Book four of the Traitor Son series, A Plague of Swords is out this week. Instead of talking to you about the book, I thought I’d discuss how I write, or more particularly, how I do research. To me…
It was the false dawn; the time when old people die, when hopes fail, and when ambuscades lose their nerve, when men call out and wives comfort them. Cameron is telling one hell of a story. The Pl…
Most frequently asked question: Where can I learn to do all that stuff?
If you don’t care about my discourse on how various simulations of pre-modern sword combat work or don’t work, skip down to the bold type.
This blog article will endeavor to provide you with a spectrum of answers. In the process, I plan to say some things which I view as obvious, but I’m going to guess that others will find them controversial.
So, really, the question I am very frequently asked is ‘Where can I learn to fight like the knight/be a knight/do that reenacting thing you do.’ There’s a corollary question, too; ‘I live 200 kilometers from the nearest city; I live in Iowa; I live in Alberta… how do I learn…’
This question needs to be broken down. And in this blog, I will give an answer; several answers. But I want to look at the question.
First, this blog is all about various fighting arts. If you want to talk reenacting, that’s for another day. Actually, it may be the next blog, because maybe my third most frequent fan question is ‘where can I join a reenactment group.’
In the picture above, I’m wearing a pretty damn good late 14th c. harness. So is my opponent. And we’re in pretty accurate lists; that is, the size and style of the fighting space is period correct; and we’re using steel-headed but rebated spears (lanzia) which is a correct, late fourteenth century chivalric fighting style. Oh, and we’re surrounded by a crowd of 14th c. reenactors watching us. We are also fighting in a period style; the Italian style known as Armizare. To me, this is pretty close to heaven (this is in Italy, BTW).
This is a very different thing, although it may, at first glance, look similar. This is two fighters from the ‘Battle of Nations’ part of the continuum of martial sport. At first glance they look medieval, although a little examination will show that almost all their equipment is stylized and sporterized. (Look, for example, at the American’s sword and the size of the shields. I could go on.). But leaving equipment aside, the BOTNs style of combat forbids thrusting… the single most important aspect of foot combat in the later Middle Ages. No ‘cut’ with a single sword would even be noticeable to a fully armoured knight, so the entire exchange becomes ‘tag with swords’ that completely benefits really big, fast men, and where technique, especially the techniques we know real knights used, simply don’t work. No spears, no pikes, not thrusting points, no long sword. Do I sound shrill? Perhaps I’m just tired of having this held up to me as an example of medieval fighting. It is not, and in fact, it reinforces the trope I have to fight every day as an author; that knights were unskilled barbarians hacking at each other in a blood-frenzy.
And don’t even get me started on the whole inclusion of pre-1945 nationalism and the lack of chivalry.
Let’s move on.
These are two (randomly chosen) folks with long swords at a modern HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) tournament. (I will not, for the moment, digress on how much I dislike this term) They wear armour of textile and plastic, and sometimes their swords are plastic or nylon. They wear entirely modern fencing equipment, fence or fight in modern sports facilities, and are watched by modern crowds. On the other hand, many (most?) of them practice hard to use at least some of the techniques taught by Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque authors. They also include cross-cultural techniques (most of them) and some modern fencing techniques.
This is modern Olympic fencing. These two fencers are fencing with epees, or the weapon vaguely based on a late 19th c. dueling weapon version of a martial art that is entirely a sport. Note, for example, how BOTH of them have hit, without making a parry or cover or block or what have you. I’ll keep the rest of my comments to myself.
This is Kendo, a traditional Japanese martial art. Kendo is not as old as the Samurai tradition and many aspects of it are highly stylized, like Battle of Nations; are sporterized, like HEMA, and simplified so that training can be rigorous, as in modern Olympic fencing. Kendo can tell us a great deal about the various directions in which modern recreations of Medieval ‘European’ combat may go.
Note. For me, Armizare is the ‘best’ of these and ‘Battle of Nations’ the ‘worst.’ But I’ve done, and enjoyed all of them. Armizare is very expensive; Battle of Nations has all by itself, created a massive infrastructure of armourers and kit bashers and puts together huge, really dramatic medieval events that are excellent. NO ONE IS WRONG. I love Kendo; I love Olympic style fencing; I love just crossing long swords with a friend in minimal equipment (although when you pile on the modern plastic armour I admit I loose interest).
So, when a person asks me ‘How do I learn to fence?’ that’s a very different question from ‘where do I learn to fight like a knight?’ The whole art of chivalric fighting, from wrestling to jousting, was called, in Medieval Italy, ‘Armizare.’ The rest of this article is mostly concerned with learning Armizare. We will, for the sake of clarity, call the middle pastime, ‘HEMA’ and the lower pastime ‘Fencing.’ Kendo is a thing all its own and not for today.
All of these are merely locations on a contiuum.
More clarification. When I say they are locations on a continuum, that’s because it’s important for prospective students to know that ALL martial arts, bar none, whether Krav Maga or Tae Kwan Do or Iado or Armizare are simulations of combat. MMA is still a simulation. It can be ‘real’ inside the ring, but the ring itself is a limiting factor. Training is full of limiting factors, not least of which (I hope) is that you don’t want to injure your training partners.
Also, as I keep saying here and elsewhere, all martial arts and even war itself are cultural artifacts. Fiji Islanders make war differently from 2016 US Marines, and they, in turn, make war differently from both Macedonian phalangites or French medieval knights. We tend to believe that’s because of technology; sure, maybe, but even the slightest acquaintance with either the American Revolution or the recent conflict in Afghanistan will show cultural ways of war that leave the contestants unable to communicate even about victory and defeat. So a Medieval Italian has more needs than the ‘mere’ defeat of an adversary…if he fights in public, he needs to demonstrate a whole lot of manly virtues in his contest, and there are elements to a public fight that, to an outside observer, might look more cooperative than competitive. This will be different from a marital art practiced in China or a modern MMA match or a brutal street fight with thugs in St. Petersburg or L.A.. Right?
Have I beat this horse to death?
Right. Back to the nice young and middle-aged people asking to learn to fence. Or fight like knights. All that was prologue. I felt it needed to be said because SO MANY people ask me.
So, you want to learn to practice Armizare?
Here’s my advice. If you live in a city or town with martial arts instruction, start with that. If someone teaches Italian medieval martial arts, I recommend you check into their credentials and then JOIN. (You can always ask me if something seems odd, but while there is snake oil in Amizare, there are also many GREAT clubs and instructors.) I will recommend, here, and often, the International Armizare Society as a resource. But if no one teaches Italian, there are many who teach the various German systems. Often, very often, this means a later system that is more like fencing and less like armoured combat. Some clubs use federschwerts and plastic armour; some use heavier swords. All part of the continuum. Nothing you learn there will be a waste of time.
Then there may be no club or school teaching any Medieval fighting arts. To me, that’s not so bad. ANY INSTRUCTION in ANY MARTIAL ART will move you closer to understanding fighting in armour and being able to do it. Karate, Tae Kwan Do, Aikido, Jiu Jitsu, Kendo, Iado, just to name a few ‘Eastern’ martial arts, all teach completely valid skills; footwork, balance, unarmed strikes and grapples. Strikes and grapples and locks and throws are all part of fighting in armour; they are neither more nor less important than how you use your sword or lance or dagger or pole axe.
In fact, as is brilliantly brought out in ‘Old School‘ by Ellis Amdur, the older Japanese traditions contained almost exactly the same material that the older, more military western traditions contained; nasty, ruthless moves for a quick kill on the battlefield or in a duel, with your thumb or with a dagger or with a big sword. And while no one Japanese art fully encapsulates all of the samurai tradition (read the book) all of the surviving arts have important pieces.
And while we’re at it, the base of all good western swordsmanship remains Classic French foil. Yep, so says I. Foil is the classical ballet of the sword world, and those who play it, even for a year or so, will almost always dominate those who don’t. Because of all the fascinating little lessons it teaches. So if you can find a basic ‘fencing’ class, I’d say start there. Fencing and Aikido or jiu-jitsu? Fantastic.
But… what if there isn’t even a Tae Kwan Do school in your town? or, you did foil and played with Tae Kwan Do and now…
On to Armizare.
Well. Here we go.
Buy some books and teach yourself.
Now, up until now, a certain number of my fellow Armizare instructors were no doubt nodding along, but I suspect this is too much heresy. And yet, let’s face it; almost no knights in the Middle Ages had access to the great Italian or German masters. Most of them learned from an illiterate master at arms in a castle courtyard. You, my dear reader, have an incredible array of learning tools that didn’t even exist a decade ago. While I will concur with most that distance learning is not as good as learning from an actual passionate, talented human being…
….It’s not impossible!
So here’s my recommended course of action for those who want to learn Armizare and live hundreds of miles from the nearest dojo or salle.
- Join the IAS above. It’ll save you time later. Register, sign in, and state quite clearly on the forums that you are self-teaching. And, as you are self-teaching, never hesitate to admit when you don’t know something. I teach this stuff and there’s tons I don’t know. Never, ever hesitate. Your admission of ignorance is actually the only chance you have to learn…
- Buy a copy of Guy Windsor’s book ‘The Swordsman’s Companion‘ or his more recent ‘Mastering the Art of Arms Vol.II the Long Sword.’ I prefer the former, maybe because it was MY first book on the art. The art has moved on, some say. Ya di da. It’s full of brilliant solo exercises, and if you learn them, you will grow into a decent swordsperson. Period.
- Find a pell. What is a pell? Mine is a wooden electric utility pole in my back alley. Some people have the luxury of having a real pell; a log sunk into the ground. Some use a rubber tire suspended from a rope. Some use the corner of a house. I don’t recommend that last. Basically, a pell is something you hit to practice.
- Get a sword. To me, you should start with a steel sword, but heck, friends, you can start with a broom handle, and if all you can afford is a wooden waster, more power to you. I do not recommend a feder as they are really for a late 16th c. sport and not for armizare, but this, too, is in the continuum; if that’s what you can get and can afford, get a feder. At the top of the pile, the best in North America, would lie a sword that accurately depicts the weight and feel of a medieval long sword. I recommend the Albion or the Arms and Armor products, but if you live in Europe you have access to Pavel Moc and a spectrum of other suppliers.
Now you should be set to train for the next couple of years. You don’t need a helmet, a gambeson, or gauntlets because, frankly, you should not be crossing swords with another living human being for some time.
Start with exercises. Both Guy’s book and the IAS videos (available online for members) have simple exercises of footwork and simple blade work. You should practice every day. 10 minutes a day, 5 days a week is much better than an hour a week, especially as you learn footwork and various guard postures.
And cuts and thrusts. Once you have a little footwork and some postures from the books/videos, you go out to the pell and start hitting it. For this, a good wooden waster is pretty ideal. You don’t have to hit it hard. Just hit it a lot. About ten thousand cuts later, you will have a set of good, fast cuts. I truly recommend learning to cut from ‘The Swordsman’s Companion’ or from Sean Hayes’ video on the IAS website, but here’s the amazing thing; if you just cut at that pell 10,000 times, unless you have severe issues in your stance, you will in fact develop a good cut. Merely be honest with yourself about speed and strength and posture and watch the videos from time to time, because as you learn more, you will see more, too.
Oh, and poke at the pell. Thrusts are actually the signature of Late Medieval fighting; slashes won’t really do much to a man in armour. (This is why, in the continuum of simulations, I don’t love the Battle of Nations and their various rivals. No thrusts, no grappling… not period. It’s a different thing. Someone calls it MMA with swords… which I think might be…advertising…)
Right. 5) Practice.
5) Practice. In fact, even if you find some classes, remember that classes are only to teach you things; you need to practice them to learn.
6) Oversight. So, if you are going to be a ‘distance learner’ and learn on your own, I strongly recommend you develop a relationship with the nearest, best Armizare club. Shop around; you have time, because you are practicing on your own. But find someone ypou like even if you will only see them twice a year, in Warsaw or in London or in Chicago. Make the time and spend the money to go, even once a year; ACCEPT CRITICISM. You will teach yourself things incorrectly. It’s part of learning. Listen to what is said, concentrate hard, and go back to your pell with new understanding.
7) Equipment. Hey, all that armour and cool medieval clothing looks fantastic! But… it actually takes a year or two to even know what you want. DO NOT BUY ARMOUR until you have played with some from other people. I strongly recommend that no one should buy armour until they have spent a year of two as a squire, helping another armoured fighter in and out; learning about styles and makers. A good harness is never less than $2000. It will cost much more if you buy the wrong helmet and the wrong gauntlets. You can buy armour that hurts you; armour that changes your fighting style for the worse…. much of the armour made today is too bulky, too heavy, and intended to be worn with massive amounts of padding, for various reasons, none of which are authenticity or even safety. Take your time. learn the art. You won’t be safe and capable for a year or two, anyway. And finding a knight or senior man or woman at arms to whom to be a squire is a tried and true method of having both a mentor and an equipment tutor. And knights need the help. really.
8) Recruit. It is really much easier for 2 people to learn the art than one; with two, you can try things out; my observation is also that with two people to snark at each other, the odds of getting something completely wrong go down somewhat. And eventually (not right away) you want to do pairs drills; later, with helmets and gauntlets, light sparring; later still, real sparring. Takes two. The Pell doesn’t hit back.
And finally 9) which we might also call 0). Youtube. There are, literally, thousands of people on youtube telling you how to fight, how to use a sword, and how to wear armour. Most of them know about as much as you, the novice, know right now. There seems to be some sort of compulsion for novices to post youtube pieces. In a way, that’s fantastic; the passion demonstrated is awe inspiring. But the bad footwork, false times, and sloppy blade and point control are not as impressive. Be WARY of video. Different maestros out there have different interpretations of issues in historical martial arts and that’s fine. Really. But some videos show, pure drivel that won’t work in your back yard or the salle floor or the lists or anywhere but in the mind of that guy (or girl) and you really need to learn to discriminate…
One more thing… YOU CAN DO THIS. That’s not some random pat on the head from a life coach. In two years, with about $4000.00 and some serious work (between 10 minutes and an hour a day, plus some just plain exercise later on) you can come face me in the lists. You might even beat me; I’m old. But the thing is in Armizare, the honour is in the doing. Come and do it!
By now, I have no doubt created a disturbance in the force. Feel free to ask my questions; I’ll try and answer them, especially if you ask them on my FB author page.
So here we are, a couple of days from the launch of Plague of Swords, and you’d probably expect me to blog about writing either Plague of Swords or Fall of Dragons. But, dear reader, I like to surprise; I also think that many of you like to have a little window on the life of a writer.
So here goes. My next series, at least for fantasy, is called Masters and Mages. (In my head, it’s just called ‘Mastery’ but there you go). Some of the content of book one, (The Master) has wandered around the net; I tried some of it as freeware, and then I sold it to the nice folks at Gollancz. It’s a completely different world; there’s neither a Christianity nor an analog thereof; I made up all the religions; and it has a new magic system (actually a number of different magic systems.). There is a lot of swordplay; but this time, there will be analog Chinese and Japanese and Persian and Turkish swordplay to go alongside the analog Italian and German and English.
You will find similarities…after all, this is still me…
Now, you might ask, what on earth does this have to do with calligraphy?
Well, about four months ago, I started to be fascinated by medieval books of hours (who isn’t, really). I wasn’t just fascinated by the awesome penmanship and the glorious illustrations.
I was fascinated by the amount of effort; the very practice of all these arts together, just to make a book, and how precious that book must have been. Paper appears, commercially, in Europe in about 1300 (give or take) and even after it appears, was still ‘lesser’ to vellum, which is sheep (or goat) and the very devil to prepare. Of course, well prepared vellum is pretty much eternal; unlike, say, the terabyte hard drive holding my daughter’s entire youth in pictures and which will decay to uselessness in another 5 years. Or like most of the books I own, on acidic paper… but I digress.
The more I examined pre-modern books, the more I decided that I needed to make one, to understand the process; I needed to learn some basic calligraphy. (If you want to understand how to make a medieval book, start here.) Hey, it’s not all sword fighting; I like to dance and cook, too. So, with help from friends, I got some equipment, and I started on Gothic Quadrata, a scholarly hand of the fourteenth century.
It’s really fun.
Who even knew? I’ve got about twenty days in this little micro-passion so far, and I now own pens and papers and I’m delighted and amazed at the excellent advice I’ve received on facebook (and a formal thanks to Jason Daub, Jiliyan Milne, David Harden and Cliff Mullin. Also a sort of delighted puzzlement at how many of my friends already do this… why didn’t anyone tell me?)
The above is riddled with errors. But it also marks the beginning of the project; I’m writing a whole book of hours. These will be the back pages; I figure that when I get to the front folios, I’ll be much better at the calligraphy and the illumination. I plan to ask my friend the artist Aurora Simmons to give me a couple of actual miniature paintings (the annunciation of the Virgin is a standard; maybe a Crucifixion, or maybe a Saint Michael).
This is, after all, my favorite medieval illustration of all time; the very model for the Red Knight… the deep inspiration… Also, for the harness I wear when I fight. Also for a certain amount of contemplation.
And the more time I spend on this, the better I get. No surprise there. ‘Practice’ is pretty much my battle cry.
This is my latest effort. I admit, I’m quite proud of it, although I can see many errors; my ‘t’s are weak and my ‘m’s and ‘n’s are still not even and I do tend to cramp my hand.
All true. But here’s the point about ‘The Master.’ In just twenty days of doing this calligraphy, I’ve learned an incredible wealth of detail about being a scholar in the pre-modern world. My young hero/protagonist is going to university, where, I freely confess, he’s more interested in girls and swords than in his studies. But calligraphy has given me some insight into the issues facing a scholar, even in a magical alternative reality; a world in which, to own a book and study it, as a poor student, you pretty much need to copy it out yourself; how the process of copying can educate you; how fatiguing it might be; how working in a tannery could give you a leg up as a writer (cheaper vellum) and make you smell all day of dog shit (oh, yeah).
My new world isn’t in the late fourteenth century of ours; it’s even more complex, and there may, just may, be an airship or two, and the technology is a little more like the late sixteenth century in some places. But one thing no one has yet is the printing press. Scholars copy books.
And now I know a lot more about that experience. At least the western experience; and I will be reading about Chinese and Japanese calligraphy in coming weeks, while I write the last pages of ‘Fall of Dragons’ and bid goodbye to the world of Alba and the Red Knight. that is the reality of being a working writer; you have to look ahead, research ahead, and read about one thing (and be passionate about it!) while writing about another.
Wish me luck.
In a few days (October 25th, 2016) Plague of Swords will be out.
First, a word from the author. Many of you probably know this already, but when a book comes out, the author wrote it between twelve and eighteen months earlier. (Maybe more or less depending on various things. But with me, twelve to eighteen months). In fact, I completed Plague of Swords on August 4th of 2015. Then it went though an edit, a copy edit, page proofs, and a final read of the PDF of the final copy. There were covers to approve, and other goodies.
But really, yes, you could have read it a year ago in August. In fact, that’s when my Beta-readers saw it. And of course, I’m writing the last book in the series now; Fall of Dragons. Of course, that’s a working title, and it may not survive contact with the publisher. Just FYI, as of this afternoon when I left work to pick up my daughter and get her new pointe shoes, I was at 85K words and a little bit under half way done.
This is interesting (maybe only to me), because in the run up to publication date for Plague of Swords I get some media interest and some blogger interest and of course, it’s all about Plague of Swords.
The thing is, I’ve written something like 500K words since I wrote Plague of Swords. I wrote Rage of Ares (Historical, Christian Cameron, out this month, 140K words) and I wrote ‘The Green Count (Historical, Christian Cameron, Chivalry or William Gold series, out in February, 125 K words) and I wrote a long Tom Swan story (Christian Cameron again, Tom Swans are ebook only, 40K words) and I wrote the Achilles Hector duel for the ‘Song of War’ anthology (almost 80K words, although it was cut to 40K) and, as mentioned above, I’ve written about 85K of Fall of Dragons. So when people ask questions about Plague of Swords, I’m tempted to go re-read it. Writing-wise, it was a long time ago.
(And by the way, that’s MY panoply on the cover of Rage of Ares… my sword from Manning Imperial, my helmet from Manning Imperial but based on the original in the Walters in Baltimore, my superb thorakes from Jeffrey Hildebrandt at Royal Oak Armouries. Brag, brag.)
Tangentially, but still vaguely germain tot the title of the article, last month I went to Gollanzfest (#gollanzfest) in London and to ‘Fantasycon by the Sea’ (British Fantasy convention) marking the first and second ever public appearances by Miles Cameron, except for some book signings and launches at Bakka Phoenix in Toronto (which is, BTW, the finest Sci-Fi and Fantasy bookshop in the world. Period.). (#Bakkaphoenix. Watch out for me, I know what a hash tag is…). My intention here is to sidle up to the topic; bloggers and the press and fans (see, at the cons, you meet fans. Of course, I also WAS a fan; hugely. Wow, I met Alistair Reynolds. I love his books.Fan, fan…) Point — watch out, here it comes — the point is, people ask questions, and a lot of questions directed at me seem to be about writing history and writing fantasy and how much overlap there might be. Certainly I’ve touched on this before. But most of the fans I spoke to were also writers; they made me think of my work differently. So here goes.
How much ‘made up stuff from my head’ should there be in Fantasy?
Well, first, as much as you want. Seriously; these are my books, and I get to do whatever I want; in your books, you, too get to do whatever pleases you. But for me, as a reader, as a fan, and as a writer (no double standard here) I believe that whatever you do, it has to work. I don’t mean work as in ‘fiction.’ I assume anyone who wants to write can write decent fiction. I mean, the society, the magic, the weapons, and the horses and the air cars and what have you. They have to work. I listened it Elisabeth Bear (fan! fan!) give a great talk which I can synopsize as ‘Medieval cooking doesn’t work the way you think it does.’ In effect, what she said was that if you imagine a travelers’ inn where everyone eats stew from a huge iron pot, you probably don’t know enough about how medieval cookery works, or even what the huge iron cauldron is for. People who do know, and there are many in fandom (SCA, LARP, reenactment and online gaming have created some remarkably informed audiences) will mock you; worse, their suspension of disbelief will be jarred and they won’t keep reading.
No one needs a degree in Medieval History to accomplish this. Scott Lynch (fan! fan!) in his awesome Gentleman Bastards series, never seems to hit a wrong note. I’ll go out on a limb and say that he, like a number of other excellent authors I know, simply does not go into detail if the details might be wrong. It’s an excellent technique; you can find it in Tolkien, and he had ALL the degrees.
I’m very interested in combat and martial arts; and in strategy and tactics, and in logistics and castramentation (a word never before used in a blog) . I’m interested in a lot of other stuff, but let’s just stay with these things. I freely admit that when I’m writing fantasy, I WANT to tell you about how these things work, and how they work in war, even fantastical war. Mostly, I want to, because I know how they worked int he past, and I can make them work in a fantasy context. Out there in the genre, there are armies marching around (and even individuals) who don’t seem to know that horses die; need water, eat, fart, sleep, get cold, are dumb as posts, munch grass endlessly, fight you to get at grape vines on walls, will eat flowers… so much to know. So much that can make a horse come alive, even if the reader has never seen a horse. So much about food and water that can explain why and how an army is trapped; why armies sometimes have to fight even though odds are long, and appear foolish; or why a few well fed people might defeat a horde of starving people. I agree that an army could be fed by airships arriving every day; that works, as long as the airships have some support services too and aren’t too Deus ex Machina, and as long as we all know that every person in armies eats about 10 pounds of food and consumes probably 20 pounds of water a day. I won’t belabor this. The math is available. You can do it any way you like, as long as you convince the reader that it works. (However, if you are just entering this subject and only want to read one book, I recommend this.
Probably the most difficult area in which to practice this art is with ‘magic.’ Magic systems virtually define heroic fantasy; whole forums are devoted to them and their development. Most of us who know a dozen or so role playing systems can think easily in terms of those rules, and can use them to gain an idea of ‘rules’ to concoct something that hangs together, but the essential, too often by-passed, lies in cosmology and origin. Why is there magic? How does it work? Does it work all the time? Why is one character more powerful than another? Who ‘discovered’ it? Maybe these questions will never be asked; in a clever fantasy murder mystery, for example, I doubt the reader will question the origins of a cantrip; but in an Epic good versus evil showdown, readers will wonder ‘why?’
The answer may define the book.
In my case (and I’m the one writing launch blogs for Plague of Swords) I decided in the beginning that my magic system would be somewhat based on the Neo-Platonic hermeticism of the Italian renaissance. Or rather, based on how they thought it worked. I added the memory palaces because I loved the idea in Francis Yate’s book and they offered a vehicle by which I could both limit and enhance my characters; I could literally take my readers inside the practitioners’ heads.
I also decided that my system would be ‘science.’ By that, I mean that the people and monsters who practiced sorcery would have reliable, repeatable results that could be trained and honed through experiment and repetition. This matters to me a great deal because the theme of my series is something very like ‘Renaissance’ and in the course of five novels, some characters make important discoveries; both about information from the past, and about mistakes made in the past; and these discoveries reveal new dimensions and new powers in the same way that Mercator and Galileo and Newton revealed things. We live in a time of great change, of incredible discoveries and everyday revolutions (the computer, anyone?) and I thought it would be fun to point this up in an Arthurian fantasy. After all, the blast furnace and its children, (plate armour, the heavy plow, and the iron cannon), along with effective corned gunpowder, the printing press, the idea of latitude, the whole mathematical science of ballistics and gunnery, and navigation and even the form of math known as calculus… all of these were invented or discovered by men and women who still believed in alchemy and astrology and the mystical powers of saints to intercede in the world of men. We are not in the first information age. We are not having the first revolution in human thought.
Of course, we’re not fighting an ancient evil, either. Although WWII suggests that such a conflict would involve rapid development of new weapons…
So, in the end…how much fantasy? I mean, I made it all up out of my head. But the bibliography of authors who helped me includes the entire modern corpus of Fantasy, plus about 40 role-playing game writers (Chivalry and Sorcery, anyone?) plus Francis Yates and Richard Kaeuper and a hundred or more writers on history, alchemy, philosophy, theology… incidentally, John Marenbon’s ‘Medieval Philosophy’ is an awesome read.
I think the question is not ‘how much fantasy’ but the same question whether your story is set in Ancient Greece, in 1950s Naples, Italy; in modern Iraq or Gondor. What story do you want to tell? How can you make it come alive for the reader? Because after all, it’s not the world, or the cosmology, or the philosophy that make a fantasy novel; at least for me, in the end, it’s character, motivation, and plot; all the stuff Aristotle talks about.
Plague of Swords is the penultimate book in the Traitorson series; a series which is about character; about exploring what power is, and what greatness entails; about what change looks like, and does; about how war might work if there really were giant fireballs and dragons the size of aircraft carriers and wyverns and trolls and all the trappings.
By the way, just for fun, in Plague of Swords…
Spoiler Alert 1: There’s a wedding.
Spoiler Alert 2: The big fight scene draws on my experiences in anti-submarine warfare.
But that’s another blog for another day…
Every summer since I was thirty years old, I’ve gone with a group of friends (like minded nutters) into the wilderness of the Adirondacks in kit. Until. 2010, it was always 18th century kit; the period of the American Revolution. Since 2013, it has always been Medieval kit; the period just exactly four hundred years earlier (1375 to 1400 ish).
Living in the past, and traveling, and camping is an experience chock-full of compromise. North America isn’t remotely like Europe in some important ways, and while we can, if we work at it, imagine scenarios in which a handful of hardy companions take boats to travel for seven days, most of those scenarios would play out on pilgrimages on the Rhine, or trips on the Danube, and would often be in much larger boats. Medieval travelers (like most First Nations people in North America) had villages in which to stay; it would be very rare for travelers to have to camp or build shelters. As you can see in the photos, we trekkers use Kevlar boats and we often use other modernities, too; a gravity bag water filter, for example.
So, for the rest of this article, you can sneer all you like; the water is clean, and the boats are modern, although they don’t really offend the eye and they don’t require repair. But… the skills are still there. The skills of organization; when you travel a hundred miles in the 14th century, you need food, and places to sleep, firewood, drinking water, at well as your kit. Getting firewood is itself a job taking hours, even for ten or fifteen people; cook fires are demanding, and night watch is real. The organization of the food for a week in the woods is itself a job; woe betide the group that runs short of food.
Of course, cutting wood is a skill (see last blog) and this trip it developed an experimental archaeology side, as some skilled people decided to experiment with splitting logs with wooden wedges. Why would that matter? (Because that’s how it was done in Medieval Europe, but let’s leave that aside). Because if you can split with wooden wedges, that mean all you need to take into the woods is an axe. With the axe you cut a small hardwood tree and make a mallet and some wedges. After that, the axe only cuts trees. The wooden wedges do the rest. My friends Len Heidebrecht and Rob Gallasch have all the skills; they built the mallet and wedges, and split the wood.
Nifty. I had no idea. Really.
Another of the most interesting facets of living and traveling in the wild with the tools of the past, at least to a writer, is about time. There’s not enough. If you rise at dawn, there’s about enough daylight in August to cook a hasty breakfast, pack in the first light, move about ten miles, unpack and make camp, find wood, cook dinner, and go to sleep.
That’s what you did. All day. Sure, there’s time to play a game of cards (14th c. cards) or dice; to savour your half cup of wine (apparently we’re rich pilgrims) or to sew. But there’s very little time to think about ‘real life’ which may have something to say about why this is vacation, even if it is physically demanding.
Did I mention children? This isn’t a SpecOps exercise. This is the real world. Even Medieval armies were full of children, and these weeks in the woods don’t require us to be ‘tough.’ Tough is foolish. These weeks require us to have skills and organization and to use them. Children also learn amazing things about reliance and safety and the world. Just sayin’.
Did I mention sewing? Because within a day of starting, you have things that need repair. Clothes need repair, food bags need repair, the filthy bags that keep the pots off the rest of your things need repair. Your knife needs a new sheath (mine did) or you need to finish something (I was making a jupon). The Devil makes work for idle hands. Actually, the Devil is nowhere to be found, because everyone is working so hard.
Days develop a rhythm. It gets easier (I’ve done this 24 times) and everyone gets better at the packing and unpacking, at making shelters, at cooking as a team. At being a team. Life in the past is relentlessly collective; living in the Wild by yourself (beloved of fantasy novelists from Tolkien on) is brutally hard (in the past), and if you are hunting your food as well as camping and defending that food, I really question how long you’d live well by yourself. It’s been done. It’s just not conducive to having spare time for saving the world or prosecuting a war against evil. Better in a group, like Beren and his companions, or Tolkien’s dwarves, or the Fellowship; Tolkien had definitely done some living in the Wild; he had some excellent notions about firewood and water and important things.
It is good to be in a group because groups offer rest and security. There’s lots of work; we skip boat repair, but I’ve done three of these with period boats and they have lives of their own, with rotting timbers, leaks, bad construction and lengthy repairs (usually in the rain).
It’s good to be in a group because bears and coyotes are real; they are very, very unlikely to attack even a lone person, but very interested in taking your food. And of course, a lot of good writing about monsters comes from listening to something not as big as a small child thrash around in the woods fifty feet away in the full dark of a moonless night; it is remarkable how the intellectual knowledge that you are in no danger whatsoever does not calm the mammalian hind brain at all.
There’s so much work that people are tired, and tired people in groups can be trouble. This is actually what leadership is all about; it is very different from ‘reenacting’ because its not about fake stress and fake war; it’s about food and sleep and equitable distribution of labour, about whether one person really did take another’s seat; whether people will accept peer pressure to do work, or will need to be led, or pushed. I have camped with large groups with no leader and no chain of command. Very ‘dramatic.’ Almost never clear cut, or good vs. evil. At all.
To a writer, this is all grist for the mill. Motivation, character, the formation of character, character change and growth…its all there. Adventure, reaction to adventure; triumph, and even a little tragedy (but thankfully not too much).
It is my favorite reenacting activity. No test of arms, no armizare, no fencing match, no reenactment battle, no matter how adrenaline-filled or elaborate, can compete with living in the Wild with a group. Ultimately, it is the greatest feeder of my writing; it is, perhaps, my favorite activity (that is, for two weeks a year. )
And of course when it is over, it is like coming off a fast; everything is new again. Cities are extremely annoying; you’ve actually had quiet for weeks. People seem rude, because your small clan was courteous. Radio, television, and the internet are…. boring. And intrusive. And loud. On the other hand… hot water from a tap is luxurious; showers are lovely, and good food delicious.
A glance at this picture reminds me that I forgot to mention laundry. Right; no one likes to be filthy; Medieval people were not dirty. We do laundry. In period. Ah, the adventure.
This trip, we saw deer and wild turkeys; we caught fish and ate them; we survived a storm on a lake and we made some snug camps that stood off wind and rain showers. It was brilliant.
And next year we’ll do it all again. And I’ll write about it.
(This is a repeat of a blog I ran on Hoplologia. We’re changing formats, so I’m repeating it here. What is Hoplologia? It is our not-for-profit shell that runs our Ancient Greek and Medieval reenacting and our various WMA/HEMA classes and some sewing and a summer camp for kids and some educational activities for 4th grade and up and.. and… check for yourself here.)
This blog is going to be about BOTH the world of historical re-creation — sometimes called ‘reenactment’ or ‘reenacting’ and about ‘historical martial arts’ also known as ‘Western Martial Arts’–in this case, I mean ‘the attempt to recreate the actual combat arts of the past.’ I recognize that the two are not necessarily allies to many practitioners of one or the other. I also want to note, right at the beginning, that I’m as interested in recreating the metallurgy of the past, or the sewing of the past, or the dance of the past, as the martial arts of the past. In fact, I don’t think you can, actually, recreate any one ‘piece’ of the past without attempting an immersive look at the other pieces. Or rather, I think that like a puzzle of a picture, the more pieces you have, the clearer and better understanding you’ll have of the picture.
But–to the near despite of some of my closest friends in both passions, I don’t think that immersive experience–what too many of us call ‘authenticity’ without considering what that word means in modern parlance–begins and ends with material culture. That is to say–stuff. I’m aware that the last thirty years of military reenacting (and modern consumer culture) have pushed many hobbyists into a frenzy of making and purchasing ever more narrowly-defined ‘correct’ clothing and equipment, and much of that is, in fact, positive. It’s just not the most important aspect of recreating the past. It is simply the easiest to demonstrate on Facebook. To argue otherwise is to suggest that the experience of material culture (stuff) is more important than the direct experience of other aspects of our lives today. That’s certainly what Apple and Walmart would like you to believe, but here in the immersion of the past–we don’t need to fall for that.
I’d like to propose that in fact, the most important aspect of immersion in the past is the acquisition of the skills of the past, and their practice. And this is where the regular practice of historical martial arts has changed my perception of what ‘matters’ to the experience of the past. I could (if I had the skill) be as interested in historical musical instruments and the re-creation of historical music (and in fact, I just spent a week with people who build medieval instruments and use them,, and our commonality of experience was amazing); or of historical dance (done that, with Baroque ballet) or horseback riding or plowing or card games or gun smithing or sewing or–any skill you can find, document, and learn.
But the process of acquiring a skill–a real skill, with a palpable superiority over an untrained person–and its consequent investment of time, passion, and sweat–brings you closer to the past in almost every way. First, the entire process can be made to function as re-creation. You are not ‘playing’ a British soldier in the late eighteenth century. You are instead actively pursuing the knowledge he had of how to use a sword or a bayonet (as with Angelo’s stick fighting techniques). Even better if you can pursue the acquisition of that knowledge in something of the manner he (or she) pursued it (for which, see below). Second, the experience of that skill is far more valid as an experience of the past (at least as modern philosophy defines experience) then the experience of dressing up–no matter how ‘correctly’ in period clothes–and then camping on a mowed lawn. That latter is, in fact, ‘acting.’ It may benefit the public. But it is not really a valid experience of the past.
All of which brings me, at least, to splitting wood, as my allegory for the recreation of the past, and training for the past’s martial arts. Or other things … We–as a community–have a great deal left to learn about almost every aspect of the chivalric martial arts of the later Middle Ages, and one area that fascinates me is the lack of information on the training of squires. There are, in fact, a handful of very late illustrations of men fencing with sword and buckler, or lifting rocks. There’s one document from the Knights of Saint John that requires knights to practice ‘at arms’ every day on the island of Rhodes, and some other tenuous suggestions–but all considered, shockingly little by the standards we impose today on sports or dance professionals, elite soldiers, or musicians.
What I suspect is that in the process of eliminating the drudgery of routine farm work and housekeeping, we have also eliminated many core training experiences for the young military professional, and we have created a false and ‘modern’ training regimen to make up for the lack.
In our classes at Hoplologia, we spend a fair amount of time on tempo (the timing and the inter-relationships of timing of the movements of using a weapon), and measure (the distance at which a martial artist can most effectively engage an opponent). We have exercises that I borrow from ballet (a 19th century dance style) from Kendo (really a very modern sport indeed, and almost unrelated to the use of the Samurai’s katana), from Aikido (an early 20th century combat sport) and from Olympic fencing (also a 20th century combat sport.) None of these exercises–or anything like them–were practiced by knights and squires in the 14th century. In fact, as best we know, the young gentlemen (and sometimes women) of the period were enjoined, in the first manuals of education (1450s), to swim, dance, do gymnastics, and ride horses.
I would like to suggest that in addition, most of them cut and split firewood with an axe.
Now, admittedly, I have been doing this all my life. I’m a fair user of an axe, which I think makes me a fair test subject. But axe use requires repeated strikes with a very small blade–the axe head has less cutting edge than the sweet spot on either a katana or an Italian long sword–on a very small target. Expert axe use in felling requires the ability to put every strike within about 10 mm of all your other strikes–and to vary the angle of impact very precisely. As a sidebar, I was interested recently to read where one modern WMA teacher suggested that multiple strikes to the same place on a helmet could damage the helmet, and another said that it was unlikely that anyone could place so many strikes so close together. I would say–split more wood. You can, in fact, place every strike withing a few millimeters of the others.
Using an axe to fell or to split also requires a precise sense of measure–especially splitting small rounds. Again, you have a very small blade area and a very small target. Constant practice allows you to know, without hesitation, how far to stand from your tree or your log when you swing.
And tempo? Not only does the use of an axe teach tempo–naturally, as the axe user finds a rhythm that suits that individuals arm length and strength, but two cutters working together are practicing even more effectively.
I won’t belabor the use of an axe any more. For me, it is an allegory about how immersion in the past is the re-creation, not of ‘stuff’ but of systems–not just one skill, but many linked skills. Dance and gymnastics train bodies to stamina and posture as well as tempo and measure. Swimming makes us strong and gives long, fast muscle. Cutting wood with an axe makes tatami mats and expensive sharps unnecessary to train the swordsman to precision. Taken into our lives together, all three would give us a multi-layered immersion into the training systems of the past–leave our bodies healthier, increase our skills–and fill our porches with firewood. A dedicated and passionate WMA practitioner could do all of these, every week–dance, swim, practice gymnastics and cut wood–without spending a dollar on equipment or period clothes–and I suspect their experience would be deep and immersive.
OF COURSE I believe that you can deepen your enjoyment and immersive experience by painstakingly recreating the clothes, shoes, armour, swords, horse harness, plows, violins, drums, hauteboys, tents, pots and pans and jewelry and bows and… everything of the past. Don’t throw things! I own lots of this stuff, and I revel in it (gosh, just look at my cheque book.) But as with our modern lives in the age of the consumer, much of that that is not purely functional (like shoes for the dancer, where period shoes will profoundly affect performance and thus experience) are about outward show, not inward knowledge. All hand sewn? Unless you did it yourself. and it is as good as the sewing of the period…it’s just an Iphone or a BMW.
Go split more wood.