Sunday, February 24, 2013
Its a Friday night and I’m at my son’s karate school. There are only two students: my son and a young black-belt. The instructor and I talk while he leads the boys through their exercises. We reminisce about old TV shows we watched as kids, debating our favorite Catwoman, his is Julie Neumar, mine is Eartha Kitt. As the class ends, the discussion drifts from what inspired our imaginations as kids to what inspires us as martial artists. We identify some of those universal things that tie his eastern martial arts and my western swordsmanship. I show him a plate out of Fabris. The duelists are contorted in an uncomfortable position: bodies bent, arms bent up with elbows pointed to the sky, blade parallel to the ground.
He immediately sees the value in the guard. Its similar to one his own instructor taught him. He demonstrates, his body leaning back, arms crossed in a manner that protects the body but seems able to strike if someone were to punch or kick at him. It takes me a few moments before I see the similarities.
I’m impressed, not that he’s able to decipher the guard so quickly (especially in a martial form with which he’s unfamiliar), but because he immediately finds its practicality and applies it to his own technique. We step back and forth for a moment, demonstrating how the guard blocks away an attack and immediately strikes back.
Looking back, I found the exchange between the instructor and myself interesting because when I was first learning that technique, it didn’t immediately make any sense. I’d studied Italian swordsmanship for a couple of years, and had just been introduced to Fabris. A small study group consisting of a couple of people and myself were going through the manual, page by page, plate by plate. When we initially came across this plate, we were confused. The position just didn’t look right. Obviously, it had to have some value. Fabris had no small amount of prestige and influence. We had to assume that the plate had validity. There was the picture of an unusual guard with accompanying text. We just needed to decipher the puzzle.
We had a well-developed plan of attack. One fighter served as the aggressor, the person doomed to die in our experiment. That was our objective: kill the aggressor with Fabris’ instruction. The defender would strike the killing blow with the appropriate technique (I initially had that honor). One person was the director, a choreographer who, using clues from the plates and the texts, put us into our positions and guided our movements. The three of us became a cooperative troupe, each discovering the validity (or lack thereof) of each action from our unique perspective. We each communicated with each other, and shared what we learned through our own eyes of aggressor, defender, and director.
The first thing I did as defender was to go into position and sit there, like it was a passive guard. The contortion felt ludicrous. It wasn’t stable. There didn’t appear to be any more value in this guard as opposed to an upright guard. I didn’t feel particularly vulnerable, just uncomfortable. I couldn’t imagine that this was a position I’d want to maintain in a fight.
And that was just it...it wasn’t. The plates are snapshots that serve a particular purpose. In this case, the movement described on the plate is the position one would put oneself in shortly before one strikes. The text helped with that discovery:
“Begin forming this guard as you are still upright. As you see your opponent approaching, gradually lower your body and withdraw your sword; once your opponent is within the measures, he will find your body as low as possible and your sword as withdrawn as you can possibly keep it without taking it out of line.” (p. 38)
So we followed that advice. I started upright, in a second guard (knuckles upward, sword straight out at almost shoulder-height). As the aggressor stepped forward, I slowly pulled my body down, my body crouched, elbow up, sword forward, until my opponent was close enough for me to strike.
It still felt like something was lacking. Would my opponent advance slowly? Would I, slowly and deliberately, draw myself down and contort myself into position, and wait for a moment to strike? According to the text, once my opponent was in range, I would, “quickly unleash an attack to the inside in fourth.” It seemed possible, but seemed like a long way to go for the action. It felt contrived...like a bad self-defense class that would teach, “Okay, if I grab you just like this, then you do this...”
“What if they don’t grab me just like this?”
“Well, I have another technique for that...”
It didn’t seem right, that a fencing manual that has survived this long, that has been interpreted, shared, and copied for the last four-hundred years would be reduced to “If this, then that,” instructions. There should be movements that would be familiar to anyone who was learning to fight. We should be able to identify the value in the guard and the actions. Fabris was teaching students how to keep their lives in a time when young men armed with both sword and ego travelled together in the same social circles.
So we did it again, and looked for more clues in the text or the art. The director wondered why, “cuts are more easily parried from this guard” (a line from near the end of the description of the guard). The aggressor then changed her attack. As I coiled down, she moved forward as if she were delivering a cut downward to my head. We found that, if the timing was right, the attack was thwarted by my “withdrawn” blade and my head was out of the way of the attack. From there, I could deliver a killing retaliatory blow (precisely in fourth, with my arm crossed across my body, palm up...just like the text said I should).
It all came together when we decided to move at greater speed, delivering our attacks with more sincere intent. The aggressor rushed me, swinging her sword down to the top of my head.
I reacted appropriately, by yelling in fear and ducking. It seemed like the most rational reaction.
Look back at the plate. Imagine yourself in the position of the fighter presented in the artwork. Imagine someone swinging a sword down on your head. The subject there is ducking out of the way, voiding the body, parrying the downward-striking attack with the outstretched blade. From that position, it seems like the most natural action to stretch your arm forward, like a spring-driven trap, and thrust in fourth to kill your opponent.
It was like we’d just unlocked some arcane secret. We switched roles, over and over, so each of us in our little study group could see the action from their own perspective. Each of us agreed that, when done full speed, with intent, this technique seemed not just effective, but natural. One could even say it seemed like the most rational thing to do.
We could not have deciphered the value of the plate without several key elements. We each had to see the action from our own perspective. We each had to know the basics of how to fight...our guards, footwork and bladework. We had to trust the author and his material. We had to believe in its value.
The material was a puzzle...a crime scene that we had to enact ourselves, over and over. The text and plates gave us guidelines, like clues to the crime. We took the starting and stopping points, directions that moved us forward to the ultimate objective: the aggressor defeated, and the defender saved.
Once we discovered the technique to decipher the plate, we could apply it to the rest of our study. The plates do not exist in a vacuum. Their value is hidden if you try to take them alone, on their face. A plate, if taken alone, without sincere study in the company of the others in its manual, is meaningless. We were able to unlock the value of the plates by applying our knowledge of those universal truths in swordsmanship, those foundations of timing, distance and accuracy, and relying on our trust in the material, and utilizing our own passion and perseverance to uncover a seemingly-arcane technique.
Fabris was certainly not trying to obfuscate his material. But we, students of defense studying the text four-hundred years later, may have to approach the manual like we’re interpreting art. We can take it out and dissect it, applying it based on our perceptions and our experiences, comparing it against what we already know. We can debate a style’s value against other techniques we know. I imagine that’s how my son’s karate instructor thinks about it, when he sees an Italian swordfighting guard and immediately applies it to his own skills.
Text and images from Art of Dueling: Salvatore Fabris’ Rapier Fencing Treatise of 1606. Tommaso Leoni. Chivalry Bookshelf. 2005.