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October 1st, 2013

What is an expert?

It is all very fashionable to denigrate experts. We’re all equal, I’m sure. Certainly, as a sometime instructor of historical swordsmanship and the various knightly fighting arts, I’m endlessly less than amused by the desire of various people to tell me that their opinion about a technique or a form is worth listening to.

In the past two weeks, I had the pleasure of attending WMAW, a western martial arts symposium (and tournament) in Racine Wisconsin. There, instructors from all over the world allowed students of the arts to sample techniques in rapier, sidesword, longsword, spear, poleaxe, and even the Italian folding knife of the nineteenth century.

And then, after all that, I got to host Guy Windsor, of the School of European Swordsmanship. Guy is the most expert swordsman I know–and I know several hundred very competent swordsmen. He is, in fact, an expert.

He’s an expert–like Leo Todeschini at Tod’s Stuff and Jiri Klipac at The Armoury of Jiri Klipac and Tasha Dandelion Kelly at cotte simple because he can not only perform all of the techniques of historical swordsmanship, he can explain the bio-mechanics of the actions and he can teach students of the meanest understanding–to paraphrase Patrick O’Brian. Tod understands blades–not just how they feel and what they look like, but how they are worn, suspended, drawn and used. Jiri understands armour–how it looks, and how it works, and how it fits in three dimensions. How to make the curves fit your body and still retain the aesthetic of the period, rather than a modern aesthetic. Tasha understands the intimacies of cut and construction and the techniques by which those intimacies are achieved–a level of expertise far beyond mere ‘costuming.’

I’m quite fond of experts, myself, but to get the most out of them–to get anything at all out of them–requires an effort of humility. Perhaps that’s what we find hard. Sometimes I do, too. It can be very hard to say “I’ve studied this for years, but compared to you, I really don’t know anything.’ That’s antithetical to our societies take on information and info acquisition. Information, after all, should be free. And our abilities should be equal. But–they are not. Sometimes I argue with experts, and mostly, I find myself saying ‘I know something, too!’ when I should be listening.

The dedicated men and women who are truly expert preserve something precious. They are–at least, all four of the experts I have named–preserving skills that would otherwise be lost to us, and to history.

And of course–history matters!

June 24th, 2013

Fact and Fiction

I was lucky enough to spend most of the last month traveling to the places where my novels happen. I fought in a Medieval Tournament in Verona, Italy and I shot arrows from a fourteenth century fortification in Thrace built by John Cantacuzenos, I stood in a church built by Alexios Comnena and saw my first Altichiero painting ‘in person’ rather than in an art book. My family was sculled through the canals of Venice while we looked for Tom Swan and Alessandro di bembo, and then we followed William Gold across Italy, and then we watched the Persian Fleet form up off Samothrace, seen by Arimnestos.

Europe has a wealth of history that is almost unimaginable to a boy who grew up with the Battle of Gettysburg as ‘old.’ At one point my friend Giannis took me to a set of Turkish baths — from a hot volcanic spring, of course — that are still in use. You can all but see the Janissaries coming in to bathe. But in the walls, and all around on the ground, are scraps of another past—Byzantine crosses, Roman statuary, a dedication from 300 BCE and an Archaic column. All within fifty feet of the baths. Those baths have been in business for a LONG time.

East of Alexandrouplois in Thrace, we drove through the verdant countryside—richer than Boeotia—and I suddenly saw why the Greeks worked to hard to take it from the Thracians. The Evros River delta is some of the finest farmland in the whole Mediterranean, with small, protected valleys and easy access to the sea. The land it self is so valuable that I had to stop taking photographs of ancient ruins—because everyone, from the Archaic Greeks right through to the modern Greeks, has built something to protect or claim it, from hilltop fortresses to modern concrete bunkers for tanks. As a novelist—I honestly think I couldn’t have fully expressed the richness of the area, its value, and it’s historical role without going there.

Likewise, Verona, in Italy—a city with its fourteenth-century core beautifully preserved, so that you can wander about and easily imagine what William Gold saw in 1380. The magnificent striped buildings—the incredible wonder that is Saint Anastasia…

The next time someone tells you that there were ‘Dark Ages,’ toss out the following factoid: In about 700 AD, the citizens of the Commune of Verona formed an association—actually a corporation—to protect and maintain the Roman Amphitheater. They did a wonderful job—it’s still there, hosting opera. Think of the sheer number of conquerors and cultural waves that have passed over Northern Italy since 700 AD.

That’s history!

April 26th, 2013

Nihil humanum mihi alienum est

It is fairly trite to announce to people, in the wake of the collapse of a garment building in Bangladesh, that we all live in the same neighborhood — that what happens in Bangladesh is part of our lives. So trite, in fact, that some people wish to ignore it.

Let’s put this in perspective. First, right now—if you buy clothes made at Joe Fresh or Walmart — you are wearing something made by a man, woman, or child who died — horribly — and to no point — so that you could have cheap clothing. And so that someone else could make a tidy profit on their poverty and desperate need for wages. And every pundit in the world is saying the same. The thing that annoys me is that so many people can understand the overseas roots of — say — terrorism. We can at least guess at the desperate anger of Afghans or Chechins — even when we disagree utterly. I think it is ironic that we have earned the cultural ire of part of the Islamic world when, in many ways, the West genuinely sought to help — while in Bangladesh and China, we have, in fact, directly oppressed the population with rapacious economic policies. We are, in fact, responsible.

And while we visit the issues of current policies on future history, I’d like to remind my readers that the ruler of North Korea may be loathsome, but he is not merely posturing. He sits in a capital that was once won from the Japanese in battle; his country was occupied by Japan for many years, both recently (1930s) and in the 16th century. Both he and his Chinese masters (then, and now) fear the aggression of Japan — and Japan’s allies. All of North Korea’s actions have to be seen through the lens of history. That doesn’t make the policies less barbaric — merely more comprehensible. History matters because it allows us to understand why other people do what they do. Perhaps in Bangladesh, someone is reading about the effects of the Industrial Revolution on the working poor in Britain. To try and understand.

February 12th, 2013


In the Middle Ages, Lent was a major period of fasting and renewal. Many things were not done during Lent—tournaments, for one. There were more fast days—depending on observance, either six in a row, or forty in a row. (Some Christians celebrated Sundays as a ‘day off.’ Some people had indulgences that allowed them to eat meat on fast days—it was a very human, if not humane, system). Christians were also supposed to pray—rendering justice to God—as well as give alms (rendering justice unto their neighbors). It was popular, and remains so, to give something up.

Despite the fact that I’m about to start writing a novel set in early Classical Greece—about the battle of Artemesium—I’m taking those forty days and giving up the internet. So I won’t be on the Hippeis forums, and I won’t be on Facebook and I will only check emails to make a minimal response to work related e-mails. Please bear with me. I’ll write more (good for my readers) and I’ll also, I think, be happier.

I’m afraid I’ve come to see the world of Social Media as largely an excuse for angry people to be angry without a social responsibility to hold their peace. Frankly, there aren’t enough cute kittens, babies and good reenacting stuff on Facebook to counter-balance the angry insecurities of a great many people.

I will save about an hour a day. I may even find time to pray. 🙂