Past is present for North Bay’s medieval re-creators

Clash of swords can be heard Sundays at Napa's Fuller Park
2014-03-15T20:17:00Z 2014-04-27T00:49:55Z Past is present for North Bay’s medieval re-creatorsHOWARD YUNE Napa Valley Register
March 15, 2014 8:17 pm  • 

For one group of Napans, the weekends are a time when the past is not past.

A scene that plays out at Fuller Park on most Sunday mornings might grab the passing neighbor, jogger or dog-walker as a time warp from centuries ago and an ocean away. Men and women clad in medieval-style mail, plate and scale armor clash swords, swing battle axes, parry blows with shields, oblivious for a few hours to their decidedly 21st-century surroundings of parked cars and candy-colored playground equipment.

Their weapons may be blunted for safety, their uniforms a mix of the handmade and Internet-bought.

But the 66 members of the Society for Creative Anachronism’s (SCA) local chapter are part of a culture of historical re-creation, bringing to life the arms and costumes — as well as the arts, crafts and manners — of medieval and Renaissance-era times normally locked within history books.

“You get a different perspective than history classes give you, because you’re seeing it in action,” said Fara Otterbeck, a longtime member of the SCA’s local club, the Barony of Vinhold, and spokeswoman for the society’s West Kingdom comprising groups from Northern California and as far north as Alaska. “We want people to have the experience: not a re-enactment but a re-creation.”

Fuller Park is their practice home

For nearly half a century, members of the SCA have organized kingdoms, shires, principalities and other groups to celebrate the past by reliving its culture.

Some of its longest-serving members have called Napa home since the early 1980s, turning Fuller Park into their practice ground for the tournaments and mock battles that are one of the movement’s best-known traits — and, for many enthusiasts, their introduction into that world.

“Going to Oregon State, I was taking medieval history and fencing,” said Greg Dawson, a participant for 34 of his 52 years and one of the Napa SCA group’s longest-serving members.

“There was an adventure class that practiced on campus during the rainy season, called ‘Medieval Warfare: The Art of Bashing.’ Then when I came home I found out my local friends had found SCA in Oakland and Berkeley. This was live role-playing; when they said they made knights, that’s when I said, ‘OK, now I’m hooked!’”

Among the practice fighters in Napa are much more recent converts like Kai Morgan, a Napa fencing instructor who first joined the Barony of Vinhold last summer almost on a dare.

“I had a fencing student who was fed up with getting his butt kicked, and he said, ‘Well, I’ve played your game, so why don’t you play mine?’” Morgan recalled between sword drills after briefly pulling off his bascinet, a copy of a ridged metal helmet widely used by 14th-century European warriors.

The mobile, muscular fighting style he began to learn was a shock to a classical fencer trained on precision and moving only forward and back, but it’s a challenge he has readily taken on.

“I’m a history major and a total buff for this,” he said. “It’s also the challenge of getting better at something new. It’s nice to start from scratch to be a total beginner again and work your way up.”

Morgan honed his new/old weaponry techniques with a succession of partners, including some visiting from other Bay Area SCA groups.

Against Michael Johnstone, who participates in the Sonoma County Shire of Wolfscairn as “Stone the Skald,” he battled for a 10-second burst before scoring a hit on Johnstone’s leg — below the round shield inscribed with Norse runic characters.

“Comfortable?” Morgan asked.

“Very comfortable,” Johnstone replied with a ritualized courtesy, as he knelt to simulate a warrior wounded but still keeping up the fight.

“Engage!” his opponent shouted, and their swords clashed once more.

A movement born in Berkeley

Elsewhere on the park lawn, a woman temporarily sporting a bandanna instead of headgear crossed swords with another SCA member. Two aspects of her stood out, though only one was readily seen — a blue-red-yellow outfit that seemed to cut through the cloudy, damp midmorning conditions.

Jessica Cohen’s other distinction was her hometown of Berkeley, where the historical re-enactment movement began in May 1966 with a “grand tournament” of wooden swords in the backyard of Diana L. Paxson, the future writer of fantasy fiction and works on paganism. Twelve years later, SCA enthusiasts were a common enough sight in town to grab the curiosity of a 13-year-old Jessica.

“Berkeley is where it started, and I kept seeing people wearing those clothes,” the 48-year-old Cohen said. “My best friend in school helped sew my first costume and took me to my first event, and I was hooked.”

Her attraction to the neo-medieval life extended well beyond the tournament grounds, she said, crediting the fine-arts showings at SCA exhibitions, and their general atmosphere of times past, for setting her on her career path.

“I became a writer and illustrator (of both fine-arts and children’s books), and it was all because of this,” said Cohen. “If you love this sort of thing, eventually you get drawn into the whole package.”

“I’ve been doing this 35 years, and I’ve made my closest friends here. If you like these things, they become your core values. Just being here says it’s important to you.”

Medieval life on display

Geoffrey of Griffinhold’s fighting prowess had been on display for two hours, but as he reverted to Jack Gillespie and shed his scale-like leather armor and removed the metal greaves from his shins, the high school teacher pointed to the other, more peaceful ways of honoring the past — the reproduction furniture he crafts for SCA gatherings, or the dishes his wife, Kira Leonova, prepares for them based on centuries-old culinary texts from France and Italy.

Displaying and sharing the full range of medieval European daily life is as much at the heart of the movement as the armor and costumes, according to Otterbeck, the West Kingdom spokeswoman, who performs as a storyteller as Aurelia de Montfort, one of the period personae most SCA participants adopt.

“Entertainments become so important when you no longer have an electronic device,” Otterbeck said wryly. “Me, I can’t sing or play an instrument — but I sure can tell one hell of a story!”

In Napa, the Barony of Vinhold hosts a Baronial Championship each spring at Skyline Park, along with a fall feast tied with the harvest season.

Other weeks in the calendar see Napa SCA members traveling to tournaments, championships and feasts across the West, from bardic performances to royal-style “investitures” of club officers to the Great Western War, an October gathering in Kern County of re-enactors from throughout Southern California.

Nowhere is the breadth of SCA’s activities on fuller display than at the largest of its annual get-togethers — Pennsic, a 17-day jamboree in rural western Pennsylvania that attracts upward of 10,000 people for performances, a “university” of arts and crafts, and full-scale field battles in period-style armor.

“I was at Pennsic, and it felt like I was with 12,000 of my closest friends,” said Otterbeck. “You feel like you know them all, like you have the same common goals. You can’t see any modern buildings, even telephone poles; all you see is 2,000 people (in the battle events) who want to bash your face in — scary but loads of fun.”

Ultimately, she suggested, such bonds of common enthusiasm may be more than the movement’s purpose, but its best tool to keep the flame burning.

“What brings people into SCA is seeing someone else do it — seeing someone in costume or in tournaments,” she said. “It’s seeing the love of the ideals of chivalry, of the romanticism of it.”

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