Fourth Musketeer

“A wrestling tournament crash-landed at a Renaissance Fayre and they all intermarried,” was my thought. I’d tagged along with a trio of friends to SoCal Swordfight, a weekend-long HEMA competition: That’s “historical European martial arts,” three days of armored people fighting politely but hard with steel longswords, rapiers, daggers, and sabers.

I’ve been practicing with a local club for a month, as a sideshow when I can’t train wing chun, and having a blast. My three friends were competing, but they’re BMFs and I’m not, so I availed myself of the classes that were running constantly throughout the weekend next door to the actual combat.

Desperate Measures

First up was “Dagger vs. Sword/Sword vs. Spear Are the Same Thing!” with Tom Levine. Levine proved a superb teacher on account of his healthy reductionism, organizing something chaotic into exactly its bare essentials. 

I was drawn to the class because I often use a short weapon (namely myself) against tall opponents, and the blurb for the class promised, “Focuses will include half-sword/half-dagger, binding, and aggressive footwork.” This is a technical way of saying, Get past the point of his weapon somehow, keep it away with both hands, and drive hard straight into him.

Fiore de’i Liberi, master of “Italian jujutsu”

Levine has a background in Japanese jujutsu, which boils down to “weapon grappling”—grim stuff—but today he was teaching techniques from 14th-century Italian mercenary Fiore de’i Liberi. From what I’ve seen in the HEMA world, Fiore stands preeminent as something like the Urvater of the old masters and is probably studied as much as all the rest of them combined. Soldier first and gentleman second, Fiore fought wars, not organized duels, and so he assumes chaos: your opponent may have a different weapon than you, possibly a better one, and he might have friends with him too. In that case, you will probably be killed, but Fiore will give you a sporting chance. With luck, your opponent will be slow or stupid, and you’ll wrestle past his sword point and stab him in the eye with your rondel dagger. 

Once Levine made the connection for me between Fiore and jujutsu, I saw it all over the place that weekend. The following day, in a class on Fiore’s grappling, I was being helped by a classmate who had the freakish expertise in the minutiae of entries and joint manipulations that I’ve only found among jujutsu practitioners and old cops experienced in “junkyard aikido.” After he grapevined my knife arm again and again, in a different way each time, I asked him, “Okay, come clean with me: what ryūha are you from? You’re an advanced yūdansha in Yoshinkan or something, right?” Nope. This guy trains nothing but Fiore.

So what I took from this was, Fiore is medieval Italy’s version of koryū, the preserved remnants of Japanese battlefield techniques. Both have a compact syllabus comprising the few techniques that have half a chance of working in desperate circumstances, and then they refine them and drill them to death to wring every possible percentage point for success out of a bad situation.

There was lots of other unarmed stuff to study too. John Patterson taught a class on T.H. Monstery’s really superb simplified boxing system. If someone wanted to learn to fight but would only invest 90 minutes learning, I would hand them Monstery’s book and point them to Patterson’s class. 

Run, don’t walk, to this book. It was first recommended to me by my wing chun and JKD teacher, Sifu Jason Korol. If you read it, you’ll see why. It could be subtitled, “A Very Very Short Course in JKD, Without Words Like Pak Sao.'”

It included a very curious element I’ve never seen before: the lead left is thrown completely palm-up. Not just canted, but with the back of the hand facing all the way toward the floor.  Aside from extending your reach a little, it makes you rotate your shoulders into the blow without even thinking about it, in perfect time with your fist. My partner for the class had no training in fisticuffs, but from the very first punch, he torqued his shoulders into that lead hand like a boss. Where I come from, that takes months of practice! 

Gladder still did my heart glow with warm and fuzzies in Robin Price’s SUPERB hands-on class on shin kicks in 19th century Parisian défense dans la rue (“streetfighting”). This class could almost have been titled, “Wing Chun Highlights From Victorian Lowlifes.” Everyone strapped on very serious shin guards—easy to find at a tournament where people throw leg shots with four feet of steel—and drilled the simple magic of shin kicks. You quickly learned that if you kick shins, you can go a long way toward solving any problem less complicated than affordable life insurance. There was what you could call “strong thematic unity” in the class: the guy throws a punch, so you parry and kick him in the shins. He punches, so you slip it and kick him in the knee. He wants to clinch, so you kick him in the shins. He’s still holding on, so you kick him twice. He skitters back from your shin kick, so you advance and kick the little bones in his ankle. I’ve only gotten to go full-contact to the knees once before, and maybe that’s just as well, because I might get addicted, lazy, and bored: it’s like a cheat code for playing a game in “God mode.”

I sought out a saber class taught by Adam Simmons after watching his exciting, Matrix-like tournament fights. The shortest competitor, Simmons neutralized his opponents’ reach advantage with lateral footwork. I think that was the reason that he consistently pulled off something that I’d heard was too dangerous to work, namely saber strikes to the leg. According to the prevailing wisdom, a saber fighter can’t reach down at an opponent’s leg unless he leans his head forward unprotected; then it’s a simple matter for the opponent to withdraw his leg and simultaneouly cut the big, juicy head floating in front of him, like fruit ripe for the plucking. But Simmons chopped legs all afternoon with impunity, because by the time his opponent was swinging for his head, Simmons was sidestepping away from the oncoming blade, like a boxer who circles away from his opponent’s big right hand so it can’t find him. 

If there was a connecting thread among the classes I sought out, it was “ambidextrous footwork,” where either leg might lead, with the result that the hips face the opponent relatively squarely (instead of blading the body away from him sharply, as if duelling with pistols) and you take fairly natural, short, walking steps. 

That found its epitome in Robert Redfeather’s class on “Apache Knife Combat.” “Don’t hold your ground!” Redfeather repeatedly told the fifty or so participants as he sparred us one by one. Upright and relaxed, Redfeather ambled in circles away from one student after another armed with a rubber knife, never quite in range but always able to find some tendons to “cut” on an overextended arm. He kept this up for well over 30 minutes, opponent after opponent, all while talking aloud to the group and never losing his breath in spite of his 60+ years.

Wing Chun, “Pizza and Pasta” Style

If I found the object of my quest—the “sword in the stone” for the weekend—it was the Bolognese style of cut-and-thrust fencing. I had heard about it before, and its reputation for complexity. However, you can often find your way past complexity with the help of a good teacher, and I had several, including Adam Simmons again (the leg-chopping sabreur). He pointed out that Bolognese footwork mostly has you step along an X: forward and left, forward and right, back and left, back and right. Add in one or two pivots to keep your sword between the opponent and your body, and you have something that looks like wing chun footwork, just light and balletic, floating on the toes. And Jeff Jacobson offered a whole class on the tramazzone, the “wheeling” or moulinet cut from the wrist that Bolognese swordsmanship uses like a whirling buzz saw to occupy the center line when you advance, deflecting attacks that the opponent might try to put in your way and then sawing through him.

Joe Cantore

Best off all was a whole series of classes taught by the duo of Raker Wilson and Joe Cantore, who have an infectious Pauline zeal for evangelizing the good news of Bolognese swordsmanship. After running three separate classes in three days—no small feat—they distributed a set of materials to help further digest and solidify the material, including a recording made by Wilson, a professional voice actor, of the last and clearest of the 16th-century Bolognese manuals. 

Cantore exemplified a trait that delights me about the HEMA subculture: people are antiquarians in a way that is unabashed but also unaffected and leans toward the intellectual and philological. Instead of trying to translate the Italian vocabulary of the Bolognese system, Cantore preserves it and clearly relishes its Italic sonorousness—who could fail to enjoy saying guardia d’alicorno? It’s just cooler than “unicorn guard,” and that’s already saying a lot. (And don’t worry: HEMA is full of plenty of French, Spanish, and German too—the club where Cantore teaches, Einhorn, takes its name from the German word for unicorn. Where else can you do martial arts and get a daily reminder that Germany and Italy were both once bratty siblings in one huge, culturally bifurcated, semi-dysfunctional polity called the Holy Roman Empire, like the Red states and Blue states but with better architecture and no drinking age?) All over the tournament, people chatted about each other’s “sources,” meaning which 14th– through 19th-century texts they studied, and at about half the vendors’ tables you could buy bilingual critical editions of impressive scholarly quality, right next to the swords and shin guard. Try doing that in an MMA gym or a strip mall Taekwondo school!

3 thoughts on “Fourth Musketeer

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  1. Oh, Jason. Give peace a chance. Seriously, though, informative. entertaining, and well written. Had no idea this stuff existed.

    1. I’m told it’s much bigger in Europe, especially the farther east you go: huge melees of 20 Slavs in plate mail on one side inter-bashing with a score of Magyars or Bulgarians on the other. Predictably, Russia dominates.

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