SabreSlash 2022, October 1-2

Sala delle Tre Spade & Barbasetti Military Sabre since 1895, Partners in Fencing

This weekend our sister-school, Barbasetti Military Sabre since 1895, based in beautiful Prague, Czechia, will host its annual event: SabreSlash! Day one consists of classes; day two presents a cutting event, the Zabłocki Sabre Tournament, and the highlight of the day, the Moustache Challenge, easily one of the more difficult historical fencing contests.

This year Michael Kňažko of Barbasetti Military Sabre is joined by another close friend, the excellent Patrick Bratton (Sala della Spada, Carlisle, PA). Patrick will be exploring Radaellian actions on the blade. They are joined by several other instructors, including Maestro Leonid Křížek (CZ), and Leonardo Britto Germoglio (D). Here is the full program:

SabreSlash 2022 program:

Saturday, October 1st
– ”Actions on the blade in Radaellian sabre”, workshop led by Patrick Bratton, Sala Della Spada, Carlisle, PA, USA.

– “Akademische Fechten”, workshop led by Leonardo Britto Germoglio, Germany.

– “Molinelli in Barbasetti sabre”, workshop led by Leonid Křížek, Barbasetti Military Sabre (since 1895), Prague, Czech Republic.

– “Sciabola in Mano, controlled and conserved strength for cuts and thrusts”, workshop led by Michael Kňažko, Barbasetti Military Sabre (since 1895), Prague, Czech Republic.

Sunday, October 2nd
– “SabreSlashing with light sabres”, test-cutting workshop 😊

– “SabreSlash Moustache Challenge”. All gentlemen are encouraged to attend the event wearing a fully grown Ferdinando Masiello style moustache. The wearer of the most classical moustache will be awarded a very special prize.

– „ Zabłocki Sabre 2022“. The biggest Barbasetti sabre fencing tournament since the legendary 1895 Prague military fencing tournament organized by k.u.k lieutenant Dominik Riegel. The winner of the tournament will receive a brand new Swordsmithy practice sabre.

[cf. https://www.facebook.com/events/415973570345249/?ref=newsfeed]

Sala delle Tre Spade & Barbasetti Military Sabre since 1895

Russ Mitchel on Textual Criticism vs. Ad Hominems

Long experience has taught me that external validation is chimerical, distracting, and no replacement for appropriate confidence, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t nice to encounter. Finding this response to another fencer’s rebuttal of Russ’ take on Alfred Hutton’s unfortunate Cold Steel (1889) was like finding a good pastry to go with coffee this morning.

Of particular note, Russ explains probably better than I’ve heard it anywhere else (and certainly better than I ever have) that textual criticism, including analysis of a researcher’s position, is not the same thing as a personal attack. Yes, the two can mix, and sometimes do, but Russ doesn’t do that–more than once, and this is in any number of his videos, Russ has not only given Hutton credit where due, but also recommended a superior text by the same author, The Swordsman (1891).

Despite the number of people who have finished secondary school and/or college this is, surprisingly, an extremely common mistake. For the handful of people who read my posts here a prime example would be the response several fencers had to my critique of the 2020 paper that attempted to reinterpret George Silver’s system. Cults of personality being what they are, no matter how well-made a critique is the chances of it winning out against devotion to those personalities are slim, especially if that critique is coming from someone outside that clique. Name recognition tends to win out against analysis in “HEMA.”

In this case, however, Russ is not only a trained academic, but also someone well-known in historical fencing’s research circles if not in the wider, “HEMA” tournament scene. This video is important to watch for several reasons, but among them is the fact that Russ’ measured, information-driven rebuttal provides a great template for the community.

Russ Mitchell, response to Pope in re Hutton

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.

Curriculum Building & Teaching via the Universals

In an earlier post [9 Aug. 2022] I covered recursive cycles of instruction as one approach to curriculum building. Implicit in this schema, and hopefully in any methodology, is the central place of the universal principles, that is, those elements that underpin all hand-to-hand fighting. [1] While many works touch on these vital concepts, it can be difficult to find discussion of them in one place.

This post will attempt to sketch the salient points of one list of universals. [2] Lists vary, but most include the following:

  • measure or distance
  • tempo
  • judgment

To these I’d like to add several that Maitre Robert Handelman includes:

  • speed
  • initiative
  • tradecraft [3]

Measure or distance is the area of play, the space between two fencers. Typically this is divided into pedagogically useful segments. In Fiore’s armizare, and even in many later Italian works (Marcelli for example), the divisions may be largo and stretto, wide and close. Early modern sources down to today tend to divide the space between two fencers into three: out of measure (where neither opponent can hit one another); in measure (where one can lunge to target); and close measure (where either opponent need only extend the arm to reach target). There are variations by master, further refinements, but these three serve well.

Tempo is perhaps best defined as the time of a single simple fencing action. So, an advance, the extension of the arm, a beat, all of these equal one tempo. Simple and compound attacks, for example, are separated by the number of actions and thus the tempi in which they happen. A direct thrust on a lunge is one tempo; a feint-disengage is two tempi (feint + disengage/thrust = 2).*

Judgement, or decision, is the faculty by which we decide when to attack, from where, and how. We develop this through trial and error, over time, and improve as we grow in skill.

Speed is different than tempo, though they’re related. It’s helpful to think of speed as how fast or slow an action is or is made. We often refer to manipulating tempo, such as a compound attack that is slow-slow-fast, or, slow-fast-slow, etc. Strictly speaking, this is manipulating how fast or slow we make an action. It’s subtle, a bit hair-splitting perhaps, but to illustrate this imagine someone making a thrust on an advance, but then as soon as the opponent parries doubling the speed of the disengage and lunge to target. Speed also refers to reaction time, how fast we respond to stimulus. Like measure, we can break speed down into maximum, necessary (what speed is required to make an action), and slow.

Initiative refers to who starts an action, who moves first, and it can be defensive or offensive. In certain types of lessons we also talk about “student initiated” versus “instructor initiated” actions; this much like “Agent” and “Patient” in some historical fencing circles.

Tradecraft refers to the various ways in which we use rules, psychology, and bluster or bluff to outwit opponents, and importantly, officials. The most successful tournament fighters, whatever branch of the Art they pursue, typically “play” to the director and judges as much as anything else. This requires a good grasp of the rule-set and especially how those rules are viewed and enforced.

Historically speaking, tradecraft describes the gathering and exploitation of intelligence gleaned from interacting and/or observing an opponent. Sizing up an opponent, making probing actions to see what they do, how they react, all are part of tradecraft. It can be as simple as the early modern categories some masters used to describe types of fencers, from the reckless to the timid combatant, from the phlegmatic to the composed fencer, from the large, tall fighter to the smaller, shorter one. [4]

The many springs which flow from the font of these universals are too vast to cover, but for one, easy example the extension of the arm and weapon before the body illustrates well how general principles relate specifically to technique and tactics, even position.

  • The common guard that has the lead foot forward, body slightly forward, weapon arm leading attempts a compromise between safety (distance from the opponent) and target (reach to target).
  • The weapon and hand/arm lead the attack because this continues the compromise to the degree possible: the sharp thing races toward the opponent, something they should be thinking very hard about, while exposing as little of the attacker as one can
  • The positioning, method of extending the weapon, all make the best use of distance and tempo (tempo here, again, equally one fencing action)

Why the Universals are Important

Without meaning to court the exciting world of being “canceled,” if one is teaching or fencing without some intentional inclusion of the universals, then one is not really fencing. One might be fighting, sure, and maybe one has some success, but what makes the Art an art is not bravado, enthusiasm, physical attributes, speed, or luck. There is science involved, study, a set of principles and techniques that made this training worth one’s time back when it actually mattered, and, makes us more effective now.

Colpi di Vilano

Lest one think I’m making this up take a look at those sources from Fiore on that discuss fighting the untutored—the better masters knew this was possible if not likely and explained how to use the Art to counter the clod with a weapon. [5] I’ll be the first to admit that the attribute fighter full of confidence will collect a lot of medals, but success in a game is not the same thing as effective self-defense. We should be far more concerned with not being hit at all, and that means when we attack too.

The universals are important for a number of reasons. First, because these principles underpin any hand-to-hand combat system, they provide a vocabulary for understanding the sources and lessons which impart these systems. If your instructor stops you after an action and asks you about the measure just employed, or what action or actions one of you made; if they ask you why you chose a specific tactic over another; if they ask you to break down the action; they are discussing the universals as applied to what you’re learning. The universals, then, are behind every action and technique we tend to make, so it pays to know what they are.

Second, a solid grasp of these principles will “open up” or unpack a lot of sources. One can look at Meyer, Marcelli, Rossi; one can look at Jack Dempsey’s book on boxing; one can watch a lesson at BJJ dojo; one can watch some MMA match on television and analyze any one of them according to the universals. For the historical fencer the value of this knowledge can make all the difference in how effectively they’re using a source.

Lastly, a thorough grounding in the key concepts behind every action and tactic not only make it possible to take a student deeper into the Art, but also and as importantly help the instructor identify problem areas. How can we correct what we don’t understand? Moreover, the universals provide a nearly inexhaustible supply of lesson options.

How to Use the Universals in Lessons

There are different types of lessons, but no matter what type they are they should work from the universals. Warm up, teaching, option, and bouting lessons all work from the core principles. [6] Here I’d like to focus on option lessons, that is, having a student use material they know in different situations and set-ups. Generally, one is not introducing new concepts or techniques in an options lesson, but exploring that which the student already knows and/or does well.

The simplest way to create options for the student is to start with the universals. By varying what we do with these we help the student develop wider and more sophisticated applications of particular actions. As an example, the simple feint mentioned earlier, can be changed in myriad ways:

Ex. 1: Smallsword/Spada/Foil

Simple Feint (feint-thrust, disengage and thrust to target):

Measure:
–in measure (the student can reach target with a lunge
–out of measure (the student must advance or redouble to reach target with a lunge)
–close measure (the student can extend the arm to target)

Speed:
–attack executed at necessary speed
–attack executed with a fast feint, slow disengage/thrust
–attack execute with a slow feint, fast disengage/thrust

Initiative:
–instructor provides cue for student to begin action
–student provides cue for beginning action

Roles:
–instructor is defender, student attacker
–student is defender, instructor attacker
–both I and S can attack, a question of who sees the opportunity first

Putting all this together, the lesson might look like this:

3-5 min.           warm-up

direct thrusts from standing; lunging; with an advance; on the march; parry-riposte inside high and low/outside high and low

15-20 min.       OptionL:           working simple feints

Feint direct (inside/outside line)—student lands touch
–from standing
–with lunge
–with advance/cross-step lunge

Feint direct (outside/inside line)—Inst. parries; S p&r
–from standing
–with lunge
–with advance/cross-step lunge

Feints on the March
–Instr. provides cue, e.g. raising weapon from 8 to 6
–S. picks moment to attack (should look for neg. bal.)

Feints with Change of Tempo
–S. uses feet
–S. uses varies weapon’s movement

5-10 min.         Cool Down

Instr. attacks with open line, S makes arrest
–top of arm
–inside of arm
–outside of arm
–under the arm/wrist

This is just a quick sketch of one way to do this. The student and instructor could switch roles; they could each be confined to responses in a particular tempo; the Instr. or S., depending on skill level of the S, might introduce random actions in the midst of the topic. So long as these choices are made with the universal principles in mind, it is hard to go too far wrong.

Ex. 2: Fiore, Sword in Two Hands, from Punta Spada [7]

First Master of Longsword

Measure:
largo [wide]
stretto [close]
–passing steps into measure
–using accrescimenti to advance into measure

Tempo: 
–one tempo [thrust to face]
–two tempi [cut over to head or arms]

Speed:
–necessary speed
–slow-fast [slow step into measure; quick strike]
–fast-slow [quick step into measure; cut-over]

Initiative:        
–Instructor provides cue by stepping into measure and crossing swords
–Student provides cue by stepping into measure and crossing swords

Putting all this together, the lesson might look like this:

3-5 min.           Warm Up

7 Strikes of Segno; Meyer Square
–solo, in air or against pell
–with partner who adopts opposing posta
–from standing; with passing step

15-20 min.       OptionsL:          Working from the Bind in Longsword

I initiates action, crossing punta spada (1st master L gioco largo)
[I applies little pressure to bind]
–S thrusts to face
–from standing with step

I initiates action, crossing punta spada (1st scholar 1st Mstr)
[I applies pressure to bind]
–S steps to right with cut over to head or arms
–with pass right or left

I initiates action, crossing mezza spada (2nd master of L g.l.)
[I applies little pressure to bind]
–S drops sword to cuts hands (1st sch 2nd mstr)
–from standing with step

I initiates action, crossing mezza spada
[I applies pressure to bind]
–S steps to right with thrust to the chest
–with pass right or left

I initiates action, crossing mezza spada
[I applies little pressure to bind]
–S steps in, grabs point and cuts to the face (2nd sch 2nd mstr) [8]        

To make this more dynamic, one can have the student initiate the action; the student could add a defensive response; at close of lesson, the student must select the appropriate action based on sword placement, measure, and pressure on the blade, all of which the instructor changes at random.

Nuts & Bolts

The examples above hopefully illustrate the basic method. Armed with a grasp of the universals, and assuming decent familiarity with the subject, the instructor can select an action, class of actions, or actions and responses to create lessons that explore whatever the topic is beyond its simplest expression. One can scale up or down using the universals to create different permutations, all of which incorporate the basic action, be it a feint, working from a bind, or using the head and tail of a pole-axe. [9] Changing measure, tempo, speed, or initiative allow what is too often a limited action to became far more useful. Because such lessons build up from solid fundamentals, they not only help a student drill those elementary, foundational actions, but also teach them how to expand what is possible with them.

None of this, however, is easy, especially if one wasn’t taught this way. Like anything, though, it’s a question of putting in the time, taking lessons from someone who can impart these concepts, and then going through the sometimes clumsy process of making it all work in class. Each student is different, so flexibility is important too.

Curriculum Considerations & the Universals

Devising a curriculum requires sufficient subject knowledge, teaching skill, and experience enough to know where the progression of lessons should lead. Historical fencing, because it is (ostensibly) source-based and not just learned on-the-job, adds an additional layer of challenge. Often what clubs do is start on page one and proceed through a source start to finish. That can work, and some of our texts are set up to do that, but some are not organized the way we normally organize things now. Mnemonic verse, interleaving actions and options through masters, scholars, and remedy masters as Fiore does; incomplete works, notes, or outlines; difficult language, poor preservation, and obscure analogies or references all work against us. I’ve stated before that modern fencing vocabulary, while dangerous to apply one-to-one to many ancient works, nonetheless gives us a way to talk about these things. For example, I’ve described the action that  Fiore’s first scholar of the first longsword master makes as a cut-over; it is not made the same way one is in smallsword, sabre, or rapier, but if one knows what a cut-over is—moving from one side of the blade or engagement on that blade to the other by bringing the sword over the opposing steel—then it helps one figure out what to do. The differences are crucial—from punta spada I should not make that cut-over if the opponent is not pressing against my blade: I should thrust through and thus maintain opposition reducing the chance I get hit as I attack. In smallsword there are similar considerations, but I’m not worried about a cut, so the mechanics, the angles of a cut-over are different.

From Amazon (not making this shit up)

If new to the universals in a formal way, start small, start slow. Take a simple action or basic play and analyze the ways measure, tempo, or speed play into it. Even changing one thing will add to your student’s toolbox. From experience I know that it gets easier to devise lessons along these lines with practice, and to be candid, with failure. We have to give ourselves room to screw up or we will never advance. I’m not a fan (at. all.) of trite maxims, the sort best left to decorate the walls of some Trimalchian pilates trophy spouse’s home studio—life is hard, often cruel, a constant attempt not to drown in disappointment: the only way through it is to do what we do in a bout, to fight on regardless of the outcome. So, if using the universals doesn’t go well at first, break down what happened, adapt, and try again. It will deepen not only appreciation for the intricacies and beautiful variety within the Art, but also make us better instructors.

NOTES:

[1] With a grand statement like this one might easily take issue, but there is some consensus in the martial arts community’s research side that there are universal principles to hand to hand combat. Humans can only move so many ways, weapons can only be used in so many ways, and given these limitations and the typical contexts in which people fight hand to hand they tend to arrive at similar conclusions. See for example, Wojciech J. Cynarski, Martial Arts & Combat Sports: Towards the General Theory of Fighting Arts, The Lykeion Library Series, Vol. 25, Gdansk, PL: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Katedra, 2019.

[2] Many early modern and modern works on fencing discuss theory, variously defined, as well as technique. Where the universal principles are not mentioned, however, they are normally implied. One difficulty is that the community’s understanding and expression of theory has changed over time. The best interpretation of Fiore’s cutting mechanics for longsword I’ve yet seen seeks to project the weapon out quickly, efficiently, and with force—at its simplest, to make a mandritto fendente (downward blow from the right) from posta di donna, one drops the hands to chest height and out to target. Fiore doesn’t explain why—he assumes the reader knows. For a more explicit example, George Silver’s “true times” clearly list the chief considerations around measure, tempo, speed, and initiative and judgment.

[3] See Robert Handelman and Connie Louie, Fencing Foil: A Practical Training Guide for Coaches, Parents and Young Athletes, San Francisco, CA: Patinando Press, 2014

[4] For a prime example, see Francesco Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, translated by Christopher A. Holzman, Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2019, 63-79.

[5] Fiore, in the 4th scholar of the Second Master of Longsword, Wide Plays (Getty MS), discusses the Colpi di Villano, “Peasant’s Strike.” Cf. http://www.nwarmizare.com/Pocket-Fiore/assets/www/getty_th_longsword2.html

[6] This division of lessons types is modern, and not all concern each branch of fencing the same way, but the divisions remain useful for teaching.

[7-8] Unfortunately the most recent editions of Fiore’s surviving copies, published by Freelance Press, are expensive. Eric Miller, whom I met at Mike Cherba’s club (Northwest Armizare), put together a very handy app for Fiore. See http://www.nwarmizare.com/Pocket-Fiore/assets/www/index.html

[9] I’ve only dabbled in pole-axe, chiefly via Fiore’s corpus and the late 15th century Burgundian work, Le Jeu de la Hache. For the latter, see Olivier Dupuis and Vincent Deluz, “Le Jeu de la Hache,” A Critical edition and dating discussion,” Acta Periodica Duellatorum 5: 1 (2017): 3-62. In fact, the very first portion the author of the this work lays out an option lesson for the tour de bras, folio 3r, Rubric 2, Section 4, 2.1 ff.

Russ and Kat–HEMA is Dead

This. All of this.

For my part, I agree and not to quote a famous occultist, but when it comes to fencing do what thou wilt; pursue what you like. My wish, not that it matters, is that more people were able or willing to acknowledge the distinction between historical fencing as research and historical fencing as new modern living tradition. They “can” coincide, but too often enthusiasts conflate success in this tourney or that with a more historically accurate interpretation, and that is exceedingly rare for reasons I’ve outlined on this site time and time again.

“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.

Russ and Kat, “Fencing while Female”

One of my favorite fencer-researchers is Russ Mitchell–he’s good people. He seems to collect good people around him too. This is an important piece on some of the issues female fencers face with regard to using sources written at a time that assumed only men (usually only men…) were using swords.

I would extend what they share here to a broader demographic, meaning, that all people whatever their sex or gender inhabit different bodies and may need to adjust what a manual or treatise suggests in order to use a technique, move, or make an action correctly. Spirit of the law in this sense means more than letter of the law–if slavish attention to a source means one can’t use the system effectively, then it makes sense to make the small adjustments one must in order to use that system.

For example, for those with larger chests (regardless of sex or gender), some of the actions where one must bring the weapon across the body can be difficult, so using more of the core to turn makes sense. Likewise, the en garde stance which demands heels in alignment doesn’t work as well for some with wider hips–keeping the rear foot a bit off-line to the inside and turning slightly more forward (provided decent footwork and a sense of a measure) is a simple solution.

“Fencing While Female”–Winged Sabre, TX

P.S. Thank you Russ for the correction–my apologies to Kat for misspelling the name.

One Method for Curriculum Building in Fencing

Among the many challenges we face as instructors is how to organize lessons and classes, what to emphasize when and how best to accomplish that. What follows here is not new, nor is it any invention of mine; this is just how I conceive of a well-known process and one possible way we can use this approach to teach historical fencing. I refer to it as the “recursive model,” because each lesson incorporates key elements of the one preceding it. [1]

Rotae/Wheels

I’m intensely visual as a learner and so tend to chart a lot on a white board and paper. I like to be able to see ahead and see how things interconnect; it can be especially useful when managing both the micro- and macro-views of a topic, say something as finite as an individual technique and each part which comprises it as well as something as large as a series of classes which explore that technique in different ways. One method to capture this visually is with intersecting circles.

As I’ve worked with these I referred to them as “circles,” “rounds,” or rotae, but whatever the terminology the idea is that each circle represents say a new lesson that also returns to core material from the previous lesson. [2] This reinforces what students learn by repeating core actions and ideas, but at the same time increases the awareness of how everything works together. It’s also a great way to build or plan ready-made drills. All of it is scalable—it works for a technique or action, say the lunge, as well as a system, such as Girard’s approach to smallsword. One lesson rolls naturally into the other, and builds off what one has covered previously, so we increase complexity as we proceed. In a glance we have a model in which we can shift elements of a lesson, examine the interval between those examinations, and isolate individual themes actions, plays, or techniques to cover.

In my last post I discussed smallsword as a “gate-way drug” for historical fencing—that class is an experiment in using this approach in a formal way. For example, here are my initial notes for this class for the first three sessions, each an hour long:

First Three Lessons example*

In the first, we cover moving from first position into the en garde position; the extension of the weapon from guard, the guards/parries of tierce and carte; we then cover the advance, retreat, lunge and recovery out of the lunge (backward initially). Offensively I start with the glide in tierce. Each of these we can depict in the round as well, most especially those maneuvers like stepping into guard or the lunge which involve multiple steps:

Use of Rota to Breakdown the Lunge**

If one looks at the second circle (in green), one will notice that some of the first lesson (in black) starts that session off; it’s followed by the logical steps that proceed from that first lesson. Thus, in green ink, we see the “glizade” or glide in 3rd and the glide in 4th; moving from the outside to the inside engagement means covering the disengage. Students drill these attacks with special focus on the point landing before the front foot; the lesson portion concludes with teaching the basic defense against these glides (stepping back and taking tierce or carte) and reemphasizing the importance of closing the line.

Each new lesson incorporates review of the critical actions necessary to take on new material. However, if a class is struggling, then it’s easy to stop, work the same material from the previous lesson, and try the new material again in the next class. Thus, if in the third lesson (red) students are struggling to make the feint by glide in third, one can have them drill the glide in third minus the feint. Perhaps have them work on tight disengages, then the glide; time permitting, I have them advance lunge the glide. This will help them hone the necessary skills to start working on the feint.

How this Works

There are a few important considerations in using this method. First, the instructor must have a decent command of the material or they cannot delineate what is fundamental, what composite. If new to the material, then sitting down with the source and organizing it is the first step; this recursive rota approach can help one do that. Perhaps in reading the source one notices that the author covers movement first, then defense, then offense in increasing complexity. If one outlines each of those areas, what are the first things the author covers in each section? What cross-over is there between them? One will notice, for example, that the first attack likely starts from a position of defense covered in the second theme and uses movement from the first. Taking the initial steps in each section—movement, defense, and offense—is not a bad way to start a first lesson; at the very least it’s a decent goal to set for it as it will mean covering fundamental actions and thinking required for that system.

Second, the instructor must have at least an approximate sense of how difficult each new element typically is for new students, that is, how easily or not they can acquire a given skill. The advance and retreat, for example, are generally something students get quickly; there will be refinements to make to them, but the basic concept of stepping forward and backward one foot following the other shouldn’t be a major hurdle, but the feint-1-2 might be a lot harder as it will require coordinating hand, feet, and eye. The sequence within each circle should proceed from simple to more complex—this is not only easier to teach and to learn, but helps students see more effectively what each technique, action, or concept involves.

Third, and related to the second point, the instructor must know how to assess problem areas and be willing to stop a lesson and focus on those When necessary. This can be done without haranguing a class or student; it can be as simple as noticing they’re really struggling to extend first and deciding to make that the focus for the day. Depending on the class, one can ask them directly if they’re struggling as well—this tends to be safer with adults than with children. For example, the advance is simple, but there are common problems one must be on the lookout for and correct, such as not pointing the front foot towards the front. Critical as it is to point the foot, correcting it doesn’t require shutting down all footwork until they point their feet—students should continue to work on footwork, drill, but the instructor will make corrections as they do so. It doesn’t have to be perfect to start—it just needs to work effectively enough. As students grow in comfort and stability,  the instructor can make adjustments as necessary. If on the other hand no one is extending the arm before they lunge, then it is critical to correct that before moving to the glide or they’ll develop a dangerous habit that will affect their entire game.

Rotae and Recursive Learning as Continuing Program

Depending on one’s source material one may run through the circles in short time. It’s important to note too that going through some of the same material more than once is not only an option, but recommended. Using Girard as an example, one might get through most of his program in a few months (assuming say a few lessons a week and students who are dedicated). Fencing, any fencing, is about practice, drill, using the system; it’s not go through it once and done.

After an initial run through Girard’s system one might return to specific elements, say his section on beats. The choice comes down to a number of considerations. After one run through the circles, the instructor may notice areas the students are weak or where they struggled—that might be an ideal place to start for the second run through the circles. Once the students have acquired some familiarity and enough skill, it’s possible to mix up some of the circles, use them out of order, so that things stay “fresh.”

Girard, Broadsword vs. Smallsword (1740)

With some manuals, going through them the same way again and again will get old fast; boredom is the bane of learning (and teaching), so mixing things up, throwing in something different, can help. Returning to Girard, maybe peppering the lessons with attention to his sections on weapon-seizures or facing different weapons or national/ethnic guards will add a little “pop” and interest. For more advanced students, comparative analysis of Girard’s advice for facing a broadsword fencer or odd farm weapons with that of another master can be both fun and an effective way to widen and deepen their understanding of smallsword.

D. Angelo, Broadsword vs. Smallsword (1763/1787)

Multae Viae

There are many ways to learn, and instructors should use what works best for them and for their students. The recursive model is simply one method and one I find works well for teaching fencing. Most of us, I suspect, use a variety of methods; we adapt for different types of students, different contexts. Our goal as instructors is to share a body of knowledge and technique, to pass it on, and whatever helps us achieve that has merit.

NOTES:

[1] Online searching comes down to the terms we use, and I have to guess that I’m just not using the correct ones as I can’t find a formal name for the process I describe in this post. “Recursive learning,” “education,” and “model” all bring up a lot on machine languages and programming; I had much the same problem with the terms “reinforcement learning,” “rota learning method,” and similar iterations. A wider search for “curriculum design” or “styles” was likewise unhelpful. SO, if someone reading this knows what this approach is called, please let me know.

[2] Traditional fencing lessons work this way, at least they should. Students acquire new skills over time, but much of the lesson will incorporate or drill what they already know.

* My chicken-scratch is infamous, so here is a transliteration:
–1. Black Circle: starting with 1st position, en garde, extension, guards/parries 3 and 4; movement: the advance, retreat, lunge, recovery out of the lunge; concept of opposition; glide in 3rd and defense
–2. Green Circle: starting with review of 1st position and the en garde, guards 3 and 4, and opposition from first lesson; then the glide in 3rd, in 4th, and the disengage; importance of weapon-arm-foot; importance of recovering behind the point
–3. Red Circle: review of 1st. pos. and en garde, guards 3,4, glides in 3/4; feint by glide in 3rd and 4th; flanconade; parry 2; drills building off of Fencer A makes feint by glide to outside line; Fencer B parries 3; Fencer A disengages, thrusts in 4th with opposition–> Fencer B receives the touch; then, same set-up, but Fencer B parries 4th and ripostes by flanconade [this sets up a future lesson were Fencer A will parry in 2nd]

**Key Components of the Lunge viewed as Depicted via Rota:
–starting from 1st position; front foot extends out about two shoe lengths or so (Fr. deux semelles); position of arms; bending the knees; weight on back leg traditionally, but today often equi-weighted; balance and stability the goal so that en garde facilitates an explosive lunge; head position; importance of relaxing the shoulders; where to point the weapon; guard of tierce/3rd

Smallsword as Gate-way Drug

The lunge as represented in the Règlement of 1908

In the current adult “Introduction to Fencing” class I decided to proceed along more historical lines rather than stick to the form I inherited, traditional foil. Up to this session I’ve used foils (French, as I have more of them than Italian)—they’re inexpensive, light to ferry to and from the center where I teach, and as I teach it the presentation is closer to smallsword than modern foil. At the very least, so my reasoning goes, solid foil is an excellent foundation for the study of any other weapon, new or ancient. [1] The masters with whom I studied foil were “old-school” so we learned a very traditional method. I was not taught flicks, ducking to cover target, or any of the other bizarre ways to game ROW and directors. This said, traditional foil is not smallsword, but it is what I learned, and, learned first, so up to now I’ve taught foil more or less as one sees it in the Règlement of 1908 or Barbasetti [2].

Foil is comfortable, known, a place of comfort. I know I’m competent to teach it, and that confidence helps, not only with how I myself present in class, but also in terms of how students view me and respond. [3] If the teacher is unsure, the students will be too, and worst case scenario may just leave, confidence being one of those all-important traits in the United States (despite the fact confidence as such is often just faked, misplaced, or assumed without cause).

I usually teach smallsword one on one, and I fence it a fair amount. I spend and have spent countless hours studying, researching, and writing about the corpus; the more I work on smallsword the more I like it, and not only because it taxes past injuries less severely than many of the other weapons I teach. I like the mental game, the complexity, navigating all those angles. A question came up the first day of the adult class, about why one holds a French foil as one does in sixth, and sometime between explaining what “carte over the arm,” terza, and “hand in fourth” meant, I decided: next class we’re just going to do smallsword.

Rarely have I taken a chance like this and had it pay off, let alone immediately, but in four classes the four adults in this class have a clearer understanding of rule number one, “don’t get hit,” and are quickly gaining skill with the fundamentals I’ve shown them. It may be that these four are just precocious—all four are athletic—but I’ve worked with a lot of capable people, and with few exceptions have I seen a group take to what I teach them so fast.

I think it is two things. First, I am passionate about the topic and know it well; I appreciate how difficult it can be and so I ensure a lot of room to make mistakes, ask questions, and all without censure or impatience. Enthusiasm is infectious, so present a topic as fun and chances are good it will be fun. [4] Second, as complex as smallsword can be, approached from the point of view of “the point is live,” it becomes very simple.

La pointe d’une épée est une réalité qui fait disparaître bien des fantômes.

Baron César de Bazancourt, Les secrets de l’épée [153]
1862

It’s this second point that has been a revelation. What’s caught my attention is that my emphasizing “don’t get hit” first is not new—this guides every single class or lesson I teach. What’s different is how it’s working.

Critical Rule: Always be Open to Correction

This is, in some ways, a difficult realization, because it suggests strongly that some aspects of my approach have been somewhat more schizophrenic than I realized. As I examine it, as I review old lesson plans and notes, I see it. My approach to smallsword, foil, epee/spada, though not rapier interestingly, mixed elements of foil-as-sport with the sources. This wasn’t true across the board, but it was in certain places. It’s easy to fall into, because there is enough overlap that one can assume that a given maneuver is more or less the same; it likely is, but where it’s less the same, that is the thing on which to focus. A prime example is a simple one-two feint. Classically, in foil, the one-two consists of the following:

  • From sixth/third Fencer A feints inside line
  • From sixth/third Fencer B parries in fourth
  • Fencer A disengages and thrusts to the outside line

There’s nothing wrong with this, and, it can work in smallsword too. However, what is missing in the sporting formulation is the extra caution one needs in historical fencing. Feints are one of the most difficult actions for fencers to learn—they’re not just about technique, but psychology. We must “sell” a feint to make it work. We cannot, however, control what the other fencer does, and responses will vary—this is one reason that probing actions and solid footwork are so important. A feint is not always the right choice.

Girard, Traité des armes, (1740) thrust in fourth

The defender, for example, might parry fourth thereby opening the outside line, but they might also panic and just counter attack. They may just back up. Some will see it coming, parry fourth, then take a half-step back and take sixth/third and riposte. There are solutions to each of these scenarios and more (thanks Newton 😉 ), but for the attacker, some degree of commitment, even if to the false attack is vital or the feint will lack credibility. It must be made at just the right distance, not so close that one puts oneself at even greater risk, but not so far as to look ridiculous and unconvincing.

When one is fighting for points—not to touch and not be touched—some of these concerns are minor or absent. The foilist, so long as they attack with right-of-way and land the touch, will get the point, and this is irrespective of whether the defender counters. Only if that counter arrives in tempo, thus granting the defender ROW, will they score. In this case the defender countering is less concerned, if at all, about whether the initial attacker completes the attack, because they got the point. In this is the entire difference between sport and combat.

A Glizade by Any Other Name (coulé, filo, glide, graze …)

One challenge as an instructor is to instill an appropriate sense of danger, artificial as it will be, in new students. It can be difficult with experienced students too. One of the best solutions I’ve found, and one that at the same time helps develop a proper thrust, was suggested to me by a friend and virtual mentor, Chris Holzman. [5] A while back, while chatting with both Chris and Patrick Bratton about teaching the direct thrust, usually the first attack one learns in foil, Chris suggested starting students off with the glide in third [6]. It’s so obvious how this might help that I felt silly I hadn’t thought of it, but then that is why we consult more knowledgeable people.

Teaching the glide first has done wonders for my youth class, and it has been a boon in this adult class as well, not least of which because the glizade is common in smallsword works, but also because it focuses so clearly on opposition and not being hit. This benefit extends beyond this particular action as well. For example, I decided to set up their first feint as a feint-by-glide. The day we started a look at feints I reviewed the previous lesson, had them do the usual warm up, then footwork, and then had them practice the glide in third against one another. Next we added the defense against it, in this case the simplest, taking a half-step back and reasserting third. To help them set up for the subject of the day, I next had them engage in fourth, and as before, they practiced attacking and defending. [7]

After a short break, I had them complete a simple disengage drill, one in which each partner takes turns making disengages against a static line. In this case, Fencer A stands in guard, in third, and Fencer B disengages from third to fourth, making sure to maintain opposition. This is the critical part, and, a departure from modern foil. Going over just this action helps isolate where students may be struggling, and cements key aspects of the technique.

Coulé or glizade from Angelo, L’École des armes (1763)

From there, we started on the feint by glide in third to force a parry in third, followed by a disengage into fourth and thrust with opposition. Among other notable observations the students made was that they could not leave that glide until/unless the defender reacted. When they made the disengage automatically, before a response, they normally ran into the opposing steel. If they failed to take opposition in fourth, they were hit on their way to target. Finally, we discussed the defense against this attack and practiced it (defender takes a half-step back and parries in third, then follows the disengagement via a ceding parry in fourth, ripostes with opposition).

The exercise, start to finish, was fruitful, not only for what it imparted about offense, defense, footwork, and tactics, but sentiment du fer and a keen sense of the point. Discussion turned to other options, techniques we’ve not yet covered but will, and more than once the students, just via the logic of this play deduced either possible next steps or alternative actions to those we had just covered.

Smallsword as Gate-Way Drug

My nod to 1980’s Nancy Reagan “just say no” propaganda aside, smallsword can prove an excellent introduction to the universals we navigate and employ in all fencing. Foil, traditionally, was meant to do this, and still can depending on instructor, but the advantage of smallsword over foil in this respect comes down to clarity. In the 1860s de Bazancourt was one of those voices lamenting that foil training could prove a liability in duels; foil, for some time, had become more academic, what we often call today “salle fencing.” This was, as I’ve pointed out before, something at least one French official noted about the Italian approach—they learn one system, and the difference between sport and duel comes down not to technique, but the blade. One has a button, the other is sharp. [8] The rise of epee, in many respects, was the French attempt to return foil to the seriousness of smallsword—what they created was different, but the ethos was the same. Don’t be hit.

Alexander Doyle, Neu Alamodische Ritterliche Fecht- und Schirm-Kunst, 1715 [Courtesy of SUB Göttingen, Universität Göttingen, Deutschland]

If one knows foil well, reading a smallsword text is relatively easy—vocabulary is often different, orthography too, but the relationship stands out starkly. This said, the differences (as so often happens) are more important: if we ignore them we risk misinterpretation. We will treat smallsword as foil and they’re not the same. We see foils—the weapon—in many early works, from de la Touche (1670) to Angelo (1763/1787), but the similarity in tool then and now can obscure the intent behind it. The ruleset for foil, much of modern pedagogy, will not work for smallsword, not if we wish to approach it historically, as a weapon.

The grip in tierce is easy for beginners, and no bar to learning how to hold the hand in fourth, something they will learn in due course. There are many extant texts for smallsword, and while one needs to read them carefully and select those more geared to combat, having to read them closely to parse out what is academic and what suitable for on the ground only imparts a better understanding and appreciation for the corpus. [9]

The sense of realism, moreover, adds significantly to a class. It’s a form of time-travel, in a way, because students are wrestling with the concerns those two-hundred years ago had to consider too. At its best, historical fencing not only creates a redoubtable fencer, but also one who appreciates the richness and variety of the Art. The fact it’s possible to work so hard and have so much fun is another lesson worth one’s time.

Notes:

[1] Until recently, most every fencer started study with foil because it encapsulates the whole of the Art, from how to move to lines of attack, from the primacy of the sharp point to the interconnection between distance and tempo. Armed with a knowledge of foil, epee and sabre are easier to learn, but so too bayonet and spear.

[2] This is a note I’ve shared more than once, but I have no idea who may read this or if they’ve read anything on this site previously, and for completeness I like to cite anything I should or what people may wish to know, have questions about, etc. I initially was trained in French foil, and the first master with whom I studied sabre, Buzz Hurst, had been a student at the Naval Academy under the Deladriers, so when making comparisons in sabre lessons to foil it was the French system he referenced. More recently, I studied with the late Maitre Delmar Calvert, again in sabre, but who also referenced foil. He learned to fence in the French army according to the Réglement of 1908. My initial work in Italian foil looked to Barbasetti as outlined in his The Art of the Foil (1932).

[3] Teaching is intimate. Building and maintaining trust depends on a number of factors—I have found that honesty, transparency, and openness account for a lot. No one teacher has all the answers, and the best acknowledge that. If I don’t know, I say so, and then do what I can to find out. This may be off-putting to some, but I think it’s the right course. Students learn best when they can focus, when they don’t have to worry about other issues, and so much as I can I try to make a safe space—they know they will be heard, that they matter, and that no one is going to mock or judge them.

[4] Related to n. 3, people learn better when the topic is less work than it is play, children and adults. None of us are going to be fighting duels; we do this for fun, so, make it fun!

[5] I have had the good fortune to get to know Chris Holzman via the internet. He is a mentor in so many ways, a repository of knowledge, and a skilled fencer, teacher, and translator. One of these days I will make it out to Kansas for lessons, and whatever it is we cover I’ll come back the richer.

[6] The direct thrust is elemental, but it is also difficult. Before students understand that the extension is the key to it, that their posture and position guide the point, they attempt to aim the point. It’s far simpler than that—it’s all in the set-up, but acquiring that skill takes time and considerable effort. Marcelli, in his Rules of Fencing, Book II, Part I, Chapter Vi, remarked that the direct thrust underpins everything. Ripostes, feints, beats, all employ it. See Holzman’s translation, page 105.

[7] One of the major errors I see in “HEMA” is the lack of movement. Fencers enter into measure and duke it out, making very little use of the piste or ring. Varying movement in drills is vital. Using the example above of the 1-2 (feint to the inside line, disengage, thrust to the outside line), this can be performed from lunging distance or from advanced lunge distance. We often start in measure as it’s easier—depending on the action—but as much as possible vary the distance.

In this case, I had them start out in measure and work slowly to get the mechanics down, then we sped it up a bit to test it, and, show how tempo plays into the attack. Next, I had them advance the feint, then lunge the attack. In time, they’ll start out of distance and need to decide when to make the attack; initially I will give them a cue, say raising my blade to guard from a low guard, but as they increase in skill I will hold tierce and they have to pick the time.

[8] There is a lot of work to be done on the difference and nuances between “academic” versus “dueling” with smallsword and foil works. This is one of my current research projects.

[9] A good analogy for all this is the college history course. In some, one is made to memorize all manner of minutiae, then take some type of multiple choice test. It’s as boring as it is pointless. In others classes, one might listen to lectures germane to the topic; with luck these are engaging and explore the themes via something that makes the topic relatable, that touches the experience of being human that transcends time. One usually reads some period sources, some secondary literature about those sources and their context, and is then asked to write analytical essays, both as papers and in essay exams. The second method is far more demanding; some students absolutely hate it. Of the two, however, this is history, this is closer to how we conduct research.

Modern fencing makes next to no use, if any, of source material, books, etc. It’s impossible to study historical fencing without sources—even if one oneself isn’t reading and studying them, the person teaching them ostensibly is (they should be…). One advantage of having a rich source tradition is that it provides additional teaching tools. We have images and illustrations, key passages, anecdotal references to how people were trained and fought, all of which add much to how we teach. It can be a far richer meal.