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The School of European Swordsmanship was born on a Scottish hilltop, not far from Fort William. I was at a crossroads in my life, and went up into the hills to clear my mind, and meditate on what I should do. I thought my options were to stay in Edinburgh, or move to America. It was a bit more complicated than that, but the other people involved might be reading this and would probably prefer that I not go into detail.

So I went and sat on a mountaintop (cliché perhaps, but it worked), entered a meditative state, and a voice in my head said “Go to Helsinki and open a school of swordsmanship”.

So I did.

But there were about 6 months of preparation and groundwork between revelation and the actual move to Finland, and one of the things I needed to do was create a logo for the new school. But what on earth should that logo be?

So I meditated on it, and came up with this:

Which became this:

Fourteen years later, hundreds of people worldwide train under this logo, so I thought I’d better explain what it represents.

The Shield: the principle of defence, of course. It’s a heraldic device, and a perfect image for the ideals of the School.

The Longsword: I knew from the beginning that I wanted the Longsword, and specifically Fiore’s style, to be the foundation of our practise. This is because at the time it was the type of sword that I could best practise with for spiritual purposes. It was the tool I was using to create the self I wished to be. I could rationalise it a hundred other ways, but that’s the real reason.

The Rapier: solid, practical fencing. This sword style (and I was thinking early Italian, from the beginning) is practical, straightforward, and embodies the principles of fencing most clearly. It’s the stripping away of all other things, armour, horses, knightliness, everything, until all you have left is two people in shirts, sword in hand.

The symbols on the shield are of course Fiore’s four virtues, from the famous “Segno Page”. I was working from the Pisani Dossi at the time, so here it is from there:

I thought the objects (arrow, heart, castle and dividers) would work much better in a logo than the animals (Tiger, Lion, Elephant and Lynx).

The Castle, fortitudo, or strength (see I am Weak for a post on that virtue), the Arrow, presteza or speed (see I am Slow for a post on that virtue), the Heart, ardimento or boldness (see “I am Fearful”, in Swordfighting for Writers, Game Designers, and Martial Artists, for a chapter on that virtue), and the Dividers, avvisamento, (which I refer to in The Medieval Longsword, but have not gone into in depth anywhere, yet. It’s the hardest virtue to write about).

The point of these is to remind all students that they must keep these virtues in balance: strength without stiffness, speed without losing your balance, boldness without rashness, and prudence without cowardice.

In the middle we have the circle, square and triangle, representing at one level, the basic patterns of movement, but also geometry as a virtue in itself. This puts a group of three things in the centre, surrounded by a group of four things; a trinity and a quaternity (or indeed a triangle and a square). Readers of part one of the forthcoming The Swordsman's Quick Guide series, The Seven Principles of Mastery will be on familiar ground here.

Geometry is important not only because Vadi mentions it, but also because it is a perfect metaphor for training. Geometry is perfect in theory, and flawed in practice. Nobody has ever drawn a truly perfect circle, or a truly straight line. But we can hold geometrical truths in our minds, however imperfectly they are embodied in reality. Pi has an infinite number of digits after the decimal place; it is impossible to write the number down. But you can represent it geometrically with ease; just scribe a straight line, put your compass anywhere on the line, and draw a circle. The length of the circumference of the circle is Pi multiplied by the length of the diameter. Simple.

The motto of the School is In Gladio Veritas. I derived this from the common phrase in vino veritas, “truth is in wine”, which basically means that drunk people tend to tell the truth. The ideal on which the School is founded is the virtue of Truth. One of my students, Ken Quek, wrote his thesis for Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences on the branding of the school. In it, he wrote:

The school's values are as follows:

Integrity

Security

Maturity

Equality

Integrity means respect for the truth, as reflected in the school's motto, “In gladio veritas”, meaning “In the sword is truth”. This means that all instruction is grounded in adherence to what is historically accurate: the treatises are the ultimate source of authority, and every exercise is meant to bring the school's practice closer to the historical reality as far as we know it. This also requires that the school's syllabus be constantly refreshed to accurately capture the state of the art of our knowledge, as well as avoiding, as far as possible, practices that distort our understanding and expression of the art.

Security means training in a safe and sensible manner. Safety is paramount in training and everyone, even if it is their first day in the salle, is responsible for their own wellbeing and that of everyone they train with. It extends beyond physical measures to encompass emotional security as well. While an essential part of training is to challenge people to step out of their comfort zones, they must always do so with a sense of trust that their training partners and instructors will do their utmost to keep them safe. In addition, it means that nobody should ever feel threatened, intimidated or belittled in training.

Maturity means having the correct training priorities. The watchword for the salle is respect – for the art and for one's fellow practitioners. While every student wishes to become the best swordsman they can be, this must never be allowed to hinder anyone else's development, enjoyment or safety. It also means that the community assumes the best in everyone.

Equality means not showing prejudice in any way against other members of the community. The school esteems spirit above all: what is important is the desire to walk the path together, rather than any other characteristic or achievement. Members show the same respect for male and female, tall and short, young and old, heavy and slim, new and experienced. As long as someone holds a sword in their hand and practices with diligence and responsibility, they are expressing the art and being a credit to the school.

It always blows me away when a member of the School really gets it. And this is a classic example of that. I never said that these were the values the school was founded on; I wasn't trained to think in those terms. But dammit, this is spot-on.

The motto clearly resonates with at least one of my students; Ilpo Luhtala had this tattoo inked about a year after he started training:

Now another member of the school, Titta Tolvanen, has created her own vision of the logo, and it is so gorgeous that I had to share it.

Isn't that glorious?

Training montages are common in swashbucklery movies and TV shows; you know the sort of thing, where the young student is trained by the old master. As you may imagine, these are usually my favourite bits. But they often seem to revolve around the “master” humiliating and defeating the student, which is hardly good training.

The Mask of Zorro has some interesting scenes of Antonio Banderas being trained by Anthony Hopkins. I am particularly taken with the doing push-ups over candles (thought Antonio’s abdominal support needs work) while the master rests his feet on the students’ back, but the bullwhip? Definitely very dodgy indeed.

http://youtu.be/-mcUPY0RMdU

But at least, at the end,:ANTONIO DISARMS ANTHONY! Hurrah!

Now onto my main point:

The Game of Thrones is a great series. With shows based on books, I almost invariably prefer the book, but in this case, I waded through the first volume, and when most of the best characters were killed at the end of it, I decided I couldn’t be bothered with the next one. Why spend all that time getting to know people if they are just going to get slaughtered? No such trouble with GoT on TV; it moves too fast for the investment of time in a character to feel like a waste when they are inevitably betrayed to their deaths.

But Syrio Forel. Oh dear. In the book (volume one, A Game of Thrones, p 225 in my mass-market paperback), Arya’s first lesson is described like so:

“Now you will try to strike me”.

Arya tried to strike him. She tried for four hours, until every muscle in her body was sore and aching, while Syrio Forel clicked his teeth together and told her what to do.

The next day their real work began.

Hmm. Where to start. Skill development being retarded by physical exhaustion? or by constant failure? Ho hum. The TV show is pretty faithful to the book here, with the notable exception of Syrio’s hair (absent on the page, bouffant on screen).

You can see this scene here:

This seems to me to be perhaps the teaching style least likely to ever generate a good swordsman. Here’s why:

1) Arya’s actions never succeed. Not once do we see her actually succeed in doing anything more than parry. She is practising to fail; practising stuff that does not work.

2) Syrio’s actions almost always succeed. Whatever Arya does, he pulls off some new trick she hasn’t seen before, and hits her (or at least presents the point). Whatever she does, she loses. So the style she is learning clearly (in her subconscious mind at least) does not work!

To Syrio’s credit, he doesn’t brutalise his student (a very common occurrence in martial arts circles, where inexperienced, insecure, or just plain vicious instructors seem to think that the way to earn their students’ respect is to beat the crap out of them: my advice, leave immediately and don't come back!), and Arya certainly seems to love the training; we see her practising outside class time, and she often grins when he does some cool trick. But it should be him grinning when she does some cool trick!

So hark ye to the rule of Guy: an individual lesson should be geared such that if the student is doing what they are supposed to do, then it should succeed. If not, they get hit (gently). Develop the selective pressure such that to keep succeeding, they have to do it better and better.  Improvement is natural, automatic, and fast.

When giving an individual lesson, I tend to get hit about five times more than I hit. Because I adjust the pressure accordingly; the student is always at the very edge of what they can do; pushing the envelope, making mistakes, but usually succeeding. (See here for more detail; and credit where it’s due; I learned this explicitly on the British Academy of Fencing coaching course I went on in 2010.)

There is one reason (in fiction; none in real life) for the master to beat up the student: when they first meet, the master may, for good story reasons, need to establish incontrovertibly that they have something to teach. The brash young hero needs taking down a peg or two, to get them into a more receptive frame of mind. Fair enough. But that ain’t the training, that’s the introduction. The lesson itself should, must, be all about the student’s development.

Game of Thrones fans interested in how longswords should be used, might enjoy both my Longsword curriculum (online with lots of free videos) and my latest book, The Medieval Longsword.

So, there you have it. Can you think of any worse fencing masters on the page, the stage, or the screen? And should I do a post on “Guy's favourite training montages”?

I am slow. So I study speed.

The first advanced Fiore class every month is a freeplay-based session, in which we use freeplay and related exercises to expose specific weaknesses in individual students, for them to work on, and general weaknesses in the group as a whole, which sets the theme for the next month of classes. This month we are working on speed. The first indication that this would be necessary was that almost none of the students present could get their freeplay kit on in under 120 seconds.

Speed, celeritas, is one of Fiore’s four key virtues that a swordsman must possess. The others, for non-Fioreista readers, are audatia (boldness), forteza (strength) and avvisamento (foresight)). There are two key models for developing speed available to us. These are the sporting approach, and the musical.

The most obviously applicable is that of sports. High-level sportsmen, in games like tennis and fencing, must be quick. This is trained mostly by repeating explosive movements, to encourage development of type II fast-twitch muscle fibres, and to task those muscles with the motion desired. In this model, actions should pretty much only ever be trained at speed. If you do the action slowly too often, you end up training to use type I “slow twitch” fibres instead, and the maximum speed of the action is diminished. This sort of thing tends to emphasise gross motor movements, such as extending the arm, rather than fine motor movements such as manipulating with the fingers. As Johan Harmenberg writes in his must-read book Epee 2.0, “only simple movements are used (even an action like a disengage is not very common in a World Championship final)” (p28). He attributes this to the stress that the fencers are experiencing. At this level, “the pressure is so intense it is impossible to describe” (p 43). Harmenberg won the epee world championship in 1977 and Olympic gold in 1980, so may reasonably be assumed to know his stuff.

In music though, speed of execution is attained through getting it right at slow speeds first, then letting the phrase get faster and faster. A good example of astonishing speed of execution can be found here:

Wynton Marsalis playing the carnaval of Venice by Jean-Baptiste Arban. If music’s not your thing, just scroll ahead to 2.40, where he plays the 8th variation so fast it sounds like there are two cornets being blown- one for the tune, one for the accompaniment. The fine motor control is just dazzling. I have been taught to play this (though I never got close to this level of execution) and can attest that is is simply appallingly difficult to do. And under the stress of the performance, even worse. But the advice I was given (and every musician I have ever met would agree) was to get it absolutely accurate slowly first, and then speed it up. As my teacher Mr Foster wrote on my sheet music- “go at the speed of NO mistakes”.

We find a remarkable similarity between training to play a musical instrument, and combat shooting. In shooting al actions are trained slowly first, to become smooth and efficient, and then speeded up. I’ve been shooting pistols since I moved to Finland in 2001, and I have never, ever heard an instructor tell a shooting student to hurry up. Not only because mistakes can cost lives (just like in a sword fight) but also because shooting requires fine motor control, which if speeded up too soon becomes inaccurate. In both areas, music and shooting, the goal is to enable the practitioner to execute complex motor skills under high levels of stress.

I can attest to the stress of performance: I played the trumpet at school, and developed an absolute phobia of playing solos, despite being a member of several bands and orchestras. Though I was never under any direct physical threat (there were no beatings for splitting a note, nor would anyone have shot me for fluffing a phrase), I was at times incapacitated by fear when a solo was coming up. I never actually vomited, but it was pretty damn close. Yet, I still did them. And while they were never perfect, and I could always play a lot better in practice than performance, I was able to produce a passable result. The training worked. The level of stress is probably much higher for a professional musician, as not only his ego but also his career rides on the quality of the performance, and much higher still for a soldier or policeman facing an armed assailant, but the process is the same.

In both these areas, you’ll hear the phrase “slow is smooth, smooth is fast”. In other words, get the action right slowly, and let it speed up as you practice. Keeping it smooth will allow it to become fast.

We can summarise then by saying that if you think of swordsmanship as a fine-motor-control skill, the musical/shooting model is best. If you think of it as a gross-motor-control skill then the sporting approach will work best. In my experience, students training to win tournaments should emphasise the sporting approach; students training to recreate historical duelling arts should emphasise the musical approach.

It is of course possible, and often desirable, to do both- swordsmanship for sport or murder have some overlap, and for those elements of the sporting game that are improved by fine motor control, use the slow-smooth approach, and for those elements of the martial art that involve improving explosive power, use the sporting model. For example, if a student is having difficulty lunging with sufficient speed to take advantage of tempi that he ought to be able to strike in, the critical skill for the instructor is to diagnose the problem; are the mechanics of the lunge at fault? If so, then slow it down and smooth it out. If the mechanics are ok, then apply drills that develop the raw speed of the lunge. Just don’t try this with a disengage- it’s so much a fine motor skill that trying to speed it up by making the student go faster will just make it clumsier and slower. Get it smoother and smaller to make it faster.

In swordsmanship, speed serves two functions: damage and timing.

Damage first: The speed of the sword determines how hard it hits. E=mv², so the energy available for damaging the target is proportional to the striking mass and to the square of its velocity. Double the mass of the sword and you double the impact; double the speed and you quadruple the impact. This assumes of course that to make the sword go faster you haven’t made the motion less efficient, so energy is wasted on impact. There is a huge difference in practice between the amount of energy technically available, and the amount actually delivered into the target.

I believe that the sword should act as a labour-saving device. Its function is to destroy certain types of target, and it should require less effort to do so with the sword than without. So there is limited virtue in simply making the sword go faster and faster to hit harder and harder; at some point, there is sufficient energy to do the desired damage, so additional speed is wasted effort.

Now Timing: the purpose of speed is to ensure that your strike arrives before your opponent’s parry, and your parry arrives before his strike. It is therefore proportional to the motions of your opponent. The key skill here is to be able to adjust the acceleration of the weapon, rather than attain a specific top speed. There is a lovely section on this in Karl Friday’s excellent book Legacies of the Sword, on pages 74-5. Especially the graphs showing the different rates of power applied to the weapon by beginners versus experts. The graphs look like this:

The key point is that the expert can accelerate the weapon quickly; the total force exerted is actually a lot less. But the weapon is moving fast enough when it needs to be. The key to this kind of skill is to eliminate inefficiencies in the starting position, minimise the tension in the muscles about to act, and develop perfect mechanics for the strike itself. The importance of early rate of acceleration over final speed attained is elegantly demonstrated by this exhibition at the Heureka Science Museum in Vantaa, in which two tennis balls are rolled down two slopes. One slope is straight, the other curved. Though both balls are moving at the same velocity when they get to the end, the ball on the curved slope always arrives first as it has a higher rate of acceleration at the beginning of its movement compared to the other. They would both hit with the same force, but one would arrive long before the other.

The easiest way to reduce the time in which an action is done is to make the action shorter. So, a great deal of speed training, training to do an action in less time, is to eliminate any extraneous motion; to pare the movement down to its absolute minimum. To take a beginner’s marathon and create an expert’s 100m. There are several ways to do this, from the obvious: select a starting point that is closer to the end point; to the more sophisticated: tuning the path taken between those two points. In general, the sword-hand should move in the straight line from A to B. But sometimes it’s the middle of the blade that does that, sometimes other parts of the weapon or wielder.

In practice, it is useful to be able to adjust the path, and the rate of acceleration at various points on the path, for best effect. To simply hit hard, make sure the sword is at maximum velocity at the moment of impact. But to make the hit more likely to land, adjust the acceleration pattern and the path taken to best fit the tactical circumstances. Easier said than done. It is always slower to lift a heavy weight than a light one. So speed training is also about reducing unnecessary tension, making the action as smooth and efficient as possible, expending the least possible force to get the job done.

So, as we would expect with a medieval virtue, cultivating speed for its own sake, simply going as fast as possible, is a route to ruin. It takes an essential quality that should exist in equilibrium with others, and makes a vice out of it. This is a common theme in medieval thought (and should be still today). That which is virtuous when in balance becomes vicious when done to excess. Excessive courage leads to foolhardiness, excessive strength leads to stiffness and slowness, excessive speed leads to weakness and overextension, excessive judgement lead to cowardice.

In the case of speed, emphasising raw speed over speed in proportion to your opponent’s movements, leads to getting hit through being over-committed and over-extended. It is also hell on the body because explosive force applied to the joints is only safe when the motion is being done perfectly.

In every discipline there is usually an optimum balance between youthful vigour and the experience of long practice that can only come with age. A sportsman usually peaks between the ages of 20 and 40; a concert soloist somewhere between 35 and 60. A martial arts instructor normally peaks somewhere between 50 and 70. Fiore says he was about 60 when he wrote his book. So cultivate speed carefully, getting the mechanics absolutely right before you put a lot of energy through them, and make sure you develop the muscular support of your joints to absorb any slight errors. Muscles and bones last forever- the weak spot in any mechanical system is the joints.The syllabus wiki has some of the school’s joint-care curriculum uploaded, including wrist and elbow exercises, knee exercises, and joint massage. I do these a lot, because I intend to hit my peak in about 15 years, and need to make sure my joints can handle all that energy. Which brings me on to strengh, forteza, which I’ll write about next month.

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