So, You Want to Learn to Fence…

Actually, this will end up being more about learning in general, and how to effect skill and knowledge development as an autodidact. Most of us are, to one degree or another, self-taught, and so having a better understanding of how to learn without direct instruction is invariably useful.

Before we begin, you must accept and understand that learning is a struggle. You will need to wrestle with your knowledge deficits and overcome them one at a time. You may not even know you have these deficits until long after they’ve affected you. That’s how experience works, but there are ways to mitigate the risks involved. You should also accept that the way people learn best is to be presented with a challenge that is just outside of their ability, to attempt it, fail, and then to receive instruction and correction before attempting it again. Ideally, this guided practice happens with the direct benefit of someone expert enough in both the subject and pedagogy to know what you need to know and how you need to learn it.

If you are teaching yourself, those corrections will be largely self-generated. That’s difficult, so learning will take longer than if you have an instructor — and so we’ll address some shortcuts to mitigate this risk. The best method, of course, is to make use of the vast amount of work that has already been done. Research and evaluate sources just as you would with any topic. There are all sorts of resources, and if you are a novice, anything that moves you further forward is useful; work from many sources and beware of anything too different from everything else. It might be the best option, but it warrants more scrutiny than something that hundreds of people have found true through experience.

It is always best to have a specific, demonstrable, and measurable goal in mind. Educators refer to these goals as learning objectives, and if you set an objective that is too broad, you’ll have difficulty measuring your progress. Instead, you should set objectives that can be either marked as “done” or as “sufficiently well.” In the former case, it might be something like following a lunge with a pass reflexively, and in the latter, it might be the lunge itself. You might define a lunge done “sufficiently well” as being able to lunge and recover smoothly, easily, and remain balanced and mobile the whole time, and if you actually perform all of the actions involved that you are attempting to do. One objective I used was: “I will maintain opposition throughout my attack and recovery.”

I suggest video, a brutally honest training partner, or both. Either way, you’ll have to be analytical and critical of yourself— and not in the useless way where you make yourself feel awful. The good way, where you identify problems and then fix them. You’ll have to figure out how, but you also have access to the Internet so you won’t be working in a vacuum.

Your criteria for “done” creates your ideal to strive for. I am using ideal here to mean the thing you aim at, not a representation of perfection, though as you become more expert your ideal will become closer to perfect. Early in your training, “functional” is far more useful than “technically flawless,” since it is not especially useful to spend too much time perfecting one skill outside of its context. This would be like learning only the verbs of a language: you may feel like you’re doing a lot, but vital elements are missing. Bruce Lee’s example of the man who has thrown one kick ten thousand times isn’t very threatening if he’s only done it at a stationary bag.

Once you have this ideal in place, break down its characteristics into useful pieces. I prefer to think in terms of sections of the body because I can think about my arms, head, legs, feet, hips, and spine, I don’t know many people who can break it down further than that without becoming overloaded– and really, if your feet and hips are in the right place, your leg is, too. Simplify as much as you can without losing utility. There is no precise measurement for this: if you’re overwhelmed, you need to simplify, and if you’re unable to fine-tune, you need to complicate. Exercise judgment case by case. Adequate to function is sufficient.

Next, make an attempt. It can be very bad at the start, and that does not matter at all. In fact, you might even benefit from some early spectacular failures because you need to be comfortable with failure. Give up protecting your ego early on and you’ll get to deserve an ego sooner. I’d also recommend not spending too much time theorizing through a concept; the more time you spend thinking it over without doing much, the more invested you’ll become in your interpretation and it probably won’t be much better, just differently wrong. But, since you’ll now care about the time you spent, you’ll defend a flawed position. Don’t defend your ego until you have some credibility behind it.

Conversely, don’t approach a topic with a textbook-only answer. If your objective is to use an invitation and counterattack, make sure that you can describe how the invitation is created, what attack(s) you’re hoping to draw, and how you’ll counter each. Know the particulars.

Since your first attempt at something is bound to be flawed, your next step is to compare it against your ideal (or something you know to be a good example) and note areas of difference: what happened, and what did you intend to happen? What accounts for the variance? Continue to ask yourself why something happened as it did until you have hit upon something actionable, often a specific root cause that solves other problems in a cascade effect.

This is the part that will almost always be the cause of careening toward a breakdown. Many people will address the question of what happened by guessing, or by repeating some maxim they heard once and half understand. “I need to find the sword,” they’ll say, inadequately identifying that finding the sword is a multi-stage process with numerous failure points, and each of those must be evaluated and accounted for. I have seen dozens of people give a good academic description of finding the sword only to watch them do something that bears only a passing resemblance to what they memorized without comprehension. It is vital that you examine your answer to why what happened was what happened for soundness; if you guess for the sake of having an answer, you will learn nothing.

Early on, these root causes will mostly be mechanical. Again, video and slow motion observation can show you the difference between what you’re doing and what you think you’re doing; there is often a disconnect in people who are less athletic. Lacking expertise, you run the risk of a false diagnosis, so be sure to look back at your ideal and try to find the most glaring problem that makes your actual result erroneous. There’s a good chance it starts with your feet, your hips, or your spine. Assuming you’re in good shape (if not, get in shape), anything awkward is worth considering for revision.

Some sort of peer review will help you develop as well. This can be in the form of a journal, video fighting diary, or practice partners. Even if they are not working on the same system as you, you can still ask them: “I am trying to do X; why didn’t X happen?” Again, this is investigating and eliminating variance between the ideal and the actual. You are, as Michelangelo put it,  freeing the statue from the boulder. Get something that looks essentially humanoid before you focus on making sure it has realistic fingernails.

Continue refining.

You’ll fail far more than you’ll succeed, but that’s how learning works. If you are insecure and value defending your ego too much, your progress will be slow. It doesn’t much matter if you make mistakes, so be brave and bold and experiment until you find effective results, and then keep stress-testing them against resisting opponents. Compete. It does not matter if you go 0-2; aim for 1-2 next time.

Do not undervalue the importance of practical application, as that is where any theory must become reality. I will leave you with the words of fencing grandmaster Salvator Fabris:

“And you will find many reasons to rejoice, for it is not grave men of science (our old rivals in the noble race to history’s praise) turning theory into practice; rather, it is one of your own kind who is now converting practice into proper theory.”
The principles of martial arts are uncovered through experimentation under adverse conditions. As theory and practice are both available to you, pursue both and unify them.

The Awesome of Nov. 21st

(Things I find when going back through the draft post folder)

Baron/Duke Orlando Cavalcanti asked me to write up the details of my vigil and elevation for his historical records. The below is that write-up, with extra info. Later, maybe next week, I’ll have a post about my thoughts on the vigil and elevation that’s been baking for the last two months and I’m still wrestling with.


My Vigil

Friday night I sat vigil. First, we had to get the vigil tent up. Unfortunately, the ridge pole had been left at home. So my vigil started with making a twenty-four foot long ridge pole. Because the tent is massive:

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I spent the night in vigil until the sun came up. When I was thinking years ago about what I’d want to do for my vigil that seemed like a good idea, so I followed through with it. Many, many friends made it happen.

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My quiet contemplation included many congratulations, many touching words, sickle fighting, and cutting Miguel’s hair off.

Raph did it, I only watched

Being of a somewhat populist bent, I went by first come, first serve, and ended up getting to speak to a number of newer fencers as a result. As newer fencers they felt they didn’t have much to say beyond “congratulations”, so I engaged them with questions – what did they hope the SCA would be, and where would they like Meridian rapier to go? I feel part of my job is to make those hopes a reality (where they won’t hurt Meridies or the Society). This is where we coined an alternate meaning of the phrase “To Jimmy your vigil”.

My Prize

At 10 am the next morning (after an hour and a half of sleep), I held the field against all comers, which turned out to be somewhere around 40 fencers. The all-night vigil did not seem like such a great idea then.

It took apparently far longer than I realized (I was guessing an hour). It was not artful. It was animal hindbrain making much kill happen. The record was something approximating 30-1-10. Not sure about the other numbers, but sure about the 1.

Ella set a different sort of challenge: I had been told my words had the power to lift spirits (btw, Vigil Bingo now includes “People will tell you your words can crush souls, but they can also life spirits!”). She called Toki over and challenged me to lift her spirits. Nobody will admit to tears.

 

My Outift

…was pimptacular.  Check it:12289625_10154340723297786_6001209642322188882_n

 

I’ve put the thanks about elsewhere. The seamstress who made the suit wrote up her part of the process here:

English Suit 1564

And here it is with the collar (and a couple other features):

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My Elevation

I entered through a sword arch of rapier fighters. As mentioned, I have a populist bent, and the Order of Defense would not exist without a strong rapier community actively contributing to the SCA. I wanted them to have some role in the ceremony, so I asked them to take part in mine in this way because there would have been no peerage for me to receive without all the fencers. I went with the sword arch because they couldn’t all fit in the space in front of the thrones. Also, because sword arch.

Matthias sang “L’Homme Arme”, a 15th century song which was incorporated into many Mass settings through the 16th century. It’s lyrics translate roughly to:

The armed man should be feared.

Everywhere it has been proclaimed

That each man shall arm himself

With a coat of iron mail.

The armed man should be feared.

I’ve always liked it as a marching song.

I processed under a banner made and held aloft by my dear friend, Rowan. It included, along with the flag of Meridies and my arms, the badges of Atlantia and the two baronies I have lived in, my household, and my awards, a history of my career in the SCA. Behind her followed my Student, Toki Ima, with the sword I would receive in the ceremony, and behind her one of my former students, holding aloft my rapier helmet plumed with black and white ostrich feathers.

My lady escorted me, followed by my household and members of my foster household, della Civetta.

My Worthies represented traditions and views from both the kingdom of my “birth” (Atlantia) and my new home, Meridies.

Originally, I was to have two Pelicans speak for me, one from each kingdom – Master Ximon could not make it, and sent his words with Master Nikulai, a friend from my first day in the SCA.

Sir Ragnarr Ribcracker of Atlantia and Sir Aidan of Meridies spoke on behalf of the chivalry.

My wife’s apprentice sister, Maestra Livia Zanna, was originally planned to speak as my Laurel, but could not make it, and her words were read by Baroness Mistress Adela.

Master Morgan Ironheart spoke as my MOD.

In Atlantia, the Ladies of the Rose are considered a peerage unto themselves. They are part of a “Worthies” ceremony, have a tournament dedicated to them each year (the Golden Rose), and are highly revered and a little feared (Atlantian Roses are the big guns called in to solve a problem, especially one of personalities). Atlantian fencers are taught they fight for the queen, and so Roses have a special place in my heart (I also have roses on my MOD collar for that reason). Countess Kari had been hoping to speak for me, but family obligations called her away. Her words were ready by Countess Emelyne, who also provided her own words.  Duchess Gwen had been planning to read for Countess Kari, but could not attend the event.

I chose for my Royal Peer Duke Thomas. Unfortunately, in our communications, I thought I had let him know this. I had not. Luckily, he extemporized beautifully.

I was then presented with my Master of the Order of Defense cloak, then with the Sword, which have generally been the “extra” pieces of regalia.

For the Sword, I chose a Spadone, an Italian two handed sword. My student, Toki Ima, presented the sword and read these words: “This is a Spadone, the sword of a master. It is the tool by which students are instructed and disciplined. Use it and teach well.”

In 16th century Spain and Italy, Spadones (Montantes in Spain) were the mark of a Master in a school. Visiting masters would be given a place to sit and a Spadone. The Masters’ portraits in the frontice pieces of a number of manuals show them with their great sword, including my favorite master, Nicoletto Giganti:

This frontice piece was also the inspiration for my MOD scroll.

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I actually had to borrow my Spadone from a friend; there’s a ten-month backlog for the manufacturer I was hoping to buy one from.

At that point I took the oath of fealty and they placed the collar on me. The oath of fealty was a moment of amusement for me. I had been diligently working to memorize it, and had done so, but was so choked up it was taking me a moment to get the words out. The herald started prompting me, so I held up a finger at him to ask his patience. He didn’t notice, so he and I ended up saying it simultaneously.

My collar has across the back “CERTO”, my motto. It means “I strive”, or “I struggle,” or “I fight.” These three things encapsulate my entire journey to this peerage. The collar also has rosette studs decorating it. These are three-fold: my 16th century persona is an Elizabethan, they represent the Tudor rose; as mentioned, the fencers of my birth kingdom, Atlantia, has a devotion to the Roses that I will never lose; my peer’s heraldry features a rose, and my apprentice belt had the same rosettes on it – they remind me of my lineage and those who helped me reach this day.

I then received the Last Unanswered Challenge from Her Majesty – she delivered a slap with a pair of white gloves, which carry her arms. I will cherish these as a sign of her favor, and a reminder of the duty she laid upon me.

Here there was a slight hiccup – the MOD were supposed to be summoned into court, and I was supposed to take the Master of Defense oath. That was forgotten. I snuck it in at the next MOD elevation.

Journaling

With almost every contributor and potential contributor to the Warfare I’ve urged them to maintain an active, visible journal of their practice so that others can observe and learn from their progress in learning the art, and those who’ve experienced the same challenges can provide feedback. Journaling and the detailed thought and reflection, and post-hoc visualization, it requires reinforce concepts in the mind and improve one’s capacity to learn from an experience. Eventually the skill develops into real-time analysis and learning. This is spectacularly useful and necessary for a fighter. You can journal in private but, as noted, journaling in public provides feedback and aid in your analysis which can help you avoid dead ends and make

Few take up the challenge. I’m not sure the reason (perhaps those who’ve elected not to do so can explain?). I recently had cause to do exactly this sort of retrospective analysis of my fighting and figured I’d share it here.

During my time in Meridies I’ve been able to skate by on my lunge against the majority of opponents. Very few in this kingdom lunge so the concept of “fighting range” is narrowed to that from which an aggressive passing attack can be launched. This means I can hang out at measure and pick my tempo. On top of the differences in tactics, I have a height advantage over most and am on the higher end for athleticism in kingdom.

Dom and Davius both punished me for over-extending my lunge when I’ve fought them in the past month. I lost the Pennsic champs battle with an over-extended lunge, too.

Talking with Toki on Saturday or Sunday, she said “Dante told me how to beat you.” I already knew what he’d told her, and just laughed when she continued, “Something about your lunge and hitting you running away?”

So, time to break that habit.

At Kberg practice on Thursday (1/15) I shortened my sword by three inches to rob myself of the nuke-from-orbit lunge. The results were interesting – I played against Cailin, who has an inch or two on me and also a massive lunge, mostly focusing on how to beat somebody who relies on the same crutch as me when I can’t rely on range. I also fought Torse (also big lunger), focusing on myself this time. He pointed out that in addition to my lunge I have the bad habit of not bailing out of measure immediately after my lunge. Again, this is a bad habit people let me get away with.

Sunday was the “A Game” practice. Being about the “A game”, and not a regular practice, I went back to the full length blade for most opponents. Among the fourteen fighters were three who, when faced with me short three inches, were to varying degrees able to counter successfully when I over-extended. I used my passes with them to work on shifting from the sniper mindset to providing them the bait they wanted rather than one of my typical invites; lunging shorter with a plan to proceed from there; and maintaining strong blade control while moving into measure.

One of the up-sides of the shorter blade is that I’m feeling more secure in my gains(*) and was more willing to enter measure sedately.

I’m still not happy with the number of times I ended up in a lunge with no plan for continuing forward if it came up short.

This is The Thing I’m working on these days, and will be for the foreseeable future. I need some tactical advice:

Everybody’s figured out that I have a big lunge. Closing measure is difficult. People seem to like to run away. I’ve got my bag of tricks for it, but those all have their inherent risks and weaken form to one degree or another. So, how do you close to attack range against an un-obliging opponent?

(*) There may be an injury issue which weakens the gain. Checking it out with a doctor in the near future.

HMA: Training Maxims

Recent holidays have prompted a reflective mood.

I began teaching formal HMA rapier classes in April of last year (mostly at the urging of a more senior HMA guy. When I protested that I didn’t know enough to teach, he assured me that knowing more than anyone else was good enough). I’d spent much of the prior year teaching at SCA practices, and exploring the works of other researchers and instructors. The majority of my curriculum, pedagogy, conceptual underpinnings, and conditioning programs was more-or-less copied from other sources. There were small modifications, but for the most part, I figured everyone else was a better teacher than I, so I was better off doing what they were doing.

Almost everything has changed since then. I was ruthless about self-improvement, and as my teaching skill developed and my knowledge of kinesiology improved, I discovered better information, better methods to communicate it, and better ways to organize class around it. Naturally, everything will continue to evolve. But in this time, I’ve nonetheless found success in recruitment and retention, research, and, to a lesser degree, developing my own prowess.

One of the few things to remain unchanged is also one of the few things I developed myself. As I was considering didactic approaches, I found myself wanting to boil our culture and training philosophy down to a handful of maxims – short phrases encapsulating productive ways to approach the art – and so teach students to avoid many of the pitfalls I’ve seen and encountered myself. Eventually I got it down to four, and made a habit of ending class by solemnly reciting each. They’ve done an admirable job in setting the tenor of our activities, and encouraging a positive mindset.

I cannot take credit for any of these ideas themselves – only in observing them as consistent patterns among high-level HMA and SCA practitioners. But I am inclined to attribute the bulk of my success to following these maxims (as, having defined good behavior, I was obligated to constantly model it for my students … this has certainly ensured that my own practice is a little better than it might have been otherwise). Since these have helped me, perhaps readers will also find them useful.

Maxim 1: We Don’t Know Anything.

This maxim describes our approach to research (broadly defined, as the act of gaining knowledge). It encapsulates several ideas:

  • Corollary: There is no dogma. Everything is a hypothesis or theory. Every theory turns only on the weight of evidence.
  • Corollary: There are no experts. Every person and idea is to be evaluated on its own merits.
  • Corollary: Be humble. Be respectful.
  • Corollary: Aggressively seek out differing opinions (travel). Learn from them. Be ready to cast aside ideas that no longer work.
  • Corollary: Everyone is a researcher. Everyone can contribute. Try new things. Be bold.
  • Corollary: We are never done.

Maxim 2: Fencing is Hard.

This maxim negotiates our expectations and our training. Swordfighting is “essentially geeky”, as Packer said, and there can be a tendency to treat it with a little triviality. We should remember that historical fencing must approached as a bona fide martial art. Thus:

  • Corollary: You will not master this in a year. Or two years. Be in it for the long haul.
  • Corollary: Knowing what to do is not the same as being able to do it.
  • Corollary: Expect frustration before success. Know that success will come. Be patient. Be dedicated.
  • Corollary: You will need to build strength, endurance, and proprioception to succeed. You will sweat. You will bruise. You will be sore.
  • Corollary: We will revisit and refine the basics constantly. Nothing is ever done being improved.
  • Corollary: You may need to re-learn a technique you’ve drilled into muscle memory over years and years, if later research shows a better way. Expect this. Embrace it.

Maxim 3: Martial Excellence is the Goal.

This maxim defines what we work towards. We’ll never know exactly what period Italian rapier looked like, so we can’t really hold that as our goal. We CAN, however, measure martial excellence as expressed through successful athletes and martial artists in other disciplines. Since what we do is martial, we should strive to replicate their achievements:

  • Corollary: Success in competitive sparring is part of our goal.
  • Corollary: Fluid, direct, powerful, effortless, and decisive movement – sprezzatura – is part of our goal.
  • Corollary: Total control of one’s body, one’s weapon, and one’s opponent is part of our goal.
  • Corollary: Developing the ability to adapt to new situations is part of our goal.
  • Corollary: Following the tactics set forth by the Masters and “looking like the plates” is part of our goal.
  • Corollary: A mindset of discipline and continual improvement is part of our goal.

Maxim 4: Swords are Cool.

This is about attitude. Sword arts themselves are impractical, but in the pursuit, much can be gained:

  • Corollary: Recognize what we do: figuring out puzzles, gaining knowledge, becoming stronger, connecting with people (both long-dead and still living), moving with grace and elegance, finding inspiration, working hard, achieving things we never thought possible, learning to love the journey.
  • Corollary: All that we do should seed a profound sense of fulfillment and joy, from which springs the sincere desire to share it with others.

Recruitment and Retention: because it is illegal and ineffective to kidnap people and make them fence me.

So at Master Wistric’s elevation I spoke with him about my time thus far as a Gleann Abhann rapier fighter. My sentiments were something along the line of “Well the events are very far away… blah blah blah when I do make it to events the rapier fighters only fight for a little bit and in a very similar tourney styles… blah blah blah (more whining about how I want there to be a gazillion rapier fighters that live in my apartment complex). Newly made and swaged to the max Master Wistric’s response was something along the lines of “Quit your whining you aren’t a baby or even that new of a fencer (I’m sure the words were significantly meaner and most likely had some profanity) and actively MAKE the community what you want it to be”

So with emphasis on making the community I want, I began pondering the best approach. This required examining my assets and detriments as a fencer, organizer, and person in general.  External drivers that cause people to stop fencing such as school, work, family are outside of my control so I don’t really want to focus on them.  Instead I want to focus on things I can control thus the assets and weaknesses list (Admittedly there are somethings outside of my control on both lists but I think these are the biggest things effecting recruitment and retention in my area)

  • Goal
    • Grow both local and kingdom wide fencing community (hopefully with a more diverse group)
  • Assets
    • In college- comes with access to many young individuals looking for hobbies, also access to modern fencing clubs,  gym spaces, etc
    • Passion and the passion to share my knowledge
    • super informal practice- pretty much just mask gloves gorget (Helps keep initial costs down)
    • Not the worst fencer in the world- I may not be top tier, but I am definitely working my way there and can at the very least teach basic fundamentals
    • pretty much willing to fight anyone any time anywhere/ not afraid of letting a new fighter learn their limits with me as the pin cushion
    • Experience doing the SCA on the cheap ( link this to recruiting college students)
    • As far as fencers go I don’t feel I have a huge ego and  can examine this objectively
  • Weaknesses
    • Often too intense/ abrasive for some people
    • Can throw too much info at new fighters
    • Occasionally present negative or dismissive attitude towards things, people, rules I don’t like or see as out dated
    • Irregular schedule due to school
    • Often disorganized
    • Often don’t have more than one way (or ocassionally too many ways) of explaining something simple
    • I often have a challenging time teaching women (this is of course not ubiquitous, but I’ve noticed that in fencing and in teaching Tang Soo Do I am often either too intense or my teaching style doesn’t seem to be the most effective manner in conveying information)
    • I often make reference to Atlantean customs which does sometimes does not seem received well (often includes the phrase ” when I was X we did Y”)

Now in the past I have successfully recruited and contributed to the retention of rapier fighters (Torse and Cailin in Atlantia) and two strip fencers in Gleann Abhann and 1 crossover from heavy.    All of the people I recruited already liked fencing or the SCA (in the case of the heavy crossover) so it really was as easy as ” Hey wanna fence with these bigger swords, ohh and you get to use your off hand”  and they were all like “HELLS YEAH”.   So there wasn’t much work on my end other then showing up and fencing.  Yet, these resources for fencers have been thoroughly taped out and the community always had room for growth.

I have some specific questions I would like to mull around with all the readers of this board.

1.  What techniques have you used to specifically recruit and retain new rapier fighters from outside the SCA?

2. What are some techniques/ ideas to get heavy cross overs to fencing? (Don’t say introduce them to C&T we know that is a possible solution, but I’m not sure if I see C&T heavy cross overs jumping on the rapier boat)

3.  How do you approach  recruitment for diverse groups of people?

4. How do you approach your weaknesses in the realm of recruitment and retention and work towards reducing or even eliminating those problems? (If you have any advice on overcoming some of my personally listed weaknesses please feel free to share)

5. How do you keep things interesting for a variety of beginner level fighters

6. Looking at what I’m working with what assets do you think would result in the best recruitment and retention and which weaknesses should be top priority for adjustment

Thanks all for your input.

Miguel Mono De Hierro

 

 

Five Minute Lessons: Teaching at Events

Motivation:


Last April, I moved to Calontir, a land where, up until just a few years ago, there was no fencing. Calontir’s Steel program (as opposed to rattan) is somewhat unique in the Known World, as it is cut & thrust default. However, because the program is relatively new, most of the fighters are also quite new (at least to fighting with steel weapons). As a result, one of the major challenges that I have experienced as a teacher of historic fencing is,

“How to I teach new(ish) fighters meaningful lessons when I only see them for short periods of time every 3 months?”

At Lilies War last June, I found myself teaching the same 3 or 4 lessons over and over again (to different fighters), and it occurred to me that there are a few key techniques and principles that underlie most of the historic manuals that I have read and that also contribute to good C&T. I initially compiled some of these lessons into a class that I taught at an event in July, however, Tibbie requested that we post more SCA stuff than we have recently, so I thought I’d take a break from Agrippa to post them here. The general idea is that each of these lessons can be explained in about 5 minutes. They are organized roughly into 3 categories: Injury prevention, body mechanics, and fundamental technique.

 

 

Avoiding Injury:


Thigh – Toe Alignment: 

Many fencers have an inward turn to their leg that prevents them from aligning their upper leg with their toe. This is one of the first things that I attempt to fix in new fencers because this misalignment poses a serious hazard to the continuing function of their knees. Correcting this problem usually takes some time, as the fencer will need to improve the strength and innervation of the lateral muscles of their upper leg. I generally show fencers two exercises as follows:

  1.  Fencer Yoga – In order to work on thigh-toe alignment, the fencer should perform the Fencer Yoga drill (described at the end of this post) slowly while focusing on the alignment of their leg as they move forwards and backwards.
  2. Wide-stance Squats – These are just squats but with a wide stance and with the feet angled outwards forming a “V.” Perform the squat slowly and focus on maintaining thigh and toe alignment by having the fencer “push” outwards with their upper leg. If an exercise band is available, it can be placed around both upper legs in order to provide resistance against the upper legs in order to improve the exercise by providing feedback. If the fencer has poor squat form (bending the back, poor balance), this should be performed as a wall squat.

 

Arm Extension: 

While the mechanics of extending the arm may seem like they belong in the body mechanics section, I have placed it here because the mechanics of delivering a thrust are very important for ensuring your opponent’s safety. Thrusts should be delivered with a relaxed arm by simply extending the arm. They should not be delivered as a “punch” and they should not involve any initial retraction of the arm (no winding up). Furthermore, the elbow should not lock.

By extending the arm in this way, the fencer will deliver a controllable, accurate, and “breakable” strike that is both good fencing technique and safer for their opponents. I generally demonstrate these points with the following exercises:

  1. Slow extensions: In this exercise, the fencer simply goes on guard and extends and retracts the arm slowly. First, make sure that the fencer can relax their arm while holding the sword (there may be grip and arm strength issues that must be overcome first). Second, have them perform a few slow extensions and retractions, being sure that they do not lock their elbows. Finally, have them perform extensions and retractions over a 5 and then a 10-count such that the motion is being performed really slowly.
  2. Lumberjack Handshake: You may remember this from elementary school, but the gist of it is that you shake hands and then move your arm back and forth as if you were using a saw. This is a good exercise for getting a fencer to relax their arm. Later, the instructor can add resistance against the fencer’s extension in order to ensure that they are performing a properly controlled extension rather than “flinging” or “punching” with their arm (which would result in a loss of “power” to push against the resistance within some portion of the range of motion).

 

Flinging & Whipping: 

Both “flinging” the body and “whipping” the sword through kinetic linking are hazardous both to the fencer and their opponents. Both of these are bad fencing technique and are unsafe for the same reason; they create a period of time during the motion where the fencer loses control. In the case of “flinging” the center of mass of the body (or sword) is thrown forwards (or backwards) and the rest of the body (or arm) simply follows behind. The latter portion of this action is essentially performed by falling, and during this period of time, the fencer will lose both power and control.
“Whipping” actions are slightly different from “flinging” but pose a similar problem. Within the SCA context, this motion is usually caused by the mechanics of rattan combat. The legs and body are used to initiate the motion, and the body, and then arm are used as levers in order to grant a mechanical advantage that whips the weapon forward with a lot of force. However, because of this, most fighters will find it difficult if not impossible to stop the blow, as the combination of mechanical advantage and large muscle groups must be resisted using the relatively tiny muscles of the wrist.

Exercises for counter-acting these body mechanics generally rely on applying resistance throughout the entire range of motion. Proper technique will create consistent force, while “flinging” and “whipping” actions apply inconsistent force over the range of motion (i.e. there will be points where the fencer cannot press against the resistance). I generally do the following:

  1. The Lumberjack Handshake – as described above, with resistance.
  2. “Fencer Yoga” with resistance – This is simply an extension of both the Lumberjack handshake and the “Fencer Yoga” exercise described above. While before we were focused on arm mechanics, now we are more concerned with the mechanics of moving the body and legs that ultimately lead up to performing a lunge. At all stages, proper technique can be tested by applying resistance (pulling a resistance band fixed behind the fencer or simply an instructor pressing on their hand or chest). The fencer should focus on applying consistent pressure into the resistance. The instructor should allow for enough give for the fencer to perform the motion. The quantity of the resistance is not important, but its consistency is. If the instructor feels the need to make a point (or to increase the difficulty), they can use the tempi created by “gaps” in the fencer’s pressure in order to rapidly increase the resistance. This will provide more obvious feedback and will also point out precisely why flinging and whipping are bad techniques.
  3. The Sled Push – This is the fencing version of sled pushing that is used in football practices. The fencer presses against the instructor’s chest or hand while the instructor provides resistance. The fencer then performs arm extensions, arm extension-leans, arm extension-leans – footwork. Once you build up to having them perform footwork, they should be able to perform that footwork repeatedly against resistance while maintaining the form in their upper body. A simple extension is for the instructor to move off-line while they move backwards while the fencer must still maintain pressure. This is an extension of the Fencer Yoga drill above that focuses on footwork.

 

General Fitness: 

It probably cannot be stated enough that basic fitness is an important aspect of avoiding injury in all martial arts, and SCA rapier/C&T is no exception. With regards to safety, fencers must have sufficient strength in order to hold their sword in a relaxed guard and must have sufficient cardio training in order to be able to avoid heat and cardiac injury while fighting. In the latter case, the most relevant component is in understanding your body’s limits. Frequent, even if low-intensity, exercise will help you to learn how your body operates and help you to learn when you need to take a break, get water, etc.

While there is plenty of exercise advice on the internet, I have found that a lot of it is geared towards people who have already made a habit of exercising. Teaching yourself to exercise later in life is a very different challenge, and I have found that the Couch 2 5K program (and also the pushup, squat, etc version) to be a really good way to get started. The exercises begin with very short periods of jogging and work their way up to having you jog for 30 minutes continually over the course of about 12 weeks. Similarly, the “Scientific 7 minute workout” is also a good place for people to get started. It is a series of body-weight exercises that don’t require much equipment and that only take a few minutes to complete (however they are supposed to be performed at a relatively high intensity).

The key is to build a habit of doing something at least 3 times/week. You can work out the perfect plan later once you’ve done that.

 

 

Body Mechanics:


Proprioception:

While we usually think of the human body as having 5 senses (vision, hearing, taste, smell, touch), there is at least 1 more, proprioception. Proprioception is your ability to feel your own body (e.g. where your limbs are placed, what muscles are engaged, etc). People who exercise regularly also develop their proprioception and it makes them much better at moving their body efficiently in precisely the way that they mean to. This sense is precisely what underlies the notion of kinesthetic sense or thinking of people as “natural athletes” or as “graceful.”

Building your kinesthetic sense is probably the most important thing you can do not only for improving your fencing, but also for improving your general fitness and will pay dividends later in life when your joints don’t fall apart. All of the exercises presented in this posting ultimately are focused on building proprioception. Building your general fitness as described above and working through motions slowly while paying attention to how your body is aligned are the key ways of improving your proprioception.

 

Tailbone Tucking/Core Engagement:

While the involvement of the core and pelvic muscles is subtle, they are actually very important for performing efficient movements, especially in performing footwork.

Tucking the tailbone involves rotating the pelvis slightly forward such that your tailbone points downwards. Initially this will seem like it involves “clenching” your butt muscles, but it is subtly different. In order to “find” this movement, lie flat on your back against a hard surface (like the floor). Bend your knees such that your feet are placed firmly on the floor. Finally, lift your butt off the floor using your abdominal muscles (but not your legs).

As noted above, tucking your tailbone requires that you use abdominal and pelvic muscles, however you need to also engage your core muscles in order to keep your spine straight and to support your body weight as you move. I generally advise fencers to improve these things using the following exercises:

  1. Planks – yep, they suck. Do them anyhow. Having a solid basis for core strength is really important for fencing
  2. Wall Sits – These also suck, but some people prefer them to planks.
  3. Hip Bends – Have the fencer stand with their feet at least shoulder-width apart. Have the fencer place their hands on their hips. Have the fencer bend at the hip forward, backwards, and to either side. Do not allow the fencer to bend their lumbar spine (i.e. bending at the waist). Note that bending too far will cause the lumbar spine to bend, so fencers frequently need to be reminded to bend more conservatively.
    If the fencer is having trouble keeping their back straight, have them place their hands behind their head and have them focus on keeping their elbows back (like you do for crunches/sit-ups) as they perform the bends from the hip. You can also insert a dowel rod or pole between their head and arms, placing the elbows behind the stick such that the fencer cannot bring them forward.
  4. Fencer Yoga – as you work slowly through the “Fencer Yoga” excercise described above, be mindful of your tailbone and core engagement.

 

Push, Don’t Pull:

This point is relatively simple and is mostly related to footwork. Once fencers get beyond flinging themselves forward and backwards, they frequently begin to use their legs to “pull” themselves rather than using them to “push.” For instance, when moving forward, it is best to push off with the rear leg rather than to step forward and pull yourself with your front leg. The principle reason for this is that pulling yourself requires that you shift your body weight somewhat onto the “pulling” leg, which is slow and inefficient. Pushing yourself forward is more efficient, but it relies on maintaining an appropriately rigid frame in the pelvis and abdomen which is achieved by tucking the tailbone and engaging the core muscles as described above (Think of your leg pushing your body. If your body doesn’t provide something firm to push against, there will be some “squish” in the motion, which is inefficient). I generally correct this using variants of the Fencer Yoga exercise:

  1. Fencer Yoga – Perform the fencer Yoga exercise while focusing on pushing forward using the back leg and by pushing backwards using the front leg.
  2. The Sled Push – As described above. When a fencer is pulling themselves forward, they cannot apply consistent force forwards during the time that they step with the front foot. Pulling is also a weaker action, and so it will be more difficult to overcome resistance.

 

 

Fencing Techniques:


Cone of Defense: 

The most important notion that is present in historical manuals is that in order for your opponent to strike you, they must occupy a specific place in physical space (that is dependent somewhat on the type of strike). Ultimately defending yourself simply requires that you 1) occupy that space or 2) move such that the position of that space changes.

The reason that this place exists is that your weapon (and secondary) act as shields and, that due to the nature of lines and angles, these shields protect a conical area that expands behind them. As a result, there are several techniques that follow from this principle. These techniques are useful regardless of whether you are studying any particular historical manual and in my experience, exist within most if not all of those manuals in some form.

  • Arm Extension: First and foremost, because your weapon defends an expanding cone behind the guard, the further away from you it is, the more of you it covers (from the perspective of your opponent). The simplest way to defend yourself is therefore to extend your weapon and likewise, the most efficient way to parry is to extend your guard forward (rather than to chase blows to the left and right or up and down).
  • Join Sword & Secondary: Ultimately a secondary weapon either expands your cone of defense or allows you to create a second one. However, against a single opponent, a second cone is completely unnecessary, because there is only one place that you must occupy with your weapons in order to keep yourself defended. Furthermore, managing two separate weapons is difficult (mentally) and is more likely to result in creating a hole between the weapons than anything else. Therefore, it is generally best to keep the weapon and secondary joined together.
  • Voids: Interestingly, the concept of the cone of defense provides a very intuitive framework for discussing voids. One of the limitations of extending your weapon and secondary forward is that it becomes more difficult to resist powerful blows. This is especially true of cuts that may strike your weapons from the side, which is harder to resist. As a result, a fencer might be tempted to ignore the previous advice about keeping the weapon forward and/or keeping the weapons together. However, a better way to defend oneself is to move the body slightly (or void) such that your cone of defense is oriented such that it aligns with the strike that you are resisting.

For illustrating the above points, I find that sword and buckler works best. The fact that a buckler is, in fact, a shield reinforces its defensive role and keeps the fencer from worrying about having to deal with 2 weapons.

  1. A Matter of Perspective – hold the buckler (or sword guard if you don’t have a buckler) against the body, then ask the fencer how much of your body is covered (they should respond something like, “not much”). Then hold it forward some and ask the same question (the correct answer is “more”). Then hold it at full extension and ask the same question (the correct answer is “almost all of you”).
  2. Mind the Gap – Hold your sword and secondary. First hold them extended in front of you separately and ask the fencer whether they think there’s an opening where they can hit you (center line is probably open). Next, switch roles, having the fencer hold their sword and secondary extended but separate. Extend your sword to their sword side, buckler side, and down the middle. Ask which object they are supposed to defend each blow with and why. The point here is that they will find it easy to answer this question for both the sword and buckler side blows. It’s harder to answer about the center strike. In all cases, the correct answer is “both.”
  3. Standing in the Cone – The last exercise simply involves having the fencer stand in guard with their sword and buckler while the instructor delivers slow cuts to different lines (some high, some low, some to the left, some to the right). Have the fencer defend by extending their sword and buckler together in order to block the cut. Then have them step such that they move their body into the cone of defense behind their weapons.

Counter-Time: 

The next lesson is less closely tied to the cone of defense, however the exercises for learning it follow from the sword and buckler work presented in that section. Simply put, it is better to hit your opponent at the same time that you are defending against their cut than it is to wait.

  1. A Tale of Two Actions: Extend the “Standing in the Cone” drill by having the fencer respond to each strike by delivering a cut. Each time, make sure that they defend themselves first, and then deliver a cut.
  2. Honey I Shrunk the Parry: Extend the “Standing in the Cone” drill by having the fencer defend while keeping their sword pointed at their opponent. Point out that if they do this, then they can form a “wedge” with their sword and buckler. Ask whether this wedge looks like a “cone of defense.”
  3. The Once and Future Action: Expand the last exercise by having the fencer deliver a thrust at the same time that they defend from the cut. Point out that it is easier to resist the cut when their sword is “stuck” in their opponent. Also note that the instructor can include thrusts in all of the forms of this exercise, but it is simpler if they only use cuts.

I hope that this list proves helpful. Obviously some of these lessons are intended to follow from each other (for an individual fencer), however the intention is to keep the lessons somewhat modular such that a fencer can get lesson A, work on that for a while, and then get lesson B at a later time. If you have questions or additional “5-minute lessons,” please comment below. I think it would be useful to have more of these in my “arsenal.”

Fencer Yoga


This exercise has multiple uses, and I will refer back to it. It is similar to “warrior pose” in Yoga and the movements should be performed slowly and purposefully.

First, have the fencer stand with their feet placed as they would be in guard with the right foot forward (for righties) and the left foot placed behind at approximately a 90 degree angle. Have the fencer bend their knees and sink their weight onto one foot or the other. I find that this exercise works best if the fencer allow their weight to press through their heels.
Once they are standing in position, have the fencer slowly shift their weight from one leg to the other. The key features of this exercise are as follows:

  • Thigh and toe are aligned throughout the movement
  • The fencer moves their body by pushing through their legs, not by flinging themselves or pulling themselves
  • The tailbone is tucked and the core is engaged. This provides a rigid frame for their legs to push against as they move.
  • The body is held upright with the spine straight and the shoulders relaxed

The exercise can be extended by incorporating arm extensions, a body lean, footwork, etc until you work all the way through the lunge.

Generally the fencer should only focus on one aspect and should work on that aspect until they can perform it without focusing on it. Then they should focus on the next aspect.

H(E)MA: A Primer

Tibbie mentioned here that the Warfare seems to be on a bit of a historic-martial-art binge as of late, and asked to know a little more about HEMA groups, what they do, and how they operate. I’ve been working on some schemes to get HMA guys to come play SCA, but it never occurred to me that the opposite might be good too. We have a lot we could learn from each other.

In that spirit, a primer.

Terminology

Western Martial Arts (WMA), Historic Martial Arts (HMA), Historic European Martial Arts (HEMA), European Medieval Arts (EMA), these all mean pretty much the same thing. Some people make fine distinctions between each, but in general, these terms all refer to the modern study and practice of obsolete or forgotten combat systems of European origin.

The one exception occurs with the term “HEMA”, which is sometimes used to refer specifically to the HEMA Alliance, a large but loose confederation of several HMA clubs. HEMA Alliance members affiliate primarily for insurance reasons, and to connect with other clubs.

Edit: Apparently a number of folks have taken umbrage at my commentary on “HEMA”. Allow me to clarify: I am reporting only on the usage I’ve seen, with the goal of equipping the reader with enough knowledge to properly interpret whatever else he might read on the subject. I do not mean to imply that this usage is recommended, or that one must be a member of the HEMA Alliance (the HMA group) to do HEMA (historical swordfighting).

Recall that this article was intended as a superficial overview for an SCA audience. I certainly wouldn’t want our readers to get the idea that HMAists value semantic captiousness over, you know, swordfighting.

History

HMA, in its modern form, is relatively new. There were a couple dudes back around 1900 who did a little research, more out of curiosity than anything else, but modern HMA really got its start just after the turn of the century. Before the Internet, the occasional crowd of history nerds or sword enthusiasts might have attempted to work out of a manual or two, almost always in their native language, but boffers and misconceptions were the norm.

Once Google caught on, however, a great deal more information was made available and accessible. Whole manuals were scanned and put up on web pages, inviting translation and interpretation to anyone with an Internet connection, a working knowledge of German, and a sword obsession. But perhaps more importantly, these scattered groups of recreationists were better able to find new recruits and find each other, and they began to exchange ideas.

HMA has continued to evolve since in a variety of ways. HMA-specific books, gear, and events are all widespread. More appear every year. There are even video games and RPGs that attempt to incorporate faithful HMA.

Culture

Outside of the specifics mentioned above, HMA clubs exhibit almost infinite variation. Remember, this is an idea about 15 years old, and still developing. Clubs are decentralized and unregulated, and number in the hundreds, if not thousands. In the SCA, we often speak of “interkingdom anthropology”, how different kingdoms have different conventions and expectations; HMA groups are like that, but moreso.

It’s impossible to characterize HMA clubs in absolutes, but there are a number of general trends. Here are some relevant to the average SCAdian:

Goals

Naturally, everyone involved with swordplay (or any leisure activity) wants to have a good time, inspire others, learn more, celebrate the awesomeness of swords, etc. But broadly speaking, success in the SCA is about earning victory in its combat sports, by any means within the rules and bounds of sportsmanship. HMA is focused on recreating lost medieval martial arts, and clubs usually work from a specific manual or within a specific tradition.

HMA groups tend to be more studious and disciplined in their practice than SCA groups. Drills, conditioning, and lesson plans are the norm, modeled more-or-less after Eastern martial arts dojos. Students are often expected to train on their own time (i.e. outside of practice).

HMAists assert that faithful recreation cannot occur in an inauthentic environment. The SCA happily allows all manner of anachronisms in its combat sports, while HMAists tend to take the view of “if it never happened in period, it’s a silly diversion at best.”

Weapons and Equipment

Longsword is preeminent in HMA. Study of pretty much every medieval weapon exists, but if it’s not longsword (and usually from the German Kunst des Fechtens at that), it’s probably a niche group. This is slowly changing. On the periphery, we have buckler and sidesword in various forms (Bolognese, I.33, Silver, Viking, etc), rapier (Italian or Spanish), saber, messer, and Ringen (wrestling). Polearms, montante/spandone, harnessfecten (armored combat), archery, and others make occasional appearances.

While SCA rapier uses steel simulators exclusively, for financial reasons, a lot of HMA groups use wooden or plastic wasters for training, at least in the early stages. Some groups will have advanced study classes that use sharpened steel weapons. This is pretty cool, and I’ve yet to see a group use sharps unsafely.

The armor standard is generally heavier than SCA rapier, but rarely as high as SCA armored fighting. In the typical club, standard fencing masks are worn, reinforced with padding on the sides and back (because cuts). Gauntlets, a padded jacket, and joint protection are the usual additions. In my local rapier group, our armor requirements are actually lighter than SCA C&T.

Calibration and Blows:

For discussion here, I shall have to reference the Atlantian Rapier Calibration Chart:

  • 10 – “I am in legitimate fear of significant injury.”
  • 9 – “There is a serious problem here, and a marshal will be informed.”
  • 8 – “I’ll take lighter. Much lighter. Hint hint.”
  • 7 – “That one was a little stiff.”
  • 6 – “Good!”
  • 5 – “Good.”
  • 4 – “… Yeah.”
  • 3 – “That one was light, but I’ll take it.”
  • 2 – “You can do better than that.”
  • 1 – “Not even in Aethelmearc.”

Consider a 5 typical for Atlantia. This is also typical for my local HMA group.

While Atlantia has a hard-hitting reputation in the SCA, HMA groups are rarely lower. Most HMA groups clock in around a 6 or 7 and, of course, unusually hard hits in a bad situation can go a step or two above, just as they do in the SCA. As always, there’s a lot of variance, and there are a lot of contributing factors. A full explanation would demand another post entirely on the nature of violence and how we humans handle it.

A good chunk of the difference is simply the expectation of harder hits. Just like in the SCA, groups disagree on what we’re simulating; unlike the SCA, practically nobody says “a duel to first blood”. HMA runs the gamut from “significant wound” to “dismemberment” to the on-the-fringe full-armor full-contact battle royale that is Armored Combat League or Battle of Nations. Some groups assert that a modicum of earnest force is necessary to accurately simulate historical combat, and they’ve accepted the risk (with increased armor standards to compensate). In fairness, the notion has some truth to it.

Heavier weapons and more frequent cuts may explain part of the difference as well, but outright bad technique seems rarely to be the cause. This should come as no surprise. HMA groups generally train harder than the SCA, and put more emphasis on good technique. Perhaps this emphasis actually contributes to harder hits: good technique is good because it allows you to transfer force more efficiently. (There is a bizarre notion in some circles in the SCA that a sword will often or always inflict a disabling wound with very little force. Test cutting will reveal the truth more clearly than I can here.) Of course, good technique also means that the wielder has more control over the force delivered, so it comes back to attitude and simulation.

At any rate, there is a general understanding that we don’t want to hurt our friends, and the macho “suck it up”/”you should have parried” response to injury is rare or nonexistent. As might be expected, fencers with this attitude don’t last long (although, as with all bad apples, they tend to be the loudest on the Internet). Instead, the attitude is more like “injuries happen. They’re unfortunate and we try to avoid them, but we’re training hard and playing hard, and it’s inevitable”. Right or wrong, it’s worth noting that this is the normal attitude for competitive sports programs, where tolerance for injury is far higher than it is in the SCA.

Tournaments and events tend to be worse than normal practice. Again, every HMA event is analogous to an SCA interkingdom event, and similar calibration issues pop up. The prevalence of judged events doesn’t help, as calibration tends to increase when fencers need to convince a judge, rather than the recipient of the blow, that they struck true. All the same, injury rates are usually comparable to those for other hard-hitting contact sports like football or ice hockey.

For what it’s worth, rapier events tend to be among the safest, whether due to the influence of the SCA, the comparative lightness of the weapons, less frequent cutting, or different attitudes.

I teach my fencers that injury is absolutely unacceptable, and more and more HMA events and personalities are taking a similar stand. Improvements are happening, some predicated on really interesting ideas (“our ancestors safely trained without armor; we should be able to do the same”).

Tournaments and Sparring

Success in unscripted sparring is universally considered a part of faithful recreation in HMA – I can happily report that “kata masters” seem to be more frequent in the SCA than in HMA. However, groups vary in how much importance they ascribe competition. Some believe that competitive tournaments are to be avoided, since they legitimize inauthentic fighting and encourage fencers to game the rules rather than try to be true to our surviving sources. Others believe that competitions are absolutely necessary to test different interpretations against one another, and that if we can’t win with period techniques, it means we’re doing something wrong. But both these views are fairly extreme. Most understand that tournaments are just another tool towards recreation, neither to be avoided nor relied upon.

The big difference between SCA and HMA competition is that HMA competitions are almost always judged (whereas the SCA relies on the honor system). There are a lot of problems with this right now, one of which is the increased calibration mentioned above. But sometimes, judged competitions are good and appropriate. Competitive cutting with sharp weapons is featured at most large events, and “kata competitions” where cooperating fencers try to recreate specific plates in front of judges, as earnestly and accurately as possible, are on the rise. The tournament scene is vibrant and ever-changing, with a surprising amount of variance in rulesets. Grappling and C&T are, of course, more common.

In general, I would not say that the competitive fighting tends to be a whole lot better than the SCA’s. Although HMA tends to be more rigorous, its participants are, ultimately, amateurs and hobbyists as much as the SCA’s. Furthermore, HMAists tend to be used to fighting against people with a similar style, and so cannot always adapt as well as SCAdians, who see all manner of styles even at the local practice.

Events tend to be more expensive and less frequent than SCA events, and require more travel. This might look disappointing to the average SCAdian, but HMA doesn’t try to have a lot of events; in the SCA, events are what we DO, where we make the Dream; but in HMA, events and tournaments are just one small part of what we do, and consistent practice is given more weight. Events are run about equally well (the quality you can get out of volunteer staff seems to be the same everywhere), but the singular focus on fencing means you do tend to get more fighting over the course of the day. No court.

Melees are almost unheard-of, which is unfortunate.

Garb

In the early days of HMA, there was a strong sentiment that HMA needed to visually differentiate itself from Ren Faire, LARP, and SCA folk, because HMA saw itself as more studious and academic and martial than those groups (in Internet parlance, “srs bzns”). Now that HMA has found its own identity and (to some extent) legitimacy in the public eye, this attitude is in swift decline. It helps that geekery in general is no longer quite as stigmatized as it used to be, so there is less need to draw sharp lines, to say “we are athletes and researchers, not roleplayers, not scrawny nerds pretending at Conan and Aragorn”.

Nonetheless, it is still the rare club that fights in garb. There is an understanding that the focus is on combat, not on playing a role or looking the part. Pragmatics rule.

HMA fashion might constitute a post unto itself. Suffice it to say that it continues to evolve, and black is in vogue.

Organization and Teaching

Perhaps surprisingly, given its greater rigor, the principal difference between the SCA and HMA is HMA’s lack of hierarchy. Some clubs have ranking systems of varying levels of formality; some don’t. Regardless, no club is nearly as large or as standardized as the SCA.

This leads to (in my view) an atmosphere of greater intellectual freedom and exchange. Because nobody’s accorded legitimacy with lofty titles or “terminal” awards, nearly everyone’s ideas are given consideration. There is an understanding that we are collaboratively learning and sharing a passion, that nobody has all the answers, and that every participant is appreciated – something which can be regrettably rare in the SCA, where new ideas often must come from or be vetted by ranking members before they gain much traction, and where the questions and viewpoints of a certain inquisitive Free Scholar might earn paternalistic dismissal from every out-of-kingdom MoD or White Scarf he meets for his lack of recognizable insignia of merit.

There are, of course, a few HMA clubs that cleave to the “One True Interpretation (And It Happens To Be Ours)” idea, and they tend to be insular. But that’s okay. Because nobody has the authority to dictate policy, the best and most persuasive ideas tend to rise to the top and democratically shape the culture and understanding. (In other words, we see a lot of former ARMA guys.) This can, sometimes, be painful, because a good idea still needs to gain widespread acceptance before it is implemented. But it also means that HMA is willing to try new ideas, and constantly challenge and discard old ones.

On a personal level, I find that almost every week, I learn something new. Sometimes it’s about historical rapier specifically. Sometimes it’s about teaching, or body mechanics, or practice structure. It’s a little overwhelming, actually, trying to keep up with it all, trying to walk my own path while clearing the brush from others’, and seeing my training aids and cutting-edge ideas rendered obsolete a mere two or three months after I write them. But it’s also thrilling and dynamic and directed in a way the SCA has never been.

Conclusion

There are two messages I want the reader to take away from this:

1. The SCA is a HMA organization – despite the fact that I have contrasted them throughout this article. It may not line up on a number of trends, but at the core, both SCAdians and HMAists fight with swords and learn about history. The rest is just details.

2. Every HMA club MUST be judged on its own merits. The worst examples always garner the most publicity, and sour many SCAdians’ impression of HMA. There’s a lot to be gained from hooking up with a local HMA organization – different (and often more rigorous) training and teachers, access to other weapons forms, additional practice hours, and new friends – but only if you approach with an open mind.

In general, I’d say that HMA provides a rigor, historical focus, and organization to learning that the SCA often lacks, while the SCA provides a better platform for competition and testing with more variety in opponents and situations, and more accessible events. I’ve had a great deal of fun walking in both worlds and learning from each.

Thoughts on peerages

On “Ask the Masters of Defense” Tibbie asked:

Members of the populace often have misconceptions about the established peerages and negative attitudes about peers in general. Do any of you Masters see the new Order as a chance to overcome negative perceptions of peerage?

My slightly glib, but also accurate, response was:

Geek Social Fallacy #1 (slightly modified): “Excluders are evil” Peerages are by nature exclusive. We are an organization of geeks; we think that exclusion is evil behavior. We don’t like to be told we aren’t good enough. The Order of Defense cannot change any of this.

For the remainder of this essay, I’m going to assume that everybody in a peerage is in it for the right reasons and doing their job. I know this is not the case. Humans fail, that’s okay. But for once I’m not here to talk about how to fail.

These things aren’t something I realized in the last two weeks. I think I first picked up on the demands of leadership six or so years ago, watching the trials-by-fire of first Roz and Gaston, and then Girard and Guenievre, as baron and baroness. As a White Scarf I got a taste of the job of a peer, even though it’s not a peerage. The below is based on those observations.

 

What the peerage isn’t

The peerage isn’t the cool kids club. I know it seems like it from the outside. Every club seems like that from the outside. Because every club is exclusive on some condition or another – see above GSF. That GSF, though, isn’t just for geeks. It’s human. The Masons aren’t trusted pretty much because they’re an exclusive club (and, you know, the Illuminati thing). “College Intellectuals” aren’t trusted by a certain segment of our population because until gen X’ers and millennials only around half of high school grads even went to college, and the whole admissions process is an exercise in being excluded (I only got rejected by my first three choices, which is apparently not bad).

It can look like the cool kids club, or like you only get in if you’re friends with the peers. Sometimes people mess up and do just poll their friends in, but more often it’s a function of human dynamics. High end fighters hang out together. They see each other at the same events. They hang out and talk fencing. They have one thing in common, but they have it a lot, and more than anybody else around them. They share an obsession few others share. There can be cliques or generational divides within these groups, and the peers should be reaching across those divides, but it may still to the outsider look like you have to know a secret handshake to get in. Which, in a way, you do. Just, as the old joke goes, it’s a handshake done with steel.

Want to be part of that “Cool kids club”? Hang out with them at events. Sit and listen, chime in when you want. Ask if you can go to dinner with them after. That’s what I did. Show them that you, too, share this obsession.

 

The peerage is a job…

…and the requirements of the job are, for the most part, things geeks hate (really, in most cases you can replace “geeks” with “people”)..

  • Politics – Politics at heart are about the persuasion and coordination of many people. Geeks dislike the idea of manipulating others, but it’s a necessary part of the job.
  • Forced social interaction – You don’t pick who’s in the peerage. You still have to work with them. You don’t get to pick who’s in the rapier community. You still have to lead them, train them, and help them.
  • Judging – You have to judge people, even your friends, and detail their faults. Geeks like judging by social group (see “jocks are stupid”) but they get uncomfortable judging individuals.
  • Disagreement – Geeks especially like to believe there is a universal, easily identified truth (which should be GSF#6). In many if not most situations there isn’t, and then geek hackles rise. There’s rarely a single truth. There’s almost never a single true path. We don’t like uncertainty.
  • Confrontation – You have to confront people, politely, over disagreements and errors. Worse, you have to confront people who mess up, constructively.

Peer (and WS) meetings and discussions boil down to a lot of these activities. They really aren’t that fun. Leaders step outside of the warmth of geek love. They self exclude. Consider you may not want to be a peer (I have a feeling some scarves and/or peers who are less participatory tired of having to deal with these little unpleasantries).
How to become a peer

Be willing to fail, and be willing to learn from it (dangit, ended up talking about failing after all). As mentioned elsewhere, failure’s a learning experience. But sometimes we fail and can’t learn from it (see college rejection letters. And most job application rejections. And dating). These  rejections are frustrating. Geeks like to learn. A rejection is just pain, no stupid leaving the body.

Peerages don’t reject, but they do exclude. Peers want to help you join their ranks, they don’t want to exclude you. They want you to be included, they want to help you included. If you feel rejected, ask why you were excluded. Sometimes, though, that means hearing that you’re not good enough (yet), or you’ve done wrong. People tend to react defensively when they hear these things (and peers, being geeks, aren’t always good at telling people these things constructively). We all want to be good enough as we are.

Peers have to deal with unpleasantness, and one of the best ways to prepare to be a peer is to accept an unpleasantness: You aren’t good enough.  See the above list of jobs; you may be on the receiving end of those duties. Nobody likes unpleasantness, but we can address it or we can avoid it. If you don’t feel like addressing unpleasantness, maybe reconsider whether or not to pursue a peerage. However, you can be good enough, if you want to, and peers are here to help.

 

Okay, it’s not all bad

So far.

Drill of N Things

The Drill of 5 Things has been expanded a wee bit of late so I figured I’d share it, in lieu of actually updating/modernizing/organizing the drills pages on this site.

As with the drill of N things, this is stolen from Walter Triplette. It’s the first lesson he runs students through.

There are some parts that I’m not completely satisfied with and need to develop further to better teach this to others. Also there are a few more attacks and counters to be added in (and the cues dictating which counter to use in a particular situation).  So, thoughts, feedback, etc. completely welcome.

https://video-atl1-1.xx.fbcdn.net/hvideo-xpf1/v/t42.1790-2/11016244_872580506138022_1167443543_n.mp4?efg=eyJybHIiOjUxNCwicmxhIjo0MDk2fQ%3D%3D&rl=514&vabr=286&oh=2fad1de5c53e6c2a8c047196283a607e&oe=5599F952

Triplette’s full lesson works every basic attack and counter-attack in fencing.  Follow his instructions in so far as they apply: allow the student to settle in guard, keep measure steady, make actions big.  As the student progresses, make the cues smaller, require faster action, etc.  If you’re not sure if something he says applies, ask (there is a lot of foil-particular stuff — parry-ripostes instead of contratempo extensions, parrying six or whatever it is instead of the Italian hand positions).

This is an Italian Rapier modification of the drills put forth in this video. The basic process is to work the four parts of each iteration separately, then mixed together. Repeat with the next iteration, then mix the two, and so on. Add footwork, but as Walter points out, let the student set guard before the cue is given.  The cues I use are either stepping to measure with blade in position, or starting at measure and raising the sword into a position.

First iteration: Gained/Not-gained

Without any action from you, you and your opponent’s blades can be in one of two relations:
In parity, or they have gained yours.

Things 1 and 2: If you are in parity, gain their blade and perform a lunge.  Inside and Outside.

Things 3 and 4: If they attempt to gain yours, cavazione in the tempo of their gain (ending with their blade gained while lunging).  Inside and Outside.

Second iteration: Contratempo attacks

Things 5 and 6: If you are in parity, gain their blade. If they perform a disengage (no measure change), turn your hand and lunge. Inside and outside.

Things 7 and 8: If you are in parity, gain their blade. If they perform a disengage and close measure, perform a contracavazione. Inside and outside.

Third iteration: Feints against invitations

“If your opponent pretends to give you an opening, pretend to take it.” -Walter’s Rules

Things 9-12: They present an opening, you extend aggressively (everything but the footwork in a lunge).  If they parry, cavazione.  If they don’t, continue into the lunge with the line closed.  Inside/Outside.

Fourth iteration: They attack you without gaining your blade.

Thing 13: They attack low (to the leg), extend sword at their arm or face while voiding foot

Thing 14 and 15: They attack inside or outside, contratempo lunge while closing the line.

Thing 16: They attack high (their hand above your shoulder), contratempo prima lunge offline (away from their sword)

Walk Like an Agrippan: Part 4 – Stance and Footwork

The previous 3 sections (123) of this series on Agrippa have focused on dissecting the framework of the stances and motions found in Agrippa’s fencing manual. Starting with these may have seemed an odd choice, as typically one introduces a fencing system by describing how to perform the basics. However, in my opinion, determining how to stand and move requires that we first understand the types of positions and motions that we will be required to perform.

Therefore, if you have not read the previous posts, please consider doing so before proceeding. It is my intention to provide an explanation of key aspects of the guards shown in Agrippa’s manual and to describe the results of my experimentation in putting those positions and movements into practice.

BasicGuards

Key Features of Agrippa’s Guard:

The image above shows the four basic guards found in Agrippa’s manual. These include prima  (A), seconda (B), terza (C), and quarta (D). In the first post I listed a set of shared characteristics that can be seen to be shared by these guards. Here I would like to expand upon those  as well as the differences in both stance and guard, focusing on how they are performed.

The Legs and Feet:

In any fencing style, the legs form a platform that both supports and moves the body. Here we can see that when in guard, (i) the right foot is usually forward, (ii) that the body weight is held nearly exclusively on the front foot, and (iii) that the legs are bent.

As noted previously, there are essentially two stances, wide and narrow. The narrow stance is shown above in A and B. In order to form this stance, the feet are placed relatively close together such that the front foot is pointed towards your opponent. The feet are not parallel, and close attention to the details of A and B would suggest that they are placed at an approximately 45 degree angle from each other. We can also see that in the narrow stances, the heel of the back foot is off the ground. This positioning suggests that nearly all of the body weight is held on the front foot alone. Such a weight placement would make it relatively easy to move into a wide stance by moving the back foot backwards. The wide stance shown above also seems to place the body weight on the front leg. However, Agrippa notes that the wide stance moves the body away from the opponent slightly, which is something I have only been able to accomplish by allowing my weight to shift somewhat onto the back foot (~80% front, 20% back). The back foot in the wide stance also seems to be more firmly placed on the ground, which is consistent with it bearing at least some weight. Moving from a wide stance to a narrow stance is also rather easily accomplished by moving the back foot forward due to the relatively little amount of weight placed upon it. Furthermore, traverse steps (passing steps) can be easily performed with the back foot, ending in either a wide or narrow guard (O or N respectively).

On the other hand, the weight placement makes moving the front foot more difficult. It might be easy to conclude that picking up the front foot requires that the body weight be moved first, however such a technique would be relatively inefficient. However, my experimentation suggests that the front foot can be moved rather quickly forward or backwards from either stance if the appropriate body mechanics are used.

  1. The weight must be placed rather flatly or through the heel of the front foot. In my experimentation, placing the weight forward of the ball of the foot made it impossible to overcome the friction of the ground without launching myself *upwards* first. Likewise, the first motion of the action is to lift the toe.
  2. The pelvis and core must be held as a “rigid frame” in order to give your leg something to push. This will be discussed more in the next section.
  3. Movements are carried out by pushing with the legs. The front leg pushes backwards to move the front foot back (say from wide to narrow stance or past the back foot in a traverse step) and the back leg pushes forwards to move the front foot forwards (from narrow to wide, from wide to wider (“lunge”)). Notably, pushing is different from pulling or flinging, and seeing/feeling the difference for yourself may be difficult at first.

 

The Body:

It is important to consider that the positioning of the body remains relatively unchanged throughout all of the positions shown by Agrippa. While transitions between wide and narrow stances move the body slightly more forward or backward, the body itself remains in the same position relative to itself. The key feature that is likely the most important innovation in Agrippa’s manual and that underlies the entire Italian rapier system that follows is that the body is held leaning forward from the hips. Agrippa devotes the entirety of chapter 2 to describing how this angle increases the length of a thrust as shown in the accompanying figure shown below.

Figure 6: The advantage of leaning forward

Figure 6: The advantage of leaning forward

This lean makes the stance somewhat difficult to perform and increases the required athleticism substantially. The major pitfall that students will need to overcome is a lack of core strength and engagement which will allow the back to curve. In order to perform this stance correctly, the back must be held straight and the tailbone must be tucked. We can see this in the images, as the backs are straight and this straight line continues into the buttocks. This is indicative of a tucked tailbone, as otherwise, the butt will “stick out.” If a fencer attempts the forward lean without keeping their tailbone tucked, their butt will stick out, their balance will be thrown forward, and it will make it difficult or impossible for the fencer to move as described above.

 

While we are focused on the body, we can also see that the body is held relatively profiled with the right shoulder forward. In general, this profiling seems less extreme than in later Italian rapier or in modern fencing, however the slight squaring may be due to the use of a dagger. We do see that the body is held in a more extreme profile in a few positions such as D and I. In any case, it is important to also note that the hips and shoulder are aligned vertically. It is a common mistake for fencers to push their left shoulder into profile while leaving their hip squared. This is not what is depicted and leaves the spine awkwardly twisted.

The Arm and Sword:

When we look at the placement of the arms and weapons of the fencers in these images, we can see that in general, the sword points towards the opponent, is somewhat extended, and that is held in-line with the forearm. These characteristics seem to be refinements based on Agrippa’s nearly exclusive focus on the thrust, as this positioning makes it easy to deliver quick, long thrusts. In chapter 3, Agrippa describes how by extending and raising the arm, that the distance of a thrust can be lengthened, illustrating this with figure 7 shown below.

Figure 7: How extending the arm and bending the knee increase distance

Figure 7: How extending the arm and bending the knee increase distance

 

Agrippa is generally credited with refining fencing to four guards, however, the four guards he describes are identical to guards that were already present in the Bolognese system of fencing where they are roughly equivalent to guardia de alicorno, coda lunga e stretta, porto di ferro e stretta, and guardia de faccia. Furthermore, while Agrippa seems to be the first to call them prima, seconda, terza, and quarta, I would contest that the simplification of fencing to these 4 guards wasn’t particularly new. We see a reduction to these same four guards 30 years earlier in Manciolino’s advice for fencing with the sharp sword, spado da filo. We see them again in Dall’Agocchie’s advice for preparing for a duel in 30 days, published 1 year before Agrippas manual. (EDIT: I got the date switched in my head with Viggiani. Dall’Agocchie was published in the 1570’s, not the 1550’s. However, Viggiani’s guards are both numbered and named, suggesting that applying a numerical system isn’t something super novel in Agrippa’s manual. Also, if we look at the three guardia perfecta shown by Viggiana, we will see that they are ultimately alicorno, porto di ferro e stretta, and coda lunga e stretta from the Bolognese tradition and ultimately mirror Agrippa’s prima, terza, and quarta.) Indeed, we can even see an emphasis on the equivalent guards, ochs and pflug, within the German longsword tradition. Certainly we might give Agrippa credit for stripping away all of the other guards, however, there’s a simple reason for doing so; none of the other guards can be used to deliver a straight thrust.

The formation of these guards is relatively straightforward, Agrippa describes them in chapter 1 as follows:

Prima – The sword is held above the shoulder in the position that a sword would end in first after being drawn from its scabbard. Note that the elbow is not bent, but that there is an angle formed at the wrist such that the sword points at the opponent.

Seconda – According to Agrippa, if the sword is lowered to shoulder height from prima, you will be in seconda. 

Terza – Agrippa notes that from seconda, if you lower your hand towards your knee and move it more to the outside, you will be in terza. 

Quarta – Finally, from terza, if you move your hand to the inside of the knee, you will be in quarta.

It is worth noting that while the pictures show the rotation of the hand from palm to the outside in prima to palm up in quarta (as is the common definition of the four guards in other Italian rapier manuals), Agrippa does not mention this in the text. Furthermore, Agrippa’s placement of quarta on the inside of the right knee is not a requirement for quarta in later rapier manuals, and suggests a closer relationship with the porto di ferro e stretta guard from the Bolognese tradition.

Other notes: The sword arm should be rather relaxed with the elbow pointed downward. Fencers should avoid curling their arm inwards, which can occur either due to tightness in the shoulders or a lack of strength to hold the sword. Thrusts should be delivered by extending the arm smoothly rather than by “punching” with the sword arm. Likewise, motions that combine an extension of the arm with footwork should probably be performed by moving the arm first (though Agrippa is not explicit about this as other fencing manuals are).