to your writing.
Tone is something people often forget about. If the piece you’re attempting to model is gloomy, but your version has a happy ending, that may or may not be an appropriate choice. Likewise something that was meant to inspire true horror in the pre-1600 model shouldn’t be turned into a gleefully gruesome piece without justification.
Consider “Three Ravens” (Child #26), published by Ravenscroft in Melismata in 1611. Three carrion birds complain that they can’t eat a dead knight because his hawk, his hounds, and his lady guard the body; the final stanza praises steadfast behavior. On the other hand, the 1803 Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border included a piece called “Twa Corbies”, which besides dropping one of the birds, also completely changes the ending, as the birds comment that the hawk, the hounds, and the lady have all abandoned the dead knight to pursue their own pleasures, “so we maun make our dinner sweet.” It’s possible that people living on the Scottish border in 1611 would have been as cynical as they evidently were in 1803, but it might also have been a more modern attitude. You can’t be sure without additional evidence.
Sometimes looking at analogs of the story in other countries gets you where you want to go. “Glasgerion” (Child #67) is a tragedy. Glasgerion is a famous harper, who sings so sweetly for a lady that she invites him up to her chamber later that night. Glasgerion goes to take a nap, instructing his page to wake him for his date. The page, of course, goes instead, so when Glasgerion turns up later the lady realizes she’s slept with a page and kills herself. Glasgerion goes home, kills the page, and then himself. (Chaucer, in “The House of Fame” ca. 1380 mentions “Glascurion” as a famous harper; this person has been identified as a 9th c. Welsh bard, recorded as “Y Bardd Glas Keraint” or “Geraint the Blue Bard”– “Blue bard” refers to the color of robes worn by chief bards.) Again, on that other hand, the same basic plot line turns up in Scandinavia, as well as in the Decameron (III, 2), as a farce where nobody dies and sometimes they have a good laugh. One man’s potential tragedy is another’s potential comedy.
Sex is a particularly complex idea when it comes to tone, as are other opportunities for sin like drinking and money; piety waxes and wanes throughout the medieval period, and it varies from country to country and class to class, so you can usually find contemporary models with very different tones reflecting their attitude to the subject. Heck, in works like Decameron and The Canterbury Tales, where there are many speakers, you’ll find them side-by-side in the same work. Just be familiar enough with the work you use as a model that you don’t cite a tragedy to document a comedy or a sermon to document a bacchanal.
This is tough to document, especially if you’re not recreating court music (for which there is a lot more information available). I heartily commend you to the research of Timothy J. McGee; if you’ve never heard of him, put him in the Amazon search window and drool over the results. Sadly, the limited audience for research into performance techniques for singing medieval music means that many of his best books are really expensive. It’s worth learning how to use ILL (inter-library loan) to get your hands on his books. (There is an article giving a “quick and dirty” list of period vocal techniques available online; see the appendix at the end and look for Constance Fairfax.)
If the nature of your piece is such that you can’t get much help from medieval singing treatises, look around for anything to say to the judges, even if you’re not doing it. Demonstrating a knowledge of what you should have as accompaniment (if any), what you’d be wearing, where you’d be performing, whether you’d be paid, etc. is far more important than having that accompaniment, or wearing that costume. Of course if you have it, great, but never let the lack of such accoutrements stop you from demonstrating to the judges that you know what they are.
We are monstrous short of period works by women. If Marie de France and Christine de Pisan didn’t write something you like as a model, your choices are limited (and Marie wrote under a pseudonym; we don’t really know who she was). As I remarked about modern English, just pointing out that there’s a problem, especially one you can’t change, will get you scored ahead of the person who doesn’t. Better, you can simply discuss the likely author of the piece as though it isn’t you: “This piece would likely have been written by a young man in service at court. He would have been well-educated in French and Latin, and would have read the works of…” You need not write your documentation with respect to either the real you or your persona as author.
So, if you’re modeling a Shakespeare piece, talk about Shakespeare’s education and background in the theater. A story from the Decameron? Talk about Boccaccio’s love of the classics and his desire to impress his noble patrons.
In some cases, we don’t have a clue who wrote a piece. Richard Jones received a license to print “Greensleeves” in 1580, but he was a member of the Stationer’s Company, the only people who COULD receive a license to print. We don’t know if he wrote it, or if he bought it off some guy whose name is lost to history. Heck, scholars are still arguing that nobody with Shakespeare’s background could have written Shakespeare’s works. But we can usually make a pretty good guess at whether they had much education and the sorts of things they liked to read.
Voice is something that a lot of accomplished writers forget about completely, or choose to ignore. Once you have established who you think your author was, or who your main character is, you then need to imagine your words coming from his or her mouth. Read some of the sections of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and look at the drastic change in language between the classes of characters. There is a distinctly different level of erudition in language when Theseus speaks; Lysander’s lines are still educated but less lofty, and Bottom’s are downright common. You can mix up the scripts and still tell which you have, just by the quality of the language.
Sadly, preserving voice is sometimes at odds with other goals. You might have come up with a terrific allusion or elegant turn of phrase, but if the piece you’re writing is meant to be sung by a cottage woman waulking wool, would she know that word or understand that reference? If you want to employ educated language, be sure it’s plausible for the type of piece and the authorship you imagine. If there are several characters, you can cite Shakespeare as a model and put your best lines in the mouths of the educated characters and leave the common men to speak as they may. Remember when you’re describing your author that it’s easier for an educated man to write dialog for a simple man than vice versa.
If you know nothing about period music, you don’t listen to anything but Pop, and you can’t read music, your tunes may not help you in the authenticity department. It’s not a sure thing, though, and you might want to run your tunes by someone who has some music theory and get their opinion. There are a few things you can check out yourself (if any of this makes your eyes glaze over, just skip it and either take a theory class, make friends with a music student, or reconsider that document-your-songs-as-poetry option):
Most period melodies are pure to their mode. Modes terrify a lot of people, but they’re not that difficult. For someone with no music theory, the easiest modes to stick to are the two closest to modern major and minor scales: Ionian and Aeolian. Ionian is simply Do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do, or the white keys on a piano starting at C. You can go beyond the octave, that is, sing mi above ti and do, but you can’t go between, that is, sing “mi sharp” or “mi flat”. “Sumer is Icumen In” , the 13th c, popular hit, is written in Ionian mode with an 11-note range. (If your song is minor in tone, try Aeolian, which is La-ti-do-re-mi-fa-sol-la, or the white keys on a piano starting at A.) If you play your song in C and you need to hit F#, you’ve used an “accidental” or a note that doesn’t appear in the pure mode. (Shame on you.) Not that accidentals didn’t exist in period, but they were rare and occurred at only a few places in the octave. (There’s one in “Greensleeves”.)
Most period melodies don’t have a huge range. If you have a natural three-octave range, congratulations. It’s understandable to want to show that off, but period melodies didn’t cover that much ground. As I said above, “Sumer” has an 11-note range, not much over an octave. “Greensleeves” has a 10-note range, as does the popular Elizabethan bawdy song “Watkin’s Ale”. “Qui Creavit Coelum” (The Hymn of the Nuns of Chester, ca. 1425) has a 9-note range. And nuns sang all day! Early Gregorian chant, including “Ut queant laxis” (The St. John Hymn, ca. 800 A.D.) often didn’t go beyond a six-note range. Certainly, you will see court pieces designed to highlight virtuosity, and multi-part arrangements that make use of several different ranges to hit a wide span of notes, but it’s a very safe bet that any song meant for many people to sing together, or any song meant as popular entertainment, would have had a limited range.
What if you, er, didn’t write your melody? Fear not: several types of what we call “filk” are actually pre-1600 practices. The purest and most easily documented is sometimes called contrafacta (or contrefait in French—yes, this is the root of the word “counterfeit”). A contrafactum was originally a piece borrowed from one sphere into another (usually sacred to secular or vice versa) via the complete substitution of the lyric. The medieval hit “Sumer is Icumen In” was a contrafactum. The manuscript that provides our earliest copy of the song (Harley MS 978, British Library, ca. 1240) bears the melodic score along with two complete sets of lyrics, the secular song in black ink and a religious piece in Latin on the Passion of Christ below it in red ink. The secular lyric is clearly the original, at least for this manuscript, since the illuminated initial is “S”. The two sets of lyrics are totally unrelated:
|Sumer is icumen in
Lhude sing, cuccu
And bloweth med
And springth the wde nu
Pro vitis vicio
For the vine’s sake)
The practice was carried out for secular-to-secular conversion as well. Evidently, hawkers of 16th century broadside sheets found it easier to sell “songs” to people (who presumably didn’t read music) if they could be sung to existing and well-known tunes. Consider an example from the collection A Handefull of Pleasant Delites printed in 1584, “A Sonet of two faithfull Louers, exhorting one another to be constant. To the tune of Kypascie.” This was a dance tune, actually, “Qui passa” or “Chi passa”, which may or may not have had words, especially in English (the full title is usually given as Chi passa per questa strada, so presumably if it had words, they were in Italian).
Another example from the same collection is given as, “An excellent Song of an outcast Louer. To, All in a Garden green.” “All in a Garden Green” definitely did have words, but there are no obvious similarities between the original and the filk:
|All in a garden green,
Two lovers sat at ease:
Withdrawn where they could scarce be seen,
Among the leafy trees.
|My fancie did I fixe,
In faithful forme and frame:
In hope ther shuld no blustring blast
Haue poer to moue the same.
You can readily see that they would fit the same tune, but you wouldn’t necessarily see the second version and identify it with the first unless directed to do so. Some formats (like the eight-syllable-lined quatrains of a piece like “Greensleeves”) were incredibly common, and authors didn’t even feel the need to pick out a tune for the consumer to sing to. Several songs in “Delites” have completely open direction, such as, “A proper sonet, Intituled: I smile to see how you deuise. To anie pleasant tune.” I’ve never known anyone in the SCA to write a filk and sing it to several different tunes, but it’s both possible and terribly period. As is often noted, you can sing “Amazing Grace” to the tune from “Gilligan’s Island” and vice versa; as long as your structure is the same, the tune will fit naturally. Try singing “Greensleeves” to “Yankee Doodle” and vice versa. I know, it makes your head hurt, but it can be done.
If your filk writing is the common SCA practice of using not only the melody, but concepts and portions of lyric from the original, this too, incredibly, is a period practice, but not only are the “rules” for the practice complex, but of course our medieval forebears didn’t have the copyright problems we have (not that they didn’t have any at all, because they did). If this is how you write, I recommend taking my class in “Period Filk” or contacting me for the notes.
As a matter of practice, I discuss workmanship concurrently with authenticity because otherwise I have to repeat myself too much (and a bored judge is an unhappy judge!), but if it works better for you to break it out, go for it.
So you’ve just finished telling the judge what constitutes a perfect sonnet. The workmanship section is where you get to (or have to) explain why yours isn’t perfect assuming it isn’t. This is a good place to talk in detail about what you did to make sure your piece met the measure of authenticity you just got through discussing, e.g., “I verified that every word was used in a work by Shakespeare” (you needn’t tell how you did it, though most judges know about rhymezone by now, so they won’t really think you spent days poring over the Complete Works in print). You might also include here why you personally chose this particular topic or form, and anything new you learned in the creative process. Remind the judge that this is your beloved puppy he holds in his hands; he might be less inclined to kick it! Emphasize anything you did that was more difficult than a basic piece would require.
This is also a good place to explain things you know about but didn’t use, i.e., “My model for structure had a lot of classical allusion (references to historical or legendary people and places) but I didn’t feel that my subject matter leant itself to the use of allusion.” Take every opportunity to tell the judges about the work you put in; that absolutely includes study, even if the result of that study isn’t visible in the finished piece.
While we’re thinking about technique, I’d like to remind you that all the documentation in the world will not save you if you suck. Practice, practice, practice. Unless you’re recreating that working song a bunch of women would sing while waulking wool, you’re probably thinking that your song, story, or poem would be performed by a performer. If you stumble over the words (especially embarrassing if you wrote them!) the judges will nail you. If you are a singer and you hit clunker after clunker, they might throw you a bone if the piece is very complex, but you can expect to take a big hit in the points. Actors who forgot their lines didn’t keep their jobs. No one wants to hear a story punctuated by “Um” or, “Where was I?” PRACTICE.
We covered technique a bit earlier in reference to court pieces, but if you know the extant treatises don’t apply to your performance, tell the judges about them anyway, and why you don’t think they apply to you (some of them actually might). Never waste a chance to show off your research. You can mention obvious technique elements that would have been so basic they’d never turn up in a treatise, i.e. “A singer was expected to follow the melody to the best of their ability” or “A singer would have to be loud enough for their audience to hear them.” Even someone who never went near court went to church regularly, and they probably heard trained voices even if they couldn’t emulate them.
If you can’t think of anything about your presentation to talk about, start thinking about WHO would be giving this performance in period. If you’re a German minnesinger, an Occitan troubadour or a Saxon gleoman, the expectations of your performance are wildly different. There are many more sources for research on period performers than on period performance techniques. That’s where you’ll find out all the stuff on what you’d be wearing, how you might be accompanying yourself, for whom you would be performing, and whether (and how much) you’d be paid. Again, even if you’re not playing the harp, knowing you should be is worth more than not knowing it. And you can build it into your shtick; when you introduce your performance, tell the judges that you typically accompany yourself on the harp but that you injured your hand and you hope your voice will suffice.
And if you can’t come up with good documentation, at least try to come up with a good story. If you’re singing a drinking song, here is your opportunity to say, “It’s a drinking song. If my pitch is a bit wobbly, it’s probably because I’ve had a pint too many, but since my audience is probably drunk too, I doubt they’ll care.” Seriously. If you know your pitch is less than stellar, but you are still determined to sing, find material that not only gives you a plausible excuse for being slightly off pitch, but that is actually unlikely to have been sung by anyone WITH technique. The judges will get a laugh and they might just give you points for sheer cheek; they might also remember it when they get to handing out the points for creativity.
Complexity is pretty easy to understand. Middle French will score higher than modern English. A sonnet or a rime royal will outscore rhymed couplets. A melody line with wide intervals and time changes will score better than something that sounds like a melodic variant of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” provided those intervals or changes are appropriate to the piece (the “Star Search swoop” as a vocal technique will probably not help you).
Your piece may be intentionally simple (as we’ve discussed, there are many areas where period equals simple), so find a way to tell the judges how much work you did to satisfy yourself that simple was the best match to your model. A little quatrain (four-line piece—remember “Clocán binn”?) doesn’t look very complex until you tell the judges your model is 9th century Irish and you had to hit two University libraries and teach yourself basic Old Irish in order to translate it and model it appropriately.
If you modeled a Gregorian chant melody (or any other pre-14th century melody), have someone help you convert it to neume notation on a four-line staff for presentation to the judges. Be sure to include a modern transcription, just as you should include a modern English translation if you are working in another language. Judges hate to get handed something they can’t read (often they’re worried you’re testing them and really handing over “Mandy” or “The Bitch is Back”, because it’s been done). Help them see your piece as the work of a scholar.
Creativity is often the “fudge factor” on the judging form, points given at the judge’s discretion to make the one they want to win come out on top. In some kingdoms, this is called “Overall impression” and the forms actually cite “wow appeal” as a benchmark. My husband loves this section, because his work isn’t always very authentic, but he’s a fine performer and he can often knock the socks off the judges and leave them wanting more, so he scores big in this section.
Your kingdom’s form might direct the judges to give extra points for a perfect copy of a period piece (how, exactly, is that creative, Mistress Judge?), an unusual area of study, a cited source they’ve never seen before, and interesting presentation, etc. If you know this is true of any area of your work, even if you’ve already talked about it in terms of authenticity or presentation, say it again. Nevertheless, be aware that judges tend to give extra points to the piece they liked best. So, be as likeable as you can and realize that the points in this category are somewhat beyond your control. If there is an audience for your performance, audience reaction will have a major impact on the judge’s impression, so try to play to the crowd as much as you can within the limits of the piece.
When the Rules are Stupid
Most kingdoms have some stupid judging criteria. They can’t help it. It’s a weakness of using a system designed primarily to judge, say, a gown, to judge a song, poem, or story. For example, there’s a category for period materials, since a wool or silk gown has to earn more points than a rayon blend. How does this apply to a poem? It doesn’t, but there it is on the judging form. Some kingdoms direct that words are your material, and we’ve already discussed ways to document your words as period; other kingdoms allocate those points to presentation of written material, i.e., you’ll get 0 points for printing your poem off your computer and 5 points if you or a friend hand-letters your poem on a piece of vellum. It has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of your piece, but it may be as much as 10% of your score, so suck it up and remember that all the entrants in your category are in the same boat. In this case, the rule may be dumb, but at least it’s fair.
What if it’s not fair? Hmmm. There are many philosophies of judging, and the judging forms for your kingdom may have been written by someone whose philosophy was different from yours. Personally, I have a problem with awarding points for any practice that results in a piece LESS typical of the period being recreated. Many kingdoms’ forms award points for “complexity” and “originality” by directing judges to give additional points for “complex variations” or “unconventional topics” with no regard to whether said variations and topics are appropriate for the piece. I’m all for scoring a sonnet over an unstructured rhyme, but I am not going to give a sonnet about rutabagas more points than a sonnet about love, even though it’s an “unconventional” subject, because it’s not appropriate to the form. (Throw out every Shakespeare sonnet about love and/or death and see how many you have left!) No one in 1580 would have regarded a sonnet about rutabagas as anything but a joke, so why should I judge it any differently? But I digress. If you find something in the judging forms that you really object to, have a talk with your Kingdom Art & Sciences Minister. The judging forms might not have been reviewed in a while; it’s also possible no one really considered the consequences of certain criteria. If in the end you get nowhere, you may have to decide what’s more important to you, winning the contest or perfecting your art, and that should be a no-brainer.
I’ve written this article primarily from the standpoint of documenting a piece that already exists, though of course the idea is that documentation should precede, or at least accompany, the creation of the piece. In my experience that doesn’t happen as often as it should, but what does happen is this: every place where you wrote, “This is consistent with period style except for…,” is a lesson learned. On the next piece you write, if you go to do the same modern thing that little part of your brain will shout “Danger, Will Robinson!” and you won’t use that word, or that note, or whatever stopped the previous piece from being truly period in style. And the quality of your work will go up simply because you’ve taken the time to detail your previous mistakes.
When I whine about how little respect the bardic arts get in many places, I have to admit that there’s a ton of bad stuff out there. The thing that makes me sad is that there’s a ton of good stuff being done by people who won’t take the time to prove how good their stuff is. Judges are accustomed to bards being short on documentation; I have seen far too many judging sheets that said “I wrote it” as the sole documentation. It’s a crime that research papers score better in arts competitions than real artistic creations, but the people writing the papers have also in many cases written the rules. But we can beat them at their own rules, because we are artists. People want to hear us perform; few want to sit around and listen to someone read their research paper. Practitioners of the bardic arts are a rich part of life in these Current Middle Ages, and there’s no reason we can’t be accounted scholars as well.
Some Sources I Quote Often:
Boethius, De institutione musica, written ca. 500 A.D.
Bononcini, Giovanni Maria, Il Musico prattico, published 1673 in Bologna.
Bronson, Bertrand Harris. The Singing Tradition of Child’s Popular Ballads, paperback, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976. Traditional melodies to the Child Ballads.
Chappell, William, Old English Popular Music (a new edition, with a preface and notes and the earlier examples entirely revised by H. Ellis Wooldridge), New York, 1961 [originally published 1838]. Melodies and lyrics to early popular songs.
Child, Francis James, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 5 vols., NY: Cooper Square Publications, 1965 [originally published 1882-88]. A compulsive collector gathers up every scrap he can find on traditional songs from across Europe.
D’Arezzo, Guido, Micrologus, written ca. 1025-1028.
Dowland, John, Andreas Ornithoparcus his Micrologus, or introduction, containing the art of singing, published 1609, translation of the original published 1517.
Glareanus, Henricus Loritus, Dodekachordon, published 1547 in Basel.
Laws, G. Malcolm; Jr., Native American Balladry. A Descriptive Study and a Bibliographic Syllabus, Revised edition, Philadelphia, American Folklore Society, 1964, originally published in 1950. The American Child. Another compulsive collector gathers up every scrap he can find on traditional songs from the US and Canada.
Laws, G. Malcolm; Jr., American Balladry from British Broadsides A Guide for Students and Collectors of Traditional Song, Philadelphia, American Folklore Society, 1957. American versions of Child Ballads, plus a few that Child missed. If the song you’re doing is in English, and you can’t find it in Child or Laws, consider the possibility that it dates from the 20th century.
Leach, MacEdward. The Ballad Book, NY: A. S. Barnes, 1955. Condensed Child with some later additional scholarship.
Percy, Thomas. Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, 3 vols. (paperback), NY: Dover, 1966 [originally published 1886].
Rollins, Hyder, ed., A Handful of Pleasant Delights (1584) by Clement Robinson and Divers Others, Dover, 1965. A reprint, the original was published in 1924.
Southworth, John, The English Medieval Minstrel, Boydell Press, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1989.
Websites You Should Know About:
Outlaws and Highwaymen. The author of a book by the same name has a great deal of her research material here, including original (un-spell-corrected!) text from the 1556 English translation of Thomas More’s Utopia. Also, not surprisingly, you’ll find good info for documenting outlaws and highwaymen, a favorite topic for SCA bards.
Sacred Texts Online. Okay, I know they have stuff on UFOs. But they also have good webbed translations (and a few originals, like Beowulf) of Arthurian, Celtic, and Norse works as well as studies thereon. Tiptoe through the trash and look for the treasure.
Rhyme Zone. An online rhyming dictionary and thesaurus (any poet who says they don’t use a rhyming dictionary either lies or writes bad poetry). Best of all, there’s that search engine to the complete works of Shakespeare, allowing you to check for period word usage.
Constance Fairfax has an article on her personal website that includes a summation of period vocal technique advice pulled from some of Timothy McGee’s work:
Greg Lindahl has quite a few period pieces (and music) available online at his personal website. He also has some references like Cotgrave’s A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, published in London in 1611, which is a good resource for period spelling if Shakespearean sources fail you:
The University of Cork has a huge web-published collection of medieval Irish works in original and translation, which they call CELT: the Corpus of Electronic Texts. If you’re writing anything modeled on an Irish example, you have to know about this site:
The University of Michigan’s “Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse” features un-edited versions of Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, Piers Plowman, Chaucer, and other gems.
The University of Toronto has a number of useful things from its library webbed. Among other treasures is the original 1609 printing of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Once Rhyme Zone has given you the citation, you can find the period spelling here:
The University of Victoria also has Shakespeare online, along with interesting discussion about the concepts of drama, tragedy, and comedy in the medieval world. Go to “the Theater”.
John Wyclif’s Bible (ed. 1395) online. https://wesley.nnu.edu/biblical_studies/wycliffe/
If you’re braver even than “converting” your modern English to Shakespeare’s English will satisfy, here is a late Middle English bible for taking your spelling back another century or two. The biggest obstacle to using it as a spelling guide is that several characters do double duty:
D is used for “d”, but also for edh, properly “ð”, which indicates a voiced “th” sound. For example, “father” is often spelled “fadir”, though it would be pronounced normally and should be spelled “faðir”.
U is used for “u”, but also for “v”, which is common throughout the Middle Ages, as is the use of “v” for both “u” and “v”.
Y is used in place of “i”, but also for yogh, which looks like a number 3, and was usually replaced in later spelling by “gh” (and by “z” in Scotland). “Nouyt” is ‘nought’ and “niyt” is ‘night.’
Th is spelled out, though in the original it was written with a thorn, <Þ>; most manuscripts have what looks again like “Y”.
Beyond this, there are a lot of archaic words, and you should learn more about Middle English before you attempt to use any unfamiliar words. For example, the ME verb “witen” ‘to know’ occurs a lot, but so does “know”:
Thomas seith to him, Lord, we witen not whidir thou goist,
(Thomas sayeth to him, Lord we know not whither thou goest)
If ye hadden knowe me, sothli ye hadden knowe also my fadir
(If you have known me, soothly [truly] you have known also my father)
Here, “witen” is used for knowing a fact and “know” is used for knowing a person. It may be difficult to catch such subtleties without further study.
Wikipedia actually has some very good articles (and they list their references!). I particularly recommend their article on neume notation as a good starting point for anyone interested in learning to write those square notes!