Never ever turn your back against your opponent sounds like a good, solid advice, but is it always so? What do you do for instance, when you face multiple opponents? This article will give a few examples of Renaissance sources that touch upon this topic.
In almost every movie fight involving swords there is a certain sequence that involves a pirouette, where the hero spins around, temporarily turning his back on his adversary, before striking in. It looks cool and flashy, but is commonly disregarded by HEMA fencers as being "unmartial" and ridiculous.
It is something Kung Fu monks do, but it has no value in realcombat, where you would quickly find something nasty protruding from your back, if you ever tried such a move. Is this claim really valid in all circumstances?
If we look to the source material, the concept of spinning around before striking strongly relates to the style and weapon in use. With shorter weapons or swords primarily designed for thrusting, there is less use for this.
However, with two-handed weapons like staffs and longswords it is certainly described in a few medieval and renaissance sources like e.g. Joachim Meyer's Gründtliche Beschreibung des Fechtens of 1570 and Dom Diogo Gomes de Figueyredo's Memorial da Practtica do Montante of 1651, and it is still in use today in traditional, Portuguese staff fencing Jogo do Pau, which is fairly closely related to the Montante sword techniques described in Figueyredo's manual.
One thing that connects these three, is the fact that, in my opinion, these martial arts traditions are at least in part designed for work against several opponents, so you constantly change sides and directions.
The twirling is tricky to master, and can seem foolish as it momentarily exposes the one who performs it, but I have myself been deceived a couple of times by another fencer who likes to do this occassionally. It is easy to protect against if you know that the fencer likes to do this, but harder if you don't expect it and he does it well. The trick here is that the "twirler" makes two quick steps off line while moving diagonally forward, but you perceive it as a single step off-line... Alternatively he makes two steps back, but remains in range since he has changed from a two-handed grip into a single hand grip.
As can be seen in the sources cited above and below, it is best used if the opponent's attack is voided first, either by a bind in the forward part of the weapon, or by stepping back.
Furthermore, the movement can be done in different ways, depending on how you want to strike. You can lift your weapon high with a hanging point and twirl around this, which will offer you some protection, while you step off to the side of your hanging weapon and strike down straight from above with one hand. Do this by watching your opponent as long as possible, and then quickly turn your head around, so you miminize the time you do not see your opponent.
The second version involves a horisontal or diagonal strike, where you twist your body before your weapon so you can keep the point aimed at the opponent as long as possible. You then use your full body rotation to make a very powerful one-hand strike.
This is basically how it is done in Joachim Meyer's section on Halber Stangen and it is remarkably similar to the JdP Tornado seen above.
"Do this as well in the Onset; as soon as you the furthermost part of his staff can reach with yours, then keep your forward point straight at his face and with this turn well off to your right side. Also, when you turn your back against him, and as you have turned fully around, then at the same time step well off with your right foot behind your left towards him. With this step, turn your self fully to your right side and strike with one hand, going around, straight from above at his head. You may also, as you turn around, deliver this strike straight across."
What is really interesting in this section is the fact that the position you turn into when turning your back against your opponent, is quite likely the "mysterious" second Nebenhut that Meyer mentions but doesn't describe properly in the section on Halber Stangen.
However, it is found in the section on Hellebarten and is identical to the Nebenhut with your back turned against the presumed previous opponent and the staff resting on your hip, but looking in the exact opposite direction, thus keeping the forward point to the back and getting ready to strike the, again presumed, opponent approaching from behind.
This ties in well with the guard Steürhut that also is done in two directions with two different ways of application. Cleverly, it is quite easy to move into Steürhut from the Nebenhut, by just turning a quarter or turn around completely and step accordingly. These two guards in combination protect all four directions. Which of course also ties in well with the Jogo Do Pau "tornado", which is integral to fighting alone against multiple opponents.
Meyer also has another sequence going the other direction which is initiated by having lured the opponent into thrusting, since you turned your back against him thereby offering an opening. And this is a key to the spin-strike in single combat. It isn't used as a direct attack, but done either with a parry, or after the adversary has failed his attack. Compare this with the following
"This rule serves against thrown weapons, or against hafted weapons for two hands. Planting the body firm with the montante in obtuse posture, the body a little inclined, and ready to give a talho on the weapon that is hurled at you or that is thrust at you, you will deflect it to the left side. Then giving a large jump while turning around, another talho that reaches the person who threw it; or else deflect with a revez, according to which side the opposing weapon is aimed, to give another revez with another jump with the body turning around and making a circle, in such a manner that you offend the adversary with a blow."
This of course is not how it is usually done in the movies, but if we want to discuss a realistic use of what is misrepresented in the movies then these are good examples. Looking at medieval and renaissance fencing there is precious
little that is well-represented in the movies, at least with single combat. So, misrepresentation of a technique shouldn't cast shadow on the validity of the actual techniques . If so, almost all combat could be ridiculed based on what we see in most movies, since timing, distance and weapon handling is almost always "off".
What is still open to interpretation is how often this technique was used and in what context. Was it more commonly seen in school fencing as a means for showing off? Was it more commonly used when outnumbered against multiple opponent? My guess would be yes on both questions.
And with regards to the last question, we may also consider the advice of the unknown master who spoke the following wise words:
"With your overconfidence be moderate, which is good for you. He is a brave man who fights his own weaknesses, It is no shame to flee when four or six are at hand."and later:"... no man should be so stupid that his own fencing brings him injury. If you want to beat five or six men, then you will often get badly hurt, since you can't defend against every strike directed against you, and you will then be subjected to ridicule and scorn. You little fool who wanted to be the best, see what happened. This is not great courage, but great stupidity to try four or six;It is better to hide away in a bed than to display such clumsiness.
Feb 8 2011- In relation to the article above, I found the following words of Giacomo Di Grassi interesting:
Sources: (These will be updated properly shortly)