Living by the sword

Combat Stress class at Fechtschule NY last year run by Jake Norwood, a combat veteran of the 101st Airborne and head instructor at Capital Kunst des Fechtens. Columnist in the bike shorts in the foreground. (photo by Thomas Schratwieser)

A few weeks ago, a sleepy little meadow just outside the village of Margaretville came to vivid life with bright tents, fire, and the clang of steel on steel. Roughly a hundred swordfighters from up and down the Eastern seaboard and beyond came to the Catskills for Fechtschule New York, a weekend of training and tournament fighting that was launched several years ago by a prominent local teacher of German longsword, and that has now found a home on a plot of land that’s been in my family for a few generations.

It was a sight that would have brought tears of joy to the eyes of my teenage self: dozens of swordfighters gleefully practicing their zwerchhaus under my grandmother’s apple trees. As a kid, I was a sucker for stories about swords and fighting. As an adult, I’ve been lucky enough to pursue the real thing.

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Swordfighting women are having a moment right now in the culture, thanks to a certain movie you may have heard of. Wonder Woman is absolutely crushing it on every front: the box office, Twitter, your friends, your mom’s friends, your local playground. At this point I think most of my friends have basically had religious experiences watching Gal Gadot jump off a car door.

I wanted to go there, I truly did. I love swords. I love sword women. I want to believe. But I think I know too much.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved Wonder Woman. I loved it a lot. It just didn’t make me feel like — well, like an Amazon. The vision of Robin Wright sproinging twenty feet in the air while firing three arrows at once was glorious, like a thunderstorm, or a beautiful train. At that moment, you could feel it in the stale-popcorn air: the electric thrum of a theater full of women all whispering to themselves, “I can do anything!” And then there was me, thinking wistfully to myself, “oh lordy, if only I could fight without twenty pounds of safety gear.”

In lieu of Diana and Antiope, who were too godlike for me to aspire to, I ended up hopelessly overidentifying with Charlie, a gangly rat-faced sniper blessed with an overabundance of Celticness and a raging case of PTSD. From the moment his face first appeared on screen — at the receiving end of somebody else’s fist — I could already see what the inevitable “Which Wonder Woman Character Are You?” Buzzfeed quiz had in store for me. By the time the movie was half over, I was convinced Ewen Bremner had set out to troll me personally.

I’m pretty sure I’m alone in this attitude among my lady friends. One writer friend of mine is dismayed that I, an actual swordfighting lady person, somehow managed to watch an entire feature-length film about Amazon warriors and emerge convinced of my destiny as a deranged singing sidekick.

“Lissa. You are NOT this guy,” she chided. “You are LITERALLY a woman with a sword.”

I am literally a woman with two swords, thanks. Alas, I now know from years of practice that no amount of cold steel can give me the noble bearing of a Diana, or the thighs to flip a tank. That’s okay with me, though. I’ve always been more at home in the Marvel ‘verse anyway, with its misfits and mutants, than in the DC world of proud and upright superheroes.

While swordfighting hasn’t made me a superhero, it has made me tougher, stronger, faster and more aware of my surroundings. It has woken me up to the joy of battle like no sport has ever done. It has given me valuable training in courage — a virtue you don’t hear about nearly often enough, especially in the context of women-people.

But swordfighting has also brought home to me how unprepared I am for real warfare. At Fechtschule New York, I died dozens of times, in a variety of exciting ways: crushing blow to the head from above, impaled by a thrust to the torso, slow lingering death from stomach wound. It was a hell of a lot of fun, and also educational, but I hope to spend a bit less time dying next year.

Treating swords as a fighting discipline rather than a sport raises the stakes. In my school, we strive to be martial, and to respect the lethal intent of the techniques even while fighting with modern synthetic armor and blunt steel swords. It’s never lost on me that the real thing is dangerous — and that in a real fight with a seasoned sword-wielder, I’d stand a good chance of ending up in bits on the floor.

Whether or not you’re any good at it, swordfighting is cool (doubly so, if you’re a small lady person). People love swords. Strangers who work up the nerve to ask about my shocking bruises tend to be impressed, once they realize the violence in my life is consensual.

Whenever I talk swords with non-fighters, I get the creeping feeling that they’re giving me a lot more warrior cred than I’ve actually earned. Every time a fellow mom goes wide-eyed with admiration and calls me a badass, I think ruefully about how very far I am from the upper ranks of American longsword fighters, and I try to be gracious. Every time some guy twice my size grins and says, “Ooh, I wouldn’t want to fight you,” I wonder grimly about my odds of actually taking him down.

Having people overestimate my sword-fu sometimes feels a little patronizing, but I get it. It’s not really me that they see. They’re hungry for a Diana, or a Furiosa. I can hardly blame them. We’re starved for women warriors in this culture.

On that front, I’ve been more lucky than most: I had one in the house growing up. My mother studied aikido in Woodstock with Harvey Konigsberg when I was a kid, and she got frighteningly good at it. She used to come home from practice covered with bruises and absolutely radiant. “Come on, attack me,” she’d say to us, with a gleam in her eye — and my brother and I would take turns wondering how we ended up flat on the floor so fast.

True to my warrior woman roots, I’m currently trying to teach my daughter to parry. It’s an uphill battle. She’s eight going on sixteen, and too cool for swords; that’s a mom thing. Help me, Patty Jenkins.

Lissa Harris is the former editor of the Watershed Post. She lives in Margaretville with her wife and daughter. Send her Catskills news tips at lissa.e.harris@gmail.com.


The martial art of longsword

Longsword fighting is one of several disciplines that fall under the general umbrella of Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA). Using both physical practice and textual study, modern practitioners are reconstructing long-lost fighting techniques set down in manuals by medieval and Renaissance sword masters.

Unlike modern sport fencing, which is mainly an athletic contest, the focus in HEMA is on developing authentic and effective martial arts skills.

The typical longsword used for HEMA is a double-edged sword roughly four feet long and weighing three or four pounds, with a straight crossguard, a hilt long enough for two hands, and a heavy pommel that can be used to strike.

Longswords are longer and heavier than the one-handed weapons used for sport fencing, but the origins of the word “longsword” — or langes schwert, in German — refer not to the length of the sword itself but to the way a fighter holds it for unarmored combat, with two hands on the hilt. The same weapon can also be used for “half-swording,” a technique used against armored fighters in which the wielder grips the middle of the blade to deliver more powerful thrusts.

For more information, and a schedule of local longsword classes in Saugerties and Delhi, visit the New York Historical Fencing Association website.

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