You must be asking yourself what this fourteen year old ballerina has to do with martial arts, fighting, and history?
In fact, I suspect that almost everyone who swings a sword or reenacts can stop reading. I suspect that everyone trained in any sport or physical art can look at this young woman, and guess what today’s blog is about, and what I’m going to say.
By the way, this is Miss Hannah Lowe of Toronto. She is a passable Italian longswordswoman, and an effective arming sword fighter as well. And from her and some other young people I have the honour to train I have learned some dramatic and important–in in some cases, disheartening–lessons about history, and about fighting.
Hannah has been dancing since she was three years old. By fourteen, she has reached a stunning level of proficiency; if you saw her dance the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Nutcracker, you’d know that she’s nearly at the level of a professional.
Vittorino Da Feltre, the father of Italian humanism (one of them) and the architect of Humanist education, as well as Vergerius and others recommended that young men learn to swim and to dance (some of the humanists were dead set against dancing, but let’s leave them to their stodgy lives) and the Ancient Greeks were devoted to dance. Both cultures–Medieval/Renaissance and Archaic Greek–were devoted to gymnastics. Several educators suggest that children swim, dance, and do gymnastics until they are twelve, and at that age, start the art of arms. As a sword teacher, I was lucky to find Hannah and my daughter Bea at about this age. Think of them as my experiments in teaching the children of the past (aristocratic children, anyway… see below.)
The results were disquieting, and changed the way I see the martial arts of the past and the qualities and training of pre-modern warriors. Hannah went through the entire 12 week basic children’s fencing corpus in an hour and a half. Some of you are nodding–others, perhaps, fencing teachers, assume I’m a dreadful instructor. But both Hannah and my own daughter,(an eleven-year old fencer who has been dancing since age three) do not need to repeat body postures more than twice. If they are shown a drill, they learn it. They don’t discuss, they do not posture about their own knowledge (displaying a lack thereof). They do not complain. Most of all, however, they exactly mirror what they see. So, for example, Hannah mastered the long lunge the first time she did it. There was no casting about for balance at the end of her reach, and no fumbling recovery. The amusing corollary to this is that if you, the teacher, have a bad habit, you can assure yourself that it will be instantly transmitted.
This is stunning. The speed with which children take to the art of arms suggests to me that no modern adult athlete taking up Armizare–or Pankration or Bolognese or Kenjutusu–can possibly match the art of learning, the bodily discipline, or the enthusiasm for practice of a twelve-year-old. It explains a number of things that had made me wonder in the Medieval manuals… in Fiore, I often look at the complexity of the plays and wonder how often a swordsman encountered an opponent as well trained–and how often, for example, he even remembered under pressure how to counter a punta falsa. But Hannah and my other dance children suggest to me that they would, in fact, remember their sword lessons, for ever. I recently had an opportunity to train one child four days in a row. I structured our first lesson so that he would get a review of things he’d seen with my friend Greg Mele in February. Apparently I was the one who needed review– he remembered everything, down to foot placement and even what errors he’d made in class.
Ah… but if they all began training at age eleven of twelve, I think I can see it differently. And the other thing that emerges is how very much better the children of aristocrats must have been at war then the children of peasants–because training matters. Training is not just good for itself, but for self-discipline and confidence. Both excellent virtues, in battle.
And this leads me to the part that writers about these people probably need to grapple with. Because ultimately, it is about character. And youth and training form character. Young people who practice their arts for fifteen hours a week are going to have different motivations and different ideas about pain, endurance, pleasure, fitness, and even morality. They will make decisions that would be very different from the decisions of untrained people.
Antonio Cornazzano, a sometime mercenary man-at-arms and the author of one of the earliest books on dancing, suggests that a his well-trained princess should be able to read Latin, to deliver oratory extempore in that language, and to dance a long dance of her own composing to music of her own composing and accompanied by her own singing. That would be your thirteen year old princess, and it suggests that being a princess could be pretty hard work. Or… just… practice.
And really, for all you aspiring knights, swordspeople, and martial artists… and baseball players and dancers… it is really all about practice. Practice at home. Practice while you walk. Make practice an essential part of your life, and you will be a vastly better practitioner than if you merely go to class once or twice a week. Class isn’t where you learn. Class is where you learn what to practice the rest of the time. You think practice is boring?
I practice 10 3/4 hours a week. I’m going to estimate I spend 7 hours a week thinking about dance. (That sounds crazy!) Occasionally I find practice boring, but there are always an infinity of things that can be improved and tweaked, and perfected, so it takes a lot to make something actually boring.
My favourite form of practice is probably how I do it with my private coach. We’ll take a variation that I’m learning and just work on every little detail for an hour straight, or we’ll start with a small exercise and build it up and keep working on it until it’s practically an entire piece. This way of learning is great for everything, technique, presentation, stamina, conditioning….
I’m going to guess that the knights of the fourteenth century and the hoplite class Greeks of the 5th c. BCE felt about the same about their arts…
If you note, my characters all train. Tom Swan visits swordsmen in every town he travels to…sometimes so I can name drop, but also because I want the reader to see that good swordsmanship, jousting skills, horsemanship–people in the past worked on these every day.
And it is what I do myself, of course. But then, I started fencing when I was eleven. 🙂
Next Up– The Pen and Sword Tour 2015! Want to come to Greece, see a lot of sites and battlefields, play with some period weapons,and eat some great food? Oh, and I teach a sword class… That’s come out here on Saturday, I think. If I pressed the correct buttons…
Oh, and a small note: I own a copy of Antonio Cornazzano’s book on war, and my historical reenactment ‘Not-For-Profit’ (called Hoplologia) intends to pay to have it professionally translated and then we’ll make it available as a PDF free on the internet. We’ll be cloud funding and looking for donations in a few weeks. Hope you are interested. There’s good stuff in Cornazzano. And we want to make history live, don’t we?