Playing The Prize
By Silfren the Singer and ibn Jelal
Originally published in Punta Dritta November AS XXXVIII (2003)
Republished in Punta Dritta July 2007 ASXLII (2007)
This isn't "The Gospel According To The Guild of Defence", but the thoughts of two Guildmasters, Silfren and ibn Jelal, who played the first prizes in Lochac and have examined many since.
We put these thoughts forward and invite commentary from all.
The Purpose Of Playing The Prize
The Guild of Defence is devoted to research into and teaching of period martial arts.
The playing of the prize is a way in which we measure people's progress in the art of defence, their competency in the use of their weapons and understanding and use of period techniques.
The requirement for ability and accuracy increases as the Guild member goes through the ranks of the guild, with the upper ranks also required to be actively teaching and studying period styles.
The prize is not a competition to see who can land the most touches, it is an examination of the candidate's ability. Examiners present problems to the candidate and give them opportunities to show different techniques in solving those problems.
The Differences Between Ranks
The ideal candidate will have a range of attacks and defences, rather than a single stance or movement of the blade that works for them. They will have a range of footwork, and can show they know when to use each direction and style of pace, even if they use some more than others. They will attack in different lines, and marry those attacks with correct footwork. They will use different defences depending on the opponent's attack, and will demonstrate an understanding of how to use distance, blade work, voiding, and both hands (empty or no) as part of their response.
There are no hard and fast differences between the ranks. However there are some general concepts which can help us determine performance. Those concepts are ability, which includes speed and efficiency, understanding of actions, and complexity of the fencing phrases. The following examples should give you an idea of how those concepts are applied.
Each rank will have a different level of ability in the same weapon, a Journeyman playing a sword and buckler prize should be a better sword and buckler fighter than a Free Scholar. The higher the rank, the faster the speed - not just physical speed, but speed of reaction, speed of understanding. A Provost will solve problems more quickly than a Journeyman who will solve them faster than a Free Scholar will. The higher the rank, the quicker they should be to see an opening and take advantage of it. Physical speed is athleticism, the Guild is more interested in speed of understanding, and in the level of timing, as well as the efficiency of their actions. The candidates motion should increase in efficiency as they progress through the ranks, which will result in an apparent increase of speed. It's a continuum from the choppy static fight of the Free Scholar, through to flowing seemingly effortless fight of the Guildmaster.
Given something they have never seen before, a Free Scholar would stand back and be unsure of what to do and perhaps be tentative in trying what they know against it. A Journeyman would think "That's different!" but go in and attack it with their best shot. A Provost would probe the new stance or defence carefully, noting reactions. A Guildmaster would look at it, note the possibilities inherent in it, and then manipulate the opponent to expose the weak spots they've seen.
A Free Scholar will use simple attacks, probably only one try per pass. A good one will not stop when the attack has failed, but turn it into another attack, salvaging a missed thrust with a cut. They will be reasonably balanced in their movements, seldom over stepping or over-parrying. They will show competence in the weapons form, including some clear understanding of period style, use of both hands, and some period style footwork. A modern epeeist may score many touches, but would not be suitable as a Free Scholar of the Guild.
A Journeyman will be making two or three attacks, stringing them together, before they retire out of distance. They'll understand ripostes and the rhythm of attack and defence. They should be more settled and cleaner in their movements than the Free Scholar, have a good understanding of range, be more economical in their movements. They should be solidly competent in the use of the chosen weapons form, showing more understanding of how it was used in period, as well as body voids and good footwork.
Provosts will clearly use that attack and defence rhythm, but will control it more, and will be using attack by second intention, where the initial attack sets up the subsequent ones. They will be using timing well, landing their hits with intelligence more than with speed. The Provost is a teacher, and so must demonstrate good form in their movements. They should be well balanced all the time, upright, their footwork crisp and quick. They should look good, not wild or sloppy. Their blade work should be neat and accurate, economical and well timed. They should show a good understanding of one or more period styles, demonstrating the way the feet and hands work together, as well as many of the possibilities of each weapon they choose.
Guildmasters will do all a Provost does but more so, and will make it seem effortless, unfussed. They will look good in all their movements, and demonstrate a mastery of their weapons, showing several period styles and approaches to problems.
Considerations For When You Examine A Candidate
The examiners should collaborate to be sure the candidate is given every opportunity to demonstrate their ability, they should each concentrate on providing different openings and attacks and defences for the candidate to take advantage of. Their job is to provide an environment for the candidate to show what they can do, not what they can't do. They should be sure to attack as well as wait to be attacked, examine the candidate at several distances, see what they do when confronted with different period style attacks or stances.
It is important to remind everyone involved on the day that this is an examination of style and ability, not a tournament where getting the touch is all that matters.
The maintainers of standards for each rank are the members of that rank. If Guildmasters and Provosts and a single Journeyman are testing a Journeymans's prize, the Journeyman should have the final say, as to whether the candidate is their peer. It is natural for higher ranks to see more faults in a candidate than the lower ranks, however it's the person of the rank being examined who will have a better feel for what is required at that rank. We do not expect skill comparable to a Provost at Free Scholar rank, and higher ranks should make an effort to moderate their expectations and actions to that of the rank being examined.
Considerations For The Candidate
Your job is to demonstrate your style and knowledge. You will be expected to show an understanding of offence and defence in a period style. The concept to remember here is depth and breadth of ability.
One of the sure-fire ways to fail a prize is to concentrate on winning each bout. When candidates have dropped into this mindset, they fall back on their old faithful actions, and have shown a very limited range of actions. What your examiners want to see is your diversity. Some bouts your examiners will give you opportunities to attack and in others they will push your defence.
The job of an examiner is to bring out your skill, which they will do by presenting problems. If you see an examiner presenting the blade, your first thought of making the bind is probably the correct one, as the examiner is most likely giving you an opportunity to show that action. They are giving you a chance to show how you deal with a threatening blade. It's not a tournament, they want you to succeed and are not trying to sucker you into making the wrong action.
Another thing you should remember as candidate is to use the combination you've chosen. It's no good selecting sword and buckler if you don't use the buckler in your fencing. Your examiners want to see you trying to make hand offs, deflections and actions on the blade with the buckler, not just this lump of wood waving vaguely in the direction of the examiner.
Most of all, we want to see you having fun. This is an opportunity to fence for the sake of the art and style. It's not a competition, and there's no pressure on you to win. We want to see you try the stuff you think doesn't work for you reliably, as well as the stuff you're good at. This is the time to show what you know, not just what you know works for you.