The Knightly Knife

I had a conversation with someone a while back about Game of Thrones.  They were pointing out to me the “incorrect” way they wore their swords, saying that they were being worn too high on the waist.  I had another problem with how the swords were being worn around the castle, namely that they were being worn at all.  It seems that the main characters in particular wear a sword all the damn time.  Although this is a minor gripe with an excellent series, let me tell you that swords are (in general) uncomfortable.  Historically there were of course situations where you would want to have a sword close at hand, but in your own house was probably not one of them.

“Ah,” I hear you say, “but what about assassination?  Surely you would be worried about your enemies cutting you down while you were unarmed.”  Well, that’s certainly a good point, but the fact of the matter is a sword is a terrible assassin’s weapon.  First, it’s all but impossible to conceal.  Second, you have to be able to draw it and strike without anybody noticing.  So no, I don’t think people would have been terribly worried about being assassinated via sword.  I’m sure it happened, mind you, I just don’t think it was that common.  Even in times where a sword was considered part of a gentleman’s dress (mostly after the 16th century) most accounts tell of sword fights and not sword “drive by stabbings.”  Having said that, important to remember that there was a time that everyone carried a knife.

The modern idea of honour s a funny thing.  The thought in these times is that knifing an enemy is a low thing to do.  Something an honourable knight wouldn’t have to worry about.  Back in the sword days this may not have been the case.  From some of the tales of the time that have survived we can see that if someone wronged you, revenge was inevitable and the exact means was left to your own devices.  Combine that with a culture that virtually demands that any adult male carry a knife and you have a recipe for violence.  Knives of the time were tools as much as weapons and always by your side.  In fact the Saxons share a name with their ever present blade, the Saex, as seen here in Hanweii’s replica:

I figured this space needed more saex appeal.

I figured this space needed more saex appeal.

Knives as an ever present companion are a staple of European society and enough people carry knives today to be considered a still living tradition.  In a way we owe it to ourselves to be proficient in knife fighting if we plan on carrying a knife.  A weapon we don’t know how to use belongs to our opponent.  But let’s look again at the knives in olden days.  We’ve mentioned the saex.  In Fiore’s time the rondel was the dagger of choice.  There was also the ballock knife which later e

volved into the Scottish dirk.  From the surviving manuals we can see that these all had a similar shape and were used in a similar way.  The sword and knife company Cold Steel makes some good rubber training knives and a training dagger that works really well so long as you take off the large and slightly goofy looking cross guard.  It’s worth noting that from my research almost every dagger in history didn’t have a cross guard at all.  Some did, but by and large knives are most useful without one.

DSCF1310

The bottom one is my preferred option.

Dagger play is a tricky thing.  An easy trap to fall into, that I’ve seen happen many times is teaching new students that Renaissance dagger is exactly the same as modern knife.  I’m not going to waste any more time talking about this except to say “don’t, unless you know exactly what you are doing.”  Make it clear to students that there is a difference and warn them off real world confrontations.  One of the biggest things to keep in mind is that knives now are far sharper than they were.  Thus, almost all attacks were delivered with the point.  Daggers are also much bigger than a standard pocket knife.  This totally changes the game.  It’s just such a shame that knives are too often seen as weapons to be feared these days.  In Scottish society carrying a dirk was a sign of adulthood, and I don’t think this is without merit.  I prefer people carrying knives to guns, after all.  I have heard far too many accounts of people for whom there is no intermediate step between “I feel threatened in this situation” and pulling a weapon.  At least with a knife there is a chance for defend yourself.  So, as always, stay safe and don’t get in any knife fights.

People Are People (and Always Have Been)

“When you wake up in the morning tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly.  They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil.  But I have seen the beauty of good and the ugliness of evil and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind and possessing a share of the divine.  And so none of them can hurt me.  No one can implicate me in ugliness.  Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him.  We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower.  To obstruct each other is unnatural.  To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions”

-Marcus Aurelius, Circa 170 AD

I don’t think there’s anyone today that couldn’t stand to take these words to heart.  They are as true now as they apparently were almost two thousand years ago.  I’m not trying to preach here, or rather more accurately I’m trying not to (see the difference?) but the Stoics had some fine coping mechanisms.  At any rate the book “Meditations” by my favourite Roman Emperor is filled with similar advice for handling people who are small minded and petty.  Reading Aurelius I am struck by the fact then when he is giving examples of people acting in a frustrating way I can immediately think of several examples of this from my own experience.

I remember one of my old history teachers discussing the old Greek Comedy called Lysistrata.  The details of this play aren’t terribly important right now, but his attitude towards it is.  He called the humour in the play primitive, which seemed to be overly dismissive to me.  He further explained that “people of the time had a simple grasp of humour.”  Yes, Lysistrata has some pretty low brow stuff, but take a quick glance at the various parody movies being made today and try telling me how much our sense of humour has evolved in two thousand years.  Besides, turning once again to Aurelius, we see in his writings numerous examples of a rather sharp wit.

So we have two examples, one concrete and one suppositional, from history which supports the theory presented in the title of this piece.  It might be thought that were you to magically transport Marcus Aurelius to our time he would be amazed at the changes society has wrought.  It is my feeling, however, that once he got over the initial shock at the technological advances made, he would see people around him acting in a way very familiar to him.

So, since it seems people as a whole haven’t changed all that much in the last few millennia, and almost certainly longer.  Because of this we can make certain predictions on how people will act.  We can also choose how to react to them.  Petty people will be petty and although we can’t hope to control their actions we do have control over our reactions.  “Choose not to be harmed and you haven’t been,” as Aurelius says.

Sympathy for the Devil: Are Cupcakes an Acceptable Evil?

I have from time to time and often with some venom, declared my feelings of animosity towards cupcakes.  I think maybe it’s high time we unpack this a little.  Cupcakes are evil.  Pure evil.  And like so much that is evil, they are very good at pretending they’re not and deceiving people into believing that is the case.  I suppose, though, I can’t make claims like that without backing them up just a little.

I remember a time before I had my revelation.  I remember trying several good quality cupcakes and wondering why I was so disappointed by them.  They were almost painfully sweet, with far too much icing for any rational person to feel was necessary.  It got me thinking about my sense of disappointment.  I had a vague notion that cupcakes were good.  At least I thought I remembered them being decent.  I found that, given deep reflection I couldn’t remember a specific example of a good cupcake.  This is when I first started to be aware of the sinister nature of the cupcake.  Cupcakes are (as a rule) too damn sweet and the best cupcakes I have had are the ones that move farther away from sweet.  Who knows, maybe somewhere out there is a truly magnificent cupcake made of the mythical flavour of umami.

Cupcakes also require little skill in their presentation, which is (I think, anyway) why there are so many fancy plates and stands devoted solely to displaying them.  Where this is okay is for the “casual baker.”  If you bake, I’m happy.  If it takes cupcakes to get you to bake then so be it.  But, it would make me even happier if your goal was to move beyond them.  I have a suggested alternative, even.  You can make fully layered cakes in miniature form.  This might entail more effort, but the end result is so much more impressive.

So, although cupcakes are the tool of the devil I think for now peaceful coexistence is the best route.  And if my ire seems less than powerful, it is only because the confectionery world is under an even greater threat.  It is imperative, I feel that we all join together to stamp out the Elder Evil that is cakepops.

Fighting Scots

The Scottish have something of a reputation for fighting.  Back in the 18th Century this was also the case.  I think it’s no coincidence that the Romans built a wall to keep the Scots (okay, the Picts actually) out of their territory.  Sadly, there isn’t much in the way of recorded Scottish swordplay and what does exist has been diluted by English sword masters pretending to teach a Scottish system.  Hey, this was good business on their part as they were simply marketing to what was in demand.

Probably the best source we do have of Scottish swordplay comes form a man named Thomas Page.  Mr. Page was an English artillery officer who wrote a very brief summary of Scottish highland broadsword play as he observed it. Now, I am loathe to describe any system of martial arts as being superior to any other, but Page would probably not have agreed.  He saw the Highlander fight first hand and saw them as true masters of the sword.

So what made the Highlanders “better” than their English contemporaries?  Well I have a couple of theories.   I think the biggest thing was training.  For an Englishman to become a soldier was a career choice.  For a Scottish Highlander, being a warrior was cultural.  Sword training began at a very young age.  So when matching a lifelong swordsman against someone with only a few months or even weeks of training, there is really no contest.

English Broadsword of this era also had some pretty strong deficiencies as well.  As much as I love the swordplay as practiced by masters Henry Angelo and John Taylor, their system is highly derivative of the point oriented smallsword way of fighting.  This translated in to a very linear fight.  When you think and fight exclusively in straight lines you are opening yourself up to complete decimation by a swordsman used to using oblique angles and circular movement.  Guess how the Scots liked to fight?

Outside Guards: Smallsword, English Broadsword, Highland Broadsword

Outside Guards: Smallsword, English Broadsword, Highland Broadsword

We also have some body mechanic issues as well.  Being so close to the smallsword system, English broadsword was focused of keeping the sword hilt between you and your opponent at all times and almost exclusively relied on wrist powered cuts.  While these cuts are perfectly effective when delivered properly, they were far less devastating than the elbow and shoulder cuts that were favoured by the Highlanders.  It was a trade, really, between the stronger defence of the English Style and the more powerful attack of the Scottish.  Of course the Highlanders compensated quite well by using a device that was out of style the rest of the world over: the shield.DSCF1267

So despite not having access to any true first hand sources of uniquely Scottish swordplay, we still have a good idea of exactly how the Highlanders would have fought.  It’s a fascinating study that I am just getting to the meat of and an area I plan on training in for a long time to come.

Cookies With Your Breakfast?

How many folk, do you think, made a new years resolution to eat better?  And how many of them do you think have thus far failed to do anything about it?  Most would be my guess.  So, for the sole purpose of teasing these poor saps, let’s introduce a perfect accompaniment to our morning coffee.  Now me, I have always enjoyed dipping cookies in my coffee regardless of the time of day.  What?  I’m an adult, I can have cookies when I want.  There is a cookie that is particularly well suited to this exact purpose.  The Biscotti.

I once heard it joked that “biscotti” is Italian for “stale cookie” and in all honesty that’s not far off from the truth.  Biscotti are baked twice, the second time at a lower temperature for the purpose of drying them out which, in a sense, makes them stale.  Fortunately they are all the more delicious for it.

IngredientsDSCF1234

400g All Purpose Flour
150g Sugar
15g Baking Powder
3 Eggs
100g Sliced Almonds
120g Canola Oil

Method

Mix all the ingredients together until a dense dough forms.  Roll said dough into a log and flatten somewhat.  Bake at 350° for half an hour then allow to cool.  Slice about 3/4 of an inch thick, lay on a baking sheet and sprinkle with cinnamon.  Bake again at 300° for ten minutes, flip the biscotti and bake for another ten minutes.

So enjoy your breakfast cookies.  Just don’t tell your mother I gave you permission.DSCF1251

Circular Logic

The shortest distance between two opponents is a straight line.  The straightest line is often not the most ideal.  It is the easiest to predict and the easiest to defend against.  Unfortunately it is also the most instinctual path to take.  Historically most instructors in swordplay have focused training in a less direct way.  Often times you have to go a little into subtext but most Masters preferred a more circular path of attack.  Even the act of the lunge, though it seems a linear attack, is often best performed at an angle.

Perhaps the system that best exemplifies this circular motion is Destreza.  This quintessential Spanish rapier system is the most mathematical style of fencing I am aware of.  The art of it lies in the fact that a lesson in Destreza is a lesson in geometry.  I’ve heard tell that at the time Spanish fencers were thought of as practitioners of black magic in their time.  Whether or not that is true, the key to their success was in in moving circularly when many of the rival systems were very much more linear.

Going back a ways, we see the same thing with the longsword.  Though footwork is more in the context than written clearly, we see that very basic attacks are so simple to defeat when delivered in a straight line and become a sudden challenge when delivered with the intent of circling your opponent.

So, on to the crux of things.  My own personal training goal for this month shall be to focus on the circle.  Lessons I teach will be focus on this type of movement and my own solo training will focus in footwork as well.  My research goals will be met by working on that Destreza manual I’ve been meaning to get to and experimenting with the principles therein.  Now, off to the books with me.

Le Pain by Numbers

Home bakers are more than common.  There is after all a reason why every house I have ever been in has an oven.  The lucky ones even have two.  Nevertheless a person can go their whole lives making chocolate chip cookies out of a package and never know the divine pleasure of home baked bread.  To this end I thought I provide a step by step guide to making almost every kind of bread.  First know that truly excellent bread is not easy.  Secondly, it is of the utmost importance that this doesn’t discourage you.  Though it can take a while to develop a feel for bread and its dough, the journey is more than worth the time and energy required.  Please keep in mind that the difference between mediocre bread and excellent bread is the experience of the baker.  So, without any more ado, great and simple hamburger buns in 7 simple steps. Continue reading