Armor-clad knights reenact sword battles at the Rockridge BART

Some people coming out of the Rockridge BART station stop and observe; some just shake their heads and continue walking. The scene before them is not what one would expect on a sunny Thursday evening—it seems as if a window to the Middle Ages has been opened in the parking lot next to the BART station. A dozen people have lined up in shiny armor. Fighters with helmets, cuirasses, shields and swords circle around each other and the sound of blows delivered on armor fills the parking lot.

Mac, a 9-year-old curious bystander, approaches a man who is gearing up next to his car. “We’re training for heavy combat,” explains the man and asks Mac if he wants to try on his shiny silver helmet. Mac’s eyes shine with joy as he tries it on.

The people gathered at the parking lot are members of a group dedicated to reenacting and researching the Middle Ages, explains Lee Forgue, who has been with the group for 38 years. The Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) was founded by students at UC Berkeley in 1966. Today, says Forgue, there are more than 30,000 members worldwide who all share a passion for the pre-17th Century Europe.

Members of the SCA recreate a persona from a certain time they are interested in and participate in events organized by the society, which range from workshops to feasts and sword-fighting tournaments and are hosted by different groups within the organization.

The SCA world is organized into 19 kingdoms and their respective subcategories. California belongs to the “Kingdom of the West” and the greater San Francisco area is known as “Principality of the Mists” in which Baronies, Shires, Cantons, and Colleges exist as subcategories.

Tonight, SAC members have come to the parking lot to train in sword fighting skills. “In the 20th Century my name is Christopher Scott and I am an IT professional,” says one of the fighters, adding, “In the Middle Ages I am Korwern Ariannaid.” He wears authentic-looking heavy welded chain that reaches down to his hip. A silver cuirass and a pointed helmet protect his upper body.

A group member who goes by the name “Uther Schiemann Der Hunt,” and who is one of the best sword fighters in the Bay Area kingdom, explains that the fighting can be compared to traditional martial art. People are tutored by older members of the community and step up in ranks as they progress over the years and win tournaments. He started fighting 20 years ago and won multiple national tournaments, earning him the highest available title of “Duke.” Compared to martial arts, it’s like being a senior black belt, he says.

The fighting in the SCA follows strict rules and the safety of the fighters takes precedence over an authentic reenactment. Armor must be worn and is approved by officials, the weapons are made of rattan instead of steel and marshals observe official fights and intervene when a player is at risk of getting injured. However, the fighting remains a full contact sport, as Schiemann Der Hunt points out.

Often the fighting is the flashy part that draws people into the SCA. While he was already interested in science fiction books, role playing and Jiu-Jitsu, Schiemann der Hunt saw a sword fighting demo 20 years ago and was instantly hooked on the SCA. Today he says, it is not only about the fighting for him. “There is a huge sense of community and comradeship,” he says. Over the years he has developed strong bonds with other fighters with whom he practices with or meets at tournaments.

Twenty-five-year old Tasia has given herself the Gaelic name “Sadb” for her SCA activities. She is the only female fighter at the parking lot and agrees that the SCA has a strong group identity. For her, it’s also about values like chivalry that all members share. “This is not a play, this is an ideal that we all hold and we try to live up to it,” she says as she prepares for her next training fight. She wears a riveted leather vest, a shiny helmet and silver plates that protect her hands and forearms as well as her knees and thighs.

“It took me a lot time to get my armor together,” says Tasia who just started fighting a year ago and wants to train a lot in the future to improve. Also, she says, she would like to get into sewing and designing period-style dresses.

The Society for Creative Anachronism is an officially registered non-profit and many of its members help foster knowledge about the Middle Ages. Members regularly hold workshops, provide demonstrations of various kinds and even go to schools to teach about the Medival times. A lot of its members never go near armor and study instead ancient coinmaking, calligraphy, sewing or recipes.

Christopher Scott, the IT professional, says that the scholarship in the group has significantly increased over the years. In the beginning, people started out “as one would really expect it” with improvised gear like trashcans that were used as helmets. Over the years, he says, the group has attracted a lot of expertise. All members devote time to the region, time or personas they are interested in and more than a few hold PhDs in history or comparable fields. Also, e-commerce has helped the members to recreate the Middle Ages since it has enabled them to buy more authentic-looking gear. Some of the craftsmanship coming out of the society is so authentic that, for example, armor made by group members has appeared in Hollywood movies.

However, Scott notes, recently the SCA has seen a fall off in younger members due to online fantasy gaming because it lets fantasy fans gather online instead of in real life.  “It is interesting to me,” says Scott, adding, “I suspect it’s just a cyclic thing — we have been around for 45 years.”

Judging from the crowded parking lot, there still seems to be considerable interest in the activities of the SCA. Passengers regularly stop and watch. Mac, the 9-year-old boy who tried on a fighter’s helmet, is also very interested but he has to go to bed now. His mother asks for information about the SCA’s kids’ activities and website before leaving with him. Maybe the SCA will soon be able to welcome a new passionate junior member.

Fight practice for SCA’s “Province of the Mists“ takes place every Thursday from 7:30 pm to 10 pm in the big parking lot of the Rockridge BART station. Anyone interested is welcome to attend. More information can be found on the official website of the “Society for Creative Anachronism” and the regional site of the “Kingdom of the West”.

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