Episode 8

Getting started in HMA, and Viking sword design, with Roland Warzecha

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Show Notes:

I first met Roland Warzecha (also known as Dimicator) at the first Swordfish event, in Malmö in 2006, and we have been friends and colleagues ever since. He has built a first-class reputation in the fields of I.33 sword and buckler research and Viking sword and shield combat. He is a graphic designer by profession (he consulted on the card design for Audatia), and produces extraordinarily well presented research on sword design and related topics in his 800+ patreon posts.

In our wide-ranging conversation we discuss how he got started in the sword world, his early training influences, Viking sword design, and many other things. Specific links: we mention the Berlin Buckler Bouts, and historical sword hilt manipulations.

GW: Hi, everyone, and welcome to the show. This is Guy Windsor, also known as The Sword Guy. And I’m here today with Roland Warzecha, who is known online as Dimicator. He’s well known for his sword and buckler research, his research into the Viking sword and shield materials. He is most commonly found online at www.patreon.com/dimicator. So without further ado, Roland, welcome to the show.

RW: Guy, it’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you so much for inviting me.

GW: It’s nice to see you. Just to start off, could you locate us? Whereabouts in the world are you?

RW: Well, I’m living in a rural place, maybe an hour’s drive out of Hamburg. And this is in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, which was behind the Iron Curtain for a long time. But now, of course, as you know, it’s not anymore. And so I’m living out here in the countryside.

GW: Lovely. And I’ve actually been to your house, and it is gorgeous.

RW: It was great having you here and you came at a really good time of the year. It was summer and we were sitting outside talking swords.

GW: As we shall do this morning. So, Roland, what made you want to start historical martial arts and how did you actually get started?

RW: Before I even knew what martial arts was, I had to make a decision whether I wanted to become Tarzan or Prince Valiant.

GW: And that’s an important decision to make.

RW: That’s an absolutely important decision, which I had to make at age six or so. I went for Prince Valiant. I don’t know if it has to do anything with the length of the blade that he was carrying. But, yeah. Prince Valiant was really, really cool. So he was the reason why I went to the local library on a regular basis because they had these comic books, those fantastic Hal Foster comic books. And whenever I’d finished one, I would go there, pick up the next volume. So that’s how I got interested in swords. And as you well know, Prince Valiant is supposed to be a Viking prince. And so that’s how I got interested in the Vikings and yeah, that never really stopped. Of course, I would have a passing interest in Star Wars. I know you are a Star Wars addict or Star Trek. But, yeah, I always came back to the swords. Real swords, the steel swords. And then in the 1990s, I passed by a showcase in a street, you know, like the ones where they would hang up movie posters and stuff like that, but there weren’t any posters, there were swords in there.

GW: Where is the shop? I want to go.

RW: I don’t even know if it exists anymore. But as I said, I was a student at Art Academy in southern Germany. And ever since my childhood, I had this dream of dressing up and proper kit, not just fake stuff, but the real thing and running about with swords and ideally with like-minded people and via this showcase, because, of course, I would go to this shop and it turned out it was just two streets from where I was living so it was the same part of town. It was actually an old villa and there was this guy living there. I think that house belonged to his old mother and the whole place was stuffed with halberds and shields and swords. It was a private home, it wasn’t a regular shop. And I went in there and I thought, like, oh, wow. And that was the first time that I found out about re-enactment and living history. I had no idea anything like that existed and in the 90s there was hardly anything like that going on in Germany. So that’s why I got my first steel weapon, which in fact was a spearhead. It was not a sword. Because I’ve always been a perfectionist and there was nothing that was so appealing to me that I said, “this is my sword”. So I did order one sword to be custom made for me at that point. And yeah, and I picked up the spear and that’s how it all started. I got involved in re-enactment. And then, as you know, in re-enactment, they have this eclectic sports system where they do competitive battles but it’s like tippy tappy, your dead.

GW: They’re putting on a safe display for the crowd.

RW: Yes, exactly. Like the SCA in America, they had to make a decision: How can we actually compromise the martial art or rather reduce the risk for the participants? And so they went for those rattan sticks and then in Europe, it was steel, blunt steel, of course, but restricted target areas. That’s what I did for a couple of years and it was wild fun. But it dawned on me pretty quickly that it’s kind of strange if you don’t thrust somebody in the face and if it’s prohibited to cut to the hands.

GW: How many podcasts are there where you could just say that, like it’s weird not to be able to stab people in the face? You are amongst friends, speak freely.

RW: That would actually be a really good commercial, if you want to advertise for your podcast. So because I started doing research ever since I was a kid, because I collected all the books that you could get about the Vikings, about swords. And mind you, I’ve never been a knightly guy, so I was never really interested in armour and sitting on a horse and riding against my enemy with a lance. It was always sword and shield and on the ground, that’s my kind of thing. And so I realised those re-enactment swords were actually incorrect in terms of proportions. The hilt was extremely long while the blade was quite short. And then the fullers, of course, were pretty wide. And so I wondered, why is it, also if you looked at your protective gloves – and these are unauthentic to begin with – they always rubbed through at the same spot, which is the heel of the hand, this part just above the wrist. That’s where your gloves would always rub through. And I will come back to that later where we talk about sword ergonomics and the design of sword hilts, because as it says in one of the treatises, there is nothing about the sword that is arbitrary. Each single part of the sword has its meaning. And you have to accept that and you have to use the sword according to its design. So I will come back to that later. But anyway, it dawned on me that this is just a sport and while it’s wild fun running through the woods and hitting each other, it’s also it’s also something where you need a lot of training because you do need the control. And then if you are in mass skirmishes with up to a thousand people or so, then you would know how to move as a sole unit. And so it does need a lot of training. But I really wanted to know how did they actually use these swords. And then in 2000, that’s when I started my basic martial arts education. I was, as the Americans would call it, at a Ren Fair event. So that’s some re-enactment near Hamburg. I was visiting some friends and we would do some training behind their tents. That was not official part of the show. And more and more people would come and take a look because they thought it was more attractive than the fight shows that were set up for the audiences. And then there were two guys which looked like they stepped right out of some out of some Avengers movie, like really, really tall and wide chests. And one of them stepped up to me and said, well, “You’re not really killing each other, right? You never hit the head”. “No, no, no, no. We must not hit the head, you know, because that’s because of safety. But we do tap the shoulder, and that’s supposed to simulate a thrust into the neck. And we train that like twice per week. And so what do you do?” “Well, yeah, I have a martial arts school and I train every day and I work as security personnel in the red light district at weekends. Come over to our place and we’ll show you how to fight correctly”. And I said, oh yes. Then one of them picked up one of the swords and moved it like some Escrima stick, like did some really cool stunts. And I thought, oh, awesome. I want to learn that. So I did go to their place and they were really surprised. They said, “You know, you’re the first sword person ever to actually come. We’ve talked to so many pretend knights. And they said, yeah, sure. Awesome. But nobody would ever come here.” No, I really wanted to learn how to fight properly. And so that was great. And I still owe them big time because they introduced me to principles. The one thing which I really loved about their place instantly was they said, “So whatever we’re going to teach you – all the techniques – is only so that you understand the principles. It’s not about the technique, so it’s not a collection of tricks. It’s the principles that make our fighting work. And this is what we’re going to teach.” And this is something that put me into a position to address mediaeval fencing manuscripts, comment manuscripts in a different manner or in an appropriate manner later on. And so that’s how I learnt. That’s how I got my basic martial arts education. It’s a Escrima based. It was like a mishmash. They had done Wing Chun, Kung Fu and kickboxing competition stuff and of course they were walking on the street as a bouncer every single weekend.

GW: That’s a really good reality check.

RW: At least for what they are what they are doing. There are actually a couple of videos online where you see one of them standing in front of a club. So the street is crowded with people. And then out of nowhere, somebody comes flying with a Kung Fu jump. And he just grabs him and puts him on the ground as if nothing has happened. And you don’t really see what’s going on there. So many people standing around. And then the police come over and it takes like three policemen to take control over that person that he was just holding down in a lock comparatively easily. So, yeah. So that’s this kind of guy. They know their job and it was great learning from them. So I really owe them big time.

GW: Yeah. It’s great having that kind of bullshit detector handy when you’re training.

RW: Yeah. Absolutely, absolutely. From day one, I had the opportunity to spar and they would say, OK, so now we’ve introduced you to some basic concepts, do you want to do some sparring? Here’s a helmet. Here’s a padded stick. Let’s do it. And it’s been a long time since I have seen sparks. You know the feeling? I think maybe the last time was on the playground when I fell off the slide. So maybe ever since I fell off a slide in the playground, I haven’t experienced these sparks, but I did that very first session. They introduced me to sparring and also how to view protective equipment because we were doing a lot of power hitting with sticks versus some old tyres. And then, of course, we would need the masks so that we could hit somebody with force, with a padded stick. They insisted on padded sticks. They said, because I asked, but I know a lot of Escrima guys, they use rattan sticks and no padding. “Yeah, that’s because they cannot hit properly. If we hit you with a rattan stick, you fall over unconsciously.” So they were quite convinced about what they were doing. And of course, when people actually put it into practise on a regular basis, you don’t question them.

GW: I don’t necessarily agree with the padded sticks idea.

RW: Yeah. In that situation, you just go along with it. And so I wanted to make a point that I was introduced to the benefits of protective equipment, but also the flaws, because when there is no danger of actually being injured, if there is no present threat, then you act differently. You take risks. And that’s why I think it’s a really good idea, whenever you go to a martial arts school, if there are a number of fight simulations. So, yes, the paradox of all martial arts training is that you are training something which you cannot really apply in training. So that’s also my distinction, that’s the difference between combat sports and a martial arts. In combat sports you train the thing which you can use in the competition exactly in that manner, one to one. While in martial arts, that’s different. And so when later I was doing historical swordsmanship, then, of course, that was an even more imminent question, because swordsmanship is about using sharp implements, maybe swords.

GW: Hell, yeah. Absolutely. Yeah.

RW: That’s something that people forget a lot. I mean, you have all these geeks talking about swordsmanship. And then when you ask around, hardly anybody has ever held a sharp sword. I mean, the proportion of people training complex, sophisticated sword technique, not even having picked up a sharp sword ever is quite astounding. That’s not to diminish anybody’s training efforts. That’s just something you should think about.

GW: But it takes it takes a particular training environment and quite a lot of money to get decent sharp swords that you’re willing to actually put against each other. What I do for that is I introduce students one on one, sharp on sharp, and it’s entirely voluntary. So students don’t ever have to do it. But, yeah, I think it’s critically important that that is available because it does change everything.

RW: I absolutely agree. I would also like to say that it’s not important to do it these days because you don’t have to learn how to properly use a sword to fight. So if you are happy with running through the woods, like I did for many years with blunt swords, then that’s good. If you enjoy competition with blunted steel swords and loads of protection, if this is what gives you your kicks, then go for it. Absolutely. But I’ve always been interested in how did they do it? How did they actually use the sharp swords? I have never, ever really been interested in competition or not even the communities that go with it. I mean, you do need people to talk to and it’s most enjoyable and I met so many wonderful people over the years. But the reason why I started it was just my geeky interest in swords and swordsmanship. That’s it. That’s my driving factor. That’s what keeps me going. Even today. And I’ve come down many paths and many streets that I have never even dreamt of.

GW: So what are your main research interests at the moment?

RW: Right now, I’m in the process of writing an extensive article which follows up a lecture which I held last year at an academic conference at Castle Coburg. And I’m particularly proud of that one because for the first time ever, I was invited by one of my heroes. That is Alfred Geibig – he’s like the Ewart Oakeshott of the Viking sword. So everybody who does Viking swords knows the Geibig typology of swords. Of course, people also know the Petersen typology. I know there are some geeks listening. So I’m aware of Petersen, but Geibig’s typology is even more sophisticated. And so I have read his works decades ago. And last year he called me up. I had already made his acquaintance earlier on and he called me up and said, Roland, I’m retiring this year and I want to organise a final conference. The topics will be everything that I love, so it’s going to be guns, swords and re-enactment. I want you to hold a lecture. You can choose the topic, up to you. Choose a subject. And it would be really, really wonderful if you came. Nobody can apply for holding a lecture, I’m only inviting a select few. That made me really feel very, very proud because it’s like things going full circle. So I had this romantic interest in Viking swords and the Vikings in general. I ended up doing Historical Swordsmanship for decades. And because I wanted to understand the fighting, I also did a lot of research into the material culture. So I looked at original artefacts. I go out to collections on a regular basis documenting the original source. And then I made a couple of really interesting observations that thus far has completely escaped the attention of any researchers. This is what I held a lecture about, the ergonomic design of early mediaeval swords, which I find super interesting.

GW: Well, okay, I’m sure the listeners will too. Tell us about the ergonomics of early swords.

RW: Okay. So I guess a lot of people, a lot of the people who are listening to this show have probably seen some of the videos, the material I put out about the twisted pommels. So it seems that while the aesthetics of the mediaeval sword and the early mediaeval sword is harmonic symmetrical design. Because symmetry is actually not the best choice for ergonomics – just look at any given knife in your kitchen, because the gripping hand is anything but symmetrical – it seems like they tweaked the ideal of symmetry in subtle ways to better accommodate the gripping hand.

GW: Such as?

RW: If you extend the sword forward, like going to long point, making the blade an extension of your lower arm. With pretty much every sword that has a disc pommel, the lump of muscle below your thumb, at the base of the thumb, will press the pommel away from the hand, while the smaller fingers, the pinky and the ring finger, will pull it towards the palm. This results in a very subtle twist. So if the pommel is aligned with the blade and the cross guard, if they are basically parallel and one plane, then the whole sword will turn, so you would have to make up for that with a slight twist of your wrist. But that is against the idea of martial arts to begin with, which wants to use your body to its optimum. You want your edges to be aligned with the ulna to have a perfect cutting plane and a simple way to allow for that is that the sword maker twists the pommel to begin with. So if the pommel is already twisted then it does not change the alignment of the blade anymore. And that’s super fascinating. It’s a means of manipulating swords, or customising them in a sense, that seems to not only apply to early mediaeval swords, but also to high and late mediaeval swords. So any one handed sword that you look at seems to have that feature, maybe save for some pear-shaped pommels, but all the disc pommels they are slightly twisted, slightly offset.

GW: So you could probably tell whether it is for a right hand or a lefthander.

RW: That’s absolutely correct, and that’s super fascinating isn’t it?

GW: I didn’t know that. One of the reasons why I started this podcast is because I get to have geeky conversations where I learn a ton of stuff.

RW: No, this is this is what make me think of it in the first place. Because it’s just the nuance. We’re talking two to a max of seven degrees. So there are probably a lot of swords where you could say, well, maybe this is just because it’s been in the ground for so long and we can hardly tell. Maybe that’s deformation. Or you could say, hell, this is not much so it doesn’t really affect the sword that much. And this is just the kind of inaccuracy you could expect if it’s a product of manual labour. And there are a couple of reasons why this does not hold true.

GW:  I’m a craftsman, not a particularly good one, but I can do craftwork. Hand work can produce flawless results that machines fail to produce. Not all the time. But if you want something done perfectly, you don’t run it through a machine, you get an artisan of the highest level to make it. So it’s the argument about, well, okay, sure, there are some swords in the historical record that are made by, shall we say, apprentices. But there are also swords made by astonishingly accomplished masters of the craft. And if that pommel is on slightly off, it’s because that person put it on slightly off. No question.

RW: Also, there are means to correct any mistakes. Like, I’ve seen a couple of swords, regardless whether these come from the early Middle Ages or the late Middle Ages, we see little shims put into the cavity, the opening for the tang where the tang enters the pommel. So that hole down there is oftentimes somewhat bigger. And then they put in little shims to put the tang exactly where it is supposed to be. So if you want it in a particular position or if you want to correct any inaccuracy, you had the means. And then statistics is the other thing. So if it was accidental, then you would have to expect the distribution of clockwise and counterclockwise twists of two to seven degrees to be 50/50. But that’s not the case.

GW: It depends. If the twist is an artefact of the way the pommel is put on and most smiths are right handed, then that twist will occur the same way for maybe 90 percent of the time.

RW: Yeah, but I’m talking about any kind of deformation that may have happened.

GW: Right, if it’s after the fact.

RW: Anyway, this is not the case. You have a distribution of about 80 to 20 percent and so 80 percent is counterclockwise twist, which is the correct twist for a right hander, right? And 20 percent is the opposite. Which pretty much matches the distribution of left handers in professional sports. Somebody told me that there are like 10 to 15 percent of left handers.

GW: I think it’s 10 percent. Something like that.

RW: OK. So in some combat sports, you have a higher percentage of left handers. Of course, we would need a much bigger database. And the lecture which I held was in part to even direct any attention of the academic world to this subject, which has been completely neglected so far. And it was great because they loved it. It was fantastic. There were people like Herbert Westfall who has been researching and documenting bladed weapons for decades. I’ve read so many of his books and articles and he would come up to me after. And he’s this distinguished elderly gentleman, and he said, “This was really, really exciting and interesting. Now I really understand why the grips are so short, of course, you have to grip the pommel too – that makes so much sense.” So it was wonderful. And then my friend Ingo, who is an archaeologist, too, and one of my long term training partners, said to me after the lectures, “You know, this is what I really enjoy about the academic world versus the online discourse. Here these are pros and experts, nobody comes with stupid arguments and doubts. And they can tell if something is properly researched or not. And if it is properly researched, you get recognition.”

GW: And if it is properly researched, they might disagree with you, but they don’t just dismiss it.

RW: This is something which I hate about online discussion.

GW: I don’t do online discussion anymore.

RW: I’m running a couple of platforms and I have certain ways to handle them. So if I run a platform like the Dimicator Facebook pages or like my YouTube channel, I hate YouTube comment sections, they are the worst in the world. I really hate it.

GW: I shifted to Vimeo. YouTube is just a cesspool.

RW: Yeah, I’m considering that too. But then again, just recently I had this guy who joined my Patreon and he wrote a message and said that after watching so many bad videos for ages, I only now found your material and I really love it. It’s fantastic. And here I want to support your work. It’s really, really great. So this guy would not have found the way to my work if it wasn’t for crappy YouTube.

GW: But then you have to moderate comments…

RW: Yeah, well, I mean, these days I just say I don’t. You’re welcome to leave a message because people just love to leave comments. But be aware that I only check them randomly. If you want to get in touch, send an email, send a note, you know. Every now and then, there’s something really interesting. And also, I do illustration a lot. I’m a professional illustrator. So if I present, say, a reconstruction illustration of some 11th Century harbour and I present this online, then sometimes some people would say, yes, but this and this detail is actually not correct. Or people come up with ideas or point you to other places. And so it is helpful. But the discussions, of course, are sometimes a pain. And so these days, the way I handle it, and I only handle it for the other readers, not for the for the troll or the for the know-it-all guy. I handle it so that the other readers can see how I handle it, because I feel obliged to do so. Because this is what I look at when I go to somebody else’s platform, which I hardly ever do. But if there are comments I first check, does the author reply at all? And if he replies, whom does he reply to and in which way does he handle any discussion. And of course, you know, any discussion about martial arts if it is not face to face in a dojo sword in hand, very, very quickly comes to a point where there is no constructive meaning to it anymore. This is what I keep pointing out to people. You can find me twice per year in Berlin. I mean, I have created an event which is solely about experimentation and free play, for 48 hours. People are fencing from all over the world.

GW: Is this the Berlin Buckler Bouts? So that the listeners could actually find it.

RW: Yes, it’s the Berlin Buckler Bouts. But I just tell people, come and find me. I have changed my opinion often enough, so I’m happy to reassess any of my current ideas. If you can convince me, sword in hand, come and find me. And that’s usually a discussion stopper because then they either stop or very, very rarely anybody ever comes. Of course, you would have to travel and so on. But yeah, it would be helpful if it wasn’t so easy to leave your opinion everywhere, whether you have something to say or not.

So anyway, back to the Berlin Buckler Bouts. I remember Greg Mele saying when I was at my first WMAW that’s the Western Martial Arts Workshop held in Racine, Wisconsin, in the US every two years. Very nice event. So the first time I was there he said, you know, the best things happen between classes. And then I thought why not make an event that is solely between classes?

GW: That’s a great idea.

RW: So that’s basically the Berlin Buckler Bouts. I was looking at what do I enjoy most when I’m not teaching or participating in a class and that’s usually free play and doing discussions that may ensue from the fighting. And yeah, so that’s the Berlin Buckler Bouts that’s held by annually in Berlin, as the name says. And it was cancelled for the first time due to the covid-19 situation this May. But it’s held every six months. And the basic idea was I wanted a regular check for my students so that outside their class, outside the hierarchy that they had entered when they entered the school, because very rarely you see somebody actually jumping ahead of somebody who has been there for a longer duration. It happens, but not very often. So that they had a regular place to go to and test their mettle against somebody else from outside the club. That was the initial idea.

GW: It’s really important to have that opportunity. Because you can get into a bubble in a club. And you get used to each other’s mistakes. Great idea. Now you also you also research Viking Sword and spear and shield stuff. I only do research into systems that have written sources like treatises like Fiore or 1.33 or Capo Ferro or whatever. So what’s your approach to reconstructing these earlier sources for which we don’t have proper written sources?

RW: Well of course we will never know how they actually fought. Actually, we don’t even know that even if we have written records like the combat treatises. So we have to work from a couple of assumptions like what do we have? We have swords. We know the weaponry. We have surviving artefacts so we can look at the artefacts and it’s something we should do even when we have written records. So then there’s this concept of universality. Steven Pearlman, who wrote the very recommendable book, The Book of Martial Power, called it universality, that you have underlying principles that rule everything in martial arts. Now, this sounds a bit like magic, but if you think about it any human activity is bound to the laws of nature. So that’s physics and the anatomy of the human body. So anything we do works under these parameters. So martial arts, like any activity, is built on underlying principles. And these principles in turn are based on physics and anatomy. So if that was true, even thousands of years ago they would have fought in a very similar way.

GW: What determines victory in a fight is largely culturally determined. So you have to know what victory conditions they were looking for. Like, are you supposed to cut that person’s face off or are you supposed to throw them on their back? Or are you supposed to take that weapon away or what are you supposed to do? What constitutes the ideal victory?

RW: You’re now jumping to something I’m going to explain next. That’s because that’s exactly the most difficult bit about everything we do. Even with combat treatises, we hardly ever know the context. So the actual context is super important. And even if we knew the context and we’re still looking at a very limited context because 99 percent is a single combat only. And we do have a number of contexts, even in the fight books, like fighting in armour, fighting with various weapons, fighting on horseback. But then it’s only one on one. So what is really important to understand is that all violence or combat always follows certain routes. Despite universal martial arts principles, there is no universal martial art. That’s quite interesting. And that is because violence never happens in a vacuum. So a martial art is always part of a given culture. A society’s ideas on violence, on their fighting, on men and women, on weapons, on warfare is always reflected in that particular martial art’s codes of honour, religious ideas and socio-economical conditions, whatever. And these cultural aspects, they are the most difficult to research. But to come back to the initial question, if ever I do a reconstruction, say I would run an experiment and I want to recreate blade damage on some Bronze Age swords. So if I set up a particular dynamic combat excerpt, so to speak, a sequence, then this sequence has to be built on universal martial arts principles. The only exception that is allowed, the only way that it could contradict universal martial arts principles is if I could explain that contradiction out of my research of the cultural context. That’s the only that’s the only exception. Of course, we will never exactly know if this is correct, but this is my approach. Researching the cultural context is the most difficult part, actually. Efficiency in martial arts, that’s pretty easy. A head lock is a lock and thrust in the face is a thrust in the face.

GW: Angling your sword behind somebody’s shield, that’s just geometry.

RW: Exactly. And then we know about the physics of this or we know how to move a sword efficiently. You called it a labour saving device at one point. So if you know how to effortlessly use that implement, then you can get a much better idea of swordsmanship. Also, you understand why it has been such a popular weapon for such a long time. Because that’s another thing that people misconceive. I remember in my re-enactment days, people said “The spear, that’s the Gatling gun of the Viking age. It’s super efficient.” I thought it was really funny, but then I thought, hmm, it’s kind of strange that they were so obsessed with swords all the time when the spear was so much greater than the sword. It almost seems like in history, anybody who is able to pick up a sword, picked up a sword. One really interesting experiment, I ran at one point – we were talking about swords earlier on and how it really helps to better understand swordsmanship – so there was this experiment with my friend Mikkel Mønsted. He was a really good spear fighter. He was using a blunt two-handed spear and I was putting on the mask and some additional protection and I had a sword and a buckler, a blunt sword. There’s one 15th Century depiction of that kind of match, this kind of setup. So we wanted to see how it actually works. If you have a shorter weapon, you have to shorten the range as quickly as possible so you get into your killing zone, so to speak. While the other one with a longer weapon can take it easy, just retreats so that you impale yourself. So you have to make a charge. And eight out of 10 times he just poked me in the face. It was really easy. I mean, I would bind his spear, trying to it keep it safe while I entered and he would just gently rotate and disengage. Also, a good spearmen can change the length of the spear pretty easily by withdrawing it. It’s a great weapon. But then I traded my blunt for a sharp.

GW: Aha that’s very different as you can actually bite his weapon.

RW: Exactly. And what was more I didn’t have to look. I realised ,when I was using the sharp, that earlier on, to get an idea what is happening in the bind I had in my peripheral vision, tried to take track of where the spear moved, because I couldn’t sense it through the blade. Now I could focus on my target and anything that happened in the bind just happened and I felt, because I got all this tactile information, and disengaging was less easy for him because there was no slippery sensation anymore. It was crystal clear information coming from the bind and that completely reversed the outcome. It was like three to seven or so, but almost reversed the outcome. And because the active sensing is only for me, the wooden pole doesn’t have that, so this is something that a sharp blade gives you. You can sense actively, you have different means of controlling the bind and getting sensory tactile information from it. And that is exclusively for the sword. So I think this is this is one of the reasons why the sword is good. The other reason is a bit less appealing. Swords are really good at massacring and butchering a lot of people very quickly. Like in the late 8th Century, in the Saxon wars, Charlemagne ordered 4000 Saxons put to death after a battle. And what do you pick up to do the job if you are part of the executional commando, a sword or a spear? So if you have to if you have to kill a lot of people, you use the use a bladed weapon. Just think that the latest, most ghastly example was in the 90s in Rwanda, where hundreds of thousands of people were put to death by the machetes. So this is something else which we usually don’t talk about when we think about sword fighting.

GW: It’s not the glamorous bit of swordfighting.

RW: Certainly not. But if you really want to understand what the sword is all about, this is something you really have to face and you have to talk about. There are definitely more people who fell to the sword, who died by the sword, who were butchered rather than killed in a fair fight. So that’s the other thing, why the sword was a super successful for many centuries and that’s something you have to face.

GW: Okay. Well, I’m not sure how to follow that one up.

RW: Well, how about talking about a pandemic?

GW: Yes. Okay. Right. So, yes. I imagine you’re locked down at home and I imagine the clubs are shut in Germany, but so not just how is corona affecting your training, but where do you see things going in the next six months or a year?

RW: Well, personally, for me it was not much of a difference. Didn’t change a lot because I’m working at home anyway. I’m living in a rural place and a nice house with a nice garden. And the one thing that changed was there were no more planes in the sky. So I can live with that. And because I usually don’t leave this place other than driving to Hamburg for training once per week, you see, it’s about one and a half hours drive to Hamburg to go to training. So for the past 10 years or so, I would drop to Hamburg once per week for a four hour session. And then the rest would be solo training plus anything that happened during events. So it would be like, I know, maybe 10 weekends or so where I would be fighting all the time at some event or some class. So all classes were cancelled this year and no more driving to Hamburg. And what can I say? It kind of feels like a vacation from 25 years of playing with swords. As much fun as it is, it’s kind of nice to have some more time at my disposal to do other things, anything from writing up, finishing my article for that publication or gardening or sharpening swords. I can do cutting tests here. In fact, actually, only two weeks ago, some of my sword friends came over and we did have one fencing session. Two days they stayed here and we were like eight people. So that was great. That was fantastic. It was also good to see that a couple of months not doing any sparring doesn’t really affect your efficiency.

GW: Yeah, well, as long as you keep your solo training, that’s fine.

RW: Yeah, of course, that’s true. So it didn’t really affect me that much in terms of the so-called HEMA community. I don’t know because I have to admit I don’t really care for it that much. I’ve been part of that for a long time when I went to all the events, so I went to the usual development. You go to all the events you could go to. That was in the early 2000s when I had found out about Historical Martial Arts.

GW: I think we met at Swordfish wasn’t it? Was it at Gotenburg?

RW: In fact, it was the only one that was held at Malmö, wasn’t it?

GW: Malmö, it was the first one.

RW: Yeah, it was the first one. Exactly. I vividly remember it. I was really super excited because there was this famous Guy Windsor, and nobody knew about me and I had some specific…

GW: I don’t think that’s true any more, Roland.

RW: Well, anyway, so everybody knows it was you who agreed to listen to my ideas for 45 minutes or so. You said, “Yeah, sure. Sure. I have some time. Show me what you have to show.” And then I was really happy that you were quite impressed, even though I don’t do anything like that anymore.

GW: Yeah, that was 17 years ago. If we were still doing the same thing that we were doing seventeen years ago… Well we haven’t been training anyway.

RW: These days you can say if somebody’s doing this technique or some reconstruction or interpretation that you don’t really agree with, you can say, “Oh God, this is so 2004.”

GW: Now, I have a couple of standard questions. I tend to finish up these interviews with. The first one is what is the best idea you’ve never acted on?

RW: It’s probably the book that I have been working on for 10 years now. But then again, I’m still working on it. So the problem, in contrast to you, is that I do all the photography, the illustration, and it’s a bit like a dough. You work it and it gets bigger and bigger. I’ve already cut it into two volumes. It’s supposed to be a book about the sword and shield. And the first volume will be about the time roughly from eight hundred to eleven hundred. And ever since I started, I get so much more access to collections. So I have a worldwide network by now and it’s supercool that, like at that conference there was this guy, a curator at a museum in Ingolstadt at the military museum. He said, “Have you ever been to the Army Museum in Ingolstadt?” I’m afraid not. “Oh, you really have to come. We’ve got loads of Viking swords, too. You have to come and look at all of them.” So it’s super cool, I get more and more access to originals. But that also means that I find out more and more stuff, like the ergonomics.

GW: Yeah. But I have a suggestion for you.

RW: Yeah. Go ahead, please.

GW: All right. The problem with this is, as with any research book, like my last book, From Mediaeval Manuscripts to Modern Practise, literally a few weeks after it came out, Michael Chidester published the first ever collation of the Getty manuscript, which totally belongs in the book. And if I just waited a month… So here’s what I do to get the book out the door. Because until it’s out in people’s hands, it’s useless. It just doesn’t even exist. You produced the first draught or whatever and then the second draught and that goes to an editor and then that goes to beta readers and the beta readers make comments and then you make corrections and you end up with something which is to the reader is intended for. It’s a lot better than nothing. And you’re definitely doing them the favour by giving them the book. So then I conceive of publishing the book as distributing the book to the next round of beta readers. So the first edition of the book is just the next round of corrections. Now if the book’s done well then there are no significant corrections for years and years. But I’m already working on a second edition of my Theory and Practise book. Because some of the reviews had some really good ideas of how it could be improved. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have published it. It just means that until I publish it, I don’t get that feedback. And so I can’t make the book better. So I conceive of publishing the book as simply getting the next round of edits done.

RW: Yeah, that perfectly makes sense. And in a way, I understand that completely. I address it somewhat differently because I am already putting out material. There are people already who have their swordsmiths twist the pommels of their swords and shorten their reenactment swords’ grips due to my research. So I am publishing and I’m also putting out material.

GW: So why can’t you get the book out?

RW: Because there are still a number of swords that I need to look at first. And a few more shields.

GW: If thanks to me prodding you, you actually produce the book in a reasonable time, there is going to be a whole bunch of people who are going to be sending me thank you e-mails.

RW: Well, you know, I’m doing my best. Because it’s not only, as I said, the writing. It’s the research work, the writing, but it’s also all the illustration work and the graphic design. And then I will probably publish as a crowdfunding project rather than going to an established publishing house. Because what does a publishing house do for you? They do the design.

GW: The lay out and marketing.

RW: Exactly. I do all the marketing. I’ve been doing it for years. I have a long list of people.

GW: You really don’t need a publishing house.

RW: So that’s the idea. No, but I’m working on it. I stopped making any predictions when it’s actually finished, but I’m getting closer and closer to it. So in a sense, yeah, it’s an idea I’ve never acted on as there is no book out yet.

GW: But you are working on it. All right. I think when it does come out you will kick yourself for not having produced it years ago and be already on the third edition.

RW: We will see.

GW: If you if you need any help on the publishing side of things like getting it into production, let me know.

RW: Oh, I will certainly pick you up on doing the corrections and the language, because the first edition will be in English. And maybe there may be additional ones in other languages.

GW: Okay. Well, standing by. Can’t wait. Excellent. My last question is, somebody gives you a million pounds, euros, some other currency to improve historical martial arts worldwide. What would you do with that money?

RW: I don’t know if a million would actually suffice, but I would put up a decent training centre with halls, much like a theme park with halls that are appropriate. So if you are doing your 15th century longsword training, you do it in a proper training hall that is a reconstruction of…

GW: Oh God, I want to come!

RW: There would be a Viking longhouse. There would be anything you need to accommodate people so there would be apartments. And depending on where I would put that the training centre, it could be, for instance, located right next to the history park at Bärnau. You could, if you wanted, stay there in period kit and live in the period for a while.

GW: Have a living history aspect?

RW: Exactly. But you could also just rent an apartment with your friends and take it easy and have a shower when you want one. And yeah, beer in the evening. And so it would be this huge centre. And of course, there are no limits. You could have all the best instructors in the world. And ideally, they would actually live there. And there would be stables for the horses for anybody who wants to do mounted combat. And then there would be shooting ranges. The good thing about Bärnau would be there’s a research centre, archaeological research centre, so you could cooperate with them. Look at original weapons and things like that, and so it in the long run, there would also be actual swordsmiths who would make swords on site. So a million will not suffice, but it’s a good start.

GW: I think that’s an absolutely brilliant idea. I love the idea of if you’re doing an 18th century smallsword, so you’re in an 18th century style enormous drawing room or ballroom.

RW: And of course, that would be decent training weapons for everybody, because that is always the problem.

GW: How about period musicians?

RW: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. That’s a must. I mean, there are depictions of buckler fighters and left and right there are musicians. Absolutely, I totally agree. And so you can get the full experience, after all, not just your regular black plastic outfits and trainers in a modern gym, modern hall. But there you are wearing proper period shoes on a wooden floor.

GW: That sounds marvelous.

RW: Maybe that’s the one good idea I never acted on!

GW: Okay. Write the book and let it do a Harry Potter on you, or a Stephen King.

RW: And then we do this. Excellent.

GW: All right. Well, thank you very much for talking to me today Roland. It’s been a great pleasure, as always, talking to you again.

RW: I have completely enjoyed it. Thank you so much for having me. It was great talking to you again.

GW: I hope you enjoyed my conversation today with Roland. Remember to go to www.guywindsor.net/podcast-2 to get the episode show notes and to download your free copy of Sword Fighting for Writers, Game Designers and Martial Artists. Tune in next week when I’ll be talking to Siobhan Richardson @fighteractress on Twitter and other places, if you’d like to look her up, where we talk about stage combat shoes, historical martial arts and other things. You may recognise Siobhan from the front cover of my latest book, From Mediaeval Manuscript to Modern Practise. So don’t miss that episode and to make sure you don’t miss it, subscribe to this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. See you next week.