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The Return of Western Sword Fighting


By Jason M. Taylor
Sword fighters Seth Halsell and Jonathan Mayshar 
Seth Halsell (left) and Jonathan Mayshar
(Photos by Jason Neubert)
Few realize that modern boxing has its roots in the fighting systems of medieval Europe. In fact, the tradition of holding matches on a raised, roped-off platform evolved from the medieval method for publicly testing fencing students, an event known as “playing one’s prize.” A reminder of this ancient rite still survives in the term “prize fighter.”

Of course, medieval fencing bore little resemblance to the modern sport. Students trained in a variety of weapons, including the sword, spear, polearm, dagger and mace, along with a form of unarmed combat called ringen. The medieval warrior practiced a system of combat that took into account all the ranges, weapons and armor styles he was likely to encounter.

No unbroken medieval fighting tradition exists today, but many organizations are painstakingly reconstructing these arts from historical combat manuals written by the great “Masters of Defence,” such as Fiore dei Liberi, Johannes Liechtenauer and Hans Talhoffer. In the historical European martial arts community, these manuscripts are signposts to recovering the lost skills of the western warrior.

“Where we lack the oral tradition of Asian martial arts, handed down from teacher to teacher over centuries, what the original masters left us might be more valuable: their original words and instructions,” says Jake Norwood, president of the HEMA Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing service and training to the historical European martial arts community. Those instructions, Norwood says, are the source of the historical European martial arts’ authenticity.

Many historical European martial arts organizations take that authenticity so seriously that not even the head instructor holds the title of “master” because the true masters were the warriors who fought and killed with their skills, who founded schools and wrote manuals to train others in the arts they had developed. Nonetheless, modern swordsmen have attained an impressive level of skill, holding their own and often excelling in weapons-sparring competition against Asian stylists.

Sword fighter Jonathan Mayshar tries to overpower Seth Halsell
Jonathan Mayshar (right)
tries to overpower Seth Halsell.
Getting Started

Those interested in taking up the study of the historical European martial arts may wonder where to go to find training. The good news is that dozens of groups worldwide seriously study these arts and that most of these groups are happy to have new members. The bad news? Even with a group, most interested practitioners won’t be able to attend regular weekly sessions run by expert instructors.

Instead, many practitioners use a “study group” model: They train on a regular basis with a more advanced student and go whenever possible to international events and seminars like Swordfish in Sweden or the Western Martial Arts Workshop in Wisconsin. Some groups, like the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts, study exclusively with their own members, while others are less exclusive, such as the members of the HEMA Alliance in the United States or the Historical European Martial Arts Coalition in Europe. In some areas, there are also brick-and-mortar studios with regular classes, such as the Davenriche European Martial Arts School in California, so it helps to do some research.

If you’re interested in taking up the long sword, a simple Internet search will locate any standing groups in your area—but if nothing turns up, don’t be discouraged. The decentralized nature of many historical European martial arts organizations means that you can always start your own study group, either on your own or under the wing of a larger organization. Dozens of excellent books are available for the solo practitioner, including the Beginner's Guide to the Long Sword by Steaphen Fick, and the Internet is full of training tips, guidelines and facsimiles of historical manuals. To begin training, all you need to do is convince one of your friends to cross blades with you.

Martial Art vs. Martial Play

Don’t mistake historical European martial arts practitioners for Dungeons & Dragons players or World of Warcraft wannabees. As serious students of the arts will tell you, just because you’re holding a sword doesn’t mean you’re playing a game.

Seth Halsell deflects his Jonathan Mayshar’s blade
Seth Halsell (left) deflects Jonathan Mayshar’s blade while simultaneously striking him in the arm.
It’s difficult for many outsiders to tell the difference between the two because dozens of groups dedicated to gaming or fantasy role-playing use practice swords, realistic armor and what looks like martial technique—so what’s the “real deal?”

Historical European martial arts practitioners shy away from association with medieval-styled groups such as The Darkon Wargaming Club of Baltimore (featured in the 2006 documentary Darkon) and the omnipresent Society for Creative Anachronism, which have dominated the common perception of “sword practitioners” for years.

“Their rules are full of examples that, for the goal of fun and adventure, inhibit developing real martial skills,” says John Clements, prominent researcher and historical European martial artist. “Rules for magic, magical weapons and assorted pretend abilities are constantly getting in the way of serious sparring. … These groups have a totally different objective than those pursuing European fighting arts in a martial fashion.”

Many martial artists seeking an authentic system of historical swordsmanship end up drawn into gaming organizations like these but frequently drift away again, discouraged by the lack of realism. Often, they take up study of the Japanese sword, seen by many as the only surviving source of true sword skills.

Others, however, discover the historical European martial arts. And as the international community grows, the practice of real Western swordplay is becoming increasingly mainstream, drawing the common perception of “sword swinger” back from the fringe of the greater martial arts world.

(For more on Western swordsmanship, check out Jason M. Taylor’s article in the February 2010 issue of Black Belt, on-sale December 22)

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