Issue #16 (December 1982)
A cynical Yankee in King Arthur's Court
I had given up on the Middle Ages years ago, when it became obvious that it was too late for me to do anything about it. It was with mixed feelings, therefore, that I accepted a whispered invitation from a lady of my acquaintance to attend a get-together of the Society for Creative Anachronism.
In case you don't know what the SCA is all about, let me tell you that it reproduces, at its tourneys, the pageantry of medieval life, with costume, sport, spectacle, titles, and funny names. Every member has a medievalizing name and is expected to behave in a feudal manor, er, manner.
Want a liberal education? Parse and memorize Virgil's Georgics.
[quoteright]The SCA likes to think of itself as something new, but the idea of people donning extravagent costume, taking novel names and titles, swatting each other over the head with swords, and generally pretending to be living 500 years in the past is an old one. The first recorded instance of Arthurian pageant is from the year 1223, and it took place on Cyprus. For the next 300 years, folks all over Europe played at Knights of the Round Table, giving the leeches a landoffice business in smashed noses and dislocated thumbs -- not to mention an occasional fatality.*
The Order of the Garter was founded by Edward III as an Arthurian men's club; the Emperor Maximilian I spent so much of his energy trying to revive the Arthurian way of life - which had never existed in the first place -- that he sorely neglected his administrative duties. He is remembered as a lousy Emperor. There were skeptics, even then; 400 years ago, Cervantes lampooned the Arthurian romance of Amadis de Gaula in his Don Quixote.
The SCA is well-named. I was struck particularly by the sight of people in elaborate medieval costume lounging around in chairs made out of aluminum tubing, swilling Coorses out of styrofoam coolers. Also striking was the absence of lepers, peasants, monks, nuns, village idiots, and other medieval spear-carriers. I tried to correct what seemed like an imbalance in the Chiefs-to-Indians ratio by piecing together a costume out of odds and ends found on the floor of my closet and telling everybody that I was a Tartar - I figured that even the most learned scholars of period costume wouldn't be able to catch me out. But given the probability that there will be other SCA gatherings in the future and the absolute certainty that I will slavishly comply with milady's weirdest whim, I racked my brain for a suitable costume for the next occasion.
Finally, in desperation, I consulted with the maven of her pavilion. What I suggested was that considering the absence or at least gross under-representation of clergy (I am an ordained minister), I would come next time dressed as The Pope. His rejoinder was that this would probably strike some people as rather presumptuous, since even the reigning King would have the kiss the slippers of an arrant newcomer -- besides which, he hinted broadly, there is no room for Catholicism in the New Middle Ages.
There are historians who, post-Marx, see feudalism not as a quaint set of customs, but as a social response to an enormous economic depression brought on by the collapse of Roman economic institutions. This revisionist (anti-Gibbon) school of thought was founded earlier in this century by Henri Pirenne, and I think Pirenne was right. I would like to propose another sort of anachronistic society, one in which people live medievally in their everyday lives, disregarding such outer trappings as costume and titles, and concentrating instead on life-style and intellectual attitudes. For those who are interested in participating, here is a first assignment:
1. Call up your landlord, if you rent, or your bank, if you have a mortgage. Suggest that they accept, in lieu of your monthly check, 30 days' military service every year, harvest-time excluded.
2. Take a basket of vegetables to the service station and try to trade them for gasoline.
3. The Millennium is only 18 years off. Cash out everything you own and donate it to a monastery so that when Jesus sits in judgment on you, there will be mitigating circumstances.
4. Sell your TV, hi-fi, and tape deck. Instead, try entertaining your friends and family by reading aloud to them for 2-3 hours an evening cut of a romance written in thousands of rhyming couplets.
5. Whatever you find in writing is true. Especially this. But if it was written by a Greek, a Saracen, a Catharist, or any other kind of heretic, you don't read it in the first place.
6. Want a liberal education? Parse and memorize Virgil's Georgics.
7. You have been assigned your station in life by Fortune. If your lot improves or worsens, it is her doing. There is nothing you can do to cause the former or prevent the latter.
8. Go to mass and confession regularly. If there is no confessional convenient to you, you may confess to me by mail (fee neg.)
9. Men, think of women as alluring when seen from the front but as a rotting, festering mass of corruption when seen from behind. Women, you are prohibited from thinking about men in this fashion.
10. If you can afford it, carry an amethyst on your person to ward off drunkenness. A sapphire, too, to prevent unnatural errections of the flesh.
More things come to mind, but that will do for starters. For my part, I will confine my medievalizing to the service of Love. A late medieval Arthurizer named Ulrich von Lichtenstein reports in his Service To Women that in order to prove his constancy to his ladylove, he submitted to a painful operation to correct his harelip, whacked off his left index finger with his sword, and meekly endured her dousing him with the contents of her chamberpot while he was climbing up the ivy to her castle window. I am not prepared to go quite that far, but I am willing to put on funny clothes and attend SCA meetings. When she blows in my ear that way, I'll follow her anywhere.
* See Roger Sherman Iomis, "Arthurian Influence on Sport and Spectacle," in his Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, Oxford 1959
Once again Gareth Penn dips into his rich storehouse of total recall and has given us this article. He has promised us something on whale-watching in Baja California in a future issue.
Gareth Penn is probably best known as the greatest amateur Zodiac sleuth after his many articles in The Ecphorizer that lead to the identity of Zodiac. However, Penn is much more than that as he has a keen inquisitive mind that finds an interesting story in just about anything from a memorial to a little-known soldier in a park in Vallejo, CA, to his notes about animals, to plumbing the depths of the limerick. Penn's prolific pen is evident in that he has made a contribution to every issue of The Ecphorizer up through Issue #33 (and counting!).