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Thread: Article: The Notion of a "Real Fight"

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    Article: The Notion of a "Real Fight"

    The Notion of a “Real Fight”
    By Matt Galas, Copyright 2010

    Considering the value placed by many in the HEMA community on the notion of simulating a real fight with sharp weapons, it is a useful exercise to list the differences between sportive bouts of fencing (whether in a training environment or in competition) and an earnest encounter with sharp weapons. The following categories summarize the most obvious differences between the two.

    Fair Fight
    As a general rule, human beings abhor the idea of a fair fight when fighting for real. Whenever push comes to shove, it is human nature to seek an unfair advantage over the enemy, in terms of greater numbers, surprise, or superior weaponry. Thus, the very premise of a competitive bout (two opponents, squared off, beginning out of distance, armed with identical weapons) is a situation that seldom occurs in reality. Far more likely in a "real fight" is exactly the opposite: Multiple opponents; attacking with the element of surprise; beginning the fight from within striking distance; and attacking when the victim is unarmed, before he can draw his weapon, or with vastly superior weaponry.

    To list the key differences:
    - Identical Weapons vs. Advantage Through Superior Weaponry
    - Equal Numbers vs. Superiority in Numbers
    - Both Sides Know Bout Will Begin vs. Surprise Attack
    - Bout Begins Out of Distance vs. Attack from Within Striking Range

    Artificial Environment
    Sparring and tournament bouts typically take place on neutral, pre-selected ground. There is an even surface which is equal for both parties and free from obstructions, obstacles, and barriers to free movement. In contrast, the random nature of real fights mean that this type of neutral playing field is seldom encountered. Far more likely is a restricted area, the presence of obstacles, unsure footing, differences in level (such as steps or sloping terrain), and even interference from bystanders who happen to be present. These factors have a huge impact on the kind of movement that a fighter can practically employ, the most obvious example being the danger this poses for the long, backwards retreat commonly employed by sportive fencers on the defensive.

    To list the key differences:
    - Pre-Selected Arena vs. Random Environment
    - Clear Playing Field vs. Natural Obstacles & Obstructions
    - Solid Surface vs. Uncertain Footing
    - Flat Surface vs. Uneven / Differences in Level
    - Empty Arena vs. Possible Bystanders

    Limited Expectation of Harm
    A key difference in terms of human psychology (and corresponding physiological effects) is the knowledge that there are limits on the degree of harm that can be expected during a tournament bout. As intense as the fighting may be, the competitors know that there are limits imposed on the degree of harm that is allowed to be inflicted on them. The presence of protective gear; the use of blunt weapons; the imposition of rules limiting the actions of the opponent; and the presence of neutral third parties who will interfere to stop the action in case of injury: All of these factors create a level of confidence and security in the competitor that are completely lacking in a real fight. The end result is that a tournament competitor can rest secure that the chances of serious injury are negligible, whereas a combatant in a real fight knows that serious injury is a probable outcome.

    This is probably the most important factor of all, considering the data that has accumulated over the past two decades on the psychological and physiological effects of combat stress. Effects such as reduced motor coordination; exaggerated reaction to stimuli; tunnel vision; and slowed-down (or speeded-up) perception of time are but a few of the effects documented by experts in this growing field of research. The implications for performance of fencing technique should be obvious.

    To list the key differences:
    - "Friendly" Opponent vs. Enemy Who Intends to Injure
    - Small Likelihood of Injury vs. High Likelihood of Injury
    - Psycho-Physiological Effects of Combat Stress: Minimal vs. Extreme
    - Limits on Targets & Technique vs. No Limits
    - Blunt Weapons vs. Sharp Weapons
    - Protective Gear vs. Street Clothes
    - Action Stops Upon Injury vs. Attack Intensifies Upon Injury
    - Referee Will Interfere If Required vs. No One There to Help
    - Presence of Rules and Limitations vs. No Rules

    Different Consequences
    A final factor is the different nature of the consequences faced by a sportive competitor and a combatant engaged in a real fight. In a tournament, the consequences are based on fear of violating the tournament rules, and hence on the chances for winning. Likewise, there is a fear of social repercussions from violating the rules and hurting a fellow competitor. These consequences add up to create a strong incentive to care about the opponent's safety. The consequences in a real fight are entirely different, and naturally lead to very different behaviours. The primary concern is for one's own safety, making concerns about legal liability, revenge, and other factors fade into the background. The end result is that the combatant has little or no concern for his enemy's safety. On the contrary, his intent is typically to do him as much harm as necessary to end the encounter.

    To list the different consequences:
    - Breach of Rules/Law: Penalty/Disqualification vs. Prosecution/Lawsuit
    - Incentive to Breach Rules/Law: Low (Little to Gain) vs. High (Personal Safety At Stake)
    - Social Consequences of Injuring Foe: High (bystanders are watching, friendly opponent) vs. Low (Safety At Stake)
    - Nature of Social Consequences: Criticism, Ostracism vs. Revenge

    Nuances of the Above
    Of course, the distinctions above are not purely black and white, but are more a matter of degree. Societal notions of a "fair fight" can and did often influence the behaviour of earnest combatants, whether in a modern street fight or in an historical encounter with sharps. Some "real fights" do indeed take place at a pre-selected place, under more or less equal conditions, as in a modern after-school fight or an 18th century duel. Even when responding to a sudden attack in the street, due regard for social and legal consequences may lurk behind the overwhelming, immediate concern for one's personal safety.

    Another difficulty in discussing this question is the matter of consistency. In sportive encounters, the competitors generally know what to expect. In the real world, however, violence comes in many forms. What do we mean by a "real fight"? It may consist of a challenge by a barroom drunk, a pre-arranged fight after school, a sudden assault by a mugger on a side street, a mob attack during a riot, or a friendly sparring match which suddenly turns serious. This variety was equally valid in historical times; the equivalents of the above scenarios can be found in legal documents and chronicles from medieval and renaissance times. Comparing a tournament bout with a "real fight" can have a different flavor if the comparison is made to a judicial duel (which included rules, equal conditions, and equal weapons) as opposed to an attack in the street (which was likely to be an intentional mismatch).

    To some extent, the differences between sportive contests and earnest encounters could be placed on a continuum, ranging from casual sparring sessions with a regular training partner; to an intense, hard-fought tournament bout; to an earnest encounter with carefully prescribed limitations, such as an early 20th century duel with sharpened epees; to the extreme violence of an armed assault by a felon with no concern whatsoever but to injure or kill.

    These are just a few of the considerations that make the comparison between sportive encounters and a "real fight" at best a tricky proposition, and at worst, a comparison between apples and oranges.

    Conclusion
    Understanding the differences between a sportive encounter and a "real fight" is important for the HEMA community. A due appreciation for the distinction between the two can inform discussions on issues such as training philosophy, choice of training curriculum, sparring practices, and tournament rule-sets. It can also help to defuse some of the underlying tension that appears in online threads on sparring and tournaments, where the participants often appear to have radically different assumptions on this subject.

    Bibliography
    For a more thorough discussion of this topic, see the following works:

    • Sgt. Rory Miller, Meditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training & Real World Violence (YMAA Publication Center, Boston, 2008)


    • Christoph Amberger, The Secret History of the Sword: Adventures in Ancient Martial Arts, pp. 121-27 (Unique Publications, Burbank, 1998)
    Matt Galas
    Mons, Belgium

  2. #2
    Quote Originally Posted by Matt Galas View Post
    Conclusion
    Understanding the differences between a sportive encounter and a "real fight" is important for the HEMA community. A due appreciation for the distinction between the two can inform discussions on issues such as training philosophy, choice of training curriculum, sparring practices, and tournament rule-sets. It can also help to defuse some of the underlying tension that appears in online threads on sparring and tournaments, where the participants often appear to have radically different assumptions on this subject.
    I think you missed an important thing which some of us try to point out when we are comparing 'real' vs 'sport' -> responsibility to the art.
    My biggest concern is that 'sport' side is slowly but surely drifting away from the HEMA into its own shape. I welcome the freedom of choice in pursuing either orthodox or competitive side of HEMA.. however we should not forget that this does not mean we can do whatever we want with commercializing it.
    If I give an example: Olympic sport fencing and classical fencing.. the first one is continuously evolving in its mechanics, etc., while classical tries to stay truthful to the period. If we have chosen to create sport path in HEMA, we need to take an example in the classical fencing and not olympic sport. H in HEMA is there for a reason
    Last edited by Gregor Rozman; 11-28-2010 at 03:33 AM.

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    Hi, Gregor!

    I didn't miss that point, I just see that as a separate discussion. It's common for people to say that we should be trying to simulate a real fight as much as possible, while others say that simulating a real fight with sharps is not possible at all. Until we examine the differences between a "real fight" and a competitive bout or free fencing (however "true to the art" that may be), the discussion will go in circles.

    This is also a lead-in for a future discussion on what our goal should be: Trying to reconstruct a "real fight", or trying to create an environment where we test particular skill-sets (such as the ability to carry out historical technique under pressure).

    There are several ways to skin the cat. But until we examine the nature of a "real fight" (and recognize that the term should actually be plural, "real fights", given the variety), then discussions will keep going around in circles.
    Matt Galas
    Mons, Belgium

  4. #4
    Hi Matt,

    I like your comparison. I would add one thing, that the intensity "peak" is much higher, with a much more narrow base time. Meaning, that the general pace until the main exchange is much slower, with the time of decision being very concentrated - usually to one or two decisive actions, whereas in sparring/testing environments there may be spirited exchanges, but the concentration of intensity is inherently lower - there are more activity peaks but not as high and they usually take more time for decision.

    Regards, Thomas
    Erschrickstu gern /
    Keyn Fechten lern.

  5. #5
    Hi Matt,

    OK, with your last post I understand better now the intention behind the original one. If there will be more of such follow ups, I think we indeed can get easier some consensus going on regarding formulation of the competition side in HEMA.
    However having said that, I think it is important also that we should not try to force on ourself one way of doing things. But that's for another topic

  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by Matt Galas View Post
    There are several ways to skin the cat. But until we examine the nature of a "real fight" (and recognize that the term should actually be plural, "real fights", given the variety), then discussions will keep going around in circles.
    That is the key point I think. We should be looking into the conditions of a duel in 15th century Germany or 17th century Italy; or defense against knife attacks in 15th century Ferrara; or the rules and goals of friendly combat in 16th century Bologna. Those Belgian longsword rules you dug up are a good start. There are many kinds of fighting, and any of them is a fine thing to train for as long as you understand what you are doing. The danger is a mismatch between how you train and what you train for.

    Martial artists seem to be prone to disrespecting people who train for something different than they do. Even Rory Miller sometimes writes blog posts as if what he is interested in (self defense and the type of violence a cop or SWAT officer has to deal with) are what everyone should be training for.

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    Matt,

    Good article, but I think your premise needs a bit of developing.

    If you are looking at this historically, especially in the context of the WMA taught by the historical treatises, your premise stated under the heading "Fair Fight" is something I question. An equal fight, in which both opponents would be similarly armed and squaring off in a relatively advantage-free environment, was VERY MUCH the idea of a "real fight" in terms of what our ancestors prepared for, martially speaking.

    You are conflating a fight whose goal is to prove who the better man is (e.g., a duel) with a fight whose goal is to eliminate an opponent at all costs (e.g., an assassination attempt) - two widely distinct scenarios, especially when it comes to selecting which of our arts it applies to. It's akin to the distinction between hunting and eliminating varmint - yes, they both involve dispatching an animal, but the context sets them utterly apart. Or cuisine as opposed to the bodily function of nutrition for survival.

    The first is an art, the latter a mundane necessity. What we study are (and were called) arts--or else the sword as a civilian weapon would not have survived even the beginning of the flintlock era.

    Both ideas were "real fights," but I contend that the former may have been seen as such even more than the latter, from the eyes of a 14th-to-early-20th century martial artist, and the cultural context in which they lived.

    In particular, your extreme downplaying of the concept of honor makes much of what went on on the dueling field and on the battlefield an exception to your thesis. In other words, winning a sword-fight was not a mere matter of bodily safety!

    Thus, I believe your premise calls for some more specifics and distinctions.

    Tom
    Last edited by Tom Leoni; 11-28-2010 at 07:02 PM. Reason: Slightly developed for better clarity.

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    Well stated, as always Matt. An excellent beginning to what might become useful discussions between those that study for historical interest and those that seek a modern sportive context for their training.
    Kel Rekuta
    Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts
    Toronto, Canada

    "il a grant difference entre preu home et preudomme",
    (St.) Louis IX, called 'the Pious" by his people

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    Quote Originally Posted by Tom Leoni View Post
    You are conflating a fight whose goal is to prove who the better man is (e.g., a duel) with a fight whose goal is to eliminate an opponent at all costs (e.g., an assassination attempt) - two widely distinct scenarios, especially when it comes to selecting which of our arts it applies to.
    Not to mention that even battlefield combat could be less-than-lethal; ransoms won and lost fortunes.

  10. Along the lines of what Tom said, it was part of the ethic of broadsword/backsword fencing to try to win the fight by wounding the other guy in the arm, even in a random encounter, unless he manifestly intended to kill you- and the very best swordsmen would try it even then!
    "Am fear a thug buaidh air fhein, thug e buaidh air namhaid."

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    My point (to further elaborate a bit) was this:

    As a general rule, human beings abhor the idea of a fair fight when fighting for real. Whenever push comes to shove, it is human nature to seek an unfair advantage over the enemy, in terms of greater numbers, surprise, or superior weaponry.
    This may be true today, in the context of of modern military and law enforcement (or even self-defense). The role of a fight in this context is simple: to dispatch or incapacitate the enemy at the lowest risk to oneself, no matter what it takes. In other words, the fight is approached with a purely pragmatic intent, and the greater good is merely physical.

    But to do this issue any justice in the context of historical swordsmanship, we must take into consideration the other important factors that (unless we totally disbelieve period sources) have a dramatic weight on this equation. In particular, we can't ignore the concepts of honor in private matters and glory in public ones.

    In the private realm, honor (visible tributes to one's virtues) was seen as a good higher than life itself - there's no much arguing on this. This is why many lost their lives defending it. And until the coming of the modern army as a model, military glory (the praise justly earned for one's valor) was very much something that individuals sought--especially leaders and officers. At the very least, as Ken mentioned, there was the practice of ransom, which is something else that sets apart our idea of a "fight" from theirs.

    Let's stay with honor for a moment. If we accept Matt's premise, then why would mere verbal slights (sometimes more perceived than real) often cause men to want to fight to the death, equally armed and with no unfair advantage? If fighting was a simple physical matter where one's safety was the greatest good, would this not be absurd? And if we do accept that winning a fight was a good subordinated to acquiring honor, then what honor was won by overwhelming an opponent and/or taking him by surprise? (The concept of soperchieria was antithetical to honor.) Indeed, what honor would be won by even surviving an assassination attempt?

    Here's the argument restated in philosophical terms. If a real fight is the means to an end, what was that end in the historical period and the social circumstances of the arts we study? Was it just a purely physical matter--making the opponent die and staying alive--or was that in turn another means to a greater end? If the latter, then what was this greater end (e.g., honor), and what would facilitate or preclude the achievement of this greater end (e.g., a fair fight versus an assassination)? We need to think like this--because this is how our ancestors thought.

    I contend that if we take the continuum between a lynching on one side and a highly ritualized duel on the other (both being real fights) our swordfighting ancestors' mentality gravitated much more towards the second end of the spectrum.

    Tom
    Last edited by Tom Leoni; 11-29-2010 at 08:25 AM. Reason: Added a paragraph.

  12. #12
    I think we can go even further in distinguishing the attitude to violence, in considering what the art/system/source we're looking at was intended for.

    Fiore's baton play from sitting on a bench against a dagger attack, for example, shows a very different attitude to a Talhoffer play shown in the context of a roped-off judicial ground with matching weapons, and both are distinct from a set of plays for non-earnest fighting with leather dussacks. Clearly, however, the teaching of any of these, even for the fencing school, was intended to improve ones skills in any fight.

    When people start talking about "real fights" and "no rules", my first thought (programmed by too many anti-MMA rants) is now that they want an excuse not to train in an alive manner, against an equally resisting opponent. They hide behind claims that moves are "too dangerous" as a blanket excuse not to train anything as well as they could, and to avoid being tested in any meaningful way.

    I'm very much against sportifying HEMA, but if given the choice between a rules-influenced but alive, well taught, and effective restricted curricula supplemented with some unsafe/rules-ineffective extras, and a full curriculum taught badly, I know what I'd chose.

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    If "real moves are too dangerous", there are two possibilities- you have someone who may be simply looking for an excuse to shy away from being tested as you've stated (or have concerns about stress testing either their system or their mastery of it), or the very real likelihood that doing things "for real" will result in grievous bodily harm. I'm not talking about pain or discomfort, but dislocations, breaks or worse. I do not want to risk receiving or giving, say, a compound fracture, with just anybody. Especially not over what is supposed to be a friendly exchange to facilitate learning.

    That would be pretty horrifying and anyone who did take things that far would soon find a shortage of instructors, students, and training partners, at the very least. Which is a perfectly valid concern for a competitive sport but perhaps not so much in a situation where survival is at stake.

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    Quote Originally Posted by T. Stoeppler View Post
    Hi Matt,

    I like your comparison. I would add one thing, that the intensity "peak" is much higher, with a much more narrow base time. Meaning, that the general pace until the main exchange is much slower, with the time of decision being very concentrated - usually to one or two decisive actions, whereas in sparring/testing environments there may be spirited exchanges, but the concentration of intensity is inherently lower - there are more activity peaks but not as high and they usually take more time for decision.
    Hi, Thomas!

    Very interesting points. I struggled with this one, but tend to see the question of intensity in general as a consequence of one of the over-arching categories I listed: Limited Expectation of Harm. The degree to which a fighter expects to be hurt has a huge impact on the intensity of the fight, I believe.

    I suppose you could organize the description a different way, and add "intensity" as another factor. But in my view, this is a question of levels or degrees of intensity, on a continuum from friendly sparring, to tournament bouting, to schoolyard fight or barroom fisticuffs, to a deadly assault. Having been involved in most of these levels (including an assault on me with a shovel by someone who meant to split my head), it seems to be a question of degrees of intensity, although the latter case was admittedly off the charts in terms of intensity.

    You make a good point about the peaks and duration of the intensity over the course of the fight vs. a bout. That's an excellent point, in fact.

    Not sure I agree about "the pace until the main exchange" being slower in a real fight, since I have seen plenty of fights that started off very suddenly and with no lead-in.) This relates to my comments about the variety and complexity of real world violence, though. As Rory Miller said in his book, this is very much a case of the blind men feeling the elephant; your perception is governed by which part of this big, complex animal you touch.

    Thanks again, good comments, still thinking about them.
    Matt Galas
    Mons, Belgium

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    Quote Originally Posted by Tom Leoni View Post

    If you are looking at this historically, especially in the context of the WMA taught by the historical treatises, your premise stated under the heading "Fair Fight" is something I question. An equal fight, in which both opponents would be similarly armed and squaring off in a relatively advantage-free environment, was VERY MUCH the idea of a "real fight" in terms of what our ancestors prepared for, martially speaking.
    Well, I think it's pretty clear that our ancestors were preparing for a _lot_ of different contexts. This included the "fair fight" (duel or otherwise). But they certainly included the "unfair fight" as well. Manifold examples follow:

    - Fiore's depiction of defense against multiple opponents, and of defense against unequal weapons (dagger vs. longsword).

    - A very large percentage of the dagger material that exists from every tradition shows the defense of an unarmed man against a dagger-wielding opponent.

    - At least two manuals (Talhoffer and the Dutch manual of 1595) show the "hat trick", throwing the hat into the face of an opponent to offset superior weaponry.

    - Several manuals discuss iaido-style quick-draw techniques either to defeat an opponent who attacks unfairly, or to (unfairly) get the drop on an opponent before he can draw his own weapon.

    - The Iberian Montante material has as its premise the existence of an "unfair fight" as I defined it, with unequal weapons, multiple enemies, and varying types of urban terrain.

    There are plenty of other examples, and that's just looking at the technical sources (i.e., fencing manuals).

    Moreover, the fact that most fencing manuals shows opponents armed with equal weapons does not mean this was preparation for a duel of some kind. Rather, as one fencing master put it, the fullest expression of technique with any weapon is in an equal match with an identical weapon. This is an abstract way of teaching the fundamental aspects of technique, which can then be applied in other situations (such as an assault by someone armed with a superior weapon).

    Regards,
    Matt Galas
    Mons, Belgium

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    Quote Originally Posted by Tom Leoni View Post
    Matt,

    You are conflating a fight whose goal is to prove who the better man is (e.g., a duel) with a fight whose goal is to eliminate an opponent at all costs (e.g., an assassination attempt) - two widely distinct scenarios, especially when it comes to selecting which of our arts it applies to.
    Hi, Tom!

    Yes, I agree this is a valid distinction, although your division into "duel" and "eliminate opponent at all costs" is a bit simplistic. Christoph Amberger does a nice job of dividing this into what he calls "Comment Combat" (that is, combat which is relatively equal in nature and subject to some kind of rules, whether formal or informal) and "Combat for Dominion" (which has no rules, is inherently unequal, and is aimed at dominating the opponent by any means possible.) The former would include both the formal duel and the unspoken-but-socially-rulebound after school fight. The latter would include both the attack of a mugger who has no intention to kill, as well as a special forces commando taking out a sentry (both inherently unfair, lopsided contests by design). I gave the cite to the relevant pages of Christoph's book at the end of my article; it's definitely worth a read.

    As far as conflating the two, this diversity and complexity in real-world violence is why I specifically added the comments below to the section in my article titled "Nuances of the Above":

    - "Of course, the distinctions above are not purely black and white, but are more a matter of degree. Societal notions of a "fair fight" can and did often influence the behaviour of earnest combatants, whether in a modern street fight or in an historical encounter with sharps. Some "real fights" do indeed take place at a pre-selected place, under more or less equal conditions, as in a modern after-school fight or an 18th century duel."

    - "Comparing a tournament bout with a "real fight" can have a different flavor if the comparison is made to a judicial duel (which included rules, equal conditions, and equal weapons) as opposed to an attack in the street (which was likely to be an intentional mismatch)."

    - "These are just a few of the considerations that make the comparison between sportive encounters and a "real fight" at best a tricky proposition, and at worst, a comparison between apples and oranges."

    Regards,
    Matt Galas
    Mons, Belgium

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    I think as teachers, we have a responsibility to teach our students respect for the art and science that they learn, in that their actions have considerable consequences.

    I say this for two reasons:

    1. To have a level of control which they have complete command over, so as not to wound an adversary during 'friendly' freeplay.

    2. Ultimately to defend themselves, no matter what attack is thrown in their direction, without carelessly exposing themselves to a counter attack which, in a 'live' encounter could lead to their maiming or death, for the sake of landing a touch.

    Dealing with the mindset of earnest fencing, even in the school, is paramount in my opinion.

    A sport, by its nature, tends to impart a psychologically low-risk (although accidents happen) to participants. What we can't forget is that historical fencing is, at its base, the wounding and/or killing of an adversary intent on doing the same to you.

    I feel that too often this aspect is overlooked.

    I hope that makes sense.
    Bob Brooks
    Marshal of the School,
    Hotspur School of Defence

    "There are four D's which I never refuse: A Dinner, a Duel, a Drink and a fair Dame!"
    - Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890)

    "I worship the Prince of Peace ... not the Prince of Pre-emptive War.
    - Former US President Jimmy Carter

    "May I ask one more question?" said one of my friends. "I have often heard it said that if you don't know much about fencing the best thing to do is, as soon as you come on guard, to make a sudden rush at the other man before he has time to collect himself."
    "Well," I replied, "if you wish to make sure of being incurably spitted, that is the most infallible way to set about it."

    - Baron Cesar de Bazancourt, Secrets of the Sword, The Tenth Evening XII.

  18. #18
    In my opinion the thing that stands out most in the analysis is the point about "Limited expectation of harm". Fair fight, artificial environment could be addressed by modifying the training/tournament setup, but the fact that we'll never experience the full effect of the techniques we study can only be addressed in our heads, in a very limited way.

    I believe blade fighting arts are very different from empty-hand ones because of that point. Empty-handed you can pretty much do the technique as you would "for real" and stop just short of the irreversible. With bladed weapons you can't even use the actual tool for safety's sake... It's not a sprained articulation that is at stake if control fails but a punctured organ or cut artery...

    Under fairness, I would also file how transparent the fighters are to each other, and how much you can expect the other guy to play fair. Even in a very formal duel, would you expect the opponent has no hidden weapon, with the level of confidence you can have in most sports? Especially if you know your opponent for a dishonourable coward

    Regards,

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    Quote Originally Posted by Tom Leoni View Post

    But to do this issue any justice in the context of historical swordsmanship, we must take into consideration the other important factors that (unless we totally disbelieve period sources) have a dramatic weight on this equation. In particular, we can't ignore the concepts of honor in private matters and glory in public ones.

    [snip]

    If we accept Matt's premise, then why would mere verbal slights (sometimes more perceived than real) often cause men to want to fight to the death, equally armed and with no unfair advantage? If fighting was a simple physical matter where one's safety was the greatest good, would this not be absurd? And if we do accept that winning a fight was a good subordinated to acquiring honor, then what honor was won by overwhelming an opponent and/or taking him by surprise?

    [snip]

    Here's the argument restated in philosophical terms. If a real fight is the means to an end, what was that end in the historical period and the social circumstances of the arts we study? Was it just a purely physical matter--making the opponent die and staying alive--or was that in turn another means to a greater end? If the latter, then what was this greater end (e.g., honor), and what would facilitate or preclude the achievement of this greater end (e.g., a fair fight versus an assassination)? We need to think like this--because this is how our ancestors thought.
    Hi, Tom!

    Interesting points, but I believe you may be overestimating the number of "fair fights" that took place, whether in duels or on the battlefield. If we examine attention the historical source material (beyond technical sources on swordsmanship), it becomes readily apparent that the number of "unfair" fights vastly dwarfed the number of "fair" (= relatively equal) fights, the heightened societal importance of honor in those times notwithstanding.

    From France alone, there are literally scores of volumes of transcribed letters of remission filled with accounts of sword-fights and other armed encounters. Sadly, "fair fights" in which we can discern something that looks like honor are extremely hard to find, and form a very small percentage of the documented encounters. The vast majority involve far more sordid affairs, such as:

    - The priest who is caught in bed with the farmer's wife, and defends himself with a falchion against an onslaught with a pitchfork. This scenario (meaning the mismatch of pitch-fork or long staff against falchion) occurs many, many times, and is almost a standard.

    - The two tax-collectors who get in an argument, until one of them pulls a falchion and attacks the other with a hail of attacks before he can draw his weapon. (This is another standard, and is about the closest you get to a fair fight. But someone always draws first and goes after the other before he is ready; and these encounters are often among the gentry, knights, or minor nobility.)

    - The quarrel between two men, who fight with daggers, until one man's servant ends the fight with a blow to the head with a two-handed sword.

    - The servant who surprises two men stealing grapes from his master's vines, is attacked by them with clubs, and must defend himself with sword & buckler.

    - The three men armed with axes who break into a man's house, who defends himself with a pitchfork.

    - The students in medieval French towns who engaged in gang fights armed with falchions, longswords, and even halberds.

    - The assassinations of political rivals carried out by tens of armored retainers attacking the unsuspecting victim, who is unarmored and accompanied by a small band of unarmed retainers. (This happened fairly often among both the low and high nobility.)

    Multiply these examples by the many hundreds, extrapolate to the thousands of undocumented incidents, and then compare them to the small number of duels (judicial or otherwise) that we can document in any European country in medieval and Renaissance times. The same applies with equal weight to the battlefield, where most of the killing has always been done when the enemy ranks have broken, and the defeated soldiers are in headlong flight.

    I won't even touch on all the duels (which I think you would characterize as the bastion of fair play) in which foul play was practiced. (Think: Ambushes on the way to the duelling ground, the wearing of hidden armor, attacking the opponent before he was ready, and the like.) This is why Hans Talhoffer, when writing on the judicial duel (another bastion of fair play) complained that, "The world is full of falsity."

    So, I guess I would stand by my premise.
    Matt Galas
    Mons, Belgium

  20. #20
    Hi Matt,

    I really think you should reconsider, because you seem to place a lot of importance on a kind of fighting which was probably not the focus of most of our sources. Most of the European sword systems I know of focus on the duel or on mock combat. Whether that made the most pragmatic sense is a different question! Lots of people don't do the most pragmatic thing, even when their lives are on the line.

    A good parallel is Greek and Roman soldiers. There is a lot of evidence that some Greeks and Romans practiced moving together and armed single combat and sending missiles against targets; not much for practice fighting in groups. We would expect them to train to fight as a group, but apparently the ancients did not.

  21. #21
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    Would the rather graphic images that one encounters when searching "Capo Ferro" be an exception to the historical rule?
    Last edited by Jonathan Frances; 11-29-2010 at 07:23 PM.

  22. #22
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    Hi, Matt - points well taken.

    However, historical documentation is a bit like the Bible. You quote me a section, I quote you a section. You cite an anecdote, I cite another one. Italian literature - directly-martial and non - is replete of duels, challenges, disfide, ritualized vendettas preceded by cartelli and the like. And, of course, it's also replete with stabbings, assassinations, conspiracies and lynchings.

    The first thrust of a stocco and sword-cut to the head that the mob visited on Cola di Rienzo are vividly-recounted examples of the latter. Still.

    What I'm driving at is this. Citing from the penal code is "realistic" insofar it paints a picture of human reality that has always existed - the tragic, impulsive side that drives men to murder and crimes of passion.

    However, to imagine that such was what the crux of what our ancestors prepared for when they attended a swordsmanship school is a stretch at best.

    You cite Fiore. I'll cite Fiore back at you.

    His multiple opponent sections are clearly prefaced by statements such as "come against me one by one." Thus, they become single passes performed by different men - not a 3-on-1 in which the former have an unfair advantage.

    A great part of his dagger material pertains to armored combat, which is an important reason why this seeming inequality of weapons may have been included (dagger vs. unarmed). If you have a dagger and we are both in armor, and I know abrazare, your advantage is slight (if you have one at all).

    Sure, there are self-defense sections - such as the bastoncello, perhaps the clearest-cut in the whole book.

    Also, I agree, there are iaido-like techniques described in Monte (that I know), as well as (in truth) whole booklets such as Quintino's about how to defeat a snake, dog or buffalo, sword in hand. Marcelli even has a section on how to throw the dagger at the opponent and how to use a lantern to put an opponent at a disadvantage if attacked at night.

    So, yes, all of these things are there, because they are part of being a complete martial artist.

    But in the vast martial corpus that has survived, these are footnotes and exceptions, not the rule, and they do not point at what our ancestors looked at first and foremost when they entered a fencing school or they approached a Master.

    When you learned "Fechtkunst" or "L'arte dell'armi" you didn't enter the school to learn how to thwart an assassination attempt or to perpetrate one yourself. You learned how to fight against an equally-armed opponent for the bulk of your training - for that was how "the norm" would have been, especially in a time when honor was such a paramount concept.

    Matt, this is simply a fact--all the way from I.33 to the Classical days. Either that, or the historical Masters were an outlying sample, poor writers or both.

    Tom

  23. #23
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    (1) We can not look at treatises on arms outside of their socio-cultural context, which in our cases includes ideas of art and science. Fencing is a science; its application is an art.

    (2) As with any martial art, fencing practice in history existed along a continuum of self-defense, sport, statement of social belonging, and monomachia (in turn, also a statement of social belonging). The balance between these was specific to the place and time: Fiore's world included assassinations, battles, judicial duels, tournaments, and friendly training. Agrippa, 150 years later, was dealing almost solely with the legally constituted trial by combat. It is only on the Internet that people like to draw white lines. Reality is messier.

    (3) Go re-read my introduction to Agrippa, Muir's "Mad Blood Stirring," and the rest of the items in my bibliography.

    (4) Only those who have seen the elephant of combat can describe it; for the rest of us, it is idle speculation.

    (5) Since people like to test themselves in a safe environment and like to have a purpose to their training, any martial art will tend towards sport. This is as true now as it was back in the day, but because swords are obsolete on the battlefield and the last duel I know of was in 1967, there is no longer any reality check in fencing. The only way to avoid this is to preserve the training principles that come down to us through tradition, and even this is only an approximation, since for us fencing will always be a safe pastime.

    (6) Though tournament-fighting is inevitably a sport, nonetheless, those who saw the elephant in the Western tradition also saw value in sportive competition, and so, following their lead, this should be part of a training regimen. However, tournament designers and judges should bear in mind the principles and practices that come down to us both through the living and the textual traditions.

    (7) The thing that transforms our fencing most from that of the Middle Ages and early modern period is not the gulf of time or supposed loss of heritage (though the French Revolution did do its part). It is the invention of the fencing mask, which means that an unfortunate miscalculation in play no longer results in potential disfiguring or maiming. This has had a salutary effect on fencing as a whole, but does mean that one feels freer to take risks.

    Jonathan: Fencing book illustrations are there to delight the viewer, as well as illustrate the technique. Capo Ferro is writing for a reader who could distinguish between when he is speaking in a martial and when in a sportive context.

  24. #24
    Quote Originally Posted by Tom Leoni View Post
    ... In particular, we can't ignore the concepts of honor in private matters and glory in public ones.

    In the private realm, honor (visible tributes to one's virtues) was seen as a good higher than life itself - there's no much arguing on this. ...

    Let's stay with honor for a moment. If we accept Matt's premise, then why would mere verbal slights (sometimes more perceived than real) often cause men to want to fight to the death, equally armed and with no unfair advantage? If fighting was a simple physical matter where one's safety was the greatest good, would this not be absurd? And if we do accept that winning a fight was a good subordinated to acquiring honor, then what honor was won by overwhelming an opponent and/or taking him by surprise? ...

    Here's the argument restated in philosophical terms. If a real fight is the means to an end, what was that end in the historical period and the social circumstances of the arts we study? Was it just a purely physical matter--making the opponent die and staying alive--or was that in turn another means to a greater end? If the latter, then what was this greater end (e.g., honor), and what would facilitate or preclude the achievement of this greater end (e.g., a fair fight versus an assassination)? We need to think like this--because this is how our ancestors thought.

    ...
    Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582) has some choice things to say about honor and slights in her writings, for example, "God deliver us from people who wish to serve Him yet who are mindful of their own honour. Reflect how little they gain from this; for, as I have said, the very act of desiring honour robs us of it, especially in matters of precedence: there is no poison in the world which is so fatal to perfection. You will say that these are little things which have to do with human nature and are not worth troubling about; do not trifle with them, for they spread like foam on water, and there is no small matter so extremely dangerous as are punctiliousness about honor and sensitiveness to insult. The Way of Perfection, end of Ch. XII (E. Alllison Peers translation).

    I look at Teresa of Ávila's writings as another outstanding product of the Siglo de Oro, of particular importance (to me, at any rate) because the first of these works (her Life) was produced at the behest of the Inquisition, and all of them were subjected to scrutiny before their publication. This means that I find it hard to assume that her brand of religion was unique to herself, since she was exposing it to the possibility of censorship and rebuttal. Instead, we must assume that to everything she wrote, "nihil obstat." But if so, I have to ask, was there no one, outside of the clerical ranks, who didn't hold to some of her views? Was there no Christian swordsman who thought that to prize honour so highly was not itself a dangerous thing? Perhaps not. But if there were, and one yet had to negotiate the corridors of power honour intact, was there a way of behaving and acting that did not involve the perils of both homicide and suicide, even with sword in hand?

    Some passages in the texts I've been reading lead me to think that outright killing did give some authors pause. I used to think that the passages in question were formulaic and meant to get the books past the censors, but now I think that at least some of these men might well have been genuinely taking the (very) long view. For the time being that's speculation (at least for me, given my present state of knowledge or ignorance), so I hesitate in mentioning it, but I think speculation is justified in those cases where it can lead to a hypothesis that can then proceed to be tested. In any case, I think I've said enough to suggest that "this is how our ancestors thought" might call "for some more specifics and distinctions." In other words, "we need to think like this" might need to move beyond a real need to understand the demands of honour in period, and the world-view that entailed it, to appreciate the thinking of someone like Teresa of Ávila, because her world-view was every bit as indicative of the period, at least for some.

  25. #25
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    Charles,

    As always, your posts are thought-provoking. With me, you needn't be so indirect. I can take criticism, also because it forces me to hit the books more often, which I gleefully do.

    Anyway, just to clarify. My statement "we need to think like this" was not meant to apply to the content, rather to the method outlined in my post. It applied to the philosophical method--a valid example, I believe, dealing with the ranking of goods and goals, that permeates Western thought until very recently.

    The anathemas of the Church--as well as of its representatives, prelates and saints--against honor and the actions performed in its name, were countless, especially in the time of the counter-reformation. I would contend that their very number, going hand-to-hand with the proliferation of laws against duels, may corroborate, rather than refute my point.

    My challenge to Matt's premise about "real combat" being axiomatically divergent from a contest among equal parties, in the context of the arts we study, remains. If that makes me a gadfly, then a gadfly be I.

    Tom

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