, Salem, MA

September 19, 2013

Getting medieval in Danvers

Historic martial arts come to life at local tournaments, clinics

By Will Broaddus
Staff writer

---- — The romantic image of a knight in shining armor is a constant in Western culture, from King Arthur to “Star Wars.”

A number of people will explore the reality behind that image this weekend, when they gather at the Danvers Indoor Sports Arena to battle with longswords.

Iron Gate Exhibition 2013, which includes a free tournament for spectators that will also feature combat with daggers and spears, will be held Friday through Sunday, Sept. 20 to 22. In addition, on Monday, scholarly presentations on historical European martial arts will be held at the Higgins Armory in Worcester.

“It’s been growing very rapidly,” said Jeff Tsay of North Reading, one of the hosts for the event. “Ten years ago, we would have been shocked to see the explosion and proliferation of schools and events, and the sources that have become available.”

Originally known as the Boston Sword Gathering, the event now draws people from around the country, leading organizers to change its name.

“Last year, we had maybe 40 to 50 people participating, and this year, we’re almost double that,” Tsay said.

The explosive growth in interest is remarkable given that, unlike Eastern martial arts like karate, the forms of combat at Iron Gate have mostly died out. Enthusiasts of historic European martial arts have turned to illustrations in medieval and Renaissance manuscripts for information about how weapons were used and how fights were conducted.

Tsay compares the situation to the movie “Jurassic Park,” in which dinosaurs were recreated from DNA that was preserved in amber.

“We’re doing the same thing from historical sources written down centuries ago,” he said.

While an enormous number of manuscripts and illustrations have been uncovered, there is still a great deal that isn’t clear about how people originally fought with swords, spears and daggers.

“Oftentimes, it’s like, ‘Why are they doing it this way?’” Tsay said. “When you aggregate all these rules, a lot of practitioners say it’s very artificial; it seems not what you would expect from people living and dying by the sword.”

Getting in the ring with armed opponents can clarify what’s learned from research, and helps develop this historical martial art into a modern sport.

Tsay’s group of martial artists, Forte Swordplay, meets three times a week in Burlington and draws all kinds of people.

Some, like Tsay, started as practitioners of Eastern martial arts and wanted to try fighting with swords, which are central to European martial arts. Others, like Leslie Rose of Rowley, were following an interest that began with elements of popular culture.

“I am a great fan of RPG (role playing game) computer games, where you use a lot of longsword techniques,” said Rose, who works for a computer game manufacturer. “I’ve been interested in medieval weaponry for a long time.”

She and her boyfriend joined Forte Swordplay last December and also belong to another group, School of St. George in Watertown, but Rose still considers herself a beginner.

“I got into it for the workout,” she said. “I go twice a week. It’s two hours, but I’m not capable of doing it for more than an hour.”

Rose will be a judge at the exhibition, which will be streamed online at the exhibition’s website on Saturday, and she said the rules are complex.

“There’s three points for head hits, two points for the foot — because it’s difficult to hit — and anywhere else is one point,” she said.

Strikes to the back of the neck, the back, kidney or groin are off-limits, as are blows to the back of the knees or the wrists and hands.

“We want to see a better quality of fighting,” Rose said. “We don’t want sniping, where somebody could get injured. It’s very easy to break somebody’s hand. People are hitting very hard.”

The swords weigh between 2 and 6 pounds, depending on the material used to make them, and are swung at shoulder or head height.

The exhibition provides weapons for contestants to use, to ensure their quality, and in the early bouts only nylon swords are allowed. Fighters who advance to the later rounds are allowed to use steel swords, but these have dull edges.

Sunday is a good time for beginners to attend the exhibition, because classes will be offered on fighting techniques, Rose said, and vendors and schools will be present with information.

“The history is the driving force,” she said, “because curiosity is what’s driving us.”

IRON GATE EXHIBITION 2013 What: Historical martial arts tournaments and clinics, using longswords, daggers and spears Where: Danvers Indoor Sports Arena, 150 Andover St. (Route 114), Danvers When: Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 20 to 22. Start times vary. Tournament and clinics, Friday and Saturday; clinics only on Sunday. Admission: Free for spectators Information: