Peeling back the Layers: How to Use Modern Approaches to Examine the Past

In my last post I shared some thoughts about the value of studying beyond our core interest. It can be a hard sell suggesting to an Olympic fencer that there is something to “HEMA” and vice versa, but I stand by this and the longer I investigate the history of fencing the more I’m convinced there is merit to this interdisciplinary approach. But what if someone hasn’t had exposure to one or the other? How might someone who doesn’t have time to take a coaching clinic or attend a seminar on Marozzo obtain the tools they need? This is a fit subject for a lengthy book, but were a friend to ask me “what do I need if I have to teach this tomorrow?” I’d have a few recommendations.

What follows is how a “HEMA” fencer can benefit from familiarity with Olympic and trad fencing–a look at how the competitive fencer can benefit from a study of “HEMA” will follow.

When something is unfamiliar it’s often best to start small. In this case, first, I’d have them read up on and prepare to discuss the universals. [1] Second, I’d have them take one action, technique, or idea and focus on it to illustrate the general principle. Reading both modern treatments and the historical ones they wish to cover side by side is next. In 101 level history courses we refer to this as using “compare and contrast” to discover patterns, see what pops out, and collect data. Next, they need to analyze that data and figure out what if anything is significant about the patterns they have found. There are several ways to do this, but an easy one is to write out what each author says about X and then look at them side by side. Index cards, columns on a sheet of paper, or some digital means of doing the same all work.

It’s one thing to tell, another to show, so here I’d like to take an action or technique and apply this process. Let’s say that someone is working on Roworth’s “battering.” In his The Art of Defence on Foot with the Broad Sword and Sabre (1804), page 65, Roworth writes:

BATTERING

Is striking on your antagonist’s sword to obtain an opening, and requires the same degree of caution as bearing, lest your antagonist slip his blade from your stroke, and make a cut on the contrary side. It can seldom be attended with success against any but the outside and spadroon guards, when used to force an opening on the side at which you batter: but sometimes by inducing an adversary to resist that attack, you may disengage and cut on the contrary side.

Despite the brevity of the passage there is a lot to consider here:

  • battering requires the same caution attending bearing
  • battering can be defeated by slipping and cutting to the other side
  • battering works best against the outside and spadroon guards
  • battering sometimes works best to draw the opponent’s parry and attack in a different line

It makes sense to tackle the obvious first. What is bearing? What’s a slip? What does Roworth mean by “contrary side?” What is the outside guard? Spadroon guard?

Defining these means reading through the source. Bearing, for example, Roworth treats just before battering (64-65). He states:

BEARING

Is generally practiced by longeing forward briskly on the outside guard, opposing the fort of your blade to that of your antagonist, and from thence slipping your fort towards his feeble, by which means you may press his sword of the line; this (unless he takes to the hanging guard) leaves his head, neck, and breast exposed to your edge, and from this position a cut over and within his guard may be made, but must be executed with celerity.

Here too there is a lot of vocabulary:

  • longeing (lunging)
  • fort and feeble
  • opposing the fort
  • pressing out of line
  • hanging guard as counter
  • cut-over and within his guard

If one doesn’t know these terms, then mining the text and/or other, related works and seeing what they say is the next step. It may require a slight leap of faith, but some of these terms one will find in more modern works. The reason that more recent sources can help is that old and new are connected—terms change, rule sets change, and individual techniques sometimes change with them, but in looking at them across time it’s a lot easier to see these differences and figure out in the aggregate the nature of the action. It’s not a perfect analogy, but looking at how the definition of a “beat” changes over time generates a sort of Platonic ideal of “beat-ness,” that is, what a beat is and what’s for regardless of time period. We then have a distilled “generic” version that allows us to identify the same or similar action wherever we find it. The caveat to this is that we can’t stop with the similarity; it is crucial to note the differences too, especially looking backward.

There are many books and websites that can help [2]. Let’s use “bearing” as a quick example. The first two sites I checked don’t list it [https://www.britishfencing.com/glossary-of-terms/ and https://www.usafencing.org/glossary-of-fencing]. Another site lists a term closer to “battering,” French battement, which it defines as “beat” [https://queencityclassicalfencing.com/fencing-terms/].

I looked in Gaugler’s Fencing Terminology and Morton’s A-Z of Fencing and didn’t find anything, but Evangelista’s The Encyclopedia of the Sword does have a listing:

BATTERY AND BEATING

In his book Complete Fencing Master (1692), the celebrated swordsman Sir William Hope refers to “battery” as “striking with the edge and foible of your sword [the weak portion of the blade, closest to the point] against the edge and foible of your adversary.” “Beating,” he says, “is done with the forte of your sword [the strong portion of the blade, closest to the guard] on the foible of your adversary.”

The beat, he suggests, is more useful for taking control of an adversary’s weapon than is the battery. [49]

Significantly, the master Evangelista mentions and quotes, Hope, represents an earlier Insular text. That is potentially a decent piece of support—geographically both Hope and Roworth are from the Isles, and though separated by a century, the similarity in their use of battery is suggestive. Both describe the use of the forte against the foible.

It can pay to be thorough, so a check through a few more sources is wise. Looking at Maitre Rob Handelman and Maitre de Sabre Connie Handelman’s Fencing Sabre: A Practical Training Guide for Coaches, Parents and Young Athletes defines “beat” as:

A type of attaque au fer made by tapping the opponent’s blade sharply on the middle or upper part [311]

[attaques au fer: these attacks are actions that are more or less violently executed against the adversary’s blade. There are three kinds of attaques au fer: beat, pressure and expulsion (froissement). Beat and pressure are the only ones performed in modern sabre fencing] 310

Gaugler’s Fencing Terminology (18) offers:

Beat 1. French. a crisp movement of the blade against the opponent’s with the object of knocking it aside or obtaining a reaction, is called a beat. 2. Italian. a blow of measured violence delivered with the strong of the blade against the medium of the adversary’s steel to dislodge it from engagement or its position in line. The line in which the attacking blade encounters the opposing steel identifies the beat: we therefore speak of beats in first, second, third, and fourth.

Looking closer to my own tradition, Holzman’s translation of Settimo Del Frate’s Instruction in Fencing with the Sabre and the Sword (1876), provides a useful entry in his glossary (232):

Beat (Battuta, It.) A percussive blow against the opponent’s blade, meant to deviate it from line. It differs from the sforzo in that it is much smaller in scope and it rebounds quickly from the opponent’s blade rather than sliding on it. Capt. Del Frate’s sword text describes it as the falso pico (q.v.), but the sabre text does not discuss it. The beat in sabre does occur in Parise, Barbasetti, et al.

Now armed with definitions from 1692 to 2010, all of them pertaining to violent strikes against an opponent’s blade, we can better assess what Roworth describes as “battering.” No one definition may match exactly, but they are close enough that using comparison as well as paying close attention to the words Roworth uses we can get super close, and thus, derive a decent interpretation of this action.

Text & Weapon

With a grasp of each term one can then work it out text in one hand, sword in the other. For “battering,” one needs something to batter, so set up another weapon or dowel or similar as target. Returning to the text, Roworth tells us  

BATTERING

Is striking on your antagonist’s sword to obtain an opening, and requires the same degree of caution as bearing, lest your antagonist slip his blade from your stroke, and make a cut on the contrary side. It can seldom be attended with success against any but the outside and spadroon guards, when used to force an opening on the side at which you batter: but sometimes by inducing an adversary to resist that attack, you may disengage and cut on the contrary side.

Start small. Set up the target-sword (if you don’t have a partner) so that it approximates Roworth’s “outside guard.” This corresponds to modern third.

Roworth; Barbasetti; de Beaumont*

Now, strike the opposing steel to deviate it and cut. If you have a partner, do the same, and then try what the author suggests—have your partner react and attempt to parry, then coupé/make a cut-over to the other line (this is sometimes called an indirect cut today).

Mixing Modern and Historical Approaches

Where modern training can help is in the details. For example, traditional and modern fencing teach us to strike immediately after making the beat to avoid the chance of an attack into tempo. Likewise, we make the beat with the fingers and without the hand deviating from the plane of 2nd/3rd—to bring the arm across to beat opens the line and exposes us to a counter-attack.

Modern pedagogy can also help us hone our ability with this action. Start from standing, in distance, and perform the action several times. Then, take a half-step to a step back and perform it with a lunge. This will change things—does one beat first, on the extension, and then lunge, making this a two tempi action, or, does one make the beat as they extend and then flow into the cut in one tempo? Try both. Two tempi beats will be easier to start with and help isolate each action: start of extension, beat, finalization of extension and touch. Now try the same action from just out of distance so that one must advance or cross-step first before lunging. Lastly, try it moving, going back and forth, and then selecting the right moment. This can be practiced offensively (make the beat as your partner retreats) or defensively (make the beat as you retreat).

Depending on weapon weight some of this will need alteration. Weight affects tempo, and thus measure, so it pays to calibrate if one is switching from a weapon under 500g to one of more historical weight between 650-800g. [3]. The good news is that it’s fun experimenting, and in the process of changing weight of weapon, the measure, and varying the tempo will make a single entry, a single action in Roworth far, far more valuable and useful.

Of note, using contemporary progression with footwork or employing similar cautions in performing the action, doesn’t undercut the interpretation or mean one is being automatically anachronistic. These are tactics we use to understand our sources. The footwork Roworth advocates may be different in certain ways, but a knowledge of how we advance and retreat today will only help one in looking at the way the author treats these as well as in what he advocates for the traverse steps, the slip, etc. There is remarkable, demonstrable continuity of theme if not execution in using the sword in one hand. The similarities help us understand the differences that we find so exciting.

NOTES:

[1] The universals, as termed, vary, but the list always includes measure or distance, tempo (rate of an action, its rhythm, the time of a single fencing action), and judgment. Speed, timing(the favorable time to make an action), and initiative (the first person to start an action) are often listed as well. These are concepts, but there are more practical expressions too, e.g. the concept of lines or quadrants of target (inside, outside line; high line vs. low line; inside high, outside low, etc.), the necessity of the weapon and hand moving before the foot and body, the role of evasion, deflect, block, and others.

[2] I’ve listed a few of these above, websites and books, but there are many more. The key thing is to locate credible resources. This is especially true with the web; not everything is equally worthy of your time. Books, at least those vetted by an editorial team and in some cases outside reviewers, are a safer bet than those published by an enthusiast. Historical fencing is an amateur pursuit, and I’ll be the last to knock that, but we have people in the community who are better researchers, writers, and teachers than others and it pays to take the time to consider what you are reading. I rely heavily on the translations by Chris Holzman, but Chris was well-trained, holds certification in fencing, and has his translations read not only by native speakers, but native speakers who are recognized fencing experts. It matters.

Often an experienced, capable researcher can assist us too, but as with the web and books, do your homework. For Insular broadsword my first stop is Jay Maas, but Nick Thomas is another good resource. There is a LOT of broadsword video out there, much of it poor, so consider the poster’s qualifications, how they’re viewed by experts and the more experienced, knowledgeable amateurs.

[3] One “can” beat with sabres over 800g, I have myself, but this comes down to balance and purpose. A basket-hilt or khmali meant for foot combat, because the pob is closer to the guard, can make a lovely beat, but a trooper weight sabre, because the pob is farther out, is less ideal. It’s one reason we see so many single-tempo attacks in competitive HEMA sabre—the weapons they’re using are too heavy to do anything but simple actions (which makes sense if one is in the saddle, but next to no sense on foot).

* The image from Roworth is from The Art of Defence on Foot edited by Nick Thomas, available here: http://swordfight.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/ART-OF-DEFENCE-ON-FOOT-1824-Fourth-Edition.pdf . Barbasetti in third, is from the 1899/1936 The Art of the Sabre and Epee; the last image is from de Beaumont’s Fencing: Ancient Art and Modern Sport (1978).

Author: jemmons0611

Vis enim vincitur Arte.

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