On the German Longsword

It’s a rather unassuming piece of steel, weighing a tad more than three pounds. The blunt edges of the sword start from a thin crossguard and end in a rounded tip.

A federschwert is, by any measure, altogether unimpressive. However, this tool unlocks a vast array of martial arts lost to time and recoreded only in books.

I study the tradition of the German longsword. Dating back to the High Middle Ages, this tradition focuses heavily on the bind, and getting past that in order to hit your opponent. This tradition stems from the German Johannes Liechtenauer, a 15th Century fencing master, whose work has been immortalized in numerous fencing manuscripts.

A page detailing a counter against a feint from the Ringneck manuscript

This tradition is also a serious martial art. Using the longsword effectively requires three interconnected skills: technical mastery, speed, and strength. Without one, the others are useless. No matter how strong you may be, without technical mastery a simple feint will leave you defeated. Without speed, technical mastery is useless. Sparring sessions last a few seconds at best, yet in each round multiple techniques can be seen, from half-swording to meisterhaus.

It’s a simple piece of steel. But it also represents a lost legacy dating back centuries, and my journey towards self-confidence. I was never good at sports. Instead I flourished in the classroom, and soon became the sterotypical Asian nerd — thin, tall, and without athletic ability.

I was 15 when I first picked up a steel sword. Despite the bluntness, its simple features conveyed a deadliness I loved. I felt the power of the weapon, and I loved it. Then I swung it. Or, that is, I tried to swing it, and ended up failing terribly. From then on, I was hooked.

Historical fencing is not just a martial art. Sure, a large part of it lies in fencing with others to better yourself, but the goal of the art is historical recreation. Many of the medieval manuscripts assume the reader knows how to swing a sword, yet an oberhaul (a swing going from high to low) takes months of training to get right. As these masters are all long dead now, recreating the art requires scholarly skill as well — translating manuscripts and interpreting them.

For me, it was the perfect intersection between learning and sports to get me interested, and as time went by and I began truly practicing the art, I began to realize that I was gaining confidence in my body. No longer was movement awkward for me, but instead each step flowed logically and beautifully into the next. No more were my arms uncontrolled, but each swing, each thrust, and each wind was exact and purposeful.

Granted, I’m still a little awkward today. However, thanks to the simple German longsword, I’ve gained self confidence. And I think that’s the beauty of martial arts. Though training my body, I’ve trained my intellect and emotions as well.

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