Sunday, July 29, 2012

Off to the Middle Ages

This weekend we will be leaving for the Society for Creative Anachronism's Pennsic Wars in Pennsylvania. This is the 41st war and will be the 9th one we have attended. Its is kind of like a Renfaire on steroids.  It is our chief family vacation each year. Although many of my friends think the idea of getting away to the Middle Ages for a bit is interesting, most of them don't think much of the camping in the woods for 2 weeks part. Camping is an activity we enjoy though, so that is not a bother for us, not even dealing with the (well maintained) porta-johns for 2 weeks.

This picture gives a small idea of the scale of Pennsic, you can see maybe a tenth of the household tents plus the merchant areas and the battlefield.
 Going to Pennsic is like nothing else I have ever attended (contrary to the popular belief by my children I was too young to attend Woodstock). Ten thousand plus people all of them in period clothing when they leave their camps, from all over North America, and other parts of the world as well. Most people camp in households, groups of friends anywhere from 3 or 4 to dozens.Merchants come from all over the country with wares that would only be available on line the rest of the year: Costumes, armor, swords, leather goods, medieval books, toys and specialty craft supplies. Lost arts (in our society) like spinning, blacksmithing, silversmithing, pewter casting and glass blowing are practiced, and can even be learned. One can fight like knights, shoot arrows like Robin Hood, dance like a member of the court of Henry VIII, throw axes, or simply attend classes on any of of these topics and plenty of others.

Pennsic University, where everyone shares their knowledge with everyone else is one of the high points for me. Over the years I have attended classes on how to cook a medieval feast, witchcraft persecutions, the effect of the bubonic plague on history, stage directions in Shakespeare's texts, depictions of King Arthur on film,  being a medieval pirate, preserving food without a cooler, and biographical classes on a number of people from this time period. I even ventured to teach a class once, on a particular knight from the court of King Richard the Lionhearted.

Over the years my children have learned alot about archery and thrown weapons and dance and Elizabethan theatre, not to mention period costuming. They have made friends from all over the States as well as Canada that they look forward to seeing each year. They have learned to never make fun of men in kilts. They have learned to live in an extended household for 2 weeks time (we camp with another family). They have also learned alot about virtues like chivalry and courage that are valued differently, if at all in our society today.  Maybe the most important lesson is that after doing without electricity, most electronic items, most news of the outside world and especially flush toilets for 2 weeks, they appreciate their conveniences all the more when they get back home.

For me there are 2 main appeals, beyond down time with the family and general diffusion of knowledge. One is that the theatre person within me loves all the costuming and ritual. The other is that there are no (visible) cell phones around....let alone land line phones. Indeed it is considered the height of rudeness to have that most pervasive of anachronisms announce  its presence. For a 911 operator, not hearing a phone ring for 2 weeks is full blown Nirvana.

There is also a slower pace to days. Although some events do take place
on a specific schedule, a lot of other happen when they happen. Not only do I not have to hear phones for 2 weeks I don't hear an alarm clock either. Also one walks to things. Most people have forgotten how to walk to something that is more than a block away. Walking imposes many things (what do I take with me when I go out that I must carry, how much time do I 
allow to walk 1/2 to be where I need to be.)It allows time for winsome detours like following a labrynth. Its also nice not to worry about the price of gas, or all those other drivers, for a whole 2 weeks.

For the kids Pennsic has provided chances to be independent in a relatively safe make a little money selling ice to camps, to walk about with friends without excessive parental hovering. The wide variety of activities both keeps them busy and allows each to pursue their own interests.
They also get to do chores like wood chopping and fire building that allows them to feel the camp really depends on them (at least for dinner) in a way it doesn't at home.

And never underestimate the appeal of being able to shoot or throw potentially dangerous items, or even to just aim water pistols at a fort.

Having fun storming the castle.

Do not get me wrong, I wouldn't want to live without television, computers, electricity or flush toilets. But its nice to take a break once a year and remember what it essential and what is convenient.
Plus its just so much fun.

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