Interview with Author Diana Paxson: The Early Years of the Society of Creative Anachronism

While attending the University of California Berkeley, author Diana Paxson and others helped organize a medieval tournament that laid the foundations for future tournaments and the establishment of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). Paxson spent ten years serving on the SCA’s Board of Directors, furthering its growth. Today, Paxson talks about the formation of the SCA, how the organization grew, and what the future holds.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome and thank you for taking the time to talk with us, Mrs. Paxson.

Diana Paxson: Thank you for having me; I’ll share what I can with you today.

MAYTT: In May of 1966, you and a number of others formed what would become the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). What was the motivation to put together this organization; did you feel there was an outlet missing at the time for those interested in the Medieval and Renaissance eras?

Diana Paxson in costume at one of the many Society of Creative Anachronism events. Source: Wikipedia.

DP: The SCA did not become an organization until a year after the first tournament held on May 1st, 1966.

I was a graduate student at University of California Berkeley, specializing in Medieval literature. I was also active in local science fiction fandom. One of my activities was contributing illustrations to an amateur science fiction fan magazine published by a friend. One day, I noticed that two of the young men in the fan community had some really authentic looking shields hanging on the wall. They told me that they were trying to figure out how medieval combat worked by actually working out with authentic shields and wooden swords, so I would say that they certainly felt there was something missing in available knowledge and involvement, and I wanted my illustrations to be accurate, as I suspected it was not the same as fencing, which I did myself.

I asked my friends to come to my back yard for a practice section, so I could make sketches of the form. After the session, it occurred to me that I knew many people in school and in fandom who would really enjoy seeing what medieval combat actually looked like, and that I had room in my back yard for a small tournament.

MAYTT: Shortly after forming the SCA, the organization held its first tournament calling for “all knights to defend in single combat the title of ‘fairest’ for their ladies.” What was the turnout like and how was it received by those who organized and participated in the event? How did the SCA “get the word out” to those who were interested in all things Medieval and Renaissance?

DP: As I said above, the organization was an eventual result of the first tournament, not the cause.  

My friends all thought it was a great idea, so we distributed fliers to everyone in the local Sci-Fi fan group and sent them to friends at local colleges. We ended up with about fifty people all in medieval garb, including twelve guys whose childhood dreams of medieval combat finally had an outlet. I worked out a format for the event, including entertainment as well as fighting, and Dave Thewlis and Ken DeMaiffe, the friends who had inspired me, worked out a method for scoring blows. Everything fell into place and we had a wonderful time. It was not until we were feasting afterward that I overheard someone talking about “next time.” That was the first time it occurred to me that this might be more than a one-off. It would be more correct to say that rather than being formed or founded, from that point on, the SCA evolved

The following June, several people – some of whom had met at this original event – got together to put on another tournament in a local park. Needing a name to put on the use permit, Marion Zimme Bradley came up with “the Society for Creative Anachronism.”  At this time, we also encountered Ron Morgan, who was applying the same “learn by doing” approach to medieval dance, and music, and he and the Consortium Antiquum became part of the group. A third tourney was held the following September, by which time we had also had the first wedding. At this time, the group decided to avoid the risk that one really good fighter might end up winning all the time by requiring that he preside over the next tournament as king. By this time, we had gathered a mailing list and were able to send out fliers for our first indoor Revel in December, where the first king was crowned, and the first awards of rank were made.

Tournaments were held in May and June and the small group that had been most active in organizing events realized that the group needed a formal structure with incorporation and IRS status in order to rent space for events and protect the organizers. The original by-laws were written by Jon DeCles. Others active in this original group included David Thewlis, Ken DeMaiffe, Paul Edwin Zimmer, Marynel Hodghead, Karen Anderson, and me.

MAYTT: Talk about a group effort! In addition to being one of the founding members of the organization, you were also on the Board of Directors for the SCA’s first ten years. During that time, how did you and the rest of the Board help grow and establish the SCA within the country? What were some of the unforeseen obstacles that you and the SCA managed to overcome?

DP: Word began to spread beyond the San Francisco area in July of 1967, when we held a tournament in Los Angeles as part of the Westercon Science Fiction convention. Marion Zimmer Bradley had moved to the East Coast and was getting a group started there. However, real growth started after we held a tournament at the World Science Fiction convention at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley in September 1968. Suddenly, I was answering mail from all over the country, and very soon, putting together handbooks to explain how to start and run a local group.

The first SCA population centers were in the New York City and Chicago areas, which became the nuclei of the East and Middle Kingdoms. Additional groups mostly started in college towns. Since the Kingdom of the West was a year or two older than everyone else, we encountered organizational challenges first and had to figure out ways to deal with them. Many of the items in the Corpora, or operating procedures, were of the “don’t put beans up your nose” type, because someone had tried it.

We used to joke that the SCA arms ought to be “an individualist, rampant, upon a field improper.” It seemed that most of us had been attracted to the SCA because we felt out of place in the twentieth century, and many of us had not had much social experience. Combine that with high creativity and ambition, and eventually we also developed medieval politics. I used to spend a lot of time wondering why an organization which affected neither one’s life nor one’s livelihood could inspire such passions. I eventually concluded that winning status is a basic human drive, and the SCA community offered an opportunity to achieve it in a way impossible in the mundane society.

MAYTT: How did the SCA members keep in contact with one another during a time when the means of communication was more limited than it is today? In what ways did you and the organization help promote a sense of community within its members?

DP: Yes, there really was communication before the internet [Laughs] After the tourney in March 1967, Jon DeCles started the journal, Tournaments Illuminated. Eventually TI developed into a magazine for the whole organization, and announcements were covered by newsletters published by the local groups. Since there was a considerable overlap between the SCA and science fiction fandom, members met and sometimes put on events at regional conventions. I spent a lot of time answering letters. As time went on, people moved around the country, and from one kingdom to another. I think that Flieg Hollander may hold a record for having achieved rank in the greatest number of kingdoms.

MAYTT: To the average person, the SCA share many of the same characteristics to the Renaissance Faire. To help dispel any misconceptions or confusion, what do you feel seperates or differentiates the SCA from the Renaissance Faire?

DP: The first Renaissance Faire was started by Phyllis Patterson in Los Angeles in 1963 as a themed crafts fair to raise money for a local radio station. It evolved rapidly into a “living history” event focused on the Elizabethan period. The Pattersons heard about the SCA and when they decided to hold a Northern Faire 1967, they met with us and we were able to supply much of the entertainment. There was a considerable overlap between the two organizations for many years both here in the Bay area, and between Faires and the SCA in other parts of the country as the original Faire inspired others. Both movements promote research and experiential learning through immersion in a created or re-created environment. Together they have created a sub-culture in which people can make a living doing medieval arts and crafts, but fundamentally the Faires have to make money, and the SCA only needs to support itself.

MAYTT: I can see how one would help the other. On a similar topic, what do you feel to be the major differences between the SCA and the modern HEMA revival movement? Are there any shared aspects between the two, if any?

DP: Until I got your letter, I was not aware of HEMA as such, so I looked it up in Wikipedia, which I note does not mention the SCA as an influence. The article seems unaware that attempts to reconstruct medieval sword and shield technique got started in the 1960s. It does mention medieval fighting in twentieth century theater and film, which as I recall from watching with our fighters, was generally considered pretty lame.

I was not active in developing SCA fighting techniques, but I did spend a lot of time listening to those who were. They were certainly poring over every historical source they could find, but much had to be learned through trial and error as combat and armoring skill improved (at least one of our SCA armor makers was offered a job at the British Museum). Since there appear to be more written sources on rapier combat, I expect an increase in availability played a role in getting the SCA to add rapier as a category.

A jouster whom I met at the SCA’s fiftieth anniversary event said that SCA jousting had gotten or contributed to its revival as an international sport, and that many of the most successful international jousters were from the SCA. But as I said, for information on fighting, I am not the best person to ask.

MAYTT: Many histories of the modern HEMA revival movement cite the SCA as one of the influential organizations that helped the movement gain some of its popularity. Though not directly involved with the HEMA movement, what do you feel would be the SCA’s biggest influence or contribution to the modern revival movement as a whole?

DP: See above. I don’t know anything about the movement beyond watching a few YouTube videos when researching for my books, though I would be happy to more.

MAYTT: Being a prolific writer and author, how has your time in the SCA impacted and/or influenced your later writing endeavors? Did the experience allow you to look at certain aspects of your writing or of the multiple literary genres differently?

DP:  I did not invent the SCA as a resource for writing, but I am only one of a number of authors who have found it useful. On the principle of “write what you know,” most of my books and stories have been set in real or invented settings whose cultures are medieval or earlier. I found that when ordinary research couldn’t give me the answer to a question about skills or technology, there was usually someone in the SCA who knew about it, had done it, or welcomed the excuse to try. Examples include information on ancient battles and strategies, data on handling horses on a campaign, and techniques for working with bronze. And then, of course there are things you learn from watching a field battle with several hundred people on each side or focusing on the final fights at a Crown tourney that no book will convey.

MAYTT: Final question. With COVID having its grips around American society, what does your literary future hold for you? Is there anything that fans can expect from you in the near future? 

DP: Lately, most of my work has been non-fiction, but I am working on a novel in the Westria series which features a warrior who is forced to give up the sword and has to learn which techniques will work with a mace, and also how to fight with a spear. There are also several battles and a siege.

MAYTT: Thank you again for taking the time to talk about your involvement with the SCA!

DP: Thank you for having me!

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