Swordplay? No Way!

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

Hank wanted to promote European swordplay -- not "as it should have been," but as it was: a serious martial art, using real weapons, in which prowess mattered more than a fancy costume. He began teaching Museum Replicas employees how to deploy the swords they sold, and in '91 he founded the Historical Armed Combat Association, or HACA (pronounced "hack-uh," of course). He advertised the group in the Museum Replicas catalog.

John saw the ad and signed on eagerly. He had joined the Navy, and during the Persian Gulf War was stationed in the Nevada desert. But his heart belonged to rapiers and long-swords, not ICBMs. He more or less apprenticed himself to Hank, trading letters at first and then eventually trading blows in person. Finally John had met a swordsman as martial as he was.

At about the same time, his rooting around in libraries and museums led him to the Masters of Defence, medieval and Renaissance fight instructors who wrote and illustrated how-to manuals. John studied whatever translations he could lay hands on, works by Fiore Dei Liberi, Hans Talhoffer, Pietro Monte, George Silver and others. The manuals gave him a rush. Sometimes the Masters advocated techniques that matched what he and Hank had figured out for themselves, simply by testing the different weapons. And sometimes -- even more exciting -- the techniques were different, and deadlier.

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.

John began teaching sword-fighting classes at a Nevada community college. After leaving the Navy, he went to college in Orlando, Florida, and offered classes there, too. But somehow those students never caught John's fire; they didn't want to spend their free time discussing the use of grappling in a rapier fight.

Houston proved more fertile. John began offering three-night introductory lectures through the Jewish Community Center and Leisure Learning Unlimited. Usually, on the first night, he alienates a big chunk of his class, the Creative Anachronists and RenFest lords who refuse to repent the error of their ways. But often, among the students who return for the second night, something clicks. They want more than lectures; they want to learn the techniques, to practice slashing and piercing instead of hearing about it.

Now, on Wednesday nights, he meets with advanced students in an auditorium behind Missouri City's City Hall. On a typical evening around a dozen show up, dressed in sweats and armed with wasters or metal replicas. They're mostly professionals; about a third are women. (John offers a historical precedent: In medieval Germany, women sometimes dueled, and drawings of them appear in some of the oldest manuals.) For the most dedicated students, even the weekly class isn't enough. Sometimes, in the evenings or on weekends, John and a student will cross swords in the street in front of his house, dodging cars as well as blows. So far, the neighbors haven't complained, or even seemed to notice.

During the day John works mostly out of his house. Like his mentor, Hank, he has managed to make a living out of swordplay: Besides the classes, he has written a pair of popular reference manuals, Renaissance Swordsmanship in '97, Medieval Swordsmanship in '98. About once a month he gives out-of-town seminars and workshops. (I asked him how he smuggled his swords past Canadian airport checkpoints for a gig in Calgary. He wouldn't say.)

But though John's making a living, much of his sword evangelism generates no income at all. After Hank let HACA fizzle, John got his permission to resurrect the group. Membership is free now; you need only to subscribe to the HACA principles detailed on the Web site (thehaca.com). John keeps the site stocked with Masters of Defence manuscripts and articles by modern-day sword lovers. "COMING SOON!" one headline blares, "New material from professor Sydney Anglo, leading scholar of historical fighting manuscripts." Embedded in that promo is John's hopeful vision of HACA: a band of ruthless, fast-moving warriors who await nothing so eagerly as an ivy-tower linguist's translation of a long-lost medieval manuscript.

Two things you should know about the Renaissance:

First, all that Western learning was spurred by guys obsessed with ancient writing and art -- Europeans studying forgotten Latin and Greek culture. The Dark Ages? That was when no one studied the ancients, when the old ways were neglected, the old manuscripts left to gather dust.

Second, the slow-moving didn't survive long in the mean streets of Michelangelo's Florence.

John takes down a rapier hanging on his living-room wall. It's lightweight, pointy-tipped, built for speed: a street-fighting weapon.

"Now," he says. "It's the Renaissance. You're going around town, urban centers popping up everywhere. Feudalism's over. There's a rising middle class. Anybody who wants a sword can buy one, everyone's going around armed, and everyone wants to know how to fight. They want to learn the Art of Defence.

"So if you're using this" -- I'm holding a cut-and-thrust sword -- "and we meet in a tavern or back alley, I do this!" He pokes me with his rapier, jabjabjab, like a sewing machine's needle. "While you're trying to do big slashes, I'm going poke-poke-poke -- in the leg and then the eye, or in the hand and then the eye. All I can do is stab you. But back then, you take a good penetration wound -- to the heart, the lungs, the sinus, the eye, the throat, the neck, the bladder -- and it's, good-bye."

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