Graham Meyer plays with swords every Sunday morning in West Philly. He carries them there in a golf bag, en route to a gathering of the Philadelphia Common Fencers Guild – students and teachers interested in learning the finer points of Historical European Martial Arts.
Most of the swords in the bag are a mixture of wood and plastic. Only a few students, including Meyer, have actual bladed weapons. Meyer’s favorite is the steel competition blade called the Federshwert, a type of German fencing weapon. He also knows how to wield a rapier, sabre, and spear.
On Sunday, despite chilly winds and melting ice soaking parts of the park, Meyer gathered his group of six disciples, urging them to grab a sword that they felt comfortable with. Instead of a quick warm up, Meyer went straight to drills.
He started off with basic hand positions and footwork this weekend morning. His path to this point with his class is anything but straightforward.
HEMA and the art of swords
A Portland native, Meyer moved to West Philadelphia just three years ago, and has always been interested in knights and mythological lore. He started the Guild nearly a year and a half ago, and has been studying HEMA for about six years.
“It has kind of, always been a part of me,” Meyer said. “When I was six, there was this library right next to the elementary school that I attended. I could barely read but I remember finding books about the middle ages, knights, and stuff like that and I would always look at the illustrations.”
Meyer’s imagination went wild, but it wasn’t until he started growing older that he understood the reality of knights and the roles that they played in popular imagination in medieval times and in today’s mainstream media.
HEMA deals primarily with martial arts that were practiced at one point in history but have died out, evolving into others. It’s not just swordplay, but also involves heavy studying of illustrated manuals that depict the style and weaponry used. Meyer teaches primarily long sword and has practiced in a wide range of martial arts since the day he stumbled upon HEMA, and practice weapons, while browsing the internet.
He started purchasing weapons and practicing in the park with friends. Despite having minimal protection, like a padded jacket called a gambeson and gloves to protect the hands from incoming blows, Meyer said it’s discipline that keeps the group safe. To be disciplined, he added, you have to be vigilant and studious, and practice as much as you can.
The wood practice swords that Meyer uses are $70 — a lot cheaper than the steel swords that cost between $260-$400. The plastic ones run between $100 and $150. Right now, Meyer provides the practice weapons, gloves, and other accessories for his class.
The class’s beginnings
When passing through Clark Park one day, Meyer saw Ulysses Olek, his future co-instructor of the guild, teaching a group of friends.
“We were just practicing here in the park and Graham walked by and was like, ‘you guys are doing HEMA, right?’ He seemed really excited and is actually the motivation for wanting to start the group,” Olek said.
Olek is a student at Drexel University and has been semi-practicing HEMA for four years. He was taught by a friend of his, and because he could not find a group in the area that centered on the art, Olek decided to start teaching it to his friends.
“I like playing with swords,” Olek said. “I like the martial arts aspect of it. It’s different, too, because not a lot of people do it.”
Meyer and Olek spent part of Sunday morning teaching others a range of basic footwork, cutting drills and guards. The clacking of wood meeting wood filled the park, attracting a few onlookers and their kids.
One in particular, with his baby strapped to his chest, talked to Meyer briefly about his interest in HEMA and personal history with the classical weapons.
“I think the hardest part for me is, I want somebody to teach me more,” Olek said. “I feel like I don’t have a lot of experience. This is kind of a difficult martial art because there are not a lot of experienced people, compared to the Asian martial arts, where there’s been a tradition carried out for years and there are masters today taught by masters before. We don’t have that.”
A lot of people teach themselves when it comes to HEMA, Olek added, which makes things a bit challenging when you don’t have someone guiding your actions.
Connor Kemp, one of Meyer’s students, also instructs sometimes and found this group not too long ago.
“I did one little search and found Graham’s Facebook page and I’ve been going ever since,” Kemp said. “History is what I love about HEMA, it’s not just a ‘story concept.’ There’s a lot of reading and history involved with it.”
Kemp incorporated a few specific styles that he has already learned from HEMA into the popular card game Dungeons and Dragons. The Dungeons and Dragon group that he is a part of, he said, is very acting-oriented and describes things in great detail.
“There’s still some stuff I’m working the kinks out of,” Kemp said. “The most challenging for me would have to be the actual application of different techniques in the middle of combat.”
The future of the Clark Park group
Meyer has no plan to stop his teachings on the ancient art. Right now his classes are free but he is in the process of searching for a larger space, when he then plans to charge a small fee to keep things going from there.
Right now Meyer and others who are interested in learning about HEMA just show up at Clark Park. His class size does vary at times, sometimes 10 to 15 students will show up, but to make the class available to more people and to accommodate schedules, Meyer hopes that he can find that space soon. Weather is also a factor, if it is raining or snowing then class is pretty much canceled until things clear up, as they had by the weekend.
“It’s an amazing community that we’ve built up,” Meyer said. “With HEMA, we’re taking that broken line and basically piecing it back together to recreate it. So many people will watch Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones and will be like, ‘Oh I wish I could do that.’ Well, here at the Philadelphia Common Fencers Guild you can, because swords are awesome and there’s actually martial arts built around them.”