In his sweatshirt, drawstring pants, and glasses, Greg Mele looks more grad student than screaming Visigoth--even with a broadsword at his side. It turns out he's kind of both. A technical writer with bachelor's degrees in journalism and ancient and medieval history, the 33-year-old is also cofounder and head instructor of the Chicago Swordplay Guild. Meeting twice a week at the Pulaski Park field house, the CSG studies old Europe's martial arts and field-tests the few surviving lessons in sword fighting recorded by masters at arms in medieval and Renaissance Italy, England, Germany, and France.
On a typical Saturday morning, about a dozen students and instructors gather in the field house. Most of them are wearing regular workout clothes, though a few advanced-rapier students get the full gear: fencing masks, metal gorgets (throat armor), and gambesons (padded chest armor). Before class the students warm up, practicing stabbing or throwing one another to the mats on the floor. It's all very historical, but anachronistic: like the Bayeux Tapestry in sweatpants.
The skills the CSG practices--collected under the blanket term historical European martial arts, or HEMA--aren't quite like anything you've ever seen. The closest modern equivalent is fencing, which has rules, a point system, and formal competitions. The self-defense techniques of the period the CSG's interested in, 1300-1650, were designed to disarm or kill, plain and simple.
Mele, who lives in Wheaton, got hooked on swordplay as a kid. Every Sunday afternoon as a six-year-old he sat with his father and raptly watched "Captain Blood" and "The Adventures of Robin Hood" on WGN's Family Classics. Later his father created his first set of arms from an old hockey stick and wood from a loading pallet.
In high school Mele joined the Society for Creative Anachronism, a medievalist reenactment group. He also studied modern fencing and a handful of Asian combat styles. He competed for several years in epee and saber fencing and has dabbled in iaido (Japanese sword fighting), aikido, tai chi, jujitsu, and, most recently, Wing Chung kung fu.
All these systems were fun (he still practices a few of them), but something was lacking. Attacks below the belt, shield strikes, and grappling--entirely unsporting moves, which of course made them devastating in real combat--were forbidden. Then in college, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he discovered 16th-century swordslinger George Silver and his magnum opus, a seminal fighting manual titled The Paradoxes of Defense. "This was precisely what I was looking for: a text describing how to really use these weapons by an actual warrior of the period," says Mele.
George Silver isn't the only maestro to parry, slash, and thrust from beyond the grave, though as an Englishman he's the odd man out. Italian and German manuals (the latter known as fechtbuchen, or "fight books") and a few post-1650 French publications are most frequently referred to by HEMA practitioners because they're most likely to have been translated into English. Naturally there isn't a huge market for these and other books published by presses like Chivalry Bookshelf (for which Mele serves as Western martial arts editor), Greenhill Press, and Paladin Press. But to Mele, who continues to read, reread, translate, and retranslate them, they're inspiring. "There is a certain poetry that really resonates in these people's words," he says. "For us this is a hobby, but for them it was their lives and their life's work."
He cites a passage from Fiore dei Liberi's 1409 text Fiore di Battaglia:
I have especially guarded myself from other fencing masters and their instructors. And through envy, these masters challenged me to play with edged and pointed swords in arming doublets, without other armor save a pair of gloves of chamois. And all of this was endured because I had not wished to practice with them, nor to teach them any of my art. And I was required to endure this five times, and thus five times for my honor I was compelled to play in strange places, without family and without friends, having no hope in others if not in God, in the Art of the Sword, in me, Fiore, and in my sword. And by the grace of God, I Fiore have remained with honor and without injury to my body.
"This is really quite poetic, and yet horrific," says Mele. "Five times this man had someone seek to kill him just out of professional jealousy. When was the last time that happened to you? Part of the beauty of these sorts of passages is that they are a window to our past. When you lose that sense of history, you lose a big part of your culture. So that's the appeal, on an historical and romantic level."
But studying hoary scripts only goes so far. "You have no way of knowing if any martial art, let alone a reconstructed one, works if you can't pressure-test it," says Mele. So he and a couple friends from the Society for Creative Anachronism started working out techniques from the old books in their backyards. They made their own wooden swords, then graduated to steel weapons ordered from a company called Museum Replicas Ltd. They thought they were the only ones until Mele found a few Web sites that discussed medieval swordsmanship. He e-mailed HEMA fans around the world and started exchanging translations of old manuscripts, but didn't have any luck finding more local training partners until 1998, when he came across a posting to a Western martial arts newsgroup by an actor named Mark Rector. Rector, who had studied modern fencing and stage combat, said he and his friends regularly fenced with rapiers by Lake Michigan, and that they were looking for other blade aficionados. Mele contacted him and learned that Rector was trying to reconstruct techniques he'd read about in a medieval text.
"Our first meeting was at Pulaski Park, the Sunday after New Year's, 1999," says Mele. "Mark brought his two friends and I brought mine. He also placed a free ad in the Reader and one fellow, Al Stewart, showed up," says Mele. "Over the next year, those weekly ads, combined with a really horrible Angelfire Web page, were our only outreach. We must have had a good 30 people show up over the course of the next year, with about 14 or so sticking."
The guild has since grown to 40 dues-paying members (membership costs $80 per quarter) ranging in age from 19 to 53 (swordsmen and -women under 18 are not allowed to join because of liability issues). Surrounding this core is a larger group of student nonmembers--more than 80 spread out among the dozen or so classes the CSG now offers through the Chicago Park District, the Oak Park Park District, the College of DuPage, and the College of Lake County.
Since the latest round of Hollywood movies featuring sword fighting--the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Pirates of the Caribbean, Master and Commander, The Last Samurai--enrollment has grown, Mele says. "How many of those stick, however, is another matter. It's not an easy skill to learn, and it's not a cheap hobby to remain in, so you have to be fairly committed."
"This is not for the weak-kneed or for someone not willing to spend some money," says Jim Julien, the CSG's secretary and treasurer. "A good pair of gauntlets can run six to eight hundred dollars." Gorgets cost $50 or more, and wasters (wooden weapons) cost between $20 for a blunted dagger and $60 for a medieval long sword. Committed HEMA practitioners can purchase a Renaissance-style rapier with a 38-inch blade for $280 or a full set of plate armor for $8,000. Most of this stuff can be bought over the Internet.
Besides, Mele says, real historical swordsmanship is nothing like what you see in the movies. "That doesn't mean it's not entertaining, just misleading if folks think that's what sword fighting really looked like," he says. But "the fights in Master and Commander were really quite excellent."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea.