Monday, June 13, 2016

Book Review: Fencing Through the Ages

What? Another book review? Yes, it is. This one is of a similar nature to my last in that I bought this book at Swordplay last year and have been horribly slack about getting around to doing a book review on it. This is one that I am actually going to really enjoy telling you about as it will reveal a book and an author who, for the most part had been pushed aside for others.

Corthey, Adolphe (2015) Fencing Through the Ages, LongEdge Press, Brisbane, First Edition 1898, Translated by Chris Slee

So, the bibliographical details have been presented above, and should provide everything you should need to search for this book online for you to buy it. Why would you buy it? Well the book presents some very interesting material which has otherwise been shoved aside by the English-speaking world.

This book was translated into English from French by Chris Slee in a literal fashion. In this he attempted to stay as true to the language as possible. The advantage of this, while meaning that the result is less smooth than it could be, means that it is closer to the original as possible for the English-speaking reader. Slee supplies notes with regard to his translation of particular words throughout the book to inform the reader of his choices.

Adolphe Corthey is the French equivalent to Captain Alfred Hutton and Egerton Castle and is of as much importance to the revival of Historical European Martial Arts. His book Fencing Through the Ages presents an account of various masters of fencing, much as Castle's Schools and Masters of Defence. While it was Hutton and Castle on one side of the English Channel, it was Corthey on the other side.

The book presents an interesting discussion of the history of fencing from the very beginning all the way up to the eighteenth century. His discussion of the very early periods is, of course, very brief whereas his discussion of Renaissance and later period weaponry is much longer. The first weapon he discusses in detail is the two-handed sword, and the last is the smallsword. In this discussion he mentions the works of various masters in the same sort of fashion as is found in Castle's. This is the primary part of the book, and the actual book written by Corthey. As expected, of course, there are present many of the historical biases of the period with the "development" toward the dominance of the point and so forth, but as an historical document, this makes it still useful.

The fact that the above is the primary part of the book does not mean that the sundry materials should be skipped over in any way whatsoever. There is the presentation of contemporary media information also included demonstrates significance of author and work. Thus the presentation of such work was placed in the public eye, much as HEMA practitioners are attempting to do now.

One of the most interesting documents contained within this volume actually resides in the back pages. It is entitled "On the Subject of the Transformation of the Combat Sword" and discusses the transformation from combat weapon to weapon usable for practice. This is a document which should be of great interest to all practitioners of revivalist martial arts, but especially HEMA with regard to examining how to get weapons at least resembling their historical counter-parts.

In the end I found that this book, understated by its size and weight, was a most interesting read from cover to cover and I would recommend it for all with an interest in history and HEMA. The wide areas of knowledge which Corthey points toward should at least indicate to the reader other areas in which research may be made, and other areas in which maybe they had not thought to cover.



Friday, May 13, 2016

Are You Using or Teaching a System?

Every now and then we must look back at what we are teaching and what it is based upon. In some cases this may not be as pretty a picture as what we may like it to be but it still must be done. The question remains especially for us looking into the fields of Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) are we really practicing what we set out to? Are we really teaching what we are studying? Are we teaching a system or merely tips and tricks?

A system is has a foundation based on the principles of fence. This means that the actions make sense according to the rules of Time and Distance. It means that what we are teaching, when performed purely according to these rules will work. This system does not have to be based in any one "School" or based on the works of any one "Master". Indeed, what I teach is based upon the works of several theorists from at least two different "Schools". What needs to be present are the principles upon which the actions are based upon and these need to be based on the principles of fence.

A system has essential mechanics. These are foundation mechanics which every student knows and every student must learn to progress through to the next stage. The progression of the students must be based upon the training method which is set in place. Each one of the lessons should build upon some part of the lessons which came before it. Every student should progress through these lessons in some form or another. At the end of these lessons, indeed part way through some of these lessons there should be a system of evaluation of progression. You should be able to evaluate the students and see where they are in their progression to see what they have learnt and what they need to re-learn. This does not need to be formal, but some sort of recognition of the student is always a boon to them.

A system has a set of attacks and also responses to those attacks. Too often attacks are taught and there are no responses taught to defend against those attacks leaving fencers with the idea that there is no response. There is always some way to respond to every action of an opponent. These attacks and their responses need to be based upon fencing theory to ensure that they are correct and ensure the safety of the fencer. There should also be a generalised solutions to situations based on fencing theory to answer general questions of attack and response, and these too need to based in fencing theory. From these generalised solutions there should also be specific techniques and specific solutions to specific techniques based on fencing theory.

These are the elements of a system. A person who teaches the principles of fencing to their students gives them the ability to extrapolate from what they have been taught to learn more. A person who teaches a system gives their student the ability to learn another system due to the foundation knowledge that they have given them based on the theory and principles which have been taught. A person who teaches tips and tricks, gives another some neat ways to answer a couple of attacks here and there but no foundation, and a much shorter road.



Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Book Review: Encased In Steel: Anthology I


This is a book review that I should have done not long after Swordplay 2015. What can I say? I took the book home, I had other stuff to research, I read it, I then almost instantly passed it on to a student, and now I have actually had time to sit down and do a book review of it. This in some way alludes to my attraction to the book once I finally managed to open the cover and actually start reading.

Farrel, K. (ed) (2015) Encased in Steel Anthology I, Fallen Rook Publishing, Triquetra Services (Scotland), Glasgow

First bibliographical details, above and, the book is a soft cover, just over 200 pages long. It is about the size of a large novel in area (15 x 23-cm). All in all the book is quite unremarkable by its outside. This is one of those cases where the book should not be judged by the cover.

The book is filled with great articles covering many different subjects. Many of these subjects would not even be considered by some members of the HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) community to be relevant to their studies. I would suggest this is because that their focus is more on the physical aspects of what they are studying rather than an holistic examination of the arts.

The editor, states that this is a selection of articles from the "Encased in Steel" weblog, plus some extra articles which have been added in. As stated previously it covers a wide variety of subjects clearly divided into five general areas: Chivalry & Christian Values, HEMA History & Research, Weapon History & Research, The Practice of Cutting and Practical Concerns for HEMA Clubs. All of these areas are pertinent to HEMA and also the wider sword-wielding communities.

The articles themselves are very well written and easy to read. Jargon is in most cases explained so that the reader does not get confused. All of the articles are well documented and researched and each one has a bibliography supplied at the end of the article for further examination of the sources for further research. While the manner of writing is more scholarly in approach, bringing up relevant details in the appropriate manner and also forming arguments based on the evidence presented, the articles are also presented in a way which is engaging. The multiple authors are respected in their various fields in the HEMA community.

Rather than focusing on the purely martial art and physical aspects of HEMA, it also has some especially interesting articles on the ethics of swordsmanship and other social aspects which are integrally related with the wielding of a sword and indeed other weapons. Needless to say this collection of writings, while not wholly may in single appeal to a much wider community, as such this book is recommended for reading by all those interesting in swordsmanship, regardless of their interest or skill level.



Sunday, March 13, 2016

Virtues Gained From Swordsmanship


Based on some of what I said in a previous post on the ethics of swordsmanship, I had a request from one of my readers to write something about what virtues are gained from studying and performing swordsmanship. For your interest, the original post called "A Question of Ethics" can be found here: So, what I am going to do is have a little chat about these virtues gained from swordsmanship. To begin with I will have a look at some primary sources. Then I will have a look at some of the things from my own point of view, some of which will refer back to the post indicated above.

Primary Sources

Call me biased, I am only going to be using manuals and masters which are written in English because I only speak/read English. This makes for much easier translation on my part. First we start with one of my own favourites, di Grassi.

"For this cause I beseech the gentle Reader to show himself such a one in the reading of this my present work, assuring himself by so reading it, to reap profit and honour thereby. And not doubting but that he (who is sufficiently furnished with this knowledge, and has his body proportionally exercised thereunto) shall far surmount any other although he be imbued with equal force and swiftness."
Giacomo di Grassi 1594 His True Arte of Defence

In essence, first thing that Giacomo di Grassi focuses on is profit and honour from following what is written in his book. This is the result of training. Further that the reader will be able to defeat any other opponent who is of equal physical ability. So, in essence, di Grassi claims that his method will give you honour through defeating your opponents if you study hard and this will result in profit of some kind. This is not particularly specific.

"I speak not against Masters of Defence indeed, they are to be honored, nor against the Science, it is noble, and in my opinion to be preferred next to Divinity, for as Divinity preserves the soul from Hell and the Devil, so does this Noble Science defend the body from wounds and slaughter. And moreover, the exercising of weapons puts away aches, griefs, and diseases, it increases strength, and sharpens the wits. It gives a perfect judgement, it expels melancholy, choleric and evil conceits, it keeps a man in breath, perfect health, and long life. It is unto him that has the perfection thereof, a most friendly and comfortable companion when he is alone, having but only his weapon about him. It puts him out of fear, & in the wars and places of most danger, it makes him bold, hardy and valiant.
George Silver 1599 Paradoxes of Defence

George Silver, as I have noted previously, is a character and a half, and his claims about his method are just as characteristic. He claims that the swordsmanship will "defend the body from wounds and slaughter", as one would expect, but then he goes on to list a long list of health benefits of swordsmanship. These health benefits which he lists are not just physical, as one might expect, but they are also mental. The significance of the idea of the benefit to both mind and body is often passed over by many.

“This irresistible power of practice does not only master and overcome the unflexibleness of our bodily members, but also affects and prevails very much, even over our more dull and ignorant judgements.”

Sir William Hope 1707 A New Short, and Easy Method of Fencing: Or the Art of the Broad and Small sword Rectified and Compendiz’d

Sir William Hope, much like Silver also highlights the benefits of swordsmanship to the swordsman as being to both the mind and the body. This idea of swordsmanship being as much a mental pursuit as a physical one is something which must be realised for the greatest benefits of it to be attained.

“[Fencing] which justly forms part of the education of persons of rank; giving them additional strength of body, proper confidence, grace, activity and address; enabling them, likewise, to pursue other exercises with greater facility.”
Domenico Angelo 1787 The School of Fencing With a General Explanation of the Principle Attitudes and Positions Peculiar to the Art

Domenico Angelo, is focusing on an address to a particular clientèle, thus insisting that it is an important part of their education. Further to this he also explains further health benefits much like the previous examples which have been presented. Angelo expands his list to include benefits to the social sphere and interactions with others.

My Stuff


The first thing that will be easily noted is that fencing does supply health benefits. It does improve cardio-vascular fitness, it does increase musculature (even if it does this in some interesting spots), in general it will improve your general health overall. From my own point of view, if I had not taken up and continued fencing my own personal health issues most likely would have rendered me to a wheelchair for a period of time. But this is not really what this is all about...

The virtues which really need to be talked about are those which cannot be seen directly but their effects can be felt in other ways. They can be felt personally by the fencer and felt by others by the actions of the fencer, these are the more important virtues which we should really concern ourselves with. While the physical attributes allow us to perform and live longer lives and thus enable us to learn more it is the other virtues beyond the mere physical which are more important.

Fencing and learning has been related to the treating of depression and other mental illnesses, and indeed physical illnesses. Increased levels of adrenaline and endorphins from the victories, be they large or small can be related to an increase in positivity in the student. This can be only beneficial to a student's well-being. Such heightened positivity also increases the yearning in the student for more knowledge, which can only be a good thing. Fencing, done properly, is a thinking man's game.

Broadening Thought Processes

Fencing broadens the thought processes. What? Fencing allows you to think about things from different perspectives rather than thinking about things only from a single perspective. The primary source for this in fencing is in tactical thinking. Each opponent is a tactical puzzle and you must solve that puzzle. One way to do this is to figure out what they are going to do against you. This same process can be applied outside of fencing to allow you a different point of view on all sorts of things, and not just arguments.

Similarly the idea of awareness comes from a similar source. While fencing, you do not have time to check around you, but you become familiar with things around you, including your opponent's position. This can also be useful in other situations. This awareness can be applied to situations outside of fencing also, and not just finding your keys in the dark.

Not only can fencing teach you about these things but it can also teach you about problem-solving. The obvious one is in dealing with an opponent, as above. This is a purely tactical idea, which can be applied to all sorts of other situations, but it can also apply to ourselves and our own problems. We can look at different ways to get around problems that we all have as opponents, and thus look at ways to defeat them.

Increased Capacity for Thought

Next we move on to the idea of the increased capacity for thought. Once again, I am going to expect people to look at their screens incredulously. A fencer who looks at fencing as more than just a game of physical actions performed can really miss out. The other fencer who is willing to read and learn more can open a door to a much wider world where there are more possibilities than they ever realised, this fencer has a true relationship with the swordsmen of the past.

Most of the time when fencing manuals are read the first parts are skipped over for the "good" parts, the parts where the action starts. The problem is that in these earlier parts of the manuals you will find the author's thought processes, what he was actually thinking as he was assembling the manual. This can lead you into the reasons why he produced the manual and thus the reasons why or why not certain techniques may or may not be present. Our two English Gentlemen George Silver and Joeseph Swetnam are perfect examples of this.

As martial artists carrying weapons the concept of ethics must come up somewhere along the line, and thus must come up in the thought process. For many, as soon as they have done the safety brief they think they are done, but it should stretch further than there. We are carrying weapons, we are delivering blows and thrusts which have the potential to do serious damage and even kill. The concept of ethics is vital. In carrying any sort of weapon, you have a responsibility to others, and you also have a responsibility to yourself. This actually goes for all martial artists and all weapons. Any time either is seen in the media in a negative way, it is a black mark against us all.

Cultivation of Virtue

Most of all the virtues which have been discussed must be cultivated. They cannot just grow on their own. We must teach patience, we must teach honour. These virtues are gained through teaching and combat. Sure some of the thought processes can be learnt through the student engaging in reading but we must all teach them also. "But I am not a teacher/trainer/master." Doesn't matter. How you act, what you do, what you say, will inform newer students and people around them how they should act, and there is always someone newer than you.

The Renaissance period, through which we find many of our sources for rapier and longsword combat, was the time of Humanism and Humanistic thought. This is of great benefit to us. It is because these thoughts are imprinted in the pages of the manuals. You will find these thoughts in the so-called "boring" bits at the beginning of the manuals. Humanistic thought believes in the capacity for the individual to grow and become something better, and it is something which we need to embrace, regardless of in which particular period our particular weapon preference is found.

The virtues of honour and the Gentleman or Gentle-woman (Yes, an anachronism), need to be emphasised. We need to find the highest standards found here and push these to the limit and beyond. We need to push these ideas and make them our own and present ourselves as we would wish ourselves always to be seen. I believe that once we have done this then we will truly be on the way to performing our Arts as the Masters we so dearly cling to would have, and then we will truly find that the virtues gained from swordsmanship are vast, and beyond anything we thought possible.



Saturday, February 20, 2016

... An Additional Note


I feel that I need to add a special note with regard to the language which I use in my blog posts. This applies to all of them future and previous. I tend to use the male form, i.e. "he", "man" and so forth. In no way should my female readers feel discouraged in that these posts do not speak to them. I use the original Latin root forms of these words with their original intentions. Thus in the case of words such as "chairman", the "man" part of this comes from "manus" to operate rather than any indication of a male form.

I am a firm believer in the quote presented in this marvellous picture from Esfinges. As will be noted from my previous posts in three parts about "Females and Fencing" I believe that women have the capacity for excelling in HEMA as much as men do. I feel that it is necessary that I state this as a special mention at this point in time as I believe that I have attracted some new readers and I would like to keep their interest and not discourage them.



Saturday, February 13, 2016

Study of the Smallsword


Most of you know that my posts mostly focus on Renaissance rapier, and other Renaissance weapon forms. Well, I must announce something of particular interest. Over the past months I have been doing study into the Smallsword, with the aim of learning how to use it, based on research from manuals left behind.

Now some will go, "Well that explains that." Especially if you are on Facebook and have seen my posts about my new smallsword which I had made by Tim Harris. It is a beautiful weapon. The weapon is light and moves wonderfully. It was exactly what I asked for. Tim, I thank you for your excellent work, again.

I have, as per usual, been focussing on manuals which were published in English in their time. This means that I am not using any modern translations of manuals from the period. In some ways this was to limit my options as to what I was looking at. More to the point, it was designed so that I could look at manuals in their as close as possible original form with the author's words in as close to the original form as possible. This allows for the least amount of "noise" in examining the works.

In my study of the smallsword so far I have found that, much like the rapier, the weapon is not ubiquitous. There is no one smallsword which covers the entire period in which it was used.  This is not only by the design of the weapon, but also going by the use of the weapon. As a result, when discussing the smallsword, one needs to be a little careful. From my research it should really be divided up into "early smallsword" and "classic smallsword".

With this being the result of a small part of the research that I have done, it looks like that should I decide to include the entire weapon into my own curriculum, I will not be studying one weapon but two. This also poses a very interesting situation for discussions of the weapon, and its use in that we should really be specific about the weapon being used, and also the period which it came from.

I had intended this post to contain some of the curatorial information about the smallsword that I have found, but that would make this post much too long, so I will save that for another one. Needless to say the information and research that I will present about the smallsword will divide the weapon into two parts, maybe without a clear line, but it will demonstrate two different weapons, called the same thing.



Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Females and Fencing (Part 3)


Welcome to Part 3! If you have not perused the previous two instalments of this subject I would strongly advise you to do so. The previous ones have looked at the Physical and Psychological differences between male and female combatants in Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA). This was based upon a lesson which I presented at an event known as Swordplay '15. It was based upon some of my observed findings of the female combatants at the event and their interactions and fighting at the event. This post really will get to some of the really important stuff, which we all need to take note of.

You Are Not Alone

While the numbers of female combatants in HEMA may be smaller than those of their male counter-parts, the important thing for the female combatants to realise, and even the males to realise is that, you are not alone. Without a doubt there is another combatant out there going through the same problems as you are having, and working through them just like you are. The feeling of loneliness is one that can kill your fighting spirit in no time at all and it is one that you need to purge. You are not alone, there are people out there to help you.

So, the first thing that you are going to tell me is that you are the only female in a class of all males. You are still not alone. Your first point of call should always be your trainer. If they cannot help then you can find help elsewhere. So, you are not a member of any formal organisation and you are studying as a singular individual. You are still not alone. Thanks to the internet there are multiple sources to consult and people often are more than willing to help people and share their own insights and research. In fact, for the most part the harder task is to get us to shut up so you can get a word in. Below you will find a list of links to various Facebook groups where you can link up with other women in HEMA.

Ostensibly, I began the class at Swordplay to demonstrate to the group of ladies that they needed to move differently to the male fighters who were competing in the competition. Something more grew from the conversation that I had with the ladies who were there (Yes, I am calling you all ladies). It was the realisation that most of them had not talked to one another about HEMA and how it worked for them, and how it affected them. This was actually quite a shock to me. Guys tend to sit and chat about technique, this master over that master, and what armour suits and protects us better, so I assumed that it would be the same with the ladies. I was wrong, for this I apologise. I just hope that the class which turned into more of a discussion got people talking and that this series of posts will also get people talking, and especially the ladies. Oh, and in case you are wondering, Yes, I will be checking up on you.

Facebook Links

AUS/NZ HEMA/WMA ladies group
Started by Evangelina Corona it is a place for AUS/NZ HEMA/WMA ladies to share their thoughts, meet new friends and change the face of women in Australian and New Zealand Sword play groups. "I began this after SP15 [Swordplay '15], feeling there was a need for we ladies down under to be able to share things solely with each other."

The worldwide group, this group was made for women who practice fencing, to unite them and let them get to know one other. 

A group where ladies share.. Well, they are ladies, doing ladies things!

What You Can Do (Conclusion?)

Note that there is a question mark after the word conclusion. This is there because I am not actually sure that this is the end of the subject at all. I would not be surprised if there are further posts on this subject, possibly inspired by future events or comments. Another thing is that this process is one that needs to continue. Some of what follows will question the way things are done and I expect a certain amount of contention, but I believe that lively intellectual discussion and argument is healthy.

As combatants we all have a role to play to ensure that our female combatants are included and not side-lined in any form. This will begin with a change in attitude. We need to remove some of the negative expressions which we have grown up with such as, "You hit like a girl." and "Stop acting like a girl." All of these put our female combatants in a negative light and this is not healthy for us and definitely not for them. Rather we need to promote a the positive nature of their participation in HEMA. Further to this we also need to promote the levelling nature of martial arts in general.

With regard to this I need to approach our first contentious issue the idea of the "Ladies Tournament". I would question whether or not this is actually a healthy idea or not. Is having such a tournament an inclusive or exclusive thing? Sure it is inclusive as it involves the female combatants in a tournament, but it is also exclusive as it side-lines them to another tournament, and almost makes it feel like that they are not welcome to participate in more "general" combats. In my own opinion the nature of HEMA provides a level playing field in which all can compete, thus there is really no need for this separation, but this is a question that no doubt will be debated for some time to come.

Trainers. You are at the forefront of including individuals in HEMA regardless of whether they are male or female, or indeed of their physical nature. I have already written on the nature of bio-mechanics and body-shape, and indeed already on disabilities and fencing. Now we need to look at the male-female dichotomy. These posts are as important for you to realise the differences between the male and female student as they are for the female student to realise their own differences.

You need to approach these differences as simply that, differences, not problems. You need to consider the differences in body shape and approaches to combat. The benefits for taking this into consideration will outweigh the extra work that you will have to put in to making sure that you get it right. Take note of how your female students' bodies want to move and adapt their training to suit that, not the other way around. They will be much more comfortable, and much more successful.

Well, this series of posts has been a lot longer than I ever thought it would have been. I thank those ladies who participated in my class for the information which they gave me. It has enabled me to further understand how the female combatant operates and thinks and thus allowed me to produce these posts without you, this would have been a lot more difficult. So thanks go out to: Eva, Sam, Lois, Bec, Sharon, Emma, Rosie, Tristyn and Jessica (if I have forgotten anyone I apologise). I also need to send a big thank you to Zebee Johnstone for putting me on the right path.

I hope that all of my readers are able to pull something useful from the information which has been presented here. I apologise if there is anything here which has offended you, but I have attempted to do something which I thought needed to be done. I also apologise for some of the rambling nature of the information as I tend to write it how it comes, but then you needed to expect that considering the title of the entire blog.