[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.]

Staying In Persona and Other Things: An Opinion

In observing and talking with other people in the Society, one area where I find a good deal of disagreement is the subject of staying in persona. The disagreement is often stated in terms of being for more or less authenticity, but that is, I think, a mistake. The controversy is not about how much authenticity one is in favor of but about what dimensions of our activities in the Society we are to be authentic about.

It is useful, in discussing this issue, to distinguish between statements about the desirability of authenticity and statements about its cost. A simple example is the matter of wearing eyeglasses. Suppose you have an Anglo-Saxon persona. Further suppose you are very nearsighted and the two things you most like to do in the Society are fighting and archery. You may decide that being authentic in the matter of eyeglasses, while desirable, is not desirable enough to be worth giving up the things you are in the Society to do. Authenticity is a good thing, but in this particular case it costs more than you are willing to pay. I would use the same terms to describe the situation of a sixteenth century persona who chose to wear modern eyeglasses instead of buying a special pair of medieval looking ones-because she had more important things to spend her limited income on. In one case the cost is in money, in the other in inability to do things, but the principle is the same.

Having made that preliminary point, I next wish to discuss the question of why authenticity is valuable. There are several reasons. The simplest-and, I think, the most important-is that we are playing a game in which we imagine, while we are playing it, that we are medieval people living in a medieval world. Your inauthenticity, if sufficiently obvious, makes it difficult or impossible for me to play the game. It is hard to imagine oneself in the Middle Ages while flashbulbs are popping or radios blaring rock music.

A second reason is that we are scholars engaged in studying the life of the past by trying to live it-sometimes described as experimental archeology. Authenticity is a way of getting the experiment right-and the outcome of the experiment gives us further insights into what really was authentic. To take a simple example, one could make a rough estimate of the size of a medieval loaf of bread by trying to make a recipe that specifies other ingredients by weight and bread crumbs by the number of loaves used.

A third reason, and one that is important for many members of the Society, is that trying to be authentic is itself a game (too often a highly competitive one); in this context the rules are essentially arbitrary, but there have to be some rules in order for there to be a game, and historical authenticity is the rule we have chosen.

If these are the functions that authenticity, whether in speech, dress, or behavior, serves, then we can compare the authenticity of different dimensions of what we are doing by seeing to what degree, in each, our inauthenticity prevents us from achieving the objectives that authenticity is intended to promote.

Consider clothing as an example. Think of the lowest level of authenticity-level one-as clothing that would be obviously inauthentic even to someone almost completely ignorant of the Middle Ages, such as an occasional reader of Hagar the Horrible. Blue jeans and a T-shirt would be a good example. Level two is the sort of vaguely medievalish clothing that we see a good deal of-a long dress of indeterminate origin plus something on the hair for a lady, a belted T-Tunic and pants for a gentleman. Level three seems authentic at a casual glance-the zippers are hidden and the pattern and material not obviously modern. One could go on to discuss higher levels, but for my present purposes it is not necessary.

What is wrong with level one clothing is that it breaks the effect for everyone. Level two does the same thing to a lesser degree for those who know something about medieval clothing. The higher levels do not seriously interfere with other people's enjoyment, although anything short of perfection may fail fully to achieve the objectives of recreational scholarship or "authenticity as a game."

The question to ask, with regard to clothing or anything else, is not "how authentic should we be;" putting it that way suggests that there is some level of authenticity that everyone must achieve and which there is no point in surpassing. More authenticity is always better than less-up to the point where a professional scholar could distinguish the garment from an original only by its age. What we differ in is how much authenticity we are willing to pay for, given its cost. Someone who likes dressing well, is good at making clothes, and has lots of money to spend on handwoven fabrics, will quite properly choose more authenticity in garb than will someone with the opposite characteristics.

In an area where the level of authenticity is very low, one person's inauthenticity makes it harder for other people to play and enjoy the game, so it is generally most important to improve authenticity in the areas where it is lowest. Getting people to wear tunics instead of T-shirts is a significant step in making it possible for us to imagine, at least for a few minutes, that we are really in the Middle Ages; replacing costume jewelry with jewels that are made out of silver, gold, and real gems is mostly a matter of one person playing the game more perfectly for its own sake. Both are desirable, but the former should probably have the higher priority.

If we try to apply this common set of standards to the many dimensions of the Society as it now exists, what do we see? In clothing, level one-blue jeans and T-shirt-is rare and frowned upon. Most people at events are in level two or level three clothing, and a healthy minority are doing better than that. The situation is similar with regard to armor, although a little worse; there is more obviously out of period armor on most tourney fields than obviously out of period clothing surrounding them. It is worse still with regard to cooking; while the situation varies from kingdom to kingdom, blatantly modern foods are much more common than blue jeans at Society feasts.

Let me now go to the other extreme, to something with regard to which almost all of us are and always will be at level 1: language. My persona ought to speak Arabic, Berber and perhaps Latin; others should be fluent in Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, etc. It would be nice if we all knew those languages (provided most of us had a language in common-Latin would do for most educated personae). Imagine how much more real the Society would feel. Unfortunately, learning to speak a foreign language is a great deal of work. Most of us, myself included, are simply not willing to put that much time and effort into achieving even a very low level of authenticity in that particular dimension. We content ourselves with trying to use a few archaic words and locutions-the equivalent (for other than late English personae) of wearing a long shirt outside our blue jeans and belting it in to make it look a little like a tunic. It is not that authenticity with regard to language is not valuable, merely that it costs more than we are willing to pay.

My point is that authenticity is valuable in all the dimensions of what we do, that it is most valuable when its lack is obvious to those around us and so threatens their ability to believe in the game while they play it, but that our willingness to be authentic in various dimensions is limited by what it costs us, in time, effort, and money. This brings me finally to the subject of staying in persona.

With regard to staying in persona-what we speak about, what we know, what our expressed opinions and attitudes are-most of us, most of the time, are at the blue jeans and t-shirt level. This is true, in my experience, across all kingdoms and most groups. Someone almost completely ignorant of the Middle Ages could walk once across the feast hall or field of an event and tell, by the conversations around him, that he was in the twentieth century. In most events, a majority of the conversations he would hear would be obviously out of period; certainly there would be more conversations which sounded sufficiently modern to seem strange to the medieval ear (language aside) than conversations that sounded sufficiently medieval to seem strange to the modern ear.

This would be an unavoidable situation if staying in persona were as difficult as learning a new language. Many of those I have discussed the matter with seem to think it is; their argument is that while a few of us may have the resources of scholarship and verbal fluency to "pull off" a medieval persona, most of the Society cannot do it, or at least not without devoting so much effort to the attempt as to take the fun out of the Society for them.

This argument confuses the step from level one to level two with the step from level one to level five. It is as if we excused blue jeans and t-shirts by assuming that the only alternative was a handsewn outfit made from handwoven material colored with period dyes. I am not suggesting that we should all become professional scholars or professional actors, specializing in our own personae-only that we should make at least some minimal attempt to act like the people we claim to be.

The first step in doing so is to avoid saying those things that we all know are inappropriate to the medieval context. No computers, no cars, no football games. It will require a little effort the first few times, but it takes no skills or knowledge that we do not all already have. A good second step would be to introduce into our conversation or behaviour some element that seems appropriate for our medieval persona and inappropriate to our mundane one. For an Arab that might mean eating with only the right hand, for a Norseman swearing by Thor, for a medieval Christian crossing himself at appropriate occasions.

These things would not constitute doing a "good job" of staying in persona, any more than a belted T-tunic and pants is a "good job" of dressing medievally. The latter is about the minimum level that we feel should be acceptable in dress-what we expect of a new member or permit ourselves when we are being sloppy and casual-and the former are the equivalent in persona. The one is about as difficult as the other, and they have comparable effects on the overall feel of an event.

[An earlier version of this was published in the Crown Prints ]

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