It is widely agreed that while the Society has at least enough fighting and politics, it is seriously deficient in most other medieval arts-that it would be both more medieval and more fun if we had more singers, poets, jewellers, cooks, musicians, and artists of many other sorts. The most common solution suggested for this problem is that the arts be encouraged by holding arts contests. I agree with the diagnosis, but not the prescription. We ought to have more medieval arts in the daily life of the Society, but I doubt that contests are the way to get them.
One problem with arts contests is that they are, as a rule, among the most unmedieval events we hold. Most, in my experience, feel more like a modern debate tournament than like anything from the Middle Ages. While this may not be inevitable, it is at least difficult to avoid. At an arts contest we are judging not only the quality of the works submitted but also their authenticity. It is hard to do so without judges and entrants discussing what was or was not done in period. But any such discussion forces us to look at the Middle Ages from the outside, not the inside-as twentieth century students of the period, not as medieval people. No medieval judge evaluated art works, and no medieval craftsman defended them, according to whether or not they were authentically medieval.
A related problem is the tendency in arts contests to judge works on documentation, instead of, or in addition to, judging them on authenticity. Obviously, if the artist has reason to expect the judges to make a mistake-if he knows something about the authenticity of his work which they probably do not know-it is up to him to pass on the information. But the requirement for documentation in arts contests often goes much further than that. Artists are expected to provide evidence to the judges of things that the judges ought to know if they are competent to judge the work, such as what verse forms were used in period. Documentation is treated as an objective in itself, rather than as evidence for the authenticity of the work. In some cases-exotic dancing, for example-entrants get credit for documentation even if all the documentation shows is that neither the entrant nor anyone else knows enough to tell what was or was not being done in period. In effect, the artist is being judged partly as an artist and partly as an amateur scholar. I can think of few better ways of discouraging the arts than to require that every work be accompanied by a term paper.
One might be able to solve, or at least reduce, these problems by creating events that function as contests but fit into medieval patterns. One could imagine an occasion at which poets perform before a king or great lord, with the best being rewarded by the gift of a silver arm ring. That is how poetry was encouraged in some period cultures. If, as is likely, the lord who is giving out the prizes does not know enough about period poetry to judge which performances are or are not authentic, he can always have advisors whispering in his ear. The idea is not to avoid considering the authenticity of the work, but rather to prevent open discussion of the authenticity of the work from destroying the authenticity of the event.
Other arts might compete within the framework of a fair-as often happened in the Middle Ages. The fiction of the event would be that the craftsmen were there to exhibit and sell their work, with ribbons being given by the local lord as a way of recommending particularly worthy craftsmen to his people. For some that fiction would be fact, since many Society craftsmen do produce work for sale. Those who wished to exhibit but not to sell could always explain that they were currently too busy to accept orders. Here again, questions of authenticity would be considered by the judges on whose advice the lord would make his decisions but kept out of the public view.
So far, I have been discussing ways in which we could continue to have arts contests while making them feel more like medieval events. I believe, however, that the real solution to the problem does not lie in contests at all. Almost inevitably, contests encourage the idea that art and authenticity are hothouse flowers, suitable for contests rather than for the daily life of the Society. This reinforces the unfortunate tendency of modern American society to regard education and "culture" as things which are good for you but taste bad-like codliver oil. The objective of encouraging the arts is not to produce authentic contest entries but to make medieval arts part of the daily life of the Society. The way to achieve that is by practicing our arts within the daily life of the Society and encouraging others to do so.
For those of us who are cooks and are producing feasts, that means developing authentic dishes and serving them at feasts. Since we are cooking not for a handful of judges but for a hall full of hungry people, we had better be sure that they are dishes which people will like-or we will not be asked to do any more feasts. That is a constraint that also applied, in a somewhat more extreme form, to the cooks of the Middle Ages.
For those of us who are cooks and are not doing feasts, introducing our art into the daily life of the Society means bringing a basket of period nibbles and offering them to all and sundry. That is both an exercise of the medieval virtue of generosity and a way of spreading the news that authentic food can also taste good.
Those of us who are jewelers can and should make medieval jewels, wear them, give them as gifts, sell them. Those who are poets or storytellers should use their art to entertain those who wish entertainment. If we find that we cannot hold an audience, that is evidence that there is something wrong with either the piece we have chosen or the way in which we have presented it. That, too, was a problem that period performers had to deal with.
One reason for the popularity of arts contests as a way of encouraging the arts may be that tournaments are such a visible part of our activities, and fighting one of the two medieval activities that do not seem in need of encouragement. My own view is that we have it backwards. Fighting is popular not because we have fighting contests but because it is something that many people do for its own sake. The prevalence of elimination tournaments is one of the things wrong with the way we do fighting, not one of the reasons for its popularity.
For crown tournaments we must have an objective way of determining who has won, since our Kingdoms would not work very well if the reigning monarchs could, by naming the day's best fighter, choose their successors. That is why crown tournaments are, and perhaps must be, elimination lists. But I think it is a mistake to make so many other tournaments into small scale imitations of the crown. Elimination tournaments allow the less experienced fighters to do very little fighting. Worse, by encouraging the idea that we are fighting to win a tournament, rather than for fun, honor, and glory, they have some tendency to make fighting less fun and less friendly than it might otherwise be.
Furthermore, our elimination tournaments are not particularly medieval; their structure is based on modern sporting events not on medieval tournaments. The winner of a medieval tournament was the fighter who, after the day's fighting was done, was judged to have fought best-but he did not have to prove it by working his way up a double elimination tree.
Perhaps, if we wish to encourage medieval arts, we should take our model not from fighting but from the other medieval art of which we have at least enough-politics. The people of our kingdoms, as in the kingdoms of old, require no public competitions, no special prizes, to engage in that activity. It is done for its own sake, for the pleasure of the game and the rewards proper to it. The reward of a successful politician is power-the ability to influence what happens within the kingdom-just as the proper reward of a story teller or a musician is an attentive audience and the proper reward of a good cook is a hall full of happy and well fed people.
If we wish medieval arts to be a part of the life of the Society, to function for us as they functioned in the past, it is to the past we should look for models of how to practice and encourage the arts. If you are an artist, find ways of working your art into the life of your kingdom. If you wish to encourage the arts, recognize and reward the arts you wish to encourage.
I brought three silver arm rings to the most recent Pennsic war, and departed with two. The third left on the arm of a lady singer, who had come to our campfire to delight us with the tale of Cuchulain and the Cattle Raid of Cooley. To the next war I propose to wear seven rings, and, fortune favoring, to bring none away. If one wishes to attract bards, one must use the proper bait.
Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir