A question that occasionally arises in the Society is whether there is some essential conflict between being creative and being authentic. Must we choose between slavishly copying historical works, on the one hand, and being creatively unmedieval on the other?
The answer is no. It would be difficult to argue that Chaucer was not creative --- or Michelangelo, or Dante, or the unknown master who created the Sutton Hoo treasure. Their works could hardly be described as slavish copies of what already existed. Yet each worked within the artistic canon of his own time. Each, to some degree, enlarged that canon by his own work. When they were all done, the year sixteen hundred had not arrived, so nothing that they did can be properly classified as out of period for the Society.
Just as the creative artists of the past worked within the technical and stylistic limits of their own times, and in doing so produced works of great and original art, so we, if we are good enough, can produce our own original works within those same limits. A poet does not have to invent his own verse form, or even his own poetic conventions, in order to write original verse-and few poets do. While a painter may find the lack of modern acrylics inconvenient, there is a vast body of medieval and Renaissance art to prove what can be done without them. The most beautiful jewels ever made, in my judgement at least, are more than a thousand years old, and the most technically impressive more than two thousand. The treasures of the past provide ample evidence that there is no conflict between originality and authenticity.
In some arts there is a division between author and executor. A great actor or dancer need not be the author of the plays or dances that he performs; a great musician does not play only his own music. Most of the dishes cooked by even the greatest chef are not of his own invention. In such arts, the interpretation of the existing work is itself a difficult and creative act. If the art we are practicing is acting, or dancing, or music or cooking, there is no need to produce new plays, dances, pieces, or recipes in order for our performances and our dishes to be original works. By choosing to execute works that were produced in period, we make it more likely that our execution will be authentic as well as original; we do not have to worry that errors in our interpretation may be compounded by errors in what we are interpreting. We know that a recipe written down in 1226 contains only period ingredients.
What if we wish to create not a period dish but a period recipe-or poem, or play, or jewel? There is still much to be said for starting out by copying surviving works. Close imitation is not essential to authenticity, but it is one of the ways in which artists learn their craft. It is even more important as a way of learning for us than it was for the artists of the past. A medieval cook spent his life learning what medieval cooking was like by eating it, and learning how it was done by watching other medieval cooks. That is not an option available to us.
The nearest alternative is to cook a large number of dishes from period cookbooks. The process is not entirely lacking in creativity-medieval recipes rarely include quantities, temperatures, or times-and it is the essential preliminary to any more creative medieval cooking. If, instead of beginning by cooking from medieval cookbooks, we start our exploration of medieval cooking by inventing our own dishes, what we will be inventing will not be original medieval dishes but original twentieth century dishes, perhaps slightly influenced by twentieth century ideas of what medieval cooking was like.
Similarly, a Society jeweler with the good taste to want to make Anglo Saxon jewelry will be wise to look at as much of it as he can. Having done so, he will want to make pieces closely based on some of the simpler originals. As he gets better, and acquires more of a feel for what an Anglo Saxon jeweler might have done, he may go further afield, while still producing nothing that would look out of place in the Anglo Saxon rooms of the British Museum.
I have been arguing in this essay that there is no conflict between authenticity and originality. That does not mean that authenticity has no other difficulties. There has been a great deal of technical progress since the year sixteen hundred, with the result that it is much easier to cook in a modern kitchen than in a medieval one, or to make jewelery with modern rather than medieval tools. The use of period techniques is made still more difficult by the fact that if you wish to use period tools to make jewelry you must first make the tools. The result is that most Society artists compromise, using some mixture of authentic and modern techniques to produce their work. It is better to do work that is imperfectly authentic than to insist on being perfect and as a result do nothing at all. The best should not become the enemy of the good.
I have, as it happens, made Anglo Saxon jewelry-but not in an Anglo Saxon jeweler's shop. I have sometimes daydreamed about building the medieval shop that Theophilus describes in a book written at almost precisely the date of my persona, but I will probably never do it. I do medieval cooking, but in a modern kitchen.
While I accept the necessity for a certain amount of compromise in how authentic I am able to be, I also believe that more authentic is better than less authentic and that those who manage to do medieval crafts with medieval techniques deserve our admiration and applause. My favorite example is the Sated Tyger, a cookshop at Pennsic which, for some years, produced and sold a large volume of period baked goods cooked in period ovens. Each year the staff of the cookshop arrived early to build their ovens (named Hansel and Gretel) out of bricks and clay. When it was time to bake they lighted a fire inside each oven, heated them up, removed the fire and put in the pies. Their medieval cooking was more medieval than mine, and I honor them for it.
In a recent article on filk songs, Mistress Morgana asks what sort of bardic performances are appropriate in the SCA. The question is of interest to me both as a performer and as host of the bardic circle at my encampment at Pennsic. While I agree with Mistress Morgana that we do not want to limit ourselves to works actually composed in period, that does not get us very far towards deciding what should be encouraged or discouraged.
I find it useful to divide performances into three categories: unacceptable, tolerable, and period. The division is based mostly on the degree to which the performance creates or destroys the illusion of really being, for at least a few minutes, in the Middle Ages. Unacceptable is anything that makes it obvious that the performer is a twentieth century person addressing a twentieth century audience. That includes stories about knights going through metal detectors and anything else with obviously out of period references-the "Song of Sir Greenbaum," for instance. It also includes anything written to an obviously modern tune or in a blatantly modern style, especially take-offs on popular songs. Those are the sorts of things that I do not perform at events (post revels are another matter) and try to keep out of my bardic circle.
The tolerable category consists of pieces that would be recognized as out of period, in form or content, by any reasonably expert observer, but not by a random member of the audience. That includes folk songs with post 1600 tunes and songs, stories, or poems that refer to events that are out of period but not obviously so. The tolerable category does not include folk songs prefaced with an apology about not being in period; the song may be acceptable, but the preface is not.
The period category includes works actually composed in period, such as stories from the sagas, Boccaccio, Usamah or al-Tanukhi. It also includes works written, inside or outside of the Society, in period form on period topics. Examples would include the words, at least, to "Song of the Shield Wall," "The Raven Banner," and "Catalan Company"-three of my favorite SCA poems. Stories about events in the SCA also qualify, if told in such a way that they could be stories about people in period. Works in this category are the reason for having a bardic circle.
There are a lot of borderline cases. The tune to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" is not exactly modern, but most hearers know it is not period. At the other extreme, the words to "Catalan Company" contain echoes of the modern folksong from which its tune is borrowed, but not many people are likely to notice them.
A song that sounds fine to me may seem clearly unacceptable to Mistress Johanna, who is a semi-professional lutenist; a story about Iceland or al-Islam that sounds period to her may strike me as obviously out of period in style or contents. As with most things in the Society, the important classifications are not right and wrong but better and worse. We cannot expect to do things perfectly-even period songs are rarely played on exact replicas of period instruments-but we can agree that the closer we come, in form and content, to works that were or could have been created in period, the better.
There are many dimensions to authenticity, and sometimes they conflict. To Johanna, a period song in translation is less authentic than in the original language. But one of the characteristics of the original song as originally performed was that the audience understood it. For an audience that does not understand the original language, the translation is, in that dimension at least, more authentic than the original.
(Published in The Mews, summer 1988)
Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir