Interview with Tri-State Historical Fencing founder Alex Meloi: Mounted Combat Within Fiore dei Librei’s Manuscript

Alex Meloi first started aikido after getting the wind knocked out of him by a karate friend. After that, it opened him up to the world of martial arts, eventually coming the Historical European Martial Arts in 2015. Over the years, he has honed and refined his knowledge of Fiore dei Librei’s manuscript, later establishing his Tri-State Historical Fencing, even beginning one of the first HEMA equestrian/mounted combat programs. Today, Meloi took some time to talk about his HEMA journey and where may the community go in the future. All images provided by Alex Meloi.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello and welcome Alex! Thank you for joining us to talk about HEMA!

Alex Meloi: Thank you for having me! I look forward to our conversation.

MAYTT: You began training martial arts in the 1990s, starting with both aikido and Jeet Kuno Do, later turning to Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) in 2015. What first grasped your interest in the martial arts and what later changed your focus from empty-handed martial arts to weapons-based martial arts?

Alex Meloi preparing to teach mounted combat.

AM: What first grasped my interest in martial arts was getting thrown to the pavement by a friend when I was in my early 20s. We were both working at an outdoor market in Greenwich Village, New York and he was telling me he trains in karate. I boasted that I was an accomplished high school wrestler, and I could easily beat him in grappling. Since I was out of shape and practice for five years, he effortlessly tossed me to the ground with a hip throw and knocked the wind out of me. A week later I’m getting thrown again, but this time on a judo mat at Aikido of Manhattan.

I never really had to transition from empty handed training to weapons. My aikido instruction in New York was always done with a nod to moving with a sword. We did a lot of work with a tanto/dagger, and it was a status to advance to the bokken/jo class. I believe that aikido empty hand is unique to other arts because there is much less grabbing when performing a throw and you often start techniques from an opponent’s wrist grab. My understanding of this phenomenon is that if I’m holding a weapon, I wouldn’t drop it to throw you and you wouldn’t release my wrist if I was holding a sword! [Laughs]

My later Jeet Kune Do (JKD) training, at Anderson’s Martial Arts in New York City, started us out in weapons from day one. There was a heavy focus on Filipino weapons both in Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) and in street fighting classes. Essentially, weapons were always a major focus in my weekly training routine.

MAYTT: By the 2010s, HEMA had begun to solidify itself in its curriculum and instruction. What was the training like for you when you first started? How would you characterize your training from those that came before you?

AM: I can’t really speak to earlier HEMA programs, as I don’t know exactly what their training was like, but I have seen an evolutionary process unfold. I think that having access to more source material and more time to practice and pressure test has led to greater perspective.

To give an example of how my approach has changed, in the beginning I was satisfied with using one version of Fiore dei Liberi’s manuscript to develop my lesson plans. If something seemed “off,” we would speculate on ways to improve the action. Today, my first instinct is to reference all four versions of Fiore’s work, looking for contrast or uniformity. If I still have unanswered questions, I reference other historical authors closest in time, culture, and relationship. For instance, we were recently stuck on a mounted combat section of Fiore’s Getty Manuscript where it looked like you pass on your horse’s left. In reviewing the other three versions, it’s clear that the intent is opposite. This turned out to be a key element in Fiore’s mounted play, illustrating that you always pass on your right side!

MAYTT: In addition to aikido, Jeet Kune Do, and HEMA, you trained in foil fencing, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Filipino Kali, Muay Thai, and Mixed Martial Arts. How have these additional arts enhanced or benefited your HEMA training? Additionally, have you found more similarities between the wide range of arts you participated in or are there more differences than you can count?

AM: Aikido was surprisingly the most helpful in relating Fiore to other martial arts! [Laughs] Ironically, I didn’t have a fond memory of my aikido training for a few different reasons, one of them being I didn’t feel it was teaching me the practical side of fighting. I was much happier at the JKD school because I wanted to learn BJJ and MMA, which were popular classes there. It wasn’t until I started going over the Fiore material that I started to appreciate my Japanese background. There were lots of similarities, but the first thing I noticed was that Fiore sets up his plays much like aikido, where your opponent attacks and you use lateral or oblique movement to perform a counter.

Aikido helped greatly with the Fiore’s grappling material because of throws, locks, and breaks, which work in and out of armor and with weapons. Aikido helped tremendously with sword in two hands because of bokken training, and HEMA spear worked nicely relating it to Japanese jo/staff. 

Filipino Kali was helpful with Fiore’s dagger work, sword in one hand, and close fighting sections.

Foil Fencing was extremely helpful for all general sword training. Many of our footwork drills are styled from foil as well as our parry-riposte repetitions. Foil was also indispensable when we started seventeenth century Italian rapier, as there are tremendous similarities.

The JKD training in general is where my Kali, BJJ and May Thai training came from. Essentially, throwing punches and kicks are less useful skills when fighting with weapons, but they do briefly show up in our material. 

BJJ you would think would be very useful, but my training focused mainly on groundwork, which we don’t really have in HEMA. Even our wrestling competitions halt when one fighter hits the ground. Ironically, I did attend a longsword tournament where someone insisted on bringing the fight to the mat. They ignored the whistle five times and had to be pulled apart, then were immediately disqualified! [Laughs]

MAYTT: You first began teaching HEMA in 2015. What was that experience like? How has assuming the role of the instructor changed your perspective on HEMA, if at all?

AM: For me to be a HEMA instructor, I’ve had to be a diligent HEMA student. From the very beginning, I have been learning from HEMA instructors with greater experience. It’s been a combination of books, online courses, and remote mentoring. I have also drawn on concepts and philosophy from my former martial arts instructors who are always in my consciousness!

Instructing others is a skill and a great responsibility. You need to be dedicated to preparing lesson plans, rehearsing a bit, and most of all being there! You need to be good at problem solving, have deeper understanding of the material, and help students individually while keeping the group moving and engaged! 

I think my perspective is simply a sense of respect for everyone that is teaching, knowing how much study and dedication it requires!

MAYTT: Additionally, you founded your Tri-State Historical Fencing school in 2015. What inspired you to take such a course of action? Did you see something that was missing from the HEMA landscape and felt that you could fill it?

AM: As far as being a HEMA instructor and running a club, to be honest, neither of those things were something I wanted to do. I just wanted to go somewhere and fence! [Laughs] There was literally nowhere in my area to do any type of fencing.

When I first began my journey, I had no idea what other clubs were doing, but later on I did see one area that was missing in HEMA. We added an equestrian program in September [2021] that’s doing very well. We even have people traveling over one hundred miles away to ride with us because there are no places closer. Fighting on horseback is an essential part of Fiore’s art and found in all four versions of his manuscript.

MAYTT: That’s amazing how you worked towards exploring and expanding Fiore’s equestrian section! How did you come about to find the facility, the horses, and everything else to start your equestrian program?

AM: I was extremely lucky with my equestrian program, but it certainly didn’t happen overnight! [Laughs]

I signed up for an online program, created by Jennifer Landels, simply to explore Fiore’s Mounted material. I got this crazy idea one evening that I might just try English Riding lessons at the local stables.

I was riding for about a month when I talked the proprietor and trainer, Lester Murphy, into a fencing lesson. I learned riding and he learned fencing from me once a week for an entire year before we tried fighting on horseback. It went really well, and we set up our first group meetup shortly afterwards, which has continued to meet once a month.

I think anyone interested in mounted combat should just simply learn to ride a horse from a professional instructor. This is the hardest part and takes quite a bit of effort. If you are already practicing HEMA, the sword work is almost nothing to learn. There are differences in the way you handle the sword on horseback, but you can simulate this is class by walking past your opponent on foot. You can also build a false mount where one person is stationary in the saddle and opponents jog past them on foot with attacks. This is a good way for clubs to train with no horses and it’s excellent for getting to understand the material.

Finding horses and stables to do active mounted combat may be hard. I think the only way to do it would be to find a trainer or individuals that own horses who are interested in swordplay. The average professional stable may not be helpful in your endeavor but may possibly do it for a hefty charge. The other obstacle is taking the time to get the horses used to seeing the weapons without getting nervous or jumpy.  

A mounted combat play.

When it comes right down to deciding if mounted combat is worth the time and money for you or your club, you really need to want to be an equestrian. I take weekly lessons that cost around $60 each session, and in one and a half years I’m still only moderately skilled at riding. I would like to point out that we are riding English style, which is much harder to learn than if we were riding Western trained horses. The differences in the two styles are beyond the scope of this article but I would say that another club may find it a shorter route to use Western style. To create a simple metaphor, the Western horses are like an automatic car, where you just steer and step on the gas, while the English horses are like a stick shift, where you need to coordinate hands and feet in complex ways.

If anyone would like to know more about mounted combat, they can contact me and I would be happy to share my experiences or advice on starting out.

MAYTT: Your school is an affiliate to the International Armizare Society, using the system put down by the Italian master Fiore dei Liberi. What was it about the Italian style and source that made you gravitate towards it when a majority of HEMA practitioner learn and teach from German styles and sources?

AM: I literally didn’t know anything about HEMA when I started. I had no clue what the technical differences between the German and Italian sources were, or even that most clubs prefer German. I didn’t even know that we would eventually be competing with fencers that practice the German Arts.

I chose Fiore simply because it was a fully integrated fighting system of grappling, swords, polearms, armored fighting, and equestrian combat, all found in one single body of work. It seemed much easier to navigate as a novice than the German source material, which by contrast has multiple manuscripts written by various masters.

MAYTT: Who would you consider as instrumental or crucial to the modern HEMA revival movement in the United States? What set these pioneers apart from their contemporaries?

AM: There are so many people that have put enormous amounts time money and energy into the HEMA movement! Most of them are doing what they do out of generosity and love for the art. I will just name the people that I know the most about, have personally helped me, or have had an influence on my program.

My first HEMA book was written by Guy Windsor specifically about Fiore’s longsword material. Guy was pioneering Fiore since the 1990s.

I started Devon Boorman’s Academie Duello online learning classes shortly afterwards. I believe Devon started teaching Italian Swordsmanship in the early 2000s and he probably has the most extensive online learning platform in martial arts. Academie Duello also started Academie Cavallo, which is Jennifer Landels’ “one and only” online mounted combat program which I am also a student of.

The HEMA Alliance (HEMAA) was the next connection I made. I know that Jake Norwood was one of the main people that started this organization, which is made up of a rotating commission of volunteers. The HEMAA helped me structure and establish my club, provide me with affordable insurance, and point me in the right direction.

A few years into my training, Greg Mele assembled an Italian Fencing Guild that we were happy to join called The International Armizare Society. I get a lot of structural, fraternal, and academic support from his organization. Greg is one of the original pioneers from the 1990s and has written and published a lot of his own work as well as cofounding Chicago Swordplay Guild. His publishing company Freelance Academy Press also publishes works by other HEMA pioneers like Christian Tobler, Tom Leoni, Robert Charrette, and Ken Mondshein.

I have to mention HEMA’s most prolific academic Michael Chidester. Michael created the Wiktenauer, which is an expansive Wiki catalog of HEMA source material. He has also authored many books on the European martial traditions.

MAYTT: In your opinion, how important is it for practitioners to compete? Are non-competitors missing out on an important aspect of the art or does competition not fully capture the spirit of the art and/or movement?

AM: In my opinion the experience alone, gained from formal competition, is an essential part of any martial arts education. It puts you in fighting scenarios that training does not. That said, we have a lot of people that just enjoy weekly classes and have no interest in tournaments. We want club members to get what they want out of training with no judgments.

I would like to highlight the word “experience” when mentioning competitions, simply because of the way our tournaments are structured. It’s customary to create pools of up to eight fencers. You are literally guaranteed to fight eight different people at a competition. This is much better than other sports where you travel to an event and get eliminated after your first match! [Laughs]

MAYTT: In the same vein, how crucial are the research and scholarly aspects of the art/movement? Are practitioners missing or foregoing an essential part of HEMA if they do not produce any research and if so, how can the larger community make this aspect more inviting to those practitioners?

AM: Since “H” stands for “Historical” there is no HEMA without the study of source material. I feel that anyone teaching or trying to become highly skilled needs to study. I feel that everyone is thankful to the people that share their material with the community, but I don’t think anyone should feel compelled to do so. Simply picking up a sword at a class, in my opinion, is contributing to the community, or organizing an event, making a video or podcast, graphic arts, it’s truly unlimited!

MAYTT: How have you seen the HEMA community grow in the United States in the years you’ve been an active member? Where do you think HEMA will grow into in the next decade or so?

AM: HEMA may always be a small community compared to other martial arts, but it is so much larger than when I started. I think longsword had really dominated the field since the beginning, but I’m pleased to see more rapier and sidesword categories showing up in tournaments.

The biggest thing I see becoming popular in the next decade is the Bolognese sources! It’s not only sophisticated, elegant, and detailed, but there is a tremendous amount content and material to study. Bolognese literally has something for everyone! Many varieties of polearms, single handed swords, different styles of shields, daggers, grappling, two handed swords, and sound advice on “looking awesome” while fighting!

Alex Meloi (center) instructing two students on polearm plays.

Another exciting trend I see is fighting in armor which is known as harnischfechten. Our version of fighting in armor is different than what you see in Armored Combat League or Buhurt. We do much less striking and focus on thrusting the gaps in the armor and putting our opponent into submission or grounding them. This is simply because we take everything from our historical material. Sword strikes are relatively useless against an armored opponent while strategic thrusting is quite harmful and must be done carefully in practice. Polearm strikes by contrast can be quite devastating!

The final area I see growing is mounted combat, which has a major representation in our historical material. I doubt that the average HEMA club will ever have a full-time equestrian program, but I do think that they will have somewhere in driving distance that they can visit. 

Our program is open to the public and we really enjoy having other clubs ride horses with us. We offer one Sunday each month for group meetups and welcome anyone that is interested!

MAYTT: Thank you for talking about HEMA!

AM: It was my pleasure!

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