Wednesday 15 July 2020

Article on Copyright and SCA Filking

In the Articles section I have added a link to an excellent article about issues of copyright that SCA bards should all be aware of: "Period Filk and Contrafacta" by Adelaide de Beaumont.

Tuesday 30 June 2020

On the Bardic Arts: Correspondence between Master Hector and then Laird Colyne

----- Original Message -----
From: "Hector of the Black Height" <REDACTED>
To: Colyne Stewart< REDACTED >
Sent: Friday, September 06, 2002 8:10 PM
Subject: In response

Milord Colyne:

Please forgive my delay in responding; it's been a busy few days. I will discuss your specific poems in another message.

"Three lessons are plain to me..."

Good. It's important to look at our art and the effect it has, to learn from it and to drive on thereafter.

"First, the word of a Bard has power, sometimes more than s/he may realize..."

A valuable lesson indeed. To use Justinian Clarus' highest word of praise, "Truth".

"...this poem, inked to thank a group of fighters and their support staff, may help strengthen already strong ties with this House..."

That's a fringe benefit, and a splendid one, that falls out of the first lesson.

"Second, words know no boundaries...though they do not come from the same land as I, they respond to the words..."

Not one of the major lessons I saw, frankly, but an entirely valid one.

"...I cannot readily think of a third..."

It's all a question of how you look at life. And in my case, I'm a sententious son-of-a-dog and love to preach at people (ask any of my long-suffering kin) so my mind picks up these sorts of things. Navel-gazing, like poetry, improves with practice.

"I also think my first and second are kind of the same..."

Not entirely. The first lesson you saw is about the very real power you wield. The second is about the ability of the receiver to receive. Different directions of information flow entirely, o Voice of the Bear. Information, like water, flows. Be sensitive to that flow and you'll be able to harness its power far more effectively.

Now it's my turn. Let's go back to first principles and look at the message from Mjolnir that kicked off this exercise:

"in my opinion, we have received no better booty that this. Llallogan"

What a spectacular tribute to what you did, how you did it and even why. And thus these lessons leap to my mind.

First, one of these Mjolnir mercenaries, who have received some pretty nifty gifts from Septentria, likes your words best of all their booty.

People forget the value of word-fame. What you do as one of the two Bards of Septentria includes the creation of valuable gifts in service of your patrons and the Barony.

So what?

We need bards in service to the mighty. The mighty of our lands need bardic service to create truly magnificent gifts in aid of the war effort and other diplomatic initiatives, before and after the fact. And believe me, a selling point in SCA diplomacy is word-fame. The Qon used it all spring and summer. Examples like this get trotted out to potential allies. 'This is what we do. Join us and we will give you word-fame too.' Poetry in particular is portable in our web-connected society. It's a gift that travels widely, quickly and well.

We need to remember that poetry and prose are art, just as calligraphy, embroidery, gold-smithing and anything else you'd care to mention. Again, a poet's raw materials are cheap in terms of cash. That's a real advantage to leaders who want to achieve gold-and-rubies results on a brass-and-plastic budget. That's one big reason why I encourage all the high and mighty to patronize bards, poets, and whatever. Such patronage is a cost-effective approach to the exercise of a medieval style of nobility.

Patronage encourages an artist to actually do his or her art -- which leads to practice, which usually leads to better artistic quality, especially when the art is practiced in a co-operative and knowledgeable environment such as ours.

Patronage encourages the creation of art that in turn is injected into our living culture. It's an authentic medieval practice. It supports the prestige of the offices (the Crown, the Barony, even the Peerage and Royal Peerage) which in turn reinforces our group culture. And again, it does all these wonderful things and costs pennies. We live in the real world most of the week; cash cost is a real factor.

People crave word-fame. This is a period phenomenon. This also is psychologically positive. Your words affirmed the value of what Mjolnir does. This is an important part of the didactic quality of bardic arts. By praising certain behaviours we encourage those behaviours, both in those praised and in others who hear the praise. Thus do we reinforce the positive aspects of our culture. Thus do the bards shape the game.

The SCA ultimately is artificial. As an artificial social construct, how do we as members know what is and isn't appropriate conduct? Given the SCA's theme, we draw upon cultural archetypes from literature, mass media and our childhood memories of King Arthur stories. As participants we observe the behaviour of those around us at our first events (examples matter!). And, being children of the age of mass media, we listen. If people within the population pf the social construct sing us songs and tell praise tales of chivalry, courtesy and honour, we soon will come to the conclusion that
chivalry, courtesy and honour are Good Things in this place. Thus we are given role models to emulate.

The root word of "poetry", as I recall, is the Greek word "poaea" which means "making". In mechanical, literary terms the poetic impulse is purely creative (as opposed to the mimetic or didactic impulses). In the grand and glorious sweep of things, o Voice of the Bear, bardic arts are poetic,
creative. We help create the SCA with our words and images. We hand people ideas and say 'try these.' That is the power of the bard; in the broadest terms possible, we can shape others' games.

That is why it's so vital for us as the bardic community to get out there, especially among new people. We have a great opportunity and a profound ability to hand new people positive images. We can and do portray the SCA in its best light. I've said this for some years now; if I didn't haul out the tale, who'd tell the little children about Moonwulf's charge? Somebody had better, or we'll forget that amazing example of SCA ethics in action. And that would diminish the game.

We must not allow the game to diminish. We must preserve our cultural heritage, for that cultural heritage is the root and foundation of whatever successes we have achieved in our Barony and Kingdom. Why do you think Ealdormere works, Milord Colyne? Why do you think we brush up against people from all over the Known World who walk away changed, who maintain friendships from thousands of miles away, who return here again and again? Why do we play the best flavour of the great game in all the Known World? In part it's because we use bardic arts to create and maintain a vital, active, supportive and extremely positive culture (as the High Lady Gwerydd reminded me recently).

You said that this wonderful episode pointed out that "words know no boundaries". You're right, and that's a critical insight. But I think it's more than that also. It's more than just words. Concepts are understood universally (if not practiced universally, sad to say). We preach a game centred on respect, on co-operation and pride in ourselves and in each other. Listen to the words we sing:

"With our children as our future and our legends as our pride"

"My sword has won battles, my bow has won honour"

"You are true and destined King and my sword is by your side"

"Bow to the Crown and bow to the throne"

"For as long as one still stands, the North shall rise"

"Our power we extol; we are a river"

That's the party line, Milord, and more besides. That's what we teach our children it is to be Ealdormere. That's what we tell newbies. That's what we remind each other around the fire. That's what we scream into the faces of our foes on the field as we break them, and as they break us. Pride.
Respect. Celebration. Power. That is what we preach.

And then we practice it, and we achieve glory.

This is cultural engineering. We are building something magnificent and Mjolnir now is being sucked into that vortex of self-sustaining splendour, in no small part thanks to your words.

As a final lesson, art matters. Art matters a lot. Art is a major venue for generosity within our culture. Why are Corwyn and Domnhail Galbraith so amazingly generous? Because they are two of the most switched-on artists you will ever meet. They love to make art, to try new things, to learn, to get better at what they do. If they kept all their art they'd not have room to move in their house. So they give it away.

So do our amazing, wonderful, devoted and inspiring scribes.

In their own way, so do our chirurgeons.

So do our group marshals who coach baby fighters.

So do our bards, every time they open their mouths.

The list goes on and on.

[sic] They were your words, and they were better than all those magnificent things, according to a guy in a far land who'll never forget how Ealdormere says thank-you. We forget just how valuable a few minutes' scribbling can be to a reader or listener who finds something in your message. That recipient can find word-fame and immortality. Or affirmation. Or permission. Those all are profound gifts, perhaps permission most of all.

It's about generosity, Milord. Your words have given a great gift to those who found riches in unexpected places. They have taught a great lesson to foreigners. They confirm the fundamental worth of our culture, for what you have done is so clearly, utterly consistent with the ethics that underlie Ealdormere.

And finally, from an entirely petty and personal perspective, your words and their effect inspire me, challenge me and humble me. I think we need to talk about the use of period form and metre, you and I, but nobody needs speak to you about honesty and raw power. It's obvious you've got those sorted out.


Post scriptum: I am sending a copy of this message to my grand-daughter the Septentrian Arts and Sciences officer. She needs to see what's happening in the arts within the Barony.

I also am sending a copy to the King's Bard. She needs to see what results you're achieving, in order to best reinforce the College and thus the Kingdom.

And finally, I am sending copies to our Baron and my daughter our Baroness. They need to see what you are accomplishing; that too is part of patronage.


----- Original Message -----
From: "Hector of the Black Height" <REDACTED>
To: Colyne Stewart < REDACTED >
Sent: Saturday, September 07, 2002 2:31 AM
Subject: Let me address a couple of your points

O Voice of the Bear:

"I witnessed [REDACTED] do that this year at War at Garraed's Vigil (so you likely saw it too)...she [sic] a tale that held up to ridicule those who do not practise courtesy and chivalry."

I know the tale. I know its message. I understand its value.

At the same time, part of what we do, part of who we are as the Northern people, is our positive focus. There is a place for shame-singing. There also is a place for letting go, for forgiveness, for accentuating the positive.

Be careful with this dark concept. The so-called "Bardic Curse" is a double-edged sword and those edges are sharp. I have the scars, and a couple are far more fresh than I'd like to admit.

"I remember seeing you at Bad in Plaid, having learned that it was one good gentle's first event, taking him aside and telling him tales..."

Never underestimate the powerful draw of a new audience that hasn't heard all your old crap seventeen times...

But part of the SCA is the magic of myth and legend. And just because you're an Arthurian scholar doesn't mean you've heard all the legends fit to print. What about the Knighting of Kief and Bellatrix' Spur? What about Moonwulf's Charge? What about Eislinn's War? What about Palymar, Jafar and the best six fights never fought? What about the Tallest, Blondest Knight and even the Entire Midrealm Army?

The people around us carve legends into the living rock of a Kingdom. We just get to read the stones out loud.

I value those legends. I value our people and I am very proud of those people. I am selling Ealdormere to newbies; I have a great product to sell. It's fun switching somebody on to a whole new culture.

And that's also how you build a Kingdom's future, one new heart at a time.

"...the time you took Thorfinna and I aside, oh-so-green we were, and told us tales, and the importance of our new position of Baronialbards..."

I am a Laurel; I swore to my Queen and King to teach.

I am numbered among the bardagh: I have a joyous obligation to teach and spread my art.

I held the office you now share: as I respect the office, I owe you the courtesy of discussing my experiences therein.

I am from Ealdormere; as I teach I enrich the Kingdom.

I am a SCAdian; people taught me, so now I repay.

I am a father: by teaching others I ensure a strong and vibrant Kingdom will be there for my son to inhabit and enjoy.

"I agree...when we all have the same songs we become like one people..."

That's one of the things that unite us. There are others, but the songs are among the most obvious.

"I often hear of Kingdoms that do not sing and the very thought makes my heart weep..."

Yes and no. The Outlands drums. Calontir still sings, though less than they did once, I think. Northshield sings.

And we fight shoulder-to-shoulder, as a clan should fight, and the power of friendship, of kinship, unites the army too.

The SCA is a big place. There is room for many different unifying traits. However, some Kingdoms, some cultures, have no unifying trait and yes, I pity them too.

"I cannot imagine living in a land that did not sing (though I myself am a very poor singer)..."

Of course you can't imagine it. That's because any land you lived in you'd sing in. One voice matters. Ealdormere doesn't sing, it thunders. That's the sound of a people. That once was a lone voice, then a couple of voices, then a few, then many, and then we shook the Known World and we still do. One
voice matters. You can shake the world with one voice if you're patient and generous and joyous.


Maybe those sad, silent Kingdoms haven't found a Colyne yet. Or a Thorfinna. Or a Hector. Or somebody else.

"...was I moved..."

Why? Because Marian's that good? Maybe (she is, of course).

Because she was one voice singing with joy about the truth she had seen and found? Maybe.

Maybe it was because in her history she acknowledged that so many individuals, working together, can create something utterly wonderful.

"...thank you..."

You're welcome.

Part of being a bard is being a true observer. You must observe truly the land and its people. You must observe your own interaction with the land and its people and frankly assess your effect, your power for good and your efficacy in wielding that power.

That's how you get better at what you do. That's how you best serve the

"I do indeed need to work more on reproducing a period style and wouldappreciate any input..."

Start with the toolbox. Got access to the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics?

Your present style will slide nicely into Germanic poetry. You'll like a flexible syllable count.

" you, he thinks that there is a fundamental connection between bards and the shaping of our reality..."

We write the songs that make the whole world sing. We write the songs of love and special things. We write the songs that make the young girls cry. Yes, we ARE Barry Manilow.

Excuse me. It slipped out.

We teach. We remind. We cajole. Some day ask me about DragonsHeart Guard and Haakon's dinner. That's several essays in one story and, like all good stories of the SCA, every word is true.

"Tomorrow I head out for A Day in the Country...I hope to perhaps see you there..."

No guarantees, but if Calum's up for a pig roast we shall see.

"Again, many, many thanks for this missive..."

That's what I'm here for. And remember, I'm from Ealdormere. That's what we all do.


Tuesday 9 June 2020

That's No Lady, That's My Leman: Translating modern jokes into SCA-speak

Master Hector of the Black Height (b. 2003)

After some research, including pre-600 C.E. Classical sources and a variety
of medieval literature and graphic art, I am comfortable in saying that
humour is period. So, it's reasonable to extrapolate that telling jokes is a
period pass-time. But what is a medieval joke?

"The Romans say that if you have a Frank for a friend, it is certain that he
is not your neighbour"
(from Cariadoc's "Miscellany", attributed to a ninth century Life of

You can borrow material from period sources, safe in the knowledge that
copyright has lapsed; Boccaccio's "Decameron" is a veritable gold-mine of
funny stories written in period (and a mother lode of smut, but that's
another essay). However, in general terms I think we can work from a basic
premise, that the modern sense of humour and the sense of humour of people
in period are pretty consistent. The vocabulary has changed; the reference
points are wildly different, but irony, cynicism, sarcasm and broad humour
remain constant.

So what?

If you feel like telling a joke and you don't know any period humour, take a
modern joke you like and translate it. You just have to keep the humour in

As I have written elsewhere, a good story has some ZING to it, a snappy
punchline that will elicit the desired response from the audience. Keep your
eyes on the prize and, whatever else you do to that favourite story,
preserve the punchline. If placing the joke in a medieval context changes
the punchline radically, it's not the same joke and may suffer in your
translation as a result. It may not suffer; just be aware that, if the joke
changes radically enough, you may have trouble telling it, that's all.

Analyse the joke. Some elements will stay the same. Others will require
embellishment to fit the period motif. Others will have to be changed
completely. Again, the more you deviate from the modern model you're
familiar with, the harder you're making this on yourself (and possibly on
your long-suffering audience).

Let's see how this works. Take the modern tale of the souvenir peddler at
Dublin Airport. He saw a wealthy Texan getting off the plane, came up to him
and said, "Sure and 'tis your lucky day. Due to dire financial straits, I am
forced to sell a prized possession held in me family for generations. Would
you be willing to pay me $500 for the skull of Brian Boru, High King of all
Ireland?" The Texan was suitably impressed and started off his vacation with
a nice new skull. The peddler walked off with $500 (in US dollars, no

A week later, the Texan was at Dublin airport to catch his plane home. He
was approached by the same peddler, obviously forgetful, who took him aside
and, due to dire financial straits, offered to sell the Texan the skull of
Brian Boru, High King of all Ireland. "Now hold on a second, pilgrim,"
snarled the Texan, "You sold me the skull of Brian Boru just a week ago.
What are you trying to pull here?"

The peddler thought for a second and replied, "Indeed, I sold you the skull
of the High King, but this is the skull of Brian Boru as a much younger

Insert rim-shot here.

How to translate this? Some elements have to stay the same. The same relic
sold twice, the second time from the younger version of the same person.
That's essential to the story and sets up the punchline. Relics are a very
period concept and interest, so this story will translate well. Indeed, the
crooked priest selling fake relics is a stock comedic character in period
(q.v. "Canterbury Tales").

Obviously the airport has to go, it's a blatant anachronism. Any medieval
travelling motif works in its place; pilgrimage, trade caravan, Viking raid,
crusade, whatever.

Some details can vary. Does our crafty peddler sell the false relic to a
pilgrim? Is a frightened monk trading his life for a holy relic to a
rampaging Viking? Will a gullible infidel crusader hand more Frankish silver
to a crafty Levantine? In all cases, the characters and situation set up the
sale of two alleged relics to the traveller. Pick a traveller to suit your
audience, pick a logical cause for that character to travel in period, add
the local peddler and set up that same, modern, punchline.

One aside; is the peddler in this story a fool, selling the same relic over
and over, or a crafty crook with a bad memory? Either way the joke works;
how you sell the character is a question of personal taste and skill as a
storyteller. Reliable material helps, but good storytelling technique is
both period and necessary.

Other genres of modern stories translate nicely. Military jokes tend to be
ironic, cynical and/or deprecating, often at the expense of somebody else,
usually superior officers or another branch of military service. If you see
the modern military as a class-conscious, hierarchical society, the
parallels with medieval feudal structures become obvious. Other jokes,
usually at the expense of a specific class or trade, work well too, both in
a medieval and an SCA context.

Q. What do you call a ship full of heralds/priests/barristers/Knights/rent
collectors foundering ten leagues off shore?
A. A good start.

Shaggy dog stories can be translated too. Just remember, a shaggy dog story
is built upon long narrative full of extraneous detail, leading eventually
to the grim, inevitable punchline. If you're not comfortable spinning out
medieval-style narrative for a live audience, stay away from shaggy dogs.

One category of stories that does not lend itself to this kind of
translation is religious stories. Many of these stories begin "There was a
priest, a minister and a rabbi." or some variation on that theme. Apart from
the SCA being non-religious by decree, to avoid offending anybody, such
modern jokes are built on a cultural foundation of religious tolerance and
even ecumenism. Neither tolerance nor ecumenism are period concepts. I
suggest most of these "jokes", in period, might well have the same
punchline, involving the two "wrong" clergy burning at the stake. That's
just not funny. I think most people today would call such jokes offensive in
the extreme.

This is not to say you can't use clergy in your jokes: you have to look at
them as supporting players (the clerk who can read) or sources of irony
(Boccaccio is riddled with references to the stock comedic character, the
randy priest, usually coupled with a bored housewife. Exactly). And gentle
commentary on religion can be acceptable, especially when the butt of the
joke isn't the religion but the religious.

Q. Why are the hills of Lebanon bare?
A. Because every Frank in Christendom has a splinter of the True Cross
(from Cariadoc's "Miscellany", otherwise unattributed).

Not all jokes will translate, and just because you can hammer that round peg
into the square hole doesn't mean it's a good idea.

Q. How many Knights does it take to change the torch in a wall sconce?
A. Two: one to unscrew the torch and the other to dress the burns.

Yes, you can create a parallel to light bulb jokes, kind of. It really
doesn't work all that well in a medieval context, though; it's a
technology-based joke and the technology really doesn't translate well. We
all understand the torch is supposed to be a light bulb, but why would you
unscrew a torch?

You can tell jokes that rely on the tension inherent between medieval
concepts and modern life. The television series "History Bites" proves this,
brilliantly, though it achieves this result by relying on costumes, settings
and effects a storyteller doesn't have available. Without props you can
extend this concept to comedic tension between the SCA and 21st century
reality, too.

Q. What does a Knight need to make a phone call?
A. A belt, chain, spurs and a quarter, but only at a touch-tone phone. The
buttons don't call "light".

Q. What does a Pelican need to make a phone call?
A. A medallion and fifty cents, because that poor person whose car broke
down on the way to the event has to call the auto league first.

Q. What does a Laurel need to make a phone call?
A. Nothing; phones aren't period. Laurels use E-mail; hypocrisy **is**

Jokes built upon the SCA's fit with the 21st century can be funny and may
well resonate with your audience. They also drag modern images, ideas and
vocabulary into the event site, which some participants may not appreciate.
Keep such jokes for post-revels or local meetings.

To get a feel for period humour read funny books from in period. Chaucer is
one source of humorous characters and situations, Boccaccio is another.
Consider reading Castiglione's "The Courtier", in part because it's simply
an unsurpassed portrait of its times. In this context, various forms of
humour, starting with irony, are used by Castiglione to illustrate points
being made in the central dialectic of that brilliant book. I think you'll
see that setting may change, social structures may change (very important in
comedy of manners) and vocabulary definitely will change, but people stay
pretty constant, both as characters to build jokes around and as an audience
looking for a laugh.

So dredge up the funny story that works around the water cooler, change its
setting, dress up its characters in garb and tell it at the feast table. And
never forget, one of the reasons the story is funny is because you're
comfortable with the material and you tell it well. Think through your
translation, tell your story with your eye always on reaching the punchline,
entertain those around you and feel good about developing your skills as a

The invaluable contributions of His Excellency Corwyn Galbraith to this
essay are acknowledged with gratitude. "Take my Baron. Please" (after
Youngman, mid 20th century).

Monday 4 July 2016

Medieval Debate Poetry

By THLaird Colyne Stewart, for the Trillium War School AS 51 (2016)

General Background Information on Debate Poetry

Various scholars have differing opinions on just what qualifies as a “true” debate poem, but for the purposes of this class a debate poem is any poem wherein two or more different points of view expound on a topic (two or three being the most common). The points of view in debate poetry are expressed by speakers which can be almost anything, including people, inanimate objects, personifications (of emotions, seasons, etc.), or religious figures. Popular pairings were the body and the soul, as well as various avians (the nightingale was used a lot). Medieval people tended to think in binary (as many people still do today), with everything having a polar opposite. This way of thinking fits the debate model very well. If there was a third voice it was often a judge who had been invoked to choose a winner of the debate.

Debate poetry has its roots in the Greek and Roman eclogue. Eclogues were short passages of any genre, including longer poetic works. Ancient writers such as Theocritus (3rd century BCE), Virgil, Ovid, Nemesianus, Calpurnius Siculus all wrote eclogues that would have been available to medieval readers.

Debate poems first appeared in Medieval European literature in the 8th and 9th centuries during the Carolingian Renassaince but reached the height of their popularity from the 12th to the 16th.

Debate poems were written in Latin to begin with. However, in the 13th century they began to appear in several vernacular languages including English, French, Italian and German.

The subject of love in these debates was very popular from the 12th to 15th centuries. Other topics will be discussed below.

Thursday 19 March 2015

Writing a Leich

By THLaird Colyne Stewart, March AS 49 (2015)

Wanting to write a poem about my squire-brother, HE Berend van der Eych, I first wanted to choose a proper genre. Berend, having a Dutch persona, would have grown up hearing the work of the minnesingers. I therefore chose to go with German poetics and settled on the priamel as my genre. Priamel were a type of German poem that threw around a lot of seemingly unrelated ideas until tying them together at the end. So the lines of this priamel throw out a lot of details about different stuff, but in the end we learn that it is all stuff that Berend has done.

While the genre of the poem is the priamel, the form I used is called leich. The leich was a lyric form, similar to the French descort, which was widely used between circa 1200 and 1350. Poems written as a leich were designed to be sung. It could use irregular stanza forms and could be non-repetitive (or it could use a standard stanza form and repeat verses). Regardless of its regularity or irregularity of stanzic form, it was isostrophic (which meant all stanzas conform to the first stanza). They generally had a lot of short rhyming units and could use different types of rhyme.

So I built a stanza form of two 8-syllable lines, followed by two lines of 7-syllables, two lines of 6-syllables, and ending with a line of 10-syllables. This is not a standard stanza form; I wanted to be able to enjoy the freedom of having the option of having an irregular stanza form. Due to the irregular line lengths I did not settle on any specific meter. The lines were rhyming couplets (AABBCC) while the last line (D) would rhyme with the last lines of the following stanzas. I decided to go with four stanzas, and split them equally in half (so two stanzas per half). I did include a little tiny bit of repetition by having the first three 10-syllable lines start with the same word (which I also decided to render in capital letters). I mainly used end-rhyme, though there is some alliteration in there too.

A knife so sharp it cuts the sun,
Bright glinting on the helmet done,
The hound baying at his heel,
The forks forged from shining steel,
Acorns grow in a field,
Rodent spread on his shield,
AND in his harness ventures forth to fight;
Soap he renders out of the fat,
Pounding rivets, pummeled, hammered flat,
The quill held in calloused hand,
Letters wrought, the small, the grand,
Mixing ink in white shell,
Pounding on training pell,
AND learning values from his worthy knight.

Reading all books that come to hand,
Behind the thrones of Royals stands,
Carves the meat in feasting hall,
Fearing not the weather’s squall,
Brewing beer, and sweet wine,
Walking through both oak, pine,
AND aids his squire-brothers as he can;
Teaching both in hall and the field,
His worth of measure well revealed,
Cooking over pit of fire,
Being knightly he ‘spires,
All these works by one soul,
Done not for writ or scroll,
THESE are the things that make a mighty man.

Writing a Shakespearean Sonnet

By THLaird Colyne Stewart

An early 16th century form, introduced and developed by other poets, but made most famous by Shakespeare. It consists of fourteen lines structured as three quatrains and a couplet. The third quatrain usually introduces an unexpected thematic twist (volta). In the sonnets written by Shakespeare the volta usually comes in the couplet and usually summarizes the theme of the poem or introduces a new look at the theme. The meter is almost always iambic pentameter. The usual rhyme scheme is abab, cdcd, efef, gg.

For my sonnet I decided to write about my belt-sister, HE Mahault of Swynford. Specifically, I wanted to talk about the wide and diverse service she has rendered to her kingdom over the years. Therefore, I decided to compare the kingdom to a grand hall, and talk about how her service had helped build it.

The pillars of the grandest house are built,
By deeds both great and small the bricks are laid,
And with hard work the walls and floors are gilt,
With blood and sweat the mighty mansion’s made.

In the second quatrain I compared her to the Roman goddess of abundance and prosperity and make mention of the hardships she has had to overcome.

The mason is Abundantia on earth,
Her toils in both hall and field are great,
Long laboured maiden held in deepest worth,
Who does not fear the fight with fickle fate.

My volta came in the third quatrain, where I switch perspective and talk about her willingness to express her heart, even if that opinion may be unpopular, and her propensity to champion the accomplishments of others. I again invoked a Roman goddess, this time one of forgiveness.

Clementia forgive her forthright voice,
Which rises in defense of those struck mute,
To honest live, herself to be, her choice,
Who can then dare to bold denounce her route?

For my closing couplet I went with a dedication.

So do I grace her gifting words I penned,
To sister, mentor, and my closest friend.

As a title I settled on Crossing for two reasons. The first is that her byname Swynford means “swine ford” (which is a crossing). It also refers to the people who have denounced her route over the years.

The final poem read as follows:

Also for Mahault
By THLaird Colyne Stewart, February AS 49 (2015)

The pillars of the grandest house are built,
By deeds both great and small the bricks are laid,
And with hard work the walls and floors are gilt,
With blood and sweat the mighty mansion’s made.

The mason is Abundantia on earth,
Her toils in both hall and field are great,
Long laboured maiden held in deepest worth,
Who does not fear the fight with fickle fate.

Clementia forgive her forthright voice,
Which rises in defense of those struck mute,
To honest live, herself to be, her choice,
Who can then dare to bold denounce her route?

So do I grace her gifting words I penned,
To sister, mentor, and my closest friend.

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Storytelling: The Art of Oral Recitation

By THLaird Colyne Stewart, March AS 49 (2015)

This article is to examine the art of storytelling within the SCA. It will strongly be coloured by my own experiences and exposure within (and outside) the Society, but I have tried to make it as broad as possible. The author is also thankful for the input of Kitta Mjoksiglandi in the writing of this article.

There are many aspects of storytelling this article could explore: how to write a story, how stories were told in period, how to tell a story, and so on. I think that is too much to try and cover in one article, so I will instead focus on one of those topics—namely, the act of reciting a story to an audience.


Want to know how to find stories and where to tell them? Then read on!

Finding stories to tell (and giving proper credit)

As a storyteller, one of the first things you’re going to need to do is—of course—build a repertoire of stories. Where, you may ask, would one find such stories to tell? There are various places to go to find material to recite.

Firstly, there are period sources. Since we are a medieval re-enactment group, it only makes sense to learn to recite the same tales that may have been told in period. You can find these stories in various medieval books that are quite often freely available online. Duke Cariadoc of the Bow has compiled a great list of period sources in his article “In-persona Storytelling” (which is included in the Links below). As well as telling these invented tales, you could teach your audience bits of history by telling them about the Battle of Stirling Bridge, or the sack of Constantinople.

You could also learn stories that have been written by modern day bards within the SCA (or other re-enactment groups). Many bards have shared their stories online. However, when telling a tale written by someone else, it is only courteous to give that author credit. Though I doubt in period if a minstrel would bother giving credit for the song he just sung, in our modern world it is only polite to do. Also, when telling a story by an extant contemporary, you should try to stick to the original words as closely as possible.

Another option is to write your own material. You could write a story based on the exploits of someone you know, or write a fable, or mythologize your home group…the possibilities are quite endless. When writing your own story to tell you also have the option of making it as modern or as period in form as you desire.

What to tell when

Not all stories are appropriate at all times. A bawdy tale is great for around a rowdy campfire, but not necessarily apt for a dignified feast. Likewise, you may be at an in-persona circle that would not be so welcoming to a “no sh@t, there I was” type story. It is always important to gauge the crowd, see how they are reacting to the other performers, and use that information to help you choose what tale to tell. If the circle is fast-paced and lively, you may not want to tell a long, slow story (you may want to save that for a more sedate circle).

Where to tell your tales

When people think of bards performing in the SCA, often the first image that comes to mind is of the bardic circle around a campfire. And while this is indeed an excellent place to tell a story, it is far from the only available venue. The feast hall offers different options for the telling of a tale. You could tell a story to the entire hall, or to an individual table, or you could entertain the servers in-between removes.

You could also tell a tale during court (though this should only be done at the invitation of the Royalty or Nobility holding said court). At a camping event you could wander the site telling short stories to passersby.


There are several techniques you can use when telling stories to make the act more enjoyable for both you and your audience. These techniques may not necessarily all be period, but they are useful tools for the modern or re-enactment storyteller regardless.


One of the techniques I have come across in a lot of stories from many different cultures is that of repetition. That repetition can be used a few different ways. One way is to have a refrain that is used every so often. For instance, Dame TSivia bas Tamara v’Amberview has been telling “the camel story” since the 1970s, which relies on the refrain

And the winds blow a ' back and forth. And a ' baaaack...and forth.

Another is to construct the story in such a way that incidents repeat (usually in threes). For instance, I once read a Native story where the hero encounters three animals who need his help. He aids each one, and in turn receives a gift. He then faces three trials which he overcomes using the three gifts (using each one in the order in which he received them).

Repetition aids in recall, so working repetitive elements into your story will help your audience remember what is going on, and will help them remember the tale after you are done the telling.

For more on repetition in story telling, see Martin Shaw’s article on the subject in the links section.

Keep it brief (at least at first)

Something that storytellers struggle with constantly is trying to figure out how long their stories should be. The answer is highly variable. If you are just starting out, I always suggest that shorter is better. If you are going to be telling stories for the first time you are better off aiming for something under five minutes in length. Though stories can be much longer, I have seen storytellers kill a bardic circle by telling a lengthy tale that no one was interested in hearing. As mentioned earlier, you need to read your crowd, and if you are still learning how to do that, brevity is your ally. Shorter stories are also useful for telling in situations where you do not have a lot of time (such as the kind of stories Duke Cariadoc of the Bow tells to servers while they pause between removes).

Here’s an example of a short tale I told at a circle in honour of a Calontiri guest:

At our first Pennsic War, my wife and I were at a merchant’s when a column of Calontiri warriors trudged by. They were dragging their weapons and singing what sounded like a dirge. I remarked to the merchant that our side must have lost, as my kingdom was allied with Calontir. “No,” said the merchant, “you won. Those are happy Calontiri.”

Gestures and pacing

Many storytellers make use of hand gestures and moving around their space while telling a tale, but storytellers are by no means unanimous on whether this should be done, or, if it is, just how much it should be done.

While pacing around and moving your hands can draw emphasis to what you are saying, it can also distract from the story. Master Fridrikr Tomasson is quite capable of keeping a hall enthralled with just the power of his words, but other storytellers may find it difficult to obtain that same level of rapt attention without using their body. As always, you should do what feels natural to you.

Just remember, if you do use hand and body movement during your tellings, do not let them detract from the tale itself. If you spend too long orchestrating and practicing your movements, it will end up detracting from your story. Your telling will not seem organic but rehearsed.

Don’t get fixated on details

Unless you are telling a fellow bards work, do not try to memorize the story you are telling. If you try to remember every little detail you may find yourself forgetting them and become flustered during the telling. I is better to learn the story in a kind of point form in your mind, which you can elaborate on as you wish during the telling. For instance remembering that the hero was wearing a purple shirt when the colour has no bearing on anything is a detail that you don’t need to learn. For instance, let’s look at this short story I once wrote:

It was on an unusually warm winter day that members of Ardchreag’s populace traveled to the canton of Skeldergate, to the inn owned by Berus Jarl and his Lady, Countess Marion. Upon arriving we found tables laid and awaiting us, while the appetizing smells of meat on a stick wafted from the kitchens where Streonwald and Etian could be heard bellowing. We claimed a table in front of the Thrones of Ealdormere, spreading out our crafts and gear. Berend worked on his tablet woven belt, while Eirik and Colyne poured over notes. Thorfinna disappeared into the vault of children where she was later found happily colouring.

As I returned from the merchants, my arms laden with goods, I heard the sounds of commotion. A fight had broken out! I ran to my table to find some of my companions under attack! Eirik and Wulfgang were in the centre of a swarm of ruffians, brandishing axes and swords. I made a move to join them, then saw that there was no need. Eirik is quite handy with a blade, and was cutting down his foes with impunity. Wulfgang, finding himself pressed by a huge man bearing a bar stool in has hands, proceeded to chase his assailant about the hall, before finally chopping him to the floor.

When it was over, when the tables had been righted, the blood cleaned, and the ale pored, an exhausted but beaming Wulfgang sat at our table.

“Did you see me?” he asked. “Did you see me chase that guy?”

We responded yes. Then we added that his attacker had been no mere ‘guy’.

“Who was it?” he asked.

“Berus,” we said.

His jaw dropped.

“The Kingdom Earl Marshal,” we went on.

The jaw dropped lower.

“Sir Berus,” we added.

All present then laughed long and hard at the expression on the face of a man who is usually jokingly referred to as a man who has none.

I just wonder, once Wulfgang has all his armour together, and first walks onto the lists, will Berus remember him?

The only relevant facts that you need to remember to tell this tale are:

  • The protagonist went to an event with someone named Wulfgang
  • Wulfgang took part in a boffer battle
  • Wulfgang chased around someone on the field and was quite pleased with himself
  • Wulfgang was completely shocked to find out it had been the kingdom’s earl  marshal (and a knight to boot)

Don’t worry if your story is different every time you tell it

As mentioned above, you don’t need to memorize every little detail, which means your story will end up different every time you tell it. That’s fine. In fact, many storytellers will reshape their story to better fit the situation they are in or the audience they are telling it to. For instance, while your story about a certain count getting wasted and running around naked on the battlefield until he runs into the queen may be appropriate for an adult’s only fire, its not so appropriate to tell in the marketplace with children listening…unless you change the details. So, instead of being drunk, the count is merely acting silly but still feels embarrassed for his behaviour before his queen.

Plus, variation is the spice of life. Your audiences will merge over time, but even if certain listeners have heard all your stories before, they will still seem fresh and interesting if they know all the details won’t be the same every time they hear them.

If you make a mistake, keep going

Mistakes happen, and one of the worst things a performer can do when they make one is to pause and admit it. If you make a mistake, just keep going. Most of the time your audience will not even know you got anything wrong. If you find you left out something intrinsic to the plot, you can work it back in at a different point. If you forgot to mention that your hero was supposed to find a sword back in the castle, have a squire appear and give the sword to the hero later.

Involve your audience

One way to keep your audience’s attention is to get them involved in the story. An easy method to do this is by taking advantage of having a repeated refrain, and having the audience say it with you. They will soon be waiting eagerly for your cues telling them they get to say it again.

Incorporating songs or poems

If you want, and if it fits in with your story, you can incorporate songs or poems into your telling. These could be used as refrains and a way to involve your audience. This would be especially appropriate if you are telling a Norse story, as people in the sagas often recited short poems. The only caveat I would suggest is to keep these bits short and to the point.

Telling a story while in persona

Rather than telling a story as yourself, you can tell it from the point of view of your persona. This adds a certain verisimilitude to your performance and is a great technique to use at period-only circles. Things to keep in mind are what stories would your persona know, and how would someone from your time and place tell a story? As mentioned before, a link to Duke Cariadoc’s article on this subject is included below.

Props (doll, puppets, talking sticks)

While the use of props is almost certainly not a technique used by period storytellers, it is a very useful modern tool (especially when telling stories to children). Dolls or puppets can be used to act out the story, or even tell the story with (or instead of) the storyteller. The talking stick (or conch shell or other item) can be used to pass from person to person, signifying whose turn it is to speak. These props can also be used as mnemonic devices, helping your audience remember certain details by associating them with specific props.

Signature beginning and/or ending

One last technique I’ll touch on is using a specific opening and or/closing to your stories, which are unique to you. When your audience hears it they will come to recognize it and it will help place  them in a receptive state of mind. Possible openings are “I saw it with my own eyes” or “when the world was young” while a possible ending could be “and for all I know they are fighting/dancing/singing/eating/etc still.”


Links: Storytelling (general)

Effective Storytelling: A Guide for Beginners,

Tim Shepherd’s Storytelling Resources for Storytellers,

Links: Period Storytelling

Medieval Storytelling: Engaging the Next Generation,

Links: SCA

THLaird Colyne Stewart is a student of the written word. He is the Curator of the Atheneaum Hectoris, the Precentor of the Scriptorium, the Royal Historian of Ealdormere, the Baronial Historian of Septentria, a chronicler and a member of the Bardic College of Ealdormere. He is a past Bard of Septentria and one of the founders of the now defunct Septentrian Performing Arts Troupe. In the modern world he holds a degree in English and Creative Writing and has studied writing, storytelling and folklore.