What we Do
What is Historical Fencing?
Historical fencing, sometimes referred to as Historical Martial Arts, seeks to study the Art as a combat system to the degree possible in a world where the sword is no longer a military arm and where we no longer fight duels. It is similar to HEMA, which stands for “Historical European Martial Arts,” but which tends to focus more on historical fencing for tournaments. The “H” in HEMA tends to be ignored, and in some cases many fighters are hostile about the emphasis on accuracy (no, I don’t get that either). One may see the term WMA or “Western Martial Arts” too, though we prefer “historical fencing” or more broadly “historical martial arts” as these latter terms are general enough to include non-European systems and other weapons. Colleagues studying the martial traditions of Africa and Iran, for example, apply much the same process of analysis and interpretation as those of us working within the European corpus. All the terms, however, refer to the practice of attempting to recreate extinct martial arts systems from extant manuscripts, the analysis of artistic depictions, and research into the mechanics of the body and ancient weapons.
How is it different than Olympic fencing? Classical fencing? SCA? LARP?
Modern, Olympic fencing is a sport based off of the traditional approach, largely shaped by Italy and France, to three weapons: foil, epee, and sabre. The object in Olympic fencing is to score points—so long as one makes the touch with “right-of-way,” one gets the touch (regardless of whether or not one was hit off-target in some cases). “Classical” fencing, sometimes called “Traditional” fencing, aims to preserve this same tradition in purer form, more as a martial art and without the use of tricks popular in Olympic fencing. In Classical fencing, just as in Historical fencing, the object is not to be hit. Not all Classical programs are the same–some are more interested in form, grace, and the aesthetics of technique. To the degree that we’re a classical school we fall into a different category–technique, form, all serve to protect us and better ensure that our attacks succeed, so form for form’s sake is pretty, but lacks the dynamism one needs in a bout.
The SCA, the Society for Creative Anachronism, is “an international organization dedicated to researching and re-creating the arts and skills of pre-17th-century Europe ” [http://www.sca.org/]. Some fencers in the SCA look to texts much as we do in HEMA, but not everyone in the SCA is interested in martial arts and many who do prefer a less historical approach. LARP (Live Action Roleplay) is, as one member described it, “collaborative, pretending with rules [http://www.larping.org/larp-definition/].” Participants adopt a character, don a costume, and fight with rubber weapons; there is a heavy emphasis on fantasy, and in some respects it’s as if they are living out in real time table-top game scenarios.
While Historical Fencing has something in common with all of these groups (if nothing else we all like swords in our own fashion), the core motivation is to work from historical texts to recreate ancient martial arts as best as possible. Generally, we have to work from sources because the systems we explore are extinct–this is less true for the more recent (e.g. 19th cen.) Italian school as it is a living tradition. This said, nothing is monolithic and the sabre taught today, while it owes much to the Radaellian school, is closer to that of Parise.
NB: If after a few practices with us you find you’d rather fence Olympic or explore medieval systems, we will do all we can to help you find a good fit. Most of our fencers also fence at other area historical fencing schools, so they are one resource, but SdTS is keen to play nicely with our sword-wielding cousins in Olympic, the SCA, etc. and maintains relationships with these organizations as well.
Sources, Tradition, and our Program
SdTs draws its curriculum from several sources–a living Italian tradition, a hybrid system often termed “Italo-Hungarian,” and a rich corpus of work that enshrines the ideas and techniques of the Italian school (and which in turn was highly influential in changing the Hungarian military program). An experienced fencer watching us would categorize us as a mid-century, Italo-Hungarian school with older Radaellian elements.
Many of the core texts are available in English now thanks to the hard work of Christopher A. Holzman. His initial work, a translation and exploration of Settimo Del Frate’s distillation of Guiseppe Radaelli’s new sabre system, is available in Chris’ The Art of the Dueling Sabre (2011). Since then Chris has been active opening up this rich tradition via other volumes:
Some of the texts which inform our curriculum (in chronological order):
- Del Frate, Capt. Settimo. Instruction in Fencing with the Sabre and the Sword (1873). Translated by Christopher A. Holzman. LuLu Press, 2011.
- Holzman, Christopher A. The Roman-Neapolitan School of Fencing: The Collected Works of Masaniello Parise, Maestro di Scherma. Lulu Press, 2015.
- Rossi, Giordano. Scherma di Spada e Sciabola, Manuale Teorico-Pratico. Milano, IT: Fratelli Dumolard Editori, 1885.
- Masiello, Ferdinando. La Scherma Italiana di Spada e di Sicabola. Firenze, IT: Stabilimento Tipografico G. Civelli, 1887.
- Masiello, Ferdinando. Sabre Fencing on Horseback. Firenze: G. Civelli Establishment, 1891. Translated by Christopher A. Holzman, 2015.
- Barbasetti, Luigi. The Art of the Sabre and Epee. New York, NY: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1936 [an English translation of his original, 1899 edition in German]
- Betts, Lieut. J. The Sword and How to Use It. London: Gale & Polden, LTD, 1908.
- Pecoraro, Salvatore, and Carlo Pessina. Sabre Fencing: Includes Spada Fencing: Play on the Ground, 1910. Translated by Christopher A. Holzman. Lulu Press, 2016.
- Gaugler, William M. The Science of Fencing: A Comprehensive Training Manual for Master and Student, Including Lesson Plans for Foil, Sabre and Epee Instruction. Bangor, ME: Laureate Press, 1997.
What are Classes/Lessons like?
In individual lessons students work one-on-one with the instructor. This is the traditional approach and still the best way to improve. SdTS offers individual lessons as well as group instruction–just drop us a line if you’re interested.
Group classes, while they echo much of the individual lesson, are different. They typically start off with warm-up and footwork drills, then focus on exercising specific kills and tactics students have learned. There is some instruction here too, but new material is less often introduced.
Is it dangerous?
All martial arts are potentially dangerous, but generally swordplay is relatively safe provided one wears appropriate safety gear, follows the protocols of the school, and trains properly. We actively foster and enforce safety guidelines.
Will I get hurt?
There is always the possibility one could be injured in martial arts, but to date we have not had any serious injuries. Some bruises, a scrape or two, and some pulled muscles, but we don’t train in such a way that injury is likely. If you’re injured, you can’t fence and we want you to fence. Safety should be a top priority, so whatever school or tradition you’re considering be sure to find out how seriously they take safety before you do anything else.
What safety precautions do you take?
We require students and staff to wear approved masks, jackets, gloves, and other protective equipment. There are also protocols, such as carrying weapons point down, not swinging wildly, not engaging in horse-play, maintaining weapons and equipment regularly, and looking out for one another that help cultivate a safe training environment. Lastly, while protective gear is important, the first defense is good technique, so we work hard to train you properly so that you rely on skill first, safety gear second. Good technique and good fencing include precision, control of force, and awareness–hard hitters we will retrain or ask to leave.
Is there an age restriction?
It depends. Many children start fencing at around age 7, but the children fencing with us now are mostly middle-school aged. This is because training, even with blunt weapons, requires a certain maturity and physical strength enough to use them. For interested children and their parents please contact Jim to discuss whether our program is right for them.
Can anyone fence?
In most cases the answer is “yes!” We do not discriminate on the basis of sex, gender, age, size, level of fitness, faith, mobility, sexual preference, ethnic identity, economic status, or “race,” but work with everyone and do our best to adjust for their situation. If you want to learn about historical fencing, then we want to work with you. If physical, learning challenges, or any other accessibility issues are a concern for you, contact us and we’ll see what we can do to accommodate you.
No one learns well in an unsafe environment, so, as welcoming and friendly as we are we will not tolerate anyone espousing any form of hatred or bigotry, who engages in any manner of harassment, or in other ways abuses members of our group or the property we rent–people who can’t play well with others will be asked to leave.
SdTS supports FAR: Fighters Against Racism. For more information, see https://www.londonlongsword.com/far/
What do I need to start?
SdTS uses a variety of weapons, from Olympic weight (which tend to be much lighter) to usable historical replicas (which are often a little heavier). We also use protective fencing masks to protect against accidents when training with a partner.
As to clothing, please wear comfortable loose fitting dark pants (black sweatpants or Martial arts pants are ideal) and a white or light color t-shirt or sweatshirt as appropriate for the weather. Our space requires clean shoes, preferably a pair you only wear to fence in, not street shoes. If you only have street shoes, you will need to fence barefoot to preserve the dance floor, so, bring a pair of shoes.
Where can I obtain gear?
There are a number of suppliers. For basic protective equipment, consider:
Absolute Fencing https://www.absolutefencinggear.com/shopping/shop.php/view/home
The Fencing Post http://stores.thefencingpost.com/
Triplette Competition Arms/ Zen Warrior https://www.triplette.com/
For weapons, the suppliers above have foils (The Fencing Post has Negrini’s Italian foils), epees/spadas, and Olympic sabres, but for more historical weapons, the following are recommended:
Castille Armory https://castillearmory.com/
Balefire Blades https://balefireblades.com/
Darkwood Armory https://www.darkwoodarmory.com/
Benjamin Arms https://www.benjaminarms.com/
Do you have loaner equipment?
We have a very limited amount of loaner equipment available for students without their own gear. However, students are encouraged to obtain their own practice gear once they have completed a basic introductory sequence and have decided to continue their studies with the group.
How in shape do I need to be?
Being in shape never hurts, but it is not a requirement to begin training. We work with people in a variety of levels of conditioning, with injuries, and other issues. Our goal is to have fun, learn swordplay, and exercise, but we adjust for the individual. If you need to slow down, take a break, then you do. Don’t let your current level of conditioning stop you from trying it out. No one will ever make you feel small if you need a break. We’re all here to learn, improve, and enjoy ourselves, so there is no room for mocking, shame, or other derogatory behavior.
Should I train on my own?
It is not required, but encouraged. Swordplay demands discipline and practice; it takes a long time to gain proficiency, so the more you practice correctly, the better.
What is good cross-training for fencing?
There are a number of good choices. Cardio, be it running, swimming, biking, or dance will help build your stamina as well as your muscles. Weight training can be a plus too, but not all regimens target the muscle groups you will use most.
How do I know I’m improving?
This can be difficult. With fencing there are moments of quick development and skill acquisition followed by a plateau where it feels like one isn’t getting anywhere. Drill and practice are the best remedies for that feeling. Your instructors will tell you, but you’ll notice a lot yourself, for example when something you’ve been working on finally “clicks” and you realize that you did it without thinking about it. The key thing is to have fun while you’re learning—you’ll get there, but patience and hard-work are the recipe.