Arguments Argentine

If you’ve followed the comments for the post “’Silver’as Trigger-Word” then you may have seen this, but if not I wish to share it here. Stephen Hand kindly reminded me that his response–far better to read than anything I might have to say–is free to view on his site:

https://stephen-hand.selz.com/

Thank you Mr. Hand.

I have read this paper–it’s very good–but neglected to link it–mea culpa! If you enjoy the ongoing saga over HEMA’s favorite Bogey man, The-Englishman-What-Shouldna-be-Nam-ed, then give this a read.

NB: As I explained in my comment yesterday my stake in this is general, more concerned with how research is conducted in historical fencing, the state of it, than with Silver per se. One does not have to be a card-carrying academic to do research; in fact I think our discipline would suffer were that the case. We’re stronger for a variety of views, but the value of this multifaceted view is only strong as the rigor we apply to this research. Like it or not, agree or not, there are standards in most research one ignores at one’s peril, least if they wish to be taken seriously.

Much of my career I’ve spent as a teacher and that tends to come out in situations like this–if my criticism appeared harsh that is unfortunate, but I stand by it. I do my best to express any criticism compassionately, and believe it or not that was my goal yesterday as well. I bear Mr. Winslow no ill will (we’ve never met) and sincerely hope he will continue to dive into the material–no one puts in as much time into a project as he clearly did unless they love it. This said, the rules that apply to anyone writing a research paper apply to him too. If we lack tools, we can acquire them and/or enlist the aid of someone who possesses them. There was, at last check, at least one fb page populated by various scholars who work on topics in historical fencing. That might be a good place to start.

Online Lecture by Steven Hughes

Patrick Bratton, colleague, friend, fellow devotee of Italian fencing, and the instructor at Sala della Spada in Carlisle, PA, USA, will be holding a Zoom Meeting Jan 26, 2021, at 06:00 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada). His guest speaker will be Steven Hughes, author of Politics of the Sword: Dueling, Honor, and Masculinity in Modern Italy (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2007).

Hughes examines the rise of dueling in the wake of Italy’s unification, a time that witnessed a number of anti-dueling movements but which also coincides with the proliferation of works on fencing, so many of which became influential world-wide.

If you’re interested let me know and I will share the login information with you.

Cover, Steven C. Hughes, _Politics of the Sword_

Piste & Page (Part I)

[I’ve been asked several times how I got into historical fencing, why I’m no longer competing, etc., and figured it would be helpful to me if no one else to spend some time on that. Thirty years of fencing, and forty of martial arts, puts a body through a lot so the easy answer to the competition question is “mileage.” For the literary minded this is a choice between playing Achilles or Nestor—the former’s path may gain one glory, but a shorter career; the latter a longer career, but less glory. I intend to do all I can to fence until I am utterly unable to do so, and so that means focusing more on teaching and research than it does tournaments. Few talk of Nestor, but he made it to Troy and acquitted himself well so while hardly the most exciting character among the Danaans, there are worse role-models 😉 In any event, here is part I of how I landed where I currently am]

A friend of mine, an author working on a new book, asked me why sabre is my favorite weapon. This sparked a longer conversation about how I got involved with historical fencing. I learned a long time ago to develop answers akin to those one uses in academia, that is, to have a soundbite, a two-minute answer, and then a full answer which might take a few minutes, each appropriate for specific instances. Most people, for example, when they find out you’re a professor ask “what do you teach?” and expect a short answer, such as “history.” Going into detail about Libanius’ support of the Emperor Julian or imported narrative tropes in Irish hagiography is usually only of any real interest to me and three other people. Neck-deep in graduate research, working alone for the most part, it’s easy to answer these questions with far more information than people want or need. It can take time to read that in people, least it did for me. They might ask, but they don’t really want to know.

It’s the same with fencing. I replied with a short answer, but my friend wanted more, so I told him that like many people I started in foil, but that the sabre squad at my university needed a fourth member so I volunteered. I had watched the sabreurs fence, and was attracted to the speed, noise, and violence of it. It looked fun!

Our coach at the time, Maestro Edwin “Buzz” Hurst, was strict, appropriately demanding, and quick to dress us down if we got lazy or our attention wavered.[1] This was difficult for many students. An Annapolis grad and retired naval officer, Buzz can summon that stern military demeanor when necessary. I learned a lot from Maestro Hurst, not only in terms of technique but in terms of tactics and strategy. One of the things I admire about him is that he never once refused to answer a question or explain something. I’ve met coaches who have 15-20 min. per student and little patience for questions. Busy as he was, Buzz was happy to answer questions after a lesson or if we happened to join him for lunch.

UCSB Fencing Team 1992–Maestro Hurst is in the middle, rear row; I am on his right as you look at the photo; Phil Ives, our sabre squad captain, is on Buzz’s left; Jason Levin, another sabreur, is just right of me and down slightly.

UCSB’s fencing club was just that, a club, which meant limited resources unlike NCAA supported teams. It was all on us for the most part to bring in additional money, something we did with everything from bake-sales to fencing demonstrations. Our numbers dipped, and about a year or so after Maestro Hurst helped us achieve the division championship (1992)—something a club team had not done in some 25 years—we found we could no longer afford him. [2] This affected the sabre squad perhaps most, but in time we were lucky to contract with another Los Angeles area maestro, Albert Joseph Couturier (d. 2014, aged 91), “Al” to us. Members of our foil squad had been visiting his salle in Culver City, and some of his students and assistants had helped direct our tournaments.

It was a long drive for Al, then in his early 70s, so two students, Larry Dunn and Brian Peña, usually drove up with him and assisted. Brian helped coach foil and epee (though he is a good sabreur too), and Larry assisted Al with sabre. The years I spent studying with Al and Larry, as I look back on it, were the years that shaped most of my game. Buzz had given me a solid foundation, and they helped me build a house on it.

SoCal NCAA Fencing, 1990s

Reputation for laxity and a “duuuuuude, the waves are like sooo killer brah” attitude aside, southern California was and remains a major hub for fencing in the United States.[3] In the early to mid-90s the level of skill in the collegiate division, fed as it was by parallel interest in USFA competition, was high among the top tier of competitors. With so many maestri in town, and post 1984 Olympics (Los Angeles), coaching was not only available, but often of extremely high caliber. It had long been this way. Some names are well-known in American fencing, such as Aldo Nadi and Henri Uyttenhove, but Delmar Calvert, Len Carnighan, Michael d’Asaro Sr., John MacDougall, Torao Mori, Heziburo Okawa, George Piller, Charles Sandberg, Doc O’Brien, Hans Halberstadt, and many others all taught at some point or other in California, and between them and their senior students the talent pool was as broad as it was/is deep. In addition to the masters resident in the area, many world competitors and instructors visited too. Daniel Costin, originally from Romania, directed some of our collegiate bouts, and I had a few lessons with Ferenc Lukacs when he was at Salle Couturier.[4]

When there is such a high level of coaching, so long as one is dedicated and puts in the time one will improve. Like many things, the more we know of something, the more we’re able to do, the more enjoyment we get out of it. Provided with frequent tournaments, in college or via the USFA, we didn’t lack for chances to hone our skills. One reflection of this mix of enjoyment and skill was the fact that after the sabre portion of a tournament was over—we were usually first to finish—a number of the schools in the conference would keep fencing. This was common pre-electric sabre.

Depressions Beach, Isla Vista–yes, yes it is somewhat a miracle that any of us at UCSB ever graduate.*

We came to know many of the fencers at UCLA, USC, CS Fullerton, and others. Our major rivals, however, tended to do their own thing.[5] The chance to fence with some of the best fencers in our area, after the stress of competition, not only made for fun but allowed us to fight better fencers without the pressure. We learn a lot in friendly bouts with those more skilled—the fact that it’s fun helps too. As a much younger person fighting in competitive TKD tournaments I had been encouraged to seek out better fighters—one will face some tough bouts, but what we can learn there is invaluable. It is just as accurate in fencing. D’Artagnan Sr., one may recall, tells his son “Vous êtes jeune, vous devez être brave par deux raisons: la première, c’est que vous êtes Gascon, et la seconde, c’est que vous êtes mon fils. Ne craignez pas les occasions et cherchez les aventures. Je vous ai fait apprendre à manier l’épée; vous avez un jarret de fer, un poignet d’acier; battez-vous à tout propos; battez-vous d’autant plus que les duels sont défendus, et que, par conséquent, il y a deux fois du courage à se battre.” [6] This happy camaraderie changed dramatically with the advent of electric-sabre in collegiate fencing.

Electric Scoring: Sabre’s Charge at Krojanty [7]

Electrical scoring wasn’t new and had been a normal part of foil and epee for decades, but sabre proved far more difficult to convert.[8] Where depressing a button at the tip of the weapon is a fairly simple mechanical process, figuring out how not to make the non-dangerous portions of a sabre blade register as a hit is complicated. To this day no one has done it. It’s one piece of metal, but only the true edge, tip, and last third of the false edge—supposedly—should register a score. That is in keeping with real blades—the flat might smart, the forte might bruise, but neither is sharp. In the days when sabre was fenced dry, where we had a director presiding over the bout and four judges to assist, this was far easier to track. The director had to listen as well as look—if they heard fabric before steel, it was a hit; if steel before fabric, it was parried and the following “thwack!” was whip-over; if the sounds were simultaneous then chances were good it was a malparry or failed parry. The judges, ideally, helped determine this by acknowledging either a hit or miss, or in the event they were unsure or could not see, they could abstain.

Since the judges were pulled from the teams, and since some teams were open to cheating, the judges could and did try to game their role. A good director called them on it, however, and made it clear that such garbage wasn’t going to work. Given this potential problem with judges the appeal of electrical scoring was obvious; but it was introduced too soon. The technology only worked in ideal circumstances, but those with the power to do anything about it didn’t see that.

Whether used with an accelerometer/capteur (as we did initially) or without, electric scoring in sabre only works if everyone is playing according to ROW (right of way), is skilled enough to fence cleanly, and honest enough to acknowledge a fair hit against themselves or deny a poor hit awarded to them. Assuming well-trained fencers who are defense-minded, who aren’t adapting their technique to exploit the scoring system, it “can” work. However, because it was so easy to exploit weaknesses in the system, the lowest common denominator became the path to success. Crappy fencing could and consistently did beat out better fencing. To make matters worse, the rules, then as now, do not allow one to overrule the box. Worse still, the rules soon changed to reflect the new reality.

Almost overnight the problems became obvious. First, from the director’s call of “allez!” both fencers would fleche at one another and double out. In the next exchange, the better tactician might feign a fleche, but instead take distance, make say a beat-attack against the fencer making the fleche, and make the touch, but… lose the point. The reasoning behind this, such as it was, argued that since the attacker’s light went off the other fencer must have failed to make the beat-attack in time. Half the time the director called it a failed parry-riposte—understandable, perhaps, but less so when the fencer making the beat is taking distance and striking either the middle or last third of the blade… Part of a director’s job is to make the call as to who has ROW, the initial attacker or the person who made the counter-attack in tempo, and this was still required, but increasingly the director came to rely on the box versus their eyes and ears.

With both lights signaling, and thus both fencers “hit,” the fencer making a simple attack with a fleche, say a cut to the head, was awarded ROW mostly because their attack was straight-forward. Anything more complicated than hop-and-chop was too easily taken for a failed parry or searching for the blade. The problem with this is that the very same principle of ROW means that an attack into tempo, such as a beat cut–properly made–takes ROW away from that attacker. Relying on the lights rather than one’s senses was a natural mistake, one only encouraged by the director having to bow to the box. Between less focus on what the action actually was and expectations for bad fencing at the collegiate level, directing followed the fencing as it descended into the chimpanzee donnybrook it increasingly became. As for the parry-riposte game, it was gone.

The “Flunge” **

The answer was a band-aid instead of a solution. They outlawed the fleche and any other attack where one crossed one’s legs. Fencers, however, who relied on it began to make a similar, if far more clumsy attack, the “flunge” (more or less a fleche except that the legs don’t cross). The en garde position went from mid-century third, a compromise between offense and defense, to a forward leaning position, one where the hand was held at about hip height, point near the floor, to facilitate a speedy slap at the bottom or side of the bell-guard. [9] These fencers were literally attacking the strongest part of one’s defense and scoring—it didn’t matter that this was whip-over. The light went off. One could take the Platonic ideal of a parry and it meant nothing. The entire ethos of the game changed, and the frustration of some combined with the glee of those getting away with it fostered a bully approach of mask-throwing, simian grunting, and screaming clownishness that has persisted. Had they addressed the one thing that would have fixed it all, the nature of the blade, they could have saved themselves a lot of trouble (and no, the s2000 blade did not solve the problem).

Disillusionment

Anyone who spends years dedicated to honing a complex set of sophisticated techniques is going to be a little disappointed that almost overnight they don’t matter. As in so many things, it also didn’t matter that one was right—that the logic of ROW argued against the ridiculousness, that both common sense and history were on one’s side. Nothing. What mattered was winning. The chimp who slaps at your bell-guard and makes a light go off has not proven that they’re the better fencer, only that they’ve learned a game using sabres well. There is a difference.

The lack of concern, even amongst our teammates, was disheartening. The coaches were sympathetic, but on the one hand hamstrung by the rules and on the other were accustomed to a different experience on the piste themselves. There was a short time where high-level competitors, who had been trained properly, could work around the nonsense. Directors too, since they were dealing with A-level competitors expected and looked for more than the hulk-smash blitz of the flunge at the bell-guard. Only later when these fencers started to suffer too did coaching change. In their view, I suspect, bad fencing is just bad fencing, and since they had less trouble, the problem wasn’t the electrical scoring system, just newer or less-experienced fencers than themselves.

Defection

I can’t recall the exact date, but it was during the last two years of my competitive life that I made the break. It wasn’t apparent to me then, in fact it wasn’t for a very long time, but looking back on it the decision to dive into the sources was a turning point. For a long time the sea-change in my imagination was the memory of a comrade and I cracking open two bottles of McEwan’s Export Ale after our last collegiate bout, but in hindsight that was just a sad denouement.

Carl Thimm’s bibliography and other works in the university library were my first stop. I combed bookstores, and the burgeoning internet where among other things I discovered that there were other weirdos like me as well as people like Patri J. Pugliese who had started scanning and sharing long out of print manuals and treatises. I discovered both further conviction for the cause and comfort in works like Barbasetti’s that were so close to what I had learned.

Tolle, lege!

To most historical fencers this will sound pretty normal, i.e., looking at sources, but in Olympic circles it is, or was, less common. There was almost never any reason other than an individual’s curiosity to consult a work on fencing, especially in our region. We all took lessons from masters who had carried on centuries’ old methods, who could answer questions, and while the historical nugget here or there was fun trivia, the focus was improvement to advance and medal. One didn’t need books to do that.

If reading up on fencing, and reading old fencing manuals was odd, even worse were the attempts to create more realistic (yet still safe sabres). With apologies to my friends in the SCA, my teammates back then, viewed the various experiments that my good friend and fellow sabreur Jon Tarantino and I conducted as one step away from puffy shirts and bad Elizabethan accents. It cost us most of our credibility with the club. We were tolerated, but barely. Pity to say that now, some twenty-five years later, the ill-will people bore us remains strong with some former teammates. No amount of explanation, even apologies for souring newer fencers, has made a difference.

Dennis Nedry to Dodgson: “See? Nobody cares.”

One thing I believe to this day was that Jon and I found a simple solution, one we proved worked, and that would have helped alleviate a lot of problems if it didn’t outright fix electric sabre or make it unnecessary: a return to more historically accurate blades. The core issue was whip-over, so logically a slightly stiffer blade would help. This was the path the FIE took and the resulting s2000 blade is stiffer.

However, that was only part of the problem. Fencing with a weapon so light is fast, so fast that it allows one to do things that one cannot do, not safely anyway, with a weapon of period weight. This was less an issue when the lighter blade was invented for the sport because training still reflected the reality of the duel. After all, the duel had not disappeared in Italy yet, nor in France for that matter, and there were still people either issued swords or using them in war as late as World War II.

Stiffness was an easy solve, but adding weight is not something I think anyone official considered. Concerns over legal and safety issues were raised when Jon and I brought it up, but these were weak arguments. Produced correctly, blunted, with proper flex, a blade along late 19th century lines is as safe as anything else. The additional weight becomes negligible quickly after a little practice, and there is no marked increase in force—most of that comes down to training. Good fencers are not hard-hitters.

We sunk a lot of time and money into researching options for such a blade. The problem was no one made them. We went through a lot of crappy Indian-made “cavalry” repro-sabres, any theatrical blade even slightly robust, and at least two really lovely—but totally unsuitable for bouting—“Masiello” sabres made by Oscar Kolombatovich. In most cases we had to alter these weapons significantly to use them safely. With the repro cavalry sabres, for example, we tapped out the peen to remove the blade, ground it down to a more suitable length for use on foot, reground the tang, tapped the tang for a pommel nut, and reassembled the sabre. Even a clipped point that is rounded out by grinding, however, can be dangerous, and while these were fun they were never ideal.

We settled on schlagers, the oval ones still available then, as they had enough flex to thrust safely, were rigid enough not to whip, and were closer in weight to earlier blades. To test our hypothesis, we rigged two schlager blades for electric, accelerometers and all, as these were the closest thing we could then get to say late 19th century practice blades. Most of this was easy—we painted the inside of the bell-guard to insulate it, taped the pommel nut, and added an accelerometer jack into the last two steel guards we owned. These were robust, had a rolled edge, and lasted an impressive amount of time. All that remained was to suit up and try them out.

To say that we demonstrated that they worked well for electric would be too prosaic—it literally solved every issue. Even a panic parry close to the body didn’t incur whip-over. After we beta-tested it, we had one of the coaches try it. They agreed it was better, but sort of shrugged. Suited up as we were, and with tips wide and broad enough for safety, it was less a concern for any danger, I suspect, as it was that they were just too different. Jon and I explained that the increased weight was necessary, that current blades were too light and meant that speed dominated the game over proper technique (still the problem today). We added that it took a few weeks to adjust to the weight, but that it was worth it. For proof, here we were, sharing the fruits of our labor so others can see how easy it was. No amount of enthusiasm, no demonstration of proof of concept, nothing made the slightest dint in anyone’s opinion. Not even having them try it out helped. It didn’t matter to anyone but us. It’s not hard to set out on one’s own after that.

Glad as I am, thrilled as I am, that we have the blades that Castille Armory, Danelli/Balefire, and Darkwood make, it’s hard not to wish they’d been around in the 1990s. Castille’s 16mm sabre blade would have solved most of the issues. It still could. The daffy junk one sees in modern sabre won’t work with a proper blade.

In Desertum

The last half of the 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium I spent researching, drilling, fencing, and taking lessons whenever possible. Like Bracciolini, everywhere I went I hunted for books, buying whatever I could find that was useful. [10] I also worked on a few papers, one with Jon entitled “Is a Heavier Blade the Answer?” which never saw the light of day. I published another article in Fencer’s Quarterly, edited by Maitre Nick Evangelista, and was hopeful of publishing a second when the magazine folded. [11] I’ve continued to write, mostly for myself or students, ever since.

Eager for allies, I continued to look for them, but the few I found were as beleaguered as Jon and I were. Most had given up and left the competitive world. It was hard to blame them for it, but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted fencing to be what it had been, to fix something it ought to be able to do, and, that it could do safely. I wanted to compete again. My interest in classical and/or historical fencing, at the time, was largely geared toward improving Olympic fencing, but it had been clear for a long time, especially with the rise of both “classical” fencing and early historical experiments that this was a waste of time. Whatever I would do with fencing it seemed more and more likely I would be doing it alone until I could find other, like-minded people to fence with again.

NOTES:

[1] Maestro Hurst is an active coach, not only teaching out of his Cabrillo Academy of the Sword, but as a long-time officer, in many capacities, of the USFCA. https://www.cabrillosword.com/instructors

[2] I wasn’t part of club leadership and can’t say much about the decision process that led to us losing Maestro Hurst. Rumors must have been circulating as a chance meeting at my school library with a rival coach proved. The late Carlos Fuertes, a former Pacific Coast Sabre Champion and then a coach for Cal Tech, recognized me when I said hello, and asked if I had a moment. He was in the same tracksuit that I normally saw him in and was even wearing his “dancing bear” t-shirt. That “moment” turned into some 45 minutes of him cross-examining me (he was a lawyer as well) as to the “real” reason Buzz was no longer coaching at UCSB. It’s true that a few of my teammates were unhappy with Buzz and took his sometimes strong criticism personally, but as far as I knew while that might have made it easier for them to make the call, the fact was we were a club team and continually poor. Buzz was my second coach, but the first master I had the privilege to study under and there was no way I was going to feed rumors one of his rivals had heard. Buzz had no special affection for me—I was just one of many students–but he was my maestro, he gave me my start in sabre, and loyalty is important. I would not dishonor that or him. It’s not easy finding articles etc. for this period in California’s fencing history, rich as it is, but the source is the West Coast Fencing Archive, cf. https://www.westcoastfencingarchive.com/2015/05/18/san-jose-state-university-unknown-tournament/ . The LA Times archive also has some articles.

[3] Southern California has long boasted a thriving fencing culture. The large number of colleges and the proximity of Hollywood meant that there were always a lot of fencing masters resident in the area. There were also often close relationships between some college teams and public salles, because many collegiate fencers also fenced, outside the academic setting, for those salles. Maestro Couturier was with us long enough that UCSB at the time was a satellite as it were of his school, and the rivalries we had with schools like Cal Tech and its connection then to Salle Grenadier, meant that opponents often had twice the reason to defeat the competition. This was not as Jets and Sharks as it sounds, but as sabre culture soured in the late 90s these additional loyalties definitely played a role. For those interested in Hollywood and fencing, the standout work on the connection between fencing and Hollywood is Jeffrey Richard’s Swordsmen of the Screen (New York, NY: Routledge, 1977).

[4] Ferenc’s lesson was straight-up old-world Hungarian, and the only “t-shirt lesson” I ever had. These tend to stick in one’s mind as outfitted only with a mask and glove any failed parry means that an attack stings more than usual. There was a language barrier, so much of the lesson was carried out by repetition until I made the right correction. The one example burned in memory was that my guard of third was off just enough in one lesson that Ferenc cut at my arm, the whipover of which did a number on the top of my forearm, until I made the correction that prevented it. Though not my way of doing things, I will say it did make my guard and parry of third pretty decent.

[5] CSLB and CalTech were my school’s major, consistent rivals, but much of this varied by squad and over time. UCSB’s sabre squad, pre-electric, tended to meet up with that of UCLA, CS Fullerton, and some of USC’s sabreurs to get in some extra fencing. Reuben, whose surname I forget, from UCLA, and Jason Late of USC were two of the most enjoyable, skilled fencers we had the pleasure of facing, and, were always gracious win or lose. I learned a lot fencing with them.

[6] Alexandre Dumas, Les Trois Mousquetaires, Ch. 1. [“You are young; you must be brave for two reasons: the first is that you are a Gascon, and the second, you are my son. Do not be afraid of opportunities and seek adventure. I have taught you the sword—you have a leg of iron, a wrist of steel; fight about everything, fight all the more since duels are forbidden and therefore there is twice the courage in fighting.”] http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/13951/pg13951.html

[7] The Polish cavalry charge against German mechanized infantry is proverbial for famous disastrous last stands. See for example https://worldhistoryproject.org/1939/9/1/charge-at-krojanty

[8] Epee was the earliest of the three to go electric (1931). Foil followed in 1956. The first more or less successful version for sabre saw service in 1986 for one event’s finals pool; the first complete event to feature an entirely electric sabre section was the 1989 World Championship. See Nick Evangelista, The Encyclopedia of the Sword (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995), 197-200; E. D. Morton, Fencing A-Z (London, UK: Antler Books LTD, 1988), 57-58; Julius Palffy-Alpar, Sword and Masque (Philadelphia, PA: F. A. Davis Company, 1967), 117-118.

[9] Stupid as this sounds, slapping at the bell guard was an easy way to take advantage of the modern blade and score. The s2000 blade, ostensibly less flexible and thus less prone to whipover, was an improvement on that particular blade design, but not a solution. It’s just too light, which encourages speed over proper technique. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a technique to making a touch now, but to say that modern technique is at variance with an impressive amount of literary, even video evidence from a time when practice was closer to the real thing. The guard of third, which has become the standard en garde position, is due to Hungarian influence. Italian sabre, which transformed the Hungarian program, has a similar parry, terza bassa or low third, but historically this was a low-line option used in specific circumstances. The guard of choice, and in my view still the best guard, is second. It presents a threat, it puts the point on target and makes a thrust or actions with the point easier, and yet allows for quick parries in the first triangle (first, second, and fifth) as well as setting up various molinelli well.

[10] Like the generation of Italian humanists before him, like Petrarch and Boccaccio, Poggio Bracciolini stands alone as the finest discoverer of ancient books. As a Papal secretary, Poggio was ideally situated to explore libraries. The Council of Constance (1414-1417), which attempted to rectify the breach in the Church caused by the “Great Schism,” was a key event which allowed for a number of humanists to visit northern libraries. Poggio, for example, visited Cluny in 1415 and brought to light several works by Cicero unknown at the time, including speeches such as the Pro Roscio and Pro Murena. He later visited St. Gall where he uncovered a complete version of Quintilian. While many of the texts they found have since been lost, copies exist which led us back to them and their editions. Tireless, Poggio traveled through France, Germany, and England hunting for ancient manuscripts. Like other humanists, he was not simply a collector, but a scholar who edited copies of those new works that he found and who shared his ideas with other humanists. He even helped popularize a new style of handwriting, one based on the old Carolingian minuscule [this is an adaption of a piece I wrote for ABC CLIO).

[11] See “Fundamentally, we have gone off the track…,” in Fencers Quarterly Magazine 9:3 (Spring 2006), 26-28; a second article, one on the weird book that is Cut and Thrust: The Subtlety of the Sabre by Leon Bertrand (1927), was set to be printed but FQM folded. That piece lives on my academia.edu site, but is dated. The world is no poorer for the fact it wasn’t printed.

*Source: https://www.californiabeaches.com/beach/depressions-beach/

**Flunge photo via (source: https://www.reddit.com/r/Fencing/comments/f2i0p4/my_friend_pulling_off_a_flunge/)

XMAS Surprise

Last night I had a chance to meet up with a friend–socially distanced, etc.–to catch up and so that he could present me with something he put together as a holiday gift. This friend, Mike Cherba, is juggling his daily work (his hours even in normal times are long), parenting, helping his children with online school, and running one of the best historical fencing schools in the state. It’s not been easy to see anyone, and though we are living parallels lives in many ways our schedules have not coordinated super well. At present most of my day is taken up with the data-end of the fight against Covid.

I wanted to share this gift here for a few reasons. First, as will be clear, Mike paid me a signal honor in his choice of decoration. Second, he made this by hand, and the time, labor, and returns-to-drawing-boards are not something one undertakes without love. To say I am deeply touched by his gift and a reminder of his friendship sounds trite and tired, but it’s true–a kindness like this is best shared, and if that embarrasses him a little I know he’s tough enough to handle it 😉

Though a handy chap, Mike has used quarantine to dive deep into woodworking, partly as a mental break from the rigors of life right now, and partly out of interest in creating historical furniture and equipment. His school, Northwest Armizare, has organized a living-history component entitled “The Hawkwood Troope” which highlights historical combat as depicted in works like those of Fiore dei Liberi (ca. 1410). The attention to detail that they put into their armor and research looks better in the field with period kit, so his dive into woodworking serves a double purpose.

A link to Northwest Armizare is in the “Links” section of this site.

The Box:

Top, with the school arms (the lid is maple, stained with a walnut ink for calligraphy)

Mortise and tenon joint (this section is walnut)
Detail of the lid–this is hand-carved

Footnote:

Something I never explained, but perhaps should, is how I landed on this design. My friend Chase Dimick, who is one of the armored-fighters working with Mike, is not only an experienced harness fighter, but an amazing artist. Drawing, paint, you name it, he can do it. I consulted with him as I was working on a suitable symbol for SdTS. This is his design and like everything he produces it came out super well I think.

The giglio, the flower (or) emblazoned on the field (azure), is reminiscent of a fleur-de-lis, but is one symbol long associated with the city of Florence, Italy. Various stories provide an origin for this stylized iris, but whatever the truth it has been one of many symbols at least since the 13th century. To me, it recalls a period of intense literary genius in the city, one of the seats for the rise of humanism, and of deep interest in Italy’s classical past. In a similar way, historical fencers seek out works of the past to understand and inform current practice. There is, however, a bit of a Petrarca (d. 1374) in most of us, as we not only wish to understand the past, but raise it from the dead (Francesco wrote letters to dead Romans if that suggests anything). Scholars of Petrarch fear not, I’m not suggesting that he was a necromancer, though if Abe Lincoln can fight Vampires… I don’t know, that could be a fun project…

The choice of colors, blue and gold, have meaning for me on multiple levels. They honor my university and are a nod to my time at Northwest Armizare. These colors also have some connections to some family history. Also, they go well together.

The choice of arms behind the shield are a Radaellian sabre, a spada, and a baskethilt broadsword–the first two weapons, being Italian, highlight the focus of study at SdTS, and the third, while not really a subject we cover is meant to connect our approach to historical vs. competitive modern fencing (I could have used a longsword, but while I’ve dabbled in longsword, I do not cover it and being an earlier weapon than broadsword the latter seemed more appropriate).

Just off the press

Chris Holzman has translated and is now offering the 1910 Italian Regulations for Fencing Events (see link below). For anyone interested in the rise of academic and sport iterations of fencing this short rule-set has a lot to offer. It covers, among other things, both civilian and military tournament formats as well as public demonstrations.

Much of the content, Chris suggests, will need to be updated to accommodate our own context. Weapon dimensions and weights, to name one example, have changed. Modern legal issues, especially in re insurance, will also mean some adaptation, but here is a period guide to how several key events were organized and orchestrated a little over a century ago. If you’re keen for a more historically inclined tournament or demonstration this book will prove a great aid.

An additional plus is that the translation is affordable, and LuLu this week is offering a 15% off code as well.

Link to the LuLu page:

https://www.lulu.com/en/us/shop/chris-holzman/italian-fencing-event-rules-of-1910/paperback/product-vw5rd2.html?page=1&pageSize=4

“Silver” as Trigger-word

A few weeks ago the excellent Paul Wagner (Stoccata School of Defense, Australia) posted a video as his answer to a… paper that attempted to reimagine the fight system of George Silver (ca. 1599). [1] I read the paper when it came out, promptly wrote a response, and decided not to do anything with it–to do so would suggest that the paper in question was worth the time and effort of a point-by-point response. It’s not. Save yourself the trouble and just watch Paul’s video.

The authors had asked for Paul’s response, so with his usual step by step process and humor he did, at least the main point of it. To address all the issues would take far too long, and what is more would be an utter waste of time. Here is a link to Paul’s video:

From what friends still braving facebook tell me Silver has once again worked his magic as HEMA’s favorite “trigger-word” in the aftermath of Paul’s review. There are the people who understand universal fight principles backing Paul, and then those who are quick to rush to the defense of their Dunning-Kruger demagogues. The sadness in this is that the latter are fighting an unnecessary fight–the only people likely to lose respect for them in taking the time to learn something of the universals, to acquire basic, fundamental understanding of fencing, are fools.

Like Paul, I don’t want to waste time–mine or anyone else’s–giving the red pen treatment to the paper, but it’s only right I share why I found it lacking. I don’t know the authors of the paper, and from what I’ve seen of them online, in video, and in this paper, I doubt they’d give two figs for what anyone outside their bubble thinks. But when my own students used to see me about a paper that was sure to fail or earn them a D I did all I could to help them, and so on the very off chance that they’d see this and/or care here are a few of the major red flags.

Sources Analysis

The chief criticism is that the authors drew selectively from Silver (and others) in order to support their thesis. One rule of research is that if you set out to find something, you will, meaning that it’s easy to find only what you’re looking for and leave out those aspects that fail to meet that goal. All the evidence must be addressed, especially any evidence that undercuts your thesis. Think of the “Ancient Aliens” crowd–they focus on superficial similarities and ignore evidence or logic against them. In a similar way both what this paper looks at and how affects the outcome. It’s best, hard as it is to do, to let a theory arise from the evidence, and if an old theory, say Hand’s in this case, doesn’t hold up to a reader, then they have some work to do, because the entire argument in this paper rests on some convoluted English that, once broken down, is pretty clear in what it says. Hand has explained it well and more in line with how the text reads. This is to say that it’s clear if you understand universal principles in fencing the way they’re normally imparted and used in fencing sources anyway. To put it bluntly, this paper wrestles with a concept that any first day foil student learns, to wit, that the weapon and hand proceed the feet.

In fairness, M&C think they have done this, and they tried to some degree. Rightly, they contacted Stephen Hand to make sure they understood him correctly. That is to be applauded. There are, however, some underlying assumptions even there that they didn’t address. Hand’s theory has changed over time with his continued study, and in my experience not one person working Silver has advocated this “slow hand” idea they attribute to him. This idea of the hand moving first and then slowing down, for example, is not a notion I’ve heard from anyone, Hand included. Maestro Sean Hayes, among others, doesn’t see it that way, and he’s a fan of the “True Times” model; it holds up just fine with the Italian iteration. Nathan Barnett likewise did not teach it that way the last time I took his class (first year at SwordSquatch, 2016). So, while including Hand’s supposed old theory, which they needed to do, they also needed to examine and consult more current devotees/theories of Silver. Paul Wagner and Nathan Barnett are only two they might have consulted. I’ve not had a chance to see Hand’s 2006 English Swordsmanship: The True Fight of George Silver as yet, so I’m not sure if he actually included the “slow hand” idea or not. No where in his videos on Youtube does Hand say anything of the kind.

Time, Tempo, and Tangents

Second, they introduce a discussion on timing that would be better as a stand-alone paper. They attempt to show the Italian position on timing etc. in Silver’s era, but examine works not necessarily representative of the Italian school or those branches of the Italian school most applicable. Some of the texts were written by Italians, sure, but do they represent some monolithic Italian position or that one author’s view of these ideas? Since the Italian masters disagreed with one another on points large and small, a monolithic “Italian” position isn’t tenable.

For the masters they do mention, the period between 1570 and 1600 is arguably as much “sidesword” as it is rapier so Fabris and Capo Ferro aren’t great examples. Both wrote after Silver–Fabris published in 1606, Capo Ferro in 1610, and while both discuss cutting the core of their systems was the thrust. That’s important to note since Silver, while he employs the thrust, cannot be said to typify a thrust-oriented school. “Downright blows” are his bread and butter. Thrusts are faster than cuts, something Silver tried (and failed) to disprove, so one can compare the two sides as it were in a general way, but one has to realize too that there are significant differences there, just as there are between an onager/catapult and a howitzer. There were contextual differences too.

There is not, oddly, a single mention of Marozzo or anyone else in the Bolognese tradition/Dardi School, easily the closest thing out of Italy to Silver. There is, likewise, no mention of contemporary French authors who treat cut-and-thrust fencing such as St. Didier (1573) and Peloquin (late 16th cen.). The authors also seem to have issues with the Italian school generally; it almost appears in their paper as it does for Silver, as a bugbear, and while I think the goal of gaining a better appreciation for “native” English ideas is a fair one, between mishandling Silver and misrepresenting the Italians they don’t succeed. [2] Some grappling with the fact that Silver includes guards with Italian names might be worth consideration too.

Beyond what Silver’s texts tell us of time, which is precious little save as applied to a fight, we must be careful. Silver’s concern was not an explication of Aristotelian ideas of time, nor that of anyone else, but how to fight according to his principles (in contrast to Thibault, who does discuss Aristotelian time in his 1626 Academy of the Sword, and Camillo Agrippa, Treatise on the Science of Arms, 1559, who spends several chapters discussing time–this last, being Italian and only preceding Silver by 40 years, might have been worth examining too on this specific topic…). [3] Silver doesn’t define time in his work, but uses the word in reference to when one does X or Y. I’m all for examining prevailing theories of time and how that might have influenced his work, but there’s not enough in his texts to do more than suggest what was likely in the big picture. As valuable as understanding the worldview is for understanding Silver’s time, the discussion about concepts of time adds little to the discussion and does even less to illuminate Silver’s use of the word. It throws in big names which sound impressive but have nothing to do with the issue at hand.

Fight Universals

Third, while the Italians and to a lesser extent the French distilled the concepts of measure, timing, and judgment most succinctly, the concepts they so well explained are universal to all fighting. This is to say that whether discussing boxing or using a pole axe, a katana or kris, these factors apply. These ideas aren’t ethnic in and of themselves. To suggest that is akin to saying Newton’s three laws only pertain to physics in England. Maybe that wasn’t their intention, but if so that sort of language needs to be tightened up to make it clear they’re not saying that. This is to say that while there’s a difference in how these concepts (tempo, measure, judgment, speed, etc.) are expressed, that any version will nonetheless reflect these universals. M&C ostensibly accept this since they bring in Japanese swordsmanship briefly as support.

Their treatment of Silver with regard to what moves first, and the “True Times,” illustrate these problems well. They talk around the universals, I think to avoid “Italian” ideas, but again these are not purely Italian. The idea of moving into attack distance is just stating the obvious—you can’t hit someone from 10m away. Every system has ways of navigating that. In this case, the Italians used both passing steps, as did Silver, as well as movement that in time became the advance and retreat of more recent fencing. The salient part, indeed the only part perhaps worth addressing, is which moves first, the hand/weapon or foot. To me, it’s not shocking that they don’t understand this well, since in most areas of US HEMA students lack the benefit provided in even short-term formal study of traditional or Olympic fencing. The general disdain if not outright hatred of both tends to mean that proverbial babies get thrown out with the bath-water, one effect of which we see here, failure to understand elementary fundamentals of distance/measure in fencing.

But, do we mean “first” getting into distance, or, “first” when in distance to strike? Do they believe that Silver’s rivals were advocating sticking the sword out there from forever away and then walking in? That’s hard to believe, especially as not one Italian source advocates throwing the point out half a mile from the opponent before starting to get close. The advance and the attack are not the same thing, though they may coincide. They prove nothing in suggesting one needs to be in distance; of course one does. Water is wet.

So, one passage in question they discuss, here taken directly from Jackson’s Three Elizabethan Fencing Manuals, p. 582/Silver’s p. 82-83 of his Brief Instructions upon my Paradoxes of Defense, Ch. 1, reads thus:

The reason wherof these 4 grownds or prnciples be the syrst and cheefest, are the followinge, because through Judgment, yō kepe yor dystance, through Distance yō take yō Tyme, through Tyme yō safly wyne or gayne the Place of yor adursarie, the Place beinge woon or gayned yō haue tyme safly eyther to stryke, thrust, ward, cloze, grype, slyp or go backe, in the wch tyme yor enemye is disapoynted to hurt yō, or to defend himself, by reason that he hath lost his true Place, the reason yt he hath lost his True place is by the length of tyme through the numbg of his feet, to wch he is of necessytie Dryven to yt wilbe Agent.

In modern English:

The reason why these four grounds or principles are the surest and chiefest, are the following, because through Judgment, you keep your distance, through Distance you take your Time, through Time you safely win or gain the Place of your adversary, the Place being won or gained you have time safely either to strike, thrust, ward, close, grip, slip or go back, in the which time your enemy is disappointed to hurt you, or to defend himself, by reason that he has lost his true Place, the reason that he has lost his True place is by the length of time through the numbering of his feet, to which he is of necessity Driven to that will be Agent.

[I checked my take on this via Nathan B’s site https://backsword.com/bi-trans.html and an older one by Greg Lindhal http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/brief.html; I also double-checked their use of “yt,” an abbreviation for “that,” and “wilbe,” a way of saying “will be,” and both check out]

Borrowing from Nathan Barnett’s page, here is the next section:


The 4 governors are those that follow

1. The first governor is judgment which is to know when your adversary can reach you and when not, and when you can do the like to him, and to know by the goodness or badness of his lying, what he can do, and when and how he can perform it.

2. The second governor is Measure. Measure is the better to know how to make your space true to defend yourself, or to offend your enemy.

3. The third and forth governors is a twofold mind when you press in on your enemy, for as you have a mind to go forward, so you must have at that instant a mind to fly backwards upon any action that shall be offered or done by your adversary.

[https://backsword.com/bi-trans.html, ch. 2]

Theories to the contrary, there is no great mystery in these passages in terms of movement, or, what comes first, weapon or foot. In short, all that Silver says in the Brief Instructions distills down into manipulating distance cautiously and at the right moment. No specific instructions on how to move are provided there, only general guidelines. The “Place” that M&C make such hay about is just Silver’s equivalent of what today we normally refer to as being “in distance,” that is, where either opponent might hit one another. It’s merely his wording for the same idea that other authors mention too. In this instance it means that so long as one does this right, one will be so situated as to take advantage of that fact, of the ability to strike first. The English is Early Modern and a mouthful, and that last sentence is a mess, but that’s what this section amounts to. Are there nuances within that depending on what an opponent is doing? Sure, but nothing Silver advocates is so divorced from his contemporaries as to comprise a wholly separate theory of fight.

M&C also quote from Silver’s polemical Paradoxes of Defense, section 14:

Of the difference between the true fight & the false. Wherein consists (the Principles being had with the direction of the four Governors) the whole perfection of fight with all manner of weapons.

14

The true fights be these: whatsoever is done with the hand before the foot or feet is true fight. The false fights are these: whatsoever is done with the foot or feet before the hand, is false, because the hand is swifter than the foot, the foot or feet being the slower mover than the hand, the hand in that manner of fight is tied to the time of the foot or feet, and being tied thereto, has lost his freedom, and is made thereby as slow in his motions as the foot or feet, and therefor that fight is false.

[http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/paradoxes.html]

Silver’s line from the Paradoxes is no different from anything the Italians or others said. He says the “true fight” (i.e. the one that wins) is that wherein the fencer extends the weapon first. Again, a day-one foilist learns this. The false fight, in contrast, is to tie the hand to the actions of the feet, because they’re slower. Thus, assuming both opponents are in range to strike, the one who extends the weapon first, will hit first; the one who moves his hand with his feet is less likely to strike first. It may be somewhat difficult to read, but to suggest that this passage means the opposite or that the feet should precede the hand or even move with the hand are incorrect. One’s opponent may make these mistakes, so Silver provides suggestions for how to exploit them.

Due Diligence

Important in all this is the fact that Paradoxes was published in 1599, but the Brief Instructions, so far as we know, was not published until 1898 when G.R. Matthey found it in the British Museum. [4] As far as we know no one at the time read this work. M&C do not mention this. On this note, the “Additional Notes” they consult, found on the Wiktenauer selection for Silver, appear to have been added by a person named “Thornborow,” but it’s not certain when these were added or how. Are they present in the 1599 edition of Paradoxes? The 1606? The Leuven transcription (1800?) listed on Wiktenauer? [5] As Wiktenauer explains, unless someone can see the placement on the actual manuscript we’re not even sure to which work the “Additional Notes” pertain, Paradoxes or the Brief Instructions. That’s an important point, especially if one is building an argument using them–even a note that one is aware of the issue is important, because it shows one has been as thorough as one can without a trip to the British Museum. Had M&C’s paper been an academic one, it would be prudent sans such a trip to contact the BM and ask for help.

For all the discussion of the Brief Instructions, and important as they are in understanding Silver’s method, since it wasn’t published at the time we can’t be sure how widespread or representative of “native English fencing” it may have been. As a window into Silver, it’s great, but as a window into English fencing we need to be a bit more cautious. In a similar way, Paradoxes of Defense was a polemic written by a guy who was sort of the MAGA dude of his day, an Englishman upset about losing business to people he saw as upstart foreigners (the fear of it anyway). One can sympathize easily with Silver’s disgust with the duel (a portion worth reading), and, with the fact that there was a connection between the practice and Italy, but in large degree his book was a litany of personal woe and attempts to prove his rivals false; it was a proverbial case of sour grapes.

The success of Italian teachers in England no doubt did help popularize the blight of dueling, but few systems last long in any society that fail to work. However good Silver’s fight might be, there was something to be said for di Grassi, Saviolo, and other Italian masters or people would not have joined their ranks. After all, we are talking self-defense systems of that time, how to preserve one’s life, a very different context to our own where the sword is a sport/hobby/research past-time. We can approach the sword as a martial artist, and many of us think we all should, but the mindset, the need to know how to use one, all of that is so removed from our context that we must be careful not to apply our own situation to that of the past. [6]

NOTES:

[1] The paper in question is by Cory Winslow and Michael Edelson, “An Alternative Interpretation of the True Fight of George Silver,” April 13th, 2020, available on a website entitled historicalfencer[dot]com. CAVEAT: you should know that this page, so far as I can tell, is hosted by a known right-wing nationalist/apologist. Make of that what you will, but it does little to bolster the authors’ credibility, at least among anyone of sense or ethics.

[2] I have often wondered if much of the anti-Italian sentiment in HEMA is on account of the importance of Italy in the creation of modern fencing. Were those who take issue with the Italian school to read any of its sources, from Fiore (ca. 1410) down to Pessina-Pignotti (1972) or even Gaugler (2000), they’d see this bias is misplaced. Issues with the modern sport aside, it’s self-defeating to reject such a rich corpus of work because of excesses that really only took deep root in the 1990s.

[3] M&C do bring in Capo Ferro in their “Universality of Theory” portion, but not in CF’s discussion of time. Moreover, they mistake Italian ideas of contra-tempo for basic defense–they’re different.

[4] Matthey’s version is available via Google Books, and is worth a look for what he says about the Ms. history, its discovery in the BM in 1890, and the role Alfred Hutton played in verifying it as having been written by Silver.

[5] Wiktenauer, under the entry for Leuven Transcription, suggests the Brief Instructions were written ca. 1605, but I have not attempted to verify that and the editor of the page does not cite a source. Cf. https://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Bref_instructions_upon_my_Paradoxes_of_defence_(MS_1086)

[6] The idea of weapon-hand-then-feet is not mine, but a widely accepted and well-demonstrated and accepted theory concerning universals in using a sword, from the Walpurgis Ms. and Fiore on down to late 19th, early 20th century military manuals. It’s in pretty much every work on fencing, but we see it in Asian martial arts, boxing, etc. These universal principles of fight are elements that are always there, but which are expressed in different ways according to need, situation, context, time, ability, mindset, and purpose.

It’s also worth noting that the duel was relatively short-lived in England. The practice thrived longer in Ireland, but there too died out before it did on the Continent. France and Italy retained the duel far longer, one reason for the number of works on fencing produced in those two languages, and so it is little wonder that so much of what became the sport was influenced by the two nations where a fight between two opponents to first blood or death was still a possibility into the 20th century.

Romance & the Ridiculous—Historical Fencing, Realism, and the Fringe Element

Last month I set to beating a favored Bucephalus, safety. Important as I think the discussion is—safety features in blade design—I was unhappy with the way it turned out, with my mode of expression. There was too much ire and not enough constructive criticism—while rants sans useful feedback may be de rigueur in modern American social and political life, they shouldn’t be. When we err, we can try to fix it and so this post is my attempt to cover some of the same concerns, but in a more appropriate manner.

We never lack for examples when discussing safety. The issue that came to my attention this week was alarming. It didn’t concern equipment per se, but behavior and outlook. Having left fb I would never have seen it, but my friends still managing the “Military and Classical Sabre” page on fb, a page I used to help admin, were debating what to do about a problematic post. I’m still in that chat group and long story short was asked to weigh in; I had earlier written one of those “oh that sucks, yikes, good luck” messages to show support, but no longer active on fb I didn’t want to usurp anyone. Clever people, they can easily manage without my input, and my butting in would be inappropriate. But the next morning a few of them approached me about strategies for writing a response, so I did my best to help.

When I was working as an admin I spent most of my time doing two things. First, I attempted to establish and foster a culture where polite, evidence-based debate was possible, and where a truly international community could meet and discuss the wonders of the sabre family safely. Second, I handled most problems, not only dealing with whatever the issue was (and the author at times), but also in using such occasions to reenforce the expectations for behavior. It takes a lot of time and energy to do all that, and it’s often unpleasant work. I won’t lie, really relieved I’m not handling this one.

The post in question asked the 6,000 members of the page if they would be interested in seeing live bouts, with sharp swords, and whether they’d be willing to pay to view these gladiatorial tragedies.  Issues of fb policy about such questionable posts aside, this rightly raised concerns for the admins. It seems impossible that anyone would fail to see what a superbly bad idea this is, but judging by the comments the misguided poster has supporters. Maybe it was hypothetical, but the poster admitted that he would watch such a fight, lethal or not, and that he had watched people fight with sharps, though he shared no details. I don’t believe these are bad people. I want to believe, least I hope, that the majority aren’t sociopaths. Most likely they’re simply naïve and apply what they know from an agonistic context to an antagonistic one. [1] This doesn’t make this idea any less dangerous, but it might help explain why some members were all for it.

Romance & the Sword

People get involved in fencing, any fencing, for many reasons. Somewhere in that mix, usually, is a wish to live out or experience, even at a distance, what d’Artagnan, Rassendyll, Scaramouche, Zorro, and Luke Skywalker bring to life. Literature, film, t.v., comic books, most any way we enjoy story has so often involved fencing. It’s as true of Rafael Sabatini’s novels—so many of which became movies—as it is more recent tales like “Star Wars.” The sword is universal; most every culture has some example of it. Richard F. Burton, in his The Book of the Sword, remarked that “The history of the sword is the history of humanity.” [2] Much as Burton got wrong, I suspect he wasn’t too far off with this conclusion.

I have yet to meet anyone who got involved in fencing because they believe they look sexy in tight white polyester and enjoy the sound of buzzers as pretty lights flash. Similarly, no one I’ve met in historical circles joined up because of their love of thick black jackets, loud socks, and the masochistic thrill that is taking multiple Zwerchhaus to a mask not designed for that sort of battery. Okay, so I do know a few who dig the socks, but otherwise, what draws all these fencers—regardless of preference—is the romance around the sword. This is fine, of course, and for some maybe it is a way to live out some fantasy as Lancelot or Captain Blood, but no matter what every fencer should realize the difference between romance and reality.

A German student is patched up post Mensur

This said, because we no longer use swords we have little idea of what life was like when they were typical weapons. Most newsworthy events involving sword injuries are either freak accidents or crimes committed by those with severe behavioral pathologies. The few other modern examples stand out as exceptions—they’re anything but normal. There are the right-wing morons in Hamburg who slice one another up, there are religious sects like the subset among some Shia Muslims who flagellate themselves with sharp swords, a few isolated examples of fencers who thought they’d give it a try in varying degrees of seriousness, and then the one stand-out example with a venerable history regardless of how one feels about it, German fraternity duels, the Mensur.

The sword belongs to the past, and the past can have deep connections to fantasy. This is why it’s perhaps easier for people to ascribe what they’ve read or seen in novels and movies to what was, in truth, a bloody business. In a similar way many fencers view what they’re learning with more wishful thinking than honest assessment. The reality behind “swordfighting” is anything but pretty. Anyone who has experienced accidents from a kitchen or craft knife will understand this. Somehow, though, there can be a disconnection between any such injury and what swords can do. The gulf is widened even farther by the fact that modern safety equipment, most of the time, does keep people safe, even at full speed. Fencers are thus conditioned to fight with a false sense of security all the time.

One outcome of this for some fencers is too great a confidence in their skill set. This is a hard fact to demonstrate, especially to those who believe themselves so dangerous, because the few avenues they have to “test” those skills are false positives. The worst cases are often found among some who win gold medals, but fail to appreciate the contextual differences between mock and actual combat. They are not the same. The weapons may be similar; that trainer may be as real as can be save for an edge, but at the end of the day there is one fact that is inescapable: our psychology pre-match and our psychology pre-dangerous fight are not the same. There is similarity, but only on the surface. Many competitors experience jitters before a match, but what do they worry about? They worry about doing well, about advancing; of disappointing themselves, their instructor, or teammates; they worry they will be embarrassed if they score too few hits or mess up or lose; but what they’re not worried about so much is the very real chance they may be seriously injured, disfigured, crippled, or killed.

To demonstrate the difference, look up most any fencing bout on Youtube. Take your pick of Olympic or historical footage. Note how quickly and from the off one or both fencers rush at the other. Notice how little caution they display. Now, check out the various footage of late period duels, most between 1900-1920, that schlager7 has shared on Youtube:

https://www.youtube.com/user/schlager7/videos

Duel between Jean Gung and Georges Tinet, 1911–still image from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=czTKm8v-s4U

This was early 20th cen. film, so the speed will be a little quick and the action somewhat staccato, but notice the difference in how most duelists move. Notice the hesitancy, even as each makes small false attacks in hopes of finding an open line. Their hands move fast, but their feet do not, and it isn’t until the feet move that one of the duelists has decided they have a shot. In these duels—most with epee/spada—the concern not to be hit is obvious. One can laugh all one likes at the size of an epee blade, but the damage one can do to a body is anything but laughable, particularly when the person wielding it means to and wants to do harm. Like its ancestor the smallsword, that 30-35 inch spike rushing toward one is powered by the weight, ire, fear, and power of the opponent, and is hardly something to laugh at.

The Ridiculous

This fb post, even if hypothetical, was a bad idea if for no other reason that it will fuel the fires of fools. [3] The well-known maxim “from the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step” enjoys too many manifestations in historical fencing. A few standout examples of the silly include the toe-first lunge (a result of misreading text and image and of misapplying semi-related works, chiefly from dance); the baseball grip for longsword as the one and true way to hold the weapon (despite a legion of period images arguing for a wide variety), the idea that “military” and “dueling” sabre are different (both look to military sources and the difference, such as it is, is one of context), and the idea that all feints are bad (contrary to a plethora of sources where masters cover them and mention the potential dangers). There is a lot of ridiculousness in HEMA. A lot. The interpretative examples just mentioned can be set side by side with similar gems from the tourney world (too much concern about afterblows, not enough about initial strikes), some of the books produced on various topics (from poor translations that are popular to expensive photo-rich works that blind the unwary to how little of substance lies within), and in the unfortunate turn that cutting contests have taken (the goal is to cut through the matts, not to cut within the mechanics of a given text or system). The idea of bloody prize-fights, of what amount to snuff-films, is a step beyond foolish: it is irresponsible, unhealthy, and potentially criminal. No one with any sense should want anything to do with it; those who do need help.

Hieronymus Bosch, “Ship of Fools” (ca. 1490-1500)

As a wise student of mine reminds me often, we all have staterooms on the ship of fools, no exceptions. I will be the last to deny it—if anything I feel my stateroom expands a little too much too often. The saving grace is perhaps realizing our propensity for the foolish and doing what we can to mitigate it. This can be challenging, especially given the degree to which the Dunning-Kruger effect is in play when it comes to martial arts. One aspect of this effect are assorted types of over-confidence. Among these classifications the one most germane here is overestimation,

the discrepancy between someone’s skills and their perception of those skills. People who overestimate themselves frequently engage in wishful thinking with harmful consequences. If someone overestimates their capabilities, they may take dangerous risks and overextend themselves beyond their limits, like an athlete pushing themselves to the point of injury. [4]

Fencers perhaps suffer from this more often than we might think, especially because of the pervasive values in the culture. Among these perhaps the most pernicious is the sense that tournament victories reveal the superior fighter. Winning a match can reveal true skill, but it is not automatic, a fact long recognized before tournaments existed.

For example, Andrew Steinmetz in The Romance of Duelling (1868) wrote “I mention this affair to show that something more than skill is necessary when using a naked weapon or shotted pistol; and the most able fencer and the first-rate shot are not always the best men in the field (61).” The duel in question was between a young officer, known for his skill with the foil, who fell to a “hardy, active, thickset youth, with the eye of a hawk and the nerve of a lion.” The kid had no training, but had nerve. [5] Mark Twain, who wrote about the duel on several occasions, also commented on this fact with his usual humor:

But, don’t you know, there are some things that can beat smartness and foresight? Awkwardness and stupidity can. The best swordsman in the world doesn’t need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn’t do the thing he ought to do, and so the expert isn’t prepared for him; he does the thing he ought not to do; and often it catches the expert out and ends him on the spot. [6]

Even a seasoned duelist who survived multiple, even numerous duels could fall prey to some duffer scared out of their wits. To name one such example Felice Cavallotti, an Italian politician who had fought some thirty duels, died when he failed to be cautious. Aldo Nadi relates the duel in On Fencing, and though short, the description is gripping:

They met. After the usual instructions, the duel began. Seized by the fire of battle, Cavallotti jumped forward, shouting and swinging his sabre. Overwhelmed by this outburst, Macola froze. Instinctively, he stiffened his arm. Cavallotti’s weapon found no target. Macola’s blade passed through Cavallotti’s open mouth and out of the back of his neck. Cavallotti died on the spot. Macola wrote a beautiful obituary. [7]

The advantage the experienced duelist has is more a species of nerve than superior skill. Steinmetz, in referring to the young veterans in France post-Waterloo who sought out young, visiting Englishmen to exterminate, reminds the reader that these men had been “accustomed from their earliest years to face danger in every form, they had the advantage, even when their antagonists were equally skilled in handling the weapon.” (66) He adds that

Few sensations are more delightful than those we enjoy upon finding ourselves secure after our lives have been placed in imminent peril, and men who have once known the pleasure of escaping danger often seek it, or are, at least, careless about exposing their persons, hoping again to experience similar gratification. (66)   

I have known a number of modern veterans who have struggled with this very phenomenon. They got to enjoy combat, the challenge, the risk, the excitement of facing a foe and living another day. Nice as gold medals and trophies are, whatever we feel upon having an award handed to us is nothing like what those exposed to life and death combat experience upon surviving, particularly those who come to enjoy it. [8]

Reality

I have spent most of my life at this point, in some respect, fencing. Teaching fencing and researching its history is currently my daily work, well, one of several jobs, and from experience, research, and observation I am concerned about people who wish to play warrior or duelist when they are grossly unprepared for what that means. It doesn’t matter if one is fencing Olympic or historical—the truth is that neither trains one for actual fighting the way say Krav Maga or boot camp do. In historical fencing, ostensibly, we are trying to be as accurate to fencing-as-a-combat-system as possible, but by the definition we can only do this to a point. [9] We must take safety precautions for reasons of good sense if not potential legal trouble, and mostly so that we don’t kill off the people interested in learning about it or they us. Historical fencing is a past-time. The corners we cut, which we must, do not prepare us for the reality of a naked blade in hand and another pointing at us. It’s a question of mindset, and while we can, and arguably should do all we can to cultivate an artificial awareness of how serious all this would be, by no stretch of the imagination should we train or proceed in such a way that people increase the chances of being hurt.

Bruce Lee, “Enter the Dragon,” 1973

All fencers—instructors, students, whoever—have a responsibility to one another as comrades in arms, as fellow people, to keep one another safe and demonstrate the virtues that the Art can bring out in us. If one works with children this is all the more important. We are not gladiators, and we should never be assassins—if we have learned well then we should know that the best martial artists do what they can to avoid a fight. They find ways to resolve an issue peacefully, and only call upon their skill when this fails. We should all endeavor to be ideal seconds, not duelists, and as such condemn needless danger. This particular danger, if realized, would do more than alarm authorities unlikely to sit idly by as people square off with sharp swords, but very likley damage or end lives. Horrible as this to contemplate for anyone, the damage collectively is worth considering too. Most authorities would condemn any such notion, and so should we.

NOTES:

[1] J. Christoph Amberger, a well-known researcher of fencing history, was the first I read to use this helpful distinction between antagonistic combat, where the potential for hurt is present and one purpose, and agonistic combat, or sport fighting, fencing as a pastime. There is a spectrum between these two poles, however, and I suspect that Amberger, who fenced Mensur in college, might list fencing with sharp schlagers as sort of a mix. The context for the Mensur is different than this pay-per view bloodsport—traditionally the university students who belong to the dueling fraternities observe strict rules and safety precautions. It’s a form of ritual combat, and while injuries are part of it, the target is limited and the action stopped after a hit by the seconds.

[2] Richard F. Burton, The Book of the Sword, London: Chatto and Windus, 1884. Reprint, New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1987, xv.

[3] This quotation has been ascribed to a number of people. For a fun discussion about it see https://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/06/24/sublime/

[4] “Dunning-Kruger Effect,” Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/dunning-kruger-effect, 12-19-2020. See also Dunning, D., Johnson, K., Ehrlinger, J., & Kruger, J., “Why people fail to recognize their own incompetence,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 12: 3 (2003): 83-87; “Studies in Swollen Heads: What Causes Overconfidence?” March 19, 2018, APS: Association for Psychological Science, https://www.psychologicalscience.org/publications/observer/obsonline/studies-in-swollen-heads-what-causes-overconfidence.html. The seminal article by Dunning and Kruger came out in 1999, J. Kruger and D. Dunning, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77: 6 (1999): 1121-1134.

[5] Andrew Steinmetz, The Romance of Duelling in All Times and Countries, Vol. 1 (London: Chapman and Hall, 1868), 61.

[6] Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, 344 [New York: Harper Brothers, 1917; Google Books]. In A Tramp Abroad Twain wrote much about German student dueling. Chapter VIII, “The Recent Great French Duel,” is a tour-de-force of humor if unfair to the valor of the French. The first line sets the tone well: “Much as the modern French duel is ridiculed by certain smart people, it is in reality one of the most dangerous institutions of our day. Since it is always fought in the open air, the combatants are nearly sure to catch cold.”

[7] Aldo Nadi, On Fencing, Sunrise, FL: Laureate Press, 1994, 21. Originally published 1943. The New York Times covered the story March 7, 1898, see https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1898/03/07/102086820.pdf

[8] Out of respect for these warriors, young and old, who struggle with simultaneously enjoying combat and living in a culture that, supposedly, decries violence, I will mention no names. My heart goes out to them as I’ve seen how this emotional Janus tears them apart. My first encounter with this phenomenon outside my own family was with a young retired marine who was taking my ancient history class. Comments I had made about the motivations of characters like Achilles caught his attention and he stayed after class to ask me about it. I didn’t know he had served, but he shared with me how much it meant to have someone speak about the joy these characters took in fighting, something he had come to like too and really struggled with. His plans were to work for the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration, USA) on storm ships, chasing hurricanes, etc. because he missed the risk and danger. I’m not alone in finding this theme in works like “The Iliad” where we see the eagerness of Achilles and the hesitation of Hector. See Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, New York, NY: Scribner, 1994.

[9] Were those who study Armizare, for example, to approach Fiore’s delights more realistically the number of broken elbows and smashed teeth alone would quickly send people packing. Those of us teaching later period systems would run considerable risks were we using sharps. It just doesn’t make any sense. There are those, like Roland Warzecha/Dimicator, who use sharps to train at slow speed and within strict boundaries, but he too is an exception. Most people aren’t Roland and moreover have not trained in environments that prepare them for using sharp weapons.

Exhuming Radaelli

Anyone expecting a tale of disinterred bodies, zombies, or revenants al a the Acallam na Senórach is going to be disappointed by my use of “exhume.” Here I mean exhume as in attempting to resurrect an idea or practice. Instructors within my tradition face an interesting dilemma when it comes to looking at the past. The Italo-Hungarian school is a lineal descendant of the Radaellian school, so our emphasis in examining the earlier history of our tradition looks less to mining archives for lost sources and attempting, almost from scratch, to recreate them than it does stripping away a century of accretion from the modern sport. This is not to say, in any sense, that familiarity with classical or Olympic fencing fails us in looking at rapier, longsword, or anything else—not at all—but it is to say that where those looking at Thibault or Dobringer face extinct arts we face an altered one.

Students of mine can no doubt relate (perhaps with some impatience) at least one story of my tangential forays into sources and history during lessons. It’s not that I relish any comparison to Polonius, but that context is everything, and while not necessary to learn technique or tactics having some of that context helps. Knowing why we do something matters. In attempting to strip away modern cutting dynamics, for example, one needs to understand how the modern direct cut works and developed. If that is missing, then the chances of understanding how Radaellian molinelli work and why will be that much more difficult. This applies more to experienced fencers looking to study the earlier system than it does students completely new to sabre. Regardless, and to borrow a favorite analogy, like learning a new language sometimes we learn what we know better via something new. Even if one decides they favor the restricted molinello or direct cut, study of the larger, elbow-driven cuts will broaden their understanding.

Molinello, Molinello Ristretto, and Direct Cuts

What is a molinello? Etymologically, the term comes from Italian mulino (“mill”) as in mulino a vento (“windmill”). Like its cognate in French, moulinet, from moulin (“mill”), both look to Latin molinum. The diminutive endings suggest a “little” mill, in this case to rotating the sabre in circular fashion reminiscent of a windmill’s sails or watermill’s wheel. In a Radaellian context, molinelli refer to elbow-driven cuts. Some authors, such as Giordano Rossi (Manuale Teorico-Practico per la Scherma di Spada e Sciabola, 1885), also refer to a molinello ristretto or “restricted molinello,” a form that makes a smaller circular rotation. The elbow is still the fulcrum, but the shoulder and upper arm have less work to do.

Direct cuts, which are pushed at the opponent, are quick and performed correctly can arrive with more force than one might think possible. Much of this is achieved by the fingers which sort of snap the cut to as it arrives to target (cf. post 11-14-20 on Leszák’s Sabre Fencing). Direct cuts are impracticable for cavalry because they rely more on the extension of the arm and use of the fingers; from the saddle reaching to either side, to the front, or more especially down one must use more of the torso. A direct cut can be delivered with more of a lean, but they are not often taught that way. Many sabre systems employ the wrist to rotate cuts; this was true of many cavalry programs as well. Radaelli’s major “revolution” was to substitute the elbow for the wrist then in vogue–battlefield experience had shown that wrist molinelli were less telling.

Looking to sources, the first to share Radaelli’s ideas was Settimo Del Frate. In his Instruction for Fencing Sabre and Sword Fencing (1868/1876) Del Frate explains that the molinello is

the circular movement the sabre makes when striking a blow… The objective of the practice molinello is to acquire flexibility and agility in sabre-handling, to learn to move it firmly and well-balanced in the hand, and to direct the blows with proper edge-alignment, as well as with force and speed… The totality of practice of the molinelli enshrines the practical application of every blow and every parry. This is because in the execution of various molinelli the sabre passes exactly through all the movements and positions pertinent to the various blows and parries.

The elbow is the main fulcrum for the arm and sabre in every molinello. The body must always aid the movement of the weapon in order to achieve the necessary flexibility, to develop a long and accurate blow, as well as to be able to s top the sabre and recover in guard with the greatest balance and effortlessness.

Per molinello s’intende in generale il movimento di rotazione che fa la Sciabola vibrando un colpo… Scopo del molinello d’esercizio, si è quello di far acquistare scioltezza ed elasticità nel maneggio della Sciabola, di fare imparare a ruotarla ben ferma ed equilibrata nel pugno e dirigerne i colpi con esatta direzione del filo con forza e velocità… Nel complesso delle esercitazioni dei molinelli si trova la pratica applicazione d’ogni colpo e d’ogni parata, perchè la sciabola nell-esecuzione dei diversi molinelli passa appunto per tutti quei movimenti e per tutte quelle posizioni che sono proprie ai diversi colpi e parate di scherma.

L’articolazione del gomito deve essere il perno principale del movimento di rotazione del braccio e della Sciabola in ogni molinello. Il corpo deve sempre assecondare il movimento del ferro per acquistare la necessaria elasticità e per imparare ad allungare, dirigere, fermare il colpo, e ritirarsi in guardia con maggior equilibrio e facilità. [1]

The key term here, in terms of a major shift in cutting mechanics for many sabre fencers, is the use of the elbow (gomito). Those trained in the mid-century school, even those trained in modern Olympic sabre, attack in many of the same lines, require the same parries, and ultimately wish to achieve the same goal, at least in part, but how each executes this varies. [2] One way to illustrate the difference is by imaging the cone of defense as becoming ever narrower from Radaelli’s time to our own. As a system originally developed for cavalry, a fact we should never forget, the sphere of action is larger. In the saddle, one reaches to target, but must do so with security, and be able to recover quickly. On the modern piste, and especially with the role that speed has taken in competition, the sphere of action is very compact and linear. The modern sabre guard position has all but left defense aside in order to ready the fencer to pounce. The two images below, the first from Del Frate, the second from the 2012 Olympics, illustrates this:

Del Frate, 1876 Guard of 2nd ; cut scene from 2012 Olympic sabre final, Korea vs. Romania

Defense, the purpose of fencing, has given way to scoring points, and thus less attention is paid to one’s own safety in attacking. Where Del Frate’s example projects a sharp point, the modern fencer faces forward, back arm limp at their side, and is all but ready to use a starting block. Olympic rules of ROW (right of way) and HEMA’s various rulesets both suffer from people too ready to jump in and strike, not enough concern about not being hit at all. The weapons might be different, but the sense of invulnerability is the same.

Radaelli’s system was aggressive. Cavalry were put to best effect in quick attacks, in over-running positions, and though it undercuts the customary romance that attends the world of Radaelli and the Comte de Lasalle, at chasing and cutting up retreating infantrymen. This said, it is harder to defend oneself in the saddle, because one must also maneuver the mount. This is why the defense is elementary when mounted, and secondary to the effective use of mounted troops in offense. Supposedly Radaelli remarked that the parry does not exist—a well-planned and executed attack means one doesn’t need to parry.

On foot, however, one must adjust. While one can retain the lean often made with the molinelli in the saddle, measure and tempo work differently, as does how we move. The men who were taught as a platoon performed drills mounted and unmounted, but they did not always train one-on-one or have provisions for such exercise. Practice varied by nation, but for Italy, cavalry training focused more on maneuvers en masse and making the most of point and edge through drill. [3]

These “Molinelli” sound Cool—how do I do them?

Fencers who learned direct cuts within the late Italo-Hungarian tradition or within the modern game sometimes find the adjustment to the larger cuts unsettling. They seem so large, so prone to counters, and that is true. They are larger, and must be used in such a way that one is as safe as one can be when attacking. Any attack puts one at risk. However, were they as risky as these fencers think then they would not have been taught for sabre for foot as well. While some of Radaelli’s students, such as Ferdinando Masiello, continued to teach mounted combat, others like Luigi Barbasetti and Italo Santelli, taught this same cutting dynamic to men who never spent time (or very little of it) in the saddle. Of note, it was Radaelli’s students who, with colleagues in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, fused Italian and Hungarian principles to create the grandfather of the modern sabre game. Like it or not, chances are good if one has made any formal study of sabre that one has worked in a milieu influenced if not created by the Radaellian tradition.

Exploring an Example: Molinello to the Head from the Left

One of the least difficult molinelli for most people is the molinello to the head from the left as described by Settimo Del Frate.

Head cuts are easily the most common attack in sabre. Modern preference for the guard of third more easily facilitates a direct cut to the head—it’s more, well, direct, linear, and thus fast.

The Radaellian school and the generation which succeeded it preferred second as a guard position. There are solid reasons for this. First, second provides the fencer a greater degree of safety because the blade is extended closer to the opponent. It presents a clear threat; one is less likely to rush forward with a sharp blade pointed at them. Second, from the guard of second it’s short work to parry first, which covers the inside line, and fifth, which covers the head. Lastly, it provides a safer starting place to start larger cuts. Where third will expose the arm, and all with minimal protection as one does so, second keeps the opponent farther away and allows one to start the rotation (provided one does so at the right time and in the right situation) more safely. The opponent must move in to hit one as that arc begins—they must decide between a chancy arrest against the far more definite giant cut speeding their way. Take away the competitive mind-set and this choice becomes no choice.

Del Frate lays out this molinello in three movements:

42. Molinello to the Head from the Left in Three Movements

Molinello to the head from the left, from point in line, one the commands:

One!—turn the first from right to left by rotating the forearm, so that the edge of the sabre is turned up without raising the first (N. 15).

Two!—bend the arm, lowering the blade top toward the ground, and carry the sabre along the left flank with the edge turned to the left. The grip is to the left of and at head height approximately eight inches in front of the head; the body is balanced as in the guard position (N. 16).

Three!—with power from the arm and body movement, the sabre describes three-quarters of a circle from high to low, starting above and behind the head, bringing the sabre and the extended arm to a horizontal position in front of the body at head height with the edge turned toward the ground (N. 17).

42. Molinello di Testa da Sinistra in Tre Movimenti

Pel molinello di testa da sinistra dalla posizione di finta puntata al commando:

            Uno—con un giro di pugno da sinistra a destra eseguito per rotazione d’avambraccio, si volge il filo della Sciabola in alto senza alzare il pugno (fig. 15).

            Due—piegando il braccio si abbassa la lama colla punta verso terra, e si porta la Sciabola lungo il fianco sinistro, il filo rivolto a sinistra, l’impugnatura a sinistra ed all’altezza della testa e 20 centimentri circa più avanti; l’avambraccio all’altezza e in direzione della fronte; il corpo equilibrato come nella postura di guardia (fig. 16).

            Tre—con slancio del braccio dall’avanti indietro, alzando il pugno e assecondando col corpo il movimento del ferro, si fa descrivere all Sciabola ¾ di circolo dall’indietro in avanti e dall’alto in basso, riportandola col braccio disteso in posizione orizzontale davanti al corpo ed all’altezza della testa col filo verso terra (fig. 17). [4]

The plates provide a stop-motion illustration of these three steps.

Figures 14-17, steps of the Molinello to the head from the Left

This descending molinello from the left is here described as both exercise and as offensive action, however it moves through the parry of first as well. The second step, as Del Frate points out in section 45, is the same as the parry of first. [5]. For the classical or modern sabreur most of this should be familiar—point in line, rotating the arm to move the blade to new lines, even the position taken in step two which recalls the parry of first.

What will seem new is the use of the elbow. Cutting to the head from first in contemporary sabre is tighter. From the parry, one starts the cut by rotating the wrist so that the blade begins its arc, then one drops the first to interpose some opposition as one pushes a cut to the head. [6] It’s a very linear vs. circular cut. The arm, as the cut finishes, returns to the plane of third and from there back to guard. So, for the fencer used to this dynamic, the first step is often just getting comfortable with the use of the elbow.

Getty Comfortable with Using the Elbow

Gross Motor Skills Drill

Drilling the gross motor actions of the molinelli will help. It can be easiest to start from first position (so, standing) and begin from a point in line. All one does is make rotations at the elbow, doing their best to keep the upper arm and shoulder relaxed and as motionless as possible. The goal is to isolate the elbow and forearm. Start in the air and when comfortable make the same strike against a mask or pell. It’s important to know how the cut lands, because the change in force, even before one adds the use of the body, will be different. Depending on the sabre one is using, one can still employ the fingers to finish the cut—one with a grip intended for a thumb along the back will do this easily; one requiring a racquet or hammer grip will not.

From Guard

Next, one can start the molinelli from guard. It’s easiest to start it from a point in line at first, but in truth the molinelli can be made from guard, on the march, as parries, or as part of a compound attack. [7] I normally have students use a point in line until they’re comfortable, then have them start from en garde and in second. This is an easy shift. As before, one executes the molinelli trying to isolate the elbow and forearm, only now one is shifting from a guard to do so rather than straight from a point in line.

With an Attack

One practical way to set this up as an attack is to take turns with a partner or instruct the student to begin with a feint thrust to the chest (inside line) from second. Made well, this feint should draw the opponent’s parry of fourth. [8] Rather than disengage with the point to the outside line and thrust, the attacker disengages under the guard only enough to then start the rotation along the left side of the body to complete the attack, the molinello from the left to the head.

Masiello, Sabre Fencing on Horseback, 1891, fig. III–this image depicts the scarto to the left, unmounted drill

When sufficiently comfortable, I then have them try the same attack, on its own or with a feint, using the body to assist the cut. This action employs the scarto, an evasive action where one draws the trunk back and chambers the sabre. Performed correctly the opponent’s attack falls short, and then using the potential energy gained in the scarto, one begins the return. The blade still moves first, the body still follows. In the example we’re examining, from second, the student shifts their weight and trunk backwards and as they do so they start the rotation along the left side of their body. At the furthest point back the blade is nearly perpendicular to the ground. The blade arcs overhead and the body follows—it can help to think of it as being pulled by the sabre forward. The trunk leans into the cut helping drive it to target. All of this can be done from guard, just shifting the trunk back and forth; it can be a very useful drill.

Adding the Lunge

Del Frate, 1868: while rendered rather extended, as the red lines I’ve drawn indicate the trunk should be no farther than the angle of the rear leg.

Next, I mix the lunge and scarto. There are several critical observations about the combination of lunge and lean to make. First, as always, the weapon leads the way, so one does not begin the lunge until the arm is all but extended. The lean follows the lunge. In terms of steps, it helps to break this down into two portions. First, from second, begin the rotation, extend, lunge, and finally lean into the cut, but no farther than the angle the of rear leg. Beyond that it is difficult to recover out of the lunge, forward or backward.

Next, practice this with the rest of the scarto. One way to do this is to have one fencer attack and force the other to parry first, and as they do so shift their torso toward the rear. Then execute the molinello as before.  

Great, but when and how should I use these molinelli?

I’ve touched on several ways already. The molinelli constitute a drill on their own, but are also a good way to warm up—they incorporate more of the upper body than the woodchop drill does, for instance. They’re an ideal daily exercise.

One can use them to attack. This is most often, and certainly most safely done, after a preparatory action that clears the line. The example above employed a feint, but one can use beats and other actions on the blade to set them up too.

Defensively, each of the molinelli move through the principal parries, so they are an option for the riposte. [9] Moreover, with practice, one can use molinelli more defensively as a sort of active-parry, that is, performing them against the incoming attack. This is, more or less, the Italian version of “cross-cutting;” it’s a way of intercepting versus blocking an attack that uses the force of that blow to drive the return.

Molinelli or Direct Cuts?

This question, for me anyway, is in the same category that seeks to compare every sword against the Japanese katana: pointless. Context, damn it, context. Is a hammer better than a screwdriver? It is for pounding nails, less so for turning screws. In short, there are times where one might use molinelli and times when either molinelli ristretti or direct cuts are a wiser choice. [10] We limit ourselves if the only thing in our toolbox is a wrench, so why restrict ourselves to one style of cut?

It makes more sense to learn as many effective methods as possible if for no other reason than to know how to counter whatever one might face. Sun Tzu remarked that “Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing.” [11] The analogy of water is old, more recently made famous by Bruce Lee, and it’s an apt one–where water must shift around or over rocks, logs, and navigate ever-shifting banks, so we fencers must cultivate a similar flexibility. In addition to honing our own technique, we must understand more than its sum; we must be ready to deal with the unexpected, the unforeseen, and that is far more easily done if we have some idea of what all we might face. This doesn’t mean we can’t have favorites—I’ve come to prefer the molinelli to direct cuts—only that learning all three versions has its merits.

So, molinelli or direct cuts? In answer the word that first come to me are the words of two other sages, Tulio and Miguel, who together said “Both? Both? Both. Both. Both is good.” [12]

“Road to El Dorado,” Dreamworks, 2000

NOTES:

[1] The English translation here is from Chris Holzman’s The Art of the Dueling Sabre: A Translation and Explanation of Cav. Settimo Del Frate’s Award-Winning Textbook on Giuseppe Radaelli’s Sabre Method for the Fencing Masters School of Milano, Staten Island, NY: SKA Swordplay Books, 2011, 10-11.

The Italian is from the Google Books pdf of Del Frate’s 1876 edition—the one Chris translated—Istruzione per la scherma di Sciabola e di spada del professore Giuseppe Radaelli Scritta d’ordine del ministero della Guerra, Milano, IT: Litografia Gaetano Baroffio, 1876, 16-17.

[2] The goal of making the touch is the same, but understanding, appreciation, and attention to execution in making that touch without being hit differs. Right of way (ROW) is meant to capture the spirit of hit and don’t be hit, but functionally is scored and taught as hitting legitimately with priority.

[3] See for example Ministry of War, Regulations of Exercises and Evolutions for the Cavalry, Book I, translated by Christopher A. Holzman, (Rome: Carlo Voghera, Printer Publisher of the Military Journal, 1873; Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2018).

[4] Holzman, The Art of the Dueling Sabre, 31-32; Del Frate, Istruzione per la scherma, 40.

[5] Holzman, The Art of the Dueling Sabre, 33; Del Frate, Istruzione per la scherma, 42.

[6] Fascination with coverage can get silly. I’ve seen. some interpretations have fencer gyrate in crazy directions all to cover their ripostes. In this instance to drop the wrist and push forward would stop the arc mid-way and rob of it power.

[7] Cf. Holzman, The Art of the Dueling Sabre, 101.

[8] When the defender parries in first it changes things. Disengaging under is less sure as one is likely to run into the opposing steel, so making a disengage over, or cut-over, makes more sense, but this will mean making a molinelli to a different line. One option is to make the same feint, but when the defender parries first cut-over, and moving through sixth parry make a molinello to the outside cheek.

[9] Main molinelli vs. more advanced. Some of the molinelli are difficult. Barbasetti, for example, does a wonderful job describing the ascending cut from the right, but even his explanation makes it clear that how one contracts the back to make this cut is a lot harder than the example above.

[10] It may make my stricter Radaellian colleagues uncomfortable, but I think direct cuts have their place. In certain contexts they are appropriate. They’re just not Radaellian. For a long time I was more on the fence about this, but cutting practice using both styles of cutting has demonstrated for me that both can be pretty nasty. There is no question that elbow-driven cuts are more powerful. Using a 20mm blade I have no trouble sinking the blade a quarter to half-way through a pumpkin with a direct cut; a full molinello, however, easily severed the gourd and unless I was careful sunk into the wood beneath as well. This is to say that a direct cut, while it arrives with less force, would not be something someone would wish to receive in a duel.

[11] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, translated by Lionel Giles (London: Luzac & C0.,1910); The Internet Classics Archive, http://classics.mit.edu/Tzu/artwar.html , VI. 31.

[12] “The Road to El Dorado,” Dreamworks Animation, 2000. What? Sometimes “both” is a solid answer 😉

_Fencing Illustrated, Part 2_ by Pallavicini (1673)

Lulu Press is offering 10% off purchases today (Code is FESTIVE10). For any fan of rapier, Neapolitan fencing, and late coverage of weapon combinations such as sword and buckler, rotella, etc. Chris Holzman’s latest translation, Part Two of Fencing Illustrated by Pallavicini, is out and worth your time. This second half provides more than the inclusion of the rest of the master’s repertoire, but a fuller picture of his approach in toto and how it fits in to the Neapolitan system. Other key works from the Neapolitan orbit, also available at Lulu, include Marcelli’s Rule of Fencing (1686), Terracusa e Ventura’s True Neapolitan Fencing (1725), Rosaroll & Grisetti’s The Science of Fencing (1804), and Chris’ edition of the collected works of Parise, The Roman-Neapolitan School of Fencing.

Though not as well-written as Part One (1670), Chris’ ability as a translator makes part two of Pallavicini’s dense, sometimes rambling work accessible and sensible. Like Chris’ other translations, this one offers something too many translations of historical fencing works do not–a well-made, vetted edition by an acknowledged specialist. There are a lot of translations out for historical fencing, and many are quite good, but not everyone has the background to understand these texts well, and worse, many lack the linguistic chops to do the job properly. In addition to possessing the necessary skillset to tackle these works, Chris also has each translation checked over by competent speakers, several of them native speakers of Italian who are also fencers and have training in earlier phases of the language. What Reinier van Noort has done for Dutch, German, and French works on rapier (among other topics), and Tom Leoni has done for 15th and 16th century Italian works, Chris has done for much of the Italian corpus from Marcelli (1686) to Pecoraro & Pessina (1912).

Beyond technique there is still more of interest to be found within Fencing Illustrated. Like many authors of his period, from other fencing masters to more well-known writers like Michel de Montaigne (d. 1592), Pallavicini peppers his study with numerous classical allusions. Some are meant to illustrate, some to bolster a point he wishes to make, but regardless these examples provide a window into the works available to these authors and the uses to which they were put. In a similar way Pallavicini refers to other masters of his time, both Italian and from other lands, demonstrating not only the degree to which ideas traveled, but to the importance placed even then on study outside one’s own tradition.

Lulu is bound to have more sales in future, but ten percent isn’t bad, especially for books Chris prices for much less than he could (I say that as someone who has worked in translation too–you get a lot of quality for the price). Lastly, Pallavicini is a fun read; no, really, he is. His views on fencing are important, but what he has to say of those he admires, and rivals, adds a lot to what might otherwise be a rather droll technical work. It’s a good read.

Pallavicini, _Fencing Illustrated_, Pt. 2!

Christopher A. Holzman’s latest translation, Part 2 of Pallavinci’s Fencing Illustrated (1673), is now out!

Pallavinci is best read with Part 1 which Chris translated two years ago and which is also available via Lulu Press. Of the two sections Part 1 is better written, but despite its difficult prose Part 2 includes material that is valuable and that will be of interest to anyone interested in off-hand options for rapier. Some material, such as Pallavicini’s inclusion of rapier and dagger and rapier and cloak will not surprise, but he also covers what may be some of the latest if not the last looks at sword and buckler and the use of the rotella.

Here is the link:

The Second Part of Fencing Illustrated

For many fencers interested in the Italian iterations of both buckler and rotella what first comes to mind is the collection of works by masters of the 16th cen. “Dardi School,” treatises written by the likes of Marozzo (1536), Viggiani (1575), and dall’Agocchie (1575), not a master active in late 17th century Palermo. This increases the importance of Pallavicini’s work. It is, among other things, likely a window into not only other late instances of shield use in Europe (such as the use of bucklers in a naval context by the Maltese), but also will provide vital comparisons to other buckler systems. Students of the Walpurgis Ms. (Ms. I 33) will no doubt find some fascinating comparisons, but so too will devotees of Georgian Lashkroba and Parikaoaba.

Like the first volume, The Second Part of Fencing Illustrated is available in both hardcover (US $34.94) and softcover ($24.50). There are likely to be some Cyber-Monday discounts on the Lulu site, but the book is available now if you can’t wait.