On Covering, or, the Difficulty in Hitting and not being Hit

PART I

 

ROW and SPORTFor a while now, I’ve been working hard on an issue we talk about all the time, but which we struggle to manifest: coverage. How to hit and not be hit. For historical fencers this is supposedly the guiding principle in how we approach the Art, and, what ostensibly separates us from our cousins in the Olympic world among others. This isn’t to say that the sport ignores proper coverage completely—ROW assumes it—but as often interpreted, taught, and scored “hit and don’t be hit” is less important than who made the touch with right-of-way, regardless of off-target or near simultaneous strikes. Historical fencers, particularly within their own sporting wing, struggle with the exact same issue only under different terminology. Considerable gymnastics form some answers to the problem, from over concern about “after-blows” to peculiar understandings of the angles for “effective” cuts, and to be fair similar gymnastics in rule-sets with point values by target…, so looked at honestly sport-HEMA faces the same challenges the Olympic world does. [1]

What exactly do we mean by “coverage?” In short, to quote Molière, it is “to give and not to receive” when fencing. This maxim derives from a line in a ballet by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin Molière (d. 1673), usually referred to only by his surname. He was a French dramatist whose work captured key social issues of the Ancien Régime. In his 1670 “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” often translated as “The Would-be Gentleman,” Molière explored the ridiculousness of a social climber keen to take on the activities of his social superiors, something obvious to everyone but poor Monsieur Jourdain himself. Among those he employs to better his situation is a fencing master who, in an oft-quoted line in traditional fencing circles, remarks “As I have told you, the entire secret of fencing lies in two things: to give and not to receive.” [1] In the 1990s when “classical” fencing was quickly establishing itself in reaction to the excesses in the sport, this line was often the battle cry.

On its own, it’s a clear, simple, and direct notion—hit your opponent, but in doing so don’t be hit. This is far easier to say than to do. Why is that, and for those of us looking at period manuals, why is it that we still struggle to achieve this? What gets in our way? Does it even matter? [2]

Working backward, it doesn’t have to matter; that depends on one’s goals. Anyone purporting to pursue historical fencing should care, but there’s a spectrum within “HEMA” and naturally not everyone agrees. Assuming that not being spiked or slashed does matter, however, there are probably multiple explanations for why it is so difficult today. This first discussion of coverage will discuss a few of the big picture issues.

Through a Glass Sporty

Much of our way of thinking about “real” swordplay has been framed within a sportive context, so we often unwittingly apply this sportive filter to our look at works from the past. This particular blindness is born of working in a context so divorced from the original environment of the Art. One result of this is that we have nothing against which to compare our interpretations, progress, or effectiveness other than parallels within our context, and all of these are sportive. We can get close to more accurate interpretations, maybe be dead-on in some cases, but much if not most of what we build, especially for older systems, will remain tentative. It’s inescapable since we no longer use swords in war or fight duels. The emphasis many place on tournament bouts doesn’t take into account this filter, but it must—by definition a tourney bout is sportive. This has serious ramifications not only for how we train, but also for the value so much of the community places on medaling.[3]

It is easy to underestimate the importance of this. In the past, when the sword was still an active weapon, final proof of readiness and skill was pass or fail, something one only discovered in combat, in whether or not one survived. Setting aside the issues of infection resulting from wounds or a stray musket ball on a battlefield, one’s skill either effectively dispatched the enemy and saved one’s life or it didn’t. Confidence accrued over time as one continued to survive until one either retired, met one’s match, or was killed by some non-primary assailant. This is a perspective and style of confidence that we cannot really know. Modern military people with combat experience may better appreciate this psychologically, especially if they have experience in hand-to-hand combat, but even for them the nature of warfare is different in significant ways.

The Role of Fear

MartialThe confidence gained in “on the job training” didn’t mean a lack of fear, only the ability to put that fear in check. More than anything else, it is the lack of fear, the lack of dire consequences which most affect our approach. Some historical fencers assume that because the system they study is “martial,” by which I believe they mean either for the battlefield or as a synonym for “effective,” that they are  more or less automatically approaching it the same way as people did in the past. One may move much the same way a treatise suggests, but movement is mechanical however much informed by intent and to move the way a master recommends does not mean the mindset is the same. We can’t even be sure we’re moving the right way much of the time.

This is an old problem, one at least as old as fencing for sport, and there have been many proposed solutions. ROW in Olympic fencing, for example, is meant to reflect the reality of a duel—in short, if one is being attacked, one must defend, or, counter-attack in enough time to have hit the opponent before one is hit. The inclusion of “off-target” and poorly timed touches affect everything. The most important complaint about ROW is the fact that there is not enough emphasis on not being hit at all. If, for example, my opponent attacks me and I decide to attempt a counter-attack, ideally I do that in the correct tempo and cover myself on the retreat. However, by the rules, I just have to strike one tempo before my opponent to nullify their attack—this doesn’t mean that I’m not hit, just that I hit first, in sufficient time, and thus rob them of the touch and score one myself. As Olympic fencing is a sport this is perfectly sensible, but if we’re talking fencing as a martial art then it is a problem.

Rule sets in historical fencing have to make choices too, but for the most part they’re just as artificial. Anytime we game a combat system we introduce artificiality. Some suggest that only certain angles of cut, for example, are sufficient to do any damage and thus only cuts made at those angles count. This flies in the face of actual cutting practice, however, as even a tip cut with a longsword is going to do some serious damage, never mind weapons designed to cut that way. Other rule sets, and I’ve made one myself, try to introduce either benefits or punishments for bad tactical decisions. Some award points to “after-blows” in the belief that one should have covered, others attempt to promote better attention to defense by weighting the initial point more.

None of these are perfect and each have advantages and disadvantages. None, however, solve the problem of mindset. If cuts must be made at certain angles, then cuts that might have damaged someone but aren’t at those angles are ignored—”tippy” cuts to the hands, to name one example, aren’t considered “martial,” but the hands and forearms are common targets in the sources and as I learned from one sabre coach, if you remove the arm’s ability to wield the weapon, the rest of them is a lot easier to hit. The thorny issue of the “after-blow” likewise presents difficult choices—what is more important, responding properly, defensively to that initial attack or cutting into it to lessen its point value despite the fact both opponents are hit? Weighted point-systems set up similar challenges. For example, in my rule set I reasoned that weighting the first touch in a bout would make fencers more cautious and defensive, but the point advantage led more people to attack in hopes of being a point up from the start. These artificial attempts to infuse some species of “fear” and/or better fencing vary in quality, but none does the job super well.

So, if we cannot replicate the context and fear of actual sword combat, what can we do?

Interestingly enough, some dubious individuals have decided that the only way is to fight with sharps; I don’t mean in a drilling sense, but in a bouting sense. However, fighting with sharps “to the bloom” among fringe elements within the community is not the answer. In addition to the legal issues inherent in such idiocy, this activity resembles more some rite within a cult of machismo than anything else. Moreover, some of these groups are known alt-right, white supremacists with mixed up ideas of valor in addition to their ahistorical and unscientific notions of “race,” nationalism, and everything else. Their lack of credibility belies their approach to most things and one must remain suspicious that they even understand what they’re reading (assuming that they can read and do). [4] From the context perspective these dangerous fights are more ritual than a species of duel or battlefield combat. Groups like that in Hamburg do this by choice, with their friends, and while no doubt afraid in some degree, like the older institution of German student dueling at certain universities, this is more social than “martial.” Did I mention it’s stupid?


Cultivating “Fear”

zazenAt the risk of sounding too Pacific Northwest and as crunchy as organic granola, one thing we can do is cultivate a sense of danger, that is, be mindful from the moment we pick up a weapon that it’s a weapon. Blunt, not blunt, treat that sword like it’s dangerous. By analogy anyone who owns firearms knows to treat that rifle, pistol, or shotgun as if it is loaded. Always. Though clearly more critical for gunpowder, the same mind-set can help us approach our drill and bouting with more awareness of what it is, in theory, we’re doing. Employed appropriately our fencing will change. We can become more cautious. We may reconsider how that tip cut to the hand might have ended the fight. We can second guess an attack that puts us at too much risk even though we’re sure we’ll land the touch.

In itself this is not the answer. It’s a useful approach I’ve been trying experimentally, but I’m optimistic about it as a training aid for two reasons. First, the mindset of “all swords are sharp,” if we apply it well, puts us one step further from fencing for points. Second, the more sources I read—irrespective of system or time period—the more I notice the emphasis on avoiding being struck, on attacking wisely and whenever possible with cover, opposition, or room to maneuver away.

 

In the Part II of this discussion I will examine a few sources, from the 14th cen. to the 20th, and how they treat these issues.

 

NOTES:

[1] In the two years we used versions of the rule set I put together it has changed. Most of this change came from the insight and experience of those who competed and officials. Their input improves the rule set far greater than trying to do so on my own can, and it’s long past time for me to reexamine and improve it again. One major change will be taking away the weighted first touch.

[2] Hitting and not being hit includes a lot, from effective parries to attacking from the right measure and in the right tempo. It includes trying whenever possible to thrust with opposition to returning behind the point or under guard on our recover after attack. In Part II I will explore these in more detail.

[3] As another nail in the coffin of tournaments being “martial,” all of them are set up as duels, a fight between two individuals.

[4] For one example, see https://mindhost.tumblr.com/post/143979980172/iamafencer-fencing-to-the-bloom. For an example of the ultra-nationalist variety, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y237mTaexrs. Rumor holds that they’ve had two people die. They also wear clothing directly associated with neo-Nazis. See https://www.reddit.com/r/wma/comments/6xma13/idiots_fight_shirtless_with_sharp_blades/.            

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