One of my hobbies, for many years, has been the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group
that does historical recreation, mostly from the Middle Ages and Renaissance—cooking from medieval cookbooks, telling medieval stories, fighting
as a sport with (non-lethal) sword and shield.
A long time ago I noticed an
interesting split between two different ways of viewing the organization. One, summarized as “pay to play,” was that
participation ought to require membership, payment of annual dues to the national
organization. Anyone not willing to bear his share of the burden by doing so
ought not to be allowed to attend feasts and tournaments, receive honors,
fill offices within the organization.
The SCA runs on volunteer labor. Seen from the other side,
“pay to play” meant being unwilling to accept donations of labor unless
accompanied by donations of cash. Someone who helped cook a medieval feast for
a hundred diners or spent several hours washing dishes and cleaning the hall
afterwards was bearing his share of the burden. Someone who paid his annual
dues to the national organization and came to every event expecting to be fed
and entertained was part of the burden being born. That was my position, argued
at some length in a letter
I wrote on the subject more than thirty years ago.
I was struck, then and later, by how
sharp the division in views was–sharp enough to eventually produce something close to a civil war within the organization. To some people it was obvious that being part
of the Society was defined by paying dues and having a membership card. To
others it was equally obvious that there was a difference between the SCA Inc.,
a non-profit chartered in the state of California, and the Society, a social
network. The Corporation might serve a
useful function, but membership in it did not define membership in the Society
and cash contributions to it made up a tiny fraction of the resources on which
the Society ran.
The same division was one of the themes of my first novel, a historical with invented history. An alliance among three
polities has, for several decades, been holding off an expansionary empire. The
king who created that alliance dies. His son views the world in terms of
tables of organization, believes that he can rely on anyone in allegiance to
him, can not rely on anyone who is not. He accordingly attempts to convert
his father’s allies into subjects, with unfortunate consequences.
Harald, my protagonist, is a prominent figure in one of the
allied societies, with no formal authority, no tax revenues, nobody in
allegiance to him, but a lot of friends. He views the world as a network of
The first long chunk of the novel is the conflict between two
men and two views of the world. My protagonist’s side is illustrated by
the case of Stephen, one of the most powerful of the provincial lords just
below the King. Formally he is loyal to the ruler, in practice a friend and
ally of Harald. As Harald puts it to a member of the third polity, a military order that the king is trying to get control over, “you could go
north; Stephen's a fine man for failing when it suits him and I can't see him hunting
you with any enthusiasm.”
The equivalent, in the SCA, is a quote from someone in
the West Kingdom, the oldest of the Society kingdoms:
“The King’s word is law. But if the King orders a pit dug in the middle of the
list field, it may take us four months to find a shovel.”
Reigns in the West last for four months.