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.
That's where SCA comes in. It was time to let mine out for a romp. Inner Viking, welcome home.
Heavy-weapons fighting is a historically accurate martial art based on the chivalric combat of the Middle Ages. Competitors strap on metal armor, pick up swords crafted out of rattan wood, and bash the hell out of one another. Here — the nerdiest slice of America — is the last place where you can actually get medieval on someone's ass.
A week before the tournament, Duke Mittion and three other fighters strapped on their armor at a weekly gathering of the Shire of Sea March (Palm Beach County, to those of us with our feet stuck in the Mundane World).
Trimaris, like all kingdoms, is chopped up into shires and baronies. The Shire of Sea March covers Palm Beach; Broward is Sangre del Sol; Miami-Dade is the Shire of Southkeep. Though all shires plan their own activities, heavy-weapons fighting is usually a staple across the country — AKA the Known World.
Mittion, currently a knight, has been king of Trimaris multiple times in his 30 years with the SCA. Though local membership numbers have recently taken a dip ("World of Warcraft," Mittion grumbles) and the popularity of Game of Thrones hasn't brought in tons of new members, like a dutiful den leader/drill sergeant, he continues to train dozens of fighters (or squires) in his backyard, lit by floodlights.
The Society for Creative Anachronism originally popped up out of the counterculture stew bubbling over in 1960s Berkeley, California. In May 1966, a group of medieval-studies students there threw a chivalry-themed backyard party to protest the 20th Century. The festivities included a combat tournament for fighters outfitted with wooden swords and motorcycle helmets.
The party took off. Today, the SCA is an official nonprofit organization, with 19 kingdoms stretching all over the globe. By the group's own estimate, there are more than 30,000 members. In Florida, the Trimaris currently has an official membership of more than 3,000, with about 2,000 actively participating.
Ask SCA members to define what the group is and they will usually first school you on what it's not. Sure, technically, it's historical reenactment, but they don't act out real historical battles, like, say, Civil War reenactors. And yes, the action is grounded in medieval times, but the SCA isn't like a Renaissance Faire either, where the fighting is staged. And it's definitely not LARPing — live action role playing — which is like a live game of Dungeons and Dragons, with people tossing bean bags as magic spells and swinging foam swords. Such depths of geekery are even scorned by the SCA's standards.
No, the SCA is hard-core. A lot of its legitimacy comes from the heavy-weapons fighting. Combat has been part of the SCA since the very beginning, and one could argue that it's the most important element. Historical knowledge is all well and good, acting skills will make a participant popular, but brute force determines who will be king.
The objective is pretty simple: to kill the opponent. Well, metaphorically speaking.
Each fighter has to be outfitted with a set of historically accurate armor, including neck, torso, knee, and elbow protection made out of metal or heavy leather. Each helmet must be made of steel. Though some raggedy fighters have been known to start with "armor" fashioned out of a stop sign sandwiched between two pieces of carpet, a new fighter can probably pick up a "cheap" plastic or aluminum outfit for around $250, and a used helmet can go for $150. Some people, though, spend up to $5,000 on suits made by master blacksmiths.
"Armoring yourself is a progression," explains Kurn, the king. "You buy and adjust and do some more stuff and work to fix it. So it's never a finished thing until you've been doing it for years."
There are group battles, small-team melees, and, most common, one-on-one tournament-style face-offs — like the Crown Lyst. Most combatants arm themselves with a shield and a sword fashioned from Rutan, a bamboo-like wood. There are no set dimensions on the fighting field, and women can fight right along with the men. It's open season on the torso, upper thighs, arms, and the head outside of the facemask. For a blow to count, it's got to be hard. It also has to be clean; shots that nick the shield or sword — or "catch traffic on the way in" — don't count. A knock to an arm or leg means the fighter can go on, but without using the maimed member. Hard body and head shots kill; a kill shot ends the match. Skirmishes can be over in less than 30 seconds; epic battles stretch ten minutes or more.
The sport looks like part fencing, part gladiatorial smash-bash.
"If we were using steel weapons with the techniques and motions that we use in our fighting, we would incapacitate one another," Kurn says.
But here's the important part: Even though two marshals orbit the combat for safety purposes, it's on each individual fighter to call whether they've been hit with a kill shot or not — a self-policing honor system.
Now, can you tell me anyplace else in this office-jaundiced, hot-yoga-loving world of ours where you can actually smash somebody up in armor like that? I didn't think so — which is why it was so important for me to test it out at the practice.
Soon I was peering out from inside a metal helmet still dripping with someone else's sweat. I winged two noodle-limp shots across my opponent's dome. Then I wound up a third time, tapping my inner Barry Bonds, and unloaded on the side of his head. I had giddy flashbacks of bashing my younger brother with blunt objects.
"See?" my opponent said, smiling through the bars of his mask. "It doesn't hurt."
Then he warned me: "I'm going to give you a light hit, a medium hit, and then a hard hit."
The first two thunks rattled my head inside the cage. Just as the knight was pulling his sword back for that final smack, I began thinking about how I was always the kid who managed to hurt himself in gym class even when —
The blow walloped the inside of the helmet like an M-80 stuffed in a mailbox. By the time I was driving home, my cheek was swelling, and I had to stop at Publix for ice.
The next day, I was on the phone with King Kurn (alternately known as a high school science teacher from Lakeland named Farrell Rodgers), begging for more.
Usually, rookies have to train for a couple of months before passing a certification test. The king, however, granted me a waiver and said I could suit up at the Crown Lyst.
"We'll probably be able to get you into some loaner armor and get you knocked around," he said. "You're a little smaller than the usual fighters. Our guys average about five-foot-11, 200 pounds. But we should be able to work something out.
"Bring a cup and jock."
Early Saturday morning in Ocala — er, Trimaris — the sky is a perfect Crayola blue, and dew jewels the stretch of grass lying before a semicircle of pavilions topped with colored flags. Although there are a few modern-day touches — kids running around with videogames, maidens filming footage with iPads, and more tongue rings than I saw when I went to a Kid Rock concert (accidentally) — for the most part, Trimarians in period dress are excitedly tossing arms around old friends. The cheer belies the affairs of state, which are actually in crisis.
"You'll notice, by the way, we don't have a queen," says a woman dressed in a long flowing dress, before dropping a dramatic wink. She nods toward King Kurn, who is standing near an empty throne. Three weeks ago, his wife, Queen Eridani, was kidnapped by vandals. Alaric the Goth, who had vied with Kurn for Eridani's hand in marriage, was behind the snatch. "We don't know what her fate is."
Kurn calls the populace to attention. His voice muzzles the hundreds of people filling the lawn. A messenger has brought a letter from the queen! Kurn reads: "'Alaric's armies are vast. His cities are prosperous, despite what many are saying. We should join Alaric and live in peace." The letter was signed, "Eridani.'"
"Are there any here that believe these are the words of our queen?" he asks incredulously. "These are the words of Alaric!" Kurn says, his basso rumble mounting into a bellicose growl. "The Kingdom of Trimaris does not give in to terrorism, despite the consequences!"
The populace nods. "Although it breaks our hearts that our queen is not here, they may break our hearts, but they will never break the spirit of the Kingdom of Trimaris. Not when champions still breathe!"
Kurn can Spielberg the shit out of a plot. That's his job. The royal seat isn't just a plush gig — it requires real effort. The king and queen are always on the road, spending nearly every weekend of their reign traveling across the state to shire events. But most important, they're at the steering wheel of the story line.
Just as each SCA member can pick a historical persona, the king and queen decide which time period and geographical backdrop will serve as the setting during their reign. "We've jumped from the Crusades to high-German gothic to Japanese to Vietnamese," Kurn explains later.
Kurn and Eridani dropped anchor in the time of the historical King Arthur, Britannia circa 450 A.D. They've kept the drama Oscar-worthy throughout their rule. On a website set up specifically for the monarchs, Kurn and Eridani have posted letters detailing their plot.
In dispatches just prior to the tournament, the bummed-out king had opined on whether the queen wasn't more than willing to be kidnapped by her old flame. "I wonder if she did have feelings for him," he wrote in a letter, dated X Maivs CDVII. "I should have listened. I can list my responsibilities as Crown as my excuse, yet it does not ease the guilt I feel for not giving her the attention she deserved."
Kurn sent out the elite "Triskele Team Six" (yup, that's a Seal Team Six reference) to snatch Eridani back. "But for now I am angry and heartbroken," the king wrote. "I am never going to dance again. Guilty feet have got no rhythm."
The missing-monarch subplot is the big finish for the royals. By weekend's end, Trimaris will be in the hands of a new king.
"I have come so stinking close, I can taste it," Lord Takamatsu Sadamitsu no kami Tadayoshi says as he prepares for battle. In the past four Crown Lysts, he's finished in third place, second, third, and second, respectively — but he's never had the big chair for himself.
"Maybe this time, if I keep my feces coagulated into a single locale, I should be able to pull it off."
Lord Taka is one of 14 fighters filling up the tournament bracket. Short, stocky, and definitely not Japanese, he's stuffed into a beautifully intricate kit of blue metal pieces arranged like fish scales and cinched around the middle with a white belt — the sign of a knight. Younger warriors spin around him like a pit crew working on a racer.
Despite the Japanese name, Taka is actually a 53-year-old lab technician from Lakeland with the redneck-hellraiser vibe of a lovable but loose-cannon uncle.
"I know, I sound so Japanese," he drawls. "The running joke is that I'm from Kyushu, the southernmost island in Japan. The battle cry is 'Bonzai, y'all!' "
A lifelong adrenaline jones brought Lord Taka to the SCA more than 30 years ago, when he was a college student. Back then, his "armor" consisted of old pieces of shag carpet sandwiched between canvas. His interests have always strayed east — at one point, he spoke fluent Japanese and had a purple belt in karate — so he took on a Japanese persona.
Now, instead of the standard sword and shield, he battles with a long stick known as a naganata. At only about five-foot-seven, he's light on his feet in combat, usually racing around the ring until his opponent's energy taps out, opening up the possibility for mistakes.
Lord Gavin de Chateau Gaillard is on the other end of the spectrum, an untested no-name looking to piece together a reputation. (In the Mundane World, he's a pool cleaner and engineering student from Cocoa Beach.) The 30-year-old squire is the youngest competitor going for the crown. Despite a bed head of curly hair and a goofy smile that seems permanently stamped onto his face, Gavin wins praise from older fighters for his game as if they're scouts marveling at a pitching prospect's fastball. He's doing something rare — fighting for the crown even though he isn't even a knight yet.
"One of the things my mentor told me early on is you can't buy into your own hype," he warns.
Lord Gavin readies for combat, his armor under a dark-green tunic emblazoned with a wolf, his entourage consisting of some friends and his wife, Lady Miranda. Gavin found the SCA around 2007, and it drew him away from kenpo karate, the American strip-mall version of the Japanese staple. "You do your time, you fill out your card, you take the test, you get your belt," he says of that martial art. "It was lacking of a whole culture."
The first time he strapped in, he felt the difference between karate and the SCA: In martial arts, you never really get to bust up an opponent's face.
By Saturday noon, the sun's a bare hot bulb, and the heat feels like a fat kid squatting on my back. The first blows of the Crown Lyst start flying. The applause coming off the crowd sounds like the same excited but polite pitter-patter you hear when a PGA stud parks a fairway bomb near the pin.
But suddenly, not long into the action, King Kurn stops the fight. From a corner of the crowd, three hooded figures walk to the royal tent. Triskele Team Six had completed its mission. The queen, a short woman with dark curly hair trailing down from a silver crown, had returned!
"It is time for us to celebrate!" Kurn announces to the crowd. "And drink beer!"
The squire, a huge he-man with stringy blond hair, stiff-legs it over to the tent. His wide face is the clammy color of baloney. He stands rock still with his eyes shuttered for a moment.
"Are you OK?"a knight asks.
"Cup shot," he manages to eke out. "And I think it broke the cup."
The pain seems to spook the strength from his body all at once. He drops. Friends quickly close in to catch him. All men present die a little inside.
I realize I forgot to bring a cup.
But I could not let this slow my own hot pursuit of warriorhood. By now, I am amped up, eight-balling off all that secondhand adrenaline like a kid 30 ounces into a Big Gulp. As fight after fight had unfolded, the field slimmed. I should probably have taken it as a sign that guys were getting unceremoniously steamrolled.
Gavin leaves body parts all across the field. In his first fight, a faceoff with a left-handed lord, the young fighter gets off a few slaps before his opponent nails him on his sword hand. After ditching his shield, Gavin switches his weapon to his weak side. The opponent cuts him down on the next exchange.
The bracket then shuffles Gavin out into a matchup with another knight. After the pair trade some hits, Gavin takes a blow that will cost him the use of his legs. From his knees, he fends off the next barrage, but the match ends with a body blow to his back.
Lord Taka's Lyst run is even shorter. Against his first opponent, the Japanese warrior is armed with a sword and shield — not his usual weaponry. The two bow to the king, do the same to their consorts, and exchange a hug. At "go," the opponent lands two playful jabs against Taka's shield before pulling in close and smacking home a kill shot.
Round two pits Taka against another formidable foe. After poking some tentative shots with his naganata, Taka begins backpedaling quickly. The opponent closes in, ducking under the swings while snapping his sword against Taka's trunk. Taka rolls over backward as a gasp shoots out from the crowd. Just two appearances and the longtime finalist is out.
"I'm calling myself all kinds of horrible names right now," Taka says after his loss. "Things like fornicating scum-sucking pig dog, illegitimate son of a misbegotten wombat, pile of panda poo. I had to leave the site and go chew on the tree."
When it's my turn to give the whole ancient blood lust a go, I slip into some loaner armor from a similarly sized knight. By now, his kit is soaked with sweat after a day of fighting. As for the smell — imagine hockey pads fresh off the ice. That someone pissed on. Twice.
Although from the outside it looks like a knight is literally canning himself inside a bunch of metal, inside, the armor is surprisingly flexible. After locking in, I run, jump, roll, twist — take the thing for a test drive, getting a feel for this exoskeleton that will protect me from harm as I Conan-smash the hell out of my opponent.
The guy I'm facing off against is probably a good five inches shorter, and I probably have 20 pounds on him. Cake, I figure. But after we put our shields and swords up, a funny thing happens: He disappears.
Our facing shields basically create a wall between us. Leaning up, I can just get a line on where his helmet is bobbing, so I throw my sword up and over. Nobody screams for mercy. Wood plunks wood.
Craning my head, I try again to pick up my target when a blob wings out from the left side of my line of sight. Clang. It takes me a moment to realize I've been hit. Without feeling much, I begin hacking away again, getting only dull plunks for the effort. Another incoming blow cracks my head. Then another. Then another.
After a couple of minutes of two-stepping like this, all my movements begin to feel heavy, as if I am stuck on the bottom of a swimming pool. The sticky, hot air rushing down my throat bounces back in rough coughs. I swing hard and then harder. The other guy seems to be dinging me with the effort it would take him to push an elevator button.
Eventually my whole system stalls out. I pitch forward, weak spaghetti-arms propping me on my knees. Breath rockets in and out in hiccuping gasps.
This, I thought, isn't fun.
At this rate, I'm on a fast track into the Order of the Mangina.
"There are only two things I haven't done in my armor," Lord Taka says. It's late, near midnight. Cicadas are laying down a constant dial tone from the woods. Fire pits bloom around the camp. The booze has been flowing for hours, but nearly a hundred or so Trimarians are still up and clustered in small groups around the camp's cafeteria. Taka, in a light-colored tunic and with a cup in his hand, unrolls one-man standup for a small audience.
"I haven't swam in my armor, and I haven't made the beast-with-two-backs," he says, dropping Shakespearean lingo for nookie.
Despite the action on the field all day, I didn't get the full feel for the SCA until the off-hours. Everyone was in a surprisingly good mood after a day of intense competition where — if you want to be a douchey jock about it — there were certainly some mangina-like performances. Mine first and foremost.
On Sunday morning, with the sun lofting over the tree line, the crown tournament was decided by a final five-round battle. Count Yoan Moon Yang came out on top, and his reign will represent another significant gear-shift for the story line: His persona is Korean from 1392 to 1897 A.D. In the coming weeks, the new royals will set up their own website that will lay out the requirements for period dress and customs to follow during this reign.
But now, we're still about a thousand years back in Britannia. As the night goes on, it all seems to click. Might have been the mead. Or the not-quite-historically-accurate Jack Daniels. But the vibe turned friendly and familiar, like a family reunion, except without any drama-queen aunts or asshole uncles.
Here was a group of people who devoted considerable time and effort into building a make-believe alternative to the daily grind. But I realized then that the SCA wasn't so much an escape from the real world as a way to fill in its missing pieces.
"When I was growing up, my dad wasn't around at all," one fighter tells me. "It wasn't until I came to the SCA that I met father figures. They really taught me how to be a man."
"I think it's about the camaraderie, the brotherhood," another said. "It's not just a bunch of people running around in the woods; it's about honor."
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"When you come here, there's honor and courtesy," another told me. "You don't get that kind of respect in the real world. If someone insults a woman in the real world, what's her recourse? What's she going to do? Out here, we play by the rule of chivalry. If a lady is insulted, she'll go find a champion, and he'll throw down the gauntlet."
Basically, if you want to fight, if you're going to play the game, you've got to stick to the honor system.
"You might be a frustrated teacher and you want to bash Johnny in the head, but you can't because you need a job to pay for your home and your wife and your kids, so you go out and hit your friends. There's no better relief," Kurn tells me. "But I think it does more than just a sport. It teaches you about what to consider virtuous and moral. In life, we don't get a lot of opportunities to be chivalrous and make the right decisions."
Or, as Gavin put it: "Basically, the first rule of SCA is: Don't be a dick."