Watch: Colorado Springs Group Researches, Re-Enacts Medieval English Combat Arts

By Earls, Stephanie | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, CO), September 29, 2014 | Go to article overview

Watch: Colorado Springs Group Researches, Re-Enacts Medieval English Combat Arts


Earls, Stephanie, The Gazette (Colorado Springs, CO)


In a few centuries, when reruns of "Game of Thrones" and "Lord of the Rings" spark an obsession with medieval English swordplay on campuses galaxy-wide, fans won't have to look far for a playbook.

Those lucky future geeks will be able to turn to the compendiums of The Black Falcon School of Arms, founded way back in 2003 in Colorado Springs. Maybe the school will be an institution or a think tank or a world power by then. It's already got the mysterious, secret-society-sounding name.

For now, in present tense, the registered Colorado nonprofit is a free-time and weekend pursuit. Its 10 members include two Bens, who tease out a 200-year purview of English martial arts from a handful of pages of source material from the 15th and 16th centuries. That's it.

"You could say 'books,' but that's incredibly generous," says founder Ben Roberts.

Only two surviving English- language manuscripts from the period specifically address the use of the two-handed sword, he says. One is seven pages and the other is one page, front and back.

"That's nine pages altogether if you want to jam them together," Roberts says.

Greater things have been done with less.

Martial from Mars

First things first: martial - not an Asian thing.

The term has a Western European origin, derived from Mars, the Roman god of war.

"When we think martial arts, we think of all these chop suey, kung fu movies featuring martial arts," Roberts says. Veterans returning from service in Asia in the early to mid-20th century brought back indigenous weapons, and "they were martial, so (martial weapons as a whole) became associated with Asia."

Eastern martial combat has a long, rich and well-chronicled historical continuum, from oral to printed records, and its different forms still thrive in modern studios and the general zeitgeist. European martial arts, on the other hand, have gotten the short end of the rattan.

"I grew up thinking that Asia was the only place where they had structured martial heritage," says Erick Harloff of Colorado Springs, who joined the group about six months ago. "In Europe, they also had very structured fighting systems and disciplined guys who practiced them. It wasn't just a bunch of guys handing out random weapons and having at it on a battlefield and learning from getting killed. It was actually very sophisticated."

A narrow focus

So say The Bens - Ben Roberts and Ben Holman, at the core of a group that's among only a handful worldwide with the same, strict mission: rediscovery and re-creation of the martial arts of medieval and Renaissance England, with emphasis on the longsword. It's a narrow weaponry window, but it's one that's deeply influenced the fantasy and sci-fi genres, which are especially popular these days.

This may come as a shock, but much of what we know of how medieval English weapons were used is ... well, made up.

The prevailing way of approaching the re-creation of combat in most re-enactment societies was to go with what works, "so you had this hybrid of history-inspired modern sport ... where people would just discover, independently, 'Oh, if I hold my sword this way it's easier to hit him.' They weren't researching because there wasn't anything to research," Roberts says.

By virtue of scarcity, if not scholarship, the handful of groups like Roberts' have a corner on the market. That's because they chose to focus on a teensy, tiny and murkily documented corner. Other schools devoted to similar pursuits opt to eschew the English school for that very reason.

They look and say, "there's not enough here to work with," Roberts says. "I've staked several years of research on the fact that there is. …

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