Not just a post

One of the fundamental tools for training is the pell. This humble post of wood (or anything else that will work) is one of the oldest sword training aids we know of. It was used by the Roman legionary all the way to today’s swords men and women.

The pell is ideal for practicing at home or when you cannot get to the practice session. Here you can work on your distance, footwork/position, and your cuts. Like many training tools, the humble pell is often overlooked or used poorly. Like all aspects of your training and practice, pell work should be done in a considered fashion. Always make sure you are at the right range. Check your feet to ensure they are correct.

 Stay aware of how you are striking the pell.  Are you sticking with the right part of your sword? Is the cut along the line of the blade? Are you stepping and moving correctly to be in the right position and power your cut. It is sometimes useful to have someone observing or spotting your pell work. This spotter can pick up and correct any lapses in form you may have. Another thing you can do is video your pell work for later review. You need not spend all your pell time just hitting it as hard as you can. Move smoothly and concentrate on form. Only work in power as a part of your practice.

 There are a number of pell drills you can find on youTube. Some of them are useful and some of them are a good way to destroy your shoulder and/or elbow.

 Here are some good places to start-

Pell Work

Movement and Pell, The Perfect Circle

The Modern Medieval – Episode One, The Pell

 

Just to convince you how important peel work is to building the foundations of your technique, here is a 15th century poem about using the pell.

Interesting points to note are the mention in lines 6-9 that the practice shield and mace are to be of double weight, a technique that many combatants have found to be very good for training. It also emphasises the importance of this form of practice in 12-14, where it says that no man “is seyn prevaile” in battle who has not spent time practicing at the pell. Poem of the Pell Cotton Library: Titus A, xxiii fol 6 and 7.

Of fight the disciplyne and exercise,
Was this. To have a pale or pile upright (pell)
Of mannys light, thus writeth old and wise, (man’s height)
Therewith a bacheler, or a yong knyght,
Shal first be taught to stonde and lerne to fight
And fanne of double wight tak him his shelde, (practice shield)
Of double wight a mace of tre to welde. (wood)

This fanne and mace whiche either doubil wigt
Of shelde, and swayed in conflicte, or bataile,
Shal exercise as well swordmen, as knyghtes,
And noe man, as they sayn, is seyn prevaile,
In field, or in castell, though he assayle,
That with the pile, nethe first grete exercise, (hath not)
Thus writeth werrouris olde and wyse. (warriors)

Have eche his pile or pale upfixed fast
And as it were uppon his mortal foe:
With mightyness and weapon most be cast
To fight stonge, that he ne skape him fro.
On hym with shield, and sword avised so,
That thou be cloos, and Preste thy foe to smyte, (ready)
Lest of thyne own dethe thou be to wite.

Empeche his head, his face, have at his gorge (attack, throat)
Beare at the brest, or sperne him on the side,
With myghte knyghtly poost ene as Seynt George (power)
Lepe o thy foe; look if he dare abide;
Will he not flee? wounde him; make wounds wide
Hew of his honde, his legge, his theys, his armys,
It is the Turk, though he be sleyn, noon harm is.

And forto foyne is better than to smyte;
The smyter is deluded mony [ways],
The sword may nat through steel & bonys bite,
Thentrailys ar cover in steel & bonys,
But with a foyn anoon thi foe fordoon is
Tweyne unchys entirfoyned hurteth more
Then kerf or ege, although it wounde sore.

Eek in the kerf, thi right arm is disclosed,
Also thi side; and in the foyn, covert
Is side & arm, and er thou be supposed
Redy to fight, the foyn is at his hert
Or ellys Thus better is to foyne then to kerve;
where, a foyn is ever smert;
In tyme & place ereither is tobserue.

 

A further discussion on the history of pells and some notes on the poem can be found here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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To call a spade a spade

One of the great problems in training in the tournament arts is the lack of consistent terminology. We do not even have a credible name for what it is we do. Fighting evokes something more like mixed martial arts, or stoush out the back of the pub. Hard Suit and Heavy Combat are likewise poor descriptors of what we do. Medieval Combat is sort of getting there as is possibly Knightly Combat and Western Martial Arts has now become its own entity.

Syr Gemini has ventured Oplomachia (fighting in armour), which could work. I really liked Harnischfechten (also ‘armoured fighting’). Despite this I think it will be some time before we as a Society settle on a decent name. In the mean time I will use Tournament Arts or Oplomachia until someone comes up with something better.

(Update – With the release of the DVD the techniques describes here are from the school of Oplomachia, yes Gemini won as this is all his work.)

I think one of the main attractions to studying some of the historical manuals is that here laid out to us is a how-to-guide on slaying your opponents and being generally awesome. No such manuals exist for the default tournament weapons of sword and shield (and I.33 does not count).

Our Tournament Arts have grown organically, buy trial and error and with a great deal of regional and personal variation. So we do not have a commonly accepted set of terms for what we do. Let’s take ‘snap’ for example. This is perhaps the first cut (see, most people would say ‘blow’) that we learn. What exactly do we mean by that? I have seen several people tech it differently with slightly different positions, movements and targets. And this is a common cut though out the SCA. I could also mention things like, retiques, scorpions, rick-rack, wooga, and aardvark range.

It is clear that a common system of nomenclature is required so we are able to speak to each other about what it is we do. I have been adopting the system developed and taught by Syr Gemini. He has developed a complete school of armored combat which he teaches full time at Knight’s Quest: Academy of Chivalry in California. Gemini’s system (Oplomachia) gives us a unified and coherent school of combat. It is by no means the only school out there, but I have found that it works well for all body types, leads to a gracefully powerful style and is beautifully straight forward to teach. Even after 20 years of SCA combat, I am redeveloping my technique and improving my own skills under Gemini’s guidance.

The important thing we have in the DOplomachia school is simple terminology for what we are doing.  I list these here so that we can all be on the same page in future discussions. For those of you who have attended any of my classes, most of this should be very familiar.  This is not a definitive guide but rather an introduction to the terminology. And yes, some pictures would explain much better than the written word can, but that may be a task for another day.

 Stances:

  • Bladed – The fundamental stance. Shield side forward with the sword side foot to the side and behind. Always face your opponent’s weapon. Used when out of measure.
  • Box – Sword side toes line up with shield side heel. Body between 45/30 degrees. Often used when in measure.
  • Square – Feet are square to your opponent. use when in cloased measure.
  • Aggressed – Feet and body are side on to opponent with the front foot pointing forward. Used in spear combat.

Movement:

A general rule of movement is that the foot in the direction of travel always moves first. So even with a passing step the lead foot must pivot a little before the training foor can pass.

  • Shuffle Step – move first with the leading foot and bring the trailing foot in quickly. Weight is always on the balls of the feet.
  • Half step – only one foot moves in the given direction.
  • Pass Step – One foot ‘passes’ the other.
  • Volta – A quick pivot of the feet to power a cut (wraps etc).

Guards:

  • High – Sword is held high at 45 degrees, point high, behind the head with the elbow back. To set this up rest your sword on your shoulder so you can just see the point out of the sheild side eye. Now with out moving your hand lift the sword to 45 degrees. You this guard from out of measure to the edge of measure.
  • Fore (foreward) – Sword is between 30-45 degrees, point down covingin your head on the shield side. To set this up just bring your sword over your head from High Guard. Keep ypur elbow back. This is the main guard to be used when you are in measure.
  • Point (or split) – Sword hilt is held next to the head with the point directly towards your opponent. This is mostly a trasitional guard used just after a rolling return to det up a thrust. Some time we will bring the sword hilt to the hip (low point guard).

Targets: (The targets are numbered from one to six going clockwise from the point of view of the attacker.) 

  1. Neck (the targets left side)
  2. Left side armpit
  3. Left top of the thigh (aim for were the pockets would be on a pair of jeans)
  4. Right top of thigh
  5. Right armpit
  6. Right neck

Attacks: (assumes right handed) 

Nearly all the cuts will start as part of the Warm Up Motion. The Warm Up Motion is the funadmental sword movement of the Oplomachia school of combat. Start in Bladed Stance, High Guard. Relax the sword hand allowing the sword to fall. As the sword drops below your shoulders, turn, pusing forward with the sword side leg. The sword now will turn up and moves forward. Do not extend all the way out but let the sword drop down in a big arc and then back up behind you (think Staue of Liberty’s torch) and then drop the sword back into high guard.

  • Direct (cut) – A cut to the onside of your opponent with the true edge of the sword (targets 1-3). A Direct 1 is often reffered to as a ‘snap’. We do not use this term as the cut we teach is different in some ways to the proper Bellatrix Snap.
  • Ear-to-ear– A cut to the ‘off-side’ with the hand and blade mostly at the same height. The cut starts with a half step, rolling your sword hilt behind the head to your left ear and then cutting to targets 4, 5 or 6, with your hand palm facing down.
  • Moulinet– The cuts begins with the sword pointing down from Forward Guard and turning over to strike the target. Mostly used to attack the off-side 4-6 but can be used to attack 1-3. Generally the point of impact will be higher than your hand.
  • Pendulum – The cut starts on your opponents shield side and then turns over to strike the off-side (4-6) with your elbow high. The point of impact will be lower than your hand.
  • Wrap-A cut using the false edge of the sword to strike the back of your opponent. Often powered with a volta.
  • Axe – Drop the point behind you and then whip it forward to cut 6. Think of hitting someone in the fave with a hatchet.

Measure:

Measure describes both time and distance and line in a fight. You are either in or out of measure. Measure can be different for each combatant depending on weapon length, height, etc. You are in Measure if your opponent can hit you without moving their feet.

The best way to predict the future is to invent it

Several entries ago I listed some of the habits of effective combatants. I am thinking it is time to expand on some of this.

Turn up to training and train.

I have talked a bit about the need to do more than just free sparring. Training and practice all have their role to play, but the main thing here is the absolute necessity of getting out there and doing something. Make this a part of your regular weekly routine. I prefer training on week nights as it is easier to treat it like a regular appointment. Weekend trainings are a little annoying as other things always seem to get in the way. Sometime you do not have an option.

It also helps if you have a critical mass of people turning up. Bribe your friends, offer lifts, do what you need to do to get those other people to turn up. Make it fun and worthwhile and people will respond. You do not always need to do an armoured session. Lots of valuable training can happen out of armour. This also allows you to pull in some of the people who have not got their gear together yet and makes them part of the tournament community.

We know about the idea that it takes about 10,000 hours to master a given activity. That is a lot of training to get in. So let’s work on 2 hours training/practice/events a week. That’s about 100 hours a year. So 10 years to reach the 10,000 mark. I am not sure many Knights have worked up that sort of time…

A good rule of thumb here is; one training session a week will keep your skills current, two sessions will ensure you keep pace with everyone else, three and you will get better than the others (assuming they are not doing the same).

Most of us are not able to commit that sort of time, nor do we have the opportunity to have that many sessions in our area. There is a lot to be gained for doing ten or twenty minutes practice at home.

Push yourself

Always try to push yourself out of what is comfortable. In physical terms this is about try to go that little longer after you are tired and out of breath. Go that extra pass before talking your helm off. Bring the intensity up in your last match; make it the best of your session. Do some strength and cardio work.

Seek out people who are better than you and train with them. It is necessary to train with those of all ranks. Working with people less skilled enables you to try different techniques and approaches and gives you an opportunity to observe and coach others. Sparing with people at your level or better is then a test of that training work you have done. Seek out the top 2% and study what they are doing and test yourself against them. Techniques that do not work against this 2% are probably not that valuable in the first place. You will find that ‘trick shots’ or odd weapon forms do not last long against people who know what they are doing. Ask questions, think about what they do and what you can take from them. Ask people not only how they got an attack to work but what they saw you doing for them to initiate that attack.

Sometimes we need to find a mentor, someone whose skills and form is something you would like to emulate. This person need not be a Knight (but that does help) or indeed an authorised combatant, as was the case in my beginning career. Sometimes this involves becoming a squire and sometimes it means just seeking advice and encouragement. Try some different things. Try different shield types, different weapons. If you have an attack that works, put it away for a bit and do something else. Do this not to find some secret ultimate winning combination, but to gain a new way of doing things.

Take notes

Keep a training/fighting diary. Writing down what you are doing is a powerful learning tool. Set some goals, revise past lesions and experiences. Keep notes of how you faired at particular practice session or event. You can do this in a paper form or online. The important thing here is to keep going back and rereading your notes. You will remember things, make future plans and gain new understanding of what has gone before.

Look at everyone else. What do they do? How do they stand? What are their bread and butter attacks? You should be able to tell what the regular combatants in your group do. Go from there and see if you can spot their ‘tells’. Do they do something just before they strike? Can you capitalise on this? What sort of shield do they use? What are the strong and weak points of the shield? What do you need to watch out for?

Read everything. There is lots of stuff on the web and youTube, some of it good and lot of it poor. Have a look at the historical manuals. They are not directly that helpful, but they all contain insights into measure, timing and a host of new ideas.

 Look the Part

Get the best armour and equipment you can afford. Good gear enables you to move well and stay comfortable in harness and can stop you getting hurt.  Looking good means that you add to everyone’s game.

Good quality gear also works better and will give you years of service. Treat this as an investment in your passion. A combatant who turns up in well cared for harness is serious about what they are doing. A person who turns up in rusty and torn gear does not respect themselves and those they train with.

Paint your shield and the back of it, this makes for a finished look. Retape your sword often. A scraggly sword has no place in the hands of a serious swordsman.

Look after your gear and it will look after you.

No excuses

Make a commitment to your progress. Turn up regularly to training and practice and train. You can socialise after. Even if you are not going to put on harness, turn up! You can do some pell work or out of armour practice. You need to make your practice sessions part of your weekly routine. If you do not want to put in the time and commitment to improve accept this and do not act surprised when you do not get better.

Accept defeat or a loss gracefully. You lost the bout because the other person beat you. Be gracious and acknowledge this, don’t make excuses for yourself and rob others of their achievement. Thank your opponent for showing you what you need to work on next time. Do not stand there and talk about what you could have, would have and should have.

Seek enjoyment

Seek an enjoyment in what you do. Training is not always fun, it can be hard work. There are frustrations, insets and setbacks but ultimately there is the pure joy in getting it all to work. That perfectly times cut that slides past their defence and makes your opponents helm ring. The joy of achieving that which is difficult. The camaraderie of the war band. The smile of your consort. The having fun with your mates. All of this and more is why we do this mad mad thing.

Reclaiming the Blade

 

Some of you have probably heard me having a rant about people not striking with the edge of the weapon. There has been a general downward spiral in ‘edge awareness’ over time. The desire to get the win, beat your opponent, shear laziness and poor training all has aided to the abandonment of cutting with edges.

We do not make it easy by using round pieces of rattan as our sword simulator. It is almost impossible to tell if you are struck with a flat cut rather than a good one.
As one of my teachers says, “do you want to be piñata good, or knightly good.”
Yes there are some combatants out there who could wipe the floor against piñatas but could not hit with the sword edge if they tried…

I have realized that I often land the wrap to my opponents shield side leg flat. This has required me to do a reasonable amount of retraining to get out of this bad habit. In the same way I now will not throw ‘snap-wraps’ as they do not cut with the proper orientation. I also need to watch some of the molinet to the head as you sometimes do not get the blade to turn over sufficiently to guarantee a good cut.

This is from someone who has trained a reasonable amount with real swords and is very edge aware. I suppose I should not be surprised that many people have difficulty in understanding the dynamics of the sword blade.

So it is important for us all to practice our cuts with proper form. Always ensure you are cutting in the plain of the blade, cutting though the target and not just hitting with the taped edge. Check your sword tape for indications you are not striking on edge. Make sure people are watching your practice sparring to ensure good form.

Yes there are going to be some attacks that other people do that you will no longer use. That’s fine, remember that that is a sword in your hand, not a stick to beat things for lollies.

Play Up and Play the Game

There is a big difference between free sparring (pick ups etc) and the tournament encounter.

In practice we try out different approaches and techniques. We see what works and what does not. We extend our range of options and capabilities. We bring the best out of ourselves and our training partners.

Tournament is not a time to practice. Tournament is about the accomplishment of the one central tenet of any martial art; hit them without being hit yourself.

Tournament combat is a different game of mind and body. We seek to extend our mental and physical domination over our opponent. We must be ready for sudden action while remaining still and calm within.

Technique is pared away to the most fundamental. Your attacks must be true and give no room for doubt. You defence is wary of feint and trick. Simple, elegant and crisp is the mark of a true competitor.

We seek to emulate that idea of noble or powerful grace. No wasted effort or flourish. Everything has one dreadful and true purpose. A beautiful and terrifying dance of skill, power and grace.

Shifting your mental gears into this space is something many of us struggle with. We are constantly stuck in practice mode, wanting to participate in a game of swords but without the focus required of the true test of person and skill in tournament.

How we get there is different for all of us. You will need to find the answer to this question if you are to progress. Think of those times you were ‘switched on’. What was happening for you then? How can you repeat that headspace?

Find what works for you and use it when you must. For after all the training, sweat and hard work, it will be that determination and focus that enables you to push beyond your own fears and seek that one perfect moment when your blade strikes home.

There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night

Ten to make and the match to win

A bumping pitch and a blinding light,

An hour to play, and the last man in.

And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat.

Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,

But his captain’s hand on his shoulder smote:

“Play up! Play up! And play the game!”

 

The sand of the desert is sodden red –

Red with the wreck of a square that broke;

The Gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead,

And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.

The river of death has brimmed its banks,

And England’s far, and Honour a name,

But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks –

“Play up! Play up! And play the game!”

Sometimes we need a map

The path of the swordsman is a long and sometime winding one.

The ever onward pursuit of excellence in our chosen endeavour has many challenges.

In the SCA alone we get distracted with events, making clothes, maintaining gear dealing with other folk. Lets us not also count the number of distractions work and family can present. While all of these things are important the sword will always be there.

Sometimes you need to leave it alone for a while and deal with other priorities. That’s fine, your blade may grow dull but it does not go away.

We sometimes miss our way in training. It becomes too hard and inspiration and passion become hard to find. Think about what brought you to study swordsmanship in the first instance. What was that quietly whispered song that spoke to your imaginings?

Sometimes we need to discover our drive in others. Beginners, ready and eager to start are a constant source of energy and encouragement. I also have squires and a wider range of students and companions from whom I draw energy and direction. Mentors also can show you the clearer road, even if it is in difficult terrain.

So it is that we must always be aware of our own limits and obligations. Make time for your studies and make that time valuable. The lessons of swordsmanship are not only about that length of steel or rattan.