Wednesday, February 24, 2010


For this week's installment (I am going to try and be better about updating this blog with useful discussions) I wanted to talk a bit about handedness, both in general as it applies to Western Martial Arts and, in particular, handedness in Le Jeu de la Hache.

General Remarks on Handedness in WMA

Most, if not all, of the manuscripts studied by Western Martial Arts practitioners today are right-hand dominant. That is, they show the use of weapons with the right hand alone or as the dominant (fore-most) hand of a two-handed weapon. While there may be many theories that try to explain this, the answer is very simple: There are more right-handed people than left, about 80% right to 20% left. Sorry Lefties! The funny thing is, no one knows why there are more righties than lefties. One possible source is societal pressure, forcing people who are naturally left-handed to be right-handed. In many cultures left-handedness has been (in some cases, still is) considered a negative thing. For example, in Islam the right hand is used for eating, etc. while the left is used for cleaning oneself after defecation. Someone important is considered your "right-hand man". Correct answers are "right". A WMA example: in Fiore de' Liberi's Fior di Battaglia certain guards can be taken on the right or left side. The Italian word for left, "sinistra" (or "senestra"), is derived from the Latin "sinister,-tra" and is the basis for the English word "sinister". So what does this all mean? Is it all a vast right-hander conspiracy? Maybe.

But seriously, the reason that the manuscripts only show right-handers is that most of the people writing them, or those learning from the masters, were right-handers. When teaching, I've often been caught by a left-handed student because I describe everything in right-handed terms. It's only natural!

But does this mean that if you study these arts you will be unable to handle a left-handed opponent? No. While left-handers do have the advantage in terms of familiarity with right-handers, the opposite holds true for right-handers. Remember that 80-20 ratio? In any group, let's say a fencing class, the left-handers will fight a right-handed opponent 80% of the time. A right-handed fencer will also face a right-handed opponent 80% of the time. They will only rarely (20% of the time) face a left-handed opponent (so will the left-handed fencer for that matter).

When it comes to learning to face a left-handed opponent you have a few training options:
1. Read (or re-read) the manuscripts you study to see if they contain specific advice on dealing with left-handers (or ask your instructor). Then, learn to adapt your techniques to handle the different body/hand positions and different openings that will crop up. Often times, you will find that the underlying principles of your art will be true whether you face a righty or a lefty.
2. Learn to be ambidextrous! If you have a left-handed student or training partner, switch it up and try your hand at being left-handed! This has two main benefits: First, it lets you exercise your brain and second, it lets your partner experience what the technique is supposed to be.
Of course, when training you should practice both of these options because they are both important. Learning how to apply the principles of your art no matter the situation is a vital skill. That way whether it's a dominant-hand blow from a right-hander (from the right shoulder) or a back-hand blow from a left-hander (also from the right shoulder) it's all the same from your point-of-view!

The best skill to learn is ambidexterity. This is not always easy and is best left until you have a solid understanding of your art with your dominant hand. Also, if you injure your dominant hand in such a way that you cannot train, take that as an opportunity to develop your off-hand.

But why would I want to Switch?

The question of why one would care to switch their grip is simple: Tactical Advantage. Remember that both right- and left-handers will face a right-handed opponent 80% of the time. Being able to switch from right- to left-handed provides you the tactical advantage of surprise; you are presenting your opponent with something they have only dealt with 20% of the time! When your opponent thinks they've got you pegged as a righty, switch grips and surprise them with your left-handedness! But be careful - they could do the same to you!

I had to toss a Princess Bride pic in here somewhere!

This tactical advantage is not confined to the world of swordsmanship. Many others use pursue antagonistic activities take advantage of being ambidextrous. In baseball, for instance, you will often see left-handed batters sent up against a good right-handed pitcher to shake him up a bit. Or a left-handed pitcher sent in to shut down a left-handed slugger. In boxing a Southpaw is a difficult opponent to face. I know one boxer who's coach, after the boxer had a solid base and a few fights under his belt, made him train both Orthodox and Southpaw simply because it gave him more tools in his toolbox. A co-worker of mine who is ex-military explained to me his own trials with teaching himself to shoot left-handed. His reason for needing to learn to shoot left-handed? Going around corners. "If, while doing a tactical entry on a building, I go around a corner to my right, my weapon is the first thing that appears. If I go around a corner to my left [still holding the weapon right-handed] the first thing that appears is my hand. And that's not good!" So, whether in baseball, boxing, military operations, or swordsmanship, being ambidextrous offers a tactical advantage.

Handedness in Le Jeu de la Hache

The majority (48 of a total 73 paragraphs, or about 66%) of Le Jeu de la Hache is a section designed for combat between right-handers. The phrase "If he would give you tour de bras right-hander to right-hander" opens the description of the very first technique and is often repeated, in some form, throughout the manuscript. If you think about the fact that 80% of people are right-handed, this makes sense. The left-handed section at the end of the manuscript comprises 23 paragraphs, which bounce back and forth between the point-of-view of the righty and the lefty (this is simply the way the manuscript is set up; showing play, counter, counter-counter, etc.). What that means is that if you were to play through the manuscript paragraph by paragraph you would, at some point, be expected to perform as a left-hander. What this boils down to is a same-hand lead (right vs right) section and a cross-hand lead (right vs left) section. So, Le Jeu de la Hache has everything you need to be a well-rounded, and at least mildly ambidextrous, axe-fighter. Obviously, if you switch to a left-hand lead and your opponent is also in a left-hand lead, then you are back in the same-hand lead situation, just mirrored.

Switching Your Grip

Now let's look at the lead hand change. Talhoffer, Fiore and Vadi's manuscripts all show guards where it is apparent that a change in lead hands has occurred, but we are not told how.

From the Getty MS. Guards: Breve la Serpentina (left hand lead) and Vera Croce (right hand lead). Getty Museum.

From Vadi's "Arte Gladitoria Dimicandi". Right hand lead for the left figure and a left hand lead for the right figure.

In all the Italian and Burgundian sources that deal with the pollaxe, there are only two detailed grip changes; one in Le Jeu de la Hache and the other in the Anonymous Bolognese (I don't know enough about the German sources to make these statements for them). The simple explanation for this lack of detailed grip changes is that the majority of these grip changes happen outside of measure. When you are not actively engaged with your opponent, you can change your grip at your leisure, without the need for special techniques.

The grip change described in the Anonymous Bolognese is a method for combining attacks along different lines. In Le Jeu de la Hache, the grip change occurs late in the manuscript (paragraph 59) in the cross-hand lead section and is a counter to a grappling attempt. What do these two techniques have in common? They occur in context. The only reason these two techniques are detailed is because they occur in situations where they are needed.

To claim that there are no grip changes in Le Jeu de la Hache because only one is described (and in special circumstances) is to ignore the fact that handedness, when examined, is really not that much of an issue. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Why aren't there more grip switches described in pollaxe sections? Because the only point at wich you have time to easily execute a grip change is while outside measure; if you change your lead-hand in measure you allow your opponent a tempo in which to act against you.


In Western Martial Arts, the issue of handedness can be solved by:
  • Learning that the principles of your art do not change whether your opponent is right-handed or left-handed.
  • Learning to adapt the individual techniques of your art to the varieties of cross-handed encounters.
  • Learning to be ambidextrous.


motley said...

Good post.

I woudl add that I think that handedness is less of an issue with longer weapons a Poleaxe or spear for instance, than it is with a shorter weapon, longsword or or one handed weapon.


Alex said...

Thanks Dan!

I knew I forgot something! It's even right here in my notes.

You're right - handedness is not as important with polearms, which is exactly why ambidexterity is so important is polearms usage.