More fun with Tricky Passages

In an attempt to illustrate further how one might puzzle out difficult passages I’m including another question that Christian Olbrich (Fechten Passau) and I discussed. This is the “jump back” or salto indietro covered by so many Radaellian masters (cf. p. 169 Rossi, section 43). This is footwork somewhat larger than the standard retreat and can be confusing not only because of how some authors describe it, but also because it’s often discussed in conjunction with various types of double-measure (doppia misura) and the cross-step (passo doppio indietro).

The question we discussed was:

The jump back in the stop hit (cut) to the arm: Barbasetti describes the first movement in the jump back as “bending the body backward, throwing back the head also”. Rossi, and a few other sources describe the cut as being done with the setting back of the right foot, and any parry following with the re-setting of the left foot. But if I’m in a distance where my opponent could, with a lunge, just hit my head, then crossing the right foot backwards will effectively break measure enough to get me out of reach even to his arm, and if I don’t throw back my head but leave it where it is, I will have my weight shifted dramatically forward so that any farther backward movement is either impossible or very, very slow. I also cannot expect a lunge of my opponent to carry his arm towards me, since I would mainly try the stop hit into my opponent’s feint. Any thoughts on the correct execution here?

There is a lot to consider in this one. When do we attack the arm normally? Only when it’s exposed. So, perhaps on a feint, or, against any clumsy attack where the opponent somehow exposes their arm or starts out of distance and holds the attack long enough for us to attempt the counter. I look at this two ways: if we are in critical/lunge distance, and they attack in such a way that we can make a stop-cut, we might need to use the jump-back, but if they are in advance-lunge distance, then we may need only retreat a step or half-step. Naturally we are not going to try a stop-cut against a decent attack or closed-line. [1]

Barbasetti probably should have started with the last clause in his section 12:



[German] Diese Sprungbewegung ist unerlässlich, sobald es sich darum handelt, Hiebe gegen den Vorderarm des Gegners zu führen, während sich derselbe gerade zu einem Hiebe anschickt. [p. 39 in Das Säbelfecthen, 1899]

[English] Nevertheless, this action is very useful. It enables you to touch your opponent in the arm at the start of his attack. [p. 18 in the 1936 English edition]

The German edition explains this better to my mind—“useful” is not the same as “essential/unerlässlich.” It IS essential to use the jump-back IF they are faster than we are on the attack or have longer reach.

[English] 12. The Jump Backward

It’s not just an issue of translation, but choice of description. In writing “bending the body backward, throwing back the head also” the master confuses things. The passage in full reads:

The jump backward is executed as follows:

Bend the body backward, throwing back the head also, while passing the right foot behind the left one to a distance of about 20 inches; finally retaking the guard, crouching upon your legs.

            This exercise requires a great deal of study. In order to execute it successfully, it is necessary to repeat it until the legs are trained and the body accustomed to maintain a perfect equilibrium.

            Nevertheless, this action is very useful. It enables you to touch your opponent in the arm at the start of his attack. [18]

[German] 12. Sprung rückwärts.

Der Sprung rückwärts wird auf folgende Weise vollzogen: Der Körper wird zunächst dadurch nach rückwärts gebracht, dass der Kopf mit Energie in den Nacken geworfen wird. Zu gleicher Zeit wird der rechte Fuss mindestens 50 Centimeter hinter den linken gestellt, schliesslich mit einem Sprung die Fechtstellung mit gebeugten Knien wieder eingenommen.

Es ist nothwendig, diesen Sprung oft zu üben, um den Beinen die nöthige Kraft und Sprungfertigkeit, dem Körper aber das Vermögen zu verleihen, das Gleichgewicht zu erhalten.

Diese Sprungbewegung ist unerlässlich, sobald es sich darum handelt, Hiebe gegen den Vorderarm des Gegners zu führen, während sich derselbe gerade zu einem Hiebe anschickt. [38-39]

Here again the German reads more usefully. It reads “the body (Der Körper) is first brought backward (wird… rückwärts gebracht).” “Brought” implies movement different than English “bend.” With reference to moving the head the language is much the same—“throwing the head back” conveys much the same meaning as having the head (der Kopf) thrown back (Nacken geworfen wird) with energy (mit Energie). [2] Taken together the sense is that one is shifting the weight backward as one strikes to the arm, but in this case one makes a short jump (einem Sprung) instead of merely taking a step back. This is important to note as lifting the right leg back past the left need not be a jump; it can also be a cross-step, a variety of retreat. Jump connotes speed and urgency, both critical considerations in effecting a counter-attack made while moving backwards.

Barbasetti does not cover double-measure per se. In later sections, where he covers the stop-hit and cut to the arm, he again refers to the jump-back (cf. Sections 60-62, pp.101-109; pp. 126-131 in Das Säbelfecthen). This said, the advance-lunge and rapid advances are present—in fact, he remarks that “in sabre fencing the adversaries keep out of reach, and therefore the advance before the lunge is almost a normal condition” (p. 70; so far as I can tell, this line is an addition to the English text or perhaps from another section in Das Säbelfecthen).

Other Radaellian masters do refer specifically to double-measure. Rossi discusses the cross-step back and jump back in the same section (43 Passo doppio indietro e salto indietro).  The difference is in how the feet move and how fast. The cross-step he recommends has the right foot brought past the left at about 40 cm (compare Barbasetti’s 50cm), then left back past the right to reassume guard. The jump-back, on the other hand, follows the same pattern but has both feet leave the ground, is executed more quickly, and is used against a fast attack. Rossi explains that advance-lunge and double retreats reflect a similar measure. He writes:

La doppia misura pei colpi diretti al corpo è la misura giusta pei colpi diretti al braccio. Bisogna quindi, per la doppia misura al braccio, un altro passo indietro, come si vedrà dale linee del piano regolatore. [149-150 in Rossi’s Manuale Teorico-Pratico per la Scherma di Spada e Sciabola]

Double measure [his advance-lunge] for blows directed at the body is the correct measure for blows directed at the arm. For double measure to the arm, another retreat is necessary, as seen by the lines of the marked piste. [p. 161 in Seager’s translation]

This is a good rule, as it keeps one safe, but again reflects the reality of fencing when the duel was still a reality. Modern fencing, in contrast, breaks this down into two measures, a stop-cut followed by a simple retreat and a stop-cut followed by what Rossi describes.


The goal, in either case, is to create more space to act. Of note, Rossi advises that “In all the marches, make sure to deviate the body as little as possible from the guard position” (In tutte le Marcie si osservi, per regola, di scomporre il meno possible il corpo dalla posizione di guardia, 169; Seager, 179). I believe that Rossi and Barbasetti, despite appearances, agree—however described, both are referring to a controlled, rapid retreat to allow one space and time to achieve a counter-attack to the arm. Barbasetti’s description of throwing one’s head and body back I understand, but taken literally it would have one move in a very unbalanced way. The sense of it is that one reaches to cut while simultaneously preparing to move backward.


Measure, however, is only one consideration: we’re also making the stop-cut in a particular tempo. For example, with the more modern stop-cut, we often describe it as reaching out to cut as the opponent starts their attack, and then immediately taking a step back to parry and riposte. Assuming an open line to the attacker’s arm, we are making an attack into their tempo to do this and as such must regain measure to remain safe (if we hit them, great, but we must also be prepared should our counter fail or not stop the opponent).

In terms of measure with the example I just gave, we’re reaching out to hit that arm at lunging distance/critical measure, not from close or advance-lunge measure. To maintain that safe distance we stop-cut (in lunge distance) and then recover backward as they come at us to keep that same lunging distance. If we don’t, we’ll be in close measure and far less capable of acting just as you explain. Measure and time are bedmates—they’re intimately associated. As a final note, we do not normally cross the legs to do this, we just retreat.

The jump-back is a little bit larger a movement in my mind, less a step than almost a ballestra in reverse (unless one is making the jump-back by crossing the legs). It’s still made in the same tempo, that is, into the opponent’s attack, but for whatever reason requires us to take more distance on the retreat (Rossi is clearer on this point). Passing backward, so right foot passing past the left and then resetting into guard, can cover more ground securely—as I conceive of it, it’s the difference between making two retreats and one cross-step back. So much of this depends on one’s reach, timing, and the opponent’s ability to navigate distance as well as your own: at times a simple half-step might suffice, at others a jump-back is necessary.

The only time I normally use the jump-back is against opponents much faster or taller than I am. I’m around 6’/1.8m tall, but often fight people 6’4-5”/1.95-1.99m tall. Their reach is such that I can make the stop-cut well-enough, but unless I jump back I will not be able to maintain distance well enough to be safe. If I use the jump-back as described against someone who doesn’t have that reach, then I end up out of measure. Sure, I’m safe that way, but we’ve just reset. Better to attempt the counter-attack and move just enough to cover and riposte.

Most masters are quick to say that one needs to practice these maneuvers seriously. They require a lot of coordination, a keen sense of measure and timing, and can go spectacularly wrong if we get any one aspect incorrect. I know footwork is not everyone’s favorite thing to do, but it’s the foundation for everything. To develop effective use of actions like the jump back, practice it; include it in the mix of advances, retreats, advance-lunges, reverse-lunges, and cross-steps. This will give the mechanical aspects exercise, but you will need a partner to hone your stop-cut, and, perfect how to make this important counter-attack in various tempi.

NOTES:

[1] Like many rules, we follow them until we discover appropriate times not to. There are instances in which one might attack a strong position as a species of second-intention attack. This is a complicated topic and too much to go into detail here. Because there are exceptions, I wanted to say so.

[2] The German supplies in den Nacken, “in/with the Neck,” which makes sense, but which in English reads less eloquently. The sense is that one moves the head back to prompt the body backward. This may also reflect the natural void one no doubt made with certain actions to avoid being hit in the face. We see similar shifts of the head, often to the side, in works like that of Girard (1740).

References:

Cav. Luigi Barbasetti, Das Säbefechten, übersetzt von K.u.K. Linienschiffs-Lieutenant Rudolf Brosch und Oberlieutenant Heinrich Tenner (Wien: Verlag der “Allegemeinen Sport-Zeitung,” 1899.

Luigi Barbasetti, The Art of the Sabre and Epée (New York, NY: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1936).

Giordano Rossi, Manuale Teorico-Practico per la Scherma di Spada e Sciabola (Milano: Fratelli Dumolard Editori, 1885).

Giordano Rossi, Sword and Sabre Fencing, translated by Sebastian Seager (Melbourne: Melbourne Fencing Society, 2021

Borislav Krustev on Expertise

Having rid myself of the pernicious world of social media (save for messaging platforms and this website which I suppose counts) I’ve not been privy to the spark for this video response for Borislav, but I like what he has to say about “expertise.” It’s a topic I’ve covered here a few times, and for historical fencing it’s a difficult status to calculate. The value of the rubrics Borislav shares, however, are solid and worth consideration.

Roland Warzecha/Dimicator has done a lot for the community over the years. I’ve taken issue with some of his interpretations myself, but I honor the good work he has done and that he plays nicely with people (this I have heard from mutual associates who have met and fenced with him). Though I’ve spent time on the Walpurgis Ms/ I.33, I have no stake in this discussion and will, appropriately, stay out of it. I share this video for what Borislav says about expertise, about calcifying in one’s research, and because it’s important for each and every one of us to ponder.

Confronting Difficult Textual Passages

Read enough and inevitably one will encounter one of those passages that for one reason or another seem tailor made to confuse us. Sometimes we’re just tired and need to take a break, sometimes translation or transcription issues are behind such problems. However, there are also instances when a passage, in any language, remains cryptic. The sentences are grammatical, the topic is in a logical place within the source, but somehow despite our best efforts we can’t unravel what it is the author meant.

Recently, a colleague in Passau, Germany, Christian Olbrich (Fechten Passau)* and I discussed one of the latter examples in a source we both value greatly, Maestro Luigi Barbasetti’s The Art of the Sabre and Epee (1936), itself a translation of the 1899 German edition Das Säbelfechten. [1] My friend asked me for my two cents on several passages in Barbasetti that even on second glance tend to make us scratch our heads. The first question, and my example here, concerns the molinello from an engagement in third. Here is the passage in question, both in English and in German:


English:

After Your Own Engagement

In Tierce—(a) With the aid of a horizontal molinello from the left to the right side, you can perform inward to the face, chest, or abdomen’

(b) If your adversary does not respond to your engagement by pressing your blade, you can, with the aide of the coupe, pass your blade to the inner opening and touch his head. [32-33]

Deutsch:

Aus der gegnerischen Bindung

In Terz, a) Mittelst einer wagrecht geführten Schwingung gelangt man von rechts auf die innere

Seite des gegnerischen Gesichtes, auf die Brust oder auf den Bauch.

b) Auf den Gegendruck der feindlichen Klinge rechnend, kann man mittelst Coupé – Bewegung auf die Innenseite übergehen, um mit einem Kopfhiebe zu enden. [57-58]

This particular action, a horizontal molinello from one’s own engagement in third (Terz, tierce), has popped up as a source of consternation several times. Some years ago, the sabre group at Indes WMA (now Indes Ferox Gladio, see links) brought this action up, and more recently Christian and I explored it via email. If one isn’t sure why this action seems odd, it may help to illustrate it.

Engagement in 3rd–a little exaggerated and at too extreme an angle, but both “fencers” here have their opponent’s blade to the right/outside, and are in third

By “my engagement” we mean that I have sought my opponent’s blade and made contact with it, in this case, “in tierce” or on the outside line, “outside” here meaning to the right of a right-hander. To perform a molinello, that is a circular cut using the elbow as axis, I must detach the weapon from my opponent’s to cut. Easy, right? Yes, but, there is an important question this raises: if one has control over the line by taking the engagement, and then leaves it to make a cut, what happens to the other blade? It is still out there, pointing at us, and threatening. From the sound of it, Maestro Barbasetti seems to be suggesting that we leave a place of security to attack without first removing the threat, a threat that we ostensibly had control over at the start. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially given how well-trained the maestro was and how well put-together his books are.

There are a few ways to make sense of this passage. A first and crucial step is to reread the passage, and, those which inform it. For example, I have defined “molinello” as a circular-cut employing the elbow as its axis of rotation, but earlier on page 29, where the master discusses cuts generally, he says

If you execute a circular movement ending with a final touch, the blow is called “cut by molinello.” The object of this preparatory circular movement is to disengage your blade from that of the opponent.

You must perform all cuts at the moment you detect an opening, retaking the position of guard immediately after. [29]

The German text says much the same, but is more specific:

Geschwungene Hiebe werden angewendet, wenn sich die Notwendigkeit ergibt, der Klinge des Gegners auszuweichen oder die eigene mittelst einer Schwingung von der gegnerischen Bindung zu befreien.

Hiebe sind zu führen, sobald der Gegner eine Blosse und die Zeit bietet, sie zu benützen; sodann muss die Waffe wieder in die Auslage zurückgeführt werden. [52-53]

My German is not great, but as I read this the 1899 edition explains that one uses these circular blows (Geschwungene Hiebe) either to elude (auszuweichen) or to separate (befreien) one’s blade from that of the opponent. [2] In either tongue, however, we are told that the “molinello” for Barbasetti involves disengaging one’s blade from that of the opponent. This is a subtle point, but an important one, because this is only one use of the molinelli. They are used as the maestro suggests, but also alone as exercises, as offensive actions, and—significant in this instance—as defensive actions.

We read “from our engagement” in a section on cuts and often assume we are on the offensive, but this can just as easily mean we are on defense. A parry, after all, involves engagements too; cuts include riposte options. Making a horizontal molinello from third makes the most sense to me as a riposte, which is to say that having parried in third one can reply with a horizontal molinello toward the right.[3] There are, however, not many instances in which I would choose this cut as a riposte from that parry—as a drill, however, as a way to practice this molinello, there is some merit, but as a riposte I would couple it with offline movement to the right and forward. The sketches I add here suggest rather than demonstrate, but hopefully provide some visual sense of what I mean:

Shifting right and diagonally forward with the riposte
Same idea, different view–here the idea of shifting the line of direction a few degrees is a little more clear

Read, reread, make sure of each term, and ask for help. There is no shame, ever, in asking other qualified people for their thoughts. When the people at Indes WMA asked me, we worked on it, but once home I sent a message to Chris Holzman to get his take as well. As Christian and I explored it this past week I once again checked in with Chris and Patrick Bratton. I wanted to be sure my own thinking wasn’t too far out before replying to Christian. Due diligence is important, and with something as odd as this one little passage, it pays to be cautious.

In the end, how we use the action and what the maestro intended may differ. In part this is down to context. Barbasetti, like many others of the Radaellian school, put his approach to paper, but as a working instructor he knew, as we do, that a book can inform but cannot teach. Fencing was and is, primarily, something one does. We learn it in person, individual to individual and/or group, and IF reading is involved it’s supplementary. Generally, a fencing book collects information, explains it, and serves as reminder and reference. [4] While Barbasetti offers his book as a pedagogical tool, he also assumes one has some knowledge of fencing. In the sala, when a question like this pops up, it’s far easier to manage because one can physically explore it with guidance. It’s far harder on one’s own. [5]

In classical and historical fencing not everyone has the same amount of experience, so seeking help is a logical step. This said, it is worth our time pondering these more challenging passages; the effort is not wasted, we learn something in the process, and our understanding deepens. It especially behooves an instructor to wrestle with the text—it forces close-reading, helps us avoid being cavalier with information that is actually rather complex, and better prepares us and students to tackle the material.

NOTES:

*For Christian’s club, see https://www.fechten-passau.de/ They do a lot–sport, classical, and theatrical–be sure to check out the photos and videos for the latter!

[1] The German language text is Cav. Luigi Barbasetti, Das Säbefechten, übersetzt von K.u.K. Linienschiffs-Lieutenant Rudolf Brosch und Oberlieutenant Heinrich Tenner (Wien: Verlag der “Allegemeinen Sport-Zeitung,” 1899. The English text is Luigi Barbasetti, The Art of the Sabre and Epée (New York, NY: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1936).

[2] NB: what follows stems from the German I learned in graduate school for reading—the class was tailored per field, and one of several I had to learn but which I am in no way expert.

For auszuweichen (infintive), I looked to ausweichen, v., the primary meaning of which in my basic Langenscheidt Standard German Dictionary, rev. 1993, is “to make way for (with the dative),” “get out of the way of,” “dodge,” but which may have a meaning specific to fencing my little dictionary does not contain. Jeffrey Forgeng, in his glossary of German terms in historical fencing, cites the use of this verb in Meyer (1570, 2.18v, 86v), and supplies “evading” [cf. https://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Fechtkunst_Glossary_(Jeffrey_Forgeng)#Glossary]. Befreien, however, is a little more straight-forward. This verb typically means to “free, liberate; release.”

As for Geschwungene Hiebe, the term here for “molinelli,” initial denotations are not much help. Geschwungen is an adjective meaning “curved,” but also the past participle of schwingen, ‘to swing, wave, brandish.” Hieb (m), means a “stroke, blow, punch.” To render this as “curved blow” seems clumsy, and I’m not much happier with “swinging blow,” though that perhaps gets closer. 

German readers are encouraged to assist this thick-tongued Yank if they would be so kind (Danke an alle!)

[3] I am not alone in seeing this as really only viable as a riposte; Chris Holzman does as well. The logic here is that if one has stopped an attack, parried it, one has robbed it of its force, and while it’s true the point remains there (and must be considered), the opponent’s first thought should be their own defense, NOT a remise or counter-attack. This is the difference between the more sportive idea of ROW and approaching the weapons sans rules.

[4] Fencing books have served many purposes. Some were attempts to impress a patron and gain preferment or a job, others were vehicles to lambast opponents and explain the “true” way, and still others were meant to share a particular school’s view on the Art. Most modern works, and by modern I mean 19th and 20th century texts, assume some degree of familiarity on the part of the reader. True, some do not, but most maestri writing these books write them to help students and share their take on things, not as substitutes for lessons with themselves.

[5] Historical and classical fencers, unlike their cousins in the sport, rely far more on sources. How much differs widely, but reliance upon the source tradition and fencing’s early purpose is what tends to define these two branches. On the one hand, books are the primary way by which we know anything at all about pole-arms, sword in two hands, and rapier. On the other, later books help us peel back the layers accrued over the 20th century. It is still interpretive more often than not, but without books, without the sources, it would just be make-believe.

Review: Rossi’s _Sword and Sabre Fencing_ (1885)

Giordano Rossi. Sword and Sabre Fencing. Translated by Sebastian Seager. Melbourne Fencing Society, 2021. 275 pp. $17.99 US as of May 2022. [https://www.blurb.com/b/10846545-sword-and-sabre-fencing]

Cover, Rossi’s 1885 Scherma di Spada e Sciabola

I’ve long been a fan of Sebastian Seager’s excellent blog, “Radaellian Scholar,” since first discovering it a few years ago. His articles and posts there do much to fill out the story of the Radaellian school specifically and the Italian school generally, and are, as I see it, necessary reading for anyone serious about the study of 19th and early 20th century Italian fencing. His coverage of major figures, ideas, techniques, and sources, all gathered in one spot, is hard to beat. As a researcher myself I value his approach and shared fondness for footnotes.

Rossi is not his first translation. There are various posts that include some translated portions, but of particular notice is his edition of Del Frate’s 1868 manual on Radaellian sabre, Instuzione per maeggio e scherma della sciabola. Christopher Holzman’s translation of the 1876 edition is better known, but it is useful for any scholar of Radaellian sabre to read them both. With Rossi, Seager has added another critical work in this tradition for the English-speaking world.

Sebastian’s introduction (xi-xvii) will provide a far better and more succinct summation of Rossi and his place than I can here, but in short Rossi was a student of Radaelli’s and one of those, the first in fact, to write (1885) and issue an update to the master’s program. Rivalry between southern and northern masters, and the political clout of the former, led to a flurry of works designed to show the superiority of Radaellian (northern) sabre. Some of it makes for entertaining reading as Gelli and Masiello’s many remarks demonstrate well, but all in some ways were responses to criticism from the Neapolitans. This is one reason we see inclusion of spada, the sword (epee) as well as sabre.  

Rossi’s Sword and Sabre Fencing starts with a short history and coverage of the duel, and then general concepts. Larger sections on spada and sabre follow, each with synoptic tables outlying actions and counters. One of the reasons that Rossi is important is that within his sabre section, for example, he covers types of molinelli in more detail than Del Frate had earlier, in particular the molinelli ristretti or “restricted” molinelli (see 166ff). In addition, Rossi is the last to include the sforzi di cambiementi or as Seager lists them, “change-sforzi,” which went out of fashion not long afterward.

Seager’s translation of Rossi is clean, easy to read, and well-rendered. A list of terms at the close of the book and useful footnotes help explain both vocabulary and concepts, and will be especially helpful for those new to this period of Italian sources. Blurb, the p.o.d. company that produces the book, is fast as well. Not sure what it is about Australia and books, but in many years of collecting books no country has been as quick with the turn around as Australia. This translation is a volume that one should have in their fencing library.

Review: Arlow’s _Sabre Fencing_ (1902)

Sir Gustáv Arlow. Sabre Fencing. Austro-Hungarian Military Sabre Series Vol. 3. Edited by Russ Mitchell. Translated by Annamária Kovacs. Irving, TX: Happycrow Publishing, 2022. 243pp. $25 US as of 11 May 2022.

While there is much to say about Sir Gustáv Arlow’s Sabre Fencing, the most important thing I can say is that it’s excellent and you need a copy. If you valued Russ Mitchell’s edition of Leszák’s Sabre Fencing (orig. publ. 1906; see review here 13 Nov. 2020 https://saladellatrespade.com/2020/11/14/leszak-_sabre-fencing_-1906/), then chances are exceedingly strong that you will absolutely love his edition of Arlow’s Sabre Fencing. Russ and his translator, Annamaria Kovacs, have provided the fencing community with perhaps the most important work out of Hungary on the fusion of Italian and Hungarian fencing traditions. Where Leszák reveals some of the synthesis, Arlow specifically addresses it. In this volume the reader sees an Hungarian master specifically addressing his take on the blend of traditions, and importantly, what he has decided to adopt that is Italian, retain that is Hungarian.

Having come up in this tradition myself I’ve long wanted access to the small Hungarian corpus that promised some answers–thanks to Russ all of us can realize that promise. The value of Arlow’s Sabre Fencing goes beyond history, though it is a must-read for any student of Radaellian, Austro-Hungarian, or Italo-Hungarian fencing; this text is one of the best works on sabre I’ve had the pleasure to read, and I have read many, taught with the help of many (mostly Radaellian). The level of description, the well-thought out organization, the breadth, and the description of technique (Hungarian and Italian) are impressive. For one example, Arlow’s breakdowns of the types of cuts, and his notes about type and origin, nomenclature in Italian, Hungarian, or German, all do much to help both student and instructor in understanding.

Each section provides clear exercises in much the same way synoptic tables do minus the table. There are additional gems as well, from some novel advice in fighting lefties to how to deflect specific types of feints. Of particular interest for the historical fencer is his section on bouts with sharps (i.e. duels). This is a difference Arlow more than once highlights; after all, the duel was still a reality in Hungary, which is one reason for discussion of sharps, but also Arlow clearly saw little point in fencing as a mere game. For him

great care must be taken to ensure that the cuts fall either with the true or false edge, but never flat. Flat cutting is worthless in both duels and sport fencing. A well-trained fencer will never intentionally cut with the flat. He who contends on his over-flexible blade to whip around the opponent’s blade does not deserve to be called a fencer. (61)

I’ve looked forward to and enjoyed each work in Russ Mitchell’s series, but none so much as this. It’s a must-have for every sabreur.

Cf: https://www.amazon.com/Guszt%C3%A1v-Arlows-Sabre-Fencing-Austro-Hungarian/dp/B09X3NZ2P5?asin=B09X3NZ2P5&revisionId=&format=4&depth=1

Weapon, Heft, and Interpretation

In the last post I shared news about the Shrike Forge highland broadsword I recently received and had a chance to use. My friend Mike Cherba, who heads Northwest Armizare just up the road, filmed this bout and others and shared it a few days ago to Youtube (link is here: https://youtu.be/QJM4GvJAy2Y).

To confess the truth I am always a little uncomfortable being on camera, any camera, and by a “little uncomfortable” I mean I actively avoid it. It’s not just my natural introversion, but my instructor’s eye: I see what I did incorrectly, what I need to work on, and while that is a good thing it’s not necessarily fun.

Video can reveal our awesome bouts to be somewhat clumsy fencing sometimes (source Pixabay)

I tend to blame my college fencing coaches; there’s nothing quite like walking away from a tournament where one did well and then seeing just what one’s fencing actually looked like on video… Add the rest of the team in the mix and that sense of spotlight turned interrogator’s hot lamp is easy to understand. We all suffered like this, not just me, and for the most part it was useful. One of my chief goals is improvement, so if and when I see video of myself what stands out to me are the actions or decisions that need correction or improvement.

Mike is a good chap, so naturally he asked if I minded sharing it. My first reaction, internally, was “no! I make too many mistakes! What will people think?” but that isn’t very useful. It’s just ego. So, I checked that feeling, and then said “Absolutely!” There are three reasons I was quick to agree. First, Mike is my friend and asked. Second, that bout was an absolute blast–Josh is one of my favorite people to fight and we always have fun, but I don’t think we’ve had as much fun as we did fighting with weapons of similar style. Lastly, I’m a teacher, and just as it’s important to impart correct technique and tactics, so too is it to learn from our mistakes. So, here is a fun video where I am making some mistakes–it’s a great learning opportunity, and not just for me.

Lessons within this Video

One truism within historical fencing is that the weapon, its size, weight, balance, all of it, matters. It’s worth examining why that is, and this bout serves as an excellent example. One thing I’ve often said to students, both my own and those I’ve met in other groups, is that sabre qua sabre and broadsword qua broadsword share much in common. For example, both highland broadsword and unmounted Italian sabre include advances, retreats, lunges, and off-line footwork. All of that is true, but importantly, while both employ similar guards, lines of attack, even footwork, there are differences in the actual weapon that inform just how one uses these common features.

Swords within the same family, in this case single-handed cutting swords, are, to quote many freshman college history papers, “both similar and different.” A broadsword designed along the lines and heft of one from 1700-1750 is going to perform differently than a sabre designed for use in the saddle circa 1850-1900. They balance at different points; they’re generally different weights; one tends to be straight, the other curved; the specific combat context for each was different even beyond the basic differences of unmounted and mounted. [1]

So, it follows that the way a weapon moves will affect how one might use ostensibly similar footwork. If you watch the video linked above, you will notice quickly how differently Josh and I move. I move like a sabreur (which makes sense)–it’s all very linear. Josh, on the other hand, has spent a lot of time on works by people like Thomas Page, and it shows–he pivots more, traverses more. Why is that? Why the difference, that is, beyond training and habit? Why this difference in the sources?

One of the 18th cen. Penicuik sketches

The weapon. A three-pound sword with the balance of these two broadswords makes certain actions, certain uses of measure, not impossible but unwise. In the Radaellian tradition we use a lot of just-out-of-measure preparatory actions to make it safe to employ our skull-crushing molinelli. This is not as easy to do with a broadsword. I “can” thrust to the inside line and then disengage around and cut to the head, but the weapon isn’t optimized for this. How I do that must change in order not to suffer from too slow an execution. Josh, for example, though you see me trying it too, often makes a Cut 1 (a la the Insular enumeration or what we might call a mandritto fendente, a descending cut from the right, in Italian circles), and then a cut two (reverso fendente)–the first isn’t a feint really, though it can be. With the weight behind a broadsword one ignores a cut like that at one’s peril, and so naturally one must respond. If one doesn’t, then yay, free head cut; but if one does, a quick flip of the wrist and that beast is screaming to the outside line of the head.

The footwork accompanying this is normally a step to one side, then the other. [2] This is a safer way to make this one-two attack combination. Attempted with the more linear footwork of sabre, it’s far more difficult to pull off, because one is farther away when making that Cut 1. If one delivers this specific combination with a lunge, one must hold the extended blade potentially longer to await the opponent’s response–lunging distance is a bit more farther out than stepping distance, so not only must one move the blade once they’ve responded (if they have), but recover forwards or redouble in order to disengage and cut to the other side. Stepping as Josh does is more efficient, faster, and helps conserve energy. In short, “critical distance” varies not only by height and reach, but also by weapon type. There are important ramifications for this I will share shortly.

In brief, Newton’s second and third laws of motion, to whit…

  • The acceleration of an object depends on the mass of the object and the amount of force applied.
  • Whenever one object exerts a force on another object, the second object exerts an equal and opposite on the first. [3]

… explain that there is a relationship between a sword’s acceleration, its mass, and how much force propels it. [4] If that sword is then yanked back, if it must decelerate rapidly and change directly, it will require energy enough to accomplish this; if it meets resistance, say a parry, it will transfer energy to that other sword. Distance affects this too. It is easier to change the direction of that weapon if one is closer, and thus, stepping vs. lunging that initial cut makes good sense. One can lunge it sure, but it will be slower, easier to parry or to launch a counter attack.

This is not to say one can’t lunge or that one doesn’t, because one can and does–if I wish to force the blade (a species of press, coulé, filo, glissade, glisé, etc.) I can absolutely lunge this attack, and arguably should as it helps close the line. The extant sources for broadsword, though perhaps more “regimental” than “highland” or “early” to use popular categories, make it clear that the lunge was a standard method for delivering attack. As ever, context, especially situational context, should dictate whether we step or lunge.

A Few Ramifications that Follow

Confiteor Sancto Gregorio… quia peccavi nimis cogitatione, verbo et opere: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa

Jokes aside (and apologies to Father Tavares) I have often chided or raised the judgmental eyebrow at footage of broadsword and sabre. It comes with the territory. In my defense, there is usually justification for the mental red pen we apply to the mistakes we see in video, but at the same time it’s easy to slip into an unwarranted sense of superiority or elitism.

“Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” 1985

The best check against this tendency is time spent with the tools and sources underpinning the fencing one is viewing. It will change how we view it. As a final example, one of the complaints many of us in the more classical Italian and/or French side of historical fencing make is about the HEMA tendency to fight in measure. It’s like “Thunderdome” only without using the whole dome–two people enter the ring, clash, repeat. There is little use of measure, little suckering people in and exploiting when they fall short, little use of any footwork save the advance. That isn’t good.

If a 3lb Scottish broadsword and if our interpretations of its use are at all close, then we have reason to recall that use of measure is different for different weapons, for different contexts. Like most observations I make here this is obvious, I know, but it’s also easy to forget when we view most things through our own experience and bias. We all do that sometimes. In order to foster the openness to see how other, even related systems use measure, tempo, and footwork, we must first acquaint ourselves with their sources and tools.

Doing so is not just a window into something new, but a way of gaining a different perspective on our main focus within historical fencing. Exploration can also be a lot of fun, which is reason enough to try out that baskethilt, longsword, or rapier that perhaps we’ve sometimes found easy targets to criticize.

NOTES:

[1] It’s too large a topic to explore properly here, but warfare among the Irish and Scots favored ambush, quick strikes, not long engagements of massed troops in meadows. Armor and weapons, well into the early modern period, appeared archaic to many, but had long served well in the bogs and heavily forested areas either side of the Irish Sea. Roman and Greek sources made much of Gallic horsemanship, but in many parts of the Isles foot combat made more sense. Cavalry played a role, but it was not as great in medieval or Early Modern Ireland or Scotland as it was in say France or Spain.

[2] Thomas Page’s work (cf. https://linacreschoolofdefence.org/Library/Page/Page.html) remains controversial, but is worth reading in conjunction with other works on Insular broadsword. Questions of accuracy in re Highland fighting aside, much of what he describes is useful. His section on traversing can be a little dizzying to read at first, but taken slowly and then drilled it does work.

[3] Cf. https://www1.grc.nasa.gov/beginners-guide-to-aeronautics/newtons-laws-of-motion/

[4] With so hefty a weapon one needs little force to propel it forward. Good mechanics, that is technique that allows the weapon to do the work, used with proper measure and timing not only is more efficient and less exhausting, but also less likely to expose one to counter-attacks. Newton’s laws hold here too–if one swings too hard and wide, it’s that much harder to recover and one is that much more prone to being hit.

Review: Shrike’s Forge Broadsword

[26 April 2022]

Mid-18th Century Style Highland Broadsword
Smith: Mark H0wland, Shrike’s Forge, Medford, Oregon, USA
https://www.shrikesforge.com/
+15418215857

SPECS:
Total Length: 41.5″/1.05m
Blade Length: 36″/91.44cm
Blade Width: 1.75″/44.45mm
Grip Length: 4.5″/11.43cm
POB: 3.5″/8.89cm
Weight: 2.91lb/1.32kg

Materials: steel; grip is wood covered with leather

Shrike’s Forge Broadsword

There are times when the challenge of writing a review consists of fighting the urge to gush with praise about the object of that review. Too effusive and the reader may suspect one of collaboration with author or creator. However, the pure joy in wielding and using this beautiful weapon makes it impossible for me to hold back praise. This is easily the finest sword I have ever used in a bout, and by finest I mean in every way: balance, sturdiness, performance, and design. The closest analogues I have to using this broadsword by smith Mark Howland are the legendary weapons made by Gus Trim. The latter are sharp, and thus only used for cutting practices, but in terms of quality, handling, and artistry Mark’s weapons are the blunt equivalent. If you know Gus’ work then you will know that is extremely high praise.

This weapon, a gift presented to me by the broadsword group at Northwest Armizare, was a deep honor to receive. How does one thank people for such an exquisite gift? I did my best to express my gratitude when the broadsword was handed to me, but this is the sort of thing that goes beyond words–it means a lifetime of trying to do right by the givers. [1] Each time I pick up this weapon I am reminded of my debt to them and encouraged to give them all I can as friend, peer, and instructor.

Close up, Portrait of Jas. Carnegie and Family, ca. 1809, Cork, Ireland

Background: This broadsword, the first of a batch Mark is making for the broadsword pod, is based on one my great-great-grandfather carried. [2] The blade, least as far as I can make out from the painting my cousin has, is a later design: it is thinner, more like the later 19th century regimental blades than something from the time of the ’45. The sword is lost, so far as the family knows, as is any idea of provenance or history. I opted for an earlier blade profile and heft as I have suitable trainers for later broadsword, but not for the earlier period, and, it changes things.

Overview: This is a stout blade, but nimble. Mark can speak better to the science behind this than I can, but from a user’s perspective one wants a robust blade that still has enough flex to manage the shock received in striking and parrying. This blade easily flexes several inches and returns to true–a good indication of quality.

7x7mm spatulate tip

The spatulate tip, now standard I think on many of Mark’s training weapons, is my preferred tip. It’s ample in size, but not so globulous that it’s comic. That’s a tough balance to strike. The blade’s edge is nicely rounded too, so between the two cuts and thrusts can be delivered–assuming appropriate use–safely. [3] Even with the control that my opponent, Josh Campbell, and I possess, these are heavy blades and can land with significant force. Any such danger is increased if the weapon in question lacks attention to the vital details that make a training blade a training blade. Mark put a lot of consideration into the width, flex, and tip, and for the size and heft of this broadsword one would be hard put to find a better, safer version.

Basket, right side, Carnegie family crest badge slightly visible on the plate

The guard is tough. In it’s inaugural bout, “Morag” fared well against a similar broadsword that is about a half-pound heavier, and the guard took no damage. [4] This is critical as a sword of this heft can break fingers more easily than a lighter one. The grip is lovely–the leather is turned suede-out which really sticks to the glove well, and the shape is perfect. These weapons are held with more of a hammer/racquet grip, and even without measuring my hand Mark managed to produce a grip that fits perfectly in my palm. Many on the market are too wide or too thin.

Handling & Performance: We often refer to swords in anthropomorphic ways. For example, we might say one should “listen” to the sword, or remark that “it wants to move” in such and such a fashion, and all are shorthand expressions for describing a complicated combination of weight, balance, and movement. This broadsword, for example, just as it should be has the point of balance (POB) father back than my usual sabres. It’s a weapon optimized for foot combat, and heavy, so having the balance closer to the hand reduces fatigue and allows the fencer to use more of the wrist in making cuts. In contrast, with Radaellian sabre, the POB is farther out as it would be for most mounted combat. So weighted, however, the elbow is a better axis for rotation.

Josh is a strong man, much stronger than I am, and, much younger, so the fact that I could bout with him and hold my own speaks volumes about how well-made Mark’s tools are. I let the sword move as it was intended to, which comes down in part to knowledge and training, but also and importantly to the right tool. This sword was constructed to move as broadswords did—not all broadsword trainers are balanced properly or perform like Mark’s. This one makes it far easier to appreciate what one reads in Thomas Page, for example, and that is important for anyone keen to understand how the tradition may have changed over time. While this broadsword has definite presence, it does not feel or function like it a ponderous club–it is nimble, quick, and seems almost to float.

If you’re in the market for a truly outstanding broadsword trainer, contact Mark. I have handled several of his weapons, from the khamlis he has made for Mike Cherba to several swords he’s made for Josh Campbell. They are impressive to behold and use. Wait time can be a while, but these are hand-made, and worth the wait.

NOTES:

[1] This is the second time I have been honored with a superior sword. It is extremely humbling. The first, a gorgeous Gus Trim early Hungarian sabre, was presented to me at Swordsquatch in 2017 for helping promote historical sabre in the PNW. Honored as I am, I also feel the responsibility that comes with such gifts, and strive to be worthy of them.

ATrim, early Hungarian sabre

[2] My father’s great-grandfather, James Carnegie, joined the Duke of Albany’s Own Highlanders, the 72nd Foot (later the Seaforth Highlanders) and saw action in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. When he demobbed he didn’t return to St. Vigeans, in Angus, Scotland, but settled in Cork, Ireland. The portrait close-up comes from a family portrait my cousin Rosanna displays in her home in the UK. We also have some photos taken of James, then a very elderly man, in Highland dress with what appears to be the same sword. These too helped Mark design the basket for mine. [For students of Scottish history and highland dress, yes, this is a hodgepodge of kit. Best we can tell James missed home and put together various items to honor it. Tartan experts, so far, believe it was some general plaid vs. anything related to the Carnegie pattern (itself modeled on the MacDonald)]

[3] Proper fencing is the best insurance for safety. Weight can add to any force multiplication, so optimizing a weapon for safety is all the more important.

[4] The minor surface scratches are normal, ditto tiny dings in the blade, both of which one removes with light Emory paper on a regular basis. This not only helps preserve the blade’s life (they are consumables after all), but also one’s opponent’s clothing.

I’m not in the habit of naming swords, but Josh in his eagerness to see how mine would do remarked that his broadsword, “Bessy,” was keen to play with her little sister. I figured it was only fitting to come up with a suitable name 😉

Additional Images:

Basket, interior and grip
Basket, left side

Knucklebow–some slight scratches and paint from Mike’s rotella
Flex!!!!

Excellent Video from Schildwache Potsdam 

Martin Höppner, the head instructor at Schildwache Potsdam (DE), a club which focuses on the sources of Renaissance Italy, shared this video a few days ago. It’s one of the best I’ve seen on how to teach a technique within “HEMA.” It is worth watching.

Students with a traditional/classical background will recognize the structure of this lesson well. There are a few things Martin mentions, if briefly, that one will likely spend a bit more time on in an actual lesson, but for a video just shy of 17 minutes one will be hard put to find a better distillation than this.

Who are you? With what authority do you speak thus?

She ordered Charles to have the horses put to. Holst understood this, which was said in French, and begged her for the love of God not to set out; he had orders not to let her depart. “You,” said she, in a somewhat haughty tone, “who are you? With what authority do you speak thus?” He said he had no written order, but by word of mouth, and that his governor would soon arrive…

From Memoirs of Leonora Christina, Daughter of Christian IV of Denmark, Written during her Imprisonment in the Blue Tower at Copenhagen, 1663-1685, translated by F. E. Bunnett, London, UK: Henry S. King & Co., 1872) [https://www.gutenberg.org/files/38128/38128.txt]

Last week I had a chance to discuss the Radaellian school of sabre with a distant colleague in Germany, Dr. Manouchehr Khorasani, on his channel Razmafzar TV. There is one topic we didn’t discuss in detail, and which in part I dreaded despite its importance, but which I shall try to address more fully here. This is the place of Italian sabre in “HEMA” and one of the major challenges within it. [1] Late period Italian “HEMA” is an archipelago of tiny islands scattered so widely that they are a related island chain in theory only.

There are several reasons for this. On the surface, and understandable, is the fact of geography. When pockets of interest are separated by miles, countries, and oceans naturally it’s hard for the inhabitants of these islands to visit one another. Beyond that, however, there is a less obvious reasons for division. There is an unfortunate cliquishness born of both a lack of familiarity with other, related groups, and some variance in concepts of authority.

When possible I prefer to build rather than burn bridges, and because I’ve met few of the people in the field in person, I can’t know how they will react. How one appears online is not a sure guide. The internet is notorious for skewing intent and meaning. It is not my wish to call anyone out or set fire to yet another bridge, but only to call out the elephant in the room. My sense, knowing what I do know about the inhabitants of some of these islands, is that they may take umbrage with someone they consider an unknown, an upstart daring to discuss topics which they believe belong only to them. If any do, then they do, and I can only hope they reach out to me to discuss it.

Cliques writ Large

“Mean Girls,” 2004

People, being social (least most of them—we introverts unite, separately, in our homes…), tend to congregate around those they identify with, who share their interests, and in some degree who provide some measure of external validation. These benefits of association are intensified when the group in question, for whatever reason, is actively under siege or feels as if they are. How one responds to attack, or the perception of one, varies. Some seek to adapt in hopes of crossing whatever barrier exists between themselves and the clique. Others seek to undermine that clique, to besiege the besiegers as it were. Still others solidify their own position and contend with their rivals as best they can. Some leave the contest all together.

Cliques writ Small

For my part, I lament the reality of the cliques I see within the conglomeration of Italian schools. We’re few enough as it is. No one in HEMA balks at mention of Fiore, Marozzo, or Giganti—to name only three popular Italian masters studied in historical fencing—but bring up Radaelli, Masiello, or Pecoraro and Pessina and suddenly one is categorized as “other.” The kinder sort relegate one to “classical” fencing (never well-defined); the nastier sort lump one in with the modern sport, HEMA’s favorite bugbear. I recognize, thanks to age and experience, the ways in which some of this is natural, but as a life-long student what I notice most acutely is that all of us lose more than we gain in maintaining these boundaries. Sad as it is to be the red-headed step-child in the larger community, it’s sadder that those who should be natural allies, our fellow late-Italian enthusiasts, should follow suit and treat their family members as poorly.

Outside geography and isolation, the hard lines seem to fall along the fault-lines of notions of authority and recognition. For example, those who have worked hard to obtain certifications sometimes believe that anyone who has not is, by definition, unqualified or certainly less qualified than they are to expound upon that subject. Sometimes this is true, but sometimes it needs adjustment: in “HEMA” certifications within modern traditions, while valuable, do not grant automatic authority for past systems, not even to those extinct branches which created one’s own.

While definitions of authority are often shared between cliques, there are often operating differences that work to demarcate one group from another. Credibility is important, but it doesn’t belong exclusively to the provosts and masters. This is an especially important fact for anyone believing that they themselves are an authority, because one of the unwritten rules of expertise is responsibility to manage it appropriately, and, to recognize just what “authority” entails. What is it, specifically, that grants authority? Is it the organization that grants it? The piece of paper declaring it? Is it the internal ability and knowledge? Some combination?

Just as important, however, and far, far more difficult for many established or certified individuals, is recognizing expertise or skill outside such certification. It takes more than memorizing rules, definitions, and regurgitating them to recognize and honor other capable folks. There are people within the Italian orbit who have done significant, important work, and yet don’t warrant an invite to major conferences, teaching seminars, or invitational tournaments (no, I do not mean me). Why is this? It’s not lack of skill, because in print, video, and in person they have demonstrated not only their grasp of the pedagogical tradition, but also proven their ability to teach it and fight it. Professional jealousy and fear, both outgrowths of ego, likely explain this “ghosting.” If one has worked hard to obtain a certification, but has done so without the proper sense of humility such a course should entail, it’s easy to fear the person outside that system that might show one up.

To be fair, comparatively speaking there are many masters and provosts in the Italian branch of “HEMA,” both from and in Italy as well as outside it, who are keen to work with lots of people, not just other masters. There are, however, some notable exceptions in North America who appear not to want to work with others save on their own terms. However much they believe they are guarding their sacred, occult tradition, the inability or unwillingness to provide more than that when it is readily available is a sure-fire way to sink a program. It leads to stagnation, cultic adherence to received learning as one learned it, and unless students of that program can hold their own against others, as fencers, teachers, or scholars, that program is going to atrophy. Certification programs should include the necessarily flexibility to adapt and adopt new ideas and approaches when those novel ideas might improve the course.

“The Adventures of Robin Hood,” 1938–in this scene Little John beats Robin and worries that the famous outlaw will be upset. Robin replies “On the contrary, I love a man who can best me.”

True confidence, true ability, recognizes that students can benefit from such experts, even if they are not card-carrying maestri. Not to enlist the aid of such people when the goal is learning and improvement is horribly short-sighted and limits one’s own program. It’s narrow-minded, the worst sort of conceit. It takes a degree of mental toughness to acknowledge an expert, let alone invite one in, but if one’s goal is learning, then this is the way it should be done. My model for this is the old-school model I learned as a graduate student in history: one doesn’t go to a school because it’s a “name school,” but instead applies to a person, to the people most qualified to guide one in one’s study. If they’re worth their repute, they will encourage one to see other experts too. That person might be at Turnpike Tech, not necessarily Oxford or the Sorbonne.

In an arena as varied and complex as historical martial arts it’s perhaps best to conceive of authority in the plural, as authorities, and recognize that while a master’s cert indicates significant training, that it’s not the only path. Patrick Bratton, in one of our chats, provided a few rubrics by which we might measure authority or credibility:

–can they teach effectively?

–are they a competent fencer in the system they are teaching?

–do they know the history/context and theory, AND can they effectively convey it to others?

Within these three broad categories are subsets of questions important to ask. In terms of teaching effectiveness, are they able to explain each technique, idea, or tactic in its most elemental specificity, from the position of the hand to the pressure exerted by control fingers, from the placement of the arm to the timing with which the technique is made in relation to the feet? Can they then incorporate that level of detail and build up? If they can, do they? There is a LOT of video out there, and so much of it is shared without any hint as to why. Teaching vids are some of the worst offenders in this regard. If one is sharing a teaching video, at least include what it is one is doing and why. With regard to fencing competency in the system in which they were certified, how adept are they? How often do they exercise and test this skill? Do they do so only with friends, or, do they venture out? When it comes to history and theory, how well do they know it, and, do they avail themselves of available resources?

Certification—What is it?

What the modern schools are supposed to teach is the current body of knowledge as handed down, and depending on rank, how to teach it. [2] This is as true of the USFCA as it is the Sonoma program. Masters emerging from either program should be able to teach anyone, at any level, and most importantly help train new teachers. What history they study, if they do, is generally minimal and/or tailored to the specific needs of their program. The USFCA, for example, is focused on the sport, not its development; the Sonoma program, which does cover some history, does so only within the confines of the work of their founder, Maestro William Gaugler. [3] What either program should provide is first an understanding of the universal principles in fencing, what Matire Robert Handelman refers to as “the elements of fencing.” [4] Second, they should impart technique and tactics, the first in fine-grained specificity, the second following logically from what it is possible to do with those techniques oneself, and, what one does when they’re used against one. Needless to say that all of the above must reflect the elements or universal principles. For the maestri, provosts, etc. who do study past systems, what gives them an edge is the fact that they are armed with a solid foundation in the application of the universals, technique, and tactics. It’s a lot easier to look at historical versions of this if one has a firm grasp on today’s systems.

Nothing in the purpose of modern fencing certification equates to expertise in historical fight systems. In fact, possession of the lanista’s rudis is not the only way, and in fact, might not be the best way. It depends on the person. There are other paths by which one may accrue both knowledge and skill. I will argue whenever I have the chance that everyone should take at least a year of foil or sabre, preferably in as traditional/classical as one can, before diving into HEMA, but beyond that I think it’s important to separate what one learns in becoming a provost or master today from what some certified teachers purport or suggest their sheepskin means.

A Challenge

For my colleagues within the late Italian sphere of fencing, especially those with the certifications of master or provost, I challenge you to reach beyond your clique; I challenge you to embrace discomfort and seek out those individuals who can best aid your students. Why pass up a good chance to improve your program? I challenge you to look beyond your certs and at what these individuals have to offer, humbly, without recourse to ego, fear, or envy. Put those aside, put what is best for your students first. It will be good for you too.

As a student myself, I seek out the best teachers I can, because I want to improve. My skill is never good enough for me; sure, it may be fair enough to impart basics to someone new, but for me myself the climb is eternal, the journey the point; it’s what I learn along the way more than it is any trophy, award, gift, or certification. The benchmarks we reach, such as certifications, signify key moments in study and growth, but are not destinations in and of themselves, least they ought not to be. [5] These honor my effort, and I appreciate them deeply, but I want to work with those who can best help me grow, certification or not.

NOTES:

[1] This is a topic I covered briefly in an earlier post, 22 March, 2021 “Italian Sabre & HEMA” https://saladellatrespade.com/2021/03/22/italian-sabre-hema/

[2] Ideally, any certification program, moniteur to master, is teaching one how to teach. This goes beyond watching and emulating, but down to actual discussion, instruction, and on-the-job training.

[3] Maestro Gaugler established a military masters’ program in San Jose, California, under the auspices of Italian programs like the Accademia Nazionale di Scherma in Naples and The Fencing Masters’ Preparatory Course at the National Institute of Physical Education, Rome. His works, A Dictionary of Universally Used Fencing Terminology (1997), The History of Fencing (1998), and The Science of Fencing (1997), perhaps with the addition of his articles, comprise the course reading at the program’s new home at Sonoma State University. Gaugler’s books are important additions, late ones, to a venerable corpus, but no replacement for the original sources or classics like Szabo’s Fencing and the Master.

[4] See for example Maitre Rob Handleman and Maitre Connie Louie, Fencing Foil: A Practical Training Guide for Coaches, Parents, and Young Athletes, San Francisco, CA: Pattinando Publishing, 2014, 308-312; see also Fencing Sabre: A Practical Guide for Coaches, Parents, and Young Athletes, 2010. The epee course I took in 2021, which is available in full via Fencing Metrics, takes the place of his book on epee. I’ve had the honor to take two courses with Maitre Handelman and he emphasizes over and over that everything we do, anything we teach, must emerge from the elements. The old masters would agree.

[5] My eldest son, when he completed his black belt, did so at a do jang with the right attitude. There is a poster hanging in the school that sums up what the students are meant to learn in acquiring that well-known symbol: a black belt means that they are now ready to start learning. I would suggest that our fencing certifications might be best viewed in a similar light.