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En garde! Guelph group practices medieval fencing and more

Since 1986, the local chapter of the International Society for Creative Anachronism has been recreating 'the best' of the Middle Ages

They dress in medieval clothes and adopt personas that fit the bill.

A cross between the fantastical world of LARPing and the rigid world of historical reenactment, the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) is dedicated to recreating “the best parts” of the Middle Ages. 

The origins of the non-profit organization date back to 'The First Tournament' in 1966, when some history buff and science fiction fans hosted a party in Berkeley, California. Guests were tasked with defending the title of “fairest” for their ladies in single-hand combat. The event proved a huge success, so they kept it going, operating under the name The Society of Creative Anachronism.

Today, the SCA has attracted more than 30,000 members of all ages, and operates internationally. Many of these people are masters of medieval crafts, practising fully-armoured martial arts, archery and any other aspect of the Middle Ages. 

In the 'known world' of the SCA, each chapter area is part of a canton or shire, which is in turn part of a larger region inside a kingdom. There are 20 kingdoms across the world, each one led by a king and queen who won their titles through crown tournaments. 

Guelph is in the Canton of der Welfengau, which is part of the Barony of Ramshaven (K-W, Guelph, Cambridge, Bruce and Grey County) in the Kingdom of Ealdormere, encompassing most of Ontario. 

The Guelph chapter, which has been around since 1982, currently has just 15 paid members, though chapter president Ryan Thorpe says it’s growing. 

Thorpe, who is known in the SCA as Beathán MacFinnon, first joined the organization in 2008 in London. 

“My wife and I were watching TV one day, and she goes, you know what would be fun? Sword fighting,” he said. 

His wife, Victoria Brighton Thorpe, had heard about the SCA in high school, so she found their local chapter in London and they went to check it out. 

As a self-proclaimed introvert, the thought of joining a group, especially one that publicly dawns clothing from the Middle Ages, seemed daunting at first. But still, he was intrigued. 

So they started by going to local practices, where members just practice things like crafting and armoured combat. When they went to their first event, he says they felt out of place, because they were only wearing homemade tunics with pants, while everyone else was dressed in fancy period clothing. 

“We didn’t know anybody there; we had no one to approach. But it was still neat to see that there was clearly a lot of history and tradition in the fancy events like a tournament or a coronation.” 

But the fish-out-of-water feeling didn’t last long. The SCA has people called chatelaine’s, who help introduce new people, showing them the traditions and practices of the society. With their help, Thorpe and his wife quickly became enamoured with medieval history, learning how to make their own clothing, as well as fencing, armoured combat, woodworking, leather-working, soapstone carving, bookbinding, and so much more. 

The things they’ve learned in the SCA have even seeped into other aspects of their lives. Thorpe says when he sees something he wants, his first instinct is to see if he can make it himself. They even barter and trade with other members who have other special skills like jewellery making. 

“That’s one of the things I love about the SCA: the attitude towards sharing knowledge,” he said. “When I want to make something or learn how to do something, you know, a lot of people just go to YouTube, but I have people that I can reach out to and say, ‘Hey, do you know anybody who does this, I'd love to learn about this,’ and then have a conversation about it.

Thorpe’s own expertise is primarily in fencing, where combatants wear only protective clothing and use weapons made of unsharpened steel, capped with rubber and foam safety tips. 

In armoured combat, however, combatants wear real armour and use swords and spears made of rattan, wrapped with duct tape, which absorbs some of the blow while weighing the same as a steel sword. 

“The reason we chose that is because (over time), it goes soft, instead of a piece of wood, which gets splintered, or steel, which hurts – like, we all want to go back to work on Monday,” he laughed. 

“But it’s not like we’re holding back. We’re not trying to hurt each other… but you’re trying to make a strike that would be recognized as an injuring or killing blow. So if you get hit, it’s pretty loud and you feel the impact.” 

Although all this might sound like LARPing (live action role play), Thorpe assures there are some key differences. Namely, their combat isn’t scripted or choreographed, and LARPing typically has fantasy elements. But you won’t find dragons or wearable elf ears in the SCA. 

Instead, they try to be as historically accurate as possible, while avoiding the “bleak bits” like plague and famine. 

On June 26, they held their monthly practice at the Guelph Curling Club, with their fencing marshal leading an introductory fencing class.

Anyone is welcome to come to the practices and events, member or not. Fencing equipment is available for people to borrow if they don’t have it. But you’ll see more than combat during these practices: there will be people “casually” doing things like spinning, weaving, needlework, playing music, making chainmail, and chatting about medieval things in general. 

Their next practice will be held July 17 from noon to 2 p.m. 

You can stay tuned on the latest events for the Guelph chapter of the SCA here