SCA Charters: Wordsmithing in Medieval Styles (Part one)

Among my favorite traditions within the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) are Charters given to acknowledge the recipient’s endeavors in the research and recreation of pre-seventeenth century feudal societies.  Quite often, these Charters describe the recipient’s qualities and the particular reason for which they are being gifted a Charter.  Charters are read aloud in Court ( which is in part an awards ceremony) so that the recipient’s friends and family can hear the kind words said.

Charters in the SCA have little to do with extant medieval charters.  Medieval charters were given by feudal or ecclesiastical authorities to grant rights or properties or both to recipients.  Medieval charters were lengthy documents describing the legal extent and limits of the right or property being granted.  For instance, the Ismere Diploma (circa 736) of King Æthelbald of Mercia specified the lands “…in provincia cui ab antiquis nomen inditum est Husmeræ . juxta fluvium vocabulo Stur , cum omnibus necessariis ad eam pertinentibus cum campis silvisque cum piscariis pratisque in possessionem æcclesiasticam benigne largiendo trado.” ( “…in the province, which is the ancient name is Husmeræ, alongside a river whose name Sturbridge, with all the necessary fields and woods with her belongings when in possession aecclesiasticus meadow fisheries kindly giving up.”).

Ismere_Diploma_of_King_Aethelbald_charter_Cyneberht_736
Ismere Diploma of King Aethelbald

 

With a single exception (more on this later), the Charters I have written in the SCA are not representative of the style of medieval charters.  Rather, they are accolades of accomplishments and qualities of fellow members.  To lend an air of medieval flavor to these Charters, however, I have attempted to model the words on extant poems or poetic forms consistent with the recipient’s persona.  Why poetry?  Well, I like poetry; and as long as I am creating something that feels like it is medieval, but never actually existed in the middle ages, I have free rein to do with it as I wish.

What follows are the words I’ve written for a few of the Charters I have given out, with the historical inspirations and a bit about my processes.

Olcan’s Heavy Fighting Championship: 2015

In 2014 (anno societatis XLIX), the heavy fighting championship for the Barony of Glymm Mere in the Kingdom of An Tir was won by the honorable lord Olcan Mac Meanma, known affectionately as Olcan “the Gentle”.  He served us well for a year with the title ‘Shield of Glymm Mere’, at the end of which I presented him with a Charter.  For inspiration I researched a fair number of poems written at a time and place in which his persona, from ninth century Ireland, may have heard them.

One poem in particular struck me: Pangur Bán written in the ninth century in Old Irish by an anonymous monk at Reichenau Abbey in southern Germany (Stokes).  It is a relatively short poem, just eight verses of four lines, comparing the monk’s joy of learning to his cat’s joy of hunting mice.

Original verses:

Messe ocus Pangur bán,
cechtar nathar fria saindán;
bíth a menma-sam fri seilgg,
mu menma céin im saincheirdd

Caraim-se fós, ferr cach clú,
oc mu lebrán léir ingnu;
ní foirmtech frimm Pangur bán,
caraid cesin a maccdán.

Ó ru-biam ­ scél cén scis
innar tegdias ar n-oéndis,
táithiunn ­ dichríchide clius
ní fris 'tarddam ar n-áthius.

Gnáth-huaraib ar greassaib gal
glenaid luch ina lín-sam;
os me, du-fuit im lín chéin
dliged ndoraid cu n-dronchéill.

Fúachaid-sem fri freaga fál
a rosc a nglése comlán;
fúachimm chéin fri fégi fis
mu rosc réil, cesu imdis.

Fáelid-sem cu n-déne dul,
hi nglen luch ina gérchrub;
hi-tucu cheist n-doraid n-dil,
os mé chene am fáelid.

Cia beimini amin nach ré
ní derban cách a chéle;
mait le cechtar nár a dán
subaigthiud a óenurán.

Hé fesin as choimsid dáu
in muid du-n-gní cach óenláu;
do thabairt doraid du glé
for mumud céin am messe.

English translation:

I and Pangur Bán, my cat
'Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
'Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill will,
He too plies his simple skill.

'Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur's way.
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

'Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
'Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I,
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

                  ---translated by Robin Flower

 

I was charmed by the hominess of the poem, and saw that the parallels drawn between the pursuits of the monk and the cat could work well in a poem about martial pursuits.  As Olcan’s heraldry includes rampant wolves, I settled on a wolf being the counterpoint for comparison.

Gentle Olcan and a wolf:
'Tis like prey they would engulf.
Hunting stags is ones delight;
T'other hunts for a good fight.

Better far than songs of bards
Olcan lists the clang of swords.
The wolf prefers his packs howl
When he is on his nights prowl.

'Tis a merry thing by far
At their tasks how glad they are.
In the eric or the wood,
Each finds joy just as they should.

But the wolf, he earns no fame.
Of the man the bards proclaim,
"Gentle Olcan with his spear:
He was the Shield of Glymm Mere."

 

pangur_ban
The page of the Reichenau Primer (Stift St. Paul Cod. 86b/1 fol 1v) containing the manuscript of Pangur Ban, seen in the lower half of the left page.

In writing my Charter I endeavored to use the same number of syllables per line and the same rhyme scheme as was used in Pangur Bán. The piece is shorter by half, due to the nature of SCA Charters necessary brevity and as I did not wish to overburden the scribe who would be calligraphing the words.  I was unable to use the same meter, as I do not read Old Irish and so am unaware of where the stresses fall.  I also fairly imitated the style of Robin Flower’s translation and I fully acknowledge that I lifted my verse “Tis a merry thing by far/At their tasks how glad they are.” nearly verbatim from Mr. Flower.

Fortunately, Olcan won the Shield of Glymm Mere again in 2015 and gave me a second chance to write a poetic Charter for him in a medieval style.

Olcan’s Heavy Fighting Championship: 2016

In 2015 (A.S. L), Olcan became our Shield of Glymm Mere for a second year in a row.  In planning the Charter to give him at the end of his year of service, I really strove to create a wholly original piece in a meter, rhyme scheme, and style consistent with his personas poetic culture.  I dove deep into ninth century poetic forms, reading works in Old Irish and Old English alongside translations of the pieces.  Although I do not understand these languages, I find that reading them aloud helps me find the meters, rhymes, and cæsura (cæsura are built-in pauses which temper the meter, aide in oral recitation, and help group lines into couplets).  Reading the pieces alongside translations assists me in understanding the metaphors, similes, variations, and alliterations commonly used.  Additionally, the translations gave me ideas of how kennings, a kind of metaphor, were crafted.

Properly, the word kenning applies to the figurative language used in Old Norse poetry.  However, similar techniques are found in Old Irish and Old English poetry and, lacking a native word, ‘kenning’ is modernly accepted as a term for the technique regardless of origin.  Briefly, kennings are substitutions of a noun with a two word descriptive epithet.  Faulkes wrote “…where instead of referring to a person or thing by its normal name, a poet replaces (or conceals) that name with another, which may be a poetical term like ‘steed’ for ‘horse’, or a kenning, which has at least two elements, such as when gold is called ‘sea-fire’ or a king ‘gold-giver’.

In these brief words I tried to capture the essence of Olcan Mac Meanma: the juxtaposition of his juggernaut fighting style tempered by his frank and friendly demeanor.

Firm and fast his ashen axe,
Grim-grinning his hardened helm,
Valorous victor now named.

Gentle giant, generous giver,
Friend to foe and fallen fighters,
Soft spoken now named.

Olcan oak-limbed, spirit's son,
Twice taker of Glymm Mere's greatsword,
Named now hero and hearth-friend.

I am pretty satisfied with how this one turned out as an original composition, and people who know Olcan well have complimented the poem’s epithet of him, but for historical accuracy I know that I still missed the mark.  For one, the brevity makes it more of a modern ode than a poem from ninth century Ireland.  It should be considerably longer, narrate his accomplishments, and tell a story.

For other Charters, then, I endeavored towards more historical authenticity.

Elanor Stanhope’s Equestrian Championship: 2015

In 2014 the Barony held our first Equestrian Championship.  Lady Elanor Stanhope became our champion, and as her year of service neared it’s end I began to research poetic forms appropriate to her persona.  As her persona is of a twelfth century Anglo-Norman noblewoman, I decided to try my hand at writing in French.

Caveat: I don’t speak French.  More to the point, I don’t speak or read Anglo-Norman.  So from the get-go I knew that the best I would have a fighting chance of accomplishing is, with the help of an old high school text book, writing in modern French.  For inspiration I turned to the circa 1300 Anglo-Norman romance “Beves of Hamtoun“.

Savarric le roi, notre seigneur et souverain;
Dalla, reine, notre étoile guidant;
Entendre mes humbles mots.

Je parle de Elanor Stanhope, chevalière,
Elle qui a prouvé sa maîtrise dans les arts équestres
sur de nombreux vaillants adversaires.

Sachez-le, vos Majestés , et entendre tout ce que les gens vous:
Elanor Stanhope sera à jamais connu
Comme le premier champion équestre de Glymm Mere.
 My thanks to Master Eduardo Francesco Maria Lucrezia for proof-reading my French.
Translation:
Savarric the King, our Lord and Sovereign,
Dalla, Queen, our Guiding Star,
Harken to my humble words.

I speak of Elanor Stanhope, horsewoman,
Who hath proven her mastery in the equestrian arts
Over many valiant challengers.

Know this, your majesties, and hear this all people,
That Elanor Stanhope will forever be known
The premiere Equestrian Champion of Glymm Mere.

It should be stressed that I composed the piece in French and then translated it into English, not the other way around.  I felt this was important to the process because words in one language do not necessarily have a corresponding word with the same meaning in another language.  I wanted to avoid using an English word for which there was no precisely comparable word in French.

With Elanor’s Charter I feel I got some things right: it said a bit of what I wanted it say about her accomplishments; it had a distinctly Anglo-Norman flavor; and the three stanza, three line structure is documentable to her persona’s time and place.  However, the language was still not quite right (modern French versus Anglo-Norman) and the poetic form used was wrong, in that I had chosen a form used for lengthy tales and not one for praising individuals.

Besseta Wallace’s Art & Sciences Championship: 2015
In 2014 (A.S. XLIX) Besseta Wallace won the Barony’s Arts & Sciences championship with her entry of foods from a lowland Scottish kitchen.  Besseta is one of those wonderful people who has thoroughly researched her persona and has the skills to bring it to life through her garb, her foods, and her accoutrements.  In honor of her, I wanted to create a Charter thoroughly consistent with her time and place.
Unlike French (see Elanor’s Charter; above), I read enough Middle Scots to muddle through.  I turned to Robert Henryson’s poem The Annunciation for stylistic inspiration.  Wittig wrote that Henryson’s power was in his use of the first-person voice speaking of daily, common life in the vernacular at a time when European literature had just barely begun being written in languages other than Latin.
The Annunication is written in stanzas of three quatrains, using rhyme scheme abab bccb bccb.  My composition failed to follow this rigid structure, as I was unable to work what I wanted said into it.  However, I am not unhappy with the language or the imagery.
O lady lele and lusumest,
Thy face moist fair and schene is.
Thow makar of micht mast,
Quhose art a blosum of luf is.

This writ fra my splene is:
Tha all thy charite and all thy werkis
Unbrynt full blithlie brinnis.

Gudely may, thou michtis are
In name and in dede.
Translation:
O lady loyal and most lovable,
Thy face most fair and bright is.
Thou maker of great skill,
Whose art a blossom of love is.

These words come from my spleen:
That all thy charity and all thy craft
Burn brightly unburnt.

Worthy maid, thou champion are
In name and in deed.
Like Elanor’s Charter, I feel I got some things right: the right place and time; the right flavor; and the piece said some of what I wished to say.  Additionally, I got the language right.  But the structure of my piece fell short, as I had to abandon Henryson’s quatrains and rhyme scheme in order to complete the piece in time to present it to Besseta.  Worse, I did not include two fairly basic elements of an SCA Charter: the recipients name and the name of the championship she won (both of these got incorporated into the illumination of the Charter, just not into the body of the piece).  But all-in-all this one was a great learning experience.
Daedin’s grant of demesne: an actual charter!
And now for something completely different.
Around the time that Aelisia and I became the baronage of Glymm Mere, Her Excellency ban-Jarla (Countess) Daedin had taken a fledgling group of members under her wing.  Through her tutelage, they learned about the SCA and about the joy found in Service.  In thanks for the good work that she was doing we decided to give her a grant of demesne: lands we hold in trust for the Crown, but which are reserved for her own use.  In recognition of the group she had taken in, we gave her the area from which they primarily hail, modernly known as Ocean Shores, Washington.
By the Grace of Their Majesties, do We Aelisia and Dunstan hold these lands
of Glymm Mere: to nurture and to defend, to ensure harmony, and to enrichen the
lives of the Populace.  To that end are We served by those who mentor
and encourage others, who share of their wisdom and knowledge, and who lead by
example in exhibition of chivalry.

Well pleased are We with ban-Jarla Daedin MacAoidh a'Mhonadh in her support and
encouragement of the household known as Corhaven.  In acknowledgement of this do
We grant her a demesne within our lands bounded by the pacific ocean to the west,
the brown point to the south, the grey harbor to the east, and the King’s highway
to the north.  These lands, commonly called Ocean Shores, with all necessary fields
and woods, meadows, and fisheries, are hers to hunt and glean so long as We remain
Baron and Baroness of Glymm Mere.

Know ye that if any violate or deny this rightful gift, the nature of the
fearful judgement of their presumption shall be swift and terrible.

So confirms I, Dunstan, Baron of Glymm Mere.
So confirms I, Aelisia, Baroness of Glymm Mere.
Thus endeth Part One.  Part Two shall be posted soon.

Bibliography

Stokes, Whitley; John Strachan (1904). Thesaurus Palaeohibernicus: A Collection of Old-Irish Glosses, Scholia, Prose and Verse. II. Cambridge University Press.

Faulkes, Anthony (1997). “Poetic Inspiration in Old Norse and Old English Poetry.” Dorothea Coke Memorial Lecture in Northern Studies delivered at University College London 28 November 1997. Viking Society for Northern Research.

Wittig, Kurt (1958). “The Scottish Tradition in Literature” Oliver and Boyd

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