It's Wednesday night, and as usual, Mathilde Poussin has a long subway ride ahead of her, all the way from Penn's campus to the last stop on the Market-Frankford line.
Her clothes are contemporary and her manner is unassuming; fellow passengers would probably never guess that zipped up inside the bag sitting next to her are swords, shields and a mask - the gear of a medieval fencer.
Poussin spends her days as a research associate for Penn's School of Medicine, but her Wednesday night SEPTA ride serves as a portal to the past, to a church basement in Frankford where she fences for her honor and is known as Madame Brunissende.
Poussin is a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, an organization with about 100,000 members worldwide and a small but devoted following at Penn - or more accurately, the Bailiwick of Ivyeinrust, as the society's Center City and West Philadelphia chapter is known.
The society, founded in Berkeley, Calif., in 1966, is a recreational group for people interested in recreating the culture of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. A chapter has existed at the University since the early 1970s.
It is a non-profit organization divided into 19 kingdoms, each of which is ruled by a king, queen and full noble court. Pennsylvania is part of the East Kingdom. Events are funded through a national $35 membership fee, but in most cases participants don't need to be members.
In addition to fencing, the Penn chapter participates in calligraphy workshops, Renaissance dance lessons and "bardic circles," in which members tell tales and drink "black mead" -- known in the common tongue as Coca Cola.
"In today's modern society . you're an English major, you're a computer scientist, or a biophysicist, or whatever," said Josh Uretsky, a former Penn guest lecturer who remains active in the University's chapter. "In the SCA, you're really encouraged to explore the rest of your personality."
Many members elect to take on "personas," where they choose new names for themselves and create elaborate back-stories. "They're revisiting an idea of a period," said Emily Steiner, a professor of medieval literature in Penn's English Department who is not affiliated with the society.
"It could be perfectly within the realm of acceptable in the SCA to have an ancient Roman sitting next to a Viking sitting next to a person from Queen Elizabeth's court sitting next to a medieval Japanese samurai," said Penn administrator Jackie Binstead, who helps organize the group's events.
Medievalists like Steiner, however, recognize that the Middle Ages were more than knights and ladies-in-waiting.
"When you study the period . you picture more xenophobia, unbelievable poverty, lack of medical care," Steiner said, while society members are free to focus on the more glamorous elements of the time.
Binstead, who works in the Treasurer's Office, joined the group as a Penn undergraduate in the 1980s. While she enjoys history, she said her initial interest was of a less-than-scholarly nature.
"I met many men in tights, which, when I was a 19-year-old girl, was a big hit with me," said Binstead, who is also known as Lady Philadelphia in SCA circles.
Binstead cautioned that it's important not to let your anachronistic life become your whole life.
"I had roommates that got into the SCA and never finished college," she said.
Though membership at Penn has dwindled in recent years, Binstead said the SCA provides her with an instant social circle wherever she goes, and moreover, a new perspective on the present.
"I appreciate the modern world for every now and then stepping into the past," she said.Comments powered by Disqus
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