Attending Big Events gets you buzzed for HEMA!

So, what have we learned during the “Great Bloggin Hiatus 2018-19”? Mostly that you can’t build a home, write a blog, hold down a job and compete in a competitive Historical Fencing league. It turns out you can’t even keep your calendar in order well enough to attend an event your own club is running! My head has been elsewhere and there has was nothing I could do about it.

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My Longsword and Sabre pool from the FnaG 2019

The winters in Ireland are long, damp and dark and can result in asking pessimistic questions about many things; will I ever be able to open a window again, have I completely forgotten everything I learnt about longsword, sabre or sword and buckler, will the yellow-sky-disk ever return, will the Wrathful Peasants ever have a successful recruitment drive and where did I leave my fleece-welly liners? In this latest post, I address almost none of these points but waffle on instead about the state of my fencing.

Last weekend was the ‘Big Dublin HEMA Event’: the (often mis-spelt) Féile na Gaiscígh; (the festival of warriors and from now on it’s the FnaG). It has become a winter event after a few years in the sun and it serves as a wonderful way to restart the HEMA year. I always come away feeling buzzed for historical fencing, loving the community I am part of and jonesing after various swords, expensive protective gear and hungry to learn new things about new styles.

Having been off the competitive/tournament event scene for a while, I really didn’t fancy my chances in the tournaments but I entered anyway. The timetable was pretty well filled with great classes and comps. I went in for the Sword & Buckler, which I swear I haven’t touched since FnAG 2018, and it shows! Then sabre, I did marginally better. I won all my pool bouts but was eliminated by the talented Sam Gassman. I had beaten him in the pool, so the elim could have gone either way. As it turns out he managed to go ahead via a totally unexpected ring-out and held onto the lead with some decent plays. In longsword all I really wanted was to get back to the marginally ‘intuitive’ fencing I used a couple of years ago. This would be a return to simpler times. I would enjoy my bouts, learn what I could and any success would be a bonus.

I used to have a ‘default’ style with which I had enjoyed some success in tournaments in the past. It wasn’t perfect and more skilled practitioners had been able to pick it apart fairly easily. It’s a Pflug-like guard, a thrust or rapid Oberhau on the inside/centre line, followed by a spring to the my opponent’s outside. If the opening gambit isn’t successful and we bind before the spring I wind up to Ochs, hoping for a chance to thrust or Duplieren/Mutieren. If they defend the first strike but don’t stay on my edge then the spring is accompanied with a Zorn to their outside line, covering myself in Schrankhut as I withdraw/pass them.

It worked for a couple of years and then it’s flaws were highlighted to me. First amongst them was the fact that it was too predictable and I overused it. As I had tendency to lead with a gathering step/lunge for the initial strike, I got into the habit of not stepping off the centre line on the fairly rare occasions I bothered to try something else. I got in a rut and it was easily countered. So I decided to change things up. I tried to do more varied stuff and drilled heavily stepping off the centre line when delivering my attacks. Technically I became a better fencer. The new ‘style’ was to not be a one-trick-pony, I can’t say I really added any more tricks but I certainly tried to. My success rate in tournaments plummeted, I couldn’t make anything work in sparring and I became jaded with longsword as a whole. I was attempting to get outside a comfort zone and that meant I was thinking about what I was doing far more than when I was defaulting to plug-ort-wind-ochs-zorn. This slowed me down and meant that nothing seemed to ever go my way!

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Working on my Ochs skills during Keith Farrell’s excellent workshop

At the latest FnaG, I decided to be lazy, to allow myself the comfort of sinking back into that old pattern and just enjoy my fights. I wanted to put the physical effort into the bouts, to do whatever I was attempting well but not to worry too hard about what I was choosing to do. Now, I didn’t do very well on the scoresheets; I didn’t qualify past the pool stage and didn’t score very highly in general. What I did notice though was that I was using more varied techniques but still enjoying the mental ‘ease’ of the more intuitive style from a few years ago. Analysing the bouts after the fact I realised that my fencing has actually progressed, I am better at doing what I do and I have a bigger repertoire than before. There is still room for improvement, particularly threat assessment, mitigation and capitalising on openings. All the things that I need if I am to match my success in competitive situations with my personal, technical progress.

Back when I tried to push out of my comfort zone the attempt to progress into better quality fencing and being responsible for my own development seem like too much. To be honest it was a time for a minor crisis of confidence! I started to mentally spiral; I wasn’t fencing historically, what the hell even is ‘historical’ anyway, no one fences historically, it’s all just a bunch of game-ified rules manipulation, oh god why did I buy all these swords, nobody new is coming to my club, it’s all going to fade away into nothingness…..Aaaand breath…in…out….calm.

In truth my beginner gains had simply reached a plateau, my understanding had started to well outstrip my abilities and I was (am, forever will be) unsure how to solve the problem. The need to ‘git gud’ faded somewhat as I focussed instead on enjoying what I do and becoming better at it, at a sustainable pace. It turns out I may never be able to top the HEMA Ratings board, I may never win a gold at anything and you know what; as long as I am progressing in something I love, I don’t really care. Sure, there is a bit of frustration when I get knocked out of a tournament but that’s just a sign that I’m putting some effort in, if I didn’t feel disappointed then maybe I shouldn’t have bothered in the first place. I like to win but I don’t need to win to stay interested in the activity.

Dwindling club attendance and failed recruitment drives is another matter and one I will look at in a later post.

For now, I hope you liked this post. Please comment below or you can reach me on the Wrathful Peasants page.

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