Chicago Swordplay Guild


By Dan Kelly

War is not a lost art, but more arts of war have been lost to memory than one might think. Say the words "martial arts," and mental movies of Bruce Lee dominate, so flawlessly is the term appropriated by the Far East's unstoppable fighting techniques. Reverse the word order though and you find its root. Martial arts: the arts of Mars, Roman god of war and distinctly non-Asian deity. Despite this the phrase "Western martial arts" sounds a might peculiar to Western ears. In answer, the Chicago Swordplay Guild—a band of brothers and sisters who study old Europe's fighting arts—considers the removal of that peculiarity its mission.

Western martial arts (WMAs) is as lazy a blanket term as "martial arts" is when used to lump Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and other Asian fighting systems under one Oriental banner. Yet while karate, kung-fu, and hapkido are sustained by tradition, religion, and media saturation, most Western martial arts—particularly the way of the sword and shield—rest in our hemisphere's musty basement of abandoned ideas. In the modern martial arts world, everybody may be kung-fu fighting, but few are versed in Italian rapier

It's understandable. Where combat is concerned, Westerners are historically pragmatically prone to adapt whatever works best at the time. Through conquest, assimilation, and long-term absence of an established warrior class—the recently knighted Sir Mick Jagger was dubbed more for his singing ability than his (non-sexual) conquests—European martial arts were left a'molderin' in their graves, only somewhat recently rediscovered by Western practitioners of the Asian arts, among others.

Not all Western martial arts are dead. Boxing and wrestling thrive, though mostly in sport and entertainment forms. Googling "Western martial arts" generates hits for a batch of obscure European battling techniques, such as Irish stickfighting (the shillelagh—once formidable Gaelic cudgel, now cheerful Irish gift store knickknack), French Savate (foot fighting akin to kickboxing), and Russian sombo (a judo-like wrestling style). While undeniably Western, these are comparatively modern styles, often blended with techniques from other systems to improve their effectiveness. But while stickfighters, catch-as-catch-can wrestlers, and savateurs duke it out across the world, the Guild and a loosely attached gathering of other enthusiasts, concentrate on the ways of the Olde West.

The killing skills the Guild practices—properly called historical European martial arts (HEMA)—aren't as lively as their fellow WMAs. "This is a dead art," Guild PR Director Scott Baltic—a tall, bearded fellow who carried a blunted but impressive long sword—explained to me as we watched a Saturday morning lesson at the Pulaski Park Fieldhouse (1419 W. Blackhawk St.). The dead art du jour was 16th Century Italian rapier, taught by instructor John O'Meara and attended by Guild safety officer Nick King. The art looked less deceased at that moment, as King, O'Meara, and other students ably crossed swords. With three feet of thin steel ending in an elaborate, curvilinear handguard, rapiers are deceptively light in appearance. I discovered this when the first of several swords was handed to me, to give me a sense of its weight and heft. I handed it back. Steel met steel, clanking and clinking in short, punctuated bursts as Baltic explained the difference between what I was observing and modern fencing. Modern fencing has rules, a point system, and few fatalities. This, however, was the self-defense class of the 1500s, its techniques field-tested and codified by Italian sword maestri Giacomo DiGrassi, Capo Ferro, and Salvatore Fabris, and designed to disarm or kill with little care for sissyjane niceties like points.

Afterwards, King stepped over, sword in hand and fencing mask under one arm. He stressed the Guild's balance of fighting with scholarship, describing themselves as a collective of artists, academics, publishers, writers, actors, and yes, martial artists, who believed combative skills were due preservation as much as music, literature, dance, or any other cultural expression. "We're not just interested in whacking each other," King said stonefaced. Everything I witnessed, he assured me, was as true to the original as possible; its authenticity assisted by a rare manual written by a master at arms back in the days of old when knights, musketeers, and even centurions were bold.

The manuscripts the Guild refer to are hoary affairs, tucked away in museums, monasteries, and libraries until their resurrection, translation, and dissemination by scholarslike the Guild's members and those in like organizations such as the Canadian Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts (AEMMA) and the British Linacre Academy. The earliest manual referenced by the Guild is dubbed I.33. The world's oldest fencing manuscript, I.33 dates back to 1295 and details Medieval German swordplay. Another favorite is The Paradoxes of Defense by George Silver. Silver was a 16th Century swordslinger who sought to restore British pride by promoting English combat methods over the fashionable Italian instructors of his time. In the Paradoxes, he implored his fellow Brits to cast "off these Italianated, weak, fantastical, and most devilish and imperfect fights."

"Imperfect fights" is an apt description as few of these books offer step-by-step accounts of the swordsmen's methods. Many of the Guild's reference books were more advertisements than DIY manuals—what O'Meara called "the infomercials of the day." This brevity of description lends only one level of difficulty to research. Another is inadequate illustration. The charm of medieval woodcuts is lost when trying to discern how the figures are standing, grasping their weapons, and engaging with each other—artistic perspective was a later invention of the Renaissance. Amazingly, copyrights are also a consideration. The fact that a manuscript has outlived its creator and most of his descendents does not allow you to snag a museum or library's copy—or worse yet, a modern translation—and publish or post it.

Yet, these manuscripts, mostly forgotten, are fortunate to have the Guild's soldier-poets around to reveal and practice their secrets. For the Guild members it's certainly not just about whacking and faux slashing and puncturing one another. Promotion in the Guild is achieved not only through might of arms but also expertise in dead languages and the subsequent translation and sharing of the aforementioned scrolls, manuals, and books. Old and Middle English, Latin, Italian, German, and French are as difficult to beat into submission as any opponent.

Yes, it sounds quite stuffy, but it has an enjoyably active end. As we talked, a bit of derring-do took place between O'Meara and his student. Blades crossed, and soon O'Meara landed a hit, very palpable hit. Joie de vivre clasps with mano y mano.

"Okay, maybe sometimes we are just interested in whacking each other," said King, watching the melee, amused.


Guild founder and head instructor Greg Mele, 32, with his spectacles, sweats, and quiet demeanor does not present well as a roaring Visigoth. Neither is he Walter Mitty. For four years he studied kendo—Japanese bamboo sword fencing—as well as sport fencing. An abiding interest in the medieval and Renaissance eras led him to start the Guild in 1998 with co-founder Mark Rector, establishing a goal of exploring HEMA. Despite their respect for the time periods covered, Mele stressed that his group is not one of re-enactors but of re-creators. While the Guild would no doubt be delighted to discuss and demonstrate their discoveries for the edification of the masses, they are not trying to produce bloodless theatrical brawls for turkey-leg-gobbling, paper-crowned tourists. Mele and the Guild have no beef with those who dabble in roleplaying or re-enactment (indeed, there are admitted dabblers among them), but he stresses that the Guild goes beyond mere playacting. "We're trying to be true to an historical art basically as a form of cultural heritage." You know, like butter-churning demonstrations at a colonial village—but with edged weapons.

As a Western warrior Mele is predictably pragmatic towards those seeking to kick purse-snatcher ass. "Don't take up swordfighting if your number one goal is street defense," he advises. Chicago police would agree. According to Chicago Municipal Code 8-24-020, "No person shall carry or possess with the intent to use same unlawfully against another a dagger, dirk, billy, dangerous knife, razor, stiletto, or other dangerous or deadly weapon." Presume the nice officer won't let you off with a warning if you behead your mugger.

The Guild proper has 40 dues-paying members, a third female—a not inconsequential number in comparison with other martial arts schools. Members range in age from 19 to 53 (swordsmen and -women under 18 are not allowed to join owing to liability issues). Surrounding this core is a larger group of students— over 80 to 100 spread out amongst the dozen or so classes offered through the Oak Park Park District, the College of DuPage, and the College of Lake County. For Chicagoans, beginning and advanced Saturday afternoon classes take place at the Pulaski Park Fieldhouse. After a long process, the Guild finally signed an Arts Partner agreement with the Chicago Park District, allowing the CSG to retain their auditorium practice space and to have their classes listed in the Park District's catalog (new classes start Saturday, March 27, 2004). Introductory lessons take place over a 12-week period, during which neophytes are taken through a course of study in rapier, longsword, and other techniques. After this, they may be invited to apply for Guild membership. Those wishing to simply observe, of course, are always welcome.

What makes for a potential paladin? The interests bringing each Guild member to the fold vary. Yes, there are those with an interest in renaissance faires, creative anachronism, and such, but just as many have backgrounds in Eastern martial arts, stage combat, fencing, and the like. Most, however, are ordinary folks who never before touched a blade larger than a steak knife.

During the session I attended, nine people showed up at 11:30, with a dozen others drifting in throughout the afternoon. As with most activity, there was a pre-wargame warmup. I was reminded of a Far Side cartoon showing Vikings doing toe touches and ITB stretches before a good pillaging. Conviviality, a martial arts training byproduct, was felt. After the initial stretching, the students split into groups. Several worked on dagger fighting up on the auditorium stage. The casual observer is forgiven for not taking it all too seriously when they first see someone drawing a wooden dagger. They're accurate portrayals of blades, but their roundness, bluntness, and shiny sheen make them look like kids' toys scaled up for grownups. Offstage, others battled with wooden long swords on a nearby green mat (Baltic explained that wooden swords enjoy a minor industry on the Net). Beginners start out with four-foot wood dowels. Eventually they graduate to wooden swords and daggers—nicknamed "wasters" for their cheapness and suitability for the splintering throes of mock combat. Wooden swords also carry safety benefits. While plenty of hearty thwacking can take place, no one is stuck like a pig—always important in maintaining a healthy membership. As they practice, there's little swash in the swashbuckling. As with any martial art, instruction is repetitive, training the body to react to threat by etching parries and thrusts into muscular memory.

Later, back onstage, the concentration is on grappling and takedowns, and here Eastern and Western martial arts somewhat mesh. A student made an impolitic dagger lunge at his instructor's gut. The instructor, unimpressed, reached behind to grab the back of his opponent's neck with one hand and right above his elbow with the other. With a quick leg sweep, the would-be assassin was sent to the mat with a soft thud. Observing, and considering my own martial arts experience (I'm a hapkido brown belt), some of the techniques are familiar. War technology may advance with every passing second, but the human body, East and West, remains unchanged in its capacity for damage. We're all the same under the skin—we break and puncture equally well. Even as the Guild's students slice the air, their dowels and wasters meeting in sharp clicks and clacks, its clear that swords can be pointy and dangerous even in amateur hands. "We don't sugarcoat what these techniques can do. We do try to keep people informed." Mele explains, with less machismo than common sense in mind.

Concurrently, rapier instructor John O'Meara shows two students dressed in fencing masks, metal gorgets, and padded chest armor—called gambesons—a rather "Italianated" counterguard, which allows the swordsman (and swordwoman, which one of his students is) to shut down an opponent's defense with the smallest motion possible. O'Meara crouches and steps forward, his arm and rapier—a real, metal, though safely blunted rapier—extended toward the students, who mirror him. He steps forward and then back, quickly flicking the rapier against an unseen blade. There is something almost dainty about it; a flip retort rather than a hard smack upside the head. "You're pushing off and staying low," he explains. "Always find the smallest motion possible to get where you want to be."

Swords aside, gorgets and gambesons were the only visual indication of times past. The baggy white gis of the Eastern arts have become so de rigueur, they've lost their alienness. Gambesons and gorgets, despite their Western credentials, look somewhat silly. Those were just my natural martial arts prejudices coming out. Rob Kamm, a librarian who came to Guild from fencing and Amtgard (a live-action, fantasy costume and combat game) unknowingly corrected me. "We're not a costume group—you do need protection." Gambesons, unlike codpieces, have a practical aim, providing padded armor, while the neck-encircling gorgets ward off larynx-crunching blows. The beginner's class was somewhat slow-paced, but the thumping, grappling, and wooden sword whacking make it look a little dicey out there. While, outside rapier instruction, the blades aren't always flashing metal, the sound of impact is evident. All told though, the Guild's wargames are just games. Asking the rakishly goateed O'Meara if the Guild will ever achieve complete accuracy, he responded with only a shade of sarcasm, "No... Not without running each other through we won't."

The costs of even semi-accuracy are not inconsiderable the higher one rises in the Guild. "This is not for the weak-kneed or for someone not willing to spend some money," says Glen Ellynite Jim Julien, a college-level competitive fencer who became the Guild's secretary/treasurer. "A good pair of gauntlets can run six to eight hundred dollars." Gorgets range $50 and up, an astronomical amount considering neck armor's lack of fashion versatility. Wasters range from about 20 bucks for a blunted cutting dagger, to 60 for a medieval long sword. Elsewhere, more committed HEMA practitioners can purchase Renaissance era swept-hilt rapiers with 38 inch blades ($279), or a full set of Hounskull style armor for a heart-attacking eight grand. Beginners be at ease, Mele explained. Courses are structured so participants don't have to take a financial bloodbath the first week. Initial fees for introductory classes ($80 a month) and supplies (a dowel and work gloves from the hardware store) are reasonable enough. Loaner armor and swords are available, and it is apparent official Guild members are sufficiently stout of heart and strong of knee to make fiscal sacrifices for their art.


The day capped off with a demonstration in Elizabethan single-swordfighting, led by Mr. Mele. All present lined up into two rows; ordinary folks looking none too threatening with their wooden swords, but organized. Mele stood front and center, sword drawn, and lectured, holding his waster aloft, then cutting down and to the left. It's a defensive technique, a simple blocking motion. The others mirror him with different levels of flow and success. After this, they pair off. The lesson is repeated with one participant swinging downwards and the other deflecting the blow with the same arc. It looks rather archaeological—the slow piecing together of scattered mosaic tiles, or the Bayeux Tapestry in sweatpants. Here and there a flash of the original is seen, but mostly it is a half-reconstruction of a semblance of what came before. The Guild avoids puttying the cracks with modern techniques or outside styles. Such practices are effective, but intellectually dishonest. If they wish to retain their purity, the Guild members have their work cut out for them. Eastern styles persist through unbroken lineages of teachers and students, but the Guild's original instructors remain mum, all classes indefintely cancelled by their deaths.

In case you were wondering, not a horned helmet or polyhedral die was in evidence at the Saturday gathering. Mele isn't oblivious to HEMA's geekish overtones. While Jackie Chan provides healthy box office, and Bruce Lee remains an indestructible icon of cool, Euro-swordplay is relegated in the public consciousness with Medieval Times; fat, stupid hobbitses; and the center circle of nerd Hell, Dungeons and Dragons. He remains optimistic, however, believing the straight face the Guild keeps will gradually invite public acceptance. "That's what people see mostly, so I don't blame them. Our goal is to get to a point where people see this stuff as a legitimate martial art. When people see kendo, they don't see a samurai." For the Guild, it's not about dancing around with blunted swords, imagining oneself to be a knight errant to escape cubicle drudgery. It's part of a larger process of historical reconstruction melded with tribute.


Who wants to live in a fairy tale? Not the Guildmembers, though they agree that swordplay has its charms. "People have a real romance with the sword," said Mele, when asked why blades enchant so. "It's a romantic icon... At one point, everyone probably wanted to grow up to become a musketeer, knight, or a pirate." Fair enough for kids, but beyond self-defense, what draws grown-ups, who will likely never see real combat, to the arts of Mars? War, once upon a time, was a no less bloody but more interpersonal affair. Today, when individual soldiers can obliterate hundreds of humans kilometers away, death and damage have become abstract statistics. Euro-descended first worlders are left (or kept) far-removed from the days of yore when their ancestors used the simple machine of the blade to cleave limbs and expose brains. But such is the nature and evolution of Western combat. Pragmatism reigns; more "merciful" mass death achieved in an increasingly parsed timeframe sought above technique, honor, or at the least eyeballing the fellow you're about to snuff. Not to speak for the Guild, but the attention they pay to their techniques displays a healthier respect for combat and it effects than those who cheer on the Pentagon War Show.

It's funny, but it looks like the elderly arts of war gain their nostalgic glow not only through their romance but also through their rank inefficiency. Crossing steel IS romantic, almost poetic, besides rains of Tomahawk missiles, smuggled vials of botulism, or punctured freezer bags of nerve gas on the subway. Even if their end results are equally messy, the Guild's techniques are far more balletic, far more aristocratic, and far less impersonal. And despite their danger, in their archaism they seem safer besides what we face now.

Using a cheap literary device, I pondered all this on a recent jaunt to the Chicago Art Institute. For most, the Institute's Gunsaulus Hall is a dark hallway of medievalist junk; something skipped over on the way to Chagall's stained glass or the stone Buddhas a room over. Few, beyond awestruck 10-year-old boys and octogenarian military buffs stop to admire the 15th through 19th century weapons on display—a fraction of the Harding Collection of European Arms and Armor. Bereft of brushstrokes, most visitors would barely consider the weapons art on par with the Institute's more popular Impressionist draws.

But art they are. The weaponry on display is largely ceremonial, not combative in origin. Function was foresworn for form, the etched blades and breastplates designed to make palace guards look fiercely pretty at state affairs. For now, these weapons are "safe"—castrated doodads appearing horribly and brutally inefficient beside a rifle, a flamethrower, or landmine. A double meaning is achieved here in "martial arts." The arts of Mars, Roman god of war, whose decapitated and glowering statue's head sits elsewhere in the museum. Perhaps he's mulling over the lack of respect shown by today's newfangled ways of killing, and reminiscing about a time when chopping off another man's head with your own two hands used to MEAN something.

Originally published in the Chicago Reader.

®2004 Dan Kelly

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