Every Tuesday night in the Sullivan Sports Complex a battle rages between armor-clad members of the USM Blade Society.
The Blade Society is a student-run group that meets weekly to learn, practice and ultimately perfect the sword and fencing techniques of several different European styles. Made up of many different individual groups, including the Society for Creative Anachronism, the Fencing Club, the Quasi Historical Group and the Historical European Martial Arts Club, the Blade Society turns the gym into an almost unrecognizable scene of about 40 diehard history fans––sometimes dressed in full medieval garb––clashing swords, swinging chainmail and banging shields. They’re all dedicated to mastering historically accurate combat and swordplay techniques.
Many of the members participate because of their passion for history. Some people come equipped with the typical white jacket and mask of the modern Olympic fencers, but according to Johanne Matzke, an instructor, about 90 percent of the members come clothed in historically accurate clothing and armor, right down to the footwear, which is often handmade. Most participants even adopt a medieval persona to embody when they engage in a sparring session. Although Matzke said he didn’t need a combat name because his first name sounded “old-timey” enough.
“I’m a big history nerd,” said Matzke, who, apart from teaching 14th and 15th-century swordplay to anyone who wants to learn, also has two master’s degrees in history and combat archaeology.
According to Matzke, donning period appropriate clothing, armor and footwear is not required to be a good fencer, but it helps.
“If you can feel the ground wearing shoes that your ancestors wore, you have a better chance of getting in the right mindset for combat,” said Matzke. “It also gives you a newfound respect for the brave warriors of the medieval world.”
On top of the leather flimsy-looking shoes, many members wear aluminum greaves, titanium cuffs and gauntlets, steel helmets and chainmail. Some sport metal bucklers and leather scaled vests, all of which are puncture proof. The swords (foils, epees, rapiers and sabers) are all weighted and balanced as if they were made to function 500 years ago, although they aren’t sharpened and feature a thick rubber guard over the tip, for obvious safety reasons.
Most of the fighting styles and moves that Matzke teaches are rooted in actual historical documents he has researched.
“Within the last 30 years we’ve gone from having no fighting manuals at all to acquiring them and learning exactly how these expert swordsmen trained,” said Matzke.
The combat manuals are all accessible online and feature a combination of diagrams and text, usually either in French, Latin or Spanish. Matzke believes that it’s important to research medieval and renaissance combat techniques and learn the truth about them. It helps separate fact from fiction.
“Once you pick up a sword and put on a mask, it helps you understand the past better,” said Matze. “It’s important to preserve this tradition of living history.”
But not everything from historical combat can be replicated. For example grappling is prohibited because it would be far too dangerous.
“We can’t be 100-percent historically accurate in our gear and techniques, because if we were, there would be broken bones and dead bodies,” said Stephen Straut-Esden, a 30-year “knight” of the SCA, who goes by Sir Osgkar of the Wood when he’s training.
The SCA, a subgroup of the Blade Society, focuses on heavily armored combat from the ancient Romans to the early medieval foot soldiers. If the combat training gets particularly loud, it’s probably coming from these guys.
“The only thing we’re missing are horses,” said Straut-Esden.
According to Straut-Esden, whose armor is inspired by the Saxons of medieval Germany, stepping into the role of a knight can help teach a person how to live life in a nobler fashion.
“The activities of the SCA help us adopt the old honor and chivalry and apply it to our everyday life,” said Straut-Esden.
And learning self-improvement through this kind of combat is an ideal that Robert Tupper, a Blade Society instructor and former president, shares. He specializes in the art of the rapier and short sword.
“Through the practice of these forms we can improve our minds as well as our bodies,” said Tupper.
According to Tupper, his involvement with the Blade Society has been rewarding because they’ve transformed a brutal practice from history into an activity of learning. It helps with physical agility, confidence, and it helps form great friendships with like minded people, he said.
“If we don’t study and practice these activities, they will eventually go away forever,” said Tupper.
Brenden Belanger, a junior chemistry major and longtime fencer, believes that fencing is more of an art than a sport, and just like both, it requires a lot of practice to acquire proficiency.
“It’s not something that you pick up and instantly get,” said Belanger. “But once you do get it, it’s so much fun.”
Belanger, whose fighter name is Sir Tobias, urges anyone who’s interested to get involved. According to him, no experience is necessary ,and they have enough loaner gear for students to use free of charge. For him, it’s absolutely integral to preserve this cultural tradition because it teaches self control, grants a new ability and can bring someone a lot on a personal level.
“It’s exciting because it offers an escape from boring everyday life and instead allows you to immerse yourself in a fascinating culture,” said Belanger.