Episode 2

Women in HEMA, with Fran Lacuata

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Show Notes:

I’m delighted to welcome Fran Lacuata onto The Sword Guy show.

Francesca Lacuata is lead instructor at The School of the Sword’s Godalming chapter, having studied Bolognese swordplay and rapier since 2010. She has a further interest and some experience in renaissance dagger-fighting, Bartitsu and longsword. Fran has instructed at several high-profile events in Britain, Europe and the US; and has placed in and won a number of international tournaments.
As a writer, Fran has demonstrated, panelled and presented on historical fencing and real-world violence at various lectures and writers’ conventions, including Fantasycon and at the Wallace Collection.
She was a main organiser of the International Rapier Seminar 2016; co-founded Waterloo Sparring Group in 2012, which facilitates inter-group sparring from clubs all over the south of England and beyond; is a founder of the Wessex League series of events; is a key organiser of the Albion Cup; runs the Spring Sword Workshops and Swords of Winter events; organises By The Sword – an annual women’s event running since 2017; and was a founding member of Esfinges, a worldwide organisation for women in HEMA.

GW: Hello, everyone. This is Guy Windsor, also known as the Sword Guy, and I’m here today with Fran Lacuata, who is lead instructor at The School of the Sword, co-founder of the Waterloo Sparring Group in London, co-founder of Esfinges, and a well-known organiser of many events, particularly By The Sword, the Albion Cup, the Wessex League, and the list goes on and on. So, rather than listening to me babble, why don’t we hear from Fran? Hello, Fran, and welcome to the show.

FT: Hi Guy, thanks for having me.

GW: You’re very welcome. Nice to see you. Now, first question, whereabouts are you?

FT: I’m in Godalming in Surrey, which is about 25 miles south of central London in the Surrey countryside. It’s a pretty little market town where the School of the Sword has a chapter. And we have other chapters in Reading and Oxford, which is where we were originally founded.

GW: Ah, I didn’t know that.

So what made you want to start with historical martial arts? What brought you in?

FT: Like a lot of people, I find that people tend to either seek out HEMA or historical martial arts or they fall into it by accident. And I’m in the latter category. I completely stumbled into it and fell down this rabbit hole. And I’m still here, still tumbling down.

I’d had my second child not long before, and I went along to a class just to see what it was about. And my parents had encouraged me, go on, just get out the house. You know, you’re going stir crazy. You need a hobby.

GW: So they offered to babysit, I hope? That’s fantastic.

FT: Yeah, they encouraged me. I think they regret it now, because I asked to babysit over and over again so that I could go to training. I just got completely hooked. It ticked all the boxes that I didn’t even know needed ticking. It was a physical activity, something to get you moving. I’ve never, ever been a sporty person. But I didn’t realise that I needed a physical activity, something to work on my coordination, something to engage my brain, not only in the physical aspects and the strategic aspects of fencing, but also the research elements and the historical interest and insights of historical fencing – the context. And of course there is the social side of being part of a group of people who are also just as passionate as you are. That sort of camaraderie was very, very tempting and very interesting for someone who’d never even imagined this sort of activity even existed.

GW: Right. Excellent. And what styles do you do?

FT: I started out like every member of the School of the Sword. We begin, well, now in Oxford they start with the longsword, but in Reading and Godalming the foundational weapon that we train everyone up with is sword and buckler. And then we go on to other companion weapons. Eventually the idea is that you graduate to rapier, with the view to going on to rapier and the companion arms for that. But we do all kinds of things. Before the lockdown, we recently did a course on Spadone and we do poleaxe, we do dagger, we do unarmed, we do sabre. Sabre is another one that we’re looking into. So we do a large selection of things that used to be just rapier and then it was rapier and side sword and then it was like, only 16th and 17th Century Italy. And now it’s become 15th, 16th and 17th Century. As long as it’s in Italy, we’ll do it.

GW: So, rapier was the gateway drug?

FT: Yeah. Well, I’d say side sword was my first love. Side sword and buckler.

GW: OK. So, Bolognese?

FT: Yeah, the Bolognese system, very much. People associate me with the rapier, but I will confess I really struggled to like rapier for the first year.

GW: A lot of people do.

FT: All I wanted was my comfort blanket, my side sword and my buckler back, please, take this pointy object away from me and give me what I’m used to. But one day the penny dropped and everything kind of clicked into place. And then I absolutely loved it. But it was a very steep curve, like a lot of people find.

GW: Yes. It’s one of the harder weapons to get people really comfortable with, I find.

FT: Very. But the bonus is if you’re comfortable with a rapier, learning other things is a lot easier, it’s like learning a language. If you can learn a really difficult language, then learning a much – not easier – but a more straightforward language doesn’t seem as much of a trial.

GW: I have that experience with Finnish and Italian.

FT: Oh gosh, yes. Perfect example!

GW: Two years of hard work and I could barely hold a basic conversation in Finnish and two months of hard work and I could chat to my Italian historical fencing friends in Italian. It was not particularly good Italian, but still.

FT: But you could do it.

GW: At least I could then. It’s been it’s been a while. I need to get back to Italy, as do we all. All right. Do you have a particular favourite in amongst that lot now?

FT: A favourite weapon? Well, lately I’ve been really getting into Spadone, not because I think I’m particularly good at it or anything. It’s just something that I enjoy because it’s I find it very holistic in terms of it engages all your muscles. And also, you know, in order to do it well, you have to have really good form. And I give it to my beginners actually very early on. Just to show them physically, because it gives you instant feedback. You cannot do the thing unless you do it right, or it’s impossible to do it.

GW: Yeah. You can’t just muscle your way through it.

FT: You have to have the proper body mechanics in place in order to make it work. Or you’re going to be very injured. I enjoy spadone for that reason. I find it quite meditative because you cannot spar with it. It’s very much a solo activity. And even in the context of what it was used for, it is basically not a duelling weapon. It’s not you against the opponent, it’s you against the world – it’s a different kind of mindset.

GW: So you subscribe to the theory that it’s primarily for bodyguard use?

FT: Yeah, someone described it as renaissance tear gas.

GW: Ah! Yeah. That’s a really good thing to say.

FT: Dispersing the rabble. Just clearing a path. It’s like, you know, working to Figueredo or Alfieri. They both present you with all these different scenarios in which the technique is applicable. And so it’s nice because you can visualise, what you’re doing and why, whether it’s defending a person in a narrow alleyway, fending people off on all sides or fighting on a ship or something like that without hurting the rowers.

GW: Yes, it’s fascinating. And I should be doing more of it.

So, is there anything you think you should be adding to your practise? Anything you skip over?

FT: I need to be stronger. Through talking to my peers who practise a lot of strength training, I’ve come to realise that everyone’s got into weightlifting in recent years – lifting up a sword just isn’t enough. Strength training has become very important to a lot of people. But I’ve come to realise that it isn’t just so you’ve got amazing guns and, you know, the sword is light in your hands. It’s injury prevention, which as we all get older, we suddenly become, well, we gradually become more conscious of injuries. And a lot of the injuries that people experience through swordplay aren’t the ones you think of. It isn’t the busted noses and broken fingers. It’s the long term chronic tendon / joint damage that can happen. And these are the things that people don’t really tend to talk about because long term chronic conditions are just something that you live with and it’s not something that’s going to be brought up. You know, it doesn’t have that shock value of a bleeding wound or a broken finger. So it’s something that I think is really important.

GW: I couldn’t agree more.

FT: We always take care when people are coming into to historical martial arts to make sure that injury prevention is part of their consciousness and it’s part of their practise, because there’s that initial excitement of picking up a sword and swinging it around with muscles that haven’t done that before. The risk is of self-injury is great. So I think, yeah, for the sake of injury prevention, I should be doing more weights, strength training. I absolutely abhor cardio. So if there’s something I’ve got to do it is picking up heavy things and putting them down again.

GW: That’s a good thing to be doing. I incorporate quite a lot of weights myself. In fact, when I was in my early 20s, my wrists were completely wrecked with tendonitis. I was working as a cabinetmaker and I had to choose between doing woodwork for my job and swinging swords around. And it was a brutal choice to have to make. It was awful. But a friend of mine who’s a Kung Fu instructor, who comes from a Kung Fu tradition, has all sorts of medical stuff. He did this incredibly painful massage on my wrists. And then he showed me some weight training exercises for my wrists. And then he showed me how to do the massage as well. And literally in a day, so long as I do my maintenance, I have no wrist problems.

FT: And you’re still doing these I take it?

GW: Yeah, yeah. Twenty years later, I’m still doing them. It literally gave me my career. So I am entirely about the injury prevention. In fact it was kind of lucky that I had such crap wrists, because if I was one of those naturally robust people, I wouldn’t know anything about this stuff. And so my students wouldn’t know about it either. But because I broke early and had to have that fix, it certainly made me more aware that, you know, bodies aren’t perfect and bodies break and I work really hard to make sure it doesn’t happen.

FT: We should work really hard to get the maintenance in early on.

GW: That’s right. I’m hoping to peak in my 60s and I’m 46 now, so… Anyway. On the subject of injuries, obviously, the classic fencing injury that people think of is getting your fingers broken or smacked in the face with a sword or whatever. And equipment is one of the things that is supposed to prevent that. I have my own theories about such things. Of course with corona, you know, masks are on everybody’s minds already. So, what’s your what’s your view of the available protective equipment? What could be better?

FT: Well, I think the equipment has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years when I think back to when I started in 2010, which probably doesn’t seem that long ago to you. It was very basic at the time. We were still fighting with wooden swords. Nylons hadn’t appeared yet. And the protective gear available – I think the typical thing you think of is masks – hadn’t really changed all that much. It’s probably the fact that they’ve got slightly better mesh on some of them. They haven’t really altered that much, but things like gloves have changed an awful lot. I sing the praises of sparring gloves an awful lot. I felt like when I got a pair of sparring gloves, the five fingered type, one of the earlier types that I know a lot of people don’t recommend because they’ve had injuries. But I wouldn’t really recommend these for long sword, I use it for side sword. For this thing in particular, it helped me become a different fencer. I could suddenly go from being fearful of injury and fencing in a particularly conservative way. And, you know, from not taking any risks at all to being able to do things that I couldn’t do, because if I attempted to do something and I took a hit to the hand, it wasn’t going to put me out of training for weeks on end. I could take more risks and I could try more things until I could do that thing – that technique that I was attempting to do – I could do it properly. It just allowed me to level up. Just that one small change.

GW: It made failure survivable.

FT: Yes, exactly. Failure survivable. I like that. But I mean, gloves are the Holy Grail. I did a little survey when I was in Esfinges. Someone was asking me about glove sizes and women’s hands. And I just asked the members of the group a quick question about, “Do you have difficulty finding gloves that fit?” And it turned out, I think this this could be wrong, I could be remembering it wrong, but at least half of the people who responded (and it was I think it was about 200 people on this little questionnaire) for at least half of them their hands were smaller than a size small. So the smallest glove doesn’t fit half of the women that practice historical fencing.

GW: That’s a common theme there, because “one size fits all” means one size fits all men generally.

FT: Or fits none! I think for some of these women, extra small is too big still. Of course with all the articulated movements of a protective glove, the smaller the glove gets, the harder it is to get it to fit. So, I think, you know, that there are a lot of hurdles to women when it comes to entering martial arts and equipment is a big one. I don’t think people realise this, and I certainly didn’t realise it until it was demonstrated to me, as I just said, like just how my fencing just took off. I was able to compete or was able to do more things than I could have done for several years. So yeah, my fencing gear has come, well, I still have the same jacket I had 10 years ago, I prefer not to have the bulkier, padded type of jacket. I prefer mobility over padding. But things like elbows, knees, forearms, things like that, I’ve spent a fortune. I must have spent more on that kind of stuff than I ever have on swords. Sacks of things I’ve got through and my kit is a constant work in progress because I’m not a particularly big person. I’m quite short and I’ve got short limbs and small hands, so it’s difficult at the best of times to get things that fit and protect. It’s not just about comfort. It is about protecting your body, it’s something that’s very important to you. So, yeah, it’s something that I’ve always struggled with. People often come to me and asked me, where can I buy gloves? It’s a common one, like someone will say, “There’s a girl in my club and she wants to get gloves. Where did you get them?” And I’ll say, well, I would get some from Sparring Gloves, but, you know, don’t quote me on that because I’ve had three pairs and only one of them fits me. I’ve got one glove on one hand from one pair that I bought and one from another set. So everything has to be bespoke, basically, if you’re not a six foot broad chap.

GW: Well, one of the great luxuries of my profession, because swords are my job, is that I can justify getting all my stuff bespoke. And I do, because it’s the only way that it really fits. And my solution for hands is I use steel gauntlets. Any time I’m going to be hit on the hands with a sword I use steel gauntlets with a proper fencing glove that really fits me stitched inside them. So I get the tactile sensibility of a fencing glove, but steel plates on the back of everything.

FT: Taking no risks at all.

GW: Well, I mean, you can still get a finger broken through them. No protection is perfect. But yeah, I’ve had the same pair of steel gauntlets now for 15 years. I’ve gone through at least three different fencing gloves inside them. Because that wears out quite quickly because of the leather in the palm. And I’ve replaced rivets and straps in the structure of the gauntlets. But yeah, I mean, that wasn’t cheap, but it was money well spent because they can be repaired and they last and you can put new fencing gloves inside them. They do make fencing gloves like sport fencing gloves in sizes down to children sizes, so you can always find a pair that fits.

FT: Yeah, I buy a lot of kids’ stuff. You don’t have to pay VAT. All my shoes are kids’ sizes. Until we get a decent range of sizes in equipment, I think bespoke is the way to go for anyone who is not particularly tall or doesn’t fit the average sized fencer. Gorgets is another one. I’ve got through a lot of those.

GW: Yeah? How do you wear out a gorget? I’ve had the same one I made 20 years ago.

FT: I’m not wearing them out, I mean trying to get a combination that will allow me to be mobile and protect me. My favourite has probably been the steel one from Wintertree Crafts. That’s a very good one. It’s not the most comfortable. But if you take a thrust to the throat, which is very common in rapier, you feel like you’re not going to get hurt. Sometimes I’ve even been known to wear two gorgets if I’m competing because I think I’m at exactly the right height, my throat is exactly the right height for a thrust. So I’m very, very protective of that part of my body. So I’ll wear like a steel one underneath and then a padded one over the top.

GW: Bespoke is expensive. So it kind of leaves smaller people who aren’t rich in a corner. Maybe any manufacturer is listening to this might get off their arses and start producing stuff for the little people.

FT: Yet another Facebook group that I started is HEMA Hacks. That kind of exploded. And basically I started out with just like, Top Tips, like put a sock full of crystal and silicone gel in your kit bag to absorb the sweat…

GW: I completed that sentence in my head to take a sock full of crystal meth.

FT: Yeah. Crystal meth.

GW: No, don’t do this!

FT: It’s take a sock full of silica gel. I was going to say crystal cat litter, but that sounds even worse. Which is basically the same substance. So, you know, like putting one of those in your kit bag to keep everything rust-free. Lots of those useful tips, like spray down your gambeson or your jacket with watered down vodka. Which I think is a terrible waste. And the other ones were sort of things like put sanitiser gel on your hands – this was pre-covid – put sanitiser gel on your hands before you put your gloves on and then they don’t get that funky Doritos smell. So things like this. But it’s really taken off in just seeing the creativity in the community, the things that people do. So, we were talking about bespoke kit, people customising their own gear. There was a sort of spin-off group, I don’t know if it was inspired by this sort of dodgy feders and, you know, people have tried to customise kit and done it in a bad way. But in the majority of cases, people have done some fantastic adaptations to gloves and jackets and all the other gear, back of head protectors, and even building training equipment for themselves, especially at a time like this, people making their own pells. And it’s just really, really inspiring to see the innovation that’s out there.

GW: So, in this time of corona, I imagine your school has closed for the duration?

FT: Yes. We’ve just recently started to get back. We’re going to be doing small groups because you’re now allowed to gather in groups of up to six. So we’re looking into it right now.

GW: Where do you see things going in a year’s time? How will historical fencing look in a year’s time?

FT: Well, they say they think there may be a second wave of corona in the winter. Which will be a lot worse as second waves tend to be. So I think we’ll pretty much find ourselves way back at square one again in a year’s time. But I think in the summer 2021, if we have got past the isolation and the quarantine period, it’s going to be very small classes. And we’ll probably just have new habits. We’ve already become accustomed to giving people a wide berth when we’re walking outside. I remember, back in March, that seemed very strange, and it seemed like an odd thing to do.

GW: It seemed almost rude.

FT: Yes. It did seem really rude. People thought it was rude, but now it seems polite. Giving people personal space. So I think, these are going to become new customs of ours. New ways of living. Well, you know, sanitising gel everywhere. Washing of hands and keeping distance and just having, as I say, small classes in a large space. It’s not going to have that coziness that we are accustomed to, I don’t think. But it will take it will take some getting used to. Human beings are very adaptable.

GW: Yes we are. So are you doing much stuff over the Internet at the moment?

FT: Over the Internet in terms of activity online? To keep me busy in lockdown? I’m a very sociable person, as I’ve discovered, and I’m not used to being locked up by myself. I need human beings. I’m a very extroverted person. So my things that are keeping me busy combine keeping me busy and other human beings. I’ve been doing a quiz with a good friend of mine Iason Tzouriadis. We do a HEMA pub quiz about once a week. We’re on our seventh version of the quiz. It’s really good fun. He got inspired because he was a hockey coach, an ice hockey coach. And he went to a hockey pub quiz and it was it was online, at the start of lockdown. And he said, let’s do a HEMA version, so we’ve been doing that. And it’s just nice to get a bunch of folks together. Sometimes it’s friends that you know very well. Sometimes it’s people you’ve never met before. And it’s lovely to see these names that you see online and see their faces and chat to them about stuff and be passionate about this hobby of ours and then have a good giggle. And then on the other side, another thing I’m doing to keep me busy and have a routine is I do two livestreams a week on my Instagram channel for By The Sword, which is an event that I hold each March. Not this year, obviously. I came up with the idea of the livestream because I’d planned an event in March this year and I had eleven instructors and speakers, all women instructors and experts.

GW: And this was a deliberate structural feature of the event?

FT: Yes. So, we had all those people lined up to present classes and lectures and the event’s not happening. Well, it hopefully will happen at the end of the year, but also in the meantime, let’s just do an interview with them one by one. So I’ve been working my way through the ones that we had lined up for this year. But I’m also interviewing other instructors I’ve had in previous years because this is the fourth year of the event. So it’s been really interesting, because as I say, sometimes it’s people that I’ve never spoken to before.

GW: Like this. We’ve emailed back and forth, but never spoken before.

FT: Yes. Face to face is different, isn’t it? It is lovely to talk to someone for a solid hour and not just ask them questions about themselves. And I’ve uncovered all kinds of nuggets about people that I thought I knew. But the thing that surprised me about Sue Kirk, who I associate with,

GW: I know Sue. Do you want me to cut this bit out?

FT: It’s fine. Like Sue Kirk example, I associate Sue with pugilism, small sword and wrestling. Turns out her HEMA origins are seven years of rapier. That completely threw me because I don’t associate her with that at all. And my good friend, Emilia, who is an ardent Fiorist/rapierist – turns out her beginnings were Liechtenauer longsword. She doesn’t like to talk about that that!

GW: Well, we all have skeletons in our closet! Where would people find these conversations if they wanted to?

FT: If anyone wants to see these chats that I’m having, I do them on Tuesdays and Thursday, 6:00 p.m. U.K. time, and they’re on my Instagram channel, which is By The Sword. And the handle for that is @swordwomen. So there is a livestream of every week that the recorded so you can watch them afterwards as well.

GW: OK. So, this will be probably going out middle of June, end of June, maybe. So nice that we have a back catalogue for people to catch up on. OK, to get back to the events that you’ve been organising. You have this event, By The Sword, which has just female instructors. What are the pros and cons of having that kind of demographically targeted event?

FT: The pros are, I’ll be honest, the list of pros is a lot longer than the list of cons.

GW: Well, that’s why you’ve been doing it for four years.

FT: Exactly.

GW: I assumed that. I can imagine what they might be from my perspective.

FT: It’s not what you think either.

GW: Well there you go.  Educate me.

FT: Women eat a lot less than men. So the food budget is smaller.

GW: I did not expect you to say that!

FT: It’s not that they eat less, it’s that they come prepared. Women bring snacks. I budgeted a certain amount of food for the guests, for the participants, and I think they only ate about a third of it. I know that in co-ed events that I’ve run, the greatest fear as an event organiser is you’re going to run out food at the after party and it happens very frequently. Pubs and restaurants frequently underestimate how hungry fencers can be after a day of competing and doing classes. So, yeah, the people who attend tell me over and over again it’s the atmosphere that is the biggest draw. It’s very open and friendly. I’m not saying that regular events aren’t friendly, but what tends to happen is someone will turn up, who doesn’t know anyone, and they’ll come on Friday feeling very self-conscious and anxious because they are in a big room with eighty other people they don’t know. And they’ll leave on Sunday with seven or eight or more really good pals. Some amazing friendships, even years later. People still really good friends just from meeting at an event. But it’s hard to know what it is – I can’t quite work out what it is – but people do just seem to be more a lot more relaxed.

GW: What causes that?

FT: Well, it’s probably the same thing that compels women to do women-only Zumba classes and yoga classes and things like that, or go to women-only gyms. I’m not afraid to get into uncomfortable topics, but something that I have to deal with in an online situation, something that happens quite frequently, as a moderator of a Facebook group, is people – men – it’s going to be statistically more likely to be a guy because four fifths of the Hema population is male, and if a woman or a girl puts some footage of herself fencing or practising in her garden or something, well, unsolicited advice will come from somewhere.

It’s just that judgement or this fear of someone judging you. People’s unsolicited advice usually has no malice in it at all. It’s just people feel this really strong desire to help. “You’re doing that wrong, you should be doing it like this. And this will make you much better. And then you’ll thank me.” Which is a lovely sentiment, but it isn’t always welcome. And as you can imagine lots of women avoid the gym and prefer to do classes, so they tend to avoid the machines and the weights and things because some helpful person – gentleman – wants to tell her how to do it right, when she hasn’t even asked him. So it’s that kind of situation that in an all-female or non-binary room, the chance of someone doing that to you is very low.

GW: Why do you think that is?

FT: Just conditioning. Little boys are brought up to be outspoken and give their opinions on things. And little girls are taught they don’t speak out of turn. Keep your opinions to yourself and always be polite and always say please and thank you. I know I’m really generalising now, but I think women tend to be not very forthcoming with their opinions. They don’t want to be ridiculed, they don’t want to be criticised and feel that someone is saying that they’re wrong. You know, it just feels like being told off when you’re a little kid, that kind of feeling. So I think that’s why I think that’s what people tend to let their hair down more, because they know that there’s less of a chance of someone coming over and criticising them, or worst case scenario, making advances on them.

GW: Oh, God. Yeah.

FT: That happens too.

GW: You know Kaja Sadowski’s book, “Fear is the Mind Killer”? She cites a brilliant study in there which separated students into three groups and one got detailed technical instruction, one got kind of vague praise, and one got criticism. I may be misremembering slightly. But the detailed technical instruction basically didn’t help at all. The criticism didn’t help at all. The group that did the best were the ones that got vague praise.

FT: I can believe it.

GW: Right. And I saw the study that came out some years ago, and I tried it in classes and I thought, OK, I’ll try it. I spent a lot of my time teaching literally wandering around the class smiling at people. And they come out of it saying, “That was a great class, you explained everything so well!” As soon as I actually interfere and try to make technical corrections it all goes to shit.

FT: As an instructor, I find having the biggest, broadest grin on helps a lot. And that isn’t difficult because you just see people doing well and it makes you smile anyway. And just going around saying to people, “You’re doing that really well”. Just pointing it out. And then you just see them perk up and they just keep doing it. I when I started teaching people, I think a lot of people experience this because they don’t ever expect to become an instructor, they have this responsibility thrust upon them by circumstances.

GW: That pretty much I happen to me.

FT: Everybody I’ve interviewed said, “I didn’t want to become an instructor, it just kind of happened. But here I am.” And you feel you feel the imposter syndrome very strongly. It never really goes away. But I remember my first thing I struggled with was when I’m trying to explain things to people, like you say, detailed technical instruction, and everyone does this real horrible frowny face at you. And I think, what have I done to make people so angry with me? Am I talking absolute utter gibberish? What have I done to them? It took me a while to realise that everybody’s thinking face is the same as their angry face. And they’re frowning because they’re not doing the smile. They’re just engaged.

GW: And the bit of the brain that processes verbal descriptions and verbal explanations is not the bit of the brain that generates movement. So you have to get it from one bit of the brain that doesn’t do movement into the movement bit of the brain and everything gets lost in translation.

FT: Yes.

GW: I like to leave the explanations for after they’ve done it and then it doesn’t interfere with them being able to do it. Then they can understand it and they can put it into that conceptual framework.

FT: It’s nice to get people to just play. And not be afraid of getting it wrong because they don’t know what wrong is.

GW: That’s it. That’s the critical thing. It comes back to failure being survivable. Emotionally survivable as well as physically.

OK. I do have a couple of kind of standard questions, because they tend to elicit interesting answers. So what is the best idea you’ve never acted on?

FT: The best idea I never acted on? Give me a moment…

GW: That’s OK. Everybody has at least one.

FT: I came upon the idea of mentorship. And I really wanted this to take off and I really had a lot faith in it because in the school we have ranks, well, kind of like ranks. There are “Candidati” sort of prospect-type people who are new, “Studenti” who are full members, and then after 200 hours of study (that’s not sparring, it’s just class time,)  after 200 hours of class time you can take a test and become a “Laureando”, which like a graduate. And then after another two hundred hours after that, you can become a “Spaddaccino”, or a swordswoman or swordsman. And so we’ve got all these different sort of tiers of experience in the school. You’ve always got a broad base and like in any martial arts school, you’ve got very few black belts and tons of white belts. And rather than just draining all the energy out of the instructors, it’d be nice to spread the load amongst the students themselves and have mentorship. So I started this idea off. I started to match people up with the newcomers.

When I was bequeathed the School of the Sword from Caroline and Phil when they retired, I was doing everything. I was running around, doing everything with finances and everything. And I started trying to divvy out some of this responsibility. And I thought that it could be a nice thing because everyone who was new was going, “Where do I get gloves from?” and “What do I do about this?” And I was like, “Go and see your mentor.” So everyone’s got a pal. A buddy. When you were a little kid, you go to school, and they do a lot of this now at schools, where a child from a couple of years above will show you around and then that’ll be the person that they that they refer to when they’ve got a problem. I don’t know how often that works there either. I think I should probably dig this one up again and put a bit more effort into it, because a lot of the time mentorship happens naturally anyway. And I just wanted to encourage that so that when people come and join, I always describe that the school to me feels like family. And you want a big brother or sister to look out for you. Just so you don’t feel so lost. I mean, it can be really bewildering, this martial arts journey, when you start out and there’s so many questions that need answering. If you’ve got someone there for you it makes a big difference. So maybe that’s something I should look into.

GW: Yeah, good idea. And just so people know, who are Phil and Caroline?

FT: Caroline Stewart founded the School of the Sword in 2002. It was in Oxfordshire at the time. Phil Marshall, her partner, joined not long after. When I joined in 2010, they were both running the school together. In 2013 they retired and it was left to me and Matthew Crane, who now runs our Reading chapter. In 2018 we opened a chapter in Oxford again, and that’s run by my friend Emilia Skirmuntt.

GW: All right, so bringing back a kind of a mentorship structure in the school so that new students have an existing student who is not the instructor.

FT: Yeah. That’s another benefit.

GW: Because people can be like, you know, they don’t want to bother the instructor with their problem or they they’re either too shy and don’t ask the question, or they take up too much of the instructor’s time.

My final question is somebody gives you a million pounds to spend on improving historical martial arts – now you can’t spend it on your own sword collection – you have to spend it on improving historical martial arts generally. What would you do with it?

FT: I would put it into research in making the perfect glove.

GW: Ah, OK. So you would put it into gauntlet research?

FT: Yeah. I mean, the pro gauntlet has been a long time coming. It’s here now.

GW: Are they any good?

FT: I’ve tried a couple on, but I mean even for a glove that didn’t fit me, it wasn’t too bad.

GW That’s called “damned with faint praise”, that is!

FT: For a glove that doesn’t fit me perfectly it wasn’t too bad. There isn’t a perfect glove yet still. I would invest in better masks and gloves. As I said earlier, masks really haven’t changed that much.

GW: Have you come across the Terry Tindall masks? These ones.

FT: Oh yes, I’ve seen those.

GW: There’s no video on a podcast so I’ll just quickly describe it. It’s a steel shell with a leather suspension harness inside it so the steel isn’t attached to the head. It can swing.

FT: I didn’t realise about the inner suspension system.

GW: That’s the thing that actually matters. On the outside, it’s much like a regular fencing mask. But having a suspension massively improves its ability to not direct force coming into the helmet into your head.

FT: I believe in Leon Paul have done a similar version, the Melmet.

GW: I haven’t seen that.

FT: It looks kind of similar to that, but not quite as cool. I prefer that design. It’s got an inner suspension system that disperses the force through the shoulders, so if you get a strike to the top of your head you just feel a push on your shoulders.

GW: That’s a good idea, if it fits.

FT: If it fits.

GW: If it’s too short, it doesn’t distribute the force to the shoulders and if it’s too long it’s going to be floppy and wobbly.

FT: And these things, these things aren’t light either, and I doubt that that thing’s very light.

GW: It’s a little bit heavier than a regular fencing mask, but not by much. You need some mass to absorb the force.

FT: With an overlay on a lot of masks are pretty heavy anyway.

GW: I’m not a fan of the overlays. Because it’s like a boxing glove. It changes a sharp external whack to more of a push. So that actually shakes the brain around differently.

FT: More concussive.

GW: I believe so.

FT: I think my million pounds would go on to research into better gear.

GW: That’s a good choice.

FT: I’m trying to think of other things that would be beneficial, but that’s my immediate instinct, is make the gear better. I mean, we’ve come on a long way, but we could always improve.

GW: Right.

FT: The other thing was, people talk about, you know, let’s have HEMA known the world over. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to have more HEMA clubs, have more people involved in historical fencing. But, you know, where do you take it? Because if you’re trying to grow it, are you trying to make it into a big spectator sport? Or is it going to be like karate in the 80s? What track are you going down with this? So I think quality over quantity. Obviously keep historical fencing accessible, but make it as safe and practisable as possible, and I think the equipment is the thing.

I think you touched on this earlier, I don’t know what your opinion is, but you said equipment and practise. So I think there is a balancing act, isn’t there, between safe practise and protective gear within the confines of your own school or your own club. It’s easier to control things like good practise. Outside of that, you’re relying a lot more on your gear. So if you’re sparring with people from another group or if you are participating in a tournament, how heavy the other person is going to hit is a complete mystery. So that’s when you really need to trust your equipment.

GW: I get it, failure should be survivable.

FT: Failure should be survivable.

GW: That’s interesting. A million pounds. I think we would go a long way towards cracking the gauntlet problem with a million quid. Although I have an affection for… well, they spent the equivalent of many millions of quid in the mediaeval period to solve the exact same problem. And they came up with solutions which still work. It’s just they are really expensive! The problem is, we can make really good steel gauntlets that fit tailor-made and they’re about as good as you can get in terms of protection. But they are like a thousand pounds a pair. So getting some kind of technological thing. Maybe they scan your hands with a laser. And a 3D print a perfectly fitting…

FT: Well, that’s not actually that’s that crazy. I mean, I was reading about a charity that does that for children who’ve lost limbs. There were a couple of chaps who were doing it from their shed. They got a 3D printer. They got the children, the families, to send in the details of the amputation and they were 3D printing bespoke limbs for the children at a very affordable price. It was a lot better than the stuff that they were being offered on the NHS, even. So I think that’s not a bad route to go down, 3D printing things. I remember a former member when I started. She was looking into developing an all-over sort-of onesie. Form fitting, very futuristic, and very Marvel-esque suit with gel in strategic places that you’d wear underneath your gear. To minimise pain, I think. But yeah, there are all kinds of things that can be done, I’m sure.

GW: Yeah. We just have to find a million quid.

FT: A million quid.

GW: OK, Fran, we’re sort of at the end of time. So thank you very much for talking to me this evening. It’s been a pleasure seeing you. And where should people go if they want to find you?

FT: Thank you very much. My main hangouts are sword.school – the website for The School of the Sword and I’m on Instagram at @swordwomen. And so you can find me there, or if you just go on Facebook and look up The School of the Sword. That’s where we are. And my other baby, which is something that I started a few years ago, which is Waterloo Sparring. That’s where people tend to congregate if they’re travelling through London and they are HEMAists. We are there most Saturday mornings for a beer and burgers is afterwards – whenever this all goes back to normal.

GW: Well, let’s hope we can get back there soon.

FT: Thank you very much for having me.