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My instructions were to meet at Stoke Newington’s Abney Park Cemetery and keep a lookout for a monk. With a sword. By a disused chapel. I was joined by five other journalists from the land of geekdom who’d prised themselves from their computers to learn the art of thirteenth-century longsword fighting with a “sacerdos” called Dave. Not a real priest, but a swashbuckling expert from the London Longsword Academy.
We all had Priest to thank for this – Paul Bettany’s latest dystopian cinematic appearance where he stars as an exiled Vampire-killing warrior cleric searching for his kidnapped niece. Based on Min-Woo Hyung’s comic book series, Priest is a CGI-fest that asks you to suspend your sense of reality and spend a couple of hours looking at cool things. Things like Maggie Q’s fight sequences and Alien-based vampire creatures. The tropes are familiar – societies ghettoed behind walled cities ruled by an unforgiving church, a few exceptional characters who are rather good at fighting, half-baked romantic scenes and personal relationships. It even leaves itself open to a multi-million-pound sequel. You’re not being sold a film for a film’s sake, but an entire Priest franchise.
Dave – obviously uneasy at having to kit up in a monk’s robe with a fake cross tattooed across his face – eyed us up. He could’ve killed us all with the swish of a blunt blade.
Getting down to business, we started to learn the basic wards, or positions, of fighting with a sword and buckler. A buckler is a small shield around the size of a vinyl 7-inch. A sword is that pointy thing used to stab at people.
The text we used was the I.33 – also known as the Tower Manuscript. It’s the earliest known European fight manual that graphically illustrates defensive and offensive swordfighting positions. Interestingly, the book features a female priest kicking some unholy arse. It’s important to stress our medieval predecessors seemed not to have an issue with men and women doing the same things with the same tools. Later scribblings on the text said that neither priests nor women should be allowed to learn these fighting skills.
I’m no priest, but I am a woman. And I leaped in to learning the seven fighting wards with manic gusto. Then went on to learn a few defensive ones. In martial arts tradition, we learned them as one fluid motion so you felt awesome even if you occasionally stabbed your own leg (thankfully the practise swords were weighted plastic).
Progressing to light sparring came next. By this stage, we were more confident with what to do with our swords and bucklers and made actual bodily contact with a bit of force. If I ever need to fend off vampires with a blunt sword, I’m sure I’d die. But I’d look convincing.
Fencing at the ruined chapel of a park most noted for clichéd student photography assignments and gay cruising filled me with mischievous glee. I embraced my inner geek and gave it a go wearing a monk’s robe with a cross daubed between my eyes. Being left-handed, I was paired with a rather fetching television presenter whose jeans rivalled the tightness of my own. We duelled cheating to camera while checking our hair. Post-modern post-ironic flirting as we choreographed fight sequences avoiding broken bottles and smack needles. I can’t wait until medieval swordfighting takes over as the hipster sport of choice.
This article was originally published in Bleeding Cool, 29 August 2011.