In January 2018, at the Winter Coronation for the Kingdom of Caid, the incoming King and Queen wore coats trimmed with accurate reproductions of a Saxon tablet-woven band. This trim prominently featured swastika designs in several places. During the day, the new monarchs were surrounded by members of their populace, and interacted with each peer, officer, and member of the baronage who swore fealty that day while wearing this trim, including Jews, persons of color, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Two weeks later, close-cropped portrait photos of the King and Queen wearing the coats trimmed with swastikas were posted on the front page of the kingdom website. These photos prompted a Society-wide outcry which resulted in abdication by the Royals.
This is not a conversation about the monarchs, the artists who wove the trim and made the coats, or the weaving Laurel who advised the artist to make the trim. It is, instead, about the other people at Coronation, and about responses to hate speech and symbols in the SCA generally.
I’m from Caid, but had recently moved to An Tir, and so was not present for a Caidan Coronation for the first time in sixteen years. Naturally, I reached out to my friends who were there at the time to try to figure out why no one said anything before the ceremony. The various peers and officers, the people in the audience, even my best friend who served as their herald and stood at the king’s shoulder for the entire court…so many had the same answer. “I just didn’t see it.”
I was astounded at the answer. Not see it? How could they not see the brightly colored swastikas all over this trim? But after further conversation, I came to realize that, in fact, they didn’t see it at all. Their eyes skipped over the design entirely.
In the weeks after the publication of the photo and the month after the abdication, citizens of the Known World were in violent disagreement with one another over the nature of the trim and its use. And as a Society officer I did my best to stay quiet in public, even as I was discussing earnestly in private with people of all viewpoints. And after processing each point of view, I came to understand the core reason for the disconnect in communication, which I hope to share with you here to help facilitate future discussions.
The Four Viewpoints
The viewpoints on this issue can be broken down to two variables: observation, or whether they immediately recognized the designs as swastikas, and emotional investment, or whether they were upset by the design once recognized. When considering these two variables as either-or, we get a four-panel square and four distinct groups of people.
People in this first category, which I call “Team Trust,” are idealists. They believe in the SCA as “The Middle Ages as it should have been.” They see the SCA as a huge family of choice, and believe that despite petty differences we’re all here with the same ideals of chivalry and courtesy as exemplified in the Arthurian Romances. And because of this optimistic faith in the inherent good in their fellow medievalists, they don’t actively look for evidence to the contrary.
When people in Team Trust walked into Coronation and looked upon their new King and Queen, they may have glanced at the trim, but their mind only saw geometric shapes. In the safety of the SCA, surrounded by family, there’s no conceivable way that their Royalty, people who had served previously as King and Queen of Caid and whom several of them knew and loved, would wear such a blatant symbol of hate speech. So instead they saw well-dressed monarchs with colorful trim.
Eventually, members of Team Trust saw the photographs of the trim outside of the context of the SCA, on the website or on social media. It might have taken a moment of looking, and possibly of people pointing it out, but eventually they saw the pattern. And once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And the horror slowly dawned on them. They had attended a Coronation where the monarchs wore swastikas, and they had cheered “Long live the King! Long live the Queen!” They had knelt before Royals wearing this symbol of hate, and they had sworn fealty. They had bowed at the procession and recession of swastikas, so many swastikas, that were clear as day, and had never even noticed. This revelation was more than just upsetting to Team Trust; it shattered everything they’d believed about the SCA and its benevolent monarchy. This feeling of betrayal and anger manifested in a push for removal of the offending parties to re-establish order and repair the Dream.
This second category, “Team Familiarity,” is exemplified by their immersion into the research and recreation of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Like the idealists above, Team Familiarity seeks to step out of the modern world. But unlike Team Trust, who focus on ideals, Team Familiarity focuses on the realities. They pore over books and extant pieces. They’re exposed to countless images of fylfots (another word for the motif on the trim) and know its positive cultural relevance to the time period. It’s just another in a series of geometric designs used without malice in cultures throughout history, no more or less notable than Celtic knotwork, Greek key patterns, or acanthus leaf designs.
When people in Team Familiarity attended Coronation, they saw appropriately attired monarchs heralded into court with pitch-perfect Anglo-Saxon boasts and kenning. As the Prince and Princess passed, Team Familiarity looked appreciatively at the wool coats adorned with perfectly executed hand-woven trim. If they don’t know the specific name of the extant band copied, Snartemo V, they could tell at a glance that the trim is Saxon in origin, well-crafted, and made with documentable colors of yarn. And because their mind is in the 10th century, their eyes skip over the geometric patterns of the trim without a second thought about their connotation a thousand years in the future.
While Team Trust got upset when they saw the swastika motif, Team Familiarity wasn’t fazed. This is a historical recreation society, after all, so increased use of historical patterns and motifs can only better our game. They argued that one small group’s appropriation of a symbol that’s found throughout all cultures and time periods shouldn’t taint its appropriate use within the context of the Middle Ages. If anything, they continued, increased use of the symbol in its historical context can help reclaim it from the infamy of its use in WWII.
Then we come to the third group, “Team Vigilance.” Formed disproportionately of (but by no means exclusive to) members of groups that are marginalized in modern society, the members of Team Vigilance tend have more personal experience in dealing with hate than those of other groups mentioned here. Unlike Teams Trust and Familiarity, who are able to immerse themselves in their respective versions of the Dream, Team Vigilance is always aware of the harsh realities of 21st century culture surrounding them. Many seek refuge in the SCA in the hopes that the ideals of the organization are more than lip-service. But they’re also acutely aware of the interest in revisionist European history among white supremacists, and so are always on high alert for threats.
Team Vigilance is a much smaller group than either Team Trust or Team Familiarity, and not many of them were in attendance at Coronation due to an earlier incident with the outgoing Royalty. But those who saw the photos instantly recognized the swastika pattern. They saw five different iterations of swastikas between shoulder and mid-chest including a large red one right over the heart, and they also saw two sets of two blue H’s outlined in yellow, which instantly brings to mind the rallying cry of the Nazi party, “Heil Hitler.” Most importantly, they saw two white people wearing this hateful trim seated upon the thrones of Caid, and wearing crowns that acknowledged them as the highest authority in the land.
But unlike Team Trust, who responded with anger only at the individuals involved, several members of Team Vigilance also spoke out against the SCA as an organization. This wasn’t a one-off incident, they argued, but instead another in a series of ongoing institutional failures. Team Vigilance concludes that situations like these are the reason the SCA struggles to recruit and retain marginalized individuals: they feel unsafe in an organization that allows white supremacists to hold positions of power.
Each of these three groups have connections to the others, and discussions quickly became heated. Team Trust felt attacked by Team Vigilance when the latter accused the organization of institutional racism, and they grew frustrated by Team Familiarity’s refusal to recognize the dangers of public perception. Team Familiarity felt that Team Trust’s outrage was driven by ignorance of historical design, and that Team Vigilance was fueling the controversy due to unfounded oversensitivity. And Team Vigilance saw Team Trust as complicit for turning a blind eye to the warning signs, and they hold Team Familiarity guilty of normalizing and defending the display of hate symbols.
Some in each group became so frustrated that they walked away from the discussion, and from the organization. Members of Team Trust felt disillusioned at what the Dream had become, and stopped showing up. Members of Team Familiarity retreated to their research, and looked for more historically accurate organizations with whom to spend their time. And members of Team Vigilance turned their energies to letting as many people as possible know that there were white supremacists in the SCA, including reporting us to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Others in all three groups stayed in the SCA, and worked to form a consensus. Members of Team Vigilance recognized that Team Trust wanted to solve the issue with them, and that the more outspoken members of Team Familiarity wanted to find a way to continue their research and recreation without upsetting them. Members of Team Familiarity recognized the harm done to Team Vigilance and their place in it, and accepted that Team Trust wasn’t abandoning the historical mission of the SCA for political correctness. And Members of Team Trust acknowledged that their ideal of the Dream wasn’t threatened by the historical pursuits of Team Familiarity or the modern awareness of Team Vigilance.
But as complicated and intense as these conversations can get, it’s important that these three groups continue to discuss this and find common ground, because there is a fourth group we haven’t yet acknowledged.
I’ll be blunt. There have been white supremacists in the SCA since the early days. Groups that study medieval history attract white supremacists. They see Western Europe as an all-white utopia. They see the Crusades as the white man’s struggle against Muslims. They see the Spanish Inquisition as the white man’s struggle against Jews. And they see the SCA as a safe space to show their white pride. For purposes of this framework, I’ll call white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, and others “Team Hate.”
Team Hate is unwelcome in polite modern society. Despite the effect of the current U.S. administration emboldening them, it’s still dangerous to be as vocal and organized about your bigotry as Team Hate is. So they come to counter-culture venues like the Renaissance Faire and the SCA, and mask their hate in enthusiasm for a lost age.
Team Hate is fluent in the language of Team Trust, Team Familiarity, and Team Vigilance. They talk about family and community, their love of civility and their commitment to the Dream, in such a way that Team Trust believes them to be part of their ethos. They have an encyclopedic knowledge about certain parts of history and their artifacts, and are particularly enthusiastic about authenticity, so Team Familiarity believes them to be kindred spirits. And when they accidentally slip and express their viewpoints openly, they know enough about the language of the oppressed to either confound Team Vigilance or discredit them in the eyes of the other two groups through use of the Geek Social Fallacies.
Team Hate saw the swastikas instantly, whether in person or online. They could probably name the source of the pattern; unlike Team Familiarity whose research ends at the 17th century, Team Hate knows that the Snartemo band was attached to a Vendel sword from the age of Beowulf, and was discovered in the early 1930s in Norway. It was held as an example of pure Aryan art, and the use of both the swastika and the Hagall (“H”) runes inspired confidence in the ranks of Nazis. Reproductions of it were prized in the Third Reich, and Heinrich Himmler himself attempted to acquire the original during the Quisling administration of occupied Norway.
For Team Hate, the message of the Snartemo V band on Coronation garb of the King and Queen of Caid was singular and bold: YOU ARE WELCOME HERE.
Those in Team Hate seek to bring more members of Team Hate into the SCA. They seek to drive out members of Team Vigilance and Team Trust who stand against their hate through bullying, death threats, and abuses of whatever power they’re allowed to accrue. Their unchallenged presence will warp and twist the Dream of the SCA into a nightmare for Team Trust, Team Familiarity, and Team Vigilance.
The SCA is a large and diverse organization. There is room for the idealists and scholars, for recreationists focused anywhere in the Known World, and for participants from every race and ethnicity, every faith, and every point on the gender identity and preference spectrum. There is room in our game for opposing viewpoints, and even vehement disagreement. But there can be no place in this game for hate.
The Board of Directors has recently released an expanded policy on bullying and hate speech. While not perfect, it demonstrates the organization’s commitment to driving out Team Hate. The members of the organization must likewise commit to ridding the organization of this scourge. And we will do so together, by being ever Vigilant, by Trusting one another, and by Familiarizing ourselves with the tactics and dog-whistles of white supremacists everywhere.
I hope that this rubric facilitates discussion for future incidents. No model is perfect, and there are several perspectives that overlap, but I trust that this structure is both comprehensive enough to be meaningful and simple enough to be easily applicable. I myself straddle the line between Team Trust idealist and Team Vigilance cynic, depending on subject and circumstance. I look forward to hearing your opinions on this or any other article I’ve written.