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Marinara and Rice

My background from before I started HEMA is far from the strangest, but it definitely isn't common. In middle and high school I played with foam weapons - not LARP mind you, we just made weapons out of PVC pipes and pool noodles and hit each other with them. When I moved to attend college, I eventually made my way into Eastern Martial Arts, but wound up at a school that studied a mixed system, one that combined Tae Kwon Do, Karate, Judo and Aikido. I did several years of heavy combat in the SCA and even spent a few months trying out Dagorhir - a foam based fighting group. Between them all, feel like I've inadvertently covered most of the major sword/nerd activities you can get into. Because of all of this, when I came into HEMA, I had a -lot- of baggage. I had ways of moving that were ingrained, ideas of how to make attacks with various weapons, even ideas of how I wanted to fight or when I should be attacking. Some of these were good habits that I still use today and even teach. Others were more insidious, and not only were they not helpful, but I wasn't even aware I had them.

There was a lot of relearning going on and a lot more discovery of new things to go with it. Looking back though, I have no doubt I would not be the fighter I am today if I didn't have this wealth of knowledge and experience to draw upon. Fortunately, that's not what this blog post is about - instead, I'm going to talk about the validity or mixing styles and ideas.


Salvatore Sandone, the head of the martial arts school I went to (Zhang Sah in Philadelphia, PA) is Italian. Like, deep South Philly Italian. One of his favorite sayings was "You're getting marinara in my rice" (or something similar, it's been awhile), and he would pull this out when we were working on forms. Because we were a mixed martial arts school (note: not an MMA school where we trained to fight in an octagon), we would practice two different kinds of forms: kata, found in Shotokan Karate, and poomse, found in WTF Tae Kwon Do. These two arts are vastly different, and accordingly, their forms are different - and I won't go and say that either one is better or worse, only that they had different goals and intentions in their actions.

I always think of Karate as being heavy, and grounded - and as a bigger guy at the time, it always felt really good to me. The stances were wider and deeper and the strikes were made with the full power of the body behind them. I always felt that there was a rhythm to the forms when I was doing them - the actions were distinct and hard, and it just always felt like there was an inexorable pressure. On the other hand, the poomse were lighter and more flowing. The stance was more upright and the motions always felt crisp but smooth. They tended to lack the weight that the kata had and instead had this relentless flow to them. Undoubtedly, newer students would mix the two up. They would chamber their punches for their poomse at their hips instead of at their ribs; they might make the stance for their kata too high. Things like this are examples of "marinara in the rice". The students were blurring the line between the two arts and making a mess of what should be beautiful and unique things. Each martial art has its own traditions and values, and as students of them it is important to understand the differences when we are learning them.

It should be pretty straight forward to see how this applies to HEMA. When we study techniques and ideas, it is important to understand and acknowledge where they come from. If someone says they are studying KdF (Kunst des Fechten), it is reasonable to expect them to know that there are five master strikes. If someone says they work from Fiore, it is reasonable to expect them to know the difference between Half-Iron Gate and Boar's Tooth. This is the reason we study HEMA in the first place: to gain an understanding of these concepts and ideas and how other people did them. If we aren’t doing this, we might as well just be LARPing.

Note: I am not just bashing on LARP out of a sense of “we’re better than they are” but because what we practice won’t apply to LARP. I’ve seen some really skilled people pull off amazing and terrible things that work with foam weapons and other rule sets that you just can’t do in HEMA. So for real, if someone wants to write me into a LARP, I'm totally down to try it.


But this doesn't end here. I mean it could, but then you could (rightfully) point out: but you guys mix and match weapons and ideas all the time - didn't you just say that was bad?

I mean it is, but it isn't, so let me explain. Our Basic Weapons classes take one concept and then explain it across multiple weapons and use that to help teach general fight principles. If we run a class on Timing it could easily include the following:

  • an annoying wrestling drill from 3227a

  • some dagger concepts focusing on primary and secondary attacks (basically fehlers)

  • apply those same attacks and concepts to longsword

In each of these drills the overarching focus is observing your opponents' actions and learning to use timing to interrupt them. It is much, -much- easier to see this with wrestling, because all you need to do is move your body. Nothing to watch or move, no pointy things to distract you, just find their pace and interrupt it. When you add a dagger, there is negligible weight involved, so things like momentum and inertia are only your own, so it is much easier to feel the mechanics of the movement. When we swap out for a longsword, all of a sudden the weapon has a voice in the matter, so you need to focus on the technical aspects of the movement as well. While it isn't impossible to fill a whole class and learn this solely working with longsword (or your weapon of choice), there seems to be much better retention, as well as cross-application, by spreading this across more weapons. This allows us drill the same thing for an hour and it doesn't feel long or tedious (to my students reading this: sorry, you're getting suckered). Additionally, different people respond to some weapons better than others, so this approach lets them use something they are comfortable with, letting them learn easier than just making them use a longsword.

As a school, we go deeper than that. We have “breakout classes” where we focus on the different weapons independently. Our longsword classes stick to KdF ideas; Sword and Buckler comes solely from MS I.33 (it’s a full system, fight me), etc. In these classes it is important that we focus on the texts. We use the proper vocabulary and work on plays described in the manuscripts. When we work from Meyer's dussack, we talk about Steer and Boar (even though it's clearly just Ochs and Pflug) because it is important. This lineage, and making sure we know it and learn it is why we are doing HEMA and not just stick fighting in the SCA (which really is a lot of fun).


Sometimes, blending things is good. When I would free spar back in Philly, it didn't matter which we did, as long as it worked. It didn't matter if the front thrust kick came from a low stance or a high stance, or even some blending of the two, as long as it had the power to do what it needed to - and the same applies to HEMA. When you are sparring or competing, no one is going to ask you "that third attack you used, can you give me proper citation for it?" They're just going to say "point" and then "Halt!". If they call it back it will be because it was flat or something, not because you threw an offside Zwerchau from Boar's Tooth (and for those who don’t study longsword, the first is a master strike from KdF, and the latter is a guard from Fiore). After all, it's all just sticks in hands, and in the scheme of things, if a thing works, it works, and knowing the what and the how doesn't matter in the thick of a fight. I myself am -happily- guilty of 'just doing stuff' when I am fighting, ranging from chest kicks and disarms, or silly things like throwing a plunge cut in a single stick event. And it gets worse, I teach this to people, on purpose. Some of my myriad sins are as follows:

  • I make my students C-step. This is 100%, and unabashedly, a carry over from karate (not tae kwon do). I do it because it works, and there have been multiple times I did -not- impale myself on someone's sword because of this habit. But I know it doesn't come from any HEMA manual that I have read, and I am sure to tell my students that.

  • I make everyone who will listen not bob up and down when they move. The goal is that your head should be level while you walk. The practical application is that this helps maintain power and follow through when you attack, but it purely comes from my time at Zhang Sah and not any sword books.

  • And it gets worse! I steal ideas from my understanding of MS I.33 and apply them to other weapons. The idea of sieges and wards apply really well to guards and closing distances. And a lot of the language I use to describe these ideas I steal from Fabris' The Art of Dueling.

So what's the take away? Is cross-over good, or is it bad? And really, that depends on how you are doing it. If you are studying HEMA you owe it to yourself and the art to be aware of the source material and know what it comes from. I want to lie and tell you it will make you a better fencer, that knowing the ‘whats’ and the ‘whys’ of how you fight are important, but truthfully, it probably won't. It will let you learn, teach, and explain things much faster, and if that’s not why you’re here you might be playing the wrong game.

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