Lady Heather and Lord Richard, my hosts.
First of all, SCA is the Society for Creative Anachronism, an organization of medieval re-enactors that has been around for over 40 years. You can find their office web page here, the Wikipedia entry here, and various bloggers involved in the SCA on my blogroll. It's kind of similar to Civil War reenactors, though it's more of a mash-up of various times and places.
The Honorable Lord Edward of Yarborough, Troy University alumnus.
One other level of similarity with Civil War reenactors is the use of history. I've often heard American historians complain that they're accosted by Civil War buffs who know everything there is to know about the single important unit or battle their great-great-granddaddy was in, but they don't have a broader perspective. Sometimes these folks can become offended when said historian doesn't know much (if anything) about their ancestors' battles. More than once I've heard historians describe this exchange:
Buff: So, you're a Civil War historian, huh?My experience has been that, while SCAdians don't get angry like that when you don't know about their passion -- indeed, they are delighted with the opportunity to tell you all about it. Still, the understanding of history is similar: lack of a broad historical understanding, but a deep, deep well of detail about their areas of passion.
Buff: My great-great-grandpappy was in the Battle of Insignificant Mudhole. What do you think about Captain Obscure's decision to flank Lieutenant Nobody's forces rather than attack from the front?
Historian: Um, I really don't know much about that.
Buff: What?! You don't have an opinion about the Battle of the Insignificant Mudhole?! Don't you know that it was the real turning point in the war, since one of the men wounded in that battle was transferred and became Robert E. Lee's shoeshine boy? After all, if not for the gleam of his shoes, Lee would have slaughtered them at Gettysburg. And you call yourself a "historian!"
Yeoman archery tournament
Probably the single term that carries the most force for SCAdians is period, which I take to mean something like "authentic for whatever period it is intended to represent." More than once, I heard the phrase "That's so period!" used to compliment someone on their garb or craft. Still, period can be a loaded term, with some people scoffing at others as being the "period police," mostly because they are critical when something isn't exactly right for the period. It took me a while to figure this out: If an SCAdian says "period," they might mean what anyone else would mean, but they might also be referring to authenticity as a virtue.
The above, with its references to a queen and kingdoms, leads to the issue of organization. The world is divided up into various kingdoms, which tend encompass several states (though it should also be noted that they do not necessarily run along state political borders). My own kingdom is Meridies. Each kingdom is further broken down into smaller club-sized groups, and the nearest one to Troy is the Shire of Thorngill. Within the SCA, people hold various offices with medieval-sounding titles, most of which are rough equivalents of modern offices such as treasurer or club president, though there are some that are unique to the SCA -- for example, Lord Richard na Teanga Mihn (my host) is the Youth Combat Marshall. Every kingdom has a king and queen, titles that are won by combat -- so in most cases, the queen is the wife of the king in real life, though this is not necessarily so, and I'm told that some queens have won office by defeating their opponents at arms, so that their husbands became king through them. These particular offices appear to be mostly ceremonial, and a monarch only reigns for 6 months before being replaced. The boring bureaucratic business of the SCA is run by a board of Corporate Officers.
Queen Lethrenn and ladies
By the way, someone mentioned to me that he figured all the SCAdians would have exalted personas -- much in the same way that every Westerner who believes in past lives always seems to have been royalty, and no one ever a slave. The structural culture of the SCA, though, doesn't really allow for that. After all, you can call yourself "Charles the Frank" in an effort to emulate Charlemagne, but what good is it if someone else is King, and you don't even have a grant of arms? Instead, I found that people tended to have the personas of travellers so that they could blend two or more styles they really liked. For example, Lord Beirhart of Douglas (seen here platting rope) is a heathen Viking living in Scotland, because he didn't want to choose between Viking and Scottish styles.
I heard lots of persona stories like that: missionary, merchant, crusader, shipwrecked, freed slave, married to a foreigner ... all these allow for the easy mixing of periods, and I found SCAdians really took to that. In most cases, I suspect that SCAdians are very tolerant of any period or region deviation as long as you have a semi-plausible figleaf in your backstory.
Lord Richard and Killian the Black, after sparring
The crafts side varies even more. Anything that you might consider a medieval craft -- blacksmithing, leatherworking, spinning, weaving, period cooking, dance, song, instruments, etc. -- someone is doing it. And they all take this very seriously too. You can't exactly pop down to the WalMart to pick up a suit of armor, tunic, and spinning wheel, can you? The market being so limited, they have to make the items themselves. Even the kinds of things you can find at Renaissance Faires they tend to make themselves, simply to keep costs down (this could be a VERY expensive hobby if you let it). For example, here is a picture of my kids with King Maximillian:... who made every single item he was wearing, except for his underwear. The bottle he is holding was presented as a gift from the children; it's spiced oil they prepared in the children's pavilian. The king (who must be an excellent fighter as he has won the crown three times through feats of arms) also made every single element of his fighting gear except for his boots -- but unfortunately I didn't get a picture of his very beautiful and very functional armor.
Children at court
That being said, they aren't arrogant about their arts and crafts. Instead, they really want to teach you what they know. SCA would be a great hobby for someone interested in embroidery, or carpentry, etc.
Lord T'Okin (sp?) of Zanzibar and Ian, a crusader
What about warts? In the interest of candor, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the big problem with SCAdians -- a penchant for talking when they should listen.* I had this conversation about a dozen times:
SCAdian: So this is your first event?
SCAdian: How did you hear about us?
Me: I'm a professor of medieval literature, so I share a lot of interests with people involved with the SCA.
SCAdian: A professor of medieval lit?! Oh my gosh! When that gets out, you're going to be overwhelmed with questions from people!
But see, here's the thing ... I was never asked a single question. Instead, people found my expertise as an opportunity to tell me things. To be honest, I didn't mind that at all -- it was nice not to have to be a walking lecturer on medieval England -- but sometimes people would launch into extended lectures that reminded me of the old adage about not teaching your grandmother to suck eggs. Several times I had to nod politely while listening to an oft-well-rehearsed and somewhat inaccurate speech about some element of medieval life. Fortunately, though, I'm not a historian so I only noticed the real howlers.
So, should YOU get involved with SCA? In my case, I first made contact with the SCA in order to build bridges between the scholarly and popular academic communities. I took my kids because I thought it would be fun for them. In my experience, for less than $100 three of us spent a great weekend camping, met fabulous people, ate a darn-near miraculous four-course feast, and wandered around what amounted to a Ren Faire without any tourists and without price-gouging vendors. Since I was a first-time visitor, we called ahead and arranged for our Shire to bring us loaner garb and plates. I can't be deeply involved with the SCA because of distance to the nearest Shire meeting place, but I would encourage anyone who is interested to look into it. I went to this event for professional reasons; I'll go to my next for pleasure.
Ginny (?), another first-timer with beautiful garb from Ren Faires.
*I know, in this case I'm the pot calling the kettle black, but I'm trying to give the fairest view I can.