A Swordfighters Guild? In North Grenville? What’s that all about? Matt McKee is the Founder and Headmaster of the Saint Lawrence Swordfighters Guild, a unique organization that has been facilitating both historical teaching and recreation in our local community for the last decade.
The St. Lawrence Swordfighters Guild was started in 2012 in Brockville. Matt McKee currently lives in Kemptville, and at the time that the Guild was founded, he lived just outside of Kemptville. He has had a local presence here for 15 years.
Matt was originally trained in Ottawa and opened the Guild in Brockville to avoid competing with the family organizations in Ottawa. Things got off to a “slow and quiet” start, but there was a lot of interest at the time from Kemptville residents. That is what inspired the idea to set up the Guild locally. The group was graciously offered a space at the North Grenville Municipal Centre, and they are now celebrating their 10th year in Kemptville.
What exactly happens at a “Swordfighters Guild”? Matt explained that they are a martial arts group, but they specifically focus on historical martial arts, affiliated with a group called Historical European Martial Arts, or “HEMA”. That group studies a 600-year-old manuscript, created in the 1400s by Fiore dei Liberi, to teach the nobility to be better fighters. However, because Fiore’s document is an educational tool, referred to by Matt as something of a “university course”, another challenge for historians is reverse engineering what people centuries ago knew before Fiore.
Matt pointed out that a lot of organizations “sportify” sword fighting. However, the Saint Lawrence Swordfighters Guild aims for historical accuracy. Matt has a martial arts background, but that is not what the Guild is all about. “Most of what we see today in terms of martial arts and sports like boxing and MMA are actually sports because they have rules,” he added. These sports don’t allow things like biting your opponent, or poking them in the eye, for example. However, that’s not consistent with fighting that took place centuries ago.
“600 years ago, when you’re fighting for your life, everything goes, so the style and techniques are very different from what you see on TV and what you see in sport,” said Matt. This important distinction is made when the Guild trains people. Many people comment that “fighting for your life” looks somewhat strange compared to sport. Matt pointed out that cutting is less common than is often seen in movies, because it is not effective against armour. Martial arts movies are actually slowed down so that audiences can follow along and understand the story between the characters.
The day-to-day happenings of the Guild are many. The group puts on a Canada Day show in Oxford Mills every year, and just last weekend gave a presentation with full armour at a Royal Heraldry Society of Canada event. In terms of how local people can get involved, the Guild has a Candidate Program. The program covers things like how to move, proper footwork, how to hold yourself and stand, basic swings, cuts, strokes, how to balance, the importance of distance and timing, different stances and positions, etc. The Candidate Program is designed for new people who want to come and try it out.
Even though new participants (men and women of all ages) are always welcome, there is one caveat – the activity is very dangerous, so it takes patience and a commitment to safety. The Guild uses finely crafted swords made of steel, though they have no edges or points. However, they are still steel weapons which participants swing at each other. “I have to trust you not to kill me with the steel bar you have in your hand,” added Matt. He pointed out that it’s complicated because you have to try to do the fighting correctly, while also trying not to hurt each other for real. “Our biggest safety equipment is each other,” said Matt. “We’re a family.” The group uses lots of safety equipment, and most people don’t get to swing steel at each other for about two years – it takes a lot of work and training.
For more information on the Guild, including how to get involved, visit its website at https://sword-guild.com/ or send an email to [email protected]. You can also catch up with the Guild on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SwordGuild/.