“The 1690 Swipe”—A Brief look at Parries in Rapier and Smallsword

Most often I start a new post with some phrase along the lines of “in a recent conversation:” this one will be no exception. There are a handful of fencers I chat with regularly and these conversations, even if they don’t start with us, allow us to explore both issues of the moment and those that transcend whatever particular squabble on social media sparked the latest firestorm. In this case, on some page on Friendface there was a discussion about parries in rapier, and while the discussion there was predictably miserable it prompted some excellent discussion offline and prompted me to return to a few sources.

The issue was whether or not one keeps the point directed at target when parrying, or, if one can parry with the point off-line. It’s a longer subject than I want to dive into here, but in large degree this debate (such as it is) reflects variances in more modern practice and pedagogy more than it does discrepancies in the sources. Many fencers, myself included, who were brought up in the French school of foil, were taught to keep the point on target when parrying—not always, but as a starting place. There are enough of us around that some of “HEMA’s” micro-lineages have inadvertently made this notion canon—it isn’t. [1]

This begs the question: what do our sources say? There are many texts one could consult, but I decided to look at a few where it’s pretty clear one is not expected to have the point on target all the time. Texts from that netherworld between rapier and smallsword, a time of considerable overlap in the use of the two weapons, provide a good starting point. I’d like to look at the parry in three texts which conform to what I’ve opted to call “1690s swipe.” Feel free to use that 😉  The three texts in question are:

–Marcelli, Rules of Fencing (1686)
–L’Abbat, Le art en fait d’armes (1696)
–Wylde, English Master of Defense (1711)

Okay, so really only one of these was from the 1690s, and even it, L’Abbat’s work, is better known from the 1734 edition published in English by an Irishman, but what I wish to demonstrate with these texts circa 1690-1710 is that each in different ways touches on the issue of point-on or not when parrying. It seems likely to me that one reason we see similarities in them is that the foil qua foil was not yet established as an artistic form on its own merit, but still a tool by which to learn to use a sword in earnest. As for “swipe,” by this I mean a motion made to one side or the other, say for parrying third/outside or fourth/inside, versus the same block made with the tip using the nose of the opponent like the apex of a cone, and which generally requires more movement of the arm.

Smallsword ca. 1700: So Basic… so… Gauche

A number of my colleagues do not care much for this period of sources—the less well-known en garde positions, the lack of polish to them, the simplicity, all of it can be off-putting to many people trained in traditional programs. Wylde’s odd diction, his bravado (he claims he was the first to teach the “half-moon parry” for example…*), and relatively uncomplicated system seem to some fencers primitive and lacking in sophistication. How good can it be, so the thinking goes, if it’s that simple?

L’Abbat, while not quite the “Hutton” of the smallsword world, gets short-shrift in part because it too seems simplistic, and, perhaps because it’s easily obtained for free (Dover Thrift generally doesn’t suggest the latest, sexiest scholarship). L’Abbat and Wylde, like Hope, McBane, and a number of other masters writing around the turn of the 18th century were concerned with defense first and foremost. They were not what we’d call “salle fencers” or academicians. Some had spent a lifetime fighting, either on battlefields or in brawls and duels—McBane in particular had a colorful career, spending most of his life as a solider, but as a gambler and pimp too. Sir William Hope’s advocacy for a hanging guard as go-to for smallsword, broadsword, etc. likewise reflects a lifetime spent fighting, so to approach his work with the same assumptions one would Cordelois or Parise will skew the view of his system.

The best self-defense systems even now are simple, practical, and devoid of the fancy acrobatics likely to win points with judges—the hurricane kick, the flourish with a bo staff, they’re fun but are “flashy, crowd pleasing steps.” [2]. A kick to the knee or shin, a simple well-made blow with a staff typically serve one better on the ground. Just so, when one carried a sword ca. 1700, it was likely a smallsword unless one was on active duty or living in places like Spain or southern Italy were the rapier remained popular far longer. While the smallsword was a fashionable item of dress for many, it was also a side-arm, a weapon, and a great number of people lived in contexts where knowing how to use it, even just the basics, might be the difference between life and death.

Marcelli’s Rules of Fencing, on the other hand, is a well-documented, thorough examination; it’s well-written, detailed, and exhaustive. Experienced fencers tend to like it and with good reason: it’s easily one of the best works ever written on swordplay. However, Marcelli is a tough read for people without significant training and a decent grasp on fencing terminology. This isn’t a dig at people new to fencing or who didn’t come up through more traditional training, nor is it gate-keeping: Marcelli’s is a highly technical treatise full of terms and ideas that are difficult even for many experienced fencers to understand right away. [3]

Looking at each source in turn one notices several points germane to the debate over parries. In the passages below the authors do not specify where they want the tip save L’Abbat in one instance. Two caveats. First, it’s important to note a difference between arguments from silence and inference. The former implies that we lack information; the latter implies that we are deducing something from the information that exists. What follows is an example of the latter—I’m reading key passages, “unpacking” them and explaining what they mean, and attempting to demonstrate how theses passages reveal how these three authors, in this period of time, viewed the placement of the tip of the weapon when parrying. In my reading all three do not seem keen to have the point remain on target when parrying.

Second, three sources are hardly representative. I know that. As such, this examination–brief because it’s already too long for most readers–is merely one selection of data, a snapshot. It is suggestive, not conclusive, and if one takes the time to examine works from Camillo Agrippa to Camille Prevost one will see a variety of stances on where one points the tip when parrying.

To Point or Not to Point at Target

Marcelli, who has much to say about parries, discusses them in several distinct sections. The first instance is in the Part I, Book I, Chapter XIII, “The Parry,” where he explains


that in the tempo of the parry neither the rear foot, nor the front foot, must be moved. Instead, he must stay in that tempo with the body in the center, and with the torso composed, as it is found will situated in this guard. Having to parry, only the sword arm must move, which does its duty of defense with the strong, striking the opponent’s sword away from the line of the body, either to the inside, or to the outside, or toward the right, or toward the left side. It is advised, however, to parry precisely, without discomposing oneself from the guard, or the sword being moved too much, because defending excessively, a side is being exposed in that act with great jeopardy of being hit.

nel Tempo del riparare non si deve movere, nè il piè di dietro, nè il piè d’avanti; mà si deve stare in quell tempo co’l corpo in centro, e con la vita composta, come si trova ben situate nella sua guardia: e dovendo parare, deve movere solamente il braccio della Spada, il quale sa il suo officio della difesa co’l forte, urtando la Spada del nemico in fuori la linea del suo corpo, ò di dentro, ò di fuori, ò verso la parti destre, ò vero, verso le parti sinistre. Avuerta però à parare aggiustatamente, senza, scomponersi dalla guardia, ò moversi troppo con la Spada per souerchiamente defendersi, scoprendosi in qull’atto da una parta con molto preguidicio d’esser colpito: [4]

Nowhere in this passage does Marcelli specify what the tip is doing, but the idea of striking the incoming steel is suggestive. Knocking the opponent’s weapon to the side with the strong doesn’t preclude thrusting with opposition; one need not keep the point on target to achieve this. In discussing the direct thrust, which for him is the end-result of every thrust, Marcelli makes it clear that he intends one to thrust with cover. [5]

A later passage makes it even more clear that the blade need not be on target when parrying;

The blow having immediately been parried, and the ending of the action obtained, performing the riposte must be delayed a moment. It must not be extended then, when the opponent is found in the termination and holds the torso forward, because being found in that tempo with the body in profile, there is little, almost no, space to strike. For that reason, it is necessary to wait for when he goes to the rear to withdraw, and in the beginning of taking the torso backward and coming to turn the chest with that movement to offer the target, here (without in any way releasing the weapon once obliged by the parry) the riposte rapidly follows.

Subito parato il colpo, & ottenuto l’esito dell’Attione, non deve trattenersi un momento à tirar la riposta: la quale non deve spiccarsi all’hora, quando il nemico si trova nella terminatione, etiene avanti la vita, perche, trovandosi in qul tempo co’ l corpo in profilo, si hà poco, e quasi niente spatio do colpire. Perloche e necessario aspettare, quando quello si dà à dietro per ritirarsi, e nel principiare, che sa; di dare a dietro la vita, venendo con quel moto a voltare il petto, & ad offerire il bersaglio, qui, (senza rallentarli in modo alcuno l’arme una volta impegnata con la parata), si segque rapidamente la riposta. [6]

Of particular note here is the master’s comment about space to riposte—had he assumed the fencer to remain point-on-target this comment would make little sense. However, if one uses the strong to parry point off-line, and moreover one hasn’t broken ground to defend—as Marcelli advises—then the comment about space to riposte makes complete sense. The riposte too is not immediate, but applied only as the opponent begins their own recovery back into guard.

This is not to say that in those situations where one might simultaneously parry and riposte that one didn’t, but to say that the parry—as Marcelli defines it and consistently uses it through the Rules of Fencing—is made with a short movement of the arm and blade; that the parry is effected with the strong; and that the point very likely is not on target when parrying.

Turning to L’Abbat, this master recommended a “Middling Guard,” here meaning one held in the center. This suggests a lot about his parries as well. He writes

The Hilt should be situated in the Center, that is to say, between the upper and lower Parts, and the Inside and Outside of the Body, in order to be in a better Condition to defend whatever Part may be attacked. The Arm must not be strait nor too much bent, to preserve its Liberty and be cover’ed. The Parts being thus placed, the Wrist and the Point of the Right Foot will be on a perpendicular line.

Le poignet doit être situé dans le centre, c’est à dire dans le milieu du haut du bas du dedans & du dehors, afin d’être plus en état d’en defender l’endroit insulté. Il ne faut pas que le bras soit étendu, ni plié, qu’il tienne également de l’un & de l’autre, pour consèrver sa liberté, & pour n’être point découvert. [7]

From this position, then, one adjusts the wrist and blade depending upon the nature of the attack. For example, if the opponent thrusts to the inside line correctly, that is if their forte (strong) is opposed to one’s feeble (weak), then one’s hand moves up slightly and raises the point so that the opposing steel’s feeble more easily meets one’s own forte. [8]. In tierce, it’s much the same, only there one turns the hand out and up to achieve the same advantage (though the hand stays in third position, not fourth as other masters sometimes recommend).

Moreover, L’Abbat mentions two types of parries, the first which binds, the second which beats, each of which he recommends for specific lines. With regard to the beat, he says

And the Beat, giving a favourable Opportunity of riposting, is to be used when you ripost to a Thrust in Seconde; or when after having parryed a Thrust in Quart within, you an Opening under the Wrist. To these two Thrusts, you must ripost almost as soon as the adversary pushes, quitting his Blade for the Purpose, which is to be done only by a smart Motion, joining again immediately, in order to be in Defence if the Adversary should thrust.

& celles dont le coup sec favorise la risposte, tout devant tendre à sa sin, est lors qu’on risposte au coup de sécondé de l’ennemi, ou qu’on pare son alongement de quarte au dedans des armes & qu’on voit le jour sous le poignet, il faut à ces deux coups risposter presque dans le tems que l’ennemi porte en quitant son fer pour risposter , ce qui ne se peut que par un mouvement sec ; l’on doit immédiatement après le revenir joindre afin de se garantir s’il avoit dessein de pousser. [9]

The combination of making the beat with a “smart motion,” that is a strong knock, and of then immediately closing the line or “joining again immediately” suggests that the point isn’t necessarily on target when one parries. In tierce and quarte, for example, assuming a proper attack to either line one raises the point in order to gain mechanical advantage on the incoming steel.

As a last example, Zachary Wylde provides another instance of a master who favors a middle-guard. Similar to L’Abbat’s guard, Wylde recommends that one:

Stand upon a true half Body, or edge wise, which I call, lie narrow your leading or right Foot, two Foot or more distance from the left, being in a direct Line from the same… your Hand fast gript about the hand of your Foil or Rapier, then put your Thumb long ways or forward upon it, your Arm quite extended from the Center of your Body, the Point of the Weapon being directed in a true Line against your Opponent’s right Pap, sinking somewhat low with your Body, your right Knee bowing or bent over the Toes of your right Foot, (tho’ some Masters teaches a strait Knee,) your left Knee more bent, inclining towards the Toes of your left Foot; lying in this Order is the Posture, which I call, Stand your Line, the Medium Guard then is fixt. [10]

His parry consists of deviating the point only a few inches. The hand and hilt remain more or less centered, which means that the point by definition is offline when parrying:

The Parr or Parrade at Small – Sword, is perform’d thus, Stand your Line as directed, and if your Opponent makes an Assault or Thrust at you, wave or move your Weapons point Cross-wise, the Compass of four Inch, from the Line downwards and upwards, according as the nature of the Pass is made and so requires; this motion is perform’d by the Wrist, about the Center of your Weapon, your Arm kept in its certain Place; this I call the common Cross way of Parring, and is the strongest Parr that can be made. Observe that you make a Parr against every pretended Thrust, for no Man knows anothers Intention, or whether he designs to make his Pass true or false. [11]

This “Cross-wise Parr” involves moving the point off-line briefly to effect the block. From here, and with a decent extension, one can easily thrust with opposition to riposte. I suspect that it is this last factor, the decent extension, which is causing all the fuss.

The Importance of the Extension

The effort to dispense with all the evils of modernity is to historical fencing what Brexit is for the English: a mistake. It’s an easy mistake to make (easier than Brexit anyway), and to be fair, one often made honestly. It’s important to say that from the off, because just as I do not wish to disparage the smarter set in the sport, so too do I not wish to denigrate the many clever people in HEMA. With this disclaimer, a lot of the problem as I see it is the inability, even the lack of awareness, of how important the extension is in rapier or smallsword when starting an attack. The weapon, which travels via extension, must move first. The student who knows this, who has drilled how to thrust from various lines, can parry point on or off and still thrust effectively.

Even today in a much altered landscape, beginning foilists are still taught this—it’s primary, fundamental, and in no way new. The primacy of the sharp point demands attention—if my attack is parried the very next thought I should have (post sotto voce explicative utterance) is defense. A properly extended arm followed by the rest of us creates that primacy—the defender cannot, should not ignore it. All the hullaballoo about George Silver’s “true times” a few years ago in the end comes down to a failure to understand this universal principle of fight. Marcelli, perhaps more than most, harps on the importance of drilling this action, of working toward the best direct thrust one can, but it’s everywhere implied in our sources when not spelled out, and indeed, must be, because otherwise people will double every time.

There are, however, different ways to do this. The easiest, and indeed the way I teach it initially, is to keep the point on target, at least in smallsword. Rapier I do a bit differently, but it’s a different weapon and the weight and length change things. However, even in smallsword I eventually teach students to parry by beat, because it pays to know both. What makes it easy for students to go from the easier point-on-target to point-eventually-on-target is proper technique, a good extension, and a ton of practice performing it.

Drill is not as much fun as bouting, however it’s vital for fencers if they wish to improve. A bout can test our technique, sure, but it doesn’t allow us to time to ensure that our technique is proper, that all parts are moving as they should, and doesn’t allow us to make the same action the same way each time. Unless we know how to make that extension, or any action, well, we will struggle to use it effectively in the heat of a bout. Pants before shoes: get the technique working well first, then pressure test it and learn to adapt it as needed on the piste or in the ring. More time drilling core actions and less time “sparring” would do much to help HEMA players hone and improve their game.

NOTES:

[1] I’ve mentioned micro lineages before, but increasingly I see the problems inherent in some of them. People learn in good faith and are not capable (at first) or willing to examine this received learning against either the source record or established pedagogy. I feel I need to say this every time, but most of the traditional approach is still taught and taught well; we fail to see it for the excesses and abnormalities so obvious in the sport, and, in HEMA. I’m told people are using the fleche in HEMA…really? Come on… no.

*5ly. Another way of Parring, I call, The Semi-Circular, or half Moon Parr, which is thus, Lie in your Order, according to your first Direction, in a true Line; then lower or dip the Point of your Weapon about two Inch, lying the inside your Opponent’s; then if he Thrusts at you, make a half Circle, which will meet his Thrust, and Parr him. If you lie with your Weapon’s Point the outside his, in like manner as aforesaid, and he Thrusts at you, return your Weapon into its first Place, and you’l reingage him with the Blade of your Weapon, and perfect a Parr. This Parr is the most absolute and compleatest Parr that ever was invented; and without Ostentation, I can truly say, I was the first person that Taught it; and I dare further affirm, that there’s many Proffessors of this Noble Art, that knows no more of the half Moon Parr, than they do of the Man in the Moon. [page 10 in the pdf]

[2] To quote the character Les Kendall in 1992’s “Strictly Ballroom.” If you like Australian movies, dance, or a good laugh, check it out—not quite “The Castle” funny, but close 😉

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0105488/?ref_=ttfc_fc_tt

[3] There is a difference between“gate keeping” and explanation, and, not all explanation is “man-splaining.” As always, I turn to the venerable Urban Dictionary for help here—to explain how something works because one knows how it works is not a) deciding who does or doesn’t have access or rights to a community or identity; or b) isn’t a method (for me anyway) of elevating myself above others as a tool of self-inflation [I’d need more than three readers even to start down that path lol].

In similar vein, I’m not devaluing another’s opinion because they’re not qualified, nor am I setting up arbitrary, subjective rubrics by which to evaluate said opinion. Opinion and fact are NOT the same. “Marzipan is delicious” is an opinion (one I share), a choice based on an individual’s sense of what tastes good or not. There is no objective way to measure that, though arguably there is for evaluating quality of marzipan. “All point-oriented fencing assumes that the point stays on target” is a statement one can evaluate against evidence. It’s a thesis, a proposition, NOT a fact, not unless the evidence bears it out, and thus one can evaluate it. I know this because I’m trained to conduct this sort of research and so have the tools to make that evaluation, and as importantly, was trained in a school of history that put significant value on transparency, honesty, and the humility necessary to concede a position when better evidence and/or an argument demonstrate a superior position.

[4] Always quick to examine precedent, Marcelli provides a brief look at the wisdom of Giovanni dall’Aogcchie, Nicoletto Giganti, and Alessandro Senese, and then remarks that valuable though their work is that he disagrees with the idea that one should move the feet when parrying. Modern fencers, in contrast, are generally taught to take a half-step back when parrying, so this can strike one as odd. However, his reasoning is sound if one considers the context in which Marcelli and his students operated (movement is different when weapons are sharp, there are no rules, and the terrain isn’t set at an official limit).

For the quotations, see Francesco Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, translated by Christopher A. Holzman (Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2019), 55; Francesco Marcelli, Regole della Scherma, (Roma: Nella Stamperia di Dom. Ant. Ercole, 1686); this version, vastly cleaner than the one on Google Books, is from achive.org, 42-43.

[5] See for example 106 in Holzman; Marcelli discusses the importance of the hand in 4th position to inside (nails up, supinated), hand in 2nd to outside (thumb to the inside, knuckles up, nails down).

[6] Holzman, Rules of Fencing,198; Marcelli, Regole della Scherma, 136.

[7] For the quotations, see Monsieur L’Abbat, The Art of Fencing, translated by Andrew Mahon (Dublin, 1734); this edition from Lector House, LLP, 2020, 5; Le Sieur Labat, L’art en fait d’armes (Toulouse, Chez J. Boude, 1696), pdf via FFAMHE – Fédération Française des Arts Martiaux Historiques Européens, 10.

[8] The mechanical advantage imparted by manipulating strong and weak parts of the blade is important in both offense and defense; for the parries of quarte and tierce respectively, see L’Abbat, The Art of Fencing, 10 and 13; L’art en fait d’armes, 22-24; 26-28.

I use the Italian hand position nomenclature here to help illustrate the point—that is not in L’Abbat. The four main positions are first, thumb pointing toward the ground (pronated); second, thumb pointing to the inside line; third, thumb on top; and fourth, thumb pointing to the outside line (supinated). There are typically two mid-way positions, but those go by different names and do not concern us here. One is “first in second” (prima in seconda) where the thumb is at 7 o’clock; the other is “second in third” (seconda in terza) which is close to second position more 9 o’clock where second is 8 o’clock. [Some also include “third in fourth” (terza in quarta) which is just shy of fourth position.

[9] L’Abbat, The Art of Fencing, 21; L’art en fait d’armes, 38-39.

[10] For the quotations, see Zachary Wylde, English Master of Defence (Tork: printed by John White, 1711); via The Smallsword Project, 6. [page numbers refer to those in the pdf] Wylde,8-9; he first describes the parry 6-7.

Author: jemmons0611

Vis enim vincitur Arte.

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