Historical Re-Creational Combat
by John Clements
For safe sword and shield sparring, today's medieval and Renaissance combat enthusiasts have a wide variety of approaches from which to choose. Some enthusiasts seek a simple diversion with the spirit of historical combat but without the brutality. Others attempt to reproduce historical battles without actually coming to blows. Then there are those who train in the authentic techniques of historical arms and armor. Whatever the group, historical combat can be categorized in one of four ways: Performance, Re-Creational, Martial-Sport, and Fantasy Gaming; and each method offers the enthusiast a myriad of combat opportunities.
Performance groups choreograph fight scenes using stage-combat weapons and specialize in demonstrations for entertainment or education. Some groups perform only Renaissance rapier and dagger routines while others concentrate on medieval sword and shield style. As theatrical troupes, their goal is to awe and woo their audiences, which sometimes means sacrificing historical details and realism.
A few groups such as dinner shows like Medieval Times and King Henry's Feast in Orlando, FL, although they do not formally compete, conduct "telegraphed" combat. This is where the combatants exchange a series of prepared blows from an inventory of techniques. Each fighter knows what to expect and gives a predictable response to any attack. and the loser is either prearranged or concedes once fatigue sets in.
Performance groups are usually tight-nit and breaking into them can be difficult. Starting up your own is even harder as it requires lots of rehearsal, not to mention quality stage-combat weaponry, although some smaller groups rely on simple, more comical skits using basic fencing gear. There is a difference between performance shows and a demonstration of historically-accurate fighting techniques with reproduction weapons. Though perhaps less theatrical, demonstrations are far more accurate and educational.
With re-creational combat groups you eat, sleep, and breathe authenticity. Some of the best examples of recreational fighting can be seen on The Learning Channel's Great Battles and Ancient Warriors programs. Reenactment groups cover a wide range of periods, from ancient Greek to early and later Roman, the Dark Ages, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans, Cavaliers, Buccaneers, and the English Civil War. The size of the group can range from a few local members to a thousand-member organization with multiple branches.
These organizations may reenact an actual battle or "become" the people of a specific period. As such, they play fight with blunted, reproduction weapons. Contact, if any, is limited to banging blades or knocking shields. Although members may conduct separate practice or contact sparring, the organization as a whole invariably does not.
Many groups do pike and musket drills, marching, and even demonstrations of period weapon use, such as the California-based Renaissance Military Society (RMS) with a few hundred members who conduct pike & musket drills, re-create camp life, and do a small amount of hands-on weapon training.
Amartial-sport is about fighting, whether single or as a group, and factors such as physical exercise, stress-relief, aesthetics or character building, are secondary. The martial-sport form of historical fighting is probably the most popular type of recreational combat. It is common, though, for the myth and romance of historical combat naturally to take precedence over the reality.
A martial-sport is not a martial art, since it is founded on rules and regulations and is not intended for self defense but to explore historical fighting within a set of safety parameters. To this end, historical accuracy and realism are followed so long as they do not conflict with safety.
Perhaps the most well-known martial sport group is the ubiquitous Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), the largest and oldest fighting group in the U.S. Although the SCA consider themselves historical reenactors, they also emphasize roleplay and elements that are not entirely historical. What they call heavy-weapon combat consists of full-contact stick fighting in armor and padding. SCA fighting tends to emphasize plate armor, but can range from mail to hard and soft leathers.
SCA fighting includes single-combat, tournaments, and group melees. Due to the nature of the fighting system, target areas and the range of available technique are unfortunately limited. Of course, no single approach can please everyone, which is certainly true of the SCA martial-sport. SCA combat has a tendency toward the stylisticeven predictableand is often criticized for being too rigid, hierarchical, and bureaucratic. Armor requirements can often make it costly for beginners to start up. However, their fighting system is certainly worth trying, at least as a starting point from which to contrast other methods. The SCA also conducts historical fencing (i.e., rapier and dagger) using modern fencing weapons, a version of modern sport fencing with a few provisions for two weapon use. Again, safety is stressed over all other issues.
There is an increasing movement toward historical fencing in the rapier and small sword style and a number of Renaissance groups focus on it solely. Such efforts combine the modern sport forms with replica weapons and period techniques. This approach is exciting and challenging, but is rare as an organized effort.
Markland Medieval and Renaissance society has a few thousand members primarily in Maryland and fights with a variety of light, soft foam weapons with rules similar to the SCA's stick-fighting. They, too, produce elaborate, large scale re-creations of historical battles and perform historical fencing and live-steel fighting. Markland has a well-developed medieval government and conducts numerous events, feasts and activities. Like other similar groups, there is a good deal of historical roleplaying.
The Empire of Chivalry and Steel has a growing membership in a number of states around the country. In addition to the typical medieval group activities and roleplaying, their fighting includes a form of light, simple sparring using soft foam and bamboo weapons, but also offers live-steel and plate armor fights. In addition, they do some historical fencing using stage-combat or reproduction weapons.
A different direction is pursued by the Medieval Battling Club (MBC), created as an alternative to softer "boffer" sparring methods and the restrictions of stick-fighting in heavy armor. MBC features a feudal system where title and prestige is based solely on combat proficiency and leadership. Social structure focuses on warriors and is practiced to promote warfare by encouraging training, recruiting and battling.
The innovative MBC combat system consists of weapons padded with two types of high-impact foam around a composite core of wood and plastic. They emphasize historical accuracy in their shape, weight and balance. Sparring is usually single combat against both armored and unarmored opponents.
Target areas are the full body, excluding the head and neck when unhelmeted, full-contact when armored. The rules are intended to allow for the fullest range of techniques, strikes, and weapon types. It allows for differences in armor and weapon effects without using a distracting point system. The MBC system allows for serious, realistic weapon sparring with minimal cost and armor requirements. Currently, it is in use by only a few small groups in Nevada and Texas.
Gaining in popularity, the Crusaders of the Cross is a Christian youth medieval organization. Based in Florida, it has branches in five states and stresses family fun. It has a detailed, historically-based system of Knighthood that incorporates the often overlooked religious elements. Emphasis is placed on the role of faith and virtue in the Middle Ages and the role of the Church in a knight's life. Though originally an offshoot of the SCA, Crusaders now use a variation of the MBC system with allowances for the use of plate armor as well as the inclusion of younger participants. Crusader groups hold practices, feasts, tournaments and religious rites and conducts interesting fantasy quest events as well.
Currently, a new approach to historical fighting is that of the Historical Armed Combat Association (HACA), conceived by Hank Reinhardt of Museum Replica's. HACA is devoted to studying arms and armor from the perspective of their historical function and use and promotes both contact weapon sparring using "discernible-edge" padded weapons and cutting practice with replica weapons. Virtually any form of serious historical fencing or swordsmanship is sanctioned. Of particular focus is the often overlooked area of Renaissance cut and thrust swordsmanship.
Another martial-sport method is live-steel sparring where participants in plate armor make full-body contact with their weapons, often to re-create the fights of historical tournaments. While some see it as closer to real fighting, others point out its limitations and the dangers inherent in using metal weapons. Although blunted, the weapons are heavier and thicker than real ones, in order to withstand the constant metal-on-metal trauma they undergo.
Among those conducting live-steel fights are groups such as the Adrian Empire, the Knights of Trinity, California's Tournament Productions, Indiana's Knights of the Silver Sword, and the Empire of Chivalry and Steel. Live-steel is less common and has a smaller following than other forms, including stage-combat. It is usually ferocious and takes a great deal of commitment and nerve.
Due to its armor and weapon requirements as well as the nature of its fighting, live-steel sparring groups tend to be smaller. Rules and armor requirements for live-steel are fairly established and do not vary much among different groups.
Live-Action Fantasy Gaming
Conceived originally as live versions of Dungeons and Dragons-type role-playing, these groups have seen a large growth in the last decade. There are at least a dozen organizations across the country, including: Daggorhir, Amtgard, Swordtag, Legends, K'nar, LAIRE, NERO (New England Roleplaing Organization), IFGS (International Fantasy Gaming Society), HFS (High Fantasy Society), MYTH (Make Yourself the Hero), MMS (Medieval Mayhem Society), LAFS (Live Action Fantasy Society), and FLAG (Federation of Live Action Gamers).
The fighting in most of these groups is simple, lighthearted fun, heavy on magic and fantasy. They stress fantasy roleplaying and softer, easier regulations for sparring. Combat usually consists of small, group skirmishes but may also include tourneys and larger battles.
The standard sparring gear in these groups is the "boffer," a hollow PVC pipe covered in pipe insulation and duct tape. Notoriously light and flexible, boffer weapons range in variety from the ridiculously fantastic to authentic looking.
Although armor is allowed and is often any material that looks like the real thing. Armor or padding is not a requirement and target areas exclude the head and other body areas such as the hands or feet. Hits in boffer sparring go from just touching to full-contact (or at least as full as one can be with a "Nerf" sword).
Of note is the use of magic powers during combat and the inclusion of inhuman opponents during live action adventures who can be quite creative and sophisticated. Although many fighting groups occasionally hold "quests" or live-action adventures, game groups do so as their primary focus. The roleplaying of a fantasy/persona is paramount. Fighting in game groups invariably involves the use of fictitious points or skills earned or purchased during events and used to enhance or resist weapon "damage."
Point-based fighting systems tend to be complicated and cumbersome and are intended not so much to simulate fighting or even resolve combat but to allow for the most freedom of roleplaying, and lets those less physically-inclined or skillful participate with equal enthusiasm.
Because of the simplicity of play and easy requirements, game groups tend to have large memberships and hold frequent events. They are most popular with teenagers and are the easiest place to start for non-athletes. For those just getting their first exposure to weapon-sparring or who feel restricted from fighting in other systems, these boffer fighting groups offer a unique opportunity. Although these are often great fun and all in good sport, those seeking more martial or historically-accurate fighting activities should look elsewhere.