SCA Personas for Fun and Profit

by Baroness Jehanne de Huguenin

One of the things which distinguishes the SCA from any other form of historical research Ė well, yes, other than the funny clothes, smelly plastic armour and weird system of titles Ė is this notion of the persona. Not content with their boring 21st-century identities, most SCA members have this strange dual-name thing going; in the Society, they have a rather different identity to those that they have in the mundane world. This is about far more than the titles which the SCA may permit us to attach to our names; what it is, in fact, is quite a cunning ploy which allows the average SCA member to reduce to manageable levels the notion of historical research.

The scope of the SCA is, frankly, enormous. We cheerfully admit that our purpose is "research and re-creation in the field of pre-17th-century Western culture" (SCA By-Laws III). This opens to us not only all the civilisations of Western Europe prior to 1600 A.D., but, by extension and custom, all those non-Western cultures which had some kind of contact with Western Europe in our period Ė Japan being a popular case in point. Further custom suggests that there is an unofficial cut-off date at around 600 A.D., so that prehistoric and ancient civilisations are, de facto, excluded. (Although one still finds the odd die-hard classical Roman protesting that the societyís rules donít forbid such a persona, it should be remembered that in the SCA custom is often more, rather than less, binding than law). However, the overall field encompassed by that definition is still terrifyingly vast.

Thus, what your average SCAdian is doing in choosing a persona, is quite simply to provide a focus for the huge diversity of times and cultures covered by the SCAís rubric. This is a process quite separate from more focused areas of interest; someone who is particularly interested in, for example, medieval cookery, or dance, or armour, will be very likely to have a broad, cross-cultural and -chronological interest in that particular art. In terms of more general knowledge, however, there is no way that one individual, unless theyíre particularly hyperactive, hyperintelligent and possessed of unlimited free time, can achieve expertise in every time and culture in Europe in that period. Developing a persona sets you a manageable goal, sacrificing breadth for detail in a smaller sphere; it is not too difficult at all to achieve a working knowledge of the broad political and cultural trends of a fifty-year period in one place. And, as a bonus, the process itself can be fascinating, enlightening and amazingly enriching to the good olí SCA event-attending experience, besides allowing you to reel off historical facts like a pro, to the amazement and admiration of all beholders.

Picking Personas in the Park

So, definitions and philosophical justification aside, how do you set out to get a persona? There are various different ways of choosing.
  • You can choose a general time and place in which you have always been interested, anyway. Lots of SCAdians seem to have this wild yen for Vikings, donít ask me why, and develop Viking personas because, letís face it, the Vikings are just so cool. Sister Mairi Jean, a maddened atheist in real life, is fascinated by the power structures of the medieval church, and has a nun persona. Such an interest is a good place to start, and the research and discovery are often very rewarding.

  • You can pick up on one particular aspect of a time or place which really appeals you Ė a particular figure (Leonardo da Vinci, Charlemagne)(1), an author or literary work (Shakespeare), a particular event in history (the Great Fire of London, one of the Crusades). A common point of choice is clothing: if you are going to dress like your persona (which most SCAdians do try to do, at least some of the time), you may like to simply pick a clothing style you like, and take it from there. Frankly, I do 14th century mainly because of two things: (a) I donít have to wear a veil, and (b) Chaucer. There are a number of Saxon, Frankish and Viking personas charging around out there solely and simply because they can get away with good olí T-tunics and still be perfectly authentic. On the other hand, I bet lots of Burgundian ladies are indulging a yen for the princess-style costume and the fancy-schmancy ice-cream-cone hats.

  • You can choose a persona which reflects and compliments one of your major SCA activities. A late Renaissance gentleman because you do rapier combat or Renaissance dance; a Viking because you do tablet-weaving; a Crusader because youíre a stick-jock and proud of it. And more power to you, say I.

  • You could choose a persona because someone you know has a similar one, and might be able to help you with research. Or because you want to be from the same time and place as your significant other, or your household, or someone you particularly admire. These are also valid reasons, and as far as Iím concerned, thereís no such thing as a boring part of medieval history, anyway: any time or place can be filled with a quiet interest. And if you come to the belated realisation that you canít stand the Ďorrible people of your chosen place and time, thereís nothing to stop you from abandoning ship, auctioning your garb and choosing another.

Persona Construction: Hard Hat Area

Having decided, in general terms, what aspects of the persona are most important to you, there are several basic things which you should probably know about your persona.

  • Where do you come from and when were you born? Where do you live now?

  • What is your station in life? Nobility, artisan, merchant, soldier? Married, unmarried? (remember that this had huge implications for women in medieval times). Rich, poor?

  • Who rules your country at this time Ė what kings or queens have you seen come and go in your lifetime? Are you at peace, or at war with anyone? If so, who and why? Where do your own political sensibilities lie?

  • Approximately what would you wear, on a day-to-day basis? For feast days? What approximate look and cut of clothing is appropriate?

  • What is your name? And donít be mislead by the apparent simplicity of this. Naming conventions in our period had well-defined rules and trends, and you really should call yourself something that a person of your place and time would have called themselves. Thatís what heralds are for. Talk to one before you decide what you want to be called, thereís nothing more annoying than persuading a whole Shire to use your new persona name, only to have the herald gently inform you that Klingon is not period.

  • Details can be filled in to the above at your leisure, as your persona develops. What might you eat at meals? What music or dances might you know? What games might you play? What books might you read? What Court scandals may you enjoy recounting? What fighting style and armour style is appropriate for you? How do you write letters, address people, swear? The list is endless; none of these are essential or obligatory, but each contributes to your overall sense of a particular person in a particular time and place in history.

The Mongoose Motto: Go And Find Out.

Itís all very well for me to say that you need to know the above basic facts, 1-5; how on earth do you learn them? The answer, of course, is research. Now, this may sound like boring school-work to those of you who havenít, like I have, chosen it as a career because we want to (and, possibly, because we want our heads readÖ). However, the only real way that you can find out about anything is through researching it; you can, if you like, keep this to a minimum, but this is a historical re-enactment society, and sooner or later youíll run into something that your fellow SCAdians canít (or wonít, in the case of sneaky research-promoting Laurels) tell you, and youíll simply have to go and look it up yourself.

Books, in fact, are your friend. Your local library is your friend, particularly the university library. Your local long-term SCAdians are probably a fair equivalent for the local libraryís history section themselves, and are usually only too happy to help neophytes browse their shelves. Second-hand bookshops are also your friend, and incidentally allow you to build up SCA street-cred by developing a library of your own, so that you, too, may one day assist wondering neophytes in the Great Circle of Life. (Cue giant rock and baby lion here).

The Internet is also very much your friend, although itís the equivalent of one of those slightly dodgy friends whoís desperately willing to help but who may at any moment arrive drunk, start loud, aggressive arguments, leave their junk around your house, and, in extreme cases, tell you consistent and bare-faced lies of particularly Baroque inventiveness. The Internet is an amazing resource, but you need to be careful what sources you use; itís often a good starting point but one which needs to be backed up by actual research in real books, i.e. examples of research which people have been paid to do properly and over which a modicum of quality control has been exerted. Using pages with .edu as part of their URL is a good hint; so is using pages written by SCA members who call themselves Master or Mistress.

You donít need to start big. What will probably help:

  • A simple and generalised historical overview of your period: whoís in power in your country, what major events shape the time. School textbooks can be quite useful here, or university internet pages. The starting info about the kings who ruled during my personaís lifetime, I got from the historical contextualisation given by one of my costume resources. Shhh, donít tell anyone.

  • A general costume book, with nice pictures (preferably reproductions of period sources) showing the kind of clothes you should really be wearing. More detailed resources may tell you more about how to actually set about making them (or persuading someone to make them for you)(2). The Internet is a good resource for construction ideas, since many SCAdians have pages which describe costume-making in detail.

  • A book or page which deals with the particular area in which you see your character living, in period. Maps are fun and useful. Trade details are useful. Thereís no point in inventing yourself as a spinner and weaver if the town you want to live in is devoted to duck-raising and the fruit industry.

  • Something that has examples of how people actually spoke in your period: a contemporary play, a collection of letters, something like that. This is a good source for exclamations, strange oaths, idioms and other things you can have fun introducing into your conversation at events. NB: if you have a persona whose language is something other than English, look for translations. Unless youíre a trained stunt linguist.

  • A herald. I mean this seriously. The books and sources which reliably describe authentic medieval naming practices are specialised and often difficult to find. We have an excellent herald right here in our shire, and his personal collection of name resources generates its very own efficient L-space in which we frequently lose the household cats. He will be deeply moved and happy if you descend on him with a request along the lines of "I want a name for approximately this time and place." You would be horrified at how many people try the approach of "this is the name I want, and I want it to be authentic for this time and place." Spot the logical flaw?
    Oh, and as a bonus, your friendly neighbourhood herald can also advise you about your very own coat of arms, and may be able to give you hints as to what kind of design is most appropriate for your time and place.

Anachronisms Are Us; or, No Other King But Ours

There is, of course, a bit of a logical double-bind in choosing a persona; itís in some ways peculiarly futile to decide that youíre a follower of William the Conqueror when, in fact, you live in the Shire of Adamastor, not England, and your King, whether you like it or not, is Good King John (3). The system of SCA groups-as-geographical-entities and our-very-own-royalty does not easily co-exist with authentic personas. Generally, one deals with this by a fun process of illogical rationalisation. The one trick is to assume that your 14th-century French lady has moved to Adamastor, a strange and distant land, where she is living happily as a subject of Good King John in company with an unlikely mix of travellers from all over. (This means that you can cheat, and substitute the doings of SCA royalty for persona rulers in your conversation. See note 4, below). The other trick is to assume that your 14th-century French lady is, for the purposes of any one event, temporarily visiting this hall/encampment/tournament, in a land where Good King John rules over an unlikely mix of subjects from all over. In reality, most SCAdians seem to cheerfully subscribe to a sort of doublethink where they are both at the same time, without noticable conflict.

Oh, and the problem with temporal incompatability? You know, the bit where your late Renaissance gentleman is sharing a bottle of wine with two Vikings and a Crusader? This particular weirdness of the SCA setting is, fortunately, resolvable in the light of modern physics. Since time and space are simply aspects of the same thing, then they are the same thing. Long ago is far away. So is the future. And, fortunately, the geographical knowledge of your average medievaloid is usually severely limited. Your Crusader will politely pass the bottle to these strangely-dressed denizens from unknown lands which are evidently far from the realms he knows, and will perhaps comment gracefully on the difference between their customs or garb. In the words of the immortal Pratchett, itís all because of quantum.

Tricks of the Trade: Sneaky Short-Cuts

The purpose of madly educating you under the guise of "fun" is only half of whatís going on when you create a persona. The other half is, of course, making yourself look cool at events, not only in your garb, but in your carelessly-tossed-off comments which establish you as (a) deeply knowledgable and well-researched, and (b) capable of staying in persona all evening. There are some simple and occasionally rather misleading things you can do to create and sustain this illusion. (Warning: if you do all of the below, repeatedly, you may be pursued by a lynch mob composed of infuriated Shire members who have been made to look inadequate. The vital thing to remember is that in such an event itís not my fault. I just wrote the damned article.)
  • Choose your garb to match, as exactly as possible, a particular drawing, painting or illumination from your period of interest, and then send a file of the picture to the shire chronicler as Storm Tidings art so that the whole Shire has that weird, haunting feeling that youíre a medieval illumination come to life.
  • Insist on being addressed in persona all the time when at an event, and refuse to notice if people accidentally call you by your mundane name. Look up additional forms of address which people should use to you, and which you can use on other people. (Hint: even an authentic Elizabethan roistabout very rarely gets away with calling women "wench" in the SCA context, at least not without injury. Also, beware of conflicting with a term which is a part of the SCAís own rigid (and rather inauthentic) structure of titles, which, by gum, youíd better have earned before you use it or Large Men With Sticks are going to want to know why). An example: in much of our period in England, nobles would address each other as "cousin." In the SCA, weíre all nobility. Use it!
  • Parasite unashamedly on the better-informed. In order to work out what kind of recipes and dishes are appropriate for your persona, itís not necessary to read umpteen cookbooks. You just need to ply me with chocolate, and Iíll not only tell you at possibly unnecessary length, but will probably provide recipe recommendations and copies with modernised versions. Insist on only bringing dishes from that cookbook to potlucks, and people will think youíre a demon for authenticity, rather than assuming you have a limited cooking knowledge. And, with sufficient application of chocolate, your secret dies with meÖ The same applies to garb (try Ameline), armour and fighting styles (Berthold or Guntram), dances (Katherine). Remember, chocolate may not be period, but bribery certainly is!
  • Develop a quick checklist of the Top Ten Facts about your period (a good one would include the ruler, the war, the state of the Church, a contemporary author, a contemporary cookbook writer or specific dish, the major fashion debate (long or short tunics? Veils or hats?), three contemporary oaths or exclamations, a recent scientific discovery, a libellous fact about your countryís major enemy and one major piece of scurrilous gossip about your rulerís sex life [4].) Write it on a card and hide it up your sleeve for easy reference. Or, if you must, embroider it on your tunic cuffs.
  • Identify another Shire member from a country or religion in conflict with your own. Make rude comments about them, insult them, get into philosophical arguments with them, or refuse to sit near them at feast because of their insanitary national habits. Do all of the above with freezing dignity and unfailing courtesy, to demonstrate the superior manners of your own culture.
  • Develop your persona in tandem with a friend. This not only halves the amount of research you have to do, but two of you from the same time and place can discuss the same in-persona topics, mutter about the King, argue about politics and compare bits of garb for relative fashion adherence. And, folks, remember: more than one Viking is officially a horde!
  • By spending a reasonable amount of time researching, actually become reasonably knowledgable and well-researched. Itís a deeply under-rated activity, and itís very gratifying to reach the stage where neophyte persona-designers are asking you for advice. And plying you with chocolate.

Remember, above all, that a persona is always a work in progress, and never needs to be more than you want it to be. It functions equally well as an excuse to do more research, and an excuse to do less research. It can be as simple or complex as you like. Like the SCA as a whole, it should be fun!


Endnotes

1. Although you need to remember the simple Donít of SCA persona-creation, which is that you cannot choose to be a particular individual who actually lived in period. You could choose to be her lady-in-waiting, or housekeeper, or a member of her court, but you couldnít choose to be Queen Elizabeth I. Likewise, you cannot choose a persona which implies you have rank or title which the SCA hasnít given you. Weíre picky that way. Sorry. You can be Lord or Lady only when you have an AoA, Sir only if youíve been an honourable and dedicated stick-jock for years and the Crown chooses to elevate you to the Chivalry, and Queen or King only if you go through the whole irritating process of learning to fight, getting really good at it, entering Crown Tourney with a consort, fighting your way through the assembled might of the Kingdom to victory, and ruling the Kingdom for six months. And, if you want to be a Duke or Duchess, you have to do the whole thing at least twice. A tip from the wise: itís easier to be a commoner.

2. The SCA is a barter economy. The best thing you can do for yourself in this society is to acquire a saleable skill you enjoy, as soon as possible, so you can construct objects of great beauty and utility and use them to trade favours with people

3. At least for the next few months.

4. NB: just to clarify: your personaís rulerís sex life. Under no circumstances does Storm Tidings recommend discussion of your SCA rulerís sex life, in persona or out. Remember, at least your personaís ruler canít get to hear about it. SCA royalty canít actually cut off your head, but they can probably make you wish they had.


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