Knight Moves

(Jay Paul/For the Washington Post)
By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 23, 2007

The queen of Atlantia settles into her throne. She playfully slaps its armrests and issues a decree. "And now," she purrs, "the bloodshed."

"And now, the bloodshed," echoes a baron from a neighboring throne in front of the sword-fighting arena, which is surrounded by lords, ladies, their rambunctious offspring and sundry folk of lesser nobility. Then, for her majesty's pleasure, two knights fight to the death under the gold September sun.

Full disclosure: No one perished in Prince William Forest Park last weekend. The queen is actually a Sterling resident named Denise McMahon, 53, and the baron to her side is a Falls Church audio-visual business designer named Robert Capozello, 39. They and the rest of the 100 people who set up camp to watch and play are medievalists. They spend some nights and most weekends living in the best parts of the Middle Ages: They revel in the arts, sciences and athletics of Europe from the 600s to the 1600s -- but avoid re-creating the plague or disemboweling a sword-fight opponent.

So although Robert de Rath (Robert Mehs, 36, of Wilmington, N.C.) and Guy Lestrange "lost" several limbs during their rounds of sword fighting, Sir Robert gamely embraced Sir Guy after dealing the final blow.

"The pretending to die part -- I look at it as, 'This person's hitting me here, he's besting me,' so I give up my arm or my leg because that's the rules," says Sir Guy (Springfield resident Robert Dionisio, 43, a lieutenant colonel in the Army). "After the fight, I was thinking, 'Well, what could I have done better?' " What's in my head is I want to win for my wife, because she likes it when I do well."

Medievalism is now in season in mainstream society -- jugglers and jousters are courting the curious at the Maryland Renaissance Festival, which started last month in Crownsville and runs on the weekends through Oct. 21. But medievalists with a harder core don their armor year-round -- for the chivalry and pageantry and camaraderie, for the love of craft and the thrill of sport.

Many do it through the Society for Creative Anachronism, the largest group of medievalists in the area and one that covers the broadest spectrum of interests. There are 2,800 registered members in the society's kingdom of Atlantia, which spans the coastal states between Maryland and South Carolina, including more than 1,000 in the Washington area who are further divided into regional groups called baronies or shires.

"This is a hobby," says Katharine Devereaux of the barony of Ponte Alto (a.k.a. Kimberly Barker, 33, of Alexandria), who organized the event. "This is something I do for fun, for relaxation. I do take it seriously, though."

As do many. The society's biggest annual events illustrate this passion on the battlefield -- such as the Pennsic War, a battle between kingdoms that draws more than 10,000 people to 500 acres in Slippery Rock, Pa., or next month's Kingdom Crusades in Maryland. But SCA members and other medievalists do more than lay siege to one another. They master archery and falconry and calligraphy, rehearse and perform medieval dances, prepare and cook feasts, forge armor, sew cloaks, brew beer and bottle perfume.

"I love the challenge of trying to do things the way they were done back then, without computers, microwaves, electric stoves -- the challenges of trying to see if I could cook a meal over coal or see if I could make cloth by weaving the material," says Baroness Mary Isabel of Heatherstone (Leesa Orton, 37, of St. Inigoes).

Most major events hew close to medieval standards for dress and behavior, but the many fighter practices held in the area during the week are less formal. (Sneakers and other anachronisms within the anachronism are not frowned upon.)

People join because they have or want to develop a skill -- sword fighting, metalworking, weaving, cooking -- that fits naturally into the time period. They join because they want to dress up. Or they join because it provides the perfect excuse for, say, building your own catapult.

Which Lord Jonathas Reinisch did. Out of a red-oak tree trunk. He keeps it in his basement and trucks it to melees in a 16-foot trailer. "Brings a whole new realm to the battlefield," says Reinisch (James Kriebel, 33, of La Plata).

Reinisch and 45 others were in College Park on a recent Monday for the barony of Storvik's weekly fighter practice. In the parking lot of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, a bunch of knights bat the dickens out of one another with rattan swords, charging opponents with their armor-grade aluminum shields, the clamor of metal on metal echoing down the residential street. From inside the church hall comes the wispy tinkling of rapier on rapier, where Lady Constanza de Talavera (Baltimore software developer Sharon Buczko, 30) helps others polish their fencing skills. At the other end of the hall is Three Left Feet, the Storvik's official music-and-dance group, which twirls through an Italian dance from the 1500s.

For a couple of hours every Monday on this tiny converted fiefdom in College Park, the spirit of the Middle Ages reigns under the benevolent eyes of Wayne and Joanna Dionne. Wayne refers to his wife almost exclusively as "milady." She calls him by his Viking name, Rorik. All the time. "Even in bed," she says.

They are the baron and baroness of Storvik. If you live in the District or Prince George's County, you are their subjects. Kneel. Kiss their rings.

"No, no, no," corrects Wayne, 60, of Bowie. "We don't bring it up in the modern world unless the topic comes around. If you're at an event and if you're being formal, you can bow. For a baron and baroness, the address is 'your excellency.' But being a baron and having $2.50 will only get me a cup of coffee at Starbucks."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company