IN LOVE WITH EVERYDAY LIFE IN THE PAST Part 1
This week, we turn to Julie Watkins, who wrote this a while ago at my behest when I heard her talking about it to MoPs at an event. This is reprinted from New Member Times 28:
Almost forty years ago, when I was starting in the SCA, we called it medieval reenacting. Until I got into RevWar reenacting in the NWTA, I had no idea that what we were doing was not reenacting. In fact, it was barely living history—or whatever term we used back then to describe the re-creation of the past. What I was doing in the SCA was not really portraying anything historical. The SCA was building its own “medievalish” subculture. I was doing generic medieval, with a little bit applied technology along the edges. This was because I was an artist, interested in calligraphy and the design of illuminated manuscripts. The combat people were creating a new sport.
One thing about the SCA is that the default status of any member is the nobility. You can choose to portray a lesser class, but almost no one takes that decision seriously. SCA is an organization where you might perform a rather lower-class task as you sit there in your best purple costume and a coronet. In that kind of context, any sense of historical reality is tenuous when it is there at all. I realized later—after I encountered reenacting of ordinary, lower class life—that the pretensions and logical inconsistencies made me unsatisfied. I was trying to portray someone that I was not, and I never even realized how far short my portrayal fell. Most of the designs put in front of me and most of what the members were trying to do were a generic medieval, taken from upper-class manuscript illumination if not from Hollywood or children’s books. People were trying to sew clothes using fabrics that were too cheap and too inappropriate, using too little fabric to do the job because using the right amount would have been too expensive and incorporating parts of modern culture because the wearer did not recognize anything else as attractive. That included me. I didn’t like the darts and the curves, and I see now that I didn’t do a very good job. I had dresses made of black polyester, with fake fur and a modern pattern.
Those dresses fit in perfectly with much of what surrounded me. The situation might be, in many cases, much less so today, but there is still no guiding officer who can tell you to do it right, and even when this item here is very accurate, the maker feels no compunction about having that item there being—to use a term almost unknown in the SCA but virtually ubiquitous in most living-history organizations—farby.
At the time, I was interested in calligraphy and illumination. But the way that I was studying and approaching the subject, I was approaching it in a very broad manner. I was not trying to think and to behave like a scribe of a certain era. I was a modern artist who was trying to acquire a disparate but wide range of historical knowledge to create scrolls, adapting historical designs (meant for decorating books of many pages) for SCA court use (single sheets).
For people unfamiliar with the SCA, the concept of SCA scrolls was one of the most prominent ways that Scadians have created a new subculture that is only tangentially history. In period, I discovered, the scrolls that came with rank were not considered pieces of valuable artwork. They weren’t illustrated or visually special. The important thing was the lands that they conveyed. If you did something good, the king took lands away from someone he disliked and gave them to you; you appreciated them, and you were an obedient vassal—killing the people that the king wanted you to kill—because you didn’t want to have the lands taken from you.
The SCA kings can’t give anyone a paying job. He can’t give them money. He certainly can’t give them land. The award scroll developed into what you get that is important and valuable, especially if you’re in a kingdom—a bureaucratic and geographic subdivision of the corporation—that does not use pre-printed scroll blanks. I think that the politics for giving out awards in the SCA court culture is the same as the politics that would have been back then, to reward someone’s faithful service. If you do something for me, I’ll do something for you, and so forth.
Because the scrolls have a totally different purpose than historical scrolls might have had, they were much more ornate and ornamented. In the Middle Ages, what were flashy and illuminated and showed that you were important were the illuminated manuscripts that you commissioned, paid for and displayed. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, you’d have lots of illustrations and decorations scattered through the whole volume. SCA scribes often tried to get ideas from these efforts and then made a conscious or unconscious attempt to condense the important illustrations that might have been in a full codex down to a single sheet.
The words are important, but the border designs are what attract praise and glowing comments. Most of the time, when a modern artist sees an SCA scroll, that artist is flabbergasted by the quality of the artwork that goes into the border and see the calligraphy itself and go yuck. And when they learn that artists are doing gratis an effort that would be worth in their opinion several hundred or a thousand dollars, these artists—who are doing commercial artistic endeavors that are calculated to bring them the highest payment—go “you guys are crazy” and wander away. When academics see this, they often just shake their heads at the lack of understanding that created it, even if they are in awe of the creation—as a modern piece of artwork incorporating medieval motifs—itself.
I never considered any of this when I was caught up in the SCA. It never occurred to me to even think about that. Instead of caring what the effort said about the culture we were re-creating, I was more concerned interacting with other court scribes, trying to figure out why my speed and accuracy got worse instead of better, matching a scroll design with the recipient — I was more concerned with the sub-culture than with the idea of history—Living or otherwise.