Thursday, June 7, 2018

I Am Proud to be Dogmatic


I just had someone send me a video essay by one of the popular “cool kids” of HEMA in which the author argued that it’s wrong to say we should only use push-pull cuts.  He implied that saying we should only use push-pull cuts was dogmatic and somehow “bad,” a sure sign someone was too focused on something… oh, I don’t know, like historical accuracy, or that kind of pointless stuff.

This person admits he studies late-period saber and that he also studied Fiore’s sword, along with a hodge-podge of other things.  His study has no stylistic focus, a fact hardly unusual among the HEMA crowd.  That’s fine, people are allowed to do whatever they want, more power to them, it’s not the end of the world when they get something as obscure and irrelevant in the modern world as medieval combat wrong.  The problem is he compends that hodge-podge smattering of unrelated facts to answer stylistic questions, then spreads the resulting misinformation all over the Internet where it is gobbled up by credulous people who care more about the popularity of a presenter than they do about the facts, and that is not acceptable.

The popular guru of all kinds of combat ever conducted anywhere throughout all of time and with all weapons ever used points out that different schools of the saber had different ways of cutting with them.  Fact.  He says Meyer gave hints of using the arms to cut.  Probably true.  He says Fiore used the arms to cut in large motions.  Fact. He then draws those facts together to “prove” that all arts use swinging arm cuts.  False.  That conclusion does not follow, and it assumes facts not in evidence.  He even admits that Liechtenauer told us to cut with a push-pull motion (I’ve published the evidence for this so often I refuse to do it yet again here, especially since this guy admits it), but still claims that all systems used swinging cuts with the arms since some of them did.

He claims that the Scheitelhau is a different kind of cut.  Half true.  Yes, you lift your hands at the end of the cut, but at the beginning, it’s still  a push-pull motion, literally indistinguishable from a Zornhau.  Liechtenauer doesn’t tell us that in those exact words, but consider, why would you do it any other way?  Why would you telegraph your cut any more than you had to, when it’s not necessary?  He said the same about the Krumphau.  Yes, when you cut with the Krumphau you must first turn your blade crosswise, but you then cut using a push-pull motion of your hands, not a swing of your arms, and the pictorial evidence for this is plain.  This is the kind of nonsense people come to believe when they refuse to study a system for its own sake, and so don’t recognize how internally consistent it is.

What he is really advocating is mixing and matching different systems, and even different forms, together in one cluttered mess.  Doing that defeats the entire purpose of resurrecting these lost arts, and is the worst kind of dilettante behavior.  It says you care nothing about learning or understanding any historical system of combat, you just want to mix and match anything you, personally, in your vast martial expertise garnered without ever having been in a real fight, think is cool and neat.  Oh, and anyone who cares about doing things right is a stuffy purist and dogmatic and pedantic and probably mean, too, because he cares about boring stuff like facts.

Fiore did things differently from the way Liechtenauer did them in many ways, even making the kind of large cuts the German masters railed against.  Meyer used the longsword differently too, because he taught Schulfechten, and didn’t use thrusts with the longsword (except as threats).  Late-period military saber is so different from fifteenth-century longsword I’m insulted to even have to compare it.  None of that changes the way the early German masters told us to use the Longsword—with small  cuts, which cut as though a string were tied from your edge to the target, and which end up pointing right at your opponent’s face or chest if you miss.  In other words, with a push-pull  motion of the hands.

Masters do things differently in different styles, and that’s fine—there is no one universal truth of combat.  You can tell an Okinawan style of karate-do such as Goju-ryu from a Japanese style such as Shotokan by the former’s circular blocks compared to the latter’s linear ones.  Mixing them together just creates a new system, which may seem acceptable to people who practice modern self defense, but none of us will ever be in a serious fight with longswords, so making up a new system by mixing parts of different systems together is contrary to the very idea of resurrecting an existing one.  Yes, the masters did that in period, but since we will never be in a sword fight we have no need to make a better system and, since none of us has ever been in a one, we aren’t qualified to do so.  We should be resurrecting existing systems to learn how they were used, not pretending we should make our own or that we can do so intelligently.  Today, that is the stuff not of scholars and martial artists, but of dilettantes playing at sword tag and tatami butchering after a rousing game of Dungeons and Dragons.

Our popular kid then goes on to cite a certain New York instructor, who argues for changing all we know about the German longsword because he wants to make it match his modern, made-up school of kenjutsu so he can justify doing test cutting with the kind of huge, overblown cuts the masters warn us never to do (to be fair, he was really saying this fellow is wrong for arguing there is no push-pull cutting at all, but he gets no points since he didn’t reject him completely).  Worse, this comes on the heels of another article I recently read written by an engineer arguing that the push-pull cut is entirely wrong because it’s not as efficient at cutting tatami.  Yes, people really do miss the point that much.

If I sound scornful and angry in this post, it’s because I am.  I am sick to death of the people out there ignoring the facts of our art to push what we might call a “mergist” or “universal system” agenda, ridiculing anyone who cares about accurately resurrecting a single, historical system.  Do what you want to do, play what games you will, but stop criticizing those of us working hard to actually resurrect a historical system of combat for being too “stuffy and dogmatic.”  Dogma is the point—it’s a goal to be sought, not a flaw to be criticized.  I am dogmatic and proud.

Edited to Add:
To the illiterate fellow who wrote me saying I claimed that the popular guru of all kinds of combat ever conducted anywhere throughout all of time and with all weapons ever used said you never use a push-pull cut:  It must be your lack  of reading skills which made you misunderstand my argument in the first place.  I said (in paragraph 3) the guru admitted Liechtenauer told us to  use a push-pull motion.  That's a big part of  my  argument--he admitted that, and never showed any situations where  you *don't* use a push-pull cut.  He claimed that of the  Scheitelhau and Krumphau, but I explained above why those claims simply indicate he  doesn't know how to perform those cuts correctly.  So, you are as wrong about your specific claim as you were in the  subsequent general one.

As for your claim that I'm an idiot for saying we always use push-pull cuts, you made a claim but failed to support it.  That makes you both intellectually dishonest and a typical HEMArrhoid.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Gambesons: Or, How Ignorance Thrives on Popular Opinion.


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“Striding heroically to the ring, I donned my gambeson, carefully tucked my man-bun under my mask, picked up my federschwert, and participated joyously in longsword sparring, secure in the knowledge that I was a mighty swordsman in spite of having never read a Fechtbuch.”

While that’s said tongue in cheek, it must be admitted to be fairly typical, too.  The sad part is that almost everything of a factual nature in that statement is dead wrong, in spite of the fact that almost the entire body of HEMA practitioners would find nothing wrong with it.  Sparring refers, specifically, to fistic arts, and should not be used for bouting with weapons.  “Federschwert” comes from a misunderstanding a German poem, and should not be used to refer to practice swords.  And it is not possible to be any kind of a mighty swordsman today, but especially not if one just plays sword tag without serious study.

I have addressed most of those errors in other essays (and probably shall have to again), but of specific interest to us in this essay is the fact that our intrepid, but poorly educated, hero above is not wearing a gambeson, probably doesn’t know what a gambeson is, and has probably never seen one.  All of his buddies call the padded coats they wear “gambesons,” and for a certain class of person, force of personality matters more than mere scholarship.  If the cool kids say it, then it’s so, and anyone who disagrees is a Bad Person (tm), and probably (gasp!) a pedant, to boot.  Disagreeing with the Unity is double-plus ungood.

Worse, when you confront them with their error, they will look up the word in a modern dictionary, then insist they have “documented” their use of the term.  Sadly, modern dictionaries are rarely of any value when looking for historical technical terms.  In fact, most museum staff—in spite of being real scholars—are rarely any better, since they are usually only interested in the artistic value/merits of an artifact, not its mundane use.  Likewise, the minutiae of historical combat are of little interest to real (read: “academic”) historians; they think the practice of getting too involved in the nuts and bolts of history causes one to miss the more important Big Picture, and derisively dismiss it as “tank spotting,” in reference to WWII history buffs who care too much about the specific tanks engaged in a given battle.  We cannot rely on any of those sources.

One might ask why this is important.  After all, if “everyone” uses a term in a given way, haven’t they redefined it?  And besides, they’re afraid they’ll hurt their friends’ feelings if they use a term correctly when those friends do not.  And besides again, language is changing all the time, so we should just accept that!  So there, you mean-spirited pedant!

Of course, it’s true that language does change constantly.  Not all change is good, however.  Change which improves the precision of language should be embraced, but change which does not should be eschewed.  The fact that language was woefully imprecise in a given period of study is immaterial to that; we, today, need precision in order to talk about things meaningfully.

What then, is a gambeson, and why is it important to use the term precisely?  More importantly, how do we find out?  Simple.  Go to the real experts and the primary source material.

“…aketon was a plain quilted coat usually worn under the armour. Gambesons, on the other hand, are often described in early inventories as being made of silk or some other rich material, decorated with embroidery and coats-of-arms, a fact suggesting that, sometimes at least, they were designed to be worn as independent defences or as surcoats. This view is supported by a number of texts that refer to the gambeson being worn over the aketon, the hauberk or, from the end of the 13th century, over plate armour… In a few instances two aketons are worn, the upper, which should probably here be called a gambeson, without sleeves.”  Blair, C. European Armour. Macmillan, 1959. p. 33.

“The gambesons were quilted coats similarly decorated with heraldry and intended for external wear; one was covered in white silk with a black bend decorated with three dolphins in gold. The aketons were quilted garments intended for wear under mail armour…”  Richardson, R. The Medieval Inventories of the Tower Armouries 1320–1410. Diss. University of York, 2012. Web, 14 May 2018, pp. 178-179.

Thus, we see a clear distinction between aketons, quilted garments worn under armor, and gambesons, rich garments, often highly decorated, worn over armor.  Just calling them both gambesons ignores this important distinction, and reduces the precision with which we can discuss them.

What does a gambeson look like? Here we can see them in the famous Mac Bible.  Note the way the shoulder holes sick up stiffly, showing their heavily quilted construction:  <http://manuscriptminiatures.com/4673/7957/>.  M.638 Maciejowski Bible (fol. 11r).

We can see the distinction between aketons and gambesons discussed here, where in both kinds of combat the aketon is the padded foundation garment worn under armor, and the expensive gambeson is worn over the mail and aketon in jousts:  “For War: an aketon, plates from Germany or elsewhere, and in addition to the aketon as above, a good gorget, sword, axe with a spike, and a long knife… For Jousts: aketon, hauberk, and gambeson, which is made of silken cloth and the like, and can be so costly that the steel plates, basinet and helmet are as nothing in comparison.” Meyer, P., G. Paris, A. Thomas, and M. Roques. “Modus armandi milites ad torneamentum.” 1884. Romania. Paris: Société des amis de la Romania [etc.].  p. 530. Translation copyright Will McLean 2013.

Sometimes, the foundation garment could be called a doublet (although the term aketon can also be seen quite late in the period), but still not a gambeson:  “He schal have noo schirte up on him but a dowbelet of ffustean lynyd with satene cutte full of hoolis.”  (He shall have no shirt upon him, but a doublet of fustian lined with satin cut full of holes.)   Anon. How a man schall be armyd at his ese when he schal fighte on foote Hastings MS. fol. 122v.

In short, gambesons were worn over armor, aketons under it; aketons could sometimes be worn alone in armored combat.  Ignoring that doesn’t make one cool.

Quite apart from simply learning what gambesons really were, there are important lessons here about research.  First, popular opinion is utterly meaningless, and usually wrong.  Second, starting with a belief and then working to prove that belief correct is not real scholarship, and can lead to serious mistakes.  And third, don’t be afraid to stand up for accuracy; precision is important, and you shouldn’t fear the ignorant disapprobation of your fellows.  We know what Master Hans Talhoffer said about being fearful:  "Fencing requires heart; if you frighten easily, then you are not to learn to fence." (Ambraser Codex, fol. 1v.)  So buck up, scholar, call a gambeson a gambeson, and do not fear the masses in their ignorance.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Durchwechseln: The Process of Interpretation


I have long been troubled by my interpretation of the Durchwechseln, or “changing through.”  Was it done into Langenort (“long point”), or was it done into an upper Hengen?  I first learned to do it into an Upper Hengen, however, I could find nothing in any Fechtbuch to support (or refute, but see below from Kal) that interpretation.  On the other hand, doing it that way worked very well, while trying to do it into Langenort did not, because there was often insufficient room for it from the bind.  This essay is about the process I used to develop my current interpretation.

Here is a video showing the Durchwechseln being done into an Upper Hengen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dcn2fGnyuKM (note that I do this somewhat differently now, circling my point around more to hit the face or chest rather than just hitting the first target to which my point comes).

Many students of the Kunst des Fechtens struggle with interpreting techniques which are not explicitly described by the masters, so I thought it might be useful to describe the process I used to interpret the Durchwechseln, specifically, as a way of teaching people how to do so more generally.

My approach to interpretation has two primary tacks:  First, look to the Fechtbücher, always.  See what the Masters actually said, even when it seems vague, and never make anything up.  Second, work through the interpretation you develop in actual practice, and make sure it works mechanically (not in free play; childish games of sword tag are far too unrealistic to prove anything at all) in terms of length, measure, timing, etc.

Studying the Fechtbücher involves more than just paging through the pictures or glancing over the texts.  In his ground-breaking book, The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe (Yale, 2000), Professor Sydney Anglo discusses a process we might term a “dossier approach” for understanding the material:
“In general, however, our knowledge of unarmed combat in medieval and renaissance Germany depends more upon the accumulation of a massive dossier of overlapping evidence than on the clarity of any single treatise. Similar holds, throws and trips recur throughout the different manuscripts. Sometimes they are obviously copied from one another; sometimes they illustrate different stages of a similar maneuver; and sometimes they give the impression of the same idea having been arrived at independently.”  (p. 184.)

By comparing and contrasting a given technique both in the various sources and within the same source when it appears multiple times, we often find that the description or pictures will, as Professor Anglo says, give us a “view” of the technique from different angles or with different descriptions which can come together to give a far more complete understanding than any single description or picture can.  Let’s use that approach to interpret the Durchwechseln.

Here is the description of the Durchwechseln in the pseudo-Peter von Danzig Fechtbuch:
“If you come against your opponent in the Zufechten, strike strongly at him. If he in turn strikes to your sword and not to your body, slide the point from under his sword before he binds to your sword, then thrust on the other side of his blade to his face or chest.” (Cod. 44.A.8 fol. 31r.)

Note that details are frustratingly absent; he says nothing about your position as you thrust, nor does any other extant source do so any more plainly.

Few of the pictorial sources show the Durchwechseln, but the Paulus Kal Fechtbuch does (the Glasgow Fechtbuch shows it too, but less clearly):
“Learn the Durchwechseln from both sides.” (CGM 1507 fol. 66r.)

Master Paulus’ picture seems to make it clear that the technique is being done into Langenort, however, experience has shown that pictorial sources are often very poorly drawn and/or at distinct odds with the more detailed textual descriptions, often drastically so.  Still, this seemed the best and clearest indication of how to do the technique, so I moved on to the second part of the process—testing.

Unfortunately, the testing process did not support the use of Langenort.  In the Kal picture, the combatants are shown too far apart to actually hit one another; at that distance, it is easy to drop your point under your opponent’s blade and thrust, but if the attacker is close enough to his opponent to have hit him with his initial cut, there isn’t enough room to come up into Langenort.  Moreover, this problem is even worse if the initial cut is one of the shorter-ranged ones, such as a Zwerchhau, which requires you to be closer from the start.

The Durchwechseln is a very widely mentioned technique because it has a lot of different applications, so this gave me a lot of different places to look as I applied the dossier approach.  Still, almost all the sources were extremely vague, and offered very few new insights.  Turning again to the pseudo-von Danzig, however, I found help in an unlikely place: the plays of the Schielhau.
“If he skillfully evades this blow of your sword [i.e., your Schielhau] and tries to Durchwechseln below, then thrust with the point straight in front of you [“with your arms extended” Ringeck says in fol. 31v, meaning Langenort] so that he may not Durchwechseln.” (von Danzig fol. 23v.)

In other words, von Danzig and Ringeck both say that if you counter your opponent’s initial cut with a Schielhau, and he then attempts to “change through” under your counter, that you should counter his Durchwechseln with a thrust into Langenort (“with your arms extended”); in other words, Langenort “breaks” (counters) Durchwechseln.  In this we can find our answer, although it’s not explicit.

If the Durchwechseln is done into Langenort, then how can it be countered by Langenort?  The reach would be the same for both, and the person doing the Durchwechseln in that example would win since he moved first.  That being the case, Langenort would not work well to counter the Durchwechseln described above in the plays of the Schielhau.  If, however, the Durchwechseln is done into an Upper Hengen, things are different: Langenort is an excellent counter to the Durchwechseln because it has longer reach, especially if you step backward as you execute the thrust into Langenort to take advantage of the reach it provides, and this offsets the fact that your opponent moved first.

Testing this, we found that it worked admirably.  You can use a Durchwechseln into the Upper Hengen from even the most short-ranged techniques, and the reach advantage of Langenort makes countering the Durchwechseln practical and easy.  Figuring that out, however, required both applying the dossier approach to a number of different books, and to different plays within each of those books, then testing the mechanics out in practice.  On a more subtle level, I had to do more than merely read the descriptions (which never mention the final position), I had to apply an understanding of what each of several different techniques was supposed to do in order to understand the implications of the techniques in question.  I had to ask, “If this is the counter, what does that tell me about how to do the Durchwechseln itself?”  Interpretation is often like that, requiring you to work backward from something else to get at what you’re trying to understand.

I hope this helps others who are struggling to understand the techniques of our art, especially those which aren’t explicitly described or pictured.