Swordplay? No Way!

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

The Masters of Defence flourished in the swashbuckling Renaissance. In Italy and Germany they were refined men, learned men, guys who hung out with artists, poets and scientists. Albrecht D¨rer, the artist, illustrated a book of wrestling holds. Leonardo and Michelangelo were friends of fight teachers. One, Agrippa, is now chiefly remembered as a doctor. Fighting was just another art, just one more achievement for Renaissance men to master.

But history moved on, and it left the sword behind. Eventually street fighters adopted a new weapon, lighter and more devastating than the rapier: the handgun. And soon nobody bothered to carry a sword anymore. They grew to seem quaint and old-fashioned, less like deadly weapons than fashion accessories. The court sword, as the rapier's successor was called, was used chiefly for duels, and despite the movies, duelers hardly ever killed each other. That dandyish, aristocratic kind of fighting (John sounds disgusted as he explains this) "degenerated into the modern sport of fencing."

Fencing! With its prissy refusal to use the left leg and hand! With its wimpy foils instead of real swords! With its stylized rules -- rules -- that say you can't grab your opponent's foil, can't cut to the legs, can't whack your opponent with a buckler -- rules, basically, that tame all-out combat, make it safe, drain away the blood.

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.

With his rapier, John poke-poke-pokes the air as he talks. I'm not sure what invisible enemy he is attacking: RenFest dandies? Asian martial-arts practitioners with no respect for the West? Or just the passage of time, which breaks down even the toughest weapons, the most skilled martial artists?

Time, I decide: John is killing time. Only he kills it more fiercely than most of us do, and with a great deal of style.

E-mail Lisa Gray at lisagray@alumni.rice.edu.

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