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September 22, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, September 22, 2004

From Silicon Valley to the Shire From Silicon Valley to the Shire (September 22, 2004)

To 'Society for Creative Anachronism' members, Palo Alto exists within the 'Principality of the Mists'

by Sue Dremann

Queen of the West Eliana Fraser has kept her day job in Palo Alto. She sells See's Candy.

But on her own time, Palo Alto fades into a portion of the Shire of Crosston, located in the Principality of the Mists, a large Central Coast region within her Kingdom of the West.

Eliana is the soft-spoken, bespectacled queen until Twelfth Night, shortly before Christmas, when she relinquishes her title and becomes just another honored member of the Society for Creative Anachronism. To Queen Eliana, "anachronism" means something out of its proper time -- as out of place as chocolate in the Middle Ages.

On days or evenings off, what Anachronists call the Mundane World -- Palo Alto and the rest of modern America and other parts of the world -- are transformed from into the Current Middle Ages.

Members focus on the best qualities of the Middle Ages and Renaissance (hence, the "creative" part), and selectively recreate them in the modern world -- "without the disease," said Francis Classe, aka Vyncent atte Wodegate, chatelaine of Crosston Shire, a greeter of newcomers.

The society was created in 1966 by Berkeleyites as a May Day birthday party and antiwar parade. The celebratory medieval tournament was such a success that people began holding additional tournaments at nearby parks.

The society's name was invented by science fiction author Marion Zimmer Bradley (Mistress Elfrida of Greenwalls), according to the "Known World Handbook," the bible of the organization.

The society has evolved into an international, nonprofit organization, with 17 distinct "kingdoms" and thousands of members in 40 countries -- each dedicated to the serious study and playful recreation of various aspects of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

In the society's early years, some shires developed reputations for exchanging partners along with their Mundane World identities -- but those were the 1960s and early 1970s.

Current Middle Ages events have a strong family emphasis.

"There may have been a few shires that engaged in partner exchanges in the 60s, but now there's no more sexual activity going on than in other groups, such as at Star Trek conventions," said Jane Urbach, "Jania of Call Duck Manor," a 27-year veteran of the society. Some women may throw themselves at the crowned, such as princes, who have the status of rock stars. But " you don't have to sleep with anybody, no matter how many points they have on their heads."

But it's no Renaissance Faire, with paid actors strutting around a fairground speaking in Olde English to throngs of walk-through tourists, Classe said.

Society members are dedicated to exploring an entire culture. They practice period arts and skills: costuming, cooking, herbalism, dance, music, animal husbandry, embroidery and leather work. Some men -- and women -- hammer out their own armor and chain mail, and engage in combat.

Some even engage in "the science of excrement" as collectors of waste materials -- trash collectors in today's Mundane World.

There are feasts and weddings, tournaments, coronations and wars involving up to 4,000 knights and archers. There are even family trees of up to four generations, with everyone from newborns to grandmothers.

In the early 1970s there was a "floating shire" on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise. Fighter pilots flying overhead did an unbelieving double take when they saw crewmates in medieval garb sword fighting on the flight deck, according to Tom Hurlbut, aka "Daene of St. Matthews." A shire is also said to exist on the U.S.S. Nimitz, according to the Mappe of the Knowne World.

Who said chivalry is dead?

On Tuesday nights, valiant knights don their armor, assisted by squires. With gleaming metal breastplates, they take up their swords to parry and thrust; slashing mightily at arms and legs, hammering each other with crashing blows, steel clattering, fighting for crown and country.

At the practice grounds at Mission College in San Jose, dozens of Mundane World doctors, engineers, lawyers, union workers, nurses and psychologists mill around a grassy field, some coming from as far as the East Bay.

In the gathering dusk, society marshals check gear for safety and make sure fighters have had proper training. Everything is regulated, from steel gauge to the opening width of the helmet's visor -- it can't be wider than 1 1/2 inches, so swords can't penetrate.

Rattan swords, which don't shatter on metal, simulate practice swords used in medieval times -- which were made of horsetail rushes bound in linen, Squire Mari Alexander explained, decked out in a thick black-leather tunic she made herself and sporting a stainless-steel helmet and breastplate.

Some people carry live blades, but those are forbidden on the field.

The rattan leaves nasty bruises, in which fighters take pride. "On the field I break 'em; at work, I put them back together," said Alexander, a nurse who has been fighting for 21 years. "It's a full-contact sport -- just as much a martial art as karate."

In the spirit of "creative" anachronism, even women can be fighters, she said.

Heavy thwacking emanates from the field, as swords crack against metal or plywood shields -- many emblazoned with a fighter's personal heraldry.

"It's a helluva rush," said Mark Kent, aka Squire Allan MacMillan, a medicinal and process chemist in the Mundane World. "I get to hit my friends with sticks."

Fighting gear -- including helmet, chain mail vest and gloves -- can weigh up to 50 pounds. Fighting for 20 years and doing military press, Kent's neck size has gone from 15 to 17 1/2, he said.

Blows are modulated to be felt but not injure. A "wounding" blow to the leg requires a knight to kneel.. A "lethal" blow requires the knight to fall to the ground. The fighting is based on honor, with players relied upon to take blows well and not cheat. Just in case, marshals are the arbiters, and keep the overly-bloodthirsty in line.

"I've seen 12-gauge steel helmets creased," said Derek Dragon's Claw (Steve Urbach, a Palo Alto engineer). He happened upon the group in 1981 while on his way to a hang-gliding session at Ed Levine Park in Milpitas. Passing a pie plate with "SCA" written on it, Derek, who was grounded with a broken elbow, decided to check out the scene, the "June Crown."

"The herald there, seeing the hang gliders flying above the campground, said, 'There be dragons overhead.' The way hang-glider pilots hang, they looked like dragon claws -- so that's how I got my persona."

Personae chosen by members represent what they would have been in another life, said Krista Barber, Seneschal (secretary) of Crosston Aelia Apollina, who chose an early period Byzantine persona from the court of Theodora and Justinian. Apollina also excels in embroidery. She studies museum pieces and faithfully reproduces patterns from books. In the Mundane World, she works as a financial assistant at NASA-Ames, but "just to feed the habit."

Financially, the society asks little of its members. An encampment costs members as little as $6 for a tent site or $12 for a feast, with membership in the nonprofit organization costing$35 annually.

What gets expensive is creating the other world. Everything from tables and chairs to clothes and tents is faithfully recreated, packed into trailers and taken from event to event, in encampments at a variety of state and county parks.

A Viking encampment might be situated next to the camp of a 16th century nobleman, in a melting pot of cultures and history. Most represent the years from 1066, the Battle of Hastings when William the Conqueror defeated King Harold of England, to 1600, the early Renaissance years of Queen Elizabeth I. But Romans and Vikings are now part of the mix, especially since their battle garb is less cumbersome (and easier to create) than the armor of a medieval knight.

Any reminders of the Mundane World are removed from sight: Modern beverage containers are covered and cars are parked out of view of the encampments and tournament grounds. The only Mundane thing used without hesitation is the defibrillator, in case someone has a heart attack while wearing armor in the heat, which has happened.

Kings, queens, princes, barons and commonfolk take on hundreds of personas. In the space of a few feet, one might encounter a Persian princess, Germanic knights or Byzantine countesses in faithfully recreated garb, from plain tunics to full period dress, said Hurlbut, who wears an early 16th century Elizabethan silver-gray doublet with beaded maroon trim he made himself.

"Half the fun of doing something is pomp and circumstance," said Jane Urbach, a garb designer. The society is big on ceremony, with crownings, a queen's tea and other frivolity.

Last weekend, the Principality of the Mists (covering from Sonoma County to south of Monterey Bay) had its Coronet Lists, where royalty and subjects gathered for a tournament to decide on the crowning of this year's prince and princess. The Anachronist year runs from May 1 through April 30, with this being year 28 (based on the first tournament in Berkeley).

Titles are bestowed on those who have either won a contest or been nominated by members for service to the crown or special skills developed in the arts and sciences.

Titles must be earned: Scouts for adults, or elevated ranks for excellence in martial arts, expertise in arts and sciences, or special service: the Chivalry, the Laurels and the Pelican. The Pelican honors those who have given years of service without thought of reward. The symbol comes from the legend of the pelican who pierces her breast to feed her young with her own blood.

In her Palo Alto home, Urbach displayed her emerald-green velvet cape, emblazoned with a finely embroidered pelican plucking its breast to feed its young and surrounded by golden laurels. She received her honors for service and for her fine embroidery -- for which she also has received honors in the Mundane World: One of her embroidered duck ornaments was added to the White House Christmas tree in 1997, she said.

Urbach joined the society as a single mother with three children. "It was a place where everybody could go. I could go off and know the kids were OK," she said. At "Page School," kids ride derby horses, fight with padded weapons and learn medieval skills -- and honor and chivalry. Those are also the reasons adults join, Hurlbut said. The "Known World Handbook" instructs that there can never be too much politeness.

Many Anachronists have had a life-long fascination with science fiction, historical fiction and fantasy writing. Members are often bookish or not quite fitting into the Mundane World, Urbach said. The society offers kinship and a chance to be somebody else.

But the chief reason people keep coming back is because it's great fun, said Vyncent atteWodegate, chatelaine of the Shire of Crosston: "It's a weekend vacation from real life."

E-mail Staff Writer Sue Dremann at

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