Avoiding the "Commonplace" in Historical Martial Arts

By Russell Mitchell

Everybody "knows" that the katana is the most metallurgically sophisticated sword ever made, and that a knight in full armor would barely be able to stand up if he fell over because of its weight. It is well-known that a typical knight's sword weighed around ten or twenty pounds, and was a far clumsier weapon than its oriental counterparts. It is long-established fact that the English Longbow was the most powerful bow ever made, and hastened the downfall of heavy cavalry on the medieval battlefield.

When an author makes a statement, whether proven or merely asserted, and is then quoted by somebody else, who is then quoted by a third person, the statement tends to gain a kind of weight and majesty. Very soon it will simply be something that "everybody knows", whether or not it's true. This is called a historical commonplace. Most serious practitioners of historical fencing are well aware of some of them, and spend tremendous amounts of effort to eradicate the ones they know about. Sometimes it is simple to do so: the first three commonplaces listed are fairly simple to refute. For example, though less-highly publicized, there are pattern-welded swords from all over the world that can vie with the best of the Japanese swords, and there are some beautiful weapons from the Middle East that still defy researchers' best attempts to determine how they were made. I won't even go into the obvious mistakes above with the Medieval swords and armor as they are ridiculous on their face.

Some commonplaces, however, are more difficult to nail down: what about the English Longbow? There is no question that this bow (originally a Scandinavian weapon) was powerful. But the truth is that the most powerful bows were from Turkey (or, to be precise, the Ottoman Empire), and, despite their small size, there are instances known of arrows being fired across the breadth of the Bosporus (that's roughly 900 meters!). An average Ottoman archer's weapon weighed no more than a modern child's toy, but could have a draw weight of 70 pounds combined with a mechanical efficiency that puts the best contemporary Western European bows to shame. Meanwhile, heavy cavalry and knights were still being used, and in some cases were critical to success, in battles well into the middle of the sixteenth century, when, if contemporary sources are to be believed, they were finally forced from the field not by a combination of pike, cannon, and longbow, but more by other cavalrymen wielding braces of pistols instead of lances.

As a field of study, historical Western martial arts have no special immunity to the danger of falling into commonplaces. A great deal of misunderstandings happen because it is an overlapping field for both practitioners (martial artists) and scholars (for the purposes of this article, I mean those researchers who do not also regularly physically train to fight with the particular weapons being studied, archaeologists of arms included). In this field of research, neither one can do solid work without reference to the other. The researcher has access to the methodological tools required to find fighting manuscripts, date them, determine a basic provenance or origin to the work, transliterate and translate the text, determine how many people actually wrote the text, and answer all sorts of other questions regarding the manuscript itself. The researcher is also better-informed (or ought to be) concerning the historical and cultural background of the text than is the fighter. The practitioner, however, has the physical and mental tools to interpret and reconstruct the material and to actually bring an old fighting text to life. For instance, to the martial artist, "hanging guard with the backsword against a billman" means much more than one man holding his sword hand up high with the point hanging low while another fellow with large arms and a larger reach tries to carve him like a pork loin. To the non-fighting historian (or collector and curator), such a phrase paints a static scene with two frozen figures, such as those found in a painting or miniature. To the fighter, however, that same phrase contains a great deal more information. For example, when presented with this information, the fighter instantly appreciates that the man with the backsword must displace the point and close the distance or die. Although there are pitfalls for the modern practitioner in reproducing a certain method of using a historical weapon, he is vastly superior in his perception of space, distance, and tempo. The scholar may understand that obtaining this perception is important, while the fighter has often had the results of his failures to do so quite literally beaten into him.

Although practitioners in Historical Martial Arts have the advantage in understanding period techniques and the handling of weapons, they are also in great need of the sort of information that historians deal in, whether that "source" is in textual or material form. For example, it can be very important to realize the differences in how you move in mid-14th-century armor, with its square shoulder plates, as opposed to those of the late 15th century, which are more rounded. It is vital to understand the subtle functioning of a wide war-sword over a narrower tapering bastard-sword. Practitioners by their nature require "opponents" to test their skill and physically challenge their understanding. But with few exceptions, historians themselves tend to be a reclusive sort, almost prizing their inability to be contacted from outside of their respective institutions. Academics generally are also not interested in receiving input from those they deem to be "amateurs," even when those amateurs have some fairly solid historical evidence on their side, though to be fair there are exceptions –researchers in experimental archeology are a wonderful example.

All of this can result in completely unnecessary invective and hard feelings. It's not wise to introduce yourself to an academic by saying that you "fight with swords," and any historian who gets his information on period techniques from the local sport fencing club or theatrical performance troupe is likely to be the butt of ridicule for months, if not years. If an academic is serious about being rigorous in his research, it's not difficult for him to get in touch with fighters or people engaging in experimental archaeology. When this happens, the results can be amazing.

Problems occur, however, when a martial artist decides that his expertise in swordsmanship gives him the authority to make large statements in the fields of military history and weaponry archaeology. Even worse occurs when an academic researcher believes that being familiar with the broad historical tapestry allows him to pass judgment on the various methods with which individual weapons were used. Because practitioners invariably do not have a sufficient background in what a historical source is and how to use one, they often make huge generalizations about how weapons were used on the larger scale of military history. There is trouble in not having enough historical or literary background to tell the difference between when a researcher makes an assertion out of thin air and when the same author doesn't go into details because the arguments involved are so well-known that repeating them is tedious.

In contrast, when it comes to describing the how and why of historical methods of fighting, most academics are simply incompetent. Historians who do not train or practice in the use of historical arms and armor are infamous for both underestimating the general effectiveness of Medieval and Renaissance weaponry. They are notorious for missing textual references to fighting methods that are important for understanding the style or manner which the weapons were actually used. An example: during the battle at Nicopolis (1396), while fighting on foot at close quarters against Ottoman troops, the Burgundian knights chose to put aside their swords and fight with daggers. In doing so, they utterly panicked their opponents and broke them.

How would fighting with a dagger give an unmounted knight an advantage? Fighters can often answer this question immediately, and correctly, where the academics are more often stumped. On the other hand, most practitioners would not know what all those French guys were doing in the Balkans in the first place, and therefore would never have happened to bump into the dagger-fighting reference buried deep in the Grand Chronique de France. Therefore, since one can assume that as a practitioner you're busy honing your techniques and don't have from two to six years to drop everything and go back to school, let's look at a few of the general errors that fighters can make with scholarly information.

First, of all, let us examine the "Authority": I'm going to have to make a digression here, but stay with me, it needs to be said. It is important to realize that one of the reasons that Historical Martial Arts (and their weapons) have been so badly neglected in Europe, America, and what is generally called "the West" is that until the mid-19th century or so, nobody was interested in studying Medieval things. "Medieval" was more commonly used to mean "primitive, barbaric, ignorant." "Renaissance" meant the rebirth of learning, which had long been surpassed. The era between 500 and 1500 A.D. was called "medieval" as a way of saying "Oh, yes, it was that period 'in the middle' when people didn't bathe, there were huge plagues, and society had lost all of the wisdom of the ancient civilizations." Until artists and writers started looking to Medieval legends and writings for inspiration, there simply wasn't much interest in things that had long since been cast away in the quest for "progress." Great distortions were created when these researchers attempted to understand historical swordplay and fighting arts through the lens of the civilian fencing of their own era (a view continued until recent times). The 19th century historical writers and researchers committed countless errors simply because the people they researched thought in vastly differently ways than they did. The differences were sometimes so large that they were simply inconceivable until a great deal of painstaking trial and error pointed out that the 19th century way of looking at society simply didn't work for understanding earlier times.

Nevertheless, the people who did this research were pioneers in the field and true authorities in their day, in the sense that there simply weren't any other people who knew anything significant about the subject at hand. Even if their interpretations of how or why something happened are outdated now, the 19th-century scholars gave us our bedrock information on what happened. These were the researchers who read, collected, and compiled thousands of old works and developed the tools that scholars now take for granted when looking at old sources: paleography (reading old scripts), diplomatics (answering questions about manuscripts), archaeology (understanding objects in their own context), and all manner of other intellectual tools that simply didn't exist before. If it weren’t for the work done by the 19th-century researchers, Talhoffer, Marozzo, Agrippa, Saviolo, and Silver might continue to be mysterious names hidden away in just waiting to be wiped out of existence in the next great war or natural disaster. We see farther because we really are "standing on the shoulders of giants."

Therefore, to get back to "Authorities," when one reads a a scholar’s or academic researcer’s work, it is important to recognize that, no matter how well-respected he is, it is possible that there are huge holes in his arguments that he has not seen because of the focused questions with which he approaches his sources. Serious practitioners, as active martial artists, are sometimes in a position to recognize those gaps. As a member of the lay public, you may also look into odd corners that more focused intellectuals may miss, because the source is not understood to be relevant, or because the source in question is written for such a general audience that it's "underneath the radar" of the more serious researcher: old wills, store catalogs, the internet, and, for those with eyes to spot the real material, even country fairs can be extremely valuable. However, what tends to happen is that practitioners will tend to take a respected person's word as gospel out of respect for that researcher's learning, and when somebody starts to say that this Emperor has no clothes, even people making careful critiques are considered "anti-Prof. X." The invective can become especially heated n the case with more lengthy studies where a academic or researcher has generally done a very good job, but committed serious errors in a chapter or two.

Serious scholars not only prefer to have this give and take, they need it and do everything they can to attend conferences so that they can get feedback from their peers. Serious scholars expect to have others take throw a spotlight on the weaknesses in their arguments, because it is the only way that their understanding can be improved, and this is why most of them are in the business in the first place. Historians don’t spend eight years mastering Late Medieval Middle High German for the lucrative paycheck. Only rarely is such a person's work so bad that critiques start to really be leveled at them personally. Probably the best means of gauging the relative influence of a researcher's work is to see how many decades it takes for the person's ideas to be completely disproven. The cycle of research is such that a groundbreaking researcher’s theories are slowly proven to be inaccurate or incomplete, and after one "bombshell," decades are spent poking holes into and making modifications to the researcher’s theories. Eventually the weight of all those minor critiques inspires another researcher to a new idea that takes all the problems into account, and the cycle starts over. It is very important for practitioners who are interested in the historical areas surrounding their art to acquaint themselves with older scholarship, even if it is out of date. Sir Charles Oman’s theories for example (including the longbow commonplace explored earlier) have been almost entirely discredited, but it is his research that "frames the discourse" in which we are now speaking and reading, and even after seventy years his texts are essential reading for medieval military history.

What this means is simply that practitioners should never accept a researcher's arguments at face value, but instead, assuming one is discussing matters with an open-minded audience, be free to make serious critiques of a researcher’s ideas. Conversely, when one has access to a person of learning in this field, it's never enough merely to say "what do you think of this X or Y’s work?" One must also find out why the person thinks so, and decide whether or not one agrees. A serious researcher must be willing to change his position on an issue every time he is presented with new arguments or fresh information. This critical-mindedness seems like something that everyone should have learned in basic schooling, but the habit of quoting the "Authority" seems to be with us, and over and over again we see people playing a kind of "follow the leader" when dealing with certain issues rather than actually considering the merits of the arguments and counter-arguments.

I shall close by exploding a fighter's commonplace for you to see, one that has dogged the steps of practitioners since the Renaissance itself, and which undoubtedly began as some bright sophomore's practical joke. It begins with the question: which is faster, a blow or a thrust? Since sometime in the Renaissance, it has been written: the time of the thrust is less than the time of the blow. This is because the thrust passes in a straight line between two points, whereas the blow must travel around the two points' circumference. Therefore, the thrust, passing through the shortest possible distance, arrives at its destination more quickly than the blow.

This theory has been floating around being quoted and re-quoted for at least three hundred years, and it's all based on an old joke that any bright, classically-trained Renaissance gentleman should have caught the very first time he heard it. This idea is a way of restating an old philosophical problem-turned joke called Xeno's Paradox. Once upon a time two people were arguing about whether Achilles really could outrun a turtle if the turtle had a head start. One of them replied that if Xeno's Paradox were true, then Achilles could never catch up. What is the paradox?

Imagine that you have a bow in hand and that you are shooting at a target on a tree. After walking out a thirty meters or so, you stand, and fire. Now, to hit the target, the arrow must pass through a point exactly halfway between you and the target, say, let's call it point "A". Easy enough. But to do that, the arrow must pass through a point exactly halfway between the shooter and point A (so we'll call that one B). But to pass through point B, it must first pass through a point exactly between point B and the shooter, which we shall then call point C. But to pass through point C you must eventually pass through such an incredible number of points that the arrow will always be passing though the intermediate points, and will never be able to reach the target.

Get the idea? Xeno's Paradox, is simply this: the above model is indeed perfectly accurate in terms of geometry, but leaves out the notion of time. It takes almost no time at all for the arrow to pass between the shooter and the target, and such little time to pass between points Z,Y,Q,R, etc., to point A and all the intermediate points between there and the tree that they really add up to nothing, and you hit your target quite easily.

In measuring the time of a blow and the time of the thrust, yes, it is true that the thrust must traverse less space in order to reach the target. However, because our bodies are made to bend and fold into ourselves more easily than they are made to reach outwards, it is often true that one will actually need more time to cross the shorter space, whereas the blow will travel a larger distance, but because of the construction of our joints, which are designed for bending in arcs, the blow may travel through that larger space much more quickly. Or put another way, when one thrusts, the hand that holds the weapon must cross the entire space of the thrust, whether the motion comes from the action of the arm, or the action of the body moving. In other words, in order to make a thirty-inch thrust, your hand must move thirty inches. On the other hand (the one making the blow), the motivating force for a blow comes from the inside of the arc that is made by the actual striking point of the blade. Since it is inside the arc, the circumference of that circle is less. Therefore, a blow which must travel a circumferential distance of sixty inches may be created by a similar movement of the hand that only has to move eight or twelve inches. It is therefore absolutely nonsensical to maintain that a blow is faster just because it moves in a straight line.

Of course, simply because idea A is incorrect, it does not necessarily follow that its opposite idea, -A, is correct, either. So which is faster, the blow or the thrust? It depends on the weapon, the fighter, and the situation. I leave it to you. Happy practicing.

Russell Mitchell is a historical fencing researcher and practitioner, until recently at the Department of Medieval Studies, Central European University, Budapest. This piece appears courtesy of The Maisters Company, www.maisters.demon.co.uk.

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