Swordfighting enthusiasts cross blades in Saugerties

NYHFA members practice (Photo by Nicole Terpening)

Last Sunday, feet away from just-stirring Main Street, eight armor-clad fighters took up swords as long as six-year-olds and went at one another with them, performing a dance of danger and creating a cacophony of steel on steel in the ballroom of the old Odd Fellows Temple.

The New York Historic Fencing Association, spearheaded by critically acclaimed sword fighter and author Mike Edelson, has taken up residence in the village, practicing what has been coined as “Historic European Martial Arts” (HEMA for short) on Sundays and Wednesdays.

“I’ve always compared [swordfighting] to furries,” said Edelson, referring to the noted community interested in drawing and dressing as anthropomorphic animals. “There used to be a furry here, a furry there — then the Internet came along and they all found each other. Whether you’re a swordfighter or a furry, the Internet took you out of your hiding hole and gave you a global community.”

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At first glance, it may appear that the fighters are imitating sequences from an action movie; their techniques, though, have been gleaned over years of study by the HEMA community and come from the painstaking translations of obscure early Renaissance and medieval texts about martial combat, as well as swordfighting traditions across various cultures. They are reasonably assured that what they’re doing closely imitates what a genuine clashing of swords from centuries past looked like

“For the sake of our self-respect, it all has to be historical, otherwise we’re just playing around with swords,” said NYHFA member Jeremy Wolf, who studies medieval history at Bard College. “We’re doing our best to recreate [battles] as [medieval sword fighters] would have done.”

Another member, Craig Marti of Newburgh, was in his second session on Sunday; a hobbyist blacksmith, he “wanted to learn the science behind the long sword before learning to make one.”

Many of the blade-wielding athletes travel from as far as New Jersey to attend these weekly skill-building and sparring sessions; while some are hobbyists, others test their metal mettle at competitions like “Fechtschule New York,” which takes place in Margaretville, and “Longpoint,” the world’s most popular HEMA event of which Edelson is an event director. During combat, off-limits areas include the back of the head, vertical slices along the spine and the groin; at Sunday’s session, Edelson surveyed the competitive members’ on attacks that had bested them in previous competitions and had them practice their respective counters.

“A lot of people don’t understand the difference between fighting effectively and smacking someone with a sword,” said Edelman. “One of the things that turn people off from this [is that] they want to play and then they spend three classes doing the same swing over and over again. Like any other sport, you need repetition.”

Edelson, an American HEMA authority, published an Amazon Bestseller book on the subject entitled Cutting with the Medieval Sword: Theory and Application last year — “it’s everything you need to know to wield the weapons effectively,” he said. He founded the New York Historical Fencing Association in 2005 in Brooklyn, later moving upstate to Andes. Branches of NYFHA also exist at Bard, in Harlem, at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and even in North Carolina, all started by students that wanted to spread their knowledge further across the country. Edelson’s initial interest in the art came from what he calls “typical stuff”: seeing depictions of swordfighting in film and “thinking it was cool.” Ultimately, this childhood awe matured into a lifelong calling. His initial interest in Japanese swordfighting gave him, he says, a unique approach to teaching its European equivalent; his addition of Japanese cutting practice revolutionized the way that HEMA groups trained across the country.

These aren’t hack jobs

“We don’t care if you can swing and hit someone with your sword — we care if you can cut,” said Edelson. On the New York Long Sword website’s curriculum description, it is written that “ideally, students should train as though they will one day have to use their skills in earnest, for to do anything less would not be true to the art we are attempting to revive.”

This “cutting” practice brings a dimension of reality to a sport scored by points of contact rather than the deadliness of any given blow. Whether a fighter could slice through flesh in a life-or-death situation is tested with a safer equivalent; rolled grass mats, called “tatami” in Japanese. According to sword lore, the usage of these mats for training was discovered when, after painstakingly harvesting grasses to practice with, Japanese swordfighters circa World War II saw someone roll up a tatami mat, which is typically used as a temporary floor covering in Japan. Rather than harvest new plants, these mats were recycled for swordfighters; now, they can be purchased for $8 apiece. 

Even fighters who don’t compete learn things; according to Edelson, grappling, short-range dagger usage and a slew of life skills are also rolled into the NYHFA curriculum. New practitioners may take weeks to transition from repeated sword movements to actual combat.

Like many other hobbies, historical swordfighting can get pricey. Blunt practice swords cost an average of $300; sharp training swords can cost over $1,000. One of the Saugerties NYHFA estimates that she has spent about $1,500 on the rest of her gear.

Is it safe? Well …

When asked about the dangers facing modern-day swordfighters, Edelson called the sport “potentially dangerous.” Within the entirety of the HEMA chapters, most casualties are limited to instances of broken and shattered bones. Edelson and his group recalled over lunch a fellow NYHFA member who had been stabbed through by a broken sword. He has apparently recovered.

Those interested in getting involved can visit the group’s website, www.newyorklongsword.com, to register. Beginner classes take place every Wednesday from 7-8:30 p.m.; advanced classes are on Sundays from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m.

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