Italian Sabre & “HEMA”

A recent comment on facebook, one shared by a friend, illustrated something that has long troubled me—the failure to understand that tourney success is as poor a guide to how effective a tradition is as it can be individual prowess. The reason this should concern any sabreur remotely interested in historical fencing is two-fold.

First, there are well-known voices within HEMA who are influential and who have failed to appreciate these facts. Some have made public pronouncements without qualification that are likely to mislead many people and perpetuate ignorant ideas. Regardless of a fencer’s chosen area of focus in sabre one assumes they want as accurate a picture of past practice as they can garner, so for that reason alone it’s important to correct the error.

Second, competitors need to understand that daft comments about the prevalence of one style of sabre or another in major events reflect prevailing culture more than the merits or weaknesses within a given tradition. For a recent example one such commentator remarked

“nobody in modern times has ever won a major tournament using Italian sabre method. Sorry if that upsets you.” [1]

Where to start with this… If this individual, an Englishman, means within the span of modern competition beginning with the Olympics (1896), then there is ample evidence to the contrary. Of these examples my personal choice to illustrate the error would be H. Evan James, British sabre champion in 1905, who clearly didn’t share the commentor’s views. [2] If by “modern” he means HEMA, then that is worth examining in more detail.

There are two key reasons we don’t see more Italian sabre in HEMA and why we see even less in major competitions. Competitive HEMA sabre, by and large, reflects infantry sabre, and perhaps most often English infantry sabre, a watered-down version of a more complex methodology. [3] To be clear, it is not that more complete, sophisticated fencing didn’t exist in England, but that one isn’t going to find it in the Infantry Sword Exercise. Likewise, “simpler” here doesn’t mean “easy”—if anything, fans of infantry manuals face a greater challenge than those of us who prefer everything spelled out.

What this means is that rarely is one going to see any of the more sophisticated maneuvers and tactics one might find say in Masiello or Barbasetti, because those studying 40-page infantry manuals don’t learn them unless they dig deeper into their own corpus or parallel ones. Second, judging, such as it is, is calibrated to what those judges are expecting to see. So, if the level of sabre never rises beyond hop-and-chop, however well-performed, the judges will have a lot of trouble recognizing more complex actions. I’ve observed this first-hand myself at every single HEMA event I’ve ever attended or watched on video.

To use a local example, at the 2017 Winter’s End Tourney near Portland, Oregon, those fencers who attempted attacks into tempo with the point, such as an arrest or who attempted to manipulate distance tactically, suffered. Judges simply didn’t recognize what they were doing. What they saw, as the flags told it, was only what they knew to look for, obvious single-tempo attacks, all of which were made at close distance. Outside of the Italian and Olympic trained fencers present all of the fighters did their best to ape the images they saw in their sources, right down to never leaving close measure! Apparently, no instructor told them that what one might see on Angelo’s poster or described in a drill for the regiment to practice in unison, is not how one actually fights. One fencer, Italian trained, ate the competition alive but fared poorly because the judges lacked the ability to see what he was doing. [4] The fact that it was obvious meant nothing, because it was only obvious to the poor maestro I asked to officiate and to the few of us there who studied French or Italian fencing. Most everyone either missed it or ignored it because it didn’t look, and I quote, “martial” enough, a stupid term, much-used (incorrectly to boot) that boils down to one thing as HEMA-Bruh uses it, hitting hard and fast. A good fencer can hit hard, but chooses not to; a bad fencer doesn’t know the difference.

The quality of judging, like the quality of fencing, is relative—HEMA has yet to realize this. Any fencer who has spent time in Olympic fencing, on the contrary, knows all too well how true this is. An “A” ranked fencer in Bumblefuck, Middle of Nowhere, who is the best of all 6 people in their region, is likely not the same “A” that a fencer who earned that rank in a major city with hundreds of competitors is—what it takes to earn an “A” in the latter environment is a lot more demanding. In HEMA, however, most competitors possess only a modicum of skill, because their sources, even if they mine them top to bottom, do not include enough to make them brilliant one-on-one—the sources were not designed to do that. So, if both fencers only possess an “E” standard of skill (Olympic Fencing’s lowest rating), are held only to that elementary standard, and the judges lack the ability to judge beyond that, then however good those fencers might be, they remain “E” fencers. If this is all they know, and all they care to examine, then they will mistake that “E” for an “A.” This is what a lot of us outside or at the edges of HEMA see whenever we see HEMA bouts or what we conclude when some blowhard touts their supposed prowess.

There are exceptions too—there are students of Insular broadsword that bring out the best of their favored tradition. My go-to when I have questions about broadsword is Jay Maas of Broadsword Manitoba, Canada. In addition to being approachable, Jay is also one hell of a skilled fighter, one who to me exemplifies just how effective the Insular broadsword tradition can be. Why is he so good? Well, for one, he clearly has a knack for the Art, but he also studies not only regimental manuals, but those for highland broadsword, contemporary smallsword, and importantly—modern foil. Most significantly of all Jay understands these sources, that is, he has excellent command of the elements, fundamentals, or universal principles that make fencing what it is. He uses measure, his footwork is fantastic, his toolkit for technique and the options it provides deep, and his sense of timing is spot on. Jay puts in the time as anyone who has chatted with him or watched him fight or teach can attest. When I think of the people I want at an event, who represent their branch of sabre/broadsword, best, Jay is one of my top five, because I know he’s a gracious fencer and will give anyone, no matter what tradition, a fantastic fight.

With regard to officiating, if the standard by which HEMA judges fencing is rudimentary fencing, then it’s hardly surprising those competitors (and perhaps Youtube personalities) don’t realize the difference. Add their misguided hatred of all things non-HEMA and it makes even more sense—they refuse to learn by analogy, and what better analogy is there of how competition can go wrong than the excesses and gaming in Olympic fencing?

Italian sabre within HEMA, if we can even say that exists, is small. Because of the pedagogical approach, because of the source tradition, and because acquiring sufficient proficiency to compete takes time, there aren’t many of us competing. HEMA throws people into competition way too early, one result of which, well, I’m discussing here.

But there is another reason. No competitor who works hard to develop a sophisticated game is keen to jump into an event where none of that matters, where it will not even be seen, or where it will be, oddly enough, ridiculed. The shame there doesn’t belong to those of us in the Italian tradition, but to the boors who lack the inclination to look beyond their own source material, whose ego needs and dreams of badassdom cannot stomach the idea that someone else, or some other tradition, might have something to offer or, heaven forbid, be superior to their own.

It’s not an accident, after all, that Italian and French fencing stuck, that they were the traditions that formed modern fencing, because every nation in Europe, at the time, saw enough merit in the approaches to abandon their own native systems. It is worth noting that at the very time these nations adopted French or Italian methods both of those nations were still witness to the duel. It’s worth reflecting on all this, especially for those championing English infantry broadsword as the paragon of sabre systems, because if the popular Italian masters who so pissed off a certain Englishman circa 1599 don’t provide some hint as to the value Italian methods held for Englishmen, then perhaps the various repeated attempts to introduce more sophisticated sabre into England over the course of the late 19th and early 20th might.

Funny how for all the talk of English sabre no one ever talks about these men save Hutton (who recommended a “Continental” sabre by the way, page 2, Cold Steel, 1889). What about…

Francis Vere Wright, author of The Broadsword: As Taught By The Celebrated Italian Masters, Signors Masiello And Ciullini of Florence (W. H. Allen & Co., London,1889) or…

the Ministry of War’s 1895 Infantry Sword Exercise (based off of Masiello, but with errors in understanding) or…

Lt. Betts, The Sabre and How to Use It (Gale & Polden, Limited, Aldershot & Portsmouth, London, 1908) or…

Leon Bertrand, Cut and Thrust (Athletic Publications LTD, London, 1927)?

For some, I suspect, to discuss English attempts to improve their own fencing by introducing foreign ideas undermines the romance, jingoism, ethnic pride, and one sometimes suspects sadness over the loss of imperial glory. If those are the chief reasons one fences, they are poor reasons.

There is nothing wrong with studying regimental broadsword or infantry manuals, but there is in ignorantly claiming that they are the last word in sabre. For fans of English sabre who really want to know more about their chosen tradition looking beyond these sources is vital. For the Georgian/Regency period, a look at French smallsword and sabre (for the latter Le Marchant (1796) is a must) will be illuminating; both Angelo (1763 in French; 1765 in English) and Olivier (1771) wrote in English and French and Angelo has excellent plates and illustrations. As the grandfather of the Henry that wrote the Infantry Sword Exercise Domenico Angelo’s work will give one some idea of what the Angelo family’s salle offered in terms of instruction, that is, how much more there was to learn than what one sees in infantry manuals. For those more into Victorian sabre, contemporary French works (e.g. the Manuel d’escrime, 1877) and yes, Italian works (e.g. Del Frate (1868 & 1876), Rossi (1885), and especially Masiello (1887)), will help fill in the picture. There is merit in looking outside one’s own tradition, not only for what one might learn to help one’s game, but also because sabre then as now didn’t exist in a vacuum and gaining some sense of the larger picture will increase understanding.

In time, if HEMA survives its growing pains (betting is even money), we will likely see more events that allow for a wider, deeper variety of expression and sabre play than we do now. If and when it’s possible, one such event we’ve been trying to get off the ground here: a sabre invitational last held in 2019 that was slowly growing pre-Covid. The goal with this event is to provide a venue for fencers who want more than Mongo-chop-chop and who are capable of playing at a higher level. There is a lot of good sabre out there, most unfortunately drowned out by the din of arrogant single-tempo champs, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. The sources are there, and there are people who work from them, but that avails one little if they don’t take advantage of it.

NOTES:

[1] Matt Easton, facebook comment, shared with me March 19th, 2021. NB: The friend that shared this with me was quick to say that it may be a joke, that at least that some are treating it as one, and that Easton also appears to have walked back this comment somewhat.

I’ve not had the pleasure yet to meet Mr. Easton, but as a fellow fan of sabre and someone that has often pointed people to some of his videos, I might recommend in a friendly way that he be a trifle more careful. An experienced fencer, and no stranger to sources, Matt might make a joke that someone without his background takes at face value. Certainly the responses to his comment suggest wide support for what he said, and that is a problem being not only incorrect but needlessly inflammatory. No student of Italian sabre is unaware of what the majority of HEMA thinks of their tradition.

[2] Mr. James’ sabre is Radaellian, and if that seems incidental, then that very Italian leather sabre cuff should help cement the fact he studied Italian sabre. For his Olympic record, cf. https://www.olympedia.org/athletes/22152

[3] In an earlier post I discussed this issue, see “Dueling” or “Military” Sabre, May 15th, 2019. It should be obvious why an infantryman, relying on his rifle and bayonet more than a sabre or hanger, would require less training, but for those who don’t see that then a side-by-side comparison of Roworth or Angelo set against Del Frate, Masiello, Rossi, or Pecoraro & Pessina should make it pretty clear even if one is only counting techniques per source.

To reiterate: simpler texts do not equal easy to learn and fight, in fact they are far harder to use well. This system produced some very fine swordsmen, and does today when, like Jay Maas, Paul Wagner, Stephen Hand, Nick Thomas, and others read and study these works in light of fencing principles that supply what the authors of those texts assumed the reader knew.

[4] No, it wasn’t me, I was helping to officiate, but it was a friend of mine, a senior student of Maestro Sean Hayes, and a gifted fencer.

Author: jemmons0611

Vis enim vincitur Arte.

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