Thursday, 20 August 2015

Seeing the wood rather than the trees

"these devices are not so set in stone that they cannot be changed in practice - they are merely examples from which everyone may seek, derive, and learn devices according to his opportunity, and may arrange and change them as suits him. For as we are not all of a single nature, so we also cannot all have a single style in combat; yet all must nonetheless arise and be derived from a single basis" - Meyer, 2.19r

Let's imagine that all the driving instructors in the world dropped dead and we had to learn to drive from books.

Now let's say someone selected the shortest book with the most obscure information, like the notes used by a driving instructor. Let's say that they then rigidly followed the specific examples of driving outlined in those notes. Let's also say they practiced only on a straight section of road and it worked more or less in this situation. Would you get in a car and be driven around with that person? Hell no.

Now let's say someone else read and compared many different books on driving. They had a primary book, a good book with lots of information, but they had read many other books to see if there were gaps or to expand up areas glossed in their chosen book. They'd thought about why people did things (held their hands differently on the wheel, or used different feet on the pedals) and focused on understanding why they did this, not just on how. Let's say they thoughtfully made logical and practical conclusions about how to apply the examples to different situations and had developed a robust understanding for various situations. Would you get in a car with this person? Sure, though I might watch them driving around first before I did. 

Anyhow this is how I feel about the study of HEMA. Arguments about the "right way" to do a Krumphau is akin to arguing endlessly about where to hold your hands on the wheel or exactly how hard to pump the brake. Limiting your practice to exactly to the examples in the treatises is like never taking a third right off a roundabout because that specific example never came up in your book.

Finally if the argument was to keep the study "pure" to produce an "authentic style" of driving you would have to ask yourself: what does it matter how pure your style if you cannot drive? Does it matter what's the authentic way to hold the wheel or the authentic way to pump the brake if you keep coming off on the first bend? No. Once you've understood about corners then how to turn the wheel and how to pump the break will take care of themselves. Once you can drive then you can try taking the corner with one hand on the wheel and the other hanging out the window.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Some thoughts on improving reaction time

"You should here learn firstly how to recognize an opening quickly, secondly how to act against it." - Meyer, 2.15r

How do we improve both the speed and quality of our reactions?

1. Simplify the stimulus to only the relevant
2. Limit our reactions to only the optimal

While also making it difficult for our opponent to do this to us, simple huh? No.

"Cognition is the art of focusing on the relevant and deliberately ignoring the rest" - Gerd Gigerenzer & Peter M. Todd

The Principles tell us what information is relevant and then neatly packages this into simplified concepts:
  • "Mechanics" recognizes that force generation and body language is highly important information. This is packaged into Guard postures and Openings. 
  • "Place" highlights that the space between you and your opponent is highly important information. This is packaged into Measure and Line of Fight. 
  • "Time" highlights the speed is highly important information. This is packaged into Tempo and then Timing. 
This is a huge refinement and narrows down the environmental stimulus from infinite to relevant. The next question is what is the optimal action, this is significantly more complex especially against a skilled opponent.

Against an unskilled opponent simple one action responses can and should suffice. To my mind this is what the earlier treatises and actions like the "master strikes" are about, delivering a single skillful counterattack against the uninitiated in a one off encounter. However the optimal actions get less sure against skillful opponents who have knowledge of the same bag of tricks while evaluating and adapting to your strategy over a period of multiple bouts, i.e. what Meyer was facing in the fighting schools. He was designing multiple action, variable strategies against peers, a much tougher proposition.

This is what I think it looks like:

1. Limit the scope to manageable groups of up to 4 tempos and break this down into tactical "phases"based on Principles - Onset, Middle, Withdrawal
  • Onset (Measure: out to wide, Mechanics: guard positions and "principles cuts", Time: 1 or 2 tempos)
  • Middle (Measure: narrow, Mechanics: handwork, Time: 1 or 2 tempos) 
  • Withdraw (Measure: narrow/wide to out, Mechanics: guard positions and "principle cuts", Time: 1 or 2 tempos) 
2. Understand the tactical goals of your actions across the phases - Provoking, Taking or Hitting
  • Provoking: creates a situation for you to react to, often used to progress from Onset to Middle
  • Taking, allows you to work in narrow measure, takes you to Handwork in the Middle 
  • Hitting, the point of it all and the start of Withdrawal (whether you hit or not) 
3. Avoid predictability while optimizing your responses by using two variables combined into four strategies: Before or After, Active or Responsive 
  • To act in the Before or After (Timing) 
  • To be Provoking or Taking (i.e. Provoking the situation or taking advantage of the situation)* 
(2.99r translation from Forgeng 2nd Ed)

"And the first are those who, as soon as they can reach the opponent in the Onset, at once cut and thrust in with violence." Violence (Before - Provoking)

"The second are somewhat more moderate, and do not attack too crudely, but when an opponent has fully extended with a cut, fallen low with his weapon, or else has bungled in changing, they chase and pursue rapidly toward the nearest offered opening." Cunning (Before - Taking)

"The third will only cut to the opening when they not only have it for certain, but have also taken heed whether they can also recover from the extension of the cut back into a secure parrying, or to the defence Strokes; I also mostly hold with these, although it depends on what my opponent is like." Judicious Observation (After - Taking)

"Now the fourth position themselves in a guard and wait thus for their opponent’s device; they must be either fools or especially sharp, for whoever will wait for another person’s device must be very adept and also trained and experience, or else he will not accomplish much." Foolish Comportment (After - Provoking)

It's important to note that Meyer doesn't expect us to embody one of these strategies but seems to envisages that we'll adopt different strategies as part of an OODA loop:

"you must assume and adopt all four of them, so that you can deceive the opponent sometimes with violence, sometimes with cunning, sometimes with judicious observation, or else use foolish comportment to incite him, deceive him and thus not only betray him concerning his intended device, but also make yourself room and space for the opening, so that you can hit him that much more surely."

Or, in other words:

"The key is to obscure your intentions and make them unpredictable to your opponent while you simultaneously clarify his intentions." - Harry Hillaker

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* My thoughts on the Provoking or Taking thing probably requires a further note. The Violent and the Foolish types are reducing their reaction time by eliminating much of the need for evaluating the situation by creating the situation. The Violent type by immediately attacking to the nearest Opening and the Foolish type by setting up an ambush, thus "Provoking" your opponent to act. This works by simplifying the required thinking time at the expense of making your actions predictable.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Some thoughts on tournaments

The club I hang around with has just had it's annual open invite tournament.

It's the first time I've been in a "proper" tournament, i.e. formal and interclub, in a very long time. I was competing in Longsword, Singlesword and Spear and line judging in Rapier. These are just some thoughts on it:
  • It's the first "proper" tournament I've done that followed a Franco-Belgian ruleset which was interesting. Surprisingly given that the main argument I hear in favor of the ruleset was that everyone does more fighting, I actually felt like I was standing around more and fighting less than at a "normal" tournament. This could have been down to the number of people, 25+. Each bout was over very quickly and if you didn't spend much time as the King then you didn't do much fighting at all. At least with a "hierarchical" type ruleset you are either progressing up the ranks or you are knocked out and can toddle off to free play. The result was that I didn't really engage with the tournament and lost interest in the whole thing pretty quickly.  
  • I noticed that who won the tournament was largely dictated by the first good fencer to become King, they could follow the simple formula of rushing and scrapping. The scrappier you were when King the better as any ambiguity was a default win. I found it extremely hard to fight like this, which was a massive weakness.  
  • It yet again highlighted my need for patience. Yes there is a time limit but this doesn't mean I have to go all out to win instantly!
  • My style of fighting didn't lend itself well to this ruleset, I either went slower and got nice unambiguous strikes on my opponents, but they were able to double me and win so this counted for nothing. Or I was too fast and the judges missed it and my opponent would ignore it as a "tap." I'm not really sure how to resolve this, perhaps more focus on binding, slicing and clashing actions that are both unambiguous and close the line better?
  • Line judging for competition with people relying on your call is much harder than I remember. especially where you are also judging something of the quality of the hit. The rule was that competitors were supposed to call hits first and 90% of people were very honest with this. But there were a significant number of people who were leaving it to the judges to call hits (what the point in having judges right?). On the flip side the judging, especially mine, was awful and very rarely tallied with the feedback from players so I doubt the outcome of the tournament really reflected what actually happened in the bouts. 

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Sainct-Didier - On ordering the Art

"anyone who wants to put an art or doctrine into order or draw it from confusion for fear that otherwise it will be corrupted, it is required that he is provided with judgement, born of experience gained in the exercise of the art." Secrets of the Sword Alone, Henry de Sainct-Didier 1573

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Some thoughts on "Parrying" in Longsword

"And guard yourself from all parries which the simple fencers execute, and note when he cuts, so you also cut; and when he thrusts, so thrust as well; and how you shall cut and thrust, you find that written in the five cuts and in the setting-aside."

This is just some thoughts around parrying with Longsword, specifically parries execute by "simple fencers" or "holding against" parrying as Meyer calls it:

Ox and Plough guard an Opening because "they are in essence the position of a thrust", i.e. they threaten a thrust. The key point however is that this is a counter attack (same tempo) action not a parry and riposte (two tempo) action. If you actually receive a Principle Cut to a high opening that you are covering in Ox you'll notice how you often get your hands cut, end up suppressed under his blade and are unable to riposte without some further work. Likewise if you receive a low cut in Plough your hands are vulnerable and he takes your point with his strong. This is because if someone attacks into a opening covered by these positions you are expected to be prepared to counterattack (i.e. thrust in the same tempo) killing them instantly. Thus people will avoid an opening "guarded" by Ox and Plough. This is the same logic of Day or Wrath "guarding" the high lines: if you don't do the action you are pretty screwed.

If you are simply going to "hold your sword against his blow" as Meyer puts it then the best postures for this are Side Guard against low cuts and Speaking Window (moving up into Crown) against high cuts. This puts you hands out of reach behind your cross and creates a bind. However Meyer is clear when discussing Speaking Window that you do not want to "guard" in these positions, only to go into them to meet an action.

So Plough threatens a counter thrust from below or, by moving upwards into Speaking Window to form a parry against the high lines. Likewise Ox threatens a counter thrust from above or by dropping into Side Guard a parry against the low lines. Now as Meyer doesn't follow through with counter thrusts this means he features Side Guard and Speaking Window a little more than earlier treatises.

However overall, as Meyer and Ringeck (above) says, you are best not to "hold against" to parry but instead to cut into his cut.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Agrippa - on "insignificant" blows

"Let me note that one often places oneself at risk of being hit by insignificant blows in order to emerge the victor and kill the other combatant. Accordingly, you should learn how to void your center, use your unarmed hand, make attacks in time and counter-time and understand the importance of the points, lines, circumferences, and surfaces." - Camilo Agrippa, 1553

Friday, 31 July 2015

Meyer's Trivium?

So I never picked up on this before, and I'm not certain it is in any way significant, but I've just noticed that Meyer orders his Longsword on the divisions of the "classical education" the Trivium which would have been the norm at the time (1.1v Forgeng):

"...to discuss it very briefly but clearly in such a manner as is done with all other arts and practices:

Firstly to show the vocabulary and manner of speaking that pertain to it, which have been invented by the masters of this art with particular diligence, so one may learn and grasp the secret and genius of it more promptly and rapidly

Next to explain and interpret this vocabulary, so that everyone may properly understand what is meant by this manner of speaking.

Then thirdly to present the practice of the art itself, and how it shall be carried out in the work from the cuts and postures that I will have explained."


So the first is his grammar (input), the next his logic (process) and finally his rhetoric (output) which make up the Trivium.

This could explain why his book is structured the way it is. I notice that there three books in Longsword ("the third part of the treatise on the sword" 1.44v/a) but I don't see that as aligning with that. 

It could potentially split out: 
  • The introduction is vocabulary or definitions
  • Chapter 1-9 is explanation
  • Chapter 9 on wards presenting the practice or devices
But I don't think so. 

I think he is ordering each chapter this way, for example: Chapter 3 has an introduction to the vocabulary (1.5v - 1.6r), then explanation (1.6v - 1.9v) and finally the practice (1.9v - 1.10v)

Whatever, it's interesting in the sense that it gives a reason for the sometimes baffling way he presents himself. What's interesting to me is the idea that to advance you could design some kind of Quadrivium. Firstly you learn the number (Mechanics), then number in space (Mechanics & Measure), then number in time (Mechanics & Time) and finally number in space and time (Mechanics, Time & Measure). I need to re-read Meyer bearing this in mind.