Enthusiasts Find Double-Edged Reward in Swordplay, Blending Community and History

Photos and text by Valerie Conklin

“So you want to play with swords?” asks the Gotham Swords website, a challenge to beginners and experts alike.

In a rented studio in midtown Manhattan, Gotham Swords instructors and students gather to learn, practice and perfect their swordsmanship in weekly classes. Other rooms are often rented by performers, and sometimes muffled singing can be heard over the shouts of German forms and the clash of wood or steel.

Gotham Swords is one of many Historical European Martial Arts, or HEMA, groups across the world dedicated to studying and reviving historical European fighting styles and techniques. They practice longsword, saber, sword and buckler (small shield), spear, messer (German for knife) and many more.

BROOKLYN: Before leaving his apartment, Frank Lewis, a Gotham Swords student, packs his swords and protective gear in a large bag that doesn’t obviously contain Medieval weaponry. Lewis bought this bag from another HEMA enthusiast who designs equipment and accessories for their fellows.

MANHATTAN: Senior instructor Josh Wickman carefully handles the wooden waster longswords used in lessons. Though these practice swords have no sharp edges, they are handled like real, bladed weapons so students learn to treat them with respect and care. Gotham Swords and the larger HEMA Alliance emphasize safety.

Senior Instructor Peter Haas, dressed in appropriate HEMA attire, explains an upcoming longsword drill designed to teach his students about reach. Distance is highly important in sword fighting — one must know when they’ll be able to hit an opponent with their sword and when they are close enough to be hit themselves.

During a messer class, a student new to Gotham Swords is given one-on-one time with an instructor so he can learn the basic guards. As experienced HEMA student Kiera Wells said, “If you hand someone a sword, the first thing they want is to swing it around.” To ensure everyone’s safety and continued fun, beginners must learn the right way to do so.

Lewis points to an illustration in one of the manuscripts referenced by HEMA practitioners, The Medieval Art of Swordmanship Royal Armouries MS I.33. This early 14th-century text is their oldest intact fencing manual. Unlike some other martial arts, many HEMA arts, including the sword and buckler depicted here, are missing a lineage of tradition passed down from master to master, dating back to their origins. So prose, poetry and illustrations found in certain collected manuals are interpreted and applied to modern practical swordplay.

Wickman demonstrates with a hot beverage how Thomas Chrisman can improve his swordplay with a slight adjustment to his posture.
Rather than merely describing it, Haas demonstrates a low attack on a student’s legs, prompting him to parry.

Student Deena Sadek wears a mask designed to protect her face and throat from blows. There is no enforced aesthetic to a HEMA uniform, so some practitioners paint their masks. Many others say they intend to paint them one day, but find themselves paralyzed by choice in the meantime.

During Guided Solo Practice, Cheryl Binnie and Matt Griffith practice a longsword drill they learned from some friends—HEMA instructors with Medieval Combat Group — while in Belfast, Northern Ireland. They took time to watch a video of their friends demonstrating it, then ran it several times, pausing to discuss how it felt and how they might improve.

Mairi Hunter runs messer drills with another Gotham Swords student. Hunter came to HEMA through an adjacent community, Live Action Role Play, or LARP, which typically involves costumes, character embodiment, fantasy storytelling and occasionally swordplay. Hunter recently participated in and won the Fecht Yeah 2023 Tournament for under-represented genders with her messer skills.

Lewis blocks an oncoming attack from Kosmo, who wields a bauerwehr (a peasant’s knife, or short messer) as they practice defense drills in slow motion.

As skilled messer students, Sadek and Wells finish their drills before anyone else on the floor, and they take the opportunity to discuss Iron Gate Exhibition, a HEMA camping event in New Hampshire that Wells recently returned from. She recounted a workshop she attended in which an instructor playfully invoked the spirit of Fiore de Liberi, a fencing master of the fourteenth century.

Kosmo takes a moment from his drills to show Kelsey some of his favorite poses with his over five-foot greatsword.

After cooling down, students stand in a line and Haas guides them as they bow out, ending class. This practice bookended the class.

After class, attendees chat as they shed their gear and put their swords away. Lewis, Hunter and Wells took the opportunity to discuss logistics for the trip they were taking together the next day.

Wells asks Lewis where he’s headed to next. Sometimes after burning calories sword fighting for a couple hours, Gotham Swords will go for food or drinks when the last class of the day is done.

TUXEDO PARK: Wells drives some friends to an upstate Renaissance Faire. An event like this, the Medieval Festival in Inwood, is where Wells first encountered HEMA and met Hunter.

Hunter, Lewis and Wells walk together to the site of the Renaissance Faire’s joust, hoping that the advertised “Fight to the Death! (PG-13)” includes a sword fight — it does.

All the HEMA practitioners present agreed the swordplay was “terrible.” Lewis added, “but it’s doing what it’s supposed to. The audience needs to be able to see what’s going on.”