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Going Medieval

Memphians become lords, ladies, knights, and laurels by returning to the Middle Ages.



It is a warm, sunny day in the Barony of Grey Niche, otherwise known as Memphis. The night before brought torrential rains, and fighters in heavy armor splash in puddles as they bonk one another with swords, spikes, and axes. Tents of onlookers dot the muddy field, otherwise known as Meeman-Shelby State Park. They clap and cheer as their favorite fighters strike their opponents -- hard.

Women in flowing, medieval gowns lounge in wooden chairs, munching turkey legs or meat-and-cheese sandwiches. Children toss balls made of chain mail, while many of the men and some younger women assist the fighters in donning armor for the next tourney. Vendors peddle their wares--heavy wooden drinking mugs, medieval jewelry, blown-glass items, and more -- in an area away from the fighting.

In a nearby dining hall, cooks are preparing a feast fit for a king. Actually it's for King Maximillian (James Nichols) and Queen Lethrenn (Sara Nichols), royalty of the Kingdom of Meridies, otherwise known as the region containing Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, the panhandle of Florida, and parts of Kentucky and Virginia. The other 200 or so members of the Meridies nobility here (there seem to be no peasants) will also dine on a feast of meatballs, chicken with herbs and tomatoes, and meat-filled dumplings.

Of course, it's not like this every day in the Grey Niche. Today is a holiday, and members of the barony, as well as many who have traveled from other parts of the kingdom, are enjoying the annual Beltaine festival, the celebration of the first day of May.

This year's festivities are doubly special: It's the 30th birthday of the Barony of Grey Niche, the local chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). Thirty years ago, John Fulton, orJohn the Bearkiller as he's known in the group, founded Grey Niche after he stumbled onto the national organization that stages re-enactments of the Middle Ages.

The SCA is a nonprofit, educational organization whose members study the Middle Ages between 600 A.D. and 1600 A.D. Members also develop medieval personas, and at events such as the Beltaine festival, they live those personas with costumes, hairstyles, and customs from their chosen era and country of origin.

It's a lot like life in the Middle Ages sans the unpleasantness, like the plague or torture chambers -- or peasants.

Most SCA members are history buffs, and their organization serves as a hands-on way to study medieval art, history, and culture. Memphis has one of the largest chapters in the region with 125 dues-paying members. Through SCA-sponsored arts and sciences classes, medieval dance workshops, or fighting practice, the Middle Ages are very much alive in the Bluff City.

'Tis Merely a Flesh Wound

Fighting is the public face of the SCA, and fighter tournaments and practices are often what draw people into the organization. Every Sunday, local SCA fighters meet at the northwest corner of Audubon Park for practice. It's not uncommon for passing motorists to stop and check out the action.

Some are so intrigued they become members themselves.

"Back when I was a kid, my grandfather used to take me down to Audubon Park, and I saw the heavy fighters fighting there," says Stacey Young. "It looked pretty cool, so when I turned 16, I went out and found them." Young's SCA persona is a rapier fighter and a 16th-century seafaring Italian Protestant named Maestro Damino.

On a recent Sunday, turnout at fighting practice is fairly low because many of the fighters are attending a weekend Crown List festival, where the ruler of a soon-to-be formed new kingdom will be chosen based on his or her fighting skills. About 15 people do show up at the park and set up chairs to socialize.

Three fighters don armor. One man is wearing plate armor that covers his chest, stomach, and back. His arms are exposed, but his thighs and shins are also protected by armor plates. He puts on his silver helmet, picks up his broadsword and glave (a long stick with a padded end), and begins swatting at another fighter. The second fighter uses a broadsword and an ax. After a few blows, the first fighter steps back, apparently hit hard enough to give victory to his opponent. Next to enter the fray is Baron Dulinn, the highest-ranking noble in the local barony. He too loses to the second fighter.

There are three types of fighting in the SCA:heavy combat, rapier, and youth combat. Heavy combat utilizes a range of weapons like spikes, spears, and swords. Rapier is a re-creation of European street fencing duels common between 1450 and 1600. The newest category, youth combat for ages 7 to 17, began in the barony five years ago.

SCA fighting is based on an honor system. When a fighter receives a significant blow, one that would disable someone in actual combat, they're supposed to bow out of the fight. But it doesn't always work that way. Fighters sometimes disagree about what constitutes a damaging blow. But SCA members say that fighting dishonorably is a quick way to get ostracized by the community.

"It's hard to live that down," Young says.

It's seldom that anyone gets hurt fighting. Weapons are made from a bamboo-like material with a solid rattan core. Blades on broadswords, fencing swords, and axes are blunt. Fighters are heavily armored and usually wear chain mail, a flexible armor of interlocked metal rings.

"It's a sport, and just like when you play football or baseball, someone can get hurt," says Kim Taylor. "Mostly it's just bruises, that sort of thing. They're wearing enough protection that they won't really get hurt." Taylor is the autocrat (i.e., public relations spokesperson) for the barony. In the SCA, she is known as Gretchen Zimmerman, a German woman from the late 1400s.

Fighters practice on Sundays and at small tournaments, such the one at Beltaine, to prepare for larger events. At the Gulf Wars, a massive convention held each March in Mississippi, entire kingdoms battle one another in grand melees. The Gulf Wars gathering also features archery competitions, greyhound racing, and equestrian fighting.

Skilled fighters can be awarded the title of knight, which means they've displayed chivalry, taught classes, and performed extensive research on their art. Heavy combat fighters with royal aspirations can fight for the roles of king and queen at the Crown List event.

Some people are just in it for the fun. Paul Wolf, a rapier fighter, says he fights as a way to bond with his friends.

"It's mainly about having a blast," Wolf says. "In any of these activities, if you're doing it to be the champion, you're missing the point, and you're going to be disappointed." (In the SCA, Wolf is Lord Leon Jeronimo Suarez, a 16th-century Spaniard who was washed ashore in Ireland.)

Beyond the Fighting

At the Beltaine festival, a visiting outsider might assume that the day's festivities are centered around the heavy armor combat and rapier tournaments. The spectators have arranged their tents around the fighting, and all eyes are on the field as battles rage through the day. But fighting is not everyone's mug of mead.

"Fighting is what everyone sees, and that's something we struggle with because that's the 'fun' part. But there are a lot of people who actually enjoy the work part of this," says Sandra Good. "I got into the whole arts and sciences thing because of my interest in cooking." Good is the arts and science (A&S) officer for the Memphis chapter and a homemaker. But she's known as the Honorable Lady Alexandra Donnan.

Good's spent most of the day handling the A&S competition, where members of the barony submit their homemade wares to judges who inspect the various arts and crafts. There's a dragon sculpted from sugar, a leather canteen, an embroidered flag, and some tools. Judges grade on authenticity, documentation, and presentation.

Good also coordinates bimonthly classes that include costuming, leatherworking, herbalism, and medieval singing. The SCA has its own "college," and Good works with a provost to register people for classes. Reports are sent to the national SCA office on class topics and attendance. Those who excel in the arts and sciences can become a "laurel," the artisan equivalent of a knight.

One of the more popular arts is costuming. Members attending SCA events are required to dress in period costume, and many participants fashion their own. Nancy Ulmer (Maddalena Salutati) is visiting the festival from the Kingdom of Atlantia, which includes Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. In her spectator tent, she shows off her hand-sewn dress, which resembles something a Florentine woman might have worn in 1520. Ulmer makes costumes for herself as well as her husband and friends and has received the Order of the Laurel.

"I make these not for money, just love," she says. "Most of the costumes I make have a lot of hand-sewing in them and can take me from 40 to 60 hours to complete. My sister was watching me make something for my husband once, and she said, 'You can't buy that kind of work. You have to marry it.'"

Others, who aren't so talented with a needle and thread, purchase costumes online or at specialty shops. The barony also keeps loaner garb on hand for newcomers.

Cooking for the SCA is as authentic as possible, though recipes are sometimes altered to accommodate modern tastes.

"There are several instances where the feasts of kings at coronation were actually written down word for word, and they [prepared] some things that would taste alien to us," explains Sperry Workman.

"For example, one of the things was cinnamon and eggs, and I mean, lots of cinnamon," chimes in Curt Workman, Sperry's husband.

But Good says most of the overspicing results from modern-day cooks misinterpreting the recipes. "They're not broken down into 2/3 cup of this or 3/4 cup of that," says Good. "That leaves a lot of leeway for experimentation. Since they don't specify how much spice to use, it often gets overdone."

Might and Majesty

"Do you know why you are here?" asks King Maximillian. He's a short fellow whose feet don't quite reach the ground when he's sitting on his ornate wooden throne. He's speaking to a woman he's called to the throne during the court ceremony at Beltaine. Next to Maximillian sits his wife, Queen Lethrenn. Both are from Atlanta, also known as the Barony of Southdowns. On a smaller throne next to the queen sits Baron Dulinn, his feet resting upon a large stone.

The woman, kneeling on a pillow before the throne, stammers that she doesn't know why she's here.

"Because we called you here!" exclaims Max, and laughter erupts around the room, which is filled with festivalgoers decked out in medieval finery. King Max tells the woman she's being cited for her bread- and cheese-making skills. The crowd applauds, and the woman beams as the king places a wire crown on her head.

The court ceremony is medieval, but the king inserts some modern-day humor. He tells the crowd that he's jealous that the baron has a rock to rest his feet upon. Someone from the audience cracks a joke, and he throws up one hand in the stop position and says, "Talk to the hand."

Like the baron, the king and queen are mostly figureheads, but they do have the final word in making rules for the kingdom. Kings and queens serve for six months, and then a new ruler is chosen at a fighting tournament. In Meridies, members create a fictional death for departing royalty. One royal couple was "killed" when they stepped into a ring of mushrooms and were transported into fairyland.

Winners of a crown tournament become a prince or princess for six months before ascending to the throne, thereby serving as royalty for a year.

"We're re-creating a monarchy, and in the feudal system, there was an absolute person that was on top of everybody," says Sperry Workman, who once served as a princess. "Royalty helps decide certain laws, but one of the best parts of the job is being able to recognize the work that others are doing and handing out awards."

"Once you've sat on the throne, the way you play this game is never the same," says Curt Workman. "You have to be very cognizant of the laws of the land and how everyone views you."

The Workmans' own story is a bit like a fairy tale. They met in the SCA, and their personas, which they developed before meeting one another, were only five years apart, historically. They've even created their own love story:

Curt's persona, known as Landgraf Uther von Ziemer, was born in 1152 in Germany. He was sent to a seminary at age 9, but stowed away in the baggage of a Welsh knight and became his page. Sperry's character, known as Landgrafin Kenna nic Aherne von Ziemer, was born in 1157, in Ireland. She set off one day on a boat to Jerusalem to straighten out a deal where she'd been cheated on some horses. There, she met Uther and hired him as her bodyguard. The two fell in love and eventually became royalty. Seen and Heard

The SCA was formed in 1966 when a group of college students in Berkeley, California, decided to have a theme party. It was styled as something of a protest against the 20th century. They held a grand tournament, wore motorcycle helmets, and whacked at one another with plywood sticks. They had so much fun they decided to form the SCA.

After the group held a tournament at a 1968 science fiction convention, the SCA movement spread. By 1970, there were four official kingdoms in the U.S. Today, there are 18 kingdoms and 30,000 members worldwide. Members who joined in the group's early days have children who have grown up in the SCA.

"More and more, the SCA is becoming a family-oriented organization. Involving the children makes things fun for everybody," says Kevin Gage, a Memphis-area member. "They get a chance to learn all about the Middle Ages, and we can teach them honesty, chivalry, and courtesy."

Gage is known as Uilleam MacUilleam, a Scottish highlander from the mid-1300s. He serves as deputy marshal of youth combat.

Weston Philpot, a 10-year-old who has grown up in the SCA, just started fighting. Also known as Diego de la Mar, Philpot says he prefers sword and shield fighting and Florentine fighting with two swords. Philpot is also in the SCA's page program, in which an adult member mentors a child in various aspects of the Middle Ages.

"It's a relationship much like a squire and a knight would have," explains Amy Young, who took Philpot as her page when he was 3 years old. "I'm another adult he can come to and learn from."

Young, who in her SCA life is a 15th-century Russian woman named Mistress Anna Nikolaevna Petrakova, is knowlegeable in medieval dance and has taught Philpot more than 50 dances. Young also helps the king and queen get ready for court processions and ceremonies. Philpot usually lends a hand.

"I like helping the king and queen," says Philpot, whose dark, tousled hair and glasses make him look like Harry Potter. "Last night they had a mouse in the cabin, and I had a great sword, and I was going to hit the mouse with it. But the mousetrap got it instead."

"The SCA is not just a bunch of people hitting each other over the heads with sticks," says Good. "We have these organized kids' activities, and they get a chance to build friendships and to interact with adults. They don't really get that in other places."

At its core, the SCA is a re-enactment club for medieval history buffs. But unlike Civil War re-enactment groups, the SCA exists solely for its members, rather than performing for an audience.

"What we do has nothing to do with people in the real world outside the society," Gage says. "We are here to educate ourselves and have fun. We're here simply for us. We create our own history every time we have an event."

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