Medieval Hard Times: The Society for Creative Anachronism finds things aren’t what they used to be

2009 coronation of the King of the Midrealm in Rockefeller Chapel (courtesy of Phil Reed/Flickr)


Perhaps you’ve seen them before, out on the Midway Plaisance on a crisp autumn afternoon with coolers open and medieval banners flying. And perhaps you’ve been wondering who these men and women clad head-to-toe in armor and medieval crests might be. They are proud members of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), which began in 1966 in Berkeley, California, when a group of friends decided to hold a medieval tournament. The idea caught on, and the society has since expanded to include nineteen “kingdoms” spanning the entire globe. But the society does not confine itself to tournaments and battling. Many participants dance, sing, sew, and cook, all in a medieval fashion.

Participants in the SCA go by medieval or Renaissance names and often create alternate personas. Many members find inspiration for these medieval identities in their own heritage. For example, Nicole Ridgwell, whom I met at last Saturday’s medieval sewing circle at the University of Chicago, used her surname to help develop her own twelfth-century identity. “Ridgwell” is the town in England where Nicole’s ancestors lived. She followed the trail of her ancestors to the Regenstein Library’s copy of the Domesday Book (a record of the census William the Conqueror made immediately following his conquest of England in 1066) and took the name “Alwynn” from the list of Ridgwell’s inhabitants. Keeping with the aforementioned time period, Ridgwell chooses patterns for her sewing circle that correspond to early twelfth-century English fashion, but she also has a collection of costumes in the styles of different periods. Her flexibility on historical detail is characteristic of many SCA participants, but is by no means the rule. “I think it’s more fun if it’s looser, but there are the period Nazis,” Ridgwell explains. These “period Nazis” insist on the utmost historical accuracy in all details, from dress and etiquette to fighting style. Their intense enthusiasm occasionally manifests itself in less than pleasant ways, as when a cook who was a little too eager to adhere to medieval methods of food preparation allowed mutton to go rancid before serving it up from a bubbling cauldron to hundreds of SCA members. Widespread bowel pain constituted that night’s party favor.

At the University of Chicago, however, too much zeal hasn’t been the SCA’s problem. “It’s fun, but it’s frustrating,” Ridgwell says, glancing around the empty room. It seems that fewer and fewer UofC students–who were the driving force behind Chicago’s SCA in the ’70s–are willing to participate in the SCA’s on-campus activities, and it has been an uphill battle trying to spread the word. And I must admit, I was at first a little let down when I arrived at the one-woman sewing circle. There was none of the fanfare–the crimson gowns, gold leaf, and bright embroidery–I had anticipated; no looms, no animated conversation, no archaic accents.

This decline in student interest could have more serious consequences for the larger Grey Gargoyle Shire, which encompasses the South Side, and even the Chicago-wide Barony of Ayreton. Participants unaffiliated with the UofC, some of whom travel weekly from the northwest suburbs, frequently depend on student participants to maintain access to the various venues and facilities the SCA community uses for their activities. Students were instrumental in securing Rockefeller Chapel for the most recent king’s coronation, an all-out affair attended by almost 600 SCA members dressed head-to-toe in medieval and Renaissance garb. Without the University contingent, the SCA would be forced to relinquish the facilities they put to daily use, including Ida Noyes storage space and rooms for battle practice.

While there are those who take the society perhaps a bit too seriously, the SCA accommodates varying levels of commitment. Like Ridgwell, Alex Carter, president of the University’s SCA chapter, likes to keep the SCA as a side activity. “I really enjoy the flexibility,” he says. “Learn a dance here and there, make a costume, have some food. It’s what you want it to be.” The SCA’s appeal is not so much the complete transformation of life into a 24/7 Renaissance fair, but rather the opportunity it provides to “relax, explore, and escape a lot of stress.”

6 comments for “Medieval Hard Times: The Society for Creative Anachronism finds things aren’t what they used to be

  1. March 16, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    And here I was hoping that the complete falicy that they ever served rotten meat at feasts was finally going away…

    “These “period Nazis” insist on the utmost historical accuracy in all details, from dress and etiquette to fighting style. Their intense enthusiasm occasionally manifests itself in less than pleasant ways, as when a cook who was a little too eager to adhere to medieval methods of food preparation allowed mutton to go rancid before serving it up from a bubbling cauldron to hundreds of SCA members. Widespread bowel pain constituted that night’s party favor. ”

    Not. Helping. They never did this. Rotten meat makes people sick, they were intelligent enough to know this, and know how to preserve meat, or know enough to keep the animal alive until the meat was needed.

    Spices were by far more expensive than meat, and would not have been used in excess to cover up the flavor of tainted meat. There were laws in place that punished people for even selling day old pies, much less rotten foodstuffs.

  2. Laura Minnick
    March 16, 2010 at 2:42 pm

    Was said:

    “Their intense enthusiasm occasionally manifests itself in less than pleasant ways, as when a cook who was a little too eager to adhere to medieval methods of food preparation allowed mutton to go rancid before serving it up from a bubbling cauldron to hundreds of SCA members. Widespread bowel pain constituted that night’s party favor.”

    Besides my rancor at the term “Period Nazis”, which will make hackles rise in many if not most SCA circles, I have to take exception to this remark about period cooking and SCA cooking in particular.

    We have no evidence that rotten meat was served for meals in the Middle Ages. Quite the contrary in fact, as there are instructions in many of the cookbooks from the period (and yes, there are many extant cookbooks) about care and preservation of meats to keep this from happening! Also, why would we imagine that people then would not be sickened by rotten meat? Why would they eat it then?

    There are many, many accomplished cooks in the SCA (including many in the Middle Kingdom) who work exclusively from period cookbooks, and turn out wonderful meals where no one gets sick. Why your correspondent would choose to report on what was surely one bad incident from one ignorant cook when there are surely hundreds of examples of excellent cookery is beyond me. My only explanation is that the writer wanted to reinforce their own conceptions of the time period, facts be damned.

  3. Einhart C.
    March 16, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    The bit about “rancid meat stew” is urban legend. The Medievals were very familiar with preserving meat, and a person passionately interested in history would have cured the mutton by salting and smoking it, not by boiling it rancid. Yick.

  4. Philip Troy
    March 16, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    The reference to “period Nazis” is utter nonsense. It is an unfortunate reality of life that human nature prompts some people to attempt to aggressively sway others on how they should live their lives, what they should believe, politically, religiously, in their support for a sports franchise, or anything else. In this case, it is a strong belief that there is only one correct way to play a game. What should be remembered is that such people are simply rude and overbearing, and there is exactly the same percentage of such people in the SCA as there is outside of the SCA — if not fewer.

  5. De Givens
    March 16, 2010 at 9:52 pm

    When and where did this alledged rancid mutton incident happen.
    If this really did happen it probably was someone who was not experienced or knowledgable of medieval or Renaissance cuisine. Or perhaps this happened yeeeeaaars ago and keeps being told over and over and over again.
    The eating of rancid meat in the middle ages and renaissance is a myth. The use of abundant spices to cover the taste of rancid meat is a myth.

    De Givens

  6. March 17, 2010 at 8:26 am

    “as when a cook who was a little too eager to adhere to medieval methods of food preparation allowed mutton to go rancid before serving it up from a bubbling cauldron to hundreds of SCA members.”

    This sort of bad and unsafe cooking by a modern cook has nothing to do with medieval or historic cooking practices. Even the smallest effort at research shows the common belief that medieval people ate rotten food to be a complete myth.

    The case above was not one of a cook striving for historical accuracy, but the act of someone who likely has no clue about either medieval cooking or modern food safety.

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