Friday, March 19, 2010

Ringen Terminology and Medieval Hand to Hand Combat Review

After a quick perusal of the HEMA Alliance forums, I noticed that the Ringen Terminology article that Jay Vail and I had worked on together had been posted on that site, and there is some discussion about it there:

I post this here only because of my involvement with the article, and my lack of time and desire to get involved in forum discussions.

The article itself was for the better part driven by Jay Vail, and it was originally oriented towards use primarily by the ARMA (though open to everyone) in aiding internal study around the time I developed the ARMAs basic unarmed skills curriculum (and if you’re wondering, I have no idea on the state of such after I parted ways). As such it is brief and extremely basic. The terms were a compromise between us. Each of us, as long-time martial artists, had already been using terms for most or all of these techniques for many years (probably decades in most cases) that we had personal preference towards, and the terms decided on in the article are in part agreements, and in part compromises due to our personal preferences. As such, I personally do not use many of the names for techniques in that article, though many of them were also rather straight-forward terms as used in the original source material, though translated.

Keith P. Myers has adamantly gotten in on the discussion touting his claim to fame; his 2002 compilation examining ringen (“Medieval Hand to Hand Combat”). I acquired it when it became available in 2002, and it is a far more vast work on the topic (and available for free), and as he will not hesitate to tell you, he had already named and categorized the techniques in Jay and I’s article, and more, in that work, and he would very much like his terms to be the standard ones for all Chivalric Arts practitioners since it has already been done; so we don’t “reinvent the wheel.” For better or worse, it hadn’t occurred to me at the time of the article for reasons expounded upon below.

That’s fine for some, but I do take some issue with his book and opinions.

In agreement with him, I am all for using many of the original terms for techniques as found in the source material, where available. Additionally, the book is an excellent resource, at least as a reference for the more experienced, and lightly instructional for the inexperienced or untrained. It is probably the most comprehensive single general work on pan-European medieval and Renaissance unarmed fighting techniques thus far (and has been since 2002; that’s saying something about the lack of experience in this field and orientation towards sword-fighting).

On the other hand, his work was itself, in many cases, a “reinvention of the wheel.” Even when his 2002 compilation was written, some of it was already out of date in relation to our European source material. For example, unarmed ready positions outside the clinch were not covered because he was unaware of any examples, though described in a few works at the time (Master Fiore’s and Master Talhoffer’s, for example).

Additionally, the vast majority (if not all) of the techniques have long been available and extant in both Eastern and Western fighting arts/sports, and as such, have already had fairly common and standardized terminology. But a complication is that the terminology for many of these techniques is standardized, though different, in different schools/arts, thus a practitioner’s or instructor’s background will lend them preferences that will dictate their own terminology and make the idea of some “HEMA”-wide standardization very unappealing. I can attest to this, and I have little doubt Jay could as well.

Another point is, though I do not know the martial background of Mr. Myers, most of his 2002 work is very much interpretation, rather than recognition, in part often obviously because of lack of translations for the depicted techniques. Thusly, many of them are not correct.

By and large, to be fair, his terminology and interpretations of the images is not bad, and much of it is roughly within the commonly standardized vocabulary (outside the “HEMA” bubble). In fact, because of the source material, his work is a far better and more comprehensive book on combatives than most available on the market today, modern or otherwise, and he could have easily made it a for-profit endeavor with some polishing and consultation of professionals experienced with the techniques. Get it. You need it. If you don't know what you're doing, this is probably the best single source for giving yourself a foundation for swordplay (actual self-defense not withstanding).

I’d recommend his terminology (and/or the terminology in Jay and I’s article) be considered for use in your group or school to fill in blanks, or in total if you and your members are completely inexperienced and staring in the “study group” type format trying to learn from books.

Keith’s book can be found here:


Copyright Mar. 2010, Casper Bradak

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Noble Falchion: A Brief Overview for Martial Artists

Single-edged and curved swords have existed in Europe alongside all other swords from time immemorial. For various reasons, overall, they have never been as preferred as straight and double edged blades prior to the modern era, but that does not mean that they have never been common nor popular. Seaxes, falchions, messers, badelairs, backswords, sabers, cutlasses and all their kin. All weapons with a designated primary cutting edge, oriented towards increased cutting effectiveness; agile and exceedingly sharp. Though some had a mild curvature, deeply curved blades were almost non-existent in Europe, presumably for the long-held knowledge of the ease and deadliness of the thrust in conjunction with the consistently advanced armours of the West.

The falchion has a noble lineage dating back to classical times. The origin of the weapons nomenclature stems from the classical and fearsome falx of Dacian fame, used most notoriously against the Romans.

Defining single-edged European weaponry:

Defining these weapons is very simple (a little less simple would be an attempt at specific stylistic blade-form classification among falchions, such as the Oakshott typology for straight, double-edged European swords). Yet, the common definitions in dictionaries and encyclopedias are generally erroneous given our current resources of knowledge about these swords. Even many swordsmen disagree over definitions, though I have yet to see an argument that is unflawed. In light of that, I offer the definitions that I find self evident and use in my school.

Here are the primary families of these weapons:

Falchion: The primary family of Medieval European “single-edged” swords. They are defined by a primary designated cutting edge on a broad blade. They comprise a wide range of stylistically different though effectively identical blade forms, including some ethnic/stylistic sub-classes (such as the messer and badelair). Most are straight, though some had a mild curvature. Though generally single-edged, many had a sharp false-edge for part of their length. They were generally, though not necessarily, somewhat shorter than the common straight bladed swords in order to compensate for having less tapered blades.

A few falchions, particularly among the earlier medieval types, have distinctively flared blades, particularly on the forward edge. The majority however, identical to the messers in the Germanic martial treatises, had broad, non-flared yet non-tapering blades.

Modern myths of the falchion:

The falchion is the victim of many erroneous modern assumptions. The most common is that they were heavy. I recall a current MRL offering in which they describe it as “heavy” no less than three times in their pitch. It has been said that this was so that they could cut through armour (yes, the old Twain cliché). Contrary to those assumptions, they were not heavy. They were generally the same weight as a regular straight bladed sword, and they were no more designed to cut through any armour than any other sword.

It has also been said that they doubled as tools to the common soldier. This is also absolutely false. They were quality weapons designed for combat and the shearing of flesh and bone, and would have been destroyed if used for digging or wood chopping, just as any other sword (if not worse). This parallels the myth of the battle-axe, which in reality was also too thin to be used for such labor. They were fighting weapons through and through. These myths are made apparent with some knowledge of the weapons construction and geometry, which is elaborated on below.

Additionally, it has been commonly said that it was not a weapon of the nobility; a commoner’s weapon. In reality, this is also far from the truth. There was no such stigma associated with this weapon. In fact, some of the surviving original falchions are weapons originally owned by high-born men, and some of the world’s greatest works of art to boot.

Messer: Falchion, or something else?

The Germanic messer is firmly in the falchion category, but some hold it as something unique, so it is deserving of special mention and explanation, particularly as it is a primary traditional weapon in the Germanic martial literature.

The messer as depicted in the martial literature has many blade forms, straight and curve-bladed, straight-pointed, clip-pointed, and double-clipped. All of these blade forms fit neatly into the falchion definition, and are only stylistic variants. Additionally, surviving blades match those depictions and surviving blades from falchions elsewhere in Europe.

Some attempt to define the messer as entirely separate from the falchion based upon its hilt. The Germanic messer possesses a particular ethnic hilt design, consisting of an asymmetrical pommel (as do many falchions), scaled grips, and often, a nagel (side guard). These, however, are ethnic, stylistic variants effectively identical to other European falchion hilts. Therefore, claiming that the messer is not a falchion is identical to claiming that the Scottish claymore is not a two-handed sword. They are weapons identical to their kin elsewhere in Europe with the exception of ethnically stylistic hilts. The claymore is a two-hand sword, and the messer is a falchion, but due to those stylistic hilts, a falchion is not necessarily a messer, and a two-hand sword is not necessarily a claymore.

It has been said that the messer is not a falchion (nor even a sword) because it does not have a pommel. This is erroneous. I have never seen a messer in art, nor in the flesh, so to speak, that did not have a pommel. I’m not sure where this idea originated, but it can be safely ignored.

Other European “single-edged” Swords:

Backsword: This is a later weapon (largely post-15th c.) than the falchion, primarily differing in that it was more similar to regular swords, being narrower and longer than any falchion, and possessing no curvature and no clipping of the point. Essentially a single-edged version of a standard sword, often indistinguishable in profile.

Saber: This is most commonly a modern weapon, but also existed from early times in Europe, particularly Eastern Europe. It is essentially a mildly curved backsword, fitting the same criteria with the exception of the curve.

Some modern cavalry weapons that do not fit this criteria have been commonly referred to as sabers. This is because such weapons had become so closely associated with cavalry in the modern era, any cavalry sword was often referred to as such.

Cutlass: Relatively modern naval terminology for weapons firmly within the falchion family. Favored for naval use due to their ability to easily deliver effective cuts (regardless of skill), coupled with the shorter length convenient for use in the close-confines of ships. They are the latest extant falchions.

The purpose of the falchion:

The falchion has a particular general design. Obviously, it has this unique design for a purpose. As with any unique weapon design, it is a trade-off of factors that brings certain things to the fight at the cost of others. The blade is broad and single-edged with little, if any taper (occasionally including a broadening of the blade toward the point) in order to support a geometrically very sharp edge for the purpose of more easily delivering highly-effective cuts.

Though generally as broad as a broad double-edged sword, the falchion can be geometrically sharper (I.e. thinner) because, by comparison, each edge of a double-edged sword must taper toward the edge from the center of the blade, while the single-edged falchion can taper more gradually from one side of the blade to the opposite, rather than to the center. This keeps the edge thinner over a greater distance, making it geometrically sharper (a basic principle of the weapons design not generally realized in modern replicas). This comes at the cost of the versatility of a second edge.

In addition, the lack of taper, or slight flaring of the blade allows it to deliver those highly effective cutting actions along most of the blade, as opposed to a more tapered sword that has less mass and relatively thicker cross-section nearer the narrower point. Naturally, this comes at the cost of a more agile and narrower point that could more easily pierce various targets. Additionally, the falchion is often shorter than the more common double-edged swords as compensation for having a broad blade with little taper. This keeps the mass similar to that of a double-edged sword in order to keep the balance and handling characteristics optimal, but at the cost of length.

Further Reading:

A brief but informative article on the Conyers Falchion...


Copyright March 2010, Casper Bradak

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Urgent Fechtbucher Recall

This is an official recall of all chivalric “fechtbucher” and related or derived literature.

Following the example of the big auto companies, we feel this is the truly responsible thing to do in light of current dire circumstances.

Item #1: As clearly stated in the Latin of the first prologue, paragraph six of Master Fiore De Liberi’s Flos Duellatorum as translated by Hermes Michelini:

“Moreover, any nobleman who studies this work of ours should take great care for it as it were a treasure, so that it will not be divulged among the peasantry, which Heaven created dull and only for the use of heavy work, like animals of burden. Therefore, one must keep this precious and secret science away from them and bring it to Kings, Dukes, Princes, Barons and other noblemen entitled to dueling.”

Item #2: Additionally, as stated in Master Johannes Leichtenauer’s prologue, as poorly translated by Casper Bradak:

“Young man-at-arms learn to love God and honor women; so practice knightly skills: learn the Art that brings you honor in war; fight well unarmed; well-wield spear, sword, and falchion manfully; that in other’s hands is forbidden.”

Therefore, the DTSoD will be acting as the official collection agency for this recall. The wisdom of the Masters is revealed. These books have fallen out of an official capacity and into the hands of the unqualified, common and dull of wit for quite some time, resulting in numerous accidental injuries (both self-inflicted and inflicted upon other parties, largely consisting of bruises, breaks, cuts, slices, lacerations and perforations of the flesh). Such common, dull, forbidden and unqualified parties have also inflicted undue and libelous harm upon the Art itself, consisting of such things as:

The backwards-wearing of armour; hopping about in said harness; duck-walking; publishing of ridiculous interpretations of originally masterful works; undue contortions and postures with swords and claiming said contortions and postures as guards; dancing about on the tip-toes; striking like sissies; avoiding and ignoring any and all basis for skilled swordsmanship; excessive use of acronyms; use of padded wasters; claimants of mastery (in any language); the running of neo-pagan cults with claims to said Art; the running of profiteering organizations with claims to said Art; attempted monopolization of the Art or portions thereof or other claims of exclusivity; attempted claims and copyright claims to the Art and portions thereof; the publishing of erroneous materials related to the Art; claiming of an individual to “be” a given organization/acronym; etc. etc.

Thusly, all martial art related literature with origin between the years AD 1200 and 1600 shall thusly be destroyed (if worthless), donated to a museum (if antique), or mailed to the Dragons Tail School of Defense (if of personal interest or profitable to the parties Brandon P. Heslop and Benjamin “Casper” Bradak). Likewise, all stingy museums shall mail their antique martial works to the DTSoD, and incur all shipping charges and insurance.

Thank you for your cooperation.


Saturday, March 6, 2010

A Contemporary Perspective on "Styles"

For those current practitioners of the Western Art of the Sword out there, here I will give some more perspective on “styles” and how they relate to us from the point of view of Master George Silver, one of the last great published masters of the inclusive Chivalric Arts in England.

I’ll start with the example of the Art of the Rapier vs. the Art in general from Master Silver’s martial thesis.

Everyone who knows of Master Silver knows of his disdain for the rapier and those who taught its use, and here is why. In Master Silver’s terms, a style is a “fight,” I.e. the style used with the rapier is the “fight” of the rapier. Because the rapier was a specialized sword, it utilized an exclusive, rather than inclusive “fight,” or style of use. Playing to the strengths of the weapon, it largely (but not necessarily) excludes effective cuts and close-in techniques, and focuses on the use of its agile and deadly point at a relatively long range. But because its style of use is exclusive and specialized, this, in Master Silver’s terms, means that it is “imperfect.” In Master Silver’s terms, “imperfect” means “exclusive.” It (the style of the rapier) is an “imperfect fight,” or, that is to say, an exclusive style. It is imperfect because it largely excludes various useful techniques, such as cutting, hilt strikes, and strikes with natural weapons (such as knee and foot kicks “to the cods”), among other things.

Master Silver adamantly preferred the older, all-inclusive (and thusly more versatile) Art. An inclusive art is, in his terms, a “perfect,” or “whole” art, or “fight,” in that it does not exclude legitimate and useful motion, concepts and principles.

Therefore, now that you know what “imperfect,” or exclusive, means, you can apply this to schools and styles you come across and easily judge for yourself which are “perfect,” or inclusive, and which are “imperfect,” or exclusive and specialized (knowingly or unknowingly).

For example, we have the “mixed martial arts” (a generic name for an eclectic sportified fighting methodology). Like the rapier, they are highly effective within their chosen arena (literally, in this case). But they are “imperfect,” or exclusive, by Master Silver’s definition because they cater to that specialized arena. They exclude aspects useful outside that arena (because they are illegal or otherwise useless within it), and focus on aspects specifically related to it (such as invariably single, weaponless combat within a prescribed rule set, time limit and scoring system).

It should be noted, however, that just because a given school doesn’t teach some aspect of the Art that it not necessarily “excluded” or imperfect. It may take some research into any given art to decide whether it is inclusive or exclusive. If the art in question lends itself to use in a given way, despite a given instructors lack of specifically teaching it in the school, and the purpose of the given art is known to be open rather than confined to a specific purpose, such as sport, it could still very well be an inclusive, perfect art; no school teaches everything, but a school that teaches a perfect foundation is, at its core, inclusive. This is the type of art one should seek out when attempting to gain a foundation for properly studying the Chivalric Arts if one wishes to avoid becoming the common, foundationless backyard sword-fighter with delusions of grandeur (they are legion, and acronymic), rather than a real, grounded martial artist.


Copyright March 2010, Casper Bradak

Friday, March 5, 2010

Knowing vs. Studying an Art; Styles; and Inclusiveness vs. Exclusiveness

Here is a subject that further complicates just what a “style” is.

With some fighting methodologies, one can say that they “know” it, and with others, one cannot, even if a life-long and highly skilled practitioner. For example, many people can say “I know Tae Kwon Do” and it is perfectly legitimate. Tae Kwon Do is an exclusive style, rather than inclusive art. This is why one can often earn a black belt in that style in two years or so without it necessarily being a reflection of lax standards or instruction. One learns the style’s terminology, its set number and types of kicks, blocks, strikes and forms, and then one “knows” that style. It is a limited skill-set that one can learn in a very definite, black and white manner. The belt rankings are simply reflections of skill level and curricula knowledge within that style.

But what makes a style? In part, a style is not so much a focus on certain aspects of fighting, but an exclusion of others. Therefore, as our example, Tae Kwon Do is a style, and by definition exclusive.

But not all styles are exclusive; some are, as studies of motion, all-inclusive. This effectively makes them “non-styles.” Certainly a complicated subject to attempt to ponder and codify.1

For an example of one of those “non-styles,” we can use Ed Parker’s American Kenpo. Despite having various set curriculums within any given school, there is no total “end” point at which one can say “I know Kenpo,” not even that of Senior Master of the Arts, or one who has received his tenth degree of black belt. The rankings are degrees that represent both skill level and knowledge of curricula, but as a study of motion, there is more to learn and master than can be accomplished in a lifetime, because it is not exclusive. No motion is excluded, per-say, from the style. For example, the requirement of a written thesis for certain ranks. The thesis can be on any subject that furthers the Art as a whole. If the Art were exclusive, there would be no unique or thus-far unexplored topics to write a thesis on.

Likewise, we have the Chivalric Arts. All-inclusive studies of motion, and therefore “non-stylistic.” Particularly in their prime age of use, with no deluge of other culture’s fighting methodologies playing havoc with definitions, there were no bounds to the Art. It was an art of combative motion, not a style with a limited curricula. There were no exclusions to techniques or weaponry that it encompassed. It is without boundaries. If something new and effective was learned, it was a part of the Art. It was not added to a limited “curricula” or considered to belong to this or that style, for there were no “styles,” other than the particular way an individual may have taught or performed the Art, but there were no “excluded” techniques, principles or concepts. The spirit of the times was that it should all be sought and understood, and it was then up to the individual to keep or discard what motions and concepts he pleased.

One cannot say “I know the Art.” One can only say “I am a practitioner of the Art.”


Copyright March 2010, Casper Bradak

1. Somewhat off the subject, but by other legitimate definitions, styles can be so defined due to unique curricula (in which case most schools have their own styles, even when part of a larger style), or by the way certain motions are performed (i.e. Tai-Chi is Kung-Fu performed with stylistically slow and exaggerated motions, or individually, each person has their own unique styles due to the unique ways in which they move and perform). Therefore, one could rightly say that Master Fiore had his own style, despite being a practitioner of the same inclusive Art as Master Ringeck, and I have my own unique style when compared to Brandon despite us both being part of the Dragons Tail School of Defense.