Never go Swimming with a Bow Legged Woman (Part 3 - final instalment)
By Nils Visser
I ended the second instalment of this tale of woe with an actual introduction of the subject matter, having required two chapters to spill my bile on all sorts of subjects, mostly related to the claustrophobia of living in a swamp full of Cloggies. Up to what extent, I wondered, is archery an escape from Cloggy social nitpicking? Will I here encounter the sort of rugged individuals who used to make up this nation’s population, i.e. the type who used to step aboard flimsy tubs of wood, constructed in the haphazard manner of a puzzle, and set course for the High Seas? There they were legally entitled to board Spanish and Portuguese shipping, give the captured crew really nasty wedgies before tossing them overboard and then generally helping themselves to the cargo. Or the type who set sail for the North Pole, got their ship stuck and then destroyed in the ice and had a pyjama party on Nova Zembla after which the survivors returned to announce two remarkable discoveries. One: It really does get frightfully cold at the North Pole during winters. Two: Polar bears are not as cute and cuddly as German zookeepers make them out to be. Or the type who, on a trade mission in the Far East, discovered that blasting your opponent’s towns with cannon fire is a dead useful bargaining tool, prices drop steeply in the face of such a convincing proposal. This led to the further discovery that full military occupation meant that one didn’t have to bargain at all, one could simply take what was needed and our economy flourished.
Anyhow, the tales of the stout Yeomen of Agincourt had installed in me the notion that archers were weathered manly men who refused to be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. I was hoping to meet a few of these in a nation filled with meek weaklings who are content to let government and co-operation rob them absolutely blind, preferring to focus their energy on owning more cheap Chinese products than the neighbour and sharing endless tactical insights in the national premiere football league. Perhaps, I might have hoped, these hardened characters would also be where the buxom wenches could be found, waiting for craggy granite-faced coarse and unpolished individuals of dubious morality to abduct them and carry them across the Seven Seas and then some.
Of course, some might hope that I will give an affirmative answer and confirm that archers and knights are totally different from anyone else in the country, elevated high above the “Mundanes”. Naturally, I shall disappoint them, as anyone who thinks things through could have told me that no group of people are going to share identical traits and characteristics if they are only the slightest bit more complex in psychological makeup than a thematic set of Playmobil figures. Being intrinsically lazy I tend not to bother with time-consuming trivialities like pre-thinks, if trouble arises one can always use hindsight as a flagellant’s whip for self-castigation at a later stage.
Try: Lord of the Wyrde Woods by Nils Visser
Common ground is to be found in the desire to escape from the mundane realities of life in the suburbs. That much we share. What precisely is being escaped from isn’t always clear and differs from person to person. In general people don’t talk about it. Think about it, one by one the participants of an event show up at what rapidly becomes a medieval tent city, and as soon as possible slip into medieval clothes, shedding as many modern conveniences as they can. The last thing most of them then want to do is talk about what they’re trying to get away from. This is Never-never-land where the re-invention of the self plays a significant role in the escapism we practise.
The strength of the group I drifted into is that all comers seem to be welcome, there is no need to fill in an application and come in for an interview with a membership committee who decide whether or not you’re suitable enough to prance about in armour or Lincoln green for the weekend. Good golly, can we even begin to imagine the sense of failure that must hit you like a sledgehammer if and when turned down by a bunch of adults who dress like Robin Hood as their hobby? Where would you go from there? Best not think about it. If apprehensive of exactly that kind of rejection come and join our lot, we’re not picky, we’re the flotsam and jetsam of the Re-enactment world in the Low Countries and damn proud of it too.
For me it’s been refreshing to mix with people of all walks of life, rather than just people who are more or less on my own level of aptitude and attitude. There may be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in the philosophies of some, but there’s plenty to compensate for that, not least a sense of companionship. Camping out from March till December in this corner of the world, for example, isn’t necessarily very comfortable all of the time. This being the Low Countries rain is a frequent companion and I have already learned to dread the transformation when ground that had a wee bit of bounce to begin with decides it’s quite bored with being a solid material and turns into a liquid quagmire that will devour half your gear and invite frogs and the like to swim across the floor. Shivering in the mud in a medieval tent for a night or two serves pretty well as a bonding tool, I can assure you.
None-the-less, this doesn’t really make us rugged or well-weathered, as the degree of hardship is very temporary: After two or three days it’s back to the comfort zone offered by the mod cons at home. It does give us a moral edge over some of the so-called professional groups at the top of the heap, as they have been sighted packing up and going AWOL at paid gigs, running away at the prospect of a wee bit of rainfall, little whussies that they are, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they squealed like toddlers denied a cheap brightly coloured plastic toy at the supermarket whilst doing their runner.
Venomous? Sure, but perhaps more understandable perhaps if I add that my lot, being at the bottom of the heap, are looked down upon as not being “professional” and on occasion sneered at to boot.
Why? Well, here is where the escapism fails. Broadly speaking there are three kinds of groups at these events. Smaller family-sized outfits who seem to do little else but camp out to show the public: Hey, here’s how they camped in days of yore. I’m not sure how they fixed it, but they get paid for this ‘performance’ which is an admirable feat all considered. Then there’s the larger groups who simulate combat. They have armour and the like and can get very snooty towards archers, partially because the archers participating in their do’s are severely limited on an operational scale, i.e. shooting with very low draw weights, blunts and fletches designed to limit flight distance. Some of the lads in tin seem to assume that their experience with declawed archers indicates that archery is a toothless sideshow where one can conveniently park girly women and the infirm, and will even argue that this was historically so, citing secret sources which they prefer not to reveal. Gee, imagine that.
Anyhow, these larger ‘professional’ groups have complicated hierarchies and an infuriating sense of superiority which, in some cases, far surpasses their ability to actually stage a convincing show fight, which, admittedly, is a damn hard thing to do. The third type of group are the weapons demonstration outfits. The swordfighters will on occasion join in the mock battles, but their primary aim is to learn the historical combat techniques from medieval manuals and share this with the public, preferably in an interactive manner which is a great deal more fun. I tend to respect these characters and get along with a number of them, for there isn’t here the same air of I-am-better-than-thou-art that pervades elsewhere. We ourselves are also a weapons demonstration group, but our interest is archery and our primary product is archery through the ages. It’s that latter element where we clash with others, for they tend to focus on a specific period, and we cover a couple of centuries at least. Our rule is, the bow has to fit the costume, be it Viking kit from the early Middle Ages to a 17th century Manchu archer outfit. Moreover, the costume has to look half-way decent from the distance of a couple of meters, that’ll do us fine.
However, within the community there are those who have very firm opinions on what is acceptable and what is not acceptable and I do not hesitate to identify these guys as fundamentalist extremists. For example, if I’m camping out in December I’ll do so wearing thermal long johns. It’s a family event, so I’m unlikely to be asked to lower my trousers and display the offending item, nonetheless, there are those who consider this a travesty, medieval all the way is their motto, and that includes medieval underwear (big nappies) with hand stitched inner seams. Inner seams? Indeed, the seams the public would never ever see. Funnily enough, the fundamentalists often expound on the importance of 100% correctness whilst taking drags off their cigarettes or roll-ups. Apparently the sight of an armoured knight rolling himself a cigarette is not considered as harmful for children as someone wearing modern boxer shorts underneath medieval kit with machine stitched inner seams.
“The smallest detail out of synch, and the spell is broken for the kids,” or so I have been sincerely assured. Utter rubbish of course, I teach, and for that purpose I have a cupboard full of silly hats. All I have to do is put on a silly hat, and the kids will fill in the rest of the costume to make me Tudor, Victorian, Space-age or whatever. Kids don’t need a lot to go on, their imagination is something that should not be underestimated.
To be fair, archers have a fair share of the batty. There are a number of butch men who whine like wee bairns when certain female archers show up at competitions, because these Robinesses tend to kick our collective ass to the moon and halfway back. The only way, they figure, to beat the female competition is by sticking them in a Woman’s category and forbidding them to compete on their actual skills level. In short: “It’s unfair that she gets to compete because she has boobs and never lets us win.“
To sum up my interpretation: people escape to the woods to play at being knights or outlaws. Sure, we can dress that up by claiming that we feel an urgent need to educate the general public about what things were really like in the Middle Ages, but who are we kidding? We’re grown-up kids at play. I also happen to doubt that the general public has a tremendously great interest in finding out what things were really like in the Middle Ages, I suspect many of them simply want to see some arrows demolish targets, want to hear sword clash against sword, want to feel the ground tremble as armoured knights spur their horses into a trot at a tournament. Add a pretty wench or two and the general public is pleased enough. “No, no, they ask questions” is a counterargument which I must include for the sake of fairness. However, that’s probably because their mothers raised them to be polite, some mothers still do you see. Moreover, even the dullest nitwit comprehends that it might be wise to be somewhat friendly to armoured characters wielding swords, maces and battle-axes.
I’ll be quick to add that I don’t feel that there is anything wrong with grown-up kids playing knights and robbers in the woods. Western society has long demanded the stifling of fantasy and imagination as the price to pay for social acceptance in the adult world. Why? I haven’t got a clue. To me it seems a very high price, for the use of the brain to create imaginary concepts seems to me to be one of the most wondrous of human achievements, as well as a key to human inventiveness. Throughout history humans have enacted certain rituals, dressing up as key characters from important iconic tales and acting out the parts. Is that not what re-enactors do in this age that worships the silver screen? Becoming heroes in our own sagas and being fortunate enough to live in societies where we have the money, time and freedom to engage in such activities? Hasn’t most of the entertainment industry become one that sells experiences? The great free music festivals of the sixties and seventies have been hijacked by large companies. We now buy tickets for, say, the Big Heineken Summer Music Whatnot, which basically means we’re buying ourselves an experience of something that resembles but is not quite the same as the spontaneous and anarchistic musical gatherings that used to be. Outdoor activities have the same focus, you buy into an experience, it’s as if genuine experiences have become extinct or very rare in modern and mundane society and we have to make do with fragmentary snatches of adventure which often cost a buck or two (especially if you need hand stitched inner seams).
So, to get away from it all, our lot takes it a step further, we don’t just visit a weekend event, we go and live it, play part in it, relish the role and even enjoy the discomfort. Except, we don’t really get away, we tend to bring a great deal of that which constricts us to these events, i.e. the awfully narrow mind-set of suburbia. The Keep-up-with-the-Joneses Factor for example, seems to have happily tagged along to the medieval camp. My tent is bigger than your tent doesn’t feature that greatly, the main focus is on costumes. Stitches are discussed at length, as previously mentioned, but everything else is scrutinized as well. Some of these folks make a point of strolling from tent to tent to find things which don’t meet their standard and then placing some really nasty below-the-belt bitchy remarks about it. The type you would think adults are too elevated to place, being more suited to the snakes pit of a girls’ locker room at a junior high school than anywhere else.
The result is that beginners, who have made an effort to look something vaguely medievalish just so they can try the hobby for a weekend, are totally shredded and feel pretty humiliated. The message is that if you can’t dish out at least a thousand bucks you’re going to be excluded from the gang. As you can well imagine there are few people willing to go to that expenditure just to try something out, so fresh blood is scarce. Imagine then my amazement when these same people, whose escape from suburbian superiority complexes vis-à-vis the neighbours consists of exporting exactly that attitude to the weekend camps, moan that so few new people are willing to swell the ranks.
No kidding, like my sister said when I showed her around once, “It’s a bit cultish.” I gained a similar picture from reading about re-enactment in the UK and the States. I tried to talk about this to one of the more fervent believers, i.e. the image that the whole rigmarole seems to resemble a cult at times, and all he could go on about was how the general public misinterprets the lifestyle and doesn’t understand it. I tried to change the viewpoint by pointing out that this wasn’t about the general public but about the Re-enactors’ own behaviour, however, this concept was entirely alien. He assumed that the culprit to be blamed for the public’s attitude was the media, which has discovered the hobby as a great source of stories about parents dragging their poor kids to these events. Naturally the media, specifically television, edits out all the parts where the re-enactors talk like sensible human beings and just leaves the nutty bits on display, conveying the image that a lot of the people I run into at camps are utter lunatics who shouldn’t be let near children, let alone drag them to medieval encampments for the weekend.
Daft as fruitcakes, I will happily confirm if any ‘outsider’ asks me if perhaps we’re a little off balance, mentally that is. Do you remember that scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest where McMurphy has kidnapped a busload of the cerebrally challenged and wants to take them boating and introduces the lot of them as well-to-do medical professionals? Or the baseball scene? Well on occasion I feel like Chief Bromden trying to put his observations into words.
We’re archers you see, our main interest is to see something break, be it bow, arrow or target, something must give. We also introduce highly unhistorical targets, car doors, full coke bottles, old broken laptops, the type of thing the public can relate to very well. The ‘professionals’ show up and stand by the side, attempting to look sagely as they shake a no-no with their heads, presumably to entice the public to come to their tents and hear fascinating stories about correct patterns for inner seam stitching, rather than watch a coke bottle explode under the impact of a couple of war arrows. Silly public, they rarely wander off, for some reason they prefer us to the pedants.
A few Re-enactment types have crept into the group and on occasion they’ll try to introduce more stringent rules, but the more that we’re treated as free-range buccaneers, the more we relish that reputation and behave accordingly. Nought wrong with a bit of piratical behaviour, in actual fact, if they were to do actual historical research beyond the repetition of the very selective information that has passed the bar, they would find the inclusion of our lot is incredibly historically correct if one really wants to portray a medieval army camp. From what I read, those fellows weren’t terribly keen on rules and regulations and possibly wouldn’t recognize a sub-clause if their life depended on it. Remember just about any school trip with a coachload of fifteen year olds? Change all the rowdy lads in the back into middle-aged men in various stages of midlife crisis, dressed as Robin’s Merry Men and armed to the teeth, and you start to get an inkling of what life must be like for a structurally minded suburbanite intent on enjoying a weekend of orderly camping.
So, basically, we cannot define a Re-enactor and/or traditional archer according to one set of characteristics. Basically, any given medieval encampment mirrors real life: There’s the rich who like to flaunt their goodies, the poor who will grumble with envy and re-assure one another that goodies do not a good person make, there are those who cannot be fulfilled until they feel better than their neighbours, there are those who like to have a laugh and don’t take their inner seam stitching seriously enough, there are those who are nice, grumpy, friendly, asocial, kind, rude, smart, dumb or just plain crazy. All are trying, in one way or another to escape, some succeed, some don’t.
Besides the escapism and sense of belonging our lads and lasses have one more thing in common. Something I could have mentioned three chapters ago, saving you a great deal of reading, namely: Archery.
Much of my grumbling and whining is related to the feeling that I’m driven by forces beyond my control, taxed and fined by nameless faceless entities against whom there is no fighting back, coaxed to buy stuff I don’t need and lied to by clever people out to get a bonus.
Archery is a tremendously satisfying anti-dote, as it puts the practitioner in total control. The first time I was handed a bow, a modern recurve, was an awesome experience, I ignored the visor and whatnot and went through the motions, instinctive motions. “You’re using it like a Longbow, not a recurve,” came the comment and I thought: Right, Longbow. Simply have to get one. That’s how I got involved in traditional archery.
It’s difficult to describe but there’s something spiritual about this type of archery. To begin with, the basics are easily taught, I’ve seen it happen again and again, the bow has been part of human history for well over 5,000 years, and somehow most people instinctively grasp the basics, as if the memories have been imprinted on our very genes. This means a single round of six arrows will suffice to get them used to the tools at hand, and the second round will yield success, which is always a pleasant experience.
Then, there’s the instinctive archery aspect, so-called because there is no visor or other gadgetry, one doesn’t even peer over the length of the arrow because the nock is drawn to the ear. One looks at the target and with enough training, the arrow will follow the eye to the target. The very moment of release tells the archer whether or not the shot was a clean one, he or she usually senses a hit or miss milliseconds before the arrow arrives at its destination. There's a bit of Jedi mind power here which I'm very keen on.
Old-fashioned skills, specifically if the bow is self-made and the arrows are constructed by the archer too. Old skills and full control. Whether in practise or in competition, this is a moment where one truly departs the mundane madness of modern society and steps into a a different world. This is true escapism and by the Gods I do love it dearly.
As for that bow-legged woman, I wouldn’t go swimming with her if I were you. Then again, why not? Seize the day, make it yours and enjoy it to the max.