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.

13 comments:

Ian said...

Hugh,
I went over to the young man's blog, who I occasionally look at and discovered what had to have been the impetus for this recent entry.
I stopped myself from pointing out to him a huge fallacy in his reasoning.
And that fallacy is the assertion from the Doebringer fechtbuch that there is "only one Art of the sword"
and then something about how ancient Liechtenauer's art is. Because instructors wanting patronage would never exaggerate ever.
So sad I was thinking of buying his book too, but after his unwarranted attack and just plain jacked up thinking about the Art I would be better off learning middle English myself.

And I think it would be amusing to see what the masses have to say on your insights.

Hugh Knight said...

Hi Ian,

Don't be too hard on the guy, I gather he's just had a lot of bad instruction, and done shallow research that has led him down some truly mistaken paths.

As for his book, he's the one arguing all systems are the same--so there's no point in getting his book about English Longsword, because his claim is simple proof that he hasn't done enough research to see how the various arts differ.

Ian said...

Also since all systems are the same I dont need to bother with getting his books since I already have what he is selling.

Hugh Knight said...

Just so, Ian, Just so.

Sal said...

Just as a reply to the general haughtiness, I don't believe it would be fair to claim that any one party in this discussion has "cornered the market" on faulty reasoning.

Hugh Knight said...

Hello Sal,

There's no "haughtiness" here, just careful research and well-reasoned arguments. If these arguments are flawed, then you should show us those flaws, but I think you're unlikely to be able to for the simple reason that these arguments are pretty self evident. If you mix two things in a way different from how they were mixed in period you've made something else, which defeats the entire purpose for studying *historical* martial arts. Res ipsa loquitur.

Sal said...

While reading through this post, these are some of the things that immediately came to mind:

"no REAL school of German combat every used that combination of techniques." -emphasis mine.

This is an opinion that you are stating as a fact. The truth of the matter is that we have a very limited understanding of how any original school of fighting worked, and what combination of techniques it used. The manuals that we have, while full of information, cannot be assumed to the only, or even the most correct, sources from the time.

"...one never practiced in history."

This is also an opinion stated as a fact. Considering that no one has ever seen a system that was practiced in history I see no way of proving or disproving any such combination. Now, in looking at the plethora of manuals that we have there is a certain amount of trends that can be seen, and, while we must work with what we have, it is inappropriate to assume that the whole of the Art is comprised in the manuals that we have. Which is what your comment is implying that I believe. (Whether you intended it to or not) The manuals that we have are simply the lucky ones that have survived to this time, that we are aware of.

While these statements may seem like small components of your overall post; I find that they are part of the foundation of your defense, and since they are only opinions (even if they are researched) they shouldn't be given more weight then they actually have.

As for "haughtiness"; I find your comments on Brandon, Casper, and their blog "Lessons of the English Longsword" (I see no reason to beat around the bush) to be of an extremely low level. You have made blatant attacks on his scholarship and his research. Have you participated in either, or reviewed it with an open mind to come to these decisions? At the same time you strongly suggest that yourself, and all who think like you, are correct due to the vast amount of research you have done. Which to my mind implies that you have the whole of all the knowledge available, and you understand it perfectly. Which is not what I think you meant, but that's what you're saying. Could there be the possibility that they might have uncovered something new that sheds light onto why they have come to the conclusions that they did? Do you know? I know I don't. While I certainly don't agree with everything that they have to say, I'm willing to give them a shot.

Needless to say I was surprised at the libelous behavior that I saw for someone toting the credentials that you are. I know that Brandon in particular has a difficult time behaving himself at times, but I expect better from a more senior researcher in this field. It may not be fair, but there it is.

General other comments;

"But we don’t need to win fights today with swords and armor,"

I find this comment to be in direct conflict with this one.

"But we, today, are supposed to be studying *historical* combat; combat the way it was really done."

The way it was really done was entirely focused on winning. This way you stay alive, and can fight for king, country, family, and self in the future. I believe that taking that component out of the practice of these Arts fundamentally changes the way you would practice them today. This is my opinion, and I know you have your own on the matter, so lets leave it at that.

Finally, (Just a personal thing) I don't think your analagy of the apples and oranges helps your argument. The reason for that thought is that as you get deeper and deeper into them, they do become more and more similar. That doesn't change the outward appearance, but it actually works against your argument, so I would use a different one next time.

Thank you, I hope I cleared things up.

Hugh Knight said...

Hello Sal,

Part I:
*****While reading through this post, these are some of the things that immediately came to mind:
"no REAL school of German combat every used that combination of techniques." -emphasis mine.
This is an opinion that you are stating as a fact. The truth of the matter is that we have a very limited understanding of how any original school of fighting worked, and what combination of techniques it used. The manuals that we have, while full of information, cannot be assumed to the only, or even the most correct, sources from the time.
"...one never practiced in history."
This is also an opinion stated as a fact. Considering that no one has ever seen a system that was practiced in history I see no way of proving or disproving any such combination. Now, in looking at the plethora of manuals that we have there is a certain amount of trends that can be seen, and, while we must work with what we have, it is inappropriate to assume that the whole of the Art is comprised in the manuals that we have. Which is what your comment is implying that I believe. (Whether you intended it to or not) The manuals that we have are simply the lucky ones that have survived to this time, that we are aware of.******

Ah, the fallacy of “we don’t know they didn’t do it, therefore we can assume they did.” I’m sorry, Sal, but that argument is specious. Let’s say someone, somewhere in history, once mixed Techniques A, B, C, and D to which I referred in my blog, as you suggest, and that fact has simply been lost to history. Unless you can *prove* it was done that way, there is no justification for mixing them now. Sure, it might have been done as you say, but we, as scholars, can only go by what we know to be true. Using your approach I could argue that the Trident and Net used by Roman Gladiators was taught in 15th-century German Fechtbücher—after all, there’s no proof anywhere that they didn’t, right?

*****While these statements may seem like small components of your overall post; I find that they are part of the foundation of your defense, and since they are only opinions (even if they are researched) they shouldn't be given more weight then they actually have.*****

You are confused about the value of “opinion.” An “opinion” based upon careful research and study is worthwhile. One based upon wishful thinking is not. By saying we’re all just expressing opinions, you suggest them to be the same when, in fact, they’re not.

--End of Part I.

Hugh Knight said...

Beginning of Part II:
*****As for "haughtiness"; I find your comments on Brandon, Casper, and their blog "Lessons of the English Longsword" (I see no reason to beat around the bush) to be of an extremely low level. You have made blatant attacks on his scholarship and his research. Have you participated in either, or reviewed it with an open mind to come to these decisions? At the same time you strongly suggest that yourself, and all who think like you, are correct due to the vast amount of research you have done. Which to my mind implies that you have the whole of all the knowledge available, and you understand it perfectly. Which is not what I think you meant, but that's what you're saying. Could there be the possibility that they might have uncovered something new that sheds light onto why they have come to the conclusions that they did? Do you know? I know I don't. While I certainly don't agree with everything that they have to say, I'm willing to give them a shot.
Needless to say I was surprised at the libelous behavior that I saw for someone toting the credentials that you are. I know that Brandon in particular has a difficult time behaving himself at times, but I expect better from a more senior researcher in this field. It may not be fair, but there it is.******

Are you aware of how Brandon approached me? He basically jumped onto my blog and posted a ludicrous and insulting dismissal of me and everything I’ve done without ever talking to me first, and, despite my calm and polite response, rose into a fury of further attacks afterward. Note that he didn’t merely disagree, he was overtly insulting as he did it. I’m sorry, but that approach is going to get anyone the response he has earned for himself.

And yes, I’ve read some of what he’s posted about his research. I’m sorry, but animosity and anger aside, Brandon is a pseudo-intellectual with just a tiny bit of research that is largely misguided. Case in point, in another blog entry he posted a quote (anonymously at first, which I thought cute but not very bright) showing that one medieval master of Schulfechten felt it was important to practice free play for the best understanding of his art. I responded by pointing out that Schulfechten was not seen in a positive light by all medieval masters and that this failed, therefore, to carry his argument. He thought that by proving one master believed in a thing, he could thus refute *my* arguments against that thing, since I’m not a medieval practitioner.

That the words of someone ho lived and practiced swordsmanship in period are worth far more than mine is self evident (or should be). Believing that a single quote from a single *type* of practitioner proves his point conclusively is a mistake when there are other practitioners from other versions of the art (i.e., Ernstfechten) who argue those of the first type are misguided. When I quoted Döbringer at him, he snarled back that Döbringer wasn’t talking about the same thing, thus showing he didn’t understand the quote at all. Moreover, he refuses to accept my well-reasoned arguments that show the kind of free play being practiced today aren’t like that being practiced by the Schulfechten master in question because people today use safety rules and equipment not used in period. Therefore, his quote didn’t even support his argument because he didn’t understand they were two different things, but that sort of rhetorical precision is lost on him.
--End of Part II

Hugh Knight said...

Part III:
*****"But we don’t need to win fights today with swords and armor,"
I find this comment to be in direct conflict with this one.
"But we, today, are supposed to be studying *historical* combat; combat the way it was really done."
The way it was really done was entirely focused on winning. This way you stay alive, and can fight for king, country, family, and self in the future. I believe that taking that component out of the practice of these Arts fundamentally changes the way you would practice them today. This is my opinion, and I know you have your own on the matter, so lets leave it at that.*****

We won’t “just leave it at that: You raised it, so I’ll dispute it. Clearly, if you wrote this, you don’t understand the argument being made. We do not need to win fights today—no one can dispute that. Barring some weird misfortune at an SFconvention, people don’t fight with swords today, and to pretend that they do is to live in a romantic fantasy world. And we are supposed to be studying historical combat—there’s simply no value in making up something that you think seems “cool.”

The thing you’re forgetting is the *reams* of carefully-reasoned proof I’ve written over the last few years about the Kendo Effect, in which I show that attempting unarmored free play *always* causes the art being practiced to change. In the middle ages that didn’t matter, because the nature of the time meant that practice could be done realistically without fear of lawsuits and without adding so much safety gear that it was impossible to do the techniques accurately. Moreover, if change did occur as a result of realistic practice, that was fine—it was a living art, and those changes that were good would thrive and those that were not would drift away as real-life applications (i.e., real fights, not free play) showed them to be mistakes. Neither of those situations holds true today, therefore free play will always change the art, thus destroying what we’re working so hard to resurrect. This is why traditional Japanese sword schools do not engage in free play, and why modern Kendo bears so little resemblance to the real art upon which it was based—hence the name “The Kendo Syndrome.”

In fact, therefore, practicing free play makes what you do *less* accurate, not more so as you imply.

*****Finally, (Just a personal thing) I don't think your analagy (sic) of the apples and oranges helps your argument. The reason for that thought is that as you get deeper and deeper into them, they do become more and more similar. *****

I suppose that at a molecular level you might be right, but to take it that far requires that we ignore the point of an analogy. An analogy is meant to illustrate, not prove, an argument. Taking an analogy too far means nothing; all analogies break down if taken too far. If you hold an apple and an orange far enough away, they both look like colored blobs—hence the argument some might make that they are the same. If you view them very closely, however, you see that the colors are quite different, that the texture of the skin is quite different, and the flesh of both are extremely different once you peel them open and really look inside. And when you put them to the ultimate *realistic* test, you’ll find they taste nothing alike, either. Thus, my analogy holds beautifully, thank you.

I am sure Brandon is your friend, and he might even be a good guy on some level, even though his research is incredibly shallow and misguided and his conclusions specious nonsense. Heaven only knows how often I’ve been *dead* wrong abut things I thought I was sure about—merely being mistaken isn’t a crime nor does it make you a bad person, and I would never heap scorn on someone merely because we disagreed (although you’d be surprised how few people are that tolerant). His approach to me, however, was insulting and contentious, and he deserved the scorn he eventually got and that he will continue to get. Not because he’s ignorant or misguided, but because he’s insulting and impolite.

Regards,
Hugh

Sal said...

Part 1:

"Ah, the fallacy of 'we don’t know they didn’t do it, therefore we can assume they did.'"

This is something that I never said. If you assumed such a thing then A.) I didn't convey my thoughts properly, B.) you're looking past what I said, or C.) some mixture in between that led to this misunderstanding.

Doing what you believed that I implied (Yet did not) would still be an error for the same reason I mentioned earlier - There is no evidence to support it. As such, even if a person were to research numerous data resources to support an idea of something about the source materials (no matter how well researched) it would still be an opinion, and should be presented as such. It is conceivable that a theory could be worked out eventually, but even a working theory is not fact. Once again, that would be an improper presentation.

Part 2:

I have no understanding of any interactions between the two of you, and I also have no intention of reading several years worth of posts to try and come to an understanding. At the moment I am of the opinion that past wrong do not excuse present behaviors. While you may feel justified in your response I have a problem with it. Which in the end is something that you don't have to care about, but I've made my Feelings known on the matter.

Part 3:

You are correct in the fact that I haven't read the plethora of info that you have produced, and I have no desire to read *all* of it. The reason I didn't desire to talk about it is simply b/c I don't foresee either one of us changing positions on the subject, and didn't think that sitting here circling each other would be worth the space on the page. One of the things that needs to be understood is that Kendo is an actual sport, while Ryu are essentially the real deal. (I know you know this, but am explaining it to others who might not) If we were to make the Art a sort, then I would have some of the same reservations that you do, and indeed we can see this in modern sport fencing when compared to Renaissance Foyning(sp?) Fence. However, I also believe that on the other side of the spectrum is "Kata Syndrome" (to make a name for it) where form takes precedence over function. I think that this is also incorrect, and would lead to ineffectual learning if the Art. I'm not alone in this belief b/c there are some schools of Ryu today that also engage in sparring matches. Those schools believe that it is important, so it would be logical to assume that there is importance in that activity for us as well. Once again, either extreme is flawed, but the truth is usually somewhere in the middle. Where exactly I'm not sure, but that's part of the journey.

For the analogy, like I said, it was a purely personal observation. If you like it, use it. No skin off my back

Your assumption that I am friends with Brandon and Casper is also flawed. I only have slightly more contact with either of them than I have with yourself. I won't pretend that you would have known that ahead of time though.

Sal

Hugh Knight said...

Hello Sal,

******This is something that I never said. If you assumed such a thing then A.) I didn't convey my thoughts properly, B.) you're looking past what I said, or C.) some mixture in between that led to this misunderstanding.
Doing what you believed that I implied (Yet did not) would still be an error for the same reason I mentioned earlier - There is no evidence to support it. As such, even if a person were to research numerous data resources to support an idea of something about the source materials (no matter how well researched) it would still be an opinion, and should be presented as such. It is conceivable that a theory could be worked out eventually, but even a working theory is not fact. Once again, that would be an improper presentation.******

I’m sorry, but whether you intended that to be your argument or not, it is a direct implication of what you said; you can’t have it both ways. When I say such-and-such a thing was never done in period, of *course* it means “as far as anyone knows”—anything anyone says is subject to new evidence. But facts are facts, and what we have is what we have to go by. Your argument is what people like Brandon and his ilk use to justify their mixing and matching to make up a new style they think they like instead of working hard to study a real one. “Well, you can’t prove they didn’t do this!” they say, when we should be worrying about what we *know* they did.

******I have no understanding of any interactions between the two of you, and I also have no intention of reading several years worth of posts to try and come to an understanding. At the moment I am of the opinion that past wrong do not excuse present behaviors. While you may feel justified in your response I have a problem with it. Which in the end is something that you don't have to care about, but I've made my Feelings known on the matter.*******

With respect, may I suggest that it’s best to express one’s feelings only on those subjects that have been examined critically? I do not blame you for not wanting to read the backlog of posts from this dispute (hell, I didn’t want to read it as it was happening!), however, without doing so you are not qualified to judge the issue.

Hugh Knight said...

Hello Sal,

Part II:
******One of the things that needs to be understood is that Kendo is an actual sport, while Ryu are essentially the real deal. (I know you know this, but am explaining it to others who might not) If we were to make the Art a sort, then I would have some of the same reservations that you do, and indeed we can see this in modern sport fencing when compared to Renaissance Foyning(sp?) Fence. However, I also believe that on the other side of the spectrum is "Kata Syndrome" (to make a name for it) where form takes precedence over function. I think that this is also incorrect, and would lead to ineffectual learning if the Art. I'm not alone in this belief b/c there are some schools of Ryu today that also engage in sparring matches. Those schools believe that it is important, so it would be logical to assume that there is importance in that activity for us as well. Once again, either extreme is flawed, but the truth is usually somewhere in the middle. Where exactly I'm not sure, but that's part of the journey.*******

I’m sorry, but you’ve been misinformed. Ryu simply means school or style, and there are traditional ryu-ha and modern (“gendai”) ryu-ha. Katori Shinto-ryu is a traditional ryu; Eishin-ryu is a traditional ryu that abandoned its combat focus and became a modern ryu in practice if not in lineage; Tomiki-ryu Aikido is a modern ryu that was never intended as a battlefield art. The real division is between bujutsu and budo: Bujutsu are traditional combat arts taken from the battlefield and preserved with perfect accuracy since ancient times. Budo are more modern (post 1860, usually) arts that were developed after war disappeared from Japan. Budo were never intended to be battlefield arts, they were intended as spiritual disciplines. Some bujutsu ryu have transitioned over time into budo. Many of these budo ryu have gone even farther and transitioned into mere sport for the most part. Judo is a good example of this: While some dojo attempt to maintain the true meaning of judo, in most places it is the merest sport. Traditional arts do *not* engage in free play. Read what Otake-sensei wrote in the blog entry I posted just prior to this one.

Kendo is a modern system of budo that developed out of traditional ryu-ha. Some places have retained a sense of the spiritual discipline side of the art, but in most places it has degenerated into mere sport. Even in its most traditional form, however, it has *nothing* to do with combat swordsmanship, which it barely even resembles. That’s fine, actually—that was the intent, really, when it was developed. It was created from traditional ryu-ha, but it was *intended* all along to be a budo, and no effort was made to maintain the combat effectiveness of the art. But it still perfectly exemplifies the Kendo Syndrome: In order to make Kendo they had to do away with real combat swordsmanship.

As for what you call the “kata syndrome”, you are quite correct—that is a real danger. You can go to martial arts demonstrations and see kata that have become no more than dance, with all martial aspects stripped away. This is revolting, and is to be avoided.

But whereas the Kendo Syndrome is inherent in the problem, the kata syndrome is not. We can tell this because the kendo syndrome always happens when free play is attempted, and yet there are hundreds of traditional schools that maintain a kata tradition with value and accuracy by eschewing free play. You may be confused about this because you have only had exposure to modern systems like Karate and Judo, etc., which are very modern, recent things with no traditional system behind them.

Regards,
Hugh