Thursday, April 29, 2010

Pan-European Swordsmanship or The One True Art of the Sword

I've been thinking about the idea of “Pan-European Swordsmanship” lately. I first came across this idea on the “Lessons of English Swordsmanship” site and this website. Here are my thoughts on this:

One of the best defenses I have for this theory is how I feel about martial arts in general – in the end, it is just a person with a stick. All martial arts must be based on the human body; how it is put together, how it moves, it's strengths and it's weaknesses. All weapon-based martial arts will be variations on how the human body uses a stick. This stick may be short, long, really long, pointed, sharp, straight, curved, etc. but it is still a stick. Any martial arts based on the human body (all of them) and on the same type of stick (a Medieval longsword) must, at their most basic level, be similar, if not identical.

As a follower of the Italian tradition, the techniques and principles of the German and English traditions are not alien to me. In fact, I have made it a point to study German longsword through books, seminars, and events, in addition to studying Italian longsword. I believe this kind of cross-training in similar arts to be extremely useful to more advanced students. (I say “more advanced” because it is necessary to have a solid base of experience with your chosen weapon or art before you begin to explore – otherwise you will be attempting to stand your art on a pillar of sand. Even the modern exemplar of mixing-and-matching in martial arts, Bruce Lee, recommended a solid grounding in one art before expanding.) However, I would never teach the 5 Meisterhau in a beginning Italian longsword class – they are simply not in the Italian system. Are they cool? Yep. Would I ever use one of the Meisterhau in free-play? You betcha, because they have been added to my “tool box”. Fiore tells us that he studied with German and Italian masters – so do I.

Studying other traditions gives you extra tools not only in technique but also for interpretation. Sometimes, looking at the way another tradition handles a certain situation can kick-start your own interpretation by acting as “Frog-DNA”. The challenge is to remain honest – if you borrow a technique from another system, make sure when you teach that technique to explain where it comes from. The same applies to any technique which you extrapolate.

But it is a very long step to say that these separate traditions are all the same Art. We know that medieval people traveled around, both in peace and in war, and that a cross-pollination of ideas occurred. But there is no denying that the longsword art of Fiore looks different than the longsword art of Liechtenauer; that Italian rapier looks different than Spanish; that Bolognese sword and buckler looks different than Silver's, and that both look different than I.33. This is because these arts were developed in different geographical regions, with their own cultural quirks and biases. One should expect Italian, German, English and French swordsmanship to differ just as the culinary arts from each of those areas differs. This cultural diversity is what makes what we do so freaking cool! If we all practiced the same art, life would be depressingly boring.

Is there “One True Art of the Sword”? Yes! But each tradition will be unique in how it approaches that ideal (I'm being very Platonic aren't I?).

So what is the “One True Art of the Sword”? To quote the 1998 movie “The Mask of Zorro”:

“The pointy end goes in the other guy”

For once Hollywood got it right!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Medieval Movies

So I decided to do a little movie review post. I will keep my opinions limited to those movies I actually possess. My ratings will be based on the quality of the movie itself (primary) and, if it is based on a book, how good an adaptation thereof the movie is. Of course, these are not actual movie-critic quality reviews, just my thoughts on various movies.

The 13th Warrior (1999) * * * * *
This is one of my absolute, all-time favorite movies! Based on the Michael Crichton book Eaters of the Dead, this movie is a Beowulf-esque story about an Arab diplomat (Anotnio Banderas)who embarks on a mission with a band of Viking warriors to save a village terrorized by an ancient evil. While the armour and weapons carried by the various characters looks like some production assistant raided a storeroom somewhere and just grabbed whatever they could carry, and there are some gaping plot holes (like how an Arab manages to learn the language of his companions so quickly) this is still one damn good story.

Kingdom of Heaven (2005) * * *
This movie really was saved, in my opinion, by the cinematography and the acting skills of Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, and Edward Norton (because he portrays King Baldwin, you never actually see his face, but he still owns his scenes). Ridley Scott over does it a bit, making the Evil Templars and the Good Saracens into cartoonish caricatures, not compelling characters. The funny part about this movie is that the best and worst scene are the same. In the beginning, there is a scene where Liam Neeson's character, a Hospitler knight, is training his son, Orlando Bloom, how to fight with a sword. First he tells him to "never adopt a low guard; hold your sword like this" and grips his arming sword above his head, blade upright, and gripped in both hands; a position, he claims, "the Italians call Posta di Falcone". Well first off, the Italians will call it that when Vadi calls it that. In 1490-ish. (That one had me actually slap my own forehead in the theatre!) So, it is the worst scene because the information they dole out is horribly incorrect, but it is the best because it shows that Hollywood is actually starting to realize that knight's did have organized training. No if we can only get them to get it to within the proper century.

Timeline (2003) *
This one was a HUGE disappointment. I loved the book, which dealt with all the problems associated with time-travel - which the movie completely glosses over. To be frank, the acting sucks, the editing sucks and the "historical accuracy" really sucks. The fictional battle of Castlegard takes place in 1357, which makes some characters walking around in 15th century full plate really damn funny! Or when the knights are "sparring" by simply swinging their swords at each other while they are still in the scabbards! But, by far, the best piece of trash in this steaming pile is the night-time seige, when the attacking force ceases loosing flaming arrows (a Hollywood favorite) and looses a non-flaming flight - in response to which a defender cries "Night arrows!" >.< All in all, read the book, skip the movie.

A Knight's Tale (2001) * * * *
Funny story about this movie - when I first went to see it in theatres, I went with a good friend of mine. As soon as Queen's "We Will Rock You" come on, he got so disgusted he got up and left while I got excited and sat forward in my seat. This movie is under no circumstances historically accurate, but it doesn't claim to be. Maybe it's because it combines two of my favorite things (Classic rock and knights), but I really enjoy this one. Once again, it shows knights actually training (although not very systematically) and brings the proper attitude to late Medieval tournaments as a pure sporting event. Also, the inclusion of Geoffery Chaucer in the main characters is just too cool! In fact, in the deleted scenes there is a great one involving Chaucer and his wife.

First Knight (1995) * *
Oh boy! This Arthurian movie, starring Sean Connery as King Arthur and Richard Gere as Lancelot, is...interesting at best. From the American Gladiator's-esque obstacle course, completing which allows Lancelot to join the Knight's of the Round Table, to the mini shoulder-shields worn by Arthur's knights, to the bad-guy's pistol crossbows, to Prince Malagant's (the bad guy) giant, half-serrated sword (I shit you not), this is one random movie. Not even the normally compelling Arthurian story-line can save this one. But, I admit, I still watch it occasionally. Why? Because it stars Sean Freaking Connery, that's why.

Excalibur (1981) * * * *
Even though this film features some of the absolute best sword-piercing-breastplate, after having previously bounced off helms, etc., scenes in all film history, it is a wonderful film. Beautiful cinematography combined with the Arthurian story, presented in such a way that you know it is a myth (lots of sparkles) make this a must-own, must-see movie. Oh, BTW, keep your eye out for a very young Liam Neeson.

King Arthur (2004) * * *
This is a rather disappointing attempt to tell "the real" story of King Arthur. It's a good flick to watch, but there isn't much real content behind it. Tristan uses what is essentially a Chinese Dao and Lancelot uses two gladii. Could have been really great, but ends up so-so.

Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-03) * * * *
Had these been more faithful to the books, I would have given them five stars. Still, this trilogy makes almost as big an impression as the book trilogy does. I can, and have, watch these over and over. Pretty cool tid-bit is that Tony Wolf (of Bartitsu fame) designed the various fighting styles for the races of Middle Earth. SO, in the "Return of the King" when Aragorn rushes the Orcs and holds his sword in what looks like Vom Tag, it probably actually is.

HBO's "Rome" (2005)
* * * * *
No, not medieval, but one of the absolute best historical tv shows I've ever seen! Sadly, it only lasted two seasons. The thing I love the most about the show is a comment made by the producer during a "Behind the Scenes" featurette - "We did not strive for historical accuracy because too many of our viewers wouldn't have gotten it. Instead, we strove for historical authenticity; keeping it as accurate as possible, but where we had to change something, we tried to keep the feel of it." And you know what? It works. I think Hollywood could take a page from the producers of "Rome" and learn that lesson - it is not about historical accuracy as much as historical authenticity.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Book Review

Review of
In St. George's Name
An Anthology of Medieval German Fighting Arts
by Christian Henry Tobler
Published by Freelance Academy Press, Inc. 2010

This latest offering from Mr. Tobler is a compendium of articles, lesson plans, and translations, including a complete translation (the first in English) of Codex 44 A 8, the “Peter von Danzig” manuscript. In general, the book is well written with a clear, clean layout that makes reading it a joy.

My favorite article has to be the transcription/translation/interpretation (accompanied by photos) of the anonymous pollaxe treatise from the Paulus Kal Fechtbuch. I know, big shocker right? The text itself consists of seven techniques, with five of the paragraphs dealing with a high guard vs low guard combination and the remaining two having both combatants in a high guard. The techniques themselves are straightforward and easy to understand. The most common being, after the initial bind, using the free end of the weapon to strike the opponent in whatever manner works best.

The opening article, “Chicken and Eggs: Which Master Came First?”, asks the question “What do we really know?” It is an excellent piece of scholarship about how we need to look at the manuscripts and any dates they contain.

The article “Hot, Wet, Cold, and Dry: The Four Guards” provides an intriguing journey into the way the “medieval mind” might have viewed the four primary guards of the German tradition as a connection to the classical four elements. Though this is all speculation, as no medieval author explicitly draws the connection between the guards and the elements, the scholarship is wonderful and leaves the reader with a lot to chew on.

The other article that caught my interest was “Lance, Spear, Sword, and Messer” in which the author puts forth two claims: First, that students of the Chivalric Arts should study more than just one weapon, and Second, that certain basic techniques can be applied across different weapons. Regarding the first claim, I wholeheartedly agree! If you are going to study an art that encompasses many different weapons, you need to study all the weapons you can in order to gain greater knowledge of your art. As for the second, this article follows the same premise as the author's class at 4W 2010, entitled “As Above, So Below”, where over three days we explored similar techniques with the longsword, sword & buckler, and dagger. While some may view the author's extrapolation, and inclusions, of techniques not included in the actual manuscripts as being detrimental to the study of historical martial arts, I disagree. So long as the extrapolated plays follow the principles of the Art and the practitioner has a solid knowledge of that Art, I see no problems with extrapolated plays. That is, after all, the whole-freaking-point of martial arts – to train certain principles until they are second nature and I can utilize them, no matter the situation, no matter the weapon.

As to the rest of the articles and the “Von Danzig” translation, they deal with specific weapons in the German tradition and read as fleshed out lesson plans. As I don't study the German stuff, I can't really comment on the technical aspects other than to say I will definitely be playing with this material.

This book is a must-have for any WMA practitioner, German, Italian or otherwise!

Monday, April 12, 2010

WMA Spectrum

In the world of WMA/HEMA, as with any activity, there are numerous divisive topics. One only has to cruise the numerous WMA-centric forums to note that these topics never seem to die, but are constantly revived, either by unsuspecting newcomers or long-time proponents of one side or the other who believe they have “new” information that can sway the masses. As with most arguments, it seems that those who inhabit the extreme ends of the spectrum are the most vocal, resulting in a skewed vision of “the divided community”. The reality is that the majority of the community lies somewhere between the two extremes, with most right in the middle, “straddling the fence” as it were (Bell curve anyone?).

The point of this post is not to call out individual persons or groups for their beliefs. Rather, I will try to present as objective a rundown on a few key arguments as I can, while also providing my (usually) middle-ground view of the argument.

Edge vs Flat parry This argument, without fail, appears at least once a year. The question is whether in the Western Martial Arts one parries with the edge or flat of the blade. But the question is a lot more complicated than that. Are we talking longsword, sword & buckler, rapier, Bolognese, Silver, etc. Given that I am a longsword guy primarily, I will refer to only that weapon. This whole argument comes from looking at the often imperfect artwork in the manuscripts. These illustrations attempt to show 3D actions in a 2D medium, without that wonderful invention of perspective. Swords tend to be shown flat-on so that you, the reader, can actually see them. The biggest problem whenever this argument pops up is the lack of definition: What does “flat parry” mean? What does “edge parry” mean?

To the Flat-Only people, an edge parry seems to describe any action where you consciously bring your sword into the other guy's at a 90º angle, thus chipping the crap out of your blade. And this is always their biggest argument; that you are needlessly damaging your blade, where parrying with the flat saves your edge from nicking and chipping.

The Edge-Only people view any parry with the flat of the blade the same as Flat-Only view edge parries; two blades clashing at a 90º angle, with your opponent's blade crashing into your flat.

The argument from the Edge-Only folks is that this type of parry is structurally weak – if you parry with your flat like that, all the force of your opponent's blow goes into your wrist. In contrast, an edge parry aligns your edge, with your wrist, forearm, upper arm, etc. allowing you to deal with your opponent's energy better.

But the truth of the matter is that blades very, very rarely meet at a 90º angle, most often meeting at an oblique angle. And both Edge-Only and Flat-Only people will tell you this. So both camps perform parries that look.....pretty much the same honestly.

My view: I have always been an edge parry guy, because that is how I was taught and I agree that anything other than an oblique flat parry causes significant wrist problems, even pain, and that aligning the edge with your bones is the way to go. But I don't depend on just my teacher's word; I parry with the edge because my studies of Fiore tell me that this works, and it works well. As for the damaging your sword argument – yes, my sword will get damaged. But better my sword than my head. The sword is a tool and a tool has a specific purpose. Just because the nails I pound in mar the head of my hammer does not mean that I begin hitting them with the side of the hammer-head. I do try to keep an open mind on this and am perfectly willing to be proven wrong, but in the end it's personal preference – my personal interpretations of Fiore, as well as bio-mechanics, tell me to parry with an oblique striking of edge-on-edge and this works for me.

Free-play vs Non Free-play

This argument is really about who is “Doing It For Real”.

The Pro Free-play folks believe that we can only really understand these arts by strapping up and trying to beat the snot out of each other, with the extreme version of this being involving people who do little-to-no technique drilling, instead receiving basic course in the art and then being thrown into the lion's den, so to speak.

The other end of the spectrum are those who believe that because “Doing It For Real” would involve sharp swords and actually trying to kill each other, it is therefore an impossible goal and we should instead focus only on paired drill exercises to understand the arts.

Let's get this out of the way right now: This is nothing but a “Mine is Bigger Than Yours” game, with those who on the the extreme Pro end of the spectrum accusing their counterparts of not doing free-play because “they suck at it” and the latter accusing the former of being uncultured imbeciles playing a sport, “sword tag”.

My view: Right smack-freaking-dab in the middle. I love paired drills and I have given out (and received) my fair share of butt-wallopings during free-play. I disagree with participating in free-play without a solid understanding of your art, which is learned through paired drills.

However I do believe that pressure testing your interpretations through free-play is important. As to the sporting aspect, people love to compete. We're hard-wired to compete. What really bothers me is that many of the extreme Pro Free-play people regard people like me who occasionally free-play the same as those who don't, with disdain.

Historical clothing vs Modern clothing

The argument here is whether we ought to practice our arts wearing period-correct clothing or if modern clothes are fine. This usually revolves around footwear.

The extreme end of the Historical Clothing people will not practice in anything less than turn-shoes, hose, and a gambeson/doublet and require their students to purchase the same.

The extreme end of the Modern Clothing people say that period-correct clothing doesn't matter. Why bother wearing turn-shoes when I wear modern athletic shoes most of the time?

This is a relatively low-anger argument, with most people openly acknowledging that their in the middle. The problem with saying that period-correct clothing does not matter is that...well, it does. One example is that Fiore's wrestling is much easier against someone wearing a long-sleeved shirt or coat than it is against a t-shirt, because it was designed to be used against someone wearing long-sleeved garment. The plus side to wearing modern workout clothes, especially in demonstrations, is in the audience's perception. The Northwest Fencing Academy's “uniform” is: solid black, long workout pants or sweats, a plain white t-shirt, or school shirt. This uniform is augmented by gambesons, etc. where needed. With no offense to the SCA, LARP groups, or Historical Recreation groups around the world, my school is not one. Many of the students, and many of my good friends in the WMA community, are (or have been) involved in those groups. So our uniform tends to make us look like a modern martial arts school, which is how the general public views us. To some this is a cop-out – we should wear period correct clothing and change public perception. The problem is that Joe Public associates period correct clothing with Renn Faires, SCA, LARPing etc. and so WMA gets lumped in with the rest.

My view: I want people to understand that WMA is it's own entity and I will dress according to the audience I am speaking to. Asked to teach at a local SCA event? Where full kit and live it up! Asked to participate in a local martial arts conference? Where a more “modern” looking uniform and impress with your skills and knowledge, not your dress!

Traditionalist vs Holistic

The Traditionalists (for lack of a better term) believe that each sword tradition must be viewed on its own, with the techniques studied coming only from that tradition. Individual traditions can be compared, but are not compatible, with other traditions, even those that use the same weapon. In other words, a practitioner of the German tradition of longsword can learn nothing by studying the Italian or English longsword traditions and, in fact, will only dilute the “True Art” they study.

The Holistics, on the other hand, believe in the “One True Art of the Sword”, which they believe to have been Pan-European, thus why many techniques look similar between the German, English and Italian traditions. They have no trouble using another tradition to fill in the blanks left by their own.

My view: This is kind of a tricky one. On one hand, a Pan-European sword art makes a ton of sense. After all, we know that medieval peoples traveled throughout Europe constantly, trading ideas and techniques. We also know that many of the masters who wrote their systems down acknowledge studying with, and teaching, swordsmen of other countries. Fiore, for instance, tells us he studied with both German and Italian masters. But if the Pan-European hypothesis is true, then why is Fiore's longsword system not simply “Liechtenhaur in Italian”? All students, in my opinion, should study another tradition (at least take a few classes in it). But only after they have a secure grounding in their tradition. The key is being able to “empty your cup” while still being able to analyze what you're learning in the light of your tradition. Yes, all sword arts are related because they all start with the same basic building block – the human body. The biggest advantage to me in dabbling in the German tradition is that when I'm teaching at an event, where some of the students may come from the German tradition, I can explain a technique using different terms. I have more tools in my toolbox.
Tying it All Together

In the end I can only give a few pieces of advice:

1) Remember that while those on the extreme's of an argument will be the most vocal, the majority of people will be somewhere in between the two extremes.
2) Remember that everything I've talked about (and the arguments I left out) come down to personal preference. If you don't like what I do, don't pay attention to me. If you don't like what I say, don't listen to me.