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Why Does One Get Involved in Re-enactment?

by

Geoff Boxell

I often get asked the question: 'Why does one get involved in re-enactment?' (or, in my case, a mediaevalist society)

Boys will be Boys? I think it helps if you haven't really grown up.

As a kid my mates and I loved to play knights in armour and Robin Hood, though the sound of our mother's voices dampened our activities with their constant cry of 'Be careful or you'll poke someone's eye out!' Well now, albeit well kited up with safety gear, I get to fight and if I hit someone in the area of their eye, I am told 'Good shot!'

My own involvement started about 1997. I was working at the University of Waikato running an ex-curriculum Masters course in technology. I was housed in the same building as the Continuing Education unit. They ran courses on all sorts of things including ones on the culture of the many people who lived in New Zealand. What struck me was that, although the English make up the highest percentage of the immigrant population, and thereby have made the greatest contribution to both the gene pool and society, they were not catered for. To my question; 'What about the English?' Cont. Ed. asked: 'Who are the English?' That Spring Semester I ran my first course for them on English History using their reply as the title.

To advertise the course I had been asked to supply a photo that would attract attention. To this end I sent them one of myself wearing gear that I used when helping a sword & knifesmith friend on his stands at various shows (he thought us being 'Vikings' would give us an 'image'. The clothing designs I sent him were Saxon, but he didn't notice). The result was the course attracted many re-enactors and mediaevalist who took my gear as an indication that I knew what I would be talking about. The original course has been followed by many others at various locations, but a spin off was that I also started to get invited to give talks to the re-enactor and mediaevalist groups (I also started to tell tall tales at their banquets too, but that is another story).

Attending so many events I soon realised that it was ok to be 'different' and that it could be an awful amount of fun. Slowly I got attracted to the idea of joining in the fighting. The decision I had to make was which type of fighting?

There were three local groups I could have joined. The first was late mediaeval early renaissance, which was not really my period of interest. The second were a Norse group, which did fit a period of interest to me. Like the first group, they fought using steel weapons. The trouble for me was that the group consisted mainly of youngsters and they spent as much time recreating the exploits of the mead hall as they did fighting. I was too old and too conservative to want to get into that scene. That left the local SCA group (Canton of Cluain, Barony of Ildhafn). This group is a mediaeval society rather than a re-enactment group and their broad period meant that I could use my Saxon gear until such time as I made my mind up what I was going to do. Now SCA do not fight with steel weapons, they fight with rattan, a near enough period training weapon. The disadvantage is that the weapons don't look so good. The advantage is that the combat is more full on as the risk of serious injury is lessened.

Whilst the SCA allows a great deal of leeway in regards to period, the local Waikato group and its Auckland Barony concentrate on the 100 Years War. The SCA can also be regarded as liberal regarding the authenticity of the clothing and fighting gear, and I am told that at North American gatherings you can see everything from the sublime to the ridiculous. Again the Auckland barony and its Waikato shire have made a big effort to look and be the part. In fact our biggest concession to in-authenticity is allowing high-density foam to pad the inside of the protective fighting clothing and armour as long as it is not visible.

Having picked SCA I then had to decide what persona to develop and what type of fighter to become.

One Sunday the group went to the Hamilton City butts. I borrowed a bow and arrows. Although I was crap, I enjoyed loosing the bow. Over the next month my mind started to turn.

Being in my 50s, becoming a man-at-arms looked a bit daunting, both physically and equipmentwise: a decent set of 'mixed 'armour' can cost a minimum of NZ$1,000. I couldn't see me having the time to do the study and tasks involved in becoming a knight, which was just as well as the fighting gear would be even more expense. So, seeing as I had always felt myself a yeoman rather than a gentleman, and considering the pleasure I had had with a bow earlier, I decided to become a combat archer. The SCA has many archers, both men and women, but a combat archer is the ultimate step.

Right, the first thing to get was a bow. Combat archers, as with most re-enactment groups, are allowed bows of no more than 30 lb. draw weight (and yes they still hurt, ask any knight hit between the joints in his armour). I could have cheated and got a fibreglass look a like, but instead I opted for a replica English longbow. Following advice from a contact in a steel combat group I bought it from an Australian bowyer (Turbows) who makes a reasonably priced high quality bow. I ordered 6 arrows too, which was a mistake as, until I found out how to use the bow, I kept losing arrows and thus had to order replacements in a hurry. It took me a while to lean how to become reasonably good with the bow but, thanks to the help and advise of other SCA members, I did in the end get the hang of things, though I doubt I will ever become a top archer. I upped to a 50lbs target bow, which I now handle with ease. In 2007 whilst in England I picked up a 72lb replica war bow from England's premier bow maker, Pip Bickerstaff, and am now getting to grips with pulling the extra weight.

Once I was starting to feel confident with my archery I approached the Waikato Seneschal about combat archery. At the next group meeting I was given a chance to try it out using borrowed protective gear. I did ok and, despite having to fight without my glasses, had managed to kill others whilst avoiding being shot myself.

I was hooked and started straight away to make some protective gear for myself. My first item was a padded jack (or gambison). I was lucky in that I had an old alpine jacket at home that was made out of acceptable materials. All I had to do was modify the neck and means of closing the front and then put in lines of vertical stitching to quilt it in an authentic manner. I didn't manage to get much else done before the Canton of Cluain (Waikato region) held their annual battle and feast, so I borrowed the rest of the combat gear and took my place as an apprentice combat archer and trebuchet operator (Waikato have two replicas of these siege catapults, one 1/2 scale and one 1/3 scale). By now I was using contact lenses, but the helmet I had borrowed was far too big and visibility was a problem, as was the pain in the neck I developed from the edge of the helmet digging in. Fortunately I was having too much fun at the time for the discomfort to take away my enjoyment.

As time has passed I have worked with the Seneschal, who is also a master armourer, and built up my kit. I now have a comfortable Salet (helmet) complete with a klap visor with built in mesh and other safety features, metal legs and hardened leather greaves. Orignally I had steel elbows and hardened leather arms, and kidney belt, but two years ago I made an akaton coat that has all its armour built in. It may not look as flash as my shinney metal bits, but is more efficient and ensures I don't feel the arrow hits so much. Show items are a short sword and steel buckler (and I also have an embosed hardened leather buckler with my arms on it). The other items that have had to be made, and in bulk, are combat arrows. These are heavier gauge than target arrows, have rubber blunts at the business end and are covered in reinforced tape: they fly like a proverbial brick and have a shorter range than a target arrow.

In addition to my fighting gear I make my own outfits. I have two in the style of one of Richard III's Cheshire archers: green and white parti-colour laripipe hood, overshirt and hosen (with even the cod piece in parti-colour), a particolour red & blue, an outlaws outfit, a foresters one and a couple of banqueting outfits. I have the material & plans for a lot more! I have become quite the taylor and usually make an outfit, or at least part of one, each year.It has cost me well over the NZ$1,000 I had earlier thought too expensive! But it is fun.

I am an archer in the Company of St George, a fighting unit within Ildhafn that has high standards of dress and equipment. I have also been granted the Kingdom Award 'The Golden Nock' for my services to archery (I am Captain of Archers for Cluain & hold monthly practice sessions at the butts situated on my grounds).

My latest project is making 1.5 x 1.5 banners in satin for our Wulfing pavillion.

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My persona is a yeoman archer of Lollard persuasion serving a distant ancestor of mine.

Oh, and I also have a full Englisc (Saxon) kit too, but as I taylored it myself from material bought cheap from 'David's Emporium' in Hamilton I won't explore that area of my multiple personality problem.

An unexpected bonus is that I am a lot fitter these days. I try to get in at least 2 hours practice a week using a full-sized cut out of a knight for my target. I shoot at 35 metres standing and later jog, aim, and loose at varying closer distances. Allowing for the time taken to retrieve the arrows I have managed to get my average speed up to 15 arrows per minuet and at the Waikato Winter Show 2008 I set my personal best of 17. In 2009 I won the archery contest at the Waikato Winter Show, though I must confess that there were windy conditions and my heavy bow made my arrows fly straighter than those of my opponents who were using lower poundage bows. My accuracy still leaves a lot to be desired but I have learnt that there is a big difference between an archer who only takes part in target shooting and a combat archer. As a combat archer, my target is moving and often the difference between a hit and a miss is the opponent shaking his head to clear the sweat out of his eyes, or slowing down a fraction! For a combat archer speed with reasonable accuracy and an ability to run, stop, shoot and then run again is what you want.

So, if you never grew up, or are tired of being an adult, I have just the hobby for you.

Geoff Boxell