Knights of Passion

Article excerpt

Are the men and women who dress up to recreate medieval warfare a bunch of crackpots or is there a more serious side to their pursuits? Rupert Isaacson joins in the fun and fear of bringing the geography of medieval Europe alive

GEOGRAPHY IS A BIG SUBJECT. It has enough branches, be it physical, cultural, explorative, or geopolitical, for a lifetime of study. Yet geography also has its absolutes; the world is, at the end of the day, always the world, with all its attendant problems and limitations. Who among us has not, in some idle or frustrated moment, wished for a geography, or a world that conformed a little more with our own wants and desires? All of us, probably. And strange as it may seem, some 30,000 people scattered across the globe have gone a little further; turning their imaginary geography into a reality.

Here's an example; readers may be unaware of this, but last summer Britain's geopolitical boundaries were redrawn. While the rest of us sat glued to the tennis at Wimbledon, two opposing armies coverged on a 12th century Norman castle in Norfolk and with swords, pikes, polearms, axes and all the other deadly paraphanalia of medieval warfare, refought the York and Lancaster civil war under a hot July sun. Although more than 500 years had passed since the last time this conflict was decided, it seems that old territorial disputes never die. East Anglia chose 1999 to secede and form an independent Lancastrian outpost. Fortunately, the bid for independence was short-lived; at the Norfolk battle the Yorkists brought East Anglia back into the United Kingdom -- and once again peace now reigns in Britain. Or rather, in the Principality of the Isles, westernmost province of the pan-European kingdom of Drachenwald which forms part of the imaginary geography of the Society for Creative Anachronism, or the SCA.

Founded in California (where else?) some 35 years ago, the SCA has reinvented European medieval culture and re-exported it back to the Old World. Since the mid-1960s, the society has cast its eccentric shadow right across North America, through Europe, to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Even such unlikely countries as Japan, Greece and Turkey now participate. Great Britain (sorry, the Isles) is merely one of the newer additions. Divided into 13 kingdoms (kings change every year, by trial of arms), this Knowne Worlde is an intricate mosaic of shires, baronies, duchies, principalities, cantons and households, some conforming to real geography, others existing only in the minds of a given group, or on the Internet.

It's eclectic: individual members of the SCA may adopt any period, or persona they choose, from any culture in the world between AD500 and 1600. For example a real-life lawyer from Surrey might take, as a SCA persona, a 14th century Syrian medic, a swordsman. or seamstress. For the society is not limited to fighting, but also practises the arts, sciences, crafts and culture of the medieval world, forming guilds and collegiums in which to organise research, much of which are geographical, or rather rather geographickal in nature.

The quality of the society's research, as well as the phenomenon of its sheer existence, has begun to attract the attention of academics. Wendy Erisman, or the Honourable Lady Gwillian ferch Maredudd, a 14th century Welsh woman, is a cultural anthropologist at St Edward's University, in Austin, Texas, otherwise known as the kingdom of Ansteorra, which means `Lone Star' in Anglo-Saxon. Erisman wrote her PhD thesis on the SCA after she was drawn into its strange world. She describes it as, an international community, "imagined in the appropriation of space and time by mapping a group geography and developing a communal history and tradition." She is also a medieval geographer, or rather cartographer, busy producing a Knowne Worlde map along the lines of the Mappa Mundi, the famous late 13th century map of the world now housed in Hereford Cathedral. …