Friday, October 16, 2009

Misguided Terminology

To quote a great scholar and patriot who is a hero of mine, “I’ve had alls I can stand, and I can’t stands no more!” Well, me too: There are just so many mistakes in common usage among students of medieval combat that I, too, have had all I can stand, and I can stand no more; it is time for some corrections.

First, there is no such thing as “chainmail.” None. That term was coined by misguided Victorian antiquarians because of a complete misunderstanding of medieval artistic conventions. When they looked at depictions of mail in medieval artwork they found several different ways of representing it, and because of ignorance and a too-credulous belief in the accuracy of artistic representation (a lesson that should be taken to heart by all students of WMA!), they believed each style of representation was literally accurate and represented a different type of defense: chainmail, banded mail, etc. In reality, different artists simply had different ways of depicting mail, and there is only one form (in Europe; the Japanese had a different style) of mail. There was such a thing as “double mail,” but that term refers to mail of a normal construction but with thicker rings intended to reinforce specific parts of a hauberk. The word “mail” comes from the Latin word for “mesh.”

I should not even have to say it, but the term “plate mail” is also completely meaningless. That term was invented by the makers of a particularly unfortunate role-playing game that has inculcated a large number of children with an incredible amount of ridiculously inaccurate information about medieval combat. The use of this term smacks of an adult living in his mother’s basement.

Further on that line, the word “maille” should never be used in modern sources. Granted, the word was spelled that way in medieval books, but it was a *misspelling* then. This smacks of the abomination “Ye Olde Shoppe” which is *never* correct, and, in fact, has never *been* correct—the “Y” is a poor attempt to capture the “thorn” diphthong symbol often used in Middle English, and we have long since abandoned the extra Es used in suffixes. I have even occasionally seen—heaven forefend—“chainmaille,” a mixed-message abomination I hope to never see again.

Simple shoulder armor is called a “spaudler,” not “spaulder.” Spaudlers are not pauldrons, and the terms are not interchangeable.

When speaking of the typical articulated arm defense of the 14th and 15th centuries, the term “vambrace” should be used to refer to the entire arm harness proper, not to the portion covering the forearm only. These vambraces consisted of the lower cannon (which protected the forearm), the couter (which protected the elbow), and the upper cannon (which protected the upper arm).

The garment worn under armor is referred to by different terms depending on the type of harness worn over it. The knee-length, (often) long-sleeved, padded garment worn under the great hauberks of the 13th century was called an “aketon” (from the Arabic word for cotton), *not* a gambeson. Gambesons were quilted garments, often of rich fabric, worn *over* or in lieu of mail in that period (many of these can be seen in the Mac bible). The best term for the fitted, usually unpadded, garments worn under the tight-fitting plate armor of the later Middle Ages is “arming doublet.” While not universal, the term doublet was most often used in the sources I have seen, and is used in the document “How A Man Shall Be Armed to Fight on Foot” (Hastings MS. [f.122b]). So please, let us not see the term “gambeson” misused any longer.

“Sparring” is a term reserved for pugilism; it has no meaning when applied to free-play bouting with swords. And free-play bouting with swords has no place in what we do, so I do not understand why it keeps coming up.

The term “broadsword” is somewhat problematic. It should *never* be used to refer to the one-handed swords of the middle ages, still less to bastard swords or longswords or swords of war. The term was frequently used to refer to the late-period basket-hilted English sword (often considered Scottish today, but I assure you, the Scots got it from the English) characterized by a double-edged, pointed blade of the sort George Silver referred to as a “short sword.” I, myself, use the term broadsword for this weapon in order to clearly distinguish between it and the backsword, an almost identical weapon with only one sharp edge which Silver includes in the term “short sword.” I do not use the term short sword because it was also used in the High Middle Ages to refer to arming swords, and I wish to avoid confusion between this earlier meaning and Silver’s usage.

Next, the term Fechtmeister: A Fechtmeister is a teacher of medieval combat, not an all-powerful being with 50 years of experience in the art and the ability to leap tall list fences in a single bound who has killed fifty men in *real* fights. Anyone who teaches WMA should call himself a Fechtmeister, just as anyone in the middle ages who taught dancing would call himself a “dance master.” The word master, itself, has come to have far too exalted a meaning in this day and age, causing people to shy away from it. Consider the Krumphau text in Ringeck: He tells us that to “weaken a master” we should strike his flat with the Krumphau (fol. 25v). Can he really mean this technique should only be used against the top experts in the art? Or is he simply using the term to refer to a skilled, well-trained student? The latter is far more likely. Please, avoid the chest-thumping false modesty of decrying the use of accurate medieval terminology; most who do it only do so as a way to put down those whom they dislike, and they demonstrate gross ignorance when they do so.

Finally, lest it seem I only criticize others, let me share my current shame: When I translated the Gladiatoria Fechtbuch, I translated the word “thartschin” or “tartschin” (spelled various ways in the MS) as “ecranche.” This term refers to a small shield used in jousting with a small corner cut out (called the “bouche” in French) to make room for the lance. A literal translation of the word would have been “target,” but that term is often used to refer to a small round shield today, and since most modern authorities I had read used the term ecranche for this kind of shield, I followed their lead. A friend of mine, Will McClean, who is one of the premier experts in the field of medieval deeds of arms, pointed out that the term ecranche is a very modern one, and that the word target was used in period. I should have used the word target, and will do so when I make an updated edition of my book.

Monday, September 14, 2009

A New Book About Pollaxe Combat

I am very pleased to announce the publication of the third book in the die Schlachtschule armored combat series entitled The Play of the Axe: Medieval Pollaxe Combat by Hugh T. Knight, Jr.

This book is intended to introduce the reader to authentic medieval pollaxe techniques as taught by medieval fighting masters. It begins with a general introduction about medieval fight books and the nature of armored pollaxe combat, and follows with a chapter dedicated to the strategic principles of medieval combat as they apply to the pollaxe. The author then gives a detailed chapter on how to train, including information about finding a teacher, training without one, and the equipment necessary for training. Next, the book goes on to explore detailed pollaxe techniques, starting with fundamentals such as stance, footwork and guards, and moving logically through techniques to be used in a wide variety of situations in pollaxe combat. Finally, it ends with an appendix containing instructions for creating drills to use with any of the techniques in the book, rules for free play in armor designed to recreate real combat, and a detailed glossary. Consisting of more than 200 pages containing over 380 pictures, this is the most detailed and carefully-researched book on armored combat written since the Middle Ages. It is available in both a perfect-bound edition and a spiral-bound edition designed to lay open flat for use at practices.

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

The Play of the Axe: Medieval Pollaxe 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:

Thursday, July 9, 2009

On Mixing Styles

When we choose to study Western Martial Arts how do we decide what material to study? Basically, we have four choices: We can study the teaching of a single master or source if that source is complete enough to be rewarding (e.g., Silver or Meyer, but not Codex 11093); or we can study a closely-related group of masters or sources (e.g., the Liechtenauer Society Masters); or we can mix and match various unrelated and often antithetical sources (e.g., mixing Ringeck and Fiore); or, finally, we can ignore historical sources altogether and simply go play tag with fake swords, making up whatever we want to do and ignoring the masters completely.

Obviously the fourth choice is not a valid option; anyone who has read this blog knows why that is so, so I won’t belabor the point except to continue to remind the folks who do this that there’s no reason in the world to make up a new system of combat—it’s already been done by those far more qualified to do so—and unarmored free play always has and always will change the system being studied: The Kendo Syndrome can not be denied.

Just as obviously the first two choices are perfectly valid. I have often thought of giving up Liechtenauer to study Silver because I find his material to be brilliant, but, alas, my heart is fixed on Harnischfechten and the pollaxe, neither of which Silver addresses. Meyer is, likewise, fascinating, and his books show a rich, and potentially very rewarding system—but, again, no Harnischfechten (as an aside, lately I’ve been accused of being opposed to Meyer or of putting him down because he taught Schulfechten; nonsense! I think he is a great choice for study for those not interested in Harnischfechten).

The second option, studying closely-related sources, is an excellent and perfectly valid choice but is not as perfect as the first option because when you start mixing then you run the risk of making changes. For example, let’s say that you study Liechtenauer through Döbringer, Ringeck, Kal, and von Danzig. Now let’s say that Paulus Kal’s book showed technique A being done one way, and all the other sources described it another. Which way do you choose?

What if, in his day, Kal was considered perfectly conventional in every single thing (he wasn’t, by the way) except technique A, and in that he was considered a radical for breaking with the Liechtenauer tradition. Not knowing that, you practice technique A as Kal showed it because he has a picture to help you understand it while the others do not. Now, if Liechtenauer came back from the dead, he’d look at what you’re doing and say that it was contrary to his way of doing things. No great harm, you say, after all, it’s pretty certain every master changed Liechtenauer’s art in some way. True, very true, but let’s say every one of the masters listed above had a technique like technique A; now you’d be doing techniques B, C, and D, too, and no real school of German combat ever used that combination of techniques. In effect, then, you would have created a new style of combat; one related to and derived from real schools of medieval combat, but still different.

Now I’ll grant that this example is likely a very small thing, and that the overall system you’d be practicing would be close enough to a real style of combat to be perfectly valid today, particularly given how much confusion we have about how a *lot* of techniques are to be done. I’m not trying to imply that four unusual interpretations make for an invalid system of study, not at all. But caution and diligence are required lest we go too far.

Having said that, I like the idea of using multiple sources to approach a single school; as Sydney Anglo wrote in his Renaissance Martial Arts, you can use what he calls a “dossier approach” to compare and contrast multiple sources, each with a slightly different way of expressing any given technique, in order to see the technique several different ways and thus build a much more creditable understanding of the technique being studied. Those studying a single master rarely have that luxury. Besides, no single source represents a complete system; I love Ringeck’s Fechtbuch, but he covers neither dagger nor pollaxe, and I would miss both forms.

But now we come to the troublesome option: Those who want to mix and match different systems with very different approaches to combat to build a system of their own. The most common mixes are Liechtenauer and Fiore, but I also know of one misguided young man who is proud to be mixing English, German (both Ernstfechten and Schulfechten!) and Italian longsword with Silver and goodness only knows what else.

Many who mix unrelated styles argue that all systems are really just the same thing; after all, they claim, there are only so many ways a human being can use a weapon. The young man I mentioned above has even gone so far as to claim, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, that there is only one pan-European school of swordsmanship. If there are only so many ways a man can fight, then why is it I can easily tell the difference between most of the techniques of Ringeck and those of Fiore? How can I instantly recognize the differences between Katori Shinto-ryu and Maniwa Nen-ryu and Eishin ryu? Since there’s only one way to fight shouldn’t all of these systems be the same? And how can I tell the differences between judo, jujutsu and aikido? Again, aren’t there only so many different ways to fight? Sure, there can be overlaps: Both Shotokan Karate-do and Taekwondo use front snap kicks and straight punches, but to any but the most casual viewer the overall effect of watching people from each style will make it clear they’re doing something very different. So saying that both Ringeck and Fiore have a technique in which you bind then thrust from the bind “proves” they’re really the same system is specious nonsense.

I’ve read people who claim that the deeper they study both Liechtenauer and Fiore the more they come to see them as the same thing. Untrue—that’s like saying the more you study apples and oranges the more you see them as the same thing. They may both be fruits, but they’re otherwise quite different, as a truly deep analysis will show. The more I read about Fiore and talk with those who study and teach his art the more I realize how fundamentally—I’m tempted to say “radically”—different his system was from that of Liechtenauer.

So any attempt to mix and match unrelated sources is really bound to create a new system; one never practiced in history. “So what?”, some people ask; didn’t Liechtenauer admit traveling all over Europe studying with different and presumably unrelated masters to develop his system? Yes, he did, and it was perfectly justified in his day, when people really used these skills in real life. But we, today, are supposed to be studying *historical* combat; combat the way it was really done. How can we do that when doing so means we eschew real systems of medieval combat in favor of making up a new one today when we’re not living in an environment where the skills of our art are being used for real? We’re not *qualified* to make a new system. You can’t say that you’re doing the same thing Liechtenauer did because you’re not doing it in the same environment (and, by the way, you’re likely no Liechtenauer!).

The only possible justification for developing a new style of combat is to develop one that’s more effective than the existing styles—one that will let you win more fights, in other words. But we don’t need to win fights today with swords and armor, such things just have no meaning in our modern lives. Only those living in a dungeons and dragons fantasy world argue about being “real swordsmen.” Our only valid reason for studying WMAs is to resurrect real systems that existed in the middle ages; making up new systems should be left to LARPers and their ilk.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Otake-shihan on Freeplay

I just found a great quote I wanted to share with anyone reading this blog. You've all read things I've written about Otake Risuke, the current Shihan of Tenshin Sho-dan Katori Shinto-ryu. This ryu is the oldest extant Japanese martial arts school and is listed as an ‘intangible cultural asset’; it comes from the days when bushi fought for real. Otake-shihan is considered a living national treasure of Japan and is the only one who holds a full license (gokui kaiden) in the art. In my opinion he is the greatest swordsman of any system living today. This quote can be found in its entirety here:

"Kata is still the teaching method in the classical Japanese sword arts precisely because it preserves the essence of the art's history—the art as it was understood by those who created it. Some schools, such as the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu … pride themselves on the fact that they have never used any type of free sparring in their practice.

{Otake-shihan said:} “(I)t is said that a shiai, or competitive contest, is synonymous with shiniai, which means ‘to meet for the sake of death.’ That is another way of saying that any kind of combat is a serious matter of life and death. As a result, from then until now, competitive matches have been forbidden in Katori Shinto Ryu...”

Otake-shihan then went on to say that, in bouting, "the vital responsibility and danger of handling a real weapon is replaced by the mental approach of the game-player with a toy weapon."

Game players with toy weapons. Perfect. Real swordsmen don’t do freeplay.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Bind

What do we mean by hard or soft in the bind? This misunderstanding needs to be resolved because it's one of the biggest problems people have when it comes to learning to do a variety of techniques, especially the Winden (more on this below).

OK, so what is a bind? You and your opponent stand in the Zufechten and he attacks, so you displace his cut with your sword: now you’re in a bind. If you cut first and he displaces it doesn’t matter, you’re still in a bind.

There’s no inherent advantage in a bind—no one is in a better position. In general, the one who moves first wins, but not always (e.g., the Sprechfenster). But whomever moves first is in the Vor and whomever waits for his opponent to move is in the Nach.

The masters tell us to Fühlen—feel—the bind to determine if our opponent is hard or soft in the bind (which I advocate that you do with what I call “active Fühlen,” but that’s a discussion for another time) and then to act Indes (“instantly”) and appropriately; they give us a list of techniques to use in any kind of bind that can happen, with those techniques being built upon the concept of replying to strength with weakness and weakness with strength. To learn to do that, however, you have to understand what is meant by each kind of bind.

In general, there are only two kinds of bind: Hard and soft. But each of those can be broken into various subcategories. If someone is soft in the bind you can push your point straight forward in a thrust and his sword will be moved out of the way by yours. If he is hard in the bind and you try that thrust you will find that unless you are very strong and are willing to engage in a test of strength (which we know never to do) you will not be able to push his blade out of the way with your thrust.

There are three subcategories of a hard bind: In the first, your opponent pushes your sword out to the side and somewhat upward with strength. In the second your opponent pushes your blade out to the side and somewhat downward with strength. And in the third your opponent holds the center line with his point aimed at you using enough strength that you can’t easily push his sword away but without actually pushing at all—he just holds fast, controlling the center and threatening you with his point. This last version is what a skilled fighter will always do (although if you push on his sword with strength he should obey the injunction quoted above and react to your strength with weakness).

Finally, there’s one last thing someone can do in the bind: He can leave it.

So, to go back to our original scenario, your opponent cuts at you—let’s say he does so with a Zornhau—and you respond by cutting against his sword with your own Zornhau to displace his cut; you are now bound. And let’s further suggest that you immediately (Indes) try to thrust straight at him with your point from the bind while, of course, remaining am Schwert (on the sword; i.e., in the bind). If your opponent is a common swordsman one of five things is likely to happen: (1) he can be soft in the bind, in which case your point goes home and he dies; (2) he can push your thrust out and up; (3) he can push your point out and down; (4) he can stay hard in the bind, controlling the center, in which case your thrust slips off harmlessly to his left; or (5) he can leave the bind and try to void your attack while attacking on the other side of your sword (Abnehmen). Of course, a skilled swordsman can attempt to counter your thrust using one of the sophisticated single-time techniques from the Fechtbücher, but that’s a different discussion.

Now, if your opponent does any of those things the masters give us a whole list of things to do in response. Against a soft bind you just thrust and he dies—no problem. If he pushes your thrust out and up you Zucken over his blade. If he pushes out and down you Durchwechseln under his blade. If he holds the center line you Winden or Duplieren. And if he leaves the bind you snap your hands over to your right to hit his head and bind his blade in one motion. (These are all just examples, of course, you could do other things as well).

When you read a Fechtbuch and are told to do some given technique against someone who’s hard in the bind, however, this always refers to someone who holds the center firmly, not someone who pushes off to the side. If the technique being described is supposed to be used against someone who’s actually pushing his sword out to the side the technique will always tell you that.

This is important because quite a few techniques meant to be used against someone who’s hard in the bind will not work if he’s pushing his sword outward to move your point away from him. An example of this is the First Winden (“first winding”): Many of my new students have come to me, frustrated because when they try to do the First Winden it doesn’t seem to work. What they don’t realize is that their training partner is (inadvertently) cheating them by creating a situation the First Winden isn’t designed to deal with—he’s pushing outward. In fact, if you try to do the First Winden and your opponent moves his sword outward you should immediately (Indes) change to the Second Winden, but that’s a discussion for another time, too.

In conclusion, then, when you feel the bind you have to know what you’re feeling for and what to do whatever your opponent might do. As you’re practicing, however, be aware of what the text really means: Someone who’s “hard in the bind” is holding the center line firmly with his point aimed at you and he is not pushing his sword outward.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Testing Yourself and Your Art

I often read about people who say that if you don't test your skill in freeplay then you're not a swordsman, or words to that effect, and I'd like to explore that a bit.

What do they mean when they say that? Well, mostly what they mean is they want to see if this stuff really works, then they want to see if they're any good at it. And it only seems logical that there's no other way to test that other than freeplay, right?

Well, here's the problem with that kind of thinking: Newtonian physics seems a lot more "logical" than relativistic physics; in fact, the latter is so counter-intuitive sometimes it's hard to wrap your mind around it. None the less, when we measure the effects it turns out Newton was wrong; close (for the wrong reasons and only in mild conditions), but wrong.

So it is here; the “logical” answer of an ignorant mind is wrong because it doesn’t posses all of the facts. First, how will you test that the techniques work? Freeplay isn't a fight, it's not even much like a fight. In a fight with swords you know you can easily die—for real. Not lose a bout, not get teased by your friends, *die*. That means you never, ever ignore an attack because if you do, you'll get killed. In freeplay, however, people often take risks they never would if a sharp sword was swinging towards them—they make a calculated gamble on the basis that they might pull their trick off, but in real life they wouldn't be that stupid.

And they think that this factor isn't a big deal—another failure of “logic.” Many techniques in the KdF only work because of the “threat factor” inherent in some techniques. One of the big reasons we never see any actions from the bind in freeplay videos is that people leave the bind because they think they're fast enough or lucky enough to get away with doing so, even though they should know it's bad technique. And usually their opponent isn't very good, and maybe they *are* fast and lucky, and so they get away with it sometimes. In real life, however, once you're in that bind your opponent's point is aimed at you, and if he does his job right and you leave the bind you're going to die on his point. So KdF techniques are geared around your opponent doing things the way he would if a *real* sword was aimed at him. Modern foil fencing actually tries to take this kind of thing into account with its rules about right of way, but that doesn't work all that well—rules intended to make a sport like combat never do.

So, clearly, you can't test these techniques to see if they work because you're not using them for what they're designed for. But that's moot: The techniques work, they really do. German people weren't stupid. Liechtenauer's art wouldn't have been the most famous and widely-written-about and copied art in all of Germany for more than 150 years if it didn't work. So people who doubt this need to get over themselves and stop pretending they're qualified to have a contrary opinion on this subject.

All right then, so what about testing yourself to see if you can really *do* the techniques? Sorry, but you can't do that, either, at least not in freeplay (but see below). The safety rules, safety gear and artificial structure of a sports bout make for a kind of fighting that's too different from a real fight for their test to have any meaning.

Let me make an analogy here: I usually compare kendo and kenjutsu, but something I wrote yesterday reminded me that most people have no idea how huge the gap between those two is, so let's compare judo and jujutsu (real jujutsu, not that silly, unrealistic, sportified version the punk rockers in Brazil play with). In essence, Kano-sensei developed judo as a means of discipline and spiritual development, not as a true combat system. Oh, he saw value in self defense applications, and a good judo dojo will work on those quite a bit, but that wasn’t his primary goal. He developed a system of freeplay called randori which could be practiced safely as a means of helping the student practice the *principles* of judo, but, in fact, when you look at the self defense aspects of judo you find that the majority of the techniques they teach there are not permitted in randori. Kind of telling, eh? Why aren’t they permitted? Because they’re *dangerous*!

Judo was developed from jujutsu, but in jujutsu there’s no randori. Do you know why? Because the techniques can’t be done safely in a competitive environment. After all, they’re like the self-defense techniques that Kano-sensei forbade in judo randori! In randori you try to break someone’s balance so you can throw him, and there are rules to ensure that you throw him in a way that won’t cause serious damage. If you can’t break his balance you switch to another technique and just keep going until the time in the bout expires. That art isn’t all there is to this is proven by the fact that there are weight categories in sport judo; this is because it often takes a lot of strength to make some of the techniquess work.

In jujutsu, however, you don’t just try to break someone’s balance, and you don’t use much strength to do it, you normally use a strike—called atemi-waza—to render him unable to resist. I’ve met lots of people I can’t unbalance well enough to do a hip throw just using movement on the mat and a push-pull motion of my hands, but I’ve never yet met anyone I couldn’t throw easily after first stuffing my fingers into his eyes!

So, in actuality, randori “tests” neither the techniques of the system to see if they work nor the practitioner’s ability to use those techniques because the safety rules and artificiality of the bouting rules change the nature of combat so radically. As I said before, it was only intended to be a way of practicing the root principles of the system; the need for strength and power comes in only when you pervert it into a sport.

Early in the 20th century the Tokyo Police Department held a contest between well-known judo and jujutsu experts to determine which would become their official martial art. In a closely-fought contest with numerous safety rules the judoka won, but it was a near thing. The reason they won isn’t that judo is a better system of combat—it’s manifestly not, nor was it intended to be—but because they got competitors who were just *better* at the sport. Real giants (not literally; one was remarkably small) of the art who were very good at what they did. Actually, all of the winning team were jujutsuka first, anyway. When you get competitors who are very good at their sport and pit them against each other it doesn’t prove that one approach is better than the other, it merely proves which side had the better competitors. In this case the difference is even more profound because there was no jujutsu in the competition. That’s right, none. Do you know why? Because the safety rules meant that most of the techniques that make jujutsu different from judo weren’t allowed. And what was left? Judo. So jujutsu wasn’t tested at all in the competition, and no one in it tested his ability to perform in combat. All they did was see which side was better at a sport.

This analogy is perfectly suited to the KdF. Consider Ringen: In Codex Wallerstein Master Ott (or whomever wrote it) tells us that: “Although a weak fighter in a serious fight can be equal to a strong opponent, if he has previously learned agility, reach, combat techniques [by which he means joint breaks, etc.—HTK], and death blows, in a friendly fight strength always has the advantage...” (Wallerstein ff. 15r-15v; Zabinsky pp. 66-69) In other words, a weak fighter can win in a lethal fight if he uses reach and agility *and* joint breaks *and* strikes to vital targets, but in a sporting environment the stronger wrestler will usually win… just exactly like the difference between judo and jujutsu. So we can’t practice combat Ringen in a competitive environment any more than we can practice longsword in a competitive environment. That’s why we practice Ringen just like they practice jujutsu in traditional Japanese dojo: in a carefully-controlled drill environment, not in freeplay.

And this analogy holds true for the longsword too: The addition of safety rules, the ability to ignore risk, the safety gear you need to wear that prevents you from executing many of the techniques, the gamesmanship or playing of the rules, etc., etc., etc., ad nauseam… All conspire to prove that when you do freeplay you are *not* testing your ability to fight, merely your ability to play a sport.

So the “real” swordsman isn’t the one doing freeplay, he’s just playing a game. It might be fun, and if he’s willing to lie to himself it might let him pretend he’s a mighty warrior doing his art “for real.” But in reality what he’s doing has no more combat relevance than handball, and what’s more, he’s ruining the efforts of those who are trying to resurrect a lost art because by changing how it’s done, they take away from the historical art in favor of a new version designed for 21st-century notions of sport.

“But,” I can hear you shouting in anger, “if all that’s true, how can we learn to do our techniques under pressure against a resisting opponent? Don’t you see how important that is?” Of course I do, but that’s a different question, and one that has nothing to do with freeplay. I’ve written before about how you use a series of progressive drills, starting with controlled and carefully-scripted ones and progressing to more and more free-form drills against a resisting opponent. By the end you’re engaging in very short bouts of what could almost be considered freeplay, but there are important differences: By absolutely controlling what both partners can do you can eliminate safety concerns without softening the rules and you can prevent people from gaming the rules because if someone tries you merely stop, explain the error, and continue on. I’ve written about these drills elsewhere (look at older blog entries) so I won’t go into great detail about them here, but done correctly, these kinds of drills come closer to real combat than any freeplay system ever has. That’s swordsmanship. That’s art. That’s real.

Is this approach perfect? No, of course not, to be perfect we’d have to fight real bouts with sharps with death on the line, and none of us will ever do that. So no, none of us will ever perfectly master our art, it’s true; but then, you know what? we don’t need to, because none of us will ever be in a life-or-death swordfight. But we’ll come a lot closer than someone doing freeplay, and we’ll do it without ruining the art all of us are working so hard to resurrect as those who practice freeplay do.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What is vom Tag?

The term vom Tag means “from the roof”, and is so called because it is most often used to launch attacks from above. The Fechtbücher, however, give us two different variations of the guard. Here the guard is described by the two most important Fechtbuch authors of the fifteenth century, masters Sigmund Ringeck and Peter von Danzig:
“Stand with your left foot forward and hold your sword at the side of your right shoulder or above your head with your arms extended.” (Ringeck fol. 34v).
“Hold your sword either at your right shoulder or with your arms stretched high over your head with your left foot forward.” (von Danzig fol. 26r). (Translations mine.)

We are also fortunate in that there are actually drawings from the Fechtbücher depicting how the guard is to look. The one accompanying this entry above is from von Danzig, and you can clearly see he is showing the version held on the shoulder. The overhead version can be seen in the Paulus Kal Fechtbuch here:

So it should be clear from these sources that there are two versions of the guard, both apparently of equal value or usefulness. But did the masters consider both variations to be equally useful? How would we know? One way to consider the question is to examine various Fechtbücher to see what they say about the actual usage of the guard in real techniques. First, let me say that when you take this approach the results are ambiguous to say the least; much of the time the texts tell us nothing helpful about this issue. Having said that, however, there are a surprising number of passages that give us a hint. I am not going to list all of them here since they all fall into one general form, that of telling us to cut from our right shoulder, as in this example: “Note: When your adversary strikes at you from his right side with a strike from above, then hit with a Zornhau from your right shoulder against it.” (Ringeck fol. 19r). I believe the “from your right shoulder” is very clear.

Although this can not be considered “evidence” in any rigid sense, when I look for examples that would suggest a cut from vom Tag should be performed from the over-the-head variation of the guard I can find none at all. To me, that makes what we have far more meaningful. Add to that the fact that von Danzig chose to show only the shoulder version of vom Tag and I believe a strong case can be made that the shoulder variation was the more common version of the guard (at least with the early masters—see below), although not the only one.

Having said all of that, I do not believe the overhead version of vom Tag should be dismissed as useless. Clearly Paulus Kal was a Liechtenauer Society member, and his book shows only the overhead version (although not all his guards are strictly canonical; for example, his Alber is held back toward the hip so that the guard is more to the side rather than directly in front as other authors describe it). Moreover, later authors such as Meyer and Mair show only the overhead version of the guard, and their texts support its use. We must note, however, that Mair seems merely to have illustrated others’ works, and Meyer taught Schulfechten (“school” or sport fighting) as opposed to the Ernstfechten (fighting in earnest) of Ringeck and von Danzig; it could well be that the lack of thrusting in Schulfechten made the overhead vom Tag more useful (or less vulnerable). We can not know, but we do know that both authors were later than our primary sources and that their art varied significantly from earlier sources. Thus I do not believe these later sources should be used to address this question for those of us who study Ernstfechten today.

Recently, some ARMAteers have been quite vocal about their interpretation of the guard vom Tag. They claim the only “true” version of the guard is the overhead version, doubtless because of their severely flawed approach to cuts in general in which they try to make the cuts as wide and overwhelming as possible (very much like a Buffel as described by Ringeck) in direct conflict with the instructions in Ms 3227a to cut with short, direct movements. This misunderstanding has led them to call the shoulder version of the guard “lazy vom Tag” under the general principal that to scorn something is the same as showing valid evidence relating to it. When asked about the picture in the von Danzig Fechtbuch they say the other guards are painted strangely and so this one must be as well, thus they dismiss them all. Personally, I find the other depictions just fine (although the Pflug is shown with the hands back a bit farther than I do it) and precisely in keeping with the instructions in the major sources, so this argument is clearly specious. There is a “lazy” vom Tag, and that is when the hands are held so low that the cross is well below the shoulder: this version of the guard renders a correct straight-line cut of the sort described so clearly in Ms 3227a difficult if not impossible, but this is a fault of tired students, not a problem of interpretation.

In closing, it would be a mistake to say there is only one version of vom Tag, but the evidence seems slightly to favor the shoulder variation for those who practice Ernstfechten. As for “lazy vom Tag”, we may safely leave that among the arguments that edge-on-edge displacements were to be avoided at all costs and that cuts from above are supposed to go to the ground.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

What is a Pollaxe?

Pollaxes (please note the spelling) include three primary variants: Those with axes and spikes, those with hammers and spikes, and those with axes and hammers. All are "pollaxes" regardless. This is the common academic use (although many academics mistakenly spell the word "poleaxe") and it was in use in period as well.

Sydney Anglo, one of the most respected scholars working in the field, writes:
"With few exceptions, narratives of axe fighting date from the middle decades of the fifteenth century and are Burgundian in origin; and, of these, the only chronicler who made a serious attempt at accurate and detailed reporting is Olivier de la Marche. Yet even he uses a wide range of terms for the various parts of the pollaxe which he usually designates by the word hache, through he sometimes prefers baton. On one occasion only, when describing the encounter between Jacques de Lalain and an English knight in 1448, does Oliver specify a taillant, that is an axe head with a cutting edge: and it is, I think, significant that another account of the same combat similarly makes special reference to this feature. Olivier frequently mentions the use of the hammer-head (maillet or mail)..." (Anglo, S., Le Jeu de la Hache: A Fifteenth-Century Treatise On The Technique Of Chivalric Axe Combat, Archeologia, CIX, 1991, p. 3)

“Poll” is an archaic English word meaning head; the modern term “polling” (as in political polls) derives from it because polls are like head counts on a particular issue. Thus, a pollaxe is a headed weapon, meaning a staff weapon with a head on it. A halberd is another kind of poll arm, or headed staff. Because people forget what poll means they assume it is an archaic spelling for “pole” since all of these weapons are mounted on a sort of pole. (It is sad how changes in language use are so often touted as being positive things when they are so commonly based on complete ignorance and an unwillingness to do research.)

While the French and Germans did not typically use the "poll" (it is an English word, after all) they still referred to all these variants as axes. This picture:
shows pollaxes, and we know they were considered axes because Talhoffer's text says: "Der erste anbinden mit der axt" or "the first bind with the axe."

Here's another example from the Paulus Kal Fechtbuch:
with exactly the same text as the Talhoffer plate above, except he spells the word as "axe" (those medieval Germans weren't really careful about spelling).

As you can see, in both of those examples the axes in question are pollaxes with a hammer on one side and a spike on the other. Even more interestingly, almost all medieval fighting books that show pollaxes show the hammer and spike version (an exception is the very strange Codex 11093) and all refer to them as axes in spite of having nothing we modern people would recognize as an axe blade. Some German authors occasionally refer to pollaxes as "Streitaxt" (battle axe) or "Mordaxt" (death axe), but those terms are rare; most of the time they simply call them axes.

In Le Jeu de Le Hache (Fr: "The Play of the Axe") the term used is simply "hache," which is French for "axe," and yet the descriptions in the text make it absolutely and unquestionably true that the axe being described is just the same as the ones shown in the German sources: a hammer and a spike.

Unfortunately, no extant German source gives us a good set of terms for the various parts of the axe, so we turn primarily to Le Jeu for that. The hammer is called a "mail"; when there's a blade on the axe it is called a "taillent" (although this is never the case in Le Jeu); the spike on the back of the mail is called the "bec de faucon" or falcon's beak; the spike on top is called a "dague"; the "croix" refers to the cross formed by the head of the axe and the shaft; the smaller cross formed by the two small bolts often used to hold the head on the weapon are sometimes referred to as the "croisee." When there is a spike on the bottom end of the shaft it is called a “queue” and the metal strips that sometimes reinforce the sides of the shaft are called “languets” (although these are never mentioned in Le Jeu).

Some of these terms play a double role as well. The author of Le Jeu intended the weapon to be used more or less in thirds (one third above the right hand, one third between the hands and one third below the left hand) and he uses the term croix for the entire third of the weapon above your right hand and the word queue for the entire portion of the shaft below your left hand. The portion of the shaft between your hands is called the “demy hache.” This is important to note because it can lead to confusion if you do not understand this naming convention: I saw a video on the internet showing someone who was blocking attacks with the actual head of the axe in places where Le Jeu says to displace with the croix because he misunderstood this; what the text actually means is to displace with the shaft of the axe below the cross proper. If that was not true then displacing attacks with the tiny queue would be difficult at best!

So the terms "Bec de Corbin," "Lucerne Hammer," "polehammer," and "poleaxe" should never be used when referring to pollaxes, and all types of pollaxes, whatever the head configuration, should be called simply "pollaxes" unless you want to use the German or French terminology, of course (or you can just call them "axes," but then people will think you mean a hatchet).

Friday, May 1, 2009

Edge on Edge Contact

Some authors have argued that you must always displace your opponent’s attacks with the flat of your blade so as to prevent your edge from being damaged. While most people realize this to be a fallacy today, some groups (whom I can not mention without angering a bunch of guys in red shirts) stick dogmatically to a misunderstanding of this issue.

This particular myth springs from a desire on the part of one author (we all know who, right?) to show how historical combat was completely different from what Hollywood showed on the big screen without actually doing the research necessary to understand the problem. Additionally, some folks have noticed that relatively few extant swords have much edge damage, thus leading them to believe edges were not used for displacement in the middle ages. There is also a certain sense of value operating here: someone buys an expensive sword and he can not imagine letting it get all hacked up, so he transfers that reticence to his medieval ancestor.

As logical as all of that might seem, careful research shows it is simply not true. Hollywood doing something does not automatically make it wrong (suspect yes, but not necessarily wrong), and most extant swords probably were not used for fighting; only the nicer pieces tend to survive. Moreover, we know swords often got hacked up; read this quote from a fifteenth-century chronicle:
"...and after the battle his sword was all but ruined. The beautifully gilded hilt had been bent and nearly wrenched free and the blade all notched and toothed like a saw" (Gutierre Diaz de Gamez, The Unconquered Knight: A Chronicle of the Deeds of Don Pero Nino, tr. John Evans, In Parenthesis Publications, 2000, p.16).

Then we look in the Fechtbücher themselves. The German sources do not say much on the subject, but George Silver does; in his “Brief Instructions” he says: “...ward his blow with the edge of your sword” (fol. 24r). You can not get much more clear than that, and he is not alone—other authors say the same thing.

Edited to add another master's instructions:
“All cuts must be parried with the edge. The reason: Because, if one parries with the flat, the parry can be easily cut aside, and thus a strike can be achieved.”-- Erhardus Henning; Short Yet Thorough Instruction on Cut-Fencing, 1658.
Why displace with the edge? The fact is that while you might get a nick in your blade, you have to remember that you will normally displace with your strong and cut with your weak, so nicks on the strong have little effect on the sword’s efficacy. Worse, if you displace with the flat of your blade you are much more likely to break it. Consider a wooden board: If you strike the edge you are much less likely to break the board than you are if you strike the flat—it is simple physics.

Moreover, edge displacements are stronger than ones with the flat. Try this experiment: Get a practice sword (not a sharp one) and hold it normally. Now have a friend push against the edge while your resist, then try again with him pushing against the flat: Surprise! It is much easier to resist his push with your edge because that is the direction in which your grip is strongest. Thus, if you try to displace with the flat of your sword there is a chance your opponent will be able to simply blast through your defense.

So while you might not normally go out of your way to displace edge to edge, in many techniques it is perfectly normal; the Zornhau is a perfect example of this. And, as you can see, there is no reason to twist the principles of fighting completely out of their natural order in order to avoid doing something that is not only natural, but perfectly safe.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Gladiatoria Fechtbuch

I am very pleased to announce the publication of a new fight book translation by Hugh Knight entitled: The Gladiatoria Fechtbuch, published through

This is the first-ever complete translation of the anonymous fifteenth-century fight book commonly known as The Gladiatoria Fechtbuch. It contains detailed information on armored spear, halfsword, dagger, and ground fighting techniques along with unarmored techniques for Long Shields, sword and buckler and staff combat. Most medieval fight books consist of text with no pictures or pictures with scant, cryptic text, but The Gladiatoria Fechtbuch is rare in giving us both pictures and detailed text explanations of the techniques it shows us.

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: