The Knightly Knife

I had a conversation with someone a while back about Game of Thrones.  They were pointing out to me the “incorrect” way they wore their swords, saying that they were being worn too high on the waist.  I had another problem with how the swords were being worn around the castle, namely that they were being worn at all.  It seems that the main characters in particular wear a sword all the damn time.  Although this is a minor gripe with an excellent series, let me tell you that swords are (in general) uncomfortable.  Historically there were of course situations where you would want to have a sword close at hand, but in your own house was probably not one of them.

“Ah,” I hear you say, “but what about assassination?  Surely you would be worried about your enemies cutting you down while you were unarmed.”  Well, that’s certainly a good point, but the fact of the matter is a sword is a terrible assassin’s weapon.  First, it’s all but impossible to conceal.  Second, you have to be able to draw it and strike without anybody noticing.  So no, I don’t think people would have been terribly worried about being assassinated via sword.  I’m sure it happened, mind you, I just don’t think it was that common.  Even in times where a sword was considered part of a gentleman’s dress (mostly after the 16th century) most accounts tell of sword fights and not sword “drive by stabbings.”  Having said that, important to remember that there was a time that everyone carried a knife.

The modern idea of honour s a funny thing.  The thought in these times is that knifing an enemy is a low thing to do.  Something an honourable knight wouldn’t have to worry about.  Back in the sword days this may not have been the case.  From some of the tales of the time that have survived we can see that if someone wronged you, revenge was inevitable and the exact means was left to your own devices.  Combine that with a culture that virtually demands that any adult male carry a knife and you have a recipe for violence.  Knives of the time were tools as much as weapons and always by your side.  In fact the Saxons share a name with their ever present blade, the Saex, as seen here in Hanweii’s replica:

I figured this space needed more saex appeal.

I figured this space needed more saex appeal.

Knives as an ever present companion are a staple of European society and enough people carry knives today to be considered a still living tradition.  In a way we owe it to ourselves to be proficient in knife fighting if we plan on carrying a knife.  A weapon we don’t know how to use belongs to our opponent.  But let’s look again at the knives in olden days.  We’ve mentioned the saex.  In Fiore’s time the rondel was the dagger of choice.  There was also the ballock knife which later e

volved into the Scottish dirk.  From the surviving manuals we can see that these all had a similar shape and were used in a similar way.  The sword and knife company Cold Steel makes some good rubber training knives and a training dagger that works really well so long as you take off the large and slightly goofy looking cross guard.  It’s worth noting that from my research almost every dagger in history didn’t have a cross guard at all.  Some did, but by and large knives are most useful without one.

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The bottom one is my preferred option.

Dagger play is a tricky thing.  An easy trap to fall into, that I’ve seen happen many times is teaching new students that Renaissance dagger is exactly the same as modern knife.  I’m not going to waste any more time talking about this except to say “don’t, unless you know exactly what you are doing.”  Make it clear to students that there is a difference and warn them off real world confrontations.  One of the biggest things to keep in mind is that knives now are far sharper than they were.  Thus, almost all attacks were delivered with the point.  Daggers are also much bigger than a standard pocket knife.  This totally changes the game.  It’s just such a shame that knives are too often seen as weapons to be feared these days.  In Scottish society carrying a dirk was a sign of adulthood, and I don’t think this is without merit.  I prefer people carrying knives to guns, after all.  I have heard far too many accounts of people for whom there is no intermediate step between “I feel threatened in this situation” and pulling a weapon.  At least with a knife there is a chance for defend yourself.  So, as always, stay safe and don’t get in any knife fights.

Fighting Scots

The Scottish have something of a reputation for fighting.  Back in the 18th Century this was also the case.  I think it’s no coincidence that the Romans built a wall to keep the Scots (okay, the Picts actually) out of their territory.  Sadly, there isn’t much in the way of recorded Scottish swordplay and what does exist has been diluted by English sword masters pretending to teach a Scottish system.  Hey, this was good business on their part as they were simply marketing to what was in demand.

Probably the best source we do have of Scottish swordplay comes form a man named Thomas Page.  Mr. Page was an English artillery officer who wrote a very brief summary of Scottish highland broadsword play as he observed it. Now, I am loathe to describe any system of martial arts as being superior to any other, but Page would probably not have agreed.  He saw the Highlander fight first hand and saw them as true masters of the sword.

So what made the Highlanders “better” than their English contemporaries?  Well I have a couple of theories.   I think the biggest thing was training.  For an Englishman to become a soldier was a career choice.  For a Scottish Highlander, being a warrior was cultural.  Sword training began at a very young age.  So when matching a lifelong swordsman against someone with only a few months or even weeks of training, there is really no contest.

English Broadsword of this era also had some pretty strong deficiencies as well.  As much as I love the swordplay as practiced by masters Henry Angelo and John Taylor, their system is highly derivative of the point oriented smallsword way of fighting.  This translated in to a very linear fight.  When you think and fight exclusively in straight lines you are opening yourself up to complete decimation by a swordsman used to using oblique angles and circular movement.  Guess how the Scots liked to fight?

Outside Guards: Smallsword, English Broadsword, Highland Broadsword

Outside Guards: Smallsword, English Broadsword, Highland Broadsword

We also have some body mechanic issues as well.  Being so close to the smallsword system, English broadsword was focused of keeping the sword hilt between you and your opponent at all times and almost exclusively relied on wrist powered cuts.  While these cuts are perfectly effective when delivered properly, they were far less devastating than the elbow and shoulder cuts that were favoured by the Highlanders.  It was a trade, really, between the stronger defence of the English Style and the more powerful attack of the Scottish.  Of course the Highlanders compensated quite well by using a device that was out of style the rest of the world over: the shield.DSCF1267

So despite not having access to any true first hand sources of uniquely Scottish swordplay, we still have a good idea of exactly how the Highlanders would have fought.  It’s a fascinating study that I am just getting to the meat of and an area I plan on training in for a long time to come.

Circular Logic

The shortest distance between two opponents is a straight line.  The straightest line is often not the most ideal.  It is the easiest to predict and the easiest to defend against.  Unfortunately it is also the most instinctual path to take.  Historically most instructors in swordplay have focused training in a less direct way.  Often times you have to go a little into subtext but most Masters preferred a more circular path of attack.  Even the act of the lunge, though it seems a linear attack, is often best performed at an angle.

Perhaps the system that best exemplifies this circular motion is Destreza.  This quintessential Spanish rapier system is the most mathematical style of fencing I am aware of.  The art of it lies in the fact that a lesson in Destreza is a lesson in geometry.  I’ve heard tell that at the time Spanish fencers were thought of as practitioners of black magic in their time.  Whether or not that is true, the key to their success was in in moving circularly when many of the rival systems were very much more linear.

Going back a ways, we see the same thing with the longsword.  Though footwork is more in the context than written clearly, we see that very basic attacks are so simple to defeat when delivered in a straight line and become a sudden challenge when delivered with the intent of circling your opponent.

So, on to the crux of things.  My own personal training goal for this month shall be to focus on the circle.  Lessons I teach will be focus on this type of movement and my own solo training will focus in footwork as well.  My research goals will be met by working on that Destreza manual I’ve been meaning to get to and experimenting with the principles therein.  Now, off to the books with me.

On Defense of Self and the Case for Swords

There was a time when swordplay was considered self defence.  Now, if you were to draw a sword in order to protect yourself, there is a great chance that the threat wont be taken seriously.  This of course, forces the defender in to using lethal force, a less than ideal situation in my mind.

I am a pacifist at heart, despite my martial training, though I would be willing to fight if the situation called for it.  I would argue, in fact, that my martial training gives me a greater freedom to be a pacifist.  Having a range of combative options grants greater ability to get myself clear of harm without significantly harming an antagonist.  I have heard other, far more strict pacifist argue that they would never fight back in a self defence situation, but I have a hard time understanding that particular point of view. Continue reading

A Weighty Issue

I’m not sure why but people seem to think that Medieval Martial Gear is unbelievably heavy.  I mean, I guess it makes a certain kind of sense, the equipment is after all made of metal and metal is heavy.  Armour is heavy enough, though not nearly so much as most might imagine.  You can feel the weight, but they myth that if you fell over in armour you couldn’t stand up again is just that.  Swords though, are not very heavy at all. Continue reading

The Highlander Game

Games are an important part of culture and many of them are variations on several “Mother Games.”  There is a version of tag that involves hunting a target while you are hunted by an unknown foe.  There are various other rules involved, but those are the basics.  Some time ago I figured that this would be a great base for a sword fighting game.  All I needed was a framing scenario.  I found this in the movie Highlander.  A movie that most sword fighters seem to have some affection for and it’s easy to see why.  It’s a simple set up, being about a race of immortals who absorb the power of other immortals by cutting off their heads.  The tagline for the move is, “there can be only one.”  It’s appeal lies partially in it’s excuse to have secret sword fights in a modern era.  There was one movie and a spin off t.v. show and THAT WAS IT.  Anyway, if you’re not familiar with Highlander, check it out.  It’s good cheesy fun. Continue reading

The Real Life Duel

Western Martial Arts is a funny thing.  It’s a resurrected Art, for one thing, as opposed to having a living tradition.  Thus we see that throughout almost every historical self defence system it is assumed that a gentleman would carry a sword at all times.  This is no longer strictly true.  Since self defence is the essence of any martial art, let’s look at the “true” art of defence. Continue reading

The Death of Chivalry

Is chivalry dead?  I think a lot of people would be willing to believe it is.  It seems that whenever Chivalry is brought up in any context it is all about instructions like, “don’t hit girls,” and, “hold the door for Ladies.”  So I think the first question we have to ask is whether or not we, in a modern context, understand exactly what Chivalry is.  Is Chivalry just a matter of not hitting women but holding the door for them instead?  Actually yes, I would argue that’s about as complicated as it has to be.  Sit tight and I’ll explain.  First though a little history lesson for you all. Continue reading

Of Katas and Curios

Katas are somewhat lacking in Western Martial Arts.  Although pretty much universal in Asian Martial Arts, these sequences of movement are an excellent training tool that I think we need to bring to the Western practice.  If nothing else, katas mean that solo practice becomes more engaging.  After all, there are only so many times you can practice basic motions before wanting more.  Katas provide a way of linking these motions together in a set form.  Historically, only a few Masters wrote down anything that can be accurately be described as a kata, but we can build a few more from context within some manuals. Continue reading

Paradoxes of George Silver I: The Sword

The Renaissance was a fascinating time for swordplay.  This is in part because of the fact that so many fencing manuals survive from this era, but also because in the late 16th century we see the first truly civilian swords.  Prior to this time duels were fought only with consent of local rulers and therefore the grievances were primarily of a legal nature.  Due to this fact, the weapons used were generally the same that would be used in battle, complete with full armour. Since these Trials by Combat were set up well in advance, it was alright that plenty of gear was required before fighting could commence.  Once people began to use the duel as a method of settling personal disagreements it became impractical to carry so much equipment and the swords changed to reflect this.  Thus the rapier became the preferred weapon of the civilian classes. Continue reading