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.

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.

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."

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.

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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