Saturday, February 2, 2008

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).


Arne Koets said...

yeah, i agree, really.

One needs to bear in mind what one changes in the parameters and how it could change the outcome or other factors.

I think sparring is very important, bacause part of the art is to know what to do, when one fights. the split second desision, judgement of range, momentum, what have you.

different ways of sparring are giving you different insights.

It does depend on the amount of risk you're prepared to take.

I like to use steel weapons, that are made to resemble the balance of sharps well. But one cannot fight full power without hurting someone. I think power application can be selective to the bind. at least partly.

I also do harnischfechten. and yes equipment needs to be good, and yes good technique needs to be encouraged. otherwise it is just a fun game with no meaning (like kendo in a way).

correct weapons CAn be used and also realatively full force, but it wrecks the equipment, wich has to be good, so it has to be VERY expensive... so i do it half contact, I suppose.

With every movement and technique one needs to consider what it COULD have meant. The point is to avoid the situation where your opponent Could have hit, rather than actually hit. You might have been lucky, but your art was bad...

Is that still sparring? is it still competative? I think it has too much humility to be truly competative. I think the competative side is not for me, but the free flowing decision making is what interests me.

and yes I find it fun.

I also notice a lot of people that shun sparring have different ideas of speed, momentum, all of it really!

I don't like Shinai, they bend in ways that swords just don't this has an impact in binding, winding, accuracy in thrusting, any type of defence (as you can hit around a corner) the weight is wrong, the air resistance is wrong (yes that matters)

much the same applies to rattan. It's just not a sword.

rebated weapons are FAR closer. I have also fought with sharps, no armour with intent. the fear makes a difference. the binds are similar though, grabbing the sword takes far more guts, but i'm sure you'd get used to it. (i only did it a few times)
we didn't land hits, of course, but there was force in the binds and all that.

It did allow me to look at what i do and compare it, and i think it is close-ish. I think it has a value.

is it different in real life? Hell yeah! but first and foremost in terms of adrenaline and psychology.

I've not done a lot, but know people who did. If it's interesting to them, it's good enough for me.

From what i can tell medieval training di include tournament fighting. that was their competative version to 'have a go' they thought it had value as training.

I think it has value, and from what i read, it probably is not that far from what you think, or did i read that wrong?

good luck with your school, though.

we all do this for ourselves and as long as we are happy with what we do, it should be fine. WMAists need to learn to stop slagging each other off.

respect!, i suppose

Hugh Knight said...

Hi Arne,

I get your point about free play, but you said it yourself: You can't do it full power without hurting each other, and you know that if you change the weapons or add protective gear so you don't hurt each other you can't do the same things you'd do without the gear on. All of that changes the way you fight, so it's not realistic. I always shake my head and sigh when I hear people say they're school is more realistic because they do Bloßfechten free play because it's obvious that doing so makes what they do *less* realistic, just as Kendo is less realistic than Kenjutsu.

Yet you're also right about learning how to deal with speed, momentum, etc. In our Schule we solve that problem by doing full-speed unscripted drills. It's not free play--it only lasts a technique or two and non-documentable techniques aren't allowed. The teacher starts with an unannounced technique and the student has to counter correctly, and if the teacher then counters that the student has to counter the counter. It never goes on longer than that. And since we're doing controlled drills targets can be "missed" on purpose for safety.

This isn't perfect--real free play is what you need, yet as I've shown, you can't do real free play... and besides, none of us are ever going to be in a real sword duel! Losing a small fraction of the "edge" is better than ruining our art by pretending to do something that only acts to change our art.

Harnischfchten is quite different. As I say in my essay, Harnischfechten *can* and should be practiced using free play, but only after several years of full speed controlled drills in armor, otherwise the student just starts ignoring the art and doing whatever he thinks will score a point.

Tournaments, or more correctly, "friendly deeds of arms" (technically a "tournament" in the middle ages was fought on horseback in large teams) are a little help, but not much since the techniques used are quite different. For example, at the deed of arms fought at Vannes in 1381 it's clear swords were being swung at each other using the edges insteead of being used for halfswording because halfswording was too dangerous (and they weren't using Fechtbuch longsword techniques--they were just swinging hard at each other to make for a showy fight). Likewise, spears were aimed at breastplates, not at the gaps in a harness as you would in a serious fight of the sort taught in the Fechtbücher. Also, spears were often just used for "pushes", meaning you plant the point on someone's chest and push to knock him back or over. All of this is very different from the kind of fighting taught in Fechtbücher, just as sport jousting, where you aim for "safe" targets differed from lethal jousting where you not only aimed at dangerous targets but you also tried to deflect your opponent's lance, etc.

So, as you can see, there's little connection between friendly deeds of arms and the kind of fighting taught in the Fechtbücher. As far as I can tell (and Harnischfechten is my specialty), none of the Fechtbücher except Le Jeu de La Hache even try to address friendly deeds of arms. I've been doing full-speed bouting with pollaxes in armor for more than 15 years, however, and of all the forms, this is the form that lends itself to safe free play in both friendly and serious formats.

Arne Koets said...

i think mistake me on a few minor points: 'my free play' is done with no protection at all, sometimes not even a t shirt (makes it easier to see exactly where you hit on the body) with steel, but dull swords. In a sence i do something that is close to what you discribe: it's, i throw a technique, now you counter it! but without the my-go-your-go. The difference is largely in samantics.

Competative sword stuff doesn't teach you to stay alive, and that's what i interpret what they wanted to learn. That's what i want to learn. I want to learn to dictate the fight and make sure he will not come to blows. (did i say that right?)

we might continue a few techniques further than you do, but that's where the difference seems to stop. we might start a stuck,(meisterhau, winden, durchwechselen for example) get foiled (hopefully in the described manner) and then either retreat using an strike (like meyer prescribes) or try to close and wrestle (if we haven't done so already). that's really the extent of it. but we also learn to judge the moment when he changes from guard to guard, the ranges from which to attack and so forth.
we might follow one 'bout' with another quite quickly (within a second) but that just keeps you on your toes.

as i say, not all that different i think.

as for the harnischfechten:

le Jeu regards pollaxes, and those can be used to target plate, that's what they're for. when it comes to the targeted areas in pas de arms or whatever you want to call it:

smithfield, 1467?: dague in the visor? basterd of burgundy had to stop.
jaques de lailaing? he quite often uses the queue to the face, making three trusts through the visor wounding his brow in quick succession...

The fights go to so many blows, and i believe they are 'so many hits' but a KO strike might be a wrestling to the ground or a hit to a leathal target that makes an opponent yield, or be stopped by the 'ref'. it is described clearly, several times. The extant challenges help with this as well.

tournaments proper are mellees on horseback, then there is the joust or tilt and the fight on foot, yes, but the term was a bit looser than that! There is also a general 'sport' connotation in the manuscripts that talk less specifically. It also depends on the language on tries to translate into english, and so forth.

all in all, We make a lot out of a small difference. we agree largely, don't we?

I don't think SCA fighting has much to do with real stuff, however fun it might be, for example, but that's not to say that all free play is that distorted.

Hugh Knight said...

Hi Arne,

From what you describe it sounds like we're *very* close, yes. Our version may have a little more "control" of what's going to be done to it, but that probably doesn't really make much of a difference.

As for Pollaxe, I would say it might have less use in striking armor than you seem to be suggesting in Ernstfechten, at least. Yes, the head and hands are valid armored targets for striking blows, but they are secondary attacks for the most part. I think thrusts of the Dague and Queue are the primary weapons of choice, and in Kampffechten those would be directed to gaps in the harness.

Other useful attacks agaisnt armor seem to me to be designed to damage the armor, especially the articulation. We see a lot of that in the Mordschlag techniques of Ringeck, von Danzig and Gladiatoria (with the pommel of the sword, obviously), but while telling such techniques aren't lethal, which may explain why they don't show up much in Le Jeu or any of the other pollaxe books.

You bring up the Smithfield deed of arms between Scales and the Bastard of Burgundy and Jacques de Lalaing, and you're right about the face thrusts, but note that the presiding noble always stops the fight when something like this happens. Moreover, since they obviously fought with visors down (except when Jacques wanted to prove how macho he was), I believe these thrusts to the visor were intended to be stunning techniques--like punches to the face, almost.

As for the SCA, it has little relevence, of course, in its main format. But with minor tweaking of the rules it can be made remarkably close to the kinds of fights we read about in friendly deeds of arms where you just throw smashing blows to one another to impress the audiance, and you should know that many SCAdians do that kind of fighting--even prefer it to the standard SCA fight.

Thor said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems that you're more concerned with preserving the authenticity of the art/technique of fighting than with the actual usefulness of it as a combat method.

I won't argue against the fact that any "free play" or "sparring" except at full speed with real weapons changes the way you behave, and practicing bad habits is... well, bad. That's true of anything.

When learning piano, you learn proper fingerings before anything else and you (generally) don't break that habit because as you learn more complicated pieces, you discover exactly WHY your fingers go right where they're supposed to go and never anywhere else. It occurs to me that without real combat, perhaps you never reach that "AHA!" moment of "oh THAT'S why we learn it that way."

Would you walk your students onto a battlefield? Not a modern battlefield with firearms and grenades, but a historical battlefield with swords and horses. Would you take them into battle, having never had practice? That's an honest query, with no implication of expected response.

I realize that's fairly irrelevant. It's really very unlikely that the opportunity will ever arise. It's just odd to me to perceive a martial arts instructor to be more concerned with the authenticity of technique than with the actual effectiveness of its employment.

Consider as a counter-example any unarmed martial art. Would you still advocate not sparring if the aim of training was actual combat preparation, rather than what (it seems to me) amounts to a hands-on history lesson?

I won't claim any expert knowledge; I'm just an average guy who stumbled onto your blog and is fascinated by it. It seems to me that to study a martial art without the intent of using it in real combat is not much different than studying a sort of improvisational dance.

I mean no insult or disrespect by this question (or by anything else I've asked or stated), but I feel I must ask it. Why? If you don't intend to actually engage in combat, why study and practice a martial art? I took martial arts lessons when I was a kid because I got in a lot of fights and didn't want to keep getting by ass kicked. I don't get into a lot of fights as an adult, so I don't see the point of continuing/resuming such training.

Please consider it a foregone conclusion that I am precisely as ignorant as I appear; there's no need to say so. I know that I don't know anything, an that's why I ask. I want to understand what I don't understand.

Hugh Knight said...

(Again, I have to ask--Thor? Really?) We have to ask this question: Why are we studying HEMA? None of us will ever be in a real fight with swords or pollaxes, so there's no reason to worry about winning a fight. The only valid reason for studying HEMA is to resurrect a lost art. To learn what the real experts did, and learn to do what they did ourselves.

Modern sport fighting is nothing even vaguely like real combat. Here's an example: In real combat, you're scared to leave a bind because that needle-sharp point is aimed right at you. In a game of sword tag, however, there's no possible harm from that point, so you're perfectly willing to leave the bind in the hopes of winning a point. Thus, the very nature of combat is radically different from playing sword tag. I can give many more examples of the problems, but you'll read about most of them in the various essays on my blog.

Your concerns are that without doing free play (what the ignorant call "sparring," but that term should only be used with fistic arts) we can't say we're good enough to win in a real duel. You're half right. We can never becomes truly skilled swordsmen, period. After all, none of us will ever fight for real! But the sword tag players will become even *worse* than real swordsmen, because they practice a children's game completely removed from real fighting. In actuality, our approach will bring us *much* closer to actual dueling skill than the playing of sword tag.

Bushi, or what most people call "samurai" faced this same problem. To solve it, they practiced partner (2-man) kata. One of the original systems, still practiced the same way it was in the 15th century, is called Katori Shinto-ryu. The current head instructor of that style, Risuke Otaka, says that their school has never permitted dueling as a training method, relying instead on 2-man kata. He said that playing sword tag cultivated an air of playing games with toy swords.

So, bottom line, we don't play the childish game of sword tag because we want to learn a real system of combat that actually worked, not make up a fluffy new one based on a misconception of combat derived from playing a child's game. Our way is *more* realistic, not less, as commonly believed.