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Mary Ash working on an illuminated manuscript at a meeting for the Ohio University Medieval Society in Morton Hall. Oct. 5, 2023.

OU’s Medieval Society brings new life to old traditions

52 years ago, students and community members united in their appreciation for this historic world through the Ohio University Medieval Society. Outsiders might not know that the organization spans much farther than what meets the eye. The community at OU is a small branch of the greater Society for Creative Anachronism, or SCA, an international organization devoted to researching and recreating medieval art and culture. While the SCA reaches every corner of the world, from China to Germany to Australia, OU's medieval community is diminishing, and very few people fully understand their mission. 

There is an entire world with different kingdoms, regions, and groups. The group in Athens is called Dernhealde within the Midrealm Kingdom. According to OU alum George Johnson, Dernheald means "where men come to dream," the symbol is a silver ivory tower on a cloud created in 1971.

Ali Nicoll, a sophomore studying special education, is the club's current president. She says the club has about 12 students and 20 community members. Nicoll specializes in combat and recently received an award from the Southeast Ohio group called the Chevron Cloak. She also does fiber arts, including sewing, embroidering, candle making and illuminating. Nicoll wants to take her craft further and eventually do demonstrations at the events held each weekend. 

"There are people in this organization who have been working on their specific crafts for two or three times longer than I've even been alive, or maybe more," she said. "I'm at such a low level comparatively, but there's so much guidance and people who are willing to put time in to teach you and help you grow in your craft."

Terry Young is a community member in the group who started at Ohio State in 1993. Young comes to Athens from Lancaster, Ohio, to help students practice their combat and ensure safety regulations. He works to immerse himself into medieval culture and has chosen the medieval name Malcolm of Dernheald. 

"We try to reenact the Middle Ages as we would have liked them to have been," Young said. "So we have modern flushing toilets and we have penicillin. We have all the wonderfulness, without any of the hang-ups."

There are tournament fights and battles at big events called "wars" until entire parties are wiped out. One pretends as if their arm is cut off and holds it behind their back. A victory comes from a shot to the head or torso of an opponent or from cutting off both arms. Young describes the combat in two groups: rapier and armored, or rattan. 

"Armored combat has a lot more gear, versus the rapier side which is pretty," Young said. "They get to use steel swords that are safety blunted, so it's as close as you can get to a period style of fighting. Rattan is more like we're swinging baseball bats at each other." 

When asked about his favorite part of combat, Young shares the joy he feels from spectators' reactions. 

"My favorite part is when folks hear the initial slap of a sword on the shield," Young said. "In modern life, where can you whack your buddy with a baseball bat and then go have fun?"

There are very few other places where people can experience this, especially those where you can dress in medieval attire and immerse yourself in another world. Anyone is welcome to join OUMS. Once or twice a month, there are craft lessons where instructors teach the group a specific medieval craft like candle making or embroidery. Anyone can come and learn to fight without prior experience, and the group is always excited to teach newcomers about medieval life. 

Newcomer Jace Whitehead, a student employee at Alden Library, also comes from Lancaster and has a former interest in martial arts. Young invited him to tag along, and now Whitehead is learning the different combat and safety protocol styles. 

"Using a shield is something that's so strange to me and it requires a lot of different skills that I'm used to and it's a different mindset," Whitehead said. "You think about reenactors and you think, 'Oh they're all out of weight and they're nerds,' but this takes a lot of effort. There's a lot of armor, there's a lot of movement, and there's a lot of power behind every swing."

Advisor Tommy Shaw has been a part of the society since 1990. When asked about what OUMS means to him, he said it's the friends he's made and the community he finds comfort in. 

"The best friends I've had in my life, I've met in this group," Shaw said. "The pandemic was hard on student groups in general, and there were a couple of falls, or school was starting and I had serious doubts if we were going to continue to exist."

There is a history fair at OU Oct. 19, and the medieval society will attend to talk about their community. They cannot emphasize enough how much they love to share their passion and teach newcomers about the history and culture. From fully handmade medieval jackets, dresses and hats, to armor, swords and candle-lit feasts, the OUMS will only go further from here and are ready for any unsuspecting, inspired newcomers to wield a sword, "en guard" and duel. 

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