Two posts ago, in “A Bar Raiser” [24 April 2023], I briefly mentioned the bouting we enjoyed on the last day of the St. George’s Day Exhibition of Arms hosted by Russ Mitchell and the wonderful people of Winged Sabre Historical Fencing. Just today Russ posted some of the footage and it was a joy to relive all those bouts, though as always, I tend to be hypercritical when seeing myself on film (a carryover from college fencing when the entire team was subjected to the horror of post mortem tournament analysis by our coaches).
Given my own bias/blinders, it’s healthy to have one’s friends (and critics) share their insights into the bouts, and while I’ll not share all that here, I would like to convey a few of the critical observations they made. On the one hand, their take not only speaks to what Russ specifically achieved with the Exhibition, but also to the value of this style of event generally. For example, Russ made it clear who the instructors were, and while that might not seem like a big deal, it is. By definition, an exhibition tourney is intended to display particular styles and traditions of fencing, and each of the visiting instructors, not to exclude Russ himself, sought to represent their branch of the Art. One will see Russ’ classic hussar guard position, François’ use of the point in sabre, Jonathan’s mix of high-second and third, and my use of elbow-driven molinelli, each of which reveals our respective areas of focus.
On a more general note, the over-arching sense of camaraderie, of unity, of a shared culture, of the joy in short that we share in the Art emerges from this collection of bouts. There’s no raucous musical overlay, no critical voice-over—the viewer hears those watching and on occasion the fencers themselves. More than once I stopped to compliment or point out something during the bouts I was in—whether it was Kat’s sweet false-edge wrist snipe, Jonathan’s gorgeous passato sotto, or concern that I might have hit François too hard when my left-arm started giving out, the instructor in me came out (most bouts I find myself in now are “teaching bouts,” not bouts qua bouts and it’s difficult to switch gears sometimes). The fact one hears so much laughter says a lot.
A few things to note: the use of measure is particularly keen and precise in these bouts—this reveals a lot about the over-all experience and training of the attendees (and if I may, the importance of appropriate drill). Though there are single-tempo actions, you will also see a lot of second-intention set-ups, various ways of baiting the opponent, as well as numerous versions of actions on the blade, feints, and defensive responses. Though each opponent was doing their best to hit and not be hit, without exception everyone was gracious win or lose, concerned for the safety of all concerned, and quick to assist with gear, weapons, or tools. It is also worth noting that no one was injured—it’s sad that this is worth mentioning, but in “HEMA” at large injuries are common; there is or was an entire facebook page devoted to sharing wounds incurred in training or tournaments. Sigh.
The footage speaks better than I can, so here’s the link—enjoy!
[*] The title is, I know, a bit much, but I was trying to maintain the alliteration; thus my use of gioco largo/zhogo largo (It. “wide play”), but hey, since we avoided most grappling I’d argue it applies. I couldn’t think of a term in English that quite captures what I wanted to convey. Italian gioco isn’t bad because it can refer to a play in fencing, but in modern denotations can mean “game,” “fun,” or “amusement.” Old English beaduræs, “rush of battle,” or gūðrǣs, “battle-rush, onslaught,” are too transitive in meaning, though the expression gesawon seledream “joys of the liegeman/liegeman’s joys” (or better maybe secga seledream, “warrior’s revelry in the hall”) might suit. Regardless, there is a particular joy in fighting, especially when doing so in flow. Irish ríastrad, often translated “warp spasm” or “battle frenzy,” gets close, but connotes more madness, wildness than I mean here. Also on display, was a high degree of sprezzatura, a term that refers to the seeming ease with which people engage in a pursuit required great study and effort.