By Dan Kelly
Casually dressed and bespectacled, Greg Mele, 33, seems more grad
student than screaming Visigoth even with the broadsword at
his side. It turns out he's kind of both. A technical writer who
majored in journalism and ancient and medieval history at UIC and
who studies and translates medieval texts, Mele is also co-founder
and head instructor of the Chicago
Swordplay Guild. Meeting every Saturday at the Pulaski Park
field house, the Guild studies old Europe's martial arts and field-tests
the few surviving lessons in sword fighting recorded by masters
at arms in Medieval and Renaissance Italy, England, Germany, and
The killing skills the Guild practicesproperly called historical
European martial arts (HEMA)aren't as lively or famous as the
martial arts of the East. "This is a dead art," Guild PR director
Scott Baltic explained during a CSG lesson. The dead art du jour
was 16th Century Italian rapier, taught by instructor John O'Meara
and attended by Guild safety officer Nick King. The art looked less
deceased at that moment, as King, O'Meara, and other students ably
crossed swords. Steel met steel, clanking and clinking in short,
punctuated bursts, until a blow was landed to the chest. It's not
fencing as we know it. Competitive fencing has rules, a point system,
and few fatalities. This, however, was the self-defense class of
1500s Italy, its techniques tested in war and duels, codified by
sword maestri, and designed to disarm or kill with little care for
sissyjane things like points. Nevertheless, HEMA, from medievalist
German broadsword to Italian rapier, in comparison to karate, tae
kwon do, and hapkido, remains impressively inactive. Greg Mele and
the Guild, however, have challenged themselves to reanimate the
martial arts of the truly old west.
Mele, a Wheatonite, got hooked on swashbuckling as a kid. Every
Sunday afternoon a six-year-old Mele sat with his father and raptly
watched "Captain Blood" and "The Adventures of Robin Hood" and other
films of derringdo on WGN's old Family Classics show. Later,
his father created Mele's first set of arms: the sword an old hockey
stick, the shield made of wood from a loading pallet.
When he grew up, Mele exchanged his toys for the real thing. In
high school, he joined the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA),
a medievalist reenactment group, and was a member for 14 years.
Mele supplemented his SCA experience with training in modern fencing
and a handful of Asian combat styles during and after college. He
competed for four years in epee and sabre fencing, and has practiced
tai chi for many years while dabbling in iaido (Japanese swordfighting),
aikido, jujutsu, and, most recently, Wing Chung kung-fu.
All those SCA techniques were fun and certainly educational (he
still practices a few of them), but they lacked realism. Attacks
below the belt, shield strikes, and grappling were forbidden as
entirely unsporting moveswhich of course made them utterly
devastating in real combat. At UIC Mele had an minor epiphany when
he encountered 16th century sword-slinger George Silver's magnum
opus, a seminal fighting manual titled The Paradoxes of Defense.
"At this point I was studying aikido and participating in the medieval-themed
tournaments of the SCA, and this was precisely what I was looking
for: a text describing how to really use these weapons, by an actual
warrior of the period," says Mele. "I quickly found a few other
texts and with a few friends started trying to reconstruct those
George Silver isn't the only maestro to speak, parry, slash, and
thrust from beyond the grave, though as an Englishman he's the odd
man out. Italian and German manuals (the latter known as fechtbuch
or "fight books") and a few post-1650 French publications are most
frequently referred to by HEMA devotees because of their greater
availabilitycheaper printing and more literate swordsmen no
doubt being factors. Naturally, there isn't a huge audience for
these and other books, many of which have been reissued by Chivalry
Bookshelf (Mele is that publisher's western-martial-arts editor),
Paladin Press, and Greenhill Books, among other special-interest
publishers. But to Mele, who continues to read, reread, and translate
them, they're inspiring. "There is a certain poetry that really
resonates in these people's words," he says. "For us this is a hobby,
but for them it was their lives and their life's work."
He cites a passage from maestro Fiore di Liberi's book Flos Duellatorum
(trans."Flower of Battle") from 1409:
"I have especially guarded myself from other fencing masters and
their instructors. And through envy, these masters challenged me
to play with edged and pointed swords in arming doublets, without
other armour save a pair of gloves of chamois. And all of this was
endured because I had not wished to practice with them, nor to teach
them any of my art. And I was required to endure this five times,
and thus five times for my honor I was compelled to play in strange
places, without family and without friends, having no hope in others
if not in God, in the Art of the Sword, in me, Fiore, and in my
sword. And by the grace of God, I Fiore have remained with honor
and without injury to my body."
"This is really quite poetic, and yet horrific," says Mele. "Five
times this man had someone seek to kill him just out of professional
jealousy. When was the last time that happened to you? Part of the
beauty of these sorts of passages is that they are a window to our
past. When you lose that sense of history, you lose a big part of
your culture. So that's the appeal, on an historical and romantic
But studying hoary scripts only goes so far. "The problem was that
you have no way of knowing if any martial art, let alone a reconstructed
one, works if you can't pressure-test it," says Mele. Research and
the Internet soon introduced him to the bourgeoning Western martial
arts and HEMA movement.
In 1998, Mele came across a posting to a western-martial-arts newsgroup
he regularly perused. Mele's Guild co-founder Mark Rector said he
and his friends regularly fenced with rapiers by Lake Michigan,
and that they were looking for other blade aficionados. Mele contacted
Rector who, as it turns out, was a stage combatant, fight choreographer,
and fellow historical swordplay scholar. Interplay between the two
soon generated the idea of the Guild as a school of arms.
"Our first meeting was at Pulaski Park, the Sunday after New Year's,
1999," says Mele. "Mark brought his two friends and I brought mine.
He also placed a free ad in the Reader and one fellow, Al Stewart,
showed up," says Mele. "Over the next year, those weekly ads, combined
with a really horrible Angelfire Web page, were our only outreach.
We must have had a good 30 people show up over the course of the
next year, with about 14 or so sticking."
The Guild grew to 40 dues-paying members (membership costs $80 per
quarter), ranging in age from 19 to 53 (swordsmen and -women under
18 are not allowed to join because of liability issues). Surrounding
this core is a larger group of student nonmembers more than
80 spread out among the dozen or so classes the CSG now offers through
the Oak Park Park District, the College of DuPage, and the College
of Lake County. Since the latest round of Hollywood swashbuckling
moviesThe Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean,
and Master and Commanderenrollment in the beginners'
classes has grown, Mele says. "How many of those stick, however,
is another matter. It's not an easy skill to learn, and it's not
a cheap hobby to remain in, so you have to be fairly committed."
Jim Julien, the guild's secretary and treasurer, concurs. "This
is not for the weak-kneed or for someone not willing to spend some
money, A good pair of gauntlets can run six to eight hundred dollars."
Gorgets (throat armor) cost $50 or more, and wasters cost between
$20 for a blunted dagger and $60 for a medieval longsword. Committed
HEMA practitioners can purchase Renaissance-style rapiers with 38-inch
blades for $280 or a full repro set of 14th Century Hounskull plate
armor for 10 grand.
Moreover, Mele says, real historical swordsmanship is nothing like
the stage combat you see in the movies. "That doesn't mean it's
not entertaining, just misleading if folks think that's what sword
fighting really looked like," he says. But "the fights in Master
and Commander were really quite excellent."
Mele isn't oblivious to HEMA's geeky overtones. Bruce Lee is unbreakably
cool, but in the public mind medieval European swordplay has echoes
of bloodless theatrical brawls for paper-crowned tourists, fat stupid
hobbitses, or, perhaps worst of all, that center circle of nerd
hell, Dungeons and Dragons. "That's what people see, mostly, so
I don't blame them," he says. "Our goal is to get to a point where
people see this stuff as a legitimate martial art. I try to keep
it clear that we are dealing with a form of practical archaeology.
Many folks find this exciting, because it's like a piece of detective
work rediscovering a piece of our lost cultural heritage."
His obsession with historical accuracy makes him vigilant about
not letting any of his other combat training leak into his HEMA
practice. Mele uses the example of abrazare, a medieval Italian
grappling style. He could pad his abrazare lessons with what
he learned in aikido, but it would be historically dishonest. Aikido
is a "soft" style, employing large circular movements to break,
pin, or hold an opponent. Abrazare was created to deal with
armored opponents, using smaller circles to immediately break bone
with little finesse or Asian notions of ki energy. It's more
complicated than that, but that's the general idea, and where the
practical archeology comes into play. For Mele, HEMA re-creation
is a slow piecing together of scattered mosaic tiles. You can't
bring in different tiles just because it makes it easier. You won't
get the right picture.
He who wants to offend others without reason surely damns his body
and his soul, and brings shame to his teacher. Also you must remember
to always honor your teacher, because money doesn't pay what he
gives you. Phillipo Vadi, Arte Gladiaoria Dimicandi,
Recently the CSG signed an Arts Partner agreement with the Chicago
Park District, designating them as artists in residence and allowing
them to be listed in the Park District catalog (new classes commence
Saturday, March 27) and retain their practice space in the field
house auditorium. The 12-week introductory course teaches rapier,
longsword, and other techniques. Upon completion, students may be
invited to apply for Guild membership.
During a typical session, a baker's dozen of students and Guild
members gather in the auditorium. They aren't dressed as anachronistically
as you might expect. Sweats, t-shirts, tennis shoes, and a pair
of work gloves make for typical training gear. More advanced students,
training in broadword or rapier wear, for safety's sake, fencing
masks and gambesons (padded vest armor). Attendees are broken up
into groups according to skill level or lesson. Some work at grappling
and dagger combat, stabbing at or throwing one another to the floor
mats. Others engage in swordsmanship with wooden dowels or swordsthe
latter known as "wasters" for their cheapness and suitability to
the splintering effects of combat. Chatting and chuckling happen
here and theremartial arts tending to foster a spirit of camaraderie.
You really need to trust the people who are practicing ways to injure
or kill on you. There is also a palpable feeling of seriousness.
The wargames here might be games, but there is respect for what
they are studying. "We don't sugarcoat what these techniques can
do. We do try to keep people informed." Mele explains, with less
machismo than common sense in mind.
Chatting up the students, you find a panoply of reasons for their
participation. Some are interested in the HEMA's historical aspects.
Others are Ren Faire types, Asian martial artists, or stage-combat
enthusiasts. Most, however, are just plain folks who, before taking
part in medieval swordplay, never touched a blade larger than a
Lessons are fairly straightforward and hands-on. Instructor John
O'Meara, resident rapier instructor, and his students have the only
realthough slightly bluntedsteel blades. (Beginners
start out with four-foot wood dowels, but eventually move on to
"wasters." In time, one graduates to steel.) They're also the only
ones in full gear: fencing masks, metal gorgets, and gambesons.
O'Meara crouches and steps forward, his arm and rapier extend toward
the students, who mirror him. He steps back, quickly flicking the
rapier against an unseen blade. There is something almost dainty
about it - a flip retort rather than a hard smack upside the head.
"You're pushing off and staying low," he says. "Always find the
smallest possible motion to get where you want to be."
When he's the teacher, Mele explains, "I try to remain 100 percent
faithful to what is in the source material. When I'm expanding on
a documented technique, I always try to make sure it's based on
the first principles of the system, and even so, I try to make it
clear when the historical master has stopped talking and Greg has
For example, Mele ended the day with a demonstration in Elizabethan
single-sword fighting. His students lined up in two rows, looking
none too threatening with their wooden swords, but highly disciplined.
Mele stood front and center, sword drawn, and lectured, holding
his waster aloftand perpendicular, then cutting down and to the
left. It's a defensive technique, a simple blocking motion. The
others mirror him with different levels of flow and success. Then
they pair off. The lesson is repeated with one participant swinging
downward and the other deflecting the blow with the same arc. It
all looks quite archaeological: the Bayeux Tapestry in sweatpants.
Despite their devotion to reproducing these techniques as faithfully
as possible, Mele stressed that his group is not one of re-enactors
but of re-creators. Mele and the Guild have no beef with those who
dabble in roleplaying or re-enactment, and if the occasion calls
for it, they appear in period dress. He stresses, however, that
the Guild goes beyond mere playacting. "We're trying to be true
to an historical art basically as a form of cultural heritage."
As for its self-defense applications, Mele is pragmatic about the
usefulness of HEMA for those seeking to kick purse-snatcher ass.
"Don't take up sword fighting if your number-one goal is street
defense," he advises. Chicago police would agree. According to Municipal
Code 8-24-020, "No person shall carry or possess with the intent
to use same unlawfully against another a dagger, dirk, billy, dangerous
knife, razor, stiletto, or other dangerous or deadly weapon." Presume,
gentle knight, that the nice officer won't let you off with a warning
if you behead your mugger.
Originally published in the Chicago
®2004 Dan Kelly
Contact Mr. Kelly