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Weapons or Traditions? Part Three

In our last post, we looked a bit more at the idea that historical fencing systems are primarily models of thinking about fighting generally, not limited to specific weapons or to mere collections of techniques. And yet, each system does use specific weapons, and fencing treatises are overwhelmingly comprised of collections of techniques. How are we to understand this apparent contradiction?

Is This a Longsword System?

As we said at the start of this series, HEMA traditions are often characterized by the weapon or weapons that they "teach." As we said at the outset, this is a misleading description.

There is some truth to it, though. The largest portion of Liechtenauer's zettel does concern use of the longsword out of armor. The Bolognese have many more techniques involving the sidesword than they do for other weapons.

These are best referred to as exemplar weapons - they aren't the weapons that the system teaches, but they are the weapons that the system uses to teach. Bolognese fencing can indeed be used to fence with a longsword, with little to no alteration. However, if you are itching to get into longsword fencing right now, Bolognese is the long way around. KDF will put a longsword into your hand from day one.

KDF Sword and Buckler Play 6
Oh no! Not my buckler!

We can see that these weapons are exemplars from looking at the other weapons in each tradition. For instance, there are only six sword and buckler techniques in the core KDF canon (including the infamous "steal your oponent's buckler," here illustrated by Paulus Kal). Is this because those six techniques truly teach all there is to know about sword and buckler fencing?

Of course not. Those six lessons are merely suplement to all the lessons that the student has already been taught with a longsword. They cover ways in which fencing with sword and buckler differs from fencing with the longsword alone, but that's all.

Bolognese treatises function similarly. Many of the most "advanced" Bolognese forms, covering polearms or relatively exotic weapon combinations, are quite short - far shorter than the early forms for sword and buckler. By the time the student is ready for those weapons, they already know 90% of what they need to know.

The Place of Techniques in HEMA: A Tradition's DNA

So far we've been discussing the thought process behind medieval fencing systems as if it was easily discoverable and widely known, but this is not so. Medieval fencing masters did not simply lay out the principles of their systems in easily digestible form. In some cases, this was deliberate. More than one KDF text comments on the fact that Liechtenauer encoded his system in a poem "with obscure and disguised words," as Sigmund Ringeck puts it, "so that the art shall not become common" (tr. Christian Trosclair).

And yet, even if they had wanted to, prose may not have seemed like the best way to convey the heart of a system. Another KDF student, who contributed his understanding to the Nuremburg Hausbuch, puts it this way: "One cannot really talk about fencing in a meaningful manner or explain it with written words, as some might like. You can only show it and instruct it by hand" (tr. Thomas Stoeppler).

If not with words, then, how is the heart of a system - the real operative thought process behind the tradition - to be conveyed?

With techniques.

The techniques that have been passed down through medieval European fencing manuals are frequently "real," in the sense that they are sequences of actions that can literally be performed in a fight should the exact situation described in the technique arise. Yet they are also - indeed, they are primarily - carefully chosen to help students understand the underlying concepts that form the tradition's model of combat. Many times they are explicitly described so. Ringeck, for instance, frequently introduces a major concept and then writes, "Understand it thusly," followed by a series of techniques. The techniques exist to elucidate the concept, which is the real thing he wants the student to understand. Achille Marozzo, the enormously popular author of a huge Bolognese compendium intended for fencing masters, frequently admonishes his readers not to fail to pass on the forms and techniques in his book.

This is the real value of techniques in understanding a medieval fencing system. The techniques described in fencing treatises are like the DNA of the system: the physical representation of the tradition's method of thinking. The techniques are not the essence of a system, but they are the way in which we understand that essence.

For us, as modern recreators of these traditions, this is invaluable. A good deal of the work we do in understanding lost traditions is to make concordances between techniques: which movements show up over and over again, and in what contexts? What concepts are linked to the same or similar example movements? By studying the connections among techniques, we begin to see a conceptual web take shape. Understanding that web - the what, why, when, and how of those connections - is what we are really after. At Swordwind, we strive to emulate this tradition. We want to teach fencing traditions, not limited to specific weapons.

In future posts, we'll take a closer look at the martial traditions we teach. Until then, we hope this has been an illuminating look at what sorts of things those traditions are.

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