The Pennsic Wars
is probably the largest gathering of SCA
people in America, and possibly the world. Every summer thousands descend on Cooper's Campground in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania (near the Northwest corner of the state) to dress up, camp, renew old friendships and fight managed battles for pride, glory and the sheer joy of it. As it says on the Runestone. "Lift no weapon in anger, leave no one in pain on the field".
The "Wars" take up two weeks. The first day is Land Grab. The name is more or less traditional, as in the early days advance parties were sent out to mark out campsites for themselves and their families. I use the term family, because the SCA is organized regionally. If you live in the Midwest, you're in the Middle Kingdoms. If you live on the East Coast, you're part of the East. If you live anywhere else, go to the SCA website to figure it out. At least that's where you start. You recreate medieval life, as is your desire. If you don't know how, they'll happily teach. There are the fighters, the "stick and board men" who fight in armor with weapons made of padded rattan, as no one is supposed to get really hurt. Others sing, make stuff, research heraldry, cook. blacksmith, blow glass and all other sots of medieval crafts and activities. Everyone is assumed to be a noble, and referred to as M'Lord or M'Lady (which beats the hell out of the Sir you get when you're buying a cup of coffee) and then there are King's who are all 'stick and board' men, and winners of the King's tournament (with their pre-approved selection as Queen).
These days Land Grab is done electronically. You pre-register, and space is assigned based on tradition and how many you have pre-registered. So many square feet per warm body. Larger groups enclose their campgrounds, with pennants and devices (symbols for individual members]. Gatehouses are common, and are often manned 24/7 so only members of the household or registered guests are allowed in.
I was a guest of the Great Dark Horde, where my girlfriend is a brother. (They're all brothers even though so far as I can tell the sexual balance is dead even). The tents are large and elaborate, and well suited for long term camping. I'm well used to camping at the track, but for a weekend, not two weeks. A favored design is the yurt, a round tent up to 16 feet in diameter with a conical roof that's open at the very top (a canvas cover can be pulled over in event of rain, but the design is excellent for summer heat. Many are done up in regal style, with good furniture, big beds, something resembling carpets and even outworks. The Horde knows how to camp in style, though to be fair that applies to all Pennsic veterans. They even had their own shower setup with (wood fired) hot water! The Horde camp was enclosed in large symbol covered cloths, and there's a manned gate yurt. That too is typical, and if you see a crown that means that's a royal encampment. Once a King (or Khan)'s banner is raised, he or she is "In camp" and never goes anywhere without an entourage. That sounds stifling, but many enjoy the perks.
The first week is all about setting up camp and partying with friends. And family, because many children come to Pennsic, and from what I saw they enjoy it, as the Horde camp had many happy "Hordlings". Kids often earn extra money selling the Pennsic newspaper and you'll see them dragging wagons full of ice back to camps (they had a semi-trailer full of ice there) Pennsic itself really doesn't begin before the Middle Sunday, when the various armies gather together on the Plains of battle, a pretty large area with a 'wall" (really a mockup castle face with battlements. Most battles are fought on that site The various armies march in in their full medieval regalia, with pennants and trumpets, and singers and what not. All form up on the plain. There grievances are laid out, sides are 'chosen' (really announced as an attempt is made to balance the sides for battle) allegiances declared. On Monday through Friday battles and tournaments are fought. Unfortunately, for me I had to work, so could not stay for the actual battles. I did get training on a ballista and saw plenty of fighters training and qualifying. Fighters must qualify before allowed into battle for safety reasons, and it's generally wise to qualify before Pennsic or other events if you wish to fight there.
Though specific campgrounds require absolute adherence to historical accuracy, in most cases that's not the case. Modern footwear in particular is fine, as rocky driveways, roots, debris and long walks make a strong case for comfortable shoes. Having it look somewhat authentic matters more than having it made by ancient methods. Modern cookwear is common in camps, and many campgrounds have wifi. There is also a data tent, where computer time can be rented for little things like checking on your email.
A lot of people come to Pennsic. Everyone told me that attendance was way down this year, between eight and nine thousand, from over 15,000 a couple years ago. A bad economy and high gas prices will do that. It began on a farm, moved to Cooper's when the farm was outgrown, and the original combat took place on Runestone Field. Soon Pennsic outgrew that hilled site and was then moved to the plains. Today Runestone Field is kept clear and is and a popular spot for those seeking a nap.
Most people cook but you don't have to. The food vendors serve good and not overly expensive food considering the event. If you go to the Beast and Boar though, beware that the roast beef is served cold, which seems odd as it comes with gravy. The Bread Boule and an ice cream/hot dog place get particularly high marks. Spending money is way too easy at Pennsic. Anything you want can be bought there, from filk CDs, swords, books, fetish gear and perhaps a flogger or two, should your tastes run that way. You can clothe, house and arm yourself if you possess an adequate line of credit. The venders cover acres of territory. Prices are for the most part quite reasonable. A membership runs about $130 if pre-registered, but as that includes two weeks camping the cost is quite low.
In short, Pennsic is total hoot. Great stories, companionship, interesting things to see and shop and lots of things to learn and do. Many people schedule their vacation around Pennsic, and though I might not do that every year, given the time with friends, and the interesting atmosphere their desire is understandable. Many SCA households have tight, long term relationships maintained primarily during events like Pennsic. If you have any interest in medieval life, and are accustomed to tent camping, you could have a really good time.