You may have seen the mysterious white tents north of Pittsburgh along I-79 from late July through early August. They’ve been there every summer, same time, same place, for the last 37 years.
What you can’t see from the highway is a tightly guarded fortress that surrounds a medieval city of over 10,000 people from around the world.
The tents, along with elaborately constructed temples, castles, and pavilions are sprawled across the 450-acre Cooper’s Lake Campground at the edge of Moraine State Park and Lake Arthur. This is no Renaissance Faire.
This is the Pennsic War.
A combination of Punic War and Pennsylvania, the Pennsic War is a 17-day reunion of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) (yep, that’s the name) an international organization dedicated to researching and re-creating an authentic—and they mean authentic—pre-17th century experience.
In other words, it’s a time portal to the Middle Ages.
Enter the gated city and the magic of the Pennsic experience unfolds. There are Spanish conquistadors, Japanese Samurai, Vikings, Romans and other Europeans, all in period costume.
Nearly everything you see is from the medieval ages, from the linen, silk and cotton flowing robes to leather and glass accessories. Even the coffee cups and beer mugs are made from metal or clay, materials available in medieval times.
Within the Pennsic fortress you’ll find Artisans’ Row where merchants sell everything you would find from the 6th to 16th century—from essential oils, jewelry and soap to armor and weaponry.
You can enroll in Pennsic University and choose from over 1000 classes such as glassblowing, bookbinding, leather and metalworking, cooking, cheese making and—always a big draw—medieval beer.
There are medieval activities for children as well as music in the monastery and live performances nightly.
The Pennsic War takes a stab at recreating a medieval town with a mayor, town square, hospital, theatre, security force and town criers who wander the grounds. If you Google Map Pennsic War you can see the layout of the campground and the names of the Pennsic streets that remain all year round.
They strive to be as authentic as possible. “While the SCA doesn’t force a standard of authenticity on everyone, we do ask that people be respectful of the culture,” says Lynn Averill, a realtor from Buffalo, NY and Pennsic spokeswoman.
That almost goes without saying.
In the beginning
It all started in 1966 at a backyard party of a Berkley graduate student in Medieval Studies. Likely after one too many drinks the group started fighting with fake swords and motorcycle helmets. And that was the start of it.
Today, the SCA has grown to include 19 kingdoms around the world with over 30,000 members from all 50 states and Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Sweden, France, Denmark and other nations.
“Within the kingdoms there are local groups that hold events throughout the year,” Averill notes. “Pennsic is an opportunity to share ideas on whatever aspect of the Middle Ages interests you with people who have been doing the same research thousands of miles away.”
Each of the 19 kingdoms has a coat of arms, flag, colors, and other heraldry. Kings and queens, chosen within each kingdom through combat at a Crown Tournament, roam the city during Pennsic wearing crowns of silver and gold, and costumes with exquisite designs and beadwork. Throughout the year their subjects engage in one of the three main disciplines of the SCA – combat, arts and sciences and community service—in their particular kingdom or group.
During the final week, Midnight Madness occurs – a one-night celebration that includes an eccentric variety of performers, dancers, fire blowers and musicians in streets of the campground for a late-night party before the final battles of the war.
While the medieval pageantry is intriguing, in the end it’s all about the Pennsic War, which culminates in multi-day combat between the East Kingdom (eastern PA, eastern NY, New England, DE and eastern Canada) and Middle Kingdom (western PA, western NY, WVA, OH, MI, IL, IN and parts of KY, IA and Ontario).
The other kingdoms around the world align with one of these two kingdoms for battles on the open fields near Cooper’s Lake.
The Pennsic community gathers to watch a masked, full-armor field battle with 4000 warriors per side. There are battles where armies must capture a castle (now a permanent structure at the campground), and a forest battle in the woods adjacent to Coopers Lake. Points are allotted to the participants and warriors eliminated through hand-to-hand combat and a strict Code of Honor. The swords are made of wood and the injured and dead leave the field by walking away on their own.
Pennsic also includes other types of martial combat that existed in the Middle Ages such as archery, throwing axes and knives and rapier combat.
Back in the early 1970s when Pennsic was just forming, the Pittsburgh region wasn’t sure if it was part of the Middle or East kingdom. It became a Pennsic joke that the “loser gets Pittsburgh” and the city became known as the Debatable Lands.
Today Pittsburgh is part of the Kingdom of Aethelmearc along with central and western Pennsylvania, West Virginia and western New York. But within that kingdom, Pittsburgh and most of southwestern PA is still known as the Barony-Marche of the Debatable Lands.
For Cooper’s Lake Campground and Butler County, the Pennsic War has brought many benefits.
“They are a fantastic bunch of people and there is a level of trust and cooperation between my family and Pennsic to make it a solid event,” said James Brezel, president of Cooper’s Lake Campground. “The land has been in our family for nine generations. There are people that consider this a second home and we welcome that feeling.”
The Pennsic War is open to members of the Society for Creative Anachronism. It is not open to the general public and does not offer any public performances or entertainment. It is highly recommended that all guests join and then preregister with their local SCA group which is welcomed through the website at www.sca.org where you can enter your zip code or country and find your group.
To enter the Pennsic fortress you must go through the “troll” at the gate where money is collected and membership and registration checked. There are a number of people who patrol the two entrances and prevent bandits from sneaking in (don’t even think about it). It’s not a big problem, but the SCA has also had people show up at the gate thinking it’s a public Renaissance festival.
“Back in high school my curiosity got the better of me and some friends and I tried to sneak in wearing costumes made from whatever we had lying about the house,” said Ron Lutz, who grew up near Cooper’s Lake. “Needless to say, when a giant man in full, jet black plate and mail told us to leave we did so. Quickly!”
There is a certain level of anonymity about the Pennsic War. Just who are these Lords and Ladies that make up the massive Pennsic city? CEOs, political representatives, teachers, business owners? You may never know since everyone goes by a medieval name – such as Llyr, Bevin, Adelaide or Dragoslav. It’s all part of the Pennsic mystique.
While there are various levels of participation within the SCA throughout the year, there is a strong feeling of kinship and camaraderie at the Pennsic War. There is no doubt this is something truly special.
“I’ve been fortunate to make friends with just about every vein of Pennsic denizen,” Lutz added. “Spending time with folks from all walks of life and having a lot of people I can honestly call friends has really enriched my life. I can’t tell you how many times people I know from Pennsic have come through for me during dark days.”
In 2016 the Society for Creative Anachronism will turn 50 years old and a large celebration is planned to mark the milestone.
“We really want people to learn about the arts and sciences of the Middle Ages, get in contact with their local group and get acclimated to what we do,” Averill said. What we do at Pennsic is a bigger version of everything we do in our hobby throughout the year.”
Pulling out your cell phone is taboo, so please, no selfies.