Roughly between grade school and my senior year of high school, visiting my dad could mean two things: We’d either spend the weekend hanging out in his treehouse and ice skating, or hastily putting on Viking and Elizabethan costumes in order to attend a Medieval style-feast that might include dances straight out of The Tudors or fighting with swords and shields.
This is what happens when your dad is in the SCA -- the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group dedicated to re-creating life before the 17th century. And when they say “life” they really do mean any culture, from any place in the world, making their Medieval reenactments a mishmash of people dressed in the clothing of cultures sometimes hundreds of years apart.
(My dad and my stepmom were textbook examples of this: He was a 10th century Viking, while she wore the elaborate costumes of the Elizabethan Golden Age, separating them by at least 500 years. I told people they’d had to get into a time machine to get married.)
A huge part of SCA events is being “period” -- short for “historically accurate to the time period.” This means that, while at an event, you ate Medieval food, dressed in Medieval clothes, and took part in Medieval style entertainment. If you went all out, you even learned Medieval crafting skills in order to create the things you would use at events. For example, my dad brewed his own mead, carved his own bow and arrows, and learned how to hand-cobble his own Viking-style shoes.
As an adult who is sometimes overwhelmed by simple obligations like working, writing, and doing the dishes, the sheer amount of labor that my dad and stepmom poured into these events astonishes me. Clothing was just one part of it: my stepmother, a master seamstress, created not only her own costumes (such as a full Elizabethan gown sewn from sari fabric and decorated in thousands of seed pearls) but simpler versions of “garb” for me and my step sister to wear to events.
Since a weekend event would involve at least two changes of clothing -- the simplest outfit allowed being a T-tunic with pants or hose -- that quickly added up to dozens of tunics for a household of four.
This doesn’t even touch on the other gear required to go to an SCA event. Tents (and not the easy-up modern kind, we’re talking about canvas, ropes and wooden poles), a rope bed, coolers for food, lamps and fire starting gear, tiki torches and the fuel for same, blankets and pillows, rain gear, shields and armor and swords…. the list goes on and on.
So why do it? For my dad, a history geek of the highest order, this was a chance to find out how people “really” lived during a time period he was obsessed with, the “living history” method of discovery. For me, who was more obsessed with fantasy novels than any kind of history, the thing that kept me coming back was Pennsic.
Pennsic (the name comes from a portmanteau of “Pennsylvania,” where the event is held, and “Punic Wars”) is a two-week event so massive that it forms a Field-of-Cloth-of-Gold-style tent city. (Some groups would go even farther and build faux castles out of painted canvas and plywood like the one in episode 2 of The Tudors, though I never heard of one that had booze fountains).
In a lot of ways, the way I felt about Pennsic was the way I still feel about New York: things happen there that can’t happen anywhere else. Pennsic was where, for two weeks out of every summer, I could be a grubby urchin turned loose in a marketplace that rivaled the ones in fantasy novels.
I would eat “rat on a stick” (actually some kind of sausage) and rummage through merchant tents that sold everything from used books and garb to full sets of armor. (There was also a rag-dressed man who wandered all over camp hawking plush “plague rats”-- everyone I knew had at least one.)
There were the fire-eaters, belly-dancers and acrobats that would join together to form temporary circuses and travel from encampment to encampment performing. (One year I even got to “run away with the circus” and played a lion in a skit that involved a real bullwhip.) And then there was watching the main event, the War itself, where thousands of people would form miniature armies and clash on the battlefield.
(I wanted desperately to join in but was also afraid to -- all the “swords” were actually sticks padded with foam, but broken collarbones and concussions still sometimes happened.) To my dying day, I will remember the little shiver of laughter and horror I felt as I watched a barbarian horde of middle-aged men roaring in unison “We are sheep -- SHEEP, WITH TEETH!”
I went to Pennsic five times, but only as an adult have I realized how little I really understood, much like how my dad would edit “Too Damn Far Road” (an actual Pennsic road name) to “Too Darn Far Road.” The reason my barely-teenaged Pennsic friends warned me never to be seen wearing any jewelry with a blue feather on it was because the gay-only encampment was known as Camp Blue Feather (adult me does NOT approve of this homophobia).
Just a few months ago, when I idly picked up a recommended pulpy novel, I realized the reason so many people had warned me never to go up “Tuchux Hill” was because it was populated by a whole subculture named after the “Tuchux” wagon people in John Norman’s novel, Nomads of Gor. (The fictional Tuchux had a habit of keeping naked women in cages hung outside their wagons). I have since heard that Pennsic’s Tuchux were more about fighting, wearing horse tails and Goth-tastic armor, than BDSM, but since I was an unfortunately obedient teen, I can’t verify this for myself.
Around my junior year of high school, though, my interest in all things Medieval began to wane. Part of me was ashamed for spending so much of my childhood playing, when I could have been, say, learning Mandarin, and I felt woefully unprepared in the face of things like college planning or my friends’ struggles with PTSD.
Another part of me was also exhausted by the culture shock that would occur every time I went from my mom’s orderly suburban house to my dad’s chaotic semi-rural house. Then there was the endless packing required for camping at events, not to mention having to follow a subculture’s strange rules (you were expected to bow when SCA “royalty” walked by, and it was normal to receive a kiss on the hand instead of a handshake).
This exhaustion has unfortunately continued past college, even when I’ve learned to look more kindly on my fantasy-obsessed teen self. Every time I’m tempted to go back to Pennsic just to see it through the eyes of an adult (I truly regret not having spent more time watching the battles) just the thought of having to make or buy all those tunics exhausts me.
Still, there’s nothing I love more than trading reenactment stories, so if you’re an ex-SCAer like me, leave your wackiest tale in the comments. And if anyone who is or once was a Tuchux is reading this… what was it like on the Hill? Did you think the rest of camp was giant jerks for ostracizing you, or was that just my Dad trying to keep me out of trouble?