The Value of Historical Fencing for the Olympic Fencer

Two posts ago [31 Ja. 2022 “Further Tales in Continuing Education”] I outlined a few ways the historical fencer might benefit from Olympic fencing’s pedagogy, terminology, and their well-established use of the universals in most aspects of their approach. Here, I’d like to do the same for the Olympic fencer and suggest a few ways they might take advantage of the historical approach. [1]

This post will read differently from the previous one. It’s not that there’s nothing the Olympic fencer can learn from historical fencing, but that what they might learn is more theoretical than practical or tied to specific applications useful in their game. This isn’t to say that time spent on (the better) historical interpretations won’t improve an Olympic fencer’s understanding of technique, even their fencing, but to say that where modern understanding can help “unpack” the sources, the knowledge and practice that emerge from the sources will not help one earn ratings or trophies. The contexts are too different: the rules that govern the sport, while still tied in some ways to the logic of the sharp point, are divorced enough from the original purpose that between the rules and electrical scoring apparatus fighting “historically” will only lose one points. This is something I’ve covered often, too often probably, so for brevity this time I leave that discussion in a note. [2]

Historical Fencing’s Value for the Sport: The Short Answer

More than anything else the modern fencer spending time in historical fencing should gain increased appreciation for the sport. I say “should” because if the Olympic fencer spends time on “bad HEMA,” then they’ll likely experience the same revulsion they normally do. So, assuming they find decent interpretations sans tin-foil hat thinking they should return to the piste with more awareness of their own game. It’s genealogy in a way. It’s time spent looking through a family tree, seeing connections, and ultimately how one’s own story fits into the larger one.

Few modern fencers need be told how complex and sophisticated the Art is, how difficult to acquire and how much more difficult to use effectively (never mind gracefully). On the other hand, most may not fully appreciate how much more to fencing there has been historically, how varied the tools were, or how nimbly people developed weapons and systems for unique contexts. They may also learn how the three modern weapons happened to be the three that “survived” to form the modern sport. It’s easy to assume no other outcome was possible, but even within more recent history there are examples that remind us of this rich past and that modern foil, epee, and sabre might have included other, now extinct branches. [3]

There are also, under the umbrella of appreciation, more specific benefits the modern fencer might acquire as well.

Increased Insight into the Hows and Whys of Technique

Olympic fencers, more so than their cousins in historical, pay careful attention to technique, to the proper use of and positioning that makes an attack or parry succeed. From the first day of instruction this awareness is inculcated; it’s a key aspect of teaching one how to fence. A day-one fencer learns why the sword and hand move first, why the lead foot points straight ahead, and how far the blade needs to move to defend against attacks in various lines. Everything, from the distance the elbow should be from the body on guard to where the knee should be over the foot, is taught as a matter of course. Depending on the club, an instructor may not have much time to explain each aspect in depth, but they rarely teach without this high degree of specificity. Typically students receive instruction, work on it with the maestro or instructor, and then drill it with other students. The average fencer doesn’t need to know how a technique developed, only how to perform and use it effectively. That is the goal, after all, movement streamlined to achieve a specific goal. It’s really only if those students get into teaching that some sense of the development of technique is important, but even here the goal is not history but effective transmission of what students need now.

Del Frate, 1876

To illustrate this one can look at a modern method of taking parry five, the head parry, in sabre. Few students are taught sixth, seventh, or first as alternatives, only fifth. Of note, the blade is turned out toward the opponent, not up, the reason being that so turned one’s parry is more easily taken farther out and has a better chance of defeating whip-over. [4] The mid-century method I learned was closer to what it was at 1900, that is, the thumbnail faces down, the blade is angled up, and then turned slightly forward and out. Earlier Italian practice was farther out even than this.

The Olympic fencer doesn’t need to know why they take 5th the way they do, but if they take the time to examine how the head parry has developed over time they will come away with greater insight, not only into what they are learning, but also into the changes demanded by different weights and balances of weapons and how rulesets affect technique. As I often remind students, there is no Platonic ideal of a parry—we have a starting place, but exactly where we take that parry in a given bout can vary in actual practice. [5]

Improved Appreciation for the Role the Universals Play

ROW (“right of way”) revolves around universal principles of fight. As I’ve mentioned before, ROW assumes the same logic we apply in historical fencing, which is to say that the attack takes precedence. If a sharp blade is racing toward us we had best defend. The application across schools, styles, and forms of hand-to-hand fighting may vary, but this principle is always in play. The difference in Olympic is that so long as one has ROW nothing else matters (save in epee where there is no ROW). This means that being hit at nearly the same time or just after, or off-target in foil and sabre, doesn’t mean much. It’s not that the rules don’t govern these incidents too, because they do, but that one is not concerned about being hit, only that one hits with priority.

What historical fencing offers the Olympic fencer is a stricter view of this principle. Our rule is “don’t get hit.” Ever. Whether defending or, importantly in this instance, on the attack, the goal is not to be struck. It’s not enough to hit first or start first; one must land the attack and not get hit while doing so. This doctrinaire approach to universal principles is useful. The reason the weapon and arm move first, also necessary for establishing ROW, is that when the swords were sharp this was primary: we are safest behind that sharp point and threaten best when it moves first. This way the dangerous bits reach target faster and are more likely to get a reaction from the opponent. It’s efficient motion—none of it is superfluous. One benefit of weapon-first is reducing the degree we telegraph an action. Add nerves in the mix and efficiency becomes all the more important; it’s one reason why we drill simple actions over and over again.

The historical approach, because it doesn’t have ROW or off-target, means that it’s unforgiving. A hit is a hit unless passé or flat. Like it or not, much of competitive fencing is performance; sure skill and tactics are vital, but the most successful competitors also know how to play to the director, judges, and audience. It’s as true in “HEMA.” If an Olympic fencer applied the same logic we do in historical, imagine how much more strongly that drama might read. [6] Few things send a clear message to director and opponent like stop-cutting the opposition and then parrying and striking them a second time. Whipover aside it reads a certain way—it implies control, calm, confidence. If anything, given the horrific issue of whipover even to achieve such a close-out once is significant and worthy of note.

Greater Understanding of the Origins and Development of the Sport

Returning to the genealogy of fencing, the Olympic fencer spending time in the average HEMA group will likely feel incredibly grateful for all that the sport has to offer. I don’t wish to rail against the historical community, but it’s a patchwork of clubs, groups, and schools of varying quality, and only a handful of which are able to offer much in terms of solid teaching. Most Olympic fencers will find the “fight club” nature of HEMA off-putting, the lack of drill foreign, the misuse of sources bizarre, and the inconsistency in pedagogy rightly concerning. Most ills in HEMA derive from these problems.

The Olympic fencer seeing the positive aspects of historical fencing will view their own training with new appreciation and awareness. It’s that learning a second language vantage point. With luck—and I confess this is a selfish wish—that fencer may also come to see their ruleset with new eyes. There are logical inconsistencies that make zero sense, which might be solved easily, and which vested interest and inertia ignore. My favorite example is the fact one can score with the flat of the sabre—the Olympic fencer, concerned with ROW, seeks to get the steel on target with little thought to which part of the blade. Needless to say with a live blade striking flat isn’t going to do much and certainly isn’t going to render one’s opponent hors de combat. We have blades now that could easily solve this problem, something a few of us were advocating twenty years ago but lacked decent tools for, and the investment would be worth it. Castille’s 16mm, Darkwood’s sabre blade (provided Scott increases the width and thickness of the tip), and a few others are all light enough that they don’t require a body-builder to wield, are flexible enough to be safe in the thrust provided the usual safety equipment and control, and still allow for complex actions. The net gain is worth the risk or trying something new that is, actually, old 😉 [7]

Case Study: Circa 1900 sabre at 755g vs. Olympic Sabre at 325g

Ferdinando Masiello, 1887

For a specific example of this awareness, a modern sabreur who picks up a sabre with the weight and balance of period originals will find it heavy. Of the three surviving weapons sabre, oddly enough, is the lightest of the three. [8] If they attempt to play the game they do today with yesterday’s weapon they will quickly appreciate how much has changed.

Luigi Barbasetti, 1899/1936

Direct cuts are made much the same with either weight of weapon, but some of the ripostes will initially feel slow, large, and dangerous. The molinello we make from the head parries of 5th or 6th, to name one example, requires more elbow. Weight affects distance too. The feint thrust to the inside line, disengage and thrust or cut to the other line, is slightly slower with a heavier blade, so where one starts that feint must be correct; moving the weapon faster in a pinch won’t work like it does with the s2000. Weight and balance affect speed. A beat made from third, for instance, may displace the point from the line, but it might be easier for the opponent to replace that line too—this defeats the purpose of the beat and can make this maneuver dangerous. This is rarely an issue with the s2000.

Pecoraro & Pessina, 1912

The nature of the blade changes things too. The fact one must hit with a cutting or stabbing portion of the blade with each blow will likely make an Olympic sabre fencer pause when trying to make a banderole cut the current way (flat). As nonsensical as it is with the s2000, seeing the wider flat of a 16 or 20mm sabre on target highlights how silly an idea it is. This same fencer will find the curve on copies of period sabres foreign too—modern sabre blades are all straight. This affects how one makes a point in line, how one targets a thrust, and how one makes certain actions on the blade.

Joseph Vince, 1940

Moreover, weapons built along historical lines can immediately explain some of the vestigial artifacts that survived into 20th century if not modern sabre. One reason we turn the hand out slightly in parrying third, which is still taught, is that it puts the edge out to receive the incoming steel. We have the elbow about a fist away from the body in Hungarian third/Italian terza bassa (low third) too. Why? The blade is best supported with one’s thumb behind it, and the forte on sabres wasn’t sharp—it was meant to block. So positioned, if the parry collapses, and depending on the weapon one is facing it can, then the arm is pushed directly into the body, but in a straight line and one that still, if all goes right, keeps one safe and keeps the edge aligned to riposte. A panic-parry made close to the body is possible with an historical blade; with the s2000 chances are high there will be whipover and one will receive a touch.

And, Lastly

Using copies of the weapons which originally informed the system one fences is fun. That’s reason enough to try it out and see how they play. Paired with a decent historical source—I list some on the site in both the “About Us” and “FAQ” pages—makes it all the more rewarding. It’s can be a slippery slope, though, so be warned. You might find you like it, and some of the best fencers I know have a one foot in Olympic, one in historical. It just means more fencing and when is that ever bad?

NOTES:

[1] As quick reminder, I use the term “Olympic” and less often “sport” as short-hand; I do not mean them pejoratively. These are descriptive terms and serve only to delineate their branch of the tree from historical. I’ve long been on record for the issues I have with the FIE’s handling of certain problems, and I stand by those complaints, but it’s important to clarify that one can take issue with rules and their interpretation and yet still value the culture those rules govern.

[2] The chief difference between Olympic and historical fencing is purpose. Though intimately related, the former seeks to score points, the latter not to be hit. Both, odd as it may seem, prioritize the initial offensive action, but they do so in different ways. In the sport, right of way (ROW for short), dictates that the first fencer to start an offensive action has “priority,” that is, will score unless the opponent successfully defends and ripostes or successfully attacks in tempo. If anyone is hit after that exchange, indeed if one is hit at nearly the same time, it doesn’t matter—the point goes to the person with ROW. This is meant to reflect the reality of the duel, and does in that one respect, but the lack of concern over near simultaneous strikes and “off-target” touches undercuts this reality significantly. Only in epee does a simultaneous attack automatically penalize both fencers.

In historical fencing, the priority of the attack is supposed to reflect the reality of a sharp point: if the point or edge is thrusting or arcing toward one, then prudence dictates one defend oneself lest one be (metaphorically) wounded or killed. Ideally, one makes that attack and is not hit on the way in, or, hit immediately afterward. There is no “off-target” in historical fencing.

On the face of it this understanding should have obvious appeal to the Olympic fencer, but however much it should help them the nature of their equipment is such that it doesn’t translate. For one example, the s2000 blade too easily wraps around defense to score, and while “one-light” touches happen, more often than not who struck first is determined by the box. It’s common for both fencers to be struck, and more likely in sabre since any portion of the blade, even the flat, may score.

[3] Victorian “HEMA,” such as the longsword and rapier work Alfred Hutton experimented with, is one such example (cf. his Old Swordplay: Techniques of the Great Masters, Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2001; see also Egerton Castle’s Schools and Masters of Fencing: From the Middle Ages to the Eighteenth Century, Mineola, NY: Dover Books, 2003). The man behind the revival of the Olympic Games, first held in 1896, was a fencer and had written a book on mounted fencing (cf. Baron Pierre de Coubertin et Louis Pascaud, Traite d’escrime equestre, Auxerre, FR: 1906) The 1904 Olympics had single-stick and in 1908 there was “three-cornered sabre,” see Richard Cohen, By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions, New York, NY: Random House, 2002, 213). There were also oddities, such as the like longsword games constructed along the lines of Meyer, practiced by some of the Hitler Youth in World War II (see J. Christoph Amberger’s discussion, page 235ff, in The Secret History of the Sword, Burbank, CA: Unique Publications, 1998).

[4] Two posts ago I alluded to some differences in culture between historical and Olympic fencing that came up during a coaching clinic. One such example was the parry of 5th. During an exam, Maestra Connie Handelman asked me to demonstrate and explain 5th, which I did, and this started an interesting conversation about changes in the culture. I do things the old way, partly as an artifact of my own training (which was pre-electric) and partly because of the amount of time I’ve spent in classical/historical fencing with heavier sabres. She explained that the change in 5th had proved better defense against the nature of whipover.

[5] As a newer fencer, I had this mistaken idea that there were Platonic ideals of each parry, that is, a sort of ultimate, perfect example of each. Issues with Plato’s metaphysics aside, the parries as we learn them are a starting place, that spot where we need them most often, but they can and do shift. We see this in the literature, e.g. fourth and low-fourth, but in practice we see it too. We use a low version of prima to protect the inside line of the leg, a higher version to protect the upper body or cheek.

[6] In the 1990s when sabre was electrified in NCAA tournaments one of my coping mechanisms was to obtain the first two points. I didn’t care what happened after that. One of my go-tos was this combination of stop-cut/parry riposte; another was to strike, then cover and strike again. I could not beat the box, however, as the director officially cannot overrule the box, but I felt better for doing something I knew had merit.

[7] A look at earlier sabres used for competition will demonstrate that we have not always used the slight blades we do now.

[8] The official rules for the FIE/USFA (according to the Aug. 2020 version, https://cdn2.sportngin.com/attachments/document/f840-2248253/2020-08_USA_Fencing_Rules.pdf#_ga=2.35042337.1612075356.1646537642-1943816898.1646537641) list weapon weight and length limits:

foil: total weight must be under 500g; maximum total length is 110cm; maximum length of blade is 90cm

épée: total weight must be less than 770g; total maximum length is 110cm; maximum length of blade is 90cm

sabre: total weight must be less than 500g; total maximum length is 105cm; maximum length of blade is 88cm

Since smallswords were, on average, between 350-450g, and sabres 680-800g, it’s significant that the modern versions must both be less than 500 and are usually much, much lighter than that. The Olympic sabre I use most often for lessons with kids weights 340g.

Author: jemmons0611

Vis enim vincitur Arte.

2 thoughts on “The Value of Historical Fencing for the Olympic Fencer”

  1. I think this post belies the quality of your own classical training, Jim… 😉

    They certainly don’t teach us elbow placement for 3rd in my Oly class.
    Though to be fair, I’m just one of the *wrinkles nose* _adults_; I’m sure the kids they’re sending to tournaments get a bit more instruction than that…

    Like

    1. Hi Chris! Well, however well I represent them I did have excellent masters. Two in particular represent what is probably the last generation to be taught by people alive when dueling was still a reality; the last two masters I spent a lot of time with in different ways have close ties to military programs–Al’s master was a product of the Hungarian army that emigrated here in the 1920s, and Calvert was trained while in the French Foreign Legion (though for unfortunate reasons left the Legion to fight with the Resistance in the Maquis; there is an excellent book, in French, about Calvert’s time there, work with the OSS, etc., in French, by Bernard Coliat).

      As the sport has grown more sporty the trend has been to shed anything that slows it down, real or imagined, and this affects everything from how they cut to the placement of the arm, body position, even movement.

      Like

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