Fudebakudo in Medieval Europe

Swordfighters from ARMA archiveMost people familiar with Fudebakudo know it as an oriental martial art. Its history — traced right back to its introduction to China some time around 500AD — is described in a little more detail in the book. But its spread into the West, probably following the spice routes overland through Constantinople, is not so well understood. Part of the problem, of course, is that historical records rarely if ever openly mention Fudebakudo because it was (and still is) a secret martial art. In fact, the absence of explicit reference to Fudebakudo in the illuminated manuscripts of the middle ages pretty much proves what a total secret it was. When Fudebakudo does occur, it is always in a covert or coded fashion. Because many historians are not aware of the subtlety of this, clear references can often be overlooked.

A case in point can be found in old instruction books from medieval European sword fighting schools. In this case, I need to remind you that one aspect of Fudebakudo is the traditional use of three colours — namely, black, white, and red. This long-standing triumvirate is explained in this FAQ question ("Why is everything black, white, and red?").

With that in mind, it is telling to read on the website of the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts (about half-way down the page, on the right) the following:

 . . .many of the old Fechtbuchs (fighting books) in fact wrote in red and black ink. Theory was described in red while the explanation was black.

Today, the ARMA actually wear Fudebakudo colours as a tacit acknowledgment of the importance of Fudebakudo's role in the development of Western sword fighting. Nonetheless, presumably to respect the secret nature of the art, nowhere on their website do they openly admit to the connection. To a trained eye, of course, that implicit denial proves that the ARMA, behind oak-pannelled, iron-studded doors, is — even as you read this — studying the secret techniques of historical Fudebakudo. Well done them.

Seni 2007

Well, we survived Seni 2007 — see the full report.

Shoko-san with book

Shoko-san skilfully holds a copy of the book without obscuring any of the cover artwork

This year, for the first time our veteran sales champion Jun-san was unable to join us — she's returned to Japan where I believe she now lives as a hermit in a remote mountain stronghold teaching tengu goblins secret Fudebakudo techniques. So I had a brand new team selling for me . . . it must have been a daunting prospect for Shoko-san and Nanae-san to come into the strange world of Fudebakudo and the even stranger world of Seni, but they coped with it all like real experts. Despite being forced to work bitterly hard for so long and for so little on Saturday, they came back the next day to do it again.

We take a risk with Seni (because it is an expensive show at which to exhibit) but due to the irresistable smiley persuasion of the team, we sold a lot of books and a whole bunch of T-shirts.

It was also great to meet old friends (some from previous Seni shows, and some from aikido) and Fudebakudo practitioners old and new. Thanks to everyone who came to say hello and support the Way of the Exploding Pen.


Seni I-Spy

SeniThe big martial arts expo Seni is this weekend (at ExCel, London). Exploding Pen will be there selling and signing books (and selling T-shirts). If you come along, come and say hello and applaud the fact that, unlike many martial art wannabes, we still take it all terribly seriously. Oh yes.

I-Spy Game The fact is that this is our fourth Seni (see these reports of our previous trips) so we are frankly experts on what's good and bad about the show. Rather than keep this precious knowledge to ourselves, this year we are sharing our expertise with the Seni I-Spy! game (downloads a 171Kb PDF).

There is no prize for high scores (although let us know how you get on) — only the fuzzy, warm glow of satisfaction of knowing that your powers of observation were tested and not found wanting.

Longbows: the string’s the thing

Last month I went with my friend Mr Wolf (yes, he is probably the same one who's in all the fairy tales) to visit bowyer Pip Bickerstaffe of Bickerstaffe Bows in Kegworth (to be cheesy, that's not terribly far from Sherwood Forest). It was a fascinating trip and Pip was generous with his time — he's a busy man not least because of the increasing popularity of shooting with traditional bows, and obviously making longbows is a labour-intensive process.

Standing listening to Pip talk in his workshop, accompanied by the overriding and reassuring smell of dusty woodwork, it's clear that here is a man who lives and breathes not only the historical connection of his work but also the materials of his craft. In fact, when he lost one of his fingers on the circular saw a few years ago, you wonder if actually he bled sap instead of blood. He told us the tale with the unnerving, genuine nonchalance of a veteran — presumably bowyers have suffered equivalent injuries through the ages and it's only the electricity and the two packs of frozen peas (for the trip to hospital, bowyer and bowyer's finger) that made this accident any different. As they couldn't guarantee it would have complete feeling if they sewed it back on, he elected for them not to bother, since the idea of such an imperfect finger seemed to him worse than none at all. I want to stress that he told us this not as an affectation, but with the matter-of-factness of a craftsman. Cartoonists rarely lose their fingers in moments of indiscretion, so it was in a way both humbling and bracing to meet someone for whom such things are a reality.

A consequence of his years of experience as a bowyer gives Pip an almost uniquely qualified opinion on the history of the longbow. The perceived wisdom on the subject is that the English longbow was a formidable weapon, with an awesome draw-weight releasing armour-penetrating arrows up to 300 yards, at a staggering rate of fire. But actually the evidence in both archaeological finds and replica shoots doesn't back up what may be English propaganda — a formidable weapon, yes, but not to the extremes that are often claimed for it.

One of the interesting things about this is that although original longbows from the time do exist (most of which are from the Mary Rose, which we went to see the next day) none of them can be drawn — the wood simply wouldn't withstand being strung, let alone being drawn or releasing an arrow. But someone like Pip can (unlike your normal military historian) draw informed conclusions about likely performance based on examining physical details of original examples, such as the fineness of their grain, and their length and weight.

Pip's research on the historic English war bow is available in his small but rich little book Medieval War Bows: a Bowyer's Thoughts. His conclusion puts the realistic draw-weight of the English war bow at considerably less than 100lbs. This isn't because the bows couldn't be made more powerful (they could be) or that medieval archers couldn't draw more (they could). Instead, he asserts that the limiting factor was the string technology at the time. Although no bowstrings have survived from the middle ages, the maximum thickness of the strings can be known for certain because the nocks on the end of the arrows must have fitted them. Given that for a viable weapon the string would have to last at least for a handful of shots without breaking, it's likely that the working draw weight of standard military issue longbows (which were fundamentally a disposable weapon) was much lower than English historians have previously wanted to believe.

Pip's larger book, The Heritage of the Long Bow, discusses more detail than you can shake a bag of arrows at, including everything you could need to make a bow — except, of course, the years of experience that are required in order to do the job properly. Contact Bickerstaffe Bows directly if you want to get hold of either book . . . or one of his bows.