Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
King Timothy of Caid Instructs his forces to fight fairly
Walk through Balboa Park on a weekend afternoon and there is a chance you will come upon a sight you might think had passed with the War of the Roses or the Field of the Gold Pavilion: warrior knights in perfectly crafted, meticulously authentic armor, chain mail, and Crusader helmets, fighting — it would seem at first glance — to the death; ladies in pointed barbettes and mantles lounging in their pavilions. But you will have made a mistake to assume that the Middle Ages are over. For these members of San Diego’s branch of the Society for Creative Anachronism, the times are still very much alive. Indeed, they are now called the Current Middle Ages. The Middle Ages that never died.
Lady Brianna and Lord Randwulf
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
For these knights, merchants, lords, and ladies are living in the Kingdom of Caid (an irregular-shaped territory that constitutes much of what is otherwise known as Southern California, including Los Angeles) ruled over by King Timothy and Queen Trista of Costa Mesa, and, within that, the Barony of Califia (which is to say, San Diego County), falling under the jurisdiction of one Baron Talanque.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
It is not simply a matter of territories, however. The Society for Creative Anachronism attempts to recreate the Middle Ages in its entirety. The inner culture of manners, courtoisie, the values of feudal honour and fidelity are on a par with the mock swords, the pugnacious tournaments, and the craft guilds that the society sponsors...from beer-making to armory to medieval needlework and calligraphy. The creation of “the Current Middle Ages in The Known World" (that is, in America, with a few additions such as Japan. Europe, and New Zealand) is not just a matter of dressing up in surcotes, tabards, and pointed shoes. It is, as one of its founders, the fantasy fiction writer Diana Pax.son. writes, “a protest against the 20th Century." A kind of collective denial of contemporary reality.
Allister of the Woods
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Who are these ambiguous people inhabiting a crepuscular fantasy world, dressed like the dead, speaking the language of the past, and behaving as if the brutal awakenings of the last six centuries had never happened? Mad cultists or just harmless hobbyists educating the masses (the Society is registered as an “educational trust") about the quotidian life of a disappeared civilization? Take up your Byzantine turbans, your Elizabethan doublets, and your two-handed broadswords and enter, if you have a care, the strange and fantastic world of the Current Middle Ages.
"For us, five minutes is about as much as we can fight in the heat.”
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
The Society for Creative Anachronism was spawned on May Day in 1966, at a farewell gathering in Berkeley for Diana Paxson, who was leaving to work in the Peace Corps. The party’s theme was a medieval tournament, since many of the guests had a keen interest in the Middle Ages and historic fantasy. Participants came from the UC-Berkeley faculties, the local science fiction fraternity. Mills College, and the San Anselmo Theological Seminary. Their invocation was taken from Winnie the Pooh: “Winnie the Pooh went thump-thump-thump down the stairs after Christopher Robin," though it was recited, of course, in Latin. The revelers then staged a costumed march up Telegraph Avenue (to protest the 20th Century). A mere 18 months later, a feudal organization had emerged, comprising knights, guilds, merchants, and a king and a queen. On Twelfth Night 1968, the Society for Creative Anachronism was formally established, and so began a new way of reckoning time. Anno Societatis. As the society sees it, we are now in the year A.S.28 of the Current Middle Ages.
The Society for Creative Anachronism was spawned on May Day in 1966, at a farewell gathering in Berkeley for Diana Paxson.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
With the creation of a new scheme of time, the _ society also created a new geography. The group’s manual, the “Known World Handbook,” which instructs newcomers in the transition from the “Mundane world” (contemporary America) to the current medieval world, shows the evolution of the earliest SCA maps to the present day. Like the crude charts of Ptolemy and Strabo, the manual shows vague continents of unknown size and shape stretching away from Berkeley into the mist. The Great Bay of Saint Francis is clear enough, but just south of it, where Los Angeles should be. is the sinister label “unknown lands," with a picture of a medieval peasant reaping wheat.
"This armor is made to last, unlike the armor of the Middle Ages, which was made to survive one battle."
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
However much one might have wished that happy state of affairs to last forever, the organization was bound to grow. And the maps show that by 1985, a blob of land shaped somewhat like the USA has emerged and, umbilically linked to it by terra flrma, a thing called the Principality of Drachenwald, which looks uneasily like Europe. Japan is also there, called (a magnificent inversion) the Far West. By 1985 the Known World, or the domain of the SCA. had at last become global. And the U.S. itself had become a patchwork of exotic lands ruled by kings.
“You play games. That’s why we have so many computer people."
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
The latest map of America, known also as Terra Origo, the Land of Origen, shows 12 of these. Texas, for example, has become Ansteorra, with large cities named Bryn Gwlad. Raven’s Fort, and Namron. Oklahoma and Kansas have become Calontir, the South is Meridies; and the East Coast is the East Realm, with Manhattan nicely renamed Ostgardr. Only bits of Wyoming and Colorado seem to have missed a romantic nomenclature; they are simply called the Outlands.
The map reflects the complex internal organization of the SCA. where principalities exist within kingdoms, and baronies within principalities, and cantons within baronies, and so on. There are even “colleges” for university campuses and “strongholds" and “forts" for military bases. The entire U.S. polity, in other words, has been reshuffled in the image of a gigantic, feudal nation of the Middle Ages.
And just as they have a different topography and move around on a different map. so they themselves have “personas,” medieval versions of themselves that they invent as soon as they enter the society. These personas have medieval names, and with the passage of time the member may well end up casting aside his real name and using only the invented one. For the Current Middle Ages are perfectly real and, like all complete, coherent worlds, entirely self-sufficient. As for despised “real life,” it is nothing more than the Mundane — a drab, uninteresting place in which one exists purely out of necessity and which one leaves behind as one would a dreary secondhand coat. Grey, barbarous, and degraded. The Known World is a far better place altogether.
The answering machine of His Excellency Baron Talanque of Califia normally listed in the telephone book as Dean Hallford of Cacoctin Drive, is a swift introduction into the rhythms of this other world. “Greetings,” it warbles. “This is your host, Baron Talanque. If you have need of information. please contact our Chatelaine. Lord Robert Carpentaria. If you are an absolute newcomer, please contact Lady Ygraine. the head of the baronial household. If you have business, please contact the Seneschal Lord Randwulf de la Terre D’Ete. It is the pleasure of Califla to sponsor the upcoming war. which will be between the Crowns and the Coronets. If you have any questions regarding the war, please contact the Autocrat and His Lady, Tolina, at 619-HANDAXE. If you are a merchant, please contact the Merchant Autocrat for the War..."
Randwulf de la Terre? A modern San Diego version of a bloodthirsty Norman count with the bad habit of impaling his disobedient peasants on sharp tree stumps? Rather even than experience the exquisite frisson of composing HANDAXE on my dial and talking to one Ygraine O’Gaerllion Fawr, I decided to investigate the fearsome Seneschal of Califia. But the voice at the other end of the phone was a surprise. Cheerful and unanachronistic. The voice of a normal Mundane person. Phil Slaughter.
“Hi. this is Randwulf de la Terre.”
Should the Seneschal be called Phil or Randwulf1 After all, which one is he? Within minutes, however, it becomes clear that Phil would much rather be Randwulf. In fact he is Randwulf. He is shortly going to have it changed officially, and Randwqlf will appear on his checkbooks.
“I already have it on my car license plate,” he says, “and at work, they know that I’m called Randwulf as well as Phil. Of course, at the moment it’s a joke and they pull my leg about it. But if they want to get my attention, they know that Randwulfs the name to use. You see, millions of people are called Phil. I know six or seven Phils myself. Phils are everywhere. But how many Randwulfs are there?
“I made that name for myself. It’s customized. It belongs to no one but myself. And that’s the beauty of the personas we make for ourselves. They may be rooted in a specific time and place —in my case medieval Normandy — but they are still unique. The name is what you could call a realistic fabrication. It could have existed, but didn’t. And because it didn't actually exist, it belongs to me and nobody else. It makes me more of an individual. How individual do you feel being called Phil? In my heart of hearts. I’m not really Phil, because Phil’ means very little. Deep down. I’m Randwulf.”
Lord Randwulf lives in a comfortable suburban unit in Kearny Mesa, in an area of quiet cul-de-sacs and well-sprinkled lawns. The area has a strong military presence, as does the SCA. Two of the founding members. Duke Siegfried von Hoflichkeit and Duke Fulk de Wyvem. met at an Air Force base in Germany. And the military has always allowed the SCA to hold tournaments among military members on the flight decks of aircraft carriers, especially the Nimrod and the Enterprise. Randwulf shares the house with the Marshal Lady Brianna JeNell Ais-lynn of Blue Shadows, alias JeNell Hays-Pack, and the armorer and knight Alisander du Mont-Saint Michel. The front room is therefore a working curiosity shop of heraldic devices, shelves of helms, shields, the odd steel spaulders (shoulder plates) and cuisses (thigh plates), scholarly works on medieval crafts, and the occasional real broadsword encased in a leather scabbard made by Randwulf himself.
“Because the society is so involving," Brianna is the first to admit, “it would be somewhat difficult for someone in it to sustain a relationship with someone who wasn’t. In fact, most of our socializing is done in the society, at revels, at tournaments, at fighter practice, and so on. You tend to meet other people in the society, and you tend to cohabit with them as well. You can imagine what living here would be like for someone who wasn’t in the society. Virtually impossible.
“For us. the society can take up almost all our spare time. There have been times when we have spent 14 weekends in a row fighting at and marshaling tournaments. And in a normal week, we could easily spend three nights doing society business. As you can imagine, it’s very intense.
My former partner, for example, was a member who dropped out.
I decided that my involvement with the society was more important than my involvement with him. and so we had to separate. It’s more or less a given that if you marry someone, it’s going to be another member.
“We all live in what we call households, which again are very intense and demanding. Now, a household is not a formal political unit. It’s an informal group at the most grassroots level.
People who have similar interests and leanings, who camp together. learn crafts together, and fight together. You have to remember that the SCA encompasses the totality of the Middle Ages, from the end of the Roman Empire to about 1600. and including the Renaissance. That’s a huge variety of cultures. And not all European either. Although we are based on Europe mostly, we do welcome people from elsewhere — the Middle East in particular. because they’re important to our history. We’ve had black kings and queens in charge of kingdoms. So it’s an immense diversity. and the households can satisfy each particular interest. Our household has an offshoot which is a Mongol war band. A household could be, say. a 12th-century Celtic war band, a Romano-British band, or an Afghani one.
“We ourselves are related by marriage to other households, and our social life is basically organized around them, even though each household is different. Some are closed, meaning that you can only be admitted to them by vote, and some of them are open. Some produce fighters, and some produce administrators or artisans. Ours produces mainly fighters, with some administrators.
‘The households organize marriages and are the aspect of the SCA which children first come into contact with. In fact, the members’ children are very active in the SCA. We have everyone from babes in swaddling to 90-year-olds. It’s a complete society, if you like, parallel to the Mundane world. Except that it’s warmer, more intimate. The individual has more value. And the individual’s work has more value, too.
“Thai’s the society’s attraction, essentially. You learn to use your hands, learn a real artisanal craft. And you become part of a group that values you. We live in a preindustrial world, and we prefer it there. That doesn't mean that I would rather be a woman in the real Middle Ages instead of the Current Middle Ages. Far from it. I like antibiotics, too, thank you! But we dislike the impersonality and. well, the mundaneness of America now. It’s not enough. Just as 200 years of history is just not enough. You need more. You need to reach back further to be sane.”
"And besides." Randwulf adds, “we feel much more comfortable in medieval clothes. Throw on your tunic, your cloak, and your sword, and you’re all set. You feel much freer, much gayer. But it's not something that anybody can do. The First couple of times, you feel a little uneasy. But after a while, when you’re at a revel and everyone else is dressed the same way. you begin to enjoy it. Now, I don’t feel right in Mundane clothes. Still, that first time you do have to cross a barrier."
Brianna: “It’s the ability to become someone else. I go from being JeNell to being Brianna. And as Brianna I’m much more outgoing, more willing to meet people, and more trusting. JeNell is not like that. Well, she works for the government —enough said. In these clothes I feel special. When you put on the garb, you become special. You have to have a little bit of the extrovert and a little bit of the exhibitionist. because you are always going to get two reactions from Mundane people. Either they mutter Oh. my gawd!’ and turn away in embarrassment or they come running about, demanding to know how you made your garb"
Randwulf then admits that the problems of discrimination encountered on the street demand a brave face. "We often go to restaurants in garb or walk around the streets, and we’ve had some incidents. In some restaurants they’ve lost our orders or refused to let us in with our swords. I mean, do they think I’m going to part with my sword just for a meal? We’re middle-income professionals, and they treat us like that! That shows you how much prejudice there is. People Find it hard to accept someone dressed differently from them, and so they don’t want to accommodate us. It’s discrimination, pure and simple.”
The vision of Lord Randwulf and Lady Brianna walking into the local Vons or Home Depot dressed in early Norman garb and struggling through a barrage of abuse is an irresistibly heroic one. Is the SCA due to become the latest victimized Oppressed Minority (Those Who Are Differently Located in Time) hounded by the intolerance of a suit-wearing majority?
“We call it Freaking the Mundane." Brianna says defensively. "However, we still have an image to maintain. We have to go in front of city councils to get permission for tournaments and so forth. And then, our songs are sometimes very funny. We don’t take ourselves that seriously. The Middles Ages were self-mocking, too.”
The society’s newsletter. “Crown Prints," does confirm this welcome tendency towards bardic bawdy. There, for example, between the advertisements for cut-price chain mail, bellydance instruction videos, and quality replica axes are those for Swimming in the Blood of My Enemies and Other Viking Love Sonnets, the Murderous Ditties and Ballads Most Cruel audio cassette from Chivalry Sports Videos (which contains such gems as “Naughty Young Maids of An Tir," SCA-speak for British Columbia; and "You’re Always Welcome at Our Camp.” by Lady Dairine mor o’ hUigin and Lord Yonalon von Schwartzuberfleck). There are announcements of the Caidan Bards Circle Project, organized by Sir Charles of Dublin. Pen-bard of Caid, who boldly announces, “It is my intent to form an interkingdom bardic organization — a Brotherhood of Bards, so to speak. As part of this, I would like to establish an archives of Known World Song and any stories behind them, so the fame of local heroes will spread beyond their own kingdoms." Next to this bardic announcement is a similar proclamation from the drama guild, the Guild of St. Gen-esius. "The Guild That Would Not Die!" It cryptically boasts. “We Have No Shame."
Our interview, however, has now moved to the outside patio and swimming pool, where Lord Randwulf has donned one of his helms, is holding up one of his shields, and is inviting me to hit him as hard as I can with his regulation simulation sword. This has no cutting edge, being essentially a clubbing weapon made of rattan with a Fibrous, non-splintering interior and an exterior wrapped in duct tape. It has no point. With the advent of heavy sheet-steel armour, he explains, and with the ability of chain mail to deflect sharp points, hand-to-hand combat was more a matter of breaking bones than cutting flesh. Besides, a broken bone in the Middle Ages was tantamount to an agonizing death.
In SCA combats, the protagonists have to behave as if the weapons they are using are real, so a blow to the head equals a mortal knockout, a successfully connected blow to the leg obliges the wounded one to go down on his knees, and a blow to the arm forces him to discard his shield. However, a Fighter can be as dangerous on his knees as he is upright, and in some cases more so. A fight will last anywhere from a few seconds to about 5 minutes, though epic struggles of up to 50 minutes are not unknown. The sheer weight of the armor, about 85 pounds in total, and the California heat preclude anything very prolonged. Slugging it out in a subtropical sun in full 13th-cen-tury gear is more exhausting than Fighting 12 rounds in the ring, or so professional boxers in the SCA attest. Heat exhaustion is very common. The members begin to wonder about those Crusaders, toiling month after month in these same conditions, and a certain awe of the Christian and Islamic warriors of the Middle Ages begins to manifest itself.
"They were incredibly tough people," Randwulf admits, perhaps rather wistfully. “But then again, they were used to fighting in armour from the age of eight. Both in Islam and in the West, the chivalric code conditioned you from an early age. We can’t do that now, so we have to simulate it as best we can. For us, though, five minutes is about as much as we can fight in the heat.”
I am then invited to deliver the blow from the sword, which leaves Randwulf happily undisturbed. The more experienced and powerful Brianna then steps in and delivers a crunching blow to his head. Walkyrie-style, which sends a little shudder through his frame but which leaves no harm in its wake whatsoever.
“See," he calls from behind the steel cage covering his face, “this is like being hit with a baseball bat, and there’s no effect at all. Try it again. [Whack] There. I’m still here. This armor is made to last, unlike the armor of the Middle Ages, which was made to survive one battle. And it makes sure there are no serious injuries. Try it again. [Whack] I’m still here. Try it again if you want. This stuff is impenetrable.”
Inside once more and perspiring profusely, we fall upon the subject of the kind of person who is attracted to these incredibly complicated, anachronistic games — the kind of person willing to subject himself to these no doubt delightful but excruciating trials in the name of "historical re-creation" (though the strange pleasure of hitting Lord Randwulf repeatedly on the head was a genuine historical feeling that was undeniable).
"What do you do if you’re relatively intelligent and curious?" asks Brianna. backing the question up with a gaze of formidable inquisitional blueness. “You play games. That’s why we have so many computer people in the SCA. Middle-class professionals, as we said. People of above-average education. We play intelligent, well-researched games. We have lawyers, doctors, assistant DAs in our society, as well as hamburger cookers. It’s a varied group, but on the whole it’s an intelligent one. I’m a draftsman by profession, and Lord Randwulf is a material planner. But this is also one of (he few places where you're not restricted by what you do outside. No one really cares what you do for a living. The only thing that counts here is what you do inside the group. Are you an artisan or a warrior? An administrator or a bard? A knight or a baron? And so on. Your value as an individual within the society is totally distinct from the value which you have outside it. And the difference is principally that you can create the former yourself. You can begin from scratch. It’s a completely new life.”
As Lord Randwulf and Lady Brianna escort me to the door and the section of suburban cul-de-sac with its peaceful lawns littered with bicycles and dog balls comes once more into view, it is difficult not to feel that I’m indeed passing from one world into another. It is also difficult to know what one would feel if a chain-mailed French knight were suddenly to appear on the sidewalk swinging his sword as he made his way around the parked cars, shrubs, and palm trees. How do two periods of history collaborate when they happen to exist side by side in the same time? At the heart of this question lies the theory and practice of “personas.” the heart of the Society for Creative Anachronism. For it is in the persona that the Middle Ages are re-created and relived. The persona is that alternative ego that members seem to crave and to the nourishing of which all of their formidable and ingenious energy is devoted.
Scott Farrell, alias Guillaume de la Belgique, has been in the SCA for 11 years and writes an occasional column at the back of “Crown Prints" on various aspects of life in the Current Middle Ages. His real name is not Guillaume "Am I in a Play?" Belgique, as one of the columns states, but he does ask that question, if not of himself, then certainly of many of the ardent dresser-uppers that the society inevitably attracts.
“Quite often." he writes in the July issue, “when someone dives headlong into the Society, it’s because they can find something here that they can’t in the Mundane world: reward, prestige, authority, etc.... This ‘removal from the real’ world can, and often does, come back to haunt someone.
“Paranoia, self-importance, and depression usually follow, until they are counter balanced by an appreciation of the creativity and amusement that are supposed to lie at the heart of the society.
“The whole point of a persona." Sir Guillaume later explains, “is to get people to do research in a practical way. We invent these fictional characters who might seem extravagant to you but who could well have existed in real life, and we elaborate them in very different ways, according to the individual. Some people have a persona with a complicated biographical narrative, one which is worked out in incredible detail. They map out the persona’s lineage, family tree, and so on as if they were writing a novel. In fact they often end up writing a fictional autobiography. They really feel ‘I am a medieval person.’ And they can have more than one persona. Some people have a different persona for every costume they own. The ones who take it very seriously actually try to speak in Old English. I'd say that was the exception rather than the rule, but it certainly happens.
“Some people, on the other hand, take it a little more lightly and realize that, after all, it's a game, a learning game. I’d say it’s the younger members who have just joined who have the most tendency to become fanatical. For some of them, role-playing and fantasies are more important than anything. They really belong elsewhere if they don’t adapt after a while. The would-be Conans can get what they want in something like the Medieval Mayhem Society; swords and sorcery are not our thing at all.
“The Renaissance Fair in San Bernardino, too. caters to the fantasy lovers. However. I’d also say that we do have one thing in common with these kinds of fantasists. We are both dissatisfied with the 20th Century. We both long for something more than impersonal contacts and relations. We long for a slower pace, a different sense of time. Our revels and tournaments last all day; we don’t keep strict time. That’s why we attract a lot of lonely, alienated college students. And also why we attract those people — and there many of them — who want to recover a kind of technical folk knowledge which is artisanal and therefore highly personal. A knowledge rooted in what you do with your own two hands.”
What. then, are the differences between a persona and a person’s “Mundane ego”?
“Well, there are subtle differences, for sure. Usually a persona tends to be more outgoing, more uninhibited. And it is undoubtedly attractive to be able to start all over again from square one. building a personality for yourself which is more in keeping with your inner idea of yourself. Your frame of being adjusts along with this. It is the very opposite of getting a new job because it is self-created. I think it’s no accident that this all began in the United States, and in California. Not only did people here back in the ’60s have unparalleled amounts of free time and money to take up what is, after all. a fairly expensive hobby. They also had the desire to overcome a transplanted history, a feeling of superficiality. And the persona rooted in the concrete world of our ancestors does just that. It gives us roots. It makes us remember that there’s more to being what we are than just wearing blue jeans and being ‘American.’ That the past is open to us as well.”
No one could feel this more intimately than a man who spends most of his spare time making replica armour. Michael, alias Alisander du Mont-Michel. a Chinese American in the Mundane World, a Norman knight in the Current Middle Ages, is just such a person. His workshop, located in his airless garage, is almost exactly what the workshop of a medieval armorer would have looked like several centuries ago. Anvils topped with plenishing balls (the heavy spherical devices upon which rounded pieces are shaped), tinner's rivets and homemade hammers, bits of steel greaves and breastplates, cuisses and coifs (neck guards), vambraces and rerebraces lie in carefully organized piles. Experiments done in cheaper, softer materials such as aluminium show how future suits of armor will shape up. Everything here has been homemade, from the ball-peen hammers up.
“I started doing this about six years ago. A traveling exhibition of European medieval armor from the New York Metropolitan Museum came to San Diego, and it bowled me over. People think of these people as in some way backward, but if you look at their artifacts, their metalworking, their artisanal techniques, their crafts, you can see that they were in most ways as advanced as any culture on earth. Their armor and military hardware was the technological equal of anything in the Muslim empires — hence the success of the Crusades.
“Warfare was always a matter of technical abilities in every civilization, not just courage or cunning. So I admired this stuff, it was very advanced, very beautiful. I wanted to learn how to make it myself. Like many pen-pushers, I also wanted to learn how to do something with my hands.
“As for the society itself, I came across that much earlier, 12 years ago. I was walking across the campus at UCSD one day when I saw a tournament in full swing. The tournaments are very colorful, very exciting. So it caught my eye. I was already on the university fencing team, so I was predisposed to find the swordplay interesting. I’ve been in the society ever since."
Michael’s persona. Alisander. is not his first. He used to be Corwin but changed when his interests shifted to the Norman era. “I try to block Corwin out completely. In fact, I can’t really remember much about him at all. Alisander has taken over completely. Now, Alisander is quite a new persona for me, so I still haven’t gotten around to researching him completely. He’s from Mont Saint-Michel on the Norman coast, as the name suggests; he’s in his early 30s, like me. and he went on the Third, no. the Second Crusade. There is a problem with the age factor, because typical lifespans in the Middle Ages were so much shorter. A man of my age was almost middle-aged. He would probably be dead by 50 or so, if not earlier. The average was about 45.
“Anyway, he’s a typical member of the Knights Hospitalers — devout, loyal. Like him. I’m competitive by nature, and so I like the fighting side of the society, as do probably the majority, or at least a large number of the members. I go to fighter practice once a week, though 1 also spend at least four or five hours a week reading about the Middle Ages.
“In about a year’s time. I’ll really know Alisander inside out and I’ll become fully assimilated with him. I admit that you can become a little schizo; most of my friends now call me Alisander. because they know it’s the name I identify with most. So you can begin to start forgetting your real name very easily. Because your life in the Current Middle Ages is so much more interesting, more exciting than your life in the Mundane world, it's natural that you should start identifying with it more. But I treat it mostly as a learning process. That’s what it really is. A learning process that is a game.”
Michael promises to greet me at the forthcoming tournament at Camp Pendleton and before I leave shows me some of his action photographs. There is Alisander, in full Norman chain mail with wooden kite shield and lance, standing in the middle of a desert arroyo sprinkled with sagebrush and creosote bush. In another, the assistant DA of Orange County stands on a green in similar Norman battle gear, with a red shield emblazoned with a golden claw and with a real blade drawn. And in yet another, war bands in full-faced Spangenhelms charge up and down ditches with blunted pikes and clubs, again in a desolate and majestic desert setting. They are like snapshots from a Kurosawa epic, and it is no surprise to learn that the SCA is very popular in Japan.
But what can this carefully elaborated and ritualized combat be like in the flesh? I accepted the invitation to attend Dun Na Fianne Mara's First Anniversary Dog Day Tourney and Revel near Lake O’Neil on Camp Pendleton, a smallish tournament sponsored by the military, held on July 18th and organized by the Autocrat William Leclan. If Alisander was there. I would see a Knight Hospitaler in action, in a suit of armour that might have taken him a month to create. There are few more delirious ways of spending a Saturday morning.
Since all members of the society are supposed to do their homework, I decided to do mine. “One must realize," the 'Known World Handbook' says, “that the knight in shining armor did not appear until after 1400 AD.” It goes on to tell us that the average weight of armour from 800 to 1250 was about 55 pounds; from 1250 to 1410 it increased to 65 pounds, and between 1410 and 1630 it averaged 60 pounds. The medieval fighter was not a cumbersome sitting duck on his own two legs. He could run. jump, and skip with a certain agility. But although SCA fighting is not a formal martial art, “it is not a simple activity, nor is it calming. Hundreds of subtle actions and perceptions can make the difference between victory and painful defeat." Those blunted fibrous “bastard swords” cannot kill people, but can they still inflict a “painful defeat"? “Imbalance or undue heaviness in a polearm." we are told, “can undo anyone.” Does blood flow?
The SCA tourney is sign-posted even at Camp Pendleton’s perimeter gates. A steady stream of cars makes its way through this vast, confusing slab of nature, which hums constantly with the graceful and secretive machinery of war. At every turn of those long, palm-lined roads wending their way through semi-arid hills, the visitor feels the presence of camouflage. deception, and wariness. The Lake O’Neil Recreation Area surrounds the pretty lake with camp sites and little fishermen’s jetties, and here the camp’s personnel come with their children to play on the jungle gym, loll around on the grass, and poke about in the immense, water-borne banks of reeds in flat-bottomed boats.
On July 18th. however, the dusty parking lot at the southern end of the lake submits to a peculiar transformation. You are driving through it when you suddenly see two men in dagged tunics, Robin Hood hats, and scabbarded swords ambling across the road toward a field, in the company of a woman in a cote hardie, with flared skirts and a low-slung belt. The people playing with the kids on the playground choo-choo train watch a Saracen knight and a voluminous Viking trudge down to the water dispenser with their metal tankards (no glass permitted). But the kids insist on piping up.
"Daddy, why is that man wearing a dress?"
"Daddy, he looks like Robin Hood."
"He’s pretending to be Robin Hood, son."
"Yes. Daddy, but why?”
On the other side of the road, colored pavilions have appeared around the green and Fighting enclosures of white rope. Heraldic banners blazing with es-toiles. fess danceitys, and bendy sinisters mark out the different households and baronies. And there at the center of these feudal flags is the azure shield of the Queen of Caid. with a rose ore between three crescents framed by a bordure of embattled argent. Queen Trista is here and is overseeing things, and in an unusual reversal of custom, her king has gone off to supervise a crafts event while she sees to the hand-to-hand combat.
The fighters are called to the two fields by name and first kneel in front of their pavilions when they are summoned. Bizarre eclecticisms result from the random selection of antagonists. A Greek hoplite in a flowing black plume faces a knight of El Cid. A Scottish berserker with a gigantic claymore faces a turbaned Moor. Normans face Byzantines. Mongols face Knights Hospitalers. The combats themselves are very short — a quick flurry of blows, a few sickening thuds, and one of them goes down. Under the flapping roofs of the cloth pavilions, half-armed knights in their distinctive white belts, squires, marshals. babbling children, and budding adolescents in seductive Missouri Boatman shirts lounge about in an indescribable heat, watching every blow with that alarming languor of the connoisseur who deciphers every tiny gesture in terms of a precise scale of perfection. Only when they take off their barrel helms and wicket vizors will you see that many of the combatants are women.
Lady Brianna. who is marshaling in a wide-brimmed straw hat. points out the powerful Fighters and then expresses pleasure at the high turnout — easily 200 or so people. Alisander. resplendent in a magnificent mail shirt, manages to floor a very pretty knight and comes up to say “Greetings!" in a way that is quite clearly unlike his Mundane way of speaking. Sir Guillaume wins his bout easily and walks off the field without having suffered any pain. Knight after knight follows them, each one armored and armed dif-
ferently. one surmounted by multicoloured plumes, one w ith a "Choose Death" sticker on the inside of his shield, one in gladiator gear, one in a pig-nosed vizor, one in dazzling polished coat of plates. And while they club each other with their rattan swords, Chinook helicopters roar overhead, the queen looks out from her cool blue tent, and the assembled company makes a stab at what the handbook calls “speaking forsoothly ” which is to say. in the spirit of creative anachronism.
Lady Aurelia of Ashton has written the guide to speaking forsoothly, and her tips are well employed on the field. Instead of saying “Is that okay?" they say, “Doth it meet with your approval?" We are advised to use contractions: ’tis, ’twas, ’twill, 'twould. Add “do" to verbs: “You do wear it well." And to say “perchance," “prithee," and “aught" from time to time. But the most important thing, and number one on Lady Aurelia’s list, is Avoiding Mundane Subjects.
Isn’t this the essence of the world of the Current Middle Ages?
As I left the tournament enclosure under a burning sun in 90-degree heat, having been graciously seen out by these curious avatars of a familiar but vanished world. I felt a little shock at the sight of the kids in baseball caps and the Coca-Cola stand in the playground and the soldiers in battle fatigues walking by the roadside. I remembered the name the society members have for new recruits: "recent Mundanes." The Middle Ages have returned with a vengeance and have declared quiet war on the ordinary.
The world is full of Mundanes. billions of them, who know nothing of Spangenhelms and rattan swords (nor of the erotic custom of the cloved fruit, nor of the art of writing forsoothly). But from now on. the possibility exists that America at least might go. not "backwards into the future, but forwards into the past."