THE KING STANDS before the two dozen or so fighters kneeling on the grass in his presence. Their heads are bent as if in group prayer, their tunics sullied with the sweat and blood of combat. The king's straight posture signals authority; his beard bespeaks wisdom. His white garments are embroidered with the blue triangular symbols of the kingdom, and sunlight ignites the four points of the metal crown topping his person. Kurn O'Farrell of Ulster, the current holder of the throne of the Kingdom of Trimaris, nods.
"After today's combat on the field," he shouts in his stage-ready tenor, "we are here to elect this man" — he points to a fighter at his feet — "to the Order...of the Mangina."
The knights crack up into whoops and whistles. The fighter, the most pathetic of the day, whose performance out on the field has left his manhood up for grabs, turns red, enjoying the joke at his expense — the kind of frat-bro razzing that could rattle out of any locker room.
I've been hanging with about 500 Trimarians for the past 24 hours. Around me, grown men in ornate medieval tunics are drinking mead out of wooden mugs they carry strapped to their belts. Women swap compliments on their hand-stitched dresses. Some men walk around with their faces hidden in Arabian robes; others are dressed as Goths, with masks made from skulls. Thick beards seem to be a fashion necessity, and many a heaving bosom looks like it's about to jailbreak out of a flimsy corset.
Welcome to the Society for Creative Anachronism. For more than 40 years, the SCA has offered an escape hatch from the 9-to-5 slog. Cut loose from real life (or "the Mundane World" in SCA lingo), participants slip into character, flying whatever medieval freak flag they choose, so long as it is time-stamped before A.D. 1600.
Members spend thousands of dollars on costumes. They meet weekly, often for years, devoting almost as much time to this hobby as to their full-time jobs. They take up ancient trades like bookbinding, calligraphy, candle-making, and blacksmithing.
OUTSIDERS MIGHT CALL this site a 4-H camp in Ocala National Forest, but to the folks walking the grounds now, this is Trimaris, the kingdom of the three seas. (The kingdom covers all of Florida except the Panhandle.) Citizens have gathered for the Crown Lyst, the twice-yearly event when knights will battle with ancient weapons and the victor will be named the new king. In every SCA kingdom, the royalty is chosen this way. Whoever conquers the field through a series of one-on-one battles wins the title; his consort, the lady (or dude — the SCA doesn't discriminate) for whom he fights, becomes his ruling partner.
I'm here — in a tunic and an itchy pair of borrowed pants, getting rotisseried by the sun and struggling to remember a bunch of social niceties that went out with the plague — for one reason: the face-bashing.
Heavy-weapons fighting is a historically accurate martial art based on the chivalric combat of the Middle Ages. Competitors strap on metal armor, pick up swords crafted out of rattan wood, and bash the hell out of one another.
The SCA popped up out of the counterculture in 1960s Berkeley, Calif. In May 1966, a group of medieval-studies students there threw a chivalry-themed backyard party to protest the 20th century. The festivities included a combat tournament for fighters outfitted with wooden swords and motorcycle helmets.
The party took off. Today, the SCA is an official nonprofit organization, with 19 kingdoms stretching all over the globe. By the group's own estimate, there are more than 30,000 members. In Florida, Trimaris currently has an official membership of more than 3,000, with about 2,000 actively participating.
Ask SCA members to define what the group is and they will usually first school you on what it's not. Sure, technically, it's historical re-enactment, but they don't act out real historical battles, like, say, Civil War re-enactors. And the SCA isn't like a Renaissance Faire either, where the fighting is staged. And it's definitely not LARPing — live-action role-playing — which is like a live game of Dungeons and Dragons, with people tossing beanbags as magic spells and swinging foam swords.
No, the SCA is hard-core. Combat has been part of the SCA since the very beginning, and one could argue that it's the most important element. Historical knowledge is all well and good, acting skills will make a participant popular, but brute force determines who will be king.
Each fighter has to be outfitted with a set of historically accurate armor, including neck, torso, knee, and elbow protection made out of metal or heavy leather. Each helmet must be made of steel. Though some raggedy fighters have been known to start with "armor" fashioned out of a stop sign sandwiched between two pieces of carpet, a new fighter can probably pick up a "cheap" plastic or aluminum outfit for around $250, and a used helmet can go for $150. Some people, though, spend up to $5,000 on suits made by master blacksmiths.
Most combatants arm themselves with a shield and a sword fashioned from rattan, a bamboo-like wood. Women can fight right along with the men. It's open season on the torso, upper thighs, arms, and the head outside of the face mask. A knock to an arm or leg means the fighter can go on, but without using the maimed member. Hard body and head shots kill; a kill shot ends the match. Skirmishes can be over in less than 30 seconds; epic battles stretch 10 minutes or more.
I WAS PEERING out from inside a metal helmet still dripping with someone else's sweat. I winged two noodle-limp shots across my opponent's dome. Then I wound up a third time, tapping my inner Barry Bonds, and unloaded on the side of his head.
"See?" my opponent said, smiling through the bars of his mask. "It doesn't hurt."
Then he warned me: "I'm going to give you a light hit, a medium hit, and then a hard hit."
The first two thunks rattled my head inside the cage. The third blow walloped the inside of the helmet like an M-80 stuffed in a mailbox. By the time I was driving home, my cheek was swelling, and I had to stop for ice.
The next day, I was on the phone with King Kurn (alternately known as a high school science teacher from Lakeland named Farrell Rodgers), begging for more.
Early Saturday morning in Ocala — er, Trimaris — the sky is a perfect Crayola blue, and dew jewels the stretch of grass lying before a semicircle of pavilions topped with colored flags. Although there are a few modern-day touches — kids running around with video games, maidens filming footage with iPads — for the most part, Trimarians in period dress are excitedly tossing arms around old friends. The cheer belies the affairs of state, which are actually in crisis.
"You'll notice, by the way, we don't have a queen," says a woman dressed in a long flowing dress. She nods toward King Kurn, who is standing near an empty throne. Three weeks ago, his wife, Queen Eridani, was kidnapped by Vandals.
Kurn can Spielberg the s--- out of a plot. That's his job. The royal seat isn't just a plush gig — it requires real effort. The king and queen are always on the road, spending nearly every weekend of their reign traveling to events. But most important, they're at the steering wheel of the story line.
Just as each SCA member can pick a historical persona, the king and queen decide which time period and geographical backdrop will serve as the setting during their reign. "We've jumped from the Crusades to High German Gothic to Japanese to Vietnamese," Kurn explains later.
Kurn and Eridani dropped anchor in the time of the historical King Arthur, Britannia circa A.D. 450. They've kept the drama Oscar-worthy throughout their rule. The missing-monarch subplot is the big finish for the royals. By weekend's end, Trimaris will be in the hands of a new king.
"I have come so stinking close, I can taste it," Lord Takamatsu Sadamitsu no kami Tadayoshi says as he prepares for battle. In the past four Crown Lysts, he's finished in third place, second, third, and second, respectively — but he's never had the big chair for himself.
Lord Taka is one of 14 fighters filling up the tournament bracket. Short, stocky, and definitely not Japanese, he's stuffed into a beautifully intricate kit of blue metal pieces arranged like fish scales. Taka is actually a 53-year-old lab technician from Lakeland with a redneck/hell-raiser vibe.
"I know, I sound so Japanese," he drawls. "The running joke is that I'm from Kyushu, the southernmost island in Japan. The battle cry is 'Bonzai, y'all!'"
A lifelong adrenaline jones brought Lord Taka to the SCA more than 30 years ago, when he was a college student. His interests have always strayed east — at one point, he spoke fluent Japanese and had a purple belt in karate — so he took on a Japanese persona. Now, instead of the standard sword and shield, he battles with a long stick known as a naginata.
Lord Gavin de Chateau Gaillard is on the other end of the spectrum, an untested no-name looking to piece together a reputation. (In the Mundane World, he's a pool cleaner and engineering student from Cocoa Beach.) The 30-year-old squire is the youngest competitor going for the crown.
WHEN IT'S MY turn to give the whole ancient bloodlust a go, I slip into some loaner armor from a similarly sized knight.
The guy I'm facing off against is probably five inches shorter, and I probably have 20 pounds on him. Cake, I figure. But after we put our shields and swords up, a funny thing happens: He disappears.
Our facing shields basically create a wall between us. Leaning up, I can just get a line on where his helmet is bobbing, so I throw my sword up and over. Nobody screams for mercy. Wood plunks wood.
Craning my head, I try again to pick up my target when a blob wings out from the left side of my line of sight. Clang. It takes me a moment to realize I've been hit. Without feeling much, I begin hacking away again, getting only dull plunks for the effort. Another incoming blow cracks my head. Then another. Then another.
After a couple of minutes of two-stepping like this, all my movements begin to feel heavy, as if I am stuck on the bottom of a swimming pool. The sticky, hot air rushing down my throat bounces back in rough coughs. I swing hard and then harder. The other guy seems to be dinging me with the effort it would take him to push an elevator button.
Eventually my whole system stalls out. I pitch forward, weak spaghetti-arms propping me on my knees. Breath rockets in and out in hiccupping gasps.
This, I thought, isn't fun. At this rate, I'm on a fast track into the Order of the Mangina.
A longer version of this story originally appeared in New Times Broward Palm Beach.