Saturday, 19 November 2011

How to do ‘not too bad’ in a sword fight: Introduction

An alternative approach to Liechtenauer’s Kunst des Fechtens 

Well, our usual training schedule is up in the air a bit, so beyond arranging informal meet-ups, sprinting up hills and getting into some kind of exercise routine, I guess I'll just have to geek out about sword fighting. M'kay?
This post has its roots in the KdF Roadmap that Pete wrote, and also in something that Chris Walters said over on the HEMA Alliance forums. The idea behind it is that the sources we look at are not manuals. Rather they’re mnemonics, easy to remember poems from a dead oral culture. Or they’re glosses and illustrations, explanations of jargon from a highly technical area of carefully preserved yet hidden knowledge. Or they're artist's sketches. Or they might be attempts to preserve a dying art. It’s difficult, we have to look at the intent behind the documents - they’re not Longsword 101 for complete newbies who have modern training equipment and intentions. We can’t just look at the pretty pictures and take guesses. Or for that matter study techniques in isolation and expect to be able to sword fight.
N.B. There's a counter-argument to all this along the lines of 'But Meyer's printed work is a Longsword 101! Why not just study Meyer?' My answer to which is that I find Meyer really cool, and want to learn more about the fencing system he presents. But I don't think that it's the same art as, for example, Paulus Kal practised in the 1450s.

Yet at the same time, there’s something that I’m going to call The HEMA Hypothesis - basically that the dead dudes knew their stuff. It might be expressed as ‘a fight that simulates historical context will have historical fighting work’ and conversely ‘If, in your simulation of a historical fight, the evidenced methods of fighting don’t work, then it’s because of a fault in your simulation. Not because of a problem in the methods.’ Or it might be expressed as something like ‘In order to learn what are the effective mechanics of interpersonal violence in a particular context, it might be worth paying attention to the opinions of those who would be in a position to know.’ I don't think I'm stepping over the line by saying that that’s a pretty core assumption or belief for most people who train HEMA.

Because of those two points there is space for works that attempt to lay out the contents of the primary sources in a more easily digestible, 'how-to' manner. There are plenty of examples - just look at the texts from the Freelance Academy Press, Chivalry Bookshelf or Paladin Press. Very few of them actually present uninterpreted(ish) primary sources and translations. Rather lots of them are presentations of some dude’s interpretations. Nothing wrong with that - that’s what an awful lot of this blog is. Fair enough - it’s only within the last few years that the sources have become widely available, or available at all without huge personal expense, thanks to resources like wiktenauer. They've been invaluable.

But any way. At the moment I believe that there is a very small gap in the market here - for a freely available copy of what the dead dudes say about fighting in their times. True we already have one, one called wiktenauer. But if we take the resources up on wiktenauer as the sources presented raw (or al-dente) at one end of the spectrum, and a work like John Clement's Medieval Swordfighting as the evidence pre-digested, then this would just be a little bit chewed. The evidence laid out as ‘this is how you sword fight better.’

Which is what this series of posts is going to be. Of course, it’s not going to be a substitute for training. Or for training with people who know their stuff. It also won’t last for ever - in time there will be better resources, better organised ones, and more freely available images and translations. But hey. That’s progress. And progress is inherently good, right?

But, back to that balancing act between interpretation and presenting the evidence. This isn’t going to just be a system that I’ve made up (though you could make an argument that we each have our own individual understandings of how sword fights work, but that's straying into naval gazing. Which we don't have time for...) As Pete laid out in his Kunst des Fechten Road Map, he outlines what he thinks are the three most important things
to know before engaging in sparring, so that you're not just getting beaten up for no reason:
  1. How to cut and thrust.
  2. How to cover yourself.
  3. How to control the bind.
I think that's pretty reasonable. It's not an exhaustive list, but they're all pretty key areas in a sword fight. In fact, I'm going to steal it and use it as the structure for three upcoming posts. In a perfect world I'd have the time to train and communicate these things on a one to one basis with each guy in the group, but we simply don't have the resources right now.

Instead, this 'Alternative Approach' will be looking at the documentary evidence and using it to justify what I do teach. The sources tend to focus on techniques, rather than on basics such as ‘This is how you should hold a sword’ or ‘This is the body structure you should have behind Pflug’. It makes sense - when you’re laying out a system, they've spelt out the structure of it, and then specifics for specific situations. I guess instruction on things like approaches in a bout or how to cut well would have been done informally.

There’s also relatively little out there about ‘common fencing’; presumably fighters would either already have some fighting experience, or some basic actions would have been built up in training and the authors thought that it wasn’t worth wasting words on.

Finally, I’ll be focusing on sources from Liechtenauer’s KdF rather than different systems like the 'Fiore school' or the English sources. The reason for this is that I'm not terribly confident at interpreting them, indeed if I look at Fiore, I understand its plays as displaying KdF principles now - one might show a ‘Hangen and Schnappen’, or another something like a zorn-ort. If I was using those sources as examples, I’d be conveying my interpretation of them without being that confident that I was doing them justice. Moreover, I would then be converting that into a package that I think the Liechtenauer guys in my group can learn from. Publicly. No thanks. Some day I'm going to drink a lot of coffee, map out all the conceptual stuff and all the technique-decision-trees I can think of, and copy and paste all the relevant bits of all the documentary evidence to support it. That'd be 'my' KdF. But you know what? Life's too short.

These posts will hopefully be coming up over the next few weeks, depending on how much of a pain real life decides to be.

Finally, because this post is a very long wall of text:

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