Benefit or Hazard?
By Keith Farrell
In the novel Jurassic Park, frog DNA was used as part of the process of reconstructing dinosaur DNA, filling in the blanks where the dinosaur DNA was incomplete. In the historical fencing community, the term “frog DNA” is commonly used to describe information that is borrowed from another martial art to fill in the blanks. Examples of frog DNA include mechanics, stance, or possibly even training drills. This can be beneficial throughout the reconstruction process, yet it can also lead to problems if too much “frog DNA” i s injected.
Such frog DNA can bring benefits to the HEMA practitioner, especially in the early stages of recreating one of the disciplines that have fewer surviving treatises. Later disciplines from the 17th century onwards tend to have more descriptive treatises with a higher rate of survival of sources, so frog DNA tends to be less valuable for these systems. However, for the older disciplines, there can be many advantages.
Footwork often seems like a relatively simple and straightforward affair. Just how difficult can it be for people who know how to hop, skip, jump and run to take a few steps? Beginners often tend to simplify and under-emphasise footwork because they do not know any better, while instructors will often stress the need to practice deliberately and build comfort, flow and correctness with the basic steps. People with previous martial art or fencing experience may try to import or reuse some of their existing skills when attempting to reconstruct an older system of HEMA.
Footwork is not limited to the steps that individuals make when moving around. One must retain balance, to be able to move again without becoming planted, and maintain correct structure of the legs to avoid straining and injuring joints. Importing frog DNA from other martial arts can give a starting point for teaching footwork, giving a base of movement upon which practitioners can build and develop skills with the weapon.
Performing strikes can involve a lot of complexity to achieve the correct level of success. A sword, for example, must be able to penetrate with a thrust or cut deep with a strike, depending on its type; it should not be used as a simple bludgeoning weapon. When a practitioner has experience with a prior martial art with a similar weapon, importing the striking mechanics can provide an effective starting point. It allows the student to practice more complex actions with a higher level of competence and a greater opportunity for success. For example, a longsword practitioner with previous experience of kendo or kenjutsu may be able to import effective mechanics for striking with a two handed sword. Furthermore, borrowing exercises such as tameshigiri from other arts can help to test and validate the skills that we need for effective HEMA.
These advantages will help practitioners train in techniques with a reasonably effective set of striking mechanics, allowing for interpretation of techniques that are able to do damage when they hit. Many practitioners start their interpretive journey by using techniques and striking mechanics that have no possibility of ever being effective, and gradually develop better mechanics as they begin to understand more about the art – prior knowledge and frog DNA can jump start this process, allowing interpretations to be more effective from the beginning.
Sometimes a technique or concept in HEMA will be very similar to one in another martial art, and this similarity can lead to a greater speed of comprehension. For example, grappling techniques and throws often work in a very similar way – a hip throw in 15th century ringen can be very similar to a hip throw in judo.
The ability to make a connection and say “that is very similar to this other technique I know” can improve the speed with which a practitioner can understand the general idea and subtleties of a technique. While the precise application of the technique may be different in HEMA compared to the art in which a practitioner gained previous experience, the ability to recognise it and import it as frog DNA can help to avoid long delays with interpreting mechanics.
Footwork was discussed as one possible area that could benefit from frog DNA, but it can also be compromised by it. The stance in which one stands is also an important aspect of footwork. Boxers may take a higher, narrower, side-on stance; kendoka may stand on the balls of the feet with the chest square-on to the opponent; karateka may stand in a deep, low, wide kind of stance.
If too much frog DNA is allowed to creep into the footwork used for a HEMA system, then practitioners may find themselves using the wrong kind of footwork and stance for the system in question. For example, kendo footwork is simply not appropriate for recreating the deep stances of Joachim Meyer or Paulus Mair – the narrow stance with square-on chest, may in fact make it more difficult to apply correct stylistic elements and correct grounding for HEMA techniques.
There may be stylistic deviation in terms of the fighting itself. Every system of fighting contains certain stylistic elements that create a particular look or feel, allowing generalisations to be made about the system. For example, one might say that stylistically speaking, boxing is a close quarters system that emphasises punching, or that judo is an art that eschews striking in favour of an emphasis on grappling. These are stylistic elements that give each system their “flavour.”
By importing frog DNA into HEMA, practitioners may inadvertently import some stylistic elements from the other system. For example, stylistically speaking, 15th century German longsword involves a lot of passing steps and many of the sequences should begin with the left side forward in order to throw a strike from the right shoulder, supported by a passing step with the right foot. Importing frog DNA from kendo or Olympic fencing, with their stylistic element of keeping the right side forward and the sword held point forwards in front of the body, may cause practitioners to try to fence with the longsword with the wrong stylistic elements, leading to stylistic deviation, which leads to corruption and failure of the intended reconstruction of the HEMA system.
This is an interesting problem that is even described in some of the historical sources – the 1804 treatise by Roworth/Taylor notes that when using the broadsword or sabre, the middle knuckles of the finger should be in line with the edge when striking, but that cudgel players (people who fight with sticks rather than swords) often align their strikes with the big knuckles at the base of the fingers. Sometimes too much practice in one system, with one type of weapon, made it more difficult to use the real swords for real fighting, because the use of training weapons introduced inappropriate mechanics that became habit for practitioners.
A more modern example would be smallsword practitioners using the guard of sixte from previous foil fencing experience. Although sixte works well in the context of foil fencing, it is not part of smallsword systems, and may replace the correct position of tierce. It might be a mechanic that does roughly the same job, but for whatever reason, is unsuitable or incorrect when reconstructing a HEMA system. These inappropriate mechanics might be fine in the early stages of interpretation and practice, but if they are allowed to remain unchecked, they can pollute the reconstruction of the HEMA system.
Sometimes frog DNA brings some mental “baggage” with it, and this can cause problems. For example, some unarmed martial arts instructors teach “it is acceptable to take a hit in order to give a better hit.” Their students become happy with the notion of taking a hit to the arm while stepping in to deliver a head hit – which is fine in the context of something like boxing, but is just not good enough in the context of historical fencing. This kind of frog DNA tends to bring relatively few advantages and a lot of bad habits that need to be broken.
It is important to identify when we import frog DNA into the practice of historical fencing. It may bring some advantages, although as discussed these are often short-term advantages that become long-term disadvantages. It may bring nothing but disadvantages, but there may also be items of frog DNA that bring nothing but improvements and benefits. Nonetheless, it is important to be honest and upfront, and to acknowledge where information comes from. Then, if and when appropriate, the frog DNA can be removed from the “gene pool” of our chosen historical fencing discipline and replaced with more appropriate DNA developed through study of that discipline and its sources.
About the author:
Keith Farrell is one of the senior instructors for the Academy of Historical Arts, based in Scotland. He is the co-author of the AHA German Longsword Study Guide and one of the regular contributors to the Encased in Steel online blog.