Some Observations on Parallel Developments at Pennsic
by Sir Christian Henry Tobler, Grand Master
For those of you unfamiliar with the Society for Creative Anachronism, or SCA, the Pennsic War is a huge event in western Pennsylvania centering on a series of large mock battles (tournaments, really) between two of their kingdoms, the East and the Midrealm. Lured by the prospect of the inexpensive treasures that abound in the merchants’ rows there, I finally attended this past summer, accompanied by my lady wife, Maureen, the Ladies Bonnie, Caroline, and Michelle, Lord Barry, and Sir Carl.
One of the things on my agenda was to make contact with Mr. Brian Price. Brian, known in the SCA as Earl Sir Brion Thornbird ap Rhys, is a co-founder and the Chancellor of the Company of Saint George. The Company is a ‘tournament company’, modelled after the tournamenting societies of the 14th and 15th Centuries, and exists as a special interest group within the SCA. Brian also publishes, edits, and frequently writes for ‘Chronique: The Journal of Knighthood and Chivalry’, a publication devoted to the exploration of the knightly virtues, fighting techniques, and research into period documents on all aspects of chivalry. He’s been quite open to voices from outside the SCA, and has made strides towards providing ‘Chronique’ with things that will appeal to members of other groups. I had communicated with Brian after discovering his Internet site (www.chronique.com) and have contributed material for an article about the Order to appear in a future issue of his periodical.
A goal of Brian’s is to influence the SCA as a whole by example, and to show that tournaments can be more than just sporting events - that they can be arenas for the development of the chivalric virtues and more authentic in their presentation to boot. In accordance with these aims, he and the Company hold specialized tournaments events which foster courtesy on the field, pageantry, and knightly fraternity.
The Company held a Pas d’Armes on Friday the 15th of August at the Pennsic War, a part of which I was fortunate enough to watch. Having seen many SCA combats which left me uninterested, this was a most refreshing event, despite our great differences in fighting styles. In their pas (and in historical pas d’armes of the 14th and 15th Centuries), members of their company (and several others attending) held the list as defenders, or ‘tenans’, as they were known in a medieval pas against all worthy challengers, or ‘venans’. The venans would each make their challenges to one of the tenans, eloquently extolling the virtues and chivalry of their chosen opponents. In the process of accepting these challenges, the tenans in turn laud the prowess and chivalry of the venans, thus completing the creation of a climate of warmth, respect, and knightly brotherhood. This is in stark contrast to many other SCA fights wherein a ‘sports’ mentality prevails and winning is often very important to the combatants: the SCA awards certain titles and dignities based upon victory in the lists. Here, there is no overall winner for the day. While each bout has a victor, the day’s only real winner is Chivalry herself.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Of course it does. Since the time of our earliest tournaments, they have been held to test the prowess and chivalry of our fighters and entertain our members and guests, rather than to provide any tangible reward for victory. The primary difference between most of our tournaments and what the Companions of St. George are doing is our pronounced emphasis on the tournament as a training ground, an emphasis provided by our use of a detailed and weighted scoring system. However, when we look at a specialized event like the ‘Champion’s Challenge’, the parallel becomes almost exact. Here, the primary emphasis in on chivalric virtue and honour: it’s an honour to face the Champion of the Order, knowing he is holding the list single-handedly against all comers. After such an event, you’re likely to hear much more talk about how honourably Sir Mark held the list and what prowess and fortitude he displayed than you are about how one of his challenger’s beat him. The chivalry shown in that list is the important thing. Hence, the Champion’s Challenge is really a pas d’armes with only one tenan holding the list.
In the evening after the pas d’armes, the Company had a ‘Roundtable Discussion’ in one of the encampments to discourse on various topics of chivalry. This is something they do regularly at their events. I had the honour of being invited by Earl Brion to this discussion. The feel of this conversation was not unlike our Order discussing the ‘best knight of the day’ recently at the feast. I was struck with not only the similarity, but with how much I would like to see us have more of that kind of exchange.
My time there was well spent; there is much that the Company of Saint George and its sister societies are doing that is similar to what we are doing to enhance our own tournament experience. I also think there is something to learn from their experimentation - they have explored more of the history of the tournament and its permutations than we. I now subscribe to ‘Chronique’ and hope it will continue to yield ideas for us; perhaps through further writing on my part, we can also provide something for them.