Friday, September 19, 2014

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NYTimes | A hotel ballroom in Ellicott City, Md., seemed an unlikely setting for a four-day competition involving ancient martial arts, Longpoint 2014.

“Fight!” the referee called out.

Axel Pettersson, 29, raised his sword above his head and waited. When his opponent drew near, the two exchanged a rapid set of blows. At last, Pettersson landed a vicious cut across the torso of his opponent’s body armor, winning the open steel longsword competition and adding another championship to his collection.

Longpoint, held in July, is one of several annual tournaments around the world, manifestations of renewed interest in what enthusiasts call historical European martial arts, or HEMA. It includes events like grappling — similar to Greco-Roman wrestling — and several types of swordfighting. But the focus is on the most iconic medieval weapon, forged from cold, lustrous steel: the longsword.

 “The longsword specifically is just very accessible,” said Pettersson, a management consultant from Gothenburg, Sweden, “because that is what the old masters wrote about the most. It was called the ‘queen of weapons’ in the old days.”

Unlike re-enactors or role players, who don theatrical costumes and medieval-style armor, Longpoint competitors treat swordfighting as an organized sport. Matches have complex rules and use a scoring system based on ancient dueling regulations. Fighters wear modern if sometimes improvised protective equipment, which looks like a hybrid of fencing gear and body armor. They use steel swords with unsharpened blades and blunt tips to prevent bouts from turning into death matches.

Skill and technique, rather than size and strength, decide the outcomes. Fights are fast and sometimes brutal: Essential to the art is landing a blow while preventing an opponent’s counterstroke. Nevertheless, even the best swordfighters earn large bruises in the ring, which they display with flinty pride.

Longpoint began in 2011 with 60 participants; now the largest HEMA event in North America, it drew about 200 this year. The open steel longsword division had 55 entrants, eight of them women.