Event Report: The Western Martial Arts Workshop, 2007
An article by Pamela Muir
Classes did not start until noon on Thursday, so after breakfast we had time to wander the campus and look out at Lake Michigan. The neo-Gothic buildings and the lake shore setting established an idyllic mood that lasted the entire four days.
Classes were divided into four main tracks: Close-Quarters Combat, Medieval, Renaissance/Early Modern, and Lectures/Presentations. This year, for the first time, there was an additional day of classes added. On this first day there were two additional tracks: Fundamentals and Pedagogical. With so many choices, it was hard to decide just what to attend. Some students concentrated on one or two tracks while others took a "mix and match" approach. Either way, with four days of classes it was a lot of information to absorb. To help with the memory retention some instructors contributed their notes to the handbook that CSG provided all attendees or had a handout they distributed at the session. When I registered, I had told myself to try to concentrate on a single track. With so many excellent courses and first-rate instructors I ended up with at least one class from each track. There were some time slots where the decision about which course to take was very difficult because it was so hard to choose just one. It's beyond my ability to write about every class offered or even to write about all those that I attended, so I will just mention some of my own personal highlights.
Gregory D. Mele of the Chicago Swordplay Guild gave an excellent lecture titled "Frog DNA, Concentric Rings and Old-Fashioned Necromancy." Though some historical martial arts texts survive, we are no longer practicing a living art. Mr. Mele gave excellent advice for the researcher or martial artist and a reminder that we are no longer part of a living tradition. As stated in his notes, "The [historical European swordsmanship] community uses shorthand to discuss its various disciplines, saying ‘I practice Capoferro,' or ‘I train from Ringeck.' We do not! We practice modern reconstructions of historical schools of fencing." The title of this lecture is a reference to Michael Crichton's famous novel, Juraissic Park, in which frog DNA was mixed with with dinosaur DNA to recreate the ancient creatures. We in modern Western Martial Arts are doing a similar thing when we use our modern experiences to recreate historical artforms. One of Mr. Mele's main themes states that we we must balance our outside experiences with our research so that we do not recreate something that is more frog than dinosaur.
Mr. Mele's lecture tied in perfectly with another personal favorite of mine, Christian Henry Tobler's lecture "Scion of the House of Liechtenauer: The Importance of Paulus Kal's Fechtbuch." A copy of Mr. Tobler's book In Service of the Duke (which is a full-sized facsimile, translation and interpretation of Paulus Kal's fighting treatise) is in my personal library. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Mr. Tobler's comments and insights on his work.
Craig Johnson of Arms & Armor gave two lectures on weapons themselves. Unfortunately I missed his first presentation which was titled "Some Unique Weapons in the Western Martial Context." From those that did attend I heard a highlight of the presentation was driving a Hungarian axe into a piece of steel over a wooden target. It was an amazingly effective weapon and emerged with only very minor damage. I was able to attend Mr. Johnson's lecture "Sword Manufacture in the Medieval and Renaissance Period" where he did a fantastic job of dispelling the myth of the lone sword smith with his anvil under a tree making one sword at a time. Sword manufacture was an industry with factories and sophisticated technology that produced effective weapons, weapons that could take abuse and still perform the job for which they were made.
The lectures provided one of my few chances to sit. I attended some terrific hands-on western martial arts classes. Those that attended Pete Kautz's class "Combat Knife Throwing" had their own catch phrase for the rest of the weekend. Mr. Kautz started the class by warning everyone how easy it was to learn the method and that after class all would be looking at any object held in the hand wondering if it could be thrown. For the remainder of the weekend someone was always commenting, "I could totally throw this."
Steve Hick gave us a glimpse of a unique 17th century weapon in his class "An Introduction to the Montante, or Iberian Two-Handed Sword." He co-taught the class with Eric Myers and Puck Curtis. The class consisted of a series of plays with the montante designed for specific situations such as fighting multiple opponents in a narrow street, escorting a lady or breaking up a sword fight.
The class that made me think the most in my own training was Maestro Sean Hayes' two-part class "Tactics and Strategy for Longsword." I look forward to trying out his method of feeling out an opponent and using that information in a strategic matrix. It was also a thrill and a honor to be in a class taught by a true maestro of classical fencing, who applies his professional training towards recreating historical martial arts.
Bill Grandy of the Virginia Academy of Fencing was probably the busiest person outside of the CSG. He taught three classes and assisted in several more. I heard many compliments on his teaching technique and his swordsmanship.
Whenever we could find time between classes, the vendor tent was the place to be. There were many fine vendors selling and displaying quality products. Again, there were too many to mention them all. We were like kids in a candy shop. Our group came home with treasures from Albion Armorers, Arms & Armor, Darkwood Armory and Revival Clothing.
Coached free fencing was a new component this year and was an important part of the event. On Thursday and Friday evenings, after classes were done for the day, the instructors donated their time to supervise and instruct participants wishing for help with their fencing. Participants were allotted at least 15 minutes to be coached by one of the instructors in a particular weapon or style. Even after the instructors were off duty, free fencing continued for some time. It was a great opportunity for practitioners to cross swords with someone other than one of their usual training partners.
Saturday night was the traditional feast. Besides the delicious food, attendees were treated to some incredible demonstration bouts in which instructors of specific styles fenced in front of the audience to show their respective art forms. The crowd roared with Christian Tobler as he broke through Bill Grandy's defenses with a perfect scheitelhau. The epeé bout between Sean Hayes and Puck Curtis was breathtakingly beautiful. It was an example of a living tradition and what the historical European swordsmanship community is striving to become.
After-hours learning went on late into the night each night. Instructors and students informally gathered throughout Taylor Hall trading information and swapping techniques. There were walks to the lake and late night conversations with treasured friends.
Nicole Allen, Chairman, Gregory D. Mele, Programming Chair, John O'Meara, Registrar, and all of the Chicago Swordplay Guild put together a marvelous workshop. The classes, vendors, fencing and after-hours camaraderie made this a unique and special event. My only disappointment is that the next one won't be held until 2009.
About the Author
Pamela Muir is a suburban homemaker from Virginia with a small, but growing, sword collection. She studies and practices historical European swordsmanship at the Virginia Academy of Fencing.
Photographers: Bill Grandy, Pamela Muir, David Rowe, Ed Toton III