‘If someone did it back then, someone somewhere does it now’: CSU’s Medieval Society keeps the past alive

Matt Smith

two people fight with swords
Russ and Erin Gathright spar in the cut and thrust category during practice Sunday at CSU’s Glenn Morris Field House. (Jon Price | Collegian)

Video by Alyssa Proulx

A thousand years after the fact, the medieval age is thriving at Colorado State University. Members of a meta-society embedded in the modern world work to keep its customs, crafts and activities functioning as they would have in times long gone. It is a practice known as living history, and many members of CSU’s College of Ram’s Keep are apart of the practice’s most complex organization.

Ad

We’re the ones yelling at the history channel”-Nolan Smith, “Haggis the Rag Man”

It’s called the Society for Creative Anachronism, a global collective of history enthusiasts. Once just the quirky theme of the birthday party for a UC Berkeley medieval studies graduate in the 60s, SCA participation now totals to over 60 thousand around the world.

“If someone did it back then, someone somewhere does it now,” Kevin Dillman said. 

In the modern world, Dillman is a Doctor of Chemistry teaching in Denver.

Much of the world is divided up into 20 kingdoms, each with their own politics, structure and heraldry. Fort Collins is ruled by the Outlands, one of 16 American kingdoms running from New Mexico up into Montana. The whole Front Range is then further collectivized into the Barony of Unser Hafen, roughly “our home” in medieval German. Over 30 CSU students make up the College of Rams Keep, an unofficial protectorate of Unser Hafen.

Rams Keep meets at Newsom Hall on Mondays. On Sundays, all Unser Hafen members are invited to travel from the farthest reaches of the Barony to the Glenn Morris Field House at CSU for combat practice. The heavy fighters, knights in full armor with shields and swords, are preparing to duel in the upcoming Spring Crown Tournament. This event, taking place March 10, in the Barony of al-Barran (Albuquerque), will decide the ascendency to the next holders of the crown, a title currently held by His Majesty Darius of Jaxartes and Her Majesty Anna MacTaggart

man points to demonstrate sword fighting to group with swords
Albert Lionelle, or Aegeon as he’s know in the Society for the Creative Anachronism, leads a group of new and old members in proper technique during practice Sunday at CSU’s Glenn Morris Field House. (Jon Price | Collegian)

After practice, the fighters hang out and rest their sword arms at Dungeons & Drafts. 

As explained by court member Lord Iago Martin, aka Charles Smith, “it’s a subculture of what amounts to super nerds.”

As far as subcultures go, none rival the SCA in terms of attention to detail and complexity. The kingdoms can be thought of as their own entire meta societies, fulfilling every imaginable function that would have gone on during the period.

Craftsmen and reenactors make up authentic textile businesses, metallurgical foundries, breweries, calligraphy practices, paper manufacturers, armorers and so, so much more. At massive reenactment events like February’s Estrella War in Arizona, pop up markets offer places for people to trade in and buy their wares. This proxy economy has become so complex to the point that it supports entire livelihoods.

Hollywood prop hunters often come to SCA groups in need of cheap, authentic gear. Movies like “Lord of the Rings” and “Braveheart” have relied on SCA armies to stock their background extras. SCA experts often rival historians in terms of period expertise. Faithfully reenacting behavior and following craft guides often reveals new insights that historians cannot derive any other way.

Ad

At fencing practice, participants bring to life the practices of real medieval combat masters. Disciplines from European masters like Thibault d’Anvers all the way to martial arts like Kendo are amalgamated into a style that fits the individual.

How much fun do we have? Oh do we have fun. We have all the fun. But it’s about even more than that.”-Kevin Dillman, “Cornelis”

“What a lot of us do is we’ll say, ‘ok let me pick this bit out of this guy’s and this bit out of this guy’s,’” Nolan Smith said. “We’ll sort of start blending those styles together and find something that fits us.”

Smith, or Haggis the Rag Man, is the acting Rapier Marshal of Unser Hafen and chief combat trainer on Sunday practices. For many members, seeing Haggis and his golf bag stuffed full of swords was all the incentive needed to look into the SCA.

Zach Scordato, known as the great Scottish/Viking/Japanese mercenary Murcoch MacAllister, was introduced to the SCA in such a fashion.

A map of the world stylized like a medieval illuminated manuscript, with the US host to the majority of kingdoms with a few others in the Eastern Hemisphere
The division of the world into Kingdoms within the SCA

“I was just like, ‘oh this is kind of cool, sword fighting and stuff,’” Scordato said. 

With the expertise acquired from these enthusiasts’ passions for history, many things in modern life become more difficult. 

“We’re the ones yelling at the history channel,” Nolan Smith said.

Charles Smith furthered this sentiment. 

“We’re the nerds who go to museums and go ‘can I touch it,’” Charles Smith said.  “And they go ‘nobody’s really asked, but I guess.'”

As much fun as it is to participate in this massive society of live action roleplaying, the SCA does much more. 

“It isn’t just about the fun, there’s a family element,” Scordato explained. “Many of us would not know what to do with ourselves without this.”

For many participants, the friends and belonging acquired through the Barony of Unser Hafen has been life-changing.

“There’s a comfort level of just being odd here that you don’t find elsewhere,” Nolan Smith said.

Correction: A former version of this article stated that CSU’s College of Ram’s Keep was apart of the Society for Creative Anachronism. Only some members of Ram’s Keep are also members of SCA. The article also stated that the club meets on Tuesdays in Newsom. The actually meet on Mondays. 3/7/18

Collegian reporter Matthew Smith can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @latvatalo.