On Learning Swordsmanship

I’ve been fascinated with swordplay for the better part of my life. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if as an embryo I was trying it out. Well, OK. Maybe not. I’ve also been intrigued by the martial arts, though not so much that I ever wanted to try them out.

In the last year or so (call it a mid-life crisis or maybe mid-life enlightenment!) I finally that maybe I should pursue this interest and see where it goes. I thought initially that maybe it was little more than a passing fancy. You know the sort: something grabs your attention and you get excited about it. And then you throw a lot of money at it to buy all the equipment. And then, a month later, the interest is gone, and you realize that you’ve wasted your money.

Well, I’m old enough to know that these things can happen (thankfully), so I let my interest simmer in my heart for a while, bought a bunch of books, and after a few months I realized it hadn’t gone away.

So I pondered. I was still interested in swordplay, but I was in bad shape. I knew there was no way I could actually handle a sword. I’d collapse in exhaustion in ten minutes. I started a workout program, and after a few months of that I realized I was in better condition than I had been twenty years earlier, and I was STILL interested in swordplay (and as a bonus, I was also 25 pounds lighter!)

OK, now what? I, of course, had spent a fair amount of time on line during this time idly reading about swordplay and swordsmanship to see what I could learn and came across the web page for the Higgins Armory Museum. Well, shoot! It’s even got my name on it! I found out that they had sword classes and I immediately wanted to participate. However, the museum is a six-hour, one-way drive from my house, so that wasn’t going to happen. They did, however, have a full day symposium called “The Sound and the Fiore” which focused on the knightly martial arts of 15th century fencing master, Fiore dei Liberi. It included a workshop in which participants would be allowed to work with long swords for a quick lesion. I went, naturally, and came home positively chomping at the bit to learn more. I was excited to have learned something about wielding a sword, but I was also excited at the realization that swordplay was part of the “Western Martial Arts.” That is to say, using a sword and being a ‘knight’ was properly a martial art just like karate! This is what I wanted.

Then the search began. I tell you, there is nothing-doing around Rochester in the form of Western martial arts. Someone finally suggested the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) as an organization where I might get to learn some swordplay. I’ve met up with the local group and have also gotten involved in what they call “Heavy Weapons,” which is the SCA equivalent to fighting with a broadsword. This has been fun, making armor and bashing on people with sticks. I figured out pretty quickly that despite all my training, I still didn’t have quite enough upper body strength to fight well, but at least I was fighting now!

Something was missing, alas. As much fun as the SCA is, it lacks all the martial aspects of proper martial arts. Plus, while it sort of looks like real swordplay, it isn’t. I renewed my search. This time, I had the benefit of Twitter, on which I seem to spend far too much time. But I do follow some swordsmen who participate in swordsmanship as the martial art that it is. A month or so ago, one of them pointed me toward an instructor nearby who could actually teach me what I want to know!

Today, I made the drive to Ithaca and took a lesson from Adam Crown, Maître d’Armes.  Let me tell you what. It was a great experience, and unlike what I learned at the Higgins Museum, nor anything like SCA heavy weapons practice.

Here’s what was different. The Higgins Museum workshop most likely intentionally put swords in the participants hands knowing that was what participants were paying for. It wasn’t meant to be a lesson. It was a demonstration. It was to give a flavor for true swordsmanship to the participants, and so the most ‘romanticized’ of the weapons, the longsword, is the one that was pulled out and presented. The SCA practice is all about just jumping in and fighting. There isn’t any formal instruction, just short spurts of fighting with occasional stoppages to help explain the SCA rules and SCA fighting styles. And, in the end, it’s pretty basic. The SCA is not about reenactment or historical accuracy, at least in terms of fighting techniques. SCA heavy weapons fighting is not a martial art. I won’t say it’s not fun (because it is), but Western martial arts, it ain’t.

In the class I took today, everything that was done was calm and controlled. Much of it was about footwork and posture. It was a two-hour lesson and no-one even touched a sword until the second hour. I never even put on protective gear. I spent an hour learning how to properly draw a sword and salute my opponent, because you’ve got to get that right before you do anything else.

So what’s next for me? Well, I’ll be going back to Ithaca for lessons as often as I can make it. I’ll continue to meet up the the SCA heavy weapons group too. It’s a fun workout and enjoyable social event for me. However, if ever it comes to a point where the things I do for SCA style fighting interferes with what I’m trying to accomplish with the Western martial arts, well, the martial arts will win.

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