Episode 37

Medieval swords and research, with James Hester

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Show Notes:

James Hester has been involved with HEMA since the age of 15, when he began performing fight shows throughout New England. He then set his course as an academic and educator, working in museums before completing an MA in Medieval Studies in the UK. He then joined the Royal Armouries Museum, rising over five years to become Curator of Tower Collections at the Tower of London. In 2015 he was awarded the Arms & Armour Heritage Trust Studentship to complete a PhD focusing on late medieval martial arts at the University of Southampton. A summary of the PhD thesis is here: JHester Thesis Summary

In this episode we talk about James’s exciting research, particularly about matching up the treatises and other sources we have from the period with the notches and dings found on weapons and skeletal evidence from battlefield graves to work out whether the techniques detailed in the fencing treatises were ones that were actually used at the time. Is it possible to extrapolate from a fencing treatise that this is how people actually fought? Click on the link for a video lecture on some of James’s research into damage on arms and armour.

We also talk about the passage of arms events James has organised, and his attempts to make the armour at these events as historically accurate as possible, i.e. not what we would think of as “safe” by modern standards. To read more about the 2018 passage of arms at the beautiful Château de Castelnaud in the Dordogne, France, see here: A brief write-up of the 2018 Judgement of Mars with some photos. For more photos, see this link from Facebook: Photos by La Mesnie du Blanc Castel of the 2019 Judgement of Mars on their Facebook page.

In the introduction I mention photographs of the treatises at the Fencing Museum in the U.K. You can see these here: https://guywindsor.net/2017/06/a-great-week-for-historical-fencing/

 

For more information on James and his work, see:

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/schoolofmars

Website: http://www.schoolofmars.com

FB: https://www.facebook.com/schoolofmars

Twitter: @schoolofmars

 

GW: Hello sword people, this is Guy Windsor, also known as The Sword Guy, and I’m here today with Dr. James Hester, who worked at the Royal Armouries Museum for five years, ending up as a curator there. So he has got to handle a lot of the seriously good old weapons. He has a Ph.D. in late medieval armoured combat, and that’s actually how we met. He contacted me about doing edge on edge sharp weapons contact and having a look at the sort of damage that different kinds of strikes and different kind of edges would create against each other. And he runs Patreon.com/SchoolofMars, where he basically gives you access to his extraordinary breadth and depth of knowledge, particularly about things medieval. So, without further ado, James, welcome to the show.

 

JH: Thank you. Good to be here. Thanks for having me.

 

GW: It’s my pleasure. It’s nice to see you again. Oh, I forgot to mention that it was James and I who took photographs of the treatises at the Fencing Museum in the U.K. a couple of years ago. And those pictures are up online, I will put links in the show notes. So we have 20-odd historical treatises, which James help me photograph. So we’ve worked together in the past before.

 

JH: You know, if you see a thumb in the corner of those photos, you’re welcome. That was all me.

 

GW: OK, so why don’t we kick off by just orienting everybody? Whereabouts in the world are you at the moment?

 

JH: I’m in Ascot, which is about an hour and a bit west of London. Between London and Reading.

 

GW: OK, that’s not where you come from though, right?

 

JH: No, no, I’m a repentant colonial. I was born just outside of Boston, Massachusetts, and I came over here at first in 2005, to do a master’s degree up in York, and after that was when I started working for the Armouries. I spent a bit of time then back in the US and then came back over here in 2015 to do the PhD. And I’ve been here ever since. They haven’t been able to get rid of me.

 

GW: Wonderful. OK, so how did you get into this whole sword thing?

 

JH: It depends how far back you want to go. I mean, I think I blame my general interest in all of this on the fact that as far back as I can remember, my mum would read fantasy sword and sorcery stuff to me. So that certainly planted the seed. But I first actually started swinging swords around, not in a historical combat context, but actually in a stage combat context. I started off doing fight shows around several of the Renaissance fairs around New England. This was in the mid to late 90s into the early 00s. And it was around this time in the course of doing that, that I started meeting some of the movers and shakers in that area in the early days of historical combat research, because a lot of this was pre-Internet where people only found out that other people were interested in this stuff by word of mouth and so hung out, gradually met some of the people that were looking into the more historical side of all this and learning that there were these texts that had survived that actually provided teachings on what medieval combat was like. And the people were actually taking a crack at trying to interpret these and try to, as best as we can, recreate the techniques in it. And so even though I still keep one foot in the stage combat world and I’ve done the odd bit of fight choreography ever since, I gradually jumped ship into the more historical side of things and changed from being a theatre major to being history major and kind of slanted my focus more on that. And that’s how I found my way into the museums. That’s what brought me to the UK, to York, and then eventually up to the Armouries. And the rest is history, as they say.

 

GW: Now, I know that many of my listeners will strangle me if I don’t ask you this, but how do you actually go about getting a job as a curator of arms and armour at somewhere like the Royal Armouries, which has the best collection of swords in the world?

 

JH: Pure stubbornness. I’d set my sights on Leeds very early on, and I can pin it to in the mid 90s, I saw a History Channel documentary about the sword. This was a series the Armouries had put out way back when. And they had a little vignette where they I think Leeds had only just been opened. And it was talking about here at the Royal Armoury, they set up this new museum in Leeds, and they have a whole department of interpreters whose job it is to basically be professional re-enactors and to display combat techniques and all this stuff. And I’m sitting there in in Massachusetts going, you mean people do that for a job? I want to do that. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say there was part of my motivation for wanting to do my masters at York, not just because it was a fantastic medieval studies programme, but also it was right down the road from Leeds. And I was like, this is my chance to try to break into this place and see if I can actually do this. So as soon as I arrived for my Masters, I reached out to some of the interpreters there, end up meeting up with them and basically just make it very clear to them that I wanted to do that. And so I just spent as much time hanging out with them as possible. There weren’t any gigs up, but I ended up interning with the interpreters for about six months. So they basically said, come hang out with us. We’ll call it an internship, we’ll train you up. We’ll get to know you, you’ll get to know us. And if a gig comes up in the meantime, you’re already here, so you’ll have a good chance for it. So we did that, but sadly, nothing came up. But I was still determined just not to go away until something happened and they were hiring for the gallery staff, people that patrol the galleries and yell at people for touching things and that sort of stuff. So I just said, well, OK, at least it keeps me here. There are far worse gigs to have than being able to wander around a museum like this all day. Yeah, so I did that for two years and again, just bided my time, waited to see if anything came up. Sadly, nothing came up in the interpreters. But in the meantime, I’d finished my Masters, I’d racked up a little bit more experience with in-depth arms and armour study both through the Masters and just my own study. And then an opportunity came up for a researcher post in the curatorial department. It wasn’t where I had envisioned going in terms of direction, but I was like, oh, that could still be cool. So I put in for that. And lo and behold, I got it. And that’s how I started in the curatorial department. Just gradually rose through the ranks until my last position there was as their Curator of Collections, not in Leeds, but down at the Tower of London, which was an amazing way to spend a year.

 

GW: The actual Tower of London.

 

JH: The actual Tower of London.

 

GW: OK, I’m guessing quite a few of the listeners might not know this, but originally the Royal Armouries had the whole collection in the Tower of London. And then in the 90s, they built this great big museum in Leeds and moved everything five hours north. So there’s a smaller, smaller collection in the Tower and the main collection is up in Leeds.

 

JH: That’s right. I mean, basically the collection was outgrowing the Tower and surprise, surprise, you can’t knock down walls in a thousand year old historic site. So they realised that they had to expand into new sites. They couldn’t expand on the current site. So, yeah, the main portion of the collection went up to Leeds, which is essentially the mothership now. In the Tower they still maintain a presence in and it has some of the more iconic pieces in the collection, a lot of the royal armours are based down there and the bits of the collection that are specifically relevant to the Armouries connection with the Tower are down there, because essentially the Royal Armouries is the descendant of Henry VIII’s Greenwich armoury that he founded. And then later on the Board of Ordinance, which is basically the arsenal for the British military. So they still maintain that story there. And then there’s a third site further down south, Fort Nelson in Portsmouth, which is where all the artillery and the big guns live. So that was in the 90s where they kind of split the collection up just to make sure that each bit could be done justice rather than trying to cram it all in the Tower.

 

GW: Yeah, it was state of the art when it was built in about 1070…

 

JH: I thought you were referring to the site up in Leeds there for a second!

 

GW: That was state of the art when it was built in the 90s. I remember that and I remember my first visit. I was living in Edinburgh at the time and we drove down to it and it was just overwhelming. Just a tower of steel.

 

JH: It’s a very cool place.

 

GW: It is a tower, it is like a cylinder. It’s got swords all the way up the walls.

 

JH: The Hall of Steel.

 

GW: I actually did this, and then I was told not to. I lay on my back and just looked up to hundreds and hundreds of swords.

 

JH: It’s spectacular

 

GW: It is sword heaven. So, yeah, you lived in sword heaven for a long time.

 

JH: I did. It was unforgettable.

 

GW: Why did you stop?

 

JH: Unfortunately, not by choice. I mean, I don’t want to alienate listeners by getting into politics, but suffice to say that I fell on the sharp end of the shift in visa policy in 2010/11 and the ability to stay under my current status. So unfortunately, I went into exile back in the States for a few years as a way of being able to stick around. So when the opportunity for the PhD came, I was at my triumphal re-entry back into what for me is home.

 

GW: So in other words, like of the UK, equivalent of a green card cost you a job at the Royal Armouries?

 

JH: Pretty much, yeah.

 

GW: How did you not set fire to 10 Downing Street?

 

JH: A saintly degree of patience. No, it was deeply frustrating because, I mean, the frankly, the gig at the Tower, I would happily retired from that. And so it was absolutely soul crushing to myself to step down from that post and leave. And so during the during my time back stateside, I tried to kind of keep up with as much research and things on my own. One interesting bit of unexpected mischief came of that is I just happened to be back in my hometown where I grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston, which coincidentally is where the sadly closed down Higgins’ Armoury Collection was. And that’s where I got the bug for arms and armour. My first museum gig was there. And I just happened to have been landed back there just as Jeffrey Forgeng was doing his new edition of .133. So I was literally a five minute walk from the armoury, from his office. So he pulled me in to write the introduction to that for him. So it just happened that I was in his backyard to do that. So I was able to keep a little bit of things on my own steam. But unfortunately, I was kind of preparing myself for being a perpetual independent scholar on arms and armour because I couldn’t imagine a way back. And then, lo and behold, the PhD scholarship comes up and plugs me back into the game. It was blessed fortune.

 

GW: What was the scholarship?

 

JH: So essentially in 2015, to commemorate the six hundredth anniversary of Agincourt, the University of Southampton, and more specifically, the person who was to become my supervisor, Professor Anne Curry, that name might ring a bell for people if you’ve ever pulled a book off a shelf about the Hundred Years War or the Battle of Agincourt, chances are she has had something to do with it. She’s something of a rock star within that chunk of medieval scholarship. So she paired up with the Arms and Armour Heritage Trust to offer a PhD scholarship for anything relevant to medieval military stuff. So I just happened to see the advert from this in Boston and just decided, you know, fortune favours the bold. I threw an application in and then lo and behold, I got it. And that’s what allowed me to come back here. It was a very, very generous scholarship and included a very generous travel budget, which is what allowed me to basically spend three years swanning around some of the great collections of Europe, looking at some of these original pieces of arms and armour for my research. And it was fantastic. So, yeah. So it’s been quite a ride these last handful of years of ups and downs in this. But so far it seems like, touch wood, everything seems to have worked out in the end.

 

GW: And part of that research was the thing about edge damage, which is what brought you to me.

 

JH: Yes. Essentially it was an idea that had been in the back of my head since the days up in Leeds where in the course of examining objects, I’ve noticed the odd kind of dings and notches and things in the blades. But I was very surprised that nobody had actually made a really kind of in-depth, serious study of this, of saying, let’s document this stuff and see what, if anything, we can tell from this damage. And so I stored it in the back of my head and said, oh, maybe you should do some research on this. I talked to some of the other curators up there and they said, you have a really cool thing to maybe build a mini exhibit about at some point. It just got mothballed because we got distracted with other things. So when the advert for the scholarship came up and they were looking for topics, I said, it would be an interesting one to dust off and say, OK, I can finally revisit that and proposed actually getting around to doing this research, finally. And that was probably the area that they found most intriguing about it. Just as an aside, to talk about what the whole thesis covered, the damage side was only one aspect. So I was looking at these instances of notches and dings and scratches on blades and on pieces of armour to get a sense of what, if anything, they can tell us about how these objects may have been used. Then I was comparing that information to combat depictions in medieval artwork of all different types. I was taking that information and comparing it to the data we have from some of the big skeletal remain finds that we’ve had, particularly the big battlefield mass graves like Towton and Visby. And then I was essentially looking to answer three questions with all of this information. One, taking all those sources and holding them up next to one another, do we see any consistency? Do they tell a consistent story about combat? Two, how does all of that information compare to what we’re seeing portrayed and taught in the fencing treatises, because in theory the fencing treatises are the only supposedly authoritative text sources we have about medieval combat. They’re the only sources that actually set out to spell out what combat techniques were actually like, at least in theory. So how does all the other source material compare to what’s going on in the treatises? And then finally, using all of this information together, is there anything in the fencing treatises, any techniques or any principles that using all the other evidence, I can point to those techniques and saying I can make a pretty solid argument using this evidence that that technique, or at least something like it, was fairly widely used or appreciated at the time. So trying to piece out, are there any techniques that we’re absolutely sure weren’t just intellectual explorations of these fencing masters that showed up in the manuals, which may have actually been really used and without wanting to give anything away because I’m in talks currently with getting it published, the general answer to all those questions was a resounding yes. So there was a remarkable amount of consistency amongst the sources. They matched up in more ways than they didn’t, which was really cool to see. A fair bit did map on quite nicely to the techniques in the fencing treatises, you know, there’s plenty of anomalies where they diverge, but that was to be expected. But quite a lot that did match up and there was a satisfying amount of stuff in terms of techniques and principles that I can say I’ve got some fairly robust evidence here to show that something like this was actually used enough across this random assortment of evidence that I’ve gathered to say, yeah, something like this was probably pretty widely appreciated and practised. So maybe it wasn’t a kind of super esoteric teaching that only people that read these treatises were practising, that it was something that was pretty widely understood.

 

GW: Wow. OK, is there any way I could persuade you to send over a PDF of your PhD thesis for me to put in the show notes so that people can go and read it?

 

JH: Well, at the moment, the thesis itself is under embargo because of the publication talks. But what I did do, because I essentially promised a lot of people that they’d get access to this as quickly as possible. But unfortunately, the publication process has been glacial. So it’s been a lot slower than I had anticipated. So what I did to kind of keep people tied over, and I believe it also kind of whet their appetites a little bit, I wrote a big, long kind of summary doc, just saying here’s the sorts of things that I went into here, the methods that I did here, the areas that I’ve explored. So when the thing gets released, you’ll see what the actual findings are. So I can send you that and you can post it and it’ll give people a good idea as to what was covered in it and some of the areas that I looked into and what they can expect when it comes out.

 

GW: Cool. And of course, when the book does come out, you’ll come back on the show and tell everybody about it and it’s not embargoed. And then everybody can go and buy the book.

 

JH: I would be absolutely delighted.

 

GW: OK, we have a plan. All right. So, yeah, it’s super hard having found out some cool, interesting stuff and then having to sit on it, waiting for a bunch of people who are not sword people to get their act together so you can actually spread it.

 

JH: It’s agonising. And the worst part is I’ve got this backlog of other research that I want to do, that I really can’t do until that stuff is out in the wild, because a lot of it is building on that. So the thesis itself focussed on the late Middle Ages. I bookended it roughly 1350 to 1500. But I included the stuff from .133 because it’s one of our very few 14th century sources. One of the things that I really want to do for the next big project is actually go backwards, because one of the things, and I can talk about this without giving away any spoilers, but one of the main things that I managed to do in the thesis was to prove that the method that I was employing was a valid one, that you can take this hard data based approach of I’m just going to gather as much information as I can, I’m going to analyse it in all these different ways and see what it tells us and what kind of picture can paint. So part of the thesis proved that this was actually a valid way of going about this. So now that we have this method and we’ve proven that it can work, because it did work with the late medieval material, I want to take the same approach and apply it to the earlier periods that we don’t have fencing treatises for but we do have all of these other sources. We have artwork, we have surviving objects. We have some skeletal remains with injuries on them. So it’s almost like an algebraic equation. I had all parts of the puzzle with the late medieval stuff. So now let’s take that same principle. Go to where X is missing but we have everything else and then we can just apply the same method and solve for X.

 

GW: Exactly. So you can basically produce a credible idea of what those fencing treatises would have looked like if they had been written or survived.

 

JH: Or at the very least, what sort of material would have been covered. What intrigues me the most about that is one of the things that I was hoping to show with the late medieval material is to see if there was a perceptible shift in technique from the earlier part of the 14th century through the 15th, because in theory, that’s the time where you start to see the gradual advent of a full plate armour come onto the scene. And we know that some of the weapons adjust to accommodate for that change, we start getting swords with much more fine points to have much more thrusting capability. So I wanted to see if you could spot that shift in the material. One of the weird things was, and I don’t feel bad about saying this because, again, it’s not a massive spoiler, in the whole hundred and fifty year period that I looked at, I did not see any perceptible shift in technique. Now, that was really interesting because what that suggests is that that transition had already well and truly settled in by then. So that all the more intrigues me to go to the earlier stuff, because I want to see if I can actually find the shift. And if I do an equivalent project for, say, 1100 to 1350, I’m definitely going to see this. You would hope to see that kind of pattern shift in the objects, in the artwork, even the injury patterns and that sort of thing.

 

GW: This reminds me of when I was doing English language at university used years ago, we were taught about the Great Vowel Shift, which is when we were starting to pronounce things differently. And it’s like you’ve come across the Great Swordsmanship Shift of the 13th century or whatever, and it’s going to have capital letters, you know, Great Shift, and is also a sort of thing which I imagine listeners to this show, particularly people like you and me, sword nerds to the nth degree, it’s just unspeakably exciting. And yet the overwhelming majority of the human population, they really couldn’t give a toss.

 

JH: In a way it’s good that I mean, it’s not nothing that the research that I did at least proved that that shift didn’t happen within that window of time. But now I want to actually go backwards and see if I can actually find when it happened. But first, I’ve got to get this bloody book out so that I can go back and not be kind of giving away spoilers in something that I get out of context.

 

GW: Who are you publishing with?

 

JH: At the moment I’m in talks with the Armouries’ in-house publisher. Well, it’s kind of complicated. It’s not being published through the Armouries. The Armouries is in a partnership with, I believe, Brill. It’s terrible that I can’t remember this off the top of my head, this just shows you how slow the process has been. It’s either Brill or Boydell.

 

GW: I think they are just up the road from me. So if you need me to knock on their door with a baseball bat, and say, “Hurry up, I want James’s book.” I can do that.

 

JH: That’s ever so nice of you. Thank you.

 

GW: I’m not sure it would help though.

 

JH: It’s with them because it seemed only natural, because the Arms and Armour Heritage Trust who funded my PhD is essentially a charitable offshoot of the Armouries. It is a couple of handshakes from them. It seemed only fitting that they get first dibs on it, having indirectly funded the whole enterprise.

 

GW: That is the right thing to do.

 

JH: And also there are there are far worse shops to go to for getting your book on sword nerdery out than the Royal Armouries. It’s just a matter of time and as you can imagine the presence of the global plague has slowed things down considerably as well.

 

GW: On my online courses, we have this discord server for the students and one of the students on the server was talking about English longsword sources and actually referred to your 2009 paper, Real Men Read Poetry. He quoted from it and properly credited it. And I was like, “That’s James’s paper. I’m talking to James next week.” So when I saw this thread I sent a message saying, “Would you like me to ask James himself what he thinks of this?” And he was like, “Oh you can do that?” And I said, “I can certainly try!” OK, so you have this paper, Real Men Read Poetry: Instructional Verse in 14th Century Fight Manuals, and my student was curious as to what degree do you think it’s actually possible to extract a historical fencing system from those texts?

 

JH: The English ones?

 

GW: Yes.

 

JH: The English fencing treatises were the topic of my Master’s thesis, or at least one of them was, the Harley text 3542. For those who don’t know, there are there are three middle English fencing texts that date to prior to the turn of the 16th century. By a stroke of luck, they’re all in the British Library. They’re all very, very short. And what’s most intriguing about them is that despite the fact that they’re the datings, they’re fairly well spread throughout the late medieval period. There’s a lot of debate about the datings. I put the Harley text slightly earlier than a lot of people do, just judging by the handwriting. But they pretty much span about, I would say, a one hundred year period, roughly. So despite that, they all share a common vocabulary. Some of these middle English terms for different techniques, they all use many of the same terms, which is quite intriguing because it suggests possibly evidence for some kind of, Quote unquote, “English school of thought” on all of this.

 

GW: A system. An English fencing system.

 

JH: A system. Yeah, yeah. That’s a much better way to put it. So I dove into the Harley text for my masters. I did a transcription of it, a modern English translation of it, and attempted to do what at the time I considered to be a very, very speculative interpretation of the techniques, one that looking back now, I consider to be the folly of youth, that I in no way stand behind at all, I was just looking to try to go as far as I could with the with the Master’s dissertation. The short answer is, I, and this is a personal opinion, because I know that there’s quite a handful of practitioners and schools that have built up a recreated system out of these texts. Personally, I’m not entirely sure that you can recreate a comprehensive system out of those texts. And I think the main reason is because although all three of those texts, the Harley, the other two, one is called the Additional and the other is called the Cotton, while they all share the same common vocabulary, they do next to nothing to contextualise that vocabulary, because some of these terms show up nowhere else in the entire corpus of middle English that we know of. So it’ll say things like “step forward with your right foot and strike a dragon’s tail”. But then nowhere in the manuscript does it tell you what a dragon’s tail is. But it doesn’t go into any detail. So again, far be it for me to throw stones at other scholar practitioners who have built interpretations around this system. But I frequently come across people who post videos of their interpretations of these sequences and they’re very sensible, beautiful, effective sequences with a sword. But I sit there going, how on earth did you pull that out of that little chunk of middle English? And I mean, unfortunately, I’ve never gotten the chance to hang out with any of these guys and actually pick their brains about it, because I’m not even saying that necessarily is a critique. I’m genuinely curious, because if they’ve stumbled across something that I didn’t, then I’d love to find out about it, because at the time, the last time I really had any dealings with those texts, my conclusion was more or less they’re really fascinating. They tell us that there was some kind of a consistent martial arts scene in England at this time. But unfortunately, until some other sources come up, which could maybe shed some light on what these terms mean, there’s not a whole lot we can do with them. And that was kind of where I left it.

 

GW: Yeah, that was sort of my feeling when I came across them many years ago. This is really, really interesting, but without a Rosetta Stone to explain what all these things actually are…

 

JH: I came across a guy while I was at the Tower who was doing a PhD in Canada, a chap called Mark Geldof. And he I think made the biggest dent in trying to crack that than anyone else I’d come across and he was looking at the Cotton text, which is quite ambitious because out of all of them, it’s the shortest, it’s literally a single folio of maybe something like maybe a dozen lines. So it’s a tiny, tiny, tiny piece of text. But he made a pretty solid case in his thesis showing parallels between some of the terms used for the footwork with middle English dance manuals from the same period. OK, there’s a common vocabulary here, or at least if it’s not exact, it’s close if you squint, where you could see those parallels. And he made some really interesting breakthroughs in his thesis. And I think his thesis is available online. So if you look up his name, you can find it. So I think he was one of those ones that kind of got as far as I think anybody that I’d come across had managed to at that time. But even that was 10 years ago. So, again, I haven’t really done a whole lot of work on those treatises since. So it’s not impossible that the some of the people that are doing more in-depth work with it have come across more enlightening sources that they’re using to build their interpretations around. But I’ve just not become aware of them. If anyone has any light to shed on this, I’d love to know, because I do find myself somewhat perplexed by some of the systems that have cropped up around these texts from people.

 

GW: That’s very diplomatically put. I have friends and colleagues who I respect deeply, who have what they consider to be a working interpretation of these texts. And my view is that they have a working fencing system that uses the terminology from the texts, but they have no way of establishing by academic argument that that is what the text actually intends. It’s not like Fiore where you have a picture of the person in guard, you have a picture of the swords coming together, you have a picture of what happens immediately afterwards, and you have detailed instruction of exactly what to do, like, you know, step with your left foot and strike like this to the arms. You still have to interpret, but we have an awful lot of data to base that interpretation on. And you can make a clear academic argument that this is what Fiore meant at this point. It’s much harder to do that with English stuff.

 

JH: That’s really that’s kind of the approach that I take with historical combat in general. I’m very, very wary of anybody that comes forward and says I have recreated the system of X master or X treatise because until a little blue box shows up, that allows you to go back and double check, we’re never going to know for certain. It’s perhaps a bit more wishy washy and it’s not as sexy sounding and definitive, but I’ve always taken the approach of, look, if we’re being totally honest, the best we can do is, is create systems of combat that will only ever be modern because we’ll never be able to fully verify it, but that we draw from these texts what insights we’re capable of through our interpretations of them. When I taught students, I never even go as far as saying “I’m teaching you medieval combat,” much less “I’m teaching you Fiore” or “I’m teaching you something from the Liechtenauer tradition” or anything like that. I say what I’m teaching you is a system of sword combat drawn from these historical texts. Because I acknowledge that there’s quite a lot of input from my own more modern experience that I’m bringing to it. And again, that’s my own personal take on it. It’s not as exciting as some would prefer, but it keeps me honest.

 

GW: Yeah. And my view is that so long as you’re honest about how much of it is drawn from the texts and how much is added or interpolated. I wrote a whole book recently, called From Medieval Manuscript to Modern Practise, which goes through all of the Fiore longsword plays out of armour on foot. I provide the transcription, a translation and my explanation of how I think it goes, including where necessary, reference to other parts of the text. If, say, Fiore says, “and this is like the third play of the first master of the dagger,” then I go to the third play of the first master of the dagger. And I transcribe and translate that and I put that in there. So the thing is, at the end of the day, none of that means that my interpretation is correct. It just means that anybody who is curious about my interpretation can look and see exactly why I think it is like this. And that’s really all you can do.

 

JH: Yeah, exactly. I remember the first the first academic paper I ever presented at Kalamazoo. This would have been in 2007. This was also talking about the English texts. This was back in the days where we had to preface every single talk about HEMA with “this is a new discipline and we’re still getting our bearings on it”. As part of my introduction to it, one of the things that I said was, anyone who approaches these texts needs to keep in mind a handful of things. And one of the final things that I said was, “And finally, in order to approach and interpret these texts, you have to have the totally honest admission that at the end of the day, we’re never going to know if we’re 100 percent right.” And that comment was met with rapturous applause and laughter from the clutch of sword nerds that were in the crowd because it was like I had spoken a great truth and finally said it out loud. And there were a couple of people who were also in the same crowd that were not at all pleased with that comment. But for a lot of other people, they found it very, very refreshing. I think it doesn’t get said enough. It’s like, look, we’ve all got to step back and realise that short of the advent of time travel, we’re grasping at straws. Some we’ve got a better grip on than others because of the robustness of the material. But ultimately, we’re guessing.

 

GW: Yeah, it’s true. And as long as so long as we’re having fun with swords and no one’s getting hurt.

 

JH: That’s the most important part.

 

GW: Speaking of having fun with swords, I know that you conducted a Deed of Arms in France a while ago.

 

JH: Yes.

 

GW: And I seem to recall I had to discuss some of the safety aspects of it. So would you like to tell everybody what that was about and how it went and what sort of compromises you made with equipment and that sort of thing?

 

JH: Yeah, sure. I’ll tell the full story for that. Yeah. For years and years, I’d had it in the back of my head to actually stage a proper medieval deed of arms or passage of arms with as much of the pageantry and everything as could be done, partly just because it would be a good bit of fun, partly to actually, as a martial artist, to put myself to the test and really push my limits and see what happened. So for many reasons, that had been in my head for years and I’d initially floated the idea when I was down at the Tower, wouldn’t it be a great thing to stage a medieval Deed of Arms in the moat at the Tower? But unfortunately, because even though the Armouries maintains a presence there, they’re not the stewards of the Tower. So the caretakers of the tower, which is Historic Royal Palaces who actually run the grounds, the diary of things booked to be done at the Tower is several years in advance. So at the time, I was basically told this is a really cool idea, but it’s not happening any time soon. I shelved it. And when I started doing my PhD research, the first place that I visited to start examining bits of arms and armour was this very, very small but impressive collection in an absolutely stunning medieval castle on the Dordogne in France in Aquitaine called Château de Castelnaud. And if you’ve never seen it or if you’ve never been there, it is one of the most gorgeous places on the planet. It’s a time capsule. And the castle itself was a former Cathar stronghold. And it switched sides, I think, once or twice during the Hundred Years War. And it’s just this beautiful castle perched on this crag overlooking the Dordogne River.

 

GW: We’ll put photos in the show notes so people can see it.

 

JH: Please do. So they were the first ones to answer my call saying yes, by all means. Come and poke our weapons for your research. This sounds cool. So I went down there and spent about a week doing my examination and hanging out with the curators who were very cool. And just as a completely off-hand comment, one night while we were hanging out and talking, I said that I’d had this harebrained idea one day to stage a passage of arms with full medieval trappings and everything, but that despite my efforts to try to do it at the Tower, it didn’t manifest and that one day I hope to do it. And her ears pricked up and she said that would be a really intriguing thing to do here. Would you be interested in doing it here? Because we’d be all over that. And I couldn’t say yes quickly enough, because as you’ll see with the photos, the ambience of doing a thing like that in a place like this was extraordinary. So it was only very early days. So I knew it wasn’t going to happen until the PhD was over just because there was so much else going on. So in 2018 when I’d finished the thesis and it was September of that year where I, over the period of two days, ended up facing a half dozen people in back to back combat. We were hoping to get more people but it didn’t end up working out. But I ended up facing this amazing contingent of people from a combination of HEMA and a historical re-enactment group called La Mesnie du Blanc Castell, based out of Bordeaux, who I put a challenge out to a year before saying, I’m going to be here doing this here are the rules, are you going to come and show me what you’ve got? And they took up the call and they said, yeah, we’ll send some of our guys here and we’ll put you through your paces. And it was a truly extraordinary weekend. So much so that we actually repeated it the following year. So last autumn, we did it again with the same group that came around. And both years it drew amazing crowds. The people at the Château loved it. We had a great time. There’s some videos and stuff as well. Actually, I can send you a couple of clips of things to include, if you want as well.

 

GW: Send all the links. All the photos. And then everyone can just go there and find it just because it sounds awesome.

 

JH: It was amazing. So from the from the kind of equipment and logistics standpoint and this is what I was chatting with you, Guy, about. I wanted to keep the ambience and thus the kit requirements as close to historically accurate as possible, because what I was taking for inspiration was not so much the standard knightly passage of arms, you know, in full head to toe rattle and partly on horseback and then some on foot and all this stuff, partly because I didn’t have full plate and certainly not a horse. But also, I was taking the inspiration from that comment in Fiore’s introduction about how on several times my skill was tested by challengers wearing nothing but a heavy jacket and gloves. From a living history standpoint, that’s how I tend to portray myself, less of the knightly cast and more of a fencing master type impression. So that’s what I’ve got the gear for and everything as well as what I’m more interested in. But obviously for safety reasons, doing it exactly the way Fiore described would, let’s say, raise some hairs on some health and safety people’s heads.

 

GW: Fiore himself says it was incredibly dangerous.

 

JH: Indeed. So we had to try to strike a balance. So what we ended up doing was heavy jackets, whether that was gambesons, arming doublets, they were padded enough for people’s comfort and then steel on your head, on your hands and on your elbows, because under the tournament rules, the waist up was the only valid target area. And so part of the reason that we decided on that kit was, one, to maintain the historical accuracy of not having modern equipment being visible in this amazing medieval atmosphere to keep the ambience of it. But also, I wanted to use the kit requirements to weed out, to be blunt, the wrong sort of fighter for this event. Because really what I was looking for was some kind of mutation between a HEMA tournament and a living history display, because unfortunately, our art has progressed to the point where, although I am over the moon that there’s such a massive community around the world and there’s such a thriving tournament circuit where people can practise and pit themselves against others, it’s kind of gone the way that things like that inevitably will do in some circles where it has become kind of sportified.

 

GW: It’s not a bad thing so long as you don’t have to do it. It suits some people.

 

JH: Not at all. Exactly. But with that has come, for people that are very, very active in that circuit, there’s a tendency to kind of skew their training in their techniques for those types of events. And that wouldn’t necessarily be engaging from a display point of view. So I wanted to make sure that the people that were fighting there were the right combination of capable fighters who would do a good display and also give me a run for my money, while at the same time were sufficiently interested and knowledgeable about the real historical side of things and able to do it in the spirit that would have been more in keeping with the period as well, because this is where I started with all of this, because back when I first was getting involved with this, there wasn’t really a sharp divide between the living history people and the HEMA people. And it’s really been more recently. I was very surprised over the years to see more and more people who have modern fencing gear for their practise but don’t have a scrap of medieval kit because that’s not right for them. That’s not the side that they’re interested in, which is fair enough. The merger of the two has always been more of an interest to me. So I wanted to find the people who have that similar interest so could put on something that was engaging for the public in keeping as much of keeping as possible with the historical side of things and at the same time be a good fight. And so the guys at La Mesnie from Bordeaux were the perfect match for that.

 

GW: What did you do about eye protection?

 

JH: The visors were down on our helmets at all time, but the sword tips were flared and we did have some kind of stopper. That was our one concession to modernity is to have stoppers at the tips of our swords.

 

GW: Like rubber blunts on the end of your longswords.

 

JH: And we kept it as kind of muted as possible just so they didn’t stand out. Everything was black rubber. So it didn’t spoil the effect at all. And yes, it made everybody feel a lot more comfy.

 

GW: OK, good. Just curious because there are always balances to be struck. And while it’s very easy to make a blow to the body relatively safe, a thrust to the face is always going to be dangerous if you don’t have complete face protection. I was just curious as to how you solved that.

 

JH: That was our one concession and it worked out quite nicely and frankly, with those two tournaments and there was initial talk about a third this past year, but this was even before the pandemic struck, it was kind of struck off the books because my family was added to by one. And at that point the possibility of me swanning off to Aquitaine for a long weekend at this point was not really on the cards.

 

GW: Congratulations by the way.

 

JH: Thank you. But everybody who’s been involved with the project is still super keen. We all still stay in touch. So it’s not impossible that once the dust settles, it will revive again. So stay tuned. If that does happen, I’ll make sure to send the word out, not just for people to come and see it, but if you actually wanted to challenge me, I’d be all for it. The more the merrier.

 

GW: How did the fights go?

 

JH: The fights, for me, those were two weekends of school in the hardest sense of the word. Man oh man was it school! The first year really rammed home to me how rusty I was, because I made as good a showing as any. But by and large it was very obvious that the guys from Les Mesnie were much more up with their practise than I was, because for the most part, they wiped the floor with me.

 

GW: Excellent.

 

JH: But we were all good sports about it. And it was fantastic until by the end of the first day I was just beaten to a pulp. By the second day, I learned a little bit and made a slightly better showing. But it gave me the inspiration of I knew we were doing it again the following year. So I was like, right, I’ve got to get to work. So I spent the year dusting everything off again and then in 2019 made a much stronger showing. I’m not going to toot my own horn, but it was much more evenly matched and I think the fights were much more engaging. But one interesting story about this was from the first year, speaking of the kit requirements and the interest of safety, it was a very, very eye-opening lesson in exactly how effective even the minimal amount of armour that we were wearing actually was in situations like these, because I was fighting a friend of mine. The first year I was over the moon that a dear friend and one of my earliest teachers, a chap called Stephen Pasker Shellenbean who I met on the Ren Fair circuit and then gradually kind of started doing more historical stuff with in the US. He caught wind that I was doing this and I was like, “There is no way after all these years you’re going to do something that cool and I’m not going to be there.” So he actually flew over from the US to take part and it was amazing. Now, just for clarification, for my kit is turn of the 14th to the early 15th century, so I’ve got a bassinet with a padded aventail with mail all over it as well. So that and the high neck of my jupon is basically it in terms of padding. The padding of my aventail was pretty thick. That combined with the high collar, you had quite a number of hefty layers of quilted fabric and mail to get through before you actually hit my throat. And there was a fairly big air buffer as well. And so during one of our bouts. I just completely took the bait from one of his guards, walked forward and he just lowered his point and I basically lunged at speed straight on to his point, right at my throat. And again, a rebated tip with a rubber blunt on it. But there was still enough welly on that to give me a nice little pop in the neck. Again, not to the point of it being painful, but I could tell how much force was there and could tell that if I hadn’t had all those layers of protection, that would have spoilt my day, to say the least. And that was extraordinarily eye opening, it’s like, wow, that was a lot of force. I only felt that much of it through all of that. Obviously, it probably would have been a very different story if we weren’t dealing with blunts as well. But it was a really strong first hand experience of just frankly, how much the kit actually works. From a modern standpoint, as we’re practising these things, a lot of people looked at the kit requirements that I had and kind of shrieked with    at how minimal it was. Because obviously we’d like to do this more than just one bout, so we want to make sure that we’re all well protected enough to live to fight another day, which is a perfectly sensible opinion to have. But I really wanted to not just maintain the historical ambience, but actually really put the kit to the test in a limited way to see how it actually performed in its natural environment and just trust it to do the work. And that was a really, really nice illustration that left to its own devices, this stuff actually does function quite well. Like padded armour, I think we underestimate how effective it actually was in many circumstances, even as a standalone with very little supplementary stuff. So little things like that throughout the whole time, doing the fights and just relying on more or less this period kid to protect me. It was very eye-opening and it made me a lot more trusting and appreciative of the original kit without all the bells and whistles or extra protection.

 

GW: Yeah, that doesn’t surprise me at all because particularly for my hands, for instance, I’ve been relying on fairly cheap steel gauntlets that happened to fit me very well and the fit is critically important. I think the main reason that there is so much emphasis placed on modern equipment is because it’s much cheaper to make. So it’s more affordable for the average enthusiast.

 

JH: It’s easier to get into it more quickly rather than having to save your pennies for a harness.

 

GW: Yeah, exactly. So I think I think a lot of it is money, which is completely reasonable and understandable. But yes, I am very much hoping that you will let us all know when the next one is, because I could stand to dust off my longsword skills myself, actually.

 

JH: Oh, marvelous. Yes. It’s a truly amazing place. I hope I get to do it again back there. If not, I have been juggling around the possibility of basically taking the show on tour. It’s like, OK, I’ve done two years in one spot that is very near and dear to my heart and I’ll go back there in a heartbeat. But I’d love, if time and logistics allow, to organise a larger scale event where I actually make it a travelling passage of arms and I visit a handful of different sites and face people at different places and make it a bigger event, which I think would be really cool.

 

GW: Yeah. Have a look at Framlingham Castle and Orford Castle, because they’re both quite close to where I live and they’re both really good castles.

 

JH: OK, sounds good. OK. So watch this space.

 

GW: We’re running a little close to time, so let me wind things up with my standard finishing questions. First, which is what is the best idea you’ve never acted on?

 

JH: That’s a hard question. I have to stop and think about it.

 

GW: Well, because you’ve actually done so much, I mean, you did the deed of arms twice. You’ve done the PhD. You have a book in discussions with publishers. Some people have asked this question with, well, actually act on all the ideas that are any good, so I don’t have any. And that’s a perfectly legitimate answer.

 

JH: Well, I think the one thing that’s still on my list that I do want to do is, in addition to the all of the European martial art stuff, I’m also a long time practitioner of Tai Chi and my teacher, who I met back in Boston, but still occasionally train with and try to keep up with the lineage, he’s quite a remarkable guy. He basically dropped out of a Kung Fu movie. He is an honest to goodness Daoist priest who grew up and trained on Wudang Mountain. And then later came to Boston to kind of set up a Daoist community and teach martial arts and Daoist arts and recently founded, I think, the first Daoist temple in the US up in the mountains in New Hampshire. I’ve been training with him in Tai Chi for a number of years now. And every couple of years he leads it’s something like a 20 day training pilgrimage back to Wudang, where you’re basically travelling through several temples, living in the temples and training intensely with him and some of the other practitioners on the mountain, both with Tai Chi and also some of the other arts and sword and that sort of thing as well. And I’ve never had the opportunity, just because of resources and time to go on that trip. But, dammit, I’m going to do it one of these days, because every time I know someone that comes back from it, they say that it is absolutely extraordinary. So that’s one of the things that I’ve never gotten the chance to do yet. But it’s definitely on my list is to go to Wudang Mountain for 20 days and a brush up on my Tai Chi.

 

GW: Knowing what I know of parenting, you might have 15 years or so to wait.

 

JH: Yeah, well, maybe he can come with me when he grows up.

 

GW: OK. So my last question. Somebody gives you a million pounds to spend improving historical martial arts worldwide. How would you spend the money?

 

JH:  I think first things first I would buy some incredibly beautiful, iconic looking, piece of rundown medieval real estate and restore it and turn it into a centre for Western Martial Arts practise. So basically I’ll create a place where everyone can come, where there’ll be schools, people can host workshops. In addition to making it my home base where I would teach, I would also want it to be the place where everyone comes to hang out, the melting pot, where all the masters and the nerds from everywhere can come together. Pool ideas, hang out, hit each other, compare notes. And from that, hopefully the art on the whole would benefit and also use that as a centre for academic study as well. I’d use it to fund not only all the research that I want to get around to one day, but also other people that wanted to create who had great ideas that they want to look into as an opportunity for them to get funded, to go off and do these things. So basically a university of the sword.

 

GW: Count me in! I’m coming! Medieval real estate, absolutely. But let’s have some modern insulation and plumbing for the actual living quarters, OK?

 

JH: Yeah. I’ll blow six figures of that off of just making the place nice and liveable.

 

GW: I think you might need a bit more than a million pounds, but I think the money would be going into a very good direction.

 

JH: It’s a start.

 

GW: It certainly is. Brilliant. Well, thank you very much for talking with us today, James. It’s been a delight.

 

JH: It’s been fantastic. It was great to be here. Thanks for having me, Guy.