Sunday, July 5, 2009

Grasping the Blade, Part 1.5


Casper's take:

This topic is old hat for anyone who has been studying the Art for some time, but it is something that must be addressed for every beginner, so it still bears repeating. As far as grasping of the blade is concerned, I'll primarily be addressing the most vigorous examples, such as those used for armoured fencing, rather than those of sparser techniques with wider blades and unarmoured techniques.

Techniques that utilize a grasp of the blade are a major part of the Western Art of the Sword. They are represented in nearly every personal martial arts work from the middle ages/Renaissance in the West, in both armoured and unarmoured techniques. Now we moderns, using only utility and/or fighting knives, having never had a use for the grasping of a blade, only know of blades as the half of a knife that cuts or pokes a bad guy, or otherwise separates and pierces things. We also know that we have all cut or pierced ourselves with them accidentally, probably on numerous occasions, which only reinforces our somewhat irrational idea that the metal beyond the handle is only a realm of death and destruction for all that touches it. On top of that, we have the old villain of the media telling us what would happen. Take the movie Rob Roy for example. In poor Rob's final duel, he decides to bite the bullet and grab the blade of his nemesis (a rapier blade, no less) in order to buy the moment to deliver his own strike. As soon as he (statically) grasps his foe's blade, the blood flows from his palm, as if he were a hemophiliac with a stick of butter for a hand.

Well, the edge of a blade can only cause injury by percussive impact or slice. In truth, we have only ever injured ourselves by accidentally slipping and slicing ourselves while trying to do the same to something else, thus providing the lateral motion or forward force to harm ourselves in the first place. It stands to reason that you can simply pick up any sharp kitchen or utility knife by the blade, hold it firmly, and even smash something with the handle while doing so that you would normally cut with the blade, and remain unharmed so long as the blade does not slip, resulting in another accidental slice. A slice is the only way it could harm us, because aside from that, we only have a percussive impact. So unless you're attempting to somehow catch a blade in the midst of a cut, that simply isn't going to happen, and a firm, solid hold will prevent a slice.

In our martial arts source material, the vast majority of practitioners are depicted as grasping the blade with bare hands. This is not artist's license, or any other mis-depiction. They were indeed doing so. One does not require gloves or gauntlets. Even the naive argument that one would do so with "armoured gauntlets" to prevent self-injury is erroneous, as most gauntlets of the time were worn in such a way that the hand (fingers and palm) inside was bare, without so much as a leather glove to cover it. Manual dexterity was an important thing. In fact, even gauntlets with integral leather gloves never armoured the inside of the hand.

Another factor that simplified the grasping of the blade is that the majority of techniques for doing so were designed to be used against a man in complete plate armour. The ideal blade for fighting against such a foe is a sharply tapered one that facilitates piercing cloth and entering small areas and links of mail. Such a narrow blade is far easier to grasp in such a way than a wider cutting blade. Therefore both the blades and the techniques are products of the need to circumvent the protection that such armour provides, and everything falls neatly into place.

But this topic inevitably brings up the question of sharpness. How sharp were the blades of European swords? Well, they were as sharp as their blade geometry allowed without being so sharp that they became too weak to handle their intended function. The late E. Oakshott, the worlds preeminent handler of and educator on European swords, said that they were "razor sharp." An exagerration, but not a big one. What he meant was that they were very, very sharp. A bit more accurately, he also said that they were about as "sharp as kitchen knives." In my more limited personal handling of antique European swords, I'd say that is a fairly accurate comparison. They were generally about as sharp as a good, sharp kitchen knife. Such a sharpness in conjunction with a proper blade geometry allows the weapon to easily cut and slice through flesh, bone and cloth, while remaining durable enough to survive inevitable impacts with metal and wood without being unduly damaged or destroyed. But to our point, it can also be firmly grasped in the hand without causing injury to a stationary hand.

To sum up, there is always the possiblity for an accident, but apparently it was considered safe and useful enough by our ancestors to make it a staple of their Art. You shouldn't even be surprised if while attempting such techniques you get the equivalent of a paper cut, and if anything, it fell under the good trade category when compared to a useful, fight winning technique. For us, however, having no need to fight anyone in armour with a sharp sword, there is no need not to play it safe and eliminate the possibility of accidental booboos altogether by using proper foils, and wearing gloves if we do feel like practicing our solo half-swording with a sharp weapon. Needless to say, just because we talked about it doesn't mean we take any responsibility for your irresponsibilities.

-C

Copyright July 2009, Casper Bradak

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