This is a blog about fighting; about teaching martial arts; about admitting when you are wrong, and most of all, about how well-run and fascinating WMAW is.
But first, if you are, say a fantasy or HisFic fan and not a sword person, you may well ask ‘What is WMAW?’ The short answer is ‘The ‘Western Martial Arts Workshop.’ It is an interesting title which might just conjure images of a lot of white nationalists practicing for Hitler’s second coming, so let me immediately note that the word ‘Western’ here has a slightly different history, and we’re really talking about ‘Not-so-much Eastern’ martial arts, and let me add further, most of the attendees have or will practice ‘Eastern’ martial arts as well. This year we had Ethiopian, Spanish, Italian, German, American and Persian martial arts demonstrated and taught. Most of the concentration is on the Middle Ages and Renaissance. In two years I’ll be an instructor teaching what we can know (and can’t) about Ancient Greek martial arts.
WMAW is where most of the instructors and senior students in the historical martial arts movement (and some lucky beginners) go to learn and teach and hit each other with swords (or spears, knives, cudgels, sticks, fists, or throws. Also pole axes, pikes, partisans, and probably pretzels.) The event happens every two years in Racine Wisconsin. It includes a large and very well run armoured deed of arms. More on that later.
Historical martial arts have a gamut of practitioners and instructors, and they do not all seek the same goals, as I have said before in this column… That’s fine! WMAW brings many of them together to share knowledge and to share their points of view. It is incredibly useful to here from other people who have points of view radically different from your own. Perhaps this might be applied outside of swordsmanship… but I won’t get preachy. (Oh, but I will.)
As a veteran swordsman, one of the things I value most about events like WMAW (and it is, for my money, the best of its kind, at least in North America) is that it allows me to experience the teaching of other instructors AND to fence/fight with them and their students. (A small digression. I learned at age 13, in good old Olympic foil, that it was actually immaterial whether an instructor could beat me in a bout. By 16 or 17, I could beat many of my coaches. And…they still knew all kinds of things I did not know, although I confess it wasn’t always apparent to me! Because I was 17)
Despite this, I DO find it useful to actually test other instructors a little. All of us create ‘Glass Houses.’ All of us, left to ourselves with our own sword school, develop theories based on the manuscripts and our own experience; we develop them with our students. And… sometimes, they are just wrong. Sometimes this development is a closed loop. Only active combat with a peer who is not ‘one of us’ can reveal the flaws in our thinking and our teaching.
Sadly, the example I will use here is me. It’s Christian’s glass house, and the subject is the arming sword/side sword style of Marozzo, an early 16th c. Italian master. I did not consider myself (thank God) an expert on Marozzo, but we do touch on Marozzo in our Hoplologia curriculum, utilizing two of his assalti (plays) to touch on the fine points of Italian-style sword and buckler fighting. I would have said that I understood (pretty thoroughly, thanks) what Marozzo had to say about theory and practice… and, in my club, and even among a larger group of swordspeople, I have used the techniques as I taught them with some success…
Then I went to WMAW 2017. There, I had the chance to cross swords with a variety of other folks who specialize in side-sword as a weapon, and who teach Marozzo. The bout that comes to mind especially was with John O’Meara (Chicago Swordplay Guild). He pretty much hit me at will. Here’s the thing that will make swordspeople smile and puzzle others… we’d just fenced a different weapon to a virtual draw (small sword) so that I think we might be said to be relatively EQUAL as ‘swordsmen.’ That meant, to me, that my whole idea of Marozzo was…probably wrong. Ouch.
Put another way, as we had just discovered, to our mutual delight, that we were on roughly equal footing with another weapon, I had to assume that what was different with side sword was that he used it more effectively. I misunderstood the material.
Now, it was not just happenstance that throughout the WMAW curriculum I followed a ‘Marozzo’ track; I was aware of the deficiency (but not it’s scope!). So I had about twelve hours of classes with Ton Puey, of Spain, with Montante/Spadone (long two-handed sword), and with Roberto Gotti of Brescia, Italy, with Spadone, but specifically and precisely examining Marozzo’s theory and method.
The result was that in one four-day period, I was able to discover the depth of my misunderstanding, and start towards correcting it, all in one place, while having a devil of a good time. (NB If you really want to know what I did wrong and what I learned about it, you have to go to the end of the article, because I don’t want to bore anyone).
Field-testing your historical research and your practice is at the heart of all good reenacting, and any attempt at scientific experimental archaeology. I have no interest in competitive, highly-structured HEMA events; they are not examining the historical uses of weapons, but instead, creating a new, Olympic-style combat sport (totally fun; just not my approach). Events like WMAW allow the historical practitioner to see if all that experimentation and practice and theory has validity. Of course, the practitioner has to be prepared to admit that S/he is wrong. (Digression #2. A few years ago, a fairly senior HEMA practitioner said ‘I don’t need to go to WMAW; no one there has anything to teach me.’ To me, this statement is roughly analogous to saying ‘I know my fencing is weak; I choose not to test myself.)
A few posts ago, I did a blog on teaching yourself Armizare. Here’s a shocking statement; to some extent, everyone is teaching themselves. That is, even masters of this art, people who are fully immersed in Armizare or in one of the other forms, Talhoffer, Marozzo, Carranza; long sword, Montante, side sword, sword and buckler, what have you; even the men and women who TEACH these arts are, to some extent, simultaneously teaching themselves. The good ones also practice what they preach; they will engage in fun bouts with others; they are not adverse to showing their skill in public, so that their peers can see if what they practice actually works. Everyone should attend such events; both to learn from others, and to test what has been learned. It is fun, and because all of us build theoretical glass houses, it’s essential to keep the quality of our fighting arts high.
Oh, yes, and there was an armoured deed. So, if I’m a relative piker with Marozzo, I’ll say that I am a fairly competent armoured fighter and I actually teach the Italian form of Armizare. The armoured deed was splendid, from the initial parade to the closing fight; twenty armoured fighters in two teams, Italy vs the world. I was on team Italy.
And here’s the rest of the world (mostly German, but with Persian and English armoured styles as well).
Italy won. I will say no more.
And we all had a really good time, too. A lot of wine and beer flowed; many nice bruises were incurred; there were some fantastic demonstrations; I got invited to learn more Marozzo in Italy next year. Did I mention the party?
Really. WMAW. Everyone should go.
And now the technical bit about Marozzo.
So, I’ve memorized the whole of one of his Assalti, about 39 individual actions (a cut, a parry). And I’ve fenced the style for a couple of years. I confessed myself puzzled by the repeated use of heavy cuts and off-line guards, which I put down to the use of heavier swords and armour for a weapon that was quickly becoming the common ‘carry’ weapon in Italian streets.
What I saw almost instantly, both in John O’Meara’s fencing and in my instructors, was a constant use of development of lines and line changes as a fundamental of the art. Looked at in modern terms, I was trying to use what I had learned to score with first intention attacks or simple counters/ripostas. I had, utterly incorrectly, written the side sword out of the complex second intention as too unwieldy. (Just to reveal the depth of my misunderstanding, my ‘long sword’ fighting is a whole world of second and even third intentions, so how I came to this stunning glass house is… oh well. Apparently I thought that Marozzo the long sword teacher and Marozzo the side-sword teacher were different men…)
Looked at as a writer, I learned that the young knight from a small castle who goes off to war is likely to die from the errors of his master-at-arms; in a combat situation, isolation from mainstream practice could be as dangerous in the past as no training at all…