Working the Pell Like You Know What You’re Doing
By Lars J. Olsen
I was raised on a steady diet of high fantasy, comic books, and anime. A common trope that bridges these three genres is the lone swordsman, whose mastery of his craft rivals his talent for wandering into dangerous situations on a weekly basis. When I first started training in the Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA), I naturally assumed that my story would be the same as his. There were no HEMA clubs practicing in my area, so I would just have to learn the art of arms from period manuscripts and train myself to mastery. Who needed sparring partners, structured lessons, or other people’s source interpretations? I had YouTube!
At first my rapid advancement in skill seemed to reinforce the idea that I was on the path of destiny, but, as I discovered, it is quite easy to advance from atrocious to terrible in an athletic skill such as sword fighting. Advancing from terrible to incompetent is much harder, and moving from incompetent to useless is harder still. My lonely journey from atrocious to useless took me through YouTube videos and free .pdf downloads, and along the way I’ve picked up some great strategies for training alone. So how do I work the pell like I know what I’m doing? I’m glad you asked.
The first step in pretending you know how to do something is to figure out what it actually is. This might seem obvious until you repeatedly humiliate yourself, but trust me––the humiliation isn’t worth that lesson. Luckily you can avoid all that with a quick Google search, which will reveal that a pell is a post buried in the ground or otherwise fixed in place that one cuts at with a sword to train in their technique. So working the pell is practicing sword techniques against a post. That doesn’t sound too hard.
Except…I live in an apartment, and my landlord isn’t too keen on my digging holes in the lawn and burying six foot posts in the yard. When pressed, he admits that he sees no value in my sword training, and that – at a minimum – setting up a pell in his yard would void my security deposit and, depending on the damage, get me evicted. This must be why lone swordsmen never seem to live in apartments.
I’m sorry to admit that my dedication to mastering the sword doesn’t extend to eviction, so I had to dummy up a working solution because I was growing restless to hit something with one of my practice swords. A pell is traditionally a post, but I soon realized that what it came down to is a fixed target. As I puzzled over what to hit, the compressor of the refrigerator in my apartment switched on, growling menacingly at me as if to challenge me to a duel.
An essential part of training is freifechten, which literally translates as free-fighting but is basically sparring, and now I had my own version that I could do right in the comfort of my own apartment: fridge-fighting. The fridge in my apartment is tucked away in the corner of the dining room, and once the tables and chairs were moved out of the way it presented a nice, angled surface that was easy to cut against while pulling the blows short without striking the surface. Using my fridge as a pell opened up my horizons. If I can use a fridge as a pell, why not practice basic sword movements with every single thing I pick up? Now I see pells and swords and the opportunity to practice everywhere I go. My poor fridge soon found itself neglected as I realized that trees, traffic signs, and building corners are all better pells than a valuable appliance. Besides, working trees, cash registers, and my computer monitor as pells helps focus my naturally restless energy, and pulling my blows before I destroy my computer is teaching me a lot of control. Without a dedicated training time, sometimes you have to substitute quality for quantity.
Now that I was finding pells everywhere to practice basic strikes on, a new problem presented itself––when I hit a tree with a practice sword in a public forum someone inevitably asks me what I’m doing. Using a tree as a stand-in for a partner makes you look particularly crazy, so you need to learn to advocate for HEMA like you know what you’re doing. After all, these conversations aren’t just about you, it’s about putting the best face you possibly can on Historical European Martial Arts (without killing the fridge).
About the author:
Lars J. Olsen currently lives in Minneapolis, MN, where he nurses dreams of being an author, an accomplished martial artist, and a debt-free individual. He is closer to some dreams than others.