To better help us all get an insight into the fantastic variety of this great community, and the unselfish efforts, the sweat, tears and blood, the dreams and hopes, and the passion that drives it, HROARR here presents its first “community interview”, the first of a great many planned, where regular fencers, event organizers, beginners, instructors, researchers, leaders, everyone, gets a moment to tell their story. First up, is Björn, better known as “Lillebjörn,” Rugstad of newly started Wisby Historical Fencing School.
1. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your club?
My name is Björn Rugstad I’m one of the founders of the relatively new school of Wisby Historical Fencing School. The main focus of the school is German longsword, specifically the earlier manuals. This is due to the fact that longsword is the weapon most people want to learn and Erik Ungman who is our longsword instructor has a background from GHFS, and this was the focus he was most comfortable with. Now while longsword could be said to be the main focus of our school at this time, we do actually have people with experience and knowledge from other weapon arts. Lisa Heinius has competed in rapier and has a background from SPIF Fencing. Rozemarijn Keuning is teaching Rossfechten and holds pretty popular workshops on that topic.
Personally, I came into HEMA thinking it was a load of crap. I was exposed to HEMA for the first time back in the 90s, at the time it wasn’t really a separate thing from reenactment and what I saw at that time looked like glorified LARPing. Now, there is nothing wrong with LARP, I did that too in my youth, but having a fairly long experience from South East Asian weapon based arts, Silat most of all, it was obvious to me at the time, that there wasn’t really much that impressed me as a martial art, in what I saw. I held this opinion for a long time, and I didnt really change my opinion until I came into a discussion with some Swedish HEMA people back in 2013 and was introduced to videos of things I could see was solid fencing.
2. Can you tell me a bit about what got you interested in starting with HEMA?
In early 2015 I moved to the island of Gotland, Sweden, and became a father more or less at the same time. During my parental leave I started watching Matt Easton’s Schola Gladiatoria videos, when my son slept. I realized that there was an academic approach in HEMA that appealed to me. I had for a few years kept in contact with Roger Norling of Gothenburg Free Fenders Guild, and discussed HEMA topics on and off and now my curiosity was sparked for real. At this time I got into contact with Ola Eklund, who is one of the cofounders of WHFS, he runs a Krav Maga club here and he had an old friend Eric Hejdström who used to have a HEMA group here. Both Ola and me have over 20 years of dealing with knives in martial arts, and so daggers became a natural starting point.
Now it really took off when we watched one of Schola Gladiatoria’s videos on medieval dagger, and with some ideas on how it related to modern knife defense. Both me and Ola had watched the video and we were a bit provoked at what we saw as crazy or just bad ideas. So, we decided to try and find out why he said the things he did. Every summer there is a huge Renaissance fair in Gotland, called “Medeltidsveckan” and it turned out the Swedish HEMA Federation had a presentation there. Now, first off I read they held longsword intro classes, I went to this, but somehow went up in the wrong place and found a guy teaching some homebrewed alchemy of Lord of the Rings and Eastern swordsmanship. It was terrible.
But not deterred I found there was ”Slagsmålsklubben” (Eng: ‘The Brawling Club”) a sparring get-together a few days, during the same Renaissance Fair and this was with real HEMA. I went down with my regular sparring knives, of a non-HEMA type, hoping to find someone who would spar with me, I found Petri Loukasmäki who kindly enough indulged me, and who had practiced dagger together with Roger Norling. And we sparred both with the sparring knives I had brought, but also with hard plastic rondel daggers. Now this was an eye opener, literally, I almost plucked out Petri’s eye, because we went without masks. But it was really interesting and he told me that Erik Ungman had moved to the island as well, so we could maybe get in contact. Well, we did, but things were slow in the start, but me and Ola started experimenting with rondel daggers, I even got my students from my Silat school to indulge my curiosity every now and then. I bought Joachim Meyer’s two manuals and started delving into the dagger section.
While in London teaching a Silat knife seminar I had one day off and sought out David Rawlings of London Longsword Academy, on Roger Norling’s recommendations, for a private lesson. Seeking to gain some pointers on where to go with the dagger. He turned out to be a great guy and an excellent instructor. I then started filming our progress combined with questions. Pestering him and Roger endlessly with ideas and questions. It all culminated with Rozemarijn inviting Arne Koets in January 2018 for a longsword seminar on our island, which became the starting point of us establishing WHFS.
3. What does HEMA mean to you? How do you define it?
I grew up loving knights and swords and all that, I went into roleplaying and LARP and found the whole medieval thing really fascinating. Years back I thought of HEMA as someone doing medieval fantasy fighting with delusions of grandeur. Now that I’ve started not only training HEMA, but looking through manuals and researching how things were done, I have changed my views drastically. I find that HEMA or at least the part of HEMA which appeals to me, is the academic approach to evidence and exploration of material through manuals and treatises.
Also coming from 25 years of traditional martial arts, I must say HEMA has one extremely lovely thing going for it: the complete lack of living masters. The anarchistic urge to explore and experiment really appeals to me, especially since I’ve seen how grumpy old masters can poison the environment of their arts to no end. Now In my experience, I have yet to see the apex skill level I’ve witnessed in south east Asian martial arts, but that isn’t trash talking HEMA. On the contrary. HEMA shows a very high skill level especially based on the short amount of time it has existed in proper form. I’d suspect that in a generation or two this will be remedied.
4. How have you gone about getting into HEMA?
Well as I said I started bashing it. Then I slowly gained respect for it and now I’m part of it.
5. Do you feel you have received help from the community and its resources, and if so, how?
I think the community has been very welcoming. I became a member of a few Facebook groups like the HEMA International discussion and the HEMA Alliance, and actually pretty early on started posting videos asking for guidance. and despite daggers not being the hottest topic in HEMA – something I of course hope will change – I have gotten tremendous support and several people have contacted me, thanking me for the videos and telling me that our documenting our own research has proven helpful to them. So, it’s already working reciprocally.
6. What difficulties and obstacles have you encountered?
I’d say there are two main obstacles. First is finding enough people to share my interest. Now I’ve found enough people with a HEMA interest, but of course I hope to make them all as sold on daggers as they are on longsword, which of course just isn’t the case yet. Its probably mostly driven by Ola and me, which is also made a little harder, just from the fact that we both have a rather different background than the others, and since daggers are more strength and mass dependent, and used to dealing with a bit more rough and tumble than longsword and rapier students. Add to this that both Ola and me are about twice the size of all the others. and we obviously have some barriers to break down.
As for researching HEMA I think the biggest obstacle is distance. Distance is a huge problem, not in the way a lot of people seem to think though. In my opinion it is important, but it’s become a cliché people refer to when they don’t agree with or want to criticize something, but don’t really know what to say. It’s like saying ”your ‘qua‘ is not open” in Chinese martial arts. It can be true, but also can mean absolutely nothing. Now. don’t get me wrong. dDistance is important, managing distance and proper footwork is the core of any martial art, especially one with weapons involved.
The correct distance in my opinion, at least in the case of Joachim Meyer, is dictated by the guards. Understanding the guards is the key to understanding the distance. Because if you must pass the guard in order to do your technique the distance will automatically be dictated by that process.
7. What are you working on now?
Currently, I’m working on exploring Joachim Meyer’s dagger precepts or ”Regel”, which are guiding concepts for how to fight with the dagger. It is very rewarding since many of the answers of why things are done in strange or awkward ways in some of the described techniques, as well as the missing links to make the techniques or ”items” work, lay therein. Now without having spent anywhere near as much time on the other weapons described in Joachim Meyer’s manuals I’m guessing the same might be true there.
As for longsword, I really enjoyed the lessons we got from Arne Koets. He has started us on a path focusing on intent, edge alignment and power generation through what he calls proximo-distal movement. That’s kind of like outward expanding or perhaps forward expanding more correctly. It is great since it gives me stuff I can work on my own. Just doing solo drills, focusing on correct posture, structure and movement. Something which appeals to me. since that way of training resonates well with my Silat experience. Solo drilling with focus on specific parts elements of the movement.
8. What are your plans for the future with your club?
Well you know, Gotland is small. And despite its size there are quite a lot of martial arts schools here, all of them small, except the boxing club. So, our main goal is to get our club up and running at the point where we have 10-15 active members. So, the day to day activities of the club run smoothly.