The Transference of Heritage

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   A quick look at the past and future of the SCA
       and how our actions connect them.

               by Sir Valtorr of Oslo

Author’s note: This was written in A.S. 25, so all figures are quite dated.

Once upon a sunny May, a small gathering in Berkeley, Ca. discovered a world of chivalry and courtesy long forgotten by modern society. Today, only a quarter of a century later, unofficial estimates of the people whose lives that gathering has influenced tops 40,000, reportedly doubling every five years. Some forward-thinking individuals cast their sights toward the unseen future, questioning what will be the end-product of that small original gathering: If growth and acceleration of membership continues at the present rate, at our 50th Anniversary Celebration the total of members, non-members, and ex-members should estimate to 1,280,000 people who have participated in the SCA.

Perhaps those who fantasize about global conquest believe the SCA will last that long. I don't. Ignoring all social curves and saturation levels may allow these figures to be correct, but I wouldn't bet the mortgage on them. The same calculations would enlarge Aquaterra to 400 active members. Idealists may believe we can handle the inflow, but I don't. The SCA's internal governing structure was never designed to accommodate such vast numbers. Of course, we can make changes, so that we may become capable of handling the population swell, but that's nothing new. Since the original division of the East kingdom from the West, we have been constantly changing, from what we were, to face the necessity of what we are.

Change can be beneficial, but it does have its darker side. We are no longer what we were. At the original gathering, every attempt at medievality, however small or off-target, was highly praised and honored. Individualism and originality was considered more important than authenticity, and effort was always well rewarded. Now the SCA is flooded with expectations, duties, precedences, traditions, and degrees of quality that would have left the original gathering aghast, feeling uneducated, ill-mannered, and under-dressed. They were having a party: When did it become so serious?

When I joined in 1974, the SCA had already undergone several political upheavals. Markland, which had splintered off only a few years before, was still considered an uncouth clan of traitors, although it boasted 200 members. Six years later, when I left for An Tir, it had grown to 600 members and was having trouble finding large-enough feast halls. Fortunately, the `disgusting snobs' and the `disgruntled rebels' were all older and more mature by then, and both sides were working toward reunification which, although never realized, vastly improved their previously severed relations.

It's hard to describe my early days. It was more like attending a family reunion than an SCA event today. The minute it was discovered that you were a newcomer, someone would take you around and introduce you to everyone at the event, see that you were instructed in all the proper courtesies that would be expected of you, that you had a place to watch the activities, and a seat by someone interesting at the feast. It was like meeting uncles, great aunts, and assorted cousins that were all strangers, who instantly accepted you as family. At that time, a white tunic cut from a plain bed sheet was perfectly acceptable, although there were numerous examples of quality medieval tailoring. I remember how a fake-fur cloak once became the center of attention because it was so rare and period. What was important was that you were there, and making an effort to play the game.

Nowadays, I wouldn't be caught dead in a bed sheet tunic. I have court costumes costing hundreds of dollars in special wools, velvets, and jewelry, and I know that is nothing compared to others I have seen. I wish I could have shown up back then in one of these costumes. I would have been the best dressed knight in the East. My dagged, brass-trimmed mail shirt, Norse longtent, decorated bench and drum, and even my standard Norse helm would have been displayed as artwork.. Today, it's just my tourney stuff.

In my few idle moments, I sometimes wish we could have gained all our improvements and advancements without sacrificing the many precious things we have lost. Today, I often see newcomers wandering lost amid SCA encampments, afraid to disturb the busy residents from their closed conversations. Newcomers have to seek out information, rather than having it brought to them. Members work in the same branches, even serve at the same events, year after year, and never speak to each other. When I joined, this couldn't have happened. Today, it's impossible to know everyone personally.

Change had occurred in the SCA before I joined, has occurred since I joined, and will continue as long as the SCA exists. That is a fact of life. Will the SCA, in its 50th year, still be what we now call the SCA? No, it won't, but we can affect now what it will become.

As new people join with alarming frequency, we will have to A: teach them the old ideals, and B: make room to accept their new ideas. Unfortunately, it's rare that I hear an idea today that wasn't already tried out several times long ago. Yet new ideas keep us changing, and not every change is good. Already merchant's row looks like a shopping mall, where newcomers learn that, although all merchants are willing to teach them, it's easier to buy medievality rather than learn to make it themselves. Most branches are now too big and complex to be concerned with a new individual's needs, and some SCA kingdom's standing armies could have trounced a Roman legion. The focus has left the individual, which some thought was the whole point of the SCA.

Chatelaines, as the office currently exists, are insufficient to handle the growing numbers except in groups. Classroom education in SCA history, etiquette, and traditions can pass on information, but not the feeling of welcomeness many of us once received. The only solution, many say, is for each of us to take on newcomers as students and educate them one on one.

I do not think this is a viable solution.. I didn't join the SCA to be a student, and although I treasure my days as a squire, I doubt I would have joined if it had been required. The SCA is not a military society. I hope it never becomes one, but who can say what future changes may bring? Besides, the time for that conclusion has come and gone. I know many members who consider themselves `old-timers' and yet are new enough to have missed the days I prefer to recall. How could they, though respected, qualified members, take on students and teach them what they never had themselves? Yes, taking on newcomers as students is good for the SCA, and in reality it will help slow down the ever-accelerating change which is evolving the SCA, but it will never stop it or reverse it. Nothing will.

We must stop being so rigid with others. Ask anyone who has taken on a squire, apprentice, or protégé. No one can make another be a certain type of person, or think a certain way. To try is to knowingly fail. Yet this is what so many people in the SCA try to do everyday: Make them like us, or hope they go away. It is our biggest waste of time and energy.

Teaching is not the answer. People learn what they want, when they want to, and some people may never learn at all. When it does work, it's not because an old SCA member wanted to teach, but because a new SCA member wanted to learn. We need to be able to teach, but not to be teachers. If we are going to keep what is important in the SCA, we must accept the responsibilities of role-models.

Role-models are more than examples of what we want new SCA members to aspire to become. Certainly they are more than some of us saying we're better than the rest. Role-models are what all SCA members should be. Like the Dream, they are an ideal. Yes, there are different styles of role-models. I surely hope some lord or lady teaches better needle-work than my rattan-calloused hands can manage. Yet we must accept upon ourselves the same purpose: to make ourselves embodiments of chivalry that are willing to set ourselves up as Role-models, each in our own style, while being able to praise Role-models of other styles.

The first part of that is the hardest. Embodiments of chivalry is easy to say, but hard to maintain. It's like when you stand up in a room full of SCA members and toast to chivalry itself. Everyone can stand up and join in. It's easy. Or, when someone needs help, you hurry to assist them. It is easier than standing there watching them scream, and you know beforehand that you might get rewarded in some way. Yet this is simple chivalry. What about when you want something so bad you can taste it, and your worst enemy deserves it more than you do? That's not so easy. What if the desired object is an award, or a title, or a throne? That's hard. What if you're talking about money, jobs, or lovers? That's impossible, most would say, yet I can easily think of historical examples where chivalry was offset by love, power, or wealth. The real struggle with chivalry is the inner struggle, and it never gets easy..

Reconsider the statement: To make ourselves embodiments of chivalry that are willing to set ourselves up as Role-models, each in our own style, while being able to praise Role-models of other styles. Not just words, is it?

While the first part is the hardest, the last part is even harder, and the part that we usually fail at. The SCA has taken on a political second-nature worse than most foreign lobbyists. Few people can belong to the SCA for six months without noticing the invisible fences dividing kingdoms and branches and clans and households. How can we set ourselves up as role-models and expect newcomers to look up to us, if everyone outside our personal circle of friends is teaching them that we are wrong, or evil, or just constantly insulting us? How can they be believable role-models, if that is what we are doing to them? All our constant in-fighting is sending mixed and confused messages: Yes, be like him, except don't speak to him because he's a fighter; No, be like him, but don't dress like that because he's a fop; She's a perfect example, but don't try to be her friend unless you're somebody important. We all hear this kind of garbage every day. It hurts us, because when we say it, our ideals of chivalry and any pretense to them totally vanishes.

Members, old and new, are people. Each was brought up in a different setting, with different values, and we must all learn to adjust. There were many different attitudes in historical times, and we would be unperiod to try to force everyone to accept the same demeanor or temperament. We are not all Vikings. We are not all Frenchmen. We are not all members of the Spanish Inquisition, although some frequently act like it. We must learn to each play in our own way without knocking others for playing their way. If we can't do this for them, how can we ever expect them to do the same for us?

There will always be as many problems within the SCA as without. Life is problems. We can't change that. Who will rule the SCA and govern its policies in the future? Who knows? Fortunately, there are many who come close to the chivalric Ideal already in the SCA.. I feel my ex-liege, Duke Thorin, to be one. Yet no one can be an Ideal. It would take a person freed of all human nature and possessed of godly will to maintain such an image as their reality, and who could stand such a person? (Remember what happened to Lancelot?)

There are two all-important aspects we must all agree on, and that all SCA members must constantly maintain, if we are to give the SCA of the future even a partial resemblance to today. One is the willingness to reach out to newcomers and welcome them as we would have liked to have been welcomed. We can't walk past them, without acknowledging their presence, without them learning to do the same to us. The other thing is a total dedication to Chivalry and its ideals as things which we serve, not which serve us. Historically, the Age of Chivalry fell because the wealthy snobs in power didn't want to share the qualities of ennoblement with the commoners, and many people in the SCA have already shown a preference for that destructive and unchivalric (although, unfortunately, it is period!) attitude. Personally, the collapse of chivalry is like The Black Death, not a part of history I would like to see repeated.

I feel these simple, unchanging acts will be the only things which can keep the SCA of the future even remotely resembling the SCA each of us remembers joining. Again, it won't be easy, but we must, unless we want the SCA to cease to exist when it no longer resembles our SCA. We must remember that, if others held that attitude, the SCA would never have lasted the five years for me to join, let alone long enough for us to be considering future generations.

We can only hope of the future SCA, while it can never be the SCA of the past, it can be a good SCA, upholding chivalry, and open for everyone to enjoy.

(For those who dream of a world of courtesy and chivalry, this is the only key, because it won't happen in one year, one generation, or even one century, but only in an ever-increasing effort by everyone to put the burden of change upon ourselves, the only people whom we really have control over, instead of upon others.)

THE END or not? That’s up to you.

--- Sir Valtorr of Oslo