Monday, December 14, 2015

Monday: Dwelling in Primary Sources

Lately I've had trouble focusing on what to do in terms of reenacting. It's been a hard year, and I've perhaps lost a bit of my passion. Between that and the many orders rolling into the shop, I don't seem to have time for the things I love-even if I've forgotten them!

Books used to be my bread and butter. Ask anyone-I would plow through a pile of pages. I once read one of the 600 page Harry Potter books, in its entirety, in a 24 hour period. Speed reading is fun, but sometimes I like to linger in words too, like that Emily Dickinson poem that's been on the tip of my tongue for over a decade. I read for pleasure before I read for school.

Academic reading-there it is! In my undergraduate degree I sailed through everything, from dark fiction to boring historical theory. My master's program was more difficult, but just as satisfying. I live for the art of research, the act of digging, my fingernails dirty with new words. 

Here is the problem. I've been told that many in the reenacting community refuse to read. The phrase "reenactors don't read" floats around conversations a bit too easily. I find that to be hilarious-so many  people I know read like I do. Ken Giorlando's library probably weighs enough to cave his floor in. Reading, or at least looking at primary sources, should be a priority for reenactors of any level.

I want to dwell in the text.

No, I totally did not come up with that. Vicki Burton, a professor of English at Oregon State University, definitely nailed my love of the written word in her article Ethos in the Archives. In it, she cites the root of the word "ethos" as "a dwelling place." And in Greek mythology, she follows the story of an impoverished philosopher, Heraclitus, that implores travelers to stay with him because "Here too the gods are present."

Burton asks how we imagine ourselves (particularly those in the field of rhetoric, but I apply this to researchers in general...) in terms of dwelling in the written word: "We embark on our research travels with high expectations. Then we arrive in the archives, and things are a bit of a mess—disorganized, uncatalogued, overwhelming. Like the traveling strangers, we are in danger of not seeing what is before us, of missing our chance to dwell. Here, too, the gods are present." She later notes the advice of a fellow researcher, telling her to "always assume that you must go back" to an archive. One trip is not enough.

Isn't 19th century source material such a mess? Magazines here, CDVs there, oh look a stray book! We force all of these concepts under umbrella phrases like "victorian" or "Civil War" in an attempt to make the overwhelming manageable. The mess into neat piles. But in those categories, as Burton says, we run the risk of no "seeing what is before us, or missing our chance to dwell." Even online sources are messy!

In terms of reenacting, research should be rooted in sources. All too often we hear of people asking a "knowledgable source," without reference to the primary documentation. Or worse yet, the illusion of proper evidence while completely ignoring context. We assume "experts" know everything, hanging on their every word. No. Using a quote or two to justify a piece of jewelry or dress is not dwelling in the text.

It is in this moment that I see my own faults. Sure, I am still keeping busy with research. But I don't stay long, only searching for what is most important. Quotes. Pictures. Bits of evidence for my jewelry. Materials and motifs are my launch pad; I need to go further. Hence my own personal challenge.

Every Monday, I will write a post rooted in the text. Spend some time playing with words or sources. I don't want this to be my typical "Materials and Motifs," which I so lovingly made popular as of last year (though I'll still be doing those too!). Here are a few of my specifications:

1. The post must include at least 1 piece of primary documentation.
2. There needs to be at least one visual image to help illustrate my point.
3. I need to collaborate with at least one other person (reenacting and otherwise) to help analyze.
4. The bibliography must include 5 other sources
5. My post must end with a question for further research.

I believe that this practice will improve my research, as well as my writing skills. Collaboration with other people will expand perspective. And am I naive to think I can inspire other reenactors to spend more time on the written word? To go beyond the simple petticoat, and into the fabric of history?

While this is technically my first "dwelling" post, I'm not going to evaluate a source. I tell my students constantly to plan and organize before they write. This initial post is a brainstorm, a beginning. The warm up! I'm also going to name it "Dwelling in the Source." Because I said so. However I will begin this post with a question...

How do I want to grow as a researcher?


Burton, Vicki. "Ethos in the Archives." Rhetoric Review 30.2 (2011): 109-34. Print.
Fragonard, Jean-Honoré. A Young Girl Reading. 1770. National Gallery of Art. Wikipedia.
Hennig, Gustav A.. Lesendes Mädchen, um 1828. 1828. Wikipedia.


  1. Another excellent post my dear!
    In my opinion it seems that many (far TOO many) reenactors really are not readers. They tend to rely on others and/or Facebook to help them more than doing their own reading/research. But they don't know what they're missing out on, for, to me, research is half the fun of reenacting and can mentally take one back in time almost to the same extent as living history.
    They really are missing out, aren't they?
    Thanks for the mention - - - !

    1. You liked that mention eh? Be prepared to be one of collaborators :)

    2. You know I'll help you any way I can!



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