Wow! Swords swish, insults are hurled, baths are taken.
I was surprised to learn that there are people in Miami who practice sword-fighting. I never thought of Miami as a sword kind of town. Down here, we like to brandish our weapons at other motorists from inside our cars, which would be risky with a sword:
FIRST MOTORIST (honking): Watch where you’re going!
SECOND MOTORIST: Oh YEAH? (He brandishes his sword.)
FIRST MOTORIST (fleeing): Yikes!
SECOND MOTORIST: I showed him! (To his children in the back seat:) Kids, could you look on the floor and see if you can find Daddy’s ear?
But it turns out that Miami does have practicing sword-fighters. They belong to the Renaissance Historical Society of Florida, a group of people who wear costumes and pretend they’re living during the Renaissance. The Renaissance – as you recall from not spelling it correctly one single time in your entire academic career – was the historical period that started in the 15th Century at approximately 3:30 p.m. when humanity, after centuries of being cooped up in the Dark Ages, finally stumbled out into the light and got a whiff of its own armpits and said, “Whoa! Time to invent cologne!” This was followed by tremendous advances in science, philosophy, literature and paintings of naked women.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, I watched members of the Renaissance Historical Society rehearse for a public performance at an upcoming Renaissance festival. They were leaping around, swinging large, realistic swords at each other and yelling Renaissance insults such as – this is an actual insult they yelled – “You snotmuffin!”
When they were done, I talked to two of the organizers, Roger Zollo and Kyle Mathews, about the Renaissance movement, which involves groups and festivals all over the country.
“We try to be as period as possible,” said Zollo.
“Although we do bathe,” noted Mathews.
“Right,” agreed Zollo. “We don’t want to smell Renaissance.”
The re-enacters wear authentic costumes, which means the men wear tights. (And before I hear any snickering from you guys out there who think men look silly in tights, I have two words for you: “golf pants.”) The Renaissance men also wear codpieces, which are pieces of cloth that cover up a man’s, um, codpiece area. Zollo and Mathews told me that some guys make their own codpieces and personalize them: One guy made a fuzzy red codpiece that squeaked if you squeezed it. (My feeling about that is: If you have a squeaking codpiece, you had better have a really big sword.)
The Renaissance people also spend a lot of time learning authentic sword-fighting techniques. I have an interest in this topic dating back to 1964, when my friend Lanny Watts talked me into joining the Pleasantville High School fencing club. This was a serious competitive club, but Lanny and I frankly did not have the correct attitude, a fact that became clear when it came time to form into pairs and practice a basic fencing technique. Lanny was paired against one of the veteran club members, who had assumed his fighting stance, holding his fencing sword in the ready position; suddenly Lanny ran from the room, only to return a moment later holding: a trombone. Even though I was lying on the floor and trying not to wet my pants, I still have a vivid motion picture in my mind of the scene that followed: Lanny charging forward, blowing into the trombone and thrusting boldly with the sliding part, as his opponent retreated in confusion and – yes – fear. Lanny and I were immediately kicked out of the fencing club. But I think they knew who won.
Anyway, my main question about sword-fighting technique is this: How come, when you see a sword fight in the movies, where two guys are doing everything they can to kill each other, and one of them finally gets the upper hand and has his sword point pressed against his enemy’s neck, instead of killing him – which he has been trying hard to do for 10 minutes – HE MAKES A SPEECH, usually involving the word “varlet”? Because while he’s yakking, the other guy ALWAYS gets away.
I asked Zollo and Mathews why movie sword-fighters did this, and they answered, “Theatrics.” They also said they rarely kill people in their performances.
“We try to show respect for life,” said Mathews.
“Plus,” said Zollo, “it’s a pain in the butt to carry the bodies away.”
Thus we see that the Renaissance movement represents positive historic values. This is heartening because many of its members, at least in the group I saw, are young people. So the next time you find yourself thinking that today’s youth are nothing but mindless, giant-pant-wearing, tattoo-getting, MTV-clone snotmuffins whose definition of “ancient” is “before Ginger left the Spice Girls,” remember that there ARE young people who are interested in preserving, and promoting, a vital part of humanity’s cultural heritage. And while you’re remembering that, bear in mind that “Varlet and the Squeaking Codpieces” would be an excellent name for a rock band.
This classic Dave Barry column was originally published March 7, 1999.