Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Halbschwert Ort Breaks Winden

There is a technique in Codex Wallerstein, folio 11 recto, seen here:
in which you bind, then your opponent tries to take control of the bind with a Winden, and you counter the Winden by lifting your blade over his and going to a halfsword grip on the other side of his blade so you can set aside his thrust with a halfsword thrust. You can see my video interpretation of this technique here:

If you look closely, you will see that my version differs slightly from what we appear to be seeing in Codex Wallerstein: Specifically, I push Matthew’s sword off to my right side, whereas in Codex Wallerstein, Rudolph’s sword point appears to be on Ludwig’s *left* side. I believe the way it seems to be shown is very dangerous, because you can easily be sliced by your opponent’s sword if you let it stay on your left where it is virtually in contact with your body.

Because of this, I believe that the picture in Codex Wallerstein is actually poorly drawn, and that the sword is not fully depicted; in other words, I believe the sword is supposed to be on Ludwig’s right side, but the artist made a mistake of some sort. Possibly he might simply have made Rudolph’s sword too short, in which case we are not supposed to be seeing it on Ludwig’s left side at all. Until now, however, this has remained pure speculation.

If you have a copy of my longsword book, which is available here:
you can read a more detailed discussion of this issue on pages 128-130.

In looking at the so-called “Rast Fechtbuch” (Reichsstadt Schätze Nr. 82) I now believe I see support for my position. Folio 53 recto, shown here:
shows a much better-defined image, and clearly shows Rudolph’s sword to be off to Ludwig’s right side, just as I demonstrate it in the video linked above.

Since this portion of the Rast Fechtbuch is probably just a copy of part of Codex Wallerstein we cannot take this plate as positive proof of my position because we cannot know whether the Wallerstein artist got it right and the Rast artist got it wrong by miscopying the earlier work. Alternatively, the anonymous master who wrote Codex Wallerstein may have intended it to be as shown in that book, but later masters may have disagreed with his interpretation for the reasons I give above, and the Rast depiction would then represent a newer version of the technique. Either way, I feel much more comfortable with my interpretation now, and feel that it is, at least, arguable.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Solo Practice

People constantly ask what they can do for solo training, so I thought I would finally sit down and write an essay on the subject I can use to answer everyone who asks. The short answer is: Very, very little; not enough to be truly meaningful.

Here is the problem: The vast majority of our art, regardless of the form in question, has to do with the bind, either the way you come into a bind, or what you do from a bind. Unfortunately, a bind, by definition, involves two people, so in order to practice any of the meaningful parts of the art you must have two people. This is even true of simple cuts. For example, some of my students are struggling right now with the Zwerchhau; they can do it well enough on a pell, but cannot seem to learn to strike the point around first in partner practice. As a result, they simply knock the attacking sword away, and cannot manage to hit with enough force to do any damage at all with the cut—all of it goes into the bind. This is even more of a problem with the Schielhau, and, although you would not think it, the Zornhau Ort as well: with the former they learn to do the action of the cut, but constantly seek to actively displace rather than simply cutting, and with the latter they try to cut too soon and end up binding on their weak rather than strong. These things can only be learned with a training partner.

Acting from the bind is even more of a problem. Fühlen, Indes, and other such principles really have no meaning except in a bind. How can one learn to feel a bind alone? Things like Winden are simply impossible to even begin to understand without a partner, too.

So what can one do? There are a few things: Certainly pell work is essential for learning the very basic aspects of the art, and pell work should be a part of all training, with or without a partner, forever. Even with the pell, however, a partner is useful—almost necessary—for telling you what you are doing incorrectly. It is very difficult to see your mistakes yourself, especially in the area of edge alignment, one of the most important things the pell teaches us.

Some drills can be useful for practicing the guards, too; I teach one such drill for every form that has multiple guards, but after a few months the student should know the guards well enough that this exercise becomes a waste of time. One can also practice simple cutting or striking drills, but, frankly, they are vastly inferior to pell work. In my classes I include a few such drills, but they are really only intended to get people used to the idea of moving the weapon around (particularly the longsword—we emphasize the use of a push-pull motion of the hands to cut as opposed to swinging the arms). Such drills are only valuable for very new students who are actually in an existing class. They teach what someone needs to know to move on to partner practice, but in isolation they have no value whatsoever.

I am told that very late-period Italian books teach students to develop free-form solo drills called “flourishes;” in my opinion, this speaks very clearly to the nature of the school in question. I am quite certain that in the near future we will see competitions where such exercises are performed to loud rock-and-roll and judged on aesthetics; such, sadly, is the way of the world.

Then there are people who practice long fixed solo forms, akin to the kata of karate-do. Frankly, such exercises are of no value whatsoever. While an interesting discussion can be had regarding the value of solo kata for the practice of fistic arts, it is outside the scope of this essay. It is within our scope, however, to point out the dramatic differences between a punching and kicking art and a sword art based extensively on the bind: there is no comparison. For example, you cannot learn how to pull your sword back along your opponent’s blade in order to take control of the bind with a Winden am Schwert (“winding on the sword”) rather than pushing outward on it unless you have a blade held by a living partner against which to wind so that you can actually feel the dynamics of the bind.

Moreover, it should be noted that in the real combat martial arts of Japan, such as kenjutsu and jujutsu—the ones actually developed from battlefield experience—all kata are partner exercises (yes, iai is practiced solo, but the circumstances are very special and the kata very short). This is because the founders of these systems understood that for kata to have real combat meaning the techniques had to be learned in opposition to a living partner. So it is with the Kunst des Fechtens: solo exercises are of little value.

In conclusion, then, there are solo exercises that can be of some value for rank beginners in order to help them learn the guards of a system and to begin to learn how to move a weapon. Such exercises are relatively unimportant when it comes to understanding the techniques and the important underlying principles of the art, however, and can be of little long-term value; they should be set aside as soon as the student is ready for partner exercises. Pell work can be of tremendous value in learning our art for all ranks, from novice to the most experienced instructor, but even that is better done with a partner, and is still quite limited in that it cannot teach anything about the bind. Finally, long solo exercises akin to those of karate-do simply have no value whatsoever.

Correct training should consist of pell work, progressively free-form partner drills, formal two-man exercises, and, in the cases of armored forms only, eventual free play (after several years of hard work at disciplined partner exercises). The art cannot be learned without partners, however hard you try. You will succeed in only learning the crude outer shell of the art (if that) and never grasp the truly important parts.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What is Kron?

In the comments section of one of my recent blog postings (see: here), a gentleman who gave his name only as “Alex” questioned my interpretation of the Kron. His question was well justified because of a strange plate in Jörg Wilhalm’s CGM 3711 which states that Kron is performed in the “armored hand” (i.e., a halfsword grip): “Item das ist die kron der sein schwertt gewappent heltt in der hand schon und nim war schon mit der kron die ist gutt in alle was zu allen weren und bis starckh darin oder schwach wie du wiltt gloss merckh.” CGM 3711 fol. 41r.

From this it is clear that, unless this is an error on the scribe and artist’s parts, Wilhalm saw Kron as being done at the halfsword. I argued that the source I had been discussing, the Falkner Fechtbuch, strongly suggested that Kron was not done at the halfsword, even though one of the figures in the picture was using a halfsword grip. I argued that the text made it clear that the person using the halfsword grip was, in actuality, performing the Abschneiden underneath the Kron to counter it, and I believe my analysis of the text supports this interpretation.

Still, Alex’s case was at least arguable. He pointed out that there were no good illustrations of Kron other than the Wilhalm reference and that in their absence, Wilhalm should drive our interpretation.

As sure as I was of my interpretation of the Falkner plate, I was still troubled. And yet I was sure I had seen a better pictorial source on this subject, I just could not place it. Finally, tonight I remembered the source: The Glasgow Fechtbuch. Look at this picture:
This is the text and gloss of how the slice breaks the Kron.
Slice through the Kron, thus you will break it well already. So press the strike hard with a slice pull away.
Glosa: Understand that this is for he who would displace with the Kron and try to run in. So, take the slice under his hands on his arms and press well upwards, as painted hereafter. Thus is the Kron broken. Also, wind your sword out, slicing under to over, and then draw yourself away.” Glasgow Fechtbuch fol. 9r (tr. Dave Clarke).

This picture is, unlike Falkner, unequivocal: Ludwig is *clearly* performing an Abschneiden, which means that Rudolph is, just as certainly, in Kron—and Kron is, therefore, done as I said, with both hands on the hilt, not in a halfsword grip. Moreover, the Glasgow Fechtbuch is much closer in lineage to the Liechtenauer canon than is Wilhalm; indeed, it is just a later copy of Ringeck, and thus should be viewed as a more reliable source.

This, in my opinion, settles the question once and for all. It does not explain why Wilhalm has such a different version of the technique, but many of his plays are at variance with earlier Liechtenauer Society masters, so we really should not be surprised.

Monday, May 16, 2011

How Sharp Were Medieval Swords?

One of the issues that always causes confusion when people attempt to understand medieval combat is how sharp were the swords that were used. Some argue that they were laser-edged razors, others that they were dull, still others have a vague sense that the truth must lie between those two extremes but are not sure where.

The short answer is that we do not know. There is no “universal sharpness scale” in the Middle Ages, and, in truth, swords probably varied in sharpness based both upon their intended use and the preferences and abilities of the user (or his armorer). That is not a very satisfying answer, however, so we should dig a little deeper to see if we can apply the evidence that has been left to us in order to come up with an estimate of the norm.

The first and most common-sense approach to this question that would occur to most people is to look at medieval swords to see how sharp they are. In fact, however, this is meaningless: I shudder to think how dull my favorite chef’s knife would become if it were handled for a few hundred years, and swords are no different; a sword that was once extremely sharp might be nothing but a slab of dull metal by now because of all the handling it received over the centuries. Likewise, just because a sword is extremely sharp today means nothing. I was given an antique saber when I was a teenager, and since it was quite dull I sharpened it myself; so may it have been with any extant swords that are sharp today.

The Fechtbücher, however, give us some excellent insights into this question if only we read between the lines. There are three attacks in the Kunst des Fechtens (not counting pommel strikes): The cut, the thrust and the slice. Cuts are chopping actions and thrusts are self explanatory. The slice is effected by placing your edge against a target (usually the wrists or neck) and pushing or pulling it along the flesh as if you were carving a Thanksgiving turkey; the longer the stroke, the deeper the slice.

Experiments have shown that a dull sword will not perform an effective slice, so we know that medieval swords must have been nearly as sharp as a modern kitchen knife, at a minimum.

The farther we go along the sharpness scale, the more delicate the edge becomes, and the more maintenance it requires in order to function properly. Even minor handling, such as sliding it in and out of a scabbard, etc., will dull a razor edge quickly, and in use a very fine edge will cause severe chips to be knocked out of the blade, chips that will be problematic to repair (and yes, swords were *commonly* used for edge-on-edge displacements—read my blog entry on the subject if you still do not understand this—but why create a bigger problem if you do not need to?).

Since a sword need only be a little less sharp than a kitchen knife, and since the sharper it becomes the more problems you are likely to have, why do more? Thus, it seems very likely that, allowing for personal preferences and sharpening skill, most medieval swords intended for Bloßfechten were probably about as sharp as a modern kitchen knife or a little less. My personal sword is sharpened to that level for this reason.

What then of swords intended for halfswording in Harnischfechten? Many people who have not really worked with sharp swords using halfsword techniques imagine that swords must be very dull in order to allow one to grip the blade in a gauntlet, let alone a bare hand. They have an almost supernatural dread of how dangerous swords must be, no doubt from watching bad samurai shows on television, and believe that you will be cut badly if you grab a sharp sword in your bare hand.

The facts, however, do not support this belief. We have techniques in the Fechtbücher in which you go from a slice to a halfsword grip with your bare hand in one technique:
If you bind with him and he changes through and changes to Halbschwert, counter it with a slice from above. And as you slice you can switch to Halbschwert and thrust.” Ringeck ff. 53v-54r.
The gist of this technique is that you and your opponent bind, and he moves his sword around into a halfsword grip in order to hook your blade with his pommel. You respond with an Abschneiden, or slicing technique from above down onto his wrist, and then, after slicing him, you grab your blade in a halfsword grip in order to thrust it into him. So this technique clearly tells us to first use a slice—a technique requiring a fairly sharp sword—and then move into a halfsword technique wherein you grab your sharp blade in your bare hand.

This is possible because swords (and knives, for that matter) cut with a sliding motion. As long as you hold the blade firmly and do not allow it to slide in your grip, you will not be cut.

It should be obvious, then, that it is possible to perform halfsword thrusts while holding a sharp blade in your bare hand. In fact, all students of die Schlachtschule are required to actually perform a hard thrust with a sharp sword held in a halfsword grip into a solid target so that they can instantly refute some ARMA type when he says it cannot be done.

There is at least one source that suggests not all swords intended for Harnischfechten were sharp, however. In De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, a late-fifteenth-century Italian fighting manual, Phillippo di Vadi wrote that swords for armored combat should be dull up to a few inches from the point (the point needs to be sharp or it will not penetrate flesh well). Unfortunately, we cannot be sure how common this practice was, or even if it was actually done at all. Vadi shows a strange and very specialized sword with a flaring tip for armored combat, and we have no indication that such swords ever existed outside of his book. Moreover, it is strange that no other Fechtbuch author would mention such a detail if it were common. My personal belief, or perhaps “suspicion” is a better word given the paucity of evidence, is that this practice was not common, but we cannot be sure. We can be sure that halfswording with a fully sharp sword was possible (easy, in fact) and that it was performed with sharp swords at least some of the time. Farther than that we cannot go.

In conclusion, then, it is my belief that most medieval swords intended for actual combat, whether in or out of armor, were probably sharpened a little less than a modern kitchen knife.

(Incidentally, I recently read a comment by someone who had read my blog who wrote that I was “pedantic.” Whomever that was, I would like to thank him for the compliment, even though I know he did not intend it as such. When people hold firmly onto mistaken beliefs it is necessary to use great detail and careful documentation in arguments intended to refute their cherished misconceptions, because otherwise they will take everything you left out as a weakness in your argument. I take this anonymous individual’s comment as an indicator that I am being sufficiently detailed in both my arguments and my evidence.)

EDIT:  I was contacted offline by a professional chef who informed me that in a professional kitchen the knives are much sharper than I suggest in this essay, and that different knives have different levels of sharpness.  Let me clarify by saying that by "chef's knife" I meant a type of knife--eight-inch blade, wider at the base than the tip--not a knife owned by a professional chef, and that I was referring the the chef's knives in the home kitchens I have visited, not those in a professional kitchen.

Also, edge geometry varied considerably on swords, just as it does on many knives.  I purposefully didn't get into this issue because it's one that's not terribly well understood.  This essay paints the issue with a very broad brush because that's all the precision that is warranted by the subject; after all, as I point out in the essay, different swords surely had different levels of sharpness.  We're only able to speak in broad norms here, and for that, edge geometry isn't really terribly important:  If you place the edge on someone's wrists and perform an Abschneiden, how much force is requires to slice through?  That's our real question.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Christian Tobler's "Captain of the Guild"

I just received my copy of Christian Henry Tobler’s new book, Captain of the Guild: Master Peter Falkner’s Art of Knightly Defense, Freelance Academy Press, 2011.

The book is excellently prepared and looks well produced and serviceable. The binding is properly and cleanly executed, and the cover seems quite durable. The coloration and printing of the front and back covers is clear and vibrant, with no smudges or print misalignments. The book was produced in a 6”x9” Casewrap Hardcover format, and is 336 pages in length with full-color interior plates.

In this work, Tobler returns to his great strength: Studying and translating the Fechtbücher themselves. The book begins with a brief discussion of Fechtbücher in general, biographical information about Peter Falkner, and some brief notes about the manuscript in question. He then goes on to discuss each section of Falkner’s book in detail, from longsword to messer to dagger, staff, poll weapon (mostly halberds), dueling shields, and a very little Roßfechten and Harnischfechten (only one plate of the latter, although it shows a fascinating and unique technique). This discussion is comparable to the analysis in his book about the Paulus Kal Fechtbuch in In Service to the Duke (Chivalry Bookshelf, 2006), if not quite as extensive.

The main body of the book is a full-color facsimile presentation of Falkner’s Fechtbuch. Each page is shown in the proper position, and on the facing page there is a transcription and a translation of the text for that page. The facsimile even includes all blank pages and the cover of the book, details that are sometimes left out, and which are probably not, strictly speaking, necessary, but still nice to see.

The book concludes with a nice glossary and pronunciation guide for German martial terms, and a detailed bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

The great strength of Tobler’s work is his translation. The pictures are beautiful and vividly presented (and it stands well as a work of art), but, in the final analysis, this book is primarily a scholarly resource for those who study the German school of historical martial arts. To that end, I find Tobler’s translations to be the best renderings of anyone working in the field. While not always absolutely literal (e.g., Tobler often modifies word order to make it less confusing to the modern mind), he none the less manages to capture the precise meaning of the text better than most others working in this field. I had previously translated the poll weapon section of Falkner’s book for my own use, and while I got the wording right for the most part, Tobler’s word choices and order actually convey the meaning of the text better.

Overall, this is a superb book, and well worth the price charged. The book is somewhat less elaborately fancy than Tobler’s Kal facsimile, but that book seemed a bit more overdone than the actual quality of the book deserved; for example, it does not seem to be quite as durable as the current work, for all that it has gold edging on the pages.

One issue that Tobler discussed in his introduction could, I believe, use some expansion: Several of the plates in Falkner’s book do not seem to show the exact technique being described in the text. For example, folio 7r (Tobler pp. 58-9) is about the Schielhau, which is normally used to displace an Oberhau. The text supports that interpretation, but the picture shows something different: The figure on the left is, indeed, performing a Schielhau, but the figure on the right has his sword hanging point down on the inside of the Schielhau—not at all what we would normally see.

Tobler discusses this in his Introduction, saying: “The illustration of the Schielhau, or “Squinting Stroke” on folio 7r has drawn considerable interest… It seems to imply a very powerful deflection has occurred prior to the wielder hitting his opponent…” Tobler, p. 8. He does mention that we see similar positions in Jörg Wilhalm, but may not understand what he is seeing because he does not describe the complete play. This is not a “powerful deflection” prior to the blow (if I correctly understand what he means by that—he may mean the same thing), but rather a counter to the Schielhau using a Schnappen, as Wilhalm tells us himself.

Here are the two plates in this series from Wilhalm and their associated text:
"This is also a piece of the Schielhau and a break against when the sword is at the neck. This is the break against the other piece, and mark that you see how it is painted.
This is from the break of the Schielhau with Uberlauffen, that will break the Schielhau. With a strong cut or slice go over his flats and go immediately [to him]. This is therefore a strong break to make against the Gloss." Jörg Wilhalm CGM 3711 ff. 19r-v, tr. David Clarke.

Here is a video demonstrating an interpretation of this technique in slow motion:

This suggests that a number (but certainly not all, nor even most) of the plates in Falkner actually show the counter to the play being described in the text for that plate. Another example can be seen in the dagger play on folio 49v (Tobler pp. 226-227). Here the text describes a fairly typical arm bar counter to a stab from above with a dagger, but what the picture actually shows is the original attacker, the person upon whom the arm bar is being applied, countering the arm bar by picking up the defender’s leg to throw him. This is a fascinating insight into this book, and certainly supports Tobler’s contention that Falkner intended his work for a very knowledgeable audience.

I have not had time to go through every single play in the book, but I did look carefully through the longsword material (and I have been working with the poll arm material for quite a while). Some of the longsword plays are quite confusing because they don’t seem to be illustrating anything, really—there seems little connection at all between the text and the picture. Perhaps with more study insights such as the one above will be gained by comparing this Fechtbuch with others.

Of all the plays I did understand, however, the one that most surprised me was the Schnitt counter to Kron. Kron is a defensive move in which you lift your sword vertically to catch a descending strike, often the Scheitelhau in other sources, on the cross. Most sources say to counter Kron by dropping your blade under his and using an Abschneiden (a kind of Schnitt or slice) to cut his wrists. In Falkner, however, the Schnitt is performed at the halfsword; that is, you slice his wrists while holding your blade in your left hand and slicing the sharp edge across his wrists; see folio 11v; Tobler pp. 76-77 (NB: So much for those who think halfswording could not be performed with a sharp blade!). The text supports the picture in this, because the text says that if he hooks your blade with his cross to pull, you can turn your point or pommel to him for a strike or thrust, so this is not a mistake of the artist.

© Hugh T. Knight, Jr. 2011. All rights reserved.