There is a long tradition in historical European martial arts (well, as long a tradition as there can be for a practice that is really only about thirty five years old) of modifying equipment. Mostly this is because even after thirty-five years we are only just getting commercially produced practice gear specifically for HEMA, so for most of the past four decades people have had no choice but to repurpose other equipment. Sometimes this results in less than satisfactory work-arounds. But what is satisfactory is the way in which even small modifications can imbue a piece of gear with totemic significance.
A few weeks ago my studio went to a tournament for the first time (I should post more thoughts on tournaments later). In preparation for the tournament, we had school patches ordered to put on our fencing jackets. I sort of expected to dismiss this as a cynical marketing ploy. I was surprised to discover that I didn’t.
Like a lot of my fellow students, I own an Axel Peterssen Pro fencing jacket, which incorporates a leather plastron in the front. This poses certain difficulties from a sewing perspective, as the whole point of the plastron is to resist penetration by a sharp object (for instance, a steel trainer that breaks in the thrust rather than flexing like it’s supposed to). Some students decided to glue their patches on. Others decided to take it to a tailor. But I found that it mattered to me a lot that I do it myself, the hard way, with needle and thread. This wasn’t just free advertising for somebody’s business. This was an expression of who I am as a fencer, and I needed to make it. I am a student of the Akademie des Heiligen Schwertes, and the crest of that school has pride of place on the chest of my jacket. Through Tristan’s teaching, I am associated with the New York Historical Fencing Association, and the crest of that school belongs on my left arm.
And then I realized that one day there might be others, and the order of patches might need to change. As much as I love the Akademie, it might not be my school forever. This is really a pretty disquieting thought, because I actually do love the Akademie a lot, but I am … well, me. Whenever I leave, if I ever join another school, it will be important to me that the crest of that school take its place on my chest, and the AHS crest move to my arm. Which of course will mean that the NYHFA crest move, and so on …
So I bought a leather needle and some upholstery thread, bought or borrowed some Velcro, and I lovingly added Velcro to my patches and jacket. The stitching is not fabulous, but it is mine. And now my fencing jacket is not just protective gear. My jacket says, This is me. This is where I come from. These people have supported my development as a martial artist, and I honor them.
If my jacket describes who I am as a fencer, my waster - my, well, my sword - describes what fencing itself means to me. When I went to fencing last week, my waster had a bright orange grip. It got a few looks. Of course there is a story behind it.
When I moved to New York, Blue Rose and Karyai gave me a month’s worth of fencing lessons as a going-away present. I turned this into a Pentti+ Type III nylon waster, which for a variety of reasons I am quite happy with both as a solo drill and as a sparring tool. The only thing I don’t like about it is the grip, which is more rectangular than oval (KDF requires a loose grip on the sword that can slide easily around the handle, and which rather awkward when the handle isn’t, you know, round). As far as I can tell, nobody likes the grips on the Penttis, though they have enough other positive characteristics that they are still the international standard in synthetic wasters. Some people (including some of my fellow students) are of the opinion that since tournaments don’t allow you to compete with your own Pentti, you might as well get used to the square grip. But most of those people have steel trainers with much more realistic handles that they can use for drills. Since I’m not likely to have a steel sword for a while, I decided to modify my Pentti’s handle.
The grip tape on mine was shredding anyway (nobody told me you aren’t supposed to fence while wearing rings), so I decided to insert some cardboard shims to round out the grip, and then rewrap the whole thing. And then I thought, since I was going to be exposing the nylon of the handle anyway, maybe I should inscribe something on it. Why? I don’t know. Maybe I was inspired by Shanah Van’s love tattoo. Or maybe there’s just a universal impulse to inscribe things that are important to us.
I decided on a tennis overgrip for my new wrap, which in turn meant I needed to decide which color I was going to get, because apparently tennis overgrips come in a bewildering variety of colors. Naturally, this decision could only be made from a heraldic standpoint, and naturally, the heraldry in question could not just be classical.
I had recently decided that whenever I finally get my steel trainers (I can only use one at a time, of course, but many people eventually acquire two, to train with a partner) I wanted one to have a green grip and the other a blue one. In classical heraldry (much of which is surprisingly modern; of course I am aware medieval and even Renaissance heraldry was much more practical than the symbolism-laden construct that we have inherited), green is associated with hope, joy, and fidelity in love; while blue is associated with truth and loyalty. In Mandalorian armor, green is associated with duty, while blue is associated with reliability. These are fitting reminders for something that supports me as an absent father and husband and as a lawyer. So I resolved to own a trainer with a green handle, named Ijaa’bora - Duty. After that, eventually, one with a blue handle, named Ruusaan - Reliable One. But with green and blue taken, what color should my Pentti be?
Ultimately I decided to answer that question by asking what my Pentti means to me.
Drilling with my Pentti is calm. Even if I am tired and cranky from my run up and down the minor hills of Prospect Park, when I am on the knoll or in the hollow where I drill my mind is quiet, like it is when I am painting. At the same time, it is deeply invigorating. When I wield it during warm-up cuts in class, I feel my muscles awaken and my breathing deepen as my whole body looks forward to what is to come. It is satisfying. The end of a sparring session, when I have withstood an hour’s worth of sweat and blows and know that I could keep going, feels like the end of a dance. And it is a symbol of my friends’ love for me.
So I no longer own just a Pentti+ Type III nylon waster. I own Shereshoy, whose name means … well, shereshoy. Openness to what life will bring, and the groundedness to eagerly seek it out. The desire to live, and the drive forward into the unknown - which is, really, simply another facet of the desire not just to live but to live. Shereshoy means … I think the best literal translation is to seize life. But what it really means is joy.
In Mandalorian armor, the color associated with this lust for life is orange. In classical heraldry, orange is associated with worthy ambition - a fine synergy for this foreign adventure of mine, and coincidentally related to Master Liechtenauer’s characterization of the art of fighting as the art that dignifies.
So I took down my Pentti from its hook on my door and carefully cut out the shims using a pattern cut from paper borrowed from my Brooklyn roommates, from cardboard that came from the chair I bought when I finally admitted in a deeper way that I am here, and not elsewhere. Beneath the shims I carefully inscribed the handle with orange ink: ner gai cuyi shereshoy - “my name is Joy.” I wrote it in Mandalorian to remind me of family, in the style of Greek dedications to remind me of friends. Then I bound that up beneath my cardboard and sealed it with an orange tennis overgrip, and I hung Joy upon my door.