Sunday, July 29, 2018

My SCA Origin Story

If you asked me to point to the first thing I can remember that made me go, "ooh, Middle Ages," I'd have to say it was Disney's animated Robin Hood. Robin and Marion were foxes. Prince John was an immature lion. There was a catchy, buddy-themed opening song that I remember to this day. Friar Tuck had a limit of patience. Sir Hiss was (and still is) my favorite character.

Fan art I did recently of Sir Hiss from Disney's Robin Hood.
In fact, Robin Hood movies were the lens through which I viewed the Middle Ages for many years. Next with the perfectly quotable Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (where Marion imbued in me a love of scarves) and later, Mel Brooks' irreverent and hilarious take, Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

Excalibur, a gloriously shiny take on Arthurian Legend. Source.
Excalibur and Monty Python's Holy Grail were other movies I watched as a kid that created a picture of the medieval period for me, for better or worse (probably worse). I became familiar with some of the Arthurian legends as a result.

When I was in 5th grade, my mom took my brother and me to the Ohio Renaissance Fair. It was bawdy and fun, and there was a level of romanticism that I fell head over heels for. In fact, for quite some time afterward, I had a fictional Ren Fair of my own that I drew maps for and wrote short stories about. (Which is why this Bad Lip Reading video tickles my fancy like no other.) I loved the idea of jousting knights, and muddy drunkards, and proper ladies in pretty dresses. The Ren Fair was my gateway to the Middle Ages for a number of years.

My brother and I with the Wise Guys comedy duo at the Ohio Renaissance Fair, 1991.
My interest was undoubtedly related to a growing interest in fantasy stories. In my early teenage years, I wasn't ever really separating true medieval history from fictional stories and legends. Which I don't think is an unusual thing at all. I started collecting dragons and gravitated toward fantasy books and art.

Mom and I, an obviously surly teen, about to head off to the NY Renaissance Fair in the mid-90's.
In 1996, my mom got some information from one of my cousins about a group of medieval enthusiasts known as the SCA. She looked up the local chapter, and the next thing I knew, we were headed into a part of town I'd never been to meet a bunch of new people at a business meeting in someone's home. The group, Sterlynge Vayle, had recently gotten status as a Shire, and they were making a new banner with the group's heraldry. As we got to know the people, and get comfortable with the atmosphere, I ended up holding the dragon's tongue piece as it awaited its turn to be fixed to the banner. "Keeper of the Dragon's Tongue" was a moniker I didn't lose for several months.

My friend Danielle and I at one of my first SCA events in Aethelmearc.
There are three distinct memories of these early years in my SCA experience that I still carry with me. The first was at an event we attended in the Fall. The site had a picnic pavilion that they'd set up as a tavern. Inside, we could purchase a "plowman's lunch"- hunks of bread, meat and cheese, a hard-boiled egg, and a piece of fruit. It was so simple and perfect and felt so "not modern". It's still my go-to lunch option when I bother to bring lunch to events.

The second was at a populace-driven event that included an obstacle course that teams had to complete. Part of the course (the end) included someone being in a boat like thing carried by their teammates to "spear" a narwhal. I was the person in the boat, and my team won. We received beautiful hand-carved narwhal pins as a prize. This is why there is a narwhal on my device.

My narwhal pin. The eye is an emerald.
The third memory is when we went to our first weekend camping event. I remember there being lots of flirting with my campmates (I was 16), but I also remember the look of the few pavilions there and the torches and campfires. I remember being up late, and there were songs and stories like I'd never heard before.

None of these moments were particularly authentic or medieval to me at the time. More than anything, they were just this alternate way of doing things. The magic of the SCA was that my love of fictional or fantastical versions of the medieval world could be in part realized there, with people who generally liked to do the same. Also, I was a teenager, and it was the only place outside of school that I had any reason to talk to men. I joke now that I wanted to play in the SCA because of the Knights, and really, that's pretty accurate.

At this point in my life, I was a high schooler attending boarding school. These experiences happened over the summer, and when the school year started, I headed back to campus and my mom moved to Chicago. I went back to school with my SCA summer planted firmly in my heart, and I recall that my interest in both medieval and fantasy art increased even more as I continued through school. On our weekly calls, mom would tell me about SCA events and the people she was meeting. I lived vicariously through her during that period, and I'm quite sure that without that, my interest in the SCA would have ultimately faded away.

Me and a smarmy Gypsy at the PA Ren Fair in 1999. Though an option, my college buddies and I did not go in garb,
I didn't participate in the SCA through most of my remaining time in high school, nor primarily through college. I'd gotten a job working for a summer camp, so my time between school years had been eaten up. Eventually, though, I spent the summer between my Junior and Senior years of college with my mom in Cincinnati. It was then, in 2001, that I consider my time in the SCA to really have begun in earnest. I finished off the summer with an AoA to put on my wall, and the memories of my first Pennsic War.

Me sitting up at the Battlefield at my first Pennsic, 2001.
The first several years of playing after this were mostly about the social life. I was fresh out of college. I still loved fantasy art and movies. I was still holding on to many of those romantic ideas of the Middle Ages, only now through the lens of a young adult with hormones and a desire for social inclusion. I made some personal missteps in this period of time, trying to find a boyfriend in the SCA since who else outside of that community would understand me? I think in some ways the SCA was quite different back then. Partying and attachment were big players, and I recall that there were very few people around that took the medieval part of the hobby very seriously. I certainly didn't.

My second Pennsic, 2002. I was all about flirting at this particular War.
I would say, in fact that I sort of treated it with the same irreverence those movies I'd grown up with treated the Middle Ages. It was such a goofy hobby, after all. Why should I act like there was anything serious about my being a part of it? I wore bright orange or Hawaiian print cotehardies. I didn't care about using period materials and I barely cared about actual period clothing.

Receiving my first A&S award, the Willow, in 2004. The dress fabric was covered with tiny stick figures.
Fast forward a few years, and in 2007, I had a complete change of heart. A series of events (both in the SCA and personally) got me looking at things in the SCA in a way I never had before. Within a short period of a year, I was researching 15th century gowns and headdress. The rest is all here in this blog.

I can't say with honesty that I grew up loving the Middle Ages. I grew up intrigued by the idea of it, and I viewed it through the filter of pop culture and fantasy. What changed for me, well into adulthood, was when I stopped trying to make the Middle Ages fit my idea of it, and started to look at what was actually there in period. Inspired to look deeper, I stared at medieval paintings, starting with the work of Rogier van der Weyden, and found beauty there, and I've never looked back.

Rogier van der Weyden's Lady in a Gauze Headdress, circa 1445.
I found and studied this painting in 2007, and it highly influenced my interest in the 15th century
It's that subtle, odd beauty of the medieval world that draws me to this hobby now. I'm also drawn in by my long process of learning how to recreate it. The more effort I put in, the greater the reward I come out with. I love the hard work to get it closer to correct. I love the idea that if I do it right, then I can embody exactly the things I saw that inspired me to work harder at the Middle Ages in the first place. One of the best compliments I ever receive is when someone tells me that I look like I stepped out of a manuscript or painting.

When I look back at my journey, I remember those moments that left a mark on my life with just that first brief summer of exposure to the SCA. Simple but deliberate pleasures. Commradery and common purpose. Special moments that I feel lucky to have experienced. As well as, of course, the unique atmosphere that you can't experience anywhere else. For me, at the time, none of those things were "medieval". Now though, as someone who has found a love of medieval culture and art, I can see how awesome and transportive those exact types of moments can be when they happen with authenticity and medieval purpose as a driving force.

My video of Pennsic in 2016. The same types of moments I remember from my first events are still there.

As I continue to play in the SCA, I am undoubtedly more aware of the things that aren't that great about this community. I've been here long enough to see what's in both the pro and the con columns. We're a large, diverse group of people and we don't all have the same interpretation of our purpose in common. However, we can always make the choice for how we want to play. We can find a different attitude and try a different direction. We can look at the things that happen through the lens of fantasy or personal relationships, or we can view those same things through the lens of authenticity or the greater community. In different places and points in our lives, one lens will work better for us than others.

If you're headed off to Pennsic this weekend or next, have a safe and happy War. Keep an eye out for the moments that bring you there, and capture them in your heart.