Wispy notes escaped from a recorder on a recent evening as armored men and women engaged in medieval combat on a baseball diamond, their weapons clanking with every strike.
These weren’t the trappings of a Renaissance fair but just another Wednesday night of fighting practice for the Barony of Bjornsborg at Dellview Park in Northwest San Antonio. The barony constitutes the local chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), an international organization dedicated to recreating medieval times as accurately as possible.
The SCA focuses on reviving practices common before the 17th century when singing bards traveled from village to village and knights battled across kingdoms. The society itself is part social club and part hobbyist haven.
For Rachel Merril, or Richilde zum Hasen as she’s known in the society, her peers in the SCA provide a built-in friend group wherever the military might assign her active-duty husband. When her husband was transferred to San Antonio years ago, she looked up the local SCA chapter, she said.
“They were like ‘Welcome home,'” Merril said. “They immediately took me in, they embraced me. I had built-in friends in the SCA. No matter where you go, you’re home.”
Founded in Berkley, California in 1966, the SCA started out as a backyard party among a group of medieval studies graduates. More than 50 years later, the society has spread across continents and attracted more than 30,000 members worldwide. There are kingdoms, larger regional conglomerations of local baronies, spanning all 50 states and Canada.
Jan Lewanski, who goes by Jan W Orzeldom in the society, helped found the Kingdom of Ansteorra, an Old English-inspired name meaning Lone Star, in 1979. The kingdom, which has dozens of chapters throughout the region, covers most of Texas and Oklahoma. Lewanski has been in the society for 40 years, he said, and he and his Texas compatriots previously participated under the banner of the Atenveldt Kingdom, which includes much of Arizona.
“We were kind of the distant stepchildren, and they helped to establish us as a principality first,” he said. “Then we had enough members for the organization to recognize us as a kingdom.”
SCA chapters often grow around a college group, Lewanski said, but it has an oddly broad appeal.
“I have seen college professors and a motorbiker gang in the club and no conflict,” he said. “They have a different draw, but the biker gang people understand the concept of personal honor. And the concept of chivalry, which we emphasize, appeals to them. A college professor has a different sort of draw.”
Anyone can join the SCA, and member dues aren’t needed to participate in the action. Contribution levels range from $20 annually for a family membership for two to $45 annually for a sustaining membership with electronic access to SCA publications.
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Perhaps the biggest draw for the organization is its events, the largest of which are the interkingdom wars. Ranging anywhere from five days to two weeks, the interkingdom events attract members from different parts of the world.
That’s how Andrew Heinrich, or Master Mateo Montero de Madrid, met his wife Sarah. In 2007, Heinrich was attending the Gulf Wars in Mississippi, an annual interkingdom battle between the kingdoms of Ansteorra and Trimeris, which includes a majority of Florida.
“It’s like two to 4,000 people every year at this event,” he said. “Big battles, lots of parties, it’s a good time.”
Heinrich, who also plays music in the SCA, was performing at the 30-foot-tall, 15th-century-style tavern called the Green Dragon that Sarah and her parents had built for the event. He did the first part of his live set in the loft area of the tavern.
“I felt like I was too far from my audience, so I came downstairs,” he said. “When I came downstairs and was playing I looked and there was this gal behind the bar who was gorgeous. I was like, ‘I’m going to go get a beer.'”
Five years later, they were married in a ceremony at the tavern.
Heinrich’s introduction to the SCA was in the 1990s at a fighter practice in Madison, Wisconsin. Heinrich said, at the time he was going through a rough patch in his life, and one of his good friends thought he might enjoy the SCA as an outlet. From a seat on a set of bleachers, Heinrich watched SCA members practicing armored combat. A separate group practiced rapier fighting, which is similar to fencing. Later one of the rapier fighters approached Heinrich about getting involved, and he agreed.
He’s now the rapier marshal for Ansteorra overseeing all rapier fighting competition in the kingdom.
As a self-described lifelong nerd, Heinrich felt he had found nirvana after joining the SCA. It was a safe space where he could be himself and find likeminded friends. Heinrich shuddered at the thought of where he’d be without the society.
“I don’t know who I’d be right now,” he said. “I don’t think I’d be married, at least not to [Sarah] because I wouldn’t have met her. So I think my life would be radically different right now if I hadn’t found the SCA.”