Interview with HMA Instructor and Researcher Guy Windsor: Growth of the Movement in Europe

When Guy Windsor enrolled in University in 1992, he quickly joined every martial arts club that was available. Soon, he found that fencing was his calling, but not the modern sport. In 1994, he co-founded the Dawn Duellists’ Society to explore historical fencing. That exploration has led him to author numerous books, create a swordfighting card game, found a school, and continue teaching. Today, Windsor takes some time to talk about that whirlwind journey. All images provided by Guy Windsor.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Thank you and welcome Dr. Windsor!

Guy Windsor: Thank you for having me!

MAYTT: When did you first discover HEMA? Was it out of the blue or did you happen to find it after being in the martial arts for a number of years? What was it about HEMA that took hold of you and what still motivates you to stay in the art?

Guy Windsor. Credit: Simply C Photography

GW: I had done some Karate in the early 1980s, and fenced since 1987, so when I got to Edinburgh University in 1992, I joined all the martial arts clubs. My week was fencing on Mondays and Wednesdays, Tai chi on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Kobudo on Fridays, Karate on Saturdays, and there was usually something martial arts related going on Sundays as well. Then a tiny little aikido club opened up early on Wednesday mornings, so I joined that too! It’s a miracle I got any studying done.

At fencing though, I was getting very frustrated by the artificial rules and the kind of fencing play that they encouraged. I wanted to fight with swords, not score points. I met some like-minded fencers, and we started getting together to fight as if the swords were sharp, or as best we could imagine. At about this time, I came across Alfred Hutton’s 1901 work The Sword and the Centuries in my granny’s house – my grandfather had been a fencer. This made me realize that there were actually books on sword fighting out there written by people who lived in a duelling culture – [Camillo] Agrippa, [Francesco] Alfieri, [Rodulphus] Capoferro, [Achille] Marozzo, and so on. That got me digging further, and before long, instead of just imagining how things might go in a real sword fight, we were trying to recreate the sword fighting styles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

My friends and I formed the Dawn Duellists’ Society (DDS) in 1994, which is still going today. In 2000, I decided to give up the day job and teach historical martial arts for a living, and while it’s not always been easy – especially the making a living part – it just suits me. It’s the one thing I’ve ever done that involves all aspects of my being.

I don’t use the term HEMA to describe what I do though, because it is primarily associated with the tournament scene, which I’m only peripherally involved with, and the “E” stands for “European.” The process of recreating historical martial arts from historical sources is not confined to European sources; there is great work being done on Persian and other non-European sources. The term “European” is misleading anyway; “Christendom” would be more historically accurate but comes with its own unfortunate baggage. I find that emphasizing the “E” attracts entirely the wrong sort of practitioners. HMA is sufficiently accurate.

MAYTT: That is a lot of club participation! What was the training like when you first started? How have you seen HMA training evolve, change, and adapt since you first began?

GW: It would be exaggerating somewhat to even call what we were doing in the beginning “training.” We were mostly just trying to hit each other with sword-like objects and hoped that it looked something like the pictures in the books! The DDS started out “practicing” in public places, such as the courtyard outside the Jolly Judge pub off the Royal Mile near Edinburgh Castle, which attracted passers-by, many of whom wanted to have a go. The club picked up members with no experience, who needed to be taught before we could fight them. I fell into teaching that way, and it turned out it was my favorite part of the sessions.

In those days, pretty much everyone who was doing anything even peripherally related to historical swordplay was at about the same kind of level. There was no “HEMA,” and there was no real internet either. But that changed in the late 1990s, and clubs like ours were suddenly able to connect with similar groups all over the world. The main developments I’ve seen since then have been:

1.  Extraordinary access to the sources. Back in the 1990s, we were lucky to get a dodgy photocopy of half a manuscript. Now you can get high resolution scans of literally hundreds of sources, free.

2.  Growth of the tournament scene. There were tournaments even in the late 1990s, but it didn’t really kick off as its own separate field until the noughts. But it has driven an incredible growth in the field – a lot of people like tournaments!   – as well as creating a market for greatly improved sparring gear.

3.  Growth of the events scene. Back in 2000, there were maybe four or five events per year, worldwide. Now, there are literally hundreds. This creates opportunities for interaction with peers and colleagues, in person, sword in hand, which has led to a gigantic improvement in the level of interpretation. To be honest, an instructor at the level I was at in 2000 would find it very hard to find students now.

MAYTT: In 1994, you established The Dawn Duellists’ Society in Edinburgh, Scotland and then The School of European Swordplay in Helsinki, Finland, in 2001, both schools producing many of the practitioners and proponents for modern HMA. What was the experience like when you first started running a school? What mistakes did you learn from The Dawn Duellists’ Society that helped you with The School of European Swordplay?

GW: Firstly, let me emphasize that I didn’t establish the DDS on my own, but my involvement certainly lead to my founding my school.

There is a fundamental difference between a club of peers, and a professional school. In the former, people are gathering around a shared interest; in the latter, they are paying for instruction in that interest. They are also gathering around a shared interest, of course, but they have a reasonable expectation of competent instruction and a structured approach. We did make mistakes running the DDS, of course, but I can’t think of one that was critical to avoid in setting up my school, because the two entities were so different in structure and intent.

Jake Norwood (left) facing off against Windsor (right). Credit: Ed Toton

I was completely consumed by my school in the early years. I was teaching many nights a week, most weekends, travelling a lot. It was its own kind of bliss, and madness. Teaching martial arts is my natural happy place, and my best learning environment. Fortunately, my wife and many of my friends are not involved in martial arts at all, so I didn’t burn out too severely!

MAYTT: In 2004, you published perhaps the first modern technical manual for longsword, The Swordsman’s Companion. What were some of the factors that ultimately resulted in the publication of this manual? Did you have a feeling that it was going to be revolutionary in the HEMA field or was the response a complete surprise to you?

GW: Well, I’m very flattered that you’d call it “revolutionary!” I started writing it in 1999 when one of my students told me I really should write this stuff down, and as with most first books, it took shape very slowly. Perhaps ten percent of the first draft made it into the final book. In 2003, I think, a colleague of mine let me know about a relatively new publishing house in the US, Chivalry Bookshelf, that might be interested in taking it on, so I sent them the draft as it was then, and they took it immediately. It was probably the least typical “first draft to published book” story ever. I was driven to publish it because I could see people in the historical martial arts field struggling with things I knew to be solved problems, and was hoping this would raise the game a bit.

I should emphasize that my interpretation of Italian longsword sources that the book is based on is now about twenty years old, and so as with any research field, twenty years out of date. I’m considering withdrawing the book from publication because I’ve seen too many people working from it recently, as if it was current, despite the fact that I put a note in the second edition telling them not to and providing a link to get a free copy of my much more up-to-date work, The Medieval Longsword.

MAYTT: That very considerate of you to do that for your readers. Since then, you have continued to publish books – at least ten. What do you feel ultimately drives you to continue writing, researching, and publishing HMA? Do you feel there is an end in sight or are there more aspects of the art you wish to explore?

GW: Teaching is my best learning environment, but writing is the best place for organizing that learning into something coherent. For instance, the day I sent the final proofs of The Swordsman’s Companion off to the publisher, I opened up a new file and began writing what became The Duellist’s Companion. I was working on figuring out Capoferro’s rapier method, and the best way to do that, for me, was to start writing a book on it.

Most writing projects begin with a question. For instance, From Medieval Manuscript to Modern Practice is the answer to the question “why do you interpret Fiore’s longsword techniques that way?” So, it is essentially an academic study. I take every one of Fiore’s longsword plays on foot out of armour, and show the image from the manuscript, transcribe the text, translate the text, describe what I think the text means, and then provide a video clip of how I think the action works. That way readers can see what Fiore drew and wrote, how I read his handwriting, what I think the Italian means in English, how I think that his intent can be interpreted into action, and what the action actually looks like it. Every step of the process is entirely transparent, which means that if a scholar disagrees with me on some point, they can see exactly where: I may have misread the original Italian, mistranslated it, misinterpreted it, or have screwed up my physical execution of an otherwise okay interpretation. So, any discussion we have about my interpretation is based on an accurate impression of what that interpretation is. You’d be amazed how often I hear that someone disagrees with my work in some way, and it turns out they disagree with their instructor’s impression of a blog post of mine they read three years ago!  

The Medieval Longsword, by contrast, leaves out most of “why does Guy think Fiore’s techniques are done this way?” and answers the question “given this interpretation of Fiore’s art, how should we organize it into a training system, and actually practice it?”

I’m currently between writing projects – I’ve just completed work on an online course on how to teach that I’ve been developing for the last year or so – but I’d be amazed if I’ve published my last book. So much of my work has been based on students asking the right questions at the right time, and there are always more questions to answer. Some questions can be answered in an email, others take 200 pages with illustrations.

MAYTT: You began a podcast, The Sword Guy Podcast, discussing various HMA topics and with a wide range of practitioners and organizers. What first inspired you to create a HMA-centered podcast and what about it makes you want to continue doing it?

GW: In 2019, I read Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women. It’s an extraordinary book. The writer is a data scientist and uses data science to demonstrate some of the myriad ways in which women are disadvantaged by the “default male” assumption. In other words, when we think “person” we think “man.” Such as in car safety testing. Cars that rate five out of five stars for safety when tested with a male-equivalent crash test dummy may score only three with a female dummy. Women are disproportionately likely to be killed or injured in the event of a car crash. That’s just one of dozens of examples, and it made me furious. You simply can’t argue with her data.

This got me thinking about representation in my own field. Historical martial arts are disproportionately male, and disproportionately white too. I’ve tried to combat this where I can – every one of my books that have photos of students training includes photos of women, for instance. Throughout my career running the school, we struggled to attract and keep female students. I was discussing the problem with a group of my senior students – there were no women in the room, which was the problem in a nutshell – and one of them pointed out that I almost always demonstrate with one of them; I should maybe demonstrate with a woman. I said that I was always choosing the student who would give the best technical demonstration to assist, to which my student replied that there was more to the demo than just the technique. So, I tried it – wherever possible, I’d pick a woman to demonstrate with. And the results were amazing. Within a year, that same room of seniors was about twenty percent female, and it got even better from there.

I had been mulling over the issue raised by Invisible Women for about six months, somewhat distracted, perhaps, by a global pandemic, when it occurred to me that I have a certain standing in my community, and therefore a platform. I’d been toying with the idea of starting a podcast for ages but hadn’t found a good enough reason to put the work in. But why not use one as a platform to highlight women and minorities in historical martial arts? So, I started with a strict minimum fifty-one percent female guest’s policy and got eight or ten episodes in the bag before launching. I never expected it to keep going this long- we’re at over 125 episodes and counting!

I keep doing it because every now and then when I think about quitting – it’s a ton of work and makes no money at all – someone will off-handedly remark that they started swordsmanship because of the show. Or email me to say how much they liked a particular episode. Or I stumble across someone interesting and just have to invite them on. It’s remarkable: if you send someone a message out of the blue asking them to chat with you for an hour or so, they will correctly dismiss you as a weirdo. Add “for my podcast,” and suddenly it’s ok!  

MAYTT: Funny how that works out. In 2014, you began the first card game ever to teach historical swordsmanship, using Fiore dei Liberi’s work as the basis. How did you come up with the idea and what prompted you to use Fiore’s system rather than other historical fencing masters’ works?

GW: I’d done some work consulting for a video game company in the past, and noticed that Fiore’s way of representing movement, from illustrated guard position to illustrated guard position, was similar to the way games are animated.

One evening after a rapier class, my student Rami Laaksonen and I were chatting about how many students find it hard to learn the Italian terminology. It brought to mind the enemy aircraft or enemy shipping decks of playing cards used in the Second World War, and more recently the “52 most wanted terrorists” decks given to US service personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan. Playing normal card games with these decks helps people recognize previously unfamiliar things. That led us to think, if we’ve got sword terminology on these cards, why not play a sword fighting game?

A student wandering past remarked “I’d buy it.” So, Rami and I raised money – first a small grant from Rami’s business school for startups, then a crowdfunding campaign – started a company, engaged a game designer and an artist, and the rest is literally history.

Audatia card game. Credit Jussi Alarauhio

It’s ironic that we had the idea after a rapier class. I did initially think about creating a rapier game, but frankly there aren’t enough different moves to make it interesting or worthwhile. I wanted a game that recreated a swordsmanship style to the level that anyone who played it before coming along to a beginners’ course would find that they already knew a lot of the terminology and theory. Fiore’s Art of Arms was the obvious next system to look at, because of my previous experience with the video game company. And sure enough, it was relatively easy to adapt to game format. Our designer, Samuli Ranninen, had the basic form of the game in about twenty minutes of chatting with us. It just fit.

And I should point out that any game played according to the rules can be recreated sword-in-hand without any logic problems. It’s very much a niche product, but the people who play it love it to bits.

MAYTT: How have you seen the global HMA community grow since you first started training? Where do you think that community will be in the next ten years?

GW: It went from being a few groups of oddballs all over the world, into a frankly enormous community. It used to be that the easiest way to find a group was to start one, but these days there is a club or school in almost every major city, and in many rural areas. It’s been incredible to watch.

It used to be that anyone who had even heard of a source, and liked swords, had enough in common with everyone else that it was really just one community. But as it has grown in breadth and depth, it has naturally separated out into areas of interest. This can be by period (we do stuff from 1380 to 1410!); or weapon (we do rapier!); or by a specific historical master (we do Meyer!) There’s a further separation between those that care about tournaments, and those that don’t. I think this process of growing and growing apart will continue, to the point that the umbrella term “historical martial arts” will be no more indicative of what a person actually practices than to say “martial arts.”

This is not a bad thing, so long as we all remember that we have more in common with each other than we have differences.

MAYTT: Additionally, how have you seen the European HMA community help influence the American HMA community and vice versa?

GW: I think the Anglophone community has been quite tightly connected since the early 2000s, to the point that it’s not very useful to distinguish them by location. It’s maybe more pertinent to look at the different communities of interest, and of language. It’s very easy for us Anglophones working on, for example, Italian sources to completely overlook the Italian HMA community! And yet some great work is coming out of these non-Anglophone countries, much of it produced in Italian, or French, German, Spanish, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, Ukrainian, Indonesian, etc.

This is why I think it’s essential for serious scholars of the art to become at least conversant in the languages of the sources you are interested in, so you can talk to the people working on those same sources, whatever your native languages happen to be.

MAYTT: Final question. Who would you consider to be crucial or a pioneer to the modern HMA revival movement? What was it about these individuals that set them apart from their contemporaries?

GW: The problem with this question is that there are so many pioneers – twenty years ago, this field was almost entirely populated by pioneers of one kind or another. If you hold my feet to the fire, in the approved medieval fashion, I’d have to mention at least the following:

The late great Patrick Pugliese was photocopying sources and distributing them as widely as possible in the 1990s. Perhaps more than anyone else he deserves the title of “godfather to HMA.”

Christian Tobler: his book Secrets of German Medieval Swordsmanship came out in 2001, and it is the reason why German medieval martial arts are so very popular in the Anglosphere. He made them accessible, and therefore practiced. He’s been producing translations and critical editions of German manuscripts ever since.

Michael Chidester is the architect of the astonishing, which is a free online library of literally hundreds of key sources. He has done more than anyone else to make the original manuscripts and printed works available, in high resolution scans and even translations.

Tom Leoni, Reinier van Noort, Jeffrey Forgeng, Jherek Swanger, William Wilson, and others have all produced numerous translations so Anglophones can work with their sources.

Greg Mele, Nicole Allen, Jared Kirby, John Lennox, Jake Norwood, and others were all organizing critically important live events in the early years and many of them still do.

I am, of course, leaving out dozens of people who deserve a mention, but you get the idea. The thing that all these people have in common is they enabled the community, by producing copies of the sources, translations, and critical editions of them, and organizing events for us all to meet up at and “discuss” our interpretations sword in hand.

In this same vein, there are many folks whose names are unknown outside their local clubs, but who toiled in the background doing admin, organizing insurance, finding venues, and doing all the unsexy but necessary stuff so we all could hit each other more historically. It would be inaccurate and ungrateful not to acknowledge them here.

MAYTT: Thank you again for taking us through your HMA journey!

GW: It was my pleasure.


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