Guy's Blog

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

Tag: sword school

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.

Sixteen years ago, I was at a crossroads in my life, so I went and sat on top of a hill in the Scottish Highlands, and meditated for a sign. A voice in my head said “go to Helsinki and open a swordsmanship school.” So I did.

Now that school has become “The School”, and has sprouted branches in many countries. The Helsinki branch was always the “main branch”, because it was the first, and I live here. But as my readers know, I stopped teaching there regularly at the end of November last year, and am now moving to Ipswich.

I have left a couple of swords in the Salle, just in case, and a picture of the In Gladio Veritas logo that Titta Tolvanen made for me, as a reminder to the students that the principles of the school don't change, but should be the springboard for their creativity, not shackles to bind them in place.

For the first time ever, I’ve bought a one-way ticket out of Helsinki airport. I don’t know when I’m coming back. But I am confident that while the students here can manage just fine without me, I am not entirely without skills to offer and they will be wanting some instruction again soon.

The lorry arrived to collect our stuff this morning:

Done!
Not all by myself then 🙂 Thanks again, Auri and Rami!

 

Mikko Kari, moving professional.

(And I would highly recommend this company, should anyone think of following us over to the UK; Mikko Kari here is a lorry-loading artist.)

My reasons for moving are many and various; the most obvious and pressing one being my mother-in-law’s health. But the justification I’ve been using is that I do not want my school to suffer from the dread disease of founderitis. You know, that horrible condition where the founder of an enterprise can’t let go, and stifles the growth and creativity of his or her creation. A part of me, I will admit, was somewhat sorry that my students in Helsinki have thrived in my absence, but, since the very first day I started teaching here, I’ve been saying that my job was to make myself redundant. It seems that I have succeeded.

But leaving Finland is much harder than I thought it would be. This is mostly because I had the homesickness reflex and attachment to place burned out of me when I was a kid. When I moved here, leaving friends I loved behind in beautiful Edinburgh, I never once suffered a pang of missing them or it. Sure I’ve kept in touch, but that ache in the space where a person used to be just didn’t happen. I don’t miss people or places. Or rather, I didn’t.

Thanks to the boarding school recovery work I’ve been doing, I’ve relearned how to feel miserable when I leave a home behind me. Remember when I wrote about defence mechanisms rusting in place? Well it seems like this one has been thoroughly WD-40d and is now working all too bloody well. This may seem like a bad thing, and indeed it sucks goats to experience it, especially as I am so out of practice at dealing with it as an adult. But it’s actually a positive development, in terms of my long-term psychological health.

I am leaving behind many lovely and wonderful people, and many places that have sunk into my sense of home. For some reason I can’t explain, coming to Finland was like having lead boots removed, ones I hadn’t known I was wearing. That itch between my shoulders became the sprouting of wings. Suddenly I could do anything, be anything. The challenge now is to retain that feeling somewhere else. And in the meantime, Finland:

Kiitos kaikista, ja nakemiin!

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?

What do you consider “real swordfighting”? For some, only tournament bouts really count. For others, there has to be a corpse by the end. My answer to this vexing question is below.

When I was a little boy I want nothing more than to learn real swordfighting. My mum told me that real swordfighting was called “fencing”, and that her dad, my grandpa, was an expert. He had been a keen fencer for about 70 years at this point, and was duly prevailed upon to give his grandson an introductory lesson in the noble art. This involved him sitting in his armchair smoking a rollup cigarette while I stood there holding a foil. When he yelled “extension!” I stuck my arm out, and when he barked “Lunge!” I stepped forwards with my front foot. I was about eight years old, and this was heaven. REAL swordfighting! Unfortunately though he was extremely old (about 88) and my family were living in Botswana while he was in London, so I only ever got a couple of sessions with him before he died.

I made do then with what I saw on the silver screen, though at this time sword flicks were pretty rare. Conan the Barbarian was my primary source, with supporting material from such legendary high-quality movies as Hawk the Slayer. But it was very very hard to get my hands on movies like this, as a) the VCR had only just been invented and b) we didn’t have so much as a TV to plug one into. But while I was home for the school holidays I went most Saturday afternoons to Gaborone’s one and only cinema, the Capitol. The kids’ matinee was occasionally such gems as Clash of the Titans, but usually full-length, uncut, Hong Kong kung-fu movies, complete with hardcore violence and some pretty nasty porn. My friend Mark and I would gloss over the bits with naked women in (we were only 9 or 10) but treat the rest of the film as instructional; on the walk home we practised the top-level moves we had learned. I never did quite manage to jump backwards onto a tree branch, but we waved our arms and legs with vigour, and we were both adept at the sound effects.

My martial arts education took more serious turn when a karate group started up at the local golf course. It was run by Korean man who barely spoke, and spent quite some time after most classes trying to break concrete paving slabs with his bare hands. He would set up a couple between some breeze blocks, put a thin towel on top, and slam his hand down. The top slab always cracked in two, but I never did see him break both at once. The class consisted of three or four students, and we would start by running somewhere on the course, finding a quiet spot and going through a set of ritualised opening moves before the punching and kicking would begin. The first command, which sounded like “Chariot!” had us standing up straight with our hands by our sides; then “Chumbi!” and we would drop a little with our hands fisted in front of us. This was by way of salute, I think. What with commuting to the UK three times a year for school I didn’t get a lot of training, but the buzz of doing real martial arts for the first time will never leave me. (This still strikes me as by far the best use a golf course has ever been put to, and I would urge those of you of an activist frame of mind to set up an “occupy golf courses” movement, so that these lovely spaces can serve a worthwhile function as outdoor dojos.)

My school at this time was a boys-only boarding school in rural Suffolk, not far from Ipswich. There was a general policy that if enough boys were interested in something, the school would organise classes in it. So I campaigned for martial arts, and eventually, at the beginning of my final year there, the powers that be allowed a karate class to start. My name was first on the sign-up sheet, and I went to the deputy head, a normally terrifying individual, and begged for a guarantee that I would be picked. The list of those doing karate was posted a week later and thank the lord, there was my name.

Imagine my delight when the karate we were doing turned out to be basically the same style, chariot, chumbi and all. But this time we also had belts and ranks, and so gradings.  The club began in September 1986, which was also the beginning of my final year, and the year in which we moved from Botswana to Peru. This meant that two days before my first ever grading I had a load of really nasty vaccinations, and took the test with my left arm swollen and in constant agony. There were tears running down my face for most of the exam, and I was shaking like a leaf by the end. But, and here’s the lesson, I got a first-class pass. This had nothing to do with my rather feeble ap chagis (front kicks) and everything to do with my having got through it without quitting.

This martial arts heaven lasted only a year before I was packed off to public school and there was no karate to be had. But, joy of joys, finally there was fencing. Not only that but fencing had just been designated a “major sport” in the school, which meant that taking it I was not obliged to do any other sport. In other words I never had to chase after another fucking round object again. I cannot tell you how much of my life had been wasted by my being forced to pretend to care where a leather bag (football or rugby), or solid round object (hockey or cricket) ended up relative to a white line and some posts. Hockey at least had the decency to supply me with a weapon and people to hit with it, but the rest were just so stupid. Surrounded by boys who were sports-mad, as good little Englishmen are trained to be, I had always felt like a complete alien. Sometimes I even faked a bit of enthusiasm. But hanging about outside in a muddy field, wearing shorts in winter, and being yelled at for not paying attention to a completely arbitrary set of rules is just the single least explicable human pursuit. But fencing, that made sense. Someone is trying to stab me. I’m trying to not get stabbed and to stab them instead so they have to stop. Makes perfect sense. I am motivated.

I loved every minute of fencing, from footwork drills to technical drills to individual lessons with the coach, to the actual competitive fencing. But the tournaments themselves were a pain. It meant getting up early at the weekend, going somewhere in a coach (I despise and abhor all forms of motorised transport unless I’m driving), hanging about for endless hours waiting for it to be my turn, fiddling with stupid kit, and then finally getting to fence people I hadn’t fenced before. Total time investment: perhaps 9 hours. Total bouts: maybe 10. Less if I got eliminated early and one of my teammates didn’t so we all had to stay. Inefficient, the least good bit about the whole fencing endeavour, but with some useful aspects, mostly to do with the experience of crossing blades with new people.

I spent all five years of my secondary education doing no other sport but fencing, and by the end of it, I was reasonably good; good enough to be captain of the team, but not good enough to get into the nationals. In September 1992 I went up to Edinburgh University to read English Literature. I naturally joined the Fencing Society, and showed up to my first session wondering what the level would be like. Fencing clubs are one of the few environments on Earth where it is perfectly polite, friendly even, to go up to someone you don’t know and say “fancy a fight?”. This I did, to a tall Chinese-looking chap who was already kitted up. He agreed, and we set to. On the first pass it was obvious to me he was out of my league, but I did ok- I even pulled off a lovely doublé in carte (he was a left hander). The score was 4-3 in his favour when I saw the opportunity for another doublé. As I took it, he neatly stepped offline with his back foot and counterattacked under my arm, my point went sailing inches past his chest. 5-3, I lose. Then I noticed the logos on his kit- he was just back from the Barcelona Olympics, where he was on the British team. Suddenly losing was far less important than the fact that I’d got three hits! And having seen my predilection for the doublé, he had set me up for the second one. Lovely.

Sad to say though, that bout was the highlight of my University fencing, because at the time a completely erroneous interpretation of the FIE rules was being applied by pretty much all tournament referees. The rule states (in foil) that the attack is determined as the extension of the sword arm with the point threatening the target. But it was interpreted as “whoever moves forward first is attacking”. This lead to people running forwards with their point back over their left shoulder, and walking onto my extended arm, while flicking their point around to touch my shoulder. According to the rules, my attack on their preparation. In a duel, their pierced liver versus my small bruise on the shoulder. According to the referees, a hit against me. Given that my interest was in real swordfighting, I was not prepared to fence like that, so I stopped going to competitions. But around this time I fell in with some other fencers who wanted to do things for real, and started meeting up with them to fight the way we wanted to- in a way that felt real.

One of the books in my grandfather’s house was a first edition of Alfred Hutton’s The Sword and the Centuries. It opened my eyes to the possibility of researching historical fencing styles, and even provided some details about the sources I might work from. Amazing- there were books that could tell us how real swordfighters really fought with real swords for real! Then in the National Library of Scotland, I stumbled upon a little book that was to change everything: The Expert Sword-man’s Companion, by Donald Mcbane. What a book! I wangled it onto my English Lit course Identity in 17th century Literature with Dr. Jonquil Bevan, and even managed to get course credit for it- I wrote an essay on it called The Gallant Pander. Best of all, from my perspective, was that the smallsword material McBane presents did not contradict my early fencing training, but allowed me to apply what I knew in a historical way. It may come as a surprise, given that these days I am best known for my work on medieval Italian swordsmanship, but my first love was 18th century French smallsword as taught by a Scottish thug.

So, my friends and I started the Dawn Duellists Society, in 1994, to bring together like-minded people to fight with. I quickly found that in order for the fights to be anything like the books, I had to teach these people first. So I ended up teaching historical swordsmanship in order to create opponents. The whole point of researching these historical systems was to pick up new tricks for winning fencing matches with historical weapons. I had a complete separation in my mind between stuff done with swords, and martial arts. Martial arts were about killing people; sword-activities were about fencing. Martial arts were serious, fencing was not. Martial arts was about the Path, swordsmanship was about scoring touches. Given my interest in real swordfighting, this makes no sense now, but it was how my head worked back then.

The psychological wall I had built between swordsmanship and martial arts melted away during the summer of 2000. I won’t go into the full story here- suffice to say it involves witches and angels, sex and violence, lust, betrayal and a mountain-top revelation. Yes, really. And no, not while sober. Suffice to say I suddenly decided to move to Helsinki and open a school- a school devoted to historical, european, martial, swordsmanship. Above all, restoring the arts of our ancestors, and maintaining at all costs the martial depth of the practice. Because that, to me, is real swordfighting.

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