Sir Albert and Sir Andrew were tied, with two points each. They raised their swords, touched blades for the ceremonial start and attacked.
Flashes of silver swooped through the air as the two armor-clad men jabbed, stabbed and poked their weapons at each other. The Great Hall was filled with the clanging of metal scraping metal. Andrew drove his sword low, toward his rival’s pancreas. Albert reacted with an upward-sliding chest thrust. His 28-inch blade touched the chin of Andrew’s helmet.
Point to Sir Albert, declared the judges.
The victor may have been smiling, though it was impossible to tell. Except for two narrow eye slits, his face was completely obscured by his headgear.
Sir Andrew removed his helmet and transformed back into Andrew Venezia. The 29-year-old student at the European Martial Arts Academy in Alexandria questioned the call, which seemed to contradict what he’d learned in class: that the point zone falls between the shoulders and th e waistline, and a thrust to the head or a blow to the hands or legs counts as a fault.
“He got me directly in the face. I was lunging and I heard my helmet rattle,” he said.
But the point stayed with Sir Albert.
In an official setting, Albert Thompson (history professor and academy co-owner) might have lost the winning point to Venezia (doctoral candidate in neuroscience at the University of Maryland). This, however, was a practice session for an upcoming performance here at John Strongbow’s Tavern in Old Town, where entertainment would trump survival. And Sir Albert’s more-dramatic strikes had caught the judges’ eye. Of course, if the knights had been fighting on a 15th-century battlefield, the outcome could have been much worse than a miscall. One of them could be dead.
But apart from the ending, the swordplay on display faithfully hews to an original historical source: the illustrated fighting manuals of Hans Talhoffer, a German fencing master and instructor of the mid-1400s.
Thomas Booth, who founded EMAA and owns the tavern, frequently reminds his disciples that the fighting style is a true warrior art form.
“Swordsmanship isn’t what you see in the movies. This isn’t wild Conan stuff,” he informed a Wednesday-night class. To drive home the point, he raised his weapon high over his head like a lumberjack preparing to swing an ax and released a primal grunt. “It was designed for knights to fight in a full suit of armor.”
In the crowded arena of martial arts classes, Old World sparring techniques are generally eclipsed by more ethereal practices such as judo and jujitsu. But Booth is an ardent promoter and practitioner of Talhoffer’s moves, which he describes as “the most deadly and effective mixed martial arts that I’ve ever seen in the world.”
As a former Army Special Forces serviceman (1980-88), Booth has a facility for fighting; as a history major at Yale (Class of 1991, cum laude), he knows the past. He whipped the two together for his first medieval-themed restaurant in Winston-Salem, N.C. To avoid the cartoonish swashbuckling often performed at period-piece shows, he researched authentic styles from the Middle Ages, back when knights were like Hell’s Angels on horseback. He locked onto Talhoffer’s texts, which had languished in obscurity for nearly 400 years. The first English translation appeared in 2000.
“We’re not trying to historically re-create Talhoffer,” Booth said. “We’re trying to show the historical importance of taking what was dead for 500 years and bringing it back to life.”
The academy, which opened in November, focuses on dagger, broadsword, sword and shield, two-handed broadsword, grappling, striking and crisis response. It teaches many — but not all — of the chapters in the book.
“Really, some of it is kind of silly,” Booth admitted.
For example, students who wish to learn “Fight Between Man and Woman” will have to look elsewhere. Booth will not show a woman how to throttle a man standing in a waist-high pit.
Many of the instructors, including Booth, perform at the weekend Medieval Madness dinner theater above John Strongbow’s. Booth will also tag some of his standout students to fight in the spectacle — in full armor (from the waist up) and with real swords that can slice a frozen Yule log like pudding. Beyond the honor of appearing onstage, the winner takes home a pocketful of cash. (Booth throws in some seed money and diners add to the pot. On a recent Friday night, it added up to $168.)
“I’ve never been in a live sword fight,” said Venezia, who was selected for the show in January after only a few weeks of training. “I’m very surprised and a little nervous.”
In the Beginning Sword Combat class, the risk of getting cut or punctured is low. Participants practice with plastic swords and wear nonmetallic workout clothes. The biggest fear is probably agitating Booth. Speak over the Grand Master and you’ll have to drop and give him 10.
At one late-January session, nine male students (one would-be knightess joined the sparring in a later class) lined up in two rows and faced Booth, who instructed them on the proper grasp of the sword: The first two fingers control the weapon, which balances like a lever in the palm of the hand. He called out strike positions. The students’ swords danced in the air, leaping and twisting and landing in the gut of an invisible opponent. Afterward, they paired up and practiced blocking and thrusting.
“Your body is moving too much,” Booth said to a wiggly student.
To teach precision and control, Booth enlisted two punching bags. The pupils had 30 seconds to show the equipment who was boss. He corrected one student’s posture, reminding him to place his hand on his back hip in a classic Zorro pose.
On a typical day, you’re not likely to meet an angry knight in a dark alley, but you could very well find yourself face-to-face with a mugger wielding a small, sharp weapon. For the next set of drills, the students grabbed wooden daggers as Booth issued a warning: This drill was not about stabbing or throwing knives.
“Stabbing is to be discouraged. It’s really hard to pull a knife out of someone,” he said.
A better option: Disarm the villain.
Booth demonstrated a multistep choreography that involved grabbing and twisting the opponent’s wrist, pulling the arm back, placing weight on the shoulder and snapping a body part. If all goes as planned, the perpetrator will release the weapon and need a cast.
“They were doing this in the 15th century,” he said. “It’s an old trick.”
After class, Joseph Legacy, who received a 10-pack of lessons as a gift from his fiancee, was able to try on a suit of armor. Dream-come-true is a bit of a stretch, but the self-proclaimed “major nerd” was clearly excited. A radar tech with the D.C. police, Legacy grew up on King Arthur and fantasy books, Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons. Now he’s all grown up and gallivanting around in 30 pounds of chain mail.
“Would I like to get into sparring? Yes,” he said. “Do I think I’ll be able to translate German longsword to the street? Probably not.”
These days, the closest the European martial art gets to the street is a second-floor room overlooking King Street.
On a Thursday night, while diners ate and drank below, Sir Andrew and Sir Albert fought two practice bouts in a sliver of space by a brick fireplace. Both modern-day knights suffered wounds — a bruised elbow for Thompson, swollen knuckles for Venezia. But the knight’s code of courage and valor doesn’t include grousing and griping.
“I woke up this morning and wished I could spar again today,” Venezia said the next day. “It’s addicting.”