Combat Scribing – Or Calligraphy in the Field

Combat is not something normal associate with calligraphers and scribes so the term “Combat Scribing” probably seems a bit out of place.  Anyone who has had to do it however, likely agrees the term is perfectly apt.  This post may or may not apply to you and what you do.  If you are in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) this post may not apply to how your Kingdom does things.  But this post should be of interest to anyone who has ever done or will do calligraphy “in the field,” outside of their studio, scriptorium or simply their regular work space.

Combat scribing is doing a full calligraphy project in the field, often with no notice and due in 30 minutes to only a few hours.  In the SCA this happens at events when the crown adds an award to the court list at the event.  It can also happen that a previously assigned scroll did not make it to the event for some reason. In Kingdoms that hand out a scroll when the award is announced in court we try very hard to make sure that every recipient will get a scroll in court even when their scroll doesn’t show up or their Majesties add something “last minute.”

Being a good combat scribe takes preparation and an added skill set to that of being a regular calligrapher scribe.  I have been combat scribing scrolls since Pennsic War 35 (This year its Pennsic War 42) where I combat scribed 4 scrolls that war.  To me a good combat scribe will:

– Stay calm;
– Focus even with distractions around;
– Be able to work on a variety of surfaces;
– Keep a secret;
– Disappear without drawing attention to the fact they have disappeared.;
– Be able to work in adverse conditions;
– Be prepared

Staying calm is very important to combat scribing.  It is very easy to get caught up in the looming deadline and to get worked up about it.  If you can stay calm, you calligraphy will be beautiful which is what the recipient deserves.  Staying calm does not mean you ignore the looming deadline, it just means that you accept the looming deadline and get the job done.

One of the hardest things for scribes to do is work with distractions going on around you.  For me this one is the hardest.  I am among a large number of scribes who has a tendency to lose my place, rewrite something, mis-spell something or write what is being said when people are talking around me.  And when you are combat scribing people talking around you is very normal.  There can also be the sound of combat with loud yelling and cracks, heralds crying announcements, and just the general buzz and hum of activities and talking nearby.

Combat scribes often end up working on flat level surfaces, laps, shaky tables and everything in between.  It really helps to be able to work on all of these surfaces so that your calligraphy will remain clear and beautiful. This comes simply by being flexible and gaining experience in doing it.

Keeping a secret is very important for scribes in Kingdoms where scrolls are given out at the same time the award is announced.  In some Kingdoms awards are given out after they are announced so secrecy isn’t the norm there.  But if you’re combat scribing a scroll, chances are very high that the award is a surprise, so unless you are told otherwise, keep it secret.  This includes working in a place where people are not going to walk up to you and see what you are working on.

It is easier to keep it a secret if people don’t come looking fro you.  If you make a big deal of disappearing to do a court scroll, you are hardly helping to keep the matter a secret.  Just quietly grab your stuff and go.  If you need to let certain people know that you won’t be available do so quietly.  If they need a reason for your disappearing merely say something along the lines of, “Their Majesties have work that I have been asked to do.”

Being able to work in adverse conditions is the hallmark of being a good combat scribe.  I myself have done scrolls in my tent when it got to over 100 F (38 C) degree, on a hay bail, sitting in a chair on a lap desk, under a tarp in the rain and sundry other places.  I have heard of scribes working on scrolls in shower stalls, closets, freezing temperatures and much more.  And for the love of what we do, the Crown and for the recipient we battle though these conditions.  For the most part I have combat scribed in the scribe’s room or the royalty room on a flat table in a temperature controlled room  It isn’t always in adverse conditions, but being able to certainly helps.  Make sure you find a place that is private.

Being prepared I saved for last because it takes up the most space.  I suggest that if you are willing to combat scribe you bring with you the following:

Scroll Blanks.  These pre-decorated and illuminated blanks leave areas open for calligraphy to be put in afterwards.  This means the recipient will get a beautiful painted scroll for their award.  My highest level award was done this way actually at the Known World Academy of Rapier in November 2012.

– Pad of paper.  I prefer Bristol Vellum 11″x14″ myself, but whatever works for you is just fine.

– Pens.  Some people swear by cartridge pens.  If these work for you that’s fine.  They are self contained units and easy to deal with.  I however suggest dip pens. They very often provide crisper, better defined calligraphy, thin lines and in general I prefer the look of the finished product better with dip pens than with cartridge pens.  Bring different sized pens.  If you use dip pens bring along several pen holders.  You may not need them all but then again you might. And if needed you can loan out pens and pen holders if needed.

– Ink.  No matter what kind of pen you bring, remember to bring lots of ink with you.  Always put your ink in a zip loc style bag.  I use snack bags for most of my ink bottles, and then I put that bag into a regular sized sandwich zip loc style bag.  This double bagging ensures that if the bottle leaks, it won’t get on all the rest of my calligraphy supplies.  For dip pens I suggest bringing at least two bottles of black ink in case one of them leaks.  I would recommend also bringing, red, blue and white inks.  You may of course bring whatever colors you want, but be sure that you can safely carry it all.

– Toothbrush.  Yes, a toothbrush.  That way you can clean your pens when you are finished instead of leaving ink on your pens where the ink can degrade you pens.  Napkins and paper towels are nice too.

– Alcohol.  No, not to drink, but to clean your nibs with.  I have been very surprised at how sometimes there just isn’t a good place to clean your nibs and that having some alcohol around to clean the nibs is often the best choice.  Also, some inks just clean off better with alcohol.

–  Small T-Square.  I find the 12 to 18 inch (30cm – 45cm) t-squares to be perfect for my needs.

– Mechanical or drafting pencil.  Any pencil will do but pencils that don’t need to be sharpened are best.  If you need to sharpen your pencil bring a sharpener as well.

– Lettering Guide. There are several styles of lettering guides available that are small and useful.  The Ames lettering guide is likely the most famous but it isn’t the only one.  If you don’t bring a lettering guide, you will need to plot out the lines very carefully along the edge of your writing space using a mearusing ruler of some kind.  Most t-squares will double as measuring ruler.

– Sharp knife.  I prefer to use exacto knives myself.  If your are going to make a mistake with ink, the only way to fix it is to either start over or scrape the mistake.

– Burnisher. Once you get done scraping you need to lay the fibers of the paper back down. Burnishers do this.

– Pounce.  Once you lay the fibers back down it is best to pounce the area so that the ink won’t spider along the newly expose paper fibers.

– Clean eraser.  Once you get done with the piece and it dries you might want to erase the guide lines you drew in.  I like Moo erasers for this but I find kneaded rubber erasers work very well also.  Bring what works for you.  Make sure the eraser is clean, and the ink is dry.  You don’t want to start erasing lines and find that you’re spreading ink marks everywhere instead.

– A writing surface.  Some scribes bring portable desks and easels.  I have seen a flat piece of plywood used. Bring what you have that works for you.

– Storage device(s) for your equipment.  For me, I go to the hardware and fishing aisles of the store and find something that I like for my purposes.  So far I find that Plano fishing tackle boxes are great for me.  They have drawers in them that you can put in plastic tabs to separate out things.  My inks go on top, my pen holders in one drawer with my pencils and erasers.  My nibs go in to another drawer, My burnisher, exacto knives and pounce in another drawer and so on.  They work really well for compartmentalizing my tools.  And they come in various sizes.  For my scroll blanks, paper, t-square and the like, I have a hard walled briefcase that use that keeps everything dry and safe.  The hard walled brief case then also doubles as my writing surface if I need one.

Combat scribing is not an easy thing to do for most people.  For those who combat scribe it can be very rewarding personally to see someone receive that scroll that didn’t exist 2 hours ago.  To me that smile, or happy tears, is the best reward for combat scribing.

3 responses to “Combat Scribing – Or Calligraphy in the Field

  1. Out of the three that I’ve done so far, only was I proud of and that was recently at Birka. The original scribe, who has a history of heath issues, was suffering from hand tremors. The were bad enough that she couldn’t complete the calligraphy and had asked for my assistance. What made it worth it is not only did the scroll turn out quite well, but I was able to help out a friend in dire need.

  2. Combat scribing is kind of a pet peeve for me, as in my experience it’s often a result of a lack of planning. It shows a lack of respect for both the scribe and the recipient who deserve a piece that has been well thought-out and personalized. That said, I totally understand last minute decisions that must have action taken while opportunity is at its best, but things like champion scrolls should not need more than a name scribed on them. Crowns and Coronets should endeavor to be well prepared in their assignments to avoid abusing scribes as much as possible. That’s my 2 pence, anyhow. I’ve done my fair share of combat pieces, and I’m not proud of any of them.

  3. As a fellow Combat scribe (and awarded by my Kingdom for being a Combat Scribe) you nailed it right on the head. And one thing to remember as well. Sometimes its okay to say no. My hand can only take so much and when it comes down to it, the hand wins.

    Combat scribing at Pennsic is also entertaining.. especially when your Baron tells you that an Order Award is needed and you’ve already downed 3 bottles of hard cider. Best work I did on the fly..

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