Documentation made easy

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Design and original content Copyright 2005 by Chris Laning.


E-mail: Chris Laning

Many people are intimidated from entering medieval arts-and-sciences competitions in organizations like the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) by the requirement that entries be "documented".

In this sense, "documentation" means presenting evidence that the competition entry is -- at least to a resonable approximation -- an artifact that would not have seemed out of place in some location and century in the Middle Ages. Often (not always) this includes evidence that it was made in a way similar to what a medieval person might have used.

This article is intended to provide a brief outline of some thoughts on the subject, some of which may make the documentation task easier.

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BEFORE YOU START

<Philosophy moment>

BE HONEST. Do you have reason to believe that medieval people made or did things like this? What are your reasons? "I don't know" is a perfectly good answer to start with. But whatever happens, be honest with yourself and tell the truth about where your ideas, materials, methods, et cetera came from.

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WHY DO WE DO DOCUMENTATION AND RESEARCH?

1. To educate ourselves.

2. To get ideas for the next project.

3. To be able to teach, or share our information with, others.

4. To demonstrate in a competition that our projects are historically sound.

<Philosophy moment>

If you try to second-guess "what judges want", you will only drive yourself nuts, especially since each judge wants different things. This approach is also like taking a "will this be on the exam" approach to school. In then end, you are doing documentation for YOU, not someone else, so do it in a way that satisfies YOU that you have done your best.

WHAT DO YOU PUT IN?

1. One type of simple, clear outline for documentation is:

+ Say what THEY did.

+ Say what YOU did.

+ Explain the difference.

2. Also it's essential to give a list of sources (Rule of thumb: aim for 3 to 10 in most cases).

3. Include any photocopies of illustrations needed to understand your documentation. Don't forget to specify where they come from.

LENGTH AND FORMAT

1. In theory, it can be anywhere from postcard sized to term paper sized.

2. If it's longer than a page, put a one-paragraph summary at the top.

3. Aim for 1 to 3 typewritten pages in most cases. (Rule of thumb, to be freely broken as needed.)

4. It's best typed or computer printed in a legible font; judges find this easier to read than handwriting.

5. Staple or tie pages together (not just paper clips) -- especially if the competition is outdoors.

A FEW SPECIFIC HINTS.

MINIMIZE THE PERSONA STORIES.

There is nothing wrong with projects appropriate for, inspired by, and personally meaningful to you and your persona, but it's really NOT relevant here, where we're discussing the process of making. More storytelling does not make your project more medieval. A simple, "This comes from the right century and place to be the kind of ivory comb I would have had," is plenty.

GETTING IT DOWN ON PAPER.

Many people find it much easier to talk than write. If getting it on paper is hard for you, enlist a friend to help: talk to them, then one or both of you write down what has just been said. Brainstorm a first draft done first, only later go back and revise it.

SOME COMMON MISTAKES IN DOCUMENTATION.

Mistake # 1. Trying to pass something off as "period" which you know or strongly suspect is not.

Mistake #2. Documentation that has nothing to do with the actual item being documented (i.e. documentation about the politics of the Crusades for a helmet).

Mistake # 3. Documentation of what YOU did to make your project, but no documentation of how THEY made or used the same item in the Middle Ages (i.e. all about how you brewed your vegetable dyes in a modern pot, but not about what they had available).

Mistake # 4. The opposite of #3: lots about what THEY did, nothing about what YOU did (this is less common, but still possible -- i.e. all about how medieval trestles were made and used but not about how you made yours).

Mistake #5. Forgetting to document common stuff you think everyone knows. Keep it to one or two sentences, but do include it (i.e.. "There is a purse dated about 1400, knitted with similar designs using several colors, in Chur, Switzerland" shows that knitting, purses, colored yarns, multicolored designs, etc.were all present at that date).

Mistake #6. Trying to hide or make excuses for modern methods and materials. Sometimes the correct materials or methods are not available, or are toxic or environmentally destructive. Sometimes you can't afford or don't have the skill to handle medieval materials or methods. In either case, say so, explain how the original objects were made, and explain why you chose the substitutes you did.

Mistake #7. Assuming that if you have a very early date (like Neolithic or Roman times) and a very late date (like now), something "must" have been present all the time in between. Not so: things go out of fashion, and sometimes entire arts die out and are only rediscovered hundreds of years later. You need to show it was present in *medieval* times.

Mistake # 8. Assuming that the information you find in later sources about how something was "traditionally" done or in "ancient" times is true for the Middle Ages. If your source doesn't give an actual date, assume it's no earlier than the 19th century, the Victorians being great ones for lumping all "old time" and "traditional" stuff together regardless of dates.

Mistake #9. Not making the exact links clear between your project and your sources, especially if your documentation (i.e. of design sources, etc.) uses different objects than what you actually did (i.e. using manuscript illuminations as sources for ceramic tile design). Explain clearly what the connection is and why you think it's a good one.

Mistake # 10. Not clearly identifying the sources you used. (Full book or article title, author, periodical or publisher, and date. For books the ISBN number is nice too.)

* * * * *

BACK TO THE SOURCES

WHERE DO YOU FIND GOOD SOURCES, AND HOW DO YOU KNOW THEY'RE GOOD?

The key to good sources is to get as close as you can to the original artifact.

In order of preference, it's best to base your work on one or more actual period artifacts, such as an actual period shoe dug out of a bog;

+ next best, on good photos of period artifacts;

+ then in descending order on period paintings, drawings and descriptions of shoes;

+ then literary mentions; later-period drawings of historical shoes,

+ modern books about period shoes, and so forth.

The reason for this is that every time human interpretation comes into the picture, you lose information.

HOW DO I GET BOOKS?

Local library, inter-library loan, purchase used copies via the internet's many used-book sites. If you have a choice between reading one book twice and reading two books, read two, for the different points of view.

HOW DO I KNOW WHICH BOOKS TO GET?

See the article "Good books, bad books, and how to tell the difference" in this collection.