Society for Creative Anachronism's swordplayers charge headfirst into history

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      “I’m really, really excited for war,” says Claire Wemyss, clearly thrilled by the prospect of her first large-scale battle. “I’m gonna be in a shield war, and I’m gonna protect my pikemen from getting hit by the archers, and I’m gonna knock down arrows!”

      Wemyss—or “Johanna”, as she is known in the SCA—sits down to talk with the Georgia Straight in a restaurant on Kingsway just days before the Sealion War, an annual event this year hosted by the Barony of Lions Gate over the weekend of June 4 to 6 in Aldergrove Lake Regional Park.

      The SCA, the Society for Creative Anachronism, is a nonprofit organization counting over 30,000 members worldwide—some of whom reside in the Barony of Lions Gate, the Lower Mainland’s branch of the SCA, and all of whom dedicate themselves to the re-creation of the arts and activities of pre-17th-century Europe.

      An event like the B.C. Renaissance Festival—taking place July 16 to 18 at the Thunderbird Show Park in Langley—features entertainers, tournaments, artisans, venders, and a cast of characters loosely based on medieval history. “You can eat a turkey leg, which you know is not accurate, but you feel like the king in the court,” says festival founder Christina Carr. “There’s just enough historical fact”¦but at the same time, if you want to show up in your campy wizard outfit or your Xena costume from last Halloween, no one will say boo.”

      In the SCA, however, historical accuracy is of the essence. “Looking at tapestries for costumes, looking at fighting manuals for combat, looking at the triptych of a brewer and his process of how to brew beer”¦that research, the understanding of the historical lifestyle, is the core that has fuelled all of the SCA,” explains Wemyss.

      For her own part, Wemyss is a fighter, and despite her metal helmet and leather armour she has the bruises to prove it. She attends training sessions with her knight—a title awarded to esteemed fighters, which can take candidates up to 15 years to earn—and studies military tactics, all in preparation for battles governed by complex rules and regulations to ensure the safety of participants, who must first be authorized to fight by the organization. Wemyss lives for, and sometimes dies in, heavy combat, but she describes the SCA as a “bottomless pit of possible engagement”, with something for everyone, from bardic competitions to leatherwork.

      “There are a lot of families. There are people of every age,” she says. “You can just show up, learn period dancing, and wear a dress that makes you feel really cool.”

      For those who might be interested in what the SCA has to offer, summer—when the community heads outdoors for camping, feasting, and fighting—is the best time to get involved. And even those who don’t know their Knights Templar from their Knights Who Say “Ni” shouldn’t be intimidated by the SCA. According to Wemyss, there is a pervasive feeling of community among members, as well as a designated officer within the organization, known as the chatelain, who provides newcomers with a basic introduction to the SCA, as well as loaner garb or armour. Upcoming events and ongoing practices are listed on the Barony of Lions Gate’s Web site.

      If anything, Wemyss thinks that the curious will find themselves easily drawn into the world of the SCA. “The people who come to an event and see what’s happening and get hooked usually already have an interest in history. They see things they recognize and are caught up by it,” she says. “These ideas and these stories they’ve been telling themselves in their heads—the stories they go over when they’re bored, or the characters they wish they could be”¦they see the embodiment of these fantasies.”

      Aynsley Scott, the youth coordinator at Academie Duello on West Hastings Street in downtown Vancouver, believes that many are attracted to the school’s classes in European swordplay and western martial arts for the same reasons. “People come for the romantic aspects of it, because it’s something they’ve enjoyed imagining about as a kid. And people still do enjoy movies of those time periods, anywhere from ancient Rome or Greece right up until the Victorian age,” Scott tells the Straight over the phone.

      While Academie Duello provides historically based teaching of fighting techniques, Scott notes that the school is not part of the SCA, despite the fact that school founders Devon Boorman and Randy Packer first studied swordplay in the society. “We’re not strictly re-creationists—we are studying the martial art form,” Scott says. “That’s where a lot of their interest and information and initiation into it came from, but we don’t all have pseudonyms or get dressed up.”

      The school’s offerings, from archery to jousting, still provide a way of delving headfirst into history. Such is the draw of its summer Knight Camp for kids aged eight to 14, an interactive introduction to various facets of medieval life through activities like designing coats of arms and learning period dances. Quarterstaff, longsword, falconry, and grappling are also taught.

      Scott is able to sum up the appeal of the camp for kids in three words: “Knights are cool.” And much like the SCA, it’s a way of immersing and imagining oneself in a different time. “It puts a lot of history in context and breathes life into something that is a big part of our cultural heritage,” Scott says. Who needs summer escapes when escapism promises just as much fun?