More Fun with From Page to Practice, or, How to Use your Sources

It’s easy to point out examples where we go wrong in using historical fencing sources. It’s also important if we care about producing the best interpretations we can, but on it’s own pointing out a problem isn’t the same as providing possible solutions. From time to time I like to take a passage from a source I use and share my approach. The one caveat is this: I don’t have all the answers. I’ll be the first to admit that. What I do have, however, is extensive training in language, source analysis, and fencing theory, not only theory as it is taught now, but theory as it developed over the past 500 years. Taken together these can be valuable tools for making sense of sources.

Start with the Source

For historical fencers our primary authority is the page. This can be tricky. We are removed in time and culture, explanations vary in depth, and we often face an incomplete record. Each of these factors alone or together affect how much of that authority we can access, and thus, how much we can interpret with any surety. The more information we have for a system, the better, but this depends too on the nature of that information. We have, for example, far more detailed description for rapier across languages and time, but have far less for medieval sword and buckler.

Most people, in my experience, look to an instructor for help; the burden for doing this work is then more or less shifted to that club and its instructor. Assuming one’s instructor is doing an effective job at interpretation, then there’s arguably less to worry about. However, a good instructor will be able to explain their work, methodology, and approach. In ideal cases they share that information day one. This is one opportunity where we can assess an instructor’s ability.

If you don’t have access to an instructor, if you like to read on your own, or if your instructor is giving you homework, then it helps to have some help. Let’s say you are one of my students and I’ve given you this passage from a key Radaellian sabre manual, Settimo Del Frate’s Instructions for Fencing with the Sabe and Sword:

56. Molinelli Alternating with Parries

When the student has learned the execution of the various molinelli and parries, he must become competent in their execution by repeating the same molinillo many more times, alternating between the various molinelli, and alternating and mixing them with various parries. He will also do this exercise while moving. This practice must be performed with proper progression to be worthwhile, giving the student nimbleness and ease in the handling of the sabre, which he can easily put into use. He will also learn the advantages of moving and rotating the sabre in the hand with the movement of the forearm. The exercise is also valuable to clear in his mind the advantages of the reasoned progression of instruction.

            This lesson of molinelli alternated and mixed with parries teaches only one new thing, which is the way and time to turn the edge in proper amount. When the various molinelli are executed at the same time, the commands are given for the execution of the molinelli and parries, only having to modify the preparatory command to the exercises that the students are to execute.

            For example:

            Two molinelli to the head, the first from the left and the second from the right, and then a parry of 5th and a molinillo to the face from the right, or—

            Two molinelli to the face from the right, a parry of 6th, and a rising molinillo to the flank, or—

            A molinillo to the face from the right, a parry of 1st, and a molinillo to the head from the left, cavazione (or coupé) and on guard in 3rd, etc.

            The exercise is easily varied, and it will be necessary for you to adhere to a reasoned and complete progression, in order to obtain from this important practice the greatest possible benefit.

[Christopher A. Holzman, The Art of the Dueling Sabre: A Translation and Explanation of Ca. Settimo Del Frate’s Award-winning Textbook on Giuseppe Radaelli’s Sabre Method for the Fencing Masters School of Milano, Staten Island, NY: SKA Swordplay Books, 2011, 39-40]


L’allievo che ha appreso l’esecuzione dei diversi mo linelli e parate, è esercitato nella loro esecuzione, sia ripetendo più volte lo stesso molinello, sia alternando i diversi molinelli tra loro, sia alternandoli frapponendovi le diverse parate ed anche le diverse marcie. Quest’esercitazione fatta a dovere e con giusta pro gressione varrà a dare all’allievo quella scioltezza e faci lità nel maneggio della sciabola per cui potrà mettere in pratica più facilmente e sentire i vantaggi di muovere e ruotare la sciabola ferma ed equilibrata nel pugno per movimento d’avambraccio, e varrà inoltre a chiarire nella sua mente la ragionata progressione dell’insegna mento ed i suoi vantaggi. Per questa lezione di molinelli alternati e misti con parate, si avrà solo da insegnare, come cosa nuova, il modo ed il tempo di girare il filo con giusta gradazione, quando si devono eseguire più molinelli dalla stessa parte; per il rimanente valgono le norme date per l’ese cuzione dei molinelli e parate, fatti separatamente, avendo solo l’avvertenza di modificare il comando ana logamente agli esercizi che si fanno eseguire.

Per esempio:

Due molinelli di testa, il primo da sinistra il secondo da destra –parata di 5a e molinelto di figura da destra – oppure:

Due molinelli di figura da destra –parata di 6a, e molinello di montante da sinistra – oppure:

Un molinello di figura da sinistra –parata di 1a, mo linello di testa da sinistra — cavazione (o coupé) e guardia di terza, ecc., ecc.

Gli esercizi come si vede facilmente, ponno essere mol tissimi e svariati, e sarà necessario l’attenersi ad una progressione ragionata e completa, onde ottenere da questa importante esercitazione il maggior frutto possibile.

[S. Del Frate, Istruzione per la Scherma di Sciabola e di Spada, Milano: Litografia Gaetano Baroffio, 1876, 49-50.]

If you have some Italian and a copy of the original work, then it’s a good idea to place it side by side your translation. In this case, Chris Holzman is one of the best translators working on the Italian corpus: he has a number of native speakers—who are also experienced fencers or maestri—read over his work. This is a vital process in any translator’s work. It’s due diligence. Even with an excellent translation it is helpful to look at the original provided you possess some ability with the language. Reading them side by side will reveal a translator’s choices, but it will also reveal nuances that translation sometimes has trouble capturing.

Now, what do you do with this passage? First, read it more than once, and as you do so isolate key ideas. Right away one knows from the subheading that the number “56” suggests that this is deep within the text. The author, Del Frate, was adamant about the logical progression of lessons, so if anything here is unfamiliar then rereading earlier sections will help. If for example you don’t remember the difference between a molinillo to the head from the left and one to the face, go back and read that first. Or maybe you don’t recall exactly which parries are which. Go back and review. Once you feel more certain with these, then reread the passage again. Then read again and take it line by line.

The first line informs us that this exercise builds on previous lessons, so review can be useful. It also tells us that what this section provides is a way of mixing the molinelli with parries. In review you recall that Del Frate introduces the concept of the molinelli first (§8, 10 Holzman; §8, 16-17 Del Frate), then covers each molinelli in turn through Chapters VIII -X (§42-55, 339, Holzman; 39-49 Del Frate), and finally he offers a few different exercises with the molinelli, such as the one covered here, as well as with a lunge (§57, 41, Holzman; 50-51 Del Frate) and against attempts at engagement (§58, 41-42; 51 Del Frate). If the idea of mixing molinelli and parries is odd at first, then be sure to read each of these sections in succession first.

Del Frate’s method, Radaelli’s, is progressive. We first learn the molinelli as an exercise and way to foster strength, flexibility, and edge alignment. As we improve, we see that each of the molinelli not only cover the major lines of attack, but travel through each of the parries as well. From standing we add movement, first with a bit of lean, then with the feet, the lunge, and then all of it together. So, since this mix of parries and molinelli is near the close of the section for sabre and just before the synoptic tables, it figures that the author assumed some facility first. In the cavalry this was, of course, a lot easier to establish as the troopers had regular drill under military sword masters.

The next few sentences establish additional reasons for the drill:

  • it will impart “nimbleness and ease in the handling of the sabre”
  • the student will “learn the advantages of moving and rotating the sabre in the hand with the movement of the forearm” [1]
  • and “the exercise is also valuable to clear in his mind the advantages of the reasoned progression of instruction”

These are handy to keep in mind as you work through the drill—they’re the reasons we bother doing it. We also learn that this exercise teaches us one new thing:

This lesson of molinelli alternated and mixed with parries teaches only one new thing, which is the way and time to turn the edge in proper amount.

Now, assuming you’ve had experience with molinelli and can perform them pretty well, how do you incorporate this section of the text?

Important to note, Del Frate is addressing an instructor here, thus the reminder that in giving commands the only change is what commands the instructor gives. To explain this Del Frate provides three examples. These are a fantastic place to start.

  • Two molinelli to the head, the first from the left and the second from the right, and then a parry of 5th and a molinillo to the face from the right, or—
  • Two molinelli to the face from the right, a parry of 6th, and a rising molinillo to the flank, or—
  • A molinillo to the face from the right, a parry of 1st, and a molinillo to the head from the left, cavazione (or coupé) and on guard in 3rd, etc.

Each of these can be performed solo or with a partner. If you’re mining this section for pell-work, then start with these three and when you’re comfortable mix and match with other parries and molinelli. If you have a partner, it will help to write out just how this will work, and then when you meet go through it a few times slowly, e.g.

Del Frate, “Mixing Parries and Molinelli” [cf. Holzman, 39-40; DF 49-50]

1. Two molinelli to the head, the first from the left and the second from the right, and then a parry of 5th and a molinillo to the face from the right, or—

Drill as Is:

Fencer A in 2nd; Fencer B in 2nd

Fencer A makes a molinillo from the left to the right; B receives touch

Fencer A makes molinillo to the right to left; B receives touch

Fencer A parries 5th, and makes a molinillo to the left cheek

Drill as Partner Drill*

Fencer A in 2nd; Fencer B in 3rd

Fencer A makes a molinillo from the left; B parries 5th, cuts head

Fencer A parries 5th, makes molinillo to the right; B parries prima, ripostes to head

Fencer A parries 5th, and makes a molinillo to the left cheek

*This adds an additional parry for A, and more realistic responses from B. Everything we do should have real application, especially in partner drills. An instructor can take the part of B in the first instance, because part of an instructor’s job is to provide a target. We can assess what a student is doing well in this way and make corrections. As we add complexity, the instructor’s role takes on more realistic behavior.

Starting with a drill as written is best. This can be surprisingly difficult at times. In Luigi Barbasetti’s The Art of the Sabre and Epee, for example, his description of the rising cut from the right is dense.[2] It’s not impossible to figure out, but it’s not the clearest description either. So, take your time, and if needed take one portion, one move of a drill at a time.

As an instructor I use this differently than I do as one of a pair of fencers just working out. If neither you or your partner is the instructor, then the second option above is going to do more for you, because it more closely mimics what we actually do in a bout. While we might make two cuts in succession, more often than not our opponent will react to the first one, so mixing in more for Fencer B makes sense. It’s still important to go slow before going fast, and to keep it simple at first. Even if that is just for warm-up, it will help. It’s practice seeing the lines, gauging the time to respond, all of that. Doing the drill as-is is fine too.

For the instructor sharing a drill like Del Frate’s molinelli with parries, focus on proper technique, placement, and flow with newer students. It’s a good place to start with multiple action drills. It will take time to perfect, but early encouragement and praise of what they are doing well is vital. As they become more familiar with the drill the instructor can shape the clay as it were more directly; students tend to be more accepting of criticism when they have a better grasp of the task and when they don’t hear a litany of complaints the entire lesson. This stuff is difficult, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed—an instructor should never forget that.

If an instructor is working with more advanced students not only can one mix and match molinelli and parries, but also the tempo. The second drill, for example, where there are two cuts made to the face from the right, then a parry of 6th, and a molinillo from that parry to the flank, one can have the student start out making each portion in regular succession, then change it up so that say the second cut arrives faster, or the parry-riposte is made faster (so slow, fast, slow, slow; slow slow, fast-fast).

Adding movement to this is another option. Traditionally this is how fencing lessons often go—it’s how I learned and it’s what masters are still teaching instructors. Have the students start out standing in close measure; each will go through the exercise 5-10 times. Next, have them move one step out and advance/step in to target. Then, have them take a little more distance so that they’re in critical distance or about tip to tip/top third of the blades; from here have them perform the drill with a lunge.[3] Lastly, have them advance in and lunge. With the advance lunge it’s possible to play with tempo via the feet too.

If in doubt or if you want more perspective, reach out to other fencers working in the same tradition. If you don’t know them well, then it pays to start your message or email politely. That should be obvious. You may find not only help, but new ideas to share with your students or group. There is no reason to go it alone, not when there are people who have been working on the same material for a long time.[4]


[1] If one only looks at the image and description of the grip where the the thumb is placed on the backstrap, etc., then it is easy to miss that in use the hand’s position changes fairly often. One thing the molinelli teach us well is how this works, and, how to make those minor adjustments with control.

[2] Barbasetti, The Art of the Sabre and Epee (1899/1936), 24:

20. Molinello to the Abdomen

This molinillo is composed of two movements:

1. Starting from the final position of the molinillo to the head (Fig. 10), describe backwards with the point half a circle, until your forearm is in a horizontal position (Fig. 13).

2. Continue this movement, hollowing the small of your back, raising the elbow as much as possible, in order to describe forward with your blade another half a circle and deliver a horizontal cut to the abdomen of your opponent (Figs. 8 and 14).

And for comparison, the 1899 text in German (46-47):

20. Schwingung auf den Bauch.

Sie wird auch in zwei Theilbewegungen zerlegt:

1. Man gehe von der Schlussstellung der Schwingung auf den Kopf aus (Fig. 10), führe die Klingenspitze mittelst eines lothrechten Halbkreises in der Richtung des Klingenrückens so nach rückwärts, dass der Vorderarm mit dem etwas erhobenen Ellbogen wagrecht liegt (Fig. 13).

2. Nun setze man die Bewegung durch Kreuz hohl unterstützt, halte den Ellbogen so hoch als möglich und führe die Spitze, einen Halbkreis beschreibend, direct nach vorne, so dass die Klinge den Bauch des Gegners durch einen nach links ansteigenden Querschnitt träfe (Fig. 14).

Of note, in step 2, there are some differences in language that are significant. The word Kreuz, for example, here means “small of the back,” not “cross,” the primary definition. As a native speaker of English (American), this definition works better for me than “hollow,” which is perfectly correct, but less specific. Conversely, Querschnitt, “cross-section,” doesn’t explain the action as well as “horizontal” does. However, ansteigenden, from ansteigen, “rise,” would be helpful in English. Classically, the rising cut from the right is less horizontal than it is diagonal, and it is, for me at least, the least easy to perform.

[3] Critical distance is where a fencer can lunge to target. This is relative given height, reach, etc., but a good place to start is where the blades would cross at the top third or tip. If too close or too far, one can adjust. I often refer to this concept merely as being “in distance.” Most of our attacks in sabre are delivered via lunge, so figuring this out is important not only in lessons, but in partner drills, and in a bout.

[4] In the “links” on this site, near the bottom, I’ve listed a few resources for those working in the late Italian tradition.

Author: jemmons0611

Vis enim vincitur Arte.

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