Now it is a brisk night in early December, and King Patrick is attending fighter practice under the outdoor lights at the Allied Gardens Community Center, steam rising from his armor in the evening chill. He still wears his knight’s belt, but there is no outward sign of his royal status, and nobody’s standing on ceremony. He’s not even the only Crown Tourney winner in the bunch — Sir Guillaume de la Belgique has won twice, which is why he is now called Duke. It’s the off season for tournaments and wars, so those who have turned out tonight are mostly diehards, people for whom this is a discipline.
And if you want to excel, you do need discipline. “Sir Armand was a duke when I joined 30-odd years ago,” says Guillaume. “When he was away from practice for even a few weeks, the first thing he would do was put on a helmet and have one of his squires give him a dozen shots right across the face. The first thing he developed while away was that blink response, and he needed to get that out, needed to be able to keep his eyes open. He needed to condition that response back in.”
“If there was somebody new here,” says Patrick, “we would be taking more time to explain how to throw blows, how to block. I hold out-of-armor practice every Tuesday night at my house that is nothing but learning sword technique. We practice combinations and shots against a pole, so that you don’t have to worry about someone trying to club you at the same time.”
As it is, this fighter practice consists mostly of fighting, followed by friendly blow-by-blow analysis. “After I pulled in my block, you blinded me and got in a nice shot.” “You saw me cheating over, trying to fight to the leg.” “I’m overgripping; my hands are killing me. That’s what happens when you’re out of practice.” Guillaume goes a few rounds with Bennett Wiessenstein, a tall lefty in 14th-century Germanic plate mail who favors two-handed weapons like spears over the standard sword and shield. At one point, he gets Guillaume down on his knees and goes in for the kill, only to take a sword thrust underneath his arm. “It’s a fairly subtle move,” says Guillaume afterward, “and one you’ve got to deliver with a lot of power. All it takes is a little bit of deflection and the thrust is no good.”
“But when it sticks…” observes Bennett, rubbing his unarmored armpit.
“It’s interesting,” continues Guillaume. “In my 30 years in the SCA, we’ve gone through phases where thrusting is seen as a cheap shot. It’s off and on. Once we were having a knight’s council, and everybody was saying, ‘We don’t like thrusts — they allow you to just stand and poke at the other guy. It’s not a very pretty fight. It takes a master to kill somebody with a blade.’ But Duke Armand had been a fencer before joining the SCA, and he said, ‘They used to say that any idiot can club somebody with a sword. It takes a real master to use the point.’ ”
“Yeah, I’ve seen fighting technique advance and change steadily,” agrees Patrick. “It’s mostly from innovation by the fighters. There’s almost no real record of how people fought prior to the Renaissance, so we learn a lot by trial and error.”
Guillaume demurs, saying that “in the last 5 or 6 years, I’ve been a little more focused on trying to study those period fighting styles. There’s an unspoken assumption among medieval historians that if you don’t speak medieval French and Latin and German, you don’t deserve to have this stuff translated; but there’s less of that than there was 15 years ago. There are manuals that are starting to get translated from the 15th Century, and the picture we’re getting looks very little like what we do now. Now, because of the basket hilts that protect your fingers — we have to go to work tomorrow — you can stick your hand out in front with impunity. That allows for certain blows” — notably, flicks of the wrist that send the sword twisting downward from up high and out in front. They’re quick, and they’re hard to see coming. “But if you had just a cross-hilted sword, you tended to keep your hand back and to use the point much more.” So when Guillaume fights, he does just that.
Some approximation of historical accuracy is also what led him to adopt a molded rubber basket instead of something heavier. “Different people like to balance the sword at different points,” says Patrick. “If your sword is blade-heavy, it’s easier to hit harder, but if the weight is closer to your hand, you get a lot more speed. You might use a rubber hand-guard if you wanted your sword to be blade-heavy” — the way a real sword would be.
“There’s a fair bit of disparity over what we’re trying to represent here,” offers Bennett. “A Viking judicial duel and an Italian judicial duel from the late Middle Ages are nothing like each other. The preconceptions of the societies that held those duels are radically different.”
“The Vikings had an aspect of winning prizes, but guys still tended to get their limbs hacked off,” agrees Guillaume. “And neither of those would have been like a high medieval tournament.”
“And none of those are like what you read in King Arthur,” continues Bennett. By “King Arthur,” he means “what the Victorians took and polished up and made pretty” in an effort to bolster their cultural heritage. “So, take all of those things and throw in a little Dungeons & Dragons…”
“…and a little Monty Python,” adds Guillaume.
“…and then some Kendo, some Olympic fencing, some guys who went through Marine Corps pugil-stick training, and you come up with this.”
“It’s very regional,” concludes Guillaume. “Somebody will come along who is talented and buckles down and wins Crown Tournament three or four times in a row, and everybody says, ‘We should fight like that!’ Up in An Tir” — the kingdom of the Pacific Northwest — “there was a guy who fought with his butt sticking way out. It shifted his center of gravity and let him take advantage of that wrist-flick style of fighting. He was just phenomenal, and so you saw a whole bunch of people fighting in that style — though not nearly as well.”