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Medieval Times

How local history buffs bring the Middle Ages back to life

March 4, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Video by Irene Rojas, Seth Putnam, Wonsuk Choi and Jessica Cherry

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in October, Peace Park is alive with the sound of fighting. Shouts ring out; the clashes and clangs of swords bludgeoning helmeted heads fill the brisk air. It’s the din of war, and the dead are curled in fetal positions on the ground.

The art of war

One of the most visible and intriguing elements of the SCA is also one of the
most technical: fighting.
Code of Conduct
The whole process is governed by an honor system; it’s the responsibility of the person who gets hit to fall down and “die.” It’s pretty simple: If you get hit in the arm, you lose the use of that arm. A blow to the leg means you have to drop to your knees, and the fighting restarts. A second hit usually results in death.
Players use all sorts of weapons made out of rattan, a bamboo-like material often used for furniture. Unlike bamboo, rattan is solid and packs a punch. On the battlefield, you can expect to see short swords, maces, two-handed great swords and everything in between. They keep themselves safe with armor (metal or leather) that protects their joints, torso and head.
Big battles
It’s at a war such as Pennsic, which more than 10,000 Scadians attend annually, that things really get interesting. Hosted in Slippery Rock, Pa., and lasting for 17 days during July and August, it’s the SCA’s biggest battle. Thousands of fighters swirl around one other in the infamous “toilet bowl of death.” Pennsic is legendary among Scadians, and everyone talks about it with reverence. The fact that they’ve lived to tell tales, some of them tall, about the fabled Pennsic encampments is a perfect illustration of one of the Society’s benefits: Slain warriors always rise to fight another day.

Scadian fighters from across Calontir collide in a giant melee in Peace Park.

Fighters and noncombatants alike cluster to hear a herald’s announcements at the Toys for Tots ...

Martino Michele Veneri (m.k.a Michael Vennera) watches fellow fighters at Peace Park. He’s earned the ...

Scadian fighters collide during a tournament in Peace Park.

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Medieval gear is strewn beneath the trees. Yellows, reds, blues and purples catch the light as brightly clad warriors thwack one another. Around the park, clusters of curious students watch. A wedding party shows up, startled that the serene park the bride and groom planned to use for pictures has become an ancient battlefield.

I approach a fatigued fighter who is catching his breath after a duel. He is called Lohengrin, and he informs me that we’re in the Kingdom of Calontir, a territory in a medieval world known as the Society for Creative Anachronism. He rattles off the year he was born:1154 A.D., exactly 800 years before his real-life birthday. His real name is Richard, but he doesn’t offer his last name — such details are not important in this world. Richard’s favorite movie is the Crusades flick Kingdom of Heaven, and he bases his persona on that time period. He’s done his best to craft an accurate character, from the armor he wears to the war tales he recounts as if Lohengrin were a real person.

“I said, ‘It’s legal to hit people?’” Richard says, reverting to his modern-day self and remembering what first got him interested in the Society. “‘OK, I’m in!’”

On the outskirts of the park, a few college students are snickering at the “nerds” playing dress up. More than once, I have to jump out of the way as warriors charge one another, and before long I begin to wonder: What makes these people want to put on heavy armor and hit one another with wooden weapons? To the average onlooker, this probably doesn’t seem normal.

So I decide to enlist.

Re-creating the Dark Ages

Founded in California in 1966 by a group of medieval history students, the Society for Creative Anachronism is dedicated to re-enacting the pre-17th century world, albeit with an imaginative twist.

According to its Web site, the SCA is now an international organization with more than 32,000 registered members (called Scadians) and an estimated 60,000 participants worldwide. The organization has its own geography — the Known World — made up of 19 kingdoms that often bridge the borders of real-life states and countries, which Scadians smugly dub the Mundane World. One particularly cheeky kingdom called Trimaris claims most of Florida, Panama, Antarctica and, unbelievably, outer space.

“Trimaris officially lays claim to outer space as part of its kingdom lands because a Scadian in NASA sent a Trimarian symbol up with one of the astronauts,” says Lady Emma bat Avraham (mundanely known as Deborah McDuffie).

Missouri, along with Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and northwest Arkansas, falls under the jurisdiction of the of Calontir (Welsh for heartland). There are nearly 40 baronies, shires and cantons in the kingdom of Calontir, and Columbia has its very own: The Shire of Standing Stones, an homage to the columns that bookend Eighth Street.

Standing Stones was set up in 1978 by a terminally ill young man, Kevin McCauley, and a few buddies, all avid Dungeons & Dragons fans. McCauley soon became Lord Amleth MacAuleth and, meeting monthly at the Columbia Public Library, led this group of misfit friends in an escape from sickness and social discomfort that was more tactile than the imaginative escapades of D&D. Although McCauley died in 1980, Standing Stones has lived on.

M' lords and m' ladies

My first and perhaps most difficult task in joining the SCA is developing a persona, a requirement which immediately brings to mind D&D character classes and magical weapons and clothing with fantastical names. Although the ‘‘C’’ in SCA stands for “creative,” there are no elves or pixies allowed in the mix. Only serious history buffs, please.

“We are a group of historians, re-creating life from 600 to 1600,” explains Iseabail (m.k.a. Jennifer Kilgore), a newbie who joined a little more than a year ago. “We’re closer to Civil War re-enactors than we are to fantasy-type things.”

Luckily, however, the members don’t re-create all the aspects of the Dark Ages. An unofficial SCA credo sums up the great thing about the group: It’s not the Middle Ages as they actually were but “as they should have been.”

The re-creation found in Scadian encampments and battlefields is a selective one that substitutes iPhones and indoor plumbing for unpleasantries such as plagues and religious intolerance.

As long as you’re making an attempt to dress in period clothing and act as a believable character, you’re good to go as a Scadian. But a few rules do apply: Personas should be historically plausible, but they cannot be actual people from the recorded past, which makes William Wallace off limits. Nor can they be specific fictional characters, so there goes Robin Hood, too.

Somehow, I don’t figure they’ll go for Sir Seth of College Avenue either, so I opt for something straightforward and pick William de Puttenham after a couple days researching my family’s English genealogy.

Pulling together a mismatched assortment of clothing from costumes past, I head to my first taste of modern medieval life: dance practice for an upcoming ball. Although re-creational combat is a major element, the SCA has more layers than its bland name suggests. It is a cross section of brewers, archers, tailors, armorers, heralds, cooks, fighters and more. If an occupation was part of the Middle Ages, you can bet there’s someone re-creating it.

When I get to the dance practice, things are already in full twirl. I’m quickly paired with a grandmotherly woman called Marie, and we move around a classroom in MU’s Middlebush Hall to the grainy recordings of trumpets, drums and lutes.

“Watch your thumb,” she chides. “You’re flirting.” At first I don’t understand, but after looking at the other men’s hands, upturned with their thumbs pointing straight in the air, I realize that I must have committed a medieval party foul. My thumb is clasped on her hand as if we were in the 21st century. Embarrassed, I laugh apologetically. I’m sure it won’t be my last faux pas in this society.

At the dance, I see Jennifer (Iseabail) Kilgore and her husband, Jonathan, both of whom I met at an earlier fighter practice. The young married couple is involved in just about every activity the SCA offers. Jonathan, an archer who has long brown hair and a goatee, often displays his unique sense of humor by miming.

Within earshot of Jennifer, he mentions how he’s looking forward to an upcoming event so he can flirt with some of the ladies who will be there. “What?” he says, playfully lowering his head from a reproachful slap from his wife. “Flirting is period! It’s a skill.”

Jennifer teaches lighting design at Stephens College, and Jonathan works at a call center to pay the bills though he’s also trained in theatrical lighting. He became a Scadian 12 years ago when a friend suggested they start making chain mail armor. Jonathan, a fan of Celtic jewelry and fantasy novels, quickly agreed. After Jennifer got involved last year, their life in the SCA picked up speed and hasn’t slowed down.

“I take a break every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.,” Jonathan quips.

The Kilgores keep a peanut butter jar labeled “SCA Fund” and drop loose change into it to cover some of the smaller expenses. Jennifer tells me she dreams of becoming Queen of Calontir “by right arms,” which means she’ll have to be the best fighter in the kingdom’s Crown Tournament — something no woman has done yet in Calontir.

When the war is over

Although the fighting can become a frenzied competition, there is also an unusual sense of camaraderie when the swords are sheathed at the end of the day. Lief, an 11th-century Norse trader, reminisces about one of the many annual battle encampments.

“Imagine you are surrounded by your closest friends, 90 percent of whom you don’t know — yet,” he says. “You go to bed to the sound of singing. Some of it is clear and pretty; some is drunken and clearly having fun.”

And Scadians definitely know how to party. On Jan. 21, about 450 lords and ladies fill MU’s Memorial Union for the Queen’s Prize Tournament. At this annual event, subjects of Calontir research and re-create period crafts — anything from intricately detailed, hand-sewn tents to cherry-vanilla mead — to present to the queen. After the king and queen preside over their court and dole out awards to their faithful subjects, I follow the locals to the “post revel” — Scadian vernacular for the afterparty.

More than 50 of us are packed into a house that belongs to a man called Rhodri. It’s an all-night soirée, full of carousing and reminiscing with the help of craft beer and homemade mead. People are packed into the living room, and I join them as they chant some of Calontir’s war songs: “So you broke your sword / Here you can borrow mine / Then we can share a cider / Around the fire tonight.”

A strangely melodious chorus of voices shouts out the words to songs such as “A Grazing Mace” and Psalm 115:1 (in Latin). A stout, bearded man named Pavel uses me as a prop in one of his famous stories, and in front of a rapt audience, which has already heard the tale a thousand times but is still hanging on every word, he throws me across the room, spit flying out of his mouth as his character consumes him.

It’s an event that, with the exception of the drinks and the singing, is a lot like any other party; it’s a group of people enjoying one another’s company, united by a common interest.

Mundane in their own way

In popular culture, medieval re-enactors are often mocked. They are satirized in Men Without Hats’ music video for “The Safety Dance.” They are portrayed in feature films such as Role Models. There’s an Old Spice commercial that features Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher as a scrawny geek, wielding his Sword of Urlacher in a derisive jab at people who actually dress up and do that kind of thing.

Scadians are also often lumped into the same category as people who spend their days at home playing Dungeons & Dragons and World of Warcraft — a group of people seen as geeks, freaks and dorks who don’t fit in elsewhere in society. But in reality Scadians are an eclectic mix of doctors, students, economists, mechanics, financial planners and more. They range from infants whose parents participate in the SCA to senior citizens.

“Sure, there are some people who don’t fit in other places, but for a lot of us, this is just where we fit in best,” says Marion Forester, (m.k.a. Lisa Adams), who works as an attorney in the Mundane World.

“The friendships are real,” adds Calontir’s current queen, Magdalena vonder Meere (m.k.a. Nancee Beattie), a freelance writer and graphic designer who got involved in the SCA 26 years ago while a journalism student at MU. “The promises we make are real, whether you’re in modern clothes or in SCA clothes. We are very creative and very smart. People who are doing well in the SCA tend to have their acts together in other areas.”

Still, she tells me that she’s selective in whom she tells about the SCA.

“Because of the pop-culture references, I’m careful,” she says. “I like people to get to know me before they get a chance to make a snap judgment. I don’t want them to get one little glimpse of the hobby and say, ‘Loser.’ If you were really to shred other peoples’ hobbies, you would see that the SCA really has a lot in common with them.”

Perhaps Beattie is right to be cautious. In the past, pop culture hasn’t been kind to enthusiasts of medieval history. However, she often finds that when she does tell people, they are much more accepting than she thought they might be. For her, it’s a heartening sign that culture is coming around and finally starting to show the hobby the respect it deserves.

After all, what is normal? How is re-creating a historical period that much different from playing fantasy sports online, or to take it a step further, playing a pickup game with some friends in the gym? The answer, it would seem, is simply that Scadians have more ornate jerseys.

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