Fencing with the Sword is nothing other than a discipline, wherein your force strives together with your sword in placement so that one with the other, using care and agility, artfulness, delicacy and manliness, are at need the same both in strikes and in other handwork one is obliged to, excepting when one is not in a serious situation, thus by such discipline one will be more dangerous and more skillful, and when needing to protect one's body be more effective.
-Joachim Meyer 1570
The words above are what first drove me to write the original article, I believe what we need to know about how to conduct out art is right there in that quote for us to follow if we choose to. That is really what it boils down to, the desire and will to do it. Without a conscious decision to use control it is not going to be evident. It is a skill we must decide we want as a beginning, the first few steps on a path towards a goal we can see clearly in the books and we desire to emulate.
Now that we have established this goal of seeking to experience the art the way our ancestors did in the Fechtschule, or if not that at least the method with which they trained for the Fechtschule events. Clearly they were able to train for this in a safe manner, perhaps not by modern standards but safe none the less. We can begin to establish a road map of how to achieve this. This is necessary because despite our advancement in HEMA over the last decades or so we are all pretty much not comfortable with the concept of unprotected fighting.
This is a problem when your goal is to learn to be martially effective with this weapon in life or death combat. Whether or not this is your focus is part of the problem and is a discussion best left to forums. For more on this look at my first Art of Control / Fechtschule Manifesto article. Lets just pretend we have decided that this is in fact the goal, as if we lived in renaissance Strassburg and modern litigious concerns were of no matter). All we know is we want to learn this art but not get killed doing it.
So if you wanted to learn to fight in the 16th century in Central Europe there this established art with a thriving and popular combat sport attached with a lineage that reaches back to the good old days of Lichtenauer. It has a fairly consistent combat concept and a lot of ass kickers trained to run around showing off this exceptional skill in a way that cannot be denied. And why would you not want to learn what they have to teach, they could whoop your ass all day long and have total faith in their skills as they do it, the whole thing being a matter of skill as much as size or strength.
But they don’t just perform well in the sport, this sport is being promoted to better the combat skills of the middle class in preparation for the conflict they knew would be coming. This was no idle sport but instead a form of conditioning to the requirements of deadly combat both in duel and on the battlefield. This is why they did it, it worked and that is why they were willing to risk far more than any of us today to test the art. It was worth the more risky behavior to pressure test one self in this more controlled environment, where mistakes can be learned from. Still it needed to be earnest enough to get the job done and keep yourself safe. No small feat to be sure.
But what qualities or attributes do we need to cultivate in order to do what they did, they certainly didn't kill each other every time they held a fechtschule or training session. They used a controlled form of athleticism which not only displayed the art as they understood it to be but that was martially sound. They didn't just hit each other without any control so what did that mean? How did they hit at each other so fast and hard but still do it safely? Its easy to say control but what do we really mean down on a practical level. Engaging in this examination of what constitutes the various elements of “control” is precisely what we must do to understand not only why we should seek skill in control but also why this skill is so important to actual practical combat applicable skill with a sword.
What are these attributes?
- Blade Precision
- Tip Precision
- Power Calibration and Projection
- Defensive Excellence
Lets start with the concept of control, I can only speak for the world of Joachim Meyer in this regard, but a specific set of skills is required and planned for in the drills instructed by our Master. He gives us several drills of great importance which if followed actually help you gain this secret control thing in leaps and bounds. It takes much more of course, like your mental attitude and spending the time to develop your precise control skill attributes from every possible angle. I will not lie, this is a long endeavor in all probability,and the payoff for this will not come for many years.
So why wait lets get it on with it:
Meyer gives us a 4 openings drill of great importance to this goal. Learn it until it expresses itself through you and you are not simply memorizing it, I can explain it in no better way than this. Make it part of you, every strike is an expression from you. It goes beyond thought, that is why we train, to program the body to express a technique not simply execute it physically.
There are a set of targets for each of Meyer’s 4 openings sequences of 4 cuts, each one bounces in some way to all 4 of your targets through the sequence (top left and right and bottom left and right).
For more on understanding this please go here Meyer's 4 Openings Drill
By diligent application of this drill, especially using the cutting type variables of Half cut and Opposition cut, we learn to arrest the path of the blade in mid flight, in our world this means not hitting but in real combat this means redirecting the weapon some place more advantageous with a simple intention.
Soon you are able to send your blade towards a target at almost realistic speed and power for 50 - 75% of its path and in the moment (INDES) you arrest the weapon as it goes to connect with something of a meaty or boney nature. AND as a shout out to why we even care about this control shit, this INDES is the same INDES you would use to say “Shit he is going to parry my attack, let me run off or change through on him towards a better target”. So counter intuitive as it might seem to some people, learning control is actually good for your fighting skill. You are not holding yourself back but tightening your expression.
We can find other ways to work that all important control attribute too. Working a Pell as a method of building control is also of great value. Freeplay with protection on but with the same “Control” mindset that is to be used in naked fencing but with the Power and speed calibrated up a notch or two so that mistakes are not so painful but nevertheless evident. Drilling the Stücke with an eye towards the exact placement of our weapon in real time as safely as possible. Above all control is about repetition of the gross and fine motor skills, we can see how exceptional control with a blade is built in other arts such as Kenjutsu, Kali, and Eastern Saber styles and take some clues from them too. Most important is the mental balance and internal requirement to hold control above all other needs, to not accept the blade not being under your control at all times.
OK lets handle the next 2 together due to their close association.
Blade and Tip Precision.
Blade precision is the exact placement of your blade on any point between you and the opponent, this means that your intention of where that blade should go can have no wiggle room. The blade can not wave around on the way there, or hit somewhere near it, exact placement is necessary all along the length of the weapon. Errors in judgement and mistakes can only be minimized with a zero tolerance for actions without absolute control, we cannot let our head get the better of us as much as we cannot let the fear for our safety get the better of us. Every offense and every defense must be carefully calculated and calibrated to the target and the situation. Doing this lets us finely calibrate our INDES.
Tip Precision is very similar attitude towards the tip of your longsword, here though a mistake is much more dangerous and So Thrusting at the face should only be done with a fencing mask on or proper safe distance away from each other with no contact possible. The Tip awareness must be of absolute focus to cut down on the risk of accidental thrusts.
An uncontrolled cut is a much safer thing to deal with than an uncontrolled thrust which is why we see so many rules in the Fechtschule for safety specifically around thrusting.
Ok on to:
Power Calibration and Projection
This is where the broken fingers happen, a movement even a ¼ inch further into the hands with too much power can mean the difference between a broken finger and a sore hand. It is here where the control we put long hours into learning, will pay off the most. Breaking the wrists on cuts and thrusts too should be a skill developed to work INDES. If you thrust a blunt blade into a training partner hard enough you will injure him, period. Thrusting is a deadly efficient and effective method of using a longsword. Never thrust at a freeplay partner as if you really wished to thrust with your body weight behind it, always break the wrists and shoot short or to the touch. Stories of people getting injured thrusting hard enough to impale an elephant are unsurprising. Light switches do not respond well to sledgehammers.
This is an absolute devotion to this defensive aspects of the art, it must be the foremost application of your art to defend yourself with it. Only with dutiful attention to our defensive skills can we hope to play at a safe level with significant martial intent in the game of “Naked fencing”. This means that if your idea of HEMA is to show up and fight but not put the time in to develop true control then naked fencing is not for you. It requires a fanatical devotion to the concept of absolute blade control, never a moment without control. Uncontrolled blade movements are unacceptably dangerous when “naked fencing” or even with partial protection (Hands not gloved but still with Mask for example).
But how can we learn to do this if we do not have the skills you ask?
How can we build these skills ?
It is a simple 3 step process.
- Work on your form, equally defense to offense. Do not accept uncontrolled actions during your fencing.
- Respect your partner and his safety over your own ego and the need to win.
- Calibrate exactly to your skill level, do not reach out past your skills unless you are doing it with a more experienced opponent who can keep you safe.
Step 1 means drill, drill, drill. You must be able to defend yourself adequately to even begin. There is no fast track here just hard work.
Step 2 means start slowly, perhaps even with just flats. Slowly ramp up the speed and intensity to your comfort level with someone you trust. If you do not know someone well enough to know if they have the control to do it, you should not naked fence with them. This is best done with those who have the skills and have put aside the ego enough to let a flow happen in the fight and slowly develop it. Spazzing around trying to hit people is not safe.
Step 3 is knowing your own limitations, do not go beyond what you are able to safely engage in. Steel must be respected, that is a large part of the point of naked fencing. One mistake means broken fingers, blood and missed training for your partner. Sorry will not cut it nor should it, control is our responsibility and we must step up to develop the skills needed to do this. This requires even more dedication to the art than simply fighting, its a commitment to what it takes to develop these skills.
As you begin this slowly, you should pull more strikes than you hit with as you feel out the limits of what you can do with your training partner. You will both know what would or could have connected, but as you start this out you will not connect unless carefully intended and controlled.
Therein lies the general difference between naked fencing and the modern tournament style of longsword. In modern Tournament style longsword you go as fast as hard as you please and pull it back a bit. With naked fencing it is the opposite, you carefully go to the point of control where your skill places you and slowly, carefully, ratchet it up to more martially suitable levels. Control comes first not second.
Tournament fighting is a powerful motivating and skill building endeavor and a valuable tool in the HEMA toolbox. So too is naked fencing, audacity in the face of fear for your safety and the learned skill to conduct actions under the shadow of that fear and the pressure of stress is a crucial skill in developing a truly martial fencer. The kind of martial fencer that can rightfully stand up and be confident that he has real world sword fighting skills that can be relied upon under duress to save one’s ass. Just as we expect from any other martial art.
Sure we may never have to use our sword fighting skills in real sword fighting combat, but we must treat the art as if we would if we wish to exhibit the same sorts of skills we see in other fencing arts. These living weapon arts work to instill this very thing into their students. Sure some people think its a bit too much, but there is a reason for it today just as there was back in the 16th century. A reason we should understand if we really want to resurrect this art. The real culmination of a weapon art is its use under extreme conditions and under the stress. Our brothers at the GHFS in Sweden have rightly described in their Instructors Guide the need for us to push the envelope on our art and even accept some levels of danger to do so.
In modern HEMA many are fond of disregarding the fechtschule environment of the 16th to 18th centuries as mere sport and a weaker version of a once proud and effective art form. This limited view forgets how much further we are today from the art form and even more damning is how much farther we are from the art than the fechtschule was. They placed far more value on being able to defend oneself properly and on pushing the limits of how hard we learn the art. They risked far more than any of us do on a daily basis. This level of participation and willingness to sacrifice to learn the art has real hard practical effects on our art and how martial it is. It is absurd for us to point the finger backwards across centuries at fencers who participate in a fencing style light years closer to real sword fighting than anything we are doing today with masks and protected hands. They payed a far higher price than we do for mistakes and so are bound to have had a far more rigorous and tested skillset than any of us today.
One of our failings in Modern HEMA is impatience, we are so used to instant gratification with everything in the modern world we expect an instant payoff to every decision or action. We have to be willing to spend the time and the effort to develop this level of skill no matter if it is a harder or longer road to travel.
If you are reading this and thinking “I already train hard Mike”, then you are missing the point entirely and you have to make a mental connection with what this all means internally and externally. Its not just hard training but hard training focused on a particular goal. We have to lay out that expectation from ourselves and from our art if we really want it back.
I have seen this revelation happen to people in real time, its a window opened for anyone who experiences it. In much the same way that using steel to bout is an eye opener for those who never thought it possible. The concept of control is not as thoroughly understood as we might think and in many cases modern people approach something like HEMA with no appreciation of even the most basic need for control. Without a mindset shift we are at odds with the concept of control because we are trying so hard to win or become deadly and control just doesn't factor in as a necessary skill. We are in such a rush to get speed and skills that we are not taking the time to build a solid foundation which can be used to participate in events like a fechtschule event or a wet bout safely. Currently very few people even consider it as possible or likely and do very little to prepare themselves for it. But if we are serious about resurrecting this art then we have to go down this road to get there if there is to be anywhere near where they stood.
We should look towards a future where we conduct true Fechtschule in the manner that our ancestors did.
Meyer Freifechter Guild
Dec 11th 2013