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The gathering of the Shire of the Northern Outpost
The gathering of the Shire of the Northern Outpost

Anachronists keep the past alive in Potsdam

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"Anachronism" literally means out of time or out of historical context--like a bunch of people dressed in medieval garb gathering in a modern cafeteria. That's the scene at SUNY Potsdam's Knowles Hall Tuesday nights as the local chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism turns out for the weekly gathering of the Shire of the Northern Outpost.

A group of history students at UC Berkeley founded the society in the 1960s. Forty years later, 35,000 anachronists populate 10 kingdoms worldwide from New Zealand to New York City. Roger Miller found the past alive and well in the Northern Outpost.

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“My legal name is Susie McBroom, that’s the name that I use in modern life. But here in the SCA I’m known as Dalla Olafskona.”

Dalla and her husband Olaf are both Vikings. Dalla has blond hair and wears a blue tunic with tights and boots. In the background, someone is playing renaissance music from a laptop.

Anachronists are pretty much free to choose their own historical period. While some people choose their persona based on ancestry, others are driven by a pure fascination with a given period.

“Most of the people involved with our group are looking for an escape from the modern. Something different… a little creative and unusual in their lives.

The SCA is not just about dressing up, however.

“We have so many different activities here at the SCA. Everything from armored combat to embroidery, so it depends on the person.”

Dalla says lots of anachronists just like making something with their own hands.

Dalla’s husband Olaf is probably one of the only people in St. Lawrence County who can make armor;he holds workshops every Friday.  Another fighter in leather and mail likens the society to a college:

“You want a class in how to make shoes, you can find it. How to make armor, how to make chain mail, how to make a bow, you can find it. The medieval concept of chivalry, how to make a helmet, how to take bog peat and make steel to make a weapon or a spoon out of.”

Dalla says there is a limit, though; no one is forsaking modern life altogether.

“Certainly at our medieval events we talk about what’s happened in local sports and our computer crashing. We still have those conversations even though we’re dressed appropriately. We leave out the black plague and other undesirable lack of hygiene aspects.”

Upstairs in the ballroom, two men in full armor duel while other fighters suit up on the sidelines.

“Reese Ravenscroft” has been an anachronist for twenty years. He wears a kilt, metal shin guards, a breastplate and a helmet in addition to his shield and sword. He looks like a mixture of warriors from the history books. Reese says his persona is Welsh, but admits he’s wearing a German kilt. Nobody here seems bothered by the lack of consistency:

“Do you ever get any oddballs who come in like Greeks or Romans? “ I ask.

“Oh yeah, “ says Olaf, dressed in chain mail. “I know some Greeks. I know some Romans. I know an Aztec.”

“Really?” I ask

“Oh yeah. You see a lot of Aztec warriors on the field,” says Ravenscroft. “I mean…they’re a little light on the armor in my aspect but…I will oblige them and let them do what they want.”

Reese and the other fighters say that while their weapons might be made of plastic and wood, the fights are very real.

“It’s not choreographed like the renaissance,” says Ravenscroft. “Whoever wins, wins. As I say to people when they look at it, its kind of “Monty Pythonish”. You get hit in the leg; you lose your leg. You lose your arm; you lose your arm. You get hit in the head; you’re dead. You get in the body; you’re dead.”

The anachronists even boast that their safety record is better than any organized sport.

Even when they gather for inter-kingdom wars like one in Pennsylvania called Pennsic War where thousands of fighters can be on the field at once, few receive any injuries worse than bruises to their body or pride.

“I mean, we get blunt trauma injury, we get bruises cause we’re swinging sticks at each other,” says Ravenscroft. “Umm, as far as broken bones and things like that, they’re few and far between.”

Pennsic War is an annual event held outside of Pittsburgh and it attracted nearly 12,000 anachronists last year from the East and Middle Kingdoms. There’s jousting and sword fighting, but it’s much more than a war; most of the people are there for the arts and science workshops, the marketplace, or even just the camaraderie.

Ravenscroft goes to Pennsic every year with a group of fellow anachronists from Canton.

“We know each other. We camp together for two weeks. We basically have a town in Pennsic, we have a new city for two weeks. You get neighbors you only see once a year, but its just real friendly and that’s pretty much why I still hang around. Its just the old camaraderie I guess you could call it.”

Some of the fighters ask if I want to put on a spare set of armor and join them in battle. I politely refuse; but to be honest, there was a part of me that truly wanted to put on some armor and take a good whack at these guys.

For North Country Public Radio, this is Roger Miller.

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