Using Historical Fencing Treatises, Text & Subtext

Teaching from early fencing sources can be daunting. On the one hand, their organization, language, and lack of details can impede interpretation. There are also the challenges we face in using images, not to mention dealing with sources that lack them. On the other hand, we cannot always guess what assumptions the author had about the reader’s knowledge or even what they intended with the work. For the period in which the smallsword was popular (roughly ca. 1615 to 1800), some treatises were likely meant for public consumption, others were written in an attempt to solicit patronage, still others to challenge existing custom and/or defend a new approach. All on some level were meant to immortalize a particular author’s views and put their name on the rolls of influential masters. Some are mere tracts, others replete with a host of actions and maneuvers. Even when a source is less difficult to understand there remains how one should use it. Both deciphering challenging texts and deciding what to use from them (and how) are things we must consider when teaching from them.

As someone averse to anything remotely smacking of Bourdieu, Derrida, or Foucault, my use of the term “subtext” here is meant to convey the implications within our sources, not some hidden meaning or the imposition of some anachronistic, fashionable theme into the past. There is, plainly, what a book says, and, what it doesn’t, and we can learn a lot from both.

“Barcelona,” 1994, by Whit Stillman

Explicit vs. Implicit

When we’re lucky an author is explicit. They provide details as to the individual movements and positions that make up a stance, technique, or action. Sir William Hope, for example, is one of our chief sources for knowing that one should not insert the fingers through the annulets, those rings, descendents of a rapier’s pas d’âne, found on many smallsword hilts. In his Scots Fencing Master (1687) he wrote

You must hold your Sword after this manner; hold your Thumb upon the broad side of the Handle with your Fingers quite round it, as in the second Figure of the first Plate marked F. and not as some do, who their foremost and middle Fingers thorow to two arms of the Hilt, thinking that by doing that, they hold their Sword firmer, some use onely to put their foremost Finger through, which the Spaniards did of old, and many even to this day do it; but both ways are most ridiculous, and dangerous.
[2]

Presented in the much-used trope of master and student in discussion, the corresponding student comments that one is at risk of having one’s fingers broken should one come to grips. Details like this are critical in our interpretations as the presence of the annulets naturally suggests they are there to secure one’s grip.

The granularity of instruction, generally, is less precise than it is in more recent works. One reason for this is that the sword, being a feature of culture at the time, something carried, seen on stage, and of course discussed within treatises, meant that readers possessed better familiarity with the topic than most people today. This is, perhaps, why so many of the smallsword works appear deficient in specifics. There is still, however, much we can learn from them. For example, many suggest or list a series of lessons. De Liancour (1686/1692) and Wylde (1711), for example, both suggest lessons within their treatises, the former in a series of “games” a master might take a student through, the latter via a suggested lesson. [3]

from Sir William Hope’s _New Method_ (2nd Ed., 1714)

When we find ourselves left with less detail than we’d like, we must find a way to bridge text and subtext, that is, connect what is explicit with what is implied or assumed. There is an inherent danger in this, however, so we must apply precedent when available, analogy where applicable, established fact when known, and always the faculty of reason. An example I’ve often cited before is how to step. Whatever the word used, “step,” “pass,” “advance,” there are certain things we know (or should) about how humans walk. Given how long our species has been walking upright we can safely assume that people in the 17th and 18th century did too.

As another example, Wylde suggests that

The most absolute and truest way of thrusting Cart and Ters, is to perform your Pass as close to the Fort of your Opponents Weapon as you can; for in so doing, it will in a great Measure preserve you, if he happen to Counter Tang: but if your Push fails hitting, besure to make your recovery strongly engaged upon his Weapon, or spring your self backward withal the Celerity imaginable out of his distance, in a true Line.
[4]

If one is familiar with the parts of the blade, this may sound odd. Close to the “Fort” (forte/strong) of the blade seemingly goes against what most fencers know about the respective mechanical advantages and disadvantages of strong and weak. Placing the weak of our blade near the strong of theirs provides the opponent more leverage. To attack in such a way is to hand the opponent a parry. So, what does Wylde mean?

It will help to revisit Wylde’s division of the blade. He separates it into three sections, but one is more a point than a section:

The Blade, I likewise divide into Three Parts thus, From the Shell to the middle, I call the Fort or Strength of the Weapon: The middle is the equal Part betwixt the Shell and the Point: From the middle to the end, I call the Feeble or Weak. [5]

So, the “weak” here is really middle to tip, the “strong” middle to guard, and the middle merely where they meet. Armed with this notion of blade division Wylde’s admonition that one keep as close to the opponent’s forte makes more sense. The thrust isn’t tip to forte, but made so that the middle of one’s weapon is more or less along the middle of the opposing steel. He also provides reasons for this close thrust—it can help protect one from a counter-attack, and, should one’s attack fail, then it is easier and safer to retreat having already closed off the line. Wylde doesn’t remind the reader here what he means by forte and feeble; he assumes the reader knows.

Further clarification derives from Wylde’s guard position:

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, then your right and left Foot will resemble a Roman ‘I’; 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.
[6]

This guard, sometimes called a middle guard, has the arm midline, not to the right or left depending on handedness. To thrust in Cart (quarte) or Ters (tierce) one is moving off that midline, so without attention to the opponent’s blade as one thrusts, without some opposition there is an increased chance of being hit as one strikes. We’re not dealing with right of way here, or foils, but sharp swords, and thus Wylde’s recommendation makes good sense.

Subtext & Using a Treatise

Moving from micro to macrocosm, there are times we must look to assumed or implicit knowledge to use a treatise effectively. The progression of techniques, for example, in P.J.F. Girard’s Traité des armes (1740) might seem a logical approach for introducing more complicated actions. In part this is true, however some distinction should probably be made between what we call today bread-and-butter techniques, those we use most of the time, and those that are “medicine for the hand,” those more complicated actions, especially compound actions, which are less viable in actual combat. It’s not that a double or triple-feint can’t work, but that the effective use of it assumes an opponent of considerable skill, more so than most people possess. One is likely to face a counter-attack using so many actions—the more parts to a maneuver, the more time, and thus the more opportunity for it to go wrong, for the opponent to take advantage or disrupt one’s plans.

This does not mean that one shouldn’t incorporate Girard’s excellent section on feints, but that the instructor should know, and be clear in teaching, that some of these drills we do to push skill forward, to hone it. [7] If one can make complex actions well, then one can make simple actions well. The importance of this, in a bout, is that we not only tend to find the most success with relatively simple actions, but also that in any arena in which nerves, fear, or excitement is likely our ability suffers. [8] So, the more effective and solid our technique is, the less far it is likely to fall off and hurt our chances. This is why effective teaching and constant drill are so vital.

Outside research, particularly into accounts of duels, as well as practical advice from those masters active when duels were prominent, can do much to fill in the missing context. Girard does not say that his more sophisticated actions are medicine for the hand. At a time when more people learned the sword and might use it in earnest it’s likely that a double-feint proved effective; not against every opponent, but against those well-trained it likely did. It remains an open question just how expert the average fencer in the age of the smallsword, or any age for that matter, was; our sources suggest much, but confirm little. There are enough references to fencers of “natural” skill and little training to suggest that many who carried a sword either hadn’t received instruction or at least not very much. A good analogy my friend Ken Jay has made in this regard is to the number of people in the U.S. who opt for concealed carry of firearms—many if not most have shot a pistol before, but the vast majority have little to no formal training in how to shoot in self-defense or combat scenarios. Maybe they’ve taken a class or series of classes, but here too the analogy holds up well with the Early Modern Period: for all the solid, experienced instructors teaching “tactial” handgun techniques, there are a multitude of charlatans and well-intentioned, but unskilled people offering training, just as there were when dubious sword masters set up shop and took in the credulous.

Oblique references, for example, indicate a wider knowledge of fencing, at least among those sections of society eligible to wear a sword, but also suggest that not all were particularly good students. We see extremes in the literature. Máire Anna MacNeill begins her doctoral dissertation with the example of cavaliers in England attending a performance of William Davenant’s “The Unfortunate Lovers” in 1660. The play included two dramatic sword fights in acts four and five which these same attendees, post show, mocked at a local tavern. They also drew their swords to show how the choreography failed. [9]

Satirical Print, 1814, The English Fencing Master and his Student, courtesy of the British Musuem, https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1856-0712-639

Against this example we have, again for England, references to the curious fashion of wearing a sword but it being rude to use one save in extreme situations. Aylward cites the example of a character in Fanny Burney’s Evelina (1778) grabbing his sword hilt—he remarks that this was “an unseemly gesture pardonable only in an excitable foreigner.” These two examples are separated by a century, but it’s important to note that works closer in time to that of Davenant echo similar sentiments. Aylward also cites Andrew Mahon’ 1734 translation of L’Abbat’s L’art en fait d’arms (1696), where Mahon remarks one should only draw a sword in service to the crown, for one’s honor, or in self-defense. [10] Between the poles of sword-as-fashion-accessory and sword as sidearm there is a vast middle ground. Likely, most people had some modicum of training, but like today’s concealed-carry types, extremely little chance of having to use that weapon.

For the instructor, examining a treatise in light of not only what it says, but when it was written and what prevailing views of the time suggest will improve their interpretation and teaching. Some works seem clearly more self-defense oriented—Hope, L’Abbat, de Liancour, McBane, and Wylde read very differently from de la Touche, Domenico Anglo, Olivier, and de St. Martin. The former are more clearly concerned with optimizing a guard for most situations (Hope and Wylde especially perhaps), one to two tempo attacks, and the importance of opposition. The latter cover much of the same material, but add some techniques more salle than on the ground friendly. We can learn a lot from both types of sources, and we should read and use both, but always with a keen appreciation for what they reflect. By the mid­-18th century, the foil play originally intended to create a slightly safer style of practice (key in a time before masks were standard) became a game in its own right. Domenico Angelo, writing in 1763, in some ways spans both worlds—he wanted all touches targeted to the chest, a fact that speaks on the one hand to his eschewing masks and on the other to an interest in fencing as an elegant exercise and ideal way to cultivate grace becoming the status of his many elite students. [11] His inclusion of smallsword versus various other weapons, “ethnic” guards, and weapon-seizures recall earlier works, like Girard’s, but the mix of smallsword and foil in his School of Fencing, not to mention the success of his London salle as the premiere academy, we must note too.

In terms of lesson-planning, one approach is to compare how several masters treat a specific action, say the thrust from tierce or quarte. What is different? What the same? Given the instructor’s own perspective, what does it make sense to emphasize? For those more concerned about smallsword as weapon, a more conservative approach makes sense; for those whose interest is tournaments, a mix of solid self-defense and salle fencing is appropriate. Of course, one can teach both as well. The point (no pun intended) is to be mindful about what we are teaching, how we teach it, and to keep the textual basis, explicit and implicit, before us as we plan, devise lessons, and teach them.

NOTES:

[1] Clip from “Barcelona” (1994), by Whit Stillman

[2] Sir William Hope, Scots Fencing Master, 1687, pp. 11-12. See also J. D. Aylward, The Small-Sword in England, its History, its Forms, its Makers, and its Masters, London, UK: Hutchinson & Son, LTD, 1960, 134-135. As an argument for reading the sources, one work from 1982, concerned only with the tool, makes the mistake of listing fingers through annulets as correct. Doubtless some fencers did. See Anthony North, European Swords, London, UK: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1982, 19.

[3] See de Liancour, Le Maistre d’armes (1686/1692), p. 69/78; 119/128 in the BnF 1686 pdf); see Wylde, English Fencing Master, 15 in the pdf, https://smallswordproject.files.wordpress.com/2016/11/zach-wylde.pdf)

[4] Wylde, p. 13 of the pdf.

[5] Wylde, p. 5 of the pdf.

[6] Wylde, p. 6 of the pdf.

[7] See for example P.J.F. Girard, Traité des armes, 1740, pp. 47-51 (p. 80-86 in the BnF pdf).

[8] For a more recent historical example of this within the context of a duel, Aldo Nadi’s account of his duel in 1924 against Contronei in Milan is instructive. The few photographs of the engagement reveal the typically plate-perfect technique of Maestro Nadi drastically changed when confronted by a sharp spada. The goal—don’t get hit—changes everything. See Aldo Nadi, On Fencing, Sunrise, FL: Laureate Press, 1994 (originally published 1943), 24-35.

[9] See Máire Anna MacNeill, “The Sword as Didactic Tool on the London Comic Stage, 1660-1740,” PhD Dissertation, Royal Holloway, University of London, 2016, pp. 9ff.

[10] Aylward, The Small-Sword in England, 20; cf. Fanny Burney, Evelina, 1778, Letter 23, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/6053/6053-h/6053-h.htm . Aylward on Mahon and L’Abbat, 20; cf. L’Abbat, The Art of Fencing, Dublin, 1734, p. 72 in the edition by Lector House (2020).

[11] Aylward, The Small-Sword in England, 108-112.

Author: jemmons0611

Vis enim vincitur Arte.

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