In the middle of a wooded field two warriors face off against each other in a fight to the death. Each is dressed in medieval attire and holds a metal sword in their hand as they lunge and dodge at the other. The first fighter makes a thrust with the point of his sword but the second is too quick for him and uses his own sword to parry his opponent. Using the opening he has created the second warrior takes a wild swing and lops off the arm of the first. It seems like the fight is over for the injured man as his adversary lines up the killing thrust. At the last second however he raises his sword for his own parry and using the opportunity it creates drives the point into the other warriors skull.
Sadly this is not a new excerpt from The Winds of Winter but rather a scene you can see nearly any weekend in Golden Gate Park. The fighters are members of The Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), a not-for-profit organization that dedicates itself to studying the Renaissance and the Middle Ages. An anachronism is something that appears in an age it is not suited for, the joke being that the members would have been more comfortable living a few hundred years ago. This is not a European history class however, as their flyer clearly states members of the SCA learn by doing.
Art McElyea, 62, is a retiree who has been involved with the SCA for 12 years, “I was a history major once upon a time in my youth and I’ve always romanticised history.” He explains that the SCA is much more than a local group but rather a massive organization with members all across the globe and that everything is structured like an actual kingdom. We live in what is known as the Kingdom of the West which encompasses California, Alaska, part of Nevada, and the entirety of Asia. Within a kingdom are smaller principalities, with the Bay Area being referred to as the principality of The Mist.
The SCA goes into even more detail than just dividing up the globe into kingdoms however, each kingdom and principality has their own King and Queen as well as princes and princesses. Art explains that you cannot simply call yourself the King and be one, you actually have to advance through the ranks by fighting in tournaments with the winner of the largest becoming King. In addition there is a melee that is held every summer for the entire realm that Art says can reach up to 3,000 fighters and 15,000 attendees in total.
At this particular meetup the members of the groups are doing a pirate themed reenaction. They start setting up by laying down rope to form the outline of two ships which are then connected by pieces of cardboard or “planks”. One group, pretending to be pirates, stands in the outline of one ship and tries to cross over to the other by way of the planks in order to steal their opponents treasure. The fighters on the second boat have to defeat every member of the pirates to win the match.
As well as being very detailed in their hierarchy members of the SCA also go into great detail on a personal level with many members crafting their own gear and buying what they can’t make. Art himself enjoys creating much of his own garb, “I’m a craftsperson, I like making stuff.” Art’s dedication to his craftsmanship can be seen in every stitch of the clothes he wears, so meticulously detailed that you would think he had stolen them from a museum.
While it seemed that most members of the SCA were middle-aged there were a few younger participants as well including Henry Dinh, 19, a student at CCSF. Most attendees of the event were dressed in armor of a European style but Dinh sports a Japanese kimono. Why? Simply because he can, “I’m wearing this Kimono because I felt like it. One of the things I like about SCA is that sometimes you can improvise, not with the time period but with other cultures.”
In addition to the fun he has fighting in the SCA Dinh notes that he has picked up skills there as well that he has been able to put to use in his everyday life, “I’m putting the things I learn in my own personal studies into practice. The best thing about practicing with swords is that there are many ways to use a sword, they have strengths and weaknesses but they’re not necessarily better than one another.” Dinh says this has taught him to look at both sides of things during a debate or argument and realize that each can have their benefits.
Also among the younger members of the society is Ian Brown, 23, a high school teacher who has been involved with the society for just three months now after finding them in an interesting way, “It was actually pretty funny, I was just fighting lightsabers with my little cousin and we were getting really technical really quickly and I remember thinking there has to be a culture around this, and with a little bit of research we found the rapier fighters here.”
Although he is new to the group Ian is already very involved and says that he is going to start working with Art to make his own armor and attire, “Some of the more important [armor] like masks are definitely best to buy but actually Art here is helping me make one of my own gorgets.”
When it comes down to why Brown enjoys all of this so much he relates that on some level it’s a childhood fantasy. “It’s fighting,” Brown says while he laughs, “We say it jokingly but we’re all here for sort of a cheerful, mild bloodlust. It’s sort of the culmination of all the fun you wanted to do as kids like sword fight, and now we actually can, steel swords and full melees like this.”
Photo Credits: John Holton