Leszák’s _Sabre Fencing_ (1906)!

Karoly Leszák, Sabre Fencing, (Budapest: Adopted by the Ludovika Military Academy, 1906), translated by Russ Mitchell and Zalán Szalai, (Irving, TX: Happycrow Publishing, 2020), 158p. ISBN: 9798695368253. $20 US


Russ Mitchell, scholar, fencer, and instructor at Winged Sabre Historical Fencing school (Irving, Texas, USA), has published a translation of Károly Leszák’s Sabre Fencing (Kardvivás, 1906). This is the second in a series of works covering Austro-Hungarian Military Sabre (the first is Hungarian Hussar Sabre and Fokos Fencing, 2019). With this translation Russ and his colleague Zalán Szalai have opened an otherwise mostly shuttered window into this key fencing tradition. It can be obtained here:

Sabre Fencing: by Károly Leszák https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08N5LDY7P/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_Br1RFb9VYENH8

This is an important text on multiple levels. First, most manuals written in Hungarian have not been translated into English, so unless one can read the original language the value of such works remains either unknown or incompletely understood. Since the importance of Hungary in the development of sabre cannot be overstated each new translation increasing access to that corpus is a boon. Second, any student of the Italo-Hungarian tradition should have an interest in this work as it was written at a pivotal time. Italo Santelli brought the Radaellian tradition to Budapest, Luigi Barbasetti to Vienna, and it was the merger of Italian and Hungarian elements that formed the system so many of us learned last century. Even today’s Olympic sabre program, though different in some key respects, owes most of their curriculum to the Italo-Hungarian system.

What works like Leszák’s give us is a look at a stage in development between Radaelli’s late 19th cen. students, men such as Barbasetti and Santelli, and what in some circles became the “bible” for mid-century sabre, Z. Beke and J. Polgár’s The Methodology of Sabre Fencing, published in 1963 (Budapest, HG: Corvina Press). The crucible which produced the mid-century game was largely the rise of the Olympics in the first half of the 20th century, a period that also witnessed the swan-song of the sword in combat. [1] What we see, in Sabre Fencing, then, is a snapshot of a tradition in transformation. Leszák was one of the masters at the Ludovika Military Academy–though these academies trained soldiers, the theater for combat they were increasingly preparing for was not a battlefield, but international competition.

If I may beg the reader’s forgiveness, I’d like to contextualize the importance of this as a product of the Italo-Hungarian school. Most of my sabre training came via Albert Couturier and his students, especially Larry Dunn and Brian Peña, though I also had the honor to take a few lessons with Ferenc Lukacs. Al’s master, Joseph Vince, was trained in Budapest when the system that Leszák describes was in place. Both Giorgio Santelli and Vince emigrated to the US, to New York, the same year, and went on to spread the mixed school on both coasts (Vince taught in New York, but is better known for his sala in Beverly Hills, California, where Tony Curtis, Cornel Wilde, and others studied fencing). [2] I have yet to determine which of the three schools in Budapest Vince attended, but if it is true that he was in the military then either Ludovika or the Toldi Miklos Royal Hungarian Sports Institution are the most likely (the third, the BEAC, the main university club, is also a possibility). Leszák, however, had studied at Weiner Neustadt Military School, Barbasetti’s campus, and both he and Gusztáv von Arlow (who authored another work on fencing, also entilted Kardvivás, 1902) studied the Italian school there. [3] For many years I’ve have researched the tradition in which I came up to see just what was Italian, what Hungarian, and how they mixed. Now, for the first time, and thanks to Russ’ expertise, one can do this more effectively. I’ve been reading Leszák with Joseph Vince’s Fencing (1940) next to me, and the parallels are striking, but so too are the departures. One can actually see, right there on the page, what is clearly Radaellian, what is Hungarian, and importantly how the two worked together to fuse what most people know as sabre. Looking through Vince’s work after reading Sabre Fencing is to see it in a new light; for one, though familiar with and an admirer of the French school, Vince’s foundation is Italian. One sees this in his foil and especially in sabre. Where Leszák included both direct cuts and Radaellian molinelli, Vince mentions the latter but focuses on the former. The realities of competition from 1906 to 1940 demonstrated that the traditional Italian extended guards left fencers’ arms vulnerable to wrist cuts; so too did the larger cuts. [4] This is just example of how access to a key Hungarian text informs our understanding of works we already know.

Russ’s work is a pleasure to read. His style is engaging, his obvious skill and insight into the context and material are matched in how humbly and good-naturedly he explores it. Few people possess the combination of talents to do this project justice, but Russ tops this short list. [5] There has been an explosion of translations, especially through print-on-demand self-publishing operations, and too often the hard work of the translators is undercut by their lack of expertise in the language, by failure to have skilled editors examine their drafts, and in failing to have another expert in that language go over their translations. With Russ Mitchell’s work we are on firm ground. He has lived and studied in Hungary, and he knows Hungarian, but he also enlisted the help of a native speaker to ensure accuracy. He had another brilliant translator, Christopher A. Holzman, read through the text as editor and to check the author’s use of Italian terminology and ideas. Moreover, Russ has the academic credentials, and experience, to conduct this type of research responsibly.

As to its contents, readers familiar with most works out of Italy in the 19th and 20th centuries may be startled by how similarly organized Sabre Fencing is. Like his contemporaries to the southwest, Leszák begins with the parts of the sabre, grip, first position (“basic stance”), the line of direction, and a break-down of the cuts. The cuts, significantly, he divides into “sabre swings”–following Hungarian and German terminology, and, molinelli, following Italian practice. Later, in section 21, he covers direct cuts. Both direct, short-path cuts and circular cuts from the elbow are there–this is just one example of the blending of traditions.

The author covers guards next and these are, with some minor changes, the guards of the Radaellian school, just positioned a little differently. The guard/invitation/parry of second, for example, is held more at chest height than shoulder height. Third is also lower than one sees in most Radaellian works. One version of low-fourth that may surprise is Leszák’s second way to form it–students of Hutton would call this a way to defend the “fork:” the hand and guard are to the right, the blade extended out left, straight, to defend/deflect a low thrust or ascending cut below the belt (cf. 27-28). A chapter on “parrying swings” and shadow-cuts (cuts made against an imaginary opponent) follows and reminds the reader that active-parries are an important part of the system. Molinelli, after all, we use in attacks, but can be used defensively too. The parrying swings were meant to help students hone the positioning required to defend themselves; today we refer to this exercise more often as “changes of engagement,” that is, moving from 2nd to first and back, from 2nd to 5th and back, etc.

Leszák Kardvivás, p. 10, two versions of Quarta Bassa/Low Fourth

Part Two, “School Fencing,” is an invaluable look at specific drills and lessons. A key pedagogical tool here, and one employed often in historical fencing, is pair-drills, only here students take turn as “master” and assist one another. Leszák notes that this allows them to be out of guard and rest, and thus fence longer, but that also it starts priming students who may go on to teach. It is, as he says, a more effective way to teach than group instruction. For fencers today, the lessons contained in part two run the gamut from actions on the blade to binds, from yielding/ceding parries to the counter-parry riposte game. Also included at the tail end of Part II are discussions of when and how one should begin bouting, some of the rules students were expected to follow in his time, and how to deal with both lefties and “instinctive” fencers.

Sabre Fencing is a rich source and the single most complete in English concerning the early Italo-Hungarian tradition. Leszák provides a thorough look at defense, offense, and tactics. Though “obviously, it is not possible to learn fencing from books” (9), as the author reminds us, this treatise will prove invaluable for those interested in the development of Hungarian fencing, the deep impact the Radaellian school had outside of Italy, and especially for students of the Italo-Hungarian tradition who wish to see, first-hand, what the Hungarian side of their heritage looks like up close. Parts of the book may be dense for some readers, especially newer fencers, because the author was writing for people with some training, and to a lesser degree because he knew that some students would arrive at the academy with a degree of experience in fencing (cf. 9), but Russ provides numerous notes to assist the reader with the more confusing or unusual aspects of the book. This is a must-have translation, and while perhaps of most interest to fencers in the Italian and Italo-Hungarian orbit, sabre fencers of any school will find much to mine within this text. Go. Buy it. Read it. Read it again, and start drilling.

NOTES:

[1] There were units in various armies issued swords in the Second World War, but they saw little action in most theaters. Japanese use in China and elsewhere is well and often graphically documented (a trip through the museum dedicated to the victims of the massacre in 1937 in Nanjing is not an experience one forgets). There were soldiers in the European theater who carried and/or used swords as well.

[2] Vince’s Fencing (1940) contains a little biographical material, but less than one might like. See also https://www.westcoastfencingarchive.com/project/joseph-vince/ &

https://emerituscollege.asu.edu/sites/default/files/ecdw/EVoice7/touche.html

[3] Károly Leszák, wrote the manual for the Ludovika Military Academy’s program, Kardvívás [Sabre Fencing], in 1906, yes the one discussed here. He had been a student of the fencing school at Wiener Neustadt Military School, and so, was a product of Barbasetti’s program. I need to verify this, but one chap, Hungarian, claims that two Austrian lieutenants, Rudolph Brosch and Heinrich Tenner, learned Barbasetti’s method, introduced it to W-N, and in 1899 translated Barbasetti’s text into German. This same commentator says that both Leszák and another author, Gusztáv von Arlow (who authored a sabre text in Hungarian in 1902), were students of the Italian school as shared at W-N. For more on Barbasetti’s work within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, see http://www.ars-dimicatoria.cz/en/barbasetti-military-sabre-since-1895-2/

[4] The lighter blade developed in the early 20th cen. changed everything. Those quick to criticize the excesses possible with the sport blade often find the system guilty by association. This is to mistake effect for cause. As most works on sabre make clear, aberrations in rule-sets and nonstandard techniques reflect a concern for victory in sports, not inherent flaws within the tradition itself. My generation, for example, was taught proper edge-alignment and was penalized when we failed to execute an attack with it. Many within that same generation, to win, adopted the low-hanging fruit of whipover to score when sabre went electric.

[5] Russ has the chops to conduct research well. He possesses advanced degrees in history and in medieval studies, has experience publishing in academia, and studied in Hungary. His first book in this series set the bar high for publishing in historical fencing, and serves as a fantastic guide to sharing difficult information (in this case a broken sabre tradition) in a responsible, approachable, and useful way.

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