Authenticity and the Bardic Circle

The bardic circle is perhaps the most popular and best known expression of the bardic arts within the SCA. As a community that values authenticity, therefore, it is valuable to ask the question, ‘Should we strive for authenticity in the bardic circle? What would that look like?’. We are stymied, first, by the fact that the bardic circle is a modern invention, not a medieval one. But then, our courts are quite different to medieval courts as well – if the SCA were attempting to copy the past exactly, what we do would be quite different. Rather, the SCA is a compromise between medieval and modern defined most clearly by our shared values: love of the past, yes, but also chivalry, courtesy, curiosity, and hospitality for the newcomer. Our bardic circles reflect this, being a place where performers of all skill levels come together with those who simply wish to listen, and share music of varied origins, be it historical music, folk music, or works original to the SCA. A first approximation of an ‘authentic’ bardic circle might exclude the latter genres, and indeed there are times when exclusively medieval music is the most appropriate. However, since a skillful bard takes into account the preferences of their audience, and many of our members have great fondness for the non-historical music that is part of our current bardic tradition, it is clear that such artificial exclusivity of style has its flaws. I would argue instead that the authenticity we strive for should encompass the whole of bardic culture – not merely repertoire, but composition, performance, and transmission – and that this broader awareness makes clear that the SCA bardic community has developed a native bardic tradition which should be celebrated.

Our Society is, in its essentials, an attempt to imitate the past: to recreate aspects and objects of pre-modern experience. It follows, therefore, that authenticity – accurate reproduction as supported by research – should be one of the criteria by which we judge the success of our activities. In a bardic context, this encourages us to attempt the discovery of historical music, and the performance of that music in contexts analogous to historical performance. Of course, as in all fields of interest within the SCA, it is impossible to exactly reproduce the past: our knowledge is limited, and so are our skills and resources. Compromise and creativity are an inevitable part of any SCA recreation, no matter how skilled. Furthermore, our community welcomes participation by people of diverse skill levels; even assuming we share the same goals, we will have different successes. The recreation of historical repertoire, historical performances, and historical performance contexts should be a goal of the bardic community, but it cannot be the only way we measure the worth of the work people do.

A lot of the music available to us (and especially a lot of what was available to us in the earlier years of the SCA) is not documentably period, but has been transmitted over decades or generations through the oral tradition, and eventually through written texts. For our purposes, I’m going to generalise and call it all ‘folk music’. Much of this is fairly well known inside and outside the SCA, and popular. However, even without clear evidence one way or the other, in most cases it’s clear from style and content that the music is post-period. It’s arguable, therefore, that folk music shouldn’t be welcome in SCA performance contexts. However, even ignoring the problem of excluding a genre of music that people like, we bump up against the edges of a central issue in the question of authenticity in the bardic arts: what is the ‘product’ that we want to be authentic?

In the SCA, we are not simply creating reproductions of artefacts; we have attempted (and are attempting) to recreate historical experiences. The experience of participating in a tournament, of attending a feast, of wearing period clothing…these are things we’ve all been able to enjoy as part of our society. In the bardic arts as well, therefore, we should consider the whole process of composition, performance, and transmission (all of which, together, might be termed ‘bardic culture’) as a target for our desire to recreate the past. It is easy to make the argument that ‘Pastime With Good Company’ is a period piece of music, and that singing it, therefore, allows us to enjoy a period experience. However, isn’t it possible that the composition of a praise poem to a reigning monarch is more authentic than reconstructing a period work? Perhaps. Similarly, learning music by ear from a living oral tradition is arguably a more authentic experience than learning to read music that was written down long ago and has otherwise been forgotten. Once we broaden our concerns from bardic performance to bardic culture, it becomes clear that both folk music (inherited through our own oral tradition), and original SCA compositions (created within our culture to reflect and evoke our experiences) have their own claims to authenticity within the living bardic traditions of the SCA.

A significant subset of SCA composers have devoted some of their efforts to creating works in a period style. In some cases, those works refer to historical events, or to universal experiences and concepts; in other cases, these original compositions refer to our own history and culture. Functionally, these works might be considered comparable to an object that imitates a known period artefact, but has been adjusted to more exactly suit the needs and tastes of its intended user: they are not an act of reproduction, but recreation. As the product of knowledge, creativity, and skill, these works of composition are worthy of honour.

Few would dispute that an SCA composer who is able to create something that feels period is a worthy bard, but many of us are more ambivalent about filk, a term I am using here to describe the composition of new lyrics associated with an existing (often modern) tune. Because of the music chosen, filk often sounds modern, to some obtrusively so, and this is only emphasised because filk frequently puns on the original song. I could, perhaps, compare filk to period contrefait (the re-use of well-known tunes for new lyrics), and thereby argue that it is a period form of composition, applied to different source material. However, the layers of intertextuality and reference in filk mark it out as its own genre, branching off from the older tradition of contrefait. Should it be considered modern, then? Perhaps. Should it be excluded from our attempts to recreate the past? I don’t believe so.

The SCA, as we all well know, is not the past, nor do we attempt to make an exact copy. ‘The past as it ought to have been,’ we often joke. In our play, we occupy a third space, neither entirely modern nor truly medieval, but a mixture of both, with tournaments and first aid kits, candlelight and flushing toilets. We like it that way. Filk is endemic to this in-between space, a mixture of the present and the past, just like us. It is music we create, about experiences distinct to our culture, and its very nature reflects the layers of play we engage in as members of the Society. As such, it can and should be considered part of the SCA’s native bardic tradition, and truly authentic, in the sense of ‘real’, rather than the sense of ‘documentably of the past’.

While all of us engage in a shared space which is defined by our relationship to the past, we are far more united by the values of our community. We celebrate chivalry, honour, service, and artistry, as you will hear in almost any awards ceremony, and our love of learning and teaching is embedded in everything we do, creating a culture of tolerance and encouragement. How do these values play out in a bardic context? It is an act of service to perform, and also to listen. The honourable and chivalrous performer chooses repertoire that will be enjoyed, and the honourable and chivalrous audience encourages and supports all well-intentioned performance. All bards, we hope, will develop their skills and knowledge over time, and pass on that knowledge to others who seek it. Research, whether or not it creates performance, and creativity, whether or not it is the fruit of research, should be encouraged and celebrated. All this creates the bardic circles we see at our events, where performers of all calibers come together to share music of varied origins, and to listen to and support each other.

The bardic circle is not a medieval institution: it is a product of our own society, our own values, and our own desire to entertain and perform for each other. Like filk, it is a part of our native bardic tradition, not something developed in imitation of the past, and its popularity is a testimony to the strength of the culture that has emerged in the mix of modern and medieval that is truly living history. SCA bardic culture has come to encompass the bardic circle, the songbook, and the A&S class; folk song, SCA-original works, and medieval music; and above all, it welcomes composer, performer, researcher, and audience member. Bardic cultures have always included varied participants, products, and experiences in response to different situations; we must recognise that the diversity of the SCA bardic arts reflects their richness and diversity of purpose. With this awareness, authenticity in the bardic arts comes to have a broader meaning. Above all, we should aspire to do as the performance community has always done: teach, evoke emotion, and entertain.

Further Reading

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