It is not surprising that different members of a large volunteer organization have different opinions as to its purpose and nature, nor is it surprising if, as a result, one group of members feels that others are "doing it wrong" while others feel that the first are "making a fuss about nothing." In the case of the SCA, I believe one can distinguish two essentially different and incompatible positions about what we are doing.
According to one view, the SCA is a group of Twentieth Century people whose hobby is the past. Many of the meetings of the group are loosely modeled on such historical events as tournaments or Twelfth Night revels, and at the meetings the members wear costumes designed to show off one of their interests-historical clothing. It is entirely appropriate that at such meetings people discuss their researches, interests, and activities, and hold contests in which the members compete for prizes based on the authenticity and quality of costumes, cooking, and the like. Individuals choose personae as a way of specializing in some particular place and period, while feeling free to study any other part of the past that strikes their interest. In addition, the creation of a persona allows some members to exhibit their ability to invent an interesting or entertaining fictitious history.
According to the other view, SCA events are not meetings of Twentieth Century hobbyists but joint fantasies. At an event you are your persona, and your knowledge and viewpoints are those your persona would have had, modified, perhaps, by your contact within the society with other personae. While it is appropriate to show how well you can play the game by wearing attractive and authentic clothing or cooking from period cookbooks, it is entirely inappropriate to discuss the authenticity or inauthenticity of the result at an event. At an event you are your persona; you can hardly discuss the inappropriateness of rayon or potatoes when you do not know such things exist. Nor is it appropriate to introduce yourself to a new acquaintance with a lengthy history of where you were born and who your parents were and how you happen to have the friends and relatives you do-any more than it would be appropriate to recite your life history when you meet a stranger at a cocktail party. Such discussions can occur only in other contexts-baronial meetings, planning sessions, or conversations before or after events among the Twentieth Century persons whose period personae attended.
Of course, the distinction between the two viewpoints is not as sharp as I have made it sound. Those who believe in the second viewpoint are likely to complain that those who believe in the first view events as costume parties, but even in a costume party there is room for some playacting. The same person who spends most of the event discussing his mundane job and car troubles with his friends may attempt to play a medieval role for a minute or two when being presented in court. And even the strictest believer in staying "in persona" will find himself mixing persona and Twentieth Century person in borderline contexts-at a fighting practice, for example, where he uses his medieval name but discuses the suitability of various modern materials for making body protection. Similarly, an article in Tournaments Illuminated may be either a communication by one medieval persona addressed to others or an article written by and for Twentieth Century people interested in the Middle Ages; one can even mix the two modes to the extent of producing a medieval article with modern notes. Nonetheless, I believe that most of us, most of the time, fall fairly clearly into one camp or another-with some of us wincing when the Queen announces in court that the King is not present because he is home in bed with a heating pad, while others grow increasingly frustrated when a friend not only refuses to answer simple questions about what books he got his information out of and what time period his costume represents, but even refuses to admit he understands them.
It is worth pointing out that the disagreement is not about whether one is for or against authenticity. In many areas the first view may lead to as much or more authenticity as the second; a Twentieth Century hobbyist making costumes to enter in a costume competition may know more about how such costumes were made and do a better job of making them than someone who lacks both knowledge and skill but is doing her best to believe, for the evening, that the outfit she faked up from an old square dancing dress and some pieces of scrap cloth was really made from silk bought at the Troyes fair from a merchant who claimed to have brought it all the way from Constantinople. The one area in which the second area can be expected to lead to greater authenticity is in behavior-but even there, one may be trying very hard to act medieval and yet have very little idea how medieval people actually acted.
It is probably clear by now that I myself view the Society in the second way, that I believe events ought to be (but seldom are) joint fantasies in which all present try to act, and so far as is possible think, as though they were, for that evening, truly in the Middle Ages. While I believe that the Society has many attractions as a framework for recreational scholarship and a place to meet diverse and interesting people, I consider that its primary attraction is the opportunity to live, occasionally, in a different world as part of a different sort of society, seeing out of a different pair of eyes and understanding and acting on the basis of a different view of reality. I find it unfortunate that this view of the Society seems to have become rarer and rarer over the years, to the point that many members have not so much rejected as never considered it-and to the point where there are almost no events at which there is any serious attempt to maintain the illusion, save by a few scattered individuals.
Why has this happened? One reason is that staying in persona, however much fun it may be, requires a continuing effort. Even aside from positive actions-doing and saying things your persona would do and say-it requries continual attention, especially at the beginning, not to do and say things your persona would not. It requires even more effort when you receive no external support, when the people around you, instead of helping to build and maintain the fantasy, are by their words and actions attacking it, reminding you of the Twentieth Century world around you and expecting you to respond to them as a Twentieth Century person. I believe that many people who join the SCA are inclined to view it as I do; that is why they joined. That, if you can remember that far back, is why most of you joined. It is in new groups that one is most likely to find some belief in the reality of what we are doing. For new members of the Society, the very fact that they are wearing medieval clothes makes them feel that they have left the modern world. For old members, and for old groups, dressing up in fancy clothes and hitting each other with sticks is what they always do on weekends - why should they act or feel any differently than they do the rest of the time?
This brings me to a second reason why the Society as a joint fantasy is dead or dying. For me to stay in persona is at most a minor, and perhaps amusing, aberration for those who view a tournament as a costume party. But for them, and especially those of them who are taking public acts-making announcements, giving awards, doing business before the throne-to speak and act as the Twentieth Century people they are is about as consistent with what I am trying to do as a ringing alarm clock is with sleeping. Ten Twentieth Century people wandering through a medieval crowd can talk about their cars and computer programming in perfect comfort while creating a substantial problem for those present who do not wish to know that either exists; ten personae in a crowd of Twentieth Century people whose hobby happens to be the Middle Ages are limited to talking to each other and trying to pretend that the other people, or at least their words and acts, do not exist. Hence the attempt to treat SCA events as joint fantasies is very much more vulnerable to unintentional sabotage by those who disagree than is the alternative approach.
Can and should anything be done to alter the direction in which the Society has drifted? Whether you believe it should be changed depends on whether you agree with me about what the Society should be. If you do, there remains the question of whether and how a change might be made. My own opinion is that the only way is for a substantial number of people to discover that staying in persona, making events real, is simply more fun than the alternative. It is difficult for a single individual to either stay in persona or show others what a real event could be. Perhaps a group of friends, a household or something similar, could make a deliberate effort to come to events in persona, support each other in their roles, and gradually ease the people around them into doing the same. Perhaps a small group, a new shire, could decide to make its own events as real as possible, and gradually spread the idea through the kingdom. Perhaps at some mass event such as the Pennsic War a group of true believers could fence in a patch of enchanted ground for their encampment and let it be known that whoever came inside was undertaking to join them while he remained. Perhaps the idea would spread. Perhaps.
[Tournaments Illuminated, No. 63, Summer 1982]
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Several newsletters, Spring 1986
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(The Caliph Mu`awaya) was proverbial for his forbearance. When a certain Arab said to him: By God! thou hadst better do right by us, Mu`awaya, or we'll correct thee, be assured of that! the Caliph simply asked: How will you do that?
With a stick! said the man.
Very well, Mu`awaya replied, I will do right.
(Quoted by Schroeder in Muhammad's People)
Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir