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When Anachronists Attack!


 

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 France.

The killing skills the Guild practices—properly 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 moves—which 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 techniques."

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 availability—cheaper 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 level."

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 movies—The Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Master and Commander—enrollment 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, c. 1482-87

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 swords—the latter known as "wasters" for their cheapness and suitability to the splintering effects of combat. Chatting and chuckling happen here and there—martial 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 steak knife.

Lessons are fairly straightforward and hands-on. Instructor John O'Meara, resident rapier instructor, and his students have the only real—though slightly blunted—steel 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 started."

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 Reader.
®2004 Dan Kelly
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