Guest Post: Access and Lessons in Medieval Combat

by Tim Baker

This article came about because of the worries expressed by a friend about learning to fight, due to accessibility issues, then wondering both what advice I could offer and how I could adjust my own teaching. For anyone who does not want to read the whole thing for my conclusions, the short version is: communication is powerful and respect each other.

Right, if any of you are still reading, some more explanation may be in order.

‘Mucking about with swords’, as we might use as a catch-all descriptor for various related hobbies, has been a big part of my life for 36 years now, and I love it. So I want my friends to be able to join in. But many of them struggle with a daunting range of access issues. Chronic fatigue is a big one (several mates might be able to enjoy an enthusiastic hour of frantic swordplay, but would pay the price for days afterwards), but general fitness levels, short term or chronic injuries, mental health issues, or even simple (vile) discrimination can all be factors, among a host of others.

Like a lot of instructors in this range of hobbies, I am mostly self taught, having cobbled together systems that seem to work from stuff others have shown me or that I’ve made up from whole cloth. Outside of sport fencing, we don’t see a lot of regulatory bodies offering guidance; for the most part larpers, re-enactors and hema enthusiasts make a lot of it up as they go along. Many clubs or ad-hoc gatherings either have no instructor at all, or just default to the most experienced or loudest person there.

This leads to some pretty inconsistent practices, and a lot of us probably feel we don’t live up to the standards we wish we did as instructors or just as friends. Plus ‘the hobby’ (actually several related hobbies) tends to attract certain people and appear unwelcoming to others. Once you have a critical mass of macho, fit, white guys doing a thing, it may not look like a group where someone who is not can rock up to have a go.

Now some barriers may be insurmountable, or maybe beyond my skills at least. and some can be smashed very hard indeed, but broadly what I would like is a situation where anyone who wants to try mock combat should be able to. It is not for me/anyone else to say ‘you must be this [fit/tall/male/physically able/white/whatever] to enter. If someone judges themself able and willing, let’s work together to find a way.

Listening to each other

As instructors, we need to trust and believe our students. If they tell us something is not possible for them, believe them. On the other hand, if they are keen to try an exercise, support them.

Not every accessibility issue that someone has to deal with is obvious. Chronic fatigue has to be one of the best examples here: a person might well be able to engage in half an hour of full-on sparring with wild abandon, and at the time they will look like anyone else. But for two days afterwards they may be unable to get out of bed because they borrowed too much energy from the bank. Communication is more important than appearance in determining what someone is capable of.

For example, some weapons are lighter or heavier than they appear (and weight distribution can make as big a difference). Offering a chance to handle any weapons before training with them allows a clearer view of what is possible and either party may want to change their view. Thus this is a two-way street where the instructor should offer opportunities and reassurance without being pushy, and students should try not to let preconceptions bias their judgement.

A useful question for instructors is ‘what are your concerns about X?’ and explaining that the answer will help you understand better. No instructor likes to look like they don’t have all the answers, but far better to be open and willing to adapt than to worry about not seeming omniscient.

Further to this, your fellow practitioners may have ideas for techniques that are more accessible than they seem, or which can be modified to work for you. Some of them may have practiced alongside people quite similar to you in the past and found techniques that work.

Another important note for students: you are almost certainly not the worst person who has ever done this. Experienced instructors will have seen literally hundreds of students, many of whom were much more challenging than you (Nb for anyone who studies with me: this is not a competition. Please do not try to take the crown of most challenging just for bragging rights). It will help your instructor if you can believe in yourself and them at least a little bit.

A note on Mucking About With Swords in general

This is not a single skill – it is many different skills bolted together, and not everyone is equally good at all of them. Many of us probably think ‘so and so is good with a sword’, but in reality that person is probably good at an interesting selection of skills that make up their own preferred style. You do not have to possess the same selection of skills to be just as good as they are.

I don’t even mean different skills in the sense of different weapon combinations (eg spear use, longsword, axe and shield etc) or styles of combat (eg Elizabethan rapier, 12th Century sword and buckler, larp battles, re-enactment tournaments etc), but that every type of combat you can imagine contains scores of ‘little skills’ within it. Every different way to swing every type of weapon is a skill in itself. The ability to keep your eyes focussed on the right area is another. Spatial awareness for surprise threats. The ability to measure distances at a glance. Walking. Heck, even those have sub-skills within them and someone may be excellent at walking in one way and bad at another. Often there is more than one ‘right’ way to do them. Some skills don’t even involve your body at all – such as the skill of ‘reading’ a fight between other people to understand what each participant did and why, or being the person to give tactical advice.

So if any practitioner struggles in some areas, that is not the end of them. If a fighter lacks arm strength, can we compensate with different footwork? If they struggle with footwork, can we compensate with teaching them to read movements better? Or showing them how to bluff? How to deliver a morale-devastating witticism? The mental game of combat is often overlooked, but is vital and can be a route to excellence for the right person even if their physical co-ordination is poor.

This can be a challenge that students and instructors take on as a team, finding the best skills  that each person can work on to unlock their potential. But you only tackle it by talking to each other and listening.

Respecting each other

It needs to be at the bedrock of the group that anyone who shows up to train is there to train. They deserve to be taken seriously as a fellow practitioner first and foremost.

OK, so cards on the table here, the first example of this to come to mind is when you have a male-dominated group where female members are treated as potential dates rather than as equals. This is an all-too-common example.

As instructors it is particularly important to model the behaviour we expect, and that includes treating all our students with the same respect and giving them the same amount of our time. But every member of the group needs to take some responsibility here and act accordingly. This does not mean that if an attractive person shows up you are super friendly with them to make sure they are protected.

Similarly, no student should be discriminated against because of a personal characteristic such as sexuality, race or health. We should all be united by our joy in our weird hobby, and give exactly the same welcome to each new nerd as any other, looking forward to the day when they are beating us senseless in a duel.

A separate issue of respect is being patient with each other. The Italian masters referred to martial pursuits as a science, not an art, and there is a great truth here. We learn by experimentation, usually by making mistakes, and then learning from the results. So it helps  if both students and teachers can accept that finding one area that is difficult is not the other persons’ fault. If we approach learning as a collaborative experience where we are working together to improve rather than a series of pass/fail exercises. If a student struggles with something, that is not a cause for blame any more than if an instructor doesn’t immediately know a solution.

Specific Exercises/Tips

This is far from an exhaustive list, but hopefully gives some ides of good practice and things to try:

  • Talk about goals. Depending on what someone wants to achieve, that will impact how they should be taught. It is really helpful if students can be as open and honest as possible here. Do they want to be the deadliest fighter since Inigo Montoya, or do they want to pose so everyone thinks they look like him? Do they want to fight theatrically or do they want to stand in a shield wall? Is this just a fun bit of exercise? Many students will not know, but if they have any inkling at all it helps. And talking about it is always good, as well as creating an environment in which someone can bring up any needs they have at the same time..
  • One of my favourite exercises to start each lesson is a simple introduction where people shake hands with each other while either making eye contact or looking at each others’ shoulders (especially because some people struggle with eye contact). This is a simple way to teach spatial awareness and using your peripheral vision to read movements, but people also behave better with each other when they have said hello properly.
  • Try dipping into several different skills early on, rather than just sparring or working on one exhaustively. It is good to get a sense of a few things because most people will find some they are better or worse at.
  • An early skill to practice is taking up a guard position. There are many different guards and trying a few may also give a sense of what works better for any given person, or what is limited for them. That in turn will give great clues about the best tactics for them to work on.
  • Practice simple movement in a guard, if possible. Whether on two feet, crutches or in a chair etc, it helps to see how someone can get around the field of battle while poised to defend themself.
  • Teach pulling blows. This is one of the hard limits – if someone absolutely cannot control their blows so they are not a danger to a partner, that will restrict them from sparring.
  • Practice basic cuts and parries. Most new practitioners need help here regardless, in learning how to use their body efficiently so it is not over-tiring. 
  • Look at economy of motion. For many people learning how to parry or dodge economically can be the difference between the ability to fight effectively or not, as the energy and power requirements are so different if the body is used well.
  • Show the effective range of weapons. Understanding this and when a threat is real is vital to knowing when and how much to move.
  • Demonstrate how to stand threateningly. If someone new wishes to still look like a force to be reckoned with then simple body language can pay huge dividends with minimal effort. This includes things as simple as carrying and drawing your weapon comfortably.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you are practicing with someone and cannot solve a problem between you, ask around discretely. You will usually be inundated with ideas, some of which will likely be good.
  • Clearly describe what the aims of particular exercises or motions are, and how they should feel and work. People’s bodies work differently, sometimes it can be more effective to go for what feels right for them rather than what looks usual, right or is just ‘how it’s done’. 
  • Ensure that people are allowed to rest when needed and that there is sufficient opportunity to do so. Short rests initially may allow for better progression long term than just ‘pushing through’. 
  • Be careful not to use disabled students as an example to others. ‘If [person] can do it, so can you!’ where the emphasis is on the person having an impairment. If the person makes jokes like this about themself, that’s different. This can go for other characteristics as well “If a girl can do it… “ etc.
[image description] photograph of a light skinned man wearing a black and gold doublet, a black medieval hat with feathers and a small skull motif and holding a pole arm pointed toward the viewer. he has elf ears. photograph by Tom Garnett at Empire LRP


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