Harnischfecthen - proper equipment to better understand

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Harnischfecthen - proper equipment to better understand

Post by Hugh Knight » Wed Dec 16, 2009 12:05 am

EDIT: This thread was split from another thread on "chest protection" that can be found here: http://hroarr.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f ... p=239#p239

The biggest need in Harnischfechten is armor that accurately reflects the limitations to movement that real armor did. You can't wear padded vests to simulate a breastplate because the vest will give and move in ways a steel breastplate wouldn't, allowing you to do things you couldn't do in real armor. And it's not just the breastplate: For example, most people have no idea how much the interaction between the lower cannon of the vambrace and the cuff of the gauntlet limit hand and wrist motion. Face it, the only way to practice armored combat is in *armor*. There's no point in saying someone can't afford it, until you put on plate, you can't feel it, and so you can't do it.
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Re: Chest protection

Post by Roger N » Wed Dec 16, 2009 12:21 am

All true of course. But I do think you can draw some conclusions with simpler equipment as well, as long as you do it with great awareness of the limitations of the equipment. It ought to depend on what and how you practice, and what you expect to get out of it all. Still, nothing can simulate proper armour better than just that, proper armour. :)

However, attacking weaknesses in armour with intent also seems a bit dangerous. How do you handle that?
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Re: Chest protection

Post by Hugh Knight » Wed Dec 16, 2009 1:23 am

No one in my Schule will ever be allowed to engage in armored free play (the only kind of free play we do) without a harness that accurately reflects the limitations of real medieval armor; it doesn’t have to be perfectly accurate from a historical standpoint (such harnesses will usually be very expensive indeed), but it must be constructed in such a way that it limits the wearer in the same way real armor did. When I see people doing what they claim is Harnischfechten on YouTube and making motions that couldn't possibly be done in real armor, it's really saddening. To me, this is a clear indication of someone who's more interested in playing than in studying historical combat.

Sure, you will certainly start to learn the techniques of the art without armor, there’s nothing wrong with that. But the way you can use those techniques is very strongly influenced by the way the armor limits your motion, and you can’t learn that without having the armor. For example, look at YouTube videos and watch people making huge, long thrusts. The cuffs of your gauntlets should prevent you from bending the wrist far enough for such thrusts because they hit against the lower cannon of your vambrace. Or look at how far they cross their arms across their chests to do displacements, when the breastplate should prevent the arm from reaching that far across your body. And there are more subtle things as well, such as the way you become unbalanced when you wear a full harness since it moves your center of balance point higher on your body.

If you use simulators that are constructed safely, with padded tips, etc., then the gaps in the harness can be thrust at safely; sure, a powerful thrust to the armpit hurts, but it won't do any serious damage. Of course, this requires the addition of a grilled visor (such as those seen in Fiore) so that you can simulate the open face most commonly seen in the Fechtbücher. And the use of rubber "pommels" and pollaxe heads allows for completely safe striking techniques since all striking techniques are aimed at plate, not at exposed targets.

Armored combat is as much about the armor as it is about the techniques being studied. To ignore one or both is to eschew any relevance to historical combat.
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Re: Chest protection

Post by Roger N » Wed Dec 16, 2009 9:55 am

I do understand your position here and you are of course absolutely correct in stating that proper harness is ideal for practicing harnischfecthen. But, as you mention, historical accuracy is not as important as is the fact that it hinders you similarly. But isn't this topic even more complex?

For instance, I could imagine a combatant that weren't wearing full harness but different types and combinations of armour while still using halfsword techniques and other techniques suitable to attack an opponent in full harness? Range of motion must have varied with the specific armour worn by each combatant. A brigandine, jack chains and other light armour does not hinder you in the same way. Of course, in judicial combat we usually see full harness or none at all, but for the battlefield I can imagine that things were different.

And, using simulators is also problematic. You both really need to use properly weighted and balanced weapons with proper intent to fully understand the characteristics of the type of fighting you are engaging in. Overhand grip with a sliding spear thrust is quite risky with a heavy spear and a steel spearhead, but works well with lighter simulators or, of course, real lighter spears.

But, using properly weighted polearms with proper intent is too dangerous for most people's taste of course, so a compromise has to be made. Also hookings and thrusts to exposed areas are still often too dangerous to perform even in full harness, when used with intent. A compromise has to be made here as well.

So while I agree in general, I do think we all have to compromise since few of us actually want to risk serious injury while practicing. What those compromises are varies, but as long as we are aware of the consquenses of those compromises I do think we can learn a lot from any type of practice, even if we might have to revise our understanding when we change the compromises in another type of practice.
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Re: Chest protection

Post by Hugh Knight » Wed Dec 16, 2009 11:14 am

Roger Norling wrote:I do understand your position here and you are of course absolutely correct in stating that proper harness is ideal for practicing harnischfecthen. But, as you mention, historical accuracy is not as important as is the fact that it hinders you similarly. But isn't this topic even more complex?
Hello Roger,

Historical accuracy of the harness is important, don't get me wrong, but most people can't afford the $20K or more (much more) such a harness costs. If we were doing living history demonstrations that would be one thing, and that's why I have a harness designed for living history activities (although I don't do LH any more), but from a pure martial art standpoint there's little reason to require that kind of attention to detail as long as the harness *functions* like a real one, or at least close enough.
For instance, I could imagine a combatant that weren't wearing full harness but different types and combinations of armour while still using halfsword techniques and other techniques suitable to attack an opponent in full harness? Range of motion must have varied with the specific armour worn by each combatant. A brigandine, jack chains and other light armour does not hinder you in the same way. Of course, in judicial combat we usually see full harness or none at all, but for the battlefield I can imagine that things were different.
The vast majority of Fechtbücher are concerned solely with Kampffechten between gentlemen of coat armor, at least in so far as the Harnischfechten is concerned. Lower-class soldiers in partial harnesses did not participate in such contests. To the best of my knowledge, most of the Fechtbücher don't address battlefield tactics at all, excepting a few of the odd Roßfechten plates in Talhoffer 1459 and 1467, and even those seem to apply to the phase of battle wherein the lines have broken down.
And, using simulators is also problematic. You both really need to use properly weighted and balanced weapons with proper intent to fully understand the characteristics of the type of fighting you are engaging in. Overhand grip with a sliding spear thrust is quite risky with a heavy spear and a steel spearhead, but works well with lighter simulators.
I'm not sure what you've been working with, but I have ash spears with steel heads that work quite well for all of the techniques I find in the Fechtbücher. I do not, however, use them for free play because they are too dangerous. If you use good ash spear shafts and put some solid foam on them for a spear head they are quite safe, and handle very realistically. May I ask, which Fechtbuch did you see that suggested a thrust single done overhead with a spear, by the way? I thought I'd seen all of the spear sources and none of them suggest such a technique. All of the sources I've seen show the majority of thrusts being done from the lower guard except in the Winden, and there you wouldn't want to do a thrust single because you'd lose the leverage of the Winden.

Incidentally, if your spears don't work too well, may I suggest they may be unbalanced? When you look at really well-drawn medieval depictions of spears you will see that the spear shafts are tapered from the butt to the point. Part of the reason has to do with the way long, linear objects tend to break, but another part of the reason is to balance the spear so that the head doesn't seem heavier than the butt in use.

As for swords, balance simply isn't an issue, since you'll be using it for halfsword thrusts or for Mordschlagen. They're just too short to be a problem when used that way. I recommend rattan or hickory shafts with a lightly padded thrusting tip and a heavily padded "pommel" end.

Pollaxes are somewhat more tricky: Every attempt I've seen to make them handle perfectly has led to shattered shafts; this happened just two weeks ago at a seminar I gave. Someone wanted to weight his shafts more accurately, and his shaft shattered and sent jagged pieces across the gym. I'm trying to work out a way to wrap heavy rubber behind the rubber axe head to create a stronger sense of "unbalance" in them. Still, just using rattan shafts with rubber heads and foam tips has created weapons that balance about one third of the way down the shaft, which is just where my steel axe balances.
But, using properly weighted polearms with proper intent is too dangerous for most people's taste of course, so a compromise has to be made. Also hookings and thrusts to exposed areas are still often too dangerous to perform even in full harness, when used with intent. A compromise has to be made here as well.
See above; and I agree with hooking to the legs, but hooks to the neck are fine as long as you take them only to the point of "setting" the hook so you don't wrench the victim's neck. It's not perfect, but it's reasonably close; if you can set the hook, you can probably do the technique. But as for thrusting into the gaps in a harness, I disagree, and have been doing it for many, many years. As I wrote in my previous post, simply building up a foam point makes the weapon safe enough to stab an armpit with. It might hurt like hell, sure, but that's life.
So while I agree in general, I do think we all have to compromise since few of us actually want to risk serious injury while practicing. What those compromises are varies, but as long as we are aware of the consquenses of those compromises I do think we can learn a lot from any type of practice, even if we might have to revise our understanding when we change the compromises in another type of practice.
With respect, I don't agree with your conclusion. Your argument amounts to saying "well, we have to compromise on some issues" (and I think I can show you that you need less compromise than you believe), "so it's fine to compromise on others." That doesn't follow. Just because you can't hook someone's legs out from under him without a serious risk of injury doesn't justify doing free play in protective gear that doesn't simulate armor; two wrongs don't make a right, as they say. As I wrote before, doing so simply doesn't reflect the reality of armored combat. A good harness isn't the "ideal" for practicing Harnishcfechten free play, it's the *minimum*, or else you're wasting your time.

It's kind of like someone who wants to do car racing but can't afford a car: Building a wooden box with wheels that you roll down an incline isn't going to teach him *anything* at all about racing a car. He may have fun rolling his box downhill, but he should be aware that it has nothing to do with car racing.

Certainly you can practice without good armor at the beginning; I think people really need at least several years worth of very heavy and escalating drills to learn the basics of Harnischfechten before beginning any thought of free play. Without that, the "moves" people do have little resemblance to those taught in the Fechtbücher (they start making up their own, which defeats the purpose of recreating a historical martial art). But even there, the armor needs be added in fairly early, piece by piece. I have some students right now that are really ready to move on to more loose drills with real hitting involved, but they're having trouble getting decent helmets and gauntlets. It's a shame, but at least they can do pell work and continue to work on memorizing the techniques.
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Re: Chest protection

Post by Roger N » Wed Dec 16, 2009 12:11 pm

Thanks for taking the time to answer so extensively! It's great discussing this with you and I will try to respond. :)

I am reading a whole lot of sources on quarterstaff, shortstaff and some on spear, although manuscripts that explicitly describe the spear with more advanced techniques are much fewer and shorter, as you know. I really can't say right now if any manuscript describes a sliding thrust with an overhand grip. I'd hazard a guess that Mair and Meyer describe such, but they are of course using staffs, when practicing the spear, and this in unarmoured fighting in a "friendly" context.
Also, the overhand grip is used with pollax and quarterstaff, as you know. But none of this really matters, since my point was simply that a simulated tool can also give you a false impression as to what is possible, just as working with less intent and force, or unhistorical armour.

Our spears are unbalanced, that is true but they are also fairly short, and I can imagine that an overhand grip could work with longer, tapered spears when making sliding thrusts. The basic problem is that keeping both hands close together at the butt end makes it incredibly hard to control the point if the opponent parries to the side and downwards, and it is quite easy to loose your grip with the leading hand in an overhand grip, since you have to keep it loose in order to be able to make a sliding thrust. Better balance would probably have large effect here, and this is exactly my point. You need proper equipment to fully understand and if not, you need to be aware of the consequences.

Actually, this has led me to think that the punta slanciata is of less use in harnischfecthen on behalf of the portata, but that might be a faulty conclusion based on bad simulators... :)

I don't actually argue that one compromise makes it OK to make compromises with anything without consideration. What I am arguing is that as long as you are aware of the consequences of your compromises, you can draw valid conclusions from your practice. The trick is understanding the consequences, which of course is difficult, especially if you only practice with one type of equipment and do not vary your excercises. Practicing in different environments and contexts and on different surfaces can also change the fighting conditions dramatically. Most people seem to practice indoors on even ground with good friction under their feet.

When you practice harnischfecthen you appear to do it solely from a judicial-combat perspective. I think of it in a wider context and I think that is partly why our views differ somewhat. It is of course true that the fechtbuchen in general describe harnischfecthen in context of judicial combat, but I do believe that many of the same techniques and perhaps more importantly principles were used on the battlefield as well, and especially when the lines are broken or when fighting in smaller groups, as was not uncommon in forrest areas.

Also, I can imagine that some principles and techniques would trickle down to lesser ranked soldiers from higher ranked solders, and from meetings with German and Polish mercenaries, members of the Schwertbrüder and Teutonic orders and even some merchants. Gotland saw many "Germans" passing by on their way to Livonia and other Baltic states and especially the city of Visby had a large German population, not to mention the cultural influence of Germany and the ties with noble families inbetween the countries and Swedish kings like Albrecth of Mecklenburg, Eric of Pomerania and Engelbrekt Engelbrektsson (and several others). I bet Eric knows more about this. I can very well imagine some of the Liechtenauer tradition being spread along the way to both the Swedish and the Danish.

From what I understand full harness was less common on the Swedish side in the battle of Visby, as opposed to Visby-brigandines, maille and various forms of gambesons. But we know very little of these subjects, of course and it is basically pure speculation. What we can be pretty sure of, is that different types and combinations of armour met on the battlefield and that you had to adapt to the situation using the fighting principles you knew.

This is a very complex topic and I understand the problem with arguments like "the world is much bigger than what we see in historical documents and anything may have existed, even if we see no evidence of it in literature or artwork". Speculation is just that... Still, it would seem logical that someone trained in single combat would adapt his training onto other situations as well. Exactly how that would look is of course hard to prove, but I think we can make educated guesses.

I follow your blog so I am aware of and understand your reasoning with regards to harnischfechten and free play. I have full respect for your opinions. I also think that you are right when you argue that simulations and compromises will detract from proper understanding. I just think that we all make compromises and we can learn different things depending on what those compromises are. It is complicated and may lead us astray at times, but still useful to different degrees.

I still haven't seen people using steel halberds and pollaxes with full force and intent and until I do, I don't think anyone really knows what proper harnischfecthen was like. Perhaps your freeplay is different and, I would be glad to be taught otherwise. Some clips maybe? :D

Have to run off and buy some Christmas gifts for my son now, so let's talk more later. I am sure you have more to say! ;)

Btw, I split this discussion from the thread into its own thread, since we are getting into things that are not quite on topic, although very interesting.
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Re: Harnischfecthen - proper equipment to better understand

Post by Roger N » Wed Dec 16, 2009 7:05 pm

Btw, here is a tapered rattan spear with a flexible point: http://willscommonplacebook.blogspot.co ... pears.html
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Re: Harnischfecthen - proper equipment to better understand

Post by Hugh Knight » Wed Dec 16, 2009 9:18 pm

Hi Roger,

We’re running into a major difference of focus here. I gather you’re trying to expand the context of medieval combat from what we’re given in the Fechtbücher. For my part, I am *only* interested in what we can document. Since there are no descriptions of making a thrust single done from the upper guard with the spear, for example, I don’t practice or experiment with such thrusts. And since the Fechtbücher I study deal exclusively with formal Kampffechten in full harness, that’s all I practice. To do anything else, in my opinion, is to make assumptions in advance of the evidence—a process that almost always leads to egregious errors. If we had to win fights in armor today for our lives’ sake we might be justified in experimenting with such things, but we don’t, so I believe all we are justified in doing is studying *historical* combat, and that means limiting it to what we’ve been given.

You’re absolutely correct when you say that somewhere, someone must have fought against a lightly-armored opponent in war. I’m sure it happened all the time. But how do you know how he did it? What sort of techniques did he use? We know that Bloßfechten differed dramatically from Harnischfechten, so that it’s almost impossible to extrapolate from one form to the other. How do we know the same isn’t true of combat in light harness? This lack of information makes it impossible, in my opinion, to experiment with how such things were done.

I now understand your point about making compromises as long as you can understand the effects of those compromises; we certainly do that, too (e.g., limiting ankle hooks in free play). I would continue to argue, however, that it is impossible to understand the consequences of wearing accurate armor unless you have done so.

You say you haven’t seen anyone doing Harnischfechten with steel halberds and pollaxes. I have two thoughts on this subject: First, the majority of the halberd material out there is Meyer and Mair, and both sources seem to show *unarmored* halberd techniques designed for single combat. Armored halberd techniques for use in war don’t seem to be taught in any source. I think the only exception is that Falkner shows some plays with a halberd or bill, but, unfortunately, I don’t have access to that MS to see what’s really happening there.

Second, it isn’t necessary to use steel pollaxe heads for free play; indeed, to do so is to make your practice *less* realistic because you have to limit what you can do with them. Bloßfechten with longswords is different from Harnischfechten with poll weapons in that in the former you need steel swords because of the way they interact. With poll weapons, however, only the heads are of steel, and they don’t “interact” in the way longswords do. Thus, there’s no reason at all not to use heavy rubber pollaxe heads in order to make your combat more realistic. They don’t “handle” any differently from the steel axes, they just do less damage.

To finish, you’re quite right that the medieval world was quite a bit larger than that encompassed by the Fechtbücher. For example, we know that techniques used in friendly deeds of arms in full armor were quite different from the lethal techniques shown in most Fechtbücher (Le Jeu de La Hache is one of the few sources that seems to make reference to this). We also know that lots of kinds of fighting occurred in the middle ages that aren’t covered by the Fechtbücher. For example, we know lightly-armored billmen sometimes fought against fully-armored men at arms with pollaxes (this was fairly common in the Wars of the Roses, for example), and we know that weapons had to be used differently in a line of battle than they were in single combat. What we don’t know is *how* these differences were enacted, and that tells us that we can’t make up ideas about how to do those things lest we give up any pretense of practicing *historical* combat. There is *plenty* of material out there—lifetimes of study—in the Fechtbücher that we do know about. There’s no reason, then, to make things up because we want to do something else.
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Re: Harnischfecthen - proper equipment to better understand

Post by Hugh Knight » Wed Dec 16, 2009 9:34 pm

Roger Norling wrote:Btw, here is a tapered rattan spear with a flexible point: http://willscommonplacebook.blogspot.co ... pears.html
That's my friend Will McLean! He's technically an amateur, but he's one of the most respected scholars in the world when it comes to medieval deeds of arms, which he has been researching and practicing for the best part of 30 years. He's the one who introduced me to my first Fechtbuch, Le Jeu de La Hache, back in the early 90s; he’s the one who demonstrated to me that spear shafts were tapered. And if you want to talk about a magnificent harness, you should see his! All made by Robert MacPherson, no less, even the tailoring on his haubergeon.

He recently helped stage a deed of arms in which he practiced using those spears with targets on foot, something I have never seen anyone else do. You can read more about it here: http://willscommonplacebook.blogspot.co ... targe.html

He really is a font of knowledge about these things, and I constantly check my ideas with him on a wide range of Harnischfechten subjects. We’re having a fascinating discussion on my discussion list right now about the spear and pollaxe play in La Sale’s Le Petit Jehan de Saintré.

My only problem with Will’s efforts on the spears is the materials used. Half of the reason for tapering the shafts is that it balances the steel head of the spear. Since his shafts are made of rattan with padded points, he doesn’t need this balance. Likewise, because rattan is more flexible than solid hardwood, he’s had to make his overall shaft thicker than a real spear would be so that the narrowest end isn’t too flexible for real use. This isn’t that big a deal, except that I have fairly small hands, and I find these larger shafts difficult to use in gauntlets (one more example of how armor changes things).
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Re: Harnischfecthen - proper equipment to better understand

Post by Roger N » Wed Dec 16, 2009 10:30 pm

It's getting later here so I will try my best to keep it a bit briefer. Let's see how that goes... My wife's eyes are getting darker and darker, the more time I spend writing here... :)

Reading the manuscripts I am mostly interested in understanding the principles and how they were "embodied" and applied through techniques. I respect your stance here, but I myself see no problem in practicing with a broader picture in mind, since I believe that the principles of combat are the most important, not necessarily the specific techniques, although they of course are vital in combat.

Focusing only on the techniques described in the manuscripts can just as well give us a very false picture of how real combat was performed during the Middle ages. Some argue that the longsword was only used in halfsword against armour, and some argue that all the regular longsword techniques were used alongside of the halfsword techniques and there are numerous other topics like this.

Also, in free play there are many cuts and techniques that happen naturally but really aren't specified in fechtbuchen. A cut inbetween a zornhau and a mittelhau, for instance. What do we call that? A cut inbetween a schielhau and a zwerhau? They happen and may land properly, being the "right" thing to do. Reading Meyer, which I have a very small grasp of, it seems as if he first lists principles, techniques and terms, but during his devices he does not seem to be using terms as much, but rather describe actions more loosely. I get the same feeling reading Mair, where he simply says "parry", "thrust" or "strike" to a target.

Personally, I believe that we need to use your understanding of fighting principles and techniques and constantly adapt to the situation we are facing; types of armour and weapons, the environment, physical and mental characteristics of our opponent etc. Some longsword techniques work better against a shield and sword, some against a spear etc. I believe this was also the case when this was done "for real".

Both our perspectives are valid in my opinion and none of us can really tell which one is more correct.

I know that this is a sensitive topic and I will not go much deeper into this. I will try to respond to other issues you brought up later tomorrow, though.

It is an interesting discussion, really and no easy answers... :)
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