By Ken Mondschein
For the past 48 years, around 10,000 people have been gathering every summer for a festival that’s been described as “medieval Burning Man.”
While officially a Society for Creative Anachronism event organized like a “color war” between East and Middle Kingdoms and played out through activities as varied as archery, axe-hurling, and mass armored battles, in actuality, Pennsic War is a huge social and educational event that features everything from medieval dance classes to its own “university” to an unbelievable late-night party scene.
Though Pennsic—a word blending of “Pennsylvania” and the “Punic Wars”—has been held continually since 1972, it did not find its way to its current home, Cooper’s Lake Campground about 45 minutes north of Pittsburgh, until 1977. As legend goes, the first Pennsic was held when the king of the Midrealm, David Friedman (son of Chicago School of Economics guru Milton Friedman) declared war on the East. The letter declaring hostilities was misplaced until Friedman moved to the East, became king there, and found it again. Friedman thus became the first king in history to declare war on himself, with the loser having to keep Pittsburgh.
Unlike a Renaissance fair, there are no spectators at Pennsic: Everyone who goes is a participant, and everyone wears medieval or medieval-esque clothes (“garb”) all the time—which extends to having medieval tents, camp furniture, crockery, and chests to keep your stuff in. True, there are no non-service animals allowed and modernity in the form of port-a-potties, staff whizzing around on golf carts, and tractor-trailers engine-breaking on I-79 can’t help but intrude, but at its best, Pennsic is a fully immersive world.
That’s especially true when the sun goes down. Pennsic is divided in the minds of many participants into two main zones: “Topside” and the “Bog.” Topside is “official” Pennsic—the battlefield, the university, the merchant area, the store and food court, the precious few (but frequently cleaned) flush toilets. The Bog is downhill around the (heavily mosquito-controlled) lake, where everyone repairs to at “o’dark thirty,” where you can follow the sound of drums and laughter down torchlit paths. After dark, with no light save for fire (and the headlights of the ever-present golf carts), the modern world fades away and you’re transported to one of those ’80s swords-and-sorcery films you spent too much time watching as a teenager.
The Down and Dirty
Here’s what Pennsic really is: It’s a community. Pennsic-goers refer to the event as “home,” and the rest of the year as a “50-week town run.” Everyone is amazingly generous and helpful with everything from putting up your tent to inviting you to dinner to pulling your car out of the mud. People tend to be at their best when they have to work together to survive and be comfortable—and while Pennsic is far from the hostile environment Burning Man is (there’s even an Internet café on-site), it can be downright uncomfortable at times.
What’s also amazing is the immense amount effort people put into the event. The campground is utterly transformed by elaborate gates, campers made to look like traveling wagons (“vardos”), ersatz wattle and daub taverns, and shrines to the One True King, Elvis Presley (my own camp’s shtick). Like an elaborate but ephemeral Tibetan mandala drawn in sand, Pennsic is put up in a few days, left up for a week or two, and torn down just as quickly to be packed away in storage units and trailers.
But more than that, Pennsic is an experience. There is nothing like drinking in a torchlit tavern where everyone is in costume and reunited friends are singing obscure medievalesque songs together. (Owing to licensing, all the beer is free, though donations are gladly welcomed… but be sure to bring your own mug. If not, you’ll receive the red Solo “cup of shame.”) There’s nothing like participating in a 500-on-a-side mock battle (I was positively addicted in college) or dancing in a replica Italian villa.
If You Want to Go
It’s entirely possible to show up at the front gate with a tent and a credit card, get a single’s camping spot, and buy everything you need from a medieval wardrobe to armor and swords to camp furniture and pottery from the merchants area, it’s useful to hook up with an established camp that’s been allotted space in the campground. Mutual support in setting up and breaking down, plus things like camp showers and kitchens so you don’t have to use the bathhouses or buy food from the numerous on-site restaurants (none of which offer particularly healthy options), make the Pennsic experience a lot more survivable. Many people camp with groups of friends or family, others with their local SCA group. My camp, for instance, is essentially based around me and my brother and his family, and our friends who are a brother and sister and their families.
One of the major differences between the Little Ice Age and Pennsylvania in late July and early August is the climate. Pennsic-goers cope with the heat in a variety of ways. Many don’t even try to be period-correct and opt for swords-and-sorcery inspired loincloths or bellydance/tribal-wear; some wear lightweight cotton; and the more authenticity-minded cover up with linen. Speaking from my own experience, a linen shirt and broad-brimmed hat keep the summer sun off a lot better than your own skin does, and additionally wick the sweat away to keep you nice and cool. Thankfully, the merchants can outfit you in clothes from any time from ancient Greece to the court of Versailles, and, though buying all this handcrafted stuff isn’t cheap, the selection and quality make your local Renaissance faire look like a garage sale. And, if the heat gets too much, you can always make a town run for some civilization and air-conditioning.
If you want to fight in the battles, you need to pass a safety test (“authorization”) in the SCA’s particular martial sports (rattan and fencing), which requires training and practice. You’ll also need your own gear, which, like anything else, you can order online from a number of vendors. If you want to teach classes, you can submit to Pennsic University. (Owing to chronic tendinitis in my elbow, I only did a little sword stuff this year, so my main events were teaching a class on “Historical Symbols and Modern Controversies” and co-teaching one on “Creating a Culture of Consent.”)
It’s also probably a good idea to have a passing familiarity with the SCA if you want to attend Pennsic, though you don’t need to be a member or have an SCA “name” or backstory to participate (I don’t). In fact, going to Pennsic is something that I’d recommend each and every academic medievalist do once in their lifetime. In a university system that doesn’t really appreciate the Middle Ages or the humanities in general, there’s something immensely comforting in being surrounded by 9,999 people who think medieval stuff is cool… something that feels like going home.
Ken Mondschein is a history professor at UMass-Mt. Ida College, Anna Maria College, and Boston University, as well as a fencing master and jouster. Click here to visit his website.
Top Image: Fighting at the Pennsic War – photo by an iconoclast / Flickr