SCA evolution: from re-creation to SIG?

I was at an event this weekend, my first since Pennsic. Pennsic, in turn, was my first event since before the pandemic. I think this infrequency of exposure has made me really notice some things that have been gradually changing for decades. Herewith a long ramble that could definitely use more thought (and probably editing), but this is where I am now.

I found the SCA when I was in college. For most of the time since then, the conceit was that at events we pretended to be someone from some historical period, and nonetheless we did not let the demands of modernity limit us. The SCA isn't a re-enactment society for a specific period where they inspect details of your clothing and kit before you can enter; it's much more flexible and "do what you're comfortable with", even doing stuff from several periods at the same time. (I have a 10th-century persona, perform renaissance music, and cook a variety of historical cuisines.) There has always been a very wide range of historical authenticity, interest in and scope of authenticity, "modern middle ages" factors, and so on.

Consider one end of that spectrum: Duke Cariadoc runs an encampment at major events called "Enchanted Ground". Within this space, people agree to make the effort to "be" people from history. Instead of talking about what "they" did 800 years ago, or about something you saw in a museum, or about your efforts to learn from Youtube videos how to make things like they did, you approach it from the persona side: we do this, I've learned that people in other lands do this thing, I once watched a craftsman do it this way, etc.

Now, there's an obvious problem that comes up: how can you have a 10th-century Dane and a 15th-century Italian actually having a conversation about cooking Islamic food? The common answer is to treat other periods, both time and place, like other places, and to not worry about some inconsistencies. I visited Cariadoc's bardic circle at Pennsic as a Viking playing a hammer dulcimer; they didn't do that, but that was ok. If I played a Playford dance tune (17th century) I didn't introduce it as "17th century" or even "Playford", but as a "dance tune I learned from an Englishman". Participants who are willing to work together and suspend a little disbelief can fall into a moment of "being in history", as opposed to being modern people in costumes.

Another thing about Cariadoc's Enchanted Ground is that modern things are kept out of public view (put your phone away, use a lantern instead of a flashlight, etc) but necessary modern things are quietly ignored. My obviously-modern eyeglasses aren't a problem. I imagine that a wheelchair would be reinterpreted somehow. The mindset is: don't forbid a necessary modern thing and also don't call attention to it.

I should mention that I'm not very good at any of this. I've visited the Enchanted Ground out of curiosity or to visit with people but a part of me is always a little on edge, not wanting to mess up someone else's game. I'm not trying to say the SCA should be like that; I'm pointing out one example of people within the SCA trying to be more historically focused within a larger organization that isn't so much.


More typically, events are filled with modern people in historical clothing doing historically-related activities, mixing history and modern. If I have a conversation at an event about renaissance dance music, for instance, I'm talking as a 21st-century person, pointing out sources and maybe talking about how a co-author and I used digital music and the Internet to share our work and test-drive music with real dancers. Nobody in history would have had that conversation. Events are modern activities around historical themes.

Events are modern social activities, too. We catch up with our friends, we talk about work, we talk about all sorts of other things that have nothing to do with the SCA or history but have to do with each other. Sometimes events are the only chance to see non-local friends in person, so naturally people socialize. It would be weird if we didn't. But yeah, that means you're in the marketplace at Pennsic having a conversation about your software project or someone else's upcoming trip to Australia or that thing you saw on Twitter, and that's kind of odd too. In theory my persona interacts with my friend's persona, but really, I want to interact with my friend.

Participants in the SCA are, of course, modern people first and foremost. I was attracted to the SCA for the armored combat (I remember thinking "ooh, live D&D!" when I first saw people fighting), and we all quietly ignored the fact that women in the middle ages wouldn't have entered royal tournaments or been openly trained to fight. Nobody even expected me to take a male persona, i.e. pretend to be a male when fighting, though some people did that. I got to be me, and I got to put on armor and fight anyway. I also get to sing in a mixed choir performing music that would largely have been performed by men only.

In a similar vein, we have people with dietary restrictions (vegetarian, gluten-free, various allergies), and we generally expect those restrictions to be accommodated at feasts even though a meal in the target period wouldn't have done so or even had some of those concepts. Sometimes you can "translate" a modern restriction into a persona thing, like the vegetarian I know who casts his food needs as a penitential vow, and I ended up adopting a Jewish persona to align with my modern needs because it just felt easier. But if I'd continued as a Viking-age woman who somehow has kosher food restrictions, I wouldn't have gotten any grief for it because we are still modern people with needs.

All of what I've said has been the case for a while in my experience. We try to strike a balance between "doing history" and "being our real selves". We don't exclude people from things on the basis of historical accuracy. Support for same-sex rulers (instead of a king and a queen) is even in SCA law now.


What I've noticed more recently is a move from ignoring the inauthentic modern thing to highlighting it. We've highlighted modern technology for a while, for example people receiving awards in court for their work with web sites or photography. Sometimes the presentation is more oblique ("communication across the land", "detailed records", etc), but often it's not -- that's not seen as important. The move to highlighting modernity really jumped out at me at a Pennsic peerage ceremony that included a Pride flag. And I'm also seeing a lot of highlighting of modern gender identity, for example neopronouns in award scrolls, where careful crafting of text can in many cases make it a non-issue without offending.

I don't know how I feel about some of these changes. On the one hand, you certainly shouldn't have to pretend to be something you're not, like how I didn't have to pretend to be a man in order to fight or perform. On the other hand, I wonder if we're striking the right balance between ignoring and highlighting. On the third hand, core identity stuff is really important to a lot of people.

If being Jewish is a core part of my modern identity (hint: it is), fortunately I can already express that in the SCA -- there were times and places where it was ok to be openly Jewish. If being specifically a Reform Jew were a core part of my identity (it's not), I might be able to cast it as "another place" a la the Enchanted Ground, but it would be difficult because it's a pretty modern idea. If being Israeli (I mean the modern state) were a core part of my identity (I'm not, so it isn't) and I wanted to express that identity by hanging an Israeli flag in as a banner in the feast hall, there would be no way to "spin" that as anything but modern.

If that Israeli flag were important to my modern identity, should it be part of an event? Does it matter if it's more passive (banner in the feast hall) or active (used in a ceremony in court)? Or should I be content to express that identity in 99% of my life and not bring it to central event activities where we're theoretically roleplaying? Does it matter how controversial the item in question is? For example, an Israeli flag would probably bother more of the other modern people at an event than a Pride flag would.

The answers, I think, depend on whether -- as a primary focus -- the SCA is about history or about modern people with a shared interest in history. If it's the latter, then people should bring their "whole selves" and be modern people not personas, and it should be clearly ok to have wholly modern stuff that's SCA-flavored like filks about Pennsic to the tune of "Mary Ellen Carter" or -- as I'm now embarrassed to admit -- a performance of "Deo Gracia Anglia" with a Calypso beat. (Yes, I did that once at an event, a long time ago.) If it's the former, we should expect our personas, our "characters", to represent a subset of ourselves, a large-enough subset to feel comfortable at events but not necessarily every piece.

I don't know if it was ever really the former, but I have the sense that it's more clearly becoming the latter now. This isn't a matter of "good or bad", just evolution. Change in any organization this old is to be expected, and we each have to figure out how we feel about that change and adjust to it. The SCA hasn't been long-term tenable for a while (I'm not convinced it'll survive another generation), so maybe it needs some large changes in orientation like when they dropped the "European" part of "European history". I'll be curious to see where the organization goes and how I end up feeling about it.