10 Questions with Keith Farrell

keith-farrell-2

How did you get drawn into fencing and why classical/historic over modern/sport?

As a child, I was interested in history, and enjoyed watching historical battle reenactment shows. At around the age of 10, I joined a local karate club, and began to enjoy martial arts. At around the age of 16, I joined a historical battle reenactment society, mainly as an excuse to play with swords. However, after a little while, I lost interest in the show fighting aspect of it, and wanted a more ”correct” way of using the sword.

Then, when I was in my second year at Glasgow University, I found a club that was teaching historical European martial arts, according to historical source material. Initially, due to my previous martial arts training, I didn’t enjoy it very much: the club was still very young as a study group, and the instructors did their best to understand the source material, but I didn’t enjoy learning a random assortment of tricks that tended not to work, mainly because the interpretations were still in their infancy and were not supported by effective body mechanics.

Eventually, in 2010, I decided to start studying the longsword again, with different source material, and I was lucky enough that my first choice of source was one that described principles and how techniques fit together into a system. As a result, I could see that there WAS a system to follow, there WERE a set of guiding principles; even though I didn’t understand how to go any of the techniques, I knew that I could at least work on the gist of the system and fill in the specifics later.

That journey of research, testing, and exploration is still ongoing!

What brought you to become such a prolific author and how did you choose your projects?

Since I was trying to wrap my head around the historical source material anyway, and was taking copious notes, I thought that other people might find this work to be useful. So, once my colleague (Alex Bourdas) and I finished our initial longsword research project, we began to arrange our notes into a cohesive document, and this culminated in our first publication: the AHA German Longsword Study Guide.

By the time this was published, I had begun to enjoy the practice of a variety of other HEMA disciplines, including the Scottish basket-hilted broadsword. I decided to make another study guide, this time for the broadsword. I thought it would be useful for my students to have a published text with history and context, our principal source material, and some salient points for study. I also decided to include my research about singlestick, as this was something that I wanted to know more about myself, yet at the time, there was little by way of modern research published on the subject. And so I came to publish my second book, Scottish Broadsword and British Singlestick.

All of my books have come about because I found researching a subject to be of particularly great interest. My intention with all of my books is to make available the research and information that I wish I could have had access to myself when I began my HEMA studies. This desire and intent has kept me going and has given me the motivation to publish several books, with more in the works!

Do you have a passion for one particular weapon over all the others and if so, why?

The medieval longsword is a wonderful, wonderful kind of sword. It can be found in so many shapes and sizes; and there are also so many different treatises on the use of the longsword that I simply cannot envisage a time when I will no longer have anything to learn about it.

The way of working with the longsword, of holding it and performing techniques, of moving from one action to the next, just speaks to me in a way that no other physical activity has in the past. It allows me to move and to express myself in a way that is deeply meaningful and that is impossible to achieve otherwise. It is just so much FUN to move and to fence with the longsword!

What does your sword training entail and how long do you train?

My typical weekly training involves giving two to three hours of private tuition to students, two to three times a week, and probably half an hour to an hour of assorted solo exercises on a daily basis. For the private tuition, I work on whatever skills are requested by my students, which may sometimes involve some sparring. However, I tend not to do very much sparring on a regular basis, and it’s even more rare that I have an opportunity to use sparring selfishly for my own development, instead of for coaching another person.

For my solo practice, it could be simple repetitions of cuts; it could be simple physical exercises such as push ups or squats, to build or maintain strength; it could be using my MBlades Swing1 with Indian club exercises, to develop musculature around the elbow and shoulder; or it could be stretching in various fashions, to maintain or improve flexibility, but mainly to undo the damage of spending so much time sitting at my computer!

I use my solo practice time each day to keep myself in good and healthy condition. If I begin in good condition, then I will use the time to practise fencing techniques. If I’m not in such great condition, because I have been travelling or sitting too much, then I’ll use the time to deal with these problems and bring myself closer to my usual standard of health.

On quite a regular basis, on average at least once a month, I attend and teach at a national or international HEMA event. This gives me the opportunity to meet and fence with people outwith my usual circles, which is a fantastic opportunity to learn and to increase my skills. It also gives me the chance to chat and discuss ideas with some very knowledgeable people; so many of my significant developments in understanding have come in the bar, after hours, armed with a few pints and engaged in deep discussion! These events tend to be where I receive most input from other people to improve my own fencing skills, so I believe they are a critical part of my own training and development.

I don’t tend to worry too much about competing in tournaments at these events. If I have something I want to test and validate, then sure, I’ll give it a go. But I’m not a very competitive person, and I would much rather talk with people or do some friendly sparring than participate in a tournament. Still, I know that competitions are good for me, and force me to up my game, and I also believe that I owe it to my students to test my skills and interpretations regularly, so that I’m not teaching them any ineffective nonsense. So I do participate in a few tournaments a year, but I will almost never go to an event purely to compete.

Have there been any personal changes to your method/techniques that do not “jive” with what’s written by the masters of the past? If so, can you give us an example?

Over the years, I have found myself doing things a little differently to the instructions in the historical source material. Invariably, this has led to joint pains, muscle pains, injuries, and a lower rate of success in sparring and competition.

Leading to pains and injuries have been concepts such as striking mechanics. For example, in Roworth’s broadsword treatise,2 he describes exactly how to perform a cut. I found myself not quite doing it the way he described; and sure enough, after a few months of this incorrect practice, I developed wrist pains that took the better part of six months to go away. What made the wrist pains go away? The solution was to change my striking mechanics to be exactly what Roworth described, and not to do it “wrong” anymore. That fixed the problem.

A common error with the longsword is either to overcomplicate or to oversimplify an action. The source material tends to describe techniques, principles and sequences in a relatively straightforward fashion, and it tends to make perfect sense if you just do what the book says. If you start adding extra actions, because you find it helps in slow and somewhat cooperative drills, then inevitably it will not work properly in sparring because you have made it too slow and too complicated.

By the same token, if the source says: “do this; do this other thing; then finally, do this third thing”, then there is probably a good reason for that. If you choose to simplify that series of instructions down to just: “do this thing that vaguely resembles the motion of those three instructions”, then you lose some of the important elements of the technique, and it probably won’t work anymore.

So I have found that buckling down and just doing what the sources describe, paying attention to details, but not adding anything of my own, is the best way to achieve success without compromising my joints and health.

For those people interested in learning more about historical sword fighting arts what are the top 3 books (besides your own) would you’d recommend and why?

Tough question. I have quite an extensive library, and I have read many excellent books, so there so many titles I could choose to answer this question. If someone were interested in learning just about any of the medieval or renaissance martial arts, then I would recommend the following resources:

1) B. Ann Tlusty: The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany.3 This is not a HEMA book, as such, but it sets the scene and lays out the context for the historical fencing arts in the Holy Roman Empire in the 15th to 17th centuries. I would go as far as to say that it is impossible to understand 16th century fencing systems (such as that of Joachim Meyer) without first having read this book. There are few books about which I wax lyrical, but this is one of them, and it easily earns first place on this list!

2) D.A. Kinsley: Swordsmen of the British Empire.4 Again, this book sets the scene and provides lots of valuable context, although it is not intended as a HEMA book. It is also not a book that covers medieval or renaissance martial arts; as the title suggests, it is a collection of primary sources and first hand accounts of close quarters combat experienced by men and officers in the service of (and opposed to) the British Empire, in conflicts across the world.

Since so few people today have any real or meaningful experience of violence (which is a good thing), we can fall into traps of imagining a Hollywood style of response of victims to sword actions, and we can very easily build a fantasy world of how effective techniques will be. The reality, as shown in so many of these accounts, is that people can survive the most horrendous wounds (sometimes several at one time), or they can die from the littlest wound. If we want to learn how to fight with swords, I think it is valuable to learn what swords are actually capable of doing, but also what they are not necessarily capable of doing.

3) http://www.wiktenauer.com – I know this is a website and not a book, but it is probably the most valuable resource available to anyone interested in historical European martial arts. It is a crowdsourced, collaborative research project, making available scans, transcriptions, and translations, of hundreds of historical martial arts treatises. It is hosted and sponsored by the HEMA Alliance, an umbrella organisation based in the USA, and it has managed to run some successful crowdfunding campaigns to raise money for purchasing high quality scans from museums and libraries around the world.

Again, I could wax lyrical about the Wiktenauer and how valuable it is, but I think the greatest joy would be visiting the site yourself, finding a treatise that sounds interesting, and seeing what the website has to offer!

What would be your advice to kid, teen or young adult who’s interested in historical fencing but doesn’t have a fencing salle or club nearby?

That is a remarkably common question. My advice would be to decide what it is you want to learn and why you want to learn it.

Do you want to learn to use a specific type of sword, because that kind of sword is really cool and inspires you in some fashion? Then get a book or DVD that will give you a basic understanding of that weapon and system, and start working on it in your back garden! Go through the guards of the system, attempt the cuts and thrusts, and generally just move with the sword in hand. Reach out to your local community and see if anyone would like to practise with you. You don’t need to be a master fencer, or a master teacher; you just have to have a book, arrange meetings, get people to show up, and be one lesson ahead of them so that you can keep everything moving forward.

Or do you want to learn to use a sword (any kind of sword) in general? Then see if there is a local club that does kendo, iaido, or modern fencing, and sign up to that. It might not be HEMA, but it will teach you some useful skills nonetheless. Then, when you feel a little more confident about handling a sword, follow the advice above and reach out to your local community to try and set up a HEMA club.

Another option, if you have money to spend, is to find an established HEMA school with an instructor who has an excellent reputation, and see if you can travel to that school for a week to take some deep and immersive lessons. There is a growing number of professional schools and instructors to be found in North America and Europe, so if you have the money to spend, this course of action will both support a professional HEMA person and will give you a solid grounding in the system that you would like to learn. Thereafter, once you return home, you will know what to practise, what to avoid doing because of risk of injury, and you will have someone to whom you can reach out with questions.

You can also find a Facebook discussion group such as the HEMA Alliance group, the UK HEMA group, or the HEMA International Discussion group, where you can ask questions, or post videos of your practice to ask for feedback. However, bear in mind that Facebook is what it is: a platform where people are encouraged to make fast, throwaway comments; that is not designed for finding archived material or reading discussions that have taken place previously. Although joining a Facebook discussion group can be useful, it is by no means as useful as developing a real friendship or working relationship with a well-respected professional instructor.

Who is your favorite swordsman of history and why?

My favourite swordsman from history would probably be either Donald McBane or Donald Macleod. They were both soldiers in Highland regiments of the British army, on the cusp of the 17th and 18th centuries, and they both left memoirs.

McBane wrote The Expert Sword-Man’s Companion in 1728, including his story, a treatise on artillery and gunnery, and various short treatises on fencing with a variety of weapons.5 If ever there was to be a Hollywood film made about HEMA, it should be a film about McBane’s life! He was a soldier, a thief, a pimp, a gambler, and a fencing master. He fought in several duels, in many brawls, and in a variety of pitched battles and sieges; he took many wounds, was blown up a few times, and still kept going. At the age of 63, he fought his final duel: a prizefight against a young Irish gladiator. Needless to say, McBane won this fight, and returned happily to his retirement.

William Thompson was Macleod’s biographer (as far as we can determine); and in 1791, he recorded Macleod’s reminiscences in a book with the rather long title: Memoirs of the Life and Gallant Exploits of the Old Highlander, Serjeant Donald Macleod, who, Having returned, Wounded, with the Corpse of General Wolfe, from Quebec, was Admitted an Out-Pensioner of Chelsea Hospital, in 1759; and is now in the CIII.d Year of His Age.6 Macleod was a stonemason’s apprentice, and then he ran away to become a soldier. He fought across Europe and North America. His exploits are quite fantastic, and while it is entirely possible that some of the stories are embellished, there is evidence to suggest that he was a real person, that he did indeed serve in the army, and therefore that he probably did fight in the battles in which he claims to have fought – or at least, some of them. Once Hollywood has finished making a film about McBane, I think Macleod would be an excellent choice for their second foray into the life of HEMA characters.

If you had the chance to be trained by 3 masters of the past, who would you choose and why?

I would probably choose Sigmund Ringeck, Hans Talhoffer, and either Johannes Lecküchner or Andre Lignitzer.

Ringeck was a member of the “Society of Liechtenauer”, and wrote glosses for Liechtenauer’s Zettel, the somewhat-cryptic verses that set out and recorded Liechtenauer’s system for fighting. He clearly understood Liechtenauer’s method, and was also able to add some of his own material to the system in a fashion that fits quite well and does not seem foreign or out of place at all. He was the fencing master to the Dukes of Bavaria, so clearly he was a skilled and valued instructor. He would be able to teach me about the core Liechtenauer method of fencing with the longsword, which is my principal area of study.

Talhoffer was a shady figure. He was a fencing master who taught people how to fight in preparation for judicial duels, and also provided training to some noble families. He authored several manuscripts on the subject of fighting with a variety of weapons. He was also an assassin and had more than one run-in with the law.7 He was clearly no academic studying just the theory of fighting: he dealt with the gritty details and fallouts on a day-to-day basis, and I think it would be fascinating to see the difference in his approach to fencing and violence compared with the approach (and health and safety consciousness) of modern practitioners.

Lecküchner was a priest who authored several manuscripts on fencing with the messer, the long knife that was often worn as a sidearm by civilians. Lignitzer was a fencing master who authored several treatises on wrestling, sword and buckler, fighting in armour, and fighting with the dagger. Both of these masters would be able to teach me valuable lessons about fencing with these weapons, and either would be an excellent complement to the team made up by Ringeck and Talhoffer.

We are now in the New Year. What resolutions do you have and/or goals for the year?

I spent most of the last two years not working particularly closely with the longsword source material. Instead, I tried to improve my fundamental skills, so that I would be able to perform the techniques and sequences described in these treatises. I had realised that while I knew a lot of theory, I couldn’t apply enough of it effectively when I was sparring. So instead of continuing to work on complicated things that I couldn’t make work, I decided to step back and work on the basics by improving myself as a fencer. I gave a presentation about this approach at the Iron Gate Exhibition event in 2015.8

This plan has worked well, and I am now considerably more competent than I was previously. I can apply more techniques in sparring, and I understand better what I need to do in order to make things work.

Therefore, my plan for 2017 is to return to the sources and spend more time involved with the books. I feel it is important to “touch base” with the sources, again and again, to ensure that we stay in the realm of recreating a martial art as accurately as possible, so that we do not stray into the realm of making stuff up. While some people enjoy making stuff up, in my opinion HEMA relies on source material.9 As I answered in question 5 above, disregarding the advice in the sources has led to pains and injuries, and to less effective performance in sparring and tournaments. So, why would I disregard source material and accept pain and injuries, and willingly choose a weaker and less effective performance of technical skills, if I can just follow what the sources say and avoid the pain and injury, and achieve better results in my fencing?

So, a return to the source material, spending a bit more time with the books again, letting new ideas and information percolate and then become part of my overall understanding; this would be my plan for the coming year.

Bonus Question

If you were a video game or fantasy character what weapon, magic and special skill would you possess?

I would have a sword, probably a longsword. It’s just too much fun not to have it in this sort of setting! I would have the special skill of finding enough trouble to make the story dramatic, but of not getting myself into inextricable or irretrievable situations. That would keep my life interesting without being too worried about dying. I think that sounds pretty good, on the whole!

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1 A sword with an extremely short blade, yet weighted to give the correct feeling of weight and balance of a real sword – very useful for training indoors with low ceilings! http://www.mblades.com/swing/

2 Charles Roworth; Ben Kerr and Keith Farrell (eds.). The Art of Defence on Foot, 1798. Glasgow: Fallen Rook Publishing, October 2014.

3 B. Ann Tlusty. The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany: Civic Duty and the Right of Arms. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

4 D.A. Kinsley. Swordsmen of the British Empire. 1st ed. British Sword Fighters series, part 3. Lulu, April 2013.

5 Donald McBane; Ben Kerr (ed.). The Expert Sword-Man’s Companion, 1728. Glasgow: Fallen Rook Publishing, January 2015.

6 Keith Farrell (ed.). Memoirs of Serjeant Donald Macleod, 1791. Glasgow: Fallen Rook Publishing, May 2016.

7 “Hans Talhoffer: A Historical Martial Arts Blog by Jens P. Kleinau.” https://talhoffer.wordpress.com/category/a-life-like-that-of-talhoffer/

8 “IGX 2015 Lecture: Training Fundamentals, by Keith Farrell.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=voc_Txu7fYM

9 Keith Farrell. “What is HEMA to me?” Encased in Steel, 10th June 2016. http://www.encasedinsteel.co.uk/2016/06/10/what-is-hema-to-me/

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