By Kassie Parisi
CLIFTON PARK — A small, but dedicated group of local sword enthusiasts are breathing life back into an ancient martial art.
Jim Carlton, Kevin Leighton, and Chad Stewart meet every Sunday morning at the Healthplex on Rt. 9 to practice historical European martial arts, or HEMA. HEMA is a class of ancient fighting techniques of European origin, most of which have evolved into more modern, well-known types of fighting, such as fencing. HEMA was most widely used in Europe during the time period between the 1300s up until the Renaissance, when the use of firearms in battle and dueling became popular.
Specifically, Carlton, Leighton, and Stewart practice HEMA using the German longsword, a heavy steel sword that requires the use of two hands. Most easily found online, the swords can cost as much as $700. The swords that the men use in their training at the gym are blunt, but heavy gear is still required to escape the sparring matches without bad injuries, and even then, the sport is exhausting and can lead to bruises.
“It’s all fun if you don’t mind getting hit. We’re trying to learn techniques that were taught when this was the main way of killing each other,” Carlton said. “We don’t just show up and wing it. We’re trying to learn.”
Carlton, Leighton, and Stewart all became involved with the HEMA practices in Clifton Park after Carlton set up an online group dedicated to the sport. Carlton said that he has always been fascinated by swords. While working out at a gym years ago, he saw an advertisement for the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts, and got involved there. After dropping HEMA and deciding to get back into it, Carlton started researching German longswords, and started the Clifton Park group.
Leighton studied martial arts from a young age, and discovered the online group after watching Youtube videos of HEMA. After he discovered that Carlton’s studies involved actual sparring, as opposed to simply wearing suits of armor for historical effect, he joined up. He says that the longsword practice offers him much more than the monotony of going to the gym after work.
“I want to come and do this,” he said.
Stewart was looking around for local HEMA activity as well after seeing a New York Times video about longsword fighting.
“If anyone tells you that they don’t want to fight with swords, they’re probably lying to you,” Stewart said.
HEMA is notably different, and more difficult to study, than Eastern martial arts due to a lack of context material. Where martial arts originating from Asia carry a strong tradition of being passed down in their precise forms teacher to pupil, information about HEMA is sparse, and the knowledge that exists about German longsword forms is almost exclusively confined to ancient books written in medieval German.
All of the techniques, according to Carlton, were used centuries ago by men in arms, or knights.
Leighton explained that many books containing the techniques were kept in the families of European nobles for centuries before they were translated. Even after translation of the 600 year old texts though, HEMA forms are often demonstrated via simple, one-dimensional drawings, which can be difficult to pull from a page into an actual physical form.
Adding to the inconsistency in HEMA study, said Carlton, is the fact that the technique were used, above all, for fighting. In a sparring match, Carlton said, correct form often takes a back seat to toppling your opponent.
“We practice the techniques, but to actually execute them when you’re sparring is extraordinarily difficult,” Carlton said. “We just try to get to the point where we get better at it.”
HEMA is more popular in Europe but there are tournaments and schools dedicated to the martial arts scattered across the country. In July, North America’s premier competitive event for HEMA will be held in Maryland. Carlton would like to eventually enter a tournament he said, but for now, the workout and keeping the sport alive is enough for the three of them.
“There’s no end in sight,” Carlton said.