Things have been pretty serious — if not downright grim — on this blog lately, so today I’m going to write about something a lot more positive: Yesterday we went to one of the best SCA events I’ve been to in a long time. And since the past couple of months have set that bar pretty high, I hope I’m getting across how absolutely phenomenal yesterday’s Kingdom Arts & Sciences event was.

First off, some background for the non-SCA folks who read this: The Society for Creative Anachronism is best known for re-creating medieval armoured combat: it’s the most a highly-visible part of the SCA because two guys in medieval armour bashing each other with rattan swords is rather attention-grabbing. But armoured combat isn’t the only thing that happens in the SCA (despite some legitimate complaints that it dominates the Society) and Ealdormere also hosts an annual “Kingdom Arts and Sciences” event to showcase the non-fighting parts of the Society. Traditionally, unfortunately, Kingdom A&S has been a rather small event. One of the first events I attended after joining Petrea Thule was a Kingdom A&S event, and there were probably forty people, most of whom were submitters. There was no fighting space, so a lot of people didn’t bother to attend, and there were very few “spectators”, people who hadn’t put the time and effort into a project and were just coming out to the event to have fun.

Sadly, that was actually one of the bigger “pure” Kingdom A&S events I’ve ever attended; other A&S-themed events included a fighting space, and the fighting somethings ends up dominating the A&S activities. At an ordinary “non-themed” event, it can often feel like the A&S competition is off in a corner somewhere… sometimes literally.

None of this, I hasten to add, is because of any actual ill-will on anybody’s part. There’s no conspiracy to suppress the arts and sciences, no attempt to ensure the primacy of one faction of the SCA over another. There’s just a small problem which has gradually, incrementally, became a big problem and eventually it became so big that it began to feel like nobody could fix it. I don’t know what it’s like in other Kingdoms, but here in Ealdormere it really has felt like the Arts and Sciences focus has fallen by the wayside in recent years; novice A&S types often have a hard time putting their stuff forward and more advanced A&S people, especially at the grant- and peerage-level have a hard time connecting to and assisting those new people. Often, as a non-crafty person, I have run into the perception that what little A&S happens is happening at a very elevated level — that in order to present an A&S project it has to be an incredibly advanced, meticulously-documented, 100-percent authentic medieval project… and that anything short of that is just practice.

Case in point: yesterday, knowing I wouldn’t be fighting at the event, knowing that The Wife™ would have her hands full for the day, and knowing that I would need something to keep my hands busy, I grabbed a couple of scrap pieces of armour-weight leather from my shop and made a new sheath for my old “fancy” dagger.
New dagger sheath
I literally slapped it together in about two hours, start to finish. It’s not particularly medieval (I didn’t bother to even look up how medieval dagger-sheathes worked) I just took two pieces of leather, stitched them together with sinew and laced a couple of belt loops into the whole thing with a bit of thong. (I actually borrowed the thong and the edging tools to clean it up a bit from a friend.) I just wanted a new sheath for my old dagger which would match my belt pouch — the old sheath is black, my belt pouch is light brown — and so I ran up a very basic, functional bit of leatherworking.

But here’s the thing: Even though I didn’t enter anything in either the Queen’s Prize Tourney or the more conventional A&S tournament yesterday, this would be a completely acceptable “novice” A&S entry. I wouldn’t have to say that it was medieval — as “documentation” goes I’d just have to explain what I was trying to accomplish and I made the crafting decisions I made. Most novice crafters in the SCA only see the big fancy projects: they don’t realize that the little things, the journeyman-level projects, are at least as important and just as welcome. For whatever reason, there’s a mental disconnect between the simple projects and the elaborate projects. That’s a huge part of the problem right there.

The second part of the problem is that novices don’t know how to make a connection with advanced crafters. Unless you’re lucky enough to get connected with somebody in your immediate area, it’s intimidating to reach out to a stranger. That friend of mine who lent me the edging tools? He’s a phenomenally good leatherworker, and took the time to teach me the basics, and now I can casually rattle off a dagger sheath… but if he were on the other side of the province, that never would have happened, and would I have had the courage to interrupt his afternoon at an event to get some more help? I doubt it; very few newcomers would: on more than one occasion I’ve suggested that a novice go speak a particular person with expertise in an A&S subject only to hear the response “Oh, I couldn’t possibly bother them about it.” When you only see a given expert at events, they tend to be busy.

The third part of the problem is that the more advanced A&S people have trouble communicating with the novices. I’m married to someone in the “grant-level” A&S order in this Kingdom, the Order of the Crucible, so yes I know that the more advanced A&S types want to help out newcomers, if only by in helping them make connections to the people who can teach them what they want to learn. They want to encourage the arts and sciences in this Kingdom… but for some reason A&S isn’t being perceived as important. I don’t know why this is as big a problem as it is but I suspect its at least partly because, aside from the occasional class or workshop, that kind of personal interaction is… well, personal. As in “between two people.” That kind of one-on-one instruction and encouragement is great and exactly that most students need, but it hardly grabs the kind of attention it deserves.

The end result is that novice crafters don’t feel they can make “something that nice” or that they have the “right” to bother the experienced A&S folks; and the experienced crafters don’t feel like their work is getting recognized and that novices aren’t approaching them. Combine that with the 21st century assumption that handcrafted stuff is either inferior or prohibitively expensive (neither is necessarily true) and its no wonder that A&S has been slipping into the background.

Which, by a rather roundabout route brings me back to why yesterday’s A&S event was so amazing. At the start of the reign, the current Queen of Ealdormere, Adrielle II, announced that henceforth there would be two annual Kingdom A&S events, one in the springtime and one in the fall. The annual “advanced” A&S contest, Pentathalon (more frequently just referred to as “Pent”, where contestants enter five entries covering at least three different fields of the arts and sciences) would be moved to the new Spring A&S. Fall A&S would feature a new kind of Arts and Sciences competition, called the Queen’s Prize Tourney. The rules of this tourney were simple: novice crafters would need to be sponsored for entry to the competition by members of the Order of the Crucible and the Order of the Laurel. Laurels and Crucibles could sponsor multiple entrants, but for every entrant they sponsored, they would have to provide a prize so that each contestant got a small prize crafted by an “expert” crafter. In this way novices would be encouraged to put their stuff forward and Laurels and Crucibles would be encouraged to make simple items with which to connect with the novices.

That’s a bit counter-intuitive, when you think about it. A&S is struggling, so the response is to spread it out a bit more and add new tasks to the people doing it: It could have been the straw that broke the camel’s back; it was undoubtedly a gamble. I don’t know what happened, whether it was the right idea at the right time, or that the A&S crowd just enjoyed the new format, but the Queen’s Prize Tournament hit this Kingdom like a bomb.

Everybody reacted with incredible enthusiasm; I’ve never seen anything like it in the SCA. Entries came swarming in — there were fifty-eight entrants in all. (That might not seem like much, but remember that the Kingdom of Ealdormere only has seven or eight hundred registered subjects, and a couple-three hundred unregistered subjects. Figuring out the percentage of entrants to overall Kingdom subjects involves a lot of math that I’m not going to do, but it’s an appreciable percentage, especially when you consider that each contestant had a sponsor.) Remember how I said that my first Kingdom A&S had around forty people? One hundred eighty-two people attended yesterday’s event. The event site was packed: The last time I saw that many people at a given event was Trillium War. My understanding is that something like a hundred people sat the sold-out feast.

It was an amazing outpouring of support for A&S in this Kingdom. Everyone was very excited about the turnout that enthusiasm just spread through the entire event. Yes, there was a small fighting list (smaller than the fencing list, actually) and a workshop on spear-fighting, but for the most part the focus of the day was on the arts and sciences. In fact, one of the more amusing parts of the day for me was the complete role-reversal between the fighting and the A&S — the A&S dominated the event and the fighting was relegated off to a corner (and I’m saying that as a fighter, mind you.)

It was an amazing day, capped off with an amazing Royal Court. Court ran very nearly an hour and a half and — here’s the thing — nobody noticed. The atmosphere was amazing: things were moved along as briskly as possible, there was no unnecessary padding, and an enormous number of awards and recognitions were given… and everyone had a blast. The energy of the day translated to high spirits and silliness in Court, but it didn’t feel at all forced, as it sometimes can.

There’s a special thing that happens in the SCA sometimes (not always, not even often) where we move across a line between playing a game and “living the dream.” The Dream is an old SCA phrase not often heard anymore, and it’s a difficult thing to describe to people inside the SCA, let alone define for non-SCAdians. It involves community, certainly; and taking what we do seriously, although not necessarily solemnly; and not so much the suspension of disbelief as the acknowledgement that what we’re making is, in its own way, real. It isn’t something that just happens — as an officer I’ve come to understand that it takes work and dedication to make it happen — but when it does, it’s pure magic.

Yesterday, thanks to the efforts of some pretty amazing people, we were Living the Dream. I hope that the experience we had yesterday inspires our Kingdom to work toward that as much as possible, because I like feeling that feeling, and I like it when my friends and family do, too.