Like a good number of people involved in historical reenactments, my boyfriend has acquired some pretty impressive skills, such as Napoleonic-era wooden button creation, or early 19th century French army pants
- making. But there are some things you just can't do at home, like forging metal for historically accurate buckles, or cobbling a pair of old-fashioned shoes. For those, you have to go to the Marché de l'Histoire - the History Market.
There are temporary Marchés de l'Histoire all over Europe, which goes to show how popular reenactment is here. This weekend, one was held in Pontoise, a town about an hour northwest of Paris. The boyfriend had been to this Marché de l'Histoire last year with some of his reconstitution group friends, and had told me he thought it would be right up my alley. This year, he was in search of some inexpensive non-synthetic fabric to make another pair of pants - his previous pair, it turns out, is a replica of a type worn by Napoleon's soldiers before 1812; for later battles, he'd need pants in a slightly different style. This kind of attention to detail may sound like something exclusively reserved to my boyfriend and his particular reconstitution group. But what I'd find out from my visit to the Marché is that, just as with everything else in life, there are all kinds of people involved in reconstitution - and a lot of them are just as obsessed with tiny details as my boyfriend.
Whenever I'm about to visit a new place, the first things I ask myself are: 1. What is the toilet situation? and 2. What should I wear? While I knew the Marché would be held at an indoor convention center with toilets, I was worried about getting there. I'm so, so happy to say that by taking a chance on a Transilien suburban train, instead of the standard RER suburban trains, we ended up in transport with a toilet – sadly not a common thing when traveling around the Ile de France region! When I found out there was a toilet aboard the train, I can't express how happy and calm I felt. We found seats and settled in for the roughly hour-long ride, and I was ready to enjoy the scenery. So there's my tip for anyone who comes to Paris and wants to travel to the nearby suburbs by train: If possible, avoid the RER and take a Transilien. The latter trains may not all be guaranteed to have toilets, but there's a pretty good chance they do. They're also cleaner and much more modern than the RER trains.
As for what to wear, I thought I had a decent idea: a modified version of my steampunk Halloween costume
. Nothing too showy. Turns out I was way off - because when we got out of the train station at Pontoise and started walking towards the nearby exposition center where the Marché was being held, people dressed like medieval princesses, Vikings, and even pirates, crossed our paths. It turns out that the market-goers are a mix of regularly-dressed people, and people wearing elaborate costumes - often, like my boyfriend, costumes they've made themselves. Next time, the boyfriend and I agreed, we’ll be in full regalia.
Even the vendors dress up!
We got on line to enter, and I tried to hide my gleeful grin at a group of male and female pirates with a huge dog on a leash getting their picture taken by a medieval monk bearing a digital camera and tripod. That was my introduction to what would be a delightful afternoon.
The Marché, the boyfriend had told me, serves just about every kind of reenactment and role-playing group imaginable, from those doing ancient history reconstitutions (Romans, Gauls, Celts), to medievalists, to more recent historical periods like the Napoleonic era - or my absolute favorite time, the Belle-Époque, or the First and Second World Wars, not to mention steampunk and elf groups, and so on. The dresses some women wore - and some stands sold - took my breath away. The poor boyfriend, studiously checking the thickness of different types of linen, was constantly having his arm pulled by yours truly, as I whispered, "Look at that dress!!!"
These medieval dresses were among the first to catch my eye (they were right beside the entrance). Their stand is next to a booth for a Gallo-Roman reconstitution group. While the latter typically do battle reenactments (in France, these are usually from the Gallic Wars), the medieval groups tend to celebrate everyday aspects of medieval life, like music, dance, food, etc.
Even if you weren't there to buy a working replica of a medieval musical instrument,
you could still enjoy the Marché's free entertainment, a lively group that performed songs from the Middle Ages.
Though I don't do medieval reenactments myself, I could definitely see the appeal of having a medieval wedding
, complete with a made-to-order gown like this one (with a faux fur collar, please!):
As if she were a real-life fairytale character, Aurélie, who ran the stand, was actually eating an apple when I came upon her.
A stand a few aisles away made us ask the question, after your medieval wedding, why not start your new married life out with a custom-made Viking bed?
This woman was the only person I saw dressed in Georgian clothes.
Like many of the vendors, she'd travelled from afar to come to the Marché de l'Histoire - not from the past, but from Poland. After I took her picture, I told her that if she wanted, I would put a link to her business on my blog. She smiled wanly and said, "Thank you but I am just too tired to do that." She wasn't the only exhausted merchant there (one later shook his head bemusedly and confessed, "I am tired, and you know, it was just lunch, and I have been drinking a little..."). Generally, though, no matter how tired - or - er - tipsy - they were, everyone had something to say about how they'd made the costume they were wearing or the things they were selling. Not to sell more, but because they truly seemed fascinated by and passionate about historical research. The woman told me she'd also made her bonnet; done in her spare time, it had taken months of work.
Selling things really didn't seem to be the top priority for anyone. I saw one fabric stall owner more or less refuse to cut an extra half-meter of wool for someone, simply because he didn't want to get the bolt of cloth out again. He asked the man what he was going to make, then told him with expert knowledge, "Don't worry, you'll only need three meters for that." Most merchants didn't seem to watch too closely over pocketable goods like jewelry, or even their money: the aforementioned fabric stand had its cash box (a miniature wooden chest) on top of a cloth-strewn table, right in the center of the crowd.
Arrows and straw hats were typical big sellers at the Marché. The straw hats work for numerous reenactment groups, since, the boyfriend pointed out, they were worn by people in many different eras, from the Romans, on. The arrows, well...more on that later.
We were dealing with history, but popular culture had a slight influence, too. At one medieval clothing and jewelry stand, a dummy was adorned with a replica of the famous necklace worn by Anne Boleyn, a figure popularized in France by the TV series "The Tudors."
Cool as all that was, I thought I'd died and gone to Heaven when we came upon this display of gorgeous outfits:
Though the costumes - often handmade using only period-accurate materials - were usually (and understandably) costly, lots of other items for sale were not only very reasonably priced, but much less expensive than they'd be somewhere else. Even a person with a small budget (like me!) could easily find a souvenir to take home. These medieval letter pendants, for example, only cost 1 euro and 44 centimes each (about $2 in the US),
and this charming fibula (pin for holding a scarf/shawl in place), was 8 euros and 75 centimes (about $10 in the US).
They were all made by Lorifactor
, a collective of meatlworkers (including Eukasz Lervandoski, who manned the stand) based in Poland and specializing in medieval and Celtic designs.
Amid all the dazzling costumes and jewelry,
this little item stopped me in my tracks:
A pair of historical-replica underwear! Alongside it were bustles and other 17th-to-19th century undergarments. Having read and been totally fascinated by The History of Underclothes by C. Willet and Phillis Cunnington
this past summer, I was so thrilled to see these. Jane, the person who makes them, is an Englishwoman now living in France, who sews historic under- and outer-wear for a living (you can check out her work here
). She was so friendly and so passionate about what she does, that we talked for a good twenty minutes or so about everything from those underwear (which she says aren't her biggest seller, but which she makes and wants available to preserve a part of history), to how your body changes when wearing a corset (apparently, a woman can immediately cinch her waist in by 2 inches without feeling particularly uncomfortable - after that, it takes practice, but you could cut out up to 4 inches without any major health issues). I am super-jealous of Jane, I have to admit; in addition to her extensive knowledge of historical undergarments and her ability to make them, she also creates actual dresses. She started doing medieval ones, and now tends to do 18th and 19th century gowns. In this photo I took of her and her husband in their stand, she's wearing a replica she made of a 19th century dress that can actually be seen in a museum today. Underneath, Jane told me openly, she's got on one of her corsets.
In addition to crafts, clothes, and corsets, historically-accurate food is another thing you can buy at the Marché de l'Histoire. Stands selling ancient Roman-style jams and pâtés, or medieval wine, abound. Here's a stand featuring breads and pastries made from medieval recipes:
A close-up of medieval dried fruit pastries:
We had a great time at the Marché de l'Histoire. Once we got home, we reveled in our spoils:
a ring, medieval letter pendants, a fibula, a pound of gingerbread, as well as items for the boyfriend's next reconstitution outing: two bolts of cloth for uniform-making, three knives with sheaths, clothespins that would have been used in the Napoleonic army to hang wet clothes, a wooden bowl and spoon accurate to that time as well. As for the bow...well....
As the large number of dogs (and also one ferret) attested, animals are welcome at the Marché de l'Histoire. I don't think Ali would have liked the crowds, although he really seems to appreciate the bow.
Priced at only 10 euros, the bows (along with those aforementioned arrows) sold like hotcakes at the Marché. They were supposed to be for children, but I only saw grown men (my boyfriend included) carrying them slung over their shoulders. I guess this once-formidable weapon brought out the kid in a lot of people.
...Or maybe it's because of the current popularity of "The Hunger Games"?
Me doing my best Katniss. Sadly, my hair is too short for a braid….
From people wearing real-looking elf ears, to displays of replica medieval shoes, to undergarments that look like what your ancestors probably wore, you never know what you'll discover at the Marché de l'Histoire. If you have a chance to go to one, I highly suggest you do - it's fantastic, in every sense of the word.
Probably even more fantastic than this photo of Ali rocking my "A" pendant.