Listen to this article
“I need you to stay incredibly calm. Trust me.” Dave Rawlings – broad, tattooed, shaven-headed – pushes my sword aside and slithers his blade through the gap. There is a sliding screech. The point quivers near my head. Calm? Not very.
“Touch your ear,” Rawlings says. He gives me a pitying look as blade hits lobe. “With your hand.” Oh right. Not with the enormous great longsword I’m playing with. I’ve theoretically just lost an ear. Rawlings has already theoretically slain me a few times, and lopped off an arm or two. It’s not even lunchtime.
I’m in a suburban house in south London. The room backing on to the garden has been turned into a school of martial arts. Swords of different sizes line up, lodged in the radiator. The floor is covered with springy gym mats, marked with strange designs stolen from a Dan Brown novel. A dummy of an armoured man stands in the corner looking defeated.
I’m here because I write historical fiction. The characters in my first novel fought on the battlefields of the English civil war. The protagonist of my current project is a Norse-Gaelic warlord on the west coast of Scotland in the 12th century. I have visited his home territory, read the chronicles. But he was a fighter, and I am an urban, middle-aged mother. The only sword I have picked up was a plastic one from a child’s knight kit. I’ve watched the odd Errol Flynn movie, but I’m not sure that counts as research.
So here I am, holding a sword. Learning how to hold it convincingly, and move with it. My shoulders ache, and my arms are shivering tired. I hold my sword up, point it towards Rawlings. I lean the front part of my body forward, sticking my bottom out behind. It gives my opponent less of a target within reach, he says. Crouching tiger, fat arse, I think.
“Don’t lean back. I need you to trust me. If you start moving, that makes my control more unpredictable.”
I’m in one of the seven positions that Rawlings has taught me, and he is showing me how to attack. He makes it look simple, balletic. He is graceful when he moves. Mesmerising. I do trust him, even though he is carrying a sword. A big sword. He is softly spoken, authoritative. The sword screeches towards me; I flinch.
Dave Rawlings is one of the country’s leading instructors of European martial arts. This is the lost art of single combat, European style. It has been resurrected by enthusiasts like him; a motley band of martial artists and history buffs brought together by the internet and their love of swords.
“We’re really lucky,” says Rawlings. “We’ve got such a rich, rich tradition of martial arts in Europe and an incredibly well-documented one as well. The reason it died out is because we stopped practising – it’s as simple as that. But from 1285 onwards there are manuals.”
The manual we are working from today is one of the oldest. Known, unromantically, as “I.33” from its catalogue number at the Tower of London, it is of German origin and it shows, in incredible detail, how to fight with a sword and buckler. A buckler is a small, easily portable shield that is used primarily to protect the vulnerable sword hand.
We learn the moves and look at the pages of Dave’s replica of “I.33”. There’s a sort of historical alchemy going on. It’s intoxicating to look at these drawings of medieval sword drills, and replicate them in Dave’s back room.
“It was taken from a monastery in Germany,” says Rawlings, with reverence in his voice. “Then it became a spoil of war. It got nicked, and nicked again, then nicked again. It’s got fabulous little details. Someone has coloured in the bucklers, so somewhere a kid’s had access to it.”
There are a number of other, detailed, beautifully illustrated manuscripts. Rawlings says of one: “All the techniques amount to the same thing – stab him in the face, cut his leg off.”
The renaissance of an ancient art is a modern tale. It has its roots online, where like-minded folk can find each other. “You’ll find someone who is very good at transcribing, someone who is very good at translating, and then somebody who is very good at doing things physically. Sometimes the three things overlap.”
European martial arts are growing in popularity. Certainly, when I first picked up the sword, I felt a fizzing glee. The photographer wanted to hold it too, and who can blame him? Swords are part of our history, of our mythology. Excalibur sings down the ages. Game of Thrones, with its cod medieval themes and its sword fetishism, resonates in this bloodless age. There are competitions now, and classes across the country – a mixed crowd of both sexes. Rawlings, thoroughly modern, is genuinely excited to find women depicted in the manuscripts.
When we lay down the swords, Rawlings passes me an innocuous-looking replica sickle. A 16th-century German called Paulus Hector Mair was an enthusiast for partying and fighting and left a wealth of material – including detailed instructions on how to fight with a sickle. Peasant stuff; and a reminder of the nasty, brutish truth behind the romance.
Rawlings shows me how to use it to hook and block and hack. He pulls me forward by one wrist and, with the other hand, draws his sickle along my arm. Sickles don’t cut, so much as slice – as he pulls the sickle across my arm, I can almost see the hand drop off.
This is living history; a boisterous, bloodthirsty German writes a rough guide to sickle fighting, and 600 years later, I am in London, watching the ghost of my severed arm roll across a blue gym floor.
Antonia Senior’s novel, “Treason’s Daughter”, will be published by Atlantic Books next year
Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published