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ince 2010, Freelance Academy Press has brought readers innovative books, instructional DVDs and rich supporting material in the fields of Historical European Marital Arts. In 2017, we are pleased to introduce our most ambitious project to date:

 

 

 

Few historical fencing masters are as dear as Fiore dei Liberi to the heart of the modern Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) community. Credited by fencing historians as the father of Italian swordsmanship, his magnum opus, il Fior di Bataglia (The Flower of Battle), composed in early 1409, is one of the oldest, most extensive, and most clearly elucidated martial arts treatises from the medieval period.

Four versions of il Fior di Battaglia—the earliest surviving Italian source on the martial arts—survive today and form the basis for the modern study of armizare. Each has important similarities to and differences from each other. The key similarity is the organization of the material, which systematically covers abrazare (wrestling and hand-to-hand fighting),  daga (dagger, with an emphasis on self-defense and armoured combat techniques), spada a un mano (single-handed sword), spada a due mani (two-handed sword), spada in arme (sword used in armour), azza in arme (poleaxe used in armour), lanza in arme (spear used in armour), and finally all weapons a cavallo, or on horseback.

The key martial techniques, called zoghi or “plays” by Fiore, are identical between manuscripts, but each manuscript contains plays and key information not seen in the others, and each is done in a different artistic style.

This ambitious project goes well beyond anything we have done before: a four (volume set of illustrated, hard-cover books, combining color, 1:1 facsimiles of the master’s original manuscripts; professional, annotated translations, and extensive, peer-reviewed essays.

Held by the J. Paul Getty Museum in California, MS. Ludwig XV 13  is the largest and most complete of the four surviving manuscripts. Dedicated to the young, bellicose Niccolò d’Este, Marquis of Ferrara, this edition of Fiore’s work details the names of his famous students, the five duels he fought against rival masters, and explains in detail the instructional schema he developed to make the work accessible to students. Beginning with grappling, it progresses through the various sub-systems of armizare, ending with mounted combat.

These details all make the Getty Manuscript the most logical and obvious choice for Volume One, which sets the stage for the entire series. It has 183 pages of cutting-edge research, covering:

  • The life of Fiore dei Liberi, his students, and patrons;
  • Arms and armour in the Getty Manuscript, and their relationship to surviving examples;
  • Dueling and chivalric culture in Italy at the close of the 14th century;
  • A detailed analysis of the manuscripts’ use of pedagogy, numbers, and metaphor to teach the Art of Arms;
  • The Flower of Battle’s relationship to other medieval combat manuscripts.

Although the project fully-funded in five hours, with your help, we can still raise funds to expand the amount of color used in the final volumes, bring them to market months earlier and produce a fifth volume covering the inheritors of this tradition. See how you can be part of our first crowd-funding campaign by clicking the link below:

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/flowers-of-battle-medieval-martial-arts/x/4138672#/

And here’s a peek at the covers for Volumes 2 – 4:

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If you are a long-time martial artist, you have likely been either the recipient, the victim – or both – of the “wise old master” phenomenon, whereby budō students reverentially enfold their teachers as martial, moral and mystical juggernauts sans reproach.

There is perhaps no popular martial art more susceptible to the “wise master” and abusive teacher complex than Aikido, an elegant throwing art whose founder, Ueshibal Morihei, was ascribed nearly supernatural ability, was a practitioner of an obscure, highly mystical religion, and whose students seemed to be particularly adept at factional in-fighting while practicing the Art of Harmony. Therefore, there is no one better to talk about the beauty and beasts of the Aikido world than Ellis Amdur. Iconoclastic, rebellious, yet fiercely holding to some of the most traditional values of Japanese martial culture, Ellis Amdur brings something new to martial arts writing – a startling honesty about the flaws, not only within martial arts culture, but also within its practitioners, often using himself as an exemplar of the latter.

We sat down with Amdur-sensei to talk to him about Aikido, his complex relationship towards it and his new, dramatically expanded Dueling with O-sensei: Grappling with the Myth of the Warrior Sage.

You are best known for your prominent role in the world of koryū, both as a practitioner and a historical researcher and sometimes out-spoken critic. Yet you have written two books on aikidō, produced a DVD on ukemi (falling properly) and have been involved in developing a new system of aikidō training. What keeps bringing you back to this subject even though your formal training as a student ended in 1978?

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Photo courtesy of Niels de Vries

I started training martial arts while still a teenager, and soon started training in a version of Chinese martial arts. Then, at the age of 18, I saw Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo. The aesthetic in the movie and the behavior of the protagonists, particularly how they handled themselves in the face of violence, deeply affected me. But then, it was just a movie, a fantasy about a country far away and a time long ago. Several years later, when I walked into an aikidō dōjō, I saw some of these cultural nuances, albeit in modernized and attenuated form, and realized in an instant that I’d been looking for Japanese martial traditions for years. Aikidō led me towards the belief that martial training must encompass moral responsibility, dignified behavior, stoicism and integrity of action. Aikidō was my gateway into older Japanese martial traditions.

I first began writing about aikidō in the 1990’s, with a series of essays that eventually became Dueling with O-sensei, after an invitation from Diane Skoss, then editor of “Aikidō Journal.” Although I was no longer active in the art, I saw aikidō as a wonderful vehicle to convey some of my ideas to a wider audience than I’d ever be able to do through koryū. Dueling with O-sensei was only ostensibly a book about aikidō. I addressed subjects of universal concern, that affected almost everyone I knew training martial arts and combatives. For example, I once got a letter from a warfighter in Iraq who told me that he happened to read the chapter “Hiding in the Shadow of the Warrior” right before going out on a mission, and he attributed this to his being able to stop himself from violating the rules of war and committing an atrocity in a fluid violent situation. It gave him, he wrote, the ability to stop his impulse and keep his humanity.

My contrarian ideas proved challenging enough that some people became curious how I might express them through the aikidō that I criticized, but also clearly respected. They invited me to teach. At first, I had no interest in this, but it became an intriguing intellectual and physical exercise: how could I express my ideas on physical aggression and combative effectiveness within the context and techniques of modern aikidō, a rather abstract ‘sketch’ of combative engagement. In other words, how could I respect the ‘house,’ while not abandoning my principles?

It soon became clear to me in these seminars that many people had never been taught how to protect themselves from injury. In fact, many were being taught ways of ukemi (receiving techniques) that guaranteed that they would be injured, sooner or later. I believe that this was due, in part, to the grandiose narcissism of Ueshiba Morihei, the founder of the art. His students (and those who became students of his successors) were expected to respond in a way that allowed him to express the principles he was sketching out with their bodies. His students were at his disposal, and it was up to them to survive his techniques. Rather than ukemi for survival, it was ukemi to illustrate ideas. Natural athletes and those who were innately durable did fine, but once aikidō became an ‘open art’ that welcomed any and all, a number of people had their lives damaged rather than enhanced due to the injuries they incurred. Hence I created my DVD, Ukemi from the Ground Up with filmmaker Shari Dyer. Unlike some instructional videos, it’s about survival only. It’s ‘working class’ ukemi—I don’t care how you look, just that you aren’t hurt while trying to learn. It’s applicable to any martial art that has a component of taking falls, not just aikidō.

Years later, I started writing a blog on the “Aikido Journal” website. I became fascinated in the subject of internal strength, the use of the body in the most efficient manner possible, a methodology that is, in many ways, ‘counter-instinctual.’ The nervous system, the connective tissue, the mind . . . everything . . .are coordinated in a way that leads to an impeccable integration of the forces of gravity and ground through a relaxed body. It is a subject that I first heard discussed in aikidō, although it was almost completely lost in the modern-day art. Similarly, I read about similar things in various koryū systems, but I saw little evidence of it there either. It was, however, initially through my contacts with various teachers of Chinese internal martial arts that I began to actually learn these skills, and it was as if the missing pieces of the koryū I studied finally made sense. It was like finally resetting the lens in a telescope. You could see far already, but now with a lot more depth and clarity. It also was the missing piece within aikidō—a lot of the art that doesn’t make sense becomes clear with the addition of the study of internal strength, which was at the heart of what Ueshiba first learned in Daitō-ryū and then taught in his aikidō. He did so, however, in a way that most people couldn’t see. Instead, they ‘wrote him off’ as superhuman, and concentrated on a much more mundane interpretation of the art. I began reworking these essays in light of my own study of this subject and started to do a lot of research to prove my then somewhat controversial thesis that internal strength training methodologies permeated traditional Japanese martial arts. This became my third book, Hidden in Plain Sight, a subject we should return to when we publish the new expanded edition of that book in the fall of next year.

Let’s just get the marketing question out of the way: why an expanded edition and what’s new?

Dueling with O-sensei was my first book. I wanted to rewrite it because it could have been better edited, better designed and better organized. Beyond that, I’d done a lot more research on Ueshiba Morihei, particularly the founder’s, intimate connections with Japan’s pre-and-post war far-right.  (Many of his partisans concede this in pre-war Japan—in fact, that becomes part of the origin myth of aikidō that he transcended such base and violent ideas—but they claim that he became an enlightened sage after the war. Ueshiba was a remarkable man – perhaps a great man, in the conventional sense – but he was a close friend and supporter of not only mere right wing political figures, but also terrorists and assassins. This continued without any change after the war as well, something I establish in this version of the book. Many have deified him as an apostle of peace, almost like Gandhi, and he was anything but that. One far-right activist I met in Japan admiringly said of Ueshiba, “Ueshiba-san wa uyoku no uyoku deshita.” (“He was rightwing beyond rightwing.”) It is not that I see myself as a muckraker. Rather, I think we can learn best from great men and women when we know what their struggles were, how they became the kind of people they were, and also what they were not, despite wishful fantasies to the contrary. The profound metaphors on reconciliation, harmony and peace, that excite so many, actually come from an amalgam of messianic neo-Shintō, a genuine desire for a better world, and Japanese far-right politics, the latter under the rubric of yō naoshi, which essentially means to correct a corrupt world (and the latter by any means necessary). We can move towards our own goals in this area when we understand the context they were originally created.

Secondly, I wanted to write more about my early days training in aikidō and some of the wonderful people I met and studied with. That period of my life was absolutely magical, and writing about it brought back not only memories, but also a felt sense, a return to that period. I could feel the summer heat of Tokyo hear the cicada’s whirling murmur, and smell the grassy odor of the tatami mats upon which I slept.

Finally, I wanted to write more essays on how the principles of Japanese martial arts in general can be embodied in one’s life. Japanese martial arts have taught me how to be fiercely compassionate, and through that, I’ve been able to step into some terrible situations and some terrifying situations (not necessarily the same), and change them for the better.

All in all, I think there are eight new chapters, encompassing about one hundred new pages.

Your martial training began with aikidō, with the rather larger-than-life character of Terry Dobson, in the sometimes larger-than-life world of 1970s New York. One of Dueling with O Sensei’s most powerful chapters is its very first, which is an elegy to this complicated figure. Without spoilers, Terry was hardly the sort of figure one imagines as the serene, martial arts master – physically and temperamentally the antithesis of Ueshiba Morihei, despite having been one of his uchi-deshi. What of “Terry’s aikidō” lives in Ellis’ budo?

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Terry Dobson, legendary American aikido pioneer.  Photo by Carl Shiraishi.

Actually, that’s not necessarily true about Terry and Ueshiba. They were both intoxicated with salvationist fantasies, and both bigger-than-life characters of immense selfish appetites. (People are more circumspect about Ueshiba, but you might get one of R. Crumb’s comics of Mr. Natural to get an idea of this aspect of Ueshiba.  Yes—really. That outrageous!). The biggest difference, in my view, is that Terry had a sense of proportion and perspective, that Ueshiba, a demigod within his own closed world, did not. He knew when he was an asshole, and was often later embarrassed by it. I’ve never seen any evidence that Ueshiba had that capacity for self-reflection.

As to what of “Terry’s aikidō lives in me,” technically quite a bit. Beyond that, however, we are quite different. Unlike Terry, I’m not messianic in the least. I don’t see aikidō as a means to save the world. Terry had a lot of difficulty parsing proper boundaries between teacher and student—not only in terms of relationships, but also in terms of how much responsibility he had to ‘help’ people with their psychological issues, as he perceived them, whether they asked for it or not. I don’t try to heal people on the mat.

On the other hand, in part thanks to Terry, I’m not too impressed by the pretensions so rife in budo. Although Terry was certainly a more of a wildman than I, often more id than ego, I’m probably more rebellious than he was when it comes to martial arts society. I know how to behave (and in good ‘Japanese’ fashion, I can bow to an idiot, if social rules or tactics demand it), but I cannot stand the martial arts guru or as you put it, ‘the serene, martial arts master.’ If a person really has those qualities, or is otherwise admirable, I will offer them genuine respect. But my best teachers have simply been human beings who know more about something than I do—not god-like figures. I think the title of my book speaks exactly to that point. What should be outcome of a duel be if, perchance, no one dies? Hopefully: reconciliation and respect. I did that with Terry in person and Ueshiba in absentia.

(On the other hand, it is true that I never came close to assassinating Khrushchev. No lie! Terry wasn’t on any mission for the government, either. He was just a young ex-Marine, barely out of his teens, alone in his mother’s apartment in NYC with a rifle and a scope. This was during Khrushchev’s infamous visit to the UN. Security then was not anything like it is now, and he decided initially that he just wanted to use the scope on the rifle to see the infamous man on his distant balcony waving to the crowd. He drew a bead on his left ear. Then he put his finger on the trigger, idly at first, and then it came to him that he could save the free world from the Communist Menace!!!!! The only reason he didn’t fire is that he was too afraid of how his absolutely ferocious mother would react. He was terrified of her, and with good reason. Were it not for her, he would have started WWIII. Then again, it was due to that woman that he was so messed up that he almost did so).

Training with Terry Dobson ultimately took you to Japan. How long did you train aikidō in both places, and how would you characterize the difference between the art you learned in 1970s New York from its Japanese counterpart?

That’s actually the subject of a lot of the book, particularly some of the new chapters. I trained about two years in the states, and two years in Japan. I know, it doesn’t sound like much, but I suppose I trained about three or four hours a day in the US, while in Japan, I probably averaged six or seven hours a day. I think I got about 8000 hours in four years. I had the benefit of extremely high-level instruction in the states, not only at Terry’s place, but also at Yamada Yoshimitsu’s New York Aikikai and frequent trips to other dōjōs.

Many instructors in the states, Terry most prominently, were big on the alleged moral dimensions of aikidō. Few instructors in Japan did the same—at least they didn’t talk about it very much. There were certainly profoundly spiritual teachers within the Japanese aikidō community, but they practiced their art as a Shintō rite, an offering to divine powers, rather than as ‘embodied moral instruction.’

The other major difference between American and Japan at that time was quality. In the early 1970’s, most dōjōs in the states, other than the very biggest, only had a few high level students. A second dan was a stud and a third dan was remarkable. In most Japanese dōjōs, on the other hand, I could easily practice with powerful high-level trainees one after another. It was like going from high school basketball to the Big Ten college league.

This brings up an interesting question that links your two martial worlds: you have discussed the challenge koryū have in surviving intact when they are removed their from their cultural milieu – or rather, what remains of it. Having trained both “at the source” of aikidō with a number of students who trained directly under Ueshiba O Sensei and abroad, do you think gendai budō (modern martial traditions) are as fragile in their transmission?

2-39-2-possModern martial arts, for the most part, are activities that welcome everyone rather than a select few, and therefore, they are flexible and adaptable. For better and for worse, they are open to change. If one were to consider a brilliant traditionalist such as the recently deceased Shirata Rinjiro, it is unlikely that his legacy in aikidō will fully be transmitted. Do his successors do justice to the intertwining of Ōmotokyō (the syncretic neo-Shintō religion), his profound personal morality and incredibly powerful technique? Let us consider a larger legacy such as the Yoshinkai of Shioda Gozo. In his codification of his teachings, he ‘organized his genius’ away. He was freeform and natural in his movements, whereas most Yoshinkan practitioners never surpass the rigid formulaic practice that Shioda developed for mass education After his death, the Yoshinkan fissioned, with many of his finest and most loyal successors each forming their own group. There should be hundreds of people who have equaled or surpassed Shioda. Yet few, if any, have come close, because most became masters of his system of training, not the core of what he taught.

On the other hand, evolution is not best served in a small enclosure. As much as aikidō (or any other modern martial art) run the risk of being watered down, widespread dissemination and liberality of interpretation also offers the opportunity for creative generation. There is not doubt that there are many modern martial arts schools whose practice cannot even be termed poor—it is fatuous. But there are other dōjōs, such as that of Robert Mustard, who practices as ferociously as anybody in the 1930’s or 1940’s Japan, and the Tenzan Aikidō of Bruce Bookman (both these men are training brothers to me), that combine exemplary technique with a community of trainees, from children to old folks. Bruce’s dōjō is as fine as Kuwamori Yasunori’s dōjō, my ideal, the subject of one of the last chapters in Dueling with O-sensei.

Essentially, your discovery of Araki-Ryū marked the end of your formal tutelage in aikidō. Why?

Remember what I said in my first answer above. I was looking for what I sensed (whether it was there or not) in that movie starring Katsu Shintaro and Mifune Toshiro, a combination of raw violence, psychological acuity, a fierce adhering to tradition, a behavioral code of rigor, and a natural social hierarchy based, in part, on how much integrity and courage one lived one’s life.  I perceived this most explicitly within the Araki-ryū of my teacher, and in a different fashion, within Toda-ha Buko-ryū. Furthermore, I was then very much focused on combative effectiveness, even if the weapons were archaic, and aikidō, a very abstract martial art, was simply not what I wanted to do. It was only in recent years with my rediscovery of the possibilities of aikidō as a vehicle for the development of internal strength (whole body coordination for the use of powerful technique) that my interest really got rekindled.

Did your aikidō teachers accept this, or did they see you as the baby who bit the breast?

Honestly, I don’t think very many people saw me as important enough to get upset about (well, maybe Terry did). To the degree that anyone really noticed, they respected me enough to respect my choices, because they saw that I continued to train with integrity.

I have read some notable koryū teachers or practitioners express the idea that gendai arts, and often aikidō in particular, are unsuited for cross-training in a traditional school. You seem uniquely suited to comment on that. Do you see any truth in this? If so, why? Is the issue mechanical, tactical, androgogical, or just one more martial myth?

mn8cThat can be a problem, particularly with ‘true believers’ who imagine their modern art is the best martial art ever developed for anything and everything, and also with people who are so imprinted by the modern art they practice that they cannot learn the very specific physical requirements of the koryū they are also training. This is actually a huge problem in Japan, where many of the koryū have joined with the kendō, iaidō or naginatadō federations and they deliberately and/or unconsciously shift their techniques to conform to the monolithic gendai art they’ve joined. Yet I have a number of students who train in modern martial arts and they do great! I actually require my Araki-ryū students to train in some modern grappling school, and many of my Toda-ha Bukō-ryū students also happen to practice iaidō, aikidō, and Filipino escrima. The question for me is if they can keep things separate – that they do not mix their koryū practice with their modern martial art. If they can do this, I’ve not problems with it whatsoever.

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Choe Yong Sul, Founder of Hapkido. The interesting and controversial common heritage with aikido is subject of  a chapter in Dueling with O-sensei.

Many people come to martial arts because they are “seekers”. This seems particularly true of aikidō. Why do you think that is?

Aikidō has been propounded as a ‘spiritual’ martial art. With its white-bearded founder offering rambling disquisitions on martial technique as the embodiment of the forces of the universe, and many teachers talking about the art as offering a method for the reconciliation of conflict, it draws many looking for everything from otherworldly bliss to a way out from the knot of violence that is destroying so much of the world. And the latter goal, in many ways, possible. For example, the recently deceased Tom Osborn’s, Keganin no Senshi (“wounded warrior) project has been a wonderful help for warfighters struggling with combat related posttraumatic stress disorder. And Miles Kessler has been teaching aikidō to young Palestinian and Israeli kids in Israel and the West Bank. In an environment of hatred, these kids are physically touching and helping each other! These are two of uncountable individuals who have been inspired by aikidō and on a moral level, have made it something finer than that which the founder himself created. Although it may well be true that the founder and his first generation were ferociously able martial artists, there are many today who, although not nearly as powerful martial artists, have taken the concept of the reconciliation of humanity in enormously creative ways. Aikidō may well be far from the top of the list for someone who wants to clear out a bar room brawl, but it has cleared the cobwebs out of the minds of hundreds of thousands of people who use its practice as a vehicle towards becoming finer human beings.

Whereas Old School  is very much a work of cultural anthropology and historiography, Dueling with O Sensei is a far more intimate book — and also a cautionary tale, where you take a brutally hard look at what can go wrong in martial arts training, both as the student and the teacher. Sadly, this seems to be a recurring tale that anyone who spends much time around the arts eventually encounters. What is it that draws someone to these arts, especially as a teacher, that seems to lead to this?

The longest chapter of the book focuses specifically on this question. In brief, people are drawn to martial arts because they are drawn to power. There is nothing more human than this. And more bestial as well. Power, however, is not synonymous with morality. If one does not possess moral rigor, then it is easy to be swayed by one who is charismatic, charming, or manipulative. Unfortunately, martial arts can be Petri dishes for pathology. Not only the best, but also some of the worst of humanity achieve leadership roles in martial arts.

Since the teacher-student/mentor-mentee relationship in martial arts is ripe for abuse, and many students join a martial art in their late teens or early 20s, do you have a short list for how a prospective student can identify and avoid a toxic training environment?

Sure. Could you trust him/her with the well-being of your pet or your kids? Could you ask him/her to house sit and leave your diary on the kitchen table and be 100% sure that it wouldn’t be opened while you were gone?  Do they make you feel worthwhile, or someone who is flawed? Are you full of adrenaline and happy when you go to train, or sick with fear? Do they ask or require anything of you that, were they not your sensei, you would refuse?

So as an aikidō “prodigal son”, what do you think is the key worth it offers its adherents? Why, for example, might you point a young man or woman to aikidō over a koryū, or, for that matter, to a koryū over aikidō?

That’s up to ‘you,’ not me. The martial art one chooses actually chooses you. It demands that you practice it. (I put it that way, because I’ve not particular interested in people who are training for a hobby, so I’ve nothing to say about them). In a koryū, though, not only must the art may speak to you, but also the teacher must believe that the art needs you. Speaking here with traditional rigor, it’s not about your wishes. Koryū, if it is still real and not a gendai budo in old trappings, is a kind of living entity with its teacher as the embodiment of the tradition. One way to put it is in gendai budō, you learn from a teacher; in koryū, you ‘learn the teacher.’ Beyond all that, I don’t really point people towards martial arts. People should find their art and their teachers on their own.

Now the obvious final question: what’s next?

As always, I’ve several writing projects. I started a general website/blog www.kogenbudo.org (‘Kogen’ is my play on words that means “old-modern,” because I’ve a foot in each camp. This is a vehicle for my essay writing on martial arts, as well as a general site regarding my training. I will also have guest bloggers, people whom I respect, write about their arts).

You and I, of course, will be publishing an expanded edition of my out-of-print third book, Hidden in Plain Sight. I’m working on it now, and it will be at least as radically revised as  Old School and Dueling with O-sensei, with a number of new chapters.

I have released a DVD and book entitled Threat De-escalation: : How to Effectively Assess and Diffuse Dangerous Situations under the auspices of the United States Concealed Carry Association. 

I’ve also released Body and Soul: Toward a Radical Intersubjectivity in Psychotherapy. I know that this book sounds radically different from anything we’ve discussed, but it actually describes how some of the deepest concepts we’ve been discussing can be embodied in psychotherapy, particularly when death – either suicide or murder – is a definite possibility.

Also, several years ago, I participated in a large project with the Defense Research Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA). We were striving to create a body of knowledge to assist in the development of people (specifically warfighters and law enforcement officers) who can successfully manage high-risk, high-consequence social interactions in an unfamiliar environment, particularly where there is a power differential. These are people who are potentially viewed by the ‘local’ participants as outsiders, perhaps being seen as a potential threat or holding power. I was used in a kind of ‘outlier’ track, a subject-matter expert who was viewed as having some original ideas outside the ‘standard model’ that had been established by orthodox research. What I had to offer was primarily derived from my studies in koryū as well as from twenty-five years working in the area of crisis intervention.  My research associate, Robert Hubal, and I have decided to publish the work we accomplished within our track to contribute to the overall body of knowledge in this area.  This is an example of bringing knowledge from koryū into modern situations, knowledge that was specific to the ryū that I studied. My job – actually my entire career— has been an endeavor to bring this knowledge into a present context while retaining its full potency, in service to something greater than myself. Returning to your first question, Dueling with O-sensei  is at the heart of this.

Dueling with O-sensei  is now available in trade paperback, e-book and a limited release, signed edition.

by Christian Henry Tobler

This article amalgamates a series of three posts I made on social media, along with a new concluding section, addressing the various modes of safe attack in the Liechtenauer tradition of medieval combat.

Part 1: “Hit or Miss”

attacking1Hs. 3227a, otherwise known as the ‘Nuremberg Hausbuch’, contains an incomplete commentary on the verse treatise by Johannes Liechtenauer on the use of the longsword,
along with other martial arts material, and works on such wide-ranging matters as metallurgy, medicine, and astrology. Debate continues as to whether it is the earliest appearance of Liechtenauer’s martial art, and how early it is at all.

Regardless of its dating, the commentary offers a viewpoint on the art differing from those found in the other notable commentary works, arguably one more focused on principles than specific techniques. (It may represent a branch of the tradition; one student’s reading of it; etc.) One of these differences is the stress put on the idea of the Vorschlag (“first stroke”) – a concept not explicitly found elsewhere. Repeatedly, the anonymous author lauds the idea of seizing the initiative by ‘winning’ the first stroke – that is, being the first to attack, with a thrust or hewing stroke.

Opinion varies today as to whether this means that one should make a dedicated, deep attack, always intended to directly hit the opponent, or if the intent is to use the Vorschlag to bridge the gap between wide and close measure. My own opinion now is that, depending on the situation, the Vorschlag can accomplish either.

The commentary in 3227a tells us that one should ‘win’ or ‘gain’ the Vorschlag, and that this independent of whether one has “hit or miss”. After the Vorschlag has been won, one should then (regardless of whether they hit or miss) strike the “after stroke” – the Nachschlag. Now, surely this cannot mean that we would attempt to break wide measure only to outright miss both sword and opponent. More sensibly, it applies only to whether we have hit the opponent or not.

A key to understanding this lies in acknowledging that the management of measure is in the hands of both fighters, not just the attacker. The defender might remain on guard, or step forward (or backward), in response to the attack. With that, consider this scenario:

Fencers A and B close to wide measure, with A initiating an attack. Fencer A elects to close carefully from wide to close measure, using the initial attack – the Vorschlag – to safely bridge the distance while maintaining control of the center – the line of engagement. To this end Fencer A strikes such that their point is a constant threat to B, closing just enough to come into Langenort (“long point”) in front of B. Such a strategy is consistent with the precept, found in 3227a and many other places, that one “strike while approaching to his head or body, keeping your point before his face or chest.” This is all the more resonant, given 3227a’s praise of the sword’s point as the center of all swordsmanship. Such a strategy is touted even more strongly in the chapter on Sprechfenster (“Speaking Window”) as elucidated in the later commentaries.

Using this conservative entry paradigm, we can imagine three basic outcomes. In the first, Fencer B remains where they are, and Fencer A ends in the guard Langenort with the point before the opponent; A is now free to continue on in with a Nachschlag to strike B. In the second, Fencer B also steps forward, and now A’s stroke or thrust has sufficient reach to strike B in one tempo. In the third, B also steps forward, but parries A’s Vorschlag (but A can still now strike a Nachschlag).

So, even with a conservative entry strategy, making full use of the threat of the point, we might hit or miss. In all three scenarios above, you still ‘win’ the Vorschlag – you’ve struck first, put your opponent on the defensive, and…have closed distance safely, without being struck. Of course, option 3 is also the one that offers Fencer B a way to turn the tables and regain the initiative, by reacting in a way that not only parries (or, alternately, avoids the attack) but involves a counter attack; but the point, for our purposes here, is that the defender *must* react or be struck.

Now, reading the earlier parts of Hs. 3227a, it might be easy to conclude the above is the only safe way to bridge wide measure with the Vorschlag. Read further, however, and it becomes clear that there are other options for safe entry into the fight that involve more *direct* attacks – ironically performed by *indirect* entries.

In the chapter on the Twerhau (“Thwart Stroke”), the author sings its praises, telling the student explicitly to enter with that blow employed as a Vorschlag and to directly hit the opponent in the head, such that the blade “tightens around the head like a belt”. Experienced practitioners will find this an apt description of the way the Twerhau (elsewhere, including below, rendered as Zwerchhau) wraps around the victim’s head. Certainly, the description seems to assume an approach that allows for this to happen, even if the opponent remains on guard.

How is the ‘Twerhau as Vorschlag’ attack a safe entry? Well, unlike our ‘drive down the center’ scenario earlier, the Twerhau does not own or control the current centerline, but rather creates a *new* line of engagement due to its being executed with a deep step outward and forward to the right with the right foot. The angle of the attack requires much more committed action on the part of the defender. Further, the high line used by a Twerhau targeting the head grants it considerable reach. Of course, once again, Fencer B can still parry this attack (that is to say, Fencer A now ‘misses’), forcing A to continue on with the Nachschlag, often a Twerhau to B’s other side. In short, there are various ways to find safe ways into the fight; choosing a deceptive angle of attack is just one of them.

Winning the Vorschlag does not require “hitting the other guy”, but rather seizing the initiative, through various means, in a fashion that forces their reaction. Neither should this require an extremely powerful, fight-ending blow, but instead one just committed enough to force a response. That said, winning the Vorschlag doesn’t preclude hitting the opponent either – as we have seen, this is situational. What 3227a does stress is that ‘hit or miss’, the Nachschlag should always be struck immediately after the Vorschlag. The Vorschlag’s primary purpose is to seize the initiative and enter the fight, not kill the opponent in one tremendous decapitating blow. The assumption therefore is that it won’t be your last stroke, simply one that engages, perhaps wounds, and certainly draws a response.

All of this is, naturally, very simplified, but hopefully illustrative of the diverse ways one can employ the Vorschlag for safe and conservative entries into fights. Much goes into whether one hits or misses with an initial attack – time, measure, line, and the opponent’s intent and/or reaction. There is more than one way to win the Vorschlag, and with it one comes to the fight in relative safety, “hit or miss”.

Part 2: Using the Vorschlag to Break the Guards

attacking2In part 1 of my exploration of the Vorschlag, a fencing concept expressed in the German medieval manuscript Hs. 3227a, I opined that it could be employed in diverse ways, including simply gaining the center, or directly assaulting a target using an off-angle attack. I’d like to turn our attention now to four examples of using this concept – the Vier Versetzen (“Four Oppositions”), the four strokes of the sword used to ‘break’ Liechtenauer’s four primary guards for the longsword.

A deep reading of the commentaries reveals a layered set of plays designed for attacking opponents of varying skill levels. I will present this first succinctly, and then expand upon each in turn. In short, the first option for each stroke given to us by the masters is a single tempo, first intention attack. What follows are techniques for breaking a particular guard relying on second intention attacks. The former should work against less skilled opponents; the latter against the more highly-trained ones.

Before proceeding to particulars, let me remind the reader of which guard each stroke breaks, and how:

Krumphau (“Crooked Stroke”) breaks the guard Ochs, employing an attack across the line of engagement coupled with a deep outward step to strike the hands. The angle of attack creates safety.

Zwerchhau (“Thwart Stroke”) breaks the guard vom Tag, closing the guard’s high line of attack and also re-angling for safety using footwork per the Krumphau above.

Schielhau (“Squinting Stroke”) breaks Pflug by striking into the line against the opponent’s sword with the sword inverted, gaining contact with the blade and then flowing into a thrust into the chest. A modified version of this attack is also leveraged against the extended guard Langenort. Safety is created by directly addressing the opponent’s sword.

Scheitelhau (“Scalp Stroke”) breaks Alber by attacking along a high line, outreaching the lowered sword of the defender. Properly timed, it also deceives the defender into reacting too soon, and strikes the scalp line or face of the opponent. Safety is created through superior reach and by a trick of timing arising from driving the hands high to attack.

These are the ‘platonic ideal’ plays of the strokes used to break the guards. Of the three, only Schielhau explicitly makes contact with the sword before finalizing the attack. The remaining three go right for a target, using either angle of attack (Zwerchhau & Krumphau), and/or advantages in measure and timing (Scheitelhau) to directly do so; contact with the opponent’s sword may or may not occur.

These first intention attacks are less likely to succeed against a seasoned swordsman, particularly one trained within this system of fighting. Fortunately, we have alternative implementations of these four strokes, doubtless designed with trickier opponents in mind. The mindset behind these could be explained colloquially with the phrase “be careful, don’t go for broke on the first shot!” The following actions, explained in the glosses after the platonic ideal exemplars, rely on either a pre-planned second intention attack, or in the attacker being able to deftly respond (in the moment: Indes!) to the imminent failure of the already discussed first intention actions. That’s just fancy wording for this advice: “if they’re too smart and are on to you, shift gears. If they’re really smart, plan to do that from the get go”.

All of this should make better sense when we step through each of the strokes’ second intention attacks. I will proceed in Liechtenauer’s order, from Krumphau through Scheitelhau.

The Krumphau’s first intention attack upon the guard it breaks, Ochs, is to assail the hands. Should the attacker gauge his opponent to be too wily for such a stratagem, they might instead feint an attack to the hands and then, in second intention, fall short with the stroke to ‘change through’, that is, pass beneath, the defender’s blade and strike beneath it with thrust or cut. This might also occur if the attacker, keen on the first intention attack to the hands, and seeing the defender pull the hands back, then changes through beneath the defender’s Ochs.

To break vom Tag, the attacker can strike a Zwerchhau in first intention to the defender’s left side, drawing his fire. In second intention, the attacker can pull this attack short to strike around with a Zwerchhau to the opponent’s right side. Similarly to our situation above with the Krumphau, the attacker might do this in response to a committed parry from the defender. [Sidebar: It’s also worth noting that Lecküchner, in his Messerfechten treatise, describes the same actions for his Entrüsthau, the messer equivalent of the Zwerchhau; that the much-abbreviated (i.e., less likely to cut) back edge is used for the first intention attack is testament to the Vorschlag’s primary function: safe entry.]

The Schielhau can be used to attack Pflug in first intention by striking with the short, or back, edge to the defender’s blade, commuting the stroke to a thrust to the chest in an extended tempo. Fighting a more skilled defender, the attacker might strike such that they can readily change through below the opponent’s defending point, to thrust anew outside the defender’s sword. Again, this can be done pre-planned, or in response to the defender leaving their guard to parry.

The Scheitelhau break Alber by overreaching that low-lying guard. Knowing the defender is apt to raise their sword, likely into a position akin to the position called Kron (“Crown”), the attacker can, in second intention, either let their sword ‘rock’ over the defender’s weapon to the thrust to the face, or invert the sword upon contact to thrust down to the chest. Note here that a) the attacker has a choice of second intention actions, depending on the defender’s commitment, and b), the latter option works best as the ‘pre-planned’ choice.

In all the above examples, the second intention options follow after the ‘platonic ideal’ first intention ones. Fighting savvier opponents demands that one leverage more sophisticated options. Conversely, less sophisticated opponents should be attacked in first intention; dazzling them with compound attacks is likely to confuse them, increasing the likelihood of drawing an unpredictable reaction…and risking the dangers of a double kill. Also note – and this is important – that the second intention attacks are ‘shallower’; they seek less distant targets, incurring less risk against a more dangerous defender.

In Liechtenauerian lingo, we could say the second intention actions proper (those that are planned) are all Fehler (“Feints”), while the ‘unplanned’ application of those actions are done Indes (“During” or “Instantly”). In any case, all of these attacks are examples of Vorschlag, and Liechtenauer’s treatise is laid out, quite purposefully, to ensure that we are trained to seize the initiative with not only courage, but foresight.

And speaking of foresight…

Part 3: Nachreisen and Vorschlag

Chasing is diverse and manifold, and should be done with striking and thrusting with great foresight against combatants who strike free and long strokes, and will really observe nothing of the true art of the sword. – The ‘Von Danzig’ Fechtbuch

attacking3The Liechtenauerian term Nachreisen translates into English as “chasing”, “pursuing”, or, more literally, “traveling after”. It is mentioned early in the glosses of Liechtenauer’s Zettel for the longsword and later merits its own chapter. Nachreisen describes methods for exploiting opportunities offered by the opponent’s management (or mismanagement) of timing and/or measure.

Nachreisen manifests in two basic forms. One form involves pursuing the opponent when they miss and attack. If your opponent strikes at you with extension, but you don’t let them connect, you can strike them with relative impunity as their blow goes by. The miss is an opportunity.

Of course, the opponent may react in time as you strike toward them, parrying your timed counterattack. One then continues to follow the opponent’s actions, but now in contact with their sword.

It is the other form that is pertinent to this article. In this case, you attack into the opponent’s preparation. If the opponent pulls the sword back to charge a blow – a thrust or strike – you follow them and hit them as they are moving away from you. These are opportunities for performing a Vorschlag; that is, to seize the initiative and strike first. Strangely, this important aspect of
Nachreisen is only explicitly described in the ‘Ringeck’ gloss:

This means that you should learn Chasing well, which is twofold. The first do when he wants to strike to you; then note when he jerks the sword up for the stroke, then follow after him with a stroke or thrust to the upper opening before he can come against you with his stroke. Or, fall with the long edge above to his arms and thereby press him from you.

The use of Nachreisen as a preemptive method is only alluded to in the closely-related glosses found in the “von Danzig”, “Lew”, and “Speyer” Fechtbücher. This appears in the heading on the Four Openings:

First you should seek them from the Zufechten with the Chasing [Nachreisen], and by shooting into the Langort [Longpoint].

However, just how and when one employs Nachreisen in this capacity is left open. We’re therefore fortunate in having Ringeck’s comments.

Following an opponent’s retracting movements needn’t involve them charging a stroke. They might also pull back to prepare a thrust, or move from a guard that closes a line, such as Ochs or Pflug, to an open guard like vom Tag or Alber. Each of these cases lessens the threat from the opponent’s point by retraction of the blade or its being angled out of presence. Removal of threat is a de facto dropping of defenses and therefore an opportunity for attack.

Nachreisen facilitates either of the Vorschlag strategies discussed in Part 1. That is, you can either make a shallow attack to gain the center or drive a deeper, more committed, attack, with even greater safety if you exploit retreating motion on the part of your opponent.

This principle also informs the guard-breaking strategies described in Part 2. Exploiting wasted movement as an opponent forms/changes guards adds another level of surety and safety on entering the fight.

Hence, Nachreisen is a powerful tool in seizing the initiative…in striking the Vorschlag. Its applications, described in the mid-point of Liechtenauer’s treatise, are, as the ‘Von Danzig’ commentaries have it, “diverse and manifold”.

Last Thoughts: Universal Strategies

We should not be surprised to find these strategies in Liechtenauer’s teachings, elucidating various attack strategies. Writings by later Italian masters of fence are still more succinct, and yet accord with all I have put forth above. Giovanni dall’Agocchie, writing in 1572, defined five tempi (times) for striking the opponent. I list these here (with thanks to Tom Leoni), along with correspondences found earlier in this article.

  • After parrying the opponent’s attack (Zornhau-Ort; breaking guards in second intention)
  • After the opponent’s attack has fallen harmless out of your presence (Nachreisen, used after your opponent misses)
  • When he lifts his hand to strike you (Nachreisen into his preparation)
  • When he changes guards without reason, and before he stops in the next (Nachreisen, again)
  • While he lifts his front foot, or passes forward (Vorschlag to control the center…hit or miss)

Nicoletto Giganti adds another, also easily understood through the lens of Liechtenauer’s art: you can attack when your opponent waits too long in a guard. Here, one may very safely attack into the center, the opponent’s reaction time protracted by their relaxation into stillness.

The Liechtenauer masters’ modes of attack are not novel. Rather, they represent manifestations of universal fencing laws, well understood across the centuries.

 

DSC_0230NB: Although reconstructed European martial traditions, or “HEMA” receive the most attention, there are still a number of living, European fighting arts that continue to be passed on, master to student, as they have for generations. Some of these, such as French savate and la canne, are relatively well-known, others, such as jogo do pau (Portuguese stick-fighting) have been virtually unknown outside of their own country until recent years.

 Italy, particularly the more conservative south, is a treasure trove of old fighting traditions, that over the centuries have been practiced by everything from shepherds to mafiosi!  Maestro Roberto Laura is an inheritor of several of these traditions and a long-time researcher into their methodology, mythology and verifiable history. In Sword of the People he tries to sort fact from fantasy, legend from history while presenting the depth, breadth and beauty of Italian fighting arts.

Currently being translated from its German original, and available in 2017, we are pleased to present this first sneak-peak at this unique and beautiful book.

 

Introduction 

 

For this endeavor, it must be noted that the knife was not considered a traitorous weapon, but as the ‘Sword of the People’ throughout the entirety of southern Italy, starting with the rural area outside of Rome.

Corrado Tommasi-Crudeli,

La Sicilia nel 1871, Florence, 1871

This book introduces readers to the path of traditional Italian knife and stick fencing schools, with the hope to thereby contribute to their conservation. It does not presume to be complete, but rather to lay a cornerstone for others to build upon.

But how should the history of the Southern Italian knife be told? For the uninitiated, these old arts were largely hidden. It is a history of secrecy, of omertà. A blending of blood-oaths, covenants and fear of reprisal combined with pride in belonging to a secret and chivalrous society, created a culture that to sought to prevent the secrets of the blade – as well as the shepherd’s stick – from falling to the ears of outsiders. This fear of exposure, when combined with the widespread illiteracy in the lower peasant classes and urban sub-proletariat of 19th century Italy, created a purely oral tradition.

Thus my research for this book began in the dark. At first it was shaped predominantly by speculation and assumptions. Over the years, I engaged not only physically but also mentally and literarily with this sub-culture of the land of my birth. I read a lot of secondary literature on the history, art and culture of southern Italy; books that at first glance seem to have little to do with the subject of the knife.

To understand any complex, incompletely understood and orally communicated area of study it is important to appreciate its essence, especially its relationship to history and culture. Only then can a judgment be made that differentiates between whether a given piece of information is likely true, or possibly not. This desire to truly understand forced me to pursue lines of inquiry that were often little more than indistinct traces or rumors. Rather than producing frustration, the mysterious nature of the search for these truths was and remains an important part of the appeal of this work. The lack of a written record around this oral tradition meant that no other approach was possible. Over the course of this uncertain journey I met both true masters, as well as those that merely assumed the title. Many provided valuable information and perspectives. With some I studied briefly, while with others I still study as I write this.

Both the true masters of this tradition, as well as the researchers who dedicate themselves to its study are critical links between the past and the present. This research opens for us all not only a world of historical Italian tradition and culture but an exploration of our own contemporary values and perceptions. Today, despite many years of effort and publication by numerous researchers Italy remains largely unappreciated and ill-understood in the sphere of martial arts.

My aim is to introduce you, the reader to this rich but currently still largely unknown tradition. This book presents not merely principles, techniques, tactics and patterns of movement, but outlines key historical factors and cultural aspects of traditional Italian fencing. As a result of this broader mission, you will find this book not laden with images of techniques, as is the case with many martial arts treatises. Instead, the broader context of these complex orally-transmitted Italian traditions is front and centre.

Without a fundamental understanding of the historical background of an epoch — its culture, traditions and the mentality of the respective population — a martial art becomes soulless; a pure instrument of death, a system of mechanics, effective, perhaps, but dead as an art. Italian martial arts are far more than mere fencing: They captivate with expressiveness and elegance, with rhythm and cultural depth. Their culture and spirit are shaped by an urban versus a rural outlook. They are partially inspired by religion, and arise from legends and myths around soldiering and chivalry. Further, the crime syndicates of southern Italy — la mafia, camorra, etc. — who maintained a mythology of being one part chivalric champions, one part criminal,  one part anarchists, also influenced them. I do not believe that deep passion for a martial cart can truly develop without at least some cognizance of its rich cultural origin and context.

 

Chapter 1-1.4

Chapter 1

Traditional Italian Knife Fighting

An Introduction

The gods did not reveal everything to man from the start,

but in time, through seeking, we may learn and know things better.

Xenophanes of Colophon

 

1.1          Preamble

Prior to delving into the history and culture of Southern Italy’s knife traditions, in this first chapter, I describe how I arrived at my ”personal interpretation” of the tradition. It will describe not only the journey, but also the thoughts driving it. However, the path alone is not the goal. Because the actual goal within European fencing traditions was and is to simply strike without being struck yourself, as well as the development of a personal style. Therefore I will voice some thoughts on what, in my opinion, one should pay attention to in order to avoid being too easily lethally struck. Of course, implementation  and realization is not possible overnight, and my personal research on the subject will never really be concluded.

It is difficult to foresee how something, or oneself will develop over time. Thus, my early beginnings in the art of knife fencing were extremely interesting and exciting, but also somewhat obscure. The following therefore describes my development within the Italian tradition and contains several conclusions regarding the technique, tactics and ethics of knife fighting.

It is also my aim to show that the Italian way of “commoner fencing” is more than a mere collection of techniques and tactics/strategies. These traditions not only have value as a means of defense, they also have athletic merit. Beyond that, however, they also have value as a highly cultural art form with a great degree of sophistication that is certainly comparable to the art of dancing. But most of all, these traditions are living embodiments of the philosophy of an earlier time.

 

1.2          TIKF – An Attempt at a Definition

DSC_0345Traditional Italian Knife Fighting (TIKF) is an umbrella term of my devising, but it is also the path to an individual fencing identity. It is impossible for me to limit myself to one school by name, since I have passed through schools of numerous regions and teachers/instructors. Sometimes these schools are so similar, nearly identical, that it only the teacher’s expression of the art, or the spirit of how it is taught that is different. I have trained in several schools like this, and it would be impossible to say that I study this one lineage or another as my official moniker, because the other schools would then lack the respect they are due. Most schools of the South did not have a formal name anyway; one merely spoke of “knife and stick” or rather of the “school of the thrust and the cut” (scuola di punta e taglio) or generally of fighting with a knife, scherma di coltello.

Finally,  it seems advantageous to me to use a name that today can be understood universally/internationally. The overall tradition is not derogated thereby since the principles, techniques and tactics of the individual systems and schools within my TIKF curriculum certainly keep their handed-down didactics and their traditional name.

My interpretation of the traditions does not concern only their technical implementation, but also their didactical, tactical-analytical and philosophical paths. Moreover I do not claim that my school is better than other traditions or systems. Traditional Italian Knife Fighting is, viewed technically and fundamentally, a synthesis of the traditions described in this book, but it is much more than that. It is an invitation to doubt constructively, to analyze using your own intellect/mind/head. And therefore TIKF is not a hybrid system, selecting out what I consider the best techniques and tactics. On the contrary, TIKF teaches all traditional schools it encompasses with the goal of having the respective student internalize, adapt and express it to his size, abilities, temperament, etc.

The advantage of this approach is that, as soon as a practitioner achieves the necessary fencing ability, or rather, when he has mentally and physically absorbed the closed system of a tradition, can continually adapt the school to his requirements. Thus he can, as the case may be, improve it. Traditions maintain a core method, philosophy and approach, but they also adapt, refine and test themselves, or else, they become a fossil. In the long run the student should not have to content himself with my choices, instead he should, assuming he wishes it, be able to develop himself freely.

Here is an example of modern adaptation in the service of preserving a traditions’ martiality. A student should train without fear of needless pain and injury. Especially in the beginning, students discover that constant pain can contribute to an inability to act freely, constantly fearing that further pain is inflicted. Based on these concerns I asked Hendrik Röber from Trinity Combat Gear to design padded dueling knives, a padded variation of the traditional wooden practice knives that are used in the South of Italy. Once technical safety has been achieved, you then can confidently go back to wood, and the occasional pain teaches, rather than inhibits. These training aids are outstanding, especially for actions directed at the weapon-bearing arm that require a great deal of practice.

Many years have passed since my initial forays on this topic, since the start of this passion and this research. I met many teachers, saw different approaches and interpretations, heard multiple stories. All these teachers (in the course of this chapter I will only name those who still influence my school or those whom I still work), as well as all my long-term students have supported me on this fencing journey. They helped me to recognize both the correct the wrong steps and how to better differentiate between the two. Above all however – and that sounds almost absurd – my journey to the Southern Italian knife schools started not in Southern Italy, the traditional home of these arts, but rather in the North of the bel paese.

 

1.3          An Excursion Into the Past

In actual fact I did not really start down this path alone. At the start, we were a small group of conspiring German enthusiasts, but because I spoke the language, I was the one who undertook most of the initial travel. My initial companions provided me with analytical, financial and moral support (because it was not always easy to find teachers, convince them to teach, or navigate old rivalries or cultural conflicts of which I was unaware). My colleagues and I met up after each trip to go over the knowledge I had gained, analyze the techniques and record it. Many of those companions who supported me with word and deed and sometimes accompanied me on my travels are still with me today.

 

1.3.1       First Steps

 “Each beginning is imbued with magic…!”

Hermann Hesse

The first trip in 2001 took me to the Province of Ravenna, where I received instruction by Antonio Merendoni, one of the first  modern researchers on the Italian tradition, and the first who recorded these arts in writing and on film. He wrote L’arte italiana del maneggio delle lame corte, dal 1350 al 1943. Storia e tecnica (The Italian art of the short blade from 1350 to 1943. History and Technique). This first teacher introduced me to the general principles, of both military and civilian knife and stick fighting. From him I received my first teaching diploma for Italian knife and stick fighting in December 2002.

Based on his lessons I changed my perspective away from the cut, for example, as is taught in many Filipino and modern styles, to focus on the thrust. He also taught me the need for well-thought-out/deliberate guards (fencing positions). Ultimately, Merendoni changed my perspective in regards to the required scope and structure of a system: he guided me away from a technical to a methodical-tactical orientation. Somehow those years had something romantic about them. We were pioneers, virtually plowing along on our own.

 

1.3.2       Genoa, Liguria

In 2006, my next stop was Genovese stick and knife fight, the bastone genovese. I was taught by Claudio Parodi, the last remaining Maestro of that tradition, and author of the book Bastone genovese, coltello e gambetto. I, too, am now a licensed a teacher of this art. The tradition from Genoa was important to me because I was born not far from there, and it was therefore an art from the land of my ancestors. Consequently, my mentor in that tradition was also the first real traditional fencing teacher who taught me. Didactically, however, there was no appreciable difference between my initial experiences in Ravenna and this tradition from Genoa. Both teachers structured their lessons in a similar manner and with a consistency, logic and simplicity that had been unknown to me until then.

 

1.3.3       Manfredonia, Apulia

Maestro Salvatore D’Ascanio

That same year the opportunity arose to study the Apulian fencing school of knife and stick from Manfredonia. This South-Italian tradition, does not actually have a specific name, but is called by some the School of the Knights of Humility Cavalieri di Umilita) and by others Fioretto (foil), was my introduction to the secretive and also more complex methodology and didactics of the southern traditions. In regards to the Manfredonian school, I was able to gain experience with diverse instructors, and experienced different interpretations of a single art, revealing a more differentiated picture of what was the core of the art, and what was individual preference. I built my foundation by training with a small group of conspiratorial enthusiasts. After that, I went to one of the traditional knife families still residing in Manfredonia today, where I received further instruction. This branch is based on the teachings of the deceased Maestro U Sardun.

Here I would like to pay homage to Maestro Salvatore D’Ascanio, who had enormous influence on my development in the techniques of this tradition. Maestro D’Ascanio improved my dynamics, and taught me how to differentiate the core elements (mechanical and aesthetic) of this school from surface differences. Simply put, he was the one who conclusively decoded the subtleties of the Manfredonian tradition in its entirety for me (see Chapter 6), even though we will see that this branch deviates somewhat from the previous ones in technique, didactics and terminology. And this is an important lesson as well: sometimes what seems like a branch is closer to the roots of a tradition than its trunk.

 

1.3.4 Sicily and the A.S.A.M.I.R.

Maestro Orazio Barbagallo, ASAMIR

A few years later, the chance arose to learn the Sicilian fencing schools of the knife and stick within the ASAMIR. Initially, I received instruction in the shepherd’s stick of the Scuola Fiorata (“Flowery School”) from Calatabiano. This caused me to question my view of a “proper cover”. Maestro Orazio Barbagallo, founder of ASAMIR and my mentor in regards to Sicilian culture, was an excellent source for the old tradition of the Scuola Ruotata (“Circling School”) from Riposto. He was the first person to open the door to the Sicilian schools, and to this day he is my teacher in the traditional Circling School of the shepherd’s stick, as he learned it from the Maestro degli Maestri (“Master of Masters” or grandmaster), U Scapellinu. Thanks to him, I was able to get to the roots of this tradition, as he put me in contact with Maestro Salvatore Scarcella, an icon of the Corto Ruotato Tradizionale from Riposto (Circling Knife School, see Chapter 7). Maestro Scarcella is a teacher who, with a single movement of his armed hand, can demonstrate at exactly the right moment how and why your actions were ineffective. He was the first who showed me that a simple thrust is more than it appears. It is due to him that I became familiar with the true Sicilian knife. Maestro Scarcella has six decades of fencing experience and clearly demonstrates that.

 

DSC_02401.3.5       Canosa, Apulia

Almost parallel to my Sicilian training I began learning the peasant tradition of defense with knife and stick, the system of heaven and marvels, Cielo e Meraviglia, from Canosa in Apulia. I trained with one of the few remaining masters of this art (see Chapter 8). He made accessible to me this system of close-quarter combat with the knife, which appears lost, or rather less trusted and emphasized, in the fencing schools focused on dueling conventions. This special form of “wrestling with a knife” exhibits some clear connections to medieval dagger fencing, illustrating the technically close relationship with European fencing masters from centuries long passed. Therefore, the many system-specific, close-quarter combat bindings improved my ability to quickly turn a conflict from defense into offense without having to act from wide measure.

 

 

1.4          The Pillars of the Structure

Litografia_di_Bartolomeo_PinelliAs we will see, every fencing school focused on knife dueling uses the same progression: First you learn the school (scuola), the basic movements, in strictly set lessons, also called “figures” or “thrusts” (lezione, figure, puntate). Depending on the tradition, these individual lessons sometimes develop into extended solo forms. This is followed by the “schooling” or “instruction” (insegnamento), where the basic solo movements are now practiced with a partner. The insegnamento also includes, tactics, tricks as and use of the strategic use of the various fencing guards. This traditional procedure has, of course, been adopted in TIKF and is part of how we insure the core spirit and method of the art is preserved.

In addition, instruction in my school consists of the ”didactic trinity”: Play, Defense and Attack (trinità diddattica: gioco, difesa e attacco; but this is a neologism, not a traditional term). First, the student learns the system-specific “play of the figures”, which consist of the basic movements necessary for changing positions. Then follows the specific defenses with the blade and the empty hand from the “play of the figures”. After that, the student is introduced to the various basic attacks and tricks that also occur out of “walking the circle”. The last step connects the three key points – play, defense and attack – so that one flows into the next, or rather, so that there is no longer a clear dividing line: A defense becomes an attack, just like an attack becomes a defense; a circular or spiraling movement is used for defense and attack, and the  attacks and defenses are applications forms of the circular walking.

However, this goal can only be reached through simplification and pragmatism. Here I follow a guideline from Nietzsche, which he expressed as follows in his Anti-Christ:

“The formula for happiness: a yes, a no, a straight line, a goal.”

An interesting review of Old School, by renowned historical novelist Christian Cameron.

With Pen and Sword

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Book Review – ‘Old School’ Essays on Japanese Martial Traditions’ by Ellis Amdur

I am not a serious Japanese-school martial artist. I have played with, and enjoyed, Kendo, Iado, and Aikido, but I suspect that a lifetime of study in the world of Classics and the European Middle Ages—and reenacting the same—has walled me off from my ability to fall in love with Japan. To me, the martial arts of Medieval Italy are more—real. Hard to explain, and possibly for another blog about war and culture.
That said, though, this book, ‘Old School’ is one of the best books on the traditions of martial arts —  and how time changes, erodes, and enhances them — ever written. In fact, you might even say it stands alone as an attempt to bring modern scholarship and even philosophy (like Huserl’s notions of the study of history) to bear on the heavily mythologized…

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Alphabet - Ellis Amdur has pursued the study of East Asian martial traditions since the late 1960s. He is a licensed instructor in two koryū (classical Japanese martial traditions), the Araki-ryu Torite-Kogusoku and the Toda-ha Buko-ryu. The Araki-ryu is a rugged system that specializes in close combat. It could be termed, “grappling with weapons.” The Toda-ha Buko-ryu specializes in the use of the naginata, a long pole-arm with a curved blade against a variety of weapons. Details about this school, including dojo locations and entry requirements can be found at the Toda-ha Buko-ryu website. Over the years, he has trained in a number of other martial systems, most notably Aikido, Judo, Brazilian jiujitsu.and xingyi chu’an (studying varying lengths of time with Su Dong Chen, Chris Bates and Zhang Yun).  Aside from his ongoing koryū training, Amdur has most recently been training in two new areas: the basics of Arrestling, under the instruction of Don Gulla and many other seniors in the system, and a focus on principle-based training regarding integration of the body so that it is used most efficiently, something he discusses in detail in his book, Hidden in Plain Sight.

However it is in regards to the koryū that he is best known, and he included considerable detail about these two schools, as well as a number of others, in his ground-breaking book, Old School: Essays on Japanese Martial Traditions (2002). Now, over a decade later, he returns to the subject with a new, expanded edition, nearly half again the size of the original. Ellis took some time to discuss common misunderstandings about  koryū, challenges in maintaining and transmitting archaic martial traditions in the modern world, and even a few thoughts about the growing movement in redeveloping Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) from the perspective of an inheritor of two, living martial traditions.

Ellis Amdur practicing Toda-ha Buko Ryu, a centuries-old school of Japanese martial arts focusing on the use of the naginata, or glaive.

Q:  Over the last two decades, far more westerners have discovered Japanese koryū, and in many cases have begun studying some of these traditions, but for those who are not “initiates” into such a tradition, what really makes the “old schools” different from modern budō such as aikidō, judō or kendō besides antiquity?

In a way, the difference  between koryū  and modern budō  is a complete inversion. Arts like judō are vast, world-wide endeavors that are, at least in broad terms, the same whether you are in Japan, the United States or South America. By contrast, koryū  are small, group endeavors, passed down in  a lineal fashion of master-apprentice. They exist as small islands in a larger sea of martial endeavor. Furthermore, each ryū is far more technically distinct than the variations between different factions of aikidō or karate.

But the  differences go beyond the mechanics of the art to an ideological mindset, that exists in a totality that simply isn’t found in modern budō . Koryū  are a kind of surrogate family — a student knows all of the instructors of the art, and the headmaster of the entire school often knows every student within the school. By contrast, people in modern  budō  may be passionate about their art, they may love their local dojo or teacher, but they usually don’t feel a fierce, family loyalty to judō  itself. Belonging to a koryū  is a hermetic activity in the sense that members are expected to keep some aspects of the school, even most, private and secret. There remains an us-against-them mentality that existed once upon a time when these arts were used in real life and death struggle, played out on the Japanese socio-political stage. This former rivalry persists in a set of rules and traditions that at their core are not about self-growth, personal development or well-being, but in the idea of the initiate being loyal to their school above all else. This is congruent with Japanese culture, which was a culture of martial service, where its greatest heroes were those who did their duty, at great personal cost. This difference of refinement of self versus service to one’s art, underlies everything that distinguishes, for example, Kano’s judō  from the classical jujutsu schools it grew from.

Q: If an outsider reads various budō forums there is so much discussion about certain recurring questions about koryū these days, one gets the impression of a vigorous, vast community of traditional martial artists in Japan. What is the reality — do you consider Japan’s traditional arts “endangered”, “stable” or “growing”? 

All of them! As flippant as that sounds, it is really true, because in a certain sense, what makes a traditional school “successful” or “endangered” has to be evaluated school by school. The idea of a monolithic category of traditional arts is an illusion. Arts from different periods have different characters, just as much as they do different techniques. Some of the oldest arts were threatened centuries ago, when Japan entered the long peace of the Edo period. Despite the idea of koryū  as “warfare” arts, there are maybe 20 arts today that have any relevance to archaic, battlefield combat; the rest were either born in the generations after Tokugawa reunited the country, or went through so much evolution and adaptation during that era that their curriculum reflects the concerns of civilian combat and dueling, not warfare.

Compared to modern martial arts, there are few in Japan that train in the koryū , fewer that teach, and even fewer that can understand the mindset tied to these arts, even among the fully licensed instructors. So in this sense the koryū  are endangered. On the other hand, one of Japan’s strongest  values is it’s treasuring of tradition, so there are always those who will be interested in something old. That gives a certain stability to archaic arts that we don’t have in the West.

What really endangers koryū  is the need for personal transmission. When I said that koryū  as a category can be said to be growing and endangered at the same time, I could say this of individual koryū  as well! When the numbers get big, paradoxically, that does not mean that the art is doing well, because — although the students may  be learning the techniques they are not receiving the tradition, only a simulacrum of it. When you are a member of a martial organization, with a teacher whom you see once a year, who may or may not even speak your language, nor you his, then you are in a sense studying about a koryū  but are not really studying a koryū  itself — the method of transmission and the intimacy of the school is lost. How different ryu have responded to this challenge is a part of what I touch on in this new edition of the book.

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Kata, or set forms, are the central practice of training with weapons in Japanese koryu.

Q: There are also certain recurring replies by those within one of these schools: “it is impossible to understand the difference if you are not a member of a tradition”, “ask your sensei”, “koryū can’t really be transmitted outside of Japan” and so forth. As something of a notorious martial iconoclast, if there was any one thing you would say that insiders don’t “get” about what makes the koryū what they are, what is it?

Let’s answer that by elaborating what they are NOT;  you don’t  join a school and learn the choreography of a sword fight. The kata are pattern drills, and those forms sometimes have more to do with how to organize the  body, how to develop a specific physical or mental attribute, rather than a simple technique detailing “if he does this, then you do that”.  Sometimes a given element is so important that the kata may not look very martial, even sloppy or stupid to an outsider, but what it is developing has nothing to do with a replica of “combat”, but to train a specific attribute.

Honestly, I don’t see why this is so controversial today. No one would suggest that the ideal way to train with firearms is to load live rounds, put on vests and shoot at each other! Instead we use a combination of range work, obstacle course-style training and mock-guns that allow the experience of shooting at each other, but are not the same as using real guns in a gunfight. The reality of training with weapons is to make either the weapons or the environment as realistic as you can make it, while keeping the psychological component intact. And different training highlights different aspects of the totality of the skill that you are trying to achieve.  Combative training must rely on some form of pattern drill, or the mock weapons are supplemented with so much safety gear that the students no longer behave like people in a real fight.

This is even more necessary and true today, when we not only lack the experience of teachers who have used these archaic weapons in mortal combat, because our bodies simply lack the physicality of strength and flexibility of a pre-industrial society. A man who walks and rides horses as his only means of transportation; who chops his own wood and works in a barefoot crouch for hours at a time, simply has a different musculature, a different plasticity to his tendons then a modern man who works at a desk. The kata were designed for the former man, where literally every waking moment was preparation of the body in a way that we can only mimic with supplemental exercise today.

So some of the kata of koryū  can be a disappointment as one realizes that rather than engaging in samurai live-action role-play, you may spend years learning patterns that are not only teaching archaic weapons and methods, but also archaic ways of coordinating one’s body.

Let me put it this way: You want to join a koryū ? Prepare to not only work hard, but to be bored while you are doing it. It comes with the territory.

Q: It has been over a decade since you published the first edition of OLD SCHOOL, and at various point and times you have said that you felt you’d written all you had to say on Japanese koryū. So what made you change your mind, and why return to the subject now?

Well, I’ve been training! I still consider my own training on the upward slope — even as parts of my body have broken down with age, I’ve been able to do a great deal of pressure testing my own tradition’s kata, and I simply have learned more. The other thing is that I have continued to research on an academic level — and there is a lot of  wonderful new research coming out in the Japanese martial arts. Most people’s understanding of koryū  and modern budō  in context comes from the pioneering work of Donn Draeger, that marvelous giant of a man. Don was truly a ground-breaker, but he was not terribly fluent in Japan and was too reliant on the work of others, and on looking at the arts through the specific lens of traditions he studied. He made a specific perspective general. Others now are reassessing his conclusions. Michael Wert, Karl Friday, William Bodiford — these are trained scholars who can read primary documents and are high level practitioners. What they, among others, have revealed has really transformed my own understanding and a made a reevaluation worthwhile.

"The Battle of Uji Bridge" -- A brilliant example of the dynamic illustration of combat in feudal Japanese artwork.

“The Battle of Uji Bridge” — A brilliant example of the dynamic illustration of combat in feudal Japanese artwork.

Q: The obvious question: what’s new and different about this expanded edition?

It really is a virtually new work, with five new chapters, a lot of new illustrations, and I’ve re-written several chapters not just in additional content, but changed viewpoints as well. For example, by the mid-Edo period, the bulk of the membership in martial ryu were not from the warrior class. For many, the ryu could be viewed much like parvenus today joining a golf or tennis club to acquire social capital. I write about the rise of competitive martial sports in the 17th century and rather than merely supporting the claim that this represented degeneration, take the position that this was a response to, what was, in many cases, a stagnation of older combative practices that were now “as-if” rather than practical utility.

I’m not sure on word count, but I think we concluded that somewhere over a third of the book is absolutely new.   Other chapters are radically revised—some folks who have used my work to buttress their own opinions may find that my current work puts them in opposition to me.  I think the “expanded” part is well-justified!

Q: A great deal of the OLD SCHOOL EXPANDED EDITION deals with the challenge of transmission — of maintaining  both tradition, form and martial vigor to something that now lives outside its original cultural context. Obviously a great deal of this is reliant upon the power of living tradition — direct transmission from master to student. But are their pitfalls inherent to a reliance on direct transmission as well?

Although many of my peers would disagree with me, I see studying with a teacher koryū  to be a kind of struggle, not submission. Intimacy is the revelation of self — for better or worse you will be revealed to your teacher, and your teacher to yourself. Part of the learning is the struggle of learning not what you want, but what the teacher desires, and further, what the tradition itself demands. This entails learning to differentiate between your teacher’s human flaws vs. the value of the school itself. There is a dynamic, creative struggle that is a parallel to the nature of conflict itself. If you are loyal to the teacher, it is hard to go outside of their aegis to learn, and if they have any flaws, be they technical or personal, the product you inherit is flawed as well. Once upon a time, the solution was that young bloods would break off and form new schools, revamping what they thought wrong, missing or incomplete in their former instruction — this is how we have so many branches of Ittō Ryu or Yoshin Ryu. With many schools, the kata will seem almost identical, technically, but there may be a difference in the tactics, in ways of generating power or subtleties of movement. These reveal how that off-shoot differed from what its parent taught. Obviously, when these arts were contemporary, the proof could be in the testing: something new that wasn’t very good wasn’t prone to survival.

But today, these arts are archaic, and have been for generations. There was a time that some students would master multiple schools over a life time; now individuals study 30, 40, 50 years without every receiving a menkyo kaiden in one! Instead of young masters fighting and old masters teaching refinement and subtlety, now old masters are revered as some sort of supermen — this is ludicrous. Their knowledge may be great, but age is age, and youth and  vigor cannot be ignored in combat. We mystify older teachers and all too-often they mystify themselves. There can manifest as a grasping greed of the elderly, where they simply cannot, and will not let go. It is a new phenomenon, that leads to a real risk of calcification. Honestly, all too often in Japan, I’ve encountered something analogous to an old bull who colludes with the farmer (Japanese culture and tradition) to keep the young bulls away from the cows. But there’s a real potential that his seed gets weaker and his offspring mere shadows of what their ancestors were.

Furthermore, there is a real cultural tension created because you can’t really go outside the art to refine, recreate or reinvigorate it without already possessing a full license. If you do so, you will be viewed as disloyal, even betraying the tradition. You may be fully qualified, but kept from a license which would give you the freedom to revivify the tradition.

A pair of tengu (winged, mountain spirits) collide in mid-air. As tengu were often credited with teaching martial arts to mortals, the colliding messengers makes a nice metaphor for the challenge in balancing tradition with stultification that challenges proper transmission within the koryu.

A pair of tengu (winged, mountain spirits) collide in mid-air. As tengu were often credited with teaching martial arts to mortals, the colliding messengers makes a nice metaphor for the challenge in balancing tradition with stultification that challenges proper transmission within the koryu.

Q: So is innovation really even still possible within a “traditional art”?

There is a creative tension within koryū , within the nature of encoding a form and grasping them within our body — the idea of gokui — that then allows you to change and alter the form itself. Until quite recently, koryū  were quite willing to innovate. In some schools, that goes up to the present: innovating or even going into their own records to revise portions of the school were lost.

If a person truly has the essence of the school, it is possible, even today, to add or refine not only the inherited kata but the training methodology.  Improving archaic weapon morphology is obviously questionable; but what if a portion of the art is relevant today? That opens interesting questions. Some would say koryū  are a kind of living history — it would be wrong to change the essence of the school; while others might say that we are studying a living entity with historical roots.

Here is an example from my own experience. In my line of Araki ryu, training in sojutsu — spearmanship — is extremely challenging, because the spears are struck with a great deal of force. As a result, if you really do the kata as they are mandated, you break spears constantly. In pre-industrial Japan, so what? Give a woodworker a few coins and let him carve you a bundle of new ones. But today a good, tapered training spear can be $300….so there is a real problem with breaking one every time you train. As a result, what you see are students — and teachers — modifying the technique to go easy on the training weapons. Now, instead of the tool being in service to the form, the kata is in service to the tool! A solution I have been investigating is to have spears made of extruded nylon. These are virtually indestructible, no matter how hard I hit it with a bokken, but nylon is hardly “traditional”. Is this really a problem, or is it using a modern solution to allow students to fight as the technique is meant to be done without obsessing over protecting the weapon?

I understand why this solution might really trouble some people, but it depends, in my opinion, on the ryu and what its character mandates. For Araki-ryū, where the transmission suffers without constant challenge—where we are expected to be iconoclastic—I think it is a viable answer to a serious problem. In my other art, Toda-ha Bukō-ryū, where we do not use spears like this, and the kata are not suffering, it would  be a modern innovation that serves no good purpose. Remember what I said earlier — the idea of monolithic  traditional arts is an illusion.

Q: Is that possible? After all, if you change a kata, add one or drop one, aren’t you altering the tradition? Likewise, if a part of an art — say its short-sword curriculum — is no longer practiced, is it possible for a determined teacher to “restore” it?

My colleague Liam Keeley wrote about this some time ago in the journal Hoplos, and he came up with different levels of restoration. I am not quite sure that the terminology I am about to use is a perfect match, but I think it is close enough to convey the idea.

RECOVERY — In this case, a teacher may still fully know an aspect of the school, but for some reason, has chosen not to teach it. For example, perhaps a weapon school decides that they already teach the longsword and the tanto (knife), and  the few short sword kata they possess are redundant or unnecessary. Sometimes, dedicated students will approach other master-level teachers of the previous generation, or perhaps the soke himself, and request they be taught those kata, and the teacher decides “well, if they are interested, why not?” If those students move on to become teachers and the material passes on, then something that could have been lost has been recovered. So in a sense this is like “rescuing” a portion of an art from death.

RECONSTITUTION forms the next level. In this case a portion of the curriculum was abandoned and did not live into the next generation. However, there are living teachers who have the ability and skill to take surviving documentation and rework and redevelop these kata. Using my previous example, in this case the short sword kata would have not been transmitted, but would still exist in detailed written explanation. So perhaps the headmaster, or a teacher or teachers that he appoints, looks at that documentation and based on their knowledge of the longsword and the tanto begin to reconstruct and teach those kata again. Will the reconstituted kata be precisely the same as what was taught before? That is unknowable, but they should still be martially valid and fit the essential principles of the school. I have written about this in detail in a chapter in one of Meik and Diane Skoss’ books, entitled, “Renovation and Innovation in Koryū.”

RECREATION means that there is a lost section of the school or there is an attempt to create something new that the school is said to have possessed before, but for which there is no clear documentation. The result can be anything from horrid to sublime. Let’s say that a koryū has lost all of its edged weapon syllabus, and is now  a jujutsu school (Sanshin Araki-ryū is an example of this). They simply may not know enough about swordsmanship to recreate the kata, even if they have detailed records. Sometimes, schools will “import” methods or whole kata from another ryu. If the schools are a good stylistic match, maybe this can work, but often you are grafting a bird’s wings to a lion’s back and getting some sort of chimera that may undermine the entire thing.

REINVENTION also takes place in Japan. There are many schools that have died out, but their documentation survives. Reinvention is taking something dead and using written records alone to recreate it. The results vary on the quality and prior knowledge of the reinventor.  Martially, the results may be viable or effective. But is it really the same school, or something new? Do the reinventors really “have it” from the inside out? They can’t — it’s dead, and a fossil is not a dinosaur. They do not have the essential teachings that were the life-blood of the school, things that are usually transmitted not only orally, but through crossed weapons or body-to-body.  And honestly, what’s the point? Why revive an extinct naginata school, for example, when there are perfectly viable extant schools that one could join, and pay one’s dues, earning a level of true expertise. It’s like going to the museum and climbing onto a stuffed horse to ride, when next door, there are stables full of quarterhorses and Appaloosas.

THE COLLECTOR is a fifth level that I add to Liam’s categorization, and is somewhat aside from the others. There are many dying schools in Japan, now held by one or two elderly teachers who find themselves without  students. Such lonely old men and women will be “befriended” by someone whose principle goal is to then be granted a teaching license to pad their martial resumes. Such men often have multiple schools that they “lead” or hold a high teaching rank, and they have photos with these elderly teachers and antique scrolls to prove their legitimacy. But the truth is that they have often learned virtually nothing, and whatever they may have  been shown was from a teacher doing his or her best with a failing body, mind or both, to convey a little of what he had inherited. The Collector, therefore isn’t really a part of the tradition, nor are they seeking to restore or reinvent for the art’s sake, but for their own egos.

The challenge of  transmission within any archaic martial art can be frought with peril, not least when it is cross-generational and  cross-cultural. Above: a small cadre of Australian students keep alive the dynamic Noda-ha Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu

The challenge of transmission within any archaic martial art can be frought with peril, not least when it is cross-generational and cross-cultural. Above: a small cadre of students keep alive the dynamic Noda-ha Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu

Q: So how does someone like yourself, an inheritor of two of these transmissions with an obligation to pass on their legacy, make sure that the art’s essence, and not just its form, is passed forward?

If I am not absolutely clear that the essence will be passed on, then it dies with me. And I am perfectly content with that. You can’t turn a dog into a wolf, and if I cannot find any wolves, I won’t replace them with carrion eaters.  And btw, passing it on does not mean that student does everything the way I do. One of my Toda-ha Bukō-ryū students, Steve Bowman, has indeed become a shihan — teacher — in his own right (this, by the way, makes him a former student, because one “graduates” when one becomes a shihan). Were you to observe him, however, you might be a little puzzled, because he does not move like me. Yet one of his own students, who had met with me maybe four times, was immediately spotted by another Toda-ha Bukō-ryū as a student as “in my lineage.” Steve doesn’t move like me, but he passed on the essence of what I taught him in such a way that one of his students, who is built similar to me, does essentially do what I’ve taught.  I don’t require that my students think like me, or are a mirror of me technically, but they perceive and  embody  the essence of the tradition..

Q: These question are interesting not only to other students of budō, but to our many readers who are devoted student-scholars of Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) — the fighting arts of Europe from the Middle Ages to the early Modern era. These are not living traditions, but have had to be painstakingly reconstructed from highly-detailed  books and manuscripts of the period. Some students and instructors of traditional martial arts roll their eyes at this effort and say “this is a fool’s errand; you can’t resurrect the dead”, while a number of HEMA people argue, “this may be true, but these are the direct teachings of the men who fought and died with these arts, so there is no garbling of the lesson through generations of oral transmission.” As someone who has clearly devoted a large part of his life to living tradition martial arts, but who also argues for the need to reevaluate and reassess what you’ve inherited, what are your thoughts?

First of all, high dudgeon about this is sort of silly. In a Japanese context, I often share bemusement when someone says that they want to recreate, say, a lost kusarigama or grappling school. Why would you do that when you can go to a teacher of a living school of those arts and help ensure they are passed on? But in a case like, say, the European longsword, it’s different. No such teacher exists. So if one’s passion is towards the ethos of the longsword, then what I called reinvention is their only choice. We only have so many years to live, and so many hours we are given to find happiness. If trying to study and restore a lost martial lineage fills your hours with joy, great.

However, the idea that having original sources uncontaminated by “later generations” is somehow more pure is silly. I am a third generation, American Jewish guy from Pittsburgh who has 600 years of Euro-American tradition separating me from anything that happened in Europe in the 14th century. The same social, political and cultural changes that made the longsword extinct are what shaped the ethos that produced me. So without a surviving tradition, I am even further cut off from that earlier world. Beyond this —  you don’t know what you don’t know. So much in any culture is oral, so how do we know what is missing.

We can’t help but be contaminated by what we learn from other martial arts or our own external experiences. You have to accept that you cannot achieve the same things that can be drawn from a living transmission.  These are the subtle things that make a particular tradition unique, and they can only be learned body-to-body. Living tradition is not just a series of documents passed hand-to-hand. It’s body-to-body knowledge, most of which is not documented. That is not meant in arrogant or hubristic way, vis-à-vis European martial arts revival, but this sort of internal gearing is what generational transmission can maintain but print cannot record. I am not questioning that people can’t come up with some fascinating information. Absolutely. But I believe that if I wanted to learn fencing and I found someone who studied with a student of Aldo Naldi, the information I can receive will very likely be richer, more nuanced and deeper than what I could learn mining texts of people who are not linked to me in a hand-to-hand, body-to-body way.

Q. If there was a single objective, or a single lesson you wished to impart with OLD SCHOOL, what is it? 

That this subject is far more complex, far more exciting and far more challenging than people imagine. The lovely thing about koryū  is that it is no one thing but many things, with as many appearances, practices and objectives as there are schools. Once we get past the idea that we are all swinging archaic weapons, and are therefore all doing roughly the same activities,  things can change radically from tradition to tradition. When we embody the movements of someone 300 years lost who used these movements in the struggle of life and death, this is the closest we can get to shamanic “skin walking” in another body. For a few moments we can taste a different world, that can be completely alien to all our own.

Q. So what next? With this new edition do you feel you’ve said your fill on traditional Japanese martial arts, or is there more to come?

Well, right now I have just had a graphic novel released, via Amazon Kindle and on ComiXology, that I co-authored with Neal Stephenson, Mark Teppo and Charles Man. It is called Cimarronin: A Samurai in New Spain.  This is from the blurb: Kitazume, a disgraced outcast samurai living in early seventeenth-century Manila, is contemplating ritual suicide when a rogue Jesuit priest and Kitazume’s longtime friend persuades him to help smuggle a Manchu princess to Mexico. But little does he know that he’s really been dragged into an epic struggle for power. Several forces have their malicious sights set on the New World’s rich silver mines: an insurgent Spanish duke, Chinese political interests, and the escaped African slaves known as the cimarrónes.

Among other things, I am responsible for overseeing the fight scenes, along with some consultants specific to one or another character, and have tried to make them realistic to 1650, and to the various cultures. There is a great chance of fleshing out the hero’s backstory, if the original two story arcs sell well, as well as further sequels, so everyone buy it, please!. I also have a novel called the Girl With the Face of the Moon that was just released on December 30th, via Amazon Kindle.  And this from that blurb: A young woman of samurai lineage is raised in an impoverished mountain village by bitter parents, identical to the peasants among whom they live, but for their ancestry. Unloved and mistreated, she runs off with a Matagi, a man of a caste of hunters, who were outcast but nearly free from the rules that governed the rest of Japanese society. After a few years of happiness, their child is stolen by a being perhaps human, perhaps not. Bereft, the young woman will challenge death itself to recover her child. 

The Girl with the Face of the Moon is set in Bakumatsu and Meiji Japan, a transitional period in the mid-1800’s, when Japan went from Medieval to Modern in only a few years. This, however, is not a book about the privileged few; rather, this is a story of those on the fringes: a blind wandering masseuse, the abalone divers, the aboriginal mountain folk, a wild yojimbo (body guard and bar thug both), the hunters who worship bears, seeing them as the true power of the mountains, and a woman with no place in any of Japan’s societies.

The Girl with the Face of the Moon is a combination of two of the oldest stories of humanity, the hero’s journey and the tale of revenge:  a mother seeking to save her child from hell.  The description of the hero’s training and that of her allies are based on historical figures and the actual training methods and techniques of archaic Japanese martial arts, something the author learned, first hand, for thirteen years in Japan.  Threaded throughout is the terrible question how one can retain one’s humanity, and even further, what happens to love, in a world of pervasive terror. 

So, I’ve been busy! But I have also thought of creating a new work on koryu. What I am imagining doing is taking people’s questions and challenges, and providing thoroughly researched answers in a series of essays like Old School itself. So it occurs to me that there might be one last work in me yet in regards to this amazing, odd world, but its exact form is yet to be known.

 

Alphabet - Publisher blogs are often used to spotlight books and media projects, and ours is no exception. However, today we’re not talking about a Freelance Academy project, but rather something too beautiful not to draw your attention to: Dimicator – Medieval Swordplay, the new, lavishly illustrated e-journal by respected swordsman and artist, Roland Warzecha.

There has been nothing like Dimicator for practitioners of historical European martial arts – a recurring, visual instructional guide that makes use of both old-school and cutting edge technology to immerse the reader in the world of medieval swordsmanship. We spoke to Roland to ask him about this project, how it compares to his work in creating a training DVD, and where he sees the ejournal going over the next couple of years.

1. For months now, you’ve been teasing audiences on Facebook with sneak peeks at “Dimicator”. Tell us what the Dimicator project is, and how you came to conceive of it.

For quite some time I had been looking for the right format to present the results of my years of research into medieval fighting arts and the associated weapons to a wider audience. I had considered a book or a website, but both would have required a lot of material to prepare before I could go public. A series of elaborate articles, in contrast, has the advantage that I could start publishing much sooner.

When I had decided to leave my old club to found my own school, it provided me with the chance to put all my ideas and concepts regarding teaching and training into practice. Because I had to find a new name and create a new corporate design, it also felt like the right moment to finally start publishing. So you are quite right to speak of Dimicator (which is medieval Latin for combatant) as a project. One brand which comprises my school, the website, the popular Facebook page, the Vimeo video site and now the e-book series.

2. You’ve become known in the larger HEMA community for your work with Manuscript I.33, our oldest-known, European fencing treatise, and Dimicator is also the name of the school you’ve created to study this work in depth. Is it fair to say that the electronic Dimicator then is a digital record of your I.33 curriculum?

Yes, I guess you could look at it this way. The content of the first as well as the up-coming second issue definitely reflects an important part of what we have been working on the past year. I have the luxury of exclusively training with experienced senior students who have up to 5 years of regular sword and buckler practice under their belts. They are all devoted students of the art and skilled fighters, who have what it takes to pressure-test any new idea that I may come up with. After all, we will never know for sure if our reconstruction of an extinct fighting system does indeed reflect historical reality. So constant peer review is a necessity and reconstructing sword and buckler combat will remain a work in progress. This is also why I feel that a series is an appropriate format for publishing my views.

3. The first issue is called: “Striking from Shield Shoulder”, and starts with understanding the handling characteristics of the sword. If a reader has never handled sword and buckler before, will following the issues of the magazine let them learn “from the ground up”?

Well, the foreword asks exactly the same question: Can you learn swordfighting from books? The historical sources say that, while you can very well explain combat by practically showing and demonstrating it, you can nowhere near as profoundly write about it – and then they proceed to do exactly that. Frankly, I would be astonished if anyone who has never undergone tuition in martial arts would master the manouvers described in Dimicator magazine, particularly when I consider how much time and effort it takes to teach a particular action to my students in the salle.

However, I know that I would have greatly benefitted from a publication like that if it had been available when I picked up sword and buckler after years of practice in traditional martial arts. So I am confident that my publications will be useful to students of buckler combat and spare them some of the dead ends and wrong turns that I took in past years. It is also my hope that lovers of swords and history as well as authors and even scholars, who are not actually considering to pick up martial arts, may get a better understanding of the complexity and refinement of medieval European swordsmanship.

4. You used a different form of media – DVD – to also teach students fundamentals of sword and buckler play in the instructional program “Sword and Shield” by Agilitas. How do you compare working on the two projects? How do you see them integrating – if at all – for bringing your ideas and methods of swordplay to a broader audience?

I am very grateful that Agilitas offered me the chance to create a DVD that provides basic instruction comprising universal body mechanics, fencing theory and tactics as well as a number of solo drills that I hope are useful for both beginners and advanced practitioners alike. Video has the undeniable advantage that it conveys speed and flow of a particular physical action in a way that written text and illustration cannot. It instantly reveals if a researcher also is a competent practitioner. I have always used video to present my work to the public and, in fact, it were those video clips, edited and up-loaded by Tobias “Toke” Wenzel, which helped us to put our name onto the international HEMA map and ultimately lead to being invited to do the DVD.

I would say that a video sequence transports a lot more information than an illustrated one. But in a sense, this is also its drawback. If you look at a static image in a book, then the author has specificly chosen it because it best visualizes a particular detail. So pictures are more focused than a video sequence, in my opinion. I find it much easier to direct a reader’s attention to essential detail in a book. Also, he can take his own time to digest, other than with video. So both media have their strengths and definitely supplement each other. Contentwise, the e-book offers new insights that we have gained ever since the DVD was made, which is exactly why I chose to start with “Striking from Shield Shoulder”.

When I compare working on both DVD and Dimicator, my preference is clearly with the e-book series. It brings all my talents together to not only produce my very own fechtbuch but also create something beautiful. Plus, I am in complete control of every detail and have all technical means for its production at my disposal. I enjoy this independence.


5. The artwork in this first issue is breath-taking, and builds on the sort of art you used for the posters you designed for Freelance. But why traditional illustration over photography or 3-D illustration? Was the choice artistic or informational?

The decision to go for illustration was an easy one, after all, this is what I can do best. I am very pleased that my art work is well received and appreciated by readers. I think that in a world where everybody constantly sees and takes, manipulates and distributes photographs or video, the respect for these media is decreasing, regardless of quality. I would even go as far as to say that, because of CGI, they have generally lost credibility. It has become impossible to tell if something is fake or real and so we have developed an underlying sense of general scepticism when we are presented photo or film. In contrast, it is almost a relief to look at illustration. It never pretends to be something that it is not and is stimulating in a way that is hard to achieve with photography. This is also an advantage of traditional over 3-D illustration: I often find 3-D stunning at first, but quickly lose interest. Even tiniest detail is rendered and accurately finished which makes it sterile, in a sense, and ultimately boring to look at. At second sight, there is nothing left to discover.

As an author and instructor, illustration is better suited to direct my readers’ attention and make them focus on a particular detail. I find photos too distracting in this regard: Instead of paying attention to the actual issue, the reader may be occupied with irrelevant thoughts: What is this location? Where did she get that sword? Why didn’t he take off his glasses? Are these turn shoes hand-stitched? Looks like his bad hair day etc. – well, you know what I mean. Illustration, in contrast, makes it easy to invite the reader to take a fresh perspective and leave irrelevant real life oddities behind.

6. You’ve told me before that a part of your love for illustration was originally to be a comic book artist. In that industry there are often amazing artists, but their challenge is always production deadlines. How do you keep yourself “on track” with such an elaborate project, especially now that the “word is out”?

Hahaha, it remains to be seen if I will manage to stay on track. But I have made the plan to pursue this objective for at least two years (that would be 6 to 8 issues, I guess) before I evaluate its success and reception and decide, whether it pays to continue or not. I am usually quite good at realizing my plans, after all, I have worked freelance all my life, which definitely taught me work-discipline. But I honestly cannot wait to go back to work on the magazine, whenever there is a slot in between jobs and obligations. If I could afford it, I would be working on it constantly, it is just so much fun.

7. What advantages do you see to this e-journal format over a more traditional, bound edition?

I am not restricted by the constraints of print production, so I can publish any number of pages, be it 7 or 31. Costs are minimal so I can sell at a low price. I can publish instantly when I choose to and distribution is worldwide. I also get a lot of direct feedback from readers via email or Facebook which enables me to improve from issue to issue at a much quicker pace compared to traditional print publication.

8. As beautiful as issue one is, people are going to ask: “will I ever be able to get a print edition?”, so let me ask it for them. Will people see a print edition, eventually, or will they have to content themselves with their home laser printers?

I am an old school book lover and I believe in paper. It is sensual and it lasts. So yes, absolutely, there will be a printed edition as soon as I have collected enough material for a book. Currently I am thinking of a first volume to collect issues 1 – 4. I definitely want to see this book on my shelf – and everybody else’s!

9. Finally, the next most asked question: So what should we expect in the issues to come?

Issue #2 is already in the works and the instructional section will show how to enter a fight from Left Shoulder and which plays may eventually ensue from there. I decided to first cover general tactics, so I can put the more sophisticated I.33 approach into context. Future issues will also cover shield-striking, as well as facing a left-handed opponent. I guess I have enough material for years.

The second issue will also include a brief history of sword evolution from the Viking Age to the medieval period and point out combat requirements that brought about the respective changes in weapon design and swordsmanship. So Dimicator magazine is not only designed to provide instruction to practitioners of sword & buckler, but also to impart the results of my years of research into the early medieval period and its arms and martial arts which precede the fechtbücher and the weapons covered therein. After all, for millenia swordsmanship meant combat with sword and a shield, and I hope to be able to show up interesting links and developments that ultimately lead to the fighting arts we see in the fencing treatises, which only appeared at the close of the age of the sword.

I would be delighted if many readers would join me on this exciting journey into our past.

Dimicator: Medieval Swordplay is available via Amazon and will work on Kindle and various other e-reader platforms.