Splitting Wood… an old blog repeated…



(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. axe

Go split more wood.

The Torneo del Cigno Bianco 2016


Torneo 2

The truth is that I cannot do justice to the excellence of this event, but I’ll try.  For me, it is one of the most pure experiences of a Medieval deed of arms that I have; it’s good enough to make me load armour and clothes onto airplanes and fly to Italy from Canada, for example.  By the way, that’s Ser Gregario Mele and Ser Rudolpho Ordalafi fighting with lanzia or spear on foot.  Greg Mele runs the Chicago Swordplay Guild and was my teacher in the gentle art of punching a six foot spear into your opponent’s throat through his mail; Greg, along with half a dozen other experts, is responsible for the virtual red9scovery of the Medieval fighting arts in the ;last twenty years.  This blog is not about Armizare, but if you’d like to learn more, you can look on the International Armizare Society website here.

But the Torneo is a great deal more than just fighting, although the quality and quantity of the fighting is uniformly high.  The camp has good material culture; the clothes are excellent, and there are people selling hipocras and people selling wax candles and people cooking and people making shoes.  And a lot of people standing or sitting talking about the Middle Ages.  In Italian.  My Italian is not very good, but it is amazing how much Italian I can understand as long as the people talking are speaking of fighting… I call it Italiano di Spada, the Italian of the sword…

Torneo 3

It will perhaps strike you as odd, but it greatly improves my experience that everyone is speaking Italian, because part of the quality of the event is that it is in Italy.  I ‘play’ as an English knight in Italy.  Now, let’s be honest; we know that English knights in Italy spoke French; even English archers in the late 14th century seem to have communicated in French, and as far as I know all the English knights of the mercenary companies whose writings are left wrote in either French or Italian.  But… it is very… experiential… to fight in a formal deed or arms where you only barely understand what is said; where the knights exchange friendly hugs and grunts because they do not have a language in common.  And when your visor goes down, the only things you can see are medieval; the only sound you hear is your own breathing and the roars and shouts of an Italian medieval crowd.


This year the organizers made the event immersive which is reenactor cant for ‘no public, no cell phones, no nothing.’  This was interesting.  I particularly enjoy speaking to members of the public; on the other hand, this year, no matter where I looked, I was in the Middle Ages.  At one point, when I wanted a photo, I snuck behind a tree and lay full length to take it;  the one above was out my pavilion’s door… (actually my friend Maurizio’s pavilion, and a better host you cannot imagine) the others photos on this blog are borrowed from the official photographer, Nicola Maccagnani, who was virtually invisible.

Torneo 4

To me, the highest point of perfection is the dinners.  They are served in a beautiful (period) pavilion; the food is both delicious and medieval, and the furniture, serving wares, cups, utensils… are all excellent.  Everything is excellent; the conversation flows with the superb wine (Valpolicella Ripasso, by the way; wine of tournament fighters everywhere, with a little Amarone for the knights) and again, I am there. This year I listened to the Italian with a better understanding, and was lucky in having several companions who spoke English; we toasted and boasted and had a fine time.

Torneo 5

And as a final note; everyone always talks about the winners of tournaments, but for me, the winner this year was the woman who played a major role in preparing the feast; Sabina Cattazzo.  She was fantastic and deserves the public praise!

Torneo 6

Well it is over now, and it was superb, and the only thing wrong with it is that it is two years before we can all do it again.  But I have been reenacting for almost forty years now, and it has consistently provided a peak reenacting experience three times; other reenactors know what that means.  My hat is off to the organizers.  See you in 2018!

Siamo arrivati a Roma!



Right. Since my last post, I have learned how to use a Microsoft Surface.  Now there will be photos.

That is out intrepid band on Monte Maria overlooking Rome and the Vatican.  It was a great moment, even with some very sore feet; we walked up Monte Maria and when we reached the top, there it all was.  Two thousand years of history stretched out at our feet.

We started walking at Bolsena, a magnificent medieval town just south of Tuscany, about 100 km from Rome as the eagle flies and more like 150 kilometers by way of the Via Francigena, the medieval pilgrim’s path which we (mostly) followed.  We did the whole thing in medieval kit, with medieval clothes and shoes.  My shoes and Alessio’s were made by Graziano dal Barco.

Truth in authorship requires that I confess that we took a train 8 kilometers to avoid a suburb; walking on pavement is not really very fun or very Medieval.  Also, we received a 30 kilometer car ride from Claudio, the very excellent host at our B+B ‘Etruscan Garden’ in Sutri; we stayed there one night and they treated us like Etruscan gods.  He and his wife Sarah live in a 12th century house which, by the fifteenth century, was the post house for the Roman post; Tom Swan would have stayed there running errands for the pope and Bessarion.


Of course, I didn’t take any pics of their 13th c. house… this is me and Jon Press in the gate of Sutri.  In the rain.  The rain fell and fell, which is why Claudio offered us a ride, which we accepted with gratitude.  Then we walked another 20k to assuage our guilt.

By the way, my half cloak, by Monica at Sartoria Monro (look for her on Facebook) was nigh-on miraculous, shedding water in every storm, and we had more than one.  It got soaked; I did not!

But, as usual, I digress.

Our fourth day we awoke at the magnificent Casali del Pino, an agrotourismo center (that is, a farm with a restaurant and hotel attached) about 12km from Rome.  It was superb; I can’t say the same for the stretch of road and trail from Formello to La Storte, which was ill-marked and at times brutally uncomfortable; about two miles were covered in crushed volcanic rock, which had to be good for some serious penance; then we got to walk through a Roman suburb on garbage day (did I mention this yesterday?) and truly, there are some things that a tourist doesn’t need to see; perhaps the smell was medieval, but I’m not sure.

At any rate, we rose this morning, and with the help of the wonderful woman staffing the Casali del Pino, we went to the train to avoid 5 kilometers more of garbage day and detrained with an 8K walk to the Monte Maria park.


And I also admit that there is very little about the walk to Monte Mari from the train that is medieval; I used Google maps and a carefully downloaded digital layout of the pilgrim route to manage where we walked.

I think that in many ways this is an allegory of reenacting.  There is always compromise; there is no ‘pure’ experience of the past.  There are wonderful moments when the path is good and the wild boar is moving in the forest and the flowers are beautiful, when you can easily imagine that you are  a pilgrim in 1380; in fact, it is even easier to imagine in the discomfort of heavy rain in deep woods, with the trail turning to slick mud under your smooth-soled 14th century turn shoes.

But other experiences are more ambiguous.  Staying every night in an excellent bed and breakfast and drinking excellent Italian coffee each morning, or eating superb restaurant meals (most) nights, was not in any way the experience of the Medieval pilgrim, yet to attempt to have, say, only medieval food, or to do without coffee would seem odd in a recreation where we are walking along a motorway through a Roman suburb, or waiting for passing carts to stop so that we can cross a road.

Fresh water was a constant matter of interest, and that was, in fact, an historical care. Some stretches of trail catered to pilgrims and provided wells and spigots; the Bolsena to Montefiascone stretch, famous as one of the most difficult, had enough water for an army.  Supposedly easier stretches had no water at all, and poor signs or none at all; it amused us that as we entered the City of Rome, the Via Francigena signs ended and the maze of Roma streets was left to the pilgrim’s own (electronic) devices.  All roads may lead to Rome; not all roads lead THROUGH Rome.


Tomorrow if the digital gods allow, there will be another report from Italy.  After all, there was a tournament as well as a group of pilgrims; and the duomo of Orvieto deserves a blog by itself.  Maybe two.


Vado a Roma


via WP for Windows app.

This week, I’m walking to Rome.  I’m with my friends Jon Press of England and Alessio Porto of Verona Italy and so far we’ve covered almost 150 kilometers, although I freely confess we took a. train for 12 kilometers and we got a ride for almost 30.  Laugh if you like; we did 38 kilometers the first day, in Medieval clothes and more importantly, Medieval shoes.  If you don’/t know, medieval shoes have no support and no heel; they are very comfortable for walking on medieval surfaces, like a nice hard packed dirt road, but they are not quite so much fun for walking on asphalt.  In tract, today’s last 5 kilometers walking through a suburb of Rome with no sidewalks and it happening to be garbage collection day was… less than a perfect medieval experience.  Hmm.  Or perhaps in some ways, a very pure medieval experience for a pilgrim.

Regardless, I have learned more about the Italian countryside walking from Bolsena to here (about 12 kilometers from Roma proper) than I ever would have believed.  Yesterday I walked through a forest with signs warning me of the danger of wild boars; I crosses a stream and saw deer tracks. This is more the experience I would have expected in the Adirondacks than 45 kilometers from Rome.  The views are constantly spectacular, and the churches and medieval towns are beyond stunning; each is better than the last, so amazing that none of us are jaded yet. 

Ah, a word of explanation is required.  First, there are no photos in this blog because, although I have many and they are beautiful, word press (the app I’m using on my Surface) will not allow me to upload them, and today’s kilometers make me too tired to want to fight Google for more info.  Second, you may wonder why I didn’t blog the last two days; apologies, but the WiFi has been terrible to non-existent, and several items of equipment that worked in Toronto do not work in Italy; this experience reminds me very much of military operations in my youth.

However, let me assure you that over the next few weeks I will flood you with pictures of Montefiascone, Viterbo, Sutra and Rome, not to mention Bolsena.  I now know what post house Tom Swan should stay at in Sutra in 1457; I now know what it would be like to draw a long sword in a Medieval Italian street.  In fact, I’ve been learning so fast I haven’t processed it all yet!  So bearer with me and hopefully, in time, I’ll give you a report on being a pilgrim in 1380.  With pictures.

The Experience of Armour



With thanks, as usual, to Celia, champion photographer to the armoured fighting class. BTW, neither of these gentleman are me.  That’s Greg Mele of the Chicago Swordplay guild against Marc Auger of the Barrie Swordplay Guild and Hoplologia in Toronto.  You can just see Jon Press, my awesome squire and marathon runner, in the background between them.

In four days, I’ll be fighting in Verona.  I spent most of today prepping my armour.  OK, I also went to the bank and got euros, and I did some legal stuff so my wife could bring our daughter out later, after her exams, and I jumped through various other modern hoops.

Then I went to the basement.

Waiting for me were several simple jobs. In describing them, I hope I help readers and writers understand the sheer complexity of system that is a harness, or suit of armour.

First, for some weeks, with help from Handmade Revolution Jeweler Aurora Simmons, I have been replacing the straps on my corazina or brigandine.  Today I made repairs, re-riveting in places where the fabric had separated from the metal.

Jiri 2016 057

Care to guess which buckles and straps are before and which are ‘after?’

At any rate, I’ve worn this piece of armour precisely twice, once to fight, once to look pretty. I’m repairing it.  These repairs take hours.  And they are not the fault of the maker. Repair is endemic to armour.  Much of a late 14th c. harness is laced to your body; laces break.  They have to be repaired or replaced; often they just vanish.  (I always take about 30 extra laces with me.  They are called arming points, or points.  They go to the sock multiverse… you know the sock multiverse?  So you send socks into the washer and dryer, and there are fewer socks after the laundry than before.  The missing socks are in the n dimensional space called the sock multiverse, and it appears that arming points go there too.  Hypothesis, but not, I admit, proven fact.)

Today I also riveted on a tiny ring.  You’ll never see it; it’s at the base of the back of the corazina, and it allows me to lace the point of my rondel dagger scabbard to the middle of my back.  This is, for North Americans, EXACTLY like a gunfighter tying his holster to his leg.  Tying the bottom of my scabbard means that when I go for my dagger, it will draw smoothly.

In storybooks and Hollywood, no one ever worries about a smooth dagger draw.  (Actually, no one ever binds an opponent’s sword arm and goes for their dagger, so why worry?).  In my recent life experience, fumbling dagger draws is my daily bread.


That’s me, about to plunge my rondel dagger into Sean Hayes, while he is about to try and get the ligadura or arm lock on me.  See anything interesting?

The scabbard is still on the dagger.

Because I have ripped it off my belt.  I’m 53, I’m not that strong, and I’ve just ripped the damn thing off the mounting rings on my fancy plaque belt because for whatever reason, the dagger wouldn’t leave the scabbard.

But wait, there’s https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fpetra.hall.18%2Fvideos%2F10153633692971608%2F&show_text=0&width=560” target=”_blank”>more. If this link works, you should see me fighting with Andrew Lowry at our spring practice event (I’m really not good at video) and at second 40 or so, you’ll see me fail to draw my dagger; it’s fallen from the sheath. That’s right, friends; I’m fighting to the death (really, to the ‘fun’ but you get my thought) and I HAVE NO DAGGER. In this case, and somewhat novelistically, I manage to re-arrange my bind and stab my opponent in the throat with the butt spike (slightly padded rubber knob) of my pole axe. As I then tell Andrew, this WILL occur in a novel… it’s so damn painful to have your opponent in a lock, go for you dagger and..and…and.  You can’t see; you have only your practice to tell you where the dagger is.  And where the hell is it?

And the exciting decision point; keep looking?  Or let go?

Anyway, these are just two of my adventures with daggers. There are others; recently I perfected a very safe dagger, which I loved; I broke it on a friend… the draw was good, but the dagger itself was faulty. Sigh.

And this matters, because I can’t use rubber bands or duct tape.  I have to make my dagger scabbards the way they were made in the Middle ages; wood and leather and maybe a metal chape (the pointy end) for a rich guy.  And I fully admit I tried super-powerful magnets once.  Nope.  Lost that dagger, too. And rare earth magnets are not at all Medieval.

Because I seek that experience… the real thing…

Yet how my dagger hangs on my belt and whether it is available to use is a matter of life and death.  In 1380.  And I want to share that experience (minus the death; no macho here).  And because I train to use the period techniques; what we call Armizare, or the martial art of fighting in armour, my dagger is a very important weapon, because it is what allows me to face bigger, stronger people in close.  They go for grapples and throws.  I try and stab them. (Paper, scissors, rock.  Long sword or spear, dagger, wrestling).

So I spent a lot of time in the basement working on a new dagger scabbard for a new dagger. And then putting it on my belt, over my corazina, and then riveting that little ring to the back of the corazina so my scabbard cannot flit upside down and drop my dagger on the ground.

Fighting in armour is a game of inches.  It is about fitness, but also fit.  It is about freedom,. but also about limitation.  How far can I swing mys word?  Can I take this guard?  How much speed does extra protection cost me? Can I reach my dagger?  Can I draw my sword? Does something hurt? Usually it is greaves; they hurt your instep unless they fit perfectly,and they did in ancient Greece, too.  Or gauntlets; they have to fit.  perfectly.  If they don’t, you won’t be in pain.  You just won’t fight very well.

Helmet fit?  that’s not just comfort, that’s vision.  The difference between ‘can’t see much’ and ‘can’t see a damn thing’ is vast. Breast and back fit?  If not, your reach is limited and your breath is cut off.  Legs fit?  If not, you can’t walk; can’t glide, or make a passing step, or move confidently. Arms fit?  I once fought 10 straight fights in arms that did not fit.  Despite the best efforts of my noble squire to tie them higher, every blow I threw caused the base cannon of the right vambrace to slam into the base of my hand. By the end of one fight, I can be seen on video actually flinching from the pain I’m causing myself.


And then, say it all fits.  Say the miracle occurs (or you know Jiri Klipac or Jeffrey Hildebrandt or some other miracle worker).  Now, every time you wear your armour, you need to repair it.  And of course, you cannot change weight; nor bicep size, nor quad size.  I mean, you can; there is actually some forgiveness, but no lifestyle change.  And constant upkeep; tinkering to get everything just right.

There are other folks who fight in armour in different venues and systems, like the Battle of Nations, and the Society for Creative Anachronism.  They have different rules (howl all you like, happy to explain) that do not exactly reflect the realities of Medieval combat.

(Aside.  All Martial arts sparring is a simulation.  No simulation is accurate.  Every form of simulation makes a set of compromises to reduce risk of death and injury and cost.  The SCA uses rattan instead of steel.  The Battle of Nations forbids thrusting. My form, Armizare, uses steel weapons and allows thrusting and grappling and wrestling, but we discourage full weight blows, allowed by SCA and BoNs, and we require a high standard in armour; full face protection to a very fine level and maille protection at all joints and gaps. This raises the price.)

I’m not on this pulpit to speak against either the BoN or the SCA; actually I belong to the SCA and I have many friends in the BoNs and have fought quite happily with many fighters in both orgs.  I’m here instead to speak of a similarity; armoured combat. The experience of wearing armour is a remarkable one; the feeling of invulnerability is not false, and neither is the staggering energy expenditure.  The constant balance of cost, fit, weight, and protection is an historical experience, even if you have neoprene arming garments; there are a spectrum of levels of material culture excellence, but all of them involve a fair commitment of time, energy, fitness and safety. From them, armour wearers can glean a fairly broad spectrum of experiential data about the life of armoured warriors in the past; they can also play games with weapons that you simply cannot play without armour.

Like stabbing people in the neck with a steel dagger.

And finally, people don’t fantasize about ‘knights in shining armour’ for nothing.  You look…fantastic.  Almost everyone does.  THIS MATTERS.  Napoleon’s Old Guard wore dress uniforms into battle; Royal Navy officers did the same.  Looks do matter, and very few things look better than a complete suit of shining steel.

Except maybe a silk velvet covered corazina.  I had a point a while back… probably time to go polish armour before I think of something else.  Next blog will be from Verona. Oh, and please pray for the rain there to stop.  Thanks.






Attack, Attack, Attack? Understanding “Vor” & “Nach”


Another excellent blog on the idea of priority and the difference, if I may say so, between the mentality of sport and a real attempt to be in the mindset where the weapons are deadly and you have only one ‘life’ and not three ‘hits’.

The HEMAists

by Bill Grandy

meyerVor and Nach. These two terms are constantly referred to in the various Liechtenauer teachings. On the surface the definition seems simple: The person who has seized the Vor (the “Before Timing”) is usually described as the fighter who has made an attack, whereas the person in the Nach (the “After Timing”) is the person who is forced to defend. Time and time again the treatises tell us to seize the Vor, and to not be the person who stays in the Nach. By this logic, it would seem safe to assume that to win, one should attack first and keep attacking at all costs, right?

View original post 1,402 more words

My Summer Recreating the Past


tents and ropes

That picture is of the Torneo del Cigno Bianco, or the Tournament of the White Swan, held every year in Verona, Italy.  This year, the Torneo will be held from 3 June 2016 to June 2016.

I’ll be there.

I’ve spent a year recovering a shoulder injury, and also making my harness better; that is, upgrading my armour so that it is both more authentic to my chosen period (1385) and a better fit for my body and my fighting style.  I’ve worked with Andrey Galevsky and Jeffrey Hildebrandt and Aurora Simmons and Craig Sitch and perhaps most of all, Jiří Klepač to make all my armour and all my other kit as authentic and beautiful as could be done with the time and money at hand.  There will be pictures, once I have it all on…in Italy.

But the Torneo is not just a peak experience because of the armour or the fighting.  It’s immersive.  For two or three days, in Italy, I get to live something of the life of a Medieval knight-errant; from food and dance to the buildings and the lists, there’s very little to take your mind out of the Middle Ages except possibly the tourists.

But even the tourists are wonderful; full of enthusiasm, and excellent questions about wearing armour or the danger of fighting in the lusts (not that great, by the way) or the difficulties of transporting it all on airplanes (fairly difficult, I admit) or the problems of using the toilet.  Oh, yes.

They are fun, and public education is one of the major reasons I do all this, so I’m happy to have them there.  They also add to the immersive experience, because when you fight in front of five hundred people, it’s a very different experience from fighting in front of ten or twenty; the crowd noise is remarkable, even through your helmet.  You also realize that fighting looks very different to the crowd than it does to you.  I remember in a past tournament, landing a very pretty blow in my opponent.  He (unintentionally) then landed a very late hit to my helmet; that is, he sort of ‘swung after the buzzer.’  The crowd roared for his blow, which ‘looked’ better than mine.

In fact, a very Medieval moment.

So, three days at the Torneo.  Three days for which I have prepared for months, if not years. I’ll post a blog with pictures after the last day.  And then…

Well, and then, with my friends Jon Press (who plays one of my squires) and Alessio Porto (man-at-arms) and no armour whatsoever (but in Medieval kit) we will walk to Rome as pilgrims.  Now, I freely confess that we are NOT walking from Verona to Rome.  I’d like to, but I don’t have 45 days.  I have 5 days, so we’re only walking from Bolsena on the Tuscan border to Rome.  The distance is 136 kilometers. We will be walking on the Via Francigena, the Medieval pilgrim route from France to Rome that men and women have followed… well, since before the time of Christ.  The route is ancient, and follows the same road that, for example, John Hawkwood‘s White Company (under various names) moved between Rome and Tuscany fighting for various masters.  The same road that William Gold takes repeatedly; that Tom Swan rides up and down almost every story. I’ve seen it, but I’ve never walked it; never eaten the food or drunk the wine.  And 30 kilometers a day will also, I suspect, be an experience.  Living in my Medieval kit for five days of hard walking (and no modern change) should raise some eyebrows, and will no doubt have less than ideal moments (rain without gortex) but that, too, is part of immersing yourself in a time period.  Medieval people in wet weather were wet.  Not wet through, unless they were awfully unlucky; wool is good stuff, especially if it has some lanolin left in it.  But in Tuscan heat, we may be as wet from the inside out as the outside in.


Those are my Pilgrim clothes.  That’s Lotbiniere, Quebec, and I’m with my friend Bernard Emmerich.

So… another immersive experience; no less physically challenging, and in fact, has required the same amount of preparation, both physical and in terms of kit.  No weapons, no fighting, no pretend; real canteen, real clothes, real shoes, real 30 kilometers a day. I make this point at least in part because I think that reenacting vastly over-emphasizes conflict and war; people had a lot of other things to do in the past. Pilgrimage is an entire subject unto itself; fascinating because of what it says about the human mind, and about contact with the spiritual and the past; in a way, all reenactment is a form of pilgrimage.

And of course, we are ‘actually’ going to Rome. I’m ‘actually’ an Anglican, but I have no hesitation in visiting and venerating the Christian holy places of Rome, both as a reenactor and as a modern person.

As a writer, I will blog every day from my inn, hostel, or B+B about the day’s walk, and sites along the way.  I’m allowing myself 5 photos a day.  It’s a mindset thing; when I’m walking, I can be very much immersed int he countryside, even when 18 wheelers grind their gears or use their air-brakes; but once I get my Iphone in my hand, I’m out of my experience; I’m a tired older man in wool and linen on a hot day.  So I prefer to keep the device to a minimum.  In the evening, at a modern B+B, I’ll be happy to sit back and post a few paragraphs on the experience. I hope you come along and enjoy it, or even laugh quietly.

After Italy, I’m going to England.  I don’t actually expect to be in any of the various pasts while I’m in England, but I will be at the ‘Reading the Wall’ conference in Newcastle-on-Tyne June 15-17 as a speaker. I’d be delighted if you wanted to come; I’m speaking the first day with Garth Nix (!!) and I suspect that he, at least, is worth the price of admission.  If you read this blog, you may already have heard all that I have to say! Tickets for the keynotes are available here.


Sycamore Milecastle on Hadrian’s Wall

I’d be delighted to see any of you, and in fact, I’ll have time Wednesday and Thursday to meet people and talk, whether about books or reenacting or philosophy or whatever comes up.  Religion? Chivalry?  And really, I want to use this opportunity to say that one of the reasons that I enjoy the Torneo and the pilgrimage and the conference is just that; meeting kindred souls and talking, which may, after all, be my favorite activity.

After The Newcastle conference, I’ll be spending ten more days in the UK with my wife Sarah and daughter Beatrice, and we’ll be int he Lake District, which, if you don’t already know this, with Hadrian’s Wall, is a major feature of the Traitor Son books.  The land north of Albinkirk in the Red Knight’s world is a blend of the Lake District and the Adirondacks of upstate New York; in fact, if you imagine that Albinkirk is Penrith or Kendal (roughly) and that instead of flattening out into the borders, the terrain merely gets rougher and more mountainous, you have it.  As I’ll be getting ready to write the final volume of the Traitor Son series (book 4, Plague of Swords, is done and edited and in the very last stages, so my various reenactments and then a week in the crags of the Lake District will be the final preparation for ‘Fall of Dragons,’ the series conclusion).  And also for the next William Gold novel, part of which will happen in Medieval Cumbria (and the rest in Italy). (Book 3, The Green Count is already done and in)

Plague oif swords

Honestly?  I love this cover and just wanted to put it up again 🙂

And for fun, here’s one of the places that inspired Traitorson:

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The Old Hall in Hawkshead.  Also Lady Helewise’s manor house outside Albinkirk.

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This is the island on Coniston Water that inspired Arthur Ransome to write Swallows and Amazons. If you have not read Swallows and Amazons, you really must!  But… Coniston Water was where I really saw how similar the Adirondacks were to the Lakes.


The Castle of Ticondonaga

Here’s Fort Ticonderoga, ie the castle of Ticondonaga.  See how it could sit on Coniston Water?  Even if it is in the Adirondacks?



And finally, here’s a view of the hillside and valley where a certain hedgehog washerwoman lives and works, and clearly a place Beatrix Potter loved.  My family love it too, and Lady Helewise’s manor sits down there among those feels. it is, as you will soon read, a difficult place to land a Griffon..

I have several other reenactments and immersion events planned for the later summer, but I’ll deal with those in a separate blog.  For now, it is enough that I’ll be blogging (not at this length) almost every day starting June 3rd.  I hope you come and read it.  If you do, you’ll probably be able to see into the process by which I learn history, create fantasy, and write.

And I hope to see some of you on the way!