In July 2019 I attended a living history weekend at the Geschichtspark Bärnau-Tachow in Bavaria on the old Goldene Straße from Prague to Nürnberg. It was organized by Roland ‘Dimicator’ Warzecha and his group in northern Germany.
One of the goals of the Geschichtspark is to represent a full range of possibilities and trades and building types in a small space they can afford to maintain. So in their 13th century section they have three main types of buildings: the wattle-and-daub-between-posts which everyone knows, but also log cabins (which I had heard were a Finnish invention imported to New Sweden on the Delaware River, but Vitruvius 2.1.4 talks about them in Colchis) and a system of vertical boards side by side in frames. The last does not seem very good to me, although cutting mortise-and-tenon joints in the edges of the planks helps keep the drafts down and neighbouring boards in contact, but they are exploring the possibilities allowed by the archaeological record and the skills of their staff and volunteers. They are laying the foundations for their first stone building, a replica of one of the fortified halting points on the Goldene Straße just a few hundred metres from the original route.
Fencing in a bright summer sun alternating with rainshowers is sweaty work, so it was good to be wearing the appropriate clothing: wool hosen, a blue buckram pourpoint stuffed with two pounds of cotton over a linen shirt, and a straw hat. Full coverage and a wide hat keeps the sun off your skin and keeps sweat from evaporating too quickly, while the linen and wool wick it away from your skin and create a microclimate around your body. As a result, I noticed something that an ancient writer also noticed when he described the tough outdoor life of the Persians of old (Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 8.8.11):
Again, this also was a native custom of theirs, neither to eat nor drink while on a march, nor yet to be seen doing any of the necessary consequences of eating or drinking.
If you are physically active and wear linen and wool outdoors, you may not need to drink as much as you do in cotton shorts and a t-shirt, and you definitely don’t need to pee as often as you do sitting at a desk in an air-conditioned office and drinking a glass an hour. You sweat the water out.
I don’t think many of my gentle readers are interested in historical fencing but I should say something about the workshop anyway. The group consisted of twelve people including a non-fencing husband. The two-day course covered pages 3-7 of Forgeng’s latest edition of Royal Armouries MS. I.33 (prima custodia called under arm against Halbschilt) plus a variant where the scholar in Halbschilt does not respond soon enough and the priest can wind or strike between the hands. Limiting the amount of material is necessary because I.33 is an advanced manual, for people who are already good fencers but whose decision tree is not yet the most efficient (the manuscript has almost nothing on body mechanics, footwork, the blows, and other fundamentals, just page after page of the best thing to do when the swords cross in a certain way so it is a difficult source to interpret).
Quite a few martial arts have a principle which is called controlling the centre or “take the weapon, break the man”: before you strike, you position yourself so that they cannot strike you with their main weapon in a single tempo (movement). Fiore’s preferred strategy was to lure his partner into a delivering a committed attack and take the center by parrying it, while Roland and Cornelius take inspiration from 17th century Italian fencing and try to occupy the centre as they come into measure, adopting extended guards with the weight on the back foot and the point forward and making many tiny movements of their wrists and hands to get control when the swords cross. They are so good at this that it is probably not a good idea to cooperate, counter-bind, and try your own tiny pushing movements at the end of your arms. They will almost certainly win, whereas if you make the fight about something else that suits your nature and your training, you might find that there you have the advantage. So I am reading Fiore again searching for hints on how he handled people who took this approach, and trying out some of Roland and Cornelius’ tricks for getting into measure to strike without stepping before your companion thinks you are there or get control of a bind without closing in. Every fencer needs to be prepared for this approach to a fight, and see where it fits into their own art.
My thanks to the staff in Bärnau, and especially to Dr. Julia ‘Walpurgis’ Gräf who is a staffer, fencer, and helped me figure out the Bavarian train system. Deutsche Bahn managed to sell the same seat to two people, but that is another story. Thanks to Martin and Georg for photos, and for everyone who put up with my physical and neurological limitations. The site has regular tours, gatherings to repair buildings or start building their stone fortified hostel, and demonstrations of trades such as dying.