By Isaiah Samson

IGX_circle_wreath_banner_globe_SMALLLongpoint 2014Schwertkampf Mexico

 

 

 

 

Competition season in HEMA (at least on the East Coast) runs from spring into fall, which means that as of this writing we’re coming toward its end. Specifically, we’re in the long gap between two of the three events that NYHFA/SCNYC attends in force. The first was our “home” event, Fechtschule New York, far north of the city but hosted by our founder and run by NYHFA. Following that was July’s Longpoint, which I believe remains the largest and perhaps most widely-beloved HEMA event in this region. I’m proud to say that my team competed like champions at both, even if I missed Longpoint myself.

As we begin to turn our thoughts to the Iron Gate Exhibition in October, this seems like a good opportunity to reflect on competition itself. I’ll do my best to avoid sports-movie cliches about how competing shows us the best in ourselves yadda yadda yadda, because in point of fact it can be just as likely to bring out the absolute worst in a person. Competition is, by nature, meant to be stressful, intense, and trying. Those circumstances invite us to overcome adversity and rise above our baser natures, but we’re only human, and some people’s baser natures are harder to escape than others.

Smarter folks than I could tell you just what primal, kill-or-be-killed mechanisms are tickled in a bout, but whatever they are they’re deeply-ingrained– a major and natural part of human-ness. Martial arts invite us to acknowledge those parts of ourselves, and as a 21st century desk-jockey I find it pretty darn gratifying to let them out to play every now and then. Study and discipline are great, intrinsically-beneficial things, but training for its own sake would feel to me like all seasoning but no steak. And if an ordinary sparring match is steak, competition is kobe beef plus a Pulp Fiction-style shot of adrenaline to the heart. You’re not just fighting new people, some of whom may be much more experienced, you’re doing so under real pressure to win.

But those “baser nature” issues are wrapped up in those same quirks of the mind that make a fight so much fun. Even in the friendliest of matches, giving one’s animal instincts too much free reign doesn’t just lead to poor fighting, it could easily get somebody hurt. Physical damage aside, any time we let ourselves over-invest emotionally in something as uncertain as the outcome of a fight or tournament, we leave ourselves open to the possibility of being crushed by defeat. Anyone who, like me, is prone to fixating on their mistakes will know this feeling well, and when we’re full of disappointment, self-recrimination, and frustration, it can be a short trip to acting (or fighting) like a jerk.

These instincts are powerful things, but even– or perhaps especially– those of us who really thrive on the dynamism and vigor of a good scrap should keep in mind that what we’re practicing is an art. A fighting art, yes, but still an activity based first and foremost on precision, deliberate action, and control. Those are all things your inner beast fundamentally rejects, which is why we have to work so hard to hammer them into our skulls. Fighting well isn’t just about training, it’s about taming.

 

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.

How I Fight on Make A Gif

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).

 

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