THE HISTORIC ART OF FENCING
Meet Andrei Xuereb, the Malta Historical Fencing Association’s founder and Maestro d’Armi. He works in illustration and graphic design by day, and wields a variety of weapons by night. SWAG found out what the organisation is all about, the scene in Malta, and most importantly… what do women think of it?
“The Malta Historical Fencing Association (MHFA) was founded in 2009 and inaugurated to the public in 2011,” Andrei told us. “It has a syllabus in armed and unarmed systems that keeps enriching itself and developing, giving its members the best and latest research available.
“The MHFA is a non-profit organization. Its goal is to bring the lost European martial heritage there was in Malta back to life as a practical activity, and also collaborate with other cultural entities like museums, armouries, private collections and libraries in order to enrich our knowledge of the past. The MHFA is often invited to give public demonstrations and lectures. Our members regularly take part in international workshops and over these past three years, an international event was organised in Malta, attracting fencers and teachers from various countries,” he went on.
That was a fairly comprehensive introduction to the activity, but SWAG also wanted to know a little more about Andrei himself. We asked him what attracted him to the activity in the first place.
“I like to refer to the work we do as a discipline or martial arts, because of its non-competitive aspect. Having said that, I did start from Sport Fencing back in 1997, because it was the only sword-related discipline there was at the time. I always wanted to learn the proper use of swords and that’s why I began travelling to study, mainly to Italy and started my own group of historical fencing here in Malta.
“Since 2006, I’ve been studying and training in Italy at FISAS (the Italian Federation for Historical Fencing), under my teacher Maestro Andrea Lupo Sinclair. I was invited to participate in academies to become a qualified instructor and managed to sit for my first exams in 2013, where I passed in three out of four weapons. I managed to pass my final exam this year, gaining the title of Maestro D’Armi (Master at Arms), which is the highest rank in our discipline. I was also the first non-Italian to participate in these academies, take exams and get qualified in the FISAS system.”
This title is important to Andrei because it gives him a solid base of teaching methods that he is now using here in Malta. “My plans for the future are to continue strengthening our practice system and our research in such a vast subject,” he explained.
When asked about his favourite weapon, he had to this to say: “It’s like asking a father which is his favourite child! Probably, if I really had to choose, I’d always feel more at ease with the rapier, but really I love them all and I always want to try different ones.”
What’s the difference between the MHFA and other fencing clubs, we asked.
“When people nowadays hear the word 'fencing', many think of the Olympic sport, which is what the other fencing clubs here in Malta practice. Nowadays, we simply use the term ‘Historical Fencing’ to make a clear distinction between Sports Fencing, hence defining that it’s the proper use of edged weapons; how they were meant for battle or personal combat, and not for a game.”
Andrei explained that the term 'fencing', or scherma in Italian, originally meant the art of defence. 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. These ranged from various types of swords, sometimes accompanied by shields, daggers and cloaks, to pole arms like partisans, halberds and pikes, archery and a good solid base of wrestling and grappling.
“After the use of swords in battle died off, fencing remained a gentleman's pursuit and then a sport. Sport fencing is a game with many rules, restrictions and a point system, and the aim is to score a point before your opponent. But in the historical fencing practiced by the MHFA, the aim is to defend properly as if the weapon was really sharp and life threatening.”
SWAG was interested to find out what exactly goes on during training sessions, such as what weapons are used and what benefits one may gain from participating.
“Training days are twice a week and the types of weapons we concentrate on the most are the 14th Century longsword (a two-handed sword), the 16th Century sidesword (a one-handed sword used in battle, such as in our Great Siege of 1565) and the 17th Century rapier (a long, slender one-handed sword used predominantly for dueling and self-defence). Other weapons we occasionally use are the 18th Century smallsword, the 19th Century dueling sabre and the 16th Century partisan (a spear-like pole arm). We also practice certain basic techniques of wrestling and grappling.
“Like any fighting system, a practitioner starts from basic body movements up to the detailed techniques of any weapon practiced. First of all, it’s a physical activity, stimulating muscular strength, flexibility and reflexes, which certainly can be beneficial to counteract the sedentary lifestyle most of us have. It’s also a mental activity, where the practitioner needs to think fast and build a strategy under pressure of an attack. All this is expressed to its fullest when we practice a free assault or sparring in full contact, of course using blunt weapons and all the necessary body protection.”
The Malta Historical Fencing Association currently boasts 30 members. SWAG wanted to know what kind of people are attracted to this discipline.
“Typically, it’s those who understand that what we do is a practical martial art that needs time and dedication to become good at. Once a student sees progress, they become interested in continuing further. We get people coming to us from different backgrounds and interests, like those who are interested in history and those who wanted to do a martial art with a European heritage. We also have quite a good following from foreign groups and very often we get visits from fencers who want to attend our classes.”
So what must one do to join the MHFA?
“Anyone over 16 can join. Contact us (through the website or Facebook page below – Ed) and come to our training venue with comfortable training clothing like tracksuit trousers, a t-shirt and sport shoes. The initial equipment is lent to the students by the MHFA until they are sure they want to continue and start purchasing their first personal equipment. They will start by joining the class for the basic group exercises, followed by individual attention and getting introduced to the very basics and principles of particular weapons.
“With regards to levels of fitness, there is no required level. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and come from different backgrounds. When one starts with us I usually assess at what level of fitness the person is at. Like any other physical activity one tries for the first time, there are always some new things the body needs to get used to to build strength or flexibility. I've also observed that the mental state will also benefit, making a person more alert, reactive and a better problem solver over time.”
If you’re interested in trying it out but are concerned about getting injured, don’t worry. Andrei explained that “the weapons we use are faithful steel replicas of the originals but they are blunt and are designed for practicing. Protective clothing and equipment like fencing masks, jackets, leather vests, padded gloves and others are also used. The risk of injury is much lower in fencing than in certain other sports. Having said that, it’s a full-contact martial art, so a few bruises are inevitable. As part of the organisation’s practice, common sense and mutual respect for fellow fencers are emphasised as the best way to avoid injury.”
Finally, we’re sure some of you are thinking about the appeal that sword fighting may have on women. We asked Andrei whether he has seen a spike in interest from women once they find out what he does.
“Well, after the normal initial expression of surprise, it often does leave a woman intrigued. Saying that I teach and practice sword fighting certainly beats ‘I play football’ in originality,” he laughed.
To conclude, SWAG asked Andrei to choose between being one of the following sword-wielding heroes: Zorro, one of the Three Musketeers or Puss in Boots.
“Certainly Puss in Boots,” he guffawed. “He had fun, owned a nice pair of boots and had a great strategy to obtain his final goals.”
If what you’ve read has taken your fancy, the Malta Historical Fencing Association has two public events coming up.
The first is on 18 October 2014, where they will be part of an event organized in aid of Breast Cancer Awareness. The public can expect a fighting demo in the courtyard of the President’s Palace in Valletta from 10am – 12.30pm.
The other event is a demo and lecture on 26 October 2014 at the University, as part of Discover University Family Day, from 2pm to 4pm. These events are a good chance for the public to see what the MHFA is about, plus they both happen to be for a good cause.
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