Weapons or Traditions? Part Two

In our last post, we looked at the idea that medieval fencing systems did not think of themselves as teaching weapon-specific fighting arts. In other words, medieval fencing systems did not teach their students how to fight with certain weapons, so much as use certain weapons to teach their students how to fight.


What does this mean? What does it mean to learn to fight, if not to learn how to fight with specific weapons?


The modern idea of the OODA loop may help. This is a modern model of how to act in stressful situations. First a combatant must Observe the situation. Then she must Orient herself within the situation, Decide what to do, and Act upon that decision.


But what facts are pertinent to observe? Once observed, how are we to think about them? How do we decide what to do? This is the heart of what a fencing tradition really is. A fencing system is not a collection of techniques. It's a model of thinking about a fight. In modern terms, it trains us in what to observe, how to think about those facts, and what to do about them.


Let's take an example to illustrate. We're confronted by an unarmored opponent wielding a sword. For the sake of this example, let's imagine an opponent who comes from neither the KDF nor Bolognese tradition (pictured is a fencer standing in what Fiore dei Liberi calls tutta porta di ferro, the full iron gate). What is the first thing we observe about him?


KDF would have us first observe our attacker's configuration. How is he holding his sword relative to his body? We then analyze that information in terms of where our mystery attacker is "open:" given how he's holding his sword and his body, where is his sword not defending him? For an unarmored opponent, the KDF model would have us analyze this in terms of four "openings," or body quadrants: upper left, upper right, lower left, and lower right.


Right away, we see how the tradition simplifies our thinking. We don't need to focus on whether or not our opponent's left wrist is vulnerable. If we happen to notice that, all the better, but it's more detail than we need (according to KDF). We want to observe the relevant facts quickly, then move on to the next step: what are we going to do about it? For KDF, we might decide upon a way to attack a vulnerable quadrant of the opponent. We'll assume that he defends against this attack in a certain way, and use our foreknowledge of his defense to strike him. "No man defends himself without danger," as Liechtenauer puts it.


The Bolognese approach to the same attacker is different. For the Bolognese, the first question is how our opponent is moving. Is he giving us a window of opportunity (a "tempo," in Bolognese parlance) in which to strike him, during which he cannot meaningfully respond (for instance, between steps, while he has only one foot on the ground)? If not, what sort of attack would we like him to make, so that we can deploy our favorite counter technique? To the Bolognese, as Giovanni dall'Aggochie puts it, "Therefore I want to advise you that you mustn’t be the first to attack determinedly for any reason, waiting instead" for a moment of advantage.


Let me hasten to add at this point that the above descriptions are, by necessity, caricatures of both KDF and Bolognese. Experienced practitioners of either school will find much to criticize about both descriptions. I can think of a half dozen caveats to each myself. Like any attempt to model something as chaotic as armed combat, fencing systems are full of exceptions. Listing all those exceptions would require a full fencing treatise. I hope, however, that the above descriptions - cartoonish as they are - help to illustrate the point. If we look at medieval fencing traditions simply as ways to learn how to use a specific weapon or a collection of techniques, we miss most of what they have to offer.


Of course, this isn't to say that the weapons and techniques are irrelevant. In our next post, we'll take a closer look at the role they have to play within a historical European martial arts tradition.

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