November 21, 2009 — A gold-rimmed sea serpent undulates around a trident along the end of the narrow blue flag as it ripples in the morning breeze that blows across the gopher-pocked green of Lakeside’s El Monte Park, which spreads out below the brown face of El Cajon Mountain. And if that sentence sounds high-flown, well, there’s a reason why. The flag is only one of maybe a hundred ringing the field that will see today’s combat — armored, unarmored, and rapier — and the serpent is only one of four symbols on that flag, but it is the symbol of the Barony of Calafia. The barony covers San Diego and Imperial Counties, and today is its anniversary tournament. It’s an event grand enough to command the presence of King Patrick O’Malley and Queen Kara the Twin of Kelton, the reigning monarchs of the Kingdom of Caid, the sixth kingdom in the Society for Creative Anachronism, a region that encompasses southern California, southern Nevada, and Hawaii. (Yes, it helps that their majesties are locals, but still.)
King Patrick won the crown in August of ’09 at the Caid Crown Tourney in Fresno (you can see the deciding blow, uploaded via iPhone, on YouTube), after a three-way final with Sir Valrik and Sir Ragnar. Watch along with me, won’t you?
He faces Ragnar first: two men of substance in full armor, each wearing the white belt that signifies knighthood, each carrying a painted aluminum shield and a rattan sword carefully wrapped in duct tape.
Patrick, a 30-year veteran of Society combat, is the less adorned of the two. As befits his persona — an Irish fighter of the early 11th Century — he wears no tunic, and he wouldn’t be wearing articulated steel coverings on his knees and elbows if Society safety regulations didn’t require joint protection. The engraved leather greaves, though — those he’d be wearing, even if the boots beneath them are modern.
(Another nod to modernity: his chain-mail shirt is made from titanium instead of steel, so that it weighs 9 pounds instead of 35. It cost him around $2000, but after three knee surgeries, the switch from steel was worth it. Not that it does him a great deal of good either way in combat: “Chain is mostly jewelry,” he grants. “It’s good for stopping a real sword, but against a club” — and an inch-thick rattan stick with a basket-handle absolutely counts as a club — “not so much.”)
The two knights strike a few blows from a safe distance — there are great smacking sounds as sword rattles shield — but mostly, they dance, approaching, retreating, circling, weaving. “So much of what you’re doing is mental,” he says. “He’ll shift position, and I know what blows he can throw from that position, so I’ll shift to parry. There’s a whole fight that goes on before any actual blows are thrown — it’s more intricate than you can tell from the outside.” There is reason to hesitate before committing to an attack: one shot to a limb, and that limb is gone (if it’s a leg, you drop to the ground and fight from your knees). One shot to the head or torso, and you’re done.
Eventually, each man having taken measure of the other, the two come to grips, and 90 seconds after the battle begins, it’s over. Amid a flurry of swords, Patrick delivers a clean blow to Ragnar’s head, and he crumples to the ground. “It can go very quickly,” says Patrick, “and honestly, with the amount of energy you’re expending during an intense fight, you’re not going to go much more than a minute or so. It’s like boxing — you can’t just stand up and be relaxed. Your whole body is tensed” — and you’re wearing armor, and you have to keep your sword and shield up…. “Most of the people in Crown Tournament do a lot of work to stay in shape. You’re going to fight a minimum of 11 fights to win.” By the final, “I was pretty determined to be done in two fights.”
And he was done in two. Returning to the tourney: the crowd — also Society members, also dressed in period attire, because this is first and foremost a club, a community, as opposed to a company, of players — settles in for round two. The Marshal, dressed in a forest-green robe and a white sash, opens the proceedings.
“Gentlemen, all salutes having been delivered: Sir Valrik, stand you prepared?”
“Ready!” replies Valrik, holding his sword high.
“Sir Patrick, stand you prepared?”
“Ready,” says Patrick. He does not raise his sword.
“Lay on!” cries the Marshall, as he steps back to keep watch over the combat. But he’s not exactly the ref — nobody’s waiting on his call to celebrate the combat equivalent of a touchdown. It’s up to the recipient of a given blow to say whether it landed, and whether it landed with enough force to be called a hit. (How much force that is, exactly, varies from region to region. The baronies around Toronto and Florida have reputations for light hits; New York and Cleveland tend to go heavier. It makes for some spirited discussions when various kingdoms come together in battle, say at Pennsic, the massive Society gathering held each summer in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania.)
The fight takes all of 20 seconds. The two fly together and trade blows, and then O’Malley presses in and strikes from up high, and Valrik sinks before the onslaught.
“Victor of the day is Patrick O’Malley!” cries a voice. Everyone cheers. Valrik stands, and the two men embrace.
“He had thrown a shot to my leg that I caught low with my shield,” recalls Patrick. “His shield was lowered, so I picked up the edge of it and drove it out of the way and followed through to the side of his head. I have a picture of it on my desk. It’s much faster on the video than it was in my mind.”
Now it is a brisk night in early December, and King Patrick is attending fighter practice under the outdoor lights at the Allied Gardens Community Center, steam rising from his armor in the evening chill. He still wears his knight’s belt, but there is no outward sign of his royal status, and nobody’s standing on ceremony. He’s not even the only Crown Tourney winner in the bunch — Sir Guillaume de la Belgique has won twice, which is why he is now called Duke. It’s the off season for tournaments and wars, so those who have turned out tonight are mostly diehards, people for whom this is a discipline.
And if you want to excel, you do need discipline. “Sir Armand was a duke when I joined 30-odd years ago,” says Guillaume. “When he was away from practice for even a few weeks, the first thing he would do was put on a helmet and have one of his squires give him a dozen shots right across the face. The first thing he developed while away was that blink response, and he needed to get that out, needed to be able to keep his eyes open. He needed to condition that response back in.”
“If there was somebody new here,” says Patrick, “we would be taking more time to explain how to throw blows, how to block. I hold out-of-armor practice every Tuesday night at my house that is nothing but learning sword technique. We practice combinations and shots against a pole, so that you don’t have to worry about someone trying to club you at the same time.”
As it is, this fighter practice consists mostly of fighting, followed by friendly blow-by-blow analysis. “After I pulled in my block, you blinded me and got in a nice shot.” “You saw me cheating over, trying to fight to the leg.” “I’m overgripping; my hands are killing me. That’s what happens when you’re out of practice.” Guillaume goes a few rounds with Bennett Wiessenstein, a tall lefty in 14th-century Germanic plate mail who favors two-handed weapons like spears over the standard sword and shield. At one point, he gets Guillaume down on his knees and goes in for the kill, only to take a sword thrust underneath his arm. “It’s a fairly subtle move,” says Guillaume afterward, “and one you’ve got to deliver with a lot of power. All it takes is a little bit of deflection and the thrust is no good.”
“But when it sticks…” observes Bennett, rubbing his unarmored armpit.
“It’s interesting,” continues Guillaume. “In my 30 years in the SCA, we’ve gone through phases where thrusting is seen as a cheap shot. It’s off and on. Once we were having a knight’s council, and everybody was saying, ‘We don’t like thrusts — they allow you to just stand and poke at the other guy. It’s not a very pretty fight. It takes a master to kill somebody with a blade.’ But Duke Armand had been a fencer before joining the SCA, and he said, ‘They used to say that any idiot can club somebody with a sword. It takes a real master to use the point.’ ”
“Yeah, I’ve seen fighting technique advance and change steadily,” agrees Patrick. “It’s mostly from innovation by the fighters. There’s almost no real record of how people fought prior to the Renaissance, so we learn a lot by trial and error.”
Guillaume demurs, saying that “in the last 5 or 6 years, I’ve been a little more focused on trying to study those period fighting styles. There’s an unspoken assumption among medieval historians that if you don’t speak medieval French and Latin and German, you don’t deserve to have this stuff translated; but there’s less of that than there was 15 years ago. There are manuals that are starting to get translated from the 15th Century, and the picture we’re getting looks very little like what we do now. Now, because of the basket hilts that protect your fingers — we have to go to work tomorrow — you can stick your hand out in front with impunity. That allows for certain blows” — notably, flicks of the wrist that send the sword twisting downward from up high and out in front. They’re quick, and they’re hard to see coming. “But if you had just a cross-hilted sword, you tended to keep your hand back and to use the point much more.” So when Guillaume fights, he does just that.
Some approximation of historical accuracy is also what led him to adopt a molded rubber basket instead of something heavier. “Different people like to balance the sword at different points,” says Patrick. “If your sword is blade-heavy, it’s easier to hit harder, but if the weight is closer to your hand, you get a lot more speed. You might use a rubber hand-guard if you wanted your sword to be blade-heavy” — the way a real sword would be.
“There’s a fair bit of disparity over what we’re trying to represent here,” offers Bennett. “A Viking judicial duel and an Italian judicial duel from the late Middle Ages are nothing like each other. The preconceptions of the societies that held those duels are radically different.”
“The Vikings had an aspect of winning prizes, but guys still tended to get their limbs hacked off,” agrees Guillaume. “And neither of those would have been like a high medieval tournament.”
“And none of those are like what you read in King Arthur,” continues Bennett. By “King Arthur,” he means “what the Victorians took and polished up and made pretty” in an effort to bolster their cultural heritage. “So, take all of those things and throw in a little Dungeons & Dragons…”
“…and a little Monty Python,” adds Guillaume.
“…and then some Kendo, some Olympic fencing, some guys who went through Marine Corps pugil-stick training, and you come up with this.”
“It’s very regional,” concludes Guillaume. “Somebody will come along who is talented and buckles down and wins Crown Tournament three or four times in a row, and everybody says, ‘We should fight like that!’ Up in An Tir” — the kingdom of the Pacific Northwest — “there was a guy who fought with his butt sticking way out. It shifted his center of gravity and let him take advantage of that wrist-flick style of fighting. He was just phenomenal, and so you saw a whole bunch of people fighting in that style — though not nearly as well.”
On the morning of the Calafian Anniversary, King Patrick is still wearing his white belt, but instead of chain mail, it cinches a burgundy tunic trimmed with gray and gold. Instead of a helmet, Patrick wears a crown bearing the Caidian crescent borne by two medieval-ish dolphins, images that also appear on the delicately carved wooden thrones — a little bit gothic, a little bit Arts and Crafts — provided for both king and queen. Also provided: pillowed footstools, and in front of them, blue velvet pillows bearing the heraldry of Caid’s five baronies. Upon these will kneel all those who approach the thrones during Court, whether they come to present gifts or receive honors or swear fealty.
Fealty? Oh, yes, fealty. “Do you,” the question will be asked of a woman seeking to join the queen’s guard, “swear fealty and service to the Crown of Caid, and to the King and Queen of the realm, to come and to go, to serve and instruct in such methods as concern this realm, in peace or in war, in living or in dying, until your lord release you, or death take you, or the world end?” And the subject, kneeling, with her hands placed along the flat of a sword held out by her queen, will so swear.
“You can learn more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” That’s from Aristotle, and it’s cited by Scott Farrell, aka Duke Guillaume de la Belgique, once baron of Calafia, twice king of Caid, in the introduction to his second book about life in the Society, Here Comes the Reign, Sir Guillaume! Court is by no means a compulsory aspect of Society life, but it’s there, complete with attendants and heralds and royal welcomes and favors bestowed and oaths taken on bended knee. And it is well attended. What sort of play is this?
“The oath is taken straight from The Lord of the Rings,” says Guillaume. “And of course, the author, J.R.R. Tolkien, was a brilliant medieval scholar, so it does come from that Celtic, medieval tradition — as opposed to a Tony Curtis B movie. Though from the level of research we have now, we look back and think, You know, if we could do that over again… You have to keep in mind that the SCA was not started as a serious historical study group. It pretty much started as a birthday party, people putting together costumes and fighting with wooden swords, ‘like the knights in the movies.’ ”
And the oaths? Farrell’s wife April, who goes by Felinah Tifarah Arvella Memo Hazara Khan-ad-Din in the Society and teaches biology at UCSD outside it, answers: “We fully, with open eyes, and without any idea that the SCA oath supersedes real-world commitments and duties, choose to give form to gestures and recognitions that aren’t common today. And sometimes, it’s an uneasy mix — you’re aware that you’re participating in a social convention that in the Middle Ages was life and death. But we choose to do this because we’re part of a social group, and it’s part of what we call the core traditions. We’ve got a pretty strong sense of how far it goes and when it’s appropriate to invoke it.”
In his book, Farrell/Guillaume muses on “not what we bring into the Society but what we take away from it. The standards of chivalry and honor linger with us…helping us each in our own small way to make the world of the 21st Century a better place.” In conversation, he says that “you can’t delve into those [chivalric notions] of honor without internalizing them a little bit. A knight can take in a squire, and you kind of give your word to train them and be an example for them. They look to you to train them in armored combat; you don’t want to blow that off. And that makes you question all aspects of your life: ‘Hey, what is my word worth?’ I think a lot of people come away from the SCA with a greater sense of what it means to live by a code of honor.”
April/Felinah agrees that kneeling “is very unusual in a modern setting. I had to think about why I would do this. It seemed uncomfortable, and it made for some interesting internal exploring.” Her findings? “There are social superiors in our own society — we call some people Sir or Ma’am and some people Doctor. Our social conventions change, but people are people — the physical gesture of kneeling means as much as calling someone Sir or Ma’am or Doctor. It’s an outward manifestation,” one that may or may not reflect an internal reality but which adheres to a social convention either way.
“And there is a respect for those who have been in the group for a long time and have contributed to the group,” concludes Farrell. “People who put in a lot of time and effort to make things happen. But we also know that the status is just part of the fun. A king reigns for six months. Maybe in six months, I’ll be king, and he’ll be bowing to me. There’s no sense that he’s a king appointed by God to whom I must bow. It’s simply that he’s in this position, and I respect him. When I’m in that position, he’ll respect me.”
So, back to Court. “Lords and ladies!” calls Master Thomas the Herald from beneath the broad yellow brim of his hat. (Appropriately enough, he is dressed in a tunic that is basically a wearable Caidan flag.) “All rise! Now come their Majesties Patrick and Kara, rightful king and queen of the Kingdom of Caid! And now come their Excellencies Oliver and Kate, vassals to Patrick and Kara, holders of the lands of Calafia. And their guests, former Barons and Baronesses of Calafia: Guillaume and Felinah, David and Adaleisha…” Couple by couple, the royals and former royals process down the center aisle under the heavy wooden roof of the El Monte Park pavilion, attended by guards bearing spears and axes and swords, by ladies who take up their places behind the thrones. Their expressions are earnest but not overly serious. The array is, frankly, kind of gorgeous; Calafia does not go in for half-measures.
“We ask that everyone make an effort,” says Lady Fionnghuala Inghean Uilliam, the Barony’s Chatelaine and my guide for the day. She herself is resplendent in the garb of a 166th-century Russian Boyarina — not too surprising, since tailoring is what lured her into the Society. “My daughters were in the group, and I started making clothes for my younger daughter, buying polyester stuff that I thought looked kind of period.” Over time, “I started doing research online, finding out the criteria. She actually got a special token at one of the Twelfth Nights for a piece of garb I made for her.” Eventually, “She told me, ‘Mom, you have to come — there’s going to be a guy there selling cheap fabric.’ When you get into natural fibers like wool and silk, it gets expensive, so I said okay.” When she saw that “it wasn’t girls in chain-mail bikinis,” but rather ordinary folks having fun in period dress, she found herself drawn in.
She is not alone. King Patrick tells me that while there might be 2000 fighters on the field at Pennsic, there are 12,000 total attendees. The Barony’s website lists some 15 guilds, ranging from manuscript illumination to metalwork to music to medieval medicine. There are no peasants, but still — Anniversary Tournaments don’t hold themselves. “The group does place a premium on service,” says Fionnghuala.
Fionnghuala chose her 16th-century Irish name because it belonged to a character in an audiobook she was listening to (while sewing) at the time she signed up. And because both of her daughters had used their father’s name in their Society titles, she followed suit and used her own father’s name, William. Or, in 16th-century Irish, Uilliam. For a device, she chose something that “would indicate who I was. There are three five-pointed stars — sable mullets — on a white background, for the three of us in the Society. And then because my husband is known to the Society as ‘the man from the Federation’ — he’s a big Star Trek fan — the top part of my shield is black with a gold comet going across it to represent him.” The Society’s central office checked to make sure that no one else in the group had just that name, and that no one else in the group or in actual history had just that device, and eventually issued its approval.
“It’s kind of nice to be able to develop your own persona, in pursuit of your own interests,” says Fionnghuala, who signs her emails to me with the closing, “I remain in service to the Barony of Calafia, the Kingdom of Caid, and the Dream that is the Society for Creative Anachronism.” It’s a fairly grand sentiment, but it gets at how much the Society means to her. “When I joined,” she recalls, “I was fortunate enough to be asked to be on Baroness Adelicia of Caithness’s court as a lady-in-waiting. The following year, she asked me to be her chief lady. So she’s always been ‘my baroness,’ to the point where we’d go out to quilting stores in modern attire and I’d find some fabric and say, ‘Your Excellency! Wonderful fabric over here!’ ” It’s not that this is her world; it’s more that these are her people, and this is the rubric under which they gather.
As for why an Irishwoman is dressing as a Russian, she says, “Once you choose a persona, you’re locked into it only as much as you want to be. Some folks have done a lot of research into creating a story of their family, who they are and how they ended up in England or Scotland. But a 10th-century Viking might start liking the Tudor period” and start dressing the part, and that’s okay, too. “And particularly in California, you’ll find that the weather dictates” — in summer, Middle Eastern personas become much more popular.
The King and Queen welcome the attendees. There are announcements: a scavenger hunt for children, thrown weapons and archery on the perimeter, the upcoming arts festival, remembrances of those who have died or can no longer attend, an invitation to the dog-coursing later on. Ulf Fra Tjorn is awarded the Order of the Harp for his skill in leatherwork and for his generosity in teaching. It’s not quite the honor of a peerage — Knighthood for chivalry and skill in battle; the Order of the Laurel for knowledge of medieval arts and sciences; the Order of the Pelican for service to the Society — but it’s enough to earn him three cheers from all and sundry to go along with his new medallion.
(A note on knighthood: Fewer than five percent of fighters ever earn the rank of knight, says Patrick. “It might take seven years for someone who is relatively focused. A lot of people fight primarily at wars — fighting in a shield wall with a bunch of your friends, you can do a few times a year and be decent at it. Fighting in tournaments and not getting taken out in two rounds takes a lot more dedication. It’s roughly equivalent to being a black belt in a martial art.”)
Duke Guillaume stands and invites those gathered to tomorrow’s Passage of Arms. He promises “lots of fighting,” but not “with the same old sword and shield you use in fighter practice every week. Our goal is to get everybody fighting with new weapons styles” — two-handed swords, poleaxes, spears, maybe even rapier and dagger.… “And for the nonfighters, one of the comments we got from last year was that it was fun for the gallery because they got to do much of the judging and rewarding. There will be beads to pass out for Panache, Prowess, Passion, and Chivalry.” But today’s fighting, at least the armored sort, is more straightforward — largely sword and shield, with only the very skilled taking up the two-handed weapons.
“In period,” Guillaume tells me later in his tent as he prepares for combat, “two-handed weapons gave you an advantage in terms of power — they would smash through anything. But here, they don’t really give you an advantage; they’re just harder to use. Still, some people use them very effectively.” (I get a fine illustration of that when a veteran knight uses a pole-arm — “a bladed weapon with a spike on one end” — to take out the recently honored Ulf Fra Tjorn. Ulf tries to get inside his opponent’s defenses, but the knight finds his way around Ulf’s shield and thrusts him down.)
Guillaume’s tent is relatively modest in both size and appointments. The high ceiling and awning are held aloft by tall wooden poles and twiny ropes, but it’s nothing like the forest of supports beneath the white tent belonging to the king and queen. There is room for maybe 4 or 5 people to mill about comfortably, whereas the royals could easily entertain 20. The rug is patterned jute, not oriental. And the rustic benches would not be out of place in a pioneer home — no ingenious collapsing Glastonbury chairs here, thank you. This is a tent for warriors preparing for battle — Guillaume, his squire, a friend or two, and his wife. Felinah fought in heavy armor for years before developing neck trouble; now she sticks to unarmored and looks on wistfully when her husband dons his mail.
And the mail? The mail is less modest. “There probably isn’t anybody out on the field here today wearing anything more elaborate,” Guillaume admits. “It’s based on a suit in the armory at Churburg Castle in Tyrol, and it’s representative of what a lord or a duke would be wearing in the 14th Century, around the Hundred Years’ War. A foot soldier would probably be wearing a chain-mail shirt, which itself would have been top-of-the-line armor 200 years earlier. Once you got into this period, there was a degree of fashion to it; the armor was meant to mimic the fashionable clothing of the time.”
And like fashionable clothing, it comes at a premium. All told, Guillaume’s rig cost him over $5000. But he is quick to note that it’s been acquired over the course of 30 years. “We spend, probably, approximately the same amount on our high-end sports equipment as any other sport does on its high end. Once you’ve been doing something for a long time and it’s what you do,” you’re more likely to buy the better stuff. But it’s not as if you have to. “A lot of guys will make some or all of their armor themselves. That fellow over there is actually wearing an old breastplate of mine that is just hard plastic panels cut into shape and covered with leather — totally homemade. And now there are people selling premade, off-the-rack armor, which is less expensive than what I have but probably doesn’t fit as well.”
Guillaume’s armor, on the other hand, is stainless-steel plate lined with padding, and it fits very well. It begins with a padded purple jacket — a gambeson. “It goes underneath, to keep the armor from pinching. And it’s something that everything else can tie down to, so that it all stays in place. It’s based on a 15th-century coat in a museum, and it’s custom-made by a friend of mine. The original has buttons all down the sleeve — that gives you an idea of how close-fitting it was. It gives a great range of movement; the big deal is that the sleeve comes all the way into the torso, so that when you move your arm, it doesn’t pull the whole jacket along with it. There are 16 pieces of fabric for each arm, so that the sleeve is able to move with you.”
Next come the articulated plates that cover his thighs and knees. “This is a cuisse — most armor is French in name. Anything covering the shin is a greave; since this one is small, it’s a demi-greave.” The pieces buckle in back and hang from a belt that saves Guillaume the bulk of an arming vest. Similar pieces cover his forearms and elbows — a cuisse over the forearm, with a cupped poleyn over the joint. The whole arm guard is called a cannon, and it shows more wear than the rest of his suit. “It’s going to get dented, and I have a couple of anvils at home that I use to pound out dents. You sweat a lot, and so the leather gets old; I’ve got a strap cutter, and I can sew the leather and rivet in a new strap. But that’s about the extent of my armor-making skill. Eventually, the poleyn will get beat to the point where I can’t keep it in round.” (A few minutes later, someone pokes his head into the tent and asks for a screwdriver. Over at the market on the edge of the tournament, a longtime knight is selling some of his old pieces — a used vambrace might run you $25. Good for someone just breaking in.)
The breastplate, or cuirass, covers Guillaume’s ribcage; from its base, a skirt of chain mail hangs down to his waist. Above, plates cover his shoulders. Add a padded steel band around the neck and a helmet and gloves, and our man is ready for battle.
The helmet’s mask looks more like a baseball catcher’s rig than a traditional faceplate, so as to allow for better vision and breathing. The historically proper faceplate, the one with brass trim and a couple of narrow eye slits, remains at home, for when the helmet takes its place on the bookshelf in Guillaume’s dining room. To its right, the dull, dark pot helmet that Guillaume wore clear through his ascent to knighthood, narrow eyes and all. “You can’t see your opponent’s knees,” says Guillaume as he points it out, “and the CO2 builds up inside the metal faster than you can believe. It’s rather exciting, but it’s much more authentic.” To its left, an equally authentic jousting helmet, huge and gleaming and topped off with a long spike impaling three fake sausages.
“That’s a little replica I did,” explains Guillaume. “In the Middle Ages, most armor was painted — the knights wanted to dress it up somehow. Generally, armor included some kind of heraldic display. But in the late part of the 15th Century, there was a German knight named Marx Walther who came from a wealthy merchant family — he was not of noble or knightly class, but his family had enough money for him to go and joust as a hobby. Apparently he did fairly well at it, and he liked to celebrate his rather humble background in the face of all this nobility.” He pulls out a book (from among the many of its kind) and shows me an illustration — there’s Walther, riding out for a tournament, three sausages skewered atop his helmet.
Walther might make a fine mascot for the Society, many of whom are themselves middle-class merchant-types playing at the sport of the nobility. “We’re all allowed to be aristocracy,” says Guillaume. There are service guilds in the club, such as Pale Maiden, which prepared the feast that followed the anniversary tournament, but “you don’t see any peasants.” Somebody else has to join the 28,000 links in a shirt of chain mail.
Guillaume has four such shirts stashed in his garage, each reflecting a stage in the development of the Society’s history. He hauls them out onto the concrete floor, spreading them flat as they shimmer and chime. “Back in the day, this first shirt was state of the art: round wire cut and bent closed into rings. It holds up okay in combat, but after a while, the rings start to fatigue, and replacing them is really miserable. Trying to manhandle this 40-pound shirt and figure out the grand pattern of the thing. Eventually, somebody came up with the concept of welding these things shut — much more durable, and much closer to an authentic suit of mail. Except for the round wire — in the Middle Ages, chain mail was made from flat wire that was punched rather than extruded. It’s hard to come by, but you lose about 60 percent of the weight by getting rid of all that extraneous metal on each round ring, keeping only what you really need for protection. But still not authentic, because of course, they couldn’t weld. They riveted their rings shut. So now we’re seeing a lot more riveted mail coming in from India and China that is pretty darn close to the real thing.” The peasant class overseas.
The shirts reflect the group’s growing interest in getting it right about the parts of history they seek to preserve — “the best of the Middle Ages,” as Guillaume puts it. (The parts without filth and persecution and genuine conflict.) “The group has not stayed the same,” says Felinah. “The Southern California region probably has 3500–5000 people active, which makes it around the same size of the town I grew up in. But like my town” — Mount Shasta, a Northern California logging outpost that weathered an invasion of hippies and ended up something else altogether — “its perceptions of itself and its place in society, and even its own history, change.”
In the Society for Creative Anachronism, what started out as an imitation of “the way they do it in the movies,” combined with an interest in handiwork and hanging out with friends, began to evolve into an experiential investigation into history. Says Felinah, “We started focusing more on sources from people’s daily lives. There were manorial accounts. People kept journals. Literacy wasn’t necessarily as rare as we are sometimes led to believe.”
Along the way, “I think we began to see ourselves much more as a community,” one that asks, “What would it have been like to live back then?” Also, “There are kids involved now, children who have been raised around this group.” A generation has passed on “the lore and legend of the SCA” and created a historical fallacy or two along the way. “Our original SCA chain mail, made with the knowledge at the time, weighed maybe 80 pounds. And if you talk to people who have been in maybe a year or so, they will tell you, ‘Oh, yeah, did you know that people in the Middle Ages carried 80 pounds of chain mail?’ We’ve created our own legends.”
The Farrells’ Santee home is covered with signs of that community — illuminated scrolls recognizing their achievements and offices, maps of Caid and the worldwide outposts of the Society, even a calligraphy dinner invitation from back in the day: “Though war may ravage the land, courtesy and friendship need not suffer. Quench thy thirst, slake thy hunger. Enjoy the hospitality of two great northern lands, from Their Sylvan Majesties King James and Queen Elina, and their Lupine majesties King Sarnac and Queen Joleicia, for refreshment and the chance to pass time in pleasant company.” “For us,” says Felinah, “they’re the equivalent of pictures that you would take with your family on some special vacation.”
But it’s the tapestry that towers over all, literally and figuratively: two ribbons of heavy linen stretching across the top of the living room wall, their creamy surfaces swarming with figures and scenes drawn in the manner of the famous Bayeux Tapestry. (You know — the one depicting the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.) “When we got done being Baron and Baroness together,” explains Guillaume, “our friends got together and made ten panels, each one commemorating a six-month period during our reign. And then they added a panel for each time we got to be king and queen.” “His Majesty entertains the children with a puppet show.” “The Queen graciously saves the day.” “King Ivan calls Caidan army to Potrero.” “Here is the Abbey of Leng feasting.” “Here is the madness of Baron Guillaume.” “Here is Camelot: Rex Guillaume II, Sultana Felinah II.”
“Every week,” says Felinah, “I sit and look at that and think, ‘We are blessed.’ That’s all hand done, by all those people — there are at least 50 names up there, and we know there are some people who didn’t put their names on it. Those are all things that we did and people that were important to us. It’s just the most amazing gift.”