About a year ago, a casual acquaintance made a Facebook post asking—facetiously—if anybody wanted to learn how to swordfight with her. By the time I saw the post, a link to a Groupon offered by a martial arts studio here in New York, a half-dozen of her friends had reaffirmed her gag. I suspect I’m the only person who followed the link in earnest. Did I want to learn how to swordfight? Absolutely I did.
One year into the practice of the German longsword—Kunst des Fechten, the art of fighting, in the tradition of 15th-century master Johannes Lichtenauer— and I can say that it is demanding to a degree that few other things I’ve undertaken have been, and rewarding in ways I never expected.
As a reader of fantasy novels from a young age, right up through my B.A. in Medieval Lit, the draw to classical European swordplay was immediate. Not to put too fine a point on it, but learning to swing a really big sword sounded like a lot of fun. As someone who was unaware that such things were even taught and studied, that silly Facebook post was a revelation. A thunderbolt. There were people like me out there, and I could hit them with swords. Consensually!
I snapped up the Groupon, cajoled a friend to do the same, and arrived at my first class bursting with enthusiasm. I left with tired arms, aching wrists, a sense that I was in for something very difficult, and not a bit less eagerness. I sucked it up, massaged my wrists, and went back the next week. I enjoyed it too much to let myself quit.
The German Longsword program was new when I first signed up, and I was the school’s first serious left-handed student, throwing an added layer of difficulty atop my general lack of athleticism or poise. Until Tristan and I could work together to sort out swordplay from the left, I agreed to study right-handed, and put all the focus I had into trying to keep up. Then we arrived at the first genuinely tricky stroke of the sword: Zwerchau, or “cross-stroke,” a blow which relies on a clever little manipulation of the blade that just about overwhelmed my limited and overstretched coordination.
It’s an old cliché to say that one feels a tool, or instrument, or blade “coming alive” in the hand, used to imply a sort of oneness between wielder and weapon born of long practice and familiarity. But that day, I felt something similar. My sword felt like a living thing—specifically, a large fish that resented being caught and swung around by the tail, and which was determined to flop around, maliciously useless, until I gave up.
And, while my sword flopped about and my frustration mounted, I saw the other students performing the cut again and again. Imperfect, perhaps, and far from effortless, but with the greatest degree of ability one could expect. Greater, by far, than my own.
I knuckled down and beat back my frustration. Focused. Watched the others in the mirror until my own idiot wrists could approximate the twist-and-snap designed to send the rear edge of the blade hurtling toward the side of an opponent’s head.
Finally, I saw my own blade pass clean across the forehead of my reflection for the first time. When it did, it was as though I had cleaved doubt in the skull and sent it to the ground in a bloody heap. In that moment, in a single well-placed blow, I won my first swordfight.
- Isaiah Samson is a student of Sword Class NYC, and a member of the New York Historical Fencing Association (NYHFA), the regional chapter of the Historical European Martial Arts Association (HEMAA).