Friday, November 16, 2012

Striking With A Spear

I have long been skeptical--OK, I have laughed mercilessly--of those who want to believe that spears were used like staves, that is, for striking actions as well as thrusting actions.  For one thing, there's no clear evidence for that in foot combat in any Fechtbuch.  For another, spears just aren't built for that.

There is a hint in one of the Talhoffer books that talks about a "schlag" or strike with a spear, but that word isn't as rigidly used as we tend to think of words being used today, and in the context I really think it just referring to a "strike" with the point, i.e., a thrust.

However, a recent post on Will McLean's blog opens a different possibility.  In a quote from a description of a 16th-century barrier combat, the text says:
"with the but ende of the spere strake the Almaine that he staggared"
In more modern English this would read:
"[the] German struck [him] with the butt end of the spear [so] that he staggered."

Now I still reject a striking action with the business end of the spear:  The fact is, as Will has shown, that spears were tapered toward the point, making them thinner there, so striking actions were almost certain to break the spear if any real force was used, and what good is a light stroke?  A strike with the other end, however, which is the thicker end, obviously, might be a different matter.  Having said that, we still must ask several questions.  First, was the strike a swinging blow or a thrust?  Don't assume the word "struck" in the text is definitive--we often see the word struck used for thrusts (e.g., in jousting descriptions).

Second, how relevant is 16th-century barrier combat to Kampffechten?  Many sources (e.g., Anglo's "Renaissance Martial Arts") are quite clear about how artificial such combats were, with everything from artificial techniques to weapons pre-scored to break spectacularly.  It might be that a stunning blow with the butt of a spear was useful in a "friendly" (Will would say "consensual" to distinguish it from a judicial combat) barrier fight but would have been laughed at by someone seeking to kill his opponent in Kampffechten.  We don't know.  And third, if this was a generally viable technique, why doesn't it show up in any Fechtbuch?

Having said all of that, there is one plate in a Fechtbuch that shows an attack with the butt of a lance; it's in the Roßfechten section of two of Jörg Wilhalm's books.  Here is the technique from one of them:

I'm not sure how this relates, however.  We know that the forward motion of a horse changes the effect of strikes (e.g., Dom Duarte's comments about using the motion to add force to a sword blow), and we have speculated that a pommel "thrust" with a sword in foot combat could be effective against someone even in a closed visor because of the percussive effect it would have.  Thus, it's entirely possible that a "thrust" with the butt of the spear would be similarly effective in foot combat.  And such an attack might have been useful, if you held the spear long your hands would be closer to the butt-end of the spear, so you would be able to use it better in close combat (where you couldn't use the point because you wouldn't have room).

So, once again, we have a fascinating bit of evidence that doesn't actually tell us anything definitive.  Sigh.  Still, sometimes by building up little tiny bits of apparently useless data we construct a good argument.  No deep, carefully researched conclusion here, just food for thought.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Four Oppositions

In Hs 3227a, the anonymous author talks about his “five words,” although he really expresses several others as important as well. I’ve been looking at these things for years, trying to find the core, root principles of the Kunst des Fechtens—the universal ones that apply to all forms in the art, not just to the longsword.

Not all ideas are universal: For example, with the longsword we are taught to attack on a diagonal from the Zufechten, but this doesn’t apply to halfswording. Others, however, are universal: The idea of the strong and weak of a weapon is important even in grappling (although the strong and weak usually refer to places on your opponent’s arm).

Looking at what all of the masters wrote (those to whom I have access, anyway), and boiling them down to the root level, I found something I consider interesting, namely, that these ideas can all be grouped into pairs of opposing ideas. Based upon that idea, here are what I call “The Four Oppositions:” Before vs. After; Strong vs. Weak; Hard vs. Soft; and, what may be less intuitive, Fühlen vs. Indes.

The primary idea in all of these oppositions is to know what condition prevails in a fight. We aren’t to prefer one over the other, but rather to accept it and know what to do from that condition. As we are told, react to “strength with weakness and weakness with strength”—neither is given as “better,” we just have to know what to do in either condition without trying to force the one we want.

Some may think that the Vor is always to be preferred over the Nach, but that is a misconception. Many people believe Liechtenauer instructs us to always act in the Vor, but von Danzig calls Long Point the best of all positions from which to fight (talking about waiting in it for the enemy to act), and, of course, the plays of the third halfsword guard are all waiting techniques in the same way. Sometimes it is very dangerous to attack a skilled, prepared opponent in the Vor from the Zufechten. No, the real idea is to take the Vor and then keep it, but there are plenty of times when it is far preferable to allow your opponent to start in the Vor and then take it from him when he acts. Again, the important thing is to know what to do in either situation.

Likewise with the strong or weak of a weapon. We shouldn’t care where the bind occurs as much as we should be concerned with knowing how to act in either situation. Granted, there are times we must select one or the other, such as in the Zornhau Ort when we have to make the initial bind with our strong on our opponent’s weak, but if he prevents that from happening we have to know how to act. The same with whether the bind is hard or soft, you simply have to know how to act in either case.

The danger in preferring one of the oppositions over the other is that you will often try to “force” a technique in the wrong situation if you prefer one over the other. By not really caring one way or the other you have less mental inertia to overcome and can act with less hesitation. That doesn’t prevent you from trying to do a technique that requires one over the other (e.g., the displacement I mentioned above), simply that you not be wedded to it; after all, it is a universal maxim that few plans survive contact with the enemy, and the consequences of that truth can best be managed with mental flexibility.

Fühlen and Indes are a special case, one that I didn’t really see for a long time. They may seem too different to be specifically opposed, but in a way they really are contradictory. We are told to act Indes, immediately, or instantly, but we are also told to feel the bind, a thing that takes a moment to do. There is no mystical secret, as some believe, that allows us to disconnect our brains and instantly feel a bind then instantly act in that same moment—we simply aren’t wired that way. This recognition led me to examine many of the techniques and their alternative actions which in turn led to something I call “Active Fühlen.”

Let’s take, as an example, the Zwerchhau counter to the Zornhau. We are told that if the enemy binds with the cut, we must feel the bind, and if he is hard in the bind we can either use a Duplieren or a Cross Knock, while if he is soft in the bind we should use a neck Schnitt. That’s fine, but he’s not likely to sit there and wait even the nanosecond it takes for us to use Fühlen, he’s going to go on to the next thing on his agenda. But instead of passively feeling the bind, we can test it actively by using the technique we would use if the bind were found to be soft—the Schnitt in this case, and doing so Indes, without pause or hesitation. If he’s actually soft in the bind, no problem—we have acted Indes and he dies from a terrible shaving cut. If he’s hard in the bind, however, the technique won’t work, but he will usually push back into the bind as we move against it—in effect, pinning him for just a moment, and in that moment we change gears—mental flexibility through not preferring either one—and do, say, the Cross Knock.

Likewise, if someone is soft in the bind and you use a technique that moves his blade (as most do), he may suddenly and instinctively go hard in the bind to prevent your technique from working. Again, that’s fine—you don’t care what the bind is, you merely care about acting correctly in it. You actively test the bind in a way that tends to cause your opponent not to move on, giving you time in which to act.

Thus, Fühlen and Indes are opposed, but that opposition simply tells us how to use them together.

I am not trying to develop any new ideas through this analysis—any readers of my work will know I completely reject any attempt to “improve” Liechtenauer’s art. Instead, I’m simply trying to find a different way of looking at what we’ve been told in order to better understand it and to find better ways transmit it to my students. So the next time you do a technique, in any form, be it longsword, dagger, pollaxe or grappling, analyze it according to the Four Oppositions.