Sunday, February 3, 2008

Sunday Swordfighting Notes


"The right tool for the right job."

When I started fencing in the SCA, I was confused. I'd done SCA rataan combat for a couple of years, which was nothing at all like any kinds of fighting I'd tried to study before (karate, boxing & wrestling). SCA fencing looked too much like strip-fencing, which I was an absolutely arcane mystery (what the hell is right-of-way, anyway?). Rataan combat was unique; my teachers were knowledgeable in SCA combat, and precious little of other fighting arts they studied bled in. Fencing, though, seemed to be an amalgamation of collegiate strip fencing and something that wanted to be historical reenactment. When I was taught to swing rataan, I was taught, by rote, how to execute a proper swing, or how to handle a heater-style shield, how to move my body in armor. It was all appropriate for our particular style of fighting, and although there may be stylistic differences from one teacher to another, the core always remained constant. With fencing, though, technique seemed fluid, depending upon the weapon and the teacher.

Some of my fencing instructors had strong backgrounds in foil, some epee, some sabre; they were practical, showing me how to hold a proper fencing-blade and throw precise attacks and tight parries. A few were students of historical sword-fighting, who had examples of stances and guards from 400 year-old plates. Some were fight choreographers, who modified showy stage-moves into a fighting technique. Every one of them told me, "this is the right way to do it."

It took me years to start to figure things out. My weapon wasn't anything like an olympic epee or foil, so trying to use it like one failed. I wasn't really using a rapier, so trying to treat my weapon like a rapier never worked. I had fun experimenting and fighting, but I got very little out of each fight. My learning curve was very shallow; I learned stronger technique from my friends, and I tried to pay attention to why I was hit where I was hit, and I drilled some of the basics (as well as I could), but things still seemed muddled.

A few years ago, I started learning from E.B. (SCA THL Justinian Timagens), and things clicked. We stripped my technique down to the bone. We eschewed other weapons forms like case-of-rapier and rapier-and-dagger, and concentrated on single rapier. We worked on foundations: distance, time, and measure. Since I could concentrate on the strictest foundations of fighting, my fighting improved. I saw myself improve. My attention was better. I saw openings in my opponents I hadn't seen before. I judged my distance and time better. I thought more clearly about how I fought, and why I fought the way I did.

Once I built a solid foundation, I could build myself as a better historical sword-fighter. I made a decision: concentrate on historical technique. I was a tough decision to put away my oval cross-section schlager and use something closer to a rapier. Hand and arm position had to change, I had to adjust my stance, re-learn elements of timing and distance to accommodate a slightly longer and heavier weapon. Parries were slightly different; movements to control a blade take precedence over beat-attacks. I was at step-one again.

If I wanted to do it, though, I had to make a commitment. No epees or foils, no plywood bucklers or cut-down foils to use as dagger blades. I'm certainly not making a commentary about other fighters who choose to fight with foils or the like; rather, I'm saying that if someone wants to do purely historical re-enactment, those tools don't work. I had to commit to using the right tool for the right job.

I don't recommend this for everyone. Its a style I enjoy playing with; my greatest joy when I'm using a sword comes when we discover how to properly execute a move described in a manual...that "a-ha!" moment when another student and I say, "they did it this way for this purpose!" Interpreting historical sword-fighting is, for me, an different than other historians re-creating battles or trying to rebuild a medieval castle. I want to re-build what existed back then.

I'm no armchair-historian, who interprets battles without ever visiting a battlefield or meeting a soldier. I want to see how the weapon works. I do test-cuts when I can. I fight different people with different styles and philosophies, and talk about how the fight went. I fight with different weapons in different ways; I'm not afraid to experiment. If I couldn't experiment, there would be no fun, no room to grow, and ultimately, no point.

I'm moving into a era where I have to focus much more on scholarship. Neither my cardiologist nor my general physician think it is safe for me to participate in contact-sports, due to the volume of blood-thinners I'm taking (if I bleed internally, things can get very bad, very fast). So, with my coach's encouragement (thanks, Ed), I'm going to spend more time with the manuals open. I'll work with people interested in re-creating fights described in the manuals, movements described in the plates, and creating exhibitions for display and education. I'll still hold a sword, and I'll still work with other sword-fighters, but putting myself into competitive situations where I can get seriously hurt aren't options any longer (so, in terms of the SCA, no sidesword, no rataan, and precious little time in tournaments). Its a little disappointing to have some of what I'm doing limited by medical concerns, but I still get to participate in the hobby I genuinely love.

The purpose of this work is to chronicle my studies. Every week, I will write about whatever I've learned from the historical sword-fighting community. I will put down notes about how I teach, and I want to chronicle what I've learned. I want to be able to look back on my notes and see what kinds of progress I've made, or chart everything I need to correct. It can serve as an encouragement and a reminder.

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