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Evaluating Historic European Martial Arts on Television
By Craig Peters
In the past few years, there has been a surge of interest in the martial arts of Europe, which are undergoing a Renaissance of their own as enthusiasts begin to research and interpret historical manuals. These days, its not uncommon to see programs on television with individuals who assert particular knowledge or skill in sword fighting.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation on the exact nature of European hand-to-hand combat, and many of these individuals claims are dubious. The problem is that the average television viewer has no way to effectively evaluate whether or not a program is depicting historically accurate techniques. This article is written with the intention of providing a few guidelines for the layperson. It is worth discussing for the simple fact it so influential and has such impact on what students think was done historically, and what they are supposed to do now.
The following are a list of things to watch for with Medieval and Renaissance swords in documentaries, reenactments, or stunt performances:
A person striking with a sword should actually look like they are striking with the weapon. If they are not making a motion that is conducive to effectively hitting and injuring or killing another person, chances are they dont know what theyre doing. There are a lot of people who make weak and ineffective partial arm strikes, (without extending forcibly with their arms), which ends up being an aggressive tap in terms of combat efficacy. Their body-mechanics are too weak due to insufficient or improper practice.
Good swordsmen do not spin in fights. Any time someone whirls, turns around, or spins themselves about in sparring, it is an extremely good indication that they are not actually skilled in genuine Renaissance martial arts nor were they taught by someone who is. Foolishly spinning around 360-degrees adds no extra power to a sword strike and it leaves ones back exposed for a significant period of time, more than enough for any credible swordsman to make a preemptive strike or unleash any manner of counter-technique. Consider this: a skilled swordfighter can counter an attack made normally, imagine just how much easier it is for them to strike you when you expose your back by uselessly spinning around. This cliché of TV swordfights fools no one and gains nothing.
Another common feature in programs on sword fighting is the use of edge-on-edge bashing and edge-on-edge parries of cuts. Direct static edge parries made with the weak part of your blade damage it. This sort of trauma to the swords edges will cause them to chip or severely gouge which can cause the sword to fail to bite properly on a cut, or cause it to break from minute fractures in the blade. As swords were relatively expensive and fairly difficult to make in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, there is good reason to believe historical warriors did not use edge on edge parries to defend themselves except in absolute emergencies. See also www.thearma.org/essays/edgemyth.htm.
The manner in which a person handles himself while sword fighting reveals their degree of knowledge and skill. Although there are no hard and fast rules as to how one should defend, there are a few guidelines that can help you evaluate someones skill. Poor fencers generally rely on static oppositional blocks to protect themselves. Poor fencers also tend to rely mostly on parries when fighting. Decent fencers use distance and voiding to protect themselves. Excellent fencers use counterstrikes, while it might be said masterful fencers strike first and strike well.
One of the easiest ways to determine whether someone really knows anything about historic European martial arts is to see if they employ half-swording, or halb schwert, techniques when fighting in armored harness. Fighting at the half-sword refers to gripping the sword about halfway up the blade with ones second hand, while the first typically remains on the grip as it normally would. This allows for techniques that are specifically designed to give the fighter better control with their thrusts and deflections. Since a sword is unable to cause significant cutting damage against plate armor, historical warriors used half-sword techniques in order to exploit gaps and articulations in the plate. If a person is fighting in harness, (with the exception of sparring safely with steel blunts or wasters), and is simply employing repeated cuts with a sword, that person clearly does not understand the dynamics of fighting in plate armor. See here for further information on halb schwert and fighting in harness: www.thearma.org/essays/armoredlongsword.html.
Distance, along with timing, is one of your best indicators of someones sword fighting skills, barring a more technical knowledge of the use of swords. Beginners have difficulty maintaining proper distance when sparring, and there are a few cues that you can look for when watching others. People who are not experienced typically will try to strike from a distance that is too far from their opponent to actually hit if they were really trying to make real contact. Watch them as they strike; if you notice that they frequently are trying to lean to gain extra reach, its an indication that theyre fighting from too far a distance. Watch their sword too, and if you see that when the person strikes, the weak portion of their sword typically only enters the area near their opponents sword (rather than effectively reaching their body or limbs), its a good indicator their blows would really fall short of the target. Timing can also reveal a poor swordsman. An indication of poor timing is if the fight appears to be clumsy and awkward insofar that you can detect the minute pauses and hesitations as each fighter tries to ensure they actually wont hit the other person accidentally.
Its been hinted before, but its worth specifically mentioning here: one of the biggest and most common mistakes made by people who are not skilled at authentic historical sword fighting is making attacks to their opponents sword, rather than their opponent himself. An untrained person, when given a sword and told to defend themselves, will instinctually hold the weapon out in front to protect themselves. Because theyre trying to avoid injury, many times their attack at an opponent will suddenly change into a rigid edge-on-edge defensive block if their opponent suddenly strikes at them. This seems like a sensible enough action, until you realize that it really leaves you vulnerable and its safer to counter-strike your opponent as quickly and efficiently as possible, in order to immediately end the fight.
Furthermore, a defensive fighter of this sort can easily be overwhelmed by a trained swordsman, who will aggressively attack quickly and unpredictably in a rapid succession until the defense of the beginner is overwhelmed and defeated. Hanko Döbringer, a priest who was a contemporary of the 14th century German grandmaster swordsman, Johannes Liechtenauer, makes repeated reference to attacking the person, not the sword, in his Fechtbuch, indicating how important it is to learn this skill. For more details, see: www.thearma.org/Manuals/dobringer.html.
Another common issue, closely related to attacking the person rather than the sword, is the number of strikes a person makes during combat. Hanko Döbringer complains: Many Leychemeistere say that they themselves have thought out a new art of fencing that they improve from day to day [they] often make two or three strikes when one would be enough. With their bad parries and wide fencing they try to look dangerous with their wide and long strikes that are slow and with these they perform strikes that miss and create openings within themselves. When fencing, making extra unnecessary strikes is not only inefficient, but its also ineffectual. The intention of historic and modern fighting is to end combat as quickly and decisively possible, not put on a show; each ineffectual strike that you make gives your opponent another chance to defeat you.
Sword fights, particularly duels between two people, are notoriously short. Any time that you see a fight last longer than 30 seconds, particularly if there are multiple strikes exchanged, theres a good chance the people involved dont really know what theyre doing, and are not really trying to hurt one another but instead want to put on an artificial show. When two skilled warriors engage in combat, one of them will quickly exploit an opening or counter the others attack, soon ending the fight. However, its important to note that sword and buckler fights or sword and shield fights tend to be longer in duration, on average, than combat with swords and daggers or swords alone.
A final indication of a general lack of skill in Renaissance martial arts is when a person fights in a linear manner. Beginners and inexperienced swordsman usually fight roughly in a straight line most of the time, often because theyre more worried about watching their opponents strikes than effectively setting up their own, or because they learned the habit from modern fencing. Skilled swordsmen constantly step at angles that put themselves offline to their opponents attack while creating a good opportunity for them to strike. Fighting square on with your opponent obviously leaves both of you exposed to each other while not offering particularly advantageous opportunities to strike. Its all a matter of good footwork. But this does not mean they must constantly circle around each other like cats either.
So, now that you know what poor or inexperienced fighters tend to do, what should you expect to see from good fighters? Good fighters tend to move fluidly, and do not hesitate to close the distance, as necessary, with their opponent in order to successfully facilitate a strike. A good fighter will constantly be moving around, striking quickly and generally effectively at their opponent. If they fail to succeed with a strike, they typically immediately follow it with another strike, attacking in an unpredictable manner to various openings in order to overcome their foe. They dont appear patterned or rehearsed.
Sword fights between skilled swordsman are not flashy at all, nor are they necessarily exciting to watch (in the Hollywood sense of the term). Movements are often short, intense, and subtle. Youll notice you may have difficulty watching the exact motion of some strikes, as they move faster than the human eye can effectively follow. Another thing to watch for is that skilled fighters use a wide variety of close-in techniques, such as binding, grappling, and others if the right opportunity presents itself. They dont just constantly keep the same distance or merely push in and out.
The best way to learn what skilled sword fighting looks like is to watch some of the videos from the ARMA webpage. Download a video program that allows you to view the videos in slow motion. Watch the trajectory of strikes, the guards that the fighters adopt, the transition between stances and actions, the energy they commit blows with, the way they move in and out of range, and how they move around in relation to their opponent. Particularly good are the sparring videos in the lower portion of the first ARMA International Gathering page, illustrating combat with padded weapons, wasters, and blunt steel swords. They can be found here: www.thearma.org/photos/Gathering03/G03vids.htm. The other videos found in the Training and Practice Clips section are useful as well: www.thearma.org/Videos/TPVideos.htm.
Hopefully this article has clarified some of the key components that make for an effective and historically accurate sword fight. However, there are many other factors not mentioned here involved with sword fighting that will give the reader an even better idea of what to watch for when evaluating television swordfights. The best thing to do is to educate yourself. Read through the various articles and essays on the ARMA webpage as they will provide you with a more thorough framework in which to understand historic European martial arts: www.thearma.org/essays.htm. Try examining some of the historical fencing texts, paying careful attention to details, particularly in written descriptions: www.thearma.org/manuals.htm. And, if you have any questions, pose them at the ARMA Forum; our members are more than happy to discuss and clarify information about their martial art: www.thearma.org/forum/. Ultimately, education is your best defense against dubious depictions or fraudulent information.
ARMA member Craig Peters has had a lifelong interest in swords, knives, and the Middle Ages. He is currently completing undergraduate degrees in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada.