The “Real Fighting Stuff” conference was real solid stuff

Photo of the Kelvingrove Museum by Andreea Dee.

This week’s article is a review of the recent “Real Fighting Stuff” Conference 2015, held in Glasgow at the Kelvingrove Museum and organised by the Academy of Historical Arts. This review was written by Andreea Dee and was posted originally on her blog, the Art of Swords; she has given her kind permission for it to be reposted here on Encased in Steel.


How many days of ‘sword talks’ can you handle?




This was one of the questions I asked myself before going to Glasgow to attend the “Real Fighting Stuff” conference. I was quite aware of the fact that some people there were 100 times more knowledgeable in the subject of swords than I would ever be. I feared that – even if I do have a passion for the subject – I would feel out of place. Well, you could say I was in for a surprise.

When the “Real Fighting Stuff” conference ended last week, the speakers left behind a portrait of another view of history, one that few dare to touch, but that many popular entertainments taint. Many of the speakers worked to restore that tainted picture piece by piece, to carefully tend and nurture the art of the sword to leave us with a portrait that, for once, is not distorted. Warfare is ugly, but the sword can be noble, but that’s how it goes in the end, right? That’s how many people want to see history, in black and white, when there are millions of colours. The speakers brought colour back into the subject.

This was not an invitation-only, tuxedoed gathering of the prominent or influential people in an ‘industry’, who might say they were struggling to show the masses a bit of a history that’s not really taken into account, but a gathering where anyone who wanted to know more, see more, and learn more was warmly welcomed.

But now to the technical part; the conference lasted for two days and it was hosted at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum in Glasgow with the help of three amazing people, Keith Farrell, Ben Kerr and helped by Dr. Daria Izdebska. A sequel to an equally successful 2012 conference, the gathering took place – as the organisers presented their case – in the same city R.L. Scott chose as the home for his collection of arms and armour, which he bequeathed to the people of Glasgow.

Don’t know who R.L. Scott is? Well, here’s a really short biography: Robert Lyons Scott (1871-1939) was the chairman of the oldest shipbuilding firm in the world, who developed a passion for collecting historical arms and armour. On his death he left to the people of Glasgow his collection, considered the “most considerable collection in private hands at that time”.

Now, if you’re not familiar with Scott’s collection, here’s a quick overview of some highlights: It includes the Milanese “Avant” armour (circa 1440), and a full Grenwich Armour for rider and horse (circa 1555), and the earliest printed book with illustrations on swordsmanship ( from Vienna, 1516). It comprises of 890 objects – weapons, armour, and equipment that Scott himself described as “the real fighting stuff!” and a staggering 3000 books and manuscripts on the subject of fencing, from the medieval to the 19th century. Impressive, isn’t it? So in case you’re really into this whole ‘sword thing’, now you know where to go for research – at the least, you should make Glasgow Museums one of your places of interest.

And so it begins…

Most of us arrived in Glasgow on Wednesday and we began to bump into each other – often without even knowing who we were – at least that’s how I met Robert Woosnam-Savage (now curator of European Edged Weapons at the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds), taking in the view of the museum he was curator of for 15 years, through the 1990’s.

If you were one of the people who managed to arrive in Glasgow early enough, then the organisers had arranged a spectacular book viewing session at Glasgow Museums’ Resource Centre, in Nitshill, where and you had the pleasure of studying the “Glasgow Fechtbuch E.1939.65.341”, a German fencing manual written in 1508, following the Lichtenaur tradition, “Erhart’s E.1939.65.354”, another german fencing manual by the master Gregor Erhart, from 1533, “Paurnfeindt’s E.1939.65.357”, the first printed fighting manual in the world, dated 1516 sat beside “Dürer’s E.1939.65.1901” – an illustrated fighting manual created by the great Northern Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer, who, alongside his artistic skills, was also a member of the Marxbruder, or Brotherhood of Saint Mark, a German fencing guild.

Lastly, we had “King Rene of Anjou’s E.1939.65.1144”, or “Le Livre des Tournois” a magnificent, lavishly illustrated book outlining the rules and chivalric ideals, created for King Rene of Anjou around the year 1460. To have such books at your disposal under the guidance of the Museums’ expert curators was a rare opportunity to study not just scans, but the original books themselves.

Later that evening there was also a handling session at the Boyd Orr Building courtesy of the Academy of Historical Arts, who have been building a modest collection of antique swords, knives, and historical books for study. You can pretty much guess what was eagerly handled by those attending.

By Thursday morning everyone was pretty much acquainted with everyone else, we were quickly on a first name basis, even if sometimes age difference and, I guess etiquette, should have told us otherwise.

The first day of the conference started under the auspices of notable speakers like the aforementioned Robert Woosnam-Savage, who talked about the forensic studies carried out by the University of Leicester and the Royal Armouries into the manner of the death of King Richard III – a sobering lecture that brought home the violent reality of 15th century warfare – studying the sword and polearm wounds to the skull of the defeated king brings new light to a contemporary account of the battle, where the Welsh prince and ally of victor Henry Tudor, Guto’r Glyn, wrote: “Killed the Boar, Shaved his head” – King Richard III’s personal emblem was the boar, and the wounds on his skull do indeed show that blows, probably from a sword, had indeed shaved away skin and bone.

Dr Marianne McLeod Gilchrist spoke on the 18th century soldier and rifle designer Patrick Ferguson, we got an energetic presentation of the “Universal motionality and key movements of historical fighting arts” by John Clements of the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts, and the highly regarded Prof. Sydney Anglo talked about “The Tournament in Renaissance France: a curiously neglected subject”, highlighting the remarkable record-keeping of published journals, reporting these events of pageantry and jousting to an eager audience in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The first afternoon of the conference was closed by Pierre-Henry Bas, who talked us through the details of Gregor Erhart’s manuscript, which we had seen in the resource centre the day before and its links to the works of the famed 16th Century Augsburg collector Paulus Hector Mair.  Concluding the day was Dierk Hagedorn who presented the amazing survival story of the “Gladiatoria” manuscript from New Haven, Connecticut, thought lost in the ruins of World War II, scattered into its separate pages, only to resurface, rebound and without a single lost page more than 50 years later in the United States.

The second day of the event was Friday 13th, so ‘bad luck’ jokes were inbound, enough to make the more nervous speakers even more nervous – that’s because we’re all such a loving bunch of people, we really know how to encourage our friends! Luckily for them everything went as planned. Dr Ken Mondschein spoke on the subject of renaissance fighting manuals and their association with the early scientific revolution, Dr Manuel Valle discussed the Spanish Destreza school of fencing, the RL Scott collection containing fully ¼ of the world’s surviving printed works on the subject.

One of my favourite talks was by Dr. Daria Izdebska with her “A sword by any other name…” – a historical-semantic overview of weapon terminology in English, from the Saxon age, to the modern day, which gave insights into why, for instance, the saxon sword is “broad” in the literature.

James G. Elmslie gets on my favourite list with his “proposed typological study of the single-edged sword of medieval and early Renaissance Europe” which in very Internet terms could be translated as “Falchions. Falchions everywhere.” Joke aside, this has been one of the most interesting talks of the day and as other delegates said, is likely to become the standard typology for single-edged arms after its publication, as influential in the study of single-edged arms as Oakeshott has been for the Medieval sword.

The next two speakers were unfortunate to need to cut down their presentations to squeeze into their time slots, but both get on the same ‘fave list’. Dr. Fabrice Cognot suggested radical solution to our problems, “Crushing our enemies… with hammers” and walked us through the use of war-hammers of the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, while Peter Johnsson – who became sort of the star of the night – even if he had to skip through much of his presentation, delivered an engaging and interesting presentation of “Some swords in the Glasgow collections” which showed details of the thought processes behind the design and construction of the medieval sword.

Looking at this little piece of writing it feels REALLY unfair, this doesn’t come close to the atmosphere of the event or its awesomeness. It doesn’t do it justice. I should go through each presentation and give every speaker the attention they deserve, but that would mean I would publish this article in the very far future. But the good news is, that Keith Farrel and Ben Kerr’s Triquetra Services, and Fallen Rook Publications, the organisers of the event, are already working with most of the speakers to make the presentations available for those who could not attend, and there will be a printed book of the proceedings of the conference due in the future, to preserve these talks for posterity. Yay!

In whole honesty, this was one of those conferences that had talks that left you wanting for more, and with each talk you hoped it would last just a little longer. It was engaging, it was interesting and it was fun.

Looking through the notes now, I see the brief presentation of the conference I had from last year when I was still trying to decide if I should attend or not. It says that “the main aim that Scott intended for this collection was to “provide an instructive survey of the history of arms and armour to the people of Glasgow”. After the days spent there, I can say that the speakers gave this sentence a whole new meaning, “the conference provide an instructive survey of the history of arms and armour to everyone”. This went beyond Glasgow. A bunch of geeks, martial artists, enthusiasts, craftsmen and historians alike came together from different corners of the world, solely to listen to each other talk about swords, arms, and martial arts. We all went back to our homes wishing for at least another day there, all the more time to study, to see, to learn in such company.

So, how many days of ‘sword talks’ can you handle? Well, if you’re like me… a lot. Like, a lot-lot. But don’t take my word for it – just get your arse in gear for the next “Real Fighting Stuff” conference and you’ll see I’m right.


This week’s article has been a review of the recent “Real Fighting Stuff” Conference 2015, held in Glasgow at the Kelvingrove Museum and organised by the Academy of Historical Arts. This review was written by Andreea Dee and was posted originally on her blog, the Art of Swords; she has given her kind permission for it to be reposted here on Encased in Steel.


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