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BASTILLE DAY: LIVING HISTORY : Die With Honor : The Knights of the Society for Creative Anachronism bring bloodless battle to the county.


The Sunday afternoon quiet is broken by the thwack of sword against shield--as rugged knights and men-at-arms charge one another across the oak-studded lawn in a Ventura park. Their armor flashing in the sun, the teams thrust and parry, gaining and losing ground, until one man neglects his flank and suffers a fatal blow.

The warrior flings his weapon aside, staggers and falls with a groan, landing face-down on the greensward (translation: grass). Both armies freeze. The dead man rises and strides out of danger of trampling; and the battle resumes.

It is the Society for Creative Anachronism, and the untimely event they are creating is a melee, or mock battle, carried out with weapons, costumes and language in strict keeping with the style of the Middle Ages.

In fact, said Carlos Yanez of Oxnard between skirmishes, swords are rattan covered with duct tape and armor plates are stuffed with plastic foam. But, no matter--some allowances are necessary when spanning five centuries.

By day an attorney, Yanez was transformed into his alter ego--a Spaniard of the 15th Century for this afternoon's maneuvers--an almost weekly event in the Shire of Darach (Ventura County).

A group with a penchant for bloodless battle and elaborate pageantry, the SCA has been around since the '60s, when a group of history majors at UC Berkeley held a theme party, and couldn't bear to have it end. They formed a nonprofit society, which spread like the plague throughout the known world, and now claims 10,000 members, with chapters in Japan, New Zealand and, of course, Ventura County.

When they are not fighting, local members hold workshops in medieval arts and dance, throw revels (parties) and create elaborate costumes befitting the noble personae they assume--characters who might have lived between 800 to the early 17th Century.

However, they fight a good deal. About half the shire's members are attracted by the combat, said Michael Murphy, a cabinetmaker from Ventura who falls into that category.

Generally, conflict takes place in tourneys, involving one-to-one sword contests with elaborate rules to determine the extent of "damage" done by a blow--which participants themselves rate.

"Chivalry is pretty much alive," said Alex Hazlett, an electronic technician from Ventura--better known as Alejandro the Far Traveler. He said that combatants wait honorably for an opponent to pick up a dropped weapon, and when a man "loses" an arm or a leg from a thrust, the opposing knight drops his shield, or goes down on one knee to even up the fight.

Twice a year "crown tourneys" are held, in which the knight who defeats all comers is declared king. The honor is always won by a knight, said Murphy, because a newcomer who shows up and manages to be better than the competitors is hastily knighted during the tourney.

In a distinct break with medieval tradition, women are allowed to compete in the lists, and can theoretically earn the crown. But the only female contender in the shire, Carmen Guerra of Oxnard, whose 20th Century role is registered nurse, warned that the contests are demanding.

"I have died in every one of mine," she said, managing to sound upbeat about it. "It's scary but exhilarating. I love it. It's better than aerobics."

Guerra also died repeatedly during the afternoon's maneuvers, which were a practice session for the upcoming Storming of the Bastille to take place Saturday at Marina Park in Ventura.

In this event, "peasants" will attempt to wrest control of a concrete boat on the beach from the aristocracy, and sentence them to the "guillotine"--or its equivalent--in this case a faceful of cream pie.

That the French Revolution is 150 years beyond the Middle Ages didn't seem to trouble the society members.

"We always have a tourney in July," said Garfield Matson of Oxnard, an undergraduate history student/Norse Viking. "We happened to notice that one Saturday was Bastille Day, and it seemed too good to pass up. It's outside our time period, but what the heck?"

In fact, the outcome of the battle is unknown. "We don't choreograph anything," said Ben Neal of Oxnard, who was marshaling the melee practice. The peasants "could very well lose."

Which, one would suppose, might lead to cries of, "Let 'em eat pie!"

* WHERE AND WHEN: The Society for Creative Anachronism will storm the Bastille on Saturday. The public is invited to the event, scheduled for 10 a.m. at Marina Park, south end of Pierpont Boulevard, Ventura. For further information about the SCA, call 485-7252.

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