The Pennsic War is the largest annual event of the Society for Creative Anachronism. It is held at Cooper's Lake Campground near Butler, PA during the second and third weeks of August. Since 1994, annual attendance has been steady at approximately 10,000; people attend regularly from as far away as Japan, Finland, and Australia.

First held in 1972, the Pennsic War is fought between the East Kingdom and Middle Kingdom, who alternate taking primary responsibility for the event. The event features five or six mass battles, with between 3000 and 4000 fighters participating. There are also a dozen classroom tents which are busy for most of the event, hundreds of parties and informal singing circles, European Renaissance and Middle Eastern dancing from mid-afternoon until dawn, and well over 300 merchants.

I've been going to Pennsic since 1986. I've missed a couple of years because of varying things like military service on the other side of the continent and obnoxious work environments but for the most part I've gone pretty much every year for the last two decades. Going has gotten a lot easier since I retired.

Pennsic is like a combination of Brigadoon and Valhalla. It mysteriously arrives every summer for two weeks near the intersection of Interstate 79 and U.S. Route 422 in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, you fight all day, drink and party all night and then just as mysteriously it disappears again and you spend the next 50 weeks preparing physically, financially and psychologically for the next one.

Master Fólki Þorgilsson's book Herstaðr-saga: An Incomplete History of Pennsic tells the story of how Pennsic started:

"One day, almost 30 years ago, Cariadoc of the Bow, the King of the Middle, got bored with peace and declared war upon the East, loser to take Pittsburgh. The King of the East read the declaration of war, filed it away and forgot about it. Time passed. Cariadoc moved to New York and subsequently became King of the East, whereupon he retrieved the declaration from the file cabinet and said, 'Let"s fight.' The Middle won, and Cariadoc has the distinction of being the only king who declared war upon himself and lost."

It's a funny story. It's even for the most part true.

Pennsic has been at the same site since 1977 although the first five wandered around a bit. The ground at Cooper's Lake has taken on its own myths and legends as well. Just south of the barn, which acts as a place for courts, award ceremonies, dancing, arts exhibitions and general social gathering, there is a runestone placed on top of what is now called Runestone Hill. It was put there in 1981 by a small group in Iowa. There are tales that many children have been conceived next to the runestone. Is it true? Probably. Lots of children are conceived at Pennsic. Some are even born there, although that happens less frequently. The large hill above the main battlefield is known as Mount Eislinn, named after a former Queen of the Middle who served at Pennsic while having terminal cancer.

It is difficult to describe Pennsic to someone who has never been around the SCA before and it really can overwhelm people who haven't had exposure to the Society in the past. I would not recommend it to a new person for their first event, particularly those who don't like primitive camping with 11,000 other people for two weeks in high summer. First thing is that it can be loud. You can hear doumbeks playing all night. Some people find it soothing. Others want to have them shot. Another thing is that it is larger than you expect. Although most camps are rather cramped together, there is still a lot of space and the camping areas have gotten so large and widespread that you simply can't visit them all in one year. Another thing is that public shower facilities are rather limited and the lines can be very long, particularly after battles or when the temperatures get high. Many camps are starting to bring their own shower equipment, ranging from the simple shower bag to more elaborate setups including hot water tanks. Finally, there are tents. Pennsic will have the widest variety of temporary residences you will ever see. There are people in little dome tents (often called ground pimples). There are those in 12'x15' cabin tents. There are those in enormous pavilions, many of them magnificently multicolored. Some people bring virtually nothing. Others bring specially made beds. You take the level of comfort you can afford and, most especially, transport. In ancient times, the VW Bus was the official vehicle of the SCA. Now it is a Dodge Caravan. We're all getting older.

The War is between the East and Middle Kingdoms but because of the growth of the Society, the site is now in a third one: the Kingdom of Æthelmearc, which comprises the territories of western and central New York, western and central Pennsylvania and West Virginia...basically everything west of the mountains. Needless to say, this has created new layers of complication to the festivities and complicated treaties have been drawn up to ensure that the event keeps running smoothly. A well known Æthelmearc peer is famous for saying, "We can be Belgium." The Barony-Marche of the Debatable Lands contingent often sings their traditional song, "This Land is our Land, This Land is OUR Land" to remind the gatherers where they are.

There are some sights at Pennsic that shouldn't be missed.

  • Opening Ceremonies. All the Kingdoms of the Known World (nineteen as of this writing) as well as some associated non-SCA groups process onto the main battlefield in pomp and splendour. The heralds insult each other. The kings of the East and the Middle break a ceremonial arrow and War has begun.
  • The Field Battle. While there are many battles at Pennsic, this one is still the granddaddy of them all. Imagine 1500 (or more) people in full armor rushing towards each other. The ground shakes so hard you can feel it in the merchant areas. Your pulse races and its not because you're running while wearing fifty pounds of gear. Nothing can possibly describe it until you've been in one.
  • Casa Bardicci. A replica of an Italian villa painstakingly rebuilt every year. Gorgeous.
  • The gates. Camping groups often build a variety of gates. Some of them are plain. Some are truly stunning. There are wooden fortifications and pirate ships and even the Gates of Moria. Walk around and see them.
  • Vlad's Pleasure Palace and the Slave Auction. 'Nuff said.
  • The Grand Arts & Sciences Exhibition. Usually on Wednesday morning and early afternoon in the barn. You can see many of the stunning works of art of a immense variety of forms.
  • Midnight Madness. On Wednesday night, most merchants drop their prices on virtually anything and stay open offensively late. Better than any shopping mall and usually much bigger as well.
  • Your Inner Vagabond. Turkish coffee house. Excellent place to sit and relax.
  • Wolgemut. The legendary German medieval troubador group has performed at Pennsic every year since Pennsic XXX (2001). If you're at Pennsic you'll hear them. You won't be able to avoid it.
  • Og. Lord Og the Red is one of the legendary fixtures of Pennsic. He writes articles for the Pennsic Independent, the on-site newspaper entitled Og on Alcohol. Sometimes they're actually about alcohol. A jolly, redheaded and bearded bear of a man, he's like a medieval Santa Claus who leaves beer in people's stockings. Drink well. Drink often. Drink with Og.

If you go to Pennsic, go everywhere, talk to everyone, take classes, don't hide in your camp the whole two weeks. You'll miss the whole point of being there. It is a place like no other with people like no other.


Some websites about Pennsic are:

  • The Pennsic War official website - http://www.pennsicwar.org
  • The East Kingdom - http://www.eastkingdom.org
  • The Kingdom of Æthelmearc - http://www.aethelmearc.org
  • The Middle Kingdom - http://www.midrealm.org
  • Pennsic.net. Excellent site for pictures - http://www.pennsic.net
  • The Pennsic Independent, the on-site newspaper (which I happen to be an editor for) - http://www.pennsicindependent.com
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.

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