Metroland - 2001
Albany, NY - USA
metroland

My Medieval Twin

For members of the Society for Creative Anachronism and other living-history groups, the alter ego is the one having all the fun

By Ann Morrow
Photos by Leif Zurmuhlen

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André of Schenectady is a Renaissance man, and in more ways than one. A nationally known chef with two culinary degrees, he is also a weaver and sword fighter. He has a scholarly knowledge of European history as well as a keen awareness of contemporary culture. In other words, he has earned the comparison to a man of well-rounded prowess from the age of chivalry. But the restless epicure is also another kind of Renaissance man: He is "Sieur André Chevalier de Foucault," a French pirate living in the New World during the 1500s.

The André who is a professional chef, you might be thinking, is the real André, and the pirate guy must be some fantasy alter ego. And you'd be right—sort of. Sir André is a meticulously researched but fictional character—or "persona"—whom André "plays."

At the recent Shakespeare Festival in Schenectady's Central Park, which of the Andrés was in attendance was not so distinct. His two identities seemed indivisible as he worked a banquet table covered in authentic Renaissance-era dishes from his own recipes. Surrounded by patrons in medieval clothing drinking mead out of goblets, and attended by his wife, "Maitresse Malchia de Foucault," who could pass for a Bourbon princess, he might very well have been a French expatriate from a distant century.

And though there is dancing and music from the Middle Ages, and outside the pavilion craftsmen ply their trade and banter in ye olde lingo, this historical mise-en-scène is not a costume party or a theatrical production: It's just another Saturday afternoon in the life of a "current medievalist."

"I'm rather proud of the fact that I'm one of the best-known chefs in the country who do authentic redactions [translations] and reproductions of food from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance," says André, who may have left his doublet at home but who exhibits plenty of swashbuckling confidence without it.

André has a library of medieval cookbooks but also conducts his own research, examining where modern food comes from and following it back through time, step-by-step. Spirited Mistress Malchia is a bit of a heretic, freely admitting that she "cooks out of the box." Malchia, who has a degree in theater design, is a "lady of the manor," and in both her modern and Renaissance incarnations she spins, dyes, weaves and sews.

The de Foucaults, and most of the feast's patrons and craftspeople, are members of the Society for Creative Anachronism, a living-history organization that studies the Middle Ages and Renaissance eras, keeping the arts and culture of pre-1600s Western Europe alive through the re-creation of historical activities. The SCA does have some similarities to battle-reenactment groups, and reenacts the War of the Roses in Duanesburg every May. But the society goes far beyond playing pretend, often becoming an integral part of a member's life.

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Personae can be considered the ultimate in method acting. About the time that Sir André quit buccaneering to become a nobleman, Chef André left the cutthroat restaurant business, closing his Mello Joy Café in Schenectady to pursue a title in culinary anthropology. He now has more time for creating medieval feasts, which he does both professionally and out of chivalry: The royal feast in Central Park was put on to help raise awareness of the Music Haven's fledgling Shakespeare-in-the-park program.

Like many current medievalists, André is rather ingenious at fusing a dashing historical past with present-day reality.

A native of Louisiana (who is famed for his New Orleans cuisine), he joined the SCA in 1983 while still in culinary school. His interests in the Renaissance and professional chefing grew together. "There are many people in the SCA who are cooks," he says. "And everyone has to eat, so I thought, 'If we're going to do this thing, let's eat medieval food and find out how it's done.'"

One useful tie between André's modern life and his activities in the society is his professional connection with a game ranch in Texas—very helpful for those special occasions when only wild boar will do.

There are about 200 current medievalists living in the "barony" of the Capital Region. Despite their low profile, the SCA is not a secret organization; in fact, it's all around us, putting on demonstrations at faires and festivals, grade schools and fund-raisers. And if a medievalist won't talk to you, it has nothing to do with evasion—it's because you weren't born yet. As much as possible, personae interact only with others from their era.

"I don't think I could be married to someone who is not in the SCA," says Malchia. "It's a very time-consuming hobby." When Sir André left France for the New World and a new bride, André traveled north and was smitten with Malchia at first sight. "Quite honestly, our fantasies came true," says Malchia. "I met my knight in shining armor, and I was fought for at tournament."

"I had no choice," says André. "I knew we were meant to be married, but she was dating this other guy." The romantic intoxication of women in push-up bodices and men in heavy combat, André says, is as well-known to the SCA as it is to Hollywood producers.

But there's more to the society than feasting, sword fighting and bodice ripping. It's also an educational organization with a scholarly reputation. In a time when most Americans would be hard-pressed to identify the Magna Carta, the average SCA member can discourse on European history with the ease of a university professor. The society's quarterly magazine, Tournaments Illuminated, is highly respected for its research, and reportedly, a significant percentage of its subscribers are, indeed, university professors.

The SCA was started in the early 1960s, when a group of medieval-studies students from the University of California at Berkley threw a going-away party with a medieval theme. It is told that they were under the influence of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings at the time. And because they were grad students, the party mushroomed into a research-project/festivity of epic proportions. In its 37 years of existence, the SCA has attracted more than a million members worldwide.

Awareness of the society spreads through word-of-mouth, and that word often comes from a college with a medieval-studies program, including Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the shire of Troy. Most often, the hook is the dashing costumes—although historical finery is not quite the same thing as a costume. Authentic period clothing is referred to as "garb."

"What first attracted me to the SCA was the pretty dresses," says "Baroness Lucia Francesca de Valencia," a Spanish noblewoman from the 1500s who likes to sew. Baroness Lucia and her husband, "Baron Munenaga Soiichia," act as liaisons to the "Kingdom of the East" (roughly, the East Coast from Nova Scotia to Delaware).

But mostly, they hold court and wear imposing baronial robes handmade by Lucia. "We're titular figureheads," she admits cheerfully. Last year, the regal couple was invited to "hold court" at Equinox Inc.'s Chocolate Festival 2000 benefit, which had a Renaissance theme.

One of the concessions the SCA makes to the present time is substituting elected positions for hereditary titles. In fact, the demands of providing the society with pomp and circumstance are taxing enough that nobles of the realm are encouraged to keep their reigns under eight years.

Lucia's predecessor, "Baroness Eleri Nefyns," and her housemate, "G. Emerson True," a blacksmith from 1570s London whom she has known since high school, came across the SCA in 1981, in Smithsonian magazine. What first appealed to them, admits Eleri, was dressing up in costume. But they were also entranced by the society's ideals, which are to live up to the highest standards of chivalry and courtesy. "And in today's world, that's kind of nice," she says.

Eleri is a research scientist for Encon whose persona is a Welsh baroness living in the 1200s. "I come from a Welsh background and I wanted to celebrate that," she explains, "and Wales was politically strong in the 1200s because England was having a civil war." Since relinquishing her barony to Lucia, Eleri "resides at court" as a lady-in-waiting.

The "King of the East" lives in Rhode Island. Though Eleri travels hundreds of miles to attend royal functions, she doesn't know much about the modern existence of her sovereigns. "I think the Queen works in tax law," she says. "Very often, you meet people within the SCA, and you don't know what they do. You meet them in persona, and that's who you get to know."

Within the society, members are referred to only by their persona names. Hilary Buckland, proprietor of Fashions in Time—an online period-garb shop—is an exception. Her persona is "Lady Morgana Devereux," but she peddles her wares from faire to festival under her modern name. And why doth seamstress Hilary do this? "Because the taxman cometh," she answers briskly.

"And besides," she says, "'Hilary Buckland' is a historical name. There are quite a few old places in western England with the place-name of Buckland." She adds with pride: "And there's Buckland Abbey, which is a falling-down ruin in Devon." Ancestral sites add more than just atmosphere. In the Middle Ages, geography had not yet been replaced by psychology as the orienting science. Where you're from is who you are.

Buckland has a bachelor's degree in Elizabethan history and a master's in library science. But she's been a historical clothier for as long as she can remember. "When I was 8, I got a Mary Poppins doll, and I immediately turned it into Anne Boleyn," she says with a laugh.

Buckland found out about the SCA through friends in community theater. A member for 15 years, she is renowned for her handmade "storybook" wedding gowns and is a frequent prizewinner at the Festival of the Passing of the Ice Dragon, the society's annual arts pentathlon in Buffalo. Some of her most picturesque wins are in the "Best Post-1450 Male Garb" category. At the Shakespeare festival in Schenectady, an example of her Hollywood-quality, late-Elizabethan nobleman's garb could be seen on "Baron Gunther Englehaus," her longtime beau. The Scotia couple met 10 years ago at the annual Medieval Faire held at the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany.

In the modern world, Gunther is a computer programmer. Within the society, he is a dance instructor for the SCA's weekly dance class held on the RPI campus. For the period-dance demos in Central Park, he kicked-up his beribboned heels to the petit vriens, a 16th-century Italian dance, and the horse's bransle, a style of galliard. The sprightly galliards seemed to be somewhat familiar to the general public, and faire-goers who wanted to join in were welcomed with a quick lesson.

Baron Gunther is not a "landed" baron like Munenaga: Titles can also be conferred by the King, as in days of old. In addition to prowess on the field of battle, honor is bestowed for artistic achievement and for "service to the kingdom," such as running events or teaching classes.

The society's informal classes are what many members enjoy the most. "A lot of what happens in the SCA is, one person learns how to do something, and then they turn around and teach it to others," says Eleri. "When I joined, I didn't know how to cook. People in the SCA taught me." She adds with amusement: "Of course, now I can cook for 30 to 100, much more easily than I can for two."

The honorifics are not just to reward participation, says André. Titles such as Lord and Lady, he explains, are meant to encourage the membership to treat one another in a genteel manner. Because of that respectful attitude, the SCA does not have serfs. "We are all considered to be of the gentry," says Malchia.

André sees a natural parallel between the Southern hospitality of his upbringing in Lafayette, La., and the chivalric ideals of the society. "I grew up in the South, in a French home," he says. "It's ingrained in me to be courteous." When he says the SCA is in his blood, he's referring to his persona name of Foucault, a family name that dates back to1650 France.

André admits that the society's romanticism isn't strictly faithful to the age of chivalry. The courtly love of yore inspired not only epic poems and heroic deeds, but also the kidnapping of reluctant inamoratos and the seduction of women of virtue for the sport of cuckolding their husbands. The era was well acquainted with sensational celebrity scandals—most notoriously, the brutal rape of the Duchess of Salisbury by King Edward III.

"The chivalry is idealized," André says proudly. "It's all idealized."

The SCA sometimes uses fantasy to get around unavoidable realities of the present time, such as being in America. The name of the Ice Dragon pentathlon reveals the society's beginnings in the medieval-mad 1960s, when wizards and dragons graced the album covers of a generation, and rock stars affected the look of Saxon fops. But the name is also meant to acknowledge climactic differences between the Old World and the New.

"There isn't a whole lot of ice and snow in Western Europe," says Buckland. ''The Passing of the Ice Dragon' means 'It's March, the ice is melting, we can drive to Buffalo.'”

More often, the society exhibits an astonishing dedication to authenticity. Buckland, who drafts her own patterns, relies on the groundwork of forensic pattern makers for accuracy. "Janet Arnold," she says of her favorite patterner, "literally took the clothes off of dead bodies dug up [by government agencies] for her. She was a researcher but she would map out the patterns and publish them."

The quest for authenticity often leads to heated arguments, to put it politely. "I get really frustrated with people who don't remember what the SCA was originally about," says André. "And that it's located in Western Europe. If your persona is Arabian or Japanese or African or Russian, then you would've been an ambassador to the court, and you would not have been wearing your native clothing."

The insistence on authentic personae may sound restrictive, but in practice, it isn't. "Western Europeans" don't have to be of European descent. And many swashbucklers are not men. You can even be a peasant if you want to, like "Mad Meg the Beggar." But personae do have to be appropriate for the society's time frame of roughly 1000 AD (the revival of classical learning in Europe following the fall of the Byzantine Empire) to 1603 (the death of Elizabeth I).

There are newer living-history groups that go even deeper into time periods. The Norse Recreation Society has a local group, or "household," of about two dozen members. "Norseland," as it's called, is Scandinavia from 800 to 1100 AD, the height of Viking activity and infamy.

"The SCA is too diluted," says "Toki Redbeard," a Viking living in Iceland around the year 1000. "It covers too much territory. I would run into people that my persona would not have."

Toki has been in Norseland for six years, and says he has always been fascinated by the Middle Ages—but not by the Renaissance. "What appeals to me is the early Middle Ages, in Northern Europe: the Celts, Norse and Anglo-Saxons," he says. "It's a simple warrior culture, a less church-dominated culture."

The Vikings, who go raiding instead of waging war, engage in single-combats adapted from the Norse Sagas. "In high school I got picked on a lot," reveals Toki. "Heavy-weapons fighting is the first athletic thing that interested me. It was great to get dressed up in armor and go out and trade blows with someone." He suspects that part of the appeal of combat reenactment is "the rush of direct physical competition."

He met his wife, Thorkatla, at a war he was attending as a mercenary. "I looked across the campfire, and she was standing there. That was it," he says. Only Thorkatla wasn't Thorkatla then—she was a Welsh persona from the SCA.

"I kind of stole her," admits Toki. "I brought her over to the dark [ages] side."

"The story goes," says Thorkatla, "that he brought me home, and I liked it so much I changed my name and became one of them." What happened in the modern world is that she fell in love with Iceland during a 48-hour layover on her way to England and Wales.

The Norse convert has a background in theatrical costuming, and shares with her persona an enjoyment of working with fabrics. "I like shiny things, and I like playing with string," she jokes, referring to her historically accurate weaving, braiding and cord making. Cords are an integral part of Norse garb.

The Schenectady couple is aware that the Viking era is the newest trend. And for these dedicated Northerners, it's the more the merrier. "What I love about Norseland is that everybody is doing the same thing," says Toki. "It's great to go to an SCA event and see a higher percentage of people 'doing Viking.'"

Trends in living history are often inspired by new discoveries. Buckland recently added a Viking wedding gown to her catalog. "They found a body wearing a Greenland dress, and, of course, one of the forensic patterners took the thing apart," she explains. "That was two years ago, and now lots of SCA people are teaching classes on how to do that dress in a truly period way."

New information about the Vikings made its way to the public last year through the Smithsonian Institution's hugely popular exhibit, The North Atlantic Saga. ("Fantastic," opines Toki). But the big push, say Toki and Thorkatla, came from Michael Crichton's novel of Norse lore, The Eaters of the Dead, and its movie adaptation, the atmospheric actioner The 13th Warrior.

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Most members agree that the society is affected by pop culture—especially movies. Excalibur was a formative influence. After Braveheart, there were highlanders coming out of the woodwork, and Gladiator upped the ante on realistic armor.

There are groups that go even deeper into the past than Norseland, such as a clan in Long Island specific to Ireland in the 6th century. And a tale is told of a single legion of Roman centurions who mysteriously appear for battle and then retreat into the mists of their pre-medieval era.

Since the world of a living-history persona is considered to be "real," the real or modern world is called "the mundane world." With its traffic jams and checkout lines, TV sitcoms and tax forms, sky-high stress levels and sedentary occupations...well, the society certainly has a point.

"It's more of a lifestyle than a hobby," says Toki of his Icelandic other world.

Even Renaissance faires, or at least the big commercial ones, are considered to be mundane. Toki, among others, has never been to one. "They're like Disneyland, with paid entertainers," he says dismissively. "Only instead of actors dressing up as Mickey Mouse, they dress up as a medieval knight."

According to André, the phenomena of Renaissance faires began in California alongside of the SCA. "They were never serious anyway," he says of the Ren faire innovators. "They were just out to have a party and make some money. The SCA is not about making money. That's the difference.

"I enjoy Ren faires just like I enjoyed A Knight's Tale," he continues. "Everything was entertaining, but historically accurate? No way. And that's OK. For the most part, people go to Ren faires to see Queen Elizabeth go by—and Queen Elizabeth's time period was not during the Renaissance. The Renaissance was about 140 years earlier and primarily took place in Italy."

What the large for-profit festivals lack in authenticity, however, they can make up for in sheer spectacle. At the New York Renaissance Faire in Tuxedo, the main attraction is the jousts, in which armored knights charge each other on horseback with lances and shields, taking well-rehearsed falls off their specially trained steeds. The choreographed pageant concludes with Queen Liz declaring victory, and peasants with tumbrels clearing the "dead and wounded" off the field.

"Sir Robert Locksley," one of the knights, is indeed a thespian. Yet after the day's last joust, he seems reluctant to leave the field, chatting with spectators with a beaming smile across his sweaty, mud-streaked face. The New York City actor, who has performed off-Broadway, specializes in historical roles. "They've always tickled my fancy," he says happily. "I have no idea why."

Sir Robert, who looks like a handsomer Heath Ledger, was taught to ride by the jousting company, and with only four summers of practice, he considers himself a rank amateur. However, his comrade "Will Scarlet" is a battle-hardened professional with the scars to prove it (yes, play-jousting has real risks, and the horses do panic sometimes).

"The 'stick jocks' [SCA swordsmen] think it's crap," says Will, who is the owner and trainer of Silver Knights, a professional jousting company. And Will would know, since he is also an SCA member. "We're putting on a theatrical presentation," he says of the jousts. "Here, I'm an actor. When I fight in the SCA, it's for real." According to the charismatic warrior (who has worked as a stuntman), onrushing swordsmen can collide at 55 mph—which doesn't sound much safer than his galloping clashes on horseback.

"The fighting is real," confirms André, a retired knight. "I've had broken fingers and broke my ribs twice." Categories of fighting within the society encompass sword-and-shield, mace-and-shield, two-handed swords, long-pole weapons including poleax, and buckler-and-dagger. The weapons are made out of rattan rather than heavy metal—although some groups fight
in riveted chain mail with blunted-steel weapons.

Rattan weaponry, says André, is actually more exciting than the metal kind. "It's safer and more fun to strike a blow with rattan than to swing slow and not be able to use full force," he explains. "I've been hit, and lifted off my feet, and thrown through the air with rattan.

"Stick jocks," he clarifies, "are people who join the SCA just to fight," an attitude not considered to be very ennobling. And the crossover goes the other way: SCA members will become festival employees so they can pursue their passion and earn a living at the same time.

Eleri takes a diplomatic view. "The actors do an awful lot of research, but they have a different goal: To entertain the public, and to do that, they have to be showy," she says. "Our events are not put on for the public, they are put on for us."

There is one SCA event that outdoes even the grandest and most costly of Ren faires, and that is the Pennsic War. The weeks-long border war is not a reenactment of a historical conflict, but a flowering of the society's own momentum. "Pennsic" is an abbreviation of Pennsylvania, where the massive event is held.

"We had a King of the East who really wanted a war with the Middle Kingdom," explains Eleri. "He declared war, and they didn't respond. Then he had to move to the Middle Kingdom, so he became King there—and he answered his own challenge." And thus it was decreed that battle would be done every August, and this war of Pennsic has lasted for many years (30, to be precise).

Pennsic is also a food bazaar, authentic-goods marketplace and crafts festival, spread out over a hundred acres of campgrounds complete with lake and "siege fortifications." Among the 10,000-and-counting participants (almost half of whom are fighters) are "all the known world's royalty."

Without exception, members have a reverential attitude toward the epic reenactment. "I like to watch the field battle, which is pretty much everybody from both sides," enthuses Thorkatla, who compares it to the climactic battle scene in Braveheart .

"It truly is a re-creation," says Malchia excitedly. "In the evening, when you're wandering around, you see the light of torches and the mist coming in from the lake. Over there, you hear laughter echoing off the hills, and over here, the most incredible musicians."

"The best part is when it's dark, and the only light is from torches and fires and lanterns," agrees Toki. "When you look around, for anyone who has ever romanticized the Middle Ages, or fantasized about what it would be like to live in that time, the immersion is complete."

Adds Thorkatla: "There's the incredible smell of wood smoke, and for that moment, there is nothing of the modern world. It is spine-tingling."

The couple runs off to Pennsic every other year. "It's hard to take time off in the summer when you're the manager of a movie theater," says Toki.

Unlike role-playing video games or historical movies, there's nothing illusory about Pennsic; the re-creation is achieved solely by the patiently learned, hands-on skills of its participants.

"There are so many people, I can find people who are interested in doing the exact kind of cord-making that I'm into," says Thorkatla. "And I can find someone who is an expert on it."

"They have hundreds of classes over the two weeks," says Malchia. "How to cook over an open fire, how to bake in a Dutch oven... The amazing thing about the SCA is the exchange of knowledge freely given."

"I think the things that we study from the Middle Ages are very interesting," says Eleri. "They're the opposite of what we do today. Today, we have computers, palm pilots, cell phones—and no one sits down to write a formal letter.

"What we have is an opportunity to learn about things that aren't done anymore, like calligraphy and illumination," she continues. "Things that are beautiful and fun."

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