Research is not a dirty word

“The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down a very deep well.” Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

I’m not going to lie, I like research. For me one of the main draws of the SCA is that it is a context to tie together all of the various hobbies I’d done forever. It gives me a structure to draw that craft into.

Before joining the SCA I did a lot of crafts. Essentially for me they boiled down to “look I made a thing” but that thing really had no context. I hand sewed a lap blanket for my mother and presented it as a gift.. but there was no context beyond “I made you something”. Whereas in the SCA the thing has a back story. This is a thing I made which was used by {x} culture at {y} time period. They used {z} materials which were made like {this}. While doing this I learned {j} skill and realized that the reason they did {k} is because of {some obscure reason I wouldn’t have figured out if I hadn’t done it as close to the extant piece as I could}.

So while I understand there are other paths and other ways to enjoy playing in the SCA.. *I* crave the context. This kind of context excites me.

Honestly the lack of context is the reason I can’t get excited about steampunk. It’s all made up so I can’t “check my answer” to make sure I got it right.

In thinking about this I suppose that means I’m less creative. I’m okay with that.

In talking about this with friends they lamented that research is hard. This is boggling to me. I find research to be the easy part. The hard part is putting it all together to make {the thing}

What is research
Research starts with a question. That question leads to other questions. While researching the question you will stumble on information which is not central to your question but is interesting and will add some depth to your understanding or may be central to other lines of research. The hardest task when doing the research is deciding which interesting tidbit (ie, rabbit hole) is worth delving into further.

Sometime “worth delving into further” is determined by some aspect of the answer to your question that leads to a better understanding of your subject matter. Sometime it’s a matter of what is interesting to you.

Sometimes your research will lead to answers. In my experience, the questions will always outnumber the answers. In either case, more research helps you to make more educated guesses about the “right” answer.

A while back while attending a workshop by The Tudor Tailors they said that “good research is a three-legged stool.

It’s based on an extant item, paintings/drawings/illuminations of the items from the time period and writing about the item (wills, letters, etc).”

I think it’s a good guideline to strive for.. but recognize that sometimes it’s hard to get all three.

Consider the Source
All sources are not created equal. You can learn something from any source.. but the quality and dependability of what you learn from a source is entirely dependent on the quality, biases and thoroughness of the source.

Last year I started digging into the question: What did young boys wear during Roman times?

I stumbled on a lot of sources (both online and in print) that read like 9th grade book reports and essentially said “It has been said that during Roman times young men wore red tunics for {this} reason.” None of those sources listed from where they’d gotten that information so I could not verify if the information was correct or invented by some 17th century scholar. This was frustrating in the extreme.

When using a source consider who wrote it (is the author a reliable expert on the topic?), when it was written (has the information in this source been supplanted by more recent findings?), and why they wrote it (do they have a special agenda they’re trying to push?). A good source will include footnotes or end notes indicating what sources were used for the conclusions drawn. These footnotes/endnotes also normally lead to a bibliography which can be a very rich source of further source materials for you to consider.

Be aware that even fantastic sources sometimes make mistakes.

Earlier this year Beatrix Nutz published an article pointing out that one of the pieces of fabric found in Lengberg which was originally identified as one of the “Lengberg bras” had been re-identified as headgear. Oops.

Also be aware that your biases influence your conclusions.

Consider the context of the evidence
When considering the evidence gathered from your sources it’s important to also consider the context of that evidence.

For extant items the existence of an item in a grave really only proves that at least one person was buried with that item in the condition in which it was found. The existence of the item in the grave does not prove that all people would have gone about their daily lives with that item.

In images, the illustration of a thing means that someone could imagine the thing. Not that the thing happened or was common. Beware of allegories.

Detail Harley MS 4425, f. 14v

“Detail of a miniature of a man leading the Carolle (round dance with music) in the garden of Sir Mirth, Harley MS 4425, f. 14v In a miniature of a dancing troupe, the gentleman leading the dance wears a curious mixture of styles. The old-fashioned dagging reflects the artist’s interpretation of the description of his clothing as ‘cut up in many places’, as do the slashes in the fabric of his shoes. However, his long hair and cap are more typical of the 1490s.”

I’ve seen this image used as the basis for a 1490s outfit with fanciful dagging.

Make {the thing}
Unlike pure archaeology, we do historical recreation. The SCA (and other re-creational groups) exists so that you can make {the thing}. Eventually, no matter how good or bad you feel about your research on {the thing} you have to put together something. Usually when this happens it will shed light on the holes that still exist in your understanding. Often this is where you have to make your best guess and just do it. Even if you don’t know the “right” answer of what exactly was done in our period of study you have to do something and make {the thing}.

Making {the thing} is also a part of research. This is the part where you get to try out all those ideas in your head about how {the thing} was made to see if your final product is close to the original. Try to stay aware of the places where you’ve made a guess as opposed to done something based on evidence. Otherwise you’ll find that those guesses become ingrained in your mind as “the right way” to make {the thing} and later if you’re confronted with evidence which contradicts your “right way” you’ll suffer from a disconnect (cognitive dissonance) which makes it difficult to accept the evidence as “true”.

Also keep in mind that using modern methods and materials instead of doing it the period way will effect your final product and your understanding of the final product. Although it is not always necessary to do it exactly the period way, I do believe there is a lot to be learned by using the tools and methods available in our period of study to recreate items from our period of study.

Finally, go back and compare what you’ve made to your evidence. What did you get right? What did you get wrong? What can you do different next time? It’s not important that you do it perfect, it’s important that you learn someone from every attempt.

To quote Maya Angelou (completely out of context):
Do the best you can until you know better.. then when you know better do better.

1 thought on “Research is not a dirty word

  1. What I love about the context that the SCA provides is that you can get these nearly blinding moments where your piece of research suddenly CONNECTS to other pieces and you go from a lovely piece of lace to a solid hunk of broadcloth, just like *that*. In researching the evolution of kitchen hardware, all of a sudden I could see the interplay of economics, available manpower, the Plague, and material science. It was wonderful, like the way a scientist must feel in shouting Eureka!

    May the madness strike you often!

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