Authenticity, Status and SCA Culture
I recently put a post on one of the SCA Facebook groups asking whether "authenticity police," people who go up to a stranger to upbraid her for the supposed lack of authenticity of her garb, were mythical. I asked because, although stories of such incidents are common in the Society, neither I, my wife, nor my daughter have ever seen one—and the three of us have been in the Society for a combined span of about a century. Reading the long thread that post spawned, I reached the following conclusions:
1. They are not mythical—such incidents sometimes occur.
2. I am not the only long time SCA participant who has never observed one.
3. Often the attack is bogus—the critic’s claim about what is or is not authentic is false.
4. A lot of people enjoy hearing and telling such stories, making them more common than the frequency of such incidents would explain.
All of which, I think, fits an unfortunate pattern.
The only required authenticity for an SCA event is some attempt at pre-17th century garb, a very low standard. But events frequently have contests in which entries are judged in part on how historically authentic they are, and the Order of the Laurel, a high status rank in the Society, is awarded primarily for researching, demonstrating, and teaching period arts. The result is to associate the knowledge and practice of historical authenticity with status, which I think explains my four points.
The aggressor in an authenticity police story is simultaneously putting down his victim and pretending to expert knowledge. If he actually had that knowledge he would not need to claim status in that way; if he had it for reasons of interest rather than status he would not want to. He chooses vulnerable targets, avoiding individuals who appear experienced and self confident and circles in which historical authenticity is taken seriously, which helps explain why some of us have never observed such an incident.
The SCA contains a minority of people who find it fun and interesting to try to figure out how things were done in our period and do them—make armor, cook from medieval recipes, compose music and poetry in period styles. It contains a larger number whose interest in authenticity is an attempt to do things the way they believe they are supposed to do them, a reflection of perceived social pressure. Which brings me to my point 4.
Suppose I am an active and productive participant who does not happen to have any interest in researching historical arts or using more of such research than necessary. I would like to defend my status against the feeling that I am failing at an important part of what the SCA is about. One way to do so is to convince myself that people who act interested in such things are only doing it as an excuse to put other people down or to gain rank. Repeating and elaborating authenticity police stories is one way of doing so. I can tell myself that people who are doing what I half feel I ought to be doing only do it to curry favor or as an excuse to push other people around—and I would not want to be a person like that.
Another consequence of a culture that views the study and practice of authentic arts as primarily a status game is that to encourage people to pretend to an interest they do not have in the hope of being rewarded with status. Having gotten it in the form of a peerage, they are likely to reduce or terminate activities that have now served their purpose.
How might one reduce the problem? One way is to replace contests with displays and classes. Arts contests treat period arts as a competitive game, encouraging the idea that historical authenticity only matters for contests. That point struck me long ago reading an SCA publication on a particular art that devoted a couple of pages to what was or was not period—preceded by the comment that this information would be needed by those entering contests, with the clear implication that it would otherwise not matter. And arts contests make little sense except as a competitive game. How, in principle, does one decide whether one entrant's sonnet is better or worse than another entrant's dress?