Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Active Fühlen

Fühlen is the German word for “feeling;” in the context of HEMA, it refers to feeling whether your opponent is hard or soft in the bind which, in turn, tells you how to act next. And when you act, you are to do so Indes, another German word which means something like “just as” or “instantly.” Master Sigmund Ringeck told us:

“You shall learn and understand both the word Fühlen and the word Indes because these two belong together and together they account for the greatest art and skill in fighting. Therefore remember, if one binds against the others’ sword, you shall notice—right in the moment when the blades make contact—whether he has bound hard or soft. And as soon as you have noticed this, remember the word Indes: this means that you should attack the next opening immediately and nimbly, hard or soft so he will be defeated before he knows it himself.” (Ringeck ff. 38r-v)

In other words, Ringeck is saying that when a bind occurs you should feel (Fühlen) it to determine whether the enemy is hard or soft in the bind and then instantly (Indes) use the best play for whichever kind of bind it is. Here is an example: The attacker strikes a Zwerchhau, to which the defender responds by striking into the cut to displace it. The attacker must then feel the bind to determine whether his opponent is hard or soft in the bind. If the attacker is soft in the bind, the attacker should lift his sword up and over the defender’s head to apply a slicing cut to his neck. If, however, the defender is hard in the bind, then the attacker should use either a Duplieren or a cross-knock from the bind. In either case, whichever response the attacker uses from the bind must be performed Indes—in other words, it must happen the instant the swords clash together.

Unfortunately, these two goals—the process of Fühlen and the requirement to act Indes—seem to be mutually exclusive. It takes a moment, albeit a brief one, to determine whether your opponent is hard or soft in the bind, a moment in which you cannot be acting, thus the response is delayed. It would therefore appear you can use Fühlen or you can act Indes, but not both. And yet, it is likely Ringeck understood the principle about which he wrote; after all, he was not the only one to write about this, and it seems to be a central principle of the art.

In order to reconcile this apparent discrepancy it is necessary to look at Fühlen in a different way, a way which I have chosen to call “Active Fühlen.” The core idea of Active Fühlen is quite simple: When a bind occurs, the swordsman instantly responds with the correct technique to use if the enemy is soft in the bind—no stopping to feel the bind, you simply acts Indes. If the technique works, all is well: The enemy was, in fact, soft in the bind, and he should now be dead.

If, however, the enemy was hard in the bind then it is very likely the technique intended for someone soft in the bind will fail; in the case of the example given above the attacker will be unable to lift his sword up and over his opponent’s head for the slice without actively fighting his strength—which would violate another core principle of our art. In that case, the attacker instantly (Indes!) knows that his opponent is hard in the bind, and can go on to do the appropriate technique.

Thus, Active Fühlen refers to testing the bind without pause or hesitation. There is no moment of consideration in which the enemy can take the initiative of the fight because you are never still once the bind occurs (which we know to do from Hs 3227a). Most techniques intended for use in a soft bind will not work in a hard bind, so this is a very good test of the bind. Another advantage is that it makes the decision about which technique to use more automatic; there is no hesitation as you think about the correct technique to use in that situation which, again, helps to maintain the initiative of the fight.

The reason for automatically using the technique appropriate to a soft bind is that if it fails then nothing is likely to happen—you simply will not be able to do the technique, but will remain safely in the bind. If anything, it will probably cause your opponent to put even more force into the bind when he feels you moving against him. If, however, you tried to use a technique intended for a hard bind and your opponent was soft in the bind there is a good chance he would be able to hit you while you are acting; a soft bind is often indicative of someone pulling out of the bind to do something, for example. Thus, it is essential to test the bind with a technique intended for use in a soft bind.

We examined one example of Active Fühlen above with the Zwerchhau, now let us look at two more. If the attacker strikes with a Zornhau, then the defender can respond with the Zornhau Ort. The defender strikes down into the attacker’s sword with his own Zornhau, then thrusts Indes into the attacker from the bind. This is Active Fühlen because the Zornhau Ort will only work when the attacker is soft in the bind. Recognizing this fact is what first indicated this might be the solution to the Fühlen/Indes problem. If the attacker is hard in the bind the defender has a variety of choices about what to do depending upon whether the attacker pushes his sword out, down, or holds fast (the Zucken, Durchwechseln and Winden respectively), but in each case the attacker will make a specific motion which instantly tells the defender what he should do.

For the final example, let us turn to the pollaxe: In Le Jeu de La Hache we are told that when a bind of the queues (the tails of the axes) occurs we are to either push around and down, ripping the enemy’s queue away, then strike, or we are to leave the bind, dipping under the enemy’s queue and then knocking it away on the other side before striking as before (Le Jeu paragraphs 35-41). It is clear that to push your opponent’s queue around and down he must be soft in the bind, thus it is obvious which technique to use Indes in the bind. If that does not work, then the enemy is clearly hard in the bind and you should drop under his axe to backhand it away from below.

Not all techniques specify a hard or soft bind; in those cases Active Fühlen has no place. For example, in the queue displacement against an overhand blow in Le Jeu de La Hache (paragraphs 3-5) we are given only one type of response. This is because the displacement itself sets the nature of the bind, thus obviating any need to test it.

While no Fechtbuch discusses Active Fühlen in plain terms, this appears to be the only way to reconcile the instructions to both wait to feel the bind and also to act instantly without hesitation, and careful full-speed experimentation demonstrates that the principle works very well. Moreover, the play of the Zornhau Ort discussed above seems to suggest exactly this process; perhaps there is a very good reason this is the first technique in most longsword texts. Thus, Active Fühlen should not be seen as an addition or a change to Liechtenauer’s canon, but rather an attempt to explain what was meant all along.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Controlling Measure

Most techniques can be characterized as either first attacks or counterattacks. Most counterattacks can be broken into two parts, the defensive and the offensive. The simplest version of this is a block followed by an attack. This applies even to single-time techniques, although with such techniques the defensive and offensive parts are combined so that they are performed simultaneously. Even if the defender avoids an attack (with no block) and strikes, the avoiding action still counts as the defensive part of the play, because something has to be done to negate the incoming attack.

In armored combat, choosing what action to use for the offensive part of the counterattack is a complex process. The primary decision factors include the nature of the combat, the nature and protection of the target area, and the actions of the attacker during the counterattack. One factor, however, that has very little bearing on the decision of which offensive action to use is the distance between the attacker and defender: Contrary to the misguided notions expressed in a recent pollaxe video, the defender does not make his choice of defensive action based on his distance from the attacker, because a skilled fighter sets that distance himself during the defensive phase of the counterattack. More on this below.

Medieval armored combat came in several flavors, but in the broadest sense it can be broken into just two: Sportive and lethal. Sport combat refers to friendly (a relative term, of course) deeds of arms in which the primary intent was to avoid killing or seriously wounding one’s opponent, even when sharp weapons of war were used. A variety of methods were used to make such fights safer, including limiting thrusting attacks and having the presiding noble stop the fight when especially dangerous situations arose. Lethal combats, contrariwise, were intended to end in death, and the techniques used favored those which would kill quickly, such as thrusts to unarmored targets.

In a friendly deed of arms fought with pollaxes, a strike to the head might be displaced with the shaft of the axe followed by a hook with the fluke on the back of the axe to pull the attacker to the ground (often grounds for the presiding noble to stop the fight). While that same technique might be used in a lethal fight (followed by falling on the attacker and going after gaps in his harness with a dagger), a better option might be to simply thrust into a gap in the attacker’s harness with the spike of the axe. This is an example of how the nature of the combat could effect the choice of which offensive action the defender might use during a counterattack.

The nature of the target was another factor to be considered. Although it might seem counterintuitive, in most friendly deeds of arms the combatants fought with their visors closed for maximum protection (Jacques de Lalaing being a notable exception that proved the rule), while in many lethal combats they fought with their visors open for better vision. Thus, in a lethal combat the defender might choose to thrust to the face against an attacker whose visor was open, or he might choose to strike his head or grapple if the visor was closed. (NB: These are simplified examples; in a real life encounter the choices were more complex.)

Finally, the choice of offensive action might be influenced by the actions of the attacker. For example, if the defender attempts to thrust at the attacker’s face with the queue of his axe and the attacker steps back to avoid the thrust, the defender can simply follow after him with a strike to the head. Or, if the attacker makes as if to displace the counterattack, the defender can shift the target somewhere else, such as the attacker’s hand. This, however, is something that defender cannot know about in advance (although it must be planned for), and so has little bearing on this discussion.

In order to keep all of these options open, the defender must take control of the measure of the fight. This means that during the defensive phase of the counterattack, the defender must move in such a way as to place himself where he needs to be to do the offensive choice that best suits the situation. He can step into the displacement with a longer or a shorter step, or he can stand fast, or he can step backwards, again with steps of varying lengths.

This idea is expressed brilliantly in the first three plays of Le Jeu de La Hache (an anonymous fifteenth-century pollaxe book): In each case, the attacker steps forward to strike the defender’s head with his mail (the hammer head of his axe), to which the defender responds by displacing the attack with the tail of his axe and then either thrusting into the attacker’s face with his queue (the spike on the bottom of the shaft) or striking the attacker’s head with his mail (which requires an extra step). So essentially the same technique is shown three times, but in different circumstances: In the first and third techniques, the defender is standing with the head of his axe forward, while in the second he is standing with the tail of his axe forward. In the first technique the defender steps forward to effect the displacement, in the second he steps not at all, and in the third he steps backward. Clearly, then, the defender is controlling the measure of the fight during the defensive phase of the counterattack. He is not stepping to some random spot and then using an offensive action that works best at whatever distance he happens to be from his attacker, he is stepping so as to be at the right distance to use the technique he wants to use.

Therefore, in conclusion, it should be clear that the defender should control the distance of the fight during the defensive phase of his counterattack, and the nature of the offensive phase of the counterattack should be determined not by the distance from the attacker, but according to the nature of the fight and the target to be attacked. The notion that the offensive phase of a counterattack is determined by the distance to the enemy reflects a lack of understanding of the basic principles of armored combat. Of course, one must be flexible: It is easy to make a mistake in the judgment of measure, making it necessary to switch to a different technique based on the distance to the attacker, but this should be considered an emergency choice based on error.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Roles in Formal Exercises

Frequent readers of this blog will note that I often turn to traditional Japanese martial arts training processes for training students of HEMA. I do not use their techniques, interpretations or customs because I believe those to be contrary to the cultural aspects inherent in studying medieval German martial arts, but I recognize that these traditional methods of training and practice are vastly superior to the disgraceful nature of what is seen in most martial arts classes in these sorry days.

Like traditional Japanese martial artists, I recognize that free play is completely useless and meaningless when it comes to learning unarmored forms of combat, and that repetitive drills and formal exercises (called kata in Japan) are vastly superior and far more realistic when it comes to learning a true martial art.

When I first started teaching the Kunst des Fechtens, we simply called the attacker in these drills or formal exercises the “bad guy” and the defender the “good guy.” This nomenclature emerged as a joke, really, but as I thought about it I came to realize that this joke cost me a training opportunity, namely, being able to reinforce their real roles to the partners. Now, we refer to the attacker as the “teacher” and the defender as the “student,” regardless of their actual relative ranks, and emphasis is placed upon having the teacher lead the student through the exercise through correct use of measure, timing, etc. Again and again we emphasize that the student cannot learn properly unless the teacher teaches him the correct lesson—that is, does his attack correctly in all respects.

In his book on the ten kata of modern kendo, Paul Budden expresses this idea precisely, and also gives us some vital insights into the nature of formal exercises. Kata are often thought of derisively by poorly-trained modern martial artists because they never have the discipline necessary to advance far enough in training to fully understand them. Done properly, however, formal exercises, like kata, become living things that teach the reality of combat far better than two partially-trained students who just want to fight will ever learn in their clumsy attempts at free play.

“The idea that kata is practice for killing is a misconception. True representation is the high level training method as performed by two noble beings, correct in posture, dress and attitude, preparing to exact the practice of swordsmanship with true dignity and although both totally committed to the technique, they work within the dedicated guidelines to the utmost of their ability and control. It is a confrontation, with the resolve to carry it through to its conclusion. This conclusion is not stylized death with cuts that kill or pretend to. The feeling is of uchidachi [the attacker—HTK] as the teacher because he must lead shidachi [the defender—HTK] through the kata. His sole purpose is to teach to the student the responses and techniques offered through his attack. Timing is created by uchidachi’s lead, thereby establishing the correct distance, the necessary responses and zanshin (awareness, unbroken concentration). To this end, it is necessary for uchidachi in each kata to strike or thrust at specific areas for shidachi to learn and practice the correct responses. Each response... clearly demonstrates the complete control and the technique… The most important part of kata must be the ‘feeling,’ practicing with true sentiment but in very simple terms…

This almost electric feeling is sometimes apparent in the highest level demonstration by true exponents of the art. Keep your body strong by the correct use of breathing, kiai and awareness, and observe your opponent as a whole being rather than just watching his sword, feet or eyes…

This is the essence of the Kata, making it a living, vital and realistic form. It is not the clockwork motion that unfortunately is often the nature of kata today.”

(Budden, P., Looking At A Far Mountain, Tuttle, 2000, pp. 21-23)