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Lebanon Is Home to a School for Historic European Martial Arts

  • Jonathan Helland, of Bradford, VT., spars with another studentr of the Noble Science Academy in Lebanon, N.H., on Jan. 11, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Students of the Noble Science Academy spar during a class using long swords on Jan. 11, 2018 in Lebanon, N.H. Instructor Michael-Forest Meservy is on the left. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Noble Science Academy student Robert Kay of Grantham, N.H., does a number of push-up as penance during a class on Jan. 11, 2018 in Lebanon, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Students of the Noble Science Academy listen to instructor Michael-Forest Meservy, center, during a class on Jan. 11, 2018 in Lebanon, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Before class starts, William Meservy, 2, son of instructor Michael-Forest Meservy spars with a Noble Science Academy student, on Jan. 11, 2018 in Lebanon, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, January 22, 2018

It’s hard to imagine a more gleeful child than William Meservy, 2, as he stood brandishing a saber on a recent Thursday night, at the Masonic Lodge in Lebanon.

“I got a big, heavy sword,” he said. “Look.” He raised the weapon over his head, and brought it down with all his might on the identical sword his dad, Michael-Forest Meservy, was holding out at arm’s length in front of him.

“He hits pretty hard, too,” warned Meservy.

Not to worry — the sabers were heavily padded with foam and fabric, made for teaching kids how to spar in the style of historical European martial arts, or HEMA. Meservy is the founder and lead instructor of Noble Science Academy, which teaches a number of HEMA techniques out of the Masonic Lodge’s main hall.

His longsword class was starting in a half-hour, though a couple students, Jonathan Helland, of Bradford, Vt., and Jacob Burke, of Stockbridge, Vt., were already sparring off to the side. Burke, a more experienced student, was working with Helland one-on-one as part of a required mentorship program Meservy has built into the curriculum. Burke must provide Helland with a total of 10 hours of training.

“It’s neat to see them grow and develop into these leadership roles,” Meservy said.

Students also design and complete “scholarly projects” related to the study of HEMA. A little later on in the evening, when Meservy and his students were standing in a circle warming up, Helland introduced the group to a new exercise he’d developed.

Meservy has these requirements in place because for him, sword-fighting is about so much more than just the moves. When asked what he liked about the activity, he replied — gushed, really — “everything.” In addition to offering a surprisingly good workout, “it also challenges the mind,” he said. “You have to use all of your wits, at all times.”

Though Meservy makes sure to take a number of safety precautions, he thinks it’s still fun to imagine the stakes being as high as they were in medieval and Renaissance times. Want to keep all your limbs? Well then, in a matter of a couple of seconds, you must analyze all the moving parts of a given fighting situation: Where are you exposed? What are your opponent’s options right now? Where have they left themselves open? How do you respond appropriately to whatever they decide to do, while ideally getting the chance to gut them?

Sparring demands that one be fully present in and attuned to the moment, since even brief lapses in attention can result in quite the (imaginary) flesh wound. But it’s also a way of learning about the historical context that gave rise to this particular art of self-defense, and studying the customs and values that have become relics of a world so unlike our own.

Noble Science Academy bases all of its teachings on the treatises of early fencing masters, some of which date back to the 14th century — an era that endlessly fascinates Meservy, who holds a graduate degree in medieval history from the University of Glasgow, in Scotland.

By that time, Meservy was already hooked on HEMA. He first tried it out in the early aughts, when he was at Brigham Young University, in Utah, “studying Welsh, of all things.” A classmate asked him if he liked swords, to which he said, “Swords? Sure, why not, who doesn’t like swords?” he recalled. He accepted the invitation to check out some sword-fighting on the college green, and the rest was (medieval) history.

After graduating and moving back to northern Nevada, where he was born, he found work as a tutor in English, math, history and French. All the time, though, he grew more and more serious about studying the “noble science” of self-defense, participating in HEMA clubs and creating a network of fellow enthusiasts. He opened Noble Science Academy branches in Las Vegas and Reno.

After he moved to Lebanon in 2014 when his wife, Marie, was matched with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center for her residency, he opened what is now the academy’s main location in Lebanon.

Over the years, Meservy has learned how to spar with a variety of weapons, including the longsword, which he teaches with an emphasis on both German and Italian techniques; the rapier; the Scottish broadsword; and the sword and buckler (a small, round shield that’s meant to protect your vital organs from attack).

Each weapon has its own special advantages and limitations: The sharp-tipped rapier, for example, is excellent for thrusting but isn’t great at cutting from the side. The longsword is far more versatile, but this also means it’s harder to predict your opponent’s next move.

Over the years, he’s transcribed or translated a number of centuries-old texts of the early fencing masters, which were most often written in medieval variants of German, Italian, French and Latin. To interpret these texts, Meservy needs not only a solid grasp of these languages but also their long-gone conventions, the erratic spellings and poor translations. But the work is worth it to him to make the teachings of early masters available to the HEMA community.

Meservy teaches his students the same strategies that the early masters taught to their own students. For example, when your opponent is pushing up against you, you should yield rather than resist; conversely, when your opponent isn’t advancing, that’s a good moment to press forward. Meservy calls this rule “hard against soft, soft against hard.”

I.33, on which the sword and buckler curriculum is based, is the world’s oldest known treatise containing instructions for combat with weapons of any kind, Meservy said, and was written in a somewhat broken Latin by a priest whose native language was evidently German. Though most of the roughly 15 students currently enrolled in the Lebanon branch of Noble Science Academy are male, Meservy pointed out that fencing has included women since its early days: I.33 includes the image of a woman, St. Walpurga, fencing with a sword.

While many of his students dabble in multiple techniques, others — such as Evelyn Duby, 17, of Enfield — favor a certain weapon, and approach it with a singular passion. Evelyn has been taking classes at Noble Science for around three years, ever since she saw a fencing class through the window and thought, “I want to do that,” she said.

Not only did she recently win a longsword tournament in Boston, but she’s also roped her dad, Tom Duby, into the sport as well.

During a break in class, Tom Duby recalled how Evelyn had been fascinated with swords ever since she was “this big,” and after trying it out, he can see why. He finds its lessons more useful than those of karate, and can’t see why anyone wouldn’t want to learn how to sword-fight. It’s fun, provides “great exercise” and, for him, is an educational and enjoyable way for him to spend time with his kid, he said.

Indeed, Tom Duby — and the other students — were grinning broadly throughout class, so broadly that flashes of teeth were often the only parts of their faces visible through the thick mesh of their fencing masks. Every now and again, two fighters would hit the ground and bust out a set of push-ups — “penance,” Meservy said, for when they struck each other.

The penance is meant to remind students of the most important principle of Noble Science Academy: “Don’t die,” which many people forget comes before “get the other person to die,” Meservy said. “Sometimes people are so focused on stabbing the other person, that they leave themselves open.”

That’s another HEMA principle that applies to life outside the Lodge: self-protection. You’ve got to look out for No. 1.

To learn more about Noble Science Academy, visit noblescience.org.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.

Correction

Michael-Forest Meservy first opened Noble Science Academy, a now-Lebanon-based school for hi  storical European martial arts, in Nevada. An earlier version of this story misstated the school’s original location.