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.


Josh said...

Wow, this is insane.

Yes, there are instances where you ward with the edge. But in those situations you are striking on your opponents flat.

It would be pointless and stupid to beat the crap out of a tool you are using to ensure your survival. Did edge on edge contact happen historically? Yes! But I doubt it was intentional.

As far as striking on the flat creating a higher break risk, not likely. I know of no one who has had a quality sword break receiving a strike on the flat under normal conditions. I HAVE however seen swords weakened significantly by having gouged edges. By notching the edges, you create a weak point for a future break.

Just my 2 cents.

Hugh Knight said...

Hi Josh,

Not insane, historically documentable. Silver (and others) *tell* us to do it. It's time for modern people, who can have no "real" experience of sword combat, to stop pretending that our experiences have any value. The *fact* is that real medieval swordsmen advocated edge-on-edge displacements. That ends the issue. We can debate why they might have felt these were appropriate and/or acceptable, but we can’t debate the fact that they did. We have sword masters telling us to do it (e.g., Silver, among others) and we have chronicles showing us it happened (e.g., Don Pero Nino, among others).

Thus, it’s not insane, and any teacher who says it is either woefully ignorant or has an agenda having little to do with historical swordsmanship or both.

Sure, a solid nick in the edge of a sword is a bad thing. There’s no denying that. What that clearly tells us is that there must be some reason they didn’t worry about it in period the way you do today. My guess is that swords were largely considered disposable; after a fight, if the sword was too damaged to re-grind into a useful configuration you just got a new one. But even if my guess about why is wrong, the *fact* that edge blocking was practiced in period CAN NOT BE DENIED.

And folks, when I post these blogs I take care to document my assertions with historical evidence (or else I carefully note that something is just a guess). Just posting a response that says “Well I don’t think that’s right” based on your practice of a hobby isn’t a valid counter to the *evidence*. Even showing a different source that says to never block with the edge (although I’ve never seen one) wouldn’t be a counter to my evidence—after all, just as there are different schools of thought about almost any subject of study today, there were bound to be some folks who took a different approach to this subject in period. All that evidence would prove is that *some* experts didn’t believe in edge-on-edge displacements; it wouldn’t disprove the fact that some did. You’d have to show evidence that said that Silver (et al.) didn’t write what they wrote—that someone else stuck that material in afterwards. And we all know that isn’t the case.

I really wish people would study the art of debate before posting contradictory comments on here.

Just my $200.00.

Unknown said...

I find your blog very interesting. This article particularly got my attention because, ever since I got interested in medieval fencing, I always heard the same: "avoid edge on edge contact". I would tend to agree that a nick on the strong on the blade isn't that problematic (though I don't know whether it would weaken the weapon or not). I don't think a sword is quite the equivalent of a wooden board, because the sword will be able to bend instead of breaking, but I see what you mean.

About George Silver: I didn't know the book at all, so I went to have a look at it. And he does say those words, but in this context: "The like may you do if he strike at your other side, if you ward his blow with the edge of your sword(...)". So it isn't a general instruction, but a very specific one, for one situation only. I couldn't find another place where he said the same. Moreover, this instruction doesn't precise whether the parry would be edge on edge, or edge against the adversary's flat, or at least against his edge in an angle that wouldn't be too damageable for the blades.

The chapter in which he writes this is titled "Of the short sword & dagger fight against the long sword & dagger or long rapier & poniard". Since the rapier is a thrusting weapon that tends to have less of an edge than other swords, it would also reduce the damage one does by parrying against it with his own edge.

Of course, I’m not saying that they never parried with the edge, they obviously did, at least sometimes! But, from personal experience, if you’re used to do otherwise most of the time, you won’t feel the need to do so very often. And the idea of seeing two blades clashing against each other’s edge at high speed makes me cringe (but that’s just me, with what I’ve been taught so far).

Now, I can see that you do your research before writing, so do you think you could give me a few more sources saying the same? You mentioned others, but I don’t know them, and, honestly, it is easier to ask you, since you know what you’re talking about. (Not saying that I will change my mind, but I will certainly consider your evidence. And if it comes to that, we can always agree to disagree!)

Hugh Knight said...


As to Silver, that isn’t one specialized instance—it’s how he does all his displacements. Do a scan function on Silver’s text: Every time you see him mention a “true cross” he’s talking about a hard, edge-on-edge displacement at right angles to the opponent’s sword. Then read his longsword instructions: He says to do everything as you would with the short staff, and most of the displacements there are “edge on edge” displacements if you take out the staff and picture a sword instead.

DiGrassi, too, tells us about displacing with the edge: “To defend against a cut, I have spoken of the stop thrust. Because I know that some timid souls out there might prefer to defend themselves first, another way is to parry with the edge. Then, thrust to the face while stepping with your left foot circularly to your right.”

The German sources mention this action less often because of the nature of the art. We don’t do right-angle displacements very often, not because we’re worried about getting a nick in the edge of the sword, but because we usually want to use angles to minimize force. But think of the technique in which you displace a Zwerchhau and then push down into Unterhengen. By definition, you *must* meet his sword edge to edge.

Or consider this play from Goliath: “When he strikes you with a Cross from his right side high to your head's left, then displace with the long edge and stay with the point in front of the chest, if he then strikes from the sword over with a cross to your lower right opening, then you also strike across through low between you and also to his right side, and so bind on his sword and immediately stab to his lower opening.”

Here is the picture:
I know it doesn’t look as though the swords are edge-to-edge, but that’s because medieval artists never drew swords “edge on” to the viewer. If you practice the technique, however, you will see that since he is cutting your lower target with his edge, and in order to meet it, you must, necessarily, bind edge-on-edge. There’s simply no other way to do it.

Or consider this play from Talhoffer:
When you strike the Mordschlag your normally have your sword close to vertical (off by a few degrees) and his sword must be edge-on to yours if he wants to stop your blade without breaking his own.

Nor is this purely a European idea. In “Katori Shinto Ryu: Warrior Tradition” by Risuke Otake, the author laments the modern ideas of kendo in which they try to displace with the flat of the sword. He specifically says that you must displace edge-on-edge to protect the sword, and you can see this if you go look at any of the KSR kata on YouTube.

No one is saying this is the most common form of displacement, and some systems use it more than others (e.g., Silver). But to pretend that they went out of their way to avoid edge-on-edge displacements is to misunderstand both swords and swordsmanship. And when they did avoid it, it was because they were trying to use leverage in the displacement, not to protect their edges.

I hope this helps. Seriously, this issue is no longer one that is really questioned by most people any more. The only exception is the ARMAteers, and they’re required to do so by their dogma (Clements said it once, so it can never be changed, and anyone disagreeing with him is banished at once—typical cult behavior).


Hugh Knight said...

Sorry, it's not how Silver does "all" his displacements--just many of them. I got sloppy as I was typing.


Christophe said...

Hello Hugh,
Lately my girlfriend wrote to you, thanks for your detailed answer.

First, pardon my bad english, and second, please understand that I'm not here to criticize you or to say your points are wrong. I've seen some videos of your fencing school and I admire your work. This is why I'd like to discuss this with you, I hope this doesn't become boring for you.
First, have I understood your point?
Edge on edge parrying, even in a right angle, was advocated by the real swordsmen. The damage on their swords was negligible since mostly in the strong of the blade, and if too much of a damage they just switched the swords.

Fine with me. But, could you tell me WHY? What is the advantage, as you said yourself there are plenty of techniques in the German tradition that don't use right angle blocks, even if you say they didn't use them to spare their edges, it was a positive supplement. Why not use them all the time except when there was no other way? Why take the opponents attacking energy completely in a right angle block instad of deflecting or redirecting, especially since a sword can only absorb the energy by flexing with the flat?

Guy Windsor in his book ''Handbuch Schwertkampf'' (after Fiore Dei Liberi and Filippo Vadi) and Herbert Schmidt in his book ''Schwertkampf'' (German tradition), and even my own fencing master, who's also a swordsmith, all have similar views about how dangerous edge gouges are in the functioning of the sword. The all agree that right angle edge blocking is way better than to be killed but is the worst way of parrying. Especially edge against the opponents flat should be used instead...

Once again, this doesn't mean that all these gentlemen are right, we have still so much to learn about medieval fencing and there are so much different ways of thinking and interpretations... That's why I'd like to hear your personal point of view which I don't think to have grasped in your previous posts: What is the advantage in a fighting with much edge parrying? Have you got some videos of your school where I could see such techniques?

Furthermore, having done a year of Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu I'd like to point out that the Katas you've probably have seen are not the real techniques. The constant edge on edge blocks are to hide the true target from the outsider's view, only experienced students learn the slight difference that make the technique effective. Here's one example:
In the outsider's view, Torii is a technique where you're kneeling down and the attacker strikes down at you. The defender holds his sword with the left hand on the blade horizontal above the head and receives the strike fully on his edge. While of course an usable technique, the REAL way of doing it, hidden for the normal people, is to push upwards to the opponents wrist or stomach while evading the strike:
Notice the difference to the entire Kata at 1m27s
''To enable contact training without striking their training partner, they redirect some cuts to engage their partner's sword.''
Edge parries ARE used indeed in Kenjutsu, but by far not as often as the standard Katori Kata would let one believe. They had many other techniques than only blocking with the edge:

Respectfully yours,

Hugh Knight said...

Hello Christophe,

Don’t be concerned, I do not mind answering sincere questions, I only get tired of talking to jerks who won’t listen to what I’m saying because their minds are already made up. People who are as polite as your girlfriend and you are a pleasure to talk with.

You seem to think that edge blocking is an “either-or” proposition. Not so. Some liked it more than others. There’s rarely “one right way” to do anything in combat. Silver taught a very, very different kind of swordsmanship from Fiore or Liechtenauer because he thought that was the best way to fight. There are lots of ways of doing things that one school strongly supports and yet another, equally famous or successful school, says are stupid.

Why did some schools like edge-on-edge blocking? Read my essay: It’s *strong*. Did you try the experiment I wrote about where someone pushes on the flat of your blade, then on the edge and you feel how much strength it takes to resist each push? If not, try it, it’s real. Do those schools do it *all* the time? No. Also, it’s safer because your sword is more likely to break if you catch a blow on the flat than it is if you catch the blow on your edge—this is simple physics (and see below).

I think you’re starting from the assumption that edge displacements are horrible and will destroy any sword instantly. You probably add to that a sense that your sword is very expensive, and you hate the thought of even the slightest nick in it. But the fact is, as the evidence in my essay shows, that it was routinely done in period. And sometimes, as in the Pero Nino example I gave, it ruined the sword. They don’t seem to have cared. Thus, your presumptions are modern ones not shared by many medieval swordsmen.

As for Katori Shinto Ryu, I am perfectly aware that the real kata are different from the version they show. In fact, I was a student of a koryu myself (although not KSR), and have long been aware of this fact. It is you who is mistaken here, however, because Otake sensei *tells* us this himself: “[W]hile it is often said that an opponent’s attack should be received on the shinogi (ridge on the side of the blade), a sword will break if the shinogi is used to receive an opponent’s cut… In actuality, it is the blade that must be used if receiving, although this results in both blades being chipped.” Otake, R., “Katori Shinto Ryu: Warrior Tradition” Koryu Books, 2007, p. 53. As you can see, that simply isn’t open to interpretation. Note, too, that he goes on to talk about other ways of displacing attacks that *don’t* rely on edge-on-edge blocking—once again, it’s not an “either-or” situation.

You asked if I had posted any videos of use doing this kind of displacement. They aren’t as common in the German school as they are in other systems (e.g., Silver or DiGrassi), but I gave your girlfriend a number of examples, and there are more I didn’t list. That should have answered your question. But yes, I have a video up that shows the Unterhengen counter to a Zwerchhau, and it cannot be done without an edge-on-edge displacement:

The bottom line is that when medieval facts conflict with our modern theories, the modern theories must be discarded in favor of those facts. So it is here. Lots of people talk about how bad it is to make edge-on-edge displacements, but the real swordsmen who actually fought real fights with real swords didn’t agree—and their opinions are the only ones with any validity at all. This isn’t *me* disagreeing with your teacher, it’s real swordsmen doing so.

And again, no one is saying all displacements should be edge-on-edge, or that all schools used it equally. The point here is simply that it was done and was common.

I hope this answers your questions. And by the way, thank you for your compliment about our school—it is much appreciated.


Christophe said...

Hello again!

Thank you very much for your kind answer.

Now I see more clearly what you mean. I think the problem in understanding your point was that you were countering the aspects of those teaching one should never do edge parrying. Thus, I misunderstood that for you one should mostly do it, which wasn't your claim (it might have been easier for me to understand if i was a native speaker).
Now i see your point more clearly, and i like your statement ''You seem to think that edge blocking is an “either-or” proposition. Not so. Some liked it more than others.''.

Thank you for your video. I completely agree that the edges are meeting, but while they might indeed encounter with a right angle, depending on the way both blades are striking it might be more of a displacement downwards than a static edge block. If your swordtip is a little lower the attackers flat might slide downwards. But i see the advantage in first stopping the blade like you did so there might be a better control for winden... So in the end it's like you said: ''There’s rarely “one right way” to do anything in combat.''

I still have the feeling that i'd prefer to let the other blade slide on my flat or to displace the other sword with my edge against his flat. But I agree to you that edge blocking happened (i never questioned this but thought more of an accidental hit), that there are advantages and that some schools did teach to do it more than others. With this i have something to think about, and i thank you very much for the interesting discussion! :-)

Yes i like the work of your school very much and i often go check something by looking at your videos. Keep on going with the great work!

I wish you the best to you and your school!

Best regards Christophe
PS: I'll transfer your answer to my girlfriend

Wess Wolf said...

I don't know if you are taking questions still. I read your article (while researching others) and found it one of the slightly more enlightening ones that were in favour of edge to edge blocking.

I would like you to expand upon the simple physics bit of this if you don't mind. I understand that a it does feel stronger (in the experiment you mentioned) to block with the edge. But why is that (if I'm reading this right) inferior to the flat? The flat from what I understand has more surface area and will dissipate the attack (possibly better?) than the edge to edge. I'm asking because this is used in hand to hand stage combat where you try to aim for the areas with the most muscle dissipation ability which is generally higher surface area, and when you contact slap (FULL on) or staff it's better to do it against more area than less (for multiple reasons).

I do understand some of the advantage of the edge to edge, as it does set it up so you are able to counter their attack with one of your own. But I would appreciate it if you could expand on that if you don't mind. Maybe I missed something.

Also, would a overhead block (when they are basically axe chopping to you head), assuming you can't get out of the way and you have no shield, would it be better to flat block that or edge block? As I assume if you try to edge block your hands (even if you are wearing gloves) are liable to get cut.

Hugh Knight said...

Hi Wess,
It's inferior to block with the flat because your wrist is stronger in the plane of the edge then it is in the plane of the flat. Your wrist is weak from the outside, but strong from the front, does that make sense? So it's not about the surface area of the blade dissipating energy, that's irrelevant. Hold a stick in your hand. Have a partner hit your stick against where the edge would be (i.e., the front of your fist), then have him hit it from where the flat would be (i.e., the side that matches the back of your hand). You will find you can resist the former *much* more easily than the latter.

As to your question about a chopping cut to the head, the answer is "neither." The correct response is to use a Zwerchhau to displace his cut from the side of his blade while cutting him to the head in the same stroke. That is not a smart-assed answer (as it might seem), it really points out the issue: You rarely want to use your sword to take such a cut in direct opposition (although Silver does in his system). However, if you *are* going to, it is *far*, far better to do so with the edge because, as in the experiment I suggested above, your wrist is strong when you block with the edge and weak when you block with the edge.

Finally, let's remember something: The masters *told* us to block with the edge. They knew this stuff, we don't.

I hope this helps.

Wess Wolf said...

Yes, this was exactly what I was looking for. While I still don't buy using the edge most of the time, this is certainly a good argument as for why we should. I will keep this in mind as I continue to research this subject.

Thank you for your time and thoughtful answers.

Hugh Knight said...

Why in heaven's name would you doubt the masters who gave us such plain instructions on the matter?