"How's your elephant?"
An Asian style Martial Artist looks at the WMAW

Journal of Western Martial Art

by Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

Riverside Church NYC   Rapiers, daggers, broadswords, knights in shining suits of armor - stuff of childhood fantasies. As a kid, I would have killed (or at least fought a duel) for a chance to attend the Association for Historical Fencing's Third Annual Western Martial Arts Workshop, held October 12, 13 and 14, 2001, at Riverside Church, in New York City.

The location was particularly apt. Riverside Church, located just north of the Columbia University campus on the City's West Side, is wonderful Gothic-style structure, with plenty of medieval nooks and crannies. As AHF president Ramon Martinez and organizer Fawzi al Nawal pointed out in their opening remarks, a spiritual setting was very appropriate for what the weekend held in store: an exploration of European martial history, practice and culture steeped in a spiritual tradition that our modern secular lifestyle has all but forgotten.

The weekend consisted of presentations and workshops given in the Assembly Hall ($100 in advance, $125 at the door) and master classes (additional $50 each, or $120 for three), given on the 9th and 10th floors of the Tower. These were wonderful rooms with mullion windows overlooking the City and New Jersey across the Hudson.

As an EJMAS reporter, I was given a press pass to wander any classes and workshops I could get to, with the proviso that I not actively participate without paying the requisite fees. The latter proved difficult as I found myself sitting at the periphery of classes, practically twitching to get involved. Though I hung up my fencing foil 14 years ago, there was enough that was familiar in the historical styles to make me miss the camaraderie and fun that Western martial arts study can be.

There were more classes and workshops offered than one person could possibly attend, starting bright and early Friday morning and going until late at night for the three days, with Sunday morning off. Instead of spending a short time at each class, I opted to observe full classes and workshops. This plan necessarily limited my experience. The classes I observed were mostly for bladed weapons, but stickfighting and wrestling were also included in the schedule. If the activities I attended were representative, the WMAW offered a tantalizing array of martial arts through almost 1000 years of European history. (The full array of offerings are available at AHF's website - www.ahfi.org - as are teacher biographies).

Unfortunately, due to recent events in NYC and subsequent chaos in air travel, some events had to be canceled or rearranged at the last minute. The number of participants was also lower than the previous year, at 60 paying participants, with 20 teachers and assistants. (Toronto last year had a total of 130 people including spectators and teachers.) It is to the credit of the AHF that they decided to go ahead with this year's event in spite of the difficulties.

After a protracted registration time to allow for the horrendous traffic that has become NYC's lot of late, the first session began only slightly behind schedule. "The Foundations of Swordsmanship," organized by the International Masters at Arms Federation, explored the basics that apply across systems of Western martial arts, from broadsword to rapier and small sword; which is to say from approximately the 13th to early 20th centuries. Maestro Ramon Martinez and other teachers took turns presenting elements to be found in common. Several things stood out. First was the teachers' broad sense of understanding across genres. For example, David Cvet, known for his interest in 14th century weapon styles, easily cross-referenced his material to the use of later weapons, such as rapiers. The second point was how many of the principles and concepts being explained were similar to what one encounters in Asian martial arts. M. Martinez emphasized the idea of movement from what he referred to as "the base." He was actually referring to what a Japanese-style practitioner would refer to as koshi - the use of the hip/lower back/abdomen that is one of the essential principles of practice. The body moves, from the "base," with the weapon, and the weapon moves in advance of the body.

This session set the tone of the weekend. As David Cvet pointed out, "Bodies are bodies," and they all move in certain ways; but interpretation of those movements can range widely. What is especially interesting is that when it comes to wielding weapons, things are not so different after all between East and West.

Next, Jessica Rechtschaffer gave a very informative presentation, "Choosing Quality Armor for Western Martial Arts."

Among many other things she spoke about the importance of historical research on the part of the client before ordering a piece from an armorer (i.e.; don't expect her to know the period or style needed), and the importance of safety in looking for quality construction (and paying for it). I had a brief opportunity to speak with her afterwards. Jessica lives in the Bronx, and trained in medieval history. Though she doesn't make a full-time living as an armorer, her passion for the craft is obvious and her workmanship is excellent.I had an opportunity to try on a gauntlet - it was perfect.

By this time, the participants had broken out into several master class sessions, but I stayed on for David Cvet's "Armoured Combat." It was a pretty easy decision, as the eager anticipation on the faces of the participants, armed with "wasters" (wooden long swords) suggested this session would be fun.

And it was, though, for whatever reason, the session evolved into a sort of barely-controlled chaos, in which participants not only did the techniques demonstrated by Cvet and his students, they spontaneously worked variations on them as well, all amid a certain amount of good-humored discussion. Cvet pointed out that in unarmored versus armored combat, "armored" doesn't just mean the techniques are different, the rules are different as well. Unarmored combatants strike at each other from a distance, whereas armor makes weapons less effective. Ultimately, you must close with your opponent and throw him down in order to defeat him. As a result, weapons for armored combat are heavier and blunter. Though a two-handed long sword may in some ways remind one of a Japanese katana, the method for use is totally different.

In the late afternoon, I went to Bob Charron's "Recurring Concepts and Techniques in Fiore Dei Liberi's Flos Duellatorum." Fiore Dei Liberi was a fencing master to the Italian court of Niccolo D'Este, the Marquis of Ferrara.

By all accounts, Fiore was very good at his craft; so good in fact he was challenged on at least five occasions by other masters, and he beat every one of them. Sometime around 1400, his students persuaded him to write a treatise explaining his system of combat. The result is the Fiore di Battaglia (or, in Latin, the Flos Duellatorum).

Many scholars who write about Asian martial arts consider the elements that define a martial art system. One characteristic is that it must be a coherent set of techniques that can be taught and passed on beyond the lifetime of the teacher.

The Flos Duellatorum organizes a system around a set of postures and movements that work for empty hand, dagger, broadsword and other weapons. Once the student has mastered the empty hand techniques, she can make the transition to weapons with relatively little adjustment, provided she remembers and applies the techniques and postures already learned.

Charron also took time to explain some of the conceptual background to Fiore's system. As was common in that time period, Fiore equated parts of the body with accepted characteristics of certain animals, illustrated in his manuscript. A lynx, holding a caliper, sits above the head of a 15th century man. Charron explained that in medieval culture, people believed the lynx had the power to read a person's thoughts; hence the lynx above the head suggests the power of perception.

The elephant, located at the feet, implied stability and surefootedness. (Throughout the class, Charron would exhort the students to look after their posture and footwork by shouting "How's your elephant?") The tiger, located at the right, stood for speed, but also for ferocity. He was therefore balanced on the left with the lion, for bravery and justice.

Over and over again, Charron returned to the basic postures and applications as he went from empty hand to daggers to broadsword during the session. Charron is working on a definitive translation and commentary of the Flos Duellatorum, which will hopefully be published next year.

By this time on the first day (7:00 p.m.), I returned home, but presentations continued with lectures by Maestro Jeannette Acosta-Martinez, Maestro Ramon Martinez and a scheduled master class. Friday's activities were expected to wind up by 10:00 p.m.

Saturday morning, I made my way to the brilliantly sunlit 10th floor Tower room for Maestro Ramon Martinez's "La Verdadera Destreza: the Art, Science and Philosophy of Spanish Swordsmanship." This was a 17th-18th century rapier class, and it had a distinctly different style and tone from the previous sessions. This was partly due to the nature of the rapier, as it was historically practiced by a certain genteel social class. There is a greater distance between opponents, and, while people frequently died by dueling, rules of "first blood" could be invoked to preserve honor, but avoid serious injury.

The other reason for the change was the Maestro himself - very distinguished with graying hair and beard, and movements as lithe as a cat's (or a lynx's). Maestro Martinez is extremely well-versed in the history, philosophy and tactics of Spanish rapier. He was also able to dispel some myths I held from watching too many movies. For example, the "circle of combat" seen in the recent film Zorro was rarely if ever used for training; but the concept of the circle, in which combatants faced each other at an optimal distance, was extremely important. As M. Martinez put it: "The circle is in your head." Attacks with a Spanish rapier always begin from off the opponent's center line, though at all times the weapon must be kept in line with the target. While this contradicts sport fencing rules, it makes perfect sense from a combat perspective. I left this session realizing that film depictions of Western rapier fighting are just as inaccurate as the more obviously-silly Asian stage combat interpretations.

After lunch, it was back to the Assembly Hall for Ian Johnson's demonstration of his reconstruction of poleax techniques from the Jue de la Hache. A poleax is just what it sounds like: an ax on a pole about five feet long overall, but with a hook or spike opposite the ax-blade side that could be used, literally, for "hooking" your opponent or his weapon. Aside from the hook, applications for the poleax somewhat resembled those for Japanese naginata, in that you could fight your opponent at some distance or "choke up" on the pole for closer-in fighting. You could also reverse the weapon and use the butt-end for striking. On the other hand, poleax technique for opponents in armor followed David Cvet's "rules": close-in grappling, and with the winner determined by takedown.

Following guys in armor swinging at each other with poleaxes, I rushed to catch the rest of Maestro Jeannette Acosta-Martinez's "From Liancour to Angelo, the School of the French Small Sword." As a former foil fencer, I had a particular interest in seeing this class. Also, M. Acosta-Martinez was the only woman conducting a master class at this Western Martial Arts Workshop.

If one took only a casual glance, the postures and movements looked a great deal like foil fencing. Actually, the French Small Sword is a heavier weapon, often equipped with what sport fencers call a "figure eight" guard. While some of the postures looked similar (the unarmed hand is held above the shoulder, as in foil), the techniques are both more subtle and more comprehensive. M. Ramon Martinez, who was assisting at this session, pointed out that, contrary to what I had always been led to believe, French Small Sword was a tradition that actually had not entirely disappeared by the 20th century.

There were still a handful of European masters keeping the tradition alive from whom he, and subsequently, M. Acosta-Martinez, were able to learn.

M. Acosta-Martinez was a very knowledgeable, but gentle teacher. Students, in pairs, were given techniques to practice while she and M. Martinez walked around the room making corrections. One participant kept assuming an Italian rapier-style stance, wherein the unarmed hand is held above and in front of the chest, while everyone else was endeavoring to do the correct posture. No one suggested he change it, however.

Stephen Hand's session, "Saviolo System of Rapier and Dagger," immediately followed, so I had a chance to see and compare the previous session to Italian rapier. Hand, from Australia, has spent a great deal of time studying Saviolo's philosophy and technique. He started the session with the solo rapier. The unarmed hand is held near the face, high and in front of the chest, so one could grasp the opponent's hand or weapon if the opportunity arose. In the course of the session, however, Hand pointed out that he believed Saviolo's reason for positioning the unarmed hand where it was, was simply to make the transition to using a dagger with a rapier easier, which he considered a superior technique. The class consisted of attacks, counters and disarms, with some grappling.

Participants in the rapier and small sword sessions mostly wore gloves and white fencing jackets, though occasionally someone would wear a period-style padded jacket (Hand wore a 17th century-style, heavy leather vest). Everyone used fencing masks in these sessions. This would make it difficult for beginners to take part; in fact everyone in the rapier and small sword sessions seemed to have at least some previous experience in either period or sport fencing.

After a very short break (owing to the number of sessions, there was no real dinner break), I returned to the Assembly Hall for the Armoured Tournament. Unfortunately, there were only three participants this year (last year's tournament in Toronto had many, many more). Rather than a full-fledged tourney, the participants opted for a demonstration-style format.

Bouts in a medieval tournament were of two types: "for pleasure," in which participants would fight to a certain number of landed blows with various rules applying, or as a "grudge match" in which the winner would be determined by takedown, with fewer niceties. The three participants variously matched up, with most bouts being "for pleasure."Combat in armor is LOUD. The sound of steel weapons clashing on steel breastplates was awesome.

I can only imagine the volume level that a full battle (or multiple, simultaneous tournament bouts) might make. There was one bout as a grudge match, to show us what one looked like, and the biggest guy did not win. Like a sumo match, besting your opponent may rely on strategy and leverage rather than size and strength. There was no "winner" per se, but the judges awarded a dagger as a trophy to the participant who, in their opinion, showed the most spirit in the various encounters.

Sunday got off to a slower start. Long-running church activities in the morning delayed the Workshop by at least an hour, and there were some schedule changes as well. I was happy not to have missed Craig Johnson's presentation on "Choosing and Purchasing a Quality Weapon: Criteria to Look For." Not only did he discuss his methods for making "working reproduction" weapons, he was able to give advice to collectors on how to spot fakes when looking to buy an authentic period weapon. For example, distal tapers are authentic, but they are hard to produce, so many fakers use a simpler method to produce a taper closer to the end of the blade. A real sword will not be entirely straight, owing to period tempering methods. Therefore, if the blade is perfectly straight, it is probably recent.

Next, Christoph Amberger gave a presentation on German Schlager technique. Schlager evolved from traditional dueling methods that could be seen late into the 19th century. Practitioners wear a heavily padded sleeve on their weapon hand, and fight close-in. Real, as opposed to practice, bouts still consider the face a prime target (using eye, nose and sometimes jaw protection). Duellists fence for first blood. Being cut during a bout is not considered an embarrassment, but one can lose a bout on "moral grounds" for backing away from an opponent.

There was a short break before the Rapier and Small Sword Tournament. M. Ramon Martinez directed, and there were four judges. The bouts were circular, and not linear like sport fencing. Masks were in use, and bouts were for three points. A thrust to the chest or face was worth three points (considered killing or disabling blows), with one point given for other targets. There were so many rules of combat, it took M. Martinez almost 10 minutes to read them all.

The rules stressed courtesy and fair play between opponents, courtesy to judges and the director, and finally, courtesy from the audience as well. Needless to say, instead of the raucous cheering that accompanied Saturday night's Armoured Tournament, we applauded politely at the end of each bout. Bouts were conducted in almost total silence except for the click of various weapons. Unlike the Armoured Tournament, there was an actual winner, determined by direct elimination.

There were more events to follow, but it being Sunday night, and Monday a working day, I took my leave of the Third Annual Western Martial Arts Workshop. I can truthfully say a good time was had by all. Though I am not quite ready to give up my katana for a broadsword, I learned a lot about my own martial heritage, which is surviving better than I ever would have thought.

Journal of Western Martial Art

I would like to thank Kim Taylor and David M. Cvet for arranging my attendance the event; and Fawzi al Nawal and Maestro Ramon Martinez, for answering questions and extending me the courtesy of attending any classes I chose.I hope next year's event, to be held in Chicago, will be even bigger and better. For more information on the Association for Historical Fencing, go to www.ahfi.org.

Copyright © 2001 Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.