Negotiating a Shire: The Transformation of Local Values in the Society for Creative Anachronism

Negotiating a Shire: The Transformation of Local Values in the Society for Creative Anachronism

Suzanne Barber
Indiana University

Abstract:

The Society for Creative Anachronism is an international non-profit organization and is often depicted and discussed as a large homogeneous organization. Instead, in this work I have analyzed a smaller group, Loch an Fhraoich. Loch an Fhraoich, whose values and identity center around camaraderie and narrative and aesthetic coherence must attempt to balance these two often contradictory principles. This can be examined in light of narrative construction and maintenance. The Society for Creative Anachronism supports an official homogenous metanarrative.  At every level these narratives connect the individual and group to others, creating a network of relationships and shared narratives that help create a sense of unity and prevent a fracturing of voices and thus support the overriding metanarrative. In order to prevent this system from collapsing inward or fracturing apart, a certain amount of playful transgressive metalepsis and edgeplay must be allowed. The negotiation of this edgeplay is debated, and the style and amount tolerated is often a distinguishing mark between groups. Some key contestations that I have focused on where this debate occurs include the levels and types of anachronism allowed, the types of partying and practical jokes encouraged or discouraged, costuming, and the understanding of honor and chivalry.

In 1966 on the first of May, in Berkeley, California, a “Tournament of Chivalry” was held, inspired by the “Last Tournament” held in 1839 at Eglinton, Scotland. Diana Paxson, Marion Zimmer Bradley, her brother Paul Edwin Zimmer, and the family of Paol Anderson, all of whom would go on to become prominent fantasy and science fiction authors, were in attendance (Cramer 2005:49). The featured event of the themed party was a tournament, heavily influenced by Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, where a knight would fight to win the chance to crown his lady “fairest.” Although it was intended to be a medieval party, the costumes and armor worn varied greatly and included a Roman soldier, Napoleonic officer, a hobbit, and even the head (at that time) of the Mills College English Department in her full academic regalia (Paxson 2010:11-12). This party eventually culminated in a procession down Telegraph Avenue in a protest of the 20th century (Hamilton 2005:211). Satisfied with the success of the first party, the group decided to hold another event, but this time, in order to incorporate more people, they chose to hold it at a local park. Under the regulations of the Parks Department, the group had to register with an official name and thus, the Society for Creative Anachronism or SCA was born (Hamilton 2005:211).

Almost forty-three years after the founding of the SCA, the organization has expanded to include approximately 30,000 paying members and around 60,000 active participants. It now includes active members on almost every continent and is broken up into the nineteen kingdoms of the “known world” which is still expanding (SCA n.d.a). As it expands, so do the opportunities presented to members and participants to experience their created, anachronized medieval world. Within this world, individuals and groups aspire to enact their own identity separate from the overriding metanarrative of the SCA (Lyotard 1979).

Richard Handler and William Saxton, in their work “Dyssimulation: Reflexivity, Narrative, and the Quest for Authenticity in ‘Living History,’” discuss that “an outstanding feature of the historical worlds created by living history is that they have narrative coherence; that is, they are emplotted or constituted as stories” (1988:251). Members of the SCA branch I interviewed vehemently denied that the SCA was “living history.” Nevertheless, they expressed a desire for narrative coherence. This inclination was often visibly expressed and verbally explained as an aspiration to achieve a kind of aesthetic coherence in their material objects and persona. That is, the totality of their visual self when viewed together or as individual items, presented a cohesive front that agreed with and even bolstered the verbal narrative being told by the individual. This idea can be expanded outward to encompass groups of people and their environment that are striving for a particular “feel” or “look.” So an individual wishing to achieve aesthetic and narrative coherence would not use a Viking name or story for their persona and then dress as a Turkish woman. Similarly, a household i; based upon a 14th century German model would strive for all the members of the group to dress the part, their campsite, including their tents and other visible accessories, would need to be correct for the time and place in order for the visual experience of the group to match the narrative. In this article, I will examine how a small branch of the Society for Creative Anachronism, whose values and identity center around camaraderie, narrative and aesthetic coherence, attempts to balance these two often contradictory principles.

Methodology

The fieldwork for this paper consisted of a combination of informal, unrecorded interviews, participant observation, and recorded interviews to observe and document the Bowling Green, Kentucky, branch of the Society for Creative Anachronism known as the Shire of Loch an Fhraoich. Although the majority of the members live within Bowling Green, this branch also encompasses the counties of Warren, Barren, Allen, Simpson, and Logan.

Map of the Shire of Loch an Fhraoich. Map by Suzanne Barber

In my experience, an average of seven people came to the different practices and meetings of Loch an Fhraoich. Officially Loch an Fhraoich has more members, and during important business meetings or right before a big event, around twenty people would attend. While I met a variety of people, there was a core of eight members who remained consistently active in Loch an Fhraioch while I conducted my fieldwork. It was these eight members with whom I collaborated the majority of the time.

Inan. Photo by Suzanne Barber

The first person in Loch an Fhraoich with whom I spoke, and who thus became my main contact, was Gloria, known in the Society for Creative Anachronism as Umm al-Mundhir ‘Inan bint Sufian, or simply Inan. Inan has been in the Society for Creative Anachronism for approximately fourteen years and is currently the Seneschalii of Loch an Fhraoich. She portrays a Turkish woman, and is active in garb and tent-making as well as belly dancing. She learned about the Society for Creative Anachronism from her son, Bryan. Bryan has also been in the Society for Creative Anachronism for fourteen years, and uses the name Conrad Vom Schwarzwald. Conrad is an active fighter and does sand-castings in addition to basic armor construction.

Conrad taking a break during fighter practice. Video Still by Suzanne Barber

Martin and Shannon have been involved both with the Society for Creative Anachronism as well as Revolutionary War historical reenactment groups. Shannon is well known within Loch an Fhraioch for her love of historical cooking and costume making. Martin is known for his homemade mead and honey. They rarely attended pure fighter practices, but almost always attended Arts and Scienceiii and business meetings.

Other members included Badon, a knight in the SCA, who recently moved to Bowling Green from the kingdom of Ansteorraiv but who has been a member of the SCA for twenty years. He spent the majority of this time playing with the Kingdom of Meridies. Brenda was my informant with the least amount of experience in the SCA and has only been participating for about two years. Brenda is one of several women fighters within Loch an Fhraoich. Finally, the two longest standing members are Jeff and Thomas, known respectively as Lord Eirik Van Aandrud and Harald Lacklander. Both of them have been in the SCA since the 1980’s. Thomas was a founding member of this group. Eirik, currently the heraldv of the group, joined shortly after.

Loch an Fhraoich, as a small shire in southern Kentucky, does not play much of a role in the history of the SCA as an official organization. Yet this group’s history illustrates the great diversity of styles and ideas that the early formation of the SCA fostered. The Shire of Loch an Fhraoich consists primarily of working adults and currently encompasses the counties of Warren, Barren, Allen, Simpson, and Logan in Kentucky.

This shire has gone through numerous stages and changes over the years, like many things in the SCA, events and facts are disputed and presented in different lights. Loch an Fhraoich is currently in a period of transition, from one type of shire with a set value to another. However, discussing this in depth recognizes knowledge of the histories of Loch an Fhraoich. One must understand that a set, single-stranded historical narrative does not exist. As Zumwalt recognizes, “…The word ‘histories’ emphasizes that there is more than one story to be told, more than one series of events unfolding from the past—that, indeed, the past is made up of a multiplicity of events which defies, neat, uniform categorization” (1988:xii). The history of Loch an Fhraoich is made of such multiple personal histories that are often contradictory. The importance in these histories does not lie in which one is necessarily the most objectively correct, but rather about finding a social truth. These narratives then, say more about the image they wish to represent than any single strand of history.

The Founding of Loch an Fhraoich

When the Shire of Loch an Fhraoich was first formed in November of 1979 or 1980,vi many of the kingdoms now a part of the SCA were yet to be formed. Thomas shared with me his first memory of finding out about the Society for Creative Anachronism:

A bunch of guys on a Saturday down at Howard’s Bicycle shop in the basement playing military miniatures, and one of the guys came in and screamed: “They’re fighting in armor down at Vanderbilt, lets go!” It’s all been downhill since [then]. We ran down there and seen them picking up armor and we went “wow.” Got invited to our first feast. It’s been an adventure since then.
. . .
I went to my first event, [it] was a war they had at Jamestown. I had no garb or nothing. So it was my first time. I was told by the people who said: “Come on down we’ll have garb for you.” So I basically walked in in street clothes. It was very cool actually because I got to come-up over a hill and you had to park down by a restaurant in Mundanea, and as you came-up over the hill you could pick up the music, the flute music and, the drums and everything. You suddenly started to encounter people dressed in medieval garb. It was really cool. It was like walking back into time. And pretty much from that moment forward, I think a week later, I had a suit of armor hammered out of some stuff [made with] used carpet. So yeah, [I] started fighting and jumped right in with both feet. [interview, November 9, 2009]

The group, which at the time had eight to ten members, was formed primarily from Western Kentucky University students. It was originally called Vowing Glenn, pronounced “bowing glenn” in an obvious allusion to Bowling Green. Though this story is Thomas’ personal account, it is reminiscent of many individuals’ first discovery of the SCA. Thomas makes a point to highlight the camaraderie that he felt during those few first meetings with other members of the SCA.

Although Loch an Fhraioch is now located in the Kingdom of Meridies, it has not always been considered part of this kingdom, nor are all versions of the story of how Meridies ultimately ended up with Loch an Fhraoich consistent. Thomas, one of the founding members of both Vowing Glenn and Loch an Fhraoich relayed this version to me:

The problem was with this group was that we were situated halfway, more or less, between Nashville and Louisville. Louisville being from the Midrealm, Nashville being from Meridies. We wanted to be Meridien, but Midrealm wanted to keep their little dragonyvii scales on us. We ended up going back and forth, back and forth, for several years between the kingdoms. We finally fell semi-defunct as many places do when the kids get out of college and go on. [interview, November 9, 2009]

According to Thomas, Vowing Glenn fell to the wayside as the members’ lives changed upon graduation. The now defunct Vowing Glenn was resurrected a few years later when Thomas, after his first divorce, felt the need to get into a new hobby and rebuild his group of friends. Thomas was able to locate some old members along with some new acquaintances in time to attend another event; the group has been going ever since. “Bowling Green came from the Middle Realm to Meridies. . . We came up with a new name, ‘Lots of Freaks.’ Which is basically how they said it: ‘we’ve come up with a name ‘Loch an Fhraoich’ but the way it kind of spells looks a lot like ‘lots of freaks’” (Eirik interview, November 9, 2009). Thomas’ account of Loch an Fhraoich’s history is one of natural growth, decay, and rebirth according to the cycles of the lives of its participants. Thomas emphasized that the original participants wanted to be part of Meridies but were forced into Midrealm, and only after Vowing Glenn went defunct and was resurrected as Loch an Fhraoich were they able to achieve their goal of being part of the Kingdom of Meridies. A newer Loch an Fhraoich member, Conrad, explained events differently:

Bowling Green for a long time was those crazy kids that no one would claim. This group has been part of two different kingdoms on four different occasions. We started out as a Midrealm group. We had one of our more active members early on who was playing more south of here, and messed around and won a crown list in an opposite kingdom of the group he played with. And low and behold, we found ourselves, as a group, part of the other kingdom [Meridies] redrawing the lines.

Well then, that person moved and was no longer part of this group, and the majority of the people who were here were playing north of here. So the lines were redrawn again. Well then some things happened that nobody is really proud of, and they decided they didn’t want us and they redrew the lines and told the other kingdom that we were theirs. And that’s where we’ve been [Middle Kingdom]. [interview, June 5, 2010]

In Conrad’s version of the history of Loch an Fhraioch, there is no mention of personal lives, but considering that the majority of these events occurred before he joined the group, this is understandable. Instead, whereas the only strife mentioned in Thomas’ version occurred between Loch an Fhraioch and Midrealm, Conrad’s version emphasized many years of early problems in the group. These early issues implied in Conrad’s version of the story were frequently referenced, though never with any detail.viii It was these early problems and the resulting reputation that the group is now actively working to change.

Loch an Fhraoich as it currently exists today. Map by Suzanne Barber

For Thomas, as an early member who values camaraderie, it is imperative that founding narratives do not contradict this value too much, and so, to avoid destabilizing his narrative, he focuses this early stress on a rivalry between kingdoms, a rivalry that Loch an Fhraioch ultimately wins. Eirik, another Loch an Fhraoich member who was present during Thomas’ interview, never indicated whether he agreed entirely with Thomas’ version of the story. During the interview he gave few facts of his own, and although he did not disagree with anything, it would be unlikely that he would have done so while an interviewer was there. If Eirik were to actively disagree with Thomas in front of me, an outsider, he would have destabilized Thomas’ narrative coherence and risked damaging the camaraderie between themselves.

Regardless of which version a member chooses to subscribe to, Loch an Fhraioch was now officially the northern-most shire of the Kingdom of Meridies. They quickly established a reputation as the “party” shire, receiving several complaints each year about their nighttime parties that some felt got out of hand. As these samplings of narratives show, even within this one small branch of the SCA their history is actually comprised of numerous contested personal narratives.

Constructing a New Identity

Loch an Fhraoich continued to develop over the years and with new members joining and old ones leaving. In the process, members began to consciously construct a new identity for the shire. Conrad described the history of Loch an Fhraoich (and the SCA in general) as cyclical.

The group here goes through cycles. It’ll be strong for two years, then it will kind of drop off for about a year, or actually that same cycle where there will be a lot of people playing for awhile and then just this core group of about eight or nine people who come around through everything thick and thin. Of course, being in a college town we’ll sometimes pick up a few people and they’ll be here a few years, and then they’re gone. I see that same thing in every SCA group that also has one or two major colleges nearby. [interview, June 5, 2010]

The majority of the participants are now working adults with a varied interest in both time and place within the medieval world.

Many of the members set themselves to learn as much as they could about constructing their persona and material culture surrounding it. In other words, they were now actively seeking narrative coherence. Handler and Saxton suggest “that living historians seek to re-experience history because they expect thereby to gain access to lives and experiences characterized by the wholeness that historical narratives can provide [emphasis theirs]” (1988:243). Participants seek narrative coherence through appropriating the past because to them it provides wholeness, rightness, and an authenticity that the modern world lacks. “That practitioners are almost pathologically doomed to failure in this enterprise…results from the fact that their approach to lives that would have been lived prereflexively or unself-consciously is bound to a necessarily reflexive operation” (Handler and Saxton 1988:251). This reflexive operation divides the experience into an episodic one, destroying the sense of wholeness that one is attempting to achieve through narrative coherence (ibid). While it is never possible to relive or reexperience another person’s past, it nevertheless is important for historical reenacters to strive for a sense of wholeness within their performances by crafting a discreet narrative is synchronous with the accepted historical record.

Fighters at Practice. Photo by Suzanne Barber

The Loch an Fhraoich participants, like other SCA members, are not directly appropriating a historical figure. Instead, they are using the historical framework as a support for their own creativity through which they construct and anchor their own narratives. Like the Star Trek slash fanfictionix authors about which P. J. Falzone writes, the shire participants are engaging in “narrative edgeplay” (2005:253) as a way to break free from the inherent reflexivity problems that Handler and Saxton suggest “living history” participants face (1988:251). The SCA participants instead transgress “the borders of a parent narrative through the construction of an aberrant metatext that both ascribes to the central rule of the metatext…while refusing to break free from the parent and form its own discreet mythos” (Falzone 2005:253). That is to say that, members of Loch an Fhraioch are not replicating a specific historical narrative but are instead creating a personalized narrative bounded by a framework of the idea of “medievalness.” Falzone suggests that by engaging in this narrative edgeplay, the simultaneous subscription to and creative divergence from a metanarrative, slash-authors are able to imagine new queer possibilities in Star Trek’s heterosexual framework. In this same way SCA members participate in narrative edgeplay as a way to escape the parent narrative’s inherent restrictions (specific events and individuals within the accepted historical record) while adhering to its aesthetics (medievalness).

Slash writers participate in narrative edgeplay as a way to escape the parent narrative. Instead, Loch an Fhraoich, while operating within the SCA framework, allows a certain amount of anachronism within the ascribed historical framework in order to stabilize their own personal narrative within the parent narrative. In other words, the official homogenous metanarrative of the SCA acts as a frame or matrix narrative. Contained within this narrative are multiple hyponarratives or little narratives (Lyotard 1979, Jahn 2005). As one’s view slips from the larger than local to the local, the hyponarratives increase in number as the number of people sharing the narrative decreases all the way to the individual level (Dorst 1999:132, Fine 1979, Primiano 1995, Shuman 1993). In order to stabilize and support so many narrative strands, a certain level of playful and transgressive edgeplay must be allowed (Jahn 2005). For example, Eirik, who maintains a Viking persona within the SCA, does not have a narrative that anchors to a specific individual. Instead, his narrative is suspended within the metanarrative of the SCA and the organizations accepted idea of “medivalness.” Within this frame is the hyponarrative of the Middle Kingdom and their accepted idea of “Vikingness” and this continues on down to Eirik’s individual narrative. In order to maintain so many narratives, individuals must allow for some edgeplay, to look past the fact that historically a Viking warrior and an upper-class Turkish woman would never exist at the same place at the same time.

This process is absolutely central to the Loch an Fhraoich identity as a whole, and to the individual participants; indeed, this process is central to their very conception of identity— it can be understood by examining Roger D. Abrahams’ discussion of identity. He suggests that from an American liberal democratic perspective identity “has replaced both pride of place and of station as a civic duty” (2003:211). In other words, “we have a duty to have an identity and to be happy with it, or at least to feel fulfilled by it” (2003:211). As Abrahams, Handler and Saxton (1988), and Falzone (2005) have pointed out, modern American society often disrupts this process of achieving narrative coherence, and, in turn, gaining an identity that fulfills oneself. “Being unhappy or feeling unfulfilled becomes the bugbear of contemporary existence; a sense that not achieving these elevated states means that somehow we have individually and collectively lost our way. Thus the need to step out of life from time to time to ‘find oneself’” (Abrahams 2003:211).

It is exactly this need to “step out” of life about which my informants spoke to me when they talked of “discovering” the SCA in a time of personal turmoil or disillusionment. The SCA events created and attended by Loch an Fhraoich constituted a period in which the participants could “play.” Here metacommunication allows for the frame “this is play” to be enacted (Bateson 1955:48). In these zones of play, Abrahams tells us, “new rules, new roles, new ways of articulating time and space emerge” and “in these moments. . . . in this area of free exchange, that identities are most subject to being tested and changed or reconfirmed” (2003:214). This identity is intrinsically tied to feelings of camaraderie— “brotherhood” as one informant described it— within the group. This need for group support forces the participants of this shire to negotiate between feelings of camaraderie and their desire for narrative or aesthetic coherence.

Value Negotiations

To understand how Loch an Fhraioch members negotiate the dual values of camaraderie and narrative and aesthetic coherence, values often existing in direct contradiction, I will now discuss several examples of this negotiation as it informs their construction of SCA narratives. I have chosen to focus first on instances where one value must be mediated by the other in order to gain acceptance by the larger SCA community. I will then discuss how members of Loch an Fhraoich handle a disruption of one or both of these values by examining the tradition of gift-giving within this group. Finally, I will examine times when these values have become too unbalanced and issues of practicality and frame breaking occur.

Mediating One Value with Another

During my fieldwork, Loch an Fhraoich began talking about trying to expand the size and clout of their group. Efforts are being made to pull more people to their local events and to attain a more “respectable” reputation. Currently the shire only hosts one event a year. Conrad told me that a lot of time went into “preparing to host an event, which is actually kind of a new thing for this group. They went for eight years without hosting anything” (interview, June 5, 2010). The Not So Grand Tourney is a direct and playful mockery of the Meridien Grand Tourney— an extremely formal and important event to the Kingdom of Meridies. The Not So Grand Tourney is themed, and has in the past been focused around Men In Tights, Rednecks, and Monty Python. The theme for 2010 was “Not So Grand Tourney IV: Dis Orderly Conduct” and revolved around a medical theme, playing upon a medical intravenous (IV) as a pun for the Roman numeral four.

Within this event, they had a “zombie battle” where two teams fought, one human and one zombie. After a human was killed, they became a zombie until the last human standing became “Zombie Master.” Although I never heard it directly mentioned, this form of melee appears to be heavily influenced by video game culture, where the “last man standing” model is quite common. In addition, the current proliferation of zombies in pop culture almost certainly influenced the decision to have this event. They also had a “Wheel of Ailments” tourney in which a fighter spun the wheel and for that battle he/she “had” whatever ailment came up. For example, if the wheel landed on blindness, the player had to fight with a blindfold.

Throughout the planning sessions, the members of Loch an Fhraoich mentioned to me that this is a great event because it is “fun” and just about having a good time with friends. It was, in other words, designed to support their value of camaraderie over SCA decorum or an attempt at narrative and aesthetic coherence. Recently, in addition to this event, Loch an Fhraoich has been given the opportunity to host an official kingdom event. This opportunity, the members of Loch an Fhraoich told me, isn’t normally given to a small “border” shire. This newly perceived sign of respect has caused complications within the shire as the members worry whether they can still have their party and retain this newly gained “respectability.” Although some members of Loch an Fhraoich immediately suggested the solution of not having the party, this idea was just as quickly dismissed. As a solution, a householdx made entirely of members of the shire will host the party within the camp of Loch an Fhraoich. This way they can assure that attendees will know whose party it really is, though, because it is technically being hosted through an unofficial sub-group, the shire is not responsible for any potentially inappropriate behavior that occurs. In so doing, the members of Loch an Fhraoich have utilized their knowledge of the SCA’s workings to use its own framework to subvert the SCA’s expectations of appropriateness. This subversion thus allows Loch an Fhraoich to retain both their values of camaraderie and their respectability.

Fighters at Practice. Photo by Suzanne Barber

In a further bid to increase the shire’s importance, they have started planning a second event every year. Several members explained to me that most shires have two events a year, but that they have previously worried that not enough people would attend to justify the work. They wanted this second event to be a “serious” one, but not just another tourney. During several meetings that I attended, they developed a tentative plan to have an indoor event where team games will be played in conjunction with a winter merchant fair where people could shop for SCA-based Christmas gifts. In both of these cases, the shire was faced with the contradiction of the primary value of camaraderie and the desire to be taken more seriously within the larger SCA world. To solve this dilemma, they used their hosted events to balance these two objectives. “Not So Grand” was a nonnegotiable event, but in order to justify it within their new direction they would now host a “real event.” Furthermore, this new event would have events meant to foster camaraderie with team games and gift buying, thus ultimately supporting their group’s values. In this way, the members of Loch an Fhraioch were able to suspend the shire between the tensions of these two values without succumbing to either side completely.

Managing Disruptions

Gifts are often given within the SCA and become an important visual indication of one’s relationship with another individual or group. Many are given for a particular achievement within the SCA, such as attaining a rank or participating in numerous events while others are given merely to show affection for another member. When intended for a specific person and handmade, gifts are highly valued within Loch an Fhraoich, as indicated by numerous references to them during my fieldwork, as well as in the design of an entire private shire party around gift-exchanging. Loch an Fhraoich has developed specific gift exchanging events where these relationships and Loch an Fhraoich’s values can be mediated.

Loch an Fhraoich has an annual Twelfth Night party complete with an anonymous gift exchange known as the the Barbarian Gift Scramble. During this event, everyone brings a wrapped gift and places it in a pile. Then, one by one, everyone picks out a gift that they then unwrap. They have the option of either keeping the gift or “stealing” somebody else’s gift. The person whose gift was stolen can then either pick a new gift from the pile or steal from another person. Although these gifts are not personal, since nobody knows who will end up with what, there is nevertheless great concern shown towards the stipulations of what is appropriate to give. Even though a price range was not indicated, they did make the provision that the gift must be handmade. After some discussion as to what qualified as “handmade,” it was decided that to be handmade, a gift had to be “periodxi” and either made by the participant or by a merchant who caters to the SCA with handmade goods.

During a meeting, Inan explained that these rules were new and were being implemented because, last year, some participants felt cheated by getting stuck with a gift they felt was chosen without thought or preparation. This indicated that for Loch an Fhraioch, the value is placed not on the object, but on the intention and thought put into selecting the item. Such care indicates the group’s importance to the individual and once again supports the idea of camaraderie. These items serve as a material connection or extension of a person’s relationship to another, and, depending on those involved, often carry a level of prestige about them as well.

Sometimes a gift is given with a particular person in mind for a specific reason, but these gifts are not always selected with the receiver’s SCA persona, the medieval identity that a person chooses to enact in the SCA, in mind or with attention to the level of value that individual places on achieving aesthetic and narrative coherence. When this occurs, the individual is forced to decide what will be done with the item. Members of Loch an Fhraoich are forced to negotiate between the conflicting values of camaraderie and narrative and aesthetic coherence. The members must choose among four decisions.

First, the individual can wear the item regardless of where it fits into his or her persona, as in the case that Eirik described to me. “My lady wife crocheted me a pouch with my devicexii on it. Guess what, come to find out crochet is not period, let alone early period Viking. But you know what, that pouch adorned my belt for many years for being one of the biggest, nicest roomiest, pouches I’ve had” (interview, November 9, 2009). In this case, despite the fact that this item went entirely against his persona, Eirik chose to wear the crocheted pouch without any alteration in order to show the connection to his wife. He justified this further by asserting the pouch’s usefulness and superiority over other presumably more accurate pouches.

Second, participants can wear items but disguise them in some way so as to not distract too much from the aesthetic coherence of their crafted persona. I asked Eirik during our interview what he would do if he were given something that did not fit his persona; he gave several options, including the idea of hiding the out-of-place item. “I’ve been given little plastic figures and things like that, and then you have what’s called a mojo bag. That’s all the things that go into it that people have given you, that are meaningful, and grant you serenity or peace, and so you draw a power from it or whatever” (interview, November 9, 2009). In this way, Eirik and other participants, while using a mojo bag, can still acknowledge the importance of the connection to another individual that is symbolized with the gifts without visually disrupting their aesthetic coherence. Third, the receiver can wear the item and use their knowledge to justify its use within their persona’s framework. They are thus able to stabilize their persona’s hyponarrative, that is, their persona’s personal verbal and aesthetic narrative, within the framework of Loch an Fhraoich and the SCA by providing a narrative explanation for the narrative edgeplay, or break, of their aesthetic coherence caused by the gift.

Fighter in Armor. Video Still by Suzanne Barber

During a particularly cold Sunday, when instead of fighter practice the members of Loch an Fhraioch decided to have a crafting session, I was speaking to Badon while he was laying out leather pieces, which would later become part of a set of armor. He explained to me that his persona was that of a Welshman from the 1100’s and that these pieces of armor would become knee and elbow cups. Curiously, a set of metal knees were set out next to leather even though they were not having any obvious work done on them. When I questioned Badon about them, he admitted that they were made and given to him by a good friend and skilled armorer. He gushed over how well they were made, the protection they offered, the comfort, the relative lightness for a piece of metal armor— he had no criticism for its construction. He had only decided that morning, after already starting the leather knees, that he would use them. A Welshman in the 1100’s wouldn’t have been able to afford them, he explained. “If you aren’t following economics [of your persona], what are you doing?” (fieldwork observation, November 15, 2009). After thinking the problem over for a few weeks, Badon created a story of how his persona had managed to acquire metal knees.

To solve this problem, Badon thus utilized both his historical knowledge of the period, and his vernacular knowledge of what was acceptable within the SCA framework to avoid violating the aesthetic coherence of his persona. He found a social, rather than objective truth in order to craft a story for his persona that would satisfy both aspects of his group’s values and identity— camaraderie and narrative and aesthetic coherence.

The fourth decision a participant can make to deal with a gift that contradicts his/her persona is to take apart the given gift and reconstruct it into something that they find acceptable within their persona framework. This was a common practice within the shire, both with gifts and other items purchased by the individual, especially jewelry. For instance, Brenda, the newest member of Loch an Fhraoich, explained that the necklace she was wearing on one occasion was actually an anklet that Badon had given her. She had lengthened the anklet by undoing some loops and then attaching them to the back in order to produce a necklace she felt she could wear with her persona. Badon overhead the conversation but was intrigued and even complimented Brenda on the necklace, reinforcing that he not only approved of what she had done, but liked the aesthetic result.

Finally, though this choice was never verbally suggested by any of my informants, an individual can choose not to wear the gift at all. When I asked members of Loch an Fhraoich directly if they would still wear or use an item that did not fit with their persona, they told me that of course you would still wear it or use it, albeit not all the time. To not wear it at all would be a violation of their group’s value of camaraderie. I would argue that it is crucial to the members of Loch an Fhraioch to not unbalance the tension between camaraderie and aesthetic and narrative coherence by completely neglecting one value.

Going Too Far

I have already established that narrative and aesthetic coherence is a key component to the new identity of Loch an Fhraoich, and that this particular value can cause complications when involved with the other group value of camaraderie. This, however, is but one type of complication that arises for an individual. I will now focus on the problems of creating an item, which maintains both aesthetic and narrative coherence by satisfying the participants’ desire for historical accuracy and practicality. Practicality can come into question with issues of money, time, health, and ease of the work. Inan, during an Arts and Science meeting pulled out her latest piece of garb, a black “Turkish style” gown. Down the front of the gown she had begun sewing white and red beads. As she explained her idea for the gown she paused, turned to me, and told me the beads are plastic. “Some people use real pearls . . .the people who play nobles at the Renaissance Faire do. But we really use these clothes, we live in them” (observational fieldwork, November 14, 2009). Certainly one could argue that real seed pearls would aid in the construction of narrative and aesthetic coherence, but it is the idea of medievalness that is desired and Loch an Fhraioch’s edgeplay allows for the question of practicality. If this outfit is going to be used, that is lived in rather than just worn, then practically speaking plastic beads that represent the idea of pearls are an acceptable substitute.

Beadwork created with plastic rather than pearls. Photo by Suzanne Barber

In a similar case, Eirik told me that he purchased a kidney belt online instead of making one.

Suzanne: I know you said you have been learning how to make everything. Have you made pretty much everything in your garb and armor?

Eirik: I did not make the kidney belt, but I certainly have the skill-set to. I bought it off of eBay because it was cheap and quick. I could have it in a matter of a couple days and I could be out fighting. I didn’t have to find the leather, cut the leather, dye the leather, stitch the leather. [interview, November 9, 2009]

In this case, even though Eirik was capable of creating a kidney belt— and in fact had done so many times before— he chose to purchase one on eBay instead because it was cheaper and saved time. This allowed him to participate faster and in turn enacted and supported a play frame. During an Arts and Sciences meeting, Badon also described to me a site where he routinely buys linen tunics because they are cheaper and quicker than making them himself. Beyond the contradiction that buying an item online causes, it is interesting to note here that both these informants are known for their abilities in making items. In other words, this act does not destabilize or threaten the value of camaraderie since they have already gone through the bonding process of learning to make these items. Rather, they can spend the time they might otherwise use making these items to practice another craft or possibly (as in the case with Badon) teaching a less-experienced member how to make the item.

Members of Loch an Fhraoich routinely offered to assist me in sewing some of my own garbxiii, even going so far as to draw up a pattern for me. This suggests that in my case, because I had not proven that I was capable of sewing, I was expected, albeit with help, to at least attempt to learn how to do it myself before I could purchase it online. I believe this was in order to support both values. By making sure I knew how to make something, it assured that I had a certain level of knowledge required to reach an acceptable level of aesthetic and narrative coherence. The time required to learn, and the communal aspect of teaching, insured that I would spend time with the members of Loch an Fhraioch and support the value of camaraderie.

When I asked who I should speak to about garb construction every person told me to talk to Shannon. Shannon was considered the expert sewer, not only because of her skill in the actual production process, but also because of her knowledge of history and sewing techniques. When asked, Inan admitted that she sewed, but amended this by telling me that she could only machine sew and that Shannon, who hand-sewed everything, would be the one I’d want to talk to. I was curious and when I got the chance, I began to question Shannon on her technique. Shannon told me that she had fully hand sewn and referenced everything with historical documents and examples before, but now she only does that for a competition that requires it. Boning, stays, buttonholes, and other similar things are sewn on a machine in order to save time on places that nobody will see. Like John Dorst’s study of the “postmodern vernacular” at Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, with Inan’s use of plastic beads, it was the idea of the object that was important and “. . . where both the thing and the idea of the thing are produced; a physical object is produced, but its materiality becomes equivocal in that it is inscribed with the simulacrum of the thing it purports to be” (Dorst 1989:65). Unlike some of my other informants, Shannon didn’t believe using modern conveniences created a more durable or better product at the end and instead emphasized that she hand-sewed all stress points to allow them some more movement and to help them last.

The desire to attempt to do something for oneself can be taken too far in the minds of the Loch an Fhraoich shire members. While at a meeting, Badon shared a story of when he went too far. He explained that he got the idea to try and dye his linen the “real” way with natural dyes and natural solvents that would have actually been used during 1100’s Wales. This included a selection of roots, herbs, minerals, and a large vat of urine, which needed to be heated almost all day. He mentioned that although it did dye the clothing in the desired manor, it created such a noxious smell that his then wife demanded he stop. After years of experimenting, Badon now figures he has the right to take the easy route in garb and armor construction and now uses modern material and construction methods.

Sometimes it was not the construction of an individual item that was perceived as going too far, but rather, the quest for narrative and aesthetic coherence itself. While I was observing Badon and Shannon working on some garb, Conrad told us a story of an individual who had recently gotten sick at an event because he had worn period style pajamas. The weather had turned cold and the pajamas did not offer enough protection from the weather. The three laughed about this story and Badon added: “if you’ve got to have period pajamas something’s wrong” (observational fieldwork, November 22, 2009). One could reasonably assume that this member then could either not participate further in the event or at the very least didn’t feel very well. This sort of act risks breaking the play frame by literally preventing the person from participating in or enjoying the event. With this sort of criticism Loch an Fhraoich is able to warn their members about the consequences of going too far with narrative and aesthetic coherence and thus risk overriding the value of camaraderie or breaking frame.

Conclusion

The Society for Creative Anachronism is often depicted and discussed as a large homogeneous organization. To counter this, my fieldwork focused on the smaller group and its relation to that of the larger organization. These local groups attain a feeling of distinctness within this large organization by creating an identity for themselves, which expresses their values within the larger SCA framework. Sometimes these values contradict each other or subvert the larger overriding SCA ethos; members will then mediate their participation in order to avoid breaking from the SCA framework entirely while still protecting their group identity.

The Society for Creative Anachronism supports an official homogenous metanarrative. This overriding narrative is most often examined by outsiders. Despite the initial perceived dominance, this metanarrative acts as a frame or matrix narrative and contained within it are multiple hyponarratives and little narratives. At the idio and unicultural level, these hyponarratives increase in number while decreasing in scope. In other words, they go from representing a kingdom, to a principality, to a barony, to a shirexiv, and to a group of friends within that shire to an individual member. At every level, these narratives connect the individual and group to others, creating a network of relationships and shared narratives that create a sense of unity which prevents a fracturing of voices and thus supports the overriding metanarrative. In order to prevent this system from collapsing inward or fracturing apart, a certain amount of transgressive edgeplay must be allowed. The style and amount of edgeplay that is tolerated is often a distinguishing mark between SCA groups.

Loch an Fhraoich, the shire from Bowling Green, Kentucky, is currently in transition from being a shire known for valuing camaraderie over narrative and aesthetic coherence to one that takes coherence into account more frequently. They have achieved this by changing the rules and types of events they host along with finding creative solutions to incorporate gifts that do not fit within their persona. Rarely does Loch an Fhraoich, or the individuals within the group, focus entirely on one value. Instead they lean towards one value or the other while attempting to maintain a balance between the two. Although certainly not a set rule, in general terms, older members or less active members of Loch an Fhraoich tend to favor camaraderie while newer and or more active members prefer to bolster narrative and aesthetic coherence. Although often framed within the terms of “play” by members of Loch an Fhraoich, activity and participation in the Society for Creative Anachronism is a complex balancing act proving that play in the SCA is in fact a very serious business.

Notes

i A household is an unofficial group that is organized around shared interests and camaraderie and can be used to express personal values, goals, and the level of one’s commitment to the SCA.

ii A Seneschal acts as the head of the shire and is in charge of the administration duties.

iii A crafting session, sometimes with a specific focus and lesson on how to make an item.

iv The Kingdom of Ansterra is comprised of Oklahoma and most of Texas (SCA n.d.d).

v In addition to secretarial duties, he is in charge of helping members register and find names as well as create devices.

iv None of my informants were able to remember if the founding date was 1979 or 1980 and I was unable to find any records that gave the founding date.

vii The crest for the Kingdom of Midrealm includes a green dragon passant similar to the Welsh flag.

viii The few times I inquired for more details about these events the question was put off either by claim of not knowing the full or true story, or in insisting it no longer matters because the members involved have left. Out of respect for my informants obvious reluctance to talk about these events in any detail I too have left out any specific details that I have learned.

ix Slash fanfiction, sometimes referred to as just slash fiction is a genre of fanfiction which depicts the pairing of two or more same sex characters that usually were never shown together in the original work of media.

x An unofficial SCA group comprised of members based upon friendship or common interest.

xi A “period” item is one representing a medieval item that could have actually excited. So a piece of medieval-style pottery would be considered pottery where a modern glass cup would not be considered period.

xii The heraldic symbol of a person or group. These symbols are registered with the SCA and unique to each person or group. These symbols are often painted on shields or sewn onto clothing.

xiii Garb is required to attend an SCA event.

xiv A kingdom can be broken down into principalities which can in turn be broken down into baronies and then further divided into shires.

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Suzanne Barber is a PhD student in Folklore at Indiana University. She received her MA in Folk Studies from Western Kentucky University. Her research interests include ecological and animal husbandry issues in China, tourism, visual narratives, and ethnographic video production.

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