Locals recreate ‘the more pleasurable parts of the Middle Ages. We try to avoid the Plague.'
Seamus has been decapitated.
This sort of thing happens sometimes.
“My husband got his head cut off,” his wife says lightly, craning her own neck a bit to see the action.
He’s fine, of course. The armored fighter who offed him was using a rattan stick, not a sword. Plus the (not) dead man’s real name isn’t Lord Seamus; it’s James Wiley. And his lady love, Mistress Amaryllis Alexandrea de Lacey—otherwise known as University of Nevada, Reno library employee Barb Wiley—is having a grand old time.
“Role playing” is too vague a term for the passion that brings the Wileys to weekly practice in Sparks and larger, out-of-town tournaments and fairs throughout the year, but it’s a start. Dubbed the Silver Desert Province, their group is a local spinoff of the Society for Creative Anachronism, and it spans a swath of land from California to Tonopah.
SCA members “create more pleasurable parts of the Middle Ages,” Barb explains. “We try to avoid the plague.”
The society’s hierarchy is about as mind-boggling and complex as any governing body’s, but this one comes with armor, skirts, crests and other Medieval or Renaissance-inspired gear of one’s choosing. It’s all worn on behalf of fictitious personae each person creates, like Seamus or Amaryllis, who then become launching pads for scads of historical research. But more on that later.
Some find romance here. The Wileys sure did. (“I liked his kilt,” Barb says gamely of James.)
“It’s one of those hobbies that’s a little all-consuming, so if your partner isn’t interested, it’s probably not going to work out,” says treasurer Carol King, otherwise known as Lady Africa. She’s chuckling. And yes, this is how she met her husband, Stephen.
Silver Desert has around 30 active members, but it’s just one small chunk of a massive spread called the West Kingdom, which includes areas of California, Northern Nevada, Alaska, Japan, South Korea, Guam and Thailand.
The takeaway: Many members have titles, including princes and princesses of principalities, but if you prevail in enough pseudo-swordfights, you can be named king or queen of several thousand willing people. And within reason, everyone in your lair will do what you say. A few may even seek your help in resolving real-life marital and workplace disputes. This is not a joke.
Reigns last around four months, and each winning ruler gets to choose who shares the throne with him or her. If the king and queen are dating, though, watch out.
“They frequently are romantic relationships, which frequently end terribly after [the reign],” King quips. “It’s the amount of stress. It’s worse than being married.”
Per a recent ruling, same-sex duos can now share the throne and the stress, too.Costume drama
Ascension to royalty isn’t the whole point, though, and neither are the staged battles.
“We’re not all about fighting,” says longtime member Joel Viney (“Abrahe Çaragoça”) whose wide-brimmed hat appears to have an entire weasel carcass attached to the top. Nor are their battles scripted, he says, in the way a Civil War reenactment might be.
“Got 75 pounds of goodness right here,” a fighter named Baron Von Wolt announces, patting his metal-encased midsection during practice at Cottonwood Park.
Von Wolt’s real name is so good that it’s also his society moniker. He was skeptical about any pretend-Medieval activities until his ex dragged him to a large event in San Diego.
“I went out there and I’m like, ’What—all these nerds? Oh man, this is going to suck.’”
Then he saw “two giant, armored teams start crashing in and beating the crap out of each other, “a la Braveheart, “and I was like, ’Yesss.’”
SCA devotees spend considerable time on spinoff hobbies, too, and many Silver Desert women sit and sew together during the group’s Sunday meetings at Cottonwood Park.
Take Viney’s wife, Peggy, whom he met —surprise!—through another chapter of the society. Intricate needlework is one of her specialties, and she’s also made outfits for their 7-year-old daughter (“Antonia Ursula the Turnip”), who has worn handmade cloaks and other such garb since infancy.
Peggy’s adopted character, Agnés Beregarii, is a noblewoman from 15th-Century Catalonia. Thanks to that timeline, “I can have chocolate,” Peggy exclaims. “1492!”
A woman with a cute purple-and-silver bob and a braided rattail looks up from her knitting and firmly interjects. She’s been quiet until now.
She is Teresa Mullins, a.k.a.Teresa Maria Isabella Castro y Villaseñor, and she’s referring to the year Spanish conquistador Hernaacute;n Cortéz tried Aztec chocolate.
Mullins is a nurse by trade, and she has a graduate degree in ethnobotany, which is centered around humans’ relationship to plans. So she probably knows a thing or two about cacao beans.
“We get our geek on,” Peggy says, rolling her eyes a bit. “This is how we have fun.”
Barb happens to be a skilled costume maker, so at one point she and Peggy begin to pore over a book, written in Spanish, about centuries-old lace designs.
Lace is Barb’s forte. In fact, one of her earlier persona was a lace maker who’s “the bastard daughter of an English noblewoman and a French scoundrel,” she’ll tell you, drawing out the word until it’s full of risqué sass.
But heavy Elizabethan clothes are too hot for Reno summers, it turns out, so Barb/Amaryllis has since rebranded herself as German aristocracy. She makes her exquisitely detailed costumes by hand, fans and feathers and all, and sips water from a leather canteen that does double-duty for steampunk outfits.
Another woman is strumming a harp nearby, and a shirtless man with white hair and red, puffy britches seems to be changing clothes by his car. The presence of a parking lot is kind of hilarious, maybe because all the throwbacks can feel real for a minute, if you let them.