What's This?

Interpreting Images of Period Tentage

"BC" Style Sunshade found to be Period! (Well, maybe...)

Back in the mists of time, Duke Frederick of Holland (known outside the SCA as Dr. Frederick Hollander of the University of California at Berkeley, and as "Flieg" to people in both communities) decided he needed a large sunshade. He sewed three wide pieces of cloth together to make a piece about fifteen feet wide and forty feet long or so, and set the fabric up on a frame consisting of longer center poles and shorter side poles, with the ends staked down. The result was a shape that stood up well in winds and shed rain adequately. (The original version was much lower and wider than the ones currently in use. Somebody remarked that, at a distance, it looked like a Klingon Battle Cruiser, and from that day to this its nickname has been the "BC.") The picture above shows such a sunshade.

Over the years, the BC has become a common artifact of SCA camping in the western half of the US and, due to its prominence at big events like the SCA's Pennsic Wars and the Thirty Year Celebration (where something like four or five of them were linked in tandem to form a Great Hall), is making inroads into the rest of the SCA. Versions of it have also been made for use as sunshades in hang gliding events, since their stability in winds lend themselves favorably to the kind of windy conditions where hang gliders are likely to be found.

It didn't particularly bother anybody that there was no documentation for this sunshade's use during the Middle Ages. Duke Frederick figured that, since it was simply a piece of fabric supported by some straight poles, it was certainly within the technological grasp of that era. Its use would not, therefore, be too out of place in a medieval context.

And so the situation remained until this summer, when my brother Joe (known in the SCA as Master Joseph de la Tour) was in a museum in Florence, Italy, looking at some tableware from the sixteenth century. One of the painted plates caught his eye in particular, since he knew I was a sucker for tent pictures, and he took a picture of that plate.

Is this a picture of a BC? Well, the drape of the side surely suggest that it's made of fabric. It's a little harder to be sure about the roof section. It is possible that this was made of wood, as suggested by the color. However, the width of the panels seems more consistent with cloth than with wood, and the structure's placement within what otherwise looks like an encampment suggests that it was a portable structure. There are no visible guy lines, but I doubt that their absence means that the poles were dug into the ground to support the structure. After all, this a plate, folks -- how much detail can we expect the painter to get into his composition? In fact, we don't even see the poles represented, although it is hard to envision a structure that avoids them yet satisfies the requirements of stability and portability.

Likewise, I discounted what looks like a slight drape in the right side of the roof section, on the grounds that it might have simply been the curvature of the plate I was seeing, not a true detail of the painting. The arc on the right side of the picture is, in fact, the painted rim of the plate.

I don't know if we have enough detail to claim unequivocably that BCs are "period." However, I'm satisfied that the general shape would have been quite familiar in sixteenth-century Italy, and it would not have been much of a surprise to see such a structure made of cloth. I feel much better about having made a lot of them in my career as tentmaker.

Now if I can just track down that rumor that Abrecht Dürer drew pictures of what look suspiciously like dome tents...


Well, I did track down those "Dürer Dome Tents." More on that later, but first, I'll bring you up to date on some further "BC" sightings.

The first one is a depiction of some soldiers relaxing after the successful fall of Valenciennes, in Belgium, which occurred in 1567. It can be found in Hugh Trevor-Roper's The Age of Exploration.

It's an engraving from Strada's "De Bello Belgico" (1651 Edition). Note the date, because that puts the picture out of our period of study.The question is: was the engraver working from another sketch, made after the battle, or was he drawing what he figured an encampment of that period would look like? We don't know, and therefore this engraving can't be considered documentation for the kind of tent we see around the SCA. At most, it can be said that the artist would have considered that sort of tent appropriate to that particular era.

Note also that the tent doesn't use guy ropes, either. Instead, it's draped over cross-poles supported by vertical posts that seem to be embedded in the ground. The closest I can come to a canopy roughly like the BC style that's supported by guys comes in a picture of the Duch East India Company's settlement on the Ganges in Bengal:

But this picture is dated 1665, which again puts it somewhat outside the SCA's focus period. (What's interesting about this picture is that while it shows a large tent, consisting of a canopy without sides, there's also another tent on the right border of the picture that looks like it has one side going completely to the ground, in the manner of the BC sunshades. In fact, I've seen sunshades pitched exactly that way when more shade was called for, yet one side hand to stay down either to hide stuff behind it or to act as a windbreak.)

That last picture is also from Trevor-Roper's The Age of Exploration. as is the next one, which I'm including here because it shows a tent I thought I'd never see in that context:

Once more, it's a post period (1628) depiction of a period (1572) occurence, in this case the seige of Haarlem. What arrested my attention were those tents in the foreground. Those sure like Viking tents to me, with the cross-pieces not only holding up a ridge pole but extended a little longer than they had to be ... and (although it's hard to be sure given the resolution) slightly curved for ornamental effect. What they're doing in a picture of a late-period siege is beyond me, but it seems that that design stuck around a lot longer than I'd previously thought.

And as for that "Dürer Dome Tent," I spent many fruitless hours in libraries and on-line, looking at hundreds of images of Dürer's work, and have come to the conclusion that that depiction just doesn't exist. But a friend of mine gave me the following picture, and thinks that this may have been the source of the rumor:

Nicolas Meldemann was a contemporary of Dürer (he actually came along a little later), and their art does share a superficial resemblance, so it's easy to to see how the rumor got started.

See that thing in the foreground? Is that a dome tent?

Well, probably not. More likely, it's a structure rigged up to keep something underneath dry (possibly the gunpowder used with the cannons next to it). There's no visual evidence that it was used as a shelter for people and, as far as I've been able to ascertain, no other documentary evidence in any form. Note, too, that the frame is totally internal, whereas most "earth pimples" I've seen have an exterior frame. So you'd have a real problem talking your way into a period encampment with one of these. I suppose you could say that it's a sort of "camouflaged" tent, in the same way that an ice chest built inside a Viking chest could be considered "camouflaged," but to my eyes a dome tent is still too modern, in both materials and construction, to be considered appropriate.

Memlinc's Ursula Shrine

The picture reproduced above is a detail of Hans Memlinc's Shrine of Saint Ursula, consecrated in 1489. (The piece itself is in the Memlinc Museum, St. John's Hospital, Bruges.) I'm using it here to illustrate some of the joys and pitfalls of doing research based on period representations.

The scene portrays what seems to be a military encampment of one Julian, prince of the Huns. Ursula, whose face appears in the lower left of the detail, is in the process of being martyred for her refusal to marry Julian; hence her justifiable discomfort. There are three tents in the scene, all fairly representative of the time and place ... painted seams and architectural details, guy ropes, etc. What's curious about them is the differences in their valances. The leftmost one, an oval (sometimes called a "marquee"), has no valance at all. The middle one, also an oval, has what at first glance I took to be a valance, until I realized that it follows the split of the open door. This makes it of little value as a weatherstrip, and I've concluded that it's not a proper valance at all but an ornamental detail of the sidewalls ...a faux valance. The third tent, a round one, shows a proper valance (possibly fringed) with the panel of the open door disappearing behind it.

So it looks like we have three different styles of eave treatment represented! I initially wondered if the artist himself had taken liberties with the subject, but his rendering of other details is very exact. Not only does he show the guy ropes, but the precise correlation of the guy rope angles and that of the roof lines persuades me that these particular tents probably used no side poles, relying on the guy rope tension to keep the roof's shape. So it's hard to believe that the same artist blew an obvious detail when he portrayed the valance split on the middle tent.

At the same time, we see in other places on the painting (which I haven't reproduced here) where he has taken definite liberties with the scale of objects and people, following what art historian Frederick Hartt calls "the age-old principle of double scale for people and setting" common in Medieval art. So while we can be fairly confident of Memlinc's rendition of detail, we must not extrapolate from that he got everything right and that everything about the depiction, including the scale, can be trusted.

Index of Previous Columns

Other articles of interest, mostly about tents and tentmaking

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