Is it possible to train in complex movements with the sword without having an opponent or drill partner with whom to work? If so, is this training of any value? Did fencers do this in the Middle Ages or Renaissance? The answer to all three questions is “yes,” and such drills should be a regular part of your historical fencing training.
For over 100 years Japanese martial artists have used kata, series of steps, kicks, punches, or weapons actions as a traditional part of their training. Such kata often include 50 or more distinct movements. Among the founders of modern karate one or two kata formed the basis for lifetime study, although the number of kata have proliferated and their quality arguably declined with the widespread commercialization of the martial arts.
In Europe some 400 to 500 years before the development of karate kata, swordsmen were using series of movements to flourish, a term found in both German and English Long Sword texts, with solo footwork movements and blade actions much like the kata. Lindholm’s and Hull’s translations of Dobringer’s gloss of Liechtenauer’s teaching verse for the Long Sword includes a flourish that starts with the gate or barrier guard, includes displacements, and ends with attacking blade work. This flourish appears to be a prebouting display of expertise for the amusement of spectators and the intimidation of opponents.
The surviving English texts interpreted by Heslop and Bradak include flourishes, as well as a variety of other exercises that can be done without an opponent. They view these as training tools suitable for solo practice. In fact, the more complicated sequences may actually be better practiced without a partner in order to avoid training the partner to excel in the role of target (not something that you would want in an actual sword fight).
Thus there are actual historical flourishes that can be used for training. However, you can construct flourishes for your students using the following guidelines:
The first rule is do nothing that would not make sense in an actual fight. That seems obvious, but it can be easy to forget that these were weapons designed to kill people, and that the people who used them had no interest in training in techniques that would result in their own death or serious injury. Flourish does not mean that you have a license to do unhistorical or fanciful weapon twirling.
Second, decide what mix of technique you will use. You may focus solely on attacks. However, incorporating changes of guard and defensive actions help develop a broader range of abilities. At the same time you should decide what distances the flourish simulates. A flourish with a concentration on renewals of attack at short distance is a much different exercise from one in which the offense is based on passing steps and full arm actions.
Third, restrict your flourish to a number of steps that can be remembered easily. Fifty steps becomes as much a memory exercise as a fighting one. Dobringer’s flourish at its most basic is eight actions; the English Additional Manuscript 39564 flourishes are longer, but still under two dozen movements (depending on how you count them).
Fourth, have the movement flow forward and back. This is a practical consideration to enable you to fit your flourish into your available training area. However, German practice technique is movement based with footwork accompanying strikes; English practice does include actions delivered apparently without footwork.
Fifth, have your actions end up in the right place. Each blade and foot movement should flow seamlessly from the immediately preceding movement. If the students have to stop and reposition out of sequence to make the flourish work, each repositioning would create opportunities to be hit in an actual fight.
Sixth, write down a description, let it sit overnight, and then see if you can execute it as written. Revise if necessary, and then give it to your students to try.
Finally go back and make certain that what you have designed makes tactical sense. Is it something that a Medieval or Renaissance fencer would do if faced with an armed opponent desiring his harm or death? Only after these checks are done can you be confident that it can be assigned for practice.
The flourish can become an excellent tool for warm-up, for solo practice, and for displays of skill during open houses or other recruiting activity. It offers your students a challenge that they bear full responsibility for meeting, helping to create pride in their performance. And it further connects them to the history of fencing and to the importance of fighting spirit in swordplay.