Nothing drives home the nuance of faux death quite like getting repeatedly clobbered in the head with a great big sword. If you’re going to square off in battle against a giant dude in armor, you need to know what you’re getting into, right?
That’s why I’m standing still, weapons lowered, as my towering opponent and impromptu combat mentor, Alex Perry, raises his blade. On weekdays, he’s an attorney and legal consultant who’s working to open a distillery. But right now, he’s dressed head to toe in knightly garb and is about to give me a quick demonstration of what getting killed feels like — directly at my face.
’Tis but a flesh wound
“This is a light blow,” he begins. tink. The wooden blade makes a solid thud against my iron helmet. OK. Not too bad. I live to fight another day.
“Here’s what a medium blow feels like.” whomp. Whoa. My noggin rattles a little against the inside of the helmet as it vibrates with a metallic hum. I mentally brace for the next swing.
“And this…is a killing blow” KRAK. Sweet Jesus! It knocks my head sideways with a dizzying force. The shifting weight of my helmet pushes me off balance and I almost topple to the ground. My ears are ringing a little. Badass!
Were this the Middle Ages, I’d have a gaping hole in my skull. Fortunately for me, this is not a bloodstained battlefield full of dismembered warriors and howling combatants. It’s 2013, in a quiet park in rural Bennington, Vermont.
Many townspeople drive by this spot every day getting groceries, stopping by the craft beer shop across the street, and going about their normal routines. Like them, I was oblivious to the fact there’s a nationwide group of medieval enthusiasts among us. Until recently, that is.
It turns out that bludgeoning (and being bludgeoned by) local members of the Society for Creative Anachronism is a good way to get enlightened about this re-enactment organization. This current enthusiasm comes with a suitably intriguing origin tale rooted in writerly rebellion.
In its 47 years of existence, the Society for Creative Anachronism has grown from a small band of well-known fantasy writers with a passion for ancient times and culture into a massive global organization spread across the United States and beyond.
The SCA’s origins date back to a University of California, Berkeley, graduation party for Medieval Studies student and fantasy author Diana Paxson. Partygoers donned makeshift period garb, crude armor, and cobbled-together “weapons” in a tournament that ended with combatants parading down the street. Among the group’s earliest participants was the late Marion Zimmer Bradley, who coined the organization’s name and eventually founded the East Kingdom — a region of the SCA that now stretches from Pennsylvania and Delaware up through New York, New England, and into eastern Canada.
Since those early days, The SCA has grown to more than 50,000 members between its registered office-holders and other active participants. The Known World is divided into 19 kingdoms with regional rulers who preside over territories broken up into baronies and shires. This complex hierarchy and organization structure is serious business for the most dedicated members, but they make plenty of room for fun, too.
Annual tournaments and large-scale battles staged between kingdoms often involve armies comprising thousands of warriors. Beyond the thrill of battle, these huge, chaotic events are also an opportunity for members to gather and bond over shared interests. Related pursuits range from brewing and cooking to music, embroidery, and crafting. This legion of medieval devotees is multifaceted, though combat is a huge draw for many members.
“I got started in college,” says Perry, who was first introduced to the SCA through a friend who is now a high-ranking duke. “He heard that a bunch of us were beating the snot out of each other with ski poles and sleds, and said, ‘If you guys want to try this, I know a better way to do it.’ He was about my size, so until I could get my own armor, we would go to the local practices up in Burlington. I’d fight half the time and so would he.”
Most fighters are male, but there are a growing number of female combatants getting involved. Raina Stoutenburg also started battling in college. She says of her female comrades scattered throughout the SCA, “It’s a pretty big group, [but] a lot of them don’t seem to stick with it. I don’t know why.”
She’s kept battling for the past 12 years. Hell, it takes dedication to drive over two hours one-way to Bennington on a Sunday morning to get pummeled. Stoutenburg dishes it out as much as she takes it.
The kinship that the SCA offers means a lot to its members. Patrick Ryan, a longtime participant in the local group and a regular fighter, has been at it for more than 30 years. “I actually love this so much that I came back from a stroke to do this,” says Ryan, who two and a half years ago wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to fight again. “These guys brought me back.”
For many folks, involvement in the SCA is a way of life. “It becomes a lifestyle,” Ryan says, “There are people who do mountain climbing…and they go every time they can. We’re the same way.”
As a retired master builder and mason in the Bennington area, he now makes a living meticulously crafting all manner of items for fellow medieval re-enactors and other members.
The author considers his weapon.
The rules of engagement
One-on-one combat gets wild, but it’s not quite the total free-for-all of bigger battles. I find it surprising that fighting with wooden weapons wrapped in duct tape is no less thrilling — though certainly less dangerous — than the real thing, but it does make it tricky to determine when you’ve been mortally wounded. You get clobbered a lot, so there’s a need to mentally calculate each hit you take.
Being a total noob, the question of “errr…am I dead yet?” is a constant internal mantra. Thus, the importance of Perry’s demonstration aside my noggin. A “telling blow” has to be strong enough that it would have cut through chain mail.
“It’s got to be a good, hard hit,” he explains. “If you’re hit in the arms or the legs, you can’t use the limb that you’re hit in. If you’re hit in the torso, neck, or head, you’re dead and the fight is over.”
After a few more minutes of Perry explaining some basic stances and common attack moves, I’m ready to give it a shot. I still feel badass in my junky training armor, despite the fact that it looks like it’s being held together on me with duct tape and chicken wire. I’m a sad sack of a sight standing next to Stoutenburg, whose beautifully hand-made steel lamellar armor and ornate hand-embroidered dress are far more impressive. That’s of less concern, however, as we square off and prepare to fight.
It takes a couple of tentative swings before I start feeling more comfortable with the cumbersome sword and shield strapped to my gimpy limbs. They get heavier as each blow saps more of my energy reserves, but the rhythm of blocking and attack builds in intensity as we clobber away. Even so, the weight of my gear and weaponry makes it feel like I’m fighting underwater. I can only imagine that the knights of old, regularly wearing full-plate mail, would have benefited from chiropractic.
Stoutenburg is playing nice, of course. Taking it easy on me as I get a feel for blocking different kinds of attacks and delivering my own. Then Perry, standing on the sidelines to offer pointers and encouragement, suggests I’m ready for a little more action. My attacker starts delivering combos — multiple attacks strung together in rapid succession — and more aggressive maneuvers, whittling me down like the ill-fated Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail within a minute or so.
After a few rounds, I’m sweaty and exhausted, and I can barely swing my sword. I may be dead a few dozen times over, but I’m having a blast. Twelve-year-old me would be so jealous.
Stoutenburg in her lamellar armor.
No wizards allowed
It’s not every day that you see a gang of knights brawling in the distance as you walk down the street; rather, in Bennington, it’s weekly. Reactions from passersby run the gamut, though quite a few people are curious enough to stop by and see what’s going on. “I think a lot of people have heard about it at one time or another,” says Perry. “People just come and ask about it.”
In the three hours we spend battling and chatting, several different groups of people approach to take pictures and ask questions. Perry is happy to oblige, even letting them pick up and check out the equipment.
Onlookers are often fascinated by the spectacle, but few have a clue what’s actually going on until they start asking questions. “You get a lot of different things, like, ‘Are you guys in a play?’” says Stoutenburg, as we take a break to cool off and recharge our battle engines.
Given the fantasy trappings that are traditionally part of images of knights in battle, it’s no surprise that SCA combat practice also frequently gets mistaken for enthusiastic games of Dungeons & Dragons or live action role playing (LARP) activities.
“The word LARP seems to be used more and more often now, which kind of bothers me,” she says. She draws sharp distinctions. “You get in character, but you’re not playing with bone swords, and you don’t have hit points, armor points, or magic.”
Perry notes that combat is the sporting side of the SCA’s many diverse activities, though it’s one of the most popular pursuits among members. “A buddy of mine described it best as, ‘It’s a violent picnic club,’” he chuckles.
Bennington’s SCA group has from 25 to 30 active participants, he says. Many are fighters, though only a handful turn out at any given practice.
Considering the tremendous amount of physical energy exerted when fighting, regular practice is necessary to stay in shape. Perry goes through short training exercises almost daily and gathers once a week with anyone in town who’s up for armored sparring matches. The emphasis on combat is deceptive, however. There’s a lot more to these warriors than their desire to brawl on weekends.
Out of breath and out of shape, I learn very quickly that my squishy nerd muscles aren’t up to the task of protracted engagements. A handful of quick matches in, and my body feels wrecked. I’m not quite cut out for the knight life, clearly — at least not without a few solid weeks of steady physical training and exercise. Still, I muster the energy for one more go at it.
Now I’m battling Perry, who might as well be a giant, standing well above my puny 5’ 4” frame. By this point, I’ve got the hang of it, but I’m no match.
I swing and bash and clunk and stagger until I can no longer hold my sword and shield aloft. Which is about 90 seconds. As we’re suiting down, someone mentions beer and everyone perks up. Brilliant! A half hour later, we’re all sitting around the table at a brewpub nursing our scrapes and bruises with a few pints of ale over stories of epic Pennsic wars past.
The Bennington patrons around us banter, drink, and go about their normal lives, unaware that they’re in the presence of warriors.
Photos by Guy deBros.1
Freelance journalist, author, and beer nerd Nathan Meunier slings words about video games and geek culture for a living. He's been published everywhere from Nintendo Power and Mac|Life to IGN and GameSpot. He rolls natural 20s.