An Afternoon with the Medieval Enthusiasts at Dartmouth

By Will Peisch | 5/20/15 8:17am

When I asked Connor Pollock ’17, treasurer for the Medieval Enthusiasts at Dartmouth, or MEaD, whether all the members of the club had created a medieval alter ego to go with their medieval gear, he smiled like it was a joke he had heard a million times.

“A lot of people in the group end up adopting alter ego things — it varies in the amount of seriousness,” he said.

As it turns out, “it varies in the amount of seriousness” would be a pretty good unofficial motto for a variety of things the enthusiasts do.

Pollock, a physics major, has been a member of the club since his freshman orientation. His society name is Acha, and if he’s ever knighted, he said, he will be Sir Acha — quite the pun. By contrast, other members of the club take their medieval identities very seriously. Pollock was unaware of MEaD’s faculty advisor’s given name until his third term as a part of the club. He usually refers to her by her alter-ego name of Frenya.

As I watched the society practice, I noticed that each member’s devotion to the medieval lifestyle seemed to strongly correspond to the detail in his or her outfit. One member wore what appeared to be a fencing vest with New Balance shoes, while the club’s combat trainer, Tom Hart — his medieval name is Lord Frostulf, although he didn’t seem to take this name too seriously — outfitted himself literally head to foot with garb that seemed to be borrowed from the set of the Princess Bride. When one member of MEaD complained how hot he was in his football-padded armor while on the Green, I’m fairly certain I heard Hart say, “oh suck it up cupcake — ‘it’s too hot’ — I’m wearing a couch!”

For practice, Pollock outfits himself with a red gambeson — a padded fighting shirt that his mother made for him as a gift. He told me that his mother had also sewn him a tunic with an embroidered collar, and this made me incredibly jealous, although I’m not sure what a tunic is or what an embroidered collar looks like.

In terms of what actually goes on at practices, Pollock said it usually boils down to three main fighting styles — fencing, heavy fighting and more recently, cut-and-thrust fighting.

Fencing requires a punch proof vest that won’t tear, gloves, a gorget — a throat guard — a mask and a hood. The swords tend to be on the lighter side to allow for more precise movement of the blade. This fighting style seemed to be Hart’s forte — we can only hope he uses his talents for good.

“Tom is a god at fighting,” Pollock said. “He fights whatever he wants to fight and he fights very very well, but he prefers fencing.”

Heavy fighting, as the name suggests, is much more involved in terms of gear.
“You need significant protection,” Pollock said. “With heavy there is no limit to the amount of force you can use.”

Heavy fighting involves hItting your opponent with rotund weapons, 2-3 inches thick. It is in heavy fighting that one can see the most knightly combat, as competitors are dressed up in a full suit of armor. Some competitors use football pads as part of their armor, while others opt to use a full brigandine. Hart demonstrated just how hard heavy fighters hit by having my editor hold up a shield, expecting a blow. Hart then picked up a heavy fighting sword, wound up his swing, and hit the shield as hard as he could. The resulting echo of heavy sword on shield caught the attention of half the Green and left us visibly — and perhaps medically — shell-shocked.

Finally, there is cut-and-thrust fighting, which Pollock described rather romantically as “the love child of heavy fighting and fencing.” Cut-and-thrust combines all the light calibration and control of fencing with the heavy weaponry of heavy fighting. Pollock seemed especially giddy about the prospect of more cut-and-thrust in the club.

“Fencing isn’t terribly medieval,” Pollock said. “And heavy weaponry has a very high cost of entry.”

Ultimately, what the club does with all this combat training is go and compete in tournaments through the Society for Creative Anachronism. Competitions in theses events can vary from five-versus-five skirmishes to battles between thousands of participants. James Tazelaar, the club’s heavy combat instructor, said that his father was part of the first wave of participants in SCA events 40 years ago and introduced him to SCA activities nine years ago.

When I asked how scoring worked for these competitions, Pollock said the system was pretty straightforward.

“Basically, you live or you die,” he said. “If you die it’s because you’ve been hit in an area that could be considered lethal. It’s not just death shots, though. If you lose a leg you continue without using your leg, if you lose an arm you can’t continue using your arm. Basically, anything from the groin up to the head is a valid zone for attacking.”

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“Has anyone drawn blood?” I asked.

“Not while doing anything that was sanctioned, legal or smart,” Pollock smirked slightly. In fact, even though the Society for Creative Anachronism is a nationwide organization that has been in hosting swordfights for 49 years, no one has ever been killed by a sword. The same is true of Dartbeat, although we have been around for far fewer years.

Pollock said his favorite aspects of the club include fighting, as well as other facets of medieval life, including bowmaking and metalworking. He added that other people are drawn to the club for the costuming and events, but they all share a love for the Medieval era. He then went on to show me some of the metalwork he had done for the club, which he sometimes use to barter with other members of the society.

While the premise of the club is definitely pretty out there, the club has something for everybody. It’s an apparel club where you can pretend murder your fellow members, it’s an club sport with awesome uniforms, but mostly it’s a pretty welcoming place where you can geek out about a certain lifestyle with other people. I’m saying this mostly because I think the club is cool and has a lot to offer, but also because if I don’t, the enthusiasts might go medieval on me.

Will Peisch