A review of Bob Brooks’ HEMA seminars in South Africa

It’s always nerve-wracking, spending 10 months organising a visit from an overseas visitor, and then waiting for something to go wrong at the last minute. It gets even worse when you can’t be the one to collect your visitor from the airport, as work interferes with the more important business of HEMA. Of course, the nerves start getting frayed right at the beginning: Am I bringing the right person out? Will I get enough payees to cover my costs? Will my students learn any thing useful?

Fortunately, the recent visit by Bob Brooks of the Hotspur School of Defence to the shores of South Africa went swimmingly well. I’ve known Bob digitally for nearly 15 years (early days on Swordforum), and finally met him in 2013 at Fechtschule York, and then again at Fechtschule Edinburgh last year. I’d been impressed with his attitude and his knowledge of HEMA, and when I broached the subject of bringing him to the real deep South, his enthusiasm for the project was really encouraging. After much discussion, we arranged that Bob would spend three weekends in South Africa, two in Pretoria and one in Cape Town, during my break from lecturing so I could show him around. Well, that was the plan. By the time Bob arrived, I’d been forced to take on a new lecturing load owing to a resignation, and some of our gallivanting had to be curtailed- minor nerves on my part. Fortunately, Bob and his student Andrew Millburn (along for the ride supposedly, but turned out to be an excellent assistant and a good teacher in his own right) arrived in one piece, and we went on to have a great trip.

Weekend 1 was a 2-day pollaxe seminar, held in the tranquil surrounds of Chateau Roberts. Pollaxe was not a weapon I had a lot of experience with, despite the replicas on the wall and a set of Purpleheart rubber-headed pollaxes bought a few years back. Which of course is why I asked Bob if he could teach it; part of the idea of bringing an overseas instructor in is to learn something new. We put together a set of cheap but effective pollaxe simulators from gum poles and hard foam the weekend before, and so 14 of us assembled for a 2-day trip into the HEMA unknown…

I can tell you, I was feeling a whole crop of new muscles by Monday morning. Bob lead us through the basic movements and binds on Saturday, and extended these basics with specific plays from sources such as Talhoffer and Fiore on Sunday. This class was an excellent introduction to the weapon for novice and experienced HEMAists alike. For those who haven’t worked with the pollaxe, it’s a ponderous but subtle weapon- with top spike and butt spike, axe-head and reverse spike, there’s always three or four avenues of defence and attack. Not only that, in the way Bob taught the weapon, you regularly swap your hands on the cue (staff), utilising a much wider set of muscles than we regularly use. Fortunately the simulators were quite light, otherwise we would have struggled to do 12 hours over 2 days…20150912_101539


Some of our visiting HEMAists sharing a joke- Karl from MFC and Cesar Masso from Spain (on a work secondment)

Weekend 2 was a messer seminar, again at Chateau Roberts. Though MACS worked with messer sources in the early days, we haven’t worked with the weapon in several years, and this was the first introduction to the weapon for most of the participants. Bob’s first day was based on going through the Glasgow manuscript’s eleven messer plays, introducing the basic movements involved in cutting, thrusting and stepping with such a short weapon. The second day was spent extended the original eleven plays with material from Leckueckner, Talhoffer and Kal, and involved much more wrestling and close-in work, and lots of sneaky tricks.11998878_916454338417288_7372770428098740356_n

Bob and Andy demonstrating the armoured hand

In between Weekends 1 and 2, I was able to take Bob and Andy away to Kwazulu Natal, to see Boer War and Zulu War sites such as Rorke’s Drift and Ladysmith. Bob volunteered to teach the Thursday class at MACS, on Fiore’s one-handed sword, which was a nice bonus, and MACS reciprocated by devoting the Tuesday class after Weekend 2 to attempting to hit Bob and Andy, in a free-play session in which I was very proud to see many of the techniques learnt in the previous two weekends put to use!

Weekend 3 was a repeat of Weekend 2, but in a country far, far away… By which I mean Cape Town. A smaller group, Table Mountain HEMA still put on a good show. We were accommodated in luxury and we (by now I was part of the teaching staff, even spending an entire day doing Andy’s job of being pretzel-dummy) hopefully taught the Capetonians a lot. Cape Town is always a beautiful city, and I was able to take the two guests down to Cape Point as well, making their trip suitably memorable.

Finally, we had to return to Pretoria and pack Bob and Andy onto a plane. As far as I can tell, they survived the hot weather (for Brits), excessive consumption of red meat (for Brits), and terrible scenery on their trip. On our side, the South African HEMA community learnt a lot from our visitors, not only in technical knowledge but also about other approaches to teaching and learning from older sources. I feel it was an excellent trip, and I hope to see Bob and Andy again soon!