GW: Hello, sword people, welcome to the Sword Guy podcast. This is your host, Dr Guy Windsor, Consulting Swordsman, teacher and writer. Join me for interviews with historical fencing instructors and experts from a wide range of related disciplines as we discuss swords, history, training, and bringing the joy of historical martial arts into our modern lives. I’m here today with Professor Steven Muhlberger, who is an absolute legend in the historical martial arts community, especially around the areas of medieval combat. And he’s also a 50 year veteran of the SCA. His books are foundationally important for anyone who is studying medieval martial arts, and they include Deeds of Arms, Jousts and Tournaments, Formal Combat in the Fourteenth Century, Royal Jousts, Murder, Rape and Treason: Judicial Combat in the Late Middle Ages and all sorts of other titles too. He is an extraordinary book producing machine. I should also mention that we had a couple of technical issues with this show. Firstly, we had connectivity issues with the Internet. So, I prefer to focus on the miracle of the fact that he’s in his house in Canada and I’m in my house in Ipswich and we can still actually have a conversation, rather than the fact that the conversation isn’t seamlessly perfect. So because of the delays in audio getting from one side of the Atlantic to the other, sometimes the conversation is a bit disjointed so we don’t hear each other’s answers or questions or what have you. We have done what we can to tidy it up. And many thanks to Gethyn Edwards, audio engineer supremo, for his help cleaning things up. You’ll hear it in the recording. Also, Professor Muhlberger has Parkinson’s disease, which means it sometimes interferes with his speech and occasionally interferes with his ability to find a word. So just bear that in mind as you’re listening. So without further ado, Steve, welcome to the show.
SM: I’m glad to be here.
GW: So whereabouts in the world are you?
SM: I live in Windsor, Ontario, which is right across the river from Detroit.
GW: Well, I have to approve of anybody living in a place called Windsor.
SM: Yes, I think it’s quite remarkable.
GW: So obviously you’ve been into medieval history for a really long time. What drew you into it?
SM: Well, I would say that for an early adopter of sword work in the modern day, anybody who doesn’t put Tolkein at the top of their list is a bit of a freak. In the mid 60s, I was a teenager. My aunt lent me a copy of The Hobbit, which had just come out in North America in paperback, and I thought it’s pretty good, I’ll pick up the next one, which is The Lord of the Rings. Three books set, of course, and I was hooked on that. And about the same time as I was getting hooked on Tolkien, people out in the Bay Area of California were thinking about recreating some aspects of the Middle Ages. They started out by having a tournament in their backyard and they said, let’s do it again, afterwards. And they’re still doing it again, even though because of the plague it kind of slowed up. So that was my introduction to it. I also was a science fiction fan. And because of that, I got information about various fan-ish activities. And of course, Tolkien was one of them. People who liked fantasy had been kind of starved in the previous decade or so, and when the unbelievably good Tolkien material came out, people just piled into it, there was nothing comparable.
GW: He was a pioneer, wasn’t he?
SM: And it was kind of a coincidence that people were doing this recreating stuff, just at the time when Tolkien’s books were coming out in North America for the first time, they came out in the 50s, the Lord of the Rings, but they didn’t get reprinted in North America. And then suddenly people, it’s the baby boomer kind of situation that a lot of baby boomers around and some of them are interested in doing really odd things that their comrades didn’t appreciate or their parents didn’t appreciate or their teachers didn’t appreciate. And, well, Tolkien was it and people in science fiction fandom who might not have been a real fantasy fans originally became the core of what would become the SCA, because they had a technology that was far ahead of other fan-ish material. They had the newsletters. There was a whole network of people talking about their favourite books to people in Washington State or Florida or England or but mostly in the United States. They had that technology, the mimeograph machine. It was the thing. Because there were people already in science fiction fandom who were big on using the mimeograph to talk to their friends and draw pictures and send them out, that gave a basis for a mass movement, it very quickly became a mass movement.
GW: Wow. So just for the people listening to us, shall we say, under the age of 40, the mimeograph is basically like a photocopier, isn’t it?
SM: Yes, there’s several different technologies. And they were office machines. People who built them were building them for offices. And people did not have access to Xerox machines yet. They were just coming in and they were very expensive, Xerox machines, so it took a while for it to catch on, but there were enough people were interested in talking to people in Nevada who happened to share their love for this rather eccentric book or set of books, it was possible to do it without breaking your bank.
GW: So both the SCA and its spread is basically down to the technology of being able to produce newsletters cheaply?
SM: Absolutely. It was difficult, actually it wasn’t easy to communicate even with them. Let’s say somebody my age at that time, 1966, I got hold of the books and I always got hold of newsletters from various fan organisations. And it was not cheap to take part even on that level. Looking back on it, boy, we really were privileged. We were lucky to have money in our pockets to spend on things like this, but we didn’t have a lot of money. A first class stamp in the United States was, I believe, three cents at that point and went up to five cents. And if you had 40 people on your mailing list, you might have to scrape along. We’re not talking about people who are poor here, by no means are they poor. The economic situation later on, in fairly short order, people were able to afford more, but again, it was an eccentric bunch of people doing odd stuff with oddball tools. The situation of economics was good enough that by the early 70s, really there were a lot of people who were interested in the SCA. Let me explain how I ran into the SCA. I went to the World Science Fiction Convention in New York in 1967. I went to university at Michigan State in 1968. I already knew about the SCA, wasn’t necessarily all that interested. I was interested in the books. I was interested in Middle Earth. So one of the first days I was on campus in 1968, my first year at university, I was walking down a hallway and there was a poster on the wall and it said, “Bilbo’s Birthday Party”. I said, oh my God, this is fabulous. And I went back to my dorm and I talked to the other Tolkien fan that I’d run into so far. I couldn’t convince him to take a chance on these people. But I went. There was a meeting. A bunch of people got together, none of whom I knew. And we walked off from that gathering area to a woods area right off the campus, very close, actually. So we’re walking, early evening, eventually at night, somebody had set up a circle with fires to be lit. And then the people who are there mostly knew each other from the previous year and they are a very creative bunch. And they started singing songs of Middle Earth. And it was unbelievable. I was absolutely in heaven. The thing is, is that this did not translate into fighting or the SCA or any of this stuff. Some people knew about the SCA. Two people who were at that Bilbo’s birthday party had actually been in Berkeley at the beginning of September, the same year, going to the World Science Fiction Convention, where there was a tournament and people from all over North America had the chance, if they were the kind of people who would go to a convention, had they had the chance to see how it was done, they all had probably heard of it vaguely. “Oh, a tournament, wow, that’s great. Maybe we could do one. Probably not”. But after the Berkeley convention of that year, a bunch of people went home to Winnipeg. That’s one place they went. Phoenix, New York, Boston, and said to their friends, we’ve got to do this, and our friends said, “Aaah maybe, I’d rather read this book that I just got from so-and-so.” Probably a science fiction book, not even a fantasy book. But eventually people like the group of people at Michigan State that I was part of started talking to each other. And the idea soaked in. So what happened was in Halloween of that year, we went out. We university students went out dressed as various science fiction or fantasy characters. And it turned out that every single person who showed up to that Halloween gathering was in a sword and shield costume. Tolkien, Conan, various things. And then people said, hey, this really could be fun because they were just hearing stories of how I got to go to California. They were seeing a bunch of people like themselves that they reasonably liked already, and they said, OK, let’s do it. And so this was happening in Chicago at about the same time. This was happening in the Baltimore area about the same time. There were small groups of people getting together, seeing whether it was practical and fun to do something of this sort. “Let’s do it again!” It’s a very common cry. Any place they actually did it, it caught on right away.
GW: Sometimes getting people just to show up and try it is the hard part. As soon as they pick up a weapon, they just melt into it. So you’ve been doing this thing for a really long time. So you must have noticed in the 90s when some historical martial arts scene started to really develop. What was your impression of that?
SM: What did I see in the 90s?
GW: Yeah. Well, the historical martial arts scene started to really get moving. Like studying the treatises and trying to recreate specific historical styles.
SM: It definitely made an impression that there were people, intelligent people with organising skills decided to do it right. With the SCA of course, it was rattan combat. It was something that was adopted so that it would be fun, but really reminiscent actually of tournament combat in the Middle Ages, but of course, done safely. And people in the 60s and the 70s had a rather limited ability to put on a good tournament. I mean, we had a lot of fun and there were cool people doing cool stuff, but we didn’t have armour. We didn’t know people who made armour. There weren’t any. I mean, they were next to none. And we also were doing something that was kind of fakey, in which we chose our monarchs by the winning of tournaments. That’s not something that was actually done in the Middle Ages at all. It was done in the 19th century to so certain degree – very small groups of people doing things like that. People were doing what they could do. If they could find a place to have set up a shop was a miracle. The thing is, there were plenty of people who wanted to do something with steel swords, and that was not something the SCA did. I believe that in Texas, that was kind of a bit of a conflict or debate about what would be cool to do. Texas had SCA groups, but the people who wanted to do actual sword fighting with steel swords, fencing, et cetera, were not necessarily greeted with great love by the people who had developed this new sport, which was developing very nicely. The rattan combat is very interesting, but it’s not the same thing. And also people who were interested in steel combat weren’t interested in choosing monarchs or having courts. That I was aware of. I’m an outsider. What people were doing was figuring out how you could use steel swords properly with the skills and the techniques that had existed in, say, the 16th century or maybe a little earlier, maybe a little later. It was there, not a lot of it, but it was there. And so the framework was going to be completely different. And so I think there was a bit of a conflict. Because everybody could have their own opinion about whether you’re wasting your time or not doing this other stuff, whatever the other stuff was. And it was remarkable in the 90s that people were being defined, books from the period, teaching the kind of combat that was actually taking place in say the Three Musketeers. I should mention the movie, the 70s movie, The Three Musketeers and the Four Musketeers. That really pumped up the interest in fencing. An unbelievable movie. What a great movie that is.
GW: I think that’s my favourite Three Musketeers movie.
SM: And you could say, oh, well, we’re going to do something that’s better, more authentic than what the SCA is doing and they don’t appreciate us anyway. They want to hit people hard with big sticks and you wimpy little people, because some of the people who were doing this early steel combat were wimpy little people. They were women among other things.
GW: Shock, horror.
SM: Shock, horror. Yes. So that at that point there is a really large group of people across North America in particular, and a few other places. They are people who know about the mimeograph machine. Maybe it’s out of date at that point. They knew about the Xerox. They knew about how to get a cheap type of postal classification so they could send mail messages to people at much cheaper than normal stuff. I mean, an awful lot of the work had been done. What the people who are getting into historical combat was quite different, but some of the tools they were using to create an alternate version of combat were already there. The people had been chroniclers of kingdoms, sending out newsletters. Some of those people were fencers. Some of those people, whatever category or activity you want to talk about, were people who had helped run the SCA already. It took a while to turn this group of people into a large group of people, but two or three steps had been skipped, which was greatly to the advantage.
GW: Yeah, a lot of the early major figures of historical martial arts, came out of the SCA and had acquired all sorts of skills around, not least running a group. I think historical martial arts owes a lot to the SCA really.
SM: Yes, but on the other hand, there was harassment, a lack of sympathy as well. But the thing is, is that you could start with hundreds or thousands of people, some of whom might be interested in steel sword work. And you could start at that point, if you had enough people who were finding the contemporary skills in the past, you could turn it into an organised teachable activity without having to do everything from scratch.
SM: So the thing is, you did have such people, you did have people who were looking at the source material and getting people interested in using the source material, a different kind of combat, which may perhaps have been a little bit more authentic than what the SCA is doing. You could argue about that. And there it was. There are smart people involved in the steel. There are good, smart people in the SCA as well, but you need a different kind of smart, really. SCA people are not all that interested in reading books about the Middle Ages.
GW: I’m not disputing your memory of what it was like in the 70s and 80s. These days, there are a lot of really good historians in the SCA. So I think the two communities have learnt a lot from each other.
SM: Oh, yes, absolutely.
GW: Some of our best experts in various fields are people in the SCA. My recollection in the 90s was there was those loonies who like clothes and whacking each other with sticks over there doing their thing. And there’s us loonies who like putting on fencing masks and poking each other with steel rods, in a historically authentic manner as far as we can figure out, in this camp. And they were maybe unnecessarily separated.
SM: I think actually the separation was necessary. You couldn’t dismantle what the SCA had created for its own culture and take up something completely different. You couldn’t do that. You would make many people angry and nothing would resolve. So the thing is, in a number of places, they kept the distance well enough. And if people were interested in doing one or both of these activities, I’m talking about sword work, it was possible to do that. Big advantage, sometimes problematic, but a big advantage.
GW: OK, now you’re best known in the historical martial arts world as an expert on the context of knightly combat, so judicial feats of arms and so on. And obviously everyone listening should just go off and read all of your books on the subject. But how would you categorise or describe the most important context for knightly combat in say, the 14th century?
SM: Oh, are you asking what’s the framework for combat in the 14th century? What were they trying to do?
GW: Exactly. I mean, one of the things we have to figure out when looking at, say, for example, Fiore, we have to figure out what actual context is this art supposed to work in. And to figure that out, we have to study the various different contexts in which a knight would reasonably have been expected to demonstrate martial prowess. So tournaments and jousts.
SM: OK, well, that’s a pretty complicated question.
GW: Yes, but I have faith in you.
SM: OK, let’s say we talk about warfare. Warfare is going to be a person, who’s probably part of a military unit and has a boss or a lord of some sort, organises a bunch of people to fight a battle or siege a castle or any of that. If you do a good job as a fighter in a military context, you get a lot of reputation out of it, because one of the things that 14th century warriors have and work at is to get a reputation that sets them apart from other people. Now, you can also do the combats which are maybe not as deadly or not quite as serious, but they can be pretty serious in which somebody comes across an enemy or somebody who’s actively involved on the other side of a conflict and say, “I’m great. What about you?” I’m sure you’ve read this story in my book, Deeds of Arms. Englishmen are in Portugal or Spain fighting against various people on the other side. They’re part of an expedition for the English Duke of Lancaster, who wants to become king of Castile. And so he brought a whole bunch of English roughnecks and English warriors to the Iberian Peninsula and tries to get a real campaign going that will make him king of Castile. Well, it doesn’t work out. Everybody is going to go home. So one of the English fighters, I believe his name is Tristan. Anyway, one of them says, I want to go out and fight somebody and I’m going to do it. And so he gets the agreement of his friends that this would be an appropriate thing for him to do, he wouldn’t disgrace them. It’s my feeling that they feel that they would disgrace him. So they go out and the English challenger goes out and find somebody on the other side who’s willing to take this challenge. Now in this situation, this is a war that didn’t happen. He wants to show that it wasn’t his fault, that it didn’t happen. He is somebody who is quite capable of doing a great job and so he is looking to have his name and his activities recognised and a Frenchman on the other side says, “I’ll be there.” And he gets the people on his side to back him up. And so the two of them come out in some area close to the both military camps, English and French. And they fight. They fight not necessarily for deadly intent. But I’m going to show the people on the other side and their friends that they are worthy warriors, people you want to have on your side. Both the Frenchman and the Englishman want to show their quality. They went to war in the Iberian Peninsula because they wanted to show their quality and they fight. They may well have agreed how many blows they would fight to or what weapons they would use. There are certain limits agreed upon between these two men. And when they fulfil these limits they say, that was great, let’s go home and they’ve done it, they shown their quality. Now you can see that there’s a different number of different ways this could be done. Jousting, for instance, is a pretty important part of activity. Jousting is not necessarily exactly combat. But it’s really dangerous. It takes a lot of skill to do.
GW: It’s a combat sport.
SM: It’s flashy. People can get killed doing this. It’s flashy and the thing is, of course, it’s flashy in a way that anybody who’s a serious warrior of knightly or lordly class, is going to be doing it on horseback. You could get killed doing this, but you probably won’t. There doesn’t need to be just one winner. It could be that they both look really good, as in this case that I’m citing. They both looked really good.
GW: So their personal reputations would be greatly enhanced by the martial display that they put on of prowess.
SM: Yeah, the people the stories we hear of jousts or foot combats are stories about individuals building up their reputation, but they’re also building up the army’s reputation.
GW: If you have this particular knight fighting on your side that says something about your qualities as a commander because someone like that would come and work for you.
SM: Well, Will a Frenchman Fight? is the name of one of them. I love that title because it’s a series of… Well, let me give you a rather long winded summary of this. The English under the Earl of Buckingham in the 1380s, early 1380s, are roaring around France, wrecking things, trying to provoke the king of France to come out and fight them. And the king of France won’t do it. He won’t do it because he remembers the terrific defeats of his father’s time when the English really hammered the French, Partier for example, or Nájera in Spain. And the English are very frustrated because the French have plenty of strongholds that they could just sit in and look at the English going by and they say, this is not cool. This is not cool. The other side’s people, the Frenchmen, are saying, “This is not cool. The king doesn’t want us to fight. We have to obey his orders.”
GW: He’s making us look bad.
SM: We could do it easily. And the king is playing this exactly right. Because he doesn’t know that he can win. You know, he’s had armies wrecked. He and his father have had armies wrecked. And that’s not what he wants. He pays a price because people in the north of France, in the central part of France, are looking at him, looking at the English running around and say, where is the king? Where are the lords? This is an issue that comes up quite frequently in the late 14th century, that the nobles are losing their reputation and their claim to being superior because they won’t fight. Now, the French won’t fight for a good reason, but it looks really bad. And so what happens is this non-campaign kind of grinds to a halt. A man comes out from a French castle and says, I am so-and-so. I’m here to fight you. Is there is there anyone amongst you Englishmen who has a lady he wants to fight for. The guys are looking at this guy and they’ve been going for weeks, not seeing much in the way of any French people at all. And this is where they come up with this idea of “will a Frenchman fight?” Well, we thought they were just as bad as we like to think they are, but now we have to admit that they know something. This guy is actually putting himself forward. He’s putting himself forward like in the previous story. And what happens is the Frenchman comes out and an Englishman comes out. They start a combat and the Frenchman gets wounded in the leg, this is a joust, actually, he gets wounded in the leg and the Earl of Buckingham, the English commander, says, “OK, we’ll stop here, we’ll stop here. We’ll bandage up this guy’s leg and take good care of him. And we’ll find an occasion where we can fight it out.” The Frenchman is sort of handed over to the English army and he says, “Oh, my God. OMG.” Because he might not ever come back from being held in English captivity. It doesn’t work out that way. People are on both the French and English side say at last, we’re not just a bunch of bums, as people are going to say they didn’t get a chance to fight. We’re here ready, willing and able. In fact, even a Frenchman will fight.
GW: So do you have a favourite moment in the history of chivalric combat, which epitomises the ideal of chivalric combat. Would this be one of those moments?
SM: This is this is definitely one of those moments. This is a really good moment. Maybe I’ll tell you about the mine. The Duke of Bourbon in the mine. A mine in 14th century is usually not a place where you dig ore out of the ground. It’s a tunnel that gets you inside a castle. You get a bunch of people, dig a tunnel, find the right opportunity and break into the castle of your enemies. It’s dangerous. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in an old mine. Not the modern mines, which I’m sure are completely different. But in Sudbury, Ontario, and in Cornwall, not Cornwall Ontario, but Cornwall, the actual Cornwall, have left over mines that you can go into. And they are tiny, you can’t properly stand up in them.
GW: Like prisoners’ escape tunnels.
SM: Yes, they are. And people fought in the war, if they thought it was a smart thing to do, they fought in these incredibly tiny tunnels. Now a story takes place around a mine about the Duke of Bourbon, one of the most important princes of the French royal family in the late 14th century. There’s a castle the Duke of Bourbon wants to take away from a bunch of Englishmen, they are not the best Englishmen in the world, they’re outlaws practically, they’ve been excommunicated by the pope. So the Duke of Bourbon wants to have that castle back from these roughnecks, because they made so much trouble the last few years. When nobody seems to be making any progress digging a tunnel and not making much progress, the Duke says, “OK, I’m going to do something about this. I’m fed up with this. These bad guys have got to go.” And so he gets into his armour. He gets one of his retainers into some armour. And they go into the tunnel, which is actually now finished, they go into this mine and it’s finished. The Duke’s retainer makes an announcement saying, “Who will fight this great man?” Doesn’t name him. Doesn’t say who he is, but he obviously is a royal duke. He’s got good armour, he’s got good skills. He’s got quite a personal reputation besides his political reputation. And so these two guys, the commander in the French castle, and the Duke come together and start fighting in this really dangerous, difficult environment, and somehow the people on the outside who are the French can see what’s going on more or less in the mine. It’s not necessarily a long mine. But they can see and they start cheering for the Duke of Bourbon, and the commander on the other side, the English side, is taken aback. He’s taken aback because he’s not a very important person. He’s not even a knight. I don’t know if he’s even a squire. He’s the second in command of this French castle. His boss, his commander, is off wandering around doing something, not getting threatened by the English, I guess. And so the French subcommander stops the combat and says, “Is this really before me the Duke of Bourbon? Is this really him?” And the Duke’s retinue man says, “Yes, that’s the Duke.” The French guy, the French commander, that not very important guy, is taken aback because enough people like him don’t end up fighting Dukes. And if they do, it might be really dangerous because the people in English Castle are outlaws, right? They’ve been excommunicated by the pope. Now, people of this sort might, if they are defeated, they might be taken captive and might be ransomed. Or they might be hanged. And so the French commander of the castle takes a daring move and the move is, “How about we settle this some other way? If you will knight me, I will hand over the castle to you, OK?” And the Duke says, “That’s fine with me.” Now the story goes on. Because a lot of people on the English side were really looking forward to attacking this castle. They wanted to fight in the mine. And so they started grumbling about that. And so the Duke says to the French guy, “We’ll do this tomorrow. And anybody on my side who wants to fight in the mine against your people, they have my blessing.” And so this rather dangerous situation turns into a competition that’s not necessarily a deadly one, I don’t think anybody got killed in this. And the keys to the castle are handed over to the Duke. They get their fun. The story goes on and on. One of the things that happens is that the people of the district who had done nothing to help themselves against these English roughnecks are willing to fight and they do fight, and the people of the district say, “OK, there’s some more castles and you guys in the Duke’s army could do something about these guys.” The Duke says, “Well, what about you? We’ve got 600 people here. You must have 600 people of your own.” But they beg off. Make it possible for the both the French, under the Duke, and local people on the French side go out and fight. Anyway, what happens is that the French get a big advantage by having the good Duke’s people on their side, they are pros. And one of the things that makes them attractive to the French people of the neighbourhood who don’t want to do the fighting themselves is that after this combat in the mine, all the guys who were in the mine on the French side have got a really good reputations. Those lazy French think if you get these guys leading an expedition, we can clean up the English garrisons who have been giving us so much trouble. The reputation of the Duke’s army, which is probably pretty good to start with, because the Duke himself has a great reputation. They’ve got a much better reputation the day after they played for fun in the mine, and this turns into a campaign or mini campaign that takes care of a military problem. Play and real combat are so close together that somebody with a modern appreciation of the difference between war and jousting. We wouldn’t see it that way, we just would not see it that way.
GW: Right, yeah, we think of them as sort of separate domains, so like a good athlete or a good sportsman isn’t necessarily going to be a good soldier.
GW: But an awful lot of warfare is psychological. And if you’re intimidated by the names on the other side, that’s going to make a big difference to the outcome.
SM: Very good point. That’s a very good point.
GW: OK, now whenever I get a proper historian on the show, I always ask them, because a lot of people doing historical martial arts are not trained historians, some of them are engineers, some of the computer programmers, lorry drivers, some are nurses, whatever. We have a huge range of types of people who practise historical martial arts. So whenever I get a professional historian, I always ask them what advice would they give to historical martial artists who are not trained historians, how to go about the historical side of historical martial arts more effectively. What would you advise us to do?
SM: How can untrained amateurs become sophisticated interpreters of the material? I guess I would say that if you live someplace where there’s a really good library that has these books, if you’re really daring and hard working, you might do that. You might learn the material from the actual books, more modern editions usually, but I would say that the kind of books that are being put out by previous generations of martial artists are going to be a lot easier for the new, would-be scholar. I mean, this is a Freelance Academy Press book, they are one of my publishers.
GW: They are one of my publishers too.
SM: Yes, and the good people are good. Someday you want to maybe take a different step. I mean, I took a big different step when I started writing about tournaments, I originally wrote book a book on Fifth Century Chronicles, later Roman Empire. What I needed for that was basically modern French, modern German, English and Latin. But what my motivation was, is that people are talking about doing a more authentic thing. But what did the actual sources say they actually did? And the way I had to do that was learn middle French, the French between old French and modern French. Which I had never touched. And so I was in the same circumstances as the person we’re talking about, who wants to know as much as possible about what really was done. So getting some of the books from modern publishers, some of which are written by and for the modern context. That’s not a bad place to start. We’ve been hinting about and I’m sure you talk about a lot about what kind of books are available. There’s quite a bit now. You got to shell out some money.
GW: Well, but it’s a lot easier. You can just go to the library, as you said, and get them all for free. Which actually is good for everyone.
SM: It depends on how good the libraries are. I spent my graduate years at the University of Toronto. One of the very best places for medieval anything in the entire world. So it’s nice. If you live in Cheyenne, Wyoming, it maybe a little bit tougher, that’s when you start shelling out the money.
GW: Even in these historical textbooks, a lot of them are available through interlibrary loans and or you can get ebook editions of them, which much cheaper. So there are definitely ways around it. So you say your basic advice would be you have to go to the library and read books by people who know what they’re doing. So that you say you can see how this side of things is actually done by people who are trained historians. OK, good advice.
SM: And you’re going to have different amounts of material in different eras. I looked at the steel sword material and some of it’s really, really detailed, so you can pick up that book and pick up your sword and see how it works. If you want to know exactly how they did it in the 14th century it’s a lot less detailed.
GW: Yeah, right. I mean, Domenico Angelo in the 1787 edition of his book. He describes the distance between tierce and quarte as four inches. I mean, he’s that specific. He’s that detailed. So tierce is over here, quart is over here, and there’s four inches between them. And what I wouldn’t give for that level of detail in some of the earlier sources. It would save us a lot of work.
SM: Yes. But you’re screwed. It’s not going to happen.
GW: No, that’s true. And now, actually, one thing I wanted to ask you about, Steve, is most folk in the historical sword fighting world know about your work on medieval combat. How could they not? But they might not be familiar with your work on democracy as a historical phenomenon. I mean, the last few years in American history must have been very interesting for a student of democracy.
SM: That’s for sure.
GW: Without getting into politics, what are your thoughts on democracy?
SM: Well, I got interested in doing something about the history of democracy because I had a friend, and I still do have a friend, named Phil Paine, co-author of my most important thing on democracy. And in the 70s, we talked about democracy a lot and what we mostly said was that the analysis of the history of democracy was pretty poor stuff. I mean, one of the most important analyses of the history of democracy, was you start out with the Greeks, they did some really interesting stuff. It faded away and then later on, in what’s coming up to modern times, you have people continuing on from the Greek ideas. Then you end up with the democracy as a modern reality. But it’s Greeks, early modern, modern. The ideas that those people in the distant past who created this sort of democracy, they were special in a special culture that generated the possibility of more modern democracy. And everybody else was out of the picture. And we didn’t buy that, Phil Paine and I did not buy that.
GW: It does seem unlikely.
SM: Well, I mean, the thing is, it’s really a good idea to read the Greek material. It’s not very convincing as an actual model of democracy that would be worked out. You know, it’s not a great foundation. I mean, I’m not putting down the Greeks, but I’m saying that they weren’t magic. In 1989 the two of us started thinking about what is the sensible framework for appreciating the place of democracy in world history. And we wrote an article for the Journal of World History called Democracy’s Place in World History and we made the argument that many cultures had some elements there could be called upon as the foundation for democracy in their in their own culture. They didn’t have to go to British universities or Parisian coffeeshops to get the unique magic. They don’t have it to do it that way, because if you look at places that have a reputation for democracy, a lot of the times it’s not deserved or very flimsy arguments back it up and in other parts of the world that aren’t well known to people who are interested in world history necessarily and say, oh, these people for a good long while, had these democratic elements in their political and cultural life. And if you’re a modern person, we said in 1989, you should look much more closely at the variety of democratic elements and see how did they actually run things? How long did they have a democratic system, if they had one? And what we said is that we’re not blaming the Greeks, we’re not claiming that the Greeks are unique, and we’re not claiming that they’re false either. I mean, look at the history of Germany. Germany is considered to be an advanced country. The cultural achievements are vast. They have a democratic system today and it works pretty well. But what about the Third Reich? What about this, that or the other thing? You can go through the history of Germany, which is very fragmented, and say, how did they how they get to today’s rather enviable position? An awful lot of people would love to have the German system of government. But on the other hand, look at the United States. Since 1989, a lot of things that happened in the United States that you might say you might as a modern person say. Well, democracy really is pretty flimsy stuff, even the Americans can’t do it right. I don’t think that either of those stances are useful. I mean, just to take one issue, the issue of norms that’s been kicked around recently, when you look at the Brexit debate in Britain…
GW: Oh God.
SM: …a few years back. You say, why are these people, specifically thinking of the Tories, why are these people so idiotic? You know, they’ve got a historical reputation and one of the things is that you have a certain ruling class in Britain. Or it was some competitive would-be ruling classes. And people take it for granted that the Brits will come up with a fairly sensible way of doing things. But then Brexit comes along. And these people are all going insane. People who went to the right school and have the right accent can’t do anything right.
GW: That’s a pretty fair summation of Boris Johnson’s government. Right school, right accent can’t do anything right.
SM: And of course, the United States is so close to losing everything and that hasn’t necessarily happened yet. We’re not out of the woods with the United States. The history of the United States, the political history of the United States is very important to the history of world democracy. But you can’t rely on big generalisations. You know, is Roger Williams important or is he not important? I don’t know if anybody knows who Roger Williams is. He is one of the founders of Rhode Island. Somebody who’s contemporary with the English Civil War. And the Civil War was important in a variety of ways. But you see the people coming up with modern-sounding ideas about how politics should work in the English civil war. And then they lose it, but the existence of William Penn. The generals got together, the Putney debates in London and said everybody should have a vote. You guys are fighting the king. OK, continue to fight the king. But let’s not just go back and pretend we can go back at some other time and do it. I mean, it’s in connection with the United States as well. People hope it will go back to normal. But what is normal? Is that a realistic way of looking at things?
GW: And of course, what we think of as normal now is extremely unusual in terms of world history.
SM: I just want to say one last thing. What I wanted to do with an article, and that Phil had wanted when that article was people in, I don’t know what country shall we pick on? People in Bangladesh, who might be dissatisfied with the way their government works and they generally are pretty dissatisfied in Bangladesh. But they have elections. But it’s not magic. It may have been if you looked at the history of Bangladesh since the partition, I’m sure you could say, this is something they got from the British. This is something they got from Gandhi or somebody else of that calibre. Or maybe not. Maybe they didn’t get it that way. They may have gone to school in the elite groups, they may have read Eucidides, Plato. And any of a number of other people, or you could look at the Roman Republic. It’s not magic.
GW: Yeah, just having democratic institutions doesn’t by itself create democracy, or create a working version of democracy.
SM: So one of the things that I’m happy about that article is that it’s all over the place. People are reading it. You know, if you look at academia.edu, it’s getting around.
GW: Not bad for an article written 32 years ago. OK, I do have one last question for you. You clearly care a lot about history and how it’s taught, so if you had some gigantic budget to spend improving the public’s understanding of history, how would you spend it?
SM: What would I do? That’s very difficult. Sometimes people who are reforming education to improve society. Like France is a great example of this. They started out with the idea of education and ended up with all sorts of good and bad things. People in France built institutions that specialise in various areas of importance. And they tend to bring the best people they can imagine together in these institutions. So, I think that medieval history is important to the history of France. You get the best medieval historians you find. And you put them in this institution and have them lay down the law, tell everybody else what’s right.
GW: There are problems with that.
SM: This will tick off some French people, I’m sure. I don’t think that getting all the best people in one spot in Oxford, in Stanford, or any of a number of other places is necessarily the best way to go. Most of my teaching I’ve done since I got my PhD hasn’t been an elite schools. I spent 25 years in Nipissing University, which I had never heard of before I applied for my job there. And nobody else has ever heard of it either. And we had ordinary students by and large. I loved it, I loved teaching our students. And I think I did a very good job of teaching them. I made a contribution. One Canadian historian about 30 years ago said Canada needs some real universities, he said. And he was specifically thinking that almost every Canadian university, with maybe two or three exceptions, was sub-standard. You needed to go the elite route, to recruit the elite and get the elite students to be taught by those people. Well, I was teaching in the Nipissing university. I did not have that luxury. I had some pretty smart people, actually. We had some really good classes and some of the some of the teachers that Nipissing University in the last 20 years have been fabulous. That’s because there are no jobs for academics. So if you were at Nipissing and you want to go to some of the best teachers in such and such a field, you might actually get them because Harvard’s full. And so what I think is that when it comes to academic reform. I don’t want all the elite guys stuck in one place doing their thing. I think the universities of, say, the 60s. Not so bad. If you could spend the money teaching reasonably ordinary students who are motivated and give them the good libraries or the good labs that they need. Not necessarily the best ones on the face of the earth, that would be nice, but just good. And you have to make sure that those people were not too worried about their funding being cut off. The percentage of funding that people have enjoyed in recent years, is pretty worrisome. Give stable funding to universities that attract good students and just let them do their thing. That’s it. That doesn’t mean necessarily doing exactly what was done in the 60s or the 90s. But what has happened is that it’s become much more precarious. I mean, the idea some of my colleagues, many of my colleagues at Nipissing University could be teaching anywhere, do research anywhere, is something that I don’t think is appreciated and it’s an unfortunate situation. Because there will be a few people who are really good, that get a special funding because the Minister of Education has a pet theory, and the people take that money and you do something really worthwhile with it, that’s OK. That would be good. It’s not magic. I know. Don’t create Fort Knox.
GW: Your basic position is that rather than putting all your support behind the stars, you put it behind the general run of students and thus create a kind of rising tide that lifts all boats.
SM: I think that would be a good idea. You wouldn’t have to have a lot of them either. I mean, if it worked, if this scheme worked, there would be more of these universities built every so often and you might end up with a really good post-secondary system. Now one further thing about this is that you can’t think that it’s magic. And how you would make sure that people didn’t start acting like it was magic and would just do the work. That would be something that you’d have to pay attention to.
GW: That absolutely applies to the martial arts. Yes, it’s not magic. You just have to do the work.
SM: Well, you got the right two people talking today. You have to do the work.
GW: Brilliant. Well, thank you very much for joining me today, Steve. That’s been a real education talking to you. And nice to finally meet you.