OAKLAND -- The sun was just beginning to set when half a dozen men in tunics, helmets and armor stomped into the Rockridge BART parking lot. Thwack, thwack, thwack. The hollow sound echoed as one of them, dressed like a ninth century Norseman, dropped to his knees, arched back and raised his shield to receive the blow of his opponent's rattan sword.

"I've never seen that before. It's certainly elaborate," said a man walking by who stopped in his tracks at the performance. "Is it jousting?"

It's called sword fighting, and the practitioners are members of the Society for Creative Anachronism who have gathered in the parking lot every Thursday for 35 years. When they -- men and women -- are not trading tips on how to get the best fit in a helmet or where to find chain mail, they study and practice all forms of medieval life: dance, shoemaking, brewing, blacksmithing, singing and even cooking. They take on personas, names and devise their own coat of arms, like a medieval Social Security number.

"We catch you with the swords, but keep you with everything else," said Ronda Miyake, a 47-year-old mammogram technician from San Jose.

Her society name is Sedania De Corwin and, as she put it, she "runs with Anglo Saxon."


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Her husband adopted a Japanese persona and is originally from a neighboring kingdom -- Los Angeles -- but they met at an event in Modesto.

"We're essentially a social group that fights in armor and does social stuff," said Daniel Hunter, a 51-year-old Berkeley resident whose society name is Radnor of Guildemar.

Only the next such social gathering was a "war," scheduled Saturday between the clan of the Mists principality (Napa) and the Cynagua clan in the Barony of Vinhold (Skyline Park). "We are a group of outsiders that found each other and became insiders," Hunter added.

The society dates back to 1966. That year three friends organized a tournament in the Oregon Street backyard of UC Berkeley medieval history major, Diana Paxson -- now Countess Diana Listmaker.

The men could all be knights and fight with wooden swords and shields for the right to crown their lady Queen for the day, according to the group's website. The name Society for Creative Anachronism followed when they had to have an official name in order to reserve a space for an event. But the original trio had already set the tone for what Brion Porter called "chivalry, honor and courtly graces that get lost in everyday life."

They re-created history the way it should have been -- without the plagues and serfs, said Porter, 37, of Pleasant Hill, who works as a facility manager for an online game company.

His parents were early members so he grew up in the society, eventually adopting the name Brion of Bellatrix.

"This is where it all started," he said.

Now there are 19 chapters stretching from Antarctica to Oakland, which is in the Kingdom of the West.

Members trade jokes like, "You know you're in the SCA when "... you're a burly guy who looks like a Hells Angel, but you do embroidery in public," or, "You sneer at the Burger King saying, 'He's wearing a ducal coronet.' "

"I thought it sounded lame at first," said Eric Schmidtz, a 42-year-old San Francisco resident who first came across the society four years ago while living in Chico. "But I finally tried it."

Now his society name is Oliver De Montfort, and his armor is based on a 14th century Englishman.

He explained how to know if a sword has struck its mark "If you feel your whole breast plate shift, it struck," he said. "The dead man calls his blows."

Suits of armor can cost thousands of dollars. Since there is no "Armors R Us" department store, followers have to piece suits together by hunting and gathering from various sources, as well as buying and making parts. The same goes for the dresses.

The daunting investment in equipment to pull off such an alter identity can be more of a challenge to joining than feeling like a nerd.

Lee Forgue -- aka Eilis O'Boirne -- remembered how she wore a bright blue maternity evening gown to her first SCA gathering 38 years ago: "It's not like you could go into Macy's and say 'I'd like something in a nice 12th century.' "

Members were split more or less into fans or researchers until the age of the Internet, which made re-enacting the life of a medieval lady or lord easier, even if the pursuit did seem even more anachronistic than ever.

Yet despite being anchored in the past, the society maintains an elaborate corporate website with a shopping directory, media relations links and a calendar of events.

Now details once reserved for hard-core researchers are available at the click of a mouse.

"And it's so much easier to get good quality armor," said Sir Sigifrith Hauknefr, a 40-year-old Stanford University programmer whose real name is Ben Hitz.

On the other hand, the Internet has diverted would-be SCA recruits.

But, as Greg Anderson -- aka Gregor Eilburg -- said, "it's hard to measure how many people would have joined SCA if they weren't playing World of Warcraft." Anyway, he added, "People in SCA play that game a lot."

The real thing was more fun for Jonathan Muller, a 24-year-old automotive student from Berkeley whose girlfriend persuaded him to join. He hasn't finalized his name, but he said he's leaning toward the late 16th century Italy. Maybe Giovanni.

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