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'Safer than football'

Medieval life re-created Saturday at Hager House

Medieval life re-created Saturday at Hager House

June 13, 2008|By ROWAN COPLEY

Special to The Herald-Mail

As I don a thick, leather vest and squeeze my head into a snug iron helmet in preparation for battle, I consider how different sword fighting might be from anything else I have done in my life.

This is all part and parcel of the life of the Society for Creative Anachronisms. An international organization based in California, the SCA is dedicated to the re-creation of medieval life. Local SCA groups host fairs featuring sword fighting, medieval food and medieval crafts.

Your typical SCA fair, like the upcoming Highland Foorde Melees on Saturday, June 14, on the grounds of the Hager House in Hagerstown's City Park, will consist not only of swordplay, but a variety of recreations of medieval and Renaissance life.

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I've been to a half-dozen melees in Hagerstown. It's a lively scene, with a row of period vendors selling handmade clothing, jewelry, and weapons. Tents fill a field, some with musicians and merry-goers, others with more merchants. Some tents provide shade for SCA royal courts and their fighters.

Contests are held all day for members of the SCA to prove their skill. A feast is held later in the evening, but only for SCA members who purchase tickets.

Stepping into the Middle Ages

I met up with a group of SCAdians, as they sometimes call themselves, practicing swordplay and enjoying an admittedly nonmedieval barbecue. I wanted to see what kind of a fool I could make of myself in man-to-man combat.

The Baron and Baroness of Highland Foorde drive up in a minivan. The SCA divides up the United States and the world into kingdoms, baronies and duchies, as in medieval Europe. The Barony of Highland Foorde is Western Maryland - Frederick, Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties.

The amicable Baron Llywelyn Ap Rhotbert (real name Arthur Glatfelter), fills me in on some details about swordplay while we watch two fighters spar. SCA combat follows rules to determine injuries and deaths. Each combatant judges whether a blow struck by the rattan swords would be lethal. A blow to an arm means you lose the use of that arm for the remainder of the fight; the same with a leg. A hard hit to the head or body of a combatant is considered a kill.

Safety is a key concern of the SCA. There are certain rules for safety in the build of the armor to protect combatants. But injuries are apparently few and far between, considering the sport.

"We're safer than high school football," chimes in Lord Fergus (aka Eric Knibb), who made his own chain-mail armor. Most of the injuries are from falling down, he says, not getting hit with a sword.

Armored and dangerous

With that in mind, I trudge out eagerly to face my first opponent to spar. I try to remember what I was told: Hold my shield at nose level and slanted outward to deflect sword blows; keep my sword up; keep my stance just right. But all that makes me think too much. My opponent easily bests me with a solid thwack to the head. That's alright, I'm just getting warmed up.

Lord Fergus shows me a few tricks about how to swing a sword with my hips instead of my arms, and I feel like I'm getting the hang of a few basic techniques.

SCA fighting is essentially a sport, with the added incentive to be as historical as possible. There's a lot of attention to detail that goes into making the outfit (or garb) for a combatant, or for any SCA participant. And there are combat strategies and techniques that need to be mastered, like in football or soccer. But these techniques were once used to wage wars.

I have found members of the SCA to be very friendly and open to inquiries about their practices. They will talk to you, in great depth, about the historical accuracy of fighting, the crafting of weapons and other interesting aspects of medieval life. Taking a break from sparring, a few of the fighters discuss how animals cope with cooling down their bodies and how this relates to fighting. A toddler wanders over and demands equipment. "Hey, where my armor!" A discussion springs up about brewing beer in the style of medieval brewers.

Whacked in the head

Lord Fergus agrees to duel me. This time, I'm fighting someone with a greatsword, a two-handed 4-foot-long monster - which means he's got a lot more reach than I do. I've got to close the gap between the two of us fast if I want to strike any blows. I pace around him, trying to get a sense of his weapon's differences.

I go in for a strike over his shield but he easily gets me with his giant sword on the head. I decide I need a slight change in strategy. Instead of just using my shield to block hits to my body, I decide to try to push his greatsword away, so I can get at his exposed midsection. If I can get really close, I will have the advantage because of my weapon's shorter length.

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