Well, I don't know quite how to describe this one. Maybe we could say it's a wedding story that got out of hand.
Here were Smithsonian computer whiz Bryan Kennedy and his fiancée, Linda Welzenbach, and they wanted to get married, but they hated the whole idea of the conventional ceremony with the garter and the bouquet toss and the Mendelssohn, so they decided to have a period wedding. And an original one, too.
Picking a period was simple. Just subtract, say, 600 years from that year, coming up with 1396. "She picked the time; I picked the place," said Bryan. "I said, how about Burgundy, in France."
The couple ordered their guests to come in costume and included research references in the invitations. They held the party not quite in France, but the next best thing, at Liriodendron, the great old mansion in Bel Air, Maryland, and not only did everybody come but nearly all the guests came in costume.
"And some of them were rented, but most were made from scratch," Linda recalls proudly.
Wait, that's not the story. Returning from their "plain old camping honeymoon," they turned into the driveway and heard sounds of sword fighting next door.
"We knew right away what it was, so we ran towards it," Bryan tells me. The neighbors had only that day returned from England, where they had been training in the sport of live steel sword fighting. They talked it up so enthusiastically that the newlyweds bought swords of their own on the spot, ordering them from an armorer in England. (The weapons have no point and no edge, for safety reasons.)
Sword fighting offered a switch from real life. Bryan, who now does computer-support work on contract to a number of Smithsonian offices, was at the time working for Smithsonian Institution Press. He had majored in English at Lynchburg College in Virginia on his way from his native New Jersey to Fredericksburg, Virginia, where the couple now lives. Linda, a geologist, is a collection manager for meteorites at the National Museum of Natural History.
"We joined a sword group for a while and fought in front of a bunch of people," Bryan says, "but then I got into the armor and the weapons and all of the accoutrements."
It was slow going, since relatively little hard information existed about details of 14th-century clothing. But the Internet helped. Bryan holds up a shoe he has made. It is a copy of a shoe in the Museum of London.
The soft, tan slipper is beautifully constructed with tunnel stitching, which doesn't make holes in the outer surface and theoretically keeps the water out.
"But on the first rainy day," he says, "you find out they're totally not waterproof. Apparently people wore little wooden clogs with them to stay up out of the mud."
And the helmet liner. This is a padded cap, with ties to go under the chin. It is stuffed with horsehair and is extremely handy on a cold day. Or when you are fighting.
"It keeps the helmet from ringing," Bryan remarks casually. Suddenly I realize how incredibly uncomfortable knights must have been in their armor. Even a light bash on the helmet would jangle your head like a cathedral bell.
These caps, says Bryan, were very common, "usually made of linen or wool — cotton was quite rare back then and more expensive than silk. "You wore tights under armor," Bryan explains, "and because the elastic qualities were kind of limited in those days, they had eyelets around the top so they could be laced to the eyelets in the doublet. To hold your drawers up," he adds.
Bryan is making a doublet right now, sewing it by hand the way he does everything else. He made some chain mail, which preceded plate armor. I had thought it came after because it would require more advanced ironworking, but it seems all you needed was a lot of wire. Winding the wire many times around a mandrel, he chiseled the wire loops off and pinched shut each little ring, hammered it flat, poked a hole through for a tiny rivet and then bunched the rings together in fours to make a mat.
"I cheated and used small key rings," he admits. "I farbed out on that." My ears went up. "To farb" means to fall out of character, he explains. Bryan's mail jacket weighed some 30 pounds, and the thought of wearing mail gauntlets, plus tights and a hood, staggered him, to say the least. After that, plate armor was a breeze. You could do handstands in that steel carapace, he says, and the stories of knights bogging down in their armor are exaggerated.
For those who couldn't afford steel armor, there were 30-layer vests made from a strong, coarse cloth.
Bryan does not do much fighting these days. He made thigh protectors for himself and arm armor for Linda, but stopped short of the massive visored helm and pointy steel protectors for the feet.
"She's a much better fighter than I am. She's so fast and I have too much leg to protect. There's a shiny place on my leg where she hit it over and over. I never seem to get down there fast enough." He is nearly 6 feet tall; she is 5 feet 1.
Linda gets so excited about attending a Renaissance event that she is inspired to make the occasional gown or wimple. She uses a sewing machine, however. "My mother always made our Halloween costumes," she tells me, "so I guess that's in my blood."
The rules for English-style sword fighting in living history groups, pioneered by the Medieval Combat Society in England, limit the target zones to the top of the head and meaty parts of the arm and leg. No baseball swings, no thrusts. Fights aren't staged, but you tend to telegraph the blows, and the trick is to move fast enough to feint or counter before you're actually hit. In a show fight the combatant decides when to fall, "though if you take a realistically hard knock on the leg, you may have to fall anyway," Bryan points out.
In this fast-growing sport there are plenty of armorers advertising on the Web, and you can buy complete suits of armor from different centuries or countries. The Society for Creative Anachronism ("creative" suggests that clothing, fighting styles and equipment may not be authentic), based in Milpitas, California, has several "kingdoms" in the United States and abroad, some of which put on major wars every year. Imagine a field covered with thousands of combatants in homemade armor thwacking each other with rattan "swords," the society's weapon of choice.
As it turns out, Bryan and Linda may be adding colonial reenactments to their repertoire soon. Naturally, this era is popular in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where they recently moved. "We've been researching 18th-century clothing and making new friends," says Bryan. "And we can use cotton for that period."