The All-Important Place of Calm

Young Kendoka in mokuso, via Pinterest

Having received some upsetting news and struggling with the mix of disappointment and rage that ensued, I got to thinking about the place of calm, not only in our lives, but also within the Art. We fight best when we are unemotional, calm, and receptive. Emotion clouds judgment. That is a lesson, a karmic burden, that I keep bumping into again and again, and in too many areas. Clearly, I have a long way to go. The question with regard to the Art is how do we cultivate that calm? Moreover, how do we teach it?

The Sword and the Mind

The heading is a nod to an excellent book, The Sword and the Mind, a collection of works on swordsmanship translated by Hiroaki Sato. In one section, Setsunintō (volume two in the book), the author wrote

listening to the sound of the wind and water means maintaining a calm surface and a fighting spirit within…just as a waterfowl afloat on the water maintains an outward calm while using its webbed feet busily below, so must the mind inside be kept on guard. And if you continue your training in this fashion, the mind inside and outside will melt into one, and the distinction between the two will disappear. To attain this state is the ultimate of the ultimate. [1]

This idea is something rarely if ever expressed in western European sources, least I’ve not encountered it in anything I remember reading. The attention to our state of mind, however, shows up a lot in East Asian works on the martial arts. In particular, the impact of Chan/Zen Buddhism on the fighting disciplines was profound. My early training was in East Asian martial arts and as I’ve remarked before my years studying those systems have influenced my approach to fencing. I see the Art not only as the pursuit of self-defense and combat skills, but more importantly as a means by which to grow, improve, and odd as it may sound, cultivate empathy and compassion. More so than any other portion of life, work, school, etc., it’s the Art that has given me the most. Thus, in my own training I’ve worked hard on the mental aspect. I’ve also tried to help my students toward this same quiet-mind.

In the west, the term we most often use for this state today is “flow,” a very modern concept in terminology and one perhaps popularized most by the work of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and Jeanne Nakamura. The idea of “flow” has since been popularized in Csíkszentmihályi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience and in his TED talk, among many other, similar titles by other writers. [2] The basic premise is that in flow

Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous. [3]

This state is possible to reach via many methods, but for me I have encountered this state most often when fighting, and, typically when fighting a particularly skilled opponent. The thing is that entering a state of flow, and thus of calm in a sense, doesn’t happen automatically or without some degree of training, least in terms of the fighting arts. I fought empty-hand and with weapons for a long time before ever entering flow.

What I’ve come to realize, however, is that even if we aren’t in a state of flow, we can still cultivate the calm typically required for it to appear.

Cultivating Calm: Body and Mind

We tend to be more relaxed when we are confident. Some assurance that we know what we’re doing, that we can react appropriately, tends to make it easier to perform. For fencing, a key part of acquiring that confidence derives from the often monotonous practice of drill. There is no royal road to skill—one must put in the time. One of the things I advise in teaching students how to drill, especially on their own, is to remove the emotion they may have about it. I do the same thing with my own children when it comes to chores, homework, or anything unpleasant.

How? Well, we feel what we feel, right or wrong, appropriate or no, but how we feel doesn’t have to guide action. So, when a student says “Ugh, I hate drills… they’re so boring,” I reply “I know, but they’re important—take a minute and feel as strongly and passionately as you wish. When you feel ready, take those feeling and set them aside.” The analogy I give them is washing dishes—I work from home and do a lot of the housework. I don’t “like” housework. It’s not fun. So what? It must be done irrespective of how I feel, so, I simply apply no emotion to it. It just… is. This approach not only makes the task less unpleasant, but also makes it faster and less disruptive, particularly if I have other, more important or pleasant goals to meet during the day.

It takes practice to remove emotion. A LOT of practice. As a caveat, this does not mean one doesn’t feel things or that one shouldn’t; that is unhealthy. Feel. You’re human and feeling is part of our lot. The trick is to feel the emotion, whatever it is, acknowledge its legitimacy, and then consciously decide not to allow that feeling to drive thought or action.

Between the two, physical training with its repetition, correction, and perfecting, and, the mental aspect of setting aside emotion, we can more effectively reach a place of calm. When we work a this, and I do mean work at it, we find that one of the places where we are actually the most quiet, the most calm, is en garde. The conscious efforts we make toward that calm reap unconscious rewards. I’m not usually aware that I’m calm. It’s usually in retrospect or if I am actively thinking about my mental state when fencing.

Proof is in the Bouting

As a proof for the vital place of calm, if my own testimony is unconvincing, I offer the example of my friends at Winged Sabre Historical Fencing. One of my favorite fencers is Russ Mitchell—he’s a formidable and gracious opponent, and, one hell of a teacher. Rarely have I faced another school’s students and faced what I did in Texas a few weeks ago. From his senior student, Kat, to some of his newer students, what impressed me most was their calm, the lack of frenetic energy and motion that often accompanies not only new fencers, but some of the most seasoned (not all who bounce in modern epee do so tactically…).

One of the fencers I had the pleasure to fight was Kevin. He’s a bit older than me, and has only been at this for a few years, but I will be the first to tell you that between his being unflappable and the terrifying effectiveness of the Hussar system Russ teaches, I had my work cut out for me. To his credit, Kevin asked me after the bout what he did wrong so that he could work on things. I wasn’t sure how my answer would go over, but I led off with “well, let me tell you what you did right—everything.” He dominated that bout. I might have hit him once, but I know and am honest enough to admit he controlled the action and stymied my every attempt to get past that blasted middle-guard lol

Some of the Attendees late Saturday, 22 April 2023 (photo by Annamarie Kovacs); Kevin is, I believe, in the mask on the left

I mentioned that his calm, something I noticed in all of Russ’ students, was the key. It allowed them the space and level-headedness to use what they had learned. I was–and remain–extremely impressed with what I saw from Russ’ fencers at the St. George’s Day Exhibition of Arms. This speaks to a master’s command of material and pedagogy, and while Russ may not have the sheepskin with maestro written upon it, he is one of the few people I consider a master in historical fencing. I have yet to pick his brain for how he approaches the cultivation of calm, but it’s on my list of things to ask wiser heads than mine.

Drill and Presence

For those interested in this, reading Csikszentmihályi’s book might help, but so too will practicing both purposeful shelving of emotion and drill. In class, in the lesson, or on one’s own, getting out of our own way is the key to progress. Much as one can, acknowledge the emotion that arises, then set it aside and actively focus on the task. In time, with practice, this process becomes more and more automatic. If it helps, read up on both western ideas of “flow” and the more philosophical works on fencing—use what applies, leave the rest. [4] It is worth the effort and time to cultivate calm—it will not only help one improve, but also make fencing a lot more fun and rewarding.


[1] The Sword and the Mind, translated by Hiroaki Sato, Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 1986, p. 71.

[2] See especially Nakamura J, Csikszentmihályi M, “Flow Theory and Research,” in Handbook of Positive Psychology, Snyder CR, Lopez SJ (eds.), Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 195–206. See also Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2008. For the TED Talk, cf.

[3] Csíkszentmihályi, Flow, 71.

[4] For a few places to start, consider Taisen Deshimaru, The Zen Way to the Martial Arts, New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1991; Joe Hyams, Zen in the Martial Arts, New York, NY: Penguin Putnam, 1979; Michael Maliszewski, Spiritual Dimensions of the Martial Arts, Tokyo, JP: Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc., 1996; also worth a read Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart, Boston, MA: Shambhala, 1997. I suggest the following with caution as it’s very much a product of its environment, 18th century Samurai culture, and should be approached with an awareness that Hagakure by Yamamoto Tsunetomo reflects not only a disappointed warrior’s views of a changing world, but these ideas as recorded by another samurai, Tashiro Tsuramoto. The edition I have is Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, translated by William Scott Wilson, New York, NY: Kodansha International, 1983.

A Bar Raiser

Chateau South, Atlanta, Texas

Super late last night I returned from a weekend of instruction, teaching, discussion, bouting, and all manner of swordy fun at the St. George’s Day Exhibition of Arms held at the beautiful Chateau South, Atlanta, Texas. The event was put on by Russ Mitchell and the excellent people at Winged Sabre Historical Fencing, and hosted by the generous owner of the Chateau, Raoul, who not only trusted us to honor the integrity and safety of this property, but also who grilled a feast for us. If you’re in eastern Texas, “Piney Texas,” and need a venue for any event–wedding, family reunion, business retreat, you name it–I can’t recommend Chateau South enough ( Raoul and the family who take care of the property and are helping to restore it, Shawn and Rebecca, put the hospitality in southern hospitality. Seriously nice and generous folk.

Learning, Camaraderie, and Cross-Fertilization

I hope that the St. George’s Day Exhibition of Arms will become a regular event, because it needs to be. We have tournaments, we have seminars, conferences, and in some rare instances a mix of the three, but in some cases the dates are tough to make, the cost prohibitive, or the environment/attitude less than welcoming. Russ Mitchell and the fine folk at Winged Sabre put together a fantastic event–it was friendly, open-minded, and welcoming, but more than that the classes and discussion, the chat over meals or between sessions, all were informative and thought-provoking.

In addition to my two classes, there were a class on movement and balance by Russ that has changed not only my understanding of footwork, but also how I will teach it from here on out; there were two by Francois Perrault (Montreal, CAN), first on French foil as a way to understand the second topic, contre-pointe (the French approach to sabre ca. 1800-1908); and two by Jonathan Carr (Dallas, TX), one that made more sense of Hutton’s sabre than anything I’ve read, seen, or heard until then, and then a fascinating lecture on Sir Richard Francis Burton’s 1875 sword system.

Some of the Attendees late Saturday, 22 April 2023 (photo by Annamarie Kovacs)

Discussion between classes, over meals, and especially at the end of the instruction-day, were as valuable. They were also a chance to get to know one another, share ideas, and increase understanding on the various tangents covered in the topics. For someone as introverted as I am, and who normally has to bow out to recharge, the fact I wasn’t once in need of that recharge should suggest a lot.

Tired, but still in for chatting–Aaron, Michael, and myself

Exhibition of Arms vs. Deeds of Arms

Both have their place, but what an exhibition of arms seeks to do is share a particular style or tradition’s uniqueness within the Art, that is, what makes it what it is. While I cannot say to have represented the Radaellian school particularly well in my own bouts, I will say that my compatriots did a wonderful job. Russ’ students have been studying hussar sabre, which is very different than the profiled styles that predominate; Francois’ early French approach and Jonathan’s debt to English sabre and broadsword were clear as well. The focus in our bouts was to do our best to fight within the body of techniques and tactics of our specific traditions, and, to have fun doing it.

We also had time to explore a venerable Hungarian weapon, the fokos, a shehpard’s axe that the Magyars brought with them from the Steppes in the Early Middle Ages and which was used in the trenches of the Great War. Never have I faced a more challenging weapon sabre in hand than I have that wee axe. Russ made a few converts among us, I’m sure; least, I’m looking into the more than academically now.

Russ arresting a cut with a fokos

Raising the Bar

Winged Sabre’s “St. George’s Day Exhibition of Arms” raises the bar for what we can and should be doing more often in historical fencing. Each of the classes had students drilling. There, I said it, the “d-word,” drill. It’s become a dirty word in “HEMA,” and to the detriment of that community. The garbage posted so often on Youtube as championship sabre is a case in point. The hop and chop, simultaneous single-tempo cuts lauded as the end-all be-all of sabre are to Plato’s cave what shadows on the wall are to the sun outside the cave that creates them.

Drill. Hard work. Effort, time, and sweat. These are what make a decent fencer. One can spend weeks, years even, in study, but if intentional, well-designed drill is missing, there is only far someone will go in that time. Another way to say this is that much of HEMA is doing it wrong, and should seek better methods, better instructors. I’ll not go so far as to list myself among their number, but I will say that I know some people you should talk to.

St. George’s Day Exhibition of Arms

[21-23 April, 2023] Next week the excellent Russ Mitchell and crew at Winged Sabre Historical Fencing, Atlanta, Texas, are hosting the St. George’s Day Exhibition of Arms (see link below). I have the honor to teach at this event and will cover two, related topics in Radaellian sabre.

The first is all things molinelli, that is, an exploration of the powerful, elbow-as-axis cuts fundamental to Radaelli’s approach. They were used not only for exercise and to build the muscles required for these cuts, but had offensive as well as defensive uses too.

The second class covers Masiello’s unmounted cavalry drill and exercises. Since the Radaellian method was primarily developed for cavalry it makes sense to acquaint oneself with this aspect of the tradition. Cavalry troopers not only practiced their style of combat in the saddle, but on foot as if in the saddle, what Masiello called come a cavallo, “as if on horseback.”

For more information, see:

Alex Spreier on Engaging Sources

Alex is a close friend and colleague, and one of the best students of the Art I know. I’ve learned a lot from him. In this post, he tackles the questions of when and how to question our sources.

Here is the link:

More Marcelli!

My friend Patrick Bratton recently had Maestro Francesco Loda and Silvia Tomasetti over to teach. Loda has been studying Marcelli, among other works, for a long time and is one of the leading researchers into his system. Enjoy!

Marcelli’s Annervated Lunge Revisited

Direct thrust, sword alone, Part I, Bk. II, Ch. VI

On occasion someone will share a video or the like with me and I’m reminded just how difficult it is interpreting historical fencing treatises. In the last few days I’ve had a chance to chat with a few other instructors about a popular interpretation of Saviolo’s system as well as a new video purportedly covering Marcelli. [1] There were many threads in our discussion, but the thing that kept sticking in mind was the Marcelli video. I spend a good part of my week on that master’s text, Rules of Fencing (1686), and despite the qualifications of the instructor sharing that video I saw several things that stood out to me as features of more recent fencing versus what Marcelli taught.

As a caveat, I have a lot of respect for Maestro and Maestra Coblentz, and the student in the video, Justin, clearly has solid training, but I take a different view on Marcelli and think it’s important enough to share. Naturally, if there is something I’ve missed or concluded incorrectly, I invite them to chat and demonstrate how I’ve erred. It’s never my intention with posts like this to attack anyone personally—that sort of thing is nonsensical, unnecessary, and unhelpful. However, as someone who focuses closely on Neapolitan rapier and teaches it, I feel obligated to point out a few things in the video that don’t seem to match what Marcelli taught.

To be clear: what I am evaluating are aspects of their interpretation based on a close reading of the text, both as a fencer and someone trained to read historical texts. Anyone who shares an interpretation is opening the field to evaluation, but there is also a condition on the critic (in this case me) too—they should be fair, back up any criticism, and stay on topic. In what follows I will cover only a few things that stood out to me, because they are critical to understanding Marcelli’s system, and attempt to demonstrate these conclusions with textual support.

Lunge vs. Annervated Lunge

Some months ago I had a post on this stoccata annervata as it’s foreign to most people and difficult to adopt if one is used to the better known lunge. [2] It is not a lunge the way we normally conceive of it. This annervated lunge is used only with rapier and dagger—one doesn’t use it when fencing with rapier alone. The genius of it is that it allows one to extend the point while still maintaining defense, something the longer lunge does not do as well with the pairing of rapier and dagger. The annervated lunge is less a lunge than it is an unwinding—the weapon and arm are propelled by unwinding the torso, not by pushing off the back leg (something Maestro Coblentz makes clear in the video). This is how Chris Holzman and Patrick Bratton explained it to me too when I first started working on the Neapolitan school a few years ago.

If one has fought with rapier and dagger, and importantly with the mindset that one cannot be hit, then the value of that pairing should be not only be obvious, but also attractive. It layers defense and makes an attack all the more dangerous. It is, as my fellow rapier enthusiast Ken Jay remarks frequently, a game-changer. In order for the pair to work one cannot stand in guard as one does sword alone: a dagger, buckler, cloak, etc. does little good if it’s behind us. Thus, the body is more square to the front—we can face someone head on because the dagger is there to aid defense. To lunge out with the trunk still squared would be both short and easy to see, so the solution, a brilliant one, is to twist the body back toward profile and shoot the blade and arm out to target. One can thus reach a little farther but with minimal exposure.

Key to this is the front leg: it remains straight. Unlike the lunge most people know, where the knee is over the heel, calf perpendicular to the ground upon completion, the annervated lunge makes a short step and lands leg straight. Proper use of measure is what determines when to make the lunge, and it is a different measure than when lunging in profile. It’s not an annervated lunge if one is landing as one does today.

In the video, the offhand and dagger are swung dramatically back as the Maestro Coblentz and his student, Julian, lunge. On the surface this appears very much like the image in Bk I, Part II, Ch. V, p. 15, figure 4:

However, what Marcelli explains about this image reveals important information for the feet:

All the movements that I have proposed to be made in performing the thrust are seen marked with the numbers in the present illustration. The number 1 signifies that the aforesaid Cavaliere has started the sword hand first. The number 2, marked near the left knee, denotes that after having brought the hand forward he has violently extended that knee, which was bent. The number 3 that stands at the right foot indicates that it was the third movement of the body, and that after having advanced the hand and extended the knee he has advanced the foot, which is the last movement, because it has to do the least travel of all.

Tutti i moti, che hò proposto da farsi nel tirar la Stoccata, si veggono segnati co’i numeri nella presente figura; dove il nu. 1 significa, che il sopradetto Caval. hà partito prima la mano della spada. Il num. 2., segnato vicino il ginocchio sinistro, dinota, che doppo haver anticipate la mano, hà disteso con violenza quel ginocchio, che stave piegato. Il num. 3., che stà nel pie destro, signitica, che quello e stato il terzo moto del corpo; e doppo haver caminato la mano, & annervato il ginocchio, ha caminato il piede, il quale e l’ultimo moto, perche hà da far camino meno di tutti. [3]

Note that number 3 in the image does not pertain to the dagger, but to the right leg:

number 3 that stands at the right foot indicates that it was the third movement of the body, and that after having advanced the hand and extended the knee he has advanced the foot, which is the last movement, because it has to do the least travel of all.

How does one reconcile this information with the image? One option, and presumably what Maestro Coblentz has concluded, is that since the dagger is shown to the rear in the image, one should do the same upon the lunge. For reasons I have shared ad nauseum on this site I am cautious with images—they can be helpful, but must always be read against the text. Nothing in this passage suggests one should remove the dagger to a position where it can do little good, and if one lunges along more modern lines that is what happens—the dagger is too far back to be of any real use. In the annervated version, however, because it’s shorter, the dagger is easier to bring back into play should it be needed. [4] As shown in the video, the dagger arm is doing the right thing, but the feet are not.

Mezzaluna & Dagger Placement

In similar vein, Marcelli was clear on his expectations for the dagger while on guard. He writes

In all these methods of standing on guard it must be advised to keep the dagger strongly closed in the hand…the dagger arm must stand strong, extended, and annervated, because it must use force and not lightness in defending from all blows that are violently performed by the opponent.

In tutti cotesti Modi di stare in Guardia si deve avvertire à tenere fortemente stretto il pugnale in mano…mà il braccio del pugnale deve start forte, disteso, & annervato, perche deve usar forza, e non leggierezza, nel difendersi da tutti i colpi, che violentemente li sono tirarti dal nemico. [5]

We see this with all four guards, but especially the one I believe they are trying to use in the video, mezzaluna.

Marcelli says that the guard of mezzaluna (fig. 1 in the image below) has one

Extending the foot forward along the straight line meeting the rear foot, and bending the left knee, with the torso counterweighted on this foot, keeping the right knee extended, the right foot metting the opponent, and the rear foot oblique… the sword arm is withdrawn to the rear, with the hand near the pocket. He carries his dagger forward covering all the upper parts in such a way that the opponent only sees the chest below the dagger as target to strike. He cannot wound him in another part than this, and therefore it is called the guard below the weapons.

cioè, stendendo il piede avanti per linea retta incontro al piè di dietro, e piegando il ginocchio sinistro con la vita contrapesata sù questo piede, mantiene il ginocchio destroy disteso, il piè dritto incontro al nemico, e’l pie di dietro per traverso; e ritirando il braccio della Spada a dietro, con la mano vicino la saccoccia, hà portato il Pugnale avanti, coprendosi tutte le parti superiori, di modo che il nemico vedesolo per bersaglio da colpire il petto per le parti do sotto il Pugnale, nè può ferire in altra parte che in questa, e percio si chima Guardia sotto l’armi. [6]

Here, as with the image before, we have a discrepancy between the image and what Marcelli says of it:

Fig 1 is in First Guard/Mezzaluna

In the image, Figure 1 has a clear gap between the weapons in direct contradiction of what Marcelli describes in the passage explaining it. Recall that

He carries his dagger forward covering all the upper parts in such a way that the opponent only sees the chest below the dagger as target to strike. He cannot wound him in another part than this.

Marcelli makes it clear that there is no middle passage to the chest. One can only attack in the low line.

For corroborating evidence we have the testimony of another Neapolitan master, Nicola Terracusa e Ventura, who in True Neapolitan Fencing (1725) claims that this guard is called “half moon” because the tips of the weapons form that shape, that is, are in contact. [7] If both masters are adamant that one can only attack below it, then there cannot be a gap between the sword and dagger. That would open a line in addition to the low line.

Closing the Line: Lesson and Reality

In one portion of the lesson (1:32), Maestro Coblentz has Justin hit him, again with a normal lunge, and then extends to hit him indicating that the student had left the line open. As set up, it’s true that Justin is open because he’s still in the lunge, however nothing, so far I can tell, cued Justin to know that an after-blow was likely. So far as I can tell the master has instructed the student to strike without the expectation that the instructor will parry or counter.

It’s important to note that there are many times, most even, when the instructor allows the student to hit them; in most ways the instructor is a willing target. But throwing a counter or after-blow into the mix is not normally something one does without some cue that it could happen. Ostensibly the maestro is reminding the student to close the line, but in this instance the student is slightly out of measure—they’re not wearing masks—and was told to lunge to target. It’s an occasion for potential confusion—is the student working an aspect of the lunge, doing so but with additional attention to the line, or both? This is to say that when teaching a student a new action, especially something as unusual as the annervated lunge, we tend to break it down into parts to make it easier to learn. Justin’s lunge (though not annervated) was solid and he struck target with his arm in the right place, so punishing him for that again can confuse things.

The solution they devise is to have the student drop the hand upon extending. Not only does this slow the thrust, but it opens the student up to a counter-attack to the arm. This addition would also be unnecessary if the lunge was properly annervated. Focus in most rapier and smallsword texts is on the torso as target, but the arm is a perfectly good target, often easier to hit, and a true liability if disabled. Lowering his arm in this fashion is dangerous. Again, this solution only works if one is using the modern lunge—annervated, one is not in as deep, and with the dagger more easily brought into play (since this lunge is shorter), it’s there to intercept any counter to the inside line by recovery into guard, the rapier there to defend the outside line.

To be fair the audio is not great in the video—it’s hard to hear Maestro Coblentz and there is at least one additional pair talking. It is entirely possible I missed something that would explain this. If the master didn’t provide some cue, then it makes little sense to punish the student when in fact they’ve performed the task they were asked to do correctly. If the student extends first, and their arm is in the right place, their measure good, then more than likely they have control of the line; adding an after blow introduces another layer of complexity that this drill didn’t seem to require.

We spend considerable time on the direct lunge. Marcelli himself says that there is no more important, or difficult, attack that the stoccata dritta. Moreover, he says

I certainly know that the parries are none other than direct thrusts performed either in the same tempo that it is parried, or ripostes to the opponent with it after having parried the blow. [8]

In other words, if the student knows how to attack properly, then they are already working on closing the line. Sure, they must defend against an after-blow, but this is a separate issue. Assuming the student made a good attack, from good measure, then they should be able to recover in such a way to avoid an after-blow. This is all the more true, and easier to do, with rapier and dagger. Regardless, it’s critical to set expectations and then stick within the parameters of them.


We all of us apply what we know to help us make sense of things we do not know. Knowledge and experience of the modern lunge aids us in understanding different versions, even older versions of the same action, but we must be cautious and pay careful attention to the differences. We must approach illustrations with the same diligence—taken alone they mislead us. It is often safer to go with what a master said over what the artist depicted (unless they were one in the same person). The artist may not have been a fencer, may not have been particularly skilled (just inexpensive), or may have been lazy, tired, or distracted. In the examples above, what Marcelli says and what his plates show do not match up 100%, so we have to make our best guess. That guess is going to be far better when we step back and compare what we know against what a text is actually saying.

Context is everything. Marcelli’s environment was very different from our own. We never fence in earnest, and so we are not conditioned to think the way one must when fighting with sharp swords. Even in a program as venerable as that which Sonoma represents, there is a mindset more akin to the sport than the dueling field. The longer, modern lunge puts one in far more danger against rapier and dagger than does the annervated version; this is why Marcelli advocated it. One can lunge as one normally does with rapier alone, but this too makes sense—we have no offhand weapon; we’re more in profile, and lunging this way keeps more of us behind the point and guard.

As a fan of the Neapolitan school, a tradition less popular than the earlier masters like Capo Ferro or those popular in “HEMA” and the SCA, such as Giganti, I’m thrilled to see others working on Marcelli. To have well-trained maestri working on it is a plus too–the Masters Coblentz, Maestro Francesco Loda, not to mention other well-respected researchers, help us bring what we read to life. We may not always agree on how to interpret something, but all of us are best guided by the text, however odd it may seem to us, and opportunities like the video discussed here help us push our collective understanding and with luck to better interpretations. [9]


[1] I’ve not seen the book, but a friend has a copy and we discussed the nomenclature, source, and other influences in the 1595 curriculum.

For the Marcelli video, see Maestro David Coblentz’ post The maestros Coblentz, David and Dori, are well-respected graduates of the Sonoma program and part of the team behind RASP (Rapier and Sabre Pedagogy), held in Georgia, USA.

[2] Cf.

[3] Francesco Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, Trans. by Christopher A. Holzman (Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2019); for this passage, Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, Part II, Bk I, Ch. V, p. 15, fig. 4; Holzman, 288. See also Francesco Loda, Historical Fencing Manual: Rapier-Fencing in the 17th and 18th Centuries (Wheaton, IL: Freelance Academy Press, 2019).

[4] Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, Part II, Bk. I, Ch. V, 14; Holzman, 287:

The body, turned well in profile, must keep the dagger arm to the rear and the sword, advanced with lightness, must be squeezed in termination, and stopped in the right angle in the opponent’s chest.

Il corpo, voltato bene in profile, deve mantenere il braccio del pugnale à dietro; e la spada, caminata con leggierezza, si deve stringer nella termination fermata in angolo retto in petto al bersaglio.

[5] Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, Part II, Bk. I, Ch. IV, 10; Holzman, 281.

[6] Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, Part II, Bk I, Ch. III, p. 4, fig a.; Holzman, 273.

[7] Ibid, n. 113. See also Nicola Terracuse e Ventura, True Neapolitan Fencing, 1725, Trans. by Christopher A. Holzman, Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2017, 70.

[8] Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, Part I, Bk II, Ch. VI, p. 75; Holzman, 104.

[9] The annervated lunge is weird. It’s taken me a long time to warm up to it, and, only after a lot of awkward drilling. To someone well-versed in the modern lunge, that odd step onto the straight front leg seems like it will be jarring and unsteady. It was for me, initially, until wiser heads reminded me that the movement is driven by the torso, by unwinding, and that the step is short.

The Importance of Measure

“Success!” 1881 Samuel Waller 1850-1903 Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894

A number of dueling histories record the horrific duel between Colonel Barbier-Dufai and a young Captain, Raoul de Vere. According to most versions, the older adherent to Napoleon attempted to pick a fight with this member of the Royal Guard, but was initially unsuccessful. Barbier-Dufai, frustrated in finding the young man so unflappable, finally remarked that he was not insulting him, but his cockade, and after a heated exchange challenged the captain. However, when asked to select a weapon the captain replied that he had insufficient training in all of them. The colonel said he would not fight a child, a comment that irked de Vere and led him to slap the older man. A duel was now inevitable. In the ensuing sword fight, Barbier-Dufai disarmed his opponent several times. Finally, in frustration, the colonel suggested they hop into a carriage, arm themselves with daggers, tie their left arms to one another, and take two turns about the Place du Carousel. The young de Vere agreed and they set off in their mobile piste. When their seconds opened the carriage, blood was everywhere, Raoul clearly dead, and the colonel next to death. Both men died and honor was apparently satisfied. [1]

I share this story because it highlights the pure idiocy of fighting in close measure. There are times when it is unavoidable, but generally—unless one is in a confined space—there are means by which to extricate oneself from such proximity. One of the chief faults I see in both the wider community and among some of my own students is mismanagement of measure. Usually in my own classes, the culprit is a mix of well-intentioned aggression and fun—so intent on making the touch, some students neglect their own safety. I never want to chip away at the fun they’re having, especially among the younger students, because having fun is one reason people fence, but at the same time I need to ensure that they learn properly.

There are a few things we can do to ensure that our students have a proper notion of measure, and that can help them remember to use distance well in their bouts.

Teach them What Measure Is

First and foremost, from the off we need to teach them the various measures appropriate to their weapon or tradition. Regardless of the weapon or era my students study, I introduce them to the traditional breakdown of measure into three main categories:

  • Out of measure
  • In measure
  • Close measure

Out of measure, what Giordano Rossi calls “double measure” and Luigi Barbasetti refers to as “normal distance,” is the distance that requires us to make an advance first in order to lunge to target.[2] In measure means that one can lunge to target. Close measure is that spot were either opponent can reach one another without the lunge. There are some subsets to this, but to start this is ample.

I hesitate to say that “all” systems of measure reflect these basic breakdowns, but I feel safe to say that measure, being a fight universal, is common to all systems however described. Even in those like Rossi’s “measure” and “double measure” or Fiore dei Liberi’s “largo” and “stretto,” there is implied space between these two poles. Regardless of nomenclature, one must learn how to navigate any space along the continuum of “measure.”

Measure Drills

Measure drills by definition involve footwork. Ideally, any footwork drill save perhaps those used in warming up a class—where everyone advances and retreats down the hall using various types of footwork—will work distance too. Below are several drills I typically use in classes:

Glove Tag is a crowd favorite and very much a game. One can run this as a linear partner drill, or, as a general melee. I usually ask if anyone wants to be it, and if not then select someone. Fencers must use the appropriate footwork only, and, can only target the wrist. There is no parry. One has to move, or, parry with the feet (in the non-pejorative sense). [3] Fun as this is, and much as it helps them move, making it a bit more realistic is helpful (see Mask Tag below).

Foil-Push or mask-push, have the students, in guard, suspending a foil/sabre/etc. or mask between their lead hands. The goal is to move back and forth without dropping the foil or mask. I emphasize that while they are taking turns driving, so to speak, they are working as partners—the only way to keep that foil up is to move in concert. If fencer A steps back, B needs to step forward, and vice versa.

Mask-Tag and 1-Touch Tag, fencers don their masks and use the weapon to tag. For sabre, students target only the head, and, cannot parry. Thrust fencers can only target the chest (or arm depending on what we’re working on), and, as with sabre, cannot parry. They must move their feet. Students must use distance to their advantage. Success depends on moving, recognizing someone fell short and is now vulnerable in the recovery, or, selecting the moment the opponent is occupied, such as mid-step, to strike. If the attack fails, then retreating under guard or behind the point is the best option, and the fencers reset.

Mask-Tag Plus takes this drill one step farther—each opponent can parry and riposte once per action, that’s it. So, if Fencer A lunges with a thrust to the chest, B can parry in quarte and riposte, but if A retreats half a step, then B must recover—B can’t redouble. For more advanced students one can allow the redoublement. This option should be included at some point as so many students starting out stop just shy of the target.

Two-Step Tag is something I’ve used with foil and smallsword students. Two of my foilists, for example, are offensively-minded, so tend to close quickly at “Allez!” and descend into a flurry of jabs, thrusts, etc. I don’t want to take that drive away, so I’m trying to channel it instead. In this version, the only attack they can make is an advance-lunge to the chest. It’s super hard to do, especially since one’s opponent knows what’s coming, so everything depends on precise and keen use of footwork, timing, and distance.

The goal with all of these drills is to emulate, as much as one can, the conditions of a bout, but restrict the options so that the students are forced to use measure. It’s not that good handwork is unimportant or cheating, but that it can easily become clatter and chaos instead of well-planned attacks and responses. It becomes reactive, not active. I teach them that if an attack fails or if something isn’t working, to retreat, regroup, and try something else. Persistence in the face of stout defense is brave, sure, but foolhardy—if what we’re doing isn’t working, we try something else. [4].

Reinforcing Proper Use/Awareness of Measure in Bouting

It does little good to encourage proper measure in drills if we fail to do so in bouts. There are a few way to do this. In both classes and individual lessons I save any bouting we might do for after any focus on technique and drills. [5] This helps prime the pump as it were—students are more likely to consider measure if they’ve spent a bit of time focusing on it before bouting.

Within the bout, I have students actively bouting and those observing analyze the action, not only because it reinforces attention to measure, but also because it buttresses other important aspects, from recognizing who had initiative/started the attack to breaking down each action within a given exchange. Too few fencers learn to analyze bouts well, and the sooner they start the better.

Why Measure Matters

If you view most any bouting footage posted to sites like Youtube you will see, or should see, why better attention to using measure is worth one’s time. In one recent video, for example, one fencer analyzes his bout, but misses the reason that he found himself in the situation he did—they were fighting too close to one another. [6] If their sabres cross near the middle, they’re too close. Certain actions are harder to thwart at such proximity—in this case, a slip of the leg will likely fail because there is insufficient measure to remove the leg and strike the opponent’s head without being hit. More likely, and we see it in this example, both parties will be hit.

In fairness to this fencer, the rule-set he’s likely fighting under is not as doctrinaire as I am about the guiding principle of “don’t be hit.” Even when a rule-set is explicit, so much depends upon judges who know what to look for and how to make sense of what they’re seeing, and by and large tourney HEMA lacks a reliable pool of judges capable of analyzing the action at such a level. Add to this the excitement and/or nerves in a bout and of course things can turn out less ideally than we plan. It is not my intention to denigrate my fellow fencer, only to point out something important he didn’t address (his focus was on the slip). Were he my student, we’d likely work on this very set of actions at the proper distance, that is, set it up so that he is just about a step or so farther back then we see in the video. From punta spada/sword tip one is more likely in a place not only to make the attacker’s feint and strike more successfully (i.e. without be clobbered doing it) but also provide the defender sufficient measure (and thus time) to assess and adjust.

“Halberd against the Sword,” Hector Paulus Mair, MSS Dresd.C.93/C.94 (ca. 1540s)

Not all clubs or instructors take the same view I do. The more I read, the more I teach, the more I see how fencers learn, the more inclined I am to championing the goal of “don’t get hit.” It does change how we fence; it makes for a more circumspect, conservative, and hesitant game. The flash and fire, the dynamic move and rococo blade-work tend to impress, and that is what attracts many of us in the first place. It looks cool and we want to do that cool thing. While perhaps less flamboyant and exciting, I’d argue that there is as much beauty to the cold efficiency, exactness, and finality of a one-touch exchange. Moreover, training this way adds something else extremely important—improved confidence. The more one succeeds in gaining the line, striking, and getting out without suffering a counter-attack or double, the more one trusts themselves and the weapon they have in hand. In no way does that make one invulnerable, of course but confidence does much to help us cultivate the calm we need to fight with our heads and not our hearts. [7]


[1] There are a number of popular histories and websites that mention this duel, few with adequate citations. See for example Robert Baldick, The Duel: A History, New York, NY: Barnes & Noble, 1965, 164-165; Major Ben C. Truman, The Field of Honor, New York, NY: Fords, Howard, & Hulbert, 1884, 236, available online at []; Thimm records a duel with daggers, minus a carriage, between two men in Italy in 1891, A Complete Bibliography of Fencing and Dueling, Reprint (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 1998), 457.

[2] Giordano Rossi, Sword and Sabre Fencing, Milan: Fratelli Dumolard Editori, 1885; translated by Sebastian Seager, Melbourne Fencing Society, 2021, 49-50; Luigi Barbasetti, The Art of the Sabre and Epee, New York, NY: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc, 1936, 15-16. Cf. Gustav Arlow, Sabre Fencing, 1902, translated by Annamaria Kovacs and edited by Russ Mitchell, Austro-Hungarian Sabre Series, Vol. 3, Happycrow Publishing, 2022, 35.

The term “normal measure” is revealing–this is the distance from which one is still safe, but close enough to mount an attack. In other words, one isn’t four meters away from the opponent, and, isn’t in their lap.

[3] The “Coward’s Parry” or “Ninth Parry,” according to Morton, is the derisive term applied to those who avoid at attack by means of a step back. Where this idea originated I’m not sure, but it’s alive and well in HEMA. My guess, like Morton’s, is that this harkens back to the time with salle fencing, particularly in France, sought complex, elegant handwork over retreating (a “ninth” parry suggests an acceptable eight, and the French school in the 19th century looked to that number). See E.D. Morton, Martini A-Z of Fencing, London, UK: Antler Books, 1990[?], 43, 126.

[4] There are instances, of course, were it’s wiser not to break off the attack. If say one thrusts to the chest but lands short, and the opponent isn’t reacting properly, then redoubling to strike makes good sense.

[5] Most of my bouts are teaching bouts, that is, bouts in which I present what we covered in a lesson so that the student may work on those topics in real time. For classes, I still do this, but often include a little free-bouting at the end of class provided the students have enough in their toolkit to do so, otherwise I have them engage in restricted bouts where they move at real speed, but are restricted in what they can do.

[6] I do not know “@HEMA_Fight_Breakdowns,” and again, do not wish to disparage them in any way. Their video provided a great example of what I cover here, but my topic was not the same as theirs and I want to make that clear. To blast someone for not covering something we want them to, when that isn’t what they set out to do, is silly if all too common. This fencer has some good things to say about slipping the leg and one response to it–the topic of the video–it can be found here:

[7] For this notion, see Master Perigore of Paris in the film adaptation of “Scaramouche” (1952):

Smallsword in Salem, OR

Waterfront Park, Salem, Oregon

Despite the cold and wind (it was 28F/-2C), a few of us met down by the waterfront in Salem this evening for smallsword. Though I am able to teach more often indoors again, there are still times where we lack that option, and so one either finds a way or doesn’t practice. The crew in Salem is dedicated, in no small part thanks to my friend Joshua, who approached me last year about the weapon and has done more than anyone to get others interested. It’s important to me to honor that commitment and drive, and to be honest easy to do since I enjoy smallsword so much. If they’re willing to meet on a chilly evening, I’m happy to make the trip.

It’s difficult working in the cold, especially in a two hour block, but we did our best to keep moving and stay out of the wind. Lucky for us, the amphitheater where we met has surprisingly good lighting, and thus we were able to continue practice after sundown. We were less successful avoiding the wind, but it kept us moving! We spent most of the time drilling specific actions and a few permutations following from them, but some measure/footwork exercises too.

Anatomy of a Lesson
From time to time I discuss lessons and lesson-planning on this page, and tonight’s class provides another great opportunity to do that. Since this was a two-hour block it’s important to organize what we’ll cover–there is only so much “new” material one can digest. What I typically do is consider first, whom I’m teaching, and next what they need. In this case, one of the two students who showed up has been away for a while, so some review of fundamentals (which I always include at some level) seemed appropriate. The other student has been practicing with me and at another school, and so is less in need of a refresher, but was happy to go over things again. [1] Regardless of topic, I usually structure lessons, long or short, the same way:

  • warm up
  • progressive drill
  • main lesson
  • cool down [or depending on the type of lesson, bouting, then cool down]

The warm up tends to consist of plyometric-oriented drills and/or fundamental actions. For rapier and smallsword, for example, I often start people out with something like an arrest drill–this requires me to make purposeful mistakes by exposing the weapon arm in various lines and the student to counter attack via arrest to the exposed section and then cover/parry and riposte. From there, I might add a counter-parry/riposte on my side, and so on. Varying the measure, the speed, and line make this warm-up more realistic and sort of primes the pump as it were for the main lesson.

Format for Sunday Evening
This time we began with a fencing version of a “push hands” drill. Joshua and Robert started with a glide in third, one fencer starting the attack, the other making a yielding parry in third, gaining leverage, and then attacking with a glide in their turn. There is a see-saw quality to it, but done well it’s a valuable drill: it helps both parties gain better sentiment du fer, helps them work on closing the line, provides them a convenient way to monitor how far to move the hand to parry, and tests the height of the hand on the thrust. [2] The same drill is useful in carte, half-circle/7th, and seconde. There are additions one can make to the base drill, but tonight we used the four main lines only and as a warm-up.

Next, we took this drill one step farther—we used the glide in third as a feint to draw the opponent’s tierce, then disengaged and made a thrust to the inside line with opposition in carte. Both fencers are taller than I am, and so one aspect of this exercise that proved particularly useful was changes in measure. Though the same attack can be made “firm-footed,” as the treatises refer to it, it’s important to vary the distance. Not every opponent stands still.

Girard, Traité des armes, 1740

I’ve often had students work from a glide, but at a certain point, once they have the concepts the glide teaches so well down, I expand upon it. [3] This time we discussed a guard where the glide doesn’t work well—Girard’s more extended tierce. One can make an attack by glide against this straighter guard, but it’s much easier for the defender to defeat it. [4] So, we discussed using a beat-feint instead. This was familiar ground, both offensively and defensively, but works a number of fundamental actions. It was a good set up to the prise de fer in seconde, and, the defenses against it.

The first line of defense against this attack, one anyway, is the derobement, that is, avoiding the envelopment by performing a tight circle around the opposing steel. Next, we used a yielding parry in seconde. Lastly, we upped the difficulty level and used a change of line from yielding seconde to yielding carte. This is not easy to do—it requires a keen sense of timing, distance, and evaluation of the line of attack. [5] It also raised additional questions—if one transports the blade to carte, one could riposte by flanconnade, but this is harder to do if the attacker’s hand is in tierce instead of carte.

As a way to reset and take a break from a complicated drill, we next played a version of glove tag. Often termed restricted or constrained bouting, this type of game limits one or both fencers to specific options. We started out having both fencers attack the inside line, but they could not parry—the only option was to use the feet and measure. Ideally, one provokes the opponent to fall short, then attack them as they recover back into guard, or, catch them on the march. It can be a workout. Next, each fencer could respond by parrying in carte and riposting, but nothing else.

Joshua lunges; Robert parries in carte

In the last twenty minutes we enjoyed a few unrestricted bouts. I urge fencers to do their best to use what we cover that day, and when I’m up I do my best to present students with opportunities to work on those actions. If the student is new, the cues I give are more obvious and I might hold them a second longer, but as much as possible I try to maintain the same conditions students face in actual bouts. Everything we do should relate to what students will need on the piste or in the ring, otherwise we do them a disservice. Footwork, warm-up, lessons, teaching bouts, pair drills, whatever it is we have students do, should always serve to improve their game.

Have Plastron, Will Travel
Fencing, State-side at least, is an obscure pursuit and outside the Olympic world, which is far better known and supported, it can be difficult to attract and retain students. There are a number of models for running a club and providing lessons, but the one I’ve opted for is as flexible as my other responsibilities allow. The “they can come to me” approach might work for some, but I’ve become a big believer in meeting people half-way whenever I can.

These days I teach six days a week in some capacity, which can be a lot when one has a day-job and family duties. Four nights a week I teach for parks & rec, Sunday mornings I meet people outside that system either at the local Grange or at the community college satellite, and twice a week I provide individual instruction (sabre with one 11 year old girl, rapier for one man in his 60s). It can be a lot, but I love it. Not a day goes by that I’m not grateful to my spouse and children for their generosity with time and the various clumps of fencing gear that occupy different corners of the house.

The Portland metro area, and PNW in general, boast a number of options for those interested in martial arts, and, in fencing. What I offer will not appeal to everyone, and that’s okay–happily, knowing many other instructors and coaches I can refer people to places and people that might better suit them. My close friends among other instructors do the same for me, and in fact, many if not most of my students came to me via people like Mike Cherba (Northwest Armizare). We’re a small community, but we do our best to look after one another, because in the aggregate we all benefit. The more like-minded fencers we train, and the better we train them, the more people we have to enjoy the Art with, so in a sense it’s self-serving. However, the study of the Art beyond mechanics and tactics can impart so much more; it can become a way of life, a philosophical position, and like any such study is one we can pursue all our lives long. The more time I spend in the Art, as student always, as teacher often, the more I appreciate the lessons–all of them–it imparts.


[1] I’m a big proponent for the continual training in the most basic, fundamental actions and techniques. We should review them often if not in some fashion each time we train. Typically, I manage that in my lessons via drills and exercises, and, regardless of skill-level. The kendo master I studied with briefly told us about his yearly retreat with his own, elderly master. Despite all my sensei had achieved, his rank, etc., his master could still find things even in his grip on the weapon to correct. We are never finished being students.

[2] Smallsword texts, as I’ve mentioned before, can vary considerably when in comes to hand height on the attack. For my part, the advice of many masters, who suggest that the hand should be as high as the chin, seems to fulfill the requirements for covering the high-line when lunging well enough. Some later texts, likely more reflective of salle play, can have the hand super high (e.g. La Boessiere), but raised so high one is far more likely to eat a counter-thrust.

[3] I will likely never be able to thank Chris Holzman, one of my mentors for Italian fencing, enough for his suggestion to start new students off with the glide vs. a direct thrust. It has no lie revolutionized my approach. Thank you, again, Chris 🙂

[4] Girard’s guard, as you see in the image, is more or less extended. What we see there is supported by the text accompanying it as well. On page 12 of the pdf available at the BnF Gallica site, the text reads Il faut présenter la pointe de l’Epée droite, vis à vis la mamelle droite de l’ennemi, & que le demi tranchant regarde la terre and Que le bout du pommeau de l’Epée regarde entre le teton droit & l’aisselle, & tombe directement au-dessus du bout du pied droit. Here, the tip of the blade and the end of the pommel both suggest a more or less horizontal blade.

This is harder to describe than demonstrate, but Girard’s guard, because it is more extended and horizontal, makes it more difficult for an opponent to effect the glide, but more than that, to defend against such an attempt requires merely a shift of the wrist right or left to defend. A beat may not sufficiently move the line, especially if one beats to the side of the opponent’s blade opposite the thumb, but combined with a feint it is more likely to succeed.

[5] My approach to working more complex actions is progressive and determined by skill-level. Though where we stopped is a viable response, it is also an unlikely one. The simplest, most efficient response is normally best, however there are at least two reasons to explore more complex iterations. First, it is “medicine for the hand,” and in training more sophisticated actions we hone the basic ones that comprise them. Second, there is always the chance one will face an opponent where the simplest defenses and responses will not b enough, and so having additional options in one’s repertoire makes sense.

Sources & the Lesson

In a recent discord discussion one participant asked a series of insightful questions about how we use sources in lessons and classes. [1] Specifically, they asked:

So as an instructor, do you prefer referencing texts right away, or introducing technique in a more generic way until your students have some foundation?

It’s one of those obvious questions that is in the background of most lesson planning, but for me at least not one I’ve asked aloud, and, it’s an important question. To what degree should we discuss the sources during class? How much should we quote from a text? Do we merely cite a source? Do we share a brief summary of how we’ve used the source before or after a lesson? Do we avoid mentioning, citing, or quoting the sources we use during lessons and classes? How much should one incorporate sources if at all in the actual business of teaching?

Here I’d like to share some of the salient points others made as well as my own take on this. Starting with my own view, how much I mention or include sources in class or an individual lesson depends a lot on purpose and context. We teach in different ways, so it follows that we might incorporate our sources differently depending on the audience, goals, and topic.

In a seminar where I’m introducing people to a general area of study, say Radaellian sabre, I normally begin with a brief explanation detailing critical information (who, what, when, and where) as well as its significance (why). The rest of the time we spend more or less on the “how,” that is, exploring the system in such a way that participants gain an idea of what distinguishes this sabre school from others. In the course of a seminar people may ask questions about the system or the sources for it, and that’s fine, but focus remains on actually working on the material sword in hand. Often, there is either a formal chance at the end to go into more detail, or, an informal chance afterwards to chat about things in more depth.

In a more focused seminar, say a particular aspect of a source or tradition, I may say a bit more, because I must. Radaellian molinelli, for example, require some explanation. It’s not just what they were used for, which one could wax upon at length, but also detailing and explaining the mechanics behind them. The nature of close study is normally a decent place to cite sources or passages within them directly. That’s not always the case. In a general seminar I may say that Del Frate, Masiello, and Rossi all say this about the molinelli, but in a more focused class I might just zero in on what one master says. In this case, not using what Del Frate or whomever said makes little sense: ostensibly the people attending are there because they want to know more about this author and their take on the topic. [2] There is often overlap. The last time I discussed the molinelli, for example, I drew heavily from Del Frate but brought in Barbasetti and others as appropriate. My class was one of two that day and we had ample time to spend using these circular cuts in different ways.

For a regular class, say one with 5 to 10 people that meets once or twice a week, I normally save the bulk of the source discussion for post-class review sheets. This said, there are times when in order to explain how or why we do something I do reference the texts. These snippets can be diverting and can eat up time, so I try to keep them to a minimum. It’s a judgment call in many cases—will sharing what Girard or Rossi or Marcelli said here help the student understand or introduce a speedbump to the learning process and pace of class? Sometimes I get that wrong. Few things let you know that like a student turning to look at a clock or shuffling impatiently because they’re eager to jump back into activity.

Individual lessons, by their nature, tend to mean that we spend very little time discussing source material. This too, however, can vary by student, skill level, and the length of the lesson. It also varies by age. One on one lessons are the best way to learn and an opportunity to go through material with focus. Much as I can, I try to stick to the meat of the lesson and less so everything underpinning it. Yes, it’s often relevant, but there are better ways to share all the substrata and more appropriate times.

But you Harp on about Sources all the Time? What Gives?!

True, I do, and I will continue to do so, but using sources doesn’t necessarily mean consulting the sacred tomes between each action. For historical fencing, the sources should guide and inform what we teach, but how we do that is another matter. I look at it this way:

One way to visualize text to teaching [3]

I start with the source. Maybe it’s Del Frate, maybe Girard, but regardless I read through the work or works and see what they say. Next, I consider what I know about the passage I’ve read and its context. Del Frate was writing for the cavalry and a close friend, Giuseppe Radaelli; this system went on to transform sabre most everywhere via the Radaelli’s students and their students. As someone trained within that lineage, I can compare what I was taught with earlier iterations, and then interpret what I want to do with that topic. If I plan to cover feints, I again compare what the source tradition says with what I was taught, and devise a lesson plan.

My lesson plans follow a traditional format—we start with a warm up, jump into the topic, then cool down. How much we do in the main lesson depends on the student, but I introduce the topic and then we explore it via drill, and importantly, by varying the drill. This is where pedagogical concerns come in—is the student new or experienced? What weight of weapon are they using? Where are they strong, where weak, and what balance do I strike so that they build confidence in what they find easy and improve in what challenges them? What kind of lesson is it? Is it a teaching lesson where they’re learning a new skill? An option lesson where we explore actions or tactics in different ways? A bouting lesson where one is preparing a student for a match?

Lastly, there are the nuts and bolts of delivery—how do I introduce the topic, drill, etc.; what language makes it most clear? What examples, analogies, or previous study will aid the student? In what order should we cover the material? For an experienced fencer, I can normally state things generally, such as we’ll be working feints, give them direction to feint by thrust, molinelli to the head, and we start. There will be more variation of movement, tempo, and the order of actions. For a newer student, we may just work on making that thrust convincing, or starting from the right distance. With a new student, I spend more time on basic mechanics; perhaps we just work on the extension or a convincing feint.

Macro vs. Micro

One approach, and what I’ve more or less described above, is to adjust source-inclusion according to the follow logic:

General points/summary/introduction = more source inclusion

Teaching specific movements/actions/technique = less source inclusion

The use of the comparative adjective “more” here is intentional, because so much depends on whom it is one is teaching, and what one is teaching. A seasoned, experienced fencer new to a specific tradition may need less explanation of how to make the action and more of what this particular source says about it. In contrast, a newer fencer, someone very young, generally needs far less explanation of why de Liancour advocated X or Y and way more time spent trying to do X or Y.

As should be evident, this places a considerable burden on the instructor to know, understand, and be able to use the sources. It goes beyond that: it also means the instructor must be able to assess audience, experience, and attentiveness in various contexts, and with luck, be able to adjust on the fly. Much of this depends on an instructor’s goals and what the club is there to do. [4] In some degree, however, if the school is “historical” in focus than there should be some attention to the sources regardless of what one does with it.

Incorporating Sources into Lessons

Specific examples never hurt, so below I’d like to provide a screen shot of one of the ways in which I do this. This selection is a portion of some post-class notes from a smallsword class. As one can see, I provide a scan of the original text, and in this case a transliteration as these students are less used to 18th cen. English orthography and typesetting. Within the transliteration I provide a few explanations and definitions. A few notes follow.

Of note, these explanations follow a lesson in which I mention but do not spend much time on the text—with only an hour in class I focus on technique and its application. This often consists of something like “Today we will cover the glide from third. In the sources this is often called a ‘glizade,’ and in modern works there are more terms still.” That’s it. If someone asks me which text I tell them, but again the focus is to learn how to make and use the action, not a history lesson. Most of my time is taken up setting them up to learn the drill, reviewing the weak and strong portions of the blade, what an engagement means, what opposition entails, and how measure and timing play into this action. That’s a lot of information, and, a lot to do.

D. Angelo, _The School of Fencing_, p. 50, on the glizade

[50] Of the Motions made on the Blade Standing Still, called Glizades, and the Glizade from Carter over the Arm, to Thrust Carte.

If you are engaged in carte [4th], and are in distance, you must have a flexible arm, your body singled [profiled], and entirely on the left hip:* in this position you must make a beat** on the adversary’s blade, with an intent to stir his wrist [get them to parry]; if he should come to the sword [parry], you must disengage lightly carte over the arm [in third, but nails up], with your wrist high, and your point in line to his face; and, the moment he closes the blade [parries], disengage in carte, and thrust directly straight. If, after this, he should not return [riposte], but only force your blade [stay in the parry], you may reiterate a second thrust***, by turning your wrist in tierce, on the blade, without leaving it, and recover to his sword in carte.

*in the day, most masters recommended keeping the weight on the rear leg while in guard

**we have not covered this yet, but will; it’s a quick, powerful wrap against the opposing blade with your own to open the line

***this is called a remise; it’s to make the attack a second time, in the same line, often by redoubling or double-lunging

There are other ways I use texts, but this is a common one and useful for introducing the “what” and “why” behind what I teach. It’s sort of bite-sized, and for people more keen to use swords than read about them, this is a decent happy-medium. I cite my sources so to speak and provide them information that might help them should they wish to practice on their own, but the choice is theirs–they can read or ignore these sheets as they wish.

On the course and lesson-planning side, having the word and pdf copies of these notes does much to help me revise or correct material as I continue. Each class, each student is a different, so I tend to recycle the historical portions but update and tailor the explanations and comments. I’ve also found it useful to compare my interpretations against the sources from time to time, because colleagues provide insights that change things, as do students. One of the best things about teaching historical fencing is that it can be collaborative—students will question why we do X or Y and each time there is the chance that they may see something I’ve missed. It happens more often than one might think, particularly if the students have a martial arts and/or fencing background. As a last point, for instructors who aren’t quite sure how to engage the sources, this is one way—pick a topic, say the glide, and sit with what a source or two says about it. Work it out in real time, sword in hand, and devise drills if they’re not provided. With practice, it gets easier to do and increases not only the usefulness of these texts, but also our enjoyment of them.


[1] the conversation took place within the local historical fencing Discord 12 Dec. 2022 run by Northwest Armizare’s Mike Cherba.

[2] Usually seminar and class titles are announced ahead of events, so my own operating assumption is that if someone is in that seminar they have at least a nominal interest.

[3] The sources codify, preserve, and help create a tradition, school, or style. There are often particular features in technique that distinguish one style from another, such as footwork, guard, the axis of rotation for cuts, etc. Teaching a particular tradition combines the body of technique with that tradition’s approach to delivery as well as the specific concerns that come with teaching, both individually and in groups. All of that informs how we deliver this material, how we share it, teach, and transmit the tradition.

[4] One issue inherent in this, and a bit of a bugbear in “HEMA,” is the place of the sources and by extension what we mean by “historical.” As the same participant noted in Discord, in re sources and faithfulness to them

What’s tricky though is that even the “H” in HEMA is still a bit vague … Someone might interpret the “Historical” as having an implied “accuracy” associated with it, whereas someone else might interpret “Historical” as just broadly drawing from a past time period…And even if the latter doesn’t mix in any modern technique, a combination of historical techniques is still technically historical to some people.

Maybe the least divisive way to handle this is for each instructor and group to determine what it is they want to do, that is, what “historical” is going to mean to them. It will seem passively relative to say this, but I stand by it—I can hold one definition of “historical” and seek to abide it while at the same time recognizing that not everyone will agree.