One of the ways the SCA differs from medieval society is in the matter of people’s names: to quote one of the great “required viewing” SCA movies, there can be only one.  That is: there can only be one John Smith, one Mary MacTavish, one Iain Alisdair Padruig Seamus Andrea Stilbhard MacMhurich de Rannocha, and so on.  Why?  Because the name is what identifies every other piece of information: your device, your badge, your household and, in other places, the awards you’ve received and the thrones you’ve reigned upon.  In computer-geek language, the name is the key into the database1.

Now, from a computer-geek point of view this might make sense or it might be ridiculous (you might very well think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment)  but from the point of view of medieval reenactment it’s plainly absurd.  There were and are thousands of John Smiths in the world, and apart from an occasional bit of confusion on the corporate email if two or more of them work for the same company, the human race tends to cope.  I myself know several men named David Evans, and I’ve never had any serious difficulty telling the friendly young choir tenor from the retired Air Vice Marshal.

So why is it like this?

I myself had no idea, and I happened to rant about it in public, whereupon someone I didn’t know made a comment that suggested I was being unnecessarily blinkered.  Maybe so – so I asked him to explain further, and explain he did!  It turns out my interlocutor was none other than Tanczos Istvan, the Wreath King of Arms, whose job in the Society is to deal with the registration of arms — devices and badges — for the entire SCA.

Istvan has kindly consented to having his words posted here.

From Tanczos Istvan, in answer to the question “What’s wrong with allowing non-unique names?”:

Lots of the reasons are “confusion”, but they have different side bets.

  1. The people that want [to dispose of name uniqueness] appear to be a tiny minority. Most of the rest of the SCA deal with it, get over it, and go on to ignore it. It’s only an issue for most people until they have a name.
  2. [Non-unique naming] leads to confusion. Once, the East polled an ‘Elinor Strangeways’ for an award – which was all fine and dandy, except that there’s also an ‘Elinor Strangewayes of Dover’ in the kingdom, who lives within 30 miles of the two-phrase-name one. Which one was it? It took a large number of messages flying back and forth to figure it out, which would have not been possible in the days of paper-only pollings, and the issue might not even have been recognized in one of the “do it all at face-to-face meetings” kingdoms had the person who knew there were two of them not been at that event.
  3. It leads to confusion in court – “Their Majesties call into their court … Gideon MacLeod!” – the registered one wasn’t there, some other guy showed up on the dias, wondering what was going on. His friends were mystified, too. There was a bit of backing-and-filling, and he was put on the Queen’s Guard for the reign, since it’s bad for such public mistakes to be made. Eventually, they caught up with the guy they wanted, at another event.
  4. People with the same name are going to have people give them bynames to tell them apart anyway – why not register the byname as well? Use what you register, register what you use!
  5. The files issue. As the keeper of the backup emblazons. I have one copy of every registered emblazon since 1992. At one piece of paper per piece of registered armory, they fill two seven foot tall, three foot wide shelves except for one shelf. Yes, I’m in the process of scanning them – I have P-Z scanned. But, until you find something unique that does not depend on submitter’s memory, nor a country-specific number (USA’s Social Security Number comes to mind), we can’t use something else for the look up key into the files. If the key is not unique, it will make it much harder to find the pulls that Wreath needs for conflict calls. I am not willing to do more work because you want to break our existing unique key that we’ve lived with for 40 years – I already don’t have enough time in a month.
  6. People move and travel these days, much more than they did in period. If names/armory are unique across the SCA, it’s easier to move in and not have to cause an adjustment period for people to figure out which one is which.
  7. A scribe wants to do a scroll for “John Smith”. Which arms do they put on it?
  8. A herald wants to get permission to conflict from “John Smith” – who do they contact for permission?
  9. Armory is property. Which John Smith owns “Or, an arrow sable”?

If you think it’s solvable, solve it! Many, many very intelligent people have tried for quite a long time to solve this issue, and nobody on the contra-uniqueness side has presented a workable solution, we’ve just been handed assurances that “if people wanted it, a solution would be found”. Sorry – some problems can not be solved. See Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems.

All the real-world solutions which I know of involve arbitrary unique “numbers”, alphanumeric strings in several cases, which people are forced to use and remember, require the outlay of significant sums of money, or require information which we are not legally allowed to be privy to. Sure, we could use the SSN as a unique key for American submitters, except that we’re prohibited by law.

I do not believe that it is possible for the CoA to force people to use and remember similar numbers in the fashion that governments do, and we certainly don’t have the financial resources for a big-money solution. Maybe if we’d been doing it since day 1, we could have gotten away with it.

The result of all this is that I am finally able to see the other side of this argument that vexed me for years.  As an educational deputy, Master Istvan has done an exemplary job, because it’s not easy to derail me when I’m ranting.

However, I would still like to see a different solution, even if I have no idea how it could be done, and even if Dr Gödel is against me.  For that reason, I refer you to the Campaign to End Name Uniqueness, which, should it gain sufficient popularity, may encourage some genius yet-unsung to find a way to solve this problem so that everyone is happy.  Or it may not – but windmills must be tilted at or else what good are they?


The “database” is this flat file here, but the principle is the same.

Author: Tanczos Istvan and Karl Faustus von Aachen. Updated: 15 June 2009 (AS XLIV)