*** I've been transferring my research over to its own website. More up-to-date projects can be found here: https://strangewayes.wordpress.com/
I realised a year or two ago that if I'm sick of all the fake pseudo-pirates in the SCA, the best thing I can do is to offer to teach a more period approach to the topic.
That said, I've been working on a class to that end, but the more I think about it the more I think it's gonna have to be a series of classes. I hope to teach them at GNEW next year. So far, I’ve come up with four separate classes designed towards a more accurate representation of the Late-Period English Maritime (specifically, pirate/privateer) persona. These are currently titled strictly by subject; please feel free to make witty suggestions.
Basic Piracy Overview – Myths & Legends
Point A to Point B - Navigation
Knots, Hulls, and Sails
Life at sea –Food, Drink, and Song
Myths and Legends Class
Overview: What is and what isn’t period?
Not Period: Frock coats, tricorner hats, rum, the title of “Captain” itself (commanders of vessels were usually referred to as the ship's master). Stereotypes of peg-legged, hook-handed men with lacy jabots, gold teeth & parrots.
Why? Most of the modern notion of “the pirate” comes from 18th century practices mixed in with Victorian theater and sentimentalized popular culture.
Where do these perceptions come from? Lots of the physical disfigurements simply come from the hard life at sea – limbs are lost in accidents or in combat; an eye can be lost through a misfiring weapon or through retinal damage from period navigational practices. The “pirate” dialect is a combination of the West Country British accents and the patois of the multicultural nature of crews. A British acquaintance of mine told me that he thinks the “arrgh” part of the “pirate” accent comes from the heavily-rolled R’s of the Cornish accent, as there were many Cornish sailors in the transatlantic fleets.
Okay, then what *is* period? Sea dogs, galleons, Spanish treasure fleets, Drake & Ralegh, privateers. (more as I think of it)
Context: English/Spanish tensions and rivalry, the race for colonies and resources, foreign policy & how that played out on the water. Letters of marque & their relative uselessness. Piracy/privateering in the English Channel and abroad. Two biggest North American hotspots for piracy: The West Indies, as the Spanish treasure fleets sailed for Spain, and the Spanish fishing fleets in Newfoundland.
How does that apply? Small coastal raiders versus larger expeditions with letters of marque, local European small-time piracy vs serious overseas political privateering. Why be a pirate or privateer? Worldview & nationalist motivations.
Not period: Again, frock coats, tricorner hats, jabots, anything you saw in Pirates of the Caribbean. The “Golden Age of Piracy” was 18th century, not SCA period.
: Common sailors wore thrum caps/Monmouth caps, oiled leather overcoats, canvas doublets and breeches, cassocks, in addition to standard late period kit found ashore (wool and linen doublets, breeches, shirts, etc). Carry a deck knife, not a dagger. (Yes, I know there’s the old “I have to be ready to repel boarders!” excuse, but it’s not true. Most pirate vessels stalked their target for several days beforehand, acquiring information before attacking. For a neat review of mainly post-period tactics with some period stuff included, see Cindy Vallar’s site
. Boarding cutlasses were issued on many ships at the onset of an attack, and stored along the rails. Think about it – you never want to be carrying anything that can snag in the rigging or otherwise impede movement. Leave your sword in the tent).
Knots, Hulls, and Sails
Not period: Schooners, huge aft-galleried galleons, anything you saw in Pirates of the Caribbean.
: Galleons, pinnaces, carracks, naos, caravels, etc. Most period ships look surprisingly clunky and top-heavy to modern eyes. The Mayflower II
is a reproduction of the standard generic late 16th
century English merchantman. See here for some really good line drawings of different period rigs
If you’re going to call yourself a sailor:
- Overview of basic ship terminology, basic sail terminology
- Explain standard pinrail diagram (maybe for MFII or just generic?)
- Sailing terms & how they apply in period
Maritime skills you ought to know: This is a hard one to advise on, since it crosses over into the realm of hard sailing experience.
o basic (bowline - John Smith's 1627 Seaman's Grammar is perhaps the first written reference to it, though probably much older; figure-eight, sheepshank, fisherman’s knot, sheet bend, reef knot, etc)
o Advanced boat knots – monkey’s fist, turksheads, thump mats, etc. Not necessary, but they’re fun and impressive.
- Learn a few stars, it’ll help the impression. At least be able to find north.
Point A to Point B – Navigation
(Ideally, I’d teach this at night)
Not Period: Sextants, longitude
Period: Sandglass, Nocturnal, Log-line, Quadrant, Chip log, Magnetic Compass, Astrolabe, Cross-staff, Back-staff (Davis Quadrant), Traverse board, Hand lead-line and deepsea line.
Brief history of navigation: dead reckoning to celestial to magnetic, and the search for longitude. Compass variation: True virgins make dull company – add whisky / Can dead men vote twice at elections?
Uses and techniques: as we go, depending on how many of the items I’ve got.
Star overview: Go outside & point out some of the major navigational stars. Maybe make up some glow-in-the-dark star charts ahead of time, if I think about it. Bonus points if I can remember who taught that class on period astronomy a couple years ago…
Life at Sea – Food, drink, and song.
Food & Drink:
Not period: Rum!
Period: Hope you like dried peas, salt meat, hardtack, dried fruit and oatmeal. Fish also eaten. Bonus: Water went rancid quickly, so beer was the standard issue beverage. Martin Frobisher’s men were issued the following provisions during his 1576 voyage: a half-kilogram of dry biscuit, four liters of beer (preferable to water, which went stale), a kilogram of salt meat, some dried peas, a quarter of a salted fish, and some butter, cheese, rice, oatmeal, raisins and nuts. Hope you like scurvy, too.
Period recipes: Pease pottage, hardtack (Waiting to hear back from Plimoth’s foodways historians). Check my cookbooks for better ones. Make some up and pass out.
- Shanties versus sea songs
- Types of shanties
Period Shanties: John Dory, A-Roving, Golden Vanity
Period Sea Songs: Westron Wyndes, We be three poore mariners, To Portsmouth.
Non-period: Drunken Sailor, Blow the Man Down, pretty much anything you’ve ever heard them sing at the Ren Faires. Listen to the lyrics – anything mentioning engines, shipping lines, or most New World ports probably isn’t period. Most shanties date only to the 1800s.
Do these sound interesting to anyone? Would you go to at least one of these?