Every system has a doctrine, an algorithm or set of instructions that describe the best advice for the vast majority of situations that will occur while you practise that system. When different systems have different doctrines, this (quite unsurprisingly) leads to differences between the systems and their instructions.
Sometimes people give “good advice” that seems like it would make sense, on the surface, and yet it may well go against the doctrine of your chosen system. I would like to propose a few examples to help people think about this concept a bit more deeply.
Make yourself a smaller target
I have written before that the advice to make yourself a smaller target might be quite an unhelpful piece of advice. If you practise Liechtenauer’s longsword, then “making yourself a smaller target” doesn’t work, because Liechtenauer says you should be making your opponent be the target. If your interpretation involves being the target, you are doing it wrong at a fundamental level of your system’s doctrine!
The Vier Leger describe the positions you need to know so that you can recognise when your opponent moves into them, so that you can formulate your plan for approaching him and taking the attack to him. The moment you think about standing in your Leger and being in precisely the right position to minimise your chance of being the target, you become THE TARGET, and Liechtenauer would not approve of this.
You should always attack and keep attacking
It might be one way to interpret Liechtenauer’s longsword that you should try to be the person making the attack, and once you do so, you should keep attacking and so maintain the initiative. I think it is more nuanced than that, but this is a fairly common interpretation that I hear regularly.
However, if you start studying British sabre from the Napoleonic era, you shouldn’t apply this advice. Why not? Because the written systems of the time (Roworth, Angelo, etc) say that the most secure form of fencing is to fence with parry and riposte, and to recover to guard after each of your attacks.
If your plan is to make one attack, then a second, and then a third, then you may well have found yourself struck at some point when your opponent performs his riposte after his parry. In this system, you should make one attack and then recover to guard, then make one more attack immediately after making your parry, and then return to guard again.
In this way, Liechtenauer’s doctrine and Roworth’s doctrine are incompatible.
When you are close, enter into grappling
This seems to make sense once again. After all, if you are too close to be able to use your sword’s blade effectively, why not come that little closer and start grappling?
However, there may be reasons why you should not do this. It could be a matter of convention or rules: in the 16th century German fechtschule, it was often forbidden to grapple for what were presumably reasons of health and safety; in the 19th century British fencing salle, it was often considered impolite and the mark of a ruffian to grapple, because people were there to cultivate skills and comportment other than just being able to win a sword fight.
In a more modern context, you might restrict grappling because your training partners have not learned how to fall safely, or because the floor is unsuitable for falling, or because people come to your club for sword fighting lessons and have not given their consent to be physically handled and thrown to the ground just because you thought it was a good idea.
There are some systems where grappling is very much part of the doctrine, and other systems where it is against the doctrine for whatever reason. Why might grappling be frowned upon in different situations, and what might be the reasons? (Hint: saying that grappling is forbidden because it is not real or important fighting is a cheap and pretty rubbish answer, and you can easily stretch yourself to come up with a better suggestion than that.)
Can you think of any other pieces of conventional martial arts wisdom that actually run counter to your system’s doctrine? Why might this be the case? What functional, cultural, legal, and perhaps environmental reasons might lead to the system’s doctrine including and excluding what it does?
Can you take something from this thought exercise that will result in an immediate and tangible improvement in your fencing?
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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.