This Saturday afternoon I visited Turf Valley Resort in Ellicot City, MD, to watch the tournament finals at Longpoint, one of the premier Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) gatherings in the United States. Enthusiasts attended the multi-day even from as far away as Gothenburg, Helsinki, The Netherlands, and Italy.
I brought only a 55mm lens and was a bit far away from the ring; I would have benefited from bringing a longer lens but I wanted auto focus to catch the action. The first event, which I did not get good photos of, was Ringen -- medieval catch wrestling in a fixed ring. Points were assigned when one of the opponents threw the other to the ground. Matches were quick and dynamic, with single leg take downs being (what seemed to me) the go to weapon of choice.
The second event was called Passage To Arms, and involved combatants in plate armor, armed with longsword and a dagger. A cluster of judges determined whether a cut or thrust was to an unprotected area covered by only maille or cloth. Attacks against plate itself did not count. The weight of the armor and the need to get around the armor made this a close range, more grappling style of combat compared to the rapier and dagger and longsword matches I saw later in the evening.
The cutting tournament finals involved cutting downward, diagonally downward, and diagonally upward, and included points for controlled targeted cuts measured by how many diagonal cuts could be made against three rolled tatami. I am not familiar with how sharp the longsword is compared to a Chinese broadsword or Japanese tachi, but it was interesting to watch both clean cuts and ones that went off course. The competitors clearly were able to generate power with their weapons.
The rapier and dagger finals were intriguing to watch. The method of use of the paired weapons was beautiful to watch and sudden in application. The two finalists were from New York City and Italy, respectively. The opponents used rhythmic changes of their guard as they circles one another, with delicate and precise footwork. Only thrusts were graded as points, and the action, once an opening presented itself, was very fast. I captured only a small numbers of moment of impact, which one can see by the rapier or dagger flexing under strain.
Rapier and dagger seems very much like an art I would like to eventually learn, given the opportunity. Seeing the art in motion makes me want to begin reading historical texts on the topic. It looked elegant and efficient and yet very different from the swordsmanship I had been exposed to from China and Japan. Longsword looked more familiar for me; I could see postures, cuts, deflections, and tactics that I was familiar with being used. I have the urge to join an open tournament in the future, if I learn enough about the rules and approaches to fit in, even having a different background.
I really enjoyed watching the finals for men's and women's longsword. Watching the full-speed sparring was exhilirating, especially with the added intensity dueling with blunt metal swords provide. Without proper armor, this type of recreational combat would not be possible.
I enjoyed the positive energy at the event; the people took their practice seriously, but there was also a chivalrous and noble character to their comportment as competitors. In the women's match to decide first place, one of the competitors was very quick and aggressive, but her opponent managed to have better timing and control of her blade and was able to win the matches. The energy, intensity, speed, and precision of the matches were amazing to watch.
The end of the evening included the men's final longsword matches. It was interesting to watch the combatants chose different guards and dodge and counter attack. It was clear to me that the level of skill of both the men and women at the final and semifinal level in this tournament were first rate.
I would argue that the skill level of the participants, as exhibited under stress, is higher than what you would find by a person doing koryu kenjutsu who only practices kata and has never sparred. More than ever I feel that kata and sparring have to be like two wheels of a cart -- always present, and both in balance with one another. The tactics I was able to see were clean, fluid, and effective. While people have made arguments that the historical line of transmission of European martial arts has been broken over time, I feel that while that statement is technically true, the efforts to ressurect the methods of training from Europe, at least in the Longpoint community, have not been in vain. The dedication and intensity of practice I witnessed was something of beauty and for which I have great respect. The degree of speed, control, and intensity present in the top competitors is something any swordsman would benefit from aspiring to, regardless of the culture or tradition they draw their practice from.