Pen and Sword

Pen and Sword

In an assembly room at Bethesda Lutheran Church, a group of fencers are about to practice a longsword maneuver described almost 900 years ago. But first they must hear the description. Joe North, instructor and founder of New Haven Historical Fencing, picks up a volume and reads a line of poetry in Old German. He then provides a literal translation. “‘If you want to show art, go or step with the left, and right with the hews’—that is, with the strikes—‘and left with right. That is how you will fight most strongly.’”

North looks up. “So that’s not super clear, but when you go to look at Ringeck…” He pulls out another volume and reads an interpretation of the original lines by another sword master, Sigmund Ringeck, writing half a century later: “‘Hear it like this. When you want to hew from the right side, see that your left foot is forward. And when you want to hew from the left side, see that your right foot is forward. If you then hew the overhew from the right side, follow after the hew with the right foot. If you do not do this, the hew is faulted incorrect, because your right side remains behind, therefore the hew is too short.’”

This turns out to be a fundamental lesson, that a strike from the side is more effective when you step into it with the same-sided foot, and now it’s time for the class to practice. Issued wooden practice swords that are gratifyingly sword-like, with two-handed pommel, cross-guard and an unsharpened blade that wants to be swung, the students—including me—face each other in two lines. Swords begin whistling from shoulders to feet, across a safety gap of 15 feet or so. North watches and advises from his own place in the line. “You want to keep that wrist position basically the same throughout,” he says. “Avoid that flick at the end. Takes all the strength out of it.” A novice among students of varying skill levels, I feel like I’m swatting a fly with a broomstick. “It’s all about the shoulders,” adds North as we adjust and repeat, then change the direction of the swing from right to left.

This is the essence of historical fencing. You study the surviving manuals and practice their prescriptions until, as North says throughout the session, you “feel it in your body.” Eventually, you use it against an actual opponent to determine if the final translation—from texts to action—is a good one.

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“It used to be, 20 years ago,” North explains, “there were a lot of people who would sort of get out old swords and bash each other in a historical reenactment context… It was just kind of like, making it up as you go along.” North credits the Internet with the widespread dissemination of the ancient manuals—one of which is the aforementioned poem, written by 15th-century fencing master Johannes Liechtenauer, who used 109 rhyming couplets to describe sword maneuvers in a way that could be easily recited among apprentices. More elaborate descriptions of those maneuvers from later fencing masters attracted commentaries by still later masters, until surviving manuscripts took on a Talmudic character. Modern fencers formed HEMA—Historical European Martial Arts—clubs for the purpose of still further study.

North teaches literature at Yale and has been a practitioner of martial arts since boyhood, a combination of disciplines that suggests he might have been an originator of HEMA if others hadn’t beat him to it. As for New Haven Historical Fencing, he started it in 2017. The pandemic put it on hiatus in 2020; swords place people in social proximity and so had to be sheathed.

North is now several months into a “reset” with newer students, of which a typical session attracts 15 to 20 by his estimate. By the time the session is over, the goal is to engage in something nearing a real fight, in close proximity, either with foam-covered boffers or with real swords and a full suite of protective gear—masks, gloves, and stab-resistant fencing jackets. The protection frees students to go at each other with the same vigor as they would if they were 15th-century duelists. The authenticity inherent to the effort can, over time, turn a student into a master historical swordsman. The irony is, you have to get good at executing the ancient instructions in order to determine if you are following the ancient instructions correctly.

The tournaments are often where these revelations become more pointed, so to speak, as skilled opponents take on other skilled opponents with some urgency. The Iron Gate Exhibition is the nearest tournament, taking place annually on a field or campground somewhere in New England. Longpoint is perhaps the most prestigious, attracting fencers from as far away as Sweden, which is exclusive among countries in having a nationally recognized longsword champion. Longsword fencing differs from the rapier style you may have seen in the Olympics, in part because each set of longsword games starts with a new consideration of what will constitute a scored point. “If you use a single rule set , then people end up optimizing their fencing to game that system,” North explains. “And since what we’re doing is not just trying to create a sport, but we’re trying to recreate a martial art… it’s quite useful to change up the rule sets so that we don’t start introducing strange artifacts into the fencing.”

Rapier-style fencing—think, again, of the Olympics, or maybe an Errol Flynn duel—looks like formal dancing in single file, but longsword fencing is mostly two-handed and always three-dimensional, so the pommel is moving through space almost as often as the blade is. And it emphasizes contact between swords, creating a mandate to parry. “Because if you’re actually doing it at speed, it’s very fast,” North says. “You’ve got to know where that blade is. It’s much easier to know if you’re touching it with your own blade than if you’re out of contact. Because it can turn up in odd spots and you’re like, ‘Oh how did it get down there?’”

Sure enough, in the assembly room at Bethesda, the more advanced students are practicing a maneuver that uses the opponent’s sword as a guide, twisting against it to wind up with their blade pointed at the opponent’s nose. We also practice a maneuver that avoids blade contact, one that translates from Old German as The Scalp Parter. North reads a translation aloud: “‘When stands in front of you with the Guard Of The Fool’”—sword low and pointed down—“‘hew with the long edge from your highest point above down, and remain in the strike high with the arms, and hang in the points of the face.’” Trying to make sense of it, our swords go straight up, over our heads, and then the tips of our blades swing down, ponderously in my case, like the entry gate in a parking garage. North puzzles over this aloud for the class: “Now clearly, if you’re beginning a strike that ends up like this”—arms and sword forward, after a relatively short swing—“ sacrificing power to gain a lot of height for some reason.”

To me, North is suggesting that The Scalp Parter could be rubbish: bad advice, or good advice rendered badly enough that it may never be translated properly. “You don’t see it much in modern tournaments, and part of this might be to do with the fact that we haven’t quite really cracked what it really is yet… We can’t always assume that the manuals are teaching us good sword fighting. They could have been the McDojo’s of their day.”

“But,” he adds, “it’s usually richest to assume that we are doing something wrong.”

Written and photographed by David Zukowski.

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