Fran Lacuata began historical fencing in Bolognese sidesword and rapier rather than longsword because those were the only systems available, learning at The School of the Sword in Frimley, United Kingdom. In 2014, she inherited the school, opening the Godalming and Reading chapters. Lacuata also helped establish the competition community in the UK, assisting in founding the Waterloo Sparring Group in 2012, the Wessex League, and the Albion Cup. Additionally, she also founded a women’s and nonbinary seminar entitled By the Sword, where women and nonbinary folks are instructors as well. Today, Lacuata talked about her adventure HEMA journey and what HEMA looks like in the UK. All images provided by Fran Lacuata.
Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello and welcome Fran! Thank you for joining us to talk about UK HEMA!
Fran Lacuata: I’m glad to be here; thank you!
MAYTT: You have been studying Bolognese swordplay and rapier since 2010. What was it about the Italian sword system and the rapier that caught your attention? What about these historical fencing systems have continued to motivate you and your training?
FL: I started in Bolognese sidesword and rapier simply because that was all that was available to me. To be honest, when you discover that it’s possible to learn sword fighting, it’s so awesome, you don’t really have a preference.
When I had been training for a year or so, I started to realize that most people study German longsword as their initial weapon, and I was in a minority in the HEMA community that practiced single handed swords. I’m honestly glad that it started that way as I still have a lot of love for sidesword and rapier. Even though I practice a variety of weapons – the more I learn, the more I’m convinced a holistic approach to swordplay is best.
MAYTT: By the 2010s, HEMA had begun to solidify itself in its curriculum and instruction. What was the training like for you when you first started? How would you characterize your training from those that came before you?
FL: I started learning HEMA before we had nylon swords or steel swords that were particularly accessible. So, what we were using were shinai from kendo as trainers, these are essentially bamboo sticks so not ideal, but it was all we had at the time. My instructors had built the school over the previous eight years from translating the sources and working it all out for themselves. In their time, there was no Wiktenauer, HEMA was not open source, and everyone was jealously guarding the information like dragons. But over time, this changed for the better. I will always be grateful for their insights that came from their interpretations and all that time of working with the sources. I aspire to continue that work with my students.
MAYTT: I see. You are the lead instructor at The School of the Sword’s Godalming chapter. When did you first begin teaching and how did that new duty and responsibility affect your perception and understanding of historical fencing?
FL: I started out teaching in 2013 as a guest instructor at the London Sword and Dagger Club, because nobody there did sword and buckler and that was my jam. I was also asked to help instruct the new students in my school, because at that time, I was one of the most senior members. Then in 2014, my instructors retired, and the school was left to me. So, I opened up a new chapter in Godalming, my hometown. At first, I wanted to just continue the school for the selfish reason that I didn’t want to stop training because I had a tournament coming up. Then my colleagues in Reading wanted to start a study group as well, but they had a lot of interest from new people. So, they were asking me to come in and teach the beginners each week so that they could have a decent amount of competent fencers.
I don’t think when I took over I fully appreciated the amount of responsibility that was being handed to me. It’s more than just running a club and doing administration – you have to do so many jobs of managing the school, promoting it, teaching the students, and maintaining the legacy of your predecessors. It’s almost a full-time job in itself. So, I found myself having to learn lots of new duties in a short amount of time, one of which is delegation and is still my hardest lesson.
MAYTT: You have also had the opportunity to instruct at international HEMA events and seminars; how do those events differ from teaching regularly at the Godalming chapter, if at all?
FL: When you are teaching week in and week out you can cover material over a period of months. When you go to an event, you have to present and encapsulate material within a couple of hours, at most. So, sometimes time is not on your side and the priority is to give people a taste of the concept that you’re trying to teach rather than getting them fully on board and competent.
MAYTT: Additionally, how have those events and seminars helped you grow and refine yourself as a HEMA practitioner?
FL: When you’re a new instructor, it can be very scary and intimidating talking to a room full of people, even if they are people that you know. When you go to an event, you might be teaching people you either don’t know or who have big reputations as good instructors or fencers. I don’t think over time that these feelings of intimidation and even impostor syndrome go away – plenty of testimony attributes to that. However, over time, you will develop a real understanding and a real engagement of your own wisdom, and it is this that overcomes those nerves and jitters. Imagine if someone asked you to do a presentation for forty-five minutes without any preparation on a topic of your choice: you would do it wholeheartedly, without reservation, because you know your subject and you love it dearly.
MAYTT: Having that passion for your subject is crucial! How have you seen the intercommunication between the European and American HEMA communities benefit each other? What certain aspects of each respective community can be traced back to the other?
FL: The European and American HEMA communities are quite different, but then again, from country to country within Europe, there are a lot of differences as well. And I’m sure in the different states in the United States, things vary once more. In Europe, and I’m painting with very broad brush strokes in all of these examples, there seems to be more emphasis on interpretation and understanding and development of the sources. There also appears to be more variety of what is studied. In America, it seems that everyone studies German longsword and if they study anything else, it’s in addition to that. The tournaments in the USA seem to get more attention than the research and development and study. But that said, most of the books that are available have been researched and translated and published in the United States.
MAYTT: How do you foresee this global web of communication and interconnectedness changing, evolving, and adapting HEMA in the next ten years?
FL: It has changed a lot in the twelve years since I started. Everyone used to be on Sword Forum International, arguing about interpreting the sources. Then there was a Facebook group called HEMA Alliance Community or something like that run by the HEMA Alliance in the USA, but it was closed down. Again, there were a lot of arguments, politics, and infighting. Just like any movement, it has its growing pains and online forums are probably the worst place to try and convince someone of an argument. Nowadays, people don’t seem to be as involved in those discussions, although I’m sure they happen on Reddit or whatever. From my personal perspective, I found the medium of podcasts to be really beneficial when it comes to tackling tough topics in the community, because people are not able to take anything out of context in them – they have to listen to the whole thing in order to make it make sense. You cannot avoid nuance and perspective when it comes to getting your point across.
Over time, people also became more comfortable and felt safe to be themselves and to call out toxic and problematic behavior in the community, which is a good thing all round. HEMA is very much still the preserve of cishet white males, but in the time since I started, I am seeing more queer, BIPOC, and different ability representation. Long may it continue.
MAYTT: I recently talked with a HEMAist from Maryland, and they noticed that more individuals from the LGBTQ+, BIPOC, and other communities have gravitated towards historical fencing than more of the traditional Asian martial arts in recent years. What do you think that HEMA has that can attract and sustain individuals from the above communities that traditional Asian martial arts do not have?
FL: I’d be interested to know how they measured that because traditional Asian martial arts still seem to vastly outnumber HEMA. There are still very few full time HEMA instructors and bricks and mortar HEMA establishments compared to Asian martial arts. I’m not keen to compare HEMA to Asian martial arts in a competitive manner because I find it rather distasteful, and I don’t have much experience of the latter to make an informed opinion. The attrition rates in all martial arts are going to be pretty high, you will continue to have many beginners in a class other than black belts and sword masters.
That said, some HEMA groups and sword-adjacent communities such as LARP and Armoured Combat have been very vocal and demonstrative in recent years about diversity and inclusivity. For me, this is great progress and something very close to my heart. In traditional Asian martial arts, perhaps this approach isn’t taking off so much, but I’ve seen it proven time and time again that representation matters, and if folks see people who look like them learning, and especially teaching a class, they’re far more likely to want to go, and more importantly, they are more likely to keep going.
MAYTT: I see. Who would you consider to be crucial or a pioneer to the modern HEMA revival movement? What was it about these individuals that set them apart from their contemporaries?
FL: I think the people who were in the generation above me, So, I’m thinking in the UK: Matt Easton, Susan Kirk, Caroline Stewart, Phil Marshall, Nick and Mike Thomas, Beth Jenkins, Milo Thurston, James Marwood, Dave Rawlings, etc. And too many more to name. These are the people who I had access to when I started HEMA. They were not only at the coal face, taking the information that was several centuries old in a forgotten language and trying to make it make sense, they were actually building a community and creating the foundation for the thriving, engaged and dynamic scene that we have now.
Now we have actual gear and tools for our sport. We have access to sources – whether that’s printed books or YouTube videos with people explaining the history and context and practice of historical fencing. We have easy access for beginners to find a club and pick up a sword and learn how to fight, and it’s all down to these people who paved the way.
MAYTT: You have also competed extensively across a wide range of weapons. With that experience, how important for practitioners to compete and what are the benefits practitioners would be foregoing if they do not compete?
FL: I think you should try competition at least once, just so you have that perspective. I don’t think tournaments are essential to everyone’s learning, but it is the only time when you are fencing in an uncooperative environment. So, it depends on what you want to get out of your learning. If you want to interpret something and see if it really works under pressure, then tournaments are the place for you to get that firsthand experience. If you don’t compete at all, what you are losing is the opportunity to see if your training works under pressure, that’s all. Even in a freeplay and sparring environment, there is an element of cooperation. Tournaments can really be very unpleasant and stressful if you are not prepared for them mentally and physically. And even if you are, there is a risk that you can become too obsessed with winning at all costs rather than using them to learn and grow.
MAYTT: Talk about creating a solution to a problem! Speaking of competing, you helped cofound the Waterloo Sparring Group in 2012, founded the Wessex League, and were a primary organizer of the Albion Cup. What inspired you to step into these types of ventures? Did you feel something was missing at the time and you were trying to fill a void in the HEMA community? How were these events received by the local and regional communities?
FL: I was involved in all of these things because the group I was in came to the realization that there was no competitive scene in the UK. So, we built one. It was very exciting. It was exhilarating. It felt like we were really starting something special. We started out the Wessex League as accessible as possible, so even if you didn’t have any gear, you could compete because we would make gear available to loan. So, our priority was to bring tournaments to the people. In that time, the only way you could compete was if you bought a plane ticket to one of the Scandinavian countries or the USA. So, there was a paywall. The reception was amazing. People filled up competitions in hours and even now, where I’m not a member of the committee, there are new folks running the Wessex League, it continues to sell out fast.
MAYTT: Moreover, in 2017, you helped establish an annual women’s seminar and in 2020 a podcast series, both entitled By the Sword, and collaborated with some of your peers to create Esfinges, an international organization specifically dedicated to women in HEMA. How did you find yourself at the center of these two achievements? Was there a personal experience during your training that inspired you to establish something specific for female HEMA practitioners?
FL: In 2012, I was asked to enter a tournament at a competition event organized by my school called Rapier 2012. I was very nervous as I had never competed before and I was still very new, but my overall experience and impression was that women do not take part in HEMA events, especially competitions. I figured that in order to make that happen, I needed to cater specifically to women. It was around that time that I became heavily involved in Esfinges as a co-founder. We started a Facebook forum for women in HEMA.
Five years later, I started By the Sword in 2017, an event in the UK for women and nonbinary folks, with women and nonbinary instructors. I’ve also organized coed events where all the instructors were women or nonbinary. The podcast came about during the pandemic.
MAYTT: What was the general reception within the global HEMA community of the By the Sword seminars and Esfinges organization? Conversely, how have women HEMAists responded to both? How do you feel these endeavors have further supported female practitioners?
FL: Initially, the reception to Esfinges was hostile. We had to justify our existence to a lot of people who couldn’t understand why women might want their own space. It became a friendly space for women fencers to share experiences without the male gaze and experienced the typical growing pains that many organizations go through.
By the Sword came about because from the very beginning of Esfinges in 2012 it had been my ambition to run an event for women in HEMA. When I left Esfinges as cofounder, I poured my energy into that dream, and in 2017, the first event took place. Nonbinary members of the community approached me and it’s since become a femme- and then queer-friendly community and event. I was also approached by men in the community about having coed events featuring women and nonbinary instructors, and I started running one-day workshop events such as Swords of Spring and Swords of Winter.
The pandemic put the events on hold for two years but gave me the opportunity to set up the By the Sword podcast. At one point, I was interviewing two people a week, including over sixty women instructors, because my original motivation was to show the HEMA community that we have a rich resource of women who teach swordfighting, who deserve more recognition.
MAYTT: Final question. With the global pandemic slowly creeping away from being a primary concern, how have you seen HEMA rebound from the international event? What are some plans that you, the Godalming chapter, and the larger HEMA community in the United Kingdom to help further spread the art?
FL: I’ll be honest, the pandemic burned me quite a bit and reoriented my goals and desires within HEMA. Once, I was focused on tournament and community building, now my main focus is simply enjoying fencing, teaching others, and coming back to being a student again. I want to learn more styles of fencing because I don’t believe in mastering one. You would be expected to be proficient in all manner of arms, and it is only beneficial in my opinion to explore what is out there.
MAYTT: Thank you for the conversation about HEMA in the UK. It was very insightful!
FL: Thank you so much for inviting me to interview!