GW: Hello, 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 Julie Olson, senior instructor at the Athena School of Arms and a director of the Iron Gate Exhibition, the largest New England historical martial arts event. She’s also well-known on the longsword tournament circuit. And I should also point out that I met Julie at Swordsquatch quite a few years ago and she had the, shall I say excellent good taste to hire me to come over to Boston and teach a seminar for the Athena School of Arms, which was great fun. So we’ve actually met in person and trained together and what have you. So without further ado, Julie, welcome to the show.
JO: Hello. Thanks for having me.
GW: So where in the world are you?
JO: I live in Exeter, New Hampshire, which is about an hour north of Boston where my school is, so Granite State.
GW: Oh lovely, and you have a fairly long commute to class then?
JO: I do, yeah. Before the pandemic, I was going down two or three days a week. So this pandemic has been a little bit of a nice break from my gas mileage, only going down once a week.
GW: Wow. OK, so how did you get started in historical martial arts?
JO: I had been a sport fencer for quite a long time and I was teaching at a club a half hour from me and I was doing that twice a week and that was not busy enough for me. So I thought, I want to do something different and separate to that. I went to a sci fi fantasy convention in Boston and I was wearing this kind of dumb get-up costume pirate thing. I had a rapier, a stage safe rapier hooked to my belt. It was safety tied on so I couldn’t actually use it because those are the rules for that place and. A gentleman approached me and said, hi, would you like to learn how to use that? I said, actually, I do know how to use this because I have done foil fencing forever and then learnt this guy’s name. Steven Hirsch was running a club and he was giving demonstrations there and invited me to attend. He was just trying to get people to come to his demo. And I went and it was a very well received demo, I think there were 30 people there, which is pretty big for a panel at a sci fi convention. So I watched the demo. I did their beginner longsword. They did give a demonstration and they gave a little class, like here, hold a sword, we’ll show you some moves. Cool. And I set up for their intro class and I haven’t stopped since.
GW: So was that Athena School of Arms?
JO: That was, yep. So that was run by Steven Hirsch and Andrew Killgore at the time. And then after a few years, I guess I proved myself enough that myself and Nathan Weston now run it with Andrew. And Steven runs one of the programmes now too. But we’re now a non-profit school and we’ve grown the club from four or five of us initially up to almost forty five people.
GW: That’s a good number.
JO: We’re doing really good. That was eight years ago also. I’ve been doing this for about eight years.
GW: Fantastic. It is really, really satisfying when your students come up to the point where you can just let them get on with it and run the club and teach the classes. Is it is the most satisfying thing for an instructor. So I bet Steve is delighted with the way things have gone.
JO: I think so, yeah.
GW: Good. Now you obviously have a sport fencing background and if any system is adapted to the tournament, it’s sport fencing. It is so perfectly adapted to the tournament environment and you have a pretty strong interest in historical martial arts tournaments. So what are the main benefits as you see them and how do you think they could be improved?
JO: The main benefit I see is being able to stress test what you know. Because competition itself is very stressful. It’s hard on your nerves. It’s hard on your body, mainly nerves, I think, more than anything. So just learning how to steel yourself against those feelings and learning to focus through the mess that’s in your brain and try to work the techniques against someone who does not want you to work those techniques at all and try to hamper that completely.
GW: So that’s the main benefit, you get to stress test what you know? Is that the ultimate goal of tournaments, do you think? And do they serve that as well as they could?
JO: For me, that’s the main goal, because it’s one thing to practise something statically in the air, or practise with a training partner, you could say, all right, guys, now we’re going to do this with fervour. Do the thing harder, but we’re still friends. Competing I think it really changes the dynamic. When you go against someone, at least in the New England team, we’re all a very close knit community of practitioners. We know generally everyone, we’re all friendly. But it is still different to go against someone at a different club. And I would do my thing. Let’s see if it works against you. You have a different either a different style or just a different way of doing things. For me, still, that’s on top of the camaraderie of going with your team to go to a tournament and stuff, but yeah, my main view is it’s a good way to practise and try to prove yourself.
GW: Yeah, it’s certainly a natural environment where the competitive side of things is kind of built into it. So you don’t have to artificially create it, it’s already there. Everyone shows up expecting that. And so it’s not like when you’re training with your friends where you actually have to kind of make a deliberate mental switch from this is regular practise for sort of coaching to right, now we’re actually going to compete. OK, so how could tournaments be improved, do you think? Or are they already perfect? I mean, that’s a legitimate answer.
JO: No, nothing is perfect. No. I think there’s different levels to that question, like the actual format of tournaments, could always be improved. The goal of the tournament, I think, is sound. I can’t think of any other loftier goal for tournaments other than stress testing, where you really try to prove yourself to yourself and to spectators if there are any. I know this technique. I’m a practitioner. It works. I have kept myself safe and I have encumbered my opponents somehow. Yeah. I would say format wise, there’s always room for improvement, looking at how things are done. One of the things I like about, I’m going to pitch my own tournament, what I love about the IG exhibition is that we like to try out new ideas and try new ways of doing things and try new tournaments, try new tournament formats where we’re very much always looking for the new thing. If there’s a really great idea someone else has, we tweak it a little bit. We try something different, always saying, hey, we got this idea from this other event. But I think we’re always trying to grow ourselves, at least in that scene. I think other tournaments are probably do the same thing.
GW: OK, so, you’ve been involved in running a pretty big event, Iron Gate is not small. So what did you learn from that?
JO: It is really important to surround yourself with great people and learning yourself to delegate to those people. And if you need help, just raise it in a team meeting like, hey, can someone take this for me? I learnt very quickly, if I assume I’ll do all the things and I’ll take care of it, no one has to worry. Things will slip and fall apart and things get missed and left behind. So being able to comfortably rely on other people is really critical, I think, to running a big event.
GW: OK, and has been involved in that event that changed anything you do in your regular training?
JO: I wouldn’t say so and for Athena, I wear many hats. I’m a senior instructor. I am also on the board. We’re non-profit, so I am the clerk of the board. So there’s a lot of administrative work. And I think that more falls on me and the other board of directors for running the club, which is a little different because Iron Gate has different layers of management and different people take ownership of different tasks. So I think it’s a little different. I think just understanding how all the pieces fit together and who to go to and who to delegate if you need to. I think that’s similar.
GW: It occurs to me that I don’t think I’ve gone in depth with anyone on this podcast yet about how a club can be structured and run. It just occurred to me right now that, I mean, I know how I run my club, but that’s a different thing. So would you mind getting some detail about how is the club structured? How do these various administrative things go? Because the fact is without the administrative people, there are no clubs. There’s nowhere to train, there’s no weapons, there’s no advertising. No one shows up and nothing actually happens. And then and then some swanky person with a sword shows up and gets all the credit for all the work that all the admin team have done. It is usually me as the swanky person turning up with the sword, because these days I don’t even run a club. I teach at various clubs, but I have absolutely no administrative responsibilities for any club.
JO: That must feel so good.
GW: Oh, it’s amazing. I retired from that sort of thing about six years ago. Five years ago. Because my various clubs have got to the point where they just didn’t need me to do any of that stuff. So why would I? I formally withdrew myself from the running of any clubs, including my original school in Helsinki. And yeah, I have all of that mental space now for doing things like studying Fiore and writing books and that sort of thing.
JO: That’s awesome.
GW: But I’m rubbish at admin. Spreadsheets hurt my face. I don’t have anything to do with them. I did once successfully managed to make a column in the spreadsheet, come up with a sum at the end. That is total of my administrative skill. I delegate everything. So how is Athena structured and run.
JO: So currently we’re a non-profit, 501C3. That’s our term in the US, non-profit. So we are organised by a board of directors, which is mostly instructors. Myself and Nathan he’s the president, I’m the clerk. So I manage all of the record bookkeeping, keeping the organised admin stuff together and then Robyn Alman, I know you had her on the podcast, she’s our treasurer, so she’s in charge of the finance. So those are the three main roles. Then we have two other board members who offer voices and to weigh in on decisions that need to be made. Under that are our instructor pool, which is mostly the board directors, I guess, and a few other assistant instructors and I would say it falls to the senior instructors to set the curriculum and the ideals of what we want the club to do and how we want them to progress and grow. If you’re actively teaching a class, you’re largely in charge of writing the lesson plan, with help from the senior instructor, because we’ve been at it a little bit longer and we know the vision of the curriculum. So maybe we can offer some insights on what the actual individual class lessons should be. And then we have the assistant instructors who help the instructors and head instructors and then everyone else. And that’s evolved. When I originally joined the club there were four or five of us and it was just being run by Steven as a private thing that he organised. And it has grown. And as more needs were needed, more people stepped in and it just kind of evolved organically based on the needs of what the club needed.
GW: And there are legal requirements for being a non-profit?
JO: Yeah, we need insurance, we own the lease to the building where we currently practise.
GW: You do? Tell us about that?
JO: Yeah. I have to thank Nathan, who’s really the one driving all of that, but we were originally subleasing with a Kung Fu school out of the space you went to. So I think when you got there that was probably the first year or so where we were the lease owners of that space. So before we were just subletting from the Kung Fu school and then the owner of that organisation decided to allow us to take over the lease because he wanted to move on and to do other things. One of the instructors stayed, so we basically flipped roles. So now with the lease, we get the joy of working with the building owner, navigating through if the building is going to be sold or not, any maintenance, things that need to happen. So that’s another whole administrative part that’s kind of a headache.
GW: So by lease owner, basically that means you are the primary renters of the space.
JO: Exactly. Yeah. So any other programming that happens in that space, any funding goes to Athena. And then we send the cheque to the building owner and we’re the sole responsible people of that space. If something goes wrong, it falls on us.
GW: It’s a big deal when a club gets its own space.
JO: It’s really allowed us the ability to run more events and just open ourselves up to more programming, that wouldn’t be possible otherwise if we just met at a gym, which we’ve done before, you know, just meet at a back corner of a boxing gym.
GW: Yeah. When I moved to Finland in 2001, I rented a school gym and a room in the Olympic Stadium three nights a week. But literally, the day after I arrived in Helsinki, I started looking for a permanent space. And it took me about three months to find one. And then I rented this fairly small 100 hundred square metre, which is, I guess it’s about a thousand square feet.
JO: That’s not bad.
GW: It’s enough. 16 with long swords was a fairly tight fit. But yeah, that’s a reasonable size. And literally the moment we had a permanent space where people would leave their gear and we could store weapons and you didn’t have to schlep your big bag of swords from one place to another, it just opened up all sorts of possibilities, like, for example, guest instructors. Not having to find and rent and pay for a space for the weekend, which is when everybody wants the space, makes getting guest instructors over super easy. And I’ve seen it in several of my branches in the schools I’m associated with. There’s that kind of phase shift when they go from being two hours on Thursday nights in that place, an hour and a half on Monday night in that place and two hours on Sunday morning over there. And then when they get their own space 24/7, it’s like, oh my God, we can do all this stuff!
JO: All the stuff. Yeah, that’s awesome.
GW: Yeah. So that space is all yours. Is the Kung Fu school not subletting it from you?
JO: Oh yeah. No they are subletting it so they have it mostly in the mornings and a little into the early evening and then we have it basically all night, every night of the week for classes and which works well because we have mostly we have all the adults. So daytime, well, it works pretty well.
GW: So what’s your schedule like?
JO: Well, we’re going to be reopening fully the last week of this month, which is very exciting. So currently we’re still working in our structured pods and classes are only about 50 minutes. When we reopen, we’ll be back to 90 minute classes. So we have a beginner and intermediate longsword programme classes and those will be twice a week for 90 minutes. We a broadsword programme that will be meeting. I think they’re still staying on Tuesday nights, and that’s for an hour and a half. Thursdays have recently opened up, so we’ll probably be looking to add more programming, either maybe a competitive longsword class or maybe a rapier class or something to get into more niche focus areas for our students. And Saturdays usually wide open. Saturdays our days to do cutting practise and any miscellaneous open floot training time.
GW: And guest instructors like mine.
JO: That’s the one thing I really miss, is being able to invite instructors to come and do things, so I’m excited to open that it back up again.
GW: Yeah, I was scheduled to come over in April last year for a second trip to Boston. That didn’t happen.
JO: Hopefully we can reschedule.
GW: We need to reschedule that at some point. OK, so just to bring this back to physical practise. What have been your biggest challenges in terms of taking up the sword and training?
JO: During the pandemic?
GW: During the pandemic or in general.
JO: Lately during the pandemic is just getting the motivation to do it. In general, I can’t think of any other than the actual challenge of training, because I’m a shorter fighter and around much taller fighters, so there’s always the disposition of height and weight differences for that. But I can’t say I’ve had any struggles with training. I’ve had a really great group of people to work with, and I’ve been able to go to train whenever I need to and get the stuff I need out of it. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had a really blessed HEMA experience so far.
GW: So during the pandemic getting motivated, so have you been training much?
JO: Not as much. We reduced our schedule. So I’ve only been going down once a week, which actually has been good, as I mentioned, for my gas mileage just getting down there, but also for my own mental health, doing a lot of travelling and training and stuff. It was starting to get a little stressful for me. So this pandemic actually offered a little bit of a relief just to step back, work on some house projects, just refocus my energies, my creative energies elsewhere and just take a step back. I do take ownership of that I do live far away by choice. So it is harder to train by myself because I like feeling the energy of other people around me. So I’m just by myself in my lovely home. It’s just me and my cat and well, I can swing this sword in the air. This is great. But it doesn’t feel the same.
GW: It feels pointless, doesn’t it?
JO: Kind of. But no, you are a strong practitioner in the art. You should be able to do this by yourself. But I don’t like to. I like having people.
GW: I have the same problem. My absolute favourite context for swordsmanship is teaching a class. That’s my favourite thing to do. But given the choice between that and actual fencing or research or any other things, I would be up in front of a class. That’s my best place. And I knew at the beginning of the pandemic oh God, OK, I’m not going to be travelling much. Normally, I’m teaching a seminar in six weeks’ time in Seattle or Boston where I have to show up reasonably fit because otherwise it’s embarrassing. So I have a motivation to stay fit so that I can do my job properly. But with no seminars booked, it was really, really difficult just to bother. One morning in May last year, I got up to do my regular training, and I did literally two squats and one push up. And I thought, fuck it, that’ll do. This is not leading in a good direction, but I just can’t be bothered. I just don’t care. If I’m not going to be teaching, what’s the point? I don’t need to be fit. I don’t care. So what I did was I started three mornings a week a trainalong session where people can sign up for the class and it’s free or five quid depending, people can choose for themselves, whether they pay or not doesn’t matter. And thing is, having students show up means firstly that I’ll do it. Secondly, that I’ll do it much more thoroughly and properly because the students are there. While I have to set a good example, what I did is it completely took away all of the self discipline aspect of it. So even if I do absolutely nothing, I’m still teaching this hour-long conditioning class three mornings a week. And if I do nothing else, that is always happening. And yeah, it saved me, I think, because otherwise by now I would be twice the size, but no taller.
JO: It’s important having a purpose, isn’t it?
GW: Yeah. And for me, it’s the students. They’re the reason I do it.
JO: So that’s your purpose.
GW: Yeah. And even if it was just one student showing up, you have to be there. And we have this nice little cadre of students which has about six or seven of them. So on any given session we might have three, four or five, occasionally six or seven from New Zealand and Finland and Holland and Germany and no one from Britain. And of course, it’s the wrong time of day for the Americans, although we did have an American who was showing up at three thirty in the morning for him for a while, because he was a roadie. For me the critical thing was finding a way to get the training done that didn’t require self-discipline. That worked for me.
JO: That’s awesome.
GW: Maybe you should try it. Because you’re an instructor too. If the students are there, you have access to more patience and strength and depth.
JO: Yeah, you’re absolutely right.
GW: OK. We should discuss protective equipment because literally everyone I interview has a pretty strong opinion about protective gear and of course, with the coronavirus, PPE is on everyone’s minds, masks and what have you. What are your thoughts on protective equipment, training, tournaments and the rest?
JO: I think it’s getting better, but I think there’s still room for growth. Being a smaller fighter, I know you’ve interviewed some other people who are similar stature to myself, it’s just very hard to find gear that fits and does the thing it’s supposed to do just on a miniature scale. So I think that’s the biggest thing. I do like watching, in my time in HEMA, watching every tournament year, the gear kind of starts to shift and change and improve and style changes. And I think our number of vendors available to produce product has grown substantially in the last four or five years. I would say there’s just a lot more options out there, which is great. But I think having the availability to get gear for shorter, smaller people is still lacking. For me, it’s hard even just to measure myself because they give you a measurement guide and like, all right, this is how I want you to measure yourself for your custom gear, which is also going to be more expensive because we have to make it sized to you. And even just getting the right measurements down is tricky. It’s just still not as smooth as it could be, I would say.
GW: OK, so how do you feel about the way tournaments, for instance, the equipment requirements for tournaments, head injuries, concussion, that kind of thing?
JO: I think it may be just because my narrow focus of where I travel to is skewing this, but I think everywhere I’ve been to has been well thought out as far as what is required for tournaments. I guess the only thing I struggle with personally is some tournaments require groin protection for females and I personally don’t wear one and I thankfully haven’t had a reason to wear one. But no, I feel like largely, the requirements make sense. They’re common sense, right, like you must have a mask and gorget and gloves that are padded and your mask must meet a certain Newton threshold. And I don’t feel like people are deliberately trying to skirt around the requirements. It’s more just, oh, I don’t have my gear in time, let’s find a supplement to make sure that you’re safe.
GW: So you’re happy with fencing masks as head protection?
JO: I’m wondering if that’s a trick question.
GW: OK, let me give you some context. I’m absolutely not trying to trap you and we can always edit anything out that comes across wrong, but there have been quite a few instances of concussions through fencing masks because the fencing mask itself was designed to work against foils, épées and sabres in the sport fencing milieu. So very flexible weapons. And they do a very good job of defending against those weapons and dealing with those kinds of forces. They have not been designed to deal with a three pound, four foot long steel bar being swung at your head. And I actually have a scar on the back of my head from where a flamberge bladed longsword came down a bit too far back and it caved in the back arch of the mask, it caved it in and it split my scalp. Entirely my own fault. There’s actually a photograph of that very moment on my blog because someone, I think it was my girlfriend at the time, was taking photographs of the fight and there’s a photograph of that actual moment of my head getting split open. It was fine. So I have no faith whatsoever in fencing masks as head protection for longsword. I have a lot more faith in, for example, the Terry Tindall style fencing masks, which have an internal suspension system. And the whole thing is like a big steel shell that is balanced on your head on the suspension system, so it moves.
JO: I don’t think I’ve seen that.
GW: I can show you one. This is no use to the listeners, of course.
JO: Oh, that, OK.
GW: They are relatively common these days. Because Terry stopped making them himself. But you can find them at horsebows.com, I think. Some of my guests have been just appalled at the state of hand protection. Others have been appalled at the state of head protection. You seem to be quite happy with both.
JO: I guess “indifferent” might be better. It works fine for me. I’d say in our region we generally… I wish I had statistics because we started to track injuries at IGX and to count concussions and, how do I say this, I feel like in our region we’re largely pretty safe and we don’t clobber each other. I’ve been to some events where I have heard that concussions have happened, but I’ve either not seen them myself or received them, thankfully. So I guess my experience has been different that I guess I don’t have an opinion because what I see in my very tiny slice of the HEMA world has been OK. But I don’t want to say that it’s perfect and we should stop. We should absolutely not stop. Also, my goal would be to have no equipment. We just press a button and we get like this little skin thin shield and then we just go nuts. Like, that’s what I would like personally, just not have any of this big bulky gear, just be able to not have anything, but still have the protection of some third skin that will make you impervious to anything.
GW: OK, yeah, that’s maybe a fairly difficult ask, but yes, maybe in a couple hundred years’ time we’ll have something like that. You press a button on your belt and you’re suddenly surrounded in this protective forcefield so you can fight your friends and not actually get injured. That would be kind of fun.
JO: That would be fun. But yeah. You talking about getting your mask caved in and I do agree that fencing masks are not probably to that standard where like if someone were just to no holds barred, just come down as hard as they possibly could. Yes, that would ruin the mask. It’s hard, on the one hand you want the fighter to not be that jerk, but on the other hand, you also want your gear to protect you from the jerk. But I don’t want to keep wearing gear to enable people to be jerks.
GW: Well, that’s the thing, you wear the equipment so that your partner can hit it. If you’re not wearing the equipment, they can’t hit it. So wearing a mask is an invitation to get stabbed in the face.
JO: Yeah. That’s true.
GW: I also do martial arts, weapons-based stuff, with a local jujitsu club. Traditional Japanese jujitsu and traditional Japanese weapons and we are using wooden weapons, but we’re using no protective equipment of any kind. And that means that all thrusts the face are pulled, or they are aimed somewhere else. And I have a suspicion that training that way means that when somebody does thrust your face, you may not be able to deal with it because you’ve never seen something in that line before. So it’s always a balance to strike between wearing the equipment so your partner can hit it, but not wearing so much equipment they feel they can just beat the crap out of you and it’s safe.
JO: Right. And the more gear you wear, the less able you are to do these really fine techniques that we’re trying to emulate.
GW: Well, I mean, one of the reasons that I just never went into the tournament circuit when it started going in like 2003 is that they insisted on plastic gauntlets. And I will not fence longsword unless I’m wearing steel gauntlets, I will not wear plastic gauntlets because you can’t hold the sword properly. And yeah, they’re actually pretty good protection most of the time. But I depend on my sword for my protection, not on my gauntlets. And if I can’t hold my sword properly, I can’t use it to defend my hands properly. So it’s is awful. So I’m just not going to do that because it’s just not an area I’m interested in getting into, you know, learning to fence with these artificial restrictions. It’s just not interesting to me. So I run my own tournaments with steel gauntlets. The tournament scene can go off and do their plastic stuff and that’s fine. But yeah, I never got into it for pretty much for that reason it was really structured so that the things that I trained to do I can’t do. And again, I don’t know what it’s like these days so much, but back then most tournaments had a no pommel striking rule. No steel gauntlets and no pommel striking. It’s like I’m a Fiore fencer. I can fence without using pommel strikes. Of course I can.
JO: But why would I want to?
GW: But the canonically correct solution to a lot of the problems that show up in a tournament fencing match is a pommel strike. And if I’m not allowed to do that then I can’t practise the art that I’m training to be good at. So why would I? I’ve done a decade or more of sport fencing tournaments, so I know what tournaments are good for and how they can be run. I’ve done my tournament fencing in, shall we say, highly adapted styles before. Foil is not smallsword, foil is highly adapted. So I’ve done that. I don’t need to do it again with a different weapon. What would be the point?
JO: Yeah, I do have gloves for you that you might be interested in trying. They are plastic, but they are designed by Jeremy Steflik of the Weester Group in Connecticut. And it’s basically a welding glove with kydex, which is plastic, a hard plastic and foam and leather on top. And I have full mobility. Well, it’s your middle and your ring finger together, but I have full mobility of all of my fingers. I can feel my sword and they are the best, the best, the best, the best gloves.
GW: Yeah, I use steel gauntlets with a fencing glove inside. So I have full mobility of all digits. If I could play the piano without the gloves I could play the piano with them but I can’t play the piano at all.
JO: I want a video now.
GW: Well OK, I’ll see if I can. We actually have a piano in the house because one of my children play so I shall put on my gauntlets and play a little bit.
JO: Or have her wear the gauntlets.
GW: Her hands are too small, because one of the things about gloves that they need to fit like a glove. And if the glove is too big, you lose all of that dexterity. So the glove has to fit just right. And then the steel plates you have a bit more flexibility where the plates go, if the glove underneath fits perfectly. And that’s really where the dexterity comes from. A lot of the gloves you buy the actual glove bit is the wrong shape or the wrong size or whatever. So that’s one of the many things I like about steel gauntlets, when you buy them the glove inside them is usually rubbish, like gardening gloves or something. Way too big, way too sloppy. Take it out, put a fencing glove instead, glue it in aand stitch the fingers so that the glue doesn’t peel back and there you go.
JO: That’s awesome.
GW: Just a thought, OK, now I know you’re on a fairly tight schedule, so let me get to my next question and I’ll try not to do all the talking. My next question is what is the best idea you’ve never acted on?
JO: I was trying to think of an answer for this, and the only one I can think of is not HEMA related at all. Years ago, I was part of a LARP and I forget how I got on this track but I conceptualised a pirate themed LARP with actual boats. You get two miniature, not full tall masts, but like two basically tall mast ships and, because I like sailing, run sailing camp style programming. And at the end of it you have a couple of sea battles between the two ships and it would be a LARP thing. And I’ve never done anything with it. It’s always been like, oh, this would be really cool. No one’s done this before. And probably why is because it’s prohibitive for many reasons.
GW: But it can be done though. At the ISMAC convention in Lansing many moons ago they had a pirate combat class run by John Lennox. OK, you need to speak to Dr John Lennox.
JO: I know him. I’ve never spoken with him. I know of him.
GW: I will be very glad to put you in touch. John ran a class. I actually still have one of the T-shirts from the class, like boarding party, the only party with a 100 percent mortality rate. But they actually managed to borrow a boat or a ship, a small ship, to do some piratey stuff on, which is very cool. Of course, what we want is to be able to swing from one deck to the other.
JO: Oh, yeah, and practice sailing, navigating and manoeuvres with these really big boats. Oh that’s so cool, that’s awesome.
GW: So I think what you’re describing is totally doable.
JO: I’m sure it is, I just need money and time and boats.
GW: it’s going to be expensive but actually it doesn’t necessarily need to be that expensive. Because there are plenty of places you can go where you go on pleasure cruise or whatever. And you can rent the boat for a pleasure cruise. And if you get two boat owners who happen to like pirates…
JO: And are like-minded.
GW: If anybody is listening to this who is a sailor and has a ship that might be of use in this sort of scenario, then by all means get in touch with me and I pass you along to Julie.
JO: That would be so funny.
GW: I think we should make this happen. I really do.
JO: At the Brass Frog Assault of Arms, I keep forgetting 2020, two or three years ago at this point, they did a game sparring thing that was kind of a boarding party scenario where they taped out two rectangles, like these are your ships, everyone has a balloon on their head, a cudgel with their stick. And it was kind of capture the flag, I think. And there were two taped out bridges so you can only go across between these things and it was hilarious. It was dumb, but it was awesome. And sorry, Jeremy, I’m not saying your idea was dumb, it was stupid fun, hilarious. And I think it was a round robin system. So there were like teams of three, but there were five teams. So we took turns in this tiered system to try and see which team would be the best boarding party.
GW: That’s fantastic. Yeah, you could have people up the mast with paintball guns.
GW: Wouldn’t that be cool?
JO: That would be cool. That was also the year they brought out those rubber band pistols.
GW: I remember those.
JO: We got to use them during that, but some people had them. Oh, boy, fun.
GW: OK, so I think I know the answer to my next question. Someone gives you a million dollars to spend improving historical martial arts worldwide. What would you do with it?
JO: So I think you know. Pirates! Well, actually no, I have many, many ideas.
GW: Have two million dollars, then.
JO: Two million. OK. One million. I’d like to make my skin-tight shield thing for sparring so we can be fully mobile and do our sparring and not have to wear gear.
GW: I don’t think you can do that for a million dollars, I don’t think that’s going to work.
JO: Shhh. A prototype. Maybe just a new mask that does all the things. Pie in the sky. Then I guess this is also a stretch goal. Invent a time machine and grab your Johannes Liechtenauer and bring him back here and tell us what we’re doing right and wrong.
GW: The first thing I think he would probably say you’re doing wrong is none of you are sufficiently posh to be allowed to swing swords anyway. What are you doing with longswords? These are for gentleman. Put them down, peasants. You get to use Messers.
JO: I often come back to this thing like what would they think of what we’re doing now? And we’re playing the worst version of telephone right now, looking at these sources and trying to figure out what they meant by very little and how much are we getting right. I think we’re largely getting things pretty well correct, but it would be really great just to talk to the source and to be like, what do you think?
GW: I think we’re getting pretty close in terms of technical execution of basic technical actions. I think those are pretty much down. I mean, obviously, there’ll be variations between masters and variations between students, and not everyone was going to do the Zornhau the same way. But I think we’ve got most of that pretty much solid. I’d be surprised if there are any major technical changes. By major changes I mean, the sort of difference that a beginner can spot, not a subtle shift of edge alignment or a slight change of grip but major gross choreography. But I think the way we train and the context we train towards is completely different.
JO: Oh, yeah, society is just so different now.
GW: Yeah, it’s a bit like the difference between being good at paintball and actually being a military officer. We’re basically paintballers. But OK, so your million dollars will go on either this magical protective gear or a magical time machine.
JO: Yes. Realistically, if we had all the money in the world, if we could do that thing, that would really cool. But whatever, because we talked earlier just about how freeing it is to have your own space, I think some of your other guests have said this, so I’ll just copy what they’re saying. If there’s a way to build more schools so more people can have a spot to go and learn training, leave their gear somewhere, just have a safe space to do this thing that we love so much, that’s probably more achievable with a million dollars.
GW: That’s definitely achievable because I know. Because I achieved it with an awful lot less than that.
GW: And you guys have too, and it hasn’t cost you a million. I know rent in Boston is incredible, but it hasn’t cost you a million dollars to have a salle for a year.
JO: No. So if there’s some way to form some type of partnership, parent programme, something that people can buy into. All right, so you want a club here, all right, here’s a club and this is your spot. Go do your thing.
GW: Maybe some kind of a grant system where a club has been training in a local park or school gyms or whatever, and they decide they’re ready to find a space. And so they find a space, but obviously the intended renter is some kind of business. And so the rent is fairly high. And so they then apply to this fund to say, well, look, this place is like three thousand dollars a month. We can bring in half of that. Can you match the rest? That would actually be a really interesting and useful use of the money. We need to find ourselves a million dollars Julie.
JO: Yes. I have been looking my whole life. I haven’t found it yet.
GW: If everyone in the world bought one of my books, we’d have a lot more than that. And then then we could do this.
JO: There you go.
GW: You don’t happen to be writing a book at the moment?
JO: I’m not no.
GW: That’s a shame. Because then you could write the book and we could plug it and then everyone would buy it and then we’d have a million dollars and we could subsidise swordfighting schools’ rents.
JO: Yeah. There you go.
GW: So maybe you should get writing.
JO: I don’t know what to write. I feel like the longsword book scene is very well presented. I don’t think I have much more to add to what’s there. My current niche favourite weapon right now is the baton, the Italian baton from seventeen, eighteen hundreds Cerri baton., There is one translation out there already that is quite good but I thought it might be nice to have another couple options out there.
GW: Or what you could do is put together a short video course on the basics and then if that goes nicely, you take the transcriptions of those videos and make a book out of it.
JO: That’s a good idea.
GW: Well, that’s how I do it.
JO: Speaking from experience.
GW: Seriously, sometimes it goes I write a book and then I produce a course out of it. Sometimes it goes I produce a course and realise, oh, actually, like my Theory and Practise of Historical Martial Arts book the section in it dealing with how to recreate historical swordsmanship from historical sources. That whole section was originally transcriptions of the videos on my How to Recreate Historical Swordsmanship from Historical Sources course. I just took the transcriptions from those videos and threw them into my Scrivner writing programme, and there was like a third of the book. It is appalling, looking at transcriptions, how incredibly inaccurately and badly I speak. So there’s an awful lot of editing with that process, but it’s an easy way to get started.
JO: I never thought of that, so, yeah, that’s a good idea.
GW: And these days, when I take a podcast interview or something, and maybe if I have given an interview and I take that audio and transcribe it and that might be a chapter in a book, because if I’m asked to explain something, I tend to have one way of explaining it. And then when I’ve explained it to a person, then having that explanation as text, it is quite easy to edit it into something that’s actually readable. So because sitting down in front of a blank page is hard, but sitting down in front of twenty thousand words that took you two hours to talk into a microphone is a lot easier.
JO: I do think writing a book, just the idea of writing a book is just very scary and overwhelming. So, yeah, breaking it down to oh, I already have this material now changes it.
GW: Yeah. Convert these existing texts into something book-like. I think it’s just an easier way to approach it.
JO: I think on that, that’s a good idea.
GW: And of course, if you do write your baton book, you need to come back on the show and tell us all about it. But actually, as you say, you have this interest in baton. We haven’t actually discussed it. And we have a few minutes left. Tell us what it is. Tell us where it comes from and why you like it so much. We’re all ears.
JO: I will start by why I like it so much because it is so much fun. It is longsword without all the faffery of having a crossguard or blade to worry about, you just have a stick and you can whack people with the stick. Obviously there’s more nuances than just that. This is coming from Giuseppe… I’m going to butcher it because it’s Italian and I’m not Italian… but Giuseppe Cerri. Seventeen hundreds, eighteen hundreds, gentleman.
GW: how do you spell the surname?
JO: Cerri. And I think Google Translate said “Cerri” or something. I’m American, so I try my best.
GW: That sounds about right.
JO: So that gentleman was in the military. I’m afraid I don’t have enough of his history to give more context than that. But he generated this method of fighting with this Bastone baton that’s a little shorter than a longsword, our current standards for longsword. They are usually made of ash or oak. The ones I use are made of rattan because they won’t hurt so much if you hit someone with it. And the principles of using it are a lot of flowing like moulinet-style actions. And I’m doing this in the camera, which doesn’t help your readers, but basically just drawing really beautiful circles and just a lot of flowing actions using your whole body. As a fighter I struggle with using my hips for things because for sport fencing you don’t really use your hips. You just have your linear guard and you do your stuff without moving. With longsword, looking to step off line my brain just got exploded. So baton is even more so because at the lower section of the book I have, there’s a lot of context around what do you do against multiple opponents, which is fascinating to me. Just the idea of like you walking in the woods, you have your stick and then you’re accosted by ruffians. And what do you do? Here’s an option for footwork and this pattern that could potentially help you. So it’s just fun. There’s a lot of self defence stuff in there. Just a lot of interesting mechanics stuff. And it’s just fun. It’s looks almost like sabre just watching people do it. And it just I picked it up and I just love it. It’s just instant, instant love. I feel like the longsword I have to work hard and think about and just really get right. But with baton I can just kind of just play.
GW: Is it related, do you think, to la Canne from the nineteenth century?
JO: Yeah. So la Canne is one hand and baton is the two hand. There is some one handed strike stuff but largely it’s two hands gripping it.
GW: Have you ever been known to make lightsaber noises while doing it?
JO: Oh yeah. Well it’s funny with the rattan because when you throw it really hard it makes this sound.
GW: It sounds like a lightsaber.
JO: Yeah. And if you hit the rattan against each other, it burns a little bit. Yes, it’s the best. I’ve taught a couple of beginner classes at events just with my big box of rattan. I just pass them out and like, all right guys, line up and swing like this, simplified but basically walk them through how to hold it. How to swing it. you hear this “vroom” and people start smiling. Yeah, we have them pair off. All right. So now we’re going to do this exchange drill and people say, Oh, I smell something burning! No, it’s OK. Just watching people explore and understand how this works. It’s just so much fun.
GW: OK, so if someone listening is fired up by your enthusiasm, how could they not be, and wants to have a go, where would you suggest they go looking for information?
JO: I’m going to butcher this. This is a translation by Chris Holzman. How about I send it to you in the show notes?
GW: Trattato teorico e pratico della scherma di bastone, which is a Treatise, Theory and Practise about Fencing With The Stick. OK, by Giuseppe Cerri. Edited by Gianluca Zanini and it’s translated by Chris Holzman. That looks like the Italian version.
JO: Yes. So here’s the page.
GW: The English version revised by Christopher A Holzman. OK, yeah, I think anyone who is interested has enough information to go on. Are there any other video resources for that?
JO: There are actually, I’m forgetting his name, but I got introduced to a gentleman and now I’m blanking on his name and where he is, but he’s put together a lot of little short clips. This is what the descending strike is. This is what the rising strike is and he steps through the techniques really nicely. I’d have to find the YouTube video.
GW: Find the YouTube video. Send me the link and I’ll pop it in the show notes.
JO: Yeah, and there’s a couple Facebook groups that are designed for topics around this and around la Canne. So there are some groups out there that talk about this and share ideas. And I posted a couple of videos there for feedback on some footwork ideas I was having. But, yeah, there’s a very small community.
GW: I do you think is related to Jogo do Pau?
JO: I don’t know.
GW: Are you familiar with the Portuguese stick fighting?
JO: Oh, OK, I don’t know.
GW: Luis Preto is probably the best known instructor in that, and I’ve seen him teach and a lot of what he’s doing is a lot like longsword with a stick. So that also might be an interesting place to go. I think I discussed it with a previous podcast guest. Yeah, so in Episode 38 with Jessica Gomez, we discuss Jogo do Pau a little bit. It might be an interesting avenue for you because it’s a living tradition of Portuguese stick fighting. And it’s kind of cool and fun.
JO: The very few videos I’ve seen of different stick methods, just YouTube perusing. There’s a lot of similarities between the different styles, which is kind of interesting.
GW: But that’s what you’d expect, though. It’s a stick. There’s only so many ways you can swing a stick around that’s actually going to do any good.
JO: Exactly. Yeah, really. It’s been fun watching that for me.
GW: OK, now we are actually slightly at time and I know you have places to be like actual paying work and things. So thank you very much for joining me today, Julie, it’s been a delight talking to you.
JO: Thank you. This was awesome. Thank you for having me come on.