Members of the Chicago Swordplay Guild must fend off misperceptions nearly as often as they brandish longswords. Usually, they start by explaining that Western civilization in fact did have a longstanding martial arts tradition. And they often end with emphasizing that they are well-studied in their craft and not simply an elaborate costume-wearing medieval reenactment group.
The guild, which practices in Pulaski Park in Chicago's West Town neighborhood, was founded in 1998 by Greg Mele and Mark Rector. The pair had separately been in the process of studying and translating medieval manuscripts detailing the tradition of European martial arts, which had gone mostly unpracticed for hundreds of years. After they met on a medieval martial arts website, they decided to gather together a small group of people interested in resurrecting the lost traditions.
There are few texts that describe techniques in detail, as the use of bastard swords?#34;so named because they are neither officially one-handed nor two-handed weapons?#34;and rapiers gave way to grenades and firearms, guild members say, and many of the group's techniques are now based on the only surviving Italian manuscripts on the subject. The work was written by Fiore Dei Liberi?#34;whose name means "flower of the free"?#34;in 1409. Mele says the manuscript details a wide-range of battle techniques, stretching from wrestling to battling with swords on horseback.
"We're one part Frankenstein, breathing life into the dead," Mele says.
For the past four years, Guild member Dave Peck has been teaching the art of medieval swordsmanship for the Park District of Oak Park. "Our 12-week sessions get people through the basic skills. The concepts aren't difficult to learn, but this is a physical skill, like any martial art," he says.
Students ages 14 and up learn by using hickory longswords. The wood replicas, based on actual medieval training weapons?#34;a few of which still exist in Germany?#34;are referred to as "wasters."
Scott Baltic, the guild's communications officer, and Oak Parker Rob Kamm assist Peck in teaching the Oak Park class. Baltic began as a student here four years ago. A former Medieval reenactor, he heard about the guild from a friend. Taking an introductory class is a requirement for joining the guild and participating in its more elaborate practice sessions.
According to Peck, it takes two 12-week sessions to really get the hang of it. Basic movements include footwork, "guards" or positions, and movements from guard to guard. Add force and speed to the transitions between guards and you've performed a "cut." Then defenses to the cuts are introduced.
"That's the first 12 weeks. After that you learn strategy and tactics?#34;how to use the building blocks we're teaching," Peck explains.
Because the Oak Park classes start over each session, and assume no prior knowledge, Baltic and Kamm break out students ready to move on to more advanced techniques.
A sophisticated martial art
Although the guild has had to reconstruct Western techniques from long-lost texts, the tradition is as nuanced and sophisticated as Eastern practices, says John O'Meara, who has been a rapier instructor with the guild for more than four years.
"People think the Eastern [tradition] is truly art, and people think the west is all swords banging together," O'Meara says. "It's fascinating and technically sophisticated." He adds that dismissal of Western techniques even stretches back to the Victorians, one of whom reportedly said that anything practiced prior to 1600 was "rough untutored brawling."
Official members of the guild, who number just over 50, practice every Saturday. Usually around 15 people turn up, and participants begin by tossing around 8-pound medicine balls, before moving into close-quarter combat.
Guild instructor Jesse Kulla and other guild members say that wrestling is a larger part of Western martial arts than most people realize, with the simple idea being that it is better to remove a weapon from an opponent's hand than to fight with weapons. The word for wrestling in Italian means "to embrace." Following grappling sessions, members move into "free time," which can include practicing rapier techniques.
"Generally, the whole idea is to keep your opponent away from you," O'Meara says. "If someone is close enough to manhandle you, you're not doing your job."
He adds that historically accurate battle techniques are a far cry from the swordplay depicted in films. Guild members are at pains to find a remotely accurate film. Some references found in movies are at least correct in part, however. O'Meara says that the sword masters cited in The Princess Bride, for instance, really did exist, although they didn't live at the same time as the film suggests.
"I can't watch without cringing," O'Meara says of most movies. "Their purpose is to show something entertaining. Our purpose is to kill someone. It's short, brutal, and there's very little sword-banging."
Like Eastern martial arts, Kulla adds that swordplay is a good way to keep physically fit, and can be used for self-defense when required.
"It's very real and alive," he says. "We don't advocate going out of your way to use it in modern situations."
Guild members say they believe they have, for the most part, accurately reconstructed Western martial arts techniques, though some methods?#34;including fighting on horseback?#34;are hard to revive. Baltic notes that purchasing and training horses is both logistically and cost prohibitive.
Mele adds, however, that although not everything can be perfectly resurrected, part of the draw of Western martial arts is an ability to "romanticize" battle.
"There's no way to romanticize modern warfare," he says. "There's nothing less romantic than pushing a button so something blows up 200 feet away."
Overall, Baltic says it's a challenge to impart to the curious how seriously the group takes its work.
"Sometimes we're at pains to explain we're not a reenactment group," Baltic says. "We don't do theatrical work. There are no back flips. What we're trying to do is resurrect a martial art."
The Park District of Oak Park Medieval Swordsmanship class' winter session started yesterday. Students are still welcome to sign up; Peck says his assistants can catch students up on what they missed in the first lesson. Call 383-0002 for registration information or see www.oakparkparks.com.
Laura Stuart contributed to this story.