The European Historical Combat Guild

Investigating Europe's Historical combative methods and behaviours

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Unbroken and unchanged

Having followed a few discussions lately on styles that may go back to the "past", mention was made of whether these might have an unbroken lineage of teaching going back to time "X".

This started me thinking. When we talk about unbroken traditions what do we really mean? Even if a tradition or style has survived with an unbroken line of teachers, generation to generation, perhaps what is more important is whether it is unaltered or unchanged.

Looking at any system that has been survived and been passed down over the years, it will have changed even if only superficially as the people, or rather the mindset, context and goals of those that practice the art change. Once something changes beyond a certain point it is arguably no longer what it was and therefore is something new and different having broken away from the original. At this point is the line broken, changed or both?

In Japan the oldest Bujutsu Ryu have survived many generations in unbroken lines going back to the 15th and 16th Centuries. However some have changed a great deal in that time, things have been added and other thing removed. While others have changed very little or what changes have taken place have not altered the Principles of the whole. In the same time other Ryu have died out.

Any system or method, is primarily a way of passing on information to the next generation. They are a way to gain understanding of the Principles of combat that were viewed as important by the founder of that system. Once the balance of the system shifts to different Principles or goals then the system is changed and flow of the original teaching is broken, even if the actual lineage of teacher to teacher continues.

What does all this mean? That one should consider the way that one asses different sources of information.

Looking at Talhoffer for example we see the images unchanged as they were when first drawn, though of course our interpretation of what they mean is what really matters. Of course interpretation is key in learning any skill, that is as true today as in the past. Of course most of the manuals were record of systems meant for those already initiated in methods of that system, or else were advertisement brochures intended to obtain patronage. However the information we see is itself unaltered.

I could also have a teacher who instructs me in Talhoffer methods who come from an unbroken line of teachers going back 500 years, but how much has the teaching changed in that time? The previously made point, that information changes as it is passed on intentionally or not; rather like in a game of Chinese whispers, comes into play. In this hypothetical situation, we can’t say for sure how much of what is being passed on to me by my teacher is true to what Talhoffer taught.

It should not be forgotten that people like the idea of things that go back a long way into the past. It adds weight and credibility. Of course this is a valid point. However there is also a temptation to misuse it. Consider how many Asian martial arts claim or at least imply lineage going back hundreds of years, even when the actual evidence is only traceable back a century or even less. Or that certain techniques or methods can be traced back to some distant time in the past to give them credibility. Someone I knew who was practising a Chinese art that practised high kicks of various types. They told me that while they recognised that doing these high kicks was not a good idea in a modern context, that they were practised in that system because they had been developed hundreds of years ago; to use against mounted opponents! There are many points this raises which lie outside of this current piece, though it serves as an illustration

None of this is intended to be an answer or suggest what is right and wrong, rather to remember to keep an open and honest mind.

Consider that even where the lineage is real, that does not of itself mean that the system has more worth than something "newer".

Jonathan Waller

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Those that can do those that can’t teach

For a long time I, like I believe many people, took this to mean that those that were good at doing something did just that, they got on and did it. Those that could not do it made their way by teaching it. It conveyed a sense that those that were teaching were in some way deficient in skill and/or knowledge.
Now of course there are people who claim to be teachers of various subjects who should not be teachers, who have neither real skill nor real ability to improve others. However there are many good teachers who themselves are not at the top the game in their chosen field.

Over time and the more I have taught and watched others teach and learn and read and researched, my opinion of this of old piece of advice has changed.

The skills of doing and teaching how to do are different things, they require different skill sets. Just because someone is a skilful martial artist for example, doesn’t mean they are going to be good teacher.

The obvious examples of the difference between those that do and teach are world class sportsmen/women and athletes. Their coaches generally are not world class in the activity themselves, though some are, far more often they have been good but not at the top level. However what they do excel at it is getting others to be the best.

The greatest reason for this is that when one reaches near peak performance of a skill, you become increasingly unaware of the precise details of what and how you are achieving it, this has ceased to be a cognitive thing and is happening on a deeper neurological level. The ability to analyse moves and actions and to put that understanding in to words or to help someone else will not be there. In fact that awareness is there while performing a task is there, it is actually likely to inhibit the highest level of performance.

A personal example is doing and teaching shoulder rolls, I have done…. Well so many I can’t think how to count them. I am not aware of all the details of what I do when I roll anymore. Sometimes when I am teaching rolls or for some reason I think about rolling while doing one, it does not work, it hurts a bit. I end up engaging mentally in the process, or re-investment as it is know in sports training, more than I should, the result, it doesn’t work as it should.

How one does something at a high level may be markedly different from the way one does it while learning, so doing as a master does it may not actually be the best way to do it a lower levels of proficiency. It certainly may not be where you need to be on the journey of acquiring skills. It could in fact be counter-productive to properly acquiring the skill. So another part of being a good teacher is seeing where the student is and ensuring that they are doing things appropriate to their level. This is something that the master practitioner may not be able to do.

Also at some point you have to stop teaching, they have to get on with it and gain understanding through their own experience. Really calling someone a Teacher is a misnomer, a better word is Guide. Teaching implies that you are giving them something that they do not already have or that they can’t get without the Teacher. When really you are guiding them to let the kill out, to get them to find it in themselves.
Going back to learning how to roll, once I have shown you what to do, and watched you do some and given advice on those, the next phase lies in you doing it and gaining experience and understanding from that. If it hurt, felt rough and disorganised, then you didn’t do it well. No pain, felt smooth, then you did it well. Of course the value of the guide is that they can see what you did and can observe the things that are off, using their own experience, to help frame your experience. However I can tell you all day long what is wrong or right, but until you can feel the difference and act on it yourself it won’t really mean anything to you.

Often the skill of the teacher is not what they say, but what they don’t say. Someone does not necessarily need to do all the things that were wrong just the one or two key points. The student doesn’t need to know everything that you know they need the one or two things that will help them now. What is important is where they are on their journey now, not where you are on yours.

So if you want to judge a teacher, do not necessarily look at how good they are with the skill, look at how good their students are, and if you really want to judge how good a teacher they are, don’t look at the best students. Look at the average in that group. Its easy to teach people who have lots of ability, but only a good teacher can really raise the levels of everyone. Also don’t judge the teacher on how much they talk, or how much information they can regurgitate, but how simply they pass the appropriate information on to the students.

Perhaps the old saying should be changed to
Those that can, do.
Those that can teach, teach.


Monday, 1 November 2010

Swords and Swordsmen

On Friday I attended the launch of a new book, Swords and Swordsmen By Mike Loades.
I have know Mike for.... 38 years..... since he turned up to our house stating that he wanted to do what my father did.

In attendance were many names from the fields of research and reconstruction in the use of arms and armour including John Waller and many familiar faces some of whom I had not seen in a long time.

The launch took place at the Cutlers Hall, the of the Worshipful Company of Cutlers who received their first Royal charter in 1416 from Henry V. Their business being the manufactures and distribution of all implements with a cutting edge, including swords and daggers.

Amongst their displayed collection is a sword presented to the Company by Guild Honoured member, the late Ewart Oakeshotte. The sword is believed to be the one which originally hung over the tomb of Edward the Black Prince until it went missing in the 17th Century.

I shall write a full review of the book once I have finished reading it.