Romance & the Ridiculous—Historical Fencing, Realism, and the Fringe Element

Last month I set to beating a favored Bucephalus, safety. Important as I think the discussion is—safety features in blade design—I was unhappy with the way it turned out, with my mode of expression. There was too much ire and not enough constructive criticism—while rants sans useful feedback may be de rigueur in modern American social and political life, they shouldn’t be. When we err, we can try to fix it and so this post is my attempt to cover some of the same concerns, but in a more appropriate manner.

We never lack for examples when discussing safety. The issue that came to my attention this week was alarming. It didn’t concern equipment per se, but behavior and outlook. Having left fb I would never have seen it, but my friends still managing the “Military and Classical Sabre” page on fb, a page I used to help admin, were debating what to do about a problematic post. I’m still in that chat group and long story short was asked to weigh in; I had earlier written one of those “oh that sucks, yikes, good luck” messages to show support, but no longer active on fb I didn’t want to usurp anyone. Clever people, they can easily manage without my input, and my butting in would be inappropriate. But the next morning a few of them approached me about strategies for writing a response, so I did my best to help.

When I was working as an admin I spent most of my time doing two things. First, I attempted to establish and foster a culture where polite, evidence-based debate was possible, and where a truly international community could meet and discuss the wonders of the sabre family safely. Second, I handled most problems, not only dealing with whatever the issue was (and the author at times), but also in using such occasions to reenforce the expectations for behavior. It takes a lot of time and energy to do all that, and it’s often unpleasant work. I won’t lie, really relieved I’m not handling this one.

The post in question asked the 6,000 members of the page if they would be interested in seeing live bouts, with sharp swords, and whether they’d be willing to pay to view these gladiatorial tragedies.  Issues of fb policy about such questionable posts aside, this rightly raised concerns for the admins. It seems impossible that anyone would fail to see what a superbly bad idea this is, but judging by the comments the misguided poster has supporters. Maybe it was hypothetical, but the poster admitted that he would watch such a fight, lethal or not, and that he had watched people fight with sharps, though he shared no details. I don’t believe these are bad people. I want to believe, least I hope, that the majority aren’t sociopaths. Most likely they’re simply naïve and apply what they know from an agonistic context to an antagonistic one. [1] This doesn’t make this idea any less dangerous, but it might help explain why some members were all for it.

Romance & the Sword

People get involved in fencing, any fencing, for many reasons. Somewhere in that mix, usually, is a wish to live out or experience, even at a distance, what d’Artagnan, Rassendyll, Scaramouche, Zorro, and Luke Skywalker bring to life. Literature, film, t.v., comic books, most any way we enjoy story has so often involved fencing. It’s as true of Rafael Sabatini’s novels—so many of which became movies—as it is more recent tales like “Star Wars.” The sword is universal; most every culture has some example of it. Richard F. Burton, in his The Book of the Sword, remarked that “The history of the sword is the history of humanity.” [2] Much as Burton got wrong, I suspect he wasn’t too far off with this conclusion.

I have yet to meet anyone who got involved in fencing because they believe they look sexy in tight white polyester and enjoy the sound of buzzers as pretty lights flash. Similarly, no one I’ve met in historical circles joined up because of their love of thick black jackets, loud socks, and the masochistic thrill that is taking multiple Zwerchhaus to a mask not designed for that sort of battery. Okay, so I do know a few who dig the socks, but otherwise, what draws all these fencers—regardless of preference—is the romance around the sword. This is fine, of course, and for some maybe it is a way to live out some fantasy as Lancelot or Captain Blood, but no matter what every fencer should realize the difference between romance and reality.

A German student is patched up post Mensur

This said, because we no longer use swords we have little idea of what life was like when they were typical weapons. Most newsworthy events involving sword injuries are either freak accidents or crimes committed by those with severe behavioral pathologies. The few other modern examples stand out as exceptions—they’re anything but normal. There are the right-wing morons in Hamburg who slice one another up, there are religious sects like the subset among some Shia Muslims who flagellate themselves with sharp swords, a few isolated examples of fencers who thought they’d give it a try in varying degrees of seriousness, and then the one stand-out example with a venerable history regardless of how one feels about it, German fraternity duels, the Mensur.

The sword belongs to the past, and the past can have deep connections to fantasy. This is why it’s perhaps easier for people to ascribe what they’ve read or seen in novels and movies to what was, in truth, a bloody business. In a similar way many fencers view what they’re learning with more wishful thinking than honest assessment. The reality behind “swordfighting” is anything but pretty. Anyone who has experienced accidents from a kitchen or craft knife will understand this. Somehow, though, there can be a disconnection between any such injury and what swords can do. The gulf is widened even farther by the fact that modern safety equipment, most of the time, does keep people safe, even at full speed. Fencers are thus conditioned to fight with a false sense of security all the time.

One outcome of this for some fencers is too great a confidence in their skill set. This is a hard fact to demonstrate, especially to those who believe themselves so dangerous, because the few avenues they have to “test” those skills are false positives. The worst cases are often found among some who win gold medals, but fail to appreciate the contextual differences between mock and actual combat. They are not the same. The weapons may be similar; that trainer may be as real as can be save for an edge, but at the end of the day there is one fact that is inescapable: our psychology pre-match and our psychology pre-dangerous fight are not the same. There is similarity, but only on the surface. Many competitors experience jitters before a match, but what do they worry about? They worry about doing well, about advancing; of disappointing themselves, their instructor, or teammates; they worry they will be embarrassed if they score too few hits or mess up or lose; but what they’re not worried about so much is the very real chance they may be seriously injured, disfigured, crippled, or killed.

To demonstrate the difference, look up most any fencing bout on Youtube. Take your pick of Olympic or historical footage. Note how quickly and from the off one or both fencers rush at the other. Notice how little caution they display. Now, check out the various footage of late period duels, most between 1900-1920, that schlager7 has shared on Youtube:

https://www.youtube.com/user/schlager7/videos

Duel between Jean Gung and Georges Tinet, 1911–still image from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=czTKm8v-s4U

This was early 20th cen. film, so the speed will be a little quick and the action somewhat staccato, but notice the difference in how most duelists move. Notice the hesitancy, even as each makes small false attacks in hopes of finding an open line. Their hands move fast, but their feet do not, and it isn’t until the feet move that one of the duelists has decided they have a shot. In these duels—most with epee/spada—the concern not to be hit is obvious. One can laugh all one likes at the size of an epee blade, but the damage one can do to a body is anything but laughable, particularly when the person wielding it means to and wants to do harm. Like its ancestor the smallsword, that 30-35 inch spike rushing toward one is powered by the weight, ire, fear, and power of the opponent, and is hardly something to laugh at.

The Ridiculous

This fb post, even if hypothetical, was a bad idea if for no other reason that it will fuel the fires of fools. [3] The well-known maxim “from the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step” enjoys too many manifestations in historical fencing. A few standout examples of the silly include the toe-first lunge (a result of misreading text and image and of misapplying semi-related works, chiefly from dance); the baseball grip for longsword as the one and true way to hold the weapon (despite a legion of period images arguing for a wide variety), the idea that “military” and “dueling” sabre are different (both look to military sources and the difference, such as it is, is one of context), and the idea that all feints are bad (contrary to a plethora of sources where masters cover them and mention the potential dangers). There is a lot of ridiculousness in HEMA. A lot. The interpretative examples just mentioned can be set side by side with similar gems from the tourney world (too much concern about afterblows, not enough about initial strikes), some of the books produced on various topics (from poor translations that are popular to expensive photo-rich works that blind the unwary to how little of substance lies within), and in the unfortunate turn that cutting contests have taken (the goal is to cut through the matts, not to cut within the mechanics of a given text or system). The idea of bloody prize-fights, of what amount to snuff-films, is a step beyond foolish: it is irresponsible, unhealthy, and potentially criminal. No one with any sense should want anything to do with it; those who do need help.

Hieronymus Bosch, “Ship of Fools” (ca. 1490-1500)

As a wise student of mine reminds me often, we all have staterooms on the ship of fools, no exceptions. I will be the last to deny it—if anything I feel my stateroom expands a little too much too often. The saving grace is perhaps realizing our propensity for the foolish and doing what we can to mitigate it. This can be challenging, especially given the degree to which the Dunning-Kruger effect is in play when it comes to martial arts. One aspect of this effect are assorted types of over-confidence. Among these classifications the one most germane here is overestimation,

the discrepancy between someone’s skills and their perception of those skills. People who overestimate themselves frequently engage in wishful thinking with harmful consequences. If someone overestimates their capabilities, they may take dangerous risks and overextend themselves beyond their limits, like an athlete pushing themselves to the point of injury. [4]

Fencers perhaps suffer from this more often than we might think, especially because of the pervasive values in the culture. Among these perhaps the most pernicious is the sense that tournament victories reveal the superior fighter. Winning a match can reveal true skill, but it is not automatic, a fact long recognized before tournaments existed.

For example, Andrew Steinmetz in The Romance of Duelling (1868) wrote “I mention this affair to show that something more than skill is necessary when using a naked weapon or shotted pistol; and the most able fencer and the first-rate shot are not always the best men in the field (61).” The duel in question was between a young officer, known for his skill with the foil, who fell to a “hardy, active, thickset youth, with the eye of a hawk and the nerve of a lion.” The kid had no training, but had nerve. [5] Mark Twain, who wrote about the duel on several occasions, also commented on this fact with his usual humor:

But, don’t you know, there are some things that can beat smartness and foresight? Awkwardness and stupidity can. The best swordsman in the world doesn’t need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn’t do the thing he ought to do, and so the expert isn’t prepared for him; he does the thing he ought not to do; and often it catches the expert out and ends him on the spot. [6]

Even a seasoned duelist who survived multiple, even numerous duels could fall prey to some duffer scared out of their wits. To name one such example Felice Cavallotti, an Italian politician who had fought some thirty duels, died when he failed to be cautious. Aldo Nadi relates the duel in On Fencing, and though short, the description is gripping:

They met. After the usual instructions, the duel began. Seized by the fire of battle, Cavallotti jumped forward, shouting and swinging his sabre. Overwhelmed by this outburst, Macola froze. Instinctively, he stiffened his arm. Cavallotti’s weapon found no target. Macola’s blade passed through Cavallotti’s open mouth and out of the back of his neck. Cavallotti died on the spot. Macola wrote a beautiful obituary. [7]

The advantage the experienced duelist has is more a species of nerve than superior skill. Steinmetz, in referring to the young veterans in France post-Waterloo who sought out young, visiting Englishmen to exterminate, reminds the reader that these men had been “accustomed from their earliest years to face danger in every form, they had the advantage, even when their antagonists were equally skilled in handling the weapon.” (66) He adds that

Few sensations are more delightful than those we enjoy upon finding ourselves secure after our lives have been placed in imminent peril, and men who have once known the pleasure of escaping danger often seek it, or are, at least, careless about exposing their persons, hoping again to experience similar gratification. (66)   

I have known a number of modern veterans who have struggled with this very phenomenon. They got to enjoy combat, the challenge, the risk, the excitement of facing a foe and living another day. Nice as gold medals and trophies are, whatever we feel upon having an award handed to us is nothing like what those exposed to life and death combat experience upon surviving, particularly those who come to enjoy it. [8]

Reality

I have spent most of my life at this point, in some respect, fencing. Teaching fencing and researching its history is currently my daily work, well, one of several jobs, and from experience, research, and observation I am concerned about people who wish to play warrior or duelist when they are grossly unprepared for what that means. It doesn’t matter if one is fencing Olympic or historical—the truth is that neither trains one for actual fighting the way say Krav Maga or boot camp do. In historical fencing, ostensibly, we are trying to be as accurate to fencing-as-a-combat-system as possible, but by the definition we can only do this to a point. [9] We must take safety precautions for reasons of good sense if not potential legal trouble, and mostly so that we don’t kill off the people interested in learning about it or they us. Historical fencing is a past-time. The corners we cut, which we must, do not prepare us for the reality of a naked blade in hand and another pointing at us. It’s a question of mindset, and while we can, and arguably should do all we can to cultivate an artificial awareness of how serious all this would be, by no stretch of the imagination should we train or proceed in such a way that people increase the chances of being hurt.

Bruce Lee, “Enter the Dragon,” 1973

All fencers—instructors, students, whoever—have a responsibility to one another as comrades in arms, as fellow people, to keep one another safe and demonstrate the virtues that the Art can bring out in us. If one works with children this is all the more important. We are not gladiators, and we should never be assassins—if we have learned well then we should know that the best martial artists do what they can to avoid a fight. They find ways to resolve an issue peacefully, and only call upon their skill when this fails. We should all endeavor to be ideal seconds, not duelists, and as such condemn needless danger. This particular danger, if realized, would do more than alarm authorities unlikely to sit idly by as people square off with sharp swords, but very likley damage or end lives. Horrible as this to contemplate for anyone, the damage collectively is worth considering too. Most authorities would condemn any such notion, and so should we.

NOTES:

[1] J. Christoph Amberger, a well-known researcher of fencing history, was the first I read to use this helpful distinction between antagonistic combat, where the potential for hurt is present and one purpose, and agonistic combat, or sport fighting, fencing as a pastime. There is a spectrum between these two poles, however, and I suspect that Amberger, who fenced Mensur in college, might list fencing with sharp schlagers as sort of a mix. The context for the Mensur is different than this pay-per view bloodsport—traditionally the university students who belong to the dueling fraternities observe strict rules and safety precautions. It’s a form of ritual combat, and while injuries are part of it, the target is limited and the action stopped after a hit by the seconds.

[2] Richard F. Burton, The Book of the Sword, London: Chatto and Windus, 1884. Reprint, New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1987, xv.

[3] This quotation has been ascribed to a number of people. For a fun discussion about it see https://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/06/24/sublime/

[4] “Dunning-Kruger Effect,” Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/dunning-kruger-effect, 12-19-2020. See also Dunning, D., Johnson, K., Ehrlinger, J., & Kruger, J., “Why people fail to recognize their own incompetence,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 12: 3 (2003): 83-87; “Studies in Swollen Heads: What Causes Overconfidence?” March 19, 2018, APS: Association for Psychological Science, https://www.psychologicalscience.org/publications/observer/obsonline/studies-in-swollen-heads-what-causes-overconfidence.html. The seminal article by Dunning and Kruger came out in 1999, J. Kruger and D. Dunning, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77: 6 (1999): 1121-1134.

[5] Andrew Steinmetz, The Romance of Duelling in All Times and Countries, Vol. 1 (London: Chapman and Hall, 1868), 61.

[6] Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, 344 [New York: Harper Brothers, 1917; Google Books]. In A Tramp Abroad Twain wrote much about German student dueling. Chapter VIII, “The Recent Great French Duel,” is a tour-de-force of humor if unfair to the valor of the French. The first line sets the tone well: “Much as the modern French duel is ridiculed by certain smart people, it is in reality one of the most dangerous institutions of our day. Since it is always fought in the open air, the combatants are nearly sure to catch cold.”

[7] Aldo Nadi, On Fencing, Sunrise, FL: Laureate Press, 1994, 21. Originally published 1943. The New York Times covered the story March 7, 1898, see https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1898/03/07/102086820.pdf

[8] Out of respect for these warriors, young and old, who struggle with simultaneously enjoying combat and living in a culture that, supposedly, decries violence, I will mention no names. My heart goes out to them as I’ve seen how this emotional Janus tears them apart. My first encounter with this phenomenon outside my own family was with a young retired marine who was taking my ancient history class. Comments I had made about the motivations of characters like Achilles caught his attention and he stayed after class to ask me about it. I didn’t know he had served, but he shared with me how much it meant to have someone speak about the joy these characters took in fighting, something he had come to like too and really struggled with. His plans were to work for the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration, USA) on storm ships, chasing hurricanes, etc. because he missed the risk and danger. I’m not alone in finding this theme in works like “The Iliad” where we see the eagerness of Achilles and the hesitation of Hector. See Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, New York, NY: Scribner, 1994.

[9] Were those who study Armizare, for example, to approach Fiore’s delights more realistically the number of broken elbows and smashed teeth alone would quickly send people packing. Those of us teaching later period systems would run considerable risks were we using sharps. It just doesn’t make any sense. There are those, like Roland Warzecha/Dimicator, who use sharps to train at slow speed and within strict boundaries, but he too is an exception. Most people aren’t Roland and moreover have not trained in environments that prepare them for using sharp weapons.

Author: jemmons0611

Vis enim vincitur Arte.

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