Black Bear Historical Fencing is bringing Historical European Martial Arts to Morgantown.
Dylan Thomas studied karate as a kid. Later he bounced around between kickboxing and jiu-jitsu, and he competed some. But when he ran across Historical European Martial Arts—HEMA—he found his martial arts home.
“I was always really into history,” he says, and HEMA is all about medieval military history. He’s a little nerdy, too—Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings—and it’s got that vibe. “And I love martial arts, and I have a competitive side—so it checks all of those boxes for me.”
So Thomas and a few similarly minded friends started Black Bear Historical Fencing to learn and to teach, and now they’re offering introductory courses in their main focus, German longsword. Based on the enthusiastic attendance at the first night of their current five-week introductory course—a couple dozen people for a planned dozen slots—they’re not alone in their enthusiasm.
“German longsword fencing techniques come from the 14th and 15th century,” Thomas explains. While martial arts like karate, jiu-jitsu, and kung fu were passed from generation to generation, he says, the European martial arts were abandoned as military technologies advanced. “But we have manuscripts, manuals, treatises, and artwork that show how people did this in medieval times. HEMA is a revival of these arts, and there are schools and clubs popping up around the world where people are trying to recreate what these manuals and treatises used to teach.”
Names and classifications of sword-type weapons are debated, Thomas says. But as opposed to a sabre, which is what we now call a sword that was used with one hand, a longsword is generally used with two hands. And it’s, you know, long: If the user stands it on the floor by its tip, the pommel at the other end comes to around the user’s armpit.
Unlike the comparatively delicate, gentlemanly sport of fencing with foils or épées that you might have in your mind, a longsword fencing match looks far more aggressive and full-bodied. “We also incorporate grappling techniques that are in the manuals,” Thomas says. “Instead of just fighting with the tip or the blade, you’ll also use the pommel as a striking object. And we use takedowns, too—any technique they would have used back then and recorded in manuals, we’re recreating that. All while trying to make it a safe and competitive sport.”
Just like for Thomas, HEMA appeals to people who have a variety of interests: history, fantasy, martial arts, and fitness. Black Bear Historical Fencing is planning its next intro course soon: stay up to date on their website, Facebook, and Instagram pages.