En garde!


Photo: Christopher Cachia Zammit

Historical sword fighting brings back the nobility of weapons of old. Maestro d’armi Andrei Xuereb explains the origins of this discipline to Ramona Depares. An edited version of this interview was published on the Sunday Times of Malta.

Conjuring images of swash-buckling heroes, damsels in distress and – for those with a more contemporary imagination – maybe even of a Captain Jack Sparrow being forced to walk the plank, sword fighting may sound like a hobby that is too exotic for most.

Add the adjective ‘historic’ before the word ‘sword fighting’, and suddenly it becomes even more out there, something that intrigues but maybe also makes us wary.

Not so Andrei Xuereb, a recently-qualified maestro d’armi. His love for sword fighting also finds its birth in the fairtytales that we all grew up with.

“I grew up reading these stories and watching movies that featured fights with swords. In retrospect, I think I was attracted by a more honourable way of solving quarrels and fighting battles to defend your loved ones, where fighting with a blade required much more skill and courage than the use of firearms,” he says.

As he grew older this love deepened, until, in 1997, he joined an organisation that was doing the closest thing there was in Malta to using a sword – sport fencing.

This was but a springboard, leading Xuereb to carry out further research into the use of real swords.

“Some eight years ago I decided to start learning historical fencing in Italy, following the methods taught at the Federazione Italiana Scherma Antica e Storica (FISAS).”

Some time later, the Malta Historical Fencing Association (MHFA), of which Xuereb is president, was founded.”

For many, the terms ‘fencing’ and ‘sword-fighting’ are con-fusing. When people hear the word ‘fencing’, nowadays, they tend to think of the Olympic sport.

In the old days, a soldier had to learn to fence and this meant that one needed to be knowledgeable in the use of all the weapons available at the time, including various type of swords.

After the use of swords in battle was no longer necessary, fencing became a gentleman’s pursuit and then a sport.

“It’s a sport with many rules and restrictions. The aim is to score a point first before your opponent. In historical fencing, the aim is to defend properly as if the weapon were really ­threatening.

“The term is used to make a clear distinction from sports fencing, denoting the proper use of edged weapons as they were meant for battle or personal combat, as opposed to just a game,” Xuereb explains.

Unlike with re-enactment shows, where entertainment is the main purpose, historical fencing brings the practitioner as close to a real fight as you can possibly get in safety.

I was attracted by a more honourable way of solving quarrels and fighting battles

“As with all fighting systems, you start with basic body movements and build up to detailed techniques.

“ It is a physical activity which certainly can counter the sedentary lifestyle most of us have. But is it also a mental activity, where the practitioner needs to think fast and build a strategy under the pressure of an attack.”

These elements are most evi-dent during free assault/sparring in full contact sessions, which are held using blunt weapons and all the necessary body protections.

So what is so ‘historical’ about the sport? Xuereb says that the weaponry used cover around six centuries of weapon styles and method evolution, from the 1300s up till the early 1900s.

Moreover, the practice is based on the study and research of old treatises and manuscripts written by fencing masters of those times.

Many of these documents, especially the earliest ones, require a lot of interpretation and testing to translate the techniques into reality.

“We attempt to put ourselves in the mindset of the people who used a certain weapon in a particular historical period, thus re-creating a lost living tradition.

“The title of Maestro D’Armi traditionally refers to a veteran fighter employed by royalty or chivalric orders to train their soldiers and nobility in the art of fencing. Nowadays, it’s the title given to a teacher who is qualified to teach a system and style in a number of weapons.”

Xuereb explains that in his case he chose to follow the system devised by Maestro Andrea Lupo Sinclair, founder of FISAS. The system is based on four weapons: the longsword, a two-handed sword from the 15th and 16th century; the side-sword from 16th century; the 17th century rapier; and the 19th century duelling sabre.

Earlier this year, the swords master passed his final exam, lasting over six hours, earning him the title of Maestro d’Armi and making him the first non-Italian to learn and get qualified under the FISAS system.

The discipline has already attracted an amount of interest in Malta, with a number of committed students regularly attending classes.

Students hail from diverse backgrounds and include those who have always wanted to do a martial art with a European ­heritage.

The good news for those whose interest is piqued is that there are no particular requirements for joining, apart from being ready to make mistakes.

“At first people can get a bit frustrated when they don’t manage to make some movement or technique correctly, because an experienced fencer makes it look so much easier.”

As for the danger element, the weapons used are blunt, not pointed and are designed for practice. Protective clothing and equipment, such as fencing mask, jackets, leather vests and padded gloves, are worn at all times.

“The best safety measure is common sense and mutual respect to your fellow fencer and to remember that any form of thuggery and irresponsible behaviour are not permitted,” Xuereb assures potential students.

Initially, equipment is lent to new students by the MHFA. Practise takes place on Mondays and Thursdays from 6pm until 8.30pm.