Sporting Goods: Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts
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Sporting Goods: Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts

A local training academy teaches ordinary Torontonians to swing swords like professionals.

Sports coverage tends to focus on major league teams, but every day in Toronto people make fun (and sometimes wacky) activities an important part of their lives. Sporting Goods looks at some of these.

A day may come when Torontonians won’t have ready access to the history of martial arts in medieval Europe, but this is not that day. And you can thank the Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts (AEMMA) for that.

The AEMMA was first established in 1998 by Brian McIlmoyle and David Cvet, inspired by similar schools in Italy, and created to resurrect traditional European martial arts in the public consciousness (much in the way that kung fu or taekwondo have generated interest here in traditional Asian martial arts). Those martial arts declined at the hands of rapid industrialization and the widespread, increased use of firearms as the primary means of warfare in Europe, but AEMMA’s founders and students still see much to appreciate in them. Today, in addition to the one in Toronto, there are academies in Guelph, Stratford, and Nova Scotia.

Over the last 15 years, the academy has instructed students in the disciplines of abrazare (grappling); daga (dagger); and spada (sword) in “the way they were intended” to be used—which, McIlmoyle explains, means in accordance with the writings of 15th century Italian Fiori dei Liberi, one of the earliest and most prominent masters of medieval martial arts; the academy looks to his works for their guiding principles.

Training sessions are held every Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday, with each session including segments on each of the specific disciplines. The pattern is usually grappling-sword-dagger-sword because, as McIlmoyle admits, “swordplay is one of the biggest draws” for new members, if not the biggest.

However, one does not simply walk into the academy’s salle d’ armes at 927 Dupont Street West and expect to become well-versed in the intricate and nuanced language of medieval combat. Nor can you expect to don full armour and engage fellow members with bona fide weapons within your first few sessions.

As one of the academy’s provosts, McIlmoyle has helped shape the curriculum and structure of AEMMA, establishing what and how things are taught. New members, known as recruits, must first learn the basics of European martial arts—ranging from footwork to historical background and theory—before participating in more advanced studies within the academy.

“[I’m] surprised there’s so much wrestling [involved],” says Adam Freire, one of the academy’s newest recruits. He felt he couldn’t connect with Asian martial arts on a historical or personal level, so he decided to join AEMMA to get in touch with his European heritage.

After just two months in the academy, Freire is struck by how “brutal and intense” it all is, and has come to appreciate that there’s more to learn and experience than just the mechanics of wielding swords, daggers, and shields.

Recruits can be promoted to the level of scholler, at which time they can participate in sparring sessions, train with a wider array of weaponry (such as the spear and pollaxe), and participate in any of the two combat tournaments (one armoured and one unarmed) that the academy hosts every year.

To become a scholler, recruits must demonstrate their accumulated knowledge and expertise in a series of tests. Potential prospects must take an oral exam on all the material they’ve learned in class, demonstrate their prowess and skill in a physical test, and spar with members of equal or higher rank, who are present for said prospect’s evaluation.

“Becoming a scholler is like getting your driver’s license,” says McIlmoyle, explaining that the step up in rank gives the person more avenues and opportunities to learn in the academy, but also comes with greater responsibility and exposure to possible risks: recruits train with wooden replicas of medieval weapons, schollers use real-deal steel.

Leander Quiring was introduced to AEMMA by his then-girlfriend-now-wife as a surprise, with her bringing him to the academy’s salle d’ armes under the guise of wanting to attend couples yoga. He’s now been involved for five years, and became a scholler this March. “You learn how to hit people with a sword the right way [as a scholler]” says Quiring. He also insists that serious schollers take extracurricular measures to improve their technique.

“If you want to advance [in the academy], you study weapons on your own,” he says, referring to AEMMA’s library on European martial arts. “Unless you’re a prodigy.”

From scholler one can advance further to the level of free scholler, which allows you to become an instructor in the academy. True masters can then progress from free scholler to provosts.

“[The AEMMA] is not like Medieval Times dinner show,” comments free scholler Kel Rekuta. “They’re a performance, which I respect, but they just follow the danger,” alluding to the fictional and exaggerated vision of medieval European combat they present.

Then, channelling his inner Walter White, Rekuta says with a rather intense look, “We’re not following the danger.”