Saturday, December 09, 2006


How exactly were 14th-15th century swordsmanship manuals produced? Who by? How long did it take? What tools did they use? To answer such questions, the blessed net yields the Medieval Manuscript Manual and Cennini's Libro dell'Arte.

What prompted those questions were questions more closely related to the Novati ms: Why are the dagger plays presented six to a page but all others four to a page, even when there's room for the larger figures with swords? How did the illustrator manage to draw figures that are so identical in size that you can compare the postures of two figures by placing one figure on top of the other and examining them against a light source (and why? surely the original paper/parchment isn't that thin)? Is there a physical rationale behind the placement of the figures in the segno?

The tools and conceptual aids I visualised beforehand (and remember, I know next to nothing about how these manuals were produced, but I know a fair bit about writing such manuals) turned out not to match the actual production process.
  • Text (and, presumably, illustrations) were positioned with the aid of ruled lines, either drawn side by side using various implements or batch-produced by pressing down very hard on the paper (and not, like I thought, with grids to be positioned on the page - at least, no such grids were mentioned).
  • Ready measures for various angles and lengths were not mentioned.
  • The means of tracing ready drawings onto an empty page as a starting point for the next one were described: either an underdrawing, if the material is thin, or by punctures along the lines of a stencil that would then be inked.
  • Compasses (no, not as in "pointing north", as in "going round") were mentioned, but their use was not described in detail.
So what is the use of pondering such things? I thought that if I could figure out how the physical book was made, that would tell me something about what its producer(s) thought important, and hence about how they transmitted information, and hence about what to look for and what to ignore. For example: it seems that a great deal of effort went into making the figures exactly the same size and positioned identically on the page. Why? Aesthetics? Unlikely, as the ms isn't really produced artistically. Good tech writing principles? Possible, even probable. To allow readers to position them over each other to examine differences? Unlikely, as this is a bound work. To allow the illustrator to use a limited set of templates for drawing the figures? Not too likely, given that positions are rarely repeated.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Delightful setback

We have received the travel approval we were waiting for - now we can start reserving flights to China :) Of course, this means a longer break from doing sword-related things. At least I can keep reading treatises, a very necessary activity.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Theory under investigation

Each reading of any ms instantly produces a flurry of theories in my head, some making sense, some... not. My current Silly Theory involves drawing lines in segni (segnos?) and examining the angles, for example.

Another theory that I'm burning to test is this: that in the Novati pictures at least, the leg that is shaded more heavily is the leg that stays still and/or that takes most weight.

The pen is mightier?

I spent most of Tuesday with pen, paper and a printout of the Fiore Novati ms. During the day I wrote down what I remember of our school's five sword drills, something I should have done ages ago. Much to my amazement I remembered basically which drill was which this time, but I still need to check a few details with someone who remembers them better. And this thing of not being able to tell left and right apart is a drag; mandritto and roverso, that's easy, but if A is stepping "left", where should B be stepping? It took two or three hours to set it all down, what with sorting out which finish went with which drill on which side and which versions were outdated.

The brilliant idea of numbering all the masters and the plays in the ms. worked a little less than perfectly and got me stuck in the longsword section for hours. I need to get a better printout, because messing up the page divisions confused me completely.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Annoying setback

The reason why "not currently leading classes" still does apply is that, fool that I am, I got drunk at the salle Christmas party and broke my foot.

However, I actually got positive, hope-inducing feedback from Guy, so let's see how things develop after I get this violet cast off my foot in a couple of weeks' time.

Friday's class

The statement "I am not currently leading classes" almost wasn't true for a moment: I did, in fact, lead one last Friday, my first for two and a half years.

(Note: I'm not using the word teach for a reason: I'm not teaching (yet!), I'm just telling people what to practise and giving them tips on how to get better. That's not teaching; when you teach, you teach people something that you already know - I'm just helping them learn.)

The class was of the back to basics variety, partly because I'm not able to lead anyone's training in anything very advanced yet. I asked the six participants to figure out which one area in their own training requires most work, and then tried to address each one's stated weakness with the exercises. Guard position was the most popular choice with relaxation coupled with correct performance a close second; other mentions included the transfer of power and tutta volta. Consequently I harped on people's stance a lot: relaxation has, in my view, much to do with correct body posture as you can't be relaxed when you're about to fall over. I'm also generally annoyed by the fact that two out of three students have a tendency not to bend their knees when using a sword... We spent a long time on each fairly simple exercise, and the last half an hour was taken up entirely by doing second drill; I interrupted them every five-ten minutes to fix general errors or to give them another area to focus on, as in "now think about the volta stabiles" or "pay attention to how you cut".

Two people (!) called the class helpful and necessary. One basic-level student said she definitely needs to focus on the basic issues and to improve the tiny particulars in her technique. An intermediate-and-then-some -level student (I wonder if we have some better name for that level of experience...?) noted that even though it was simple, the class was useful.

I wasn't all that happy with it myself. The deficiencies in my own technique were highlighted with blinding clarity (just like the last time when I started leading classes, although then my technique improved hugely in only a couple of months because it had to). It was also more difficult than I had anticipated to articulate views and facts that I've learned since I last led classes. My view of swordsmanship is now more holistic (or maybe just more hazy and confused!) and theory definitely plays a larger part, so that the things I now consider important are different.

In Ye Olden Times, I had a good routine for helping people learn, I knew a lot of exercises and drills and could pick ones for each class that would highlight the theme of the class (themes would include, e.g.,"footwork", "volta stabile", "fenestra", "guard transitions" etc.). Certainly each exercise contains many such basic elements at once, so I carefully pointed out how the current exercise was to be used for learning about the current theme. This helped the others not only to motivate themselves to do well but also to learn how to use the same exercise for many purposes.

What made last Friday's class challenging (argh, now I sound like Buzzword Bingo) was that I had difficulty highlighting the elements that I wanted to, which made the class disjointed. I also bit off more than I could chew in having the participants affect the class. I should have just bitten the bullet: I should have humbly made a written lesson plan to stick to.

In general, though, I have to agree with the two who said it was useful; basic elements often don't get the attention they deserve these days with free scholars succumbing to the temptation of teaching/leading classes that are quite theory-oriented :) This is why I feel that I actually have something to give to the school even at this point, when my technique still sucks, I can't tell left from right, and am a bit confused about which dagger master is which.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The weapons

You'll have gathered that my favourite weapon is the longsword. Other weapons I have varying skills, um, I mean experience with include:
  • Rapier
  • Dagger
  • Singlestick
  • Poleax
  • Spear
  • Sidesword
  • Smallsword
Not a very impressive list, is it. My personal preference runs towards the heavy stuff, as I like to just hit people over the head or stab them with big iron things; weapons where you have to use your brain, like smallsword, are more or less beyond me and besides, smallswords look like darning needles. And rapiers? Knitting needles.

Proper introductions, and some history

I am a 34-year-old lady swordsman by the name of Auri Poso. I have practised historical European swordsmanship for five years at the School of European Swordsmanship, Helsinki, which is just about the best school of western martial arts in the world. (I say 'just about' because, contrary to my inclination, I haven't been able to visit any others yet; however, the tendency is for visiting teachers to praise our school over and above the call of courtesy.) My family also includes a husband and two children - we're still waiting to go and bring Little Sister home from China.

During my first two and a half years with the school, I studied intensively, to the point where I was spending 4-5 nights a week at the salle and taking as many weekend courses as time and money would allow. Truth to tell, I'm still doing that - unfortunately, having children means that both time and money have become much more limited. (And no, the reason for adopting both our children was not that I couldn't have trained while pregnant... but I admit to being grateful for it :) Prior to the arrival of our first child, I had been made a freescholar as well as pronounced competent to lead classes on my own.

I'm not currently leading classes, a circumstance that I hope to eventually change - my hope, in fact, is that some day I may earn a living by my sword. The days are long past where I could have just enlisted in any army or city guard with the certain expectation of finding a use for my sword; in today's world, I must teach to get paid. Because I am antisocial, cowardly, not very smart and not at all adept at physical action, the road will be long... but, hopefully, worth travelling, even if it takes me somewhere completely different from where I set out to go.

Welcome, swordsmanship!

Strange post title? I couldn't decide if I should be welcoming my sword blog, which I've wanted to set up for a long time now; or my sword-wielding (and other) friends who may want to read this; or my esteemed teacher, Guy Windsor, the main reason this blog is in English. So I decided to just welcome swordsmanship, in case it ever alights on my unworthy self.

The name of the blog, Lady at the Gate, can mean several things. She could be an actual person, my dream self, a female solder defending the castle gate. Or she could be my metaphorical self seeking to enter the gateway of learning. The name also refers to guards in Fiore's system, posta di donna and porta di ferro. The fact that in donna the sword is on your shoulder and in porta di ferro it's down by your feet could reflect the fact that after five years' training, I still don't know my arse from my elbow. (I mean, okay, taking porta di ferro where donna's supposed to be could result in something like falcone, if you turned it upside down and inside out, but how would you take posta di donna down by the gate? Lay the weapon across your buttocks?)

Other names I considered were Fiore di Donna (too presumptuous), Rusty Rose (too pessimistic) and Flowery Fighter (just... no). All with reference to Fiore, you'll notice; I'm a longsword gal to the bone. The system that Guy teaches is heavily based on Fiore, and if he's given it a name, it has passed me by.