Science of Swordplay: Broken Posture

Proving I was right in my beliefs was always a tricky process. In a pool of competitive people, I was at a disadvantage. At thirty years of age, I no longer had any interest in proving I was better than other people. I understood the desire everyone else had, since I used to share it. My late teens and early twenties were all about going into other martial arts clubs and measuring myself against the best they had. We didn’t have the UFC in those days, but we sometimes acted like we did. Some people punch and kick their way to the top of the heap, find they still feel empty…some people get to the top and find a comfort. Job’s done, time to see what else you can do with the skills.

I didn’t mind that everyone I was sparring with was still in that phase for the most part, but lacking that extra drive left me a constant second and third place in competitions. Again, I didn’t care, I was having fun. But when I was trying to make a point about period martial arts being the best tool for swordfighting? The majority of people look at second place as being first loser. And that was me.

Still, I knew the art contained in the period manuals was a true art, proven in duelling and battle fields. I knew it was a better path, because people who knew better than me, who lived and breathed swordplay in a time when it mattered, wrote down lessons. Everything was laid out with impeccable logic, sometimes in deep if not very clear detail. It took work to try to share that viewpoint. The point was eventually clearly made, but not by me. Other people with more drive and talent took up the cause, and locally at least, there is no longer any question that what was is written in the manuals is the best form of swordplay. I believe, for the first time since the Renaissance, I can now look at a large body of fencers trained perfectly in the correct manner of swordplay. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands of people in Vancouver who have had more than a few lessons in the true art of rapier.

And now that I get to look over the results of years of training these people, I’m starting to wonder if it’s been that good of an idea.

I should be a little clear before I go on. I believe in deep scholarship. I know there is real value in having people who put meticulous work into accurate reconstruction of historical arts. We should always promote that, and make sure these arts are never lost again. The people who do this work are performing a great service to society. With that said, I also believe that the average fencer doesn’t need to do that. An interest in swordplay is not the same thing as an interest in being a historian.

We know much more about the human body now, more about performance and development of athletes, more about the damage repetitive actions can cause to the body. The historical arts were practiced by people who lived a vastly different life than we do. They were more active than we were, not by choice but by lack of modern conveniences.

If we look at Capo Ferro’s Terza guard, we see what is at first glance a very anatomically clean posture. Everything looks balanced with regard to the need to move, attack, and defend. The shoulders look even and balanced, the back is straight. As a personal trainer, I want to approve the biomechanics. But I don’t. I’ve started to notice some recurring issues showing up with students with more than a few years fencing experience. Lower back pain, postural imbalances, wrist and shoulder pain, weakness in the grip, etc.

Looking more closely at the illustration, I can now see signs of the same issue showing up in the model. The right shoulder is lowered and extended, the left raised. A closer examination of the torso shows spinal curvature. Not an ideal way to hold the body for hours at a time, week after week, for years. But it’s worth it for the tactical benefits of the posture.

Or is it? Do we really get that much real life benefit out of the maintenance of Terza above other guards, as Capo Ferro seems to recommend? I know experienced fighters are able to get excellent mileage out of much more relaxed guards, with better and more sustainable postures. Perhaps rapier fighters might benefit from learning the formal guards only as references, and instead be coached into using individually tuned guards that respect the anatomy and training of the fencer.

I don’t think it’s a bad idea for teachers with a sound knowledge of historical fencing to teach a more modern guard to students. Teach them to fight and be martial artists with the weapon in hand. Give them tools from the body of knowledge as needed, at the discretion of the teacher. Save the full formal instruction for those with an eye towards being teachers themselves. Western Martial Arts practice is at a curious point in its growth. It’s coming out of its infancy and we will likely start to see some new kinds of growing pains. There will certainly be students who only care to be sporting athletes, and a sport will grow up around them. Hopefully we can give them a sport that builds a healthy body.

Beyond Capo Ferro, all the historical arts, regardless of weapon, have some potential hazards that need to be considered. Workouts should include elements designed specifically to correct biomechanical flaws. Don’t neglect the value of crosstraining and nutrition!

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