Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The So What? Dodge, Part II

The following is an interview of myself conducted by one Matt Grettir regarding Lessons on the English Longsword and the pan-European Theory. I have decided to let it serve as the 2nd part of The So What?Dodge. The questions posed to me are in italics. My answers are in plain text. -B.

Matt G.:   In Lessons on the English Longsword, you postulate a continuity of European martial art. Because the book is so lengthy, your argument is spread out across several pages and indeed several sections. Is it possible for you to agree with or clarify my summary of your argument, to wit: 

"The art of the longsword did not spring whole cloth from Master Liechtenauer's imagination. Prior to Liechtenauer, the longsword had been in use for quite some time, and the longsword's predecessor, the epee de guerre for some time prior to that. Given that I.33 seems to take for granted the existence of a broader art of fighting, and in light of other contemporary references to fighting masters from a broad range of sources, cross-fertilization of techniques and overarching martial philosophy seems inevitable."
BPH: Well, the author of the longsword treatise in the Dobringer manuscript comes right out and tells us that “There is only one art of the sword” and that it was developed over centuries. This view is corroborated by Fiore, in his own manner, as well as Ringeck (who states that “Alles fechten kompt vom ringen;” and similarly, Fiore refers to the plays of abrazare as the “pillars of the Art"); in addition to Siber, Vadi, and others. Indeed, the majority of the masters of note say essentially the same thing, and the others are generally silent upon the matter. So, it would appear that this was the broad consensus. But, of course, consensus alone proves nothing.
In point of fact, the art of the longsword is descended, indirectly, from the art of sword and buckler; the techniques whereof were instrumental in generating the methods with which the epee de guerre was used in combat. And this in turn, along with new developments in armour - which necessitated different blade forms and ways to use them - generated the art of the longsword. 
What of sword and buckler, you may well ask? The art of sword and buckler derived from what I refer to as the Old Art: namely, the art of sword and full-sized shield; itself a product of the “Dark Ages,” the Classical period before that, and the period before the Classical, in all likelihood. The Old Art coexisted for a long time with the new(er) art, which was broad enough in scope and complexity to absorb and appropriate the entirety of the technical syllabus of its predecessor, while simultaneously being more dynamic and inclusive. 
This “new art” was, of course, the Knightly Art of Dobringer, Ringeck, Man yt Wol, Fiore, et al; which was comprised of sword and buckler, falchion, longsword, dagger, spear, ringen/abrazare, pollaxe, and a few parochial weapons unique to certain regions (the multi-hooked, barbed and spiked Germainic dueling shield, for example). Both on foot and mounted. Both in armour and out of armour. And all of them, as attested by both Ringeck and Fiore, come from wrestling and striking without weapons. 
So, it’s not so much about cross-fertilization as it is about paradigms and what comes out of paradigms. Systems arise out of paradigms, and traditions (such as the German, English, and Italian traditions) arise out of systems. Lineages (which are thought to be so important that the Liechtenauer lineage, comprising but one aspect of the German Tradition, is called a “tradition” in it’s own right) find their roots in Traditions. Schools spring from lineages, and styles (also erroneously thought to be so very important by so very many) comprise the very bottom aspect on the totem pole of importance, and are derived from schools. And paradigms, it should go without saying really, arise from the circumstances and technology available in any given epoch.
The Old Art arose from the old ways and old mode of fighting. It was comprised of sword and shield, wrestling, spear, dart (javelin), dagger, and various forms of axe. All primarily, but not exclusively, on foot. Armour was a factor but not nearly as important a factor as it was to be in the Knightly Art. It was a product of its paradigm, which was similar, but different, to the paradigm that gave rise to the Knightly Art. The Knightly Art absorbed all of the Old Art, and what’s more, significantly added to it. Thus was the Old Art granted an extension, a new lease on life, rather than being eradicated. 
So, there was no real cross-pollination, per se. It was the fighting art of one class, one exclusive set of guys, all part of a large, violent, squabbling extended family interconnected through a tangled web of family ties, oaths of fealty, the system of vassalage, politics, common enemies, grudges and blood feuds. All of that good, good stuff. And this set of circumstances provided the crucible that brought forth the Knightly Art, and in particular the art of the longsword. A new paradigm that subsumed, rather than destroyed, the old paradigm, incorporating new aspects while retaining the old aspects. And the men who wielded this deadly art in war, skirmish, chevauchée and duel were effectively borderless. Moreover, there was a very limited pool of experts from which to learn this Art, and they all likely would have known one another, at least by reputation. Therefore, any cross-pollination would have had to have been of a very incestuous kind.
But returning to the main point about paradigms: it was this paradigm - the feudal paradigm, and it’s requisite warrior aristocracy - that generated and sustained the Knightly Art. That’s why it was called the Knightly Art in the source materials. This was the art of combat as employed with deadly efficacy by knights and men-at-arms from the beginning of the High Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. The art of the longsword was one of the central aspects of that, but still only an aspect. 
Now, that’s not to say that there was no variation from lineage-to-lineage, master-to-master, or school-to-school. We know there was. But these were “sustainable variations”, as I refer to them. For as long as the feudal paradigm, with its borderless warrior aristocracy existed, then so too existed a “feedback loop” of sorts that always brought the aforementioned subtle differences back into the greater Art; and kept those comparatively slight variations operating upon the principles of that greater Art. We also know that this was true. The masters tell us of the many travels and great efforts that they undertook to learn the Art to its fullest extent, under the tutelage of as many skilled practitioners as possible. We can trace Fiore’s activities as far abroad as Paris, or so I’m told. So, it all ultimately drew upon the same well, if you will. And speaking of Fiore, it is perhaps he who informs us about the Greater Art most explicitly, stating that the Art is so vast that no one can possibly be even a good student of it without possessing books upon books on the subject. Likewise, Talhoffer admonishes his reader to not trust or further the cause of false masters who abridge the Art. The author of the Dobringer treatise, and Siber also comment upon this greater Art, after their own fashion.
So, we have this effectively borderless of class of warrior aristocrats and their men-at-arms (military retainers), whose very existence created the Knightly Art. And later on, as the feudal paradigm was beginning to sputter out, other elements - like the condottieri in Italy (and Fiore, despite his knightly lineage, really is part of that element) - added more to it, in a final flowering, if you will. But once the feudal paradigm was broken, the aforesaid feedback loop or holding pattern was no more, and more and more divergent “styles” began to arise. It’s called entropy, and it will most assuredly kick your ass in the end.
And, if I could be forgiven entering into something of a tangent, I think it’s both interesting and very relevant to the subject that - paradoxically - it’s always as things begin to reach their apex that they inevitably begin to deteriorate. And divergence is a symptom of deterioration. All too soon the Knightly Art was relegated to the twilight of mere tradition. The arts of Meyer, Mair, etc. - while still useful, to an extent, for the rote drill training of soldiers - were really more about tournament, “school fighting,” and such. Make no mistake, the art of Meyer, despite its callbacks and sentimental clinging to a particular traditional weapon, is not the art of Ringeck. The art of Ringeck was a vital art that existed in both theory and in application. Meyer’s art, at least his longsword art, existed as a dusty relic, a thing disembodied from a continuum that had already long been fading from its theater of action.
For once the feudal model and its martial paradigm was shattered, the Knightly Art became outmoded. Lots of things precipitated this: plague, the longbow, the pike, gunpowder, the reemergence of the primacy of infantry, the advent of powerful national monarchies - and the standing armies, centralization, and modern sense of patriotism that came along with more powerful national monarchies - as well as socioeconomic factors, etc. And that’s when a system that previously had relied upon a paradigm like feudalism, that is no longer functioning, breaks down and becomes specialized rather than broad, exclusive rather than inclusive. 
An example of this breakdown is the art of the rapier, which only appropriated approximately half of the technical syllabus of the Knightly Art. And as I've already mentioned, the Knightly Art absorbed the entirety of the Old Art’s technical syllabus, as well as added to it. This is the hallmark of a vital art, an art alive in theory as well as practice, an art less concerned with counting the angels dancing on the head of a pin, and more focused on the practical, brutal business of kill or be killed. The rapier is therefore a symptom of martial entropy, which is really what Silver was so adamant about. And Silver, like all good conservatives, railed and rallied and raved against the forces of entropy. But entropy always wins in the end, and the rapier represents the most significant of the latter indicators in the slow process of the disintegration of the Knightly Art.
However, the art of rapier, unlike the Knightly Art, was a dead end, which became - by comparatively rapid degrees - more and more confined to navel-gazing, newfangled theory (the Spanish Circle, Thibault’s material, etc.); and less and less about actual fighting. And worse, as the rapier’s range of motion and effective modes of attack are so limited, the one way to distinguish one “style” of rapier play from another is to continuously and deleteriously subtract from the weapon’s technical syllabus. This, again, is contrasted in the art of the longsword, which contained the whole of the rapier’s syllabus, and much more besides. Indeed, thanks to its versatility, it retained the whole of the Art that came before it. All of which makes the longsword, the most revered weapon of the masters of the Knightly Art, the perfect weapon. At least in my book. 
But returning to the rapier, and its significance in the slow, withering death of the Knightly Art. It must also be considered that the rapier was only capable of bringing forth one more generation, that being the art of the small sword; an even more exclusive, narrow art than the art of the rapier. Add to this the fact that the rapier was practically useless for war and skirmish, and really only viable as weapon of assassination, petty quarrel, and vendetta, and the writing on the wall becomes very clear. And, of course, in the end we wind up with sport fencing.
And this, in my opinion, is the current downward spiral at play within the HEMA collective. Why on earth they would want to emulate the figures of the twilight of the Art, and their practices (tournaments, etc), instead of the robust figures of Fiore, Ringeck, Talhoffer, or what have you - all of whom would have rightfully despised the tournaments that took place during the days of Meyer, to say nothing about the even paler reflections of the Art that are currently taking place under the name of “tournaments” - is utterly beyond me. 
In conversations I've had during my own studies, I've also heard the opinion expressed that there must have been a broad "Sword martial art," against which individual masters would essentially market themselves through signature moves and plays, such as "Priest's Special Longpoint" and Liechtenauer's meisterhau. Inasmuch as the opposition to this view must be that each master presented his own unique vision of combat, it would seem that you couldn't disagree with this view, but you could hold some third unimagined viewpoint. Can you elaborate on this idea?
To a certain extent that’s true. Fiore tells us he only included techniques he had either used successfully himself, or else techniques he had seen to be used effectively in his treatises. In other words, techniques he knew he could trust because they worked. What ethical master or instructor would do otherwise? But Fiore also warns us of false masters peddling snake oil super techniques. Hype’s an old thing. The Dobringer manuscript echoes Fiore on this point. So, how much was hype and how much was the real deal? It’s a fair question, and it’s open to debate. 
As for a “third view,” I’m of the opinion that the Art underwent a gradual evolution, a very organic process; and I don’t hold to false dichotomies like “you’re trying to have it both ways.” Arguments based on weak premises like “Where’s the krumphau in Fiore, huh? Huh?!” and vain appeals to macro versus micro are comparable to saying “There are gaps in the fossil record, therefore evolution is bunk.” I know one thing, it’s pointless to argue with Bible literalists, and it’s pointless to argue with anti-pan-Europeanists. There’s too much emotional investment at stake to get a fair hearing. 
And likewise, equally fallacious arguments employing appeals to the gross similarities and natural biomechanical overlaps that exist in all forms of swordsmanship (comparing Japanese swordsmanship to European, for example), in an attempt to render the pan-European Theory moot thereby, are unserious. Demonstrably ludicrous, even. A katana is vastly different from a longsword. A jian may, in some instances be a two-handed weapon; and it while it is straight-bladed and double-edged, it does not possess the same distal taper a longsword does, or the same point orientation. Nor does it have the substantive cross and pommel of a longsword. It does not have the same point of balance, or handling characteristics that a longsword exhibits. And neither did it face the same obstacles (such as armour types), or opponents that the longsword did. Such arguments therefore operate on the same blinkered logic which postulates that, as a cat has a tail and four legs, and so does a dog, a dog must also be a cat. Well, a dog isn’t a cat, and a dao isn’t a falchion, either. But a longsword is a longsword is a longsword is a motherfucking longsword. Got it? No? It’s no wonder your parents hate you.
In short, I haven’t encountered a single argument that can’t go and suck it in the face of the vast, overwhelming evidence in support of the “pan-European” Art. And speaking of, was it pan-European? Sure, it was. But that was just the theater wherein it operated, not the mechanism. So of late I’ve been thinking perhaps “pan-feudal” is better. But it ultimately doesn’t matter. It was the Knightly Art, and all of its iterations and variations had a common origin and they all drew upon the same well; to wit, the Greater Art to which Fiore and others alluded.
While the linguistic arguments and textual arguments you make for your interpretations of the Scholar, the Cottonian Titus fragment, and the Harleian Master are compelling in and of themselves, to what extent is your interpretation of English techniques predicated on extrapolation from Liechtenauer, Fiore, et al.?
That’s a good question. It’s hard to quantify, really. In our work on the English material, Casper Bradak (his real name is Ben, but he’ll always be Casper to me) and I drew as heavily as we possibly could from the English longsword sources themselves, as well as from later English martial sources, and from English literary sources. The parallels with the Continental material - for the most part - just became clear as we went on. It wasn’t conscious, really. The similarities and insights drawn from the Continental materials emerged as we went forward. They became apparent. We didn’t look for them, at least not at first. But as more and more of the English material reminded us of Fiore, of Talhoffer, of Ringeck, then we began to cross analyze a bit. But we realized that it all bolstered and affirmed our work. So, at a - very rough - guess, I’d say 70% English sources, 30% Continental. Somewhere in that neighborhood, anyway. Casper might tell you differently. 
Can you characterize specific ways in which the English masters differ from, for instance, the German and/or Italian masters, or is this entirely counter to your views?
Another excellent question. It’s also difficult to answer. I’ll try to give you an answer that’s not a cop-out... ...It’s not entirely contrary to my views. However, honestly, I never really thought about it. It was all very fluid, and seemed to work most of the time. And when tested and compared with the available datum it continued to work most of the time. And when it didn’t work, we went back and reexamined. When all else failed, we cross-referenced with other sources. If it made sense linguistically and contextually and martially then we believed (and still do believe) that we were onto something. Therefore I see more parallels than differences. All the major “moves” are there in the English sources. They are demonstrably there. There are predilections, of course. The Southern English sub-tradition (Ledall being the only known example thereof) preferred to open the fight with a proffer (a thrust to the face), and thereafter engage in intensive cutting and thrusting. This seems signature, to be sure. But, as I said, it’s all there.
Can you characterize specific ways in which the English masters differ one from another?
The Southern sub-tradition likes to open with thrusts, the Northern (Harleian, Cotton Titus, Man yt Wol) likes to open with cuts.
Are there any specific similarities in styles which you would care to elaborate upon?
They all contain everything essential to win.  
If your responses inspire further questions, I hope you don't mind if I subsequently send those, as well.

1 comment:

JH said...


I think this is the most insightful of the many such comments:

And this, in my opinion, is the current downward spiral at play within the HEMA collective. Why on earth they would want to emulate the figures of the twilight of the Art, and their practices (tournaments, etc), instead of the robust figures of Fiore, Ringeck, Talhoffer, or what have you - all of whom would have rightfully despised the tournaments that took place during the days of Meyer, to say nothing about the even paler reflections of the Art that are currently taking place under the name of “tournaments” - is utterly beyond me.