Combat Con’s Poster Child: Chad Light as Don Pedro Menedez de Aviles

What: Combat Con 3
Where: Riviera Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas, NV
When: June 13-15, 2014
How Much: $65 4-Day Fan Admission – $200 4-Day Warrior Admission
Website: combatcon.com

When speaking with Combat Con and ISMAC founder Jared Kirby before Combat Con 2012, he mentioned that science fiction author Neal Stephenson could be considered a poster child for Combat Con. In his own literary career Stephenson brings the world of real life Western Martial Arts which he practices at least weekly into his widely-praised depictions of combat in his works like Snow Crash and The Baroque Cycle. Stephenson hopes to bring more realistic depictions of WMA fighting into the video game world as well and promoted the Kickstarter-funded CLANG at Combat Con. However I believe I may have found a better poster child for Combat Con in the form of Chad Light.

Chad Light re-enactor of Don Pedro Menedez de Aviles at Combat Con with bullwhip around neck in costumeLight, 49, is probably more familiar to St. Augustine’s residents and visitors as Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. Until a year ago, Light made his living as a re-enactor at the Fountain of Youth Archaeoloical Park. When describing his vocation, Light called himself “an actor who’s a re-enactor or a re-enactor who’s an actor.” What caught my eye when first meeting Light was his sword, which I recognized as a David Baker-forged recreation from its distinctive hilt. Many St. Augustine residents recognize the weapon when Light wears it, having seen another version of it displayed outside the St. Augustine City Hall.

Steel sword showing pommel and intricate flowing hilt designed by David Baker

Chad Light’s Distinctive Reproduction Sword Hilt

A veteran re-enactor of over 30 years, the original 2011 Combat Con was instrumental in changing Light’s re-enactment practices. One of the workshops he attended that year was Jack Dagger’s class on throwing knives and hatchets. Light already had a familiarity and skill in throwing weapons, but had not incorporated them into his role as Don Pedro. That all changed when Light returned to Florida. He began each tour with a silent demonstration, first throwing knives or hatchets into a round of wood and retrieving them. Then he would throw the weapons backhanded as the crowd quieted down. By the time he was throwing hatchets and knives between his legs, he had his audience captivated and spellbound. Using the theatrical and martial skills enhanced by Combat Con 2011, Light went from a full time employee at the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park to a salaried full time employee and was quick to attribute Combat Con as a critical step in his employment elevation.

Light didn’t make as much of Combat Con 2011 as he would have liked owing to an injury sustained while doing a horse stunt at Drake’s Raid in Florida, resulting in a broken collarbone. Nevertheless he attended the inaugural Combat Con and the whip class taught by Anthony De Longis, but wasn’t able to participate fully in the motions. He did buy De Longis’s DVD on whips, watching it over 30 times, and building up his fundamentals. Light had his bull whip when I spoke with him and later attended De Longis’s class that afternoon. He was quite pleased when I caught up with him later explaining that De Longis had corrected a few minor movements and techniques that he hadn’t mastered yet. When I asked De Longis about Light’s improvements, he agreed and praised him as an excellent student.

The Dedication and Background of a Re-Enactor

Re-enactor Chad Light at Combat Con in Las Vegas in Fancy Dress

Light Showing Off Another Side of Don Pedro

Discipline and research are important to Light, a former Army Special Forces officer who served in Panama, Desert Storm/Shield, and Somalia. He doesn’t have a TV or a telephone and only uses a computer for research. As part of their contracts, Light requires the other re-enactors to spend at least three hours a week practicing their swordplay. When questioned about possibly living at the park, Light said that he would if he could. Light is pursuing his doctorate in ethnography, specializing in palaeography. His undergraduate degrees are in psychology and history and he has a Masters in Behavioral Psychology. Yet his studies are much more practical and mundane as well, as Light, like many cosplayers or re-enactors, does much of his own sewing himself. While his external garb was historically accurate, he also doesn’t turn his nose up to machine-sewed undergarments, but pointed out that for many re-enactors this modern compromise would be going too far.

You could say that re-enactment is in Light’s blood. His father is a professor of language at William and Mary and a member of the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association, a black powder weapons group. Light’s mother grew up in Spain and Light lived there as well as a child, when not attending colonial events with a father “who could crack whips”. Light’s father also served as an advisor on the semi-historical films The Last of the Mohicans and The Patriot.

Playing Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and Others

Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés is Light’s main role and he leads the re-enactment troupe the Men of Menedez. Light has respect for Menéndez de Avilés and studiously researches the Spaniard. When asked whether he would have liked Menéndez de Avilés in his own period, Light responded that, “Those around him thought he was charismatic and capable of anything. That would be hard not to like if you were around someone like that when your life was on the line.” Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés was also wise in his own way, writing to the Spanish crown that, “There is gold and silver in Florida, but you can’t dig it. You need to grow it.”

Light also participates in the re-enactment of the sacking of Ft. Caroline named after the French king Charles IX. Fort Caroline had been settled by the Hugenots, Protestants fleeing France, but they were set upon by their Spanish neighbors in 1565. The French defenders of the fort were mostly massacred as heretics, establishing a bloody reputation for Don Pedro, especially among civilians. This was only furthered by his slaughter of bound Frenchmen who had been captured in their attempt to capture St. Augustine. Towards the native tribes Menéndez de Avilés was more gracious, writing edicts to protect them from Spanish settlers. A favorite of Phillip II, Menéndez de Avilés was made captain-general and governor of Florida. His downfall was curiously on account of some insects, the cochinille beetles, used to make red dyes. When Don Pedro sailed into a port he failed to declare the cochinille beetles and was prosecuted for it, his reputation slightly marred and his hopes of returning to live in Florida dashed. He caught typhus and died in Spain in 1574. Light travels to Spain multiple times a year, and has close ties with Spanish researchers and re-enactors as he conducts further research into the transatlantic leader.

One of Light’s other roles has actually been on-screen. Light is one quarter Native American and played a full-blooded Huron in Michael Mann’s 1992 Last of the Mohicans, serving as an extra. He participated in the field massacre of the English column and can be seen leaving Fort William Henry during its surrender. Additionally he doesn’t confine himself to the 16th Century for re-enactment; Light is part of the Historical Florida Militia American Civil War regiment. Besides re-enacting as Ponce de Leon, Light has also played the role of Navaraiz, a captain of Hernan Cortez’s. The 16th century was a brutal time: Navaraiz had one of his eyes put out by a pike. Light also plays another Don Pedro. Don Pedro Menéndez de Marqués was the nephew of Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and a subsequent governor of Cuba first and then Florida.

St. Augustine’s Attractions

The small town of St. Augustine hosts many re-enactment events with others close by. Light participates each year in the “School of the 16th Century” put on by the tourist development board in February. Re-enactors, primarily men, bring their families to enjoy a vacation on the Atlantic coast with their wives and children. Many children and wives join in the education with the children doing what their 16th century counterparts would have done. Many women participate in the combat-side of things, which is where perhaps the re-enactment ends. In another of Light’s activities, the monthly tercio of St. Augustine, there are at least 30 female college students out of a group of 150 re-enactors, Light estimates.

Drake’s Raid, which is one of the largest re-enactments that Light helps organize, is held annually in the first week of June. It commemorates Sir Francis Drake’s raid of 1586 in which the famed British captain sacked St. Augustine. Drake’s Raid attracts over 3,000 visitors annually. In September there is much pageantry surrounding the re-enactment of Don Pedro’s first landing in St. Augustine, which also draws thousands of spectators and participants. Another attraction is the Castillo de San Marcos, a stonework fort with firing cannon. For Light and others, the Castillo de San Marcos is also a bastion against Florida’s hurricanes. In an emergency Light plans to take shelter there.

Light Can be Seen As Don Pedro in Bruce Merwin’s Youtube Video of the Landing Re-Enactment

The Combat Con Connection

Anthony De Longis’s whips classes and Jack Dagger’s knife-throwing aren’t the only appeal of Combat Con for Light. He also attended Maestro Ramon Martinez’s sword class, pointing to him as the best Spanish sword master in the United States. Both Maestro Jennete Acosta Martinez (the wife of Maestro Ramon Martinez and a maestro in her own right) and John Lennox have come to the St. Augustine area for events, confirming that the world of WMA is indeed a fairly small one.

When Gaming and Re-Enacting Collide

Though Light was quick to point out that he is not a tabletop gamer (and certainly not a video gamer) and has never LARPed, he has played Wizards of the Coast’s cardstock Pirates of the Spanish Main game and got his “ass kicked” by his son. He spoke with pride about how the computer game Sid Meier’s Pirates helped his son with a presentation at school wherein his son drew an accurate map of the Carribean, labeling the chief ports, all learned through playing Pirates. Battle gaming or SCA fighting doesn’t interest Light, though he has had many LARPers join him as re-enactors who decide to “put the foam away and put on heavy metal”. In miniature wargaming oftentimes only the first rank or the first two ranks of a military unit are neccessary to fully detail; in re-enactment it is much the same with more detailed costumes like Light’s going into the first ranks and those with less historically accurate costumes able to fill out the rear ranks.

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

Book cover with medieval illumination for TIme Traveller's Guide to Medieval EnglandI’d like to think that I’ve gotten a lot out of my world travels, but in my visit to Japan, Shinto shrine blended into Shinto shrine. European castles vary, but only so much. Is one walled town so different from the next? Don’t get me started on Baroque and Rococo palaces. There is always a sense of place, but not necessarily of those who lived and died there. How did these people actually live? In The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, Ian Mortimer provides a captivating answer for the English living from 1300 to 1400. Mortimer writes of Geoffrey Chaucer, that “he can make the people come alive, with all their desires, fears, deceitfulness, lustfulness, and cheating.” But Mortimer’s description is just as apt for his own writing and because he does breathe life into 14th century England, I recommend his guide to any English teacher aiming for a better understanding of Chaucer, student of history, or fan of Braveheart, as well as to any tabletop gamer or LARPer.

Beginning with his description of Shitbrook, the refuse-laden stream on the outskirts of Exeter, Mortimer unlocks the door to a treasure trove of medieval body functions. How one goes to the bathroom in a different place or time is really one of the most common questions we all have. In the case of medieval lords, Mortimer remarks, “wherever you go, a neat pile of wool or linen will be provided for you to “wipe your nether end.” Some great lords insist on cotton but it is not always available.” Life is different aboard a ship with Mortimer outlining diversions at sea, but he returns to the subject of relieving oneself and concludes that below decks on a ship, “Every storm has seen men and women emptying their stomachs, souls, and bowels down here in darkness and fear.” Occasionally Mortimer gets a little dry, such as when cataloguing merchants’ town house goods, but he gets juicy when describing surgeons, such as John of Alberne who pioneered surgical cleanliness as well as a method of “curing anal fistula, a nasty affliction following abscesses in the colon which particularly affects men who have spent too long riding in wet saddles…” Another medical highlight is provided in a quote from the physician John Mirfield on a remedy for tuberculosis: “take blind puppies, remove the viscera and cut off the extremities, then boil them in water, and bathe the patient in this water…” On the whole, Mortimer’s writing retains a conversational and informative flow with some occasional humor. In his chapter on medieval medicine he writes:

So, as long as you can get enough to eat, and can avoid all the various lethal infections, the dangers of childbirth, lead poisoning, and the extreme violence you should live a long time.
All you have to worry about are the doctors.

Role-Playing and Gaming Connections

Besides a brief mention of popular medieval games, Mortimer’s book has little to do directly with gaming itself. But since medieval Europe – England in particular – is the basis for most of Western fantasy, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England is a great study in improving the earthiness and sense of reality for role-playing games. Even within the first paragraph of Ian Mortimer’s introduction he poses questions familiar to any role-player after first setting the scene of a dusty London street:

The wooden beams of houses project out over the street. Painted signs above the doors show what is on sale in the shops beneath. Suddenly a thief grabs a merchant’s purse near the traders’ stalls, and the merchant runs after him, shouting. Everyone turns to watch. And you, in the middle of all this, where are you going to stay tonight? What are you wearing? What are you going to eat?

As for those medieval games and pastimes Mortimer details campball (football/soccer), tennis, archery, and wrestling. More intriguingly he categorizes cockfighting as an interest of boys and girls and describes cockbaiting as “throwing sticks and stones at a tethered chicken.” This is the child’s version of bearbaiting and bullbaiting, in which adults attack those animals with sticks and sic dogs on them. As for dice games, Mortimer states that they, “are are enormously popular”, which is also indicative of his present-tense style used throughout the guide to present the facts of medieval England to the reader as if he or she were really present. The last games described are board games including an early form of backgammon called tables, nine men’s morris, and checkers. Mortimer points out to his modern audience that the rules of chess differ between then and now with queens only moving one square and bishops moving only two squares at a time. These pieces were also known by different names, prime ministers and elephants respectively.

World Building for Fantasy Authors and GMs

Back in 1989 TSR released Cities of Mystery for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, featuring several dozen card stock buildings and double-sided city street maps. The box also came with a great city guide written by Jean Rabe for GMs to design their own fantasy towns and cities. How did the town come to be? How has it grown? Who guards it? The Time Traveller’s Guide is a great compliment to Rabe’s hard work. Both cover much of the same ground, but in different veins with Rabe quantifying and randomizing a town’s dimensions and occupants in true D&D percentile fashion. Mortimer is much more personal and personable, putting a human face on many medieval problems. Rabe’s prohibition on the smellier occupations, like tanning, are best explained by Mortimer. His Borough Ordinances of Worcester list includes “The entrails of butchered beasts and pails of blood are not to be carried away by day but only by night.” and “No saddler, butcher, baker, or glover, nor any other person, may cast entrails, “filth of beasts’ dung”, or dust over Severn Bridge. Also no one may shave flesh, skins, or hides but above the bridge…” In our sanitized world it is easy to forget how leather gets created or how steak gets to the plate, but in medieval society neighbors affected by the processes of tanning and butchering had to deal with their side effects on a daily basis. That the medieval English were concerned about hygiene, sanitation, and cleanliness despite ignorance of germ theory is shown by their laws and ordinances. It’s also one of Mortimer’s few reoccurring themes: the similarities between past and present and withholding judgement on our ancestors. As he puts it, “Of course they are not all filthy. Many are proud of the clean state of their houses – like their modern counterparts – regardless of the judgments of people in six hundred years’ time.” After reading through Mortimer, a GM will probably question and improve on many of the basic realities of his fantasy setting. To put it more bluntly, he or she will have to decide where the high elves crap. Do prostitutes denote themselves with a special color (yellow hoods, in the case of the historical English)? Fantasy rules for peace-bound weapons abound, but what about gate and bridge tolls?

The Time Traveller’s Guide has a more specific use for GMs as well. Those dry tables of 14th century values collected from tax reports listing folding tables, brass pots, and basins are reminiscent of the equipment sections of any Player’s Handbook. While there are only a handful of weapons and armor priced out, Mortimer has the appraised values covering many other areas. A GM (or even a fantasy author) could compile the values in a spreadsheet and compare the prices to arrive at a ratio-based understanding of how a sword’s price (1-2 shillings) compares to a roast goose (7 pennies) compared to a packhorse’s price (5-10 shillings). Mortimer also details wages, inn stays, and quite importantly, fines. Don’t worry, the odd monetary system of the English is covered in Mortimer’s chapter on measurement so you can convert between pounds, shillings, pennies, and stranger denominations with a little effort. Keeping in mind the economic turmoil created by the Black Plague and many other factors, an industrious Game Master can create a table of ratios for use in any fantasy RPG with a setting like medieval England.

Food and Clothing: Medieval England for LARPs, the SCA, and Re-Enactors

While tabletop GMs will reward their players with close attention to Mortimer’s chapters on clothing and food, the two chapters are essential reading for Society of Creative Anachronism members and LARPers. Besides the costuming, most good SCA/LARP events feature food. Great events feature drink of the alcoholic variety! Throughout his guide, Mortimer presents information on the three estates of England, the peasantry, townsfolk and gentry, and the nobility. The nobility are further divided into the clergy and the secular, with occasional special mention of royalty. Just like your clothing or domicile, what you would eat or drink in 14th century England is based on your estate. Wine and spirits were limited to the well-off while the prices of ale and bread, as staples of townsfolk, were heavily regulated. Rural peasants made their own. Mortimer focuses a lot of attention on the rarity of meat, which was normally limited to four days a week due to church edicts, and the corresponding association of meat as a status symbol. While his descriptions might make a chef drool at the variety of spices and fruits on offer, what was actually included in the category of fish caught my attention. Besides whales, “seals, porpoises, dolphins, barnacle geese, puffins, and beavers are all classed as fish as their lives begin in the sea or in a river.” The prohibition on eating meat was taken quite seriously, Mortimer notes, so these sources of protein were “eaten gleefully” on the 194 or 195 days of the year when only fish were allowed.

Mortimer’s 19 pages on medieval clothing are the most engaging that I’ve read on the subject, having thumbed through a dozen or so costume books. Using the same structure of the three estates, Mortimer notes the contrasts between the dress of paupers, yeomen, and noblemen. More importantly, he lists the clothing regulations established by the Sumptuary Laws of 1363 which actually restricted the lowly-born from dressing above their station. Mortimer also traces the considerable changes in both men’s and women’s fashions in 14th century England. Ever wondered about those odd pointy shoes so similar to those worn by court jesters? Read The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England and Mortimer will satisfy your curiosity and introduce you to the ridiculous twenty-inch Crackow, which was the footwear equivalent of a Humvee in its day.