by Priscilla Burgess
Even when I was a little girl, I wanted to be a knight. I lusted for action, and bravely holding up my garbage can lid shield, I hacked away at the neighborhood boys with a home-made sword. I didn’t realize at the time that suits of armor contained only men. With the helmet on and the visor down, who’s to tell?
One day, one of the boys arrived with an old lace curtain, threw it at me and told me I had to play the maiden. I was the only girl in the neighborhood, and so by default, I was sent to the tower. There was, of course, no tower, so I climbed to the top of a tree to await instructions for this new part I was playing. For a few moments I enjoyed the view of the battle from above, but soon got bored. I shouted down: "When's my part? What am I supposed to do?" Finally one of the boys stopped for a moment and yelled back, "Your part is to sit and wait until we get done fighting."
"That's stupid," I replied, shed the curtain, slid down to the ground, picked up my improvised sword and started swinging indiscriminately since I wasn’t on anyone’s side. I accidentally hit one of the big boys so hard tears came to his eyes. His side lost and the others, impressed with my prowess, assigned the role of the maiden to the youngest boy. I was too good a knight to waste languishing in the tower.
We didn’t need genuine accoutrements in those days. It was enough that we lived in a magical place that could have been the model for the illustrations in the books we poured over: there was the lake, with mists hovering at the surface and a small forest, which served as a great place for playing Robin Hood during the day and a terrifying lair for dragons at night. Ancient brambles created scratchy pathways and hiding places for those under four feet, and wild flowers made a mille-fleurs tapestry of the meadows. Medieval life was not in far away England in the distant past. It was in the here and now.
Years later I tried to interest my sons in tales of King Arthur, but the stories were too obscure and old fashioned for modern kids. Then they saw Star Wars, a Medieval tale set in the future, and my childhood was rerun before my eyes. Hacking and grunting, my two boys swung at each other with any implement they could find, making up infinitely complicated codes of honor and rummaging through my closet to find outlandish costumes.
Unfortunately, while their codes of honor defined how to deal with robots, they did not include rules for dealing with vacuum cleaners. I discovered that in their frenzy to find substitute swords, they had irreparably damaged the metal attachments of an antique machine. It meant buying a new one at a cost of hundreds of dollars. For punishment I decided upon aversion therapy: I made them take fencing lessons.
While waiting for them, I watched the adult class, a bunch of grownups fighting with real swords and having great fun doing it. It was irresistible. So, once again, I found myself hacking and poking, sweating and grunting, routing the enemy, but this time with proper weapons.
Two of the advanced students were also experts in cleaning and repairing weapons and armor, so when the four suits of armor on display at the museum needed cleaning, they were hired to do it. They invited me to the lab to see the armor up close.
A group of people were sitting around talking while my two classmates scrubbed away. One of the visitors, scrutinizing me, said he thought I was exactly the size of a 14th century knight—five feet, six inches tall. All activity ceased as they gave me calculating looks. Suddenly, they arose as a group and buckled and strapped me into a full suit of armor.
Life peaked. Years of fantasy suddenly became reality. For an afternoon I strode around the conservation lab, wearing armor over jeans and a sweatshirt, with helmet tucked under my arm. As I tentatively took my first steps as a genuine knight in shining armor, I found movement easy and the weight of the metal so well distributed that I barely felt it. Then I realized with a shock that it fit perfectly. I am not over-endowed with feminine curves, but there's no denying that those I had were comfortably accommodated by the metal suit. The breast plate or “cuirass” was so well rounded that even a woman bigger than I could have worn it comfortably. Attached to the cuirass was a tasset, sort of like a metal tutu, which provided more than enough room for my hips.
Could it be that I was wearing the first unisex heavy metal outfit? Could it be that the German armorers of the 1300’s fully expected women to wear armor? And if not, why did they fashion it to fit them? If German armorers of the 14th century must have known that women could be knights 600 years ago, why didn’t women figure it out? If they had, the silly maiden-in-the-tower story would never have got off the ground. Perhaps, too, there would have been less real fighting and more pageantry, sort of like a medieval Olympics, in full knightly regalia.
Imagine the lady of the castle just back from a joust, tired but victorious, resting in front of the fire in the great hall, drinking a cup of mead with a friend from a neighboring fiefdom.
"Are you planning any quests this year?"
"I'm afraid so. Sir Geoffrey made a rude comment to Ogre O’Reilly and has gotten himself locked in the tower again. It’s a little too quiet around the castle without him so I guess I’ll go to the rescue. Care to join me?"
Priscilla Burgess lives a relatively sedate life in San Francisco, spinning stories about people and events that have blessed her life. Her articles have appeared in national magazines and local newspapers. One of her travel stories is included in the book, I Really Should Have Stayed Home, released in May, 2001. She is looking forward to promoting the book in as many bookstores as will have her.
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