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In this episode we cover a lot of ground, and make a lot of references. Here for your convenience and delight, is a list of links:
Hello sword people. This is Guy Windsor, also known as The Sword Guy. And I’m here today with Kendra Brown, who does, amongst other things, she translates Latin and so has produced a translation of the Florius version of Fiore’s Il Fior di Battaglia. So for which all of us Fiorists owe her an eternal debt. You can find her online at her excellent medieval research blog, www.darthkendraresearch.wordpress.com. That’s Darth as in Darth Vader, of course, because we’re all nerds here. So, Kendra, without further ado, thank you for coming along and welcome to the show.
KB: Well, thanks for having me.
GW: It’s nice to see you. So I usually start with a question: what made you want to start historical martial arts and how did that actually happen? So let’s go with tradition and there you have it. So how did you get into the whole sword world thing?
KB: It was a long time ago. I don’t think I was looking for a way to get into sword fighting at the time. I was actually much more into archery. When I was 13 and I read a magazine article about Robin Hood and noticed that the writer of the article worked at the Higgins Armory Museum, which was near where I grow up. So I went to an event there once I was 14, you couldn’t volunteer at the museum until you were 14 and recognized the name across the Great Hall and said, “Mom, Mom, I think that’s the Robin Hood guy” and the Robin Hood guy, Jeffrey Forgeng, about to do one of the first sword demonstrations they ever did there, at the end came over and said, you look like you’re wearing some archery gear. You should come to our sword practice. And so I did. And here I am now.
GW: So you actually started with Jeffrey Forgeng? OK. I have a story about Jeffrey. The first viva exams for my PhD did not go terribly well and Jeffrey was the external examiner and he absolutely correctly, because the work represented was not up to scratch, he completely and very politely ripped me a new one. So I have deep respect for his work. I have most of his books sitting on my bookshelf just right across where I can see them right now. But I also have a slight kind of PTSDish response because he absolutely eviscerated me. So I trust he was he was gentle with you.
KB: Well. So I pretty soon thereafter got involved with the study group that was going through his Meyer translation draft and making sure it worked as instructions. So that wasn’t too traumatic. And I guess the following year he invited me to do an independent study with him and translate some Latin dagger text from Paulus Hector Mair. And while that was fun and not actually injurious, it is also how I was introduced to deponent verbs and medieval Latin. I love it. But also, I don’t know if I can ever forgive him for that.
GW: Yes, it’s somewhat torturous. So, OK. So you’re there at the Higgins and you’re training with Jeffrey. How come you already could translate Latin?
KB: I couldn’t right away, but I liked that translation study group so much that I wanted a piece of that. And the German didn’t really speak to me. And so the other medieval language I had heard about was Latin. So knowing that my parents wanted this to happen anyway, I said, Mom, can I change schools to a place that offers Latin? And there it went.
GW: So is this high school?
KB: Yes. This was high school. It would have been when I was 16 to 17.
GW: That’s very different to my own Latin experience. I was force-fed Latin for four years at prep school. (Prep school in the U.K. is from the ages of about seven to thirteen.) And I absolutely hated it. And then some, I guess, eight or nine years later, in my early 20s, we came across 1.33 and suddenly it’s like, oh my God, I actually know some of this language. If they had only explained to me when I was eight, nine years old, when I started Latin, that actually just stick with this and you’ll be able to translate actual swordfighting treatises, I might have been a bit more receptive to it.
KB: 1.33 is not a beginner text though.
GW: Very true. Have you had a crack at it?
KB: Not recently. At some point, yes. But I don’t really remember how it went. It wasn’t as big a deal as working on something that hadn’t yet been published in translation. So it was OK. But the group I was with, we didn’t produce a whole new translation. We were just more doing interpretations and kind of checking against the original.
GW: So you’ve translated Florius.
GW: So tell us a bit about that. What is it like to approach a Latin manuscript that thousands of Fiore scholars worldwide are salivating about? I mean, personally, I spent a ridiculous amount of money getting scans of it and when it arrived I was like, I wish my Latin was that good. So what was your experience?
KB: This is a very complicated subject. This is where I keep my translation PTSD. Because the beginning of the project was I had seen some of the artwork in one of Michael’s presentations, and I thought it was just the coolest looking thing I had ever seen.
GW: Just pause a moment while the sirens go by. OK, so with those sirens, just remind me whereabouts you are in the world.
KB: I am just outside Boston.
GW: OK. Is it generally safe at the present time?
KB: I think so.
GW: OK, good. So that’s not like a common occurrence that says, oh, probably someone’s had a heart attack and the ambulances are rushing to get it.
KB: It’s somewhat common because there’s a very major street just outside the window. But that doesn’t mean that there’s riots happening.
GW: Glad to hear it. I’m sure all the non-American listeners will be like, “That’s a relief.”
KB: OK, so I do hear more. I’m going to duck into the next room and take you with me so you don’t have to hear too many more of those. So Florius. I had seen the artwork in a Michael Chidester presentation and thought it looked really cool with the colours and little gold crowns. And the study group I was in, I was the only specifically Latin translator. And then we have someone who does both German and Latin. And there was someone who did German and Old Norse, which doesn’t come up a lot. But she had a lot of exposure to the difficult languages. And she was going back to school. So she was going to be unavailable for a semester. And we all said, well, one semester, Florius is all of 48 folia long. We can just knock that out in one semester. It’ll be fun.
GW: No problem. Okay.
KB: Two years later, Michael convinced me that we could just call it a mostly done draft and release it to the world. Even though I was certain it wasn’t good enough and it sounded awful. And so now Fiorists have access to it.
GW: Do you know what? An imperfect first draft that’s useful is vastly more useful than a perfect first draft sitting on a computer that no one can see.
KB: I do hope it is useful.
GW: Well, I know from personal experience that it’s useful.
KB: That is really good to hear.
GW: Your Latin is obviously a lot better than mine. And I’ve had a look at that book and had a look at the translation and gone, OK, I know enough to know that that makes sense. I can see that that’s… But I couldn’t possibly correct the translation because it’s just really hard. Latin.
KB: So the funny thing about it being really hard Latin, is it’s actually really bad Latin. That means it’s really far from anything that gets taught in school.
GW: Exactly. And we got taught the classical Latin sort of stuff that Julius Caesar himself would have written. And did write. And that’s logical and consistent and perfectly, well… “approachable” is the wrong word. But it’s a surmountable problem. But 1.33 and Florius, no. It’s like a drunk Glaswegian on a Saturday night.
KB: In fact, I ended up writing an entire article basically to explain how hard it was, to sort of backup, yes, this mostly draft of the translation is the best we could do in two years. This is how hard it was.
GW: No, that’s fair. And, yeah, as I said, an imperfect translation that you actually have is more useful than a perfect one that you don’t have access to. And also, my apologies to Glaswegians, who may be offended by what I just said. But frankly, it’s not an unreasonable analogue because Florius’ Latin is, yeah, I have four years of Latin school, and they didn’t help at all.
KB: But I have to say, having been to Glasgow only a couple times, I had an easier time understanding Florius in the broad strokes that I did communicating in Glasgow.
GW: Kendra, you shouldn’t say that when I have just taken a mouthful of tea. You came very close to ruining my notes. OK. All right. Moving swiftly on, so our Glaswegian friends don’t come at us with big swords. You’ve also done a whole load of research on women in armour. And in fact, the reason that I thought to invite you on the show was I saw your presentation at Swordsquatch last year, and I was intrigued and interested and impressed. And I thought I would like to talk to Kendra more. But, you know what these events are like, there’s loads of people and they all come up and talk to you and whatever. And there wasn’t an actual opportunity to sit you down and just pick your brains about the subject you’d just given a presentation on. So if we could make up for that now that would be great.
GW: So women in armour in the medieval period, obviously no women ever fought in armour because armoured combat is just for boys. Right?
KB: Well, in fact, very little armour for women has survived, but not none is an important starting point. So there’s only one that has been sort of anything like verified. And it seems like they get a little more waffly about it with every progressive publication. But in Bologna at the, I think it’s just the medieval museum. They have the armour that possibly was worn by Caterina Sforza when she stared down the Borgia army.
GW: OK, now I know the story but most of the listeners may not. So could you tell us the story?
KB: Where does this story begin? Perhaps the story begins with Cesare Borgia wanted to own all of northern Italy and most towns didn’t resist. But Caterina Sforza had already established herself as a woman who does not just sit down and let things happen. She had single handedly seized Castel Sant’Angelo in the Vatican when she was 22 and pregnant.
GW: I’ve been to the Castel and that is quite an achievement.
KB: I suspect this may have gone something like, I’m angry, I’m pregnant, give me the castle. And then, I don’t remember the year, but most famously after the death of her first husband, she told the rebel who had just killed him, “You can kill my children, too. I can make more.” That’s probably not how it happened. But she had the kind of personality that people would say that about her. So fast forward a whole bunch. Following the death of her third husband, she was now the sole proprietor of that same castle that the first husband was killed in and was the next in line to be crushed by the Borgia steamroller. And it was December of 1499. This siege actually spanned across Christmas. And so my favourite part of the story is on Christmas morning, she looked out and saw that the besiegers were still camped there. They weren’t leaving and she really thought it would be nice to have Christmas dinner. And so sent some people down to the basement of the castle to find what flags they had and ran a Venetian flag up the flagpole to make the Borgias and the French army that was supporting them believe that more troops were coming and scramble around trying to deal with that for a day. And everyone in the castle and the neighbouring village could have a nice Christmas dinner.
GW: That’s fantastic.
KB: And so that exact scene when retold, it’s often mentioned that she was up on the rampart looking up and wearing her armour. However, the armour that’s in the museum does not match the word that’s used in the texts describing this scene. As well as the armour in the museum is a much later style that’s more correct for around when she died. However, she was not exactly a princess, but sort of a princess of the Sforzas of Milan. So if any woman was going to have access to cutting edge, not even fashionable yet armour, it probably would have been her. She didn’t end up getting to keep that castle. By the following January, so some three weeks later, the Borgias got a man on the inside and caused a breach in the wall from the inside that then let the whole army in. They were able to capture her. But the French army insisted that she was going to be their prisoner because they knew that the Borgias would not treat her with respect. And they believed that was really important.
GW: Wow, that’s extremely honourable. And you wouldn’t hear that sort of story from a more modern period I don’t think. So she was captured by the French.
KB: She was held by the French for a while. The story gets sadder from there, that she did end up being imprisoned by the Borgias in the Vatican, because Pope Alexander VI was the Borgia’s patriarch. So she was imprisoned there for a while and eventually was forced to sign papers that gave all of her holdings to her two oldest sons who were about as good at politics and everything as their father, her first husband, who had been killed by a mob in the street. She’d been avoiding that. But once that was taken care of, she was released and allowed to retire to a nice, quiet house in Florence. And there was a convent with a scriptorium where she would go and visit and spend time. And she was able to at least to begin raising her youngest son, who grew up to be Giovanni delle Bande Nere. I’m sorry if I’m mangling these names, but Giovanni of the Black Band was one of the most famous Italian mercenaries and clearly took after his mother and was famous for things like, there was a place he wanted to attack and he didn’t want to go over the bridge, it was too far away and it was guarded. So in his full harness, he jumped into the river and swum across the river and all of his men followed him. They obviously followed him because he was just that good a commander.
GW: Wow. OK. He clearly inherited it from his mother. OK, so what about the armour makes it particularly for a woman?
KB: Not really actually anything specific. The only thing that’s very specifically feminine about it is it has two saint portraits engraved on the breastplate. And one of them is Catherine of Alexandria, who is the more famous of the saint Catherine’s. And is the female saint who is always depicted holding a nice big sword. She’s cool for other reasons, but artwork of her is especially special to me for that reason and maybe why she was chosen for this breastplate. But it seems totally possible that there were men who would have had that same saint in their own patronage. But it’s average size armour. It’s got a lot of fluting. It used to be displayed with arms and legs as a whole suit. And interestingly, the biography of Sforza that was published in 1898 has a photo of that and has a caption that says, here is an example of her armour. However, the arms and legs don’t match. Those are from a man’s armour. Which is fascinating. How can this guy just drop this and not explain?
GW: Yes. How does he know?
KB: How does he know? He says by around 1500 people mostly weren’t making armour for women anymore. Back up! Tell me more!
GW: So the whole 1400s they were making armour for women? Yes, we need to know this.
KB: So there’s a research lead I haven’t really followed up on because I don’t read Italian. So as far as I know, nothing about it is especially woman-shaped. It’s armour, which is exactly what we would expect, really.
GW: Right. Because, you know, I’ve worn armour, I’ve had armour made and the only bit of armour that could conceivably be different for a woman would be if you have codpieces. But that’s much later. And if you have some sort of like extra breast space. But if you look at the way modern fencing armour is made for women in sport fencing, it doesn’t have or it shouldn’t have, you know, the kind of classic fantasy armour, like two great big metal boobs sticking out the front because that increases pressure on the breastbone whenever you hit the chest. So it’s just going to be armour that happens to fit a woman.
GW: So how does he know that that armour is made for a man’s legs? That doesn’t compute at all.
KB: I have no idea. It is possible that close study of the armour might reveal more details, since a thing that is closely fitted to someone who is in very fit and muscular shape, you’ll be able to see where all of their biggest muscle groups are or something like that. I don’t know if you would get that level of detail out of armour, though. And even then, that might not mean anything.
GW: Yeah, it strikes me as a really difficult thing to prove.
KB: Yeah, basically without provenance papers we’ll never know for sure.
GW: OK. So is there a lot of other evidence for women in armour in the medieval period?
KB: There is. There’s a lot of mentions in chronicles and histories, especially in the Hundred Years War, which is another like, why did nobody tell me about this? There are so many women who were leaders of different factions in the Hundred Years War that I never knew I needed to study the 14th century. Now I do. The first one that came to my attention was Joanna of Flanders, whose name is also given as Jeanne De Montfort because Montfort was one of the main factions in the Breton war of succession. She also gets the nickname Joanna the Flamme, because after her husband gets captured and she is having to be in charge of the whole army and thus the whole faction of that war, she’s in a besieged castle. This happened a lot, and had the amazing strategic realization that all of the besiegers were outside the castle and facing toward it because they were attacking, which meant if someone could get around behind the camp and set it on fire, none of them would see it coming. Which is exactly what she did. And then she rode away into the night to a different castle to return several days later with another army. But in that time in between, no one knew if she’d survived. She’d disappeared. And in tellings of that story it’s often mentioned she was wearing armour. Sometimes it’s mentioned that she took some out of the general supplies armoury and threw it on. But with the armour of that time, that’s not especially likely because this was the era of the sort of chain mail footie pyjamas look. So it could be very closely fitted to each person. Other people have done studies of surviving artifacts where they count all the rings like it’s a knitting pattern and then figure out the measurements of the person it was made for. So it would be difficult for any two people to just trade armour and have it fit well enough to then go ride a horse at top speed.
GW: If anyone listening has ever ridden, the last thing you want is loose fitting metal pyjamas between you and the horse. That does not bode well.
KB: So this was how that whole war and family of wars came to my attention. But also at this time, the queen of England, Isabella, also known as the She Wolf, is appearing on battlefields. When there’s artwork of that, however, she’s always dressed as a queen because if she were dressed in perfectly ordinary practical armour, you wouldn’t know which one she was. So the artwork is definitely not reliable on this point because I don’t think anyone actually would go to battle wearing an ermine trimmed sideless surcoat. Which is what she’s wearing in most of the artwork. So, Jeanne the Flamme, Isabella the She Wolf. Jeanne’s opposition in the Breton war of succession was Joan of Penthièvre. Again, I apologize, I don’t speak French at all, so I’m probably mangling names. But the two people up for the same ducal seat in this war of succession were John of Montfort, (everyone in this war is named John, I’m sorry,) who in some tellings his wife Joanna had put him up to, he wasn’t even that interested, but she thought he should take the opportunity. And the other contender for the same seat is Joan de Penthièvre, who is a female cousin of his from several removes. But is a woman who is herself eligible to inherit the seat and her husband supports her in this claim and totes an army around doing what she needs. Less has been written about her because she lost, sadly. But within that Penthièvre side of the war, there’s also, I think Jeanne Du Bois, no, Jeanne de Bellville, who was married to a Blois I think. She is more famous in English, certainly, as the Lioness of Brittany, because after her husband was assassinated for political reasons, she became a merciless pirate. So, not sure how much armour she would have worn, but also pretty cool. The thing she was specifically famous for was refusing to show mercy to aristocrats. The whole war, the more I look, the more I find interesting women and in fact, I’m now finding excitingly scholarship that’s specifically about we need to talk about how these women were not exceptional and this was the norm. The understanding of lordship then, like now we think that as there’s a guy and he’s in charge, he has a wife who stays home and makes pretty embroidery. But probably lordship in the 14th century was enacted by the couple. And you would have one person who was doing the stuff on paper and one who was out with the army. And this was not always split up in a way that’s obvious to modern eyes because of the way we’ve been handed the history by the 19th century.
GW: OK, sure. Do you want to address that a little bit?
KB: Sure. The important thing to remember about all history is that it’s been reported by somebody and that person had a bias. So when we say, there are no records of women who were some particular type. There are no women who were a Duke. This does not mean no women were ever a Duke. This means no one wrote it down if it happened. That then gets filtered twice because it’s filtered by the person who wrote it down in the medieval period and then whatever later person found that record and made it available to their contemporaries and now us. So when things get filtered through the Victorian era, there’s often a lot that gets lost because they didn’t want to tell stories about women who were leading armies were powerful and who were recognised as that. And so I don’t know that it’s fair to say they created the idea that women couldn’t be in charge of armies, but that idea was antithetical by then to Western Europe.
GW: If you came across a historical document talking about nuclear fusion, you would probably think it was a fake or you would assume that they were talking about something else altogether because it just defies your notion of what was going on back then. So it’s the same sort of thing, you have women in charge of armies. And if it’s not Joan of Arc, then obviously there’s something wrong with the source. Or actually, she wasn’t actually in charge the army, her husband was, but she was just there because maybe she was attached to him in some particular way. You know, there’s all sorts of like ways of rereading it to fit the thing that’s comfortable to you.
KB: Yes. And the total line-by-line observation I read about the Breton war of succession and Joanna la Flamme was in this story, we see her husband gets captured and she has to take over. And so she starts leading the army and they follow her. If this were any kind of exceptional, if it were unusual or unheard of for a woman to lead an army, that army probably would not have followed her.
GW: Right. Why would they?
KB: And so it’s a little things like that sort of show the chinks in the armour of the normative patriarchy story.
GW: Yeah. If things are weird or unusual, then the people recording them tend to note them as such. “But it was extraordinary that they followed this person because she was female.” They would say that if it was weird.
KB: Right, in the I don’t know what century, to just skip to far the other side of Europe. There’s a very interesting case of this where Marco Polo in his travelogue mentions meeting Mongols and seeing the Mongol women and writes the story of a Mongol princess who was undefeatable in wrestling. And Marco Polo is just flabbergasted. There’s these women and they’re riding horses and they’re shooting bows and they’re doing falconry but with eagles. And that’s wholly foreign to him. And among the Mongols, this particular princess was special because she was undefeatable. But all of the women did the rest of that.
GW: Right. Sure. Because why wouldn’t they, it is super fun. Have you ever done falconry?
KB: I have not. I have held birds a couple times, but not actually done the whole thing. There are not that many opportunities for it in the US.
GW: Sure. If I can just interject that a previous episode of this podcast with Alina Boyden, we actually go into Falconry quite a bit because she has a lot of experience in this. So people who are like “Falconry, oh my God!” Go back about seven episodes and you’ll find Alina Boyden and we discuss falconry in some depth there. Sorry to interrupt there Kendra. So you have clearly a deep and abiding interest in European history generally, history of martial arts and women wrestling and fighting and leading armies and what have you. So what other historical research interests do you have?
KB: So I guess we covered translating Latin, where I’m interested in anything that is about swords and holds still long enough to read. Lately a lot of my casual research time goes to just looking at as many manuscripts as I can find. I especially like chronicles and romances and histories because they have a lot of pictures in them. And that’s easier than actually reading texts in the language I don’t read. But also, one of the sort of themes of my overall interest is the stuff I’m interested in is things that were overlooked and not talked about. And so these are things where someone, if they’re writing down all the pictures in a book, they might not mention, oh yeah, and there’s a woman in the background holding a spear. Or there was a woman at this battle, women could serve as halberdiers. The thing that got me onto this was a picture of two women who are strolling through the countryside, and one of them has a halberd, and that’s from a Swiss Chronicle. And that little scene of two people strolling through the countryside and one of them has a weapon, appears everywhere. It looks like it’s maybe some kind of patrol thing. And here it is being done by women. So I have this feeling that if I just look at as many things as possible, I can find stuff that nobody talks about and share it with everyone.
GW: OK, so what is your read on Walpurgis in 1.33?
KB: The explanation that she’s included as maybe patron representation makes sense to me.
KB: I don’t know. I haven’t read as much about the early 14th century, so I don’t have a real answer there. But I like the idea of it. Whether or not that was her name and it was a common name at the time, because you often will name your daughter after a female saint. So maybe she’s real or maybe she’s a real person had her name changed, but someone wanted to include her in the book and was paying for it. And so to do that makes a lot of sense to me. I have no explanation for why she looks like she has sort of medium to high status clothing. But I suppose that’s the level of wealth you need to be related to someone who’s buying a book.
GW: Yeah that’s probably the case. I just find it extraordinarily hopeful that the earliest medieval combats or the earliest historical martial arts source that we have that is actually a treatise is written about how to fight the swords has a woman as one of the fencers. It’s is the ultimate poke in the eye to anyone who says girls can’t do this. It’s like, fuck you, they’ve been doing it since the 14th century. Are there any other particularly good examples you can think of, of women fencing?
KB: So there is a really cool story. But who’s to say it’s fictional? That’s a tricky thing with medieval stories. The story of Walter von Birbach and the time that the Virgin Mary went to a tournament instead of him.
GW: That’s not really fair. That’s like, you know, me going to a boxing match and getting Mike Tyson to sub for me.
KB: Yes. And that’s exactly how the story goes, that Walter, he’s on his way to a tournament, but he’s a very spiritual and devoted guy. And so he sees a little shrine and he stops to pray by the side of the road, loses track of time. And at the end of the day, leaves the shrine and sees this wave of people coming toward him, he realizes that he’s too late for the tournament. And bizarrely, all of these guys come up and start to negotiate ransoms with him, as if taken prisoner. When he gets the whole story, what he hears is someone wearing his armour and bearing his crest went to the tournament and mopped the floor with everyone in a feat of arms that had not been seen for a whole generation. And that was that. And so Walter sort of looks to heaven and said, I understand what happened. My intercessor Mary has won the tournament for me and I should quit while I’m ahead and lay down my arms right here, go devote myself as a monk.
GW: That seems like an appropriate response.
KB: And this is sort of the only story like this. There are lots of copies of it. But it’s really interesting that clearly this idea was not at all antithetical to the medieval mind, even at a time when some of the books that record this story are in the format of an older monk and a younger monk telling each other stories. And there is a pause at the end of this one. And the younger one says, “But brother, isn’t it bad to fight in the tournament? Isn’t it a sin? Isn’t it like the sins of pride and murder?” And the older brother says, “Well, yes… but, you know, when you’re doing things for glory, it’s often the glory of God. So it’s kind of OK.”
GW: Let’s face it. If Mary herself goes and does it for you, then it must be all right.
KB: Right. So here is the most special woman to the medieval mind who is entering a tournament, even though it’s not really appropriate. And this becomes a folk song; the collection that it’s in is one of the earliest European sources of written down music. Like sheet music and notes and everything. So the idea of women as fighters goes way back and goes back into the pre-medieval period, which I haven’t studied as much. But you can find examples. As long as there are people, people love the image of a woman warrior.
GW: When I was doing research for my Audatia card game, the first two decks are: we have Galeazzo da Mantoa, who is one of Fiore’s actual students, and Jean Le Maingre, who he famously defeated. So Marshal Boucicaut at the time. So those are the first two decks and I was absolutely certain I wanted to find a historical female combatant to be the third deck for the game. And we looked at Jeanne Le Flamme and we looked at various other women. And one of the odd things was, there were quite a lot of women to choose from. But we went with Agnes Hotot because we know she actually fought a duel. Audatia is a duelling game, it’s not a leading an army game. So it made sense to kind of find someone who’d actually fought an actual duel. And the legend is that, actually not far from where I live now, her father and the neighbour, were disputing a patch of land. And they had agreed that then the neighbour and her father would joust on that land and whoever won the joust would keep the land, which seems like a very fair way of establishing land ownership to me. But on the day appointed for the joust, her father was taken ill with the gout and Agnes armoured up, rode out, knocked the neighbour off his horse. And then as he lay there in the mud, according to the actual chronicler who wrote this down, she stripped off her breastplate and reveals that she was a woman. And anyone who’s ever worn armour knows that that is complete horseshit because you can’t just strip off a breastplate. It takes a team working diligently for several minutes to take off a breastplate. What probably happened was she took off a helmet and revealed that she was a woman. So he had been unhorsed by his neighbour’s daughter. She would have been about 18 or 19 at the time. Anyone who’s ever worn armour or sat on a horse or even, God forbid, tried to manipulate a spear on horseback, knows that she must have been trained. There’s simply no way that an untrained person could get on a horse in armour they weren’t familiar with and then manipulate a spear sufficiently accurately that they can knock a person off a horse. You just couldn’t do it. So in late 14th century England, at least, there were some women who were being trained to fight on horseback in armour.
KB: This is the kind of thing I read chronicles for.
GW: And isn’t it funny that the monk who chronicled it had to embellish it? It’s kind of weird. It’s a really good story all by itself. You don’t need to literally make her get her tits out to make it a good story.
KB: Sure. But if the version that came to the monk had already been embellished, he might not know.
GW: That’s fair.
KB: Which is how we get the story about Caterina Sforza. In the scandalous version, she not only says “kill my children, I can make more”, but she lifts up her skirt to show everyone for proof that she has the ability to make more. That is the main version gets passed around as truth. That’s the version that Niccolo Machiavelli uses in his books to explain about women as leaders.
GW: But it doesn’t really seem very likely.
KB: No. The eyewitness accounts from that battle are never even mentioned. There’s only like two, but never discussed. People really love that sensational image.
GW: They do. OK. Well, while we’re sort of on the topic of armour and protective equipment and what have you. I know you’ve fenced and you’re trained with swords. So what is your opinion about protective equipment as it is now? And how do you think it could be done better?
KB: This is this is a complicated question. Because I got into swordfighting classes in 2001, which was before there was protective equipment available, really. And so the group that I was in kept to that style of teaching, of doing everything slowly and recreating exact sequences of moves described in the original texts and doing it as choreography and sort of working up to doing it at full speed and at real distance, but never using protective gear because there hadn’t been any when the style was developed. And as the protective gear got developed, it was a sort of, oh, that’s those people. Those are the people who are doing competitions and we’re not doing competition. So we’re not going to start using their gear. So actually, until about a year and a half ago, I did not own safety gear. My safety gear was thin leather gloves.
GW: Not even a fencing mask?
KB: No, not even a fencing mask. The fencing mask I’ve finally gotten around to not hate and sort of appreciate it, but yeah, that was a really hard adjustment when I started taking different classes and needing to wear fencing masks. And all of a sudden I can’t see, I can’t hear and I move like a robot. And it was terrible.
GW: It takes some adjusting to.
KB: Yeah. And so I think, if I have to pick a favourite thing or at least the thing, I hate the least, it’s probably my PBT Junior gorget because the gorget was the thing I hated the most, and it made everything else worse, especially the mask. And then I got a smaller one that fit me better and I didn’t hate it anymore. And I no longer notice it and it made the mask more manageable. So if I had to give advice on what it would be, get a gorget that fits you properly and that you don’t hate.
GW: Well, I mean, that’s pretty much true for every bit of equipment. I mean, badly fitting gloves are worse than no gloves at all. OK, because this is a litigious society we live in, let me just point out that none of us are advocating that beginners should spar without protective equipment.
KB: No, not at all.
GW: All right. OK. And you’re doing all of this zero protective equipment training under competent supervision in a safe space, etc, etc.. OK.
KB: And specifically choreographed so there were no surprises.
GW: Right. So we’ve got the legal stuff out of the way. So, my view of protective equipment is basically it allows your partner to actually go to hit you. So if you’re not wearing a fencing mask, they can’t stab you in the face and so you can’t really train to defend against a stab to the face. But if you’re wearing a mask, they can actually go for your face and you can learn to defend against it. So I don’t see protective equipment as making you safer, I see it as basically increasing the number of targets your opponent can legitimately go for. So what’s your experience been with masks and gloves?
KB: I think kind of whatever about masks. I did some modern fencing back in high school, so I met them before and masks are clearly not optional. The main thing I learned about masks is they make me really happy when my opponent has a bright, colourful button on the end of their sword and not black electrical tape that blends right in with the mask. I have a mask that fits and doesn’t bang around. It keeps you from getting stabbed in the face and that’s great. It does it does sort of diminish the realness of the reflex to defend my face, but I’m OK with that trade-off. For gloves I really haven’t found something I like. The thing that I found that I tolerate is a set of black lancer gloves, which were a prototype from 10 years ago. Totally by chance that I encountered them at all, but a set of big, heavy, hard shell five finger gloves. I’m not sure I need a five fingered glove, but that seems to be the place that has the best thumb mobility, which is one of the things that I really want out of gloves, because I’m so used to being able to change my grip without gloves at all, that my mobility expectations are pretty high.
GW: Yeah. My mobility expectations for a protective glove is if I can’t do all the grip changes, I can do with a bare hand I’m not interested. I protect my house primarily by keeping my sword in between my opponent’s sword and my fingers. So if I can’t do the grip shifts that enable me to do that, then the gloves are actually making it more likely that I’m going to get hit in the hand. I have these, they’re actually pretty cheap, they are made by a guy called Jiri Krondak in the Czech Republic and they are steel gauntlets just off the peg. But instead of the glove that comes with them, which is some kind of cheap gardening glove, I took that glove out and I got fencing gloves that actually fit me properly and I glued and stitched those in. And I have basically all of the mental dexterity I would have with just a fencing glove. But I have steel on the back, which means that I’m unlikely to get a finger broken through them.
KB: That’s pretty cool.
GW: Yeah. But it’s also a question of luck. I happen to have small hands for a man. And so, you know, I can take the smallest sets of gauntlets that people make and they generally tend to fit. And because they are smaller there is less metal so they are lighter and as soon as the gauntlet gets just a little bit too big for your hands, it becomes clunky and unmanageable, at least in my experience. What have you been your main influences as a teacher, research practitioner, lecturer, etc?
KB: Have you ever handed a little girl a sword for the first time she’s ever been handed a sword?
GW: I have daughters, two. So I’ve done it many times, but I’ve done it very memorable times.
KB: And there’s this way that they sort of glow and come alive because they didn’t know they’ve been waiting for this moment their whole life. That is the real thing that keeps me going. The idea that for people of any age and any gender and any everything, I can show them things that they didn’t know were possible and didn’t know were real and didn’t know maybe were an option for them or were an option for their kids. And just by kind of being me and doing the things I do, I’m exposing people to new ideas. And so, in a way, like my main influence is the little girl who hides behind your dad’s knees while her brother picks up all the swords. But she’s looking at them with laser vision. Also, the older woman who asked my demonstration group at the end of one of our performances, “Can a small woman like her, really do all of those things?” I was so mad. There wasn’t a backstage to walk to or I would have. Fortunately, the guys in my group are great and were able to field this question. But someone had just watched me do all those things and really asked me that.
GW: Sure but they don’t believe it. It goes against everything they’ve been taught or socialized to believe. So it’s hard to believe it.
KB: Yes. And so even when they’re not offended that I’m there doing that thing, it doesn’t fit. There was also there was the guy who said to me, how are you going to get a husband if you wear a sword?
GW: Right. Okay. Yeah. Well, I guess you’d get a husband who likes swords and isn’t intimidated by women who can actually fight maybe?
KB: Right. I’ve always thought that was a handy situation. Anyone who thinks that’s a problem is disqualified.
GW: It’s perfect. It’s like a perfect arsehole filter, you know, wear the sword and only blokes worth talking to might get through that filter. Oh my God. But let me say, no one has ever come up to me in my single years when I was wearing a sword and says, how the hell do you expect to get a wife if you wear a sword like that? No one has ever said that’s me. Not once in my whole life.
KB: That doesn’t surprise me. But talking about things like the significance of wearing a sword. It’s something I really miss. I’m not able to do presentations for the public anymore. And I’m hoping that maybe after corona to get back on that project. But even without that sort of access to the general public, I try to do things people haven’t seen before within the historical martial arts community. And so share stories of historical people that they haven’t heard before. And also, I’ve been trying to kind of make more noise as a person who isn’t interested in competing and used to study only through forms. People talk about forms very dismissively, like, oh, well, people can study only through forms, but they might as well go do yoga. Someone actually said that to me.
GW: I’ve written a whole book, which is basically just my longsword form. So I’m very much in the form camp. Without forms you don’t really have a martial arts. You just have sparring.
KB: Yeah, sort of trying to shed more light on my own history and also what I do for research so that people who want to get into that and don’t know how can see that you don’t have to be educated in medieval languages to do this, and you can pick it up and teach yourself. So that’s something I hope that I can inspire people and that hope is what keeps me going.
GW: I am absolutely certain that you managed it just fine, because I have said many times I’ve seen people come up to me and people come up to students of mine who’ve been doing demonstrations or whatever, and they are astonished that somebody like them, maybe a child or maybe a woman or maybe somebody who is particularly short or whatever, and they are there doing the martial arts to reasonably high level. It’s like, oh, my God. You mean people like me can do things like that? I’m in. So representation is absolutely key.
KB: That was a great statement.
GW: So I have a standard couple of questions I’d like to finish up on because we are heading close to time, is what is the best idea you’ve never acted on?
KB: This discussion seems it’s like what do I regret not doing some time ago? And I couldn’t really think of a lot of those. But the best idea that I’m trying to figure out how to start on and I haven’t yet is, I think I need an armour dress.
GW: An armour dress?
KB: An armour dress. Yeah. So get some off the rack armour and reassemble it in a way that instead of an arming doublet, it’s supported by a dress. And so kind of guided by the artwork for my research, you show people that this is one of those questions that will get me up off any coach. You can’t do that in a dress. You can’t do that in that dress. Nobody did this in dresses. They did.
GW: Of course they did.
KB: I mean, in the case of Caterina Sforza, the records of her doing fabulous things, often the dress that she’s wearing is described and mentioned. When she rides into Castel Sant’Angelo, she’s wearing cloth of gold with a green turban.
GW: Wow. OK. And this is worth noting, that for most of human history, up until relatively recently, everybody wore what we would now consider to be a dress.
GW: Both the priest and his scholar are wearing kind of monastic robes, which are effectively a dress.
KB: Yes, finding female warriors in artwork from that time period was actually really hard because everyone looks kind of the same and you have to be able to recognise hairstyles.
GW: OK. So you’re going to build an arming dress to hang your armour off?
GW: That’s a brilliant idea. There are no historical examples you can point to, right? I can’t think of one.
KB: Caterina Sforza must have had arming clothes if she was wearing armour. There aren’t surviving examples just because of the way the time periods overlap there aren’t a lot of clothes from that period.
GW: And clothes are vulnerable. They deteriorate faster than armour anyway, generally.
KB: Yeah. And also, if anyone had found some, they might not recognize it. So if they found, you know, a slightly short dress that had a lot of eyelets in it, they might shrug and say, what a weird decorative pattern.
GW: Right. Or perhaps it was just a long-skirted arming doublet.
KB: Yes, which men wore. I think the not armour-related project that came to me a couple years ago and I really should do, but also, I’m kind of afraid of it, is there is a Latin book that’s an expansion of Boccaccio’s On Famous Women that adds a whole bunch, like a couple dozen more women, from the 15th century, some of who are alive at the time of writing. So it was published in 1493. It includes Caterina Sforza, who at that time has not yet stared down the Borgias and also has an entry for her grandmother. I found this chasing a footnote that mentioned that this grandmother, Bianca, I believe, had led an army and worn armour, maybe as a decorative figurehead, but since she was duchess of Milan, totally possible. So I have to read this to find out. But it’s Latin and it’s about more than swords. So I’m a little afraid of it.
GW: I think you should just gird your loins and crack on because the rest of us are waiting to read it. My last question is somebody gives you a million dollars to spend improving historical martial arts worldwide. How would you spend the money?
KB: So I have a clarifying question here, is this specifically one million dollars or is this money is no object?
GW: Well, some large figure. How you choose to interpret it is as much a part of the question as a question itself.
KB: So I have, I think, three different answers based on exactly how big the pile of money is, because if it was essentially infinite money I would buy the entirety of Museo Stibbert in Florence.
GW: Yes! Fuck.
KB: The most frustrating museum in the world!
GW: And they have Giovanni delle Bande Nere’s armour in that museum. When we were talking about Giovanni, I was like, “He’s in the Stibbert.” Well he isn’t. But his armour is. Yes, yes. OK. You’d buy the Stibbert museum, OK.
KB: If it was a not infinite amount of money but not necessarily one million, there’s an estate near where my parents live. It’s huge. It has two ballrooms. It has nearly 50 bedrooms. So I would buy that and then pay some people to run it as an event venue where you could have year round, any kind of weather events where people can do things they normally would do outside, but indoors.
GW: Whereabouts in the world is that?
KB: That is in New England.
GW: New England, United States. OK. Yes, that sounds like a marvellous idea. So what’s the estate like? What is it?
KB: I haven’t seen it because you’re not supposed to just walk into it. It was built in the early 20th century. I think it was last inhabited by the original builder in 1918 or so. It’s huge old buildings. The part that I have seen, or may or may not have seen – litigation and all of that – was just the greenhouse and the greenhouse is the size of a house. It’s pretty rundown but has different kinds of architecture in it.
GW: The owner probably built railroads or had steel mines or something like that. Like the Vanderbilts and the Carnegies and that sort of thing.
KB: Yeah, probably like a minor tycoon from that milleu.
GW: So is that is that your infinite amount of money or your very large pot?
KB: That was the very large. Infinite was Stibbert.
GW: Do you know, actually the way the Stibbert is run, I think you could probably get the Stibbert for less than you’d pay for that estate.
KB: The estate is currently listed at about three million.
GW: OK, fair enough. Yeah, the Stibbert is probably more than that.
KB: So for specifically one million dollars, this seems like maybe more the kind of answer many people would give. I would find it ways to invest in coaching and training and teaching that is inclusive of more body types than are currently included. But not body type agnostic, but like specifically someone who teaches cutting for people who don’t want to squish their chest. Someone who teaches footwork for people with hips. I had a huge clash with a training partner over this where he wanted me to step back in a way that turned me from square on to profile in a single step in a single time count. He could do it and I couldn’t. My hips just will not go that whole distance that quickly. So I would love to see more of that in HEMA. Being inclusive of everyone is great, but we also need to cater to specific needs to make sure that they still feel included.
GW: But then I would say that if you’re not catering to specific needs, you’re not being inclusive.
KB: Right. Pretending that people aren’t different is not the same as welcoming differences.
GW: Exactly. OK. Actually that third one, I mean, I love the idea of buying the Stibbert and the estate in New England where we can hold sword events year round would be great. But I think that last one is probably both the most reachable and probably the most important. Excellent. OK, well, if I had the money, I’d give it to you.
KB: Don’t give it me, give it to the coaches!
GW: You know, for you to distribute to the coaches according to your plan. OK. Do you have any ideas for how coaches could be trained to be able to do that? One of the things we have in the historical martial arts is most people teaching are not trained coaches, are not trained in any kind of pedagogy at all, have no particular experience of teaching different body types or different levels of ability or injuries or whatever. So how would you go about addressing that?
KB: I think one important step would be to encourage everyone who has had one of these difference of body moments in their training to feel comfortable speaking up about it and giving feedback and remember to ask, am I bad at this or is my body different from theirs? Because training harder will not make your body less different generally. And so it’s important to recognize that. And my experience has been that giving an instructor this feedback they find really interesting and really kind of invigorating. “Oh, wow, that’s great. I didn’t realize I was doing that. I need to remove this and do this differently, do this thing.” So knowing what they need to think about – it changes the world.
GW: I have many stories in this regard as I have been teaching a long time, but the one that kind of leaps to mind is we were doing push ups in a class. You know, this is many, many years ago. I was a lot younger and a little bit on the arrogant side, perhaps, who’d have thought… But I made some kind of a humorous remark. The student carried on training for many years afterwards, he wasn’t offended or anything, but he was 50 kilos heavier than me. And I was sort of being a bit smug about I could do more pushups than him when we’re doing this sort of thing. He was like, “Yeah, but Guy, I weigh 50 kilos more than you.” And I was like, well, OK. So we found a student in the class who weighed 50 kilos and she lay on my back and I tried to do a push up. Imagine somebody had just parked a two ton truck on my back. That’s pretty much how good my pushup was. He grinned and went, “You see?” I was like, “Dude, you’re really strong.” He said, “Yeah, but I can’t do many pushups.” So, yeah, him being comfortable enough to call me out was really useful. And it led to an interesting and kind of funny anecdote. But there must be many occasions where a young, fit instructor makes an older or less fit or overweight or less flexible or in some other way less physically competent person to feel like, well, if I can’t do that, this isn’t for me. And then the whole point of the class is lost because the whole point of the class is you have a class because you can’t do it yet, but you attend the class and then you can do it afterwards.
KB: Yes. So students need to feel empowered to give the feedback and instructors need to be really sensitive and welcoming of the feedback.
GW: And I’m not sure how the money would help, maybe training for instructors?
KB: The money could also help sending instructors to more events or to visit more places. Now, if there is someone who is doing a great job at this, but no one has ever met them, and so they can only teach people who live in their neighbourhood, they are still great but we need to get them to meet everyone else.
GW: Yes, absolutely. OK. Well, we are a little over time but that’s good. There’s no sense in cutting off the conversation shorter. So, I would like to say thank you very much for joining me today, Kendra. It’s been a delight talking to you Kendra, and I hope to talk to you again soon.
KB: All right. Thank you. This is great.
GW: Thanks for listening. I hope you enjoyed my conversation today with Kendra Brown. Remember to go to www.guywindsor.net/podcast-2 for the episode show notes, which are particularly comprehensive in this case. Kendra has kindly supplied links to an article about the challenges of translating Florius, annotated slides from her Swordsquatch presentation from last year and a whole lot of other things. So definitely go along to the show notes to find all these things we’ve been talking about. And of course, you can also get your free copy of Sword Fighting for Writers, Game Designers and Martial Artists. If you’d like to support the show you can go to www.patreon.com/theswordguy and sign up. You’ll be in very good company. New patrons this week include William, no further data supplied, and anonymous patrons. And it’s actually been surprising to me how many of the people supporting the show choose to remain anonymous, which is absolutely their right and I totally support it. They are a shadowy band doing good by stealth. And although I will not reveal their names here, I know who you are and thank you very much indeed. You can also support the show by simply telling your friends about it. So if you’re enjoying these episodes, please do let your friends know so they can subscribe, sign up and get listening and particularly tune in next week when I will be interviewing Jake Norwood, who is the founder of Longpoint and a longtime historical martial artist, very well-known in the field. We had a lovely conversation, which I hope you will enjoy. So tune in next week. I will see you then.