Friday 12 May 2017


The revival of European Martial Arts,
by Antonia Senior

We all struggle with authenticity. How can we best approach the past, weighed down as we are by our tech-heavy, sanitised modern lives?

Last month, I wrote about sailing on tall ships, and how that has fed into my fiction. I am a great reader of swords, sandals and sails. When I came to write, I knew that some of my compulsive, eclectic reading of everyone from Patrick O'Brien to Conn Iggulden, CS Forester to Angus Donald, Alexander Dumas to Giles Kristian would leave echoes in my own work. 

All three of my first books have involved the writing of battles, the bearing of swords or the rush of sea and wind. The second of my books, The Winter Isles, presented particular problems about my relationship to the central character, Somerled, which can be summed up like this:

Somerled: A violent 12th century Scottish warlord, with a sperm-spray of offspring in numbers only matched by Genghis Khan. A father of sons who try to kill each other. A boy of MacDonald myth, who is light of heart and deep of thought. A son of the wild Atlantic seas. A monstrous fighter.

Me: A scaredy-cat Londoner. A mother who frets if her children sniffle. A starter at shadows, a concrete-walker. Weak-armed and flubbery-tummied. Someone who once saw a decapitated squirrel and has never quite got over it. 

As part of that initial process of thinking my way into his world, I persuaded a commissioning editor at the FT to take a piece on learning sword-fighting. Not namby-pamby fencing, with the silly little pointy swords - proper medieval fighting, with big, heavy swords.  

This was my first introduction to the weird and wonderful world of Historic European Martial Arts. A global, internet-linked group of enthusiasts have, for the last thirty years or so, been reviving medieval fighting techniques using the remaining fighting manuals. An estimated 13,000 people worldwide are now believed to practice the sport.

For my day with the sword-master Dave Rawlings at The London Longsword Academy, we used an extraordinary manuscript. 1.33 is a medieval fighting manual, prosaically named after its position in the Tower of London armouries' catalogue. It is the oldest surviving combat fighting manuscript in Europe, and dates from early fourteenth century Germany. It shows an incredible series of instructions on how to fight - and much to my joy, some of the illustrations show a female fighter named Walpurgis.

A page from 1.33 showing the incredible detail. 
Most of the techniques are for a sword and buckler, a small easily portable shield that is used to support the vulnerable sword hand. One lovely detail, pointed out by Dave, is that some child has had access to the manual on its wanderings across Europe, and coloured in all the bucklers...

Here are some of the things I learnt about fighting with a sword.

1. Swords are very, very heavy. Arm-trembling, shoulder-sapping heavy. This is not obvious when you first pick it up - but becomes clear seconds after holding it aloft. Muscles are a must. 

2. When you first pick up a proper sword, you will feel a fizzing glee. There is something elemental and brutishly satisfying about handling one. Any sword is Excalibur to the one holding it.

3. Looking down your sword at someone who is looking down a sword at you is very, very scary. Even when it's a nice bloke called Dave who is definitely not going to hurt you. 

4. You will think you look like Samantha Swords, the incomparably awesome champion Long Sword fighter who is a big name in the European Martial Arts world: 

5. You look nothing like Samantha Swords. And that is something you will have to come to terms with, slowly and with much regret.

6. Practice. Practice. To build the muscles, and learn the moves again and again and again, so that they become a memory in the bone. Sword skill would take a lifetime to achieve.

I decided, alas, that I was a better writer of swords than a wielder of one. 

Along with the HWA and a few other fabulous writers, I am curating a new monthly evening of historical fiction chat in London. The first one is on Tuesday. Look us up on


Unknown said...

Lovely it was Nice to see your blog Good keep it up

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Surely it will depend on your period of the Middle Ages how heavy your sword is? And of course being accustomed to using those muscles. I'm very familiar with museum standard replica swords of the 11th and 12th centuries and heavy they aren't. I especially like the (now deceased) Ewart Oakeshott on the subject of the medieval sword. He owned, collected and used originals all his life. He says 'In fact the average weight of these swords (Viking era thru to 12thc) is between 2lbs and 3 lbs and they were balanced (according to their purpose) with the same care and skill in the making of a tennis racket or a fishing rod." The Sword in the Age of Chivalry by Ewart Oakeshott. The Long sword belongs to a slightly later period and was heavier.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Many years ago, I decided to learn about fighting for some swords and sorcery I was writing and joined the Society for Creative Anachronism. It was fascinating and I learned what you CAN'T do with a sword, and was hit on the head quite a lot. It certainly made for a lot of sneering on my part when watching historical films.

But our swords were made of rattan cane. We would never dream of using the metal ones and trust me, we had some very good fighters who understood how it works. Our armour was mostly whatever the fighter cobbled together. The point was to protect you from being hit too hard. You still had bruises the next day.

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