Medieval madness: Recreating the days of olde

Many of the reenactors create elaborate back-stories for their characters.
Shane Wenzlick / Phototek.nz

Many of the reenactors create elaborate back-stories for their characters.

The clatter of wood and steel fills a small dance studio above McDonald's on Auckland's Queen Street. Three pairs of combatants in jeans and sneakers work nimbly back and forth across the polished floor, their whirling blades seeking out the vulnerable groin, armpits and neck. A two-handed sword sweeps through the air and gently taps the crown of my skull. I'm dead.

Despite a childhood spent bashing my brothers with sticks, I'm at a distinct disadvantage here. My tutor is none other than Ludwig von Regensburg, an expert in the finer points of Germanic 16th-century fencing. Also known by his "mundane" name, Dr Patrick Bowman, the 39-year-old physics lecturer caught the medieval re-enactment bug as a student many years ago. "I went along, I had a feast, I ate and I drank too much," he says. "I was hooked. I've been playing ever since."

As president of the Auckland branch of the Society for Creative Anachronism, Bowman and his team are organising a momentous event. The global SCA organisation turned 50 this year, and the local chapter was the first in the world to ring in the celebrations. Sunday was extended an invite to the May Crown Tournament, a weekend that promised fighting and fun.

As Auckland city fades into the distance, we leave 21st-century civilisation behind and step back into ye days of olde. The festivities are located at a campsite nestled among the foothills of the Hunua Ranges. Pennants fly from the tents punctuating the paddocks; everything from standard Kathmandu fare to authentic-looking canvas constructions.

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Dr Patrick Bowman, or, Ludwig von Regensburg. Photo: Shane Wenzlick/Phototek.co.nz

Inside the camp's communal hall, what looks like half the cast of Game of Thrones is sprawled around the tables, easing their way into the day. The Italian-themed feast of the night before, I'm told, included no fewer than 25 different delicacies, including sliced tongue, pig trotters cooked in vinegar and wine, and goat flesh. By the sounds of it, there was a fair bit of carousing, too. Non-period coffee is doing the rounds; it's better to be chirpy than authentically grumpy, apparently. Some are still discovering fresh bruises. The new King, an Australian, was chosen the day before – by armed combat, naturally.

Baroness Katherine Kerr and Baron Bartholomew Baskin, a married couple in their 50s, have travelled up from Christchurch, where they lead the South Island group. They explain that the regional branches are in turn part of what is dubbed the Kingdom of Lochac, which includes all of Australia and New Zealand. "People think you're in a cult," says Baskin, "but we're too anarchic for that."

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Vicki Hyde, aka Baroness Katherine Kerr. Photo: Shane Wenzlick/Phototek.co.nz

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SCA events have been running in this country since 1982. Numbers are growing, with 176 paid-up members, but it's still not exactly mainstream.

For a group fascinated with an era centuries before the advent of electricity and running water, technophiles and scientists are oddly over-represented. "There's a geeky element, I have to say," says Baskin, an IT man himself, who also goes by the name of Peter Hyde. His smartphone dangles from his belt, concealed in a custom-made leather bookbinding, and when I need to call the photographer, everyone knows the exact speed-bump up the road to find cell reception.

Katherine Kerr's real identity is Vicki Hyde; she is a science writer, editor, and "magpie for knowledge". Like many SCAdians, her character has an elaborate backstory: a Scot border persona from a real 1560s family, chosen "because they're a bloody-minded lot". In the UK, she was beyond excited when a museum guide let her beyond the velvet ropes to actually inspect an enamelled brass plate showing the names and arms of her adopted ancestor.

It's easy to get caught up in the moment, they say. "There's maybe five to 10 minutes of magic where everything comes together, and you feel like you're there," says Peter Hyde. The table dissolves into laughter as they recall one young man who cried out aghast upon sight of a lady's ankles – all while she was manhandling her bosom back into her corset.

Everyone takes it to different lengths, but characters and real life can overlap. Vicki Hyde can only just remember the real name of a fellow Christchurch SCAdian she has known closely for 25 years, while another member went as far as to have his name changed by deed poll.

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Peter Thomsen, who goes by Philippe de Tournay.  Photo: Shane Wenzlick/Phototek.co.nz

Some people's alter egos never change, but others enjoy flitting between centuries or continents in the space of a single day. Unlike niche groups that focus on specific periods and re-enact exact battles, the SCA is a broad church. "Yesterday I was 14th-century," says Peter Hyde. "Today I'm 16th-century."

It's not all just bashing each other with swords, either. The society has a guild of brewers, calligraphy, song and dance groups, leather and metalworking exponents, cooks and more, many of whom are displaying their work at the camp. These are amateur historians and artisans with PhD-level knowledge.

For most it remains a hobby, but some turn it into a career. Deep in conversation at the table behind us is Peter Lyon, the swordsmith and armourer who rose to fame after designing the hero weapons in the Lord of the Rings movies. Watching the fencers duel outside, Christine Bess Duvaunt (aka Chantelle Gerrard, 34) is resplendent in a red gown lined with a possum fur fringe. The self-taught costume designer and high school teacher recently got home from a seven-month stint working on season five of Game of Thrones. "Really, I wouldn't be doing this if it hadn't been for the SCA," she says. "It was years of people going, 'Can you make me this?'"

The clothes can't just be pretty. Gerrard considers how the people who wore them would have moved, fought, or milked the cows at 4am. She describes the process as experimental archaeology: "Taking all the clues and putting them together. It's really interesting trying to solve the mystery."

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A bout of swordplay. Photo: Shane Wenzlick/Phototek.co.nz

Costume is so important to SCAdians that the only two rules I'm given are to be polite, and make an attempt to wear pre-1600 garb. The photographer and I borrow simple tabards to throw over our jeans, but we're very drab next to some of the finery on display.

In typical Kiwi fashion, much of the clothing and kit is homemade. One of the more grizzled and fearsome-looking warriors, with silver beads dangling from his beard, is a dab hand with an overlocker. He last bought a suit 20 years ago, he says, but gets new garb every six months.

Among the dazzling jumble of characters and costumes, there's one man who turns heads wherever he strides: Sir Philippe de Tournay. The 45-year-old IT professional, modern name Peter Thomson, is wearing a beautifully cut scarlet jacket when I meet him, looking every inch the regal Frenchman. He laughs – "What, this old thing?" – and changes into his real glad-rags for the photo. The knight confesses the garb was part of what drew him to the group, but it's the culture and people that keeps him interested. "If it was just a bunch of people hitting each other with sticks, I wouldn't do it."

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Mistress Isobel le Breton (Kate Price) takes aim. Photo: Shane Wenzlick/Phototek.co.nz

Chivalry might be dead, but not in the SCA. Honour is everything. There are safety marshalls but no referees during combat, meaning fighters have to own up when they have been mortally wounded. And only those who have displayed chivalrous behaviour can be elevated to the peerage: the Order of Chivalry for combat, Laurel for artisanship, and Pelican for service. "They can be brilliant on the field, but if they're a bastard, they won't be a knight," says Vicki Hyde.

Kinship stretches beyond geographic boundaries, too. Lochac is just one of 20 kingdoms that make up the global SCA organisation.

Hyde has told her children, who have grown up in the society, to seek out the nearest SCA members if they ever get into trouble overseas. When the earthquakes struck Canterbury, SCA regalia was unsurprisingly among the precious possessions the Hydes bundled into their van along with children, pets and computer files. SCA groups around the world soon lent their support. A member in Ashburton loaded up her van with $1000 worth of groceries at a time and drove them over. "It was relief aid funded by a medieval history group," says Hyde.

Of course, it's not all back-slapping and gallantry. The society is strictly governed by rules covering safety and processes, with several confusing layers from the mundane law of the land through to society, country and barony. There's even the equivalent of an HR committee.

Nobody's ever been kicked out of the New Zealand chapter, but Bowman has to do the odd bit of pastoral care. "Trying to keep people happy, and smooth out any personal tension that comes up from time-to-time, that sort of thing," he says. "For the most part we're a pretty tight-knit group, but of course not everybody gets along with everybody all the time."

Blood ties hold things together, too. Swarms of medieval children zip around the Hunua Falls camp, and at some events, there are three generations of the same family.

Lady Katherine Stewart, who didn't want to give her modern name, has three sons. One became a pageboy to Hyde at the age of 10, and was authorised for battle at 16. "It was something we could do together. It wasn't too expensive," she says. One of her proudest moments came when her son had to fight a much smaller and less experienced opponent. "He knelt and fought the bout on his knees. Nobody told him to do that."

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Self-taught costume designer Chantelle Gerrard (aka Christine Bess Duvaunt). Photo: Shane Wenzlick/Phototek.co.nz

At face value, the SCA is a bunch of geeks playing dress-up. But it's also a bastion of long-forgotten values, skill-sets, and community. Chantelle Gerrard travels overseas to SCA events every year, and has made good mates around the world.

"In all honesty, the reason I do this is the people; amazingly talented people, who support each other," she says.

Peter Hyde agrees. "It's not just a thing you do," he says. "It's a lifestyle. It's a family."

 - Sunday Magazine

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