“All heralds, marshals, and fighters, you must sign a waiver!” If you happen to be taking a leisurely stroll through western Balboa Park, and not really paying attention, the incongruity of that distant cry may not immediately register. But it is difficult to ignore the menacing figure of an armed knight, decked out in a full suit of Milanese armor, when he blocks your path not 15 feet away.
It hands him a good chuckle, you a good scare, and provides an unorthodox introduction to the Society for Creative Anachronism. There is not much that is orthodox about SCA, but that’s part of its quixotic charm.
Far more than a practical joke to perplex tourists and unsuspecting passersby, SCA is a collection of dedicated history buffs who meet regularly in the park to play out their individual medieval fantasies.
How do you describe this phenomenon? Lady Kata, the pleasant and talkative minister of information, ventures that it’s a combination of a “medieval-Renaissance study group and a learn-by-doing history club.”
Whatever it is, we have Dean J. Hallford, alias Baron Talanque,, to thank for bringing it to San Diego six years ago. Although confined to a wheelchair, Hallford presides with great enthusiasm and energy over the local Barony of Calafia and its subjects.
A gentle and diffident man, his bearded face lights up with good humor when he remembers how he came to royalty. Introduced to the idea by Los Angeles anachronists, he and a nucleus of locals were meeting to organize a San Diego chapter. Hallford was giving heed to that call which respects neither beggar nor (in this case) baron, when the group elected him seneschal and baron, in absentia. In spite of this treachery, he speaks with great affection and eloquence about the Society and its members.
What began as an elaborate costume party 10 years ago has blossomed nationally as a nonprofit educational organization which even enjoys certain tax privileges. A governing Imperium makes law and policy for the four kingdoms into which the country is divided. Within each kingdom there may be principalities, baronies, shires, and provinces, of which the barony is the most atomic subdivision. Although the Barony of Calafia may be small, there is nothing haphazard about the operation. They have filed papers of incorporation and bylaws with the state.
There is even a handbook (Queen Carol’s Guide to the Current Middle Ages) which explains, to anyone who doesn’t already know, how noble men and women of the Middle Ages are expected to behave. It’s a crash course in rules, protocol, and history, which tenders such useful information as how to address a duke, how to make an authentic costume, and how to win the Order of the Battered Helm.
Most anachronists don’t need any prompting. They select an historical period which Interests them, and then create a “persona” and a name for themselves, doing whatever research is necessary to live up to their new identity. For one man the choice was easy. He had a mystical experience in the course of meditation which convinced him that he was the reincarnation of a Norman conqueror.
According to His Excellency, the Baron, outsiders who stumble onto an SCA event react in one of two ways. There are those who are instantly enchanted and fall immediately into the spirit of the occasion, and there are those who merely gape, slack-jawed, in stony amazement. He tells of one grandmotherly type who watched a sword-fight, transfixed, until one great clash of arms sent shields and helmets flying in all directions. This was really too much for the poor old soul who hastily retreated after pronouncing that whole business “disgusting.”
Finally, with one parting word, I am turned loose to wander among the natives: “It’s sort of self-explanatory. Here we are.”
Adopting the “amazed” reaction, I walk around the ring of pavilions which are clustered in the grassy space just north of the lawn bowling club. My head is on a swivel as I try to take in the whole. But these convincing ghosts from those days of yore won’t stand still long enough to be scrutinized. Grouped into households, they stake out a spot and then dart back and forth to visit neighbors. Lady Kata compares the event to a picnic: “You bring your basket and your ice chest, and your little kids if you must.”
The SCA has enjoyed very good relations with the City and park people. “We provide a lot of color and attraction during the summer tourist months,” one knight offers. “We have a motto: we always try to leave the tournament field cleaner than we found it. Only we can’t say ‘tournament’ when dealing with city officials. ‘Historical re-enactment’ makes them less nervous.”
Costumes range from lavish to shabby, expensive to cheap, but they all bear their individual mark of creativity—a word in which the Society sets much store. People try to confine their enthusiasms to the period 1000 A.D. to 1650 A.D., but the Spartan, Lysander. is given a certain license because he sports such a spectacular outfit.
One woman in a Tudor gown bustles around the perimeter of the field trying to promote the ten-dollar-or-less costume contest. Most members take a certain pride in fashioning a costume cheaply. “Anyone can do it for more than ten dollars,” someone sniffs contemptuously. Many do, The guy with the Milanese armor is rumored to have spent $1,500 for it. D’Artagnan, a chevalier in blue velvet, may have spent upwards of $200 for his creation—but what a dashing figure he cuts! He hands out a card which features his picture in a haughty pose over a cryptic offer of “personal services.” The message becomes less mysterious when someone explains that only attractive young women receive these cards.
“We move a lot,” one member confides with a sly wink. “Women participate in ‘extracurricular’ activities—some with the blessing of their consort, others without their knowledge.” Words like “consort” and “dalliance” have a way of creeping into conversations. “Then there are the singles. It’s like one big incestuous family. Of course, this is not the sort of thing we want published.”
The experience gets surreal after awhile. It’s like walking onto the set of Star Trek. Here is a caveman (looking every inch the part) chatting with a Scotsman in kilt and tam-o’-shanter, while across the field a Spartan is having a laugh with a Moor. The effect is only slightly spoiled by gawkers in bermudas and hushpuppies.
Star Trek isn’t such a bad analogy. Many SCA people are steeped in science fiction, and Star Trek in particular. D.C. Fontana of Star Trek fame is an SCA member, along with several other notable science fiction writers. There are, by the Baron’s reckoning, 15 to 20 professional people among their ranks. He allows that “we have some strange people.”
Well, can we draw any conclusions? Is there a certain type of individual attracted to SCA? Lady Kata volunteers that most members are “creative (there’s that word again), intelligent, and imaginative. The IQ,” she continues, “tends to be 130 or better. A lot of them wear glasses; a lot of them tend to be oldest children or only children. There are computer operators and librarians, a lot of students, a lot of unemployed bums who are finding themselves. Chances are they have not fit in for most of their lives, and now they fit in with a bunch of weirdos—but productive weirdos.” The personality profile conjures up vivid memories of that kid back in high school who was president of the chess club, and used to wear a slide rule on his belt. Be assured that he is now grown up, alive and well, and a member in good standing of the Society for Creative Anachronism.
Baron Talanque agrees that his subjects “tend to be brighter than normal, highly motivated, with an appreciation for fantasy, science fiction, or both. We run the gamut in political and social beliefs from communist to Bircher. In the Society all this is put aside, and we work together. It seems to be a vehicle for socialization-civilization. A lot of our people have never found acceptance with any other group. Therefore, there is a willingness to accept a wide variety of behavior within the bounds of chivalry. Almost anything is tolerated in the way of eccentricity except bad taste.”
If pressed, people will tell you about Society-sponsored revels, art tournaments, dancing, plays, calligraphy, heraldry, puppet theater, and arts auctions. But for sheer pizazz, needlework will never stand up to a good swordfight. And that’s what people come to see. If you want to advance rapidly in the Society, it would be better to acquire some skills with a broadsword rather than a lute. Today the fighting will winnow 40 contestants to two finalists who will duel for the title of prince.
For all this simulated bloodletting, the Society is fanatic about safety. The marshals, arbiters of combat, call all fighters to the center of the field for preliminary instructions. A rattan sword (the variety used here) can administer painful and damaging wounds. According to the Baron, “In some countries, rattan poles, similar to the ones we use, are prohibited as lethal weapons. Blows on an unprotected body would be grievously injurious or fatal. We go to great lengths to protect, but we have had some very bad scares. We have had no deaths, but we have had damaged kidneys, shattered elbows, broken bones, and mild concussions. We’re very worried about that. The blows have become so powerful because we’re getting bigger and faster people. The helmets and shields are being literally torn apart, and we will have to do something before long. Now we require throat, leg, kidney, groin, and head protection. Also, a man must prove competency in combat before being allowed on the field.”
There are very specific rules which combatants must follow. No hitting below the knee, no using the shield as an offensive weapon, and no hitting a man when he is off balance. A blow to the arm disqualifies that appendage for the remainder of the fight. A blow to the leg obliges a knight to fight from his knees. A man is on his honor to decide when he is dealt a lethal blow, but some are more gracious than others about departing this veil of tears. Only rarely, though, will you witness a third-grade confrontation: “You’re dead!” “No, I’m not!” Chivalry remains intact.
For a warmup, all knights will engage in a “melee”—a very descriptive word, it turns out. It seems that the Calafians will take on the northern visitors, the Barony of the Anbels, in a free-swinging reenactment of medieval war. There are tactics. You can form a wedge or just wade in; everyone seems to opt for the wading-in style. At first there is a great clatter of arms and savage shouting which, as the field is decimated, de-escalates to the panting efforts of a single Angelian, on his knees, vainly resisting the onslaught of three attackers. He is dispatched. No quarter asked, none given.
As if to fill a gap in the action, hysterical screams nearby call attention to an abduction. A maiden is being carried, kicking and screaming, into the woods to be ravished “within the realm of decency.”
The individual pairings are announced, and some fairly colorful names turn up: James the Inconstant, Hugh the Undecided, Martin the Temperate, Mac of the Illegal Name, etc.
The first round begins with some lackluster fighting from inexperienced knights. The herald intones, “On your honor, you may begin.” Forthwith, a giant with birdcage helmet and battle axe stalks a dwarfed opponent who seems to have no chance. Then, like Mohammed Ali cutting down Ernie Terrell, like David felling Goliath, the miniature warrior delivers a lightning blow to topple his outsized opponent. A cheer goes up for the underdog victor and also for the vanquished who did a particularly good imitation of death.
This could be a tame version of roller-ball, made more real by the lusty cheering of the onlookers, “all right!” and “good shot!” and “great death!” Unfortunately, all of the bloodletting is not simulated. Lysander topples in a heap, but his acting is too good. Blood pours from beneath his helmet, and slowly people catch on as the cry for “medic” goes up. It’s not as bad as it looks, and he woozily retires from the field under his own power.
Tryggvi Halftrollson, perhaps too generous in giving up the ghost, returns from the field, an early loser. Hollowly, from within his freon-can helmet, come some very unknightly expletives: “I’ve never been hit so goddamn hard in all my life.” Fittingly, he is offered mead, but prefers instead the consolation of a Coors. An anachronism? His daughter suggests that he momentarily forget that he is Russ Farris, technical writer, and try to assume the ferocity of his Icelandic persona.
The fighting starts to wind down, and people buzz in anticipation of tonight’s revel.
But the Society is ultimately more than swordplay, revelry, and playacting. It is an escape to a better time—to the Middle Ages as they should have been. Someone estimates that “a good 25 percent of our people transfer the values and customs of our Society quite heavily to their private lives. They see such current events as Watergate in a medieval perspective.” For some, it’s a place to make some “close and dear friends” for the first time in their lives. For others, it’s a chance to pick up some good tidbits of historical knowledge in a sort of symbiotic give and take.
Baron Talanque talks dreamily of a time when the Society will build a medieval exhibit on their own land—one complete with castle, library, and artisan displays. But that is a distant vision. Now they want to be understood as “an open group that welcomes the interest of anyone who is serious and sincere. We exist.” No denying it.