I have an enormous, painful welt just to the side of my right nipple. Ordinarily, that kind of statement (in addition to being way over the TMI-line) is one which would cause a certain amount of consternation about the state of my health. I, of course, know exactly why I have a painful welt in a sensitive place: the straps of my breastplate have stretched slightly (as new leather straps are wont to do) and now it sits slightly lower than it ought to, exposing man-boob to the tender mercies of an offside snap.
My left foot is bone-bruised because a shield got dropped on it. Two weeks ago, I ended up with an alarmingly purple double contusion on the outside of my left leg, courtesy of a friend, and nearly broke my thumb when a wonky shot skipped under the guard on my bastard-sword and burst a strap on my gauntlet. The bruises on my right arm (those which caused my respirologist some alarm) have finally faded away. The bruises on my wrists where my vambraces press against my hands when are back because they always come back after a practice.
Absolutely nothing about the above paragraph is unusual for an SCA heavy fighter. The details differ, of course, but the overall picture is always one of welts, bruises, and strained muscles; sprains, dislocations and broken bones aren’t unheard-of; and every fighter has stories of near-misses and almost-disasters. SCA armoured combat is an intensely physical process; we’re doing a full-contact simulation of medieval melee combat at full speed and strength; If we were using sharpened steel instead of rattan we’d all be dead or maimed in very short order.
I think that the armoured combat is one of the enduring appeals of the SCA. Other re-enactment groups might use blunted steel weaponry, but for safety’s sake they can’t go to full power (or, if they do, they have trouble with recruitment and retention because that’s crazy-dangerous.) Other subcultures (i.e. LARPers) use foam “boffer” weapons for safety, which doesn’t have the same intensity. The SCA has found a balance between realism and safety which explains why so many people are willing to keep at it, even in the face of bruises, welts and all.
A few years ago a Knight of my acquaintance who also does “live steel reenactment” (un-choreographed limited-power fighting with blunted steel swords) explained it to me this way: “Live steel makes it as real as we can for the audience; SCA heavy fighting makes it as real as we can for the participants.” I’ve always thought that was an excellent way to put it.
A large number of people interested in historical European swordplay have been highly critical of the SCA’s heavy fighting format, and they do have valid concerns. Does SCA heavy fighting have technical problems? Yes, absolutely. Our ruleset dramatically effects the way we fight, and it doesn’t tend towards the historically-accurate; one frequently-offered example is the not-below-the-knees rule: the knee, lower leg and foot are not “legal target areas”, which allows a certain degree of historically-inaccurate foot- and shield-work to occur. Fighters can over-extend their footing or expose their lower leg with great confidence knowing that they will not be struck there… in fact many SCA fighters go unarmoured below the knee for greater mobility. The rule against striking knees or the lower leg is one that was created entirely for safety reasons (as was the rule disallowing strikes at the hand) but it has effected the way we fight in this game.
Does that make it a bad game? Absolutely not. For one thing, it’s the most fun you will ever have with your clothes on (provided that you define “your clothes” as “forty pounds of leather and steel”, of course) and it’s spawned an entire fascinating subculture around it. Are there are things I’d do differently? Sure: I’d love to have the occasional “as-armoured” tournament — where instead of applying a universal armouring rule regardless of the fighter’s kit we’d have a tournament which takes the individual’s armour into consideration to give fully-armoured fighters (like me) an advantage over lightly-armoured “sport-fighters”. The critics (often people who got their start in the SCA and then moved on to more historically-accurate fighting forms) may have valid arguments about what we do, but against that let me offer the following rebuttal:
The simple fact of the matter is that no else is doing what we’re doing on the scale at which we do it. For all the quirks, inaccuracies and outright problems that the Society has (and I am aware that there are problems on several levels) the SCA is the driving force of medieval re-enactment in North America. It over-arches all other attempts at recreating the Middle Ages… and even smaller groups doing the same thing (The Adrian Empire, as a good example) are influenced and impacted by the practices of the SCA.
It is Anno Societas XLVIII — forty eight years since the founding of the Society. That’s a half-century-old subculture… and for most of that half-century being a nerd or a geek was a very bad thing. The SCA predates the Internet, which is all the more amazing; how people got an international organization of diverse history buffs and sci-fi fen together pre-Internet I have no idea… but the SCA wouldn’t have kept going for almost five decades if it wasn’t fun.
I’ve embraced the Society because I love it – I love the pageantry, the romance, the chivalry, and the ideals which we espouse. I go to the great (and sometimes painful) effort of fighting in armour to challenge myself, as part of the larger challenge of trying to maintain and improve the Society, because I genuinely believe that the ideals of the SCA are worth promoting. And if, through some disaster of litigation or liability the SCA as an organization was dissolved today, tomorrow I’d be helping to start a new organization with the same ideals. Because sometimes you have to create what you want to be a part of… bruises and all.