They Call it “Macaroni”

The Much-Maligned Smallsword and Foil and why it Matters

from Brown University Digital Repository []

One of my favorite weapons to fence and teach is smallsword. I started fencing foil—a descendant of smallsword—in the 1980s, and though obviously adapted for safer training and the sport of fencing the fundamental elements of foil impart more than most people in “HEMA” believe. Moreover, my initial training was French, and the smallsword being perhaps the early modern French weapon par excellence there is something familiar and nostalgic (if that is the right word) about it. One benefit of subsequent training in a related, but distinct tradition (in my case Italian with Hungarian elements) is that one gains another view of that previous study, just as studying another language can illuminate one’s native grammar. While modern foil and smallsword are different, it is context more than anything else which separates them. The rebated weapons of two centuries ago, while similar to the tool of today, were used to mimic actual combat safely, not used purely as a game, and in this one key difference everything rests. Because so few people within historical fencing understand or accept this, however, one of the most deadly, sophisticated swords ever devised, and its descendant, is often the object of amusement and mockery. Sad as that is, what is worse is that in discounting smallsword and foil they lose the single greatest method by which to explore the extinct sword arts that do interest them.

Wigs, Lace, and Lorgnettes

“The Macaroni: A Real Character at the Late Masquerade,” (1773), Philip Dawe

The derision that smallsword suffers in “HEMA” reflects several failures within the community. Arguably it reveals a latent and wide-spread species of bigotry. The abuse aimed at this “dainty” or “tiny” or [insert equally facile insult here] weapon highlights the thinly veiled prejudice in HEMA’s macho culture, far too much of which poisons the community and retards its progress. Aside from compensatory attention devoted to big weapons, go hard or go home, and “I gots brusies bruh!” there is the bigoted notion where sophisticated = weak/effeminate/gay, the idiocy and ignorance of which speaks volumes. Second, dismissal of smallsword, just as with its descendants, indicates a complete failure to grasp the depth and importance of the primary means by which one learns the universals of fencing. This is not merely my opinion, but demonstrable on a number of levels, from the wide array of works on fencing published over the past five hundred years to the gulf in quality one sees in the historical community, not only in terms of performance, but also in terms of translation and teaching.

While fascinating, the parallels between modern disdain for smallsword and 18th century censure of the young people of fashion called “Macaroni” and “Macaronesses” goes beyond the confines of this piece. There are better places to go for the exploration of prejudice in the 18th century as well as the on-going discussion of the battle for equality and civil rights today. My stance on all that, for what it matters, should be obvious from previous posts, but I cannot speak to either issue as appropriately as I can to the second failure, that is, the mistake that most of HEMA makes with regard to anything they define—however poorly or inaccurately—as “sporty” versus what they deem “martial.” [1]

I dtir na Ndall [“In the Land of the Blind…”] [2]

As the old saying goes, in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king, and if any one maxim summarizes HEMA it’s this one. Examining the usual allegations against smallsword and foil one sees how poorly they are glimpsed without full vision. First, the chief bias appears to be that smallsword (a weapon), because it is related to foil (a training device), is less a weapon than say broadsword. If foil is for sport, then anything like it must be too. Second, for those who see it as a weapon its size, complex method of use, and “late” appearance make it suspect. The logic here, such as it is, suggests that the older a system is, the more legitimate it is; that lighter weapons must be less “martial;” and that anything related to the duel—save rapier—are again less serious than the “heavier” and more manly longsword, axe, etc. The ridiculousness of each of these assertions is underserving of attention, so to be brief:

  • a foil is a practice weapon, be it the modern foil, a feder, or wooden wasters—that Messer you use? Yep, it’s a foil. Ditto your Albion, Regenyi, or Ensifer
  • puncture wounds, made by triangular bayonets or the often triangular smallsword blades, leave really nasty injuries; before the innovations of 20th cen. medicine there was little one could do to repair these wounds or deal with the infections that often resulted (cf. sepsis)
  • fighting in judicial combats with a pole-axe, sword, or anything else was just as formal and bound by convention as late period duels were by the restriction of ground and etiquette

These are all well-established by histories old and new. In truth the bias really has nothing to do with history at all, but with a strong desire to differentiate oneself from “sport.” Anything that is remotely connected to sport, then, is suspect in the eyes of HEMA-Bro. Late 19th century sabres of 650-800g? Too close to the modern sport sabres. Smallsword? Too much like modern foil. That’s it. That’s really all it comes down to, and such short-sightedness cripples not only their research, if they do any, but their own practice and pursuit of the Art.

Why Later Period Systems and Modern Fencing Matter

Misplaced bias against both later period historical systems and modern fencing means, in most cases, that these fencers lack a firm foundation in fencing universals and pedagogy. This lack is what tends to undermine their study most. For example, because they have no idea what actual fencing fundamentals are, they mistake aberrations for norms. When they see the problems that are easy to spot, such as the whip-like strikes from electric foils behind competitors’ heads or the floor-dragging sabre slap to a guard, they assume that what they see is the system. Wrong. Even now, decades into the worst offenses in foil, students are normally taught that extending the weapon proceeds movement of the foot and the body. This is universal and is reflected in literally centuries of treatises and hundreds of modern schools. Thus, when viewing anything in the Olympics, the World Cup, or the local NAC, one must differentiate between how a fencer performs that extension as well as how a director views and calls that same action, and examine it against what is taught. They’re often different. Competition, like it or not, comes down to successful exploitation of a rule-set. One doesn’t have to be the Chevalier de Saint-Georges or the Chevalier d’Éon to win; determination and skillful use of attributes win more fights than most fencers wish to admit.

“A macaroni dressing room,” (26 June 1772) by I.W.

Not only do they fail to distinguish between what is taught and how it is used, but HEMAland also rejects traditional and sport pedagogy. They lose far more than they gain from this. Open most any decent work on fencing published in our own time and one will see first, that most do not include the ridiculous point-eating techniques, and those that do often with qualification—that is an admission, by the way, that the authors recognize that the technique is not part of the received tradition. [3] A fencing treatise is more than a collection of “moves;” it is an organized program that orders techniques, drill, and lessons in a meaningful way. It also instructs one in a vocabulary shaped by centuries of development, one benefit of which is that it provides a more effective means to discuss one’s study. Most of all, a year of foil—and this is reflected in the better modern works—imparts fundamentals that transcend foil. Knowing, for example, how the chief universals—time, measure, judgment/method—operate, and how one manipulates and achieves those universals effectively through movement, is crucial in examining any other system of martial arts, but especially those from which the modern version derives. [4] That may not seem important, but for the historical fencer it ought to be, because it is far easier to understand the unknown through the known than to come at the former with nothing or some half-conceived theory of one’s own.

In my last post (Sept. 20, 2020) I mentioned the infamous example of the misreading of Capoferro where the untutored surmised outlandish theories about his lunge. Had they had proper training in the modern lunge, done a bit more digging in the sources between now and Capoferro’s time, then the great mystery of Capoferro’s lunge would not be a mystery to them. Armed with even a nodding acquaintance with modern theory and practice would’ve helped those fencers avoid a grave mistake. Put bluntly, throwing out all that modern fencing has to teach, a system built—again literally—on centuries of work, is stupid and self-defeating. Modern fencing no more exists in a vacuum than did early modern or medieval fencing.

The Problem

For the same reason they poo poo later period weapons and modern fencing, HEMA-Bruhs refuse to listen to those who’ve studied them. Only people with the benefit of that training, or who take the trouble to learn about it, can see how all of this is actually a problem and not just sour-grapes or envy. The HEMA equivalent of anti-vaxers are convinced they have it right, refuse even to entertain that there might be something to learn from late period systems (though they’re ready enough to apply Japanese cutting mechanics and poorly understood kinesiology…), and so dismiss it out of hand. This is not a problem limited to the States either, though it’s perhaps particularly entrenched in American HEMA. We see it in the posers who ape the scholars they denigrate, in the sad attacks on established researchers by people who either deliberately misrepresent their position or are too stupid to understand it, in the idea that a few seminars make one an instructor, and in the odd notion that a 12 page pamphlet contains the same depth and sophistication as the works of Rosaroll & Gristetti or Prevost.

If those with respectable experience in Olympic and traditional fencing are ignored, then the only way to realize the value of later period arts or modern fencing is for the SPES-clad fencer to take that painful step and look at it more closely. Few do, and the results to an informed perspective are disappointing—half-baked theories, ill-conceived approaches, flawed interpretations, and a near complete lack of awareness of the importance of drilling fundamentals. [5] Our interpretations of past combat systems are only as good as the effective use of our research tools—studying extinct sword arts without some knowledge of fencing is akin to entering a bout without a weapon. Together, these flaws mean that much of HEMA is getting it wrong, and for a community supposedly interested in producing as accurate an interpretation of these extinct arts as possible, that makes little sense.


[1] I’m male, middle-aged, white, and hetero, and thus should not and will not speak to the experience of women or LGBT people. Friends and family who fall into either category, however, have shared a LOT with me about their own experience with bigotry so concluding that it juuuuust might bother them doesn’t seem too crazy to me. Just saying.

For related 18th cen. views, interested parties may wish to read some of the literature about notions of “masculine,” “feminine,” and the connections to contemporary ideas about sexuality in the Baroque and Georgian eras:

[2] For the person interested in the full Irish version: I dtir na ndall is rí fear na leathshúile.

[3] Compare for example Maxwell R. Garret, et al., Foil, Sabre, and Épée Fencing: Skills, Safety, Operations, and Responsibilities, University Park, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994, p. 134 on the “Flick (Cutover)” and Henry de Silva, Fencing: The Skills of the Game, Ramsbury, UK: The Crowood Press, 1997, p. 23, “The Cut-over or French Coupé.” Maxwell presents the flick as a cut-over, a reflection of how it was treated in competition in the mid-90s, where de Silva, writing a few years later, treats only the cut-over sans “flick.” It’s a subtle distinction, but for those of us competing at the time that remember the controversy over the flick and ROW, this reads a certain way.

[4] The universals always include tempo and measure, but the third term varies. Marcelli in The Rule of Fencing (1686) supplies “method” to the first two terms; Terracusa e Ventura, True Neapolitan Fencing (1725), speaks of velocity, tempo, and measure; de Bazancourt in Secrets of the Sword (1862) refers to judgment, control, and speed; Castello in The Theory and Practice of Fencing (1933) prefers distance, timing, calculation. To understand how these relate, why different masters chose different terms, requires reading them, not only for why they say what they do, but for how these terms relate to one another. Without a handle on the universals one’s ability to make sense of most works on fencing is hobbled—Girard (though see Traite des armes, Part III, “Advice for Good Composure when Fencing,” XI), Angelo, and many others assume the reader understands these or explains them within particular sections, so while not spelled out these concepts underlie all that they discuss.

[5] An informed perspective includes but is not limited to professionally trained fencing instructors, experienced fencers, or credible researchers. These is wiggle-room within these terms and I mean for there to be. There are veteran fencers, for example, who know more than many masters and teach as well or better; amateur researchers (vs. university trained researchers) who help us push the boundaries of what we know responsibly; and there are masters and professional scholars who raise the bar higher for our study of historical fencing. However, there are a lot of people who are teaching and shouldn’t be; there are a lot of people playing scholar who haven’t the least idea how to conduct research; and there are professional academics and maestri who don’t play well with others.

It is telling to me, for example, that while details may be in dispute among the maestri, scholars, and veteran fencers I know, none subscribe to the ridiculous theories that plague historical fencing, such as the silly theory of the lunge where the toe/balls of the feet land first. They are, generally, more open to new interpretations when those interpretations are better; less ready to make firm conclusions, especially for the medieval works; and understand the differences in the types of texts, how illustrations can work, and that the less a source contains, the more careful we must be. Most of all, they possess more sophisticated reading skills and realize that what they read or say must be analyzed, not just taken at face value. As a close friend has remarked, the “plates and plays” approach to HEMA is flawed; it fails to take into account all that is not right there in the image.

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