Title: Wooden Swords

Date Occurred: November 3-5, 1989

Date Written: January 4, 1990

Written by: Joel T. Kant

Copyright (c) 1990


While at lunch in the cafeteria at work at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, I ate with a large group of people. Some were my friends, but others were their friends whom I hardly knew. One of the men at the table who I knew only slightly told me about the Society for Creative Anachronisms, abbreviated SCA. The SCA holds events where people pretend that they are in the Middle Ages. Mock battles occur at some of these events. This interested me.

I was told the SCA members tend not to use their real names. The man telling me about this has an SCA name of Olaf, so I will use that. Olaf told me that he and some friends were going to hold weapon’s practice that weekend up in New Hampshire. He invited me along.

Even before going, I felt like I was not going to have the right attitude for joining the group. As Olaf told me about it, he kept using ranks related to royalty. People were princes, lords, kings, queens, barons, and so forth. I have trouble with the concept of royalty. I noticed in many fairy tales that if a common man wins the hand of a princess, the common man discovers by the end that he actually has royal blood, but ended up being adopted by some farmers because of some tragedy. This attitude is quite different from the ideal espoused in the United States that "anybody can grow up to become President."

I know that the reality of the situation is such that most people cannot grow up to become president. Still, the ideal influences my thinking. I do not want to be the servant of some king or baron, even in make-believe. Yet, I was curious about what this activity was all about.

That Saturday, I drove up to a small farm in New Hampshire. The experienced SCA members at this practice were called Aelfwine, Olaf, and Ragnar. Another new person was there besides me. He said he was Damon. I thought this was his SCA name, but it turned out to be his real name.

Olaf decided not to participate in the fighting. A tooth was bothering him, so he did not feel like joining in.

I was shown the wooden swords. I was told they are made out of a type of wood called rattan. The wood swords had a covering of thick black foam that was held on and covered by silver duct tape. Olaf or Aelfwine told me the foam had to be closed cell rather than open cell to cushion the blows properly.

Aelfwine told Damon and me about the armor. The most important part is the steel helmet. These were large and well padded. The front of the helmet has a grill across the front to protect the wearer's face.

For the arms, the elbows and hands are most vulnerable. The hands for the armor used there were protected by conventional hockey gloves. The elbows were protected by cup-shaped pieces of armor that are strapped on. I forgot what the armor was like for the legs. The armor for the chest tended to vary. Aelfwine had a rather skimpy metal chest plate with no padding. Ragnar had a much larger and well-padded chest plate. Ragnar's chest plate was made out of thick plastic. The plastic obviously came from an old barrel, because a sticker that identified the former barrel's contents was still visible. I was told that a tunic normally covers Ragnar’s ugly plastic armor. He did not bother with that for this practice session. Covered, I think it would look impressive.

Overall, I felt the weapons and armor--other than the helmets--looked clumsy and somewhat silly. It was not until the practice fighting began that I saw that the gear was actually well thought out and very functional.

Ragnar and Aelfwine had suited up. Then, they stepped into a square grassy area. Whoever was acting as a referee told them to begin. They feinted at each other a few times. Soon, they were striking at each other. After a couple of blows hit shields, Aelfwine hit Ragnar's armor in the chest with a strong blow.

Ragnar called out, "Good hit!"

As I watched, Olaf explained some of the rules to me. I was surprised that the person being hit decided whether he was killed or not, rather than the referee deciding. I thought people would be competing to win so much that they would not want to admit to being killed. A problem I had with other kids back when I was in grade school when we played cops and robbers or other such games is nobody wanted to admit being killed.

Olaf explained that there was an honor code involved. He also pointed out that if you did not admit you were dead, you would be hit harder and harder. If you did not want bad bruises, it was best to admit when you have been stuck well.

Ragnar and Aelfwine continued to fight. Besides saying "Good hit!" to mean they were dead, they would sometimes say "Good leg!" or "Good arm!"

After saying "Good leg!", the person would drop to his knees and continue to fight. I thought this was not that believable, but I did not make the rules.

After saying "Good arm!", the person would stop using their shield and continue fighting with just the sword, even if it had been the sword arm that was hit.

After a break, Ragnar switched to a two-handed great sword. To use this weapon, he had to give up his shield. For the practice, the long reach of the oversized sword did not make up for the lack of a shield. Ragnar had to say "Good hit!" much more often.

When those two finished their session, Damon announced he would like to try combat. Ragnar got him suited up. It was Ragnar’s armor that was used, since the men were similar in size.

Ragnar and Aelfwine faced off in the grassy combat area. Aelfwine showed him some moves and countermoves in slow motion. Soon, they were swinging at each other quickly.

After getting hit, Damon had to think for a moment before remembering to say, "Good hit!"

Sometimes Aelfwine had hit him a second time by then.

During the session, Aelfwine would hit Damon much more often than Damon would hit him. I expected this because of Aelfwine's experience. However, Damon did get in some successful blows.

One of Aelfwine's favorite moves was to swing his sword underneath Damon's sword and just above Damon's shield. Aelfwine's sword would strike Damon's helmet at the left temple. I noticed that Aelfwine was hitting this spot so often that the helmet was visibly dented. I asked Ragnar about this. Without concern, Ragnar explained that he will use a hammer and anvil to pound out the dent afterward.

After watching Damon and Aelfwine, various of the SCA members tried to talk me into trying combat. I decided against it. Getting pounded in the head hard enough to dent the steel helmet did not strike me as pleasant, even if some hammer blows would remove the dents from the helmet.

However, I did hit the pell. This was a log hanging by a rope. It is used to practice with a sword. Pieces of rubber were nailed to the log to pad it. As I tried to copy the swings I had seen the combatants use, I felt very awkward. I am sure I looked as awkward as I felt. The others had made it look so easy.

I also had been given a shield to hold. There were no blows coming at me, but this was just to find out what holding a shield felt like. It was much heavier than I expected. My arm with the shield grew tired. I wondered how much worse it would be if I had on the rest of the armor.

Aelfwine came over. He said that I was looking at the spot that I was going to hit. This would telegraph my intentions to an opponent. That would allow the opponent to know where to move his shield and where to counter strike. Under his instructions, I tried hitting the pell without looking at the specific spot I planned to hit. My actions felt strange. I knew I looked even more awkward than before. With not looking as I did the blow, I was having trouble hitting just a large log.

Aelfwine said that now I was letting the shield drop as I swung the sword. I was glad that I was not being hit in the head every time I made these silly mistakes, even if my head would have had a helmet on it.

Despite the apparent effectiveness of the armor and the swords being made out of wood covered in padding, I wondered about injuries. I asked about that. Several people in the group mentioned someone whose arm had gotten a green stick fracture when a wooden sword had hit it, but I did not get the name of who that happened to. Someone there had torn a tendon in a knee, which required surgery. He explained that it had not been a blow that did it, though. It was instead just that he had twisted his leg into a bad position himself.

As an undergraduate at University of Wisconsin-Platteville, I had played in various Dungeons and Dragons and other similar role-playing games. These had been played on a table with dice. I had almost entirely given these up in 1984 when I transferred to Madison. I simply had no time for them anymore. Having seen swords, even though wooden ones, and shields used in mock combat, I felt that the dice games had not given a close feeling for what fighting would be like. In that respect, what these SCA people were doing was something I was glad to have seen. Nevertheless, I was not interested enough to join SCA myself.


Back to Joel Kant Home Page: Joel Kant Home Page.