Wed, Aug 10, 2016 - Page 13 News List

Duel to the death…sort of

A Historical European Martial Arts club in Taipei is keeping the traditions of Medieval and Renaissance sword masters alive

By Dana Ter  /  Staff reporter

After a training session of Historical European Martial Arts at the 228 Peace Memorial Park in Taipei on July 23.

Photo: Dana Ter, Taipei Times

Last month, I participated in my first duel. Armed with my 19th-century-style Italian saber, I attempted to follow the instructions of my teacher, Michael Knazko.

Maintain a distance of approximately two feet, right leg bending slightly.

Grip the steel weapon firmly with the right hand.

Keep the left hand affixed to my waist.

Use legwork to project my body weight to the tip of the sword.

Most important: do not execute cuts to my opponent’s legs. He will swoop in and slice my face.

Execute circular cuts instead. Strike at the torso.

I repeated this in my head as I sweated through my protective gear. Padded jackets made with heavy cotton might have been built to withstand at least 350 Newtons of force — and harsh European winters — but they are unforgiving when worn in the sweltering Taipei summer.

The duel was about as real as 19th-century Italian duels in Taiwan come, except the conclusion was less dramatic: My opponent and I shake hands and both of us walk away unscathed.

SEEKING AUTHENTICITY

The Lionheart Historical European Swordsmanship club (獅心歷史歐洲劍術) was holding a public training session at the 228 Peace Memorial Park that day. Members meet two to three times a month, usually on Saturdays, at parks and public venues around Taipei, to practice Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA).

Last month, the club invited Knazko, an instructor from the Ars Dimicatoria (Latin for “Art of Fencing”), a HEMA school in Prague, to train them. Knazko, whose long hair is held back in a ponytail, likes to describe dueling as “playing a game of 3D chess” — you’re reacting to your opponent’s moves using a combination of instinct and technique.

HEMA is big in Europe. Florentia, the HEMA conference held in Florence, Italy every May, brings together HEMA instructors, students and enthusiasts from all over Europe for three days of tournaments, lectures and workshops. Knazko has been attending the conference for years and he tells me that while they recreate duels, it’s really about “enjoyment and friendship.”

Competition and spectatorship are de-emphasized in HEMA, distinguishing it from Olympic-style sports fencing. Also unlike live action role-playing or cosplay, where the participant assumes the role of a fictional character, HEMA seeks authenticity in the form of recreating various styles of European sword fighting over the last few centuries — from Medieval times to the Renaissance — using real steel weapons modeled closely after historical weapons (the Lionheart club imports most of their weapons from Knazko’s school in Prague, while their protective gear is ordered online and shipped to Taiwan).

Beyond being a hobby, HEMA’s purpose, according to its practitioners, is keeping history and tradition alive — all the while ensuring safety through several layers of protective clothing, a deliberate restraint of force and rules against striking people at vulnerable places such as the back of the head.

EN GARDE

Of course, there’s also the thrill of handling a real weapon.

“I believe anyone would be lying if they said they didn’t partly start doing HEMA to have fun with steel swords,” says club member Kevin Yang (楊凱文).

Yang’s interest in swords started with Dungeons and Dragons, the role-playing board game: “I was wondering what the difference is between a long sword, a bastard sword and a short sword,” he says.

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