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Secrets of the Shire: Behind the Scenes with the Historical Reenactment Society

“The first time you walk through town by yourself dressed as a mediaeval peasant, but with a backpack, you get some weird looks,” admits Rosie Cromwell, president of the Shire of Caer Caledon. “But no one cares. And if they care, whatever.”

The Shire of Caer Caledon, St Andrews’ Historical Reenactment Society, was born in the early 90s.

Often seen as an educational hobby, historical reenactment involves individuals immersing themselves in historical attire to reenact specific events or periods from the past. Reenactment communities are widespread throughout the UK, and Scotland boasts several notable historical reenactment groups, some of which have even graced the silver screen as extras in movies and television series, including the popular show Game of Thrones.

The Shire hosts an array of gatherings, known as guilds, that offer its members the opportunity to immerse themselves in various aspects of mediaeval life, from clothes-making to mead-brewing. Yet, to the average St Andrews student, these activities might remain a mystery, overshadowed by the Shire’s established status as ‘the people who sword fight outside the library’.

Intrigued as to what else may lie behind this curious reputation, I reached out to the Shire’s Instagram account. Soon I found myself invited to participate in their weekly events, including combat training and an artisans guild workshop.

I was the first to arrive outside the Main Library. Anxiously, I glanced at the time on my phone.

But then, a burly tunic-clad man carrying a sack of mysteriously long objects approached me.

Over the next half an hour, fellow shirelings filed in, and swords and shields stacked up at the arena’s edge. In total there were around 30 of us. Some were newbies, like me.

For many in the group, the appeal of fighting with the Shire stems from a love of the Middle Ages. “It’s fascinating,” one post-graduate fighter told me.

Although the Shire’s constitution technically allows for exploration of all historical eras, the mediaeval period, spanning from 476 AD to 1453 AD, remains its primary focus due to its immense popularity and the group’s specialised expertise.

Surprisingly, though, I found that a significant number of the Shire’s fighters had no particular interest in mediaeval history at all.

“We make no bones about the fact that most people join the club for a chance to swing a sword around,” Rosie Cromwell said. “I know what attracted me originally was, ‘I think swords are cool’, and I think that’s true for a lot of people.”

And for some, the allure isn’t the swords themselves, but rather those who wield them. “I like women with swords,” one member confessed under her breath.

As the session began, we were divided into two groups: the experienced and the inexperienced. I found myself among the latter, preparing to learn how to use a seven foot spear.

First, a safety briefing: target zones were defined, and we were reminded not to hit above the shoulders, below the knee, or below the elbow. In case of danger, we were instructed to shout, “stop, stop, stop,” upon which everyone would freeze.

“Will we get hurt?” One trainee asked hesitantly.

“No injuries worse than you’d get from a game of football.” Scott McDonald, one of the Shire’s training officers, replied.

The group breathed a collective sigh of relief, but I noticed Fin, the secretary of the Shire, concealing his left hand. His pinky finger was wrapped in a cast.

“Fin broke his finger. Freak accident,” Cromwell tells me.

“It’s the worst injury we’ve had in the Shire for years,” she added. “Mostly people come out with bruises.”

Cromwell then points to her arm revealing two throbbing purple bruises. “That’s a spear, and that’s a sword,” she said. “I’m close to being anaemic, and I bruise very easily.”

“I’m not saying worse injuries don’t happen in reenactment; these weapons are designed for war,” Cromwell added. “If you swing a two foot blunt sword, it is still a two foot piece of metal, and you can still do damage, which is why we have this thing where you can’t fight in a show unless you have a safety test.”

Which, she stresses, are not fun. During a safety test, training officers push fighters to their limit in order to assess their safety under immense stress.

“They do crazy things, like run at you with swords and swing at your head to see if you call out and say, ‘hey, stop doing that,’” she said.

After I had honed my spear-handling skills and learned some offensive and defensive tricks with my fellow group of trainees, I was thrust into a ‘line fight’.

“Apologies if I slip into Old Norse,” Cailin, my group’s training officer, warned before shouting out commands to commence the battle. We lunged forwards at each other, every step accompanied by a primal grunt.

But then, amidst the intensity of our fight, a butterfly landed in the middle of the battlefield. A collective ‘aww’ rippled through the ranks as we put down our spears and shared a moment of tenderness.

“There’s a weird amount of life lessons. The list of priorities in a line fight are: you keep yourself alive, you keep your friends alive and then you try and win the fight, which generally is life advice,” Cromwell muses. “Keep yourself alive, keep your friends alive. Those feel like words to live by.”

But the Shire isn’t solely about combat. There are several other guilds catering to different interests, including brewers, cooks, bardic, clothiers, and artisans.

The artisans class, led by Oliver Windham-Hughes, second year Philosophy and Spanish student and guild head of Artisans, was a more intimate gathering. As I walked in on Wednesday evening, I discovered that the evening’s task was crafting leather pouches.

I started by cutting out a 20cm by 10cm rectangle of leather and submerging it in a special liquid to soften it for sewing. Then with the leather prepared, I folded it in half and began to stitch the sides together, using twine that I had coated in wax.

“You’re sewing without wax?!” Windham-Hughes shrieked, as he noticed one shireling’s incorrect technique. Defeated, his head dropped into his hands in utter exasperation.

Amidst the teaching, stitching, and crafting, conversations flowed across the table. Topics ranged from recounting a tale of a rival reenactor who had contracted dysentery on a mediaeval hike, to discussions about upcoming games of Dungeons and Dragons.

One member laughed, “We are all nerds here: this is Medieval Reenactment Society”. To which Windham-Hughes chimed, “this is a safe space for nerds.”

The Shirelings however, did acknowledge that openly embracing their passions is much easier said than done: their unique interests are warmly welcomed amongst fellow members of the Shire but are sometimes met with judgmental looks from those outside their circle.

Nevertheless, the Shire continue to take pride in their pastime.

“If I say to someone I’ve made a shield, they might look at me strangely, but, to me, that’s just as much of an achievement as someone telling me that they made a table,” said Windham-Hughes.

Each member of the society may have different specialities and interests, but the common thread that bounds them together is the profound sense of belonging that the Shire cultivates.

Three to four times a year, the Shire hosts feasts for members and non-members alike, with the money raised from ticket sales used to help fund the society.

“It sounds cringey, but it’s a really nice community,” Menagakis told me, emphasising that most of her closest friends are also part of the Shire.

And in those rare occasions when disagreements arise between shirelings, the resolution is surprisingly simple.

“If there’s a feud, it’s going to end up on the battlefield.” says Menagakis. “We’ve had a couple of those,” she muses. “But at the end of the day everyone is still friends.”

Photo by Phoenix Photography

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