Many years ago, while I was teaching at the Dawn Duellists Society, I fenced rapier with a visiting student. He was not a very experienced swordsman so I managed to stab him five times in the chest in quick succession. That did not stop him from closing in, and, being an experienced wrestler, getting me onto my back on the floor with my right arm in an arm bar. While he was locking my arm, I had managed to switch my sword to my left hand and was beating him over the mask with it as he applied the lock.
This is a clear example of how important it is to communicate what is considered a ‘hit’, ‘point’, or ‘fight-winning situation’ before any bout. In my head, I thrashed him. In his, he clearly won because eventually I had to tap out of the arm bar. The problem is this: when we compete with swords, we are effectively touch-sparring. We make contact, but try not to do damage. Points are awarded for contact made in the prescribed way. The hits themselves don’t work. Wrestling and grappling though are almost invariably ‘full contact’, in that if the technique is not doing what it’s supposed to do (throw the opponent, lock them so they can’t escape, choke them out, or whatever), then it is not counted.
When we fence in systems that have both weapons use and wrestling, we are effectively asking the competitors to switch between touch sparring and full contact in the moment. This is very, very hard to do. The wrestlers will naturally ignore anything that doesn’t actually stop them, and the fencers will be very frustrated by having their legitimate blows ignored.
There was a kerfuffle on the internet lately about a rather dangerous throw being executed in a longsword competition. You can see the video here:
When I saw it, my only response was to wonder whether both fencers had agreed to that level of contact. If they had, then no problem. Dangerous, I wouldn’t do it, but we’re all consenting adults. It is absolutely not my place to comment on the rule-set (I’m not sure if the throw was allowed- if it was, then no action required; if it was not, then the person ought to be sanctioned in some way), nor is it my place to comment on the organisation of the event. The reason that I have never organised an open tournament is precisely because it is very very hard to guarantee a reasonable level of safety, and to make sure that all the fencers, from different backgrounds, are nonetheless sufficiently compatible to avoid misunderstandings. I know of no reason to criticise the organisers of this event in this case.
I don’t have a solution to this problem, but I do have some thoughts. In any bout:
- It is vital to communicate the winning conditions extremely clearly.
- the judges must be trained to identify those conditions even when they are not obvious.
- the fencers must be trained to obey the judges’ calls.
- all fencers in all disciplines that include any throws or grapples must be taught to fall from day one.*
- there is no excuse for getting carried away, or exceeding the agreed-upon level of force. One strike and you’re out, I’d say.
In my school we include grapples and throws and do everything on hard surfaces. Our very low injury rate is due to how we train, and that the fencers have a common background and training culture. The level of risk is very clear to all, and allowable techniques are dependent on the experience of the least skilled fencer. In training bouts I tend to allow the fencers to fight on after clear blows have been struck, because it’s better that they learn to remain untouched after striking, and to defend themselves against the Mordreds** out there who will keep coming after taking mortal blows
Scoring fencing touches is problematic. I don’t think there is any one-way-fits-all solution. The reaction of a body to a sword blow varies hugely. In some cases, a person will drop dead in seconds from a thrust, in others a person will continue fighting after multiple wounds. Knowing, as my opponent breaks my neck, that my sword thrust through her liver will have her joining me in eternity not five minutes from now is slim consolation. Stopping a fight just because somebody has a cut to the arm or thrust to the body is not necessarily more realistic than allowing it to continue. Training fencers to stop after scoring or receiving a hit is profoundly counter-productive. The call to halt therefore must come from a third party.
That video caused something of a shit-storm on Facebook when it was posted three weeks ago, because HEMA attracts drama, apparently. This is why I’ve waited a few weeks before posting my thoughts. If you would like to comment on this, please do so, but a) keep it civil, and b) keep it civil. Rules c, d, and e are the same as rule a.
*if you don’t know how to teach falling onto a hard surface, you can see how I do it on my Medieval Dagger course. I’ve set that lecture to be part of the free preview content.
** Mordred was King Arthur’s son, who having been thrust through the belly with a spear, clambered up the shaft and killed his father at the other end of it.
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