Be Mindful – The Medieval Way?


The world we live in gives us opportunities to learn new things everyday.  This same world also gives us opportunities to see what we already know in new and interesting ways.  How we learn, how we remember and what is important to us culturally is shaped by the world we live in, the circumstances that surround us and how we perceive all of that.  In other words we approach our environment with a very modern mind and a very modern thought process with our own very cultural biases..  As a student of history trying to do things the way they used to be done, I really need to be mindful of these things..

The Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) is a living history group that is sometimes called a medieval recreation group.  The SCA self describes itself as:

“The Society for Creative Anachronism, Inc. (SCA, Society) is a nonprofit educational organization devoted to study of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Most of its activities take place in the context of a social structure adapted from the forms of the European Middle Ages, which allows participants to take a first-hand look at various aspects of the life, culture and technology of the times under study”

“For Society members, most of the world, and all of the centuries prior to the 17th, can serve as a source for personal research.” The Society for Creative Anachronism Organizational HandbookApril 2001 edition last updated June 11, 2009

As a paid member of the SCA, (one need not be a paid member to participate,) I greatly enjoy the opportunities to study and converse with other people who share my interest in history and my hobby of being an amateur living historian.  The 5th of May, 2008, I attended an SCA event in the Barony of Jaravellir (pronounced Yar uh VET lur).  They had a keynote speaker who talked about why it was important to learn how people learned and thought during the SCA time period.  The reason is simple really, they did not think the same way we do, they did not perceive things the same way we do.  Yes, they had the same brain that you and I have and had the same IQs we might have today. But how they thought and therefore how they recorded what they did and how they did it is different.

It is common that we should default to the belief that they thought like we thought. After all the way we think is perfectly natural to us so of course everyone else must think that way too right?  Well, even in the modern world with modern people we know that isn’t true when we stop and look around and so it is that the pre-1600 way of thinking is that much more different than the way we think today.

The example given at the keynote speech is one that will stick with me for some time.  It was given by Western Martial Arts scholar and educator Bob Charron  (known as Duke Conn MacNeill within the SCA).  His example was simple yet it showed the complexity of understanding even a simple sentence of written instruction.

In a historical weapon manual this simple instruction was given, “Move the sword in a violent action.”   If you are like me you thought something along the lines of, “Its a sword you are supposed to be trying to hurt someone with it.  Of course it is being moved in a violent action. That is about the most useless direction one could give.”

Except to them, the person who wrote it and the people in the time it was written, it was a perfectly good and perfectly clear and perfectly understandable direction.  Nothing obtuse or vague about  the direction given at all.  Why is it very direct and understandable?

Understanding how pre-1600 people thought is key to understanding the directions they give.  If your world understanding consists of atoms, magnetics, gravity and the like then the direction makes no sense. If however, your world understanding consists of elements of fire, earth, air, water, or some other kinds of elements then that system of understanding is different from the modern world’s understanding and your language and description will reflect that understanding.

A sword has the earth element in it. This is why it is pulled toward the element earth most commonly found on the ground you are standing on, like attracts like when it comes to the elements.  To move the sword toward the ground would be a very natural action.  To pull it away from the ground that it wants to join would be unnatural or a violent action wouldn’t it?

Now reread the instruction that was given.   “Move the sword in a violent action.”  Knowing what you now know the direction becomes very clear and understandable.  Lift your sword.

From this simple example we see that as students of living history we probably should try to understand how the people from the time we are studying, thought. It is different and it affects everything they did.  Think about how pervasive that is, it affected how they built buildings, grew crops, mixed ingredients, describe how to do everything and anything, why an apple fell from the tree, what you pounded metal on, and every single aspect of their lives.

Duke Conn suggested a book and author to read to help us to understand how the medieval mind thought.  “The Book of Memory – A study of memory in medieval culture” by Mary Caruthers.

I finally bought the book and have picked it up a few times to read it and then been interrupted by many and various things.  The irony being that I can’t remember to keep reading it. What I have read though has been very informative and useful.  I recommend the book as well.

Another thing to help us understand how the medieval mind worked is to understand how they measured things.  You will find that what you may know about measurements, who invented them and how long they have been around is not always correct.  I recently purchased a book titled “A Dictionary of English Weights and Measures- from Anglo-Saxon Times to the 19th Century” (1968) by Ronald Edward Zupko  It has been immensely helpful in working on my ink recipes.  This is, as the title suggests, a reference book, not a sit down and read me book.  Unless you like reading reference books like I did in my youth.

Zupko has put out an updated version of the book in 1985 called “Dictionary of Weights and Measures for the British Isles: The Middle Ages to the 20th Century”  I would suggest that this is very likely the better book.  However the 1985 version would be cheap to purchase at $75 (US) and would cost you over $300 new.  The original book from 1968 cost me less than $5 to acquire and is accurate.
Another book I would suggest shows how the social systems of production actually were.  Often we are taught that peasants did back grinding work from sunup to sunset and only barely had any time off and that the lords and nobles were evil and cruel.  The actual picture is somewhat different.  In the British Isles peasants worked less than 40 hours a week and the lord of the land was responsible for providing those that worked for him with dozens of feasts throughout the year.  This allows for the process of labor specialization to begin and continue so that we eventually see guilds and the like for calligraphers, glove making, metal working and many other things.  The book is, “Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain 850-1520” by Christopher Dyer
The medieval way of thinking and of doing things is not the modern way, and we know that.  But we still bring with us the preconceived modern understanding we have been taught. This is natural and normal and something to be aware of when we approach the pre-1600 world.  Certainly keep your modern and more scientific way of thinking, but also try very hard to see that painting, writing, building, clothing and any other artifact through the eyes and thoughts of the people who made it.  This will greatly increase your understanding of what you are seeing and studying.

One response to “Be Mindful – The Medieval Way?

  1. Pingback: Milestone – 5,000 views | scribescribbling·

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