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Time travelers: Life in this world involves chivalry and swordplay
"We do everything they did in the Middle Ages," says the young man in the tunic who calls himself Odde Ap Tam of Wales, but whose driver's license calls him Joseph Park of Fairfax.
"Everything except die of the plague and marry at 13."
Well, there are a few other omissions. There's no bear-baiting, for example, and nobody gets drawn and quartered, "Braveheart"-style.
But otherwise, the good old days - really old - are alive and well in the thwacking swords, the tootling pipes, the flowing gowns and the chivalry-loving hearts of the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group of folks who like to conjure up Camelot for more than one brief shining moment.
They may be students, soldiers, professionals or craftspeople in their 21st-century lives, but on weekends and evenings they assume other identities from an earlier millennium. Clad in the garb of centuries past, they study
archery and swordplay, ancient arts and crafts and cookery and customs.
Most of all, they immerse themselves in another world, a realm of chivalry and courtliness that, at least in its idealized form, looks preferable to workaday A.D. 2003.
"I like the romantic ideal of chivalry and courtesy," says Lloyd Eldred of Yorktown, whom you may also address as Llwyd Aldrydd, the recently installed "baron" of the SCA's Peninsula chapter.
"We know that that standard wasn't always lived up to at the time, but we aspire to the ideal."
Started in 1966 at Berkeley, Calif., the SCA describes itself as "an international organization dedicated to researching and re-creating pre-17th-century European history." Generally, its members adopt identities from within a thousand-year span from 600 to 1600, the European Middle Ages and Renaissance. So at an SCA event, it's not unusual to see an Elizabethan gentleman or lady hobnobbing with a Viking.
The group is divided geographically into 17 "kingdoms" - we're in the kingdom of Atlantia, which stretches from Maryland down to Georgia - and is subdivided into "baronies," with the Peninsula outfit being the Barony of Tir-y-Don. It imitates the medieval system of feudalism, in which the people of a region would owe allegiance to the local baron and baroness, who in turn would swear their fealty to the king and queen of the kingdom.
"It's mainly a titular post," says Audrey Tweed of Williamsburg, who recently served two two-year terms as Tir-y-Don's Baroness Oriana. "You preside over events as a representative of the crown, you hand out awards, you encourage people to do more." Another officer, the "senechal," oversees the business end of the barony.
Tweed passed on her title to new Baron Eldred, and his Baroness. Patricia Ellison, at a "baronial investiture" this spring. One of the local group's bigger events of the year, it drew close to 200 SCA folks to Jamestown Beach Campground in James City County, including many from elsewhere in the kingdom, such as Joseph Park.
In a broad field arose a square of about 20 rectangular, pavilion-type white canvas tents. A short distance away lay the row of modern cars and vans - some bearing bumper stickers like "Practice Chivalry" and "Beam me back, Merlin" - that had brought the participants, but in the tent area was another era: a world of knights and squires, lords and ladies, courtiers and medieval craftspeople. (Unsurprisingly, it seems few people choose to adopt the identity of a serf.)
Some outfits were elementary, little more than a tunic with 21st-century jeans and shoes visible below. Others were quite elaborate, like the striking gowns worn by the barony's two "chatelaines," Lady Lucrezia (Mary Ann Goodhue of Yorktown) and Lady Isobel (Elizabeth Henderson of Williamsburg).
Lucrezia, Goodhue explained, is a lady of Florence, Italy, from 500 years ago, a time and place she chose because it was a center of Renaissance art and the beginnings of democracy. "And I love the clothing," she added. "I just feel elegant wearing it." She had on a floor-length pumpkin-colored cotton gown, with a cream-colored light cotton chemise underneath.
Lady Isobel, meanwhile, was resplendent in white voile chemise, black silk-and-cotton undergown and green velvet overgown. "This was a form of conspicuous consumption of the age," Henderson said. "It was a way of saying, 'Look how rich I am, I can afford to waste all this fabric on my sleeves.' "
Their duties as chatelaines include serving as hostesses for the event, assisting visitors and orienting newcomers. For first-timers and the curious who drop by to see what it's all about, they have a stock of tunics they can loan. Newcomers get a green-and-yellow tassel to identify themselves, said Goodhue, and members will gladly assist them and explain what is going on.
The SCA welcomes newcomers, several barony officers noted. Once they join, members are encouraged to apply themselves to choosing and researching their characters, learning one or more medieval skills and crafts, and completing their costumes.
"Everything except my boots and my gorget (a piece of armor around the neck) was made by myself or my lady," said Jim Cunningham of Newport News, aka Lord Jean Claude de Calais, the senechal of Tir-y-Don. He sports a brocade doublet, a hood of heavy cotton, ruffled shirt, baggy britches called "slops," satin sash and leather belt.
"We do have some folks who go 'from sheep to closet' making their outfits - take wool, dye it and spin it and so on," he said.
For those less skilled in costume creation, gear can be bought. Medieval merchants were on hand at Jamestown, selling embroidered trim and tassels, leatherwork and swords.
In one tent were a crafts couple from Portsmouth, Sharon and Burt Hellar - call them Siobhan and Mungoe, residents of medieval Ireland. She weaves silver wire into exquisite jewelry; he makes replicas of ninth- and 10th-century games out of wood or clay. Many of these are chess-like war games. One particularly elaborate game has 107 wooden pieces carved in the shape of wooden boats, with pegs that fit into holes in the carved circular table that serves as the playing board.
When time came for the investiture, the group assembled itself into a demonstration of medieval court protocol. A herald announced the dignitaries - nobles, marshals (officers who supervise fighting competitions), champions (winners of those competitions), and other officers - as they processed toward the royal pavilion tent. The nobles sat in a row across the front of the tent, attendants standing behind them. Outgoing Baroness Oriana gave small awards to various individuals for their service to the barony, the crowd hailing the honorees with cries of "Vivat! Vivat! Vivat!"
The king made a nice speech about the great job the outgoing baroness had done, and then the new baron and baroness kneeled before the king and queen (a couple from Southern Pines, N.C.) and gave their oath of fealty.
There was lunch on the grounds, with medievally plausible food like quiche, meat pies, bread with honey butter and hardboiled eggs. That evening, a 15th-century Italian feast was laid on with dishes such as stuffed eggs, hens in orange sauce and beef on a spit.
Music wafted across the field, courtesy of Ron Carnegie, playing the tabor (a small drum) with one hand and the pipe (a recorder-like instrument) with the other. Carnegie is, in fact, a sort of living history one-man band. In addition to SCA, he works for Colonial Williamsburg and is a volunteer costumed interpreter at Jamestown Settlement. His Elizabethan character, Ranald de Balinhard - Balinhard, he said, is the ancestral name of the Carnegies - was well-turned out in dark blue doublet made from upholstery fabric, which does a pretty good impersonation of 16th-century fancy needlework.
Carnegie said he competes in fencing, like many SCAers who adopt Elizabethan personas. SCA fencers use standard fencing foils and modern masks, for safety's sake, along with their 16th-century costumes.
Those who compete in medieval swordplay use swords made of rattan covered with duct tape. The swords are 11/2 inches thick, standardized by rule so they cannot go through the standard 1-inch openings in the helmets' face masks.
A strip of black tape is on either side of the sword, to indicate where the edges are; only being struck with the sword edge counts as a hit.
When one dueler is hit by another, he must acknowledge the hit. If you are hit in a leg or arm, you lose the use of it; you put the arm behind your back, or get down on one knee to express the loss of that leg.
"The SCA is one of the few refuges of fair play," asserts Gary Robertson of York County. A College of William and Mary alumnus, he belongs to a sub-group of the barony, the College of Rencester, at W&M. "Here the idea of honor is important. In the combats, although there are marshals, it is up to the participants to play fair."
When rattan sword lands upon wooden shield, or armor, or an exposed arm or leg, it makes a scarily resounding thwack! "Since we are a full-contact sport, you do wind up with a couple of bruises," says senechal Cunningham. "But we have a good injury record. An occasional twisted ankle or such, like you would find in any sport."
Combatants have to be authorized as knowing the rules and having proper equipment before they can compete. Cunningham carries an authorization card saying he can fight with heavy weapons (sword, mace, battleax), pole weapons, spears and rapiers.
Kids - quite a few of them accompany their parents to SCA events - can get in on the fun, too. The Hellars' 8-year-old son, Nicholas, has a character of his own: a medieval Japanese warrior, complete with helmet made from a construction worker's hard hat, armor plates from a cut-up pickle bucket and a lacrosse player's face mask. For their sword practice, youngsters like Nicholas use a well-padded piece of PVC pipe.
You may not recall any Japanese characters in "Ivanhoe," but a few members do go farther afield. "Although SCA is primarily the European Middle Ages," says Cunningham, "we also have some people who interpret people the Western Middle Ages could have had contact with, such as Japanese, Mongols or even Native Americans."
One thing decidedly non-medieval about SCA combat: Quite a few women also strap on armor and wield swords, too, or compete in archery.
And, as "Lady Lucrezia" Goodhue points out, there is one large area of medieval life that the SCA steps around.
"We don't do religion, even though religion was such a very big part of the Middle Ages. We want everyone to feel welcome, we don't want to be exclusionary."
There are a few individual members who reflect religious culture in their characters, she notes. She knows one who portrays a religious pilgrim, another who's a Muslim of the period, and one college student whose persona is that of a Jewish woman of medieval Europe.
Goodhue says she used to do a Byzantine character herself. "I enjoyed doing that, because the Byzantine civilization had running water and bathtubs in the Middle Ages."
Ask SCA members why - apart from the fun of dressing up and whacking each other with rattan - they do it, and two points recur: the companionship, and fascination with the age of chivalry.
"It's like another family," says Cunningham. "Everybody is so close and so nice."
"I like it for the things you can't get in the real world," says Tweed.
"We expect a higher standard of behavior than you get in the real world. In the real world, people tend to be insular."
Says Carolyn Prickett of Newport News, a longtime SCA member: "SCA provides me an opportunity to explore my love of history and the ideals we hold so dear, of honesty, courtesy and chivalry.
"They feed my soul."
Tony Gabriele can be reached at 247-4786 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.