Thursday, December 24, 2009

Ten Bad Sparring Practices in the Art of Swordsmanship

Here is a short list of pathetic and loathsome practices I have personally witnessed in sparring matches. Those guilty, knowingly or unknowingly; hang thy heads in shame, correct, and/or kill yourselves. If you’re offended, you’re guilty.

1. Touch-taggers. Yeah, you know who you are. Unless you don’t. Which you really might not. You’re the kind of guy who thinks you’d be shearing the limbs off of your opponent when in reality you’d be lucky if you were brushing off the flies with the kind of horrid technique you display. You must have been a boffer fighter in a previous life, and I’m sure you’ll add it to your resume as a “martial pursuit” when you become a “martial artist” and form an acronym. Queef-bucket.1

2. Edge-smearers. You’re a touch-tagger, but up close. You think you’re giving an exemplary display of binding, winding and slicing technique, but you’re really just demonstrating a deplorable lack of skill and knowledge of both technique, and the capabilities of real swords as you touch the other guy with your edge and/or flat and rub the sword about. It is more a display of homo-eroticism than swordsmanship. I’ve seen men feeding their girlfriends hotdogs in a more martially sound manner. Pube-nugget.1

3. Hand-hunters. See your twin brother in #6. With the exception that you deliberately choose a fragile target. Bitch. You may also often be a #5, and you will solely attempt to defend by striking the hands, which results in simultaneous hits, which you then proceed to argue about as said #5.

4. Show-boaters. You suck and you know it, so you pass yourself off as not really trying, when in fact if you did try, you would get your ass kicked just as badly, but in such an event you’d be without an excuse. You think you’re flaunting yourself in the ideal Castiglionian fashion, but everyone with two brain cells to rub together can tell you’re just a douche nozzle. Yet somehow you still think you’re God’s gift to “historical fencing.” And here’s a hint: Yes, you can do sprezzatura wrong, beef-jockey.1

5. The debater. You have no concept of what the real purpose of sparring is. You’re also very insecure about your abilities. Any time the unfortunate incident of you and your opponent striking each other near the same moment occurs, you stop the bout to discuss who’s blow landed first; usually –like a little bitch- insisting that it was yours. As if a real martial artist would give a flying pommel in such an instance. It’s sparring! As if, in such a close circumstance, one strike would negate the other. The only people who should argue about such insignificant crap are sport fencers in a tournament, or jockeys when a photo-finish should be involved. Tampon-sniffer.1

6. The one-trick pony. You pretty much suck, so you constantly deliver the same attack. Again and again. And again. Etc. It’s just sparring. Try something new. If you try something else long enough, who knows? Maybe you can be a two-trick pony, you sorry sack-jacket.1

7. The quitter. You completely lack any skill whatsoever in a given range of the fight, so if your opponent gets there, you stop. That’s all. You just stop and cede the fight. What a lack of audacity and desire. Diaper-bandit.1

8. A lack of control. Your physical skills suck to the point that you will trade a little speed to get in a hit for any incidental injury your opponent may sustain due to your inability to pull the strike. That, or you simply lack any real regard for your training partner. In any case, you’re an asshole who lacks the ability to exert proper control over the weapon. Slow down if you have to. Jackass.2

9. The ground-cutter. This one is just annoying. Your form is so poor that when you are getting relatively intense in a sparring bout, you constantly strike the ground with your missed, flailing cuts. If your weapon was real, you’d need to replace it rather often. Is that how you flourish? If you were a modern soldier, would you also jab the barrel of your rifle into the dirt between each shot? You must be who Doebringer had in mind when he called what we generally know as alber, the “plow.” It also goes to show that in the event that you had any real sense of range, you also have no intention of controlling your strike. Granny-plug.1

10. The water-winger. Either you started your days of “fighting” with blunt objects in the SCA, or you just have no idea what you’re doing. You wear a mask with a hood or a steel helmet, gorget, fluffy gambeson, external cod-piece and padded gloves. Isn’t that what they did in the old days? Don’t forget your inner-tube, life-preserver, mouth-piece, water-wings, self-deploying airbag and prophylactic. Did I miss anything? Because that edge-smearing with aluminum blades can be crippling were it to push around on you without such protective measures. After all, you guys just go at it with such intensity with those clean, crisp techniques. Clown-fondler.1


1. Most profanity in this article is the product of Creative Cursing: A Mix and Match Profanity Generator, by Sarah Royal & Jillian Panarese. It’s not my fault.
2. Really, you’re just a jackass.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

On Sparring

I have two general rules for sparring: 1. Never spar anyone you don’t know, and 2. Never spar anyone with a lack of control.

In either case, it can be inferred that I do not spar anyone I do not trust. Additionally, these rules have double-weight for me when weapon simulators are involved due to the increased potential for injury. These are rules that I have both learned as-is from those greater than I, and from personal experience in my martial career.

These are rules that -for various reasons- I have often broken in the past.

The primary reason for this is the “sparring culture” of the current revival of the Renaissance martial arts, which I will presently discuss.

In my experience, in regard to sparring, there are three types of martial arts, or perhaps more accurately, three types of martial arts schools. In no particular order, there are those that train to spar; those that spar to train; and finally, those that do not spar.

In the RMA there exist all three, but by and large most of them seem to be those that train to spar. This is that “sparring culture” that seems so prominent which I previously mentioned. By “train to spar,” I mean groups or schools whose focal point for the art is the act of sparring itself. It composes a major part of their curricula and class time. They often enough train in rote techniques and other aspects, but it is generally for the purpose of improving their performance during said act. And just the same, they spar to further improve their sparring ability. However martial such groups or schools may be, it is an easy argument to be made that they sportify the Art simply for the reason that the epitome and focus of their niche culture and methodology is the act of friendly sparring itself. It is the ultimate test within their groups, all else being relatively unimportant by comparison. Such is not only the case with many an RMA school/group, but also with tournament oriented Asian fighting arts. Such are the limits of sparring compared to combat. In addition, as all sports, if they are not held in strict check they invite concepts truly applicable only to sparring.

Myself having been a long-time member of such an organization is what inescapably led me to do most of the breaking of my personal rules on the matter, outlined above.

Secondly however, we have those that spar to train. By “spar to train,” I mean those that include sparring as an aspect of their curriculum, but do not regard it as the end-all be-all of their purpose or of the Art itself. This is the case with most modern self-defense schools. Sparring is regarded as one of many tools at the school’s disposal that are used on occasion to facilitate a higher purpose in the practitioner; i.e. self-defense skills. Sparring in such schools does not generally encompass a major part of the daily regimen, and when it is used, it is used as a tool rather than in a recreant fashion; it is used for a specific, designated purpose; to work on a given problem, technique, drill or aspect of the Art. The majority of the curricula of such schools involves training in exercises, drills, and rote, repetitive practice. Sparring is a facet of a practitioner’s abilities, but one of many. I believe this is also the historical perspective of most schools of the Art in Europe, as it is so borne out in modern self-defense practices because of its very efficacy in contrast to the former type of school and the environment in which it was used, but this belief is arguable.

Since I personally no longer have any obligation toward said sparring culture, I am once again bringing things into such an alignment within my own school by shifting the focus off of sparring, yet retaining it as an important tool (one of many), but a tool none-the-less, and by applying it for specific purpose.

However, it could be said that sparring is in fact the epitome of the art in this day and age for the simple fact that so many parts of it no longer apply to real life. Obviously, you will not fight with a sword against someone with a sword, so sparring is the apex of one’s training as it is the closest one will get to such a combat.

I say this is not so. It is a shift of focus away from what the Art really is. If you have followed my writings on the art for any length of time, you will know that the art is a genuine and applicable Art of Defense, here and now, despite the fact that it is a traditional art. Even if one will not fight with a sword in this age, one should train as if one would. Such a statement makes an attempt to separate the art both physically and philosophically, and one should not train in the same art with a duality of focus. Whether armed or unarmed, the Art is one in the same, and one cannot train with a mind to violent reality with his natural weapons, and then with a mind to sport or exercise when he finds a weapon of artifice in his hands. The Art should not be diametrically opposed to itself.

Finally, to continue; last and least are those schools and groups that do not spar. Are they worth mentioning? Such groups generally do not spar for one of two reasons: because they are not martial, or because they are philosophically opposed to the practice. Those in the RMA who fit into this category do so because of some particular philosophical opposition (i.e. I’m morbidly obese and can’t, so I’m going to pretend it never happened historically; I’m insecure about my skills, etc.). Those outside the RMA that are often classified as “martial arts” yet are not martial are arts such as Tai Chi, for example. The tool of sparring serves no purpose to such a practice.


Copyright Dec. 2009, Casper Bradak

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The True Fencer? The Buffel versus the Klopffechter.

Bring me to a fencer. I will bring him out of his fence tricks with good, downright blows!
-George Silver, Paradoxes of Defence.

Hello, dear readers.

It's the Voice from the Wilderness again.

The Cacophony persists in their straining endeavor to find clever new ways to reduce the Art to a single locus - or if they please - force it to dance on the head of a pin. Or the point of a sword? In their efforts, one has come across what he seems to consider a clever, novel, and irrefutable point: the "wide" cut is the mark of the buffel, or "buffalo." That is to say, a swordsman without finesse or art, without craft or cunning, who relies upon brute force alone.

Sadly, it is neither clever, nor novel, nor irrefutable. I've heard it before. These are the kinds of arguments bandied about by the likes of the "Meister" of Die Schlachtschule and his ilk. Things are obviously worse than I thought. The act of induction without all relevant data makes fools of the best of us, it seems. Futhermore, reduction has but one course: In its ebb and flow, it diminishes.

But, is there a case to be made for this claim?


To begin with, they have the term buffel confused with leychmeister, "game/dance master":

Many Leychmeistere say that they...have thought out a new art of fencing...all out of their own heads, and think up wide-reaching fencing and parries, and often make two or three [cuts] when one would be enough...with their bad parries and wide fencing they attempt to look dangerous, with wide and long strikes that are slow; and with these they...miss and create openings in themselves. They do not have proper reach in their fencing...But real fencing goes straight...just as if a string had been tied [to the intended target]...
- Hanko Döbringer*

This certainly would seem to support what the Cacophony is advocating. That is, if one didn't know better. Notice the strong emphasis on the "bad parries." You've seen these in films: The pseudo-fencers attack one anothers' swords in over-wide, sweeping motions, rather than going for exposed targets. It's all about the show , and hearing the delicious clang of steel on steel. Throw in some flying sparks, and you've got yourself some entertainment. As to the "wide and long strikes," a better term might be exaggerated.

There is a difference.

If a fencer is in a high guard (Point A), and wishes to attack his opponent's upper left arm (Point C) with a cut, then he has two options: He can do an over-wide, sweeping cut - bringing his sword ferociously to bear in a motion akin to an arc (and thus passing through Point B, ala Hollywood); or, he can bypass Point B and cut directly from Point A to Point C. A swordsman can do this with a half cut, or even a full cut, bringing the shoulders into the blow, without making the cut an exaggerated, sweeping stroke. "Just as if a string had been tied" from Point A to Point C. It is the difference between a powerful descending punch to the gut (from a stance where the fist had been pulled back, or "primed"; i.e., a normal stance for fist fighting, as opposed to one where the hands are tucked in at the chest, the elbows sticking out) versus the clumsy swing of a haymaker to the face. There is no need whatsoever to resort to thrusting wrist cuts, or rakes, alone.


There are places and times for broad, sweeping strokes, however. Such as a long cutting spring at a distance. Just one example.

The "buffalo" cut is therefore not a "buffalo" cut at all; it is the leychmeister cut, and it's not even what they think it is. "Buffaloes" simply brought brute force to bear because they had nothing else. This didn't necessarily involve exaggerated cuts.

The "buffalo" has no art.

The "dance master" perverts the Art.

However, it should be remembered that the Döbringer text warns us that even skilled fencers can fall against "buffaloes." Clearly, then, despite their modern conflation, they were far more dangerous than "game masters."

So, what does that make a fencer who reduces the art to a single cut?

You tell me.


*translation by David Lindholm. Minor alterations for readability.

Friday, December 4, 2009

What Defines a Warrior?

This is a question I have often heard asked in my martial career. I have also heard many, many answers and debates. But they often have difficulty and disagreement defining such a term and setting it apart from other terms. Still, many people have an innate feeling that they are set apart from the crowd, and they feel this term is suiting, yet they have trouble defining it. The term is spiritually grounded in our cultural ethos, yet the dictionary definition does not match the common sentiment. We know it means something special, but what? The answer is simple yet complex.

When I was writing this piece, I happened to stumble upon this piece by one Dr. Bohdi Sanders, and I must say that it says what I was going to say, in one way or another, and I recommend it highly.

In light of that, I will be brief.

I believe what I have to say does not so much differ from what Dr. Sanders has to say, but compliments it.

I had never quite defined the term for myself, despite all I had heard, but I had of late been pondering the question. Recently, my instructor presented me with a certificate for attending a seminar of his “on Basic Principles and Concepts: Knife Against Knife (A Warrior’s Guide to Knife Fighting).” So I posed the question to him. He answered quickly and succinctly. To paraphrase him, being a warrior is a way of being, a lifestyle, such as being a martial artist, as opposed to doing martial arts. A warrior is someone who practices a warrior art, and does so on their own; someone who strives to perfect their warrior skills; someone who seeks to perfect the art. By way of comparison, say, a soldier or policeman who is not a warrior is someone who performs a warrior practice as a job, for pay, and perhaps never trains without direction to do so, not on his own.

A warrior takes his art seriously and personally. The “soldier” is detached. A warrior is dedicated. Someone who “does” martial arts does so only in class. A martial artist trains on his own, often. The soldier does what he must. The warrior is driven to do what he must. Being a warrior is entirely independent of, yet complimentary to any “warrior” profession.

Martial arts (in the sense of personal combatives) connect us most firmly to the term of warrior. This is especially true of the traditional and ancient warrior arts. They give us a direct connection to a time when warriorhood and soldiery were far more deeply connected than they are today. People did not only join soldierly professions, but were born into warrior lifestyles. If one were a member of the part of society who’s duty and profession it was to fight, it was in his best interests to become a the warrior. One had to be skilled in the martial arts to survive. Studying the art of handling a weapon, a sword in particular, leaves no doubt, no room for a disconnection in one’s mind and spirit that one is studying a warrior art of life and death.

Some would say that it is necessary for a warrior to subscribe to a certain model of ethics. I do not believe this is the case. To be a warrior is to live a warrior lifestyle, and warrior lifestyles often have an attached ethos to them, good or evil. But many warriors have no such thing. An ethos is an asset to a warrior and common, but not necessary. It is an epiphemeral phenomenon; a “side effect.” However, a universal trait of warriors is that they have purpose. They esteem and strive for something that makes them warriors, and it may or may not include an ethos. Warriorhood is epiphemeral to that purpose, and a warrior ethos is epiphemeral to warriorhood. The purpose, the drive, is what creates the warrior. It is what they live and breathe for.

The life of a warrior is simply a life of very special preparation.


Copyright Dec. 4, 2009, Benjamin “Casper” Bradak

Monday, November 30, 2009

Hand to Hand: The Unarmed Arts of Europe

A Commentary

Their Current State in the States

Although a weaker grappler in earnest combat can be equal to a stronger opponent if he has previously leaned agility and range, combat techniques and striking techniques, in friendly wrestling strength has always the advantage. Despite this, the Art is praised by men-at-arms and knights over all things.

From the Codex Wallerstein as forward to the first ringen chapter (translation mine). It would imply that the warrior elite of the day praised skill in the art of unarmed combat the most highly.

It seems to me very odd that the current revival of the medieval and Renaissance martial arts came into being directly as an exploration into the Art of the Sword, rather than that of fundamental, readily applicable self defense. The Victorian revival was one of fencers and fighting men, and it would seem only natural that their interest in the Art was focused on the sword, and to a lesser extent, other weapons, in their day and age. But now, in the early 21st century, we’ve had more than a century long deluge of primarily unarmed fighting arts, not to mention a common demonization of weapons, obsolete or otherwise. One would think that dedicated martial artists, interested in their own martial heritage, would have stumbled upon the med./Ren. manuals during their investigations, and naturally, started their study of these once lost arts and built them up from their logical and practical foundations: the Unarmed Arts. After all, it seems only natural and rational that one would take Master Ringeck, for one, at his word when he said that all the Art comes from a foundational knowledge of the unarmed Arts. I believe things could have been brought to a speedy head if this were the case.

Naturally, anyone alive in such a day and age would have had recourse to his natural weapons before he ever picked up a sword or wore a dagger. And a martial society without television certainly made growing up with a foundation of unarmed skills commonplace. All things considered, it seems blasphemous to me that any nominal instructor or leader of a martial arts group would be utterly unqualified to teach anyone to defend themselves with anything but a four-foot stick in their hands, at best.

But then again, perhaps it isn’t so odd that the current revival is that of “sword-fighting.” It is not surprising because the revival wasn’t started by martial artists of any sort; they only joined in. Unfortunately, the current revival seems to have been begun by various choreographers, role-players, and re-enactors who have since turned into so many baseless martial Pharisees, preaching from straw pillars, some of which are still content to continue in their ignorance of the unarmed arts and continue to sword-fight, though some are apparently playing catch-up. The structure and curricula of their organizations reflect this.

To many martial artist’s loss and shame, most of them simply didn’t look for the arts of their own ancestry. Content with what they had, and either never stopping to think of something else, or in actuality believing contentedly there was no such thing. Some, such as myself, were in the actual process of searching for and uncovering these arts but found what we were looking for only after those previously mentioned had already found a bit more, and had already begun to build up organizational curricula around “sword-fighting” early on (though in hindsight it was nothing significant, at the time it was something, and people like myself joined in. Path of least resistance, I suppose).

The Unarmed Arts could have been developed to full effectiveness far more quickly than the sword arts (in the right hands) because, in one form or another, in one place or another, they never actually died out. Qualified individuals could have interpreted them. This would have produced a strong foundation for the armed arts from the start; It would have quickly brought the Art to viable modern usage, and it would have quickly brought the Art into equal standing with other fighting arts in the public eye due to their self defense accessibility and the current proclivity of unarmed arts. The armed arts could then be taken more seriously as they would have martial artists practicing them and they would have fundamentally practical value. In short, they would be taken seriously.

Where They Could and Should Be

There is no question that the unarmed arts of medieval and Renaissance Europe are an ancient, expansive and effective system. The writings of the Masters not only include entire works exclusively elucidating unarmed techniques and principles, but most surviving books include chapters on unarmed skills that comprise nearly half their work, or are commonly the largest single chapter in any given tome.

As I mentioned previously, in one way or another, the unarmed skills in our source material has never truly gone extinct, despite its ebb and flow, and they are the longest-lived aspect of our effective martial heritage, unlike the weaponed arts (this is what floors me as to why they were and are so underdeveloped among the “sword-fighters” out there). To clarify, a “sword-fighter” is just that; a man playing with swords, if he lacks the proper foundation (as opposed to a man fighting, with swords involved). When I first saw these ancient books, I was profoundly impressed at the multitude of techniques contained within them that I had already devoted myself to learning in the school. They were all readily recognizable. Their very fundamentality to all combat, their undying usefulness, and their efficacy in all cultures is why the Unarmed Art has never gone extinct. This is why there is such an abundance of potentially qualified instructors and practitioners of this aspect out there. And as a true fighting art, a practitioner’s stylistic influence does not often “flaw” the technique; It does not render it ineffective. “Interpretation” is in most cases moot. There is no “interpretation,” there is only wrong or right; effective or ineffective. Despite popular opinion, these unarmed arts are no lesser, in any respect, to any other in the world. They are the trailing aspect in that regard because of the backwardness of the revival of the Art in favor of putting the peak on the pyramid before the foundation has been laid.

I have heard it said that the medieval/Renaissance arts of combat are first and foremost, for better or worse, inextricably tied to “sword-fighting.” This is absolute nonsense. For all the reasons I’ve mentioned, there is no reason whatsoever that Renaissance European unarmed combatives cannot be taught as the prime focus of any real school of martial arts (as opposed to back-yard sword-fighting).

Don’t get me wrong. I am not trying in any way whatsoever to remove traditional weaponry from the equation of the Art. It is all tied together, which is the entire point of this piece, but it must be tied together the right way. I think it is quite obvious that the Art got off, embarrassingly, on the wrong foot. Given that the Art is already well on its way, I, for one, will bring it onto the right track when I represent it; in my school, and in all ways.


Copyright Nov. 2009, Benjamin “Casper” Bradak

Friday, November 27, 2009

On "Interpretation" of the Source Martial Arts Literature

I hate the term “interpretation.” I personally prefer to never use it. In my opinion, the time for interpretation passed when we could read what the Masters told us. When one is looking at pictures alone and trying to figure out what they were showing us, that can very reasonably be called interpretation. When the Masters tell you what to do, there is no more interpretation; there is right or wrong; effective or ineffective.

One “interprets” through modern dance. When it comes to martial art, one does or doesn’t. No one ever says they "interpret" a technique from any modern martial arts book.

There are only three ways to “interpret” what you see the Masters convey in the medieval/Renaissance martial art books.

1. It is what the Master meant to convey (in which case I have never had reason to doubt its effectiveness).
2. It is not what the Master meant to convey but effective (something the Master would still approve of, even if you’re not quite doing what he meant).
3. It is not what the Master meant to convey, and ineffective (outright shite).

Of course many of the former in numbers two and three in particular are calls that are often argued over by those who do not yet have a sufficient understanding of what they are doing. Thus internet discussion is formed.

The term “interpretation” is simply a feel-good term so all the bumblers out there can have some ego-padding when they are obviously bumbling around and making up absurd hypothesis and showing techniques that they do not understand. There is no shame to say that you haven’t “figured something out” yet, as opposed to doing something in a poor, shoddy, or outright incorrect fashion and saying it is your “interpretation.”


copyright Nov. 2009, Benjamin "Casper" Bradak

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Balance Between Ferocity and Control

Thys beeth ye lettr yt stondy in hys sygte \ To teche or to play or ellys for to fygte...

This is the letter (way), [for] standing in his (the opponent's) sight \
[either] to teach, or to play, or else for to fight...

- Man Yt Wol.

Hello, dear readers.

You'll all be glad to know that yours truly has fully recovered from his unfortunate zombification. As luck would have it, Casper burst in just as I was about to descend upon the wife and feast upon her succulent flesh. He claims it was to "check up on me," but I suspect that the real reason was to abscond with all of my swords. It's what I would have done, after all.

In any event, he kicked in the door - armed with silver crucifix, holy water, and sharp, bright blade - and pressing the crucifix to my forehead while chanting the psalms, he forced me into a chair, and then had the wife secure me to it with some stout rope. Long story short, after about thirteen exorcisms, a course of some rather strong antibiotics, and a rejuvenating colonic, I was back to my old self. I now only get the urge to devour human flesh every once in a while.

Nothing new there.

Anyway, on to the point:

A couple of months ago, one Andrew Maxwell left the following comment regarding my article The Medieval and Renaissance Martial Arts in the Digital Age:

I am basically in agreement with what you have said, but I am curious as to what you envisage as the test for "martial intensity"? As a member of a small group of relative newcomers to the world of HEMA, this sounds somewhat ominous, for all that I am in agreement in principle... Further explication would be appreciated.

The fact that he posted that comment in September, and I only just became aware of it tonight shows just how on top of things I am. Nonetheless, it's a good question, more or less, and deserving of some further explanation. After all, in an article where I write at some length about Victorian swordsmen killing people with their weapons, in seeming regret that we probably won't get the chance to share similar experiences; all the while advocating a high level of martial intensity, it's easy to see how this may indeed sound "ominous" to some. It should certainly be something that the newcomer to the Art should think about.

So, what do I mean by "intensity"? Well, I dare say that this is a good example of intensity:

As you can see, neither of us died. That said, and I cannot stress this enough, anyone going into this endeavor should be cognizant of the dangers involved. Medieval and Renaissance swordsmanship is an inherently hazardous pursuit. You are likely to get sprains, welts, bruises, and none too few incidental minor cuts. This is something that any practitioner simply must accept beforehand. That hit at the end of the clip - I was attempting to strike Casper's blow away from below, and miscalculated - was real. It hurt, and it messed up my wrist for a couple of weeks. Nothing too major, and I've had worse, but it might just give some pause.

All this said, how far is too far, and how do we balance the need for intensity with common sense safety and control? Several modern practitioners have weighed in on this issue, and there are differing takes. Some claim that play, or sparring, was not something historical swordsmen did, so the issue of intensity is therefore moot. In response to these fools, we can point out that there exists a relative wealth of historical evidence for play, the above quote from the English martial poem Man Yt Wol being but one example.

Indeed, Man Yt Wol offers perhaps the best example available to us for intensity in regards to play, because it affords us a deeper context to play (as in "swordplay"), or sparring. And this deeper context? The poem admonishes the swordsman that there is only one way to pursue the Art of the Sword, whether teaching the Art, engaging in play with a partner, or in life or death encounters going at it for real: in all cases, you must engage the student, the fellow player, or the bitter enemy with deadly seriousness, as if it were for real (and in the case of an enemy or attacker, of course, it was). Another 15th century English poem, dubbed "The Poem of the Pell", echoes this sentiment:

Have eche his pile or pale upfixed fast
And as it were uppon his mortal foe
With mightyness and weapon most be cast
To fight stonge, that he ne skape him fro
On hym with shield, and sword avised so
That thou be cloos, and Preste thy foe to smyte
Lest of thyne own dethe thou be to wite

Have each [man] his [pell] upfixed (placed in the ground) fast (strongly, securely),
And as [if] it were upon his mortal foe,
With mightiness (with ferocity) and weapon must be cast (attack the pell with the aforementioned);
[Remember] to fight strongly, that he (the enemy) not escape from him (the swordsman training at the pell, who is envisioning the pell as his mortal foe).
On him (as in "go at him") with shield and sword advised so (as has been said).
[Make certain] that thou be close (to the opponent - don't let him get away from you), and presently [make certain] thy foe to smite.
Lest of thine own death thou be to know, (i.e., for if you don't do this, you'll likely be the one to die).

In each of these examples, the need for intensity is inculcated upon the student of the Art. It was necessary in the days of personal close combat that this be understood in no uncertain terms. It was a matter of life or death. Today, if we hope to reconstruct the methods of our ancestors, or the knights and masters we admire (or both), then we must realize that the mechanics of the techniques that we now breathe new life into require that selfsame intensity of the past. Anything less is just that...less...rather than a martial art, what we end up indulging in is a martial sport.

This has all been gone over by others, of course - perhaps most notably (incessantly might be a better word. I acknowledge that I may not be the best person to criticize on this front, possessing hobby horses of my own) by the director of the ARMA - but for the novice (which this blog is most especially geared towards), it bears some rephrasing and repeating. But the real question is, how do we simulate fighting for real - how do we bring intensity to our play - today? Well, one might ask, "How did they do it back then"? This is perhaps better suited as the subject for another posting, however (though the pic above should give you a pretty good idea. Note: what kinds of equipment are they using?) Instead, let's focus on what has been tried today.

We've already gone over the "they didn't practice sparring historically" crowd (a small crowd, to be sure, which is perhaps telling). So much for them. What else has been tried?

One well known organization has taken something of a supplementary approach: engaging in play with padded simulators, which allegedly allow for "full contact" sparring; in addition to slightly more controlled sparring and drilling (both solo and partnered) with wooden (and later plastic) wasters. Eventually, this group began to employ foils, or blunt steel practice swords, as well. Round this off with some test cutting against various targets, as well as practicing techniques against a pell, and you get the picture.

I used to favor the above approach myself, but I have since left the padded simulators to the boffer/LARP groups, where they no doubt belong. As to wasters, these have replaced the padded sparring "weapons" for me and my cohort, for the most part, though we have no further use for the wooden variety. For those interested, I can recommend the Cold Steel plastic "longsword" wasters. These don't measure up in terms of length - at least not according to my own taste - but they are well nigh indestructible and are quite affordable. Does this mean that I'm advocating whaling on your practice partners with plastic wasters? No, but I'll get to that in a minute.

Another popular approach, particularly in Europe, is the use of converted shinai, usually with a gambeson or modern sports padding, together with a fencing mask. This has merit in that it recognizes the need for intensity; nonetheless, I must confess a certain disdain for it. A shinai isn't designed to handle like a European sword, no matter how many alterations are made to the thing. Though I do give credit to those hardy souls that use converted shinai sans padding, as I have seen a certain Swedish group do in several videos. Still, this is not an approach that I can personally recommend.

Others take an almost SCA route. They don full plate, or nearly full plate, and practice unarmoured techniques on one another, both in drill and play. To say that I believe that this leads to some severely skewed ideas is something of an understatement. Armour bashing is decidedly self defeating, at least in my opinion. There was an entire method designed for fighting with swords in armour, and they didn't include hitting the other guy as if he wasn't wearing armour. Swords don't cut through armour. Let's stop pretending that they do.

There are these, and many admixtures and permutations thereof, besides. So, all that said, what do I recommend (for those who have read to this point, and by some miracle are still interested)?

The paramount thing is control. Basically knowing how to "put the brakes" on a cut or a thrust. This necessitates a keen understanding of range, power, and being able to read your practice partner. These things can only be developed with time and experience. So, if you're just starting out, take it slow and steady. Practice rote drills with a partner to get the feel of things. In truth, you should never stop doing this. Rote drilling is essential. One never outgrows the need for including it in one's routine. Search the fechtbucher for techniques you'd like to try out, and do them slowly with a partner. Take turns executing them on one another. Get them into your muscle memory.

Practice speed and ferocity against a pell, just as the poem quoted above said to do. Practicing at the pell will teach you range, and how to flow from one attack to another with strength and speed. Practice solo drills, both free-form and rote, in the air. Incorporate everything you know into these, and pay no attention if the neighbors think you've gone mad. This is another fait accompli of this pursuit. All my neighbors are convinced I'm stark raving crazy. Being a bit of a misanthrope, I consider that a bonus. They tend to give me a wide berth.

When you deem yourself ready to kick things up a notch, buy yourself a good three weapons fencing mask (and, if you're male, a cup wouldn't go amiss), and go at things a little faster. This time, however, try to actually defeat your partner. Continue rote practice, but now engage in play, or sparring. Make sure that you make contact, and make sure that said contact is palpable (no touch tag, or edge smearing), but always remember control. You can make contact without beating up your practice buddies. Keep things slow to start. You may use wasters or foils, but to start I recommend wasters. When you're more accomplished, you can go at one another with yet more speed and intensity, while still retaining control. You may even want to try it without the mask occasionally.

As I've said before, there is an inherent element of risk in all of this. The question you have to ask yourself is this: how badly do I want to do this?


Monday, November 9, 2009

The Rock-em Sock-em Robot Way to Fight, Going Left and Right

I've decided to punch like a rock-em sock-em robot, and here's why: Actually, we'll call this the "low-high-guard." But it's not only a guard, but how you strike from it. I once saw a guy, maybe two (or even more), in the fechtbucher standing this way. What was the context you may ask? Well, they were fighting of course!

Here's how you do it. Firstly, for the guard, get into your usual fighting stance. Next, make a fist with each hand and place each hand in front of and touching (or nearly touching) the nipple, each on its respective side. There. Now we have the "low high guard."

Now, this guard actually has several advantages over any previously used conventional guard that we've been misguidedly using for the last millennia or eight. For one, I've noticed that it protects the hands better than the old one. I mean, with people trying to hit you in the head, why would you put your hands in the way? They'll get hit! So put them in front of your chest. Now they're safe!

The second major advantage to this is the way that you strike from it. Simply put, it allows for "tighter punching." You see, you simply extend the fist directly from your nipple until it impacts upon the desired target.

Another thing I've noticed is that it's fast. It's easy to touch the other guy with it when I'm sparring. Much quicker than from the old way of holding a guard. I know you strike from Point of Origin with either guard, but from here, my fists are closer to the other guy, and I don't have to move my body. Make sense? I'm also reasonably sure that I could bloody my opponent's nose with one of these punches, or give him a fat lip or a charley horse. I'm sure he wouldn't like that. If he were a pansy, it would probably even end the fight if I hit him in the right spot. But either way, I use it when I'm sparring, and I can touch the other guy with it, and that's what counts, right?

Yet another advantage is that it telegraphs less. It's not that you move less from here, or that such corresponds to a lack of power or follow-through, etc. It's just that it's a better kind of punch for undisclosed reasons. And I can therefore touch the other guy easier when I'm sparring. You see, this way I really don't need to work on my form or use Master Silver's True Times because it's just so much quicker.

"Why would you build your basis of fighting upon a relaxed position and a sucker punch?" You may ask. Well, the answer is that it is neither. It is the basis for fighting with the fists; this is the way it was done! You can tell because I can hit the other guy easy, and it feels nice and quick.

"Why would you stand this way if that one punch you like so much is really the only one you can strike with from there without excessive motion?" You may ask. What're you talking about? Seriously, I can strike any way I want from there at least as well as the "old" way. I don't see what you're talking about.

"That's such a weak way of punching (not to mention fighting). Don't you think the "old" methods are not only just as fast, but strike much harder, with the option of still striking lightly?" You may ask. Well, I can punch at least as hard from here as I could from a "normal" guard.

"Then you never knew how to punch in the first place." What? How 'bout you let me punch you in the nose this way? See how you like it. Yeah, I thought not. Learned punching OJT, baby, and this is the hardest I've ever done it, so I know.

"Well it sucks because you can't really use combinations or follow-on attacks without reverting to the "old" way of striking after your initial punch, and you really have to go out of your way to throw any other kind of punch from there." Nuh-uh. I can so. I'd show you but we're on the internet.

"You're treating this pre-zufechten sucker punch and relaxed position as more than it is." No, it is the better way, don't you see? It's easier to hit the other guy with it and I can work the techniques from it.

"But it doesn't hit harder. It's weaker." No it's not. Like I said, I can hit just as hard from there. And so what if it doesn't hit as hard (which it does). Lacerating the opponent will probably end the fight too.

"But what about the masters admonitions to strike and fight with strength, which this obviously doesn't allow for?" Like I said, I can hit just as hard this way, and also at full reach. Of course I can hit with some strength with it. You see, I don't actually hit from here. I cock my fist back into a "normal" guard and then strike. Genius!

"I give up, you're a fucking devolving idiot." Fuck you. This is a hot topic in my community.

Allza Fudgin Kum Vum Ringen

Well, enough of that. I was thinking, since a certain master said the above, why shouldn't I use a longsword this way? After all, we already have an excellent foundation for it. Let's make another guard and call it "the T-Rex guard," or LVT for short. The correspondingly tighter, just as powerful cut we'll call "the T-Rex cut" after the similar looks and deadly prowess of that great dragon's clawed forearms of death. We can't really call it a zornhau anymore because it's a pansy wrist-cut. In fact, I'm changing my school's name to the T-Rex's Paws School of Defense.

Well, you know what, I could get into the technicalities of this (and I probably will), but let's just save some space, and if you have any questions about it, see the above and imagine there is a longsword in place of the fist. You get the idea.


Copyright Nov. 2009, Casper Bradak

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Medieval European Fighting Knives: Blade-forms Typology

Hey everyone. I wrote this piece years ago, actually, but I have doubts whether most of our readership here has seen it. Here is a re-editing of it. Enjoy.

It is not too unknown among historians of the era and some martial artists of the arts extant at the time, that during the so-called medieval period (roughly post 1200up to 1500, generally speaking) there were basically seven varieties of combat or fighting knives/daggers. These include some overlap and variation, of course, as many dagger hilts displayed characteristics of more than one type.

These 7 types are classified by their hilts (specifically their guards or hand-stops) as follows:

Rondel Daggers: The favored hilt of the man at arms and fencing master for over one-hundred and seventy-five years (in use from the 14th to 16th centuries), characterized by a normally disk shaped guard, perpendicular to and above and below the grip. The term used is modern. Achieved general use by at least 1325.

Baselards: A popular dagger hilt of the 14th century among all classes (possibly originating in the thirteenth), this dagger had a relatively two dimensional hilt in the shape of a capitol I. The term is proper historical nomenclature. It is accepted as the forerunner of the swiss or holbein dagger.

There is no man worth a leke,
Be he sturdy, be he meke,
But he bear a basilard.

Quillon Daggers: A wide and varied category, these are of course named specifically for their guards, often resembling small scale copies of contemporary swords. Evidence shows they began use during the thirteenth century.

Ballock or Kydney Daggers: These daggers are primarily classified by two rounded protrusions functioning as the blade-side guard (and many of their hilts are somewhat phalliform in total, hence the name). The term ballock is the original nomenclature; "kidney" is a Victorian term which has stuck (akin to "hand and a half" in place of "bastard"). These existed from around 1300 to well into the sixteenth century, and is accepted as the forerunner of the Scottish dirk.

Eared Daggers: Probably extant from the late 14th century, and identified by two vertically splayed disks at the pommel, granting it its relatively modern name (possibly from the 16th century). They lack much of a guard or hand-stop at the blade-side of the handle.

Cinquedeas: This term is somewhat of a misnomer, but now universally accepted. Extant from the middle of the fifteenth century. It is characterized primarily by the blade, which also gives it an often distinct hilt. The blade is very broad at the base, often "5 fingers wide" and usually tapers straight to a point, giving it a long, broad triangular silhouette.

Peasant Knives or Hauswehren: Knives often carried by commoners or peasants. German writers have called them Hauswehre or "home defense" knives. Often resembling a large butcher knife with a guard and generally having a single edged blade. Often much like a diminutive messer familiar to martial artists of contemporary styles (this is in part where the messer gets its name). Accepted as a direct offshoot of the scramasax and ancestor of the Bowie knife. It remained in use as late as the early 17th century.

That concludes a very brief synopsis of the seven major medieval fighting knife forms as outlined by Harold L. Peterson's Daggers and Fighting Knives of the Western World.
Next, I'll outline a new attempt at a general classification for the blade forms for these weapons which, as far as I'm aware, has not been attempted before. The blades of these weapons are naturally far fewer in variation than those of swords, but there was still a wider variety that most are ignorant of. It is important to note that though some hilt types are generally associated with a more specific blade form, nearly all of these following blade forms were found on nearly all of the hilt types explained above, so it is important not to make fast any associations with them.

Though there are fewer blade forms on daggers than on swords, the blade dictates the function of the weapon and is therefore inarguably the most important piece for consideration, both by the medieval fighting man, and by modern practitioners of his Art. The distinction between blade forms is very important and should be noted even if a typology nomenclature is not used.

Worthy of note is that all of these medieval dagger types primarily focus their deadly attentions on the point. In types 1 through 2, both subtypes are dual purpose, but subtype a has a definite emphasis on the point. Subtype b provides a more balanced cut and thrust ability. In Europe the primacy of the point was seen as nowhere else, including the form and function of the medieval dagger. Not only was this the focus of the dagger for its lethality, but the technology of medieval Europe both fostered and required weapons that could kill by being thrust into small targets while dually minimizing the effectiveness of their edges in many situations. Daggers were in all ways a co-adaptation alongside their longer counterpart: the sword. Mighty and versatile weapons in their own right, they were the most ubiquitous side-arm, an essential backup weapon; never left behind even when the sword had to be.

A note on lengths: As fighting knives, many of these blades would range from nearly a foot long, to blurring the lines with a sword. Much shorter, and it blurs the lines between a weapon of self defense or a simple utility tool. Given this, it is a personal judgment call on how it could be best used, and length has little bearing on the typology and it would be needlessly presumptuous to place classification guidelines on lengths.

For a good general length on a medieval combat knife that works particularly well with the contemporary fighting arts, Master Phillipo Vadi noted in his De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, that when gripped in the hand, the point should touch one's elbow. He gave preference to the rondel dagger with a possible 2a blade type, saying it should have one edge and two corners. The picture he provides, however, looks to be possibly a rondel of blade type 1a or 3a.

The following typology is general and arranged by effective use, not aesthetics (which could very well quadruple the list). I have broken them down into four basic types, each containing two subtypes. Some rough general hand measurements are given in the classifications.

Type 1 (double edged)
1a. This type is characterized by a narrow double edged blade. Both edges are sharp, and taper to an acute point. Generally between one and two fingers wide at the shoulder; normally about one and a half. Sometimes appears with a strong midrib, which often decreases the utility of the edge near the point while reinforcing it (making it functionally somewhat similar to a type 3b).
1b. This type is as the above, but has a broader blade and often less taper for most of its length. This kind is also sometimes found with a strong midrib. Generally about two fingers wide at the shoulder, but sometimes as many as four fingers wide.

Type 1.5 (three quarter edged)
1.5. This type is characterized by a "three quarter" edged blade. One edge is sharp for all or nearly the entire length of the blade, and the false edge is sharp for roughly one quarter to one half the length of the blade from the point, the last half being a flat ricasso. Generally found on narrower blades of acute taper (1a), but can also be found on the b subtype.

Type 2 (single edged)
2a. This type has a narrow, single edged blade, tapering to an acute point. Only one edge is sharp, the other usually flat. Sometimes with a flared rib along the false edge. Generally one to nearly two fingers wide at the shoulder, normally about one and a half.
2b. This type is as above, but with a broader blade and perhaps less taper. Generally from one and a half to three fingers wide at the shoulder, normally about two fingers wide at the shoulder.

Type 3 (edgeless)
3a. This blade is very narrow, having "corners" rather than edges, often being of triangular, diamond or even hexagonal (though usually tapering to diamond or triangular) cross section (unflattened) and tapering to an acute point. The steep cross section disallows sharp edges. Generally about one finger wide at the shoulder. Similar in blade form to the later stiletto or an estoc type sword.
3b. This brilliant and underrated innovation is a compromise between the above and the utility of an edged blade. The blade (single edged in its most common form) flares out into an unflattened diamond or triangular cross section for roughly the last quarter of the blade. Some variations will flare out again nearer the hilt. Generally one to two fingers wide at the shoulder.

Copyright: Casper Bradak

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Agile Krumphau Defined

Here is a new article about the krumphau that is quite literally definitive. Defined, clarified, and explained (though not a tutorial; it assumes one knows a thing or two about the technique). This material has been held privately and within the Dragon's Tail School of Defense for quite some time, but it seems the proper time to make a public version for the benefit of all practitioners.

Though it is a very straight-forward technique - that is to say, there are a variety of techniques utilizing the krump principle in the fechtbucher - and though most practitioners actually perform it more or less correctly, they often do not know exactly what defines it or why it is performed the way it is. A few out there, however, get it entirely wrong due to that same seed of misunderstanding.

It is a bit much for the blog format, so it is being graciously hosted as a quickly downloadable PDF file at the following link:

Enjoy, and as always, you can post feedback here or e-mail it to me privately.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Wallerstein Codex: A Distinct Tradition?

The Wallerstein Codex has been argued to be of a distinct “tradition” or “style” from that of Master Leichtenauer (and the rest of Europe, depending on your point of view). This is a nearly inarguable assertion in that the Codex has no identifiable tradition because it contains almost no “foundational” techniques by way of comparison to the majority of other personal martial art works of the time. The hypothesis is based not on evidence, but a lack of evidence; a negative. In fact, many (but not all) of what could be considered foundational concepts and techniques are glaringly absent, making it apparent that they were intentionally left out, and that the unfinished book was designed around supplementary techniques (perhaps its intended selling point, were it ever marketed in its day). That is, unless you think that the Codex is full of the foundational techniques of yet another decisively different “style,” in which case I’d say that more work needs to be done before positing public theories on the basis and origin of combat methodologies. The techniques contained within the Codex are obviously peripheral and supplemental, as opposed to any traditional basis of a martial art. But given this, and the fact that there is no real demonstrated overall “tradition” from the Germanic lands outside that often attributed to Leichtenauer, it seems a rather naïve argument. In fact, it seems all the more naïve in that there is apparently no distinct tradition to the Art of the Longsword but a European one. The book is arguably several efforts condensed into one volume, and like most such books, contains many techniques found in others throughout Europe (along with identical weaponry), alongside a few found nowhere else.
On another point, a "style" can hardly be discerned from dead pages, as a chosen, written selection and type of presentation leaves reality only to the imagination. A "tradition" is more arguable. In either case, an ancient and dead art is hard to discern as it will never be seen as it was.
In light of all this, the Wallerstein Codex sheds some light on just how large and sophisticated the Art of Fighting was in Europe at the time, being a listing of so many peripheral techniques often left out, in whole or in part, from the “core” books of the day. It is a distinct and outstanding supplemental perspective to the fighting arts of Europe at the time, and likewise an asset to the modern practitioner.


Copyright Aug 2009, Casper Bradak

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

To Free-Play, or Play, Perhaps Somewhat Freely?

In another moment of reflection lately, we began to wonder just where the decidedly modern, misapplied term of “free-play” in reference to sparring originated. So far as we can tell, it more than likely originated at the same source as the fabricated meaning behind “federschwerter.” Perhaps telling is that A. Hutton mentioned “loose play” in passing back in the 19th century; seemingly the perpetrator’s prime area of reference. So what is our problem with this? Well for one, it wasn’t used or found necessary by the experts of old, but suddenly invented by those trying to study their art, which should always set one to thinking. In a way, saying “free-play” is like saying “chain-mail.” It is a 50% modern addition of pointless redundancy and it betrays a certain naiveté about the subject being discussed.

So what did they call it in their own time? The European masters seem to have unanimously and simply called it play, often in a seemingly loose or non-specific sense, with the particulars of that sense varying slightly between traditions and times. The sources of the English, Germanic, Italian and French traditions all refer to sparring, or non-lethal, spontaneous, partnered mock-combat as play; the meaning of play being the serious but unscripted and antagonistic physical study of a subject (hence the still-used term of sword-play, not sword free-play). Play could well mean “interaction” in the old sense as well. In addition to this, there is nothing wrong with calling play “sparring,” a solidly founded, relatively modern term; the origin of which comes from the Middle English sparren, meaning to spring or to dart. Though first applied to boxing under the Queensbury rules (and some would argue that it exclusively applies to such) it obviously refers to the general definition given above, and is a well founded term for such. Another alternative that came to be used late in the Renaissance is “assault.” A sparring match or bout of sword play could be called an assault. Doubtless there were other terms used as well, particularly in other languages (I believe the first known use of “assault” in reference to play was via Master Marozzo, of Italy).

So, if you want to sound like you know what you’re doing, lose the “free” and stick to play.


copyright Aug. 2009, Casper Bradak

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A New Dilemma, an Ancient Dichotomy: Confusion Between Shulfechters & Klopfechters

Apparently, there are a few people out there who get these three things confused, namely - the differences between schools of martial arts, techniques well suited to sparring within those schools (both combat-effective and combat-ineffective), and finally, combat-ineffective techniques/performance fighting and the purveyors of such.

So, let's break this problem down:

1. Schulfechten, or Learning Martial Arts in a School Environment:

Learning martial arts in a school of martial arts. How novel. Schools of martial arts in the medieval and Renaissance periods are now often confused - sadly - with martially ineffective techniques and performance-oriented show fighting. A reason for this error lies in the fact that many of our surviving martial works from those eras were written by masters who complained about showy, useless, and otherwise ineffective techniques being put on display or taught by supposedly illegitimate masters out for fame, and other such charlatans. It would not be a diificult task to make several modern day comparisons; as always, things don't seem to have changed much. What needs to be emphatically asserted in regards to this, is the glaringly obvious fact that those selfsame masters operated schools of defence themselves, either openly or as private instructors. They simply taught a more pragmatic fighting art, shunning the operatic, showy and useless methods of the leychmeister, as Döbringer referred to them. What needs to be understood is that these masters did not look down upon schools of martial arts, or the schulfechten within them - unless the techniques in question were ones exclusively applicable to the school - as opposed to real combat. Thus, it can be argued that there were/are two senses, or meanings to the term “school fencing.” Meyer, for example, is very careful in his works to distinguish between these two, often noting for the benefit of his readers which techniques are useful for real combat, and which are not. There was usually no hard and fast line indelibly separating Schule and Ernst, as some in an effort to obfuscate their own obvious martial deficiencies, have attempted to draw over the issue, however.

2. Sparring Techniques:

These are techniques well-suited for effective use in friendly sparring, or freeplay. They are uniformly simple, straight-forward, very effective, and relatively safe to use under the less controlled conditions of sparring. Many of them, if not most, are combat effective as well, but some are not and it can sometimes require a knowledgeable judge to discern the difference if it is not explained in presentation. One can again call upon Meyer as an example, who went to pains to bestow his readers and students with such practical knowledge in both environments, school fencing and life or death struggle.

The distinction on the other side of the coin is that combat-effective techniques that are not particularly good for sparring often require more intensity from one or both opponents in their application, are often more sophisticated (and thus requiring a greater level of skill to achieve), and most often, are simply not safe enough to force upon the opponent in friendly play. For example, the early masters Döbringer and Leichtenauer praise the use of the point above all other things for their pragmatic combat Art - but when the longsword became a traditional weapon mostly relegated to the fencing school, and thusly almost exclusively put to use sparring rather than fighting for real - Master Meyer favors the safer cut for use in many of the same techniques (and of course, as masters Döbringer and Leichtenauer constantly emphasized, any technique can be used with either cut, thrust or slice without changing their validity or the technique itself).

For another example of this point, using those same masters: mixed in with his older, true combat techniques, Master Meyer has his prellhau - a combat ineffective technique designed for sparring with the foil, and a product of the growing disuse of the weapon in earnest combat - and thusly presenting no need to leave out techniques non-functional for earnest combat. In perhaps one of his few oversights, Meyer assumes the reader to be able to distinguish the technique for what it is, does not elaborate upon it, and therefore leaves the modern novice with a possible problem. This technique might be derogatorily called a schulfechten technique, in one sense of the word.

Now, on the other hand, we have the techniques good for sparring use distinguished by the much earlier Master Döbringer, who obviously did not look down upon either schools or sparring. These are also all combat effective techniques; he simply states that they are also particularly useful and applicable for friendly sparring. A product of the necessity of sparring while the weapon was still in a high degree of real-world use in combat. They are used in schulfechten, but they would not be shunned by any pragmatic master who instructed for real combat in a school, or privately.

In summary of this point, many masters often looked down upon techniques that were useless in real combat, and the pseudo-masters who taught them. They even called many of these masters a few derogatory names; even if those masters, overall, taught a real-world fighting art into which they threw in martially useless techniques. But it is important to make the distinction that this does not necessarily have anything to do with “school fencing.” Many of the masters who derided the useless “dance techniques” also undoubtedly ran schools themselves. They were not all private tutors, and they certainly were not the backyard fencers and “study groups” of today.

3, Dance masters, Clown-Fighters, and other Van-Damage to the True Fighting Arts:

Hiding in plain sight like crouching tigers and hidden dragons, were/are the actors and performance and stunt fighters we all know and love to hate. Paradoxically, despite any ambivalent feelings fostered, they often inspire the real martial artists who inevitably come to hate them. They have been around at least as long as civilization, and it was a truly international issue. They were complained about by the masters of Europe, and later (only due to the oppressive social retardation of Japan causing a very extended medieval era), even Musashi complained about the useless and showy techniques being taught in local schools of combat in his famous Book of Five Rings. These were the actors, performance fighters, and simple instructors of martial arts who, for various reasons, taught and demonstrated showy, flashy, visually impressive but martially flawed or useless techniques both to students and to the public. They were and are a continuing dichotomy in the world of the martial arts, and this phenomena is especially prevalent in our current age of biased media and the gun; in which many an art, sportified or otherwise, simply lacks the boon of natural selection to force it into alteration and pragmatism.

So, we have real hardcore martial artists, and martial performance artists; we have training in schools vs. school training, and the related sparring techniques vs. techniques for sparring. In conclusion, idiotic blanket statements about awesome dead guys like Meyer, who could kick your ass in battles of both wits and steel, are best avoided.

-C & B

Copyright Aug. 2009, Casper Bradak & Brandon Heslop

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Das Federschwerter: How the Hell Did That Happen?

Apparently the now ubiquitous term “federschwert” (feather-sword) used in reference to the foil, particularly that of the longsword, is an entirely modern, a-historical term. Not entirely unbefitting, but improper nonetheless. I decided to delve into the roots of this term after having used it often enough myself; but I never, ever found its use in any piece of historical martial arts material in reference to the foil.

Much could be written on this, but apparently the term “feder” used in regard to the sword came about as a derisive term for the rapier/slender, long, thrust oriented sword (oddly, often now called a “cut & thrust” sword, as if others weren’t), apparently helped along by the very name of the Federfechter guild who championed them. The Federfechter were so-called due to the feather in their heraldic insignia, but combined with the new “feder” term used to make light of the rapier, and their use of said weapon, it could also be taken to have meant “feather sword fighters,” “feather-fencers,” etc. to their opponents. Presumably the term was used for the rapier because of its lightness, relative harmlessness (infinitely arguable, of course), and not to mention that the feather is the traditional symbol of cowardice and flight. There were no shortage of contemporary detractors of the rapier, alongside derisive terms for it in England, for one (just ask Master Silver).

As far as I have been able to surmise, the lineage of the current misuse of the term stems to the misquoting and faulty memory of a certain practitioner whose primary source material is apparently old Egerton (Castle), rather than the primary martial arts source material. Egerton speaks a bit about the term in his Schools and Master of Fencing, but not inaccurately. Though on reading this, one could see how the memory could play tricks; perhaps even thinking that “Federfechter” meant something more akin to “foil-fencers.”

Anyway, the origin of our misuse is irrelevant in the face of that misuse. So here’s a new policy on how to not be an ass-hat: everyone stop calling foils, blunts, I.e. rebated swords “federschwerter!”

Special thanks to Mike Cartier ( for confirming this research, particularly with his expertise of Master Meyer’s material and context.


Copyright July 2009 “Casper” Bradak

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Masters on the Art

I can't believe that I didn't remember this! It's been a few years since I last looked at Döbringer's treatise, and with my admittedly rather poor understanding of archaic (or modern) German, it was a quite a task the first time. However, I recently came upon this from the dedicated people of the Schola Saint George. Right off the bat, Döbringer reveals to us in his introduction:

Here begins Master Liechtenauer’s Art of fighting with the sword on foot and on horseback, in and out of armour.

First, know that there is only one Art of the sword, and this Art may have been developed hundreds of years ago. This Art is the foundation, the core of any fighting art. Master Liechtenauer understood it and practiced it in its complete depth. It is not the case that he invented the Art—as mentioned before—but he has travelled to many lands, seeking to experience and to learn the real and true Art.

This firmly establishes that, 1: the Art was ecumenical, and 2: it developed organically over a long period. Thus, artificial distinctions will not serve us. This sums up our position on this blog rather nicely. Döbringer is unambiguous here, leaving no room for any other interpretation, and his words are echoed in those of Fiore:

Here starts the book on dueling and fighting called the Flower of Battles with harness and without, on horse and on foot, composed by me Fiore de' Liberi of Cividale d'Austria in the Diocese of Aquileia, son of Sir Benedetto of the noble house of the Liberi....

...Thanks to God, I received all this knowledge from various teachers and from lessons from expert masters from Italy and Germany, and in particular from Master Giovanni called Suveno, who was a scholar of Nicolo' from Metz, and from many Princes, Dukes, Counts and many others in diverse places and provinces.*

"From expert masters from Italy and Germany...and from many princes, dukes, counts and many others in diverse places and provinces..." That's revealing, and Vadi later says much the same in his own treatise, (and one ought to consider Döbringer's words regarding "new arts" when considering some of Vadi's claims. Hype is extraordinarily old).

There are some that make the case for Fiore having never left Italy - and thus making his Art "pure," presumably - even though he alludes very strongly to have done so. It doesn't matter, of course: even if he never left Italy, he learnt his Art from an international set, who likewise had learnt theirs in a similar fashion. That was the nature of feudalism. For example, we know that one of Fiore's students faced off against an English knight in tournament, and another - it eludes me at the moment if it was actually the same student - presided as marshal over another tournament, in which Italians, Germans, Englishmen, and Frenchmen (and likely others) participated. So, even if Fiore remained like a fixture in Italy (highly unlikely, as he was a knight and had feudal obligations), the techniques he learnt would have been eclectic, and founded upon universal principles. From this foundation, he chose those techniques which he deemed best, and presented them in his treatises in the manner which he deemed best, and that's all. The "core," as Döbringer so aptly put it, was the same.

It should go without saying that it was the same with the English longsword material.

Now, let's go back to Döbringer, whose treatise is rapidly becoming my favorite German source. He goes on to say:

There are some Leychmeister who say they have invented a new Art, thinking that the Art of fighting will be improved day by day. I, however, would like to see one who can come up with a fighting technique or strike not part of Liechtenauer’s Art. Often they try to change a technique by simply assigning it a new name; many do this as they see fit...All this because they seek the praise of uneducated people! They practice wide and pretty parries, swinging at the start of an engagement just for show, executing very long strikes slowly and clumsily. By doing this they miss and cannot quickly recover, thus exposing themselves easily. This is because they have insufficient control and measure when they fight; and this is not really a part of serious combat, but is rather for fighting in the school; but serious fighting moves simply and directly, straight and without hesitation

This is, of course, the quote a certain "fechtmeister" levelled against yours truly, though misrepresented. Fiore provides some further insight:

I have seen a thousand people calling themselves masters, of which perhaps four were good scholars, and of those four scholars not one would be a good teacher.*

Fiore and Döbringer are talking about the same thing: false masters (and thus nothing to do with Meyer, as he is firmly ensconced within the Liechtenauer Lineage).

Lastly, to make our point all the more strongly, we turn to the less well-known (one might even say sadly neglected) treatise of Master Mertin Siber:

Whosoever will earn honour before princes and before lords in fighting with the longsword, he is good and rightful, who follows my lore, he is blessed evermore. The six goings hold wards which are quite preciously good, wherein is wealful comprehension of the cunning of quite many goodly masters: from Hungary, Bohemia, Italy; from France, England and Alemania; from Russia, Prussia, Greece, Holland, Provence and Swabia.**

Three sources, all telling us more or less the same thing: there was only one Art of the Longsword. And it was pan-European. Yes, there existed differences in the different traditions, lineages, and schools. These were, however, largely matters of presentation and simple preference from one master to the next. But the Art, the foundation, was the same. We discuss this in more depth in the links listed below.

*Translation by Hermes Michelini.

**Translation by Jeffrey Hull.

See also Codex 5278, The Scope of the Sword, and A Pan-European Art Revisited, (Again).


Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Reexamination of the Life and Death of a Medieval Knight

(Wielder of the English Longsword?)

Here is a link to an interesting archeological find (brought to my attention in a post by Jay Vail (apologies) at the Pendant RMA Forum):

From this individual’s place of burial, injuries, date and physicality, there is probably a very good case to be made that he was indeed a knight. But was he Sir Robert Morley? Well, without knowing anything about Sir Robert, let us take it as fact that Sir Robert died in a tournament.

It is said that our man in the grave died from a cut injury from a sword akin to a face-ectomy that was delivered while he was lying on the ground.

Firstly, tournaments were rough and tumble affairs; martial sports that helped warriors keep themselves both financially viable and physically prepared for war. However, during the time this man was alive, there were no tournaments where sharp swords were allowed to be used; much less tournaments where a man could be taken advantage of on the ground, pinned down or incapacitated, stripped of his helmet, and killed by a cut to the face. Well, at least not without the perpetrator being brought up on charges of murder. Tournaments where knights used swords at this time were generally fought either with cudgels or special rebated steel swords, and the knights wielding them wore a great deal of protection; armour specially suited to the tourney. The goal of such a tourney was generally to unhorse or sometimes capture the adversary. In the event of such a feat, the victor would have the prize of his opponent’s horse; a very lucrative exercise if one could emerge victorious, not to mention better watching than football.

So, let us rule the hypothesis put forth by the archeologists out entirely. If Sir Robert Morley met his fate at a tournament, then this warrior could not have been Sir Robert. Unfortunately then, this knight’s identity will likely never be known.

Continuing to address the fatal wound, it is said that reconstruction of the skull leads them to believe that the blow was delivered while he was on the ground. We’ll take their word for it, which was probably figured by fracture pattern. This wound would be a coup de grace delivered in the heat of battle. Perhaps his helmet was torn from his head by one opponent as he was thrown to the ground and pinned, while another delivered the deadly stroke. Perhaps he was wearing a visorless helm, a kettle helmet, or perhaps he chose to wear no helm at all. There is always the possibility, however, that the stroke was delivered while he was still standing. The wound is consistent with others, such as a skull from the Battle of Wisby that does not show signs of having been wounded while on the ground. It could always be a matter of archeologists trying to figure out how they would strike someone at a certain angle to deliver the same wound; something they all too often fumble with.

Then we have the assumption that the cut was delivered with a sword. This could very well have been the case, but there is simply no way of knowing. Cutting weapons were a preferred way of dealing death in the old days, and there was a wide variety of sharp-edged people-killers at the time. If we assume that he was cut while lying on the ground due to a fracture pattern, we might also assume that the fractures were caused because a cutting weapon with more mass than a sword at the point of impact was used. A sword is lightest at the prime cutting portion, whereas something like a battle-axe, though still light weight, has much more of that weight positioned around the prime cutting area of the blade, which would thusly be more likely to cause fractures than a sword, which cuts more through velocity than mass.

They say the he suffered several other serious wounds in other “contests.” Well, we know that his death wound was from no “contest.” It was from combat. So, let us examine his other wounds to see if they could have been from contests.

He appears to have survived for some time with a large arrowhead lodged in his chest…

Yes, no doubt from the ever-popular William Tell contest. We’ll throw out the archeologist’s theory on this one and say that this professional warrior received this wound from combat, as well. Like the death wound, however, it begs the question: what was he wearing? A knight from his era could have certainly had a very well protected chest. There was a variety of very protective body armour in his time. By “large,” we’ll assume that the arrowhead mentioned was not a bodkin, but a broad-head. I’m also going to dispense with the idea that a broadhead pierced a steel breastplate. And while I’m at it, I’ll say that it didn’t hit a brigandine or coat of plates just right, in all probability. Furthermore, for good measure, we’ll also assume that he did indeed receive this wound in war, rather than on his way down the road in his civies.

Many knights, even in his day and age, often chose to wear the more flexible protection of a mail hauberk, depending upon the circumstances. While mail has a bad reputation among many a modern know-nothing, it was really excellent protection; it was virtually immune to cuts, as well as providing excellent protection against many a piercing attack. For example, we have the accounts of the Arabs in the Holy Land, which speak in great frustration over their inability to harm the Europeans through their stout mail shirts - often making the Crusaders look like hedge-hogs - the mail shirts bristling with arrows, but the men beneath unharmed. But of all armours, it is the most likely to have succumbed to a well placed arrow. Particularly for this man, being an English or Scottish Knight who died thereabouts. He could well have been wounded by the powerful Welsh bow. We know this weapon can put a broad-head cleanly through a man. A mail hauberk could have slowed the arrow down enough to stop it in his chest. Though the arrowhead was left inside by the surgeons, his mail, if it indeed played out in this way, saved his life.

It is also worth noting his likely medical care for this wound. If an arrow was lodged in someone’s chest, but the head had emerged from the other side (or very close to it), a surgeon would generally have made the call to gently cut off the fletching and draw the arrow through the wound, rather than bringing it out the way it had come, compounding damage from the barbs of the broad-head and drawing more material into the wound. An arrow being lodged in this man’s chest, not deeply enough to draw through, but too deep to withdraw without causing more dangerous tissue damage, would have been left inside just as his was (having just had the shaft extracted). He in all likelihood had access to the top medical care of his day, particularly seeing as he survived the wound.

…the regrowth of bone around a dent in the front of his skull indicates that he had also recovered from a severe blow from an axe.

Well, let us again throw out the archeologist’s explaination, this being that he was brained by an axe during a “contest.” Let’s also look at the type of injury by comparison to the stated weapon. Now an axe, the battle axe in particular, is generally assumed to be a cutting weapon. We often figure that it is a cutting weapon due to the large, sharp, thin and light blade that defines it. Generally that sharp cutting blade inflicts a cutting injury when it forcefully strikes a human skull. This fellow has a dent. A dent from which he recovered, as opposed to a linear cut wound, which would almost invariably result in a head bisection, or full frontal lobotomy. We will again assume that he received this injury in battle. We’ll also assume that by “dent,” they mean a relatively rounded, smooth depression. Such a dent would probably have to come from a like-shaped object if it impacted his unprotected head. If his head were unprotected, given that he recovered, this would have to have been a relatively light or weak impact. In the press of combat, particularly war, any weapon with the given features could have delivered such a light blow in the haphazard confines of fighting bodies. It’s possible that a smoothly-rounded mace could have done this, but such weapons were relatively uncommon, with far more harmful and nasty looking designs being the popular. It seems to me, were he unprotected and received a relatively light blow from a smooth object, that it could very well have been the pommel of a sword.

But then again, let’s assume that he had his helmet on when he received the blow. With a helmet on, the blow would have to have been far more forceful to put a depression in his skull. But, it also means that a far greater variety of weapons could have struck him, as the injury would be caused by the indentation of his helm rather than a direct indentation from the weapon itself. This means that he could very well have received a strong blow from a war-hammer, mace, or even that axe, though less likely than the former. He is unlikely to have received it from the thrust of a charging lance or other piercing weapon, as it would more than likely have glanced off of the popular headgear of his day. The same can be said for blades. Again, a sword is unlikely to be able to deliver such a percussive blow, and blades have much more tendency to deflect from plate-steel as opposed to the coroneled and spiked gripping surfaces of percussive weapons like the mace and war-hammer. Another possibility is the longer kin of the hammer and axe: the pollaxe.* A very popular and noble weapon of the time, often used by knights for dispatching other men-at-arms with such protection, it is not an unlikely candidate.

…the knight had lost teeth, probably from another blow or from falling from his horse.

I have known more than one man to have his teeth kicked out by a horse, but I’ve never known one to fall from his horse face first and lose his teeth in the dirt. Let us leave the theorizing on this one to Sir Roger of Hoveden, who knew a thing of two about the differentialistics of the punchitizing.

A youth must have seen his blood flow and felt his teeth crack under the blow of his adversary and have been thrown to the ground twenty times. Thus will he be able to face real war with the hope of victory.

But what would he know? Here's more from the archeologists:

His sturdy upper body and upper right arm are consistent with wielding heavy swords, and his injuries suggest a hard life of hunting, jousting and foot tournaments.

Well, anyone who knows anything about real swords knows that, unless you are still stuck in the world of Victorian Twain-esque fantasy, swords of the late 14th c. were not heavy. In fact, my wife regularly works out with 2-3 lb. dumbells; individually the same weight as any sword this warrior wielded. I wouldn’t call my wife heavily muscled, but I wonder what some archeologist in Futurama would say about her. And apparently, the said suggestions of his injuries pointed to a hard life of hunting (while being accidentally shot in the chest), jousting (having his head dented in), and foot tournaments (being thrown down, getting his helmet ripped off, and getting a murderous face-lift).

Not a likely hypothesis for a professional warrior elite. The sturdiness of his body and the wounds he received are signs of the hard and chosen life of a warrior. He deserves better respect than to be called an accident prone tournament jockey. Knights were brave, skilled, hard-living, scarred men. As that evil Chinese guy said in Enter the Dragon, “We forge our bodies in the fire of our will.” This man’s sturdy body reflects the discipline and fitness of an elite fighter and the life of a soldier, and his successive injuries reflect his courage to repeatedly face death for whatever it was he held dear, and his final moment of violent conflict. His times were no more troubled than ours, but he was one of the few to face the troubles head-on.

I salute this anonymous knight, and give him a thought next memorial day.


*Poll being an archaic term for the top of the head, or brainpan. The head being the main target of the fearsome pollaxe.

Copyright July 2009, "Casper" Bradak