Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Not a Good Look: The SCA Swastika Incident

Detail of a re-creation of the Snartemo V fabric band, originally found in an archaeological dig in southern Norway.

Part XLI in our ongoing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Ken Mondschein. You can find his new book, Game of Thrones and the Medieval Art of War on Amazon here.

You can find the rest of the special series here

Content notice: as you might suspect considering the title, this article contains images of historical and historical reproduction garments with swastikas in the pattern.

A recent incident in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) underscores the reason why public history is ground zero in the fight against alt-right appropriation of medieval imagery. Last month, two leading members of the organization had to answer for wearing fascist symbols as part of their costumes.

The SCA, estimated by the organization to be some 60,000 strong, is the world’s largest medieval living history organization. SCA members brew mead, cook feasts, fight in armor, and hold enormous camping events, creating an idealized image of the Middle Ages for their members to revel in. In some cases, their members also conduct historical research and reconstruction at high levels; SCA members have even presented at academic conferences on medieval studies.

On January 6, 2018, the “Kingdom of Caid” (a division of the SCA that encompasses primarily southern California and Nevada) held a “coronation” ceremony for its new king and queen—who go by the monikers Athanaric and Sigriðr within the Society. The group’s “kings” win their crowns in a fighting tournament. They and their preselected “queens” then “reign” for a fixed term—usually six months. There have been rare exceptions, such as when a woman won Crown Tournament in Texas in 1990 or when co-kings reigned in the American Midwest, but the interrelation of combat and rulership makes the system de facto patriarchal and hetero-normative.

During the ceremony, Athanaric and Sigriðr were seated on thrones on a stage in front of the population of the “kingdom” to be crowned. Afterwards, the “chivalry” (i.e. the top fighters who are also seen as role models) swore their loyalty to the new “royals”.

Such ceremonies are deeply meaningful to the participants. As scholar and Society member Michael A. Cramer wrote in his book Medieval Fantasy as Performance,

The effect of the SCA’s institutionalized ceremony and ritual… does more than simply build community. SCA ceremony, within the game of the SCA, exalts certain people and creates an almost cult-like atmosphere around the monarchs, which may be serious or tongue-in-cheek depending on who is playing the role.

But this is where the problem arose: during their coronation, the two SCA “royals” in question were photographed wearing costumes that included recreated 5th-century trim.

That trim included recognizable swastikas and HH (“Heil Hitler”) elements.

The Outcry and Apology

The offending outfit.

The presence of the swastikas and HH symbols only became clear when photographic portraits were posted online a week later. According to posts on Facebook, due to the distance, relatively small size, and the way the embroidery caught the light, these elements were not noticed by many people at the event itself. Additionally, the two reportedly did not wear the offending garb for the fealty-swearing portion of the ceremony.

Upon the publication of the photos, there was an immediate outcry from both SCA members and non-members. In light of the outcry, the two “royals” in question issued a statement on January 25 which read:

Sometimes you get so exited about something you downplay or ignore the negatives. In this case we have done so and have hurt some members of the populace. We got very exited about a piece of very complex historical art and making an extremely accurate presentation and felt the differences to modern interpretations would be sufficient and that everyone would agree with us. We were wrong. For this we apologize. Know that no offense was intended, no hidden message to interpret, and no hate to be displayed. For any communities hurt we are sorry to have caused you pain. The art created will not be further displayed upon the throne.

Their apology hinges upon two things: first, that the reproduction is an accurate reproduction of historical art, and second, that they did not mean offense by wearing it.

The original band, from the Snartemo V archaeological dig. Currently housed at the University of Oslo.

The former is true. The design came from the baldric of a sword found in 1933 in an archaeological dig in southern Norway. Both the swastika and “HH” elements are documentable to the original. The Hs are the rune Hagall in the Elder Futhark alphabet (used in Scandinavia from the 2nd to the 8th centuries CE). Both symbols were later appropriated by the Nazis. The sword itself has a history with the Third Reich: the Nazis coveted it as an authentic piece of “Aryan” heritage. They even had reproductions made of it. But it was hidden by the Norwegians until after the war.

However, this “historical accuracy” argument does not ring true to many.

“There are many equally old, equally documentable weaving patterns that do not have the history of these motifs,” wrote Lisa Evans, a textile scholar and SCA member from Easthampton, Massachusetts. She continued,

Despite its historicity, swastikas for personal heraldry were banned within three years of the SCA’s founding. I could see someone studying tablet weaving making a small sample to test a theory or improve their skill, since this is a complicated pattern. I could also see entering a piece in a competition with appropriate historical and contextual notes. However, there are plenty of other motifs that can be worn in lieu of swastikas.

For other SCA members, historical accuracy is no excuse for wearing a symbol widely known to be deeply offensive. As Arik Mendelvitz, a member of the SCA from Chicago, wrote on Facebook,

I have personally sat with elder members of my own family and had every third person in photo albums pointed to and described as “killed by the Nazis”… Wearing such a symbol on your person, especially as the public face of an entire kingdom, is utterly repulsive and can in no way be excused by “historical accuracy.”

Others also questioned the second aspect of the defense: whether the royals were as ignorant of the connotations of these symbols as they claimed to be. One SCA member, who did not wish to be quoted in this article, claimed in a Facebook post that Sigriðr had allegedly worn swastikas before, at least five years prior—and had been confronted for it. She allegedly rejected the objections at the time. If true, such a revelation undermines her claims of innocence in the more recent incident.

Schrödinger’s Swastika?

A fuller view of a reproduction Snartemo V trim.

It is also debatable whether their intent actually matters. In an earlier article in this series, Paul B. Sturtevant calls objects like this trim “Schrödinger’s medievalisms.” A Schrödinger’s medievalism is a piece of medievalia—like a Thor’s hammer—that is ambiguous because it has been appropriated by the far-right as a hate symbol, but is also used in other contexts. This ambiguity makes them unnerving, since it’s difficult to tell whether the person in question is a white supremacist or a Thor enthusiast.

There is an open debate amongst academic medievalists of how to deal with these sorts of “Schrödinger’s medievalisms.” Some medievalists feel that the use of any symbol that is used by the far right is not acceptable because it creates a space in which Jews, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and other historically targeted groups feel unsafe

However, in his essay on the subject, Sturtevant makes the case that ambiguous representations should interpreted in their context if their intent is unclear. The alt-right used milk as a white supremacist symbol last year; that does not mean that the few remaining milkmen are peddlers of hate speech.

The counterargument is that this approach can lead to “white innocence” (a denial of complicity or guilt that safeguards privilege). In today’s world, it is incumbent on each individual—particularly white people—to take into account the effect their words and actions might have on vulnerable groups.

In this incident, the denial of wrongdoing falls into the category of white innocence—or, perhaps, if they are true, in light of the allegations of past wearing of swastikas by the people in question, “white willful ignorance.” The royals made use of symbols whose connection to the Nazis is universally acknowledged, but attempted to excuse their actions through their intent. The same can be said of those SCA members who have argued that this is “not a big deal.” In other words, they promoted the precedence of declared intent over action or outcome.

There can be no imaginable defense for repeatedly wearing motifs that have become identified with the Third Reich, let alone at such an important ritual as a Coronation. The swastika is rarely an ambiguous symbol today, despite its historical origin.

The Aftermath

The SCA’s Board of Directors also found the costume unacceptable. On January 27, the SCA issued an official press release stating that the organization:

strongly condemns hate speech in any form by any officers and participants of this organization. The SCA… strives to include and be respectful of all people, regardless of race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and politics. All participants are reminded of and expected to hold to these principles in participating in this organization and interacting with other people in person and in all forums, regardless of media. The Board of Directors… is concerned about this matter and has tasked the President of the SCA to immediately investigate.

When emailed for comment, the organization’s president, John Fulton, added that the “The SCA Board will not tolerate or allow groups or individuals who practice, display, or encourage hate, racism, or discrimination to damage our organization and participants.”

In the wake of this continued pressure, Athanaric and Sigriðr issued a second apology on January 28 and, on the evening of the 30th, stepped down. Their resignation is almost unprecedented in the SCA, and some within the SCA have found it disturbing. When reached for comment on the incident, Michael A. Cramer explained why:

People in the SCA are extremely invested in the underlying concepts, highly idealized, of honor and chivalry…. One reason this is causing such a rupture in the Kingdom of Caid is because the romantic ideal has been destroyed by something that the SCA is designed specifically to resist: modern politics… Most feel that their rightful king and hero has been unjustly taken from them. They feel like the Britons at the death of Arthur, or Troy after the defeat of Hector… They will probably get over it, because realistically, nobody has actually died… But right now, the ones who buy into the “dream” are devastated.

In other words, for some, the Society’s culture requires approaching the “dream” of the Middle Ages with a sort of un-ironic innocence. However, in a post-Charlottesville world, such innocence—especially when it manifests as white innocence about hate symbols like swastikas—is not acceptable within the organization.

This incident has spurred an intense conversation within the SCA about the display of hate symbols like the swastika. Cramer emphasized that, overall, the SCA is a tolerant, open, and diverse place:

Of course there are racists in the SCA, as there are everywhere, but open racism will get you kicked out quickly. The SCA is, on the whole, non-judgmental about people’s background.

Let us hope that he is right, and that the result of the fierce conversation happening in the SCA leads it into becoming a better, more consciously inclusive place.

Addendum: After this story went to press, it came out that another member of SCA royalty from An Tir (the Pacific Northwest) received and, despite some misgivings, wore a robe with similar trim in the summer of 2017, pre-Charlottesville. In the following months, he wore it twice more—once covered with fur, one not. In no case did anyone call attention to the swastika designs. In statements on Facebook, both he and the fabric artist who created the piece apologized and pledged to never wear it again, though he also stated that he would not “destroy a masterwork of art created by a friend who spent hundreds of hours on it” and expressed regret for what happened to the royalty of Caid. Nonetheless, it is encouraging to see the SCA and its members beginning to grapple with these difficult questions.

Addendum 2: Regarding the allegations of previous wearing of swastikas, according to several sources the conversation in question centered on whether or not a pin or brooch worn by the individual constituted a swastika or not. The object in question was a replica of a historical brooch or pin in the form of four horseheads arranged as a pinwheel (similar to that in the image to the right). 

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