Swordplay? No Way!

When it comes to Renaissance weaponry, John Clements is deadly serious

The medieval long-sword I'm holding in both hands, over my head, isn't real. It's a wooden "waster," designed for training -- and God knows that I'm not ready for metal blades. Until this afternoon, I couldn't have told you the first thing about swords. I didn't know the difference between a buckler and an épée, didn't realize that the swordplay in Highlander was historically ignorant crap, couldn't have told you how, precisely, the duded-up swashbucklers at the Renaissance Festival were butchering the era they purport to celebrate.

But in the last couple of hours, John Clements has made it his business to teach me. He has rummaged through his library of Xeroxed texts, showing me woodcuts of naked Renaissance fighters, paintings of severed hands and heads rolling around medieval battlefields. In his garage, he had me pull on a chain-mail glove, then sawed a sword back and forth over the back of my hand: See how well the mail works? No bleeding! He handed me replicas of dozens of swords, so I could feel their weight and balance, and understand the European arms race between 1300 and 1700.

And now, out in John's suburban, privacy-fenced backyard, he's teaching me to fight. He shows me how to grip the waster, then faces me, wielding one of his own. He issues his standard statement of purpose: We are not playing for points. We are not putting on a show. We are practicing a dead-serious martial art. Certainly he's dead serious: He looks at me the way a mongoose looks at a cobra. He's not a big guy -- five foot seven, 150 pounds -- but he's muscular, fast and focused. Even his goatee looks formidable.

Tools of the trade: Clements at home.
Amy Spangler
Tools of the trade: Clements at home.
Swords, no sorcerors: Clements thrusts at the heart of student Jeffrey Basham.
Amy Spangler
Swords, no sorcerors: Clements thrusts at the heart of student Jeffrey Basham.

Strike at me, he says, waving toward his chest, and I try. In pedagogic slo-mo, he dodges the blow and countercuts, rubbing his waster's edge against my exposed stomach: a slash to my vital organs. I am dead.

I try striking at him a half dozen more ways: Starting with the waster to the left, the right, pointed up, pointed down, aiming for his chest, his head, his legs. Even at half speed, he usually kills me in about three seconds; once, I manage to survive for four. He deflects my wooden blade with the flat of his own, then slices open my neck; he slashes off my legs or somehow traps my head under his arm, leaving him free to dispatch me however he pleases.

I studied a little European history in high school and college, but it was all about geopolitics and art movements and who the Hapsburgs married, intellectual subjects that never grabbed me viscerally. But swordplay -- the narrow slice of European history that obsesses John -- that's all about viscera. If we were fighting for real, battling like the Crusaders, then my guts would be strewn across John's backyard.

I am dead, dead, dead. But the history comes to life.

Like lots of kids, John gravitated toward swords. In '70s Florida, he loved gladiator movies; he organized playground sword battles; he read Ivanhoe. And when he was 13, he started fencing lessons.

Fencing disappointed him. He began asking questions: Why wasn't he learning the kind of swordplay he'd seen in The Three Musketeers? Why fight with wimpy fencing foils instead of rapiers and daggers? Whatever happened to two-handed war swords? He put those questions to anyone he thought might know -- his fencing teachers, fantasy role players and experts in staged combat -- but nobody offered a satisfactory answer.

Still, he played at sword-fighting with his friends, saw other people in the park doing the same thing and fought against them, too. Soon he had 50 or so people regularly "crossing swords" with padded sticks. In little Melbourne, Florida, 50 was a lot of people.

But John wanted more than a play group; he wanted rigor and substance. In 1980, as a high school junior, he began studying European arms and armor, making replicas and reading everything he could find. He also turned to the Asian martial arts and specialized in kickboxing. But when he asked his teachers about the Western martial arts, they replied that there were none. That bullheaded ignorance infuriated him. But look at the weapons, he'd say. You're saying that Europeans, who were so ingenious in other realms -- architecture, government, science, painting -- didn't apply that ingenuity to the arts of war?

Eventually John's quest led him to Hank Reinhardt, the cantankerous Georgian who, more than any other American, knows about fighting with European swords. In the '60s Hank had helped found the Society for Creative Anachronism, a role-playing group that re-created the Middle Ages "as they should have been." For nearly seven years he went undefeated in the group's mock battles, and even fashioned a business out of his fixation: Museum Replicas Ltd., which sells reproduction swords.

Hank ultimately grew sick of the Creative Anachronists' fantasy and role-playing; he adored the swords, couldn't stand the sorcerers. On his own, he explored the real power of medieval weaponry. He loved to make "test cuts," whacking bamboo or sides of beef to demonstrate the effectiveness of European blades. And he loved to match his weapons against those of other continents, taking on everyone from Filipino stick fighters to kendo swordsmen.

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