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 and is only available for internet purchase at this time:

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:

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.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Did Medieval Commoners Practice with Fighting Masters?

Did common soldiers practice der Kunst des Fechtens (lit. “the Art of Fighting”, that is, formal martial practice under a Fechtmeister or “fight master”), or was it reserved for the upper classes? The simple answer is that it's tough to be certain; sadly, that's the answer to most questions on this frustrating subject. Having said that, I think I have a pretty good idea of the generalities of the issue as long as we bear in mind that we can only speak in broad generalities.

One of the most important issues in that question is unstated but implicit: You have to ask "trained in what?" for the question to have any meaning. If you mean trained to fight with pollaxes in full harness or with lances on horseback then the answer is categorically *no*, but, of course, there are other kinds of combat.

In Alfred Hutton's important work, _The Sword and the Centuries_, he pointed out that our modern pseudo-democratic notion that the great warriors were all common men and that upper-class men were all sissified fops is pure nonsense. The simple fact is that members of the nobility were the only ones who had *time* to really study martial arts; the common man usually worked from sunrise to sunset in often backbreaking labor for most of the middle ages. This is even true of soldiers: remember that most armies prior to the 15th century weren't *standing* armies, and were mostly composed of nobility anyway, except for commoners who were mostly laborers. (Note the "mostlies" and "usuallies" in that paragraph, of course.)

Having said that, the common men of Flanders kicked the crap out of the French nobility in the early 14th century at Flodden (and while most people have done that since then, up to that point the French didn't lose all that often). Likewise, Swiss commoners beat the hell out of Burgundian knights at Sempach in 1386. How did they do that? Partly through playing to the French weakness of relying on cavalry, but probably it was also due in part to some skill at arms. The thing to note, however, is that the Flemish and Swiss citizenry were largely middle-class townsmen, and that's a fact to hang on to; while the growing middle class of the later middle ages had more free time than your average serf farmer, they still weren't working 40-hour weeks with 3 week vacations! Still, they had some free time to devote to arms, and after all, emulating the upper class was a big deal in that period.

We also know that Swiss citizens, for example, held regular practices on weekends and feast days in the common square. It's likely they practiced drill more than anything else, since drill was the key to their kind of fighting, but they probably practiced the basics of the use of the halberd and may have practiced sword & buckler as well. There's nothing to tell us that these training sessions were held under the eye of a recognized Fechtmeister, however. My guess is that guys who had some experience passed on the basics of what they knew and that was that.

Writing at the end of the 14th century, Fiore wrote that:
"Moreover, any nobleman who studies this work of ours should take great care for it as it were a treasure, so that it will not be divulged among the peasantry, which Heaven created dull and only for the use of heavy work, like animals of burden. Therefore, one must keep this precious and secret science away from them and bring it to Kings, Dukes, Princes, Barons and other noblemen entitled to dueling." Ringeck wrote something similar in his prologue, although less explicitly, and later in his text he wrote: "Princes and Lords learn to survive with this art, in earnest and in play."

The extent to which they meant this seriously isn't clear; it might have been largely pro-forma. Certainly by the end of the 14th century the lines between commoner and nobleman were blurring more and more from a practical point of view, and this blurring of practicality led to a "firming up" of the rules and privileges of nobility; it was much harder to rise from commoner to nobility in the 15th century than it had been in the 14th century. That being the case, perhaps this kind of thing was a reaction to "uppity" commoners (like the burghers of Flanders?) who were encroaching on noble culture.

By the time we get to Talhoffer, however, things seem to have changed. In his 1459 Alte Armatur und Ringkunst, Talhoffer explains in detail how regular folk (or so it seems) are to prepare for a judicial combat. They have a complicated court proceeding to go through, then if the judges agree to the combat the principals have six weeks and four days to prepare for the combat, and Talhoffer specifically tells people they should find a reputable Fechtmeister to train them for the upcoming fight. Since Talhoffer also includes forms of combat specifically intended for lower-class participants (e.g., the 6-foot Hackenshilds shown in the picture accompanying this essay), we can take from this that he taught lower-class men how to prepare for formal judicial duels.

Moreover, this kind of dueling predates Talhoffer: In the second section of Codex Wallerstein, which dates from approximately 1415 (almost 30 years prior to his first published work), we see these same kinds of dueling shields. How, or if, they trained to use these shields that early is anyone's guess, but they may have, and their presence in such an early Fechtbuch suggests at least some had formal training, although, as with Talhoffer, I suspect their training was a last-minute thing and only for those who had need.

Moving on, by the early 16th century it's clear there were fencing guilds composed almost entirely of commoners (again, mostly middle-class townsmen; the goldsmiths were, for some reason, particularly active). The two most famous were the Marxbruders and the Federfechters. They practiced a variety of forms of combat, some of which were "noble" forms, such as the longsword, but note that the longsword was largely out of fashion by this time, and that most of their forms were for commoners, such as the staff and halberd.

There's no hint of such guilds prior to the 16th century. My guess is that a master such as Talhoffer would get himself hired by a noble patron (in his case Leutold von Königsegg) and would provide most of his time to him and his retainers in formal regular classes, but that he'd make some money on the side tutoring wealthy townsmen and those preparing for a judicial duel—not a formal guild, nor even a "school", really, outside of his duties to his lord and the retainers, but a student-teacher relationship. There's a rumor around that someone has documentation to the effect that several of Talhoffer's students were arrested or charged with getting into fights or disturbing the peace, or something, and I have yet to find the data in question, but it might give some interesting insights into this question.

So, to answer the question, my guess is that most lower-class soldiers in the mid-15th century and earlier had almost no formal training of any kind prior to their military service (other than some weekend drills composed mostly of training to drill in formation, and even that only in largely middle-class environments such as the Swiss Cantons). Those who stayed in service for a long period (and that would be a relatively small number in the days prior to standing armies), especially garrison troops, would probably get some kind of training in his specific weapons (bow/crossbow, matchlock, halberd, pike, sword and buckler) from his more experienced compatriots, but that training would never be even nearly as extensive nor as broad as that received by most men at arms in the same period. Gentlemen, on the other hand, were quite likely to have had formal, regular practice with a licensed Fechtmeister in their liege-lord's employ. By the 16th century, however, formal Fechtbuch training would be fairly common for the middle class.

Another thing to remember which may have a bearing on the question is that *none*, no, that's right, not a single one, of the 14th-15th century fighting manuals showed many techniques designed for war, not even that of Fiore, his claims to the contrary notwithstanding. There were some incidental things, of course; for example, Talhoffer shows how a lightly-armored crossbowman should shoot his crossbow on horseback when faced with lance-wielding opponents, but even those are all “stand-alone” techniques, not an expression of a system per se. But the majority of the techniques shown were very clearly and obviously single combat techniques, not those to be used in the massed formations of war.

For example, the pollaxe techniques in all the manuals show the pollaxe being held in the middle, not at the end. If you try that in a line you'll discover that you smack your buddies on either side and entangle yourself. I believe that in war (and the iconography supports this) the pollaxe was held at the Queue end, but not a single manuals deals with this. Likewise, halfswording is almost never seen in paintings of war; why? because swords are almost useless in armored combat. That they were used in judicial duels reflects tradition and specialized applications more than anything else. In war the spear, halberd and the pollaxe were kings.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Are We Always Supposed to Attack First?

On the subject of initiative, it has become apparent that some folks have become a bit too dogmatic as regards to the idea of the Vor, or “before”. Some people labor under the mistaken view that the Liechtenauer school of fighting requires you to attack first and continue attacking at all times.

Döbringer seems to tell us we should always attack first:
"The first strike [Vorschlag] is a great advantage in the fencing as you will hear in the text." (fol. 14v)
"The word before [Vor] means that a good fencer will always win the first strike [Vorschlag]." (fol. 20r), etc.

Some people take that to mean you never await an attack, but should always try to make the Vorschlag. And after the Vorschlag, you should always act, keeping pressure on, never waiting. Döbringer says:
"Here note that constant motion [Frequens motus] holds the beginning, middle and the end of all fencing according to this art and teaching. That is you should quickly do the beginning, the middle and the end without delay and without any hindrances from the opponent and not letting him strike at you." (fol. 17v)

So by telling us to keep in constant motion, Döbringer is saying that once in the Krieg phase of an engagement you should keep constant pressure on your opponent with attack after attack after attack until your opponent falls.

Just reading this source, then, we are driven to conclude that we are supposed to attack first from the Zufechten and then, if that attack is displaced, to stay in constant motion with attack after attack in the Krieg until our opponent is defeated. Then we go have beer and pretzels.

But here's the thing: Von Danzig and Ringeck both include techniques that require you to wait. This is from Goliath relating to the Sprechfenster:

"And this is also the Sprechfenster. Mark when you have come to him with pre-fencing, then set your left foot forward and hold your arms in Long Point toward his face or chest, like when you bind onto his sword, and stand freely against what he would fence to you. If he strikes long and high to your head, then drive out and wind the sword into the Ochs against his strike and stab to his face; or if he strikes to your sword and not your body then change through and stab him on the other side; If he strides in and his arms are high, then drive below the cut or charge through to him with wrestling; if his arms are low, then resort to grappling the arms; thus you drive all aspects of the long point." (fol. 61r)

This isn't subject to misunderstanding: We're clearly being told to adopt Long Point prior to the bind and to wait for what our opponent might do. Moreover, we also have instructions that tell us to wait an attack not only in the Zufechten, but also in the Krieg:

"How you shall put yourself in the Sprechfenster
When you go to him in pre-fencing with whichever strike, coming then onward as with a low or high strike, then let your point always shoot in long to his face or chest by which you force him to displace or bind on the sword and, when he has thus bound, then stay freely with the long edge strong on his sword and straight into the intent of what he would fence against you. If he seems to go back off of the sword, then follow with it or to an opening; or if he flies off the sword striking around to your other side, then bind strongly against his strike high to the head; or if he will not pull away from the sword after striking around then work by doubling or with other similar elements afterward as you find him weak or strong on the sword." (Goliath fol. 60v-61r)

In essence, this is saying to attack from the Zufechten with a Vorschlag, then, if your attack is displaced, to put yourself into Long Point and *wait* to see what your opponent will do. You clearly aren't supposed to wait long; if your opponent doesn't act you're instructed to Duplieren or use some other technique "am Schwert", but there must still be a noticeable pause in which you must, perforce, yield the Vor to your opponent.

There are only a couple of conclusions we can reach from these sources: Either we're taking Döbringer too literally, and he means you *usually* (rather than always) take the initiative, or else von Danzig et. al. changed the art (as we know they did to some extent; see previous discussions regarding the Nebenhut, etc., but this is rather more fundamental), or else Döbringer simply wasn't interpreting Liechtenauer correctly in the first place (as we suspect to be at least partially true from his guards, etc.).

Part of the answer may lay within Döbringer itself. In the last section of the longsword material he writes about waiting for an attack when faced with multiple opponents:
"Here rightly begins the very best fencing by the aforesaid master know, this I tell you that it is called the Iron Gate [Eyseryne pforte], which you will understand soon. 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, set them aside [Absetzen] with strength going up from the ground and then you will shame them well." (fol. 44v)

So what he's saying is to stand in Alber and await an attack, lifting your sword for a single-time thrust with opposition (Absetzen) as each cut comes in. Now granted, this technique is from the section of the manuscript wherein Döbringer gives us instruction from non-Liechtenauer masters (Hanko Döbringer himself, Andres the Jew, etc.), so you might argue this has no relevance to a discussion about Liechtenauer's art, but the Absetzen is a central technique in the Liechtenauer tradition, too, and is mentioned in his verses.

My take on this remains what it has been: That those who argue Liechtenauer's art requires us to attack first all the time whenever we can and then to continue attacking unceasingly after the initial bind are mistaken; it is a matter of assigning too much precision to medieval writing styles. We have to read *everything* to make sense of any of it (another reason it's so hard to make any sense of the Italian style since it had only two authors).

Of course, having decided that issue, the question then becomes how to decide when to wait and when to press; that I leave for another time.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Pollaxe Configurations

As I was working on my pollaxe book I had a revelation: As most of you know, almost all Fechtbücher (with the exception of Codex 11093 and Mair, who treats it more like a halberd than a pollaxe) show pollaxes of the hammer and spike variety, whereas the vast majority of non-Fechtbuch iconography from the 15th century show the hammer and blade configuration (after the 14th century; the earliest pollaxes seem to have been of the blade and spike sort). This has long bothered me, but I have a suggestion of an answer:

Many pollaxes have Languets, or straps of metal that run down the sides (and less commonly, the front and back) of the shaft. I've never seen a lot of value in these because I've always thought of swords hacking into the pollaxe shafts (which wouldn't be that effective), but that's stupid: swords weren't that useful on the 15th-century battlefield (on foot) except among lightly-armored support troops. But what if the axe blades on pollaxes were used to hack opponent's pole weapon shafts (including but not limited to pollaxes), much as Doppelsoldner's among the Landesknechts used Zweihanders to hack the heads off of pikes in the next century?

That would explain the discrepancy: That sort of tactic would be of relatively little value in single combats of the sort covered by the Fechtbücher (it's too easy to simply pull your axe away from such a heavy blow), but highly useful in war. And we've already established that relatively few men probably had extensive Fechtbuch training in the middle ages, so naturally when they did enter into single combats they'd choose the sort of pollaxe with which they were most familiar--the one they'd have used in war. That explains why most non-Fechtbuch iconography, even single combats, shows the axe and hammer sort of pollaxe!

I think the timeline looks like this:
--Pollaxes developed from regular axes in the 14th century as knights sought ways to overcome heavier armor
--The 15th century saw the development of the hammer on pollaxes because experiment showed them superior for overcoming armor; axe blades were retained on pollaxes used in war because they were good at chopping through shafts, but were left off of dueling pollaxes such as those in the Fechtbücher because they had little value
--The 16th century saw a reversion to the axe blade on pollaxes because they were more often either ceremonial or used in unarmored or partially-unarmored combat

Of course there are *serious* exceptions to most of that; these statements represent apparent *trends*, not "facts". For example, the likely reason we see knights engaged in duels with axe and hammer pollaxes in non-Fechtbuch iconography might be that they never studied with a Fechtmeister and that was the kind of axe they were used to from military service.

I must emphasize that there's no evidence one way or other on this subject, and that this theory is purely speculative. It does, however, neatly answer the question, I think.

Bouting: How Does It Affect Our Art?

With any martial art you have to practice as realistically as possible to get the maximum understanding of your art. Ideally, you would actually fight life-or-death with real equipment against an opponent who was actually trying to kill you in order to really learn your art. Of course, in our modern day and age this isn’t possible, so we have to try to come as close to that as we can and accept the shortfall as the price of living in a peaceful age or location.

There are three primary ways of making practice safe enough: Using “safer” weapons, wearing protection on your body, and reducing the danger of your actions. Unfortunately, all three of these practices reduce the accuracy of what you’re trying to do. Safer weapons usually handle nothing like the real thing, protective gear on the body limits motion and prevents you from moving as you should, and changing the way use your techniques obviously limits the reality of what you’re trying to do.

Students of the Japanese sword found themselves in a dilemma when peace became the norm in feudal Japan: there was no way to easily test themselves and their art, so as a result they began to search for ways to practice more safely. First they replaced their steel swords with wooden swords (as much to protect their valuable swords during practice as for safety), but they discovered that wooden swords are almost as lethal as steel. Then they created shinai; strips of bamboo joined together to form a flexible rod. These were fairly safe, but still caused some damage, so partial armor was added to the mix and the modern sport of Kendo was created. As anyone who has studied Japanese swordsmanship will tell you, however, Kendo bears very little resemblance to real Japanese swordsmanship. In one sense there’s nothing wrong with this, of course: Kendo is a wonderful sport enjoyed by many. But for those of us trying to recapture the essence of a lost art it’s not a meaningful approach.

Modern students of der Kunst des Fechtens (the art of fencing) face the same dilemma the Japanese faced; indeed, something of the same problem was acknowledged in late-period Germany. Schools of martial arts drifted away from Ernstfechten or “fencing in earnest” until all that remained was a martial sport called Schulfechten or “school fencing” (Schulfechten had existed beside its more martial cousin all along, but now it was all that remained). Schulfechten training involved blunted swords and they changed their art to forbid the use of the thrust and to limit the more dangerous grappling techniques (e.g., joint breaks) for safety’s sake. Even so, these limitations still left an art that is too dangerous for today’s sword students (surgeons made a good living sewing and splinting the injuries of a day’s bouting in historical fencing schools), so we see them taking the same route that the Japanese took: Instead of steel or wooden longswords, they fence with shinai that have been modified by the addition of crossguards and pommels to simulate European longswords and they add protective equipment that limits their movement more than true longsword fighting would have. As a result, I fear that modern longsword practice may become no more than Kendo and lose completely the tenuous connection we’ve been building with the lost arts of our ancestors.

Fortunately, however, students of Harnischfechten are in a somewhat better, although still not perfect, situation. Wearing safety equipment in armored fighting is not just a necessity of safety, it actually makes our practice more realistic. And while we haven’t yet come up with realistic metal training weapons that are safe to use as simulators, we can still make some pretty acceptable ones that, when combined with good armor, will allow us to fight at almost full speed and power.

Getting accurate and realistic armor, however, is problematic. The simple fact is that the vast majority of armor available today is so incredibly bad that it in no way simulates the way the real thing worked, nor does it provide the necessary safety. This means you really have to work hard to find an armorer who not only claims to be making highly-accurate armor, but who really is. Moreover, the armor has to match the kind of fighting you’re doing: Wearing the harness of a 12th-century crusader will in no way teach you anything about how armored duels were fought in the period of the Fechtbücher.

Assuming safe, realistic gear, all that remains is to put it into play. To do that, however, you have to know how it was used and create a rule structure for your bouts that adequately reflects actual practice and, at the same time, rewards historically-correct actions and punishes inaccurate ones (by which I mean the rules make it impossible to win a fight by resorting to inauthentic techniques). Most strikes are ineffective, and thrusts have an effect only to the openings between plates; even then, thrusts must be done differently against a gap in the plate covered by mail (e.g., the armpit) than they are against a target with no mail (e.g., the palm).

The New Messerfechten DVD From

Thanks to Mark at Gaukler’s Medieval Wares:
I just received my new Messerfechten DVD from Agilitas.Tv.

My first reaction, after watching the entire thing, was “Wow!”; this is a great piece of work and is even better done, if that’s possible, than their earlier Longsword DVD (and *much* better than the DVD they misleadingly called “medieval wrestling” that turned out to be anything but). The production values are superb, the sound is great, the camera positions perfect for seeing each technique, and the way they “froze” the action while technical points were explained was really well done and very helpful.

Before I go any farther, let me say that I don’t study Messerfechten; not really. I use some of the Codex Wallerstein Messer techniques as part of my arming sword material and I use Talhoffer’s arming sword/messer techniques as stand-alone material (but with arming swords, not Messer), but that’s about it. And I certainly don’t know much at all about Lecküchner’s teaching other than spending a few hours staring at the hundreds of plates in the Fechtbuch, so I can’t comment on whether anything was “right” or “wrong” in this DVD in any specific technique sense.

Having said that, the DVD shows a discrete set of techniques and explains them very clearly and precisely. The DVD is organized well, with clearly-defined sections, each of which has a primary technique and then variations and counters clearly developing from the initial technique.

I found the techniques presented in the DVD to be fascinating. Some of them represent ideas I haven’t seen in any other German text but which I know from Japanese martial arts. Many of them are quite clearly taken almost precisely from Liechtenauer (albeit with modifications for the nature of the weapon) while others are clearly aligned with Liechtenauer’s principles but represent developments of the art specifically designed for the Messer. I confess some of the techniques seemed overly fussy, especially some of the grappling techniques; in some of the grappling techniques you are in contact with your opponent’s Messer, right on the edge, while you perform techniques that require two or even three fencing “times” without adequate control being applied to your opponent’s sword, implying, to an outside observer, that a withdrawing Schnitt should be possible. Again, without actually practicing any of this I wouldn’t want to make that sound like a condemnation—clearly this will require study and practice.

I missed the opening “duel” with steel swords between Alex and Hans with which the Longsword DVD opened, but its absence was more than made up for by the inclusion of a fascinating vignette done in a castle in period clothing which showed Master Johannes having two of his students demonstrate techniques while an artist busily drew out the Fechtbuch. I think this was a *fantastic* bit of business that should really show people how Fechtbücher were made, and it was very well done.

I also loved the “show fighting” chapter. Lecküchner includes a number of techniques that are intended more for showing off than serious combat, and these were presented very well, too, especially when Hans picked Alex’s pocket while holding him in a bind, and the one where Alex pinned Hans and then played backgammon while holding him down, which is *right* out of the Fechtbuch:
And I *loved* the demonstration of how it’s easily possible to perform halfsword techniques even with a very sharp sword without cutting yourself. Just having that demonstration is almost worth the price of the entire DVD.

One thing really bothered me, however: The vast majority of the cuts did not seem to be performed according to Liechtenauer’s principles. Specifically, in the vast majority of cases the demonstrators did not “Follow the Blow” by starting their cut and then stepping as Liechtenauer instructs. Moreover, in a number of cases they actually moved the tip of the sword backward, then started to cut rather than cutting as if a string pulled the edge to the target; this is the behavior of a “Buffel” according to the masters. They also made most cuts that failed to connect with the target drive all the way to the ground rather than stopping in one of the Hengen or in Long Point (in spite of discussing this in one section), a point admittedly open to a great deal of argument among those who study the Fechtbücher, but to my mind a serious mistake. All of these mistakes are indicative of too much test cutting practice in which the art of swordsmanship is sacrificed on the altar of clean, neat cuts through tough targets. Admittedly, as I said, I don’t study Lecküchner and he may say to do these things differently, but I find that hard to believe. Yes, how far to go with a cut that doesn’t connect is a debatable issue, but the other mistakes are clear telegraphers and I was disappointed to see them.

All in all, however, this is a magnificent video and everyone should get a copy as soon as possible, even if you don’t intend to study Messerfechten.