The Sword Guy Podcast episode 81
Content warning: Within this podcast are descriptions of the horrific neglect of very elderly swords.
Edoardo Albert is a London-based writer who writes about Britain in the early medieval period (between the Romans leaving and the Normans arriving), the 40th millennium in the Warhammer universe, and lots of other things besides. Find out more by visiting his website. This podcast is different to usual format in that Edoardo contacted me with a question, and rather than reply by email, I got him on the podcast instead.
We talk about the research project at Bamburgh castle in Northumbria, which sparked Edoardo’s interest in the early medieval period. If you’ve never visited, please do, because it truly is the most impressive castle.
Edoardo’s question relates to two pattern welded swords found at Bamburgh and how they would have been fought with. As you may know, this early medieval period is known as the “Dark Ages” because of a lack of sources relating to the period, and so it is an interesting question to discuss. One thing is for sure, the owners of these swords would have been a lot more proficient with their weapons than even the most dedicated HEMA practitioner today.
You can also support the show at Patreon.com/TheSwordGuy Patrons get access to the episode transcriptions as they are produced, the opportunity to suggest questions for upcoming guests, and even some outtakes from the interviews. Join us!
GW: Hello, sword people, welcome to The Sword Guy podcast. This is your host, Dr Guy Windsor, Consulting Swordsman, teacher and writer. Join me for interviews with historical fencing instructors and experts from a wide range of related disciplines as we discuss swords, history, training and bringing the joy of historical martial arts into our modern lives. A couple of things are a little bit different about this episode. Firstly, Eduardo actually contacted me with some questions about some sword fighting stuff that we will get into in the interview. And I thought, rather than have a bit of email tennis, we could just get on a call and have a chat. And so, well, why not record it so that you guys can listen in. So this is not the usual interview format. There was also a technical problem that I didn't recognise while we were doing it in that my audio is echoing from his end. And I tried to edit it out, but I don't have those skills. So, sorry for the echo. There's nothing I can do about it, but I think you'll find the interview enjoyable nonetheless. I'm here today with Edoardo Albert, who is an author and researcher with titles like Edwin, High King of Britain and In Search of Alfred the Great and Professor Tolkien of Oxford. So clearly he is one of us, although as far as I can tell, he has never wielded a sword. Am I doing you an injustice there, Edoardo? Have you ever wielded a sword?
EA: I have a bit. I would have liked to have wielded it more. I mean, my middle son actually did quite a lot of sabre fighting for quite a few years, and I would love to do more. But to be honest, it was just too expensive. I couldn't afford to pay for him and for me to both to do it. Now he’s stopped. The problem is also being a writer is not actually a terribly well-paid profession, so it's one of the things I've got lined up to do when I have enough money to do it.
GW: OK, so was your son doing sport fencing?
EA: Yes, sabre fencing. But I mean, he's now interested in having a go at HEMA as well. We're just trying to find a club that we can get to that's not too far away for him to make practicable.
GW: OK, so whereabouts are you?
EA: We're in North London.
GW: OK. There are quite a few clubs in London.
EA: Yeah, I mean, it's also his A-level year, so it's a question of whether you can fit that in with everything else. But yeah, he’d certainly like to and I’d certainly like to. I have attended a couple of HEMA classes and thoroughly enjoyed them, but it's just too expensive for me to be able to continue with it.
GW: Yeah, and making it accessible is a quite an issue because the equipment is expensive if you want to do it properly and there's really no way around that at the moment. I found that by getting my students to buy swords and then we had this permanent training facility in Helsinki, which is still there. When students bought a sword and they kept it in the salle and then they would go off and do other things and maybe forget about training for a bit. If the sword was dusty or rusty, the rule was anyone could borrow it. And so we could actually equip people with loaner steel swords and loaner masks without actually having to buy 20 steel swords and 20 masks.
EA: That’s a good idea.
GW: Yeah, well, it was an accident. I mean, I wish I could take credit for as an idea, but it was just one of those things that once we got a training space, it just sort of happened naturally. And I saw these dusty swords laying around. I was like, well, hang on, that's not fair. We're storing these swords for people. We made it a rule and the thing is, most people would be totally happy with it. I know I can't come training for a while, but by all means use the sword because otherwise it is going to collect dust. So, yeah, sure. But it is a hard problem, and most clubs don't have a permanent training space, and most clubs can't afford just to buy tons of swords.
EA: Yeah, exactly. So, yeah, it is fairly high up in my list of things to actually try and do better when I have time. It's the time and money in this case.
GW: Yeah, absolutely. So you also write books about Warhammer?
EA: Yeah, I've done a fair bit of gaming as well in the time. And to be honest, getting a chance of running around in somebody else's universe and making stories about it, is quite enjoyable. And also, it pays quite well. You’ve got a huge market of dedicated fans who are interested in reading stories about it. That's it.
GW: You are in good company because but I would say probably most of the listeners to the show are sword nerds, obviously, but most of them are also gamers. So actually having written books for the Warhammer universe gives you probably more street cred rather than less in this culture.
EA: Well, it's good to know that. I mean, yeah, it's basically great fun writing about guys with big guns blasting aliens.
GW: I should confess, I have never played Warhammer. I don't know the first thing about it.
EA: It's a huge, ongoing, involving shared universe. Star Wars is an obvious parallel, and it's an interesting example of how the talents of a very large number of people have all been harnessed towards enhancing and creating the universe and the storylines within it. Because of that, it's an extremely rich universe in which to write or to play. I think that's one of its key attractions for gamers and indeed people who are not gamers but just like reading stories set in the universe.
GW: That’s an interesting thought, because if the universe is very highly developed, lots of people have had an input, how do you keep consistency?
EA: Well, that's it. You can be caught up by somebody coming up and saying, that's not the Warhammer law. But you try and keep within the broad confines of what's gone before. You can't change it completely. But also, you're talking about a galaxy-wide civilisation. I mean, yeah, there's 500 billion stars in the galaxy.
GW: OK, within the scope of this is this solar system, we have wizards, dammit.
EA: Yeah, exactly. So when you've got a galaxy that big and within the Warhammer tradition, maybe a few hundred, maybe a thousand stars and planets have been named and gone into, you've got billions of them out there.
GW: Okay, so what makes it Warhammer, then, if you can just make up whatever you want?
EA: It's generally because everything is grim, dark and basically war goes on forever. Largely because it was originally set up as a galaxy, or a world in which to fight war games, so therefore you need to ensure that war continues.
GW: Here's a funny thing, I have never seen anything about Warhammer in any detail, but I just always assumed from the name it was a sort of Middle Earth style, medieval style, knights in armour kind of thing. You're telling me it's spaceships.
EA: It's two. It started off as a medieval fantasy game, Warhammer, and then they created a spin off from it Warhammer 40k, set 40,000 years in the future, which is science fiction, but with orcs, elves, goblins in space as it were.
GW: Goblins in space!
EA: And that's actually proved, if anything, more popular than the original, because basically, goblins firing blasters are more fun than goblins bashing you with a club and so the two universes continue to exist. Warhammer and Warhammer 40k. Some people play within both of them. Others specialise in one or the other so far. I’ve so far just written in the 40k science fiction/fantasy version of it.
GW: Huh, that's fascinating. Now, my assistant, Katie, who does the transcriptions and writes the show notes and stuff for the podcast. She's always looking for that little strap line thing that is the title of the show. And I think “Goblins in Space with Edoardo Albert”, is probably what she’s going to settle on.
EA: Maybe make it “Orcs in Space” because they are actually called Orcs in Space.
GW: All right, there you go.
EA: One of the factions are basically orcs, lifted wholesale from Tolkien and so on. So yeah, in a certain sense it's sort of taken a lot of fantasy and science fiction tropes, shoved them into a universe and then said, let's fight. We'll see what happens.
GW: OK. And every good story depends on conflict. So yeah, if you have a war going on, you have all sorts of opportunities for… I assume there isn't then goodies and baddies in the traditional sense.
EA: Not in the traditional sense. The human universe there is fairly grim and not the sort of society you'd really want to live in. It's a combination of all the worst aspects of Soviet Union and medieval inquisitors. But on the other hand, it's better than having a horde of Tyranids which are basically the acid spewing aliens who just want to convert everything into gloop.
GW: Yeah, OK. Probably better to be alive under a weird Soviet feudalism than turned into gloop by aliens. But I also gather that you have a sort of deep and abiding interest in, OK, you describe on your website as what happened in Britain after the Romans left and before the Normans arrived. So I guess what most people call the Dark Ages. But we prefer to call it the early medieval period.
EA: The reason that came about was I’m a Londoner, and a classic example of somebody who didn't really believe that anything north of Watford existed. But then my wife, her sister, is an archaeologist and her sister's husband is an archaeologist, and they started a dig up in Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland and a couple of other friends which is still ongoing. The Bamburgh Research Project. And then they invited us up to go and visit and see what they were doing. Basically, I ran out of excuses as to why not to go. I think it was 2001, 2002 we drove up. I'd never even heard of Bamburgh before, actually, and I'd never been to Northumberland and I still remember when we were driving there. We've got to Seahouses, which is the town just south of Bamburgh, turned up the coast road and there I saw Bamburgh Castle. I don't know if you ever seen it, but it's jaw dropping. I mean, I'd never seen a picture of it before, so it was a completely fresh to me. It was literally jaw dropping. I've never seen anything like it. It sits on this huge outcrop of the Great Whin Sill, a major geological formation in the north, right by the sea, it commands the sea, the land and the sky, everything. And I was amazed. I'd never heard about it. I got talking to Paul, my brother-in-law, and Rosie and the archaeologists, and they were telling us about the history of Northumbria, the kingdom, that they were uncovering there, because Bamburgh had been the headquarters, the stronghold of the Kings of Northumbria. And it was fascinating. I knew nothing about it. My schooling had skipped over that period between 410 and 1066 completely, really. So I started learning about it. And Paul said that in fact, a publisher had approached him to ask him if he was interested in doing a book about the findings that they were making there. And he said he'd be interested but simply haven't got the time. So I offered, I said, well, I've got the writing skills, you've got the knowledge, let's do a book together. So we collaborated and did a non-fiction book called Northumbria: The Lost Kingdom, which was the history and archaeology of Northumbria telling something of their findings and the findings of previous archaeologists there. And it's fascinating, it opened up the huge key to the foundations of Britain, because if you think about it, Britain is a single island and there's no a priori reason why it should be split into Scotland, England and Wales – three separate countries within one not huge island. And all those foundations were actually laid in this time that we're talking about, particularly these 7th, 8th, 9th centuries. And it was also when the pagan Anglo-Saxons became Christian. Northumbria itself became, in the 7th century, a cultural and technological and scholarly hot point. Scholars went from there all around Europe, and scholars from there were key players in the Carolingian Renaissance, and it was fascinating. So we wrote that book and then also during the course of that, learnt about three successive kings of Northumbria, Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu, whose stories made an amazing dramatic arc. I thought basically, somebody has surely written about them in the past, but it turns out no one had. So I thought, well, I'll do it. So I did those as a trilogy of historical fiction novels, Edwin Oswald and Oswiu, which have done really quite well. My aim with those was to actually do them more as imaginative history rather than historical fiction. To stick as closely as possible to the historical record, of which it's still quite thin at this point, but stick to what we do know and then make it plausible within the context of the history and archaeology of the time, in which aim I was helped by the fact that I had already written a non-fiction book about it and had on tap some of the best archaeologists in the country. It was hugely helpful. I've had many, many long and fascinating conversations with Paul and the other archaeologists about the time, the period, and the warriors of the time.
GW: Wow. OK. So you first contacted me, because you're writing something about historical martial arts, is that correct?
EA: Well, it's more complex than that. Before Paul and Rosie and the team began excavating at Bamburgh at the turn of the millennium, in the late 60s and early 70s, one of the first/second generations of archaeologists, a man called Brian Hope Taylor had excavated. He is an almost legendary figure within the field and a classic example of those archaeologists who were largely self-taught but who did extraordinary work in the 50s and 60s. He did a groundbreaking excavation at Ad Gefrin, which is the site of another royal site in Northumbria. And it's still a classic of archaeological literature, and he also excavated at Bamburgh Castle. But, it's almost a tragic story with him, archaeologists can become very possessive about the sites they excavate. It's their site. And he excavated the castle, but he left in a hurry to go and do some work elsewhere, on York Minster, if I remember rightly, and never returned. So all his finds were basically in his house and in his garage. I mean, he became a recluse.
GW: You wouldn't get away with that these days.
EA: In fact, he died. He became a recluse. Right at the beginning of the Bamburgh Research Project, they tried to get in contact with him to find out where he dug and things like that. He wasn't giving anything away. Then sadly, he passed away and some of his students realised that in fact, all these finds were in danger of being lost. So some of them went to check and they found his house. Basically, the house clearers had moved in and they were beginning to shove everything into a skip outside. Literally, they had a skip outside. They began to put things into the rubbish. Luckily, one of the ladies, Diana, she was with the Scottish Historic Commission. And she basically took off her badge and, you know, it actually had no authority whatsoever, and said, stop! You must stop! And she sort of flashed this badge and they did. And then basically, she and some other of his ex-PhD students came down with a big lorry. He had become a hoarder. Literally, they said there wasn't even a place for him to lie down in his house. So they cleared all of that stuff, then there was also a garage with all his finds and records as well, which is unfortunately leaking. So a lot got spoiled. All of that had to be taken out. They took it up to Edinburgh. Some of the water damaged stuff had to be frozen in order to try and preserve it. And then they were trying to sort it through. I mean, this was the record of digs all over the country and none of them have been published apart from Ad Gefrin so huge amounts of material and extraordinary fines. And some of it was about Bamburgh. So the people up in Edinburgh contacted Paul and the rest of the Bamburgh Research Project and said, if you come and have a look, see if you can find anything that's Bamburgh-related amongst this mess. So they went there and it was almost a large warehouse full of stuff they had there. So going through it and Paul and the others, they located a lot of Bamburgh stuff. The began to work out he had an idiosyncratic system of labelling it, but they eventually worked out what was Bamburgh related and then sorted through that. And amongst that, they found a suitcase which had two swords and an axe head, Hope Taylor had excavated those from Bamburgh in the late 60s.
GW: He just had a suitcase with two swords and an axe head in his leaky garage?
EA: Yeah, exactly. In the garage and wrapped up in a bit of tissue paper.
GW: I'm going to have to put a content warning on this episode because it is horrific.
EA: Yeah, I mean, it was all stuff he’d clearly meant to light up at some point but had never happened. And Paul, he got the feeling that these swords were special. They were obviously corroded and everything. So he sent it off to the Royal Armouries to ask them to have a look at it. A little while later, he got a phone call from David Starly, the archeo-metallurgist there. He said these are extraordinary, these two blades. One of them, which was an intact blade but broken, was a four strand pattern welded blade, similar probably to the one at Sutton Hoo. The other one, which was broken in half, you’ve got the tang and half the blade, but not the other half. That was a six stranded pattern welded blade, which is almost unique in Starly’s experience, he thought it was an extraordinary looking sword. So we have this blade. Then it was a case of trying to find out the context in which it had been found, because basically they were found in the suitcase. So where do they come from and after a great deal of detective work in the records there, they eventually found out the context and the time in which it had been found. So they found where it was excavated from the 10th century in the west ward of the castle, all three of them together, possibly there was fire damage as well around there. They suspect they had been in a blacksmith’s which had burnt down and then been lost amongst the debris, when the forge burned. They may have been there waiting for repairs or may have been simply relegated to being scrap metal as they were both broken. More likely I would imagine them being there to be re-forged.
GW: Yeah. Swords of that quality, very often if they break, they get forge welded back together.
EA: Exactly. Yeah. So that's most likely. But then it looks like there was a fire and that was what happened. So you have these extraordinary blades and then David Starly also dated them to the seventh century, early to mid 7th century. So you've got blades that have been in use for three hundred years and amongst the most technologically sophisticated swords made in that era. So Paul and I decided to actually use these swords in our new book as a key into the Anglo-Saxon world. We're looking at how an obscure and anonymous blacksmith of this period, how we went about creating blades like this, looking at the forging of them, the sourcing of the ore and things like that. The trade patterns that enable this to happen. The furnishing of the sword. What one of the things we know from other findings about Northumbria is that with garnets and things they have, some of those come from as far away as Sri Lanka. You wouldn't expect in the 7th century to have trade patterns this extensive. But there are a lot of coprolites, which are basically fossilised poos with things like lentils and other the elements within them. So they've got quite exotic dietary elements coming into our trading route into Bamburgh. And of course, because Bamburgh is on the coast, it's relatively easy for boats to arrive with exotic goods. So, yeah, so we're looking at that; the sword and the warrior culture that require it and then wielded it for hundreds of years.
GW: OK. Fascinating. What you need from me?
EA: Well, so what we were interested in asking you is about the actual sword fighting. Obviously we know there's sadly no fencing manuals from this time and not for many hundreds of years later. But within the context of the weapons themselves, and we're sure that they would have been used in concert with shields, the two things would have been used together. How would a warrior wielding a weapon like the Bamburgh sword have used it?
GW: OK. This might be better if we get together some time with actual swords and actual shields and I show you in person. That might make a bit more sense. But, OK, firstly, the swords of that period, they tend to have very short handles. Which means that if you try and hold them the way most people want to hold a sword, hmm, let me just grab that dagger. This is based on an early 17th century pattern, but at least I can sort of say things and I'm going to try and make it work for our listeners. To most of the time you hold a sword so that as if you were chopping or cutting, the edge is in line with the forearm. But most of those swords of that period, it's incredibly uncomfortable to hold them that way. My feeling is they would be held with the edges across the forearm, which creates this angle between the blade and the arm. And what that does, is firstly, it makes it really comfortable. Secondly, it makes stabbing very easy because it lines things up very nicely, but most importantly, I think, is it allows you to angulate around an obstacle like a shield. So if you think about the bits of the body that are exposed, they're wearing a helmet, they're wearing a hauberk of some description. So they have mail going probably down towards the elbows and mail down towards the knees. So cuts to those areas aren't going to do a great deal of damage. And most of these swords are not really optimised for thrusting, they have quite wide blades all the way to the tip and the tip tends to be rather round. So that tells me they're obviously slicing weapons more than thrusting weapons. Some are so flexible that thrusting with them is probably not going to work very well. For thrusting you have a spear and that will go through a mail shirt no problem. The mail shirt protects you against incidental thrusts, lower powered arrows, and it protects you against cuts. But if you have this angulated grip, even without being able to see your opponent because your shield’s in the way, that works in the way you can angulate the blade over the top and slice at the face. And you can angulate below and slice at the legs. And there are, I think, at least one example in one of the Viking sagas where somebody famously cut off both of somebody’s legs with a single stroke. Which is totally plausible. High level difficulty, requires a beautiful sword that's been beautifully and freshly sharpened. And it requires an absolutely perfect cut. So it is a feat worthy of saga. But it's not unreasonable.
EA: One of the skeletons excavated at a graveyard outside the castle was an example of just what could be done with these weapons because the man had been sliced basically diagonally in two from the shoulder down to not quite emerged from above his hip, but he'd been cut diagonally in half. Paul was working out the leverage necessary, we think what happened is the guy had been stunned and fallen to his knees, and then somebody had sliced him down with a diagonal slice from the shoulder down through his body.
GW: OK. Possible. With a single handed weapon that requires real skill. But these were professional warriors in a warrior culture. So their equivalent of a not very good fencer is probably better than anybody we have today.
EA: Yeah. Well, I would expect so. I mean, that was what they did, wasn't it? Fight. Exactly. And we would expect they'd be supremely good at it.
GW: And you don't make a pattern welded sword with this incredibly expensive and beautiful pattern on it. And the point of that pattern welding is to create this tough and flexible weapon in a period where you couldn't produce very consistent steel. So what it does is it makes it more consistent. And you can get a beautifully, incredibly sharp edge on them. And if the layers go all the way to the edge, I mean, sometimes you have a pattern welded core and then a simple steel strip welded around it to create the cutting edge. But if the pattern weld goes all the way to the edges, as it sometimes does, you also get these micro serrations which make for a very good slicing action. I actually have a pattern welded sword on the wall behind me – a thing of glory and gorgeousness.
EA: I know, they are wonderful weapons. They're beautiful things. And that's another aspect of it within the warrior culture. I mean, they're extensively described within the literature, but also, because the pattern is so eye catching, if you can imagine being in a shield wall or something and then seeing somebody draw a sword like this on you and you think, oh bugger.
GW: Yeah, my day just got a lot worse and probably a lot shorter.
EA: Yeah, because you think not only is the weapon itself likely to do more damage, but also clearly the person wielding it is a highly experienced warrior who’s been given this.
GW: They were massively expensive.
EA: Yeah, yeah. Huge signs of favour. We're talking about hundreds of man hours of work in the creation of the blade. Massively, vastly valuable implements.
GW: I think of them as like the sports car of the period. If you are a rich kid, you might be driving around in a Ferrari. Pretty much everyone has some kind of car. But, you know, my wife's Nissan Micra is no match for your top of the range Land Rover or top of the range Ferrari or whatever it is. Also they did have these more chopping blades, seaxes, which have that fantastic triangular bit where you have an escarpment that puts an awful lot of metal right behind the bit that you're going to chop with. So the balance of that, I've handled a few, and my feeling is that if you need to hack through somebody’s helmet, that's the tool you'd use. But if you are going to slice someone’s face open and cut their legs off, you'd be using the sword. Many of the princes and nobles would have a sword and a seax and a spear and they will be beautiful. I think pretty much everyone had some variation of the seax because they are much, much easier to make, so much cheaper. But in terms of how you would use them, the seax is held in the ordinary grip with the edge in line with a forearm, but I would think the swords are held in this sort of thumb on the blade kind of grip. Funnily enough, some of the ancient bronze swords have a very clear depression in the blade for where you thumb goes. So there's no question that many swords over the last many thousand years have been held in this way.
EA: Is there a name for that sort of grip?
GW: Well. None that has any real currency. We see it most commonly in historical martial arts in the Liechtenauer system, where a lot of people's interpretation of Liechtenauer swordsmanship involves this sort of motion where you have the sword held above the head, with the flat pointing up and it is much more comfortable to hold it that way if you just put your thumb on the flat. Then you can helicopter back and forth in what we call a Zwerchhau. You have a Krumphau where you have that same sort of angulation and you are cutting down with true edge and then back up with the false. That sort of motion, it's easier to follow the instructions in the descriptions in the treatises if you hold the sword that way and there are illustrations that tend to suggest it, but it's not discussed anywhere. I can't think of a description of how to hold a sword specified in a manuscript, in a source before the late 16th century, And by that point, pretty much everyone was using rapier-type weapons, and so you have this more forward grip with your finger over the cross guard and the architecture of the hilt protecting the hand. So, yeah, we don't have a proper name for it. But “thumb on the flat”, some people call it the German grip because of the Liechtenauer connection.
EA: But the key aspect to it is it changes the geometry of the blade in the hand.
GW: Yeah, exactly. When you hit somebody, you want to organise your bones behind the strike, generally speaking. So if you look at a fencing lunge, that's a perfect example of the line that goes down the blade into the arm and down into the back foot is almost straight. Your whole skeleton is organised behind the blade. We call that a “grounded strike”. Because when the weapon hits the target, the target hits back. And what you're trying to do is take that equal and opposite reaction and route it through your skeleton into the ground, without interference. You want this kind of passive structure behind the weapon that gives you this support and penetration and we call that “grounding”. But we also have ballistic strikes where it's the speed and the shape of the weapon itself that makes a difference. For example, an arrow’s ballistic, a bullet is ballistic. And if you are striking with this grip where you don't have your bones behind the cutting edge you have speed in the tip doing damage. It works just fine, but you can't sort of push through it. If you're slicing through something, the blade in line with the forearm, you can put some more muscle behind it, you get more structure behind it. If you have this sort of thumb on the flat kind of grip you're going to be more slicing and you're not going to be pushing through.
EA: So that's one that's going to depend much more on the quality of the blade as well, isn't it?
GW: Yeah. Perhaps. The thing is, the advantage of having this sort of unsupported strike above anything else is, because it's unsupported, it's very, very quick. You are moving a lot less mass. And if you get hit in the head with a steel bar that's moving quickly, the quality of the steel doesn't really matter so much. If you look at these blades, you say they were discovered in this smithy where they're probably being repaired and they are a couple of hundred years old already at that point and they still exist. So either they weren't used or their used did not wear them out. Now, if you're hacking blades together, they wear out really quickly. And if you're hacking your blade into a shield or hacking your blade into armour, it's going to wear out pretty quickly. I've actually done experiments with this. So it would suggest that they are only hitting soft targets, and they're not doing a lot of the kind of bish bash blade-on-blade sword fighting. We think of sword fights with the crash crash crash. I don't think they were doing a lot of that with those blades.
EA: No, no. Our assumption is that there'd be very little sword on sword contact. Their defence is down to the shield and distance and things like that.
GW: Right. At the end of the day it's better to have your sword damaged than have your face damaged. So they would be doing parries as necessary. But yeah, I don't think their default defence is to parry with the sword, I think the default defence is to get the shield in the way, particularly the edge of the shield.
EA: Yeah, one of the sagas specifies a duel between two contestants, which goes through using three shields and that’s when it ends. So clearly, it's not the sword that get hacked apart, it’s the shields that get hacked apart in that sort of context.
GW: In jousting, they have a break a lance, break two lances. This challenge will break three lances against each other. So I think that that kind of situation is often we will break three shields against each other. And there's a risk in that period, in that situation, of people getting killed. But really what you're trying to do is demonstrate your prowess to everyone who's watching you and that does not necessarily require you to be killing people.
EA: Yes, indeed, very much so. I mean, they are professional warriors. In this early medieval, sixth, seventh century you're dealing with armies that are not going to be big. A bit later, the later part of the 7th century, a law code promulgated by King Ine of Wessex defines an army as any group of men larger than thirty five.
GW: That’s not even a platoon.
EA: Exactly. But that's actually within the law code that is defined as a group of men larger than 35. By the time you get to Viking era you would definitely be talking about much larger armies. But in this early period we're probably talking armies that are in the low hundreds at most and sometimes not that. But within that context, when you're talking about such relatively few numbers, elite warriors are going to make a difference in the way that they wouldn't when you're talking about 10,000 men fighting.
GW: Yeah, that's a really good point. Oh, and I should have preface everything I just said by saying that we have no actual evidence of how they actually fought. So my theories as to how those weapons would be used to kill people dressed like that is entirely based on my speculation. So I can't point to the source and say they're doing it like this, you know? And even when we do have a source, people disagree about what it means.
EA: I mean, that's all we can do with this because the sources are so sketchy for this period. For the 200 years between 400 and 600, I think there are two historical documents for Britain, that's it. You've got Gildas, his jeremiad against the rulers of the country. And then the letters of St. Patrick, a couple of letters of St. Patrick. And that's it. Some runes and a few passing comments. But for 200 years, that's all there is.
GW: OK, my friend Elena Janega, who’s been on the show before, would like me to say at this point, I would guess the reason they're called the Dark Ages is lack of sources, not because it was some kind of particularly bleak and horrible period.
EA: Oh, absolutely, yeah. And in fact, if you look at it, it's actually a period of quite considerable technological and social innovation. It was one of the things we're looking at in the book that, the sword as an example, but a lot of other things were created by anonymous monks, artisans that had a profound impact on our history.
EA: Heavy plough, horse collars, top flow watermills, all these things were done in this period where, in fact, as I said, it was a time in foundations. And I suppose the thing about foundations is they take the weight of the subsequent structure, but they are hidden underground.
GW: That's a really good point.
EA: So many of them are hidden underground, we just don't know where they came from, but fascinating to see how much else depends upon them.
GW: Yeah. And unfortunately, an awful lot of that stuff apparently ends up in people's garages. I'm kind of struggling to cope with that.
EA: Yeah, I mean, we're still going through Hope Taylor’s archives, he was a fascinating man. He was an artist, brilliant painter, World War Two veteran, he presented the first major archaeological series on television in the 60s as well, blonde flowing locks. He was an amazing figure that then retreated into sort of isolation for the last 20 years of his life.
GW: That's very sad.
EA: He was a fascinating figure. But yeah, literally they're still going through his archive and working out what everything is and trying to actually digitise and make it available to all the scholars, there’s this huge amount of information there. I also wanted to ask you, there's something else about HEMA. My wife and I are both read your book on sword fighting, which I thought was fantastic, actually.
GW: Swordfighting for Writers, Game Designers and Martial Artists, that one?
EA: I kept on reading out bits to my wife because she's a voice teacher. She teaches actors. It wouldn't seem like a correlation, but we thought the stuff on the pedagogy of teaching was brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. But she also found it really helpful in terms of teaching Shakespeare's fight scenes. The bit where you pointed out that in a fight to the death, just how aroused the participants are and how they can keep going, even when mortally wounded, for quite a long time afterwards, it's very useful in a Shakespearean context where people are mortally wounded but continuing to spout iambic pentameter. She said it actually makes those duels seem a bit more plausible.
GW: That’s good to hear.
EA: But we also are fascinated, though, about the history of HEMA. You began in the early 1990s with the Dawn Duellists up in Scotland, didn’t you?
EA: So the question is, what brought all these people together at that same time to bring a historical European martial arts back from the dead as it were?
GW: OK. What’s really interesting, I think, is at the same time as me and my friend Paul were poking each other in a wishfully historical manner, other people all over the world had started to do the same thing, and we only found out years later. Honestly, I think the electrification of fencing had a lot to do with it because when sport fencing became electrified, it became much less about classical fencing and much more about the scoring tag, according to the rules. Not to denigrate it as a skill set, but it is very much a sport that no longer really has anything to do with how you would actually fight in a sword fight. And the guy who's basically responsible for that, his name is Johan Harmenberg, and he's written an absolutely fascinating book called Epee 2.0, which describes, instead of trying to make classical fencing fit, they just looked at the rules and figured out how to make this equipment work to make the light go off in the most reliable way possible, without regard to making it look right so that a judge who is looking to see for the hits can see it. And they were the first people to figure that out. And he won Olympic gold in 1980. So was in the 70s that basically it all went to hell, from a sword person's perspective. And that was when the modern sport was really born. So I was doing sport fencing and martial arts. And really, what I wanted to be doing was sword fighting. Because swords, right. That's it. That's an irreducible thing. Why swords? Because swords. It's like, why do people want to have kids? Because kids. You can't really explain it. So I was getting frustrated with sport fencing because it didn't feel like a sword fight at all and I wasn't fully satisfied with the martial arts I was doing at the time because Tai Chi had no weapons. When we were doing it there were no weapons. The Japanese weapons stuff I was doing was OK, but it was very formulaic. Having had sport fencing and actually fighting people, according to a set of rules and protective equipment, but actually getting down and trying to make it work against a resisting opponent. We didn't really have any of that in the Japanese martial arts stuff I was doing with weapons at the time. So I met other people who were doing fencing because they want sword fighting, and they were similarly unconvinced by the sword fightyness of fencing. So we decided to meet up and try fencing using a rule set that would make more sense and make it feel more like historical martial arts, I mean make it feel more like a sword fight. We didn't have an idea of a historical martial arts yet. This was about, I guess, ninety two, ninety three. And my grandfather had been a fencer, and he had a book in his house. He was dead by this point, but my granny had it called The Sword and the Centuries and I found it and nicked it. I still have it today. Basically when you read it, you go, there are actual books written in period by people who actually fought with swords who will tell you how to fight with swords properly. Like, holy crap. Wow, how would you even know that? So we started digging around in libraries and I came across Donald McBane in the National Library of Scotland. Got that photocopied. And we found various other thing, Sir William Hope. It started out mostly with smallsword treatises, because they are the most recent and therefore there are the most of them and they are easiest to find. It is generally the case that the further back you go, the fewer sources there are and the harder they are to find. And so we started trying to figure out how we would fence, according to the descriptions in these books. And that led us needing places to fight. So we would fight in the rain under the Salisbury Crags in Edinburgh, and we would fight in courtyards and what have you. And we ended up sort of making friends with a pub owner right in the centre of Edinburgh in the Old Town. There is a courtyard outside the pub, a public courtyard, and we would fence there and then go to the pub afterwards. So there we are in the centre of historic Edinburgh and people walking past will hear literally the clash of steel. And you're like, Oh my God, I'm in the old town of Edinburgh, and it's literally 200 yards from the castle. And there’s sword fighting, right? And some people go, that's weird, and walk off, but some people go, holy shit, what's that? And so we would just pick up people. They would see us practising and go, can I have a go? We were like, yeah, OK, try this. And we would explain historical fencing to them, or what we thought of as historical fencing. I guess by 1994, we’d kind of figured out that what we were trying to do is to recreate these arts from the book. We started a club, basically so that we would have people to fight, and a thing that they could join so that they could come, and also having a society meant that we could rent space to train, because in Edinburgh it rains a lot. Swords get rusty. We would go to train in Craigmillar castle over the weekend sometime and the castle people there were very, very nice to us. They were like, oh, yeah, that's cool, just don’t damage the castle, OK? They would just let us have sword fights all over the castle. It was fantastic – literally up and down the stairs. Health and safety was different back then. So it sort of grew from there and people who heard about it, I mean, some guys came over in I think 1995 from America because they somehow heard about us and they came over and they did the Student Exchange year in Edinburgh so that they could come and train with us. It was that odd and unusual and rare. But there was though something in the air because at the same time, I just found out literally last week, I found out that in ‘91, ‘92 in University of Toronto, three members of staff had started to work from Di Grassi. We have clubs starting up in America and you can't point to a single person going, huh, this is a good idea, let's do this. No really one person invented it. It's just what we were doing in Edinburgh happened to be simultaneously, spontaneously occurring elsewhere in the world and the internet was just beginning to be a thing. And so by the end of the 90s, there were forums and what have you, and people were trying to organise events to go to. Then I just decided that for a living in 2001, I decided in 2000 but I started my school in 2001.
EA: Yeah, fantastic. It is strange over the way, as you said, it seemed to be something in the air that it wasn't just you, it was people and a number of different nodes around the world where people started picking up swords and trying to work out how to use them. Were you all Star Wars fans or something like that?
GW: A lot of Star Wars fans, a lot of us were fencers, sport fencers who were just frustrated with it. I honestly think that if the electrification of fencing hadn't happened, the historical martial arts movement may not have developed the way it did. But the SCA has been going for over 50 years now. That was started in about 1965 or something. And I interviewed somebody on my show, Stephen Mulberger, who was there pretty much at the beginning. He attributes the early success of the SCA to the invention of a machine that made basically… it’s a thing where you crank the handle and it turns out copies.
EA: A lithograph, isn’t it? A linotype.
GW: Yeah, it's like an early photocopier so you can make that newsletters really easily. And when that happened, it became possible to kind of organise all these people into an actual movement. And the SCA has developed a more historical fencing approach again, at the same sort of time. So in the 90s, they started doing rapier stuff as well. They still have the heavy combat stuff that's not by any reasonable description, historical martial arts. It is a modern combat sport using some armour and shields, rattan swords and what have you. But it's not intended as any kind of historical system. But a lot of the leading lights in the historical martial arts world started out in the SCA and many of them are still in it because the SCA has now grown to include historical fencing, historical cookery, historical clothes making, historical calligraphy and making of scrolls and what have you. So there's just a fascination for many people with how things used to be done and there is a change in the historical approach. Well, I mean, if you read like any 19th century description of fencing of their forebears, it is basically, well, Egerton Castle famously wrote about “the rough, untutored fighting of the Middle Ages”, which is an absolute stinking horseshit. If I ever meet Egerton Castle after I die, I will slap him around the head and shoulders for saying that. But looking back at historical figures, we have largely stopped thinking of them as somehow less sophisticated than we are. And that sort of opened the way to go, well, hang on, how they were using their swords is probably better than anything I can figure out for myself, because they are living in a sword culture. These people know that stuff. I could teach them how to use an iPhone, but they can certainly teach me how to use a sword. So that also is a necessary shift in how we look at the past. I mean, you were saying about how sophisticated the culture of medieval Britain was. That's something that nobody would have said thirty years ago.
EA: No, it was called the “Dark Ages”.
GW: Yeah. And there's this assumption that because they hadn't developed calculus yet, they weren't clever enough to do it, which is just not true. Yeah, they just didn't have to necessarily lead up to create it.
EA: Indeed. Basically there were people as clever as us, and on the sword fencing side, it was literally a matter of life and death, so you were likely to put more into it really than even the most committed person like yourself.
GW: Absolutely. If I went back to the Middle Ages and I actually had a go at fencing someone, if I held my own for three whole seconds, I would be very pleased with myself.
EA: Exactly. They were tough people.
GW: Tough and trained and motivated. If you look at like Fiore dei Liberi’s book, Il Fior di Battaglia written in around 1400. It is a simple, because all fighting systems have to be simple, but sophisticated take on knightly combat. It is a single, unified vision of the art of arms expressed across wrestling, dagger, sword, sword and armour, pollax, spear, spear on horseback, sword on horseback, wrestling on horseback, and then fighting on foot against people on horseback. But it’s a single artistic vision that is consistently and comprehensively laid out in manuscript form. I've been working on this for 20 years full time. He had been working for about 40 years full time by that point, so I’m hoping that in 20 years’ time I might be able to lay out my consistent vision of the Art of Arms across a single manuscript. At the moment, I’m writing book after book, after book, here's one corner of it, have a look at that. Here’s another quarter of it, have a look at that. I'm decades away from a unified vision.
EA: Extraordinary isn’t it. We're also interested in what happened amongst you, amongst martial artists like yourself is paralleled amongst blacksmiths. Again, I've been talking to a number, do you know Owen Bush?
GW: I do know quite a few sword makers, but I don’t happen to know that one.
EA: I was talking to him and a few others as well. It seems like at pretty much at the same time, you had blacksmith's beginning to try and work out how to make weapons and implements from the past using the methods they had available. And then again, you have the same thing where forums became available around about the turn of the millennium, which led to an explosion of sharing of knowledge to make it possible. And now they're making some wonderful recreations of medieval and early medieval weapons.
EA: Absolutely. I own some of them.
EA: They are marvellous creations, but it's a fascinating example there of experimental archaeology, of trying to actually do things, make things with the methods and techniques available and then seeing actually just how sophisticated and incredible those techniques were within the context of what they had available at the time.
GW: I have a friend who JT Palakka, who is a simply astonishing bladesmith. He lives in Finland and has gone round the Finnish collections and he has recreated a lot of weapons from the period that we're talking about. And he does absolutely flawless work. And he has done quite a lot of the reconstructive archaeology we are talking about, but he's like, these smiths, they were just better than we are. Because they could do this absolutely astonishing pattern welding in an open forge. Modern smiths, they have ovens, where they can set the temperature to a degree or two, they have forges where they can set the temperature to within a few degrees. They have these power hammers that take the place of all these apprentices. And still, their work, while it's fabulous, isn't better than what was being done.
EA: No, exactly. So it's an element towards why we can accept that people in the past were so good at what they did because, now you have people who keep trying to do it and you realise just how hard it was.
GW: Yeah. And I used to work as a cabinet maker. I have an interest in medieval furniture making and techniques. I had the privilege of working next to some third generation cabinet makers. There was this old guy in the place I used to work called Ronnie Kier, who was a raging alcoholic. If he had just enough alcohol in him he was a genius, a bit too much, he was dangerously useless and a bit too little he was dangerously useless, but get the alcohol just right. He was this frail 60 something, but 60 going on 80 because of the alcohol. But I saw him once cut a plinth for a chest of drawers which had eight feathered mitres in the corners. A feathered mitre is you have two pieces of wood coming together. They're just coming together at kind of 45 degrees, so they meet at 90. The feather is a groove that runs across that all the way down and through that stop them from slipping and sliding so the joint is stronger. And he took the bits of wood he was going to use and got on the circular saw and these eight feather mitres we glued up in clamps, the whole thing, all the joints, the whole thing was glued up 25 minutes later. That would have taken me all day. And he did it in 25 minutes because there was no hesitation. He didn't even measure really. He could just see it because he'd been brought up to it and trained to it. And so an awful lot of the sort of messing around that we do trying to figure stuff out. They had been taught it by their uncle or whoever they were working for, whoever they were apprenticed to, they had just been brought up to it. This is how you do it. By the time you've done it a thousand times, you don't have to think about it. It becomes unbelievably fast. Measuring stuff – totally unnecessary. I tried this as an experiment. Forgive me if I'm being wildly off topic, but I made this little chest of drawers. I'll just turn the camera around so you can see it. I’ll put a picture in the show notes. There's a little chest of drawers under my monitor, which is where I put my pens because I'm a pen freak and it's all dovetailed together. And just for fun, I needed this the width measurement to make sure the monitor stand would fit and I needed the depth measurement for the same reason and the height. So I had the width, the depth and the height. Those are the only measurements I took the entire project. Because once you have the bores cut to the right length and width and you join them together, that gives you the internal dimensions and they are just there. You then fit the drawers to whatever that width is. You take the piece of wood and you offer it up to the gap and you make a mark that gets you to your length, which is much more accurate than running it through a intervening step of converting this absolute length into this approximation in feet and inches or whatever, and then taking it back, putting it onto this other piece of wood. You’re basically leaving out one whole step in which errors will occur. And it was really instructive because when we look at the woodworking tools from the period, they look really kind of rough and scruffy and they don't have micrometres. Now, when I’m doing modern woodwork, I'm often using vernier calipers to measure up the pieces. I use them so often that they're hanging up only on the tool board with the tools I use all the time. They didn't need that back then. We go to extraordinary lengths to get the soles of our planes perfectly flat. We polish the flats of our plane iron perfectly flat and polish it up until it’s like eight thousand or whatever. Sure, it makes all sorts of things much easier. But that's not what they were doing back then and their joints fit amazingly well. I went to Dublin about 20 years ago here. And of course, you go to the Guinness brewery. By far the most impressive moment of that entire trip, including all of Dublin, in the Guinness brewery, they showed a video of what used to be like for a cooper making the barrels. And he would take an oak stave, a cooper’s plane is about five or six feet long it's propped up at one end and you run the wood over the plane. And he would take this piece of oak and he would squint up at it, point it up to the light and go yep, fine, done. And then the next one. And when he them together they were watertight. Literally. It’s a barrel for putting Guinness in. Holy shit, that’s craftsmanship. You just see it. You don’t have to measure it. You just see it.
EA: That's the difference isn’t it, that we're trying to recreate something that people did like that in the past.
GW: Yep. And they are often wrong. That's the thing. When you just see it and you know it, you don’t question it. You get to a certain level but you are not going to make a paradigm change in your field. You’re unlikely to. But it’s when you’re struggling with mess is right where you come up with a paradigm change that advances the field by a major step.
EA: Yeah, you can’t manage it the other way.
GW: Is that what you wanted to ask me? What was the most impressive thing you saw on your trip to Dublin 20 years ago?
EA: It's all part and parcel of it. It's the appreciation that people in the past were just as bright as they are today and did extraordinary things.
EA: And they had skills that to us these days would look like magic.
EA: It's interesting that, isn't it, because we obviously have technologies that they would regard as magical, but in the other direction, they had skills that would appear magical to us as well. Fascinating. Yeah, that's good. Well, thank you Guy.
GW: My pleasure. While I pretend this is a regular podcast interview, I’ll wrap it up. So, Edoardo, thank you for coming on the podcast. It's been fascinating to talk to you about Anglo-Saxon stuff. Do you know what? I absolutely know that bunch of my listeners are going to be going, for God’s sake, Guy, why didn’t you ask him this, this, this and this?
EA: About Warhammer?
GW: Warhammer being one, and specifics about Anglo-Saxons stuff being another. And so what's going to happen is they're going to email me and say, Guy, why didn’t you ask Edoardo this? So when that deluge of emails saying Guy, you’ve completely failed as an interviewer come in, I will be in touch and get you back on for a proper interview.
EA: Oh yeah, I'd be happy to do it and that would be great. And actually, if we could ever meet up and actually you show me face to face what you mean.
GW: We’ve got to do it.
EA: You’re not in Finland now, are you?
GW: No, I’m in Ipswich. Five miles from Sutton Hoo.
EA: Oh, fantastic. Okay, that'd be great. OK, we'll sort that out, that would be brilliant.
GW: Let’s do it. Nice to meet you Edoardo.