An Argument for Authenticity: One
*Originally published in Ferrugo, the newsletter of the Shire of Rusted Woodlands by Jehanne de Wodeford
It has been several years since I attended my first SCA event. I thought I might share with you some thoughts on my journey.
The original version of this article appeared in late 2001 in the shire newsletter of Rusted Woodlands, Ferrugo. It was prompted by a previously published article by Lord Mikhail Reubenovic Kopacewski, arguing that the "C" in SCA stands for creativity.
I once created a stir by suggesting that, were I ever to land upon a throne, one of my royal whims would include the ban of playing or dancing “Hole In The Wall.“
A couple of years earlier, I met a couple from the MSR at the indoor archery range where I sometimes practiced. “The MSR is more historically accurate than the SCA,“ claimed the man. “That’s a debatable issue,“ I replied, “and one that I will not debate with you.“ In 2002 I had the pleasure to meet a number of people from non-SCA historical organizations. It was fascinating: those told I was from the SCA unanimously glazed over and murmured a wary, “That’s nice.” Not until they had spent a little time in my company did the chill thaw. (Those not told accepted me unquestioningly as so-and-so’s friends without assuming I was a weirdo.)
The Society for Creative Anachronism is the odd child in the world of living history groups. We do not re-enact specific historical events or dedicate ourselves to studying a narrow time period or a single culture. We are the result of a party that was so much fun the participants decided to come back and do it again the next year.
On May 1, 1966, a group of students at the University of California Berkeley, held a May Day tournament, complete with costumes, sword fighting and the crowning of a queen of love and beauty. To hear founding member Diana Paxson (Countess Diana Listmaker) tell it, they were inspired not by a medieval event, but a Victorian one! In 1839, inspired by the novels of Sir Walter Scott, the Earl of Eglinton tried to hold a medieval tourney, which was such a disastrous rain-out it was never tried again. Diana and her friends intended their Last Tournament “to be a single time event, just for fun. Nobody ever expected it to continue.” (The West Kingdom’s History Project is on line and can be viewed at http://history.westkingdom.org/. It gives a fascinating look at how the SCA happened.)
Many of the SCA’s founding members went on to make their mark as science fiction and fantasy writers, including Countess Diana and the late Poul Anderson and Marion Zimmer Bradley. As a result, we attract a different sort of participant than, say, the Northampton County Militia (Revolutionary War) or Blackwell’s Regiment (English Civil War). As a result, there are a lot of people who dismiss the SCA as a bunch of unicorn hugging, elf-ear wearing farbies who think every weekend is Halloween.
I recall my first encounters with the SCA and with the people of Rusted Woodlands. I showed up at my first Hundred Minutes War and Fifth Thursdays wearing a very big man’s shirt belted over leggings and boots. Nobody told me it was wrong, although when I met and complimented Lord Joseph Van Der Cullen on his Tudor finery, he tried to convince me that full Elizabethan was where I wanted to go. I was welcomed, dragged out onto the dance floor by Little Tom and that was that. I was instantly part of the group.
One of the great things about the SCA is that there is so much to explore. I tell newcomers to treat it as a smorgasbord: go up, take little tastes of everything, then come back for seconds on the things that appeal to you. I did. I hooked up with Macs to learn about archery and arrow making. I picked Achilles’ brain on how to make a wind instrument behave properly. I grudgingly spent as little as possible on Cheap Cheesy Fabric Of Dubious Fiber Content ™ to make Bad Garb because I hated sewing and it was an evil necessity. And being stubborn and embarrassed about my lack of skill, I didn’t ask anybody to help me, only to be more embarrassed the first time I showed up at a Fifth Thursday in an Ultrasuede t-tunic whose sleeves were an inch shorter than my wristbones and Isabeau sailed in, draped from head to toe in a burgundy velvet gown based on one she’d seen in a French portrait.
Anyway, I immersed myself in the things that I was interested in. I had fun and I learned a lot and made some new friends. Then, about three or four years ago, I attended the Lakewood Renaissance Faire. There were a lot of very talented, entertaining performers. And, as far as my ears could tell me, with the exception of the dance band, not one of them was singing or playing a note of music composed before 1600. Something about that bothered me. After all, wasn’t this event a demonstration for the public? Weren’t we, the SCA, lying to people by playing 19th century Irish folk songs and passing them off as “Renaissance?”
My solution was to put my money where my mouth was, so to speak. If people never heard period music, they wouldn’t know whether they liked it or not. So I would learn period music and play or sing it in SCA venues. No more Irish stuff that post-dated 1600, no more filk, not for me.
I don’t regret this decision. It has resulted in my discovering some absolutely beautiful and fascinating music, and learning to play new musical instruments. It has caused me to re-examine the concept that what I wear isn’t important to what I do. After all, if I am trying to re-create in some way the performance of a period art, doesn’t my appearance add to or detract from the performance? Sadly, it has also resulted in my being teased and called names. “Authenticity Police” is the less offensive version to the only child of a German Jew whose father's family had the good sense to get out of Frankfurt in 1936.
What’s so wrong with authenticity anyway? If, as Corpora states and all the membership publications repeat, the SCA is dedicated to researching and re-creating the culture of pre-17th century Europe, shouldn’t authenticity be something we should pursue as a matter of course? As a performing artist in the SCA, the question becomes even more of an issue. It’s pretty difficult to argue with a beautifully illuminated scroll or a piece of black work embroidery or a hand stitched shoe, but those things don’t have to be “entertaining.” Does my art have to cater to the lowest common denominator? I say no. There are those that disagree with me.
Is authenticity possible, in any case? As a musician who reads modern notation with difficulty and period notation not at all, I am aware that my efforts are being filtered through the interpretations of the music editors whose printed work I am looking at, or the artistic choices of those artists whose recordings I’ve listened to, not to mention the fact that my modern ears have been influenced from birth by exposure to music medieval listeners never knew. As a relatively youthful forty-something woman who has benefited from vaccinations, modern dentistry and labor saving technology, can I truly know what life would be like had I lived in the 13th century? Perhaps not. However, the exercise of sewing a garment completely by hand made the garment more valuable than anything I’d done on a machine or bought from someone else. I know how long it took , and where the flaws are, and I now have a better appreciation of what it might be like to have to make every scrap I wear this way. Listening to the sopranos and altos learn their parts on a new piece as I read along and being able to know just how the tenor line will fit into the musical puzzle tells me my modern ears are coming to understand just how a Renaissance composer builds a madrigal.
Is this path for everyone? No. The SCA is the SCA. We will always have the casual “players” who come out to have fun and the full-bore authenticists who aspire to getting every detail right and the spectrum in between. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. You get to meet a lot of really interesting people either way, and if you’re willing to open your mind, you can learn the most amazing things.
Authentic_SCA@yahoogroups.com is an e-list for SCAdians interested in being more authentic in their pursuits. It is a VERY active list and the members can get into some hot debates, however, I recommend it to anybody who might find this interesting. I learn something new almost every day, I’ve made some e-friends in this kingdom and many others, and I’ve even taught people things they didn’t know.
This is my challenge, dear readers. Your
mission, should you decide to accept it, is to learn one new thing this month.
Pick something, anything. Go to the library or do a web search or browse the
History section at Borders, or talk to another SCAdian about their area of
interest. Who knows, you might just have fun!
Copyright 2001 Lisa A. Joseph