Friday, August 9, 2013

Sport des Fechtens

Dear Tourneyeurs of
Historical Fencing

I must continue, somewhat, the narrative of my previous post, in order to clarify for you what I think of tourney-fixated training, indeed, tourney achievement as the primary goal rather than martial mastery as the primary goal, in regards to Historical European Fencing.

Let me, an outsider, who admittedly cannot afford to attend your expensive and far-flung tourneys, even if I wanted to partake, tell you this: There are dismayed fencers and instructors amongst your ranks.  I have personally spoken with some and/or sparred them.  Some have partaken of Alliance tourneys, and some not, and some intend to attend further forthcoming.  All told, they have conveyed to me that they find tourney fencing to be, to paraphrase one fencer/instructor, a complete cluster-muck.  And he had more to say:

I have not seen a rules-set that produces truly appropriate fencing, by my estimation at least.  We are still stuck in rock-em-sock-em robot-mode, parry to riposte, offense to defense.  I see close to no use of single time actions, and fights ending with techniques from the bind are rare.  When you look at the manuals, we see mostly techniques meant to be used from within or just leaving the bind and then a huge corpus of ringen am schwert.  Those are grossly underrepresented in the tournies.

These martial artists simply do not feel that tourney-focused curricula is ever going to get them to full realisation of the True Art.  Furthermore, all the gatherings or events of the scene now seem to be turning exclusively into tourneys, bereft of other activities (e.g. demonstration, presentation, education) which said fencers might rather partake.  They truly wish to pursue the entire meaning of that much-touted yet often-misunderstood acronym of HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts).  Thus they do not want the historical to be forgotten for sake of the rest.  (I would even argue that the martial is, de facto, also being forgotten.)  But if gatherings or events become only about sportive fencing, then they are simply going to lack cultural and combative enrichment for those who might desire more than athletic contests.

Consequently, I hear a variety of reasons why these dismayed fencers find tourney fencing rather unrealistic, i.e. unlike what real swordfighting evidently was, if one actually bothers to read the fight-books and/or historical accounts.  Indeed, I think that there are now groups training primarily or even exclusively for achievement at tourneys, that either openly or secretly disdain the Kunst des Fechtens (Art of Fencing/Fighting) of the fight-masters and their fight-books.

Here is my summary of exemplary objections to this modern tourney fencing:

  • Darth-Mauling.  We witness this constantly and epidemically.  This means a fencer hopping in one place whilst assuming low tight Alber or Pflug, with longsword withdrawn close to body as if it were ergonomic katana, with no regard for proper Mass instructed for fighting, hacking and feigning rabidly, thwacking the ground before him with sword-become-tool, until by virtue of his foe's impatience to please screaming crowd and frothing coach, said fencer lucks-out and gets the false move that lets him hit said foe crudely.  One could describe all that "behaviour" of endless maniacal movement at tourneys as "darth-mauling".  Is that what one should do in a real swordfight?  Even discounting the obtrusive presence of everybody-and-his-second having a video camera at these events, the tourney is not a movie, yet the spectators expect a spectacle, and that is just what they get.  This behaviour happens despite the fact that it was frequent motion (frequens motus) which Liechtenauer via Doebringer advised, not constant motion.  Then again, that master was talking about what made sense for mortal combat rather than modern contest; where everything was regulated with sobriety and dignity; where everybody had to shut the muck up; and the fighters had to fight an earnest fight.
  • Distortive Nature of Tourney Gear.  The very nature of tourney gear, with its modern synthetic safety armour, and its flared-crux feders, and everything else, is not allowing the sensory spectrum or bodily manoeuvres or weaponry manipulation needed to do the instructed techniques of Blossfechten (unarmoured/bare fencing), as per the fight-lore of the masters & books.  Just look at how somebody moves in such gear.  Just feel for yourself how you move in such gear.  And then tell me I am supposedly wrong.  That informs the next point...
  • Unrealistic Calls.  Imagine for example, one fencer scrapes with sword-point across mask while other fencer hews at 1/4 blade upon shoulder - thus the former is negligible and the latter is substantial - yet such is called a "double-hit", or if the former be later than the latter, then it counts as a point-quelling "after-blow" (cf. below).  That is merely one example of the disreality caused by gear like the bug-heads or by misjudged calls as to what makes for a "real hit".  Indeed, there are meandering, tiresome forumitic discussions as to what counts as a real hit, thus evincing that the fencers themselves are confused or unconfident or doubtful as to what-is-what.  Besides, in a real duel to the death, a man may have been ready, willing & able to take multiple injury in order to make one great decisive & final strike upon his foe to win the fight.  Modern tourney fencing disallows any replication or representation of that possibility.  All the previous lead to the following point...
  • No Real Danger.*  There is no actual fear of dishonouring or maiming or killing as per a real swordfight, which inherently and greatly distorts the nature of modern tourney bouting compared to medieval earnest combat.  A respected peer who hosts tourneys and fights well at them joked to me at HA-HA Forum: Should we just be killing each other?  Actually no, I do not think so.  Yet one must admit that the lack of verisimilitude, of not even pretending it is a real judicial duel, but rather the cozy realisation it is just an athletic contest, fought in synthetic armour with blunt feders in a civic recreation centre, does take away from the gravity of the struggle, does make it somewhat less than the serious ritualistic slaying that characterised the true Kampf (duel/combat) of knights.  Is nobody interested in how that was actually done?  Well, I am.
  • After-Blow Abuse.  Again, the abusive & injurious gaming of the "after-blow" is pernicious & vicious.  Perhaps it should remain in the rules of modern contests, considering its historical Franco-Belgian scholastic legacy.  But for muck-sake, it is obvious that there are major problems with how fencers are using it, i.e. punishing one's foe after one has already lost the match.  Can this not be amended or deleted?  (Righto, you big dumb mobility-mangling sons-of-bitches who strike the back of other fencer's legs after score is called, you deserve to feel the same pain, via a nice full horizontal staff-strike to back of both your knees by an umpire.  Hope you enjoy that.)
  • Hand-Sniping.  This may seem yet another supposedly "minor" thing (cf. after-blow abuse), but it only contributes further toxicity to the environment of tourney fencing.  Those who perpetually engage in this offence may defend it by saying it could be an effective move for real swordfighting.  Undeniably it could be, but not always.  Not if you take Wittenwiler's implied advice that you could wear gauntlets for Blossfechten, thus neatly negating the foe's ploy.  That would give tourney rule-makers & enforcers every right to say fine, go ahead and hit your foe's hands, for whatever reason, but that shall not count for any points whatsoever.  (So there, you foul smug little dexterity-destroying bastards, you need to learn some real fencing and try to hit other targets, that is, iffen you can, you who deserve to be punched in the throat with a synthetic waster hard enough to make you puke.)
  • Competition.  That seems what it is all about for most tourney fencers.  Competition, competition, competition.  The famously repeated mantra of an infamous WMA dictator.  Did you not get enough of that bullshit from needless artwork contests in grade school, or via pointless sports in high school and/or college, or at boot camp, or at cop academy, or daily at your corporate IT-job?  Must everything always be about goddamned competition?  Must it be a TV-style sports contest, existing for its own self-satisfied yet unsatisfying sake, unnaturally divorced from any historical context, promoting who is better at the game than whoever else, and to hell with whatever other activity may deserve inclusion at a given event?  Thus not about learning the Stuecke (actions/scenarios), and reviving the martial sword-art of our shared heritage, or about every fencer getting to have at least one sparring match with every other at an event?  (Like unto how our German peers do so admirably at their events.  Indeed, the leader of a major historical fencing group confided to me recently he would enjoy free sparring much more than tourney fencing at gatherings anywhere.)
  • Modernity.*  So your synthetic gear and your sports-science and your faultless videography and your interweb networking and your petroleum-economy big-box-stores all somehow make for a superior modern pursuit of fencing?  No, that does not.  I would advocate, for exactly opposite reasons, that the medieval pursuit of fencing was superior.  Those men were superior.  They were warriors.  Fathom that for a while, and once it makes sense, then act thereupon.
  • Why Are You Fighting?*  Nobody ever asks that question, especially of himself.  It is for vainglory?  That seems to be your main motivation.  (You sure aint winning no rubies nor emeralds nor horses, like the prizes they might have offered at some medieval tourneys.)  Yet if I were to get out there with you all, assuming I had the $1500 or so needed to buy the modern synthetic safety armour and blunt feder, plus could afford travel and registration, and somehow was actually invited, then I suppose that I might actually have reasons for fighting more akin to those of the men who wore medieval steely knightly armour and bore sharp swords: Killing my archenemy, winning the favour of my lady, gaining revenge & honour, learning self-protection, etcetera.  But of course that would make me anachronistic, fantastical, atavistic, illegal, even ludicrous to most of you tourney fencers (not to mention know-it-all cops and fat gun-fanatics).  Well, then I shall just skip the next tourney and save my money for another sharp replica sword (plus a feder & a waster, for the same price).  I would rather empower some random friendly hippy-chick by teaching her how to do the Vier Versetzen in a sunny park, than fulfill the needs of some dominance-game versus other male fencers at a tourney.  So you dudes go ahead & beat the piss out of each other, while I enjoy my day with feminine beauty.
  • Chivalric Arts Are Unwelcome.  Yet, that means Ritterlich Kunst.  I need not justify that statement to anyone. Besides, I already explained enough junk already, so either take my word for it or go figure it out on your own.  Let us just say that, to borrow a famous brilliant lex naturalis phrase, it is self-evident.
Thus said, the whole scene really makes me feel, in one word:  Miffed.

Perhaps my expectations, and those of the others dismayed fencers, are unrealistic.  Perhaps we just need to be realistic about the division devolving throughout the modern scene of European sword-arts.  I would liken it, as a couple other scholar-fencers have done so independently, to the paradigm found in the modern scene of Japanese sword-arts:

Kenjitsu = combative fencing = martial art
Kendo = sportive fencing = athletic contest

And so likewise I would offer, first an ancient phrase and then a newly minted phrase:

Kunst des Fechtens = combative fencing = martial art
Sport des Fechtens = sportive fencing = athletic contest

That is the new reality of Historical European Fencing. ~ JH

*Edited once, twice, thrice by author post-premiere to rename one point (No Real Danger) and to make a new point (Modernity), and to reword some content here & there, for better clarificaiton of what he meant.*

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