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?



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Lessons on the English Longsword said...


You are clearly a man of taste! Thank you for sharing your thoughts. As you can no doubt tell, humor is part of our philosophy. Others involved in the RMA/HEMA may take themselves a bit too seriously, we feel that things like humor make the subject both more accessable and more fun. This is true in our forthcoming book, as well, (some of the photos, while representative of the prescribed actions, are mildly tongue-in-cheek, for example). If I can get someone interested with humor, then the rest may follow. Glad you're enjoying the blog.