Several of the period fencing manuals tell us that we should not be fearful if we wish to fence. “If you become gentle and timid, you will never learn anything about fencing. ” (MS Dresden C 487, 15r)
Ringeck elaborates on this advice from Liechtenauer to say: “But if you become frightened easily you should not learn fighting arts, because a weak and frightened heart—it does not help you—it defeats all of your skills.” (MS Dresden C 487, 15r). It does not matter how many techniques you have learned, or how well you perform in drills, if you become timid in combat, you will probably loose. As levels of adrenaline increase, you may end up choosing flight, rather than fight, or worse, you may experience the so-called freeze syndrome. Perhaps you might me worried about getting hit, and as a result, you might hang back too much and not take openings to attack. Or perhaps you might overcompensate and use power levels that are too great, and risk hurting your training partner, because you are worried they will hurt you if you don’t. In short, fear can have a wide variety of negative effects on our fighting. For more information about the effects of fear on combat, I’d recommend reading some Geoff Thompson’s works, such as Dead or Alive, or The Art of Fighting without Fighting.
So if we do suffer from fear during combat, should we just give up? The fencing manuals may tell us not to learn fencing if we are frightened, but they never address how someone might work on reducing their fear in order to become a better fighter. Luckily, Dom Duarte addresses the issue in his Livro Da Ensinança De Bem Cavalgar Toda Sela, or The Art of Riding on Every Saddle. Dom Duarte, who was a Portuguese king, wrote the Bem Cavalgar primarily as a tournament text, but much of its advice can be applied to other fields, and one of its sections is called “About being Fearless”. Dom Duarte gives several reasons for why someone might be fearless.
Before I begin, let me clarify that by fear I do not necessarily mean a phobia, but rather, fear can include timidity, nervousness, or even a reluctance to fight. It can be the feeling of butterflies in your stomach. It can be any number of minor things, it does not even need to be something that is recognised consciously.
Personally, I developed a fear of breakfalls. It’s gotten a lot better recently, but I still hesitate about committing fully to them. I know I won’t get hurt because of the mats, and I know that my technique is getting there, and I know that if I commit more, I’d actually have less risk of injury, but I still have that issue of fear. The more I practice breakfalling however, the less of an issue it becomes.
Dom Duarte’s first reason for why someone might be fearless is that some people are fearless by nature. He notes here that some people are by nature cowards while there are some who are by nature too fearless and “pass through fire and other crazy things” (The Royal Book of Horsemanship, Jousting & Knightly Combat, page 44). Obviously it is bad to be so fearless that we put ourselves in unnecessary risk, and so Dom Duarte notes that it would be best to have a natural amount of courage somewhere between these two extremes. However natural causes are obviously not something we can train for, so this is of little use for training purposes.
His second reason why you might be fearless is presumption. That it is to say, you might presume you know something well enough that you do not to be afraid. Dom Duarte also notes that this method of becoming fearless is not always enough, as a presumption of knowledge can be overcome by over factors which cause factor. What Dom Duarte does not mention is that having only the presumption of knowledge can be very dangerous. While in a sparring context, trying to carry out a technique you presume that you can pull off, but that you actually aren’t capable of, isn’t a massive problem, however, this presumption could get you injured in any real life, self defence context.
This contrasts with his eight reason for why you might be fearless, if you know you have the advantage over someone. Dom Duarte lists examples such as being better at riding, or at using weapons, or perhaps having the better horse. While having a better horse doesn’t apply to what most of us do, there is other equipment that can fill that gap. For example, you might have more protective gloves than the opponent, so you have less reason to fear taking a hit to the hands. You might be stronger than the opponent, so you have less reason to fear close combat and wrestling, or maybe your skills with the sword might be greater than the opponent’s. All these reasons would reduce fear, and rightfully so. The important thing is to ensure that you do know have the advantage, rather than falsely presuming you have the advantage, as in the second reason. The only way to make sure of this is to train regularly, train at different ranges (e.g. start training at grappling if you can’t grapple), and make sure your safety gear is of sufficient quality.
Dom Duarte’s third reason why you might be fearless is desire: “if the desire is sufficiently strong, men will overcome the fear they might feel.” (The Royal Book of Horsemanship, Jousting & Knightly Combat, page 46). Simply put, you need to want to win. Dom Duarte gives four different objectives, of which only two are really relevant to fencing: being recreation, and honour, which you could also call renown. You may want to win to impress your friends, an instructor may want to solidify their position as instructor by proving they can apply what they teach, or perhaps you simply enjoy fencing. If you want to win badly enough, you will overcome your fear. If your desire to win isn’t great enough, perhaps you might think more about exactly you have to gain by winning.
The fourth reason is rather more negative, being ignorance. Ignorance, or a failure to understand our situation, is wholly negative in Dom Duarte’s eyes. “I say that that those who without understanding a situation are brave, do not show any specific virtue; for that to be true they would have to face the situation being aware of its risks and dangers and having made the decision because they were driven by the satisfaction and pleasure of doing good deeds.” (The Royal Book of Horsemanship, Jousting & Knightly Combat, page 47) Interestingly, Dom Duarte says “In a word, we can decide to do dangerous things but only ignorance can produce a total absence of fear; and we should protect ourselves from our heart’s feelings and act always based on reason.” (The Royal Book of Horsemanship, Jousting & Knightly Combat, page 47). He has two different points to make here, the first being that only ignorance can produce a complete absence of fear, and seeing as ignorance is wholly negative, this means we should never be entirely without fear. A small amount of fear is healthy. After all, if we had no fear of being hit for example, then why would we bother blocking? If we had no fear whatsoever of being hit, we wouldn’t block, and such a disregard for defence would degrade the art. The second point he’s making here, is that we should not base our reactions on our emotions, but rather we should use reason. If you feel fear, that is an emotional reaction to an adrenal dump, in which the body tries to make sense of this sudden adrenaline, and interprets it as fear. If you are frightened, take a moment to calm down, and consider rationally and logically why you’re afraid. Your instructor, if you have a good one, will step in, before any physical damage could be caused, your safety equipment, if its of adequate quality, will protect you. You likely have no rational reason to be scared, and if you force yourself to think rationally about why you’re scared, the fear may decrease. He concludes by telling us that in the aftermath of an injury, it is easy to become scared, but that if we have knowledge of the existing dangers, either through personal experience, or through being told about them, then we will not be ignorant and will be able to have “the appropriate audacity in some situations and fear and prudence in others.” (The Royal Book of Horsemanship, Jousting & Knightly Combat, page 48)
His fifth reason is fortunate occurrences. What he means by this is situations in which we are not put in danger. For example, if you have only sparred with people who were fearful themselves, or perhaps people who do not hit with excessive power, then you would little reason to be frightened. He takes this opportunity to tell us how a beginner should be trained, that is: they should be given a well behaved and healthy horse, they should high quality riding equipment, and whenever he makes a mistake, we should correct him gently and encourage him, rather than reprimand him. “When we see that he can gallop and jump over easy obstacles fearlessly, it is the appropriate time to start choosing more difficult obstacles for him to jump over and beasts that kick, hop and do other evil things with malice.” (The Royal Book of Horsemanship, Jousting & Knightly Combat, page 49) Once he is not frightened of dealing with the difficult horses, then Dom Duarte recommends good horses are chosen for him, but that he still ride the difficult horses on occasion. At this stage, the pupil should also be reprimanded for any mistakes made and force to repeat his movements until he has perfected them. Finally, he recommends at this level that the pupil be put in difficult situations, such as riding without stirrups, to prepare for any unfortunate occurances in real life, however he also notes that despite this, they should not be put in actual danger.
What we can see here is that Dom Duarte is recommending going easy on a beginner, and as they get used to each level of training, you must continue to ramp up the training, and put them in more frightening situations than they will encounter in a joust, so that when they joust, it will seem less frightening than having ridden on difficult horses or on difficult ground. If in contrast, you trained a beginner by putting them on a difficult horse, on uneven ground, with an overly heavy lance, they would quickly develop a fear of riding. For HEMA, beginners are often nervous about using, or being hit with, weapons, so we should make sure they have good safety equipment and forgiving sparring and drilling partners. Once the fear has gone, then we can start to push them more, but we shouldn’t push them too far too quickly .
His sixth reason is habit. This means if we used to doing something, if it is habit, it is unlikely to scare us. We should not let factors like age or laziness get in the way of training, because if we train regularly, we are less likely to be frightened by fencing. If you train, it is crucial that you do so regularly, and that you don’t let poor excuses get in the way.
His seventh reason is reasoning. This explanation of reasoning ties in with both his arguments about ignorance and habit. He argues that those who use reasoning rather than emotional judgements will not be frightened, and so they will remain the habit of practicing. This is largely reiterating to use rational judgements of your situation rather than emotional ones, and if you think rationally, you will be less likely to be frightened, and so you will practice more often, making you even less frightened.
The eight reason I have discussed above, and was above knowing you have the advantage. The ninth relates to being more afraid of something else. For example, he points out that someone is likely to throw themselves off a roof, even if that frightens them, rather than remain on the roof, if the house is on fire. This does not particularly apply to fencing, but perhaps if you are scared of being attacked more than you are of being hurt during practice, you might take up self defence. If training is frightening, then think about the consequences of not training. As I said earlier, I really don’t like doing breakfalls, but I know that the consequences of not learning how to breakfall are more worrying than the practice of the breakfalls.
His tenth reason is rage. He admits that there is discussion about whether or not rage is useful. He acknowledges that it can reduce fear, however it can also take away your self-control. There are differing opinions on this issue, as Dom Duarte notes, even to the point where the manuals can seen to be contradictory.
“if you fight with ease, without anger and according to these teachings, then all will be well ”
(HS.3227a, folio 43r)
However, the primary of the five meisterhau, is the zornhau, which translates as rage-strike. Talking about the zornhau, the writer of the HS.3227a has this to say:
“When you are angry and raging, then no strike is as ready as this upper strike ”
(HS.3227a, folio 23v)
So we are told not to be angry, even though the primary meisterhau has rage in the name and we are told the zornhau is useful when you are angry? While the HS.3227a is not entirely clear, Dom Duarte however is clear what he thinks about rage, that it is useful only if directed at yourself. If you make a mistake and are angry with yourself, then you will be motivated to work harder to correct your mistake. Directed at others though, he believes that it will simply cause you to loose your self-control. In a sparring context, this would obviously be unacceptable, and even in a self defence situation, you should not loose self-control and face potential legal issues for any excessive force used.
Dom Duarte’s final reason is the Grace of God, in that you might be fearless because God has given you fearlessness. Obviously, it should be born in mind that Dom Duarte was a Catholic king, It’s not this blog’s place to discuss this any further, as your faith is a personal issue.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s post. Dom Duarte is a fascinating resource, being one of the few historical sources to talk about the psychology of combat, something that even today is often neglected.