Students Turn to the Sword For Medieval Weekend Fun

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While many UC Berkeley students spend their weekends at the library or idling under the sun on Memorial Glade, one group of students spends its time dueling in sword fights and dressing in medieval garb.

The group, called the Society for Creative Anachronism, includes nearly 50 UC Berkeley students who learn about and live out the Middle Ages through sword fighting, fencing, sewing, cooking and many other activities.

Berkeley's chapter of the group, the College of Saint Katherine, is part of the Kingdom of the West, which includes groups in California, Nevada and Alaska, as well as groups in Australia and other countries.

Students in the group attend weekend meetings and events in northern California.

The events are centered around sword fighting, but different groups set up canvas pavilions where they demonstrate their own skills, such as weaving and shoemaking, says UC Berkeley student Adi Peshkess. There are also other fighters, such as archers and fencers, who have their own matches as well.

At night there is a campfire where people tell stories, play music, sing songs and dance, Peshkess says.

Members who enjoy arts often cook or play music instead of participating in the sword fights or fencing matches.

"We basically do anything that our ancestors in the Middle Ages did that is still regarded as safe and not toxic," says Frederick Hollander, a crystallographer at UC Berkeley.

While sword fighting and fencing may seem hazardous, the group's insurance forms claim the same safety ratings as chess.

"Sword fighting has become safer and more dangerous since we began," Hollander says. "Safer because we have more protection and more dangerous because people know better moves and techniques."

Every four months the winner of the sword fighting tournament is named king-a very big deal, Peshkess says.

The king is crowned later at a different event and often travels throughout the kingdom.

There are also tournaments to determine the prince, princess and queen, titles often given for being a consort of the tournament's winner.

"The sword fighters wear heavy armor and carry large swords," Peshkess says. "It is a lot like what you see in Camelot and King Arthur."

Although today there are more than 70,000 members worldwide in most developed countries, the group began in a Berkeley backyard in 1966.

Then-UC Berkeley student Diana Studebaker looked at her backyard one spring day and decided it would be the perfect location for a party, says fellow alumnus Hollander.

Hollander, who says he was interested in the Middle Ages and wanted to be a fantasy artist, invited all his friends and various science fiction and fantasy clubs to dress up in costume and come to a party.

The party was held May 1, 1966, and was such a hit that two more parties followed soon after.

"We had the third party at Tilden Park," Hollander says. "When we went to make the reservations, Tilden asked for the group name. We hadn't considered ourselves an organization, rather a group hanging out. UC Berkeley alumna and late science fiction writer Marion Zimmer Bradley volunteered the name Society for Creative Anachronism."

When Bradley and her husband moved to the East Coast, they took the idea of the medieval group with them, and the idea began to spread.

"It was all very accidental," Hollander says.

Since the organization's official founding in 1968, it has evolved from sword fighting to include other aspects of the Middle Ages, such as medieval arts, music and cooking.

Each member of the group has fashioned a costume to resemble traditional clothing from the era and selected a name from the time period.

"We embroider, sew, make pottery-basically a lot of different artistic things from the middle ages," says Stephen Higa, a UC Berkeley junior majoring in history and medieval studies. "We also make sure that costumes are historically accurate."

The medieval dishes the group prepares are often from original recipe transcripts that have been translated by members.

"The food is actually really good," Higa says. "A lot of recipes have survived over the many years. Most of these recipes include using spices, cloves and ginger in things like meat that you don't normally find them in."


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