Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Historical Fighting Manuals and SCA Armored Combat

It’s All In There
I have fought for nearly three decades in the SCA, and have only lately gotten serious about researching and re-creating the combat material in the period historical manuals.  Therefore, it is fairly safe to say that I feel a certain comfort, and even expertise with the former and not the latter.

Within the context of the SCA’s sport fighting, I’ve learned a lot of neat ‘tricks and techniques’ over the years. There are ‘shots’ that we have developed and taught to each other that seem, to us, like great discoveries.  Some of these ‘shots’ can even make some people seem nearly unbeatable.

My own “J-hook” comes immediately to mind.  This is a shot that I use with various two-handed thrusting weapons such as spear, glaive and two-handed sword.  The shot begins by standing in an extended middle guard, with the weapon’s point aimed directly at the opponent’s face/chest.  This invites him to slap the point aside, and follow it up with a charge into close quarters.  But when he moves to slap my weapon, I drop the point downward just enough to curve beneath his hands, move my tip around to the opposite side, and bring the point back upward and into his abdomen.  This works great nearly every time unless he is specifically watching for it.

In Hanko Dobringer’s 1389 fechtbuch, this exact maneuver is called the Pfobenzagel, Peacock’s tail.  It is executed from the langort guard, and discussed in the Sprechfenster section of his work.

This is but one example of many.  The deeper I go into Liechtenhauer’s material, the more I find that we thought we had discovered in our 40+ years of sweaty research and experimentation.  This natural re-development of techniques is based on the fact that certain implements work best with human body mechanics when used in certain ways.  Zucken, Schnappen and Durchwechseln are other glaring examples of techniques that have naturally developed within SCA fighting over time.

I guess what this really says to me, is that while we have been merrily reinventing the wheel, we have generally been on the right track.

Biggest Problem: The SCA’s Rules
Within the SCA there are some very serious skeptics about this stuff.  With our current level of research and skill with this stuff, it all seems pretty rudimentary and/or gimicky to the skilled fighters of the SCA.

Fighting in the SCA is a sport- a pretty rough one, but still a sport.  It has a quirky set of rules that compromises a certain level of realism for participant safety, and in some cases SCA tradition.  

The biggest factor affecting text-based Historical European Martial Arts acceptance into the SCA fighting community is its own armor standards.  Acceptance of blows in an SCA fight are based on a number of factors, all of which tend to force very strong blows to be thrown.  No draw or push cuts are ever accepted, and any sort of perceived deflection nullifies all blows, no matter their strength at the time they land.

Many historical fight manuals include techniques for fighting in armor.  These techniques correctly assume the virtually complete effective protection of plate and mail armor.  Thus, the techniques involve a level of ‘action’ that is just too extreme for the SCA’s safety conventions.  Grappling, tripping, and the twisting of joints are key aspects of these techniques, none of which are allowed in the SCA.

What most members of the SCA have seen of historical fighting is, by and large, the unarmored fighting plays.  The unarmored portion of this statement is very important.  Many of these plays involve non-lethal fight ending resolutions.  Other than death, a fight ender can be a deep, painful, or heavily bleeding wound; or a twisted, dislocated, or broken joint; or being disarmed, tripped, or momentarily dazed; or any other way in which you can gain long enough advantage over your opponent to put your point to his throat and call for his immediate abandonment of action.  Of these fight enders, the only ones really used by the SCA are death, deep wounds, smashed joints, and momentarily dazed.  Many of the deep wounds result in the unrealistic condition of fighting on without the use of affected limbs.

But Will It Work in the SCA?
In short, I believe that there is a middle ground.  Due to the amount of ‘SCA-valid’ fighting techniques already unearthed in the manuals, I think the rest of the manuals bear a closer inspection by fighting members of the SCA.

Specifically, I believe the Five Master Strikes and their associated plays deserve a much, much closer look.  These strikes are not mere gimmicks, they are different ways of swinging a sword.

Of the Five Master Strikes, The SCA has naturally re-developed two and a half.  The strikes known, and used by the SCA are the Zornhau, the Scheitlhau, and portions of the Zwerchau.

Briefly, from the SCA’s perspective:

-Zornhau: clearing your opponent’s weapon/guard with power to make space for your own plays.

-Scheitlhau: reaching over the top of an opponents guard to strike him.

-Zwerchau: reaching around the side of an opponent’s guard to strike him with the short edge of the weapon- the wrap-around.  The gathering portions of this strike are not used, because this action would count as a deflection under the SCA’s rules despite the power and accuracy with which the blow lands.

This leaves the Krumphau and the Schielhau for the SCA to naturally re-develop.  As with the gathering of the guard portions of the Zwerchau, both of these strikes have obstacles to overcome.  

The Schielhau is designed to land on an opponent’s shoulder/neck area, and lead into a draw or push cut.  The only fix for this blow is to land it with much more power.  Based on the body mechanics of landing this blow, I see this a quite a large challenge to do.

The Krumphau primarily targets the opponent’s hands- a blow that is illegal, and thus, completely ignored when struck.  A simple fix here is to target the forearms rather than the hands.

Why Do I Care?

I guess I’ve become kind of passionate about studying the historical manuals.  I know it’s hard to recreate something this physical from words written in an archaic form of a different language, but I see it as work worth doing.  It is by far not about trying to convert this stuff to the SCA for me.  I think I have the more pragmatic view that both of these activities need to be closely looked at as I work toward a more complete understanding our European fighting culture.

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