The Hewing Blow in Historical Fencing

Talhoffer Fechtbuch (MS Thott.290.2º) 1459 CE, 123 recto

The historical fencing community is increasingly fascinated with and implementing cutting exercises. This is a good thing. Cutting is a common adjunct to the study of the sword, but increasingly it’s used by some as a method of measuring readiness for fighting with steel in tournaments. There are problems with this, and in fact there are problems generally with the understanding, approach, and use of cutting, but these less often come up in discussion. First, the assumption behind test-cutting as proof of one’s ability to wield steel safely and with sufficient control in tourneys is flawed.[i] Second, the notion that a hewing blow was or is the ideal attack doesn’t hold up well in light of the sources or historical accounts. Hewing blows are there, yes, but among other options and hardly chief among them. Lastly, a lot of fencers are only concerned with cutting through the mat, not in doing so according to recorded, historical mechanics; many claiming to study “western” fencing are in fact using Japanese mechanics in making their cuts. If cutting is intended to be a part of historical fencing practice, then it should be in line with the techniques and mechanics of whatever specific branch of fencing one is doing, be it KdF or 19th cen. sabre.

Begging the Question

Cutting as a test for tourney-readiness with steel is akin to judging a car mechanic’s ability to change a transmission by how well they use a screwdriver. They’re both important skills, both relate to making the car work, but there’s a lot more that goes into replacing the transmission. It’s the same with tournaments. The ability to cut a tatami or similar target well might demonstrate a fencer’s edge-alignment, but it’s a poor measure for many other critical aspects that make up a good, safe tourney fighter.

Control, for one, is different against a moving target than a static one—tatami not only doesn’t hit back, it doesn’t move. An opponent does. The nerves and excitement that are often present in fighters are generally different than they are when cutting a target. Tournaments also require one to operate within a defined space and according to a host of rules, there’s noise, there are time constraints, and there is stress and exhaustion, never mind two people trying to hit one another.

Lastly, one is not making the same sort of cut against an opponent that one does against a cutting-target: no one in the ring is trying to cut through anyone (hopefully), and so power-generation is by definition restricted. Newer fencers might hit hard, macho a-holes do too, but where the former is excusable because they’re still developing control, the latter has no excuse. For all the blather about “martial” blows few people who recite that mantra have really considered what it means, or, how and whether it should apply in a tournament setting.

Extant Sources and the Hewing Blow

Surviving sources rarely encourage the fencer to deliver hewing blows with each strike. If one thinks about it, it would be silly to do so, because it requires more energy to do and thus is more taxing; it means the possibility of over-extension and thus exposure to counters; and lastly it isn’t necessary—the human body is pretty easily cut by less of a blow than one uses trying to fell a tree or that a headsman uses at the block.

For brevity, here are two examples, one medieval the other Victorian, in other words, one from each pole as it were of the span of extant historical fencing sources. First, the fendente or downward strike of Fiore dei Liberi is instructive. He was active ca. 1409 CE and was an experienced solider, policeman, mercenary, and fencing master. The four known texts detailing his Armizare or “art of arms” reveal a system that is uncompromising and brutal. The intention is to maim or kill, precisely the skills that his audience, professional fighting men, required in the field and in the lists. In the Getty (Ms. Ludwig XV 13), Fiore says:

We are the cuts named fendenti (cleaving blows). In this art, our trade is to part the opponent’s teeth and to reach all the way down to his knee. We can easily transition from a guard to another, through a low guard. We also craftily break the opponent’s guards, while our strikes leave a trail of blood. We fendenti are not slow to strike, and recover in guard with each step.[ii]

Now, did Fiore mean that each time one made this cut that one was trying to cut a person in half, or, did he mean that this is the angle one should make in performing that cut? Which is more likely? Such a cut, against a static target, might divide a person from the jaw to the opposite knee, but it’s hard to imagine any fighter attempting a cut that powerful each time they swing. Fiore also says “our strikes leave a trail of blood.” The line reading either “trail of blood” or “sign of blood” (it varies by translation) looks to the same two words, sangue segno. Sangue, or “blood” is cognate with our “sanguine” and “sanguinary” and is pretty clear, but segno… that is trickier. If you look up the Italian today segno can mean “a sign; a mark; a scratch; a sign or indication;” it can also meaning “shooting target.” The word it comes from, Latin signum, means much the same (e.g. sign), but took on some more abstract meanings during the Middle Ages, such as “miracle,” “statue,” and even a specific type of medieval bell-tower. Yet, several of these translations used “trail” for segno. Trails suggests more of a slicing wound, a deep cut, not the severing of a thorax.

In context—context is everything—Fiore is saying the fendenti are downward strikes made at a sharp angle, roughly jaw to opposite knee, and depending upon how hard and at what distance one hits it might cut deep or leave a really nasty slice. The images accompanying this show two men out of armor. To cut through linen, cotton, or wool one doesn’t need to hew the same way one does straw or wood. Significantly, in the armored portions of his work Fiore discusses the longsword in its guise as short pole-arm, something for thrusting, not cutting. Fiore, thus, advocates a blow that is likely to hit something given the angle, that can cut deep or tear someone up nicely, but taken together is not meant to hew limbs each time.

A second, much later example comes from the Radaellian sabre tradition. Giuseppe Radaelli’s major innovation was to implement the elbow rather than the wrist as the axis of rotation for cuts. Another Radaellian fencer, Maestro Ferdinando Masiello, related in a letter to Lt. Gen. Achille Angelini that Radaelli, having seen how ineffective wrist-generated blows were from the saddle, decided to substitute the elbow as axis. This produces a more powerful cut, but one still under control.[iii] Looking at the corpus of works on Radaellian sabre, from Del Frate (1868/1873) to Pecoraro and Pessina (1912), nowhere does anyone advocate trying to cut anyone in half; nowhere does one master suggest that a hewing blow is the goal.[iv] An argument from silence isn’t worth much, but additional evidence supplies information that does much to fill in the picture.

One such example comes from the same Lt. Gen. Achille Angelini mentioned above. In his work on dueling, the Italian Chivalric Code, published in 1883, he states that if something was important enough to fight about, then the duel over it should result in a serious wound or death. Anything less was a mockery. Angelini states:

In the duel with the sabre neither the thrust, nor the cut to the head may be excluded. Duels with such exclusions, other than being ridiculous, are harmful, since the number of duels instead of decreasing would increase when a dandy could play the braggart with only the risk of getting a scratch of little consequence.[v]

Of note here, the choice of potentially less lethal targets, such as the arm, are not bad choices, but ones less likely to keep to the serious tone Angelini advocates. A cut to the arm would not necessarily end the fight. Significantly, the arm doesn’t need to be severed to make it useless; a nasty cut across the right ligaments, or which lacerates an artery, or that hits bone, can render that fencer hors de combat. Even a good bruise can. The arm was thus often wrapped to prevent this from prematurely ending the fight. The arm was and is a primary target in sabre and with good reason: take out the arm and the opponent can no longer fight.

The take away lesson here is that in the context of the duel in late 19th century Italy, a context in which truly nasty wounds were positively encouraged!, no one advocated a hewing blow. Even with powerful molinelli from the elbow the emphasis wasn’t lopping off limbs or cutting people in half—it would have been too dangerous for any duelist to so commit and expose himself.

The last concern is the goal in cutting—what is it exactly? Is it merely to sever the mat, or, to sever it according to the sources of one’s preferred tradition? This is an important question. There are many ways to cut a mat, but if one is performing this exercise as part of studying a specific sword system, then ideally one is doing all one can to use the mechanics advocated within that system to the best of their ability. Anything else is, well, sort of pointless. Call it fun, call it cutting, but if divorced from the techniques of one’s tradition, then it isn’t really informing that practice. Used correctly, cutting can actually be a good measure of what is possible within a tradition if not exactly what say Fiore or even Radaelli would have done. One young fencer I know, her first time cutting, easily sliced a tatami using the mechanic she had learned from her instructor, one she had used in drill and in bouts for years. Is her success proof of exactly what Fiore intended? No, but it suggests that the interpretation of the cutting mechanic at that school is a valid one given both the evidence from Fiore’s works and her success with that cut. It’s valuable feedback.

There is a lot of video out there of cutting, and if you’re just watching for the mat to slide off its base after the cut, it’s easy to miss red flags like fencers leading off with the legs, with elbows, or pushing their hands out before the blade. There is also heavy influence from Japanese practice, some better than others, and it shows in stance, in execution, even in the number, sequence, and direction of cuts. Will this cut a mat? Sure, and there are people making their reputations on this, medaling, etc., but that doesn’t automatically mean they’re in line with the traditions they claim to represent. Maybe that doesn’t matter, but it might if you are trying to cut according to the rhymes of the “Zettel” or Liechtenauer glosses and you’re using the wrong techniques. If you’re going to include cutting in your practice, do so honestly, do so in accordance with the dictates of your tradition as best you can. It’s a lot of fun to do, and it can be good practice, but it should be about more than just whether you cut the mat or bamboo. It should be about how you do so.

[i] In origin the tameshigiri from Japanese swordsmanship—where this practice in HEMA originated—was not intended to test so much the swordsman as the sword. It is arguably better for that than as a test for one’s ability to use steel, though many Japanese schools have competitions for test-cutting in their own right which are about cutting ability, not the sword, so the carry-over into HEMA is understandable. For more on tameshigiri, see for example Victor Harris, “Japanese Swords,” in Swords and Hilt Weapons, ed. Michael D. Coe, et al., New York, NY: Barnes and Noble Books, 1993, 148-171, see especially 168; Kazuhiro Sakaue, “A Case Report of Human Skeletal Remains Performed ‘Tameshi-giri (test cutting with a Japanese Sword),” in Bulletin of the National Museum of Nature and Science, Series D, 36 (Dec. 2010): 27-36; John M. Yumoto, The Samurai Sword: A Handbook, Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1978, 74, 81-82.

[ii] Fiore de’ Liberi’s Fior di Battaglia, Fiore’s 1409 Martial Arts Treatise from the Getty Manuscript, rev. 4, Trans. Tom Leoni [Ludwig XV 13]. For the manuscripts, their history, and relation, Tom Leoni’s translation of Fiore de’ Liberi, Fior di Battaglia, 2nd Ed., Wheaton, IL: Freelance Academy Press, 2012, is a standard work; it can be had, minus illustrations, via Lulu Press. Work continues on a new examination by Tom Leoni and Ken Mondshein, Flowers of Battle: The Complete Martial Works of Fiore dei Liberi, A Master of Arms and at the Turn of the Fifteenth Century, 4 Vols., Wheaton, IL: Freelance Academy Press, two of which have been published. Vol. 1 covers the Getty, Vol. 3 The Florius or “Paris.” Some translations and transcriptions are available online at Wiktnenauer, , though caution is required with this site. A far more useful and reliable digital resource is “Pocket Armizare” available for Android. See also Robert N. Charrette, Fiore Dei Liberi’s Armizare: The Chivalric Martial Arts System of Il Fior di Battaglia, Wheaton, IL: Freelance Academy Press, 2011; Ken Mondschein, The Knightly Art of Battle, Los Angeles, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011; Guy Windsor, The Medieval Longsword, Mastering the Art of Arms Vol. 2, The School of European Swordsmanship, 2014.

[iii] See Christopher A. Holzman, The Art of the Dueling Sabre, Staten Island, NY: SKA Swordplay Books, 2011, xxvi.

[iv] In addition to Del Frate (n. iii), see for example Luigi Barbasetti, The Art of the Sabre and Epee, New York, NY: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1936 [an English translation of his original 1899 edition in German]; Lieut. J. Betts, The Sword and How to Use It, London: Gale & Polden, LTD, 1908; Ferdinando Masiello, La Scherma Italiana di Spada e di Sicabola, Firenze, IT: Stabilimento Tipografico G. Civelli, 1887; Masiello, Sabre Fencing on Horseback, Firenze: G. Civelli Establishment, 1891, Translated by Christopher A. Holzman, 2015; Salvatore Pecoraro, and Carlo Pessina, Sabre Fencing: Includes Spada Fencing: Play on the Ground, 1910, Translated by Christopher A. Holzman, Lulu Press, 2016; Giordano Rossi, Scherma di Spada e Sciabola, Manuale Teorico-Pratico, Milano, IT: Fratelli Dumolard Editori, 1885.

[v] Lt. Gen. Achille Angelini, “Of the Duel with the Sword or Sabre,” Italian Chivalric Code, XI: 2; trans. Holzman, 2016.

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