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Lessons from a medieval model



My first taste of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) was lovingly spooned into my baby bird beak by my friend Lizzi, whose Facebook is full of pictures that aren’t Lizzi, but Malys, a young Scottish lad born in the tender year of 1287, and whose apartment is full of skeins of hand-spun yarn, weaving looms, dress forms draped in wool, and a six-foot-tall homemade longbow named Guinevere. I went with Lizzi to an SCA business meeting, as much out of just wanting to hang out as curiosity. I didn’t really understand what was going on, but everyone was nice, including Lizzi’s friend Rick, who turned out to be my neighbour and high school substitute English teacher. A week or so later, I got an invite on Facebook to the April A&S Night at Wolfwode Hall. I clicked through and learned that A&S is arts and sciences basically the SCA name for anything that’s not sport or volunteering and Wolfwode Hall is Rick’s house.

I knocked on the door at 7:05 p.m. with my current cross-stitch and a plate of brownies in hand, and was greeted by a chorus of people yelling “COME IN!” As I entered, I was politely informed that as long as you’re invited, you just knock and come in. I was welcomed by Rick and his wife, Melissa, as though they had known me for years, and Lizzi barely had to introduce me to anyone everyone introduced themselves before Lizzi got the chance. Towards the end of the night, I joked, “So, Lizzi, when are you taking me to an event?”

“As soon as you get some garb.”

“I’ll work on it,” I said, thinking it would be a few months before that happened, between buying the material and sewing it all together.

Cut to three days later.

“Come over! I have garb for you,” was the text I received from Melissa.

I walked the few blocks to her house in the sunset of a late spring day and knocked, and again heard “Come in!”

“Sorry,” I called, shutting the door behind me. “I forgot about the knocking rule.”

Melissa laughed from upstairs.

“You won’t need the wool one for Canterbury,” she said. Canterbury was the next event, a week or two away. “But you’ll want it in the winter. Try on the other ones for now.”

The wool one turned out to be a beautiful, hand-sewn wool dress, thicker than a winter coat in the prettiest shade of purple-grey I’d ever seen. It was then, and is now, probably the nicest article of clothing I’ve ever worn. It was also about four sizes too big, as was the spring dress, which consisted of a drawstring skirt and a lace-up vest.

“Do you know how to take the seams in?” Melissa asked, when I wondered if it was supposed to be that big.

“If I take it in, how will I give it back?”

“Oh, honey, this is all yours.”

I tried to protest that I could get my own, that I didn’t want to take these from whomever they belonged to I really don’t like accepting gifts.

“Welcome to the SCA,” Melissa laughed, putting her hands on her hips. “You’d better get used to it. The only rule is that when you do get your own, you pass it on to the next new person.”

The SCA is a medieval recreation group. According to the SCA’s website, the group was founded in 1966, it spans the globe in kingdoms and baronies, and has amassed over 60,000 participants. Some people have been in the SCA for 50 years and take part every day. For some, that means knitting a few rows on a pair of socks. For others, it can mean travelling across the continent to attend events.

Duke Savaric coeur-de-lion (also known as David Kelly) recalls one exciting instance from his 20 years in the SCA: “I was in Mississippi, and I met the king and queen of California, and they wanted me to come to their event … so I went home for a day, turned around, and flew to California.”

Others are brand new, and participate just a handful of times a year in makeshift or borrowed garb. So far, I fall into the latter category. The Canterbury Faire was my first and most recent SCA event until this last weekend when I attended the November Coronet, and even then my express purpose was doing interviews to write this article.

I thought I would write about how the SCA preserves knowledge from the medieval period like how to dye fabric with plants or mend a suit of armour and why members felt that was important. I could do some research about the psychological benefits of handicrafts, or compare the SCA’s teaching structure to medieval education styles, or the SCA’s potential as a driving force behind furthering archeological knowledge. It would be investigative. It would be journalistic. It would be awesome. So I wrote my interview questions and drafted a tentative outline, and texted Lizzi the night before, “Can I have a ride to Coronet tomorrow?”

“Obviously!” was their reply.

In the morning, I was introduced to Seneschal Alessandra Lucciana Giancomo (also known as Christina Grant). She volunteered to give me a tour and introduce me to anyone she thought I should speak with. Over two hours later, when she asked if I would be alright without her, since she had other duties to attend to, I told her I felt like I had more than enough to write a great article. And I did feel that way I’m a rookie reporter and even I could tell the interviews had gone well. Everyone had spoken freely and enthusiastically, almost never needing to be prompted. They answered my questions tirelessly and thoroughly from a variety of perspectives. So I thanked Alessandra, spent the rest of the day enjoying the festivities, and then went home to write my article.

And I had nothing.

Nothing in my notes or transcriptions held a clear answer to the question I’d had in mind: what is the point of medieval recreation? I was frustrated because everything that I did have all the anecdotes and heartfelt answers about the amazing people everyone knew and the experiences they had together all amounted to an explanation of why the SCA is so much fun, but I already knew it was so much fun! I wanted to know why it was ***important.

I had made a mistake.

I hadn’t really devised questions about dying fabric or mending armour. I’d written questions about what the SCA does, what people do in it, and what they teach one another. I had assumed that material practices would naturally come to the fore. I was wrong. Instead of asking “What is the point of medieval recreation?” I had asked, “What is the point of the SCA?”

The point of medieval recreation is, ultimately, fun, whether that stems from a desire to hit people with a big stick, to find a creative outlet, or to understand the past. And the point of the SCA, therefore, is also fun, but fun is only a framework for what makes the SCA special.

Jumping into the SCA does, honestly, induce a little bit of culture shock, and not just because bowing to someone as they walk by feels a little awkward at first. But it’s a good kind of culture shock, where suddenly you feel like the most serious, fiercely independent person in the world and then you feel a little bit stupid, because you don’t have to be that way.

My entry to the SCA has been couched in friendship and astounding generosity thanks to Lizzi and their, now our, friends. But speaking with other players has taught me that this is the rule, not the exception. As a hobby group in which some members have been members longer than others have been alive, the SCA could be completely walled in on itself. Especially in the adult world, group activities are sometimes choked by gatekeeping. In team sports, for example, entering as a rookie feels like holding everyone else back, and taking a class is a time commitment sometimes a big one, and often non-refundable.

Even solo hobbies, which may be less intimidating in terms of risking public embarrassment, can have a daunting initial price tag when it comes to equipment. And involvement in the SCA can certainly get pricey I’m a broke student and even I’ve spent a fair chunk of change on garb, including a bronze cloak pin I would be embarrassed to write the price of. But except for the cost of admission at events, the knowledge that you can get involved in the SCA as much or as little as you want also applies to your bank account. Each region has a Gold Key, whose responsibility is to welcome newcomers, lending them garb, for which the only requirement is that it reflects an attempt I’ve fully seen people wearing long t-shirts belted over jeans. If you’re there in the spirit of the event, that’s more than good enough.

The SCA’s passion about inclusivity is also evident in how it’s embraced by the internet. It might be surprising that a medieval recreation group is actively expanding its presence on the world wide web, but it’s played an important role in expanding access to information, said Mistress Desiree. Known to the mundane world as Mary Kittel, Desiree joined the SCA in 1987.

Before, it used to be whatever books were in our local library, which is great, but now I can reach out to any library or any museum in the world,” she explained.

Sporting Laurel and medieval combat expert Guidobaldo D’Aquila (also known as Paul McCann) has been in the SCA since 1980, and when asked about how the SCA has changed in that time immediately responded, “Oh God, love the internet. We’ve seen more and more accuracy and ***drive for accuracy. When I first joined information was extremely hard to find … and now of course I can go home and research anything.”

However, the SCA also makes use of social media, especially Facebook, where people post pictures and announcements, have conversations, and share tips. This makes it so people can directly participate in the SCA even if they can’t make it to an event.

Another important aspect of accessibility is variety. Medieval recreation is not one hobby; it contains multitudes if you want to fight with a broadsword or a rapier, if you want to make costumes or jewelry, if you want to illuminate charters, learn archery, cook and bake, or if you simply want to get dressed up and hang out, that is medieval recreation. Or, it’s medieval recreation in the SCA, which is somewhat unique. Other common forms of medieval recreation include renaissance fairs, reenactment groups, and LARPing events, which may have a narrower range of activities.

LARPing, or live action roleplaying, as the name suggests, usually involves players fully adopting a character and acting in a role appropriate to them, as a warrior or a healer for example, or even a mage, as LARPing commonly involves fantasy and magic. It’s largely derived from tabletop RPGs like ***Dungeons and Dragons, and has a Game Master, or GM, who arranges the structure and narrative of an event. These elements of story are completely absent in the SCA, where events are likely to focus on real-life competitions or classes.

Reenactment groups lie at the opposite end of the spectrum from LARPing, being highly concerned with accuracy, sometimes down to the play-by-play of a particular battle. As such, players may take on characters as well, but these are usually historical figures like monarchs and generals. Reenactment groups might take a “living history” approach to recreation, looking to reproduce all aspects of historical daily life, but unlike in the SCA, will usually focus on only one place in one time period.

This difference stems from the SCA’s geography, according to Duke Savaric, who explained, “We decided years ago to include a much broader range of history [than reenactment groups] … In Europe, it’s tighter geographically, so if they decide to do sixth-century Norman, they can actually have an event, whereas if we do that, we’d have six people. So we include all sorts of interests and try to bring everybody together.”

The representation of a wide variety of interests, everything from heavy fighting to cooking and baking and bardic performance, means that there are parts of the SCA for everyone.

“It’s very family oriented these days,” Savaric continued, grinning down at his baby daughter, Kara, who sat in the wagon at his feet. His mother-in-law, he said, is also a member. “We actually hang out with our families. Three generations at an event. I don’t know what other activities are like that. Let’s say you ski, and your mum and dad come to it. Well, they’re clearly there to watch you ski, or vice versa. Where this is something where you roll in, you go to an event and you’re like ‘See you Sunday.’”

It’s a hobby that my husband and I can fully engage in, sometimes together, sometimes separate,” said Mistress Desiree. She and Godfrey, also known as Jerry, joined 31 years ago. “He used to play D&D, and I always liked trashy romance novels,” she laughed. “It was an opportunity to dress up that wasn’t Halloween; we met some really cool people and learned some really cool skills, and it was an opportunity to sew that was a bit more creative.”  

Before getting involved, though, they attended a Society business meeting. “My background history growing up is Girl Guides there’s always that business side to make the fun side happen, so I wanted to see what the business side was.”

That was an understatement.

Mistress Desiree is a pelican, a rank awarded to SCA members who have been recognized by their king and queen for exemplary service.

“I’ve dabbled in a lot of different things,” she said, “but for the most part, it’s been event stewarding … We need our insurance in place, we need to have our Foodsafe in place … all of our regulations so that we can get together and play this game we all love.”  

The SCA awards ranks to members who stand out in other areas as well champions of combat are called masters of defence, and masters of arts and sciences are called laurels. The former take on squires, the latter take on apprentices, and pelicans like Desiree begin as protégés.

Desiree recalled  from her time as a protege being introduced to seasoned members who she admired, only to have them say “I know who you are; I’ve been watching your service.”

As a non-profit organization, the SCA relies on volunteer work, and collectively strives to appreciate it. I said before that medieval reenactment is only the framework for what makes the SCA so special, but I also think that perhaps the SCA is only so special because of medieval reenactment. The fact that the organization is based on things almost no one would know coming in, combined with the Society’s engrained structure of recognition and tutelage creates a unique environment where it’s easy to humble oneself and ask to be taught. And I don’t mean that everyone normally walks around thinking they know everything, but aren’t we expected to? I know I’ve taken a lower mark on an assignment than I could have gotten because I was too embarrassed to tell the instructor that I didn’t know what I was doing more times than I want to admit.

In the SCA, however, asking to be taught is a matter of course, even when the need isn’t obvious. Mistress Desiree said of her former protégé, now a pelican in her own right, “To me, Porzia and I were always equals, but for her to come and say ‘I want to learn a couple of things from you?’ I’m like, ‘How could you learn things from me? I’m learning things from you!’”

This openness is complemented by a general and pervasive willingness to teach. “With my time in the SCA, I know the people. So I can make connections,” said Desiree. “There’s always something to do, whether it’s something you’re experienced at or something you’d like to try, I can find someone to teach you, or someone with a like geekery level.”

These lines of communication knit the community together, even across boundaries of age that might exist in other pastimes, and certainly exist in everyday life. For Savaric, this is one of the most exciting social aspects.

“I have friends in their twenties, I have friends in their sixties, and I like that. I like the breadth of experience. I get to see what it’s like now in the eyes of someone who is just getting out of college or something like that, and some of my other friends are retired, and their views are so different.”

And these lessons from SCA don’t get hung up in the closet with the cloaks and petticoats when people go about their daily lives.

“In the SCA, we have a social agreement that it’s okay that if I’m walking by someone unloading their car, I can offer to help them, and it’s not weird,” said Savaric. He said his knight taught him how to be a good person in the Society; I asked if he found that translated to society at large. “It allows me to be a better person,” he said, grinning. “I’m comfortable stepping out of my shell to do that. And that’s really cool.”

Porzia, also known as Leanne Witherly, is not only a pelican, but was once an officer of the principality, which is a journey she said she never would have embarked on without a push. The push came when the former deputy seneschal asked Porzia to take her place.

“I was flabbergasted,” she said. “It’s a pretty big job. And I’d never even considered that it would be something that I could do, nevermind would do.”

She went on to become the principality seneschal. “I felt so prepared. To go into it with that vote of confidence, with somebody saying, ‘I think you can do this’ it was amazing.” She described the experience as “a gamechanger” and said about her time in the SCA, “There are so many people in this group that have taught me something.”

I am a serial hobby starter.

Hundreds of neatly wound bobbins of embroidery floss, abandoned for a year; a half-finished, home-made, screen-accurate Princes Leia costume; tap shoes that have never tapped a tune all these and more haunt me from the back of my closet. When I moved out of my dad’s house into half of a cramped basement suite, I left them all behind without a second thought. I knew it wouldn’t be worth it to bring them. But when my mom picked up my sewing machine and a swathe of blue-grey wool to send them to closet purgatory, I said “Wait! I’ll bring those!” I needed the sewing machine to turn the wool into a cloak, and I wanted the cloak for my next SCA event.

At Canterbury Faire, and Melissa and Rick’s house, and even at the business meeting, I caught the bug, and unlike my many other previous bugs, this one was sticking around.

The things that keep people not just in the SCA but working and teaching and learning in it for 20, 30, 40, even 50 years, have touched and infected me after just a dip of my toes into the Society’s water. What has spoken to me as much as anything anyone has said to me have been certain little things I’ve seen since that first A&S night. Three days after I said I would like to go to an event, somebody I met once texted me “Come over! I have garb for you,” and that garb came from yet another stranger. I was driven to my first event by acquaintances, other friends of Lizzi’s, because they had to get there early. After every event, a post goes up on Facebook of items left behind, and the comments are filled with people tagging their friends, trying to reunite forgotten tablecloths and coats. People arrive schlepping mountains of stuff from their cars chairs, picnic baskets, blankets, backpacks and walk around carrying almost nothing, leaving it all unattended; at the November Coronet, I dropped my camera bag in a corner with my wallet and my glasses inside and knew nothing would happen to it, which is a pretty incredible thing to be able to say about a room full of hundreds of strangers. More than a few times in every interview, my subjects were interrupted by friends stopping for a hug and a hello. The Coronet itself was devoted to the selection of a new prince through armoured combat, which meant people lots of them were literally physically fighting to occupy a volunteer position.

Spending time with family and friends, doing things we enjoy, teaching and being taught by people who care about us, and un-weirding helpfulness all of these are practices which thrive in the SCA because of its unique history, constitution, and purpose. And there are reasons we often find them difficult to do in the mundane world. It’s hard to make time for people who aren’t paying our bills and grading our papers, and even harder to find something that appeals to the entire family or more than a couple of friends; most hobbies don’t encompass almost every other hobby. It’s difficult to go to someone and ask them to teach you, whether it’s a boss, or a friend, or even a professor who you know has a hundred other students. It’s difficult to be that tutor for others. It’s hard to know if your work is being recognized, and it’s hard to make sure that you’re recognizing others’ work. It can be difficult to do the good we know we are capable of simply because it isn’t common.

But doing these things fosters confidence, compassion, and cognizance, both for ourselves and the people in our lives.

You don’t have to start donning a cloak or wielding a sword to draw inspiration from the culture of the SCA, but if you think it would help, they’d be happy to have you.

Image: Kayt Hint/The Cascade

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