Red Horse is set at the beginning of the First English Civil War in 1642. The primary characters are Captain Hollie Babbitt and his young Cornet Luce Pettitt. Babbitt is a grizzled and damaged English mercenary back from the continent to fight for Parliament. Pettitt fights from conviction and conscience, he is a distant relation to the Earl of Essex. This sets us up nicely for a tale from a cavalry viewpoint with the odd glimpse of higher command.
There are a troop of supporting characters as well. For the most part they simply give enough context for the main characters not to be in isolation. Both main characters are flawed, and this makes their character development engaging. Luce starts off naive and relatively innocent. I could identify my long departed 20-year-old self with him (although I didn’t write poetry back then, nor did I have Luce’s prudishness).
Babbitt is suffering from mild PTSD, he has flashbacks and mood swings. After the battle of Edgehill he loses touch with reality and gets suicidal. Fortunately for him people are looking out for him.
As well as the characters being real and engaging there is a really good level of historical accuracy in here. The author clearly knows the period that she is writing about. I’ve spent a couple of decades reading about and re enacting the ECW. There were only a couple of minor points I noticed, and both made Red Horse more readable for people not steeped in the history.
The full richness of the period is shown in Red Horse. With Parliamentarians you get the different levels of motivation. There are religious dissenters, raving preachers and quiet Grindletonians. There are also well off types that fight for liberty, their liberty and not really that of the common man. On top of that there are the British mercenaries that have learnt their trade in Europe and come home for pay.
It’s not all military either. Befitting the nature of the civil wars there are interludes where we see the impact on civilians. In fact the military bits are only because of the wider context, Red Horse is more social in nature and how the protagonists deal with both the war and their lives.
Overall I loved Red Horse. I paid for it myself and as soon as I finished it I paid for the sequel, Command the Raven.
I was fortunate enough to be one of the select few speaking at the English Civil War Living History Symposium at Pitchford Hall this weekend. There were several fascinating talks all aimed at deepening our understanding of 17th century life and also how we deliver Living History events. My thanks to Sue Sampson who organised the Symposium and to Ken Clayton who marshalled the speakers in the hall.
Living History Symposium
These were mostly hands-on practical activities.
Sewing bee (Carolyn Richardson & Sue Sampson)
Music & Dancing
Have a go blacksmithing (David Best)
Around the World with 17th Century Spices (Sue Ball)
Wool Production: spinning & spinning wheels – early to mid 17th century (Jos Richards * Sue Sampson)
Painting miniatures (Mike Richards)
Fire & Lighting, from spark to flame (Gary McCann)
Sword School (Chris Ball)
Etiquette of Fine Dining (Phil Staker)
Playing the lute – hands-on practice (Carolyn Richardson)
Money, income and wages in the mid-17th century (Paul Cramer)
Soldier’s show and tell with weapons – how to do it safely (Mary McDonald-Watson)
Talks in the Hall
Cooking and Cooking Utensils in the mid 17th Century (Stuart Peachy & Gilly Morley)
Research: Why it is important and how to do it properly (Ken Clayton)
The Importance of Living History in Re-enactment: how to do it well (Steve Southcoat)
The Gentle Art of Playing the Lute: Theory (Carolyn Richardson)
Scripting First Person Living History Scenarios (James Kemp)
Clothes of the common sort in the mid 17th century (Stuart Peachy & Gilly Morley)
The Problem with Woodcuts: why the majority are unreliable (Stuart Peachy & Gilly Morley)
I spent most of my time in Pitchford Hall itself as that was where I was presenting. So I heard the Stuart Peachy talk on food, Ken Clayton’s talk on research, Steve Southcoat on the importance of Living History and Carolyn Richardson on the Lute.
Over on the campsite I saw a little of David Best demonstrating blacksmithing, and talked more with some of the participants.
Stuart Peachy on Food
Stuart Peachy is well known amongst the living history community as an experimental archaeologist. That’s to say he takes what he reads and gives it a go to understand it better. So his talk was a mix of what the period sources tell us and the results of his experience with preserving food.
I missed the start, but came in to the discussion on pig husbandry. Pigs being a mechanism for turning food waste back into food. Think of it as an early form of recycling and waste reduction. The practical point of this is that pig husbandry practice was different in the 17th century than the early 21st. Today we produce food for pigs so we can make lots of pork products. Back then they only kept enough pigs to consume the waste they produced. Out of each litter the weakest few would be killed immediately, of the five allowed to suckle two would become suckling pig to be consumed as a delicacy for the gentry. The remaining would be kept while there was food and then slaughtered and preserved over a month or two. The offal would be used fresh and the rest salted or smoked.
There was loads more on traditional meat products and who are them and when they tended to be available. Enough to keep dozens of blog posts full to the brim.
Key point is that there’s a more deliberate approach to food. Things are preserved with practically inedible levels of salt, so they need soaked for a day or so before being used. Food prep takes longer and there is advance planning needed. Mostly we should be making tomorrow’s meals…
I’m hoping to be able to host at least some of the talks/handouts and have asked the participants if they will let me share them. I’ll post them up as and when they become available over on https://www.civilwars.org.uk/
This second post in the living history series is on creating good living history characters. The previous blog post was on the five steps for scripting living history events, of which creating your living history characters is the fifth step.
Living history events are a sort of promenade theatre with a lot of improvisation. Re-enactors are often mingled with the public, and many will be answering questions one to one. So living history characters need to be more robust than if you were writing for another medium.
Decide what your scenario is, and how you want it to go. Let’s take as an example a scenario involving a young woman becoming pregnant out of wedlock. This was fairly common in the past. What we need to decide is what the obstacle is to her marrying her lover (if there isn’t an obstacle then it becomes a scenario about arranging a wedding rather than about pregnancy out of wedlock). Some of the options here are that her lover is:
of the wrong social class to be an acceptable match
away from the parish (with the army, travelling, or was possibly just passing through)
There are of course a whole load of other options on top of those. You just need to pick one. Also the objection could be from the parents of either party and not from the lovers (think Romeo & Juliet). Either way we’re going to have a parish court involved to help remove the obstacle (or provide a solution).
2. Defining your Living History Characters
The first thing you need is to understand what characters you need.
Our primary living history characters will be the young woman, and her lover. We’ll also need members for a parish court, at the least a constable and a couple of elders. We’ll also need some witnesses to give ‘evidence’.
You might want to draw a relationship diagram with your list of characters. Especially you need to work out where the conflict arises and who knows what.
3. Background for Living History Characters
They both need to have details on their relationship and social position within the village/town. Both need an objective, if they wish to marry then there should be an obstacle for the court to overcome. Conflict is what drives stories, so this needs to be there.
Parish Court Members
A parish court looking into this will also have a constable and a couple of elders to hear the case. These are recurring main characters, they can be involved in many scenarios. They also need a bit of background. Who are they and what are their responsibilities on the parish court. What is the due process and where are the limits of the decisions they can make.
There will also be a need for witnesses, the parents of the young woman at the very least. Depending on the tack you take there may be another candidate for paternity, or a reason why the lover cannot marry the young woman. All of the witnesses need a few lines on what they believe they know as facts in the case. They might also have a motivation for giving evidence.
4. Limits on Improvisation
We’re encouraging improvisation, but we need to set ground rules. The idea is to get our players to think like people from the period. So we need to give them just enough freedom to do that well and be entertaining to those watching. Some ground rules might be:
Don’t invent new characters or evidence (this risks the writer/director having to add people on the fly)
Stay in character and remember the briefing you have been given
Remember that no-one else knows the whole picture, so make sure to give the information you have if it is helpful (but conceal, dissemble and lie if it helps achieve your objectives and is in character)
If in doubt, be quiet or say that you do not recall.
The most believable characters are well rounded. Each person should, at the very least, know their age, occupation and connection to the scenario. It works best if people play someone analogous to their modern self.