I learned rapier in a pure Darwinian environment. The only way it could have been more Darwinian would be with copious bloodshed. The Society for Creative Anachronism frowns on bloodshed.
Historical swordplay instruction proceeds in an orderly fashion. You start with the basics, show skill, and progress to the more complex things. You are taught all the important things in the correct order. Guard, measure, line and tempo. You drill, are evaluated, corrected, and drill some more. At the right time, you start to test your skills against classmates. Eventually you test yourself against others.
In the SCA, you start with a sword, a bare handful of instruction, and a fight. If you survive that, you’ve probably already learned some valuable lessons. The fight is your primary way of learning. You beat up everyone you can, and then you find people who can beat you up, and learn to beat them up. You learn about the pain of losing, and how deep you have to go inside yourself to find some way to win.
The bare instruction received is simple, but never the less holds a profound truth. Instead of precise guards, you are given two vague positions. The first is generally called “presented” and means sword and sword-side leg forward. The other is called “refused” and it’s with the sword-side leg back, and the sword held low, or back by the hip.
Presented is considered the weak guard, because it leaves your sword out for people to control. Smart fighters use Refuse, because it “refuses” contact with the blade. This contrasts with historical swordplay, were the extended blade is considered superior because of its line coverage and the simple logic of its defense. It makes sense…swords don’t bleed, so put them between you and the other guy’s sharp thing. And you learn a large body of technique to deal with people trying to deal with getting past your pointy tip sticking out at their face.
The subtle beauty of the SCA approach lies in the acceptance of the refuse guard as superior. It isn’t superior at all…but it teaches an early reliance on deceit and tempo actions for victory. Tempo is one of the hardest things in the historical repertoire to teach. It’s hard to teach anyone, in any art, which is why a fighter with excellent control of timing is almost always considered a master fighter. By encouraging people to use this bastard guard, the SCA rapier community manages to create fighters who excel at using empty space to create tempos.
At least, in the best cases that’s what happens. It’s a method that also tends to create pockets of inbred mutants with true hillbilly rapier technique…which has to be seen to be believed. But the fighters that make an effort to test themselves against the best, are receptive to new ideas, and travel and fight outside of their own kind…truly formidable.
The best SCA fighters take the extra step to come into the WMA world and learn the historical concepts and approaches to using guard and line. They are happy to add new tactics and drills to their toolbox.
WMA students could do well to take a page from their SCA cousins. When sparring, take a break from just trying to do the right thing all the time. Put yourself at a disadvantage, lose some fights. Make it hard for yourself to win…and learn what it takes for you to overcome those disadvantages. There is more to the fight game than can ever be found in any one system, and no system is ever perfect for everybody.