Classes in Medieval German Swordsmanship - "Not For Competition"
Relive By The Sword: Germanic Medieval Mode Of Combat Draws A New Generation Intrigued By The Heroic Ideal
Brittany Oat, The Hartford Courant, 8th January 2006
“Zoot! Zah!'' the students shouted as they repeatedly sliced 4-foot wooden swords through the air. Their feet scraped against the floor, in unison with their voices.
“If a man can be stabbed in the stomach, fight back, party for six hours and then go to the emergency room, you need to keep hitting him,'' said Drew Page, who was instructing the students.
The exercises are crucial for these students of the medieval Germanic long sword, because it gives them an opportunity to practice cutting an imaginary opponent several times.
Page and Ken Johnson started Western Swordsmanship Technique and Research -- or WSTR -- in the mid-1990s when scholars began to translate Germanic manuscripts that held the secrets to the medieval martial art of long sword fighting.
The group of about 20 gathers weekly at the RHAM Middle School cafeteria in Hebron to practice their combat techniques with blunted wooden swords. Students are 12 and older and some are in their 50s.
The earliest fighting manuscript, which depicts a priest and a scholar in combat, dates to the end of the 13th century. The three-century tradition of two-handed, Germanic-style sword fighting died around 1600 with the invention of more agile swords and guns.
“Why spend six years teaching someone to swordfight when you can give someone a gun?'' Johnson asked.
But interest in this lost art is making a comeback.
Today, about 3,000 people nationwide participate in the martial art of sword fighting, said Christian Henry Tobler, of Oxford, a scholar who has translated many of the fighting manuscripts.
And that number, he said, is growing. In Connecticut, there are about 150 people in five separate groups.
“Why does anyone go to a renaissance fair and swing a sword?'' he asked. “Because people are drawn to the heroic ideal. It's romantic and it offers people a simpler way to live in our complicated society.''
For others, like 14-year-old WSTR member Brennan McGuire of Lebanon, the attraction to swords was fostered solely from “growing up with a healthy serving of apple pie and sword movies.''
“Now, it bothers me when people take a video game or a movie and take it for what it is and they say that this is how they did it. And, of course, they could spit fire,'' Brennan said sarcastically.
Through interpretation of the manuscripts, Johnson said the students learn that movies like “Braveheart'' and “Lord of the Rings'' are filled with inaccurate images of sword fighting.
“People see sword fighting and they think it's tradition, when it's similar in the most superficial way,'' he said. “We'll sometimes get very, very surprised if they do something that's even close to medieval style. I'll turn to Drew and say, `That was actually a something!'''
To make their interpretations historically accurate, Johnson said they don't engage in competitions because rules would limit their scope.
”There were no rules in a sword fight,'' Johnson said. “They used every single part of a sword. You could hold the sword by the blade, grab your opponent's leg with the cross, pull him down and then pop his teeth out with a pummel. You don't really want to do that in a tournament setting.''
On their own time, however, Johnson and Page admit they spar with the more dangerous steel swords in their backyards. And their no-rules competition, they said, has gotten them into some trouble.
“I ovaled his wedding ring a little bit,'' Johnson said. “It's a good thing he was wearing it. It was good armor. His finger definitely would have been crushed.''
Tobler said his swordsmanship group -- The Order of Selohaar -- takes part in competitions because they foster the spirit of chivalry.
Competitors are awarded points for hitting vulnerable targets on their opponent's body. They typically spar with steel swords wearing between 45 and 55 pounds of armor.
“Because the armor is evenly distributed over my entire body I can still run at two-thirds my normal speed,'' he said, “and I can climb a small tree.''
During the winter, Tobler's group also fights with spears, daggers and does hand-to-hand combat, known as ringen.
Despite WSTR's academic approach to the sport, Page said they test each student on safety after about six weeks of instruction.
“We are still swinging 4-foot wooden swords after all ... ,'' he said. “We've had people that we've had to ask to leave because we didn't feel safe anymore.''
During a class last Wednesday, members of the group circled Marisia Fikiet, 14, of Storrs, as she prepared to prove that her swordsmanship is safe.
For several weeks before her test, she had practiced at home with a yardstick because she does not have her own wooden sword.
“Not bad,'' said Page as Marisia performed a nebenhut -- a guard that falls below the waistline. “Now show it to me on the other side.''
After successfully performing all the cuts on her opponent, the group erupted into applause.
“These kids develop a sense of pride and a sense of confidence,'' Page said.
Marisia has earned the right to stay for the advanced class where they decipher more difficult moves.
The group then gathered around a document that showed three parallel translations of a new technique called the abschnieden.
“What?'' asked Johnson. “The Rob Schneider?''
“You can do it,'' another student yelled encouragingly.
Actually, they can't do it.
Johnson said it was physically impossible to get the short edge -- the side of the sword that starts out facing the student -- to spin around and face the opponent.
“These guys needed to make more sense when they wrote,'' Johnson said. “It makes sense to Germanic warriors but not to us.''
One group got so frustrated its members began to use their sword handles to rip their opponent's sword away.
“Halt,'' yelled Page. “The only way you're going to learn is to go back to the interpretation.''
Johnson and another student donned masks and grabbed their padded swords, so they could fully act out the interpretation.
Using an aluminum sword covered with black foam, Johnson tried several times to whack his opponent according to the translation. Each time, he was too slow.
“It looks like we're going to have some homework for next week,'' Page said.
More information about the two sword fighting groups is available on their websites at www.wstr.info and www.selohaar.org .