I have yet to discover any reliable text that displays the battlefield use of a staff as being anything more than a circumstantial occurence dependant on the financial wealth of a given army. Generally the staff only appears in warfare when there is an absence of superior weaponry. If given the choice in battle, soldiers and generals alike would choose spears, pikes, poleaxes or bills ahead of the simple and rapidly fashioned timber pole.

So the question remains: If the quarterstaff is not a really a battlefield weapon, then why do we have a tradition of use and practice with a staff?

How has the word quarterstaff made it securely into our lexicon?

Reason 1: Quarterstaff Fighting as Sport

Combat creates a spectacle. The intensity nature of a fight creates a spontanaity and speed of mind that can only be found when consicious thoughts are and instinct and reaction are on display. The staff can move at great speed and makes a great noise on contact. The absence of a blade means that strikes do not necessarily lead to disfigurement or fatality. As such, staff fighting between hard men can be quite a show!

photo: courtesy of ejmas.com

Reason 2: Staff Fighting as Military Training

Throughout our history, England has flitted between being a nation at peace, a nation preparing for war, a nation at war and a nation recovering from war. As such the military has touched all of our lives and the vast majority of us have had personal or familial involvement with the armed forces. Quarterstaffs are and always have been essential military training equipment. A quarterstaff could be used on the training ground as a safe alternative for a spear or pike in days gone by. Soldiers still today practise bayonet drills with staffs in the absence of rifles.

Reason 3: Quarterstaff in Stories and Legend

There are numerous legends and tales of heroes protecting themselves from wild animals and dangerous men by utilising a simple staff, and people love to tell and hear exciting stories borne out of fact or fable. The distinguishing nature of a quarterstaff is that it is a stick being used specifically for defending at close quarters and so this provides intense narrative hiatus. Fights are often the most exciting parts of stories since it holds the audience in suspense whilst awaiting the outcome. As such, stories that include staff fights become memorable.

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We suffer from a problem of definition. I have lost count how many times I read dictionary entries that are either misleading or inaccurate. Here is one pertinent to this blog:

World English Dictionary
quarterstaff  (ˈkwɔːtəˌstɑːf) [Click for IPA pronunciation guide]
 
n  , pl -staves
1. a stout iron-tipped wooden staff about 6ft long, formerly used in England as a weapon
2. the use of such a staff in fighting, sport, or exercise
 
[C16: of uncertain origin]
Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition
2009 © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009
Definitions are what we make them and common popular usage of a word can change its legacy for the future. A word so rare as quarterstaff is very fragile and can easily become something it was not.
The first definition above, could be interpreted to mean that only a stout staff with iron ferrules and 6ft long can be called a quarterstaff. This of course is nonsense. Historically and contemporarily, quarterstaffers did (and do) not necessarily have iron on their staffs. They do (and did) on occasion of course, but it is wrong to say that a staff without iron is no longer a quarterstaff.
The second definition however is more pleasing to me and my understanding of the word, since the quarterstaff was used in sport, as a training aid in the military and also a weapon of self-defence for the ordinary person.
However must we always focus on the fighting applications of a quarterstaff? I think not. In fact if we consider the most common use of a quarterstaff, it would not be as a weapon, but as an aid to perambulation, just as we hear in the olde tales of Robin Hoode.
So I would like to suggest a third definition:
3. It is an English word for a good multi-funtional stick that can be used in self-defence. 

The English Quarterstaff

April 22, 2010

I received a message yesterday by a reader asking me the following question:

“….can you tell me exactly how the  English Quarterstaff style is different from other stick and staff styles from around the world?”

My first response was consumed with making references to well-known English Martial Artists who used the staff in their printed legacy. Men such as Silver, Swetnam and McCarthy. However I then realised that the question he asked me, actually asked exactly how styles may be different.

This is not an easy answer, because to a large extent I believe that all staff styles are the same. Be it from African Stick Licking to Shaolin Gun.

Yes we can use historical texts to give us insights into how the “English” quarterstaff was used in the past, however, can these scripts and fight books really offer us detailed understanding of staff use? I would say not. Certainly these historical documents are far from comprehensive.

So you may ask, if all staff styles are similar or even the same, why do I title this blog as “English Quarterstaff Blog” and not simply a general staff fighting blog.

The answer is simply because I am English. my family have been in England for at least 1000 years. The way I learned to fight, the way I learned to think and reason is unmistaken in its Englishness. Therefore my staff play is also English.

To separate physical action from mental sentience is impossible for a human being. Those who think they are separate are in my mind missing a very valuable understanding of the physicality. As such to separate nationality from physical action is difficult to do.

A good analogy (in world cup year) is gained by looking at football styles. Each nationality has a way of playing that is quite unique to each country. Not only do they play differently, but they prepare differently, react differently, think differently and celebrate differently. Similarly the fans of each country act in a different but “typical ” way.

So, an Englishman who practices staff play, will by his nationality be practicing English Quarterstaff, even if his techniques seem to be somewhat different from those drawn by McCarthy etc.

I understand that this view may generate some furrowed eyebrows, however I stand by it.

My answer to the reader can be summed up by saying that the thing that separates English staff fighting from staff fighting in the rest of the world is simply that it is English.

What is English?

This? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bKaJ4b0XYmI

I wonder if Silver would agree?

Richard Peeke – A Boo?

April 21, 2010

One of the greatest tales we can recite in regards to the historical use of the quarterstaff is that which relates to the story of Richard Peeke. The story goes as follows:

In 1625 Richard Peeke from Tavistock in Devon was a sailor in the Navy as was part of a large flotilla charged with the mission of defeating pirates off the coast of Africa. Whilst passing Spain (an enemy of the England at that time), the ship that Peeke sailed on stopped to raid a nearby town. Peeke left the ship in search of oranges but found himself in an encounter with a Spanish Knight. Clearly a skilled fighter, Peeke is quick to subue the Knight but was then arrested by the Knight’s bodyguard. Whilst a prisoner, Peeke is eventually questioned by a group of Spanish Nobles. During this interrogation, Peeke stands up for Englishmen as the are slandered by the Spaniards. Peeke is then challenged to a sword fight by one Spaniard, who he promptly disarms. Peeke then goes on to state that if armed with a quarterstaff he could beat up to six of the Spanish Guards.The Spanish set three guards armed with Rapiers and Daggers to challenge Peeke. Peeke kills one and disarms the other two, forcing them to run and hide. Following his victory, Peeke is then treated well by the Spanish and gifted large sums of money and good clothes. He eventually returns to England and is treated as a hero.

One year later it is said that a play called “Dick of Devonshire” based upon the story of Richard Peeke was written and became very popular .  In this play, Richard Peeke is referred to as Dick Pike.

A copy of both these accounts was edited by Joshua Brooking Rowe in 1879.  A further edition was published in 1905 by James G. Commin. For various reasons it is suggested that these stories are perhaps not authentic and may be connected with the famous literary forger William Henry Ireland who lived in the late 18th century. However no comprehensive research into the authenticity of the Ricard Peeke story has been done. Certainly we know that there are no historical records of Richard Peeke and so these pieces of literature may just be fiction.

Even if they are, we do know that the Quarterstaff is mentioned and identified as a weapon of significant English Pedigree. As such it is still an enjoyable and welcome piece of literary reference for staff enthusiasts. What is perhaps of most interest is that the Qurterstaff Peeke uses to beat the spanish appears to be made of steel and has a point at one end. This if nothing else, this provides a challenge to those who may feel that a quarterstaff can only be constructed of wood?

The play also offers an interesting insight. When Peeke is victorious, one of the Spaniards is heard to call ” Hell take thy quarter staffe”, followed by another who calls “A pox on your quarters”. This provides further evidence that “quarters” referred to the environs of the human body and helps provide documentary support the correct definition of  quarterstaff.

I finished preparing my new Staff today and so took it out for a test. I have had a good play for 2 hours and surprisingly I feel that I have learned as much in this short time as I have during the last 6 months. A new weapon always has the ability to teach me so much. I think it is probably because I develop techniques and handling skills that are specific to the weapon that I am using at the time.

Ergo : New Weapon = New Techniques 

This staff is certainly sturdier than many wooden weapons I have used before. It is 6 foot 10 inches long, has a diameter of 4 inches at the thin end and 4 1/2 inches at the broad. It weights just under 2kg and is balanced just 4 inches from the centre.

I originally intended to leave the bark on in keeping with the old traditions of staff making, however, once I had removed the various knots I couldn’t help myself from seeking an aesthetic finish. So I stripped the bark! Traditionalists may turn their nose up ( I usually would), but I have to say that I am not overly unhappy with the visual result. I will have to see how it bears up to some contact fighting.

One of the new techniques I learned to appreciate whilst using this new staff is “throwing” the staff.

Technique: Begin by facing to the right (could be either side), slip the left hand further towards the left end, then throw the right end up and over to the left whilst turning to the left. (The staff  is thrown vertical by the right hand whilst still being held on to with the left). Use the left arm and a twist of the body to increase the speed with which the staff will now travel downwards towards your attacker. As the staff approaches horizontal, use the right hand to now catch hold of the staff next to the left hand. The technique done in reverse can be seen in the diagram below:

 

Though I have practiced this techniques many times before, it has never seemed to have as much power as it did today. I  truly think that it is the new staff that enabled the new understanding that I have gained in the past couple of hours.

Needless to say that my advice for gaining new insights, would be to train with as many different types of staff as you can.

Last year (2009) during the summer whilst I was walking in the woods close to my home, I discovered a Badger’s set. It was some way distant from the main path and hidden amongst ferns. Unfortunately my excitement was soon turned to sorrow when I saw that the set had recently been dug and that there were footprints of both man and Terrier all around the site.

Photo Courtesy of : naturewild.co.uk

Barbarism is the most shameful of acts that human beings are capable of. It goes against pity, and it is perhaps through pity that humans gain most reason and understanding. Badger baiting is a cruel and barbarous activity that serves neither function nor skill. It is just the brutal and senseless murder of wild animals. If you wish to help stop Badger Baiting please visit the following site and pledge your support:

http://www.diggingout.org/index.html

As I left the set, I saw that another sad tale had occurred. A large Sycamore had been struck by lighting and had fallen from its place on the bank. In so doing it had trapped a young Birch sapling beneath it.  The sapling was looking at a bleak future and so I tried to free it. Unfortunately the sycamore was too large and too entangled with other trees for me to move it. With regret I had to leave the sapling to its fate.

The first week in spring is the ideal time to find wood for a new staff. Following winter the wood sleeps and the strength of the previous year’s growth is consolidated in the timber. This year I ventured out into my local forest to select this year’s staff. As a rule I always scout the deadfall before cutting from a living tree, but this year there was nothing suitable. Even amongst the living trees there was little choice for a good long straight staff.

I soon found myself near to the Badger’s set and I thought I would see how things were getting on. Sadly there were no signs of any Badgers. However I was pleased to see that the Birch sapling had survived despite still being stuck under the weight of the Sycamore. I took out my saw and soon freed the young tree. I helped it back to its former upright status and used the remnants of the Sycamore as a prop.

Pleased with my work and good deed, I sat down for a drink. As I sipped the water I was rewarded by the forest. Just a few feet from the birch was the most perfectly straight piece of timber I had seen and it was all of 9 foot’s worth. Spirituality is not something that should be discussed openly, since I think it is both personal and prone to misunderstanding. However, there is now an area of my local forest that has more personal significance to me than before. The wood has been curing in my house for a month and I will begin practice with it in April. 

Q. How different is a truncheon from a staff?

In 2008 whilst walking to training I was fortunate to meet a senior police officer from the West Yorkshire police who was on his way to a policeman’s ball. He was in his late 50’s and dressed very smartly. He was wearing some medals and had an imposing physique. He saw that I was carrying a long thin bag and this provoked his interest. We started a conversation and I was happy to tell him about the staff training I was doing. He was interested to hear about the history and traditions connected with staff fighting in England.

I asked him about his training and in particular about his training with weapons. He told me that when he first joined the force as a street bobby, he was issued with a truncheon and they learned a number of practical ways in which the short stick can be used. He then told me something that I had not heard before. He told me that often their truncheon’s were referred to as their staffs.

19th Century Police Truncheon 50cm long

I was surprised, I had always assumed that a staff was a long, two handed weapon. The thought that a staff could also refer to a single handed weapon was new to me. He told me that in the 60’s and 70’s most people understood that a staff could be a short stick. He said that he would often issue the threat to violent law breakers “(comply)…… or i will staff you!”, it was generally known to all criminals that this meant he was threatening to use his truncheon.  

Upon investigation, indeed I have found that often a short stick could be referred to as a staff. The words stick, bludgeon, cane, wand, shillelagh, stave, pole, post, baton, staff, cudgel, bat, club and truncheon, can all describe pieces of cylindrical timber of different sizes.  Precise definitions of how long each of these pieces of timber should be is not clear. Let me give you an example by attempting to place the above nouns in length order:

LONG – Pole, Stave, Staff, Post, Cane, Baton, Bludgeon, Bat, Shillelagh, Club, Cudgel, Truncheon, Wand, Stick – SHORT

How much of this order would you agree with? I expect we would all place these in a slightly different sequence.

If you accept the ambiguity in regards to length, now observe how we can place these words together in sentence construction:

He was caned with a stick,

He was bludgeoned with a pole,

He was cudgelled with a bat,

He was staffed with a truncheon….

Did the nouns start as verbs or did the verbs start as nouns?

If we then look at how the truncheon is used, we then have to ask, how many different ways can a person be hit with a piece of timber?

Is the truncheon so different from the quarterstaff? ……….Is size important?

A.    …. It’s complicated!

The Archer’s Staff

March 18, 2010

The great warbow was not carried with its string attached. The force placed upon the string by a bow is so great that it will stretch the fibres and potentially cause the string to snap. As such an archer would usually be seen walking with a large staff made of yew.

Diver and bow

Pic: Archaelogist Chris Dobbs with a longbow from the Mary Rose shipwreck.

If an archer or huntsman were to find themselves under attack whilst carrying their unstrung staff/bow, is it unreasonable to suggest that they may have used it as a weapon in keeping with the traditions and techniques of the quarterstaff?  Indeed due to the prevelance of English archers during the middle ages, could this go someway to explaining why the English more than any other European nation became famed for their use of the long stick?

I am not suggesting that the bow was used as a fighting staff, merely that we should consider that it could have been in times of need. Often the ends of a bow are very fragile and are succeptable to damage. However some of the samples that emerged from the shipwreck of the Mary Rose have tips that are not only sturdy but are also pointed. Indeed it would not take a huge leap of imagination to see how these bows could be used in a similar way to a thrusting spear.

In battle, the English archer was often equipped with a sword or battle axe for close fighting, this is no doubt to protect the bow and to allow the archers a more effective weapon against armour clad enemies.  However, the expertise held in the middle ages for preparing long shafts of wood for use as bows and polearms will have been similar and so it is not impossible to consider that a bow could have been used as a polearm, especially if resisting a cavalry charge.

A thought worth consideration perhaps?

I have seen that the British Quarterstaff association are now practicing Tai Chi with their Quarterstaffs.

They have also created something called the six animal postures:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MxqzheeZo4&feature=related

They are using such animals as the hawk, boar, stag, badger and frog (ok, maybe not a frog) as inspirations for their Staff play.

I think this is clearly the influnce of Chinese martial arts and has no precedence in English martial arts.

I find it disappointing that people who claim to represent “Britain” in the use of the Quarterstaff are so clearly departing from British practice.

The following has been taken directly from their website:

ABOUT THE BRITISH QUARTERSTAFF ASSOCIATION

The qualities of the developed warrior:The developed warrior:-

  • has the stealth, control and lightning attack of the fox
  • has the light footwork of the stag
  • has the explosive power of the boar
  • has the grasping power of the hawk
  • is soft and yielding like the cat, is flexible and adaptable
  • has the repose of the bear, is awesome and dignified
  • moves like the air
  • has quickness in the movement of the eye, the hand and the body
  • has self-knowledge that enables him to judge the level of
  • skill of another simply by watching him
  • knows when to fight and when to walk away, balancing his
  • courage and prowess with discretion
  • has respect for the integrity of every adversary
  • is calm, peaceful and confident

To me, as a practitioner of the Quarterstaff, this is all a bit incongruous and confusing, and is a little immature?

I am concerned by and suspect that they are trying to invent a martial art that does not exist. They are using the words “British”, “Association”  and “Quarterstaff” to legitimise their own Chinese based Staff play in a British setting. They do not represent any British Quarterstaff play that I recognise, appreciate or value.

The Staff and the Sword

April 24, 2009

Imagine you are about to enter into man to man combat. One of you will have a Staff, the other a sword. Which would you pick? Staff or sword?

Sometimes we can get excited about the devastating potential of the Staff in a fight. In myth and fantasy fiction, characters such as the monkey king can defeat entire armies armed with a Staff. Indeed, even in reality great stories have been told. One notable Englishmen (single-handed) defeated three Spaniards armed with sword and daggar.  

However, what is the truth?

Is the Staff really such a great weapon? Is it better than a sword? 

Can a Staff made of wood defeat a sword made of Metal?

If the Staff is such a great weapon then why do most soldiers throughout history prefer the sword?

Swords are better? Yes/No?

The case for the sword is a good one. It cuts easily, causing harm with little effort. With moderate effort it can immobilise and kill. It is easy to carry and frees both hands when not fighting. When fighting it allows the wielding of a shield weapon in the free hand. A good sword is hard wearing. When faced with a wooden Staff? That’s right, the sword can cut it in to pieces!

So the question is, why choose a Staff?

To help answer the question, it is helpful to look at a similar situation. Lets change the Staff into a spear and the sword into a short stick.

Which would you choose, spear or stick?  Easy answer. Easy question.

The spear is (throughout history) the only real rival for the sword in terms of military preference and effectiveness. Indeed most soldiers would be armed with both sword and spear. A spears length making it superior to the sword. However, when used with a shield the sword becomes much more effective.

Our scenairo has no shield! Nor a spear.

This tells us that in making the decision, there is little more to consider than deliberating over the trade off  between length of weapon or ferocity of blade.

This now helps us to answer our question more easily. With length brings a mixture of range and versatility. These are the deciding factors in weapon effectiveness. The ability of a Staff to misdirect an attack or bind with one end and then rapidly attack with the other makes it more versatile than the sword. It’s range speaks for itself.

In conclusion, the Staff will probably defeat the sword due to its versatility and range, however, only in the absence of a shield.

If a swordsman finds a shield and increases his defensive potential?

This then becomes a test for any Staff master.