I’ve always been fascinated with all things medieval so I’m just as surprised as anyone that I had never even heard of a Renaissance fair until I was at least 35 and never attended one until I was past 40. Growing up in New York City exposed me to all kinds of people from all walks of life, but I don’t remember a lot of them walking around in armor or wimples. But maybe I just wasn’t very observant.
It was about six years ago in New Hampshire that I became aware that the Society for Creative Anachronism was taking over the huge Hopkinton fairgrounds for a weekend. Since it was just down the road a bit, I took the kids to have a look. I had no idea what it was, but the name implied that the members seemed to be able to poke fun at themselves.
By that time I had met someone who made “Ren Faires” her second life, or possibly her primary one, and she took it very, very seriously. But that was not what I found with the S.C.A.
A visit to the Web site will tell a reader, “The S.C.A. is an international organization dedicated to researching and recreating the arts and skills of pre-17th-century Europe. Our ‘Known World’ consists of 19 kingdoms, with over 30,000 members residing in countries around the world. Members, dressed in clothing of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, attend events which feature tournaments, royal courts, feasts, dancing, various classes and workshops, and more.”
Although all of the people at the Hopkinton fairgrounds were in costume — or garb, as they call it — they wore watches. They answered cellphones. They smoked. In other words, they were being creatively anachronistic. Even though there was the occasional “What ho!” and “Good morrow” talk going on, it was said in a normal tone instead of a creepy fake British accent.
One man in a tunic got out a pair of wooden swords and had a spirited duel with my then 6-year-old son. There was a staged battle to watch. There were vendors selling everything from period clothing to baby dragons to weaponry. There was a feast — smoked turkey drumsticks and bread rolls, I remember. Everyone was very friendly and wanted only to educate us on what they were doing to keep the Middle Ages alive. We expected to stay for an hour. We stayed for eight.
But it wasn’t until this past summer when we watched the very funny movie “Role Models,” which features a teenage dweeb who is obsessed with a re-enactment world called “Laire” with knights and elves and kings — that my son, Bingham Warner Lancelot Johnson (yes, that is his real name), turned to me and said, “Remember that sword fight in New Hampshire? Do they have something like that out here?”
The answer is, they do. We have now been lucky enough to connect with the S.C.A.’s Suffolk County chapter, and on Saturday attended a “Spring Schola,” a medieval arts and sciences event in Centereach. It was focused on workshops, which were held on the subjects of spinning, weaving, belly dancing, archery equipment repair, and more, along with “a hearty day board,” faire talk for food. There were also introductory get-togethers for newcomers, like us, where we learned that we are now part of the Barony of An Dubhaigeainn, which is Celtic for “black abyss,” presumably what you would fall into if you were to continue past Montauk Point.
Everyone in the S.C.A. has a group name and persona usually accompanied by a pretty detailed backstory. We newbies heard of an African-American member who likes to don Viking garb. His tale is that he was shipwrecked near a Viking encampment filled with blind Vikings, who raised him as one of their own.
It may be a little over the top, but at least the members know and accept that, unlike some other festivals at which everyone just takes themselves way too seriously. On Saturday, young boys looked on in awe at the spears and swords grasped by men clad in leather doublets, girls admired the fine long-sleeved gowns and head attire worn by the ladies. Who cares if it was at an American Legion hall? We certainly didn’t.
There is the upcoming “pennsic” in August, which we learned of this weekend. Apparently, this is the Cadillac of medieval re-enactments, held for a week in Pennsylvania with a cast of gabillions and several encampment sites. Since I don’t camp out no matter what the era, we may go and stay in a hotel, or “roadside tavern,” if you want to be cute about it.
But for now, I doff my crown to the fine ladies and lords who leave their daily grind of work and families to create a sort of tangible magic for the rest of us. Chivalry is not dead. It’s alive in Suffolk County.
Bridget LeRoy is a reporter for The East Hampton Star.