copyright 2001, D. Glenn Arthur Jr.
Last updated 2001-11-06.
The Pennsic War is a huge annual event (2001 will be Pennsic XXX) held by the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) in August, in Pennsylvania, north of Pittsburgh. By "huge" I mean on the order of ten thousand participants. Imagine, if you will, ten thousand people, dressed in medieval clothing, in a huge tent city (some modern tents, some medieval designs) around a lake, in the woods, up on a large flat cleared area, perched on hillsides, etc. Many, many vendors selling an incredible array of goods: clothes, books, souvenirs, weapons, oils, candles, fabric, spices, toys, leather, jewelry, tools, furniture, musical instruments, armour, food, nearly everything someone interested in medieval re-enactment could want. Classes on various arts and crafts, history, costume, and music. Dancing in the barn with a live band. Storytelling and singing around campfires. The drums of the Dark Horde. Parties. Battles, duels, tournaments, and archery competitions. Kings and queens holding court.
This is an event nearly the size of the nearest city, far larger than the largest renaissance festival. And there's no "audience", no "public". Ten thousand participants doing it for ourselves.
I've attended Pennsic each year since 1985 (Pennsic XIV), when Pennsic was about half as large as it is now. Some years I just went for the final weekend. More recently I go for about a week. Some people go for a few days. Some for the whole second week, as I do. Some go for the whole two weeks, and a few get there even earlier than that for setup. Arriving at Pennsic is an interesting emotional experience. The first time, it's so huge, so intense, so overwhelming ... and the second time and each time thereafter, it's HOME.
I'll also have my guitar with me as I shop in the merchant's area or go visiting friends in other encampments, and if asked for a tune I'll play one ... or if I feel like noodling on the strings I'll play unasked. And I'm happy to contribute a song or a tune or a story to the entertainment around a camprife.
So Pennsic isn't a "concert" for me, but I'll be there making music. And catching up with friends, and cooking over a wood fire, and attending classes, and shopping.
I miss falling asleep listening to the drums that so many people hate (but I not-so-secretly like them, 'cause they're part of the sound of Pennsic, part of what tells me I'm "home", and they're no harder to sleep to than the surf is if you've ever slept near the ocean). There are "quiet hours" now, and the all-night drumming from Horde Hill no longer helps me to sleep.
So that's Caer Edgemere, at or near the corner of Howard's Fenway and Brewer's Road. If you go downhill from the Troll booth, past the fork where the dumpsters are and roads come in from both the right and left, down to the next road on the right (it's before you hit the trees), there we are. Big green army tent, if I can get the leaks fixed in time. Otherwise, hello the camp and ask if anyone knows where I am.
A Few Tales of Pennsic
Presented for your entertainment, some tales of Pennsics long gone and recent. Note that these stories, for the most part, are presented as tales as I would tell them around a campfire, and that some have been storified a little and others are simply subject to my imperfect memory, so I do not claim that they are word for word accounts. But ye knew that already, did ye not?
[* Mundane Versus Known World * A Minstrel's First Pennsic * Storms * Tent Tales * The Pancake Wagon * What is Pennsic? * Where to find me * What is Pennsic like? *]
So I introduced myself as Arthur D'Glenn, from Storvik.
He looked quite surprised. "Storvik? You are from Storvik? That is a town only twenty miles from where I live! You are from STORVIK?"
"Oh no, m'Lord, I meant the Barony of Storvik in the Kingdom of Atlantia. In mundane geography that's Washington D.C." (I'm actually living in what is now the Shire of Roxebury Mills, but chose to name the nearest major city.)
That confusion cleared up, he proceeded to try to tell me what "Storvik" means (he wasn't completely sure that the English word he wanted was "bay" but we finally decided it was either right or close enough based on his description -- apparently it means "big bay", which is a most appropriate label for the Chesapeake Bay). Then I got him to say it for me a few more times so I could learn the pronounciation (it sounds like a cross between "stohr-vik" and "stew-er-vik" or maybe "stow-er-vik"). But the look on his face as he contemplated the possibility that he'd come all the way from Drachenwald just to bump into someone from twenty miles away was priceless.
Finally his friends dragged him off, after we'd convinced them to dally a few moments longer to finish our conversation, and I returned to my previous conversation.
Now that I know it exists, I'll have to visit the mundane Storvik someday, just on general principles.
[* A Minstrel's First Pennsic * Storms * Tent Tales * The Pancake Wagon * What is Pennsic? * Where to find me * What is Pennsic like? *]
So there I was, at my first War, right there in the middle of things on Merchant Row. Armies! Marching past the front flap of my tent! Armour clanking and banners flying! Merchants and their customers all around me! Campfires down the hill a ways... well, you get the idea.
Well, being how I am about my guitars, and being more than an hour's drive from home, I, of course, had a guitar with me. Stepping out of the tent one morning with my guitar, I immediately found myself surrounded by a small flock of lords and ladies.
"Aha! A mintrel! M'Lord, do play for us a tune!"
"Why certes, m'Lord; please give me a moment to think of one..."
... And that was the point at which I suddenly realized one important detail. I didn't know any medieval tunes. The closest I could come (at least it was renaissance) was a rather bare rendition of "Greensleeves", which I didn't think I could do justice to. So to fill in the time and give my fingers something to do while I stalled and wracked my brain for something appropriate, I fingerpicked my way through a familiar chord progression. G, D with a little Dsus4 bit (just drop the pinky down on the third fret), Em for a couple measures, F, C, and back to D. And while I stalled and thought, someone spoke.
"M'Lord, that doth sound most familiar."
"Aye, it should."
"What is it?"
"M'Lord, I'd rather not say."
"Very well then," said another lord, "If it sounds so familiar, then it must be one of the tunes we hear at dance practice each week."
"Oh, I think not, m'Lord," said I.
So they proceeded to try to figure out which dance tune I could possibly be playing. "Let's see, it's not a pavanne or a galliard. Could it be a bransle?" "Well it's not Horses Bransle, or Hay Bransle, or ... how does Pease Bransle go again?" "Dah dee dee dah dee dee dum dah dee dee dah dum ..." "Oh yeah, okay it's not that..." "What about one of the Playford tunes?" "Minstrel, do tell us what tune that is."
"Oh no, m'Lady, I'd rather not tell."
"Very well then. Could it be Gathering Peascods?" "No, that goes like this; dum dee dee dee dah dah dum, dum dee dee dee dah dah dum, ..." "Well it _must_ be one of the tunes we know really well if it sounds this familier, what about..."
This went on for a while, with periodic requests that I tell them what piece I was playing.
Finally, they gathered in a most ominous circle about me and said, "Minstrel, name thy tune!"
"Very well my Lords and my Ladies, and ye shall recognize it indeed, but ye are used to hearing it done a little differently than I am playing it now."
"Get on with it, minstrel."
Perhaps most of you will recognize it from the lyrics.
If I should leave thee on the morrow Wouldst thou still remember me? For I must be travelling on now, There's too many places I must be. Takest thou it not too badly For we both know I am to blame, But I'm as free as the birds now And this bird thou canst not chain And this bird thou canst not cha-ee-a-ee-a-ee-a-ee-ain...
Finally, I played it the way it is heard on the radio, flatpicked arpeggios instead of fingerpicking, and they knew it for what is was: "Freebird" by Lynyrd Skynyrd. They dropped their heads in shame at having mistaken that for a period tune just long enough for me to get away before they could kill me for having inflicted it upon them, and that is why I live to tell this tale today.
By my second Pennsic I'd learned a couple of renaissance dance tunes and one probably-period song. But I learned the Led Zeppelin arrangement of the song.
Now I'm the music director of an historical dance troupe specializing in (but not limited to) English Country Dance, I've learned some great 13th century tunes that sound perfect on my electric guitar (which I don't take to War, of course), and I've learned even better how to fake 'perioid' music when I let my fingers wander the fretboard. And I've gotten a lot of mileage out of the tale of my first Pennsic.
It's amazing what one's first Pennsic can inspire one to.
[* Mundane Versus Known World * Storms * Tent Tales * The Pancake Wagon * What is Pennsic? * Where to find me * What is Pennsic like? *]
There are a few things you can expect at Pennsic. It will be hot. It will be cold. It will rain. Even on a hot day, it tends to get chilly at night, so take warm garb and a good cloak. But unless it rains all week, turning all the unpaved roads into muddy slides, expect enough hot days to warrant considering an Arab or Greek persona. As for cold, I don't *think* there's been snow at Pennsic (yet), but folks have woken up to find frost on the ground. So pack both sunscreen and wool.
Not every year gets a storm, but hey, it is August -- prime thunderstorm season -- after all, so they're not exactly rare.
Here's a major hint for surviving storms: Just remember what a lot of people call dome tents. "Pennsic Tumbleweeds".
Whether your tent requires stakes to be set up or not, do stake it down! Stake it down firmly. Use a groundcloth. If you're on a hill, consider digging a trench on the uphill side (depending on the weather forecast). If you have a rain fly, bring it. Also bring extra garb in case you need a dry set in a hurry (and that includes spare shoes!), lots of plastic bags to store stuff in in case your tent leaks, a _warm_ sleeping bag or a lot of blankets to pile on top of it, and did I mention a good cloak?
When it looks/feels like a storm is coming, or you hear that a storm is tracking towards the site, head down to your camp and make sure everything is secure. Close tent windows, not just on your own tent but on tents whose owners haven't arrived yet to do so. (If that requires going inside the tent you might want to consider whether the owner is more likely to be annoyed that you went into their tent or grateful that you thought to make sure their tent was secured. The closer the storm gets, the more weight I'd give to the "grateful" side of that.) Make sure stakes are securely set. If you have guy wires, make sure they're taut. If you have something set up that'll catch the wind and try to blow away, such as a large pavillion, a dining fly, sheet-walls, and whatnot, consider lowering it. At the very least, make sure all the guy lines are taut and secure and be prepared to stand there and wrestle 'gainst the wind to keep it (along with as many other folks in your camp as it takes).
I know a merchant who, when a severe storm is approaching, lowers her merchanting pavillion on top of her merchandise. If it's already down, the wind can't knock it down and it's hard for the wind to pick it up. So her merchandise is covered, her pavilion is lowered (and I presume weighted down with something heavy on top of it), and she is free to come down to camp and help make sure things are secure there instead of staying up in the merchant area trying to make sure her pavillion doesn't blow away.
Once, when I was camped on sand (which isn't the most secure soil to seat a stake in) and a storm was predicted, I ran ropes from my tent to the nearest trees. Just in case.
Don't leave a Pennsic tumbleweed empty in a storm. Toss something heavy in it. A fully-laden cooler. A chainmail hauberk. A few (steel) swords. Give it ballast. A sleeping bag and a couple of changes of garb is not ballast. Borrow something heavy. Or lend someone else something heavy if they're the ones in peril and you are secure. If there's nothing better to use, there's always your body (as long as the tent doesn't get flooded, in which case you'll be pretty uncomfortable in it).
Don't panic. All of these things can be taken care of in the time it takes for a storm to arrive after it's predicted, especially if you work together with other people in your camp helping each other out. Almost every time a thunderstorm rolls in, someone says the word "tornado" and rumours start flying. Listen for accurate weather reports, not rumours, and brace yourself for a severe thunderstorm but don't panic or worry overmuch.
When the severe thunderstorm turns out to be heavy showers with a bit of rumbling in the distance, at least you were prepared for the worst. It's much better than waiting to find out and being caught unprepared by high winds and having your tent fished out of Cooper's Lake.
While the storm is raging, unless you're stuck inside your own tent, enjoy a chance to spend some time with your campmates instead of dashing off to this or that class or party or battle or dance. Sing, tell war stories, and offer passers-by a dry bit of shelter. Having a great tent or dining fly near the road is a great way to meet new friends during a storm -- you offer them shelter, they come in, you introduce yourselves, and you've got a new person to talk to until the rain lets up.
I do not suggest holding a metal sword aloft and shouting, "Hey Thor! Yo' mama!"
Finally, don't leave unattended flame burning under something the storm could knock down. Such as a dining fly.
[* Mundane Versus Known World * A Minstrel's First Pennsic * Tent Tales * The Pancake Wagon * What is Pennsic? * Where to find me * What is Pennsic like? *]
No water had come in through the holes where wall met floor, but a solid-looking wall panel right over our sleeping bags was leaking. Water was running down the canvas on the inside, then across the floor at an angle and out the door. My feet were in a puddle, the top sleeping bag (over us) was wet at the foot and soon the whole lower sleeping bag was soaked right through to us (both awake now).
That was a _very_ cold night for us. The sleeping bags were almost dry by the next nightfall, but not quite.
Now this tent is a 9'x12', tall enough that I can stand up in the tallest section, with internal poles. A few (several?) years ago, sometime after the episode above (and after breaking up with that girlfriend, come to think of it, since she wasn't with me when this happened), lots and lots of rain fell. Having learned which end of my tent was the dry one and which was wet, I just avoided putting anything in the end of the tent with the leaky wall (which I _still_ need to fix) and kept that end downhill. Many other people were not so lucky.
A couple in the next camp over, friends whom I had introduced to one another, had brought two dome tents; one for sleeping in and one as a "garage". John came over to say hello and ask a favour one afternoon.
"Hey, Glenn? Is your tent dry?"
"Parts of it are. I've got a leak and I guess I've lost about a third of the useable floor space to water. But the end I'm sleeping in is dry. Why?"
"Well, we got flooded out of our tent. We thought we could sleep in the other one if we moved all of our stuff out of it, but it turns out that one is even worse. It's got like a foot of water in it. I was hoping you could put us up for the night. But if you've got that much of a leak, probably not."
"Let's take a look at what we've got."
So we went and looked at the inside of my tent. I figured out that if I rearranged things on the floor and hung the guitars (I had two with me by then) from the poles that supported the roof, we could just barely fit another sleeping bag next to mine and keep it dry. A single-size folding cot worked for part of the wet area, and the three of us managed to fit into my tent.
I had been thinking of getting rid of the leaky, hard to carry, ancient thing and obtaining a small (affordable) modern tent in its place, but having been able to put up two friends even with one third of my tent flooded, after they'd been completely flooded out of their modern dome tents, convinced me to hold on to it a few years longer.
Admittedly each year that it has rained (which means most years) I have thought long and hard about whether the green canvas pain-in-the-butt is worth holding on to, but I've still got it. I've finally even started patching the holes and applying serious heavy-duty waterproofing (not the stuff in a spray can designed for tents, but the stuff you paint on a deck, wall, or awning). There's a lot of sewing left to do, and I haven't gotten to the end with the leaky wall panel yet (a mess of holes in the floor over at what used to be the dry end were more urgent), and I'm watching new holes form even as I patch old ones, so I'm not sure how many more wars this tent will see, but given my finances it'll have to last another two at least.
I've decided I like being able to stand up to change my clothes, and I like having enough room for several instruments, several books of sheet music, a week's worth of garb, and most of my food, and still having room for a guest or two. (I did get through Pennsic XXV pretty dry, but I covered the tent in plastic tarps (well tied down to large nails used as stakes) before the Thursday night storm to do so. And I still got a few drops of water through the leaky wall). Another tent that size, in better shape, is going to cost a lot.
[* Mundane Versus Known World * A Minstrel's First Pennsic * Storms * The Pancake Wagon * What is Pennsic? * Where to find me * What is Pennsic like? *]
"This is just SO Pennsic," I said.
"Really?" said one of the trio, "This is our first War."
"Well you've certainly managed a fine start, m'Lord. This is such a Pennsic Moment." (Or something like that. The camcorder swung my way at that point, so if we track them down we can find out exactly what I did say.)
When we were fed, they went on their way down Brewer's road toward the lake. It started to rain (so this must have been Friday morning, when the sky was still making up its mind after the previous night's storm) and one of them commented on the rain. "I guess we have to keep going until we use up all of this batter," said another, and they proceeded to seek out hungry campsites to feed breakfast to.
(Fortunately the weather cleared up a short time later after having done no more than spit a little at us.)
Of course it's usually the folks _in_ a camp offering food _to_ the guests, but at Pennsic all sorts of things can happen. Including a little red food wagon of pancakes.
[* Mundane Versus Known World * A Minstrel's First Pennsic * Storms * Tent Tales * What is Pennsic like? * What is Pennsic? * Where to find me *]
And Pennsic really is like a real town in many ways. There's the marketplace, various "neighbourhoods", streets with names, a post office (a trailer that serves as a genuine USPS temporary outpost with limited hours, and a Pennsic postmark), a bank, restaurants and a food court, live theatre and musical performances, blacksmiths and other craftspeople making things on site as well as selling, social dancing in the barn each evening, various events held in various camps as well as in the "official" areas, a newspaper (one year we had two competing newspapers), and, oh yeah, a few folks who fight in the battles, and enough Royal Court (with all those kings and queens in one place, oh yeah) for _anyone's_ tastes.
(I don't know what the fighters/other ratio is nowadays, but back when Pennsic was around 6,000 people I was told there were about 1,500 fighters participating.)
It has the rumours and gossip and petty feuds and weddings and wakes and birthdays of a real town too. Okay, so it's a town that's stuck in a perpetual festival-time mode, but what do you expect from a town that only exists one week out of every year, where old friends are greeting each other, and most people are taking this time as their vacation?
As you walk down Great Eastern Highway, coming down the hill from the barn, you hit a point where the trees cut off the electric lights on the structures at the top of the hill. There are tiki torches and maybe a campfire about there, usually. A little farther along you are in complete darkness. Four years ago they paved that road, and my feet are _still_ automatically accounting for the ruts that were in the gravel road that was there ten years ago when I was learning my way around. And without seeing it I know when I've reached the turn-off for Howard's Fenway. For a place that I've spent maybe a total of forty or fifty days in over the course of ten years, and not all of those years camped on that side of the lake, that says something about how much at home I feel there. I don't know every part of Pennsic as well as I know the roads I've travelled most, and neither will you, but the roads you know you'll probably get to know well enough to find your way home in blackest night or in fog after a couple of years. Maybe after a few days.
A few years ago Entertainment Tonight did a segment on Pennsic. My father taped it for me and showed it to me afterwards. The voiceover near the end of that said it well (let's see how well I can remember the quote): "There comes a time, as the sun is starting to set, and the campfires are being lit, when you hear the sounds of people walking to dinner and musicians playing and the sounds of food being cooked over campfires and stoves, and even a modern tent becomes just another tent in the dusk. And then, you might not be in the middle ages, but you're no longer in the twentieth century either." Oh, I've botched the quote, but the sense of it is in there.
It's not the middle ages, but it ain't the XXth century either.
If you come to Pennsic XXVI, look me up. I'll probably be near the corner of Brewer's Road and Howard's Fenway, with Caer Edgemere, in a delapidated green army tent (possibly covered over in blue plastic tarps). I'll be going by the name Arthur D'Glenn (yes, I know apostrophe-consonant is not a proper construction, but there's a story in that too) but either permutation of my name will probably work.