Monday, November 12, 2007

A Requiem for "The Western Way"

The other day I made a joke to Ben that led to a long discussion about shield sizes. I was referencing something Ben had once said to me about Radnor, that when Radnor came home from from Pennsic last year after seeing all the big shields in use he was scandalized and asked "how can we preserve the Western Way of fighting." Now a bit of clarification is in order. Like most Western fighters of my generation Radnor is the fighter I always wanted to be. He's my idol. He is far and above the best fighter I've ever seen. He won every tournament he entered over a twenty year period. He is also the most elegant fighter I've ever seen and possibly the finest knight. Watching Radnor was like watching Joe Montana play football or Michael Jordan play basketball. The things he was able to do were so far above what everybody else was doing that it was beautiful to watch.

Anyway, Radnor is also the pope of the small shield church. When he says "the Western Way" he means in part fighting an offensive style of fighting with small shields. Small shields in this case mean nothing larger than a chin to crotch heater (which Radnor considers too big for himself, but ok for others). Radnor had taken the 24" round used by Duke Paul and andded corners to it so it looked more knightly and this was his shield. Later he cut it down to 22" and then to 18". Now, due to a bicep injury, he uses a "shattered lance" which is the bottom end of a heavy jousting lance about 40" long--basically a stick (not a madu).

In the beginning of the SCA, particularly after Pennsic 6, Western fighters had a rep for winning most of the interkingdom tourneys (and also for higher calibration). This was mostly because the West had started first and because the West had Duke Paul, who was not only the top fighter of his day but developed the most complete fighting system in the SCA (still to this date). At Pennsic 6 Paul, Lucky, Houghton, MacEnruig (I think that's the list) came out and trounced everybody. According to Gyrth Oldcastle, Paul lost only one bout that entire war, and the Westerners prompted most other kingdoms to change the way they fought and trained. First Pual, then Radnor, then Jade (all of whom used 24" shields) were considered the most dangerous fighters in the SCA. There might have been a year or two when Radnor wasn't fighting and Jade hadn't come on that Torgul from An tir was the best fighter in the SCA. But as Radnor said back in 1992 "Once upon a time you could take the top ten fighters from any kingdom, put them in a list, and the winner would always be a Westerner. That is probably still true. But if you took the top two fighters from every kingdom in a list and put them in a list the winner could be anybody."

Now the rest of the known world has caught up to and surpassed the West. And most of them have done so using (by Western standards) huge shields and fighting a defensive style that is anathema to old Westerners like Radnor (and me).

I have heard a number of different definitions of what a proper shield size is. Paul preferred a 24" round, Radnor and 24" rounded heater. The ideal measurements were based on your torso. A shield should be no longer than chin to crotch (or inseam, which on an ideally proportioned person should be the same thing). The standard for roundshields was kind of ridiculous. They should be no longer than twice the length of your forearm, or two cubits, giving roundshields a lot of advantages. One standard I saw was that the shield could be two cubits in the longest dimension, meaning that as the shield got narrower it could get longer but a roundshield was the bi9ggest shield you could have. I'm 6'3" with 16" long forearms. Twice that is 32". So I could have a kite shield 32" long but a heater that was 24" wide could only be 29.6" long. That standard never really caught hold. I think it's because it required knights to do complex math. In CAID when I lived there the standard was written into law. At armor inspection you held your shield up to your body to prove that it was smaller than shoulder to shoulder and chin to crotch in armor (so if you had wide shoulder armor you got a wider shield). They also weighed you weapons and shield with a fish scale to prove they met a minimum weight.

This is why on the West coast you hear people talk about a difference between tourney shields and war shields (you could use big shields in wars-that was ok). Anybody who used a shield bigger than these dimensions in a tournament was considered unchivalrous and cowardly. My shield actually fell into the shoulder to shoulder chin to crotch rule--it was 24" wide and 34" long (I stradled it to make sure it was correct) but I was told it was unchivalrous anyway. Only one knight--Duke Rolf, used a long kite shield back then (same size he uses now).

But now you have a number of Western knights using big kite or heater shields and Radnor is despairing the loss of the Western Way of fighting.

When I made the joke to Ben I was just trying to be funny. But I didn't realize how the issue effected him personally. When he came out to the West and squired to Uther he went from his Eastern style shield, 24" x 36" to a 24" square. Now, following his knight's example, he's gone back to it. He's winning a lot of fights and he's catching a lot of shit from Westerners who think he's being chickeshit. So when I made my joke he took it personally and I don't blame him. I'm also sorry. We got into a long discussion over the relative values of the big shield versus the little shield but there was a paradigm block in the way. He makes some really valid points about many people not being able to generate power if they are moving as much as you have to move to use a small shield. To Ben, who started fighting out here in the East, using a 24" shield is handicapping yourself, because big shields are his norm. To someone who started fighting in the West, particularly in the 70s or 80s just the opposite is true. You are not handicapping yourself with a small shield you are being unchivalrous with a big shield. *I* don't feel that way, especially since moving to the East and meeting many fine and chivalrous fighters who use big shields. I still don't like them or the style they come with, but I don't think they are unchivalrous. But that is the prevailing feeling among fighters on the West Coast. As we traded emails I realized that Ben was not taking it as a joke. He got very defensive and I realized later why.

Two years ago at Duke Jade's suggestion I went back to fighting with a half round and have stuck with it. I loose my leg more but I seem to be winning more fights. But I'm going one day to go to a long Norman kite. I just want to try it out (and maybe I'll finally win another crown).

I've said this before but I want to say it here: perhaps the Western Way doesn't deserve to be saved. *I* love it. It's the most beautiful, powerful, elegant form of fighting I've ever seen, and it is also the most fun fight. I also think it is a much higher form of the art. But my opinion doesn't matter for shit (unless I'm king). The worst thing you can do as a knight--other than cheat--is to whine about your opponent. That is especially true if you are whining about his equipment. I should be able to take my best game and beat him at his best game. If his best game uses a 36" or even 40" shield then so be it. It's me vs. him and let the best man win.


Ben said...

I am NOT going to comment about shield sizes in general... but I will say this: Radnor's little block stick gives me FITS. Actually, anything remotely madu-like does, it has to do with 90% of my shots going "east-west" (ha ha).

To hit Radnor, you have to either articulate your wrist tremendously to get around his point, or throw slot shots ("north-south"). You can also mix off-sides and wraps, assuming you get to swing that many times.

Oh yeah, or thrust the bejeezus out of him.

To get an idea of how good a fighter radnor is, he fights for 20mumble years with no thrusting tip, wins 7 or 8 crowns, destroys his body, comes back puts a thrusting tip on his sword and within 3 months of practice, has a thrust that is probably top 5 if not 3 in the kingdom.

The other way to deal with Radnor is to bully him.

Ben said...

Oh, I should also add:

I have not been given "major" shit about my heater (24" x 36", curved) - after all I can just refer them to Uther.

There is one knight whom I will not mention who brings it up to my face everytime... I just tell him it's to compensate for my small penis.

There have been other comments to both my knight and ex-squire-brother recently knighted Roric to the tune of "I think it will make him worse, not better". Which is at least a testable hypothesis...

I like fighting with the square (24x25 to be precise), but it requires either a low stance and amazing defense or incredible energy to fight well. I can't fight from down low (like Jade, or to a different extent Artus Quintus), and I just run out of steam after a bunch of fights with the square at "full capacity".

MAC said...

To kill Radnor:

Try throwing a high wrap that he has to block outside and then rolling your hand over and thrustig him in the face. It's the best sword and shield attack I know against florentine fighters and would probably work against his stick too.

I once beat him when I was fighting florentine short-sword and broadsword by using a techinque I adapted for fighting Madus from a combination of Liberi and Silver twchniques. Start in a guard with your broadsword sword on the left and to the rear, a la Liberi's one-handed sword or I-33, and the short sword up in front of your face as if it were a buckler (I actually fold my arms on an angle when I do this). Sweep low with the sword to knock the point out of the stick out of the way and pass forward on the left, bringing the shortsword out as you do. You are doing this to block or bind his broadsword (Silver says you should never attack with a dagger) but he will think it's an attack and will go to guard his face. Then you just thrust him in the belly with your boradsword. Radnor was really impressed. I should have waited to use it on him in a tourney. :)