Shay Roberts, founder of Academy of Arms medieval combat school, doesn't consider himself a master swordsman. Although the soft-spoken writer and former computer teacher at Glendale College has spent nearly a decade swinging blades and poring over medieval manuscripts, it takes a lifetime of hard work to revive a martial art that hasn't been steadily taught for centuries. “I have so much more to learn,” Roberts says.
The nonprofit Academy specializes in European fighting techniques from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, with a heavy historical approach. It's called Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA), and both the students and their volunteer instructors spend countless hours studying and practicing for the chance to accurately relive medieval European combat.
On a recent Sunday morning in Burbank, a handful of students from the Academy line up on the grass at Verdugo Park. The day is bright, warm and lively: People play tennis or walk their dogs, and families chat while sitting at nearby picnic benches.The students have a different task. They face the head instructor of the techniques class, Jason Imboden. Each is armed with a wooden training messer.
This single-edged weapon has quite a history – it's one of the many killing instruments that a swordsman living in the Holy Roman Empire might have used. “Very nice cutting quality, much like a machete,” Imboden says, giving a few downward practice cuts.
Built like a linebacker with a broad chest and tree-trunk arms, Imboden moves with surprising grace, guiding the students quickly through the basics. Each student mimics Imboden's moves carefully, blocking imagined attacks. The 15th-century master fencer/cleric Johannes Lecküchner listed these messer techniques in his Kunst des Messerfechtens, one of the many manuscripts the Academy employed to create its detailed, 500-page curriculum.
“I wanted a school, not a club, but a school with tests, ranks, written curriculum and organized structure. I wasn't finding anything quite like that in my area, so I started it myself,” says Roberts, who stands off to the side, observing his students.
Roberts dabbled in other martial arts before founding the academy in 2009: Growing up in rural Alaska and Oregon, he was quiet and academic-minded – and bullied daily. “Once, a group of guys tried to throw me off a bridge. I never felt safe,” he says.
He tried karate and aikido before eventually stumbling across HEMA as an adult. Its rich history and dedicated code of ethics captivated him: “It spoke to me in a way nothing had before.” Never much of an athlete, Roberts learned HEMA's skills through “stubborn persistence.”
While the techniques have existed for centuries, HEMA has gained widespread popularity in Europe in the last few decades. “They can get three students for every one of ours. It's in their backyards; some of them drive by castles on their way to work,” Roberts says.
It's difficult to say when HEMA made the jump stateside, but European swordfighting books by Christian Henry Tobler (e.g., Fighting With the German Longsword) helped to spread its popularity in the United States during the early 2000s. Since then, HEMA clubs have popped up across the country, but teaching techniques vary. Some focus on casual practice or informal bouting, rather than the academy's more scholastic approach.
Student Devin McCarthy explains that while European-style fighting lacks a living tradition in the way of Eastern martial arts, there is a written tradition, if you're willing to seek it out: “Which is why the academic side is so important, because anything we learn hasn't been practiced for hundreds of years.”
The longsword is the academy's bread-and-butter weapon, but the school also teaches students how to use other Game of Thrones – style medieval weapons, including the dagger, spear, pollaxe, halfsword, sickle, messer and sword and buckler. Grappling, a sort of knightly version of UFC-style mixed martial arts, also is taught.
The school offers options for students looking to learn the basics, such as the techniques class, but in order to master the entire curriculum, students must put in the effort: They have to pass a series of intense academic and physical tests in order to keep advancing. The more academic-minded students also delve into medieval history, learning the backstories of each weapon and the intricacies of medieval culture, including codes of behavior that stressed the importance of honor, valor and humility. “The masters taught a code of behavior as well as a way of fighting. Those are good ideals to live your life by,” Roberts says.
He adds, “This is a fighting art that helps you find your role in the world. It's calming.”
The school attracts all sorts: waiters, aspiring actors, designers, engineers. Ages run from 18 to late '60s. “A lot of people, as kids, want to grow up to be a knight,” Imboden says.
Boasting a background in martial arts including jujitsu, Imboden, a Kentucky native and freelance special events designer, has a passion for medieval combat and history; he helped research the messer techniques for the curriculum.
The techniques class ends at noon, and the advanced students show up in ones and twos for their afternoon training. Each carries a bulky gym bag packed with protective fencing gear and training weapons; today, most of the dozen or so advanced students are wielding plastic, two-handed training longswords. Once they gear up (fencing mask, heavy gloves, shoulder pads, padded jackets), they pair off and train, practicing attacks or blocks on one another and talking about techniques.
“We're trying to see what it would have really been like to fight like that,” student Kyrsten Magnuson says as she hefts a training longsword.
The Sunday class ends with a bouting session, in which two fully geared advanced students face off. Roberts checks the combatants' gear, and once the two salute one another, the fight commences. The swordplay is close, blurry-fast and brutal. A sharp snap of plastic on plastic rings out when their swords lock.
Once the fight ends, the sweat-soaked combatants laugh and talk tactics as they walk off the field. The next bout begins, and plastic swords clash.
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