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.

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