By Lord Mat Wyck
The casual event had started simply enough, one of a series of small, occasional fencing opportunities loosely organized in Malagentia to promote more bladework in fun and interesting outdoor environments.
But for the ambitious half-dozen folks who participated, the day evolved into a proving ground for a variety of period gear, testing the technology of the middle ages against a two-mile mountain hike along trails blanketed with a good 5 or 6 inches of snow. It did, to be sure, culminate with ferocious fencing in the shadow of a stone wizard’s tower atop a treacherous mountain peak.
Everyone learned a few things about their kit and themselves, and gladly share those bits of knowledge through this written dispatch.
First, the original idea: Fence All the Forts! Lord Mat Wyck, the Malagentian provincial fencing marshal, had been working with other friendly fencers – most notably Col. Christian Woolfe and Sir Ivan Ulrickson – on a light-hearted plan to try to fence at all the forts in the great state of Maine, and to document the often-dramatic pictures. They had hit three so far – Fort Knox, Fort Preble and Fort Williams – and had their sights set on a fourth that wasn’t really a fort, but was pretty danged cool: A “Wizard’s Tower” atop Douglas Mountain in Sebago, Maine.
The top of the mountain is home to a roughly two-story stone tower built in 1925, complete with a spiral staircase to the viewing area at the top, which affords an excellent view of Sebago Lake and the White Mountains of Stonemarche (where frost giants are said to dwell).
The 1.7-mile hike up follows a meandering path that is fairly level, save for the last third or so, which is steepish and challenging. The hike down is a steep but extremely short section, with a quick walk along the road back to parking. All in all, a relatively easy hike. When it was planned in late October, it was expected to be a brisk but do-able jaunt that would mostly focus on fencing.
A strong snowstorm days ahead of the hike changed the situation, but the group decided to press ahead. The hike had been planned as garb-optional, but encouraged. Wyck, Woolfe, Ulrickson and John of Yseaux hiked in period garb; fencing friends Radbod and Mercedes Gurney from Endewearde braved the elements in modern togs, carrying their rapier kits up in backpacks.
Yseux and Woolfe, in particular, had thoroughly researched their personas’ gear and kit, and used the opportunity to put them to the test:
Yseaux: Early 14th Century, Yorkshire, England.
Linen shirt, thin wool tunic, thicker wool overtunic, wool esclavine (like a huge hood), belt, wool hose, linen coif, wool hat, fur mittens, turnshoes with wool insoles, and hinged pattens with plain wood bottoms. Pattens are sort of strap-on wooden soles to protect shoes from water, mud, snow, and other messy terrain.
Yseaux quickly shed the hat, mittens and esclavine to cool down on the hike (temperature was in the mid-30s). A walking stick would have been good, he noted. He had a scrip (a large cloth shoulder bag), which he soon tossed in his pack basket, and wore his sword and buckler on his belt.
On the pattens: “The grip was not bad! I did have to be careful and go a bit slower. Later in the day the snow clumped on the bottom quite a bit, which made for pretty solid grip. They are just wood on the bottom, but they are hinged so there are some edges under the ball of my foot, which helps! Practice helped as well. Later in the day I was more used to how they would grip and how they would slip. My feet stayed comfortable and warm enough.
“Without the pattens, the turn shoes are VERY slippery on snow, and cold water continually seeps through the soles. I want to try making a pair of hobnailed pattens like these, and also some non-hinged ones.”
Woolfe: Late-period cavalier, “English soldier, through-and-through.”
Most of Woolfe’s kit was period, right off the extant patterns available. The small concession was concerning the soles of his boots, as they are rubber. He wore his fencing helm – a lobster pot, a large metal helmet with protective plates that cover the neck, like a lobster’s tail – and carried and a leather “soldiers” bag that contained a half-days march of food and water according to purchase records we have from several ECW companies – bread, meat, cheese, dried fruit and nuts. No hardtack (next time).
The bag also contained a bowl/mug with a knife, flint and steel kit, comb, dice/cards, candle and a spare pair of socks. He stuck the face mask part of the helm in there, as well.
“I will be continuing to train with this amount of gear ‘til it feels second nature. My baldric saved the day – that, too, is off a pattern made from a surviving one in the Littlecote Armory. Not having to ‘manage’ the sword constantly was a dream. It kept the sword from swinging around and or tipping out of the scabbard. Having it off my shoulder, as a good baldric does, distributed the weight of the rapier and dagger perfectly.”
Ulrickson: Late 10th century Rus Viking.
Ulrickson’s kit was far less authentic than the others but could pass the “10-foot rule” well enough (hmm, maybe the 20-foot rule). It consisted of a Viking tunic, triple-layered to meet fencing armor requirements, over a modern Sherpa fleece sweatshirt. This was worn with sweatpants and modern Bogs snow boots. A modern daypack was used to carry fencing mask and provisions, and a large, wool cloak was thrown over the rest. At about the halfway point, the cloak had to be shed as it became too warm.
“This was my first garbed hike, winter or otherwise. I do not own a sword belt, but Master Christian graciously offered a loaner, which I gratefully accepted. In hindsight, carrying the sword in hand would have been a major hindrance. The cloak ended up being carried in a ball under my arm; in the future I will plan on a larger pack to accommodate the shedding of layers.”
Wyck: Late period English Fencer, Earlier period Forester (overall work in progress)
Wyck’s kit was mainly his Forester gear – wool tunic, hood, flacket, pack basket and an oak walking staff. Foresters were the crown’s equivalent of modern-day game wardens – skilled outdoorsy types who hunted poachers and kept the forests safe. In the SCA, the East Kingdom Royal Foresters Guild is an enthusiastic and growing group. Footgear was modern high-moccasins. All performed quite well. He started the hike cool, and quickly warmed.
It was his first experience with the pack basket (holding fencing gear, food, extra water, a bit of hemp rope and a flint-and-steel kit) and it worked well. His hound, Plankton, accompanied the group and harassed many a squirrel and mouse.
“This was my first garbed hike since I returned to the SCA almost two years ago. For me, this was important – it was the first time I was putting myself ‘out there’ in public (such as it was) in full middle ages garb, and it was a personal milestone. The fencing was challenging and great, and the company was wonderful.”
At the top of the mountain, the group took in the view, had a quick lunch and did some fencing. The snow-covered ground was less packed down than the trail had been, meaning footing could be challenging. Those who had studied their Agrippa benefited.
Radbod and Gurney said they both greatly enjoyed fencing in the snow, and plan to do so again.
“You got really used to stepping,” said Radbod, “and if your foot didn’t stop (due to the challenging footing), you turned it into a second-intention lunge” essentially extending the step forward into an attack.
The snow was also reflective, and fencers had to be aware of glare both from the sun and from the snow.
There are more forts to fence at throughout Maine — at least a dozen more, including several on islands in the Atlantic — and after discovering the fun of putting kits to the test, there will be more hikes in to challenging locales to cross steel, as well.