MOST PEOPLE who get deeply involved in the Society for Creative Anachronism dream of the giant events, the wars where thousands of fighters take the field and the merchant tents cover acres of ground. Long ago when I was new several of the events I attended had between 100 and 200 guests, creating a spectacle for the eyes and inspiring a desire for more. I thought myself in those days that a trip to the Pennsic War would be the height of the SCA experience. People in my home shire who are more recent additions to the Society eagerly anticipate their yearly expeditions to Gulf War, which has been nicknamed "Pennsic South," or War of the Diamonds, which is approaching attendance of 1000.
But there is a place in the Current Middle Ages for events that are a little more intimate. . . .
I originally joined the SCA as a member of the Shire of the Small Gray Bear, and stayed there for about a year. In winter of AS XXI (1986), Small Gray Bear began planning an arts and sciences day, a casual event and pot-luck to which we would invite all our neighbors. Keira the Wanderer, the autocrat, and Lord Dmitri, in his continuing effort to call attention across Meridies to how the East neglected the West, named the event "Winter Revel in the Forgotten Lands" and scheduled it for the first weekend of January AS XXI (1987). It was to be held at a private lodge, a single hall by a small lake, starting on Saturday morning and continuing to Sunday. The plans for the event grew to include fighting and outdoor games, dancing, a feast and a revel. When the hour grew late everyone would crash in the hall around a big fireplace.
But: "The event you plan is never the event you hold." Friday night the temperature began to drop, and by early Saturday morning the sky was a solid dull gray. Before we could begin to gather on site, the gray sky began spitting snow and freezing rain which quickly coated the highways. A twenty-minute drive to the site stretched to a tense hour. Worse, when we had picked up the contract for the site on Friday afternoon [Note to autocrats: Never wait until the last minute to sign a contract.] we discovered that we were specifically forbidden to spend the night in the lodge!
Astonishingly, people began to arrive in spite of the horrid weather. We built up the fire, fixed hot drinks and snacks, and watched the gray day out the windows. From inside the warm and charming lodge, the gray day took on a subtle beauty, white and silver and light gray and black, a heraldic emblazon done entirely in shades of argent and sable. Around midday, the lodge's manager, bless her, showed up to tell us that she couldn't in conscience send us home for the night in such bad weather. As long as we left the lodge spotless on Sunday, and kept our mouths shut to the lodge's owners, we could spend the night.
But everything is so pretty! I wrote afterward. Bare trees become knotwork patterns of pure white and stark black; Hurricane Lake looks like a pool of liquefied lead; the swirling flakes weave complicated dances to the wind's music.
I don't recall exactly how many people showed up—around thirty-five or forty, I believe, including a very few children. All outdoor activities were cancelled, even the fighting (would that we'd shown such sense six years later at the fifth Feast of St. Dunstan, when we had to periodically beat the ice buildup off the lists mistress's three cloaks). But we held classes on autocratting, SCA personae, SCA protocol, knife-making and Damascus steel, and weaving as scheduled, and we played indoor games. By midafternoon, everybody in the building knew everybody.
We had a hot lunch of French onion soup and sliced apples roasted in the fireplace. For feast we had a potluck, including a delicious stout stew. During feast we held a small and casual shire court at which several shire awards were given.
The foul weather could have made us hostile, but instead we kept busy and cheerful. Everything we needed was right there in the hall. No armor bags had to be dragged across the field. No heralds had to rush round the site to gather people for court or feast. If you needed your loved one, all you had to do was turn around. If you wanted to go to bed, no need to search in the cold and dark for your cabin.
The Revel proper began with a song from the Music Guild of Small Gray Bear, followed by group games. One was a sort of inverted blind-man's buff where everybody is blindfolded except for one person. That person wears bells at wrists and ankles, and tries to move through the crowd, while all the blindfolded people try to follow the bells and capture the "jingler." Everybody in the hall was playing, except for a couple of people who acted as "marshals" to keep the blindfolded ones out of the fireplace or the stacked chairs.
After the games we started on dance classes taught by Lord Isaac and Lady Aidan, a couple who had recently moved to Small Gray Bear from the Midrealm. We began with simple circle bransles, and by the second dance everybody in the hall was participating. The dancing went on, the most enjoyable I've ever known, lively bransles and stately pavans; not a body in the hall sat out the dances.
Where have you ever been where everybody was playing a game, or where everybody was dancing? Pennsic War? Coronation? Gulf War? I don't think so. At a large event, there are always private parties, and drum circles, and gangs of people just sitting around shooting the breeze. Only at a small event can you have that sort of unanimity.
At last the night grew late, and we dragged out bedrolls and sleeping bags. A close and magical intimacy came over the hall as we turned out the lights and gathered around the fireplace. We told tales and sang songs, and drank cups of hot wine (and other things). As people began to drift off to sleep, the voices grew lower and lower, and at last everyone slept.
In the morning, we had the usual tiresome cleanup job to do, made worse by the finicky demands of the lodge's owners, but nearly everyone pitched in for at least some of it, even the people who had a long drive home over icy roads and needed to get an early start. By daylight, much of the magic and charm left the lodge (and the ice and snow), but nobody seemed to mind.
By most normal standards, the Winter Revel was a disaster. Weather was lousy, attendance was poor, profits were virtually nil. But Lord Dmitri said afterward that he had never attended a better revel anywhere in Meridies, and I have remembered it for over fifteen years as one of my favorite events. I believe there are others who would agree.
To keep a sad tale as brief as possible: In AS XXIX-XXX (1994-1995) matters in the Shire of Smythkepe were turbulent. We suffered a catastrophic loss of population and were anticipating the loss of our favorite weekend site. We were left with about half a dozen warm bodies, barely enough to fill the required roster of officers, and with little hope of putting on either of our traditional events, Midsummer Knight's Dream or the Feast of St. Dunstan. (In fact, the scheduled St. Dunstan VI was ultimately cancelled due to lack of a usable site.) We were required by Kingdom Law to host at least one event a year, so we started working out how to hold a smaller event than ever before, just to satisfy the Kingdom.
I proposed a day event during the slack time in January or February. I pitched it to the officers (pretty much the entire shire) as a "schmooze event," a casual event where we offered classes a little off the common path and plenty of good company. (Was the Winter Revel on my mind? You bet!) My lady Moira offered to autocrat, and suggested that we save the most offbeat classes for after feast, as "Revel Classes." Lord Denys de Houtbewerker coined the name "Cracked Anvil Collegium," and we were off and running.
The first Cracked Anvil Collegium was held February 25th, AS XXIX (1995). Five members of Smythkepe set up the entire event. Some of our guests taught classes. Others helped out in the kitchen. Most of our guests—as we intended—took classes or played games or just sat around swapping news. Much of the feast preparation was done in advance, so effectively that once feast actually began the feastocrat (Lady Mariah of Powis) was able to come out and sit down with her guests.
As things turned out we had over-estimated the turnout for Cracked Anvil pretty dramatically; only about thirty guests arrived. We had far more activities than guests (and far more food—another reason the feastocrat was able to join us for feast). So we started handing out to grownups some of the stuff we had brought for kids; the last half of the feast had an extra unintended bit of seasoning from the soap bubbles that were being blown around the hall. Cracked Anvil wound up feeling more like a family reunion than a collegium, which suited me just fine.
Cracked Anvil was a day event, so a fair number of people left immediately after feast. That evening, as part of the "Revel Classes," I gave my famous class on "Tigger Heraldry" for the first time; practically everybody left at the event was gathered around. We sang, and laughed, and danced a bit, and got to know each other. Then, sadly, everybody went home.
Think back over the years. Weren't there some times when there were just a few dozen of you, instead of a few hundred: a small event, or an unofficial event like the "I Didn't Get To Go To Pennsic Either" Moot that Smythkepe holds some years, or even a revel at someone's house? There's a special intimacy about very small events, a closeness and coziness that you can't get from an event spread across eighty acres of farmland or divided among a score of cabins and halls and encampments.
The large events have majesty and character. I carry wonderful memories of seeing great battles, of crossing fields surrounded by colorful pavilions, of wandering from fire to fire hearing bards from far away perform new songs and tales. But don't forget the small events. Remember, not everyone in the Middle Ages was a lord or a knight; the rest of them went home each evening to a small house and a family gathered around a single fire.
At the small events, sometimes you can build a new family instead of a new kingdom.