Battle for the Ages
A deafening blow lands on my helmet. My skull rattles, my eardrums hum.
I try to stay loose and limber as Sir Tascius deals another blow. I close my eyes just before the sword hits.
What is it that makes people want to bash each other in the head like this?
“On a scale of one to ten, that was about a five,” explains Sir Tascius, who is instructing me in the art of heavy combat fighting. Even dressed in layers of protective armor, the faux knight’s movements are quick, graceful, and powerful. I feel about as ferocious as a kid stuffed in a snowsuit, unable to walk without tripping over myself.
Over my regular clothing, I wear a rusty orange tunic, brown leather kneepads, forearm guards, a belt to protect my kidneys, and a gorget around my neck. A suit of chain mail hangs over those protective layers, followed by another belt, hand guards, and a metal helmet to protect my noggin.
A wooden shield and rattan-and-foam sword complete the outfit. With all this weight I move like I am underwater, though I am told I look like a Norman warrior from the Middle Ages.
Fearsome, yep; that’s me.
Sir Tascius teaches me the most rudimentary fighter stance and body mechanics, while a half-dozen other fighters are engrossed in practice, whaling on each other with astonishing ferocity and good cheer. Their garb is medieval in style, mimicking the Middle Ages fashions of Britain, Scotland, and Normandy. Many wield sword and shield; others favor two swords, a spear, or even an axe.
The cacophony of battle echoes throughout the parking lot of the Historic Haven, a private club in downtown Frederick for gamers and self-described “geeks, nerds, and misfits of the best kind.” Tonight ’s combatants draw their fighting style, armor, weapons, clothing, titles and even rules of chivalrous conduct from the rules and traditions of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). If you haven’t brushed up on your vocabulary lately, an “anachronism” is anything—a fashion, a spoken phrase, a philosophy—that is taken out of its usual time period. For the 60,000 SCA participants nationwide, this means creatively embracing medieval culture, arts, and activities in their modern lives. Indeed, when SCA members get together, they immerse themselves in an elaborate historical fiction. Each takes on a persona, playing a character with a name, history, and mannerisms from a particular historical time and place. Many develop skills in heavy combat or activities such as medieval music, dance, woodworking, leatherworking, or chain mail-making. They receive their titles—Lady, Squire, Knight, or even King—in extravagant ceremonies, and only by virtue of their achievement and recognition by their peers.
And yes, it’s all taken very seriously.
Nationwide, SCA fighters practice in small groups like this one, and at regional and national events the fighters can match their skills against one another in tournaments or the melee, in which more than 3,000 fighters may battle at once.
“You just haven’t lived until you’ve run straight at a wall of 1,000 screaming, frenzied fighters,” says Lord Volkhard Rovan, also known as Tom Handwerker, co-owner of the Historic Haven. The other fighters enthusiastically agree and regale me with tales of epic battles won and woeful losses suffered. More than one warrior gives a cheerful retelling of what it’s like to be trampled by a horde of their brethren in battle. But it’s not all bloodlust and bruises. As Count Vladimir Ivanovich Alekandrov explains, “SCA fighting allows us to be more violent than is permitted in everyday life, but it also allows us to be kinder, too.”
The code of chivalry is not taken lightly here. As I am introduced to each fighter, I reach for a handshake. Instead, each bends over my hand, kisses it, and murmurs “Milady.”
According to Handwerker (Lord Volkhard Rovan) and Historic Haven co-owner Steve Martin (Lord Stiamna MacMartainn), this kind of social code appeals not only to SCA fighters; it draws all kinds of gamers to the club. With 70 to 100 regular members during any given month, the Haven must be on to something.
“A gamer is somebody who likes the social aspect of playing with other people. They like to socialize in a very structured environment, where there are clear rules and social script. That structure is what makes the interaction a game, and gamers like to play within that,” says Handwerker.
SCA fighter practice is held every Friday night at the Haven; the rest of the week, Haven members get involved in a host of other activities.
The predominant interest, of course, is gaming—table top war games, card games, video games, board games. Physical activities include the heavy fighting, lighter combat, or even dancing. There’s also a variety of crafting, such as painting miniature tabletop figures, armor- making, leatherworking, or beer brewing.
Members can take classes or learn from one another—and all have access to the club’s materials and tools—or they can just hang out there and watch movies together.
“We’re all about easy- access fun,” Handwerker says. “You know that you’ve won the game if, at the end of the night, you’ve had a good time.”
I guess that ’s true, especially if your friends have given you a good beating with a rattan sword.