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.