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War Is Swell - A view from the battlefield at the 25th annual Pennsic War.

By Minda Zetlin

It's 8:30 a.m., the morning sun is drying the dew on the long grass of the battlefield, and hundreds of soldiers are marching to war all around me. They're clanking along in step, wearing full suits of armor and chain mail, their swords and spears propped over their shoulders, many of them are singing battle songs. 

Maidens in long dresses weave among them, carrying baskets of the Queen's "favors"--small squares of cloth bearing the emblem of the Queen for whose honor they will fight today. Most of the soldiers who don't have a favor already stop to pin one on. 
Nearby, a squad stops and gathers around, listening to final instructions from their commander. I lift up the two gallon-sized plastic jugs I'm holding, one filled with water, the other with Gatorade.

"Anyone want a drink?" I ask.

This is my second day at the 25th annual Pennsic, a week-long medieval-style war. Every year, some 10,000 people show up for the event, and about 2,000 of them don period-style armor, heft wood or rattan replicas of swords, spears and shields, and meet on the battlefield in a fight between the East Kingdom (which includes the Northeastern states), and the Middle Kingdom or "Midrealm" (which is much of the northern Midwest). Pennsic takes place at a huge campground in Western Pennsylvania, just a few miles from the border between the two. Because of this position, the place is called "The Debatable Lands".

What Pennsic is not is a Renaissance Fair for the entertainment of the public--indeed there is no public, in the usual sense. Everyone who attends is expected to participate fully in the Middle Ages scenario, which means, among other things, wearing medieval garb and adopting a period name and persona. So, here I am, wearing a borrowed bog dress--a simple sleeveless, Roman-style dress that joins at the shoulders and falls to my ankles, trying to remember to answer to Katherine, which is my middle name, and a more proper medieval name than "Minda".

I wanted to see the fighting up close, and had heard there was an ongoing need for waterbearers during battle, so I volunteered, and was immediately handed the two plastic jugs, each with an odd looking piece of plastic tubing sticking out of its neck. Once on the field, I quickly see the purpose of the tubes: they can be inserted into the viewing slits that are the only openings in most of the fighter's helmets. 

For the same reason, I've been warned not to come up on a fighter unexpectedly from behind. Because helmets allow for little peripheral vision, and survival in battle often depends on quick reactions, I could be mistaken for an enemy and bashed with a sword for my trouble. 
I can also see why one veteran soldier told me he always considered the waterbearers "the prettiest girls at Pennsic". Indeed, merely walking across the field in the August heat, inside 50 pounds of armor or more, one could easily become dehydrated before the fighting even begins. Many of the soldiers gratefully accept pre-battle drinks.

The rules of fighting are fairly straightforward: A blow to the leg above the knee, or the arm above the wrist would disable it if a real sword were being used, so any fighter who's hit in these places must refrain from using that limb for the remainder of the battle. By the same token, the loss of two limbs, or a sufficiently hard blow to the head or torso, is considered fatal, and if you are so hit, you are honor-bound to die. Death isn't always terminal though: many events include "Resurrection Battles" where those who've been killed can return to fight some more.

Even so, in the adrenaline rush of battle, fighters sometimes develop "rhinoceros hides", and don't die when they've been killed. "You have to hit them again, a little harder," one soldier explains. That stubbornness can be costly: though the weapons are made of padded wood or rattan, they're still heavy enough to pack a painful wallup.

"It's not a faked hit. You're being swung at by a baseball bat-size piece of wood," says Lord Fyodor Khrisotelevich Gudoshnikov, a Russian nobleman educated in Italy, whose real-life, "mundane" name is Eric Kirsten. Lord Fyodor adds that he abandoned his own fighting career early on, after a particularly solid blow to the head. Instead, he switched to safer pursuits: medieval cooking and costume making.

This is why, even though the fighting is competitive, it's usually a very friendly competition, adds Finnvarr de Taahe, a Duke who has fought at all 25 Pennsics, and Steve Muhlberger, a University professor, in mundane life.

"It's got potential for great danger if you add in malice," he says. "You have to have a certain level of trust between fighters, because otherwise someone would get arrested sooner or later. That's what keeps it at a remarkable level of safety." Indeed, I'm told, at Pennsic XXIV, there were actually more injuries on the dance floor than on the battlefield.

At this Pennsic, the outcome of the war will be decided by 16 different events: half are general battles in a variety of different settings, the other half are archery contests or fighting tournaments. The battle where I'm waterbearer is the Town Battle. To win, one side must control five out of the nine huts in an imaginary village whose buildings are represented by stacked hay bales. 

Just as it seems I've given water or Gatorade to absolutely everyone who might want it, there's a startlingly loud cannon shot, and we waterbearers retreat from the field. The battle has begun.

As a newcomer, watching from a safe distance, it's difficult to tell exactly what's going on, so I eavesdrop on a more seasoned observer explaining the action to her companion. At first, there isn't much: it turns out both sides had planned on a defensive, waiting strategy so that no one was on the attack. 

Quickly enough, though, they abandon strategy and begin rushing at each other into a general confusion of armor, swords and shields. Dead fighters begin trudging wearily out of the battle, usually stopping to take a drink from one of our bottles, then, often as not, collapsing full-length onto the grass. We stand alert, ready to make a quick dash if the battle starts coming our way.

Many of the "huts" are already taken, their hay bales scattered on the ground, and the fighters inside stare challengingly out at the enemy. The marshals--referees who can be identified by the long, striped poles they carry--call a "hold" in the fighting and the waterbearers are called in. I ask another waterbearer if she can tell who's winning. 
"Well," she says, looking into each of the huts. "I mostly see a lot of red. Only a little blue over there, and they're cut off from the rest, so I don't think it's going to last much longer." She's referring to the identifying squares of electrical tape adorning each soldier's helmet: blue for East, red for Middle, and she's right: there are a lot more little red squares than blue.

Sure enough. The marshals start calling "Waterbearers off the field!" I find I've come so far from where I started, going from thirsty soldier to thirsty soldier, that it's quicker to continue to the other side than go back the way I came. Hostilities recommence, and in not too long, another cannon shot indicatest that the battle is over. The Midrealm has won.

My whole time at Pennsic, I can't shake the feeling that I've landed in a foreign country. For one thing, the natives dress differently. Pulling up to the offical entry point (called the "Troll Booth") the first evening, I was taken aback by the sight of so many people--hundreds in all directions--every single one wearing period garb. This ranged from elaborate Elizabethan-style dress, complete with frilly collars and petticoats, to simple tunics and loose medieval-style pants. Some Celtic-style participants wear kilts and not much else. Or at least, not much other clothing. What they do wear is "woad", the blue-black body paint Mel Gibson wore in "Braveheart", which medieval Scots believed conferred magical protection in battle.

Then, though everyone speaks English, there's something of a language barrier: I have to learn words like "Seneschal" (the administrative head of a local group), "Chirurgeon" (first-aid person) and "Sekanjabin" (a medieval arab drink made from boiling mint, vinegar and sugar together). These, and many other medieval words, are recognizable to most Scadians.

But what's a Scadian? A member of the SCA, the Society for Creative Anachronism, which sponsors Pennsic, as well as an almost infinite number of smaller events--feasts, tournaments, Viking Games, dances, seminars, shire meetings and wars--every year. The SCA has more than 50,000 members spread over a dozen countries including Sweden, where SCA royalty entertained the actual king, creating thorny questions of protocol.

The SCA is devoted to recreating the atmosphere of the Middle Ages--"as they should have been", explains Mitch Krevor, whose persona is Baron Master Ian Mitchell of Clan Mitchell. Baron Master Ian is Lord Mayor of the 25th Pennsic, and lest one forget it, there's a full-size guillotine set up near the Troll Booth, bearing the legend: "Ian's Law".
As he puts it: "We're out to kill each other here, but we don't want anybody to get hurt."
The SCA divides what it calls the "Known World" into 13 kingdoms, each with its own king and queen. These monarchs rule absolutely, but only for six months at a time. They are selected by a fighting tournament called the Crown List twice a year.

Royalty is taken very, very seriously. "If you need to speak with their majesties, approach to within three feet and wait to be recognized," instructs a Society primer on royal visits. Of course, it adds, "All persons of whatever rank should bow to the Royalty as they pass at any time during the event. Bow also when beginning to speak or when leaving the presence of Royalty."

"It's quite an odd environment, because people do know you're not really a king, but in some ways they've dedicated themsleves to thinking that these kingdoms really exist. It's like playing a role very intensely for a long time," notes Finnvarr, who has been king of both the East and the Midrealm. 

Not that it doesn't have its lighter moments. For instance, on the last night of Pennsic XXV, as they sat around the final campfire, the King of the Midrealm summoned his knights before him, one by one, and commanded them to do what he called "Stupid Peer tricks."

As the week wore on, it seemed the Midrealm was winning battle after battle. Eventually, I learned the reason for this: there were many more soldiers fighting for Midrealm. This was a change, Finnvarr explained, from previous years when the East had overpowered the Midrealm, partly because the geography of the Debatable Lands placed them closer to Eastern population centers.

To make matters fairer, the Kings of the East and the Middle had agreed to redistribute their allies (that is, fighters from the other 11 kingdoms), to make sure the Midrealm would be better represented. The only problem was, the strategy worked too well, and the East has found itself outnumbered by at least 200 fighters at each battle. Despite the East's dominance of the tournament and archery events, the Midrealm will narrowly win this year's war.

The imbalance in army size becomes really apparent at the last battle of Pennsic, the Field Battle, a giant free-for-all where the entire Eastern and Midrealm armies fling themselves at each other across an unobstructed field. Standing on the hillside above, watching the two armies mass, it's hard not to notice that the Midrealm's is considerably more massive.
To signal the start of this battle, not only the cannon is fired, but also a whole collection of period-style firearms brought by SCA members with a particular interest in medieval gunsmithing. With no walls or structures to hide behind, and swords and spears flailing in all directions, freshly killed soldiers begin trooping off the field almost immediately. The battle will continue until all the members of one army or the other are dead. This time, there will be no resurrections.

"I was clubbed like a baby harp seal!" declares one returning fighter cheerfully.
"I did my job!" says another, stoutly, proud of having killed several of the enemy before being slain herself. This fighter, Lassar Ingen Aeda, whose mundane name is Andrea McKnight, is one of Pennsic's female fighters. Though they are still in the minority, she says, more and more women are taking up arms all the time.

Like many fighters of both sexes, Lassar says she was first attracted to the chivalrous aspects of the SCA. This is something many Scadians say brought them to the Society--since chivalry is notably absent from 20th-century life. So, Lassar says, when she goes into battle, she does it completely in persona.

"I'm fighting for my honor, my lord's honor, the honor of the knight I'm squired to, and right now, the honor of the King and Queen of the East," she says gallantly.
Others, though no less gallant, take a more fun-and-games approach. 

"Next year I will fight axe!" declares one sword-carrying soldier. "Yes," agrees a friend standing next to him. "You and I will both fight axe together--lusty and ready axes!" They swing their make-believe axes through the air, and, in unison sing out: "Ka-chunk! Ka-chunk! Ka-chunk! Ka-chunk!!"--the sound of an axe striking armor.

One of these two, Sean William O'Faolain, whose mundane name is Daniel Casey O'Donovan, fought for the house of Ragnesfolk this year. "Ragnesfolk", he explains, is Old Icelandic for "people of the rain". "We took that name because we come from Binghamton, N.Y., the rainiest place in the universe."

Ragnesfolk's big moment came during the Woods Battle, he adds, when the group encountered the King of Drachenwald (Europe). "We smeared him!" he says happily. "He didn't see us through the trees, and we just dived upon him, screaming." 

Royalty, he adds, always make the most satisfying victims. "I will tell about this day, and how I killed the King of Drachenwald--until next year, when he beats me up again." 

Writer and photographer Bill Pfleging contributed research and ideas to this story.

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