Medieval HEMA Tournaments and Competitive Freeplay and the Nah Mate Fallacy

A nice parlour–by which I mean pub–game is Spot the Fallacy. For example, if  say “A real HEMA person wouldn’t have done that!” then I’m guilty of the No True Scotsman Fallacy.

I’m starting to think we need a new fallacy; the Nah Mate (I can see why an amateur might think that) Fallacy. (Try saying it in a Cockney accent to get the flavor). Basically, the fallacy is that the most depressing opinion expressed the most confidently not only proves the speaker’s insider status, but following from that, must be correct.

You see it all the time in normal life. “Nah mate, I can see why you might think you can improve the interface, but if you understood SQL…” Sometimes people who transcend the Nah Mate Fallacy make themselves very rich indeed.

Nobody – yet – has got rich off Historical European Martial Arts. However we too are burdened with the Nah Mate Fallacy, no more so than in our ambivalent relationship to competitive freeplay and tournaments (NB I’m just going to use the latter word to cover all competitive swordplay where a points system is in operation).

In its extreme form it goes like this:

Nah mate, they might look flashy, but you don’t win a tournament using proper technique, so tournaments are almost inherently worthless. Besides, you can never replicate the feel of mortal combat. If you really must judge people, it ought to be using a board giving marks out of ten like Olympic Synchronised Swimming.

Let’s leave aside that any competitive physical activity brings a much-needed blast of immediacy to our alienated from cause-and-effect modern lives, and set aside the way that any “smoke-filled room type of judging” undercuts this. Let’s also not get hung up on other fighting arts laughing at us if it seems our styles will only flourish in a walled garden either.

Instead, let’s look at the HEMA arguments underlying this, which, I hasten to add, when set out be somebody who’s actually thought about are not subject to the Nah Mate Fallacy.

These arguments are roughly as follows:

  • The Biology of Combat: In real combat, the human body does odd things including distort our sense of time, shuffle blood and sensation around the body in ways helpful to two ape-men bashing each other but not so good for weapon users, and put us into a fight-fly state not conducive to subtle technique.
  • Sharp Blades Bind Different:   Sharp blades stick to each other in interesting ways. Some techniques like Duplieren become much easier, others harder.
  • Judging Effects is impossible: Even a forensics expert would have trouble saying what any particular sword blow would do to any one person at any one moment.
  • Risky Tactics: Since you’re not actually going to get killed if you screw up, it’s theoretically possible to adopt tactics that produce – say – a 80% chance of a double defeat and a 20% chance of a victory, and then win on attrition.
  • Suicidal Tactics: People do stuff that they would never contemplate with sharps, or if they were  a naive ploughboy with no knowledge of swords, would never survive far enough to try.

The first is actually easy to dispose of. Guy Windsor quotes a post-medieval fencing treatise (his translation, my emphasis).

Gio: They say this because one rarely finds men who aren’t moved by wrath or fear or something else when it comes to acting in earnest, which causes their intellect to become clouded and for this reason they can’t employ them. But I say to you that if they don’t allow themselves to be defeated by these circumstances , and they keep their heads, although they may be difficult, they’ll do them safely.

Lep. But what’s the reason for teaching them if they’re so difficult to employ in earnest?

Gio: They’re taught so that courageous men can avail themselves of them in the appropriate occasions. Because one often sees many who were somewhat timid and fearful, yet nonetheless were able to perform them excellently when done in play; but then they were unable to avail themselves of them when the occasion arose in which to do them in earnest.

Lep: I believe it, because when one loses spirit, one consequently loses art as well. From: On the Art of Fencing (1572) pp. 32 recto and verso, translated by Jherek Swanger.
Guy Windsor. The Medieval Longsword, The School of European Swordsmanship.

The text reminds me why I prefer Medieval Martial Arts — oh god the Rambling Renaissance! — but also disposes of the Biology of Combat issue.

You and I thrown into combat might be discommoded by fear and adrenaline. The likes of William Marshal or Don Pero Nino, less so. We might flail or do only basic technique. However, a veteran swordsman though they might play it safe can certainly carry off the complex stuff with sharps. Thus, the absence of fear merely makes we modern fencers fence like heroes with the full range of techniques.

(And let’s not get into this We’re Not Worthy riff. True, trained soldiers are special people, but they’re not  an actual separate breed. Though we might lack the vocation to be a professional fighter, if – God forbid – we had to do it, then like the generations before us we would train for it. None of us can know whether we could make the grade. However, we don’t know we couldn’t either. Just be glad you don’t have to find out.)

The second issue — Sharp Blades Bind Different — yep, can’t do anything about that! However not all Medieval HEMA techniques rely on edge-edge contact. Typically we “Germans” parry by whacking the other guy’s flat. So though it’s a pity, I don’t think it’s a disaster.

The third through fifth issues — Judging Effects, Risky Tactics and Suicidal Tactics? On the face of it, these are damning. However they need not be.

Let’s rewind a bit. Where does HEMA come from?

It’s all reconstructed!

We start with a manuscript, or pile of manuscripts, some swords and some mates and try to make it all work without injuring each other overmuch. Though the original texts are sometimes big on maxims and principles, we are usually forced to work from a set of implicit assumptions, let’s be grown up and call them axioms.

In our case these are:

  1. A hit on you may be immediately disabling.
  2. A hit on your opponent may may not be immediately effective.
  3. You are unlikely to be able to start a new attack immediately after taking a hit.

The first two together are sometimes called Double Pessimism. Roughly: You could clip my wrist with your tip and I could spurt to death. Meanwhile my sword could plow into your head, turn on your skull and merely take off your ear.

The third axiom takes into account: (1) the psychological and physical effects of any kind of strike – it’s one thing to complete a strike with your ear hanging by a flap of skin, entirely different to then lift your sword and cooly execute a new attack, and certainly really foolish to rely on being able to do that, and (2) the way the person who just hit you can continue to press, saw, hack, kick or barge you after the initial hit.

Not only are these axioms our basis for reconstructing our martial art, they’re also implicit in how we judge any freeplay we see on Youtube, and how we judge — and often dismiss — tournament rules and play; “OMG! Did you see those double defeats? WTF did they think they were doing? Epee?”

Now, suppose instead of sitting on the sidelines going “Nah mate…” we were to take the axioms we used to reconstruct our martial arts and then use them to build tournament rules? Wouldn’t that be at least worth a go, since we have the axioms lying around?

What would that be like?

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One comment on “Medieval HEMA Tournaments and Competitive Freeplay and the Nah Mate Fallacy
  1. Geoff Hart says:

    Nice summary. A few additional thoughts:

    Martin: “You and I thrown into combat might be discommoded by fear and adrenaline. The likes of William Marshal or Don Pero Nino, less so.”

    It’s important to distinguish between fear (cause) and adrenaline (effect). Fear produces adrenaline, which can either disable you (trembling and loss of precise muscle control) or empower you (slowing subjective time and increasing muscle power). I suspect that the adrenaline surge is quantitatively similar for tournament combat (where you know it’s going to hurt but not kill you) and real combat (where you know you might die or be horribly maimed), but the results are qualitatively different. As the samurai used to say, you should not enter combat if you’re not willing to die; that willingness helps to subordinate the fear to your will. I would be interested to learn whether anyone’s tested the difference between the two contexts. Successful combatants feel the fear, but don’t let it distract them from getting the job done. Speaking of which:

    Martin: “We might flail or do only basic technique. However, a veteran swordsman though they might play it safe can certainly carry off the complex stuff with sharps.”

    I recall seeing a statistics from what I flagged as a reliable source (don’t recall the source, unfortunately… maybe Reinhardt?) that the average lifespan of a Roman gladiator was less than 7 bouts. That’s not a heckuva lot; in a heated battle, you could probably run into that many opponents in about 15 minutes, on the assumption that real fights tend to last seconds (a few passes), not multiple minutes (as in the movies). One of the things we conveniently forget when we write heroic fantasy is just how high the mortality rate typically was. Fictional heroes tend to survive because they have the author on their side, not because this would be realistic for most people in any given battle.

    I suspect that the gladiators who lasted the longest (especially those who lived long enough to retire) didn’t try any complex moves unless they were desperate because (as you noted later), the odds of surviving such moves are not great. They likely used a highly conservative approach that let them avoid being hit long enough to figure out the other guy’s style, see any weaknesses, and then exploit them. In tournament combat, as you note, the downside of using flashy moves is usually low, although a martial artist friend (who held black belts in several disciplines) noted that the odds of serious injury increased greatly when sparring with amateurs, who didn’t know how to pull their punches and often tried things that were dangerous to their sparring partner, who was more interested in not crippling the newbie.

    Martin: “True, trained soldiers are special people, but they’re not an actual separate breed.”

    What separates them from us? Two key things: better training, given by experts who have made this their life’s work, and more practice (it’s their job to stay in shape and keep working on their combat skills, whereas most of us drive a desk all day). The combination results in highly polished use of their “moves”, and better muscle memory, so they don’t have to think about what they’re doing. In practice, real combat occurs too fast for thought, and you have to rely on polished, highly practiced responses. I’ve seen this myself in aikido; any move that I had to think about only worked while learning the move under close supervision in a practice session. But the moves I learned to do without thinking were amazing; a couple times I had no idea what I was doing until the other guy was down and staring up at me in surprise.

    Martin: “Sharp Blades Bind Different — yep, can’t do anything about that! However not all Medieval HEMA techniques rely on edge-edge contact.”

    I suppose that edge-on-edge collisions are inevitable, but they seem like a poor choice in general. Don’t know about HEMA, but in Japanese combat arts (the -jutsus rather than the -do’s), they teach you never to meet force with direct force. Wouldn’t repeated edge impacts wreck your sword fairly quickly? The notches would seriously weaken the blade, and given the high cost of a good weapon*, you’d have an awfully strong motivation to learn how to avoid damaging it in this way. As you note, parries should usually be against the flat of the opponent’s blade.

    * A group of sword enthusiasts I met at the Maryland Renaissance Festival last weekend presented a history of the sword and swordplay, and pointed out that any reasonably good-quality weapon cost far more than the average soldier could ever hope to afford. Even nobles didn’t damage or discard a sword casually.

    Martin: “The third axiom takes into account: (1) the psychological and physical effects of any kind of strike – it’s one thing to complete a strike with your ear hanging by a flap of skin, entirely different to then lift your sword and cooly execute a new attack, and certainly really foolish to rely on being able to do that, and (2) the way the person who just hit you can continue to press, saw, hack, kick or barge you after the initial hit.”

    The few fights I’ve been in, the ones I’ve read about (e.g., Hank Reinhardt), and the ones friends have told me about suggest an important corrolary to this axiom: if you don’t know how badly you’ve been hit, and the wound is just “ugly” rather than instantly or rapidly physically disabling, it won’t affect your skills. For example, Reinhardt talked about the paralyzing effect of seeing a knife wound running up the length of your arm, and obviously, an amputation or broken limb can stop you from wielding a weapon. But there are countless stories of people not realizing how badly they were hurt until the adrenaline wore off. In fact, that’s one of the benefits of adrenaline.

    Martin: “Now, suppose… we were to take the axioms we used to reconstruct our martial arts and then use them to build tournament rules? Wouldn’t that be at least worth a go, since we have the axioms lying around?”

    The goal of a tournament (to show off one’s prowess) is very different from the goal of real combat (to disable or kill the other guy). The legal liability issues of the latter are frightening, which is why the SCA guys have major rules about not allowing moves or weapons that could seriously hurt someone, and it’s why they enforce them rigorously. So to modify tournament rules based on your axioms, you’d first need to define the goal of the rules: demonstrating prowess or the ability to disable a foe. Very different contexts with very different consequences. I don’t think you could really test combat skills safely outside of virtual reality simulators. Specifically:

    I would be interested to compare the rules for full-contact martial arts (e.g., mixed martial arts, full-contact karate, the training that SEALS and other Special Forces guys receive) with those for reduced-contact martial arts (e.g., wrestling, boxing, recreational judo). I’m not knowledgeable enough to do this, but perhaps some of your readers might be willing to explain this. For example, I’ve always wondered how Special Forces guys train: you can’t practice killing moves by pulling your punches, but if you execute the moves correctly and at full speed, you’d kill your sparring partner.

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