I believe that the Society would be more fun if we all made a greater effort to be authentic-to cook feasts from period recipes instead of from Fanny Farmer, to do Renaissance dances instead of modern folk dances, to base SCA swashbuckling on sixteenth century fencing manuals instead of on twentieth century fencing. I further believe that such authenticity is most fun when it is integrated into the daily life of the Society instead of being isolated on a reservation as "contest entries."
In trying to explain my views to other Society members, I have come across an argument that I find interesting, persuasive, and wrong. It may be stated as follows:
Coke cans should be kept out of events because they spoil the mood. We all know that medieval people did not use either Coke or cans, so having Coke cans around makes it hard to feel as if we are really in the Middle Ages. On the other hand, most of us do not know enough about medieval cooking to realize that a modern beef stew does not qualify. Most of us do not know enough about dance or music to tell the difference between something that seems vaguely medievalish --- Road to the Isles or Joan Baez songs --- and something that is actually period. Since we cannot tell the difference, the medievalish works for us just as well as the medieval. So there is no reason for us to try to make what we do any more authentic than it already is.
The conclusion of this argument is not merely that being authentic is sometimes more trouble than it is worth. With that I would agree-which is why I have learned neither Arabic nor Berber, although my persona would have spoken both. The conclusion of the argument is that authenticity, beyond a rather low level, is worthless.
One answer is that authenticity-learning how people did things by doing them-is fun. For many of us that is true, but it provides no reason why those people in the Society who do not enjoy researching the Middle Ages should make any effort to use what is discovered by those who do. And yet, I think there is a reason. I believe that authenticity makes the Society more interesting for everyone, including those who have no interest in researching the Middle Ages. I believe, in other words, that medieval really is better than medievalish.
Why? Part of the answer is suggested by the following paradox: If Coke cans are bad only because we know they are not medieval, then the less we know the better off we are. If only we were sufficiently ignorant, there would be no need to do without Coke cans.
What is wrong with this, of course, is that if we did not know enough about the Middle Ages to realize that Coke cans are not a part of them, we would also not know enough to get any fun out of playing medieval. Much of the enjoyment we get from the Society comes from imagining we are medieval people in a medieval society. The less we know about the Middle Ages, the less interesting that game is.
I have sometimes heard it said that the Society is not really based on the historical Middle Ages at all, but on the nineteenth century romanticization of the Middle Ages, as seen in the works of authors such as Scott and Doyle. But if that were all the Society was, it would not work as well as it does. There are, after all, re-creation groups based on works of fiction, such as the Friends of Darkover or the Tuchuks. None of them is as large, as successful, or as interesting as the SCA. The reason, I think, is that no work of fiction can have the richness of detail, the complexity, the persuasive reality of an actual society. An author has a hard enough time making the little piece of his world that the reader can see through the window of one book seem real. We are basing our game on a story that was written over a thousand years by millions of authors and is real from every direction.
A different way of putting the point is to observe that the medieval works of writers such as Scott and Doyle would have been very much less good if they had had to invent the Middle Ages for themselves. What we see and enjoy in Ivanhoe or the The White Company is the image, however distorted, of a society that really existed.
If this is true, then the attempt to make the daily life of the society more authentic, to go beyond medievalish to medieval, serves two quite different purposes. It is an opportunity for recreational scholarship-doing research for fun. It is also a way of preserving and increasing the richness, the detail, the complexity, and the interest of the game we are playing, the fantasy in which we jointly participate.
Many years ago, I constructed for myself a char aina-a simple form of Persian body armor made up of four plates, usually rectangular, covering the front, back, and sides of the body. To attach the plates to each other I used leather straps rivetted to the metal plates. After using it for a while, I discovered that the system was unsatisfactory; the rivets kept pulling through the leather and having to be replaced.
I then did what I should have done before starting the armor-looked at pictures of surviving char ainas to see how they were held together. There was not a single one in which the leather had been rivetted directly to the metal. The most common system was a buckle on one plate and a D-ring on the plate it was joined to; the straps that had originally run between the two were, of course, long gone. From then on, whenever a strap pulled out I replaced it with a D-ring or buckle, rivetted to the plate. That system works fine.
This is a simple example of something quite common in the Society. Many of the problems we encounter in trying to reconstruct the Middle Ages, both simple (how to fasten armor together) and more subtle (how to encourage Medieval arts), were also encountered in the original Middle Ages. In trying to solve such problems, our first step should be to ask how they solved them.
There are two reasons to approach problems in that way. The obvious reason is that the more we use period solutions to our problems, the more accurately we will succeed in recreating the past-which is one of the purposes of the Society. A less obvious, but equally important, reason is illustrated by my char aina. The system I originally used not only is inauthentic-it also does not work. We know more than the people of the original Middle Ages about certain things, such as astronomy, mathematics, and physics, most of which are of only marginal relevance to the things we do in the Society. We know very much less than they did about how to build armor, cook with period ingredients, rule a kingdom, or preserve food without benefit of modern technology. These are things that were matters of great importance to people in the Middle Ages-frequently matters of life and death to those most directly concerned. They therefore devoted a great deal of thought, effort, and experimentation to discovering how to do them-far more than we have.
Since there is no evidence that our intelligence is greater than theirs and since most (although not all) of our superior scientific knowledge is irrelevant to such problems, it is quite likely that the solutions they came up with are better than the solutions we will come up with on our own. If so, then finding period solutions to period problems is not merely a way of making the Society more authentic. It is also a way of building armor that does articulate and does not fall apart, cooking feasts that taste good, building happy and prosperous kingdoms and surviving Pennsic without daily shopping trips off site.
That last problem is one that my Lady Wife and I have been working on for some years. Keeping meat fresh in a cooler for a week-long war is not only inauthentic, it is also a nuisance-not to mention somewhat dangerous. One medieval solution is to slaughter the meat as you need it. Unfortunately, the mundane authorities might object-and in any case a whole cow or sheep is rather a lot of meat for two adults and one child. Another solution is the use of salt fish; we have some, but have not yet done the experimentation necessary to produce a workable period recipe using it.
Our best solution so far is one we discovered in a collection of recipes included in a fifteenth century Icelandic medical miscellany. It consists of two recipes entitled "The gentry's salsa" and "How to use the above salsa." The salsa is a mixture of spices, salt, and vinegar used to preserve cooked meat. In our experience, it will preserve meat in an unsealed container at room temperature for over three weeks. At both TYC and Pennsic, we have brought pickled meat to the event and used it over a week later.
These examples involve technical problems-building armor and preserving food. The same approach can also be applied to problems of a somewhat more subtle nature. Consider, for instance, the perennial issue of how to encourage the arts.
The most popular solution in the Society is to hold arts contests. Almost inevitably, such contests force the participants, both entrants and judges, to look at the Middle Ages from the outside rather than the inside. The result usually feels more like a modern debate tournament than like anything from the Middle Ages. Neither medieval craftsmen nor medieval judges worried about whether a work of art was or was not authentically medieval.
How were arts encouraged and supported in period? In part, for those arts that produced a tangible product, in the same way that twentieth century arts are in the the twentieth century. Jewellers or tailors or painters produced things for their customers to buy. For some arts that works well in the Current Middle Ages as well-armor is a notable example.
Another way of encouraging the arts was for prominent people, especially kings and great lords, to honor and reward artists. In Norse and early Germanic culture, a generous lord was a ring breaker or ring giver-one who rewarded those who pleased him by giving them arm rings of silver and gold. As is clear in the sagas, the recipients included skalds who composed and performed poetry for the King.
The kings of the Current Middle Ages are rarely rich in material things, so giving valuable gifts to express their appreciation of poets may not be a practical option. They can, and sometimes do, give presents of costume jewelry, but that is not an entirely satisfactory substitute. Much of the point of a gift is in the fact that it costs the giver something and is worth something to the recipient. What the King wants to convey to the artist is not "I am pretending to appreciate your performance" but "I do appreciate your performance," so a pretend gift does not really serve the purpose. In this as in many other things, one must remember that the Society, despite appearances to the contrary, is real.
Our Kings are rich in things other than gold and silver. For most performers, being asked to sit with the King at high table, being called before the Queen and thanked, being publicly praised, are gifts of great value. And they are gifts that cost something to the giver as well: time is among the scarcest possessions of princes. In such ways kings can, and good kings do, encourage the arts.
Building a kingdom is the job of the king, but not only of the king. Many of the people of the Society are rich, if not in money then in other things of value. If a king can express his appreciation for a performer by offering him a seat at his table, a vintner can do the same by offering a bottle of his best vintage, a jeweller with the gift of a jewel of his own making. Here again, it is precisely the fact that the gift is of real value to both giver and recipient that makes the compliment a real one.
Long ago and far away, a gentleman whom I greatly respected was given a peerage that he very much deserved. His persona was, like mine, Muslim. After the King granted him his peerage, I presented him with a robe of honor-a robe and turban appropriate, so far as my knowledge ran, to his persona. The presentation of robes of honor was a period Muslim tradition-and, now as then, a way of showing the recipient the honor he had earned.
Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir