Tuesday, 11 September 2012

What we teach in Tuesday's German Longsword class

Well, I was going to teach Krumphau tonight, but the study group found what looks like a much better way of doing it, and I'm not teaching it until I know it really works...

...and that's us. In a nutshell, we teach only those reconstructed Longsword techniques that actually work when we try to break them. If they break, then either our interpretation is wrong, or we're not fit or fast enough.

Where German Longsword comes from

Our art is reconstructed from a heap of old manuscripts of varied purpose ranging from class notes, advertising brochures, manifestos through to crib notes, in our case drawing mainly on Goliath from the 1510s. We don't on the whole have step-by-step guides, because fencing was something you learnt in a fencing school.

This means we have more detail on advanced or special techniques than on basic ones, and more information on before and after than on how. We have lots of data points, but also lots of possible curves.

In the end, the final test of authenticity is "does it work as advertised?" After all, these guys did it with sharps. A Darwinian process would affect both fencers and fencing schools.

Unfortunately, a similar process applies to our interpretations...

Why modern interpretations of break

A martial art is a web. Each technique implies the others since it either counters or leads into them, whether directly or indirectly.

In German Longsword, for example, Zornhau Ort counters Zornhau. Imagine you have an interpretation that works very nicely:
  1. Swish! Here comes Fencer 1's diagonal cut, the Zornhau.
  2. Swish-Clang-Splat! And that's the Fencer 2 cutting into the incoming Zornhau, swatting aside the blade then stabbing Fencer 1 in the mask.
Woot! Back to the 15th Century! Next stop 1389!

But... over time, something odd happens.

Your fencers get fitter and faster, and better at handling their swords. This  - say - affects your Zornhau more than your Zornhau Ort. Within a year, your Zornhau drill is a farce with Fencer 1 consistently striking Fencer 2, and novices looking at you shiftily and not returning.

So, now you revisit Zornhau Ort and make that work. But now you have to do follow on techniques differently; with the sword in a different position, the Take Off (Abnemen) works differently, as does the counter to that...

So, two related forces drive a Darwinian process of improvement:
  • Fencers improving - getting fitter and faster and this breaking inefficient ways of doing things.
  • Interpretations improving - and thus breaking other interpretations.
Gradually, like a pro cyclist truing his wheels, or a spider getting the tension just right on her web, you tweak and improve, then somebody breaks a different technique, and in fixing it, you get insights into another technique and...

Can a reconstructed historical martial art become stable?

Fortunately, there's one fixed point in all this: Does it work as advertised in the original texts?

There will always be variations in techniques because there will always be variations in people - I have short legs, for example, some of my friends are tall, others short. However, the more you try to break your interpretations, the more you go at them with an open mind, the faster you find the cluster of sweet spots, and so stability.

In the end, the process may be Darwinian, but the environment is fixed. All these technique are struggling to occupy just one niche - the one-on-one fight with longswords.

So will Tuesday's syllabus keep changing?

Probably not. Over the years, we've broken anything that wasn't robust.

Our core techniques don't rely on superior speed, or catching the other person woolgathering, or faking them out. Nor are they kill or be killed; we don't do "nippy". Nothing is broken. The syllabus is stable.

Even so, as we teach and fight, we'll always be open to tweaks and enhancements that make what we have work even better, which is what's happening to the poor old Krumphau right now.

So, watch this space.

(Or better yet, get Freeplay Passed, join the Monday Study Group, and help us...)

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