Monday, November 28, 2016

Back at St. Elegius and ahead to A&S Champions!

Wow, I never wrote anything on St. Elegius! Let's take a few minutes and fix that now.

While I had never competed in it before, the A&S competition at St. Elegius has long been a favorite of mine. Each competitor chooses what level they will compete at, ranging from Novice (<3 years in the SCA) or Novice (<3 years working at the art you're competing with) through the experienced and Laurel level. Competitors are judged by other entrants who are competing at that level, and experienced artisans and Laurels are on hand to help the folks who are judging. The fact that your fellow entrants are judging your entry really lends an air of camaraderie to the experience, and rather than keeping you in your chairs all day behind your entry you end up getting to talk to all the other entrants about each other's art and science, and it can really bring about a giant pile of people enthusiastically going on about their area of study to folks who may or may not know much about it at all. (As a bonus, it also introduces newer artisans to the idea that someday, they may well need to evaluate candidates for an A&S Order who Do An Art that you have no real experience in.)

Originally, I'd only intended in competing in the Art of Fencing side competition that our newest OGR (as of Court at the end of the event, and congratulations to him!) Don Christoffel had put together. There was a bit of organizational confusion at check-in about who was taking signups for that, so I was encouraged to enter the primary competition of the day while everything was sorted out. I wasn't expecting to do this, I didn't feel prepared, but I had an essay and my manuals with me because I'd decided to wildly overdo it for the Art of Fencing competition, so I let myself be peer-pressured into it. I decided to completely throw caution to the wind and compete at the Laurel level, filled out my entry forms, and found a table.

I was lucky enough to be able to save a seat next to me for Lorenzo, who I understand was also convinced to compete in the primary competition at the Experienced level. I forget who else was sitting around us, but at least we'd have our little Martial A&S Corner between the two of us, and worst case we'd just talk to each other about swords all day, right?

It turns out that there was only one other entry at the Laurel level - Galfridus was entering with from-scratch couscous, made in a period clay vessel for doing so. It was really, really great! (Both the presentation, the cooking vessel, and the food.) It was set up similar to a modern double boiler, with the stew steaming the couscous. I had no idea what couscous really was in a from-scratch sense, and I think that food as an A&S entry is always a favorite - being able to directly sample the entry is wonderful on a number of levels. Frankly, I loved Galfridus' entry.

Beyond Galfridus, I spoke with a couple other Laurels who were filling in as extra judges, and they seemed to enjoy what I had to say. Lots of questions and answers and swordchatting happened, and it was a really good time.

The Art of Fencing competition happened after the primary competition wrapped up; we had five entrants who walked the judges and an audience through a plate of their choice. There was a range of skill, choices, viewpoints, and interpretations, and discussion around the plates, and I think it was a really enjoyable and educational time for everyone. While the contestants were sequestered away for the judges to talk, we had some really solid discussions about how to work on the visibility and understanding of martial arts and sciences, and also what some of us had for ideas going forward to learn and try out. (Spoiler: I should make myself some poleaxes sometime. Also, longsword fun!)

In the end, I ended up winning the St. Elegius competition at the Laurel level (and I posted the paper I put together here - it lacks any of the discussion I had, but you can get that basically any time just by asking), and I came in second to Lorenzo in the Art of Fencing challenge - his discussion about the process behind his interpretation of the plate he chose was excellent.

Looking ahead to A&S Champions, I think I'm going to be poking at something that doesn't require as much immediate physical demonstration (though it can still have some if we decide to go outside) and also involve things that we can in no way do under our rapier rules. Which is to say, I think I'm going to crack open some Fiore. I'm pretty excited about this; I've loved a lot of his armizare, and don't get to really dive into it very often, so this should be a lot of fun.

For a slight topic switch, I've been enjoying the stage fighting videos by this Czech group. The longsword fight has been making the rounds recently, and it's got a lot of material in it that's clearly taken from actual manuals, and that's pretty great to see being used to help stage a really well done and entertaining fight scene!

Monday, November 14, 2016

I arted a thing!

While I need to put together a Real Blog Post about St. Elegius and some thoughts on martial A&S in the East (and how awesome it is!) I wanted to take five minutes and be super excited that I Arted A Thing!

So a couple weeks ago, Martin was going to fight for me (again!) in Crown Tourney and this time There Was Going To Be A Real Favor, Dammit. And one had been lingering half-done for ages, but let's be real here; nothing motivates like a deadline so this finally got made!

It's a badge on a belt flap! Yay!
I didn't use anything like Specific Period Materials - I used a piece of white fabric that was sitting around in the craft room, and Anastasia found the red felt for me. She also taught me the Two Whole Stitches that I used - a blanket stitch and a back stitch. Hems were shamelessly machine done.

I realize that this is ridiculously simple and all, but I'm super tickled that I Arted A Thing and did something ridiculously new to me, and I'm going to do the equivalent on this blog of hanging it on the refrigerator door.

And in a day or so, a St. Elegius Post!

Monday, October 24, 2016

Actual Sharp Swords

So last week, I was up in Vancouver learning a whole lot about rapier, longsword, teaching, and learning. It was a fantastic time - I learned a whole lot of stuff. Tweaks to my technique, new ways of thinking, better concepts to apply, efficient ways to learn motor skills and perception. A lot of these things will probably appear in blog posts, show up in classes I teach, and more. I still need to sort through and re-categorize my notes though, and really integrate a lot of that knowledge into my brain. So instead, I wanted to post an entry containing my thoughts on using an actual for-reals sharp sword, across from another actual for-reals sharp sword.

It was really, really cool.

It was also terrifying.

It is also an experience that I recommend to everyone who fences. It was enlightening in a number of ways.

First, I want to stress that this was done in a highly controlled environment. The two people with sharp weapons had a very wide space around them, and observers were keeping an eye out just in case. The floor was clean to begin with, but it was given a quick glance to make sure there were absolutely no tripping or slipping hazards. At no point was any movement made by either fencer towards the other with the feet - only an extension or a lean, and without foot movement, there was no way to strike the body of your partner. Every movement was done quite slowly and especially precisely, and with prior discussion. Safety was an extremely high priority.

That said, this was done without any protective gear. The reasoning for this is that people have a tendency to assume that if they are wearing protective gear that they are completely safe. This would absolutely not be the case in this instance, and highlighting the seriousness of what these weapons were capable of was part of the exercise.

Safety being handled, I want to move on to my reactions and takeaways from this experience.

What struck me the most was how much more difficult it was to get a real visual sense of the blade position. We have these giant blunts on the end of the swords we use, and I never really noticed how much they stand out in my vision until I was standing across from a blade without one. Without that bobbing point in my vision, and with the overall thinner blade, it was much harder to get a real sense of blade length and position just through visual cues. At certain angles, the blade very nearly vanished from sight, which was deeply creepy. It was almost comedic how much I reflexively wanted to constrain my opponent's blade, even knowing that he wasn't going to hurt me, just because it made me feel safer. (The comment was made that some of the senior students will do some slow work with untipped, though blunted, swords just so they get used to not relying on the visual cue of the blunt. This seems like it could be really worth trying sometime.)

The other thing that the lack of blunts impacted was the size of the disengages. It was possible to slide your blade along the other, and then up the other side. Doing this with our simulators doesn't work nearly so well, with the blunt and tape catching on the blade as you try. Also, it felt like the blade was a bit lighter than I expected - if the edges were truly sharp, the geometry would by definition be different than the simulators we use, with that much less metal on the edge.

Speaking of sliding the blades, what you may have heard about edges catching on edges is absolutely true. It isn't predictable or consistent, but when you're sliding edge on edge, there are catches that happen which absolutely impact the movements that you're making. If you can utilize it quickly when it happens, you might be able to save your life! On the other hand, it really made it more important to have your edge on their flat if you're trying to displace their blade with an attack.

Finally, hand shots. It was very clear that while it may still be a low-percentage shot, that the tip of a blade isn't going to bounce off as readily as a blade with a bird blunt on top would. Rather, it seems that if someone really wants to take the shot, that it would be very possible for the blade to skip into the guard, and into your hand... and along it, through it, and into your wrist and arm from that angle. Super problematic for continuing the fight.

Having had this experience, if you have the opportunity to do the same, I really recommend it to a serious student of historic swordsmanship. It highlighted a number of reasons we really do what we do, and gave a very tiny and controlled taste of what it meant to be across from three to four feet of sharp steel.

So! That was sure a thing. Soon I hope to have more Good Historic Material up, now that I've got a bit more free time and brain space.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Rapiers and Katas and Such Like That

Some of the things I try to pay a lot of attention to are ways to expand my solo practice. I have people to drill with at practice, and occasionally around the house, but a lot of my time doing drills at home is spent working on things by myself.

It can occasionally be difficult to work on skills solo, and this is coming from someone who is happy to just keep grinding on the same small set of actions because I find it calming. Working individual actions, guards, and conditioning via postures are all possible, but let's be real - we can all get bored just working repetitive things again and again.

I was mulling this over, and I was reminded recently about how much I miss kata from back when I did Eastern martial arts. They were great for working on transitions, and interpreting what's actually going on, and putting your own spin on things. Classical fencing has them in the form of etudes, and Don Christian de Launcy has written two of them for rapier in the SCA that I know of.

What really got me thinking though, was this old video of a student at Acadamie Duello in Vancouver going through a progression of Fabris' rapier and dagger guards. This hit pretty much all of the levers in my head - kata, transitions, movement, and Fabris. (As a note, I know that we could spend time criticizing the guards themselves, and the postures, and whatnot of the person performing them. That's not what this entry is about, so we're going to not do that. I have a couple comments about how some of the positions make it hard to interpret what the guard is, outside of the sequence, but I'm not trying to harsh on Adam's performance here.)

In the video, Adam works through Fabris' rapier and dagger guards in the order of the manual, with the lunges included in the same places as they appear in the book. Let's take a look at the progression, and consider which changes we might want to make to this depending on what we want to get out of it.

Adam starts with Prime guards, beginning with plate 49, then to 50, and then plate 51 for the lunge in Prime. The transitions between these are all done with passing steps forward - plate 49 and 51 have the right foot leading, and 50 has the left foot leading.

From the lunge in Prime, Adam moves to the guards in Second. Adam recovers back from the lunge into plate 52. From there, he shifts into plate 53. He then passes back with the right foot into plate 54, passes the left foot back to plate 55 again and immediately pivots on the balls of his feet to take plate 56 and through into plate 57, both two rarely seen guards in Second, and moves into a lunge in Second from plate 58.

Recovering from the lunge, Adam takes what I'm assuming is the guard in plate 59. (The edition of Fabris that I have puts the guards here in a different order than the scans I'm linking to; I'm not sure what's up with that but in what I'm using, plate 59 is illustrated in that link on the right. I'll note the other changes as they happen.) He then moves into plate 60 (on the left), brings his body up for 61 (on the right), and lowers his body back down for 62, along with the requisite blade mutations. He passes forward with the left into plate 63, and then steps off to the right with his right foot to assume plate 64. Finally, he brings his left foot in for the very uncommon plate 65 guard, and finally lunges into Third as shown in plate 66.

For the final stretch, Adam recovers into a guard in Fourth, plate 67. He extends his arms into plate 68, passes forward with the left foot into plate 69, and then passes his right foot forward to lunge as in plate 70, finishing the sequence.

This sequence covers all the rapier and dagger guards of Fabris. The primary purpose it serves is helping the fencer memorize all of them, though it can also help with some transitions between the guards. But if we change this up a bit, can we focus on different things?

The easiest thing to do would be to add a lunge after every guard. This would increase the length of the form and make it much more of a stamina exercise, but it would also let us practice attacking out of every guard without changing the order of the guards we're doing - so it would be an easier adaptation to make.

Once all of the basic guards are memorized, the order of them could be shifted around. This would let us work on smooth transitions between very different guards, and as a thought exercise we could try to figure out why we'd be shifting from guard to guard, possibly with attacks in between.

Does anyone else do solo forms similar to this? I'd love to hear about it and kick around more ideas.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Post-Pennsic Post and Bonus Practice Report

It's a little late, but here's a quick and messy What I Remember About Pennsic summary, followed by a Monday night practice report.

As with all Pennsic summaries this year, I have to open by saying: So, how about that weather? It sure was awful; the loss of the woods was sad, and the field closures were also sad, but when the heat index is (I was told) 106* or so, yeah, I can see just closing things to prevent idiots from hurting themselves. (Though the folks in the By The Book tournament all were hydrating and doing so well!) Still and all, I think we avoided a number of heat injuries with that decision, so props to Fraiser for making the difficult call and putting up with people being cranky. (Which I admit I was one of, but he was super reasonable and great.)

Weather aside, there was some great fencing to be had. Champions was blessedly early in the week, a trend which I'm very fond of. We had some delays build up over the course of the day, but I actually rather liked Sunday being All The Sword Champions Stuff all one after the other - belted, unbelted, rattan heroics, rapier melee, rapier heroics... the whole bundle of it all.

I got to fight in two of my usual favorite tournaments this Pennsic - the Ansteorran tournament and the By The Book tournament - which given my otherwise bonkers schedule was both lucky and necessary. The Ansteorran tournament was run well, with tasty tasty food and excellent fencers. I lost to Tora Taka (again - but I've laid blade on him before and I will again. Next year! Neeeeext yeeeeeear!) and another gentleman that I can't recall. I felt fine about most of my bouts, but the second loss just bothered me; I felt like I fell out of my head and I suffered because of it.

The By The Book tournament was amazing - I always love the crowd that turns up for it, and the sideline conversations are helpful, enlightening, and insightful. We ended up with pools of like styles, which meant that I got a few good Capo Ferro and Fabris bouts in before it was called on account of heat. I left feeling like I was in a pretty good place with my Fabris. Not fantastic, but pretty good.

(For non-fencing things: Seeing friends get well-deserved awards is always amazing. Sorcha and Lupold are now members of the Order of the Golden Rapier, which is fantastic. Dio and Doroga are both Silver Rapiers now, Eon has his AoA, and Meggie has an Augmentation of Arms. I was lucky enough to get to read Ruslan's Tyger of the East scroll in English, which was a blast. I also got Court done on Wednesday in under two hours, and had a number of very able assistants for that, without which I would have lost my mind.)

Of note, I was able to get in some bouts and conversation with Master Miguel from Ansteorra as well as Trey from the Chicago Sword Guild, and unsurprisingly I walked away from all of that with some thoughts on what I should work on; combined with practice this past Sunday and Monday, I'll have a pretty good list of things to pay attention to for a while.

On to practice thoughts!

Sunday practice was in the good Doctor's backyard. Did some slightly (but only slightly!) slowed down fencing with Meggie, which was great. Also worked on some more upright postures with Rowan, and Moar Fabris with Anastasia.

Monday had me feeling a little off, though. I don't really have a good sense for why; I've been stressed about some unrelated things lately, and maybe I just had too much in my brain. Either way though, I at least walked away with some confirmation of Fabris thoughts that I've had, so it was still very useful time spent!

Here's where I'm at, then. Besides all my usual stuff - footwork, smooth movement, balance, voids:

  • I'm being very deliberate in my guard transitions. Fine for drills, bad for fighting. Speed them up.
  • Stay more relaxed, and snap tight at the end. (I think of this as similar to how I was taught kata.)
  • More mobility. Play with measure like I used to.
  • Practice moving from a lunge to a pass.
  • Stop relying on binds (or opposition with blade contact) so much. Go reread some of Fabris' plays; there are lots that rely on tempo and not contact.
  • Remember that when I'm using an extended guard, action is going to start from further out.
And now I know!

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Conditioning

Having just gotten back from Pennsic, I'm going to touch on a topic that was deeply meaningful for a number of the grossly hot and humid days spent fencing there: Conditioning. Seriously, it's a thing. It's important, and it pays dividends in terms of your fighting.

I'd wager that most of us are fencing for one or both of two reasons: we like being competitive and kickass at swords, or we like doing sweet recreations of period manuals. Both of these have solid reasons for conditioning behind them, in their own ways. Let's take them one at a time.

Competitive combat. What we do out there with swords is an athletic activity, to be sure. If you think of yourself as a competitive athlete, why not treat yourself like one? Anaerobic exercise for individual bouts. Aerobic exercise for long tournaments. (Cardio. Always more cardio.) Strength for being able to move your weapon around quickly, smoothly, forcefully, and well. Flexibility for moving your body around and avoiding injury. These are all really important, and just going to practice isn't really going to work them all.

Look at any Olympic fencer, and think about how much they drill and practice - and on top of that, they still find the time to keep working conditioning exercises. If just raw practice and drills were enough to get the body built up, they sure wouldn't be doing any other conditioning - they are ridiculously efficient with their time and effort, and if there was a better way, they'd be doing it. For something closer to home, take a look at the armored combat people who are the serious contenders for Crown and ask them how much they work out when they decide to go fight. I bet most hit the gym pretty regularly.

Practice is absolutely necessary, but it doesn't work the whole body particularly well at all. (Compare your off-hand to your primary hand. Yeah. That's a thing.) Yet you need that whole body to fence really effectively. At least work some cardio in. Stretch regularly - every day, if you can. Consider strengthening exercises. It won't feel like much as you go, but based on the fact that I was still able to fight at the end of the melees this year, despite the crushing heat? Yeah, I blame having spent some real time actually exercising regularly. (If nothing else, we're all getting older, and exercise helps hold off the impact of entropy just a little bit longer. I'll do a whole lot to squeeze out one more year of fencing in my life.)

Let's move to recreation of period manuals. I could talk about how it's still athletic, and it still takes effort, and that's all true. But you're here for the manuals, so let's go look at two of them - specifically Fabris and di Grassi.

Fabris notes of his particular postures, "In order to properly learn how to keep your body low in this manner, you will need a fair amount of practice and hard work." Of his extended guards in general, he notes that they "can be fatiguing" and of particular ones "keeping the arm in this position for a long time is tiring." These are all good arguments for spending time growing stronger and more flexible.

Looking at di Grassi, though, is amazing. At the end of his manual, he has a section entitled, "On Training Alone In Order To Acquire Strength." He literally has a section telling the reader to go exercise. You can't get any better than that. One of the masters felt it was important enough to write down. So I guess if you're going to be working on recreating a manual, you should go work out. Giacomo di Grassi says so.

In all fairness, I get that most people aren't fencing as a lifestyle choice. It's a hobby, and people are going to make perfectly reasonable choices about how best to spend their time. However, I do think that if you're working hard on trying to get your fencing to the next level that spending some time to get the meat-car you live in tuned up to make it that much easier to properly perform the correct actions over and over again is very likely time well spent, and it'll end up showing in your fencing.

And that's what I wanted to get off my chest about conditioning. Next entry, we're back to Fabris!


Thursday, July 14, 2016

Fabris and His Dagger Guard Concepts

In our last post, we looked at Fabris' extended single guards, and the reasoning behind them. Now let's take a look at his dagger guards, which in general have the dagger quite extended with the sword much more withdrawn.

Interestingly, Fabris points out that you should be careful about extending your sword forward because your "opponent can find it with his dagger and attack you." He also notes that this weapon combination is more difficult because "you must pay attention to the position of your two weapons and the two of the opponent." In short, Fabris assumes matched weapon forms. While it may be a reasonable assumption that you could well use a sword extended guard with the dagger held back at the hilt if you were fighting someone who was using only a single blade and stay true to Fabris' teachings, there are some advantages to the withdrawn guard that Fabris feels that you wouldn't be taking full advantage of.

Fabris begins by describing the dagger postures such that the dagger arm should be held at shoulder height, and the dagger pointing at your opponent's sword. You should extend at least one fifth the length of your sword past your dagger, and join them at the points to prevent your opponent from attacking between them. (I'm assuming that Fabris is considering the hilt of your dagger the point your're moving the sword past, otherwise if your blade is past the point of the dagger, by definition you can't join them at the points.) Should you extend your sword, you should join the dagger to it at the hilt, for the same reason. He repeats this through the section, underlining the importance of it. If you leave space between your weapons for your opponent to attack, you are leaving yourself vulnerable. (Or making an invitation, but that's a different topic.)

When it comes to engaging your opponent, Fabris warns that if you extend your sword to find your opponent's withdrawn blade, you run the risk of allowing them to find you with their dagger. Rather, you should remember that you can effectively find your opponent's weapon without contact, and simply place the forte of your sword on the line created by the point of your opponent's sword and your body. (Alternatively, you can replace the sword with the dagger while you attack with the sword, which Fabris thinks is particularly good when your opponent's sword is withdrawn.) Likewise, you don't want to creep so close as to find their withdrawn sword with your dagger, because you risk moving too closely into measure without finding their blade.

If your opponent's sword is extended though, Fabris recommends finding it with your dagger. He notes though, that you should already be positioning your dagger such that its height is appropriate to your opponent's sword. You shouldn't have to raise or lower your dagger to find your opponent's sword, nor to defend yourself if they cavazione over your dagger. In the case of your opponent holding their sword "somewhat" low, Fabris naturally says that you should lower your body such that you don't need to move your dagger down to find their sword and are still covering yourself. If their sword is lower than that, you can cover them with your sword, albeit differently if they're working towards your inside or outside - working from Third to Second towards your outside, and into Fourth on the inside - but always keeping your sword and dagger joined, so as to prevent them from performing a cavazione over your sword and between your weapons.

While Fabris goes into some more detail about specific counters to specific guards, all of his advice really finds its way back to the core information here. He closes though, by noting that "other masters" decry his core advice that "you may always find your opponent’s sword with yours, provided that you place your dagger so as to require little motion to defend any target your opponent may attack." These other masters, according to Fabris, say that you should work your weapons separately - if one is attacking, one should be defending, and vice versa. "They say that since the sword and dagger are two distinct weapons, they should be used for distinct purposes, instead of being both used for only one end." Fabris strongly feels that using both weapons in unison will allow them to better support each other, be less disjointed in their movements, and be better able to position yourself to wound your opponent while keeping yourself safe from harm. (To add to this in modern terms, I'd say that you're reducing your cognitive load and the need to timeslice between your weapons, making your fight overall easier and better.)

That's our overview of Fabris' sword and dagger concepts! I'm not sure where I'll go for my next post. Possibly going through the invitations that Fabris scatters through his plates, or some other interesting trends in them if they jump out at me.