Middle Ages celebrated by Ketchikan 'society'

Chet Hugo, left, a member of the Ketchikan Medieval and Renaissance Society, shows 5 year old Paul Thompson how to fight with quarter staffs at the Blueberry Arts Festival in Ketchikan, Alaska on Aug. 4, 2012. This winter, the group will host its fourth midwinter feast, with music, dancing, food and costumes modeled on Renaissance Italy. (AP Photo/Ketchikan Daily News, Hall Anderson)

KETCHIKAN — You are invited to eat with your knife, joust with your friends and bring your own sword to Ketchikan Medieval and Renaissance Society functions.


Craft, history, food, sport, music and dance comprise the heart of the local group founded about five years ago by Anita Hales and fellow history buffs.

This winter, the group will host its fourth midwinter feast, with music, dancing, food and costumes modeled on Renaissance Italy. Because was silverware was in use by the Renaissance, Hales said people at this feast will be offered utensils, rather than only an eating knife, as at a medieval feast. People also will be invited to bring their own utensis, as would have been done in that time period.

Hales said she first wanted to form the group because she wanted to have a renaissance fair. That project was too large to tackle at first, so the she and other members decided to hold the feast.

The first midwinter feast was held at the North Tongass Community Club and all 50 tickets sold quickly, Hales said. They had a king and queen of the feast and a wandering minstrel.

Feasts are designed so that the costuming, decor and food are as authentic as possible.

Ellen Taylor, who moved to Ketchikan from California, said she came from an area with many renaissance fairs, where her interest started. She said re-creating meals from old authentic recipes can be challenging, because they are written in old English, and instruct the cook to measure approximate amounts of each ingredient, then prompt only to “add” it, with no elaboration.

Hales said the members have much in common.

“All of us are kind of history buffs,” she said. “It’s just kind of a romantic idea, and I’ve also been involved with genealogy, so history has been important to me personally.

“I like seeing what my ancestors did,” she added.

Member Chet Hugo said that what draws him to the group is the historical technology of those time periods.

“I’ve always been interested in the way tools and weapons were made — everything from armor to clothing,” he said.

He grew up with a father who was a participant in Mountain Man groups, which are similar to medieval and renaissance groups in that they attempt to recreate and act out certain historical time periods. Hugo said he has participated in Mountain Man groups as an adult as well.

His family also is enthusiastic about many of the activities offered by the Ketchikan group.

“My son wants a forge real bad,” he said.

Hugo said his wife, Liz, and children, Nat and Becca, all are involved in the Ketchikan group.

“It’s something we can do as a family,” he said.

Hugo said he usually dressed in a monk’s costume at events, and he performs guitar music. Becca enjoys dancing, Nat is interested in swords, shields and armor, and his wife, Liz, a stay-at-home mom, enjoys the social aspect.

“It’s a lot of fun to get together and each year at the medieval midwinter dinners, we choose a different country and a different time period and we do the meal like they would,” Hugo said.

She said she has an interest in history, and the interesting culture and costumes from the medieval and renaissance period are compelling.

“It’s a really rich time period; you can really get lost in it,” Taylor said.

Her favorite aspects of the Ketchikan society are the dancing, costuming and some of the craft projects.

Hugo said he makes wooden swords and shields for children, and Hales said other members make flower head wreaths, Robin Hood hats and magic scented potions to sell at local fairs.

“We keep trying something a little bit different each year, she said.

In preparation for their next feast, tentatively planned for January, Hales said the group will be offering a mask-making workshop for the Italian Renaissance masquerade theme of the event.

The group is looking for new people to help at the feast who would like to perform Commedia dell’Arte or to help with serving and cooking.

This year at the Blueberry Festival, the group offered two activities in addition to its crafts table. Hugo said they offered people a chance to joust astride wooden horses fashioned from sawhorses. He said many children jumped at the chance to ride the steeds, and several adults as well, although tourists were more eager to try than the local adults.

They jousted using a traditional training target called a quintane, Hugo said.

They also had a quarterstaff challenge, where participants could use heavily padded sticks to knock each other off of a balance beam. Hugo, who was dressed as a monk at the event, said many of the younger crowd enjoyed challenging him.

He said that he would like to have an event similar to the tomahawk-throwing contests that Mountain Man groups offer, possibly making it a battle axe-throwing contest.

Late-medieval vocal and instrumental music duo Asteria from New York City performed at the group’s feast this past winter. Hales said the duo performed a musical piece at the feast that no one had heard in 600 years.

Hugo said the pair had gotten access to the musical pieces in French archives and decoded the music. Musical scores were written differently in the middle ages than in modern music, so it was a challenging feat of interpretation.

Several group members play music — Hales plays the harp in a band she created called Tears of Fancy, that plays renaissance and medieval music. She also plays the guitar. Hugo said there are tin whistle and flute players, as well. Ellen Taylor said she is teaching herself the hammer dulcimer, and has a background as a singer, French horn player and pianist.

Taylor said learning the traditional dances of the Middle Ages is interesting, and the group had focused on simpler medieval-period dances until recently. She said local Jerry Pierce, a certified dance instructor, has been researching Renaissance dancing and helping the group’s dancers with choreography.

Several of the members enjoy designing and sewing their own costumes. Hugo said he bought fabric to sew his own monk’s garment. He has several commercial sewing machines from his work as an upholsterer, so the project was fairly easy for him. He dyed the fabric from a bleached white to a natural-fiber shade of tan, to mimic the shade of an actual robe which would have been woven of unaltered natural fibers.

Hales said the group is working to build a large enough funding and membership base to bring more artists to town and to host more events. She added that the group now is working under the nonprofit umbrella of Ketchikan Area Arts and Humanities Council.

“They’ve been a tremendous help to us,” she said.

Hales said that medieval and renaissance groups and events are popular all over the world. One of the largest in the world is held in Texas, where real jousting is one of the events.

Taylor said the Ketchikan group is very diverse, very inclusive and “if you have an interest in pretty much anything, we can fit you in.” Members enjoy educating the community and creating events that involve entire families.

Every time they gain a new member, the group expands in many ways, Taylor said.

The Ketchikan Medieval and Renaissance Society meets the first Saturday of the month, she added.

The group is “just a fun excuse to play, to relax. It’s all designed to be family,” Hugo said.


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