By Ken Mondschein
There are tens of thousands of people who want to recreate the Middle Ages “as they ought to have been.” But what is the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) and what is its future?
Founded in Berkeley, California in 1966 in speculative-fiction writer Diana Paxson’s Berkeley, California backyard as a costume party-cum-protest against the twentieth century, the Society for Creative Anachronism is the gorilla in the room in any conversation about modern medievalism. No group is as large (over 30,000 current members), as diverse, or as open-ended. Besides giving members a central structure to recreate any aspect of premodern culture that catches their fancy, SCA membership crosses over into all realms of fandom, as well as a number of other subcultures. It is in no small part thanks to the Society that a great variety of reproduction armor, costumes, and weapons are available to anyone with an Internet connection and credit card, and large SCA events such as the Pennsic War, held every summer outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, can draw upwards of 10,000 attendees. More importantly, the Society is a community that gives meaning, structure, and identity to its participants. As such, it is worthy of serious respect and consideration.
While Society members engage in activities such as brewing, fencing, and equestrian sports (to name the ones I’ve participated in), as well as bardic arts, dancing, and costuming (to name the ones I want to try) the central activity in the SCA is its own special combat sport, variously referred to as “armored,” “heavy,” or “rattan” fighting. It is played with protective equipment resembling medieval armor to a greater or lesser degree and clubs and staves made of relatively heavy and thick pieces of rattan. The objective is to strike the opponent in a legal target area with a subjectively “good” blow; unlike other combat sports, judging a quality hit is up to the individual combatants. In many ways, it resembles the group stick-fights practiced in medieval and early modern Italian towns.
The video begins with the king of the East rallying his troops before a Pennsic battle.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of this activity to the organization and its culture. As I wrote in a 2004 article for Disinfo.com, the Society, at its founding, was “more than a physical outlet for the creative energies and unfulfilled ideations of a generation of young misfits: It was also a way to impress chicks with one’s physical prowess, the perfect antidote to the stereotype of the bespectacled, Spock-grokking sci-fi nerd.” More importantly, the leadership of the SCA’s “kingdoms” (of which there are currently twenty) is determined in regular “Crown tournaments.” All awards, recognition, and rank for participation or excellence in the Society’s various activities ultimately stems from the “king” and “queen.” Normally, it is a male who fights and wins for a female consort, though in 2012 the rules changed to allow same-sex couples—if the current Crown permits it: “Each competitor… must be fighting for a prospective consort of the opposite sex unless the Crown has elected to permit a competitor to fight for a prospective consort of the same sex.”
Michael A. Cramer’s book Medieval Fantasy as Performance, one of the few academic works on the SCA, considers the “king game” in detail. Cramer, a New York-based academic and longtime colleague of mine known in the Society as Earl Valgard Stonecleaver, is eminently well-placed to explain the organization as both a scholar of medievalism and a longtime participant. (As with many other subcultures such as roller derby and outlaw biker gangs, SCA members almost universally take on use-names within the culture.) He states that through the ritual of Crown Tournaments and kingship, SCA members “have created a community, or better yet a tribe, which gives them romance, companionship, and identity, a literate/filmic/academic/ludic Middle Ages. And at the center of this Middle Ages is a king, part Aragorn, part Charlemagne, part King Arthur from Malory, and part King Arthur from Monty Python…”
Thus, the great dichotomy of the Society: It is an egalitarian organization, but one in which social status is ultimately based on a romanticized might-makes-right mentality. While many academic considerations of the Society perhaps mistakenly concentrate on the idea of an imagined Middle Ages as a problematic “white space” (I have fallen into this trap myself), few have handled the diversity aspects of choosing one’s leadership through stick-fighting: Those who are older, not able-bodied, without the resources to put in long hours training and traveling to tournaments, or simply not athletically inclined are unlikely to rise to the organization’s single most prestigious leadership position. It is also heteronormative in that same-sex consorts are only allowed if the current Crown permits it. Furthermore, there has been, to my knowledge, only one case of a woman winning Crown. Finally, excellence in hitting people in the head with sticks does not necessarily make a good leader, and even though Crowns are overseen (often slow-moving) Board of Directors—who are often themselves former royalty—there have been numerous examples of problematic behaviors in the past year.
The Society for Creative Anachronism began as part of the counterculture. However, it is over 50 years old at this point. Its institutions are, in many ways, dated. For the organization to survive for another generation, it must reconsider even deeply-held traditions and change with the times.
Ken Mondschein is a history professor at UMass-Mt. Ida College, Anna Maria College, and Goodwin College, as well as a fencing master and jouster. Click here to visit his website.
Top Image: One of the daily battles at the Pennsic War. Photo by Peter Konieczny