Swords drawn, ready to learn

The Baltimore Sun

The sun beat down on the group as they stood in a half-circle, knees bent and swords ready.

R.J. Rockefeller faced them, his steel blade up.

"Come, en garde, young man," Rockefeller said, advancing toward 13-year-old Glen Curtis. "Hut!"

A quick clash of blades, and Rockefeller breached Glen's defenses, easily lunging toward his chest. Next time, Glen learned, he'd need a firmer grip on his sword.

Nearby was a table laden with replicas of sabers and cutlasses, with small swords -- used in fencing -- and shillelaghs, or Irish walking sticks. Among the steel and wooden practice blades were historical manuals: Hungarian and Highland Broad Sword, Cold Steel: A Practical Treatise on the Sabre and A Treatise Upon the Useful Science of Defence Connecting the Small and Back Sword.

The swordplay and display paid tribute to the "manly arts," a celebration of the Western martial arts tradition, at the Hampton National Historic Site in Baltimore County.

Yesterday marked the second "Manly Arts Day," said Ranger Victor Markland, an event he launched last year to draw attention to a niche not often explored.

Held on the estate of the wealthy Ridgely family, whose iron was used to make weapons during the American Revolution and whose generations fought in the War of 1812 and the Civil War, the day focused on skills once considered essential to being a man. Along with riding and dancing, the well-rounded, well-bred man knew how to fence, said Rockefeller, a Loyola College history professor.

"It was considered an absolute necessity... to know how to fence, or at least a minimal use of a sword." Markland said. While Rockefeller channeled an 18th-century man with a waistcoat, breeches and stockings, Markland mimicked a Napoleonic War veteran who opened a Baltimore fencing academy in 1814, sporting a black top hat along with his outfit.

Markland recalled observing historians who wore swords as part of a costume but acted as though "they didn't have any idea they were real weapons."

But in the 18th and 19th centuries, the slash of a steel blade often meant the difference between life or death; knowing how to wield a sword served as a means of defending oneself, one's honor or one's country. It also taught grace and athleticism, Rockefeller said.

Gentlemen learned the art of swordplay. But the poor, denied access to the cutting steel, used sticks and fists to rise to the occasion.

Steven Huff, who founded the Historical Martial Study Society, demonstrated the poor man's school of defense. After a bout of stances and strategies for bare-knuckle boxing, which the Ridgely men were known to engage in, Huff grasped a black shillelagh, or stick, holding it like a sword.

He delivered a swift hit to a cushioned pad that Markland held up for him.

"You'd be surprised that amount of pain you can generate with just a little swing of your wrist," Huff said. An Irish tradition, he said, involved fighting with ale in one hand, trying to get an opponent to spill his drink, and thus buy the next round.

Karl Fischer of Westminster and Steve Fisher of Martinsburg watched the exchange from the sidelines. Active re-enactors, they recently started taking lessons in fencing from Rockefeller, they said.

"I always wanted to try it -- it seems like fun," Fisher said, adding that it was good exercise.

Fischer, a gun collector with an interest in military history, said he had wanted to learn swordplay. Unlike other sports, he added, fencing was one he could do with his wife.

"She has equal advantage, so we have equal fun," Fischer said. "It doesn't matter how big, strong or whatever you are. It's a skill level."

For Patrick Darby, 6, who was visiting the Hampton site with his family, discovering Manly Arts Day was the happiest of coincidences. Patrick wielded his blade -- like the others, his was covered to prevent injury -- with pleasure alongside his father, Tom.

As he learned to thrust and parry, Patrick reflected on his enthusiasm for swords.

"To me, it's really fun to learn how to block and thrust and all that stuff," Patrick said.

So the "manly arts" pass on to another generation.


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