What is the SCA?
The Society for Creative Anachronism, or SCA, is an international organization dedicated to researching and re-creating the arts, skills, and traditions of pre-17th-century Europe.
Members of the SCA study and take part in a variety of activities, including combat, archery, equestrian activities, costuming, cooking, metalwork, woodworking, music, dance, calligraphy, fiber arts, and much more. If it was done in the Middle Ages or Renaissance, odds are you’ll find someone in the SCA interested in recreating it.
What makes the SCA different from a Humanities 101 class is the active participation in the learning process. To learn about the clothing of the period, you research it, then sew and wear it yourself. To learn about combat, you put on armor (which you may have built yourself) and learn how to defeat your opponent. To learn brewing, you make (and sample!) your own wines, meads and beers.
You will frequently hear SCA participants describe the SCA as recreating the Middle Ages “as they ought to have been.” In some ways this is true – we choose to use indoor plumbing, heated halls, and sewing machines. In the dead of winter we have more to eat than King’s venison, salt pork and dried tubers. However, a better description is that we selectively recreate the culture, choosing elements of the culture that interest and attract us.
How did the SCA begin?
The SCA started in 1966, when a few friends who were history buffs and science fiction/fantasy fans hosted a big outdoor party in Berkeley, California. The invitation stated that a Tournament would be held on the first of May, summoning “all knights to defend in single combat the title of ‘fairest’ for their ladies.”
Everyone enjoyed the first tournament so much that they agreed a second should be run, but in a larger setting. In order to reserve one of the public parks for the gathering, the organizers needed to list a name for their group on the application. Since recreating the Middle Ages in 20th-century Berkeley was an anachronism (something “out of time”), and because the goal was creativity, they came up with “The Society for Creative Anachronism”. It was a spur-of-the-moment invention; they had no idea that the name would stay with their group into the future.
Word of the SCA spread via friends and science-fiction fandom. There were 6 events held in the first year, and 9 in the second. In the third year, a chapter was founded on the East Coast (the East Kingdom – distinguishing it from the West Kingdom); the Californians incorporated the SCA as a non-profit educational society, and away they went. Since 1966, the Society has grown to nineteen kingdoms, which cover the U.S., Canada, Europe, Asia, South Africa, and Australia. There are over 30,000 paid members of the corporation, and the total number of participants is around 60,000 people.
How is the SCA organized?
The SCA “Knowne World” is divided into Kingdoms, each ruled by a King and Queen who gain the throne by winning a Crown Tournament, held semi-annually. There are also a Prince and Princess (the heirs to the throne), and a council of Great Officers who handle the day-to-day business of running the kingdom.
Within a kingdom (which may cover many states and thousands of square miles) there are subdivisions called Principalities, and local chapters called Baronies, Shires, and Cantons. Each group has its own slate of officers to run it. It is the members of the local chapters who actually plan and run the events, practices, and other activities for SCA participants.
Households and Guilds exist as unofficial groups within the SCA, and determine their own internal structure. Some households have a feudal basis, consisting of a Knight and his lady, and their squires and men-at-arms. Other households are founded by participants who are all interested in focusing their recreation on the same era in history. And some households are simply groups of friends who like to socialize and travel to events together. Guilds are founded by groups of artisans who come together to share their knowledge. They can set their own rules about how guild members demonstrate skill to gain rank within the guild.
Fighting in the SCA, or Why are those people hitting each other?
Armored combat in the SCA resembles medieval foot tournaments. Combatants can face each other in single combat in tournaments, or can take part in large melee battles that can have dozens or even hundreds of combatants on each side.
Since we prefer that no one gets hurt, SCA combatants wear real armor and use rattan swords. Rattan, which looks like bamboo but has a solid core, is springy enough to absorb some of the force of the blow without snapping, and light enough to approximate the weight of a steel sword. Swords are constructed by wrapping a yard-long piece of rattan in duct tape and attaching a hilt. Building armor is much more complex – a complete suit has many parts, which can be made from hammered steel, rivets, leather, even rigid plastic (if well-disguised). Some pieces of armor can take many, many hours to construct.
Novice fighters are trained by the more experienced fighters. They are taught how to use their weapons, how to defend themselves, and how to judge blows received in combat. Every fighter on the field is on his/her honor to accept a blow sufficient to “wound” or “kill”. At the end of training, if the marshals (our safety officers) decide that the fighter is safe – not necessarily good, but unlikely to hurt him or herself or an opponent – then the fighter is considered authorized to fight. The process of becoming authorized can take from a few weeks to several months.
Another type of SCA combat is fencing, also known as rapier combat. Participants use real blades and for protection they wear regulation fencing masks, padded torso protection, and shirts and pants made from heavy fabric to protect their limbs. Unlike modern fencing, SCA fencing is done “in-the-round”, and combatants can fight in close with their opponents. Blows are acknowledged by the recipient (as in armored combat), not by a set of judges. Fencers can face each other one-on-one in tournaments, or in large melee battles with dozens or even hundreds on a side.
SCA fencing has its own set of marshals who supervise the authorization process. New fencers must demonstrate their knowledge of the rules and ability to participate safely before they can compete in tournaments.
In all SCA combat, safety is the most important consideration. There are armor requirements and rules which all participants must follow. Before combat begins, the marshals inspect the combatants’ equipment to make sure they are safe. During the battles, the marshals watch for unsafe situations and keep spectators safe.
Why do you all have such funny names?
Every person in the SCA picks a name to go by in the Society. It could be something simple and familiar (Mary of London or Thomas the Smith) or something elaborate and exotic-sounding (Oisin Dubh mac Lochlainn). However, no one may use the name of an actual person from history or legend (such as “Richard the Lionheart”).
The SCA has its own College of Arms to help you select and register an SCA name and heraldic device. The College of Arms has many resources to assist members in their research, to ensure that their names and devices are appropriate to the world we try to recreate, and that each registered name and device will be unique.
Don’t worry about figuring out a name before you join the group. Many people go by <real first name> of <name of SCA group> for a while until they figure out what name they’d like to adopt.
Some SCA members try to create an entire “persona” for themselves, as someone who could have lived in a specific time and place within the scope of the SCA, fitting their costume and activities to that persona. Some dedicated people try to behave at events as if they actually were their persona. Others simply pick a name and go ahead with life in the “Current Middle Ages.”
Even our local groups have their own names. Lansing, Michigan is “The Barony of Northwoods”; Toronto, Ontario is “The Royal City of Eoforwic”; Boston, Massachusetts is “The Barony of Carolingia”; and the San Francisco Bay area is the “The Principality of the Mists”.
Rank in the SCA, or Who are those people wearing crowns?
The SCA has an elaborate system of rank, awards, and honors to reward participants’ accomplishments and service to the Society. Everyone is presumed to be minor nobility when they join the SCA, but any noble titles or honors used in the SCA must be earned in the SCA. These honors are bestowed by the King and Queen during their Royal Courts. You will find that the SCA’s system of rank differs rather radically from that of Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Like many of the SCA’s institutions, our system of rank wasn’t so much planned as evolved.
The people wearing crowns are the reigning Kings and Queens. The heirs to the kingdom, the Prince and Princess, wear coronets which are usually a little less elaborate. In principalities, the reigning Prince and Princess wear coronets, as do their heirs.
After departing the thrones, former royalty become Royal Peers: Viscounts and Viscountesses (those who ruled principalities), Counts and Countesses (those who have reigned once as King or Queen), and Dukes and Duchesses (those who have reigned twice or more as King or Queen). The different Royal Peers are entitled to wear coronets in a specific style.
Another group of people entitled to wear coronets are Barons and Baronesses. They may be in charge of a Barony, or may have simply received the title of Court Baron (or Baroness) as a reward from the royalty.
Bestowed Peers are those who, through talent, hard work, and long effort, have earned recognition for their contributions and skills. There are three of these peerage orders. Companions of the Order of Chivalry are Knights and Masters-at-Arms, fighters who have achieved great skill on the tourney field and are considered by the other members of the Chivalry to be models of prowess, chivalry, and honor. Companions of the Order of the Laurel are craftsmen and artisans recognized for their research and skill in crafts practiced during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and their willingness to teach those skills to others. Companions of Order of the Pelican are those whose service has made a great difference to the SCA. Companions include those who have run Society-wide publications, organized our largest events, held kingdom offices, and managed complicated finances.
The above ranks are common to all the SCA Kingdoms. Each kingdom also has its own set of awards and honors that can be given to reward a variety of skills, efforts, and achievements.
Feasting, Dancing and Merrymaking
The major activity in the SCA is our events – the opportunity for us to put on our medieval clothing, cook and serve the recipes we’ve been researching, dance the dances we’ve been practicing, socialize, and generally have a good time. You can find a variety of SCA events taking place almost every weekend of the year, including: Tournaments, coronations, masked balls, collegiums, interkingdom wars, and more. Activities at events can include fighting, fencing, archery, art exhibits/competitions, indoor games, feasts and royal or baronial court.
What kind of person joins the SCA?
SCA participants are just plain folks who enjoy doing something more with their weekends. People from all walks of life join the SCA – students, teachers, historians, writers, secretaries, law enforcement personnel, chemists, and insurance agents. Many SCA participants are involved in high tech fields – computers, aerospace, high energy physics, etc. People who spend all week with highly complex, modern technology can find it relaxing to spend their leisure time using simpler technologies in a less modern setting.
How you can get involved
We welcome you to come to our local meetings and events. You are not required to buy a membership before you start attending, although you may wish to join if you decide to be with us regularly. Members do pay lower entry fees to events, and some kingdoms require membership to participate in certain activities.
Many local groups have officers called “chatelaines” or “hospitallers” whose sole duty is to help new members find their way in the SCA, and they can provide you with loaner costumes for your first event. Each SCA participant remembers the day he or she started, and most people are happy to help out a newcomer.
To locate the group nearest you, see the “Finding a local SCA Group” section on our “Information for Newcomers” webpage (www.sca.org/chatelain/newcomers.html). If you can’t determine which local group covers your area, contact the kingdom chatelaine/hospitaller through your kingdom’s website. Failing all else, you can contact the Society Chatelaine at email@example.com.
Welcome to the Current Middle Ages!
This article is based on one originally written in 1996 by Mistress Siobhan Medhbh O’Roarke.