The pointy end: Historical fencing comes to campus

Medieval battles will be brought to life outside Brochstein Pavilion March 22

Historians employ their research in many ways, from writing books to challenge long-held assumptions to teaching the past to future generations. Sometimes they also employ their research to hit each other.

Fencers and fighters will be coming to campus March 22 for a demonstration of historic European martial arts. (Photos courtesy of Erin Baezner)

Fencers and fighters will be coming to campus March 22 for a demonstration of historic European martial arts. (Photos courtesy of Erin Baezner)

On March 22, the historical methods used to bring early European martial arts to life in 21st-century America will be on full display on the Central Quad outside Brochstein Pavilion as fencers and other fighters battle it out between classes.

“The fencers use primary sources – a key component of both our History and Medieval and Early Modern Studies degrees and research – found in old manuscripts in libraries around the world to reconstruct what a medieval or Renaissance fight might have looked like,” explained Erin Baezner, department coordinator for Rice’s History Department, who is coordinating the March 22 event. “I want to show students that history is alive – and that you don’t have to have a Ph.D. in history or medieval studies to enjoy research.”

Baezner has been a rapier and sidesword fencer for years, practicing archery and mounted combat in her pursuit of knowledge about what is referred to as HEMA: historical European martial arts. She’s bringing a dozen or so of her friends in the HEMA world to campus for a demonstration between 2 and 4 p.m. that will include armored combat, longsword matches and possibly a few rapier fights. Warmups begin at 1:30 and, Baezner said, “if it’s still going strong at 4, they’ve agreed to go longer.”

Armored combat isn't just for the actors on "Game of Thrones."

Armored combat isn’t just for the actors on “Game of Thrones.”

Matches will last between three and five minutes. As the fighters rotate out between matches, History and Medieval Studies faculty will discuss their classes while student workers distribute fliers about the courses to anyone interested. “I plan on speaking about the amazing and unorthodox ways in which history, medieval and early modern studies and humanities degrees can be used – and about primary source research,” Baezner said.

Back to that research and its application with regard to rapiers and rondel daggers: After reconstructing fights from primary source documents, historians involved in HEMA then dig deeper to ensure that what they’ve read is truly accurate. Did the Duke of Sussex really write this manuscript or was it just a period fake? Was it written by an unknown fencer who used the Duke’s title to gain favor? Has it been edited, copied or changed in any way?

“These are all questions that any researcher needs to be aware of, regardless of their field of study,” Baezner said. “The fencing is really just the reward of all this research and hard work.”

Baezner’s own introduction to HEMA was a chance encounter. She’d signed up for a “water dancing” class at her first comics convention in order to meet Miltos Yerolemou, who portrayed master fencer Syrio Forel on the HBO series “Game of Thrones.”

“When I found out that it was real, that there were real people actually sword fighting, I was so excited and started classes literally the next week,” she said. “I was coming out of a really toxic relationship and off an incredibly bad illness and I found that sword fighting was very empowering.”

Years later, Baezner remains eager to introduce others to the benefits of both historical research and historical combat. “You learn a lot about yourself through practicing with swords,” she said. “Everyone has their own reason for joining and they are varied: Some people really love ‘Game of Thrones,’ some people are looking for a new friend circle, some people are trying to work through trauma or learn who they are.”

But most importantly, Baezner said, “Everyone is always welcome.”

The Rice University Departments of History and Medieval and Early Modern Studies will present a historical fencing display outside Brochstein Pavilion March 22, 2-4 p.m. For more information, visit the Facebook event page.

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.