Medieval Monday: SCA 50 Year

Back in June, my husband and I went to a week-long event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the SCA. I’ve been meaning to get the pictures off the camera for months, and I’ve finally done it. So enjoy!

Camp

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Our tent is a 14′ x 14′ center-pole canvas marquee with a 7′ x 14′ porch from Panther Primitives. Normally we put the walls up pretty early in the set up process, but it was pretty hot, so we left the walls off while we worked to get some air.

The first thing that goes down is our tarps. We have one dedicated floor tarp that’s pretty heavy, but when we’re camping out for a week, I’ll take the cheap tarp that we use to cover the back of the truck and put that under the heavier tarp. We have twice had water run under our (cheap) tarp and seep up through the middle of the floor and it was pretty miserable because there was no way to dry out the inside of the tent and few places where you could stand to get dressed without getting your feet wet. That was what prompted us to quit being cheap and buy a heavier-duty tarp. But I’m still paranoid, so if I have a spare tarp, I’ll double-up. (Especially as they were calling for heavy weather in the middle of the week.)

On top of the tarp go our rugs. Because of course you have to have wall-to-wall carpeting. Those are thrift store, flea market, and yard sale fines. If we see a good deal on a rug, we’ll buy it because if we don’t need it now, we will in the future. The rugs can take being wet if we hang them up when we get home, but we have had problems in the past with mice in our barn and a few of the rugs are rough around the edges where they have built nests in them.

My husband made our bed. It’s full size. The headboard and footboard are exactly alike, so it doesn’t matter which you use. There are two identical side rails that fit through slots on the headboard and footboard and pin into place. There are narrow rails on the inside of the side rails and we put wooden slats on top of these. Then the mattress (a real mattress, not an air mattress!) goes on top of the slats.

The bed is tall enough that a standard-sized plastic tote can fit under it and be hidden by the bedskirt. We pack most of our clothes, housewares, and foot in plastic totes and some of those things live in the totes under the bed. The nice thing about the plastic totes is that they are relatively waterproof. This is an important consideration when they’re in the back of a truck, but it’s can be just as important inside the tent. This past Gulf Wars, we had what is now known “affectionately” as “Gulfnado.” Some people claim to have seen rotation above part of the campground. But others say that there were only two supercells that combined and hit us. Regardless of whether it was a tornado trying to form on top of us or only straight-line winds, everyone is in agreement that winds were coming in gusts of up to 60 mph and hit in opposite directions. Tents and sunshades went down all over the site and many people’s things got wet. After we lost our big communal tent (where everyone in camp was just sitting down to dinner), I rode out the rest of the storm in this marquee. (It and our wall tent were the only ones in our camp to survive unscathed and dry.) While I was in there, I hurriedly packed as much of our stuff as possible into the plastic totes to keep it dry in case we lost the tent.

A lot of times I will cover our cooler with a spare blanket just so it’s not so obvious (and we’ll know where the blanket is if it suddenly turns cold; the weather is vary variable in Mississippi in March). I could probably make some sort of curtain to cover up the shelves of food, but I haven’t bothered yet. We’re the only ones in our tent, so we look for a balance between a medieval feel and convenience. (We also have to balance how much crap we (read: I) have to pack and set-up).

I bought the shelves from my Laurel; she and her sister designed them. They’re cotton strapping that’s been sewed into loops and they have grommets at the top that allow them to slip over the pin on our interior poles. There are a couple of small straps on both of them that you use to tie them to the poles. Then you slip the boards into the straps and level them. They self-level pretty well and they move with the poles. Despite those 60 mph winds, I don’t think anything fell off our shelves.

My husband blacksmithed the clothes rack. The metal brackets screw into the poles (although we’ve talked about him redesigning them so that they have holes in the top that allow them to slip over the pins like our shelves do) and we put a pole across it. There’s also a board that sits on top, but isn’t self-leveling and it’s so close to the top that the wind can snap the top and knock stuff off of it. So we only put hats on top; they won’t be hurt if they fall off.

We also have some blacksmithed hooks that hang off our pole pins; they’re scattered around the tent. We use them for hanging up wet towels, a mirror, umbrellas–whatever we need.

Normally the table (which is under the porch in this set up) is in one corner of the tent and I used it as a dressing table. I keep a mirror and my hairbox on it. When we go to Gulf Wars, we have a huge communal tent that we use as a kitchen and dining room for all the people in our camp. But at this event, we were on our own, which meant we had to do our own cooking. So the dressing table became a washing up and prep table and my husband’s bedside table became a propane stove table.

We also normally don’t use our porch (it’s so much nicer to sit in the big tent and be social). In fact, this was only the second time we’ve set it up. It needs some modification because it’s just too low to stand under. We need to add a center pole to lift it up and give ourselves some more headroom. But it was so hot at that event, it was nice to have it to sit under while we ate dinner; it was cooler than trying to sit inside or having to sit in the sun.

Around Site

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I didn’t get any pictures of the rest of the camping area, but my husband snapped a few pictures of the main thoroughfare on his camera. (This being Indiana, everything was very flat, so it’s not like there was a place to go to take a picture that would give you some sense of the scale of the event.)

The Great Machine

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The greatest display at the event was the Great Machine. It is meant to be a scaled-down model of a medieval blacksmith shop that runs on water power. (There’s a great episode in Connections 1 that covers medieval water-powered machines.) Of course a moving exhibit can’t run on water power, so the owner has modified the design to run on dog power. (In a medieval shop, the wheel would have been on the outside of the building, just like a mill. But the principal and mechanics are all the same.)

The dogs turn the big wheel and it spins a wheel in a gear assembly. But it’s not until a foot pedal or hand lever is used that the gear assembly fully engages and the power of the wheel is transferred to either the hammer or the bellows. (This means the big wheel can spin continuously–as it would if it was water powered–but the equipment isn’t constantly in motion.)

The hammer is on a somewhat egg-shaped gear that has a notch cut in it. As the gear turns, it causes the hammer to rise until it hits the notch and it drops. There are some bowed pieces of wood above the hammer–like a car’s leaf springs turned upside down–that work like a spring. The hammer is pulled up against them, then when the notch drops it, they force it down even harder.

Sutton Hoo Burial

Another great display was the Sutton Hoo burial.

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Duke Talymar has spent years (and God only knows how much money) replicating the grave goods from the Sutton Hoo burial. He has made some of the items himself, some (like the pots and buckets) he was able to pick up at flea markets, antique stores, and online auctions. A lot of the stuff he has commissioned artists in the SCA to make for him.

The attention to detail is fabulous. He really has a museum-quality display. Everything that he’s had made is either exactly the same scale of the surviving pieces or it’s within millimeters of being the same size. He just happens to be about the same size as the king for whom all this stuff was made, so he is able to wear all of it.

I studied the Sutton Hoo burial in 8th grade, but either I’ve forgotten most of what I learned, or it wasn’t this detailed. The original red and blue rug hanging up on the wall was imported from very far away, and many of the other grave goods came from far away, both attesting to the wealth of the man who owned them and the trade routes that existed at the time. Trade obviously didn’t stop just because the Roman Empire had ceased to exist.

In a few cases, Duke Talymar had to cut corners. The jeweled pieces in his display are red enamel whereas the original pieces contained rubies. But where he could, he used gold or silver that was electroplated with gold.

He had a mannequin in his display, but it’s not known if there was ever an actual body in the burial. It may be that the body was cremated near the grave.

Block Printing and Stenciling Class

There were two classes at the event that I didn’t get to take (they were full), but I was able to get pictures from them. One was how to use stencils to paint designs on clothing and the other was how to do block printing. (Block printing is period; stencils do a perfectly fine job of replicating block printing, but are a bit easier to do.) The instructor had a lot of her own examples on display.

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Many people in the class were using stencils they bought (I noticed just the other day that Hobby Lobby had some medieval-looking ones), but the instructor also showed people how to make their own stencils using plastic sheets, like you use on an overhead projector. (I believe you can also get stencil plastic, which would be a bit sturdier and last longer.)

For the wood block printing, a few people brought their own (I got one at the Nashville flea market, but you can find them online at places like eBay; they still do a lot of block printing of textiles in India), but most people made their own. They just cut their desired shapes from thin craft foam and glued it onto a scrap of 2×4. Boom, instant “rubber” stamp.

In both cases they painted with undiluted latex house paint. The teacher absolutely swore by it; she said it never came out. Some of her dresses on display were more than a decade old, had been worn and machine-washed many times, and had not been retouched. Of course, the drawback to that is if you make a mistake, you probably aren’t going to be able to get it out, so make sure you have some paint on hand that matches the color of your fabric; you may have to paint over a mistake.

50 Year Display

There was a display in one of the big halls that showed the evolution of the SCA. Each kingdom had a booth in which they displayed the history and best artistic achievements of their kingdom. If you proceeded around the hall counter-clockwise, you moved through the kingdoms as they formed, with the oldest first and the newest last. There was also a large embroidery done Bayeux Tapestry style that documented some of the more notable events in the history of the SCA. And there was a display showing the evolution of armor. Several booths had recorded music from their best musicians, video interviews with residents or people recounting the formation of their kingdom, or archival footage of old events and fighter practices.

There was no way to get a picture of everything, but I managed to get pictures of the most impressive displays.

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Cooking Demo

My husband got to hang out with some of the folks doing open-fire cooking and they swapped info and compared equipment.

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I am going to try to make it a point to take more pictures when we go to events to document what we do. The SCA is not public, like a Renaissance Faire; we do not perform for other people or for money. Even other non-profit historical reenactment organizations tend to be a bit more public than us–after all, it’s kind of hard to hide a few thousand Civil War reenactors shooting at one another. We’re a bit more in the shadows, despite being a very large organization. And a lot of people are dismissive of what we do as “playing dress up.” But a lot of good research on the middle ages has either been done by reenactors or has been driven by reenactors.

For example, what we know about armor has grown by leaps and bounds because reenactors put on replica armor and started to use it as it was intended. That was when it was discovered that museums had put straps in the wrong place or pieces were upside down. (Surviving medieval armor tends to be found sans the leather and canvas that held it together–it’s just a pile of metal pieces–so it can be hard to figure out what went where.) Also, reenactors snap up any sort of research on the middle ages; there are people who have gotten their PhD’s published simply because there’s an actual market for their research on 14th century clothing in English or wooden boxes of the Norsemen or whatever other obscure thing you can think of. You wouldn’t believe the ecstasy everyone was in over the finding of 15th century underwear a few years ago. People were on it with high power cameras and rulers like ducks on June bugs. Then everyone ran off and started to experiment with fit and then started to publish material.

So I will try to share more pictures in the future to raise awareness (if you will) about what reenactors do. I can talk from personal experience about the SCA and, to a much lesser extent, Rev War/18th century reenacting, but there historical reenactors from all different eras. You can reenact the WWII Invasion of Europe, or attend a Jane Austin-themed Regency ball. The two things everyone has in common is 1) we love history and 2) we want to be a part of it.

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