Troupe armed with accuracy

Meticulous medieval re-enactors find perfect home at Higgins

By Pamela H. Sacks
TELEGRAM & GAZETTE
2003

WORCESTER — Some members of the Company of the Wolfe Argent may be garbed in plates of glimmering steel, but viewers should not expect a gimmicky, Hollywood-style show.

These re-enactors of the late Middle Ages are purists — and proud of it.

The troupe of a dozen members offers a historically correct glimpse of the Duchy of Burgundy in the 1470s. With its dominance of the textile trade, the region, which stretched from Denmark to the Alps, was the economic center of northern Europe.

The members of Wolfe Argent interpret a military unit of the Burgundian Army — the third chamber of the second squadron of the 10th Company of the Ordinances raised by Charles the Bold and commanded by Baudoin de Lannoy, a Knight of the Golden Fleece, to be exact.

Why so specific? Because some detailed history of that particular unit exists, said Robert W. Reed, who with his wife, Jennifer L.R. Reed, founded Wolfe Argent in 1997.

That documentation offers a big advantage as the Reeds fight a rising tide of mythologized movie images of medieval Europe.

“ `A Knight’s Tale’ it ain’t it,” Mrs. Reed said, laughing. “And `Braveheart’? Interesting story; bad history,” added Mr. Reed.

The Reeds, who spoke by telephone from their home in Nashua, N. H., explained that mounting historically correct re-enactments of European life half a millennium ago has proved to be an awesome challenge.

Not surprisingly, there isn’t a good deal in the way of reliable sources, such as letters, journals, diaries and documents. Moreover, until recently it was nearly impossible to purchase the accouterment needed to set the scene. In contrast, an entire industry quickly sprang up around American Civil War re-enactors, who can buy everything from hoop skirts to hardtack.

So, Wolfe Argent is continually evolving — often with the help of the staff at the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, Mr. Reed said. Staff members have assisted with research and provided the troupe with entree to key institutions, such as the Royal Armouries in England.

The troupe members, all volunteers, reciprocate by performing at the Higgins on the first Saturday of each month. They demonstrate how to put on a suit of armor and how medieval warriors deftly wielded their ungainly weapons, all while describing the society that produced these fascinating objects.

“The Higgins has been a wonderful venue for us,” Mr. Reed said. “They’re our friends and mentors. We couldn’t have done what we’ve done without them.”

The suits of steel, which have come to symbolize an entire age, only scratch the surface of what Wolfe Argent seeks to re-enact.

“People are attracted to the shiny bits, the armor, the horses,” Mr. Reed noted. “The majority of the group is interested in other aspects of medieval life.”

OWN PERSONALITY

One member has focused on brewing and archery, for instance; two women are skilled seamstresses. Each member is gradually developing his or her own persona, a character that is as true to the period as possible.

Mr. Reed, 39, is the furthest along in this effort. He portrays Stephen Philpot, an Englishman working in the service of the Duke of Burgundy. Mr. Reed created a fictional person from a real family whose experiences he unearthed from court records.

Philpot is typical of the age, Mr. Reed said. He is wily and ambitious and manages to amass a small fortune. He is able to buy a manor, thus moving his family into the upper class.

“He’s sort of like a social climber,” Mr. Reed said. “All their servants wear livery.”

Mrs. Reed, 37, is in the nascent stages of developing her medieval alter ego. She intends to be a merchant at a time when women were able to accrue a good deal of power and wealth. When men died, their wives often took control of their businesses. Twenty-four percent of the steel trade in Cologne was controlled by women in the late Middle Ages, Mrs. Reed pointed out.

“I lovingly refer to myself as a medieval arms dealer,” she quipped.

Both of the Reeds are captivated by medieval material culture, which has led them to an aspect of re-enactment known as experimental archaeology.

Mrs. Reed, who is a Web designer, is replicating a horn and bone saddle from the Wallace collection in London. A team of radiologists will take X-rays to see where nails are located and how the structure was put together. The saddle will be made by hand in birch and ash, covered with leather and decorated with a hand-carved horn plate.

COAT OF ARMOR

“Currently in the medieval living history community, only one group has a replica of a medieval saddle,” she said.

Mr. Reed, an electronics technician, is re-creating a brigandine, a flexible coat of armor that he described as a “modern flak jacket but covered with silk and velvet.”

Medievalists gather and relive historic events, just as Civil War re-enactors do. Wolfe Argent will join other groups in September in Pennsylvania to re-enact Michaelmas 1461. Re-enactors from Florida, Maryland, Tennessee, Texas and across New England are planning to attend, Mrs. Reed said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Reed, who majored in history in college and spent several years as a Civil War re-enactor, soon will have an article published in the Mail Research Society Journal on the armor purchases in the Howard household accounts.

“We’re constantly doing research,” Mr. Reed said. “It’s a work in progress, and I don’t think it will ever be finished. We strive to learn more and create more.

“We also have a jolly good time.”