View Full Version : Medieval swordfighting captivates new aficionados

3/16/2008 4:22pm,
Medieval swordfighting captivates new aficionados

SEATTLE -- The golf cases propped up against the walls are full of swords, daggers and the occasional bit of chain mail. The halls of the community center ring with the clash of steel, the thud of shields and the quick snip-snip of rapiers. The books quoted are often in medieval German or Latin.

Welcome to a Western martial arts conference. Not a cowboy or lariat in sight. Western in this case is Western European, as opposed to the better-known Asian variety.

These are the arts of warfare and self-defense of medieval and renaissance Europe. Also called historical martial arts, they employ bare hands, pikes, a variety of swords, daggers and rapiers in the way that practitioners of Eastern martial arts might use bo staves, Katana swords and Tanto knives.

Unlike in the East, these fighting traditions died out in Europe in the 1600s with the introduction of gunpowder-fueled weapons.

But now they're making a comeback.

At the third Western Washington Western Martial Arts Workshop last month, more than 100 students and masters from around the country, clad in fencing jackets or doublets, swirled around to clash their backswords.

Leather gloves and vambraces (originally created for suits of armor) protected their hands and forearms as they practiced moves based on George Silver's "Paradoxes of Defense," first published in 1599.

"Cool. Knights!" exclaims a little boy, part of a YMCA preschool class next door, as children pressed their faces against the glass door to watch.

He's right. These are the knightly arts of a long-ago time.

The growing interest in European martial art traditions comes 60 years after Eastern martial arts gained popularity in the United States, brought home by World War II servicemen stationed in Japan. And today the plethora of karate, judo, tae kwon do and kung fu studios filling America's strip malls makes it seem as if all martial arts come from Asia.

But Western Europe has a long tradition of both armed and unarmed combat traditions. The very phrase "martial arts" goes back to Mars, the Roman god of war.

But the advent of guns made these centuries-old traditions pretty much extinct by World War I, with the exception of sports fencing. But about 20 years ago a handful of historians and historical re-creators began to research these fighting techniques, painstakingly interpreting the often flowery and confusing language of medieval manuscripts to revive the arts.

The workshop here was held by the Academia della Spada (Academy of the Sword), part of a burgeoning North American network of schools teaching these long-forgotten skills.

Cecil Longino founded Seattle's Academia. He came to Western martial arts in the early 1990s from his studies as a drama major at the University of North Florida. As he blocked out sword fights in plays, he thought, "I'm just making this stuff up. What was it really like?"

That led him to historical fencing, which led in turn to the Western martial arts community. While there was interest before the early 1990s, including a short revival in Victorian England, things really took off with the arrival of the Internet. What once was only a small circle of aficionados blossomed in the past decade with dozens of schools and groups springing up worldwide.

The Historical European Martial Arts Coalition has member groups in Spain, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, South Africa, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Denmark, Norway, Poland, Hungary and Slovenia.

Nearly 60 groups and schools are in the United States and Canada, says Scott Baltic, editor of "Western Martial Arts Illustrated." Major schools are located in Toronto, Eugene, Ore., Alexandria, Va., and New York City, as well as in communities in Wisconsin and Arizona.

"It has mushroomed tremendously in the past seven years or so," says Jeffrey Forgeng, a curator at the Higgens Armory Museum in Worcester, Mass., who has published three books on medieval and renaissance fighting techniques. "But we're still in the early stages. Only a fraction of the resources are available."

That could be why it's such an exciting field to many practitioners. Many of the medieval and renaissance manuscripts that describe the various schools still haven't been copied and translated into modern tongues, much less walked through by skilled armsmen.

"It's really one of these areas where amateurs can really make a contribution," Forgeng says.

Manuscripts that had been hidden across Europe have been scanned, posted and translated, and fighting moves dead for 700 years suddenly are being practiced once again.

For many, the draw is the love of history, the desire for a good workout and the beauty of the forms.

But get one of them all sweaty after an hour doing the intricate dance-plus-power-lunges that is medieval swordfighting, and they'll admit that it's just "wildly cool," says Craig Johnson, 35, who studies the long sword in Kelowna, British Columbia.

"You grow up watching the movies, and suddenly you get the chance to do it," Johnson says. "There's a reason it's been so romanticized. Let's be honest: A sword is cooler than a gun."

Check out our friends at ARMA!

bad credit
3/17/2008 7:47am,
ZOMG!!! When will Hollywood wise up and make a blockbuster about modern Western Martial Arts? It could be like Karate Kid meets the OC meets Errol Flynn. They could call it Never Back Down 2, Never Back Down from a Swordfight.

The main character would be a former D&D player who's lured into the sexy and dangerously illegal world of LARPing. The audience would fall in love with his anger and angst from his father's death. His dad died from a batch of Chinese lead-tainted Klingon makeup enroute to a Star Trek con, and our protagonist still blames himself.

When a Wiccan hippy chick asks him to come camping it turns out to be a setup to get beat with a foam sword by the villian. He's a trust-fund baby who was a fencing champ at an Ivy League school. Humiliated, our hero is befriended by the fat and dorky yet lovable Star Wars kid, and brought to an WMA school.

The coach will be played by Bruce Campbell, after a personal trainer and a real WMA teacher like John Clements get done with him. His character was a former fencing champ from Europe who had to leave under mysterious circumstances. The rich kid breaks the Star Wars fattie's neon lightsaber with a wooden waster at Comic Con.

After 3 months of training, the hero and villian will fight again under SCA rules at a renfair. The baddy is DQ'ed for closing and grappling. Our hero refuses to fight anymore because he doesn't see the point. The bad guy challenges him outside, and they have their final battle in a ring of pickle carts.

The good guy defends disarms and takedowns with a clinch, and then disengages to end the fight with a coup-de-grace swing to the head. He then gets to go to a "sky-clad" ceremony with the Wiccan-hippy babe and finds out her name is Hairpits. The movie ends with us all hoping for a prequel about Bruce Campbell fighting pirates in Europe.

(In all seriousness, the fun of being a geek, hell, the only fun, is being into stuff that nobody else knows about. Whether it's Punk Rawk, or MMA, or WMA, when the general populace gets into it a decade late and acts like it's brand new, it pisses us off. Newbs that act like they know everything, especially when you know they're only there to try to fit in with whatever Fox News deemed cool that week, suck.)

Polar Bear
3/19/2008 6:00am,
Heh heh,
but where else do you get to grapple, punch, kick and use a sword in a single fight. Might be different in the states but there are some pretty decent fighters in WMA in Scotland. It's those fannies that fight with foam swords I have a good laugh at. They look like some kinda manga rejects.

3/19/2008 2:31pm,
There's a place like this in Vancouver too.