Live by the sword, die by the sword
A nervous look spreads across a young man’s face as he stands surrounded by a group of men and women, draped in what appears to be traditional medieval garb. A short, stocky, sweaty guy pulling on layers of iron armor is in the young man’s face. His barrel chest and belly are in the process of being concealed with a draping of heavy armor; his chin is pushed up by a stout neck protector that extends down to his chest and rests on his meaty shoulders. Soon there will be a fifteen pound helmet of dented metal resting upon his shoulders to complete the ensemble.
All the metal is dented with the marks of receiving heavy blows. His leg protectors operate with swivels and pivot points to allow him to move, his heavy metal gloves protect his wrists and the tops of his hands, letting him to hold his “ugly stick” and a shield in the other hand.
The new-comer keeps a nervous and excited smile on his face as he accepts pointers from this seasoned, medieval brawler. Through physical example the seasoned “heavy fighter” jabs his strong finger into the spots in which one should aim for during a battle. In doing so he catches a glimpse of discomfort in the new-comer’s eye and ensures him that in order to participate, you had better get used to people touching you and being in your space. The new-comer nods and reassures his instructor that he does not have a problem with it.
The “ugly stick” is a fierce looking piece of weaponry. A five foot piece of wood with iron fittings on both ends and two iron cross pieces about a foot from one end make it a device of detrimental pain. Re-wrapped over and over with grip-tape to conceal the chunks that have been left behind in opponents’ armor, the stick has character. And if it could talk it would probably scream.
Metal creaks against metal as the two heavy fighters make their way onto the grassy field. About 50 yards away, a swift but much more delicate swordplay is underway. Two men in fencing masks and long cloaks fend each other off with their thin swords. During battle scenarios at the events, a field can have a melee of up to fifty fighters, making these practices just a tease to what can really be done.
It is like two bulls about too ram horns as the two heavy fighters face off. A code of absolute honor is always upheld in practice and organized events. It is up to each individual fighter to recognize when he or she has been hit, and to act accordingly. The fighter who has delivered the blow cannot and usually will not claim that their blow rendered the other fighter dead or wounded.
If a fighter receives a strong blow to the leg they are required to go down to their knees as if rendered legless. From the ground they can continue to fight until they suffer a blow deadly enough to stop them fully; a blow to the head would be an example, and blows to the head do occur.
There is little holding back when doing the heavy fighting. Fighters leave with bruises all the time. Their forearms will remain black and blue for weeks and they are worn as badges of honor, proof that they can handle it. And while some practice several times a week, those bruises are rarely absent.
As the ugly sticks fly, fighters are bashed in the head, the torso, the legs, the arms; only their shield is there to protect them and when a five-foot stick with iron fittings is being thrust in a fighter’s direction, the shield doesn’t always block the momentum. It is not for the weak or the timid.
Christopher Starling, 55, has been with The Shire for almost ten years. A stout man with a round, friendly face; he sports a tie-die shirt and insists that everyone eat a piece of the lemon cake his wife provided, so that he won’t have to eat them all himself.
A few years back, Sterling was doing some heavy fighting practice with another member. Sterling delivered a solid blow to his opponent’s leg; sending him to the ground, as one is expected to do after losing a leg. As the man covered in full metal armor came crashing to his knees, his shield came down on to Sterling’s hand. Although his hands were concealed in metal gloves, the side of the heavy shield found the one small opening, the Achilles tendon of the glove if you will, and slipped right in, shattering Sterling’s thumb. It was the type of rare accident that can only occur when two grown men are clad in full armor, wielding ugly sticks and metal shields at each other.
Sterling is the senior locksmith for San Francisco’s oldest locksmith company, Warman Security, (the irony is not unseen) which has occupied the same location since 1914. Sterling realized that while he loved heavy fighting, he also loved his livelihood; and lock-smithing is a livelihood that does not go well with broken fingers. So after being a heavy fighter for several years and participating in five Crown Tournaments, he has hung up his ugly stick and switched to rapier.
Steady rotations of fighters leave and enter the practice field. Along the street, lawn chairs are out next to their parked cars and aside from long cloaks, piles of transient armor, a few bags of swords, some shields and a pile of ugly sticks; it’s just another day in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
Art Mac Ceallaish sits back and relaxes between rounds of rapier. His aviators conceal his eyes and his gray hair is pulled back into a very long ponytail. A blue, homemade cloak of heavy denim drapes over his body.
Art got into Shire life over eight years ago and took to rapier. The heavy fighting interested him, but he says that with a bad back and being sixty-years-old, the reality of being beaten with an ugly stick probably is not the best idea if he wishes to continue this hobby.
Before joining another fencer on the field he slips on his mask. On the mesh face guard he has painted a somewhat ghoulish set of eyes, mouth and nose. He is tall, and holding two swords, one long for the offense and a shorter side arm for defense, squashing any stigma that might apply to a 60-year-old man. He is an intimidating figure, draped in heavy blue and wearing the ominous mask. It is hard for some of these folks to not look intimidating in their garb, but a quick chat quickly reveals they are a warm, welcoming group of people who have a passion and interest in times passed.
The Shire of Cloondara is the San Francisco chapter of a much larger organization. The Society for Creative Anachronism, or SCA,is a world wide organization of over thirty thousand members, who are dedicated to studying and re-creating the practices, styles and the arts of pre-17th Century Europe.
The Shire of Cloondara falls into the domain of the Western Kingdom, which includes Northern California, most of Nevada, Alaska and the Pacific Rim. In the world of the SCA, there are nineteen kingdoms across the globe. Within the kingdoms there are the branch groups. These are broken down by size and work just as the larger kingdoms do. Aside from shires; there are baronies, cantons and colleges. Within each branch group there is a hierarchy of roles and ranks; there is a seneschal, a herald, minister of arts and sciences, marshall and chirurgeon.
From shore to shore and across all continents there is almost always some activity occurring within the society. For example, in Arizona, in the week of February 14 through the 19 was the Estrella War in the Kingdom of Atenveldt. This week-long camping festival turns into a city of nearly ten thousand participants. Goods are sold, battles are fought, songs are sang, and merriment is made.
At the same time, in Bangkok, Thailand, is the Feast of Feralia in the Canton of the Golden Playne. And it does not stop there, over the same dates there is also the Valentine’s revel in the Provence of the Silver Desert in Reno. For many, these festivals are the best part of being an active member of the society.
Battle is not the only aspect of interest for the SCA or any of their smaller chapters like The Shire of Cloondara. Total attention is paid to crafts of the medieval ages. Members are active participants in groups such as brewing (beer), leather arts, metal working, medieval encampment, wood working, textiles and weaving, culinary arts, theatre arts and even medieval gardening.
Caitlin Ayers shows up to Sunday practice with her boyfriend. They have been involved with The Shire for just over a year and appear to be fully integrated into the scene. He cloaks himself in a long green robe that is typical of rapier swordplay. He has long curly hair and is quick to offer pointers to a new-comer, who is being taught some basic points of sword fighting. In the past year Brogan—his Shire name—has become a very proficient swordsman.
While he hits the field to practice with another member, his girlfriend Caitlin hangs out up top by the cars. Short, with brown hair and a Twilight sweatshirt, she joins the others in loose conversation about Shire related and unrelated issues.
Caitlin, 25, graduated from Mills College with a major in English and a minor in book arts; a self-proclaimed book nerd. Among other things she learned ancient techniques of book binding, as well as how to operate the 100-year-old Vanderbilt Press.
“Books have been around as long as the written word and that is a long time, and that’s a long time”, she says. She quivers with delight at the idea of beautifully bound books from the medieval period.
She practiced fencing through high school and college but because of a bad knee her activities within The Shire revolve more around old fashioned book binding and sewing traditional garb. At the next Crown Tournament, she hopes to be a Lister.
A Lister is typically a female and is in charge of controlling the list of fighters during the Crown Tournaments. These tournaments determine who will be crowned the next king. All the heavy fighters wishing to participate are presented before the current court in a traditional fashion. The King and Queen sit at the head of the battle grounds and watch as fighters compete in an elimination process that gives each fighter two chances, if you lose twice you are out. The victor surfaces as the new king and will hold that title for about three months. In these events, any class of fighter may participate; you do not need to be a knight, all though the knights usually win.
Those who win the crown twice earn the title of Duke. And as the folks from the Shire say, if you become a king five times, you become an “Uber Duke.” It is one of many unofficial terms within Shire lingo. They call the current King, known as Jade of Star Fall, “the once and every other king,” because he seems to be king every other time.
There is a rumor and a myth around the Shire and among the entire SCA. With thousands of members trained in hand-to-hand combat they are a force to be reckoned with, despite their light-heated nature.
“The SCA is one of the largest private armies in the world,” says Sterling. “I’ve heard, I’m not positive that the SCA is under observation by the FBI.”
Other members have heard the rumor too. Sterling has met a member who even claims to have met an FBI agent who became enchanted with the SCA after investigating them and then continued to participate in practices and events.
“It doesn’t surprise me that he would get sucked in,” says Sterling. “That is how we get a lot of members. They stop by to check it out, then the next thing you know they’re buying swords or piecing together suits of armor. We’re funny like that.”