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In the beginning was the (s)word, part 2

Between last week’s class and this one (on the 9th of October) we saw six out of the 24 attend class on Thursday 4th – this is an excellent proportion, especially for the first week. It takes some guts to show up with so little prior experience, but they all got stuck in, and seemed to enjoy themselves. A large part of my job is taking 21st century office slaves and getting them sufficiently fit and strong to do medieval martial arts. The first of this batch to attract my attention in this regard is a tall, slim gentleman with back issues. So I spent twenty minutes or so with him after class working on posture and core strength exercises.

Day two of the beginners’ course saw one new face (who had been sick the week before) who brought with her a history of forearm tendonitis. My specialty. So we spent some time after class fixing that, with massage and wrist strength training exercises. (What on earth makes the average doctor think that strapping up a wrist for a year will actually help? Muscles that don’t get used waste away. Sure, the inflammation in the tendon dies down, but there is nothing stopping it coming back. Doh.)

The class began with the warm-up, almost exactly the same as last week’s but with less time to do more stuff. I added in our current favourite shoulder stability exercise, and cross-squats. I promised them kicking squats this week… We then went straight on to revise the four steps and four guards from last week, then I introduced them to the stick exercise– to get them to do these steps naturally and without thought.

We then gave the students the usual “a mask is not armour” speech, and showed them our utterly destroyed fencing mask – what happens when modern sports equipment meets medieval weaponry. Then I had them tapping each other gently on the mask with wooden daggers. When that was going nicely I taught them the First Master disarm, then showed it to them in the book, first the four strikes, then the five things, then the first master and his play.

I find it works best to show the beginners the technique a few times, let them try it, make a few tweaks, and get them to experience a few successful repetitions, before showing them the book. That way they recognise the images from their own experience, rather than perceive it as something new and different. Then I had them repeat exactly the same exercise having had the source, with all its Italian weirdness, explained to them. So they try to assign the new fancy names to familiar actions, not the other way round.

When that was going nicely I added the counter (second play first master), not least to hammer home the idea that this is not self defence- this is a medieval combat style for professional warriors., there is no moral value assigned to defence per se. The action we were doing, by modern standards, is simply murder- how to strike with a dagger despite the target’s best efforts to stop you.

This took us to 7pm, and we picked up the swords, saluted, and got busy swinging them up the hall. After that was re-familiarised, I had them think about hiding behind the sword as they strike.

I then demonstrated the cut done to the mask, by having a beginner, with whom I had never crossed swords, tap me on the mask while I practised not flinching. It is vital for them to see that they can do it safely. And that I am not asking them to do anything I would not do myself.

It would make no sense to stop there, as practising being hit is of limited value. So we added the parry from tutta porta di ferro (not that I gave them the terminology just yet). I just told them to hit the incoming sword away, middle to middle, using the edge of their sword.  And lo! we ended up at the book again having a look at the second master of the zogho largo. Literally 60 seconds or less of “look at the book, isn’t that cool” and it was “go back and do it again, now that you know what it is”.

That took us to 7.30 and the final salute, after which the President of the SHMS handed out a printed copy of the training guide to each member of the course.

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