Friday, November 13, 2015

A Question of Ethics


This entire posting is based upon a post made by Guy Windsor which can be found here: In this blog he asks some seven questions about the ethics of swordsmanship which I feel are significant and that each and every individual who picks up a sword or any other weapon should consider, regardless of purpose. Had I been a little more prompt, the answers to these questions and this post would have appeared earlier.

The Questions:

1) When is it ok to stab someone in the face with a sword?

I have found two answers to this question, firstly in self-defence. This would, of course, be a rare situation where I would find myself defending my life or the lives of those whom I care about. The second would be in the practice of martial arts where the stab to the face is an essential part of the practice presented in many of the period manuals, and I would make sure that my partner is suitably armoured to ensure the safe practice of such an attack.

2) What is the one thing you find most useful about swordsmanship training outside the salle?

It is difficult to nail down a single thing which is most useful, as there are multiple; tactics, awareness, or the simple health benefits such as muscle strength and cardio-vascular fitness. For myself the essential comes from the ability to problem-solve by looking at things from different angles attributed to reading my opponents.

3) How important is history to you in your practice of swordsmanship

The study of history is essential to the practice of swordsmanship as the texts must be placed in the background in which they are placed if they are to be completely understood. From the simplest point of view, language. Even the Elizabethan texts written in English have seemingly common words which do not have the same meaning as their modern counter-parts.

4) Can a duel settle a matter of honour?

A duel can settle a matter of honour so long as the two combatants approach the combat with the right frame of mind and are set to do so. They also need to act within the combat itself in a manner which gains them honour rather than reducing it.

5) Can violence be beautiful?

When performed with skill, grace and style it can. Where it is two people bludgeoning one another into submission it is simply not.

6) To what extent is the practice of swordsmanship the cultivation of virtue?

The practice of swordsmanship cultivates virtue by teaching virtues in its learning. It teaches patience through its learning and practice. It teaches honour through its practice. Other virtues are gained in similar fashion through the use of the sword and the lessons learnt both from the teacher and the opponent.

7) Is the study of ethics necessary for martial artists?

The study of ethics is not just necessary, it is essential. Regardless of the sword being blunt or not, it is a weapon. Thus there are responsibilities which come with this weapon. These responsibilities are taught in the question of ethics. There are also the responsibilities that each person who wields the sword has to all other martial artists. In our day and age no one really has to die by the sword (literally), nor do people have to use them in anger. The person who does, especially while claiming to be a swordsman or martial artist affects the whole community and stains us all.


I must stress that these are my personal answers to these particular questions and I am willing to discuss and debate any of them with any who would wish to do so. I believe that the questions which Guy Windsor has proposed are extremely important for all combatants and should be given more than a simple cursory glance. We should look past the simple actions which make up the martial components and look deeper into questions of ethics and history which are inevitably bound to the arts which are practised.



Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Of Wasters


The subject of wasters is something which I have been meaning to write about for a while. I have certain opinions which I believe I need to share with regard to them and the change in attitude with regard to them. What needs to be noted throughout this discussion is that I am not decrying the use of wasters completely and utterly at all, merely that they are being used incorrectly in their current form.

Wasters have been a part of Western Martial Arts for many years, indeed their use can be documented as far back as the Roman period where wooden swords (rudius) were used by both legionaries and gladiators for practice. These weapons were used both against the Palus or pell, a standing stake and also in mock combats. Wooden weapons were used in these instances to ensure that no permanent injuries came to the combatants. This idea of using wooden weapons flowed through to the medieval and Renaissance periods and has been adopted in our modern period.

In the first instances the waster in the modern period was only available in wood, this made for a hard, not very forgiving item meaning that they were best designed for practice with another with control exercised on both sides, and of course use at the pell. The SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) took this one step further and used weapons made out of rattan in their melee combatants as a standard weapon for fighting in armour and so it has continued to this day.

More recently nylon and other forms of plastic waster have been introduced, these were, in the beginning, much more forgiving and thus allowed more free-play between the combatants so long as a level of control was shown. Indeed with regard to nylon wasters, back in 2011, I participated in some combats using nylon waster longswords in very minimal armour, and thanks to the control of my opponents and myself the worst the combatants walked away with was a welt here and there. You can follow the following link to have a look at some of those combats:

Due to this particular outing it gave me the idea that if you needed lots of armour to use wasters with an opponent you're doing something wrong. This idea is quite contrary to what I have seen most recently where combatants fighting with wasters are having to armour up to the point where they might as well be using steel, as there is not much difference in the armour requirements. Further, in stark contrast to the playful nature of the bouts I was engaged with the injuries sustained have become quite a bit more serious.

In my opinion this has come about due to a mind-set in the eyes of the combatants using the weapons that they are only plastic so smacking their opponent around as hard as they like is no problem whatsoever. This has resulted in the increase in armour requirements and the increase in injuries from using wasters. The respect which goes from holding a steel weapon in the hand seems to be absent when holding a waster and it is this which needs to be re-introduced. I think part of this comes from realising exactly what a waster is and where it comes from and what it is for.

The waster is to the steel sword, the same way the foil was to the smallsword. To be more precise, both the waster and the foil are practice weapons and nothing more and thus should be treated as such. Their original Roman, medieval and Renaissance use needs to be recognised and thus the tool needs to be used the way it is supposed to be. The waster should be used to demonstrate control over a weapon and present technique with the weapon, just as the foil is designed to teach the new fencer the basics of how to use the epee and thus the smallsword.

Armour should be reduced for the use of wasters and the control of the combatants increased. If this requires them to slow their actions down in order to do this, then that is what is required. Should a tournament be fought with wasters, the aim of the tournament should not only be to see who is the winner at the end of the tournament, but also who presents the best form in technique and control of the weapon as they deliver blows and also defend against them. In essence, the respect for what a waster is and the tool that it is needs to be recognised and respected for what it is.

Should we continue down the path which we are on, what will be the difference in combat with wasters as to steel? What will be the difference in combat with wasters as to what the SCA does?



Sunday, September 13, 2015

On Winning


Sorry about the lack of a post last month, I had an event on which I help run every year and then I moved.

Everyone likes to win. Everyone likes the feeling of defeating an opponent and feeling the sense of victory. This is a positive feeling that surpasses many. It is highly addictive as many will attest to. What needs to be noted, and will be demonstrated in this post is that there are really two paths to victory and greatness, and these two paths result in two different results. We should all consider what path we are on and whether or not we are willing to live with the consequences of this choice.

Two Paths to Greatness

To describe these two paths to greatness I will use the philosophies and use the names and headings of two great writers of the Renaissance. The first is Niccolo Machiavelli, and in this I will focus on his famous book The Prince. The other is Baldassare Castiglione, the writer of the famous book of etiquette The Book of the Courtier. Each one will be used to present a different set of principles and a different approach to victory.

1) Machiavelli

"Lisa: ... Ralph Wiggum lost his shin guard! Hack the bone! Hack the bone."
("Lisa on Ice" - Episode 6, Season 6 - "The Simpsons")
The general reading of Machiavelli's The Prince is about a sanguine individual who will do anything to keep his principality alive. Machiavelli is a very practical man and for the most part is about survival. I would encourage all to read his insightful book. However, using the generally accepted view, this discusses anything for a win. The Machiavellian combatant will find the opponent's weakness any way that he can and use it against him regardless of what it is. This combatant is often brutal in his attacks and will exploit weaknesses in armour as well as in defences.

The Machiavellian combatant will be noted for his practical manner of his fighting rather than finesse. While having skill in his method, there will be a lack of flair in his method, and there will be little satisfaction fighting this combatant as his methods will always be focussed on the gaining of victory rather than the pleasure of crossing swords with an opponent. This combatant will be respected for his ability to win, and his fighting prowess, but not respected as an honourable combatant, thus for the most part he will earn notoriety rather than renown for his exploits.

2) Castiglione

"The art of fencing is about gaining control over your own actions. It is about self-discipline. It is mastery of form and technique, which leads to the effective maneuvering of body and weapon"
Maestro Nick Evangelista
Baldassare Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier was heralded as the book of etiquette for the Renaissance gentleman, and is often still referenced for opinions with regard to the subject of gentlemanly qualities. It presents an individual imbued with qualities which will make him the flavour of the upper crust of society, and an all-round generally pleasant individual to be around. I would, as with Machiavelli's book, encourage you to read this book. The Castiglionian combatant will seek a quality engagement with all of his opponents, regardless of their skill level. His focus is not primarily about winning but about the presentation and performance of his skills. This combatant will use timing and precision to defeat his opponents.

The Castiglionian combatant will be noted for his finesse in the manner of his fighting, along with his timing and application. There will be flair and also the correct application of skill, there will be lots of satisfaction in fighting this combatant as his methods will focus more on the performance on skill rather than winning the engagement, and the pleasure of the encounter. This combatant will be respected regardless of whether he wins or loses due to his application of skill, and his method. He will be respected as an honourable combatant and for the most part will earn renown for his exploits.


I have drawn a stark contrast between the Machiavellian and Castiglionian combatants, however at times we will all drift between the two of them. We should all, however, do our best to focus more on the Castiglionian and the gaining of renown as this will last regardless of our victories. Take care in your actions as there is always someone watching. This counts as much in our training and social bouts as it does for tournaments and public events.



Monday, July 13, 2015

How Many Times This Week? A Question of Practice


Practice is something which has been mentioned time and again to us all in many different activities. I have no doubt that if you were to go back through the posts that I have made on this blog that I will have mentioned it many times. For the most part these articles have been focused more upon how a persons should practice and what they should practice. This post will focus on a different point of view on the same subject, frequency.

The first thing that must be said about the frequency of practice is that regular practice is great. It gets your body and mind into a pattern that it can work with and work to. This enables the body and the mind to prepare for the practice and thus be prepared to learn and enhance skills which have already been attained. However regularity is not the only key, there is the question of frequency.

Regularity of practice is only the first step, frequency is also important. Some will decide that only one session a week is all that they can do. This will result in a truly slow rate of progression unless they are doing some substantial work at home. In reality three sessions are required to really improve, more sessions after that are only improving on that. For the most part, many schools run two sessions a week which students are expected to attend. One of these will focus on the learning aspects while the other will focus on the more practical aspects. The third session, the students are expected to make up in solo drills on their own at home.

What you will find is that if you attend one session a week and do no work at home, you will often have to do repeats of skills to truly learn them. If you do one session a week and then go home and do some sort of solo practice on the new skill this will establish this new skill in a rudimentary form in your skill-set. To really establish a skill you will need three sessions and one of these being drills with a responsive partner to find action and reaction. If your school does not have the sessions in the week to do this then it is up to you do make the time.

We all get homework from school and other learning institutions, this is to encourage us to practice what we have learnt so that it will make connections in our brains. Fencing is no different. You need to do work at home between practices to establish skills for yourself. There are some very simple things that you can do to practice fencing at home.

1. Sitting in Stance - Sit on a chair in your usual on guard stance and do whatever that you were normally going to do with the upper part of your body. I have found this usually works best on an office chair in front of a computer.

2. Footwork in the House - Use your fencing footwork to move around the house. This will make the movements natural to you so that you do not have to think about them.

3. Hand and Foot - Move your hand before your foot. This adds on to the previous one, always remember to move your hand before your foot in your actions. Approach the fridge, extend your hand, step closer to it. Approach a bookshelf, extend your hand, step closer to it. Do this consciously.

4. Hanging on a String - Hang a piece of string, attach a tennis ball to it, have a stick the same length as your sword next to it. Every time you pass the stick, pick it up and strike the ball 5 times from proper distance on guard. Once you are striking it more times than not, change it to a lunge. Then shrink the target and repeat.

5. Stationary Target - Cardboard box flattened approximately the same size as your torso. Hang it on a wall. Divide it into quadrants. To start, simply thrust at the box from on guard. Once you can hit the box without missing aim for each individual quadrant. Add footwork once you can strike each quadrant and strike each quadrant on the move, including on a lunge.

These are five simple physical practice elements that you can do so that you can practice solo at home. If you do not have a sword, the weapon can be swapped for a stick of the same length that you would normally use. These drills are simple and apply to all fencers regardless of their level. While the footwork drills are less applicable, we can all use a brush-up now and then.

Exercise the Mind
"Accidents happen", an unfortunate but true fact of life. Regardless of how we protect ourselves injury and illness are only a step around the corner. The result of these is often time off where we cannot do the physical practice which the art of the sword requires, however, there is not an end to it. There is always the mind to exercise.

Studies have shown that individuals who exercise their minds as well as their bodies do much better than those who just exercise their bodies. Reading about the actions of fencing and practicing them in our minds actually goes some distance to assisting us in our training. It familiarises us with the ideas of fencing and the theoretical aspects and these explain the physical. If you cannot go out and actual do fencing your should be at least reading or thinking about it.



Saturday, June 13, 2015

What's In A Name?


We need to be careful about our naming conventions in order that we do not misname our sources. This can become more difficult when we are dealing with foreign names, be they of a different nationality, from a different time period, or even both. This particular issue can result in a misnaming of a source over a long period of time. There are two examples I would like to cite a this point in time, one French, and the other Spanish.

The first is an author who is often referred to as "Liancour". His name is Andre Wernesson, Sieur de Liancour. Someone has taken the last part of his name and thought that this was his surname or family name, because it was the last bit of his name. Incorrect. Liancour, or Liancourt, is a geographical location. Andre Wernesson is the Lord of Liancour. So the author should be referred to in the text as "Wernesson", sometimes spelt "Vernesson".

The second author is often referred to as "Narvaez". His name is Don Luis Pacheco de Narvaez. Once again someone not knowing naming conventions has simply taken the last part of the name and used it as the surname. Once again, incorrect. Again Narvaez is a geographical location. Luis Pacheco, is from Narvaez, and has the title of Don. So the author should be referred to as Pacheco.

In our research into various martial arts and the use of the sword we need to examine the sources carefully, but we also need to look at the authors carefully to make sure that we are naming them correctly. This allows anyone who would follow our research later on to find the same sources and gain the same knowledge that we have gained. Misnaming sources by their authors can cause all sorts of issues in finding the sources for other readers and researchers. This could lead them to believe that the source does not exist and even question the research. Take care in your research, and give credit where credit is due, and to the correct author.



Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Watch Your Assumptions


We all come to fencing through different paths and from different backgrounds. Some come from sport fencing backgrounds, some come from oriental martial arts. The result of this is that well all carry a certain amount of "baggage" with us. A certain amount where we read something and rather than going off exactly what is read we assume that we know what is being said based on our previous knowledge. This can lead us into issues.

We must remember to read the manuals that we are reading and read them with a similar perspective to the one which the writer wrote them. For example: in the case of an Elizabethan manual, it is important that late Italian knowledge is not read into it, or even later. This can often happen as a result of our history and our background and thus our assumptions. The classical fencer, with his foil and epee has four distinct parries which he remembers. The rapier combatant may use actions which may in part be similar to these but the actions may not be named or used in the same way. If the classical fencer reads these parries into a rapier manual then he can find himself horribly confused. We must ensure that we do not put anachronistic terms, theories and practices into a manual as it will cause problems with the interpretation.

This particular situation became most evident for me when teaching a class on di Grassi, and more to the point his single sword. This would seem to be relatively simple except my own assumptions got the better of me and began to cause issues. Giacomo di Grassi states:
For the defence whereof it is needefull that he ſtand at the lowe warde, and as the thruſt cometh, that he encounter it without, with the edge of the ſword, and increaſe a ſlope pace forward, with the hinder foote at the verie ſame time, by which pace he moueth out of the ſtraight line, and paſſeth on the right ſide of the enimie. And he muſt remember to beare alwaies the poynt of the ſword toward the enimie: So that the enimie in comming forwardes, ether runneth himſelfe on the ſword, which may eaſely happen, and ſo much the rather, when he commeth reſolutelie determined to ſtrike, or elſe if he come not ſo farre forwardes that he encountereth the ſword, yet he may be ſafelie ſtroken, with the encreaſe of a ſtreight pace:
So my first reading, all assumptions engaged stated this: Parry the sword in third with a slope pace forward with the hind foot with the point toward the enemy, which he should run upon. If he does not move forward to strike if he does not. Easy, right? Wrong. Problem here is that with a parry of third, the point tends to be a little high, so there are hilt issues with the opponent's weapon coming in at the downward angle from the High Ward. This did not result in the nice clean execution that di Grassi describes at all. Working through it again, if the thrust from the High Ward is encountered with the blade of the sword in the fashion of a cut, a mandritta tondo, not a parry, the action works much more cleanly.

Be careful about when you are reading and interpreting the manuals and figure out what your assumptions are before they make a mess of things. Or at least be aware of them so that you can understand them and so that you can fix them. Manuals need to be evaluated from the point of view of the time in which they were written and using the terms from when they were written. Mistakes such as these were made by many fencing historians, it would be best for us not to repeat them and gain a greater understanding of these works.



Monday, April 13, 2015

The Myth of Speed


Interested in learning how to be amazingly fast, performing actions faster than your opponents? Do you want to know the secrets? Unfortunately the secrets are not really secrets. In fact, there are no secret methods or practices to make you faster. It comes from practice.

Now, it is true that muscle use does have a part to play and this has an effect upon the skill being performed, but where the muscles end the hard work begins. There is only a finite amount of power that can be added to an action before it starts to be a problem. Too much power added to the action can actually decrease the efficiency of the action. Practicing the action allows control to be added to the equation thus the right amount of power is added.

The reason that the more experienced combatant seems to move faster is that they have had more practice. The result of the practice is that the actions of the combatant become efficient thus making the action seem faster. So practicing the skills is one of the most important elements in becoming more efficient, however there is also one more element which a fencer can only develop over time and through experience, and that is timing.

Timing is about knowing when to perform an action, when to defend, when to strike, even when to move and when to stay still. Timing is developed through engagement with other opponents, thus through fencing. This is a comparative scale worked out in the mind between the actions of the fencer and the actions of the opponents, this builds a record of patterns of actions and reactions, and the time it takes for these to occur. Timing is about using the correct action at the correct time.

All of these elements will build together to create a fencer which will seem to be faster to other combatants, but as can be seen, it is actually the result of practice and experience.