GW: I’m here today with Elizabeth Scott, who is a historical martial arts and armoured combat practitioner on foot and on horseback, as well as being a surgeon. And we’re definitely going to be talking about that. So without further ado. Elizabeth, welcome to the show.
ES: Thank you.
GW: It’s nice to meet you. It’s funny, because you emailed me about some trip to Britain and I have a list of potential guests to invite and I didn’t connect to Elizabeth Scott, who was emailing me, with the Elizabeth Scott who I wanted to get on the show.
ES: Okay. It’s a bit of a common name.
GW: Well, filed separately in my head, I think. Okay. So whereabouts in the world are you?
ES: Yeah. So I am technically in Newton Center, which is a suburb outside just west of the city of Boston. So it’s east coast, out of New England, United States.
GW: Lovely. I was in Boston before the pandemic for a seminar with the, I am blanking on the name of the school which invited me over to teach a seminar for them. I don’t think you came to that, did you?
ES: No, actually, I moved here a year ago.
GW: So. Have you been to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum?
ES: Yes. That is actually one of my favourite places. I work only maybe a ten minute walk from that museum.
GW: Oh, my God, it’s good.
ES: It’s gorgeous. A lot of medieval and renaissance art and artefacts.
GW: What’s your favourite bit in it? Do you have a favourite?
ES: I do. They have a very well preserved effigy from Spain. It’s early 16th century and it’s just lovely the way they have it presented and you can get very close to it. And the details on the armour and the mail are just exquisite.
GW: Okay, so there we have it. I went there on this trip to Boston. And you know how when you go in, it’s all modern and glass and everything. And I didn’t really know what to expect because I’d heard about this museum, I should go visit and I didn’t look anything up about it cause I like to see these things fresh, without expectation. And so I went in and there was this modern thing where you go and there’s this gallery with these Botticelli’s. I was like, oh, okay. So Isabella Stewart Gardner got the first Botticelli into America, that ever went to America. That was her. Well done, Isabella, good job. Some nice Botticellis, that’s nice, in this sort of well-put-together, modern thing. And then you go through this sort of tunnel. Oh, my God. It is like an Italian piazza or a courtyard in a little castle or something. I sat down and cried. It was so gorgeous. I love that place.
ES: It’s breathtaking. And actually one of my many favourite things about that museum, one of which is it was created and run by a woman. It’s just that she put in her will that she wants essentially nothing changed or taken away from the museum. So when you see it, when you see that courtyard with all of these flowers and pots and pieces of renaissance artwork, that’s what it looked like 100 years ago. Nothing has changed. And I think that’s really cool.
GW: Exactly. It’s a collection, not a museum. It’s like the Wallace Collection, where you go into Wallace’s house in London and there are these fabulous, rooms full of arms and armour and rooms full of astonishing furniture and astonishing paintings. And the whole place is just gorgeous. But it’s his collection. And the Stibbert in Florence. Have you been there?
ES: I have been. But in more than ten years. It was a long time ago.
GW: The Stibbert Collection in Florence is like that as well. It’s like somebody’s house that they have their collection there and you go there and it is the way they set it up. So in most modern museums, they’re moving stuff around and they’re changing things and they’re putting on displays. But this pretty much stays the same. It just feels better.
ES: I highly recommend if you ever come to Boston, you know, go. And particularly on Thursdays they’ll actually have music. You can come and listen to a live concert and just sit in the open area and look at this beautiful medieval and renaissance architecture and hear live instrumental music. It’s great.
GW: Actually I was there on a Friday and there was music on that Friday as well. So I got lucky that way. I was supposed to be there on a Thursday but I screwed up my ESTA and wasn’t allowed into America, couldn’t get on the flight. So I had to get on the flight the next day, I was a day late. But I still got to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and it was yeah, totally, totally worth it. So what took you to Boston?
ES: Essentially work. So as you mentioned in my intro, I am a surgeon. Which is a lot of academic training, like multiple pieces.
GW: One would hope.
ES: Yes, yes, one would hope. And the final piece of my training was a fellowship in sports medicine surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital. So that’s essentially why I moved. And it just so happens that there happens to be great HEMA and interest in medieval swordsmanship here. Double benefit.
GW: Absolutely. So what kind of surgeon are you? So you’re a specialist in sports injuries and children?
ES: Essentially. Yeah. So the delineation of different types of orthopaedic surgery is a little bit different in the U.S. compared to some of the European countries.
GW: I don’t think anyone listening has an idea of what the delineations are. I wouldn’t worry. That’s not what we’re going to get confused about.
ES: But yeah, so I do orthopaedic surgery, so broken bones, trauma and then more specifically, sports medicine, which means things like rotator cuff injuries, ACL tears. My training was specifically with adolescents and young people. But I do take care of adults and children alike.
GW: I’d imagine if kids are growing and their joints are changing quite rapidly because they’re growing, that will present challenges that you don’t have in grown-ups.
ES: Exactly. So some of it is recognising the unique injury patterns that kids or teenagers can have. And then some of it is also learning specialised techniques. So when their growth plates are still open in their bones means that there are certain techniques that you could do in an adult to, say, reconstruct a torn ACL in the knee, but in a child you can’t use that technique. It would cause a growth disturbance. So then there’s very sort of highly specialised surgeries that are done in children and adolescents.
GW: So what drew you to that branch of medicine?
ES: I think if you talk to a lot of orthopaedic surgeons, you’ll find that we’ve all been injured somewhere along the way. You meet your neighbourhood friendly orthopaedic surgeon who fixes your knee or your shoulder and you say, you know, that that guy is really cool. I want to do that. But I do like the hands on aspect. So I get to work with power tools, with drills, hammers. Yeah, you’re cringing.
GW: I am pretty robust, I’m not a doctor or medical doctor of any kind. But I’ve attended an autopsy and I’ve seen like the human body cut into bits and examined them because I was doing biology A-level. And I have an interest in physiology and that kind of stuff. But not a doctor. I am not particularly squeamish. You know, I can butcher an animal, whatever, it is fine. But my younger daughter is currently obsessed with Grey’s Anatomy. That medical show, from way back when. Maybe she will turn out to be a surgeon. I think she would actually be a pretty good surgeon. But whenever they do the medical stuff on TV, I don’t want to see that. Why are they showing me this? I want to see the people talking and having dramatic stuff. But I don’t actually need to see the knife slicing open the body and the blood coming out. And then they stick their hands in and they fiddle about with organs. I’d be happy to be there in the room when somebody was doing that and actually watching, but I don’t like it on TV.
ES: Well, to be fair, on TV, they love to dramatise it. There’s the dramatic music and it’s a crazy moment. And I don’t know, in real life, it’s just work. It’s what you’re doing.
GW: Yeah. And I guess that in your hospital, the doctors aren’t all shagging each other and constantly talking about who’s shagging who while they’re operating on someone.
ES: Typically not.
GW: That’s a relief to hear.
ES: Most of us will say that Scrubs, if you’ve ever seen that that comedy show, that was a more accurate representation of what training’s like.
GW: Okay. I also get the impression from TV that all surgeons are massively sleep deprived. That worries me.
ES: Yeah, there’s definitely some room to improve our sleep hygiene, for sure.
GW: If someone’s chopping me open, I want them well-rested, unstressed, unworried, you know, not desperately wondering whether that girl’s going to call them back or that boy is going to show up on the date that they’re supposed to have in like 2 hours’ time or whatever. I just want them to just be having a really relaxed and focussed day at work. I don’t want any of that drama.
ES: I agree. And I mean, I think that is part of our training is we learn to hyperfocus in the moment. And when you when you are in the operating theatre, that is all that’s there. That is all that you’re thinking about. And you have to kind of compartmentalise the rest of your life.
GW: Yeah, I get that when fencing, obviously, someone swinging a sword at my head, it focuses the mind considerably. And I am also learning to fly planes at the moment and when you’re in the air and flying an aeroplane, there isn’t anything else. It’s like looking out the window, making sure you’re not going to crash into anything or fly into a cloud or, you know, are you getting lost, and the navigation while flying. It’s 100% full focus. And the fact that, my bank just screwed up and money disappeared out of my account when it shouldn’t or whatever, which did actually happen a couple of weeks ago, in the air: disappears. Everything goes away.
ES: Yes. I would argue that that’s actually one of one of several similarities between swordsmanship and surgery and aviation, is that is that need to be in the moment to have the state of flow, where all that is there is what’s in front of you, your breathing, your opponent, your spacing, your timing. You have to let everything else go or you’re not going to be an effective fighter.
GW: Yeah. Or you’re going to cut the wrong bit.
GW: Yeah. I did actually once wrestle with a guy, a student who came to one of my seminars, who was blind in both eyes. And the reason he was blind in both eyes is because he was having trouble with one eye and he went into the surgery and the surgeon operated on the wrong eye. These things happen, surgeons are people. But you have to wonder, what could have been done in sleep hygiene. I mean, if the bloke was in a hurry or sleep deprived or stressed out about something, he’s more likely to make that kind of mistake.
ES: Yes. And you know, that’s why, that should be a “never” event. That’s something that should never, ever happen. And aviation and surgery are very similar in that regard, that the way we structure safety, that there is not just one check for something, that say, do we have the right patient? That’s checked multiple times prior to the important event occurring, that any sort of lapse of safety is quickly addressed. And then new systems are put in place to prevent that from ever happening ever again.
GW: And mistakes will happen. I mean, any human endeavours, like aviation is very, very safe, but people do die. Exactly. Have you read Atul Gawande’s book, The Checklist Manifesto?
ES: Yes. I am a huge fan of that book.
GW: I just totally loved it for the sake of the listeners who probably haven’t read it, do you want to just summarise what it’s about?
ES: Sure. So it’s kind of about exactly actually what we’re talking about, that in order to prevent mistakes, that no matter how smart you are, no matter how good you are, it’s something that there has to be this sort of checklist that you go through every time you do the event. And again, it’s not about being the best surgeon. It’s about being the safest surgeon and how that then applies to not just surgery, but those the same ideas apply to multiple fields, multiple things that you want to do in your life.
GW: Yeah, I think it started out with this chap in the UK whose wife died during a surgical procedure, which she shouldn’t have. And he was a pilot and when he asked about what processes are in place he was appalled by the lack of processes. And so he inspired a bunch of doctors to use aviation checklist practise in surgery, and thus saved a bunch of lives. Is that fair?
ES: We try to avoid what we call the Swiss cheese model where every piece of Swiss cheese has a hole in it. And if you take a whole bunch of pieces lined up together and you look at it, hold it up to the light, hopefully you don’t see a hole because the holes are all in different places. But again, the idea is occasionally mistakes do happen because at every stage, every piece of the checklist, something goes slightly wrong. But again, that’s something that that there’s millions, billions of dollars that go into both the aviation and health care fields to try to prevent these problems.
GW: Yeah. And in my case, because of the way my brain works, checklists, because when learning to fly you sit there and you do your power checks and you go through the checklist and carb heat does this and mixture is that and so on. And everything is listed. Even with all of that in place, I have actually taken off without my one stage of flaps I’m supposed to have because my brain just skipped over it in the list. I even though I’ve taken off on it dozens of times it still just wasn’t there in my head.
ES: Well, I think that’s why I would never be brave enough to fly a plane.
GW: At least not brave enough to fly a plane with me. Yeah, well, it’s super fun. And very safe. All right, so you do the historical martial arts stuff and the surgical stuff. So I imagine the surgical stuff takes up a lot more of the time than the swords. But how does the training compare? I’m always interested in pedagogical models and how we can learn skills, particularly dangerous skills. And so surgery is definitely a dangerous skill.
ES: Right. Yeah. So, essentially both sword fighting, if we’re talking specifically about what we’re trying to emulate, not necessarily sport HEMA, obviously it’s something with little room for failure. I mean, the win condition is you live and the lose condition is you die. So there is that need to develop a certain level of excellence without ever actually putting yourself in the situation, ideally, where you risk your life, until you have to. So I think obviously on some level with both, there’s a lot of ways we make both safer, right? So the beginner shows up to your class and you might be putting a polypropylene weapon in their hand before you use a blunt.
GW: I use steel from the get-go.
ES: I approve of that. But a lot of groups out there will start with something else. And then even still your steel feder looks very, very different than a sharp is.
GW: But again, I give my students sharps as well. Not the beginners. But I do get them on the sharps because it’s different.
ES: Yes. No, I agree. And our group here in Boston, we like to do cutting events regularly. And I think that that’s important, whether or not that’s really something that you want to become an expert at, you have to know how your sword actually works, even if your goals are really just fencing with friends. But as we’re talking about how do you develop skills in something like that, I think there’s multiple things you have to think about. So, again, in surgery, we find ways to make it safer. So you’re operating on a cadaver or you’re seeing someone do something first and taking all the notes you can on that before you’re ever actually asked to do it yourself.
GW: I’d imagine you’re doing your supervision. I mean, my instructor was sat next to me when I took off without flaps. And then we had a little discussion about how flaps would actually would have helped, because actually it’s not dangerous to do that. It’s just it takes a bit longer to get off. There’s plenty of runway. And it wasn’t it wasn’t a dangerous mistake. So he let me make it. But if it had been a dangerous mistake. Let’s say I skipped over the power checks altogether and start trundling towards the runway he’d have said “stop a sec, what about your power checks?” So the job of the instructor is to give you as much room to fail as possible, so long as failure is safe, but to prevent any dangerous thing from occurring during training. I think it’s true in swords, true in aviation, and I’m guessing true in surgery?
ES: Yeah. As you’re learning, we like to say that some of the very best teachers who are surgeons, when they’re teaching a resident physician, they’re almost operating through them. So they’re holding up tissue or something. They say, okay, cut here and you do it. And really, they’re controlling where you cut and when you do it and how far you go. But you feel like you’re in control as the learner because you have the knife, right? But it’s still very controlled. And they will stop you immediately if what you’re doing is not in line with how they think the procedure should go.
GW: Right. Yeah. And that’s similar to how I teach teachers, actually. So when I have students who are learning how to teach, I will say, the class is doing the thing that they’re doing. And I will say, okay, so what do you think they should be doing next? And they’ll say something and if it’s a reasonable thing, I’ll say, okay, fine, move them onto that. Let’s see what happens. And but if they’re about to do something that would have not made sense for the class, or maybe two jumps too far ahead and they needed to have some space in between. I would say, well, have you considered this? And it is much less stressful than obviously flying or surgery because, we can take all the time to chat through and the students are just happily doing the previous drill, and it’s no stress, but the idea is that the student does the thing and the instructor just sort of, like when toddlers like to walk. The parents are there to make sure that they if when they fall over, they fall over in a safe place.
ES: Right. And it’s yeah it’s similar to surgery as you start to progress in your training and you have more independence, your sort of chief surgeon who’s watching you is sometimes letting you be a little bit inefficient. As long as you’re doing the thing correctly, you’re not risking the patient, but maybe your technique is slow or you could be using a different instrument or something to do the same thing much faster, and they’ll kind of let you do it. And then if you get to a point where you’re sort of stuck and you’re struggling, they’ll say, well, actually, have you thought of this? And, you’re like, oh, why didn’t you tell me that five minutes ago?
GW: Yeah, well, because now you remember it. You’ve got to let the student makes mistakes, but I hope it’s not me on the table. I just want the chief surgeon on me and nobody else.
ES: Well, it’s actually a sort of well-known thing that if you do have help from your trainees, you’re likely to actually be much faster and better at the surgery. Probably what’s the most dangerous if you say, oh, no, I just want, you know, you chief surgeon, to operate on me. I don’t want any helpers. Bad idea.
GW: Yeah. I wouldn’t say that. I just want the steadiest pair of hands on the knife. No, but then if every patient was like that, surgeons couldn’t be trained.
ES: Exactly. Yes. So we really do rely on people to trust the system. And that to know that there may be people there that are operating on you with less experience, but it’s the job of whoever is the chief in the room to make sure that it’s done still safely and correctly.
GW: Yeah. Within the parameters. I’ve only ever had one surgery and I don’t ever want to do that again.
ES: I don’t blame you. I think we all want to avoid being under the knife if we can.
GW: So got into this because you had an injury?
ES: I had a few injuries growing up. I was a competitive dancer for a long time.
GW: That’s dangerous. That’s more dangerous than swords by a mile.
ES: For sure. I have had definitely more injuries from my dance career than swords, ever.
GW: Okay. Anything specific that’s kind of got in the way of your swords or was it all successfully fixed?
ES: Thankfully, all successfully fixed. I did have issues with both of my hips actually in college and graduate school. I had labral tears and something called impingement in both my hips and partially from dance, partially from swords. And I actually had to have multiple surgeries to have it addressed. So that did take me out from swords for about three years, actually.
GW: That’s not good. How did you stay sane in that time?
ES: Oh good question. I did a lot of reading, so I started reading more about swords and armour. Brushed up on my Latin.
GW: Well, just for the listeners who don’t know what a labral tear is, what is a labral tear?
ES: So your labrum, you have one actually in your shoulder and your hip. It’s kind of like the gasket ring that’s around the socket. So it’s soft. It’s made of a sort of cartilage that can tear easily, much like the meniscus in your knee. And so sports that have a lot of hip flexion, things like hockey, martial arts, dance, all of those, over time, particularly in your teenage/young adult years, can cause wear and tear the labrum to where it tears and then starts to affect the cartilage next to it. So people will feel pinching, burning, in like the front of their hip, with deep squats, with kicks in dance or lunges in fencing.
GW: So it hurts when that side of the joint is compressed, not stretched.
ES: Exactly. Exactly.
GW: That is interesting, because normally, if you’re in a stretch, the discomfort is on the outside of the stretch.
ES: Yeah. This is more like a pinch you feel as everything gets sort of squished in the front of the hip.
GW: Okay. interesting. And you can just get in there and stitch it up?
ES: Essentially, you stitch it up and then you actually shave away the bone that has been pressing in front of the hip. It’s my favourite procedure.
GW: So you must be something of a sculptor, then?
ES: Yes. Yeah, totally. A little bit of a hip artist, so to speak.
GW: Okay. So obviously, from what you just said, you were into historical martial arts before you went to college. So how did that all kick off?
ES: You know, I’ve been thinking about this, knowing I’d get asked this. I am really one of those people that has just sort of always been interested in it. I remember from a very young age, I learned to read. I had an older brother who was very much into science fiction and fantasy books. And I do remember that one of the first sort of real novels he gave me or lended me was the book called Dealing with Dragons from like the early nineties. And the main character in it is this sort of like renegade runaway princess who learns to sword fight and all these things she’s not supposed to. And she’s the heroine. And I remember reading that and being like, well, that’s what I want to do, you know?
GW: Quite right.
ES: Yeah. And so then from there, I was also interested in horses growing up and I learnt to ride and that was kind of like my sport, so to speak. My parents weren’t really into fencing, but basically around the time that I finally learnt to drive and had access then to a car, I found my way to some local re-enactment events and quickly got my hands on swords.
GW: Excellent. Where abouts did you start training?
ES: So that time I was actually living in Florida, so kind of southeast corner of the United States. I was kind of close to Fort Lauderdale and I got into a couple of groups there, some SCA stuff, and then an offshoot kind of independent group that did rapier and some longsword and kind of a variety of things.
GW: I think of you as an armoured combat person. Is that fair, or do you do rapier as well?
ES: I don’t like Rapier.
GW: Wash your mouth out! Rapiers are glorious. Why don’t you like rapier?
ES: Just for me, I’ve always had dreams of the knight in shining armour, on the horse. And the rapier just doesn’t fit with that.
GW: Yeah, fair. I think a lot of it is to do with the archetypes we are reaching towards. Like the archetype I reach towards primarily is Jedi. It just is. Because when I was a kid, I sort of imprinted on Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi. And yeah, so I would take unarmoured longsword over, like, knightly combat if it was really an option because it’s closer to the Jedi thing. And I like all the kind of breathing exercises and meditation and stuff because it kind of feels more Jedi-ish.
ES: Yeah. A little bit of that Eastern vibe.
GW: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So, yeah, if you imprinted on D’Artagnan, you might have ended up more of a rapier person than if you imprinted on knights in shining armour, then I can see how the rapier just wouldn’t quite do it for you.
ES: Yeah. And I mean, to be fair, at this point, I’m only 31, but I’ve done I’ve done a pretty big variety of stuff. I’ve moved, oh, god, like five times, I guess, in the course of training and everything. And, you know, I’ve done everything from Taichi and Eido, Kenjutsu, Aikido to stage combat. Obviously harness fechten now and formal HEMA affiliated groups and yeah, I’ve been kind of all over the map, but if I have to pick a favourite, it’s definitely armoured combat.
GW: That’s what I think of you and your armour looks fabulous. So first question is where did you get it from? It’s beautiful armour.
ES: Thank you. It well, it’s actually a mishmash of about four different armours, almost all of which are Ukrainian. So it’s a little bit sad right now that if someone said, oh, well, I want the exact armour you had. You know, a lot of those armours are unfortunately not in production right now. They’re doing other things and hopefully they will be back up and running, but we don’t know when.
GW: So did you get it mail order, so you didn’t show up and get it measured? And it fits?
ES: I had kind of a specific budget to start out. And so I’ve spent enough time looking at effigies and armour and things to sort of know what I wanted the aesthetics to be, right. And so I was able to put it together, even though they are all again, almost all the pieces are from different armourers, to have kind of a cohesive look of a specific time period. And I have some goals. I’m saving up hopefully to get a nice custom kit from another armourer. But I do like what I have and I appreciate the compliment.
GW: But armour is really tricky. If it fits perfectly, it works beautifully. But if it’s even just a little bit wrong, it is horrible.
ES: Yes, absolutely. So I think no matter what, whether you’re getting armour from a top tier armourer or some guy you found on eBay, I think the key is, is either if you can’t modify it yourself, knowing someone who can, even if they’re not an armourer and they just do some metal working, someone who can make some changes, replace rivets or move things around, strapping, so that you can get it right. Because, I mean, it really is a constant progression. No one’s ever done with their kit. There’s always something that they want to change that they don’t like.
GW: Yeah, I have friends who are in classic cars and they are always tinkering with those classic cars because you can’t just leave and then drive them like you can a modern car. You always have to like fiddle with this and tune this and adjust that and armour is the same. So presumably, your armour fits well enough that you can do everything you want to do, even with hips that perhaps need a bit more care than others.
ES: Yes. So I was also again selective about some of the way I wanted things to fit and the time period I was looking for. I have ridden in the armour. I’ve gone for a run in the armour. I’ve done a number of things to sort of test it out. And I can squat all the way to the ground and climb a ladder and all these things. But again, there’s still stuff I don’t like about it. I don’t like the curve of the kneecap you know? Yeah, there’s 1001 things I still I still want to change, it is just always a matter of, of time and energy and, you know, actually doing it.
GW: So you ordered it from the Ukraine in bits. So like, cuirass here and arms there and legs there. You had it modified somewhat when it arrived?
ES: A little bit. The arms and legs were fit to my measurements so that to me was the most important thing. So I think being a female, my proportions are just a little bit different. And so I can’t just get something completely off the rack and have it like, fit me.
GW: Well, I know your pain. I’m currently trying to find a flying suit that works because my current struggle in flying is cockpit organisation when navigating while flying and a flying suit has all the necessary pockets and whiteboards attached to your legs and everything. It’s perfect. The problem is, even if it is like six inches too long in the leg, it’s still too short in the back. And I can’t get it on and off. So they don’t make one that has a long enough back and legs that are sufficiently short enough that I could actually adjust them to the right length. Of course, they have pockets on the ankles as well, which makes life difficult. So for me, anything like that, it’s because my legs are so much shorter than the length of my back would suggest. Buying stuff off the peg is just a disaster.
ES: Yeah, I know a couple of people that happen to fit the sort of generic man size that a lot of armour gets made to, but I think most it’s few and far between. So most of us have to do the struggle of either having things that don’t fit well and taking the time to try to re fit them. Or I think most people who really get into armoured combat at some point you start to save up and you say, all right, it’s time that I get a kit that’s exactly what I want.
GW: Yeah. That’s what I did. I can justify it as a business expense, totally. So I am surprised that a surgeon would do armoured combat, given that I’ve had a finger broken doing armoured combat. And I think most people doing combat get a finger broken every now and then.
ES: I have had some fingers broken.
GW: Okay. And you operated the next day?
ES: No. So that was actually in my medical training. And it actually scared me enough that, it was all kind of around the same time my hips started acting up and things, but I broke a couple of fingers and I had this realisation moment of like oh god, this might not work well. And it did kind of scare me away from the armoured combat portion to where that’s actually when I started getting into Eido and some of the eastern martial arts because I said, all right, the way they train is largely katas, it’s sort of drills and forms and things and not really like live sparring. And so I tried that. It was fun, but eventually I realised I really missed the armoured combat and I sort of got to a point where I realised that I would much rather do the armoured combat and modify some things if I had to and be a surgeon and potentially risk injury than not do it at all. And I do have something called an occupation disability insurance.
GW: And that covers armoured combat?
ES: You know, I have not specifically asked that question.
GW: So let me guess, let me guess. If your hand is irretrievably smashed by a pole axe, God forbid, then it was a really unfortunate way to catch it in a car door, wasn’t it?
GW: It is scary. But, you know, I’ve had the same sort of worries. I can get a sword to the head or the damage my spine or break a leg or something. And my job depends on my physical ability as much as yours does, I guess.
ES: I mean, exactly. You know, even a computer programmer, at the same time, you depend on your hands, right. And I suppose in a sense I’m lucky I don’t have children or anything right now that I’m supporting through my income. But for sure, that can be a real concern for some people, who are the primary breadwinners for their family. But at the same time, in the armoured combat community, no one wants to get injured, no one’s out there trying to beat people up and everyone wants to come home at the end of the day. So I think it’s about kind of knowing the people you fight and their sort of philosophy and their level of intensity and moderating when you need to, to make sure everyone finishes the bout with ten fingers intact.
GW: Yeah, absolutely. So what kind of gauntlets do you favour for this?
ES: So I do have pretty robust clamshell gauntlets. I think those are for sure the safest.
GW: I don’t like them. I like finger gauntlets, because honestly, if I am a bit clumsy because I’ve got this badly broken finger or something and it’s a sword fighting injury and I’m also a fighting instructor that’s actually not going to harm my credibility at all.
ES: Might enhance your credibility. Battle wounds.
GW: I have a scar on my head right here where I got my scalp split open by a longsword, which crushed the back of my fencing mask. Many moons ago in about 1999 or 2000, something like that. There’s actually a photograph of the moment it happened, which is on my blog. But the thing is, it’s just a little splint on the scalp. And it was like three staples, job done. But it was done by a sword. So when I was in the hospital, that was like 20 doctors came and had a look at the sword wound because they don’t see that very often.
ES: I love that.
GW: Right, exactly. And it’s just these three staples, whatever. But it’s like, you know, I can show my students, look, this is why we train this way so you don’t have this sort of thing. We learnt the hard way back in the nineties. So I use finger gauntlets. I only use steel gauntlets, I won’t touch these horrible plastic things. They are just inadequate in every respect, I think. But yeah, if I was more worried, if I was a professional trumpet player, then I would probably be using clamshells.
ES: Yeah, I do have different gauntlets. So like if I’m riding a horse, you need control over the reins. In that case I have different gauntlets, but if I’m actually fighting on foot and it’s a real bout or whatever, unfortunately, I have to go with the safety first part and it does kind of kill me when I can’t quite manipulate things the way I want. And it’s like, oh, that play would have worked so much better if I had different gauntlets. But that’s fine.
GW: It’s fine. Yeah. I honestly it’s sort of also been my experience that once you really get the mechanics deep into your bones, then you can accommodate things like gauntlets that don’t work quite right or whatever. And you can still make stuff work because it doesn’t require the sort of manual dexterity that a piano player has. It requires you to be able to express yourself through your weapon, precisely. But it doesn’t actually require that much manual dexterity.
ES: For sure. And especially in armoured combat, we’ve my group here in Boston, we’ve gotten lucky that we have now maybe four fighters that can get together essentially on like a weekly basis and get in armour. And the interpretation of some plays for us has changed the more we’ve played around actually in armour and at the end of the day it’s about your body mechanics with the sword more than it’s about the dexterity of your fingers.
GW: I do the dexterity drills because they are useful. But you shouldn’t be relying on that sort of thing when you actually try to hit somebody. Also, because under that level of stress, someone is actually trying to take your head off with a sword, chances are your level of arousal goes up to the point where you don’t have any amount of dexterity left anyway.
ES: Yeah. You’re maybe one step short of a monkey with a stick.
GW: Right. A well-trained monkey with a stick.
ES: Exactly, very well trained.
GW: Now, you’ve mentioned horses a few times. And obviously the epitome of knightly combat is the armoured combat on horseback, and it’s just the coolest thing ever. Armour is expensive, horses are expensive. Horses are not volunteers. They are conscripted into this. So obviously, we have to be very careful of our horses. So do you have any advice for people who might be interested in getting into mounted combat, who don’t really know how to start?
ES: Yeah. So I’d say, you know, it starts sort of the same way that it does if you want to get into fencing and HEMA, but you don’t have a HEMA group. It starts by on some level do the thing that’s closest to the thing you want to be doing. So get your hands on horses. Whether that’s hanging out if you have some friend that has horses or horseback rides, just ask them if you can go watch, ask them if you can go help out. Most people will be more than happy to show you how to do some work and help take care of the horse.
GW: Mucking out the stables.
ES: Right. But I mean, even that, if people have the time, most yards in the UK or horse stables in the U.S., most are happy to arrange some kind of like bartering system where you do some work around the stable and then they will trade you a lesson on a horse kind of thing. So there’s definitely ways to get to get involved. And I think the really the biggest barrier to mounted combat is just knowing how to ride and knowing how to be around horses safely. And that’s something that you don’t have to go to an instructor that knows mounted combat to learn those things. It’s really more just about getting the access to horses and really just having the time to spend to get comfortable.
GW: When people ask me that question I just asked you, the first thing is just learning to ride because if you’re a good rider, you can become a decent mounted combat person. It doesn’t matter how good you are with the sword, if you can’t ride, you can’t go on horseback.
ES: Exactly. I would say, who’s going to win in a mounted combat fight? Pretty much the better rider every time, unless you are very lucky.
GW: Well, I have actually done mounted sword combat with Jennifer Landels in Vancouver. Just outside Vancouver. Do you know Jen?
ES: I do, actually. She’s sort of actively mentoring me right now, training my horse.
GW: You’re in very good hands. Jen’s lovely. But, yeah, I fought her. I think it’s probably fair to say that I am better with swords than she is. And on foot I would have the advantage with a longsword against Jen. I think that’s not unreasonable. That’s fair to say. On horseback. I can ride a bit, reasonably well, I got to the point of being able to do flying changes on a decently trained horse. I went through a beginners course and onto some of the intermediate stuff as a rider. And the thing was, me on this horse, perfectly good horse. Nothing wrong with the horse. We do not blame the horse. And Jen on her horse and it was like she kept getting behind me and just slicing me to pieces. And there’s nothing that I could do about it, cause I couldn’t get the horse around fast enough, and I just got absolutely slaughtered. It was brilliant. So a better rider every time.
ES: Yes. And I will say, if people are looking at, depending on where you live, if you have access to a bunch of different trainers or stables or whatever, Jen is a proponent of this, too. That really if you have to pick a specific discipline, dressage is really kind of the heart of the sort of riding that you do in mounted combat, these quick turns, turns on a dime, pirouettes and being able to shift the horse’s shoulders and hindquarters out of the way of an incoming blow and that kind of thing. That’s all dressage. Nowadays people look at that and they see modern horse dancing in the Olympics and they go this has nothing to do with fighting.
GW: It has everything to do with fighting.
ES: Exactly. You go back far enough and we’re all talking the same language about horses.
GW: So, yeah, I got super lucky because in the early nineties, my girlfriend’s mother owned a Grand Prix level dressage horse and my girlfriend was a serious rider. And between her mother and her, they taught me to ride on this Grand Prix level dressage horse.
ES: You’re a very lucky man.
GW: All I had to do was get up at six in the morning, three times a week and I could go riding. It was ridiculously, ridiculously lucky. Once my seat was stable enough that I could give clear commands, the horse would do anything I asked it to do. And the only limiting factor was, am I giving clear enough commands? Which meant that I could learn really quickly how to do that, because every time I got it right, the horse did the right thing. And every time I got it wrong, the horse didn’t know what to do, so just carried on cantering or whatever, it was like make up your fucking mind, to give me a clear order and I’ll do what you want. But for God’s sake, speak my language.
ES: My horse is six. He’s not quite there yet. Some days it’s, well, I would really like you to do this thing, and he’s like, let’s do something else, you know?
GW: Learning to ride in that context would be very, very difficult.
ES: Yes, for sure. Yeah. You want to have someone who really knows what they’re doing teaching you ideally and be on an experienced horse.
GW: It reminds me that sometimes when teaching historical martial arts, there are some things which the student just has to do the practise for long enough and eventually that problem goes away. And I learned that idea when I was being taught to ride, because the two people who were teaching me to ride were women and I have this problem which most blokes have learning to ride, when doing a rising trot, sometimes as your seat goes back onto the saddle, your nuts get crushed in between, which is not pleasant, and you can’t flinch and scream, because it’s bad for the horse. The horse will get confused or upset. And so I said, look, this is happening. And they said, well, we don’t know what to do. So we went and found a senior instructor who was a bloke and I mentioned the problem and he said, you know what, after a while you just stop doing it to yourself. Well, thanks, that’s not very helpful. Yeah, well, but he was right. After a while, I couldn’t say what the change was, but it stopped happening.
ES: Yeah. Something about your seat improved and shifted.
GW: But there wasn’t a technical correction to make, it wasn’t like you’re sitting too far back or you’re sitting too far forward, you’re coming up too high in the rising trot. It wasn’t a technical correction to make. It was just some very, very subtle detail. That’s probably different for every bloke who rides. But eventually you just stop doing it to yourself and it’s true.
ES: That’s the thing about one of those things about horses and horseback riding is that sometimes it just takes time and just patience and it’s not something that someone can show you. Your body just has to figure it out for itself. And, yeah, there’s a lot of corollaries there. You know, one thing I’ve actually found improving my fencing lately was actually something my dressage trainer told me. And we were working with my horse and she said, he’s trained to second level in U.S. terms. And she said, you always ride him like he’s a second level horse. She said, but if you ride him like he’s a Grand Prix horse, if you get on there and you expect a Grand Prix horse. He will give you more. And I was like, that’s interesting. And sure enough, next time I rode, I sort of went out there like I was riding a horse with much more training. And sure enough, he gave right back to me a lot more. And the same thing happens in your fencing. It’s like going to a tournament and telling yourself that you’re a very average middling fencer. I mean, how do you think you’re going to perform?
GW: And it’s also true, like the teacher effect on students, I think it was, Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, where I came across the studies they did where, if you tell the teacher that these are D-level students, the teacher will treat them like that and they’ll behave like that. And if you tell the teacher that these students are expected to get A’s, the teacher will treat them like that and they’ll behave like that. And obviously, you know, someone who’s getting D’s in maths doesn’t suddenly start getting A’s, but the on average, the performance improve because the expectation of the teacher was that the performance would be higher. And we are so naturally programmed to basically rise to the level of our teacher’s expectations or sink to them.
ES: Oh yeah, yeah. When I was an assistant Irish dance teacher…
GW: Hang on! You can’t just drop the sentence, “When I was an assistant Irish dance teacher.” Okay, what is an assistant Irish dance teacher and how did that happen? And then carry on what you were going to say.
ES: Sure. So yeah, I did competitive Irish dance for a long time.
GW: Is that where you buggered your hips?
GW: Not surprising.
ES: That and armoured combat at the same time is a really bad combination. So yes. In the Irish Dance world in order to actually become a certified teacher, it’s a very, very long, difficult process. High level of accreditation. So I assisted teach, I did have classes where I was there as the primary teacher. But on some level I was always an assistant. So yes, in medical school, I did this as a way to sort of supplement what I paid for dancing and things. And I taught a lot of elementary school through our like high school age girls, maybe like 10 to 17. And when I started out, I was like, I don’t know how to teach younger kids, it’s just kind of intimidating to me. I can deal with adults, I can deal with older teenagers, you just treat them like adults. But what do I do with these younger kids? And so I showed up like the first day of class and I thought, well, these are girls. And I said, you know what? I’m just going to call them ladies. I’m just going to run the class like I would normally run it for my adults or my older teenagers. And so I only ever called them ladies or I said, all right ladies, this is what we’re going to do. And you know what? They always seem to be very well behaved with that. By approaching it and using the word ‘ladies’ and not ‘girls’ or ‘kids’, it pulled them up to a certain level or a certain level of expectation. And I never really had to deal with drama. I never really had to deal with teenage girl attitude. They just showed up and they behaved.
GW: I have two teenage girls in the house, so I know whereof you speak.
ES: Yeah. And that mindset, I think it can be applied to fencing, horses, swords, whatever. I mean, if you embody that thing that you want to be and you and you make that goal for yourself, you tend to rise up to that level that you want to be. Where you are really going to run into trouble, when it comes to the fencing mindset and tournaments and things, is if you show up and you have that sort of defeatist attitude, that that is ultimately how you will perform for sure.
GW: Yeah. The right mindset doesn’t guarantee victory, but it’s very, very difficult to get victory without it.
ES: Yes. Yeah, for sure.
GW: Yeah. Okay. Now, you mentioned in an email to me about something not to do with the podcast that you don’t always agree with my Fiore interpretations. Now I take this extremely seriously and we have to have a fight about this now. I’m curious, can you give me a specific example because firstly, it’s quite possible that I’m wrong and I can then fix my interpretation, or I have presented my interpretation in a way that has miscommunicated it to you so that I need to fix that. There’s going to be something I need to fix and that’s always a useful place to be.
ES: Well, I’ll start off by saying that, you know, the Internet is forever, Guy. So, you know, there are things that, for instance, you wrote, years ago that that I’ve seen you’ve like updated later on your blog and gotten back around to the same topic and said like, oh well now I think slightly differently or whatever. But I’d say like the biggest one is, I guess your interpretation of Stretto and what that means. And I know you’ve written some pretty lengthy posts about it. And when I first learnt sort of my interpretations of Fiore, stretto was very simply put to me as like it’s the closer distance, right? It’s the distance where you can reach out.
GW: It’s a description of measure. Whereas in my interpretation, it’s just a description of the tactical situation of which measure is just one component.
ES: Yes. I guess, the thing that confuses me about that definition, if you say stretto is the situation in which stretto plays can be performed, I mean, doesn’t that become a kind of circular object?
GW: No. Do you want me to start explaining it as I see it?
ES: Yes, I think you have to now.
GW: All right, fine. So in Italian stretto, is the past participle of the verb, stringere, which means to constrain, like if you shake hands with someone, you “stringo la mano”, if you’re parking a car and your Italian passenger thinks you should get closer to the kerb, they might say “stringi, stringi” as in squeeze the distance. If a street is narrow, it’s ‘stretta’. So it’s constraint. ‘Close’, as in two things that are close to each other is vicino. So there is a word for being physically close that is not stretto, though. This is not the word that’s being used. So and if we look in Fiore’s illustrations, we can see that there are actions that are done at very close quarters that are in the largo section. ‘Stretto’ doesn’t really exist without the concept of ‘Largo’ they are two halves of the same coin. ‘Largo’, again, doesn’t mean far away. It means wide, or broad, or loose. So you can be in the same physical proximity to your opponent and be free to strike because maybe you stamped on their sword as in the breaking the thrust play, or you are in some other way controlling their sword, like you maybe grabbed the blade of it, as you see in one of the largo plays. And so you are free to strike. However, if the blades are crossed and there’s sufficient pressure there, that if you leave the bind to strike, you’re going to get hit immediately. Then you are constrained. Your actions are literally constrained, your sword is physically constrained, and your actions are tactically constrained. And you have to, as Fiore I would say, pass for the cover and come to the close place. We were talking about largo and stretto as being far away and physically close in the nineties. It dates back that far. And I kept that interpretation until about 2008. It’s less critical with the armoured plays, but in the unarmoured plays, where the distinction is actually made, the issue is if you have this concept of largo and stretto as a condition of play, which is primarily about the crossing of the sword, which is done in about the same measure, whether you’re largo or stretto, it actually gives you an indication of when, in what tactical circumstance you should do plays as we find in the largo section or plays that we find in the stretto section. So when I came up with this interpretation and I fed it to my students, the quality of their free play immediately improved.
ES: They were using the stretto plays at the right time.
GW: Another thing is in the largo section, which is explicitly not the stretto plays, it’s the largo plays, we see actions which are done at very close quarters. So the fact that you are at very close quarters does not necessarily mean you are stretto. There are plays in the largo section where you are physically in contact with your opponent.
ES: Right. And I suppose that’s true even if you have a dagger or bassicello, you’re physically close but there are still things that are largo and things that are stretto even within that.
GW: Although with the dagger, because the dagger is so small and fast and dangerous, basically, you have to be controlling your opponent’s dagger all the time. And therefore pretty much all the dagger plays are basically stretto.
ES: Once you’re close enough to actually hit someone then you are in stretto.
GW: Yeah, but then, if we are doing swords and we are sufficiently close, let’s say you’ve thrusted at me, I break your thrust to the ground and I step on it. So I’m stepping on your sword and I’m free to carve you into salami in the approved Italian manner. That’s a largo play, even though we are really, really physically close to each other.
ES: I buy that.
GW: From the perspective of what we see in manuscripts, I’m specifically thinking of the Getty manuscript, but this is true for the others as well. The specific use of language, I just can’t buy the idea that stretto is just this description of measure.
ES: Mm hmm. Just purely.
GW: It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t fit what I see in the manuscript. And in addition, when I came up with this revised interpretation, people who saw it found that their free play got better because they now have a set of tools for knowing when to do what plays that’s actually clear and explicit. And it basically boils down to how the swords have crossed. Let’s say you attack me with your sword, as you probably should, it would be good for me, and I parry and as Fiore says, I successfully beat it aside, which is unusual, but does happen. And I could simply strike over your arms and thrust you in the chest as in the first and second plays of the Zogho Largo, crosses at the middle of the swords. For that to be a safe play, your sword must have been beaten aside. So it’s either far away from me or it is moving away from me. But if the swords come together so my parry is successful, but I don’t get hit. But you have perhaps turned into the parry or whatever, and we’re bound at the swords. So the point of contact is the same as it was, but the effect is different. If I do that same stepping out of the way to strike play, your sword will just hit me in the face. So it’s not measure. I know that most of my colleagues still stick to this ancient interpretation, which I cast away 14 years ago. The thing is, the advantage of the old largo stretto distinction, ‘largo’ means far away, wide measure, wide measure, misura larga. There is such a thing as the misura larga, which is wide measure and misura stretta, which is constrained measure and Capoferro uses those terms, for instance. But Fiore doesn’t. It’s zogho largo, zogho stretto, which is constrained play or wide play. And the term ‘measure’ does exist in Italian at this point said he could have used it if he wanted to. And I think if it was about ‘measure’, I think he would probably have said so somewhere.
ES: Using a different word. I think that’s good. That makes a little bit more sense to me the way you explain it. You know, I think some of it at the end of the day comes down to personally, I don’t speak Italian. I wish that I did. It’s on my list. But there’s a lot of situations, right, where we use one English word to interpret what is a more complicated concept than we have a single word for.
GW: And we also do that in reverse, where it’s a perfectly simple word in Italian, and people come up with these ridiculously long, complicated explanations as to how this, that and the other. Actually, no, it’s just a very simple thing and it has no particular connotations, it just means this.
ES: Can you give me an example? Putting you on the spot.
GW: Okay. The term Volta, right?
GW: It means turn. Voltare, to turn. English speakers don’t like that because ‘tornare’, it sounds like ‘turn’, but actually means ‘return’. It does not mean to turn around on the spot. It means having gone away, you now come back. It’s a false friend. It sounds like ‘turn’ but it’s ‘tornare’. In Fiore’s description of footwork, we have, passare, tornare: to pass and to return. And accresere and decresere, which is to step forward and to step back, but literally to increase and decrease.
GW: And then there’s the three turns, volta stabile, mesa volta, and tutta volta. Volta stabile is the stable turn, where Fiore says both feet are fixed and you can play in front or behind on the same side. He’s that specific. It’s awesome. And then you got the mesa volta, which is the half term where he says with a pass forwards or backwards, you can play on the other side. And then you’ve got the tutta volta, the whole turn. So it’s, like, stable, half, and whole, where he says with one foot fixed the other one turns around it. So it just means ‘turn’. It’s not fancy and special. Then this is where it gets really tricky, Fiore says, “And thus I say, there are three terms of the sword, volta stabile, mesa volta, and tutta volta.” He never uses the terminology in the sword sections at all, and he never describes them further and they are obviously not footwork actions as those have been described, they are sword actions. Because there is mystery in the text for which, in my opinion, there is not sufficient internal evidence to make any kind of serious interpretation. Because this is a mesa volta of the sword, with both feet fixed, I can play on the same side and front and behind. What does that even mean? With the feet, it’s easy. You’ve got the weight on the front foot and if make a turn without actually shifting a foot on the ground, you can play on that one side in front and behind. And if you want to play on the other side, you do a passing action forwards or backwards and it’s straight forward. But you get like pages and pages of Internet wank about the voltas of the sword, trying to come up with references to Vitruvian Man, which is like hundred 150, 200 years later, that’s not true, it’s about 100 years later. And there are all sorts of like, let’s try and make this puzzle work and fit and coming up with like special use cases. And translating it into English in all sorts of funny ways. Another classic is stringere with the rapier, where your opponent is en guard, your sword is pointing towards you, and when you stringer, you constrain their sword by basically getting your sword in the way of it so that the strong of your blade is opposing the weak of theirs. It may not be touching in the way of. So they can’t hit you directly. They have to make some prior action before they can hit you. Maybe a disengage or moving their sword so that the strong of their sword is against the weak of yours before they can strike. And it means to constrain. And there are other things you could say there, but it’s not a bind, it’s not a transport. Because it is often done without physical contact. So constrain is like the obvious one word. I had this great email conversation with someone who was desperate for me to use the term ‘astringe’. What the fuck does ‘astringe’ mean? You know ‘astringent’.
ES: What you put on your face.
GW: Yeah. If a chemical is astringent, it makes things kind of contract, I think. I’m not a chemist and I’m not a biologist and I’m not a doctor. But it’s a cognate, it comes from the same root, obviously. Stringere, astringe and astringent. But just because it’s so closely related in language does not mean it’s closely related in meaning anymore. So there’s one friend of mine put it to me, actually, I’m not going to go there because that goes into politically incorrect territory. So I’m going to just pull myself back from that little precipice before I piss off a whole load of people.
ES: I was going to say the only problem I had in all of that lovely explanation was the part where you mentioned listening to the gobbledegook on the Internet.
GW: Right. Well, because so much of it is shit as so much of the stuff that I was saying 20 years ago turned out to be shit. I mean, it was honest shit. I wasn’t making stuff up for my own amusement. It was state of the art at the time. But it turns out to be wrong, I mean, and surgery has changed quite a bit in the last hundred years.
ES: It has. In terms of Western martial arts, we’ve come a long way since I was a teenager.
GW: And the thing is, when people come to historical martial arts and they realise there’s all this research stuff, they get totally into it and it’s great that they do that. It is to be expected that their early work is perhaps not as good as it might one day become. I would expect someone who’s producing their first translation of a medieval Italian text or a 17th century German text or whatever, I would expect their first version to be not very good, because translation is a seriously hard skill. It is so woefully difficult that I’ve done it twice and I don’t really want to ever do it again.
ES: Yeah, it’s something that I think I would never get to the point of being able to do, for sure.
GW: Right. But then you get translations done by people who really know what they’re doing. And then somebody comes along who has no background in the language, no background in translation, no background in working with these sorts of sources at all. Which is a great place to start, obviously, everyone starts there, and produces their own translation and they get into arguments with the more experienced, more qualified translator, because they really, really want this particular word to mean this particular thing because then this super cool thing comes out. I’m actually remembering a discussion on Sword Forum that must be 17, 18 years ago now, where someone was desperate for ‘tornare’ to mean ‘to turn around’ rather than ‘to return’. And it just bloody doesn’t. You don’t want to discourage these people from doing this kind of work because that’s how they’re going to get really good at it.
ES: And we need more of it.
GW: They have to produce the less good stuff so they can learn how to do it better. But then you have two books in front of you and you know nothing about this art at all, they’re both translations of the same source, and one of them is accurate and has been thoroughly vetted by people who know what they’re doing. And the other one is somebody’s early work. But to the reader who has no knowledge or context of the field, they’re the same. And they will pick the one they like the best. And go off on all sorts of horrible wrong tangents and down wrong rabbit holes and stuff because they were misled. There isn’t a solution to this. But when I say like shit on the Internet, I mean like 99.9% of everything I’ve ever seen on any kind of Internet forum, including things like YouTube or Facebook or wherever else. Almost all of it is rubbish. Like really, really bad. There are absolute gems out there, there totally are some fantastic things, but the noise to signal ratio is so bad that I just have abandoned Facebook altogether. I’ve abandoned YouTube. I mean, I literally pay somebody to make sure my Facebook page gets stuff put on it so that people will come off Facebook and onto my website and find my stuff. I don’t even go there myself. And, you know, I have a Discord Channel, actually all my podcast guests get invited on to my Discord Channel.
ES: Special club.
GW: Yeah, absolutely. And those are the people who my students and my friends and also my guests and various other people, because it cuts out all the noise.
ES: Yeah. I agree. I think good conversation with your club members or the club down the road from you, one country over whatever, one state over. That’s always going to be much higher quality than everything else that’s out there on a majority of the Internet.
GW: And the problem is, there’s no way to tell the good from the bad unless you already know the good and therefore you don’t need it. That’s the problem. You have to be an expert in the field before you can spot the good from the bad.
ES: Yeah, I agree. I mean, well, it’s the same thing as looking up why you have a headache before you go to the doctor. It’s never going to be good information that you find.
GW: No, no, absolutely not. And it is one of those domains where everyone’s an expert until actually, you know, things go really badly wrong.
ES: Although, I will say, the Facebook groups out there and things, I think have done a lot to increase the visibility of events and get people from faraway places coming to things that they might not otherwise. I mean, my trip to the UK probably, this past year wouldn’t have happened except that I was prowling Facebook one day and saw oh, Armoured Combat Workshop. You know, I want to do that and I could go out there and I think if I hadn’t been willing to spend some time investing in those communities, I wouldn’t have had that experience.
GW: Yeah, I, I’m not suggesting that other people shouldn’t use social media. It’s just it doesn’t work for me for sword stuff. I use it for other things.
ES: Yeah. High level discussion about manuscripts and things, I think there’s better forums.
GW: Yeah. And also, the problem often comes down to a popularity contest. So let’s say you have one researcher who is highly qualified, expert, whatever. And they still may be wrong, but there’s good reason to believe they’re probably right. And you have someone else who is plausible and nice and popular. The plausible nice popular person is going to be believed more than the expert who maybe has a somewhat unfortunate manner, for instance. A friend of mine had an unfortunate incident whilst in the States and ended up in hospital for quite a long time and had a bunch of abdominal surgery. And when he described his surgeon, I was like, that’s who I want operating on me. Because he was this person who was almost like a sort of the archetype of the autistic savant, someone who is superbly good at one thing but doesn’t really do anything else and has no real social skills. He was always looking at the floor. Was always just awkward mannered but was an absolutely brilliant abdominal surgeon because that’s the stuff he was interested in.
ES: Yeah. That’s who you want operating on you.
GW: I don’t care if you’re a nice person or you know, they can be drowning puppies for fun at the weekend for all I care. But if they’re the best surgeon for what I’ve got wrong, that’s who I want.
ES: Maybe. I don’t know. I’ll draw the line somewhere because you have to go back and see that person later. But.
GW: Yeah. True. But you’re alive to do so.
ES: Yeah. Yeah. Ideally, I’d like someone both. Like not a psychopath and also a surgeon.
GW: Although, although a cousin of mine in Australia is has a long term relationship with this trauma surgeon, who is obviously a psychopath. Because she does TV work and she’s doing this TV programme where they were kind of following medical stuff around. And he was called in from some dinner or something because he was on call. And so he came in wearing his tuxedo, classic sort of stuff you see in Grey’s Anatomy or whatever. And this car crash victim was brought in who had their chest was basically crushed and it was stopping the heart from beating. So he rolled up his sleeve, said “big knife” and the nurse handed him the big knife and just cut the bloke open, shoved his hand in, popped the sternum up, heart started beating again. And then they worried about things like disinfection and scrubbing in and doing the surgery properly. But, you know, you can’t do surgery on a dead person. But his affect was like this to him was just completely no big deal. That’s not normal. Normal people can’t detach like that and be totally unmoved by, like, somebody bleeding everywhere with their chest crushed in.
ES: I mean, I haven’t shown up in my arming doublet yet, but who knows? Maybe one day it could happen.
GW: It’s a useful trait. It’s a socially useful trait. We need people like that in those sorts of situations so they’re able to act dispassionately and quickly because they’re just not connected to the emotional stuff that’s going on around them.
ES: It’s a balance. The more time you spend focussing on surgery, it’s very easy to become detached. Things that used to bother me don’t now. And in a way that’s good, right? I can focus on whatever is going on and it’s not gory, ever. But at the same time, you don’t want to lose that part of you that’s human, you know.
GW: If your patient is like a Barbie doll that you’re just playing with it goes too far.
ES: That’s not good either. And for me, that’s on some level why I do all the swords and the horses and everything else is that it adds back that that human aspect, that art to life, that otherwise it would just be sterile.
GW: Yeah. And it’s a pretty stressful job, I imagine.
ES: It can be, yeah. There’s definitely days when I come home and I’m supposed to go to teach sword stuff or whatever, and it’s kind of hard to flip your brain. But again, that’s why we need hobbies and why we need to spend time with people that aren’t doctors.
GW: Aren’t who aren’t rushing around, doing what you tell them, instead of just trying to bash on the head with a big stick. It’s good for you.
ES: It’s very good for me.
GW: Yeah, excellent. What is the best idea you haven’t acted on?
ES: I have a few. I mean, one is I would really like to learn Italian and get to the point where, I could, I’m not keen on like translating things myself really. I just know that that’s not my forte. I struggled with, like, language in school. Yeah, I leave that to other people. But at least get to the point where some of it comes across in a way that’s more meaningful. The real answer to that question, though, is my ultimate goal in life is I’d really like to again, I don’t really see myself like running my own sword school, maybe like with someone else, but I’d really like to build my own centre in the United States where you could have more mounted combat. Kind of an equestrian centre with horseback riding and maybe dressage or whatever, and then have space for a nice hall to have HEMA classes in and create kind of a centre where people can come and gather and get groups together, clinics, things like that, because there’s so many HEMA groups out there that like don’t have their own space and that they practise in some wrestling place or martial arts school. And it really does limit the interactions you can have.
GW: Very much so.
ES: Yeah. And so for me, if I could create one place like that for people to come to, I think that that would be meaningful and it would just be totally fun. And I’m realistic about the fact that I will probably never quit my day job.
GW: Why would you?
ES: Yeah, it’s rewarding and it makes good money, but I sure as heck would like to do everything else I can to get more involved, and again, start to teach my own interpretations of things and, and facilitate more community.
GW: Okay, so you would you like to build your own training centre, which would definitely include stables.
ES: Yes, for sure.
GW: Basically you’re modelling Jen. She has recently done just exactly that. She went and bought a farm outside Vancouver and has horses and it’s this training centre where you can go and do mounted combat classes.
ES: And yes, I talk to her about once a week and she’s giving me very bad ideas.
GW: I think they are very good ideas. You just have to act on them. It sounds to me like you would need to set it up as a business and have somebody to run it. So you’d be the owner and an instructor, but not the manager or the instructor?
ES: Yeah, I’ll take applications.
GW: I have no interest in working for anybody else.
ES: I mean your podcast listeners.
GW: Oh, yeah. Okay, fine. But I’ve been working for myself for 22 years, and I think I am unemployable at this stage because the notion of having to run anything by someone before I’m allowed to do it is just, no.
ES: Right. I hear you. I mean, as a doctor, I’m kind of in that category, too.
GW: Yeah, sure. Okay. So I imagine, like, my next question, somebody gives you $1,000,000 or so to spend improving historical martial arts worldwide. Is that how you would spend that money?
ES: No. That would be selfish, right? Like the horse HEMA centre on some level is like for me and my community. What I think I would rather do with that million dollars, during my surgical training, I’ve applied for various fellowships and things and there’s these things called travelling fellowships where you apply, you get a set amount of like a few thousand dollars and you can go watch surgeons all over the world operate. And the idea is you’re supposed to go you learn your techniques and then you take them back home to where you practise and then your community is better for it. And I sort of imagine doing something similar for HEMA. So, some sort of programme, non-profit or whatever you could apply to. And I want to go watch Guy teach sword classes for a month or whatever and you would go and like get whatever personal instruction and learn from them and then bring it back to your own little HEMA school and maybe have like a permanent relationship there.
GW: That’s great. My school operated that sort of thing indirectly for quite a while because we have a facility and students could stay there so, so long as they could find a way of getting to the country, they had a place to stay with a kitchen and a bathroom and a washing machine, a place to sleep and whatnot.
ES: Yeah. So I mean, I imagine like formalizing that, right? So it’s like you got this grant to go do it and it would pay for your plane flight or whatever.
GW: That’s a good idea.
ES: You know, make it like credible or whatever. I don’t know what the right word is, but that’s my idea.
GW: It’s tricky whenever we’re talking about chunks of money and money being given to people to do stuff with, you always have to have these hoops and checks and balances.
ES: So I sort of imagine it being run by like a non-profit you’d set up. The HEMA non-profit and then obviously they’d take applications and pick the person and then that person would be responsible maybe for writing some sort of written thing about their experience or having to present about their experience at some HEMA event or something to make it more formal. But at the same time, it’s like I feel like it should be a grant. They should never have to repay the money, because that’s the whole point. They get to do something they couldn’t otherwise do.
GW: And a lot of the people who would be applying for that sort of thing are probably short of money because they happen to live in a place where the money isn’t worth very much. $1,000 to the average American is one thing, $1,000 to the average Chilean perhaps or, you know, pick a country, is a lot harder to come by.
ES: Yeah. It’s also much harder to get someone like you to go out for an extended period of time to whatever place. But they could send their coach, their instructor, whatever to you.
GW: As many have done. But then they’ve had to sort of find ways of getting the money together. Actually, I have been trying to figure out how to make it so that I can go and teach in places that can’t afford me. My current idea is I have this monthly subscription to my online courses, which is a chunk of my income, but it’s not all of my income. Assign maybe a month of that because it’s a monthly subscription so it makes sense to take a month of that. That should bring in enough money in a good month to fund flights and whatever, for me to go somewhere where I can teach for free for a week or so and probably have money left over to make some kind of contribution to the local community, some local charity or something, so that the school there can start making better connections within their own community. And then, I fly home again having left a bunch of happy sword people behind who haven’t been bankrupted by the experience.
ES: I think that’s great. I think that’s ideal.
GW: It’s a good idea.
ES: You just have to have the time, too.
GW: Well, the time isn’t really the problem, it’s figuring out how to administer it so that it’s transparent where the money is coming from, how much it is. It’s transparent how people get access to it. And it’s a fair process so that it doesn’t just go to people who I already know and like, it goes to people who may have no previous connection. It’s just okay, we are this club in this place and this is what we would do with it. And whatever committee decides these things, guys, that’s the best idea. Okay, Guy, you’re going to such and such a place. And then, of course, you just set up the time and the flights and so forth.
ES: Yeah. You need a third party that’s like a committee observes it.
GW: I have a couple of friends who volunteered for it, but also as a question of how to publicise it. How to make it clear to people that they are able to apply for this sort of thing and what their obligations would be. Because, you know, I was thinking that it shouldn’t be free for the locals, because people don’t value what they don’t pay for. But it should be appropriately priced for the location. So, like the equivalent of going out for beers with your mates, that kind of money, for the weekend. In some places that’s $3. In other places, that’s $50. But price it according to something local so it is a reasonable expectation. Depending on where you go, that may end up being no proportion of the pot, but all of that money would stay local. It would be distributed to local charities or whatever.
ES: We need to combine forces. Maybe it’s maybe it’s an organisation that both sends you places.
GW: Perhaps, because I mean, the biggest problem in front of us really is that swords are expensive, always have been. Generally speaking, my time is expensive because, I have been doing this a long time and I know I’m doing. But it shouldn’t be you have to be rich to do it. It should be you have to be really keen to do it.
ES: Yeah, I agree. Yeah. I mean, I feel very lucky as a surgeon, I make enough money that I am able to take trips that probably a lot of other people aren’t. Something I would like to share with other people, you know, that they have that opportunity.
GW: Okay, so we should set something up. Well, you said you were coming to the UK. We should probably chat about it when you’re actually here. Probably not on the podcast.
ES: Yeah, let’s do it.
GW: Yeah. All right. Thank you very much for joining me today. It’s been lovely to meet you.
ES: This was great.