It’s a cool winter morning, and the sound of steel against steel rings through the air. Two knights are battling in a small fighting ring. A sword thuds against a shield. Armor clangs. Finally, the first knight knocks the second to the ground, delivering the finishing blow…
…Then he helps his opponent back to his feet, and the two of them head out of the ring, chuckling and teasing each other. Nearby, a squire huddles over a campfire, cooking some stew, while a weaver cards wool to spin into yarn. A little further off, a blacksmith toils over a red-hot anvil, sparks flying as she shapes a new tool.
This may sound like something out of a history book, but it goes on in present day thank to the Society for Creative Anachronism, Inc.—a living history group that invites people to learn firsthand what medieval times were really like.
The SCA is made up of 20 “kingdoms” around the world, with more than 30,000 members—but it all began in California back in the ancient times of 1966. UC Berkeley students studying medieval history formed a group to “protest against the 20th century” with a medieval tournament, parade and singing. Eventually, the group expanded across the United States and into Canada, Europe, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Panama, Thailand and South Korea.
Fairmont resident Bart Saxton first learned of the SCA right before he joined the Army in 1985 and easily found a local group when he was stationed in California.
“Looking back, I think I was just going to be a victim of whatever first historical reenactment group got a hold of me,” he said. “I love living history.”
For Saxton, the biggest draw was the chance to learn medieval-style fighting. He had fenced in college and thought he would be prepared to jump into the ring, but he soon discovered he was wrong.
“I watched these guys in armor waddling around, and thought, ‘I’m going to kick these people’s butts,’” he said. “They gave me some loaner armor that sort of fit and put me out in the field, and I took that first swing with that big stick… and I went, ‘Oh my God, I’m slow.’ I just got hit like three times. I had to completely relearn how to do things.”
By the end of that first practice, Saxton had bought a helmet for $20, which he still uses today. He also managed to snag his first set of armor for cheap, though he started making his own armor afterwards. His outfit consists of metal, padding, leather and chain mail, and it can weigh up to 60 pounds when he’s wearing everything.
Saxton is also interested in other areas of medieval culture: metalwork, blacksmithing, brewing, venting, handmade inks, minting coins, sewing, and 13th-century violin.
“I like to call it the good parts version of the Middle Ages,” he said. “We do all the fun stuff and skip the bad stuff. We don’t reenact the Plague; we don’t kill each other over religion.”
Taking care of business
According to Saxton, each shire has a monthly business meeting, and within his shire (the kingdom of Northshield), they have weekly armored combat practice. There are also sporadic arts and crafts get-togethers, as well as workshops and other bigger “events” once or twice a year.
According to Saxton, you’re a member of the group if you “show up and make an attempt at pre-1600s clothing.” But people can also pay for an official membership if they’re interested in becoming officers. And officers can advance through the ranks to eventually become King or Queen of the entire kingdom—as long as they’re able to defeat all comers in armored combat during the Crown Tournament. The winners are declared King or Queen (bringing along their consort) for one year.
Members also choose new names, based on research into areas of their personal interest. Saxton’s name is Bartel fitz Neel, based around 13th-century post-Norman England.
Meanwhile, MSU-graduate Barb Anderson goes by the name Emma Grimkelsdotter, creating an eighth-century Viking persona who lived in the part of Scandinavia that is now Norway.
Anderson got involved with the SCA during her senior year of high school and is now a member of the Shire of Avonwood (located in Marshall).
“I thought it would be fun to create someone from the Middle Ages,” she explained. “As I got into the group more, I realized that it’s much more than that. In the SCA, you not only get to be a person from anytime and anywhere, you also learn how they lived, what they would do in their spare time, how they ate, how they survived and how they dressed. That was a really fun idea to me, because I love learning new things. Plus, I think everybody fantasizes about knights in shining armor or romanticizes the Middle Ages.”
Anderson’s main interests are clothing, archery, some heavy combat and food. She also enjoys just digging into the real history behind her persona to find out what life was truly like.
“I want to learn more about what happened in Scandinavia,” she said. “The eighth century would’ve been just about the start of the Viking age.”
She stressed, though, that people can do as much or as little research as they want when they’re building their SCA character.
“Even though I want to do a lot of research into my persona, you can do as much [or little] research as you want as long as you’re learning about the Middle Ages,” she said. “Besides education, the most important thing is having fun. And the people in the SCA really become family.”
Everyone is welcome
While Saxton said local membership “waxes and wanes,” there is still enough interest across the southern Minnesota area that more people are checking out the SCA and its area chapters. In fact, Marshall resident Jenny Parkhurt (known in the SCA as Lady Christiana Gaylard de Caen) recently founded the Marshall chapter (the Shire of Avonwood) and serves as its president.
Like Anderson, Parkhurt became involved in SCA during her time at MSU-Mankato, citing her childhood love of “all things medieval.”
“When I found a student group that boasted of fencing and medieval studies, I knew I had found my group,” she said, mentioning how she had become the campus club’s secretary and then president before founding the Marshall chapter. “As a kid, I love the idea of royalty and, like many girls, pretty dresses. In my teen and collegiate years, the idea of chivalry and honor really took precedence. Not only does the SCA capture the romance of the ‘old values’ of chivalry and honor, it also strives for them in a way that we don’t typically see as much in the modern world.”
Parkhurt said they have about 10-12 members right now, with another handful of folks who participate less frequently. Her own interests include calligraphy and illumination, sewing period-appropriate medieval clothing, baking, weaving, ink making and medieval dance.
She added that as an introvert, she is grateful to the SCA for providing a welcoming community where she could find equally passionate friends.
“The SCA is an accessible and open community to explore any number of topics and interests, and to share that passion with like-minded people,” she said. “When I walked into my first SCA event, it was as though I’d walked into the family reunion for a family I’d always had, but never realized I was missing. There’s a place for everyone, and if someone did it in the Middle Ages, we can get you connected with someone who does it now.”
The mission of the SCA
“The Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) is an international non-profit volunteer education organization. The SCA is devoted to the research and recreation of pre-seventeenth century skills, arts, combat, culture and employing knowledge of history to enrich the lives of participants through events, demonstrations, and other educational presentations and activities.”
Feb. 23—Lupercalia. Taking place in the Shire of Rivenwood Tower (Garden City), this is one of the largest events in the area and is a day full of armored combat, arts and sciences display, rapier combat and food. Adults are $15 and kids under 18 are free. Lunch is $5.
April 13—Northshield Spring Coronation
May 11—Northshield Spring Crown Tournament
August 2019—St. Ratigan’s Fair. Hosted at Jack MacGowan’s farm outside of Mankato, the fair is a weekend of classes where members educate the public and demonstrate medieval techniques and customs.
By Grace Webb