University of Atlantia session #95

You may remember that back in June, MrH and I (and a couple of friends) attended the summer session of the University of Atlantia, a regional symposium of classes on all aspects of life in the European Middle Ages and Renaissance.

We gave the November session a miss, as it was way up in Maryland. But the February session was held at a community college only a couple of hours from home, which meant we could daytrip, and we weren’t about to miss it!


The University of Atlantia has its own registration system, but in the past I’ve just emailed a list of the classes I wanted to the registrar. This time, I decided to give it a whirl.

First, I had to create an account.

Clicking the link took me to a table with a list of fields to fill out – user name, first name, last name, email, all the usual stuff. Each of the fields was labeled, making the form easy to fill out using my screen reader.

The final field was for a captcha image. Well, darn it! Was I going to have to get MrH to help me after all?

No. No, I wasn’t. A little further down there was an option for an audio captcha. And, wonder of wonders, it worked! I was in!

After that, registration was just a matter of navigating to the description of the classes I wanted and clicking the “Register” button that now appeared. Voila!

I didn’t test the system’s limitations, but MrH reports that if the class is full, you can sign up to be on the waiting list, that the system won’t let you sign up for two classes during the same time slot, and that unregistering for a class is as easy as clicking a button.

Well done, University of Atlantia!

Rags to Riches: Rag Paper Production During the Middle Ages

Unfortunately, we got a later start than we intended, and I missed the first half of this class. On the plus side, I did get the handout, which meant I could catch up on the background later, and was there for the practical demonstration.

The art of making paper began in China and spread to the Middle East when a group of paper-makers were captured during a war. From there, it spread to Europe.

Paper wasn’t very popular in Europe at first, as people considered it a “poor man’s substitute” for parchment or vellum. But it got a real boost with the advent of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press and came into common use.

The process of making paper by hand is very similar today. Fibers are dissolved into a slurry with water, then spread onto a screen and lifted free. The resulting wet sheet is removed from the screen and pressed between layers of “felt” – heavy cloth that absorbs water – and pressed, then allowed to dry. Sizing may be added either with the fibers or to the damp sheets.

This is definitely something I want to try, though it will have to wait until I can get my hands on the equipment. I wish I’d thought to ask if I could handle a finished (dry) sheet!

Fiber Felting and Fulling

My next class was hands-on, and probably my favorite of the day.

Wool fibers, it turns out, have a ragged cuticle, or coating, and when they are agitated, they grab on and cling to one another. This means that wool can be matted into cloth, or even sculpted into shapes.

We began with needle felting, a dry felting method which isn’t period, but is a heck of a lot of fun! Essentially, you press the fibers together and poke them with a special needle that has barbs on the tip. Repeatedly. This tangles the fibers and melds the pieces together, and is also very cathartic.

I stuck some roving (combed-out wool ready to be spun) and bits of fluff to my background material and brought home several scraps and bits to practice on. The result is very tactile – I could easily feel where the bits were stuck down and trace the shape of them – and I came away bursting with ideas for projects to make.

One word of caution: Felting needles are sharp! I pricked my fingers several times, and it really stung. The jabs didn’t bleed much, though, so there’s that.

I also got to try my hand at fulling, where you work loose fibers together in warm soapy water. The soap breaks down the lanolin on the wool and opens the cuticle so the fibers can mat together. I molded mine into a little heart, but with more fiber and a larger pan, you can make actual pieces of cloth for insoles, slippers, and even entire garments.

You can also use the technique on knitted or woven wool items to produce a thick, durable cloth.

Lunch and Convocation

This University was hosted by the Barony of Raven’s Cove, who saved us from having to go off campus by providing a delicious fundraiser lunch.

We had a choice of ham or turkey sandwich, vegetarian or ham and potato soup, choice of an apple or an orange, and two huge cookies. Oh, and water or lemonade to drink. Everything was delicious, and the portions big enough that I saved my apple for later.

Well done, Raven’s Cove!

After lunch, we went to the auditorium, where the Baron and Baroness thanked everyone involved in putting on the event and the Chancellor of the University awarded the degrees that people had earned by attending and/or teaching a certain number of classes.

Then it was off to class again!

Courtesans: Selling the Illusion of Love

I signed up for this class partly because it sounded fascinating, and partly to get background flavor for a character I’m writing.

The first thing I learned was that I really should have taken the instructor’s class on prostitution in the Middle Ages at a previous University, because it sounds as though it was full of great information. Ah, well. Another time.

The gist of it, I gather, is that prostitution was common and widely accepted for much of the Middle Ages, but at some point people began to frown on it and pass laws to restrict prostitutes to brothels, or forbid it altogether.

Enter the courtesan, who invited men into her house for parties and other entertainment and sold sex discreetly (or not so discreetly) on the side.

Courtesans especially flourished in the Italian states, where many men were attached to the Church and not allowed to marry. Courtesans were seen as luxury items, like a Lambourghini, and being able to support one was a mark of social status. They were usually not paid in money, which would have been seen as crass, but in housing, jewelry, clothing and other gifts.

Being a courtesan was often a family business, with mothers teaching daughters the secrets of the trade and selling their virginity to the highest bidder – sometimes more than once! It was also a cottage industry, with courtesans supporting many servants and hangers-on.

There was a lot more information in this two-hour class, including portraits of some of the more famous courtesans. I hope I’ve gotten everything correct, as I didn’t take notes during the class and am working from memory. If you are at all interested in this topic and have an opportunity to take the class, I highly recommend it!

Stroke in the SCA

This was my final class of the day, again two hours long.

I overlooked it on the schedule, because I thought it had to do with blows in heavy weapons fighting or fencing. But when MrH mentioned it to me and I realized it had to do with the medical condition, I switched my registration to attend it.

The instructor had a stroke at the age of 30, which was misdiagnosed at first because the ER personnel thought he was “too young to have a stroke.” When he collapsed the next day, he was admitted to the hospital for treatment, then went through rehabilitation.

He received a lot of support from his friends in the SCA, and participating in the SCA again helped motivate him in his recovery.

As he discussed some of the symptoms of stroke – aphasia (difficulty with words or speech), exhaustion, confusion – I teared up, because I identified with so many of them.

Those were the things that happened to me while Bob the Brain Tumor was slowly taking over my brain. But because they set in so gradually, instead of all at once, they slipped under the radar. I had a stroke in slow motion, I thought.

A quick way to remember what to do in case of stroke is to memorize the FAST acronym. If you or someone you know experiences Facial drooping or paralysis, weakness in the Arms, or Slurred speech, then Time is of the essence – seek medical attention immediately!

The instructor offered some great tips for participating in the SCA, which I think apply to anyone with a disability: Know your limitations. Go with a friend who can help you if you need it. Have a strategy in case you need to get away or rest for a while. Accept that you may not be able to do all the things you used to, and look for new ways to be involved.

Again, there was a lot of information and I’m only hitting the high points. If you have a chance to take this class, I highly recommend it.

Afterthoughts and Notes for the Future

I had an awesome time, and I can’t wait to do University again! I almost wish there were two of me, because almost every hour there was at least one other class, often more, that I also wanted to attend.

I collected handouts for each of my classes, but will have to either get someone to read them for me, or digitize them to read on the computer. I’m thinking about printing up business cards and asking instructors if they will email me the class handouts. I don’t know if everyone will be comfortable with it, as it is their hard work they are sending off, but it’s a quick way to get the information to me in an accessible form.

My biggest problem continues to be navigating between classes. MrH and I had planned to arrive early so I could get oriented to the site, but our late start prevented that, and as the classes were in several different buildings, it might not have helped. It didn’t help, either, that it was frigid outside and I didn’t want to linger to learn my way around!

Fortunately, SCA folks are some of the friendliest and most helpful people I know. People were quick to offer to guide me from one class to another, and I could likely have made it through the entire day without MrH just by accepting their offers.

Well done, SCA!

I want to teach at a University. I could probably put together a class for stick weaving or braiding, but I think it would be great to do a class on blind people during our time period and making the Modern Middle Ages more accessible to people with visual impairment.

How about you? Does University of Atlantia sound like your kind of event? Have you learned anything exciting lately?


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