This Unique Activity Hasn’t Been Stopped by COVID

By day, Eva Duplan is a Texas-based illustrator quarantined in her San Antonio home, but in her free time, she’s known as Emma de Davyntre in the Kingdom of Ansteorra. Duplan belongs to the Society of Creative Anachronism (SCA), a community pursuing research and re-creation of pre-17th century skills, arts, combat, and culture. Due to COVID-19, the historical group known for disconnecting from modern technology is retreating to uncharted land: the internet.

While the movement sounds niche, the SCA attracts history buffs from around the world, garnering nearly 30,000 members. The organization’s “Known World”—the areas it serves—is divided into 20 regions, called “kingdoms.” Within these kingdoms, there can be hundreds of more localized groups. Duplan’s Kingdom of Ansteorra includes Texas and Oklahoma, but SCA’s reach can be found in countries around the globe, ranging from Japan to Australia.

But, how does a group built on emulating the very distant past survive online?

There’s no ignoring that the SCA has a commodity that’s difficult to achieve in a COVID-19 world: escapism from the present day. While the organization’s structure seems like it would capsize under the weight of the virus, it’s staying afloat—even thriving.

Members undoubtedly missing human connection gather online, helping to bring a piece of history home. “With access to online gatherings all across the known world, we can participate even in events across the world if we wanted,” says Duplan.

Nearly 65,000 people like the SCA Facebook page and an unofficial subreddit, r/SCA, has more than 9,000 members. Immersive Zoom events, YouTube streams with online classes, Discord chats, and online guild discussions have become arenas where members can mingle with other history fans from all over.

INSIDER TIPAt the outset of coronavirus closures and social distancing, the SCA held its first virtual event. Italian Salone di Fiesole featured a virtual classroom of workshops on everything from Venetian clothing to beauty regimens–and a fancy Italian May Day Ball, of course.

The SCA was founded in 1966. Its current president, John Fulton (also known as Duke John the Bearkiller), first fell in love with the organization in 1974, when he was invited to join at a science fiction convention. Now in his sixties, Fulton has watched the organization advance from novice fun to an intricate, flourishing culmination of research. With the ascension of the internet “everything just exploded”—in a good way.

“Everything is a lot more accurate and information is more available,” Fulton says. “Because of the growth of cosplay and other reenactment organizations, the amount of information with the quality of what we make and what we produce and expect has just gone beyond anything I would have recognized when I first got in.”

The same online access that has helped the SCA flourish is keeping it afloat during COVID-19. “The thing that’s probably going to ultimately save the organization is that most folks just have no problems communicating,” he shares.

Dressing the Part

Capturing the zeitgeist of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, costume and armor work is practically a crowning achievement.

“As a sociologist, I yearn to understand people by their stories,” says Gigi Coulson (also known as Mistress Giata Magdalena Alberti), a member of the Board of Directors for SCA. “Learning the stories of historical women really appealed to me, plus, dressing up in silks and getting to feel really pretty. I mean, that was all a draw.”

Coulson, who’s been in the SCA for 10 years, is an expert in the socio-cultural anthropology of Italy—especially life as it pertained to women. “I’m looked at in the society as a peer, someone who has achieved what we call a laurel,” she explains. Coulson was crowned with laurel leaves for her art in teaching others about pre-17th century Italy.

Joe Goddard (CC BY-NC 2.0)

If Coulson lived in Renaissance Italy, she’d likely rule it. Her adroitness and attention to detail have allowed her to teach various classes and recreate them with precision.

While the SCA is open to all levels of costuming, Coulson’s rigorous research makes her wardrobe feel like relics from a museum.

“Usually, I start with a painting. I’ll find out about a woman in Italy. I’ll find out where she lived, what her name was, who she was the daughter of, who she married,” she details. “I find out tidbits about her life from material culture.” She examines every area of her subject’s life and reads books by historical costumers.

Each year, Coulson visits Italy to conduct more research and participate in other historical events. “I tend to look for things like dowries and wills because that lists the clothing and accessories a woman is taking with her into marriage…and special items that she is willing to someone upon her death,” she explains.

If Coulson can’t make a garment herself, she’ll find a skilled costume designer to help her make a look that’s as historically accurate as possible. “Like I said, I’m a geek,” she laughs. “So I just like to dive in feet first.”

It’s All About the People

Come for the historic fun, stay for the friendships.

“I have made some really deep friendships through the SCA, through just spending time with someone and especially when you’re disconnected from the world,” shares Coulson. She finds that she’s sharing vulnerability and a piece of herself when she talks to people in the SCA.

“A lot of people think it’s silly to feel as passionate about history as we do,” she says. “I think that the shared connection of history brains helps foster connections almost immediately.”

For people like President Fulton, those deep friendships can lead to something more. Fulton first met his wife at an SCA event. She’s a “wonderful artist,” he says, and Fulton most enjoys taking in the “magnificent research and expertise” throughout the organization.

Phil Reed (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

As we mitigate a constantly disrupted world with news notifications and social algorithms that misconstrue our worth, diving into history feels like an opportunity to grab the reins back. To SCA members, it’s a chance to find the common denominator between themselves and the past.

“A strain of similarity I see in people in the SCA and people who love history is compassion and empathy,” shares Coulson. “They can look at someone in the past and see the similarities instead of just the differences. I think they’re also willing to do that in the present day.”

Coming Together During the Pandemic

To Richard Le Mons (also known as Seigneur Etienne Le Mons d’Anjou), the SCA has been a comfort during the COVID-19 pandemic.

After his husband came down with COVID in August, his friends in the SCA came together to support Le Mons’ family. From heating pads to air purifiers, the couple’s home quickly filled with care packages from members around the country.

“[The SCA has] been eye-opening and just such a joy to be part of,” says Le Mons, who has participated alongside his husband for the last 10 years. He brought his interest in poetry to the organization after years of teaching English composition, but he soon found a love for calligraphy and illumination. He currently serves as the Society Minister of Arts and Sciences.

“It’s wonderful to have the community,” he says, “I can’t even say how nice it is to be able to log on and see someone’s face on a Zoom chat.”

Le Mons has also been staying connected through classes and virtual scavenger hunts, inspiring fellow members to research topics and hunt for information online. “All of the Arts and Sciences that we’re doing is in preparation for us being able to get back together, but it’s holding us together at the same time,” he says.

Phil Reed (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Through racial injustices and the global health crisis, staying connected online has helped Coulson “mentally and spiritually” with “the increasing amount of hopefulness I have for this world in these stressful and turbulent times.”

Between the SCA and her other historical ventures, Coulson has garnered thousands of online friends. “A lot of them are women of color, people of color that look like me and have endured the same struggles I have breaking into a space that has not traditionally represented us well,” says Coulson.

What Will the SCA Look Like in a Post-COVID World?

While holding onto the past, the SCA looks to the future. Overcoming COVID-19 “won’t be magic, but we’ll get past it,” says Le Mons.

“What I’m hoping is that the SCA learns from what has happened during COVID and the strength that the online digital footprint can give us,” Le Mons continues. “The ability to connect outside of our events, to keep us a little bit closer, open up learning so it’s more accessible to people who can’t go to a conference, and just expand on what we have.”

“The SCA is a haven for those who want to study history,” shares Coulson. “I will always have wonderful memories of magical moments and a place to call home in the SCA, no matter where I go from here. I want that for anyone else who loves history.”

See more at Fodor's Travel