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

The AI revolution has been growing behind the scenes for a very long time, and now with chat bots like Chat GPT and image bots like Midjourney, the iceberg is breaking the surface. It puts me in mind of the machine-tool revolution in woodwork that occurred in the 60s and 70s, and the quartz revolution in watchmaking around the same time. The short-term result of both of these was that a lot of old-fashioned craftspeople went out of business, and it became much easier for lower-skilled workers to make decent quality furniture and watches, and much cheaper for ordinary people to buy a functional chair or timepiece.

What we see in both cases, and indeed in just about every case I can think of where new technology comes along, was a change in the market, which became much more democratic, and much broader, with a lower low end, and a much higher high end.

Let’s start with the woodwork example, as woodwork is millenia older than horology.

There is nothing in woodwork that you can’t build with just hand tools. Ships? Check. Lace cravat in limewood? Check.

This is Grinling Gibbons’ cravat, hand carved in about 1690, currently held in the Victoria and Albert museum

You can see how he (probably) did it in this astonishing video of Clunie Fretton’s partial reproduction.

Until recently, every woodworking project, including that cravat, went from tree to finished product with practically no mechanisation. All power was muscle power, human or animal. The tree was felled with axes, split with wedges, sawn by hand, planed by hand, and finished by hand. The circular saw dates back to the 18th century, when it was driven by wind or water power, and used in saw mills to cut trunks into planks, but it took a century or so to become widespread.

Mechanisation first occurred at the largest scales of woodworking: tree felling with chainsaws, ripping with giant circular saws, the planer-thicknesser (known as a jointer-planer in the US), and so on.

At one extreme, we have craftspeople making extraordinary things out of wood entirely with machines; at the other, we have craftspeople making extraordinary things out of wood with no machines at all. One great example of the latter is Tom Fidgen, author of a wonderful book The Unplugged Woodshop, who doesn’t use any machines at all! Yet he does run an online woodworking school… I wonder which makes more money?

At the level of the individual artisan working at the bench, the cataclysm of modernity didn’t really strike until the 1960s, with the development of smaller electric tools such as hand-held routers. This quickly lead to the demise of many companies making professional grade hand tools. It became very difficult to buy a decent saw or plane; all you could get was mass-produced low-grade wobbly crap. Just compare a Record plane from 1950 with one from 1975, and the cost-cutting is obvious. Plastic handles, parts made of bent mild steel rather than cast, etc. This was not the companies’ fault: the market for the high quality stuff just wasn’t big enough any more to be profitable.

But from the ashes of rubbish hand-tools, phoenixes have emerged, beginning with Lie-Nielsen Toolworks, founded in 1981. The top end of the market is now way, way, higher than it ever was before. Such as this saw from Skelton Saws:

The Chippendale, from Skelton Saws, a snip at £750

And planes from Karl Holtey, that begin at around £1k, if you can find them. Most are much more expensive.

Karl Holtey planes: the pinnacle of the art

Which make my beautiful, immaculate, Florip saws  look very cheap! I have five: their bench saw, tenon saws both rip and crosscut, and dovetail saws rip and crosscut. Oh my goddess, these are amazing, and all five together cost about the same as one Skelton. But of course, about ten times what I'd pay for the cheapest options. Likewise, you can get a really high end plane from Clifton (an old brand that was going bankrupt, and was rescued by one of the few surviving handsaw makers in the UK, Thomas Flinn), Lee-Nielsen, Veritas, etc for a tenth of the price of the equivalent Holtey, but yes, about ten times what the crap in the big box store will cost you.

You can get an idea of what it takes to make a really cheap plane work properly in this video by Rex Krueger.

Putting these tools to use, most craftspeople fall somewhere in between the high-tech and the hand tool-only. I have always had a romantic and aesthetic preference for hand tools, so avoid machines where practical. But here’s the thing: from the perspective of the end-user, it is impossible to distinguish a board that has been dimensioned by machine and finished by hand, and one from which every shaving was taken away through manual labour.

There is no difference- you only get to see the final surface. Likewise, an article written by ChatGPT will be like a rough-sawn board. Usable for some applications, but by the time a craftsperson has planed it smooth, sanded it, and applied some polish, nobody will know if she wrote it from scratch, or edited it from an AI generated draft. Most end-users, most of the time, couldn’t care less how their book was written or their furniture was made. It either meets spec, or it doesn’t.

It’s also worth noting that mastering woodworking machines is in its own way as demanding and difficult as mastering hand tools. You can’t just dump a load of wood in the machine shop, turn everything on, and hey-presto! Out comes new furniture. It’s just that it expands the lower end, and speeds up production: less-skilled workers can get useful work done, and more skilled workers can work dramatically faster, especially in getting sawn lumber dimensioned and planed all round.

The major downside of machines in woodworking (other than the noise and the dust) is that one can tend to make the furniture that the machine can handle. The machines become a limiting factor. If you can’t fit a board onto your planer, you might rip it down the middle so it will… when cutting dovetails, I usually lay out the tails so close together that it’s impossible to cut them with a router (the cutter shank won’t fit through the gap between the tails).

Anyone who knows about such things will immediately see that these were hand-cut. This has nothing to do with practicality, and everything to do with satisfaction. It’s sticking one finger up to the machine-tool revolution, and quite silly because a) it doesn’t make the joint stronger and b) I’m perfectly happy to use machines for other things. The groove for the drawer bottom in this very drawer was cut with a router, and I used a planer-thicknesser to bring the front and sides to thickness.

If you are unfamiliar with woodworking machines, you can see a state of the art modern set-up here in Matt Estlea’s overview video of the making of his Roubo-style workbench, “Bertha”.

And compare that to his traditional dovetail cutting tutorial.

Same craftsman, different jobs, so different tools.

Of course, most furniture isn’t made by any kind of craftsperson. It comes from factory assembly lines, in massive quantities at an extraordinarily low cost. It is literally cheaper to buy a table from IKEA than it is to buy the wood to make the same table yourself. The same people who are (probably rightfully) worried about how AI will steal their jobs are almost certainly wearing clothes made on machine looms, and using furniture mass-produced by industrial processes. And probably wearing quartz watches.

Speaking of watches, here is one of the best watches in the world:


The Casio AE1500. Yours for about £30. Reliable, waterproof, multi-function, does everything you could possibly ask of a watch… Except make your craftsmanship spidey-sense tingle with glee. Which this handmade IWC perpetual calendar watch (you won’t need to adjust the date, month, or moon calendar until the year 2100) certainly does.

Get this: using only gears, springs, and levers, this watch can handle date changes, including leap years. It’s all 100% mechanical. The mind boggles. Is that worth paying about a thousand times as much for the watch? Some people certainly think so. The Casio does all that the IWC can do with ease, and more, at about a thousandth of the cost. Though, if I’m 100% honest, if money were no object, the high-end watch I’d get would be the Rolex GMT Master II, with the pepsi bezel. What can I say? The heart wants what it wants. Rolex got me with their advertising in the 80s, and I’ve never quite lost the urge. I found this genuine ex-dealer wall clock on Etsy, and I love it to bits:

Getting back on track now (please admire the deftness with which I didn’t go down the wooden timepiece rabbit hole), the quartz revolution almost destroyed the Swiss watch industry. Before those cheap, reliable, tacky watches came along, all watches were purely mechanical. The fancy ones were self-winding, and had interesting complications like GMT functionality and/or showed the date, but that was about it. And when cheaper, more reliable, tackier watches became available, there was a winnowing of watch companies that is heartbreaking to contemplate. In 1970, there were approximately 1600 Swiss watchmaking companies. By 1983, there were about 600 left.

One brand that made a tremendous success out of cheap quartz watches was Swatch. They went on to buy up some of the struggling fancy brands (Breguet, developer of the Tourbillon escapement (patented in 1801). Breitling. Even James Bond’s Omega) and made them profitable. At the same time, Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin, and Rolex doubled down on the exclusive luxury end of the market and went from strength to strength, because they are not competing on price or time-keeping accuracy. They are competing on craftsmanship and artistry. It’s worth noting that Rolex and Patek Philippe particularly were actively developing their own quartz movements in the early days, so they were not in any sense Luddite about their approach to watchmaking. But they recognised a fight they'd never win, and so chose new ground to compete on.

Since the quartz apocalypse, there have been some astonishing new entrants into the field, such as Richard Mille and Kari Voutilainen (whose watches start around the 200 thousand dollar mark, about ten times what the IWC watch costs), or Finnish watchmakers S.U.F Helsinki, whose watches start at about a tenth of the IWC. These newcomers are not just filling the gap left by the older brands that failed and were bought up; the market for this kind of art/craft is much, much, larger than it ever was. In terms of price, it goes approximately like so: Casio: x 100 = S.U.F Helsinki: x 100 = Voutilainen. The gap between the bottom end and the top is almost infinite: there are new watches by new makers out there that cost millions.

What does all this have to do with AI? Well, it’s the power-tool, quartz movement, equivalent for knowledge workers of all kinds, including programmers, graphic designers, and writers. Bill Gates reckons (in his article The Age of AI Has Begun) that this is the biggest thing since the graphical user interface, and he’s pretty well placed to make that assessment.  The article is relatively fair-minded, and highlights some pros and cons. Pros include better cheaper healthcare, cons include the risks of AIs being misused by the malicious, and major disruption to the livelihoods of knowledge workers.

Here is what will happen, because it’s what always happens:

The market will split. There will be some people out of work because AI does their job better and faster than they can, and they can’t adapt fast enough. There will be some people who successfully position themselves as the hand-tool/mechanical watch artisan equivalent: poets, literary fiction writers, and so on. And there will be most people in between who learn to use the new tools, and use them to make more stuff, faster, and better.

There is space in the market for the cheap, practical, gets the job done for not much money solution. And there is space for the artisanal, bespoke, gets the job done for a lot more money solution.

On the left of my wall clock, there’s a version of my publishing imprint Spada Press’s logo, done on vellum, by the incomparable Nora Cannaday (whom I interviewed in episode 28 of The Sword Guy podcast).

Spada Press logo by Nora Cannaday (nee Kirkeby, hence the signature), at

It’s a one-off work of art. I also have this one, that I use in all my books:

Spada press logo, by Robert Simpson, at

Done precisely to spec, by the excellent Robert Simpson, using digital tools (which graphic designers were up in arms about in the 80s and 90s), and which has now been reproduced thousands of times in printed books and ebooks.

Which one is “better”? That really depends on what you want. They are both exactly what I asked for and are both excellent.

The real question is, who benefits from all this progress?

Back in the 80s, one teacher at school was banging on about how, with the new desktop publishing, you could do in a morning what used to take a week. I asked if you’d expect to get the rest of the week off, then? He said no…

And this is how it will go. If you are working for yourself, or it’s your company, then increasing productivity is usually a good thing, up to the point that it decreases the value of your product, and until your competitors become similarly more productive. If you work for someone else, this will just mean that you are expected to produce x times as much, for the same money or less.

In Gates’ article, he wrote:

“When productivity goes up, society benefits because people are freed up to do other things, at work and at home.” (Emphasis mine)

This is the most egregious rubbish. When productivity goes up, people are expected to do more work in less time. End of story. AI will mean either redundancy or more product for the same pay, for most employees affected by it.

Mark Hurst at Creative Good is a technologist who is usefully sceptical of various aspects of the modern techscape, including AI. He makes the point in his article ChatGPT’s dangers are starting to show that the companies involved in AI development are working to “privatise the gains, and socialise the losses”. 

One critical area where the law has simply not been written yet is the use of copyright material to train AIs. To my mind, it’s a blatant violation of the rights of the creator to use their work (usually writing or graphic art of some kind) to train a machine to create other art in that style. Creators should have the right to decline such use, or to get paid to allow it, just as they might licence a film studio to make a movie out of their novel. I think it will be extremely difficult to prove what material the AI has used- for instance, any chatbot AI probably has access to every blog post ever written. But those posts are in most cases copyrighted to the writer. How do you prove that the AI stole your work? This is a solvable problem, I just hope that our society does the work to solve it. Making the owners of the AI liable for any infringements would go a long way towards motivating them to program the bot to behave ethically.

I think that dangerous new technology requires some kind of regulation. Cars, for instance. You need a licence and insurance to drive one. With AI, the primary worry is that ignorant people will mistake an algorithm with access to a finite (though very large) database for the arbiter of truth. And unscrupulous people will use AI to manipulate us into buying more stuff we don’t need, or voting for the wrong people. These are genuine concerns, but I am more concerned with the people who will become redundant, because they either don’t adapt, or re-brand, or their specific area is simply no longer needed by anyone. There can and should be some provision for them.

There is nothing inherently moral or immoral in AI. It’s a tool. It can and will be used to make our lives easier and better; and it can and will be used to make our lives worse. This is true for every tool ever made. Swords bring justice and defend the weak. Swords murder the innocent. It’s not the tool, it’s what we do with it. I could brain you with my #7 plane, stab you with a chisel, or use a chunky steel watch as a knuckleduster, which is how Mr. Bond broke his Rolex in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (the book, not the movie). Though the tools you have access to will tend to guide your choices, whether you're conscious of it or not. When you're holding a hammer, you look for nails. I'm much more likely to joint an edge with my #7 that I am to hit anyone with it.

When I was thinking about getting a new (to me) car back when I lived in Finland, I considered getting a four-wheel drive, because it's that much less likely to get stuck in the snow. I asked a friend who really knows cars, and he said: “with four-wheel drive, you still get stuck, but in worse places”. Tools guide choices.

It's also true that all new technologies have unanticipated, often unanticipatable, consequences, for good or ill. I'm not a prophet, so won't make any predictions about the unanticipatable. But the obvious (to me at least) negative consequence of chatbot AI, like ChatGPT, is that we will outsource our thinking, and so become less good at it. Plato famously decried writing things down as bad for the memory. Folk are continuously ascribing all sorts of things to Plato and others (as Abe Lincoln famously tweeted: don't believe everything you read on the internet), so I'll quote him at length. He puts this story into Socrates' mouth:

The story goes that Thamus [a mythical inventor of writing] said many things to Theuth [a mythical king of Egypt] in praise or blame of the various arts, which it would take too long to repeat; but when they came to the letters, “This invention, O king,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.” But Thamus replied, “Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess. For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise. (Source:

He was right, but I think we'd all agree that the loss of memory skill is worth the upside of writing. I think ChatGPT threatens to create a net dumbing effect on its users. Nicholas Carr warned of a similar effect of the internet itself, and most particularly Google, in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. He was not wrong. I don't know how many times I've explained to my kids that googling a search term is not the same thing as researching a topic. So we should be watchful for any feeling along the lines of ‘I'm too busy/tired/stressed to do this myself so I'll just get the bot to do it'. The main red flag for this is whether something you used to do yourself becomes “too difficult” if you don't have access to the AI helper.

Banning the new technology, as some people whose livelihoods are affected by it are calling for, is never an effective solution. It has been tried over and over again, just about every time a new, revolutionary, technology comes along. Banning nuclear weapons didn’t stop North Korea from getting their hands on them. It simply doesn’t work. I bet the horse-drawn carriage makers did their damndest to get those nasty mechanised car things taken off the streets. Or restricted to the speed of a horse. And guess what? Some carriage makers went into business making bodies for cars, and some people still drive horse-powered carriages for fun. But yes, an awful lot of them just went out of business. I don’t say ‘adapt or die’. But I do say ‘regulate and adapt, or die’.

Personally, as a self-employed swordsmanship instructor and writer, I can see how using AI could help me produce better books, faster, by (for instance) creating outlines, rough first drafts of specific chapters, back-cover blurb, etc. But there is no way for ChatGPT to run a seminar for me, or to conceive of the idea of a new training manual for the Art of Arms. Also, I’m very much at the bespoke, luxury, end of the market. Absolutely nobody has an existential need for a swordsmanship lesson, so automation is not a concern. You can probably tell from the headline photo, in which I'm wearing a vintage hand-winding Roamer watch from the 50s, and using a Record #4 hand plane from the 30s that belonged to my grandfather, that I'm aesthetically always on the side of the old ways. I teach swordsmanship, not shooting.

A Roamer watch, a Record plane. And the first five saws in the saw till are my Florips.

Swords, spears, and bows used to be state-of-the-art weaponry, but were superseded by guns. Swordsmanship and archery devolved into competitive sports (throwing javelins did too), and even twenty years ago there were precious few swordmakers in the Western world. But there has been a renaissance of historical martial arts, and a consequent renaissance in the craft of swordmaking. That doesn’t help those smiths who went out of business a couple of centuries ago, but it does suggest that there will be a resurgence of appreciation for older ways of doing things in the future. It’s hard to think of a technology where this doesn’t apply.

Music? CDs and tapes killed vinyl… but vinyl came back stronger than ever. We now have streaming at the bottom end, and vinyl at the top, with CDs in the middle.

Ebooks were supposed to kill print stone dead… only for print to survive, thrive, and for high-end leather bound editions to become more popular, and more profitable, than ever. Brandon Sanderson’s latest kickstarter, for a leather bound 10th anniversary edition of his Way of Kings, raised just under seven MILLION dollars! (I could get a thousand Breitling watches for that! not to mention a thousand Holtey planes!) But print is dead, right?

Midjourney image generation does not threaten David Hockney, or Lina Iris Viktor. It does threaten folk making a living producing graphics for websites. Chat GPT does not threaten poets like Simon Armitage or Amanda Gorman. It does threaten writers making generic blog posts for other people's websites (who, incidentally, keep pitching me to write completely off-topic crap for this site!).

It’s not my place to offer advice to people in different circumstances to mine (and unsolicited advice is usually obnoxious). But I see it, if you work in areas likely to be affected by AI, you have two options. Either master the new tool and use it to make your work even better, or brand yourself at the other end of the market. Both work, and both have value. There will always be people looking for the cheapest option, but there will also always be people looking for the hand made option, and who are willing to pay for it.


Further reading:

My brother Richard Windsor blogs about all sorts of tech stuff, including AI, from the perspective of investment advice. You can find his bearish take on GPT-4 here:

Joanna Penn got me thinking about AI as it affects writers, and she has written about it extensively on her blog, here:

Wikipedia article on the “quartz crisis”:

John Harrison, winner of the Longitude prize, and maker of clocks, including all-wood clocks (you can jump down that rabbit hole yourself!):


As well as being a spy, soldier, and diplomat, la Chevalière d’Eon was one of the greatest fencers in the world. She was a regular dinner guest at Domenico Angelo’s house, and most famously fenced with le Chevalier St. Georges (also a soldier, and a composer and musician), in a demonstration bout for the Prince of Wales in 1787. This took place in Carlton House, which was the main London residence of King George IV. To put that in perspective, it would be like you being asked to fence at Buckingham Palace for Prince William. This bout was immortalised in paint by Charles Jean Robineau.

Robineau’s painting was copied many times, in various engravings, such as this one by Victor Marie Picot.

She is a fascinating character, even more so when you consider that she lived the first 49 years of her life as a man, and the final 32 as a woman. And she was still fencing at this level at the age of 58! While nobody at the time would have used the term ‘trans woman’, it would certainly apply.

Regular readers of this blog, or my newsletter, or followers of my podcast, will know that I am very keen on making historical martial arts as inclusive as possible, and as part of that I have created a range of T-shirts featuring women, with the text “If X were alive today, she’d be teaching Y at Swordschool .com”. I have Walpurgis from I.33 for Sword and Buckler, Lady Agnes Hotot for Longsword, and la Maupin for Rapier. When I was trying to think of a good historical person for Y=Smallsword, I thought of d’Eon straight away. The paintings and engravings are actually very difficult to print onto a shirt in a way that looks right, so I asked Claire Mead (@carmineclaire) to create a version, based on the painting.

So here she is, in her most modern incarnation!


And here's a mockup of the shirt:

You can find the shirts here:

the coast of Islay seen from the ferry.

Life is worth living because of the people you love, and who love you. But everybody dies. In a perfect world, children would still bury their parents, but parents would never bury their children.

My father died recently, peacefully at home at the age of 83. The circumstances really couldn’t have been improved upon, and yet it was still, of course, a complicated, stressful, difficult, painful, grief-ridden time. I imagine you have gone through something similar, or will at some point in the future, so I have some thoughts on what was helpful to me and share them here in the hopes that it may make your own experience more bearable.

Everybody dies

We all know that, from the neck up. But if you know it in your bones, then when someone you love dies, it won’t be a surprise. You won’t have to spend precious energy on orienting yourself to the idea that the person has died. Because everybody dies. It’s what we do.

I take this to such extremes that I religiously say goodbye to my kids when they go off to school (they’re old enough to probably prefer it if I just stayed out of the way!) but there is a non-zero chance that we’ll never see each other again, and I want the last thing they hear from me to be something along the lines of “I love you”.

When I was 18, my best friend’s 17 year-old sister died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage while out with her friends. It came completely out of the blue: one second she was chatting and laughing, then lights out. Hers was the first funeral I ever attended, and it hammered home to me that everybody, but everybody, dies. And we don’t know when. A few months later my much-loved grandma also died, at 86. Hers was the second funeral I went to, and the difference between the two was precisely the difference between sadness and tragedy.

You’ll miss it when it’s gone

I don’t use my phone if I can possibly avoid it. A few friends and close family have my number, and various people who need it, but that’s it. I don’t put it on my business card. Because why on earth would you assume that the person you are calling has nothing better to do right now than answer the phone? I love talking to my friends, but almost invariably arrange a time in advance, I don’t call out of the blue.

Dad did though. Usually in the middle of my peak work flow time. Almost always for something that could very well have been an email or a text. Quite often just to tell me about something that he’d heard on the radio vaguely connected with swords. When the phone went and I saw it was him, I always picked up, and as I was doing so, expelled the “don’t interrupt me” annoyance with the thought “you’ll miss this when he’s gone”. And I do. Fucking interrupt me, dad, I’m just writing a blog post.

I’m so very glad that I had that thought in my head, and didn’t waste my time on work stuff at the expense of hearing whatever it was he wanted to tell me.

You don’t get over it, you just get used to it

When my mother-in-law died,  my mum, who had lost her mother some 25 years earlier, said that to my wife, and she was right. When someone you love dies it punches a hole in your world. While you will grow around it, there will always be a mark. Every family gathering from now on will have a gap in it where dad should be. We won’t get over it, but we will get used to it, and at the end of the day, what would a family gathering look like if nobody ever died? You couldn’t find a venue big enough to hold a party for a thousand generations of forebears and their offspring.

Save your spoons

Kind people, lovely people, get in touch to give their condolences. This is nice, and the proper thing to do. But when I do it, I always include something along the lines of ‘no reply expected’. Because otherwise you find yourself constantly thanking people, and it’s weird, tiring, and it turns their kindness into a burden of politeness which they presumably did not intend. So save your spoons, and don’t worry about replying to everyone. Anyone who would be offended by not getting a reply to their condolences isn’t really sympathetic.

Grief, and the extraordinary amount of bullshit admin that comes with a bereavement, are exhausting in ways you may not anticipate. For instance, a couple of weeks ago I went into my shed to cut the panels for the doors for a cabinet I've been making for my study. It's really simple woodwork: measure the exact size, cut a piece of 6mm plywood to the right size (a fraction generous), and trim to fit. Easy for a woodworker of my experience. But I found myself unsure of where to start. Measuring? Hauling the plywood out to have a look at it? finding a saw? What measuring tools to use? It was bizarre, but I figured my brain was occupied with other things, so I did a little tidying up and went back inside. A few days later I tried again, and it took about half an hour, job done.

Be grateful where you can

There is always something to be grateful for. In my dad’s case, things really couldn’t have gone more easily. He knew he was dying for a few weeks before he actually did so, which meant there was time to say goodbye and other things, express some final wishes (more on that below), and the process itself was remarkably peaceful and almost painless. He died at home, in his own bed, so quietly that my mum didn’t even wake up. We should all be so lucky. If his illness had been painful, then we could have been grateful for the pain ending. There is always something, if you look. It's not that bereavement should make you grateful, it's that finding a way to feel grateful makes the bereavement easier on you.

Respect their wishes but don’t be ruled by them

In the hospital, once he knew he was dying and there was nothing that the doctors could do for him, all dad wanted was to come home. It took a bit of persuading for the medical staff to release him. In essence, they weren’t expecting us to be explicit about and unembarrassed by death, and they didn’t want him going into an environment where the people around him weren’t ready to look after him as he would need. Once I explained our situation, and our mental preparedness, they cancelled all further investigations (blood tests that would show that nothing had improved; scans that would show that he was dying) and let him go. He was so keen to get home that he didn’t want to wait until the next morning when an ambulance would be able to take him, so I drove him home myself.

It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, because I wanted him “safe” in the hospital, surrounded by professionals. But it wasn’t what he wanted, so I kept my mouth shut and got it done.

But, in his funeral arrangements there were a couple of things he wanted that I felt perfectly entitled to say no to. Here’s how I see it: If there is no afterlife, and death is the end, then the funeral is only for the living, and so the dead person’s wishes are a guideline at best; they won’t be affected by whatever you do. If there is an afterlife, then they are too busy being blissed out (one hopes) that they won’t care that certain details didn’t get done the way they wanted.

That’s all so far… (see “save your spoons”, above).

I’m cracking on with various projects (including editing dad’s last volume of memoirs), and not pushing things too hard. Grief is the price we pay for love, and it’s one hell of a bargain.

There’s a lot of doom and gloom going around at the moment. As the pestilence has subsided a bit, we’ve got war and famine instead. If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed and crap, it’s not your fault. But I have one key idea and two practices that may help.

The key idea:

Your experience is created by your external circumstances, and your reaction to them.

You may not be in control of the first, but you can be in control of the second, at least up to a point.

For most people there are limits; no amount of sang-froid will help in some situations, and it’s possible to be miserable in paradise.

But for most of us, most of the time, even when we are faced with circumstances beyond our control, we have some latitude around how we respond to them.

  1. The first rule is: whoever stays calm longest wins.
  2. The second rule is: focus on your area of control.
  3. And the third and final rule is: your negative emotional state doesn’t help anyone, even you.

Let’s imagine you’ve behaved badly (shockingly unlikely I know, but this is a thought experiment). Feeling guilty about it doesn’t affect the person you’ve wronged- but making amends might.

Or let’s imagine someone has behaved badly towards you (something everyone has experienced at some point). Being angry or miserable as a consequence doesn’t change what happened, and if the action was deliberate, it’s also helping your enemy reach their goal.

The Practices

I think we can agree that being able to control your response to circumstances is a superpower. The primary skills involved are remaining calm (i.e. controlling your state of physiological arousal), and choosing what your mind dwells on. The practices I use to develop those skills are breathing exercises and meditation.

They go together very well: a lot of breathing exercises are meditative, and a lot of meditation styles involve breath work.

Here’s a very simple example for you. It will take about a minute.

Generally speaking, when your exhale is longer than your inhale, your system calms down (i.e. it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system). And when you are paying attention to your breath, you are by definition not paying attention to the thing that is bothering you that is beyond your control.

  1. Take a moment, and do one slow inhale, and then breathe out as long and slow as you can.
  2. Now try that again, and focus on the feeling of the inhale, and the feeling of the exhale.\

How do you feel?

Told you it was very simple!

I’ve been studying these things for a long time (I was taught my first breathing exercise in I think 1990), and I have courses on breathing and meditation. If you are already enrolled in either course, or the Solo Training course, or the Mastering the Art of Arms subscription, you already have access, so should maybe go do some practice, or skip ahead to the podcast announcement.

But if you don’t have access to the courses yet and would like to, I’ve dropped the prices to make them super-affordable. Because almost everyone is struggling with the inflation and cost of living crisis, and this is the stuff I have that is most likely to be helpful.

Meditation for Martial Artists is here:

The usual price is $140, but you can get it for $25 with this code: JANUARYDESTRESS

Fundamentals: Breathing is here:

The usual price is $129 but you can get it for $25 with this code: JANUARYDESTRESS

Correct sales practice is to create a sense of scarcity to increase demand by putting a time-limit on the sale (as I usually do, because it massively increases sales), but the last thing we need right now is more scarcity, so I’m not going to. Those codes expire in about three years!

It is also normal practice to bombard you with reminders, testimonials, etc. to persuade you to part with your cash, but again it seems not a kind thing to do right now. If the courses aren’t a no-brainer purchase for you, don’t buy them.

But, for those of my readers and students currently sitting on glorious piles of cash, feel free to either pay full price, and/or buy some other courses or books of mine, I’d appreciate it.

My father Roger Windsor died on Tuesday 22nd, at home. Sometime in the night- so peacefully that my mum didn’t wake up. He was 83, and lived to see seven grandchildren. Here he is on his 83rd birthday.

Losing a parent at the age of 8 is a tragedy. At 48, it’s a privilege. But still very distressing, very sad.

He left clear instructions for his funeral though, which included the following:

“NO black ties. I have enjoyed my life- be happy for me.”

He had many fine qualities. If there were a prize for best bedtime story reader ever, he’d be a strong contender. He did all the voices. His kids birthday party treasure hunts were legendary. And he spent his entire working life helping people, mostly in the developing world. Perhaps his defining feature was stubbornness, but matched by a profound integrity. Let me tell you a story:

We were on holiday in Aruba (stopping off to or from Peru, where we lived at the time). He insisted I have a go at wind surfing, because I’d done it a couple of times at school some years before.

Just fyi: windsurfing on a reservoir in England as part of a school trip is not like windsurfing in the sea with no supervision.

Before very long, I was drifting helplessly out into the blue, waving frantically for rescue. Some kind American tourists in a tiny motorboat tried to help, and managed to slice up the sail with their propellor.

I was eventually rescued by the chap who ran the board hire place. When he saw the sail he told my dad he’d have to pay for it. But as far as dad could see, their insurance should cover it, and he was being ripped off. Dad was never one to back down, so we eventually walked away with the owner still yelling at us.

Back at the hotel, dad mentioned this to the manager, who told him that actually, on Aruba, the norm was for the renter to take responsibility for that kind of damage. The owner’s insurance wouldn’t cover it.

So we went back to the hire place. The man was astonished to see us back, but my dad apologised, and handed over the cash.

I can’t think of a single example of dad failing to do what he thought was the right thing.

He wasn’t always right, of course. But he was always true.

He didn’t have to understand what I was doing to support it. When I wanted to do English at University, instead of biology, he was baffled, but supportive. When I quit cabinetmaking to teach swordsmanship full time, he was even more baffled, but supportive. To the end I don’t think he ever quite got what the whole sword thing was about- but he didn’t need to, to be very proud of me. I think that’s extraordinary, and I try to model the same for my kids.

We knew the end was coming. He was taken ill at the end of October, and spent a few weeks in hospital while they figured out that they couldn’t fix it. Being a veterinarian he knew the limits of medical science and understood exactly what was going to happen. No bluster, no demanding miracles, no denial, just facing death head-on. Fearless.

And so he came home and spent his last week at home with family, gently fading away.

You may have come across his memoirs, The Veterinary Detectives. Vol. 1: More Sherlock Holmes than James Herriot, and volume 2: A Vet in Peru. He had just about completed volume 3 A Vet for all Regions  before he got ill, and he asked me to get it out into the world, so you can expect it in 2023.

As his memoirs attest he lived a full and interesting life and made legions of friends all over the world. I'll miss him horribly, of course. But no regrets.

There is a ton of jargon in most specialised fields, and historical martial arts are no different. A smallsword fencer cares about the difference between a colichemarde and a spadroon; falchion folk distinguish between messer, storta, and hanger. The same is true of academics who study old books and ways of writing (palaeographers. Not to be confused with palaeontologists, who study fossils). The historical martial arts world and academia overlap in many ways, and it’s useful to be able to speak a bit of academese when discussing our work, so I’ve put together an explanation of the more common academic expressions used in our field. The words in bold are the ones I’m defining, and you can find an alphabetised glossary of them at the bottom of the post. Pretty much every word in the list is the gateway to an entire universe of bookish geekery, and more than worthy of an entire post in its own right, so I have provided links to more extended discussions of them in case you have time on your hands. I have manfully resisted getting sucked into the etymology of these words (did you know that “book” comes from the proto-Germanic word “bokiz”, or beech (as in the tree), because beechwood was used for carving words into? Did you want to know? Ok, back to the topic…) 

This list is a work in progress- if you think there are words to add, please do email me to let me know, or post the word in the comments below. We're already at 38 from the original 33!

Let’s start with something that should be obvious, but isn’t. What is a ‘book’? 

In the Bible, a ‘book’ is a collection of writings attributed to one author, or a major chapter heading. The Book of Genesis, for instance, or The Book of Job. The Bible itself is (we would say) a ‘book’, which is divided up into ‘books’. If the Bible is presented in a single volume, it is a single physical book-like object. Fabris’ Scienza d’Arme comprises “book one” and “book two”, but has always been published in a single volume. 

Things get even more complicated when we’re talking about manuscripts. A manuscript is a text that has been written by hand. It’s usually abbreviated as ms or MS, and plural mss or MSS. It could be written on paper, vellum, or anything else, but if it’s written by hand it’s a manuscript. A shopping list scrawled in biro on the back of an envelope is a manuscript. My gorgeous first edition of Capoferro in the photo below is not a manuscript- it was printed in 1610.

Because they are produced by hand each manuscript is different, so you can have a single treatise (a treatment of a subject in depth- I’ll define it further later on) that exists in different forms, such as the four quite distinct versions of Il Fior di Battaglia by Fiore dei Liberi. Each version is of course ‘a book’, bound in a single ‘volume’ but the ‘treatise’ presented in each volume is somewhat different.

If the manuscript is illustrated, it has drawings in it. Most historical martial arts manuscripts are illustrated. But often not illuminated. The difference is, an illuminated manuscript is illustrated in colour, with gold and/or silver leaf. Fiore’s Getty ms barely qualifies as illuminated- he uses gold leaf for the crowns and garters (and silver leaf for the sword blades in the Morgan ms), and the capital F at the very beginning is illuminated too.

A handy rule of thumb: illustrated mss have drawings, illuminated ones are in colour. Text that is written in red (such as chapter headings, or indeed the names Fiore gives to his guard positions) is called ‘rubric’ which these days has come to mean a class or category, because of how red text was used in many medieval mss.

Vellum, or parchment, is a kind of rawhide, usually made from calves or goats, scraped clean, dried, and variously treated. Many but not all manuscripts that have survived from the middle ages were written on vellum.

In the earliest days of writing on something other than clay, wax, or stone, writings on parchment, paper, or papyrus were rolled up into a tube, called a scroll. Then in about 300 AD some bright spark thought they’d fold the sheets in half and stitch them together along the fold, like a modern book. These early books are called codices, singular ‘codex’. It’s got everything to do with how they are made, and nothing at all to do with their content (they do not usually deal with code). 

With the advent of pages came the knotty problem of how to number them. In a modern book we tend to number the first right-hand page 1, the other side of it 2, the next one 3, and so on. In manuscript studies we tend to call the first sheet ‘folio 1’. The side that is up when the page is on the right is ‘recto’, and the other side is ‘verso’. So, folio 1r is the recto side of the first folio. “As we see on f27v” means “as we see on the verso side of folio 27”. Numbering pages by folio is called ‘foliation’.

It doesn’t help matters that ‘folio’ also refers to the size of a volume.  Books come in various sizes, which are pretty standardised these days. But historically, if you take one sheet of vellum, the size of which is determined by the size of the animal it grew on, and fold it in half, you get a ‘folio’. If you fold it in half again, you get a quarto. One more fold, and you get an octavo. The Getty manuscript of Fiore dei Liberi’s Il Fior di Battaglia is a ‘folio’. Vadi’s De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi is an octavo. This matters because vellum is very expensive, and by folding it smaller you could produce the book in a smaller size using less vellum, saving a lot of money. The size of the book tells us something about how much money the author or publisher had to spend on it. The quality of the handwriting and the extent of the illustrations, and the decoration on the cover also tells us a lot- some very expensive books were small to fit in a pocket, not to save money. But in general, smaller=cheaper.

It doesn’t stop there- the next size down is “duodecimo” (McBane’s Expert Sword-man’s companion is a good example), and it continues down to sexagesimo-quarto! You can find out more about book sizing here:

Because vellum was so expensive, and tough, people would sometimes scrape all the ink off a book, and write a different book on the blank pages. A book that has been erased and a new one written over it is called a palimpsest. One very famous example of this is the Archimedes Palimpsest in which some numpty-head erased Archimedes’ incredibly rare maths treatise and wrote in some incredibly common religious stuff instead. The deleted (but recoverable) work is called the undertext.

Books are normally bound in quires, gatherings, or signatures, which are a certain number of leaves folded and assembled together, before being stitched along the fold. These quires are stacked and stitched together to make the volume. This sizing convention (folio, quarto, octavo) persisted when paper became more widely available and largely replaced vellum, so Shakespeare’s “First Folio” was printed in that size because of the high status it suggested. 

The collation of a book is the structure in which the quires or signatures are bound. Most modern books have a regular number of pages in a quire, but it’s very common for older books to have an irregular structure, and when we collate a book and analyse that structure, it can tell us useful things about  the history of the book: what might be missing, what might have fallen out and been put back in the wrong place, whether the book has been rebound during its lifetime, and so on. 

Collation is usually abbreviated a,b,c etc to indicate the signatures, with a number afterwards indicating the number of pages. The collation of De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi is: a10 b4 c-d10 e8. This means there are five signatures, the first is 10 folia, so five sheets of vellum folded in half; the second has four pages (so, is made of two sheets), and so on.

Unhelpfully for aspiring scholars, collation also refers to a comparison study between different versions of the same text (such as for instance a comparative study of the four Fiorean mss.)

The printing press was developed in about 1450, and by the standards of the time it took off like a rocket, with the numbers of books printed going up every year. The earliest printed books looked a lot like manuscripts, because at the time, that’s what books were supposed to look like.  An incunable (or incunabulum, plural incunabula) is a printed book from the early days of print; the traditional cut-off point is 1500. 

You can buy a facsimile edition: a facsimile is an accurate copy of a book. For instance, both the HEMA Bookshelf high-end gorgeous leather-bound edition of the Getty ms is a facsimile, and so is my affordable-end throw-it-in-your-fencing-bag-priced edition. You can imagine what it did to my geeky heart when I realised that the HEMA Bookshelf facsimile went so far as to recreate the actual collation of the original ms!

An exact facsimile is not really an ‘edition’ of the treatise. Edition implies some editorial changes. It would be fair to call my translation and commentary on De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi an edition of the treatise, because it’s not just the facsimile, it’s also a translation and commentary, with an introduction giving background on the book, the author, and the dedicatee.

gloss is an explanation of a word or phrase, which is why the pdf at the bottom of this post is a “glossary”, a list of such explanations. But, when Peter von Danzig wrote a treatise in which he explains and expands on Liechtenauer's zettel (a set of mnemonic verses), that is also a “gloss”. Historically, glosses would often be written in the margins or between the lines of the original text. It would be fair to describe my own From Medieval Manuscript to Modern Practice as a gloss of Fiore's longsword plays.

So what about their content? What’s the difference between a treatise and an essay and a monograph? This definition from Wikipedia is accurate: “A treatise is a formal and systematic written discourse on some subject, generally longer and treating it in greater depth than an essay, and more concerned with investigating or exposing the principles of the subject and its conclusions. A monograph is a treatise on a specialised topic.”

So, a single treatise may come in many different editions. For instance, Fabris’ Scienza d’Arme was published as a printed book in 1606, but there is also a manuscript version, and of course his original text would have been a manuscript (which as far as we know does not survive).

It is often necessary to transcribe a work, especially manuscripts. This can be done ‘diplomatically’, in which you copy out every character, diacritic (a mark used to distinguish different forms of a character, such as ë, é, etc.) and punctuation mark as accurately as possible, or allowing for more interpretation, such as expanding abbreviations. The word “p˜” appears in the Fiorean manuscripts very often, and represents the word “per”, for. A diplomatic transcription would use p˜, a more liberal transcription would expand it to “per”. 

Translation is the process of converting the source text into a different language. There is no translation without interpretation, and there are differing degrees of translation. A literal translation (or metaphrase) converts each word into the target language without reference to the phrase it appears in or the work as a whole. This can lead to gibberish, especially when one word can have many different literal translations. “Match”, for example, could be translated into French as “allumette” (something to light a fire with), “partie” (a game), “rencontre” (meeting), “mariage” (romantic match), “égal” (equal), and so on.  It’s generally more useful to do an analogous translation (or paraphrase), which is one where you find the closest match in the target language to the phrase you are translating.

You may do a modernisation while you’re at it- you can for example convert all spellings to their modern form, or even go so far as to update the syntax (the rules of sentence structure. You know a sentence bad is when read it you do).

What about the images?

In a manuscript the images are usually hand-drawn. There are exceptions, usually presentation manuscripts that have the images printed, and the text written in by hand (such as we see in the manuscript version of Fabris’ book, mentioned above). The earliest prints were made by carving the reverse of the image you want out of wood, leaving the lines you want printed untouched. This was then coated in ink and stamped onto the page. These woodcuts are quite characteristic. There's a useful article on how woodcuts were made here: The The first edition of Marozzo’s Arte dell’Armi had woodcuts, like this one, as borrowed from Wiktenaur:

Some time in the 15th century (perhaps as early as 1430) they developed a technique for engraving (with a hard-pointed tool) or etching (with acid) the reversed images onto copper plates. gives much finer definition that you can get in a woodcut. The technique of copperplate engraving became widespread in the 16th century, and produces images like this one from my 1568 copy of Arte dell’Armi:

Phew! that's a lot of stuff to be getting on with. I've put together a PDF of these terms as a handy reference guide, which you may find useful. It's here:

Academese Glossary v.1.02

And if you'd like some Further Reading:

For a really thorough look at the technical terms used to describe manuscripts, try Michelle P. Brown’s very thorough Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: a guide to technical terms. 

C. S. Lewis's Studies in Words is also useful: it is specifically about the difficulties in reading and understanding old books. Thanks to Jay Rudin for the recommendation.