Wednesday, May 19, 2010

What it means to be a Warrior

“A warrior is still a warrior, even if they're naked.”

I honestly can't remember what the title of the book that statement comes from. I do remember that it was a rather unremarkable piece of alternate history fiction where a guy, who happens to be an engineer & ex-military, goes back to Middle Ages Poland & “sets them straight”. The scene in which the above phrase is utters is a gem – the Hero beats up a bunch of knights because....(drum-roll please)...he disarmed them & they couldn't fight without their weapons! Like I said, an unremarkable piece of fiction. But for some reason that phrase stuck in my mind and the more I study Western Martial Arts, the more I realize that it's true. The treatises are full of principles and demonstrations on how to apply those principles across various setups & with various weapons.

The impetus for this installment comes from far too many discussions with customers at the knife shop I work in about what type of sword/knife/gun/[insert weapon here] is better and why. I'm sure you are all familiar with the Knight vs. Samurai threads that pop up on various forums about once a year. The point that I always try to get across is that weapon type does not play that big a role in a fight. Instead, it is the mindset, the intention, that defines someone as a warrior, not their weapon. I'm more afraid of someone with a 2” blade who knows what they're doing than an untrained person with a machete. Yes, the untrained can be trouble for the trained (for instance the panicked thrust that has no martial quality whatsoever & so takes the accomplished duellist by surprise), but I'm not talking about training per se, but mindset. It's about the warrior, not the weapon.

So what is a “warrior”?

A warrior is defined as “1. One who is engaged in or experienced in battle. 2. One who is engaged aggressively or energetically in an activity, cause, or conflict”.

But it can be difficult in our society today to be at ease with the idea of being a warrior, simply because too many people focus on the combative definition of the word. But being a warrior can have very little to do with fighting or combat. In fact, the term I use for myself is "Peaceful Warrior". What the heck is a Peaceful Warrior? Well, the phrase was coined by the author Dan Millman and refers to his philosophy of living. According to Mr. Millman, "I call myself a peaceful warrior because the battles we fight are inside". Another way he phrases this is "Peaceful heart, warrior spirit". Personally, I really like this approach and I feel that it fits the needs of the "modern warrior"; of whom there are far too few.

A warrior needs to cultivate a good "Warrior Mindset". This mindset involves knowing that diplomacy is usually a better tactic than force, but if force is necessary, they can apply it as needed. There is a world of difference between just knowing how to fight and knowing when to fight. One makes you a fighter, the other a warrior. Think of Teddy Roosevelt's famous quote "Speak softly, but carry a big stick". Or from the Boy Scout Law: "A Scout is Brave. A Scout can face danger even if he is afraid. He has the courage to stand for what he thinks is right even if others laugh at him or threaten him". While the Boy Scouts no longer feature "violent" sports among their activites (much to the detriment of the program in my opinion) in both it's original English form and the American version, the BSA featured a Master at Arms merit badge that included Singesticking, Fencing, Quarterstaff play, Boxing, Wrestling, & Jujitsu.

Fiore dei Liberi discuses these aspects as well. Well, I think he does :D Fiore's segno features four animals (which I won't go into detail about here - see my previous post ) which exemplify the virtues Strength, Quickness, Courage and Judgment. If I may permitted to go a bit esoteric for a moment:

Strength means the physical strength needed for successful fighting, but also the mental and moral strength needed to make NOT fight. Likewise, Judgment refers to all the details of physical combat; observing your opponent, understanding distance & time, etc. but it also means knowing when to use less-than-lethal force or just not fight at all. And courage is... well, courage!

What it means to be a warrior changes in accordance to societal norms, but one thing that remains is that a warrior is willing to fight (physically & verbally) for what they believe is right. If it comes to the need to defend themselves, it doesn't matter whether they are armed with a longsword, katana, messer, folding knife, or a BiC pen - a warrior will always strive to prevail.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Fiore's Spear - Dente di Cinghiaro

This one has been bugging me for awhile. The one real outlier as far as guard position correlation in the Fior di Battaglia are the spear guards. Of the six spear poste, only the two Posta Finestra (right & left side) resemble their sword equivalents.

Tutta Porta di Ferro is held with the left foot forward, spear held on the right side of the body. I suppose this has a passing familiarity to the sword guard, but really the spear Mezza Porta di Ferro looks closer to the sword Porta di Ferro.

As for the left side guards, the Vera Croce looks like the sword in armour and poleaxe Vera Croce.

So we come back to the Dente di Cinghiaro, which is held rear-weighted, right foot forward, spear held to the left side of the body. This looks completely different to any other Dente di Cinghiaro shown in the MS.

Every other Dente di Cinghiaro is shown right foot forward with the point of the weapon held forward at an angle, to facilitate the "standard" play from Dente di Cinghiaro - a rising deflection to the right with a step offline of the front foot. Now the play described for the spear Dente di Cinghiaro sounds very similar -

"[I] pass out of line by first stepping offline with the foot that is forward." -Leoni 2009

Now, the fancy thing about the spear section is that the play from all six poste is the same - step offline with the front foot as you parry opponent's spear, then pass forward and thrust. From the right side this results in a rather low crossing of the spears. From the left the crossing is high - this follows Fiore's advice about parrying thrusts; from the right parry & thrust (exchange), from the left parry & strike.

The only conclusion I can draw is that Fiore calls this position Dente di Cinghiaro, even though it does not follow the form for that guard, simply because it is the left-side equivalent of the Tutta Porta di Ferro position. It might just be as simple as that.

That will teach me to ant f#$k the problem :-D

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Impressions of Anonymous German Pollaxe treatise (MS KK 5126)

In Christian Tobler's new book “In Saint George's Name: An Anthology of Medieval German Fighting Arts” the author includes a translation/interpretation of an anonymous pollaxe treatise from the late 15th Century. The treatise is found in a series of text-only treatises at the back of the Paulus Kal Fechtbuch, MS KK 5126, held in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum. It features two guards and seven techniques.

So what? Why add these seven techniques to a study that, from an Italio-centric point-of-view, has Fiore's, Vadi's and the Anonimo Bolognese's axe sections? Not to mention the entirety of Le Jeu de la Hache?

Because it's there.

The poleaxe is, arguably, the acme of knightly weapons – it combines the spear, dagger & sword into one weapon. As with all pole-weapons, there is an apparent set of “universal” techniques/principles that I find intriguing. By studying various axe treatises you can learn, not new principles of axe-play, but new ways in which those principles can be expressed. What are the “universal” principles of axe-play? Well, as soon as I figure them all out, I'll let you know :-)

While reading this “new” axe treatise I was struck by what I can only call a “flipped similarity” - there are plays that are extremely similar to those that appear in Fiore, Le Jeu, & the Anonimo but with the axe flipped. That is, whereas the latter three manuscripts have the cross-parry (you parry the incoming blow with the part of the axe that is opposite it – i.e. your opponent throws a blow from their right shoulder, you parry with the part of your axe that is to your right. Clear as mud?) done with the head (business-end) of the axe, this German text does it with the other end, the foot/butt/queue/tail. This is accomplished from the guard Nebenhut (held on the left side) – stand right foot forward with your left hand near the head & with the head down, near your left leg. While at first my Italian trained mind went “Huh?” I realized that this position is akin to Fiore's Vera Croce.

Now, in Fiore, Le Jeu, & the Anonimo there are three basic options from a crossing at the head of the axe:
-Strike to the head with the tail of the axe (with or without clearing their axe first)
-Stab to the foot or abdomen.
-Execute a Collar Throw

With the reversed position of the crossing in KK 5126, tail to head, we can add another option that is impossible in a head-to-head crossing:
-the Knee Hook

But this guard position and it's added technique are only two cool things you'll find in KK 5126.

There are two interesting techniques from vom Tag vs vom Tag. One is essentially an axe version of the Colpo di Villano (for you Fiorists out there) but instead of striking in the opposite line as your parry (parry from your right, strike from your left) – because that is extremely difficult, if not impossible, with a pole-weapon, you strike along the same line as your parry.
The second vom Tag technique is a kind of counter-thrust. After a hard counter-bind, your opponent attempts to thrust you in the armpit, but you are able to place your point into their armpit & use the angles to your benefit such that you can hit them but they can't hit you.

The other nice thing in this treatise is the advice that to learn to fight with the axe, you should learn to fight with the staff, which echoes Peter Falkner & George Silver (amongst others) in regards to training pole-weapons. My own feelings are that since the pollaxe combines the dagger, spear, and longsword, it is extremely helpful to know these weapons (plus wrestling, all in your given tradition) before taking up the poleaxe.

So, why add KK 5126 to your axe studies, either German or Italian? Because, it is another source document on this awesome weapon and studying it will provide you with more tools for your toolbox. Would I teach these techniques in a class entitled “Italian Pollaxe Combat”? No, but if the class were titled “Medieval Pollaxe Combat” I would.