I am thrilled to announce that my new podcast, aptly named “The Sword Guy” is now live. The theme of the first season is “Voices of Historical Martial Arts”, featuring historical sword practitioners of many styles. One of the attractions for starting the podcast was that it gave me a stimulus to get on the phone with some old friends, and also to get talking to people whose work I've admired but whom I have not yet met.
The first episode features the amazing Jess Finley, wrestler, swordswoman, author, historical clothing expert, the list of her accomplishments goes on and on. I really enjoyed talking to her, and I hope you'll enjoy listening in.
I'm using podbean for hosting because it will forward the podcast to all the usual platforms for me. That takes time to filter through the system, so in the meantime, you can find it here:
I originally intended the first season to have 6-8 episodes, but it has already grown to 10! I'll publish a new episode every Friday for your weekend listening pleasure until the season concludes (I haven't decided yet how many episodes there will be. But I already have plans for a season two with a different theme…)
So who's next on the list? You'll have to listen to the episode to find out…
GW: Hello everyone! This is Guy Windsor, also known as “The Sword Guy” and I’m here today with the inestimable Jessica Finley, who may be known to you from her wonderful book about medieval wrestling. Those of you who are enrolled on my Solo Training course may have sweated and grunted through her “solo training for wrestlers” section of the course, and if you know her on her Patreon account, she produces translations, interpretations, previews of books in progress, and videos also for her patrons and you can find her there at www.patreon.com/jessfinley.
So, without further ado, welcome Jess!
JF: Hi Guy!
GW: So, just to orient everyone, where are you at the moment?
JF: Right now, my family and I live Lawrence, Kansas, in the United States. If you were to glance at a map of the United States, we’re basically right dead centre.
GW: Excellent. And I assume you’re “locked down” with this Coronavirus nonsense?
JF: We are. In fact, our lockdown began earlier than most people’s, because we got a run of what we believe to have been the flu, starting February 3rd. In fact, my son got so sick he got full-blown pneumonia – it was awful. So we weren’t going anywhere because we didn’t want to give anyone this flu, and it one by one went through our family, and about the time we got healed up, the actual lockdown started. So it’s been more or less since early February that we have been social distancing, as everyone’s doing, you know, going out for provisions and then coming right back home.
Our state is doing quite well, as far as these things go; the numbers in our county have stayed very low and are continuing to go down, so I’ve slowly started up doing private lessons, one on one, with masks, and masks, right? Double mask. Just longsword, nothing else, so we can stay at a distance, but starting to get some physical work with other people, which is lovely.
GW: It must be a relief.
JF: Oh my goodness, yeah.
GW: OK, so speaking of longswords, as you brought them up, what made you want to start historical martial arts, and how did you actually get started?
JF: Well, I got into swords because swords are really cool. I was young and into fantasy novels and DnD, like, the whole rigamarole, and my boyfriend at the time, he was working with some people that were starting up a performance troupe to go around and fight with swords on stages at renaissance festivals in the Midwest. So he got invited to come out to the thing, and I was like, “Oh no, I’m coming too, that’s all there is to that!” He was quite put off, like “You can’t just invite yourself to someone else’s event.” And I said, “I think I can. I think I can show up to this.” So anyway, that’s how I got my start, in ’98, swinging swords in backyards, and we kind of had this weird, homegrown system, that was somewhere between sparring and performing, but was really neither. Just kind of that weird unique place that happened, I think rather frequently in the ‘90s, right? I mean everyone was just trying to do what they could do. But eventually I got hooked up with, oh God, it was NetSword back then. I started speaking with Greg Mele and Rob Lovett I remember particularly off that site, and then Jon Eppler down in Tulsa – he was hosting an event. He’s associated with the Tattershall School, if that name means anything to you. So my husband and I, and our friend Beniah Anderson all signed up and drove four and a half hours to do a weekend, which turned out to be with Christian Tobler.
GW: Wow, that’s a very good start.
JF: Yeah, super good start! So we did that weekend, and nine months later did a weekend with Bob Charron, so we had introduction to both Liechtenauer and Fiore. I was just completely sold, so I emailed both Christian Tobler and Bob and said hey, I took these weekends with you, and I really want to do this, I’m in the middle-of-nowhere Kansas and there’s nobody here, so would you take me on as an online student and let’s just see what happens? And Christian replied and Bob didn’t.
GW: Dammit! You could have been a Fiorian all this time! We could have had you for the Italians all this time and instead you went over to the dark side. Ah, Jess. Next time I see Bob I’ll slap him! That would be a mistake, because he would pick me up and break me in half.
JF: But people ask me, how did you end up choosing German over Italian, and I didn’t. It chose me.
GW: Right, that’s fair.
JF: That’s how I got into this, and from there, you know, I have a very strong American pioneering spirit, so I feel that if I do a thing, if I put enough work at it, I can do it. So I just started actually going to my gym, and there was a Kung Fu class there. And so I would wait until the Kung Fu class wrapped up, and then I would go in with my wasters, and solo practice. The teacher took notice, and so after a few weeks of me regularly doing this, because I had decided I needed to set myself a regular study schedule, so I would be showing up every time after Kung Fu and working solo. So anyway, the teacher notices, and one day he sticks around and says, can I watch what you’re doing, tell me about it, and I was like, OK, sure, I’ll tell you about it. The very next week, as I’m sitting there waiting for Kung Fu class to wrap up, he calls me out, introduces me to his class and says, “You’re all going to stay and take a lesson from her.”
GW: Oh wow!
JF: I was like, all right! I’ve been to a whole two weekend seminars and some solo training.
GW: Fully qualified.
JF: Totally qualified for this role! With all of these people who have been studying martial arts for however long. So that’s how I taught my first class, right off the cuff. As it turned out, three of those guys stuck around and just started training with me. They thought it was cool, and wanted to support me.
GW: The class must have been pretty good.
JF: As far as being a formal student in these things, at least in the physical realm, I’ve only gotten to do it at seminars. I’ve always been in the position of presenter. Well, we’ll come back to that in one of your later questions. There you go, there’s a little hint or trail for the future of the interview there.
GW: All right, stick around and we’ll come back to that.
So what are your main research interests? You’re known mainly for your wrestling, but I know that’s not all that you do, so what is currently your research jam?
JF: Well… OK so I have so many things that I research, because… I don’t know why. Why would I say “Because”?
So my method is that I just follow interests wherever they lead. And they take me to really weird places sometimes. So… we can start with the trees. This is borne out of what we call in the von Danzig Fecht book – there are a set of diagrams. I didn’t know what they were at first. The text itself refers to them as “Figures” and it says that there are 26 figures of horse combat, of Rossfechten, and I just really wanted to understand, how the hell do these things work? It seems that this particular fight book has 5 pages of illustration: a drawing of Master Liechtenauer himself – it makes sense why that’s important. Two pages that show the four guards, OK that also makes sense. And then these two. That’s it, that’s the only drawings they bothered to make. So I just kinda hammered at it until I found my way to modern medieval academics who understand the way medieval figures work. There are all different forms of figures, and trees are one of them. The trees, when we look at them, don’t really look like trees. It looks like parallel lines with circles with writing in them.
GW: A bit like a family tree.
JF: Kind of. But they don’t really read like a family tree. With a family tree, once you start going down one branch, you don’t really go back to the other side, so there’s a logical trail that you’ll go down. Or, if you think of “If, then” statements – you go this way or that way, there’s no going back to the other side. Whereas, medieval diagrams, while they could do that, they didn’t always do that. And so often, the more important piece of information you’re gaining out of them is not just that I have a maternal grandmother and this is her name, but that my maternal grandmother and my paternal grandmother are both grandmothers. What is their relationship to each other, through me. And so it leads to a different kind of analysis of the information than just decision trees.
I ended up again just hammering at this diagram and then once I found academic journals on trees – such things exist – and what they mean and how to read them, and a lot of extant examples, and as far as I know, no academics in this field have studied this particular tree. But I’ve come to understand how it works, how it ties back in with Liechtenauer’s Zettel, and then how that gives a whole other way to look at the system. Another way to implant it in your mind and then recall it.
GW: It’s a kind of mind map then?
JF: Yes, exactly. Often these figures were for that literal purpose of helping someone trying to memorise ridiculous amounts of information in such a way that they can easily recall it.
GW: OK. So is this related to the longsword material, or is this something else?
JF: The extant tree we have is specifically related to the Rossfechten.
GW: Define Rossfechten for those who might not know.
JF: Fighting on horseback is what that means, and that can be with an assortment of weapons, but it does apply to the longsword on horse with that particular extant tree. But what I have done then, is go back to Liechtenauer’s longsword on foot, outside of armour, and gone, well, he gave us a number of Hauptstücke, chief techniques, like specific – well we wouldn’t even call them techniques really, we’d call them tactics – these ideas that we are supposed to keep in our mind and understand, and build the fight around them.
GW: Such as?
JF: Such as the five strikes of, Zornhau, Zwerchau, each one of those is one. But then likewise the idea of A Guard – all of the guards is one idea.
GW: Yes, OK.
JF: And so that’s why I say not really technique, because grouping all the guards together to understand what is a guard and what does a guard do is a different level of understanding. And so from there he named out these things in a specific order, can I build a tree out of that in that order? Use the same sort of analysis, and does that produce something useful for me? And the answer is yes. It very much helps me. Now, did Liechtenauer intend that? There is no way I can prove that.
GW: No but you’re using a medieval approach to organise and understand medieval information. Put it this way: it’s certainly not inappropriate.
JF: Right. Ultimately with research, you often end up running into this situation of needing to answer “so what?” You think, that’s cool, but who cares? But in this case I think it leads to a deeper understanding of the material in a way that you can, again, easily memorise it, and easily recall it. But then understand relationships between this list of techniques that goes beyond a list of techniques.
GW: Right yes, they are all interconnected.
JF: Yes, and in very specific ways. Some things are obvious: you have guards, and you have the strikes that counter those guards. That’s an opposition that the text tells us and that we all innately get.
GW: If I recall rightly, Krumphau breaks Ochs.
JF: That is true.
GW: I’m not a German person at all. But I have read a bunch of Christian’s books, so I’m not completely uneducated.
JF: That’s a perfect example, that Krumphau breaks Ochs. OK cool, but then there are more intellectual Hauptstücke, for instance Nachreisen, which is “chasing”. And a physical example of that is if you were in some sort of point forward guard, or point forward position and you retract your point, you are offering an opportunity for your opponent to chase and attack you. That can apply to a myriad of specific technical situations in a fight. It gets paired, the way I see it, with Überlaufen (overrunning), which is the basic idea that a high attack breaks a low attack. That gets utilised really strongly in the German system. So those two go together in the sense that we’re told if you use those two ideas together – chasing to a higher line than your opponent is in, in the beginning of the fight, you’ll have a much greater chance of success than if you do anything else.
GW: Interesting. Of course, my head is buzzing with Fiore parallels.
JF: That’s a different interview, but we could geek out real hard on that!
GW: I think given the probable nature of the audience I think a little geekery is perfectly OK. In fact, they probably tuned in hoping we’d get deep into the weeds.
JF: Right. So that pairing is less obvious than a counter, but that’s a pairing of things that you’re supposed to use together. So you kind of have three generalised ways you can group ideas together. Or that medieval people tended to group ideas together. Which is, that you can have opposites; you can have similarities, or things that go together; or you can have logical progressions. And that’s another way you can group things. Again, we don’t tend to group that. Though I don’t know, you can have a parent and child relationship and say that’s a way that things tend to go together as a pair. Those are kind of the ways you can put these together and look at them. And once you put them into the physical diagram of the tree you can start making pairs. Again it’s hard to visualise on a podcast, but if you have these rows and columns of ideas, you can analyse them across the row, or analyse them across the column.
GW: Can I just say, it’s perfectly ok to send me a picture that I can put in the show notes and then people can see what you are talking about.
JF: Awesome, I’ll totally do that. Look at the show notes guys!
GW: I’m getting quite a lot of information from your hand gestures, but no one else is seeing those! I don’t have my make up on, so no one is watching this video.
JF: So rows and columns of ideas, I think that’s the easiest way. It could be on a spreadsheet. That’s just as viable as a medieval tree, at least for these purposes.
GW: The original trees were around Rossfechten, so I understand you’ve taken up horse riding recently, to get into Rossfechten?
JF: I have! It’s the best. It is so great. Number one it’s so great because I can go my barn and say hi to my trainer and get on my horse, and she stays on the other side of the barn so I have an opportunity to at least be in a space with a human right now, who’s outside my family, and also getting me outside and learning and engaging in that way. So I mentioned that I haven’t gotten to be much of a student for medieval martial arts, as far in person, so this has been amazing because I know literally nothing, and I’m not expected to.
GW: It’s the best position to be in.
JF: It is so good!
GW: You show up to something as a complete beginner, and no one has any expectations and you can just absorb the stuff super fast because it’s all new and it’s the absolute best position to be in, to be the person in the room who knows the least. Unless you’re playing poker. That’s different.
JF: Fair. That is the exception to the rule.
GW: So is the goal with your riding to have a go at mounted combat?
JF: Yeah. I’ve had the opportunity a couple of times when I have been up in Vancouver, with Academie Duello, and their stables, that Jen Landels runs.
GW: I’ve fought Jen Landels on horseback with plastic swords, and she completely sliced me to pieces! Her horse did exactly what she told it, and my horse was like, “Who is this dumbass sitting on my back, who doesn’t give me clear instructions? So I’m just going to plod around in a circle.”
JF: Yes that’s more or less my experience as well. But yeah, I absolutely loved getting to train with her, and I always knew that I was the kind of young girl who was obsessed with horses as a small child but never had the opportunity to ride them or do anything. I was totally that little girl.
GW: But how much of being an adult is finally, you can do all the stuff that your parents would let you do or couldn’t arrange for you as a kid? My parents have been taking large blades off me since I could walk, pretty much, and look what happened! Now to be fair they were right to do so, as they were big sharp knives, and they are probably not the best thing for kids to play with. Now I can just have whatever blades I like, it’s fantastic. Being a grown up is awesome.
JF: It’s pretty great. So yeah, it’s been pretty wonderful to just get out there, to be a student. I would love to eventually be able to control a horse well enough to do the stuff I’ve practised from that section of the book. I’ve practised it on foot, to understand the system and I’ve an idea how it should work but if you can’t make a horse be your feet naturally then you have no shot at doing that thing. I found it rather funny that in one of the first lessons she got me up on Starbuck, that’s my horse’s name.
GW: It’s a good name for a horse.
JF: He’s so great, he is completely the horse she puts six year olds on, let’s be completely clear about the situation.
GW: Yes, but some of those six year olds are probably pretty good riders already. At least compared to us.
JF: They could be! Exactly. Yeah, so she put me up on him and would have me get him walking, stop him, and ask, where are his feet? Now, I can’t see, so she immediately had me feeling which foot is where. And how do you tell? Because if you can’t tell where his feet are then you can’t help him to get where you need him to be.
GW: You can’t give the right commands, because you might give an impossible command.
JF: Yep. I come out of every single one of those lessons and I come home and I have to take a nap. It’s not because my physical body is wrecked, it’s because my brain is going SO HARD for that hour and a half that by the time I get home I’m like, I’ve built too many neurons, I must eat and sleep.
GW: That sounds like an hour and a half extremely well spent.
JF: It’s great.
GW: Now there was something I wanted to ask you about, which was what are your thoughts on protective equipment in training? Because presumably on horseback I presume you are wearing a helmet, and you mentioned that when you are doing your individual lessons for longswords, you are at the moment wearing a surgical facemask underneath the regular fencing mask, or some kind of fencing mask. It seems that everyone has an opinion about training equipment and I’m sure people would be very interested to know what yours is.
JF: At least right now, I am a big fan of training at a level that doesn’t require much more than just a fencing mask. This is a thing that comes and goes. I think what I find is that a lot of protective equipment gets so much in the way of what I’m trying to feel, if I’m spending however much of my attention being irritated that my arms don’t lift up quite as high as I need them to go, or that my gloves are too big for my hands to be where I want them on my sword, or whatever, that learning becomes incredibly difficult, if my attention is on those things. Now of course, if you’re going to spar, fucking gear up. Don’t be a dumbass, right?
GW: You heard it here first. Jessica Finley says, “Fucking gear up, don’t be a dumbass”. That should be the strapline for the whole podcast series.
JF: Right! Yeah but for most drilling to a reasonable level of cooperativeness, if you’re going hard enough you need to put more stuff on, you’re maybe going too hard to do as many reps as you need to do.
GW: OK. Interesting.
JF: In my mind.
GW: I’ve never much liked protective equipment. And most of my training is done without any, or with just a mask, or maybe a mask and a pair of gauntlets, if we’re going for hand hits for example, and I think you’ll be ok.
JF: But let’s be fair though, you and I run a pretty fucking tight ship.
GW: That is also true.
JF: Maybe this is a later question, I don’t remember, but the very few regrets I have in this pursuit are when I have seen something and thought, “That’s not OK… well they’re adults.” And literally 30 seconds later someone gets fucking hurt. That happened not too long ago, before the Corona, a couple of people were sparring at my club, and they are both years and years in, and know what they were doing, and they were relatively low gear. I saw it ramp up to a level that I thought, “Hmm, that’s beyond the gear they are wearing. I should call them down.” And I thought, “Ehhhh” and right about then, someone took a gigantic thrust to the face. It led to a concussion, and I feel personally responsible for that because I saw what was happening. It’s my school, it’s my fucking fault.
GW: If it’s your school, and whether it’s your fault or not, it’s certainly your responsibility. I feel the same about anything occurring in any class I’m teaching or any school that belongs to my umbrella.
Now, I seem to recall that you used to make protective equipment, gambesons and things.
JF: For sure.
GW: Is that the only way to get a good one?
GW: You can’t beat tailor made, right?
JF: That’s just it. If you said, Jess, can I get a really nice suit at my local department store? I’d be like, well, define “nice” but not great. I mean this is true. If you want it to fit you like a glove you have to just have it personally made. I don’t see any way around that.
GW: Unless you happen to have the exact body shape they happen to be built for in exactly that size.
JF: I guess some people are that lucky.
GW: So what’s the main difference then between a custom built gambeson, for instance, and one off the shelf.
JF: There’s a ton of geeky tailoring differences.
GW: That’s OK, we can go geeky.
JF: OK, what I would say the biggest thing is, almost all modern tailoring is built off of the idea of a shoulder seam that sits on the point of your shoulder, or even slightly outside of it, which has to do with our aesthetics of what looks attractive, particularly in menswear, that you have a really square shoulder out here like you might see in a suit. Likewise in a suit it’s very attractive for the arm to hang straight down, more or less, so it gets tailored so that hanging straight down creates a strong attractive look for what we’re after, and most modern tailors have forgotten how to tailor otherwise. So what that leads to is the situation we have all experienced of not being able to very effectively lift our arms in protective gear, or that when you do the entire garment rises up and that’s just on a base level for everyone. Often what you’ll see is that people doing modern commercial gambesons or whatever will create seam lines that reference the medieval cut without doing the medieval cut. Does that make sense?
GW: It does. Kind of skeuomorphism.
JF: Oh, I don’t know what you mean.
GW: Skeuomorphism is when some modern thing has elements of an older thing to make it look right. Like for example, a notes app on a phone that looks like paper and uses a handwriting-like font, when it’s actually an app on a phone. That’s an example of skeuomorphism. So we’re seeing that is modern gear construction?
JF: Exactly, because there’s a lack of understanding of the function. That’s just step one of course. Further steps go into the fact that most of us practising this art don’t have a medieval fashionable body, right?
GW: OK, so what is a medieval fashionable body?
JF: For a young man it is literally if you – how to describe it – and of course this changes over time, but largely in the period of time we’re interested in, they very much liked a very, very small waist on a man, and that waist being above the hips, and even right then that gets us into problems, because we don’t wear our clothes that way.
GW: Oh God, this drives me nuts! Jess, ask my wife, she’ll tell you. This drives me absolutely insane. For the last 20 years trousers have been cut to hang from the hip and it’s wrong on every level! Trousers should hang from the waist so your hips can move. You just can’t buy decent trousers these days, so I have to buy trousers that are so big that I can haul them up past my hips where they are supposed to go and cinch them round my waist with a belt so that I can actually move my legs. Because I can’t afford to go to a decent tailor and have all my trousers tailor made. I’m entirely with you on the waist above the hip thing.
JF: And so what we forget about is, or maybe don’t even realise, is how much our bodies respond to the pressures under which our bodies are put. And that includes clothes. If you have been wearing modern fashion for the past 20 years, probably just below your hip bone is smaller around than just above your hip bone because you have been wearing belts and cinching clothes at that point forever. It has nothing to do with the way your body naturally is, that is the body you have created thanks to your clothes.
GW: OK, I’ve never done that. A belt below the hips is just so stupid. I just can’t. I mean if you hang anything heavy on that belt, your trouser are going to end up round your ankles.
So in a properly medieval gambeson there would be a tightly fitted waist? What about the shoulders, how would they work?
JF: Again, time and place – fashion changes every five years, even in the medieval period. Generally, the shoulder seam is going to be cut just at the point where your should muscle encounters your collar bone. So then the structure of the body garment doesn’t become affected by your shoulder raising, your muscles engaging and moving up. Often they liked the look of a broad chest for a good part of the period we’re talking about, and that went to ridiculous extremes for the highly fashionable, depending again on the time and place.
GW: In the same way highly fashionable people now, have their belts somewhere around their knees. Because if everyone is wearing their belt low, I’m going to wear mine super low, baby. Same thing.
JF: Yes, absolutely. They were people in a very different world than ours, but basic motivations of society seem to be something we can understand.
GW: OK. So a well-fitted gambeson is a joy indeed. In fact, my arming jacket was tailor-made at vast expense and it’s pretty much the only thing I have that actually fits.
What has been your absolute best moment in historical martial arts? If there has been a crowning glory, what would that be? And I know there have been loads, Jess, I know.
JF: That’s a really, really, hard question. You know, one thing that occurred to me, thinking about this, was relatively recently, I guess a year and a half ago now, I was invited to come out to the Paddy Crean workshop, which was in Banff, Canada. It is an event largely focussed around stage combatants, stunt people, actors, you know, that genre of person, and so I got invited to come out and teach HEMA, along with a few other women and had a really great time. I was nervous accepting it because it was stepping so far out of my… you know how it is, you just don’t know. It was a different environment, I didn’t know what to expect, I was super nervous about it. And of course, yeah, it’s only to Canada, but it’s still travelling international, which is always another layer of you might not understand a culture, you might get something wrong in that way. So anyway, I ended up accepting and going up, and absolutely fricking loved it. I just had the best time. It was by far the busiest seminar I’ve ever taught at. It was six days and oh, I don’t want to misspeak too badly, but I know I had at least one day off, but every other day I was teaching more than one class. I armoured up at least three of those days to teach the class.
GW: That’s a job by itself.
JF: Yeah, right? So I had a crash course for my handlers, to train a squire, because we had 15 minute passing periods between classes, so I’d like run in and shout “Go guys!” and three people would be tying my armour on me and I’d run to the class. Anyways, I had a lovely time, I met all these people that I immediately connected with, and felt like I was having a great time. At the end of the event, all the teachers were called to sit in the little green room, teachers’ lounge, whatever it was, and we were asked to think of a student who really embodied the event, who stood out to us, the one person we could name, that was just freaking cool. And we did that, we sat around and we talked about it. Almost everybody came up with the same name pretty quickly and while we were doing that, unbeknownst to me at least, the head organiser had all the students collected and was asking the same question about the teachers.
GW: Oh God.
JF: So, in the closing ceremonies, as it turned out, I was given that award.
GW: Oh wow! That’s fantastic.
JF: Yeah, it was nuts. It was nuts. Because this is a huge event. Nobody there knew me from Eve, you know.
GW: And it’s not exactly our ‘usual’ environment.
JF: No, no.
GW: So you basically got adopted by the stage combat fraternity. Sorority, beg your pardon.
JF: Yeah, and so I don’t know if that was my best, proudest moment in all martial arts, but it was the most overwhelming moment I’ve had in a very long time. And then of course, because it’s actors, I immediately had to get up and give a speech! I wasn’t allowed to just accept – no, no, no, you have to get on stage and say some words! Anyways, it was very much overwhelming. I went back to my room and cried for a while.
GW: I can imagine. So what’s been the worst moment? (If you wanna go there.) So many awful times… why do we do this? That time I dropped my sword on my foot in front of two hundred students…
JF: You know, I don’t know. I don’t think I would want to point to a specific incident. But what I would say is that the worst expression of this art seems to come online. And maybe even specifically on Facebook. To me it’s just a general thing. That’s why I left Facebook.
GW: Me too.
JF: I found that any time I was at a place with people, even if some shady shit went down, it got handled. It got reasonably dealt with. If they were bad actors that needed to be removed from an event or whatever, they were. But for some reason that same thing doesn’t seem to happen online. That’s the thing that sparks me the least joy. The way people have had a tendency to get together in a digital space and be their worst selves.
GW: Right, that’s fair. You and I both left Facebook for pretty much the same reasons. Is there a space that’s worth inhabiting online?
JF: That’s why I created my Patreon! It’s nice to have some income that is what allows me to go ride horses, literally. During the pandemic it’s keeping my school open, I haven’t had to turn over my space.
GW: So you have a permanent training space?
JF: I do.
GW: It’s great isn’t it? It’s the best thing.
JF: I have a lovely little space here that’s exactly right. I’m positioned in between an actual armourer, an esoteric-neo-pagan witchy shop, and a beer garden. I feel like that strip was just made for me to insert myself into!
So anyways, super wonderful to have that space. I created the Patreon not really with an eye towards creating income or anything like that, but more with an eye towards creating a space where I can talk about the things I love and other people who wanted that can be there. I mean, you can join my Patreon for a dollar and get, not everything everything, but basically everything. Obviously people who give me more, get more.
GW: And the thing is, putting even a tiny little paywall across it, keeps out the trolls. That’s been my experience also. I get no trolls in the groups around my online courses. None. The trolls are always going around hoovering up free stuff, and then bitching about it. Interesting.
JF: That’s just it, right? I’m happy to give a lot of stuff away for free, I don’t care, but yeah, damn. So that’s why I did that. First and foremost to create a space where we might end up getting to have some meaningful conversation about the thing that I spend too much attention on, maybe, if you ask my son for sure, too much attention on. I have a great story about that. My husband, son and daughter, everyone in the family but me, are huge fans of videogames. So they play a lot of videogames together. They will all be on separate computers playing games together through the internet or however that works, and I’m in my corner, like, “Lalalala, trees and swords”. So with the pandemic and kids’ schools being cancelled and not being able to really do the kinds of activities typical of school-free time we would be out doing, there has been a ridiculous consumption of screens in my house. All of us. Nobody is immune from this.
GW: Same over here.
JF: I kind of bullied Brian into going for a walk with me one night. We were walking downtown and I said I’m really concerned about how much time and attention these video games are taking of your brain. There’s this whole precept in my martial art that talks about Leng und Masse – you have to recognise the extremes of a situation but then you want to find the moderate place between those extremes. Too much or too little of anything is problematic, blah blah blah. We’re having this whole Plato conversation walking downtown and I said, I really would like you to find some moderation on your videogames. He said, well you know, you could find some moderation too. I said, “Oh really, tell me more about this. What do you think I’m immoderate about?” He said, “Swords”. Fair point son, fair point.
GW: He totally got you there.
JF: He did, it was so great. It was the perfect teenager moment. I was really proud of him for calling me to the carpet.
GW: But swords are good! Swords are healthy!
I have a couple of prepared questions for you, and one is, what is the best idea you’ve never acted on?
JF: You know what, that goes back to when I was making clothes for HEMA people or medieval martial artists. So I had this idea, Guy, you know there’s kind of the joke now that black clothes, black plastic, is the look of someone who takes this stuff seriously.
GW: The budget Darth Vader look.
JF: A little bit, sometimes. Aesthetically at least, from a fashion point of view, that’s exactly what’s happening. Pejorative or not, that’s where it’s at. So I had this idea – this would have been probably 2013 – that we, or I, could start a whole line based around the aesthetics of the American football players of about 1915. They had these great sweaters that they wore. They had leather padded pants that had a real super high waist, it would cinch in, there were pads on the side. It wasn’t so far off where people where already kind of leaning that I could have sold that look in a heartbeat. And then we would have had creams and burgundies, beautiful greens, we could have had club colours. I had drawings, I had thought this all out and started patterning it all. But then I decided I didn’t want to be CEO of a fashion company, so I didn’t pursue it. I couldn’t have done it in-house, I would have had to go overseas. I would have had to do all that kind of work.
GW: You would actually have to have started a company.
JF: Yes, it would have gone from my little in-home company, and it would have taken off.
GW: I have a thought that’s just occurred to me. You have all these drawings, these ideas, these designs, whatever. There are companies right now that are making historical fencing equipment and producing the black plastic Darth Vader look. You could license your designs to them?
JF: I could. I did that with my wrestling jacket and fencing jacket.
GW: What you’re describing sounds absolutely fantastic, it’s a very good idea and it’s not been acted on. I’m all about action, me.
JF: Well anyone who’s already running a company, call me up!
GW: Let’s see if this podcast does it for you.
You know, I’ve not been podcasting very long, and I’m not very experienced at interviewing people, so I thought that I’d make sure I don’t put my foot in things too badly, so I’m going to ask you straight out, what is the worst question you’ve ever been asked in an interview? And you can’t say any of mine.
JF: Oh no, it wasn’t one of yours! Oh God, it was so bad. This was at Swordfish, what year? Must have been 2015? I don’t know. The second time I went to Swordfish. There was a reporter there from Al Jazeera.
GW: Not what you’d expect at a historical martial arts event.
JF: Right, yeah. He was doing a whole story on the revival of medieval martial arts, such as was practised at that event, and he was super into it, super engaged. He came over to me two or three or four times, saying he really wanted to interview me. He was a super nice dude, or so I thought. And I was sick as a dog. I had pneumonia, but… whatever. I had tickets to go to Sweden and I wasn’t not going to Sweden.
So, I’m at the event and he’s constantly chasing me down, and was like, I have to teach my things I’m doing and I have to do this that I’m doing and then you’ve got me. So, he corners me in the end, and I sit down for this interview. And this has been a man that has been, up to that moment, seemingly very interested in my book, very interested in me as someone who knows something about this thing, you know, the whole thing. And so the camera rolls, he does his little intro, has me say my name. then he goes, “OK, so. It must be really, really, scary to be there out there with all those big, giant, strong men. How does it make you feel to be overwhelmed and intimidated?” It was the most leading, awful, horrible, demeaning piece of shit trash question I’ve ever been given! I was completed not prepared, because up until that moment – it was like he bait and switched me. He bait and switched me so hard, I was like “Well, I mean, I guess…” I don’t even remember what my response was. It’s on YouTube, you can find it.
GW: You mean you didn’t just hit him?
JF: I was so shocked! I did some mumbly word salad, about everybody experiences the intensity of the moment in a fight, I don’t even remember what I said. It was so weird, Guy, it was so bizarre. I went from, this guy is super cool, he seems really nice, to you’re the worst, I don’t like you.
GW: That is terrible. OK. Let’s cheer ourselves up with a nice question. This is a question I got asked on my Ask Me Anything ages ago and it generated some interesting things, so I’m going to pass it to you: Someone gives you a million dollars to improve historical martial arts with. What do you do?
JF: Well, OK. This would totally improve medieval martial arts. If I had a million dollars, I would set up a scholarship fund with it whereby people with non-standard, in the sense of bodies that modern companies aren’t making gear for, aren’t making armour for, in particular. I would set up a fricking scholarship fund so people could get goddamn armour, honestly. Because it is so prohibitively expensive unless you fit a specific niche of body. And that body is not necessarily male. There are a lot of men that just can’t get off-the-rack armour. It’s a very specific type of body that it gets made for, which is not the vast majority of us. What ends up happening then, is that if you have someone who’s already maybe a smaller build, or a bigger build, who really wants to do this thing, they are already somewhat side-lined, for a variety of weird social reasons, and then they are required to get custom armour, they can’t just go buy an $80 breastplate that some people can. That sucks. I’ve thought about that a lot. It just feels like adding insult to injury that that’s the way it is. So that’s what I would do. I would make it so that people can get armour. I can buy a lot of armour for a million bucks.
GW: Or you could get one really, really fancy suit of the stuff. Just immaculate. With gold etching and extra plackets and spare helmets.
JF: I could. I could get exploding armour!
But that feels like that’s improving my day, not maybe many of the martial arts.
GW: That would be a poor use of the funds to just spend it on one suit of armour, you’re right. I think your idea of “armour for all” or armour for people who can’t buy it off the rack, I think that’s a much better use of the money.
JF: I think it would be game-changing if we could get a lot of people who are trying to practise medieval martial arts into armour and make that accessible.
GW: Armour changes everything. If you’ve never worn armour, it changes things in a way that putting a motor on a bike changes things. There are related skills to cycling and riding a motorbike, but they are fundamentally different in core ways, and the same is true when you are wearing armour. That’s been my experience anyway. The idea of teaching armoured combat to students who are not wearing armour is kind of silly. You can go through the motions, you can do your fitness training and you can learn your techniques and the idea of it, but you can’t do armoured combat without the armour, and a million dollars for armour for all would go a long way towards getting a lot more people in armour. Good answer.
JF: As you know, I’m a huge believer in the holistic nature of the art. I think if you’re only looking at one piece of it, you’re really missing out on what the lessons actually are about.
GW: I couldn’t agree more. You can’t learn Fiore’s Art of Arms from one section of the book. You have to have the whole book in your head and you have to understand how it all works. Even if, like in my case, I’ve walked through some of the plays on a horse and I’ve done all of the horseback plays on foot, that doesn’t make me in any way skilled at mounted combat, but at least I know what’s going on in those plays because I understand, I think, what Fiore’s trying to tell us to do there. Without that, if you’ve just looked at one section, you don’t have an art, you have a bunch of tricks.
JF: Absolutely. I’m pretty sure Fiore works this way as well as Liechtenauer but the lessons are referential in a circular manner, such that if you know how to Zucken for instance, which is pulling, retracting your point and then putting it back in on the other side. If you’ve done it with a longsword, cool, do it with a spear, do it on a horse, do it in armour, you know. And then you start to go, “OK I actually see what this lesson about pulling is about.” Because you start to see all the context where it applies. So if we have more people in armour then we could have more input and help us make our understanding of that section so much better, which would enhance our understanding of all the things.
GW: Excellent. I think it’s an excellent use of the money. If I had it, I’d give it to you!
JF: I’m glad my pitch came off well! Now we just need that trillionaire who has a million laying around that he doesn’t care about.
GW: Just to finish up, I should remind everyone that you can be found on www.patreon.com/jessfinley and say thank you Jess very much for your time, it’s been a lovely conversation, I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and I hope the listeners will come away with all sorts of useful and interesting things. So, thank you very much Jess, it’s been a pleasure.
JF: Thank you Guy, I really enjoyed being here, it’s awesome.
GW: Thanks for listening, I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s interview with Jess Finley. Remember to go to https://guywindsor.net/podcast-2/ for episode show notes and a free copy of my book, Swordfighting for Writers, Game Designers and Martial Artists. Please remember to subscribe to The Sword Guy wherever you get your podcasts from. Tune in next week when I will be interviewing Fran Lacuata.