I took up rapier by accident. About a dozen years ago I was doing research for a 17th century historical novel when I found Academie Duello, an actual school that taught actual 17th century rapier right here in Vancouver. Needless to say I was in like Flynn. Cue training montage. And talk about detours …
While I was busy learning swordfighting, creating the Mounted Combat Program, and founding a publishing house, that 17th century novel fell by the wayside. (I did however, manage to release the first book of my fantasy trilogy, Allaigna’s Song: Overture, and have the second book, Aria, due out in April). However, you can’t keep a shepherdess-turned-spy down forever, and Toinette, aka La Bergère, insisted on being written. She made her debut in Pulp Literature Issue 24, Autumn 2019, and part two of her adventures will appear in Issue 26, Spring 2020, also due out in April.
In a later adventure entitled The Queen of Swords (due out, ooh, sometime), Toinette seeks out Julie d’Aubigny, aka La Maupin, for some much needed swordplay instruction. I wrote this scene a couple of years ago, but as I was editing it last week it struck me that Julie is giving Toinette some of the very same advice I’ll be doling out next Friday at VISS.
With that in mind, I thought I’d share a preview, both of the novel, and of my workshop, in the form of an excerpt. You can find it here:
Disclaimer: this is an unproofed early draft. It will endure several more revisions plus the steely eye of my amazing editor Amanda Bidnall before it’s ready for its close-up. You get to see it naked and sans make-up.
Last week I was delighted to have the wonderful Jessica Finley come to stay at Cornwall Ridge. We spent Wednesday evening geeking out over fightbook plates from the Goliath manuscript. She brought the Liechtenauer translation and her experience with the German system, and I brought my experience with mounted combat. The results were enlightening and at times comedic (picture us facing each other on chairs with swords and a spare pair of reins, doing our best not to hit the light fixtures or wine bottle).
I was able to give Jess a lot of insight into how the horses might be moving, and what the angles and distances would be like for the fighters. In return, having her pair up the images with Liechtenauer’s text revealed things about some of the Goliath plays that I had missed.
Two key revelations
Image 22 seems to show a rather boring-looking elbow push. However, the text reveals that the rider performing the technique is also placing his foot under his opponent’s and lifting. If you look at the right side of the plate you’ll see a pair of armoured legs floating in the hedgerow. I had originally ignored these, taking them to be part of the background to go with the broken spears, but they are in fact the riders’ legs, drawn separately so we can see them.
The other ‘aha moment’ was regarding image 20, the rein entanglement.
At first glance it appears as if the rider has simply grabbed his opponent’s hand and is holding it out of the way while he stabs him in the face. However, the text tells us that the rider ‘throws’ his reins around the opponent’s hand, entangling him. I was having a hard time imagining throwing reins with any accuracy, so this was where the swords, dining chairs, and spare reins came into play. With these props in hand I was able to block Jess’s sword arm on the inside with my rein hand (posta longa for the Fiorists), and circle it down to my waist where I could grab my reins again, enclosing her wrist in a loop.
There was much glee. This was incredibly exciting for both of us, since she hadn’t been able to figure out how it would work before this, and I’d never even known there was an entanglement going on. Now we just needed to find out if our interpretations were correct.
Proof of concept
After giving Jess a refresher riding lesson Thursday morning, we tacked up three horses and were joined by Dave Wayne, who spent the afternoon with us putting these plays to work with real horsepower.
The rein entanglement proved surprisingly easy and effective: a cheeky little technique that lets you continue to steer your horse while dragging your opponent along for the ride.
As I’d suspected, horse height was crucial for the leg lift. With Jess on Princess (14.2hh) and me on Winnie (16.1hh) there was no way I could get my foot beneath hers. Dave was on Flavie (15.2hh), but even with only a 3″ difference in horse height, his longer legs still made it hard to get my foot under his.
Jess had the opposite problem. Her foot was under ours, but she had to lift it so high to put any pressure on us that she was more in danger of unbalancing herself. Dave could easily lift either of our feet, but he encountered another problem: we would simply bend our legs and yield to his pressure without losing our seats.
Part of this is due to the saddle type. Without the large thigh blocks of the mediaeval saddles, our legs were free to move, and upward pressure was less effective. However we felt this wasn’t the whole answer. Jess pointed out that ‘fuss’ can sometimes refer to the whole leg, so instead of placing my foot under Jess’s, I simply jammed my knee behind hers and lifted. She tapped out at lightning speed, feeling mightily in danger of going overboard. And indeed, when you look at the drawing of the legs they do appear locked together.
This is an excellent lesson in interpreting historical manuscripts. Without the text, I’d missed the significance of the leg illustration. Without the illustration the position of the legs is unclear. And only by trying it out on horseback do you understand the importance of that leg position.
Bear this in mind when you do your own interpretations. Images are not just there for decoration, and if the text and words don’t seem to jive, try the play out in person to see what you might be missing, and examine how your own size and equipment may have an impact.
And don’t forget to have fun. If you’re not laughing your head off at some point, you’re doing it wrong.
There were more plays and more discoveries, but that’s fodder for a future blog. Thanks to Jess and Dave for coming out to play, and Jess, hope to see you at the farm again soon!
Merriam Webster has declared ‘they’ to be the word of the year. I disagree with Merriam Webster on many things,* but Bravo (or Brava! or Brave!) on this.
As an English major and self-declared pedant, the singular use of ‘they’ used to feel like chewing on tinfoil. After all, we have singular and plural pronouns for a reason. ‘They’ is plural, and must only refer to more than one person … correct?
But pronouns in English, as well as in French, German, and other languages, do double duty. They don’t just refer to the number of individuals, they also convey respect, or conversely, familiarity. Take the second person. In French one calls children, family members, and close friends ‘tu/toi’, and everyone else ‘vous’. To do otherwise is deeply disrespectful, and this transgression even has a verb: ‘tutoyer’. In English we gave up singular ‘thee/thou’ centuries ago. We now treat everyone with equal respect, by using ‘you’.**
How well do you know them?
Every time you refer to a person as ‘she’ or ‘him’ you’re making a declaration that a) you know what’s beneath their petticoats and/or codpiece and b) you know their gender identity. That’s pretty personal information. It’s the sort of stuff you should only confidently be able to declare about your close friends and immediate family. You know, the ones you’d call ‘tu’ in French.
Now, I don’t mind being referred to as ‘she/her’. I’m used to it, and it accurately reflects my gender identity. (Whether it accurately reflects my sex is none of your business). But I can’t help but feel if you don’t know me, it’s only polite to refer to me as ‘they/them’, just as you’d politely address me as ‘you’.
Test case: even if you are 99.9% certain the Queen identifies as female, wouldn’t it be more respectful to refer to them as ‘Their Royal Majesty’? After all, TRM Queen Elizabeth refers to themself in the first person formal ‘We’.
Lately I have been making an effort to refer to everyone as ‘they’. This serves two purposes. It helps me avoid accidentally mis-gendering someone,*** and it trains my brain to get used to using ‘they/them’ in a singular sense. After around half a century of speaking English, it’s not easy to retrain my synapses, but you actually can teach an old dog new tricks.
If you hear me referring to you as ‘they/them’ when you’re used to being ‘her’ or ‘he’, don’t be offended. I’m merely according you the same respect I would the Queen.
* ‘Nuclear’ is not and should never be pronounced ‘nu-cu-lar’. ** BTW, we have an equivalent of the verb ‘tutoyer’: it’s ‘to thou’. *** But wait, you say, aren’t you misgendering people who identify as ‘her’ or ‘he’ by labelling them non-binary? No. Because ‘they’ refers to groups of all genders.
I’m thrilled, delighted, and over-the-moon to be able to lift the curtain at last on the cover for Allaigna’s Song: Aria. The beautiful painting is by the amazing Melissa Mary Duncan, and the cover layout is by my talented daughter Kate Landels, based on the lovely design of Allaigna’s Song: Overture by Kris Sayer.
Last month I taught the above titled workshop at the Vancouver International Swordplay Symposium. A lot of people asked for class notes, which I was just going to share as a document. But then I thought, why not put it up as a blog post? After all, it’s been far too long since I posted anything here, and this may be useful for others. The workshop was aimed at martial arts instructors and practitioners, but there is much here that can be applied to any physical, typically male-dominated sport.
These are just notes — the bulk of the workshop is in my head — but feel free to ask me to elaborate on any of them.
Teaching Every Body: Adapting Your Curriculum for Gender Differences
Disclaimer: everything here is a gross generalization! No two bodies are identical, and everyone’s psychosocial makeup is different regardless of gender, of which there are more than two.
Most HEMA schools and clubs are working hard to attract and retain women practitioners. However, swordplay has traditionally been a male-dominated activity in western society. The books we work from were written by and for men, and the artist models (with the exception of the Walpurgis drawings in I.33) were men. What we see as canonical positions, particularly in rapier texts, may not be the most mechanically advantageous for other body types.
Endocrine and Psychosocial Challenges
Girls often drop sports at puberty due to body image issues, period shame, lack of feeling of safety etc.
Adult women may be returning to physical activity having not done any since high school. They may feel awkward, out of shape, embarrassed, or incompetent.
Monthly cycles may cause breast sensitivity, changing energy levels, or painful periods that interfere with training.
Pregancy & Lactation may cause breast sensitivity, risk aversion, and joint laxity. In later term pregnancy fencing is not advisable, and the time and energy involved in caring for a newborn keeps most mothers away from martial arts.
Childcare is often expensive and hard to come by, leaving mothers with no time or little money for martial arts, especially in the preschool years.
Menopause and Perimenopause may cause heavy bleeding, muscle and bone loss, or change in energy levels.
Many women have never been hit. Many women have only been hit in an abusive situation. Specific actions (eg grappling) may be triggering
Girls and women are not generally encouraged to take part in martial arts, and when they are it is usually for self-defense.
With all these challenges, its a miracle any of us set foot inside a martial arts studio at all. Once inside the door, having an instructor that is sensitive to these issues can help. It is also important to be aware of physical differences and how to work best with them.
Women tend to have smaller feet in relation to their height then men. This creates a less stable base. However, women tend to have better sense of balance, which may be simply a result of more childhood activities like dance and gymnastics.
Hip width and femoral attachment means women’s femurs angle inwards toward the ground whereas men’s hang more or less straight down. Thus women are more comfortable with the feet closer together, rather than the ‘railroad track’ stance advocated for men. Asking women to work in a wider stance creates knee stress.
Women should keep feet together rather than shoulder-width for narrow-based work.
For wide based work (eg horse stance), turning the knee and toe out slightly alleviates stress. Make the inner line of feet rather than the outer line of feet parallel.
Don’t scold female practitioners for a walk that ‘plaits’ or crosses the centre line. While it may seem less ‘efficient’ it is more comfortable and natural, and will lead to less awkward footwork.
Aside from being wider, women’s hips are deeper and rounder than men’s, often with larger glutes in proportion to our height. This means women will look like they are sticking their butts out when their pelvises are actually in a neutral position. Be sure to use skeletal markers like iliac crests, pubic bone, and coccyx to determine whether or not the pelvis is neutral.
A benefit of wider, more open pelvises (plus, for many women, ballet classes at some point in their lives) is the ability to comfortably open the hips for a more profiled rapier stance.
Women and men have different carrying angles to their elbows. This is due to the differing points of attachment of the radius and ulna. The carrying angle of women is generally between 10 – 15 degrees, whereas in men the angle is usually around 5 degrees.
A larger carrying angle makes the rapier guard of seconda considerably weaker and more difficult to hold. To compensate, students can engage the lats and triceps, but this needs to be taught.
However, a larger carrying angle makes terza-quarta incredibly strong and easy to hold (so useful for suppressing the swords of your taller opponents).
Manually rotating the biceps & triceps with the other hand can mimic the effects of differing elbow angles, and give students an idea of what the other people experience.
Carrying angle affects the optimal planes for cuts as well, but I have been unable to determine specific advantages or disadvantages, outside of individual experimentation. I need more data on this. For how it affects other activities see this video on yoga and carrying angle, and this post on violin-playing for women.
It’s a common complaint that most tools are made for men’s hands. This is just as true for swords. Most swords have ricassos, handles, and pommels that are too wide for women to hold comfortably. Sometimes changing to a better sword for the hand is all that’s needed to improve a student’s game. If that’s not possible, accept that the student may need to alter the grip — eg, 2 fingers over the ricasso of the rapier, hand not closed around the pommel of the longsword — to make an ill-fitting tool work.
Depending on their size and sensitivity, breasts can range from an inconsequential difference to a definite hindrance. Large breasts can get in the way when forming rapier off-hand positions. Lifting the elbow in a more Fabris than Capo Ferro style will help.
In guards like posta frontale it may be helpful to carry the hands slightly higher than portrayed in the diagrams in order to put the elbows above the breasts. In breve they may need to be set lower than is canonical.
Breasts vary in sensitivity during the menstrual cycle, during pregnancy and lactation, and post-lactation. If a woman tells you her breasts aren’t sensitive and she doesn’t need a chest protector, believe her and don’t insist she wear one. If she doesn’t want to fight without one, respect that too. We all know our own bodies best.
On the whole, women’s necks are narrower in width than their heads, whereas men’s are close to the same width as their skulls. Women are more prone to whiplash from ‘bell-ringer’ hits and can benefit from training that strengthens the neck.
Muscle Mass & Endurance
Thanks to testosterone, men grow larger muscles, and have a higher proportion of lean muscle than women. This is simply an advantage in sparring when you have more explosive muscle power. However, muscle burns a lot of calories, as does moving a large body around, so women tend to have an endurance advantage. Many women develop an excellent defensive game and wait till their opponents tire before going on the offensive.
Of all the physical differences, height is the most significant when it comes to sparring. A taller person has longer arms, a longer lunge, needs to take fewer steps, has an easier time keeping their sword on top, and has easier access to the head as a target. A fighter who is 5′ tall is working 20% harder than one who is 6′ tall, just to move in and out of measure and reach targets.
Fortunately, since there are both short men and tall women in the world, this one only partially falls along sex-difference lines, and is the easiest to understand. At the end of the workshop I have half the participants stand on stacked gym mats to give them a one-foot height difference. It’s an ‘aha’ moment for both tall and short fencers when they discover how much of an advantage height confers, even without longer arms and legs. If you’ve never done this before find yourself some higher ground and try it out. If you’re tall, it will give you a greater understanding and empathy, and if you’re short, you’ll enjoy the feeling of power.
This nutshell version comprises about 25% of the full workshop, ‘Teaching Every Body: Adapting your Curriculum for Gender Differences’.
Now that we’ve finished with the curriculum for Horsemanship Level 2, it’s time to move on to Riding.
Riding Level 2 Overview
A Level 2 Rider is someone with a good basic seat position, capable of riding with one hand or two and switching posting diagonals, who has begun to work on canter, gaming skills, and dropping the reins or stirrups while riding. This is someone I would feel comfortable taking on a trail ride on a steady horse, and who is ready to start jumping and cross country schooling. Level 2 is our prerequisite for mounted archery, and for intermediate games. The skills we assess are:
1. Adjust tack from ground unassisted
2. Lead horse, mount & dismount independently
3. Exercises at halt & walk
4. Adjust reins at walk & trot; switch from two hands to one and back
5. Basic seat position: walk & trot, sitting & rising with correct diagonal
6. Drop stirrups at sitting trot and regain at walk
7. Single hand (overhand) reining at walk & trot with transitions and direction change
8. Pick up an object from a standard, carry at trot to another standard and deposit
9. Progressive transitions (halt, walk, trot)
10. Half circles & 20m circles at walk & trot
11. Canter both directions (without emphasis on position or lead)
12. Identify leads while watching another horse
13. Vaulting dismount from halt
14. Demonstrate safety and good manners in group
15. On a longe-line or lead-line, ride with reins dropped at walk & trot
The Tack Check
To assess the first item on the checklist, adjustment of tack, you will present your horse to a tack check. The examiner will check that your tack is clean and adjusted properly. She also may loosen a piece of tack and ask you to readjust it to the correct fit in front of her. These are the things she will be looking for:
Although we don’t give specific marks for rider turnout at this level, you still should be dressed safely and appropriately for riding. This includes
an approved helmet
long hair tied back and loose jewellry removed
your Academie Duello t-shirt
breeches or well-fitted trousers that cover the lower leg
boots with a separate heel
gloves are optional, but suggested
You won’t loose marks for turnout at this level, but if your clothing is unsafe for riding, you may be asked to retire from the test.
The horse should be neatly groomed, but braiding, trimming, and spotless white markings are not necessary.
Your tack should be adjusted as if you are ready to ride, so do a last minute check before you present your horse, to make sure that your
Noseband is snug but not tight (1 finger should fit between noseband and horse)
Throatlatch is adjusted properly (4 fingers)
Curb chain (if present) allows 2 fingers between chain and chin groove
All straps are in their keepers and runners
Saddle pad allows wither relief
Girth is through saddle pad keepers
Saddle is properly positioned and not pressing on spine
Girth is tight enough (hand should fit between girth and horse, but not be able to pull girth away)
Stirrups are adjusted to your height.
Be prepared to explain or show how tack is adjusted, and give reasons.
If you haven’t read it yet, now’s your chance to nab a copy for the price of five timbits. And lets face it, 400 pages will keep you happy far longer than those 350 calories.
And what would make me super happy would be a review from you on one of those sites listed above. Books with more reviews get more eyes on them, and therefore more sales. So even if you’ve already read the book, I’d love it if you could drop a review this week to help the promotion out. **
*Note: For some of these retailers the special will not be available in the US, but US customers can go directly through Pulp Literature Press.
**It’s perfectly legit to copy and paste your review from one site to another, and another. I am a big fan of minimal effort for maximal results.
Much of the last item on the Horsemanship 2 checklist
9. Rules for riding in a group
is covered in the Riding 1 post, Safety in Numbers. At the second level however, you will also be asked about group etiquette and safety when riding outside of the ring and off property.
In general when hacking out, pick a steady horse and experienced rider to lead the group. Another experienced rider should bring up the rear to keep an eye on everyone. Horses are herd animals and will feel much safer if the lead horse is calm and unbothered by the unpredictable enounters of the trails. However, one panicky horse can set all the others off, so it’s best to keep the greenies and spookers near the back of the ride.
Ride single file on roadsides and trails, and keep to the agreed order of file.
Keep approximately one horse length back from the horse in front of you
Ride at a walk unless everyone in the group agrees to a short trot or canter.
Always ride to the abilities of the least experienced rider or the greenest horse in the group.
Cross roads as a group, with 3-4 horses abreast
Stop and wait for the slowest horses in the group to catch up if necessary.
If one person calls a halt, the rest of the group should repeat the message till it reaches the front or back of the line.
Wear bright clothing, fluorescent vests, or safety lights
Horses are considered vehicular traffic, and permitted to ride on roads. However, most riders prefer the verge out of courtesy to drivers and kindness to their horse’s feet and legs.
Travel in the same direction as traffic if using the road. If using the verge, pick the side of the road with the widest shoulder and best visibility.
The lead rider should use hand signals to indicate changes of direct and halts. Following riders should use the same signals to indicate to cars behind them.
Yield to pedestrians
In Open Fields and Trails
Remember that horses wind each other up. Only canter as a group if all the members are sure they have good stopping power.
If riding several horses abreast, keep to the pace, and don’t move ahead of that horse.
Warn riders behind you of hazards you spot, such as holes
This brings us to the end of the Horsemanship Level 2 series of posts. Coming up next, Riding Level 2!
Take a look at this gorgeous cover by Akem for Pulp Literature Issue 18! Along with the latest installment of Allaigna’s Song: Aria this issue features the amazing short story ‘Stones’ by Genni Gunn, and the conclusion of ‘We Come Back Different’ by AJ Odasso (part 1 can be found inPL issue 17). Plus a stunning trip to the moon from Jessica Barksdale and a brand-new Stella Ryman mystery!
In Dom Duarte’s 15th century treatise on riding, horsemanship and mounted combat, Bem Cavalgar, he states:
We must take good care of the saddle, the bridle and the stirrups, ensuring that they are strong, that they have the necessary resistance and are of good quality to avoid failure of any of them; othewise, we might die, meet with an accident, or be shamed. And we will achieve this if we frequently check them and if we detect any problem, we fix it immediately ….
(The Royal Book of Horsemanship, Jousting and Knightly Combat, translation by Antonio Franco Preto & Luis Preto, Chivalry Bookshelf, 2005)
Caring for your tack is still important. Leather that is properly cleaned and oiled lasts longer and is more supple and comfortable for you and your horse. Not only are saddles and bridles expensive, tack that has dried out or been over-oiled becomes weak and prone to failure. Routinely cleaning your tack not only protects your investment, it allows you to check for frayed stitching or cracks that could pose a safety hazard.
For Level 2 we ask that you know and practise
8. Basic care of tack
After every ride you should at minimum wipe your tack down with a damp cloth to remove sweat, dirt and grease.
Follow up with a tiny bit of saddle soap if necessary, but avoid over-soaping.
‘Put up’ your bridle, hung by the crown piece, with the reins neatly looped through the throat latch, and the noseband wrapped around the whole bridle. The saddle should sit on a stand or rack, covered by a saddle cover or the upside down saddle pad (the clean side goes against your saddle, the damp side to the air to dry). The stirrups should be run up or removed, and the girth detached and hung separately.
Once a week your saddle, bridle and other tack such as martigales or breastplates should be taken apart and given a thorough cleaning. You will need:
sponges, towels and soft cloths
a tooth brush or nail brush for getting dirt from crevices
1. After dismantling your tack, wipe it down with a damp cloth to remove dirt. A bit of mane hair is also useful for removing ‘jockeys’ (those dark collections of grime on the panels). Take care not to get the leather too wet.
2. Dry with a soft cloth
3. Apply saddle soap with a dry sponge, avoiding lathering. Work it in with a circular motion.
4. Oil only if necessary. Leather needs oil if it is dry and stiff to the touch. Too much oil will weaken the leather, and can rot stitches. Apply a thin layer of oil with a light cloth. If the leather is new it will take many repeated oilings to soften it — don’t try to do it all at once.
5. Clean buckles with metal polish. The bit should be cleaned with soap and water only.
6. Clean nylon webbing and other synthetic materials with brushes and damp cloths. Some synthetic saddles have proprietary brands of cleaners. Never use oil or saddle soap on a synthetics.
Store your tack in a cool dry place — never put it near a heat source to dry, or leave it out in the weather. Leather is an amazing, resilient substance, and if treated with care can last a lifetime.