Giacomo has a funny story he’ll tell. It goes something like this:

Determined to broaden his skills, one evening Giacomo decided to sew a seam on his pants. His wife set him up with a sewing machine, gave some basic instruction, and left him to it. Manfully, Giacomo applied himself to the task. He held his pants in a white-knuckle grip, carefully feeding them through the machine, determined to make a straight line and surprised at the strength required and his sluggish progress.

Presently, after he had sewn perhaps two or three inches along the seam, the bobbin ran out. Giacomo called to his wife, she (somewhat confused) rewound the bobbin, and once more he went to work. White-knuckle grip. Sweat pouring from his brow. Another three or four inches accomplished, and the bobbin again ran out. Giacomo was, by now, quite impressed at the patience and fortitude of seamstresses everywhere.

Again, he calls. This time his wife knows something is up. After rewinding the bobbin, she puts the presser foot down.

HMA Is Like That

Working with Catherine on Wednesday, we focused on addressing one of the bad habits observed at War of the Wings: overfinding to the outside. This is a common enough problem, particularly for lefties.

Six months ago I’d have said something about keeping the angle small, maybe making an attack with an oblique step as Fabris likes to do, or some other trick for dealing with pressure. The thinking behind this would have gone “you’ve learned the technique wrong – your muscle memory is bad. Here, let’s break it down and work it back up.”

Now, I go deeper. “If you feel the need to put so much angulation into the outside find, it must be because a nice, small, controlled movement isn’t working. Why is that?” Which immediately suggests a strength issue. Angulation is a way of multiplying strength; as I mentioned a couple weeks ago, fencers with less strength in the sword must resort to using more angulation to overcome their opponent’s.

Strength in the sword is a function of several factors. Certainly, a fencer’s physical strength and the weight of her sword are relevant. But structure is a much bigger thing. “The sword is supported by the body” is something the masters mention several times, and something I think we don’t pay enough attention to.

So we examined structure, looking at which muscles were engaging and how efficiently. Context is important, so we began with a simple find to the outside, with me lunging through the closed line. Then, beginning inside, I cavared outside before lunging. Then, she counterattacked in response. Plate 7 from Capoferro, actually. Nothing too complex.

The big breakthrough was accomplished with stabilization through the scapula. Forming a counterguard to the outside, with a rotation of the upper trunk, brings the sword into the scapular plane. From there, Catherine could force me to fight the weight of her whole body. (More on this in a post to come.)

It’s difficult to describe the feeling. Her finds went from almost 45 degrees off center to maybe 15, probably less. But despite this reduction in angulation, and the accompanying loss in strength, it felt like I was trying to push through a brick wall.

The Qualia of a Good Strike

It wasn’t consistent, of course. Sometimes I hit anyway … but a couple reps, just two among twenty, were perfect.

Normally when a student performs well in drill, I get a sense of futile pushing against an overwhelming force, like an isometric exercise. This time, there was no brick wall, no resistance – just a sense, not unlike falling, as my tip slid to her guard.

Normally when I’m hit, the energies involved are comparatively slight. My opponent isn’t striking with all his power, and the force vector isn’t quite in line with the blade – it’s off by a few degrees. This time, I felt the entire force of her body behind her sword, perfectly in line. There was absolutely no doubt that, if the sword was sharp, it would have penetrated without resistance. As it was, if I had been a bit closer, and moving a bit faster, I might have been concussed again. In either case, she would have felt nothing, all the energy from the strike perfectly grounded through her form.

Normally, even when we perform the same technique repeatedly, we strike a slightly different part of our opponent. In these strikes, the point came directly, directly, to my right eye. Assuming a right-handed fencer, Capoferro describes, in Plate 7, that the strike should hit the left eye of the opponent. Catherine is left-handed.

Everything – the irresistible force, the sense of effortlessness, the targeting – these hits, two among twenty, had a quality almost unlike any strike I’d ever received before. They were the Platonic Ideal.

All this sensory data and knowledge fell into place instantaneously as I was struck. I was filled immediately with a profound sense of awe, elation, rediscovery, and connection across four centuries.

For once, there were no doubts, no awkwardness, nothing at all to be improved; I knew that what we had created, in those fractions of a second, was perfection, as performed and recorded by the masters so long ago. And it was beautiful.

Lots of Presser Feet

Giacomo’s story, while intended as a humorous anecdote, encapsulates a very important message: ignorance of even one detail can make something seem far more challenging, or a lot less pretty, than it needs to be.

And what’s HMA? An attempt to recreate swordfighting, in an era when nobody swordfights anymore, with only a fragmentary written record, authored by men long dead and culturally removed, for guidance. There will be gaps. Of course there will be gaps.

There’s a near-ubiquitous tendency in HMA to study, work hard, and create an interpretation of a plate or technique or master that … works. Mostly. Sure, it’s a little awkward, and doesn’t always land in sparring. We chalk up the difference to insufficient training, deficits in strength or speed, the inherent chaos of a fight, or a particular opponent’s idiosyncrasies. We make little of it. Then someone comes by with a different interpretation, and we ridicule him. We have it figured out. We know what we’re doing.

Progress stops, because we mistake “good enough” for “good”.

But if we’re lucky, we’ll one day discover the presser foot – that missing detail, often obvious in hindsight, that shatters our previous interpretation, something we thought we knew, and replaces it with something truly effortless and beautiful.

On Wednesday, I addressed a common problem, testing it with a technique I’d done a thousand times, and believed I understood. I wasn’t expecting to be shown that my understanding, kinesthetically speaking, was rudimentary. I got lucky.

I am learning to be open to the idea that there are many presser feet, many such gaps in my knowledge, and that they are unavoidable. We are, after all, still novices in this art, and novices make silly mistakes.

It may seem impossible to pursue unknown unknowns – how can you find something if you don’t know what to look for? But perhaps we can find hints in our imperfections. If something feels strained, or cannot be landed consistently, or requires compensations, maybe this is not a case of “I just need to train it more” or “I just need to be faster” or “I just need to be stronger”. Maybe we’re missing something so fundamental that we didn’t even think to look.

Examining historic fencing from a deep structural perspective seems likely to reveal much – perhaps even more of these sublime moments of perfection. I look forward to it.

9 comments to Breakthroughs

  • Tom H.

    Damn, that’s almost poetic enough to make me want to come out to practice again. 😛
    (Tai chi can feel like that.)

  • Tibbie Crosier

    I really liked this post and the description of the perfection of the strike. I hope you and your student can determine exactly how to replicate the strike on a consistent basis. So many times, fleeting perfection in movement by a less-skilled fighter occurs by chance and without intention and is therefore impossible to re-create. I’ve been struggling myself with angulation and finding the blade. I would certainly like to get your insight on this at some future event.

    • Ruairc

      I fondly remember the time when, with a mighty two hours of archery under my belt, I hit the bulls-eye at 40 yards.

      Certainly sometimes we do something right, but don’t know exactly what it is. Replicating this seems to be a matter of developing awareness (internal and external) sufficient to notice what was different. But I think it’s safe to say that perfection, real perfection, does not occur by pure chance – too many variables must line up exactly.

      Note that we were working a fairly simple action, in drill, so several variables were eliminated simply by dint of our training (which is kind of the point of drilling); also note that Catherine, despite her relative inexperience with swordplay, is not a novice when it comes to movement and internal awareness, and was consciously experimenting with a very particular, detailed pattern of movement designed to bring strength to her sword.

      At THAT point – when you’ve reduced the variables to two or three small ones, getting everything else right – yes, it can occur by chance.

      I look forward to meeting with you in the future to discuss angulation.

  • Dante di Pietro

    Very cool. I was thinking about our conversation about this, and I had a chuckle when I uncovered how I, largely by accident, found good mechanics: I was always slavishly attentive to the texts.

    Between Capoferro, Fabris, and several other authors, I have it ingrained into me that a guard in terza:

    1) Has the sword hand just outside the lead knee.
    2) Maintains a straight line between blade and forearm.
    3) Angles slightly up, toward the appropriate shoulder.
    4) Extends the arm as depicted.
    5) Closes lines as described.
    6) Etc., etc.

    All of which has the side effect of stabilizing correctly and lining everything up, but I don’t think I ever consciously examined my muscle engagement. Very cool stuff, and very underdeveloped at large.

    • Ruairc

      Have you ever done test cutting?

      There is a very distinct sense when the body is lined up well, with all the force going directly behind the edge. Naturally, the physical damage to the target is crisp and clean, as if you’d used a lightsaber, but more notable is the internal sense of the cutting action. The target offers no resistance – either to the blade or to the person. From a biomechanics perspective, all the equal-and-opposite-reaction-force is channeled into the ground through the skeleton, so no additional resistance is encountered by the muscles. To the cutter, it feels completely undemanding, no more difficult than cutting the air, but the damage inflicted is devastating. One of the best examples, in my experience, of Perlman’s concept of effortlessness. Also, I suppose, sprezzatura.

      What I felt was like that, but with a thrust instead of a cut.

      I have noticed an interesting pattern when examining my own structure. When I am performing solo drills, my structure is actually pretty good. Add in another person, and several flaws appear. This is not a matter of a lack of automaticity per se. I find it difficult to eliminate these flaws in sparring because I am subconsciously aware that doing so will transfer more force to my opponent, and I don’t want to hurt them. I must fight not muscle memory, but rather a built-in instinct to safety. Some of these may go back to when I was first learning to fence, and had calibration issues.

      (A few months ago, working on making the pass in quarta absolutely textbook Fabris in sparring, I received complaints about the stiffness of the shots. I couldn’t initially understand why, as on my end, the force delivered felt minimal.)

      Many of these flaws protect my opponent, but also inhibit my actions, making them slower and weaker. It will be necessary to retrain a little, keeping my opponent safe via conscious control and mental presence rather than doing bad actions.

      Your structure is better than mine. Sparring against you, I can recall instances of the loss of control or “sense of falling” (when a small defensive action felt just like a massive parry that met no resistance) on multiple occasions, as well as “perfect targeting”. But your blows against me have never landed with that same effortless, whole-body quality. I wonder if a similar concession to safety, conscious or unconscious, explains it, or if there’s simply more to do.

      I mentioned the scapula above, but the full story is more complicated. Catherine has a professional’s body awareness, and she was accessing some really advanced dancer-ninja stuff – pulling in psoas, QL, and the tiny hip stabilizers never mentioned by lay resources. Much of this I can’t find, proprioceptively speaking, even at rest.

      Because she was focusing so much on good, strong structure, she was also neglecting to break. Perhaps all this is why, even though I was expecting the hit, even though it wasn’t full speed, even though I was near the edge of measure, I felt like I really didn’t want to take that hit any closer.

      In any case, it was a very good object lesson on the artfulness of fencing, which enables small, willowy women with excellent structure to hit harder than hulkish men without.

      • Dante di Pietro

        I might need some more description of “whole body” to really offer insight.

        Stiffer hits were an issue when I was developing my lunge. Over time, as I got better at my mechanics, the blunt impact was replaced by a “gentler” push. A lot of that, I find, has to do with measure (SCA/HEMA measure will always be a bit wider). It also matters a great deal if the opponent is moving or not, and whether forward or backward.

        In general, I release my ring and pinky fingers at contact, and that usually bleeds out a lot of force without sacrificing my body’s form. I can show the difference, if you want?

        That was a little rambling. Sorry.

        • Ruairc

          I don’t really know how else to describe it without reference to jargon and body mechanics that I’m only half-confident I’d get right. These epiphanies – there have been a few recently – are very much moments of “I didn’t know I could do that! The old way worked, but this feels so much better!” The presser foot is a good analogy.

          They are at the very edges of my understanding and I cannot communicate them well yet. It does make one better appreciate the “New Agey” communication strategies employed by traditional martial arts – the fluff about chi and centering and drawing power from the ground.

  • Dante di Pietro

    Specifically, it sounds like you’re about to make multiple leaps forward, so let us know if any of it is especially revolutionary. 😉

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