Monday 2 June 2014

SCA Genealogy as a Reflection of Medieval Practice

SCA Genealogy as a Reflection of Medieval Practice

by Master Hector of the Black Height

"Hear, O King, the names of your line, and marvel at the glory of the North." So begins my version of the genealogy of the Kings of Ealdormere within the SCA. Just as today, people in medieval times were interested in their family history, their roots. The causes of medieval interest had little to do with idle curiosity or a desire to obtain an armorial plaque for the den. Medieval genealogy was of great concern to feudal nobility because genealogy established one's right to land and power.

Who can forget the opening scenes of Shakespeare's Henry V, where two bishops wrestle with the arcane implications of Sallic Law? That whole legal debate, and the warfare that followed, was about rights of succession and inheritance. In a society based upon inheritance through blood relation, genealogical study becomes an active field. Genealogy was the means medieval nobility used to stake claims to inherited titles and the lands and wealth which went with those titles. Every time a King or other ruling noble died, genealogical lists would be consulted to determine who had the strongest claim through kinship to the throne or title left vacant.

This is not to say that genealogy was an absolute science and a binding factor in medieval politics. Just as with statistics, genealogy can be used -- and was used in period with alarming frequency -- to prove whatever point a particular person or political faction wants to prove. Genealogy did not only provide justification in period, it provided rationalization, often after the fact. Thus Henry V's impassioned defence of Sallic Law; it was convenient for Hal to accept an obscure legal convention which gave him a claim to the throne of France. That convention rested upon a foundation of accurate genealogy, however.

A wise person once said "There is no sweeter sound in any man's language than the sound of his own name." Genealogy, especially of the noble, can be an exercise in self-aggrandisement. With a little creative interpretation or some careful digging, it isn't hard to connect most European hereditary nobility today with any other hereditary noble, at least as infinitesimally distant cousins. The same rationale drives modern genealogists and trivia buffs to prove that George Washington had royal blood in his veins, or that John F. Kennedy was related to the Mona Lisa (I believe experts claim a distant relation on Kennedy's father's side). In period such tangential ties could be used to suggest rights and privileges to be claimed, lands to be annexed and family importance to be celebrated.

Genealogy suggests a record spanning generations, and when establishing claims to nobility the depth of the claim can matter. Within the SCA Master Calum Creachodora, as a noble Irishman from ancient days, recites his persona genealogy back through the male line for seven generations, every time he is formally introduced. This proves to his listener beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is truly of a noble Irish line and not some johnny-come-lately, not worthy to be spoken with, traded with or fought with. In a land full of kings like early Ireland, station and standing were important, and Ireland was not unique in this class consciousness. The hidalgo of Spain, the various claims made during the Wars of the Roses, the list goes on and on.

This celebration of one's forebears led to the inclusion of genealogical tables, much like Biblical "begats", in the repertoires of court poets and skalds of the middle ages. In fact, in Scottish noble households of later periods there was a specific artist and historian, called the Sennachie, whose job was the research, maintenance and recital of the Clan chief's genealogy. Nobility would sit for hours and hear their family trees recited, step by step, back to the days of myth. This recitation could include learned discourse on fine points of succession and tales of deeds done by generations past. For example, in late-period Scotland (and after) it was common to trace noble (even of minor nobility) ancestry back to a royal line. Which royal line one chose depended on the fashion of the day. When Irish history was in vogue most hereditary Scots nobles could claim descent from some Irish king or other, according to their various Sennachies. When Irishry faded from fashion these same nobles would discover new blood ties to Scottish, English or even Danish royalty. Some European noble genealogies suggest biblical ties, directly or indirectly (my own family line claims an ancient, vague relationship with a servant of St. John the Baptist), and in far Japan the Imperial line traced (and today traces) its roots back directly to the Shinto sun-goddess.

Genealogy gives legitimacy and respectability to the institution of nobility. This has been carried over to the SCA, where there is an abiding interest in the history of the institution of the Crown or the Coronet. People recognize that the succession of Kings and Queens are landmarks in the history of the Kingdoms of the Society and the people who play the SCAdian game with royal leadership. As a result, there is an ongoing interest in these lists of names. Some Kingdoms institutionalize their royal genealogy, by reciting the names of every King and Queen gone before at each Coronation or Investiture. In the East Kingdom, advancement in the Eastrealm Bardic College requires that a candidate be able to recite from memory the complete royal genealogy of the East. This requirement keeps alive a tradition going back to skalds and sennachies from a millennium ago.

Closer to home, I maintained a genealogy of the Princes of Ealdormere from the first Prince, David I, to the last, Berus. At that first Prince's first court I recited his genealogy back six generations, through the Middle Kings who had ruled over the Crown Principality of Ealdormere, then through the first Champion of the Region of Ealdormere, and then to mythical archetypes, the wolf, the wilds and the will (to achieve independence). This lineage gave respectability and venerability to what could be argued was a brand-new institution. I had a choice, and with the Coronet's consent I elected to celebrate the patina of age rather than the shine of youth.

As a SCAdian genealogist, I could have traced the line of Ealdormere through the Kings of the Middle and, rather than branching off to the local roots of politically inexpedient champions, stayed with the Midrealm line back to Cariadoc I, and then back to the Kings of the West and through them to Diana Listmaker's party in AS I. My protégée Zahra and I have done this actually; it's a fun read but as a list for recitation it is cumbersome and long.. When David and Tangwystl sat the thrones of the Middle at Pennsic XX -- several summers ago -- they had as many direct royal forebears as Queen Elizabeth II has in her line! As the SCA has entered its fourth decade, royal genealogies are becoming huge. This is a fact genealogical performers must be aware of, lest they bore their audiences to tears with name after name. After a while, the lists become numbing and incomprehensible, at which point the challenge is to make the lists palatable while not expanding them to the point of silliness with extraneous text.

The SCA's revolving door to the throne room means that there are repeat royalty. This is a quandary period genealogists never had to deal with (their dead kings seem to have stayed dead!). Some SCA genealogists ignore this issue. Others number the reigns of those who have been multiple Kings or Queens. In Ealdormere our Prince at Pennsic XXV, Roak, was called Roak by some and Roak III by others. Is he the same person? Of course he is! At the same time, there were running jokes about how much Roak III resembled his grandfather, Roak II. This is assumed venerability aping the realities of hereditary nobility, but it emphasizes continuity. One debate which will never be resolved is that of different people with the same names. For example, Ealdormere has had two Princes named David, David I and David II, and now King David. All three Davids are the same man. What happens when another David wins the Crown? Is he David II? David III? David IV? Is he another David entirely, in the eyes of genealogists and poets? Does it matter? Not really, but in a hobby one sometimes learns to both split hairs and enjoy the process. After all, SCA genealogy is a function of the creation of royal orders of precedence, which means that some heralds are genealogists too.

Right now the list of Crowns and Coronets of Ealdormere is a manageable size. My version for public recital includes kennings for each Sovereign and Consort. These are a form of flattery, but they also liven up the recitation of what could sound like a page from a phone book. Kennings should be short, so they keep performance time manageable. Duke Laurelyn Darksbane has for years published The Lay of the Midrealm Kings, with a rhyming quatrain for each reign. The Middle has had well over 60 reigns by the time you read this, so Laurelyn's Lay has become rather cumbersome for public performance (though with the right audience it might make for an engaging evening by the fire at a camping event). If genealogy is going to have any significance in the living culture of the SCA people have to hear it. If they're going to hear it, it has to be entertaining. One advantage of the use of kennings is that they can be used to distinguish between reigns. In the David/David quandary posed above, I would probably use a kenning to elaborate on the name and thus have David Deershanks I, David Deershanks II and, say, David Longspear I. Like any other written art, it's a matter of opinion; you don't like my version, write your own and share it!

There is, of course, the other side of the coin. What does the genealogist do about the line of the Middle, where there was a King named Thaid and a King named Tadashi, and they are one and the same man? I think the sole sensible answer is to avoid this particular bout of navel-gazing and press on with life!

Just as in period, genealogy can leave gaps. I was reading the History of the Royal City of Eoforwic a few months ago and found that, in the days of Alen's proscription of Ealdormere, it was not Yog and Hanora who were stripped of their status of Regional Champions, it was their successors. I'd forgotten there was a second set of champion and consort before the proscription; I was dismayed to realize I had left out John of Slaughterfield and Deirdre of Carlysle from the noble genealogy of the North for five years. I have rectified that error! In my line they have taken their rightful place and their names add a generation to the venerability of the institution of the Coronet and, now, the Crown.

I update my version of the Line of the North with each Sovereign and Consort, and every year or two I am asked to recite it at a feast. Usually I am asked by a former Prince or Princess, but I never cease to be amazed at the popular response the whole Line receives. It serves as an encapsulation of past history, a reminder of days gone by and deeds to celebrate. The passing of royalty punctuate the events of our lives in the Society. In the rhythm of the names people find both continuity and change, and in the transitory, ephemeral world of the SCA that seems to have great value. The Line of the North is about Royalty, but when it is recited with dignity and solemnity, everyone listens and cheers when it is done. There is entertainment value to the recitation (I hope), but I believe that the cheer is really for ourselves.

No comments:

Post a Comment