Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Serious Look at the Hobby

Medieval Fantasy as Performance; The Society for Creative Anachronism and the Current Middle Ages by Michael A. Cramer
February 2010 from The Scarecrow Press
$39.95

As long as I've been engaged in hobbies or areas of historical interest, it has been my habit to at once seek out books and magazines (for a hobby where such things are available) to get acquainted with the culture and rules of the community I was joining, or considering joining. It seems like an obvious thing to do, but I long ago became aware that not everyone considers that step worthwhile. In the Society for Creative Anachronism, there used to be a strong tendency for the rules and customs of the hobby to be conveyed informally, through person to person contact. Possibly this has changed to some degree with the advent of the Internet, of course.

When I joined in 1982, I was, as far as I could tell, unusual in immediately seeking out every possible pamphlet and document about the SCA and the Middle Kingdom. There was a fair amount available, including the Folump Press publication A Brief History of the Middle Kingdom, (which was invaluable.) And yet often over the years, I was surprised at the short institutional memory of the organization. Even brief and accessible documents appeared invisible to many colleagues. This could be a particular problem during local political disputes, as members were quite capable of dismissing any suggestion of how things were done if these rules conflicted with more convenient assumptions cherry-picked from officer handbooks. (The publication of the excellent but regrettably flexible Seneschal's Handbook for the MidRealm in the mid 1990s was actually a catastrophe for my local branch... the locals all selected the lines from the book they preferred that affected the dispute at hand, and ignored lines that gave different perspectives. When there was no solution for this, the branch suffered a completely unnecessary migration of many of the members to an attempt at a rival branch that was impossible for them to organize as they had envisioned according to the real rules of the SCA... which they had never absorbed.)

In 1982, I would have been overjoyed to have had access to something like Medieval Fantasy as Performance. The book is not a guide to the SCA, or a history of it, I hasten to add. Cramer, a longtime prominent member in the West Kingdom, is also a theatre professional and approaches his topic from the perspective of how members perform the recreation of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. He is clear in his description of how the organization depicts the historical period as it pleases rather than as it was.

The utility of the book for me is Cramer's careful and knowledgeable look under the hood, explaining the motivations and interpersonal mechanisms behind the SCA's culture. He explains the origins of the organization, and describes how it gradually evolved the forms of performance it follows today, including court ceremonial, tournament combat and especially what he terms the Summer King and Winter King games. This is quite a lot of fun; I particularly enjoyed his placing the SCA's activities in a larger scholarly context.

I would unreservedly recommend the book. Both new members curious about the organization and old timers who care to reflect on it would enjoy and appreciate it.

1 comment:

MAC said...

Thanks for the kind words-- Valgard