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

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, seeFrancesco 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.

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

Confronting Difficult Textual Passages

Read enough and inevitably one will encounter one of those passages that for one reason or another seem tailor made to confuse us. Sometimes we’re just tired and need to take a break, sometimes translation or transcription issues are behind such problems. However, there are also instances when a passage, in any language, remains cryptic. The sentences are grammatical, the topic is in a logical place within the source, but somehow despite our best efforts we can’t unravel what it is the author meant.

Recently, a colleague in Passau, Germany, Christian Olbrich (Fechten Passau)* and I discussed one of the latter examples in a source we both value greatly, Maestro Luigi Barbasetti’s The Art of the Sabre and Epee (1936), itself a translation of the 1899 German edition Das Säbelfechten. [1] My friend asked me for my two cents on several passages in Barbasetti that even on second glance tend to make us scratch our heads. The first question, and my example here, concerns the molinello from an engagement in third. Here is the passage in question, both in English and in German:


English:

After Your Own Engagement

In Tierce—(a) With the aid of a horizontal molinello from the left to the right side, you can perform inward to the face, chest, or abdomen’

(b) If your adversary does not respond to your engagement by pressing your blade, you can, with the aide of the coupe, pass your blade to the inner opening and touch his head. [32-33]

Deutsch:

Aus der gegnerischen Bindung

In Terz, a) Mittelst einer wagrecht geführten Schwingung gelangt man von rechts auf die innere

Seite des gegnerischen Gesichtes, auf die Brust oder auf den Bauch.

b) Auf den Gegendruck der feindlichen Klinge rechnend, kann man mittelst Coupé – Bewegung auf die Innenseite übergehen, um mit einem Kopfhiebe zu enden. [57-58]

This particular action, a horizontal molinello from one’s own engagement in third (Terz, tierce), has popped up as a source of consternation several times. Some years ago, the sabre group at Indes WMA (now Indes Ferox Gladio, see links) brought this action up, and more recently Christian and I explored it via email. If one isn’t sure why this action seems odd, it may help to illustrate it.

Engagement in 3rd–a little exaggerated and at too extreme an angle, but both “fencers” here have their opponent’s blade to the right/outside, and are in third

By “my engagement” we mean that I have sought my opponent’s blade and made contact with it, in this case, “in tierce” or on the outside line, “outside” here meaning to the right of a right-hander. To perform a molinello, that is a circular cut using the elbow as axis, I must detach the weapon from my opponent’s to cut. Easy, right? Yes, but, there is an important question this raises: if one has control over the line by taking the engagement, and then leaves it to make a cut, what happens to the other blade? It is still out there, pointing at us, and threatening. From the sound of it, Maestro Barbasetti seems to be suggesting that we leave a place of security to attack without first removing the threat, a threat that we ostensibly had control over at the start. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially given how well-trained the maestro was and how well put-together his books are.

There are a few ways to make sense of this passage. A first and crucial step is to reread the passage, and, those which inform it. For example, I have defined “molinello” as a circular-cut employing the elbow as its axis of rotation, but earlier on page 29, where the master discusses cuts generally, he says

If you execute a circular movement ending with a final touch, the blow is called “cut by molinello.” The object of this preparatory circular movement is to disengage your blade from that of the opponent.

You must perform all cuts at the moment you detect an opening, retaking the position of guard immediately after. [29]

The German text says much the same, but is more specific:

Geschwungene Hiebe werden angewendet, wenn sich die Notwendigkeit ergibt, der Klinge des Gegners auszuweichen oder die eigene mittelst einer Schwingung von der gegnerischen Bindung zu befreien.

Hiebe sind zu führen, sobald der Gegner eine Blosse und die Zeit bietet, sie zu benützen; sodann muss die Waffe wieder in die Auslage zurückgeführt werden. [52-53]

My German is not great, but as I read this the 1899 edition explains that one uses these circular blows (Geschwungene Hiebe) either to elude (auszuweichen) or to separate (befreien) one’s blade from that of the opponent. [2] In either tongue, however, we are told that the “molinello” for Barbasetti involves disengaging one’s blade from that of the opponent. This is a subtle point, but an important one, because this is only one use of the molinelli. They are used as the maestro suggests, but also alone as exercises, as offensive actions, and—significant in this instance—as defensive actions.

We read “from our engagement” in a section on cuts and often assume we are on the offensive, but this can just as easily mean we are on defense. A parry, after all, involves engagements too; cuts include riposte options. Making a horizontal molinello from third makes the most sense to me as a riposte, which is to say that having parried in third one can reply with a horizontal molinello toward the right.[3] There are, however, not many instances in which I would choose this cut as a riposte from that parry—as a drill, however, as a way to practice this molinello, there is some merit, but as a riposte I would couple it with offline movement to the right and forward. The sketches I add here suggest rather than demonstrate, but hopefully provide some visual sense of what I mean:

Shifting right and diagonally forward with the riposte
Same idea, different view–here the idea of shifting the line of direction a few degrees is a little more clear

Read, reread, make sure of each term, and ask for help. There is no shame, ever, in asking other qualified people for their thoughts. When the people at Indes WMA asked me, we worked on it, but once home I sent a message to Chris Holzman to get his take as well. As Christian and I explored it this past week I once again checked in with Chris and Patrick Bratton. I wanted to be sure my own thinking wasn’t too far out before replying to Christian. Due diligence is important, and with something as odd as this one little passage, it pays to be cautious.

In the end, how we use the action and what the maestro intended may differ. In part this is down to context. Barbasetti, like many others of the Radaellian school, put his approach to paper, but as a working instructor he knew, as we do, that a book can inform but cannot teach. Fencing was and is, primarily, something one does. We learn it in person, individual to individual and/or group, and IF reading is involved it’s supplementary. Generally, a fencing book collects information, explains it, and serves as reminder and reference. [4] While Barbasetti offers his book as a pedagogical tool, he also assumes one has some knowledge of fencing. In the sala, when a question like this pops up, it’s far easier to manage because one can physically explore it with guidance. It’s far harder on one’s own. [5]

In classical and historical fencing not everyone has the same amount of experience, so seeking help is a logical step. This said, it is worth our time pondering these more challenging passages; the effort is not wasted, we learn something in the process, and our understanding deepens. It especially behooves an instructor to wrestle with the text—it forces close-reading, helps us avoid being cavalier with information that is actually rather complex, and better prepares us and students to tackle the material.

NOTES:

*For Christian’s club, see https://www.fechten-passau.de/ They do a lot–sport, classical, and theatrical–be sure to check out the photos and videos for the latter!

[1] The German language text is Cav. Luigi Barbasetti, Das Säbefechten, übersetzt von K.u.K. Linienschiffs-Lieutenant Rudolf Brosch und Oberlieutenant Heinrich Tenner (Wien: Verlag der “Allegemeinen Sport-Zeitung,” 1899. The English text is Luigi Barbasetti, The Art of the Sabre and Epée (New York, NY: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1936).

[2] NB: what follows stems from the German I learned in graduate school for reading—the class was tailored per field, and one of several I had to learn but which I am in no way expert.

For auszuweichen (infintive), I looked to ausweichen, v., the primary meaning of which in my basic Langenscheidt Standard German Dictionary, rev. 1993, is “to make way for (with the dative),” “get out of the way of,” “dodge,” but which may have a meaning specific to fencing my little dictionary does not contain. Jeffrey Forgeng, in his glossary of German terms in historical fencing, cites the use of this verb in Meyer (1570, 2.18v, 86v), and supplies “evading” [cf. https://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Fechtkunst_Glossary_(Jeffrey_Forgeng)#Glossary]. Befreien, however, is a little more straight-forward. This verb typically means to “free, liberate; release.”

As for Geschwungene Hiebe, the term here for “molinelli,” initial denotations are not much help. Geschwungen is an adjective meaning “curved,” but also the past participle of schwingen, ‘to swing, wave, brandish.” Hieb (m), means a “stroke, blow, punch.” To render this as “curved blow” seems clumsy, and I’m not much happier with “swinging blow,” though that perhaps gets closer. 

German readers are encouraged to assist this thick-tongued Yank if they would be so kind (Danke an alle!)

[3] I am not alone in seeing this as really only viable as a riposte; Chris Holzman does as well. The logic here is that if one has stopped an attack, parried it, one has robbed it of its force, and while it’s true the point remains there (and must be considered), the opponent’s first thought should be their own defense, NOT a remise or counter-attack. This is the difference between the more sportive idea of ROW and approaching the weapons sans rules.

[4] Fencing books have served many purposes. Some were attempts to impress a patron and gain preferment or a job, others were vehicles to lambast opponents and explain the “true” way, and still others were meant to share a particular school’s view on the Art. Most modern works, and by modern I mean 19th and 20th century texts, assume some degree of familiarity on the part of the reader. True, some do not, but most maestri writing these books write them to help students and share their take on things, not as substitutes for lessons with themselves.

[5] Historical and classical fencers, unlike their cousins in the sport, rely far more on sources. How much differs widely, but reliance upon the source tradition and fencing’s early purpose is what tends to define these two branches. On the one hand, books are the primary way by which we know anything at all about pole-arms, sword in two hands, and rapier. On the other, later books help us peel back the layers accrued over the 20th century. It is still interpretive more often than not, but without books, without the sources, it would just be make-believe.

A Short Discussion on Radaellian Sabre

Yesterday I once again had the pleasure to chat with Dr. Manouchehr Khorasani on Razmafzar TV. This time we discussed the sabre system of Giuseppe Radaelli (d. 1882) and its legacy. I was lucky to have Mike Cherba from Northwest Armizare present to help demonstrate some of the key features of the system. In part 1 of the interview we discuss Radaelli, the works on his system, and his period. Part 2, coming soon, will share the demonstration portion.

https://youtu.be/7V1BZBNBs6s

Vis enim vincitur arte

British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. (art. 3) f. 090/94 verso, (from UCalgary, Canada, digital collections, Gawain Ms)

In most any quest one is more likely to find Tech Duinn than Tir n mBan or Kêr Iz. Only in stories is anyone, normally a hero, able to win a prize, earn a skill, or achieve much without effort. Even there the best efforts can fail—for every Gawain there is a Connla. [1] Not all effort is the same. Not everything is up to us. We can direct energy in the wrong direction, and so it’s worth pondering how we can best apply ourselves so that we don’t waste time or energy (all other factors notwithstanding). The importance of this goes beyond how we train and into how we lead our lives, into what battles we choose to fight, what company we choose to keep, and in what pursuits we direct our efforts. Everything.

I took as the motto for this school a line from F.A. Marcelli’s Rule of Fencing (1686), vis enim vincitur arte, “For force is conquered by art,” not because power doesn’t have its place, but because without art power only does so much. One may be a powerful speaker, but without some skill in rhetoric any speech will suffer no matter how passionately one delivers it. In the same section, Marcelli shared a Latin rendering of the first two lines in Hippocrates’ Aphorismi, Ars longa, vita brevis, that is, “the Art is long, life short.” [2] The cipher I adopted for myself (see image just below) I made from two bits of clipart (one must be mindful of intellectual property rights)—a skull argent, affronté, crowned, trisected by spada, sabre, and foil—and is meant to capture this notion, that is, that the Art is eternal and we are not. It plays well with the usual memento mori aspects of this specific charge. I noticed another fencer adopt it, a chap in Italy I believe, and if it speaks to him too, great.

Memento Mori

For me, there is a lot that this cipher encapsulates. We only have so much time, so we should use it well. We should face the Great Question as bravely as we face an opponent: eyes forward, devoid of emotion, and ready. Whatever the weapon (the three stand for all) we should be ruled by the Art and the respect and discipline it teaches. If we want what we do to matter, if it is to matter, then we must embrace that journey without simplistic expectations about the outcome or too much concern about how it will be received—we focus on the work instead. We focus on the Art, less so our experience of it. This is easy to say, but much harder to carry out; so, mindful that death wins in the end, that nothing comes without struggle, and that we should consider how we want to be remembered, we press on despite setbacks, criticism, or failure. Failure, after all, is just another teacher.

It’s difficult sometimes, and natural to ask, whether we’re wasting our time or effort. We should ask this frequently. We can’t always know when we are wasting our time, especially without a skilled coach or similar insight, but there are a few areas this tends to go wrong and that are worth monitoring. Unqualified to give anyone life advice—not like I’ve figured my own out yet—what follows focuses on a few aspects of the Art where we tend to go wrong.

Attribute vs. Technique Fencing

One area we see misplaced effort is in forcing through an action. It’s not that this didn’t happen—we can be pretty sure it did—but in and of itself relying on one’s strength, or speed, or reach only brings short-term benefits. Two caveats. One is that competitive “HEMA,” like it’s sibling Olympic competition, will sustain an attribute fighter or fencer a long time. At present it will serve one longer in HEMA, because there are fewer truly skilled fencers who compete. [3] I am not against tournaments—they’re fun—but they have garnered more weight than they should have. I’m not the only person who believes this; as Matt Easton and Mark from the Exiles recently commented, the goals, training, and attitude toward the Art differ across the historical fencing spectrum. As unpleasant as this may sound, success in competition may correlate with a high degree of skill, but it doesn’t have to; in fact, in general all one needs is the need to do well and a deep degree of commitment to each fight, each blow. Olympic is no exception. [4]

Second, there are situations, particularly in mixed-weapon settings, where differences in weapons tell. A recent example of my own was fighting with a friend, Josh Campbell; he was armed with a 3+lb (1.36kg) baskethilt; mine, a later period model, weighs in at 2.36 lbs (1.072 kg). One head parry I took I didn’t take at the right distance and the mass of the other weapon easily defeated my defense. I only bout full-tilt with people of appropriate skill and control—I can’t afford to be injured—and this man, strong as he is, is able to stop a blow on a dime. The touch was his—yes, I had “parried,” but insufficiently, and had the fight been in earnest that blow would likely have ended it right there. Using one’s natural abilities is not wrong, but the best fencers combine those gifts of heredity with technique and understanding. This is true regardless of the person. In the example above, Josh could push through most any blow he wants, but he doesn’t—he knows that he needs to let the sword do its job, he knows to use its weight to save him effort, and in situations where the mass of that weapon will overwhelm he has the control to moderate force.

As another example, height and reach can be a boon, but so too can the lack of it. A good coach will help each fencer develop those inborn abilities in conjunction with the technical repertoire both learn. When I am teaching a shorter fencer, even at the outset we discuss things that are not going to work against a much taller opponent. If fencer A is 4’ 5” and B is 6’ 4,” and B launches a head-cut, A can use parry 5, but will likely need better measure to create an angle that keeps them safe. Moreover, A probably shouldn’t riposte to the head—they’re at a disadvantage there. The lower lines are a safer bet as they’re closer to A and harder, generally, for B to cover as quickly. B, on the other hand, can more easily target the high lines and extended target—going for a leg shot against A, which is daft for a variety of reasons, is more so given the height difference. [5]

Drilling

The famous line attributed to Bruce Lee about kicks, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times,” highlights the importance of meaningful drill. If we practice something unimportant or incorrect 10,000 times, all we do is hone a skill we don’t need or which we should be using differently. One of the arguments for a capable instructor or sensible study group is that it’s so easy to go wrong and guidance can help prevent that. There are, sad to say, people out there who have been at all this a very long time, and yet have extremely little to show for it. It’s hard not to feel pity for people in that plight, especially when it’s public. To have devoted so much time, energy, and passion for so long and to have so little to show for is unfortunate. It is, however, fixable.

For historical fencers, any drill or exercise beyond typical warm-ups or well-known conditioning routines should rely heavily on whatever source or sources one is using. Those drills connected to using measure, footwork, tempo, or other universals should be in play, but may differ by weapon. One uses different footwork for longsword than smallsword, but both require one to be able to move in any direction; both employ different categories of measure; and both exploit tempo. If your group or coach isn’t having you work on universals, that’s a problem. So too are any of the “bullshido” sorts of drills. What are these? One example, for footwork, I experienced myself. In one class I tried (but left), the instructor insisted that one land demi-pointe in the lunge. Nothing in the corpus supports this idea—no lie, I’ve looked—and when questioned he just got angry. [6] Other common examples include too much focus on speed, hardness of a blow, and drills that train actions that run counter to universal principles and/or one’s source.

Another common problem, but not strictly bullshido in nature, is the type of drill that comes from a source but which is a dead-end. Another example from the same instructor was his use of the stick drill in Henry Angelo’s Infantry Manual (1845). It makes sense as a reminder of the author’s numbers for cuts and guards, and as a warm-up perhaps, but I never saw him go beyond that save to one other set-drill. In all the times I visited that group over a year the only thing they ever covered in their two hours of class consisted of those two drills. Every practice… Fencing instruction is progressive, not static. If you are still doing the exact same drill the same way a year later, and that is all you’re doing, that’s worth examining.

Yachts in Kiddie Pools

HEMA is riddled with people who shouldn’t be teaching. There is a difference between the most experienced person running a study group in some isolated place and the person with a few years’ experience who just decides they are good enough to teach. It can be subtle. The former teaches because it’s the only option; the latter teaches because their self-worth needs dictate that they must teach to feel legitimate and/or be seen as such. There is grey area in all this too.

Selecting an instructor is difficult sometimes. Personality fit, distance, and time conflicts are one thing, but among the trickier issues is assessing what experience means. Like effort, not all experience is the same—seven years of this class or that, some tourney wins, and a big head do not an instructor make. They “can,” but it all comes down to how those years were spent, the quality of that experience. Because HEMA at large lacks sufficient time in the saddle, because the average level of understanding and ability is so mediocre, not only do we see more run of the mill fencers attempting to coach, but also a concurrent disdain for actual training. Not everyone can manage being shown up, and since many of HEMA’s popular darlings enjoy the modicum of fame they’ve run into, anything that might chip away at it is unwelcome.

If you want to teach, if you’re drawn to it, great, but do it right. There are a number of ways to do this. One is to work with an established, well-respected, and viable program. I’m happy to suggest a few. If these options are unavailable for some reason, then reach out to a teacher of recognized skill. What does “recognized” mean? Good question. Assuming someone is out there teaching what you want to pursue, a few ways to assess them include

  • their relative experience (how long have they been fencing or studying that topic?)
  • their training (what training have they had? Where did they obtain it? How is it regarded outside its own circle?)
  • the quality of their research if they’ve conducted any (did an academic journal publish it or a personal website? Was it peer-reviewed, and if so, who are those peers? How does it read? How solid is their support? Their thesis?)
  • teaching experience (where and whom have they taught? Have they been asked back? Have they taught both beginners and advanced fencers? What do other teachers think of them?)
  • are there reports of inappropriate behavior or red flags as teachers (condescending, dismissive, abusive, etc.) [7]

These are general categories, so general that depending on how one assesses each of these even some of the worst instructors will likely make the cut. Popular doesn’t necessarily equal excellent. I don’t care to name names, and won’t, but I know some teachers who are hands down the best in their field who do not travel widely, do not have an entourage, or post a billion videos of themselves; they are people any one of us should hope to work with at least once. Some names are easy—if I ever have a chance to take a class with Chris Holzman, Dave Rawlings, Francesco Loda, Christian Tobler, Jess Finley, Tom Puey, Kaja Sadowski, Manouchehr Khorasani, or Da’Mon Stith (again) I will jump at the chance. Whatever it is, I will learn something, I’ll be challenged, and with luck grow. As a final consideration, the best teachers I’ve known may have known they were good, but not one was a braggart; in fact, I know a number of gifted teachers that constantly question their ability. Painful as that is for them, it indicates that they take the job seriously and want to do it right. The feel the weight of the responsibility that comes with teaching.

Research

I’ve covered this often and thus will be brief. There is good research, and there is poor research. Some practitioner’s Youtube video is likely going to have less weight than an article vetted by a peer-reviewed panel, an established historical authority or fencing master, or a well-respected translation of a key source. If that practitioner happens to be a maestro; if it’s a trained historian, archaeologist, or museum curator; if it is one of the handful of long-time historical fencers who have earned the authority that these others assign to them, then you’re on firmer ground. Naturally there are exceptions.

Anyone can be on Youtube; anyone can print a book; anyone can claim any number of things, but that doesn’t mean that what they have to say is worth considering. Lucky as we are to enjoy a period like that initial boom after Gutenberg with our on-demand and self-publishing, we get all the downsides too. For every Vasari’s Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori (1550) we also get far too many Nostradamus’ Les Phrophéties (1555)… It pays to be cautious.

All this Time Wasted—now What?!

What do we do if we realize we’re on the wrong track? What if one realizes one day that their coach only knows the first two pages of a manual or that they’re teaching something counter to all received knowledge? What if we realize we’ve used a bad translation? The good news is that when we realize we’ve wasted our time, on anything, we can stop and reorient. Jump off the wrong track and find the right one.

It’s become a commonplace to quote Edison about lightbulbs, but it holds: the years one may have spent pursing the Art in less effective ways are not wasted, not if one uses them. They amount to firsthand knowledge of what doesn’t work, and that becomes armor against future missteps. Even the awareness that it’s possible to land with a dud of a coach or use a bad interpretation affords some protection: it makes us more careful.

Wipeout!

This discovery can be traumatic, deeply upsetting, and disorienting. Sometimes we need to sit with that disappointment for a while. To use a west coast analogy, it’s like being hit by a wave while surfing: one is knocked off the board, dragged underwater, and yet one doesn’t fight the wave; one lets it pass and then comes up, pulls in the board, and starts over. If one loves surfing, then one doesn’t quit, but tries again. It’s the same with fencing, with the Art. We will meet disappointment in many forms; that doesn’t mean we have to like it or quit. These are just moments of clarity, punctuated instances where we can actually see progress, funny as that might sound. These are the segues between levels of understanding, between jumps in skill, at least they can be if we use them as such.

NOTES:

[1] Tech Duinn, the House of Donn, is one of the Irish “Otherworld” locations, but has strong associations with death, Donn being the ruler of the dead in some accounts. Dursey Island, off the Beare peninsula, County Cork, Ireland, has often been linked to Donn’s House. Tir n mBan (“Land of Women”) or Kêr Iz (Breton, “City of Ys”) both refer to other popular versions of the Celtic Otherworld, the first in voyage tales like Imram Curaig Maíle Duín (The Voyage of Máel Dúin), the second in several Breton sources. Gawain, one of the knights of Camelot, is famous as the opponent of Bertilak, the Green Knight, and Connla, a son of the Irish hero Cú Chulainn and Aife, one of the two masters who trained the hero in Scotland. Connla dies fighting his father who only too late realizes that the conditions he left with Aife for the boy led to the child’s death.

[2] Francesco Antonio Marcelli, The Rule of Fencing, Book 2, Ch. 1, 55-56 in Holzman’s translation. More and more this book is one of my absolute favorites.

[3] I’ve discussed the issues around tourneys a lot. I do so because a) I actually like tourneys and b) hate seeing them conducted poorly and/or misinterpreted as the litmus test for skill.

[4] The drive to win, the self-worth need for it, will sustain a person a long time. I’ve observed this so many times in both TKD and in fencing (of all sorts). Our mental state in a fight will more often determine success than skill, because skill doesn’t work on its own—it requires a brain to make it work, and the calmer, more determined that brain, the better that skill presents. This is why at high levels of competition, where both skill and mental fortitude are stronger, skill can play out in ways that we do not see with beginner or intermediate fighters. This said, even skilled competitors can and do resort to theatrics to win when they arguably should not (e.g. certain bouts in women’s sabre, Athens, Summer Olympics, 2004).

[5] Yes, attacks to the leg are present in historical sources, but usually taken out of context and over-used. They make very little sense in the setting of a duel save where the height between the two opponents is so great that the shorter fencer might strike the legs more safely.

[6] The demi-pointe lunge, as I call it, has been the subject of my research this past year. I’ve spent probably way, way too much time on it, but with luck it will put the kibosh on this ahistorical practice.

[7] I’ve not been specific here to avoid unnecessary unpleasantness with those sections of the community who put their faith in the very people I’m saying one should avoid. The greatest hurdle in assessing any teacher by these rubrics is that each one can mean something different to someone else. What I think constitutes solid research is different than someone who hasn’t had my training; it’s why I believe in vaccines, it’s why I see racism as a current rather than historical problem, and my I lament the rise of the ancient-aliens method of [cough] “thinking.”

The training I think makes a good fighter has a proven track-record, an established and venerable pedagogy, and reams of supporting literature. This is why five years spent with a qualified epee coach means more to me than five years one has spent with JoJo the Knee-Hammer whose school mantra is the HEMA equivalent of Cobra Kai—the former will teach one universals that can be applied across weapons and periods. JoJo might stumble into some universals, but JoJo also doesn’t care about universals. JoJo thinks that wimpy sporty stuff is for dorks.

My idea of a good teacher is one who seeks to help one grow and actually has the ability to make it happen. A good teacher knows their own limitations and when to send a student onto someone more skilled or appropriate. They support, push, encourage, and set an example to follow. A good teacher doesn’t put down a student, doesn’t embarrass them, and doesn’t beat them up. A great teacher seeks to create students that surpass them. Generally, that teacher has some legitimate teaching; they’re not just the “best” fighter in their little mix of merry men, a mix they are careful not to leave lest their status be called into question. Good instructors remain students, remain open to growth and improvement, because they recognize that there is always more to learn, things to improve or fix, and that no one ever, ever masters it all. A good teacher also supports other teachers, helps them, and accepts help from them, and is willing to lose students to them if that student would be better served by another.

[NB: there are plenty of well-trained teachers who are duds too, I know, and I’ve worked with a few myself, but that fact doesn’t negate the value of solid training]

Meet them Where they Are

Last night I finished up the penultimate summer intro-to-fencing camp. These short courses are always challenging—they pack a lot (too much) into a handful of days, and the shorter the run the longer each individual class. Managing all that and keeping kids between 12 and 15 engaged is not for everyone. I like the challenge of it, and seeing children enjoy the class, and hopefully learn something in the process of it, makes it worthwhile.

One thing working with kids will demonstrate powerfully is that people learn in different ways. They also have different comfort levels. Being sensitive to these facts is vital. I always have a plan for class, but built into it is a degree of flexibility because once through the door it can all change. It usually does. However well planned, a lesson plan doesn’t determine how a class goes; the class does. It’s not just the class in toto, but individual students, sometimes both, that can mean leaning into that flexibility.

In the last two courses I’ve taught I’ve had a student in each hesitate to join. When it’s clear to me that they aren’t struggling with the oddities of fencing jackets or distracted by gym traffic, but hesitant for some other reason I find a way to get things going and then check in with them. One thing that makes that easier is letting students know from the off that if they need a break, they take it; if they have a question, they should ask. I do all I can to make it a safe environment. No one learns much, or has fun, if they don’t feel safe.

This past week, once the rest of the class was starting footwork drills, I checked in with this student. Just getting them talking can be hard—they don’t know me, they’re in a new class (and often with kids they don’t know), and however interested they might be all of that, not to mention other factors, can weigh into how present they are. The past school year’s stress, the mix of isolation and virtual life, all of that has taken a toll on children. It can be hard to snap back.

A parent had told me that before quarantine this child had advanced pretty far in Tae Kwon Do, so I figured their hesitation was less likely physical. Often a student just wants to get a feel for what we’re doing, so after asking them if they were okay and if I might help them with anything I told them that they could join, watch, or think about it, that there was no wrong answer. Over the course of the week this student mostly watched—each day I checked in with them before as well as a few times during class. The other students were curious, but followed my lead—I told them some people learn by watching, some by doing, etc., and that people join when they feel like it. That was enough for them.

I did my best to meet this student where they were. Having been in classes, having worked with instructors, and having spent so many years teaching I know that it doesn’t always go that way. Just as people learn differently, so too do they teach differently. No matter how hard we try, there will be people we can’t reach, people who just don’t take to us. That is part of teaching. However, we increase the chances of reaching more of them if we are sensitive to the fact that a student’s comfort level and/or learning style may vary.

This doesn’t mean we cater to each student. We can’t teach much of anything that way. I more or less stick to my lesson plan—the difference is that I don’t force students to conform to it as one might in boot camp. It’s an intro class, one designed to give the some sense of what fencing can be, and, for fun. If they take more classes, if they get serious, the necessary discipline will develop.

Listening to Nestor: Injury, Age, and Pursuing the Art

Nestor and his sons sacrifice to Poseidon; Attic red-figure calyx-krater (ca. 400–380 BCE): photo from wikicommons, © Marie-Lan Nguyen

In Book 1 of “The Iliad,” when Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel over a question of honor, one of the first to attempt to speak reason is the aged warrior, Nestor. Though shown some deference, neither party is keen to accept Nestor’s wisdom–one almost gets the sense that they’re humoring him as they do often later in the poem. [1] To be fair, Nestor can go on a bit, and is quick to throw his age and associated experience at his junior colleagues. The thing is, Nestor was right–had Achilles and Agamemnon listened to him the problem would have been solved. Of course we wouldn’t have the poem either. In fencing we have a wide variety of Nestors. Sometimes it is a gimpy limb clamoring via pain to remind one that it might be best to stop a drill or sit out the next bout. Sometimes it is an elder fencer or an even older master. If we’re really unlucky, Nestor may take the form of one’s physician.

Achilles chose glory and a short life over less fame and a long one, and many fencers are the same. In one’s teens, twenties, even thirties one can still do many things one maybe shouldn’t, but since recovery time is relatively fast, since one is still nimble, strong, etc. it’s easier to go for broke and relegate any worry to later. I’m a good example. As a younger person, say 17-35, I could fence for hours; I fenced several days a week; any injury was normally minor and healed quickly; and I took chances that only those without larger responsibilities take, such as fencing with 3-4lb sabres and only a brass stirrup guard to protect the hand (or fail to protect it as I found out once). [2] There is no round-trip ticket to yesterday, so hindsight is as useless as it can be painful. However, like a Nestor, meaning I realize that neither Achilles nor Agamemnon are likely to listen, I feel compelled to encourage anyone keen to fence into their dotage to be mindful of their choices and take care of themselves. Cultivating sense at a younger age is tough, but ideal–the sooner we take care of ourselves, the longer we’re likely going to be able to fence.

Conditioning, Stretching, and Rest

We’re less likely to be injured if our over-all health is decent. If we eat right, exercise regularly, and maintain decent cardio everything is easier. For those keen to lift weights, fine, but for fencing you don’t need to be a body-builder or circus strongman. It’s better to build useful, appropriate strength than attempt to be yet another six-pack clad wanna-be model. [3] There are a number of resources for diet and exercise–if all else fails ask your doctor.

Stretching before and after fencing is important. Normally we warm up a bit, then stretch. None of this needs to be strenuous, just enough to keep you limber and less likely to pull or tear anything. Here too, it’s unnecessary to do the splits–don’t push anything, even a stretch, too far.

Equally important is recovery time. Our bodies need rest after exercise, and if we push past rest we only increase the chances of injury. This could mean tearing your ACL or striking an opponent too hard. Take breaks. It’s a fencing class, not boot camp, and no instructor should push anyone beyond reason. Likewise, no instructor should ever shame anyone for taking that break, being unable to do a particular exercise, or anything else. There are usually alternatives to many stretches and a decent instructor will suggest one of those if possible.

Injury and Recovery

If you end up with an injury take care of it. Happily, injuries are normally few and far between in fencing provided one isn’t a knucklehead. Wear your protective gear, observe the safety rules of the sala, and look out for one another. Most injuries occur because people fail to heed safety precautions, or they’re mucking about, or they purposefully disdain safety protocols out of some he-man notion of toughness.

For anything beyond the occasional bruise it’s often wise to see a medical professional. A deep cut, a stab wound, a potential concussion, a broken bone, a torn or pulled muscle or ligament, anything like this could have serious consequences. See a doctor, and see a proper one, one with MD behind their name, not one of the many purveyors of pseudo-science. [4]

Give yourself time to heal. I once sprained my ankle the night before a tournament, but being 21 just wrapped it tightly and fenced anyway. That wasn’t smart. If we start training before an injury heals we run the risk of making it worse, but sometimes we also ensure that we keep that injury for the rest of our lives. Most of the joints on my right side are compromised in some degree, and some of these injuries, such as tennis-elbow, could have been alleviated by dealing with them properly at the time.

Age: It just plain SUCKS

Goals 😉

Age in some degree is relative, but as a general rule the older we get the longer it takes to heal, the more recovery time we need, and much as we might hate it we slow down. It sucks. I know because I’ve fenced for over three decades. IF we want to keep fencing until we literally cannot, then we have to be cognizant of our choices early on.

Somethings, alas, are just a younger person’s game. Longsword, for example, one “can” do as an older person, but one probably shouldn’t. It’s one thing to dabble with another old codger or take the occasional seminar, but it’s less wise to enter tourneys at a certain age. They can be rough, and tough as some old people are the simple fact is that they break more easily. No 20 or 30 something is going to take it easy on you, and if they did, you’d only be insulted.

This can be super hard to accept when we really love something. In the past year or so I’ve realized that the clock is ticking for me and using appropriately weighted historical sabres. I “can” fence with them, and still do, but not as often as I did, because much as I miss it if I continue to use them all the time I won’t be fencing any sabre down the road. When this happens we have to make some difficult choices. I teach more than I fight now, I often use lighter sabres (such as the S2000 Olympic with kids), and I focus on other weapons I enjoy.

For example, though I’ve always read up on and dabbled in smallsword, it’s increasingly becoming one of my chief studies. [5] The others are largely related to it, such as late period rapier and smallsword’s 19th century descendent, epee. They don’t have the flash and fire of sabre, and I miss that, but they share the same intellectual aspects, rely on similar strategies, and even include, epee excepted, some of the more physical options in sabre and broadsword. Weapons seizures, for example, add a bit of spice.

The Take Away

Fence, and fence hard, but be smart. To me, the best approach is a middle-way, something between Sterne’s health miser and Blake’s supposed palace of wisdom. This is to say that we don’t want to be so careful that we’re bored and learn nothing–the Art is about fighting and thus must be practiced–but nor do we want to fight like our lives depended on it each and every time. Moderation will serve most of the time.

Whatever one fences, it pays to be aware of the wear and tear on your body, because it is a pain delayed. We pay for the fun of our 20s in our 40s, and it’s all downhill after that. If you don’t plan to fence into your 90s, cool, then go nuts. If you do think you might enjoy fencing until you drop, and you’d prefer not to do it from a wheelchair or from behind a walker, then maintain your health, fence responsibly, and let that ligament heal no matter how long it takes.

NOTES:

[1] Cf. “The Iliad,” Book 1, ll. 318ff

[2] In the age before better gloves, a guard that turned in a sweaty grip or broke could mean a trip to the ER. Pinky nails, btw, do grow back, but it takes months.

[3] I know a lot of people keen to lift, and some may be unhappy with this statement, but I stand by it. Unless one intends to wrestle a fair amount, where size and power mean more, any weight-training for fencing shouldn’t focus on bulk.

[4] This may also offend, but chiropractors, some massage outfits, and others are not doctors. In the PNW I have found that a lot of people go to chiropractors–I’m not sure why. While I’m sure there are some who provide what is probably decent massage, the “science” behind their practice is dubious. See for example:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1556349913601667?via%3Dihub

https://www.jpsmjournal.com/article/S0885-3924(07)00783-X/fulltext

[5] The first work on fencing I ever bought was a facsimile copy of Domenico Angelo’s The School of Fencing (1763; 1787); I found it at a used book store in 1986.

Steel Bouquet, or, The Advantages of Multi-Weapon and Multi-Text Study

The title might make a decent band name, but no, I’m not starting a band. It’s meant to capture the common photo of an instructor grasping either their favored weapon or multiple arms. [1] Normally they’re clad in the jacket or gambeson that accompanies those tools best. Fancier shots have black backgrounds highlighting vaguely period expressions with a tinge of hipster coolness. Not knocking them, they can be nice, but it’s beyond whatever emotional depth or panache they’re meant to express which I wish to touch on here.

Many if not most fencers in the Olympic orbit become single-weapon fencers. It’s often true in historical circles too. They specialize. Historically, one started out in foil and then perhaps explored sabre or epee. The “three-weapon” fencer actually deserving of the name was, when I was starting out and even when competing, something of a special case. For context, I mean NCAA and USFA fencers between say 18 and 25. Many might dabble in the other weapons, but the fencer who could actually fence each as intended was less common. In my college club there was one fencer who was truly a three-weapon fencer, Dennis.

A close friend, and now one of my oldest, Dennis has more than once been a mentor to me. He will always be. When I was struggling with something new in sabre, for example, he would drill with me until I got it. When I destroyed my right arm in an auto accident, it was Dennis who agreed to train me as a lefty. Even now, Dennis has helped me as he could with an epee coaching class, playing the advanced student for me in video homework. A number of years ago when I was still working on competitive issues in Olympic fencing it was Dennis who ended up co-authoring a paper on difficulties in judging foil. He is versatile. He can help with all these things, and more, because of it.

Beyond the obvious perks to versatility, there is a still more important reason that it’s a goal worth pursuing: depth of understanding. It’s an analogy I’ve used a lot, but studying a different weapon or tradition is like learning a new language, one that helps you understand your own that much better. Over the past year, when most of us have been unable to meet up to fence, I’ve watched and/or advised people working in isolation. Some had partners to train with, many more did not. But what I noticed in each case was the more that these students included disciplines and weapons they didn’t normally study the better they got at their primary focus. More than that, their understanding of the universal principles underlaying all fencing increased. It was akin to watching what I imagine Dennis’ first few years fencing were like.

It can be daunting trying something new. At a certain point in training, however, it can be the catalyst one requires for growth. This raises an important question—when should one start dabbling in other weapons and forms? Alex Spreier (High Desert Armizare, Bend, OR), in a short thought-piece I shared here a while back (“Alex Spreier on Universals,” 2 May 2021), summed it up well:

The first step on the road to being able to discern patterns, principles, and universal aspects of the Art is the one I expect will be the most controversial – you need to spend 3 to 5 years focusing on developing your skills within one system. This allows you to build up a “vocabulary” of how to move your body, how to respond to threats, how to create threats, and ultimately this vocabulary will enable you to start recognizing patterns. And recognizing patterns is key to uncovering principles.

The idea of dedicated, formal study of one system or weapon for years goes against common practice in “HEMA,” but it is nonetheless the best path to improvement. As Alex explains, what this focused time does is impart the necessary skills to acquire new ones later; at the same time, it builds an intellectual framework and vocabulary that assists pattern recognition and retention in learning.

On an app that serves as the virtual lounge for the “collective” of schools that work together in this part of the PNW, we have had several ongoing discussions; in depth, evidence-driven conversations about key principles, ideas, or techniques that we have less information for than we’d like. One in particular highlights the importance of cross-training and text-diving.

Ex. Mezzo Tempo & Counter-time

The example in question was put forth by one of the instructors, Andy Playmate (Northwest Armizare), who has been running the longsword pod. In looking at tempo in longsword, and what a few different interpretations/translations say, he asked about Vadi’s notion of mezzo tempo or half-tempo and how it relates to counter time, attacks in preparation, etc. A rapier fencer as well, he asked questions related to both weapons: “what do you think the relationship is between mezzo tempo and stop cut/thrust? And second, did stop cut evolve from Mezzo tempo or somewhere else?” Great questions and ones which underscore how difficult it can be to unravel key concepts even armed with good training and vocabulary.

Starting with Philippo Vadi (fl. 1480), what does he say?

I do not have a copy of Vadi handy, so here I will rely on Guy Windsor’s translation available at Wiktenauer:

Chapter XIIII. Theory of the half tempo of the sword

I cannot show you in writing

The theory and way of the half tempo

Because the shortness of the tempo and its strike

Reside in the wrist. [2]

The half tempo is just one turn

Of the wrist: quick and immediately striking,

It can rarely fail

When it is done in good measure.

If you note well my text,

One who does not practice [the art] will get into trouble:[44]

Often the quick flight from one side to another

Breaks with a good edge the other’s brain.

Of all the art this is the jewel,

Because in one go it strikes and parries.

Oh what a valuable thing, To practice it according to the good principles,

It will let you carry the banner of the Art.[45] [3]

In my reading of Vadi, mezzo-tempo here suggests an action that blocks and cuts/thrusts at the same time. For once, Florio’s glossary [http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/florio/] may be helpful here. He defines mezzo a few ways, but while it can mean “half,” it can also mean “a mediator, or intercessor. As a space or interveall of time or place” (313). Mezzo here may mean more “middle” as an action that either splits the difference or occurs during the “middle” of an opponent’s attack; mid-tempo. I can’t say that for sure, but given what Vadi says here—and going by Windsor’s translation—that makes sense to me. One way to illustrate this is to image that Fencer A throws a cut, a mandritto fendente, and B selects the time in which that cut is still developing to intercept it with a cut of their own, likely with a step somewhat to the side (to the right assuming two right-handers) that at once blocks and stops the incoming attack and that strikes at the same time. A close out like this, something later rapier masters saw as ideal, might be defined as a type of counter-attack, but perhaps the most accurate term would be an attack into preparation or an attack into tempo, that is, where one attacks as the opponent initiates their attack. Certainly what Vadi describes here is in line with later masters. [4]

Looking at what other masters say about mezzo tempo makes sense as we try to figure out Vadi. For Italy, the next generation of masters, especially the Bolognese school, is a logical next step. The Bolognese masters also employ the term, but don’t agree amongst themselves as to definition. The Anonimo and Viggiani, to name two, both use mezzo tempo but define it slightly differently. Viggiani, for example, wrote:

Sometimes one attacks with a half blow, in mezzo tempo. It is true that the majority of attacking is in mezzo tempo, since, when there are two who are well schooled in the art, he who wishes to attack will deceive his companion in such a fashion that, when his adversary is about to perform a blow, he enters with dexterity and speed and strikes in the middle of the adversary’s blow with a half blow

In the Anonimo, mezzo tempo is an attack into preparation, and contra tempo is what we see in Vadi, an attack into tempo that closes out the opposing steel and strikes simultaneously. The author of the Anonimo uses more ink to explain that there is no such thing as a half tempo, but that since one can make a “half attack,” that is, one that stops at stretto distance and is made more quickly, that they refer to it as “half” tempo (as an aside, this is a lovely example of a fencing text differentiating tempo and speed). Again, “mid-tempo” might be a better translation. Regardless, the Anonimo offers less detail about mezzo tempo. As to counter time, we read “Contratempo happens when the enemy wishes to strike, and you interrupt his attack, rendering it useless, while you simultaneously make one that strikes him.”

Dal’Aggochie, as Mike Cherba pointed out, was probably the clearest. For him, mezzo tempo is “A half tempo, the final one,… when you attack while the enemy is throwing his blow.” [5]

Um, they don’t Agree, so… what now?

So, what is the student to do with all this? How does one reconcile these disparate definitions? Vadi, Viggiani, the Anonimo, and Dal’Aggochie all include mezzo tempo, but don’t agree. It can help to group them together and see how they differ. All include an attack that interrupts that of the opponent. Vadi and Viggiani call this mezzo tempo; the Anonimo calls the same thing contra tempo. Dal’Aggochie may refer to the same thing; his half tempo sounds much the same as the others, but being less specific as to when exactly one attacks the enemy it’s less clear. Is the attack made as they are preparing (an attack in prep), as they are mid-strike (half-tempo), or is it in response to a counter attack (contra tempo)?

This is where looking at the modern definition, one derived from this tradition, can be helpful. It may not be the same, that is always a possibility, but it’s a place to start. Counter-time, sometimes referred to as contretemps (Fr.) or contra-tempo (It.), is different from the early notion of mezzo tempo. It’s usually a technique for more advanced fencers. Not each master in the past defined it quite the same way, though most tend to suggest the definition that survives today, that is, “a planned action made against an opponent’s stop-thrust or stop-cut. First draw out the stop hit, and then parry it and hit the opponent in a lunge.” [6] Other definitions are similar.

Here is one from the wiki at Academie Duello, Vancouver, Canada: “this is the opportunity to strike during an opponent’s offensive action with a shorter attack of your own that closes the line.” [7]

Masaniello Parise (1884), discussing counter time for sabre, not surprisingly is more in line with current definitions. This action is made “with veracity, advancing a step and immediately defending with a circular or opposition parry against the opponent’s action in tempo [i.e. counter-attack], and secure in defense, and ripostes without delay.” [8]

There are, however, exceptions. On one page of an old site at the University of Northern Arizona, guessing one of William Wilson’s, the editor quotes the Pallas Armata (1639) and defines contratempo as “a thrust in the same line that your adversary thrusts in (Pallas Armata, p. 6).” [9]

With the exception of this last definition, all describe a counter-offensive action made against someone making a counter-attack. It’s not specific to weapon, only the tempo in which a weapon, any hand-to-hand weapon, might be used. The distance required by such a maneuver is critical as is the speed and accuracy with which one strikes. Tempo, distance, speed, judgment, initiative, these are all universals, the elements underpinning all fencing.

Returning to Andy’s question, “what do you think the relationship is between mezzo tempo and stop cut/thrust? And second, did stop cut evolve from Mezzo tempo or somewhere else?” what can we say after reviewing some of the literature?

My answer would be that a stop thrust, if it closes the line as it lands, might be an example of mezzo tempo. Certainly that seems to fit the majority of the definitions we just examined. A stop cut might too, but these often do not close out the line—they are cuts made against an open line, but always followed by a parry and riposte in case the stop cut fails. Since it’s not usually the final blow, a stop cut doesn’t fit Dal’Aggochie’s definition well either; it’s a counter-attack followed by a defensive action. Stop-cuts, like stop-thrusts, are attacks of opportunity, but less likely performed with a close out. I’ve not touched the second question, but attacks against the forward target are reflected in more than one medieval source—for a graphic example the hands lopped off and flying in Talhoffer (ca. 1467) might serve. While the stop cut we use in sabre may derive from something native to cutting weapons, it’s not impossible that the later stop-hit/stop-thrust derived from the rapier iteration of mezzo-tempo. I’m not sure what work has been done on this if any, but it might be fun to explore.

So what?

What I’ve hoped to show with this example is two-fold. First, time spent (at the appropriate stage) working on additional weapons or systems increases our understanding. The fencers asking these questions arrived at them thanks to cross-training. They’re making connections, seeing parallels as well as key differences.

Second, the increase in awareness and understanding, in seeing yet again how the same universal principles apply, makes it that much easier to “unpack” the next new system or weapon. This doesn’t mean that it is easy, just easier. In the aggregate our knowledge and skill should grow and improve.

Importantly, one must be cautious not to misapply modern understanding, or worse—exceptions, onto the past. The more one knows of the universals across time, across masters and texts and periods, the less likely this is a danger. Many members of the historical community make the mistake of assuming anyone referencing modern works is, by definition, guilty of anachronism. That is not true, but it can look that way to someone unarmed with that knowledge and understanding. Since they cannot distinguish between excesses that help one gain points in a sport, and the universal principles that most fencers learn before they try on the silly stuff, they have trouble seeing how anything past 1500 can have any relevance. Modern discussion of the universal principles did not pop out of a cereal box on the 1 of January, 1900 or 2000; they derive from the corpus of works we read in historical fencing. Time spent with solid modern works, like time spent with another weapon, so long as approached responsibly, will help more than hinder.

NOTES:

[1] A quick google search using the terms “fencing instructor portrait” will bring up some decent examples.

[2] “Wrist” here makes more sense than “knot,” though polso is the modern Italian for “wrist.” Nodo, here, can mean knot, but it can mean junction, crux, etc., and my guess is that the other translators may have used Florio’s 1611 Dictionary (p. 333; cf. http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/florio/), where he stipulates that Nódo can mean “also the joint of any cane.” By context Vadi clearly means turning the hands so that one simultaneously blocks and strikes. “Of all the art this is the jewel” certainly makes sense in light of that idea.

[3] For Vadi, https://www.wiktenauer.com/wiki/Philippo_di_Vadi#Introduction  

[4] Cf. Marcelli, Rules of Fencing (1686), I.I. Ch. IV., 23 in Holzman’s translation.

[5] For Viggiani, see W. Jherek Swanger, The Fencing Method of Angelo Viggiani: Lo Schermo, 64r; p. 7 of the pdf; for The Anonimo, see Stephen Fratus, trans., With Malice and Cunning: Anonymous 16th Century Manuscript on Bolognese Swordsmanship, Lulu Press, 2020, 64 (see also p. 49); for Dal’Aggochie, see The Art of Defense: On Fencing, the Joust, and Battle Formation, trans. Jherek Swanger, Lulu Press, 2018, 29v.

[6] Rob Handelman, and Connie Louie, Fencing Foil: A Practical Training Guide for Coaches, Parents and Young Athletes (San Francisco, CA: Pattinando Publishing, 2014),441.

[7] http://wmawiki.org/index.php?title=Academie_Duello_Glossary

[8] See Christopher A. Holzman, ed., The Roman-Neapolitan School of Fencing: The Collected Works of Masaniello Parise, Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2015, 272-273.

[9] https://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~wew/fencing/terms.html