Picture: Paulus Hector Mair sickle

What we haven’t discussed yet is that Phoenix Swords actually does research, participates in and pays for translations of sword manuals. With digitization, the historical sword work community has *exploded* with new work, ideas, interpretations and demonstrations.  This is fantastic, few things bring more joy than an honest and informed discussion about swords. [additional comments redacted)

So what is involved with taking a sword manual from a digital copy or printed facsimile to a two-minute spot in a historical show at a renaissance faire?  First, time and the ability to love watching grass grow.  Not an exaggeration. Most manuals are NOT in English so first, as a primarily an English speaker, I need to find someone conversant in that language and HOPEFULLY familiar with sword terminology. Go ahead, find that on Craigslist.

We (the founders of PS) first did this with a study group run out of the now-defunct, Higgins Armory Museum. There was both a physical guild and a study guild and for a number of years I was in both.  As time went on, we had to change up how we learned to work out “plays” from these books and in some cases, like the sickle manual we reference, we paid members of ARMS at the UMass Renaissance Center to translate the  Latin and German so we would have a starting base. For a brief time we studied and worked with another group out of Cambridge, MA called CHEMAS(Cambridge Historical European Martial Arts Studies Group.)

So that was a long-winded way to say; First, you start with a manual, then you add in people who are scholars, physical practitioners, sword enthusiasts  and stubborn. I say stubborn because imagine reading two lines in German, debating what they mean and the physical direction, acting out those physical directions, have a discourse on everyone’s opinions of the directions, settling on one to start, doing the instruction and then saying “You, know, that doesn’t look/ sound right.” And do this for two-three hours and not even complete a two-paragraph selection within a book, that’s a hat tip to what it takes to go through sword manuals. And then the interpretation is colored by the background of the participants-longsword enthusiasts will have a different take than someone with a background in wrestling or Judo and literalists will not like some of these ideas “appended” to what the text says explicitly.  And there are different schools, and that would explode this into a flow chart so let’s skip ahead.

My personal experience is that I love being part of what is (avert your eyes my catholic friends) the holy trinity of an interpretation. I have two friends I especially enjoy working with one is a medievalist and linguistic scholar, the other physically great and a martial artist and they both have experience in demonstrations and sword work.  We crank out great stuff and I am not ashamed to say that I am the not the pretty or smart one-but I do ask questions that Everyman needs to ask so we all understand. In our troupe, Fenix is excellent at both interpretation and making something demonstration quality. And to be clear-sword manuals are meant to end fights quickly. Many moves consist of “move blade, cut opponents hand, gloat.” Okay I threw in ‘gloat’ but if anyone has seen competitive fencing it is over quickly and although the spectators will have plenty to say about technique and skill. A person who wandered in from the street will say “Clink, clink, done? What just happened?” So a good historical interpretation will often make for an insufficient entertainment.  (Somewhere in western MA one of my sword teachers is shaking his fist and shouting right now)

So how do you make a historical sword show palatable for a general audience? First, you need to set the expectation. We have a funny patter that states exactly what we are going to do up front. We swap out weapons types and gear the information flow to the median audience. If seeing our show at a college or library, it would be peppered with history and some in-jokes (What would Joachim Meyer say about this technique? Nothing he’s dead. Guffaw)  We often string several sequences together as though the fighters are evenly matched with maneuver and counter-maneuver. This is the way I learned at Higgins.

And one of the first mistakes to make with these items is to 1) make them too smooth 2) not target.  We try to hold off on teaching our members the historical items until they are comfortable with stage. I tell troupe members that learning the techniques will grind their mental gears because in stage one targets safely outside the body and with historical one targets to maim. It takes a lot of trust to do our historical show. When we do the initial cut with our George Silver segment, the defender either learns to move that leg or gets it. And that is how we worked it initially in interpretation as well. (Blunted blades mostly result in bruised legs for those of you who may have just swooned)

And we’ll mix and match once the troupe member is comfortable and understands the risk. We have one member we call “Mr. Murder Stroke” because he loves that longsword technique and you will see it in many of his fights.  I love a blade block and step-through which is used in rapier, backsword and some pollarms, it’s smexy. (1)

So yes, we have fights with what I call The Stevie Nicks Spin (see above) and clearly open-to-the-body moves for fun but we sneak in the meatier stuff with the pure historical show and some of our stage fights-it’s how we edu-tain at the festivals.

Places to start  finding your historical partners and schools

Sword Forum International

Meetup Groups


and from Guy Windsor