“All right young sir, I meant no offence. ‘Tis my job to ask question after nightfall.” – Gatekeeper, The Fellowship of the Ring
“…I Fiore, confirm it to be true, because this art is so vast that there is no one in the world who has such a big memory to remember a fourth of this art without books. Though, knowing only a quarter of this it it would not be possible to be a master anymore. So that I, Fiore, being able to read and write and draw, and having books about this art and having studied it for 40 years and more, yet I am not a perfectly good master in this art. Although I am considered a good and perfect master in the art I mentioned above, by great noblemen who have been my students.” – Fiore dei Liberi, Introduction, Getty Manuscript
Assuming more than five people read this post, I will be in trouble with a big portion of the martial arts and especially HEMA communities. Why? What heresy have I committed?
I regularly question the masters whose work I study.
To paraphrase Socrates, the unexamined Art is not worth practicing. There are, however, some contextual things that I think help explain why and when I think it’s okay to question. But let’s get one thing out of the way – if you are one of those who saw the title of this post and grabbed your pitchforks then you are probably asking “Who the hell are you to question them?” So let me tell you who I am.
I am nobody. I am NOT someone who “knows better” than the people who wrote these texts. I am NOT someone who will ever reasonably be faced with having to use any of the skills presented in these texts in order to save myself from injury or death. I am an avid Follower of the Art. Have been for most of my life. The Art is the closest thing I have to a religion. So that means I have a lot of experience across a lot of different systems. I have sparred with friends, I have sparred with people I don’t know, I’ve competed in that most holy of HEMA institutions – The Tournament (heavy sarcasm on that last one by the way). I have spent not inconsiderate lengths of time studying 15th century systems, folk systems from the Caucus Mountains, 16th century systems, 18th century systems, 19th century systems, and modern systems from Europe, North Africa, China, and Japan.
Okay. Gods I hate talking about myself. Let’s move on to when and why questioning is okay and when and why it can not be okay.
When starting your journey with the Art in general or with a specific system (even if you have a lot of experience in other systems) it is best, if I may borrow a rather toxic HEMA comment common on social media, “to shut up and train”. Not that questions aren’t going to crop up, but you need to establish a baseline level of familiarity with the system before you start to question the system itself. Instead of questioning the system, use this time to question the modern people you are learning from, training with, or getting translations from. Who are they? What is their context? How long have they been working with this system? If translating, how well do they know the language and the Art? Are they a native speaker or is it a learned language? For an example, way back in the early years of the 2000s I attended a one-day seminar billed to me as “19th century saber”. At that time I had almost no experience with saber & my primary focus was Armizare and polearms. Long story very, very short, the seminar was a disaster. The school’s head decided, spur of the moment, to take over teaching it instead of the instructors they’d lined up to teach. The person in question (no I will not name names) has no business teaching martial arts as was quickly evident. They were attempting to teach us Angelo’s saber method, a simple British system. Some of the warmups and exercises seemed weird but as I didn’t know saber I shut up and did them. Then came a moment I will never forget where the person teaching showed us how to cut with the saber. And to say it was awful would be to kind. I made eye contact with my friend, made what I’m sure was a subtle “What the actual fuck?” face and continued trying to do the drill. Everything worked out in the end as one of the people who was supposed to run that seminar is now one of my best friends.
But this goes to show that when dealing with a new system, you need to give yourself time to ingest and digest the system. That story also illustrates one of the two types of questions that arise when working with a new system.
When a technique doesn’t make sense
As given in the example above, I was told to do something that made absolutely no sense from a tactical point of view. To go into more detail, from a guard position of 3rd (our Outside) this is how we were told to cut – extend the arm but keep the blade pointing back, leading with the bell guard, then make your lunge, then snap the fingers closed around the grip making the blade snap forward as cutting action. I think even the Silver Deniers would admit that this is stupid. I am making no threat towards my opponent whatsoever. No preparatory action to clear their blade, etc. Nothing. Just put your hand out there, shake it all about, and wait for the opponent to Hokey-Pokey your arm off. (I know, not the best, but I started that train down the tracks and was going to ride it all the way to the station). As aforementioned, I gave a hearty WTF? face at this but, and this part is critical, I STILL ATTEMPTED THE DRILL AS ASSIGNED. Why, when I obviously knew that the technique was “bad”? Because I didn’t. I am not a master. I do not have a knowledge of all the fighting systems the world over. As said, before this seminar I had negligible experience with the saber. What did I know? So I did the drill, I asked clarifying questions, and I asked to see where in the manual it said to cut that way. First Red Flag – the instructor (though to give them that title is insulting) refused to tell me where in the manual Angelo gave directions on cutting that way. In fact, it was one of the people who was supposed to be teaching who took me aside, showed me the handout copy of Angelo, and explained that what we were being told to do was ahem one interpretation of the instructions.
Several things could be at play if you feel a technique is tactically awkward. There could be a contextual piece you are missing. The technique could fit into the system in such a way that until you internalize the principle being taught only then will it make sense. If you have experience with other systems don’t be afraid to trust your instincts.
When a technique feels weird
The other potential question is that something will make tactical sense, but it just feels weird to execute. The classical lunge. The level shifting found heavily in Khevsur fighting. The ginga from Capoeira. The inquartata thrust. Xing Yi’s San Ti posture. These are examples of techniques that, in my experience, felt weird when I started working them. Most often this is just our body getting used to the new movements and the more we practice the techniques the easier and more natural they become. I used to find the Armizare stance incredibly uncomfortable but now can drop into it at will and stay there happily. Again, if you are training under someone else, ask them why you are making the motion you are. If they can’t, or won’t, answer then that is a serious Red Flag. Any instructor and their senior students should be able to explain the biomechanics of a technique. It doesn’t need to be in great detail, but at a minimum they should be able to tell you WHY to move that way. The reasoning could be conditioning (purposefully holding stances lower than normal to build leg strength as an example) or it could be tactical (the Khevsur level shifts for instance. They live in the mountains and could expect to fight on narrow trails where sidestepping or stepping backwards could mean tumbling down the hill like Wesley and Buttercup. So instead, you squat.)
What to do with your questions
What do you do when reading/studying a new system and there is a technique that just doesn’t make sense?
If you are studying with an instructor then ask them. Explain your question and your reasoning. If they have no explanation or refuse to explain, then run so fast you leave skidmarks. You may have to walk a fine line between questioning the system versus questioning them as an instructor. But any instructor worthy of the title will be able to explain the WHY behind the drills and techniques. And if they are a quality instructor they will readily admit when they don’t know or that their interpretation is open to being corrected.
For solo study or running your own school my go-to response checklist is as follows:
- RTFM – Read The Friggin’ Manual.
- Read it again.
- Read it while making funny motions in the air (possibly with kitchen cutlery) to visualize what’s happening.
- Try it with a partner.
- RTFM some more.
- Find an expert – someone you know that knows this system better than you and ask them.
- RTFM some more.
But the most important lesson to take away from this article (and if you’ve made it this far: Thank you!) is that not only is it okay to question your teachers and texts, I would say it is imperative for progression beyond the fundamentals level. Not just asking questions but asking the right questions can help you progress beyond rote memorization and execution and move into principle based understanding. And at that point you are able to move beyond the style and system and begin integrating things into your own personal system.
Case Study – Wylde’s Staff
But I’m not just a keyboard warrior telling you to question the people who wrote these treatises; I’m also a client. Here is a recent case study involving my own study of Zach Wylde’s “English Master of Defence; or The Gentleman’s Al-a-mode Accomplish”, written in 1711. Wylde looks at four separate weapons – smallsword, broadsword, staff, and wrestling. One of the things I appreciate about Wylde is that he is, like Fiore and earlier medieval authors, attempting to create a holistic martial system. Wylde explicitly states that the guards learned in smallsword have the same function as the guards in broadsword.
“Whereas I have made it plainly appear, that Small – Sword
and Broad – Sword, hath such a dependance one upon another, in sundry Respects ought to be linckt together, for the Cross Parreat Small – Sword, is the same and equivolent to the in and outside Guard at Broad-Sword: The Falloon Parring is the same as the Pendent or Hanging Guard, there’s no difference in the least, as to the Ways of Parring and Guarding.” – Wylde
So he is calling out the fact that the Inside and Outside guards with the broadsword directly correspond to Cart and Ters with the smallsword. Likewise for Falloon and Hanging. One can extrapolate from this that the Medium Guards are also the same. Wylde is also explicit that one uses the system no matter the weapon in hand. This then extends to play with the staff, which he describes as being 7 feet long. Here is how he describes using the staff:
“As to the Grounds and Rudiments thereof, foly depends both of Broad and Small – Sword, upon the Broad – Sword, more in refference to the Blows, Chops, Strikes, Slips and Traveses; It only borrows from the Small – Sword the Long, Thrusts and Darts” – Wylde
He goes on to explain that the guards of the staff are Inside, Outside, Medium, and Pendant (Hanging) before proceeding into a Throwing the Guards drill reminiscent of that done with the broadsword – which share the exact same guards plus St. George (though Wylde later does discuss St. George, called Level Guard, with the staff and says not to use it at all – advice preceded by Le Jeu de la Hache in the 15th century).
I have a long history with polearms, they were and are perhaps my first love in all of weapon based combat. Interestingly this lead me to approach Wylde’s staff system last of all. I have three main questions as concerns this section: Outside Guard, Pendant Guard, and length of staff.
“In order to come an outside, you must return your Staff by your right Ear, likewise your Foot into the Place from whence it came, and you may come to an outside Guard; the Butt end of your Staff then will be annenst your right Side, and the other Part will cross your Opposer’s Eyes the contrary way” – Wylde
This is my first major question with Wylde’s staff system and it 100% is a “This technique feels weird” moment. Having your arms crossed with a long pole just feels awkward to me. Especially if you have a head on the staff: a bill, an axe, a spear, etc. I haven’t encountered it in any of the systems I’ve studied before – I know the crossed arms are somewhat present in some German systems, but Fiore and Le Jeu both have you avoid crossing your arms. Now, I understand why Wylde has you take this position from a broad holistic sense – it’s the same position as Ters with smallsword, as Outside with the broadsword. So in the interest of keeping body mechanics consistent you take a similar position with the staff. In addition to the awkwardness of just holding this guard position, moving into or out of it is also awkward. It is difficult to have a significant portion of the staff as a butt (bit extending from behind your left hand) and have it not get hung up on your torso as you move from Outside to Inside or vice-versa. And I don’t just say that as a person who has a vast ocean of chi; it’s also a problem for folks of various body types.
But in asking this question – why does this feel awkward? I followed my above advice – RTFM. And here in Wylde’s broadsword section I found what could be a systemic answer to my question:
“Note, That as you move your Sword either to the out or inside, carry your Point almost erect, but somewhat a little sloping” – Wylde (emphasis mine)
So I read this as Wylde saying you don’t just transition straight from Inside to Outside, you make a small circular movement, a cutting motion if you will, in order to cross your body. Applying this to staff, because that’s what Wylde says to do, this solves the movement problem because that circular motion of the tip means that the butt will move clear of the body.
This, however, brings another issue into question – tempo. The motion needed to make the staff move from Inside to Outside and vice versa is a not insignificant amount of tempo. My current preference is to, from Inside or Medium guard, make a deflection action to clear the outside line as this feels quicker. Especially if you add the mass of a metal head.
But I am going to continue to practice Wylde’s method and drills to see if this can begin to feel less awkward.
“From the Medium you may come to the Pendent, which I
call the high Guard thus, Slip your right Hand almost to the left, and return your Staff round the back of your Head, then your Point will slope or hang dipping; but observe that you see your Opposer’s Head twelve Inch under the Butt end of your Staff, or you can in no measure be safe: I do not approve of this Guard, tho’ it was in much esteem formely, but ‘tis not valued; the Reason is, Because the Point of your Staff being dipt, your Defence is weak” – Wylde
Here is my second issue with Wylde’s staff system. This is not a “This feels weird” issue but more of a “Why doesn’t this work this way?” moment. In the smallsword and broadsword Wylde prefers the Falloon/Pendant Guard over all others, yet here in the staff he says that the low guards – Inside, Outside, Medium – are preferable. This makes sense from the point of view of thrusting polearms but this is a place where I feel like Wylde missed something in trying to be as holistic as possible. In trying to keep everything as similar as possible Wylde seems to suggest that your hands are high on your right side, staff sloping to the left. Which leaves your arms crossed and I agree with Wylde that it is a very awkward position to be in.
In the words of a former band director of mine: “However, comma, …” many staff and polearm systems from around the world use a similar high, sloping guard to great effect. The common thread, though, is that the hands are not crossed nor too near each other. The main difference, if we maintain the right hand lead, is that instead of sloping to the left like Falloon and Pendent with the sword, this slopes to the right. But it fulfills the principle of being able to do everything Wylde says Falloon/Pendent can do with the sword – cover the whole body, defend against head blows & thrusts from either side. I don’t know if Wylde forgot this version of Pendent existed in the world, if he’d never come across it (doubtful), or if he purposefully discarded it in order to keep holistic integrity in the base form of Pendent between sword and staff. I will continue to play with both types of Pendent and see, being very careful when teaching to explain which one is written in Wylde and which one is my extrapolation.
Length of Staff
The final issue I have, specifically in regards to the two previous points, is the length of the staff. Wylde says, quite clearly, that it is seven feet long. This is a measurement that hasn’t changed from 18th century England to now and the foot is still 12 inches. Heights varied, but not so drastically as to have a profound effect on staff height (average AMAB height in England in the 18th century of 5.4 feet, current US average height is 5.75 feet)1, 2
In playing with my various staves I have found it easier to perform the Outside Guard and Pendent with a shorter staff (mine comes up to my armpit) than I did with a longer one (approximately 8 feet). Again, this could just be me needing to spend more time playing with the system.
Questioning our instructors and masters, when done in the right way and in the right spirit, is not only okay but it is the path to deeper learning and understanding.