The Pennywise Peasant
Making Ourselves At Home
My alliteration addiction aside, the title of this section is also it's battle cry. Villager Versimilitude strikes to the heart of the pennywise peasant aesthetic. Webster defines Versimilitude as "Something having the appearance of truth..." The appearance of truth. That, my fellow villagers, is what we're after.
This section is dedicated to our encampment. An encampment is an area assigned to our guild at the faire as a home-base for all of our activities. It is where we hold our morning meetings, break bread and gather for events. It’s also a handy place to keep the stuff that we don’t want to carry around all the time.
The overarching aesthetic of the St Brigid’s Hearth encampment is visual cement for the idea that this is our home - that we are villagers and this is our village. We do this with certain large set-pieces such as our trestle table and benches, our pergola structure, and the (physical) Hearth of St. Brigid. We also use the area to evoke the idea that our individual characters really do inhabit this village. This is done by creating the ‘fingerprint’ of your character on the space by providing such things as provide a vignette of your character’s life and trade.
Think of all the things that you need in your daily life, adding in all the stuff you use in pursuit of your chosen trade. Now, use your imagination a little and pretend that you need to present a play about your trade and can only take a few things on stage with you, only enough to give the impression of your working life. What would those things be? What barebones apparatus could you bring with you that would tell someone at a glance that you are an architect, or an accountant? That’s the general idea of the kinds of things you should be on the lookout for to breathe life into your renfaire character and the environment of our encampment.
You can see how impossible it really is to discuss dressing the encampment without also dealing with personal props, so I will be discussing both in the articles to follow. As with all sections of the Pennywise Peasant, this is largely dedicated to showing you what to be on the lookout for as you peruse the garage sales and thrift stores.
Disclaimer: As with the last section, the items pictured are intended to be illustrative of an idea and not an inventory of guild-items that will be available for loan or as encampment-dressing. Most belong to the guild master and serve a function in my our art studio. Much of it won’t be trucked out to faire since those functions would then be unfulfilled for the duration of the faire season.
Milkmaids, Washer Women, Water Wenches, Farmers… numerous characters would benefit from the presence of a bucket or two. Many of the people who begin the trek down those roads come to a screeching halt when first the encounter the professional cooper and realize how expensive a “simple” wooden bucket can be. We’re pennywise peasants, we’re predisposed toward avoiding items that cost more than a sawbuck so our heart goes pitter-pat at the thought of laying down the benjamins for a mere bucket!
But there are options! For instance… well, you could always learn to cooper. It’s only a four year apprenticeship.
Barring that, you can be settle for some good old Villager Verisimilitude! The average thrift store has at least one aisle dedicated to wooden items (sometimes baskets are mixed in) ranging from old cutting boards and candleholders to ice cream churns. If you can find a wooden ice cream churn you’re in! Take out the middle fiddly bits (which are probably rusted and inoperable anyway) and attach a rope handle. The one shown at left hasn’t been retouched yet. Eventually, our encampment will include a wishing well and this will probably be the bucket that hangs from the crank. With some sandpaper and wood sealer it will even hold water again! Since the wishing well will be non-functional (except to collect pennies, that is) the bucket won’t need to hold any water, so I might leave it old and funky, but that’s a decision for later.
And if you don’t have room for spare faire props during the off season, just remember… you can always fix the churn and make ice cream with it during the off-season! (If you do, remember it was my idea. I should get a 10% commision or something.)
With the exception of the ½ barrel, the buckets pictured at the top of the article are the profits of a single weekend’s trip through Seattle and Tacoma. Every thrift shop in the universe seems to have a dozen or so of the decorator buckets. Usually these are sold with plastic inserts to use them as planters. Many of them boast some cute toll-paintings of cows and flowers. (Please sand that stuff off.) If you don’t care about it holding water, tie a rope handle to it and carry it around as-is. If you want it to hold water, a couple of coats of urethane should do the trick! (NOTE: If you want the water to be potable, make sure you use food-grade finishes such as ‘Brewer‘s Pitch’ available from most home-brewing suppliers!)
There are other places to indulge your passion for bucketry. Shop the home & garden centers at the end of the season. They all seem to sell oak half-barrels leftover from whiskey and wine production. The casks usually smell funny for a little while until they weather-out. Buy ones that haven’t had drainage holes drilled into them or you’ll need to also purchase a cork. We use them as washtubs for the laundry as shown on the previous page. The tall bucket at the right is also intended for plants, but it does yeoman service in my living room holding my wife’s knitting yarn. It would also be good for faire holding just about anything from water to… knitting yarn.
You might get lucky and score a real bucket at a thrift store, but I doubt it. Quality coopering isn’t easy, it isn’t free, and it’s worth every penny if you’re going to be using the finished product as something more than a renfaire prop. It’s a noble trade, and I endorse anyone who has the means to support the folk artists keeping our past alive. That being said - if you just want a knockabout faire prop - head to Goodwill.
A major aspect of the St. Brigid presence at faire is going to be the eponymous Hearth and the people attending to the preparation of our period repasts. Spices are ground in the mortar & pestle (as are medicines, herbs, dyestuff, etcetera… though not all in the same one). No one grinds our pepper ahead of time, our cookware is cast iron or clay, our water comes to us in a bucket or barrel our salt isn’t iodized. The salt and the pepper are precious as gems and are kept under lock and key.
Bakers, cooks, goodwives, innkeepers, herbalists and apothecaries pay heed! Herein lies the secret to creating a simple and effective presence for your characters at faire!
In some ways, this is the easiest area in which to cheat, mainly because this is the one chance we have for renaissance faire to shop at normal stores for our goods. All of the mortar & pestle sets shown above were purchased at perfectly normal kitchen-supply stores at a 21st century shopping mall.
The bottles and measuring scoops are easy enough to come by on-sale. The bucket was covered in the previous section and little cast iron ‘cauldrons’ shown above are used by the author whenever he prepares French Onion soup in his thoroughly-modern kitchen. With the sole exception of the large granite mortar, nothing pictured cost more than six bucks. The bellows pump is a favorite touch. Look for them at the thrift stores beginning in May as people change out their traditional winter décor for summer flowery things. Wherever fireplace sets are sold, you will find perfectly operable bellows. The spice drawers usually keep the author’s art supplies organized in his studio. Such things are easy enough to come by and terrible handy when working with lots of little things.
Speaking of flowery things, the addition of bundles of drying herbs are a nice touch around the kitchen area. Think bundles of thyme, rosemary, basil, sage and etcetera bundled with lengths of twine and left to hang from the timbers of the pergola! Not only will they be delightfully fragrant, they add a rusticity that you simply can't buy! And if you have a garden, they're practically free.
Keep in mind that for our characters, cooking over an open fire isn’t a barbecue, it’s how we prepare everything we eat! This is the effect we need to present to the patron, even if county fire restrictions are keeping us from hanging a boiling cauldron above the coals for our washing! This is where we resort to set-dressing!
The picture above encompasses only the barest bones of a pre-modern kitchen. Add cauldrons and spits, stoneware mixing bowls and sizzling chickens. Bakers with their sleeves rolled back and their skirts protected by flour-dusted aprons hard at work behind a sturdy trestle table. A liberal sprinkling of children playing with homemade play dough “helping” the bakers and plenty of toothsome smells to complete the picture.
Speaking of 'bare bones'; the image to the left is a snapshot of our entire ‘kitchen’ arrangement from the 2005 season. (Note the leg sticking out of the pot. We call him “Stu”. He was a tax collector.) Beginning in 2006, the kitchen surrounding the physical Hearth of St Brigid will become the locus of our guild activities. Beginning with the building of our beehive oven and expanding in seasons to come, we will encompass everything necessary to create a perfectly period peasant repast!
(Eventually we hope to field a ‘peasant show’ akin to a 16th century cooking show. Think Alton Brown meets Shakespeare! Stay tuned!)
Scene Setting Sensations!