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