Thursday, 19 December 2013

A (Personal) HEMA Year in Review

It's Christmas. As an Englishman, that means indifferently chill rain, bad jumpers, and the constant threat of Cliff Richards playing from shops' speakers. Minced pies with brandy butter make it all worthwhile though.

The end of the year is also the traditional time to take stock and review, hence the spiking suicide and divorce rates.

How was this year of my HEMA journey? Successes and injuries defined it.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

REVIEW: The 'Lost' Second Book of Nicoletto Giganti(1608): A Rapier Fencing Treatise

Giganti, Nicoletto; Pendragon, Joshua; Terminiello, Piermarco. The 'Lost' Second Book of Nicoletto Giganti(1608): A Rapier Fencing Treatise. Vulpes, 2013. ISBN 978-1909348318

Before the review, it's worth clarifying that I'm not a rapier fencer. I've focused on the longsword. Perhaps this brings an outsider's perspective to the book. Secondly, one of the authors is a friend. While I don't think that affects my views on the book, it does mean that I was bribed with a review copy! This review is also a somewhat Janus-faced, as it's impossible to discuss The 'Lost' Second Book without also reviewing the work of Giganti in its own right.

The 'Lost' Second Book is a translation of an original that resides in the Lord Howard de Walden Library (Acc. 9.07), which is itself on a long term loan to the Wallace Collection in London. The de Walden Library was, I believe, collected on behalf of  the 8th Baron Howard de Walden, and contains all kinds of interesting fencing texts. The Wallace Collection has been very cooperative with the Historical Fencing community (what other museum would understand tourists showing up with large ski-bags of swords?), and T. Capwell has a brief foreword on the relationship between institutions like the Wallace, those with a practical interest, and academia.

The 'Lost' Second Book is a translation from the original Italian, complete with digitally cleaned plates. The authors note that the original images aren't very clear due to the condition of the text, but that they had to work with the only known surviving copy. The language is said to be relatively easy to comprehend for early modern writing, but the translation occasionally simplifies long, complex sentences to clarify them for a modern audience. As such the work isn't a facsimile (there's no transcription, for example), but the translator has an excellent grasp of Italian, and I consider The 'Lost' Second Book to be a presentation of the original source, rather than interpretation of its contents. On the subject of the illustrations, there are two different artists, one of whom isn't that great. None the less, as someone who normally ponders over much earlier illustrations, those in The 'Lost' Second Book are pretty easy to follow, and without a doubt clearer to interpret. I'd take them over I.33 any day.

For more information about the author, I'd direct you to his Wiktenauer article. The fencer's first work was published in 1606, and concerns the sword alone and in combination with the dagger. (Sword in this case referring to what we'd now call a rapier). In it Giganti promised further books, but as soon as 1673 a Sicilian author mentions their absence. The only surviving reference to the book is from 1847, but that accurately described the Second Book and its contents. All of this is further compounded by early modern approaches to authorship and copyright, which meant that at one point later fencers accused Giganti of plagiarism due to an edition of his being bundled with a translation of another master.

Giganti's first book is apparently more of a traditional Italian fencing text, focusing on the sword alone and in combination with the rapier. It spends time on the principles of tempo and measure, and the basics of fencing. In contrast this second book is more of a collection of examples. The largest sections are concerned with a passable step (that is, from a right-foot-forwards stance to a left-foot-forwards stance), as well as the role of cuts in rapier fencing. I especially appreciate the example on p. 33, when Giganti discussing fencing rapier and dagger against an armoured opponent fighting with a heavier cutting sword. The techniques were familiar from observing Pim Terminiello fencing against an opponent armed with the longsword. The second book also covers other combinations such as Rapier and Buckler, Cloak, Rotella, Targa etc. It also includes some examples of dagger fencing, some closes to grapple (primarily hilt grabs and arm-shoves) and asymmetrical fights such as dagger against sword and buckler. Interestingly the dagger-work is all point-up fencing, as opposed to the point-down 'icepick' grip more common in earlier texts.

Some interesting references as a non-rapier fencer include an aside on covering yourself to prevent a double-hit when fencing an inexperienced opponent, the instinctive nature of cuts and an aside on the importance of psychology in asymmetrical fights.

The 'Lost' Second Book is well footnoted throughout, with a pretty thorough bibliography of Italian fencing texts. The text is reasonably easy to follow, and though some technical terms are used they are well glossed. The 'Lost' Second Book is a clear presentation of Giganti's work and I'd recommend it to anyone who collects works on historical fencing. When it comes to practicals, to learning from texts, I think that Giganti's second book is less-useful than his first for an inexperienced fencer. That said, it gives fencers today a better picture of early-modern Italian fencing. Giganti's second book is indicative of a better rounded form of fencing than we usually imagine classical rapier, and I'd unreservedly praise any fencer able to execute the techniques in it under pressure.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Review: AHA German Longsword Study Guide

The Academy of Historical Arts recently published their study guide for Lichtenauer tradition longsword fencing. written by Keith Farrell & Alex Bourdas. At SwordFish I was fortunate enough to pick up a copy of it, and here's my two(ish) word review of it:

It's sound.

In more depth, the book itself is A5 in size, in black and white. It contains illustrations hand-drawn by Alex Bourdas, after the surviving manuscript illustrations, but more on that later. The introduction nicely sets out the intent behind the work as a reference for new students of Lichtenauer's unarmoured longsword fencing to understand the system, a bit like my old primer (but less crap!). It doesn't go into depth about the context of the system, the technical details of specific techniques, psychology of fighting or anything like that. Rather it lays out Keith and Alex's understanding of the system in a coherent and accessible way. The vocabulary that they use to describe the hobby is similar to mine too - for example I don't remember getting pissed off with ahistoricisms like 'manual' being used to describe the sources!

After the introduction the second chapter explains the parts of the sword and the tradition's vocabulary for them. As an example of the style of much of the book, the section for the pommel looks like this:

"2.1.10 Klos - Pommel
The pommel is the solid counterweight at the bottom of the hilt that brings the balance point of the weapon closer to the grip. Without the effect of the pommel the weapon would be much less balanced and so more difficult to wield.
For the sword is like a scale: if the sword is large and heavy, then the pommel must likewise be large and heavy, so that it will balance like a scale.3
The pommel could also be used offensively, in pommel strikes. Furthermore, if it could be unscrewed, it could also be thrown at an opponent, as seen in the Gladiatoria.4"

As a side-note, the referencing is thorough and the work contains indices, appendices and bibliographies. I approve.

However this section lacks an illustration or diagram. Unfortunately I feel that this is a weakness in the book. Much of this information might be explained more clearly to a newcomer with an appropriate visual guide as well as a written one. While there are illustrations of a good quality (not direct images, I assume as copyright etc. etc.), they sometimes feel disconnected from the surrounding text and while aesthetically pleasing, not of direct relevance to the purpose of the book.

After the parts of the sword, there is a nice explanation of the history of the Lichtenauer tradition, and then an essay from Encased in Steel. Again I feel that these essays are one of the weaker parts of the book. Not because they are bad in themselves, but rather because they feel tangential from the main purpose of the work.

That's followed by a very nice overview of stances, grips and footwork in section three, which is something that the sources don't often clearly explain as they were assumed common knowledge.

The fourth chapter is on guards. It's a good overview of the positions, along with variations. Again, I feel that it could have used some illustrations (for example when discussing the non-core low guards), but I liked it's approach. The fifth chapter follows on, and contains this crucial section:

"5.9 Further strikes by Other Masters.
Other masters such as Joachim Meyer and Jobbst von Wurttemberg described other strikes in their treatises. Furthermore, some masters mention more than five secret strikes. The reason why these other strikes and additional secret strikes are not discussed is that the authors of this book are not familiar enough with the description and application of these techniques to be able to write about them in a comprehensive and responsible fashion. [...] A future revision of this book may contain such information as the knowledge of the Academy's instructors and researchers grows over time."

On the one hand, this approach somewhat limited the utility of the book to me, as I was already familiar with the subjects it covers. On the other hand their approach was honest and humble. Besides, including such peripheral aspects of the art in a beginner's text might have been confusing and counter-productive.

On a technical note, the vorschlag/nachtschlag sections at 5.1.3/4 might be better included in Chapter 6 (on timing etc.). For subsequent versions I think that a bit more cross-referencing of other sections might be useful (for example in the section on alternative ways of holding the sword in Vom Tag, a cross-reference to the Twerhau). But it's a minor point. Chapters 5 & 6 are really very good. I'm slightly saddened that the section on Durchlauffen is so brief, but then again I am a brute who enjoys a good grapple!

Chapter 8 contains examples of possible solo drills. I disagree with Keith about their utility, but they're presented clearly, concisely and with context.

In terms of price, the book comes to £15, or £20 including a .pdf copy, which I think is a fair price for this kind of training supplement. On the one hand it doesn't include the step-by-step illustrations of one of Tobler's works, but on the other hand I feel that it is better for that - the work is more honest, less prone to becoming quickly outdated, and less likely to seduce beginners into dead-ends.

In conclusion, I'd recommend the work to anyone interested in learning Lichtenauer tradition unarmored fencing. It would be of most use as a training supplement and reference for beginners, but it deserves a place on everyone's bookshelf.

Edit: Alen Lovric of the youtube HEMA Reviews channel has also reviewed it. He's also less wordy and more entertaining. Watch it here:

Saturday, 19 October 2013

A reply to Alex Bourdas on distance.

I recently came across a post by Alex Bourdas on The Historical Academy's blog about the correct distance to fence in. I can't help but disagree with its conclusions. This post will be a bit of a rebuttal of his.

Firstly, I feel that MS 3227a doesn't support the argument that he's making. Meyer might, but he's a Leichmeystern whose advice is often directly contrary to the original zettel and the earlier sources (I'm half-joking. His fencing comes from a different context, with different aims and so on.)

As for the English source - interpreting the English sources is incredibly difficult as they're so fragmentary, lack context and so on. The source takes the form of "The . iij . lesson ys a sprynge vpward . wt an hauke quarter . downe by ye cheke . wt iij . doubylrowndys stondÿg borne on ye hed . wt a dowbylrownde born in wt ye foote . w . iij . outwards." - I find it difficult to believe that in the particular case that Alex quotes the author is referring to a simple measure of distance (as Alex himself agrees).

Anyway, to Alex's quotes:
“…they perform strikes that miss and create openings in themselves. They have no proper reach in their fencing and that belongs not to real fencing but only to school fencing and the exercises for their own sake.”
MS 3227a, folios 14r-14v

I read MS 3227a as saying that there's no point in attacking out of distance, when you're not even trying to hit your opponent. Doing so only creates empty tempo for them to exploit. In any case, Alex's conclusion that 'our strikes should end in the four hangings, rather than a more extended position' is a direct contradiction of the same source talking about the Ort position, as seen below.

“And as soon as the opponent binds your sword then your point should not be more than half an ell [30-40cm] from the opponent’s breast or face.”
MS 3227a, folio 24r, translation by David Lindholm

When you've bound, don't stop threatening your opponent with the tip of your blade. Doing so just creates openings for them to exploit. In fact, the passage in question gives advice for what to do if your opponent has won the vorschlag, and you have to parry in the nacht. It's basic advice to seize the initiative after a parry, and not to leave it (creating an opportunity for the opponent to push on and get the hit).

And look at those who use the long sword and who goes about it with outstretched arms and outstretched sword in order to look dangerous and to look good, using all the strength of the body.
It is terribly embarrassing to see someone thus stretched out as if he wanted to run after a hare. And this has nothing to do with turning in [Winden] or Liechtenauer’s art, since this art does not require strength. If it was not an art, then the strong would always win.”
MS 3227a, folio 40r, translation by David Lindholm

So, you shouldn't fence widely. You should fencing compactly. You shouldn't need to rely on strength. Let's put that quote into context, this time from the Stoeppler translation:

 Just as the Leychmeister disdain them and say that fencing from the winding is weak and they call it from the shortened sword because that they are done simple and stupid. And they mean that these are fenced from the long sword which is done with outstretched arms and extended sword and also aggressively with all strength of the body only by pressing themselves forward.
And this is painful to watch! If one stretches just as running after a rabbit this is not the way, neither the windings nor Liechtenauers art, because there is no strength against (the opposing strength)! Whoever does it differently should prefer strength.
MS 3227a, f. 40r

In order words, if you over-extend in the bind then you're in a mechanically weak position. I don't think that this is referring to the first strike, but rather to the subsequent windings. If you look at Paulus Kal, Cgm 1507, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Munich, Germany, c. 1470, f. 59r it shows the zorn-ort technique with bent arms. I think that all the earlier sources advise you not to straighten your arms when winding. Looking at a vorschlag-centric match like Peter Smallridge vs. Anton Kohutovic and the only time that a fencer ends up in an extended Langenort (Pete, c. 34 seconds), it's because he's failed to acknowledge that Anton stole the initiative and moved out of distance quickly enough, and it costs him the point when Anton re-engages with a stronger winding. Just as the text says. In any case, I don't think that the text supports Alex's conclusion that cuts should end in a hanging guard, but rather the text acknowledges that extended langenort is a crap position to be in, as you're mechanically weak in the bind.

Anyway, here are some counter quotes from the same source that strongly disagree with Alex's interpretation, from Stoeppler's translation:

The Vorschlag is a great advantage in fencing and you will hear more about this later in the text. Liechtenauer says only five strikes, with their following techniques are useful as opening methods for fencing. And he teaches these, according to the real art, to execute these straight and simply to the nearest and most accessible target as possible.
MS 3227a, f. 14v


And then, if he manages to get to him, and he knows the measure and thinks the adversary can and will reach him now, so he should hurry to him without fear, quickly and nimbly, going for the head or body, not caring if he hits or misses. So he should win the Vorschlag and not let the adversary come to his own fencing.
MS 3227a f. 16r


Also know, when one wants to fence in earnest, he should plan a ready technique, whichever he like, and that technique should be complete and well-practiced. And he should take this seriously into his mind and will, just if he should say “That I want to do”. And then he must gain the initiative and with the help of God it will not fail. He succeeds in doing what he should do, if he bravely hurries and rushes in with the Vorschlag; about that you will later hear often.
MS 3227a f. 16v


These have been invented so that a fencer, who immediately strikes at the Ort and yet does not hit instantly, may employ the before mentioned Techniques in combination with strikes thrusts and cuts, with stepping off or in, and with stepping around or jumping, in order to hit his adversary. And if someone has shot his Ort out too far, by thrusting or lunging, he can recover or shorten it by employing the Winden or stepping off, so that he again may use those appropriate techniques and principles of fencing. From there he again may strike thrust or cut, because according to Liechtenauers art, strikes thrusts and cuts stem from all fencing techniques and principles. And later you will hear, how one technique and principle stems from the other and how they can be used in succession, so that if one method is being defended, the other hits and succeeds.
Ms 3227a f. 19v


If he now wishes to begin correctly, he should gain the Vorschlag and not his opponent. Because one that strikes his opponent is safer and is protected easier because the opponent has to watch out for the attacks. If he now gains and executes the Vorschlag, may it hit or miss, so he should do instantly without pause in the same rush the Nachschlag, be it the second, third or fourth or fifth strike, be it strike or thrust so that he stays in constant motion, doing one after the other without pausing so that the opponent may not come to strike. Liechtenauer says: I tell you truthfully, no man defends without danger, if you have understood it he will not come to strikes. So just do as it is often written before and stay in constant motion.
In all teachings, turn the point to his face. And whoever swings wide around, will often be ashamed. To the very nearest, bring your strikes or thrusts surely. And see to it that your adversary does not act before you, so you may well stand your ground against a good man.
MS 3227a f. 64r-v

My conclusion from these quotes is that this source strongly emphasizes the importance of entering distance with the first cut, with the initiative (and that subsequently, you can use your superior skill in the bind, never taking your sword back for another big cut in distance). Now Alex admits that he "can’t always force opponents to fight at the distance I’d like to fight at, but when I can fight from a closer distance, I find it much easier to start carrying out techniques from the treatises, especially winding." [Alex Bourdas, 18/10/13]

My counter claim would be that he needs to work on his ring-craft, on his sense of tempo and his ability to securely strike without telegraphing the vorschlag. In other words - that he can't secure the first strike well isn't a problem with the vorschlag principle, or with fencing from the edge of distance!

I feel that that controlling the initiative and entering with a vorschlag were sadly neglected parts of long-sword fencing until relatively recently. Anyone can make big swings in distance, but I don't consider that skilled fencing, or true to the earlier sources like MS 3227a. I can't remember if Alex and I fenced when I was up at HEMAC Glasgow, but I came away with the feeling that tempo wasn't a particularly strong part of the regional style, and at the time I put it down to their training methods. I hope that Alex will be at Swordfish, and we'll get an opportunity to discuss it in person.

Friday, 31 May 2013

Thought For The Day: Don't Begin In Distance

I returned from a tournament to try a "regular" sparring class at a local club. One thing that stood out was that locals skipped over the Zufechten. In the tournament, you began in your corner, and enjoyed a phase of manoeuvre, feeling out, and trying to steal an angle or distance on your opponent. Often there were false starts, feints with footwork, and other incomplete efforts to encourage the opponent to compromise himself.

At the club, they tried to start in my face, a step at most beyond cutting range. We lost that Zufechten approach phase, so that freeplay was either a succession of almost footwork-free insta-hits or else they'd begin by leaping backwards while lashing out. In the former case, there were often ugly doubles; the latter often became a Benny Hill routine of chasing the opponent down while covering hand-snipe attempts.