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Academy of historical fencing. Martial Art or historical kitsch entertainment?

I love swords, but not the way that could get me arrested in St Marys Street on a Saturday night. I love their simplicity and their complexity. I could never fathom how in the hands of a master, a cold inanimate object is brought to life with the beauty of passionate heated motion. There is a romance about swords and (although Mrs Davies may disagree) I am a romantic.

Through my never ending research of quality Martial Arts in South Wales, I again stumbled across another nugget of gold, The Academy of Historical Fencing. I scanned through their website that claimed to teach a variety of ancient weaponry skills that had been translated through old manuscripts. This immediately had my attention. It was something worthy of a film. I have long envied Eastern weapons based martial arts with their history, and functional traditions. To have a Western system steeped in history appealed to my inner geek as well as my outer martial arts curiosity. I was excited.

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HOWEVER, being a natural born cynic, doubt crept in. I had flash backs to an exhibition that I had seen in a local historical place of interest. I was expecting to see an exciting and brutal display of combat skill but was treated to a slapstick children’s entertainer with a sword. Don’t get me wrong, the kids absolutely loved it. They had done their job and done it very well, but I wanted more. I started to have visions of people at the club dressed like Hobbits and Dwarfs arguing about when it was time to duck or jump from the choreographed back slash. Or maybe a grotty looking Legolas crying in the corner because half of his prosthetic ear had been chopped off. I became apprehensive. Thanks to the encouragement of my CMA News colleague and co martial arts nut –Simon Cowen, we took the step and contacted the club for a meeting. I am normally so open minded. I guess I was trying to protect myself from disappointment.

The club has currently two venues, one in Caerleon (Campus Sports Hall, University of Wales, Newport) and the other in Bristol. Simon and myself M4’d it up to Caerleon and were met by the clubs chief instructors (two of the four founding members) Mike and Nick Thomas. Yes, they are related. While speaking to them, two things immediately became clear; 1. The brothers were extremely intelligent and 2. They were extremely skilled. They carried themselves in poised measured steps that show confidence and excellent balance. I didn’t know whether to be excited or worried. I asked what to expect.

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Mike said,

“We teach armed and unarmed combat in the English, German and Italian traditions using longswords, sword & buckler, side-sword, rapier and military sabre. We train with both the synthetic and steel weapons. It will be fun.”

We entered the training area, a huge sports hall on the Caerleon campus site. Large hardy looking bags were brought in and dumped along the far right wall as students filtered in. They all looked a lot younger than us and a lot fitter. The brothers only accept students who are eighteen or over, so they were mainly late teens and early twenties but there were a variety of other older ages. The lesson began with an unusual warm up. Essentially, it was a game of dodgeball. Mike explained;

“We use this as our warm up. We found it in old Scandinavian texts. They would have tough leather balls stuffed with horsehair and throw it at each other. It would be like a medicine ball. It would build muscle as well as reflexes. We just use a football, so it doesn’t cause so much injury”

Simon and I joined in but hadn’t read the small print. If you got hit by the ball launched by a kick, then you had to do 15 sit ups. If you got hit from a throw then it was 15 press ups. Everyone ended up being hit several times but CMA News seemed to be the main target this evening. If this was a re-enactment workshop, then they would be the fittest around. I was sweating more than a Sumo’s rear cleavage. It was great fun for a warm up. It was great for reflexes too, although mine appear to need sharpening. I ducked and dodged thinking I was Neo from the Matrix, but in reality had the manoeuvrability of a static caravan caught in a wind.

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The next ten minutes involved the guys bringing out various and valuable original swords for a bit of show and tell. My geek side started tingling. The swords had history and likely had seen blood. I felt a little embarrassed at the awe I felt. To the previous owner, they were likely no more than a tool for prodding living meat, or as one brother explained, “A shiny decorative symbol of status to the wearer.”

They knew their stuff. I thought it was a fantastic way of opening a lesson. You have to learn about the tools of your trade. The weapons were passed around, handled and admired. A brief history was explained covering usage and design. The weapon of the day was a Napoleonic open hilt sword with slightly curved blade.

It’s likely from 1805. Most officers would carry that. It’s based on the Indian Talwar design. In those days, officers would have to buy their own. Some swords used to have shark skin on the hilt as it has a rough surface so it was a natural non slip grip. However, it would grate and tear leather gloves over time, so a leather hilt cover was preferred.”

The exhibition finished after five minutes and the students dispersed and kitted up in to their protective gear. The time for talk was over. They wore bespoke clothing was made of four layers of black cotton and padding. It had been specifically designed to overlap for maximum protection. Some also wore small hard looking plastic armour under their suit to cover the vital areas of throat and chest. The helmet was the full metal mesh face covering, similar to Olympic sword fencers. Some had painted on ghostly faces to unnerve the opponent.  The whole outfit looked cool in badass Darth Vader black.

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I asked Mike, “Could you use sword fencing or Kendo armour?”

He replied, “That’s what some of us we had to use when we first got started. However, Kendo armour is very specific in its use. It’s great for the bamboo sword used in that martial art, but we use steel weapons that match the weight and feel of the originals. Also, the helmet would be all wrong for us as they have a wide grill covering the face. A sword could slide through. These suits are best for us. We’ve also had the training swords custom made to suit us. Our military sabres for example are 850g in weight, the exact weight of the originals. These have a blunt end and can really last well. A sport fencing sabre in comparison would be 300g – 450g.

 We have trained with damaged, surplus historical originals, but found that they would disintegrate within about 5 sessions. We had the prototypes made up in Spain.”

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The class lined up quickly and quietly. Mike then went through a series of moves. These were then repeated by the class in line. After each technique, the brothers would demonstrate their practical use. The structure started to make sense. It was the same as any other martial arts class. It was a tried and tested effective method. Show a technique, get them to repeat, demonstrate its application.

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Nick said, “We teach longswords, sword and buckler, side-sword, rapier, messer, daggers, shields and spears. Every technique you learn should be transferrable to the other weapons. With the rapiers in 1550s, there arose two distinct styles, the Italian and the Spanish. The Spanish is a bit more flamboyant. We use the Italian style as it’s more effective. It tended to be more popular here as we were regularly going to war with Spain back then, so we brought over Italian instructors. Through the texts, we’ve found that the first thing that you should learn is wrestling. We school for unarmed combat.

I wasn’t convinced until the instructors called for the students to prepare for sparring. This made up the vast majority of the lesson and dispelled any notion I may have had that this was a re-enactment exhibition centre. There was no choreography here. The students partnered off and just went for it, putting their new found skills to the test with a live opponent. Beginners start off with a training sword made with a type of toughened plastic but soon graduate to the steel. These are ‘dull’ not live blades with a blunted tip but can still do a massive amount of damage without the right protective equipment. Click here to see their 2013 equipment guide.

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I watched as the sparring began in earnest, there was a lot going on. The pairs all had different weapons and interchanged them frequently. I was having to watch where I stepped as the calm controlled environment had turned into a medieval battlefield where non combatants didn’t belong. It was great sight to watch. Everyone became so alive.

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Esther, a 19 year old Law student (a pleasant, sweet young woman whom I met just before the class began) started taking her training partner apart using her blade with the skill of a surgeon. She lunged into him like Turner to the canvass. The opponent was forced back into the wall with one of his arms pinned between them. He tried to use his height by reaching over with his short blade. She saw it in time and blocked, then went to town, kneeing him in the groin several times until he manoeuvred into a more favourable position for her. They reset and went at each other again.

Simon spoke to Esther between massacres;

I found out about the club through word of mouth from friends. I have been training just under a year now. I don’t have any prior martial arts experience but just thought I should give it a go. I train twice a week. I think it’s great for fitness as well as the social side and just speaking to people with the same interests. Hitting people with swords is also great for stress relief. My favourite weapon is definitely the basket hilt and buckler. Anyone can have a go. You don’t have to be this or that. It can be adapted for you. I would absolutely love to compete in tournaments. At the moment females are really unrepresented. I would definitely recommend it to anyone, just give it a try.

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In the corner, a new guy was being one to one coached by Mike while in the other, Nick demonstrated why he was one of the instructors of the academy. His style intrigued me. There was a poise but not a pose. He held a sword and dagger pointed at his opponent as he rocked back and forth waiting for a strike to parry. Everything was a target. A favourite of one student was to aim for the wrist of the sword hand. After watching the sword fighting movies, it didn’t even occur to me that the hands were an effective viable target. It would be difficult to wield a sword with no fingers.

Simon took the opportunity to speak to Library resource assistant, 37 years old Tony, during a break.

I’ve been training for about four years now. I come once a week. I dabbled with a bit of Judo before, but noticed this at a fresher’s fair. I love the brawling style of fighting. I prefer to use the Messer

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I spoke to the newest student of the club, Adam McGarrity, a doctorial researcher protein engineer from Yorkshire to see how he was finding it.

I’m in my third week, so I’m still a newbie. I have experience of being a blacksmith and thought I should learn how to handle swords if I was going to make them. The club have been really welcoming. They really are the most friendly of guys. I live in Caerphilly so it’s a bit of a trek but worth it. My favourite sword at the moment is the Longsword. I can put my weight behind it. But during the sabre work, I found that I was really starting to like it. It’s really tricky though. When I started, I was doing the big Hollywood swings that look good but will get you picked off in the class.

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I was extremely impressed by the competitiveness of it all. No one was over the top. If a fighter was in another league, they would adjust advise on potential openings. The fight of the night though was between Mike and Nick. To my eye, they were perfectly matched opponents with a similar history but varied in their style. Their fights were electric. Click here to see some of their YouTube duels. As the sparring came to a close and the ritual warm down and disrobing commenced, I took the opportunity to grab Nick and ask him a little more about the club.

I got into HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) after watching Conan the Barbarian, the one with Arnold Schwarzenegger. There is a lot of good quality sword fighting in there. I also like The Duellists. I have a little bit of martial arts background and done Taekwondo for six years as well as Kendo. We started the Academy in 1996 as a private members club. We founded it with two others who were fencers and from historical re-enactment. In 2006, we moved here and have another club in Bristol.”

Mike added, “We’ve done so much research to get everything right. I’ve translated the material we use for longsword directly from the pages of the 1570 manuscript from Meyer. Nick has even translated numerous texts from the original Italian. We incorporate the training methods and form and try to revive it as much as possible. It is so much easier now with internet access. Manuals became much more available with widespread use of the Internet back in the late ’90s. There are at least 55 texts on the German longsword alone. A great example of this would be the i.33 manuscript  in the Leeds armoury. We visited in person to read the 13th century swordsmanship text. We’ve obtained a lot of information from the Roweth Taylor manuscripts and used the German and Polish manuals as well as Capo ferro for the rapier. I’ve learned a great deal from Ringeck’d German text on the longsword. We have now moved on exlusively to Meyers 1570s combined weapons manuscript. It teaches grappling and unarmed combat as well as the use of the longsword, dussack, rapier, staff and much more. As for my favourite weapon, for pure aesthetics it would have to be the Schiavona style of hilt. It is flamboyant, and beautiful while remaining eminently useful. You’ll often see examples carried by Porthos from the three musketeers. After that, longsword is my most frequently used weapon.

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I asked if there were any differences to current martial arts. Mike replied;

We don’t have gradings. You are either a novice, experienced, assistant or an instructor. We also don’t use the term ‘master’. In the past this was the correct term. This was the generic term used for a person who took money in exchange for tuition. These days it has a different meaning, so we prefer to call ourselves instructors.

There are many other HEMA clubs in the country but we (Academy of Historical Fencing) have two clubs. About 25 – 45 people attend our other club in Bristol. A lot of people who come here have tried martial arts but get fed up with the constant drilling. Others join for the fitness. We’ve had students who regularly do a 30km run but find themselves exhausted here. It’s a different type of fitness. We have a variety of students; police, medical people, military. We’ve also had actors wanting to add sword fighting to their CV. All are welcome. Here, we’re mostly sparring. Every now and again, we will do a workshop and demonstrate weapons such as spears. It’s great fun. It’s not essential to learn the history but we will continue to incorporate it.

We also often train aboard, and take part in running classes in Vienna, Austria. The Swordfish event is a great, hard-hitting tournament for many of our students. It’s an elite event for experienced fighters to take part in competition. We always enjoy that one!“

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I asked if there was much difference between HEMA and Kendo? He replied,

I’ve also practiced Kendo. In HEMA we study a variety of weapons and can use both edges. With Katanas, you just can’t do that. If you ever want to start an argument, you just have to mention the European swords vs the Katana. The Katana was an excellent weapon but not the ultimate sword that people think it is. We had much better metal in Europe. That’s why the Japanese had to turn it so many times. We wouldn’t have had to do that in Europe.  The European Longsword is bigger than the Katana, and incredibly flexible in style and use. One thing the Katana has though is a continuous tradition. We stopped much of our fencing tradition in the 17th Century, with the rise of Oliver Cromwell. After that, we had to bring in other Europeans to teach the use of weapons such as the rapier, so there is this gap. The first world war also wiped out so much skill and knowledge.”

 

What’s next for you guys?

Nick said, “Mike and myself both work as science fiction writers. My last book is Battle Earth. I’m on book 12 now, so it’s going well. As a club, we are involved a lot on the internet. Our YOUTUBE channel is our biggest draw. We regularly post fights and demonstrate different weapons.  We’ve also recently done a fight sequence for a music video. (Click here to view)We get approached now and again by theatre or television asking for advice or training. Ultimately, we are happy here but would love our very own dedicated facility.  We both want to carry on teaching. We normally have a large influx of people after a big sword fighting film comes out. The Three Musketeers is usually a good one. We have a list of films on our website that will show good sword fighting technique. The Duellist, Alatriste, Ring of steel, etc.

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I left the club regretting not giving it a go. I have done numerous martial arts but never with weapons. When I got back home I was pumped, so challenged my five year old to a duel with his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Katanas. He won. I may have to go back to the club one day to get some tips.

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I have looked at the Wikipedia description of what a martial art is. The Acadamy of Historical Fencing nestles into the description very comfortably. I was grateful that I wasn’t disappointed with the club. This wasn’t an exhibition sham but a true martial art in description and practice. I had a little moment of pride in knowing that we don’t always have to look to the East for an enlightened weapons based martial art that has been forged in history. In my mind, Mike and Nick were the Indiana Jones’ of Martial Arts. They are playing a vital role in restoring the lost arts so that another generation can appreciate them.

If you’re a closet Conan, a shy Sharp or think you’re meaner that Xena, then click here for more information and contact details about the club. Give it a go, what can you lose?

 

GD & Simon Cowen

About Gareth

Jack of all trades and master of none. Fully qualified and unrepentant M.A.G (Martial Arts Geek). Willing to bleed for your entertainment. Gareth- the original sofa samurai and editor of CMA News.