The above video kind of blew my mind. It is five minutes of something called the Free Scholar exam. The guy in the green shorts displays his knowledge of fencing, by taking on his whole class.
This isn’t what swordsmanship is supposed to look like. I saw most of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. I also saw Romeo and Juliet, the one from the 1968, and the Three Musketeers… and Zorro. From that, I had developed a vision of swordplay that was big and reckless. Theatrical.
This is different. It is sticky; sensitive. It’s also slow and thoughtful – the polar opposite of what fencing has become. Of course it’s just practice- an actual fight would look very different, but it suggests a level of awareness and gamesmanship that is worlds beyond average swordplay.
There was a time when I considered taking up the sword. There were clubs on Drexel’s campus dedicated to both Fencing and Kendo. Both arts have an undeniable nerd-coolness to them. But can you use them in a fight? Hmmm…
This is different. It is the art of the European Renaissance. This evolved centuries before fencing became what it is today, an elegant sport, distilled down to just a few techniques. This was an art developed by men whose lives depended on competency with such weapons. It also came at a time when people were becoming obsessed with explaining how things work. They wrote about it swordsplay, a lot.
This art is the beneficiary of copious writings of old school swordsmen, combined with loving reconstruction by contemporary zealots. Call it a rebirth.
Although they train with a wooden sword, they have a whole host of weapons and tactics at their disposals, including daggers, pole arms and empty hands.
I asked if one could use fencing or kendo in a real fight. At the time when I was looking at those arts, I let the martial arts forums make the decision for me. The answer was a resounding no. “Who carries a sword?” They demanded.
My own experience tells me otherwise. I practiced Shotokan Karate at a small but renowned school in West Philadelphia, for a time. One of my fellow white belts happened to teach kendo in Princeton New Jersey (…I think it was Princeton).
The man was lightning quick. He also had a gift for making your decisions for you. He would leave an opening, let you walk in and then punish you for being so gullible. Unless you are a highly trained martial artist, he could probably beat you bloody with his bare hands.
Now, let’s put a stick – a broom handle for example – in his hands. See how this fight goes.
The thing is, how often do grownups throw fists? I can think of two times in the past five years when I felt the lives of my family were in jeopardy. The first time I pulled a small knife from my front pocket. The second time I grabbed a big Mag-lite flashlight. Fisticuffs is for honor fights and competitions. Yet we train as if there is a genuine danger of being held up by a mugger who is versed in Muay Thai, or ninjutsu.
I’ve come to the conclusion that you just have to learn what you feel the most passionate about, and then make it work. Although I wish I had at least checked out the kendo class rather than letting the forum warriors make the decision for me, I have found my home with Hsing Yi kung fu.
Some guys, however, want to fight real old school. They need to check out the sword arts of Renaissance Europe. They’ll be the baddest dudes at Medieval Times!
In case you didn’t know it, I write about martial arts. Particularly the ones that are underrepresented at the local strip mall. Like combat archery, which is just one more pointy thing the Atienza Kali have to put in you.
Thanks Mushtaq Ali Al Ansari. You are a font of knowledge of the obscure killing arts.