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New Beginnings, part 1

On Tuesday March 5th we began the 2013 Spring beginners’ course. The goal of the course is always the same: to provide a safe and approachable way for interested people to begin training in the Art of Swordsmanship. As usual, we start them off with Fiore’s Art of Arms, not least as this has the most real-world applicable mechanics and demands only normal range of motion. It also has a breadth of weaponry, which allows us several approaches to the same fundamental principles.

This course is unusually undersubscribed, with only 10 people in attendance by 6pm. So keen readers of this blog will find the content and organisation of this course to be quite different to the last one. As those that know me know, I never plan classes as such, as there is no way to predict the specific make-up of the class, in terms of experience, interests and aptitudes. As far as possible, I tailor all classes to the needs of the students present. One of the purposes of writing up this beginners’ course is to provide a second example of a correctly-done course that is totally different to another correctly-done course. I intend also to write up a full comparison of the two, explaining the reasons behind the differences.

We begin, of course, with the book, Il Fior di Battaglia. I showed them the book on the lectern, and made it clear that they were always welcome to check what we are doing in class against the source. Then the safety briefing, which boils down to one rule: Everybody must finish class healthier than they started it. And is followed by what we expect of all students: Behave at all times as a reasonable adult.

Then we got cracking on the warm-up, taking it gently. The group as a whole are reasonably able to make their bodies go where their minds tell it, just the usual assortment of weaknesses brought on by the 21st century lifestyles we all lead. Unusually we did not go through the basic falling practice, just did the roll-and-up exercise at the end of the warm-up. During the push-ups (taught swiftly from scratch) we separated the skills required into two: keeping the body straight, and bending and straightening the arms under load. We did them separately and then together, then let them practice whichever bit they found harder (arms, body or combination). The warm-up began and ended with the swinging exercise, and I was careful to point out why, thus introducing the idea of running diagnostics to assess the effectiveness of a given practice. Towards the end of the warm-up two more students showed up, having got the time wrong. We could not let them join in, as they had missed the safety briefing, but to their credit they stayed and watched the whole class, and we took them through much of the material during free training.

I then had them do the four steps, passare and tornare first, followed by accrescere and discressere. Then to the book to see the text where Fiore wrote about them. While we were there we went to the four guards, longa, dente di zenghiaro, porta di ferro and frontale, then did them, one at a time, with passing steps. Of course, I used our mnemonic “grab his throat, break his jaw, thumbs in eyes, head on floor”. (For a bookful of such poetic gems, see The Armizare Vade Mecum) Once they had tried them all, I gave them a couple of minutes to practice whatever they could remember, however best suited them, on their own. This done, I pointed out that they had just demonstrated to me that they could perfectly well practice without help, and so could train at home without supervision.

To illustrate the guards and transitioning between them as a way of describing motion and therefore time, I had the class stab each other gently with daggers— the one being stabbed could see the guards happening as natural elements of the motion of drawing and striking. After introducing them to the destroyed-by-medieval-weapons modern fencing mask, we then repeated the stabbings with everyone masked up. This lead naturally into the first play of the dagger, the 1st master’s disarm. First, they did it. Then we looked at it in the book, then did it again. I then smowed them how to check for lines of strength and weakness, and we did it again. The inevitable “wouldn’t you get cut” question duly was asked, so I demonstrated the technique using a big sharp kitchen knife, then they did it again. Then to the book for the second play, the attacker’s counter. Here I made the point that this is a knightly art, and so for professional warriors. There is no moral virtue in self defence here, this is for killing your enemies and gaining renown. So the attacker can counter the defence, and we are as versed in attacking as we are in defending.

This all took us to 7.15, so I showed them how to get a sword off the rack without blinding anyone, and we went through the salute a couple of times, and, as we had plenty of room, straight into swinging the sword from shoulder to shoulder, while passing forwards. After a few reps to get comfortable, I had them pay attention to leading with the blade. I always demonstrate this with a senior (in this case Ken), and have him stab me if I attack leading with the foot. All students were then issued with an imaginary homicidal Ken to strike against. After some more reps, we went to the book to look at the proper cutting lines (jaw to knee) and I mentioned forehand and backhand (mandritto and roverso). And it was back for more reps, before finishing with the salute.

Note that we only did 3 “techniques” but the first and last were done several times with the option of a different focus for the mind, such as leading with the sword, or the line of the blow. In this way a lot of information gets packed into a small number of physical actions. The first iteration is always just “do this action”, with no distracting instructions. Better ways of doing the action come later.

In all, we are off to a very encouraging start!

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