A REVIEW OF GERMAN MEDIEVAL MARTIAL ARTS VOLUME 1: THE POLEAXE (SIC) BY CHRISTIAN HENRY TOBLER
Reviewed by Hugh T. Knight, Jr.
Christian Henry Tobler is a widely respected figure in the Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) community. He has produced four books on various aspects of Johannes Liechtenauer’s art, and some of them have been excellent. Tobler shines as one of the preeminent translators working with German Fechtbücher today.
Tobler’s most recent effort is a DVD purporting to teach a complete system of knightly pollaxe combat based exclusively on German sources. The DVD itself is exceptionally well made in every regard. The box is handsome and well printed. The cinematography, done by Speaking Window Productions, is superb. The pictures are clear and well framed, the sound is excellent, and the editing is very clean and avoids the “cute” transitions seen in some videos.
The material in the DVD, however, does not come close to matching the quality of the production itself. The “complete course” fails dramatically in both scholarship and execution. Space does not permit a complete discussion of all of the errors in this DVD, nor even of all of the types of errors, but the most egregious can be broken down into a failure to document the material included in the curriculum, the inclusion of techniques from non-pollaxe forms of combat, errors of execution, and errors of omission.
Those working to interpret HEMA source documents should share the results of their efforts with other scholars of the art, both to disseminate information and to have their work peer reviewed. When presenting an interpretation, the scholar should include citations referencing the original material upon which those interpretations are based. Failing to do so, as Tobler did in this case, suggests an approach which is beyond question and not open to review. No one’s work, especially at this early stage in the study of HEMA, should be considered above review. Tobler’s failure in this regard makes it extremely difficult for those studying the DVD to check Tobler’s interpretations against the original sources.
The long-lost arts of medieval combat that are being resurrected today represent a fascinating glimpse into the Middle Ages. For the most part, however, they do not represent a viable system of self defense for our modern world. Some of the grappling material is well suited for real-world use today, but other forms, especially armored forms such as pollaxe combat, have no practical relevance whatsoever today except as matters of scholarship. If we still fought armored duels today then adapting techniques from other forms of combat to the one we need to learn to win a life-or-death fight might be justifiable, but such things simply do not happen. Therefore, the only valid approach to resurrecting these lost arts is to remain absolutely faithful to the original source material, and there is no justifiable reason for making up new techniques, even when those techniques are based upon techniques from other forms of historical combat.
Tobler has argued in the past that this kind of extrapolation is justified because when looking at the material we have we often see similar techniques represented in different forms of combat. For example, the Zornhau Ort, or “thrust of wrath” is found in both the longsword (e.g., Cod. 44 A 8 ff. 13r-v) and the sword and buckler traditions (e.g., Cod. 44 A 8 fol. 80r). Note, however, that it was necessary to modify the technique to some degree based upon the weapons being used. How the technique is modified makes a significant difference in its execution, and absent a teacher from the Middle Ages, we cannot know if our modifications would have met their understanding of the technique. Moreover, there is no reason to adapt techniques from one form to the other because we do not have to depend upon these techniques to preserve our lives as they did.
In spite of this, Tobler has chosen to extrapolate a large number of techniques from various other forms into his armored pollaxe curriculum. This fact alone significantly decreases the value of this DVD, especially since the error is compounded by his failure to include documentation for his source techniques as this prevents his viewers from recognizing and weeding out the inauthentic techniques.
Worse, in at least one case, Tobler extrapolated a technique from a different form (halfsword) to show a counter to a pollaxe technique in spite of the fact that the existing pollaxe sources show a counter to the technique already. After demonstrating his “collar throw,” Tobler demonstrates how to counter it by grabbing your opponent’s hand or arm and throwing him forward over your leg (see 25:00). This interpretation was flawed both canonically and in execution: First, the counter Tobler extrapolated comes from the armored halfsword material (several authors show it, e.g., von Danzig fol. 63r), not from the pollaxe material. Even if the reader does not agree that extrapolating from one form to the other is a serious mistake, certainly he should agree that doing so when we already have a technique in the pollaxe material for the purpose certainly is so.
In fact, we have a specific counter to the “collar throw” in Talhoffer 1467 (BSB Cod.icon. 394 a ff. 43v-44r): Here we see the takedown, and here we see the counter. Clearly, the second plate shows a different technique from the one Tobler included. Thus, not only did Tobler extrapolate a technique from a different form, he did so when we already had a perfectly viable pollaxe technique in the canon, making his extrapolation unnecessary.
Second, Tobler demonstrates the technique in a way that suggests he has never actually performed it at full speed against a resisting opponent. The subject in the DVD is barely even unbalanced because Tobler does nothing to break his balance nor to control his motion. Doing this throw correctly requires much better control over your opponent’s arm in order to actually throw him—merely trapping his hand up against your shoulder will not work against a resisting opponent. The best pictorial source for this is in the Goliath Fechtbuch (see MS 2020 fol. 63r) and can be seen here.
As can plainly be seen, the thrower in the picture above has much better control because he is using both hands (although it can be done one-handed) and because he has pulled his opponent’s arm down across his shoulder to break his balance and to create leverage. So Tobler should not have extrapolated this technique from one form to another because a counter to the takedown already exists, but having done so, he should have demonstrated it correctly.
The greatest advantage of a DVD over a book, when it comes to interpreting a martial art, is that the book can never show the flow of a technique nearly as well as a video can. Most books include only a few photographs for each technique, and the reader must connect them in his own brain to understand what the technique should look like. This DVD, however, contains so many errors of execution that they overcome this advantage. The most common problem, and it manifests in almost every technique demonstrated in the video, is one of measure, that is, the distance between the opponents as they perform the technique.
This excerpt from Tobler’s video illuminates the problem very well. Look at the first set of exchanges: The attacker (on the right) strikes well in front of his opponent directly into the defender’s axe. He makes no effort to strike his opponent at all. As a result, the defender does not really have to make any defense whatsoever; he could just as easily step straight forward after his opponent attacks and hit him with no difficulty. Now watch the rest of the clip: This error is not the exception, it is the rule in every single case, and not just in this excerpt, it is the case in almost every demonstration throughout the entire video. If the attacker had struck at the side of his opponent’s head, as he should have, then many of the techniques could not have been performed as shown in the video because the defender would have to first move the attacker’s axe over to the other side of his head. Thus, there are techniques in the video that literally cannot be done against an opponent who strikes correctly.
For example, at the end of the chapter on the Durchwechseln, Tobler says that if we bind we can leave the bind and strike around to the other side in a play reminiscent of Ringeck’s play of the Zucken (“twitching”) with the longsword (see 28:07). In effect, you bind, then pull your axe directly back from the bind and strike again immediately on the other side of the enemy’s shaft. As with other techniques in the DVD, this technique is both non-canonical and flawed in execution.
The problem of execution has to do with the afore-mentioned problem of measure: Since the attacker is striking well in front of the defender this seems as though it should work. Against a proper blow aimed correctly at the left side of the defender’s head, however, it will not work. This is because when your opponent tries to strike you in the head his axe head will not be able to move around your axe. When you displace it, his axe will still be to your left. In order to pull back and then strike around to the other side of your opponent’s axe, you must find a way to put his axe on your right side, which cannot be done unless he, too, pulls his axe back, in which case you do not need the technique in the first place—you can just hit him. A video demonstrating why this technique does not work can be seen here.
This failure of measure is indicative of the broader problem with the execution of many of the techniques in the video: It is apparent from the way many of the techniques are executed that Tobler and his students have not practiced these techniques in a full-speed, full-power environment against an opponent who is resisting their efforts. If they had, they would have realized that some of the techniques that Tobler extrapolated from other forms cannot be made to work with pollaxes, and that some of the pollaxe techniques have to be performed somewhat differently from the way they are presented here. Without that sort of experience, gained over years of effort, it is impossible to truly understand this material, and that lack of understanding is patently manifest here.
Finally, we must consider one other area. We have discussed some of the things shown in the DVD, but we must also discuss the things not included in the DVD. Tobler claims to present a complete system of German pollaxe combat, and yet some of the principles and techniques of the art are simply ignored.
One of the defining differences between unarmored and armored combat is that in the former, relatively little force is required to severely wound your opponent with a cutting technique. When striking at an opponent in armor, however, the circumstances are quite different. Armor is highly effective at dispersing the force of a blow, and only a very powerful blow can hope to stun an opponent or smash bones through armor. At the same time, one must bear in mind the unbalanced nature of the pollaxe, which, unlike a sword, has the majority of its mass concentrated in the head. This forward concentration of mass tends to cause powerful pollaxe blows which miss their targets to whip past the center line of the engagement, travelling well out to the side or down to the ground, and leaving the attacker helplessly exposed to a counter strike from his opponent.
The anonymous Burgundian pollaxe manual Le Jeu de La Hache specifically addresses this subject: “Whichever guard you are on, you can try to hit him on the head. Not so that if you should miss your axe passes beyond him, because that would be dangerous” (Le Jeu paragraph 22). Learning to strike with enough power to do your opponent injury while, at the same time, controlling your attack so that if you miss your pollaxe does not swing wildly past him, leaving you exposed, is something that takes a fair bit of time and knowledge to master. It is difficult to understand, then, why a DVD touted as a “complete, 500 year old system of knightly combat” (see the back cover of the DVD case), fails to even mention this subject.
In fact, Tobler discusses very few of the issues relating to attacking an armored man, other than a brief discussion of different ways to strike the face depending upon the position of the visor and a few vague notes about aiming for gaps in the harness. Different targets require different approaches; targets for the thrust must be handled differently according to whether the target is protected by mail or not, and only certain targets (e.g., the head and hands) are ideal for striking blows. Understanding not just how to strike or thrust but where, and how to do so differently according to the nature of the target, are critical elements of any complete system.
As for missing techniques, consider this technique from Talhoffer 1467 fol. 49r, an excellent and highly effective elbow push from the bind, or this technique from the same source (fol. 51r) which demonstrates a very effective Hinderbinden or “bind behind” counter to an Oberschlag.
By far the largest group of techniques left out of the DVD, however, are the grappling techniques. Grappling was a part of all German forms of combat, but was especially important in armored combat given the effectiveness of the armor against strikes and thrusts. It is confusing, therefore, that Tobler gives us only a few hooks and the collar takedown, leaving out all mention of the many other grappling techniques depicted in the Fechtbücher, such as these: Talhoffer 1467 fol. 45r, Talhoffer 1459 ff. 134r, 135v, and 137r. Surely, a “complete” system of instruction would have addressed these important principles and techniques.
This DVD is well produced, but contains large numbers of errors in scholarship, execution and omission. As a result, this DVD cannot be recommended for any purpose.
Review by Hugh T. Knight, Jr. Copyright © 2010, all rights reserved. This review may not be copied or presented in any format whatsoever without the author’s express permission.