Trust but Verify—the Perils of Translation

This week’s smallsword class presented a piquant reminder of the caution required in using translations, even good translations. In this instance the translator and author were the same person, Domenico Angelo. One can usually assume that anyone wearing both hats has a firm idea of what they want to express—how well, consistently, or accurately they convey that in another tongue, however, is another matter. We can be too close to a topic, it can be too familiar, and since it makes sense in our heads we may unwittingly proceed as if all we have to do is put pen to paper (or hands to keys). This is just as true for the reader nowadays (as my own example, alas, will show below).

I often harp on the importance of reading the text and not just relying on images in our interpretations, and without meaning to sing the same old tired song, the topic here concerns one nuance of this theme. As my own example will show, what we’ve read can bias us in viewing images too, and so, as ever, we need to be cautious and read closely even if we “think” we know what a passage or illustration means.

Half Circle, Circle, Circular…
Angelo uses the terms “half circle” and “circle” in several ways and there is some potential confusion possible in his English version. I don’t know and thus am hesitant to suggest what Angelo was thinking as he wrestled with the French and English in producing the respective copies of his The School of Fencing, but as someone who mines his work today if I had to guess, I’d imagine that it was oversight on part of the author/translator, or, a printer’s error.

On the face of it, some of these issues with language are self-explanatory, but syntax, punctuation, and translation can complicate some of these terms, and deserve a closer read. Call it due diligence. We lose nothing in checking our reading, and in some cases, as I discovered comparing Girard and Angelo, we not only might correct errors we’ve made in interpretation, but also gain new insights into the sources.

As I discovered recently, study of Girard and some similarities in terms skewed my reading of Angelo. I fix these things as I find them (or as they are pointed out to me), but this is a good example because I do my best to do things as accurately as I can and still screw up sometimes. It can happen to any of us.

In what follows, I’ll present the French from the 1763 edition and the English from the 1787 as these are the two copies I have on hand. The story of the evolution of L’Ecole des Armes/The School of Fencing has been well-covered by others, so those interested in the editorial history of the text should refer to the works in the notes, at least as a place to start. [1] While variations in edition are important, I’m working with the versions to which I have access and focusing on a single, practical concern: navigating some issues of translation in making use of the work.

Examples: Demi-cercle
Angelo first covers this parry for plate 19, or, page 97 in the pdf provided by the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s Gallica. [2] He writes:

De la Parade du Demi-cercle sur le Coup de Quarte basse
Voïez la Dixneuvieme Planche

La parade du demi-cercle doit être formée au dedans des armes par un coup ferme sur le foible de la lame de l’advesaire, avec le trenchant du dedans & du fort de l’epée. Il faut tourner les ongles en dessus, tender bien le bras, tenir le poignet a la hauteur du menton, & la pointe de l’epée basse & soutenuë du fort au foible.

The English reads thus:

Of the Half Circle Parade, or the Parry Against the Inside Thrust under the Wrist, called the Low Carte
Plate XIX

This parry of the half circle should be made within the sword, by a smart beat on the feeble of the adversary’s blade with your inside edge; your nails must be upward, your arm strait, your wrist raised to the height of your chin, and the point low, but well opposed from fort to feeble. [3]

The accompanying plate accords well with the explanation provided here. Much like the modern parry of 7th in French foil, the fencer on the right has the hand in fourth/supinated, the arm is straight, and opposes the adversary’s thrust with the inside edge (one can just make out the knuckle-bow). This parry is made higher than modern 7th, but covers more or less the same line only more conservatively since the arm is extended to parry farther from oneself. [4]

De la parade du demi-cercle sur le coup de quarte basse

The second mention of the term “demi-cercle” is used not to describe this parry, but the arc of the yielding parry made against a flanconade. The second paragraph of the section relating to the 20th plate reads

Le liement d’epée se fait aussi dans le tems qu’il tire le coup de flanconnade. Il faut ceder la pointe sans quitter sa lame, en forte que la pointe forme un demi-cercle en passant par dessous son poignet; & lorsque la parade sera formée, les deux poignets & lames se trouveront dans la position de quarte, comme on êtoit avant que le coup fut tiré, avec cette difference, que le poignet se trouvera plus bas que dans la garde ordinaire.

The English:

The second parade mentioned, called the binding of the blade, is made at the time the adversary attempts to thrust his flaconade. In order to [do] this, you must yield your point, and suffer your feeble to be taken, so as to let your point pas under his wrist, without quitting his blade in the least, that your sword may form a demi-circle; and, gathering his blade in carte, you will find that the two swords, and wrists, are in the same position as when the attack began, with only this difference, that the wrists will be a little lower than in the ordinary guard. [5]

In this instance, Angelo clearly means this descriptively, and so while the same term the context helps prevent confusion.

With the text for Plate 24, however, there is a potential problem. The French reads:

De la Risposte en Tierce sur le Coup de Tierce
Voïez la Vingt-quatriéme Planche

Dans le tems qu’on pare la tierece, en tendant le bras & baissant la pointe de l’épée au corps de l’adversaire, il faut lui risposter le coup de tierce le main tournée en tierce & le poignet cavé, faire en forte que la main parte le premiere en soutenant son épée dépuis le fort jusqu’à la pointe, puis se remettre en garde en prime, ou en demi-cercle. On peut aussi risposter en seconde et se remettre en garde en seconde, en tierce, ou en demi-cercle.

De la risposte en tierce de pied ferme sur le coup de tierce.

And the English:

Of the Return in Tierce, after the Tierce Thrust
Plate XXIV

At the time that you parry the tierce with a strait arm, and your point a little lowered to the adversary’s body, you must return the same thrust, only your wrist a little inclined to the outside. Take great care that the hand moves first, and oppose his blade well, from feeble to fort; to recover your guard in prime, or demi-circle parade.

You may also, after your tierce parry, return the thrust in seconde, and recover in seconde, demi-circle, or in tierce. [6]

Significantly, the punctuation is the same in the relevant section; both read “puis se remettre en garde en prime, ou en demi-cercle/to recover your guard in prime, or demi-circle parade.” Early on I had mistaken these clauses as appositive, but closer reading and practice have illustrated that this was an error. Angelo is referring to two, distinct parries.

Part of what threw me was Girard—I have spent more time with that text, and his “circular parry,” parries rather, are redolent of Angelo’s half circle parry, and, prime visually. Plate 19 in Girard looks like Angelo’s “half circle” but there is called “circle.” Plate 19 illustrates a circular parry with the hand in fourth or “nails upward; Girard has ensured that the off-hand check is depicted as well.

Plates 21 and 22 in Girard might be taken as if they represent one parry from different angles, but these are two, different parries. The images may appear similar, but each parry is made a little differently. Prime, generally, is made from tierce sweeping left (assuming a right-hander); circle, on the other hand, is achieved via a clockwise circle to gather up the incoming steel.

The parry in plate 22 could be the same “nails down” parry as 21, just seen from the other side and with the addition of the off-hand check, but 22 is Girard’s “prime,” 21 another version of “circle.” They’re not the same.

Parade of Circle with nails on top

Girard writes:

Parade du Cercle,

La main tournée de quarte, les ongles en dessus, le poignet haut & la pointe basse. Avec cette parade on pare la quarte haute, la quarte coupée, la seconde, & la flanconnade.

Pour parer lesdits coups, je fais lever le poignet à la hauteur de la bouche & tourné de quarte les ongles en dessus, le bras droit tendu, la pointe de l’Epée basse parant du cercle, en frapant d’un coup ferme sur le foible de sa lame avec le fort du trenchant pour jetter le coup au dehors des Armes, en opposant la main gauche à son Epée, crainte qu’elle ne vous offense: Et le coup paré, lorsqu’il a le pied levé pour se retirer en Garde, lui riposte de quarte droite dans les Armes; ayant toûjours la main gauche opposée à sa lame, & sans la quitter redouble la main bien soutenuë, puis se retirer dans la Garde ordinaire.

Voyez pour l’opposition de la main gauche, page 39.

Voïez la Figure de la parade du cercle les ongles en dessus [35]

Philip Crawley’s translation for this passage makes the action clear. He renders it thus:

Circular Parry

The hand turned to quarte, nails upward, wrist high & the point low. With this parade one parries high quarte, quarte coupe, seconde & the flanconnade.

To parry the above said attacks, I raise my wrist to mouth height & turned to quarte, the nails above, the right arm outstretched, the sword point low parrying in a circle, firmly hitting the weak of the sword with the strong edge of the blade to push out the attack, opposing with the left hand on the sword, for fear that they will hit me: And having parried the attack, when he raises his foot to return to guard, riposte him with a straight quarte inside the sword; always opposing his blade with your left hand &, without quitting, redouble using a well-supported hand, then return to the ordinary guard.

See the opposition of the left hand [, page 39]

See the figure on the circular parry the nails upward
[7]

The image in plate 21, as I read it, captures the moment that the defender (on the left) has described the circle and met the incoming steel. Note that his hand is in tierce/nails down–a key difference from plate 19. If one took the image without the text, always a danger in historical fencing, this might be taken for seconde.

Parade of Circle with nails underneath
Parade of prime, with opposition of the left hand

Read sans the filter of Girard, with whom I’m more familiar, Angelo’s passage in either language is much clearer: one can recover into guard and use a number of sweeping parries as one does so to ensure safety.

Example: Cercle or Half Circle?!
Lastly, there is section entitled “De la Parade du Cercle” [134] in the French text, and, what Angelo renders “Of the Half Circle Parry” [42]. It may be an error on either Angelo’s or his typesetter’s part, but regardless the English wording is, on the face of it, confusing. The description, however, makes it clear that this parry is not the same as the half circle parry covered earlier on page 29.

The French reads:

De la Parade du Cercle

Cette parade, qui est la principale des armes, pare non seulement tous les coups, mais aussi dérange toutes les feintes qu’un adversaire peut faire. Pour bien éxécuter cette parade, il faut bien tender le bras, tenir le poignet sur la ligne de l’epaule les ongles tournés in dessus, & par un movement ferré & vif du poignet la pointe de l’épée doit former de la droite a la gauche un cercle assez grand pour être a couvert depuis le tête jusqu’au genou. De cette maniere, en doublant le cercle jusqu’a ce qu’on ait arresté la lame de son adversaire, la parade sera formée.

Pour arrester cette parade du cercle, quand même il la doubleroit avec la plus grande vivacité, il faut arrester tout court sa lame en soutenant le poignet à la hauteur de l’épaule & tenant la pointe basse, comme dans la parade de quinte, & revenir promptement â l’épée en quarte.

Il faut s’exercer, autant qu’on peut, le poignet aux parades du cercle, au contre-dégagement, & du contre-dégagement au cercle. On peut prendre cette leçon tout seul, soit avec un fleuret, soit avec une épée. Cette exercise fortisie le poignet, le rend souple & le délie, & procure insensiblement le plus grande aisance & adresse pour se défendre dans le besoin.

The English:

Of the Half Circle Parade

This parade, which is the chief defensive parade of the sword, parries not only all the thrusts, but also obstructs all the feints that can be made; and, to execute it well, you should straiten your arm, keep your wrist in a line with your shoulder, your nails upward, and, by a close and quick motion of the wrist, the point should form a circle from the right to the left, large enough to be under cover from the head to the knee; in this manner, by doubling your circle till you have found the adversary’s blade, your parade will be formed.

And now, in order to stop this circle parade, notwithstanding its being redoubled with great vivacity, you may stop his blade short, by keeping your wrist the height of your shoulder, and lowering your point, as in the quinte parry; and, recovering, bind and gather his blade in carte.

You should exercise and practice these circle parades, from the counter disengages to the circle, and from the circle to the counter disengage. You may practice this lesson yourself, either with sword or foil: this will strengthen and supple your wrist, and will insensibly procure great ease and readiness to defend yourself upon all occasions. [8]

Of note, both Girard and Angelo’s parries of circle include a circular motion, something difficult to capture in the plates. We catch the action upon completion, at its start, or somewhere in between. Angelo’s “half circle,” on the other hand, does not include a circular motion, and thus, here, as ever, reliance on the plates alone will confuse one unless one is careful.

The Take-Away

This short examination of one term, whatever the reason for the discrepancy, hopefully serves as an example for why caution, even in a well-translated work, is sound. If, like me, you read a lot of different, contemporary sources, then this caution is all the more critical. It’s a truism of fencing old and less ancient that different authors, different masters will sometimes use the same terms to mean different things. Due appreciation for these nuances only aides us in our interpretations.

NOTES:

[1] See especially Ashley L. Cohen, “Fencing and the Market in Aristocratic Masculinity,” in Sporting Cultures, 1650-1850, Daniel O’Quinn and Alexis Tadie, eds., Toronto, CN: University of Toronto Press, 2018, 66-90, especially 69-72. See also Zbigniew Czajkowski, “Domenico Angelo—A Great Fencing Master of the 18th Century and Champion of the Sport of Fencing,” in Studies in Physical Culture and Tourism 17: 4 (2010): 323-334, esp. 327-328 for the circle parry and other content of the work; 329 for a quick look at publication; Jeannette Acosta-Martinez, “Domenico Angelo in History,” in The Fight Master 28:2 (Fall/Winter 2005): 12-15, esp. 13-14.

[2] The French edition I’m using is: Mr. Angelo, L’Ecole des armes, London, GB: Chez r. & J. Dodsley, 1763, found at the wonderful site provided by the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s Gallica site, cf. https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k15198162?rk=21459;2

[3] This is page 29 in this edition, The School of Fencing, London: 1787. I have a facsimile, in print, from Land’s End Press, New York, 1971, but also use the pdf available at The Smallsword Project, found here https://smallswordproject.com/historic-texts/  

[4] Zbigniew Czajkowski, “Domenico Angelo—A Great Fencing Master of the 18th Century,” 328, suggests the modern septime/7th was a result of “’diminishing’ quinte and circular parries,” but I’m less convinced that this is so. Angelo’s “half circle” is, extended arm notwithstanding, clearly meant to do the same job, and, in the same plane. The difference, as I read it, is that Angelo’s fencer may have had to do this to preserve their life, not just their placement in the pools. The extended arm parry, the rear-weighted stance, and attention to measure all imply a conservative game, one meant to maintain the uneasy compromise between one’s safety and still being able to reach target. In similar vein, though not called “sixth,” smallsword’s “carte over the arm” is the clear antecedent to the chief guard in the modern French school. We have ample evidence from our texts not only of thrusts made carte-over-the-arm, but of fencers adopting a guard that is more or less sixth, that is, arm on the tierce side, but supinated/hand in fourth.

[5] French, 101 in the pdf; English, 29-31.

[6] French, 117; English, 38 .

[7] See P.J.F. Girard, Traité des Armes, La Haye: Chez Pierre de Hondt, 1740; the French text is, again, from the pdf made available by the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s Gallica site, page 35 in the text/page 62 of the pdf, cf. https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b8626151m?rk=21459;2

The English I borrowed from the translation of the smallsword portion of Girard, Philip T. Crawley, The Art of the Smallsword: Featuring P.J.F. Girard’s Treatise of Arms, Wyvern Media, UK, 2014, p.77.

[8] French, 134; English, 42-43.

Rosaroll-Scorza’s _Spadancia_ trans. by Christopher A. Holzman

Chris has a new translation out:

This is an interesting work to say the least. Fans of Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata/Jerusalem Delivered (1581) will drool (this guy really really really liked Tasso…), but so too will those interesting in some late period cut-and-thrust fencing from southern Italy. Few versions of this weapon remain–similar to a late cup-hilt or bilbao style rapier, this weapon shared much with the spada and smarra long in use in Naples and Sicily, but had a blade meant for cutting and sported other, notable features, such as the fact the quillons were sharpened.

Reach for the Sky—Hand Height in the Smallsword Lunge

The cliché of a picture being worth a thousand words may be correct, but that doesn’t mean the same image doesn’t require explanation. Rather than take a screen shot of the myriad instances one can capture on Youtube and elsewhere, which might upset people, I’ve opted to go with an iconic, period image, and perhaps one reason for the madness:

de La Boëssière, 1818

There are many examples of this hand-above-the-head extension:

Olivier, 1771
McArthur, 1780

These are period images, mostly of foil play—to which I’ll return—and thus are “historical” in the sense that we normally mean it in historical fencing/martial arts. This said, there is an important distinction to be made between what we see in images like these and those from earlier works, equally historical but different in purpose. [1]

Every instructor has to make choices about what they want to include; they should be able to explain why as well. For me, lunging with one’s hand held so high is less covered than lunging with the hilt terminating at chin height as in earlier works for smallsword. If the goal is not to be hit, to reduce the chances of doubling, then a more conservative approach on the extension of the arm, the very first action made in the series of movements that comprise the lunge, makes sense.

The treatise from which I work most is P.J. F. Girard’s Traité des armes (1740), though much of my curriculum brings in ideas from Domenico Angelo’s L’École des armes/The School of Fencing (1763/1787) and de Liancour Le maître d’armes (1686), among others. I make a constant effort to read and compare the works I rely upon with others, incorporating material from some, merely noting others, and in some cases rejecting some ideas for inclusion in lessons. There are also times when I shelf a treatise for a time—with Le Perche du Coudray (L’Exercise des armes, 1750), there are sufficient reasons I’ve found to work on things and come back to it.

For example, the first lunge he covers, from quarte, depicts the hand higher than the rest of his work suggests. Is this so or an accident of the artist’s hand? The accompanying text has details, but isn’t specific as to hand height on the extension, he merely writes

Aprés sétre mes en garde et en mesure il faut dabord que ce soit la main qui parte la premiere en soutenant bien la poignet et baissant la pointe de l’Epée jusqu’a l’Estomach de l’Ennnemy, que les ongles soient tournés en En haut le bras bien etendue et bien soutenu

After being in guard and in distance, the hand must move first, supporting the wrist well and lowering the point of the sword to the enemy’s stomach, so that the nails are turned upwards, the arm well-extended and well-supported… [2]

Here is the accompanying image:

Le Perche du Coudray, plate 6

In the illustration the lunging fencer’s hand is at his hairline, the lunge long, and nothing in the description offers an explanation as to why. Did Le Perche wish the fencer to lunge this way? Maybe. Parallels with other sources don’t offer much help. His lunge in tierce and seconde recall de la Touche’s (1670) super extended poses, the attacker’s head is much farther forward, and in some cases the attacker is not looking at target. [3]

Le Perche du Coudray, plate 7

The fencers in the plates all hold foils, but is that significant? In Plate 11, for example, the fencer attacking in quarte—his arm a bit lower than the hairline this time—uses the off-hand parry/check to prevent a double. This recalls similar images in Girard and suggests at least some attention to self-preservation. [4]

Le Perche du Coudray, plate 11

In sum, I’m not sure what to make of Le Perche yet and so, I’m noting what I see and will return to it later, hopefully armed with more information to help me read it more accurately. It’s possible that Le Perche is one of those texts that captures the subtle shift from practical swordplay to academic, salle play.

The hand in the air like one just doesn’t care… approach to the extension is popular in HEMA’s smallsword circles. While one can definitely point to sources for it, thus fulfilling the “H” of the acronym, the same cannot be said for the “MA” portion. To use a word I have come to detest, this raised hilt in the lunge is less “martial” than the custom preceding it.

Art vs. Practicality

It will come as no surprise that I do not teach this hand and hilt above the head approach to the extension. Graceful it may be, artful it may be, but from the standpoint of “don’t get hit” it’s less likely to protect one. Placed in this manner the weapon is more likely to fail to close the line as well as fall prey to an easy disarm.

Girard’s instruction illustrates well the more practical approach. In describing the guard, his very first point is revealing:

Il faut présenter la pointe de l’Epée droire, vis à vis la mamelle droite de l’ennemi, & que le demi tranchant regarde la terre.

The point of the sword must be presented straight, directed toward the right breast of the enemy, & so that the ridge of the blade is half turned to the ground [5]

Girard, two men on guard

This point forward, semi-extended position places the sharp tip as close to the opponent as possible while keeping the body as far back as possible. This compromise will be very familiar to students of Italian fencing—we see similar guard positions from Rosaroll & Grisetti to that of 20th century masters like Agesilao Greco. [6]

Taking Girard’s thrust in tierce as an example, the same conservatism is in evidence. To thrust in third, one

Coup de Tierce Haute tire Droit au dehors des Armes

Etant bien en Garde & en mesure, l’Epée engagée de tierce dehors les Armes, les ongles regardant la terre, je fais partir la main la premiere, les bras étendus en forme de croix, la main gauche également tournée de tierce, le genou gauche bien étendu, le pied à plat, & ferme & sur la terre, le genou droit plié; de forte qu’il soit vis à vis le milieu du pied droit & dans las ligne de l’ennemi, le corps soutenu, le côté droit panché au-dessus du genou droit, les deux épaules effacées, & la tête le long du bras à l’oposite de l’Epée, pour se garantir le visage. Le coup achevé dans cette Attitude se retirer en Garde, l’Epée devant soy, sans laisser baisser le poignet.

The Thrust of High Third pushed Directly Outside the Sword

Being in a good guard and in measure, the Sword engaged in Tierce outside the Sword, the nails facing the ground, I extend the hand first, arms extended in the shape of a cross, the left hand also turned in Tierce, the left knee well-extended, the foot flat and firm on the ground, the right knee bent; so that it is over the middle of the right foot & in line with the enemy, the body propped up, the right side over the right knee, shoulders profiled, & the head along the arm opposite to the Sword, to protect the face. The attack complete, in this this posture return to Guard, Sword out in front, without dropping the wrist. [7]

The image accompanying this section of text accords with it well, but the text itself is clear—hand first, so weapon first, opposition as one thrusts, and body positioned so that it is not only behind the guard, but so situated that the head is leaning away from that opposition, both for safety—as the master remarks—and so, I suspect, one can see the thrust and the opponent’s reaction better.

Girard, thrust in tierce

As a check on this, it’s worth taking a look at Girard’s first attack, the thrust in quarte. He writes

Le Coup de Quarte Haute tire’ Droit Au-dedans des Armes

Etant bien dans la Garde qu’il dit & en mesure, l’Epée engagée de quarte dans les Armes, je fais partir la main la premiere en levant le poignet, les oncles tournés dessus, regardant le Ciel, ainsi que le dedans de la main gauche; les bras étendus en croix, le corps panche du cote droit, & soutenu au-dessus du genou droit; les épaules effacées, la tête panché du côté de l’Epaule droite pour regarder le coup à l’oposite de l’Epée, de forte que le pommeau regarde l’oeil gauche, le bout du pied droit vis à vis l’ennemi, que le genou tombe perpendiculairement au dessus du milieu du pied avec le pied gauche à plat & ferme sur la terre, la jambe & la cuisse gauche élevées. Le coup achevé & tiré dans l’Attitude qu’il est dit, se retirer bien en Garde l’Epée devant soy, sans laisser baisser le poignet.

Being well in guard & in measure, the Sword engaged in quarte within the Swords, I start the hand first by raising the wrist, the nails turned up, looking at the Sky, the left hand following suit; the arms outstretched like a cross, the body leaning to the right side, & supported above the right knee; the shoulders profiled, the head titled on the side of the Right Shoulder, to see the blow against the Opposite Sword, so that the pommel is in line with the left eye, the tip of the right foot towards the enemy, the knee falls perpendicular over the middle of the foot with the left foot flat and firm upon the ground, the leg and left thigh straight. Having made the thrust in this position, as stated, return well in Guard with the Sword in front of you, without letting the wrist fall. [8]

Girard, thrust in quarte

It’s possible to regard the attacker in the image “pushing” fourth as having his hand at the hairline, but given the description that doesn’t follow. More likely, the artist, who knew their craft well, meant to show the head leaning right over the shoulder. The fact that the right hand is nearly as large as the head suggests that it’s meant to present closer to the onlooker, again helping create perspective. With the head so tilted, lining up the left eye with the pommel occurs at an angle and thus lower than the top of the head were the head upright. As a side note, while the opponent may have been hit in the chest, it’s possible he was hit in the arm—few smallsword or rapier texts for that matter spend much time on the forward target (a topic for another time), but it would be unwise to assume that any instructor would have looked down on such a strike.

Text, Awareness, & Choice

As with most things in HEMAland one can adopt whichever hand-height one wishes. However, I will maintain that knowing why we do what we do and where it comes from makes sense. It’s historical fencing, and part of any historical examination is understanding the context for things; it’s all the more important when the waters are muddy. The overlap between smallsword and foil play is significant, and thus, it’s a lot easier to treat them as one in the same. Did many smallsword fencers, who sought to learn to use a sword in earnest, learn via foils? Absolutely. But… they didn’t show up to Stephen’s Green or The Dueling Oak armed with one, and if they attempted to use moves better suited to impressing their fellow salle mates with their grace and poise than keeping them safe, they were likely to leave the Green or the Oak on their backs.

The hand held high versus at chin height reflects a change in culture. It coincides with the decline of dueling in some areas on the one hand, but with the increasing importance of fencing as elite accomplishment on the other. Both are historical, but reflect different contexts, different attitudes. The later our “smallsword” texts are in time, generally the more we see this reach for the sky business. De St. Martin, for example, whose L’art de faire des armes came out in 1804, has it, and while perhaps not in each plate, it’s there. In discussing the parry and riposte from third, de St. Martin specifies that “la main bien élevée au dessus de la tête,” that is, that one should have the “hand well raised above the head.” [9] We see the concern for grace, poise, and elegant execution of technique not only increase in the treatises, but in other areas as well. Many 18th century advertisements, even in the American colonies, often paired fencing and dancing as two pursuits for the genteel portions of society or those who wished to join their ranks. [10]

People pursue historical fencing for their own reasons and enjoy different aspects of it. That’s really pretty awesome. For those keen for smallsword or the study of early foil as a distinct track, some attention to these distinctions will only help one’s study. An awareness of the differences between foil as art form and foil as safer training weapon for smallsword is especially important for anyone purporting to study the MA aspects of HEMA. Few people will notice or care which one chooses, but it’s logical to know what we’re doing, where it comes from, and why it was done that way.

NOTES:

[1] Images are from:

Antonine Texier La Boëssière, Traité de l’art des armes, Paris: de l’Imprimerie de Didot, 1818, plate 1.

Mr. Olivier, Fencing Familiarized, or, A New Treatise on the Art of Sword Play, London: John Bell, 1771

John McArthur, The Army and Navy Gentleman’s Companion, or, A New and Complete Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Fencing, London: James Laver, 1780, plate 6.

[2] Le Perche du Coudray, L’Exercise des armes, Paris: 1750, from the pdf made available from the Biblioteca de la Univeridad Polltécnica Madrid, España, plate 6 and text, 29 and 31 in the pdf.

[3] Le Perche, L’Exercise des armes, plate 7, p. 33 of the pdf. Cf. plates 8 (37) and 9 (41).

[4] Le Perche, L’Exercise des armes, plate 11, p. 49.

[5] Girard, Traité des armes, La Haye: Chez Pierre de Hondt, 1740, 5-6. In note IV of the same section he specifies that the hand and hilt are turned to half-quarte (Avoir le bras droit, & le poignet flexible & tourné demi quarte…de forte que le demi tranchant de la main droite regarde le Ciel…) so I have translated note I’s last clause, que le demi trenchant regarde la terre, as “half turned” to reflect this, demi tranchant meaning “half edge.” [Pagination is that of the BnF pdf]

[6] See Giuseppe Rosaroll & Pietro Grisetti, The Science of Fencing, Milan, 1803, trans. by Christopher A. Holzman, 99-101; table 2, figure 2.

Of note, in the Italian edition, § 66. Descrizione della stessa [guardia], explains this about the weapon and arm:

Il braccio destro disteso verso il nemico rappresenta la linea di offesa colla spada, la punta della quale dee essere diretta all’occhio del nemico, parlando di spade nuda, ed al centro del petto nelle accademie; il gomito del detto braccio dee essere volto alla terra, e propriamente sulla direttrice. [p.45 in the pdf]

The arm, much like Girard advocates, is more or less straight out, only pointing at the eye for serious encounters (diretta all’occhio del nemico) versus the chest.

Agesilao Greco, on the right as one looks, some timebefore 1900–not the arm:

[7] Girard, Traité des armes, p. 16.

[8] Girard, Traité des armes, p. 14-15.

[9] M. J. de St. Martin, L’art de faire des armes, Vienne: de l’Imprimerie de Janne Schrämble, 1804, p. 30. NB: this is not an isolated mention. When de St. Martin first mentions the direct thrust (le coup droit), he mentions that the wrist should be “well elevated” (le poignet bien élevé), p. 29. It’s always dangerous to take illustrations at face value, but overall most of his depictions of the lunge show the hand higher than Girard and other, earlier masters advise.

[10] See for example, https://adverts250project.org/tag/fencing-master/page/2/

Paul Wagner reviews the HF Smallsword Trainer

The excellent Paul Wagner, Stoccata School of Defense (https://stoccata.org/), recently reviewed the Ukrainian-made HF smallsword trainer (see video below). As a knowledgeable and skilled fencer, and moreover as one who likes smallsword, Paul is a great resource–if you’re interested in this trainer, check out his review.

The weapon is 90 Euros or about $90 US (at the moment), sports a musketeer blade, and from what Paul says stout hilt furniture. The guard is round, which is fine and historical if not my preference, and the grip apparently 3-d printed and covered in rubber. It’s hard to find good smallsword trainers, and even harder to find them at so good a price. Given the plight that the Ukraine is in at the moment I can’t speak to how available they are, but this is one, small way to support them as they face their invaders.

LINK to HF Armory site:

Who’s on First? Francesco Marcelli’s Guard of _Prima_

Agrippa, “Prima,” 1553

A comparative look at Italian rapier texts will reveal how Francesco Marcelli’s prima differs from the guard of first advocated by most other masters. First is an iconic guard/parry, and dramatic in most depictions. We see it, amongst many works, in:

  • Camillo Agrippa, ca. 1553 (born Milan, active in Rome)
  • Fabris, 1606 (Padua, Denmark)
  • Giganti, 1606 (born Fossombrone, central Italy, active in Venice)
  • Capo Ferro, 1610 (born Cagli, central Italy; active in Seina, Tuscanny)
  • Alfieri 1640, (Padua, under Venetian power)
  • Pallavicini (1670, Sicily)
Alfieri, “Prima,” 1640 (figure 2)

I asked Christopher Holzman, who translated Marcelli into English, why Marcelli’s prima is effected so differently, and he suggested that the master’s choice of “prima” as the term for his preferred guard likely reflects its importance. That’s certainly plausible. It stands out against the choice of other Neapolitan masters, especially Pallavicini. This master, who was not one to miss a chance to take shot at his rivals, complains about modern masters breaking tradition. Though he appears to have respected the elder Marcelli, he didn’t think much of some of his later students. He seems especially to have had it in for Francisco Antonio Mattei (author of Della Scherma Napoletana, 1669). Mattei, like Giuseppe Villardita (1670), was a student of Mattei’s older brother, Giovanni, who was taught by the elder Marcelli, Giovanni Battista. [1] Set side by side, the works by both Mattei and Villardita pale in comparison to those by Pallavicini and Marcelli—they’re not particularly eloquent, well-organized, or as comprehensive. It’s possible that Francesco Marcelli’s guard of first he learned from his father, but at the time of this post I’ve not yet discovered whether that is so or not.

Parry of Prime

Setting aside the questions of origin and development, for the instructor teaching Neapolitan rapier there are some considerations to manage prior to the lesson. Prima, as Marcelli presents it, reads and functions much differently than the prima/prime of more recent schools. Anyone trained in foil in the late 20th century, for example, likely learned either the French or Italian parries for first. The French school’s parry, in the United States, is probably better known, but the Italian is as venerable. Neither of these assists one in understanding, using, or teaching Marcelli’s version. [2] If the instructor is familiar with smallsword treatises, then they may know the two key versions found within that corpus, the earlier false-edge parry of prime and the later, true-edge parry that gave birth to the guard of the same name of the modern French school. [3]

Compared to any of these iterations the low, almost-flat third or oddball second of Marcelli’s prima seems strange. Preconceptions about what first is must thus be abandoned and The Rules of Fencing’s advice taken instead. The hand and blade are held lower than third, and too low for more recent versions of second. Marcelli provides us an illustration, but as always one must consider any image against what the author says. Of prima Marcelli writes:

Marcelli, _Rule of Fencing_, Bk 2, Ch. 2, p. 64

La Prima Guardia, la dimostra il Cavalier I. nella presente figura; & ella si fà, quando (situato sù la pianta accennata,) si porta avanti il braccio della Spada, tenendo la mano di mezza quarta; e la punta di essa, fermata in angolo retto, starà equalmente alta del pugno, che la sostiene; e tenendola così bassa, si porta sempre per sotto la lama del nemico.

In the present illustration, Cavaliere 1 shows the First Guard; it is made when (situated in the indicated stance) the sword arm is brought forward, keeping the hand in half-fourth, and the point is in the right angle, equally as high as the hand that holds it. Keeping it so low, it is always carried below the opponent’s blade. [4]

Charles Blair remarked that “Marcelli [Giovanni Battista] was known for a lightning-fast lunge: before one realized what was happening, one was hit; therefore, one could not craft a defence.” [5] Hyperbole aside, though seemingly open this guard is effective and difficult to confront, and it’s possible to launch a quick attack from it. This should not, to any student of modern epee, be all that surprising. This is essentially the guard often used in that weapon.

While knowledge of modern epee might help, rapier is different enough in weight, length, and context to change a few things. This is not to say that one can’t use modern epee technique in rapier—the SCA’s “Black Tigers” do a bang-up job of using modern fencing in this way, complete with an assumed ROW if the lack of concern about being hit is any guide. However, if one is working from the textual evidence in rapier works, it makes sense to note the parallels with today’s epee and then set them aside.

Warm-Up Drills from Prima
I often start rapier lessons with stop-thrust/arrest drills. It’s a nice way to loosen up the arm, work some point-control, and practice closing the line simultaneously. Typically, I have the student in prima (or whichever guard we’re working on) and make the arrest to my arm as I make purposefully poor attacks. [6] I start these from various guards and attack in different lines. We start slow, but the purpose is to increase the pace so that we end up in situations the student might face in a bout at speed. They will encounter fencers who attack poorly as well as those who attack properly, and must be prepared for both.

A second warm-up drill is simple parry-riposte. In this case, however, I leave out the purposeful mistakes and increase the difficulty as we proceed. For example, student is in prima; I’m in terza or third. First, I may make a direct thrust to the inside line; the student, from prima, parries in quarta or fourth and ripostes with opposition. Depending on the student, this takes two forms; with my advanced students, for example, they work this as both a one-tempo action and as a two-tempi action, meaning that in the first instance the parry and riposte are simultaneous, in the second the parry and riposte are distinct, sequential actions.

Lessons with Prima

Marcelli, like many masters of his time, breaks some maneuvers into those made with a firm-foot and those made advancing. I use this distinction as well to organize the lesson. For example, firm-footed, I may have the student work on gaining the blade from a specific starting position. Marcelli, in Ch. VII of Part One, Book II, cautions us wisely on the dangers of seeking to gain the blade—if done poorly the opponent will see it and disengage to strike in tempo. Working this action from different distances helps a student learn to make taking the blade effectively and with less danger to themselves as they do so—were we only to practice this in measure the student would have less success outside that specific distance (which is, after all, somewhat relative to the opponent).

From prima, which is below the opponent’s blade, engagements or gaining the blade take, initially at least, specific forms. It is a fantastic guard to adopt against an opponent interested in gaining the blade too—the arm is withdrawn so the point is less easy to defy and secure. Offensively, however, it is fantastic. I usually have the student keep the blade still part of the time, then shift it from guard, constantly shifting aim both to increase the difficulty it taking their blade and to keep the opponent (in this case me) guessing. It is not difficult to effect engagements, beats, or feints from prima. As Marcelli commented, one is well situated:

La Prima Guardia è più secura dell’altre due; e si rende padrona della propria spada più di quello, che sà la Seconda, e la Terza. Poiche in essa, tenendosi il braccio dritto dolce, e curuato, si mantinene anco ritirata la punta, che non stia molto soggetta alla discrettione del nemico. E da questa situatione ancora nascono molto veloci le stoccate, per lo spirito, che naturalemente si prende da quella incuruatura del braccio, il quale, à guise d’un arco, scocca con violenza nel partire.

The First Guard is more secure than the other two, and makes him master of the his sword more than that which the Second and Third do. Since in it, keeping the right arm soft and bent, it also keeps the point withdrawn so that it would not be very subjected to the opponent’s discretion. The thrusts also occur very quickly from this situation, due to the spirit that is naturally taken from the curvature of the arm, which like a bow, lets fly with violence in the beginning. [7]

Prima is also useful for helping students ensure that they are moving everything in the proper sequence. For example, if making the finta scorsa, the advancing feint, the student must be careful to minimize the danger to themselves. Marcelli, unlike some of his contemporaries, remarks that one should feint a thrust to thrust, a cut to cut, versus a cut to thrust or thrust to cut. The actions are larger and more prone to counters.

In essence, the student is making an advance-lunge and performing a half-thrust on the advance in coordination with the front foot. The disengage (cavazione) is made as the rear foot moves, and the action finishes with the completion of the extension as one lunges. Importantly, the student must then break measure, moving the head and body first and staying secure behind the weapon, which retracts last. To increase the difficulty, I will sometimes defend, sometimes not, so the student must stay on their game and be vigilant. Normally we change roles as well so that the student can practice the counter to the finta scorsa.

Sample Lesson Plan:

Warm up:
S, from prima: arrests to arm as I. (Instructor) attacks from various lines/guards
Parry riposte: simultaneous, two tempi

Lesson:
●Direct thrust from prima
●Direct thrust from prima parried by I., counter parry-riposte from S.

●Firm-footed, feint direct to inside line; I. parries 4th, S disengages
●Firm-footed, feint direct to inside line; I. parries 4th, S disengages, I. parries and ripostes, S. counter-parries and ripostes

Finta Scorsa, feint direct to inside line; I. parries 4th, S disengages
Finta Scorsa, feint direct to inside line; I. parries 4th, S disengages, I. parries and ripostes, S. counter-parries and ripostes

*I. alters guard, S. feints to a different line
**switch roles

Cool Down:
●Three point bout (I. sets up situations for S. to work, in real-time, the material of the day)
●Arrest drill or Parry-riposte to close

Prima, Seconda, Terza, Quarta

While keen to share some thoughts on Marcelli’s prima, the process described will work for any of his guards, and indeed, those he advocates when rapier is paired with dagger. The more a student works the actions found within the text, and faces them from various positions, the more robust their game will prove. We are fortunate that the Rules of Fencing is as well-written and clear as it is—I have found it to be a thorough and exciting font of knowledge, as full of technical brilliance as tactical sense. Moreover, spending so much time on this text has made the others in the Neapolitan orbit clearer. Next to Marcelli I like Pallavicini’s work best, but I have found it more opaque in sections; similarities with Marcelli do not necessarily explain those sections in Pallavicini, but they can provide a more solid starting place to attempt to unravel them.

NOTES:

[1] See Charles Blair, “The Neapolitan School of Fencing: Its Origins and Early Characteristics,” in Acta Periodica Duellatorum 2: 1 (2015): 9-26 [published online 2015 and available at ADP, https://bop.unibe.ch/apd/issue/view/1082]; see especially pages 9-10. See also the brief history by Chris Holzman in his translation of Marcelli’s Rules of Fencing, xi-xiv (similar coverage can be found in his translations of both Pallavicini and Terracusa e Ventura). Blair’s article provides a solid overview, but for guards he focuses on rapier and dagger versus those used for sword alone.

[2] The images explain it better than I probably can, but French prime sweeps from outside to inside, hand about temple height; Italian prima in Del Frate is much the same, but we see a different parry in some works, mezzocerchio, which is sort of quarta with the blade tip dropped, somewhat akin to French septime.

Parise, mezzocerchio, 1904

[3] As smallsword transformed into foil play, a game all its own, the necessity for the false edge parry of first, which helped keep one farther away from the incoming steel and which set up the offhand parry well, gave way to the faster prime with the true edge. The latter is an all or nothing parry, one that should it fail to sweep the line leaves one horribly open.

[4] Cf. Marcelli, Regole della Scherma, 64; Holzman, Rules of Fencing, 88. In his note for that passage Chris explains that in “half-fourth, or 3rd in 4th position, the true edge is turned diagonally downward to the inside. What Marcelli calls First Guard, we would probably call a guard of 4th today.” I would add that later smallsword texts that have one hold the blade in fourth, but framed on the right, somewhat like modern French sixte, get close to this, the key difference being the height of the hand and direction of the point.

[5] Blair, ““The Neapolitan School of Fencing: Its Origins and Early Characteristics,” 9.

Poor Rob Childs will, I’m sure, be sad to discover that he didn’t invent the invincible thrust (exploitation of his “critical angle,” i.e. selecting an open spot and hitting it from the right distance and at the right time…). But, hey, he still has his jump-lunge (oops, no…, that’s a balestra), and his “vertical” and “horizontal” (dang, no, those words first appear in English in the 16th century). Well… he still has is hand-puppet distractor… no, dang again, Joseph Fiennes did that best in “Shakespeare in Love” (Miramax 1998)…

Joseph Fiennes, “Shakespeare in Love,” 1998–fight scene with Wessex. Notice the fool’s marotte in the off-hand.

Good-natured teasing aside, for those interested in HEMA’s competitive side time spent with Rob’s videos will help—though he might footnote some of what he shares, the fact is that he provides the “historical” fencer with solid modern technique and ways to exploit the rule-set.

[6] Purposeful mistakes are not something I have students make with one another. That burden is on me. I don’t advocate having students working on anything that requires one of them to fence poorly on purpose. As the instructor, and as someone whose competitive days are behind him, I have less to worry about. Those actively competing or fighting should learn how to exploit mistakes, but not make them.

[7] Marcelli, Regole della Scherma, 66; Holzman, Rules of Fencing, 89.

Defining (Redefining?) a Successful Club

I’ve hesitated about posting this entry, but since it relates to a common problem many historical fencing instructors face, and since increasingly my chief role seems to be advising others like myself, I decided to chuck caution to Zephiros. I’ll not lie though: moving forward with this piece feels a lot like leaving a perfectly good guard position, dropping my weapon, and pointing to my chest so an opponent has only to extend to hit me.

Any group of people, however small, introduces complexity that should have one considering “success” on multiple levels, but here I mean in the usual sense behind this word in the United States. Success in this sense connotes “viable,” thriving, active; potential growing and improving. By implication stasis may be viewed as “less” successful, though most people would likely agree that stable trumps shrinking numbers. When most folks Stateside speak of a “successful club” they mean a certain thing—generally, they mean a club is large-ish, active, and popular. Logically, this is both valid and true given the premises most American historical fencers, if not others, assume in assessing these things, but the logic left out is as important. A club, group, or school can be successful if it doesn’t meet these qualifications. Popular doesn’t mean success on all fronts, and too often, not where it’s most important. Combating the normal attitude, however, is fighting uphill against greater numbers.

The problem is that being the common conception of success, if one’s school is smaller, less well-known, or uninterested in the usual pursuits, one still has to contend with the definition at large, with how others value and define everything. Well-meaning people will still seek out Club X because it’s popular. New to historical fencing, people do not necessarily have the tools to evaluate quality—big has to mean better, right? Maybe. Maybe not.

To demonstrate how extensive a problem this is, I have received advice—unsolicited—from both those who run other clubs and people completely unacquainted with fencing groups. Both have sometimes given me the advice that I might consider “redefining success.” I’ve balked every time for two reasons. First, I don’t share their definition of success, so there is no reason to redefine it. Second, even assuming I buy into the same definition, how, I ask myself, is this not a cop-out? How is it not really “relabeling failure?”

Debate over the relative merits of either position could occupy more time and space than necessary, but in brief here is a quick distillation. On the one hand, success should, in some if not most respects, relate to and reflect a collective definition of what constitutes achievement (key here is what we mean by “collective”). Without some degree of consensus, what denotes success becomes purely relative and ceases to mean much beyond the individual and their definition. On the other hand, widely held definitions of success can easily be outdated, myopic, or biased, and so, awareness at the very least of these potential pitfalls in assessing one’s own success seems prudent. The answer is to determine what success means to us and those in our circle and frame questions about it in light of that definition, not that of someone else. Sounds obvious, but it’s not.

It’s possible if not all too common to misapply a definition of success, even in a related field. For example, if the only rubric of success in historical fencing is increased understanding of the source material, but one’s interest is winning tournaments, then applying the former to the latter doesn’t make sense. There may be overlap, true, but neither tournament wins nor the ability to explicate a source require the other to be successful. It’s entirely possible to win a bout never having read a single word from a treatise. This said, any understanding of a treatise requires solid familiarity with the weapon and experience using it; theoretically, the more experience, the better the understanding, but then defining “experience” is just as prone to abuse. [1] It’s possible to gain understanding of a fencing text, in some degree, never having picked up a weapon, but far less possible to understand it well without some training. By this I mean not only a grasp of technique, but of theory, historical context, and the place of the text in situ. [2]

Apples and Oranges

How we define success, what it means to us, should determine much of what we do. Any such examination should consider one’s goals first. What is it that one wishes to accomplish in the study of historical fencing? There is no “right” or single answer. People jump into medieval, renaissance, and early modern martial arts for a variety of reasons. While I maintain there are better and worse ways to pursue most any avenue, the fact is that the choice of avenue is entirely up to the individual. [3]

There are many different “HEMA”s and thus there’s something for everyone. This said, how one defines progress and success should follow from one’s chosen path within those HEMAs, not necessarily the popular notion or that touted by folks with a different focus. Instructors most of all need to give thought to their purpose—it just makes sense: teachers need and want students, and students are easier to attract if one is explicit about what it is one teaches. Clubs doesn’t exist without students. An instructor on their own is just a practitioner—for those of us working with fewer people there will be, alas, times when we aren’t technically instructors.

The hard part for instructors who have students stick with their program beyond a Groupon is that invariably the question of how well one is doing will rear its ugly mug. This is where caution is important, and, where many of us go wrong. We look across the street, see Club X doing “well” (again by the standard definition), and think we’re failing. Unless we’re trying to do exactly what Club X does, that’s probably not true. We have to consider our goals, how those in our track specifically envision “success,” and evaluate our progress against that. Club heads, like any other individual fencer, can mix things up. The backyard brawler whose “cool tricks” beat fellow members of their fight-club should not assume that this means he is Leichtenauer reborn. The armchair historian who has never fenced but knows Capo Ferro in and out is not likely to find great success at the International Rapier Seminar. The SPES-clad tourney jock with a gold medal should assume neither that they’re Leichtenaur reborn nor that that their success at the IRS means they exemplify what Capo Ferro intended. If the instructor is making the same mistakes, not only will they be miserable, forever questioning their success, but also they’re likely to lose people. People do all this stuff for fun, and one-act plays featuring a teacher with ennui are not fun.

Instatwitterfacechat and False Reality

When we step back and think about this, we see how obvious this is, but that’s part of the problem: it’s hard to step back when so many arenas suggest everything is the same. Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, all of them, present a funneled version of reality, one no more as safe for historical fencing as it is for understanding politics. As presented, HEMA is mostly longsword, with some nods to rapier and the watered down world of infantry sabre. Tourney news makes headlines in a way that an article on Perinat will not. Name recognition is created more by flooding social media and “likes” than anything else. Authority, such as it is, follows suit, and yet most people wouldn’t use the same logic to find a surgeon or plumber. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is probably a better source of authority than these HEMA equivalents of swiping right on some dating app.

If one isn’t careful, one will assume that whatever they’re doing must conform to this pastiche of HEMAs, because everywhere one looks seemingly presents the same truth. Youtube, facebook, Instagram, none of these present reality, just specially tailored packages meant to convey what the creator desires and wants others to believe. These things are fine so long as one sees them for what they are, but no instructor, no fencer, should use them as a basis for comparison without first recognizing what they are and assessing whether or not it makes sense to use the media this way. [4]

Each of us, in conjunction with those on the same track, should decide what our goals are going to be, not the herd or those following paths going in different directions. If we’re lucky enough to find like-minded folk, people with similar goals, then they’re probably a lot safer to listen to than those who don’t share either our values or our reason for pursuing the Art. These are the people, not HEMA at large, who might help one define goals more appropriately.

NOTES:

[1] Experience means a lot of different things. Time in the saddle means nothing if that time wasn’t spent well. Over several decades I’ve watched many passionate fencers and fighters waste their time in programs which won’t help them improve. Saddest of all is watching a person like that try better schools, but leave because it’s either harder or because they feel less bad-ass. Serious students have to have the courage to be a beginner even when they’ve studied a long time. This doesn’t apply to the part-time folks just there to acquire enough skill and play for fun, but to those people who wish to grow in the Art.

[2] We have to consider, among other things, how was such a text used at the time. We need to ask… How were works on fencing understood? Why were they written and for what audience?

We often talk about the corpus of works as if it were homogenous, but it is anything but that save in broad outline—we have notes, lesson plans, fragments of larger works, government publications, poems, illustrations, treatises written for other teachers, popular works, and works meant to showcase a particular master’s approach for their patron.

[3] If the H and/or MA of “HEMA” are missing I’m not sure what separates what one is doing from Olympic save choice of weapon and a less viable, motley collection of pedagogical approaches.

[4] For example, I might suggest to a new rapier or smallsword fencer to look up Levi Fontaine or David Pascal’s bouts on Youtube, but this is so that they see what is possible, not because I’m expecting them to show up next week and move and fight as well as they do. New students shouldn’t compare themselves to people with so much more training, but, seeing beautiful fencing can inspire us. It also beats having them bump into the garbage out there that will only hurt their progress.

E.g.

Pants before Shoes: Skill Progression in Fencing

from the genius of Gary Larson and his “Far Side”

In fencing some skills are difficult by nature, some because we make them so. For the former, one must put in the time, sweat, and sometime frustration—there is no other way. For the latter, however, there is much we can do to limit the ways in which we make skill acquisition harder. As much as this applies to any student, it applies all the more to the instructor, for they plan the lessons and set the pace. It’s their responsibility to present material in a logical, progressive way so that shoes are not donned before pants, so that equines are not placed before carts. We do this in most things, and fencing is no different.

Culture & Approaches to Learning

So much of what we study is exciting and people can’t wait to dive in—deep—but the fact is that fencing, any fencing, requires considerable coordination, skill, and experience to do well. For the clubs (especially here in the U.S.), which are various takes on Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, often newcomers are handed a weapon day-one and ten minutes later are bouting. It should be obvious why that’s a bad idea, but given how widespread the practice is, it’s not.

Often those running such clubs probably don’t realize how short-sighted this is; it might be the way they themselves got involved, so it seems normal. In addition, most clubs struggle to stay afloat, and the tired adage of “give the customer what they want so that they come back” may underpin this get-them-playing-right-away practice. It’s a tough spot for any club—we want people to stay, but the fact of the matter is that most people are there to play. It’s recreation. By and large “HEMA” consists of people in their late teens to those in their thirties, so college students, adults with jobs, people with time and just enough money to pursue this expensive hobby. It makes sense that many if not most folks don’t want to spend the little free time they have doing thirty minutes of footwork drills, working on point control, or exploring this play or that from technical aspects.

A caveat: I am not dogging play-time; however, I think it’s important to ask the question, to be mindful of what it is we offer, and why. If a club wishes to be the “HEMA” equivalent of fight-club meets theme-park, fine, but admit it; have the integrity to own that what you’re doing is less “martial” than it is playtime with a few historical “tricks” thrown in. There is room for this, and in my experience, that in fact is what most people actually want. This is to say that the numbers are telling. Those groups who focus more on technique, on building depth within the Art, not only tend to be far smaller than others, but also get people bouting at full tilt slowly. Between the length of time to learn enough skill to bout effectively and the fact that there is a lot of work up-front, few people stick. To reiterate: this is perfectly understandable. That doesn’t make it any less unfortunate.

The Difference between “Do this” and “Here is how to do this”

For those interested in comprehensive technical skill acquisition the old way is still the best way. Ideally students do this one-on-one with an instructor, but it also works in a group setting if slightly less well. In short, this approach takes “do this” and expands it to “this is how you do this.” For example, one could demonstrate how one stands in posta di donna in Armizare, ask the student to copy it, and when it looks right enough, say well done and continue. Alternatively, one could start there and then make the micro-adjustments that will save the student problems later. The instructor could speak to how far apart the feet out to be, what direction they’re pointing, and where one’s weight should be—between the feet? Front-weighted? Back-weighted? There is also more than one way to adopt posta di donna—one can adopt this stance with the sword over the right shoulder, over the left; one can stand in posta di donna pulsativa, which is more back-weighted, and, in the same way but with the sword on the left (posta di donna la senestra pulsativa). [1] The student might be wielding a longsword, a longsword as pole-arm, a spear, or a pole-axe, and while the stance is more or less the same the length and heft of the weapon change critical aspects, such as measure and tempo. Each one of these positions is useful for some instances, less so for others, and so it’s not enough to say “stand like this;” we also have to explain when and why to stand this specific way. If the student is shown one version of this posta they’re getting short shrift, and, it’s not going to work well for them.

An Argument for Slow & Steady

What’s the risk in not learning how to fence via a method which introduces complexity one step at a time? There are a few things. First, if their level of understanding is shallow, the student’s ability to add to their repertoire is affected. Lacking basic comprehension makes learning permutations for that skill or related ones harder. This is all the more true with fundamental actions. For example, if the student learns to lunge without ensuring that the front foot is pointed at their opponent/along the line of direction, there are cascading consequences. They increase the risk of injury to knee or ankle. They inhibit their ability to advance quickly or perform maneuvers which employ the same foot orientation, such as the advance lunge, jump lunge, or redoublement. In the worst cases the misdirected foot misdirects the body and thus the weapon.

Second, hard is it may be, the acquisition of skill in a logical, progressive sense builds confidence. Having mastered how to lunge, for example, the student is more inclined to use it, and often, more amendable to learning other methods of moving that employ it. Confidence—sensible confidence—is everything in fighting. Without it one is immobile, potentially at the mercy of a more confident opponent. Proper education instills proper confidence, because it is built on more than luck or the myopic reality of having something work in specific situations like tournaments where most people are at the same skill level. If one has learned to lunge well, and with it, when to lunge and from what distance, there is science in play—it’s adaptable, not tied to the conditions of any one situation. This is important, and, not only for the more source-driven, history-minded folks, but tournament folks too—fight long enough, in tournaments of different types, and one learns quickly whether their toolbox is as replete with tools as one thinks.

This brings us to a third reason the slow and steady approach to learning is important: resilience. When the tournament fighter reaches the day where their bag o’ tricks lets them down, the countdown to their quitting starts. They have nothing to fall back on; the more passionate among them seek out new tricks, but since these “tricks” are misapplied or misunderstood fundamental actions or composites of such actions, they are ultimately a dead end. This fighter doesn’t know how to recombine them. This is one reason, judging by local numbers, people jump into “HEMA” for two to three years, then leave. For the fighter, however, who possesses skill and understanding in the fundamentals, there is a built-in approach to analyze and problem-solve what went wrong in that bout or this tournament. So armed the student is less likely to hang up their mask and feder, but examine what went wrong and why, because they have the tools and technical vocabulary to do so.

Related to resilience, but perhaps more germane to the let us say the “mature” fencer…, a solid grounding in technique, not just in its use but in understanding, will allow them to keep fencing when they can no longer, or should no longer…, engage in some branches or fight with certain weapons. Call it adaptability. I work or have worked with fencers older even than I am, and the ones who are still fencing have been able to continue because their understanding isn’t shallow. Even moving say from KdF to smallsword wasn’t the speedbump some might think because they were well-trained in KdF. Their instructor at that club—one I knew and have a lot of respect for—taught them correctly. I didn’t have to teach them how to move, just adapt what they had been doing; I didn’t have to teach them to attack with the weapon first, because they already understood that; I didn’t have to introduce them to tempo because they’d learned this as well. All I have done is help them adapt the lessons they learned studying Liechtenauer, Dobringer, and the rest to new tools. With other fencers, in contrast, who have not received decent instruction, who, poor souls, were just thrown in the pool and told to swim, two things generally happen: they struggle in the first lesson where we go over basics, then in frustration they leave and I don’t see them again.

Further Examples

Specific examples help, so here I’d like to explore two. The first is from rapier, the second smallsword. I’ve not chosen these at random either—I see these very problems all the time. Seeing what sorts of issues these examples cause fencers has served to bolster my position on taking the time to learn to do things properly. The first example, from rapier, concerns adding too much too soon. The second, from smallsword, focuses on a complicated action as if it were simple.

Rapier and Dagger

One of the most popular combinations in historical fencing is rapier and dagger. Not going to lie, I love it too, and in fact it’s now difficult for me using any thrust-oriented weapon held in one hand not to want a dagger in the other. That defense-in-depth is a game-changer. Happily, we have a large number of rapier treatises that cover using an off-hand dagger, among other options, which means that we have comparatively less guess work than we do in so many areas.

If one examines a random selection of rapier works, it is worth noting when the source covers dagger, that is, where it is within the book. For example, I pulled these four from my shelves:

  • Camillo Agrippa, Trattato di Scientia d’Arme, 1553
  • Vincentio Saviolo, His Practice, 1595
  • Francesco Alfieri, La Scherma, 1640
  • Francesco Marcelli, Regole di Scherma, 1686

Agrippa is one of the oldest rapier texts, Marcelli arguably one of the latest, and so though brief this gives us some notion of changes over time. I also considered different translators as a sort of double-blind or check that I wasn’t favoring one (I have my favorites like anyone else).

from Agrippa’s _Trattato di Scientia d’Arme_

Agrippa’s Treatise on the Science of Arms features the pairing of sword and dagger from the off, and, in most sections. It is safe to assume, then, that working these in combination as one starts study of Agrippa makes some sense. In contrast, Saviolo covers sword alone first, then sword and dagger, then returns to sword alone. Likewise, Alfieri turns to sword and dagger later, in the twentieth chapter, in On Fencing. Marcelli’s Rules of Fencing covers the span of a bible before getting to sword and dagger—he begins coverage of it in part two, book one, chapter 1. [2]

Going by these four, and granted this is a tiny sample, starting with sword alone makes sense. There is another reason to study sword alone first—it’s hard enough studying one weapon without adding an additional set of positions and actions, never mind coordinating them both. Proper control of a single weapon is difficult, especially at first, so unless there is good reason to do so, why double that difficulty? [3] Put blunty, if the student can’t make a decent direct thrust or perform the most basic parries yet, then the addition of a second weapon isn’t going to help them: they’ll just have two tools with which they must struggle. Moreover, pairing sword and dagger changes one’s position—from a slightly profiled guard positon one adopts one that is more square, because the offhand weapon now provides some measure of security. To remain profiled limits if it doesn’t prevent one from using that offhand weapon. Thus, if a student’s footwork for sword alone isn’t decent, the addition of variations will only complicate things.

Smallsword

Turning to smallsword, a number of works discuss the demi-thrust, sometimes in English called a “half-thrust.” The term is deceptive—taken literally it might be mistaken for a thrust made half-way or perhaps some manner of in-fighting action, but it’s actually a species of false attack made by the defender. Girard’s Traité des armes (1740) illustrates this action well.

Demi-Botte de Quarte

Au dedans des armes pour tirer tierce, ou quarte dessus les armes

Ayant paré un coup de quarte au dedans des Armes, au lieu de riposte droit de quarte sans dégager, je fais level la main & la pointe plus basse, en frapant du pied droit, comme pour achiever le coup au dedans; & lorsque l’ennemi vient à la parade pour fraper l’Epée, dans le même-temps je fais dégager subtilement & tirer ferme au dehors, soit de tierce ou de quarte dessus les Armes, la main la premiere dans le principe, puis redouble de second sous la ligne du bras, ensuite faire retraite l’Epee devant soy. [4]

The defender, having parried in quarte, feigns a riposte in the same line (fourth), but as the opponent moves to parry in quarte, the defender makes an appel and disengages and thrusts in tierce with opposition. Seems simple, right? It is, if one has already a good command of the key actions that make up the demi-botte.

Girard covers this later in the text, well after discussion of the thrusts in tierce and quarte, the parries of the same number, how to move, and importantly, after explanations of feints, beats, and compound attacks in various tempi. Organized as it is, The Treatise on Arms proceeds from less to greater difficulty, so, if the demi-thrust is covered after these other complex actions, there is likely a good reason. There is complexity there.

An indication beyond placement within the treatise, Girard does not explain how to perform the specific actions that make up the demi-thrust; he just describes the action. He assumes that the reader, hopefully possessing at least a modicum of instruction, will supply the required skills and ideas. As it’s laid out, the demi-thrust reads like yet another technique employing a disengage, but it’s more than that. It recalls the section on feints, though it isn’t one, but it also assumes excellent timing and a keen sense of measure. [5] All of these must work in concert to make this defensive option viable.

Girard 1740, _Traité des armes_, plate 39

An instructor must know what each action within the text entails, and, plan what to cover (and in what depth) according to a student’s level. Following this example, if one wishes to cover the demi-botte, then the student needs at least to have a solid grasp on movement, the key lines of tierce and quarte, and the ability to use these techniques in more than one tempo.

Thanks Capt. Obvious

Often, most often really, I feel like my posts state the obvious, things people already know. I have my biases too, my blind spots, and that cuts both ways—I may assume people know something, or, I may assume they don’t. Apart from the handful of people who read this that I know, and who chat with me about things, I have no idea to what extent any of this is helpful, but the goal with these posts is to provide anyone who might need it some help. It’s offered in my role as a fellow-traveler, someone who’s been studying all of this for decades, and without any expectation or need for thanks, recognition, or anything else. Importantly, I’ll be the first to say I don’t know everything, and the longer I spend on the Art the more I realize how much greater what I will never know truly is (too large to measure).

Teaching is difficult, despite the sad maxim popular among my own people, and I’ve been fortunate to receive a LOT of training as a teacher, not only in fencing, but in higher education. [6] Lately, as I’ve been nursing injuries, teaching more than I’m bouting, I’ve been thinking it might be useful to share some of these things. Hopefully, it’s helpful, but if not, and you’ve read this far, thanks for reading it anyway.

NOTES:

[1] Online, cf. http://www.nwarmizare.com/Pocket-Fiore/assets/www/index.html

[2] See Camillo Agrippa, Trattato di Scientia d’Arme, see Ken Mondschein, ed., Fencing: A Renaissance Treatise (New York, NY: Italica Press, 2009); Vincentio Saviolo, His Practice, see James L. Jackson, Three Elizabethan Fencing Manuals (Delmar, NY: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1972), 197-247, 247-298, 298-310; Francesco Alfieri, La Scherma, translated by Tom Leoni (Lulu Press, 2018); for Marcelli, see Francesco Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, translated by Christopher A. Holzman (Witchita, KS: Lulu Press, 2019), cf. p. 267.

[3] There are exceptions. Agrippa assumes a dagger in much the same way that Georgian Laskhroba assumes a buckler (pari) when using a sword (khmali). In the latter tradition, sword and buckler work together, and at least as I have learned it while one can separate the hands, and in some cases absolutely should, but that is a lot easier to do if one has learned how to keep the together first.

[4] P.J.F. Girard, Traité des armes, La Haye, Chez Pierre de Hondt, 1740; the BnF pdf features this action on page 109. Finishing the action in tierce is one option; one can also complete this with quarte over the arm, that is in the line of tierce but hand supinated/in fourth position. Moreover, one can redouble and strike in seconde as well, before retreating behind the point.

[5] Arguably one could call this a compound parry-riposte, a return that employs a feint to draw a counter-parry and then which changes lines. Regardless, like the demi-botte in Girard, the compound parry-riposte is normally taught after a student has good command of the basics of single tempo parry-riposte.

[6] The quip in question is “those who can’t, teach,” easily one of the stupidest phrases yet uttered, and a deep window into the anti-intellectual culture gaining prominence in the United States. If this seems like the bitter thing a former academic might say, well, consider how our movies and television programs, many popular world-wide, portray professors, scientists, and scholars—almost universally they’re villains or clowns. Mine is the only nation I’ve visited, so far, where more than one person has referred to a PhD as “post-hole digger,” a remark that shows at once the disdain for higher education, the glorification of manual labor (which is perfectly fine and necessary), and the fact that with a glut of PhDs and MAs running around many are in service jobs.

Russ Mitchel on Timmlich

As someone who regularly points out how daft it is to use a trooper-weight sabre for foot combat (tough to make any complicated action well), I feel it only right to share this lovely video from Russ. Timmlich’s excellent treatise provides the historical fencer into BIG sabres a way to use them, on foot, effectively. Check it out!