A Review of SWASH 2011

Last weekend, I attended SWASH, or the Symposium of Western Arts through History. This was my first major HEMA event, as up until SWASH, the only multi-group event I’d been to was the one I organised the week earlier with the GCoD. This meant I’d been looking forward to the event for a while, and luckily, it didn’t disappoint.

I went with another member of the AHA, Gus, and we arrived late on the Friday night. We started off the Saturday with the group warm up, then we went straight into Tactics within I.33, taught by Herbert Schmidt. Herbert was an excellent teacher, explaining everything very clearly, giving us just the right amount of time for drilling each technique, and he came across as a lovely guy. Most importantly though, he really helped to advance my understanding of the I.33. Herbert argued that there were three basic and fundamental defences against an incoming attack: the shield-strike, the thrust-strike, and the overbind, and that which of those you do depends on the range. If the opponent makes a probing attack from distance, you respond with a shield-strike, if they rush in close to attack, you overbind, and if they are between these two ranges, you thrust-strike. I’ve recently started research into the I.33, and so I was aware of these three defences, but I wasn’t sure when you used each. We also looked at using the upper covering against the second guard, using those same three defences. In a way, it was a shame that the techniques were so basic. Herbert asked what people’s experience levels were at the start of the class, and on seeing that many in the class did not have much experience with sword and buckler, he adjusted the class to make it a bit easier to digest. It was obvious he had more material, as at the end, he decided to demonstrate the other techniques that he would have taught had he had more time. So while I’m glad I got a lesson I could more easily keep up with, it seems a shame that he didn’t get to teach everything he planned. Still, he deserves credit for adjusting his class on the fly. Overall, I’d say this was definitely the best class of the event.

Next, I went to Sean Hayes’ lesson on Italian longsword, which began with a nice icebreaker, warm up and footwork practice combination, in which you had to pass around the hall using longsword footwork while giving people you pass high fives. I’ve done this sort of thing quite a few times by now, but it’s always a nice way to start off a class. The rest of the lesson focused on two displacements from the Iron Gate against attacks from above, and counters to these displacements. This lesson was useful in that I rarely use low guards, so it was good that I was forced to use something different for the class, while the very focused nature of the class meant that perhaps I did not learn as much new stuff as I did in the other classes, but I really did improve my ability to fence from the lower guards.

Next there was Entering Strategies with the German Longsword, taken by Jorg Bellinghausen, which was a close second for my favourite class. This lesson focused on chaining together multiple strikes to enter in, such as the Wechselhau, or a combination from Meyer which had you do a false edge Oberhau from the right, instantly followed by a true edge Unterhau from the left, then a true edge Unterhau from the right, finally ended by a true edge Oberhau from the left. Two things really set this class apart. The first was the more advanced nature of the class. Jorg was very clear at the start that if you were a beginner, you were in the wrong class, and he would not teach you how to strike. After two more beginner friendly lessons, it was nice to have that change, and second that he made sure to have people switch partners regularly, as it’s too easy to become complacent when you get used to how your partner moves.

The final class of the day for me was the Close Fight, taken by Rob Lovett. This lesson was a bit of an enigma, as it wasn’t described on the BFHS site, and the class name didn’t really tell me exactly what it was about. It turned out it was about using Fiore dei Liberi’s stretto plays to counter his largo plays. We first drilled the three basic largo plays, with each play corresponding to a different amount of pressure on the bind, then the three basic stretto plays, which again correspond to three different levels of pressure in the bind, then we used the stretto plays against the opponent trying to use a largo play. Rob explained that if an opponent tries to use a largo play, but you close distance, then they will be disordered, and you will be able to use a stretto play on them. The only real difficulty I had in this is one of the stretto plays, which involved pushing the opponent’s sword down, then thrusting up under your own arm. I had massive difficulty with this technique, although luckily Sean Hayes was there to help. I have to give Sean a massive thank you for the help and advice he gave me during this lesson.

The next day, I was exhausted, and ended up not doing any combat. For the first session, I was in weapons handling, and it is always a delight to handle original pieces. They had about 20 weapons out, ranging from early medieval blades, right up to early modern backswords. The collection was impressive, and I fell in love with a complete beast of a longsword. It had an impressive size and weight, and a real presence behind it. I kind of wanted to steal it.

I wasn’t that interested in the next set of classes, so I took the opportunity to wander around the museum. I’d never been to Leeds before, but the armoury was so good that I think that it justified the trip by itself. The collection is huge. Just when I thought surely that must be the end, you turn round a corner, and there’s yet more swords. Beyond the standard swords, they also had some amusing oddities, like a combination pistol, knife and knuckle duster.

Finally, I watched the tournaments. Mostly I was watching the longsword tournament, but I took glances at the backsword tournament in between longsword rounds. I think it’s a real shame that the tournaments where at the same time, as I’d have loved to watch both. The fighting was fantastic, and I’d love to compete in the longsword tournament next year. Congratulations to Tim Gallagher for winning, he fought well, and his timing was excellent. Probably the stand out moment for me though was one of the earlier rounds when one of the competitors (I don’t know who it was) pulled off a perfect Unterhau. Their opponent came in for an Oberhau, and just before it came in to land, they stepped to the side, and threw the Unterhau across the opponent’s stomach. It was an amazing example of fencing.

All in all, it was an excellent event, and I highly recommend it for anyone considering going next year.

Glossary

  • BFHS – British Federation for Historical Swordplay. The largest umbrella group for HEMA in the UK.
  • GcoD – The Glasgow Company of Duellists
  • Iron Gate – A low guard, found in both the Liechtenauer tradition and in Fiore.
  • Largo – long distance.
  • Oberhau – literally “overstrike”. A strike that comes from above.
  • Shield-strike – a technique in which once you are bound with the opponent’s sword, you strike down onto his sword and buckler with your buckler, so that you may freely strike them to the head with your sword.
  • Stretto – close distance.
  • Thrust-strike – this is similar to the shield-strike, a major difference being it ends with a thrust rather than with a strike.
  • Unterhau – literally “understrike”. A strike that comes from the below.
  • Wechselhau – The change strike. A technique in which you strike in one direction, then instantly strike back in the opposite direction. For example, a true edge oberhau from right to left, followed instantly by a false edge unterhau from left to right would be a wechselhau.