Monday, October 08, 2007

An Outsider's View of the SCA

I had originally intended to write a single post about my trip the Pillage on the Plains IV, but now that I've gone, I think a couple of different posts are in order. This first one is in response to the various questions I've gotten from outsiders about exactly what the SCA is. I should note that my own experience is limited to interviewing a few people, attending a couple of business meeting-style functions, and spending the weekend at Pillage on the Plains, so this is definitely an outsider's view. Real SCAdians will no doubt have a different take, and I hope that none of my comments here will unintentionally give offense.

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?
Historian: Yes.
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!"
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.

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.

Harpist practicing

SCAdians all have a persona, or a character that they are portraying, but the level of detail given to that persona varies wildly. One of the rules seems that you cannot portray an actual historical personage, but the person you portray needs to be "period," so you can't, for example, portray Aragorn of Lord of the Rings. For some people, the persona is just a name; for example, Queen Lethrenn only has a name for her persona, and she varies the period based upon what kind of clothes she wants to wear. In other cases, the backstory of the persona is very detailed, with specific life events mapped out historically. I think the degree of leeway in terms of period can vary from kingdom to kingdom.

Boys playing chess

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.

The Aylekeep

What do people actually do in the SCA? Though SCAdians tend to break the categories down differently, I would say the two main tracks are arms and crafts. People get together to fight (hard!) with lightly-padded medieval weapons. My shire has weekly weapons practice, and I think that's the norm, so these are folks who take it very seriously -- which is all to the good, because if they were just a bunch of yahoos smacking each other with swords, people would get very hurt. The arms side is what you might think: great swords, rapiers, bows, etc.

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

King Maximillian is a great example of how important arts & crafts are. Not only is he one of the best fighters in the kingdom, but he's also a superb craftsman. In fact, I don't think I met a single person who only fought -- everyone seemed to be a skilled craftsman in at least one area, if not several. These are really talented people.

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?
Me: Yes.
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.

Ginny (?), another first-timer with beautiful garb from Ren Faires.

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.

*I know, in this case I'm the pot calling the kettle black, but I'm trying to give the fairest view I can.


  1. Would you mind terribly if I printed out your blog for inclusion in my "Impressions of the SCA from elsewhere" notebook that I show to folks around Caid? I have friends there in Meridies, and family in Birmingham, so it's not like I'm a (gasp!) northerner! Besides, what're you doing with Anglo-Saxon in the South? I thought that was Celtic territory! *grin*

  2. The blog is a public space -- print all you want! I'd also like to invite comments by SCAdians about my impressions: what I have wrong, what is dead-on, what is really different in your kingdom, how your perceptions changed as you went from SCA newb to veteran, etc.

  3. You have us NAILED with the "talking when we should be listening" bit. If only.

    There are usually the gentles who seem to eat, breathe, sleep and drink pure SCA all the time. (Not that I would know ANYTHING at all about THAT!)

    These are either the fresh newbies who are still giddy over men in kilts or the 'old as dirt' lifers who have seen everything done in every way possible. And you have become a convenient receptacle for their years of observation on period reenactment.

    You just need to nod and smile when the *lectures start to bore you. Or when you KNOW the facts are veering off into 'historical fiction.'

    But here is the single most valuable piece of SCA advice in the entire Knowne World:

    Have an escape route.

    If someone is say, nannering on about the oh so subtle differences between 10th century majuscule vs. miniscule calligraphy, at the very second your eyes start to glaze over, you should remember that you left a candle burning in your tent or something similarly important.

    Truly, the SCA is very much like a RenFair (without the rampant capitalism); a great place to spend a reasonably inexpensive family weekend. And with slightly more accurate accents.

    I am VERY glad that you had THAT perception of the SCA and not some of the worse ones I've heard.


    *Nothing against lecturing in general. A good lecture make you WANT to, am I lecturing? About the SCA?? Naw...

    Just for grins, I scrolled through some of my SCA photos of past events for a small experiment. In well over 80% of the photos (not including battle shots) someone has their mouth open talking.

    The irony is fantastic.
    I'll shut up now.
    :D :D :D

    1. Escape route....15 years playing and I haven't figured that one out yet! :P

  4. The personas that cross all sorts of unlikely geographical barriers -- not just one barrier but many -- are a well-known joke in the SCA itself.

    (Note: Yes, I've heard of Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta.)

    Some years ago a famous duke, artist, and impromptu comedian was at an eating place at the Pennsic War, the biggest annual SCA gathering, talking to friends and making up one of these long unlikely tales, which involved crossing W across both major oceans, one on a wayward iceberg, studying Zen in Japan, marrying a Chinese princess, and riding with the Mongols across the steppes back to Europe.

    Someone else sitting in the eating establishment said to the famous duke, "Hey, do you remember passing another group of Mongols going East? And the guy second from the end who waved? That was me!"

    Replied the famous comedic duke, in the nicest way possible:

    "Nice to meet you, for real!"

    That story, told me by the famous comedic duke, says most of what needs to be said about story telling and how it constitutes human reality.

  5. Nice post!

    The SCA is a very big umbrella -- and besides the many, many good, earnest and helpful folks like those you describe, it creates enough interest in the medieval era to spawn a healthy number of genuine scholars as well.

    You'll find many among the Heralds, one of whose jobs is to help people choose authentic medieval names and arms -- a service not everyone avails themselves of, alas! -- and among the members, and aspiring members, of the Order of the Laurel. (More or less equivalent to a knighthood, this is awarded for excellence in arts and sciences.)

    You'll also find quite a few of them at Kalamazoo, though most are firmly "in the closet" there about any SCA affiliation. One of the good things about there being so few jobs for medievalists is that "independent scholars" are welcome at places like Kalamazoo, and respected according to the quality of their work.

    (BTW, my blog may be of passing interest to you.)

  6. I'm not exactly how I wound up here -- random google search for something Meridian, no doubt. Have you come back to play with the SCA any? That's a very nice essay, and (like some other commenters) I'd like to be able to point folks to it.

    In looking at your blog (now on my google reader!) I noticed your interest in Beowulf (can't imagine why! :-D ...) And I don't know if you ever saw this.
    I figure you'll either love it or hate it.

  7. Juan Diego8:51 AM

    I stumbled across this wonderful essay while searching for tent pics online (I have fantasies of building my own fancy medieval pavilion so I can ditch the ugly and uncomfortable little nylon tent). Anyway, very astute observations. One thing I like about the SCA is that it is generally accepting of everyone, regardless of level of authenticity. It is what you make of it. People are in it for different reasons too. And with over 1000 years of history and multiple continents of places, it is a true melting pot.

    One person recommended having an escape route from overly self-indulgent conversations. I would also recommend having an escape route from the SCA itself. It is easy to become enamoured and get sucked in a bit too deeply. Always remember that in the end, it is still just a hobby. That being said, the more effort you put into it, the more enjoyment you will get out.

    Thanks for the blog. I hope you continue participating!

  8. Anonymous4:57 PM

    As a former member of the Shire of Thorngil, I would like to thank you for this excellent article. Your observations of scadian culture are excellent. We truly have a broad spectrum of individuals within the society. We attempt to learn from and teach each other which is both a benefit and hindrance to our organization.

    I would encourage you to continue contact and involvement in the SCA as we could benefit from your knowledge, and you may find something of interest as well.

    Ishikawa Yoshimasa
    Formerly known as Sean McLeod before outgrowing and tiring of being yet another kilted Scotsman.

  9. Dr. Richard this is an amazing post. Im a medieval history guy myself and wrote my own SCA post at and think yours is definitely better. I'm going to refer my readers to your post for higher level insight

  10. Thank you for your story; you have the makings of a bard, I think.

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. Anonymous12:27 PM

    the problem with SCAdians is that they're nerds. They have all the bad (and good) social characteristics of nerds. Poor social skills; check. Inclusive to the point that excluding people--even BAD people--is a social no-no; check. The bad parenting because the parents feel 'at home' and accepted, so they let their kids wander; check. Bad financial prioritizing (living in a dump, with no savings, but spending $$$ on toys); check. Excusing creepy and criminal behavior, because if they don't the group, which may be their entire social circle, will turn on them; check. Immature, emotionally stunted behavior, and the idea that it should be excused on either historic grounds or (more honestly) because they didn't get it out of their systems when they were young, due to awkwardness; oh, check.

    If I sound bitter, it's because I've spent a weekend comforting a very young, very geeky girl who'd gotten drunk, came to under one of our local "fighters" and then dropped charges when she realized that the Canton would stand by the rapist and she'd loose all that nice acceptance she'd found.

  13. the sca has a serious problem with sex abuse and especially esxual abuse of children. they recently settled a major law suit for a couple of million dollars for the decade of sexual abuse of children by the top person for children's activities in the east kingdom, ben schraeger, who is now in jail. hsi local group did refend him and attacked the complainants. as is stated above they have no way of getting rid of terrible people. infact they often rise to the top. there have been many many other sex abuse cases. they are inclsivbe-EXCEPT-for dissent or diversity. then they band together to protect bullying absue and criminality. i successfully sued them for libel because they just wouldn't stop attacking me. i won easily but they fought to trial untill they realized that they had no evidence for anyof their allegations and in fact all the witnesses supported me. this is typical. members of the clique can get away with anything and critics will be attacked in the most unethical ways. so be aware, there is no protection for vunerable people or children.

    1. Anonymous11:55 AM

      I understand that Ollaimh had a difficult time with his local group, which has sadly caused him to paint the entire SCA with a broad brush, a bruch that reflects only his opinion. First, there is no serious problem with sex abuse of children in the SCA. Like any large volunteer organization, there have been individuals who have taken advantage of the community in order to commit crimes (like the Cathloc Church and the Boyscouts of America). The law suit he mentions was for 1.3 million dollars but the case was for activities that happened at the private home of the criminal, not at SCA events or functions. That individual was also quickly expelled from the organization when his activities came to light and, much like the Boy Scouts, once aware that there was a problem, adopted a new system to prevent further crimes. Ollaimh's claims about attacking people and excluding those who do not go along with the group is highly colored by his own experience, which, I will say, should not have happened. But again, in a large organization there will always be bad apples. I am currently training to become a youth marshal and can tell you that youth activities in the SCA require a two deep adult presence and the adults involved do need background checks. Yes, a bad situation did occur. The wrong doer was punished and the SCA has learned from that mistake.

  14. moreover the founders of the east kingdom and co funders of the sca were marion zimmer bradley and walter breen. mzb was successfully sued for child abuse issues, and breen died in prison. they helped set up a governance system of extreme secrecy and with no accountability. so the sca is run like a cult. a most harmless cult, but not if you are a vunerable person. mzb and breen were part of the origional group and all leaders are appointed by that group, and their successors. no democracy and no accountability of any kind. abuse by the leadership is legion. you can have fun at some events but people at the top cannot be trusted to do ethical oversight and so be carefull.

    1. Anonymous12:04 PM

      I have been in and around the SCA for 30 years or so and there is no "governance system of extreme secrecy and with no accountability". The SCA is a 501c educational not for profit with a board of directors that run the corporate side of things. Local groups have officers who are elected by the membership and who organize and run the activities of each local group. Kingdoms do have Kings gain the title through combat and rule for only 6 months...and even then, the kingdom still has a full group of officers who oversee the actual running of the kingdom...which amounts to little more that helping facilitate the activities of the local groups. The is no appointment of leaders by some secret group...elections are help yearly for some officers or every other year at most. I am truly sorry for the difficulties Ollaimh experienced during his interaction with the SCA, but it strikes me a very disingenuous to portray the entire society in a negative light based purely upon one individuals very limited experience.

  15. Anonymous11:31 AM

    I am going to have to agree with Ollaimh, while there is no secret group controlling the SCA as such, the SCA was fined several million dollars for activities that allowed child predators to flourish and the SCA itself documented in its own history that officers of the organization not only looked aside as one of the Kings of the West kingdom had a relationship with a 14 year old girl they aided him in hiding her from her parents for several years.