Oldest fencing club in the world celebrates 400th birthday in Ghent

Summary

This might be one of Ghent’s best-kept secrets. Every day in the attic of the Lakenhalle, members of a fencing club with the grand name of the Royal and Knightly St Michael’s Guild take up their arms to train. They are celebrating their 400th birthday this year.

Ghent Brotherhood celebrates rich heritage with exhibition

Gymnasiums are rarely noted for their aesthetics. They’re designed to be functional and provide athletes with the infrastructure they need. The training hall of the Royal and Knightly St Michael’s Guild fencing club – also called the Confrérie, or the Brotherhood – is another matter. A door next to the tower of Ghent’s belfry on Emile Braunplein leads via a staircase to the medieval building’s attics. The armour in the hall sets the tone. This place breathes history.

In the training hall, the staccato sound of steel on steel fills the air. The trainer – the maître, or master, as he is known – is teaching his pupil the finesse of the epee, one of the three weapons used in fencing. But the setting is amazing. The roof beams of the Cloth Hall, an oak structure built in the 15th century, are impressive. On the wall are portraits of characters from the club’s rich history, with a prominent place reserved for Albrecht and Isabella, the Austrian monarchs ruling our region in the late 17th century.

Their presence is not accidental: They were the ones who agreed with the foundation of the guild in 1613 and gave the club the privilege of using the Cloth Hall attic for “ten eeuwigen dage”, meaning forever. Their 400 years of continued existence makes the Brotherhood the oldest fencing club in the world. The title of the oldest sports club in Belgium goes to the crossbowmen of St George’s Guild in Bruges, founded in the early 1300s, but still, 400 years is something to celebrate. The guild will be doing so with, among other things, an exhibition about the rich heritage the club has collected over the years.

Kristiaan De Witte, the guild’s conservator, proudly shows me the room where the exhibition opens to the public next week. The expo is still under construction, and here and there pieces are lying on the floor, such as a gigantic broadsword that seems like it would be impossible to handle. But the showpieces are there already in their display cases, each with its own story. Besides cups and silverware there are guild logbooks and fencing manuals, the oldest dating from the 16th century. In one of the cases is a devil mask, worn during processions, and a sharp-pointed epee used in duels. Both pieces play a role in a recent edition of Suske and Wiske, Flanders’ most popular comic series.

De Witte points to a framed document on the wall, a text dated 1626, gracefully written with a seal underneath. It is a copy of the document in which Albrecht and Isabella gave the Confrérie its privileges. “The Brotherhood was one of the four military guilds of Ghent, together with the crossbowmen, archers and krombusschutters (a kind of primitive musket),” De Witte explains.

Anyone who wanted to join had to be a man

- Kristiaan De Witte

“These guilds were responsible for the defence of the city of Ghent and were in fact a kind of elite corps within the city guard. Anyone who wanted to join had to be a man, an inhabitant of Ghent and a Catholic. And rich, because the maintenance of the hall required a lot of resources, and their parties were pretty decadent. We even found an invoice in the archive for the rental of a pineapple. For renting it, not to eat, but just to show off.”

Also in the room stands a long table with chairs alongside, where the board of the Confrérie assembles. Although board is not the correct name: Here it is called the eed and the president is the euverdeken, both names inherited from 400 years of tradition.

The largest display is reserved for the most iconic pieces: a flag, a second devil mask and a gold chain. De Witte explains: “The chain is called the Koningsbreuk (King’s Fracture). It is worn by the King of the Guild, the best fencer using all three weapons. For each new king, the chain is broken and a new link is added, hence the name. Just look at the paintings on the wall.” Indeed, the series of portraits of the previous Kings show them all wearing the same necklace, though the length varies.

De Witte invites me to sign the guest book. The first guests in the book date from the 1930s, and the book is not yet full. “In the past, fencing was an elitist sport, strongly linked to the military. These times have passed, but we still use a specific procedure for new adult members to ensure that we get motivated fencers in our club.”

Fencing used to be an elitist sport

- Kristiaan De Witte

Four hundred years of history is something special, of course, but what about the guild’s current sporting achievements? They’re equally prosperous, it turns out: “On both sabre and epee we are at the top in Belgium, and several of our fencers compete at international level.” St Michael’s is not just a club with a rich history behind it: Its future also looks bright.

This is the month of celebration for the Confrérie. On Saturday the exhibition on the club’s history opens to the public, on 28 September the annual Battle for the King competition takes place, and the next day there will be a celebratory mass at Sint-Niklaas church.

www.confrerie.be

Oldest fencing club in the world is staying put, right here in Ghent.

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