Longsword at Different Schools

I’m currently a member of two historical fencing schools: Australian College of Arms and Collegium in Armis. Both teach historical longsword although where Collegium adheres fairly strictly to the German tradition as outlined by Joachim Meyer and others, the ACA takes a more eclectic apporach integrating both the German and Italian traditions into a style based on simple efficiency. My problem has been reconciling the differences in the techniques of the two schools.

Here’s a brief example which illustrates the problem. Imagine an opponent attacks you with a zornhau or dritto squalembratto (an overhand diagonal cut from his upper right to his lower left quadrants; the terms are German and Italian). How do you counter it?

The standard ACA approach (one among many) is simple. Cut down hard with your own zornhau at his sword while stepping out to the right. This bashes your opponent’s weapon into the ground and allows you, before your opponent can recover, to safely reverse the path your sword thravelled to smack him in the head with the false (back) edge of you weapon. Simple, effective and based on gross bio-mechanical motions that feel entirely natural and almost instinctive.

The Collegium approach is similar in that it, too, involves cutting a zornhau at the opponent. In this version, you strike at your opponent’s head while stepping to the right. The step allows you to block the strike while giving you enough of an angle to hit his head. From this position, there one can perform a number of techniques whose names in German look like a bunch of random letters pulled from the scrabble bag such as absetzen, dupliren and abschneiden. The range of options available to you in this position is enormous but they all depend on a very fine judgement of position and how hard the other guy is pushing on his sword against yours. If the fight were real, an error of judgement here would have serious consequences.

Which technique is better? Can such a question even be asked? I think it can and should be asked. Here’s my answer.

There are two different forces at work here. The ACA concentrates on the sort of fencing which makes the fencer effective in a short period of time (which, by the way, is perfect for today’s way too busy world) by harnessing instinctive reactions and turning them into an effective fencing style based on principles of simplicity, sound bio-mechanics and the long tradition of western martial arts. Collegium, on the other hand, has underpinning it’s practice the assumption that these principles are already known to the fencer – as they would have been to Meyer’s 16th century students. Collegium’s fencing style takes the merely effective and raises to the level of an art and science in an attempt to recover the meaning of medieval treatises on longsword fencing.

Each school’s techique has it’s place at the table. While I believe that Collegium’s practice is a valiant and worthwhile attempt at recreating the  German tradition of longsword fencing and our lost martial heritage, in sparring and tournament play, I see the techniques of the ACA appear more often and often to greater effect. Do not, however, make the mistake of thinking that I reckon the ACA style lacks finese or that the Collegium style lacks effectiveness – both styles have ample measures of both.

This widens the question into one which asks whether we praise functional utility or artistic perfection. I’m not sure I’m in a position to answer this. What I will say is that I’m overjoyed to have the opportunity to learn both styles and to be stuck trying to find an answer to this quandry. Both styles – utility and art – are required by anyone interested in sword play in the modern world.