JACKSON, Wis. — Think of it as viking aerobics.
Sure, there are other ways to get a nice cardio workout, but none that involves brandishing a long sword like a marauding Norman.
This is partly what drew folks to a daylong sword camp sponsored by the Wisconsin Historical Fencing Association earlier this month. For first-timers, it was curiosity and the chance to learn how to wield a long sword — think Hagar the Horrible’s sidearm. And for those experienced in Historical European Martial Arts, it was a chance to practice, exercise and hang out with others who know their way around a sword.
Whatever it is, it’s not what’s seen in films, said sword camp instructor Jeremiah Backhaus.
“It’s faster than what you see in movies. In Robin Hood movies, they’re talking when they’re fighting. There’s actually no time for that. It’s extremely sophisticated,” Backhaus said.
Looking for an unusual way to spend the morning, Menachem Graupe signed up his four kids ranging in age from 7 to 12.
“I thought it’d be a fun thing to do on vacation. They’ve never done anything like this before. It’s a little bit of action and a little bit of learning,” said Graupe, of Mequon, Wis., as he snapped photos of his 7-year-old daughter, Maya, practicing with a white plastic sword at The Target Range in Jackson, Wis.
Historical European Martial Arts is the martial system developed in Europe centuries ago, when men would brandish long swords.
“Let’s be honest. The world back then was ‘conquer or be conquered.’ You had to be able to defend yourself as efficiently as possible,” said Backhaus. “As metallurgy developed, they came up with swords to more efficiently defend themselves.”
Some Historical European Martial Arts enthusiasts are attracted by the history, while others like to do it for exercise or because they enjoy learning martial arts, Backhaus said. He trains with a police officer whose historical fencing expertise saved his life when someone lunged at him with a knife while he was on duty.
On a frigid day last week at The Target Range in Jackson, Wis., newcomers paired up while veterans practiced against each other amid the sound of clanking swords.
After explaining how to safely wield the three-pound steel swords, and for the smaller kids, much lighter plastic swords, Backhaus showed them different positions called guards and cuts. Most have German names. Ochs, which means ox, is holding the blade horizontally at shoulder height. Pflug, or plow, is a crouching stance while holding the sword near the hip. High Vom Tag is holding the sword horizontally overhead.
At the end of the session, Backhaus drilled his students. Showing them how to stand and hold the sword, he demonstrated an “X” cut, slashing the air in the shape of the letter. Holding his sword at his shoulder, he asked them the name of the position and Maya Graupe yelled: “Ochs!”
“They were great. A lot of people think medieval fencing is only for big guys,” said Backhaus, who is a big guy — 6-feet-1-inch tall and 270 pounds. But nodding at tiny Maya, he said: “It’s a lot more finesse. Someone her size can do it.”
Sharon Goetz traveled to Jackson from her home in Davenport, Iowa, with two friends. She knows Backhaus from the Historical European Martial Arts Alliance and got involved in historical fencing seven years ago through a school friend. She and her friends practice Saturdays when the weather is nice at a park in Davenport.
They also travel to events like this week’s sword school in Jackson.
It can be a bit pricey to get started. A really nice, sharp sword will set enthusiasts back $1,500 to $3,000 while fencing masks can range from $40 to $200. Goetz also owns two nice steel practice swords at $500 a pop. She buys her swords from New Glarus, Wis.-based sword manufacturing company Albion Swords. So does Backhaus, who is also a blacksmith.
Though people are swinging at each other with swords, historical fencing is generally safe as long as both competitors abide by the rules, said Goetz. She has suffered only one serious injury in seven years, a smashed pinkie finger that required seven stitches.
“I’ve noticed a huge change in my self-confidence,” said Goetz. “Plus, it’s awesome. How many people do you know who can fight with a sword?”