Just about everything has turned up in the UW-Madison Stock Pavilion since it opened in 1909. Prize cattle. Bill Clinton and Harry Truman. All genres of music.
But when it comes to spectacle, it would be hard to surpass the regular practices of the armed combat group of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). This is not your ordinary fight club. Here, barbarians in leather mix it up with heavily armored nobles. And unlike conventional fighting forces, each is an army of one, wearing armor and period garb of their own choosing.
One of the more terrifying specters is Kitakaze Raito, a 16th century Japanese warrior whose motto is "live by the sword, die by the sword." His potential foes are medieval fighters from different countries and centuries. On this occasion there are fighters from Germany, Scotland, Spain, Ireland, England, Wales, Denmark and elsewhere — about 50 in all.
Raito, who becomes software designer Neil Gilmore when he takes off his armor, holds a special place in the group. He is the baron of Jararvellir (an Icelandic word that means on the plains of the Yahara), the leader of the central Wisconsin arm of the SCA.
It's not enough just to look ferocious. Warriors attack one another full force with rattan weapons (swords, axes, spears, long poles with both spear points and axes). They're practicing for tournaments held all over the world, after which they'll gather for feasts and dancing.
"There aren't a lot of opportunities in life to strap on 30 to 70 pounds of armor, put 20 pounds of aluminum on your arm and charge at a group of people as hard as you can without getting arrested," said Ned Keitt-Pride, 37, a software developer whose alter ego is Torkil Gunnarsen, an eighth-century Danish Viking. Keitt-Pride discovered his passion for medieval warfare at a major tournament in Pennsylvania when as many as 20,000 spectators watched 3,000 to 4,000 fighters.
"The cannon sounds and people start charging," he said. "This is the coolest thing I could think of doing. I grew up with (J.R.R.) Tolkien novels, with these kinds of battles."
Keitt-Pride wasn't always a Viking. "I started out more Scottish, but I decided I didn't want to fight in such heavy and complicated armor — each of my leg pieces weighed 25 pounds," he said. "Vikings haven't got a lot of protection, mostly thick hide, with a helmet and sword."
Other fighters don much more elaborate armor and clothing.
Terry Aitken, a scientist and owner of Pegasus Games, transforms himself into Sir Dumal, a late 13th century Scottish nobleman. Aitken made much of his costume himself, though he has turned to master armor makers for some of his gear.
"You can spend as little or as much as you want on armor," said Aitken, 57. His first armor was chain mail he made by twisting wire into round links. "People in this group will teach you how to do everything you want to learn."
Brian Wallner, 42, wears a black horsetail on top of his helmet and has a maniacal laugh as he portrays Seren Cynydd from 12th century Wales.
Wallner met his wife, who portrays an early Persian belly dancer, through the group.
"People here start with something in common, which is an interest in history," he said. "This group isn't just about Europe in the Middle Ages. It includes any group who had contact with Europe. We have meso-Americans, Japanese, Mongols, Indians, Africans, anywhere from later Roman through Three Musketeers. You can do whatever you want and no one will pooh-pooh you."
The number of combatants is growing, and they're getting younger. An armed combat youth group was formed, allowing people ages 14 to 16 fight with lighter weapons. At 16 they can join the adult group and use rattan weapons. Thick rattan sticks are used because, unlike wood, they don't splinter when they break.
A lot of college students are involved, usually starting with the rapier for fencing because it's cheaper than armor.
No one has ever been killed in SCA armed combat, and rules govern safety in combat and protective apparel.
"But we strike with full body power, so people do get hurt," said Gilmore, 49, who has been in armed combat for 35 years. "It's more like regular sports injuries: people blow out knees, break fingers or arms, get heat exhaustion."
Like some others in the group, he has a background in contact sports including football, wrestling, fencing and martial arts.
"A wide range of people are involved: jocks, people interested in medieval history and people whose friends are doing it."
In addition to the regular practices at the Stock Pavilion, Gilmore travels to compete in three or four tournaments a month.
At practices, fighters approach someone and ask if they want to spar. During tournaments, opponents are assigned based on experience and skill.
Determining who won a match is based on chivalry. Gilmore, who made his first armor of tinfoil for trick or treat in second grade, explained that it's the people who receive a hit who decide if it was a "worthy strike." A "killing" blow must be struck on target, using certain technique and with sufficient force.
"There's no cheating because there are social consequences," he said. "There is always someone bigger than you. Your reputation is on the line. If you were royal in medieval times and you were invaded, your neighbors wouldn't help you if you had a bad reputation. After fighting someone, we have a drink with them."