I’ve given (shorter and less detailed) variants of this argument many times. I agree with pretty much everything he says here:
I started to learn sport fencing (or “Olympic-style”) as a child in England. My parents were both long-time fencers, so one of my earliest memories is from around age three or four, standing in our tiny backyard, trying to learn basic parries with a foil. My father had been experimenting with bringing in a form of rapier and dagger at his fencing club, but there were no reasonable simulation rapiers on the market in those days, so the default equipment was a sabre and a broken-off foil as a dagger. Let’s just say that the idea was very popular in the club, but the implementation failed to energize many because the equipment wasn’t all that close to representative: the weapons were far too light and any attempt to use historical methods was doomed because the swordplay lacked the momentum of full-sized/full-weight rapiers. Things that worked fantastically well with the modern weapons would get you deader than dead using proper historical weaponry.
I gave up sport fencing as a hobby around the time that orthopedic grips and electrical scoring came in … as the man says in the video above, it became too much like electric tag and too little like historical swordplay. Instead of being relatively straight or slightly curved, orthopedic grips looked rather like what would happen if you squeezed a ball of soft coloured clay in your hand. I hated the feel of them, but other fencers at my club loved them. The electrical scoring system of the day required each fencer to wear an over-jacket covering the valid target area, and trail along a cable attached to the back of the over-jacket. The matching foil had a socket on the inside of the guard for attaching the cable to the other side of the scoring circuit. When the tip of the foil hit the conductive surface of the opponent’s over-jacket, the circuit was completed and a point would be scored.
It was clumsy and awkward, and didn’t feel much like a swordfight. I pretty much gave up the foil and switched to sabre, for they didn’t yet have a working electric system for sabre fighting, so you didn’t need to get hooked up to the machine just to fight a bout. When they got that little problem fixed, I’d already given up sport fencing.
The SCA finally adopted rapier fencing and the Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) movement arrived well after I’d given up sport fencing, and I’ve enjoyed the SCA’s rapier combat quite a bit (although I tend to go inactive for a year or two, then go back for a similar length of time … I may not improve that way, but it’s still fun). More serious fencers and those interested in a wider range of styles end up joining HEMA organizations, where I’m told they take things much more seriously. I can’t say from personal experience, as I only visited a Toronto HEMA group once and most of the members there were working on much earlier styles of swordplay (like longsword) than I was interested in at the time.
H/T to Brendan McKenna for the link to the video.
Aaron Miedema shared a link to this story about the first known tournament for historical European martial arts:
If I asked you when was the first historical European Martial Arts tournament what would you say? 1997? 2003?
Not even close.
How about where? America? Great Britain? Germany? France?
No, none of the above.
What if I told you that the earliest known tournament took place in a region of the globe which we probably don’t hear enough about, but which surely deserves to be known across the HEMA community: Quebec.
Yes. The first ever tournament took place on the island of Montreal in… 1889. Who was heading this tournament? Perhaps Alfred Hutton on a trip in Canada? Or how about one of those French guys from the Olympics? No, it was another HEMA pioneer. One which is unfortunately unknown to us because he did not leave us any manual, but an interesting figure all the same: David Legault.
Legault came back to Montreal around 1882. There were very few qualified fencing instructors in town at that time, and the art was going through a revival. His friends then encouraged David to open up a fencing salle in the former Institut Canadien, a learned French Canadian society which regularly drew the wrath of the church. There he will teach not only swordsmanship but also boxing, savate, wrestling, great stick and gymnastics. He will try to introduce the model inside Quebec schools, with more or less success, but his regular classes will grow in popularity and Legault will decide to change the nature of his club which will become known as the Guard of the Archiepiscopal Palace. This group acted as an honorary guard to the Catholic archbishop of Montreal as well as a sort of militia to prepare men for military service. Several similar groups will be created across the province, all of them teaching fencing. Volunteering in the Canadian army and various official militia units which were mostly English speaking was not very popular with French Canadians, and many turned toward these groups instead.
John Turner sent me a link to this short article in Slate‘s “The Vault” column, discussing the mathematical side of fencing:
Girard Thibault’s Académie de l’Espée (1628) puts the art of wielding the sword on mathematical foundations. For Thibault, a Dutch fencing master from the early seventeenth century, geometrical rules determined each and every aspect of fencing. For example, the length of your rapier’s blade should never exceed the distance between your feet and the navel, and your movements in a fight should always be along the lines of a circle whose diameter is equal to your height.
The rest of his manual, geared towards gentlemanly readers who took up fencing as a noble sport, is filled with similar geometrical arguments about the choreography of swordsmanship. Thibault’s work belongs to the same tradition that produced Leonardo’s renowned Vitruvian Man.
“Human proportions and their relationship to swordsmanship.” Engraving by J. Gelle. By Girard Thibault. (Click to see full-sized image.)
H/T to Tim Harford for the link.
Peter Saltsman visits Toronto’s Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts (AEMMA) and finds that there’s not much “play” when you’re just starting to learn how to wield a sword:
I was hoping this courageous group of historians and hobbyists could teach me to fight like they do in movies such as Robin Hood, Macbeth or the new Pillars of the Earth series. In the movies, it looks so easy. The sword fights I know are the perfect harmony of choreographed bravado, hyperbolic grunting and dramatic pauses for someone to say “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
To the disappointment of my eight-year-old self, real medieval combat is nothing like that.
“They’re not really trying to hit each other,” says Cal Rekuta, a Senior Free Scholar at AEMMA, of cinematic battles. “Stage fighting is the art of looking dangerous. We’re actually studying how it was dangerous.”
I was in over my head. When a man dressed in a full suit of chain-mail armour — armour he weaved himself — talks about danger, he probably means it.
I visited AEMMA once, several years ago. It was quite an enjoyable experience, but I’m more interested in later-period swordwork than most of their membership at that time.
As I expected, the larger turnout of fencers yesterday prevented me from repeating as high a finish as the last two tournaments, but there’s more happening today. The morning tournament was a double-elimination, but the afternoon was a much briefer single-elimination. At least with double-elimination, you can recover from a mistake (theoretically).
There’s a big SCA event literally down the street from us today, so I’m off to do some rapier fencing. The last two tournaments I entered went very well for me (first place and second place), even though they were more than a year apart. I doubt I’ll do so well today: lots more competition including folks I’ve never fought before. Still, it should be a lot of fun.
I’m away from the computer, competing in an SCA rapier tournament near Peterborough, Ontario. Lots of interesting sites to visit over in the right-hand column.
Update: You know, it would have helped if I’d actually published this entry before heading off this morning. I’m now back, bruised yet unbowed, happy in my second-place finish in the tournament. Last time I competed there (before injuring my shoulder and having to take a few years off), I won the tournament. This time, with more fencers taking part, I still managed to claim second. That’s pretty good after such a long lay-off from competition. I’m more than satisfied.