GW: Hello, sword people. This is Guy Windsor, also known as The Sword Guy. And I’m here today with Bill Grandy, who is a long time professional historical martial arts instructor and also a historical handcrafter making beautiful scabbards and shields and things. His website is www.historicalhandcrafts.com. There’ll be a link in the show notes and it is definitely worth a look. And now, without further ado, Bill, welcome to the show.
BG: Hey, I am so happy to be here, if for no other reason than this pandemic’s been long and it’s nice to have a human to talk to besides my family.
GW: Quite. That’s one of the really great side benefits of starting the podcast, which I hadn’t really anticipated. It means regularly I get to sit down and chat about swords and other stuff, sometimes with old friends like you, but also sometimes with people who I’ve never met, which is really good. Very, very good for the mental health. OK, so whereabouts in the world are you?
BG: I’m in Virginia in the United States. In the Northern Virginia area, not too far from D.C.. Washington, D.C., I should say, because I realise people outside of the US sometimes don’t know what D.C. is.
GW: Fair enough. Did you come along to Lord Baltimore’s challenge in 2019?
BG: I was there for the very first one, which I feel like was 2018? I don’t remember.
GW: I know you’re from Virginia and I was there for it. Strictly speaking it is in Maryland. But you know, that bit of the United States is basically all just suburbs of Washington, D.C.
BG: Yes, you’re exactly right. And so yes, I was there for the very first one. I tied for winning the Lord Baltimore’s challenge with another gentleman. But the second one, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it. So I understand you were at that one. I didn’t know until afterwards.
GW: You were not deliberately avoiding me then? Yeah, because I think the last time I saw you then must have been something like WMAW then, most likely. It’s been a while.
BG: It’s been a number of years since I’ve seen you in person.
GW: Well we should fix that after the pandemic.
BG: Yes, we should. I agree.
GW: OK, so what got you into historical martial arts in the first place?
BG: So it’s a long and winding story, and I should start by pointing out I technically have just retired from the Virginia Academy of Fencing. That’s been my full time career for the last 20 years. And so that was not an easy thing for me to retire from. There were some family health issues that I had to take care of, plus just regular dad duty. For the first time in my literally my entire adult life, I am not professionally teaching anymore.
GW: Do you think you’ll come back to teaching professionally?
BG: I’ll be honest, I don’t know. Probably not professionally. I think it’s more than likely I will come back to it in some form, but something a lot less formal right now. I don’t know what the future is for me as far as historical martial arts go, because with the pandemic going on, it’s hard to say for sure. But I’m certain that once the pandemic lifts up and people start meeting again, I will definitely be meeting with the various local fencing groups and groups and doing something that right now is up in air. And especially until my son gets a little older, I’m probably not going to do too much for at least another couple of years. So that’s a very, very open field.
GW: That does actually kick me off into some of the questions I’m going to come back to later. But I interrupted you. So how did you get into all of this?
BG: You could argue I started with The Princess Bride when I was a little kid. My first actual hobby was foil fencing, which I think I started around age nine, something like that. So that’s the late eighties for me. I did that for a very long time. I also did Aikido around age 11 or something like that, throughout high school. So Aikido is not technically focussed on swords, but it does have a sword component as well as a staff and a knife component. So it was something where I was at least learning how to move my body with an object like that. I know there’s a lot of people who will jump on Aikido about stuff. And some of it is true. But nonetheless, it still got me moving and taught me mechanics. It taught me how I’m supposed to be turning my hips and turning my shoulders and so forth when I was swinging objects. So that was important for me. In high school I was doing stage combat and that just put me in contact with people. High school is probably the first time I started learning the people were trying to recreate historical martial arts. Before then I’d never heard of anyone doing it. And I was learning that through stage combat people. I was taking classes with Brad Waller and he was doing stuff. And so that’s how I started learning about it. And by the time I was in college, I was reaching out to people through, for example, Sword Forum International, the old HACA forums long before ARMA existed, where they used to be called HACA, and that was the meeting ground for so many people who went on to start publishing and teaching. So I guess that’s kind of where I officially got into the historical martial arts and then at around 1998, that’s when I was still in college, I started going to the Virginia Academy of Fencing. And that was very fateful because I would be there for a very long time. And I was just taking some foil classes there. There was a guy named Steve Atkinson who had formed a historical swordsmanship programme. A lot of people think I formed it and it wasn’t me. Steve Atkinson was the original guy and that was 1998. So it was a very different world. He was teaching Talhoffer and that over the years has become code for meaning “you don’t know what you’re doing”. But in his defence it was 1998.
GW: In 1988 we were all teaching some variation of Talhoffer.
BG: He actually came from a stage combat background and he really knew how to teach very well and he knew how to teach stage combat very well. And what he did was he was like here’s a fencing mask, here’s a shinai, let’s learn some stage combat moves and beat the crap out of each other. And it was glorious. I miss those days in some ways, it was so much fun. And eventually I start teaching at VAF and I’m teaching beginning classes and I’m teaching beginning classes for this historical programme. And around that time is when I was really starting to read up more. And there wasn’t a lot available back then. But I remember when Jörg Bellinghausen released his translation of Ringeck and I was so excited because there were things in it that just were so mysterious, like throwing a Zwerchhau. I remember reading like, oh, you’re supposed to put your thumb on the bottom of the sword and you’re hitting with the short edge. That doesn’t make any sense. What does this mean? And I remember it being just so exciting, trying to figure things out, things that nowadays, if you go to any events and you say a word like Zwerchhau, everyone goes, “Yeah, OK, that’s obvious, that’s an easy one.” It was just so mysterious. I just remember working through these things and going online and talking with everyone else. And back then I really wasn’t even asking questions. I was just reading the things that people were saying. And that’s kind of how I got my foot into it. And eventually I took over the programme, Steve ended up leaving, and that’s 20 years later how I ended up doing what I did.
GW: I think you’re the only person I know who just got basically offered a job teaching historical fencing. It’s a really unusual career path. And so early, I mean, 2001. I started my school in 2001. We had our 20th anniversary celebration literally this week. And there you were teaching historical martial arts for a living at the same time. It’s incredible.
BG: Well, I say it that way. And it sounds very simple because it’s just the easy way to say it. The truth is it’s more involved. When I first got hired at the owner, Alexander Ryjik, he was a Russian fencing master. He came to the United States. He grew up in communist Russia, where when he was six years old, he was brought to a fencing academy and told, this is what you’re doing for your life. He almost went to the Olympics, but then he defected to the United States. So he grew up in a very different world for fencing. And when he first was thinking about doing fencing in the United States, his wife was telling me the story about how at first he’s like, no, I can’t teach fencing. I can’t teach fencing. I would be bad at it. And then she convinced them to go and watch these fencing classes. And she described he was sitting in the bleachers, all serious looking. And she’s like, oh, man, is he really intimidated by this? And she gets in the car and goes, “So what? I think that was OK. I mean, I think you could do that.” And he goes, “Oh, I could do that. That was not fencing. I don’t know what that was.” So he starts doing it and he scares all the students away because he would scream at them. He still does. He still teaches that way to this day. But he would scream at them and yell at them. And when they didn’t do a move right, rather than telling them how to do it, he would just tell them how wrong it was. And so he couldn’t keep any students and that’s when he realised he needs a different approach. So by the time I started there, he’d been running that for a while. And it was a good sized school by the time I arrived. I think he had something like two hundred students by the time I arrived. And part of that is when he realised he needed to get other coaches there who would be nice. And then for those people who said, no, I need to be yelled at, he would train them.
GW: Coaching styles vary. Different students need different coaching styles. While I’m not a fan of the yelling at them style there are some students who thrive on that.
BG: I agree, and he trains champions. I’m also not a yell at them kind of person. When I’d been there for a number of years he had watched me for a long time. He’d watched how I talked with newer students. And he just came up to me one day and said, I’d like you to start teaching some beginning classes. And what started to happen is more and more people stayed. The retention rate shot up through the roof. After I’d been teaching just beginning classes for years, he said now I need you to do more. And when I was graduating college, that’s when I was supposed to be looking for my so-called real job. He just came up to me and said, before you do that, I need to hire you full time. And at that point, there was no such thing as a full time instructor. So he’s just like you’re bringing in too many students. And so I’ve always joked that I never had a real job before, and that’s kind of true. But that said, as you know from running a school, it’s not just teaching. He hired me also to go out and do stuff. So I was on the phone every day calling up elementary schools and rec centres and things about setting up programmes and how do I set up demonstrations and things. So it wasn’t just the teaching, but the teachers are the thing that most people really want to hear about.
GW: Well, actually, I think it’s probably useful for people to understand that when it comes to running a club, there is a huge amount of work is done by the admin staff. Now in my school to start with, it was all pretty much me. But very quickly my students started stepping up and helping out with all sorts of admin stuff and organising demonstrations and all the other stuff that goes to running a successful school. And it’s as well to just flag it up a bit that when you see a successful instructor with a successful school, what you probably don’t see are the dozen or so really hard working students or colleagues or whatever who are actually making that work. Because if you just show up and teach classes, there’s nobody there. If you haven’t advertised the classes, no one knows that they exist.
BG: In the early days, that was me.
GW: Yeah. OK, so I think the first time I met you was at WMAW and you brought with you this gorgeous antique rapier for people to just hold and play with. Which is kind of like owning a classic car and taking it to an event so that other people can drive it around the field. So you have a deep interest in the historical side of things?
BG: Yes, very much so.
GW: Where does your heart lie when it comes to the history?
BG: Oh, where doesn’t it lie? It depends on the day. OK, so I own a number of antiques now, and I’ve actually started working a little bit with the Oakeshott Institute where they’re going to be doing 3-D scans of all of them. So I have this beautiful schiavona that they’ve recently done 3-D scans of. I think the pandemic slowed things down but eventually that’s going to be online so that people can not only just look at pictures, but can zoom into it and move it around. And they have a number of their own collection there. And so we’ve been talking about doing things. I have a 16th century dusack that they might be interested in.
GW: You have a 16th century dusack?
BG: Yes, my wife will probably listen to this, so I won’t say it’s the love of my life.
GW: This is a video call. Where is it?
BG: It’s upstairs. Sorry. I have my website theHEMAists.com. That website has not been updated in ages. That was a project I started with some students to put up content before there was a ton of content on the Internet and then all of us got married and kids and things like that. And that just pretty much never gets updated anymore. But there’s a ton of photos of that particular sword, as well as the schiavona on there. Later on I’ll get you the link.
GW: I’ll be putting links in the show notes. Craig Johnson talked about the Oakeshott Institute a little bit in his interview on this podcast a few weeks ago.
BG: I listened to that.
GW: Oh good. OK, so I’ll put a link to that episode in the show notes as well so people can orient themselves. But you do work on the treatises themselves, right?
BG: Absolutely. My focus has primarily been on the 15th century Liechtenauer related treatises. I dabble in a lot of weapons and I’m a little polyamorous when it comes to fencing treatises, but my focus tends to be the Liechtenauer stuff, the Messer in particular is my favourite weapon. I say my favourite weapon. If you put another weapon in my hand, I’ll certainly say that’s my favourite weapon. But the Messer tends to be my favourite. I really love all of that full range of weapons from the longsword to the spear to armoured and unarmoured and wrestling and dagger and so forth. So that’s been my primary material. The Italian rapiers probably would be a very, very close second in the Fabris style. And not just Fabris, really, all the Italian treatises from that era. So I do a lot of that. But I also I dabble in a ton of other things. I do a fair amount of Bolognese. I would never claim to be a true expert at Bolognese swordsmanship. I feel like if I don’t have all of the Assalti memorised, I can’t call myself an expert, but I do love it. I do enough of it to say that I know what I’m doing with Bolognese. With students, I would sometimes do small classes on Bolognese, but I always made a huge disclaimer. I am not an expert on this.
GW: OK, so you tend to go for the earlier stuff. You tend to go for the medieval German stuff.
BG: More often than not.
GW: Can I ask you, how come you haven’t written a book yet?
BG: So I did technically. And that’s a silly story. I’ll get into it. So probably 2008/2009 I wrote a rapier book, and I’m kind of glad it didn’t come out in the sense that it’s so outdated now that it would have just been pointless. But I wrote a training guide to rapier, to Italian rapier specifically. I did a bunch of photos with two of my students at the time. And there was a professional photographer who volunteered to do all the photography for it. He just thought it was a cool project and would do it for free as long as I gave him credit. So I put it all together. And at the time, I wasn’t sure where I was going to shop around to do it, but it was mostly done. And then I happened to talk with Christian Tobler and Greg Mele, who were like, hey, we’re doing this thing called Freelance Academy Press. You should be on this. So I send them all the stuff. And then there were some delays where Greg, unfortunately, had been dealing with family health issues. So that got delayed for a long time. And then when they were ready to go, it’s something like a year and a half later, like, OK, now we’re ready to look at this. You’re going to have to redo these photos or these other photos and so on. I’m like, oh, OK, the photographer wasn’t available anymore. So we have a completely different looking camera. None of the fancy lighting or any of that stuff and didn’t look good. So I send it back and then they are like, oh, no, we’re going to need to change these other ones to match and it ended up being this big process. And that probably would have been something we could have overcome. And then my family ended up having really awful health issues. Both my mother and my father had bad health issues back to back and that put me out of it for at least another year and a half. I didn’t get back to the project. By that point I gave up because I was like, in the three or four years since I first wrote this, I need to rewrite the whole thing. My understanding of things have completely changed. And I started to do it and I started to really seriously do it. And another year goes by and I’m like, you know what? I don’t think I have the heart for this anymore. So that never went anywhere.
GW: I have a rapier book from 2006.
BG: It’s sitting right there on my shelf.
GW: It’s dated. But I can stand behind it because everything in it is basically true. I don’t really train that way anymore. But in my 2004 book, The Swordsman’s Companion, when I reissued it recently I put a thing in the front saying the introduction and stuff about what is historical martial arts and all that philosophical stuff, I absolutely stand behind it. The actual technical stuff is totally out of date. So my workaround was I put in a link that said people who’ve got that book can go to my website and download a free ebook of the medieval longsword, which is like the replacement reinterpretation written from scratch. So I kind of got around it that way. But the issue of photography, yeah, it’s really hard to produce good books with good photos. So I have a workaround for you. If you ever decide to go back to the book. This is what I’ve been doing for the last couple of years. OK, I’ve got a series of workbooks called The Rapier Workbooks. Instead of having photographs, what I’ve got in the books is I video every action, which is dead easy to do, much, much easier than taking photographs. And I apply that to my Vimeo account. So basically it’s a video clip and then in the text where you would normally have photographs is the link and a QR code so people can point their phone to the page and the video will appear on their phone. So instead of seeing static photographs, they’re seeing the video clips. Because the link routes through my website as my interpretation changes or as I get better video equipment and reshoot some stuff or whatever I can replace the video without having to edit the book.
BG: That’s fantastic. That blows my mind.
GW: Yeah, I am not known for being avantgarde when it comes to tech stuff. You know, anything invented after about 1800 I’m a bit suspicious of. But it works really, really well. And so if you did decide to go back to your rapier book you don’t need to worry about the photos. By all means, take some of those photos if they look nice and put them in for basically decoration. But you can use that same idea. It’s important that you have the link that routes through your website so that if, for example, Vimeo goes bust and you lose all of those links, you can just reapply all the videos somewhere else and adjust the redirect link, rather than having to reissue the book.
GW: If you decide you’re going to do this and you also help with the tech side of it, just get in touch and I’ll gladly walk you through the whole thing. Put it this way, it is actually so easy that I could do it. It makes producing a training manual or technical manual much, much easier.
BG: That’s really cool, and I’m still blown away by Wiktenauer, to be honest with you. From a technical point of view, the fact that I can go, “I need to look that up. Let me pull out my phone,” instead of, “Oh, I left the book at home.”
GW: Yes, exactly. And it’s not just the treatises. There’s all the scholarship going along with it. Michael Chidester is publishing the collations of the manuscripts so you know how you put the book together so you know if there’s stuff missing.
BG: I love all of that. I’ve got every publication he’s done. And I actually just last night was just rereading through a 3227a one, not because of the treaties, but because of all the stuff about how the quires are put together and how the book is assembled.
GW: Of course I interviewed Michael for the show a while ago and we had massive technical problems with it. I need to reinterview him actually because he’s been very, very busily doing an awful lot more very interesting work in the last few months since I last spoke to him. I mean, if there was a prize to give out for the biggest contribution to historical martial arts over the last decade, I’d probably give it to Michael.
BG: I agree. His work on getting these facsimiles published. I am an addict of facsimiles of medieval treatises.
GW: Yes. They are so beautiful.
BG: I cannot believe how cheaply he is doing this. And he’s doing it cheaply because he is not making any money.
GW: Right. And he’s making these books. You must have the extraordinary edition of 133?
GW: I spent like £800 on that book and it was totally, totally worth it. And Michael’s doing facsimiles of comparable quality for about a quarter of the price. Now, they don’t come with the companion volume necessarily with all the interpretation and translations and transcriptions and stuff that the extraordinary edition does. But actually for one of them, he does have a companion volume which has similar modern scholarship stuff attached.
BG: The Talhoffer one.
GW: Yes, that’s right. Yeah.
BG: And he’s doing a new one on Lecküchner that will have that.
GW: And he’s got the Fiore manuscript coming out. Now, I produced a facsimile of Il Fior di Battaglia about three years ago. Because I publish my own books these days I have the mechanism for basically getting books into the print-on-demand infrastructure quite easily. And I wanted a colour copy, basically a printout. And I looked at how much it would cost to get my local print shop just to do me a print copy of Fiore and then I could get it comb bound or something in the library and I’d have it. And it was going to cost me so much money I thought it would be cheaper just to do it through the print-on-demand thing. And it was half the price. So I thought, why don’t I actually do this properly? I got it laid out properly and I put little notes in the back so that people know where it comes from and what it is. And I had Vadi and Fiore done in the right sizes, but super cheap. You can buy it on Amazon and it is cheaper than getting the colour printing done at your local copy shop. So at the bottom end of the market you’ve got mine which are cheap enough that you can toss one in your fencing bag and keep a nice one on your shelf if you want, because they are cheap. Because print-on-demand is relatively cheap. But then you’ve got Michael doing his – not only is the printing better and you can get the gold leaf on the crowns and things, but he’s even bound it according to the quire structure of the original manuscript, that is like the manuscript geek Nirvana.
BG: Exactly. And I just cannot believe how cheaply these are being sold again, because he is not making any money.
GW: They are still three hundred dollars or so a copy. Which is insanely cheap for a book that’s bound that way, that’s insanely cheap. And yet the quality. I went for the gold leaf on the Fiore, it hasn’t arrived yet, but it’s immaculate.
BG: I’m so excited for the Lecküchner one.
GW: After he released the Lecküchner one. I emailed him and said, Michael, you’ve got to stop this or at least slow down, because I am starting to run out of money. I have to buy every single one he does.
BG: We have needs, right?
GW: And also, we have to support this kind of work being done. We have to support it. And I think you know, an earthquake could take the Getty Museum away. And there would be the original Getty manuscript gone. There are going to be a hundred of these really high level copies, plus everything out on the Internet. The data is safe. So in five hundred years’ time, there will still be probably copies of this book floating around.
BG: Yeah, it’s an amazing thought. I was talking with Mike about this because I was geeking out, thinking, how are you doing this for this price? He said one of his main goals is that as wonderful as the Internet has been for the transmission of these treatises into people’s hands, he feels that we’re getting to a point where newcomers to these arts, it doesn’t fully dawn on them that these came from books. And he said, of course, there’s a logical part of their brain that understands of course, this came from books. But they’ve only ever seen texts that someone typed up on the Internet. They didn’t see that this came from a physical object. And because of that, there’s also a little bit of a disconnect of what went into these, what are these treatises? Who sat down and actually decided, I’m going to write all of this out? And I hadn’t thought of that, that there’s a generation of people that they have a little bit of that disconnect where they don’t fully understand the transmission of this knowledge. And that’s one of the reasons he wanted to do these so that people get it into their hands and they start to understand more of what it means to have a book of this.
GW: There is there is no substitute for the feeling. I also say what Michael is doing is the closest you can possibly get to having that original manuscript in your house. I have all the editions of Fabris that have been produced. Of course, I’ve got Tom’s translation from whenever it was and the various versions of that come out. And basically every time a Fabris book comes out, I bought it. And I also have the 1606 original.
BG: Oh do you?
GW: I have one. Yeah. And it is a fundamentally different experience sitting with the actual book. Of course there were many copies produced. That’s not the only copy of it, but there are dozens of them. I think there must be at least 30 or 40 of them knocking about.
BG: Tom has a couple, he has a German edition and I remember going to leave through that. You’re right. It is a fundamentally different experience. The thickness of the paper is different, the smell of it.
GW: Come to my house and I’ll put you in an armchair with a glass of wine and I will hand you Fabris and you can bliss out for a bit.
BG: I would be so excited to do that.
GW: Then we can go in the garden and poke each other with swords.
BG: I was lucky enough to go on a trip with Jeffrey Forgeng and we got to go to the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum and we got to see the original of the Peter Falkner Fechtbuch, as well as the Vienna copy of the Paulus Kal. And I remember I was shaking. I was like, don’t let me touch the book. I’m going to rip a page. We had gloves on and everything, but I was really genuinely scared I’m going to rip a sheet out because I’m shaking so much. I was just so excited.
GW: You should be. For people like us, they are effectively holy relics. Now, I don’t expect non-sword people to understand that but I guess most of the people listening will get that.
BG: I know enough historians who don’t care at all about swords, but who would absolutely understand that.
GW: Yeah, yeah. And especially if you’re working with swords professionally and it’s literally your job. And in our culture, your job is usually part of your identity in a really significant way. Some people say what you do for a living, but other people say, what are you? Oh, I’m a fireman, or I’m a lecturer, I’m a lorry driver or whatever, it’s part of our identity and these books have shaped that. Wow, there was a rabbit hole I was not expecting to go down today. That was great! I do have a list of many questions, Bill, and I’ve got to number two. Now there is a question that I do want to get to because I think it’s really quite interesting. You taught historical fencing in a sport fencing school, and the great thing about sport fencing, as I see it, is there is a very clear context in which it’s supposed to work. If you won the Olympic gold medal, you definitely did it right. No question. It doesn’t matter how you did that. It’s by definition, right if you come back with medals. So there’s a really clear context of success. And there’s also a really clearly developed and defined curriculum of material that is supposed to apply in that context. And then there’s a really well established system for getting people from the theoretical construct of the syllabus to actually winning medals in a tournament. So, living in that environment, working in that environment, how has that affected how you teach historical fencing?
BG: A lot. In the very early days there weren’t very many established footwork drills, for example, or even handwork drills. In a lot of cases I was importing the things that I knew for how to set up a curriculum from sport fencing. How do I start out? Even if I’m not teaching the same things, how do I teach a person how to get from point A to point B in terms of movements? How do I teach that person to go forward and backwards? How do I teach that person not just the physical skills, but also just the mental application? So if two blades bind and one has pressure and the other person has to then disengage to go to the other side, how do I teach them those things? And a lot of that they were literally just sport fencing drills that were foil drills applied to a longsword or whatever weapon we were using, because it was already a very established pedagogy of how do you get people just to respond. So in a lot of it, I almost did it just automatically because it’s what I was surrounded with. It’s what I knew. It’s just teaching a person to do technique A, this is the way to teach them because that’s just how we do it. And then on top, there is the physical conditioning. And nowadays I feel like that has come a very, very long way. Most schools, it’s just a thing. OK, we’ve got to condition.
GW: I remember 20 years ago the idea of historical fencers doing push ups was like, “I haven’t come here to do fucking push ups, I came here to do swords!”
BG: Yeah. Once upon a time, there was a lot more resistance and I hate to say there was resistance to it, because rightfully 20 years ago we had to figure out what was in the treatises. And rightfully, there was a much bigger focus on just what do these words mean. Being in shape, we can worry about that later. And so that’s why I hate to be hard on it. But let’s face it, once upon a time, it was a bunch of people who were not the most physically gifted trying to figure these things out and time and place. It is what it is for then. And I think it’s worlds apart now. I think most people go to a school, first of all, for better or worse, most people join the school not expecting to read a treatise at all. They do expect to get in shape. They do expect that, yes, they are going to be doing squats and push ups and run sprints and doing everything it takes to be more physically able. And some of those people end up having an interest in the treatises themselves. And for better or worse, I think that is the focus nowadays in most schools. But early on, I was pushing all right, no, we got to get up and move. We got to actually get in shape because why wouldn’t you?
GW: Yes. And my approach to the whole, OK, they come to swing swords around, but you’ve got to make sure they understand it’s coming from the book. I have facsimiles of the manuscript, whatever system we’re practising that day, if it’s a Fiore class we have a copy of Il Fior di Battaglia open somewhere so that people can see this is what we actually do. But, yeah, it’s funny. Twenty years ago, swordsmanship was really a gateway drug to getting people who never move at all to actually start moving. But now it’s also a gateway drug for getting people who are naturally kind of jocks and martial artists, physical types, to actually start studying. So we’re like a gateway drug in both directions, which is great. I know you’ve done pretty well in tournaments yourself. What are the main challenges you would think of when a student says, OK, they’re going to go to this tournament and say, for example, how would you train them for that, given your sport fencing experience?
BG: So I still look at it as a holistic approach. Yes, you can train a person just for tournament fighting. And in fact, my colleague, David Rout, he was one of my earliest students and then he was a direct peer of mine and has been teaching at VAF alongside me. He decided he wanted to just do a class that was he was going to bill as competitive HEMA and he said it’s going to be weapon agnostic. No matter what weapon a person wants to do, it is just going to focus on competitive mentality and so on. But he said his secret was this is how he was going to trick people into wanting to get involved with the treatises. When he said that, I’m like, sure, you do your thing and it worked. His students not only became incredible tournament fencers, every single one of them, even though they were doing a weapon agnostic class, every single one of them can quote treatises like crazy because he would bring a modern sports psychology and he was like, “…and what we’re going to do is, let me pull this out” and he’ll pull out the Docciolini or pull any other treatise and he starts bringing up, “you see these parts I highlighted right here.” And people would get excited and he would be like, you really should read this. And he was doing classes that they looked very much like a modern high level sport fencing class. But he would spend so much time talking about what the treatises said and how the medieval and renaissance mindset approached a lot of these things. “And you got to understand that when we’re doing this for tournaments, historically, they were also doing this for these other reasons.” And he would bring things up and he would have these things where everyone sits down and talks a little bit about it, because he is the master on medieval manuscripts study. He understands the history so well and he was essentially tricking people into learning history. It was brilliant. It was really, really fantastic. And I forgot what the question is now.
GW: The question was basically, how has your sport fencing background coloured the way you train people for tournaments? And I think we’ve actually covered that pretty well, although I should have asked how does your training people for tournaments make them into historians? And you’ve answered that one as well. OK, so everyone who does or is in any way involved in the tournament scene has pretty strong opinions about protective gear. What are your feelings?
BG: I’m a big believer in multiple forms of training in all the different aspects of martial arts, especially historical martial arts. So protective gear is no different because I believe in the full spectrum of extremes. On the one hand, I love training with very light gear or no gear. I love training with sharps, with people who are responsible and who have been around long enough to have control. And on the other extreme, I also believe in fully kitting up, tournament style, and going at it because they offer such completely different and important, very vital bits of understanding. When I’m wearing very little gear, on the one hand, it helps me to understand the fear of the weapon a little better, which is vitally important. It helps me to feel the subtle aspects when two blades bind, in a way, especially if they’re sharp weapons, you feel things that you don’t feel with blunt weapons. When I’m doing things with very little gear, I feel there’s certain aspects of the arts that are completely masked when, there’s a pun right there, when I put on a mask. When I am wearing more gear, I don’t have the same sensitivity and therefore I can’t feel things the same way. And I think that’s absolutely vitally important. The flip side, I have to pull back, right? I have to hold back to make sure I don’t hurt my partner. And there is something to be said of just fully kitting up, tournament style, where I’m not afraid of hurting my partner, within reason. So that person is going to come swinging for me and I don’t have time to think. I just have to do it. And so an example of this was I remember many years ago I met a gentleman who he practised with Scott Rodell, the Chinese swordsmanship teacher, and when he was training, he would use this wooden jian and no safety gear at all. So he and I just wanted to trade notes and we were just playing around. So we had our wooden swords and a lot of fun. And he was really, really, really good. We didn’t have any safety gear on, so I never went for his head, of course, and he would do a lot of attacking at my shins, which I might avoid, but I would counter cuts. And he was a really, really incredible fencer, but there was something I noticed. So afterwards I was like, can we try putting on masks? He said he’s never done it, but let’s give it a shot. And I was constantly hitting him in the head. Even just direct, I’ll just swing at you. And sometimes he just didn’t react. And certainly when he went for my legs, I was constantly hitting him in the head for that. And at first he thought, oh, I’m just not used to the mask. But we talked about that afterwards. And he realised because no one ever attacked his head, it had never dawned on him to do it, even though in theory, he knows that. But his muscle memory wasn’t prepared for that.
GW: I think that we wear the mask so that people can hit us, so that we can practise against that. I have my beginners wearing masks doing dagger drills in the very beginning, day 1 of the beginners’ course. So the blow is going actually to the target. Even if it’s going very slowly, very gently, it is going to the target.
BG: I feel the exact same way and hand protection is another one. If I go to an event where the culture is to wear light gloves, obviously I’m not going to hit somebody hard in the hands. I know there have been events I’ve been to where someone keeps sticking their hands out. So I might lightly tap the hand, just kind of to acknowledge that’s there and the first thing they say is, oh, I’m not going to accept that tippy tappy hand sniping. And it’s tippy tappy hand sniping because I don’t want to break their fingers. I don’t usually get into it. I don’t want to argue. But if I go to a tournament and someone her hands out like that and they’re wearing the heavy duty, like the lobster style gloves. Yeah, I’m going to hit the hand hard because they’re not going to get their fingers broken. But it’s there and it’s the type of hit that, had we’ve been using sharps, their hand would be gone. So that’s another area where I feel like as much as I hate the really super bulky gloves, if we’re going to go at it, we’re wearing them.
GW: I use steel gauntlets for that sort of thing. I’ve got an article called Spot The Bullshit because as I see it, in any training environment, there is at least one dollop of bullshit. So let’s say we’ve got sharp swords and no equipment. So equipment wise, it’s exactly like two unarmoured people trying to murder each other. And so the dollop of bullshit is we’re not really trying to hit each other. That’s a big dollop. If we are fully kitted up in fencing gear and the swords are blunt, then there’s another big dollop of bullshit where we are basically invulnerable to the sword and the swords are not frightening. That’s a big dollop of bullshit. In sport fencing there is much less bullshit because you can actually recreate the environment in which it’s supposed to work. It is supposed to work in a tournament – it doesn’t have any validity outside. It doesn’t matter what happens outside. So you have the real thing at a fencing tournament, if you’re a sport fencer, or if you’re a kickboxer, if you’re in the ring and you’re actually fighting for the championship, that is the environment in which your art is supposed to work. As historical fencers, we can’t actually create the bullshit-free environment in which our art supposed to work. Because people would die. So to my mind it is like having lots of different angles of view onto the bullshit-free environment. But you just have to be aware of what particular bullshit you’ve still got for safety purposes as you come at it from different directions.
GW: I’ve seen your website, www.historicalhandcrafts.com, and you make absolutely beautiful scabbards and painted shields and all sorts of things to make a sword geek’s heart happy. So what is the story there, you’ve been doing woodwork and leatherwork?
BG: It’s actually fairly new. The funny thing is when I was a teenager, I was really, really big into art. I was always quite the artist. And for some reason in my adult life that vanished. And it took me a while to figure that out because I would feel guilty that I would never sit down and draw anymore when it would have been a huge part of my life when I was younger and I realised swords took up that part of me. For a creative type there’s almost like almost like a pressure in your brain that forces you. You have to create, you have to draw, you have to paint, whatever it is to relieve that pressure. In order to survive in life, you have to do this. And that got replaced by swords, by studying swords, by reading treatises, by coming up with teaching curriculums where that creative aspects got poured out into running a class. And so for 20 years or so, I didn’t do anything artistic outside of swords and that used to bother me. And then eventually I just accepted it. And so my son is four now. So four years ago when he was born, a weird thing happened. Obviously, as a parent, you just have no free time all of a sudden. Especially in the early days, any moment of free time, I either had to sleep or I had to just create something. I still haven’t figured out why this is happening. Just something about having a child, I needed to draw. I needed to have something that I was making and that pressure on my brain, again, just started coming back in a way it had when I was very young. And that’s how I got into leather work. I had never done leather work before. It’s something I always found fascinating, but I just suddenly started just getting a piece of leather out and just grabbed whatever tools I had just started to tool images. And that’s how I started getting into scabbard making. I was just doing it for my swords, I was doing it for some friends. And then this pandemic hit. So that’s how I started getting into woodworking. I’ve never done woodworking before this pandemic.
GW: You’re kidding.
BG: Yeah, I also don’t have any real tools, so I have some planes and chisels. I’m scared to death of power tools. I would die if I used power tools. So I just went on eBay and bought some chisels and some planes, some really old ones that I had to sharpen up and all that sort of thing and just watched some YouTube videos and just started making things. So this was all just hobby stuff. I had zero intention of selling anything, but when the pandemic happened, VAF had to close down. So I was unemployed and just decided, hey, this is what I’m going to do with my unemployment time. And eventually I also realised unemployment meant I need to start finding ways of making money. I just started out where I was going to make an object here or there and just put it online, say, does anyone want to buy this? And I got so many commissions for things that I haven’t been able to do that original plan. And that’s not a complaint.
GW: That’s a really good problem to have.
BG: So that’s what I’ve been doing the past several months as my job.
GW: Wow. Now I get the thing about your kids being born things change, because I used to be a cabinetmaker. And that was for four or five years after leaving university. And then when I switched to teaching swordsmanship full time, I didn’t really do any woodwork at all. And then when my wife was pregnant with our first, I just thought, I don’t want to put the child behind bars in a cot. It doesn’t feel right. And so I came up with this design and I produced a wooden cot with a cherry frame and birch ply panels, with cut-outs of trees and rabbits, very, very cheerful and kid friendly. But still, it’s a cot. But they can see out and the air can move through. But it’s not bars, because it’s like a kind of woodland scene. Just cut out of plywood. That that switch got turned back on in my brain and I’ve been doing woodwork off and on ever since, and during the pandemic, I have spent more time probably in my shed on my workbench than I have done writing books. I totally get it. Oh, and of course, if you ever want any help with the woodwork side of things, just give me a call.
BG: I remember way back in the day on Sword Forum where you had made a lectern for your book to rest on, and I remember you posting on there like I know it’s not swords, but it’s to put my sword books on and I thought that was so cool.
GW: That was Christian Tobler’s fault because it was when his book In Service of the Duke came out it was so big that I needed something to put it on so that we could actually look at it properly. Because I was doing loads of other woodwork at the time, I had all this stuff in my woodworking shed. And I realised I had all the bits I needed to just basically make it up out of spare parts. That was quite a while ago. I mean, 2007, something like that.
BG: So I just remember that stuck in my head like I want one of those. So ever since I’ve been doing the woodworking, I’ve just had in my mind that I’m going to make that. I haven’t had time yet, but I’m going to make all of this.
GW: Are you familiar with Rex Krueger on YouTube?
BG: Yes. Isn’t he great? I watch his YouTube channel religiously.
GW: I actually support him on Patreon. So I have access to the forum and the plans and everything. What I really like about him actually is his approach in the Woodwork for Humans series where you have these three or four basic tools and using just cheap crappy wood from the local, I guess you call them “big box” stores in the States. That’s not an English expression.
BG: I’ve never heard that expression until him, but I understood what he meant.
GW: So make yourself a workbench like this, and you don’t need to buy a vice. If you’ve got the money, go ahead and buy one. But you can get these spare parts from various other things and you can get a working vice like this, and that approach, that is so exactly how I like to think of swordsmanship. If you don’t have a thousand dollars for swords and equipment and stuff and you don’t have another thousand dollars for fancy books and what have you. Doesn’t matter. You can download free scans. You can download free videos. And there’s all these things you can do to get good at the art that you care about without having to put a ton of money in it, and without having to have any particular natural talent. You can just do the work and get where you want to go. I just really like the attitude, which is why I backed him on Patreon. It’s like this dude deserves it.
BG: And for me, like I said, I’m scared to death of power tools. So his YouTube series has been phenomenal because it’s been, all right, here’s how people used to do it. Here’s a little bit of historical context. And this is what you need to do it. And I’m like, perfect. That’s me. I don’t even live in a place that could fit most of the power tools that most woodworkers use anyway. So I don’t even think I would have really seriously gotten into this at all if it wasn’t for his YouTube channel.
GW: I do have some friends who have got into woodwork and so they put a gigantic two thousand dollar table saw in their basement. And I was like, well, OK, that’s one way to go. I’m very glad you’ve got the money for that kind of investment. Carry on. This is great. This is a great thing. And if I had that kind of basement space and I had the money, they bought the saw I would have bought. But yeah, the power tools are nice, handy. I mean, I have a little bandsaw in my workshop and it’s really, really helpful to speed things up enormously. But yeah, you really don’t need the big machines because they didn’t used to have them and they made amazing furniture.
BG: I feel that if I were in a position where I had to recreate the same object over and over and over again, power tools make more sense for me, but I am approaching this from a different perspective. I’m creating an object because I like it and I don’t need the power tools to do that.
GW: And again, when I was making furniture for a living and doing antiques restoration, we used power tools for all the donkey work, planing down, getting basically rough sawn planks and then machining them into basic components. But we cut all the joints and things by hand because it’s just better. I guess it is like a too strict curriculum. A really strict curriculum is really good for producing certain results in certain students. But there are some students who just will never fit in that curriculum.
BG: It’s a very good analogy.
GW: I like to cut and cut dovetail. So, for example, my little watch stand here, you can see there’s this little dovetail. I’ll put a picture of that in the show notes. But often when I’m cutting dovetails, I’ll do it so that the pin comes to such a narrow point that it is impossible to do that with a router. Because there isn’t space for the shank of the router to fit through. Doing it like that, it doesn’t have any mechanical strength, the joint, in fact, it’s probably a little bit less mechanically strong, but the joint is strong enough anyway. You can’t do this with a machine. I can do it with my two thousand year old saw technology. I love that stuff.
BG: I get it.
GW: Yes, you’re an artist. Of course you get it. OK, so you’re retired from teaching swordsmanship professionally, and you said earlier, and I made a note so I remember to come back to it. There’s a difference between teaching professionally and teaching as an amateur, right? I’ve done both and honestly, I much prefer the professional thing. It just works better for me, but I’m interested to hear what you feel the main the main differences are, well, what is the difference?
BG: So I’m in a position where I have not done a lot of amateur teaching, so I clearly can speak much more to the professional side. I have definitely noticed when I have visited more informal clubs, things like it’s time to start and people will dilly dally and talk, and that’s something that’s for me, no, the class time has started. Here, this is what we’re doing. And there is something too, I suppose on an amateur level, you could set it up where one person’s in charge. They say this is what we’re doing and everyone does it. There are certain elements that I feel like if I go back into teaching in an amateur way, how will I adjust to me saying, hey, everyone, let’s go?
GW: It’s the club culture. My younger child used to do judo in the club round the corner. And again, all the coaches, they’re not getting paid. So they’re amateur coaches. But the class is run according to they have a salute thing at the beginning where everybody bows and then they have their warm up stuff and everyone does what the coach says. And that isn’t an artefact of the coach getting paid. It’s just an artefact of the culture of the club. So I think that by itself isn’t too hard to set up if you are setting it up from scratch. I think if that’s the expectation of what will happen then that’s how it goes.
BG: Yeah, and so maybe I’m overthinking that. I don’t know. Like I said, I am in a position where I’ve actually done very little amateur teaching. I have almost exclusively done professional teaching. And so I don’t entirely know what to expect. And that’s assuming I go back into teaching, to be honest with you. And on one hand, for me, it’s hard to imagine not teaching because it’s been such a part of my identity for so long. But I know when this pandemic clears up and when my son’s a little older and family life stabilises a little more, I already have plans to do other martial arts. I started doing Kali online just to start doing it because I’ve always wanted to. I’ve never been able to branch out for things because the times that I’m teaching are the times that other people are teaching. My evenings have not been free for twelve years, my weekends have not been free for twenty years.
GW: I can totally, totally relate to that. In 2016 I retired from teaching full time. In other words, running a club and showing up four nights a week and weekends and oh my God, having my evenings free. It’s heaven. But I still teach for a living because I’ve got my online courses and my books. But these days, almost all of my actual in-person teaching is weekend seminars organised by clubs for me to go to teach at. So you can still teach professionally without actually doing the day to day. That’s been my experience, particularly with kids, it is so nice to be home in the evenings.
BG: Yeah, that was something that I was kind of dreading when we had our child. So I just have one boy, Finn, and I was dreading that, like, oh, how am I going to handle it when he’s older in school and he’s got afterschool things and recitals or whatever else he’s doing. And so it is a big relief to be, OK, I’m going to be home in the evening. Honestly, there’s a lot of hard things to running your own business to begin with. And it wasn’t my own business, but I still was very involved with that. But I think the hardest part for me with teaching fencing just over all these years was the schedule. Just even having a social life is rough.
GW: Yeah, totally. I’ve absolutely been there. I can’t imagine not teaching swordsmanship – that would just be a weird state to be in, but my last actual live in a salle with students was in Australia in November 2019, until everything opens up again. Although I did one in a field near Ipswich because a local club, when we had that kind of brief moment between lockdowns, they had a session and I just called and said, look, I’m desperate to get out. Can I please come and teach you for a couple of hours? They were like, “Really?” and I was like, “Yeah!” And the pubs were open then, so they paid me in beer afterwards and it was absolutely fantastic. But yeah, it’s difficult to have a life if you’re always working when everyone else is free. Having the same sort of schedule as everybody else, really does help. Friends going to the movies in the evening, back when that was a thing, and you can come because you are not teaching and like I said, there is fantastic jujitsu club here in Ipswich that when it was open outside of Corona times, I would go relatively regularly because they were really, really, really, really good. And I could go because I wasn’t teaching. Teaching online is possible. There are some things you can teach and some things you can’t teach online, but it’s useful. But I’m doing all the talking.
BG: No, it’s because in that area of actually having evenings free and so on, you’re more experienced than me. I’m trying to learn from you.
GW: I guess the thing is, teaching is part of who you are, so you’re probably going to find ways to make it happen.
BG: I think you’re right. I absolutely think you’re right. I’ve had the entire pandemic to not be teaching, of course. But it’s only been a recent thing where I’ve had to tell VAF, look, sorry, when whenever things are normal and whenever we reopen, I’m not going to be able to come back. Family life just won’t allow it right now. So it’s only been a recent thing that I’ve had to grapple with what next? And during the pandemic, it’s kind of a moot point, but the pandemic will be over at some future date. And I’m still sorting out what I’m going to be doing for that part.
GW: Well, I can recommend online courses. I can recommend writing books, and I can certainly recommend teaching weekend seminars. It’s great, you get a holiday from the kids, because let’s face it, if you’re home, you need a holiday from the kids every now and then. Shit, I’m in trouble now because my wife might listen to this. And I just confessed that actually going away to work at a weekend, does actually feel like a holiday sometimes. I’m in trouble now. OK, so we’re not sure what’s coming next. When you figure it out, if you want to come back on the show and tell us, we’ll be delighted to hear from you again. OK, now I have a couple of questions that I tend to finish up with. And the first is, what is the best idea you’ve never acted on?
GW: So you sent me sample questions and I read that one and I wracked my brain on that. And I’m going to say something that I hope doesn’t sound like I’m bragging, but I don’t have anything like that because my personality isn’t quite like that. When I have an idea, I go out and do it or I decide, no, that’s just not possible. And I don’t really have ideas I didn’t act on. Now, that said, I failed on a million ideas. Still do all the time, but I don’t really have anything, and I thought about it long and hard I’m like, no, I tried that didn’t work out or, you know, I did something else. I just couldn’t come up with an answer to that.
GW: I have quite a large proportion of my guests are like that, which is not surprising when you think to get to my attention so I know who they are well enough to invite them onto the show. They must be acting on stuff. Although quite a few have a book that they wish they would write, but no, I get it. Honestly, I don’t have any either, because either I acted on it or it wasn’t an idea I particularly liked.
BG: Yeah. And I mean, it makes sense that if you’re in an instructor’s role or something where it wasn’t just, oh, OK, let’s get some people together and swing swords, it was literally all right, I’m going to set up a curriculum. I’m going to set up events, I’m going to set up these things. You kind of have to have that drive of, all right, things are good. How can they be better? And that tends to be how I operate. How can I make things better? Things are fine now, but it’s not even not good enough. It’s just how do I keep making things better? How do I keep improving?
GW: OK, and the last question, somebody gives you a million dollars or so to spend improving historical martial arts worldwide. How would you spend the money?
BG: So I would use the word “million” very loosely, because what I propose would be more than that. I love the stuff that a lot of museums are dealing with, with 3-D imaging and I mentioned the Oakeshott Institute earlier. I would want to set up some kind of museum/university that is focussed on swords and swordsmanship, but largely focussed on the physical objects. So we would be setting up essentially a museum where people could come and touch the swords and pick them up and there would be tours explaining, OK, this is how these swords were used and so forth. There’d be demonstrations from various different instructors. And you put all this stuff not only in a physical building, but also online so that people who couldn’t get to it could go online and see the 3-D imaging where they can actually go, oh, that’s cool. Let me just touch on my phone and move the sword around so I can see the different angles and so on, which is what many museums are starting to do now.
GW: And maybe make it immersive with like a headset or something where they could go in and actually walk around the museum.
BG: Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m thinking. And then you have demonstrations from different swordfighters just explaining how certain treatises were done, where you could actually have treatises that people could access very easily. Things where people can get more immersive than just photographs or just a sword that’s hanging on a wall. And that would be what I would want to do, like Roberto Gotti has been doing with his stuff.
GW: His museum in Brescia.
BG: Yeah. And I would want to do something like that, but with a major focus on making it accessible to people outside of whatever area you’re in, which is hard. So you would fund people to do travelling demonstrations where we’re going to travel out to this event purely for the sake of bringing swords and making sure that people get to pick them up, obviously for the martial artists out there, but also for schools, for kids to see. And that’s one thing that’s hard if you are not in an area where people have actual real swords. When I say real, I don’t mean reproductions. I mean the antiques. The reason I own antiques at all, well, partially because I just love swords. But the reason I have justified the price tag of antique swords is because I want to put them in people’s hands. Actually right now, I just bought a 15th century Bauernwehr, the little German knives, and it doesn’t have any kind of handle on it. So my intent is to make little clear plastic scales, and use wax to hold it on so that people can actually pick it up and feel what it’s supposed to feel like.
GW: But you’re not interfering with the historical piece, right? You’re doing it as a conservator would, not a restorer.
BG: Right. And that way you can still see the tang because it’s clear, and the intent is to put it in people’s hands so they know, OK, this is what an actual 15th century Bauernwehr feels like. And that’s always my intent. So I want people to be able to pick it up and feel the object. If it’s just on a wall, then what’s the point? I mean, I shouldn’t say that, because museums are a major inspiration, but.
GW: That’s what I really like about the Oakeshott Institute is Craig Johnson has shown up to events with great big boxes full of amazing antique swords and let people swing them around and it changes things.
BG: It does. One of my first experiences with actual medieval and older weapons was Craig bringing it to the 2005 Western Martial Arts Workshop and it was exactly such a big box of weapons. Here’s the table, people. Here’s your gloves, play. And I remember he had a bronze sword that I feel like was about 2000 B.C.E. Before that time, I’d never had any interest in bronze weapons and I picked that up and it was magic. And seeing all the tiny details on it, that gave me a completely new appreciation that I never got from just looking at pictures and books.
GW: I know exactly the sword. I think when I was chatting to Craig on this show, we talked about the experience of holding that sword. Oh my God.
BG: The Oakeshott Institute was a big, big inspiration for me. And so when I saw you had that question, I’m like, oh, that’s absolutely what I want to do.
GW: It’s a fantastic idea. Just making it easier for people to really get the experience of it. Well, if I had the money, I’d give it to you, but I say that to pretty much every guest. You know, there are so many excellent ideas and a lot of them do centre around that idea of having a centre where people can go to actually experience the thing. Wonderful. Well, I think that’s a great place to finish. Thank you very much for talking to me today, it has been a delight.
BG: Thank you for having me. This has been great.