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.


Jason said...

I don't really take issue with your overall theme here but I do disagree in the concept of stylistic purity. European fighting arts all share a common fencing core and the Masters themselves (i.e. Fiori, Meyer and Liechtenauer) all traveled abroad and learned combat systems from nations around them before culling what they believed were the most practical techniques into their own respective styles. Meyer is especially vocal about this and has been called the MMA pioneer of his day. The medieval to renaissance combat systems were very pan-European and it seems the differences between systems are based on a more tactical approach to the fight rather than many technical variations one would expect to see of a system developed within a vacuum.

Hugh Knight said...

We have zero evidence that these systems all have a common core. Indeed, given that the great masters all traveled around studying under different masters (and presumably different masters from the ones each of them studied), it is impossible that there is any single common core. And if they were so "pan-European," why is it so easy to tell the different schools apart? No, the pan-European single-source notion is utterly and completely wrong.

And while it's true that the great masters made up systems by combining other systems, we cannot do so, however, for several reasons. First, we aren't great masters. These men were geniuses--the greats of even their day, when professionals were common. We are not. This modern notion that everyone is a genius who can make up his own style that's as effective as any of the traditional systems is ludicrous on its face, and obviously untrue. People who believe it lack the ability to see the genius inherent in the traditional systems, and are thus incapable of creating a unified set of core principles from their disparate bag of mixed and unrelated technique.

Second, we can't test our material as they could, nor can we see it tested. The ridiculous games of sword tag played today by people claiming to practice HEMA are nothing like the real arts, and so are not a test of anything. The masters could test and refine their arts as they developed them in a way we never can. Absent that kind of testing, it's silly to pretend it's possible top make a new system and then claim it's as valid as one that was tested by real warriors.

But third, and most important, we have no *need* to develop our own systems. None of us will *ever* be in a real sword fight, and it is ridiculous to pretend we ever will. People who want to imagine themselves great swordsmen have read too many fantasy novels where the young boy is transported to a magical kingdom where he is suddenly a great hero. The only valid reason for studying these arts is to resurrect the arts the masters gave us. It's living history, not a useful modern system of self defense. Making up a new system reflects a level of hubris almost impossible to contemplate. Our job is to recreate a lost art, not pretend we can invent a new one just as good.