Toward a (More) Period Encampment

This article was conceived as a handout for a class of the same name for the Collegium Occidentalis, a teaching event for the SCA's West Kingdom. I'm putting it on the web site because it articulates my concept of a vital part of the historical re-enactment game. As always, your comments are appreciated.

The SCA is, in a nutshell, a theater.

In this theater, we wear costumes and play parts. Most of us aren't perfect actors, or make perfectly accurate costumes, but we all realize how important these activities are to the success of an event.

There's another vital element in nearly every theatric endeavor, and that is building the set, and finding the right props for the drama. This attention to the backdrop behind all our SCA activities is just as important as the costumes; it is, in fact, the costume our environment wears. That's why a lot of us make banners and buy those big tents, and use candles instead of Coleman lanterns, and make or buy medieval-style furniture instead of using metal folding camp chairs.

Of course, not everybody does this. And hardly anybody starts out in the SCA this way. It can be a big drain of time, money, and effort, and some people quite rightly feel that there are other aspects of the SCA (or life itself) on which these precious resources can be better spent.

At some point, though, most people want to improve their "kit" in some way. Some buy big pavilions because they want to camp within eyeshot of the tourney field, where pavilions are often required. Others become interested in how our ancestors cooked over fire, or made furniture or jewelry or pottery or whatever, and find that the best way to learn about it is to try their hand at it. Some have had the fortune of visiting a camp where people have worked hard to make every artifact as close to period as they could, and discovered for themselves how these camps can become time machines, transporting us from the twenty-first century to the Middle Ages. For many of us, our first exposure to the "time machine" effect was at a feast, where most of the setting had been arranged beforehand. We realized that there was real magic to be had there, once we had banned the modern artifacts from our sight.

Like nearly everything else in the SCA, there are degrees to which authenticity be taken. For some folks, it's not a big priority. They don't mind sleeping in a dome tent and cooking on a propane stove set up outside, and they happily set up camp where it won't be seen from the main tourney ground. For others, it's a vital component of the SCA and without it, events would not be worth going to. Everybody else is somewhere in between. At the very least, we should all realize that we're bound to intrude on somebody else's "theater set" from time to time and we should look the part, drinking from a mug instead of a beer bottle and leaving the phone in your pouch or back at camp.

Among those who view their campsites as part of the theater set, there is a rule of thumb that some find useful. It's called the "ten-foot rule" (or, for those in more progressive countries, the "three-meter rule"). Simply stated, the rule is: If it looks authentically medieval from a distance of ten feet or more, it passes the test and can be used in the encampment. Many people would expand that rule to say that if it doesn't look glaringly modern from ten feet away, it belongs in the encampment. There's a subtle difference here. For example, a tent made of a modern canvas like Sunforger wouldn't look like a tent made of a period-weave cloth, even at a distance of ten feet, so it might not pass the test in its stricter formulation, but as long as it doesn't call attention to itself for the average SCA participant, it would easily pass the broader test.

I must stress that this is a continuum, not a set of gradations. Thankfully, there is nobody walking around your tent with a checklist, adding points for hemp ropes and subtracting them for metal grommets and wire-spike tent stakes. We are continually making compromises because of constraints of money, weight, set-up time, and availability of materials. (More on that later.)

This article is about how to get around some of these constraints, and how to best use your resources to create a period camp. There are four basic strategies: Hide, Disguise, Periodize and Compromise.

Hiding (or: "Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain")

The cheapest and easiest way toward a period encampment is simply to hide the offending articles. This can be done, in the case of ice chests and chairs and such, by simply throwing a piece of cloth over it. Tablecloths can usually be had at thrift stores for a dollar or two. They may have a minor defect, like a stain or a small hole, which doesn't detract from its function.

Obviously, this technique doesn't work very well for larger things like tents, but even these things can be hidden from view using a fabric wall made of old bed sheets. Many people have started their encampment by making or buying a simple sunshade, for which they improvise a back wall using curtains, bed sheets, or fabric drop cloths from the hardware store. The back wall conceals all the modern stuff behind it.

Once you buy or make a period tent, it's easier to hide the stuff out of the weather; you simply put it inside the tent and keep the door closed. That's pretty much how I got started. Everything inside the tent was modern, but nobody could see it. As I replaced the components, bit by bit, I could leave the door open a little wider to expose the nice period bed and the wooden boxes that replaced the plastic totes. I still like to set up a propane stove on an aluminum table in my tent, but it all goes on one side of the tent. When I want things to look pretty, that side is curtained off.

Disguising (or: "That's an Ice Chest?")

Sometimes the modern article can be disguised as a period artifact. For example, an ice chest can be built (or enclosed) inside a six-board chest. This practice is usually the next step for those who like modern conveniences but want to make their campsites more period looking. For purists, it's also the first step down the road to Hell; they rightly point out that if you're constructing a modern but "period-looking" artifact to fill a need in your encampment, why not devote a little more time and effort into constructing a truly "period" artifact to do the job, or redesign your camping style to eliminate the need? Duke Cariadoc of the Bow, for instance, doesn't like the idea of ice chests but, instead of hiding one or making one that looks like a period-looking chest or a box chair, he simply foregoes the use of ice altogether (and solves another problem, that of having to wait in line for half an hour at Pennsic and get it back to camp).

I sometimes take that road myself, but most of us have become used to refrigeration as a matter of taste (cold beverages), safety (keeping meat and milk from spoiling) or necessity (keeping medications cold). For them, it makes sense to keep the ice chest in their gear, but they delight in making them look like period artifacts. Similarly, I've seen people put cold-drink dispensers inside barrels (with suitably modified spigots) and electric lights into lantern shells. You might make or buy a cover for your cell phone that looked just like a wax tablet. There is no end to the ingenuity that folks have applied to the problem, and it's become a distinct subset of the SCA camping experience.

Periodizing (or: "Out with the New, In with the Old")

For me, "periodizing" means gradually replacing the modern stuff with their period equivalents. I've already mentioned the practice of gradually phasing out your plastic totes with period boxes, either bought or built. In the same way, when the metal cot you've been using finally bites the dust, you can replace it with a period bed. Or maybe it's finally time to replace the director's chair with the Glastonbury chair you've been lusting after for the last three years. The point to remember here is that for most people, this replacement process is very gradual, and usually driven by need. As items get worn out or broken, you replace them; depending on your finances and your schedule, you can replace them with identical modern pieces or with period pieces that serve the same function.

At some of the period encampments I've participated in, my fellow campers take pride in showing me something new that they've made or acquired. With each acquisition, they take one more step toward the encampment they envision for themselves,

Compromising (or: "Well, that's good enough for now.")

When it comes down to it, we all are forced to make compromises in the stuff we have. Otherwise, we'd be furnishing our camps with actual pieces of medieval furniture (stolen, no doubt, from museums). At its core, the very style of camping we do is a compromise between absolute authenticity and the SCA style of re-creation. We can't forage for fuel on site, or cut down trees for building materials. We gladly eschew the pleasures of the medieval field toilets in favor of modern chemical toilets. We probably use a lot more soap and toothpaste than our predecessors ever did. So every one of us, even the purist, accepts compromise as part of the game.

Take lighting, for example. In period, people used primarily rush lights (which seldom burned cleanly), oil lamps (which were fueled with vegetable oils and rendered animal fats rather than kerosene), or candles (which required constant trimming because the self-trimming wick was still in the future). Most of us would rather use kerosene-based lamp oils and modern self-trimming candles instead, and these would not be out of place in most of the period encampments I've encountered.

Another compromise I've made is placing a modern fire extinguisher in a conspicuous place, near my firepit. Yes, it looks modern, but in this case, that's a virtue, not a vice. If I had disguised it or hidden it, a person looking for it might not readily see it, and lose precious seconds that could have made a difference between a promptly doused fire and an incinerated tent. I am willing to accept the compromise in the interests of safety.

And I've made other compromises, too. My sunshade is constantly used for meetings, and people who attend them might have brought their own chairs and drinking vessels; not a few of these are the modern articles, which one would not normally find in my camp. But I make an exception here .... authenticity is all well and good, but hospitality is the greater virtue. I would rather have an encampment where all who are invited feel welcomed, rather than an historically accurate diorama where nobody feels comfortable.

Opportunities for "Period" Camping

The West Kingdom doesn't offer many structured environments for period camping, such as dedicated areas at tourneys or wars. The only requirement codified into kingdom law is that all tents visible from the eric must be of a period design. In keeping with the spirit of this requirement, you are encouraged to go beyond the minimum garb requirement If youre camping or socializing a lot on the eric, so as not to ruin the effect.

Other than that, it's pretty much up to the households themselves to determine how "period" they want their campsites to appear. Nobody expects you to show up at your first event with a completely authentic campsite, but the people you're camping with will appreciate any efforts you make to keep the modern stuff hidden.

At some of the major inter-kingdom events like the Pennsic War, you may find special areas set up for those who want to camp in a period manner. As you'd expect in an SCA environment, these range from those who merely wish to present an historically correct appearance to those who wish to do everything -- cooking, fire lighting, acting in "persona" -- as authentically as possible. The standards are set, again, by individual households and are applied only to the area in which that household is camping. The Estrella War used to have a period encampment which was unique in having a period encampment that was not based on households, but was free for anyone to participate in. Sadly, that encampment no longer exists, but I hope to see a similar encampment at future Wars.

If you've been visiting at bardic circles, you're already aware that these circles vary widely in their musical or dramatic tastes. Some strive for period-sounding material only, some will tolerate filk, and some accept anything. It's the responsibility of the performer to find out what the house rules are and abide by them. The situation is really not that different at period encampments.

These rules aren’t always straightforward. For example, I was offered a drink at Duke Cariadoc’s "Enchanted Ground" where people are expected not only to present a period appearance but to stay in persona. In that spirit, I accepted the offer but apologized for the glass mug I happened to be carrying at the time. I was outside the encampment's boundary and Duke Cariadoc was inside it. His Grace stepped over the boundary rope and, as he filled the mug, he gently instructed me that it would have been better if I had not called attention to the mug’s nature at all, and instead simply presented it as a mug whose nature Cariadoc could choose not to notice. That’s one of the rules of the game he plays, and I abide by it when I’m at his camp.

And I must add that there were no hard feelings; rather than take offense that I didn’t play the game properly, he was delighted that I was playing at all. This attitude is typical of those in period encampments, so it’s a mistake to think that you shouldn’t attempt to play the game because you might misunderstand the rules. Remember, everybody was new to the SCA at one time, even the people at the First Tourney in 1966. If we were all too shy to try something new, the SCA would have never come into existence at all!

Some may find these requirements stifling, but I would encourage you to at least visit their encampments and try to play their game. If you like it, you can spend more time in it or even arrange to camp there in the future; if not, at least you’ll have seen some variants of the SCA experience that you might not otherwise have experienced, and you’ll have gained an appreciation of what the SCA means to other people.

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