Friday, February 20, 2009

Getting medieval on a Sunday

Note: This is a version of a story I wrote that appeared in the Westword online. The editor thought this version was too much like a newspaper article, but I liked it so here it is! I think I am OK in posting it here since the quotes are different and the story is different, it is just about the same event.

Suburban swashbucklers

I spent Sunday learning the ancient art of the “spada a dui mani,” or two-handed Italian longsword, at a place called the Rocky Mountain Swordplay Guild in Wheat Ridge. A bastion of medieval fighting tactics in the heart of the Front Range, the RMSG offers a great full-body workout, a history lesson and a chance to wield some serious heavy metal.

Not your daddy’s D&D

Before you start thinking “frustrated Dungeon Masters screwing around,” let me introduce you to one Maestro Fiore dei Liberi da Premariacco. Dei Liberi was an Italian swordmaster who wrote a comprehensive combat manual in 1409 titled “Il Fior di Battaglio,” or “The Flower of Battle.”

Dei Liberi’s manuscript (of which only three copies are known to exist) forms the basis of the core classes at RMSG. In addition to longsword, the book lays out a complete fighting system including grappling, and fighting with daggers, lances and poleaxes. Lead instructor and school founder Roger Siggs has worked on translating the “Flower” as well as other medieval fighting treatises. These works make up the main teaching materials of what is known as historical European martial arts (HEMA), or Western martial arts (WMA).

Siggs, who has a Master’s degree in medieval history from University of California - San Diego (with a concentration in Byzantine military history), started RMSG in 2006 when he moved to Colorado. He became interested in HEMA while he was a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), but after 13 years he parted ways with the SCA in favor of a more structured and historical approach to getting medieval.

“Eventually I felt that the SCA didn’t fit my needs (it’s a club where fighting is an ancillary aspect of the organization) so I began working towards the development of WMA/HEMA as a distinct martial style, rather than relegating it to renaissance faires and that sort of thing,” Siggs said.

‘Ready … FIGHT!’

The daylong workshop started with a rousing game of Hooverball. This game – invented by President Herbert Hoover’s personal physician to get the portly commander-in-chief in fighting shape – involves two teams hurling a medicine ball over a net, volleyball-style. Players try to catch the ball and throw it back over the net (in this case a rope) so it lands without being caught. The act of chucking the 10-pound ball over the rope is a great warmup and activates the muscles that are needed to swing swords around (that is, pretty much all of them).

Then we grabbed the blades. Ssssshing! “Die, fiend!” Ahem, I get ahead of myself. Dei Liberi’s work outlines “dances,” or forms, with the longsword. These dances show the students how to transition between the various positions and guards. Then the class broke into pairs and began practicing “plays,” or brief snippets of combat, where one person attacks and the other performs a counterattack.

The students, all of who had varying degrees of experience in HEMA or other martial arts, did not fit into any particular mold, but all shared a love for things medieval.

“I’ve always pursued somewhat anachronistic hobbies,” said Douglas Wagner, 38, of Denver (shown fighting me in red pants at right). Wagner, a curatorial assistant in the Denver Art Museum’s Asian Art Department, also studies jousting and participates in jousting tournaments. In HEMA he found a way to express an old dream in new ways.

“With martial arts you find there is no such thing as an ultimate goal. The goal is to always improve,” he said. “I get to become that vision of myself as a Renaissance or medieval character that I’ve imagined myself to be since I was a kid.”

Actor and stage combat director Benaiah Anderson, 32, said he studies at RMSG to improve his martial arts skill and get ideas for his work. However, he doesn’t use the material directly, even in his current role in “Richard III” at the Denver Center for Performing Arts.

“The audience wants an exciting visual story, not the most direct way to kill your opponent,” Anderson said.

Siggs, a black belt in aikido, judo and kyokushinkai karate, gleefully directed the controlled melees.

“I’m gonna smack him down, then I’m gonna hit him, then I’m gonna hit him again,” said Siggs, demonstrating a parry and two swift sword strokes.

Looking on, class participant and acupuncturist R. Scott Malone said the action reminded him of something.

“It’s like a steel bitch slap,” Malone said.

An important question

After minutes of contemplation, I finally thought of the most profound and deep question I could ask Siggs about his art: Who would win a fight, Fiore dei Liberi or Bruce Lee?
“Personally, I’d have to say Fiore,” Siggs said. “We know that he fought five duels at the sword with only regular clothing and no armor.”

However, Siggs does cede the Little Dragon one point:

“Bruce Lee is famed not just for movies, but also for his development of Jeet Kun Do – his method of martial arts – which posits the idea that all fighting is systemic and by following a series of core principles, you can gain ability and skill in any situation,” Siggs said. “Amazingly enough, this is the same mindset Maestro Fiore details for us, but 600 years earlier.”

Siggs said that people who are interested in the material would do well in the class. But, if your only goal is to be a “bad ass,” then the class is not for you, since there is a lot of hard work involved.

“Personal development, alongside of butt-kicking, is really the primary focus of our work,” he said.


Susan said...

Personalamente io prefero tua blog article to the one paid for by the publisher! It seems quirky-newsy which we expect from you along with super quotes from a nice x-sexction of participants. Speaking of -pants!- get a pair of black well fitting ones, ok???
a fashion conscious fan

Anonymous said...

Ben wrote a great article- the RMSG all thanks him a lot for it. We might even get him decent pants...