Monday, 24 February 2014

Modern Saber Fencing and Fechtbuchs

No, this isn't some comparison between modern sport fencing techniques and historical long sword ones. Frankly, trying to argue between the two misses the point that one is taking place at a time when swords are obsolete as weapons of personal defence, and that both are perfectly adapted for what they're trying to achieve.

What I would like to do is look at the ways historical fencers use texts, and ask if the examination of a modern book on sport fencing can teach us anything about what it is and is not possible to get out of them. I've picked Modern Saber Fencing by Zbigniew Borysiuk partly because it's the last book on the modern stuff I picked up, partly because I have it readily to hand, and partly because even if the man insists on spelling it the American way, it's typically hailed as a relatively important guide to the state of the sport.

So, let's pretend for a moment that it's anything up to a thousand years in the future. That we have, for arbitrary reasons, lost the accompanying DVD (possibly by storing them in two separate places so that it's impossible to find them both at once, as I do). We've got a copy of the book, so what does it tell us about swordplay in the early 21st century?

Well, it makes it clear that it's all sportive, thankfully, so at least our descendants aren't going to think that we were still fighting with the things, although they'll probably be a bit upset by our persistent inability to invent the lightsabre. It also gives us some history of fencing and its various developments, and I suppose if these future readers are a bit lazy or pushed for time, they might make the mistake of assuming that history is basically correct, rather than just the received wisdom that every fencing coach gets as a kind of starting point to tell their class. What it doesn't give us is a breakdown of the rules as they stand, so that piece of crucial context is entirely missing (the way it can often be awkward, dipping into Talhoffer's work and forgetting that most of this was in contrived judicial duels).

From the extended section on sports science at the back, they might reasonably get the impression that all fencing at the moment is aimed at high level athletes, or at least that it is all aimed eventually at producing them through clear, well coordinated channels (like the ones they no doubt fly down to work in the future). This tends to ignore the masses of casual, semi-casual, and frankly amazed that they keep turning up fencers who populate every fencing club I've ever been in. Fencers who certainly don't do the kind of hard core plyometric and reaction time work that he suggests. Fencers who, unless like me they're recovering academics, probably didn't bother reading most of the second half of the book at all.

With that out of the way, let's look at the bits actually focussed on fencing technique. Specifically, we're looking at two sections. Two, out of quite a long and complex book. There's an initial analysis of hits at one world championships, alongside a breakdown of hits for key matches (as determined by the author) of the preceding couple of decades. The idea there is to give a picture of trends in the sport (decreased double hits, few parries, lots of beats and counter attacks). Would this pattern be recognisable if you went into a competition tomorrow and watched a bout at random? I'd say it would depend a little on the level. Certainly, amongst lower level athletes (like me) there are still a lot of double hits. A lot of double hits. And successful counter attacks are rarer, because they depend on perfect timing and explosiveness to a degree most of us don't have (Borysiuk doesn't point this out, the same way Fiore de Liberi doesn't point out that his knife defences work best if you happen to know that the other bloke's knife doesn't have an edge on it, only a stabbing point). There's a level of context there that isn't stated.

Then there's the section on individual techniques. One point we quickly get here is that the quality of the illustrations matters. There's a review of the en garde position for example that points to modern developments, but then shows an old school en garde in the photo. Many of the photos come across as quite stilted and posed.

The selection of techniques is quite broad, covering individual techniques of footwork, attack, defence and blade preparation, but there are points to make here. First, the terminology used is exclusively the American stuff, which when so much of the world uses the French, could easily mislead our future fencing enthusiast as to how things were back in the 21st century. That's noticeable in the positions to some extent, but also in the preparations on the blade.

Some of those preparations receive rather more attention than the basics of stepping and hitting. Others listed in other fencing books, and that I face regularly, find themselves absent. There is an extensive section on different types of lunge and the so called 'sabre fleche' or 'flunge' (and it's worth noting that there are at least a couple of ways of doing the flunge, only one of which is listed) but nothing I could see on half step changes of direction or the influence of bouncing footwork.

In this, as in the general makeup of the book with its sports science stuff, it reflects the interests of the author, to such an extent that it's hard to see if our future fencing enthusiast could ever take this as a reasonable guide to the whole of the sport. Not only do people fence differently from day to day, but even in the short time since this was published, there have been one or two developments at the highest level (such as the Koreans' typically quite low en garde, seeming to skim towards the opponent with a low line attack of a type not covered in the book).

Could someone learn to fence from this book? I've picked up some interesting technical things, and I suspect that I possibly could go through it and know what Borysiuk means at each point, but I have more than twenty-five years of fencing experience to draw on, in the same time period he's coming from. I have older friends who still have trouble wrapping their idea around not fleching, and about not needing to hit hard to catch the attention of the judges who aren't there.

Could our future historian learn to fence the way we do today from this book? From a book hailed by many as the most up to date guide to the sport? No, I don't believe they could. The individual movements are not sketched out thoroughly enough. The rules of the sport are not set out clearly. There isn't enough context. Borysiuk's personal fencing preferences aren't (can't be) separated from some kind of ideal of fencing to work to. Too many of the passages only make sense if you've been in the situations described. And of course, the main bulk of the book is not on the technique anyway.

Then there's one other point. Even if you could learn to fence from Modern Sabre Fencing, it would not be a guide to fencing in the 1950s. It would not be a guide to fencing quite today (see my notes on the Koreans above). It would not be a guide to fencing in a small gym in Rhyll or a middling tournament in Paris. To any of the many historical, classical or other types of fencing around. To the plethora of Japanese, Chinese, Filipino or other weapon arts to be found practically everywhere at the moment.

And yet we're happy to treat historical texts as potentially representing dozens of countries and hundreds of years. I feel like that rather underestimates our ancestors.

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