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By Ken Mondschein
There’s always been a fraught relationship between medieval academia and the Society for Creative Anachronism, but at the last several academic conferences I’ve attended, I’ve been at least one session where a speaker harshly criticized the SCA. The nature of the critiques varied, ranging from that it’s unethical to build imaginary European kingdoms on land taken from indigenous peoples (in which case, we should change every “New-Olde-Worldy Town” place-name in this country) to the SCA being a safe space for white supremacists (never mind that an SCA event is much less a “white space” than an academic medievalist conference). I think it’s high time I stepped in and said something good about the SCA, even at the risk of being attacked by my colleagues.
Now, I’ll admit it: I have myself, on occasion, critiqued the SCA. I have even in the New York hipster phase of my existence (in something I’m not linking here) made fun of them rather harshly. But when I did a “medieval faire” with my fencing students this past weekend and walked over to the SCA booth after hours with a bottle of hippocras (a spiced mead/red wine concoction) that I had brewed, I saw a bunch of people, including two ladies I knew from the annual International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, who had spent the day cooking over an open fire, making cheese, and doing everything they could to educate the general public about the Middle Ages. I find it difficult to see this as a bad thing. (Also, they liked the hippocras and asked me to teach a workshop on making it.)
So let’s examine, and refute, some of the criticisms of the SCA. First, there’s the charge that, by celebrating the European Middle Ages, they give safe harbor to white supremacists, or somehow spread a racist belief system. Of course there are people with objectionable beliefs in the SCA—and also in the Shriners, Weight Watchers, and your local PTA. That doesn’t mean that these are white-supremacist organizations. Objecting to this is damning the whole by the actions of a tiny part and ignoring the fact that the SCA’s real-world governing board has condemned such misuses of history.
What’s more, this critique is pointing out the mote in your neighbor’s eye while ignoring the log in your own: To go to an academic conference, let alone earn an advanced degree in history, literature, or art history, requires an enormous amount of money and free time. To participate in the SCA requires… an interest in the Middle Ages and a reasonable attempt at pre-17th century clothing, which can be made with $12 of material from Jo-Ann’s Fabric and half an hour at a sewing machine. (I should know; that was me in college.) Who, then, are the privileged ones? If anything, the SCA game threatens to destabilize systematic racism by replacing real-world hierarchies of race and class with its own imaginary social structure.
The SCA is diverse in other ways, as well: While academic historians focus narrowly on, say, women’s faith in the 14th century or the role of the Capetian dynasty in building the French state, the SCA is interested in everything that happened under the premodern sun from the death of Elizabeth I back to… the birth of Hammurabi, apparently. These include sword-fighting, cooking, visual arts, fabric arts, dancing, equestrian arts, and the list goes on. As my friend Mike Cramer points out, it’s like a state fair of medieval stuff.
This doesn’t even begin to mention that SCAdians have been doing the recently fashionable “global Middle Ages” for decades, researching and re-creating elements of Japanese, Central Asian, African, Middle Eastern, and Mesoamerican culture since at least the 1970s. While some might point to this as cultural appropriation or the worst sort of orientalism, it’s been my experience that the most educated SCA members are very aware of the difference between an appropriation and an appreciation (not to mention that no amount of academic finger-wagging is going to get them to stop).
Most importantly, the SCA provides a sense of community to its members. As Cramer points out in his book Medieval Fantasy as Performance, SCAdians can earn prestige and privilege in the organization that they don’t enjoy in real life. It is a place where people can feel welcome, make friends, and form romantic relationships. In a world where community is being replaced by targeted marketing and real-world interaction by screen time, the SCA provides the social contact that’s essential for human wellness. This is something often lacking in the lives of many members, who felt like social outcasts during their younger years (I know I did), or who even still feel that way. When academic medievalists attack their community, it feels to people in the SCA as if they’re being bullied all over again. The reaction is to withdraw from, and resent, the critics.
Yet, it seems that in a time when the humanities are under attack and tenure-track positions are going away, academic medievalists are doubling down on their authority, saying “we are the only ones equipped to properly interpret the Middle Ages. You’re doing it wrong.” Not only is this elitist, it’s a grave error. We have in the SCA a vast number of people who are interested in medieval history. Isn’t the best solution to the attack on the humanities to expand our audience? Besides, what is academic medievalism going to do going to do—herd recreational medievalists into “re-education centers” the way the Chinese government has hundreds of thousands of their Muslim minority Uyghur population?
This brings up another question: For whom are we really writing? Publishing work on recherché topics in journals that are hidden behind paywalls, or books that only academic libraries can afford, earns one points in the tenure game but it doesn’t help the study of the Middle Ages as a whole or do anything to correct misunderstandings. Those with interest but without access are forced to rely on older, outdated works that don’t reflect current thinking. Furthermore, in a world where tenure is going away, we need to ask why we’re participating in the academic-publishing racket in the first place. After all, it’s the publishers and journal archives who benefit, not us—especially since the vast majority of people earning PhDs these days are not going to find full-time jobs in academia in which such publications count for tenure and promotion. There will always be room for a medievalist or two at elite colleges, but for the rest of us, it’s not even a zero-sum game. The academy doesn’t appreciate us—but the SCA does.
Therefore: I urge my fellow PhD-havers to change their minds about popular medievalism. Write for sites such as this one and the Public Medievalist. Remember that peer review is not owned by academic presses and journals and that you can share your academic work publicly on the Web (I do). Go to a few Renaissance faires and SCA events and do some outreach. Offer to teach some classes. And realize that whenever you give a paper at a conference… there are probably a few SCAdians in the audience.
Ken Mondschein is a history professor at UMass-Mt. Ida College, Anna Maria College, and Goodwin College, as well as a fencing master and jouster. .
Top Image: SCA event from 2012 – Photo by Craig Hatfield / Flickr