On Chicago’s North Side, along a frontage road beside a commuter rail line, sits a long row of old industrial buildings bounded by brownstone houses. Down a tiny alley, behind a little door, is a cramped space that smells faintly of sweat and oil.
In the back corner, sitting on a polished wooden floor — not unlike the floor you might find inside a dance studio — is a group of students; men and women wearing gym clothes and eager expressions.
At the head of their circle is a tall, soft-spoken man with wire-framed glasses — Gregory Mele, co-owner and founder of Forteza Fitness. He is a historian and an athlete, one of a handful of people dedicated to rediscovering European martial traditions.
Before the hour is through, the people sitting in this circle will have a basic understanding of the arts of war that dominated Europe more than 800 years ago.
This is an introductory class in the art of Italian longsword.
Four weapons sit beside Mele on the floor. In time, he'll pass them each around the circle for everyone to hold. But first comes a bit of a history lesson.
Long-bladed swords, he says, first appeared in the late Roman era, and the first two-handed longswords appeared around 1250 AD. Eventually, their use migrated to Italy, where in the 14th and 15th centuries they played a key role in the battles among the city-states there.
"It was a period of constant warfare," he says, as he carefully picks up one of the blades, "and this was the main weapon of the Italian knight.
"What's interesting is that if you took most martial arts classes, you'd walk in and the teacher could tell you, 'I learned this from my teacher, who learned it from his teacher, who learned it from his teacher,' back to whatever semi-mythical origin the martial art has given itself.
"Ours is a little bit different, in that I can tell you exactly who founded this art. His name was Fiore dei Liberi."
Dei Liberi, Mele says, was an Italian knight born in the later part of the 14th century. He was a mercenary, and a skilled duelist who claimed to have defeated five men, unarmored and in single combat.
And he was also an author.
In the early 1990s, Mele had a semester to kill at the University of Illinois. So one day he went to the research library there — one of the largest in the country — and typed into their newfangled electronic card catalog "sword fighting." The search results that popped up led him to discover a book by a man named George Silver called Paradoxes of Defense, first published in 1599.
"It was sitting right in the stacks at the undergraduate library," Mele says. "Nobody had checked this book out since the 1940s. Not in decades. It's just sitting there, this 1899 reprint.
"I did what any good student would do... I photocopied the whole thing."
"And so I did what any good student would do — I ran it down to Kinko's and photocopied the whole thing."
As he continued his off hours studies, Mele rediscovered an even older work by dei Liberi, titled Flos duellatorum in armis sine armis equester et pedester. Or, translated from Latin, The Flower of Battle: With or Without Armor, On Horseback and On Foot.
He had stumbled upon the holy grail of Italian sword fighting.
"I found out," Mele says, "that the university library had originals. Problem is, they're in the rare book room, so you can look at it, but they're not going to let you take it out. The other problem is that most of them were written in Italian."
After college, Mele studied Italian at a local community college and, with the help of a collaborator overseas, translated The Flower of Battle into English.
Using dei Liberi's manual as a guide, he then began to reconstruct the art of the longsword.
The kind of sword fighting you see on television and in the movies is, in a word, a bunch of bullshit. Mele knows this because since 1999, when he founded the Chicago Swordplay Guild, he's been fighting with a longsword and other period weapons almost daily.
That hasn't stopped Hollywood from actually taking his work and repurposing it for their needs.
"One of the weirdest moments for me was when the movie Kingdom of Heaven came out," he says. "They had the obligatory training montage scene, and I realized they were quoting my translation."
"Now, the screenwriter proceeds to completely misunderstand what that part of the manuscript was about, or perhaps the fight choreographer wanted to do something different. But at least there was an attempt to leave that in. His job wasn't to teach people how to sword fight. His job was to write an entertaining blockbuster. I get that."
Hollywood's liberties with European martial arts begin with the longsword itself. Most of the time, Mele says, you'll see actors swinging them around like they weigh 20 pounds. The actual artifacts, which survive in museums and are recreated by craftsmen the world over, are generally between 3 pounds and 4 pounds. Balanced by a counterweight — called the pommel — they're actually quite light in the hand.
The speed of the longsword meant, Mele says, that 14th-century fights rarely lasted more than a few moments.
"One or two, maybe three. Four blows is a pretty long fight. But nobody wants to see Ned Stark and Jaime Lannister have a one-blow sword fight and then one of them dies.
"So, obviously they have to find a way to make the fights last longer. There are ways you could do that, but what often happens when you watch a movie is that people just bang blades together, standing toe-to-toe, over and over again. That's usually pretty rare. If a period fight did go a long time, usually people came together, exchanged two or three blows, and broke apart."
Facts like these were easy to pull from dei Liberi's work, but other subtleties were much harder for Mele to glean.
"These works are written for an audience that already has some martial experience," Mele says. "In my introductory classes we talk about here's how you stand, here's how you move, here's how you shift your weight. Dei Liberi and others don't tell you those things. Those are things you have to learn, that you have to extrapolate.
"If they illustrate something they tell you, 'Step here, step there, take the sword up and put it at your shoulder.' But they don't tell you how to grip the sword. It's assumed that the audience has that level of training, and he's layering a finer layer on top of that. That's another challenge, understanding how to look at this and work backwards to the basics."
Mele has built up his curriculum over the years by actually sparring with other members of the guild, but also by reaching out all over the world to others who share his passion.
"While I was studying dei Liberi's works, the internet was just getting up and running," he says, "and I found out there were other weirdos around the world doing similar things. People were starting to put some of these manuscripts online and share things back and forth. There was this community of people interested. It just mushroomed from there."
But knowledge gaps remain. Mele says in those cases he looks to modern Italian martial traditions, like stick and knife fighting, that are still practiced there today. But even then, he says, he runs the risk of getting it wrong.
"Once you have to move outside dei Liberi's place and time," he says, "now you're in the realm of what I call 'frog DNA,' like in Jurassic Park.
"They inserted frog DNA to fill the missing chain for the dinosaurs. The tricky part was they got a dinosaur, but the dinosaur had certain unexpected quirks because they had to make changes to it. It's sort of the same thing.
"At a certain level, you're definitely inserting — whether it's from later texts or from your experience in other martial arts, whatever it is — some sort of interpretation there that comes from outside the source."
What that means is that, as much as he's studied, Mele has to admit he may never know all the intricacies of Italian longsword the way dei Liberi did. But, at the very least, he's doing a better job of portraying the reality than Hollywood is.
Two weeks into the course — four 90-minute sessions — Mele finally has students face off against each other. Each is holding a plastic blade with metal hardware, each about as dangerous as a 3-pound whiffle ball bat. And yet, it's still a bit dangerous.
"Has anyone here worn a fencing mask before? No? Follow me, then," he says, leading them past a group of more advanced students studying the Bolognese side sword, each wearing padded green coats and black tights and poking at each other with blunted steel blades.
One student stays behind, looking at his own sword, unsure quite what to do with it. He tries to stand it up against a post in the middle of the room, but it falls and clatters to the ground loudly. He picks it up and looks around sheepishly before tucking it against his hip and shuffling off after his classmates.
Aside from their general awkwardness, which is not unexpected for an introductory class, the unusual thing about these beginners is that nearly half of them are women. In fact, Mele says, 40 percent of his customers at Forteza Fitness are women. And they're not just here for the crossfit classes.
"I'd like to attribute that to what a wonderful bunch of people we are," Mele says. "But women don't know anything about our organization when they sign up. Say that we were teaching Brazilian jiujitsu or Muay Thai boxing or something like that. A lot of women think, going into that, there's not going to be any women there. I'm gonna be training with guys, they're going to be stronger and it'll be some testosterone-laden gym.
"Ironically, even though sword fighting represents this incredibly lethal martial art, because of its role in our modern world it doesn't have any of those connotations for people. It comes across as romantic and exciting. By the same token, I think the other advantage is that weapons are an equalizer. Women can train with men."
And, at Forteza, they do. Mele says that there is even evidence in the historical record of women being trained in medieval swordplay.
Forty percent of these students are women. And they're not just here for the crossfit classes.
"We do know that in the aristocratic schools of the 15th century," Mele says, "noble daughters were allowed to practice fencing. They weren't going to war, though. So it was, presumably, a leisure-time activity.
"The other thing we know is that our oldest surviving manuscripts — from somewhere around 1300 to 1325, on the sword and buckler — in the last part of the manuscript, after teaching all these techniques, there's a figure who appears named Walpurgis, which is a German women's name.
"Walpurgis basically shows up and defeats everything you've learned previously. She kicks everybody's ass. That may be a symbolic figure. She may represent a patron saint from the area in southern Germany, Saint Walpurgis. There may be some symbolism that's lost there. We don't know. While it would not have been commonplace, there is some evidence of women involved in the arts."
Still, younger students attending classes at Forteza — teenagers especially — are mostly women. Mele thinks it has a lot to do with the portrayal of women in modern pop culture, from Game of Thrones to The Hunger Games and even the Marvel movies.
"Ideally we hope that in not that many years, I won't even be talking to you about why we have so many women students."
But why are people, in this day and age, drawn to this dead art? Mele says that, unlike in medieval times, historical martial arts reach across lines of class and gender. His work, he says, has a knack for bringing people together.
"After having taught this for a lot of years," he says, "it's a combination of things. People like the romantic appeal of it. It ties them to a different time and place, even though they know it's idealized and that the reality was very different.
"While it does that, it's really physically challenging. Like any martial art, the weird thing is, while you're learning to stab somebody there's a real intimacy that comes from that kind of training. You really get to know people well. People develop close friendships with people they probably might never have met.
"We have blue-collar workers on the one hand, and highly trained professionals — doctors and lawyers — on the other. It's the novelty of the experience. People try it because they think it'll be fun, but I think they stay because there's this novelty to the experience that they can't get anywhere else."
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the roots of long-bladed swords in Europe, as well as other small details of Mele's studies at the University of Illinois. It has been corrected.