Interview with Longtime HEMA Instructor Steaphen Fick: Sword Fighting and Teaching, Part I

Steaphen Fick was always interested in sword fighting, fighting at any chance he could get when he was a child. As he grew up, he found a touring fighting company in 1989, proceeding to participate in almost 2,000 duels and battles. It was not until the 1990s, where he found himself traveling all around Europe, looking and studying historical fencing manuals. By 2000, Fick took the jump into instructing historical fencing full-time and has not looked back since. Today, Fick discusses his early fencing days, the formation of the American HEMA revival movement, and his school, Davenriche European Martial Artes School. All images provided by Steaphan Fick. This is the first part of a two part interview. read the second part here.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome Steaphan! Thank you for taking the time to talk with us about HEMA!

Steaphen Fick: It is my pleasure!

MAYTT: What sparked your interest in swords and sword fighting? What was it about the sword that made you gravitate towards that as opposed to other martial arts that were available at the time?

SF: As every kid, I would pick up sticks and sword fight with my friends. I was the bane of my mother’s curtain rods because I could have a one-handed sword or a two-handed sword, if I pulled the curtain rods down. I played with them; I got the toy swords for Faires, that kind of thing. But in 1988, I went to a Renaissance Faire and found that I could wear a sword, and I had just the cheesiest outfit possible, because I put it together from a thrift store. [Laughs] In 1989, I was invited to participate in a fully armored tournament. They put me in armor that didn’t fit me, gave me a stupidly heavy sword, and said, “They’re going to try and back you up. Don’t let them.” And that’s all the advice I got from my first fight. Needless to say, I did not do well. In fact, he never once used his sword on me – he just kept hip throwing me. Three times! But by that time, I was hooked, and I wanted to know more. One of the things that I love in all of this is that the guy that I had my very first fight with back in 1989, he was just at my house with his wife and eighteen-year-old daughter and we’re still great friends!

In middle school and high school, I was reading all the sci-fi and fantasy books; the Sword and Sorcery books, Dragonlance, all of these things. I loved the idea of the rogue, if you will – tough, resourceful, smart, and able to do a lot of different things. And then I found that I could actually play with swords and learn it and that’s what took me to it. And then, also, history – I love history.

Fully armored tournament fighters marching down in parade fashion. We are assured that Steaphen Fick is marching in full armor.

MAYTT: So, it was swords and nothing else?

SF: Pretty much. I did do HEMA, but we didn’t call it HEMA, it didn’t exist then. When I was in my early tournament days, in fact…where is it… [looking for a suit of armor] That one right there. The black and gold suit of armor, that was my very first suit I fought in the early 1990s. And then I graduated to that suit [pointing to a gray/silver suit of armor] and then I got another suit, which is thirty pounds lighter than this one behind me. So, it was the best weight loss diet program I’ve ever been on! [Laughs] Thirty pounds lost instantly!

But while I was young, I wanted to do more training than getting out there and learning through experience and pain. So, I tried to find kendo – I could not. Then I went into iaido for a little bit; I did that for a while, but that didn’t give me what I wanted. So, I fought every time I could with everyone I could and that’s how I learned.

MAYTT: That is one way to start. You began sword fighting as part of a touring company in 1989. How did you get invited into the touring company?

SF: I was in a group called Saint Gregory’s. There was this group of tournament players, and they had an open invitation for anybody to come play with them, trying to build up their company. A friend of mine in Saint Gregory’s was talking with them and asked me if I wanted to go. That’s actually where the name of my school, Davenriche European Martial Artes School, comes from. When I started Renaissance Faires, I was given the name Davenriche as my character name and I just really dug it. So, I’ve used it since 1988 till now as my working name, as you will – my num de plume. I went with the expectation that I had my little small sword kind of foil thing that I carried, run around these guys in heavy armor, and poke them in all the holes. They won’t stand a chance! I didn’t know that they were going to put me in armor too. [Laughs] That was a surprise to me. That was how I got the invitation; it wasn’t actually to me; it was to a friend of mine and asked if I wanted to come along.

MAYTT: That sounds like it was a fun field trip!

SF: Other than getting married, it was one of the best decisions of my life! [Laughs]

MAYTT: You mentioned that the constant fighting helped you learn how to wield a sword. How did that experience as a whole help you as a sword instructor today, if at all?

SF: It certainly did. There was a book written in the fourteenth century by the greatest knight of Christendom at the time, a Frenchman by the name of Geoffroi de Charny. De Charny said, “Before you go to war, you need to learn in the lists. And you can’t consider yourself ready for war until you’ve heard your bones crack and seen your blood flow in the lists.” It was a rougher time back then. [Laughs] Honestly, that’s how I learned to fight, and I just got the snot beat out of me. If it worked, cool; if not, I had to take some healing time and I was young enough to be able to heal quickly. As I got better and better, whenever new people would come into the company, I was the one tasked with teaching them. That’s how it started. I competed in sword fighting tournaments for twenty-five years: 1989 to 2013. I retired in Amsterdam, Netherlands in 2013 at a tournament. I learned how to teach by bringing new people into the company.

MAYTT: Teaching was almost thrown onto you?

SF: Yup

MAYTT: Before that, there was not anyone doing what you were doing?

SF: I’m sure there were, but not anyone around me in California. In the 1980s, there wasn’t a lot of travel being done by normal folks. Getting into armor was something they wouldn’t consider.

MAYTT: I see. In addition to participating in a touring company, you spent six months in the United Kingdom learning rapier, dagger, and Spada di Filo. Am I pronouncing that right?

SF: Spada di Filo means edged sword or side sword. Back then, they called everything a sword. It wasn’t until the Victorian era and beyond that we needed to classify everything. To them, it was just a sword, whether it was a thrusting sword or cutting sword. That’s the only difference. For instance, the term that we use, “rapier,” actually comes from the Spanish name for that sword, which was espada del ropa, which just means “sword of the robes,” or “sword of the clothes.” It was a civilian weapon, not a military weapon.

I was first introduced to rapier and dagger in 1997 by my mentor John Hudson. He was this old man that started fencing in 1942. I was at an arms and armor auction in San Francisco, and I saw this old man walking around all these swords with a measuring tape, a fish scale, calipers, and a notebook. I thought to myself, “Who is that old guy and what is he doing? I must know!” So I walked up and introduced myself and said, “Hi, I’m Steaphen. What are you doing?” and that’s how I met him. He introduced me to rapier and dagger and the first manuscript in English that I had seen, which was by an English master at arms by the name of Joseph Swetnam, published in 1617.

Then in 1998, I got married. We went on our honeymoon in Scotland. And then in 1999, we retired for six months and went to Europe; figured, do it while we’re young and we can climb all those stairs [Laughs] then come back and work the rest of our lives, instead of doing it the way everybody else does it, cause you’re too old to go and enjoy it after working for forty years. I was introduced to a German manuscript and an Italian manuscript in Edinburgh, Scotland by a guy that was coming back from Italy. I looked at the German manuscript and none of the moves made sense. Why would you do that? How did he get there? Why are both his feet off the ground? What’s going on here? Then I looked at the Italian manuscript and started to point out, “Oh, I’ve done that to somebody. Oh yeah, that too. I’ve had that done to me; I don’t like that.” It kind of resonated with me. That’s why I teach Italian martial arts now.

Fick (right) with his newly wed wife in 1998.

MAYTT: When you started learning these new systems and weapons, how were they taught? Was it an instructor teaching from a treatise or was it you looking at a manuscript and figuring out how to do a prescribed technique?

SF: A little bit of both. We would take a picture and we would try to recreate the picture. One of the issues is that the pictures are a snapshot in time. So, it’s not just the picture, it’s how did they get there and where are they going from there? And so, we would look at the picture, try to recreate it, and reverse-engineer it, if you would. The manuscript that we had available to us at that time, written by Fiore dei Liberi – he was a circa 1409-10, Italian master who was seventy years old when he wrote this. There are four known copies at this time; we had one that was called the Pisani Dossi. In 1902, professor Navadi, who knew the Pisani Dossi family, was able to get this privately owned manuscript, take pictures of it, and publish it. It’s the only publication of this privately owned manuscript. But the text that goes with the pictures are two-line smack talking. That’s all it is; things like: “I will knock you to the ground and beat you like a peasant” or, “He is the master because he has both swords.” No instructions whatsoever. It was all about memory jogging. And so, we were trying to work our way through that, which was challenging. It was definitely more like study groups – that’s not entirely true.

I went to Edinburgh to find a master and I found this guy, Paul MacDonald. I worked with him, and I fought and competed everywhere I could while I was over there. I was in battle reenactments in the United Kingdom, in France, on the field with 2,000 people swinging swords at each other, arrows going into the battlelines. Off to the sides, in special lanes, were cannons – not shooting balls, but blanks. So, the entire field was covered with the smoke from the cannons with arrows flying in. And then I would also do individual fights, in the field and in tournaments, traveling around the UK, taking the things that we looked at in the manuscript and trying to make them work in these different fights.

MAYTT: How did you bridge the gap from “I’m going to fight” to “I’m going to fight and figure out what they did back then” from these manuscripts?

SF: That actually started in 2000. After being introduced to the manuscripts in 1999, I came back, and I was a firefighter at the time. I’d just moved north to get married, and I had left the fire department I was in, and I was testing to get into another department up north. One of my wife’s friends asked if I could teach her son sword fighting. So, I started doing that and then in 2000, I went to a workshop in Toronto, Canada, called the WMAW, Western Martial Arts Workshop. That was where I was introduced to other people trying to do this research here in the US and North America. That was when I was really working with people that were able to translate medieval Italian. It was all done through things like translator apps on the computer. The internet was still fairly new in 2000 compared to what we have now. So, there were a lot of people doing research in language to try to translate medieval manuscripts – German and Italian. While I didn’t do the translation parts, I could get their translations, look at the pictures, and because of my experience on and off the field with individual and multiple-person fights, I could understand what they were trying to do, going into it and leaving that picture. That’s when I really got into working out of the manuscripts.

MAYTT: You opened your Davenriche European Martial Arts School in the summer of 2000. What influenced your decision to head your own school?

SF: A friend of mine said, “Dude, you’re a sword fighter, not a firefighter.” Firefighting was the acceptable thing. I went into firefighting because the company I was with, fighting all the time, broke up. So, I lost all my best friends. I lost the comradery, and I lost the adrenaline rush from having somebody try to beat me to death with a sword. So, I needed the adrenaline and I got it by going into fire and running into burning buildings. Then in 2000, when my wife’s friend asked if I would teach her son, I started teaching him. Then he brought some friends and it just kind of grew from there. And I had to make the decision, do I want to be a firefighter, or do I want to be a sword fighter? Just as I really started growing a little bit, I got a call back to the Wildlands Fire Departments out here in California and I had to make a decision if I wanted to go to a second interview and chance being a firefighter or risk being a sword fighter. And I think I made the right decision; It was not an easy one though. Very scary. Talk about adrenaline! [Laughs]

MAYTT: Right around this time, you went to the WMAW. How many of those people were local to you?

SF: Oh, nobody. There were some people from Central Coastal, San Diego, but I lived in San Francisco at the time. There was a fairly large group from Canada, because it was in Toronto. There were people from the East Coast, the Midwest, some from Arizona. But not really anybody around me. It was just an opportunity to meet and train with other people that had the same interest and the same desire to understand the history of Western Martial Arts. And at that time, the rapier was the most commonly practiced weapon in western martial arts. The longsword and armor were kind of the red-headed stepchild of the world. They were the thugs on the outside. It was all about eloquence with the rapier and the small sword. It has shifted, now rapiers are underutilized; there aren’t as many rapier tournaments as there are longsword tournaments. So, it shifted 180 degrees.

MAYTT: Why do you think that is?

SF: I think the excitement of being in a longsword fight and also the media. Most movies, most TV shows incorporate longswords, not rapiers. There’s either access to a longsword because it’s less complex than a rapier. I don’t know if its accurate, but it’s a feeling I have: it fits in with the more modern media that we have, especially when we start looking at Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Merlin, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But rapier movies are Three Musketeers and Princess Bride. So, there’s not as many. It’s also much more exciting.

MAYTT: I’ve seen a handful of longsword duels and those guys are really intense, compared to rapier and short sword, there’s a lot more energy going into the longsword.

SF: Yeah, with all the cuts and pommeling and punching. I mean, you can do all that with a rapier as well, but you’re punching with the rapier, that means something went wrong. You’ve got a three-foot thrusting sword, why are they that close to you?

MAYTT: Returning to your Davenriche school, how have you tried to differentiate your school from other fencing and martial art academies and studios around your area?

SF: I tell people that I do sword fighting, which means we start with a weapon in hand, as opposed to starting unarmed and then moving to a weapon. Many people that get into martial arts do it because, again, books, movies, video games, and all these people have swords and knives, but there’s no one to teach them. So, they have to start unarmed and work their way up to a weapon. For differentiating from modern fencing, Olympic fencing moves on the line. We move on the round and if the other person gets too close, we can throw a left hook, which Olympic fencing tends to frown upon. [Laughs] Just a tiny bit. When I had people ask me, because we have a lot of different weapons, I don’t know where to start, where do I start? I said, “Well, if you were going to sit down and watch a movie, and you had two choices, Lord of the Rings or Three Musketeers, which would you watch first?” That’s the sorting hat, if you will, in a very rough sense. That gives me an idea what they like.

MAYTT: You are also an authority on Joseph Swetnam’s system, covering rapier, sword and dagger, and quarterstaff, among others. How did you come to learn and ultimately master the system? What was it about Swetnam’s system that makes it unique compared to other historical European systems?

SF: In the Swetnam system, it has a very Italian-ette stance. Like what we see in modern fencing and Italian fencing of the seventeenth century. But instead of being like a T, his feet are parallel. I went into a lot of research about the guy himself. Swetnam said that he traveled for thirty years and that he went to both Cambridge, England and Oxford, England, but was only there long enough to tie up his horse. And he was a raging misogynist. He was a complete jerk. And he wrote a play called The Dangers Of Lewd And Lascivious Women. The reason that’s that important is the first rebuttal to that play was written by an eighteen-year-old woman and she said, “I thought that this was somebody important, but it’s only a fencing master from Bristol.” He was from Bristol. He was the fencing master to the future king of England. His manuscript has a lot of nautical metaphors: “When you lunge, let your left foot hold you in place as the anchor holds the ship.” So that means we rotate around it, and all these kinds of things. So that explains why he was traveling all the time. That also explains his stance, because if I’m on a moving platform and I T my stance, I’m going to fall over. So, I actually practice that stance when I’m on a boat or a train and that gives me the flexibility to maintain my balance the whole time we’re traveling. And I can fence from it.

Joseph Swetnam’s 1617 fencing manual, The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence.

So, who he was, where his experience came from, and how he learned really spoke to me, minus the whole misogynistic thing. But one of the things that I really like about the manuscript is in the chapters one through six is gossip; he gives you a bunch of ways to stay safe on the early seventeenth century streets of London: “Watch out for cheaters; watch out for liars,” these kinds of things. Chapters seven to twelve is his fencing manuscript and one of the last things he says, it’s a dialogue between master and student. He says, “I forgot the most important weapon of all,” and the student says, “What weapon is that, Master?” and the student gives a list of all the weapons. Swetnam says, “The tongue. The tongue has gotten more men into and out of fights than any other weapon.” And I love that idea. And that was written down in the early seventeenth century. I like the way he thinks about fencing.

MAYTT: That last part is very reminiscent of the whole de-escalation, verbal judo, and all that stuff that came in after the Second World War and this is someone saying it in the seventeenth century; it’s like reusing ideas that were already ideas in the first place.

SF: There’s nothing new under the sun, right?

MAYTT: Not yet, anyway. Before I move on, I would like to ask you about the name of the art; which name do you use, Historical European Martial Arts or Western Martial Arts, because I see both throughout my research?

SF: HEMA. It has transitioned from Western Martial Arts to HEMA. You will also see some delineation in HEMA tends to incorporate more of the tournament aspect, but us old folks like the term Western Martial Arts. but the most common name now is HEMA and that’s what everyone calls it. So Historic European Martial Arts.

One of the things I like about the umbrella of Western Martial Arts is that that also includes things from North America, such as the Aztecs, the Mayans – so getting research into that area too. But HEMA is the common name for it now and that’s what everybody recognizes. I tell people here with the names, “You can call it Frank for all I care, but when you say ‘Frank,’ everyone knows exactly what you’re talking about.” The name is only there so that we have a common tongue. I hope I didn’t overcomplicate it. [Laughs]

This is the first part of a two part interview. read the second part here.!

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