Swordplay Symposium International

A Report on the First Annual
Swordplay Symposium International

Brian R. Price

Years ago, when I lived in Los Angeles, I had decided to regularize the training of my students, to train them with something that looked more like a martial arts approach than the ad-hoc sort of sparring / drills that we used to call training. To this end I had spent a good deal of time observing the top 10% or so of combatants within the SCA (whose skills are enviable across any discipline) to see if I could identify key elements that they all had in common. At that time–this would have been 1989-90–only Steve Hicks had been doing any work with the medieval fechtbuchs, and given that the Internet was at that time available only to academics, his work remained unavailable.

We gathered ourselves up into a small group and approached my fencing coach, Mr. Ted Katzoff, instructor of Fencing for both the Jr. Olympics and for UCLA, where I attended college. Mr. Katzoff shared an interest in historical swordsmanship, teaching rapier/main gauche, small sword, and longsword to a variety of students. This interest enabled us to reach agreement on the use of some of his very pleasant training facilities, and we were off, drilling in a very fine, ambient room full of mirrors and several heavy bags.

Training began with footwork and elements of the basics; awareness, focus, body mechanics, and most importantly, initiative. From there we progressed to the basic cuts, having worked through drills for each of the other elements. Cuts with batons were delivered with authority first to the heavy bag, then a lot of slow work was engaged to steadily refine the quality of the cuts. Gradually, combatants graduated to working with single-sword combats and then to work with shields, finally progressing to armoured combat. Everyone reported that they achieved a great deal out of the training, it was fun and all could see their skills improve on a weekly basis. My own skills improved markedly as we struggled through ten different ways to describe a given motion or concept until the student saw the light, plus I had to be that much cleaner or they would replicate my mistakes (its annoying seeing a flaw repeated in the mirror by ten different students).

Fast forward ten years. The Internet has connected disparate groups together as never before, enabling niche interests previously too small to thrive to suddenly prosper. The work of Dr. Sydney Anglo and Steve Hicks, amongst others, have in recent years become available to students of medieval swordsmanship. The fechtbuchs of Talhoffer, de Liberi, I.33, Jeu de la Hache are now easily available on the net and in print editions. Reenactors, combat society members, theatrical choreographers and the like have been joined by a new breed of medieval martial artist; this martial artist takes their inspiration chiefly from these medieval fechtbuchs, interested more in the fighting technique than in the tournaments, group combats and medieval history that has drawn previous generations.

While I am not sure that it has been established that these fechtbuchs represent the common techniques of the knightly classes, they certainly do represent a rich body of technique that was being taught in Germany and Italy, and there are hints to what was done in England and France (see the recent Royal Armouries Yearbook #4 for a brief discussion on this with reference to Talhoffer). It is clear also that the techniques applied involved a great deal more than has been done thus far with respect to the sword arts, and I recommend their study highly, even if we have not yet established the complete context in which these techniques were used.

Greg Mele, J. Mark Bertrand, Mark Rector and Terry Brown, the Directors of the Swordplay Symposium International, established SSI with an impressive array of advisors to,

“Swordplay Symposium International is a not-for-profit organization, created to encourage appreciation of Western military and civilian swords and hand weapons and to promote historical knowledge of their martial usage.”

Building on the explosive growth of historical swordsmanship groups in the North America, Europe and Australia, Greg has managed to bring together key advisors consisting of scholars, reenactors, craftsmen, and practitioners. The mission of SSI, as is indicated above, is to serve as a communications mechanism to legitimize and bring together practioners of the Western martial arts that revolve around swords and swordsmanship.

Swordplay Symposium 2000
The first symposium of the new organization was capably organized by the SSI directors in conjunction with HACA, the Historical Armed Combat Association in Houston, Texas over Memorial Day weekend, May 27-29th 2000. Much of the key logistical work was done by Mr. and Mrs. Darce’, but many of the advisors also supported the event by preparing workshops, practicums, sparring sessions and lectures.

Many of the combatants have commented favorably on the mix of historical, philosophical and practical material; indeed it was attended by members of the HACA School, by talented instructors from Italy, Scotland, Australia and the US. The SCA had members in attendance, though it was understood from the beginning that most of what would be discussed at the conference would only have limited application in the SCA context. A vast majority of the combatants at the conference emphasized swordplay after 1500; a few were oriented at the medieval fighting techniques that would be most interesting to KCT readers, but despite this all discovered a shared fraternity in the sword arts regardless of period, a camaraderie that the Symposium can count as a major success.

Greg Mele opened the conference with a short statement outlining his hopes for the weekend, which was basically that SSI members and advisors representing different approaches to the study of Western swordsmanship would be able to come together successfully to trade insights and experiences, that bridges and friendships would be built, and that the the members would be strengthened in the process. He also read letters of support for the symposium sent by David Edge (Curator of the Wallace Collection, London) and several of the other advisors

Greg was followed by a short statement by John Clements, Director of HACA, generally a warm welcome extended to those who traveled so far and expressing high hopes for the event. He also read words of encouragement from Ewart Oakshott and Keith Ducklinn of the Royal Armouries.  J. Mark Bertrand, another of the SSI Directors, then delivered they keynote address sent forward in support by Dr. Sydney Anglo, the best known scholar in the field. He read an excerpt from Dr. Anglo’s new book, which was appropriate as it encapsulated the state of knowledge in this area, and also outlined difficulties encountered in the study.

Schwertenem & Entering Techniques
John Clements then prepared a fascinating demonstration of entering techniques designed for use with the longsword, taken mostly from De Liberi and Talhoffer. These maneuvers, essentially highly skilled binds and grapples for use in after a combatant has closed (and mostly but not exclusively for unarmoured combatants), seemed to echo similar moves in modern Aki-do and other Eastern arts, but they are well illustrated in the fechtbuchs and as his demonstration showed, were extremely effective.

Sidesword to Rapier
Andrea Lupo Sinclair taught a course here that, unfortunately, I had to miss owing to a variety of fascinating conversations perataining to the manufacture of arms and armour that were equally engrossing. But I was sorry that I had missed it, especially after having gotten to know Andrea better later. People who attended the course were impressed.

Dom Duarte’s Regementio
I did attend Steve Hick’s lecture on Dom Duart’e Regementio, of particular interest since Steve and I have been commuicating with respect to Iberian sources and given my recent journey to Portugal. Steve spoke well though he perhaps downplayed the value of the fifteen lines of the Regementio he found after a dozen years of searching; (look for the lines to appear on the KCT site soon!). As usual Steve was engaging, entertaining and provided a huge amount of information.

Test-Cutting Demo
Following the lunch break, Hank Reinhardt–best known for his founding of Museum Replicas–held a demonstration entitled, “What Happens When They’re Sharp.” In this demo he and John Clements demonstrated the effects of weapons on cardboard tubes–which are similar to the sheafs of bamboo used by Asian martial artists for cutting practice–mail, a phonebook and a Windlass Steelcrafts 15th c. barbute replica.

Other than the obvious fun to be had in cutting things apart with heavy cutting objects, the point of the session was that cutting practice could be used to help validate technique, and to demonstrate the effects of a cut on various kinds of armour. The mail and plate held up exceedingly well–I think it was some of the Indian riveted mail–though it was obvious that more work would be needed to replicate a body in motion and some links did tear. The effectiveness of armour was highlighted; it was clear that combatants wore armour because it worked.

Practical Saviolo
Stephen Hand, who proved a most potent and articulate practitioner (he did some truly impressive fights with a rebated backsword with Greg Mele, John Clements and some other folks), taught a well received course that I was, unfortunately, forced to miss (though others reported that it was excellent) as I prepared for my own class–

International Competition Initiatives
I delivered a paper that had taken much longer to prepare than I had originally hoped entitled, Tournament Formats & Combat Systems: Internationalization in Medieval Martial Arts, where I attempted to present the entire community of swordsmanship practitioners and tournament sponsors, reviewed extant combat systems and proposed next step directions for those who were interested in the establishment of an international tournament circuit.

The reviews of the various communities were very well received, although I ran out of time without having the opportunity to go through the various tournament formats, but the feedback was very good. I highlighted the new AEMMA combat system and tournament format to be used at the October Symposium (Toronto, Canada) and a prerelease version of the IMA rules proposals I was making in the International Medieval Alliance.

Open Fencing / SSI Advisors Executive Session
The Directors went into Executive Session while the rest of hte attendees engaged in open fencing. A variety of topics were discussed, and the council decided to continue to pursue the production of SPADA–SSI’s journal–to assemble a marketing plan, and at Hank Reinhart’s suggestion, to act also as a watchdog group helping to legitimize swordsmanship and to help catch legislative actions that threaten the practice of historical swordplay.

Apparently the open fencing was enjoyable!

We had dinner and continued to build friendships, the informality of the evening good for burgeoning friendships. Most of the Directors retired to Mark Bertrand’s fine home for further discussions, and we were there able to view an earlier local broadcast that had featured the Symposium on the evening news, a favorable but short presentation.

SSI Advisor Session and Panel Discussion- Training Equip
On Sunday morning the advisors were gathered to field questions and hold an open discussion on equipment. Most of this discussion revolved around the difficulty in finding high quality gear, though most of the time was spent on practice weapons for Renaissance and later work, there was short discussion on armour.

Though there was some interest amongst the members for some kind of SSI recommendation, this action was set aside in favor of reviews and a more informal process to specify and review proposed new products, working both with cottage and established businesses to steadily improve the range of practice equipment available. There was neither interest nor advocacy of a single, unified code of equipment.

Longsword of Filipo Vadi
Paul MacDonald of the Dawn Duelists Society of Edinborough, Scotland taught a course on a student of Liberi’s, Filipo Vadi. Paul’s emphasis on the fluidity of work with the longsword echoed discussions and observations I’ve heard before in other medieval forums, and his execution of the class was first rate. He first started with an examination of the mental principles that coexist in the mind of a combatant, drawn from de Liberi‘s opening page. This exposition was first rate, though the medieval animals were a bit difficult to identify. Paul helped with that, adding the phrase, “A fifteenth century wolf, or leopard, or lion…”, or whatever, a humerous phrase that was often repeated. This was a very well done lecture that served to whet the appetite.

The Spear – Swordsman’s Nightmare
John Clements then taught a class on the use of the spear, a weapon that some of you know as near and dear to my heart, at least when it comes to melee engagements. The demonstration was well done, although I admit some difference with the thesis that a longswordsman and a spearman, equally skilled, the outcome would generally favor the spearman. That aside, the thesis was well supported with demonstrations and John showed very good skills with both spear and longsword; the basic tactical parameters of  a longsword/spear encounter were well laid out, and some interesting tricks demonstrated.

La Verdadera Destreza
I never thought I would pick up a Rapier. Given the fluidity, precision and relaxed nature of this nearly extinct Spanish style, however, I was quickly possessed with a desire to pick up a rapier and leap in with both feet. It was a phenomenal class, although it was clear that, as Anthony Hopkins sighed in Zorro, “This is going to take a lot of work…”

Ramon Martinez and his talented wife taught an extremely interesting course that demonstrated the elegance of the style. I managed only to learn some of the basics, not having a grounding in the rapier, but for the very first time I became enamoured with something post 1500. Curses to you Ramon!

During this course were two other courses that I missed, the Arts of Mars and the George Silver Roundtable. It would have been nice to attend, but wow–I was enthralled with making huge mistakes in a poor imitation of the Spanish style. Apparently the Silver roundtable was quite animated, and the Arts of Mars class–covering Roman techniques–was also well reviewed. Too much to do all!

HACAContact Sparring Demo
After a short break came the HACA sparring demo in which I was able to finally observe the use of various HACA standard weapons, including their padded weapons, use of the waster, and combats with blunted weapons.

The HACA system is internally consistent; it uses all three in conjunction with cutting practice in an attempt to build competent swordsmen, using each to emphasize a different strength. I think the demo was well received, especially since after it a whole host of folks immediately armed and took to the field.

Open Sparring
I also did so, fighting a whole series of engagements with 7-8 combatants in a row (what is it with that this year!), mostly using longsword wasters, a gambeson, gauntlets and a fencing mask (that was weird).

The fights were all interesting, and I had the opportunity to use one of Ian Johnson’s new polehammers and to spar with Ian, who has been doing a lot of work on the poleaxe using Jeu de la Hache and de Liberi as sources. Truly fascinating!

At the very end I fought a friendly engagement with John Clements, both of us longsword, and we managed to have a very long, pleasant exchange that underlined our differences in approaches but that was even enough to remain interesting. Those who watched later told me that it was fun to watch, though I doubt it was as enjoyable as it was to be in!

“Work For Cutlers – Or a Merrie Dialogue Between Sword, Rapier, & Dagger”
This was a play last performed in 1904 that could be said to be the highlight of the event. This 1615 play, formed at Cambridge, underlined the interplay between the older sword, the rapier, and the dagger. Its comedie, perfectly suited to this group, evoked howls of laughter. At one point Mark Rector updated a line, in true Elizabethan tradition, by giving his line–“I know it to be true…” and inserting a surprise “I read it on the Internet!” The place collapsed.

Western Spoon Fighting
At dinner that night two important discoveries were made. First, I introduced John Clements to the venerable “Western martial art” of spoonfighting, an art which was quickly embraced by the spectators (nearly everyone there was scheming of someone they could teach the game to…). Alongside this was discussion of a new, important manuscript that had very recently been discovered, a possible source for Fiore de Liberi‘s FLOS DUELLUM. More on that as information surfaces!

Later that evening some of the younger exotics traversed the parking for a bit of debauchery, enticing other exotics into an evening that was reported to be…………enticing. Unfortunately for them a great rainstorm drenched them as they returned to the hotel @230am, but several of the SSI folks were on hand to witness their wide eyes and appreciative descriptions.

On Monday a quick panel discussion by the Directors was quickly held, and two courses started in parallel.

Dussak Techniques and Practice
Paul Macdonald taught another class, that I missed, on the German Dussak, a 16th century weapon that replaced the Messer. Both of us lamented missing the other’s class–

Chivalry in the Study of Swordsmanship
I gave a talk, somthing of a mix of lecture and roundtable, linking the chivalric philosophy to the study of swordsmanship, and highlighting how these components could be approached in a modern context. Notes can be found on the KCT site. We examined the history of knighthood and the chivalric idea, the evolution of chivalry and its main influences, and ramifications for today. Chivalry attempted to channel the use of prowess–swordsmanship–along constructive lines, essentially trying to answer the question of what to do with the power created through the study of weapons.

Open fighting and the SSI Advisors sessions
Once again, everyone got to play while the advisors did advisor blah. Both were constructive; an action plan for SSI was established, options discussed, and the initiatives prioritized. I heard the fighting was excellent.

The event was an unqualified success. It was plain that there were differences of opinion between the directors, but despite these differences, all came together with an appropriate spirit to celebrate swordsmanship, to make new friends, to “add a face to an email”, and to explore other approaches to the study of historical swordplay.

From a personal point of view it was even more rewarding, since I had the opportunity to build a whole host of new friendships, sell some cool emboidered T-shirts (they’re still available for $23!) and to fight in another set of combatants who share my enthusiasm for medieval martial arts.

Harkening back to that time long ago when we were working with a martial arts perspective to improve our prowess, it was clear that there is now not only enough historical material available, but that there will be hundreds if not thousands of potential students and opponents as the years pass.

It is my hope that this movement will have a positive effect on the other groups pursuing swordsmanship as a martial art, and that the bridges built between practitioners can strengthen this community enough to build some truly priceless experiences for us and for those who follow us.

Cool Stuff
I should mention also some of the cool stuff (that’s part of the whole reason for going, isn’t it?) that I saw. First I feel compelled to mention the exceptionally fine rebated weapons made by Paul MacDonald. For anyone who wants accurate, elegant and historically accurate rebated weapons, this may be the man to talk to. He had various 15th century swords that made be drool.

Purpleheart Armouries was also on hand with many of their new, vastly improved wasters. Clearly Purpleheart owns the market for wasters, and they can be strongly recommended.

Scott Wilson of Darkwood Armouries in Florida brought a fine collection of rapiers as well; they were impressive in their handling and well-crafted. 

Likewise Darkwood Armoury (makers of historical fencing equipment from Florida) and Christian Fletcher were also in attendance showing their wonderful products; both have continued to advance a long way and are pleasant contributors to the whole effort.

Brian R. Price
SSI Advisor

Saturday, May 27th Sunday, May 28th & Monday, May 29th
Opening remarks
Entering Techniques–John Clements
Sidesword to Rapier–Andrea Lupo Sinclair
Dom Duarte’s Regementio–Steve Hicks
Test Cutting Demo–Hank Reinhart
Practical Saviolo–Steve Hand
International Combat Rules & Tournament
Formats–Brian Price
Open SparringCool Stuff
Training Equipment Roundtable–SSI Advisors
Longsword of Filipo Vadi–Paul MacDonald
Spear vs the Longsword–John Clements
La Verdadera Destreza–Ramon Martinez
HACA Sparring Demo–John Clements
Open Sparring
Work for Cutlers“–A really cool play
Western Spoon Fighting–Brian Price
Dussak Techniques–Paul MacDonald
Chivarly in the Study of
      Swordsmanship–Brian Price
Open Fencing


Copyright the author, Brian R. Price
Permission to copy granted so long as all links and credits remain intact