A celebration of times past and times imagined
Wander past the ball diamond at Stephenson Park on the right night and instead of a pinging baseball bat, you might hear the clash of shields and swords and wonder where you are.
If it's Wednesday, you may be in the Canton of Eoforwic – an Anglo-Saxon term for Toronto that translates as “wild boar settlement.”
Eoforwic is home to about 100 members of the Society for Creative Anachronism – a “living history” group dedicated to the arts and culture of the Medieval era from the year 600 to 1600.
Founded during a backyard grad party at University of California-Berkley in 1965, the SCA has since grown to 30,000 members worldwide, including a half dozen who for the last three years have practiced medieval martial arts in Stephenson Park.
Donning a 14th century-style tunic, chain mail and plate armour, Keith Tovey explains that since the SCA's “known world” includes all cultures that had contact with Europe in that thousand-year period, pretty well every nationality is included.
“I know people who claim that because the Vikings made it over to North America you can get away with having Aztec or Mayan persona,” he says.
Elliot Wong fights as Oki, a Japanese-born medieval Chinese diplomat currently living in Italy. Wong says it's unlikely such a person ever existed, but that isn't the point.
“It's called the Society for Creative Anachronism, not the Society for Compulsive Accuracy,” he said.
Still, many SCA members develop a real familiarity with medieval culture.
Apart from martial arts, local members meet at the University of Toronto's St. George campus to practice all kinds of medieval craft, from calligraphy and illuminated texts to stringing guitars, harps and mandolins.
Comparing two lengths of hand-made chain mail, Wong points out that unlike the butted chain mails seen in Hollywood films, the more true-to-life type, the kind displayed on the third floor of the ROM, is less showy and lies flat against the body because each ring is riveted to the next.
“They didn't have stainless steel in the Middle Ages, so I'm cheating,” says Tovey, showing off the shiny chain mail ringing around his neck. “But I don't have a whole army of serfs and slaves to keep it clean.”
For any SCA members who can make the trip, an obvious highlight of the year is the Pennsic War, held for 17 days every July and August at a 500-acre campground about an hour's drive north of Pittsburgh.
“It's not like anything else I've ever been to,” said Fiona Stewart, a.k.a. Alienor, a 13th century French soldier from outside Paris.
“You're coming down Interstate 79 and you know you're there because it's trees, trees, trees, trees and then a gap with the Coopers' Lake Campground sign and all these pavilions are scattered over the flats.”
For the first 10 days, the battles at Pennsic are small-scale. In a line of tents in the centre of the field is Pennsic University, full of workshops and lectures. Surrounding it are merchants selling everything from 16th century linen underwear to brass-tipped, beeswax-sealed drinking horns in Celtic or Saxon style.
Tovey has gone every year since Pennsic 12. This year, with 10,000 people, was relatively small compared with the last few – for the short time it's open, Pennsic is given its own US Postal Code.
“For a long time, people would look at us quite strangely,” he said. “Now they realize that 10,000 people descend on the community and drop lots of money for firewood, ice, groceries, duct tape, you name it.”
Legend has it that Pennsic began when a university student won a tournament to become king of the eastern kingdom, which stretches over New York and Boston.
After challenging the middle kingdom of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Ontario, he later moved back to Chicago, won a crown tournament there, and answered his own challenging letter by proposing a battle in the Debatable Lands in between.
“The joke is that the loser got Pittsburgh,” Tovey said.
That was 1971, and the battle has rung on every year since.
For Tovey, part of the battles' appeal is in the chivalric way they decide winners.
Fighters decide for themselves when they have received a blow that would have killed them – if it feels like it would have cut through chain mail or an iron helm, the victim calls “good.”
“It is really an honour system,” Tovey said. “That's kind of how you decide someone's character here.”
Those who develop skills in medieval arts and sciences can also show their character by winning honours called the Order of the Laurel. Helping to organize SCA events, which can include medieval demos for school groups and museums, earns an Order of the Pelican.
Last week, a five-year old boy who just happened to be reading about knights at home came to Stephenson Park with his Dad and was knighted.
“Usually it takes a bit more to get knighted,” said Stewart. “But for a five year-old that’s okay.”
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