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.


STAG said...

Is Le Jeu de La Hache a valid adjunct to the "Talhoffer" school or is it a different style altogether?

Hugh Knight said...

There are clearly very strongly connected. Read Sydney Anglo's analysis to see this--he uses Talhoffer plates to demonstrate what Le Jeu is showing. When I interpreted Le Jeu I could not have understood it without Talhoffer, and vice versa--there were plates in Talhoffer that made no sense until I compared them with the text in Le Jeu. They are not precisely the same--Le Jeu never uses that weird Tail guard Talhoffer uses, for example, but to me they are the same system, just demonstrated by different teachers. I wouldn't use Le Jeu otherwise, because I do not believe in mixing styles.