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Exclusive Interview with Matt Galas
« skrivet: 2006-12-13, 00:00:53 »
What started off as a few questions regarding the European fencing guilds turned into a full blown interview with Matt Galas. Read the mind blowing facts regarding his latest research on Belgian fencing guilds and his comments on the European martial traditions, only at HNA.

Q:  Tell us about your recent research into the fencing guilds of Belgium.

A: Well, it started out as a chain of random contacts. By chance, I met a  fencing instructor on a train, who later introduced me to a well-known arms  collector in Brussels. While examining his collection, I spoke to a third  party who mentioned the existence of an old fencing guild in Belgium. I was  skeptical, but when I looked into it, I found that the guild really did  exist. The Guild of St. Michael in Ghent is the oldest surviving fencing  club in Europe, dating from 1614. They are still in their original quarters  in the old clothmakers' guildhall in Ghent. I contacted the guild, and they  were kind enough to give me a tour of their guild hall, complete with old  paintings of the "kings" of the guild and old weapons hanging on the wall.  Although they practice modern sport fencing (with no trace of the  traditional martial arts), they do preserve some old documents on fencing.  This prompted me to contact the various archives in Belgium to see if they  had any documents on fencing guilds. To my surprise, my queries uncovered a  huge amount of material. It appears that many -- if not most -- Belgian  towns of any size had their own fencers' guild. This was a real eye-opener  for me, since Belgium is not typically thought of as a key location in the  history of fencing.  The irony of all this is what strikes me most -- I've  lived in Belgium for 10 years, researching the history of German, French,  and Iberian fencing, but never bothered to look under my nose at the local  archives. But there it was, just waiting to be found.

Q:  How many fencing guilds have you found so far?

A:  I've found 15 so far in Belgium, ranging from big cities like Antwerp,  Brussels, Ghent, and Bruges to smaller towns like Mons, Ath, and Veurne. I'm  sure that there are more, just waiting to be found. I've also found similar  guilds in neighboring areas, such as Lille (in France) and Maastricht (in  the Netherlands).

Q:  How many of them still exist?

A:
 Only one guild survives with an unbroken tradition, the Guild of St.  Michael in Ghent. Most were abolished when the French Revolution swept into  Belgium in the 1790s. The guilds were seen as a part of the Ancien Regime,  and were abolished. A few survived until the early 20th century as fencing  clubs, and then faded away.  Other guilds have recently been reconstituted,  such as the guilds in Bruges and Brussels. None of these practice the  traditional arts, unfortunately.

Q:  Which is the oldest one?

A:
  The Guild of St. Michael in Bruges is the oldest I have documented so  far. It has its origins in 1444. In fact, that makes it the oldest  documented corporation of fencing masters anywhere in Europe. (Leaving aside  the old gladiatorial schools of ancient Rome, of course.)  I have their  statutes, and with extensive assistance from fellow researcher Eli Steenput,  am currently translating these. They are short - just a few pages long - but  have quite a few interesting tidbits. For example, they regulate the prices  of fencing, but allow masters to charge whatever they want for the "secret  arts", such as the art of fighting with poleaxes in armor. They also use the  standard terms "master" and "provost" which are familiar from much later  corporations of fencing masters.

Q: What differs between the guilds in different countries and within the
countries? Are they mostly the same or do they approach things differently?

A:
  Some things are nearly identical across Europe, such as the testing of  candidates for mastery. Other things are regional, such as the use of  monetary fines in France and Belgium to fund the operations of the guild.  Unique to Belgium are the yearly "royal tournaments" (spelen naer het  coninckschap) for the title of king of the guild. These were typically  fought with the longsword. Surprisingly, these Belgian longsword tournaments  went on until the 1750s at least. They were most likely held until the  abolition of the guilds in the 1790s.

Q: What's your opinion on the fencing guilds hanging on to longswords for  such a long time?

A:
  Starting in the early 1600s, it's clear that the rapier began to  displace the more traditional weapons among the upper classes. The former  weapon of choice (the longsword) and the other traditional weapons were  relegated to the middle and lower classes, where they were preserved as  cherished folk traditions, similar to what we see in Japan. Unfortunately,  the French Revolution washed all that away. In some cases, long letters of  complaint still survive from the guild officials, complaining bitterly about  the order to disband. In some places, they succeeded in re-establishing  themselves as shooting clubs or fencing clubs. However, most simply  disappeared, and with them the safe haven where the traditional arts had  been preserved.

Q:  What did the training regime look like?

A:  
It's not well documented, except in a few cases. The best source is the  guild book of the Guild of St. Lambrecht in Mechelen. In 1753, we know that  Louis Molina, the fencing master of the guild, charged 4 gulden for  longsword lessons, which were mandatory for new members.  He charged 7  gulden for both the rapier alone and with dagger. He gave lessons twice a  week, on Sundays and Thursdays from 1 to 3 o'clock in the afternoon, or  longer if the number of students justified it. I find it very interesting  that the longsword was the first weapon they taught, even in the late 1700s.

Q: What kind of weapons did they mainly train and what kind of training  tools?

A:
 The guilds taught the entire arsenal of traditional weapons:  Longsword,  staff, spear, halberd, rapier, rapier and dagger, sword and buckler, and  even the dussack. Illustrations in various sources (including the banner of  the Guild of St. Michael in Ghent) show the typical German-style longsword  foils with the flared ricasso. They also used rapiers with button tips.  Written documents mention gauntlets quite frequently, along with some kind  of headgear or protective hat used while fencing with the longsword. We also  know that they put chalk on their weapons during competitions, so that the  marks would show whether a fencer had been hit or not.

Q: Will you hold a lecture on this at the Hemac Annual Gathering in Dijon  this year?

A:  
Last year I lectured on the subject of Belgian fencing guilds in  general. This year I intend to present a detailed presentation on the rules  used in the yearly longsword tournaments. I'll present sets of rules from  1606, 1618, and 1753. I may also present the rules for a rapier tournament  held in 1716.

Q: What do you find are the most interesting aspects of your research?

A:
  The most interesting aspects are the sheer amount of material that has  survived (one archive alone has hundreds of documents) and also how long  they survived. The fact that the Guild of St. Michael in Brussels held a  longsword tournament in 1775 -- the birthdate of my home country -- is  astonishing to me. There is so much material out there, and I have only  scratched the surface. My hope is that -- buried in some dusty stack of  documents -- is a forgotten fencing manual that will provide us with a  technical description of the traditional Belgian style of longsword fencing.  Given the amount of material I've found so far, this does not seem terribly  far-fetched to me.

Bio: Matt Galas is a researcher specializing in the traditional martial arts of medieval and renaissance Europe. He has studied the history of swordsmanship and the related arts since 1982, with an emphasis on the German martial tradition. In recent years, he has broadened his inquiries to include the French, Iberian, and Belgian martial traditions as well. Matt Galas has a background in sport fencing (foil, epee, sabre) and the Japanese sword arts. He regularly lectures and teaches workshops on the German martial arts at international conferences on the Historical European Martial Arts.