(This is a repeat of a blog I ran on Hoplologia. We’re changing formats, so I’m repeating it here. What is Hoplologia? It is our not-for-profit shell that runs our Ancient Greek and Medieval reenacting and our various WMA/HEMA classes and some sewing and a summer camp for kids and some educational activities for 4th grade and up and.. and… check for yourself here.)
This blog is going to be about BOTH the world of historical re-creation — sometimes called ‘reenactment’ or ‘reenacting’ and about ‘historical martial arts’ also known as ‘Western Martial Arts’–in this case, I mean ‘the attempt to recreate the actual combat arts of the past.’ I recognize that the two are not necessarily allies to many practitioners of one or the other. I also want to note, right at the beginning, that I’m as interested in recreating the metallurgy of the past, or the sewing of the past, or the dance of the past, as the martial arts of the past. In fact, I don’t think you can, actually, recreate any one ‘piece’ of the past without attempting an immersive look at the other pieces. Or rather, I think that like a puzzle of a picture, the more pieces you have, the clearer and better understanding you’ll have of the picture.
But–to the near despite of some of my closest friends in both passions, I don’t think that immersive experience–what too many of us call ‘authenticity’ without considering what that word means in modern parlance–begins and ends with material culture. That is to say–stuff. I’m aware that the last thirty years of military reenacting (and modern consumer culture) have pushed many hobbyists into a frenzy of making and purchasing ever more narrowly-defined ‘correct’ clothing and equipment, and much of that is, in fact, positive. It’s just not the most important aspect of recreating the past. It is simply the easiest to demonstrate on Facebook. To argue otherwise is to suggest that the experience of material culture (stuff) is more important than the direct experience of other aspects of our lives today. That’s certainly what Apple and Walmart would like you to believe, but here in the immersion of the past–we don’t need to fall for that.
I’d like to propose that in fact, the most important aspect of immersion in the past is the acquisition of the skills of the past, and their practice. And this is where the regular practice of historical martial arts has changed my perception of what ‘matters’ to the experience of the past. I could (if I had the skill) be as interested in historical musical instruments and the re-creation of historical music (and in fact, I just spent a week with people who build medieval instruments and use them,, and our commonality of experience was amazing); or of historical dance (done that, with Baroque ballet) or horseback riding or plowing or card games or gun smithing or sewing or–any skill you can find, document, and learn.
But the process of acquiring a skill–a real skill, with a palpable superiority over an untrained person–and its consequent investment of time, passion, and sweat–brings you closer to the past in almost every way. First, the entire process can be made to function as re-creation. You are not ‘playing’ a British soldier in the late eighteenth century. You are instead actively pursuing the knowledge he had of how to use a sword or a bayonet (as with Angelo’s stick fighting techniques). Even better if you can pursue the acquisition of that knowledge in something of the manner he (or she) pursued it (for which, see below). Second, the experience of that skill is far more valid as an experience of the past (at least as modern philosophy defines experience) then the experience of dressing up–no matter how ‘correctly’ in period clothes–and then camping on a mowed lawn. That latter is, in fact, ‘acting.’ It may benefit the public. But it is not really a valid experience of the past.
All of which brings me, at least, to splitting wood, as my allegory for the recreation of the past, and training for the past’s martial arts. Or other things … We–as a community–have a great deal left to learn about almost every aspect of the chivalric martial arts of the later Middle Ages, and one area that fascinates me is the lack of information on the training of squires. There are, in fact, a handful of very late illustrations of men fencing with sword and buckler, or lifting rocks. There’s one document from the Knights of Saint John that requires knights to practice ‘at arms’ every day on the island of Rhodes, and some other tenuous suggestions–but all considered, shockingly little by the standards we impose today on sports or dance professionals, elite soldiers, or musicians.
What I suspect is that in the process of eliminating the drudgery of routine farm work and housekeeping, we have also eliminated many core training experiences for the young military professional, and we have created a false and ‘modern’ training regimen to make up for the lack.
In our classes at Hoplologia, we spend a fair amount of time on tempo (the timing and the inter-relationships of timing of the movements of using a weapon), and measure (the distance at which a martial artist can most effectively engage an opponent). We have exercises that I borrow from ballet (a 19th century dance style) from Kendo (really a very modern sport indeed, and almost unrelated to the use of the Samurai’s katana), from Aikido (an early 20th century combat sport) and from Olympic fencing (also a 20th century combat sport.) None of these exercises–or anything like them–were practiced by knights and squires in the 14th century. In fact, as best we know, the young gentlemen (and sometimes women) of the period were enjoined, in the first manuals of education (1450s), to swim, dance, do gymnastics, and ride horses.
I would like to suggest that in addition, most of them cut and split firewood with an axe.
Now, admittedly, I have been doing this all my life. I’m a fair user of an axe, which I think makes me a fair test subject. But axe use requires repeated strikes with a very small blade–the axe head has less cutting edge than the sweet spot on either a katana or an Italian long sword–on a very small target. Expert axe use in felling requires the ability to put every strike within about 10 mm of all your other strikes–and to vary the angle of impact very precisely. As a sidebar, I was interested recently to read where one modern WMA teacher suggested that multiple strikes to the same place on a helmet could damage the helmet, and another said that it was unlikely that anyone could place so many strikes so close together. I would say–split more wood. You can, in fact, place every strike withing a few millimeters of the others.
Using an axe to fell or to split also requires a precise sense of measure–especially splitting small rounds. Again, you have a very small blade area and a very small target. Constant practice allows you to know, without hesitation, how far to stand from your tree or your log when you swing.
And tempo? Not only does the use of an axe teach tempo–naturally, as the axe user finds a rhythm that suits that individuals arm length and strength, but two cutters working together are practicing even more effectively.
I won’t belabor the use of an axe any more. For me, it is an allegory about how immersion in the past is the re-creation, not of ‘stuff’ but of systems–not just one skill, but many linked skills. Dance and gymnastics train bodies to stamina and posture as well as tempo and measure. Swimming makes us strong and gives long, fast muscle. Cutting wood with an axe makes tatami mats and expensive sharps unnecessary to train the swordsman to precision. Taken into our lives together, all three would give us a multi-layered immersion into the training systems of the past–leave our bodies healthier, increase our skills–and fill our porches with firewood. A dedicated and passionate WMA practitioner could do all of these, every week–dance, swim, practice gymnastics and cut wood–without spending a dollar on equipment or period clothes–and I suspect their experience would be deep and immersive.
OF COURSE I believe that you can deepen your enjoyment and immersive experience by painstakingly recreating the clothes, shoes, armour, swords, horse harness, plows, violins, drums, hauteboys, tents, pots and pans and jewelry and bows and… everything of the past. Don’t throw things! I own lots of this stuff, and I revel in it (gosh, just look at my cheque book.) But as with our modern lives in the age of the consumer, much of that that is not purely functional (like shoes for the dancer, where period shoes will profoundly affect performance and thus experience) are about outward show, not inward knowledge. All hand sewn? Unless you did it yourself. and it is as good as the sewing of the period…it’s just an Iphone or a BMW.
Go split more wood.