One of the most unmedieval things about SCA feasts is that we charge for them. A medieval feast hall was not a restaurant. The feasts on which our events are based were dinner parties held by a lord for his retainers and a few-or a few hundred or, in some cases, a few thousand-of his friends. To have charged them for his meal would have seemed wildly inappropriate to all concerned. Generosity was an important medieval virtue. And even if a feudal lord lacked that virtue, there was still a considerable difference between his social role and that of an innkeeper.
This point was brought to the attention of members of our Shire by our seneschal, Dain Greymouse, when we were discussing ways of making our next event feel more medieval. He suggested a simple solution to the problem, and persuaded the rest of us. The event was held as a tourney and feast with no site fee and no feast fee-a dinner party for two hundred of our closest friends. It was a successful event, so we did another free event the next year, and intend to continue doing at least one a year.
One of things that helps make our free events possible is that our group has several experienced feast cooks who can produce a feast that is both period and good at a cost of about $2.50 per person. In addition, we are a University group with free access to one of the best sites in the kingdom (a medievalish student activities building designed, in the early part of this century, by a previous generation of anachronists). With no site rental and low feast costs, a small event (50 people) only costs us about $125, and even an event for two hundred is only about $500.
The first time we did it, we persuaded the Student Activities Board that putting on a medieval feast was a worthy activity and deserved a subsidy. The next summer, we were asked to do a medieval feast for a mundane wedding; we made enough money from that to pay for another free event. Before we got around to doing it, we put on a coronation. His Highness persuaded us to raise our proposed feast fee to something closer to what coronation feasts usually cost, with the result that we made quite a lot of money on the event. Between that and the income from occasional paid demos, we now feel confident that we can put on at least one free event a year.
A free event not only feels more medieval, it also makes it easier to make the event more medieval in other ways. We would like, if possible, to get our guests to leave their cameras at home, to avoid obviously mundane conversations in places where other people will hear them, and in various other ways to help make the event feel as though it is really taking place in the Middle Ages. While some regard such restrictions as an attractive feature of the event, others may see them as at least a mild imposition. It is easier to get people to go along if they feel you are doing something special for them-such as feasting them for free.
The relation between the authentic event and the free event works in the other direction as well. Our ideal free event would have about a hundred people. Not only does that keep the cost at a reasonable level, it also means that, with a limited number of us to run the event, we are not too stretched to do a good job. By making it clear that people who come are expected to be more careful than usual about keeping things period, we can keep the numbers down to a reasonable level-and at the same time, encourage those who want to attend the kind of event we want to put on, while discouraging those who do not. Another way of achieving the same result is to schedule our event against a popular event of the sort we do not like, in the hope that it will draw away precisely the people who would neither enjoy nor contribute to ours.
Of course, it is possible to overdo such an approach. Our second free event was scheduled (deliberately) against a popular RenFair and (accidentally) against a border war that the King decided to promote, with the result that we ended up with only about forty people-and a very pleasant small event. Maybe next year we'll get it right.
One difficulty with a free event is that it is harder to estimate how many people are coming. We could require advance reservations, but to enforce that would require a troll booth and feast tokens-two of the things we are trying to avoid. Besides, with no feast fee, there would be no cost to sending in a reservation and then changing your mind, so we might get substantially more reservations than guests-just as, at Pennsic, people often rope off space in their encampment for everyone they think might show up. We ask people to tell us if they are coming, but we do not require reservations-everyone who shows up is fed. We try to estimate attendance in advance by requests for crash space plus talking to local people. In addition, we try to make our feast plans sufficiently flexible so that we can scale the feast up or down at the last minute.
I do not think it is practical to make all SCA events free. Some are so large that they would bankrupt even a very wealthy group. Some groups have no sources of income adequate to pay the cost of even a fairly modest free event. But there are many groups that get a substantial income from participating in renaissance fairs, putting on paid demos, and the like, and many events-indeed, many of the most enjoyable events-are small enough so that such a group can afford to put them on for free. Doing so, at least occasionally, is a nice way of practicing the medieval (and modern) virtues of generosity and hospitality.
Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir