Why Are You Standing Still?

By John Clements
ARMA Director

First off, let’s establish a general theme from Renaissance source teachings:

"this is the basic tenet of swordsmanship: that a man is always in motion and never at rest..."
– the teachings of Master Liechtenauer, c1389

"If great in this Art you want to appear, Move then you can from guard to guard... with steps never prolonged." – Master Filippo Vadi, c.1480

"it is good to dissimulate with the feet and hands, for if we remain fixed they can easily injure us" – Master Pietro Monte, c.1490

"When one in playing has doubt of the other, he must never fix himself in a single guard, but change immediately from one into another. The reason being that the enemy will not be able to form some opinion." – Master Antonio Manciolino, 1531

"one [should] not rest much in some defensive guard" – D’Angelo Viggiani, 1551

"there is no doubt but he vanquisheth which is most nimble, and this nimbleness is not obtained by handling of great hefts or weights, but by often moving." - Master Giacomo Di Grassi, 1570

"you shall note, although there are many good postures… yet you learn from these verses that it is always better not to entirely settle into a posture…" – Master Joachim Meyer, 1570

"though we often chop and change, turn and return, from ward to ward, from fight to fight… yet we never rest in any." – Master George Silver, 1599

"It is therefore evident how dangerous it is to attempt to resist the momentum of a cut without reaching the opponent’s body before the cut falls." - Master Salvatore Fabris, 1606

See a pattern here?

These quotes on frequent motion and fighting positions are hardly exhaustive of the sources, either. Besides all the various counsel on nimble stepping and the frequent advice on striking in the middle of the opponent’s action, there is a clear constant at work: don’t stand still.

Find a statement by any Renaissance Master of Defense or command in any treatise that instructs a fighter to remain inert in a guard, or resting poised to strike. There is nothing in our historical source teachings that advocates this or that can be used to substantiate such a conception. For that matter, no system of non-ritualized self-defense is based on being immobile. Try to name a single legitimate martial art style or combative sport that teaches you to remain stationary.

So, why then do we see so many students of weapon arts today sparring while keeping relatively stationary? Why do so many engaged in mock combat bouts just stand there taking small steps as they try to tag one another? This is an important matter to bring to attention. It’s not at all difficult to see practitioners conduct their free-play by slowly stepping around one another as they try to win a snapping game of timing and range. But the sight nowadays of two historical-fencing combatants slowly inching their way ever closer, posed like insect-brained praying mantises, is as absurd as it is commonplace. Even a cursory review of historical fencing websites and YouTube submissions reveals this sluggish tendency is a plague upon much of current historical fencing practice. In my experience, as a professional instructor of Renaissance martial arts, getting students to act with the audacity necessary to keep the initiative is a frequent concern. I see this even among my own students who should know better (and caught myself doing it from time to time).

What’s with this obsession over static fighting postures? We are forced to ask where does this widespread impulse of stepping slowly while set in a guard originate? Where does this idea come from that the nature of close-combat (whether armed or unarmed) consists of such a thing? Since when has "holding" a stance ever meant to pause and stand still? There is no evidence I can find on which to support that conception.

Stop and ask someone where they first learned to practice this way. Inquire as to how they got a style of fencing by standing still. Get them to think about it. Press them. Dig deep. A little introspection usually leads to an admission that it’s not based on any reasoned analysis or any sound evaluation of a historical source. I can almost guarantee that ultimately it will not be the result of a reasoned interpretation of actual teachings from a Renaissance work on the Art of Defence. Rather, it will almost typically be something they slowly acquired out of habit then just continued without question. Even if they are consciously aware of doing it, you will likely hear a convoluted explanation to justify it that ultimately boils down to the stylized rules they play-fight under and the narrow experience of the opponents they’ve restricted themselves to.

We are not talking here about those brief respites and fleeting moments of recess that intrinsically occur as skilled fighters read one another or perceive intention, feinting and testing. It’s one thing to learn at a slower pace but quite another to conceive that historical self-defense in the real world occurred the same way. It's not a momentary pause when you do it incessantly. You’re not mastering an authentic combat art when the natural violent energy of fighting is persistently reduced to a tip-tap timing game of mild-mannered range tag ("sword-mummery" anyone?).

But is this habit of standing still to sword-tag one another, as if conducting an invisible fight at the barriers, just one of laziness that comes from a too-playful attitude of casual practice? Or is it picked up unconsciously merely because the historical source images show us so many inanimate illustrations whose positions people try to imitate? Perhaps it’s the pernicious influence of stunt fencing theory where, to avoid altering the safety distance, performers purposely keep one or both legs firmly in place? We also can’t ignore that virtually every modern enthusiast simply saw it in a movie once (let's not even bring into this the pervasive influence from the stiff ritualized patterns of katas or the frozen postures of video game characters). After all, the staple of two lone swordsmen, gladiators, or samurai facing off, stationary until some sudden move is then intercepted with a lightning reflex, has long been a cliche. It makes good drama. Never mind that it’s total fiction without any tactical validity.

The view that you can stay relatively motionless to "lie in wait" for an opponent’s action is self-defeating and works only against novices and fools. It’s one thing to occasionally slow down your fighting practice to enjoy it as exercise or to work on specific elements, but entirely another to habitually implement a low-key style that intrinsically lacks energy and motion. Who in their right mind imagines that the real-life violence of personal combat involves just moving occasionally or only when we detect our attacker moving? Certainly, it’s a given that if someone today is not physically inclined to much movement or not wanting to take a very energetic approach to this craft, then naturally they will not want to see it as being anything about constant motion. Yet, from the late 14th century teachings of the grand-fechtmeister, Johannes Liechtenauer, we are given a cardinal rule for keeping the initiative and staying on the offense whereby, “you are always in motion [In motu seist] and do not rest or hold yourself back but do one thing after another quickly and decisively so that your opponent can do nothing at all.” [38v]

But why even consider that a fighter would ever keep still or stay set in a position? Are objective people really to believe that, despite unequivocal commands to stay in motion and despite countless images that are unmistakably snapshots of techniques in motion, a few example freeze-frame illustrations defining positions for reference are somehow meant to be taken as instructing us to hold still? (In the same vein, no one could imagine that pictures of Ringen combatants are somehow showing fighters frozen in unarmed stances.) Or does such a belief come about because we are told to "place" ourselves in a stance, or figures are described as being "in postures?" Or is it because we are told to hit an opponent when his stance is incorrect or when he changes postures? When we read what to do if the opponent "adopts" a stance or "stands" before us it doesn’t mean they are literally standing there waiting (…and if for some reason they were it would be easier to fight them). Considered in context the examples and instructions are for combatants engaged in violent motion—the act of fighting—not the act of posing and playing.

That the historical sources teach us to break an opponent’s "stance" or to displace the blow of an adversary who "holds" a posture does not also imply in any way they are doing so while standing still. Instead, implicit in the idea of "ready positions" or "wards" is that they are dynamic, active, and prepared. Each strike lies between two guards and each guard is itself the result as well as the beginning of a strike. One need only examine a skilled boxer or modern fencer to see this in action. Just as is true of any fighting discipline, both these activities have specific fighting stances but they are never held rigid or stationary. They move and cover almost constantly with a broken rhythm that can explode into action at any moment. Judgment of timing, distance, and leverage—the core elements of fighting—take place only with regard to movement. It’s all about motion. 

From the 12 Rules for the Beginner Fencer from the late 14th century, Der Atlen Fechter, we read Rule #3: “Strike and move at the same time, place the feet against each other”. Rule #4 then declares: “He who moves after the blows has no right to be proud of his art.” There is no ambiguity to this. The body must be coordinated with arm motion by virtue of footwork that leverages our balance —like a scale. That these two rules for the novice fighter start first with the instruction in rule #1 on how to stand, stating: “The leg in front is bent; the other one going towards the back is stretched” is as unequivocal as rule #2 telling us, “Fight high with straightened body; deliver mighty blows out of the length.” The meaning is clear: posture, footwork, and power in cutting and trusting is inseparably linked.

This was even stressed almost two centuries later in master Joachim Meyer’s book on the art of fighting, when noted in Chapter 7, “Advice About Stepping”, he advise that so much depends on stepping or footwork that: “all combat happens vainly, no matter how artful it is, if the steps for it are not executed correctly. He is not referring to which fighter acts first following after some action, but rather to a fighter whose slow or dragging footwork is not coordinated to his action. The meaning is succinct enough from his very next lines following: “Therefore the combat masters of old who were very learned and experienced in this, stated in their twelve rules: “Whoever first steps after the cuts should not rejoice much of his skill.” And as if to remove any no doubt whatsoever, he then immediately adds: “Therefore each stroke must have its own step, which shall take place at the same time as the stroke, if you wish to achieve anything.” (1.24r) Meyer, who states several different ways to always move “from one posture into another,” also finally adds at the very the end of his home describing the entire art of the longsword the declaration, “If you also wish to know the master core, learn to step rightly for all techniques.” This harkens back to Liechtenauer’s central command about the importance of continuously moving. It doesn’t mean to just keep our hands and arms in motion or to bob our head and shoulders around, but to move the body with the feet.

As if this was not clear enough, Master Meyerr even included a restating of the need for footwork to be linked to blows when in his long-sword poem. In the piece --which brilliantly summarizes the entire Art in only a few pages-- immediately following a description of the moral qualities of a good practitioner, the 4th line of instruction includes the instruction that you must, "Step with the stroke, be it near or far."

From 1509, the master, Pietro Monte, describing his knightly art of combat (based upon the two-hand sword and the pole-axe), noted how “it was harmful to stand fast when fighting with arms” —adding that this was particularly with the dagger the case since you could get quickly thrown or hurt. In his second chapter Monte notes that, “To apply great force calls for balance with lightness and fluidity in our feet and hands, otherwise we compromise our powers and agility, without which we can do little.” He adds, "And always we should move our legs and arms from place to place with the blows and with short steps.”

Fighting postures are transitory (some more so than others). They are meant to be moved through. Consider how the late 15th-century master Pietro Monte specifically warned against entering a fight from a wholly static stance. As Manciolino later did, Monte emphasized that no ward was entirely safe and that if the fencer "shut" himself up in one position he would "fall to ruin." He stressed the need to move in a way that concealed your intentions, for, "if we temporize as to which part we are moving, they do not know for certain what decision we are going to take." This goes way beyond mere feinting of blows. A century earlier Hanko Doebringer had expressed the same with the counsel: "always be in motion, this will force the opponent to be on the defence and not be able to come to blows himself." When we are further told "always work and remain in motion" it hardly applies to just moving our weapon when in range to strike.  From Doebringer we further read, "Who rests, that is dead, who moves, is still alive" and are told to "remain fast in movement, and do not tarry."

In his work on from c.1551, D’Angelo Viggiani wrote there were an infinitesimal number of diverse guards because in essence any starting and ending position between the motions of a momentary strike qualified as one: "each blow gives rise to a guard and each guard gives rise to a blow."  He added that any fighting posture was merely the action of "lying calm and settled in some form with arms, either in order to offend or defend, that settlement, and that position, and that composition of the body in that guise, in that form, I call ‘guard’" (See W. Jherek Swanger’s 2002 translation). Once again, implicit in this understanding is that movement and not position is the basis of fighting. This is clear enough when we read his instruction to "always remain attentive in the stepping to seize the opportunity to place yourself in guard with the advantage of the sword…never try to strike unless when you throw the blow you can reach the enemy" by stepping. In other words: move to counter-strike.  There’s no instruction here to stand still. It’s all about acting in the instance by closing in.  We can readily accept that Viggiani applies continuous motion in his fencing since he explicitly states how "every infinitesimal movement forms diverse guards, which movements are without number or end." The only way to view fighting stances in that way is if you are in constant motion.

When addressing the very concept of ready positions the 16th century master Joachim Meyer described that, "guards or postures are a graceful but also necessary positioning and comportment of the whole body with the sword, in which the combatant places and positions himself when he is the first to come to his opponent in the place of encounter…." He immediately added that this is done at the onset of a fight for purposes of moving to strike or defend. None of this in any way overrules the command to be in active motion. When Meyer advises, "you shall pay attention, as the situation requires, to how your opponent poses against you" it doesn’t in any way suggest the opponent is somehow stationary.

On fighting postures, Meyer early on in his treatise of 1570 succinctly explains their origin and function: "And so that you may always be more mindful of [employing the chief elements]; the postures have arisen, which are essentially just a lingering or holding of the weapon in the furthermost place, to which you have come in pulling up for the stroke, so that before the cut is fully completed you still have space in the middle of it to decide either to complete this cut according to your first intent, or that it will be more useful to turn it elsewhere; thus you will miss no opportunity that arises in the Vor and Nach, rather (according to the admonition of the word Indes) you can be shrewdly mindful of every opportunity. And the postures or guards arise from this, as I have said."  This description also explains how and why earlier works in the course of describing techniques use phrases such as "standing in your ward" to mean the actions and positions used in fighting, and not for the fighter to literally hold still waiting to act.

renaissance fencing footwork HEMAOn his section "Fighting from the Postures," Meyer provided even more edification on staying in motion as he explained specifically how uninterrupted motion is the entire necessity of using fighting stances: "I would not have you remain long in any of them, since they are not invented for this purpose…" Meyer then directly explains how the whole function of a ready position is simply for "when you draw up your sword for a stroke" so that "you will know how to send your sword at once quickly…" This idea of a fighting stance being merely the act of "drawing up your sword" is critical in comprehending the importance of constant motion and how just standing there "holding still" is the antitheses of the Art. Meyer concludes his description of fighting from the postures by writing unequivocally how that even as a fighter will typically make momentary pauses in any ready posture, this occurs only for a fleeting instance:

"the reason that even experienced fighters sometimes longer in a guard, namely that you not only should undertake no cut or stroke thoughtlessly, but also that after you have pulled up and gathered yourself for this stroke, and at that moment shall send the stroke farther, you shall linger in that furthermost point for just a bit, almost only for the blink of an eye, to reconsider whether it is worth completing your intended stroke, or whether in the mean time a better opportunity has arisen for you, so that you should change it…"

There can be no question of the understanding Meyer offered the reader for how stances are never meant to ever be stationary and held static but only used in the briefest of transitory instances, since he concludes by revealing: "This is the chief cause of the invention of the postures, and therefore he who sometimes lies in a posture should see what the intention of the other one is, so that he may know netter how to catch him…"  (Meyer, 75-76)  As if to further emphasize the fluidity of stances and the continuous dynamic motion that makes up fighting, Meyer even instructed that: "you shall fully fix in your mind the techniques that are appointed for every posture, practice them, and make them familiar to you, so that as you come into a posture in the middle of the fight, you are ready and prepared with counter techniques."

Of fighting postures, the master Giacomo Di Grassi wrote in his 1570 work that, "Wards in weapons are such sites, positions or placings which withstand the enemy’s blows, and are as a shield or safeguard against them." Di Grassi stressed the importance of movement, saying, "Most great is the care and considerations which the paces or footsteps require in this exercise, because from them in a manner more than from any other thing springeth all offence and defence." In fighting actions, "the foot ought to agree chiefly in motion with the hand" he declared. 

In his section on "Paces" or footwork, Di Grassi specifically criticized fighters who don’t move enough and try to fight by just reaching outward with their arms but not stepping: "For when it happens that he may strongly offend his enemy without the increase of a pace, he must use his arm only to perform the same, bearing his body always as much as he may and is required, firm and immovable. For this reason I commend not their manner of fight, who continually as they fight, make themselves to show sometimes little, sometimes great, sometimes wresting themselves on this side, sometimes on that side, much like the moving of snails." But, Di Grassi also warned of extraneous motion: "As concerning the motion of the feet, from which grow great occasions as well of offense as Defense, I say and have seen by diverse examples that as by the knowledge of their orderly and discreet motion, as well in the lists as in common frays, there has been obtained honorable victory, so their busy and unruly motion have been occasion of shameful hurts and spoils." Proper movement is always disciplined. Hanko Doebringer had earlier addressed this in 1389 when he cautioned, "in this righteous fencing do not make wide or ungainly parries or fence in large movements by which people restrict themselves."

Early in his 1594 rapier treatise, Vincentio Saviolo instructed, "you may frame your hand, your foot, and your body, all which parts must go together, and unless you can stir and move all these together, you shall never be able to perform any great matter, but with great danger."  Saviolo was surely not just saying to move these elements as necessary, but rather to move them together continuously.

Even the master George Silver in his famous 1599, Paradoxes of Defence, described, "The grounds or Principles of true fight with all manner of weapons" listed not only "motion" but specifically "continual motion" among his first dozen elements of effective fighting. Writing on the necessity of both cutting and thrusting with the sword, Silver declared, "In fight(ing) there are many motions, with the hand, body, and feet…" while later adding that in dagger fighting "you must use continual motion so shall he not be able to put you to the close or grip."  When considered with his statement that we don't remain in any one guard, his teachings are entirely consistent with the others. You cannot follow Silver’s method by holding wards while standing still. In his second work, Brief Instructions, Silver mentions instructs that with our motions we are to force the opponent to react by, "changing yourself into sundry kinds of blows thrusts and lyings, which you must not stay upon." At one point Silver even describes how the fighter “...in the continual motion and traverses of his ground he is to traverse circularly, forwards, backwards, upon the right hand, and upon the left hand...” In his concise section on fighting dagger against dagger, Silver is very specific about the need value of maintaining your movement: "In this dagger fight, you must use continual motion so shall he not be able to put you to the close or grip, because your continual motion disappoints him of his true place, and the more fierce he is in running in, the sooner he gains you the place, whereby he is wounded, and you not anything the rather endangered." He adds that, "The manner of handling your continual motion is this, keep out of distance and strike or thrust at his hand, arm, face or body, that shall press upon you, and if he defends blow or thrust with his dagger make your blow or thrust at his hand…" He then reminds us how all movement follows basic fighting principles, writing, "that you use continual motion in your progression and regression according to your twofold governors." Finally, Silver ends his Brief Instructions by noting a general rule that, "Your hand and feet in good play must go together, whether it is in quick or in slow motion." Finally, Silver ends his Brief Instructions by noting a general rule that, “Your hand and feet in good play must go together, whether it is in quick or in slow motion.” Thus, there can be no question that, by emphasizing movement, George Silver’s method of defense is at all times active and dynamic.

Of movement itself, the master Fiore dei Liberi in 1410 tells us rather directly that, "there are four things in the Art, which are passing, turning, advancing and retreating." Again, nothing is static. It’s all about keeping on the move. This subtext so permeates the works we study as to be ubiquitous. Remarkably, in Chapter 30 of his Paradoxes, George Silver virtually quoted Master Fiore when wrote that, "there belongeth unto this Art of defence only to be used with the feet -- progression, regression, traversing, and treading of grounds." Master Fiore at one point even goes out of his way to say he is so good at audaciously intercepting his opponent's action that if he so wanted to he could do it even without moving his feet, implying that normally one readily does. Movement is also what the master Fillipo Vadi meant when in 1480 he declared, "Be always matched with your enemy while moving, attacking or defending, and what I say never forget: as soon as you see his sword begin to move, or if he moves, or even if he attacks, go back or let him find you near." (Can anyone seriously find in this a command that it's okay to remain stationary?)  Even Girard Thibault, who in his famous early 17th century rapier treatise stressed understanding of leverage and timing employed with grace and speed, noted that everything came down to moving: "All the practice of our exercise, therefore, is such that one will always press upon the enemy… unless the opponent comes forward himself, and thus relieves us of the trouble."

It’s one thing while practicing to occasionally adopt a subdued manner out of complacency (or even total ignorance of the nature of real violence), but quite another to knowingly and deliberately defy explicit the historical teachings. There is no getting around that the sources instruct us to actively move and never hold still. On this they are unambiguous. It is not a matter of alternative arguments to consider or contradictory interpretations to debate. Either you move and stay active or else you reduce it to a form of sword tagging. After all, "form" is not about mechanically copying the positions in illustrations as if trying to "strike a pose." Form exists only within the context of combative actions to either ward off or deliver violent blows and techniques. All of this is a function of energetic motion. Since people today are not doing this craft for the necessity of real self-defense it’s easy to fall into a self-delusional trap that an authentic historical mental and physical discipline is being earnestly followed merely because historical techniques and poses are being emulated. But there is more to reconstructing these methods and applying their principles than prancing and dancing in non-lethal recreational play.

For some it's far easier to criticize than to lead. Whereas for us, we want to make people better fighters using the most accurate understanding possible of the source teachings.  One cannot ignore the cardinal rules of fighting which underlie everything else in the historical teachings. You certainly cannot ignore one set of instructions while then consecrating other lesser ones out of all importance.  There are two simple laws of self-defense governing this matter: 1. It's harder to hit a moving target. 2. It's easier to strike forcibly while in motion than doing so from stillness. To argue otherwise is to reason counter to the self-defense methods and doctrines developed from thousands of years of human experience.

So, if you are serious about safely conducting genuine Renaissance martial arts, about realistically reconstructing their self-defense methods, it must be asked: why are you standing still?

"Frequens Motus [constant motion] holds the beginning, middle and the end
of all fencing according to this art and teaching…
Motion, this beautiful word, is the heart of swordsmanship
and the crown of the whole matter..."

"But before all things, remember that you should not remain too long in one guard.
Liechtenauer has a saying 'He who is still is dead, he who moves will live.'
And from these guards comes the understanding that you should move in swordplay,
 and not wait in a guard and thus waste your chance."  
– the teachings of Master Liechtenauer, c1389

*Personally, I have for years now written extensively about the importance of training and practicing with proper intent (realistic physical and mental effort), the impact of "core assumptions" on study, as well as the effect of one’s motive, objective and method on the process. This emphasis on active movement is no less important. A reason the ARMA has successfully unlocked so many elements of this craft is precisely because of our committed focus during training on moving in with proper energy, force, and speed. 2014.    


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