Reports from a Medieval war
Emily Guendelsberger embedded in the Pennsic War, the largest gathering of the Society for Creative Anachronism in the world.
I am surprised to find that my iPhone is able to give me directions to Cariadoc’s Path and Fletcher Road, an intersection that only exists two weeks out of the year. It’s like finding Brigadoon on your GPS.
I'm on my way to the Pennsic War, the largest gathering in the world of the Society for Creative Anachronism, “an international organization dedicated to researching and re-creating the arts and skills of pre-17th-century Europe.” Each August, around 10,000 people converge on Slippery Rock, Pa., from all over the world to set up a sprawling tent city about half an hour outside Pittsburgh at Cooper’s Lake campground.
Pennsic even has its own street signs that are set up every year. Some of them, like Cariadoc's Path, have been set up in the same place for so long that they're showing up on my Google Maps.
Most Pennsic attendees spend two weeks pretending (with varying dedication to authenticity) to be people in the Middle Ages. Most go as a named “persona,” or fictional character from a culture that existed between 600 A.D. and 1600 A.D. People generally go by their persona’s name at SCA events rather than the one they answer to in the “mundane world.” They wear period clothing, or “garb.” They can practice and learn medieval dance, calligraphy, archery and any number of other Medieval skills at hundreds of free classes given during Pennsic.
Most spectacular, though, is what gives the Pennsic War its name. There's several large-scale battles, some involving thousands of armored fighters and siege weapons, between the Middle Kingdom (the Chicago-centered Midwest area) and the East Kingdom (the New York-centered Northeast area, including Philly). These aren't restagings of actual battles, like Civil War reenactors do — they're competitive, like Olympic-level Capture the Flag.
People first hearing about Pennsic often say, “So, it’s like a Renaissance fair?” It’s really not. It’s the difference between going to see a hockey game and strapping on a pair of skates. If you’re there, you’re expected to at least be able to stay on your feet. There are no day passes, and the pricing is designed to discourage gawkers: The lowest-priced ticket for a non-member is $155 for one week, $40 more for both weeks.
I'm fascinated by Pennsic, and I've been badgering my editors to let me go write about it for years. Finally, one agreed. The Philadelphia-area chapter of the SCA, Barony Bhakail, graciously let this gawker set up my tent in their camp and borrow garb from their loaner closet to attend the second week of the 43rd Pennsic War — the week all the battles happen.
I type “Cariadoc’s Path” into my iPhone, and a flat voice begins to tell me how to get to this quasi-real place.
There's a ton of different groups under the umbrella of Pennsic that get along with surprisingly little overt friction — authenticity sticklers, belly dancers, drinkers, fighters, craftspeople, party people, history buffs, fashion horses, musicians, D&D players, families, Burning Man refugees, people dedicated to staying in persona 24/7.
It's impossible to see it all in one go, much less accurately describe Pennsic without leaving something out. In this piece, then, I've decided to try to approximate the breadth of the experience with a whole bunch of short scenes and conversations that touch on some of the different facets of the place. It doesn't exactly read like a big, coherent whole, but neither does Pennsic. It's the best way I could come up with to communicate the sheer number of stories I came across. Feel free to skip around.
It’s after 11 p.m. and very foggy when I finally arrive at Cooper's Lake. Pennsic's already been going on for more than a week, and people in medieval garb occasionally wander out of the darkness and across the dirt road in front of my car. None are using flashlights, which is eerie. I drive very slowly.
My Bhakail contact, who goes by Sayyidda Jamilia al-Suba al-Hadid at SCA events (Suba for short), meets me at the gate. She’s charged up her cell phone so that we can find each other when I arrive, but this is an exception. During my stay, I see a couple people bring out phones to look something up, but I don’t hear a single ringtone, nor see a single person talking on a cell phone or listening to headphones in public.
At check-in, I’m given a numbered metal token and told to keep it on me at all times. Anyone found without one is escorted to the gates — another rule to discourage gawkers. Since I’m arriving so late in the game, I get #9999, which Suba and the women checking me in exclaim about. (The final head count for Pennsic 43 is 10,368.)
When she learns that it's my first Pennsic, the woman at the check-in desk gives me a huge grin. "Welcome home!" she says. It's the first of many times I'll hear this traditional greeting, and it never stops feeling genuinely warm and fuzzy.
After I drop off my stuff at the Bhakail encampment, a cluster of maybe 25 large, colorful tents, Suba shows me where to ditch my car off in a far field down a hill, way out of sight. It takes maybe 15 minutes to walk back back. The entrance to Bhakail is through a large common-area tent where a dozen or so people sit drinking and playing period games. Others chat around a small bonfire. Within minutes, I’ve been handed a goblet of something boozy, welcomed home, called “Milady” and had an attempted handshake converted to a hand-kissing via chivalric judo.
The hand-kisser, an older, bearded man who calls himself Ian Douglas, is one of several bards in camp tonight eager to relay essential legends to the newbie reporter. Douglas begins with Pennsic’s origin story:
THE KING WHO DECLARED WAR ON HIMSELF AND LOST, PT. 1
“Many, many, many moons ago, a gentleman won crown in the Midrealm. His name was Cariadoc.”
I hear several versions of this story over the next few days. Everyone seems to have heard it a thousand times, but nobody seems to mind hearing it once more.
The essentials that remain the same: In the very earliest days of the SCA, Cariadoc of the Bow, the first King of the Middle Kingdom (or Midrealm), challenged the East Kingdom to meet up and have a war. The loser would take Pittsburgh. The East Kingdom ignored Cariadoc's challenge.
“But in the real world, Cariadoc is a professor, he has a normal job like everyone else. His job changed, and so he found himself in the East Kingdom, where he proceeded to fight crown tourney (which is how we choose our kings), and he won.
"Upon winning crown, he gets a pile of paperwork and backlogged scrolls that needed to be taken care of. Sitting on top of the pile is a scroll from the king of the Midrealm, saying that they need to go to war ... signed, Cariadoc.”
“’How dare they?’” Douglas exclaims in mock outrage, getting a big laugh from the several people who have gathered around to listen. “Cariadoc accepts the challenge from the Midrealm, and so becomes the only king in history to declare war on himself…” he pauses to let everyone chime in on the punch line. “…and lose.” Another big laugh from the group.
NO SHIT, THERE I WAS
Another story is told, and another, and another. Several begin with what appears to be a ritual call-and-response phrase: “No shit, there I was…”
Around midnight, I’m pretty cold and dead on my feet, so I excuse myself and set up my tiny backpacking tent, which looks pretty ridiculous next to Bhakail’s large, period-looking canvas pavilions. But it’s blessedly easy to set up.
Half an hour later, I drift off to a muffled soundtrack: Discussions of armor. Far-away drums. Passers-by singing a four-part madrigal. A voice from another camp shouting “No shit, there I was…”
THE SERENGETI AND THE SWAMP
The next morning, I wake up at 7:30 already sweating. Bhakail’s camped on what’s called the Serengeti, a large grassy area near the battlefield, food court, classes and merchants. The downside is that there’s no shade, and tents turn into easy-bake ovens about an hour after sunrise. This leads to a natural self-segregation at Pennsic: Families and fighters tend to camp on the Serengeti. Partiers camp down by the lake in the areas called the Swamp and the Bog. It’s damp and buggy and often loud at night down by the lake, but it's also possible to sleep off a hangover.
A kid wanders by hollering “PENN-sic IN-de-PEN-dent! DOLL-ar TWEN-ty FIVE!,” hawking the camp newspaper, printed only two weeks a year. I give up on going back to sleep and struggle into my borrowed garb, all of which involves hems to the ankle and sleeves to the wrist and feels like guaranteed heatstroke.
Suba has invited me to breakfast with her three teenage kids and some of their friends; she cooks pancakes, bacon and eggs in a huge kitchen tent with three propane burners, several coolers restocked with ice daily and a dining table that seats 12. Each kid has a circular pavilion that’s 12 feet in diameter; Suba and her husband share a larger master bedroom tent.
Once my breakfast companions hear that this is my first time at an SCA event, I’m delightedly mobbed with advice: Drink lots of water; stop at camp to get more layers after dinner because it gets cold fast; don’t go down to the Swamp or Bog at night without a buddy; don’t go to the Tuchux’s camp ever because they’re a weird barbarian cult that keeps women on leashes and aren’t even part of the SCA anyway (wait, what?); never drink Strawberry Surprise, because the surprise is that it’s all liquor, no strawberries.
Suba offers to show me around. Pennsic is massive, and it will be nearly three days before I'm able to find my way back to Bhakail on my own without the paper map folded up in my belt pouch. The SCA encompasses a broad range of cultures between the 5th and 16th centuries, and though most camps, like Bhakail, are generic European, we pass large Middle Eastern, Japanese and Viking ones, too. Suba’s persona is Middle Eastern, and I soon become bitterly jealous of her and other women whose garb doesn’t involve floor-length, long-sleeved, difficult-to-lace dresses.
Some camps have impressive entryways in the shape of castle gates, columns and even a couple of ships. We cross through a large market with shops selling garb, jewelry, armor, bows, baskets, etc., and a food court staffed mostly by modern-dress teenagers. Across the road are more merchants and a couple of permanent buildings — showers, laundry and a general store run by the Coopers, the family that owns Cooper's Lake campground. Pennsic is their largest event of the year by far, and the general store recently expanded into a large barn for the duration of Pennsic. You can buy milk, ice cream, meat, Danishes, coffee, Slushies, camping supplies, 5-hour energy shots — you name it.
Down the hill by the lake is residential again. In the Bog and Swamp, the camps get sillier, fancier and less concerned with period authenticity. The gate to one is a TARDIS. Another is named Morningwood. Another is an impressively large replica of a pirate ship. But the most impressive by far is a huge approximation of a two-story Italian villa, loggias reflecting in the lake.
CASA BARDICCI, PT. 1
The palazzo at Casa Bardicci is legitimately amazing. While other encampments put up period-looking tents, the centerpiece of this Medici-era encampment is an enormous, two-story Florentine villa, complete with faux walls, ceiling beams, loggias, woodwork and oil paintings. There’s even a small chapel, in which an actual baby is actually baptized while I’m visiting. There’s even a huge tent canopy printed to look like the Sistine Chapel ceiling — with the faces of prominent friends of the household substituted in on a few of the figures.
Chris Gilman, who goes by Sir Gaston in the SCA, worked in Hollywood for decades doing special effects and props. He designed, built and lives in one of the most uncannily realistic parts of the Casa, a two-story dining-room-and-apartment addition.
How long have you had this house?
This is the fifth year it's been set up. In 2009, Master Erwillian, the head of the household of Casa Bardicci, invited me down [to his encampment] for a family night. I was sitting out by the lake with a glass of wine, watching the sun set, and heard this beautiful music. My 20th-century brain said "iPod," but I turned around and there was this beautiful young couple singing and playing instruments. They were here from Europe, it was their first Pennsic. They had just wandered by the front gate, and one of our household said, "If you'd like to come in and perform, we'll feed you." They were delighted, so they sang, and it was quite marvelous.
So, later, Master Willem says, "We'd really like you to camp with us." I'd been camping with my friends up on the hill for the past 20 years, but I grew up in Connecticut; I really missed the trees.
This event being 42 years old, [lakeshore] camping spaces don't exactly fall off trees. Willem walked me out in front of the lake and said, "How about right here?" It was less than 20 feet from the shore of the lake. I said, "If you give me this spot, I will build something worthy of it.”
So when I got back from Pennsic, I started doing some design work. By the end of January, I kind of figured out what I wanted to do and started building. In January 2010, I started building this. Most of the work I did myself; I had some help from some of my guys in the [Hollywood props] shop when I needed an extra set of hands. Or if someone was casting some plastic parts, I'd say, "Hey, cast me a couple extra ones of these." It was pretty much done by July.
The rule for me in this house is I have to be able to pick up everything that's in it. Everything is one-person liftable, with the exception of the stairs. I'm a moose, so I can pick the stairs up and move them around, but they really are a two or three-person job.
How does it fit together?
I set up these challenges — one was the minimal amount of tools possible, and no wood screws, it all had to be machined bolts with fasteners, things that would not wear out the way a wood screw going into a piece of wood would. I joke that every time I use a wood screw, I have to say Ten Hail Marys.
So I set it up the first year, and people were blown away. But I had a lot of stuff I wanted to change — stuff I'd learned, stuff I'd run out of time to do. It all fits in a 20-foot cargo trailer, which I bought used in L.A. So I packed it down, brought it back to L.A., made some improvements. One of my Sunday morning rituals is to scan some of the auction houses that I know, plus auction sites like eBay, looking for bits and bobs to flesh out the house.
But now there's not much left to do to it! There's little maintenance things — paint, a little crack here or there that needs to be repaired. But it gets packed away in the trailer, which now stays here full time. It's really great — when I arrive, I just go up to the office here at the site and say, "I need this trailer delivered to this site." They put it on a tractor and bring it down here, drop it off. At the end, I take the house apart, load it in the trailer, lock it up, and I go home!
I hear you throw some sick parties.
Casa Bardicci has two parties; we have what we call the lowbrow party, or the Lowdy-Towdy party, that's the workers' party. We have a lot of volunteer workers that help set up all of Casa Bardicci, and we wouldn't be able to do it without them. So royalty's not allowed, regalia's not allowed. Fancy dress — no. Knights — no. It doesn't mean people can't come, but none of the accoutrements that identify them as someone special are allowed.
And then, last night, we had the highbrow party, or the Hoity-Toity party. And that is where you come wearing your absolute best. I believe last night we had at least half of the kingdoms represented here, with their kings and queens coming to this party. It really has become a social must-be-at place. Which is kind of fun!
[An earlier version of this story reflected a misunderstanding on my part: I thought, from what I'd been told, that Gilman had designed the whole of Casa Barducci. He did not — much of it's been around for 15 years. Gilman designed the two-story addition, which is still extremely impressive.]
King Gunnar Oxnamegin of Trimaris and his general, Sir Killian the Bruce, on the battlefield.
BORN ON THE LIST FIELD (VERSE 1)
A story from Mistress Tyzes Sofia, called Zsof, aka Karoline Kramer Gould, a founder of the theater group the Known World Players. Her favorite Pennsic legend is about the popular song “Born on the List Field,” written decades ago by a guy named Ivar Battleskald:
It’s all about honor and chivalry. A man gets a knighthood and says, ‘I was born on the list field, I was raised at the war...’ He retires as a knight, and then is called back to fight one more battle, and dies. And his final words are that chorus again, with some slight variations.
When the song was written, Ivar refused to let people write it down; you could only learn it from the oral tradition. It was a study. He wanted to see how oral tradition morphed his song as it traveled throughout the Known World. The ban has since been lifted; you can write it down to help yourself learn it but you must perform it from memory.
And then maybe 10 years ago, somebody said, ‘OK, everybody, it's time, submit the lyrics you know for ‘Born on the List Field.’’ And you could see how it had changed and morphed, kingdom to kingdom, region to region. That's one of those things I love about the SCA — how that beautiful song that makes grown men weep is also an anthropology study.
I follow up on several leads trying to track down Ivar Battleskald while at Pennsic, but nobody remembers his real name, nor has heard from him in 20 years.
Division 1 fighters, ages 6-9, learning to die safely.
COMBAT TRAINING, PT. 1
“What are the rules of fighting in a group?”
“Right, eye contact — make sure they’re looking at you before you hit them. OK? What’s the other important rule?”
Division 1 combat training for kids ages 6-9 is both informative and adorable. Six very small kids wear hockey masks and so much padding they’re constantly on the verge of overbalancing. They hold various foam weapons and shields at rest as the teacher demonstrates how to die safely. In a melee, when an opponent’s weapon touches in a central spot where you have no armor, the kids are supposed to “die,” or fall to the ground and curl up in a ball on your side with your ankles uncrossed and use your shield to cover your body. She asks them to show her they can do it.
“OK… Die defensively! No, die defensively… show me…”
A little boy is planking on the ground, rigid as a board. The teacher tries to get him to flip on his side and curl into a ball, but he’s not really getting it.
“Now, you can’t die that way, because your friends might fall on top of you!” says the teacher.
“Or people might step on you!” adds a small girl.
“Or somebody might step on you!”
“If you go into the adult lists, people are going to step on you!” says the girl.
“Yes!” says the teacher. Having finally maneuvered the little boy into the appropriate ball, the teacher moves on to rolling out. “Who wants to try it? Lindsay, let me see you roll out defensively!” The girl hits the ground. “So there’s fighting on this side,” the teacher gestures. “Everybody’s fighting, but if you go this way, you can roll out.” Lindsay rolls out, away from where the imaginary combatants are. “Good! Now you can get up.”
Now it’s time for everyone to try.
“Take your guard… lay on!”
The little boys and girls begin swinging their foam weapons at each other in a way that suggests their helmets are obstructing most of their field of vision. It is perhaps the cutest goddamn thing I’ve ever seen.
THE LEGEND OF VISSEVALD, PT. 1
Another story from the night I arrive, as told by Grim the Skald:
“Duke Vissevald was King of the East in the '80s. There was a war game that the army reserve did with the regular army,” a sort of Capture the Flag using batons, or "big sticks," as weapons. The goal was to infiltrate and take over a structure on a cliff. The Army was better trained than the Reserve, and usually won. But this year the Reserve had a secret weapon in Vissevald, who had just won the biggest tournament in the kingdom using a polearm — i.e. “a big stick.”
“So the lieutenant went up to Vissevald and said, ‘I am tired of losing this. What is it going to take for you to come up with a plan to win?’ So they worked out a deal that involved a case of Scotch and two weeks off in August.” Laughter. “So he could come here,” someone whispers to me.
“The plan became: They would fake an attack in front, and Vissevald would climb the cliff in the back, steal the flag and get away.” So Vissevald gets to the top, takes out a few guards, then faces down the last one, who’s better than average with a baton. But the guard's not good enough.
“So Vissevald lays the guy out. Guy falls down. He’s about to walk off and get the flag when the guard he just ‘killed’ says, ‘Who are you?’ ‘I'm Private First Class Whatever—’" Grim pauses. "I forget what his mundane name is. And the guy goes, ‘No, no, no. Who are you—“ a pause so everyone can chime in on, “really?” Laughter.
“And Vissevald says: ‘Know that it is no shame to lose to the King of the East.’ He took the banner and they won.”
“The postscript to this is at Pennsic that August, Vissevald was sitting around a fire with a bunch of other knights and tin hats (people with crowns and other such things) and a knight from Atlantia came up and said, ‘No shit—’” and here the circle chimes in on the next three words, “there I was, at Army maneuvers, when a guy climbed up a cliff behind me, laid me out, and claimed to be King of the East.” More laughter. “And Vissevald stood up with the crown on his head, and said, ‘I can vouch for every word of that story.’”
COMBAT TRAINING, PT. 2
After the kids in training have finished a small-scale battle, I talk with Hroudland, aka Donald Carver, the youth combat marshal in charge.
What do you do?
I run the youth combat program, in which children suit up in something that approximates armor, swing weapons that are coated with pipe foam that approximate polearms and swords, and conduct chivalrous combat amongst themselves. We have divisions by age; the children strike each other at a lower calibration when they're younger so that it doesn't hurt, and have progressively more competitive and higher calibrations as they age.
Could you explain calibration?
Calibration is how hard we give and receive blows. In Division 1 [ages 6-9], it's basically a deliberate touch. In Division 2 [ages 10-13] it's positive contact, and in Division 3 [ages 14-17] it's a positive force.
What's positive contact?
Positive contact is more than a touch; a touch is not enough. You should know it hit you, and it shouldn't hurt. Enough to know you got struck. In Division 3, you could occasionally receive a bruise from a blow that's at the extreme end of calibration if it strikes you on an unarmored spot. But it'd be rare.
And calibration is something that adults have to think about, too, right?
Absolutely — the adults have calibration just the same way the kids have calibration, but the adult calibrations are... much higher. [Laughs.]
And there's more of a range?
There's a lot of range — I try to take a light blow and give a hard blow, that way there's no question, and I try to keep my honor clean so that they don't question me. And we try to teach that to the kids, too — to take a very light blow and to strike a blow that's fair and that everyone will understand is good.
Could you explain "take a blow" and "give a blow"?
When a combatant faces off against another combatant, they're looking to strike certain parts of the body: The head and the torso, including the groin, are kills. If you strike the leg above the knee, the leg is lost, you have to stop using the leg. Some may hop, some will drop down to their knees. If you are struck outside of the bone in the shoulder, down the length of the arm to just about the wrist, you would lose the arm. So a good-calibrated blow that strikes me upon my elbow on my left arm means that I can no longer use the left arm, and to the best of my ability I will put it behind my back so that it is no longer affecting combat. And I will continue combat with the limb that remains.
So there's not really so much of a referee on these things — it's more up to the fighters.
The kids gauge the calibrations really well. Occasionally we will step in and suggest to them that they might have missed something, or that the blows are a little too hard, or that the receiving of blows is a little too picky. But to be honest, they're really good about it considering all that you're asking them to do at age 10. And the program runs from ages 6 to 17; at 17 we send them to their respective armored combat for adults or to the rapier fields with the adults, and they can no longer participate in the program.
What sort of things do you try to teach them other than just how to fight?
We teach them how to fight, but we're trying to instill in them is a sense of fair play and sportsmanship, and we try to give them some of the drama of the tournament. Just coming onto the field and being told to fight someone — that's not enough. We have to do honors. We honor the King, and the Queen, and the crowd assembled, and the person who inspires us — a lot of the time that's Mom or Dad that brought them, sometimes it's a girlfriend or a boyfriend as they get older. They honor their worthy opponent, and then they fight.
TUCHUX PT. 1
SCA people keep warning me about the Tuchux in a strange Mad Libs format — the Tuchux do X ridiculous thing, but they’re secretly all Y highbrow profession. For X, I hear:
Base their camp around the BDSM-y sci-fi series The Chronicles of Gor
Speak like cavemen
Keep naked women in cages at their camp
Stole the golf cart out from under a sentry who came into their camp without permission and drove it into a lake
and for Y:
At the first battle I attend, it’s clear who the Tuchux are, as they often walk around chanting “TUCHUX, TUCHUX, TUCHUX.” They seem to play harder than most other groups on the battlefield, and to my untrained eye they seem to be succeeding.
Their armor is also, frankly, pretty sweet, somewhere between the Cimbri, Conan the Barbarian and Mad Max. This gets them the stink-eye from many more traditional SCA people — there isn’t a historical people that dressed like the Tuchux, and they don’t bother pretending otherwise. They're all about the fighting.
FRIED RICE, PT. 1
Despite all the reminders, I let myself get so dehydrated while watching my first battle that my head is pounding. I get Chinese takeout and an enormous iced tea from the food court to try to make myself feel better. My tent is an oven, so I go try to nap in the common area, where two younger Bhakail fighters, a man and a woman, sit flopped in chairs. They appear to be almost having a good time groaning and wallowing in their post-battle bruises. I bought too much food, so I pass across my fried rice and eggroll; since each fighter has one busted arm, they make a game of helping each other shovel rice into their mouths, giggling and spilling and generally making a punch-drunk mess.
Chance Tarrant, whose SCA name is Jence Brunison but who generally just goes by Chance, has a busted elbow. Val Barr, who goes by Astrid Feilan in the SCA, moved to Bhakail two years ago from the Midrealm, has a busted shoulder. She fought the first half of the war for the Middle Kingdom, then switched allegiances halfway through to fight with Bhakail for the East in the name of balance. (Yoshi, a Bhakail fighter with a Japanese persona, sits nearby and occasionally chimes in.)
So what happened to you guys?
Chance: You go first, because your story is more awesome than mine.
Astrid: So my injury actually started on Monday in the field battle, and my unit was thrown at the castle end of the field at a unit called the Tuchux.
Oh, I saw that!
Astrid: Yeah, we were the yellow-and-white getting steamrolled by them. So after those fun shenanigans, we got sent down the field, where we were steamrolled by another Eastern fighting unit.
How are the Tuchux different from other fighters?
Astrid: The Tuchux are not actually part of the SCA, they just fight with us at Pennsic. Their style is very barbaric; they usually get themselves especially amped up on adrenaline and usually just roll through. They sometimes have a hard time taking blows. They basically pound you like a 10-pound bag of nails. It's... you know. A good time.
Which side do they fight for?
Yoshi: They're mercenaries — they do this shtick where at the beginning of the second week they show up on the field and just choose who they want to fight for. There's a few other groups that do that, but they're within the SCA; the Tuchux are their own special entity. An interesting observation is that they wear more armor now than they were when they were younger. They used to wear the bare minimum to be able to play with us, and they used to be jumping over shields like crazy people.
Yoshi: So they are a little bit older, slower and more tame now.
Astrid: Originally, they weren't even allowed to fight with us.
Chance: [Glowering.] Tuchux.
Astrid: Anyway, in the midst of this battle, I took a polearm in the shoulder twice — polearms are long sticks with a blade on the end, brought down with great force. So that jacked my shoulder up pretty well for most of Monday. I had it on ice, fought in the castle, fought on the bridge battles Tuesday, had a lovely time.
Today, however, a Midrealm polearm came down on my shoulder again, so I limped back to our lines. They're, like, 'You look like you've been run over by a truck! Look, we've got that area captured, so just go sit there and relax.' And I said OK, and I went over there, but I did not relax. I went right back into the lines. So yeah, I kept fighting. So... that's why I'm a wreck. Enter: Chance…
Chance: Yours is so much cooler than mine. [General laughter.] I got knocked over because there was a dude lying on the ground and I landed on my elbow wrong. I got back up and I hit somebody in the face, so that was a good tradeoff.
You were saying you got a duke today?
Chance: Yeah, I killed a duke today! Which is a fighter who has been king at least two times through right of combat. Which is an extremely hard thing to do. What is it — "Once a fluke, twice a duke?"
What's your favorite thing about battles?
Chance: Smashing and beating!
Astrid: It really is. This is why we're absolute wrecks, because we're stupid people—
Chance: Who like to go out and smash things and wreck themselves.
Astrid: Exactly. It's a hard job, but somebody's got to do it.
Chance: It's a righteous job.
In my sleeping bag on my second night, I realize I haven’t checked my email since arriving. At home, I check my email maybe every 15-20 minutes on an average day. But my phone is in airplane mode to save the battery, and since I haven’t been reminded by seeing anyone checking their phones, I just... forgot. I have 58 unread messages, exactly one of which is important.
THE LEGEND OF VISSEVALD, PT. 2
I track down Duke Vissevald, aka Tom Courtney, aka the legendary hero of the National Guard, as he’s waiting to teach a class on polearm technique. His wife, Duchess Mara, is waiting with him; she warns that her husband subscribes to the Irish tradition of storytelling and will talk my ear off.
So tell me the story you think I've heard about you.
[Laughs.] I was in the National Guard, and the Army had challenged us to take their outpost, they put it up on this little hill. We attacked at dawn. I scaled up the side of a cliff — not a very tall cliff! [Laughs.] But still, scaled the side of a cliff!
I saw a sentry go by, and I waited until he passed by. And then I jumped him and I clubbed him, hit him with my rubber bayonet, and he blocked, and we scrabbled in the dirt for a bit, and I picked up a stick and he picked up his stick, and I took a strike at him, and he said "That was good." [In the SCA, this is how fighters say “You got me, I’m dead!”]
And I started to rush on, and then I turned. I said, "Pardon me, why exactly did you say that was good?" And he goes, “Ugh, you wouldn't understand.” "Try me." He goes, “Well, I come from the Kingdom of Atenveldt.” So I say, "You go back to the kingdom of Atenveldt, and you tell them that you got beat at National Guard summer camp by the Prince of the East." [Laughs.] And I went on to get myself killed and blow up their command post.
That was almost exactly it! Except I heard King of the East, not Prince.
No, no, I was the Prince. But that one I told you is sort-of mostly true. [Laughs.]
Why do you think Pennsic has so many of those sort-of mostly true stories?
Homo sapiens like to separate into “us” and “them.” When you're one of us, you wanna have someone heroic amongst you, so that us is a worthwhile thing to be, right? And so people get put up on pedestals — and knocked down, too, once they're there and don't meet expectations.
But I think that many, many subcultures have their sort of apocryphal stories about "Oh, look at how great that guy was," with the subtle implication that you can be that great, too. [Laughs.] That’s what I think is going on there.
CASA BARDICCI, PT. 2
Chris Gilman, showing me around the luxurious second-floor bedroom at Casa Bardicci, reaches up and grabs a silver crown from where it’s sitting on a faux-wood ceiling beam. He asks if I’m a True Blood fan. I haven’t seen it since the first season. “Well, anyway, this was Eric’s Viking crown,” he says, looking the tiniest bit disappointed.
So what do you do when you’re not at Pennsic?
I’ve done motion-picture props and makeup and costumes for the past 30 years. Now I've transitioned into making space suits for the commercial space industry. So for Newspace, ExCorps, SpaceEx, I've worked with Virgin Galactic.
My father was in the aerospace business in New England, my mother was a librarian, and their hobby was professional auto racing. So, growing up, I got an engineering education and didn't even realize it.
You sound like you have a really, really interesting family! [Laughs.]
I have two brothers; one works for Disney, Imagineering, where they build the amusement parks; my wife I met in Finland, she's now principal designer at Disney for their graphics department. And my other brother lives in Connecticut and Massachussetts, and is a freelance artist, sculptor, architect — does a variety of creative things.
I got into the motion picture industry because when the Apollo space program ended, my father went from 40 employees to about eight — there was no work. And I thought, “Maybe I want a job where Congress can't put me out of business.” I was friends with Paul Newman and Jim Brolin through auto racing; they didn't necessarily open doors, but they let me know that doors were open, you could just do it if you wanted to do it.
So I went out to L.A., started work, been there for 30-plus years, started my own business in 1986, won an Academy Award in 1991 for the development of a cool-suit system, a heating and cooling garment for underneath creature suits. It was used on Predator, Hook, Outbreak... Dustin Hoffman now, if he's got any sort of heavy-wardrobe job, he won't do a show without it. He says, "I get really cranky when I get hot!"
Could you tell me about these paintings on the wall?
Having spent so many years in the film industry, I thought, "Well, people [at Pennsic] know I'm in the movies. I need a little nod to that." So I found some period paintings online where people had Photoshopped in various movie stars. And my wife, being a graphic designer, did a couple for me.
These are all people I've worked with within the film industry. We have behind me a self-portrait of Albrecht Dürer, but it's Nicholas Cage. Because Nicholas Cage happens to look very much like Albrecht Dürer. And we have one of the Holbeins over the fireplace — it might actually be Henry VIII. But it's Sean Connery. (I worked with Sean Connery on The Rock, and I worked with Nicholas Cage on The Rock and Ghost Rider.)
[Walks across the room.] And over here we have Natalie Portman and Cameron Diaz — I worked on her first film, The Mask. Johnny Depp over here, and then Al Pacino. (Al Pacino and I have the same birthday, so when we were doing Looking for Richard, we got to celebrate our birthday together, that was fun.) And another Natalie Portman over here.[Moves to the stairway.] And then in the hall we have Robert Duvall, Robert De Niro, Angelina Jolie… and Yoda, done as a Da Vinci drawing.
One of my guys in the shop knew the theme, and said, "You worked with Yoda!" It's technically true, because I was actually in Indian in the Cupboard as the knight in armor, and that was directed by Frank Oz, the voice and puppeteer of Yoda.
Wait, you were the knight in Indian in the Cupboard?
Yes, I was.
No way! Was that related to SCA stuff?
Well, I'm a SAG actor — which usually means that you're working at a restaurant. [Laughs.] But having a rental company for motion-picture costumes, people come in to rent a lot of specific costumes, and some of them are actually built to fit me.
So if you've seen the movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang with Val Kilmer, I was Protocop, because we built that robot to fit me. The robot that… Melody, I think it is? [It's actually Harmony.] … scares off the balcony with a baseball bat.
The funny thing about that scene — I never got to interact with the prop master or most of the people, I just showed up, met with the director and the actress, we did our scene, that was it. When the movie came out, I saw that she comes out of the bedroom with a bat that has "Wonder Girl" on it, which is a parody of the "Wonder Boy" bat from The Natural with Robert Redford. Nobody, as far as I know, on the set knew that I made Wonder Boy! Nobody knew that I was being attacked with a parody of my own prop! [Laughs.] What a small world!
FRIED RICE PT. 2
The Baron of Bhakail, Tiarna Mael Eoin mac Echuid, comes to sit with me and the two bruised, fried-rice-spattered fighters, Chance and Astrid.
So, wait, who was fighting whom today again?
Chance: This war was created by the Midrealm king—
Astrid: Cariadoc of the Bow—
Chance: —Yeah, OK. And he challenged the East Kingdom to a war.
Astrid: They laughed at him—
Chance: Yeah, they laughed at him, and then the same king, right—
Astrid: Cariadoc of the Bow moved to the East, and he won the crown in the East Kingdom. And he goes, “Oh, hey! Look at this challenge given to us by the Midrealm! We must answer this in kind!” And he challenges the Midrealm to the war that he started. And that's how Pennsic started. Pennsic is always Middle vs. East with different alliances.
Baron: Each year the alliances shift, so it depends on who's king at the time, who's prince at the time. There are very few alliances that are traditional enough that they can't shift. So sometimes you'll see a PR schmoozing campaign, or "We'll come fight in your war if you'll come fight in ours..." All year is really preparation for the next Pennsic.
Is it usually pretty evenly balanced?
Astrid: Sometimes—not always.
Baron: Sometimes if they set up a field battle and it's really lopsided, they'll send various households over to the other side to even it up.
It seems like it could easily become not that fun.
Baron: If it's really lopsided, it can actually be really fun for the side with fewer members, because they come back into camp telling all these stories about how they were so outnumbered and they went out and killed eight people themselves.
"No shit, there I was," right?
I don’t know how Lynn Kitzman gets anywhere at Pennsic — she’s tricked out her mobility scooter to look like a horse and carriage, and it’s so completely awesome that people are constantly stopping her to ask questions and take pictures. I’m no exception.
So how did you make this amazing thing?
It took about a year; I did it in parts, because I had to think on every single thing, each little piece. I designed the canopy first, you can see that it has pleats back here to fit. It has a little sunshade that goes up and down —
— and it has my little fan here in the background.
The next year I finished my rear end. [The scooter] kind of has a basket back there, so I built my rear end on top of the basket — [waggles eyebrows] so I have storage in my rear!
[Bursts out laughing.]
[Gestures at the horse's head.] I have a basket up front, and I was able to build a frame around that and keep it really light. It's foam that's glued together, and google images for the horse breed you want. You just take your turkey carver out and you carve, you look at it, you carve, you get the little snips out and carve some more. Made the mane, made the ears.
I took my time with it. I didn't do anything until I knew it was going to look good. You'll notice he has a bridle but he doesn't have eyes?
Ah, yes! That's kind of creepy!
That's because I wasn't quite sure what to do with his eyes. But since then I've found a taxidermist that sold me glass eyes for this breed of horse, and then I'm going to use the black suede for the eyelids and sew in eyelashes. And next year, I'm going to come back with sound effects.
Oh my god, really?
Yeah, yeah! Custom horns — I'm going to have a whinny, a neigh, a trot, a gallop, a canter... and a replacement for my whoopee cushion. I'm going to have a control panel down here with buttons where I can hit all of the sound effects. And this year I added the hay in the mouth, too... You keep thinking of more little things you can do with the horse each time.
Sometimes I'll come down here [to the food court] and they'll have chalk that says "horse parking only." One year, they took pancakes that had gotten burned and turned it into a big horse pile and stuck it behind my horse and then made this huge deal of getting a big shovel and going behind my horse and shoveling up the horse poop, accusing my horse of dropping a load in front of their food court.
[Laughing.] How many years have you been coming to Pennsic?
Seven. This took a while, but it's worth it. Because everyone who looks at me laughs and smiles. They're all laughing at me. And some people who work with handicapped people took pictures, and I showed them how to make it so they could go out and play, too!
Are you going to have a joust if somebody else shows up with one next year?
...No. No. They had a medieval pinwheel I was thinking of putting on the front of a jousting stick, though. I don't have a very strong scooter, I have a three-wheel rather than a four wheel, so I don't have the stability. If I had a four-wheel scooter, I'd be able to do more with it.
Yeah, four-wheel drive, I could really — [Makes an intimidating jousting face, then laughs.]
Katie Schmidt, 20, is dressed in completely normal clothes, manning the ice-cream stand at the barn.
So how many years have you worked here?
This is the fourth year I've worked here.
And is that all summer, or just for Pennsic?
I just work here for the two weeks during Pennsic.
How’d you end up with this job?
Actually, my neighbor runs the food for all of Cooper's Lake, so she got me into it, asked if I wanted to help out.
This is the biggest event that Cooper’s Lake has?
Oh yeah. This is the biggest one they have all summer.
So what’s it like?
It’s pretty crazy. I look forward to it cause I think it's fun — except sometimes it gets really busy and that's not as much fun. But, yeah, throughout the summer I look forward to working here.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve seen working Pennsic?
There's one guy who's covered head to foot in tattoos, and he only wears a loincloth, but he's probably the friendliest guy I've ever met — he's so nice and really talkative!
Are Pennsic people good tippers?
Oh, yeah, they're pretty good tippers!
Duke Finnvar is the real-life husband of Queen Ragni of Ealdormere, the kingdom that encompasses most of Ontario. He’s not king right now, though he’s been involved with the SCA since its earliest years and, like Cariadoc, has served as king of both the Middle and East kingdoms.
Since being king or queen of an SCA kingdom is kind of an administrative job that comes with a crown, royal partnerships are often based in friendship or a good working relationship rather than a romantic partnership. This is the case in Ealdormere — the king, Siegfried, has got to be 30 years Queen Ragni's junior, though the queen still participates in thrown-weapons competitions.
In the mundane world, Duke Finnvarr is a history professor, and since I've expressed such an interest in Pennsic legends, I've been advised to track him down, as he’s recently started a project collecting and documenting them. To find him, I'm told, just find the queen — he’s always at her side. When I finally locate Her Majesty’s entourage at their red royal pavilion by the battlefield, she lets me borrow her husband for a few minutes.
How many years have you been to Pennsic?
I've been to all of them. And I fought in the first 40.
How has it changed since the first one?
The first one was a pretty thrown-together battle between the two closest kingdoms — the one in Ohio and Michigan and Indiana and Chicago vs. the one in New York and the East Coast area. They were the only two Society kingdoms close enough to have a war.
It was maybe 100 people total at a very primitive campsite; it was only a weekend long. But it was more fighters in one spot than anyone had seen, and people were anxious to do it again afterwards.
100 total on the battlefield, or—
100 people total, including non-fighters.
How long did it take to go from 100 to 1000?
Maybe 8-10 years?
And from 1000 to 10,000?
Another 8-10 years, maybe. It grew very dramatically, I think, in the 1990s. Maybe even in the late 1980s. It started in 1972.
So when was Cooper’s Lake established as the site?
Pennsic 6 we were on this site. It's a perfect site for us. People love to be here, they tend to have campsites in the same spots year after year, you've seen the road signs — those roads have been around for 30 years, some of ‘em.
I've noticed a few of them are on Google Maps.
[Laughs.] Oh, that's good! It’s kind of like a city that we have here, a tent city. Very many things happen that don't have anything directly to do with fighting.
One story I have about this feeling of the importance of the yearly gathering: I know someone who had a Japanese persona who couldn't make it to one of the early Pennsics, like, 7 or 8. I was walking down by the swamp along the road, and there was a little shrine attached to a tree. I asked, “What is that?” Someone says, “Sir Yoshia can't make it this year, so we erected a shrine for him.” That's the Pennsic spirit.
I hear you’ve been collecting Pennsic legends.
I'm interested in lots of different kinds of stories that tell us about what people do in society, and why they're doing it.
I keep hearing these kind of silly things about the Tuchux.
I've heard those same stories from the beginning. They're a rather well-established people who originally were part of a martial arts school in the Pittsburgh area. They came in as a group when Pennsic was quite new, but they've never completely integrated — they chose not to be integrated into the culture. They're not really members of the Society.
Why did you start collecting legends?
In real life, I'm a historian, so early on I started writing histories of the early Middle Kingdom, which I was part of at that time. Recently, somebody came and said, “We're coming up to the 50th anniversary of the Society [in 2016], and we're collecting all the Kingdom histories, and we'd like to do something overall.” So I got volunteered. And gladly so!
What I wanted to do, and what I've succeeded in doing so far, is keeping it short, not trying to discuss 50 years of Society history except in the broadest strokes — turning points and important things that happened. And then some lighthearted stories and sidebars that say, "This is what is common to all of us.”
TUCHUX PT. 2
I run into the Tuchux as they’re hosting an extremely sincere tourney to raise money for children’s cancer research; it’s fast-moving and rough and very fun to watch. Afterward, I talk to Thorvald and Rattie Weretiger. Having recently been reminded of its existence, I start the conversation off with a dumb True Blood joke about their last name, which lands with a thud. I turn bright red, positive that these two people dressed as barbarians think I'm extremely stupid.
But Thorvald and Rattie are two of the nicest and most scrupulously polite people I meet at Pennsic, and they try to make me feel less embarrassed. (For this conversation, know that Tuchux colloquially refer to their men as dogs and their women as wenches.)
Rattie: We started out with breast cancer and recently switched over to children's cancer, because there's a lot of organizations that do breast cancer tournaments.
Thorvald: We wanted to make sure another equally worthy cause got… you know, we could help ‘em out.
How long have the Tuchux been coming to Pennsic?
Thorvald: We were here before Pennsic.
Rattie: Tuchux came first, then SCA found this place — but, officially, probably about 40 years?
Thorvald: Yeah, we've been here at Cooper's Lake for 40 years.
Rattie: Tuchux are local. We were having events here first, and then some SCA people started having events here, and then they started having Pennsic here.
What's the relationship you have with the SCA?
Thorvald: We all carry an SCA membership so that we can fight. So we've all been authorized and checked out; we've got our fighter authorization card that says we're safe and we know what we're doing. So while we're here, we follow the SCA rules.
Rattie: But as a group, we're mercenaries. Each side will bid on our dogs to fight for them and will pay in rattan or jewelry for wenches, or some other price that our leader agrees upon with their leadership.
Thorvald: One year, we fighters all got hickory-smoked salt... oh man, so good.
Rattie: It's a year to year thing. We don't belong to any one kingdom, we don't belong to any one group and so each year we don't declare until the very beginning of war week. So up until then, it's up to them to come up with the best price.
So I've heard a lot of stories about the Tuchux in the few days I've been here — oh, you're laughing already? What do you think I've heard?
Thorvald: [Laughing.] I can only imagine the stories about us.
There's this one form that keeps coming up: That the Tuchux do all this depraved stuff, but are secretly brain surgeons or lawyers or some other really fancy profession.
Rattie: We come from all walks of life. We have some lawyers—
Thorvald: And we got a doctor.
Rattie: —we have doctors, we have cancer researchers, we have people that work at McDonald's, we have people who work at the airport.
[Thorvald raises his hand.]
Rattie: We come from a mix of backgrounds, just like everybody else. But every game has to have its bogeymen. And for a lot of the SCA, we are the bogeymen. They tell their kids if they're not good, they're gonna drop them off at the Tuchux camp. Which is fine, because we tell our kids if they're not good, we're going to drop them off in SCA-town.
FRIARS, PT. 1
Around "oh-dark-thirty," which is the term people use for “after it’s actually dark,” a group of five people in hooded friar’s robes are walking around the merchant area singing the Pie Iesu Domine / Dona Eis Requiem chant that's primarily recognizable from a Monty Python bit.
Instead of smacking themselves in the forehead to the beat, the lead friar clangs a frying pan. They intermittently stop and shout “The end is nigh! You have two days!” It's a reference to it being the Thursday of War Week; Pennsic's almost over. Friar Jacob, who’s maybe in his 50s, and Friar Brian, who’s in his late 20s, came up with the idea; they chat with me about it while the three younger friars take a load off.
How long have you been wandering around doing this?
Friar Jacob: This is the first time we've done this. Almost an hour now?
Friar Brian: We made it from the start of the food court all the way around the back end past the merchants, stopped at a couple encampments where there was a crowd, gave them a chuckle, moved on.
Do most people get the reference?
Friar Jacob: Everyone gets a chuckle ... this whole thing we're doing here [gestures around at Pennsic in general] ends in two days... that's the joke. “The end is nigh, you have two days.” It's a little Monty Python, a little tongue in cheek. ... Oh man, we are never going to live this down! [Laughs.]
What’s up with the frying pan?
Friar Jacob: I use it defensively when I fight rapier, like a shield.
Friar Brian: He's not kidding.
This the first year you've gone around doing this?
Friar Jacob: I met the good gentleman, the idea grew, we started looking around for other friars.
Friar Brian: I met this gentleman as well [points at a third young man whose persona is actually a friar]; this [gestures at an even younger friar] is one of my camp members, and he met her [on closer inspection, the shortest friar appears to be a teenage girl] at the Classic. And so I went, "OK, does anybody fit my size? Great. Dozen cloaks, let's go!"
So you had enough robes for everybody?
Friar Brian: No, [Friar Jacob’s] is his — I'm Friar Brian, [gestures at the third man] he's really doing a clergy member, [gestures at his campmate and the teen-girl friar] those two aren't.
Teen-girl friar: [Cheerfully.] I'm a godless heathen!
What's it like having a clergy persona here? I get the idea that many people at Pennsic are, like she said, godless heathens.
Friar Jacob: Personally, I do a nonthreatening, friendly kind of thing, kind of a Friar Tuck. It's good for tongue in cheek. Any prayers I do in Latin are not actual, real prayers — for example, if someone asks me for absolution on the field, I'll tell them “Sempre vivere ad mori conatur,” which is Groucho Marx in Latin: "Live Forever, Die Trying."
Friar Brian: I thought, well, in the Middle Ages, the most political thing was the clergy. In the SCA, it is the least political thing to be. So I said, I love it! Let's do Friar Brian!
Are any of you religious in the mundane world?
Friar Brian: I was technically raised Catholic, but they stopped after a while; so, like my sister, we both got curious again.
Friar Jacob: I personally consider myself a spiritual person, I seek wisdom wherever I can.
Has anybody had a weird reaction to you?
Friar Jacob: Occasionally we get questions from people of other faiths, like [gives side-eye] "Whaddya doin’." [Puts hands up in mock surrender.] "Just playin'!" And then they're, like, "Oh, OK." We're not here to preach and bang people on the head with a frying pan or anything.
Friar Brian: The classic question I get is whether you’re here to convert them. [Goes into Scottish accent for reasons unclear to me.] So I know the lad's Pagan. I look at him and go, "I'm here to do goodly works. If they should follow me, that is their free will.”
Friar Jacob: On the rapier field, somebody once asked, “What is a friar doing with a sword?" My response was, "All good shepherds need to protect their flock."
Friar Brian: It’s all about the robes, though. Robes are great. It’s really easy to get dressed! Like, what am I wearing to the battlefield?
Whole table: Robes!
Friar Brian: What am I wearing to court?
Whole table: Robes!
Friar Brian: What am I wearing to the party?
Whole table: Robes!
Later that night, I realize that I’m walking around alone in complete darkness, and I hadn’t even noticed it. Flashlights aren’t forbidden here, but people tend not to bother with them for standard walking around at night, or they find ones that are dim and look like candles. There’s little artificial light around Pennsic at night, and what there is tends to come from torches or dim, orange-tinted solar lights. It’s hard to describe the feeling I get from this, but the closest word is probably “healthy.”
THE GYPSY DINER, PT. 1
Robin Caputo, a big, cheery woman in her 30s, has been to Pennsic 12 times, and has been running the informal Gypsy Diner out of her camp in the Bog for six. I stop by one evening as she and her crew are doing prep work for their last night of being open.
I hear that you make free grilled cheese for anyone who walks by.
I do! I make a lot of things. I make grilled cheese, I make soups, I make stews, I make pretty much anything that is going to help. … This year we're at 103 loaves of bread. And you get 12 sandwiches out of a loaf, so that’s... [calculates astonishingly quickly] 1236 grilled cheese sandwiches served!
How did you start doing that?
When we first came to Pennsic, we were poor. We barely had enough to get in the door. But people really took care of us. They gave us food; when our tent crapped out, they gave us a new tent.
When we got to a point where we were better off and we could give back, we decided, “Hey, we're down in the Bog, people are stumbling around drunk. What they really need is food in their stomachs to get them through the night a little bit better.”
We're, like, “OK: grilled cheese.” We threw a thousand dollars at it, and made a promise to each other that this thousand dollars was going to be it; we can't afford to do this every year. But we'll put down a tip jar, and whatever we take in that year, we'll use that money to fund the following year. We've never put another dime in and it's gotten bigger every year.
How big has it been this year?
This is our second year at this particular campsite [at a key intersection between the lake and the Serengeti], and we are never, ever, ever leaving! [Laughs.] It really allowed us to open it up to a huge number of people. Last year it was big — this year it exploded. [Laughs.] It's a couple hundred a night. We do it probably 4-5 nights during the war, depending on what people are doing and how drunk I get. [Laughs.]
That’s a ton of food!
I've got a separate chest freezer because during the year — I don't have a lot of money to spend on this stuff, so when I see a great sale on chuck roast or chicken breast, I buy a whole bunch, vacuum seal it, and put it in the Pennsic freezer. I'm here zero night, the first night of Pennsic, and I bring a certain amount of meat with me. Then I have friends who stop by my house to pick things up on the way here. There are coolers with lists in the freezer — "you take bag A, you take bag B." And so, throughout the war, I get deliveries of frozen meat, so it's always fresh and I don't have to buy it here. And that lets me stretch the dollar a little bit more.
It doesn’t look like you’re making grilled cheese tonight.
So this is very unusual, but it's Empty the Cooler Night. Tonight we have chili, we're going to have loaded mashed potatoes with bacon and cheese and sour cream, home fries with sausage and cheese and onions — that'll come out later — and then I've got the oven going because I've got meatballs.
Then after that, when it gets really quiet and all of my prep crew is here and it's four in the morning and we're down to friends and family, we're going to be doing chicken maple sausage dipped in pancake batter and deep fried, drizzled with maple syrup.
And then, because this is the last night and frankly I don't often have a lot of time to do it anymore, for my VIPs I do the grilled cheese. [Laughs.]
WOLGEMUT, PT. 1
The band Wolgemut (old German for “to be in a good mood”) has been strolling all over Pennsic — two German bagpipes, three drums and a shawm playing high-energy music in different spots for short periods of time. When they’re on a break, one of the drummers mentions that he’s actually from Philadelphia himself; he has a degree in jazz percussion from Temple and lives in South Philly. When he’s playing with Wolgemut, he goes by Albrecht; in South Philly, his name is Michael Huebner.
How did you end up in a band with people who aren't from Philly?
I was doing my job in South Philly one day and I ran into some people saying, "We need a drummer for a Renaissance festival in Michigan!" I'd never heard of a Renaissance festival or anything, but I said, "OK! I can do that." And I went to work at the Renaissance festival in Michigan. Then I met him [gestures at the man with the shawm, who’s chatting with fans], Michael Gartner, the music director, about seven years ago, and it was a good gig opportunity.
Do you play in any Philly bands?
No, not in a while.
So how often does this band play?
We perform mostly between February and November, mostly at Renaissance fairs around the country. There's more or less a Renaissance fair in every major market in the country where the weather is nice. So this year, we did Ft. Lauderdale, we did Southern California, we did Muskogie, Oklahoma, we did Bristol, Wisconsin just north of Chicago, and we're doing the Renaissance festival just north of New York City.
Damn, how many weekends a year are you on the road?
As many as we can get! [Laughs.]
Bagpiper Christopher Klecka: It's between eight and 10, usually.
How do you practice if you're all from different cities?
Klecka: Wherever we work is where we live.
When we work at a Renn fair we can show up a few days early and just rehearse there on the site. We can rent a rehearsal space somewhere... we've all been playing together as this configuration for five years, so... we pretty much have it down at this point.
I feel like I've heard you guys over the hill or around the corner, like, five dozen times over the last few days. How many times do you play per day?
Well, there is another bagpipe band here. But we try to keep our sets not too long because when we play over at the marketplace we don't wanna create too much of a crowd, it doesn't allow the vendors to do what they do, sell stuff. We'll generally play a five [minute set] 6-10 times a day in the marketplace, and then we get hired for private parties and stuff.
I see them later that night playing Casa Bardicci's Hoity-Toity Party, to which I scored an invite.
Ishta’s Nigerian garb and huge walking stick stand out from the usual European and Middle Eastern outfits. It’s her first Pennsic, and she’s camping in singles — i.e., not with a larger group, just her tent slotted into whatever corner of Cooper’s Lake isn’t taken up by big encampments. This is what I planned on doing before a friend of a friend introduced me to the extremely gracious Bhakail people. I silently bless her every time I use Bhakail’s common area, campfire, tap sinks, kitchen tent, hot and cold showers, glow-in-the-dark bocce set or marshmallow-roasting skewers, not to mention every time someone asks how I’m doing, explains something confusing, helps me lace one of my impossible dresses, points me at something I should go see, pours me a drink or invites me over for a meal.
Ishta’s only here for four days this year, but says that next year she’s determined to bring friends, set up her own household and stay from the full two weeks.
You say that with a lot of conviction. What was the experience this time that's really made you determined to come the full two weeks next year?
Just getting out and meeting people — normally I'm very shy. I did pageantry growing up, so I very much like that the SCA has a sense of pageantry to it, there's royalty here, there's a sense of camaraderie.
And everyone here is... obscenely polite. [Laughs.] And it's... it's a good experience for someone like me, because in the real world I don't always get a lot of that polite behavior. I'm not as talkative as one might imagine. But here I can very easily step into my persona and just go with it. It's easy to be yourself when you're not being yourself, you know?
Truth. Who's your persona?
I am still very much developing it; however, I am Nigerian in persona. By way of Ohio. [Laughs.] So I have been developing my outfits, working toward beginning a household, and studying the history and the culture — that is very much something that appeals to me about the SCA. And Pennsic is the place to do it; you can find a little bit of everything here. There are over 10,000 people at this one event, so it's nearly impossible for someone like me, who camps in singles, not to meet someone interesting to speak with. And people will stop you, compliment you, have a conversation with you... it's home!
Have you run into any other people whose personas are Nigerian?
Next year, my Nigerian crew will be with me, mark my words! I haven't decided if we're going to be a fighter or a lover household. However, a household we will be! I’ve got at least five people I’m going to drag to Pennsic next year, whether they like it or not!
[Laughs.] Is that how you start a household, just get friends to come camp with you and keep coming back? I actually don’t know.
You drag them kicking and screaming; you wheedle them and you needle them. In my case, I figure I’ve got a whole year to convince everyone.
NAKED SPAGHETTI DINNER, PT. 1
OK, please tell me about Naked Spaghetti Dinner.
Naked Spaghetti Dinner is done by a camp in the Bog. A bunch of people get together and make an amazing spaghetti dinner, meatballs included, and you're required, once you walk in the door, to take your clothes off, sit down and eat spaghetti. There is fire. There is fire spinning. There is lots of alcohol and an open bar.
And you experienced this in what context?
I did not know Naked Spaghetti Dinner was even going to happen when I was invited to this camp. (It’s my first year.) I came in thinking it was maybe a euphemism for something. But it was just being naked and having spaghetti.
At what point did you realize that it was real?
Well, I'm a cook, so the chef was a little under pressure. He got to the point where he was, like, “This isn't going to be ready in time.” So I jumped in and said, “I got this, you do what you gotta do.” So everyone else got naked; I walked out with the finishing food and everyone was naked. They all pointed at me and said, “You still have your pants on!” So I said, “Fine, when in Rome,” dropped my pants, sat down, and had spaghetti.
It was good spaghetti?
It was excellent spaghetti!
WOLGEMUT, PT. 2
One of Wolgemut’s drummers has been wearing a Santa hat at every performance I’ve seen.
I've been wondering this for a couple days — what's with the hat?
I'm just being added in; they needed a substitute at Maryland Renn fair, so I kind of talked them into letting me play a couple years ago, and now they'll let me sit in from time to time. So I'm going to help them out when they need a substitute. But I do Santa — I'm the official Santa for the Flyers.
Shut up. Oh my god, please tell me about being the official Santa for the Flyers.
[General laughter from band.] It's a blast!
[Laughing.] What do you do?
I sit down underneath the Christmas tree and I welcome people coming in; sometimes they have pictures taken with me. Favorite picture last year was Bernie Parent on the right knee, Gary Dornhoefer on the left knee, and Bob Kelly standing behind me. And then Brian Propp wanting to come in and get a picture taken with me very quickly, so I'm now friends with Brian on Facebook. [Laughs.] If you ever need a Santa, I do travel. I did the Liberty Place tree lighting last year.
How does doing Renn fests feel different from being Santa?
Well, I am Santa here. [Points to his hat.] I have the children coming up and calling for Santa and... just, I'm Santa. It's OK, I can be an Old World Santa. This is not my traditional red suit.
Hopefully not scary Russian Santa.
No, no no no no no. No. I just — I enjoy the children. I taught music for 35 years in the public schools, and thought I had the best job in the world. And then I retired and became Santa, and now I do have the best job in the world. And I get to hang out with these guys and play.
It looks really fun, not gonna lie.
It is a lot of fun. These guys are absolutely fantastic musicians.
What's your primary instrument?
Percussion. I’m timpanist with the Bay Atlantic Symphony over in South Jersey.
Nice! I played timpani, too! Timpanists knuckle up!
RICKROLL, PT. 1
Without a cell phone, everything feels simultaneously more ephemeral and more locked-in, and, like the lack of artificial lights, it's an oddly healthy feeling. If you want to hang out with someone, you arrange to meet at a definite future time and place, and you remember to show up. If you miss something, it’s gone forever.
I meet a woman who tells me that she and some friends have hired a bard to serenade a friend’s camp, then break into a harp rendition of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” halfway through. She invites me to come by her camp at 6:15 to witness this Medieval Rickrolling. I write down her name and camp on my wrist.
Later, when it’s time to start thinking about heading over, I find that I’ve sweated so much that the words have completely vanished. This is the first time in years that I am positive the information I need is not accessible via my iPhone, so I don't feel obligated to stress out or frantically try to look it up. I just shrug, and accept that it's beyond my control and I will miss it. It's shocking how good it feels.
RICKROLL, PT. 2
In the first few hours this piece is up, someone emails me a link to a video of the rickrolling, so things are maybe less ephemeral than I thought.
FRIARS, PT. 2
Friar Brian pulls out a plastic bottle of lemon mead and pours me a healthy glass, telling me it's based on a Viking recipe. It is shockingly sweet stuff, and I make a crack about Vikings drinking like a 40-year-old aunt at the Jersey Shore before it’s clear that this is a special batch of mead he brewed for Pennsic himself.
How far in advance do you have to brew mead for Pennsic?
Friar Brian: It depends on how tasty you want to make it. It can be as short as a month, but you really want to go two to six months. One year, they forgot about a bottle, and next year brought out a two-year-old bottle of lemon mead. It was so gorgeous.
Friar Jacob: Bottles of mead as gifts around here are like gold.
Friar Brian: Oh, yes. Two finished gallons of mead cost us about $200 to create.
What goes into that?
Friar Brian: We use 60 pounds of honey to make it... we try to use recipes from the Middle Ages, we try to recreate how it was done back then.
Friar Jacob: Some people go out and find wild bees’ nests and only use that.
Sixty pounds of wild honey? That would take all year!
Friar Jacob: Some people will do it! I know a guy in Florida who brews so much that he labels his stock in years. One year at a big celebration he actually had a gargoyle fountain that spat mead, and you'd just walk up with your cup and fill it.
So, wait, you've tried mead made with wild honey — could you tell the difference?
Friar Jacob: My palate's not that educated. All I know is that I like mead.
All kinds of mead?
Friar Jacob: No — if you use the French style, which is wine-based, you get this wine-tasting thing. It's awful, and you can find it in most stores currently. If you do it with beer yeast — I don't want to tell you which one — it becomes this wonderful thing. If you just drop a few lemons in, it becomes the candied lemon you just tasted.
It's really good! Hey, what proof is this?
Friar Brian: I wouldn't know!
Friar Jacob: Don't know, don’t care!
THE GYPSY DINER, PT. 2
Later, I run into a group of four people in their mid-20s from Delaware who are also here for the first time, and I join them in party-hopping until, in the wee hours of the morning, three of them are showing signs of having had way too much to drink. The woman in the group wants to go to bed at their camp way out in the Swamp, but doesn’t seem able to make the 15-minute walk on her own. Her maybe-boyfriend, a giant man, doesn’t want to go home yet. They get into a fight. I suddenly have an idea.
I enlist the aid of the slightly more sober guy, and together we herd the very drunk people to the Gypsy Diner, which is about halfway back to their camp. The mashed potatoes are exactly as delicious as they looked when I stopped by a few hours ago. The Gypsy Diner seems to have exactly the effect its operator intended — the food does seem to pull the Delawareans out of the danger zone, and we can sit down and get off our feet for a few minutes after the long walk.
The giant man expresses his thanks by palming the top of my head like a basketball. The drunk lady hugs me enthusiastically and declares that I am her best friend. As I head home for the night, walking through the dark woods without a flashlight, I realize that I will almost certainly never run into the Delawareans again.
The term for the many entrepreneurial kids who sell papers, deliver ice and do other chores around Pennsic for cash is “urchins.” One morning, two sisters are walking around selling the camp newspaper, the Pennsic Independent, for $1.25; most people seem to pay $2 and let the kids keep the change. 1 is blond, talkative, adorable and maybe seven; she’s doing the traditional newsboy holler and has that missing-teeth Elmer Fudd voice going on. 2 is dark-haired, quieter and looks about 12; she’s carrying the papers and money. They talk over one another.
So what are you girls doing?
1. We're selling newspapers for the Pennsic Independent, and the only money we get from it is ten cents per paper—
2. And tips.
1. —and tips that we get.
How did you start being newsgirls?
1. We had to sign a few papers, and so did our parents. We're trying to pay off an ice wagon for running ice.
Is that a better hustle?
2. We paid off —
1. A hundred dollars!
2. —more than two thirds of it. We're planning on paying off the rest of it throughout the year. So we'll have some spending money at Pennsic, too.
1. Two months is all we need.
So with the ice wagon, do you guys do that too?
2. Yeah, we run ice—
1. My older sister does.
2. —and trash to the dumpster—
1. —and coffee.
Coffee's a good one.
2. We'll ask everyone in our camp—
1. And some merchants.
2. —and some merchants, and get them coffee.
So how long have you been newsgirls?
2. Just this event, so a week-ish.
And how far do you go?
1 & 2. Um—
1. Over there at the gate at the caution tape, that is one end of our route, and we can take a turn there—
2. —to the end of that road where it turns again.
How long do you usually sell papers in the morning?
2. Till noon-ish?
1. Yeah, a few hours, from about 9:30 to noon?
You've got a good holler going.
1. Yes, um, at first when I didn't know how to do it properly I almost lost my voice.
2. Apparently you're supposed to use your diaphragm.
Yeah! Someone must be a singer over there.
1. Lemonade helps.
Would you mind showing me how you do your holler from the diaphragm?
1. PENN-sic IN-de-PEN-dent! A DOLL-ar TWEN-ty FI-IVE!
1. It's not as loud as usual.
It sounds really good! Do you guys trade off?
2. Not really. I'm a very quiet person, so I just usually hand them out.
1. You try doing it! [Nudges her sister.]
2. [Shakes her head.]
OK, cool; thanks, girls! Can I get your first names?
1. Rosie and—
Did you get to pick your names?
1 & 2. No—
2. But we are allowed to change them if we want, because we've been in the SCA our whole lives.
Oh, so you got your SCA names as babies?
2. We're allowed to change them if we want.
1. But my older sister chose hers.
She changed it?
1. She's changing—
2. Mmm, not really.
1. Yes she is!
1 & 2. [Brief argument.]
1. Anyway, she wanted to be Cinderella, but Mom said ‘No, that's not a period name,” and so she was Aschenputtel, which is Cinderella in German. And she's changing it now to Ascha because she's 15.
Thanks, ladies! I’ll let you get back to your work.
1. [Runs after me a few seconds later.] You forgot your newspaper!
NAKED SPAGHETTI DINNER, PT. 2
The next morning at breakfast, I tell Suba that I met someone who had just attended a Naked Spaghetti Dinner. “Naked Spaghetti Dinner?” she says. “I thought that was just a myth!”
THE KING WHO DECLARED WAR ON HIMSELF AND LOST, PT. 2
Duke Cariadoc of the Bow, the King who supposedly declared war on himself and lost, has long been head of a camp called Enchanted Ground, where everyone stays in persona as much as possible. There’s a golden rope around the perimeter, with a sign reading “Gentles: Within these bounds the twentieth Century does not exist. You are welcome to join us. We only ask that you restrict your conversation to topics suitable to your persona.” Cariadoc doesn’t even wear his glasses inside the rope, though others do.
I’m not sure how to handle trying to interview Cariadoc within these rules, so I keep putting off trying to talk to him. On the last night of Pennsic, I finally stop by one of Enchanted Ground's storytelling circles that I’ve been told happens every night at oh-dark-thirty.
Maybe a dozen people sit on carpets around a fire. Cariadoc sits on a low chair. I stand awkwardly at a gap in the golden rope until I’m noticed and invited to join them. After I’ve taken a seat around the fire, Cariadoc asks if I have a story I would like to share with the circle. I realize that I don’t think I could tell a single story well without googling it first, and I mumble something about not being very well-spoken and pass.
The Duke is by far the best storyteller; he sounds a bit like Patton Oswalt in timbre, cadence and confidence. Cariadoc is Muslim, and most of the stories he tells while I’m there touch on Islam. He recites a few nested stories from the Tutinama, or "Tales of a Parrot," a set of stories from 14th-century Persia that’s sort of like 1001 Nights, but with a talking parrot that can recite the Quran instead of Scheherazade.
The stories are unfamiliar, but in a way I enjoy. I listen until I’m too sleepy to think about interviewing anybody, thank the group for their hospitality and excuse myself to bed.
THE KING WHO DECLARED WAR ON HIMSELF AND LOST, PT. 3
The next morning is Saturday, and most people are starting to pack up, ditching their garb for modern clothes as they disassemble their tents. Some people have already headed out, leaving large, tent-shaped patches of yellow and brown grass. Lots of cars, which have been over the hill and out of sight for most of the week, are pulled up next to encampments and driving down the dirt roads.
I return to Enchanted Ground and give period speech my best shot: “Excuse me, Your Grace, may I have a word outside the boundaries?” But Cariadoc waves it off, saying he’s already taken the golden rope down. When the rope’s up, he’s Duke Cariadoc of the Bow. When the rope’s down, he’s David Friedman, an economist and physicist who teaches at the Santa Clara University School of Law and was a fellow at Penn’s Fels School in Philadelphia during the early years of the Pennsic War. (His father, Milton Friedman, won the Nobel Prize for economics around that same time.)
Oh thank god, I’m really terrible at period speech. Could you tell me about your encampment?
Enchanted Ground happened first at the 20-year celebration, so that was almost 30 years ago, and we've held it at almost every Pennsic I've been to since then.
The Enchanted Ground is an area for people who have agreed that when they're inside it, they will be in persona. It's sort of arbitrary — there's no reason why, standing here at night, I can't talk to my daughter as me instead of my persona. But sharp lines are often useful for this sort of thing, so I try to pretty strictly restrain myself. And when we have to do things that don't fit, which mostly means setting up or taking down, I tie up the sign or take down the sign.
We try to have a pretty high level of physical authenticity, because you don't have to worry what to say about a Coleman stove if you don't have a Coleman stove. It's harder to believe you're Medieval when you've got a lot of modern things around. But we make those exceptions that we have to make in practice. Glasses, for example. Or I'm not skilled at using flint and steel, so I generally use matches, unobtrusively, to light the fire. The basic rule is nothing that is obviously and unnecessarily out of period.
Does the storytelling circle happen every night?
A long time ago, what I would do in the evening is walk the circle of the lake, stopping at people's campfires to offer a poem or a story for them. Then my daughter persuaded me a couple of years ago to come for two weeks, so now the first week I spend the evening walking around offering poems and stories unless I'm too tired, and second week every evening I do the Bardic Circle. It usually goes from when it starts getting dark until around midnight, but one night we discovered it was almost 3 a.m. when I finally got a chance to check the time.
You’re really good at telling stories.
Most of what I'm telling — a lot of it is Medieval Islamic stories, some of it's Medieval Norse saga material. I don't try to memorize stories, because if you're reciting from memory you usually sound like you are. I try to memorize the plot and at least a few of the names, and then tell the story in my own words. Every once in a while, I go back and reread something and discover that I left out some neat things and try to do a better job the next time.
Part of what I like about the storytelling is part of what I think the SCA ought to be, but only occasionally is: a joint fantasy rather than a costume party. Something where, while it's going on, everybody is trying to imagine that they're actually Medieval people. One of the nice things about the storytelling is that it's dark and you can't see most of the stuff that doesn't belong in the Middle Ages around you. In a sense, I'm creating your world as a storyteller; I can pull people into imagining they're listening to a Medieval storyteller than I could in most other contexts.
Friedman says the legends I’ve probably heard about him and the origin of Pennsic have a kernel of truth to them, but that the real story is not honestly not that interesting. He's ambivalent about even telling me the mundane story of a group of young people in the '70s organizing the first Pennsic, which involved permits, paperwork, technicalities and other boring, less-than-legendary details. It's not really relevant how it actually happened, he says. The legend of the king who declared war on himself and lost is a perfect story. Why mess with it?
On the drive home to Philly, I pull into a rest stop. In the parking lot, a woman is wearing a golden cardboard crown. Later in the drive, I'm not even kidding, David Bowie's "Heroes" comes on the radio:
I, I will be king
And you, you will be queen
Though nothing will drive them away
We can be heroes, just for one day
Dozens of people I met in the past week greeted me with "Welcome home!" and encourged me to join the SCA and camp with them next year, especially the group from Bhakail. But I know deep down that this is the only Pennsic I'll attend. I have a demanding job and a lot of hobbies. I'm already so overbooked that my husband sometimes declares that he misses me, even though we live in the same house.
Still, as Bowie wails and I drive back to my life, I feel something akin to homesickness.
BORN ON THE LIST FIELD (VERSE 2)
After some sleuthing, I finally get Tim Finley, a 50something IT professional from Kansas City, on the phone. Our conversation begins awkwardly: “Uh. So, uh, do the words Ivar Battleskald mean anything to you?”
About when did you compose “Born on the List Field”?
It would have been in... '84, maybe?
How long has it been since you've been active in the SCA?
Oh gosh, many years. In excess of 15 years, probably.
How long has it been since you've heard the song?
Probably about as many years as I've been inactive.
So I heard a story that the song was written as a sort of musicology experiment, to see how it would mutate via the oral tradition — is there any truth to that?
My intention was to see what the song would do as it traveled — would it travel, where would it go, how would it change, what would people do. When I originally wrote it, that was not my intention. I didn't have it nearly that thought-out. But as it began to be performed, I started to notice differences in how it was done, and I thought, "This is very interesting! How does this happen?"
A lot of what the SCA tries to do is recreate how things might have been in the Middle Ages. Well, this is part of it — how did stories change? How did songs change? I wanted to introduce the skaldic method, where one person taught another person something, the persona that I was in the SCA was early Scandinavian, before the writing came in—everything was passed on verbally.
So for every legend, there's a grain of truth. For this one, the grain of truth is that someone put it out there with the intention of not to keep it strapped into one form, to see how it would go. But as far as musicologist or anthropologist, I'm definitely not those things.
Did you ever gather the different versions?
I never gathered them up myself — I've seen some of them. You don't tend to see big changes in the words or story, although it's been several years since I've checked back in. What I noticed most was changes in melody. That's so much harder for people to do.
Are you surprised the song is still around?
Yes, yes I am! I guess it holds some truths about what people are looking for in the SCA — the ability to take someone at their word, the ability to decide something is right.
Are people allowed to write the song down now?
I've seen some pretty interesting debates that started with the song as a jumping-off point, but got to be discussions about what should you do, what shouldn't you do — that's not the truth, this is the truth. I'd hate to make a definitive statement on whether you should or shouldn't and stop that conversation.
OK — thanks for your time!
I would ask one thing: When you're writing the story, try not to put out there whether it is or is not OK to write down or record the song. I would prefer that you leave it ambiguous. I've had people ask "Is it supposed to do this or is it supposed to do that?" I'm not gonna say! [Laughs.] At this point, the song has a life of its own.
THE KING WHO DECLARED WAR ON HIMSELF AND LOST, PT. 4
David Friedman, aka Duke Cariadoc of the Bow, did eventually tell me the real origin story of Pennsic, and I could write it down here.
But what would that accomplish?