Dojo Darelir, the School of Xenograg the Sorcerer

Posts Tagged ‘dueling’


Haragei

The nonverbal elements of communication and perception are highly valued by the Japanese; they prize their ability to grasp the essence of people and things using methods we can only guess at. They call this ability haragei. Yamashita has it. He can cross swords with a complete stranger and know the skill level of his opponent before they’ve begun. You can argue that it has to do with subtle physical clues people give off: a look in the eye, posture, breathing rates. The longer I train, the more I tend to agree. But there’s also more to it than that.

On days when he’s really cooking, it seems as if Yamashita can actually read your mind. What’s scary is not that he knows what you’re going to do before you do, but that he does it by getting inside you somehow.

I’ve experienced hints of it. The feeling is a weird, emotive certainty that washes up from the base of the neck and creeps over your scalp. It is often totally unexpected. And distracting.

John Donohue, Sensei, chapter 7

Any Sensei is a Bit Mercurial at Times

Any sensei is a bit mercurial at times—they do it to keep you guessing. Part of the mystery of a really good martial arts teacher is the way in which you’re perpetually surprised by things, kept just slightly off balance. I had a karate teacher years ago, and every time I thought, OK this guy has shown me just about everything he’s got, he would waltz in and do something I had never seen before. Then he would look at me like he could read my mind.

John Donohue, Sensei, chapter 4

In the Martial Arts, Nobody Owes You Anything

In Japan, white is the color of emptiness and humility. Many of us had started our training in arts like judo or karate, where the uniforms known as gi were traditionally white as a symbol of humility. Most mainline Japanese instructors I knew frowned on the American urge to branch out into personal color statements with their uniforms. The message was clear: a gi is not an expression of individuality. People wanting to make statements should probably rent billboards and avoid Japanese martial arts instructors. They are not focused on your needs. They are concerned only with the pursuit of the Way. You are free to come along. But your presence is not necessary.

You have to get used to that sort of attitude. In the martial arts, nobody owes you anything, least of all your teacher. The assumption is that you are pretty much worthless and lucky to be in the same room with your sensei. You do what he says. You don’t talk back. You don’t ask rude questions. You don’t cop an attitude—that’s the sensei’s prerogative.

Emphasis mine.

John Donohue, Sensei, chapter 2

Dojo Storming

“In the old times…a young warrior would learn all local sensei could teach and then seek out ‘instruction’ at another dojo. A truly skilled fighter could go from school to school, challenging the best students and even the masters.” A sip of air as he paused. “It was known as dojo arashi.”

Dojo storming. I could imagine what it must have been like: hard young men clomping down the packed dirt roads of Japan with battered armor and well-kept weapons slung over their backs. They churned up the miles like hungry predators, hunting down new masters to defeat and new towns to prove themselves in. The good ones earned reputations. The less skilled, in the best of situations, learned to limp away quietly. Sometimes, only their ghosts moaned in phantom processional down midnight crossroads….

John Donohue, Sensei, chapter 17

From Jousting for Glory to Dueling for Honor

Knights and chivalry faded out. The old orders of knighthood and chevaliers stayed firmly in place, as prestigious men’s clubs tend to do, but the original point of the knight had been as a fighting unit, a kind of mounted tank, impregnable in heavy metal, on a big strong horse, lumbering and clanking onto the field of battle peering through a slit in his helmet and poking his lance at enemies similarly encumbered. The idea was to push the enemy off his horse, since once unhorsed he lay helpless as an overturned turtle, ripe to be captured and held for ransom.

Henry V‘s nimble archers at Agincourt beat them easily. Joan of Arc was particularly outspoken on the subject; she said her heavenly messengers had told her that artillery was the wave of the future and knights in armor just slowed everything down.

Gradually they hung up their lances and breastplates to rust in a shed. By the time Cervantes published Don Quixote in 1605 [C.E.], the foolish knight-errant was an affectionate joke from the past. Knights turned into gentlemen.

Gentlemen, being unemployed by definition, needed an emotional outlet, a bit of excitement, and some way to measure themselves against their peers now that tournaments were gone. Besides, as the feudal powers of the landowners shriveled under stronger centralized monarchies, a gentleman needed to shore up his status and prove he still mattered, he was still privileged, he still carried a sword. He stopped jousting for glory and started dueling for honor.

Barbara Holland, Gentlemen’s Blood, pp. 21-22

Prepared to Die But Not to Kill

It’s curious, the number of sensible men who steeled themselves to the risk of the duel, came to terms with the possibility of death, hoped to die bravely and well, wrote their wills and a few last letters to their families, said their prayers, and went forth to the meeting, and then were stricken with horror to find themselves still standing and their adversary dead. They’d readied themselves to die but not to kill. The other man lying there bleeding to death caught them by surprise.

Barbara Holland, Gentlemen’s Blood, p. 208

Only Gentlemen Had Honor

The Italians drew up the earliest dueling codes to protect and enforce honor; Flos duellatorum came out in 1410 [C.E.] and young gentlemen all over Europe studied its delicate ethical matters and the subtle new swordplay more suited to personal encounters than the slash-and-whack of battle. In 1550, Girolamo Muzio’s Il duello succeeded it and was even more popular. Italians opened fencing schools, attended by eager young gentlemen from all over, and sent fencing masters to the rest of Europe. By 1480, Germany had opened dueling schools called Fechtschulen that enjoyed the special protection of the emperor himself and established a tradition beloved by the military and university students well into the twentieth century—some say the twenty-first.

The notion of a gentleman defending his personal honor, the notion that obsessed the Western world for centuries and spilled many gallons of the bluest blood, now seems as remote as the urge to throw virgins down volcanoes. Nobody now cherishes his personal honor or inspects that of others. Short of indictable felonies, nobody cares. We wouldn’t know how to measure it; the concept has vanished. Military valor still lends some luster, though Vietnam cast a shadow on it, and large amounts of money command universal respect, but the word “honor” survives only in a few state documents yellowing under glass. Jefferson was fond of it.

Whatever honor was, only gentlemen had it. Only gentlemen needed to defend it, which made their lives more perilous than those of the lesser beings, who could shrug and laugh off an insult. If a lesser being sent a challenge to a gentleman, the gentleman also could shrug and laugh it off, or send some lackeys to beat the insolent fellow with cudgels.

“Gentleman” has today become a rather idle compliment rarely invoked. It even carries overtones of the sissy, quite the opposite of its old role. Now any upstart lad can spend a couple of days mastering gentlemanly requirements: use the accepted forms of address, hold the door open for a lady, remember to say “please” and “thank you” in social if not in business situations. Use your napkin, not the tablecloth. Don’t bully the waiter. Don’t wipe your nose on your sleeve. Once he’s learned the rules, he’s accepted as a gentleman with no questions asked, but in former times he’d be a scoundrel of the worst order. Aping his betters. Flying false colors.

Manners had nothing to do with it. You could be as rude, surly, and bad-tempered as you liked, beat your wife, rape your servants, strew illegitimate children far and wide, drink and gamble till the cows came home, and let your bills pile up for decades till your tailor and vintner starved, but you were always a gentleman because you were born one, and so was your son. It came down through your family by way of inherited estates and ancient medieval fiefdoms and service to your king. Its privileges were many; its responsibilities were bloody.

Barbara Holland, Gentlemen’s Blood, pp. 24-26

Emphasis mine.

Advantages of Swords Over Pistols in Dueling

The sword had been quite sufficient for its gory tasks, but over the course of the eighteenth century [C.E.] the dueling pistol began to replace it, a switch that romantics like [Sir Richard] Burton lamented as "an ugly exchange of dull lead for polished steel." During the transition, people sometimes used both at once. In 1690, in Ireland, the high sheriff of Country Down had an argument with a neighbor over dinner, and they fought with sword and pistol: One was run through with a sword and the other was shot. Both died. Sometimes, if the pistols misfired, the combatants threw them away and whipped out their reliable swords.

Slashing and killing a man with a sword offered visceral pleasures not found in guns. It was a physical experience. You held the sword in your hand and felt the flesh of your enemy give way under its point…. Your arm quivered to the crunch of bone and cartilage, and knew the spongy resistance of lung or bowel. His blood, probably mixed with yours, splashed your shoes. His face was close; you could see his eyes.

Another advantage of sword over pistol was that the damage done was directly related to the gravity of the occasion. In a casual matter, you could swoop in with the upward-cutting manchette blow that disabled his sword arm, ending the encounter and leaving him with nothing but a bruised elbow. Swords did what they were told to do. You could defend yourself with a sword and parry a thrust; the only way to parry a gun is to shoot the man who’s shooting it. A sword was always a sword, but pistols often misbehaved or misfired. The skillful swordsman could inflict as much or as little damage as he wanted, but pistol duels were fraught with accident and surprise. You could kill an old friend who’d laughed at the wrong moment, instead of merely flicking a drop of blood from his arm and then taking him out for a drink. Or you could hit the wrong target, which never happened with swords: In one duel in France, both parties fired simultaneously and simultaneously killed each other’s seconds.

When you’d killed a man with your personal sword and not by some proxy impersonal bullet, your soul had killed his. When the victor claimed the sword of the fallen as his right and broke it over his knee, killing him in effigy, generations quivered. When [Robert E.] Lee handed his sword to [Ulysses S.] Grant at Appomattox, strong men wept. Some say Grant wept.

With guns, the satisfaction was remote. You stood well separated by the agreed-on paces. Shoot your man and he crumples and falls, his weapon drops from his hand, but as far as your own hand knows he might have been struck by lightning. You didn’t press the bullet into his chest; it flew there by itself, mechanically. You were distanced from the action, like the pilot of a high-altitude bomber.

Barbara Holland, Gentlemen’s Blood, pp. 72-75

Emphasis mine.

No Match for a Well-Trained Aristocrat

All [medieval Japanese] warriors, regardless of rank, were trained in swordsmanship. Those of the upper ranks, of course, had more time to devote to the pursuit of excellence in this art, and to the pursuit of superior instructors—which explains why a retainer of lower rank, notwithstanding his longer exposure to the hardships of military life, was usually no match for a higher-ranking bushi in a duel. This type of situation…resembles that of Europe during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries [C.E.], when hardened veterans of countless battles were still no match for a well-trained aristocrat with a sword—the noble’s weapon which, with the rise of the bourgeoisie to power at the end of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, became known as the gentleman’s weapon.

Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook, Secrets of the Samurai, pp. 254-55

Courage, Not Manners, Was the Hallmark of a Gentleman

If a gentleman issued or accepted a challenge in proper form and, fought like a gentleman, with a gentleman, then to be vanquished; was no defeat. Certainly it was nobler than suffering the insult or refusing the fight. And to be killed in a duel by your equal was, if not exactly a pleasure, at least honorable. Your grandchildren could tell of it proudly.

Courage, not manners, was the hallmark of a gentleman. As the duel epidemic spread, courage came to mean a thin skin and an unruly temper, the thinner and more unruly, the more gentlemanly. A gentleman was proud of his temper and indulged and cherished it. There may have been, off in remote country estates, phlegmatic gentlemen landowners, waistcoats bulging with good claret and venison, who chuckled at insults, waved them away, and opened another bottle, but in the cities, the armies, and the universities, prickliness was a point of pride, as proud youths in tough neighborhoods are quick to avenge being “dissed.” An easygoing temperament meant your blood was slow, and cold, and lowly.

In The Three Musketeers, the noble Aramis studies in the seminary for ten years to fulfill his dream of becoming an abbé, but a jealous officer insults him, and he quits the seminary and goes off to take fencing lessons daily for a year. Then he finds the officer, calls him out, and strikes him dead. “I am a gentleman born—my blood is warm,” he explains.

In The Tempest, Prospero threatens Ferdinand, son and heir to the king of Naples, and Ferdinand promptly draws his sword. Miranda cries, “0 dear father, make not too rash a trial of him, for he’s gentle, and not fearful.” By gentle, she doesn’t mean he’s kind to dogs and small children. She means he’s well-bred, and therefore bad tempered, armed and dangerous. Not to be trifled with.

As its first definition of “gentle,” the Oxford English Dictionary, both feet stubbornly planted in the past, gives “well-born, belonging to a family of position; originally used synonymously with noble, but afterwards distinguished from it, either as a wider term, or as designating a lower degree of rank. Also, in heraldic use: Having the rank or status of ‘gentleman,’ the distinguishing mark of which is the right to bear arms.”

Gentlemen bore arms. In the Scottish Highlands, where nobody would think of leaving the house without a sword, or perhaps even sitting down to dinner without one, true gentlemen distinguished themselves from their lowlier neighbors by a feather in the bonnet as well—as in “a feather in his cap”—but elsewhere only gentlemen were entitled to the sword. Swords were the badge of a man who needed no help “beyond that of his heart, his sword, and his valor.” The French called it “la noblesse de l’epee.”

Barbara Holland, Gentlemen’s Blood, p. 28-29

Emphasis mine.

Dueling and the God of Peer Opinion

Despite repeated laws forbidding dueling, to deny a challenge marked one as unworthy. The abbé de Saint-Pierre charged in 1715 [C.E.] that [a military] officer who refused a challenge would “find himself forced by the other officers and by the commander himself to leave the regiment.”

One counts for nothing that an officer would rather pass for a coward…than to commit a mortal sin and a capital crime in formal disobedience of the law and the will of the prince; one counts for nothing that he does not want to risk his safety and the loss of the good graces of his king; he does not fight, therefore he is a coward; he is a coward, therefore he must be driven away.”

The explanation for duels lay much more in the symbolic than in the real, for by their nature, duels were irrational. Ultimately, the aristocracy’s fighting spirit was driven by the individual’s drive to prove himself within the standard of his own class and thus win gloire. The nobility set standards that must be obeyed, or else the individual would lose caste. As one historian of the duel insists, dueling was “another religion.” A duel was a human sacrifice to the god of peer opinion, and so was a battle.

John A. Lynn, Battle, p. 143

Emphasis mine.

Such A Reputation

Henry, Duke of Lancaster, called the “Father of Soldiers,” was England’s most distinguished warrior, who had not missed a battle in his 45 years. He was a veteran of the Scottish wars, of Sluys, of Calais and all the campaigns in France, and when his country was quiescent he rode forth in knightly tradition to carry his sword elsewhere. He had joined the King of Castile in a crusade against the Moors of Algeciras and journeyed to Prussia to join the Teutonic Knights in one of their annual “crusades” to extend Christianity over the lands of Lithuanian heathen. In 1352 [C.E.], while the truce still held between England and France, he was the star of a remarkable event in Paris. On returning from a season in Prussia, he had quarreled with Duke Otto of Brunswick and accepted his challenge to combat, which was arranged under French auspices. Given a safe-conduct, escorted by a noble company to Paris, magnificently entertained by King Jean, the Duke of Lancaster rode into the lists before a splendid audience of French nobility; but his mere reputation proved too much for his opponent. Otto of Brunswick trembled so violently on his warhorse that he could not put on his helmet or wield his spear and had to be removed by his friends and retract his challenge.

Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror, pp. 146-47

The Combat of the Thirty

Chivalry’s finest military expression in contemporary eyes was the famous Combat of the Thirty in 1351 [C.E.]. An action of the perennial conflict in Brittany [part of the Hundred Years War], it began with a challenge to single combat issued by Robert de Beaumanoir, a noble Breton on the French side, to his opponent Bramborough of the Anglo-Breton party. When their partisans clamored to join, a combat of thirty on each side was agreed upon. Terms were arranged, the site was chosen, and after participants heard mass and exchanged courtesies, the fight commenced. With swords, bear-spears, daggers, and axes, they fought savagely until four on the French side and two on the English were slain and a recess was called. Bleeding and exhausted, Beaumanoir called for a drink, eliciting the era’s most memorable reply: “Drink thy blood, Beaumanoir, and thy thirst will pass!” Resuming, the combatants fought until the French side prevailed and every one of the survivors on either side was wounded. Bramborough and eight of his party were killed, the rest taken prisoner and held for ransom. In the wide discussion the affair aroused, ‘some held it as a very poor thing and others as a very swaggering business,’ with the admirers dominating. The combat was celebrated in verse, painting, tapestry, and in a memorial stone erected on the site. More than twenty years later Froissart noticed a scarred survivor at the table of Charles V, where he was honored above all others. He told the ever-inquiring chronicler that he owed his great favor with the King to his having been one of the Thirty. The renown and honor the fight earned reflected the knight’s nostalgic vision of what battle should be. While he practiced the warfare of havoc and pillage, he clung to the image of himself as Sir Lancelot.

Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror, pp. 137-38

Emphasis mine.

The Rapier Was the Blade of Choice

The old original war sword was so massive it sometimes required both hands. It had been designed—and worked splendidly if you were strong enough—for knocking an armored knight off his horse, but it was useless at close quarters except as a bludgeon. The duel of honor refined it.

From the mid-sixteenth century [C.E.] through the seventeenth, the rapier was the blade of choice. It was sharp-edged but used primarily for thrusting, not cutting, and it was a formidable piece, often nearly four feet long, topped by an elaborate hand guard, and weighed two and a half pounds. Wearing it advertised how tall as well as how brave you were: Four feet of steel hanging from your waist, and you swaggering around with it, made a statement.

Elizabethan London passed an ordinance against strolling the streets with more than a three-foot blade; if you came into the city with something longer, the gatekeepers were under orders to break off the extra inches. Even so, that’s a lot of blade, and it was often used in combination with a dagger for close work.

In 1599 [C.E.], a gentleman named George Silver published an attack on this newfangled monster, developed, he says, as a purely civilian weapon with no distinguished military history. It was, in effect, a costume accessory, ineffective for serious fighting. Once your opponent is past your point, he complained, it is too difficult to clear your weapon and bring the point to bear again; the length of the blade drags in the hand, and it tends to favor the thrust, which can be turned aside easily, over the cut that takes manly strength to avoid.

Not everyone agreed. Long after the rapier had evolved into lighter, shorter versions, some still swore by it. Late in the nineteenth century, Captain Sir Richard Burton, in The Sentiment of the Sword, wrote of it with passion:

Amongst all weapons the rapier alone has its inner meanings, its arcana, its mysteries. See how it interprets a man’s ideas. and obeys every turn of his thoughts! At once the blade that threatens and the shield that guards, it is now agile, supple, and intelligent; then slow, sturdy, and persevering; here, light and airy, prudent and supple; there, blind and unreflecting, angry and vindictive; I am almost tempted to call it, after sailor fashion, ‘she.’

Barbara Holland, Gentlemen’s Blood, pp. 59-60

Emphasis mine.