The importance of books 03: Peter Smallridge

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This is a series of interviews with well-known HEMA practitioners from around the world. The subject is the importance of books in the HEMA community. Personally, I think books are immensely important to the community (and in general!), but I am interested to find out more about how other people see the issue.

This week’s interview is with Peter Smallridge, who teaches at KDF Tonbridge in England, and who is a regular and well-decorated tournament competitor.

1) Do you feel that modern publications are valuable for the HEMA community? Whether yes or no, can you explain your answer briefly?

Modern publications as in “books written recently”? Completely. I’ll first cheat and point out I wrote two articles for Leon Paul’s blog – “What you should read to help your HEMA (that’s not HEMA)” – part 1 and part 2.

We need our sources – without them there is a no H in HEMA. We also need modern publications, both as a way to distribute knowledge within the HEMA community and as doorways to the knowledge of other disciplines. From sport fencing coaching pedagogies to the metallurgy of antique arms and armour, there’s a lot published that is of relevance to a HEMA practitioner without being itself HEMA.

2) Was there a book that inspired you to become involved in HEMA, or that inspired you to study HEMA more seriously than before?

There is one that helped convince me of the value of studying HEMA more seriously. Let’s call it the “collected writings” of Jack Slack.

“Jack Slack” is the pen name of a UK based combat sports writer and analyst. He’s currently writing for the Fightland website, maintains a website and ebooks at and has extensive archives of his old column hosted at Bloody Elbow.

While he’s touched on HEMA once or twice, the reason why I cite him as an inspiration was that he manages to do what all martial arts seek to do: impose the order of a system on the chaos of fighting. He analyses fighters and fights not in superficial descriptions but goes beyond that into principles and rules. We all know Conor McGregor has a great left straight waiting to be uncorked – but how does he consistently catch opponents with it, when they all know it’s coming?

He convinced me of the amount of science that could be seen in something as chaotic as a cage fight, and of the validity of studying it, at a time when my own understanding of longsword fencing was superficial and my motivation was low.

3) Can you list between three and five books that you feel are invaluable to your study of HEMA, and say something briefly about why each book is so important to you?

The Wiktenauer Liechtenauer Compendium is #1. Newer practitioners won’t remember the Dark Ages of HEMA, when some folks held tight to their sources in an effort to keep authority, but having translations available freely and publicly is amazing.

Since my transition to being a coach of fencers as well as a fencer, I’ve worked hard to be the best coach I can be. One resource that’s been extremely helpful is Dan Gable’s Coaching Wrestling Successfully. He discusses how to train wrestlers, but more importantly how to keep a team motivated, how to decide what to train, how to coach at a competition and more. Also I hadn’t mentioned grappling yet.

Finally and more academically, I’d recommend In Defence of History by Richard J Evans, a valiant effort to justify the discipline of history. Without getting too side-tracked into academic fights for readers who just want to literally fight, Evans argues for the validity of the study of the past, despite the difficulties posed by limited and skewed evidence, varying possible and plausible interpretations and other issues. He argues not only that progress in understanding the past is possible, but that those working towards it are held to a duty to do it as best they can.

4) Are there any kinds of publications you would like to see become available to the community?

I am not actively involved in transcription and translation. There are undoubtedly sources out there that I am as yet unaware of, and I applaud the efforts of HEMA’s scholarly community in unearthing and unveiling these “unknown unknowns”.

With the rise of cheap and ubiquitous video, though, I’d almost ask HEMA content makers to reconsider their choice of formats and be sure that they’re publishing in the most appropriate one. This runs in more than one direction. I applaud those who’ve had the bravery and the resourcefulness to publish full interpretative books in the past, but the limited shelf-life of such interpretations and the suitability of the printed medium to communicating them means that video may be a better format. Similarly, if what you want to say about a new piece of fencing kit can be boiled down to “It’s made by XX Corp, they shipped it to me on time, and it fits great and feels light – I hope it’s as protective as they claim!”, a 15 minute YT video seems a waste of the media consumers’ time.

There are a different set of constraints attached to academics’ publication. Some (in my opinion) are as antiquated as wanting to sword fight itself. So I won’t comment on that in detail, except to say: a healthy academic community within HEMA, and a positive estimation of our pursuit by the academic community at large, is often necessary if we want to keep unearthing and distributing the sources!