The Middle Ages as They Were, or As They Should Have Been?

Recreation and Re-Creation in the Society for Creative Anachronism

by Steven Muhlberger, Nipissing University

(Delivered at the conference "The Middle Ages in Contemporary Popular Culture" at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, March 1996.)

The most successful popular medievalist organization of our time is the Society for Creative Anachronism. The number of people who have come into contact with the S.C.A. over the past thirty years must be in the hundreds of thousands, and that very fact, I believe, is having a slow, underground effect on popular views of the Middle Ages, at least in North America. (1)

The S.C.A. has always been interested in both recreation and re-creation. People participate in the S.C.A. for fun, not because they are paid re-enactors or have a compulsion to pay homage to their ancestral culture. Yet from an early date, the S.C.A. has been also been concerned with re-creation, the revival of the customs, ideals, and artifacts of the Middle Ages. Few long-term members of the S.C.A. are indifferent to the re-creation of the Middle Ages. They tend to see a concern with the real Middle Ages, its values and material culture, as the one of the things that marks their hobby off from others, and makes it a more serious hobby than most.

But what does re-creation mean? What aspects of medieval culture are most deserving of revival? Which is more important, literal re-creation of medieval life, or a select re-enactment of the best of medieval life -- in an old S.C.A. phrase, "The Middle Ages as They Should Have Been"? These are questions that have divided the S.C.A. from a very early date. An examination of the internal debates of the S.C.A. about what the organization actually does and what it should be doing is of interest to anyone who thinks about what it means to revive past custom, past ways of life, and the realistic limits of such revivals.

The best place to start is with the very first tournament of what became the Society for Creative Anachronism, which took place on May 1, 1966. It was a party held in a backyard in Berkeley, California, and no more than thirty people attended. The invitation that was sent out beforehand made no direct reference to the Middle Ages. It was addressed to "lovers of chivalry," and the main attraction is described as an "international tournament" of knights seeking to uphold the honor of their ladies. Guests were encouraged to dress in the manner of any age "in which swords were used." This was a costume party put together by some imaginative young people, and it got an eclectic response. One participant, recalling the occasion in 1995, said that attendees included "Queen Lucy of Narnia...and a hobbit, and several generic fantasy duelists, and a pair of Roman gladiators."(2) The First Tournament of the S.C.A. was recreation almost entirely, with re-creation not terrifically evident.

However, among the attendees were several people who had a serious interest in the Middle Ages; they had been largely responsible for organizing the party. They and others who had enjoyed themselves so much on May Day, 1966, were soon planning other tourneys, and evolving a philosophy and a permanent set of institutions to give a shape to their efforts.

Much of the early philosophy of the S.C.A. came out of the small circle of tournament fighters whose martial efforts were the centerpiece of all the early S.C.A. gatherings. They debated rather heatedly what they were trying to accomplish. Were they inventing a new sport, or more ambitiously a martial art, governed by a set of hard and fast rules, and supervised by judges? In other words, something like competitive fencing or judo? Or was tournament fighting a chivalric exercise, in which the fighters fought on their honor, and in the best tradition of the medieval tournament? It is extremely significant for the development of the S.C.A. that the advocates of "chivalric combat" won the debate with the "martial artists." S.C.A. armored combat, so central to the activities of the organization, was not to be simply a re-creation of the mechanics of fighting in armor with sword, and shield, and other mock weapons modeled on medieval exemplars; it was to have an ethical content.

By the time the S.C.A. held its second Twelfth-Night feast in January, 1968, the organization had both the outline of a social structure and a name. The social structure was based on tournament combat. The winners of tournaments were to be Kings for a term, with the ladies they fought for as their Queens. The most accomplished and honorable fighters of the realm were honored as knights; those fearsome figures who had won two crowns were called Dukes. All this was inspired by the Middle Ages but the result did not reflect the Middle Ages as they ever existed. Rather it was a Society designed in Berkeley, in A.D. 1967, to support certain chivalric virtues considered typical of the Middle Ages. If the S.C.A. was no longer imitating "any age when swords were used," but more specifically the Western European Middle Ages, eclecticism was still important. Indeed, it was reflected in the name, Society for Creative Anachronism, which was devised by Marion Zimmer Bradley, a member from the start. "Creative Anachronism" signified the freedom of the organization to adopt and reject old customs and practices as it saw fit.

So far it may seem that the idea of "the Middle Ages as They Should Have Been" had been having things all its own way. There is a lot of truth to that. The S.C.A.-specific customs inaugurated at that Twelfth-Night, 1968, are dearer to most members than anything taken directly from the Middle Ages. The S.C.A.'s attitude is in contrast to that of other historical re-enactment groups, with their focus on a short span of years and the staging of specific historical events, such as the Battle of Hastings or Gettysburg. But as early as 1968, one could also see an increase in the value the Society gave to actual research into the Middle Ages and authentic re-enactment of certain medieval arts.

One important turning point was the invention of the Order of the Laurel, which took place at the same time as the formalization of the Order of Knighthood. This was created to recognize those who excelled in non-martial arts, "without whom our Society would not be half so pleasant." The first two Masters of the Laurel were a Master Musician and a Master Artificer and Armorer, and they were raised to the nobility for adding to the medieval appearance and sound of the new society, for giving some cultural substance to the modern game, and for having the specialized knowledge necessary to do so.

By 1969, some members felt the new organization needed a legal existence, and incorporated the S.C.A. in California. In the Articles of Incorporation, the S.C.A. claimed to be an organization dedicated to research into pre-seventeenth century culture. The honesty of this claim has sometimes been questioned -- since the S.C.A. was simultaneously applying for a favorable tax status on educational grounds -- but I see no reason to doubt it. True, the incorporators had no desire to abandon the eclectic, modern game that had evolved. They did, however, think that the S.C.A. could be more than just a game, that the re-enactment of selected aspects of medieval life would indeed lead to a real understanding of medieval life. It would be hands-on learning that would supplement and be supplemented by book learning.

That hope has been amply borne out over the last thirty years. I have observed the S.C.A. for most of that time, and repeatedly I have seen people transformed from partygoers into skilled artisans and serious, if amateur, scholars of the Middle Ages. At the same time, even members who are not artisans, who accumulate gear through buying or barter, have continually gotten more discriminating in their tastes. At the biggest S.C.A. gathering, the annual Pennsic War, over two hundred merchants compete for the re-creationists' dollar, selling everything from pavilions to 15th-century style eyeglasses. More remarkable than the size of the market these people serve is its sophistication. In August of 1995, I noted that it was becoming commonplace for S.C.A. merchants to offer, with their goods, documentation of authenticity of design and materials. The merchants are not only proud of their efforts at re-creation, but believe that authenticity is a selling point.

Thus, the S.C.A. has made a great deal of progress in re-creating the material aspects of the Middle Ages, and its membership has, true to the hopes of its incorporators, gained a great deal of hands-on knowledge not easily gained through more usual educational channels. Former members who return after an absence of ten years or more are usually flabbergasted by this development. Yet, at the same time, criticism of the S.C.A.'s medieval re-creation by its own members has, if anything, grown.

Quite often, as people learn about the Middle Ages through their participation in the S.C.A., they become very dissatisfied with their own efforts and the uses to which they are put in the organization. It is a standard custom, for instance, when ranks and awards are made to outstanding members, for the awards to be accompanied by illuminated scrolls. Because such awards are very important in the Society, and lots of scrolls are needed, calligraphy and illumination are much cultivated and highly respected arts. Many members of the Order of the Laurel, the artistic nobility of the S.C.A., are calligraphers and illuminators. But I heard in 1995 a noted calligrapher complaining that the customary scrolls are inauthentic, because they are usually modeled on pages from Bibles and Books of Hours. She argued, quite accurately, that medieval documents conferring rank and office were usually not illuminated, but consisted of text only. She floated the idea that her kingdom should adopt this more authentic style. She quickly found, to her disappointment, that all her friends and neighbors preferred the more beautiful if less authentic documents that have become customary in the S.C.A. (3)

What makes this particular conflict between one member's sense of authenticity and the traditions of the S.C.A. poignant are two facts: first, the critic had discovered calligraphy and illumination through the S.C.A., and been motivated to master them because of their importance in the Society's rituals; second, she was not an individualistic partisan of "art for art's sake," but the person who was in charge of organizing production of scrolls for her kingdom. In other words, this is a case of a dedicated member finding herself torn between a desire for more literal re-creation, and traditions and rituals that she loved and supported, but which she now found wanting, because they no longer matched her knowledge or esthetic understanding of the medieval period.

The same conflict is played out endlessly within the S.C.A. Some members become dissatisfied enough to leave, to pursue what they consider a higher quality historical re-creation with the help of a select group of their friends. (For an electronic pamphlet describing one such group, The Traynd Bands of London, see; the vast majority of its early members, perhaps the totality, were past or present members of the S.C.A.) Whether they escape the central dilemma of re-creation versus recreation by doing so is doubtful. The experience of the SCA seems to show that the problem is irresolvable. The success of the S.C.A. as re-creation, which is considerable, is a function of its success as recreation, or perhaps, as a working society with its own rules, customs, carrots, and sticks, few of which can be considered to be accurate reflections of any medieval reality. It is social interaction in the present that motivates SCA members to attain higher levels of skill and authenticity in their chosen areas of re-creation. And in turn, this process of self-education changes the way members regard the S.C.A. itself, and motivates some to try to alter its customs.

The S.C.A. may stand for any number of attempts to bring a piece of the past alive in the present. Such attempts must both reflect the admired past, and make social sense in the ongoing present. How past and present reach a fruitful compromise in the behavior of actual human beings is a matter of constant negotiation. Both present and past make demands on the Society for Creative Anachronism; and it is in the nature of the enterprise that, as long as it remains vital, neither recreation nor re-creation will ever win out entirely.


1. One example of this underground effect was the appearance, in an episode of Star Trek:: The Next Generation, of a medieval knight wearing a white belt. Real medieval knights did not wear white belts, but knights in the S.C.A. do.

2. Flieg Hollander, in a posting to the Listserv mailing list "S.C.A.-reform," March 9, 1995.

3. This discussion took place on an e-mail list, "Calontir," dedicated to issues concerning the S.C.A. kingdom of that name, which includes the states of Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska.

Copyright © 1996 Steven Muhlberger

Nipissing University Disclaimer