Some Thoughts on “Cutting with the Medieval Sword”

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Categories: Medieval, Modern
The heroine of this Arthurian romance is in peril, and not the sexy kind! The long, slender longsword is typical for the period when Fiore’s art and the Kunst des Fechtens were created. From BNF Nouvelle acquisition française 5243 Guiron le Courtois folio 90r

Michael Edelson, Cutting with the Medieval Sword: Theory and Application (CreateSpace, 2017) ISBN-13 978-0999290385 (hardcover) 978-1979910972 (softcover)

A sharp sword in a skilled hand is a fearsome cutting weapon. When the sword or the swordsman is inadequate, fighters can find themselves helplessly slapping their opponent’s hat or clothing. There is now a book for the historical fencing movement on how to cut through things effectively. This one is by an instructor who teaches at a school in New York City, competes in cutting and fencing tournaments, and used to be quite active and aggressive on forums. In the historical fencing world, his main interest is the art from Central Europe associated with a poem which circulated under the name of Meister Liechtenauer, the Kunst des Fechtens. This art probably emerged in the late 14th century and flourished until there was a ‘martial arts craze’ for Italian fencing in 17th century Germany.

A practical book on the use of weapons raises three basic questions. Can I understand it? Are its teachings something I want to commit to trying? After a substantial period of training, have these teachings made me more effective? When reconstructing historical and prehistorical martial arts like 18th century backsword play or the use of bronze swords, there is a fourth question: how does the book support its claim to describe how things were done back in the day? My first impression is that this book is clear and that probably 80-90% of the theory describes one good way of doing things. The most controversial teaching is the insistence on stepping into range (measure) and then cutting. How to do this without walking into a cut or thrust is “beyond the scope of this book” (p. 57). I don’t have a sharp longsword with me, or money to spend on things to chop up (and my sharp longsword is the long stiff poky kind not the broad flexible choppy kind). So this review will focus on how this book justifies its claims. I am a professional at analyzing arguments, but only a dabbler at fencing.

A quote from a 19th century book "In attacking, never let the foot touch the ground before the sword reaches its destination"
Not every master agreed with the author’s sensei! John Musgrave Waite’s students in the 19th century adored him too, but the rules of his art were not the rules of sensei’s art.

“What is it based on?” is an important question because people use so many conflicting methods to reconstruct dead martial arts. If the reader does not agree that the author’s methods are valid, the book will not be very helpful to them. This book is rationalistic: it states premises and builds them into bigger claims using logic. It backs claims with physics and kinesiology. It appeals to authority:

The information contained in this book is not based on experiences or opinions of a single person, but the collected wisdom of generations of martial artists, both Eastern and Western, compiled to the best of the author’s ability into one source. Primarily, the information comes from Japanese sword arts, as taught to the author by Sang Kim sensei of Byakokkan Dojo in New York City.

And it appeals to experience: “does this work for me and my students?” The book is formally structured with definitions and axioms and arguments from axioms to conclusions. These methods are common in the author’s part of the historical fencing movement, and a bit different than the methods my teachers used to understand dead martial arts.

This book does not use much evidence or many methods from the humanities and historical sciences. There is a very brief nod to social violence (p. 6), violence whose purpose is to shift or defend someone’s position in a community. A brawl behind a high school, the Judo finals at the Olympics, and a duel with seconds are social violence, whereas a bear taking a salmon is asocial. Jessica Finley has pointed out that the Kunst des Fechtens usually offers both lethal and non-lethal responses to a knife attack. The lethal response might be appropriate on a battlefield, while the non-lethal response could deal with a drunken neighbour. Hans Leküchner teaches both terrible thrusts to the face (in a world without fencing masks!) and how to grapple your opponent and walk him into a sack held open by confederates in the crowd, Fiore teaches how to defend yourself when held at knife-point and how to defeat an opponent in full armour under the eyes of a crowd. These early systems were meant to be used in a variety of different contexts. But this book valourizes one context in particular: “As HEMA practitioners, researchers, and teachers, we are generally less concerned with how often swords were used in situations of unrestrained violence than we are with how they were used when it happened.”

The section on choosing a sharp sword focuses on what will be effective for different types of student, not on what was common in particular times and places. There is an interview with Peter Johnsson, the famous sword researcher and designer, about the edges of surviving longswords and how sharp they might have been during their working life.[1] The section on how to grip a sword paraphrases the advice of an anonymous treatise in the Nürnberg Hausbuch (Germanisches Nationalmuseum Codex 3227a, possibly written around 1389), but it does not quote it, compare and contrast other evidence for how longwords were gripped, or warn that we do not know anything about the author or his or her qualifications. This might be a deliberate choice. Historical fencers often use period texts more like an amateur theologian than a professional historian. Focusing on results avoids these endless arguments about texts. However, the defining characteristic of historical martial arts is that they are based on historical sources rather than authority or reason or competition. If you say you are doing historical martial arts, you are doing history, and history is an art with rules too.

Historical martial artists borrow many ideas from living martial arts such as sport fencing. The author’s favourite source of “Frog DNA” is the Toyama Ryū Battodo, which he has trained since 2008. Like most traditional martial arts[2], this school (ryū) was created in the early 20th century. Specifically, it was created in 1925 to train officers of the Imperial Japanese Army.[6] Japanese nationalists wanted the army to replace its European sabres with traditional katanas, and the army wanted a uniform curriculum to teach cadets to use the new weapons. My end of the historical fencers got many of its ideas about teaching from the equivalent European arts, classical fencing, that is to say the fencing established (or proposed to be established) by various European armies in the late 19th century. Most of us were not so sure about borrowing body mechanics from classical or sport fencing, but classical and sport fencers train good fencers efficiently.

To justify applying mechanics from a Japanese martial art to a family of European arts, the author appeals to two key premises. The first can be simplified like this: “If you move in such a way that does not produce good cutting results, then you cannot be moving like the period masters moved. To believe otherwise is to believe that European fencing masters were less capable of using their weapons to their full potential than many people who are alive today.” (p. 10) The second is that “every weapon has a specific way of being manipulated by the human body that will produce optimal results” (p. 6). These two assumptions seem plausible at first, but anyone who is skilled with their hands knows that there is never only one true way of doing anything. From the 16th century onwards, when we have many sources from different parts of Europe, we can see that respected fencing masters taught many different ways of using the same weapon.[4] The British cavalry who had trouble cutting during the Crimean War were trained by masters in an age when swords were commonly used, but they were not as good at cutting as many Indians in the same day. On the other hand, most people can probably agree that if a fighter with a freshly sharpened sword a metre long can’t do horrible things to an opponent’s bare face or clothed wrist with a cut, that fighter is not very skilled. And if you want to become better at cutting, Toyama Ryū seems like a fine place to look for inspiration, just like chopping firewood or clearing a vacant lot with a machete.

Using swords to cut up various targets is controversial in historical martial arts. Some cultures seem to have valued it, but not the ones which produced the arts most historical fencers study. Chopping targets can degenerate into a show for a crowd where people make gigantic and uncontrolled motions which would be dangerous in a fight. This book takes a moderate position: cutting up inanimate objects with a sword is not essential for learning to use a sword, especially not if you have a teacher who can cut, but it is easier to judge success or failure than when cutting in air (pp. 11-12). The author warns against using one body mechanic for cutting things up, and another in sparring or drills. As we will see in a scheduled post, cutting rolled and soaked straw mats (tatami) is a 20th century Japanese practice. Sword which cut them well have to be very sharp, and some people who have handled hundreds of medieval swords do not think that level of sharpness was common. The author is not dogmatic, but makes an argument that these mats are more consistent and show clearer traces of the cut than other targets.

Although the author has the most training in Toyama Ryū Battodo and the Kunst des Fechtens, he tries to write in language which any reader can adapt to their system. I am not sure he succeeded. This book recommends beginning with vertical downwards cuts (p. 74, cp. p. 35 where he compares cutting vertically downwards to striking a nail with a hammer), but these are not very prominent in the early European martial arts I know. It is not hard to think of reasons why this might be, such as that the top of the head is bony and was usually protected with a thick felt hat, beaver hat, fulled knit cap, or even an iron skullcap.[7] Slanting the cut and aiming at the face, neck, or shoulder muscles might be more effective even if it was less powerful. In what art are “horizontal cuts typically aimed at the opponent’s torso” and specifically waist-level (p. 141)? There are very few examples of cuts to the torso in any early Italian fencing manual, but I have seen a Japanese print of an executioner testing a sword by chopping at the waist of a fresh corpse.[3]

A man standing wearing a crown with his arms crossed and two swords pointing from one side of his jaw to his opposite knee
“We are the fendenti! In this art we make question to cleave (fender) the teeth and reach to the opponent’s knee.” Fior di Battaglia, Getty Museum, Malibu, Ms. Ludwig XV 13 Image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

Similarly, the book recommends that diagonal cuts be at a 45 degree angle to the ground. Early fencing manuals do not answer all of our questions, but they often tell us the angle of an ideal overhand cut. Fiore dei Liberi advises “left jaw to right knee” while Giovanni dall’Agocchie begins with “left shoulder to right knee,” and both are steeper than this book recommends. Of course in a fight one makes a cut at whatever angle makes sense in the moment (Giovanni dall’Agocchie says so explicitly), but when your main source tells you to practice one angle, and this book’s “universal principles” tell you to practice another, what should you do? This book is built on the axiom that there can be no essential contradiction between what Sang Kim sensei teaches and what medieval masters taught, so whenever there seems to be a contradiction, it should pause and show how to reconcile these dissonant canons.  The cuts from the wrist or trammazoni “slices” of 16th century Italian fencing, and the mulinetti “windmills” of classical Italian fencing, are not the easiest way to deliver mighty cleaving blows, but people preparing for duels thought they were worth practicing. If this book showed it was familiar with well-known sources from other traditions and addressed concerns which students of those traditions might have, it would be more effective at reaching the whole historical fencing movement.

The author’s forum and blog posts were often bombastic. (“At this point, I’m sure a few people want to go and comment, “I don’t find it hard to teach HEMA people to cut! Look at this youtube video of my students cutting!” Yeah, I’ve already seen it. Let’s just say we have different definitions of ‘cut well.'” – “Why It’s So Hard to Teach HEMA Practitioners to Cut Well,” NYHFA Blog, 11 November 2018- an odd choice of date!) This book is not.

This is a book about a method of cutting drawn from one Japanese art. It communicates that method clearly and shows how it reached its conclusions. Because of that, it is a good book (but not good history). Readers can compare its teachings and principles to the teachings and principles of their art and decide how much is useful to them. I hope that the fencers continue to work hard to communicate the basis of their interpretations, and to write different kinds of books and articles.

Fiore’s students always paid him well! Be like Fiore’s students and support this site with a monthly donation on Patreon or paypal.me or even liberapay

Further Reading: Sword Forum International, “Thread: Deep Attacks vs Shallow Attacks” (2010) http://www.swordforum.com/vb4/showthread.php?101332-Deep-Attacks-vs-Shallow-Attacks

(scheduled 20 April 2021)

[1] There seems to be a bit of disagreement between Edelson and Arms & Armor, the other major manufacturer of replica medieval swords in North America. This book states that “Due to safety and liability concerns, production sword makers ship their weapons in a state that is best described as ‘inadequately sharpened.’ If a sword can shave hair off your forearm, then it is adequately sharpened.” (p. 106), but Arms & Armor currently states “Your weapon will be sharpened, if appropriate to that item, with the same type of grind on the cutting edge as the originals carried. This is based on examples of each type of weapon that have survived to today. … Swords, daggers, and especially heavy axes will have a thicker convex edge, when compared to a modern kitchen or hunting knife. This allowed the edges to take more abuse before chipping or breaking, while still having a sharp edge.” (The Care and Feeding of Your Weapon, Arms & Armor). I would like to talk to them about whether this is a semantic issue about what counts as “sharpening” and what counts as “polishing,” or a substantive disagreement about how many swords were sharp enough to cut straw mats well.  I once read a sourcebook with a 15th or 16th century text which recommended testing a sharpened blade on your fingernail (no, I have not been able to find it again- ed.), but I have trouble thinking of sober sources for swords “as sharp as a razor, bright and keen” before Sir Walter Scott.

[2] There is a research literature deconstructing legends that martial arts can be traced unchanged into the distant past by scholarly fighters like Dr. Ben Judkins, Ellis Amdur, or Sixt Wetzler. The conclusions of this research are not controversial among trained historians. There are now groups reconstructing historical Chinese and Korean martial arts from printed manuals like https://www.chineselongsword.com/.

[3] In Fujita Shintaro, Tokugawa bakufu keiji zufu / Illustrated Guide to the Punishments of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1893) (photograph of the gory print here). A Briton in Japan who learned what we would call Kendo around the same time says that some of his most skillful opponents liked to cut at the stomach: F. J. Norman, The Fighting Man of Japan: the Training and Exercises of the Samurai (Archibald Constable and Co.: London, 1905) https://archive.org/details/fightingmanjapa00normgoog/page/n73/

[4] If you want to hear it from a good fencer and teacher:

Now, in military sabre systems, you cannot say that that there is a right and a wrong way of cutting, ok, quite simply because there are many different ways of cutting. The only requisite really of cutting is that you cut. In terms of ‘is the cut the most powerful cut that you can physically do?’ often the answer is no! If we look at John Musgrave Waite’s treatise, for example, he very clearly cuts from the wrist and talks about making a small movement, and he is explicit to state that’s not because it makes the most powerful cut, because that’s going to chop the most tatami mat, but quite simply because his priority is hitting the target and not being hit, that is, making a cut that is as fast and as direct as a thrust. That is one of the key underlying principles of John Musgrave Waite’s entire system, and bear in mind that at the time that he was regarded as pretty much the foremost military sabre instructor in the entire country (of Great Britain).

Matt Easton, “Push-Pull Cutting With Longsword Is ‘Wrong’?”, scholagladiatoria channel, 1 June 2018 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dqmUshUkMg4 2:40 to 3:30

Waite’s manual has a whole chapter on how to perform “sword feats” like cutting lead bars, sheep carcasses, or falling handkerchiefs with heavy cutting swords. The handkerchiefs are to be cut with a special sword whose edges is different from an officer’s sword and “like a razor.”

[5] Thomas A. Green, “Societal Concepts of Criminal Liability for Homicide in Mediaeval England,” Speculum, Vol. 47, No. 4 (October 1972), pp. 669-694 http://www.jstor.org/stable/2856634 These laws were so strict that they faced ‘jury nullification’: the teams of neighbours appointed to investigate a killing described its circumstances one way to each other, and another way to the king’s courts.

[6] A school in Florida http://www.toyamaryu.org/, Renshi 6th dan Guy H. Power, a high-ranked Anglo kendo instructor in Japan at https://kenshi247.net, and Nakamura Sensei himself have takes on the history of this way of training. It seems to have continued to change substantially during the Pacific War and into the postwar era. Internet resources disagree on exactly when the Imperial Japanese Army replaced its European sabres with katana (1934?), so if you know of print research on the history of this school and the wider context of IJA sword training please share!

[7] Charles Roworth’s well-regarded Art of Defense on Foot (1798) leaves out vertical downwards cuts because in practice most cuts lean to one side or the other, and because a vertical downwards cut is too easy to parry (“Direction of the Six Cuts,” 4th edition p. 22). He also suggests that in cutting upwards “it should be a rule, never to apply above four inches of the point, in order that it may free itself, and mount to the inside or outside guard” ie. that it is better to make these cuts shallow than risk your sword getting stuck in the enemy’s body (“General Observations” p. 35). I don’t think this would meet Edelson’s approval, but in historical martial arts the correct way of doing something is the way the people who write the manuals did it.

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