Historical Reenactment

I first met Jack Garrett, the leader of the Vikings of Bjornstad , at a filming project on the top of Mount Diablo in July of 2004. I was there because some of my connections had invited me to participate, knowing of some of my prior experiences and activity in historical reenactment. I joined Bjornstad shortly after that and Rick Mantegani, Steve Crotty, Ed Berland and Brian Agron all came along with me at one point or another, after that. We had all been friends for many years before then, and done less strict historical reenactment sorts of things , going back as far as the later 1960′s, when some of us first met.

In 1965 I was an engineering student at College of Marin in Larkspur. I read Science fiction books, and studied foil fencing and took a sculpture course where I made a replica of a medieval broadsword, but wanted more! After COM I transferred to SF State and stopped foil fencing and met some fellow science fiction fans who resided a few doors down the hallway from my dorm room in the Residence Hall I lived in, on campus. We hung out a lot and they invited me to go to a local fan club meeting where I met another member, Poul Anderson ( the late SciFi Author). One day in March ( I think) of 1966 I stopped by their room to go to dinner with them and saw a poster on their bulletin board. ( this is it – see: http://history.westkingdom.org/Year1/Fliers/FirstEvent.jpg ) I asked if I could go and they said sure. I didn’t have a car then so I had to ride with them in one of their friend’s car ( they didn’t have cars either – we were all poor college students back then and relied on others or local municipal transportation, to get around.

On May 1, 1966 I had gathered my sword and a foil and other seemingly appropriate costume elements and went with my friends to the Oregon street address in Berkeley. Some of the day’s attendees I had met at earlier Sci Fi Fan club meetings and others were new to me. But for me the most fun was the sword fighting we did, using foils a few times and wooden swords and maces for much more of the fights. This was supposed to be simply a costume party with sword fighting as one of the entertainments, but it was felt to be so much fun, that many of us said we should do it again – soon. And we did in July and again in late September. A couple in the group had a medieval themed wedding in early September that we were all invited to participate in, and so we made even more costumes for it. All this stimulated a growth in interest and creativity along medieval lines, amongst the groups members.

At the first Tournament a combat winner was chosen by martial combat, He received a token to present to his Lady and she was proclaimed Queen of Love and Beauty for the event. At the second event they held a costume competition and I won a prize for my costume which included a steel helmet and steel shield which I had made after the first Tournament on May 1. My prize was a costume book . Another attendee won a book for another competition. That book was about armor, but they were more interested in costumes. So I traded books, and came home with my first book about armor. At the second Tournament I was shown a small patch of chain mail made from coat hanger wire. that really inspired me and I went back to the Dorm and began making mail out of free wire coat hangers when ever I had free time. By the third tournament I had made more weapons and had made a corselet of mail to cover my chest. I won that Tournament wearing it, and was given a scroll proclaiming me King and my Lady received one proclaiming her Queen. I early October I suggested a memorial party of some sort should be held celebrating the soon to be 900th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings on the 14th. A party was held on then, which I attended, in Berkeley with most of the members of a then growing Tournament interest group, composed of a mix of medievalists, SciFi Fans and a few martial arts fans.

During the following winter months it was decided to keep the momentum of activity rolling by holding an indoor event, a holiday party, to be called a Revel , on the 12th night of Christmas, January 6, 1967. This 12th Night revel included some food, lots of medieval music presented by a medieval music group that had attended the past two tournaments, the Consortium Antiquum. Some of us even learned simple medieval dances such as the Pavan and several Bransels. This Revel was held at Mills College in their Student Union building which was all wood paneling, with exposed huge beams and rafters in the ceiling and large brick fire places at opposite ends of the room. It offered a very period atmosphere for the hundred or more attendees.

The next Tournament was held on March 25, 1967 and there I wore my mail corselet, to which I had added more mail since the previous September Tournament, to make it into a newly completed full length ( to the knees) mail hauberk – the first home made one anywhere ( either in the USA or possibly in Europe, as well – I say that because shortly after that, I read an article in a magazine about a similar to us- interest group in England, based in Kent, some of whom were shown wearing armor made of rings sewn to a leather jerkin – but no mail, and wearing machine made helmets that look far from historical in appearance, but looked practically identical to some seen in British film productions about medieval subject matter – such as the Richard Green “Robin Hood TV series of the time. Also a few years later a British jousting group came to San Francisco to perform at the Cow Palace and their “mail” was made from knitted string spray painted grey. The lead person in the Magazine article wearing the rings sewn to leather, was John Waller. He has just recently retired a few of years ago from being the head of the Royal Armouries of England, at their new location in Leeds. John Waller, and now his son, has been a prominent person in the field of arms and armor for decades in England and can be seen in his prime as the Knight donning a suit of armor – piece by piece – in at least one large children’s picture book about medieval knights in armor.) along with my shield and helmet from earlier Tournaments.

Here is a link to a photo of me at that Tournament wearing my mail hauberk for the first time in public. See: http://history.westkingdom.org/Year1/Photos/MC01.htm

In subsequent years the group grew, and branches formed in other locations in the country. In 1968 the group became a 501c3 not for profit educational corporation named The Society For Creative Anachronism, Inc. or SCA for short.

During the past 47 years the SCA has grown from a small local ( northern California) group of fans to an international organization with branches throughout the world, based mostly in English speaking locations associated with US Military bases and a few countries where English is commonly spoken by the natives as a second language, if not the national language.

The SCA is not a true historical reenactment group because it has very minimal requirements to participate in SCA events. Membership is not required to attend an SCA event, though financial discounts are given to paid members and paid membership is required for some levels of participation in the SCA. As a result of it’s minimal requirements many people have joined the SCA over the years, and current membership is around 30,000 paid members. Possibly twice as many non-paid members attend an occasional SCA event now and then. There is probably an SCA event held every weekend ( save for a couple of major holidays) somewhere in the USA and even more over seas. Martial combat is a major component of SCA activity and combat practice sessions, both official and unofficial are held some weeknights in addition to weekend events. Likewise other activities such as costuming, calligraphy ( many SCA awards are in the form of calligraphed documents) armor making, cooking, heraldry, dance, etc. may also occur in group gatherings of some sort, mid week.

The SCA is where those of us originally outside of Bjornstad, all met.

After 30 plus years of the SCA I began to find it less satisfying and dreamed of doing something more “real”. My daughter’s Godfather , Mike, lives in Phoenix, where I first met him in 1968 at a newly forming branch of the SCA. We became and have been”brothers in arms” ever since. In 1999 I began looking for information about an Historical reenactment of the Battle of Hastings I had read about in the mid 1980′s in Smithsonian ( I think) Magazine. Back then I had sent a letter to England inquiring about it, but never got a reply. In 1999 I figured the internet might be the place to look and after several months i got a reference from a reenactment group in Australia. I contacted the reference in England and got a prompt reply with information about how to sign on for the next big one in 2000. I told Mike and he and I and Rick all went in October 2000 to Battle Abby. Mike and I participated in the reenactment and Rick took video of us there. There we met English and other European reenactors and learned about reenactment in Europe and other countries where history originally occurred or was still alive in the hearts of the people.

Subsequently we began to introduce that form of reenactment to some of the SCA and got more SCA members to go to England in October 2006 for the next big reenactment of the Battle of Hastings, held then. Ed Berland and Brian Agron went with us that year and joined Bjornstad around then.

Between 2000 and 2006 several of the British reenactment groups began sending training officers to the US to help establish local branches of their groups. By doing this they could train American and Canadian reenactors so they could participate safely in England at any event they might attend such as the big Hastings reenactments.

Currently Bjornstad is a member of Vikings North America, a now independent off-shoot of the largest ( about 750 members in Great Britain) and oldest ( formed in early 1970′s) Viking era reenactment group, originally named “The Norse Film and Pageant Society” but now named “The Vikings”. Similar groups exist in Great Britain ( next largest is Regia Anglorum – about 500 members) and in the other European countries, especially in the Scandinavian countries. Generally they are composed of a smaller number of members per group. The 2006 Hastings event drew about 3500 reenactors, from groups around the world. It was the largest such event ever. Last year they had a similar event but with less than half the number of reenactors present, due to the site owners decision of limiting how many reenactors they wanted to attend. More of us would have gone if they would have permitted us to do so.

The large Hastings Reenactment events have been a once every five to seven years scheduled event, and only once did it have as many as 3500 reenactors there – for only a singe weekend. The SCA however has many much larger events and they occur annually. The largest is Pennsic War ( outside Pittsburg ) with 10 to 15 thousand participants over a period of 2 weeks in late July thru early August. Then there is Estrella War which runs for a week at the end of February into early March, held outside Phoenix, with 3 to 7 thousand participants. I have videos I took there one year of three armies numbering about 1200 fighters each, fighting on the battlefield. There is Gulf war in late March held in Louisiana, Lilies War outside St Louis, in June, West An Tir War in Southern Oregon in early July, Great Western War down Highway 5 near Buttonwillow , in early October. Those are only the ones I know about. Others likely occur elsewhere too.

None of us were really RennFaire people. We simply went to the Faire to do things we liked, that the Faire permitted us to do. I liked to fight in armor and ride doing knightly things on horseback. years before they began hiring jousting troups to put on staged jousts, I rode there demonstrating knightly training activities – but not jousting. Real jousting is dangerous and I don’t like falling off horses and I am not a performer. I will demonstrate historical stuff, but I dislike putting on a show or performing. When the original owners ( and inventors of the concept of a Renaisance Faire) Ron and Phylis Patterson sold the Fair to new owners , the format of the Faire became more commercial and even less interesting for me and many others. In addition the opportunity and compensation provided by the Pattersons, for me to be able to participate in the Faire in a capacity that I was willing to accept, ceased to be available, so I stopped going. I can’t comment about others.

I can’t say who in other parts of the world started reenactment. I suspect it has been ongoing in some form for many years if not centuries. We in the SCA began because we wanted to do the things we did and it snowballed in popularity. In more recent decades a variety of things have come along which have contributed significantly to a recent upsurge of activity.

First is communication via the internet. it is allowing instant communication bringing video and textual information to everyone rapidly. In 1966 we had only phones, and snail mail. and photos and home movies , either expensive or slow or both.

Second is information – again easily available on line, as well as new discoveries – such as combat manuals dating back the the middle ages, excavated finds such as the Staffordshire Hoard, etc.. and museum collections now available on line instead of by personal visits to the museum in question.

Development, and growing popularity of Western Martial Arts Studies. This parallels the discovery and translation of medieval combat manuals, as well as gives a culturally significant alternative to Asian Martial Arts Studies, to the Western World.

With the fall of the Iron Curtain, access to Eastern Europe and it’s peoples, has permitted new social interactions as well as provided new resources of historical crafts and historical locations ( such as the Polish Viking site of Wolen) and other Baltic culture. The appearance of The Battle Of the Nations six years ago, seems to be a blending of WMA, MMA and Historical reenactment. How this plays out remains to be seen. In 2013 it will be held in France ( a year ago it was in Poland). Look for it on line.

July 2020