March 28 2012 10:28 AM

Crossing blades at a class in historical sword combat

From left: April Apperson-Farrell, Scott Farrell and Kyle Lazzarevich
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

Clack, clack, clack—the sound of wooden and hard-plastic swords striking one another spills out onto a quiet street in Sorrento Valley. Inside the nondescript Team Touche Fencing Center warehouse, a handful of students spar, getting pointers from three attentive instructors.

"And that, Tiffany, is why you don't want to get too close right there," instructor April Apperson-Farrell says to a young knight whose shining armor is jeans and a tank top. "More fights have been lost just by stepping on the opponent's sword tip."

In the Middle Ages, lead instructor Scott Farrell later tells me as he hands me my own heavy, wooden sword, a knight's brain was as important as his brawn. Courtesy and honor were as respected as sheer grit and bloody victories. Living by the Code of Chivalry was the ultimate goal.

Weapon in hand, I immediately want to swing my sword around like Penelope Cruz in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, maybe finishing my swordsmanship debut with a backflip into the splits. Instead, I listen to Scott. The guy knows a thing or two about chivalry: He's the founder of Chivalry Today, an educational program focusing on the history, literature and philosophy of the Code of Chivalry through monthly podcasts, interactive classroom presentations and articles and essays. Scott looks me in the eye and tells me what his "Swords of Chivalry: Historical Sword Combat" class is really about.

"What we're learning here, just to give you the basic rundown, it was a style of fencing that was taken from 14th- and 15th-century fighting manuals," he says. "So, it's a historically documentable style of fighting…. The purpose of doing this, in terms of integrating it with the rest of the chivalry program, is to bring into focus that sense of competitive activity with sensibility, restraint, control and respect for your opponents."

For example: When (or if ) I ever do get good enough to fence competitively, he says, it's up to me to acknowledge any and all blows from my opponent. There are no referees calling me out, only my own personal code of honor that, even in the heat of battle, should have me admitting a loss even when I really, really want to win. And when (or if ) I get good enough to battle an opponent to the ground, acting chivalrously means I'll have the wherewithal to stop myself from "killing" my foe if he or she surrenders.

"It's a good metaphor for anything you do in life," Scott says. "You never want to be so focused on winning or profit, or whatever, that you kind of lose your own sense of responsibility."

Point taken. I'm ready to swing my sword. But first, Scott drives home the chivalry thing by sharing a personal anecdote. He met his wife, a fellow instructor and lover of all things medieval, in a history-reenactment group. They fought each other—physically—before falling in love.

"And we still enjoy fighting in the style of combat," he laughs. "It's funny, though, a lot of people say, ‘Oh, well, it must be a great way to work out your aggression.' Uh-uh. You do not take aggressions out onto the field when you're crossing swords with somebody else."

Got it. My anger tempered and my honor intact, I'm ready to fight. Scott slowly takes me through the five meisterhau (that means "master cuts" in German):

1. Zornhau (strike of wrath)

2. Krumphau (crooked strike)

3. Zwerchhau (thwart or cross strike)

4. Schielhau (squinting strike)

5. Scheitelhau (scalp or parting strike)

I'm no better than the kids who take his class in remembering my left from right. I keep swinging the sword as if it's a baseball bat, forgetting that it's extremely important to strike an opponent with the edge, not the face, of my sword. In short: I suck. But just holding the sword makes me feel kinda chivalrous. I begin to understand Scott's obsession.

"We still have a sense of honor in today's world, but there are an awful lot of people who fall short of it, right?" he says in between demonstrating the zornhau and the scheitelhau. "We have politicians who lie, we have business people who are corrupt and we have soldiers who are brutal, but that doesn't mean we don't try to live by that code of honor. And if we fail today, it doesn't mean that we can't try again tomorrow."

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