“If you frighten easily…” and bravery in martial arts

Keith Farrell and Colin Farrell
Keith and his brother Colin fencing with longswords during a demonstration at Glasgow University. Photo by Rene Bauer, 2012.

Bravery is an integral part of fencing with the longsword, with Liechtenauer’s Zettel saying explicitly that “if you frighten easily, you will never learn to fight.” Although this may seem like fairly obvious advice (yet it may also seem counter intuitive, because if you frighten easily, surely learning to fence would help to teach you courage?), there are some deeper meanings that could perhaps be teased out of this statement.

Bravery for a dangerous activity

The most superficial meaning is of course that sharp swords are dangerous, so fencing with sharp swords is a dangerous activity, and fearful people will not be very good at it. Fair enough, I cannot fault this meaning, but it is not very helpful in developing our skills and knowledge.

Ringeck expands on the verse with a short paragraph, giving perhaps a little more sense to the words:

But if you frighten easily, you should not learn the art of fighting. Because a weak and frightened heart, it does no good, and it hurts all the art you show.[1]

This explanation is still a little cryptic and unhelpful, but it suggests that it is not the initial fear that causes problems and stops you from doing things, but that whatever you try to do will be undermined by your fear. For example, if you intend to attack your opponent, but you fear being hurt on your approach, then you will probably be too cautious on your way in and you will present an insufficient structure or cover with your attack, and your opponent will be able to strike through and collapse your attack, landing a hit against you.

The clear improvement to this is to be confident and brave when you perform actions. Not so brave that you do silly things, of course, but brave enough to perform the action and trust that it will work.

Trusting that your technique will work is no little matter. A technique has to be able to deliver force to the exact point in space where the force is required. In other words, targeting is critical! If your targeting skills and point control are poor, then you will be unable to rely on your techniques. Similarly, the force delivered must be sufficient for the purpose; a defensive action must have enough force to resist an incoming attack, while an attacking action must deliver sufficient force to the target, otherwise it will bounce off and have no effect. Therefore, to be able to rely on your technique, you must be able to rely on your body to generate sufficient force to achieve the goal. Furthermore, the action must be accompanied by the correct body structure, otherwise the technique will collapse and the opponent will be able to strike through it. Thus, you must know that no matter how hard your opponent strikes at you, the structure of your sword, arms and body will be able to handle this, and that your technique will not collapse under superior force.

You must also be able to rely on your cutting skills, in order to know and to believe that your technique will actually do damage in the correct fashion, and will not simply batter the opponent’s body, leaving only a bruise to mark its arrival. Training test cutting with sharp swords against inanimate targets is an important element of practice that ensures that your techniques have appropriate edge alignment and carry-through.

You must also be able to rely on your ability to recover from the technique, to do something else as required. This means that you need to be using the large muscles in your torso (especially in the back) to power and stabilise the technique, and especially to stop the technique, rather than trying to use the very little muscles in your forearms to halt the sword and redirect it.

There are so many elements of good fencing technique and correct utilisation of the body that must be in place before you can rely on your technique, before you can be brave with it and trust that it will do what it needs to do and that your opponent will not be able to collapse it and strike through it. Therefore, it is impossible to be brave and trust your techniques in the way that Ringeck describes until you have undertaken significant training and have learned to perform all of your techniques perfectly and consistently.

Bravery to take things to completion

Another slightly deeper understanding of the verse is that you must be brave when you fence, and take all of your techniques to completion. So many people, when fencing will make an Oberhaw, and snatch it away before the arms straighten fully, because they are already hurrying to the next attack round to the other side … which doesn’t complete either, because they see that it will be parried anyway, and so they start to make their retreat under an Ochs position … which doesn’t quite go to completion either, because they aren’t confident that the expected attack from the opponent will be collected by the sword, and worry that it may hit their arms, and so they keep the arms retracted without finishing the Ochs position. Watching most people fence, very few techniques or actions are ever actually taken to completion, most actions are aborted at the 50-80% stage and snatched away to become some other incomplete motion.

It takes courage (and trust in your technique) to take the technique all the way to completion. However, being able to do this will open so many doors, and all of a sudden it will become easier to apply more of the techniques from the system. By taking a Zornhaw to completion, performing the Ort is the matter of only three or four inches of extension in the arms; however, making an improperly formed Zornhaw that does not quite go all the way to completion leads to the temptation to snatch the sword away and start making a parry to the other side of the body, because winding to the Ort from the incomplete Zornhaw position takes so long that it becomes unsafe. Similarly, Duplieren can rarely work if your hands are still close to your own chest; but if you send your Oberhaw far forward, directly to your opponent, and he intercepts the attack close to his own head, then it is relatively easy for you to push your pommel under your arms and cut him in the face behind his parry.

Therefore, bravery and trust that your techniques will work and keep you safe are pre-requisites to be able to perform some of the most basic techniques in the system (such as the Zornhaw Ort) and also to perform some of the more complicated techniques (such as Duplieren, Aussern Nym, many of the schwertnehmen disarms, etc). To be able to do anything more advanced than basic cuts, you need to be brave and take your techniques to completion without allowing yourself to be scared or to abort the techniques early in order to snatch the sword away to do something else.

Admittedly, snatching the sword away early could be an example of a Fehler, if you intend to do this; but if you do it unconsciously, then it is a bad habit and should be avoided. You can break any rule if you know what you are doing and why you are doing it, and have a good reason to do so! But, unless you have these skills and knowledge, then you should probably follow the rules until you are a good enough fencer to be able to break the rules and still fence properly.

Bravery to assess yourself and your skills

Another even deeper meaning of the verse is that you must be brave enough to make a completely honest and accurate assessment of yourself and your skills. It is a documented fact that most people assume they are better at things than they actually are, or like to assign positive descriptions to themselves while being less likely to do so when describing other people.[2] It is tough to be aware of such biases when assessing yourself, to highlight your weaknesses, and to be perfectly honest about yourself.

For example, for much of 2017, I was not performing very well in tournaments, and was been finding sparring at events more difficult than I felt I should. This was not because “I’m not very good at tournaments”, and it was not because “I teach more than I practise”, and it was also not “because the gear gets in my way”, just as “I don’t perform very well in the heat” is only a small part of the problem. Mainly, my performance was been poor because I was not doing enough practice with other people, and also my muscular strength was beginning to atrophy in certain fashions. I needed to make more of an effort to find training partners and I also need to undertake more (relevant) strength training so that I do not fatigue so swiftly. It is easy to blame it on “teaching more than I practise” or on “being unable to handle the heat”, but the actual problem has a very specific solution that will not be comfortable to implement.

Therefore, by being brave enough to conduct an honest analysis of myself and my performance, I was been able to identify the solution that I actually need to implement (and not some placebo nonsense to make myself feel better); and I also had to be brave enough to commit to achieving these solutions, no matter how uncomfortable, and no matter how much I may have prefered to be lazy and not travel to do more fencing with other people. I must be brave to find the actual problem and then to implement the real solution, otherwise my timidity or lack of courage will result in everything I do (and all the art I show) being weakened and undermined by my failure to do what needs to be done to rectify the problem.

Conclusion

I am sure that there are other ways that we could understand the exhortation to be brave, and different meanings that we could find. There could be several other applications for this line in our general approach to fencing, and to life in general. Hopefully this article will shed some light on some of the philosophical thoughts I have had recently about this part of the Zettel, and I hope it inspires others to think about the nature of courage and fear and how these feelings impact upon our fencing both for good and for bad.

Footnotes

[1] Sigmund Ringeck. MS Dresden C.487, ca 1504-19. Folio 16v. Translation by Keith Farrell, 2017.

[2] “Illusory superiority.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illusory_superiority

Keith Farrell

Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers.

I have authored Scottish Broadsword and British Singlestick and the award-winning AHA German Longsword Study Guide, and maintain a blog at www.keithfarrell.net where I post regularly.