Sunday, June 20, 2010

Russell Mitchell Interview: The Necromantic Martial Arts

Russell Mitchell is a longtime swordsman, scholar, and all around swell guy. He's disarmingly nice, and transcribed Additional Manuscript 39564 (aka the Ledall). His transcription of said text can be found online - and he kindly gave a certain pair of reprobates permission to print his transcription in a certain book coming out this October from Paladin Press. Equally graciously, he agreed to let me interview him, and didn't complain about even one of my asinine questions:

Where and when were you born?

I was born in the Newport Naval Hospital in Rhode Island, in 1971. [Like] a lot of Navy brats, was constantly in motion as a kid -- I think I counted it up once and attended eleven different schools before going on to college.

Yikes. Give us a bit more background on your good self.

I'm a very minor medievalist who does experimental archaeology when his time and budget allows.

Sounds interesting. What were / are some of the motivating influences in your life?

Does Weird Al count?


I was the guy who learned to fight because he got tired of getting his ass kicked in school -- for being in Chess Club. High School may have turned more and more into an unconvicted penitentiary of sorts, but it's amazing how much more social freedom we have now [compared to] when I was in school....nerds can BE nerdy without having to worry about going home with bruises and loose teeth.

I could tell you a few stories of my own, but on to the next subject: When and how did you develop an interest in swords and swordsmanship?

Did some fencing in college and had random "swordfights" with dowels in high-school. I sucked, by the way. I got seriously into it when I was studying at Central European University in Budapest. [I] happened to luck onto two people: one, a Georgian nobleman (of the poor/disowned sort, obviously, the Communist bastards being who they were) who'd learned khevsour; and [another,] a man who eventually became a mentor and buddy, Csaba Hidan. [He was] an archaeologist whose grandfather had been a Hussar drillmaster.

Since then I've retained the khevsour, but don't teach it (what I learned was absurdly simple, yet still reasonably effective). [I do] teach the sabre to individuals and to small groups here and there. I don't believe in "public instruction." When a student comes to learn from me, or I fly out to teach him or her, they should expect to do thousands and thousands of cut repetitions while receiving VERY close attention to form... the sabre's a military system, and so it CAN be taught to fifty guys at once, but since the Zombie Holocaust isn't particularly imminent, I far prefer giving people individual attention and lots of homework, and letting them figure it out at their own pace.

Fascinating stuff! Moving on, how and when did you first become aware of the historical source materials?

I bumped into this gent named Steve Hicks on the Internet, and helped grub up some manuscripts for him with the assistance of a Polish colleague of mine. When I returned to the U.S., Steve asked me to show him what I'd learned of the sabre, and was astonished at all the winden techniques.... to which I replied, "what's a winden?" Having learned from guys who were basically living-lineage, I hadn't a clue what was happening on the "chivalric" side of the coin.

Who were the first key players in the modern revival, and how did you guys find one another?

Having had an interest in arms and armor (where I did my experimental archaeology), I hung out on various fora, and the HACA (as it was called back then) served as a central place where a bunch of us who'd never heard of each other started to do so. After a while, I hung more and more on the Sword Forum side of the fence, and until not long ago (when the movement matured far past anything I could help with, particularly given that I have relatively little interest in longsword) hung out regularly on WMA Internet sites, swapping data, slipping people copies of manuscripts, and that sort of thing. Mostly that was because of Steve, again -- since I could actually get my hands on manuscripts early on that a lot of folks couldn't, he really introduced me to the other guys in the field.

Any thoughts on the rivalries within the subject?

They're 99% stupid. People are people. Not everybody's a good guy; sometimes people act selfishly or use other folks, sometimes people forget that you can't judge a person by an Internet post. Since I'm sort of in the Ort Cloud so far as the "community" is concerned (I'd be shocked if most of the folks reading your stuff had even heard of me), it's not really an issue I have to deal with.

What advice would give someone who is just beginning their studies in the Chivalric Arts?

I don't know squat about chivalric arts. I know about sabre, fokos/ciupaga, khevsour, savate, lutte parisienne, and the weapons that go with it. With the exception of occasionally hanging out with awesome guys doing reconstruction work, I'm purely in the living lineage crowd.

BUT...if I had to say one thing, it'd be...Learn to move, and learn to understand how power is generated in the body, and the ways that power generation changes the game. The "punch is a punch is a punch" fallacy is technically true on the surface, but leads one to a profound misunderstanding of technique -- you don't have to take my word for it, either. Ask a bagua guy to throw a jab, or a boxer to throw a Tibetan White Crane "down-punch"... and wait for hilarity to ensue.

If I have one beef with the quality of peoples' work, it's that too often people are "locked into" how they move, and don't understand that in other times, people didn't move the way we do now. Modern clothes are a disaster for males, and we're MUCH less flexible than our ancestors, who regularly wore far less restricting stuff than we do (as opposed to our stuff, cut basically for women, which "trains" you not to be flexible... b/c male anatomy is just different, and you CAN'T be.)

For instance, look at Meyer's longsword pictures. Those guys are in DEEP stances with very open hips. If you can't figure out how to get into those positions and move fluidly from them, the end result will always be sub-optimal. Same with some of the rapier material -- there's a broad consensus that a lot of it is "double-time," and that those moves are impossible to perform safely in single time. That's poppycock: They're perfectly well performable IF one moves the way the guys at the time were moving.

Second... living lineages have their own pedagogy, and are VERY different from trying to learn from a text. If you're doing "martial arts necromancy" with a manuscript, that manuscript needs to be GOD as far as reconstructions are concerned. A story I once heard regarding Jared Kirby, who's a rapier guy, is that he and a bud kept working on a rapier move that the rest of the community had basically written off. It took him and his buddy over a year to figure out, just working on that one technique, and it turns out that the text was right. This useless so-called super-technique DID work. In fact, it ALWAYS worked... given just the right circumstances. So if you had the ability to engineer those circumstances in a fight it'd be the equivalent of going up against one those judo guys who only works one technique -- it doesn't matter that you know what he's going to do, because he's SO good at it he's still going to apply it.

What are your hopes for the future of the Art today?

I'm happy to see the atomization of the field that's occurring, frankly -- it means we're starting to understand what's happening enough that people can actually focus on doing one thing well, rather than fumbling along doing the best we can with the 10,000-foot-view that we had ten-to-twelve years ago.

Who do you look up to?

Steve Hick, Terry Brown, and Bob Charron. Steve made a lot of this stuff happen. Brown's work is HEAVILY informed by his previous martial arts training -- but because he has it, he's frequently able to suss out details that others miss. And Bob Charron is a proponent of the "get it right" school of manuscript-reading, constantly double-checking his assumptions in a truly rigorous way.

Who is your favorite historical Master?

Heh. I won't make any friends here, as I have pretty idiosyncratic views. For instance, I don't think that Italian and German longsword have much of anything in common.

Everyone's entitled to an opinion, I suppose.

I like Silver, even though he's wrong about rapier, because if you actually understand what he's saying about True Times, it's the "keys to the kingdom" of good fencing. And like anybody who's done cane d'arme, I really like Saviolo, who I think is wildly under appreciated.

We agree on Silver, at least. Any new projects coming up?

Nothing currently. I'm teaching my students and watching my baby learn to walk.

Mr. Mitchell, I would like to wish you the best of luck, congrats on the baby, and thank you for your time.


Next up: Terry Brown.


Samuel said...

Thanks for posting the interview!, Russ is quite an interesting persona to say the least. I really liked his articles from various forums/sites (be it SFi or MyArmoury) since he is very well versed in the central/eastern European side of things..( I especially enjoyed the article in The journal of medieval military history )

Samuel from Slovakia

Lessons on the English Longsword said...

No prob, Sam.