Guy's Blog

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

Tag: hema

2016 was a hell of a year in all sorts of good and less good ways. Celebrities apparently dropping like flies and some seriously crazy political developments put my own experiences of the year into some pretty sharp relief. Be that as it may, I’ll run through what I did last year in the hopes that I might see from my contrail where I’m actually heading, and in case you might find it useful or interesting.
The year began well, with the publication of Advanced Longsword: Form and Function on February 10th. This was a big step because it finishes the set of my up-to-date Fiore interpretation, which began with The Medieval Dagger and continued with The Medieval Longsword. I’m quietly proud of the trilogy, and the readers for whom I wrote it seem very pleased with it.
I followed up with three instalments of The Swordsman's Quick Guide. How to Teach a Basic Class came out on February 29th, Fencing Theory on April 21st, and Breathing on September 2nd.
As for writing, I also managed to bash out 49 blog posts this year, and have made great strides on the second editions of both Veni Vadi Vici and The Duellist's Companion, and on my memoir, Sent.
The single biggest challenge of the year was moving with my household from Helsinki to Ipswich at the beginning of June; you probably know how much work it is to move house; factor in the kids, and then square it for the additional complication of moving countries, and in retrospect it’s a miracle I got any work done at all.
Other than that, the biggest departure was setting up my new online courses venture. I began it in the most obscure and geeky way possible with a course on how to research historical swordsmanship from historical sources, which went live on July 1st. This is a monumental course, and it’s far from complete; I’ve got enough material up there to keep most students busy for about a year, but I’ve got some serious work to do to get the final modules published. I followed that with a much simpler challenge; a 6 week course on breathing training (published in September), then one on Footwork (November) and another on the basics of Fiore’s dagger combat material (December).

All in all, that’s a pretty productive year. The work done in 2016 built the body of my next book, The Theory and Practice of Historical European Martial Arts. I completed the first full draft of that last week. It includes instalments 1-6 of The Swordsman's Quick Guide, a great deal of content developed and edited from the Recreate Historical Swordsmanship from Historical Sources course, one or two blog posts, and some completely new material. This began in my head as a book that was too big to write, so I split it up and worked out the individual pieces separately, in exactly the way I describe in my article “How to Write a Book“. The book is with a couple of trusted friends now, and I'll get it ready for test-readers in a week or so. I expect it to be out in the world by the end of May.

It seems, looking back and extrapolating forwards, that I’m going to be putting a lot more effort into courses, but at the same time, I need to get those second editions done and dusted. It’s a good thing I know how to prioritise!
One of the most useful tools to get me to hit my targets is my writing group, which meets at the Arlington brasserie every Wednesday from 7.30 (Come! all welcome). It's very relaxed, but we do get some formal exercises done too. The pitch is just right- informal enough that I can file it under relaxation if I'm feeling overworked, and formal enough that I can file it under work if I'm feeling like I should be getting more work done. We state our goals for the coming week, and if we meet them, good; but if we don’t, then we have to put a pound in the Tardis (a tin shaped like, well, the Tardis). Money collected goes towards the wine for our annual Christmas dinner. Goals can be anything; write 1000 words of your first draft; edit one chapter; spend 10 minutes every day writing, or even (this was one of mine) take a whole day completely off! Whatever it is, it gets written down, and the next week you have to report whether you hit it or not. It’s surprisingly effective. I've barely missed a session since I started coming a couple of weeks after moving to Ipswich at the start of June.

Another major factor in getting stuff done has been renting desk space at Atrium Studios, which is part of the University here. For only £120 a month I have a spacious desk, use of the University library, access to the print shop, wifi, and so on. The Studio has all sorts of people working here; artists, sculptors, a brewery runs its office here (and bring samples in for product testing), plus graphic designers, start-up entrepreneurs, and so on. This means that it's much less isolating than working from home, but because we're all doing different things, there's no pressure to join in with anything. You can just sit down and work. My desk is enlivened by art from Roland Warzecha (Dimicator), Jussi Alarauhio (who did the art for Audatia), Brian Kerce (who made the gladius) and Titta Tolvanen. The little metal squiggle was made by Neal Stephenson and me in his basement. He's getting into blacksmithing, and this was our first attempt at ‘drawing out'. The tankard holding pens was given to me by PHEMAS to commemorate a seminar in 2012.  I also have all my books and Audatia decks here. Why?

Because in the difficult times, seeing the things I have made, and the things my friends and students have made for me, can be the difference between getting something useful done, and quitting in self-disgust.

The main mural posters are reproductions of Lorenzetti's stunning Allegoria frescoes in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena. This serves many purposes- to keep me immersed in the art and culture of Fiore's time. To remind me of how art is supposed to work. And to remind me of the breathless wonder that hit me when I entered that room and saw them for the first time.

And with that, I better get on and put 2017 to work!

I'm a Luddite, it’s true. I resist the march of technological progress because I think that most new technologies aren't labour saving life enhancing devices at all. I was saying this back in the ‘80s when people were extolling the new ‘desktop publishing' thing. “What used to take two weeks can now be done in a single day!” they cried. “Great” I replied. “Do you get the rest of the fortnight off?”

No. What happens, every time, is that as capacity increases, expectations rise, and so you end up with an increase in productivity and more work being done for the same pay. Not fair, and not helpful, except to those who own the fruits of your labour.

But, and this is a very big BUT (I like big buts), there are areas where all this new-fangled gadgetry does actually help people. HEMA would barely exist without the internet, because it is such a niche interest that finding fellow enthusiasts was very hard before the web came along. And for those of us trying to make a living serving those enthusiasts, I think it would be impossible without things like print-on-demand technology, easy-to-use web building tools, and communications of all sorts. I have students in Chile who can send me videos of themselves doing my Longsword Syllabus Form for me to comment on and help them improve. Fantastic.

This is a screen capture not a video link because the video is set to “Unlisted”. Chaps, if it's ok to share it, let me know…

I've also come round to the idea that while the actual use of force (responding to pressure in the bind, that sort of thing) cannot really be taught over the net, there is a place for online courses to help self-study. Lots of people use my Syllabus Wiki in various ways to help them learn, but I am taking a great big step right now and am plunging into creating online courses. The first one is now live, and you can see it here.

I'm using the Teachable platform, because it seems to be the best in class for what I need it to do; unlike Udemy, for instance, I can directly control things like pricing, and tracking student progress.

Another major benefit of the internet is that I can reach vastly more people virtually than I ever could in person. And some of those people are excited by the work I’m doing and want to help. My School and I have benefitted enormously over the years from people volunteering their skills to help. Ilkka Hartikainen shooting the photos and laying out two of my books, for instance. Jari Juslin shooting the photos for the last three. And when I arrived in Ipswich, Curtis Fee (of The Barebones Company) showing up to help unload the lorry for another instance. And when I mentioned the projects I was working on, well, turns out he has a bunch of useful professional skills, which he has applied to making the online school interface vastly more beautiful than it was.
Isn’t this pretty?

It's an exciting time to be teaching swordsmanship, that's for sure. Right now my head is simply buzzing with ideas for other courses that I can create to teach online. Breathing. Meditation. Mechanics. Dagger. Longsword. Imagine if when students finally find a group they can join, or start one themselves, and they already have decent fundamentals in place. Wow.

Yesterday I went to visit my friend Peter Mustonen. He’s an arms dealer; but our kind of arms dealer: gorgeous antique swords, knives, guns, armour, shields; you name it, he has a delicious example. I spent some time playing with swords, you know, as one does.

A Stantler sword, from 1580-1600. Original grip, original everything, beautiful specimen. You could stab it through anything.

While I was there he mentioned finding a book I might have an interest in. Nothing special, just a book.

Just a copy of the 1902 Novati edition of Il Fior di fucking Battaglia.

Let me put this in some perspective for you. My first encounter with Fiore was through fifth generation photocopies of the facsimile section of this book. This was the book that introduced Fiore to the modern world, and lead us to find the Getty, the Morgan, and eventually the Paris copies of the manuscript.

It contains a lengthy scholarly introduction to the work,

From Novati's introduction; a picture of Liechtenauer!

And a complete facsimile of the Pisani-Dossi manuscript (to date the only copy of that manuscript that we know of; the original is yet to re-surface), with a complete transcription.

The facsimile itself.

From a HEMA perspective, this is the book that launched a thousand scholari.

Now it belongs to me.

This means that as soon as I reasonably can, I’ll produce high quality photos or scans and distribute them. I might also produce a paperback reproduction of the whole thing, if there’s a market for it.

Just a short post today, because I have to go change my trousers. And, I have a book to read…

Tell your friends, tell everyone working on Fiore; this book is now OURS!!

Today marks the fifteenth anniversary of the founding of my School. I date it to the first demonstration and class I gave in a small room in the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki on March 17th 2001. While going through the accumulated paperwork of the last 18 years or so, recycling most of it, scanning and shredding some of it, and keeping only the very few bits of paper that have value as artefacts in their own right (my eldest daughter’s first signature, for example), I came across this:

This is (I’m pretty sure), my green belt certificate. It’s dated July 3rd 1987, and I’d been doing karate for three school terms at that point. So this year marks my 30th year since beginning to walk the path. In that time I have dabbled in many arts, and trained relatively seriously in a few, and gone deep into a very few. I’ve liked at least something about every art I’ve practiced, and I’ve had issues with at least something in every art too. Here follow my top five martial arts, in reverse order:

5. Shooting

Shooting a silenced Uzi on full auto. Oh my, what fun!

Shooting a silenced Uzi on full auto. Oh my, what fun!

This trumps all other arts. A person with a few hours training and a handgun can take out just about any martial artist on the planet- unless they have also trained with and against guns. One of the major attractions of moving to Finland was that I would be able to take up shooting, and, while I’m no expert, I’ve handled lots of different firearms, and can use a pistol tolerably well. So why only #5? Because to me it  feels like a fun activity, and a practical skill, but it doesn’t feel like martial arts. Which is nonsense, of course, but there you have it. Also, in most civilized countries, carrying a gun is seriously illegal so it’s not actually as practical as it seems. Draw a gun in self defence in Finland, the UK, Italy, anywhere really outside the US, and you’re going to jail. If you don’t understand why I don’t support the notion of the right to bear arms, then read Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. But this is not the place to go into it: some of my best friends do open-carry.

4. Tai Shin Mun kung fu.

When I moved to Finland, one of my closest friends (whom I actually met in a gun club, and who gave me my first proper shooting lesson) was teaching this very traditional martial art here in Helsinki. I have always believed that martial arts should include the health and medicinal side, and this was the first time I came across an art that explicitly included massage, breathing exercises, and herbal medicine as part of its core curriculum. In 1999 I had been intermittently incapacitated by tendonitis in my wrist and forearms, thanks to my cabinet-making job. That same year Num took me to his training hall and showed me some things, and I mentioned the problem. In 20 horrendous minutes he did what the doctors of Edinburgh had failed to do, and cured my tendonitis. He also gave me a set of exercises and taught me how to massage my arms, and lo! I have been able to keep the demon at bay ever since. This literally made my career in the Art of Arms possible. When I moved to Helsinki in 2001, Num and I trained together Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings from 7 to 9 or 10, six months of the year (he was in Asia training the other six). The Crane, and the Breathing Form that are in our Syllabus come directly from there, as does some of the massage and conditioning exercises (like the push-up-twisting-squat-jump-burpee). So why isn’t it #1? Because, being a traditional Chinese art, it came with a lot of traditional Chinese cultural baggage, including a kind of god-worship of the grandmaster, a very set hierarchy, and did not seem to encourage the actual personal growth of the students.

3. Aikido

I took up Aikido the instant it became available to me, in the summer term of 1994. Rod Biddle, who had trained in Honbu dojo, was doing a degree at Edinburgh, and started a class at 8am on Wednesday mornings. At this time, I would normally set my alarm to wake up in time for Neighbours (an Australian soap opera) at 1.30pm. So getting up at 7am was a serious matter. But I loved it. It was super-quiet; no talking at all, no explanation, Rod just showed us the move, murmured its name, and we would practice it. This went on for a few months, but the class petered out because not enough people wanted to practice at 8am on a Wednesday. Fools. I took up Aikido in Helsinki that same September, and trained a couple of times a week while I was here as an exchange student. It was lovely, but not the same as our quiet morning training. So I didn’t keep it up in Edinburgh, but on moving back here, the legendary H.P. Virkki came and watched one of my classes, introduced himself, and we trained every now and then, him throwing me around, me teaching him some swordsmanship. But when that came to a natural end, I let Aikido go altogether. Still, though, my absolute top favourite unarmed sparring session ever was with Jim Alvarez, an Aikido teacher in California, when we met for the second time at the Dallas WMAW event in 2006. Oh my, that was fun.

But Aikido suffers widely from the fact that most of its practitioners don’t seem to know what it is actually for. It was founded as a misogi (cleansing) practice, an entirely spiritual pursuit. Which is why most aikidoka I’ve met can’t handle a jab or a kick to the nuts. It does produce some astonishingly good fighters, but that’s not actually its purpose. Don’t argue with me on this, go read the outstanding Hiding in Plain Sight, by Ellis Amdur.

If I trained just for fun, it would probably be Aikido.

2. T’ai Chi Chuan

When I arrived at Edinburgh in September 1992, I went to the Fresher’s fair, walked past all the stalls until I found the T’ai Chi club, and asked where do I sign.

“Oh, T’ai Chi is an ancient martial art…”

“No, where do I sign. I’ve been wanting to do this since I can remember”

“We do a lot of forms …”

“Goddam it, where do I sign???”

Something about T’ai Chi has always drawn me; the gentle, flowing motions, the long-term view, it’s just beautiful. And, quite frankly, it is the single most vicious and direct way of hurting people you don’t like I’ve ever seen. That may sound odd, but it’s true. The form is not a set of techniques strung together, unlike most other martial arts forms. It’s the physical embodiment of a set of principles and a way of moving. We did the Cheng Man-ching short Yang form, and my teacher, Steve Fox, taught every step of the form bit by bit, getting us to test why, for example, at this point we turn the foot, or here we tuck the tailbone. Literally every movement was tested against gentle pressure, and that training formed the foundation of how I teach all martial arts. The advanced class trained at 6pm, the beginners at 7pm, so after the first week I started showing up at 5.45, and watching the advanced class. After a couple of weeks, maybe a month, Steve gestured me over and said “join in”. So I did. It’s been twenty years since I last had a lesson, but I still practice the form every now and then to keep it available.

In my first year at Edinburgh my average week looked like this: Monday night: fencing. Tuesday night: T’ai Chi. Wednesday night: fencing. Thursday night: T’ai Chi. Friday night: kobudo (Japanese weapons stuff. Get me started talking on that one day. It was great fun, with blistered bleeding hands). Saturday afternoon: karate (I joined the karate club to carry on where I’d left off after Prep school). Sunday afternoons: if there were no extra classes scheduled, or tournaments to attend, or the termly T’ai Chi weekend seminar, then nothing. I have really no idea how I ever got through my end of year exams.

I guess the only reason that T’ai Chi didn’t become my core art was that the sword stuff is just not very good if you compare it to…

1. Historical European Martial Arts

You guessed that it was coming, right?

I’m not going to kick off an internet cat-fight about which master, style, source or system is best. But what we have going for us is beyond anything any other martial art can touch. Because we can learn from any tradition, but are not tied to a single one. We can experiment with group and school structures to our heart’s content. We have the best swords on the planet, and the best armour too. No metallurgist or engineer would disagree with that. We have a gigantic library of sources, and an emerging academic and practical approach to them. We have forms and tournaments, test cutting and bag punching, sharp swords, blunt swords, big swords, small swords, long swords, short swords, knives, daggers, improvised weapons, concealed weapons, longbows, crossbows, and even cannon.

I got into historical swordsmanship when I met a beginner fencer at a tournament in 1993, and we both bemoaned how unrealistic fencing was. We were looking for “real swordfighting”. Almost by accident, we set out to create it, beginning with my grandfather’s first edition of The Sword and the Centuries and working from there. By the beginning of 1994 we were actively seeking out more people to fight with us, and in June we founded the Dawn Duellist’s Society together. It’s still going today.

That's me on the front left. Yes, I had hair once. This was 1996, I think.

That's me on the front left. Yes, I had hair once. This was 1996, I think.

Of course, the lack of an established tradition does lead to a lot of posturing, vanity, foolish claims, errors, accidents, and that’s just me. Lots of others fall into the same bear pits every now and then. Because we can’t just ask the grandmaster, we get into foolish arguments and forget our common purpose. Which is very natural and human, but a shame nonetheless. There is also absolutely nothing preventing crooks and charlatans from taking advantage of gullible students, but every martial art has that problem.

But (this is the real reason why this is my core art) just about anybody, starting right now, could plausibly make a real and long-term contribution to the art itself, in a way that is just not possible for 99.999% of practitioners of established tradition or sport based arts. In T’ai Chi, for example, the best contribution I could make would be to become a really good teacher and train a lot of high level students and future teachers. I could help spread and maintain the art. But I couldn’t add another step to the form, or rewrite the sword syllabus, or do anything that would materially change the art for the better. Besides, I don’t want to follow someone else’s path. I want to blaze my own. And in HEMA, that’s not just possible, it’s normal. There are hundreds and hundreds of people now who are researching and developing the art itself, and therefore can reasonably expect to add to the sum of human knowledge. I just don’t see that in any other art. So that’s why it’s number one.

So, what are your favourite martial arts, and why?

The first and second plays of the first master of the zogho largo.
The first and second plays of the first master of the zogho largo.

It is an exciting time to be a Fiore scholar; the Getty recently released hi-res scans of the treatise, Michael Chidester of Wiktenauer fame has just released his concordance of the techniques in the four version of the manuscript that survive, and Freelance Academy Press has announced it is bringing out a scholarly edition of the manuscripts (which they've posted about on Facebook, but I can't find it on their website or I'd link to it). This all in addition to my latest scribblings.

And now, we have the International Armizare Society, an organisation that, to quote from its mission statement exists to:

…maintain and pass down canonical Armizare as recorded and left to posterity by the Founder, Fiore dei Liberi, and the work of successors determined to be within his tradition. In furtherance of this, the IAS also seeks the “preservation and promotion of Armizare as a complete, traditional, but living and functional martial art”.

In furtherance of these goals, the association is to provide a common set of curricular and performance objectives such that inter-school rank recognition by signatories is facilitated. As a result, the IAS will also form a testing body and formal testing regimen for instructor certification to ensure transmission and proper preservation of the dei Liberi Tradition, as the IAS sees it.

Their website went live last week, and I have been fielding questions about it ever since. I found out about it perhaps 24 hours before it went live, thanks to an email list I’m on, so it’s taken me some time to assemble my thoughts on the subject. Here they are:

This society has the potential to be a hugely beneficial force in the HEMA world, and a hugely important step in the long-term study of Fiore’s art. It may also end up petering out into nothing, or acting as net drag on progress if it becomes calcified into a “cult of one truth” (which is unlikely given the current membership).

The people involved, (Sean Hayes, Greg Mele, and Jason Smith) are all first-rate researchers and practitioners, who have long track records of distinguished service to the Art of Arms. I have high hopes that this organisation that they have put together will be able to accomplish its stated mission; to provide a certification program for Armizare (Art of Arms) instructors.

It’s worth reading its charter in its entirety, because it has clearly been thought out and worked up in detail.

They have assembled a dream team of advisors, divided into the Research Council, peopled by Bob Charrette, Tom Leoni, Daniel Jacquet, and Marco Quarta (the last two being professional academics); and the Martial Council, peopled by Devon Boorman, Puck Curtis, Roberto Gotti, Roberto Laura, Marco Quarta (again!) and Orazio Barbagallo (the only person on this list I don’t know). These are all names to conjure with.

Very sensibly, they went live only after assembling an impressive and useful set of resources: blog posts, articles and videos. This bodes well for their website becoming one of the more useful armizare resources out there, regardless of whether one chooses to join them or not. As any qualifying body must, the IAS has its own curriculum based on the founders’ interpretations of Fiore’s surviving books. This is necessary, of course, but runs the risk of becoming monolithic. All institutions tend to institutionalise; I guess that the function of the research committee is to make sure that there is a mechanism by which changes to the interpretation and thus the curriculum can be made. Let’s hope it works that way in practice.

It’s impossible to know at this stage what the tangible benefits of joining would be; the curriculum seems well thought out in broad strokes, but it’s not published (yet?) so I haven’t been able to look at any of their actual drills. I imagine that there would be some kind of mentorship of long-distance students, who would have access to the details of drills, techniques and so on that the curriculum must contain.  It is also impossible to know how compatible that curriculum would be with those of other Fiore-based schools. But I have had Greg, Sean, and Jason’s students in my classes many times, and crossed swords with many of them outside of class, so I know that they are more than capable of training excellent swordsmen.

My concerns:

At the moment, the Society is an idea with a website. It has no legal standing, as far as I can tell; it’s not a registered charity, or a business, or any other legal thing. This worries me, because without that kind of legal framework, I think it may be especially difficult to attain the goals that the organisation has set for itself.

Given how spread out geographically the current membership is, and how part of their mission is to organise events (which Greg Mele, at least, as the force behind WMAW and other events, knows far more about than I do), the annual 20 dollar membership fee seems totally inadequate. It would make more sense to me if it was closer to 50/month, to create a fund to help with things like subsidising the cost of exams (flying examiners in, for instance), subsidising the events they want to create, and so on.

The testing requirements look good, and with Sean and Puck both being qualified fencing masters, modelling the examining structure on their classical example makes a lot of sense and should work very well. But until a body of masters has been built up, organising exams will be very very challenging. And until their curriculum is made public, it’s impossible to know what the qualifications they offer actually mean. I’ve written here about certification, and here about mastery.

As one would expect, the organisation is currently completely controlled by its founders, and fair enough. Organisations or people who choose to join it will have no voting rights until they are qualified at the highest level of the organisation, magister. Which again is fair enough. But it does mean that for at least five years (the minimum time that you must be a member before testing at the magister level), the organisation is effectively completely dependent on the guidance and energy of its three founders.

Most organisations die in the first 5 years. Most of those that survive, die in the next five years. So I am not optimistic, but I am hopeful, that in ten years time we will see a mature and functional Society that is supremely capable of ensuring the long-term viability of Fiore’s Art. We are witnessing the birth of a new School; it is only fair to judge a school by the quality of the students it attracts and produces. I look forward to seeing the first IAS-qualified instructors in action!

It’s time for a change of pace.

I have been a full-time professional teacher of historical swordsmanship since March 17th 2001. By which I mean it was my one and only job, source of income, and so on. This has had all sorts of benefits, not least that I have accumulated a huge amount of experience in teaching and researching the art of arms. These days, most students who come to one of my seminars for the first time, or have their first private lesson, find it an eye-opening experience. But I realised in 2014 that I do not want to end up being the little old man still teaching day-in-day-out after 50 years; the archetype of the old martial arts teacher. There is nothing wrong with that, of course; it just isn’t me. And that came as a surprise, because it is exactly how I had imagined my life would go.

Up until 2013, about 90% of my income came from the Helsinki branch of the School, with 10% coming from seminars in other branches or for other schools. Then I started self-publishing my books, starting with Veni Vadi Vici. That went well enough that I had the bright idea of re-issuing the out-of-print The Swordsman’s Companion, and The Duellist’s Companion. This turned out to be a game-changer; by the end of 2014, with  The Medieval Longsword also out, they were bringing in enough money every month to pay the mortgage, and accounted for about 50% of my disposable income. This is the financial background that has made it possible for me to wind down my regular teaching at the Helsinki branch (I taught my last class to date (NOT my last class ever, of course!) on my 42nd birthday: November 30th 2015).

I had been a swordsmanship instructor who also wrote books; now it's fair to say I'm a writer who teaches swordsmanship. And to be honest, while I do miss my students, I don't miss having so much of my waking time taken up with class. It's given me much more freedom to write, and play around with training routines, and play with my kids. And I will be taking advantage of that freedom to take my family to the UK in June this year, for at least a year. We are still not decided exactly where, but that question should be settled by the end of this month. I have no intention of starting another branch of my school there; I have my hands full with the branches I already have. Besides, I've been there and done that; I feel no need to do it again. But I may well be looking for training partners, and of course I'm reasonably available for seminars. There is a thriving HEMA scene in the UK, and I look forward to taking some part in it.

For most people in my life, students, friends and family, these changes will make no difference at all. For a few senior students it will come as something of a change, and for me it will make all the difference in the world. Here's why:

When I started my School back in 2001, a strict and clear hierarchy was necessary. I was responsible for the safety of a whole bunch of absolute beginners; they had to do as I said, or someone would get hurt and it would be my fault. As the School developed, and a culture of safe training was firmly established, my iron grip relaxed and classes became much more organic; students had more input, and there was no need for the strict discipline that we had had before. I think people learn better in a relaxed and friendly environment. But at the same time, a hierarchy was established, the sort that is common to most martial arts. Teacher at the top, senior students outranking juniors, and so on. We have skill-levels, but actual rank is not tied directly to them; we have Free Scholars (literally students who have the freedom of the school; they can open the salle for training at any time, that sort of thing), Class Leaders, who are Free Scholars that have been examined and passed for leading basic classes, and Provosts, who are the senior student responsible for a branch. The problem is that all rank promotions come from me directly. Senior students can recommend their peers, and I wouldn’t appoint a Free Scholar without consulting with the existing cohort, but ultimately, it’s down to me.

This means that I have to be super-careful not to play favourites. For promotions to have meaning and value, they must be based on  transparently applied objective criteria. This leads to me being quite isolated from the students; I have to be really careful not to like any of them more than any other. But as a human being, of course I happen to gel with some more easily than others.

One of the legacies of my boarding school experience is that I find it far too easy to detach. In fact, problems of proper attachment are pretty much the hallmark of institutionalised children. So there is a switch in my head, which is either on the “student” position or the “friend” position. And there are no grades in between. It ought to be a rheostat, but instead it’s binary. Over the course of the last 15 years, some of my students have been adept at flicking that switch back and forth, and some have never allowed it to swing into the “student” position.

So what? You might reasonably ask. So, the people I have spent most of my time with, and with whom I have the most in common, have to be kept at arm’s length.

Sure, in any profession, you need a certain level of detachment. A beginner in their first class, or a senior student working hard on a difficult problem, need a teacher that is able to see them in full “student” mode. But even after a decade in class, most of my students have never seen the inside of my home. That’s just plain weird.

This is one of the reasons that I enjoy going to events and teaching seminars outside of my School; I’m not holding the keys to their next diploma; I’m not their judge. So I can interact with them on a much more natural level. And it’s ok to make friends.

I have been feeling this way for a long time. Years in fact. But it’s been a slow-growing realisation of what the problem is. I have always disliked rank exams, because I’ve always disliked the feeling of judging my students. Where you happen to be on the path is far less interesting and relevant to me than how far you have come.

I stopped wearing my all black training uniform, familiar to you all from my books, in favour of a much less forbidding combination of blue t-shirt and white-ish trousers in November 2014. The first time I wore the new threads in class, there were some raised eyebrows, but the world did not end, and the students were taught properly. My blacks had become an armoured carapace for keeping me separate, so I took them off.

Now to my main point for students of The School of European Swordsmanship: Students, my lovely students, if you want ranks and skill-levels, here is what you must do: set up a grading committee, organise panels of examiners, and do it yourselves. I will advise if asked, I’ll sign certificates; I’ll even sit on examining boards. But I will not ever run another exam solo. And if I happen to feel like I have some kind of history with the student being examined, I’ll recuse myself from sitting on their exam board.

As one long-term student of mine put it: “you’re divorcing the School to marry your students”.

If Sherlock Holmes can be a consulting detective, and Moriarty a consulting villain, then dammit, I can be a consulting swordsman. I am delighted to help you with any sword problem you may have, but I am done being in charge. It is not and never has been my nature to command and control. Within the context of a class, of course it is sometimes necessary to exhort students to greater efforts; to tell them what to do. But every class I’ve run for ages now has begun by asking the students what they need from me that day. This often surprises students having their first seminar with me; most teachers just get up and teach their class plan. I co-create the class plan with the students in the first 5-10 minutes of the seminar. On my last teaching trip to the USA, the organiser called this “a very adult way to run a class”. Because it assumes a certain level of competence in the teacher, and a certain level of interest and engagement from the students.

When Salvatore Fabris was fencing master to the King of Denmark, who was in charge?  Which is more likely: “drop and give me 50, your kinginess!” or “Your Majesty, I would strongly advise a few push-ups at this juncture. 50 would be an excellent choice.”

Or as I put it to my students: If I’m Fiore dei Liberi, that makes you Niccolo d’Este, Marquis of Ferrara.

So, my Lords and Ladies, how can I be of service?

Ethics (also moral philosophy) is the branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct.”  – Wikipedia

I am writing the fourth instalment of my Swordsman's Quick Guide series, and the topic is Ethics.

I believe that the study of ethics is at least as important to a historical swordsman at any level, as the study of mechanics or tactics. One of the larger goals of modern swordsmanship training is the development of character; through self-discipline, we become able to behave as we believe we ought, in ever more difficult circumstances.

It is easy to be good when everything is going well. But it is much much harder when the shit has hit the fan.

One important tool in the study of ethics is the question to which there is no straight answer. Geoffrey de Charny’s Book of Chivalry (of which my favourite modern edition is The Book of Chivalry of Geoffroi de Charny: Text, Context, and Translation by Richard W. Kaeuper and Elspeth Kennedy) contains perhaps the most famous set of questions in HEMA circles. The key point here is that Charny does not include the answers; they are not the point. The point is to engage with the questions, to come up with your own answers, and to then live by those answers.

The questions that are discussed in the booklet are:

1) When is it ok to stab someone in the face with a sword?

2) What is the one thing you find most useful about swordsmanship training outside the salle?

3) How important is history to you in your practise of swordsmanship?

4) Can a duel settle a matter of honour?

5) Can violence be beautiful?

6) To what extent is the practice of swordsmanship the cultivation of virtue?

7) Is the study of ethics necessary for martial artists?

You may notice that not all of them would normally be considered a matter of ethics (such as number 3), but my interest is primarily in getting people to think more widely about the martial arts we practise. I would be very interested to read your thoughts on them; if you'd like to join in the discussion, please post your answers in the comments below, or email them to me at Please also indicate whether you are willing to be quoted in the booklet, and if so, whether you'd like to be credited, or remain anonymous.

Thanks for taking part!

Fifteen years ago today, my employer Patrick Baxter laid me off from my job as a cabinet maker. Exactly one year later, I opened the School of European Swordsmanship in Helsinki. We began with a free demo class, which was hopelessly over-attended; so much so that the demo class turned into a lecture instead. The school has never looked back. Much has changed over the years, but not the value of a good kick in the crotch: allow me a moment of nostalgia, posting this from the photoshoot for The Swordsman's Companion:

Zoe Chandler kicks Miika in the nuts: for The Swordsman's Companion.
Zoe Chandler kicks Miika in the nuts: for The Swordsman's Companion.

As I have written before, I didn't do this by myself. Right now, I'm in Italy, as you probably know, and have not swung a sword for months (except at the lovely Armizare 2015). Yet, on at least three continents, and without any direct help from me, students who consider themselves a part of the School of European Swordsmanship have been training, fencing and teaching the Art of Arms. In this, I see myself as a catalyst, rather than a source; because of the work I do, the barriers to entry to an authentic training life are significantly reduced, allowing many more people to enter the Art. But I don't, can't, do it for them; I just help them do it a bit better. So while I have been immersed in Italy, the School has carried on just fine without me. I even get emails from students I've never met, telling me that my books or videos have helped them accomplish something. This is profoundly satisfying, as I'm sure you can imagine.

Here's an example, from Mexico:

The joint winners. Well done!
The joint winners. Well done!

Another victory for the Italian tradition Mr Windsor, I tied for first place on steel longsword and placed 2nd on rapier at our national HEMA tournament. It was my first steel longsword tournament and we used a variation of this ruleset ( where we didnt count “points”, instead we tracked wounds over a round robin with the top fighters of my country, most of them with international tournament experience, and I tied on first place with Arturo Medina (former champion of our anual Albion steel tournament and 2nd place at combatcon 2012) with the least wounds over the tournament.

All of this thanks to your books, The Duellist's Companion, and your series of Italian longsword, I cant wait for the next book to publish because as I said before, I have no other teacher than your books and videos, and the way you transmit the principles of Italian fencing has allowed me to rank this high.

All my gratitude to you, from México.

José Luis Zamarripa


I am leaving for America and Canada this week; teaching at Lonin this weekend, and VISS the weekend after; back in the saddle again! And then home to Helsinki, and back to my salle, at Easter. I am looking forward to seeing you all again; it feels very odd to be away from home on this particular date.

I'd like to take this moment to thank every teacher, every student, and every colleague, who has supported this work; whether you started yesterday, have run a branch for years, or were teaching me something useful 30 years ago, thank you. It's been wonderful.

Fourteen is a significant number in all traditional arts; seven years of apprenticeship, seven years a journeyman. Now, I have to create a masterpiece. What, I ask, would you have me do next?

Despite my reasonable and gently-worded objections, the USFCA have gone ahead with their plans to create a pedagogical certification system for historical swordsmanship. I am clearly not alone in my feeling that this is a bad idea, as it has created something of a shit-storm on social media, including a series of vicious ad hominem attacks on the character of Dr. Ken Mondschein, who is largely credited as the architect of the certification system, and is the only person in the USFCA who is known to the HEMA community.

Ken’s work over the last decade or so includes a quality translation of Agrippa, a work on the two handed sword material of Alfieri (which I haven’t read yet, so can’t comment on), and a brief but pretty overview of Fiore’s life and work. He has been teaching swordsmanship for a long time now, and whatever differences of interpretation and approach we may have, I don’t doubt for one second his sincerity in serving the Art. He is also not in control of the program. There is a committee…

It does not help matters that the committee in charge includes one Mr Green, who seems to have black belts in every system that give them away free with a cup of coffee. I may be woefully wrong on this (they may be quite expensive), but check out his wall of certificates. I am frankly astonished that an academic of Ken’s standing (PhD, Fulbright scholar, multiple publications) would keep such company. To have a certification system in the hands of someone with so many dodgy certificates is irony indeed.

The central objection on FB seems to be that this program is creating masters. As if that title is somehow important. Now to be fair, the HEMA world was badly burned a decade and more ago by some false masters who used their self-appointed status to try to acquire control. One of them even said to me long ago “only a classically trained fencing master is qualified to read the treatises.” Yes, really. These people actively stood between students and the sources, which is profoundly abhorrent to me. But this is a different situation: at least here the process and qualifications seem to be reasonably transparent. Given the level of response, though, one would imagine that the USFCA “masters of historical swordsmanship” were stating that their “mastery” entitled them to screw your spouse and sell your children into slavery. (They are not, at least as far as I know.) It is also deeply inconsistent: Why no outrage over all the other masters out there? Massimo Malipiero, who produced the first ever publication of the Getty MS, was appointed a “Maestro di scherma antica” by the (Italian) Accademia Nazionale di Scherma in 1999. Where was the explosion of rage? And his group appointed  Andrea Rudatis a Magistro Medievale & Rinascimentale. Why the hell shouldn’t they? It’s their group. But why no character assassinations on Facebook? Alberto Bomprezzi was appointed a maestro by his students. Who had every right to do so. But why no great mockery from the twitterati? And my students in Singapore presented me with a Master at Arms rank in their organisation in 2006. Which is valid within their group. And nobody has had a go at me about it either. Why not? Perhaps because nobody felt threatened. Yes chaps, I think we have a bunch of very frightened people out there, because the big bad USFCA is coming for them. Only… they ain't.

Titles are currency, and have precisely the value we accord to them. I give no value to “Doctor” Gillian McKeith’s “PhD”. It comes from an unaccredited college. The fabulous Ben Goldacre got a qualification for his dead cat from the same source! I give much credit to my doctor’s qualifications, or I wouldn’t let him poke and prod me. I have no respect at all for the qualifications in historical swordsmanship that the USFCA may see fit to bestow, but I respect their right to call their members Il Gran Maestro di Maestri if they so choose.

Should the USFCA try to tell anyone outside their organisation that they cannot teach, then I will be first on the barricades, and lead the charge to have them taken down a peg or two and given six of the best with the swishiest cane we can find. Yes, we must be careful not to let the sports organisations take control of our art. But these unfair and utterly unfounded attacks on Ken’s character serve no useful purpose, and will achieve nothing. I think in the end Ken will come to regret his association with the historical fencing masters project, not least as he has far less control over it than most people seem to think, and so it will likely never produce much in the way of good teachers of the art. But an error of judgement does not make one a villain, and I think Ken is trying to use his position with the program to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Good luck with that.

I do not recognise the qualifications offered by the USFCA. They have no currency with me or my school. But Ken himself is always welcome, to train or teach.

Further reading:

Ken has written an open letter about this kerfuffle, which you can read here:

Roger Norling makes several excellent points here:

I would also recommend you read all of these posts from Randy Packer at BoxWrestleFence.

I have been working for the last nine months on creating a teaching tool for students of Fiore's art: a card game called Audatia. The game has been designed from the ground up as a way to make the abstract elements of Fiore's system, such as the terminology and the overall tactical structure, easier to learn. I know next to nothing about designing games, so of course I hired a professional, and as readers of this blog should know by now, I didn't do it all by myself. I have been working as part of a team, and my job is to keep the game faithful to the Art it is intended to serve.

Over the weekend we took the game to the gamers, by setting up playtesting at Ropecon. We were supposed to be on for two hours a day, over the three days, but three of us were at it non-stop for an average of 5 hours a day. Folk were queueing up to have a go, and many came back for more. It was fantastic. We learned a lot about what we had got right, and more importantly, what we had got wrong.

The best negative review we got was from an ex-student of mine, who said: “it's too realistic. You might as well just pick up a sword and fight.” Not an error I intend to fix.

It also proved itself as a teaching tool; the players, usually with no swordsmanship experience, quickly learned what an opponent in tutta porta di ferro could do, and what their best option was if when the blades meet you are in the zogho stretto. If tutta porta di ferro and zogho stretto are all Greek to you, then you need this game!

In class last night, a student asked a question about the uses of posta breve based on her experience playing the game at Ropecon; a question that might never have occurred to her if she had not played. That gave me the theme for the class, during which I realised that the game needed a tweak to make its representation of the guard more accurate. So the game proved its use as a teaching tool, and not only that, it set up a virtuous cycle of learning and development.

We have clearly hit some kind of a nerve, as we have been storming ahead on our indigogo project, having raised over 7,000 euros in under 7 days. If you haven't backed us yet, please do so now!

So, Audatia matters because:

1) it will help students of the Art of Arms pick up the theory side of things more quickly, encouraging them to engage with the system more closely, and helping to drive our understanding of this system forward.

2) it will draw new scholars into the Art, folk who play the game may well take up the practice of swordsmanship.

3) it will help bridge the gap between those who get why swords are cool and those who don't. If you're addicted to swords, you can use this game to help communicate why to your friends outside our sub-culture.

4) it is one more way in which those who have no idea that European martial arts exist can find out about them.

5) it will, if it does well, go some way to counteract the appalling misogyny in gaming culture today. We intend to create female character decks, because there were some fearsome women warriors in the middle ages. (I'll be blogging about this in detail soon.) And guess what: they will be wearing armour that would effectively defend them against deadly weapons, not pander to the prurience of little boys.

I think that's five excellent reasons, don't you?





Recent Posts

Jaegerstock, part 3

Now that we have a working Jaegerstock, let’s take a look at lessons two and