Re-creating Middle Ages


PORTSMOUTH, R.I. (AP) – Seventeen-year-old Patrick Agin often spends a full week whittling an individual arrow and is learning to make chain mail armor by hand. So when it came time to submit a senior photo for the Portsmouth High School yearbook, he selected a snapshot of himself wearing chain mail and slinging a prop sword over his shoulder. The school rejected the photo, citing its “zero tolerance policy” for weapons, and Agin and his family sued, claiming the school was violating his right to free speech.

But Agin and others who spend their free time sword fighting and feasting on medieval-style meals also wonder why the school would discourage his passion for a hobby they say offers tens of thousands of people a way to learn about history through hands-on experience.

“It’s no different from wanting to appear in a Boy Scout uniform,” said Tamara Griggs, a spokeswoman for the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group of 35,000 dues-paying members that hold mock battles, learn arts like calligraphy and conduct demonstrations in shopping malls. Agin belongs to the organization.

Griggs, 36, of Cincinnati, Ohio, who goes by the name Countess Tamara Di Firenze at group events, said an additional 20,000 people are more casual participants in the society, which was incorporated in 1968 and is based in Milpitas, Calif.

The best known re-enactment groups recreate Civil War battles. Groups catering to fans of Roaring 20s and the Roman Empire have also sprung up in recent years. But for fans of the Middle Ages, the Society for Creative Anachronism is the place to go.

During the winter, the society holds one-on-one combat events at churches and schools. In better weather, regional groups called “kingdoms” rent campgrounds and stage epic battles with as many as 1,000 soldiers per side.

They’ve held their events with little fanfare until Agin’s lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in federal court in December, brought increased public attention to the group.

Agin said he grew interested in the group through his mother, Heidi Farrington, a nurse at a children’s hospital who sews and sells re-enactment clothing to other medieval fans.

“They really appreciate people researching things whether it’s textiles or armor or food or any of the skills that would have been applicable,” Farrington said. She said she learned to spin wool through the organization.

Farrington said the high school’s decision sends a bad message about free thinking and individuality and could conceivably lead the school to ban masterpieces like Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” which depicts a fatal stabbing.

“The schools have gotten so into standardization that they are starting to push it on the kids,” she said.

Nicole Toscano understands the passion that would make someone pose for the yearbook in armor. The student at Simmons College in Boston has been a member of the society since age 7 and runs on a treadmill, lifts weights and swims to keep fit for mock sword fights.

“It’s just like any other sport or any martial art. I enjoy doing it just like I was playing football,” said Toscano, a marshal for the organization’s Youth Combat division. She also practices calligraphy.

“It’s a very good place for someone to come and learn something new,” said Ed Morrill of Brooklyn, N.Y., a regional director whose society alter ego is Viscount Edward Zifran of Gendy.

“We have amateur scholars, professional scholars and casual participants. And often it’s just a lovely way to spend a day in the park,” he said.

Morrill began attending society events in 1973, and said he’s made some of his best friends through the organization. He’s also answered a lot of questions from people who don’t understand its appeal.

“Some people will go ‘oh’ and some people will go that sounds interesting. Some people will say ‘why’?” he said. “The draw for young people is that it’s not your father’s organization. It’s something that’s different but something that’s socially acceptable.”

The society isn’t above a few historical omissions, though.

“It’s all the good parts of the Middle Ages. No Black Death. No Inquisition,” said Morrill, who in day-to-day life is technical director of Brooklyn College’s theater department.

Agin now needs to weather the court case, decide if he’ll enlist in the military after high school and find a prom outfit by this spring. He said won’t wear armor to the big dance but will likely opt for a pink tuxedo if he can find one.

He said he’ll also be even more involved with re-enactments in the near future.

“I’ve actually been talking to a knight to become a squire,” he said.

On the Net:

Society for Creative Anachronism:

AP-ES-01-06-07 1956EST