The European Historical Combat Guild

Investigating Europe's Historical combative methods and behaviours

Sunday, 4 September 2011

The Notion of a “Real Fight” By Matt Galas

Matt makes some similar points to those I have expressed here and comes to similar conclusions. Enjoy

The Notion of a “Real Fight”
By Matt Galas, Copyright 2010

Considering the value placed by many in the HEMA community on the notion of simulating a real fight with sharp weapons, it is a useful exercise to list the differences between sportive bouts of fencing (whether in a training environment or in competition) and an earnest encounter with sharp weapons. The following categories summarize the most obvious differences between the two.

Fair Fight
As a general rule, human beings abhor the idea of a fair fight when fighting for real. Whenever push comes to shove, it is human nature to seek an unfair advantage over the enemy, in terms of greater numbers, surprise, or superior weaponry. Thus, the very premise of a competitive bout (two opponents, squared off, beginning out of distance, armed with identical weapons) is a situation that seldom occurs in reality. Far more likely in a "real fight" is exactly the opposite: Multiple opponents; attacking with the element of surprise; beginning the fight from within striking distance; and attacking when the victim is unarmed, before he can draw his weapon, or with vastly superior weaponry.

To list the key differences:
- Identical Weapons vs. Advantage Through Superior Weaponry
- Equal Numbers vs. Superiority in Numbers
- Both Sides Know Bout Will Begin vs. Surprise Attack
- Bout Begins Out of Distance vs. Attack from Within Striking Range

Artificial Environment
Sparring and tournament bouts typically take place on neutral, pre-selected ground. There is an even surface which is equal for both parties and free from obstructions, obstacles, and barriers to free movement. In contrast, the random nature of real fights mean that this type of neutral playing field is seldom encountered. Far more likely is a restricted area, the presence of obstacles, unsure footing, differences in level (such as steps or sloping terrain), and even interference from bystanders who happen to be present. These factors have a huge impact on the kind of movement that a fighter can practically employ, the most obvious example being the danger this poses for the long, backwards retreat commonly employed by sportive fencers on the defensive.

To list the key differences:
- Pre-Selected Arena vs. Random Environment
- Clear Playing Field vs. Natural Obstacles & Obstructions
- Solid Surface vs. Uncertain Footing
- Flat Surface vs. Uneven / Differences in Level
- Empty Arena vs. Possible Bystanders

Limited Expectation of Harm
A key difference in terms of human psychology (and corresponding physiological effects) is the knowledge that there are limits on the degree of harm that can be expected during a tournament bout. As intense as the fighting may be, the competitors know that there are limits imposed on the degree of harm that is allowed to be inflicted on them. The presence of protective gear; the use of blunt weapons; the imposition of rules limiting the actions of the opponent; and the presence of neutral third parties who will interfere to stop the action in case of injury: All of these factors create a level of confidence and security in the competitor that are completely lacking in a real fight. The end result is that a tournament competitor can rest secure that the chances of serious injury are negligible, whereas a combatant in a real fight knows that serious injury is a probable outcome.

This is probably the most important factor of all, considering the data that has accumulated over the past two decades on the psychological and physiological effects of combat stress. Effects such as reduced motor coordination; exaggerated reaction to stimuli; tunnel vision; and slowed-down (or speeded-up) perception of time are but a few of the effects documented by experts in this growing field of research. The implications for performance of fencing technique should be obvious.

To list the key differences:
- "Friendly" Opponent vs. Enemy Who Intends to Injure
- Small Likelihood of Injury vs. High Likelihood of Injury
- Psycho-Physiological Effects of Combat Stress: Minimal vs. Extreme
- Limits on Targets & Technique vs. No Limits
- Blunt Weapons vs. Sharp Weapons
- Protective Gear vs. Street Clothes
- Action Stops Upon Injury vs. Attack Intensifies Upon Injury
- Referee Will Interfere If Required vs. No One There to Help
- Presence of Rules and Limitations vs. No Rules

Different Consequences
A final factor is the different nature of the consequences faced by a sportive competitor and a combatant engaged in a real fight. In a tournament, the consequences are based on fear of violating the tournament rules, and hence on the chances for winning. Likewise, there is a fear of social repercussions from violating the rules and hurting a fellow competitor. These consequences add up to create a strong incentive to care about the opponent's safety. The consequences in a real fight are entirely different, and naturally lead to very different behaviours. The primary concern is for one's own safety, making concerns about legal liability, revenge, and other factors fade into the background. The end result is that the combatant has little or no concern for his enemy's safety. On the contrary, his intent is typically to do him as much harm as necessary to end the encounter.

To list the different consequences:
- Breach of Rules/Law: Penalty/Disqualification vs. Prosecution/Lawsuit
- Incentive to Breach Rules/Law: Low (Little to Gain) vs. High (Personal Safety At Stake)
- Social Consequences of Injuring Foe: High (bystanders are watching, friendly opponent) vs. Low (Safety At Stake)
- Nature of Social Consequences: Criticism, Ostracism vs. Revenge

Nuances of the Above
Of course, the distinctions above are not purely black and white, but are more a matter of degree. Societal notions of a "fair fight" can and did often influence the behaviour of earnest combatants, whether in a modern street fight or in an historical encounter with sharps. Some "real fights" do indeed take place at a pre-selected place, under more or less equal conditions, as in a modern after-school fight or an 18th century duel. Even when responding to a sudden attack in the street, due regard for social and legal consequences may lurk behind the overwhelming, immediate concern for one's personal safety.

Another difficulty in discussing this question is the matter of consistency. In sportive encounters, the competitors generally know what to expect. In the real world, however, violence comes in many forms. What do we mean by a "real fight"? It may consist of a challenge by a barroom drunk, a pre-arranged fight after school, a sudden assault by a mugger on a side street, a mob attack during a riot, or a friendly sparring match which suddenly turns serious. This variety was equally valid in historical times; the equivalents of the above scenarios can be found in legal documents and chronicles from medieval and renaissance times. Comparing a tournament bout with a "real fight" can have a different flavor if the comparison is made to a judicial duel (which included rules, equal conditions, and equal weapons) as opposed to an attack in the street (which was likely to be an intentional mismatch).

To some extent, the differences between sportive contests and earnest encounters could be placed on a continuum, ranging from casual sparring sessions with a regular training partner; to an intense, hard-fought tournament bout; to an earnest encounter with carefully prescribed limitations, such as an early 20th century duel with sharpened epees; to the extreme violence of an armed assault by a felon with no concern whatsoever but to injure or kill.

These are just a few of the considerations that make the comparison between sportive encounters and a "real fight" at best a tricky proposition, and at worst, a comparison between apples and oranges.

Understanding the differences between a sportive encounter and a "real fight" is important for the HEMA community. A due appreciation for the distinction between the two can inform discussions on issues such as training philosophy, choice of training curriculum, sparring practices, and tournament rule-sets. It can also help to defuse some of the underlying tension that appears in online threads on sparring and tournaments, where the participants often appear to have radically different assumptions on this subject.

For a more thorough discussion of this topic, see the following works:

Sgt. Rory Miller, Meditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training & Real World Violence (YMAA Publication Center, Boston, 2008)

Christoph Amberger, The Secret History of the Sword: Adventures in Ancient Martial Arts, pp. 121-27 (Unique Publications, Burbank, 1998)

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