Karateka with a Longsword

Over the weekend, I had an opportunity to train with the Phoenix Society of Historical Swordsmanship, which is a HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) club that specializes in Italian styles of swordsmanship, as well as Spanish rapier. The club is run by Richard Marsden, who is also the President of the HEMA Alliance. They were a good group of people, and they had a rather large attendance on Saturday for a mixture of classes and a scrimmage/practice tournament. I will admit that, before I became interested in Japanese/Okinawan culture and martial arts, I was pretty much in love with medieval Europe–mainly for the knights and their weapons/armor, of course. Even now, I have digital copies of several European martial arts manuals, because so many of the standing grappling techniques match karate techniques.

Since I actually arrived in the middle of their practice tournament, I had missed the classes. Thankfully, one of their instructors had just been knocked out of the competition, and was kind enough to give me an introductory lesson on Fiore dei Liberi’s (a 15th Century Italian knight) system of longsword fighting. We started off by going through the basic footwork of Fiore’s system, and the 12 guards (called “poste” in Italian, but we would call them “kamae” in Japanese) that are used with the longsword. The footwork was similar to the footwork found in modern sport karate, with a focus on countering, moving with speed, and getting just slightly off-line. In fact, I had taught one of the steps he showed me during the Sparring Class at the dojo earlier in the day. The guards, he explained, are both beginning and ending positions for techniques, rather than the technique, itself. I found this to be exactly the same methodology as the kamae (postures) in karate kata. In the video, above, you can see Matt Easton (probably the most well-known Fiore instructor on YouTube) teaching the guards, and some footwork. I do notice that he seems to keep his heels down, while I was shown to keep the heel up on the non-weighted foot (much like a neko-ashi-dachi/cat stance).

Illustration of strike angles from Fiore dei Liberi’s Flos Duellatorum

From there, we moved on to the 7 basic strikes of Fiore longsword–two high, two middle, two low, and the thrust. These strikes can come from a variety of angles, but Fiore describes four primary lines of attack. Most swordsmanship manuals, including Fiore’s, depict these lines of attack like the image, above. It is interesting to note that a line of attack is depicted from mid-thigh to the shoulder, but is actually described in Fiore’s writing as being “from tooth to knee,” indicating a steeper cut. I suspect that (as he was likely a noble, himself), this was to ensure that literate people would understand what he was talking about, while illiterate people (looking merely at the pictures) would not learn the proper technique.

Illustration of swords “binding at the strong” from Fiore’s Flos Duellatorum

To end the lesson, we went over the 3 types of binds (when swords meet and the edges become “stuck” together) and techniques to use in those situations. When binding, the sword blade is divided into three sections–the weak (tip), the middle, and the strong (close to the hilt). The bind, in swordsmanship, is very much like trapping distance in unarmed martial arts, except the blade edges can actually bit into each other and cause them to stick. This means that you actually get more tactile feedback in the bind than you do with your bare hands, which is an interesting feeling. The techniques used in the bind rely heavily on feeling what your opponent is doing, and using their strength against them. In addition, this is the range at which Fiore teaches kicks, standing joint locks, and throws–just like karate does. In fact, the very last technique I was shown, for when the swords are bound at the strong, was to move my opponent’s blade off-line, step directly behind them, wrap their arms up with mine, and twist my body to throw them over my leg. This is a weaponized version of a throw in Naihanchi, so I felt right at home!

Naihanchi oyo bunkai, courtesy of Fiore dei Liberi

When it gets right down to it, there is actually a great deal that HEMA and classical karate have in common. I knew that many of the techniques were similar, from having looked at the manuals, but I have a greater appreciation for the similarities after having trained in it, a bit. Fiore’s system is a primarily defensive one, which responds to an opponent’s attacks more often than it initiates its own, much like karate. It also advocates avoiding your opponent’s attacks by the smallest margin possible (issun hasureru–“avoid by an inch”), as well as cutting across your opponent’s lines of strength and breaking their structure. It was a very interesting experience, and I plan to visit them every now and then. Hopefully I will get the chance to do some longsword sparring, which looked like a great deal of fun, as well as a good way to pressure test the techniques they teach. If it works out well, it may be a great template for incorporating sparring into the kobudo we teach at our dojo.

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About Noah

I began training in karate (Shuri-Ryu) in the Summer of 2006. Subsequently, I started training in judo, kobudo, and iaijutsu within the next 6 months. During my training there, I earned the rank of Sankyu (3rd Degree Brown Belt) in Shuri-Ryu, Gokyu (Green Belt) in judo, a certification in the use of the bo, and passed proficiency tests for the four tachigata of Shinkage-Ryu iaijutsu. I moved to Arizona in the Summer of 2008, and continued training and researching karate at home. I continued regular training in judo at a local club until 2010, when I was able to start training in Shorin-Ryu with Sensei Richard Poage. I have been training with him ever since, and currently hold the rank of Shodan (1st Degree Black Belt) in Shorin-Ryu under him. In addition, I began studying KishimotoDi under Sensei Ulf Karlsson in 2014.