The Society for Creative Anachronism – aka the SCA – was founded fifty years ago on May 1st, 1966. Using the Middle Ages as a theme for an outdoor party, a group of history buffs and science fiction writers held the inaugural tournament in Berkeley, California. Five decades later that backyard get-together is now a globe-spanning organization with over 30,000 active members.
Recently, onFiction was graciously permitted to attend and tour the Society’s 50th anniversary celebration. A milestone few groups – especially ones of this size – are ever lucky enough to encounter. But what exactly is the SCA?
Forward, into the Past
Odds are you’ve probably known someone who was a member of the SCA. A friend or relative who would load up the car with armor, weapons and the craziest tent you’ve ever seen on his or her way to an event. Maybe you have even seen a combat training session or witnessed the birth of period specific garb on a friend’s sewing machine. Or, like me, you’ve been regaled with stories of former glory and conquest by the friend of a parent when you were knee-high to a squire. Either way, there’s a good chance you’ve heard about it, but really have no idea what it actually is.
Their mandate is simple: “The Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) is a not-for-profit educational organization devoted to the study of pre-seventeenth century Western Culture.” So it’s a bunch of people playing dress-up and talking like Shakespeare, right? Wrong.
Buried within the misconceptions is a wonderfully complex and intricate society steeped in exploration and innovation. The fundamental concept – and in my opinion the absolute heart of what they do – is the “experience.” They are not reenactors, at least not in the conventional sense. If you go to a WWII reenactment, you typically see a recounting of past events. People trying to deliver a live-action retelling of a historical battle or confrontation. The SCA’s reenactments are focused on cultural elements, not specific events. Instead of playing out a scene where we already know the outcome, they simply have their own unscripted contest where the winner isn’t predetermined.
Though it’s a large component in their exploration of the Middle Ages, combat is only one of four pillars joined by art, science and culture. The most astonishing aspect in all of this is the quest for “how.” We know quite a lot about the Middle Ages and European history through the study of its art and architecture, but what we don’t have a great handle on is the “how.” Most of the time when you see a documentary on this period explaining how the people of that era made or constructed things it’s speculation based on what materials were available to them. But they didn’t leave behind instruction manuals.
This is where the “Creative” in the name really comes into play. While some of its members focus on societal behaviors and Middle Ages lifestyles, others worry about “how.” How did they make swords and armor? How did they refine the metal to make those swords and armor? How were they able to bind books or shape glass? How did leather get worked before it became clothing or a saddle? Historians know it happened and they think they know how, but the SCA explores the actual, not the theoretical. They look at the finished product next to the available materials and work to connect the dots practically.
During my time at the 50th Anniversary Celebration I saw a working forge and bellows manned by a smith and his team who where shaping iron right in front of us. We saw people working with glass, metal, ceramics, wood, leather and so much more. Maintaining Middle Age practices, others were cooking, sewing, painting, performing, partying, trading and pretty much anything else you’d imagine was being done during that period. Did I mention the member who recreated a Viking era kiln where he refined metal for later smithing? The reasons to be impressed with their efforts were endless.
Walking the Walk
Despite all the amazing Middle Ages tech on display, not much of that matters without proper cultural context. This is where the SCA made a choice that separates them from almost every other group with a similar agenda. Their events are for them, the participants, not for spectators. While there is a staggering amount worth showing off, they don’t. When our tour first began, we entered a hall filled with tables displaying primarily art. Each table had signs and papers introducing the piece and in some cases explaining the techniques used in its creation. It all looked very much like what you’d see at a museum featuring specific period works. But its purpose wasn’t for the passerby, it was for the members. A collection of works intended to be shared amongst the indoctrinated. A visual history, if you will, of the Society’s attempts to recreate long dead art forms.
As someone who’s spent countless hours covering conventions, premieres and other outward facing events, I was mystified by an organization who put on these enormous gatherings – 14,000 attend the yearly Pennsic War – just for themselves. Don’t misunderstand, anyone can go. You just have to be a member. It creates an environment that’s kind of hard to describe. At your typical convention, festival or reenactment, the consumer is the targeted audience, not the participant. The participant – though integral – is merely part of the attraction where the money spending consumer gets most of the attention.
So why is the SCA different in this regard? I think it comes down to an old scientific principle, the Hawthorne effect: “A form of reactivity in which subjects modify an aspect of their behavior, in response to their knowing that they are being studied.” Simply put, it would be almost impossible to both recreate AND perform aspects of an extinct culture. Which brings us back to the “experience,” and what it is the SCA is really trying to do. Study, learn, share and experience. Not perform. And I think they are far the richer for their choice to be seclusive versus inclusive.
50 and Counting
Based on what I gathered, the 50th was special for a number of reasons. There are an endless amount of events happening all around the world, but it seems most have a specific function or theme. There are coronations, wars and other unique gatherings, but the 50th encompassed them all to some degree. There was combat of all types: jousting, sword play and archery for starters. Alongside that were skills challenges both on foot and horseback. You could also find displays of arts, crafts and other handmade wares showing off finely cultivated talents.
One of my favorite areas – and one that really created a Middle Ages feel – was the bazaar. A street lined with shops that would have looked at home surrounded by any Middle Ages city or town. For sale was anything from custom armor and weapons to pottery and cooking supplies. Need a dress or outfit for that upcoming coronation? This is the place to go. Seeing the stores live and breath as they interacted with the in-character passerby transforms you from an observer into a time traveler.
Along the way we passed an occasional encampment where food was being prepared – and shared – in iron pots and pans, served in wooden bowls and eaten with wooden spoons. Bread was baked fresh in the handmade clay oven. And the people were working together. That’s a component I think might get lost in the sheer wonder of the occasion. There is no going solo if you want to do more than just walk around. Being a Knight or master artist or royalty or just about anything in this world takes the work of many. While attempting to replicate a long-ago culture, the SCA has also created its own community.
And in its fifty years it also has its own history. The odd juxtaposition between modern and historical artifact was evident in the on-site museum showcasing the Society’s half-century history. Each kingdom was represented with an area dedicated to its individual history. While there was quite a bit to see at each booth, the artwork that was specific to each kingdom painted a literal and figurative picture about that land’s past and subsequent evolution. The effort and hours to learn and master a craft were prominently displayed in all their Middle Ages glory. Yet nothing, despite how authentic it looked, was more than fifty years old. I’m not sure where else you can see a display of history within history like what was put forth at this particular exhibit.
What they do at the SCA is not a reflection of times past, but instead an interpretation of those periods expressed through people with modern sensibilities. Sensibilities and passion that lends an ambassadorial feel to each of them as they try to represent the best there was of a long gone era. Those elements make witnessing these interactions all the more special.
Again, I want to extend our absolute gratitude to the SCA and its members and staff. We weren’t just introduced to their culture, we were met with the highest level of hospitality and patience.