Habitus: Or Why SCA Rapier Is Awesome…And Why SCA Rapier Sucks.

Sparring with Henry

Clearly I’m a little proud of my SCA rapier background. I had access to a number of seriously talented fencing teachers and dedicated historians, and came from an area with a history of turning out some of the best rapier fighters in the world. That said, I’ve also seen some horrible rapier fencers in the SCA.

For the majority of the training time, the training is identical between the great fighters and the shit fighters. Training consists of armour up and fight whoever is there to train with you. Period.

On the surface, we are seeing pure Darwinian evolution at work. The naturally good fighters rise to the top, and everyone else either drops out or reaches a certain stable point of usually very low skill and stays there. If an area has good fighters, it’s because random chance caused a pocket of genetic freaks to collect in that spot. If an area produces bad fighters, bad genetics are to blame.

And maybe that is what is going on. I think there is something else happening, and it has interesting implications for teaching rapier outside of the SCA.

I think the secret has to do with the difference between how children learn and how adults learn, and something called Habitus.

Kids learn from doing the right thing and being praised for it at the right time. Adults learn from trying to do things that are way beyond their comfort level. BTW, if you want cites for that, too damn bad. This is a blog post, not an academic paper, so go do your own research.

SCA rapier practice is excellent at adult instruction. Routinely, you are given a few brief lessons on how to hold a sword and how to stand, taught the safety rules…maybe a rudimentary footwork drill and some parries. And then you are out on the fighting floor. Right away you have to try and put all those pieces together and try to hit some other guy. All they while trying not to get hit. And the guy you are fighting might be either a current inter-kingdom champion, or someone as new as you.

The brain works really hard under those circumstances. It’s an immersion learning process coupled with the swift darwinian filter of being hit with a sword. With the right stimulus…damn straight you can make an excellent fighter.

Quality of opponent certainly effects the training outcome, but with nothing a more thoroughly taught rapier fighter would consider training, never mind drilling, happening, how is it that some fighter develop notable styles? And those styles are easily seen to be not only transmissible, but effective in bouting. With the huge variety of opponents fought, each fighter should exhibit unique styles. They don’t. Experienced fighters can tell in a heartbeat where someone is from, when they started training and often who trained them. How?

Imagine three people standing side by side. Let’s make them clones. Identical musculature for our purpose. Identical builds (their training has not affected their muscle development different from one another) and length of training. One clone is a boxer. One is a wrestler. One is a ballet dancer.

Do you imagine all three of our clones standing the same? Walking the same? Lounging on the couch or arguing with a drunk the same? We don’t, and in reality we would not see them do these things the same, because they will have incorporated the Habitus, the physical mannerisms of not only their practice, but of those they practice with and are inspired to imitate. We feel a physical camaraderie with the people we train with because we all share some postural habits in common. In our movements and in our fighting we echo each other. This is rarely directly trained.

The habitus you incarnate has a powerful effect on your style. This is hugely important in rapier, where small ticks or habits can result in large openings in your game. When you train with the same partners all the time habitus can be detrimental if it is not effective for a style, because the bad habits become ingrained. This happens because the habitus is subconscious, and because it is a group marker, we ignore it. We tend to not exploit what we see as a signal of pack-membership. But fighting outside of our local pack, everything is fair game.

Tempers often flair in cross-group bouting, because people are being struck in ways that they are unused to. It’s outside of their experience and may feel unfair. Some fighters get angry, some tend to dismiss the blows. If someone has a habitus that naturally exploits the habitus of others, they may gain an inflated sense of ability while lacking a technical foundation to back it up.

Some SCA habitus is excellent, and some is quite poor. The HEMA world considers it’s technical training superior, but it lacks the inherent understanding of habitus as a powerful tool of transmission of skill. The downside of recreating an art from historical manuals is that there is no habitus to re-create, and it must be assumed from training partners. If the practitioners comes from a sport or classical fencing background, or Asian martial art style, we might see this habitus carry over. Lacking the deep immersion shock learning method of the SCA, it’s entirely possible to inculcate a habitus that has no real applicability to martial application.

Moving forward, SCA rapier can certainly benefit from picking up training habits from their HEMA/WMA fellows. And the HEMA/WMA world should be looking to the multi-decades experience of the SCA fighters to find varied habitus that might be of great value to keeping their art viable in future.

2 Comments

  1. I did see a little of this first hand after the tournament. I’m Category 3 and one of the Category 1 fighters was nice enough to do a few passes with me. He blew through my guard like it wasn’t even there. It was frustrating and felt like he was cheating, even though he wasn’t and I had to make a conscious effort to stop being frustrated and look at what he was doing and how I could stop it. Another of the Category 1 fighters was nice enough to offer some tips as well, and they are something I’m going to work with to help improve my game.

    After all of that, I do see the easy pitfalls of cross-group competition from an ego point of view but if we can get past that part there is so much to learn. I’ve got a million and one things to think about and I want to try them out in the next tournament and friendly matches.

  2. Thank you for this thought-provoking post. I’m an early music specialist, and my habitus is informed also by my study of period posture and baroque gesture (in which area I see many connections to historical martial arts). I train Rapier with a HEMA group that focuses on technical instruction, drills etc, and modern Epee with a sports academy that combines instruction with a lot of free-play. I recently took up Tai Chi, and it certainly benefitted my epee skills.

    I enjoy free-play in Epee, but I must admit that I long for more of the disciplined study and pair drills that I know from my Rapier studies. Contrariwise, I long for more application work, pair drills and free-play in my Tai Chi class.

    My opportunities to train Rapier are limited, so I’m currently satisfied with the teaching and drills, and don’t miss free-play there. It’s available, when wanted.

    I haven’t taken part in any formal competitions. That experience would probably alter the opinions I express here.

    Isn’t the (obvious but boring) answer that a blend of instruction, drills and free-play is the answer; that free-play alone or study alone is insufficient to create an expert fencer; that different fighters need and appreciate different ways of progressing?

    Meanwhile, I have learnt a lot from free-play against far more experienced Epeeists. There is always something to learn, even if one totally loses the bout. Some instructors or informal opponents have been kind enough to fight at a level just beyond my comfort zone, so that I was challenged but not hopelessly overwhelmed.

    At the modern fencing Academy, we also do training games, where a more experienced fighter accepts a restriction (e.g. reduced target area, no parries, etc) in order to even up the match, and to train specific skills. Outside formal competitions, could this be a way for SCA fencers of disparate skills to play together?

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