I’ve recently added a suite of new hobbies to my repertoire: dressing in fabulous medieval gowns, enjoying lavish feasts, witnessing armoured combat and archery contests, attending royal courts, and learning about medieval arts and sciences- how did this happen?!
I’m a relatively new member of a medieval living history group called the SCA, The Society for Creative Anachronism. The group explores pre-17th Century histories of all areas of life, including the arts, sciences, armoured combat, and has some fun playing with ruling structures (we have Kings, Queens, Princes and Princesses) and adopting some modes of behaviour (like throwing in some medieval vocabulary). Here I’ll share a quick introduction to the SCA and some of my experiences so far…
As a “living history” group, the society goes beyond the theory and promotes an immersive ethos of “learn by doing”. The idea is that by actually trying to do things, like make cheese or a clothing garment using the tools available at a certain point in history, a lot can be learned, sometimes adding to or modifying the knowledge in history books. There are many activities to explore, from medieval fighting and combat techniques, cooking, calligraphy and illumination, needlework, dancing, even horseback riding combined with archery and jousting skills!
events evoke the pageantry of the past with modern values (and bathrooms!)
Beyond these skill elements, the society also seeks to explore some of the cultural contexts to life in the Middle Ages. Some of the more idealistic and romanticized values such as chivalry and honour have been adopted and elements of LARPing incorporated to heighten the experience (and fun!) at events. There are some elements of Medieval life though, which have been left firmly in the past: gender stereotypes and roles, racism, ableism, homophobia, and other exclusionary practices are not permitted, and there are regular discussions to adjust society rules to better promote inclusion and diversity. In short, events evoke the pageantry of the past with modern values (and bathrooms!).
My experiences so far…
My first two years in the society have been relatively eventful as my partner and I have been serving as Prince and Princess of our local principality (called Insulae Draconis). Ruling couples are decided by armoured combat tournaments: a fighter enters alongside a “consort” who acts as their supporter and inspiration, and the winning couple (of any gender identity configuration) will rule together. My partner and I were victorious in February 2019 and have been serving during what’s been dubbed, the “Long Reign”, over lockdown!
it’s been fantastic to be able to appreciate and make people happy, especially during such a difficult time…
My favourite part of this role has been attending events and holding court. These are gatherings of the populace at which we can address the group and give out awards in recognition of skills and contributions. Members nominate others for specific awards, the ruling couple decide on those who are most deserving, and secretly commission beautiful scrolls (awarded as a gift). The individual is then invited to approach the ruling couple at court and we have the opportunity to praise their good deeds and achievements in front of their community. Many members greatly value these awards as they are hard-earned, and it’s been fantastic to be able to appreciate and make people happy, especially during such a difficult time.
A fun thing that many newcomers might explore early on is coming up with a medival “persona”…
Aside from this role, I have been embracing the SCA in other ways too. A fun thing that many newcomers might explore early on is coming up with a medival “persona”. Here’s where the slight LARPing element comes in again: members are welcome to invent a medieval persona including a name, heraldry, backstory, and select period-appropriate clothing, hair styles, accessories, and even eating utensils! This is usually chosen based on the specific time period and geography that is of most interest, for example Tudor England, Viking Sweden, or ancient Rome.
I have chosen a name and some heraldry, but I’m keeping my backstory quite open as I still want to explore many time periods and geographies to decide on a focus (or focusses!). My chosen name is: Zoë of Ennestan. I’ve decided to retain my original first name as I like it, plus it can be documented back to ancient Greece, as well as two early Christian saints named Zoë, and Zoë Porphyrogenita was an 11th Century Byzentine Empress – fancy! I have decided to also tweak my family name to “Ennestan”. This was an earlier spelling from 1185-7 of the place name from which my name derives.
I am enjoying learning about heraldry and creating my own device that is meaningful to me…
Embracing my artistic tendencies, I am enjoying learning about heraldry and creating my own device that is meaningful to me. My partner inspired this (he actually has a version of his tattooed on his arm!), and I had fun thinking of my favourite colour combinations and images to create something unique. I selected the image of the bee as the symbol of my hometown, Manchester, and a creature with a propensity to dance! Black and gold are the colours of my University college, and the stripes are reminiscent of my favourite set of rings. Simple but effective!
I actually borrowed some of my partner’s “male” clothes for my first event…
Something I needed to embrace early on is dressing the part, as events require attendees to dress in some attempt at historically-appropriate clothing. I actually borrowed some of my partner’s “male” clothes for my first event, adopting a playful character “Bob” (it was super comfortable wearing “men’s” clothing!). I have since invested in some basic c.15th Century linen pieces that I can build on by adding trim and accessories later on.
Exploring this clothing is an adventure! There are so many layers: wool hose (tights), underwear (linen “shorts”), a chemise (under dress), kirtle (dress with boned bodice), optional sleeves to tie on, and sometimes an overdress and a cloak in winter months. Topping it off is the headwear: a linen coif (headwrap) to cover the hair, a tradition in the Middle Ages for respectability and practicality, and for me for a few months, a coronet to indicate my (temporary) status as “Princess”.
there is often a feast where period-appropriate ingredients are used in the foods, and people eat from medieval tableware…
Another essential element at in-person events is that there is often a feast where period-appropriate ingredients are used in the foods, and people eat from medieval tableware. This is certainly another highlight for me! I attended a Yule Ball in December 2019 where the theme of the feast was “The Silk Road”, and the menu had been designed to follow this geography- how amazing! The show-stopper was a marzipan scene depicting Hanibal’s elephants crossing the alps presented to the King and Queen. Stunning!
I’m exploring several hobby areas, with varying degrees of success!
Beyond these elements, I’m exploring several hobby areas, with varying degrees of success! I had a go at learning a beautiful Tudor needlework technique called “Blackwork” made popular by Catherine of Aragon, but found I didn’t have the patience (or effective lighting!) to get very far just yet. I have dabbled in calligraphy (mainly so I can sign my name on scrolls), and have been researching how to pull together an ancient Greek outfit, hair, and makeup so that I can live up to the history of my name!
I’ve had several attempts at medieval dancing, having learned some set group court dances and taken an online belly dancing class. Residing with a Knight also means I have a live-in teacher, so I’ve been learning some basic Longsword and rapier drills. I was kindly given an introduction to archery at an event in 2019, and intend to learn more when possible. There’s so much to explore and I’m looking forward to what the next two years have in store!
I’ve found the society to be a community of extremely talented and dedicated people who get together to learn but also to have fun, socialize, and take care of one another. I have experienced a spirit of generosity, with so many members willing to share their skills and point you towards further resources, making it easy and accessible to learn. Equally, my partner’s motorcycle broke down on a trip to Wales recently and some people from the society, whom he barely knew before, drove out to rescue him- wonderful community spirit!
Events are fun occasions that can be in fabulous locations like 16th Century buildings or castles, while some are week-long camping adventures in medieval pavilions to really transport you to another time altogether. I’d highly recommend giving it a go!
If you’re interested in learning more about the society and getting involved (newcomers are very welcome and there is plenty of help available to get started!), check out the SCA website to find your local group. There are over 30,000 members across North America, Europe, Oceana, and parts of Africa and Asia, so plenty of new people to meet!
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