The HFS is, in a nutshell, a theater. In this theater, we wear costumes and play parts. Most of us aren't perfect actors, or wearing perfect costumes, but we all realize how important these activities are to the success of an event.
There's another vital element in nearly every theatric endeavor, and that is building the set, and finding the right props for the drama. This attention to the backdrop behind all our HFS activities is just as important as the garb we wear; it is, in fact, the costume our environment wears. That's why a lot of us make banners, use candles or cover our modern lighting with paper lantern covers instead using clearly undisguised modern lanterns and flashlights, and make or buy medieval-style furniture or use mundanity covers on our folding camp chairs.
Of course, not everybody does this. And hardly anybody starts out in the HFS this way. It can be a big drain of time, money, and effort, and some people quite rightly feel that there are other aspects of the HFS (or life itself) on which these precious resources can be better spent.
At some point, though, most people want to improve their "kit" in some way. Some become interested in how their personas would have cooked over fire, or made furniture or jewelry or pottery or whatever, and find that the best way to learn about it is to try their hand at it. Some have had the fortune of visiting a camp where people have worked hard to make every artifact as close to period as they could, and discovered for themselves how these camps can become time machines, transporting us from the twenty-first century to the Middle Ages. For many of us, our first exposure to the "time machine" effect was at a feast, where most of the setting had been arranged beforehand. We realized that there was real magic to be had there, once we had banned the modern artifacts from our sight.
Like nearly everything else in the HFS, there are at least degrees to which this effect may be taken. For some folks, it's not a big priority. They don't mind sleeping in a dome tent and cooking on a propane stove set up outside. For others, it's a vital component of the HFS and without it, events would not be worth going to. Everybody else is somewhere in between. At the very least, we should all realize that we're bound to intrude on somebody else's "theater set" from time to time and we should look the part, drinking from a mug instead of a beer bottle and leaving the iPod in camp and all modern conversation of computers and video games back at home.
Among those who view their campsites as part of the theater set, there is a rule of thumb that some find useful. It's called the "ten-foot rule. Simply stated, the rule is: If it looks authentically medieval from a distance of ten feet or more, it passes the test and can be used in the encampment. Many people would expand that rule to say that if it doesn't look glaringly modern from ten feet away, it belongs in the encampment. There's a subtle difference here. For example, a tent made of a modern canvas wouldn't look like a tent made of a period-weave cloth, even at a distance of ten feet, so it might not pass the test in its stricter formulation, but as long as it doesn't call attention to itself for the average participant, it would easily pass the broader test.
I must stress that this is a continuum, not a set of gradations. Thankfully, there is nobody walking around your tent with a checklist, adding points for hemp ropes and subtracting them for metal grommets and wire-spike tent stakes. We are continually making compromises because of constraints of money, weight, set-up time, and availability of materials.
This article is about how to get around some of these constraints, and how to best use your resources to create a period camp. There are four basic strategies: Hide, Disguise, Periodize and Compromise.
The cheapest and easiest way toward a period encampment is simply to hide the offending articles. This can be done, in the case of ice chests and chairs and such, by simply throwing a piece of cloth over it. This cloth is often referred to as a mundanity cover. Tablecloths can usually be had at thrift stores for a dollar or two. They may have a minor defect, like a stain or a small hole, which doesn't detract from its function.
Obviously, this technique doesn't work very well for larger things like tents, but even these things can be hidden from view using a fabric wall made of old solid colored bed sheets. Many people have started their encampment by making or buying a simple sunshade, for which they improvise a back wall using curtains, bed sheets, or fabric drop cloths from the hardware store. The back wall conceals all the modern stuff behind it.
Once you manage to disguise the modern nature of your tent, it's easier to hide the stuff out of the weather; you simply put it inside the tent or behind the curtain wall and keep the door closed. That's pretty much how many folks get started. Everything inside the tent is modern, but nobody can see it. As one replaces the components, bit by bit, then they can bring thing outside the walls or leave the door open a little wider to expose the nice period bed and the wooden boxes that replaced the plastic totes.
Sometimes the modern article can be disguised as a period artifact. For example, an ice chest can be built (or enclosed) inside a six-board chest. This practice is usually the next step for those who like modern conveniences but want to make their campsites more period looking. For purists, it's also the first step down the road to Hell; they point out that if you're constructing a modern but "period-looking" artifact to fill a need in your encampment, why not devote a little more time and effort into constructing a truly "period" artifact to do the job, or redesign your camping style to eliminate the need?
Most of us have become used to refrigeration as a matter of taste (cold beverages), safety (keeping meat and milk from spoiling) or necessity (keeping medications cold). For those who need refrigerated items, it makes sense to keep the ice chest in their gear. Similarly, I've seen people put cold-drink dispensers inside barrels (with suitably modified spigots) and electric lights into lantern shells. There is no end to the ingenuity that folks have applied to the problem, and it's a distinct subset of the HFS camping experience.
For some, "periodizing" means gradually replacing the modern stuff with their period looking equivalents. As has already been mentioned the easiest method is the practice of gradually phasing out your plastic totes with period looking boxes, either bought or built. In the same way, when the metal cot you've been using finally bites the dust, you can replace it with a period-style rope-bed. Or maybe it's finally time to replace the director's chair with the Glastonbury chair you've been lusting after for the last three years. The point to remember here is that for most people, this replacement process is very gradual, and usually driven by need. As items get worn out or broken, they get replaced; depending on your finances and your schedule, you can replace them with identical modern pieces or with period looking pieces that serve the same function.
At some of the enchanted encampments I've participated in, my fellow campers take pride in showing me something new that they've made or acquired. With each acquisition, they take one more step toward the encampment they envision for themselves,
When it comes down to it, we all are forced to make compromises in the stuff we have. Otherwise, we'd be furnishing our camps with actual pieces of medieval furniture (stolen, no doubt, from museums). We can't forage for fuel on site, or cut down trees for building materials. We gladly eschew the pleasures of the medieval field toilets in favor of modern toilets.
Take lighting, for example. In period, people used primarily rush lights (which seldom burned cleanly), oil lamps (which were fueled with vegetable oils and rendered animal fats rather than kerosene), or candles (which required constant trimming because the self-trimming wick was still in the future). Most of us would rather use kerosene-based lamp oils and modern self-trimming candles instead, and these would not be out of place in most of the period encampments I've encountered.
Another compromise it is wise to make is placing a modern fire extinguisher in a conspicuous place, near my firepit. Yes, it looks modern, but in this case, that's a virtue, not a vice. If it has been disguised or hidden, a person looking for it might not readily see it, and lose precious seconds that could have made a difference between a promptly doused fire and an incinerated tent. In this instance most of us are very willing to accept the compromise in the interests of safety.
Opportunities for "Period" CampingEdit
The HFS doesn't offer structured environments for period camping, such as dedicated areas at tourneys or wars. It's pretty much up to the households themselves to determine how "period" they want their campsites to appear. Nobody expects you to show up at your first event with a completely authentic campsite, but the people you're camping with will appreciate any efforts you make to keep the modern stuff hidden.
If you've been visiting at bardic circles, you're already aware that these circles vary widely in their musical or dramatic tastes. Some strive for period-sounding material only, some will tolerate filk, and some accept anything. It's the responsibility of the performer to find out what the house rules are and abide by them. The situation is really not that different at period encampments.
These rules aren’t always straightforward. For example, I was offered a drink at the "Enchanted Ground" where people are expected not only to present a period appearance but to stay in persona. In that spirit, I accepted the offer but apologized for the glass mug I happened to be carrying at the time. I was outside the encampment's boundary and he was inside it. His Grace stepped over the boundary rope and, as he filled the mug, he gently instructed me that it would have been better if I had not called attention to the mug’s nature at all, and instead simply presented it as a mug whose nature he could choose not to notice. And I must add that there were no hard feelings; rather than take offense that I didn’t play the game properly, he was delighted that I was playing at all. This attitude is typical of those in period encampments, so it’s a mistake to think that you shouldn’t attempt to play the game because you might misunderstand the rules. Remember, everybody was new to the HFS at one time. If we were all too shy to try something new, the HFS would have never come into existence at all!