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