The term (fight) "interpreter" is used by the Royal Armouries to denote a staff member whose task is to interpret the collection for the public, i.e. bringing objects in the collection to life by means of live performance or lecture. However the Royal Armouries combat training programme does not differ substantially from that which I and some of my team had previously used to train and direct stage-fighters. Regardless of who we teach, actors, historians, re-enactors or martial artists, the system is based on my original concept of "reality first, theatricality second". It was the proven results of this approach which convinced Guy Wilson, Master of the Armouries, that European weaponry and martial arts could be viably demonstrated within the museum. The principle is simple: no action should be choreographed which does not have its basis in the realistic opportunities open to the combatants at any given point in the fight using the weapons at their disposal. The only exceptions are those techniques which may be judged too dangerous for combatants and visitors during public performances. I believe the precepts we teach have a great deal in common with many traditional (Asian) martial arts: we are, after all, attempting to re-discover a number of traditional arts ourselves.
We presently demonstrate long-sword based on dei Liberi and Talhoffer (armoured and unarmoured), pollaxe from "Le Jeux de la Hache" (armoured), sword and buckler and rapier and dagger synthesised from a number of Elizabethan masters, and smallsword from Angelos "Ecole des Armes". These manuals are used as source material but since they communicate information in an esoteric manner any attempt to interpret them is clearly fraught with problems. Imagine a group of people like ARMA attempting to learn our system, purely from an instructional publication, with none of us there to instruct you. How many similarities would your eventual version bear to our original system?
Regarding the use of the sword in attack and defence I refer back to the principles stated (above). I believe that attacks should be made with the weapon followed by the body and defenses by the body followed by the weapon. Blows should be avoided (with or without a time-hit) or blocked according to the realistic opportunities afforded the defender at any given point in the combat. I have known and respected Ewart Oakeshott for thirty years, but on the question of blocking with the flat of a medieval broadsword the two of us must differ (though I should make it clear that he and I have never discussed the point). Receiving the blow against the flat means opposing the force of the attackers weapon with both the defenders blade and hand-grip in their weakest positions.* Our belief is that parries were taken where possible against the edge but on the forte, where the blade was strongest: medieval blades showing evidence of extensive use are generally worn deeper a short way down from the point and a little below the cross.**
Moving onto the 16th and 17th centuries, Renaissance rapiers were broad-bladed cut-and-thrust weapons, yet (also) specially designed thrusting swords, estocs, had previously been developed in the later medieval period to attack the areas of the body unprotected by plate armour. Bucklers had been used for several centuries and continued to be used in conjunction with broad-bladed weapons as late as the Elizabethan period. The overlap of weapon, period and technique is therefore considerable. George Silver was only the most vocal of English teachers who argued the advantages of the more versatile cut-and-thrust style even after the lighter-bladed thrusters had become popular and Silvers argument was essentially a sound one: that cut and thrust should be made as necessity demanded and not for stylistic reasons (our philosophy reinforced). In addition, Silver was a pragmatist and since it appears he took care to read Saviolos Practise, it seems unlikely that he would not have absorbed what was useful. However the thrusting style itself would not have enjoyed continuing patronage without proving an effective system of self-defence. Though Silver records that the old cut-and-thrust masters gave the thrusters a trouncing whenever they actually fought, we have only his word for this and besides, the winning of a swordfight may have to do with many other factors than the validity of the techniques alone.
I can only offer a very brief summation of my views on the question of teaching and training methods during these periods, as I do not believe that sufficient evidence exists to make anything more than a speculative conclusion. I believe that warriors in the medieval period trained by developing or learning previously developed fighting drills of varying lengths and when they wished to (or had to) went out and fought in duels, tournaments or battles to test their skills. The survivors might sometimes find themselves training those they favoured or who came under their charge. Some veterans (like Fiore) found favour with great lords, allowing their ideas for a more formal training system to develop. By the Renaissance period many who had learned to fight, whether respected or not, turned to managing schools of fence, catering sometimes for the nobility, more often for the rising civilian population, yet still teaching in the time-honoured fashion. Therefore, while the environment might have become formalised, only the practicalities of the techniques taught are likely to have changed, not the structure and manner of that teaching.
* ARMA and the RA have a mutual view of defensive movement, but differing interpretations about the utility of edge parries with long-swords. Flat-side defense does not seem to us to "be on the weak portion of the grip" at all since the action is less a resistant obstruction block or direct opposition parry than a deflecting move that permits an immediate counter.
**By this he means that they would use the edge when the opportunity called for it, rather than intentionally trying to receive a blow with the forte as a deliberate defensive action (ala standard stage combat performance). We note that the edge of the forte would indeed be the location of most of the binds and close-in trapping actions take place with force. We also note several deflecting and defensive counter-striking actions described by German Fechtmiesters as landing edge-on-flat when performed in earnest.
+ARMA agrees entirely that any free-sparring system must inevitably moderate its techniques to avoid these dangers, but we feel thats the whole point of drilling and practicing and exercising to understand that sparring practice is not killing and maiming but only supplemental tool to gaining understanding of principles and techniques.
++While we consider drills important as exercises and teaching tools, we believe its crucial to at all costs avoid programmed or patterned movements. This is done to ensure appreciation of the value of broken rhythm in the spontaneous and fluid application of techniques. Again we feel this is related directly to the importance of free-play or sparring, for all one has to do is encounter an opponent who say s "Well, Im not gonna fight that way" and your in trouble if you cant adapt to use whatever works. A similar situation exist with the Asian martial arts community wherein some styles in their focus on forms and preset routines have been criticized for being too artificial or impractical in real fights.
Theres no evidence that historical warriors actively "sparred". But then they did go around trying to kill one another by earnestly hitting at each other while trying not to get hit in turn, which is the same core idea in loose-play or sparring.
In summary, ARMAs differences with the RA Fight Interpreters while fascinating appear vastly outweighed by our similarities.
Our gratitude to Royal Armouries Senior Fight Interpreter, Keith Ducklin for assistance with this material