Knight Vision

Jeffrey Forgeng’s eclectic interests and sharp intellect shine at Higgins Armory

By Pamela H. Sacks
TELEGRAM & GAZETTE
2003

WORCESTER — Jeffrey L. Forgeng was an interpreter at Plimoth Plantation when he applied to become the Paul S. Morgan curator at the Higgins Armory Museum.

At Plimoth, Mr. Forgeng had assumed the persona of George Soule, a servant on one of the first voyages to America, who, over time, became extraordinarily prosperous.

Mr. Forgeng immersed himself in the voluminous material available on Soule. He even traveled to Soule’s village in Worcestershire, England, to experience the ambience and perfect the rural accent that the 17th-century settler would have had.

Of course, Mr. Forgeng had numerous other qualifications for the new curatorship, a joint enterprise that grew out of a longstanding relationship between Higgins and WPI. Besides holding a doctorate in medieval studies from the University of Toronto, Mr. Forgeng is fluent in French, Latin, German, Spanish and Icelandic.

But his time spent as George Soule in 1998 clinched the deal.

“We wanted somebody with his style and an overarching view of the field,” said Kent dur Russell, the museum’s executive director. “He is the perfect head of a curatorial department of a museum that wants to bring a broad cultural context to a very difficult and arcane collection.”

Mr. Forgeng said that the diversity of the dual position and the idea of breathing life into medieval inanimate objects was irresistible. “We think of arms and armor in a certain role, but the real story is so much more complex,” he said.

Mr. Forgeng spends half his time at Higgins, where he mounts exhibitions and consults on educational programs, and the balance at WPI, where he guides students in examining the interaction between technology and the human environment, particularly in a historical context.

He will mark his fourth anniversary in the job in January. It has been a productive time. His third major exhibition, “Passage to India: The Arms and Armor of South Asia,” opened earlier this fall.

He also has two new books out, one having to do with medieval sword fighting and the other with 17th-century games and sports.

“One of the great things about this job,” Mr. Forgeng remarked, “is that it’s an opportunity to grow.”

Mr. Forgeng chose to focus on the arms and armor of India because that vast and complex country remains something of a mystery to Americans, even though it is fast becoming a political and economic powerhouse.

On display is evidence of the fine craftsmanship of South Asian artisans, who worked mainly in the 18th and 19th centuries. “A lot of these artifacts are not about warfare,” Mr. Forgeng said. “They are ceremonial. It’s about cultural, personal and religious identities.”

There are exquisitely decorated swords, daggers and sabers in steel, iron and gold, some encrusted with precious stones. The blade of one 18th-century sword is made of wootz steel — which has the appearance of shot silk — and pattern welded steel forged together to form a chevron. A jamadhar, a child’s punch dagger, has a finely etched handle made of wootz steel, gold leaf and iron. “It’s done with subtlety and delicacy,” Mr. Forgeng said. “It’s really a fabulous piece.”

Mr. Forgeng’s ultimate goal, though, is to bring alive the stories and societal significance attached to the artifacts. A 19th-century photograph of a rajah and boy seated side by side and looking into the camera is strangely magnetic. The two are bedecked in ceremonial outfits, including turbans and swords, befitting the period.

“These people are different, but they are also like us,” Mr. Forgeng explained. “That’s the way we can wrap our minds around what these artifacts mean. There is a humanity in that picture, a Little League aspect to it. At the same time, it is a completely different world. It is partly the tension between familiarity and unfamiliarity that makes it so compelling.”

When he came to Higgins, Mr. Forgeng had no special knowledge about arms and armor, so he went about educating himself. In Mr. Russell’s view, Mr. Forgeng already has had considerable impact on that rarified world.

His first show focused on the mesh-like material known as mail that was worn by medieval warriors under plate armor. His second, “The Age of Armor,” just started a 16-city tour that will last five years.

“It’s incredible,” Mr. Russell said. “This exhibit was fully booked in two weeks. In a short while, Jeffrey Forgeng will be a major force in the research field of arms and armor.”

None of this seems to have gone to Mr. Forgeng’s head. He has a gentle, patient manner. He often wears black, which complements his dark, curly hair and trim beard. There is a touch of eccentricity about him, so it is not overly surprising to learn that he has taken the unusual step of changing his surname from Singman to Forgeng, his mother’s maiden name.

He made the switch several years ago, after his father’s death. His mother’s family was from the village of Roselle, which straddles the border between France and Germany. The scenario fit his interest in the interaction of languages and cultures.

“I had gone through a divorce a couple of years before, and it was a fresh start,” Mr. Forgeng said, sitting in his small office on the ground floor of the museum. “I’ve done a lot of things in my life for my career. This was worth doing for me.”

His interest in the archaic and esoteric surfaced at an early age.

He started learning Latin by studying with the school secretary when he was in sixth grade. “It was like a secret code,” he remembered.

As a student at Brown University, he took a course taught by several medieval scholars that examined the era through science, technology, history, literature and a host of languages. It sparked Mr. Forgeng’s interest in Old English, Old Irish and Old Norse. After graduating in 1983, he headed to Iceland on a Fulbright to learn Icelandic, an archaic Scandinavian language.

After completing his doctorate, Mr. Forgeng joined scholars at the University of Michigan who were compiling the Middle English Dictionary. He gave seven years to the project, which, from start to finish, stretched over seven or eight decades.

“It’s a fabulous resource,” Mr. Forgeng said of the reference work. “It’s mostly for scholars. If you want to find quick information about some kind of concept or artifact in the past, you can turn to it. I use it constantly.”

During those years, Mr. Forgeng also wrote several books, among them “Daily Life in Chaucer’s England” and “Daily Life in Elizabethan England.” Then there was the stint at Plimoth Plantation.

His two most recent books are entirely different from each other. He has translated and interpreted a manuscript on swordsmanship written by priests in 1300. It was squirreled away in the Royal Armouries in England for decades. Mr. Forgeng’s volume, “The Medieval Art of Swordsmanship: A Facsimile and Translation of Europe’s Oldest Personal Combat Treatise,” contains the manuscript’s charming, hand-painted drawings that show a priest demonstrating personal combat techniques with a male student. Toward the end, the student is replaced by a woman named Walpurgis. No one knows why.

“It’s a big mystery,” Mr. Forgeng said. “I think of her as Zena, the warrior princess of the 13th century.”

The other volume, “Francis Willughby’s Book of Games,” was co-authored with two British scholars, Dorothy Johnston and David Cram. It is a transcription of a 17th-century manuscript that diagrams such activities as hopscotch, tag and board and word games. Willughby was an aristocrat who wrote the manuscript as a child in the 1660s.

Mr. Forgeng is now working on a book about daily life in Shakespeare’s England with Heather N. Feland, Higgins’ director of education. The two are good friends who have similar ideas about how the museum should serve its visitors. They are dedicated to serious historical interpretation — but they know how to have a good time with it.

Not long ago, Mr. Forgeng turned 40. Ms. Feland and Dianne E. Berg, a senior interpreter, wrote him a song in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan, of whom Mr. Forgeng is a fan. Ms. Feland broke into gales of laughter as she recounted the two singing “He is the Very Model of an Arms and Armor Curator.” Following the musical tribute, they presented him with a toy pony.

“We decided he really needs to have a proper steed to accompany him,” Ms. Feland said.

Mr. Forgeng seems to be as eclectic in his personal tastes as he is in his scholarly life. Worcester took a little getting used to, but he now really enjoys what the city has to offer. On that momentous birthday, he went to Ralph’s and played pool, which, he said, is “exactly what one should do in Worcester.”