Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Replacing Free Play

EDITED:  Please note that I no longer use the free-form style of drill discussed in this post.  There's nothing wrong with this approach, except that newer people don't understand what goes together correctly well enough, and usually end up with unrealistic drills.  Instead, I have developed a set of 12 structure drills which teach almost every kind of situation that a student should know and understand.  Look for my upcoming training book for more.

I’ve received a lot of criticism from readers of this blog recently regarding my essay that argues that Bloßfechten (i.e., unarmored) free play not only has no place in what we do, it’s actually detrimental. While most of these criticisms have been of the uninformed sort and thus not worthy of rebuttal, some raise issues that are at least confusing to some readers and should therefore be fairly addressed.

Before I do so, however, I’d like to clear up one point: Most of my detractors simply say that I don’t believe in free play, which isn’t true. I don’t believe we should practice Bloßfechten free play because of the Kendo Syndrome I wrote about in my essay, but I am a great fan of Harnischfechten (i.e., armored combat—and that doesn’t mean unarmored techniques done in armor; I’m talking about spear, pollaxe and halfsword techniques designed for armored combat) free play in the right circumstances. Unfortunately, my detractors don’t seem to consider Harnischfechten a viable martial study so they just say I don’t believe in free play at all, which I consider unfortunate.

The majority of those who want to do free play argue that there’s no other way to really learn their art; that to merely practice “moves” is sterile and empty, and there is a degree of truth in this. If you’re not doing it for real you don’t know if you can do it, right? Let’s start to answer this first by considering what it is we are trying to do.

Why do we study historical martial arts? I can think of only three possible reasons: First, because it’s fun and interesting; second, because we want to be able to use medieval martial arts today; and third, because we want to resurrect a lost art as part of understanding a historical culture. For the purposes of this discussion we can actually eliminate the first reason because either of the other two approaches can be fun and interesting, so the only reasons for practicing historical martial arts is either to use it as a modern martial discipline or to resurrect a lost art (and of course, there is bound to be a great deal of overlap in most people!).

Now, looking at those two options, what do we see? Practicing for martial purposes alone is worthy, but the simple fact is that we won’t ever have a sword or pollaxe (etc.) fight on the streets today. Thus, any attempts to “improve” the historical arts in order to make them better for today are simply invalid; there’s no reason to do so. I’ll grant that the grappling arts have a lot of value for modern combatives applications, but the longsword et. al. don’t. Thus, there’s no justification for changing our art from its historical context and form. So practicing historical combat as a form of pure martial art is fine, but there’s no justification for changing it in any way.

Here we come to the crux of the problem: All attempts at practicing Bloßfechten free play (in any art) automatically change that art. Look at Kendo, as I did in my original essay: Kendo no longer bears any close relation to the combat swordsmanship of the art from which it came, Kenjutsu. They took an unarmored form (yes, Kenjutsu includes armored techniques, but we’re just talking about unarmored combat here) and found it too dangerous to practice safely, so they replaced the steel sword with a safe simulator; they still needed protection from the simulator so they added armor; and they needed to make the art easier to see and judge so they added rules about what you can do (e.g., you aren’t allowed to strike someone’s left wrist unless it’s raised up—seriously). But all of these changes changed the art completely. The armor limits your freedom of motion, the practice sword doesn’t behave like a real sword (e.g., the blade isn’t curved, yet several Kenjutsu techniques rely on that curve), and the rule changes drastically impact the art (e.g., there are no slicing techniques in Kendo, so why guard against someone doing them?).

Or go to any Karate tournament today. Watch them do kata; if you have a modicum of knowledge about fistic arts you should easily be able to distinguish between the Shotokan Karate-ka, the Taekwondo people and the Kung-fu people (just to pick random, disparate examples). Now watch those same people compete in the sparring competition and you'll see something horrifying: All of the uniqueness they displayed in kata is lost. They all fight from a modified side horse stance and their primary techniques are mid- and high-level side and roundhouse kicks with very few hand techniques. Why? Because in their game, those techniques work best. Don't tell me it's better that way, the game was made up with no concern for historical accuracy or combat effectiveness and the real arts have been lost.

This is true with European combat as well. It happened in period; the art was divided into Schulfechten (“school fighting”) and Ernstfechten (“fighting in earnest”). In Schulfechten thrusting was forbidden, as were many of the more dangerous techniques (joint locks, etc.). And it happens today: We need hand protection because we can’t afford to miss work with a broken hand, so we wear gauntlets that prevent us from doing unarmored techniques correctly. Just as one example, consider the Winden; I have never seen anyone who can perform this technique in a free play situation while wearing gauntlets because the gauntlets, no matter how good, make the hands too slow and clumsy.

Some might argue that all of this means we should be practicing Schulfechten instead of Ernstfechten, and there’s some truth in this (but that’s for another essay), but the simple fact is that even medieval Schulfechten is far too dangerous for today’s practitioners without serious protective gear; medieval surgeons made a lot of money sewing up scalps and setting broken bones after a Schulfechten event, so we’d need protective gear, rule changes, etc., and we’re back to the same problem.

So the bottom line is that any attempt to do Bloßfechten free play *inevitably* changes the art being practiced, and there’s no justification for changing the art. At the same time, however, my detractors are correct when they say that you can’t really learn the art perfectly without doing free play. How do we reconcile this?

One way is to accept it. The truth is we’re never going to have to defend our lives with a sword, so it makes sense to give up a little understanding in exchange for not ruining the art we’re trying so very hard to resurrect. After all, why go to all the trouble to understand the art if you’re only going to throw away that understanding so you can play at swordsmanship in free play? When you do free play you’re not learning our art, you’re making up a new one, so claims that you need to do free play to learn our art are wrong to begin with anyway.

There is, however, another way: You can learn to use a form of drills that lead you from just understanding the motions of a given technique to truly mastering it in a semi-free play environment. This process is actually better than free play (given our constraints; it’s not better than real life-or-death combats, but then, they were often so… final) because even at its highest level there is a rigid control of what you can do, so students are prevented from “gaming” the exercise or from making up new techniques not part of the curriculum.

The way this works is to do your material in set drills that start in a slow, controlled manner and progress to a more natural way of practicing. In our Schule we do this in five stages:
1.) The teacher announces what he’s going to do and tells the student exactly how to respond. This is continued until the student can do the technique perfectly, and speed and power gradually increase.
2.) The student attacks with a specific attack and the teacher counters with a specified counter, then the student counters the counter.
3.) The teacher attacks with an announced attack, the student counters with a specified counter, then the teacher responds with an *unannounced* counter, and the student must counter that.
4.) The teacher attacks with an unannounced attack and the student must counter that.
5.) The same as (4.) except the teacher will counter the counter and the student must counter that.

As the student works through each level the speed and intensity increase; by level 5 the drill is as close to free play as it’s possible to be, including full speed, full power hits. The advantage, however, is that it’s all rigidly controlled as to what the student may do; if the student tries to use a trick that’s not part of the system to “score a point” the teacher simply stops and corrects him and they start over.

But if all this is true, you say, how is it any different from free play? Don’t you still need gauntlets, etc.—all the things you said would change the art? No! not if you do it correctly. You can limit targets as necessary so they don’t get hit or wear such protection as won’t interfere with a certain kind of technique (e.g., a heavy fencing mask). For example, if the teacher knows he’s not going to respond with a Winden he can wear a gauntlet to encourage the student to attack his hand with a Krumphau, or you can make it a ground rule that if you use the Krumphau in a given practice you’ll aim at the blade ahead of the cross instead of the hands. This is a little bit complicated, but it really just comes down to how creative and inventive the teacher is. You can’t make these choices in free play because then it isn’t free play, right?

The biggest advantage of this approach is that you reward only what is accurate. If someone is doing free play and he takes advantage of a loophole in the rules to score a point he gets rewarded for denigrating his art. If someone using this drill approach uses gamesmanship the drill just makes no sense; you stop, correct him, and start over. Thus we get most of the benefit of all-out free play with none of the harm.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Zornort Reinterpreted

When you interpret the techniques and principles of der Kunst des Fechtens your interpretations become very personal; learning you're wrong is painful and more than slightly embarrassing. Unfortunately, the only thing worse than discovering you’ve made a mistake is clinging to that mistake when you know it’s wrong—that’s what makes ARMA ARMA, and I can’t allow myself to go that road.

To that end, I have to admit that one of my cherished interpretations is wrong. I’ve actually been gnawing at this for some time now because I suspected a problem (I’ve even discussed this with some of you), but after a recent discussion I had with Christian Tobler I’ve come to realize my worries were well founded, largely because of an improved translation of von Danzig and some other things I’ve recently come across.

I have long argued:
http://talhoffer.blogspot.com/2008/02/zornhau.html
that when your opponent cuts at your head and you counter with a Zornhau that your cut should be aimed at his head, not at his sword, and that you only thrust at his face if he stays on course such that your swords bind together (NB: I was not saying you hit his head from the bind, just that you aimed at it). My reason for this derived from Döbringer’s instruction to always cut to the man, not to the sword, and it had the powerful advantage that if your opponent’s attack was a feint your cut would land before his real attack could. There’s more to it, but that’s the most important part of my reasoning. Of course we know there are several situations where you *do* cut to the sword, not to the man (e.g., the Krump to the flat), but I didn’t think this was one of those situations.

The first suspicion I had that my interpretation was flawed arose from the fact that no one but me could do this technique this way comfortably, and one of my rules is that “if it’s right it’s simple to do.” When you cut at your opponent’s head your point is, naturally, going to be *past* his head, so to thrust from the bind with the Zornort you have to pull your hands up and back to bring your point on line, just as we see in this picture from Goliath:
http://www.schielhau.org/images/29.jpg
and most of my students have really struggled with this action.

Then, to compound my suspicion, a better translation of one of my sources seemed to suggest that we were being told to cut to the sword, not to the head. I wrote to Christian and we discussed this issue. He supplied me with his translation of von Danzig (VD is, in most respects, our primary source for longsword material), and the text in VD is *clear* that you must cut to your opponent’s sword, not to his head.

So, while I don’t like it, I have to admit my mistake and change my interpretation. From now on we’ll be doing the Zornhau to the blade and then thrusting directly from there. Actually, VD says to cut down without displacing, so this is more of a single-time action anyway (I’ll be showing you all this subtlety in class soon!). That’s ironic because I used to do the Zornort that way years ago, but changed my interpretation when I read Döbringer.

Of course, this doesn’t answer all questions: In Lignitzer’s first play of the buckler *you* cut first, not your opponent, and when he binds you Zornort to his face. Since you cut first your sword should be over his head just as I used to do the Zornhau (this was another part of the reason for my doing it that way) with the longsword which means you have to pull your hand back for the Zornort; this is still a good argument for my incorrect interpretation, but I can’t cling to it in defiance of the clear text from VD. So I think we’ll be spending some “quality time” taking a good, long look at Lignitzer to make sure my take on this is correct.
video

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The drei Wunder

Recently I was driven to wonder if there are rules for when to use each of the “drei Wunder” or “three wounders” of the German longsword, the cut, the thrust and the slice. Speaking of the Winden, master Peter von Danzig tells us: Take heed in the winding that you not strike when you should stab, and not slice when you should strike, and not stab when you should slice (Goliath fol. 14r).” Unfortunately, he tells us we have to know when to use which, but he doesn’t tell us how to decide which to use. Trying to answer this question drove me to ask whether it was possible to ascertain a general rule about when to use them in all situations, too, not just during Winden.

First, consider that most of the time we are instructed to cut, not thrust, when in the Zufechten. The interesting point about the Zufechten is that we are *never* told to strike a Vorstich, that is, an opening thrust. All of the first attacks we're told to use as opening attacks are cuts, or Vorschlag, not thrusts. Compare this with what Silver has to say about thrusts being so easy to set aside or displace and I think it’s easy to see why this is so. It’s interesting to consider that there’s only one kind of thrust that *is* used in the Zufechten: the Absetzen, and that it’s used against both thrusts and cuts, doing so with a powerful “wedge” effect that completely closes the line of attack.

Second, moving on to the Krieg, consider when we’re told to use which Wunder. If you think about it, most situations can be broken down into a few discrete groups: A.) Your opponent is soft in the bind; B.) he is hard in the bind with his point on line; C.) he is hard in the bind and pushes your point high; D.) he is hard in the bind and pushes your point low; E.) he leaves the bind. Now what do we know to do in each of those situations?

In (A.) we know to simply thrust home—our point is on line and he’s not resisting. In (B.) we know to Wind—our point is directly online and he’s resisting but his point still threatens us. In (C.) & (D.) *both* points are offline, so the thrust isn’t an instant advantage, which drives us to cut in (C.), but in (D.) our point is down which makes cutting difficult, so we always Durchwechseln. And in (E.) his point is offline and we’re free to act as we will.

Looking at these responses to the various situations my take is this: When your point is directly on line and there’s no limit to its use then you thrust because nothing is faster than a thrust from that situation (when you’re already close) and it’s a good fight ender (better than a slice, anyway). Any time your point is *not* on line then you cut (or slice—I’ll deal with them below), unless your point is down which makes cutting difficult (hence the Durchwechseln). Any time he leaves the bind you have to know what he’s doing: Sometimes (e.g., the counter to the Abnehmen from the plays of the Zornhau) you cut because you can bind his sword at the same time for safety, and sometimes you thrust (e.g., the Nachreisen when he pulls back from the bind when your point is forward) because it’s fast and he’s not moving from cut to cut. Note that all other Nachreisen should be cuts because you’re not bound and you are, effectively, using a Vorschlag (see above).

As for slices, they are not sure fight enders, not as sure as cuts and thrusts, anyway, but they are powerful *threats* that prevent your opponent from doing things he might want to. Any time your point is past your opponent but your blade is too close to him for a fast, easy cut you slice. That one’s pretty simple and obvious. Consider the neck slice in the plays of the Zwerchau: You use it when your opponent is soft in the bind. You don’t cross knock so you can make a cut as you would if he’s hard in the bind because a.) you don’t need to since he’s soft in the bind and b.) because it’s faster and it lets you stay am Schwert, which gives you control. Your point is past your opponent’s head (since that’s how you do the Zwerchau) but too close to allow for an easy cut without moving your sword a large distance (which would give your opponent time to do something).

So, in conclusion, I think it goes like this: In the Zufechten, when you strike first (Vorschlag) it should always be a cut, and thrusts are only used when they can set aside (which closes a line) an incoming attack. This is because thrusts are weak and so easily displaced that they’re not much of a threat, and the Vorschlag is mostly about creating a threat to force your opponent into the defensive in the Nach.

In the Krieg you can thrust when your point is online and free (or he’s soft in the bind, which much the same thing) or when both points are offline and yours is down so cutting is difficult; otherwise you cut whenever neither point is on line. And you slice when your point is not on line and your point is past your opponent but too close to allow for an easy cut.

One note about situation (A.) above: When your opponent is hard in the bind with his point on line I say you should Winden, implying it’s a thrust, but we have to remember, of course, that you can use any of the drei Wunder when you wind. The Duplieren is an example of a cut (or possibly slice) done from situation (A.). I don’t think there’s a rule to that, I think they’re just tools in your toolbox to be picked almost at random. No source I’ve read hints at under what circumstances you’d prefer a Winden with a thrust over a Winden with a cut (Duplieren), all of them simply say you do it when he’s hard in the bind. I continue to look into this for more insights. I do believe, however, that you only use the slice from the Winden when your point is past your opponent and you don’t really have room or time for a cut.

One last thing: None of this should be considered carven in stone: This is fighting, not algebra. There are probably exceptions in the Fechtbücher to most of what I’ve written here, so this should be taken only as a guideline, not as established scientific fact.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A New Book About Sword and Buckler Combat

I am very pleased to announce the publication of the third book in the die Schlachtschule unarmored combat series entitled Medieval Sword & Buckler Combat by Hugh T. Knight, Jr.

This book is intended to introduce the reader to German medieval sword and buckler combat as taught by Andreas Lignitzer, Hans Talhoffer and Paulus Kal, fifteenth-century masters of the sword.

The book begins with general notes about sword and buckler combat in the middle ages then moves on to a detailed discussion of the tactical principles of German medieval martial arts applied specifically to the sword and buckler. It continues by gradually teaching a progression of skills from stance and footwork to guards to simple attacks and defenses to compound techniques and finally a step-by-step exposition of Lignitzer’s six plays of the sword and buckler. In addition there is an extensive discussion of how to train, where to get training equipment and much more.

This book will be of interest to anyone with an interest in medieval combat, history or martial arts in general.

Medieval Sword & Buckler Combat has been published through Lulu.com and is only available for internet purchase at this time:

http://www.lulu.com/content/3944278

The author is the founder and head instructor of die Schlachtschule: The School of Battle in North Hollywood, CA, a school dedicated to rediscovering and practicing the knightly arts of combat from medieval Germany. He has more than 30 years of martial experience ranging from traditional Japanese sword and grappling arts to over ten years of German martial arts. He founded die Schlachtschule in 2003 and teaches a curriculum that includes sword, spear, pollaxe, grappling and dagger combat both in and out of armor. More information can be found on the school’s web site:

http://www.schlachtschule.org/
video

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Ambraser Codex by Master Hans Talhoffer


I am very pleased to announce the publication of a new fight book translation by Hugh Knight entitled: The Ambraser Codex by Master Hans Talhoffer, published through Lulu.com.

Master Hans Talhoffer was one of the most prolific fight book authors of the middle ages and one of the best known today with at least six editions of his books known to still exist. Hugh Knight has translated his so-called Ambraser Codex from c. 1449, a book detailing the step-by-step process of the formal judicial duel with spear, sword and dagger as fought by armored knights in the fifteenth century along with a wealth of additional dagger, grappling, spear and mounted techniques. More than just a word-for-word translation, Knight has used various other fight books of the period to help interpret the techniques Talhoffer has given us, even including pictures of modern demonstrators in some cases.

This fascinating insight into fifteenth-century knightly combat belongs on the shelves of anyone with an interest in medieval history or martial arts. The book can be purchased in either perfect-bound soft cover or in case-wrap hardcover directly from the publisher here.

Monday, August 11, 2008

More Videos


Well, I haven't gotten many comments on the pollaxe video except from people who apparently have never opened a Fechtbuch in their entire lives, but in spite of the tears of sorrow their comments have brought to me, I've done the foolish thing and uploaded 12 halfsword video clips to our YouTube site. I still can't get combined videos to work properly once they've been uploaded, so until I can get help combining these videos correctly you'll have to look at them one at a time. Enjoy.

The videos can be seen here.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Pollaxe Video Clip


The readers of this blog may want to know that I've recently uploaded a video clip showing a selection of plays of the pollaxe to YouTube:

Click Here for Video

This is something of an experiment, and it's not perfect yet, but I thought people might enjoy seeing some of the plays as there's very little accurate pollaxe material up on the web.

Note that in all the actions Matthew is swinging at me at full power, although I tried to do most of the counters slowly enough that people could make them out.

My thanks to Nicholas Mueller for putting this video clip together for me. I hope you all enjoy it and I look forward to your questions or comments.

Monday, June 23, 2008


A few months ago I was approached by the editor of an electronic magazine about publishing a review of my unarmored wrestling book. At the same time, he asked me to write an article for his magazine so I wrote an article about what armored combat was really like, including some representative techniques. The review and the first half of the article (the second half will be in the September issue) can be downloaded for free here. There are several kinds of magazines there, but this one has Dave Rylak and me in armor on the cover; it should be easy to spot. I hope you enjoy it.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Is There a Left vom Tag?

There are four primary guards in the Liechtenauer school of swordsmanship: Ochs (Ox), Pflug (Plow), Alber (Fool) and vom Tag (From the Roof). Each of the first three guards, Ochs, Pflug and Alber, are explicitly described in the Fechtbücher as having a right and a left variant, although in the case of Alber the difference is limited to which foot is forward—all other parts of the guard are the same on both sides since the sword is held on the center line.

But what of vom Tag? No primary source even suggests a left-side version of this guard (for right handed swordsmen, at least; see below). Why is that? The answer lies in a careful reading of the Fechtbücher. Master Sigmund Ringeck tells us this:  “If you want to strike from your right side make sure your left foot is forward; if you want to strike from your left side, the right foot must be forward.”

In this section Master Sigmund is referring to the Zufechten: the first phase of the combat when the combatants are still at a range which will require a step in order to hit; once a cut has been made and displaced the combatants are said to be in the Krieg (The War). You can be in any guard in the Zufechten, of course, but in this case let’s focus on vom Tag. When you strike from the Zufechten you are supposed to strike from your right for a stroke from the right and vice-versa. But then Master Sigmund goes on to say:

“Note: This tenet is addressed to left-handers and right-handers. If you are a right-handed fencer and you are closing to an opponent and you think you can hit him, do not strike the first blow from your left side because you are weak there and you cannot resist if he binds strongly against your blade. Because of this, strike from the right side, you can work strongly am Schwert (on the sword) and you can use all techniques you like.”

In other words, combining these two quotes, Master Sigmund is telling us that a right-handed swordsman who wants to cut from vom Tag should start with his left foot forward and cut from the right side (with a passing step). And yet we know there are cuts from both sides in a fight because Master Sigmund tells us this: “Note: This is the first tenet of the long sword: learn to strike blows equally well from both sides if you want to learn to fence well.”

These two quotes seem contradictory unless you read them very carefully: Master Sigmund said: “If you are a right-handed fencer and you are closing to an opponent and you think you can hit him, do not strike the first blow from your left side…” By “closing”, Master Sigmund is clearly referring to an action from the Zufechten, i.e., before a bind; obviously, then, if you are not closing, i.e., you are in the Krieg, you can and should throw blows from your left if the tactical situation warrants it. Here’s an example of a blow thrown from the left in the Krieg:

“Note: When you bind at the sword with strength and your adversary pulls his sword upwards and strikes at your head from the other side, then bind strongly with the true edge and strike him on the head.”

In other words, your opponent cuts at you and you displace the blow so that you are in the bind (or vice-versa; how you get there is immaterial). Your opponent then pulls his blade back and over yours to cut to your other side, so you respond by turning your hands and cutting him on the other side while binding your long edge against his second cut. So you obviously strike from your left, but it would be the height of foolishness to go from the bind to left vom Tag and then cut: You simply lever your blade back with your hands—assuming no guard at all, really—and cut again. No left vom Tag required.

So, does this prove there is no left-side version of vom Tag? If you think about it, you’ll realize that there is never any reason to assume vom Tag in the Krieg because of the way you pull the point back: if you pull your hands back into vom Tag when you’re in range—in the Krieg—your opponent will kill you with a Nachreisen while you’re moving into guard. Thus, it’s clear that you will only assume vom Tag in the Zufechten, and since all blows thrown from the Zufechten are to be thrown from your right side (if you’re right handed), it should be obvious that there’s no need for a left-side version of vom Tag.

One caveat: In the same section where he talks about only cutting from your right if you’re right handed Master Sigmund tells us that if you’re left handed you should only cut from your left. This tells us that there is, in fact, a left-side vom Tag… if you’re left handed. Thus, this essay should only be construed as referring to right-handed swordsmen.

People love symmetry. If you tell someone there’s a cut or guard on the right side then he will expect there to be a matching version on the left side and will feel somewhat disappointed if no such symmetry exists; most modern books on longsword fighting include a left-side version of vom Tag for just this reason. In fact, in my longsword study guide (Introduction to Liechtenauer’s Longsword) I include a left-side version of vom Tag, and I even teach it to my beginning students. In my case, however, I find it a convenient way to introduce beginning students to cutting from the left side; later, I teach my students how to cut from the left in the Krieg without using left vom Tag.

In conclusion, then, there are no circumstances in which a left-side version of vom Tag could be used by a right-handed swordsman without violating the tactical principles of der Kunst des Fechtens. The left-side version can be useful for teaching beginning students cuts from the left, but later they should be taught how to do so in accordance with Liechtenauer’s principles.

Additional Note:  I just found another blogger who was harshly critical of the above essay.  He argues that he found left vom Tag in some late-period sources such as Mair.  See here.  Sigh.  Folks, must I preface every post I wrote with a series of notes reiterating the same things every time?  Our Schule practices the canonical art of Johannes Liechtenauer.  We rely on the sources published from the  late fourteenth through late fifteenth centuries.  The reason for this is that while every master seems to have made some small changes to Liechtenauer’s art, the later masters (Meyer, Mair, etc.) changed in monumental ways, to the point where it is fair to ask if it is really Liechtenauer’s art at all.  Inspired by him, yes, but radically different, and in many cases suffering from taint by outside source (e.g., the von Eyb Fechtbuch with clear evidence of being infected by the Fiore school).

Yes, some of these later sources did radically violate Liechtenauer’s principles by including some version of something similar to left vom Tag.  They also included dozens of extra guards in direct contravention of Liechtenauer’s rule that only four guards should be used, and Meyer even eliminated thrusting—without which Liechtenauer’s art can scarcely be said to exist.  I’m sorry, but only someone with a limited understanding of Liechtenauer’s art would use something from one of these late sources as proof of an argument for what Liechtenauer taught.

The author of the blog I mentioned above did raise one point worth actually refuting:  He points out that Ringeck included something called “Nebenhut.”  In the blogger’s mind, this is an extra guard made up by Ringeck.  And if Ringeck could make up a guard, why then could not other guards be made up, too—specifically, left vom Tag.  In fact, Nebenhut is not actually a guard, per se:  It is a position to which you cut in order to lure an opponent in so that you can perform the plays of the Hinderbinden which Ringeck developed.

Bottom line:  We are told that you should not cut from the left in the Zufechten.  You can only cut from vom Tag, not thrust.  You do not use guards in the Krieg, only in the Zufechten.  Ergo, it naturally and unarguably follows that there is no left   vom Tag, because you can never use it if you follow Liechtenauer’s instructions.

People have to learn that there is more than one art, and that you cannot make determinations about any given art by conflating it with others.  One person commenting on the blog even went so far as to say that Fiore has a left guard similar to vom Tag, so it must be acceptable; that is one of the most ludicrous statements I have ever read.

Friday, April 25, 2008

What Is Intent?


The word “intent” gets bandied about a lot in WMA circles these days, and with good reason: Intent determines the realism of practice. I think, however, that sometimes people mistake the meaning of the word in our context so perhaps a little insight into this much-misunderstood word might be in order.

In my Jujutsu days we used to speak of someone as being a “good uke”, and it’s worth looking at that idea as a way of understanding intent. In Jujutsu the person who “loses” the engagement when executing a technique (not that anyone loses—but that’s for another discussion; in this case we’ll use the term for simplicity’s sake) is called the “uke” while the person who executes the final technique is called “tori.”

When some people talk about a good uke they mean he attacks in a way that makes it easy for tori to do the technique—a slow and obvious attack—and then goes along with the counter easily, making a big, flashy fall regardless of how well tori actually executed the technique. Some older instructors who are past their prime need students like that to “prove” they still have “it.” But this kind of uke teaches no one anything; his actions aren’t realistic and so a student doing the technique never learns anything.

Others say a good uke is someone who smashes a student with a powerful attack he can’t possibly counter at his current level of development so he sees what it’s “really like.” These folks are usually insecure “instructors” who are referring to themselves and want to make those around them see how powerful they are: “Look at me, I’m so good you can’t even do this technique to me because of the power of my mighty attack.” Another flavor of this problem is those who want to act absurdly macho; they usually speak too much of “real fighting” and “street practicality” (not that these concepts aren’t important—they are, but you can’t drop most students in at the deep end and expect them to swim straight away) and not enough of form and technique and discipline. These are usually very young people with little real understanding of serious combat who have watched too much television about “gangstas” and far too much absurd MMA; they are usually identifiable by their counter-culture look, their rejection of traditional martial arts methods and values and their lack of serious progression. These two flavors of mistake fail just as miserably as the uke above who goes along too easily: Both create students with no understanding of the real fundamentals.

A good uke is someone who acts and reacts “with intent” but who balances intent with an understanding of the person acting as tori. That means uke must have the insight to see tori’s level of development and must attack with just the right amount of intensity: enough to challenge tori, but not so much that it will overwhelm him if he really *tries*. Likewise, uke must respond to tori's technique realistically: If tori does the technique that’s being practiced correctly—given his current level of development—it should succeed; if not, it should fail.

So, in short, a good uke is one who does his job in such a way that if tori does everything to the best of his ability then the technique they’re practicing together (there really are no winners and losers) will work the way it’s supposed to.

Those who know me know that I work very hard to keep my Japanese martial arts experience from tainting my German martial arts practice; they are not at all the same, and I would consider it a shame to have the one taint the other. On the other hand, some training principles are perfectly suited to both, and this is one of them.

I think by now my definition of the word “intent” should be perfectly clear. Attacking with intent means that you attack as you would in a real fight, but that you temper that based on two things: First, the skill level of the person you’re attacking, and second the purpose of the drill, which should be to practice a specific technique or sequence of techniques. If you fail to consider the first thing you’ll never teach your students anything; all you’ll really do is make them either think themselves incapable of learning or make them believe the art itself is flawed.

If you fail to consider the purpose of the drill your student will never learn how the specific technique you’re practicing actually works and will therefore never be able to apply it in a realistic situation. Case in point, let’s consider the Block Croix technique with the pollaxe from Le Jeu de La Hache (para. 7-8): If the teacher attacks too gently (for the student’s level of skill, remember!) the student will never feel what it takes to stop the initial swing; if he swings too hard he will blow through the student’s defense and prevent the student from learning how the technique works. If the teacher doesn’t swing at the student’s head (many people, scared of hitting others, swing “short”, so that the blow would not have been able to hit the student) the student will never learn the “measure” (Liechtenauer: “all arts have length and measure!”) of the technique, which is fairly tricky with this particular technique. If the teacher does something “tricky” as he swings his blow the technique will fail and the student will be confused as to what the technique is actually supposed to do. (You can see the Block Croix in the video clip below.)

Acting with intent is important for the student, too. It’s easy enough to do on a single technique, but in a technique with multiple parts students often fail because they focus too much on the last part of the play. For example, let’s consider the cross-knock used when someone binds against your Zwerchau with the longsword: The teacher attacks with an Oberhau and the student responds with a Zwerchau to the teacher’s head that is intended to displace the blow and kill in one motion. The teacher then changes the arc of his cut to bind hard against the student’s Zwerchau in order to prevent himself from being hit, so the student knocks the teacher’s blade to the right with his cross to prevent him from responding for a moment while the student whips his sword around to strike another Zwerchau at the other side of the teacher’s head.

In order for the student to properly understand this sequence both the teacher and student must do things in a very specific way: The teacher must cut directly at the student’s head with an appropriate level of speed and force. The student must respond with a real attempt at a Zwerchau; here’s where most students err—they know they’re practicing the cross knock so they do a half-hearted Zwerchau that wouldn’t have worked at all. The teacher must then bind hard against the middle of the student’s blade or else the student won’t get the play; the cross knock doesn’t work, for example, if you bind at the point of the sword (in which case the student should Durchwechseln), so the teacher would be cheating his student. Then the teacher should hold fast in the bind so that the cross knock actually does what it’s supposed to.

(NB: Once a student has mastered the basics, of course, the teacher can build drills that create choices; for example, the teacher might do everything up to the bind described above, then vary his bind either to middle of the sword or to the point, forcing the student to actually read the bind and respond correctly. But this can’t be done until the student is doing the individual techniques correctly and without conscious effort.)

Another example is the Winden: When swords bind the teacher must hold a hard bind with his point on line (i.e., aiming at the student), and the student responds with the Winden. If the teacher pushes too much then the Winden won’t work; that’s not a failing of the Winden, it’s a different situation to which the student should respond by moving smoothly into the second Winden. But there’s no reason to push that way at first while the student is still learning the first Winden! The teacher must act correctly for the specific technique being practiced. Likewise, when the student is learning the second Winden he should still perform the first Winden with intent and only move to the second Winden when forced to do so by pressure on his blade from the teacher. After both Winden are learned well enough the teacher can make the exercise into a drill wherein the student must do the correct thing, either thrusting through with the first Winden or changing to the second, but in that case the teacher must limit his actions; pushing his sword up into Kron, for example, doesn’t belong in that specific drill.

Intent, then, isn’t about battering your training partners or students into humility, it’s about making your practice as realistic as possible based on the skill levels of the two people involved. Attack hard and fast, yes, but not more than your partner or student can handle. Make it as challenging as you can, and don’t let a poor technique succeed, but don’t create a no-win situation, either. Do *each* part of a technique or sequence of techniques as perfectly and as realistically as possible, as if you didn’t know what the next part was going to be. To the extent your gear and training permits, always aim for the correct targets. And, of course, always remember that you’re not out to really hurt anyone; use control. A little pain is good, of course, especially when it comes as a result of doing something wrong—our Schule motto is “Was Sehrt, das lehrt” (what hurts teaches)—but no one should be really damaged, and pain is pretty useless with a complete novice since they’re doing everything wrong at first.

So do techniques as fast, as hard and as accurately as possible while considering the skill levels of the people doing the techniques and the needs of safety (within reason). That is acting “with intent.”

video

Monday, April 21, 2008

A Correction To My Book: "Fencing With Spear And Sword"

I've been refining my Gladiatoria Fechtbuch translation in preparation for trying to find a publisher, and in so doing I've discovered an error that I made both in my translation and in the interpretation of the play I put into my book Fencing With Spear And Sword.

This is the plate: fol. 8r

The text says:
Merckh den anfang des stuckhs das auch get aus den vir huetten wenn du wilt das enthafft treyben So setz für den rechten füesz vnd cher den knopff fur sich gegen seinem gesicht So pewtstu Im dy plosz mit deinem rechten vgsen ob er dy ploz wolt trayben oder suchen mit sterckh seins stichs vnd So slach vnttersich mit chrefft deins ortt swertz So weysstu Im aus den stich vnd greyff mit dem ortt ausserhalb in sein tenckhe knyepueg als du es auff der andern seytten gemalt sichst

Which I now translate as:
Note the beginning of the technique that also derives from the four guards. When you want to do this seriously move your right foot forward and turn your pommel forward towards his face, thus you offer him an opening at your right armpit. If he means to seek or exploit your opening with a strong thrust then stab down with strength with your sword’s point. So you displace his thrust, and grab with the point from the outside in his left hollow of knee like you see it in the next picture. [Continued on fol. 8v]

Originally, I translated the text to mean Ralph (i.e., the figure on the right) steps forward with his right foot and moved his pommel forward to void Larry's (i.e., the figure on the left) thrust; the idea was that Larry makes a thrust from below at Ralph's left armpit (which is exposed when he's in the upper guard) so Ralph steps in while changing the side that’s forward in order to make Larry's attack miss.

In re-examining my translation, I now see that the text really says Ralph switches to the right-leg lead shown in the plate to invite an attack to his right armpit so he is better set up for a leg hook. The leg hook itself is then shown in the subsequent plate, fol. 8v.

You can see this play in my Fencing With Spear And Sword book on p. 76: "Left Knee Lift Counter to an Unterstich".

My motions are still exactly correct, it's just that I should change feet before the thrust rather than in response to it.

My sincere thanks to Dr. Jeffrey Forgeng for the patiently-given insights that helped with this correction.

I'm sorry for any judicial combats you have lost as a result of reading my book and doing this technique incorrectly.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

What is a Master?


Let’s shatter some modern cultural assumptions, shall we? In this country we have a certain idea about the word “master” that doesn’t translate well to the medieval mindset. Raised on bad kung-fu movies (and my, but isn’t that redundant!), many Americans associate the word master with a wizened little Asian man capable of leaping tall buildings while kicking down trees, all the while uttering clumsily cryptic nonsense with a sage expression on his face. A master seems to be someone who has spent a lifetime learning his art and who’s ability is so far beyond other practitioners that it seems magical.

Since this blog is about western martial arts I won’t get into why that use of the word doesn’t really apply to Asian martial artists the same way (Shihan means Shihan; the word we associate with it isn’t a good definition if the connotation is unjustified). Instead, let’s look at what the word “master” meant in medieval Europe.

In Europe a child destined for a skilled trade would leave his parents at a very young age (often his early teens) to be apprenticed to a craftsman. He would spend several years as an apprentice, learning the trade while doing labor to pay for his keep. When the apprentice had learned enough to really be of use to his master in the craft he was studying he would be called a “journeyman”, and would spend several more years working at that level. Finally, when he was ready to go out on his own, he would prepare a “masterwork”—an example of his work that would demonstrate to the guild in which he worked that he was ready to take the next step.

Incidentally, this is another way we’ve ruined our own language: Today, we use the word “masterwork” to refer to an object that represents the apex of a long life of dedicated work and study; we see a “masterwork” as an example of the very highest skill that can exist in a craft. Michaelangelo’s David is often called a “masterwork.” Nonsense. If that was the standard called for to achieve the rank of master in a craft guild then almost no masters would ever have existed. The very basis of how we think about words has been corrupted.

Going back to our young journeyman, he would prepare a masterwork to be judged by a council of guild masters. Think of it like a final exam, if you will. If they judged his work to be acceptable (not exceptional—acceptable) they would confer upon the young man the rank of master and he’d happily go off to set up his own shop. Thus, we can see that in medieval Europe a “master” was someone just getting started on his own in a craft or trade—nothing at all like we think of the word today.

While we don’t have information on rank structure among fencers from medieval Germany—our primary focus here, of course—we do have some from Renaissance England. A student of the sword in late-period England was called a schollar. After some period of training (probably a couple of years, but my sources aren’t specific meaning it probably varied considerably) a schollar would be tested in practice bouts and if he passed he’d become a provost—the lowest rank that was allowed to teach. After some time as a provost he would fight more practice bouts against other provosts in front of “ancient masters” (presumably high-ranking guild officers) and, if he did well enough (he didn’t need to win all his bouts, just demonstrate an acceptable level of proficiency), he would be granted the rank of master. One source, at least, says that you had to be a provost for seven years before attempting to test for master, but there are records of men doing it in far fewer. (Wagner, P., Master of Defense: The Works of George Silver, Paladin Press, 2003, pp. 11-12) Note that: The bouts fought were against other provosts, not high-ranking masters, and the prospective master didn’t need to win all of his bouts. This clearly shows how skewed the modern notion of a master being a godlike killing machine really is.

This system still exists today in some crafts: The art of falconry is still practiced in the United States today; it is one of the most carefully-regulated arts extant, with very precise rules about who may do what and when. When someone starts to learn falconry he must spend two years as an apprentice under the direct supervision of a more experienced (but not necessarily master-level) falconer called the “sponsor.” After that, if the sponsor agrees he’s done well enough the falconer becomes a “general falconer”, a rank which he holds for five years. At the end of five years the general falconer automatically becomes a master falconer. I’ve heard many master falconers say they may be masters but that they haven’t yet “mastered” their craft; here we see a different use of the root word, and this use is perfectly valid: master is a rank, and not a very high one, but mastery is something few masters obtain but for which all should strive. Ignorance of this lexicological distinction is one of the main reasons why people today don’t understand the correct use of the word.

While we’re on this subject, let’s consider the word “Fechtmeister”: The word means “fight master” or “fencing master”, and is a job title, not a claim to rank. It is analogous to a “choir master” or “dance master.” Someone fresh out of school with a still-damp degree in music might be hired at a church, for example, as a choir master without a lifetime of practice and experience. A Fechtmeister is the same thing: He is someone who runs a school that teaches German martial arts, nothing more. Too many of the people who teach der Kunst des Fechtens are afraid to use the title Fechtmeister today for fear of ridicule, but that merely shows they are deserving of ridicule for not understanding the structure of what they do. If you aren’t skilled enough to teach don’t open a school; if you are and you do then you’re a Fechtmeister. People need to get over their misunderstanding.

In conclusion, those who decline the title of master out of some misplaced sense of false modesty need to set aside their ignorance and learn to use the word in its medieval sense. Those who laugh at them for doing so merely bray out their own ignorance.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Attacks as Transitions From Guard to Guard


Some modern books on German swordsmanship have argued that all attacks are transitions from one guard to another in spite of the fact that no Fechtbuch makes that claim. This is an issue because adherents of test cutting who struggle to justify their pernicious practice argue the existence of the guard Alber proves the Oberhau is done from vom Tag to the ground, as if there were no reason for any guard except to be an endpoint to an attack.

In fact, guards are never the endpoint of attacks except incidentally. Instead, attacks are done from guards (usually) to either Langenort (‘long point’) or to one of the four Hengen (‘hangings’). Hanko Döbringer (or whomever wrote Hs. 3227a) tells us this about cutting: “And this art is quite earnest and righteous, and it goes from the nearest in search of the closest and goes straight and right when you wish to strike or thrust. So that when you want to attack someone it is as if you had a cord tied to the point or edge of your sword and this leads the point or edge to an opening.” (fol. 13v). This means we’re supposed to cut in a straight line from guard to the target, not a big swing. He adds to this later when he says: “For you should strike or thrust in the shortest and nearest way possible. For in this righteous fencing do not make wide or ungainly parries or fence in large movements by which people restrict themselves…they try to look dangerous with wide and long strikes that are slow and with these they perform strikes that miss and create openings in themselves.” (ff. 14r-v)

In other words, real swordsmanship is about making cuts as small and controlled as possible; not to the ground, but to Langenort. In fact, the earliest Fechtbuch, I.33, specifically says: “Note that the entire heart of the art lies in this final guard, which is called Longpoint; and all actions of the guards or of the sword finish or have their conclusion in this one and not in the others.” (Forgeng, J., The Medieval Art of Swordsmanship, Chivalry Bookshelf, 2003, p. 23).

You see, when you cut to Langenort you are stopping in a position in which your point threatens your opponent if you have missed, and thus you maintain control over the fight. If you cut to the ground you are not really threatening him at all. We know this approach is correct because Döbringer tells us so: “No matter how you fence always aim the point at the opponent’s face or breast, then he will always have to worry that you will be faster since you will have a shorter way to go in to him than he has to you.” (fol. 24r); and later: “Whether you hit or miss, always seek the openings with both your hands and learn to bring the point to the eyes.” (fol. 29v) So the idea is to cut into a position in which your point is in line for an immediate threat if you miss with your cut—something a cut to the ground can not do.

We read more evidence to this effect in Codex Wallerstein, which says: “So you fight against someone, and you come at him at the length of the sword, so both of you are going head to head. Then you should stretch out your arms and your sword far from you and put yourself in a low body position so that you have a good reach and extension with your sword and so that you may attack and defend yourself against all that is necessary. The reach is in your standing behind your sword and bending yourself; the distance is in your staying low, as shown here, and making yourself small in the body so you are great in your sword.” (fol. 3r) This is yet more evidence that when you cut you create a barrier between yourself and your opponent with your sword; something that cutting to the ground can not accomplish.

It must be admitted that you can cut to the ground on purpose as a way to lure your opponent into acting as you want him to; this technique is called the Wechselhau and is seen, among other places, in Lignitzer’s third play of the buckler, but note that it is a special case in which you are deliberately acting to provoke a response. Note, too, that the Wechselhau is not Alber, so the argument that the existence of Alber proves you are supposed to cut to the ground is specious.

Not only does cutting to the ground cost you the defensive capabilities of your point and yield the important center of the fight, but it is also dangerous because it gives your opponent an extra “fencing time” in which to act. The masters tell us to react to someone who does this with a technique called the Nachreisen (‘following after’): “When he strikes an Oberhau and brings the blade down with the strike, travel after him with a strike on the head before he can get his sword up again.” (Tobler, C., Secrets of German Medieval Swordsmanship, Chivalry Bookshelf, 2001, p. 93) What this means is that if someone is foolish enough to over cut in such a way as to lower his point to the ground he has to cut, stop at the bottom of his cut, then pick his weapon back up before he can do anything. In the case of the Wechselhau this can be done because you intended it all along, but in the case of someone who merely missed his target you create a moment in time for your opponent to act.

By using short cuts to Langenort do we make our cuts ineffectual? Not at all: Not only does cutting to the ground expose you to a Nachreisen, but it is not necessary for a fight-ending blow. Medieval swords were sharp; not as razor-like as people like them today (such edges are usually delicate because they are thin), but sharp none the less. It takes very little strength or effort to cut into a skull or hack into an arm with a good sword. The cut may not be perfectly clean, and the head or arm may not be cut completely off, but then you do not need to do that to win the fight, and not giving your opponent the initiative of the fight more than outweighs the loss of a perfectly smooth cut.

Having thus proven that cutting to the ground with an Oberhau is based on a misunderstanding of der Kunst des Fechtens (except for the special case of the Wechselhau) let us now go on to explore the other kinds of attacks of the system. All of the other attacks in the German system except for the Oberhau and the Zornort (‘thrust of wrath’: a thrust done into Langenort) end up not in guards, but in one of the Hengen. There are four Hengen, and they correspond to the guards Ochs and Pflug, but are done, usually, with the arms more extended. The problem with seeing this lies in the fact that the precise nature of the Hengen is determined by the range to your opponent rather than a precisely-determined position relative to you. Worse, some authors (e.g., the Goliath Fechtbuch) are sloppy about terminology, using the names of the guards indiscriminately in place of the Hengen.

As an example we will consider a Zwerchau: Some have likened the Zwerchau to a transition from vom Tag to Ochs along a horizontal line. In reality, however, Ochs is a specific position with your hilt near the right side of your head: If your opponent is farther from you than your sword can reach in that position you must extend your arms to hit the target. Thus, we can more accurately say that the Zwerchau is a cut executed in a horizontal line from vom Tag to the Oberhengen on your left side. Of course, if your opponent is closer the Oberhengen might be in roughly the same position as Ochs, but that is coincidental. Thus we see that the guards are determined by the position of your sword relative to you but the Hengen are determined by the position of your sword relative to your opponent; a subtle but very important distinction.

As another example consider the Winden; here we are explicitly told to move our sword from Langenort, winding it am Schwert (’on the sword’ or in contact with the opponent’s blade) back towards the weak of his blade (near the tip) into the Oberhengen. If you displaced your opponent’s original cut so that his sword never reached your head then winding back to Ochs will actually move your sword off of your opponent’s blade. In actuality all you need to do is to wind back far enough that you are on the weak of his blade before thrusting, and this is always going to be forward of the guard Ochs: It is an Oberhengen, as can be seen here, not Ochs.

The same is true of all of the techniques in der Kunst des Fechtens: The upper Absetzen is not a transition from Pflug to Ochs, it is a transition from Pflug (or Alber; this is a lovely and sneaky variation—see below) to the Oberhengen. Likewise, the lower Absetzen is a transition from Pflug to an Unterhengen. Döbringer explicitly tells us this: “One technique is called the Baking Master [Weckemeister]. And it comes from the Unterhengen on the left side, seeking with the point after the Absetzen.” (fol. 47v)

The Schielhau is a transition from vom Tag to an Oberhengen, just as the Zwerchau, but in this case the transition is vertical rather than Horizontal; it is as plain as day when you think about it and study the Fechtbücher. Here is a picture of Ochs from the Meyer Fechtbuch (the figure on the right) and here is a picture of the Schielhau showing clearly that the wielder is in an Oberhengen. Clearly the wielder’s hands are well forward of Ochs.

What, then, is the purpose of Alber if not a mere ending to an Oberhau? If merely an end to a cut it would not rate as a guard, and yet it is one of only four guards. In reality, Alber is a subtle, dangerous position used as a guard of provocation. You assume it not as the result of a cut that missed its intended target, but in the Zufechten (‘pre-fencing’; the time before an engagement begins). As we said before, cutting to Alber if you missed your target will get you killed by an opponent using the Nachreisen or Uberlaufen. But if you start in Alber you are encouraging your opponent to attack in the way you want or else you are attempting to appear helpless.

Admittedly the Fechtbücher give us relatively few techniques to use from Alber, but there are some and they suggest more. Consider Döbringer, who tells us to use this guard (although he uses a different name for it; like Talhoffer he calls it the Iron Gate) against multiple opponents: “If you are set upon by four or six peasants, then place either foot forward and with the gate you will create a shield by placing the point towards the ground. Hear how you should do this, place yourself so that they are right in front of you and that no one can get in behind you. Now hear what you should do, when they strike or thrust at you, Absetzen with strength going up from the ground and then you will shame them well.” (fol. 44v) Note that this uses Alber from the Zufechten, where it is safe to assume, not in the Krieg ('the war'; the term refers to the phase of the fight that occurs after you have engaged) where it is dangerous to do so because you move away from a threatening position without doing anything to render your opponent helpless.

In conclusion, most of the people who argue attacks are transitions from guard to guard are either seeking a philosophical symmetry in fighting that does not exist and is certainly not mentioned in any of the Fechtbücher or else seek to justify the pernicious practice of test cutting. As I have shown, neither position is valid: Attacks are transitions from guards, which are assumed in the Zufechten, to either Langenort or to one of the four Hengen. Attacks can, of course, also originate in one of the Hengen or in Langenort: if you attack and are displaced you can assume Langenort and use Fühlen to determine your opponent’s intention and then act from there (this is part of the concept called the Sprechfenster), etc., but that part is never in dispute. And while the Hengen can resemble the guards Ochs and Pflug, they are distinctly different because guards are determined by the position of your sword relative to you while the Hengen are determined by the position of your sword relative to your opponent.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Practice Longswords

Frankly, I think Albion makes the best swords I have ever seen; I am currently trying to save for an Earl, I'd sell my soul for their Munich, and I wish I could justify buying their Poitier—it's the best-handling arming sword I've ever touched. Unfortunately, there's no reason at all, from a WMA standpoint, to ever own a sharp—they're purely for decoration. You can't practice with a partner with a sharp because you'll kill each other, yet all practice should be done with a partner or on a pell, and the pell will ruin your edge (in period they used double-weighted swords or swords of wood on pells), and you should never engage in test cutting because it will ruin your ability to cut correctly (see why here).

On the other hand, I'm extremely disappointed in Albion's line of practice longswords. They offer two longswords, the Liechtenauer and the Meyer, and neither is worth owning. We already know how medieval sword makers made practice swords because there are two extant models at the Met (these were copied by Arms & Armor for the Fechterspiel; you can see them in the picture at the beginning of this essay) and another in Switzerland (which was copied by Hanwei for their Federfechter), but Albion ignored these excellent examples and, like SCAdians with no discernable interest in history, decided to figure things out on their own.

A practice sword should have thick edges to minimize injuries during practice, but doing so makes the blade far too heavy. As a result, medieval sword makers made swords with very narrow blades and thick edges; in essence, the same amount of steel as a sharp, just redistributed. They also added a very wide reinforcement called a Schilt ("shield") near the cross to reinforce an area that would be very prone to breakage if it had a narrow blade. When you do all of that you have a weapon identical to the Arms & Armor Fechterspiel, and that's why our Schule uses them exclusively.

Albion, on the other hand, chose to ignore the medieval way of doing things and simply make a wide, deep fuller down the length of their blade in order to reduce overall blade weight. This works, but it's not a medieval practice and therefore has no value: After all, why practice a medieval art while eschewing medieval practices? Worse, Albion's Meyer is a Fechterspiel-style sword of the sort depicted in Meyer's Fechtbuch, but still used the wide, deep fuller to lighten the blade, even though they added a Schilt as Meyer's Fechtbuch shows; in other words, they're the same style of trainer as the ones at the Met that Arms & Armor copied for their Fechterspiel, but either Albion doesn't know that (which would be a terrible shame), or they just don't care—which would be an even worse disgrace.

The Arms & Armor Fechterspiel is a superb weapon. It handles as well as any sword I’ve ever used, is designed and built according to medieval designs and principles, is durable and very safe to use (bearing in mind that it’s still a weapon, and while not sharp is still capable of lethal blows) and is quite handsome as well. The balance is spectacular. The Fechterspiel comes in two versions, one with polished furniture and the other with rough castings, but frankly, there’s little to choose between them. I own two, one finished and one not, and they have held up marvelously in heavy practice.

The point of the Fechterspiel is simply rounded off, and while nice for some kinds of practice, tends to slide off too easily during actual thrusting practice. To compensate I purchased rubber bird blunts from an archery supply house and taped them in place. When you thrust against a mask they “stick” enough to simulate an effective thrust. In addition, the flex in the Fechterspiel blade is such that it absorbs most reasonable thrusts so they don’t hurt as much.

The only slight criticism I can make of the Fechterspiel is that the leather on the hilt has a thick seam which can rub your hands badly over the course of a long practice. I wish Arms & Armor could find a better way to sew the leather, but I’d rather have it as it is than have a glued edge that comes apart in the course of heavy practice as often happens with lesser weapons.

Of course, just as with any tool the Fechterspiel requires maintenance. They’re made of steel and so prone to rust, and while the steel is hardened well it still tends to get nicked in practice. I assembled a small kit for sword maintenance: It contains silicone-impregnated cloths from a firearms supply company, blocks of polishing compound suspended in a rubber matrix much like large pencil erasers, a file, a rag, a bottle of machine oil, and spare rubber blunts and tape. When I get home from practice I use the file to eliminate nicks and burrs in the blade and cross, then smooth the filed areas with the polishing blocks. I then wipe the blades and furniture with the silicone cloth unless I don’t intend to use them for quite some time, in which case I oil them carefully. It is very important to dress nicks and burrs right away because otherwise they can lead to weak spots in the blade and because they can draw blood from your partner when practicing things like slicing techniques.

The Fechterspiel is the only steel longsword allowed for practice in my Schule.

I have not yet had the pleasure of handling the CAS/Hanwei Federfechter, but like the Fechterspiel, it is a copy of an extant medieval practice sword currently in a museum in Switzerland. I have, however, had occasion to discuss this sword with people I trust. In general, most people found the sword to be an acceptable practice weapon with a few caveats: First, the blade has too much flex, which makes Winden practice problematic. Second, some of the parts are too “squared off”, which tends to make them a bit sharp (a few minutes with a file could probably solve this). Finally, some of the blades have broken in the course of normal practice. Whether these breaks are the result of an inherent flaw in the weapon or exceptions that represent swords slipping through quality control can’t be known at this time. I have to admit, however, that I find these swords extraordinarily ugly. They’re not inaccurate in design, but in the middle ages, just as today, some work was more elegant and more beautiful than others; these simply represent an aesthetic I can’t find appealing. Of course, that should have no bearing on their value as practice swords, it’s merely my taste. Even with all the flaws these swords have, they are very inexpensive for what they are and may deserve some careful consideration.

Friday, February 29, 2008

The Myth of Test Cutting


People love to take up their shiny, sharp swords and hack through various objects ranging from pool noodles to water bottles to rolled tatami. Doing so makes them feel cool and fierce and warlike when, in fact, all it really does is to lead them astray. This essay will show that test cutting has no value, no historical provenance, leads to bad swordsmanship, and confuses people about how swords work.

The idea of test cutting comes to us from Kendo and Iaido practitioners. Vast hordes of them practice test cutting of various sorts because they believe it will help them to cut better; they wax rhapsodically about it, actually, telling us that you can tell how perfect a swordsman’s cut is by how cleanly it cuts through the target while at the same time telling us that their swords are perfect razors whose merest touch will slice off a hand, apparently not seeing the inherent contradiction: If the sword is actually that sharp even a clumsy cut will kill—why do more?

In actuality, test cutting is not part of Japanese sword practice (well, not exactly). I know, I know, that sounds heretical, but it’s true. Bushi (what are know as Samurai today) didn’t do test cutting. “What?!” you cry, leaping to the scent of blood, “Have you never heard of Tameshigiri? Do you think we made that up?!” No, you didn’t make it up, you’ve been lead astray as to what it is.

“Tameshigiri was used to test the sharpness and quality of a sword: often it was carried out on dead bodies, tied-up living criminals, or bamboo straw test objects that had been secured to something. Educated or high-ranking bushi did not practice Tameshigiri, as it was purely a test of the sword’s sharpness, and in no way a measure of the samurai’s skills.” (Fumon, T., Samurai Fighting Arts: The Spirit and Practice, Kodansha Int’l., 2003, P. 49)

Bushi *did* practice one kind of cutting practice called “suemonogiri”, but that had a specialized purpose. When a bushi was going to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide, he would be assisted by another bushi called the kaishaku; his job was to cut off the head of the bushi performing seppuku (or almost cut it off—there were different kinds of cutting, but that’s outside the scope of this essay). Seppuku was considered an important ritual, and the kaishaku’s role was critical. Bushi spent hours practicing a huge, cleaving, ritualized cut (some ryu-ha have a kata devoted to it) to be used for the decapitation, and suemonogiri was an important tool in this process. But it *wasn’t* combat swordsmanship, and wasn’t practiced as such!

So: Test cutting had no relationship to combat.

Flash over to medieval Europe: We have no records of medieval knights practicing test cutting of any sort. There is one apocryphal story of Richard I but it didn’t actually happen, and it didn’t have any real combat relevance anyway. When we read about training in Europe we actually read only of training on a Pell; this is an excerpt from the anonymous Poem of the Pell:
“Of fight the disciplyne and exercise,
Was this. To have a pale or pile [pell] upright
Of mannys light [of a man's height], thus writeth old and wise,
Therewith a bacheler, or a yong knyght,
Shal first be taught to stonde and lerne to fight
And fanne [shield] of double wight tak him his shelde,
Of double wight a mace of tre [wood] to welde."

So we’ve established that test cutting has no historical provenance and no relationship to sword training. Now let’s look at what it does to your technique: When people practice test cutting they strive heroically to make a cut that’s smoother than the last time and which slices effortlessly through the target. Read any review of a new sword on the internet written by someone who believes in test cutting and a significant portion of his review will discuss how well they were able to do test cutting with it. But in order to get these smooth, perfect cuts the practitioners invariably (look at any video on YouTube) make huge, overblown cuts reminiscent of suemonogiri. They learn to make cuts that start from a high guard and end up with the point near the ground because this kind of follow through yields the smoothest cut.

But Hanko Döbringer (or whomever wrote Hs. 3227a) tells us this about cutting:
“And this art is quite earnest and righteous, and it goes from the nearest in search of the closest and goes straight and right when you wish to strike or thrust. So that when you want to attack someone it is as if you had a cord tied to the point or edge of your sword and this leads the point or edge to an opening.” (fol. 13v). This means we’re supposed to cut in a straight line from guard to the target, not a big swing. He adds to this later when he says: “For you should strike or thrust in the shortest and nearest way possible. For in this righteous fencing do not make wide or ungainly parries or fence in large movements by which people restrict themselves…they try to look dangerous with wide and long strikes that are slow and with these they perform strikes that miss and create openings in themselves.” (ff. 14r-v)

In other words, real swordsmanship is about making cuts as small and controlled as possible; not to the ground, but to a position usually called Langenort (“long point”). In fact, the earliest Fechtbuch, I.33, specifically says: “Note that the entire heart of the art lies in this final guard, which is called Longpoint; and all actions of the guards or of the sword finish or have their conclusion in this one and not in the others.” (Forgeng, J., The Medieval Art of Swordsmanship, Chivalry Bookshelf, 2003, p. 23). You see, when you cut to Langenort you’re stopping in a position in which your point threatens your opponent if you’ve missed, and thus you maintain control over the fight. If you cut to the ground you’re not really threatening him at all. (NB: You can cut to the ground on purpose as a way to lure your opponent into acting as you want him to; this technique is called the Wechselhau and is seen, among other places, in Lignitzer’s third play of the buckler, but note that it’s a special case in which you’re deliberately acting to provoke a response.)

Not only that, but cutting to the ground is dangerous because it gives your opponent an extra “fencing time” in which to act. The masters tell us to react to someone who does this with a technique called the Nachreisen (“following after”): “When he strikes an Oberhau and brings the blade down with the strike, travel after him with a strike on the head before he can get his sword up again.” (Tobler, C., Secrets of German Medieval Swordsmanship, Chivalry Bookshelf, 2001, p. 93)

Why do we cut to Langenort instead of to the ground? Simple: Not only does cutting to the ground expose you to a Nachreisen, but it isn’t necessary. That’s right, there’s no reason to do so. Medieval swords were sharp; not as razor-like as people like them today (such edges are usually brittle), but sharp none the less. It takes very little strength or effort to cut into a skull or hack into an arm with a good sword. The cut may not be perfectly clean, and the head or arm may not be cut completely off, but then you don’t need to do that to win the fight, and avoiding giving your opponent the initiative of the fight more than outweighs the loss of a perfectly smooth cut.

Another ugly habit that test cutting fosters is pulling the hands back slightly to prepare for the cut. It should be obvious why this is incorrect, but I have recently read people arguing in favor of it on various Internet sites. If you pull your hands back to “wind up” for a cut, even the most miniscule amount, you’re telegraphing your intentions to your opponent. Fencers who did this in the middle ages were called Buffel (“buffalos”; slang for a fighter who relies on huge, powerful strokes). They could be defeated either with the Meisterhau known as the Schielhau (“squinter”) or by a different variation of the Nachreisen: “If he raises the sword to strike, travel after him with a strike or a thrust and hit him in the upper opening before he can complete the strike. (Tobler 2001, p. 92).

So, test cutting has no historical provenance, no relationship to sword training, and teaches sword habits that can, at best, be termed “dreadful”. All it does is pander to a misplaced romantic desire to “cut something” with your sharp new sword, and there’s simply no value in that. Is there ever *any* value to be had in test cutting? Perhaps; people have, as I’ve said, an exaggerated sense of the lethal sharpness of swords (and I see the contradiction; I wish they did). The German tradition recognizes three primary kinds of attacks with a sword: Cuts (or blows with the edge), thrusts and slices. Many people believe that the merest touch of a blade on the flesh will give a lethal cut, and this simply isn’t so. This misconception leads to mistakes in the practice of slicing cuts, called Schnitten in the German tradition, in which the swordsman merely lays his edge on the target and pushes or pulls it along his opponent’s flesh. As anyone who’s ever carved a roast at dinner should know, this won’t be enough: you have to Schnitt powerfully with a heavy pressure of your hands to make a deep enough cut to be effective. There may be some justification for learning such techniques by test cutting, provided a realistic material can be found.

In general, however, the simple version is this: Just say no to test cutting.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A New Book on Medieval Grappling and Dagger Combat


I am very proud to announce the publication of the second book in the die Schlachtschule unarmored combat series entitled The Last Resort: Unarmored Grappling and Dagger Combat by Hugh T. Knight, Jr.

This book is intended to introduce the reader to the sophisticated techniques of medieval grappling and dagger combat as communicated to us from fifteenth-century German fighting manuals such as Hans Talhoffer’s fight books, Sigmund Ringeck’s “Knightly Art of the Longsword”, the anonymous “Codex Wallerstein”, Peter von Danzig’s fight book, the anonymous Gladiatoria fight book and several others. The intent of this book is to use a “dossier” approach to combine the techniques of several masters whose work is similar both stylistically and temporally to show a unified system of grappling and dagger combat as it would have been practiced in fifteenth-century Germany.

Mr. Knight begins with a discussion of the root principles of the German school of martial arts and how they apply to grappling to build a strategic framework for the art. He then goes on to use more than four hundred fifty photographs to take the reader step-by-step through breakfalls (not described in the fight books but necessary for safe practice); fundamentals such as stances, footwork, breaking your opponent’s balance, and strikes and kicks; more than forty grappling techniques, including counters and ways to counter resistance to your techniques; counters to common holds and strikes; dagger combat, including techniques for dagger-against-dagger fighting as well as unarmed techniques to use against a dagger-wielding opponent; and finally a section detailing groundwork techniques for finishing a fight.

This book will be of interest to anyone with an interest in medieval combat, history or martial arts in general.

The Last Resort: Unarmored Grappling and Dagger Combat has been published through Lulu.com and is only available for internet purchase at this time:

http://www.lulu.com/content/2077141

The author is the founder and head instructor of die Schlachtschule: The School of Battle in North Hollywood, CA, a school dedicated to rediscovering and practicing the knightly arts of combat from medieval Germany. He has more than 30 years of martial experience ranging from traditional Japanese sword and grappling arts to over ten years of German martial arts. He founded die Schlachtschule in 2003 and teaches a curriculum that includes sword, spear, pollaxe, grappling and dagger combat both in and out of armor. More information can be found on the school’s web site:
www.schlachtschule.org

Saturday, February 9, 2008

From the Bind of the Zwerchau


A few weeks ago I wrote a brief essay on the Zornhau in which I argued that Fühlen, the process of feeling a bind to see if your opponent is hard or soft in the bind, is not a passive process in which you actually wait for moment while bound to see what you can feel through the bind. I argued that in order to act Indes—instantly, or simultaneously—as the masters direct us to you must *test* the bind by immediately trying to use a technique designed for use if your opponent is soft in the bind—the Zornort—and then, if that fails, using that test result to tell you about the bind and what to do next.

I don't know how many others have noticed this, but it turns out that there are only two Meisterhau in Ringeck in which the master tells us to do "A" if our opponent is soft in the bind and "B" if he's hard in the bind: The first I've described above, the Zornhau. The only other is the Zwerchau.

In the Zwerchau we're told that if you strike with a Zwerchau and your opponent cuts into your blade to displace your cut you are to feel the bind (Fühlen), and if he's hard in the bind you do a Cross Knock (or a Duplieren, but we’ll save that for another time), or, if he's soft in the bind, you place your edge against his neck and Schnitt (or do a Back-lever Throw, but I dislike that play as being overly fussy and complicated). Just as with the Zornhau you simply don't have time to stop and smell the Fühlen after the bind happens. Your opponent isn't going to stand there passively awaiting your next act, he's going to move from the bind to do something else. Thus, again like the Zornhau, you must make your Fühlen an active test, not a passive "feeling out."

Also as with the Zornhau, what you test with matters: If you use a technique that you're supposed to use in a hard bind when your opponent is soft in the bind he will be able to react because techniques from a hard bind depend upon your opponent pushing into the bind to work. Someone who's soft in the bind can simply lift his sword away and do something else. To put it another way, techniques intended to be done when your opponent is hard in the bind depend upon his commitment to the bind.

Thus, in a bind from the Zwerchau you should first try to lift your hands slightly as if you were about to lift your point over your opponent's head for the Schnitt to the neck. If it works, fine--slice the bastard and go home for beer and pretzels. If it doesn't work, however, it's *easy* to convert that slight lift of your hands into a cross knock to your right (as long as you planned for that from the beginning and were ready to change gears). So we test the bind with the Schnitt technique, and if the bind is hard enough to stop the Schnitt we simply move right into the Cross Knock. Active testing, not passive; simple, fast and elegant.

That brings us to a related issue: I'm sure some of you have been practicing these techniques and found problems with them. Maybe your opponent's sword is too close to your hilt and the cross knock doesn't really work well, or his sword is on yours in such a way that it's hard to reach his blade to cross knock it. The answer to these problems (and numerous others I've seen people have with this set of plays) lies in where the displacement occurs on your blade when you Zwerchau.

If you cut with a Zwerchau and your opponent displaces from above such that he hits your blade just above the cross you'll find it almost impossible to get a crisp, sharp cross knock. That's not a problem, however, because the only reason it seems like an issue is that you're doing it in practice. If you were cutting for real and really trying to hit your opponent's head you'd find that your sword simply pivots on his blade and strikes—his displacement wouldn't do a thing. This is only an issue in practice when you don't practice realistically; you stop your attack because you *know* your Zwerchau is supposed to fail and you're supposed to do a cross knock. Even if the blow didn't land, since it would be his weak on the very strongest part of the strong of your sword if you follow my advice above and test with the Schnitt first you'd find that the Schnitt would work beautifully because having his weak on your strong makes the bind weak regardless of whatever else happens. So the Cross Knock should never happen from this sort of bind.

Alternatively, if your practice partner is binding too far out on your sword toward your point neither of these defenses will work because you won't have the leverage for the Schnitt and his sword will probably be out of reach for the Cross Knock. But while Ringeck doesn't specifically mention it in this particular case, you should already know what to do from other plays: You Durchwechseln under his sword! *Any* time your opponent binds down hard against the tip of your sword you should *automatically* Durchwechseln; it's an almost unbeatable defense when done correctly.

So the Schnitt to the neck and the Cross Knock should only be used when your opponent binds with the middle of your blade.

Thus, we see here a set of precisely-scripted actions from the displacement of the Zwerchau that are much like the ones from the Zornhau. They shouldn't be seen as a collection of random, unrelated techniques to choose from, but rather a way of limiting what you have to think about in the fight. Again, follow Döbringer's instructions to have a plan in place before you act. Know what you're supposed to do in every situation that can arise, and act in such a way as to limit the number of situations that *can* arise, and you'll find it's easy to have a well thought-out plan in every case, while your opponent will be floundering, trying to think of what to do in response to each of your actions, and he'll die while trying to decide what to do. That is die Edle Krieg—the Noble War.