Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Pennsic War

During my recent vacation I attended, as I usually do, the SCA's Pennsic War. The Society for Creative Anachronism or SCA is a very large medieval re-creation group -- not a reenactment group because it does not reenact specific events of the Middle Ages, but has created its own Middle Ages for fun. The Pennsic War to give an example is fought between two SCA kingdoms, the Middle Kingdom and the East Kingdom, and their allies, none of which you will find on a map of Europe in any era. Wrapped around this war, which is by far the largest SCA event on the calendar, are a large number of organized and spontaneous activities, martial, educational, and artistic -- not to mention the parties and the various efforts to survive in what is essentially a tent city of 10,000 people or more.

I could go on for a long time trying to convey the Pennsic experience, but I will restrict my remarks to a few. First, reenactment. If neither Pennsic nor the SCA are primarily meant as reenactments, a fact that earns them scorn from many people who are aiming at reenactment, there are moments of reenactment nonetheless. At this Pennsic war I was able to witness attempts to re-create or reenact, with differing levels of accuracy, to deeds of arms of the 14th century which I have written about in scholarly venues, the Combat of the 30 against 30 that took place in Brittany in 1351, and the deeds of arms at Vannes, also in Brittany, of 1381. (The image above shows a few of the French 30 preparing for the combat.) Though one could easily stand back and list deficiencies in these reenactments, I found them enjoyable and even educational. (Here's my kvetch: Armor fans will note in the image above that the participants in this annual event tend to favor late- rather than mid-14th century armor. And many of them seem to be armored like princes instead of mercenary scum.)

More interesting even than the recreations and reenactments of the Middle Ages is the is a freewheeling modern-medievalist (?) culture of Pennsic. Two small examples will give an impression, I hope.

The first is the Pennsic rune stone. Long ago (1981), some SCA members from the American Midwest tried to express what the martial competitions at Pennsic, which are vigorous and sometimes painful but seldom really dangerous, meant to them. They did it in mock- Viking style by erecting stone monument. It is pictured above. The inscription, which I offer without comment, says:

In memory of Pennsic X.
In war we test our honor, courage and strength.
Let no man strike in anger.
Let no man lie in pain.

The work was done by Lars the Fierce, now a professional potter, who still attends Pennsic.

My second example is newer than the rune stone: it is a Turkish-style coffeehouse called Your Inner Vagabond, which is dedicated to the pleasures that can be achieved with such legal stimulants as coffee, sugar, chocolate, and all the spices of the silk road. Not to mention occasional music and dance. The IV, as the worst addicts call it, has been such a success that it now has a permanent location in Pittsburgh, about an hour from Pennsic site. The on-site location is now considerably bigger than shown in the picture above, which is two years old.

Usually my time at Pennsic is entirely devoted to nonliterate pursuits. I tend to avoid the printed page, and I entirely avoid the glowing screen. But this year I did something I've never done at Pennsic before: I wrote a lecture (on the Second Crusade). And I did it while sitting in the Inner Vagabond and sampling its wares. It was pure pleasure.

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