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SCA Computer culture

Poster: EoganOg@aol.com

Last spring the patrons of the Merry Rose graciously allowed me to use them as
a cross-cut of computer using SCAdians for an article I was working on for a
class dealing with the phenomenon of historical-minded computer techies.  I
finished the article some time ago, and suddenly realised that I had promised
to post the end results back to this list.  I realise I am a bit tardie, but
nevertheless. here is my article.  I hope those interested find it insightful.
I had many responses to my initial queries from teh East List as well, so if
some gentle who subscribes to that list could pass this on, I would be
A' the best,
Ld Eogan Og Mac Labruinn, CP
Forward into the Past
Matthew Allen Newsome

	The sun is shining bright over a courtyard filled with activity.  The air is
filled with the buzz of people talking, singing, shouting, and laughing.  The
local vendors try valiantly to hock their wares in competition with the
merchants who have traveled to this fair from further climes.  Minstrels from
various shires across the kingdom are exchanging songs and stories, while
people listen in to try and catch the latest news.  Weary knights and squires
wander in from the tourney field, glad to be shed of their heavy armor.  
	One woman is attempting to take refuge from the bustle in the shade of large
oak tree.  She sits upon a stool and busies herself by weaving trim on the
inkle loom she has brought with her.  A small crowd of young people eventually
gather around her, watching in awe as she skillfully manipulates the string
around the wooden frame in her lap.  One girl, in her teenage years, seems
especially fascinated, and stands behind the woman’s shoulder for a better
look.   The woman notices her interest and takes to explaining the process to
the girl.  This one stays to listen to her long after the others have grown
bored and wandered off. 
	Eventually the weaver must gather her tools and head home.  The young girl
asks where she may find more information on this craft, and the woman looks at
her with matronly eyes and says, “I know of a good web site that has
instructions for inkle weaving that you can print off, and even links to
places where you can mail order the equipment at a decent price.  Do you have
a pen?  I’ll give you the URL. . .”
	The scene you just witnessed takes place, in one form or another, at nearly
every event that is hosted by one of the world’s largest groups of historical
reenactors, the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA).  The SCA is a non-
profit, educational organization whose members are devoted to the study and
reenactment of the time period stretching between (roughly) 600 and 1600 AD on
the European and Asian continents.  The SCA is also a game that people
participate in because it is not only educational, but fun.  Participants in
the SCA adopt and use names that would better fit their medieval persona.
Clothes are researched and made.  The crafts and culture of the era are
studied.  Because of the wide period it covers, the SCA is less strict about
authenticity than most reenactment groups, but also draws a larger number of
participants interested in a broader range of historic arts and crafts.  And,
oddly enough, it also draws a lot of people who are very interested in
computer technology.
	I noticed this phenomenon when I first started to become involved in the SCA
some years ago.  Many members worked for places such as Microsoft or were
computer science majors in college.  It was hard to go to an SCA meeting
without hearing at least some passing reference to e-mail lists or web pages.
I found quickly that the easiest way for me to keep up with other local and
not-so-local SCA members was to join one of these e-mail lists, where I
received a number of messages on my computer each day from other members of
the SCA.
	In many ways, this dichotomy of the past and the future is a paradox.  Why
would a group that is primarily interested in recreating the arts, crafts, and
sciences of a past age contain such a large number of people also very
interested in computers?  I brought this question up on (what else?) an
electronic mailing list maintained for people who are part of the SCA Kingdom
of Atlantia (the Carolinas, Virginia, Maryland, and parts of Georgia).  This
mailing list is called “The Merry Rose,” and is maintained as if it were a pub
in London’s Cheapside district.  Gathered around a table at this virtual pub,
I discussed this paradox at length with the various patrons of the Merry Rose.
	One of the first people to come up to me and share a virtual pint of ale was
the good Lady Rhiannon Ui Niall.  She is a respected member of her kingdom,
and holds an important office--that of Triton Principal Herald, a position
somewhat equivalent to the real Lord Lyon in Great Britain.  She handles the
registration of heraldry by SCA participants in our kingdom--a job that she
admits is made much easier by computers.
	“Computers are a big part of my being Triton.  Quite literally, I could do
this job solely from my computer and never actually attend an event.  But I
also think interacting with people is important, too, so I doubt you’ll see me
staying home.”  She has even admitted to taking a lap-top computer to an
actual SCA event--a place where the present is supposed to be left behind and
the past (at least in appearance) embraced.  The computer was used to help
process people’s registration for their heraldry (each SCA member may design a
Coat of Arms if they wish, and register it to ensure its uniqueness).  “I
admit it detracts from the medieval atmosphere, but being able to catalog
submissions as they come in and have them automatically entered into a
tracking system certainly outweighs the alternative--losing them!”
	I asked her if she ever had anyone complain that computers should not, for
any circumstances, be used at SCA events, or at the least not in the open
where they may detract from the medieval atmosphere.  Her response was, “We
have done it several times and have only had one comment that I know of.  Most
people recognize the necessity of good administration of submissions and value
the computer’s benefits in that fashion.”
	Most participants in the SCA would not dream of having a computer on hand at
an event, however.  In a general survey of people who subscribe the the Merry
Rose mailing list, almost all answered “No” when asked if they had ever
brought a lap-top computer to an event.  Those who said yes usually replied,
“Yes, but it stayed in the trunk of the car all weekend, and was only there in
case work needed to contact me,” or something similar.  Most computer activity
within the SCA happens outside of formal SCA events, and in the homes of the
people who are involved.
	Gene Bonar works in the computer field during the week, but on the weekends
he is Eógan mac Ailpein, an eighth century Picto-Scot.  His wife, Beth (Lady
Elspeth Macalpin in the SCA), hardly ever uses their computer unless it is
somehow involved with the SCA.  “I think the biggest reason we got e-mail is
to use in the SCA,” she said.
	Would they ever bring a computer to an event?  “NO! NO! NO!” Eógan shouted at
me (in capitals because that is how you get loud on a computer screen).  “I
feel bad when I hide my beeper in my belt pouch.”  They rarely even talk about
computers while they are at an event.  “Mostly I will just exchange e-mail
addresses and URLs.  I don’t talk about computers much at all.  I am a
computer engineer and talk computers all day. . .  I consider myself a
historian.  My father was a historian.  I got into the SCA to frolic and have
fun, to study history, and to do ‘cool medieval stuff.’”
	Elspeth became involved in the SCA also because she has a love of history.
She especially loves the fiber arts of the period.  But when doing other
projects that she may be less competent in, computers have proved to be an
invaluable resource.  “I was once doing a project that had to do with gaming
and I chose to do something on dridals.  I had no idea how to play the game
with it, or the history that it had.  I found a great deal of information
(where to get one, how to play the game, its history, etc.) on-line.”
	And this is ultimately why a lot of SCA participants use their computers--for
research.  One SCA member who responded to my inquiries without signing a name
noted, “By research I mean looking at the thousands of medieval illuminations
that have been scanned onto various museums’ web sites.”  She also noted that
she uses a computerized embroidery machine to do the medieval style embroidery
on her clothing that she does not have the time to do by hand.  But her
primary use of computer technology is Internet research.  This is one benefit
of the computer age that cannot be denied.  Historians and history enthusiasts
now have access to thousands of paintings, drawings, texts, and artifacts that
they would have had to travel to numerous foreign countries to see in the
	Susan Rankin has been in the SCA for a year and a half now.  She has taken
the name Luta Vilhjalmsdottir, and her goal is “to be the best representation
of a Viking woman settled in Dublin in the tenth century as I possibly can.
The Internet has been instrumental in my research.  Museum sites. . . as well
was newsgroups and mailing lists make up a big chunk of my resources.”
	Iréne leNoir also uses computer technology to aid in her historical research,
but in a far broader scope than just the Internet.  “I use word processing
programs to write papers and documentation packages.  I use a database to
track my research.  I use computer card catalogs in libraries. . .  I use the
web to research various topics.  I also use e-mail to converse with people,
answering as many of their questions as I can and referring them to other
people or groups where appropriate.”
	The Internet is undeniably a good resource for reference material as far as
it goes, but the computer plays a much more integral part of the SCA than
that.  Group newsletters are composed and printed on computers.  Flyers for
events are printed on computers.  Databases of members are maintained,
research papers are written, and group reports are composed, all on computers.
Lady Elspeth comments ironically, “I’m not sure how you could recreate history
without one!”  This idea is not really as contrary as it might at first seem.
No body really wants to recreate the dirty, menial aspects of history.  No one
wants to be a serf or a slave.  Evan da Collaureo remarked that computers are
the SCA equivalent of the lower classes, doing the menial tasks.  “In the real
Middle Ages we’d have had base born folks to do them.”
	But one of the most fundamental aspect of computers in the daily life of most
SCA members lies in their communicative capabilities.  Whereas once, if an
announcement had to be made it required hundreds of letters to be printed out
and a 32 cent stamp to be affixed to each, now one only has to write one e-
mail message, post it to the appropriate list, and be done with it.  Of
course, problems do arise.  Barbara Collins echoed a lot of statements I have
heard when she said, “Some people assume everyone is connected to the Internet
and only announce things that way.  That’s a problem for people with no
	Barbara Collins is a QA Analyst with Wyeth Ayerst Laboratories.  She is also
Lady Anna Dimitriova Belokon, the Equestrian Marshal of the East Kingdom of
the SCA.  She became involved in the SCA in 1990 to help promote equestrian
activities in SCA reenactments.  As Equestrian Marshal, she is responsible now
for equestrian events in her region.  However, she found that this aspect of
the SCA was lacking in her area.  “People used to tell me it was impossible to
get [horse activities] going out here. . .  It wasn’t, but it took a lot of
blood, sweat, and swearing to get it to happen.”  She only got really involved
with the Internet to join mailing lists established for her local SCA groups,
as well as for SCA Equestrians.  These lists are part of “the lifeblood of my
virtual involvement in the SCA. . .  The Internet makes a lot of communication
of equestrians across the country possible.  As one of the activities. . .
with the biggest hazards, we really have to keep communication open to avoid
problems.  And it is cheaper than phone calls and letters.”
	Lady Anna’s case is typical of many--she only became involved with the
Internet in order to communicate within the SCA.  In fact, when I asked the
mailing list at large how much time they spent talking about computers at SCA
events, a response I received from Susan Arthur said, “It’s more like I spend
my computer time talking about the SCA!”  But many people actually got
involved in the SCA because of  computers.  I was surprised at the number of
people who sent me e-mail describing the first time they found the SCA.  
	The case with Scott Mann is typical.  He had heard of the SCA in Junior High,
but when he came to college (to study Computer Science, fittingly enough) he
found the SCA on-line.  “I found the phone number for the SCA Inc. office on
the SCA web page.  I called, got some information, then started calling
individuals.”  He was able to contact local people in his area because of the
information he had found on the World Wide Web.  Presently, he really does not
know what his role in the SCA will be.  He does not know where his interests
lie, and what niche he may find as a reenactor.  But he is using the Internet
to explore the many topics associated with historical living.  With this tool,
he can touch on many aspects of recreation with little expense, and then later
focus in on what he is interested in the most.
	Steve Schell’s SCA experience has been almost completely on his computer.  He
has been to two SCA events, but his wife does not like him participating.  “My
computer is my only means of staying in touch with the SCA.  My reasons for
wanting to be in the SCA stem from my interest in medieval life and chivalry.
. .  The role playing aspect has also intrigued me. . .  One day I hope to
experience more events in a non-virtual way.”
	Given that computers have such a high profile in most SCA members activities,
I thought I would pose the question of which you would sell first if you had
to quickly raise money--your computer, or your most valuable SCA equipment (be
it a musical instrument, a suit of armor, a loom, etc.)?  A lot of people
actually considered the monetary value and marketability of each.  Several
considered which was easier to replace. (It was interesting to note that just
as many people considered their SCA equipment irreplaceable as did not. Just
as often the response was, “I could always borrow another bow, loom, helmet,
what have you, from an SCA friend.”)  But most people who responded ultimately
said that they would not part with their computer because it was too entwined
in their everyday lives.  Lady Elspeth quipped, “I don’t think I would even
consider selling my computer.”  While Eógan replied, “I make my living with
computers.  Could I sell my wife?”
	Not all SCA participants are this attached to their magic machines, however.
One of the most highly respected men in the SCA Kingdom of Atlantia is Earl
Sir Dafydd ap Gwystl.  He has held various SCA offices, he has researched and
taught on more medieval topics than most can remember, has written articles
for publication,  maintains an extensive library, and is generally thought
upon as an authority within the SCA in the area.  I conducted the following
interview with him:
	Me:  What are your personal reasons for being in the SCA?
	Dafydd: The SCA is where my friends are.  I am interested in the Middle Ages.
	Me:  Does computer technology help you in this at all?
	Dafydd:  Nope.
	Me:  Do you have a web page?
	Dafydd:  Nope.
	Me:  Do you usually spend much time at events talking about computers?
	Dafydd:  No.
	Me:  Do you think it interferes with the events when people do?
	Dafydd:  Yes.
Dafydd is not saying, of course, that computers have no place in the SCA.  We
conducted this interview via e-mail.  “Computers,” he says, “draw from the
same population as the SCA:  bright kids who are a little socially inept, and
a little romantic and out of place in society.”
	Computers just need not always have such a visible role in most reenactors’
lives.  But everyone agrees that they provide a vital service in the general
running of SCA functions.  Timothy and Gabrielle Taylor are just beginning
their second reign as King and Queen of the East Kingdom.  The largest
responsibilities of SCA monarchs are to make sure that people who are doing
good work in the SCA are recognized for it with awards and praise, to make
sure the general running of activities is coordinated, and to maintain the
illusion of being “royalty” at the same time.  Her Royal Majesty Gabrielle
sent me the following letter when she found out I was researching this topic:

	. . .we are just starting our second reign as King and Queen.  Three years
ago when we 	did this, e-mail was sometimes used but not enough people had it
(or were comfortable 	with it) to make it worthwhile.  This reign it’s a whole
different story!  Our phone bill is 	a third of what it was last time.  We can
respond immediately to e-mail from the 	populace (letters of reccomendations,
invitations to events, questions, etc.) rather than 	having to take time
(which we don’t have) to write letters. . .  We can find out addresses 	and
names of [people] in local groups so we can write thank you notes after
events.  I 	could go on and on, but you get the idea.  I spend probably six
hours a day on the 	computer doing reign work; we get about 50 or 40 e-mails a
day related to the reign. . .  I 	don’t believe it has decreased our workload
whatsoever, but it has made it possible to do 	this job a whole lot better.

	While some express frustration at the fact that people do tend to discuss
computer related topics during actual SCA events, most recognize it as a
neccesary evil.  Lady Ælfwynn of Whitby’s response to such intrusions is
typical of most.  “If someone I am talking with begins [a computer]
discussion, I firmly, but politely, change the topic.  If I overhear it, I
move until I no longer can.”  But even she will exchange addresses for good
web sites and give out her e-mail address at events.  The computer is a tool,
and as scribe Genevieve d’Ereux said, “It would be silly not to use the best
available tools to prepare to play our game.”
	Donal Mac Ruiseart agrees.  “I see no anomaly in using the tools of the
present to learn about and appreciate the ways of the past. . .  There is an
old saying I believe comes from the Chinese:  ‘Keep the old but learn the
new.’  I don’t think any of us would want to return to the lifestyle of the
Middle Ages (well, there might be a few), but we recognize that the period has
things of value to teach us. . .  Those who learn the lessons history are less
likely to repeat them.  Those lessons are more accessible thanks to the ‘Net
and all it contains.”
	So it has come to be that the quintessential tool of the future has come to
hold a position of value among those who recreate the past.  Many people see
this as an inevitability.  Lady Anna points out that in the real world, most
SCA members “are stuck, in (or enjoy) high-tech jobs that never get our hands
dirty. . .  People with jobs that involve staring at a terminal and not being
connected to the real world need a hobby to get involved with something
physical.  I am a chemist, myself.  At [SCA] events, I want to play with
	Kevin Maxson has been heavily involved with computers on a professional level
for some time.  Even in the SCA, as Lord Kevin of Thornbury, his computer
activities are vital.  He maintains numerous SCA-realted web pages, and runs
the Merry Rose mailing list.  “Ninety percent of the professional knowledge I
posses has no color, no shape.  I can’t touch it.  In the SCA, everything is
real and there’s no art or science that I can’t put my hands on.”
	For these reasons, a large number of people in computer related fields seem
naturally drawn towards hobbies such as the SCA.  But, as Iréne leNoir
pointed out, the reverse is also true.  A lot of people in the SCA seem
naturally drawn towards computers.  “SCA members are not people who are timid
or scared of new things.  If they were, they never would have joined the SCA!
As a result, they are not the type to be computer-illiterate because of a fear
of technology.”
	This meeting of past and future is not really a paradox as it first may seem,
but instead a yin-yang, with one complementing the other.  The goal of the SCA
is to learn and teach about the past.  The computer makes those things all the
easier.  The SCA calls itself the “Current Middle Ages.”  It has never, as an
organization, stated that it is attempting to recreate the Middle Ages
completely.  No one wants to bring back the plague, the Inquisition, or
medieval hygiene practices.  Their goal is to bring back the best aspects of
the Middle Ages, using the best tools of the present.  The computer, it seems,
fits that role.
	The resources are now available like never before.  When someone comes home
from their first SCA event, they can sit down at their computer, and type in a
URL.  Within seconds, a page appears with a full diagram of an inkle loom, how
to set up the thread, and links to pages on the history of the loom, where to
purchase materials, reccomended books for study.  Our young friend we first
met at the fair will order a loom through the mail, and when she gets it, she
can find other people in her area through a mailing list who are also
interested in inkle weaving.  They will share which web sites they have found
to be helpful, and meet together regularly to help each other weave.  Within a
short time, the girl is bringing her loom with her to events, and sitting
peacefully under a shade tree, teaching others how to weave.  The tools of the
future have, for many, brought us closer to the past.

*    *    *    *    *

I would like to thank those who responded to my many questions on the Merry
Rose, and other SCA mailing lists.  The following people were kind enough to
provide the URLs for their own web pages.  Those interested may wish to browse
the wide variety of information made available by SCA embers on the World Wide
Iréne leNoir (Jessica Clark)

Genevieve d’Evreux
She also maintains a scriptorium page at

Lord Kevin of Thornbury (Kevin Maxson)
He maintains the official web page of the Kingdom of Atlantia

Rosalinde De Witte (Donna Kenton)

Lord Efenwealt Wystle (Scott Vaughan)
A minstrel, merchant, and mayhem-maker

Krys Smith (who maintains the SCA page for her local group)

My own web page. . .
for Matthew Allen Newsome
and for Lard Eogan Óg Mac Labruinn

For more information on the Society for Creative Anarchronism:

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