Swordplay and Shakespeare: Who Could Ask For Anything More?

C.C. Humphreys dressed as John Lawley.

I recently had the pleasure of attending the book launch for Shakespeare’s Rebel and am wondering if all book launches are this much fun. I had never been to one before so when the opportunity arose I took it.

The event was co-hosted by the author C.C. Humphreys and Academie Duello in the main tent at Bard on the Beach in Vancouver which meant that this wasn’t your average ‘author standing in front of a group of people reading excerpts from their book’ book launch. Not to say that wouldn’t have been enough. Humphreys is thoroughly engaging when he reads and at one point had the audience so enthralled that we were all willing to shout “bollocks to the bard!” at his request.

The addition of a historic swordplay group to the evening meant that I could indulge in my other passion with equal fervour. Devon Boorman, the director of Academie Duello, gave a lecture about the role of the Globe theatre and the prize fights of the London Master of Defense in Shakespeare’s day while members of the group demonstrated the use of various weapons of the time. The lecture ended with a modern prize fight (i.e. not choreographed) for two of the Duello members. This was probably my favourite part as I had a front row seat and could indulge in  a little amateur analysis of their techniques.

Another highlight of the evening for me was the lecture given by Bard on the Beach’s own fight choreographer, Nick Harrison, in which he describes the work that goes into staging the final fight scene from Hamlet when all the stage direction given in the play is ‘the fight’. He explained how certain lines in the play give clues as to how one might stage the fight so as to not have just a couple of actors standing there poking at each other with weapons but to have a scene that engages the audience as well. As Hamlet is being performed this year we were able to witness for ourselves the result of Mr. Harrison’s work. Yay, more swordplay!

The evening ended with Bard on the Beach’s artistic director reading a passage from the book and one final fight scene in which Humphreys himself took part before we all moved outside to have our books signed by the author. What a great experience! I hope I have a chance to do something like this again.

If you would like to see some pictures of the event C.C. Humphries has posted some on his webpage here and also shared his thoughts on the evening here.

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Rijksmuseum Renovations Finally Finished

After a ten year renovation the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is re-opening today. What better way to promote this than with a Rembrandt inspired flash mob!

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April 13, 2013 · 6:00 am

Sewing in the Dark

I have been working on some thread covered buttons for my new outfit and have come to a bit of a revelation. I’ve found that sitting at a table in the dark with only a desk lamp for illumination has really helped me get better at making these damnable things. As I was sitting here this evening a painting I remember seeing in the past came to my mind. It is one where a woman is sewing at night using a pitcher of water as a magnifying glass. I always assumed that this was a seamstress trying to get some extra work done in the evening. But what if it were simply the fact that sewing this way is more efficient? Especially if one is working on fidgety little things like thread covered buttons or lace. I know that I have found this to be the case and that’s my revelation. Sewing in the dark like this has really helped me focus on what I am doing. It has also made it easier. I’m not constantly straining to see what I am doing. At some point I am going to have to do some research to see if this is the case. If you have any insight into this please leave a comment below.

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Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century Fashion in Detail

This sumptuously illustrated book reveals the decorative seams, exquisite stitching, voluptuous drapery, strict corseting and slashing and stamping that make up the clothing in the V&A’s superlative seventeenth and eighteenth-century fashion collection. Using an authoritative text, exquisite colour photography and line drawings of complete garments, the reader is allowed the unique opportunity to look closely at clothing often too fragile to be on display.

My copy arrived in the post today. I had forgotten just how beautiful this book is!

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Diary of a 17th Century Dutch Outfit – The Proem

I am going to be teaching at a local Academy in November so that means that I just have to have a new outfit! I am embarrassed to say that it has been far too long since I treated myself to one.

Copyright – Rijksmuseum

 This dashing fellow is Lt. Lucas Jacobsz. Rotgans (detail from Thomas de Keyser’s The Militia Company of Captain Allaert Cloeck, 1632). He cuts a fine figure doesn’t he? His outfit, althouhg a bit dated in 1632, was popular in the Netherlands in the 1620’s and nowhere else it seems. I’ve always been particularly drawn to the style of this ensemble so I think that I will try my hand at making it.

As I stated in a previous post the first step is always to do some research.

Oh who am I kidding?

The first step for me is to do a lot of research!

I can’t help it.

I’m a research junkie.

Fortunately, being the junkie that I am, most of the research for the outfit has already been done so completing the outfit on time shouldn’t be a problem.

I won’t bore you with all the research now (that’s material for another post) but if you have any information about Lt. Rotgans’ outfit please feel free to leave a comment below.

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Rawlings Synthetic Broadsword – First Impressions

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

I recently acquired a couple of Rawlings synthetic broadswords from Purpleheart Armoury and thought that I would share my first impression of them with you.

When the box arrived I felt like a young boy at Christmas. I had been looking forward to these swords since the moment I ordered them. I have to say that my excitement was well founded.

Like most toys some assembly is required.

The swords are made up of four parts: blade, hilt, slide-on grips and pommel. The quality of the construction of each piece is quite good and nothing feels cheap in any way.

The first thing I noticed once the swords were assembled was how much they weighed. For a nylon sword it has an exceptionally good heft to it thanks to the metal rod than runs down the centre of the blade and through the handle to give the pommel something to attach to. This weight coupled with good balance and I was smiling like a Cheshire cat.

I only had a couple of minor issues with the swords at the beginning. Both of which related to the hilt.

My fist was the size of the hilt itself. I have hands that tend toward the large side to begin with and for practice I wear padded Kevlar re-inforced gloves so I need a pretty beefy hilt to get my hand into. Although not as large as I would like, the hilt is big enough to fit my gloved hand but there’s no room to spare. A slightly larger hilt would be nice.

Doesn't look too small does it?

No it's not Darth Vader.

The other issue I had with the hilt were its edges. As the hilt is molded nylon the edges are a bit sharp and can be uncomfortable on bare hands when they contact. Of course this ceases to be an issue when I put on a pair of gloves.

I said they were minor issues.

Seriously I had to come up with something to critique otherwise it wouldn’t be a very good review.

These swords are great!

I spent a half an hour the other night smacking them against a wooden pell pole because none of my friends were available and by the end I was euphoric. The weight and balance of these swords make throwing cuts almost effortless. The solid ‘whump’ as the sword hit the wood made me giddy (even now writing this I’m getting giddy again). I never felt like I was going to damage the sword no matter how hard I hit the pell.

The blades seem to stand up quite well against rough handling. After my short practice you could hardly tell that it had even been used. I’ll be interested to see what they will look like in a couple of months.

Eventually I was able to get an hour of time with a friend doing some drills to see how the swords handle. My pleasure at having bought these sword was not diminished at all. There was almost no glancing with hard parries and once again the weight of the swords made me forget that I wasn’t working with my metal backsword.

I can see why Rawling’s synthetic longswords have been all the rage among the Liechtenauer/Fiore groups.

At $62 plus S&H, taxes, etc. this is an amazing practice sword. I’m going to be using mine as much as possible over the next few months to see how it will hold up to use. Even so a replacement blade is only $40.

Do you have any experience with this or any of the other swords from Rawlings? If so, leave a comment below to let me know.

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You Need to go to Barkerville

I recently dragged my family to Barkerville.

You need to go there if for no other reason than to visit a place where your family can spend a couple of days without you hearing those dreadful words: Dad I’m bored.

Not once.


Barkerville has it all.

Action – you can have a ride on the top of a real stagecoach.

Adventure – you can pan for gold, visist an old cemetery and did I mention the stagecoach?

Comedy – the Gold Rush Revue at the Theatre Royal is a great variety show and only one of four shows to choose from.

There’s even a bottomless cup of coffee (just ask at C. Strouss & Co.).

It’s better than a Harry Potter movie……well it’s cheaper than a Harry Potter movie.

Speaking of which (being cheap not Mr. Potter) when you do go make sure to stop and buy your tickets at the Wells information centre. You’ll get a discount on admission and your second day for free.

St. Saviour's Church, Barkerville, BC

For those of you who haven’t been following my lead up to this trip, Barkerville is an historic townsite that consists of 120+ heritage buildings dating from the 1860’s through the 1930’s.

Almost all the buildings have been kitted out with artifacts to show how they would have looked originally. Some you can walk through while others you can only view from the outside. There’s a working blacksmith shop and water wheel.  The town boasts the oldest Masonic Lodge in British Columbia. My daughters’ favourite was the schoolhouse where they were treated to an 1860’s style school lesson.

As with most historic sites there are living history interpreters milling about in the streets and the shops acting out scenes from the history of the town all day. Even better is the fact that these scenes progress in time as the day progresses. So the tour of the town in the morning is guided by townsfolk from the 1860’s and by the end of the day you are hearing about what Barkerville was like in the 1930’s.

My favourite interpretation was the one at the Richfield Courthouse where I was so drawn in by the interpreter that I felt as though I were listening to Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie himself tell us about his life as the first Chief Justice of British Columbia. It was well worth the 1.6 km hike to get there.

If you are the type who likes to rough it there are three campgrounds nearby that are more than adequate. The one we stayed in had showers, a playground and a reconstruction of an 1860’s miner’s campsite. One warning though if you are going to camp stock up in Quesnel as it is the closest place with a real grocery store.

If you’d rather be catered to there are two B&B’s on Barkerville’s main street. One of them, the St. George Hotel, is in a restored saloon/brothel for that true gold rush experience.

Either way Barkerville is well worth the visit.

You need to go there.

If you’ve already been let me know what you liked most about Barkerville in the comments below.

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Are Historical Novels Worth Reading?

For about a year now I have been listening to, and enjoying, the Living History Podcast. They are produced by a couple of re-enactors/living historians from the East Coast. The podcasts have been going for a couple of years so there are a few old ones to listen to.

It was during one of these older podcasts when Stephen and Alena were discussing the relative merits of historical fiction that something I have always been struggling with resurfaced: are historical novels really worth reading?

During the podcast Stephen quoted a PBS interview of Bernard Cornwell during which Cornwell discusses the Afterwards that are to be found at the end of his novels and a novelist’s responsibility to history.

I think those afterwords are absolutely necessary, because I am not an historian; I am a storyteller. Whenever the demands of the story clash with the dictate of real history, the story is going to win, because my job is to entertain; it’s not to educate. But I do understand that for many people, as it was for me when I was young, historical novels are a gateway to history; and they will persuade people, I hope, to go on to read the real history. I think that once you finish a book, it’s incumbent upon the historical novelist to tell people where he changed history and maybe why; and also where they can go to discover more about the period. So, yes, I do think that my job is to serve history and to serve historians — but to do it by doing a song and dance.

Firstly, I have to admit that Bernard Cornwell is one of my favourite authors. I have read with great delight every novel that he has written. His Sharpe series got me hooked. Currently I am waiting for the latest novel in his Saxon Stories series to be published.

Secondly, I have to admit that historical fiction is my guilty pleasure; it’s about all that I read. It was for this reason that the podcast resonated with me. I was reminded of a blog post that I had come across in which the author decries historical fiction.

In her post ‘Why I no longer read historic fiction’, Magistra et Mater states that although she had done so in the past, she finds that now she no longer finds pleasure in reading historical fiction. Her reasoning for this is that the anachronisms in dialogue and social attitudes gets in the way of her suspension of disbelief. This is more than likely a common issue with people who, having spent so much time researching a specific topic/area, are too close to or too well versed on the subject matter to enjoy the novel. The former occurred for me when I picked up Arturo Perez-Reverte’s Captain Alatriste.

The problem for me was that Captain Alatriste (this is the novel’s main character in case you hadn’t realized) is a Spanish soldier fighting in the Netherlands during the Eighty Years’ War. As such he is, at least in my eyes, one of the ‘bad guys’.

Perhaps a little clarification is in order. I have spent the past few years researching the Eighty Years’ War from the Dutch point of view. In light of this I tend to view anything Spanish in the late 16th- and early 17th-century as being ‘bad’. This made reading the novel awkward especially when a character would expound on the Dutch or the Netherlands in a derogatory manner. I was able to get around my bias however, and found the series somewhat enjoyable. The movie was pretty good as well.

As for anachronistic dialogue (i.e. Modern English), I can usually get beyond this by reminding myself that this is what it would sound like in my head if I were to read historically accurate dialogue. Of course this assumes that I can understand Old English or such. What bothers me is when an author tries to make their dialogue sound ‘period’.

Bernard Knight, in the introductions to his Crowner John series of novels, explains that “any attempt to use ‘olde worlde’ dialogue in a historic novel of this period is as inaccurate as it is futile, for in late-twelfth-century Devon most people would be incomprehensible to us today.”

As Cornwell stated above, historical fiction is a gateway to more hardcore historic research for some. Perez-Reverte wrote his Captain Alatriste series because he was dissatisfied with the treatment of the Spanish Golden Age in his daughter’s school textbooks. I’ve even toyed with the idea of Napoleonic Re-enactment simply because I have enjoyed the Sharpe series so much.

In the end it simply comes down to this: read historical fiction to be entertained. If you want 100% accuracy then either pick up a textbook or go out and find a period novel. Tom Jones is as good today as it was in 1749.

What do you think? Is historical fiction worth reading or just too anachronistic for you? Leave a comment below.


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Further Arguments Against Long-Bladed Swords

Most SCA Rapier participants tend to think of George Silver as ‘that mad Englishman who had a huge hate on for long-bladed rapiers.’ Not that this description is all that inaccurate considering Silvers describes these swords as an “…imperfect weapon, which serves to kill our friends in peace, but cannot much hurt our foes in war.” After doing some research for another project, however, I have found that not only was he not alone in his opinion but that he wasn’t even the first to complain in writing about the inadequacies of long-bladed rapiers.

Published in 1590, Sir John Smythe’s Certain Discourses Military, was the first English military treatise. Discourses was an appeal to the English nobility to cease the adoption of the caliver, among other Continental ways of waging war, and to go back to the ancient, and in Smythe’s opinion infinitely better, weapon the English longbow.

In Discourses Smythe writes:

… our such men of war, contrary to the ancient order and use military, do nowadays prefer and allow that armed men pikers should rather wear rapiers of a yard and a quarter long the blades or more than strong, short, arming swords… a squadron of armed men in the field, being ready to encounter with another squadron, their enemies…being in their ranks so close one to another by flanks, cannot draw their swords if the blades of them be above the length of three quarters of a yard or little more (i.e. approximately 32-34″). Besides that, swords being so long do work in a manner no effect, neither with blows nor thrusts, where the press is so great as in such actions it is. And rapier blades, being so narrow and of  so small substance, and made of a very hard temper to fight in private frays, in lighting with any blow upon armour do presently break and so become unprofitable.

This sentiment is echoed in the epistle to Paradoxes where Silver states:

…when the battles are joined, and come to the charge, there is no room for them to draw their bird-spits, and when they have them, what can they do with them? Can they pierce his corselet with the point? Can they unlace his helmet, unbuckle his armour, hew asunder their pikes with a stocata, a riversa, a dritta, a stramason, or other such tempestuous terms? No, these toys are fit for children, not for men, for stragling boys of the camp, to murder poultry, not for men of honour to try battle with their foes.

Of course, if it were only these two gentlemen deriding the rapier one could dismiss their opinions as a couple old codgers complaining about the decline of their great nation in the hands of younger men. However, they were not alone. At least not in so far as the length of weapons to be used on the battlefield.

In his treatise of 1591, which in itself was a direct rebuttal of Smythe’s Discourses, Humfrey Barwick recommends ‘…a good sword of a yarde in blade, and no hilts but crosse onely, a dagger of ten or twelve inches in the blade and the like crosse hilt.Smythe too recommends a short dagger of only nine to ten inches. At least these two could agree on one thing even if they were polar opposites in regards to the longbow vs. musket debate.

Smythe and Barwick’s recommended blade length would appear to agree with Silver’s perfect length of a yard and an inch for the average person. Or rather I should say that Silver agrees with them as his Paradoxes of Defense was not published until 1599. Silver would probably have been familiar with both of these books as Smythe’s book sold very well and the back and forth between Smythe and Humfrey was akin to an Elizabethan flame war.

Still, is this just a few Englishmen tending to be a tad protectionist with their weapons? I had thought so until I came across a reference in an article by Tom Leoni entitled “The Rapier Revisited” (which by the way is an excellent read). In it he mentions that according to Bonaventura Pistofilo the ideal military sword was “…three Roman feet or just over 36 inches measured from the hilt.” So it wasn’t just Englishmen who felt that long-bladed swords had no place on the battle field.

Of course neither Barwick nor I’m sure Pistofilo ranted about rapiers in the same manner as Silver and Smythe but they were all roughly in agreement when it came to the length of blade that was serviceable in the press of men on the battlefield. In the end, however, the point I would like to make to you dear reader isn’t that the English basket-hilted sword is better than a long-bladed rapier but rather that if George Silver is a crackpot for his views on this subject at least he is no longer the lone crackpot screaming into the wind. Or am I just another pro-Silver crackpot looking for excuses? Post a comment below and let me know.

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Historic Sites are Great for Family Vacations.

I’m afraid I’ve become one of those Dads. You know the type. They think nothing about driving 100km out of their way to take the kids to see the biggest ball of twine in the world.

Well, maybe not exactly.

There’s no way I’m going to deviate from a planned route, and I’m not sure even I would find such a ball of twine interesting, but lately I have found myself planning trips around historic sites.

The Family and I decided to visit Barkerville this Summer which is a roughly 9+ hour drive. I decided that this was too long to do in one day so we are going to split the trip into two days for ease of travel. What I needed then was somewhere to stop halfway between here and Barkerville for a night. This is where the fly gets into the ointment. I found myself looking for places based on nothing other than what historic sites might be nearby. It didn’t matter whether one campground had free wi-fi or another had showers. I was determined to cram as much history into this trip as possible. Even a decrepid old barn would have sufficed.

Fortunately common sense won out and we are going to camp at a place on a lake instead so the girls can have a swim after being cooped up in the minivan for half a day. (read: there wasn’t anything nearby)

All of this can be blamed on my daughters. It’s not my fault. Honestly.

It all began a couple of years ago when the Family and I went to Fort Langley (an 19th century fur trading post) for something inexpensive to do. K and I were worried that both girls would get bored with such a low-tech outing. The opposite happened in fact. Both girls were enthralled with the old site. We were even treated to a second wedding of sorts as K and I portrayed the happy couple in a traditional 19th century fur trader wedding. M1 still raves about this visit.

“Well,” I thought ” if they enjoyed that experience what else would they enjoy?”And so it began.

Now every chance I get I try to find some way to worm an historic site into whatever we are doing.

My newest idea? An historic geocaching trek for our area that M1 and I are going to do this Summer.

Can you have too much history while on vacation?

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