Ignorance is Bliss
One of the things I enjoy about SCA events is the opportunity to be in persona-to act and speak as the medieval person I am pretending to be. In discussing the subject with other members of the Society, one issue that is often raised is the problem of consistency. How, it is asked, can one function as a medieval person at an event? Time travel is not a medieval idea, so how can one medieval person interact with others from hundreds of years before and after his time? How can I, as a North African from 1100 A.D., learn Italian dances from the sixteenth century or cook from a fifteenth century English cookbook?
What is wrong with all of these questions is that they confuse what I know with what my persona knows. I know that my wife's persona is several hundred years later than mine. My persona knows only that his lady wife is a foreigner. David knows that the gentleman in the starched ruff is from the sixteenth century. Cariadoc knows, having been told, that the gentleman is from a Frankish tribe called the English. Cariadoc also knows that, like most other Franks, the gentleman in question does not face towards Mecca to pray, does not wear a turban, and does wear funny clothes. None of that is in any way inconsistent with what Cariadoc knows of the world-foreigners are like that.
Cariadoc comes from a culture far from the SCA mainstream, so it is easy for him not to know the difference between a tenth century Englishman and a sixteenth century Englishman. But while the average SCA persona may not be quite as ignorant of other people's times and places, he is still much closer, in that regard, to Cariadoc than to David. Most medieval people did not know very much history or geography, and much of what they did know was wrong. If you meet a stranger who is wearing odd clothes, it is much more natural to assume that he is from a distant country, or even from a part of your own country where local styles are a bit unusual, than that he is from a different century.
One obvious response to this is that Cariadoc does not have to recognize sixteenth century clothes in order to know that the gentleman he has just met is from the sixteenth century-after all, the gentleman has just responded to my query of "what are you" by answering "a sixteenth century Englishman." But this is an inconsistency that comes not from being in persona but from being out of persona. Real medieval people did not start conversations with strangers by asking them what century they were from. All we have to do in order to avoid problems with temporal inconsistency is to talk as our personae instead of about them-and not mention any dates.
This brings up a related point-conversation. Some people seem to assume that, in order to be in persona, you must spend most of your time talking about current events-"have you heard the latest news about the crusade/Henry VIII/the Norman Conquest?" If so, then conversing for more than a few minutes would require quite a lot of specialized knowledge, and a conversation among personae from different times and places would rapidly become either obviously inconsistent ("What crusade/Henry who/what's a Norman?") or very confusing.
But consider, for a moment, your ordinary twentieth century conversation. How much of it is about events that will appear in the history books a thousand years from now? The answer, surely, is very little. Mostly we talk about what is happening around us or in our lives-and two people with very different personae are still attending the same event. If we do mention current events, they are likely to be something like the latest Welsh border raid or last year's bad harvest-neither of which comes attached to a date.
It is sometimes suggested that, in order to do a consistent persona, one would have to talk only with others from the same time and place. One wonders how medieval travellers managed. When Ibn Battuta, a fourteenth century North African, travelled through Anatolia and Southern Russia to India, where he spent several years as one of the chief judges of Delhi, did he have trouble maintaining a consistent persona? The people he travelled among were as foreign to him as my fellow feasters are to me-yet somehow he managed to interact with them while remaining himself. Indeed his experience, like mine, seems to have been that strangers are often more interesting to talk with than people from the next village over.
A different sort of consistency problem is raised by the institutions of the Society itself. Knights, Dukes, Seneschals, Knight Marshalls, Masters of the Laurel and Pelican-how do all of these things fit into Cariadoc's world? And, equally puzzling, how does he fit into them-what is a Berber doing marshalling a tournament or ruling a Kingdom full of Englishmen, Vikings, et multae caetera?
The answer, again, is that I am obviously a foreigner. The Middle Kingdom is not the Maghreb. It is not much stranger for a North African Berber to be Earl Marshall of the Middle Kingdom, as I was many years ago, than for another North African Berber to be the chief Malikite Judge of the city of Delhi in India. It is no stranger for me to have ruled over the mingled populations of the Middle than for Robert Guiscard de Hauteville, a Norman adventurer, to have ruled over the medley of Moslems, Byzantines, Italians, and Jews inhabiting what was to become the Norman Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The customs by which the Middle Kingdom chooses its kings are indeed very odd-they will make a fine traveller's tale for my hearers to scoff at, if I ever make it back to the Maghreb.
Another problem that some people see with being in persona is the problem of being stuck with your persona's quarrels. How can we conduct a civilized event if Vikings and Celts, Normans and Saxons, Guelfs and Ghibbilenes, Saracens and Crusaders, feel obliged to kill each other in the middle of the dance floor? Is it not necessary, in order to conduct our affairs in relative quiet, to impose an ahistorical ban on period persona violence?
The simple answer is that such a ban is not in the least ahistorical. In period, "enemies" interacted peacably quite a lot of the time. The Irish and the Norse may have had their little troubles, but that did not keep them from trading, allying, and intermarrying. One of my favorite bits in the memoirs of Usamah ibn Munqidh, a Syrian Emir who was an older contemporary of Saladin, is the part where he is trying to avoid offending a Frankish friend while turning down the friend's offer to foster Usamah's son. One has the impression that Usamah is about as eager to have his son fostered among the Franks as a nineteenth century Englishman would be to have his son raised by cannibals in darkest Africa-but, being unwilling to say so, he politely explains that, much as he appreciates the offer, the boy is the apple of his mother's eye, so ... . Moslems and Christians might fight to the death on the walls of Acre, but in Norman Sicily they got along well enough-so well that one of the most famous of the successors of the Norman Kings, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederic II, was suspected by some contemporaries of being a closet Moslem.
Nothing I have said here answers the question of whether being in persona is more fun than other ways of enjoying the Society. Nor have I said much about the techniques by which one convinces oneself and others that one is, for the moment, a medieval person. Both are subjects I have discussed elsewhere. But I hope I have convinced you that there is no inherent impossibility, no glaring inconsistency, in attending an event as a medieval person at a medieval feast rather than a twentieth century hobbyist at a costume party.
[Published in Tournaments Illuminated, No. 101, Winter 1991]
[ Illustration removed ]
A certain Arab sold a woman from his share of the spoil of Iraq for only a thousand dirhams. But she was of high birth; and people laughed at the man for selling her so cheap.
But I never knew there was a number above ten hundred! cried the Arab.
I have never looked into the causes of any rebelling against me, said (the Caliph) Mamun, without discovering that oppression by my Governors was at the bottom of it. Nor was I ever so embarassed by anything as I was by the answer of a certain Kufan, whom the citizens of Kufa had sent up as a deputy to complain to me of their Governor.
You are lying, for the Governor of Kufa is a just-dealing man, was my reply to his complaint.
The Prince of the True Believers is undobtedly telling the truth, the deputy answered; and I am undobtedly lying; and this being so, surely when you appointed this just man Governor of Kufa it was to the prejudice of all other cities. Pray appoint him to some different city now, that he may overwhelm them with his justice as he has overwhelmed us.
Be off with you, I'll remove him, said I.
(Quoted by Schroeder in Muhammad's People)
Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir