Modern dueling with swords: Delaware group members fight to the faux death

Ira Porter
The News Journal

Dirt crunched under Thorson the Viking's feet as he closed in on his prey in Glasgow Park.

Armor hidden beneath a cobalt blue tunic, he steadied a red, white and black Viking shield festooned with a crescent moon, stars and horse in his left hand. His right gripped a heavy sword. 

A loud clang sounded as he blocked an attacker's lunging strike, then he countered with a low swipe that landed on the predator's left leg. He dramatically flourished his blade, swung low and took out his opponent's right leg.

The battle was over. Thorson was victorious. Again.

"I love the fighting," said Chris Butler, 48, a software developer from Smyrna who goes by the name of Thorson in the Society for Creative Anachronism, an international nonprofit that focuses on history and education. 

Its members study culture, art and combat from pre-17th century civilizations and participate in events, demonstrations and other educational activities. Every week, Delaware members fight for three hours in Glasgow Park.

"It's physically demanding and it keeps me active," Butler said.

The society's members include teachers, lawyers, doctors and whoever else wants to fight. They use rattan sticks to re-create medieval swords, axes, batons, hammers and other bludgeoning tools. Some carry heavy shields, wear metal plates around their knees, necks and arms and their helmets are completely steel. 

"Each individual gets drawn in for whatever interest happens to spark them," said Butler, who initially joined SCA in 1991 to encourage himself to be a better person.

"I thought to myself, "If I can be this good and noble person and be recognized in the SCA, then I should be able to do that in the mundane world,'" Butler said.

That manifests itself in his daily life through courtesy and chivalry, he said. He holds doors open for people. He always says yes, please and thank you.

In real life, Butler said, "Doing those things would almost always be viewed as a sign of weakness. I lived in Boston where it seemed like using a turn signal was a sign of weakness."

Participating in the SCA opens a different social paradigm, he said. "In that way SCA taught me what I could be and it allowed me to grow into that person." 

It gets deep

According to the society's website, it was started in 1966 and currently has 20 kingdoms spread across the world. At one point there was a branch on the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz.

One kingdom in the U.S. can encompass several states. Each kingdom has multiple branches within it based on the geographical region. Delaware, part of the East Region, is called Shire Caer of Adamant. It has about 100 members, with 30 active at any one point. 

Members pay $35 for an annual membership, and there are deals for families. Equipment and armor can be made from used products or garments, or people can spend thousands to look the part.

Graphic designer Arthur Payne displays photos on his desk of himself fighting, dressed in old English garb with his face covered in a dented, 14-gauge steel helmet.  

"I like to fight, but mostly I like to create things," said the 57-year-old Landenberg, Pennsylvania, resident.

Payne fights with an assortment of swords and pole axes, which he makes. His fighting style and weapons change based on which opponent he faces and how long he's been in a battle.

At the beginning of a fight he likes to start out using a mace, a traditional war club during medieval times, so he can pound opponents' shields and deliver swift, powerful body shots.

When long battles tire him, or multiple fighters outnumber him, he switches to a longer two-handed sword or a pole axe to distance himself from attackers. 

Details matter in SCA. Participants battle, but some also brew mead or beer and cook stews and other period foods. Some function as blacksmiths, leather men and armorers, creating and fixing armor and battle gear. Some weave wire, cook medieval cuisine, fence, dance, create fiber arts and practice archery. The members also learn and sing songs from the 15th or 16th centuries.

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No one is allowed to play a historical person or mimic a historical situation, one of the big differences between SCA and reenactment groups that re-create battles from the Civil or Revolutionary wars.

So while participants can't be King Arthur, Attila the Hun or Charlemagne, they can invent characters whose personas realistically resemble a warrior or tradesman who could have lived during a certain time period.

Doing what they like

On a recent Sunday afternoon Bear resident Ellie Woodruff got hit so hard with a rattan wooden stick that it left splotches of purple on her right arm. A bigger, darker bruise spread across her right breast.

The following Sunday she was back in Glasgow Park to fight again. 

"There's a lot of emotional investment," Woodruff said. "We really want to get in there and test what we have trained to be doing against someone else who is just as invested."

Sometimes Woodruff is the only woman fighting at practice.

When she first started fighting three years ago, her hands would get beaten up from taking so many shots. She would feel a vibration running down her arm every time she banged her sword on a piece of armor or a shield. Her elbows and shoulders ached.

She kept training, fighting in tournaments and getting better. Now she has a fighting persona, Mott, a prankster who is the little sister of another member.

Her SCA opponents have quickly become like family whom she has created memories with, she said.

She joined because she needed a break from her routine. 

"I socialize with people I don't see in my day-to-day work world," Woodruff said. "Anyone who reads a good book, or falls into a good TV series or a movie, they are looking for a break."

SCA fighters compete in singles or group combat, called melees. A hit to the head or body is a kill. A hit to the arm or leg might require fighters to fight on bended knee or with one arm behind their back. In melees, fighters can number into the thousands.

Butler's persona, Thorson, was named after his favorite comic book character, Thor.  

"He's a ninth century Viking from the southern tip of Norway who has traveled out to England and done some raiding," Butler said.

His wife, Mari, however, has multiple personas, including a Dutch baroness and a Viking from Greenland.

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Butler met Mari through SCA in 2004. He had won a series of fighting tournaments and was traveling around the East Kingdom in Pennsylvania. She was his escort around the kingdom.

A friendship led to a marriage, and now both of them, and her 12-year-old son, Rudolf, from a previous relationship, participate in SCA events, with the son cooking and Mari crafting. 

SCA life runs so deep for Butler that his wife and co-workers call him Thorson instead of his real name. When he arrives at work bruised, co-workers don't wonder if he was robbed or beaten. They all know he enjoys heavy combat fighting and that he participates in SCA.

"Some people don't want the people they work with to know that they're in SCA. I don't mind," he said.

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Woodruff took advantage of a workplace mixer to tell co-workers about her hobby. 

"Everyone was going around saying interesting things about themselves. So they were all like 'I like shrimp tacos,' and I was like, 'I do heavy metal armor fights.'" She laughed. "That was a bit of a show stopper."

Her father came to a practice and watched her fight. Her boyfriend of two years, Kevin, participates in SCA. He got interested after they met on an online dating site and he asked her what she liked to do for fun.

Arthur Payne has participated in SCA for more than 10 years. His wife Nancy recently signed up, too.

"She joined to be closer to me, and it also gives us something to talk about," Payne said.

He believes participating in SCA helps him stay in shape at 57. He treats each battle with the same vigor.

Fighting is not the same as football or lacrosse, two sports that he follows, but the physicality of those games makes them impossible for him to play at this stage in his life, he said.

"I'm over 50 and I can still do this," he said of SCA. "If I get bruised or fall, I can get back up. If I (got hurt) in football, it would be a big deal."

The SCA also broadens members' friendship, Butler pointed out.

"Nowhere in the world have I been that I have been able to sit around a fire with a 19-year-old, 24-year-old, 35-year-old and 80-year-old talking about mutual interests," he said. "SCA bridges gaps in society that are very difficult to bridge." 

Contact Ira Porter at 302-324-2581 or iporter@delawareonline.com.