The local branch of the Society for Creative Anachronism is having a Crown Tournament at the Hammond Civic Center over Memorial Day weekend.
Saturday’s portion of the event focuses on kingdom arts and sciences, which are judged on criteria, similar to a 4H fair. The participants in this section of the tournament do not compete against each other, but will be awarded based on the merits of their individual project.
Sunday’s main event is the combat tournament, in which fighting participants will demonstrate their skills on the battlefield.
To get an idea of some of these skills, I suited up in period gear for a quick crash course in sword and shield combat.
A participant in SCA, Jeff Vargas, (known as Sir Vargas) agreed to teach me a few basics. Sir Vargas’ wife, Rebecca Riley-Vargas, loaned me her gear. I was strapped into a concoction of plate armor thigh and knee guards, metal shoulder plating, a padded shirt, a suede tunic with metal plating beneath the fabric that buckles up the front, a thick leather collar to protect my neck, and last but not least, a full metal helmet.
The helmet alone probably weighed 15 pounds, with padding inside. Since it was a loaner helmet, the padding didn’t fit my head perfectly, causing the weight of the helmet to settle on my forehead.
In my gloved and gauntleted hands, I carried a shield and sword. The sword was essentially a bamboo stick with a handguard and handle strap. The length of the “blade” was decorated with fancifully printed duct tape.
It was all very heavy, and I wasn’t even wearing chain mail. I was already sweating before we started any swordwork.
Sir Vargas took pity on me and showed me the correct form for a beginner. The most effective stance includes legs shoulder width apart, with knees slightly bent. The shield should be held up, but not in front of the face.
He taught me how to properly swing the sword – keeping elbows in, and swinging the sword out with the wrist like serving a pie.
Sir Vargas explained to me that it was actually OK to hit him. He encouraged me to give him a good wallop upside the head with the sword. I could only manage a little tap.
He asked me if I'd ever played baseball. I hadn't.
"Do you know what I mean when I say follow through?" he asked.
Well, I may not have played baseball, but I did play #1 singles tennis in high school, and I had a pretty mean forehand back in the day. So I took a crack at him.
"Oh come on! Harder!" he taunted.
Evidently my tennis arm has all but melted away.
Of course any thought of proper form went out the window as soon as the swords actually made contact with the helmet.
As I learned with my first hit on the head, it’s not just a little tap, it’s a good crack. Although the sword was made of plastic, my head felt like the clapper inside a bell. What's more, each hard crack on the head made me giggle uncontrollably for some unknown reason.
After I had my laughter more or less under control, and after a few more helpful tips, Sir Vargas felt I was ready to start with two person swordplay – that is, where he was hitting me back.
I could feel the shield getting heavier in my hand, and the helmet slipped down further on my forehead.
As I watched Sir Vargas come at me with a bamboo sword in full armor, I had just one thought running through my head.
“Oh crap. This is harder than it looks.”
I swung my sword wildly, forgetting entirely about form or my shield, or anything more than swinging the sword hard enough to hit without dropping it.
Our first clash probably only lasted about a minute, but it felt much longer to me. Feeling like I was flailing around aimlessly, I was breathless but slightly relieved when Dreessen cried “Hold!”
Turns out, I was fighting "Errol Flynn-style," according to Sir Vargas. With my sword swinging wildly and my shield held behind me doing nothing, he explained, it would tire me out faster and do nothing to protect me in a real SCA melee.
After this short instructional break, I put my helmet back on, picked up the sword and shield and got back out on the mats, this time with a camera strapped to my armor.
Because of this, I couldn't hold the shield up in front of me as much as an SCA combat participant normally would, but I think I was slightly more successful on my second attempt at swordplay.
You can see the results for yourself.