Observing details is a valuable skill in everyday life. You can notice things like opening hours for shops, street signs to help find your way, people offering free food, people preparing to ambush you, that oncoming bus… But how important is it to observe details during our study of HEMA?
Personally, I think it is really quite important. Without getting the details right … the details are wrong. If we have the care and attention to notice as many of the details correctly as we can, then there is a better chance that more of the details will be correct in terms of things like our interpretations, our choice of tactics, or reading of the fight and opponent, and so on. If we are in the habit of paying attention to details then we will be more likely to continue noticing details even when we might be under a little more pressure (such as during sparring).
Let us look at a few brief examples, to open a discussion.
With the longsword, is it important that a Zwerhaw should be done with the correct edge, or does this not really matter?
I think it is important. Sure, you can do a Zwerhaw-like thing with the other edge, or with the flat, but is it actually a Zwerhaw? I don’t think so, if it doesn’t match the description in our sources.
I hear it said with unfortunate frequency that a Zwerhaw is basically just a mezano from Fiore. Except that to my mind, the details are sufficiently different that they must be different techniques. From the right, the Zwerhaw uses the short edge and the mezzano the long edge; from the left, the Zwerhaw uses the long edge with crossed wrists and the mezzano uses the short edge with uncrossed wrists. The Zwerhaw is done with the hands above the head, whereas the mezzano is described as being delivered between the knee and the head, not with the hands above the head.
Paying attention to the details and attempting to do these techniques properly will also show that the Zwerhaw has the orientation that it does because when striking horizontally from above the head, this orientation has a stronger, more comfortable structure for the wrists that is less likely to give you tendonitis and joint pains. Turn the sword to apply the other edge, with the thumb above the blade instead of below, and this immediately changes the wrist structure in an unhealthy fashion.
Are these details important? Yes, I definitely think they are! I have written previously about body structure being like a plumbing system, and the details of a technique are usually what results in correct or painful, damaging structures.
With the sabre, is it important to make a short lunge as described by Roworth if you study his system, or should you go further to score the touch?
If you have the flexibility to lunge deeply with your groin almost to the ground, why not cover the distance? The issue of sticky-out rocks aside, it is simply easier and faster to recover from a shorter lunge, which is precisely the explanation that Roworth gives, along with being safer and more sure on unknown or uneven terrain.
If you perform your lunge as described by Roworth, to achieve the goals that Roworth suggests you should be attempting to achieve with the lunge, then it is more likely that your system will feel more joined up, and that more things will work more easily.
If, on the other hand, you ignore the advice and do whatever other thing instead, then you may find that the system breaks down and you struggle to make things work for you. Is it such an unbelievable idea that a system begins to break down when you wilfully ignore the advice on how to perform the fundamentals upon which everything is based?
On a related note, I used to ignore Roworth’s description of how to form the cuts. I also had severe wrist pains. I then paid more attention to Roworth’s description of how to form the cuts. I then no longer had wrist pains. Apparently, doing the fundamentals incorrectly can lead to joint pain and weaker technique that is more prone to failure. Shocking.
Are the details of the lunge important? Yes, they definitely are. You may gain some interesting insights to your system if you go back and look at the instructions for such fundamental actions in detail – it is all too easy to import mechanics or frog DNA from other systems or from other authors on a similar system, without realising that things like the type and shape of lunge should probably be modified for better results as part of the new system.
With books, is it important to know who wrote The Art of Combat, or does it not matter if it was Meyer or Forgeng?
I wrote an article recently about who wrote The Art of Combat, and concluded that yes, the details do matter. Meyer wrote his book, and Forgeng translated that work in his own book. We probably should know whether we are referring to the 1570 or 2013 edition, and we should probably know whether we are referring to the edition in German or in English, otherwise we are going to make statements and assumptions that are simply not grounded in fact.
Is it important to know that Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings while Rowling wrote Harry Potter? Or can we mix these up and expect people to agree with us or not to pull us up for the error? They both involve wizards after all, so are the details really that important? How much does it make you twitch and want to correct me when I say that it was very clever of Gandalf to use the wingardium leviosa spell to drop the Balrog’s own club on its head in Khazad Dum?
Yes, the details are important. If the details of attribution are wrong, then we cannot discuss things properly or refer to the correct sources in order to support our statements. If two people engage in discussion, where one person cares about details and the other does not, then on a fundamental level they cannot have the same discussion with each other, and it is unlikely that either person will be entirely satisfied with the result.
When speaking about people, perhaps instructors or organisations, is it important to spell the name correctly, or is it alright to misspell it and make it up as you go along?
(Worth noting: my forename is Keith, with an ‘ei’ in the middle, and my surname is Farrell, with two ‘r’s and two ‘l’s – not “Farrel” or “Ferrell” or any other variation.)
This is a bit of a personal frustration, I must say. I go to pains to make sure that I spell people’s names correctly, so that I don’t insult them. Otherwise, I might as well just call everyone “Bob” and be done with it. It would be nice if others would extend the same courtesy to me.
If you are talking about someone, and especially if you are promoting the fact that they wrote a book or produced a video or will be teaching at your event, or even just saying that this person made some kind of positive contribution to your studies or to your life, it’s only polite to make sure that the name is spelled correctly.
Why might spelling be important? Well, it shows respect in the first place, and it also makes it easier for other people to find out more about the person in question. If you copy and paste the name into Google, to see what the person has done, what they have written or what videos they have produced, then the correct spelling will return results and the incorrect spelling will not. This will leave the searcher unfulfilled and it short-changes the person who is being looked for, because they lose the chance for people to learn a little more about them.
Why is getting it wrong a problem?
There is the issue of insult. If you make the mistake of referring to a Scotsman as English, or to a Burgundian as French, or to a Polish person as Soviet, or to an American as Canadian, then you will often receive quite a strong, negative response, because many people take such errors to be insulting. Personally, I have absolutely nothing against the English, and currently live in England; but it is simply wrong to say that I am English, and so I would prefer that people do not make the basic error of geography.
There is also the issue of misattribution. A few years ago, at Swordfish, I was judging in the finals during the livestream, and one of the commentators said something about the various judges. My name was given as Scott Farrell (an American fencer), and my club was given as the Academy of Historical Fencing (a club in the south of England and Wales). I have to admit, I felt a bit snubbed by the combination of errors! But then, for the next few weeks, I received messages from people, wondering when I had moved from Glasgow to Bristol and joined the Academy of Historical Fencing; I had to spend weeks explaining to people that the commentator made a mistake and that I was still based in Glasgow and was part of the Academy of Historical Arts.
A little care for detail goes quite a long way when dealing with people and organisations.
I would suggest that the old adage that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing properly is a good motto for the modern world and for involvement in HEMA.
Why bother doing something if you are not interested in doing it properly (or at least, getting better at it to be able to give a better showing each time)?
Therefore, pay attention to the details, and strive to do things better (and more correctly) each time, as you improve your ability to remember and work with details, even when you find yourself in more stressful situations – which could be commentating for live streams, sparring or competing, or even finding yourself in job interviews and the like! Details are important, and the better you can work with them (correctly!), the better the results will be, whatever your endeavour.
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 teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.