Don Albion bows low over ladies’ delicate hands. His chin-length, gray hair conceals his face as he delivers feather-soft kisses in admiration. His greeting properly given, the Don stands tall and straightens his purple velvet jacket, adorned with more details than anything the musician Prince might wear. He picks up a guitar – his most prized possession – and saunters around the Helena Community Center in a flurry of velvet garb, silver buckles and musical notes. He moves from group to group, strumming chords here and there, completely at ease in his character.
The Don is just one of many participating members in Montana’s chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism, a society that recognizes members from all over the world and even has a local following here in Helena. The Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA for short), is dedicated to the authentic recreation of medieval and Renaissance history.
The Shire of Castelleone Nuovo is the name Helena members have given to their branch of the SCA. In weekly meetings at Montana City School and frequent gatherings around the state, members of the SCA focus on learning pre-17th century topics such as costuming, period fighting, archery, metalwork, hide-tanning, music and dancing. The list of what members set out to study goes on, but the members are sure of one thing: this is not a Renaissance faire.
“Renaissance faires are mostly plays,” said member Sarah Cochran. “They are not very historically accurate.”
Sarah Cochran is the local president of the Shire of Castelleone Nuovo. She is the only person within the society who shared her actual name for the interview. A bubbly twenty-something with a flair for costuming, she talks excitedly about the elaborate outfits she likes to create for different gatherings. Cochran admits she is one of the SCA members who chooses to make her participation in the society expensive.
“Usually my mom funds my habits,” she laughs, and adds that she spends $200 to $300 a year on events and materials for costumes or props.
When Cochran isn’t attending classes at UM-Helena, she becomes Lady Sarah Bat Reuven, a wealthy Jewish Turk from the second half of the 16th century. She lives in Venice with her mother, an Ottoman Turkish Jew, and together they run a textile trading business. Since Lady Sarah is a woman running her own business, she feels it is necessary to sometimes disguise herself as a man in order to pursue a passion for rapier fighting.
Cochran started to create this Turkish character toward the end of high school, and this is who she becomes when attending SCA meetings and gatherings.
“It hasn’t taken me long to develop my story,” she said. “However, the extra research you can do to continue perfecting is endless.”
Her character’s story is fairly set in stone, but she is always open to changes if extra information presents itself.
“I spend a fair amount of time researching,” she said. “I don’t sit around for hours reading books on it, but I like to pick up bits and pieces every now and then.”
Like Cochran, each member focuses on a pre-17th-century time period they are interested in and creates a persona with a background story. It must be a plausible biography that remains historically authentic to the century in which their alternate ego lives. Members research and create the backstory on their own, or they can get assistance at a gathering from the so-called Herald Table (think laptop research amid throngs of medieval garb, speech and props).
Each member becomes a part of the medieval atmosphere. No spectators are allowed.
Returning to Don Albion and his consistent strumming at Helena’s recent SCA gathering in February, the Don has paused for a moment to explain his 15-year dedication to the society and his alter-ego.
As an SCA member, Albion is both a well-known bard and fencer. Shiny medals of honor adorn his velvet jacket, each one an award for his SCA specializations. His title of “Don” was awarded to him two years ago as a highlight for his accomplishments in fencing.
Within the SCA, people can earn different titles for services to the group. Titles can be nominated through a popular vote, like the distinguished label of baron or baroness. Other titles can be awarded for services provided in areas like volunteering to help at events or teaching a skill like metalworking.
“The SCA really promotes the medieval arts,” Don Albion said. “Playing music and fencing were both things I’d always wanted to do when I was a little kid. I used to fantasize about being transported to the Middle Ages.”
Don Albion again breaks away from the conversation to mingle with the other members. All dressed in character, they listen politely to his tunes or clap in rhythm and appreciation as he moves around the room.
He stops at a table where a group of friends is sharing a meal of breads, cheeses, fruits and soup.
They sit upon metal folding chairs but eat their meal with wooden spoons and knives from wooden plates and bowls to maintain authenticity. There are packets of ketchup from McDonald’s at the center of the table in case someone needs to add some flavoring to their medieval meal.
The friends chat about their daily lives, jabbering back and forth about a trip they took or a recent book they read before resorting back to their characters as they participate in a lively game of “Assassin.” Red fabric dots serve as poison and duct tape daggers lurk behind every corner along with laughter and shrieks of surprise when someone is offed.
After an assassination attempt on her own life, Her Excellency Dame Annyse of Pengwyrn, chuckles in good humor.
Adorned in full costume that involves a beaded blue mid-12th-century dress and headpiece, she stays in character while rambling off a quick summary of her persona’s history.
“Like everybody else, I had friends who belonged and I’ve been interested in the medieval ages,” she said.
Dame Annyse does divulge one truth out of character: she is a retired librarian from Missoula.
“There are also lots of librarians who are members. It’s helpful to have a librarian handy because we can help with the research,” she said.
Her table companions are Baroness Judith and Baron Adne. Like Dame Annyse and Don Albion, the two stay in character during the interview, only admitting they are married in real life and that they are from Missoula. Slipping back into her alternative persona, Baroness Judith shares her character’s history — a lengthy tale like all other members background characters.
Baroness Judith of Sherburn is a Saxon and she is joined by husband Baron Adne, the White Wolf, a Norseman. Both characters are from the year 1056 and have created stories that entwine them to each other. There is a bit of romance and scandal in their background, but Judith doesn’t skip a beat as she tells the tale of their shotgun elopement. It’s as if she’s been telling the tale her entire life.
They both dress in crimson clothing honoring the time period. Baroness Judith proudly states she hand-stitched each piece of clothing. She goes into detail on the construction of her costume, explaining that she chose her time period because the clothing was much simpler and looser.
“I find the history very interesting and I like to sew complicated things,” she says.
Each person at this table has a passion for something esteemed within the SCA. For Baroness Judith it is the sewing and costuming aspect, her husband has received awards for his works with metal and Dame Annyse has been recognized for her handiwork in historical research.
And really, that is one of the main focuses of the SCA.
“The awards we give are based on the actions we’ve taken as members,” Baron Antoine de Bueil said. “We award the learning, the knowledge and the teaching of another time.”
Baron de Bueil is the local royalty from Missoula who honored the Helena SCA event with his presence and presided over the event. His passion within the society rests on fencing, but is also in charge of maintaining the accuracy the SCA strives for and representing the population.
“I hold up the ideals of what it is to rule a good society,” he adds.
A gold crown sits a bit askew atop his head. Carrying a large goblet in one hand, de Bueil circles the room. He pauses to chat with someone about an SCA rule and then quickly finds himself a target in the “Assassin” game.
After a quick redemption, he wanders over to the weaponry area of the room and unsheaths his prized rapier. It is a surprisingly light blade, the handle made of antler and a length of steel over three feet long.
With a grin on his face, he takes a moment to spar with Don Albion – nothing hostile, just a few manly clangs. The large fighting event is to be held later that day with awards and raffle prizes given after a great dinner feast.
Their energy must be conserved for the main event.
For non-members or people who have never heard of this society, the SCA can seem a bit … mesmerizing. You might think participants are trapped in a fantasy, but they see it as a chance to embrace the beauty and excitement of a different time.
Some people revel in the unique pre-17th century charm and history, capitalizing on their participation in the group as a chance to meet new people.
“To me, it’s a great big family and I have closer friends and family here than in my own family,” said Baroness Judith.
Most members emphasize the importance of societal unity and how working together not only helps form the bonds of friendship, but makes the SCA stronger as a whole. It’s not just about dressing up and escaping reality as another person.
“We’ve all done lots to help out,” said Baroness Judith. “We’re supposed to be examples of the goodly virtues and services in society.”
But there are some people within the society who tend to get a little too involved.
“You’ll always have some people who are gonna have a stick up their ass,” said Cochran. “We have a saying that: Just because you’re a Duchess doesn’t mean you’ll get a free cheeseburger at McDonald’s. There are some people who take themselves too seriously.”
She recalls different events and highlights some colorful personalities she has met during her years as a member.
“You see amazing costuming … but then you get the amazingly illustrated loincloth guy,” she said. “You have some interesting people, but also some really beautiful things.”
To find out more information about the Society of Creative Anachronism on a local level, visit the Helena Chapter’s website at www.castelleonenuovo.com.
For more information about the SCA on a national level, visit the society’s website at www.sca.org.