I came across something that frightened me the other day. A certain Western Martial Arts school was offering a workshop on Fiore’s dagger plays. That isn’t the worrisome part. No, the part that gave me pause was that they were advertising it as being conducive to modern knife defence. Now don’t get me wrong, the grappling system as taught by Fiore d’ei Liberi in the 14th century is an excellent art. If taught in the right way it is an invaluable tool for self defence. However, there are a lot of traps you can easily fall into that makes teaching irresponsible.
In many ways we in the Western Martial Arts tradition get a free pass. Because we teach and train primarily with obsolete weapons it is highly unlikely that any of my students will be called upon to defend themselves with a sword. Teachers of unarmed martial arts have to be a little more careful. It is one of my most deeply held beliefs that martial arts instructors have a Responsibility to never give their students a false sense of safety. Because no weapon system is complete without unarmed backing it up, many “fencing” schools also teach Medieval grappling as part of their curriculum and so they should. Rather than tearing down the methods of other schools, let’s look at some of the problems with teaching fighting out of a manual as well as a couple of option with how to solve these issues, specifically in regards to the dagger.
The issues all boil down to a lack of living tradition, I think. One of the oldest adages in martial arts is, “you can’t learn from a book.” Swordsmen (and women) have little choice in this generation. We compensate by learning from each other through different interpretations and through sparring. Most of the best instructors come from a solid background of unarmed training as well. I think this last thing is essential, though not everyone agrees. Again, with swords we have no choice. With unarmed and knife training we do have a choice.
I’ve seen a few Western Martial Artists with a sold sword background completely fall flat when dealing with unarmed combat. They are ill equipped to deal with combat with hands and feet and short ranged weapons. This is because so few of them engage in full speed wrestling and boxing. Unless you do, you simply can’t expect to grasp the full reality of a fight by studying a book. Sparring is again the key.
The way I see it there are two solutions. The first is obvious. Get training. Enroll in Muy Thai, Aikido, or any of about a hundred other martial arts and bring that experience to Fiore. It may not be perfectly historically right, but at least you’ll have a better sense of how to apply the techniques at speed and thus be better able to teach it. Second solution is to teach it, but make it a clear disclaimer. Something along the lines of, “these are techniques based on historical manuals and thus may not be applicable to modern self defence.”
Just for fun, let’s look at some Fiore and see how I personally would teach it in a modern context. Your assailant comes at you with a knife, here held in the reverse or ice-pick grip. You stop the knife with a fairly typical Fiore response:
The drill goes thus: The assailant ‘s goal is to stab you in the face (with masks, please) or upper torso. The defender is going to try for the arm control position, but failing that push the assailant away and run for it. Do this at full combative speed. Here’s how this will play out. The defender will get stabbed maybe six times out of ten. Three times they will successfully push the assailant away. The tenth time they just might get the arm control. The students will gain a new respect for how bloody dangerous knife fighting is, which is the true purpose of the drill. Once again as instructors we have a responsibilities to teach our students well, especially when it could be a matter of actual self defence. I think more Martial Arts instructors would do well to ditch the term self defence all together, actually. Anyway, always remember Simon’s First Rule of Knife Fighting: Never, ever get in a knife fight.