We are in the middle of our annual monster seminar, the Fiore Extravaganza. We began with a day of pollax training from the medieval French manuscript Jeu de la Hache, taught by Lois Forster. Lois flew over from France with his armour and a squire (hi Vincent!). He is conducting an emprise, a feat of arms in which he travels round fighting people in armour, according to the same set of rules and with the same intent as was done in the 15th century. I saw him take on several such fights at Armizare 2015, and of course agreed to fight him while he was here. We used rubber-headed pollaxes, and fought to 30 blows. This is unlike other competitive freeplay, in that it only finishes when the “Lord” governing the fight (in our case Ville Henell) calls halt, which he can do whenever he pleases; there are no breaks, and no winner is declared. You win by taking part. The fight also ends if somebody drops their weapon (for any reason), or is thrown to the ground.
I was so impressed with Lois’ attitude and skills that I allowed two of my students to borrow my armour (yes, really) and fight him too.
You can see our bout here:
The next morning, the Extravaganza attendees and I planned the rest of the week in some detail. All of this pollaxy goodness inspired them to ask for a pollax form, to preserve the material in a trainable medium. So we went over Fiore’s pollax plays, and some stuff from Jeu de la Hache, and I used the next few sessions to teach them how to create a form in a systematic, rational, and useful way. This went so well I thought I'd share it here.
We started by deciding what the form was for, and then what technical content ought to be.
This is what we came up with.
What is it for?
- Self-Improvement. This was the first thing mentioned, and is a little vague. But a good base to work from.
- Memory Guide: The form should make it easier for students to recall aspects of the pollax material.
- Flow/Mechanics: practising the form should ingrain the correct movement style and habits, enabling fluent and powerful actions.
- Expandable: the form should be built in a way that allows the various actions to be expanded on, to trigger memory cascades, and create loci for memorising other material.
What should it contain?
Then we thought about what kind of material it should contain. The first thing mentioned was the guards of the axe, so that became our starting point. Around that came grip and handling drills, ways of exploiting armour, strikes, disarms, locks, takedowns, and parries.
Many forms come in two parts; our Syllabus Form, and our Cutting drill are obvious examples, but I have come across the same thing in many other martial arts.
We decided to start with applications, which of course must be trained in pairs. Then it struck me that once we had a curriculum of pair drills, we could make part one the defensive actions (remedies), and part two the offensive actions (attacks and counter-remedies). This would allow us to embed the stimuli for the various actions of the form within the form itself.
So we started with a pair drill, the defence of dente di zenghiaro against posta di donna, and added posta di donna’s counter-remedy. These became step one of parts one and two respectively.
Over the course of a couple of hours, we came up with three solid drills beginning with the following pairs of guards: donna versus zenghiaro, posta breve la serpentina versus vera croce, and coda longa versus posta di finestra la sinestra. As we covered the various aspects of technique, I marked them on our board. You can see the marks in black. And once we had a black mark on every green circle, we had covered everything we had decided on.
So I added the red tactics box, to survey what tactics we had also covered. We had included Attacks, Feints, Yielding to parries (Go Around), Parry-riposte, and Invitations.
But we were not completely satisfied; counter-attacks were not well represented, and neither were crossings of the axe. So we chose to add a fourth drill, with vera croce opposed by fenestra la sinestra, which would include them.
Now we had to put these pieces in order, and glue them together with axe handling drills and references to Jeu de la Hache (the best medieval source for this weapon, I think). The first question was how to tie the two halves together. It was tricky, so we shelved it, and worked on the easier ones.
Ordering the drills was easy enough; we put them in the same order as the pairs of guards shown in the Getty ms. I wrote down the starting guard and finishing guard for each drill, like so:
The start and end of each application in blue; magic glue in red.
Vera croce, finishes in a one-handed fenestra destra.
Dente di zenghiaro, finishes in Guard of the Cross (from Jeu).
Fenestra sinestra, finishes with your axe in one hand between the opponent’s legs, left foot forwards.
Breve la serpentina, finishes with a takedown, right foot forwards.
Donna destra, finishes in guard of the cross.
Coda longa, finishes in a ligadura sottana with the left hand.
Fenestra sinestra, finishes in posta breve la serpentina. From here you need to be able to go to the end position (whatever that will be), or back to the beginning of the form, or to the beginning of part two.
So we then worked together to make useful and interesting “magic glue” to tie the parts together. I wrote notes on our choices in red. We were careful to practice these together, to make sure that the form could be done in class, in our salle. We added several turns to reduce the form’s footprint.
The last task of the morning was to create the segue between parts one and two. We started out by calling it the butterfly, but I thought that was un-axe-like, and called it the Dragon instead. This was apposite, as one thing the students wanted to include was some of the queue/pedale/tail of the axe material we had done with Lois, and as readers of Veni Vadi Vici know, the dragon strikes by lashing with its tail. The Dragon had to be very clearly not a pair drill though, or we would end up creating another application set, leaving us with a form that would get longer and longer. In the end I came up with an exercise based on my own arm-conditioning drills with a long stick:
Over the course of the seminar, we plan to spend some time every day polishing and refining the form (and memorising it), after which it will be videoed and put up on the wiki.
Once the form was complete, we summarised the process we had used to create it, here:
1) Purpose: decide what the form is for.
2) Components: decide what applications and other elements it should include, such as tactics, guards and so on.
3) Survey the components to make sure you have all the necessary aspects covered, and finalise the total content.
4) Order the components.
5) Create the magic glue that ties the components together, taking into account space constraints.
6) Test and bug fix: this requires a feedback mechanism, and is much easier with a group or team.
7) Train the fuck out of it!
This raised the question of how to train the form, and the potential risks of form training. We came up with this diagram:
Which I have recreated for you in Scapple:
In brief, the form can be used for solo practice and with partners to train applications; each step can be expanded to include other elements; it is a memory palace in which to store the things you have learned, and it can be used as a diagnostic. The primary risk of form training can be summarised as “it becomes ballet”. Compliant opponents allow your technique to become sloppy; form replaces function. There is also the risk of over-specialisation, in that you can confuse the content of the form with the entire content of the art. Drilling the applications properly should prevent balletisation, and expanding every step should prevent over-specialisation. But this is not an easy process.
I think the next instalment of my The Swordsman’s Quick Guide (after Ethics, which is due out very soon), will be a detailed write-up of creating and using forms in martial arts training. What do you think?
This form, and to some extent this process, is absolutely not all my own work. This was a team effort, and the team comprises:
Anna Lahtinen, Antti Jauhainen, Gaja Kochaniewicz, Guy Windsor, Ilpo Luhtala, Kliment Yanev, Petteri Kihlberg, Teemu Kari, Tero Alanko, and Zoë Chandler.
When the form is polished, I'll video it in detail and post it to the Syllabus Wiki. In the meantime, if you find this kind of thing useful and you'd like to say thanks, please leave a comment below, sign up to my email list (there's a form below), throw some change in the tip jar, or go buy one of my books!