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Blogging Kalamazoo 2021: Session 140 - "Can These Bones Come to Life?" I: The Society for Creative Anarchronism [sic], a Problematic Medievalism? (A Panel Discussion)

Tuesday, May 11, 2021 - 13:21

There is usually a “Can these bones come to life” panel with papers on hands-on or experimental historical culture. While the participants are often drawn from an SCA-adjacent population, the topic is not usually SCA-specific. I come to this session having no idea what the general topic or take is going to be. But as someone who has spent a lot of my life in the SCA, it’s hard to look away. (I’m also being distracted by participating in a parallel chat about the panel in an entirely different channel.)

"Can These Bones Come to Life?" I: The Society for Creative Anarchronism [sic], a Problematic Medievalism? (A Panel Discussion)

[Note: the typo in the title was not included in the splash slide provided by the presenter, so it wasn't an intentional joke.]

We start off with a discussion of the different ways in which academic historians and historic re-enactors reconstruct the past, and the different ways their gaps affect understanding. At the same time, there is significant overlap, both for good and ill. Academia has been shifting to embracing a more embodied understanding of historic artifacts and activities. Both academia and amateur historical activities have been grappling with the legacy of white supremacy. The embodied medievalism of re-enactment groups is a source of enthusiasm and dedication, for those who bridge the gap to academia and for those who feel shut out of that realm.

The first speaker focused on how re-enactment provided that connection of enthusiasm to draw her into an academic career. The second speaker introduces examples of the problematic middle ground among researchers of material culture between museum professionals on the one hand, who may have negative impressions of re-enactors based on past encounters, and re-enactors on the other hand who may be interested in the utility of end products more than the research, and who may give the impression of not respecting traditional scholarship.

The third speaker (with no direct SCA experience) looks at the angle of how to utilize re-enactor-based knowledge and enthusiasm in the classroom, while distinguishing the boundaries between history and fantasy. Yet fantasy doesn’t negate a love of history; how many medieval scholars were drawn to the field through Tolkien, after all? An emotional connection with one’s subject can be a key driver of engagement, but what if they emotional connections are to problematic elements such as religious conflict (crusades), sexisim (chivalry), or racism (the myth of “western civilization”).

The fourth speaker started off interested in history, but failed to find support for those interests in the local face of re-enactment culture. In trying to construct a personal alternative for providing immersive historical education, they encountered regular overlap between the resources for material culture and problematic political elements. We now get an extended promotion of a particular “Viking” related group that hit the spot. (He acknowledges it will come across as a promotion.)

The discussion now shifts to some of the social dynamics around diversity and inclusion, the general socio-political attitude of the SCA as a whole. The presider suggests that while the expectation of the panel had been to look at problematic issues within the structure of the SCA itself, it’s ended up being more about integrating the resources of the SCA and the academy. As the panel opens up to audience discussion, we’re getting more nuance and more discussion of the variety of experiences within the organization. We’re getting the background on the infamous “swastika trim” episode, which was a relatively recent flashpoint for SCA discussions around the intersection of modern political symbolism and the elements of history that have been mined for that modern political symbolism. Basically, can “but it’s historically accurate” be a defense for something that has extremely negative modern socio-political implications? How much does the immediate contemporary context affect the reception of problematic historic elements? There’s also the issue that some of the problematic understandings of history that are present in amateur medievalism are fed to them from the academy. This is exacerbated by the gap between the academy and the amateurs, whereby the amateurs are not given the tools to critically interrogate their sources and resources, leading to swallowing the problems with the actual facts. The elimination of “gatekeepers” cuts both ways, in that open access to the provision and consumption of historic information puts a greater burden on the individual to have critical filters—a burden that most people don’t have the resources for.

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