Karfunkel - A Portrait of the Company of Saynt George

The German Medieval Magazine Karfunkel ran a special volume on Reenactment lately under the title "Karfunkel Combat". The issue contained an interview with Christian Folini. There have been quite a few interviews about the Company of St. George during the years, most of them quite dull.  But in this case, the exchange of thoughts was really interesting thanks to the mindful questions asked by Karfunkel's Anja Grevener.

Karfunkel allowed us to translate the interview to English and to publish it here on our blog.

Download Interview as PDF (in German)

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In Portray: The Company of Saynt George

Many members of the reenactment scene will certainly know the name of this group: "The Company of St. George". Some call them the costume police for others it's the highest echelon on the quality ladder in reenactment.  But whatever you think of the Company: Ever since the book "The Medieval Soldier" by Gerry Embleton and John Howe, there is no way around it.

The "Company of Saynt George" has been founded in the 1980ties. The group is not only active in the "reenactment scene" but it also cooperates successfully with museums.  The list of these cultural institutions features internationally known names as the Haut-Koenigsbourg in Alsace, the Historical Museum in Berne or the Danish Medieval Center in Nykøbing. The seat of the Company lies in Switzerland, but the members come from a variety of European countries and also the radius of the activity covers the whole Europe.

Reenactment in the Golden Autumn of the Middle Ages
The focus of the display lies in Burgundy towards the end of the 15th century.  And just like the baggage train of the historical armies, the Company shows various forms of individual displays from the simple halberdier and soldier with their families, to shooters, artisans and (if needed for the event) higher layers of society such as clerics and the nobility.

Likely the most central element of the display are the love for the details and the approach they take with regards to the historical originals. Dr.  Christian Folini from the "Company of St. George" gave "Karfunkel" some insights into the background of the group and talked about the passion in the reenactment hobby - and the close relationship to the "Lord of the Rings" from New Zealand.

Karfunkel: What is the charm of your historical epoch? What is it, that makes it so special, worthy of a display?
Christian Folini: The late Middle Ages are well documented. There are concrete historical sources and the fashion is very aesthetic, all in all. The early artillery brings an additional twist to the display. And another detail is important in this context: There was a canon type named breech loader, which allows us to shoot in a fairly safe way in front of the public with amateurs. A breech loader is a gun where the powder is put into a separate breech, which is then set into the gun. After firing, you take out the breech and you can clean the barrel and the breech separately.

But we have also opted for Burgundy in the 1470ties in order to be able to link with duke Charles the Bold. This dazzling figure is still well known.

K.: Charles was subtle and educated on one hand, knightly and with an engaging personality. Yet on the other hand, he was somebody who took cruel revenge when he was offended like in Dinant. Is this the tension that makes up this epoch? When we look at photos of the Company, we always see "subtle" crafts like book painting and stitching - together with the art of warfare.
CF.: Yes, I believe the dutch historian Johann Huizinga was right when he described it this way. It is a time of change, when medieval ways meets with modern concepts. And it all concentrates into the person of this Burgundian duke in an exemplary way.

K.: The Company is very well known, at the latest since the book "The Medieval Soldier" by Gerry Embleton. Did the book change anything for you?
CF.: The degree of popularity has grown immensely. And reenactment as a hobby only started to be popular on the continent with this book; at least when you concentrate on our period of the display. The book was a moment when we leapt forward in this sense. Looking backwards, it was a milestone.  We have moved forward on the same road for another 17 years now and we have made a good way.

K.: What does it mean "to move forward". On your website, you write that "Authenticity as a goal can not be attained". So what does "authentic" mean for you and what hints do you have to actually get there. Or is it more like the saying: "The journey counts and not the destination"?
CF.: I believe that progress in reenactment happens iteratively, step by step if you will. You improve an item or a more general part of your display, then you take a step back and take another close look. Then you see another weakness, you improve that one and so forth. It is important to put yourself into question regularly and to talk with a lot of people. Everybody sees a different detail or he brings a different background. You learn more and more and you start to enjoy every little detail that is now based on harder sources.

K.: Another face, well known in the meantime, appears in the book as well.  Is John Howe still active in your group? What happened during the filming of the "Lord of the Rings"? Have there been significant changes for the group, special comments or particular stories?
CF.: John Howe was the lead organiser of the group in the late 1990ties.  Then, in the middle of the night, he received a phone call from Peter Jackson, who wanted him to join a Tolkien film project. When John moved to New Zealand, we had to restructure the leadership within the group.  Meanwhile he is moving back and forth between New Zealand and Switzerland.  We still see him at our events every now and then, but his time has become rare. I believe, there are only a few people, who are actually aware just how close the Company and the "Lord of the Rings" movie trilogy actually are. In fact, John has taken on some of his experiences from the Company times over to the film. You can see this with certain clothes, but mainly with arms and armour. Or - in his own words - "If the costumes, the arms and the armours of the trilogy are at least a little bit convincing, then this is owed to this Company to a wide extent."

K.: On your website, there is also a quotation by a visitor that takes this in the opposite direction. He says that his visit to your event made him feel like he was in movie. So despite all this talk about the A-word and the scholarly base, is the real incentive to do this hobby a medieval "romanticism"?
CF.: I do not want to deny this. Humans have different desires and most humans have more than one. So I am sure, this strive for romanticism or for a parallel dimension to our own modern world plays an important role for a lot of our members. However, the question is if this is the only drive behind it all and if you are satisfied with cheap camp romanticism. Or if you prefer a leaky tent over a waterproofed one. For most people, romanticism stops at this point, while it only starts here for us.

K.: Your "actors" have a certain appearance the makes me think of historical portrays. How do your members pick their roles? Do you as a group influence their decisions?
CF.: This is an interesting observation. Historical paintings make you want to reenact them and we give in to this temptation at times. On top of that, the historical clothing emphasises the visual personality.  Doublet and jacket give people a striking head, if you ask me.  We take very little influence on the role of our members, but we try and make sure we all focus on a similar social level. Still, some events have special needs which makes us put this rule aside.

K.: How do you become a Company member? What does it take?
CF.: We invite likeminded people to our events. This is followed by a recruitment period. Then the promotion to a full veteran membership. It seems to me, most of our members bring some reenactment experience, but they have not been able to find a group with a matching desire for detail and this passion for the accuracy in the display. In this sense, you need to have a high ambition. But you should not be afraid of the big name. "Step forward bravely!", I'd tell them. Since we also have a handful of members who started from scratch and entered the Company as complete beginners.

By Christian Folini, Veteran Company member.