The king stands before the two dozen or so fighters kneeling on the grass in his presence. Their heads are bent as if in group prayer, their tunics sullied with the sweat and blood of combat. The king's straight posture signals authority; his beard bespeaks wisdom. His white garments are embroidered with the blue triangular symbols of the kingdom, and sunlight ignites the four points of the metal crown topping his person. Kurn O'Farrell of Ulster, the current holder of the throne of the Kingdom of Trimaris, nods.
"After today's combat on the field," he shouts in his stage-ready tenor, "we are here to elect this man" — he points to a fighter at his feet — "to the Order... of the Mangina."
The knights crack up into whoops and whistles. The fighter, the most pathetic of the day, whose performance out on the field has left his manhood up for grabs, turns red, enjoying the joke at his expense — the kind of frat-bro razzing that could rattle out of any locker room.
"Actually, it's pronounced mangeeeena," another fighter whispers to me, his voice mock-professorial. "It's an old Latin term."
"Vivat!" bellows a knight.
"Trimaris!" the men shout back.
Although I've been hanging with about 500 Trimarians for the past 24 hours, I'm still basically a castaway drifting between one what-the-fuck moment and the next. Around me, grown men in ornate medieval tunics are drinking mead out of wooden mugs they carry strapped to their belts. Women swap compliments on their hand-stitched dresses. Some men walk around with their faces hidden in Arabian robes; others are dressed as goths, with masks made from skulls. Thick beards seem to be a fashion necessity, and many a heaving bosom looks like it's about to jailbreak out of a flimsy corset. I feel as though I just studied for an AP European history exam in a sweat lodge, took a hit of bad acid, and then screened a Game of Thrones marathon.
Welcome to the Society for Creative Anachronism. For the past 40 years, the SCA has offered an escape hatch from the 9-to-5 slog. Cut loose from real life (or "the Mundane World" in SCA lingo), participants slip into character, flying whatever medieval freak flag they choose, so long as it is time-stamped before 1600 A.D.
This shit is serious. Members spend thousands of dollars on costumes. They meet weekly, often for years, devoting almost as much time to this hobby as to their full-time jobs. They take up ancient trades — like bookbinding, calligraphy, candlemaking, and blacksmithing — and pour hundreds of hours of PhD-level research into making sure they are historically accurate.
Outsiders might call this site a 4-H camp in Ocala National Forest, but to the folks walking the grounds now, this is Trimaris, the kingdom of the three seas. (The kingdom covers all of Florida except the Panhandle.) Citizens have gathered for the Crown Lyst, the twice-yearly event when knights will battle with ancient weapons and the victor will be named the new king. In every SCA kingdom, the royalty is chosen this way. Whoever conquers the field through a series of double-elimination, one-on-one battles wins the title; his consort, the lady (or dude — the SCA doesn't discriminate) for whom he fights, becomes his ruling partner.
"My Lord," says a young maid with an alabaster face. "Water or sekanjabin?"
"Is that the Turkish sugar water?" I ask.
"Yes," she replies, handing me a mixture of mint, water, and sugar. "Medieval Gatorade."
"Thanks," I say, and spray a rope of the minty stuff down my throat. The girl hangs around awkwardly for a beat or two, as if waiting for something I'd forgotten. "...My Lady," I mumble, complying with ground rules that require everyone to formally address each other.
I'm here — on a 90-degree Memorial Day weekend, in a tunic and an itchy pair of borrowed pants, getting rotisseried by the sun and struggling to remember a bunch of social niceties that went out with the plague — for one reason: the face-bashing.
Specieswise, we're stitched up with the same genetic code as our ancestors who put fresh wildebeest on the table every night and settled neighborhood beefs by flinging spears. But now, we've turned soft — indoor-dwelling and tech-obsessed. Instagramming shots of brunch and workshopping theories on Breaking Bad via Facebook is about as exciting as it gets these days. (I'm told people do something terrible called "hot yoga.") Boxing has been polished up into a fitness club activity; MMA is for preening 'roiders; people rock-climb on fake rocks — and pay for the privilege.
Me, I sit at a computer all day. I eat from vending machines. I own many pairs of khakis. The last time I hit someone with something, it was made by Nerf, and Clinton was in office. And it was an accident. Did I mention the khakis? If we've all got an inner Viking still camped out in some remote psychic nook, he doesn't get out much.