In knife, firearm and self-defence training, it’s a fairly common practice that the fighters never stop fighting until the coach calls halt, even though they are hit multiple times. The philosophy behind that training lies in not stopping just because you are hit – you only stop when you cannot fight anymore. Is there something to this? Today, we look at Frequens Motus, also known as continuous fencing, to see why it’s useful to implement in your training and possibly your tournaments.
“Here note that constant motion [Frequens motus] holds the beginning, middle and the end of all fencing according to this art and teaching.“Cod.HS.3227a
My first real experience with Frequens Motus, or continuous fencing, as a fencing format came when I first entered a stick fighting tournament. The escrima organisers had invited me because they wanted to see how a historical fencer would hold up. It turns out I didn’t. I trained a few times prior to the tournament, and during practice – when things were nice and orderly – I did really well. I could stick fight with the best of them, and I would even say I could solidly beat most of them. So I was confident I would stand up rather well in the tournament. But what happened was that although I could strike someone as they were closing the distance, I was then set upon with a barrage of attacks which I couldn’t all parry. I tried backing out, but that meant losing ground and also not hitting the opponent very well. The violence was intense, and it felt much more like actual violence than any fencing competition I’ve been in.
I came home after that with some hard-earned knowledge in the shape of bruises from the knee all the way up to my shoulder and down the arm. I realised that you need to handle situations where the opponent just doesn’t lay down and die, as a good boy.
Knife attacks, gunshot wounds and the man with no skull
In some analysis of knife attacks, the rate of the attacks is as many as 2-3 per second. Meaning that the likelihood that you will get stabbed several times is overwhelming. But it’s also rare that a single knife stab will stop you in your tracks, so learning to keep on fighting is very important. A sword is, of course, much more likely to incapacitate someone immediately. However, there are many stories of people surviving horrendous injuries and remaining in the fight.
“I saw one thing of great remark, which is this: that a souldier in my presence gave to one of his fellowes a stroake with an Halbard upon the head, penetrating even to the left ventricle of the braine, without falling to the ground.”Medical reality of historical wounds, Swinney & Crawford (Spada 2, Chivalry Bookshelf 2002-5)
In this particularly gruesome historical incident, taken from the case book of the 16th century French surgeoun Ambroise Paré, the soldier who was struck still stood after the blow although having been cut into the brain. He was then bandaged and walked home alone. The soldier called on the doctor the next day, and walked to the doctor on the third day, but died when the dressing was changed. Paré says that the patient was in good senses even until death.
So the question is valid; if historical fencing is looking to train fencing as an actual martial art, why are we calling a halt after each point? In the book Meditations on Violence, the author argues that good guys often lay down when they have been shot because that’s what they learned when they were kids. How much more ingrained wouldn’t a behaviour be which we train several times a week? Are we teaching fencers bad habits when we make them stop fencing and go separate ways like gentlemen after each exchange? That question also puts into light that sport fencing and historical fencing may not be so different at this point, at least more similar than many want to admit. Both competitive formats are detached from the brutal realities of real violence. Partially it has to be that way in any competitive martial art, but that doesn’t mean we should carve the current formats in stone.
“I was screaming, “Don’t you dare die, you sonofabitch! Get back in the fight! You aren’t dead until I say you’re dead!” But I realized that this was the key. For most of us, the last time we were “shot” was playing cops-n-robbers as a kid. If you get shot playing cops-n-robbers, you curl up and die — unless you’re a cheater. Cops were good kids. They don’t cheat. The mind searches for the last time they were shot and they do what good kids do. They die.”Meditations on Violence, Chapter 3 – Sgt. Rory Miller
Sport or martial preparedness in competitions
The rules for historical fencing competitions are generally made to make the fight organised. That makes matches easier to judge and they follow a logic inherent to training martial arts with your friends. They are not, however, very good at training fencers to handle real-world violence, modern or historical. And that’s one of the reasons why a lot of people are seeing benefits of integrating Frequens Motus fencing in the tournament scene and everyday practice.
Another reason for including Frequens Motus is that bouts that end with each hit tend to rule out more complex footwork. The typical format favours explosive attacks and retreats, leading to more linear and unstable footwork. This is something that Carl Ryrberg of Örebro HEMA noticed and wanted to change.
“I felt that we had developed sport fencing artefacts where people are in balance for one hit and an extra tempo. There isn’t enough focus on balance and control. I wanted to see an alternative where the fencing required more controlled footwork, consciousness and focus during the entire match. I am also interested in making tournaments more fun to watch for the audience, without us losing the core in what we’re doing,” Carl Ryrberg explains.
“One should reserve some of his strength for exiting from the attack; for from the end of the attack comes the beginning of the parry, and this is one of the most principal things in Destreza. Because just as it is easier to win than to preserve one’s victory, in the same manner it is easy to carry out a technique but difficult to exit from it while preserving oneself from the blow.”Jerónimo Sánchez de Carranza, 16th century fencing master (translation Matt Galas)
Frequens Motus at Swordfish
In 2017, Swordfish hosted an exhibition bout during which two fencers displayed a match of Frequens Motus fencing. The fight between Olle Kausland and Christopher Holm has around 70,000 views, and the comments are all very appreciative of the format. Not only, it seems, does the format promote more martially sound fencing, but it’s also entertaining to watch.
How it works
In the stick fighting competitions I entered, the rules were simple. If you land a hard enough hit to move that body part, you get a point. You were only allowed a minimal amount of protection so that fencers would have an incentive to parry. However, most matches were rather brutal and chaotic, and both fighters would eat hits like crazy. And feel the pain afterwards. In fact, I came in third in the second tournament I entered because I won so many matches on walk-over since the other fighters had enough or were too beat up to continue.
This, naturally, is not good fencing because the rules and the fencers didn’t have an ambition of it being a fencing match. They treated the sticks for what they are to them: sticks. But for fencers, our tools are simulators of sharp weapons. The stick fighting matches are basically MMA matches with weapons and a point system for scoring. For historical fencing, something else is needed.
The ruleset developed by Carl Ryrberg (there have been other similar rulesets as well, but these rules were his inventions as far as I know) is to judge each exchange and hand out either 2, 1 or 0 points. You get 2 points if you enter an exchange, hit the opponent with one or several clean strikes or thrusts, and then pull out without having been struck or only got struck by a hit of poor quality. You can only score 2 points if you hit first, but you also get it through disarms and take-downs. You get one point if you land one good or several mediocre hits. You can also sometimes get 1 point if you take a hit of poor quality and then hit the opponent with several good hits. If both fencers are hit several times, no score is awarded.
In these Frequens Motus rules, the judges award scores in their head whenever the fencers have pulled away from each other or when they go to the ground. One method of doing it is to have a counter in each hand, and after the match, scores are either added up or added up and divided by the number of judges to get an average score. An alternative is to have each call a winner and have an unequal number of judges.
“There were other rules for continuous fencing before these, but I felt they focused too much on the number of hits and rewarded brute force more than good fencing. Looking more at exchanges rather than the amount of hits is similar to how Muay Thai is judged in Thailand, and that was my source of inspiration,” Carl explains. It’s worth noting that Carl also practises Muay Thai.
Incorporate it into your training
Even if you are not into competing using these types of rules, Frequens Motus fencing is a great addition to sparring practises as it is guaranteed to change how fencers approach the fight. It adds fluidity to fencing, it requires the fencers to take a whole exchange into consideration, it teaches good fencing habits, and it also makes cardio a greater element of fencing since the fight isn’t stopped after an exchange. And, if nothing else, it mixes things up a bit, creating new challenges for competitive fencers as well as in everyday training.
“Continuous Fencing has given me insights that have influenced how I evaluate fencing – my own and that of my students. I have much higher demands on balance and control now and I would also argue that it’s lead to a more martial fencing,” Carl Ryrberg concludes.