I’ve mentioned a couple of times that I’m in the SCA. For the uninitiated, that’s the Society for Creative Anachronism, an organization dedicated “to researching and re-creating the arts and skills of pre-17th-century Europe” according to our official website. As mission statements go, that’s pretty broad.
The SCA is really more of a catch-all medieval re-creation organization than, strictly speaking, a “re-enactment” group in the sense that a specific battle or event is being re-played. What we do is different from 1812 or Civil War reenactors because they’re looking for an absolutely authentic portrayal of their period, whereas the SCA pretty much accepts any attempt at pre-17th century clothing. This makes it easy and cheap for a newcomer to get involved and start having fun. Despite some complaints, it doesn’t mean that people don’t make an effort at period-accurate kit.
The picture above is a pretty good example. This is my current fighting kit; I bought the arms, legs and helmet, but I built the brigantine. You can see the soft kit that my fiancée made for me: the gambeson, braes and chausses, and you can see the modern Canadian Armed Forces combat boots I’m wearing. As SCA armour goes, this is an exceptionally period-accurate kit. By the standards of most “reenactment” groups, it’s full of glaring holes and mistakes and is not acceptable. But for the Society, it’s excellent… if a bit heavy.
The other thing that’s off-putting for strict reenactors are the roleplaying overtones. The SCA invented LARP long before LARP. We dress up, we talk funny, we belong to households and baronies and kingdoms with made-up names. We fight wars between our made-up kingdoms, we “swear fealty” to our royalty (although in period practice what we actually do would more correctly be described as “doing homage”), we register our heraldry with a college of heralds run entirely by the Society, we are given awards and titles and peerages based on the recommendations of our officers and orders. We’ve basically built our own little world with minimal bearing on the actual political realities of medieval Europe… particularly regarding sexism and religious bigotry.
The fact that we span roughly 1200 years of history is also bit jarring for those people who are used to being focussed on a single war. It isn’t uncommon to see a lady in a 10th-century Norse apron-dress to walk side-by-side with another lady in full Tudor, for example, or a Norman crusader fighting on the tournament field with a knight from the Hundred Years’ War — and that’s just locally. With SCA groups in every major city (and most minor ones) in North America, going to one of the really big events is a fascinating kaleidoscope of medieval European fashion and armour with some Middle Eastern and Oriental outfits thrown in for seasoning… as well as a fair bit of 21st-century “ren faire” costuming thrown in as well, which can be wince-inducing, but whatever — when I look back at my first attempt at “medieval” garb I realize I have absolutely no excuse for passing judgement (and no, I won’t be posting a picture.)
One of the criticisms of the SCA is that we don’t have a tight focus on anything, but I’ve always regarded that as a strength. The Society gives us a place to run around and play and do what we’re interested in; frequently someone will get involved because of their interest in one specific aspect (usually the armoured combat) and then branch out as they find themselves running across more and more interesting things. A perfect example: we have one young man in our local group who’s passionate about the armoured combat; he rarely misses a practice and he put together his fighting kit in record time. After about three years he’s an incredibly skilled fighter and it won’t surprise me at all if he gets his white belt someday (a white belt and chain is the SCA symbol of Knighthood, pretty much the highest honour a fighter can earn in the Society.) And with all this martial prowess, his latest passion is calligraphy and illumination — and he’s good at it. This is a man who love swords but has also come to care about scripts, is what I’m saying.
As for myself, I got involved during a period in my life when I was pretty much burned-out on the activism front. I’d broken up with my partner at the time and moved away from the community I’d been a part of for years. I’d also dropped out of university and was drudging away at some crap call-centre tech-support job which me did not even remotely provide intellectual stimulation. I had pretty much isolated myself; I was in a rut. The SCA provided a social network, an interesting environment, and a lot of fun. When I moved back home to get back into school and finish my degree, I immediately plugged into the local SCA group and found a ready-made community who were welcoming and happy to have a new face. And by and large the SCA has treated me well: my interactions in the Society have so far helped me find three apartments, two jobs and a fiancée. I’ve earned a modest title, held various offices, and learned to fight. That works out to a pretty involved and rewarding hobby.
The other thing is that the SCA has given me the opportunity to meet people who I would never have interacted with in my previous life. When I was in my hard-core activist phase I met probably just about every radical, activist and left-winger in eastern Canada (or at least it feels that way)… but that was it. I was in a very narrowly-focussed community appealing to a very narrow demographic. In the SCA, because the focus is unrelated to 21st century politics, you get a very wide cross-section of the population. That can be (and has been!) very jarring at times. It’s a jolt when someone you know and respect expresses a political or social opinion that opposes yours — or even offends you. You get a diversity of opinions, and by and large I consider that a good thing: some of my opinions probably offend them, after all. It doesn’t change the fact that they have a right to their opinion, however ignorant and ill-expressed I might consider it to be. (In any case, holding left-wing opinions is no guarantee of virtuous or even intelligent opinions: Those who live in a glass politburo should cast no stones.)
One of the things that drives me nuts about the SCA, especially in a small kingdom like ours (I’m in Ealdormere, for the record) is the politics which get played. It’s the same as any organization, of course, and much of it is committee-meeting nonsense that could be safely jettisoned if the various players would just shake it off… but that’s human nature, I suppose. You’ll see it anywhere, and at least in the SCA if use people’s titles while describing the whole tempest in a teacup it sounds a bit more impressive; a routine debate over adding a new funding surcharge on event attendance a few years back ended up sounding like the build-up to the Hundred Years War when you read the minutes, for example. The fact that the SCA’s clearly-stated structure and accepting atmosphere acts like a magnet for people with less-than-perfect social skills can complicate matters… as does the fact that people start caring, some very deeply, about our make-believe polities. Some days it makes me crazy. Some days I regard it as part of the charm. It helps to be able to laugh at myself, too.
Does the SCA have its problems? Yes. Do I wish it was a little more historically accurate? Sometimes. Would I strike out for greener pastures elsewhere? Never. In everyday life I’m a tech-support monkey fixing broken computers and sometimes selling new ones; the high point of my day is getting home, playing some Star Trek Online and snuggling with my fiancée and our dog on the couch. On the weekends I don my armour and bear the favour of my lady in pursuit of valour and skill at arms for the exaltation of her honour and my own. I think that’s a pretty cool way to spend a Saturday afternoon, don’t you?