Thursday, 30 April 2009

Broadswords and Buffaloes

Hi all,
here's a rather good essay by a chap called Chris Thompson, which was posted on the Sword Forum International board. Have a read, it's pretty good! Also keep this in mind when the next Tourney is being organised in Helsinki. The idea is that its a safe and fun way to put into practice what we train week in week out, NOT to win at all costs. If you lose a bout or a match, so what? All you are losing is points. Think of the invaluable experience gained from fencing against strangers or friends who you don't normally spar with. The post match analysis over a cup of tea or a beer is also an integral and positive part of the whole experience.......

Broadswords and Buffaloes: A short essay regarding levels of intensity in League bouts-by Christopher Scott Thompson

Elsewhere I have written about the value of fencing with a high degree of intensity, even beyond that with which one feels completely comfortable. In terms of your ability to master the stress of a violent encounter, intense training is essential. Now I'm going to take a different point of view, and discuss the problems with trying to fence that way in a competitive venue such as the Broadsword League.

It is possible to be a formidable competitor without being a particularly good swordsman. This seems counterintuitive, but it is true. Let's say the highest level of intensity that can be fenced with complete safety for both parties is rated as 6 out of 10. 10 would be the level where you are actually trying to do real harm to your opponent, in other words a real fight and not a bout. Most bouts are fought somewhere between 4 and 5, with 6 being the level at which the action starts to get sharp and even a little bit scary but is still controlled.With a lot of protective gear or with inherently harmless weapons such as toy foam swords, you could safely go as high as 8 or 9, but that would be unrealistic due to the illusion of safety. In other words, both fencers would be far more aggressive than they would ever dare to be in a real fight, because they know they can't be hurt. With the typical gear used in competitive broadsword fencing, however, 6 is about as high as you should go with anyone with the possible exception of a rare and deliberate training experience with a trusted partner.

Broadsword fencing in the era of sharp weapons was exactly the same. You can easily kill a man with a single blow of the broadsword, and battlefield descriptions of the aftermath of a Highland broadsword charge describe severed limbs and broken weapons on all sides. This sort of combat is not what competitive broadsword fencing represents, because it cannot possibly be. Nothing is like the battlefield except the battlefield.Stage gladiators and other broadsword duelists rarely killed each other. Most single combats with the broadsword were resolved by a bleeding cut to the arm, leg or sometimes the head, with fatalities resulting only unintentionally or when one fencer was unreasonably stubborn or bloodthirsty. They were fencing each other with sharp weapons but with such self-control that they inflicted only the minimum level of injury needed to demonstrate superior skill. My guess is that the typical duel or prizefight with sharp broadswords, just like the typical Broadsword League bout, was fought at about level 4 or 5, or else people would have been killed on a regular basis by the sharp weapons they were using.
This is the type of combat represented by the Broadsword League.Nobody fights in the League at level 9 or 10, because that is the mentality of the battlefield and serious injuries would be the inevitable result. The worst injury we've seen so far is a broken finger, and that was the result of a fencer going to level 7 or 8. He injured his opponent- and lost the bout anyway.

This brings me to my point. I can fight at any level I need to, all the way up to 10, and so can many other serious broadsword fencers. Some broadsword fencers are not yet at the stage in their training where they are capable of that; 5 or 6 is the highest level they can handle while 7 or 8 would totally overwhelm them. However, 6 is the highest that I or just about anyone else can fence at with relative safety for both fencers, so anything beyond 6 is starting to leave the realm of a fencing bout and enter the realm of an actual fight.What this means is that if I face an opponent who goes to level 7 or 8, I am forced into the position of being responsible for both of us, since he is not really being responsible for either of us.

This puts me at an inherent disadvantage throughout the fight, because he can concentrate primarily on winning while I am forced to concentrate on making sure no one gets hurt, and then trying to win with that additional handicap. Obviously he could go to the same level in a real fight and I would lose if I couldn't handle it, but in a real fight I wouldn't have to be responsible for his safety at the same time. You can't replicate the mentality of a life or death fight in a competitive arena, because "I want to win" is a totally different mindset from "I want to stay alive" or "I want to kill this man."For this reason, fencing at level 7 or 8 is not really realistic even if it seems like it ought to be more realistic. If both fencers go all out, one or both will be badly hurt. If not, then one of them is making sure it doesn't happen, at the expense of his own ability to fight and win.

The "buffalo" (as rough fencers are called) might think he is showing appropriate control because he isn't fencing at level 9 or 10, but he is simply wrong. What he is actually doing is counting on his opponent's sense of responsibility to give him an unfair advantage.Excessive intensity allows the buffalo to paper over his own lack of skill at the art itself. All he needs is fast reactions, a watchful eye, and the willingness to hit very hard. If his opponent does not or cannot take the fight to the same level of intensity, he will often win, even if his fencing ability as such is sub-par.I have known competitors who did nothing except stand on guard and hit as hard and as fast as possible the moment the opponent came within distance. I have known a competitor whose only tactic was to charge forward with the exact same barrage of strikes every time he fought, without the slightest concern for his own defense. Cutting 1,2,3,4 and 7 as hard and as fast as he could get away with was the one solution to every tactical question in this fencer's mind.

Against an opponent who cannot handle the intensity, these approaches will work, even though they are not examples of skillful swordsmanship. They work for psychological reasons that exist only in the context of the bout and not in real combat, because the opponent has no reason to want to get injured over a friendly fencing match and will therefore respond differently than he otherwise would. He would quite possibly be overwhelmed in the exact same way in a real duel, but the result might be different than the buffalo had anticipated. In one famous real-life incident, the charging buffalo opened his mouth in a terrifying scream as he attacked- only to swallow a few feet of his opponent's blade as the man simply extended his arm in a blind panic, killing the bully on the spot.

Against an opponent who can handle the intensity, the buffalo will usually lose, although he will lose by a much narrower margin than he really ought to because his opponent will be actively protecting him from the consequences of his own recklessness whether he realizes it or not.If you would lose at level 4 or 5, you have no business winning simply because you decide to fight at level 7 or 8. Skillful swordsmanship works under all conditions; it does not depend on intimidation or on the opponent's sense of responsibility.

All broadsword fencers should spend substantial training time working at level 2 or 3- what we describe in my school as "slow play." Slow play cannot be won by speed or athleticism, because none is used; it can only be won by intelligent use of real fencing technique. All broadsword fencers should also spend a lot of time fencing at level 4 or 5, and a certain amount of time at level 6. Level 7 should be used only by advanced fencers as an occasional training experiment with a trusted partner. The purpose of this is to build the fencer's ability to handle psychochemical stress reactions that occur in actual combat. These reactions can sometimes occur spontaneously even in a friendly bout, as in one case where I experienced tunnel vision and loss of fine motor control in an ordinary bout against a new opponent. For this reason, even if you don't believe in "training for the duel," it's still a useful skill to be able to fence effectively under those conditions.

Anything above level 7 is a real fight and not training, and should therefore never be done in training because it can't be. (The Dog Brothers is one group that actually trains a few times a year at what I would call level 8 or 9. This works only as stickfighting and not as swordsmanship, because the Dog Brothers are willing to absorb stick strikes that would be either lethal or crippling with a sharp sword.)Anything above level 6 ("sharp and even a little bit scary but still controlled") has no place in League competition, and even level 6 should be entered into only if both fencers are up to it. It should not be imposed by one fencer on another fencer in order to overwhelm him.The seconds should always stop the bout if these conditions are not met or understood by both fencers. If you're fencing without seconds, it's up to you to do the same. If your opponent is trying to win through raw violence alone, you should simply refuse to continue the fight. Report the incident to the League, and the fight will be voided.Broadsword League bouts represent a controlled and intelligent test of fencing skill between two respectful opponents. They cannot and do not represent a free-for-all, "kill or be killed" battlefield situation. The type of broadsword fencing we want to represent is that which would work consistently under all conditions, and not only against opponents we can personally intimidate.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

A concise description of Fiorean ordination or how to read the treatises

Not my words. This is copied and pasted directly from the Sword Forum International site. The thread discussion was on the clarification of the Dagger Masters (Fiore). This was written by Mark Lancaster of The Exiles group. It was so neatly and clearly put, I had to repost it here. Thanks Mark, it helps A LOT!

"Think of each Master as being an expert in whatever Fiore is describing at the time (i.e. he is representing mastery).
So, we have several different areas of expertise:

1. The stages of a fight (from the introduction).
a. The first expert is Master Battle. He knows how to fight (distance, reaction, etc). In context this would be an expert fighter of the period and Fiore does not go into much more detail (but see below).

b. This expert, however, can be countered (Fiore calls this a Remedy) by the expert Master Remedy. This is really where Fiore's manuscript starts (he expects the reader to know the bulk/jist of Master Battle).

c. The first person (who was the expert Master Battle) could be good enough that he/she knows the technique used by the Master Remedy expert and how to counter it. Fiore calls this Contra, so we have Master Contra.

d. Finally the chap who did the Remedy knows how to counter this Master Contra and is Master Contra-Contrary. This is so rare that is it only shown once in Dagger and Fiore basically says that the fight (if it every reaches this stage) won't go any further.

The above is like a pyramid with four layers (Master Battle at the bottom and Master Contra-Contrary at the very peak). The options (techniques) reduce as the fight continues.

2. The Posta Masters
Here Fiore is basically giving good "expert" positions from which to fight and to recover into (maybe in the middle of a technique). He is saying that mastery of these posta/positions and how they can be used are core to his system. The natural place that this happens is in the first stages of the encounter - Master Battle - and when recovering out of a technique/encounter back to a Master Battle position. Knowing these postas and mastering them gives your brain basic building blocks (like lego) to find within the fight and reduces the thinking time dramatically.

3. The Dagger Requisites.
Fiore gives us four requisites of dagger - each shown as a Master (with the crown). These show the areas of expertise that define mastery of dagger fighting in general - being able to strip the dagger from your opponent; being able to break limbs (in his view); being able to lock your oppenent and finally being able to use all of the unarmed/wresting skills shown in abrazare.The important point here is that the illustration shows someone who is getting older (check the beard) and better dressed with each of the four illustrations and Fiore is saying that these progressively take longer to master - i.e. the easiest thing to learn is to strip the dagger and the hardest (requiring longer to master) is the full abrazare within dagger.

4. The 9 Masters of Dagger
In the entire dagger section Fiore shows 9 different "methods" with several sub/progressive techniques for countering a dagger attack. These cover attacks from above and below and can be stopped one handed (left and right) or two handed, etc. Fiore has grouped all of these possibilities into 9 methods and he starts each one by showing the Master and the basic technique - i.e. the expertise of how to implement the defence/counter (he calls it remedy).

However, he then states that he will let his students/scholars show the other techniques that spring out of these nine methods.This has two illustrative advantages. First he is showing the arrogance of a Master by only showing the basic method and then allowing his students to do the hard work. Second it makes it easier to illustrate when a Master Contrary comes in to counter these Remedy techniques.If you can crack this use of Master then the manuscripts suddenly make a lot of very simple sense at a quick glance. I could look at any technique, without text, and tell you what is happening by who to whom.Don't know if that helps - but it's my contribution."