Sex, Lies, and Old Newsletters: So you want to write your group's history?

by Magistra Nicolaa de Bracton and Master Hector of the Black Height

In honor of its twentieth anniversary, the Canton of Eoforwic decided that continuing The Chronicle of Eoforwic, its group history, would be a good thing. Three previous volumes had carried the story to about seven and a half years ago. Since covering these subsequent years would be a major undertaking, the authors of this article agreed to split the task: Master Hector would pen volume four and Magistra Nicolaa, volume five.

We brought a fundamental difference in our approach to our volumes. Nicolaa (a Ph.D. candidate in medieval history and former editor of both the local and Baronial newsletters) had volunteered three years before to write volume five of the Chronicle, so she had been keeping since that time a skeletal diary of SCA happenings, which provided the framework on which her volume is based. That left volume four. The gentle who had originally expressed interest had found himself too busy to take on such a major undertaking, so Nicolaa approached Hector. He had not been expecting this task, but he'd been active in Ealdormere for several years, including the period he was to chronicle. He was therefore working from memory, and his first step was to sit down and write his own anecdotes from the period in question.

These two different approaches set the tone for the resulting texts. Nicolaa's volume is regular in flow and chronological in sequence. Hector's is far more episodic, with various events interspersed with biographical sketches and commentaries. These differing approaches, incidentally, mirror period sources.

As with so many aspects of life in the Society, re-creating the transition from oral to written tradition taught many interesting lessons and gave us new appreciation of tasks that faced historians in period. In one instance, Hector had a very clear memory of an important incident as happening at Ealdormere's first Principality investiture. Upon comparison with the Kingdom Order of Precedence, however, he discovered that the important incident had actually happened four months earlier than he remembered, at Principality Twelfth Night. Only six years had passed since the incident; Hector has a vast new respect for Froissart's memory of events decades after they happened. Nicolaa has likewise gained a better understanding of the challenge of writing military histories and the difficulty in estimating numbers: unable to attend Pennsic for the past two years, she based her narrative on the accounts of others, which often presented wildly varying views as to the relative numbers of fighters on each side.

We discovered many useful sources of information. Obvious sources are local, baronial and kingdom newsletters. These may provide event reviews, which add color to any narrative, and if nothing else will give the historian a series of event calendars to set events in sequence and remind you where a certain event was held. Interviews with participants also add first-hand insights, though opinions are just those, opinions, and not necessarily facts. Also, memories fade and details get scrambled as time passes. Our experience has proven that interviews are best suited to clarifying details, not discovering facts. You may also wish to consult newspaper clippings, photos in scrapbooks, video recordings, and SCA-specific literature, such as songs and poetry. For example, several months in Hector's period of interest were chronicled by an Ealdormerian epic poem of the period, "Davidsaga", which gave names and described episodes.

Perhaps the most useful new source of information available to the local historian is the Order of Precedence, which provides a very detailed skeleton of awards and dates and is accessible on a home computer. The OOP is not in itself a history; it's a date book or statistical table, allowing you to chart various people's SCA careers. You can then flesh out this information using your other sources, thus creating the core of your narrative-perhaps the best first step towards creating a local history.

No history can or will be complete, and one of our challenges was to introduce characters into the Chronicle who had been active for several years and had been overlooked by previous historians. In our case this included a lady who had been active in the periods covered by all three previous volumes, had never been mentioned by any previous historian and was the local seneschal at the opening of volume four! This person was an ideal candidate for a free-standing biographical sketch. Another challenge was presented by name changing. People play for months or years with one name and then change personas. In our history these confusing moments are explained away in some detail, usually with an anecdote of a disappearance or a mistaken identity, which makes the change plausible in a period sense, but makes it obvious that the two names refer to the same person.

There are certain stylistic conventions our local history has evolved, and while these can be amusing they can also be useful in a narrative sense. Eoforwic's first historian was Duke Finnvarr, who is well-known as an historian of the Society's affairs (and also a Ph.D. in medieval history). In period, Dukes normally did not write lengthy historical accounts, so Finnvarr created a clerical nom de plume, who wrote in service of His Grace. All of Eoforwic's subsequent chroniclers have adopted some version of this whimsy. Hector's historian is a monk who hints at an interesting past and has an utter paranoia about heresy. Nicolaa's is a nun from a wealthy family with a very well-rounded world view. The clerical viewpoint also offers political and historical perspectives that can contrast with and complement modem sensibilities. A separate narrator also allows the writer the luxury of a different perspective.

We also recognize that a history of a group is more than bare facts; it's also local color and personal opinions. While it is important to avoid spitefulness or hurtful comments and some political disputes are best left alone, there are goings-on that deserve comments, and some incidents must be put into some sort of perspective for those who didn't live through them and have no idea what the fuss was all about. If there's a chance of being hurtful (or slanderous), stick to the facts. If you can be complimentary, feel free to embellish! If justified, make some judgments; place events in context for the reader. Was this a good thing or not? How so? Why? This task, quite
obviously, will be more difficult if enough time has not passed during which the final outcome of these events can be ascertained, in which case it is extremely important to tread lightly, to not overestimate, and to use discretion. Once something has been published, it's difficult to retract or modify it.

If you want to write your group's history, we recommend you do the following:

Figure out just how big a task this may be. How old is your group, anyway? Has it always been in the same location? Be honest; do you need some help? Perhaps you'd be wise to split a ten- or twenty-year chronicle into multiple volumes, either for you to tackle in succession across several years (we're not kidding!) or for you to farm out to other budding historians.

Set up a framework and flesh it out. Make a list of all the significant events you know happened in the period you'll be chronicling and want to cover in your history. Your kingdom's Order of Precedence offers dates and names in sequence; it's also a very good starting point. As you go along and include both these in your narrative, check them off the list. If you're lucky enough to be able to work on a history while the events are still happening, carry a notebook with you, or jot down bare facts in a single place as soon as you can. Be on the lookout for later major happenings that may have sprung from earlier events that seemed at the time to be inconsequential. These will help tie your history together in the end.

Search out sources of information: old Domesday reports, newsletters, previous histories, local "old-timers." Contact your kingdom's Historian (if you have one) for hints.

Try to find your narrative voice, and perhaps, a period exemplar. You can choose to write your account as an impersonal retelling of events by an anonymous scribe, or as a narrative history, in which the personality of the writer is much more apparent. Your writing style is up to you, of course. We both avoided excessive archaic language and spellings, opting for clear modern English. We also avoided obvious modern words like "telephone" and "automobile", but attempted to rephrase them in ways that avoided "SCAdianisms" like "farspeaker" and "dragon".

Beware the overpowering "I," especially if you're basing some or all your work on a personal reminiscence. Is this the history of the group or the historian? There is nothing wrong with writing from a personal perspective-in fact, it gives much flavor to the work-but for a group history, be careful of being too personal. If you discuss the uproarious food fight in the kitchen involving half the barony, but neglect your seneschal's Pelican induction at the same event, you'll likely hear complaints. Put both in!

Once you've finished the text, read it over and figure out what people never appear or what incidents were overlooked. Fill in the blanks, if necessary with self-contained anecdotal interludes if you can't quite anchor the dates firmly. It is a well-documented period practice to use the accounts (published or otherwise) of others in narrative histories, both to flesh out accounts and to add color. We listed those we had consulted in either the introduction or in footnotes.

Place people in context. Are you talking about Fritz the fighter who was active six years ago and later moved out of town, or Fritz the archer who appeared just a year ago? If you're doing a multi-volume chronicle, you can refer to later incidents, i.e. "At this time was Fritz the archer first seen. He was the Fritz who later became Baronial Archer Champion, but that is another tale."

Exercise some discretion and tact. Draw a firm line between history and gossip. Also, accept that you will never be able to include everybody or address everything that has happened over several years. Try to keep some sort of focus on the group you're writing about-talk about people and events who have directly influenced that particular group.

Think about artwork and layout. If you are fortunate enough to have a willing artist available to you, an illuminated history in a period style is a wonderful accomplishment, especially if the illuminated characters look like the actual people in the text. Layout is important as well: many typefaces available through common word-processing software add an elegant appearance. You will find many ideas by looking at works on medieval manuscripts.

Before you go to press, circulate a draft copy amongst others who remember or were present during the span of time you cover. This is a good way to clear up any factual errors and to fill in gaps, as well as to solicit general comments and suggestions. Particularly seek out those who move in different circles than your own. If you solicit criticism, be prepared to accept them.

Print, publish and circulate your group's history. You will find an interested audience locally and afar!

At the time this article was written, we were preparing to put volumes four and five of The Chronicle of Eoforwic on sale, and preparing to subscriptions for a complete, 200 page, five-volume set of the Chronicle. These last two volumes have proven a delightful exercise in medieval history and historiography. We hope that they will prove amusing and useful to future members of our group, and perhaps inspire other groups to consider asking someone to sit down and write their chronicle.

Copyright 1996, Susan Carroll-Clark and Arthur McLean. All rights reserved.