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Medievally Minded

What if it were possible to create a world full of knights in shining armor and maidens in distress? Perhaps we could go back to a time when Old English is spoken, before King Arthur became a legend. A common sight would be the long elaborate gowns of females, and the helms and swords that are bestowed on men. It is hard to imagine what it was like, but what if it could be recreated? [medie1]
A student organization works to bring this idea into reality. The Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) re-enacts events, skills and art from pre-17th century Europe. Its members dress up in full garb with helms, shields and swords. Most members got involved with the group because of the elaborate measures the SCA takes to recreate the past.
For physics junior Michael Sigler, the reason for joining SCA dates back to childhood. “As a science fiction and fantasy writer, many of my favorite books, writings, and video games contain elements from the period. The opportunity to learn how to fence, make chainmail or learn archery felt a part like living the games as well as making my own writings more realistic,” Sigler said.
Down to the last stitch, there are numerous sources on SCA’s Web site that show how to dress or make simple medieval clothes called “garb.” SCA members usually make their own clothes, although sometimes bartering or trade services are available when the person cannot handcraft it. Women wear plainly colored long skirts and peasant blouses. Men often sport trousers and peasant shirts that are almost never tucked in. Basic is considered best to achieve the air of the time.
It is not proper to wear a white belt, sash or baldric, which is a belt across the chest that is considered too flamboyant. White is reserved for members of the Chivalry, or those with recognition in the society. Brightly colored belts, such as red, green or yellow, are often used to indicate the wearer is a student of someone that has been honored for excellence in a SCA field of endeavor. Necklaces of chain links without medallions or pendants are also worn by special groups. These wardrobe do’s and don’ts are taught in classes at SCA events, where the masters of each trade teach their skills to pass down to future members.
Like Sigler, most members join for the experience. When members come together, they bring stacks of books, materials and knowledge to share. Group gatherings and classes offer the opportunity to learn to make crafts or armor and just gain information about a time period.
When together, the members adopt a persona and talk, look and behave as though they only live in ancient times, knowing nothing of today. They have last names, first names and pretend to have been eyewitnesses to historical events that spanned throughout their fictional lifetimes. For example, if a person lived in England during the reformation of the church, being “there” during Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn is possible. No one is allowed to choose someone known as Lancelot. It is assumed names like the famous Lancelot, who bewitched King Arthur’s Gwendolyn, would create superiority complexes among members. However, many veteran members have added intricate family trees and histories to their personas instead of showy names. “I was told there were three ways to look for your persona – one was ‘I like this name,’ another was that you go to an event and say ‘Oh, I like that garb… where are they from?’ and the last was to research it and say ‘Oh I like this era,'” animal science senior Racheal Thomson said.
[sigler2]Japanese, Celtic and Middle Eastern personas all exist among SCA members. Personas are meant to change over time and some members have more than one persona. Some personas visit other places and therefore mix characteristics of two ancient cultures. It is not uncommon to find strict personas either, or those who are a certain century head to toe, from garb to tongue to fight. Most new members take on a persona that crosses eras and areas of the world. Mechanical engineering junior Ashley Kulczycki’s persona is Emma, an 11th or 12th century girl. Kulczycki, like many members, is still learning enough about the time period to be a convincing character. So far, Kulczycki’s persona, Emma, has decided to wear dresses of bright colors with few buttons. This says a lot about Emma. She is poor rather then rich, because buttons were expensive and only the rich could afford them. Given her poor status, she is probably humble. Emma most likely would not have witnessed many of the recorded events in history, so room is left for the imagination.
But why do all of this pretending involved with SCA? Most members say that it is a break from the real world or an opportunity to experience what they often read in books. MSU’s SCA is only one branch of the original non-profit organization, the Society for Creative Anachronism Incorporated. The original SCA started in 1966, when a few friends who were history fanatics and science fiction and fantasy fans hosted a big outdoor party in Berkeley, Calif. They sent out an invitation for an unlikely tournament on May 1, summoning “all knights to defend in single combat the title of ‘fairest’ for their ladies.”
Surprisingly, the tournament was a success. In fact, so many people came the friends decided to make another, except this time on a larger scale. In order to reserve one of the public parks for the gathering, the organizers needed to list a name for their group on the application. Since recreating the Middle Ages in 20th century Berkeley was an anachronism – something “out of time” – and because it was done through creativity, they came up with “The Society for Creative Anachronism.”
Word of the SCA quickly spread through the network of friends and science-fiction devotees. One event led to two until eventually there were six events held in the first year and nine in the second. In the third year, a chapter was founded on the East Coast named the East Kingdom, making the original known as the West Kingdom.
Soon, the Californians organized the SCA into a non-profit educational society. The act of recreating the pre-17th century world caught on, and thousands of SCA groups were created worldwide. To manage the new members, the original organization separated each group into kingdoms, or categories based on their locations. “It’s the parts where we spilt up the world. We are in the Middle Kingdom, which is Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, a little bit of Canada and maybe Wisconsin,” Kulczycki said. Since 1966, the Society has grown to 19 kingdoms that cover the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, South Africa and Australia. There are more than 30,000 paid members of the corporation, and the total number of participants is around 60,000 people. [sca2]
It gets even more complicated as the kingdoms are broken down further into smaller and smaller sections – almost like how a country has its states and the states have their cities. Within a kingdom, which can cover many states and thousands of miles, there are subdivisions called Principalities and local chapters called Baronies, Shires and Cantons. Each group has its own officers to run each section. The officers are the members of SCA who actually plan and run the events, practices and other activities for the rest of the participants.
Furthermore, there are Households and Guilds that exist within Baronies, Shires and Cantons. These are unofficial groups within the SCA and consequently determine their own internal structures. Some households have a feudal basis, which means the household consists of a knight and his lady, and their squires and men-at-arms. Other households are founded by participants that are only concerned in the re-creation of a certain era in history. And some households are simply groups of friends, who like to socialize and travel to events together – including the university SCA group. These types of unofficial organizations are often founded by people that come together just to share their knowledge.
These smaller SCA groups do partake in large-scale tournaments together. The biggest one, the Crown Tournament, which is held semi-annually at various locations, is where all of the experienced heavy weapons fighters battle for the title of King. The next Crown Tournament will be held on May 24 and 25 at the Drawbridge Inn and Convention Center in Fort Mitchell, Ky. Winners and losers are determined on the honor of the participants – if in real life, a blow would have caused a mortal wound, the fighter is honor-bound to proclaim himself or herself “dead.”
At the tournaments, the fighters put on metal helms that weigh more then their entire garb put together. They wear padding to protect knees, elbows, kidneys and groins. The warriors choose their weapons – a sword and shield, two swords, a sword and dagger or a sword and a sword with some sort of creative anachronism. All weapons, no matter the choice, are made out of bamboo so if a hard blow comes, they become floppy instead of shattering into wooden bits. By the time the full garb is on, most members look like they just stepped out of a story book.
After hours of preparation, they fight, but the focus is not on winning, but on honor and honesty. A fighter cannot hit his opponent while he is down because it would defeat the purpose of displaying skill – it would be cheating and dishonorable. This emphasizes chivalrous behavior characteristic of the times and encourages good sportsmanship.
Fencing, which is Thomson’s specialty, includes battles with one sword, two swords and even the combination of dagger and sword. As an opponent gets hit, he or she has to forfeit the limb that was struck. If a fencer “loses their leg,” they end up fighting while kneeling. Matches can be won with one hand behind the back. Sigler said fighters are taught to learn the feel of a sword, sensing its weight and balance, as well as the actual act of using the sword.
For Sigler, the best part of fencing is the adrenaline rush that comes when she is charged by her opponent. “The entire experience, the clash of metal, the quick motion, the heart pounding excitement – and then the soft tap of the master stroke as it ever so gently lands its graceful blow on the loser’s helm or body,” Sigler said. The whole process is taken seriously, and everything is played according to how it would have been at that time.
While it may be hard to imagine how things were, the SCA members pool their own creative ideas to bridge the past and present. At tournaments, all modern technology, even cell phones, are nonexistent. Going to markets to barter goods is a common pre- or post-battle activity and crafts such as card weaving and wood whittling are taught in between matches. “They’re [SCA Members] completely enthralled in this whole idea that society has gone bye-bye and you have this little world right here that you just get to have fun in,” Thomson said.
Once the tournament is over, the winner of the heavyweight fighting claims his or her title. In the Crown Tournament, this title is king. Most may think of a king as an all-powerful royal, but in SCA, the position of king has a different purpose. Once crowned king, he or she cannot fight in most of the tournaments that are held. This is because when the programs first started, there were typically one or two excellent fighters who would dominate everything. The idea was to crown him or her as king so the battles would end up fair.
[thomson]After being crowned, the king picks the queen. Together, they monitor the kingdom in which they won the tournament. It ends up like much a second job because the royalty has to make appearances at all different functions. “Since it’s a non-profit organization, it’s basically that you’re paying for your job,” Kulczycki said. A lot of members see the title of king or queen as a privilege. The king and queen’s responsibilities rank from maintaining records of SCA groups and history to maintaining communication between kingdoms to dealing with problems in each society. At their appearances at events, members can come before them and address issues.
After the king and queen are chosen, all members are subject to them. The kingdoms in themselves are independent of each other and, because of this, there is a variation among them. These variations included differences in written “laws” established by the king and queen that define specific rules and customs that give each kingdom its unique personality. To maintain some sort of regularity, all kingdoms build their laws and customs on a framework called the Corpora, originally set by those who started the organization in California. Four to six months later, there is a new tournament designated by the current king, to set up a chance to have a new king.
The SCA is not like a sport or team in which there are a set number of days to meet and hours to practice. Instead, each member puts as much time in as he or she believes is necessary. “I think that’s where a lot of sports, teams or clubs would have a differentiating opinion. Most think that’s it’s planned or it’s playing, that there’s not seriousness to it,” Thomson said. Thomson maintains each member still has to learn, even if the time limit is not as planned or structured as other sports. When in the moment, understanding basics of movement and defense is important. [medie2]
Even in the 21st century, the SCA has shown it is possible to recreate a time in the distant past, filled with honorable duels and small regions governed by the laws and regulations created by a king and queen with dedicated followers. The popularity of SCA organizations across the country has shown this desire to travel back is far-reaching and extensive. It may have been a time when King Arthur was a legend and Henry VIII’s marital exploits were known, but with the SCA’s flexibility and growth nationwide, history gets its own little twist with every new member.

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