In this blog’s inaugural post, I mentioned the SCA, the Society for Creative Anachronism. Now I’d like to explain more about what that is, and why I choose to be a part of it. The SCA is a worldwide, non-profit educational organization dedicated to learning and preserving the pre-17th century skills, crafts, arts, sciences, and martial arts of Europe and the cultures that had contact with Europe prior to the 17th century.
Wow, that’s quite a mouthful. Let me shorten that up for you: SCAdians — people who participate in the SCA, pronounced SKAY-dee-anz — love learning to do things as they were done prior to 1600.
Now, the longer version.
Each member or participant in the SCA develops a persona to portray, someone who could have lived during the Middle Ages, and use that character as a vehicle for exploration as we research, study, practice, and try to perfect medieval techniques for doing things. We’re a little bit like a LARP, a little bit like a living history or experimental archaeology group, and a little bit like a group of friends who like to play dress-up and go camping together.
Our regular or semi-regular activities are broadly divided into combat/fighting on the one side, and arts & sciences on the other. Combat is what draws a lot of people into the SCA, the chance to learn HEMA (historical European martial arts) such as heavy armored fighting with (wooden) broadswords and the like, unarmored combat, rapier fighting, thrown weapons, archery, and so on. What kid hasn’t dreamed of growing up to become a knight? Well, in the SCA, knighthood is bestowed on a person based on years spent growing their martial prowess, their honor on and off the field of combat, their level of service, their courtesy and chivalry, and many other personal qualities. Not every fighter is a knight (for starters, only heavy fighters can currently be knighted — no rapier, unarmored, or any other combat styles are admitted to the Order of Chivalry), but every knight is a fighter, so if you want to pursue that, head to your local fighter practice and ask to be shown the ropes. And yes, women can fight and become knights!
Arts & Sciences is the other broad category. There’s lots of debate over what counts as what, but since we tend to combine the two into a single category as if it was all one word, artsandsciences, it doesn’t matter other than when discussing it in a philosophical way. Almost anything that was done in the middle ages, other than the combat arts, is classified as an art or a science: sewing, cooking, painting, architecture, woodworking, pewtering, jewelry making, calligraphy, dancing, writing songs or poetry or any other thing, learning about medieval understandings of chemistry or medicine… everything. Seriously, everything. I know someone who’s actually deep into research about how medieval people used the bathroom! Almost anything that was done in the middle ages is being learned about by at least one SCAdian somewhere. If something interests you, ask around. Either someone else is already learning about it, and might be able to guide you, or no one else is learning about it, and you could be the one to come up with some questions and answers that no one else has even thought about finding.
Then there’s the camping. Modern camping and SCA camping are almost completely different. SCA camping events are a sight to behold. A great many of us use period tents instead of modern ones. We fly heraldic banners from their points, or hang gonfalons (square or rectangular flags hung from a post), to show our pride in ourselves and our kingdoms. At every event you’ll smell period foods being cooked, and see people dressed in their medieval best — or in their equally medieval work clothes, which in many ways are even more impressive. Mind you, you don’t have to be perfect at any of this. Most of us aren’t. But every single drop of effort that a person makes is commendable, and appreciated. Everyone has something they do well, and something they could stand to improve upon, no matter where we are on the spectrum from entirely un-knowledgeable newbie to decades-of-experience expert.
Some of us do our utmost to do everything as close to the way it was done “in period” (meaning either “as it was done prior to 1600,” or “as it would have been done by my own persona, in his/her time, place, religion, social status”) as possible. I’ve known people who started raising their own sheep or growing their own flax plants just so they could spin fibers into thread, weave the thread into fabric, and turn the fabric into their clothing. I’ve known other folks who slaughter their own animals for meat, and turn the hides into leather; and still others who have created forges in their back yards so that they can make their own knives, cooking pans, or even armor. Hardcore! Honestly, this hobby is metal as heck.
Others of us do the bare minimum necessary to get into an event. And that’s just as okay, just as valued. The SCA is a hobby that’s different for each participant, in that it can be as small or as large a part of your life as you want. And for some people, it can get terrifically expensive. Especially at first, when you want to try everything, but don’t yet have the skills or tools to make everything yourself, and have to depend on what you can buy to make your kit (clothing, encampment, equipment) more authentic in fact or in appearance. So doing the bare minimum in the SCA, at least, is actually perfectly acceptable. Per the SCA’s own laws, the bare minimum to participate in any SCA event is “an attempt at pre-17th century clothing.”
Yep, that’s it. An attempt. Your own attempt. If that means you show up to your first event wearing garments you made out of linen you grew and spun and wove, or wool you sheared and spun and wove, and that you sewed with needles made of iron or bone, and you’re wearing shoes patterned from those found at medieval archaeological sites and constructed in a period manner with period tools… great! Your commitment to historical living and learning will be admired, and people will ooh and ahh over your seam treatments and the cut of your chausses.
But it’s just as great if you come to an event wearing a peasant skirt and blouse, or pajama bottoms and a tunic, or a sari or salwar khameez that you bought at an Indian clothing shop, with sneakers that you hope aren’t too noticeable. Everyone starts somewhere, and every one of us was once a beginner. The people you’ll see in the most amazing, period-correct garb (that’s what we call our medieval clothing, to differentiate it from our modern clothing, or “mundanes”)? They probably had a baggy T-tunic made of an old sheet once, and wore it with a pair of pajama pants or gi pants that look suspiciously like the ones you’re wearing right now.
A special note: I have heard horror stories about people that are variously referred to as garb mavens (this means “expert” and is a compliment), garb police (this means someone who may be an expert, or may not, but either way it’s someone who enjoys telling other people that they are wrong), and garb nazis (this is the most offensive thing I can think of to call anyone, and honestly, I wish it would never be used again unless actually referring to the Nationalsozialistpartei who committed the atrocities that not only my people but many other peoples have legitimate reasons to fear and despise).
I would like to be clear on something: I have met and enjoyed the company of many a garb maven, and have met a very tiny handful of garb police. Very, very tiny. And every last time, I’ve managed either to avoid the person in the future (only twice has this ever been something I felt the need to do) or to turn them into an ally or friend by doing the following.
If anyone comes up and remarks on your clothing, other than to smile warmly and welcome you to what is clearly a new experience for you, give them your best hopeful, happy expression and say “Thank goodness! Someone to talk to about how to improve my look!” and ask them every question you’ve got. Not only will they be disarmed by your charm and obvious eagerness, but whatever they were on their way to do will suddenly be a lot less important than this opportunity to share their knowledge. You will learn much from such a person, and you might make a fast friend.
“Okay, but why the SCA?” I hear you cry. “Can’t you like history, without having to be all weird about it?”
Well, yes, I could. But where’s the fun in that? Like my sort-of-distant relative Jim Henson, of blessed memory, I feel that learning should be fun. When we’re having fun, we’re learning more. The materials and concepts that we learn while we’re enjoying ourselves will last longer in our minds. Laughter and excitement fire us up and make us want to dig deeper, go further, leap higher, grasp more. Fun makes us want to do that, and fun makes us able to do it. Fun takes away the nervousness and pressure that some people feel when learning.
Children learn best through play, and I feel strongly that adults can learn best that way, too. Think about the last class you took that you hated. Did you honestly learn much in that class? Maybe you passed the class, maybe you got the highest grade in the class, but what you probably remember most deeply was the droning voice of the instructor, the sound of other people’s pencils tapping or scratching, the interminable lectures, the temperature in the room, and the blessed relief of the bell that released you from the captivity. Temptation to skip that class was great; temptation to drop it completely was just as great.
Now think about the last class you took that you loved. Skipping would have been unthinkable. You wanted to get there early, stay a little later. Wished you could write faster so you could take notes, sketch images that helped you remember more. Your favorite notebook was devoted to that class. When you went to study, that was the first book you opened. You voluntarily took the optional lab, discussion, or studio also offered with that class. You had fun. You were playing. And you probably remember, not just the fun you were having in that class, but the actual material you learned therein. It stuck in your mind, because you weren’t impatient to get rid of it and the feelings associated with that class. Even if your grades were not as high as you hoped, you still wanted to take another class in that subject, and especially, from that teacher, because you wanted to recreate your enthusiastic SPROING out of bed that only happened on the days when that was your first class of the morning.
That’s why I play in the SCA — and yes, we call it playing. For us, all this research and “work” is actually a game. It’s what we do in every moment we can carve out of our lives, not because we’re under any pressure from anyone else, but because we feel excited to finish our work for the day and pick up our toys and play. Any time we’re able to devote even a few minutes to it, you’ll find us eagerly rushing off to the fabric store, the leather supply shop, or the woodshop out behind our homes, itching to start a new project or get further on one we’ve had in progress for a while. This is something we love, and we’re excited to do it. As kids, we rushed outside at recess to play. Well, for us, recess is the SCA. We never stopped playing, and we never stopped learning from our play.
Those of you who already play with us: Yay! 🙂 I know you’re smiling really big and nodding your agreement with the above, because you know the same things I know, possibly even much better than I do. You know the delight when you realize, “Tonight is Bardic Circle night!” or “Tonight is Fighter Practice!”
Those of you who don’t play yet: I hope you will consider giving it a try. Look up the kingdom of where you live, maybe your local barony or shire, and contact the chatelaine or hospitaller (both of these are terms for the person in charge of welcoming new people, getting them in touch with local activities such as fighter practice or arts&sciences groups, and seeing that they have something to wear to their first event). We would love to have you join us. Come play!
UPDATE: An acquaintance of mine recently compiled a Youtube playlist of what he feels are the best “what is the SCA?” videos he could find out on the intarwebz. If what I’ve said hasn’t told you what you want to know, please give these a look. 🙂