Article: Historical Rule-Sets

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Article: Historical Rule-Sets

Postby Matt Galas » 04 Dec 2010 23:14

Historical Rule-Sets
By Matt Galas, Copyright 2010

It is not uncommon to come across HEMA practitioners who oppose any attempt to impose limits on targets or techniques in sparring practice or tournament bouts. Their rationale is typically that any limitation on technique or target is “unrealistic” and therefore detracts from the martial value of the art. For those of us with a sport-fencing background, that viewpoint is certainly understandable, given the artificialities that have crept into the sport of fencing over the course of the last century. (The infamous “flick” is perhaps the most commonly-cited offense).

While this view is reasonable, it does overlook the fact that historical rule-sets which survive from several European martial traditions contain substantial limitations on both target and technique. To some degree, these limitations were related to safety concerns. They may also have been linked to entertainment value, with the idea of creating a more interesting or exciting fight. However, it is clear that there was a great deal of careful thought given to these rules, and that one of the considerations involved was also the development of particular fencing skill-sets that needed to be cultivated and encouraged among swordsmen. When dealing with young fencers with a competitive mind-set, there are few better ways to shape a fighter’s behaviour than through the careful construction of tournament rules.

The paragraphs below review a number of competitive rule-sets from across Europe, examining limitations in target and technique, and looking at the skill-sets which those limitations might encourage or promote.

The Gladiatorial Combats of Imperial Rome

Roman gladiatorial combat occupies an interesting place in the realm of violence, somewhere between a duel and a competitive match. Not all gladiatorial matches were fought to the death, or even with sharp weapons. And the nature of the armor and weaponry was such that it had the trappings of a professional sport, despite the often-deadly outcome.

Although little is known of the rules which applied to the combats held in the Roman arenas, it is clear that the nature of the fight was dictated in large part by constraints created by the gladiator's equipment itself. In many categories of gladiator, the head was protected by a helmet; the lower legs by greaves or padded leggings; the left arm, thighs, and torso by various types of shield; and the sword arm by an articulated arm guard called a manica which reached from the hand to the shoulder. In some cases, the thighs were also armored. The only parts of the body left bare were the torso, (in some cases) the thighs, and (in some cases) the face. These comments apply in particular to the types of gladiator known as myrmillo, thrax, secutor, hoplomachus, and provocator.

This pattern of armoring the fighters meant that only the deep, vital targets were easily subject to injury, and formed the focus of gladiatorial technique. Surviving depictions of gladiatorial combat confirm this, often showing a variety of hooking-type thrusts designed to reach around the shield and get at these exposed areas.

The type of weapons provided to the fighters also dictated the choice of technique: Both the gladius and the sica (a curved sword), are very short weapons compared to medieval or renaissance swords. This had the effect of shrinking the absolute range between the fighters, and making attacks at lower targets (such as the leg) even more difficult than normal.

The reason for this choice of gear is unknown. It may well have been for entertainment value, since it required the fighters to close distance, where not only blade skills, but also wrestling skills and blows delivered with the shield would play a more important role. This may have been considered as creating a more impressive, exciting fight.

However, it also forced the gladiator to focus on skills that were likely to have been of great use in battlefield combat, where a more distance-oriented style of fencing may not have been practical, such as in the crowded press of a melee. Of course, those types of distance-oriented skills were not unknown to the Romans; Plutarch describes an encounter where Pompey the Great defeated a battlefield enemy by a sword-cut to his wrist, disabling him. But it may well have been that the close-in skills were thought of greater value, and more worth training, than more easily-acquired skills such as cutting at the sword arm.

Germany: The Public Fechtschule Competitions


In 16th and 17th century Germany, the public fencing competitions known as Fechtschule were typically fought with blunt steel longswords and wooden Dussacks. These competitions focused on the “highest bleeding wound” as the primary criterion for determining victory. At first glance, this emphasis on drawing blood seems to indicate a desire to recreate a “real fight.” On more careful examination, however, it becomes apparent that the German Fechtschule rules contain a host of limitations on fencing technique, making them among the most restrictive of any historically-documented rule-sets from pre-modern Europe. Thus, one German rule-set forbids “pommel, point, running in to grapple, arm-locks, kicks to the groin, eye-gouging, throwing dirt, and all dishonorable tricks that some know well how to use...” This is fairly representative of other surviving Fechtschule rules. These restrictions were announced to the fighters and the general public at the beginning of each competition by the fencing master.

The German Fechtschule rules contain limitations on allowable targets as well. Most common is the prohibition on blows to the hands or fingers, clearly a question of safety concerns. (Even with modern safety gear, today's competitions often result in broken fingers.) Equally common in these rules is the admonition to “strike between the ears, where the hair grows thickest.” This is not strictly a prohibition, but rather a preference; it directs blows to where the skin is thinnest and bleeds most easily, and also trains the swordsman to aim at higher, more valuable targets. Another Fechtschule rule-set adds a prohibition on “injurious blows to the leg,” as a clear nod to safety concerns, but also perhaps from a desire to discourage striking at lower targets.

France & Belgium: Prize-Playing in the Civic Fencing Guilds

In France and Belgium, the prize-playing rules of the civic fencing guilds were just as consistent in imposing limitations on both targets and techniques. For longsword competitions, the allowable target area was limited to those areas above the waist, and above the elbow. This meant no blows to the legs, the groin, the forearms, or the hands. When fighting with the rapier, these restrictions were expanded to disallow attacks to the face. While these limitations were doubtless motivated by safety concerns, they also had the effect of cultivating a particular series of skill-sets. Since the closest, easiest target (the sword-arm) is placed off limits, the fencer is forced to learn how to attack deeper targets. This requires a much higher degree of commitment to the attack, requires more demanding foot-work skills, places a premium on the use of feints, and rewards the swordsman who learns to take advantage of any tempo given by the opponent.

Similarly, the Franco-Belgian guild rules placed limitations on allowable technique. When using the longsword, one-handed cuts and thrusts were prohibited. So were half-sword techniques, pommel strikes, and grappling. These rules forced the fencers to develop purely two-handed skills. Added to the limitations on target area, these rules have the effect of breeding longsword fencers whose offensive skills are aimed at deep, high-value targets, and whose defensive skills are focused on protecting the highest, most valuable targets. Likewise, the Franco-Belgian rapier rules typically forbade the use of the cut, requiring the fencer to specialize in thrusting technique, in accordance with generally-accepted fencing doctrine among rapier fencers of the time. They also forbade the use of the off-hand to parry, and make disparaging comments about the habit some fencers had of parrying with the hand.

Italy: The Bolognese Tradition

Moving to Italy, the rules described by Antonio Manciolino (1531) used weighted scoring to encourage or discourage technique. Whereas a blow to the hand, arm, or body was worth one point, the Bolognese fencers awarded three points for a blow to the head, since it was such a valuable target. On the other hand, they awarded two points for a blow to the leg, citing the difficulty in striking this lower target. In the latter case, this is perhaps the clearest surviving example of encouraging a specific skill-set, awarding more points for this distant target than for a closer, more practical target such as the sword-arm.

Conclusion

Each of the historical rule-sets described above contains elements that apply to a real fight with sharp swords, such as fighting for bleeding wounds or favouring the head as a target. However, each of these rule-sets also clearly excludes behaviours that are of obvious value in a real fight, and likely to be encountered. Excluded behaviours include grappling; pommel strikes; one-handed attacks; attacks aimed at the sword-arm or sword-hand; prohibition of cuts (for Franco-Belgian rapier); and prohibition of thrusts (for German longsword).

Each of these historical rule-sets is oriented toward particular skill-sets, rather than creating a simulacrum of an earnest encounter with sharps. These rules were of an enduring nature, lasting for hundreds of years in some cases. (The Franco-Belgian guild rules were used for at least 250 years, and probably far longer.) They appear to have been the practical result of an evolutionary process of trial and error, balancing the competing concerns of safety and desired behaviour. Our martial forebears appear to have found them a useful way of developing, testing, and encouraging the particular skills they valued in their students.

Accordingly, the modern historical fencing community should experiment with the same, rather than maintaining a stubborn insistence on recreating a "real fight." After all, if our goal is to recreate the martial arts of the past, should we not use their competitive rule-sets as well? Our forebears apparently found these rules a useful way of encouraging the development of particular skill-sets among their students; we should give due consideration to doing the same. If we do otherwise, we run the risk of letting our fencing practices be governed by our own fantasies about the nature of combat, rather than by documented, historical fencing practices.

With luck, we may also find that adoption of similar practices helps to produce fighters with higher-level fencing skills, creating an environment in which historical technique is more likely to flourish and appear organically.
Matt Galas
Erbisoeul, Belgium

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Matt Galas
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Re: Article: Historical Rule-Sets

Postby Matt Galas » 05 Dec 2010 23:18

A few more points, based on comments I received on a couple of other forums:

I am certainly not advocating that we adopt historical rules exclusively. I think we will always need an "anything goes" rule-set to allow the fullest expression of our arts, including grappling, disarms, etc. Otherwise, much of Fiore becomes useless, for example.

But think of this like modern sport fencing, in a sense: Foil fencing has a limited target area and right of way rules, and develops very particular skill-sets. Epee fencing is "anything goes", with the whole body as valid target, and no right of way rules. If someone is good at both of these, they are a very formidable fencer indeed. We can use historical rule-sets (like the Belgian ones) to develop particular skills, such as striking at deep targets. This will develop committed attacks and disallow hand-snipes and arm-snipes. While the latter are valid skills to have, they are very easily acquired, and have a tendency to retard the development of other skills - such as going for the deep targets.

Obviously, German Fechtschule or Belgian guild rules make no sense for armored combat. For these arts, there are other rule-sets that I did not post that address this. Two examples:

1) Generic European rules for knightly feats of arms (found in many countries), which generally specified 3 blows with whatever weapons were chosen: In the fullest expression, you get 3 courses with the lance, 3 blows with the sword, 3 blows with the poleaxe, 3 blows with the dagger. Over time, these numbers increased to very large numbers (20 blows, 30 blows), especially if the number of weapons was limited (in some cases, only to the lance and the poleaxe). These rules were common in the 14th and early 15th century.

2) Burgundian-style rules, where chapitres d'armes (a kind of contract for a martial challenge) specified the conditions of the fight. These often had provisions to the effect that the fight would continue until a) one of the fighters lost his weapon, or b) one of the fighters ended up on the ground, however that might occur. This rule-set, applied in a martial challenge, would certainly favor the disarms and grappling skills that you see in many of the historical fencing manuals.

Regards,
Matt Galas
Erbisoeul, Belgium

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Wer do leit / Der ist tot / Wer sich ruret / Der lebt noch
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Matt Galas
Sergeant
 
Posts: 127
Joined: 28 Jul 2008 20:55
Location: Erbisoeul, Belgium


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