Episode 27

Irish Stick Fighting, with Maxime Chouinard

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Show Notes:

Maxime doesn’t do longsword. But he does practise Irish Stick Fighting, 19th century sabre, and has a background in karate and kenjutsu.

In this episode Maxime describes Irish Stick Fighting, the challenges of finding someone to learn it from, and how he was able to bring it back to life as a martial art. You can find out more at the Antrim Bata website.

Maxime’s website, HEMA Misfits, is all about the fringes of historical martial arts, the less popular styles, and we talk about some of these less common forms of the art.

Content warning: In the second half of our conversation there is some pretty gory stuff about sword fighting injuries and how they were treated. (Maybe not for listening to over the Christmas dinner table!) Maxime’s article on the subject is here.

Merry Christmas everybody!

GW: Hello, and welcome to The Sword Guy Podcast. Merry Christmas and a belated happy Hanukah to our Jewish listeners, and merry Yule to our Pagans, and if there are any Roman re-enactors out there, a belated Saturnalia rejoicings to you too. So, I think that’s covered pretty much everyone who might be listening. This episode is going out on 25th December. As you can imagine, things are a tad chaotic, and I’m certainly not at my desk, but we have an excellent interview coming up shortly, with Maxime Chouinard, who is a museums professional, as well as being an Irish Stick Fighter and a connoisseur of the fringes of historical martial arts; the less commonly practised weapons. Before we get onto that, this time of year is traditionally associated with eating too much, drinking too much, and getting no exercise at all apart from the ripping of wrapping paper. This is great fun in the short term, but needs to be, shall we say, accounted for in the long term and you may find some free courses I have put together to help you stay healthy useful in that regard. The courses cover meditation, breathing exercises, so nothing too strenuous. Some arm and leg maintenance exercises, massage, that sort of thing, as well as basic classes for the longsword and for the rapier. Something to get you gently moving again in the New Year. You can find these courses for free at go.guywindsor.net. Now, without further ado, here’s the show:

Hello sword people, this is Guy Windsor, also known as The Sword Guy, and I’m here today with Maxime Chouinard, who is a Museums Collections Manager. He is an Irish Stick fighter. You can find his Irish Stick Fighting website at Irishstick.com and also author of the HEMA Misfits blog at hemamisfits.com, which goes into a range of, shall we say, overlooked and less widely practised historical martial arts. So, obviously a perfect candidate for this podcast. So without further ado, Maxime, welcome to the show.

MC: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

GW: It’s nice to meet you. Now, where in the world are you?

MC: So I live in Gatineau, which is right next to Ottawa, Ontario, the wonderful capital of Canada. And, like you were saying, like many people in the region, I work for the Canadian government, at Parks Canada.

GW: OK, and you’re working as a Museums Collections Manager. Is that correct?

MC: I am, yeah. I worked for many years as a museum curator, but took up a new position at Parks where I manage the collection. We have about thirty one million objects in that collection and it’s all over the country.

GW: Wow. And what sort of objects are we talking about?

MC: It’s everything because well, there’s two collections. There’s what we call the historical collection, which is more knowledgey really, but collections that are related to the different parks and especially different historic sites that we are maintaining, I should probably know the exact number, but I think there’s about two-hundred-and-something of them and also every archaeological find on Crown lands in Canada. So right now, one big archaeological operation that we’re doing that you might have heard about is the Franklin expedition and the Antarctic, and that’s ships that were caught up in the ice in the 1840s and were recently rediscovered. We have divers going there and bringing back objects, including swords, actually. And we do have quite a nice sword collection, which I’m glad to be able to preserve.

GW: So you actually are involved in some way in digging up the Franklin ships?

MC: Well, I’m not really involved. I work from my computer. I supervise the work of other people that have fun working on those objects. I go see them from time to time. But I guess I’m at that point in my career where I tell other people what to do, but I don’t do any of the fun stuff anymore.

GW: Yes, sometimes there are good reasons to not get that promotion. So how did you get into being a museum curator?

MC: Well, I studied archaeology at University and my interest was always in the objects more than the archaeological operations themselves. So I decided after my studies that I wanted to go into museum studies and so I entered into the Masters programme. It so happened that the museum was working at was a small little research site called the Martin Centre in Quebec City. The curator that was working there left and the director knew that I was studying museum studies and said, would you like to take the position? I hesitated about two minutes and I said, “Yes. Yes, please.” That was a decision that really changed my life. That was like many things in my life, it was being in the right place, at the right time. And from then on, I became curator at the Museum of Health Care in Kingston and then here at Parks Canada.

GW: OK, so, yes, that’s not exactly a career path that people can really follow.

MC: It’s very competitive. There are very few positions. And I think it’s worse in Europe, from what I gather. It’s a little bit easier in Canada to some degree. But, yeah, many people call and very few people get chosen.

GW: Right. It’s a dream job for anyone who’s completely mad about old swords. There are lots of us who are mad about old swords

MC: Yeah, I wonder why.

GW: You know, I think it’s one of those irreducible desires. It’s like some people want to have kids. Some people want to climb Everest. Some people want to hold swords. And you can’t really explain why anybody would want to climb Everest. If you don’t get it, you’ll never get it.

MC: I have about fifty three antique swords in my collection right now. And whenever I receive friends, there’s two types of friends that come to my place. There are friends who are like, “Oh my God, this is so awesome, I want to see them all.” And there are the people who are like, “Uh hmm. OK, so let’s talk about something else.” Some people just can’t get it. And that’s too bad.

GW: But I mean, that’s OK. If everyone got it, swords would be unaffordably expensive.

MC: Yeah I guess so.

GW: I don’t have that many historical antique swords in my collection. Just a few. But yeah, visitors to the house are divided into two types, the ones who look in the study and go “Oh my God, swords!” And those who are just “Oh, what have you got those there for?” And I have never, ever tried to persuade anybody to take up swordsmanship because either when I say I teach swords for a living, they either go, “Oh, my God, how do I start?” or they don’t. If, when the opportunity is presented to them, they don’t jump at it, then it’s just not for them. And that’s perfectly fine. I mean, my wife and kids have no interest in swords, and they are lovely people. So it’s no judgement on their character.

MC: My partner actually, we do Kenjutsu together. We’ve done so since we met. And she is not interested at all in the Irish Stick portion, I always joke that she prefers to cut people in half than bludgeoning them to death. That’s a much more elegant way of disposing of people.

GW: It can be messier though.

MC: Yeah, I guess.

GW: All right. So how did you get started with historical martial arts and that sort of thing?

MC: It’s a long story. I started martial arts in the mid 90s and, like many kids, I got pushed into it by my parents who thought I was getting bullied at school. And the school, like many others, was very inept at dealing with that problem. So they enlisted me in the local karate dojo. I’m from a fairly small town, about 8000 people, and deep in the Appalachian Mountains in eastern most Quebec. And the only martial art for miles around was a club of Kyokushin karate. So a very, very tough style.

GW: It’s a hard school.

MC: Yeah, definitely. Definitely not a soft style. They teach you to become this human wall. You just take punches and kicks. Beyond that, I was always interested in weapons. And we did a bit of Kobudō when I was at that dojo and I really loved it. And when I got to college, I came up on this Kenjutsu dojo that was teaching Shinkendo, which is a modern style created by Toshishiro Obata and I trained with him on multiple occasions. And I went to teach that style and later switched to Niten Ichi-ryū, the style of Miyamoto Musashi and because I was always a person that really goes deep into whatever interests me, the year I started Shinkendo, which was around 2002, I started researching swordsmanship on the Internet and came upon this forum called Sword Forum.

GW: Oh I remember Sword Forum.

MC: Many people do. And some have good memories and some not so much. But through the website I came to discover HEMA and I was instantly hooked. I started to practise with friends in college and from the beginning I was most interested in nineteenth century stuff like sabre, which I still practise to this day.

GW: OK, so you’re maybe best known for your Irish Stick Fighting. Now, my grandpa used to keep a couple of shillelaghs downstairs in the hall and he once picked them up and swung them around. But unfortunately, he was too old and I was too young for us to train together much. So I don’t really know much about Irish Stick Fighting. What does it really come from? How do you know what you should be doing? Tell us about it.

MC: So your story is actually quite familiar and I can come back to that later on. But I had a lot of people come to me and say, my grandfather or my father, he knew how to use it but he never passed it on. Or we never we never quite realised what it was. And we just thought it was something he learned in the army. I think again, I arrived at the right time in the right place. So remind me, how long is this interview again? Like, it’s six hours, right?

GW: You have all the time that you want. It’s my show and I get to say how long the episodes are. You just keep talking.

MC: OK, well, you don’t know what you got yourself into, but OK, I’ll try to be concise about this. All right. Well, so I guess if you had told me back when I started martial arts, I would one day be teaching Irish Stick or Bataireacht, as it’s called in Irish, I don’t think I would have believed you. But through my research online with HEMA I came upon groups of people researching Irish Stick, namely the late Ken Pfrenger.

GW: Ken was a friend of mine.

MC: I never got to meet Ken actually in person. I would have loved to, but we did correspond in this group and online quite a bit. And in 2007 I was at an Irish pub with my brother-in-law and we were talking about the story of some of my Irish ancestors who came to Quebec. And we decided that, just like that, we were going to spend the summer in Ireland. I guess that’s how a lot of those things start. And a few years prior, I had been in Japan and I had a blast doing martial arts there, so I decided, well, while I’m there, let’s do Bataireacht. And in my mind, I imagined that there were probably a few schools teaching that there. And so I contacted people in that list. And there’s Louis Pastore who also unfortunately recently passed away, told me to contact this one guy, Mr. Ramsey, who he had learnt Bataireacht from the year before. So I contacted them and he asked me, are you Quebecois? And I said, Yeah, yeah, I am. And the answer was, OK, I’ll teach you. Because he considered that the people from Quebec welcomed the Irish during the Great Famine. And it’s actually very common for people in Quebec to have Irish ancestors, as it was one of the big places for immigration back in the 19th century. So anyhow, I got to Ireland and I realised pretty quickly that not only are there are no schools teaching the art, but most people have no idea what we were talking about. I remember one day I even stepped in a martial arts store in Dublin because we were looking for shillelaghs. We figured, well, we were probably going to need shillelaghs if we’re going to learn that art. And we couldn’t find any suitable one in Dublin. I stepped in this martial art store and I asked, do you have any shillelaghs? And he had no idea what it was talking about. I tried to explain and what it was and he just looked at me like I came from Mars. A lot of people told us that there was no such martial art. It was just people hitting each other in the head. You’re getting scammed by this guy. So I started to wonder, what are we getting into? So we find some shillelaghs and we get to Cork where we met up with our teacher, who was visiting family there, and he teaches us his style that he had learned that from his family and told us that from all knew he was pretty much the one of the only people left in Ireland that knew this stuff. And so we take pictures, we take notes. And at the end of the day, he tells us completely out of the blue, you have my permission to teach this. Now, this was never our aim at the beginning. We just wanted to try it out. But when he told us that no one else was doing it in Ireland, that he wasn’t really interested in opening up a school, we suddenly felt like we were given something really precious, like we were the last Jedis or something. A day to learn an entire style is not a long time, but lucky enough, I was with my brother-in-law, Emile, and we had been doing HEMA together for a couple of years. And for three years we trained together and we corresponded with our teachers and in videos and pictures for comments and feedback. And after three years, we started to feel confident enough to start teaching it to other people. And so we did that. And since then, I’ve been teaching in Canada, of course, but also started teaching in seminars over the world. And we have groups coming up in the States and we have some in France now. And this year actually I was supposed to go to Dublin to hopefully help open up a group there. But of course, Covid happened. And so that threw everything off. But we’re hoping to get back there when things settle down. Since then I’ve been researching the history of Bataireacht because I felt like I really needed to prove to myself that what I’d learned was authentic because there was so little to compare it to. We had groups working on a few sources, we had Walker, or there is also Glenn Doyle teaching his own family style in Canada as well. But otherwise that really wasn’t much. And so I was really pleasantly surprised when in 2009 we unearthed this newspaper article from the San Francisco Call published in 1903, fully illustrated, from an anonymous author that was explaining Bataireacht. And the article contained some details that I thought were just too unique, too similar to what I had learned. There was no way that my teacher somehow researched this subject for years and came upon this. Nobody knew this thing existed until 2009. And here was the author explaining exactly how to hold the shillelagh, how to measure the grip. And this was exactly like we were taught. And that’s the moment I went, “Ah, we have something here, this is not bullshit, this is this is the real deal.” And since then, I have come upon other sources. There’s a lot of similarities between boxing manuals and even 18th century broadsword manuals that contain very similar techniques and principles. And that leads me to believe it’s a style that I teach, which we named Antrim Bata because it’s from Antrim County in Northern Ireland. It became what it is now, probably around the early 18th century.

GW: Wow, that’s quite a story, I imagine that it was really helpful having a significant martial arts background. So you could discard a whole bunch of options because you knew they wouldn’t work without having to laboriously test absolutely everything.

MC: Yeah, we didn’t develop any new techniques. What I’m still teaching now is what I was taught, except for maybe a few stylistic interpretations. But yeah, I think it helped me to really catch on really quickly what he was teaching us and also to be able to kind of, I guess, maybe trap him in some way, like say, oh, you know, that looks a lot like sabre what you’re doing there. And I realised very quickly that our teacher, Mr. Ramsey, had no other martial arts background. I was asking him questions and he was giving me a blank stare, like, “I guess, I don’t know.” And I just figured out there’s no way this guy in this small town in Northern Ireland somehow came up with this really complex style that is also so similar to all the historical sources we have.

GW: And if he’d invented it because he wanted to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes or whatever, then he would have publicised it and had a school and made money off it.

MC: That’s the thing. He was also very discreet about it and he made us promise two things when we accepted to teach the style. He said you must not make money out of it. So all we’re doing is not profit. And also you must not turn it into a sport. He was very adamant about this. So we’re not doing any tournaments or anything like that.

GW: OK, well I imagine you use some sort of sparring environment to help you train.

MC: Yeah, that’s one of the things we actually changed a little bit from this because my teacher was saying that it wasn’t too much about sparring and at first we were OK, let’s try it without sparring. But we realised very quickly that there’s just so many things that are so hard to grasp without sparring. So we decided we have got to include sparring. I don’t think you can learn this really without it and be good at it.

GW: But there’s a fundamental difference between sparring for research purposes and learning to fight that particular style to win competitions.

MC: Yeah, absolutely. I think that in most competitions, and we see it in HEMA today, it’s very hard, in the long term at least, to avoid having people game the rules and ending up with a system that’s basically like doing that system for that system’s sake.

GW: OK, now you have a website called “HEMA Misfits (I don’t do longsword)” and I’ve had a good look at it, but I’m guessing that some of the listeners may not have come across it yet. So I would recommend that they go to have a look and obviously I’ll put a link in the show notes, but it’s all about the less widely practised historical martial arts. So what are some of your favourites and what would you like to see more widely practised?

MC: Well, you know, I guess if we talk about swords, which is really what most people get into historical martial arts for, I have to say that, of course, sabre is my favourite thing. I collect and sell antique swords and sabres. And that’s always been my one of my favourite things. I would say that I specialise in French martial arts from the 18th and 19th century. So mostly sabre, but also La canne and Baton and I also practise British sources like Angelo and also pugilism from Walker. That’s one thing I’m really into. And I think it’s getting more and more popular now in the HEMA context. It’s a good thing, although I’d say some sources still deserve to be better known. I got into French sources mostly because French is my first language. I realised there was just no one at the time really doing French sabre or researching French sabre. Now it’s getting a little bit more common. There’s people like Julien Getty, for example, who are working on those sources. But back then there was barely anyone. And even today we’re really only a handful. And British sources are really what’s dominating the scene. The 19th century is so packed with manuals, I think we have now more than a thousand.

GW: Wow, I didn’t realise it was that many.

MC: Oh, yeah. There are 1300 of them. The last time I counted French sources on sabre, there’s about 47 of them. And of course a lot of them just say the same thing. Like most 19th century manuals do, they tend to go down to the very, very basics.

GW: Would you say there’s a difference between the fundamental style of French style of the 19th century and say, British sabre over the same period?

MC: It’s really close. The French School of Fence really blew over Europe like a tornado in the 18th century. And what it does is that in the end everything looks like it, everything looks like smallsword or everything looks like the sabre that’s mostly inspired by smallsword. So yeah, British sabre is very similar. And I think in the sabre world we tend to be very particular about certain details. We say, oh this kind of guard is the British style. But in the end, it’s all such very small differences, small preferences, this style prefers to use cuts number two from this guard, these guys prefer to thrust from this guard. But when you look at it from far away, it’s all very, very similar.

GW: That was my reading. And again, its pedagogical approach or its intellectual structure is taken straight out of smallsword, I think.

MC: Yeah, absolutely. This school really took over the scene and in the 18th century there’s still a lot more diversity. For example, there’s a manual that I’m trying to unearth right now, it’s in the Musée de l’Arme in Paris, but it shows the Swiss Guards training. It’s illustrated and what they seem to be doing looks like dussack and we’re talking about the time of Louis XVI. So I think there’s a lot more to it. But the problem is, in France in the 18th century, all that people publish is smallsword treatises. So you don’t have sabre except in a few sources that tell you here’s how to beat sabre with your smallsword. And so there’s this dearth of information and there’s these very mysterious styles like espadon, for example. And we don’t have a clear picture of what espadon is. There’s a few sources, at least one or two sources that seem to indicate that espadon was a style that used mostly cuts and seemed to be very, very close to Bolognese sidesword.

GW: Really?

MC: Oh, yeah. We tend to focus a lot on ‘sabre came from Eastern Europe’ and so on. But I think at least in Western Europe one of the main influences was sidesword, and it stayed on for a lot longer than we could imagine.

GW: We tend to think sidesword as giving way to the rapier, which then gave way to the smallsword. I would be interested to find a cut-centred manual from, say, 1640 or something, which would provide a historical basis for sabre of the 18th century. That would be really interesting to find.

MC: Well you know, there’s those few British manuals, but they’re kind of their own thing. And they kind of mix what used to be maybe George Silver stuff with the more French influence. So it’s hard to tell because there’s this big gap of knowledge between Silver and Thomas Page where we don’t know what things really look like, but we tend to have a very linear view of fencing, where it’s longsword, then sidesword, then rapier, then smallsword. But I think a lot of those things cohabited, at least until the early 19th century. And yeah, we don’t have the complete picture because we only look at manuals and manuals only tell one part of the story.

GW: To my mind, I mean, I’ve been doing sabre since, I guess the late 80s. So in my head, sabre is mainstream, historical martial arts, so it doesn’t really belong on a Misfits blog.

MC: Now no. But I would say actually what I think should get much more attention is smallsword.

GW: Oh, I love smallsword.

MC: Yeah. But not a lot of people do in HEMA. It’s kind of this little cousin that people don’t really like to mention.

GW: I think that’s because back in the early 90s when my friends and I started a sword fighting club and we were doing loads of smallsword, because coming from sport fencing it was really easy to get into something that looked a bit like smallsword. And we wanted to make sure that really good sport fencers didn’t just come in and destroy us and say historical fencing is crap, so we tended to focus on weapons where they couldn’t do that. Which is kind of an odd way to think of it, but there’s little nugget of historical martial arts history there. But, you know, if the swords are sharp and you actually do it as close as they seem to be pairing off in the manuals, it is a lot like a knife fight.

MC: Oh, yeah, it’s quick.

GW: So I’ve never really understood why people can look down their noses at it.

MC: That’s one thing you say – people are interested in daggers. Smallswords are basically like really long daggers.

GW: Really long and light and manoeuvrable daggers that will puncture you with a triangle shaped hole that won’t heal.

MC: Dangerous buggers.

GW: There is actually a small sword convention that’s called Smallsword Symposium. I taught at one about three years ago, which is one that runs somewhere on the North American continent. It might even be in Canada and there’s one in Edinburgh most years, obviously not this year because of Covid and all that nastiness. So I know that there is at least that smallsword underground, keeping the smallsword flame burning.

MC: Absolutely. And I must say, it’s shameful that I’ve never been, unfortunately, to those events. And I really, really want to. That’s on my radar. I say we should be doing more smallsword, but even I barely do enough of it. But like every sabre manual tells you, you should start with a smallsword and unfortunately in HEMA we tend to glaze up on this and say no, I want to do the cutting stuff.

GW: I know. So much of the groundwork is done with the smallsword, like establishing the guard and the footwork and the principles of the hand position, all those things. They are all covered in beautiful depth and detail in the smallsword treatises and they are just sort of assumed in most of the sabre sources.

MC: But yeah, like you say, I think it’s a cultural thing in HEMA. At the beginning people wanted to separate it from Olympic fencing. And many people had to endure maybe some fierce online debates with the Olympic fencers about it. And I think a lot of people have knee jerk reactions now to anything that looks too much like Olympic fencing. And so they look at smallsword like, oh, no. But it’s a sad, sad thing.

GW: Yeah, well, hopefully we will get past this stage. I’ve been teaching smallsword regularly for like twenty five years now and it’s got everything in it. And there are so many sources and they’re so broad and they’re so specific that you can actually really recreate the art with really solid confidence that this is how they were teaching it back then.

MC: And you still have classical fencing, you still have even Olympic fencing that can help you bridge some of the gaps in there. Maybe it’s a cultural thing. People want to go swing a longsword.

GW: I’ll tell you what we need. Probably the best thing that ever happened to my career were the Lord of the Rings movies coming out just at the right time for me. Full of longswords. And then when that tailed off, out came Game of Thrones, full of longswords. And we’ve got the Three Musketeers that get people doing rapier. We need someone like Ridley Scott to do this movie, but a whole series of super popular adventures where people are murdering each other with smallswords and that will get people doing smallsword again.

MC: Yeah, that’s always what I say to people. When I was teaching Kenjutsu, there was a huge, huge outburst of students in around 2000 or 2001 when The Last Samurai came out. Everybody wanted to be like Tom Cruise and learn to fight with a katana. And then there were this all these Japanese movies that were being released that kind of tailed off, unfortunately. I think that’s a huge influence. And I hope that we can also get a one on Irish Stick. I would love for John Snow to carry one in Game of Thrones. But, you know, what does he know?

GW: What we need to do is we need to get a story set in 18th century Ireland with a bunch of aristocrats killing each other with swords and getting beaten up by stick carrying Irish people. Have some scope and some drama and some depth to it, then we would get a revival of both smallsword and Irish Stick for just the price of one movie.

MC: Well, one thing I’m finding with Irish Stick is it’s very hard to sell the idea of the martial art in Ireland. And I think part of it is because people perceive it as this big stereotype, the brawling Irish with his shillelagh being all leprechauny and plastic paddy and all that. It’s not an idea that a lot of people are comfortable with anymore. We’re trying to change that. I’m trying to walk away from all the leprechauns and the flat caps and all this, give a new image to Bataireacht and shillelagh. But it’s difficult. I think there’s a few movies that have given at least winks to Irish Stick Fighting. The most was in one of the Assassin’s Creed games, the one that’s set in 19th century London. I don’t know exactly the name of it as there’s like 50 of them now or something. But I looked at some of the gameplay and it kind of looks like Irish Sticks. I asked one of my students who worked on the game and he said, yes, one of the Project Managers that worked on the game said we were inspired by Irish Stick Fighting. We saw some videos online and I said, “Well, that’s too bad. You know, you have Irish Stick Fighting in your city, you could have asked me and I would have done it.” And the other highly unlikely place where I think I saw Irish Stick is in The Last Jedi, episode eight of Star Wars. There’s the scene where Luke fights Rey. It’s on Skellig Island that it was filmed and he grabs this stick and he holds it just like we do. And he starts doing the same parry, same types of strikes, a very short sequence. I remember being in the movie theatre and being like, “Wait a minute, this is Irish Stick!” I’ve been trying to find who the heck choreographed this damn movie and I cannot find it. Nobody’s listed anywhere as it. And I know that this is a very controversial movie. And a lot of people have dumped on the choreography for this movie. But if anybody knows who actually choreographed those fight scenes, then I’d be very interested to talk with them and see if that’s indeed some kind of a wink they did, with the scene being filmed in Ireland.

GW: And the thing is, unless the people going to see the film get the reference, it doesn’t help Irish Stick Fighting’s popularity.

MC: Oh, no, not at all.

GW: So you need you need Luke there going, “This is Bataireacht.”

MC: The ancient Jedi art of Irish Stick Fighting.

GW: OK, so how do you actually train? I mean, what does your physical practise look like?

MC: Well, these days it’s a little bit different. I teach twice a week here in Ottawa and we do classes of an hour and a half and it’s usually divided. First, of course, the warm up and physical exercises. And then we work on strikes and parries, very basic stuff. And then we get into the more complex techniques. And the last part of the class is focussed sparing, focussing on trying to do some specific techniques. And then free play. So that’s pretty much how my classes look like. I guess I train like a lot of other HEMA people trying to work with the same kind of equipment and working on drills that are very much inspired by fencing. And I do a lot of training at home. During the confinement I had nothing else to do. So I’ve never been in such great shape in all my life, to be honest. I’ve been training just every day, every day. You’ve got to take what you can. Now everybody is working from home and there was this big Zoom revival going on or something. And so we’ve used that with my students to keep the level because we saw all these seminars that were getting cancelled. I’m like, how are we going to keep the flame going on. So I said well let’s do it online. And we’ve had some success because a lot of people are realising now with conference calls and all this there are some advantages to working like this and keeping in contact with people.

GW: This is the thing. Yes, Corona has completely screwed all sorts of things, like I haven’t taught an in-person seminar this whole year, which is the first time for I don’t know how many years. But there are also events that I’ve been to and taught at that I would never have been to unless we were doing it over the Internet, because maybe it’s just a really small group and they really just can’t afford to fly me to the other side of the world for a two hour class or two hour class inside a two day event, for example. So there are some silver linings, I suppose, and being able to actually reach people who maybe can’t afford to fly to a seminar or travel five hours by car to a seminar, or maybe they have kids at home and they just can’t get away for a whole weekend. They can put the kids to bed and show up for a two hour class. So there are some silver linings. I’m not going to say I’m fitter now than I was at the beginning of lockdown. But it is certainly possible to decide to use the time if you have it. Some people are much busier because they’re working from home and doing childcare so it’s not like they have more time now.

MC: Yes, I’ve been training a lot because I’ve been in the right frame of mind. And I don’t have kids.

GW: That really helps.

MC: I understand that. The situation is really tough for a lot of people. And it’s OK if you don’t feel like you can train. You’ve got to listen to yourself as well and take care of yourself.

GW: Right. Exactly. Conserve your spoons. I found on your Misfits blog an article, Very Perilous, regarding sword wounds in the 17th century, if I recall correctly and a little birdie tells me that you are actually preparing a book on blade wounds. Is that correct?

MC: Yes, that’s correct.

GW: Would you like to tell the listeners all about the gruesome and bloody details of what happens when a sharp steel blade goes into a human body?

MC: So, yeah, like you say, one project I’ve been working on is this book on the medical context of HEMA and I’m not talking about modern medicine, but rather the medical science and the authors contemporary to the arts that we study. And like I mentioned the beginning, for about four years I was curator at the Museum of Health Care in Kingston. And I’ve been interested in the history of medicine for a very long time through my work. I came upon these really interesting medical treatises and probably the most interesting one being that of the surgeon Ravaton, who published his book on military surgery in 1768 after thirty six years working in that field. And the guy worked in the hospital in Landau, which is now in Germany, but at that time was a French possession. And if you look at a map of France and Germany, if you look at the map around that region, you’ll see that Landau would have basically been really in this very awkward spot where basically everything around them is Germany or whatever German kingdoms were around there at the time. But they were not in the easiest place to be. Ravaton was always working at the military hospital and he would have been literally at the forefront of a lot of military engagements. The book that he wrote is massive. It’s 700 pages long. The first half is about gunshot wounds and the second half is about bladed weapons. So it covers everything from the smallsword, sabres, even bayonets and knives. Everything that cuts or thrusts he’ll talk about. But he divides it into body parts, how different body parts can be affected by cuts or by thrusts. And so he describes all these cases that he probably noted in his medical journal. And it’s a very, very illuminating book in many ways because on one hand, it really makes you realise what it is actually possible to do with a sword. For example, how hard it is to actually thrust somebody in the head. He describes a couple of very interesting cases where he said there were these soldiers. It must have been something fairly common, where they where they were fencing with their swords in the scabbards to avoid actually hurting each other. But it doesn’t really go according to plan. And there’s this guy who got thrust in the eye and he dies, and the other guy gets thrust in the nose. And another one gets thrust in the mouth. And contrary to popular belief, actually in some areas of Europe and in some periods, it was actually allowed to do autopsies on dead bodies and especially on duellists because duellists were criminals at the time. So you could open up the bodies of criminals. No problem. And so he does autopsies on these guys and describes the how they died. Basically all the fatal wounds that happen to the head are going either through a very precise area of the eye or through again, a very, very awkward spot in the nose or the other one into the mouth is actually a terrible case of bad luck because it goes through the grand occipital, which is where your spine connects to the brain. So he must have had his head tilted back so that the sword came in and went right through that hole in the brain, but is pretty clear that it’s not easy. And even with bayonets, you have cases coming to him with people who have bayonet thrusts skidding on their skulls, not entering anything.

GW: It’s kind what the skull is for.

MC: Yeah. It’s a tough bone. But on the other hand, it also makes you realise what it is actually possible to do with a sword – horrible things. And, you know, it’s something that we kind of forget sometimes in HEMA, but those things will cut you wide open and people who survive wounds often went on to live their lives totally crippled if they didn’t die after days of complete agony. So even for that aspect, it’s a good read because it puts back into perspective what the whole thing was. And it’s kind of humbling in a way to read that and see why a lot of people were against duels and why a lot of people wanted to ban this. And you can understand why when you read this, when you see people that can’t use their legs or arms anymore. I can only imagine what it is like if you’re a soldier in 18th century France returning home with a crippled arm or leg. So, yeah, but other than that, it gives a lot of details, lots of gory details. If people want to read the article I did on Ravaton, I want to warn them.

GW: I’ll link to it in the show notes of course.

MC: Sure. The book I want to write about is going to be probably mostly about him because nobody else did the work that he did and even 150 years later, people were still citing his book and saying nobody else did that. He is the source on sword wounds. There’s a few others that wrote on it, like Jupitrey and Larrey, for example, also made a few entries in their treatises about sabre and sword wounds. So that’s going to be an interesting project.

GW: So your book is going to be like a highlights of these sources, and a discussion of the general kinds of wounds you can expect from sword fighting for real, is that correct?

MC: We have to take this into context, of course, because a lot of these guys, they’re not concerned with what kills you. They’re concerned with how to save people. Although Ravaton talks a little bit about, for example, if some guy gets thrust to the heart, he says, you’ll never see a guy like this on your table because they’ll die instantly, like he says, in 36 years of practise, I’ve never had to treat any thrusts to the heart. But then there’s this one case by a very famous surgeon in the 16th century, who tells us the story of this guy who got thrust into the heart and went on and ran for a few miles and collapsed and died. But what I found out is that this case gets repeated by every single medical author afterwards and nobody else has any other case like this before because it’s extremely unusual. And you see a few of them in the 20th century and even very recently. But those are medical oddities for sure.

GW: I’ve been to a lecture by a surgeon about this kid who fell into a quarry and he got a steel spike coming in through his lower abdomen and up out through the shoulder piercing his heart on the way. And the fire brigade cut him off the spike, left the spike in, took him to the hospital, and they basically had to pull it out a centimetre or two and fix the damage and pull it out another centimetre and fix the damage. And basically they managed to save him. And the reason he survived is because as the spike went through him, the flesh of the heart sealed around it and actually managed to keep going. But, of course, if you just then pulled it out he would have died in seconds.

MC: Especially in the 18th century, forget it. There’s no way you can repair that. Ravaton was also very, very clear about this. He says if somebody gets thrust to the abdomen, he much prefers it if they get cut because then you can see what the damage is. But if somebody get thrust, then you can try kind of divine what whatever organ was touched. But you can’t open the guy. So you just got to pray that no vital organ was damaged. And even outside in the book, in some sources from World War I where at the start most victims were shot through the abdomen, most of these people would die because it was such a mess to treat that with the knowledge and equipment of the time.

GW: They didn’t have antibiotics to treat the peritonitis that would inevitably result from a pierced gut.

MC: Absolutely. They had these methods to try to control what Ravaton calls “accidents”, which are infections. One of the methods he recommends is for this one guy because he was wounded in the hand, is to plunge his hand into the neck of a bull that is being slaughtered. And I’m not sure how you convince the butchers to let you do that every single day. But he apparently did it and of course that didn’t help at all. But people had these very interesting treatments.

GW: Have you have you read Donald McBane’s The Expert Swordsman’s Companion?

MC: Yeah, I did.

GW: Because in his autobiography at the beginning, he is wounded many times and he actually describes he got blown up by a grenade and the monks that treated him put literally a puppy’s intestines on his face. I’m not really sure that would do much good.

MC: Yeah. Well, you know, a lot of the science back then was very empirical and people would try something and the patient would somehow recover. Oh, that was probably the puppy’s intestines that I happened to try on him so that works. The scientific method was not quite perfected yet.

GW: I’m going to have to go back and rerecord the intro and put in a content warning for graphic, disgusting descriptions of 18th century medical practises.

MC: One of the theories I have is that the medical knowledge at the time might have influenced a little bit what people perceived as being deadly fencing techniques. Because in the very late 16th century, you have Ambroise Paré comes up with arterial suture because before this guy, if you got cut in severing an artery, they would try to cauterise it. And that’s a pretty horrible way to try and close up a highly bleeding wound, and so from then on, it became very much easier to treat cuts. If you get your arm cut, they could suture the arteries. Of course, there’s a chance of infection setting in, but they had a much higher chance of survival than they did before that. And I’m always wondering, did this somehow influence the thrust fencing that was going on back then and people deciding that, well, you know, thrusts are now a lot more deadly than cuts or even this focus on the heart that starts to appear with smallsword and I wonder if it’s, again, something that people learned, that one of the most efficient way of killing someone on the spot is thrusting him to the heart. Of course, people probably knew that from empirical knowledge before that. But I wonder if all the medical literature that appeared at the time reinforced those ideas and somehow influenced fencing.

GW: Have you read Viggiani’s Lo Schermo?

MC: Maybe a while ago.

GW: It’s been a while since I read it, too. But I have a suspicion or a recollection that he talks about forehand blows from a right-hander being better because the heart lies on the left side of the body and therefore a right-handed forehanded blow will arrive to the left side of the body and therefore be more lethal. Now, the heart isn’t actually on the left side of the body, and it’s not empirically true. But it does indicate that there is at least somebody is thinking along the lines you’re describing. His book was written in 1551 and published in 1570.

MC: So, yeah, it’s about that time where people start to really revise the old anatomical literature. There’s all these authors that finally start to look back at people like Aristotle and they say all these theories that we had about the human body are wrong because, look, I’ve opened up the body and I can’t find the five lobes of the liver. But they’ve been saying since antiquity that the liver has five lobes. So somebody might be wrong and what a lot of these guys realise is that the ancient authors were opening up dogs and basing their knowledge of the human anatomy on those animals. And, of course, we’re similar in some ways, but we’re very different in others. So in the end, people that knew really what the inside of the human body looked like were surgeons. But surgeons were mostly illiterate. Barber surgeons were the ones cutting up people, the physicians where the educated ones, but they would never go and touch their patient, let alone open them. So they would read off old medical books while the surgeons were opening up and dissecting bodies but not really looking or taking attention, they would just describe whatever the author was saying. And then the surgeons probably never understood what these physicians were saying because it was all read in Latin. So it’s a very self-defeating mechanic that went on for four centuries. And then finally, in the late 16th century, people are starting to ask some questions and say, well, I don’t think that’s how it works. And then we get to modern medicine today that is very different. But like we were saying in the beginning, modern doctors today, some of them might see a lot of knife wounds, but never to the same level as people like Ravaton did that worked in military establishments.

GW: Fortunately, we don’t live in places or in times where stab wounds are that common. Actually, I have a friend of the family who is a trauma surgeon, and he travelled to various places based on the kind of ways that people were killing each other so that he could study, well, OK, people in this area tend to beat each other to death with sticks. OK, I’ll go work there for a while and see a lot of club wounds. People in this area knife each other. OK, I’ll go there and study knife wounds. He then moved to America to study gunshot wounds. And he’s still working as a trauma surgeon in the States. So he’s found his calling. You just don’t see the same level of blade violence, which I think is a very good thing, being a theoretician in that regard. Oh, I’m a raging pedant, Viggiani’s book was printed in 1575, not 1570. It does not make the slightest difference, but I am a raging pedant and there you have it. OK, I do have one more question for you and you have entirely free rein to interpret it however you please. If somebody gave you a million pounds or more than that in dollars to spend improving historical martial arts worldwide, what would you do with the money?

MC: I think what I would do is probably create some sort of scholarship for students of history to work on historical martial arts subjects, because I think that the martial arts scene in HEMA is going fairly well. The tournament scene is going well. There are of course always things that could go better. But I think that one thing I regret that’s being a little bit pushed over now is the lecture aspect. When I used to go to a lot of events there would be those lectures and people talking about their research and discoveries. And now it seems like it’s less and less of a thing, like people want to go to the tournaments, they want to fence other people. And even if there are a few lectures, it’s like four or five people attending. So I think we need more of that kind of research and we need to encourage that through academia. We need to be working on the techniques and working on the manuals is great, but we also need people to explain us to the context of all that fencing.

GW: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. I mean, that’s why I invited, for example, Eleanor Janega on to the show, she’s a mediaeval historian so she can give us details and background. And there are loads of people who are doing the sword fighting stuff who are also doing really high level research too so I try to get them on here and they can talk about their research. It’s not a lecture, but it’s something and I completely agree with you. I think it would go splendidly. And I guess the question really is, how do you create the environment for this scholarship to take place? So, for example, are we sending students to go and study in a particular university or are we creating a conference with lecturers from all over the place and then subsidising some of these scholars to travel to the conference? Any specifics on that?

MC: Yeah, it’s a good question. I think I like what I would love to do is to do conferences. Because it’s one thing for this to go through academia and to have bursaries and publications and all this. But I think that it needs to stay also within the participative community that is HEMA. Because if this was only taken up by academia, I think we will see a much bigger divide between the two, between the academic world and the HEMA practitioners. I had a teacher during university who had this theory that really influenced the way I approach historical publications now. He was saying that history used to be extremely popular in the 19th century and the early 1900s. And at some point what happened is that academia took it over, brought it to their ivory towers and said, this is ours now and this is how we do proper history and all you amateurs, you can you can read our books if you like, but you don’t have to be involved anymore. And that really dealt a severe blow, at least in his mind, to history, because now the people doing history were not lawyers and the common people, they were they were academics talking to other academics. And I think that we need more academic interest in HEMA, but we must be wary of that happening because I feel like it’s the same thing that’s happening with history in the 19th century that we’re seeing with HEMA is that people that have a very deep passion for it are not necessarily professional historians. That’s fine. And we must not just hand it over just to academia.

GW: And the same is true for the actual sword fighting. I mean, I’m a professional. My job is to do this. But my job is to make it so that amateurs can do this at the level they want to do it at. Whether that’s just turning up and having fun on a Tuesday night or whether actually it becomes their career. But you can see in an academic field certainly it’s like, no, I’m sorry, but unless you have at least a BA already, we’re not even going to show you this stuff. Yeah, that’s really, really annoying. But there’s still a massive interest in history. I mean, there’s the History Channel and there are all sorts of history podcasts and popular history is a massive genre in publishing. There is definitely hope and people who are actually trying to make this stuff accessible, which is which is good. OK, so your million dollars will go into a heavily sponsored conference to encourage people who are not academic historians to maybe pick up the tools of academic history and to do better and deeper research. Is that a fair summary?

MC: Yes.

GW: Excellent. Well, you know, I say this is pretty much every guest who answers that question because they are such excellent ideas, but if I had the money I would give it to you. But sadly, I don’t.

MC: I’ll send you my bank account.

GW: Oh yes, please do, I’ll sell it on to some of my less scrupulous colleagues. All right. Well, thank you very much for joining me today Maxime, it’s been a delight.

MC: Well, thanks for having me. It was great.