WEST BARNSTABLE – The place was The Barony of Smoking Rocks. Men in armor battled to the death and women in flowing dresses shot arrows with competitive fervor. Medieval music was in the air.
The year was sometime between 600 and 1600 a.d., a thousand-year period in which Europeans emerged from the dark ages into the Renaissance.
But this was also 2014, and the barony was holding a time-travel potluck in West Barnstable.
The Barony of Smoking Rocks is a chapter of the Society of Creative Anachronism, a medieval recreation group that was started in 1966 by a group of college students on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. After they graduated from college, members of the original group spread the concept around the country and around the world.
On Cape Cod, the Barony of Smoking Rocks is the local SCA chapter. It stretches north to Plymouth and south to the border Rhode Island.
The name Smoking Rocks is a reference to writings of Bartholomew Gosnold who is said to have discovered Cape Cod in the 1500s. His travel logs included descriptions of whale sightings and the fact that the Native Americans referred to their spouts as “smoking rocks.”
Earlier this summer, the Barony of Smoking Rocks held a potluck, as a sort of show-and-tell for those interested in joining.
The gathering was at the home of Ruth and Jack Bechtold of West Barnstable, whose barony names are Marguerite von Elfenau and Johannes von Huegel.
Upon joining Smoking Rocks or any SCA chapter, it becomes necessary to take on a persona. That entails picking an era (anytime from 600 to 1600) and a name, one that could have been used during that era.
The “bible” for the group is a book published by the national organization: the “Known World Handbook.” It tells everything that was known about life during that time period. Members can use the information to create names, personas, costumes, and activities.
Besides presiding as hostess for the potluck, Ruth Bechtold is the barony’s “chronicler,” meaning she is in charge of the newsletter. The Bechtolds got involved in Smoking Rocks about 10 years ago when camping in the Lake George area of New York with their 11-year-old son, Sam. They ran across an SCA field battle with at least 100 people and decided to stop and watch. Their son, Sam, was particularly intrigued.
When they returned home, they joined the local chapter.
The potluck at the Bechtolds’ house off the Old King’s Highway was a chance to see some of the activities of Smoking Rocks, and to meet members. This is, after all, a social club, albeit an unusual one.
Mali Howe of New Bedford was quick to welcome newcomers to the gathering and encourage them not just to watch but to participate in activities.
“We wanted to make it hands-on so guests could try things,” said Howe, also known as Molly Blythe, the baroness of the chapter. “We study history and we recreate it,” she said.
In her 9 to 5 life, Howe, 47, is a volunteer and community education coordinator for the city of New Bedford.
She got involved with the Society for Creative Anachronism when she lived in Texas, she said. She read an article about the group and then attended a Renaissance Fair in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. She was planning to move to southeastern Massachusetts and found out there were active groups in New England.
Soon after moving to the area in 2000 she joined the Barony of Smoking Rocks. There, she met her husband, Ken Howe, aka Ceawlin (pronounced “Colin”) Alreding.
“He was my sword fighting teacher,” she said.
They have been married for four years, and this year they were elected to a three-year term as baron and baroness of Smoking Rocks.
Ken Howe, 48, is a driving school teacher. He has been involved in SCA for 30 years, ever since attending college in Rhode Island.
His period is Anglo Saxon, post-Norman Conquest, and his passion, like many men in the group, is the fighting.
Howe has achieved some prominence through his fighting skills. At regional events that include chapters from all the northeast states, Ken takes on a role in the Northern Army of East Kingdom.
“I’m army corporal of whoever shows up,” he said.
At the Bechtold house, a circular sunken area of the garden serves as the perfect fighting arena. People gathered on a deck overlooking the makeshift arena to watch Ken duel with Fred Carpenter, 43, of Marstons Mills.
The two men, dressed in layers of padding, chain mail and handmade armor, traded blows with large sticks.
“There’s no greater giggle than hitting someone as hard as you can in the head with a stick,” Howe explained.
But it’s all in good fun. “You beat them up and take them out for beers afterwards,” he said.
Carpenter, whose SCA name is Richard Leviathan and who has been in the group since 1991, is a knight marshal in charge of overseeing fighting and combat. A baker by trade, he also helps out with the feasts.
Among the spectators was Carpenter’s wife, Anne, and four-year-old son Ivan, whose SCA name is Hrothgar.
Anne Carpenter, whose SCA name is Alys Attewater, works as a children’s librarian in Harwich. At one point, she donned a full suit of armor and battled her husband.
Nodding toward his young son, Fred Carpenter said the SCA is a great atmosphere to raise kids in. “All these extra aunts and uncles.”
In between duels, Carpenter explained why the battles draw so many enthusiastic participants.
“It’s an accepting organization that lets a lot of people play. If you really want to experience full on combat, SCA is really one of the better organizations for that,” he said.
Carpenter and Howe circled each other slowly as they began another duel.
Ivan, held in his mother’s arms, watched the battle closely.
Carpenter fell to his knees.
“Daddy is pretending his legs got cut off,” Anne Carpenter told Ivan.
Howe laid the final blow on Carpenter, a blow to the head, but it comes with an apology. “Sorry about that old man.”
Another explanation for Ivan: “Daddy lost.”
Among those watching the fighting was Michael Gedgaudas, 22, of North Attleboro whose SCA name is Vytautas. He joined the group as a high school senior and has brought in many of his friends.
Asked what he likes about it, Gedgaudas did not hesitate.
“Obviously the combat. It’s a great atmosphere. It is a fun social event,” he said.
Back in the makeshift arena, having demonstrated one type of fighting, it’s time to switch to fencing.
“Alright, costume change,” Howe said, as he switched garb and weapon.
The use of a 50-inch-long thrusting sword, the rapier, Carpenter explained, came into fashion in the Elizabethan period. Also used is a heavier, “cut and thrust” sword used for pressure strikes and stabbing.The swords have a real edge but the blades are flexible. They don’t bend, break or snap. Thus, attire is critical: knee pads, cup protection; fencing mask and throat protection.
“You just want to make a little impact. You want them to feel being hit but you don’t want to run them through. All in all, it’s a pretty safe form of fencing,” Carpenter said.
He demonstrated methods of fighting. “We can use our hand to block the blade. I just sacrificed a hand to finish him off,” he said.
He showed other weapons: sword and buckler and rigid parry (“it can be any rigid object: a halibut, a candle or a dead cat”). There’s a cape that entangles the opponent’s weapon; and a small dagger.
A critical part of the fight is communication.
As Carpenter and Howe parry, there is a lot of talking back and forth. The term, “good” means a blow that hit its mark.
Howe: “You keep catching the right side of the thigh. That’s a bleeder”
Carpenter: “Good! Got me right in the neck.”
Howe: “Got my throat.”
Then Howe again: “Good. That was too hard.”
Jack Bechtold, aka Johannes von Heugel, watching from the sidelines: “They sure talk a lot for dead guys.”
Turns out the telling blows, the ones that kill are subjective and are sometimes a matter of discussion if not dispute. “The group consults,” Carpenter said. “Every kingdom has its own set of rules.”
“It’s a self-correcting sport and it follows you around,” Howe said. As it turns out, if you consistently don’t get killed, you become a target.
Another no-no is too much protection.
If someone is wearing too much padding, for example, they might receive a comment along the lines of, “You’re over-engineered. You need to work on your armor.”
It is hard to leave the fighting arena but across the Bechtold yard, there was an informal introduction to archery being led by grandmaster bowman, Tanya Sanders, 55, of Rochester, also known as the Mistress Nest verch Tangwistel, a Welsh persona, and a former baroness of Smoking Rocks.
Before joining Smoking Rocks 16 years ago, Sanders competed in modern archery tournaments. At one tournament, she saw CSA members competing in medieval garb and thought that looked like fun. Turns out it was and she left modern archery for good.
Besides holding the title of archery marshal for Smoking Rocks, she also participates in all manner of handiworks, including knitting, lacemaking, embroidery tapestry, weaving, and naalbinding, a precursor to knitting that can be traced back to ancient Egypt and was used to make socks and mittens.
Her archery instruction began with an explanation on the importance of eye dominance and leg dominance in assuming the correct stance.
“The main point behind archery is consistency,” Sanders said. “You want to shoot the same each time.” She gives the drill: shoulder down, bow arm up, bring your hand to your face, touch your face, chin, mouth or eye—the same every time.
She showed people how to pull across the chest, but for women, not over the chest. “One of the times you’ll miss and a nipple shot just hurts,” she said.
As the newcomers line up to shoot, a voice calls out from the back of the crowd. “Don’t shoot my cucumbers,” said Ruth Bechtold, whose vegetable garden lay just past the target.
Sanders continued to give pointers. “The first rule of archery is look good. The second rule is do not get attached to your ammunition.”
Before the archery demonstration, a trio of musicians played a medieval tune. One of them, Frances McCarthy Young, 67, of West Wareham on cello, explained how she and her husband, George Anzivino, 58, on recorder, got involved with the group.
Young learned about the Society for Creative Anachronism back in 1985 when she was serving in Germany as a major in the US Army. She was invited to a SCA gathering that was held in a medical castle.
When she and her husband moved to Virginia, they joined a group there and when they moved to New England, they joined Smoking Rocks. They’ve been in the group about 8 years.
Her SCA name is a gaelic play on her maiden name, McCarthy, taken the late 1400s to the early 1500s: Sile inghean MacCarthaigh.
“I went through old heraldry books. The name existed in the 14th century,” she said.
When not playing medieval music, Young is a nurse anethesiologist at Cape Cod Hospital and Sandwich Eye Center.
Her husband, George Anzivino is a sixth-grade music teacher. His SCA name is Rufus (his great grandfather’s name) Bowie (his mother’s maiden name). He found the name in heraldry books for the period around the 13th century.
Their musical group, a subgroup of Smoking Rocks, is called Fracta Modi, which translates as “break the mold” in Latin, and it has as many as eight members, playing cello, recorders, and percussion.
The biggest annual event for the members of the Society for Creative Anachronism, the equivalent of a national convention, is the Pennsic Wars, which takes place in western Pennsylvania. The name is a reference to the Punic Wars in ancient Rome and Greece. The scenario is the East Kingdom (New England south to Delaware) versus the Middle Realm.
Young and Anzivino said they are looking forward to attending the Pennsic Wars.
This year, instead of camping in a tent, they will bring a trailer to the conference, but they’ll place a canvas drop cloth around it to make it look like a thatched hut.
“We have a 10-foot rule. As long as it looks good at 10 feet,” Young said. “It doesn’t have to be perfect.”
The Pennsic Wars was begun as a weekend event, but it has grown over 20 years to a two-week event that involves camping out for participants, classes (dancing, archery, stained glass, brewing, fighting), tournaments, and all manner of play-acting. More than 10,000 people attend.
At the weekend, Young said she plans to take a class in Kumihimo, a Japanese braiding technique and sewing classes so she can learn how to make viking pants.
Anzivino explained why the couple enjoys the society. “We do so much of it together,” he said.
The barony’s president, aka “seneschal”—Elaine Sears-Dennehy, 62, of Attleboro, has been in Smoking Rocks for 10 years.
A retired state worker with the department of welfare, Sears-Dennehy’s SCA name is Elaina Howys of Morningthorpe.
The group’s purpose, she said, is to “research, recreate and teach history.”
Toward that end, they have cooked a medieval feast at a masonic lodge and run a sword fighting demonstration for a troop of boy scouts and performed a medieval dance class at a local library. A lot of the members study Latin and one is an authority in Old English. That came in handy during a Beowulf event the chapter held.
Besides being club president, Sears-Dennehy’s expertise lies in costume making.
At regular SCA events, attendees are asked to wear pre-16th century costumes. There are people who arrive in authentic tunics or elaborate costumes and some who wing it.
People who make an effort are never excluded, Sears-Dennehy said.
If they goof on the costume—for instance, showing up to an event wearing a three-cornered hat from the Revolutionary War period—they will inevitably hear this comment, “out of period” or a simple, “oops.”
There are always loaner costumes kept at the door of each event in case someone errs in costume selection.
Sears-Dennehy, a skilled seamstress, said she began making clothing in earnest as a teenager, proving, as the old line goes, that necessity is the better part of invention. “I’ve been sewing since my mom told me I couldn’t have a prom coat,” she said.
She showed a McCall’s pattern she uses to make the popular T-tunics.
“This is basic beginning garb. I can start someone on this,” she said. “A lot of women like the viking base. It’s a really easy dress to make.”
Displaying a colorful frock, she said, “This is early Viking,” she said.
She said people make the mistake of thinking that women during this era wore whalebone corsets. “That was ‘Gone with the Wind.’ Wrong era,” she said.
She flipped through other costumes she had brought with her and hung from a rafter on the Bechtold deck. “This is a little fancier,” she said, showing an elaborate dress.
“I’ve dressed a lot of people and sent them to events,” she said.
All of the local officers of the barony are volunteers. “We do it for the love of history,” Sears-Dennehy said.
The barony is rich with do-it-yourselfers. The people who are handy help out the people who are less so.
“That ’s one of the beautiful things about SCA-ians, they share. It’s a very warm community,” Sears-Dennehy said.
For instance, Sanders, the archer, makes her own arrows. Her husband makes crossbows and longbows. There are others who make swords.
The first challenge anyone joining the club might have is making their own costume.
Mali Howe, the baroness, said the costume issue helped to determine her persona.
“I love the Italian Renaissance. But when I started I didn’t know how to sew. The costumes were too expensive. My husband is late Anglo Saxon so I switched to his time period,” she said.
Picking a persona has also been a challenge for Laurie Palmeri, 32, of Marstons Mills.
At the potluck, she was occupying a corner of the deck, quietly spinning wool.
Though she has been in Smoking Rocks for a couple of years, she has not yet chosen her persona or era. “I’m doing more research and finding clothing.”
She said she enjoys the group for the social aspect and the activities. “I’ve become friends with people in my local barony. I like history and I’m very creative and you get to do both. It’s more hands on. Really family friendly,” she said.
Palmeri is not alone in her interest in fiber arts. Bechtold said the work begins with shearing sheep, using Icelandic sheep, “just like the vikings.” Then they treat the wool, apply natural dyes. Next comes the spinning and the weaving.
Besides fiber arts, there are a number of other guilds within Smoking Rocks.
There is a brewers guild that explores beer-making, a tailors guild that makes the garb, a youth activities guild, a musicians ensemble, a dancing group, and a calligraphy group. People in the scribal arts guild make illuminated manuscripts.
Perhaps most importantly, there is the kitcheners guild, whose members research and recreate menus and hold tastings.
“They make the feasts with foods we like to eat,” Sears-Dennehy said. She said the guild’s preparation is critical. If you are feeding 50 to 150 people, you have to know what you’re doing before you hit the kitchen.”
Some of the groups, like the musicians guild and the dancers, have their own weekly meetings to rehearse.
There is also a fencing unit, armored combat unit, and thrown-weapons unit.
Not to be overlooked, there is the peasants collective.
“They do ‘peasanty’ things like make soap and cheese,” Sears-Dennehy said.
Mali Howe said, while Smoking Rocks has a large number of diverse guilds for members, other groups just focus on one thing.
“Some groups, they just want to fight. That’s what they do,” she said. But if a member of Smoking Rocks wants to concentrate on just one thing, that’s fine too, she said.
“We don’t limit people. You study and share what you want to do,” Sears-Dennehy said.
One of the main differences between the Renaissance Fair circuit and the SCA-ers is that, all members are unpaid volunteers. Instead of a money-making event, SCA is more about like-minded people getting together over a love of history, Sears-Dennehy explained.
Events are open to the public. Membership is not required to attend events, though all officers of the barony need to have paid their national fees.
Mali Howe also drew a distinction in that Renaissance Fairs include a fantasy element, while SCA tries to stay true to how things actually were back then.
There is also a distinction between SCA and Civil War reenactments with their strict adherence to authenticity.
“We fall in between. We encourage people to make an effort,” Howe said. “We try to be an inclusive society.”
The big annual events for the Barony of Smoking Rocks are Twelfth Night, a feast and celebration the first Saturday in January and Ice Weasel, a February event where they stage a fight in the snow. The event changes year to year, as they pick a different time period, culture or cuisine.
Next year will be the 40th anniversary of the Barony of Smoking Rocks, a time of great celebration for its 88 members. And the group is well along in planning their fall event, a grape stomp.
– Laura M. Reckford