Guy's Blog

Guy frequently keeps this blog updated with thoughts, challenges, interviews and more!

Author: Guy Windsor


Who doesn’t love Fiore’s art of arms? I mean really, it’s got everything. If you’re into medieval stuff, it’s the best-documented knightly sword, with source manuscripts dating back to the late 14th century. If you’re into any kind of unarmoured fencing, this system lays down the eternal fundamental rule: parry and strike. Then takes that idea and riffs on it with exchanges, breaks, and some very cool tricks.

I’ve been working with Fiore dei Liberi’s art of arms since first coming across a dodgy photocopy of the Pisani Dossi manuscript in the early nineties, and have been developing my interpretation and teaching classes regularly in the system since 2001. I've encapsulated my understanding and teaching method in The Complete Medieval Longsword Course.

This course bundle includes:

  • The Medieval Longsword Complete Course
  • The Medieval Dagger Course
  • Fundamentals: Footwork Course

The Longsword course is organised into nine main sections.

  1. Getting Started
  2. Basic Striking
  3. Basic Defences
  4. Counter-Remedies
  5. How to Strike
  6. The Cutting Drill, Complete
  7. Introducing Complexity
  8. Fiore’s Longsword Plays
  9. Advanced Training

The Medieval Dagger Course comprises:

  1. Foundations: theory, footwork, falling
  2. Basics: Dagger handling and joint locks
  3. The System Overview
  4. Other lines of attack
  5. The Dagger Disarm Flowdrill
  6. Completing the Base

Fundamentals: Footwork includes:

  1. Safety
  2. Grounding
  3. Controlling Measure
  4. Longsword module
  5. Rapier module
  6. Sword and Buckler module
  7. Bonus material

Together this bundle costs $600 (plus sales tax if you live in the EU). For the next week only, you can get 50% off the bundle price, so it will cost just $300 (or $60/month for five months). Just use this link: https://swordschool.teachable.com/p/complete-medieval-longsword?coupon_code=FIORESUMMERSALE

All my courses come with a 30-day money back guarantee. If you buy it but find it’s not for you, then just let me know and I’ll refund you with a couple of mouse clicks.
But I'm confident you'll love it. Why? Because so far less than one student in 400 has asked for a refund, and we get testimonials like this one from Jason:

I was living in a historical martial arts desert during the pandemic, so I started with Swordschool's free introductory class for longsword and was immediately hooked. Guy provided clear instruction with video demonstration. I was able to run a small Fiore study group working through the materials here to jump start me into using the manuscripts themselves. Guy provided that necessary bridge that I needed to into being able to interpret and work through the material first hand. And best of all, he was only an email away if I had questions. I would absolutely recommend these courses to anyone who needs a historical martial arts starting point, especially if you are trying to enter into this world of swordsmanship on your own or to challenge your interpretation of your own art or to try a new historical form. – Jason James

Interested? here's the link: https://swordschool.teachable.com/p/complete-medieval-longsword?coupon_code=FIORESUMMERSALE

 

We have to move. If a shark stops swimming it dies- and if we stop moving it doesn’t take long before the problems mount up. We can get away with it for a bit longer than sharks, but sooner or later the bill comes due.

Swords are cool- cool enough to get people who have never even considered taking up a physical activity for fun before to actually start training. There are huge long-term health benefits to regular exercise, pretty much regardless of what that exercise is.

But no historical martial art is optimised for long-term health. It can’t be: the immediate needs of surviving the sword fight are more important than the possibility of eventually developing knee problems or back pain. 

The specific ranges of motion required by a given sword fighting style may be quite extreme (such as in a rapier lunge), but they will never be comprehensive: in no style ever do you do a gentle forward stretch with a curved back, or indeed arch as far back as you can sensibly go, or even just touch your heel to your arse to stretch your quads. Those ranges of motion are good for us, but not included in the martial arts themselves. 

I intend to be swinging swords around in various historical manners for decades to come, and I’m already 48. It is therefore necessary to have a physical practice aimed at filling in the gaps, and keeping this carcasse in sufficiently good shape that I can be whacking my friends over the head with blades when I’m 90. I also need to be able to teach my students how to do the same thing- and there’s the rub. Every body is different, and so every training regime should be tailored to the individual. And every body changes over time- ideally getting fitter and stronger, but at least not deteriorating any faster than we can help. Which means that you can’t just learn a routine now and stick with it forever, if you want the best results for the least effort.

I cover the fundamentals of how to train in my book The Windsor Method: The Principles of Solo Training  and we follow those principles in class. But the book doesn’t include much in the way of specific exercises, because it was intended to lay out the principles, not cover every possible practice. The book will tell you how to train, and how to prioritise your training time, but it doesn’t tell you whether you should be doing push-ups or lunges right now.

 To create our practice we need a comprehensive suite of exercises to select from, and the skill to choose from that suite wisely. We also need to know what it is we are training for at any given time. Here are some possibilities:

  • Pre-hab. Long-term injury prevention through movement, range of motion work, breathing and strength training. This is perhaps 50% of all my training.
  • Conditioning. Increasing our strength, speed, range of motion, or other attribute, through exercises of various kinds. This is about 40% of my training.
  • Warming up and warming down: preparing for a specific kind of movement (such as strength training, rapier footwork practice, a longsword tournament bout, or any other high-intensity activity), and promoting recovery afterwards. You may need to warm up for pre-hab or conditioning, of course.

A specific exercise such as an overhead press, or a push-up, or a hamstring stretch can be used in all three of these situations- but how we use it will differ. 

I run a Trainalong training session over Zoom three mornings a week, and usually structure them like so:

Section One- warm-up.

1. Running a diagnostic. Gentle joint rotations from toes to fingers, with a few squats and some gentle range of motion work. This tells me whether I need to pay attention to a specific area, and whether the session I had in mind is likely to be a good idea.

2. Full range of motion of the spine

3. Shoulder stability work

Section Two: conditioning, focusing on my own areas of weakness, especially forearms.

1. Some kind of strength work, often bodyweight or kettlebells

2. Leg stability work such as seven-way legs, or kicking practice

3. Forearm conditioning

Section Three: skills practice

1. Some kind of footwork

2. Some kind of weapon handling (though often disguised as stick conditioning drills or bladebell exercises). These are often combined with the footwork, of course.

3. And/or breathing training, such as the Breathing Form.

Section Four: recovery

1. Some breathing

2. Some stretching, especially of the legs

3. Forearm and leg massage (which you may be familiar with from my free Human Maintenance course)

4. A very short meditation

5. Deliberately finishing.

Seeing it broken down like that doesn’t reflect the experience of it. The sections will blend into each other, and overlap- we may intersperse arm weights with footwork, for example. I very often include planks and other “core” work in with the spine range of motion or hip/knee stability exercises. The full-body survey at the beginning and the warm-down ending sequence tend to be quite consistent. I also adjust the training depending on my own health and current needs, and incorporating any requests that the students bring up on the day. 

Some of the weird stuff we do sometimes includes jaw relaxation exercises, toe yoga, and finger dexterity drills. 

I’ve attached a fairly comprehensive list of the exercises we do as a pdf below. Be warned, it’s just a list, and “Granny’s Scarf” may not mean anything to you just yet. But it should give you an idea of what I mean by ‘comprehensive’. 

What about the skill to choose wisely from the list?

That is primarily a matter of mindset. If you go into a session with the intention of finding out what your body needs, and then carefully doing that, you will probably avoid injury, and certainly become better at listening to your body. As every body is different, I encourage my students to adapt or adjust what we’re doing to suit them. I may be recovering from an injury or illness, and be doing some gentle recovery work when we’re twenty minutes in- you may need to be doing push-ups or kettlebells while I’m resting. While the class is doing Turkish Get-ups, a student with a knee problem may be doing her prescribed rehab exercises.

Every exercise can be done at various levels of difficulty. Let’s take the humble push-up for example:

1. Knees on the ground, go down an inch.

2. Knees on the ground, work up to going all the way down.

3. One leg extended

4. Full push-up position, hold

5. Working up to a full basic pushup

6. Different hand positions- three knuckle, two knuckle, one knuckle, prima, seconda, quarta, hands wide, long, staggered, etc.

7. Going for more repetitions

8. Slow push-ups (eg 30 seconds down, 30 seconds up)

9. Plyo push-ups, eg clap push-ups, or push-up-twisting-squat-jump-burpees

10. One-armed push-ups

11. One-armed push-ups with different hand positions

12. Plyo one-armed push-ups

And so on.

I may be working on 6, while one student is on 2, and another on 11. Literally every exercise has easier and harder versions, so can be adapted to anyone’s current level.

It is very relaxing to just show up and do as you are told for a while, and indeed having a personal trainer who knows you well and pushes you as needed would be great. But as martial artists, more is expected of us. We can’t be dependent on external forces to guide our training- we must take ownership and responsibility for our own development. And outside a one-to-one coaching session, no trainer can perfectly adapt the class to your needs. But you can. 

One way to learn to do that is to come to my Trainalong sessions. You can find them here: https://bookwhen.com/swordschool

Sessions are free, or you can chip in some cash. Everyone is welcome, whether you’re super-fit or not fit at all (yet). You won’t hold up the class (or be held up) because we are all moving at our own pace.

Other useful links on this topic:

You may find The Windsor Method helpful: https://swordschool.com/library-item/the-windsor-method-the-principles-of-solo-training/

I cover a lot of the exercises in the Solo Training course, though that course focusses primarily on weapons handling. https://swordschool.teachable.com/p/solo-training 

You can have a go with a sample session here:

You can download the exercises list here: Trainalong Curriculum

You may find my conversation with biomechanist Katy Bowman interesting: https://swordschool.com/podcast/movement-matters-with-katy-bowman/

I wrote Max Your Lunge in 2007, long before this blog was conceived. It's past time it became a properly formatted post!

My research into Capoferro's Gran Simulacro (1610) has lead me to rethink the lunge (which he calls l'incredibile accrescimento della botta lunga, “the incredible increase of the long blow”). He is absolutely clear about how long the lunge should be, and how much each part of the body moves, and famously defines them on plate 5 of his book. It occurred to me that when following his instructions to the letter, the resulting lunge gives the longest possible strike, in a very short motion of the foot.

The distance that any blow can travel is determined by the position of the fixed foot: how far you can move in a single pass forward is determined by the position of your front foot (as the back foot moves); so in the lunge, the maximum reach is determined by the position of the back foot. Whether your front, moving, foot is next to your back foot or a yard in front of it, affects only how long the action takes, not how far it can go. It is interesting (to me at least) that Capoferro defines the shape of the basic guard position, specifically the distance between your feet (the passo) only in the picture of the lunge; suggesting that the length of your lunge may determine the length of your guard. (You can find a copy of this plate on page 66 of The Duellist's Companion.)

So, how long is the lunge? The distance between your feet is the same as the length of your sword, or “twice the length of your arm” (as Jared Kirby pointed out in his seminar here in February 2007, this is a reference to the proportions of the Vitruvian man), your front knee is advanced slightly past your toes, and your front shoulder is above and slightly past your knee. The back foot pivots slightly on the ball, allowing the heel to slide forward. Your swordarm is completely extended. Drawing a line from the point of the sword to the toes of the back foot shows that the rear leg is almost exactly in line with the swordarm. This led me to wonder how long the lunge was in proportion to the maximum anatomically possible strike.
To discover this length, I lay on my back with my sword in hand, and had a student measure the distance between the outside edge of my left foot, and the point of my sword. This gave me a length of 328cm (129 inches).

We then measured out the same length from the centre of the thrusting target to a point on the floor, and marked the distance off with tape.

Standing on that mark, I placed my sword on the floor and lunged to its length (it has a 42″ blade).

Recovering to guard, and rechecking the position of my left foot, I took up my sword and lunged at the target, following my interpretation of Capo Ferro's instructions, leaving out only the turn of the back foot (which had not been allowed for in the initial measurement). The point of my sword touched the target.

I then turned my back foot, and the sword bent: the increase in the distance was about 10cm, or 4″.

By leaving out the foot turn in the initial measurement, I ensured that the lunge would penetrate a realistic amount, not just touch.

I then marked the spot where the back of my front heel landed,

and withdrew my foot until the toes were a little behind the mark (Capoferro shows the place of the front foot in guard as being directly behind the foot in the lunge). This gave me an exact length for my passo.

I then established my guard position according to the instructions, and lunged again from this position, making sure that the extension came first, and when that was complete, my hips moved forward, my knee went over my toes, and my back foot turned all in the space of time my front foot was in motion. This gave me the longest anatomically possible lunge, with a front foot movement of only about 12 inches, the maximum possible exchange of measure for time.

As a cross-check, I then measured the length of my lunge from front toes to back toes and found it to be about 57 inches, the length of my arm from armpit to fingertips to be 27 inches, so the length of my lunge was a trifle longer that twice the length of my arm.

Having done this myself, I then repeated the whole procedure for a small class of rapier students. Of course, with different length bodies and weapons, the maximum possible lunge was a different absolute length for each student. Out of six students, four men and two women, both women could reach their maximum lunge, and none of the men, primarily due to hip flexibility. However, none could easily recover, or felt comfortable in their maximum positions. More importantly, each student caught sight of an exact, measurable goal; to be able to lunge easily to the maximum distance, and recover fluidly to the correct guard position.

So, it is my belief that Capoferro describes the perfect lunge for his weapon. It is practically impossible to execute any kind of blade action with a full-size rapier while lunging, so Capoferro has us be able to strike from as far away as possible, in as short a time as possible. While your foot is in the air it is very hard to support your blade with strength, and so it is the ideal time for your opponent to counter; minimising the foot movement (by keeping it as far forwards as practically possible) while maintaining the maximum distance of your face from his point (by keeping your weight back) gives you the ideal tactical compromise. Of course, the sword still has a long way to go, but for most of that distance, you have both feet on the ground and can therefore execute blade actions more easily.

So, how do you train to achieve this ideal lunge? stretching, for flexibility, strength training for support and recovery, and going at it little by little. A short lunge that doesn't hurt you is much more useful than a long one that pulls a muscle. But by having an ideal to work towards, we can measure our progress towards an achievable goal.

With thanks to Kevin O'Brien (photographer), Heikki Hallamaa, and Karolina Suominen

What the world really needs right now is obviously a better beginners’ guide to training in Fiore’s Art of Arms, right? So I have created one. So what's special about that?

I always, always, try to instil self-direction into my students. My job is to make myself redundant. I do this in practice by giving even beginners in their very first class some agency to choose what we cover. By the time they get to the seniors class (usually in a year or two), classes are entirely student-led: we cover whatever they need my help with that day.

Books are a very linear model, and while I can lay out my usual path through the enormous range of the Fiore syllabus, that restricts the reader’s agency to an unfortunate degree. But actually, very few of my readers ever read from cover to cover. Everyone skips ahead to the things they are most interested. And why not? They’ve bought the book, they can do whatever they want with it. 

So I have figured out how to include gradually increasing levels of choice for the reader/student in these workbooks. The series will comprise several workbooks. The first is the Beginner’s Course, of eight lessons each with about as much stuff as I’d cover in a single 90 minute class. In the first class of the first book, you get one simple choice. In the second class, there’s more freedom.  At every stage, if you need prior material to successfully approach the topic at hand, that will be flagged up. So even if you skipped that section for some reason, you can go to the specific prerequisite material and practice that before returning to the thing you want to do next.

There are as many correct paths through the syllabus as there are students to walk them. In this new series I have finally figured out how to represent that on the page. 

Every technique, every drill, is presented as written instructions with images from the source manuscript, and over 40 video clips. Each video is linked to with a QR code on the relevant page, so you can just point your smartphone at the page and it will open the video for you. There is abundant space for your own written notes, which is especially necessary when you are not working through the material in the order it appears in the text. 

It’s a choose your own path training manual.

Part One covers the following material:

Unarmed techniques

The four guards of abrazare (wrestling)

The first six plays of abrazare

The four steps (footwork)

The three turns (footwork)

With the Dagger

The four blows of the dagger

Disarms against forehand, backhand, and rising dagger thrusts

Counters to the disarms

Arm locks and counters

How to fall safely

A basic takedown/throw

With the Longsword

Six ways to hold the longsword

The seven blows of the longsword

How to parry and strike

How to counter the parry with a pommel strike

How to counter the pommel strike

The exchange of thrusts

Breaking the thrusts

Training on the pell

 

That's a lot of material- but thanks to the format it’s presented in, it should be thoroughly attainable.

The book is in layout now; all the video clips have been edited and uploaded, the QR codes created, and so on. We even have the covers. 

There is a limited number of pre-order slots available, which will help pay for the layout and cover graphic design work, and the editing costs. Pre-orders are for the print version, but also include the ebook. 

I hope to get the ebook version out to those that pre-order in a week or so, and the print workbooks ready to ship by the end of this month.

The workbook should be more widely available in May.

You can preorder the right-handed layout here: https://guywindsor.gumroad.com/l/aw1RHpreorder

And the left-handed layout here: https://guywindsor.gumroad.com/l/aw1LHpreorder

A very inexperienced Guy teaching class in 2001

21 years ago today I taught my first class as a professional instructor. It was in a small room in the Helsinki Olympic Stadium. I expected about six people to show up, but we had over 70, from as far afield as Turku and Tampere. My class plan went out of the window because there was no space for that many folk to take part, so I talked for a bit, and then got everyone doing some really basic mechanics. Many of the people who showed up that day kept showing up for years afterwards, and it's thanks to them that we have a school.

The rest is literally history!

While thinking about the best way to celebrate the School’s survival over the last 21 years, it struck me that I really like teaching classes and hanging out with my students, so I’ve decided to run a couple of seminars, which are free or you can pay something if you want to. Given the constraints of teaching over zoom, these classes will be on solo training- a warm-up, some footwork and mechanics, and some blade handling, followed by time for questions and answers. To accommodate the fact that most of my students are in the USA and so miss all the morning sessions, these will be at 7pm UK time on Sunday 20th and 27th March. There are more details etc. on the booking pages:

Longsword Seminar: https://bookwhen.com/swordschool/e/ev-s82s-20220320190000

Rapier Seminar: https://bookwhen.com/swordschool/e/ev-si53-20220327190000

I hope to see you there!

I have also set up a discount code: SWORDSCHOOL21BDAY for 50% off all my books on Gumroad and courses on Teachable. Except the free ones, they’re still $0.
Regarding my Gumroad shop, I’ve removed most of the free treatise photos etc. from the webshop because the file sizes exceed Gumroad’s terms and conditions for free products. I am looking around for better ways to host and share these resources- if you’ve got any suggestions, let me know!
The discount code expires on March 31st.

Thanks for being part of it!

One of my students mentioned tendonitis problems in his wrist on the Swordschool Discord server this week. It’s probably caused by holding his sword incorrectly, which forces the small stabiliser muscles to do more work than they evolved for. He is by no means the first student I’ve seen with this problem. It has been my experience that almost every sword student at any level in any style is either holding their sword incorrectly, or at the very least, there was room for improvement. This is partly due to most modern sword makers producing handles that are a bit too big, or a bit too round; and partly due to most people simply not understanding how the mechanics of sword holding is supposed to work.

In essence, your grip strength and wrist stabilisation strength should be acting as back-up systems only: the sword should stay in your hand with almost no strength being used at all, and when you strike, the force coming back from the target should be routed through the bones of your hands and wrist, and thence through your body to the ground, with no need to tighten up on impact at all.

Seriously. Not at all. 

Have a look at this video of me hitting the wall target with a rapier, and bashing the tyre with a longsword. My hand is not just relaxed, it’s actually open, to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that grip strength is not required. 

I have been banging this drum for many, many, years now (I first posted that video in 2012!), and have written this up in many places, and posted endless video content about it, and yet still the sword world has crappy sword holding skills. This is for three reasons:

1. the sword handle is too big 

2. because this is very counter-intuitive

3. and also because most people are strong enough to fake it for a while; they think it’s correct, when actually their muscles are faking it for them. Until the pain in the first joint of the thumb kicks in. Or in the elbow. Or indeed anywhere along the chain from fingertip to toes. 

So how should you hold the sword? 

That depends on what kind of sword it is, and what you want to do with it. 

Generally, the sword is either held back in the hand, like so:

Or extended in the grip, like so:

This is also how most chefs hold their kitchen knives when chopping and slicing.

There are exceptions: we do sometimes support the flat instead of the edge, like so:

The sword is usually held back in the hand when it’s also held back near the body, and extended in the hand when the sword arm is extended from the body. Some longsword folk have half-understood this concept and hold their longsword in the extended grip even when the guard is chambered (such as in posta di donna). Some swords are almost always held in the extended grip; rapiers, foils, smallswords are good examples. The basic rule still applies- the sword is supported by the bones, not tied in place by the muscles.

The extended grip does not depend on grip strength; you can perfectly well hold the sword with one finger, if it's aligned correctly, like so:

I'm not recommending fighting like this, but it's worth making sure you're not depending on grip strength by opening the thumb, forefinger, ring finger, and little finger, and seeing what happens.

One common error is to extend the wrist, rather than extend the sword in the grip. You need to be able to distinguish between at least three positions of the hand relative to the forearm. Three-knuckle, two-knuckle, and one-knuckle. The easiest way to learn the differences between them is through “Eurythmic push-ups”. You can do them on a mat if you prefer, and you don’t actually need to do the push-up bit; just getting the feeling of the different wrist positions is very helpful.

Cocking the wrist between the ‘three-knuckle’ and ‘one-knuckle’ positions instead of allowing the sword to shift in the grip between the ‘chambered’ and ‘extended’ grips is another common cause of wrist problems.

Please pay attention, this may save you a lot of pain, as well as massively improve your general sword handling.

For my Medieval friends: 

I introduce the basics of how to hold a longsword in this video borrowed from my Solo Training course

For my Renaissance friends:

This footage from a rapier seminar I taught in 2012 goes into the correct grip for the rapier in some detail; you can watch the whole thing of course, or skip to about 22 minutes in, where we get into the grip.

If you are already having wrist problems, for any reason, you may find my Arm Maintenance course useful. It’s free, and bundled in with my Human Maintenance course. 

One of the things I’m enjoying most about learning to fly is being an absolute beginner, and making beginners’ mistakes. Such as:

  • Getting my radio check and airfield information call in to the office (we don’t have a tower at this airfield), and wondering why I couldn’t get a reply even though the radio seemed to be working just fine. Turns out I had the volume turned down too low.
  • Having successfully landed the plane (yay! That’s the critical bit), when taxiing back towards the place where the planes are parked, my tail got caught in a bit of cross-wind, and I ended up getting the plane stuck in the rough grass between taxi-way and runway. That meant getting out and pushing while the instructor (Clive) drove us out. Clive has been (gently) mocking my “gardening skills” ever since. He also spent the rest of the taxi-way ride rolling a cigarette, manifesting complete confidence in my ability to go not gardening again. Planes on the ground are steered entirely with the feet, so he could actually have steered us out of trouble if necessary, but it’s fascinating to see how something I do all the time in class to essentially trick my students into relaxing, is being done to me, and I can see it and understand it, and it still works. I don't roll cigarettes, but I try to exude a sense of absolute confidence in my students.
  • Forgetting to check under my wing before turning in that direction. Instructor says ‘make a right turn’, and I just start doing it, instead of following correct procedure and actually checking for myself that it’s safe to do so and we’re not about to bump into something. Not that there’s much likelihood of that, where we are, but it’s essential to check, just like checking your mirrors before making a turn in a car. Incidentally, I had no problem with that in the previous lesson (on turns), but this lesson was on the stall,* and so the turns weren’t the focus. I was thinking about the stall, not the turn, and so forgot something essential that I had been fine with previously.

And, most interestingly for me, for the first five lessons I had practically no questions. I didn’t know enough to know what to ask. That phase seems to have passed and I am now pestering my instructors with all sorts of questions. It’s also instructive to note that there are many things that have been explained to me such that I understood them just fine, but couldn’t hold on to the idea until I’d seen it again, usually after a practical exercise in the plane that demonstrated the idea in action. Being able to follow the logic of an explanation is not the same thing as remembering, which is also not the same thing as really knowing and understanding.

I cannot overstate how useful this is to me as an instructor. It has been a very long time since I was last a real beginner at something; most of the new things I’ve learned over the last decade or so have been somehow related to things I’m already competent at, which changes things completely.

The instructors at Skyward are all nice; they don’t berate you for mistakes, just encourage you to learn. I think they’ve been a bit surprised by how I’m not at all embarrassed by making a mistake- I know many of my beginners often are embarrassed. Beginners taxi planes into the long grass, forget to check under their wing before a turn, fail to turn the radio volume up, and do all sorts of other silly things. It’s the beginner’s job to pay attention and do their honest best to do follow instructions. That’s it. It’s the instructor’s job to make sure that the beginner’s mistakes are survivable, and this is as true in martial arts as it is in flying.

I hope that all my beginners have felt that they were free to fail because I was there to create a safe space for them to fail in. But it’s been so long since I was last truly in their position that while I could be nice to them, I didn’t really understand their situation any more. In the past I have been a bit baffled by a lack of questions in a beginners’ group, or when this thing they could do just fine last time was now going wrong. I hope I met that with kindness before, but now I can meet it with comprehension too.

 

*A stall in an aircraft is what happens when the angle that the wing is meeting the air (the “angle of attack”) gets too steep, or there is not enough air flow, so the smooth flow of air over the top surface of the wing breaks up into turbulent eddies, and you lose lift. You fix it by putting the stick forward a bit, to lower the angle of attack (and gain some speed). It has nothing to do with the engine conking out- that’s a whole other problem.

You probably remember the moment you first held a sword. It’s electric. For some of my students, they hadn’t realised what was missing until they came to their first class. For others, they had dreamed about becoming a swordswoman for years. It’s not reducible to practicalities or psychoanalysis. There is no need to know how to swing a sword. And it doesn’t say anything about your mental health (or lack thereof).

I think we’ve all had the experience of mentioning our passion for the sword and had people ask “why?” And you know in that instant that they will never understand it, because it’s not arrived at rationally, and so cannot be explained in rational terms. You either get it or you don’t.

I know some folk who are simply obsessed with 18th and 19th century ceramics. I might develop an appreciation for the nuances of glaze and form, but I’ll never get why anyone truly cares about pots the way I truly care about swords. That’s fine- we don’t need to all care about the same things, and indeed it’s better if we don’t. We owe a lot of what we know about medieval martial arts to the manuscript collectors of the 19th and 20th centuries, who generally cared not a whit for swords, and certainly never tried to recreate the arts represented in the manuscripts. They cared about manuscripts, not so much about the content of the manuscripts. And thank the goddess they did, or Fiore, Ringeck, and the rest would have been scraped off and recycled for the vellum, or just burned.

About ten years ago, my friend James Prasad was given a flying lesson as a birthday present by his wife. She asked me to go along too, to keep him company, so I did. And oh my goddess. I had no idea. I wasn’t expecting anything- I’ve spent literally thousands of hours stuck in the back of big planes, and don’t particularly enjoy it. But being a commercial airline passenger is to flying a light aircraft as being on a bus is to driving a Lotus. I came down from that flight alight with the joy of flying. I was literally high for days afterwards. But flying is expensive. You think swords cost money? Try aviation. Holy shit, a half-hour lesson is north of $200. Not that the instructor is getting rich, that’s almost all fuel costs, which are almost all tax. And you need at least 45 hours of flying time to get your Private Pilot’s Licence.

I have a rule about this kind of thing. If it means denying my kids a decent holiday, or my wife having to count out pennies at the supermarket, I won’t do it. It’s taken a decade, but I’ve finally saved the money and have begun training towards my PPL. I had the first lesson last week, and the second is coming up soon.

The real reason why I’m doing this is the same as the reason that I practice swordsmanship. Just because. But I have all sorts of rationalisations too, such as:

  1. Swordsmanship is dangerous, and we as a community are still learning how to train authentically without serious injuries or deaths. Aviation is also very dangerous, which is why it is set about with all sorts of rules and protocols intended to keep aviators alive. Everything has back-ups, everything is checked (such as, a visual inspection of the level in the fuel tanks, in case the fuel gauge is faulty). I’m sure I’ll learn all sorts of things about how to get safely to a more dangerous edge in swordsmanship.
  2. Pilot training has a clear and internationally accepted structure, such that my PPL (assuming I get there) will allow me to fly pretty much anywhere. I could show up at an airfield in Australia or America, and my licence would be enough for them to rent me a plane. I’m already finding the way the material is organised and presented to be instructive; it will certainly inform my next book.
  3. A flight instructor has to literally let the student take the controls, in circumstances where the student is probably nervous, and where a serious mistake can be fatal. My instructor last week let me take off and land. I was expecting maneouvers in the air, but actually getting to control the plane from grass to grass was extraordinary. Here’s the thing: the higher you go, the safer you are, because if anything goes wrong you have time to fix it, and plenty of altitude to pick up speed with (it’s airspeed over the wing that keeps you up, and if you start to slow down you can gain speed by diving a bit). But close to the ground, there’s no safety margin at all. Being on the receiving end of this kind of instruction has already highlighted ways I could adjust my own teaching to get the student doing more. I haven’t had time to think this all through yet, but it’s going to be transformative.
  4. Aircraft are very well understood from the engineering and physics perspective. There is a complete and coherent body of knowledge that leads to good aircraft being built. There is also a body of knowledge and skills that a pilot needs. But these are not the same. A pilot doesn’t need to know everything that an aircraft designer knows, and being able to design an aerobatic plane doesn’t mean you can do a snap roll. But I’d wager that a good designer knows a lot about flying, and a good pilot knows a lot about aircraft design. Seeing where these domains overlap is a fascinating parallel to swordsmanship practitioners and sword smiths, and indeed to attempts to explain sword striking mechanics in terms of physics, versus just learning to hit stuff.
  5. Fear management. As regular readers of this blog and my books will know, I think of acting calmly when frightened to be a trainable skill. I’m scared of heights, so being in a small plane a kilometre above the earth is inherently frightening- but to fly well I have to stay calm and relaxed. And, it turns out, I can. So, flight training is yet another arena in which I can practice fear management.

But, my friends, I’m flying because it’s bliss.

I get asked a lot of questions about the nitty-gritty of swordsmanship mechanics, and interpreting historical sources. I recently received a very long and involved question about the mezani blows in Il Fior di Battaglia from Dustin Jones. In short, he believed that I’ve read the manuscript incorrectly, and these horizontal blows should be done with the false edge from your forehand side, and with the true edge from the backhand side. He came to this conclusion from getting stuck with a specific technique: the breaking of the thrust from the left.

This was one of those times when it’s really tempting to retreat into authority: “I’ve been doing this for 20+ years, this is how it is, shut up and stop bothering me”. I have absolutely no doubts about my interpretation of these blows and which edge comes from where in terms of the written sources, and I have tested pretty much every imaginable way of doing them, so I am 100% satisfied with my position on this. We hashed all this out in depth and detail many years ago, and have tested it with hundreds of students over the last decade-plus. 

And that’s really, really, dangerous, on two fronts. Firstly, it’s simply wrong for a teacher to answer in that way. Any student (someone who is working from my books and/or courses) is entitled to at least a considered response, explaining why I think it is the way it is. Sometimes that is something along the lines of “check pages x-y in book z”, sometimes it’s something I haven’t covered in detail elsewhere so I need to write it up. And secondly, as soon as an interpretation becomes unquestionable it becomes dogma, and the learning process grinds to an abrupt halt.

Examining your assumptions, and the parts of your interpretation that have become so ingrained they are assumptions, is an essential part of continuing to grow in the Art.

But of course, there is a limit. Having listened to their side, and explained my views in depth, my obligation ends. I have on occasion had to block a person’s email address because they behaved like a five-year old with the ‘but whys’, or insisting on a definitive answer to a question that doesn’t have one. 

Dustin’s original email included a 1,450 word explanation of his point of view, which is too much to quote in full, but referred to the mechanical difficulties he was having with the mezani as I do them, and laid out his position drawing on his reading of the Italian, and mentioning the zwerchau which indeed is a horizontal blow done with the true edge from the backhand side, false edge from the forehand side.

I wouldn’t normally read such a long question- I have been known to reply with a request for the edited highlights- but the tone of his request felt appropriate, and understanding his position did require the background he was providing.

So here is the answer I sent:

Hi Dustin,

Thanks for getting in touch. You’d be surprised how many questions I get from folk who haven’t bothered to read my books, so it’s nice to hear from someone who has.

This is a pretty long and detailed reply, so I’ll work it up into a blogpost- you’re probably not the only person out there who’s had trouble with this. Would you like to remain anonymous, or should I mention you by name?

It seems to me that you’re having mechanical difficulties with the forehand mezano, and extrapolating from that to ‘the interpretation is wrong’. Let’s start with the language issue. Let me quote you:

“When it comes to Fiore’s instruction for the colpi mezani he does say “E andamo cum lo dritto taglo de la parta dritta”. Which you interpret as “and we go with the true edge from the forehand side”, but it seems this can be interpreted as “and we go with the true edge from the right” and you could then read “E de la parte riversa andamo cum lo falso taglio” as “and from the left side we go with the false edge”.

Fiore does not explicitly say “from my” or “from your” or “from your opponents” right or left. This does kind of leave this up to interpretation.”

There I’m afraid you’re simply wrong. Dritto can mean ‘right’, of course. But ‘roverso’ does not ever mean ‘left’. It means ‘backhand’. A left-hander would strike a roverso from their right hand side. (Left hand side would be lato sinistro.) And the blow goes from you to the target. “Andare….de” means “To go…. from”. Not “to.” So you cannot reasonably interpret Fiore’s instruction as going with the true edge “to” the right side. This is standard Italian usage, and is consistent across all sources I’ve studied. Viggiani even goes off on a riff about how the forehand blow is more noble because it hits the left side of the opponent where his heart is. (Never mind his poor understanding of anatomy- the usage is consistent and clear.)

The cut to the throat after the break is a mezano simply because a sottano would get caught on the shoulder. To get to the throat, you have to cut horizontally. And the mezano is clearly illustrated as a horizontal cut to the throat. 

So the next step would be to have a look at why you’re having the trouble. You can see me doing a basic version of the breaking of the thrust from the left in this video:

You can of course flick the false edge across the throat from your right side- it works just fine. But mechanically, the true edge is stronger and more stable from that side. It’s also true that the roverso tondo described in the eighth play of the master of coda longa on horseback, done to the back of the opponent’s head, would be done with the true edge. But Fiore doesn’t call it a mezano.

I should also say that I can make perfectly good false edge cuts from left-side high guards (I’m a right-hander). And while it’s true that the zwerch is done the other way round, it’s only ever done with the hands above the head, and the sword opposing the opponent’s weapon from above, which changes the mechanics considerably.

I’ve shot a video for you of me doing the mezani from the break on both sides, and from posta di donna. You can find it here:

Please don’t share it at this stage. I made it with the blog post in mind, so it’s not addressed to you directly.

If that doesn’t sort it out for you, send me a short video, shot from the front (max 30 seconds, no talking required), of you doing the mezano the way I describe in the book, and I’ll trouble-shoot it for you.

It’s always a tricky moment when you have to point out a clear error in the student’s line of thought (in this case the translation of ‘roverso’ as ‘left’). It’s a test of their character. I’m glad to say that Dustin took it like a champ, and replied back saying that the technique is working much better now. He also mentioned that the key to making the forehand throat cut after the break from the left work properly for him was seeing how it related to the first part of the motions for the break and/or exchange from the right. I shot the video off-the-cuff, before breakfast, and threw that bit in because it just occurred to me at the time- and it turned out to be the most useful moment! You never can tell what will work for any given student.

So here are the takeaways:

1. For any interested Fiorista: “This is how Guy does mezani

2. For students who have done the reading/training/reasonable due-diligence: this is the sort of response you can reasonably expect from your teachers, and an insight into what they might actually be thinking when they do respond.

3. For teachers: beware the instinctive retreat into authority. It’s a chasm you may find it hard to climb out of.

[Update:] One reader of this post, Jukka Salmi in Finland, who has been a student of mine for many years and knows a lot more about mounted combat than I do emailed me with this comment:

I wholeheartedly agree with your interpretation on mezzani strikes, but I'd argue that even the tondo on horseback should be done with the false edge. If I recall correctly Fiore doesn't specify the edge used and a false edge cut would be more consistent with the overall mechanics regarding horizontal strikes in his system. But more importantly it has some significant advantages in said situation. With a false edge cut you can reach further and having the palm up you're not limiting the rotation of your sword arm. One can easily test how far behind them they can reach with raised arm palm down versus palm up. This makes a tangible difference when riding past one another and not stopping – a true edge cut easily falls short of the target. This can also be easily tested on a pell while walking or slowly jogging.
He raises a very good point. We have abundant examples of true-edge roverso tondo blows in the Bolognese, and it can certainly work, but Jukka's observation about measure does suggest that it's likely that this particular tondo should be done with the false edge.

For the first time in my life, on Sunday night I actually, deliberately, watched a football game. My kids’ friends were heavily invested in the outcome and so my kids wanted to watch what their friends were watching. Before I go on: to my English friends, I’m sorry you didn’t get what you wanted. E a mi amici italiani: complimenti per la vittoria. 

Normally I would rather sandpaper my eyeballs than watch 22 millionaires chasing after a leather bag, but I was happily surprised by how, when viewed through a fencing mindset, it wasn’t entirely tedious. Yes, I did a crossword in the second half, and spent the extra time fiddling about on my phone, but there were moments of actual interest. I was especially taken at the beginning by all the passing back. Surely, the ball is supposed to go in the other direction? But these are, by definition, the best players in Europe right now, so they know what they’re doing. It eventually dawned on me that while you are in possession of the ball, the other team can’t score. And, you can only score while you are in possession of the ball. So possession of the ball is analogous to controlling both your opponent’s sword, and your own. It’s better to be in control of the ball near your goal than have it in the other team’s possession at the other end of the pitch. Suddenly a lot of baffling behaviour made sense. And it became clear that the players were trying to set up specific patterns, and were pulling back and re-thinking if that pattern was interrupted or choked off by the other team. Compared to fencing, most of football is very slow, so it’s quite easy to see the patterns if you look for them.

There were also some moments of stunning physical prowess. Both goals, for example, but also many saves by both goalkeepers. They were by far the most impressive players on the field, to my eyes- because most of the time they could only react, and it is much harder to succeed when you’re on the defensive, reactive, can’t do anything until my opponent does something, side of the engagement. 

I had a couple of thoughts on how the game might be improved though. For instance, in the case of a draw, the side with the most red and/or yellow cards should lose. That might incentivise cleaner play- or it might, if you’re desperate, incite massive fouling to get ahead. It would be interesting to see that experiment (but I don’t think FIFA read this blog).

I was annoyed by the half-hour extension- wouldn’t it be more fun if they just played until the next goal? Or just had a draw and shared the trophy?

I also thought that the game would be more interesting if every player had a taser… but only one taser per team was charged, and with only one shot. So you’d never know until it fired who was dangerous to get close to, and it would be a massive waste to tase the wrong player. There would certainly be assassination tactics to get rid of the best striker (or the goalie) on the other team. That is not by any means a practical suggestion, but it would be a bit like fencing longsword with both fencers having a dagger on their belt. It would change things in an interesting way.

My feelings toward football are coloured by the behaviour of the crowds. While I was growing up, football hooliganism was a huge problem, especially among England supporters, so I associate the game with the kind of thuggery, racism, and bullying that I also associate with the Brexit campaign. The flag-waving morons that voted Brexit (which was entirely driven by English voters) look a lot like the flag-waving England team supporters. I’m not saying they are the same- I know many football fans who are perfectly lovely. But I am deeply, deeply suspicious of anything that looks like nationalism, which all international sporting events do. And when those extraordinary young men, under the fiercest pressure, failed to get a ball past Sr. Donnarumma in the penalty shoot out, sure enough a bunch of racist pricks in the crowd yelled predictably racist abuse at them. 

My feelings are also coloured by the experience of being stuck in boarding school surrounded by sports-mad kids, who looked without favour on kids who didn’t share their religion. My personal experience of large groups supporting a sports team is that they are dangerous. That’s not fair to the majority of fans, but explains some of my bias and my instinctive aversion to the group mentality that takes over fans in a stadium.

I’m also struck by a fact that I knew already, but hadn’t given much thought to. The NHS posted a message featuring women during the game: “if England get beaten, so will we”. The incidence of domestic violence in Britain go up by 50% every time there is a major sporting defeat. I shudder to think of the horrors inflicted late last night, that would not have happened if England had won (though I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the same phenomenon occurs in Italy, so it really wouldn’t make any difference who wins). I’m not suggesting that banning football would solve the problem, or even help it at all. But I would be a lot more impressed by the footballing community if they deliberately worked to diminish this awful side-effect of their sport, and there yet again is a reason for my instinctive dislike of organised sports.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention three England players: Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka. They missed their penalty shots. Boo hoo. But they also donated their entire tournament fees to the NHS to help with the Covid crisis. These are kids: aged 23, 21, and 19, and behaving with more grace and maturity than most people twice their age. Rashford particularly, as he also forced the current UK government of heartless corrupt venal and despicable arseholes to reverse themselves twice, most famously forcing them to feed poor children with free school meals, as if such a thing should ever be necessary. 

Here’s the thing. Was it a good game? I don’t know. It seemed like there was a lot of high-level sportsing going on, between two very evenly matched teams. I’ve lost some of the best, most enjoyable, most instructive fencing matches I’ve ever been a part of, and some I couldn’t tell you who won because we weren’t counting. Wouldn’t it be good if the thing that mattered wasn’t the outcome, but the quality of play? If England fans today were thrilled and honoured that their team got to play at that level more than they were disappointed by not scoring the most points?

Speaking of level, probably the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen done on a pitch was this catch by Indian cricketer Harleen Deol. No, I don’t watch cricket either (I just can’t get excited about the positions of round objects relative to white lines and/or sticks), a friend sent it to me. This is truly stunning. She catches the ball, realises she’s going to stumble over the boundary, throws the ball up, stumbles, turns, and dives to catch it. In an international match against England (and no, I don’t know or care who won: as far as I’m concerned, she did).

Don’t worry, this is not becoming a sports blog. We’ll be back to talking about swords more directly soon!

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