Thursday, July 1, 2010

Correcting An Interpretation From Christian Tobler's Pollaxe DVD

In a review of Christian Tobler’s recent pollaxe DVD I noted that Tobler failed to document the techniques in his DVD, making it very difficult for scholars of the art to know the sources of the techniques being demonstrated, which, in turn, made it difficult to analyze Tobler’s interpretations.

Last week I posted a video demonstrating that one of the techniques shown in Tobler’s pollaxe DVD was executed poorly. Replying in the comments section to my video, Tobler demonstrated the validity of my allegation about his failure to cite his sources. He claimed that my video, even though it matched the one shown in his DVD precisely, was not the technique he was trying to show; he also claimed that because of this, my complaint was invalid (see 28:07 on the DVD in the chapter on the Durchwechseln). The video clip and Tobler’s comments can be seen here.

According to Tobler, the technique he meant to show is one taken from the Paulus Kal Fechtbuch in Vienna’s KHM, manuscript KK 5126, specifically the fourth technique. In his recent book In Saint George’s Name (Freelance Academy Press 2010), Tobler gives this translation for the technique:
“Item: If binds to you such that both hammers stand above and strikes with brute force (lit. “peasant’s strike”), then sense this and pretend as if you intend to parry and let his blow pass before you so that you have the hook at the neck or a free stroke to the head, shoulder or arm.” (Tobler 2010 p. 68)

The technique shown in his DVD, however, represents an inaccurate interpretation of the fourth technique, and lacking any citation, this made it very difficult to identify the technique he was trying to show.

The version of the fourth technique shown on the DVD went like this: The attacker winds up for a powerful “peasant stroke,” and the defender started to move to displace the attack. The attacker never tried to hit the defender, instead, he swung his attack in front of the defender to bind with the defender’s displacement. Thus, the attacker’s axe is well out to the defender’s right side in the bind. From there, the defender simply pulls his axe back out of the bind, then strikes the attacker on the other side of the attacker’s axe.

The problem with this interpretation is that it does not reflect a plausible combat action. Had the defender started to counterattack it would be plausible for the attacker to change the angle of his attack to bind with the defender’s attack (but unlikely since we are told it is a “peasant’s stroke” or huge, powerful swing—not something easy to redirect in mid swing), but that is not what the text says: It specifically says that the defender feigns a Versetzen or displacement (Tobler prefers the word “parry,” however, that word should be used for deflections, not hard stops as shown here), not an attack. There would be no reason whatsoever for the attacker to change the angle of his attack, even supposing he could, to bind with a displacement; it makes no sense. The entire reason for using a huge, over-powered swing is to blast through any possible defense, so it is unreasonable to assume someone doing so would give up his attack for an unnecessary bind (since the defender's displacement does the attacker no harm) with no possibility of causing damage.

Also, note that the text says nothing about a bind actually occurring as is shown in Tobler’s DVD, it says to pretend as if you were going to do so.

Thus, Tobler’s interpretation clearly does not match the intent of the text. It is simply not reasonable to assume that a wild, overdone blow can be redirected in mid swing, and it is unreasonable to assume the user would want to even if he could.

A more reasonable interpretation of the fourth play focuses on getting the attacker’s axe to pass in front of the defender in a way that might actually happen in a realistic fight, and the author gives us the clue to understand that by specifying a “peasant’s strike.” Assuming the attacker has any sense of measure, he is striking at the correct range to hit the defender. Therefore, in order to cause the attacker’s axe to pass harmlessly to his front, the defender must slip back as the attack comes in. Then, since the attacker used a “peasant’s strike”—that is, one that is hard to stop or redirect—the attacker’s axe will swing harmlessly by, and the defender can step in at his leisure to hook or strike his opponent. This is the entire reason the anonymous author specified the “peasant’s strike,” to make it clear this is a case where a strike actually aimed at a real target (i.e., the defender’s head, not his axe) could be made to swing past harmlessly. This one clue makes the entire play make sense.

My students and I have prepared a new video demonstrating both Tobler’s flawed interpretation of the fourth play and a more reasonable interpretation as described above. That video can be seen here.