When we learn and train Historical Martial Arts, we must be aware of some traps we may fall in. In a small series of articles I will point out some of the pitfalls in learning historical fencing. Being warned of traps helps us to avoid them or disarm them. These articles will aid instructores and fencers to get the priorities right and put the focus to the learning of “the art that adorns them”.

To some interpreters and instructors of historical martial arts the historical sources of fencing show a high density of “techniques”, which seem to represent answers to actions of the opponent. This means that fencing becomes a kind of “chess game” with steel at increased speed. If you have learned enough answers to your opponent’s moves and are one move ahead of your opponent, you win the fight.

Under this assumption, the techniques of the sources are danced as literally as possible and practiced exactly as one reads from the text. Since the techniques always end with a hit = success, satisfaction about the subjective learning success arises with the reasonably correct and repeatable execution. Further practice does not seem necessary, for the practitioner does not become “happier”.  There are many other techniques waiting to be learned with further small experiences of success. Enough for more than a year of happy activity and fun with swords.

In fact, however, fundamental progress in martial arts is very slow, which would become apparent when an objective measurement of learning success is carried out. Because technique training is only a tiny fraction of a comprehensive training [i]. A transfer of the technique into the knowledge pool (definition after Alfred Schütz [ii]) of the fencer is not possible by simple imitation. Imitating a choreography is comparable to the exact repetition of the spoken sentence in Polish „Nie mówię dobrze po polsku.“ Through imitation, the speaker can only repeat exactly this sentence in the sound. A practical pool of knowledge or even an understanding of Polish does not result from two dozen of these sentences being repeated.

Moreover, the books are not intended as collections of techniques, but are choreographed exercises [iii]. By no means steel chess should be played, but the exercises should clarify principles through movement orders (German “Bewegungsordnung”). Each exercise written in the sources is exemplary. It should be deepened by variants and several partial exercises. Without accompanying exercises for basic movement, for the execution of hand and foot work with and without weapons, the principle is not learned and the technique as such is worthless. It will hardly be used in free combat or competition [iv].

Progress and diversity

The Internet offers an enormous variety of digitally processed historical sources in relation to historical martial arts. The great diversity of fencing books over a period of more than 500 years [v] allows an equally great diversity of groups that are oriented and refer to these sources. The groups are roughly divided into “fencing styles” according to the language of their sources (German, Italian, Spanish) and appropriate sections of history (Late Middle Ages, Renaissance, 17th to 19th centuries, as well as modernity). The interpretation appears as a multiplier for the variance of the sources. Each source can receive by interpretation a partially completely deviating characteristic in the practical execution. The lack of quality criteria for measuring the plausibility of an interpretation (as implementation of a source and as a practicable martial art) may be a justified point of criticism, but it is not the subject of this text. The thesis investigated here states that, with the happiness by consumption, diversity conveys an illusion of learning success, which in fact is nearly non-existent.

Satisfied curiosity creates a sense of success with a corresponding release of dopamine [vi]. If the trainer of a fencing group can regularly come up with something new, curiosity is aroused and satisfied. If, by means of a regulated plan, the common principles of the fencing pieces were practiced in constantly repeating patterns of movement, a noticeable and verifiable learning success in martial arts would still be visible. In the cases relevant here, however, a source is scanned along the written order in attractive pieces (rarely complete) and then a new source is selected. The fencers can therefore expect a surprise every training session and be curious about what the topic will be in the near future.

This surprise reduces the possibility for the fencers to deal with the sources and the secondary literature themselves. They cannot prepare and deepening is not supported. This state provides the trainer with a monopoly on knowledge, but also makes the training of instructors extremely difficult.

The satisfaction of curiosity gives the students the feeling of having learned something, but in fact only curiosity was satisfied and individual chains of movement consumed. The result is the illusion of learning progress, which in reality is only progressing slowly. Under such conditions, movement orders are learned only very slowly. The learner must acquire it himself, consciously or unconsciously.

Disarming the trap

Doing only a few strikes and motions over one year seem to be boring and less attractive even it will bring you faster to mastership than hopping through the sources. But it needs not to be boring.

  1. Fractals
    Separate the parts in the technique you want to teach. Teach every part separate with small variations until they can do it really good, and then put the parts slowly together. This will take months.
  2. Stay with the same body / feet motion
    The fundament of fencing is not to get hit, so bringing the blade between the opponent or move out of the attack is essential. This body motion (especially the footwork) can be applied to a huge variatiy of techniques and diffent weapons. Stay with the same footwork for at least 3-6 months will teach the body motion perfectly.
  3. Begin, Middle, End
    Each action of fencing is divided into the three parts named above. Stay with one part for 3 months but change the others. Than select another part to stay with.
  4. The four openings
    Every principal technique is designed to work at each of the four openings, even it is described only for one. Only the specialized to be learned late in the curriculum work only from one side and one height.
  5. Left and Right
    To learn the same thing from both hands comes handy and helps the body to understand. More to it, you can learn it left handed against right handed with some adaptions.

There are surely more methods of disarming the trap and stay with the same principle motion for so long needed to really learn it. Please feel invited to comment and add some ideas.

Notes and sources

[i] Further reading: Böcker, W. : Methodische Wege zur Entwicklung von Judotechniken unter Berücksichtigung von Übungs- und Spielformen, 2011, Werne

[ii] Luckmann, T./Schütz, A.: Routine im Wissensvorrat: Fertigkeiten, Gebrauchswissen, Rezeptwissen. In: Dies.: Strukturen der Lebenswelt. Konstanz, 2003, S. 156-163.

[iii] Schindler, L.: Das sukzessive Beschreiben einer Bewegungsordnung mittels Variation. In: Alkemeyer, T./Brümmer, K./Kodalle, R./Pille, T. (Hg.): Ordnung in Bewegung: Choreographien des Sozialen. Körper in Sport, Tanz, Arbeit und Bildung, 2009, Bielefeld, S. 51-64.

[iv] Schindler, L.: Eine Kampfkunst lernen: Didaktische Transformationen und somatische Kommunikation. Paragrana, 2016, 25(1), S. 361-372.

[v] 166 manuscripts, 21 incunabula, 82 printed works are available in the online source collection Wiktenauer (accessed March 15, 2018)

[vi] Gruber, M. J. Gruber/Gelman, B. D./ Ranganath, C.: States of Curiosity Modulate Hippocampus-Dependent Learning via the Dopaminergic Circuit, Published Online: October 02, 2014, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2014.08.060