Friday, May 5, 2017

The SCA is writing its own historical fiction (and why that's okay)

SCA publication release form for this article if located here.

As a writer and reader, one of the genre's I have the strongest emotional reaction to is historical fiction. Whether it's trying to slog my way through a  Harry Turtledove novel, or watching S. M. Sterling rewrite the ancient world, historical fiction novels have duel responsibility of having to know the actual history before deviating from it. And regardless of your opinion of historical (or alternate history) fiction, the one thing that can be said for the heavy-hitters in the field if that they bring hardcore academic credentials to the game, long before they put pen to paper for their works.

As a twenty year SCA member, I feel that there is something to be taken from this approach as we flirt with the very poorly defined grey area between LARPing and historical reenactment. The first thing we need to understand is that our game, which is the framework for almost all of what we do, is founded in fiction. The first SCA meeting was a costume party with some fantasy characters in attendance, and our own royal structure, as defined by society law, is ahistorical to ranks and policies in Europe from the time we claim to represent. Everything from how we select officers to what powers the crown has is little removed from a game children might play in their spare time.

So, how do we differentiate ourselves from the LARPing community, and how do be answer the scrutiny of the more staunch reenactment communities we exist alongside?

And before I move forward, let me clarify the importance of these two benchmarks.

 Live Action Role Play is on the rise in the US, gaining popularity and acceptance. It engages the aspects of the human mind previously reserved for fantasy book and movies. They gather in general seclusion, usually preferring their own company and not to become a public spectacle. Alternately, more rigorous reenactment groups, specifically American Civil War reenactors, strike for visual accuracy and personal research that is not only strongly academic but hold close personal relevance to the US as part of its history. These groups appeal to the every-day outside world to come and see history come to life before them. Both of these groups have overlap with SCA interests, and both represent examples of both what we want to accomplish, and what we want to avoid. Also, both have strong relevance in modern society, though for almost opposite reasons.

Most importantly, how can we call ourselves any sort of historical group, let alone an educational one, when our structure is as far departed from reality as it is?

I have heard people say "we recreate the best parts of the middle ages," but always thought that an imperfect answer as it was too vague for me. Most importantly, it was subjective of what people thought were "the best" parts.

For me, the answer is, literally, staring us in the face here. Rather than say "the best parts", or "what we want to do" when we talk about our game, what we should say is far, far more potent towards our actual goals.

We are a group of medieval enthusiasts who pull fragments of history togeather with arbitrary rules in order to both inspire and administer ourselves. But what is vital to this is that we understand where we deviate from history.

I have no illusions about how historically accurate my garb is when compared to my chosen culture and timeframe. And yes, I am investing time and money into upgrading my kit so that I do start to look more historically accurate. But for our purposes here, that's not the important thing. An authentic reenactor would never be seen wearing my costume. And a LARPer would most likely not give a thought to historical accuracy. In our case, or rather, in my case, somewhere in between, my personal, goal is not absolute accuracy, but the ability to say where I deviate from history.

No, the hat isn't strictly historical, I had the design modified to give me extra protection from the sun, for health considerations.

The shirt isn't even remotely English, but I do know what I would be wearing, and I do know where this design comes from. It would not be implausible, or even hard for an English merchant or travelling gentry to purchase this style if he were in Italy, or southern France.

No, the belt isn't really accurate for me, in fact, it would be considered old-fashioned even amongst the old men of my day. But as a SCA-ism, it works and it offers me a place to put my personal items. I am looking towards a more accurate, late period belt style. My belt is much, much more typical of the 11th century men.

I don't wear leggings, and I don't like or wear cod pieces, just deal with that. But, the legwear of the day was generally fitted, but not skin tight for men, so the visual appearance of my garb in that respect is not terribly far off the mark.

No, absolutely nothing about my footwear is period. However, I am a heavy-set, six foot, three-inch tall man who needs to support of modern insoles with proper arch support. As a working herald in the SCA who walks as much as I do, this is just a non-negotiable.

My current messenger bag is about 75% accurate, with the black plastic parts and adjustable strap being the major deviations, of course. None the less, the design, fabric type, and overall use are spot on for any number of locations in Europe across the whole of the "middle ages".

While there is no record to support that an Englishman of my timeframe ever specifically  lived the life I claim to have lived, or regularly donned the clothing that I have now, actual historical records of the day show that the English did travel across Europe for political, military and economic reasons across most of the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. As with any travellers, they tended to adopt the clothing of the local area in all but the most formal ceremonial situations.

The life I live in the SCA is a fiction. But it is a fiction built on facts, and so long as I can remember, and reference those facts, I feel confident that I am, indeed, contributing to the educational mandate that is part of the society.

For us who balance history and budget (not to mention time), its not about getting it perfect out the door, it about being who we are, and what we want to emulate when someone asks the question.

And to be clear, part of what I have seen a shift in the society over the past two decades is a trend away from conversations like this, where we learn about each other's cultures and interests and influences and how they relate to our character or even our real selves. I feel that this type of conversation is part of not only want helps us learn more about the society and ourselves, but also helps lay the legwork for personal growth both in the society and within ourselves as individuals.

But even as we ask these questions, the fact of the matter is that we as a society will never have the high levels of historical authenticity set (and at times mandated) by other organisations. However, if we consider our actions here with the same metric that historical fiction authors use before they pen their intricate tales of what might have been, we can see that the idea of knowing real history is what allows us to better create our own fictional tales.

His Lordship Ivo Blackhawk
Kingdom of Ansteorra
"Long Live the King!"