Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Resurrection, Not Invention

I recently watched a video of a Hontai Yoshin-ryu kata which demonstrated a rather interesting tanto-dori or “knife taking” waza.  Having once been a ju-jutsuka myself and later studying military combatives, I was impressed by the technique, but considered the initial wrist grab to be somewhat inefficient, thinking to myself that I knew a better way to do it.  I instantly set that thought aside, however, realizing I had fallen into the trap of trying to “improve” historical systems of combat.  If they did it that way, it would no longer be Hontai Yoshin-ryu, which defeats the entire purpose of studying koryu bujutsu today (as opposed to mere self defense) in the first place.  They would be trying to improve a historical artifact rather than understanding it, and thus would be destroying the very thing they were trying to preserve.

This has, obviously, strong parallels for those of us studying the Kunst des Fechtens today.  The only valid goal for the study of historical martial arts should be to recreate and then preserve them as they actually were.  To “improve” them (as we ignorantly might think we are) is anathema to that goal.  It literally defeats the purpose.  Understanding how to do that requires searching the Fechtbücher for clues as to how the techniques were performed in period, and keeping our modern notions out of things as much as possible.

Not long after I watched that video we were discussing the Zornhau in class.  I was emphasizing how important it is to make the cut with your pommel well over to your left when executing a Zornhau from the right shoulder (see the picture above) regardless of whether you were cutting or displacing, rather than cutting with the pommel in line with your sternum as most people mistakenly do it today.  I asked my students whether they thought I was right in teaching it this way, and if they agreed that I was, how they could be  sure (I often make my students question my interpretations).

My senior student immediately answered that it was a matter of geometry, saying that if you cut with your pommel on your center line your opponent can hit you in the bind, or if you’re displacing, you won’t close the line well enough and the cut you’re trying to displace can still hit you.  He was right, of course—I consider this one of the most subtly brilliant parts of our art, and I was well pleased that he understood this.

It didn’t actually answer my question, however.  My student pointed out why it’s a good way to cut—why it works, and why it’s effective.  His answer, however, did not indicate how we know that to be the correct way to interpret Master Liechtenauer’s art, which was the key point I was trying to make.  It’s the point we must make every time we interpret a technique, and that we must bear in mind for every part of every technique.  How do you know this is how it was actually done in the Liechtenauer system in period?  Not “how might it be done” or “how can I make this work really well,” but “How did Master Johannes Liechtenauer and his students do it?”  The right way might not be the best way—the German masters were human, too.

To accomplish that, we have to really read what the masters had to say.  Master Peter von Danzig (we’ll presume it was he) wrote this about the Zornhau:
“The Zornhau breaks all cuts from above with the point and yet is nothing other than a strike which a peasant farmer would use. Use it as follows: if you come into the Zufechten and your opponent strikes from his right side to your head, then likewise also strike from your right side from above without displacing and bind strongly against his sword. If he is soft in the bind, shoot straight in and long with the point to his face or chest.” (Codex 44 A 8 fol. 13r.)

Later, writing about displacing, the master said:  “You are not to displace the way other fighters do. When they displace, they hold their point up or to the side. This means that they cannot attack the four openings in the displacement with the point. Because of this, they are often hit. If you want to displace though, then do it with a cut or a thrust and strive to reach the nearest opening Indes. This way, masters cannot come to blows against you without endangering themselves.” (Id. fol. 26v.)

What we learn from this is that we are not to make “empty displacements” that just strike into our opponent’s sword (as sword taggers all do today, and as bad swordsmen apparently did in period), but rather, we are to displace with a cut—the same kind of cut we’d use for an attack.  There aren’t really any “blocks” of the sort modern martial arts students use in our art; instead, we displace with regular cuts and thrusts in such a way that at the end, we threaten the enemy with our point.  That’s what Master Peter meant above by cutting from your right side “without displacing.”

But how can this be done safely?  Christian Tobler coined the phrase “make your sword your shield” many years ago, and I actually thought he took the phrase from a Fechtbuch at first because it so aptly matches what we have to do.  We must make our swords our shields, so that when we cut (or when we use cuts to displace) we are safe as we do so.

We know how the Zornhau is supposed to be done:  It is not a wide swinging action done with the arms from guard to guard as many of the ignorantsia (to coin a phrase) practice it today when playing silly games of sword tag or ludicrously incorrect test cutting, but rather is done in a straight line using a push-pull motion of the hands, as if a cord were tied from your edge to the target (see Ms 3227a fol. 14v), and ending with your point at or near your opponent (id. fol. 24r), not down near the ground, up in the air, or out to the side.

Understanding all of that, we then have to ask ourselves how we can use such a cut to safely displace a similar one.  As my students can tell you, using a Zornhau to displace a determined Zornhau will result in you getting hit unless you close your opponent’s line of attack as you displace by moving your pommel over to the left side of your chest (for a cut from the right).  They frequently do get hit in class when they try to displace without moving their pommels over to the left as they displace, unless they beat into their opponent’s sword in the kind of empty displacement Master Peter told us not to use.  That is where my senior student’s point about the geometry of the technique comes into play—that is how you make it work.  Now we are using that idea to answer the problem of making the masters’ instructions work when we do things the way they say to do it, and not just trying to figure out a way to do a thing from whole cloth because it works or seems like a smart or effective approach.

This essay is about the process of interpretation:  How do we work out the correct way of doing a given technique, going beyond the often incomplete descriptions the masters give us in the Fechtbücher?  The answer lies in correlating not just different parts of the same text, but all the related texts in order to find clues about how the technique has to work and what it’s supposed to  do when you use it, then using those clues to inform your interpretation.  Your interpretation should reconcile as much of the instructional material as possible and look for the best way to make the technique work in view of all those bits of information, eschewing your own personal ideas about how to do a thing garnered from other study or, heaven forfend, silly, meaningless games of sword tag or test cutting.  Our job is to resurrect a lost art as it was really done, not to invent a new one with no historical accuracy or relevance to our modern world.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

A Description of a Pollaxe Bout From Histoire Plaisante et Cronicque du Petit Jehan de Saintré

One of the most instructive descriptions of a pollaxe bout in the literature: Look at the mention of strikes without specifying the part of the axe used (presumably meaning the mail was used by default), but then the strike to the fingers, which does, specifically saying the "sharp of his axe," meaning the taillent; the mention of striking the "bars of his visor" (meaning they were wearing grilled visors of the kind many of the LH crowd says didn't exist); the fact that he struck to the visor with the "handle" (i.e., the queue) of the axe, just as we're taught to do in Le Jeu; and the fact that he worked to disarm his opponent, which is one of the most highly favored tactics in Le Jeu.


How they marched one against the other; each doing valiantly.

And when the Mareschal had given them leave to go, as they advanced one upon the other, you had thought they had been two lions unchained. But there was this difference; as Saintré was making for him, he cried aloud, that all might hear him, “Hah, my ever-gentle dame, and whose I am!” and then they began to fall upon one another. Then Sir Enguerrant, who was a most valiant Knight, strong and powerful, and larger built than Saintré, raised his axe, and dealt him such a blow upon the shoulder that he made him reel, while Saintré, in return, struck him with the handle of his axe upon the bars of his vizor, driving him several paces back. Then Sir Enguerrant elevated his axe to strike a second time; but Saintré, making for him, gave him such a cut over the hand with the sharp of his axe that neither guard nor anything else could avail, so that all his fingers were smashed and benumbed. Sir Enguerrant, who was now hot, nor knew anything of what had happened to his fingers, thought again to lift his axe, and it was only then he began to feel the pain, and that he could no longer wield it. So, as a wary and a dauntless Knight, holding his axe in his left hand, he opened his arms to seize Saintré by the waist. But when Saintré perceived his aim, he continued to strike, nor ever once let him approach. And when he saw his moment, all on a sudden he gave him such a blow on the hand in which he was holding the axe, that he sent it flying in the air; and when Sir Enguerrant saw that his axe was gone, in sheer desperation he rushed upon Saintré, to close with him, catching him by one arm. But when the King saw the axe of Sir Enguerrant upon the ground, and the two together by the middle, as Prince and Judge sovereign, he at once threw down his wardour, and said, "Ho, ho!" Then were the two champions separated by the guards. Then the King, by the Mareschal, called the two champions before him, and then had said to them, “You, Sir Enguerrant, and you, Jehan de Saintré, the King desires you should know, that you have each so nobly and so valiantly acquitted yourselves that it would have been impossible to have done better; but, according to the articles, the Lord, the King, who here is, has recognized that the combat was to end either when one or other of you were borne to the ground, or either had lost his axe from both his hands. So, by the terms, Jehan de Saintré, the Lord, the King, adjudges to you the prize.”

Vance, Alexander. The History and Pleasant Chronicle of Little Jehan de Saintré. London: Chapman and Hall, 1863, pp.128-130.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Some Observations on the Judicial Duel as Practiced in Fifteenth-Century Germany

I have written a monograph on judicial combats in 15th-century Germany.  It focuses upon
information from the Fechtbücher, but examines other sources, too, both modern and historical.  Most of the scholarship available today regarding deeds of arms is focused on France and England, while this paper focuses strictly on judicial combats in Germany, and is intended  primarily  for students of historical European martial arts--especially those who follow the Liechtenauer school--who want to understand the context of the arts they study.

This paper may be distributed freely, within the rules of copyright.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Where's the Axe?

Few terms used in the study of medieval combat are as often confused or misused as the word “pollaxe.”  Partly, this is due to the fact that modern people want to apply modern rules of logic to medieval subjects, something which is not supported by actually reading what medieval men wrote.  They also tend to ignore the root forms of words and focus only on the modern forms, ignoring the shifts of language so apparent to the historian.

For example, in period, the term was not “poleaxe” as people use it today, but “pollaxe.”  This makes little sense to  the modern reader because he doesn’t know what a poll is, and since he just sees an axe on a pole, “poleaxe” makes sense to him.  Unfortunately, as Kettering’s Law says, it is often true that:  “Logic is an organized way to go wrong with confidence.”  In fact, in the Middle Ages “poll” meant head (as in our modern term for counting heads, or “polling"), and the term refers to the head of the axe and not the shaft of the weapon.  Thus, the modern term “poleaxe” represents a gross misunderstanding of the real word.

The poll (or pole) is not the greatest lexicological problem, however; in fact, most non-English-speaking sources don’t use the term pollaxe, simply calling them “axes.”  The real problem is that people think an axe must have an axe blade—after all, isn’t it logical?  As a result, when they find examples of “poll weapons” which do not have axe blades, they decide they can’t be pollaxes and invent fanciful  names for them.  The great Ewert Oakeshott is a good example.  In his European Weapons and Armour, he seems to have invented the term “Lucerne Hammer” to describe this kind of weapon because there were many of this style found in Lucerne, Switzerland:

I cannot find who coined the term Bec de Corbin, or “crow’s beak” for this kind of weapon:
The ignorance displayed thereby is appalling, and yet its use is almost universal among living history folks.  In fact, “crow’s beak” is never used for axes in any source; rather, the term “falcon’s beak” is used to describe the hook on the back of an axe, not the weapon in whole:  “And immediately place the dague of your axe between his bec de faucon and his hand…”  (“Et incontinent mettre la dague de la vostre entre son becq de faulcon…,” Le Jeu para. 16).  Moreover, neither bec de corbin nor bec de faucon is an appropriate term for describing an axe.

Some people call these kinds of weapons—with a hammer head backed by a spike—“pole hammers,” demonstrating (and compounding) their ignorance about the terms being used.  In reality, the weapons shown above, both the so-called “Lucerne hammer” and “Bec de Corbin,” are called “axes” in most medieval sources, or pollaxes in English sources.  The French call them “Hache,” the Italians “Azza,” and the Germans “Axe” (or axt), with no mention of hammers.  And indeed, with just a single exception (Codex 11093) all of them show only this kind of axe (the hammer head backed with a spike) and none show axes with an axe blade (Mair shows something with an axe blade and some wild spikes on the back, but it appears to be a specialized weapon for unarmored combat, if, indeed, it ever existed—Mair was sometimes somewhat fanciful).  So every time a Fechtbuch says something about an axe, azza, or hache, it always means a hammer backed with a spike for hooking, and never a weapon with an axe blade (again, except Codex 11093).  Here are some examples:

“The first bind with the axe.”  (“Das erste anbinden mit der axt,” Talhoffer 1467 fol. 41r.)

“The way you will confront someone with the axe.”  (“Wie dú dich gegen aim[e] anndern schick[e]n sollt mit der axe,” Kal fol. 37v.)

“The first bind with the axe.”  (“Das erste anbinden mit der Axe,” Kal fol. 38r.)

Then, there is the question of weapons with an axe head and a spike (bec de faucon), such as this one (pardon my use of a reproduction, but the design is accurate):
Most people call these pollaxes or axes, today, and yet they are not.  I do not blame people for this misunderstanding; indeed, if you read my pollaxe book, you will see I include this weapon among the pollaxes because at the time I did not know to question the “common beliefs” on the subject.  It was not until a translation of the Peter Falkner Fechtbuch came out that it was possible to know that these weapons are actually halberds, and not axes at all.  The Falkner Fechtbuch is explicit about this, and it makes sense when you think about it.  What is a halberd but a blade with a top spike and a back spike on a shaft?  It is only that some of these weapons are very elaborate, as if for use by real men at arms (i.e., knights) and not common troops (i.e., billmen and halberdiers), and we associate the pollaxe with men at arms, not with common troops.  This can excuse those who got it wrong before we learned what Falkner had to  say, but there is no excuse for those who  ignore this and cling in ignorance to the wrong term.  One has but to look at Falkner’s plain text and pictures, and it becomes impossible to confuse them.

“If you have a murder axe or halberd…”  (“Merck hastu ein mordtagst oder hellebarten,” Falkner fol. 62v.)

“Wind to him the blade of your halberd in front to the neck.”  (“wind ym das platt diner hellenbarten,” Falkner fol. 63v.)

“Note, this piece is plain and simple: If you have a halberd and he likewise…” (“Merck das stück ist schlecht und gerecht hastü ein hellenbarten vnd er einen,” Falkner fol. 64r.)

Note that the weapons above from Falkner are axe blades backed by a spike/hook, making them halberds.  The only exception is the one on the left in folio 62v which shows a hammer backed by a spike, making it an axe, and the reader can see the master was explicit about this in the text.

It is popular today to ignore historical fact in an effort to appear hip or trendy or something, because people fear—fairly dread—being thought of as pedantic, or, god forbid, a scholar.  Even when you teach them the facts, they tend to ignore them because they fear the disapprobation of the reverse snobs among their fellows who laud ignorance; weaklings always care more about the opinions of the popular crowd than they do about facts.  This issue, however, is not open to doubt.  Put most simply, an axe, within the context of historical combat, must have a hammer head.  That hammer may be backed by a spike/hook (and they are only used for hooking, never for striking in any Fechtbuch), as they are in almost all Fechtbücher, or by an axe blade, as seems more common in the non-Fechtbuch iconography, but it is the hammer head which defines it as an axe, not an axe blade.

Sources Cited:
Hans Talhoffer 1467:  Cod.icon. 394a
Le Jeu de La Hache:  MS Français 1996
Paulus Kal:  Cgm 1507
Peter Falkner:  MS KK5012