Anachan's Corner

One woman's journey through marriage, motherhood, and the classroom…

One of My Past Lives

Written By: Anachan - Jul• 26•16

In a past life, I was an Elizabethan-era Scottish lady. Sort of.

For years, my husband and I played with the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). Members like to say that the SCA is all about re-creating the Middle Ages “as they should have been.” (There is no gender bias, for instance.) The period recreated runs roughly from the early Middle Ages to about 1650, all over the world. (I think people decided on 1650 because it’s just too much fun to see people dressed up in Cavalier garb, wielding rapiers.)

The SCA is like a role-playing game in that it can take up as much time as you are willing to let it, but it need not take up as much time as some other people are willing to devote to it. Participants are supposed to choose a “persona,” a period-appropriate name and time/place to recreate, so it can be easy to actually fall into a role. (This can really be a good thing, especially as it pertains to some people with whom you would never really want to associate with in “mundane” life, but who are perfectly courtly and courteous in persona.) One is expected to bow to the “nobility” (people in leadership positions who get to wear crowns) and behave appropriately at “court” (meetings where business is conducted and awards are given), and one can hear a lot of dialogue which sounds as if it came from “Camelot” or other chivalric-related movies.

Some people approach participation in the SCA more as an academic exercise than a game, focusing on the historical research and learning which are required to one extent or other to be able to participate successfully. For instance, it is more or less mandatory to understand that zippers in clothing are out, as nobody had zippers before 1650. On the other hand, it’s not required of participants to hand-sew their own clothing or spin their own thread, although some will take the time to learn these skills. Some people will take the time, however, to research historical texts or pictures of extant clothing displayed in museums, in order to see exactly how the stitches were done, or in order to ensure their color choices are appropriate for the time period and area of the world they are attempting to recreate.

Activities available within the SCA vary widely. Those who feel the need for physical combat can don armor and attempt to beat other participants with duct-tape-wrapped rattan “blades.” (I say “attempt,” because that guy who is twenty years your senior may be able to rap you on the derrier with amazing speed, before you’ve even noticed his arm was moving.) Another form of combat comes with the afore-mentioned rapiers, although the rapiers used in the SCA have been blunted, to allow fewer armor requirements. And then there is the archery . . . and there are equestrian events.

Activities other than combat are also readily available, under the heading “Arts and Sciences.” Do you like to sew or want to learn? There are ample opportunities to do both, including competitions in which you can display your created items, with documentation on its historical authenticity. Dancing? You can do that, both European and Middle Eastern. (One of our friends even researches and organizes period formation “horse dances,” or “carousels.”) How about cooking? Recipes are still available from times gone by, and if you are willing to do a little interpretation, you can manage a fair imitation of a Medieval feast. (Whether or not you can get someone to eat it is another matter, as representated by an SCA bard–out of costume–in the video below.)

Which brings me to another activity . . . the Bardic. Bardic competitions are for those inclined toward the language arts and music. Participants in such competitions usually create their own poetry or songs, either in styles appopriate to the period or about participation in the SCA, itself. It was because I hoped to one day have the courage to participate in a bardic competition that I started writing in the sonnet form and discovered I actually loved it. (I never did muster up that courage.)

My husband spent most of his time in the SCA fighting in armor or with rapiers. In our later years, when the equestrian events were introduced, he helped pioneer the games in our “kingdom,” the geographical unit of the SCA in which we lived. Much of his armor he made himself, even though he did not have a forge. Rules in the SCA were such that the armor had to look reasonably period at a distance, but if your armor was covered in fabric, it could be made from plastic barrels, if you really wanted. (*ahem* . . . Yes, he had some.) He also enjoyed learning some leatherworking and making some of his armor from thick leather, which was also permissible and period-appropriate. His efforts in teaching others the arts of combat were rewarded by many awards from different persons of “nobility”, as well as an “Award of Arms,” which granted him the title “Lord.”

Period costuming is more readily available for purchase now, with the Internet bringing manufacturers to customers, but when we started, it wasn’t the case. We couldn’t buy Renassaince garb in Wal-Mart, so I dusted off my poor sewing skills and awkwardly began stitching things together for my family. My skill in sewing improved dramatically from the time I made that first very horrible T-tunic to the Elizabethan gown I produced for myself. I learned to sew some things without printed patterns, such as harem pants, chemises, and basic capes. I learned how to alter commercial patterns to make them more “period,” and I learned how to take a pattern off another garment and either recreate it or, sometimes, resize it for my children. It wasn’t always fun; the week before a big event was usually a sewing marathon, with me grumbling at my sewing machine and wishing desperately that the blasted outfit would just finish itself. (Part of my problem was perfectionism. I was fortunate to have a friend who taught me to lighten up a bit. “If it passes inspection at 20 feet, it’s good enough. Someone who comes closer to examine your clothing’s authenticity is too close.” She’s also the one who taught me that no sewing project is complete until you’ve bled on it, preferably on the seam allowance.)

Afghan nomad dress

A dress in the style of the nomads in Afghanistan, including embroidery. (Just because we primarily recreated a certain location didn’t mean we had to be exclusive in our garb; we could have fun wearing whatever we felt like.) Unfortunately, there are no extant pieces from this area during this time period, that I know of, so in the Society, we fall back on the “if it’s traditional, and if the clothing is pieced largely from geometrical shapes, it is unlikely to have changed much” rule.

When I decided I wanted to do something a little more unique, I started studying period embroidery and learning to do bobbin lace. Bobbin lace is actually very late period, and is kind of pushing the boundaries, but everyone loved it. When my brother-in-law and his wife became “king and queen” of our local “kingdom,” a title held for six months by the winner of the Crown Tournament, we knew they would need small items to hand out as largesse. So I spent many days weaving bookmarks of bobbin lace, which prompted them to award me my “Award of Arms,” granting the title “Lady.” (They figured it was about time I got the title, anyway, as I’d been in the SCA for much longer than most people who earned the title.)

AoA edited 1

Award of Arms “scroll.” You can see my SCA name is Anne Elisabeth Ross. (“Anne Elisabeth” is a period-appropriate form of the components of my 20th century name.)

I enjoyed learning about period clothing, and I still enjoy bobbin lace (when I can find the time); but, honestly, I spent most of my time at SCA events chasing my children, who were all born during the time in which we participated in the SCA. An activity did not always have children’s activities, and if there were not, the kids had to be more or less entertained the entire time, preferably with “period” activities or books about the historical period. I had to ensure they didn’t go running around the tournament fields or getting in the way of archery. And, without any way of corralling very active toddlers and young children, I had to keep sharp mental tabs on their locations, even when we were at a reasonable distance from any dangerous activities. One thing I did, after seeing other parents do something similar, was to pin a ribbon of bells to their clothing, so I could hear them as they moved about. I’m reasonably certain that Medieval parents didn’t keep such close tabs on their children, even those parents who didn’t have servants to watch them: They just had too much to do to ensure the family’s survival. But in the modern era, I would be severely castigated if my kids managed to slip off in the middle of a 2000-person Medieval encampment and get lost, and so I was always on edge.


I am in my Elizabethan dress, and my daughters are in . . . pseudo-Elizabethan dresses. I took a child’s dress pattern and made some modifications to give them split skirts and slashed sleeves, and to have them lace up in the back, instead of using zippers. Everyone thought they were adorable.

As my older girls grew, not only did they need less supervision, there were some things they could do, as well. The “water bearers” at tournaments would accept their help to carry around trays of orange slices or pickle spears to offer to those who were watching or to participants not engaged in combat. There were children’s combat events, done with very padded weaponry and minimal armor, in which they could participate. And there were times in which they could participate in a procession. They had some fun and developed some fond memories.

By the time we moved to a location where it was very inconvenient for us to participate in the SCA, as the nearest group was two hours away, my eldest daughter was ten and my youngest was two. While we missed the association with all the interesting people and the sense of having something to do on a regular basis, it was almost a relief for me not to have to keep sewing historical garb for a growing family, as we had plenty to do in our new house, deep in the country, and I was homeschooling my girls.

We still pull out that historical garb sometimes, especially now that my daughters can wear some of my clothing, either for Halloween or when I want to illustrate something in my English classes. We still examine movies for accuracy in historical clothing. We still talk about our “adventures” within the society, such as the year in which Gulf War was so rained out that I spent a good deal of my time with all the girls and our friends’ kids, as well, under a cover, trying to keep them occupied, while my husband and our friends worked desperately to make sure their horses were cared for in several inches of mud and standing water. Every so often, a daughter and I will pull out our silk veils and practice the belly dance moves we learned, just for the fun of it. And we still enjoy some of the songs of the bards.

But it is definitely part of a “past life” for us now. We have other things to keep us occupied.

As a footnote, just for the giggles, here are some of the SCA bard songs we have enjoyed.

This song is about the Battle of Hastings, one of a few songs I know of about historical battles. I enjoy these kinds of songs because I learn history much better with songs or stories. (Facts, ptooey!) Every so often, I can figure out a trivia question because of something I learned in a bardic song.

This next song is a fictionalized account of a true story. The lady spoken of in this song was someone we knew well in our first SCA unit, so we learned the real story. I’ll just say that, yes, she did manage to intimidate some muggers by superiority of arms. The video and audio of this clip are mismatched, so close your eyes if it bugs you. (By the way, “Knight” within the SCA is a status only granted after a lot of work and a certain amount of politicking. My husband didn’t like the latter aspect, so he never really aspired to the status.)

This is a song about the bard’s experience with fighting in the SCA. She has since released a faster version of the song, but I prefer the original one for its thoughtful quality.

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