The Path I Chose

16 Jun 2016 by gebhard, No Comments »

 path1So why Longsword?

I get asked this every so often, often when I meet someone new. The answer isn’t an easy one. When I joined the SCA, Sword and Board represented 99% of the fights in tournament. There certainly weren’t any mainly longsword fighters to watch or to learn from.

Why pursue the unknown path? There were times when even I questioned it.

Before I get I too far, let’s start at the beginning.

I, like most children of the 80’s, I grew up watching films where it seemed two handed weapons were common.

Before I joined SCA, I imagined sword fighting only be done with two handed weapon. For all my youthful adventures in the woods with my trusty stick swords to slay goblins and orcs, I never once thought of having a shield. Given two handed swords popularity in movies, it’s no surprise.

Some 25 years later at my first event, I saw King Edmund hold the field, and I wrote the following on MySpace about it, after returning from Ceilidh XIX.

“I would like to start by saying thank you to Anno who was nice enough to loan me a tunic, as I have not made garb yet. (I’m hoping to get some made in the next week or two.)

Fencing and heavy weapon combat went on nearly constantly throughout the day.  Which is what I  am interested in, thus spent most of my day watching it. There was a nice variety of tournaments.

King Edmund held the list at one point, I think he won nearly every fight. I was most impressed with his use of bastard sword. I had no idea you could parry so much with such a large weapon.

The Steal the Bacon tournament was a lot of fun to watch. I’ll be authorizing soon so I don’t miss out on all the fun at the next event.”

Maybe witnessing such a feat of valor by King Edmund at my first event influenced or re-affirmed my thinking? The idea of fighting with two handed weapons never fell out of my head, no matter how hard I was struck.

Like the majority of new fighters in our group, I trained week after week with sword and shield. There were plenty of teachers and plenty of opponents, and I slowly, VERY slowly, improved.

I think I won a novice tourney at Regular Event in Cleftlands just before my 3rd year of fighting.

After that, things seem to plateau for the next few years. I still mostly fought with a shield, even though I never liked the thing. It was heavy and it slowed me down.  I wanted to move and overcoming its inertia was draining. After awhile, I started to drift away from using shields and towards  two handed weapons. The difference was night and day. I could see my entire opponent. It wasn’t weighing me down. I didn’t need good limb separation, and it was super fun.

Sure I got clubbed like a baby seal for months at a time, but I was having a great time. I looked forward to fighting each week. I liked the idea of trying to figure out a way to make it work. The period sources I had certainly showed it being effective. I’m sure it could work somehow. It’s the fighter not the weapon, right?

When I started to show a little skill in the form, I had more than one one knight pull me aside and say something to effect of “Gebhard, the whole two handed thing is cute, but you’re never going to win anything fighting with it. It was made to cleft people (or shields) in twain. Since we can’t do that here, the weapon has no use.”

61732_812979705200_935565_nThey were knights, people I looked up to. So, maybe what they said could be true. All the Crown Tournaments I had seen, everyone fought sword and board, except maybe Sir Ix with two swords.  There were maybe one or two guys at Candlemas fighting with something other than sword and board. They weren’t winning. So…maybe it was true. Maybe in the SCA there just isn’t any way to be competitive without a shield?  I didn’t want to believe it, but I could find no proof to the contrary. So I fought with a shield in tournaments, and my great sword as much as I could outside of them.

Then something happened that changed the way I looked at fighting and the SCA.

I met  someone at Pennsic 40. He was the King of the West. I saw him walking across the battlefield at the end of melee doing pickups. I went, and I sat and I watched for … well, a very long time.  I’d never seen anything like it before.

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I watched in amazement at how He moved with power and grace. His style was everything I wanted to be. He went toe to toe with the best fighters in our kingdom and every other one with nearly flawless perfection of motion.

As I watched, someone told me the fighters name, King Marc de Arundel and how he won Crown Tournament fighting only with longsword.  AH HA! I knew it!  You can be competitive without a shield! That Eureka moment hit.

I ran back to camp and got my stupidly heavy two handed sword. When my wife asked what I was doing. I answered “I’m going to get my ass kicked by the King of the West”. I wanted to see what he did first hand. . I wanted to learn. My loving sons came to also witness this event, of course. Why shouldn’t humiliation be a family event?

After my passes with Marc, I had bruises on my ribs for nearly 3 weeks. I would show them with pride if anyone asked. I learned more in that set of fights than I have learn from any set fights before or since.

Not only did I learn something about technique, I learned a greater lesson.  What you fight doesn’t matter.  It matters if you’re determined enough to dedicate the time to perfect what you do. All weapon forms are valid.

After fighting Marc at Pennsic 40, I vowed to myself to only fight longsword for a year. If I was going to master it, I didn’t need distractions.  When Pennsic 41 rolled around, I kept it going for another year, then again at Pennsic 42 and so on.  

(I use polearm in melee, in case you’re wondering about that. It’s due to being able to cross check. Until half-swording was made legal, there wasn’t much you could do to stop a shield charge with longsword in melee.)

Marc changed my whole outlook on combat in the SCA. I went from feeling like I could never succeed, to knowing I could. I just needed to figure out how.  Without direct instruction, I needed to find ways to learn. I watched videos, read period manuals, and studied history. I would even have a video on my phone while working the pell, and Katayoun would tell me if my movements matched training video of the day so I could simulate the motions of others, to learn them.

Grace, coordination, muscle memory – these things I lacked. But study, research, and designing systems to get results, that was something I knew about. I applied these mundane skills, ones I use in daily life to stay employed, but now to my fighting.

With help from many people including my knight, Count Cellach, who spent countless hours working with me, I was able to eliminate a huge number of my bad ideas to find the precious handful that can work.

Would another path have been easier? Who can say, because that wouldn’t have been my path.  I came to this this sport to be a sword fighter and the best one I could become. I needed to live up to what that meant to me. My goal wasn’t to be a Knight, but to be the best I could be.

What gets you excited? What gets you on the list? Those are the things to embrace. A day in armor is far more worthy than a day without.

If fighting a certain form, weapon or style gets you excited about being in the list, do that thing. It doesn’t matter if anyone believes that you can “win with it” it only matters that you are enjoying it and learning from it.

Trying to learn Longsword has helped my grow in many ways, both on and off the list. In order to be good at any martial art, you must progress towards balance in all things. Extremes will leave you open.

Perfecting your art will teach many lessons. If you’re overly assertive, it will teach patience. If overly passive, it will teach aggression. If you’re static, it will teach movement, and if you’re a bouncy ball, full of energy, it will teach subtly. It will show your weaknesses and your strengths. These lesson apply in all areas of life.  

I still have a long way to go, I have not yet reached the end of my path, nor will I for some time, if ever. The journey has been good one. It’s been hard at times, but I have made many good friends along the way. If you will walk with me, I will tell you all that I have learned.

The pursuit of mastery is not the pursuit of winning. It is the pursuit of making yourself the best you.

A short playlist of Duke Mark in action. Click here

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