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Consuming Risk

Swordsmanship practice is inherently dangerous. The study of risk has been developed to the nth degree over the last five hundred years or so. For an excellent overview, see Against the Gods, the remarkable story of risk, by Peter Bernstein. (Thanks to my friend Lenard Voelker for sending me a copy!). The assessment of risk may be described as assigning probabilities to events that have not yet occurred. If they have happened before, then we can see how many times over a given period, and use that data to evaluate the likelihood of it happening again. For example, if it has snowed at Christmas 20 times in the last 100 years, you can state with some confidence that there is about a 1 in 5 chance of it happening again this year. But many of the events we fear have no measurable risk- either because they have not happened (yet), or we have an insufficient pool of data to draw meaningful probabilities from. So they are uncertain, but have no definite probability. This distinction was drawn by Milton Keynes (and explained by Niall Ferguson on p 343 of his book The Ascent of Money).

The risk we all fear is a training accident leading to serious injury or death. In the wider world of swordsmanship practice, all of the serious accidents (which I define as requiring hospitalisation) have occurred in either competitive freeplay, or outside the bounds of a formal school (such as on the re-enactment field). So while we know that there is a possibility of such accidents occurring in the salle, they have no definable risk as the incidence is so low. They are instead uncertain. Given the thousands of hours spent in swordsmanship training worldwide every year, and how few accidents occur, it is reasonable to assign a low probability of serious injury or death. Assuming that we do not relax our safety standards in response to this, then we can assure prospective scholars of the art that “this is dangerous, but pretty safe”.

Cars are also pretty safe these days. Airbags, crumple zones, safety glass, seat belts, all reduce the likelihood of serious injury or death in the case of a collision. But they do nothing to prevent collisions in the first place, and encourage a false sense of security. Cocooned in hi-tech armour, we ride invulnerable to our deaths. I think a shiny steel spike sticking out of the steering wheel to impale the driver at the merest fender-bender would do wonders to improve road safety.
When a risky activity becomes safer, human beings tend to consume that risk. Safer cars are driven faster. Better healthcare encourages unhealthy lifestyles. The Munich taxi experiment described here is an excellent example. Given better brakes, drivers went faster. So protective equipment in swordsmanship offers the comforting illusion of safety. Given good protective equipment we take more risks. Yes, armour works. But tell that to the French knights at Agincourt.
So, a balanced approach to swordsmanship training requires at least some time spent face to face with the naked possibility of your own death. A sharp sword, aimed at your unprotected face, in careful pair drills with a trusted, highly trained partner under competent supervision. There is nothing like a sharp steel point inches from your eyes to cut through the illusory safety of a fencing mask.
My favourite quote on this comes from Viggiani’s Lo Schermo (1575) (as translated by Jherek Swanger: note he does not translate “spada da marra”, which is a kind of blunt steel practice sword):

ROD:… but now it is time that we begin to practice, before the hour grows later: take up your sword, Conte.
CON: How so, my sword? Isn’t it better to take one meant for practice?
ROD: Not now, because with those practice weapons it is not possible to acquire valor or prowess of the heart, nor ever to learn a perfect schermo. CON: I believe the former, but the latter I doubt. What is the reason, Rodomonte, that it is not possible to learn (so you say) a perfect schermo with that sort of weapon? Can’t you deliver the same blows with that, as with one which is edged?
ROD: I would not say now that you cannot do all those ways of striking, of warding, and of guards, with those weapons, and equally with these, but you will do them imperfectly with those, and most perfectly with these edged ones, because if (for example) you ward a thrust put to you by the enemy, beating aside his sword with a mandritto, so that that thrust did not face your breast, while playing with spada da marra, it will suffice you to beat it only a little, indeed, for you to learn the schermo; but if they were spade da filo, you would drive that mandritto with all of your strength in order to push well aside the enemy’s thrust. Behold that this would be a perfect blow, done with wisdom, and with promptness, unleashed with more length, and thrown with more force, that it would have been with those other arms. How will you fare, Conte, if you take perfect arms in your hand, and not stand with all your spirit, and with all your intent judgment?
[53R] CON: Yes, but it is a great danger to train with arms that puncture; if I were to make the slightest mistake, I could do enormous harm. Nonetheless we will indeed do as is more pleasing to you, because you will be on guard not to harm me, and I will be certain to parry, and I will pay constant attention to your point in order to know which blow may come forth from your hand, which is necessary in a good warrior.

This says it all!
You can download the whole book here:  and Jherek’s translation here.

In case it is not obvious from the small sample here, Rodomonte/Viggiani's student the Conte is clearly an accomplished swordsman already, there is no suggestion of equipping beginners with sharps. As Manciolino (an ardent proponent of using blunt steel swords, as am I) put it in Book Six of his Opera Nova (as translated by Tom Leoni, and available from here)

Manciolino begins book six of his Opera Nova thus:

“I now wish to show how wrong those are who insist that good swordsmanship can never proceed from practice with blunted weapons, but only from training with sharp swords. …

It is far preferable to learn to strike with bated blades then with sharp ones; and it would not be fair to arm untrained students with sharp swords or with other weapons that can inflict injury for the purpose of training new students to defend themselves.”

(with thanks to Ilkka Hartikainen for digging out and typing up the reference.)

Quite: “untrained students” find blunt steel sufficiently threatening that there is no need to make the swords sharp, and indeed it would be grossly irresponsible to do so. Highly trained and experienced students tend over time to take the blunt steel less and less seriously, and need to be reminded that swords are weapons. Likewise, the more armour you wear, the less vulnerable you are, and the less vulnerable you feel, which tends in most people to actually increase the risk of injury as this safety margin, and a bit more, is consumed.

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

2 Responses

  1. There’s such a thing as a cultural risk appetite, and the risk appetite of our forebears was decidedly higher. It was seen as acceptable, and even seemly, to lose an eye or an arm for the practice of the art. Not so nowadays! Our values are different from theirs, in large part because we have so much more to lose in terms of likely lifespan. Back then, if you weren’t maimed or killed in training, you might just as well fall victim to the plague, or war; these are risks that we do not perceive ourselves as running to a great degree, and we can expect longer lives with greater achievement thereby. So to accept the practices of the ancients without considering the broader risk context is, I think, mistaken. Similarly, the gain for them was greater, in practical and social terms. They accepted the risk for the returns that skill at arms, and the attendant glory, might bring them. We accept the risks we do for personal development and growth. Not much growth in losing an eye, say.

    We must also consider the larger social context – for an injury to occur to one of Viggiani’s students was accepted. It would not be so in most modern societies. The legal and social inquisition to follow a serious injury would be much more critical, and heavier in consequence. People back then knew what it was to train in the art, accepted the risks and the costs. Now the vast majority would see it only as ridiculous to risk life and limb for a pastime (instead of a “core competence” of a nobleman). There is also, of course, legal liability, which is far more punitive (depending on jurisdiction) now than then.

    While I am certain of the value of training with sharps – having done so myself – we do have to accept that the risks are not all the same, nor therefore the gain. It falls to each group, and each individual, to weigh the risks and rewards of any training they undertake. Hopefully we may all show each other respect in our choices and the paths we take to our different goals.

  2. Dulce et decorum est,
    Pro patria mori.

    We also mustn’t forget the culture of memento mori and it’s effect on people’s actions. It was common in medieval times, art least, for people to carry small tokens of death, a carved skull or skeleton for example, to remind them that death comes to us all eventually. Death, was not as feared then as it is now. Modern man dares to dream of immortality achieved through a sedantry life. Now that’s a fool’s game!

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