persona-art - 11/12/96
An article on persona by Duke Cariadoc.
This file is a collection of various messages having a common theme that I have collected from my reading of the various computer networks. Some messages date back to 1989, some may be as recent as yesterday.
This file is part of a collection of files called Stefan's Florilegium. These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org
I have done a limited amount of editing. Messages having to do with separate topics were sometimes split into different files and sometimes extraneous information was removed. For instance, the message IDs were removed to save space and remove clutter.
The comments made in these messages are not necessarily my viewpoints. I make no claims as to the accuracy of the information given by the individual authors.
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Mark S. Harris AKA: THLord Stefan li Rous
Stefan at florilegium.org
From: ddfr at quads.uchicago.edu (david director friedman)
Date: 9 Jun 91 16:29:59 GMT
Organization: University of Chicago
Ignorance is Bliss
One of the things I enjoy about SCA events is the opportunity to be
in persona--to act and speak as the medieval person I am pretending
to be. In discussing the subject with other members of the Society,
one problem that is often raised is the problem of consistency. How,
it is asked, can one function as a medieval person at an event? Time
travel is not a medieval idea, so how can a medieval person interact
with people from hundreds of years before and after his time? How can
I, as a North African from 1100 A.D., learn Italian dances from the
sixteenth century or cook from a fifteenth century English cookbook?
What is wrong with all of these questions is that they confuse what I
know with what my persona knows. I know that my wife's persona is
several hundred years later than mine. My persona knows only that his
lady wife is a foreigner. David knows that the gentleman in the
starched ruff is from the sixteenth century. Cariadoc knows, having
been told, that the gentleman is from a Frankish tribe called the
English. Cariadoc also knows that, like most other Franks, the
gentleman in question does not face towards Mecca to pray, does not
wear a turban, and does wear funny clothes. None of that is in any
way inconsistent with what Cariadoc knows of the world--foreigners
are like that.
Cariadoc comes from a culture far from the SCA mainstream, so it is
easy for him not to know the difference between a tenth century
Englishman and a sixteenth century Englishman. But while the average
SCA persona may not be quite as ignorant of other people's times and
places, he is still much closer, in that regard, to Cariadoc than to
David. Most medieval people did not know very much history or
geography, and much of what they did know was wrong. If you meet a
stranger who is wearing odd clothes, it is much more natural to
assume that he is from a distant country, or even from a part of your
own country where local styles are a bit unusual, than that he is
from a different century.
One obvious response to this is that Cariadoc does not have to
recognize sixteenth century clothes in order to know that the
gentleman he has just met is from the sixteenth century--after all,
the gentleman has just responded to my query of "what are you" by
answering "a sixteenth century Englishman." But this is an
inconsistency that comes not from being in persona but from being out
of persona. Real medieval people did not start conversations with
strangers by asking them what century they were from. All we have to
do in order to avoid problems with temporal inconsistency is to talk
as our personae instead of about them--and avoid mentioning dates.
This brings up a related point--conversation. Some people seem to
assume that, in order to be in persona, you must spend most of your
time talking about current events--"have you heard the latest news
about the crusade/Henry VIII/the Norman Conquest?" If so, then being
in persona for more than a few minutes would require quite a lot of
specialized knowledge, and a conversation among personae from
different times and places would rapidly become either obviously
inconsistent ("What crusade/Henry who/what's a Norman?") or very
But consider, for a moment, your ordinary twentieth century
conversation. How much of it is about events that will appear in the
history books a thousand years from now? The answer, surely, is very
little. Mostly we talk about what is happening around us or in our
lives--and two people with very different personae are still
attending the same event. If we do mention current events, they are
likely to be something like the latest Welsh border raid or last
year's bad harvest--neither of which comes attached to a date.
It is sometimes suggested that, in order to do a consistent persona,
one would have to talk only with others from the same time and place.
One wonders how medieval travellers managed. When Ibn Battuta, a
fourteenth century North African, travelled through Anatolia and
Southern Russia to India, where he spent several years as one of the
chief judges of Delhi, did he maintain a consistent persona? The
people he travelled among were as foreign to him as my fellow
feasters are to me--yet somehow he managed to interact with them
while remaining himself.
A different sort of consistency problem is raised by the institutions
of the Society itself. Knights, Dukes, Seneschals, Knight Mrshalls,
Masters of the Laurel and Pelican--how do all of these things fit
into Cariadoc's world? And, equally puzzling, how does he fit into
them--what is a Berber doing marshalling a tournament or ruling a
Kingdom full of Englishmen, Vikings, et multae caetera?
The answer, again, is that I am obvously a foreigner. The Middle
Kingdom is not the Maghreb. It is not much stranger for a North
African Berber to be Earl Marshall of the Middle Kingdom, as I was
many years ago, than for another North African Berber to be the chief
Malikite Judge of the city of Delhi in India. It is no stranger for
me to have ruled over the mingled populations of the Middle than for
Robert Guiscard de Hauteville, a Norman adventurer, to have ruled
over the medley of Moslems, Byzantines, Italians, and Jews inhabiting
what was to become the Norman Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The
customs by which the Middle Kingdom chooses its kings are indeed very
odd--they will make a fine traveller's tale for my hearers to scoff
at, if I ever make it back to the Maghreb.
Another problem that some people see with being in persona is the
problem of being stuck with your persona's quarrels. How can we
conduct a civilized event if Vikings and Celts, Normans and Saxons,
Guelfs and Ghibbilenes, Saracens and Crusaders, feel obliged to kill
each other in the middle of the dance floor? Is it not necessary, in
order to conduct our affairs in relative quiet, to impose an
ahistorical ban on period persona violence?
The simple answer is that such a ban is not in the least ahistorical.
In period, "enemies" interacted peacably quite a lot of the time. The
Irish and the Norse may have had their little troubles, but that did
not keep them from trading, allying, and intermarrying. One of my
favorite bits in the memoirs of Usamah ibn Munqidh, a Syrian Emir who
was an older contemporary of Saladin, is the part where he is trying
to avoid offending a Frankish friend while turning down the friendUs
offer to foster UsamahUs son. One has the impression that Usamah is
about as eager to have his son fostered among the Franks as a
nineteenth century Englishman would be to have his son raised by
cannibals in darkest Africa--but, being unwilling to say so, he
politely explains that, much as he appreciates the offer, the boy is
the apple of his motherUs eye, so ... . Moslems and Christians might
fight to the death on the walls of Acre, but in Norman Sicily they
got along well enough--so well that one of the most famous of the
successors of the Norman Kings, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederic II,
was suspected by some contemporaries of being a closet Moslem.
Nothing I have said so far answers the question of whether being in
persona is more fun than other ways of enjoying the Society. Nor have
I said much about the techniques by which one convinces oneself and
others that one is, for the moment, a medieval person. Both are
subjects I have discussed elsewhere. But I hope I have convinced you
that there is no inherent impossibility, no glaring inconsistency, in
attending an event as a medieval person at a medieval feast rather
than a twentieth century hobbyist at a costume party.