The College of William & Mary’s Griffin Fechtschule (fechtschule means “fencing school” in German) seeks to enlighten its members about the history and practice of historical European martial arts, particularly German and Italian combat during the late-Medieval and Renaissance periods. Colloquially known as HEMA club, the group’s focus is longsword fencing, but members also study and practice the German messer, the British, Swedish, and Polish sabre, the Italian rapier, the rondel or, dagger, as well as the sword and buckler.
According to Griffin Fechtschule’s president, Christopher Wagner ’22, last year’s COVID restrictions affected the club’s ability to hold in-person events and meetings, so most lessons were held over Zoom with the occasional practice held outside following safety protocols. Virtual meetings combined with the cancellation of the in-person activities fair resulted in the group seeing a drastic decrease in active members as well as a limited cohort of new members. This semester, with operations mostly back to normal and the ability to hold in-person events, the club has seen a significant surge in membership, with weekly events attracting dozens of attendees.
On Sundays and Wednesdays from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., the club can be found practicing on Jamestown Field. A typical meeting consists of stretches, socialization and an instruction period. During the instruction period, club officers demonstrate a particular fighting system and members learn guards, forms and drills with whatever weapon is currently being taught. The instruction period typically lasts about an hour and is followed by time for members to spar, thereby allowing them to put the lesson into practice.
In addition to introducing students to historic European martial arts, the club gives students the opportunity to get some exercise into their weekly routine. For Wagner, one of the greatest benefits of the Griffin Fechtschule is that it allows its members to destress from the rigors of academics.
“While I love the casual atmosphere and friendly camaraderie of the Griffin Fechtschule, my absolute favorite part is what we call Melee Week, the practices immediately before our finals, where we forego normal instruction and instead hold free sparring events like an open melee, team sparring, cross-system sparring and other games that we don’t normally do to celebrate the end of the semester and really put all our lessons into practice,” Wagner said. “It’s also an excellent way to blow off steam before the weight of finals stress comes crashing down!”
As for the more academic aspect of the club, members study fighting manuals, known as Fechtbücher, written by fencing masters of the Middle Ages and beyond. After studying these texts, members put the described techniques into practice, reviving little-known historical techniques. The club’s unique focus on entwining academics and athletics allows members to not only read about what they are learning, but to also experience it first-hand.
Jana Considine ’22 assists in teaching lessons to members as one of the club’s Vice Presidents and also serves as Illuminator (club gear designer) and Social Media Coordinator. As a Medieval and Renaissance Studies major, Griffin Fechtschule has been a way to connect her course of study and personal interests to extracurriculars.
By reading medieval texts and bringing these techniques alive through practice, Considine has gained a deeper understanding of the time period, the culture and the people she studies. Considine’s favorite Fechtbuch manuscript contains depictions of female fighters, which interests her both as a Medieval studies scholar and a swordswoman.
“These images have a multitude of implications, but the most obvious one is a new understanding of the way women interacted with combat,” Considine said. “Ultimately, from learning to sword fight through the Griffin Fechtschule, I have not only exposed myself to the techniques of the Middle Ages and learned to embody them physically, but have also come to better understand the lived experiences of medieval women and therefore broadened my understanding of the past.”
For those interested in joining, no prior experience with swords is needed — in fact, most of the club’s new members (and executives) joined the club as beginners.
Prior to joining the Griffin Fechtschule, Wagner had only limited stage combat experience in high school, while Considine had none; despite her interest in the Middle Ages and medieval sword fighting prior to coming to the College, she had never tried fencing before joining.
“When I was first looking at the Griffin Fechtschule, I asked a member who is now a good friend of mine whether or not they took people with no combat experience who had the upper body strength of a limp noodle,” Considine said. “The answer to that question was yes.”
For Considine, once she held a sword in her hand and began to learn how to use it, there was no turning back. The Griffin Fechtschule has allowed her to not only grow as a swordswoman and a scholar, but it has also provided her with a community.
Students interested in joining the Griffin Fechtschule can reach out through TribeLink or show up to a meeting for more information.
CORRECTION: 10/5/21 Updated headline from “On Garde!: The College of William and Mary’s Griffin Fechtschule, share details about medieval history, fighting techniques.” to “Rapier, sabre, rondel or dagger? Griffin Fechtschule shares details about medieval history, fighting techniques.” for clarity and grammar.