My So-Called Pilgrim Life

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A chronicle of daily life in the 1627 English village at Plimoth Plantation from both a modern and historical perspective.

First Person Singular-What It Takes To Be A Pilgrim

October 12th, 2008 by admin

There have been a couple of questions about what sort of training we undergo to transform ourselves from 21st century historical interpreters into the 17th century people we portray. This is by no means an exhaustive answer and I hope some of my colleagues will comment further.

First, obviously, you have to apply for the job, get interviewed and accepted into the Colonial Interpretation Department. Then the training begins…and never really ends. Someone coming in mid-season is given an intense, compressed week and a half or so of primary sources, dialect training, character study, historical reference, and an understanding of public deportment, to name just a few of the subjects one has to tackle.

World view is a critical part of a new interpreter’s learning as we don’t always know as much as we’d like to about everyone we portray. In that we don’t know everything about these people we sometimes have to answer questions the way we think they would, given their economic and social status, nationalistic pride, period prejudices, and even gender.

Passages from primary sources such as William Bradford’s Of Plimoth Plantation, Edward Winslow’s Good News from New England, as well as Mourt’s Relation, and Three Visitors to Early Plymouth are given to study. Eventually interpreters are expected to read as much as all of these as they can. It’s from these books that a large part of what we know and how to interpret what we know comes from.

Of course facts and even world view are one thing (if plural can be said to be one thing), interpreting (from a first person perspective) is another thing all together. It takes a particular type of person to do this and I’d be lying if I said everyone finds it easy. You have to be outgoing, unafraid to approach strangers, have and keep an even temper in difficult situations (hundreds of excited school children?) and frankly it doesn’t hurt to have a quick and ready wit.

The job is often (to quote a much repeated “pilgrim” metaphor) “menial outdoor labor in a burlap suit” (thank-you Scott). You must be prepared to answer the same question over and over…and over again. Yes, you will be hot in those clothes. Your mouth may ache at first trying to wrap it around 17th century syllables. You might have to pretend not to notice the airplane, the helicopter, the church bells, the siren from the nuclear plant, and even the occasional ambulance trundling down the dirt street when a visitor gets a little too overheated.

But, if you are fortunate, as I have always been, you get to eat great food while people from all over the world oggle at you wondering “are you really going to eat that?” As I sit at my table in my thatched-roofed house on a crisp autumn New England afternoon, while my “wife” serves up a boiled hen, colewarts (collard greens), the grits of native corn…I think, “Am I going to really eat this?”

You BET I am.


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4 Responses to “First Person Singular-What It Takes To Be A Pilgrim”

  1. Allie B says:

    After just completing another week of menial labor in the woolen petticoats, including a couple of gigs as a disembodied head on the ship, I can say with certainty that I did my best to ignore the planes and sirens, but I made a point of turning my gaze to the sky in wonder as the flocks of geese passed over our little town. These are the best days to be a pilgrim.

  2. Stacy says:

    I second Allie B’s statement. There is alot of work that can be mentally and physically exhausting and often you find yourself biting back the quick response to a question that has been asked about twenty times in the last half hour. (“What are your walls made out of?” or for you ship goers “It’s a capstan.”) But you know all your research, all your patience, and all the physical labor is worth it when you have a rewarding conversation with a visitor, or enlighten a child to something they did not know before. And the natural beauty that can be found in the village is wonderful. The watching of the seasons, watching your herbs grow in the gardens (and the frustration when the groundhogs get to them first), watching the antics of the goats, and cooking a good meal (mmmmmm capon) makes being an interpreter a job unlike any other. And I love every minute of it.

  3. Justin says:

    Here, here!

  4. KMW says:

    The other thing about training is that it is never really over. I love a workplace where there something new to discover every day.
    Reading the earlier post about not having a script – BUT – we DO!!It’s just not written in the order of performance. William Bradford and Edward Winslow wrote the script for us 400 years ago. We just perform it like “The 15 Minute Hamlet”(that’s Pinter, right?)where it’s almost as if random lines are being bandied about. Instead of “To be, or not to be” we have “Our hardships here are but fleabitings compared to our former afflictions”.
    It continues to astonish me how much of these sources I forget between re-readings. And how every dip in finds more useful tibbits to use as an introduction to what I’m doing or what my 17th century children or husband couldbe/would be doing when they’re not even visible.
    To me the Plimoth primary sources are the alpha and omega filters. These are where I begin, and no matter how far out I go to pursue a topic or a thread of inquiry, it has to then go back again through the Plimoth source to make sure it fits this colonial situation, that it’s specific to Plimoth and not generic English or generally colonial, but Plimoth information that I use to meet, greet, assess their needs, meet their needs and give them a reason to come back. Retail (oh, those Filene’s Five)is really a good model for a sucessful interpretive encounter.Good retail, that is. Where you go in thinking you know what you want, and find out that there’s much, much more, and you can hardly wait to go back in again to aquire it.

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