Fight Club

By Megan Hess

Creative contenders duke it out like 14th-century royalty

Fight Club

To the untrained eye, it looks like a local Verizon service rep is beating the bejeezus out of a tech guy at the Oneida County Department of Planning. But to the members of the Society for Creative Anachronism, it’s simply another Wednesday night of heavy weapons fighting practice — and Andrew Biel and Rick Reichert are duking it out medieval-style.

A group of onlooking members, ranging from toddlers in diapers to old people in diapers, huddle on the sidelines upstairs at the Polish American Citizens Club in Syracuse, watching Biel throw cup shots that Reichert blocks with his shield. Reichert retaliates by pivoting his torso and extending his four-foot polehammer sword, styled with a wooden handle mounted on a steel head.

The SCA is an international nonprofit organization designed as a hands-on model for researching and recreating pre-17th-century European life.

In 1966, a group of science fiction fiends and history buffs in Berkeley, Calif. got together for a small backyard weapons tournament. Invitations were sent, summoning “all knights to defend in single combat the title of ‘fairest’ for their ladies.” The event was such a success, the ragtag group was ready to go big, but they needed a name. Since creativity was their main goal, and the recreation of the Middle Ages is an anachronism — something “out of place in time” — they became the Society for Creative Anachronism. It was a spur-of-the-moment invention that, with the help of science fiction fandom and friends, would one day go worldwide.

In its first year, six SCA events were held, and the number grew to nine in the second year. In the third year, a chapter was founded on the East Coast, thus distinguishing the new East Kingdom from the original West Kingdom.

The SCA, or the “Knowne World,” now covers 19 kingdoms on five continents with nearly 60,000 members. The association holds events featuring combat, archery, equestrian activities, metalwork, woodworking, music, dance, and calligraphy. Members typically sew their own costumes, construct theirown weapons, and brew their own beers — all in the fashion of 14th-century England. Biel, who also goes by his 14th-century Scandinavian name Earl Yngvar the Dismal, is clad in steel plates on red felt attached to his chest, elbows, and knees as he hurls blows at Reichert. His bassonic, a log-like weapon covered in duct tape, is attached to his skull-engraved helmet. Even his woven leather turn shoes, which look like something Peter Pan might wear, are based on knights’ armor circa England 1335.

But being part of the SCA is about more than just aesthetics. “It isn’t the stuff you do, it’s what you are,” said Lance Brown, more commonly known as Tindal. Brown, a videographer, is the newest knight in the Kingdom of Aethelmearc, the kingdom which includes Western and Central New York. He wears a thin white belt around his waist to signify he is part of the 1 percent of all knighted fighters.

“A knight is the type of guy you’d show to your son and say, ‘Look, Johnny, this is a good man.’ The kingdom knights only those with character who are also exceptional fighters,” Brown said.

Wiping away droplets of sweat, Brown prepares for the next heavy weapons practice round by flexing his rattan, a rod of pulpy bamboo with a solid core. The rattan is a regular in heavy weapons fighting — durable enough to bend without snapping and still light enough to carry.

Every member is presumed to be minor nobility when he joins the SCA, but any titles and honors must be earned. Titles of royalty are bestowed by the royal court and are based on one’s ancestry. Caryl Biel’s butt-length hair and eagerness to talk about regality suggest she has not forgotten her six-month term as the first queen of Aethelmearc. To become queen, one must either prevail in the Crown Tournament or be the consort of a man who has won the position of king. In this case, Caryl beat out five others in a heavy weapons fight for the throne. Her husband, Andrew Biel, was crowned with her at the coronation just three weeks after their wedding.

Caryl describes her reign as exhilarating — the couple traveled the country to attend tournaments and knight men — but she also confesses it was rough on her mind, body, and wallet. “I was too girly to enjoy the fighting,” said Caryl. “It was fun to do, but afterwards, I was hot, sweaty, and miserable. Paying for all the travel expenses was also a no-go.”

In addition to the king and queen, there are a prince and princess, who are heirs to the throne, and a council of Great Officers who handle the day-to-day running of the kingdom. Within a kingdom, which may cover many states, there are local chapters called Baronies, Shires, and Cantons. The Barony of Delftwood, located in Syracuse, is the parent group to a small but significant chapter in Auburn, N.Y. called the Canton of Angel’s Keep.

Angel’s Keep is “good shit,” according to Corbinus DeCuvis, a man whose name you might not immediately attach to the tattooed 37-year-old retired police corrections officer. His right forearm reads “Quaffa Etiam Integra,” Latin for “battered but still unbroken,” alongside a dented sword with a halo and wings.

DeCuvis felt disenchanted with his work life before finding nirvana at Angel’s Keep. After serving in the military during Operation Desert Storm, he returned home after almost three years overseas and jumped between odd jobs. Currently unemployed, he fills his days with SCA events, fencing practice, and tending to his 11-year-old son, who is in final stage renal failure.

The SCA came to his rescue in his personal life when he met Nancy Newkirk, more commonly known as Margaret of the New Castle. Newkirk’s DNA and blood alleles match perfectly with those of DeCuvis’ son. If all goes well, she plans to donate a kidney to save the boy’s life.

It is difficult to get DeCuvis to talk of anything besides the really old days — you know, fighting kings and merchant sea vessels in the 1400s — but he accepts that things are different now.

The SCA heightened safety rules; fighting weapons are wrapped in duct tape and sharp swords stay in belts at all times. “If you kill your friends during a tournament, they can’t buy the next round of drinks,” said Heather Holmes, the group’s “chatelaine,” or the official greeter for newcomers.

Despite the lack of any real animosity towards other SCA fighters, the battles waged are intense. Although Caryl now fills her days playing World of Warcraft, dealing with unhappy customers at AT&T, and contra dancing, she can’t forget the way the ground trembles when opposing lines meet at the Pennsic War. Pennsic is a 17-day event held in the beginning of August and is the largest the SCA hosts. Anywhere from 10,000 to 14,000 people gather from all over the world at Cooper’s Lake Campground, just a lance’s throw from Pittsburgh, Pa., to reminisce about a time when chivalry reigned king.

Each year at Pennsic, the Kingdom of the East battles the Kingdom of the West on land and “water,” represented by patches of grass between bales of hay. But no matter what side a fighter is on, all participants and spectators are considered equals.

“It’s just you and 10,583 of your closest friends and family,” Holmes said. “Whether you like it or not, you have something in common with each person at Pennsic. You can show up for the first time and find yourself thinking, ‘My people, I have found you at last!’”

The first weekend of Pennsic is dedicated to “land grab,” when campsite organizers vie for the largest plots of land for their group to fight on. The week that follows is ideal for strolling around the campground, making friends, and checking out food and jewelry vendors.

The actual war begins the second week, aptly named War Week. At this point, Pennsic is in full swing; competitors in full armor engage in heavy weapons battles and fencing tournaments. If a body part is hit during a fight, the wounded party acts like that limb is cut off. Thousands compete on each side, charging forward with flags, shields, and swords. The day’s events are usually followed by a party called NSTIW — “No Shit There I Was” — where participants share funny anecdotes and lessons learned.

Pennsic War is the unanimous favorite event of all those at Wednesday’s practice. As members pack up their weapons for the night, Biel and Reichert exchange grins and back slaps. They banter about where to go for dinner and drinks afterward. You would never have guessed they’d been battling with heavy weapons for over an hour.

“I was a Dungeons & Dragons geek as a teen, and I still am,” Reichert said. “But the difference between me and a lot of other geeks is that I pursued it. My job pays the bills, but [being part of SCA] is what I love to do.”