This type of fighting is the core of the SCA. It all started back in 1966 Berkeley, Calif., when a group of history buffs decided to throw a backyard party, don buckets on their heads and smack each other with sticks to see who was the “fairest” to their ladies. That event was styled as a “protest of the 20th century,” and is now referred to within the SCA as Anno Societatis, or “in the year of the Society.”
In 1968, the SCA made an appearance at the World Science Fiction Convention and peddled a book titled A Handbook for the Current Middle Ages in hopes that it would inspire other people to start their own kingdoms. Well, it worked. Shortly after, new SCA chapters began to form, and the SCA became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, with three major kingdoms spanning the United States. Since the late ’60s, the SCA has blossomed from a backyard melee to 30,000 active members (and 60,000 participants) in 19 kingdoms covering the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, South Africa and Australia.
Locally, Salt Lake City is within the kingdom called Artemisia. With over 1,000 active members, it covers Utah, Montana, southern Idaho and parts of Colorado. A kingdom needs at least 400 members living in the area. Each kingdom is then subdivided into local branches. As recently as 15 years ago, Artemisia was merely a principality (which is run by a prince and has at least 100 members), part of the Kingdom of Atenveldt.
But it made the jump from princedom to kingdom largely because of one legendary local, Brion Tarragon. His name is invoked with reverential tones among local SCA members and he is referred to as “The Once and Every Other King.” In the mid-’90s, according to Michael “Fish” Jensen—a 42-year-old IRS employee who, on weekends, plays a Viking named Math—Brion Tarragon was not only a badass fighter, but a great artisan and historian. It was through his magnetic personality and love for the organization, Jensen said, that the SCA flourished in Artemisia.
Some in the SCA argue about how much power a king actually has, but overall, it’s agreed the king is the boss. He oversees the kingdom, hands out awards and knights the fighters. But he holds the crown for a mere six months. Becoming a king isn’t a popularity contest—the SCA holds a crown tournament twice a year, where any “knighted” individual can battle it out in single combat for the throne. Every six months, when Brion Tarragon won the crown for Atenveldt, he brought it to Salt Lake City, officially called the Barony of Loch Salann.
As king of Atenveldt, Jensen says, Brion Tarragon reveled in the lifestyle and created traditions still practiced 17 years after he left. Because of his influence, Artemisia grew in numbers and officially became a kingdom in 1997.
Though a great king, Brion Tarragon was a stockbroker by day and was offered a job in Boston, where he presently lives and remains an active SCA member. Sadly, he never got to rule the kingdom of Artemisia.
The current holder of the crown is Sean Oppenheimer, a one-time squire of Brion Tarragon. While Oppenheimer’s day job is in the IT field, in this realm, he is known as His Royal Majesty Sean Kirkpatrick Tarragon.
“This is my fifth reign as king,” Oppenheimer says. When Oppenheimer shows up at the Wednesday practices, his subjects run over, grab his bags and carry them to the field.
Meeting Oppenheimer for the first time, it’s hard not to be nervous, as he is the king. So I did some research on the SCA website and found a link to His Royal Majesty’s preferences (e.g., good beer, enjoys the scent of vanilla, but do not bring him cantaloupe). “Your Excellence, I present to you some vanilla-scented lip balm. I hope it is to your liking.”
“Uh, thanks. Carmex. I love this stuff.”
The king and I have been on good terms ever since.
More Than Weekend Warriors
As previously mentioned, historical fighting is the group’s primary focus. Think of it like a video game where you’re trying to level up. First, a knight takes on a man-of-arms. After enough practice and ass-kissing, he can level up to squire status. And finally, after maybe five to 10 years of bruises, he may be asked to become a knight.
But not every knight wears shining armor. He or she can take on any cultural persona that may have existed prior to the 17th century. At SCA events, it is not uncommon to see Vikings, Turks, samurais, Zulu warriors and even American Indian warriors, all in one fight. Every one of these fighters has a specialized martial art, be it rapier (baggy tunics and fencing), heavy (full armor with big-ass swords or spears) and even range weapons (archery, axes, etc.).
“Yeah, it takes a special type of brain damage to fall in love with this and do it on a regular basis,” Jensen said as we sat in the shade in Moab. Jensen has been an active member for over 20 years and seems to have a solid understanding of the organization.
“I’ve learned my values through Old World ways, and I do believe that those values still hold true,” Jensen said. “This way, I can do those things without looking geeky. Look, take the movie A Knight’s Tale. I love that movie because it’s basically a documentary about the SCA. It’s people running around in ‘period’ looking ‘polyester’ while dancing to David Bowie. We hate to admit it, but it’s true.”
An important principle within the SCA is keeping things “period.” For example, at Arabian Nights in Moab, a woman shouted from across the campground, “Look! A naked man!” I panicked and hastily looked around only to realize she was referring to me. Why? Because I wasn’t wearing period-based clothes.
Keeping it “period” means more than just wearing appropriate clothes and armor. It can even boil down to conversation. “It’s not period to discuss Lady Gaga at an SCA event,” I heard someone say. Though this is true, it’s also not period to say something’s not period.
While some SCAdians may have taken the period thing a little far at Arabian Knights, others could be found chewing on Red Vines and relaxing in lawn chairs, discussing when pewter cups first emerged in Europe.
Another factor that seems a little vexing is the role of women. An organization based on historical fighting is going to attract dudes who like to beat on each other—at least that’s what I observed in Utah gatherings. But women also participate in this world.
“There aren’t that many female fighters,” said Shana Durrant, an interior designer whose SCA name is Shauna Sasperonsa. “I actually fight more guys than [women]. It’s funny. People in the mundane world treat me like a girly girl. My in-laws, my friends and family—they all treat me like that. But when I come out here and fight, I get to be another person. The only problem is when people come up to my husband and say, ‘Are you hitting her?’ I always have to explain to them that it’s not like that!”
Female fighters like Durrant are few and far between. Most women in the SCA participate in the less-combative realm, and in more traditional roles, often working in the kitchens at events, holding political roles, belly dancing or creating period-based crafts and goods.