[This is an article from Cariadoc's Miscellany. The Miscellany is Copyright (c) by David Friedman and Elizabeth Cook, 1988, 1990, 1992. For copying details, see the Miscellany Introduction.]

In Defense of Authenticity

Much of the fun of the SCA consists of recreational scholarship-learning how things were done in the Middle Ages (and the Renaissance) and trying to do them. For some of us that means working out recipes from fifteenth century cookbooks-and discovering that, surprisingly enough, they taste good. For others it means making real armour-armour that not only looks right but also works. For still others it means telling stories from the Mabinogion or the Thousand and One Nights, or making suits of clothes that are medieval down to the underpants.

What I find puzzling and disturbing about the present state of the Society is that, although a considerable number of people do such things and have for very many years, surprisingly little of their work finds its way into our daily life. We have been at it for over twenty years now and yet it is still the case that in most of the things we do, what we do is much less authentic than what we know-and what we know about how things were really done is much less than what we could know. Thus, for instance, a sizable majority of the dances commonly danced in the Society are not only not period, they are not even seventeenth century. Most feasts in most groups contain no dishes that are cooked from period recipes. Events occasionally feature running-around games for the entertainment of those who are not fighting, but they are virtually never period games-although many such are known. The list could be expanded.

The problem may be in our attitude towards authenticity. Authenticity often seems to be viewed as something to be done, if at all, because one is supposed to do it-not because it is worth doing. A typical example is a pamphlet I recently read on one of the performing art forms. It contained a passage of a few pages discussing what pieces were period. The passage began with the explanation that those who were entering contests might find the information useful. The implication, clearly enough, was that no performer would care whether a piece was or was not period unless it was being entered in a competition. One result of this attitude is that, in many of the things we do, period work seems to be largely limited to competition entries.

The attitude can be seen most clearly in responses to the suggestion that something not be done because it is not period-for instance, that the fact that "Road to the Isles" is a twentieth century dance based on nineteenth century originals is an argument for finding other and earlier dances. Such a suggestion is usually interpreted not as an attempt to make the Society more interesting by making it more medieval but simply as an attempt to spoil everyone else's fun. One can get the same reaction by suggesting that since there is no evidence that cold tea was drunk anywhere in Europe any time in period and considerable evidence that chocolate deserts were not made anywhere in the world until late in the seventeenth century, we ought to find other things to eat and drink at our feasts.

The most common objection to such suggestions is that "the SCA is supposed to be fun." This is true. It is also true of folk dancing, baseball, and video games. Nonetheless, it would seem rather strange to show up at a tournament with ball and bat, or at a baseball game with sword, shield, and armor. Each is a different way of having fun and each implies a particular set of constraints on what you do in order to have fun.

It would not be surprising if the response to the suggestion that something should be more authentic was the reply that authenticity, although a good thing, was in this particular case more trouble than it was worth. We cannot all do everything perfectly; the same person who researches and uses period recipes might reasonably enough dance modern folk dances on the grounds that he does not know any good period dances and has neither the time nor expertise to research any. But the usual response, and the one with which I am concerned, is not that inauthentic dances are better than no dances-it is that historical authenticity is essentially irrelevant to the normal activities of the society, and the attempt to introduce it is therefore an irrelevant intrusion. The argument is not often put that baldly, but that is what it amounts to.

This brings me to the essential question which is rarely asked and more rarely answered: What is the point of authenticity? If the answer is that its only function is to give more authentic people an excuse to feel superior to less authentic ones, then surely we should forget about it.

Authenticity has several functions within the Society. One of them is to encourage us to learn how things were done in the past by trying to do them, which turns out to be fun-a kind of fun that is hard to find anywhere else. We are very much more likely to figure out how things were done in the past if we feel some obligation to try to do them that way than if we feel free to do "anything that is fun."

Consider dancing. Sixteen years ago, most of the period dances done in the Middle and East Kingdoms were out of one book --- Arbeau's Orchesography. Most of them still are. The reason is not that Arbeau is the only surviving period dance treatise-it is not. It is merely the only one readily available in English.

If one gets bored with the dances in Arbeau, one solution is to use modern folk dances instead. It is easy enough to do-there are lots of good dances, and plenty of folk dancers to teach them. That, for the most part, is what has happened.

If, however, you are unwilling to use dances that are out of period, or if you regard them as a temporary expedient to be used only until something better can be found, there is another solution-look for more and better period dances. The first step in that direction is to go to the early editions of Playford, which are almost period; the first was published in 1651. The next step is to find translations of earlier dance treatises such as Caroso, or to locate copies of untranslated treatises and try to translate them and work out the dances. If you are a dance master but not a linguist, there are probably other people in your kingdom who are linguists and not dance masters-and could be interested in a joint project.

Why does that not happen? One answer is that it does; there are people in the Society who have worked on dances from period sources other than Arbeau, although very few. I am neither a dancer nor a linguist, but I am a cook, and have gotten volunteer translators from within the Society to translate several previously untranslated period cookbooks. The reason it does not happen very often may be because most of us feel satisfied dancing 19th century folk dances and cooking from Fanny Farmer, and many regard period cooking or period dancing or period almost anything else as something done only in order to win a contest, probably in the hope of getting an award-not as what we should be continually aiming at in everything we do.

So one reason for authenticity in what we do is as a way of encouraging us all to engage in one of the forms of fun that distinguishes the Society from baseball and video games-figuring out how people danced, cooked, sewed, fought, and lived in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Another reason for authenticity is that it helps us to an experience that we cannot get elsewhere-the experience of living, for an evening, in a different world, of being a different person with different beliefs and feelings, seeing, for a little while, out of a different set of eyes. The attempt to do things, so far as possible, in the way they were done is one way of making events feel real-something more than costume parties held by people whose hobby is dressing up and hitting each other with sticks.

I am not suggesting that we should never do anything at an event that is not entirely authentic. If you have no period dances, folk dances are better than nothing; if you have no period recipes, Fanny Farmer's beef stew is better than going hungry. What is wrong is being satisfied with folk dances and beef stew, instead of trying to work to replace them with something better.

(Versions of this were published in Pale and Pikestaff in 1987)

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir