Thursday, March 6, 2008

King Arthur’s court meets Prince George’s County

Some residents continue a love affair with the Medieval era

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Brenda Ahearn⁄The Gazette
William Stanton, a.k.a. William the Younger (left), battles James Kriebel (Baron Jonathans Reinisch) in College Park.

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They carried large gym bags and wore sneakers, sweat pants and old shirts.

The men talked in loud voices as they took equipment from the bags – shin guards, shoulder pads, knee and elbow cups, leather vests and chain mail.

They dressed, and within minutes the air was filled with the thunderclap of wooden swords smacking against steel helmets and thick plywood shields.

‘‘I don’t really do the same things my neighbors do on a weekend,” said Peter Adams, who stood to the side as he watched one warrior protect himself against an opponent’s vicious blows.

Adams, a stage hand at Strathmore, also goes by the name of Badouin, a 15th century Franco-Scot widely respected for his prowess with the sword.

While Adams lives in Adelphi, the fictitious knight Badouin resides in the Barony of Storvik, a region in the Kingdom of Atlantia. The barony encompasses the territory that most people know as Prince George’s County, Washington, and part of Montgomery County. The vast Kingdom of Atlantia stretches through Maryland, Virginia, both Carolinas, and into Georgia.

These unfamiliar realms were dreamt up by the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group of about 100,000 Medieval enthusiasts and historical re-creators who span the United States and many countries abroad, with about 100 members in this area.

In the elaborate fantasy world they have created, SCA members do more than practice sword fighting and wage pitched battles involving thousands of warriors. They endeavor to learn the skills of nearly every Medieval art and craft imaginable, from wood and metal working to music, sewing, embroidery and cooking.

They also create alter-egos — such as Adams’ Badouin — from specific places and time periods, and make it a point of learning more about what life for their alter-ego could have been like.

The Barony of Storvik’s members meet numerous times a week to practice their Medieval disciplines together. Mondays are for fighter practice, dancing and doll making; Tuesdays are for music, garb research and hand sewing; and Thursdays are for embroidery and games.

‘‘That’s the fun of it. There’s so much you can do,” said Kathleen Sobansky, a Russian translator who lives in Bowie. ‘‘No matter what your interests are, you can probably find a method of expression for it” in Medieval practices.

Sobansky plays the harp and goes by the name of Fevronia Murometsa, a 12th century lady from Kiev, the present-day capital of Ukraine.

Looking the part and demonstrating the talents are important parts of preserving the Medieval feel at SCA events, said Wayne Dionne, a retired government employee from Bowie.

Dionne and his wife, Joanna, have been in the SCA for about 32 years. A year ago, they were elected baron and baroness of Storvik, making them the local realm’s top nobility.

But members of Storvik said they try to avoid taking the make-believe too far.

‘‘We don’t demand everybody have everything correct from the underwear out,” Dionne said.

For that reason, Dionne described the SCA as ‘‘a good entry-level historical re-creation group.”

Chivalry and honor

Aside from their socks and sneakers, the 20 or so men who practiced sword fighting at the College Park church looked like they could have walked out of a time machine.

The fighters dueled in pairs, with shields pulled firmly to their bodies and rattan swords hovering over their heads, waiting for the right moment to strike.

Many wore thick leather vests, heavy tunics with chain mail draped around the shoulders, and pieces of armor to protect the arms, legs, elbows and knees. Some of the wooden swords were wrapped in duct tape.

The SCA has regulations for weapons and armor in order to protect fighters’ safety, said Clinton resident Beth Nelson, who holds the office of seneschal, or chief administrator, in the Barony of Storvik.

‘‘We’re of the opinion that you pad the fighters, pad the weaponry and hope people don’t get hurt.”

Fights in the auditorium were fast-paced and lasted a few minutes, ending when one warrior managed to deal his opponent a mortal blow.

‘‘It is up to the honor of the person being hit to decide whether that blow would have gotten through their armor,” Dionne said. For example, a fighter who is dealt a penetrating blow to the arm will continue the fight without using that arm.

‘‘Since the society is based on chivalry and honor, it works,” Dionne said.

Many fighters make their own armor. What they do not have the skill to make, they usually get from other SCA members who specialize in the trade, either by paying or bartering.

Craig Humfelt, of Fairfax, Va., said he made his cuisses – leather braces worn on the thighs – by dunking pieces of leather into boiling wax.

The pieces harden after you remove them from the wax, resulting in ‘‘Medieval fiberglass,” said Humfelt, who regularly drives up to College Park for Storvik’s fighter practice.

More than swordplay

But the SCA is not only about weapons and fighting. At the same College Park gathering, four members sat around a table practicing the arts of embroidery and dress-making.

Evelyn Brady, of Clinton, was stitching the hem on a black wool dress that men in 16th century Germany wore over their armor when they went into battle.

Brady, whose husband builds armor in the couple’s garage, cooks at large SCA gatherings using cookbooks from the 14th and 15th centuries.

Joanna Dionne, the baroness of Storvik, and Crystal Wygal, a 29-year-old history student at the University of Maryland, College Park, were at the table embroidering faces on dolls they had bought from Michael’s.

Eventually, Dionne, Wygal and others will make costumes for the dolls and display them at a festival in October.

Like many SCA artisans, the women use modern conveniences – including store-bought thread and sewing needles made of steel – along with historically accurate techniques to create their Medieval replicas.

‘‘I’m of the opinion you should do it originally at least once,” said Wygal, who along with the other women keeps sewing needles made of wood and fish bone in her kit.

Wygal, who specializes in calligraphy and illumination – decorating the pages of books with gold and silver leaf, said she has made her own Medieval-style paint by mixing egg yolks with crushed minerals.

‘‘It’s really like the modern stuff, so I don’t feel like I’m cheating when I use” modern paint, Wygal said.

A Medieval family

The SCA began in 1966 when a group of friends in Berkeley, Calif., decided to hold a Medieval tournament.

Local members in the Barony of Storvik who have been active in the organization for years describe it as a tight-knit community.

‘‘Just about everybody who I’m friends with at this point knows me as Rorik Fredericsson,” said Wayne Dionne, referring to his 9th century Viking alter-ego.

Even the license plate of Dionne’s Chevrolet Silverado reads ‘‘Rorik.”

Members of Storvik said it is normal for both parents and children to become active in the SCA.

Kathleen Sobansky, the harp player, said that her 17-year-old son recently became interested in rapier fighting.

The Dionnes’ 25-year-old daughter, Amber, and their 21-year-old son, Andrew, have been participating in SCA events since they were children.

‘‘The downside to being a kid in the SCA is your parents know everybody, so they’ll find out if you get in trouble” at events, said Amber, who sings in Medieval styles.

Members said that adults will help watch over their friends’ children when they gather for large annual festivals like the Pennsic War, a tent city that springs up at a Pennsylvania campground for two weeks and draws up to 11,000 people clad in armor and tunics.

‘‘We all interact more as family than anything else,” said Mary Jane Houghton, whose husband and three children are also involved in the SCA.

Houghton joined four other members of Storvik at the Dionne house on a recent Thursday evening. The Dionnes, including Amber, served chili while people sat in the living room and practiced their various arts.

Houghton, considered a master weaver, wove a belt with black and white yarn on a small loom her husband had built.

Beth Nelson, the barony’s seneschal, sat cross-legged on the floor and made bobbin lace in a style from the late 16th century.

Sobansky played a Celtic-style harp made of wood and sang ‘‘Ja Nus Hons Pris,” a 12th century song attributed to King Richard I.

Sobansky, who joined the SCA in 1972, said people usually participate more during some parts of their life and less during others, depending on how busy they are with other things.

‘‘My mother is still hoping it’s a passing adolescent fantasy,” Sobansky said. ‘‘Well, I’m 53 years old. It’s not a passing adolescent fantasy.”

E-mail Andy Zieminski at