Australian Living History Federation – Berrima Training

On the 1st of September, I attended the ‘Berrima Inter-Group Re-Enactment Training’, an event in which several historical re-enactment groups from around the Blue Mountains come together for a number of reasons: to discuss upcoming historical fairs, to argue about historical inaccuracies, to compare equipment and clothing, and to collaborate with cooking recipes and blacksmithing techniques. Most importantly of all, however, the groups come together to fight.
The Berrima Training been held twice a year for almost a full decade, and that much is obvious by the professionalism of its organisers. The day begins with a group huddle organised by Alex Barnes, part of the Revolting Peasants re-enactment society, and clearly one of the most experienced combatants of the crowd. He goes over the ground rules for the day, identifying which parts of the body can or cannot be struck, the regulations applied to those with weapons, and points out the locations of injury registers and first aid kits. Re-enactment combat is a dangerous thing – blunted swords are still full-weight bars of metal after all – and these re-enactors rely on insurance that demands strict regulations. Steve, a member of the Medieval Archery Society, asks if striking with the butt of a hammer is allowed – his group have been training with them, but he wants to make sure that everyone is on the same page. After some brief discussion, the move is allowed, and the re-enactors begin the arduous process of donning their armour.
Combat at Berrima Training takes place in three main ways. The first is simple one-on-one combat, in which two combatants fight until a ‘kill’ is scored, usually through a clear strike to the torso, legs, or head (provided the combatants are wearing helmets). Secondly, there is the melee, in which a group of combatants encircle a single fighter. One by one, combatants will enter the circle and fight the centre fighter, with the victor of the dual remaining in the middle to take on the next challenger. Finally, and in my opinion most excitingly, there is the ‘shield wall’. In this exercise, the combatants split into two teams, and each team nominates a ‘king’. The king gets two bodyguards, and the rest of their team forms a shield wall to protect their leader. Then the two shield walls charge at each other, with a team winning once they have ‘killed’ the opposing king. The fighting is fascinating to watch, a hotchpotch of plate armour and soccer shin pads. Certain elements of historical accuracy are sacrificed in the name of personal safety, but it remains an enlightening display of the practicalities of medieval fighting. The classic myth of plate armour restricting movement, for example, is completely blown away the first time you see a fully adorned combatant roll out of the way of a rogue javelin.
Of course, it’s not all about the combat. During the lunch break I had a chat with Sigorlean, a member of the Europa re-enactment group. Sigorlean, who had been involved in re-enactment for almost twenty years, had given up on combat training years prior, instead focusing on the other elements of lived history. Indeed, even his name reflected this – he was Steven on any other day, but during re-enactment he chose the name Sigorlean as a more era-appropriate name. Sigorlean invests himself in several different fields of historical life – he stiches his own clothes, drinks from earthenware cups, and even his lunch for that day was accurate to his era: prunes and flatbread. Most impressively, however, was his musical performance. Sigorlean could play both flute and Swedish bagpipes, and did so while the others fought. He also was a scholar of Old English and took the opportunity as I interviewed him to recite several examples of alliterative verse, including the classic Beowulf.
The Berrima Training was a thoroughly entertaining and informative experience – and it wasn’t even one of their public events. It is more than a simple indulgence in Game-Of-Thrones style combat, it allows people who are really passionate about their history to engage, and hopefully encourage others to become involved. For every kid that gets into history through reading old myths and legends, there are kids who miss out because they do not have that opportunity or passion for reading. Historical re-enactment, to these people, is a unique avenue to get involved. Plus, the sword fighting just plain looks cool.