If it weren't for the 20th century accouterments like a copier machine, telephones, fluorescent lights and the swarm of SUVs parked out front, a visitor to the festivities Saturday at Bridges in Soldotna might almost believe they had been transported back in time into the Middle Ages.
Inside, ladies wearing elegant medieval gowns visited with each other, worked on craft projects or tended to the many children dressed in tunics who were scampering around the grounds. Men in surcotes capes and armor discussed -- and no doubt embellished -- tales of past victories, defeats and injuries received in battle.
Outside, the sounds of heavy metal clanking and jangling heralded the start combat exercises, where combatants created memories and stories of their own to tell at future gatherings.
In every room and around every corner people were drinking from medieval-style mugs, discussing topics like armory and heraldry -- the art of designing coats of arms -- and addressing each other as "m'lord" and "m'lady."
Participants made every effort to make the experience as authentic as possible. To a newcomer at these events, the whole affair may seem very elaborate and most likely a bit confusing. To the participants, however, the elaboration is all part of the fun.
The event was a Middle Ages reenactment put on by the Society for Creative Anachorism. The society is a worldwide organization divided into regional groupings, like kingdoms, principalities and baronies. Mainland Alaska falls under the Kingdom of the West and is a principality, called Oertha. Oertha has its own coat of arms -- two white wolves around a compass star on a blue background and, as a principality, is ruled by its own prince and princess.
The goal of society members is to research and recreate the Middle Ages. To do that, members create a persona from a medieval time period, social background and country of their choice and use that persona as their identity at society events. They also study different aspects of medieval society that particularly interest them, like clothing, music, dancing, crafts, jewelry, cooking or weaponry.
Prince fergus attempts to finish off an incapacitated opponent.
Photo by Jenny Neyman
"Basically it's an education into the times," said Darlene Cullor of Anchorage, who participated in Saturday's reenactment. Her chosen persona is Bianca, from 14th century Ireland. In the local branch of the society she is the chief administrative seneschal, which is sort of an organizer of events and go-between for society members and the "mundane," as they call it, world. "It's a time period I really like. I'd be watching movies and say 'Hey, that's a gorgeous gown, I want one of those.' ... It's just a big sense of family. I don't worry about (my daughter) going to events and running around because I know everybody and it's a comfortable atmosphere."
Depending on how involved members wants to get, they could devote a significant amount of time and money to the reenactments by making their own clothing, armor, weapons, crafts, etc. Cullor, like many of the participants in Saturday's reenactment, made the outfit she wore.
" You either love it or you can't stand it," Cullor said. "If you're a crafty person you're sunk."
That level of devotion certainly isn't required, however. Memb-ership in the society, which costs $35 a year, isn't even necessary to come "play," as members call it, at the reenactments. Costumes are encouraged to help maintain the authentic atmosphere of the events, but they also aren't required and generic loaner outfits are available from local groups for people who want to join in but not spend a lot of money.
"SCA can cost a lot of money if you want to spend it but there are ways to do it on a budget," Cullor said.
For those who do want to expend the time and effort, they can be richly rewarded, with titles, awards, official positions and even the rank of royalty. There are several areas of study that can be pursued in the society. Many of these areas are grouped under the topic of arts and sciences, which includes everything from making clothes and brewing mead to leather working and medieval poetry. Success in one of these fields could gain a member a title of master or mistress.
A popular field of recreation is martial arts, like fencing, archery or armor and weaponry making. That's what drew Letitia Wilde, otherwise known as Sir Richenza, from the Anchorage area, into the society.
Prince Fergus delivers a mortal blow to a challenger.
Photo by Jenny Neyman
"I saw some people doing it and I thought 'hey what are those guys doing? They're in armor hitting each other with swords. I want to do that,'" she said.
Wilde has excelled in the field of combat to the point where she earned the rank of knight, which can be awarded to men and women in the society. To become a knight, a warrior must support the principality they reside in, fight for a lord or lady and live by chivalric ideals like supporting or defending those weaker than they are, Wilde said.
Typically, after someone has been fighting and upholding these ideals for a few years, a group of knights, called peers, recommend to the rulers that the person be knighted.
The road to this point can be long and painful, but its mostly a lot of fun. Combatants make medieval weapons from rattan and padded PVC pipe (the only two materials allowed), craft chain mail, shields and metal or leather armor and go at each other. There are strict rules for combat safety and how armor and weapons should be padded, and the SCA is insured for these battles, but that doesn't mean it can't still hurt. A knight who lets his guard down may not lose a limb or their life, but he can end up with some wicked bruises.
A code of honor is invoked to determine the winner in each battle. If a combatant receives a blow that in "real life" would have taken their life, they are obligated to accept defeat by falling over and pretending to have succumbed to the mortal wound.
Likewise, if a blow would have incapacitated or removed a limb, the fighter stops using that limb for the rest of the battle, whether its holding a hand behind their back, hopping around on one leg or getting down on the ground and fighting from a kneeling position.
Many fighters practice regularly with a variety of weapons and strategies to develop their battle skills. They are rewarded with fewer bruises, more victories and more titles, which can even include royalty.
The prince and princess of Oertha are decided every six months by right of arms. Two cornet battle tournaments are held each year. The victor of the tournament is named prince, or princess, and rules until the next tournament with their chosen consort.
Oertha's current prince and princess are George and Gretchen Thompson, a home designer and human resources consultant from the Matinuska-Susitna area. They rule as Prince Fergus, a 12th century Scotsman, and Princess Margarita, a daughter of a wealthy Italian merchant in 1585 who married well. The royal couple were in attendance at Sat-urday's reenactment.
Having royalty attend a local event is always a high honor, and not one to be taken lightly. It wouldn't be fitting for the prince and princess to show up and just flop on a sofa, after all. Royalty travels with full regalia, including wooden thrones, banners, pillows, attendants, escorts and gifts.
Prince Fergus wards off an attacker and prepares to deliver a blow.
Photo by Jenny Neyman
The rank of royalty is a position taken very seriously by those who obtain it. Gretchen Thom-pson is on her third reign as princess of Oertha, and makes sure she and her consort travel all over the principality during their reign, which can get to be quite expensive.
She makes and presents gifts to royalty in other areas, as well as to her subjects. And her and her husband's garb, which she makes herself, matches and is the most elaborate at the reenactments.
"It's important for royalty to look the part. It's all part of the game," Gretchen said. "We rule not only by right of arms but we have an obligation and a duty to do a good job and be a good example for others to follow. ... It's absolutely the hardest job and the most rewarding."
The duties of royalty include giving awards and making recognitions, making laws for their domain, furthering the arts and sciences and interests of the populace and in general making sure everything runs smoothly. A factor that contributes heavily to how well each event goes is how willing the participants are to play along with the reenactment.
"You must suspend everything you know about terrorism and the war in Iraq. You must really believe that you're in the Middle Ages. It's part of playing," Gretchen said.
"There are rules of behavior based on ideas of courtly love and the code of chivalry. You treat everyone kindly and look after others. ... Philosophically it's a way of life that we want to live where honor means something and integrity is important. When trust and honesty are not just words on paper."
Saturday's reenactment was held in Soldotna to help drum up participants for a SCA group that is forming on the peninsula, which calls itself Ravenskeep.
Princess Margarita of Oertha sits on her throne Saturday in her homemade medieval gown working on a beaded necklace.
Photo by Jenny Neyman
Breezy Stevens of Kenai is one of the organizers of the group. When she lived in Anchorage about 10 years ago she was active in the SCA, she said. When she and her husband moved to the peninsula, there wasn't a local organization. There used to be years ago, but that group disbanded.
"(My husband and I) just sat around thinking 'well, somebody should start a group,'" she said. "Finally we just said 'so why don't we do it?'"
To become a resident of Ravenskeep, call Stevens at 283-0855. For more information on the SCA, ask a society member, like Stevens, or visit its Web site at www.sca.org.
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