Episode 21: Wiktenauer, with Michael Chidester

Episode 21: Wiktenauer, with Michael Chidester


Michael Chidester is the a long-time researcher and practitioner of historical martial arts, and the Director of Wiktenauer. He is also producing draw-droppingly gorgeous facsimiles, here: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/manuscript-facsimile-fior-di-battaglia/x/1789830#/ There were some unfortunate technical problems with the recording of this interview, so you may wish to refer to the transcription below.

Episode Transcription

GW: Hello, sword people, this is Guy Windsor, also known as The Sword Guy. And I'm here today with Michael Chidester. Michael is the Director of wiktenauer.com, which for those of you who are new to historical martial arts, and who may not have even heard of it yet, it is a fantastic Internet repository of scans of historical fencing treatises dating back as far as you can imagine. There are just hundreds of them there. It is this extraordinary resource and not content with that gigantic contribution to the art of arms, Michael is also the author of several books, including Concordance of Fiore’s Plays, the Meyer Study Companion, Translation of 3227a; from which you can gather he's something of a Fiore man, something of Meyer researcher, something of a Liechtenauer person. And he has also got into producing very high quality facsimiles, first of the Thott manuscript. I have that on my bookshelf right now and it is a glory and a delight. And, at the time of recording, but it'll be done by the time the show goes out, he has a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to do Fiore’s Getty Manuscript in glorious, glorious, hand-bound leather gorgeousness. So, Michael, welcome to the show.

MC: Thanks, Guy.

GW: It's lovely to see you. Now, just so we can orient everyone, whereabouts in the world are you?

MC: I currently live in a small city outside of Boston, Massachusetts, in the United States of America.

GW: Lovely. I saw you there a year or so ago, so, what event was that? That was when I was teaching in Boston.

MC: Yeah, we met up just after.

GW: Yes, and thanks to the technical hitches at the beginning of this podcast recording, next time I'm over that way, I definitely owe you a beer. OK, so let's kick off straight in. Now, obviously, from your published works, we can tell you have a pretty broad set of interests, but what would you say are your main research interests?

MC: So I, as anyone who looks at Wiktenauer can tell, I've looked at a lot of different sources, but really, and this is something that people sort of anticipate - that everything that’s on Wiktenauer I have studied in depth, but you don't actually have to really understand something to put it on a website.

GW: You’re not that old. You would have to be a thousand years old to have studied all those things in depth.

MC: A lot of what I do with that is a lot of copying and pasting and light proofreading. So I don't have to process all of it. A lot of the work on Wiktenauer around that is just trying to find out the history of the book as opposed to the teachings. As far as the stuff that I studied in depth and study on a physical level, Fiore was my first love. That was the first treatise I ever tried to interpret on my own. But I can't say that I really ever became a Fiorist. I was never in a club that studied it. And so it was all on my own time. And I went through all the dagger plays and most of the rest of the book and I think I've done the sword stuff very slightly and that's about it. So there's a lot of Fiore’s teachings that I have no experience with outside of translating them. And also likewise Meyer I’m involved with mostly because I love the Meyer Freifechter Guild, which is a network of Meyer-focused clubs, and I been to their annual symposium several times, and I like to support them however I can. So I've done some Meyer research more on that level. What I study in terms of physical practice is early 15th century Liechtenauer fencing and primarily longsword, although I've been trying to get into armour for the past few years and had financial woes that kept me out of it so far.

GW: Yeah. You basically have to be able to afford a second car before you can afford a suit of armour.

MC: I don’t even have a first car.

GW: I thought that was illegal in America? Every United States citizen has to have at least one car.

MC: If you live in certain cities, people get around it, where we actually have civilized public transportation. Only certain cities though.

GW: So you’re getting into the armoured combat side of Liechtenauer as best you can.

MC: I've been on a horse about twice in my life, so I haven't really got into that much either. And to really understand that, I think you probably have to do all three and I'm not there.

GW: Yeah, I've got a tiny bit of experience of mounted combat, enough to know that you have to be a much better rider than I am to be any good at it. Actually, listeners to the show should check out my interview with Jen Landels where we talk about mounted combat quite a bit because that's sort of her specialty. But OK, so obviously beginners aren't going to go out buying a horse and a suit of armor. So where would you recommend, as a Liechtenauer person, that a beginner who was interested in doing some actual book study, what do you think they should start?

MC: Well, I'm full of opinions about this, but I think that a place to start would be there are three particular glosses which on the Internet we refer to as RDL, which is Sigmund Ringeck, Peter von Danzig and a guy named Lew. And those three are fairly consistent in their teachings. So they have some small differences, but they're essentially teaching the same set of plays for the most part. So they're a reasonable starting point. And Harry Ridgeway out of Australia, recently published a book designed to be a very accessible translation of Peter von Danzig, which is available on Amazon I believe, or not, the Internet will tell you how to find it.

GW: I will find it for the show notes.

MC: He simplified it and tried to make it as understandable as possible, and I’ve done the same with my translation of 3227a. Although I don’t think I did quite as good a job at simplifying, and all that, as he did, but that was my aim. And 3227a is not part of that tight grouping of similar treatises, but it uses a very different approach to the same system of Liechtenauer. So I think it's a good complement. And when you read them both together and try to match up, try to keep in mind it's not describing the same thing, but some really good insight into what Liechtenauer might have been teaching.

GW: Excellent. Now a small, ignoble part of me was hoping you were going to say, you know what, beginners they should really start with Fiore.

MC: I don't know.

GW: That's fair.

MC: It seems that he is missing some of the stuff beginners might want.

GW: I don’t know. Yeah, they both leave out things that the other one puts in. We could discuss the differences. In fact, one of the most common questions I ever to get asked is what's the difference between Fiore and Liechtenauer. And to me it's mostly, well, it's a question of what they choose to put in and what they assume is obvious and so leave out.

MC: There also seems to be some technical and tactical preferences they have. I mean, possibly even just on a personal level, the way they think about fencing seems to differ a bit from what we can tell. But in both cases, they are giving what I suspect is a somewhat advanced work that leaves out the basics that might be more similar, but trying to understand what the basic fencing is, and what that is, is something that consumes a lot of people in HEMA and we still don't have great answers for that.

GW: Yeah, I would tend to think that the foundations for Liechtenauer’s longsword, the basic plays, are all in the Messer.

MC: That depends on what Messer sources you're looking at, really, and Liechtenauer is not a basic source by any means, but also Liechtenauer is about what is common fencing is and what he expects his students to already be familiar with that he’s not explaining to them. From basic things like how to cut properly and how to hold the sword and how to step properly to even some techniques are named without explaining them. And you have to sort of tease out what the meaning of it is when he tells you things like make a half cut or even sometimes describes what the opponent is going to be doing and things that he's teaching elsewhere in the treatise. There are ways to approach this and Jake Norwood and I have worked off and on on a paper trying to capture this for several years now. And I’d say he did a lot of the heavy lifting and he took it to me for revisions and for fleshing out. So that's really his baby and has been for a long time. But trying to understand what the German common fencing is and that question of, is it the same as Fiore?, are they teaching something and then Liechtenauer is breaking away? And the answer is not exactly, but Fiore has a lot in common with this common fencing idea even though he also sort of riffs on it and goes off in a different direction.

GW: Well, as I see it, Fiore has the foundation and well, you know I have my card game, Audatia. We have three basic decks, which are characters that do Fiore-style longsword. And then we have an expansion pack, which is the Liechtenauer stuff. So literally I see a lot of the Liechtenauer longsword stuff as an expansion pack on the basic game.

MC: And there's certainly an extent to which that's true, although I think that the more someone gets into the weeds of Fiore’s techniques, the further you get away from anything that would lead into Liechtenauer. So like you said, basically Fiore is a great starting point. If you really want to deep dive into things like the Stretto plays and so on, then you start venturing away again, that’s my read on it. The style of fencing doesn’t quite line up.

GW: OK, yeah, I can see that. Now it's much easier to have this sort of conversation when there's a couple longswords lying around and we can just pick them up. It's a weakness of the format that we’ll just have to bear with. OK, now I guess you're probably best known, at least outside of Boston, for being an architect of Wiktenauer, which I talked about a little bit in the introduction. So I would be curious to know, and I’m sure the listeners would too, how did Wiktenauer start, and what is it like producing that kind of resource?

MC: So something that most people have forgotten, if they ever knew, is I didn't actually start Wiktenauer. It was Ben Michaels who is a guy who was at the time in Maryland, but then KDF and he's in Pittsburgh now and no longer fences. But he was also one of the founders of Longpoint and chief organizers. And was involved in a lot of different projects over the years in his HEMA time. He started it and I signed on maybe six months after, this would have been in late 2009. He said he had this idea of what he envisioned as the Wikileaks of HEMA, where he had this notion, which was at least somewhat true, that there were a lot of resources in the HEMA world that were sort of hoarded and not easily accessible, particularly scans at the time, when there was this black market trade in manual scans. You had to know the right people and have some stuff yourself if you wanted to get the really good stuff you could trade.

GW: Yeah, and sometimes you had to hand over a grand to some library somewhere, which I have done on occasion.

MC: So have I. If you wanted to get the good Getty scans or the Paris scans, when Florius was finally released, you had to know somebody and you had that to be able to trade for them. But also there were translations that were passed around sort of privately and so on. And Ben Michaels wanted to consolidate not just the translations that were publicly available on the open Internet and scans and so forth, but also the secret stuff. And he was finding a lot of people who were posting anonymously their hoards so we could have it in one place. But his concept was to organize all of this material on a technique by technique basis, and thereby he said he would solve all of the interpretation arguments once and for all, because clearly once the texts had been laid out properly, the correct interpretation would be obvious.

GW: He was an idealist, wasn’t he?

MC: And after he discovered that wasn't true he lost interest in the project and it passed on to me. So I started working on it from a very different point. When I got the email that he sent out to about ten people in November 2009, telling us this idea he had and wanting everyone to buy in and contribute. And a lot of people said that this will never work for obvious reasons. But later on I got interested and I started making pages. And what I was doing was organizing it by master and by treatise, which is what we currently have. Whereas, if you look at the sidebar, you’ll notice a section called Techniques, but it’s mostly empty and doesn't have very many pages and it never has had that many pages. So that section is the original Wiktenauer model and the rest is the new model. So I started with Fiore as I mentioned as the first master I studied and I did what I think a lot of Fiore people did back in those days, was take translations by Matt Easton and by Mark Lancaster and Rob Lovett, The Exiles and the Knight of the Wild Rose translation and all these bits and pieces of Fiore and try to line them up into a concordance. And I built my first one, used the terrible scratchy black and white scans and put it in a big binder. And then I started noticing right around 2008/9 where I hooked up with my first club as an instructor, which I think was in 2008. I started noticing that there was a lot of similar work needed for a Liechtenauer text and started putting together some concordances of the Dierk Hagedorn’s Transcriptions and some other bits of transcripts from other people. And all this stuff was just sitting on my computer and I thought wouldn’t it be cool to, instead of just dumping texts onto pages and moving on, if we tried to organize it into tables like this, and it looked at the very least like it would cut down on the necessary translations and so on. Something that people forget, people who were around back then, is that if you go back ten years in HEMA most people were studying at a very different perspective than we have today, particularly on the German side. I mean, Fiore hasn't changed that much over the years because Fiore students had a pretty decent grasp early on of at least what texts exists. Obviously the interpretation has advanced by leaps and bounds, but the actual source material is what it is and is what it has been and you've got better translations since the early 2000s. But Liechtenauer people, and other systems, had the tendency to fixate on a single manuscript. And so you had someone who would tend to be an expert in the Danzig manuscript by which they meant the manuscript which is currently in Rome that has Danzig in it or the Ringeck people who would fixate on the Dresden manuscript and believe that everything in question was written by Ringeck, which is not true. We may or may not know.  He wrote maybe two or three sections out of this manuscript. So people would follow the information like this, and I had this idea that maybe we could break people out of this perspective by completely dispensing with discussion of the actual physical books of the manuscripts and start talking about masters. And I wanted everybody to get a better, clearer idea of what they were studying by associating it with actual people instead of with a particular copy or a particular version. Even the Fiore people, to some extent, had this blind spot where they would only be studying the Getty, or maybe they studied Pissani Dossi, but they weren't looking as broadly as I wanted them to. So I started putting these pages up just with the hope of looking to see how many different copies of this thing exists and ideally getting translations that were of more than one manuscript. And that was what I set out to make and that's what currently exists. So every single treatise on Wiktenauer is hooked into a master page unless it's completely anonymous and unique. And that was, I think, a successful bid of mine to try and change the way we talked about fencing. Now we have people who study Ringeck, but they're aware they're looking at Glasgow and they're looking at Dresden, they’re looking at other things. The people who study Peter von Danzig and have more than one copy would be aware that it exists in 11 copies. So there's a lot of different variation that people are now aware of and embracing. And I think that was thanks to Wiktenauer more than anything else. But that was my idea; I have all this stuff and it's helped me study Liechtenauer and teach it to my students, so how can I make this available to everybody else? And Wiktenauer was the vehicle that I saw that already existed that could house that stuff. I didn't know at the time I would be taking over. I just wanted to put the information out there.

GW: What people listening to us for the last 20 minutes or so may not have realized is that it's not just longsword stuff. There are rapier treatises and smallsword treatises and pretty much everything you can think of, pretty much every source we know about where scans are available, those scans are there on Wiktenauer.

MC: Well, err, we can add to it. So the problem is it's a huge, huge topic to tackle. I've been on this for ten years now and we've only got complete coverage up to about sixteen hundred. Scattershot in the 17th century. We’ve got the major European treatises and not the minor ones.

GW: But Michael, you're comparing the Wiktenauer as it is now to what it might become in ten years’ time. I'm comparing it to what we had to go through to get one shitty photocopy 20 years ago. And it is night and day. It is an extraordinary thing. It's not just a question of finding scans and then sticking them up on the Internet, is it? There's an awful lot of cross referencing from one to another and providing transcriptions and translations and all that sort of thing. So how do you go about that?

MC: Fortunately, it's not just me. I'm the primary person who puts the content on Wiktenauer pages, and I've hoped over the years that I would get people who could help with that and it's never really happened that much. But people do help out periodically for a bit and they get burned out. And that's life. But the actual work of finding original treatises is not something I do. I mean, I try. I look. But I have yet to discover something that no one's ever discovered yet. Every time I think I have, I find an SFI post from 2004 by Matt Galas and realized that somebody got there first. So that work is really important and there's a lot of people who are earnestly going into library catalogs trying to find new treatises. The transcription is not something that I do very much. I’ve transcribed things, I mean, I have the ability to, but that's a lot of time for one page and I usually don't. I'm currently working on a transcription of Salvator Fabris from the scans you provided, actually, I'm doing one page a day and hope to eventually be done with that. But there are a lot of other people who, like Reinier Van Noort and Dierk Hagedorn who really have put a lot more time and effort into transcribing things so I can take their work, with permission of course, and put it on pages and likewise when people produce free translations get those on there. So a lot of what I do is just the work of organizing and cataloging. If I had a major contribution apart from those concordances, it would be really trying to flesh out questions of the provenance and the publication history of a lot of these texts, which is work that's never really been done that I have been able to find.

GW: You are the man that discovered the Getty Concordance. Who managed to prize that out of the Getty Museum.

MC: What’s the Getty concordance?

GW: I'm sorry, it’s a bit late here, thanks to time difference. Not the concordance, the collation. The collation of the Getty manuscript.

MC: Oh, yeah. So that's something that's more esoteric that I'm interested in, that I try to put in the Wiktenauer, which is the actual collation of manuscripts. This is something I've gotten more interested in the past few years. A few minutes ago I gave a spiel about how I tried to push everyone away from studying individual manuscripts. But then at Longpoint last year, I think it was, so a year ago March, I was at Longpoint and I gave a lecture and Charles Lim came up to me after the lecture, who's brilliant and really, really interested in developing and understanding the context of historical martial arts. He's a pretty neat guy, but has really, really pushed a lot of envelopes already, and he was asking me questions about manuscripts. Things like how big this manuscript is, physically, what are the dimensions of the cover? Can we figure out who this manuscript was for based on its physical properties? The handwriting and the size and so on. Is it a pocket-sized book versus a giant book? And things like that. And it brought into clarity for me, the fact that maybe it is time to go back and start studying individual manuscripts again, but not from a myopic perspective or a [unclear] perspective, but start looking at them to understand the teachings better and see if we can learn from the physical manuscripts more about the text as opposed to limiting ourselves the way we used to. It might actually open new horizons.

GW: It is really important to know that, for example, if there seems to be an odd segue in the manuscript, if you look at the collation, you know whether, well, those two pages have always been together so this segue is deliberate or actually there may be pages missing and looking at the way the manuscript is bound, we can see that that bit of vellum would have been attached to that bit of vellum over there. So maybe it would be something on this sort of topic. It’s really important.

MC: Something that the I.33 community has been talking about for a long time, because for better or worse, they [unclear] manuscript all these years, and it's been well known for at least 10 years that there were, or at least partially known for at least 10 years, that there are missing pages and pages that were rearranged and several different academic papers have been published trying to analyze the collation and figure out what the missing content was and what it might be, what pages they were and what they might have said. So there’s that, but the other manuscripts never had this level of scrutiny, partly because, especially for the Germans, that there's so many manuscripts that are there it’s very hard to actually drill down to one of them when there's so much of a buffet. So you can find catalogues that have like 50 manuscripts in them with a summary description of each one, but not as much with the deep, careful analysis of all of it although Daniel Jacquet is trying to raise the bar in that area. And as you said, I’ve been partly harvesting his work and partly looking through catalogs myself, finding and diagraming manuscripts that way to get a better sense of what's in them, what might be missing and how they might have been rearranged and so on over the years. There's other interesting things you can learn from manuscripts by studying the [unclear] which is things like marginal notes which the Getty family doesn't have. But the Paris Fiore has a bunch of notes that are translational notes. Kendra Brown and Rebecca Garber, who were in my study group, did a translation of the Florius manuscript a few years ago, and one thing they noticed and made was note of was that someone had gone through and carefully written out French and I think sometimes Latin translations of tricky words and they’re writing out best guess of what the words meant in tiny script above the words. So you go and you can find the notes and also the margins. Some of which were cut off because the book was re-sized during the rebinding and like maybe an inch of margin was cut off on all sides.

GW: It’s hideous when that happens, I can’t bear it.

MC: If you look at the segno page, all of the text beneath the elephant’s foot is cut off and all you have is the [unclear] the chapter mark. Someone did terrible things in that book and possibly erased even better marginal notes. But then you find you can tell that at the very least someone at some point tried to study this manuscript and wrote down those study notes which with a completely blank manuscript you can ask, did anyone ever read it? Why is it so empty for the time period when people were accustomed to writing in books? Was it ever studied or just owned by a rich family and kept as a sort of prize.

GW: I just pulled the Florius manuscript up and the facsimile I'm holding is the scans that I bought from the Biblioteque Nationale Français for hideous amounts of money. And you know how you can get photo albums printed up. So I just got it printed up as a photo album and so basically it's a pretty good facsimile of the manuscript and I just dug it up to have a look at the appallingly abused pages and, yeah, I haven’t actually looked at this book for a while, and now I’m looking at it from what you just said, it really jumps out at you, what’s been done to it.

MC: Is it one of the old scans are all hazy and everything?

GW: I've had them for a long time, but they are I think pretty good quality. You can see the grain in the vellum and the ink smudges and where a pen stroke has gone a little strong or a little light.

MC: They seem to have scanned the manuscripts at least two times, and one of them is all smoothed out and the paper is very flat and the other one, I think they used an overhead camera, because the parchment is all creased and you can actually see all the creases and see where it hasn’t been bound tightly enough.

GW: Just looking at mine and it is the overhead camera one.

MC: Yeah, I got those scans illicitly from Ilkka Hartikainen early on in the Wiktenauer project. He is one of the secret benefactors of Wiktenauer, because he sent me many gigabytes of scans and documents that he had. He was trying to focus more on the Bolognese stuff, and so he sent me all his German stuff and Fiore scans and so on that he didn't need any more to help Wiktenauer. So I've got a bunch of cool stuff from him I didn't even know existed, including scans which cost I forget how many thousand dollars back then.

GW: I got a friend of mine who was one of my students who was doing some degree at the University of Helsinki. And I got him to order it and he got the academic discount. So the whole thing, it was still an ungodly amount of money, like 50 euros per page.

MC: Yeah that sounds about right.

GW: It was basically like a month’s salary for a bunch of pictures.

MC: This is something people don't always grasp in HEMA, which is that all these scans, someone actually paid for them at some point and even the ones that are now free, like the Paris scans are now free, museums typically only digitize things for other initiatives. You have to pay them money [and get them] to put them online. But otherwise their digitization plans tend to focus on the really famous stuff and not obscure fencing treatises.

GW: The scanning department in the library or museum or whatever they have work to do that is not making fencers happy, sadly. Getting them to apply their attention to the books we’re interested in can be quite a job.

MC: Wiktenauer is pretty flush these days, so I can pay for a lot of things using the Wiktenauer money. We had a fundraiser in 2015 that still has lots of money in the bank, so I haven't had another one since then. We have about twenty thousand dollars in the bank too. Not enough to hire employees, but more than enough to spend on scans and server space and so forth. So I paid for digitisations in the last couple of years, sometimes at ridiculous fees, but ideally less than a thousand dollars for the most part.

GW: Just on that topic, it just occurred to me that there are people listening to the show who might have time on their hands. If they wanted to volunteer to help with the Wiktenauer project, what would you advise they did?

MC: There are several categories of pages that need work done, so partly it depends on just what their skills are. There's also a whole lot of copying and pasting work which needs to be done, which is the most tedious kind of work which most of my time is spent on. Doing that and editing manual scans because I have to edit them and so on if I put them online in the first place. So if we want to do that kind of work they can get in touch with me and I can recommend projects, but there's also many, many books and manuscripts that need to be transcribed, which is probably more slave labour, but pretty easy to learn in some cases. There's some scripts that are much easier than others, certainly. And translation is the hardest one.

GW: Tell me about it.

MC: We have a lot of stuff that needs to be translated that people haven’t got to, if they ever will. I keep records of all of the work that is sort of shovel ready and just waiting for me to have time to get to it or for someone who’s interested to get to it, and I can recommend projects to anybody who wants to take it on,  scaled to their abilities and amount of free time.

GW: OK, how should they get in touch with you?

MC: I am reachable on Facebook. You can also email me through mchidester@wiktenauer.com it’s pretty easy to get a hold of me that way. I don't respond to emails in a very timely fashion, but I'll get back to you.

GW: I know you’re not that speedy. I’m dead flattered when you reply to one of my in less than two or three days. But I respect that I have a pretty strict policy because, you know, your email inbox is everybody else's to do list for you and random strangers on the Internet don't actually have a right to your attention. If someone has bought one of my books or courses or whatever and emails me with some kind of problem, then fine, they have a right to my attention, but an awful lot of stuff comes in, which is basically people wanting me to help them with something. And so I have a strict policy that if it's somebody I don't know, unless it's some kind of tech support for something I've sold them there's a minimum 24 hours before I reply to the email. Sometimes two or three days. And if it comes in on Thursday, I might not get to it on a Monday because Saturdays and Sundays don't count. That's just to make it so that people, when they get in touch with me, don't get used to the idea that they can have my attention whenever they want it. They can send me an email and I will get to it in due course and I will reply to it helpfully. But I'm not going to necessarily do it today or even tomorrow or possibly even not this week. Certainly never at the weekend. So I think you have absolutely every right to be, shall we say, a bit slack on the email front.

MC: Yeah, recently someone sent me a draft of a translation they wanted me to give comments on. And when I didn't respond within two or three days, they were posting on Reddit asking why it's taking me so long and is there someone else I can talk to about it. I had barely even noticed it was there and thought about responding and they already were complaining about it on Reddit. So I feel like I should set expectations and then stick to them, which is I'm not good at answering email, and honestly it’s not a high priority for me. It's just that I have a limited amount of time for things.

GW: And let's face it, nobody puts really quick at answering email on their CV. It's not actually what people need you for.

MC: Yeah. And there's also the fact that I don’t tend to look at my email inbox that often, so I may not even notice it for the first 24 hours. But I try to respond eventually to everything, though. Have patience.

GW: Be patient. Patience is a virtue, especially for martial arts people. OK, all right. Now, one thing I tend to ask people on this show, because everyone has an opinion. I know you do longsword fencing, so what are your thoughts on protective equipment?

MC: I mean, I hate it personally, I came up through ARMA originally and we didn't actually use fencing equipment,

GW: That’s A.R.M.A, yes?

MC: yes, the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts. When I was a young dumb college student, I started when I was 18 years old, fresh out of high school. And within three weeks of beginning college, I discovered the local HEMA club in 2001. So at that time, HEMA protective gear didn't really exist and repurposed gear from other sports was not something that we used that much. So we had like three fencing masks for the whole club, for 30 people, and we thought that motocross gloves were all the hand protection you'd ever need. I'm not accustomed to protective gear, even though I've owned some for many years. I try to stay light with it. I feel like the heavy tournament gear loses flexibility to an unacceptable degree and you can train to get around the limitations. But you could also spend that time training something else, so I don't see what the point is. I mean, for myself, I fence in a sport fencing coach’s jacket, I used to have an AP jacket from SPES, and I eventually gave it away and went back to a light jacket. And I have some pads I can wear underneath that if I really need to. And I've also switched to a complex hilted longsword that's based on some early to mid 15th century examples in museums. So essentially it's a swept hilt that only covers the lead hand, with four ports. It’s got the closed top ports and wider bottom ports and three bar knucklebow.

GW: So OK you’ve basically welded a buckler to your longsword.

MC: I thought what was the proper historical solution to hand protection? And the answer is not giant gauntlets, certainly not of the time period we're looking at. The answer was, increase the protection on the sword itself. So that allows you to fence with a light fencing glove on my right hand and then a bigger glove on my left hand, which is the compromise that I make. I have been encouraging lots of people to move in this direction of using lighter of gear, except when they're required to wear heavier gear, at least, in the US on the East Coast where we have seen positive moves in the past few years, with people gearing down. Even for tournaments, people are more often showing up with the bare minimum gear for tournaments and not the really heavy equipment that some of the European makers are selling now, which is a positive development, in my opinion. I think that there's a lot that you can’t learn as well. I think that the gear inhibits certain kinds of lessons. And certainly when I've done things, like training with sharp swords, some people think I'm crazy, although I know you are not one of those people.

GW: I love sharp swords. Swords are sharp!

MC: You were one of the people who actually inspired me to start training with sharp swords.

GW: I’m flattered, thank you.

MC: The idea is that certainly being in very light gear so you have no protection is educational in a lot of ways, and so being in very light gear fencing and especially drilling with blunt swords before you put on all of your heavy sparring gear. Obviously if you’re injured in a way that you can’t fence any more than any lessons you learned are probably incidental to the fact that you're not working at all. So you have to strike a balance. But for me, that balance is much more tilted towards doing things in a controlled manner with no fencing gear and then saving gear for the occasions when it's absolutely required. I'm happy in just a fencing mask and a gorget and gloves for most of my training, although I have to wear a chest plate in my current club as well. But that's it. Maybe a forearm protection.

GW: Most of my students do most of their training with just a fencing mask, maybe a pair of gloves. That's it.

MC: Yeah, I think it's a false dichotomy to say you have to do one or the other. Some of the clubs I know invest heavily in both and they have developed a training program that switches back and forth. And I think that's the best way to go about it.

GW: Oh, sure. And again, my students will gear up and if they're doing heavy freeplay, they will gear up for it, but that's not what they spend most of their training time wearing.

MC: And if you never do that at all, then you're really missing something in your fencing training.

GW: Same as tournaments. They are a necessary part of any fencer’s education. They're not my particular primary area of interest, but I don't think we'd be better off without them, for sure. OK, so you're obviously in Boston and America is not doing terribly well in the corona stakes, so how’s that affecting your training, your practice, that sort of thing?

MC: I came into the corona pandemic off of an injury, actually, so I haven't fenced since January, essentially, except that my partner Kendra and I sometimes pull out swords here in my living room and do a little bit of playing around that way. But that's about it for me. My club has reopened very small group fencing, and she and I decided to stay away for now for safety concerns and to leave space for a couple of other people, because the club can't accommodate everyone yet. My HEMA experience for the past, what is it, eight months now has been almost entirely research. Which feels different from any previous years of my HEMA life, but we can talk about that if you want to, but this year has not been a great year for fencing for me, for the physical practice of fencing at least.

GW: Yeah, it’s not been a great year for anyone. I was just curious to see how you guys are dealing with it. So your club is going back in small groups only.

MC: The club is doing virtual classes with solo drills and conditioning and stuff like that, and occasional discussion sessions, which I think is generally positive. I mean, if there's one thing I hope that HEMA takes away from this pandemic, even once, God willing, there's a vaccine and things start to return to a more normal situation, is continuing with the online offerings because there's been just a huge swell in the amount of free materials that are available online and also just clubs doing digital training, which most clubs never did in the past, but it's something that I hope people will be able to take advantage of because it is a good complement to physical training, even in times when you're not required to. And also for people who have to travel and things like that regularly to give them more opportunities to participate.

GW: There’s a lot of stuff you can do alone at home with just a stick or whatever. So you can do research, but you can also do a lot of like weapon control training and fitness training. And I'm teaching three days a week. When I moved to Ipswich four years ago, I was teaching only when I traveled. But now I can't travel and I'm missing my students, I've started this basically 40 minutes of getting ready for the day, move like a martial artist sort of training. And, you know what, when we all go back to normal, if normal ever happens again, I am going to carry on doing that because it's a damn sight better start to the day than just sort of stumbling out of bed and wondering what I'm going to do with myself. It’s great. Yes, this is a shitty situation, but there are some silver linings and one of them is I've finally figured out that you can actually have a meaningful interaction with students over the Internet.

MC: Yeah, I mean, I'll tell you, this year is also a time when I revisited my particular choices of studies a lot, because it seems like virtually every fencing system, apart from Fiore and Liechtenauer, comes with a built in solo training and that solo forms are a standard part of so many early modern traditions that I'm familiar with.

GW: I invented solo forms for training Fiore because Fiore doesn't talk about solo forms because he doesn't talk about training at all. But how are you going to really learn to move in his style if you don't have longish sequences of moves that come from his style to put together and practice? To me it's basic. You have to have forms.

MC: And I've tried to do the same with Liechtenauer in the past, but with limited success and a lot more thought goes into this than it seems on the surface to have a really good one. I'm sort of baffled these days by some of the more sophisticated Japanese and Chinese forms - just how much energy must have gone into them because they're way more complicated than anything I've been able to come up with. I've had a certain amount of envy of everybody who has solo forms as part of their teaching that they can fall back on.

GW: Well, you're welcome to borrow any of my Fiore forms, not much use to you for Liechtenauer stuff. But, at least it’ll keep you moving. We have what we call the syllabus form, which is like a zip file for the Fiore system. The very first iteration took about a year and then we trained that and changed it and adapted it for about another three or four years, and then we realized that the interpretation had moved on to the point where we should just bin that one altogether. And over the next two years, I think it was, me and a bunch of my regular students put together the form bit by bit over years. And it took us, well, I think it became “finished” in about 2012 and I started my school in 2001. So really, it was 11 years in the making. So it's not easy to make a good form from scratch, but it can be done. And now that I now I've gone through that process a few times, there are simpler ways to do it. It doesn't need to take 11 years. I mean, one of the key things is you have to understand what is it supposed to do? Is it like a memory palace for the techniques of the system or is it supposed to teach you how to move in a certain way, or is it supposed to teach you how to generate power, or what is it for? And once you can answer that question, putting together a form that accomplishes the goal is easier because you know what the goal is and you can test for it.

MC: Totally.

GW: When this is over, maybe, if you want some help going over some Liechtenauer things we can get together and I can give you a hand.

MC:  Yeah, that'd be cool.

GW: OK. All right, now we are sort of heading towards time and there are a couple of questions I like to wind up with. And the first of those is, what is the best idea you've never acted on?

MC: When you sent the questions over I asked Kendra and she didn’t have an answer for me either. What’s the best idea I have never acted on? I would have had a much better answer for you a year ago since I've been unemployed since October and have managed to actually achieve some of the things that I have been talking about doing for years now. I’ve got things off that list, finally. My unemployment has been a boon for the community it seems. I’d say about half of Wiktenauer was built during a previous unemployment for me, which was 2011/2012. But I think the big things that I wish I could work on right now is more digital offerings in terms of videos, for the most part, because I know that there's always interest in some of the lectures that I've given. And I've had this stuff for a while now about trying to make some more bite-sized five to ten minutes snippets. How I structure my lectures is five to ten minute chapters that I move through, just six or eight of them in a row. So, pretty similar to video with some good illustrations and actually try to put some up to date information about early modern historical martial arts on the Internet to combat a lot of the really outdated stuff that I see get passed around. I've had this idea for months now. I have actually recordings of lectures that I've already given that I could use for this, and I've just never gotten around to it. Most of the content that I see is either sparring / tournament footage or people sharing information that I find to be dubious, without naming any particular channels. Matt Easton does good stuff, but there are many others who are still spreading misinformation and I'd like to get better video out there, but it's up to us to actually make it and put it out there and I just haven't gotten around to that piece.

GW: Don’t take this the wrong way, but I hope you stay unemployed for a while because I would love to see those videos.

MC: Well, we'll see how it goes. I mean, if I find a way to actually make some money doing some of these activities, then I could stay unemployed for longer.

GW: But that's another complication. But I've been making my living doing this for a long time, and there are some tricks to it. So, again, maybe when the call is over, we should get together and figure out how to turn your enormous amount of work into at least a trickle of income.

MC: Yeah, I would love that. And it's been a question that's hanging over my head for a long time now, because really Wiktenauer is basically a full-time job for me. Even when I have another full-time job, I put in 20, 30 hours a week minimum just doing Wiktenauer stuff, or I don't and I feel terrible about it. And that's been my life for a long time. So I have to work on this. The amount of work that have put in Wiktenauer in the past six months has been just very stressful, even for me, because there's been so many projects that have piled up and I have worked through maybe half of them now.

GW: Wow.

MC: The other thing I would like to do with Wiktenauer that I have not yet done maybe next year, is foreign language wikis, which is something that the team and I have talked about for years now and never actually been able to set up, which is an actual network of Wiktenauer sites that are built in other languages with translations in those languages and articles in those languages. So it's not just required English skills to access the sources.  The French community and the Swedish community have done so much work in putting sources into their own languages, and the Spanish community too, to translate it into their native language. And that stuff is really hard to find because it's not really anywhere central. So I would love to get at least for the six or seven biggest nexuses of the HEMA community and get them their own language sites where they can work and build.

GW: That would be fantastic, and actually you've probably answered my last question, which is somebody gives you a million dollars to spend improving historical martial arts, how would you spend it? I think that is the answer, isn't it?

MC: I mean, it would be cool to be able to hire professional translators. It’s something that appeals to me, but they are not cheap. I’ve priced out getting Meyer’s treatise translated and it will come to somewhere around $10,000 and we would be looking at that for a lot of different treatises. At 10 cents a word, it just adds up. I had a different thought when you raised that question, which was something else that I think that we need that would really help this community a lot if we just had lots of money to throw around the projects would be offering scholarships to HEMA events or to give people travel and so on, because to me, the HEMA community is not something that exists on the Internet. The Internet is a sort of a pale shadow of the community that exists in real life, where we gather at an event and it also exists in clubs and so on. But going to a big event and actually meeting people and having a drink with them and taking classes with instructors you've only heard about is something that really is at the heart of what HEMA means to me. So giving people who don't have the financial resources the ability to go to these events, I think would help all of us and really build the community in exciting ways.

GW: I agree entirely. So some of that money is going to professional translators, some of it is going to foreign language versions of Wiktenauer, and some of it is going to getting people who can't afford to go to events, to go to events, once we have them again. I am so looking forward to getting back to an event.

MC: I know the [name of an organisation, unclear] is already doing that and offering scholarships, but we could do a lot more if we had a rich benefactor who was going to fund it, right? I haven't met them yet.

GW: There are people doing historical martial arts in countries with such low costs of living and low wages and what have you that they just can't reasonably fly to America or Europe for a weekend event. It's just not feasible. So, yeah, getting more of those people to us would be great. So, yes. Excellent use of the money, sir. OK, well, do you have any last words for the listeners of anything you particularly like them to do or be aware of?

MC: I wasn't expecting that question. I was actually on a podcast last week, which hasn't been released yet. I think it'll be released before this one, where someone asked what the best way to get started doing HEMA projects as a question. And I thought about it and I think the thing is there are people on this chat too who are talking about ways you can be of service to the community, and I think that the biggest way you could be of service to the HEMA community is to not think about the HEMA community so much and think about what you care about in HEMA. Think about what are the resources that you want, what are the resources you wish you had, what are the things you wish somebody else had written about so you can read it and start digging into that and produce the film that you wish you had. And you will find that everybody else in the community also wants it. But even if they don't care, you still have that cool thing. So I mean, that's guided a lot of my journey with Wiktenauer, with the book projects and so on, is I see an opportunity and think this would actually be complicated but I can see how to do it, why has no one done this yet - the answer is do it and focus on those things for you, for your club and maybe it’ll trickle out to the rest of the community. So if you want to help build HEMA, a focus on the areas that you’re passionate about and everybody else will do the same and it will get built that way, I promise.

GW: That is excellent advice, sir. Thank you very much for joining me today, Michael. It's been a delight.

MC: Thanks Guy, this is great.

Back to blog