The Pennsic Known World Arts and Sciences Display, or How to Make a Grown Woman Cry

Once a year, the SCA has an event called Pennsic War. On average, more than ten thousand of us descend on the small town of Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania to spend a week or two living our best version of the Dream of the Current Middle Ages, complete with medieval clothes, swordplay, archery, and the arts. It is a beautiful, wonderful event, and if you’re not familiar with the SCA, a YouTube search for Pennsic should give you a small taste of the experience.

At this event, there is a one-day arts and sciences display for members all over the world. We bring our things that we’ve researched, things we’ve learned, and things we’ve made to share with everyone else who is interested in the arts and sciences of the Middle Ages. It is not a competition; there are no prizes, no awards to be gained. It is simply a chance to share with others who understand why we’re so excited about these things that we use up hour upon hour of our spare time recreating them. We sit by our displays so that people coming by can ask questions, and so we can watch over our friends’ things, some of which are being displayed for people who can’t make it to the event.

I’ve displayed at this event for several years now, bringing a selection of items from different people, many of whom can’t make it from California (where I happen to live) to Pennsylvania, at least not that year. It’s a wonderful event, and one of the lovely things about it is that many of the visitors bring small tokens to leave for artisans and researchers whose work they find particularly compelling. I collect these up, bag them with the artisan’s name, and bring them back home to show how appreciated their items were. Sometimes I get a friend to sit with me, but often I’m alone for most of it, chatting with passers-by, and getting increasingly more wiggly as hours pass without a bathroom break. Finally, the five or so hours are over, and I pack up and head for a restroom and a late lunch. There’s usually a snacks and drinks table off in a corner, but I’d have to abandon the display to go there, and generally, there’s not much left by the time I go.

This year was different. There wasn’t much warning. I set up, as usual, under the paper sign for my Kingdom. I put out little cards next to different people’s displays, so everyone would know this wasn’t all my own work, and would put tokens next to the ones they really liked best. About five minutes after I finished setting up, a volunteer pulling a wagon came up to my spot and offered me drinks, and a cup if I didn’t have one of my own with me. I thanked him, took a drink, and thought to myself, ‘Now, that’s nice!’

Fifteen minutes went by, and another wagon-pulling volunteer came up, this time with snacks. Free snacks, as much as I wanted. I was so happy! I usually ran through whatever little things I remembered to grab on my way out of camp before lunchtime. This was really nice.

Another half hour goes by and a volunteer without a wagon offers to guard my display if I need to use the restroom or go see the other displays. I am so surprised that I thank him and say no, since I’m not about to explode, and surely someone else might need this vital service. No need to worry on that account – he is the first of at least six to make the offer, one of whom I do take up on it.

Shortly after the first wagonless volunteer went on his way, another one with a wagon comes along with lunch. Lunch! I feel like a hobbit whose first and second breakfasts have been remembered and followed properly by elevenses and luncheon, despite being on a Mighty Quest. The food was all caringly made from scratch there on site, at campgrounds all around us. There is plenty for everyone, and it is delicious. I am touched beyond belief.

A half hour later, the dessert wagon comes, and I start crying.

I don’t know how to explain this so it comes out how I want it to, so I’ll just say it as it comes out and hope you understand. In my beautiful club, we have several different activities, of which the arts and sciences are just one facet. Most of our events are centered around sword-fighting, especially in armor. Armored fighters generally have ‘fighter support’ or ‘waterbearers’ who give up their entire days to bring water, Gatorade, pickles, and orange slices to them so they can fight and have fun longer. At Pennsic, youth fighters are even expected to clean the battlefield for them, or were the year my daughter attended. Other forms of fighting (rapier and unarmored in my Kingdom) sometimes have a token few who serve in this way, but armored fighters fully expect it as a matter of course. Local areas are expected to sponsor fighting fields at our Crown Tournaments, providing drinks and snacks for the fighters who fight in ‘their’ fields. It’s just part of our culture. It does feel unfair at times, as they are playing the part of the game they like best, and the rest of us are expected to care for ourselves and them, too.

The reason I started crying because a stranger offered me cookies and cakes is that I have never been the recipient of this service ideal the way armored fighters are. I have brought my Kingdom’s art to display, without complaint, for years. I have waited five hours to use the restroom, or longer, because I can’t leave the display, or the hot pewter pot at Pewtercasters’ Day, and there is no relief for me. I have pulled a cart full of teaching supplies across event sites alone because there wasn’t anyone to help, year after year, because if my partner wasn’t there to help, it was all me, always. I cried because our group has an ideal of chivalry and courtesy, and it was being displayed so beautifully, and it meant I could go see the other displays or go to the bathroom. It meant that I didn’t have to eat lunch at 4 pm, because someone had planned for that and knew we all had given up our days to sit with these displays so everyone else could come to the living museum and learn.

I told this story to friends at an event recently, and they urged me to write about it. I haven’t done it justice. There’s no way to do justice to the service of these good people, or to how much it touched me, and I was not alone. We talked about how nice it would be if this could become less rare, and about how wonderful it would be if someone, maybe even the knights of our organization, who are the members of the Order of the Chivalry, could organize this kind of treatment for the arts, for the service folk who run gates and teach classes and otherwise make the events happen, for the people who are doing things other than armored combat, and remind everyone that we are all special and deserving of good treatment. Maybe if we knew we could count on support, the way the armored fighters can, it would change the way people feel about the arts, about service, about armored fighting, and about the SCA in a positive way.

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