Historical martial arts for the students of “Beowulf”
5 June 2020
The last seminar in the course „Reading the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf“ was special this year: guided by three masters of historical martial arts from the Sword Mastery School (Lith. Kalavijo meistrystės mokykla, leader Andrius Janionis), the students learnt about the early medieval weapons, combat techniques and practiced fighting with sword and buckler.
“Reading the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf” was a new elective course offered this semester for the students of both English philology and Scandinavian studies. It was a slow-reading course of the heroic poem, held by many to be the masterpiece of Old English literature.
In the poem, swords play a prominent role in comparison to other weapons, since they are depicted not only as used in battles, but also as precious and mysterious artefacts that carry immense social and cultural significance as symbols of loyalty, power, inheritance and obligation.
The Sword Mastery School in Vilnius founded six years ago by the archaeologist Andrius Janionis aims at reconstructing the tradition of historical martial arts based on the authentic evidence found in written and archaeological sources. The leader of the school together with his colleagues have kindly agreed to teach our students some combat techniques using true to life replicas of medieval swords and shields.
According to Andrius Janionis, the sword is an especially old weapon that has been used in Europe continuously for nearly a thousand years. Although fighting with a sword might seem easy, masters of the art accentuate the precision and thorough knowledge of fighting techniques, which easily allow to compare the sword to using a surgeon’s scalpel.
During the seminar, the instructors from the Sword Mastery School taught the students of “Beowulf” some authentic movements with a sword and a small shield called ‘buckler’. Since no combat manuals survive from the times of the Anglo-Saxon poem, to have a glimpse into the fighting techniques of the early Middle Ages one has to rely on the earliest surviving fechtbuch in Europe, the so-called Walpurgis manuscript from ca 1300. The manual depicts series of defence and offence moves between a master and a pupil each armed with a sword and a buckler. It might be that the medieval fighting tradition of the Anglo-Saxons or Scandinavians was very similar to the one documented in the manuscript.
The most important thing about sword fighting, therefore, is not only the physical strength, but also the invaluable lessons of freedom, concentration, courage and purpose that once learnt in swordplay, will gradually manifest in the students’ everyday life as well.
The Sword Mastery School together with a few other clubs in Lithuania belongs to the international Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) movement that unites thousands of sword fighting enthusiasts across different countries in Europe. To learn more about HEMA and follow the events organised by different fencing clubs, please check the link iekm.lt/eng/.
Rūta Zukienė, VU Centre of Scandinavian studies