If you've ever wanted to learn to defend yourself with a long sword, there is a class for you in Winnipeg.

Cody Skillen is the head instructor and founder of Winnipeg Knightly Arts, which he teaches out of Lord Roberts Community Club on Kylemore Avenue in Fort Rouge.

He — and a few of his medieval weapons — stopped by CBC on Sunday to talk to Terry McLeod about swordsmanship, the gear required to practice it, and the spiritual aspect of medieval martial arts.

You say the movies get medieval fight scenes all wrong. Why?

A lot of the time in movies the choreography is designed to be cinematic. It's designed to create more of a spectacle, whereas historical swordsmanship is actually very constrained and concise. You're trying to do as little as possible and you're trying to use as few actions as possible, the smallest actions possible. The larger the action, the easier it is to determine what it is that somebody's doing. It's much easier to act against that. The smaller and more concise and precise the action, the more difficult it is to defend against it.

Your approach to swordplay involves a medieval period sword from the 14th century or so, right?

Yes. Fourteenth and 15th century, mostly.

These are swords used with both hands.

Yes.

What's the best technique in the use of those swords and is your opponent using the same kind of sword?

Usually, but not necessarily. The context for this type of sword is it's not necessarily the best weapon for the battlefield or even a weapon that you'd use primarily on the battlefield. It's more of a training weapon, which teaches the basis for all of the other medieval weapons at the time; all of the other knightly weapons. 

So, when you were fighting somebody with a long sword, it was usually against another long sword for training purposes. To answer your question about what the best technique is, whatever is best in that moment. There's no single best technique and it's constantly about adapting to what your opponent does.

What got you interested in this?

I've always been interested in martial arts and basically as I looked more and more into different types of martial arts I started to find out that there's more than just the Japanese martial arts that are popular. With the advent of the internet, more of the historical European manual started to surface and eventually I found out that there's an entire rich history of European martial arts.

[I have]

a wooden long sword about four feet long. This is what we call a waster. This is the initial training tool that we use — we use it to build up strength and get the basic technique.

It unfortunately has a number of properties that limit it in what you can do with it because it's not flexible at all so you can't really thrust with it and because it's made of wood, it's much wider than the steel training sword.

The menacing-looking steel training sword is much safer, which is the interesting part. The wooden one is much more tip-heavy, which makes it harder to use. It builds up your shoulders.

Is this the kind of sword that would have been used in the 14th and 15th century or would they actually have a cutting edge on them?

Well, for practice they would actually use this.

This is based off of a replica of the training swords and there's a whole bunch of depictions of these swords and there are some surviving artifacts. If you were actually going to have a sharp sword you wouldn't want to fence with that because it would wreck the edge up. So, for training you need something that is safe and is not going to destroy your nice, expensive sword.

What do you wear when you're using the long sword?

We use effectively a padded jacket. The medieval name for it is a gambeson. Historically, we don't see any evidence of them using training helmets or anything except in tournaments when they'd actually be using plate armor for their helmet. But, what we use is basically like a cut and thrust helmet that's good up to 300 newtons [the amount of force it can resist without deforming].

You are also doing medieval wrestling, is that true?

Yes. It originated on the battlefield so, instead of getting the guy down and pinning their arm or submitting them it's a lot more about getting them on the ground in the first place. Essentially because the medieval mind set is always, 'You have weapons on you,' — I mean, they would have like, a knife or a dagger — when you begin to wrestle, you actually grab each others' arms and what that does is it's to prevent the other guy from immediately going and drawing his weapons.

Knightly arts

"When you're practicing to hit each other with something that would be sharp, you don't need to hammer on the other person as much," Skillen said. "You hit each other actually much more lightly because you would be simulating using a sharp weapon." (winnipegknightlyarts.com)

It sounds like pretty rough stuff. What attracts people to want to study this?

The same thing that attracts people to study any martial arts, I suppose.

I personally like the weapons-based stuff because it seems a little bit counter-intuitive but with a unarmed combat style, you end up hitting each other a whole lot more. But, when you're practicing to hit each other with something that would be sharp, you don't need to hammer on the other person as much. You hit each other actually much more lightly because you would be simulating using a sharp weapon. 

That, combined with the fact that you have to stop you opponent from hitting you whatsoever because any strike can be debilitating, it requires that you have a very focused approach on defending yourself and only attacking when it's safe to do so.

You've been referring to it as a martial art and we think of the Japanese martial arts in particular as having a spiritual or a moral component to it. Is that a feature of the knightly martial arts as well?

Definitely it was historically. You can tell that these people were very Christian. They constantly tell you to do things like love God and respect women. There's constant religious dedications, which is kind of interesting. But, just in general, when you train something like this and you're on some level or another putting yourself at risk, you're basically going through the process of, 'Okay, I would have died in this situation.' And it requires a certain kind of reflection that I think is not particularly common.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.