One Tuesday evening in April, I stepped over the threshold of an exercise gym and traveled a thousand years back in time.
Men walked around in tunics and breeches, with custom leather shoes and boots. Some donned chain mail and armor as they prepared for battle practice. Yet another was already dressed in his full set of armor, all but the helmet, which he held under one arm as he browsed on his smartphone with the other.
One man held two hand-sewn tunics in his hands. “Which era should I be today?” he asked the group at large. “14th century or 16th century?”
The local chapter of the SCA – Society for Creative Anachronism – had invited me to one of their weekly combat practices in Portage.
One woman, sitting by the door in queenly raiment, seemed particularly knowledgeable. Joann Peek (known as Mistress Elena de Vexin within the group), of the Order of the Pelican, greeted us graciously and gave us a quick introduction into the SCA.
“This started in 1966 at Berkeley,” she said. “Now there are 19 kingdoms worldwide and a minimum of 30,000 members.” Locally, the Society has about 25 members, many of whom are away at school for parts of the year.
The Society for Creative Anachronism is a worldwide organization comprised of 19 kingdoms on 4 continents. Participants, dressed in clothing of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, attend events that may feature tournaments, arts exhibits, classes, workshops, dancing, feasts, and more.
Despite the widespread nature of the SCA, the national group is very close-knit. “Just about anywhere you go, people will open their doors and give you a place to sleep, feed you,” said Dale Dreessen, a longtime member of the group.
There are several disciplines, or peerages, for member specialization: The Order of the Pelican is interested in service, such as organizing events, providing first aid or counseling.
The Order of the Laurel concentrates on crafts and artisan workmanship. Members practice leatherworking, make armor, brew ale and mead, and even participate in animal husbandry.
“A man called Johann in Indianapolis breeds period livestock,” Peek said. “He actually back-breeded his chickens to be period-accurate chickens.” He was curious to see how authentic medieval recipes would taste with the appropriate type of chicken.
What does it taste like?
“Chicken,” she said with a shrug.
Another order is the Order of the Knighthood preoccupied with the combat styles accurate to the medieval period – or any time before the 17th Century.
“Everyone has their point of history they are trying to portray,” said Dreessen. “For example, I mainly focus on heavy combat from Renaissance Germany. Others focus more on Viking combat.” Within the group, Dreessen is known as Her Ehrenfried Schertenleib, 16th century German Mercenary.
“Beginners must learn sword and shield combat first, then they can start to move on to more advanced weapons styles,” Dreessen said. The knights in the SCA fight with weapons from maces to longbows in period-accurate representations of battles.
In the training process, squires, or those in training for the knighthood discipline, must learn the official SCA combat rules.
“An appropriate shot must be acknowledged,” Dreessen said. “If you’re hit on an arm, you lose the use of that arm. If you’re hit on the legs, you have to fight from your knees. A head shot is a kill shot.”
In the chaos of the melee, there may be no referee nearby to call a fighter out on these rules.
“Fighting is all done on the honor system,” Peek said.
Although tournament fighting may be chaotic, the SCA has many safety regulations in place for the participants’ well-being.
“Safety regulations include specified safety gear, and a safety officer is always present,” Dreessen said. “And we do not joust.”
“We do a lot of demonstrations, and people say it looks fun. We say, ‘It is fun, but please don’t take the broomstick out of your closet and beat your sister with it.’”