The Better Part of Valor

Training for judicious fencing with the Jar of Pain

guest post from Andreas “Dre” Orphanides

If you stop by Mid-South on a Saturday afternoon, instead of the shuffle of feet and delicate clacking of Olympic fencing weapons, you might encounter something very different: the clang of steel on steel as two fighters attempt to best each other at historical German longsword combat. German longsword has been offered at the club since 2015, and in contrast to Olympic fencing, it’s a bona fide martial art.

You only die once.

(Image from Hans Talhoffer, "Alte Armatur und Ringkunst)

Goal: Don’t be the guy on the right.

What’s the difference between a sport and a martial art? Well, that’s a topic for another blog post. But for the purposes of this discussion, what’s important is this: the people who originally practiced German longsword only got to die once. In sport fencing, if you’re up by 3 points, you might take a risk, using a tactic that might get you a point but leaves you vulnerable. In (real, historical) sword fighting, if you leave yourself vulnerable, you die.[1]

This is a critically important point in the study of historical fencing: many of the techniques hinge on the fencers applying a cautious and measured approach to closing, setting up attacks, and engaging the blades. There’s even a derogatory term for longsword fencers who fight without fuehlen, or feeling — that is, the sensitivity required to read and respond to the opponent’s blade posture correctly. Such fuehlen-less fighters are called Buffel: buffalo.

Nevertheless, even knowing the importance of prudence in the art, when we reconstruct un-armored, martial fencing techniques using our padded armor and our blunted longswords, we’re inclined to take a lot of risks — risks that would get a longsword practitioner in a real longsword duel killed very quickly. This can be helpful for understanding what’s possible with the longsword, but because we’re trying to “win” exchanges that don’t have real consequences other than injured pride, we rush, taking unnecessary risks, fighting without fuehlen.

We can only really know and practice the art of longsword with a sense of risk — a sense of imperilment. If a fighter doesn’t fear losing, she won’t fight in a way that balances discretion with intrepidity, and the methods we’re trying to recreate will suffer. But we obviously can’t fight with real sharpened swords — for one thing, we’d lose class members too quickly. So what’s the answer? How do we introduce risk — and a more legitimate fear of losing a bout — without getting the floors too dirty?

The answer is the Jar of Pain.

The Jar of Pain isn’t really a jar. Right now, it’s actually the compostable bowl pictured here. But really, the Jar of Pain is a concept. Inside the Jar is a collection of “gifts”: little slips of paper, each of which requires the recipient to complete a slightly unpleasant exercise set: 20 burpees, or a 2-minute plank, or one fencing strip’s worth of sprint suicides, etc. The Jar of Pain bestows its gifts to the loser of a longsword bout — or, if the exchange ends in a double hit, to both losers. Whoever loses the bout draws a slip of paper from the Jar and is required to do that exercise (in their longsword gear!) before they can fence again.

The idea behind the Jar of Pain is to increase the consequences for losing an exchange. This forces fencers to fight more judiciously — more like their lives depend on it — which leads to exchanges that are paced and sequenced a lot more like how they’re described in the historical manuals. The double-hit penalty also helps to encourage more prudent fighting — this prevents people from trying to rush in for the “kill”. The double penalty also encourages the revenge strike, if you’re the vindictive sort: if you know that you’re going to have to do twenty pushups or whatever because you missed that parry, wouldn’t you want your opponent to suffer a similar fate?

Does it work?

Early observations suggest that the Jar of Pain technique really does qualitatively change how people fence. The fencing seems considerably more measured and probing, and exchanges are cleaner. I’m not expert enough to know whether the fighting is more true to the art, but it does seem more precise and patient. I’ll have to interview the crew a bit more to see if they feel like the techniques work better when the Jar of Pain is at stake.

There are some side effects and disadvantages to the Jar of Pain. For one thing, it does slow down fencing when you’ve only got a few people in the rotation, since bouts are shorter, and you may have to wait for your opponent to finish their penalty exercise. And the Jar of Pain approach really only works for single-exchange bouts. I am not sure what the side effects of a penalty system would be if (for example) a fighter was down 0 hits to 2, but it might result in more unwise risk-taking rather than less. And because we’re only using single-exchange bouts, it means that we lose the distinction between (for example) a head hit and an arm hit — both hits result in having to face the Jar.

But the Jar of Pain is definitely a fun experiment, and I think it’s helping us think about how we approach practicing and deploying the art of German longsword fencing at the club. I don’t think I’ll use it exclusively, but I’ll definitely roll it out from time to time to ensure that participants are fighting honest. This approach could also be used to reproduce single-touch epee duels, or just to have a fun way to mix strength building and aerobics exercises into your friendly bouting sessions.

If you’re interested in German longsword, or if you’d like to become a victim of the Jar of Pain, stop by anytime during one of our regularly scheduled longsword classes! Visitors are welcome to observe classes, and if you want to try it out, the first session is free. Why not give it a try?





[1]  As the (aptly-named) 17th century French fencing master Philibert de la Touche wrote about duelling: “One does not have, very often, the freedom of sinning twice.”