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Renaissance Sword Society members revive medieval martial arts at MSU

April 1, 2024
Students practicing different techniques and drills during a practice session for the MSU Renaissance Sword Society at IM Circle on March 28, 2024.
Students practicing different techniques and drills during a practice session for the MSU Renaissance Sword Society at IM Circle on March 28, 2024.

Although Thursday nights in the second floor gym of the IM Circle building may look like a scene out of a Shakespeare play, the members of the Renaissance Sword Society need not have a heavy head or crown — just their longswords, some in-depth knowledge of medieval dueling tactics and a bit of padding.

Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) is exactly what it sounds like: the study and practice of the old European martial system, which died out ages ago. 

But it's seen a resurgence in the past decade, including here at MSU, where English senior Han Yoo founded the Renaissance Sword Society last spring. 

Yoo began practicing HEMA before he was an MSU student. When he got to MSU, the lack of an existing club on campus was enough motivation for him to start one. Yoo said his initial goal when starting the club was to make new friends, fence with them and ultimately create new fencers that could "shoot off into the world" to start their own clubs and contribute to a larger, growing HEMA scene.

A successful goal according to Yoo, but not quite an easy one.

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While the current Renaissance Sword Society is a registered student organization with funding from donations to support the roughly 15 recurring members, the club started as a smaller group of people practicing outside of Shaw Hall.

"It was hard because we didn't have any gear and we had no means of reaching new people, aside from people just seeing us and asking us 'Hey, what are you doing?'" said Yoo, who is now the club's president. 

Eventually, however, Yoo said they were able to register the club as an official student organization, a task that took quite some time. After that, it was smooth sailing. 

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But HEMA is much more than just banging swords together. What may seem like a simple sword-fighting sport actually requires scholarship and interpretation of old texts. 

When the current vice president of the club, linguistics sophomore Maggie Howell, initially joined, she said the club was focused on the works of Johannes Liechtenauer, a 15th century German fencing master.

Arguably the most notable of Liechtenauer's work is fencing instructions formatted in a list of mnemonic aids called the "Zettel." It is often viewed as similar to a poem, requiring loads of interpretation. 

"It's pretty difficult for new people to look at the manuscripts and figure out what you're supposed to be doing," Howell said. 

Luckily for newcomers, part of what Howell does as vice president is help members understand the often cryptic messages in the centuries-old texts. But even that can get tricky. 

The club's current focus is on Joachim Meyer, a German fencing master from the 16th century. Howell said Meyer was writing for an audience that already knew how to fence, and was only adding concepts to make it more artful. 

"We're people that don't know how to fence, so we're learning how to fence and also learning how to make it artful at the same time, which adds another layer of difficulty," she said.

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While it's certainly difficult, Howell said learning a fighting style based on an old book adds a conversational component, opening the doors for multiple interpretations and discussions depending on how the text is read.

"From one club to another, you'll probably find a slightly different interpretation of Meyer," said Jakob Stibal, a computer science and engineering sophomore.

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But the members of the Renaissance Sword Society aren't alone in translating the old writings of masters like Liechtenauer and Meyer. The club often brings in guest instructors to help translate words from a poem into action, including people from the Lansing Longsword Guild. 

For Yoo, the scholarly pursuit that comes with HEMA is what attracts him to it. Prior to practicing HEMA, Yoo was mostly just interested in the swords, but the educational aspect has since created a much deeper interest in European history. 

And while it's certainly possible to become a good HEMA fencer simply by going to a gym and asking instructors questions, Yoo said that what separates the good fencers from the great fencers is the level of understanding of the texts and that person's ability to apply that knowledge to what they end up practicing in the gym.

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The educational aspect of the club doesn't stop it from being fun, though, as Yoo described the club as being "chill and relaxed."

"I visited a couple of HEMA clubs in the past where there was a two hour block and the first hour was just exercise," Yoo said. "That's not why people come out, right? They come to learn how to fight with swords."

And like most hobbies, complexities can come off as somewhat daunting, but Yoo said one of the best parts of the club is the community, which is quite welcoming to newcomers. Not only that, but Yoo said that between this club and the Lansing Longsword Guild, he's met a lot of people that he now considers friends. 

For Howell, she finds it intriguing that everyone in the club is still learning, even the officers. Beyond that, though, she enjoys teaching what she's learned to others.

"That's why I said yes to being an officer," she said.

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