“Interpretive” Systems of HEMA (part 2)

An example of German longsword; not an interpretive discipline, and certainly not representative of "Scottish longsword"!

This article is continued from part 1 posted yesterday. Today the article focuses upon the negative side of studying an interpretive discipline – not to put people off the idea, nor to put down the whole idea, but to make practitioners aware of the potential pitfalls and disadvantages of undertaking unstructured and poorly thought out interpretive work.

Bad reasons for studying interpretive systems

Although there are several good reasons to study interpretive systems, and many advantages and benefits that can develop as a result, there are also bad reasons to study interpretive systems and many disadvantages that can accompany such study.

Not practicing proper mechanics

One common problem that plagues the study of interpretive systems is that the mechanics of how to move and how to use the weapon are rarely given the same importance as interpreting technique. As a result, people do not support their motions with the correct form and posture.

Why is this a problem? Well, taking for example a system such as Viking sword and round shield, people often tend to focus on trying to use the shield as an important part of the system, and the sword begins to become less important. Good mechanics would dictate that the hands remain low as much as possible, and that the blade always moves in front of the hand as swiftly as possible when striking forward, so that the chance to receiving a hit to the hand is minimised. But if the focus is on using the shield, people tend to ignore the small details of how to move the sword from a resting position into a striking technique, and this makes the study of the system much more dangerous and less safe for the participants.

Furthermore, if a bladed weapon is part of the system, then the ability to cut through a target with the weapon is very important. Often people who study an interpretive system manage to come up with some quite impressive and interesting things to do with the weapon, but more often than not these techniques would be unable to do any significant damage in reality with a sharp blade. The whole system falls apart and the study time is wasted if the system does not actually work, and fails at this critical test!

Not developing a sensible, comprehensive or cohesive system

A sensible and complete martial art system should be comprehensive and cohesive. With a workman’s toolbox, is needs to be comprehensive, it must have all the tools that the workman will need to do his job and to solve the problems that he is likely to encounter in his work; also, it must be cohesive: the tools must all work together in the right fashion. It would be pointless for a plumber who works with pipes to have a spanner, a screwdriver, an electric drill, a toothbrush and a hairdryer. That would not be a sensible or cohesive toolbox!

In a similar fashion, a martial art system must have enough basic elements to allow practitioners to fight with that system and to use the system without needing to supplement it with other systems. It must have a variety of positions with different characteristics and functions, it must have a variety of attacks and a variety of defences, and it must have a sensible and cohesive set of principles, concepts, emphases and stylistic elements to bring it all together into one sensible and useful system.

Many people who study interpretive systems forget to include some of the necessary elements and focus simply on different ways to attack or defend, or different ways to use a shield or off-hand, and forget to explore the principles and stylistic elements that bring together all the disparate techniques. When building a wall, one needs both bricks and cement to hold the bricks together. If all you have is a pile of bricks without any cement, or with only a little cement, then the best wall that can be built is a precarious structure without any stability, or perhaps only a very small structure that does not do the job properly.

Of course, working on principles and “soft skills” is nowhere near as interesting or as much fun as playing with an exciting new weapon. However, these skills are of even greater importance than any amount of time spent studying or learning techniques, and ignoring these concepts will result in a discipline that has no system and that is a waste of time and effort. Even worse, if students of the discipline learn that a “system” is just a collection of tricks and techniques, then they will not learn about the importance of concepts such as distance, range and timing; they will not learn about feeling strength or weakness, and will not learn how to oppose strength with weakness and vice versa. Students will not learn about the most important aspects of martial arts and their progress as martial artists will be slowed and retarded by their study of an incomplete interpretive system.

Copying another system and trying to justify it

One of the most dishonest and problematic things that can happen in the study of interpretive systems is to copy another system and then try to justify it.

For example, at various times, people have tried to develop a system for Scottish longsword. We know that the Scots in the 14th, 15th and 16th century had two handed longswords, as various examples survive in museums and collections. However, there are no manuals or sources that describe how such a system may have worked, and there is not even a good starting point for making educated guesses.

Some people have tried to solve the problem by using an interpretation of Liechtenauer’s longsword from German sources, and try to justify it by saying that the four postures of Liechtenauer are simple and common postures that are only reasonable to see in other systems, and that Scottish mercenaries had contact with German soldiers and fighters and so it would only be reasonable that such information would be transmitted and then brought back to Scotland.

Perhaps such assertions could be reasonable, but it is dishonest to copy a system completely and then try to justify that it is in fact something different. Liechtenauer’s longsword from the 14th and early 15th century was something different from other, more common styles of fencing in the Holy Roman Empire, different from what was taught by other masters and teachers, and it is entirely unreasonable to assume that people from a completely different part of Europe, with a different cultural context and a different legal environment, would import a secret and abnormal duelling system ad then apply it to general battlefield usage.

It is better to approach the development of an interpretive system from scratch, from nothing, and to build it up in an experimental fashion rather than to import a different system, tweak it, and try to defend and justify it.

Short sightedness; not seeing beyond one’s own agenda or conceptions

Often people already have some idea or conception about how a system might look, or what sorts of techniques it may contain. These conceptions can be influenced by literature or media, or from prior experience with different martial arts or physical activities, they may be based on sound reason, but they are still an influential bias that can colour and affect one’s study of an interpretive system.

Very closely related is the reason why the system is being interpreted and developed. For example, if a historical re-enactment group is trying to develop a system of sword and shield combat, then the purpose will be for show rather than martial effectiveness. Furthermore, in the interests of historical authenticity of appearance, people might not be wearing protective gear such as gloves or helmets. As a result, such a system may deliberately avoid strikes to the hands or to the face or head; it then has a huge built-in deficiency that falls foul of some of the other problems described above. If hits to the hands are not part of the system, then developing correct and sensible mechanics will not happen; if thrusts are not allowed, or if strikes to the head are not allowed, then the system will not be comprehensive and even the cohesiveness of the principles and concepts will be compromised. The end result may well be a good system for the historical re-enactment group, but it will not be a faithful or effective recreation of a historical martial art.

People who have prior experience in a different martial art or discipline often bring a bias to the study of an interpretive discipline. For example, in the study of Highland broadsword and targe, if one has some experience with regimental Scottish broadsword (without the targe) beforehand, then there may be the temptation to adopt a right foot forward stance as the primary method of standing, since that is how it is done in regimental broadsword. Alternatively, one might choose to adopt a left foot forward stance, to differentiate the targe system from the regimental system – this is just as bad, since the previous experience has forced a different way of doing things, and has biased the interpretation!

In a similar fashion, people with experience in a discipline such as kendo or sport fencing will tend to bring a series of biases to the study of an experimental discipline (such as Scottish longsword, for example, or 17th century Polish sabre). Reactions that have become muscle memory in the previously trained system will begin to find their way into the experimental system, and the mental approach from the previous system will begin to influence the mental approach, attitude and focus of the interpretive system.

If one desires to study an interpretive system, then the only honest and fair way to do so it to identify all possible biases and external influences, and to work hard so that these do not colour the interpretation.

This article will be continued tomorrow, with part 3 of the  three part series!

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