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Longpoint Appears in the New York Times: “Ancient Art, Modern Steel”

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by Meg Floyd

A video and article about Longpoint appeared in the New York Times yesterday. Check it out!

From the article by Mac William Bishop:

A hotel ballroom in Ellicott City, Md., seemed an unlikely setting for a four-day competition involving ancient martial arts, Longpoint 2014.

“Fight!” the referee called out.

Axel Pettersson, 29, raised his sword above his head and waited. When his opponent drew near, they exchanged a rapid set of blows. At last, Pettersson landed a vicious cut across his opponent’s torso, winning the open steel longsword competition and adding another championship to his collection.

Longpoint, held in July, is one of several annual tournaments around the world, manifestations of renewed interest in what enthusiasts call historical European martial arts, or HEMA. It includes events like grappling — similar to Greco-Roman wrestling — and several types of swordfighting. But the focus is on the most iconic medieval weapon, forged from cold, lustrous steel: the longsword.

“The longsword specifically is just very accessible,” said Pettersson, a management consultant from Gothenburg, Sweden, “because that is what the old masters wrote about the most. It was called the ‘queen of weapons’ in the old days.”

Unlike re-enactors or role players, who don theatrical costumes and medieval-style armor, Longpoint competitors treat swordfighting as an organized sport. Matches have complex rules and use a scoring system based on ancient dueling regulations. Fighters wear modern if sometimes improvised protective equipment, which looks like a hybrid of fencing gear and body armor. They use steel swords with unsharpened blades and blunt tips to prevent bouts from turning into death matches.

Skill and technique, rather than size and strength, decide the outcomes. Fights are fast and sometimes brutal: key to the art is landing a blow while preventing an opponent’s counterstroke. Nevertheless, even the best swordfighters earn large bruises in the ring, which they display with flinty pride.

Longpoint began in 2011 with 60 participants; now the largest HEMA event in North America, it drew about 200 this year. The open steel longsword division had 55 entrants, eight of them women.

A newcomer, Katy Kramlich of Oshkosh, Wis., placed second among the 15 competitors in the women’s steel longsword division. She began studying the longsword a little more than a year ago, at the suggestion of her fiancé, and was skeptical at first.

“In my mind it was something very different than what it is,” said Kramlich, 24, who works in sales and marketing. “I was picturing dressing up, and fake swordfighting. I just wasn’t interested. I finally went to one practice, and I haven’t looked back since.”

At Longpoint, participants rushed between rooms for bouts and classes on ancient fighting techniques. Study is central to HEMA’s identity.

Many ancient swordfighting documents have been collected online, helping to forge a community out of an esoteric pastime. The most extensive collection is at Wiktenauer.com, a portmanteau of “wiki” and the surname of a (possibly apocryphal) medieval swordmaster, Johannes Liechtenauer.

As many manuscripts were written in Middle High German or Middle Italian, HEMA enthusiasts trace two main lineages for their art: the German school and the Italian school. Debates about which system is superior can become heated.

“To me, the German system is magical,” said Jake Norwood, a 36-year-old former Army captain and Iraq veteran who now works as a security consultant. “There’s something beautiful about it. There’s a beauty in the movement that I think is stripped from the Italian system, which in some ways is more practical, but also less exciting.”

Norwood tried other martial arts and sport fencing, but the longsword captivated him. He has been a driving force behind Longpoint, which he called “a giant nerd-fest.”

“You’ll see a lot of beards,” Norwood said. “It’s a kind of prep school meets biker gang vibe.”

You can see Longpoint’s official blog entry covering the various places this article is popping up here. As always, it’s great to see HEMA surfacing in a positive way in the mainstream. New to HEMA? Check out the HEMA Group finder here. 

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