Monday, January 23, 2017

The Failure of Test Cutting: Or, the Bad Form Caused by Butchering Tatami

I have been roundly criticized by sword taggers and tatami butcherers for pointing out that both activities ruin one’s form and technique and violate the principles taught explicitly by the Masters.  I frequently post pictures and/or videos of both activities on the die Schlachtschule FaceBook page to show people how these practices force people to ignore the Fechtbücher.  Recently, I posted a truly awful (but not atypical) picture of a young man performing an execrable test cut which led to my being attacked and vilified.  I am, they say, wrong, and the Fechtbücher are too unclear for us to say that their ways of cutting are wrong.

On the contrary, the masters are quite explicit with regards to cutting and the kinds of errors to avoid.  To that end, let us look at a picture of someone performing test cutting and compare it to what we read in the Fechtbücher.  Please note that the attached picture is in no way unusual or atypical, it is merely one I recently posted; most test cutters look much like this.  Moreover, this and other, similar, pictures constantly receive warm congratulations and approbation for the form shown, making it clear this is what the HEMA mainstream finds laudable.   (NB:  I have no idea who this young man is, and I bear him no special animus.  His picture is typical of what I have seen, and was grabbed randomly.)

Lesson:  Do not fight in wide movements:
“For you should strike or thrust in the shortest and nearest way possible. For in this righteous fighting do not … fight in large movements by which people restrict themselves.”  (Hs 3227a fol. 14r.)
Analysis:  That he is fighting with a “large movement” is too obvious to require comment.

Lesson:  Wide strikes create openings your opponent can exploit:
“With their bad displacements and wide fighting they try to look dangerous with wide and long strikes that are slow and with these they perform strikes that miss and create openings in themselves.”  (Ib. ff. 14r-v.)
Analysis:  This is obviously an extremely wide strike, and the fact that he is open to an attack while helplessly out of place cannot be denied.  “Slow” is something of a misnomer; the cut might have been performed at high speed, but the distance it travels takes a long time.

Lesson:  Stand in a well-balanced stance so you can move easily.
“Also know that when you fight with another you should step with caution and be sure in the movements as if you were standing on a scale and adapt accordingly if you go forward or backward as is fitting.”  (Ib. fol. 15v.)
Analysis:  The word “scale” here is a reference to die Waage, or “the scale,” which is the term for the normal stance used in Master Johannes’ system.  It requires that we stand in a balanced position in order to be prepared to step in any direction instantly.  The stance seen in the photograph is obviously not a balanced stance, nor does it resemble die Waage when done correctly, as can be seen here:
The text says, in relevant part, “And stand firmly in the balance stance as shown here.”  (Codex Wallerstein fol. 6v.)

Lesson:  Don’t take large steps because you won’t be ready to step again if you need to do so:
“You should also … not step too wide, so that you can pull back and be ready for another step backwards or forwards.”  (Hs 3227a fol. 15v.)
Analysis:  He has taken such a large step that it is patent he would be incapable of a rapid step in any direction.  Obviously, his recognition of the fact that tatami mats don’t hit back has caused him to ignore correct form.

Lesson:  Always aim at your opponent’s face or breast:
“No matter how you fight always aim the point at the opponent’s face or breast, then he will always have to worry that you will be faster since you will have a shorter way to go in to him than he has to you.”  (Ib. fol. 25r.)
Analysis: This lesson teaches us to not cut past our opponent.  Doing so leaves us wide open to a counter attack since his point or edge will be closer to us than ours is to him; the proximity of his point or edge will allow it to hit sooner than we can respond.  In the picture the cutter’s sword is very far past his target and not aimed anywhere near his opponent’s face or breast, so we can see this problem quite clearly.

Lesson:  If you cut too widely or too hard you will create openings for your opponent:
“You shall be careful and note if you can get in behind his sword and always go the nearest way and never too wide, so that the opponent does not come before you.”  (Ib.)
Analysis:  This instruction mirrors that above; if you cut wider than the masters teach, you will create an opening your opponent can exploit.

In short, then, he stepped much too far, his stance is dangerously unbalanced, and his cut is grossly overdone, leaving him helplessly exposed and unable to respond quickly to an attack.  He got literally every part of the cut that we can see in the picture wrong (we can’t discuss the technical execution of the cut itself without a video).

Test cutters claim they have to do test cutting or else they will be unable to be sure they are cutting correctly.  As this analysis shows, that is utter nonsense since their cuts in no way resemble the proper method of cutting.  They must overcut this way in order to make the ultra-clean cuts they erroneously believe to be important, and that error means they will always cut incorrectly.

They also argue that test cutting can teach edge alignment.  While there is a tiny grain of truth in that statement, they grossly exaggerate the point, as a brief historical analysis makes plain:  Simply put, there is not the slightest hint of proof for the practice of test cutting in period.  None.  If it was so important, why didn’t medieval masters teach their students to do it?  Rather, they taught their students to cut on pells, and that practice serves us well today, too.  Utter perfection of edge alignment simply isn’t as important as test cutters make it out to be, and careful attention to pell work is more than sufficient to the task without teaching the bad habits inherent in test cutting.

For more information see this more extensive discussion of the inherent evils of test cutting:

This should serve to utterly silence those who scream in outrage over my criticisms of this photograph and all others like it.  It’s wrong, period.  End of debate.