SCA Arts & Sciences

Last night while discussing my various projects with some friends one topic in particular came up I think needs sharing.  The idea of what the arts and sciences really are within the context of our SCA game.

For those of you who are reading my blog but don’t know what the SCA is simply think Renaissance Fair and you’ll be close enough to understand most of this.  The only other thing you need to know is that within the context of this game we have a group of people we call “Laurels” who are the artisans and scientists of our group, attempting to recreate and create (no that isn’t backwards actually) whatever they can from historical knowledge and forms.

When I look at the Laurels I wonder about how much of what we do is art and how much of what we do is science.  As a Laurel I was elevated to that rank by virtue of artistic skills.  Admittedly these were artistic skills which no one else at the time was engaged in, so the bright shiny newness of it was (and still is) of great reward and pride.  But it was still artistic skills.

As excited as I am by the things I’m looking into now with recreating the telescope and planning some of these models of ancient inventions I’ve begun to wonder more about the technical/scientific side of what we do or should be doing and encouraging.

One of my friends stated that I was on a more classical definition of arts and sciences with the idea of arts being the “knowledge” and sciences being the “practical”.  And certainly we’ve joked about some of the same kinds of things within our organizations such as the axe test.  You know, “hit with an axe.  If it’s destroyed it’s an art.  If it’s still there afterwards it’s a science.  Hence with a bottle of beer, the bottle is an art and the beer is a science.”

Amusing, but not really useful.

Of course within the context of our game it’s kind of hard to say “hey this guy understands geometry really well.  We should make him a Laurel!”  Our ranks would swell dramatically.  But how do we decide who and what is worth our time?  This question comes up pretty frequently in the context of whether or not a particular person has gained the appropriate amount of knowledge and/or skill to be considered individually.  But I don’t think we discuss the relative merits of art and science in and of themselves.

The above definition of “knowledge vs practical” seems, on its face, to be reasonable but on further consideration I’m not sure it works for us.  Or at least for me.

I tend to think that art has a practical side to it and that science can be elegant and therefore artistic.  The two intersect at what I think of as “the elegant solution.”  We all have had art projects that had some difficulty in being completed and were solved by an elegant solution.  And I think we’ve all had technical problems with a project that required an equally elegant solution before becoming overburdened by complex problem solving.

But in the context of our SCA game we really want to see something tangible.  So, while an understanding of geometry is certainly a solid scientific study, until it’s applied to something practical I’m not sure it’s going to be Laurel worthy.  Though I’ll concede, and even support, a pure research Laurel if they have truly delved into an area and brought some new understanding to it.

There is, however, a very visceral satisfaction in the application of science.  I have long stood out in the dark at night and looked to the sky for its beauty and inspiration.  But put a telescope in my hands and suddenly I am not just inspired by beauty but I am also driven by curiosity.  And let that telescope be created by my own hands (even if just from a kit) and my curiosity isn’t just inspired, it is magnified (pun only slightly intended).

My goals are expanded by the fact that I am as equally inspired by the beauty of the stars as I am by the elegance of the tools.  Galileo’s telescope is literally little more than a couple of nested tubes and a pair of lenses.  With such humble tools he made discoveries that changed the way everyone looked at the night sky and the world around them.

That is science to me.  The inspiration to craft the tools and to solve the mysteries.  The need to know.  The curiosity to create.

How do we look at that kind of thing within the context of our SCA game?

Sure, we have people who faithfully recreate garments from portraits or portraits from pigments.  We cook food from recipes which say little more than “throw these things together in a pot and cook it till it be enough” but we turn out feasts!  These things required research, theorizing, testing and ultimately the application of skills and knowledge to craft an end product.

But we call that “art.”  Or sometimes we call that “art & science.”

Other than a pure research Laurel I can think of no one in our game that has been elevated to the rank of Laurel who got there for “science.”  (If any of my friends know of someone please tell me.)

So I wonder, what will it take?  What will we need to see from someone in order to say that this person is recreating a medieval scientist?

I’m sure that I’ve wandered into strange waters here.  But if you’re out there and reading this my fellow SCA members, I’d certainly like to know what you think.


About santiagosgrimoire

Magician, Entertainer, Actor, Cook, Leather Worker, Artist and generally very busy.

Posted on August 9, 2012, in Random, SCA and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. My first thought is to be a bit of a smartass and say, “If you manage to create the Philosopher’s Stone, or to turn lead into gold, you’ve earned your Laurel in Alchemy.”

    Seriously, though… when looking back at the SCA period from the 21st century, we really can’t apply our modern definition of what constitutes a “science”. My take on it – and you may remember this from when we were A&S ministers together – is that “the sciences” were more about application and practicality, whereas “the arts” were more decorative or “frivolous” in nature. Take my personal focus on “string”. Spinning would be a science, in that it creates a necessary, practical item (thread). Embroidery would be an art, as it is an embellishment. Where the line gets blurry is something like weaving, which could be anything from plain cloth (science) to elaborate brocaded tablet-woven trims (art).

    Another example – herbal lore. Growing – science. Compounding physicks – science. Compounding perfumes – art.

    Using your examples – compounding pigments for painting or scribing would be a science. The actual painting or scribing would be art.

    Plain cooking would be a science. Presentation, staging, the creation of elaborate subtleties – that’s art.

    So that’s my take, for what it’s worth. 🙂

  2. this is very interesting to me. to be honest, i always think about “arts and sciences” as a whole entity rather than two separate disciplines (“arts” and “sciences”).

    historically speaking (and i mean global history, not sca history), it strikes me as a rather artificial distinction. one thing that i wish we — not just laurels, but sca as a whole — would include in discussions about a&s is more of a historical perspective. because, frankly, the dividing line between “art” and “science” in the middle ages & renaissance is not so divisive — in fact it sometimes seems to hardly be there at all.

    art (latin “ars”) = skill, craft; the making of stuff
    science (latin “scientia”) = knowledge; what you need to cultivate in order to make your stuff

    so in a certain sense they are inseparable. ars (art) always has scientia (science) in its foundation. one could perhaps think of “science” as research and “art” as the application of that research…

    • santiagosgrimoire

      I have made the comment for many years now that when you go back far enough in history magic, science & religion are very tightly woven and are even treated pretty much as the same thing. That it is during the Renaissance that these three things really start to be teased out into what we think of as separate disciplines or fields.

      So I agree that our lack of medieval mindset can certainly bite us in the backside on such issues.

      But by the same token we are dealing with our modern interpretation and we do look at certain individuals in history more as scientist than as artist. Heron of Alexandria being my main example since right now he’s the one I’m dealing with. What I see at this point suggests that we look more to his work in mathematics, hydraulics and pneumatics then we do on anything of a more artistic nature. Though we also appreciate that it was as much his combination of hard science principles with things of beauty and inspiration.

      Which I guess makes me wonder if we (presumptuously) would give Heron a Laurel as an artist, a scientist or if we would make any distinction at all.

      Definitely food for thought!

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