Smallsword as Gate-way Drug

The lunge as represented in the Règlement of 1908

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critical Rule: Always be Open to Correction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smallsword as Gate-Way Drug

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

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revisiting One’s Roots—Fencing according to the _Règlement d’Escrime_

On ne change pas une équipe qui gagne. [1]

View from the “sala” this morning

As the latest mutation of Covid-19, “Omicron,” ravages the area (thanks unvaccinated, unmasked amadáin), everything is affected. Between outbreaks at various schools and the allergy symptoms I woke up with this morning attendance was sparse today at class. While I’m sure that my congestion and itchy nose are thanks to taking down holiday decorations inside and out, and fencing in super warm weather yesterday, I can’t be too careful and so alerted students and gave them the option to opt out. It’s the right thing to do. I met with one student, outside and masked of course, and as a new and younger student we’re starting with foil. Though I had to scrape ice off my windows before driving to meet up, by the time the lesson was over the temperature was again unseasonably warm. It was a good day to fence out of doors. Post lesson, as I sat waiting to make sure no one else was going to show, I went back over the lesson I had given.

My focus at Sala delle Tre Spade is mostly Italian, but there are exceptions. The smallsword I teach relies mostly on French sources; the bayonet I teach does as well; and foil, while I can teach Italian, I’m more comfortable with French. It’s what I learned first. At present, I only have one dedicated foil student, this young chap, and the method I teach is taken directly from the Regalement d’escrime (1908). Since it was designed for the military, it’s straight-forward, and yet imparts all the universals and fundamental actions. Foil is an ideal introduction to fencing. One can learn these in other ways, true, but the advantage with foil is that it presents the core of the Art while also developing skills essential for any fencing—strength and dexterity in the fingers and point-control. The latter might seem limited, but it’s not. Good point-control carries over to other crucial aspects of control. A foilist turned sabreur, for example, is less likely to be a hard-hitter, and, has the advantage over sabre fencers who lack a point-game.

The first fencing lessons I took were in foil. The first master I worked with (a few years later) taught the usual program of foil, epee, and sabre common in the States, one largely French-derived. Sabre, however, which I studied with him was more mid-century and thus not so much French as it was Italo-Hungarian. The last master with whom I worked consistently, Delmar Calvert, was French-trained, and, trained according to the Règlement d’escrime of 1908. As a man who went on to coach at colleges and for the Pan-American team, naturally there were adaptations he made in teaching that were more suitable for the requirements of the sport, but the foundation for his approach was what he learned in North Africa with the Foreign Legion. [2] The difference between the sabre he taught and that I had learned under Maestros Hurst and Couturier was minimal. However, any time I did something less in keeping with French preferences, he’d scold me. This was often amusing, but (seeking to be an obedient student and wishing to be respectful) I did my best not to use sesta or make most cuts with the elbow. Despite his dislike of my “Italianisms,” Calvert’s approach, his mix of English and French in lessons, all of it was familiar, comfortable. Like walking into a dojo or do-jang now, it feels a bit like home when I focus on anything French.

I had a good notion of what to cover this morning, but I reread the relevant section in the Règlement to make sure. My student had one lesson at an excellent Olympic school before coming to me, and we have only met twice, so we are still working on introductory material. He is a quick study, and even over the break had clearly been working on his lunge. Day one material is vital, absolutely critical to get down well-enough before moving onto anything else. I was surprised when my student asked me in our first lesson about compound attacks—having only had one lesson before that I would not assume they had covered anything beyond simple attacks. It’s not impossible, but it is uncommon to work on compound attacks as they require a firm grasp of elementary actions.

For example, in covering the lunge today we explored a few universals. Most of what we covered built up from the basic lunge. For reference, here is the development of the lunge as outlined in Article III, “Développement:”

13. La développement du bras, suivi de la fente, constitue le développement.

Étant dans la position de le garde, pour se déveloper:

Déployer le bras droit, vivement, sans raideur, le corps restant immobile, la main, les ongles en dessus, à hauteur du menton. Porter ensuite le pied droit en avant, le pied rasant le sol, et tendre vivement le jarret gauche. Laisser, en même temps, tomber le bras gauche et le maintenir dans une position sensiblement parallèle à la jambe gauche, la main ouverte, les doigts allongés et joints, le pouce en-dessus. Poser le pied droit à plat, le genou droit sur la vertical passant par le milieu du pied, le corps légèrement penché en avant, la main droite à hauteur des yeux (fig. 7). [Rd’E, 16-17]

13. The development of the arm, followed by the lunge (fente), constitutes the development.

From the position of guard, to develop:

Extend the right arm swiftly, without stiffness, the body remaining motionless, the hand, the nails up, at chin height. Then bring the right foot forward, the food skimming the ground, and quickly extend/stretch the left leg. At the same time, let the left arm drop and keep it in a position approximately parallel to the left leg, the hand open, the finger extended and joined, the thumb on top. Place the right foot flat, the right knee positioned vertically over the middle of the foot, the body leaning slightly forward, the right hand at eye level. [3]

Several things struck me about this passage. First, how much information it contains in such a short passage. Second, how similar this description of the lunge is to that found in sources from two centuries before. There are differences—many texts want the lead knee over the heel and not the middle of the foot—but for the most part the salient parts remain the same: weapon moves first, right foot skims forward, left leg straightens, hand is high to protect the face and high-line.

This sequence is universal. In offense, weapon and hand move first, legs and body after. I’ve seen it in every western source, from every period I’ve examined. I was taught the same thing in kendo and gumdo. It applies to bayonet. It applies to many strikes in empty-hand combat, and those that seem to defy the rule, like a hay-maker, tend to be preceded by a jab or cross to put one less at risk (the jab here being the initial extension).

Moreover, spending time with sources outside our main focus offers not only greater breadth in one’s coverage of a single weapon, but also provides a different point of view on that weapon as we normally approach it. This is to say that by looking at the differences between French and Italian foil we can understand each one better, and ultimately, foil itself better. For historical fencers the value of this can be far greater than they realize. If foil was the training weapon for the épée de combat, itself developed in part to return to the spirit of smallsword as foil became academic, then study of traditional foil and epee will only improve our chances of understanding earlier works, be they on smallsword or rapier. [4] Deep study will increase the worth of this hard work too. Once grasped, an understanding of the universals will open up most any hand-to-hand weapons system far easier than it is without it, and, with less room for error in interpretation.

As a final note, it’s important to start on and stay with the basics until one understands and can perform them well. This is the fencing equivalent of crawling before walking. Give yourself permission to be a beginner when starting something new, and allow yourself the time to master basics. The road ahead, if you stay on it, will be far easier and pleasurable if you do.

NOTES:

[1] “One does not change a winning team,” i.e. “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” in colloquial American.

[2] I’ve been unable, so far, to discover much about my first maestro’s training. What little I know is that Edwin “Buzz” Hurst competed on the team at the Naval Academy. Clovis Deladrier, before emigrating, was the Fencing Master of the First Infantry Regiment and 12th Artillery Regiment of the Belgian army. He was the head fencing master at the U.S. Naval Academy from 1927 until 1947. His son, André, took over in 1948. André was head coach there until 1989, and so was coaching when Hurst as at the Academy. See Clovis Deladrier, Modern Fencing: A Comprehensive Manual for the Foil, Épée, & Sabre (Annapolis, MD: United States Naval Institute, 1948); cf. “The Rigors of Fencing Foil Navy’s Coach,” in The Washington Post, 9 March 1989, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1989/03/09/rigors-of-fencing-foil-navys-coach/304f232b-c17a-4014-b45e-07addd6b1b8b/

For more about Maitre Calvert, see https://museumofamericanfencing.com/wp/calvert-delmar/; https://www.westcoastfencingarchive.com/2019/07/29/say-goodbye-say-hello/; and an earlier post here, “Gang Affiliation or Natural Allies? Fencers and their Camps,” 22 July 2019, https://wordpress.com/post/saladellatrespade.com/321 ; an excellent source for his military experience is Bernard Coliat, Vercors 1944: Des Gi dans le Maquis (Bourg-Les-Valence, FR: l’Imprimerie Jalin, 2003).

For the Règlement, see Ministère de la Guerre, Règlement d’escrime (Fleuret—Epee—Sabre), Paris, FR: Imprimerie Nationale, 1908, available online at BNF Gallica, https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k65577093.texteImage

[3] Règlement d’escrime, 16-17. My translation is loose, but maintains the sense of the original. Native speakers of French my apologies if my version offends.

[4] One way to think of it is that smallsword was a demi-rapier, much the same as its longer predecessor, but because of its shorter blade and lightness made certain things possible that were harder or impossible to do as well with the longer, heavier weapon. Side by side comparison of rapier and early smallsword texts reveal far more common ground than we typically assign them. As the duel waned in Europe, foil qua foil became a game all its own, one increasingly complex and divorced from its original purpose. Writers like de Bazancourt (fl. 1860s), who embraced a less artful style, did so because on the ground salon fencing could get one killed.

_Semper Anticus_: The Importance of Continuing Education

Resilience and creativity may not be the most lauded skills in fencing, but they probably deserve to be included among the virtues traditionally associated with it. Despite Covid-19, storms, fires, political upheaval, and much more, fencers have still found ways to study and train. The pandemic has forced everyone to find new ways to pursue the Art, from sharing solo drill footage to various online meetings. In a sense it’s an ideal time to work on self-improvement because most of us can’t congregate yet. We have time to expand our knowledge, increase our skill-base, and hone ability. It can help to have goals with this–this past week I started an extended course via the USFCA (the United States Fencing Coaches’ Association), online, and though we’ve only met once it’s clear to me just how valuable this class is going to be.

One thing I have always told students, be it in college courses or during fencing lessons, is that we never stop learning (we shouldn’t anyway). A teacher is first a student and if they’re smart they remain one. I have probably expressed this different ways, ad nauseum, in most settings, but it’s because I believe it’s true. Even if we have something down well and have taught it umpteenth times someone else may know a way to improve our approach. There’s always more to learn or new ways to do what we already do well. Every instructor should take time to continue their education–it’s important.

Interacting with new people, and especially a new maestro, can be difficult for many people, but for those of us farther along the introvert spectrum it can be down-right daunting. Luckily, a good friend alerted me to this course and is taking it himself–it turns out that two other people I know are as well, one a local coach, the other a master in California. I was nervous going into the class, partly because of the social interaction (something quarantine has done little to help), partly because despite using a lot of technology I tend to struggle with these online meeting platforms, and partly because as someone who has focused on historical fencing, who has had a challenging relationship with competitive fencing, it’s easy to feel out of place. Turns out there’s a lot that can tag along with that last one.

One Art, Many Paths

Like many people, I started teaching fencing when assigned the task by a maestro. The last two masters I studied with, both of whom I spent a fair amount of time with, asked me to help newer students or assist their more advanced fencers prep for an event. Dutiful and honored I did my best. I enjoy teaching and the chance to do so was fun, but teaching is also critical in improving our own ability and knowledge. Having to teach something goes beyond being able to do it–we have to understand it. I didn’t want to disappoint my maestri or steer my fellow students the wrong way. They trusted me to do a good job or they wouldn’t have asked me, but that doesn’t mean I felt up to the task every time.

My approach to teaching is, more or less, what I saw my own teachers do. This goes for everything: the sections of a lesson, the types of drills, the various cues–verbal and physical–we use, everything. In time, we develop our own style, we tweak this or that perhaps, but this method is by definition often informal, organic, and implicit rather than explicit. Feedback from those same masters helped, as does time in the saddle, but just how different this is from formal instruction in how to teach hit me hard last week.

This course is the first “how to teach” course in fencing I’ve taken. The maitre d’armes teaching it, a highly-respected, published, and extremely well-trained instructor, hit the ground running day one. He put names to things, gave explanations, and explained a lot of what we do as fencing instructors, things I have done but never really thought about. If that class had been the only one in the series it would still would have been extremely valuable, but to know that I have weeks and weeks of similar instruction coming is exciting. It’s also intimidating.

The course in question is on epee/spada, the weapon of the modern three I’ve had the least training in, but which I have fought quite a lot. I’ve read a lot about it, both in terms of its development as a distinct weapon and with regard to modern tactics. In addition to improving my teaching I hope to gain further insight into the weapon. Often tackling the hardest aspect of a challenge first makes sense, so epee being the least familiar to me, it’s a good place to start.

Fall Down 7 Times, Get up 8

The cosmos, if we’re paying attention, has a funny way of ensuring that we stay humble. Of the various gaffs in the universe’s comedic toolbox one of the most painful (if sometimes amusing) has to be self-sabotage. We can be our own worst enemies, and moreover, in different ways. In my case, the first homework assignment for the epee course put the spotlight on a prime example of this, and for spice, on multiple levels.

It may seem odd to share this, but to date I have found that sharing tales of failure as well as success isn’t just honest, but sometimes helpful. How, for example, is a student going to know it’s okay to make a mistake if we can’t admit our own? Maybe they will learn to harness failure or missteps without our help, but it sure might save them some pain if they have a model for how one might do that. As teachers we don’t expect or look for perfection, just improvement. Part of our role, I think, is making it okay to mess up, to fail, or as common parlance has it, “to suck.” We need to be able to be bad at something first if we wish to get better at it. I don’t think this is a one time deal either, but a reoccurring process we experience at various plateau moments in learning. I am not one to boast and it makes me uncomfortable when others do it–the culture I grew up in considered such behavior ugly–but I will say that I’ve been fencing a long time, teaching a long time, and I make mistakes too. I will make more. It’s part of learning. So, while the following story may read as more humiliating than illuminating, that’s okay–if it makes it even slightly less painful for anyone else to mess up, then great. Sharing this example also sticks it to my own ego, the root of the problem, and that is healthy as well.

In my own most recent example, I was intrigued but puzzled by the maestro’s homework assignment. I understood it, I thought, and it struck me as odd, but I assumed I more or less knew what he wanted so didn’t follow up with him. I should have. I always tell students to ask questions, and, that no question is stupid in class. Better to ask than not.

He had asked us to make a video where we coaches devise two responses against the student as the student recovers from the lunge. It will likely be immediately obvious to many reading this that after having shared these two options one would have the student demonstrate counters to them. I mean, that is what we do each time we teach, right?, we take them from this action to the next, sometimes building complexity, or changes of tempo, or working distance and the student eventually makes the touch. [1] Even with Covid I teach three times a week and never make this mistake. Well… I took the instructions rather literally.

Why? I’m not sure, but I’ve had a few days to think about it and I think I’ve figured it out. First, in the past when a maestro has given me an instruction I have carried it out, and, normally without question. If they said “okay, now do x, but in this tempo…” I did it; if they said “Help Sarah with transports,” I did it. In silent lessons they wouldn’t say anything and I had to figure it out from physical cues, precedent, or deduction based on principles. This may sound rather military in obedience or thoughtless, but it isn’t really. Two of the masters I worked with were retired military officers, and having grown up in that culture it’s comfortable if not natural to me, but one reason I didn’t join the military was because I actually don’t take orders well. [2] It’s also part of traditional fencing culture–there is a time and place to ask the maestro about something, but normally one doesn’t when the sala is full, the maestro busy, and there is work to do. If the master pauses a lesson and calls to us, we answer, especially when they are asking for us to help.

The other issue, the critical one, was over-thinking. On the one hand, I tend to feel like I wear a scarlet “H” on my jacket when I’m around many Olympic fencers. If you’ve read any of the previous posts here that will make sense, but if you haven’t in summary leaving the competitive world for the historical doesn’t earn one a joyous send-off at the pub, but the finger and all too often a loss of respect. The three other people I know in the class, all with experience in a variety of branches of fencing, also have more formal training in teaching fencing. [3] When we feel like the odd one out our brains can go crazy places–in this case, I focused too much on what the assignment said and not what we were supposed to get out of it. I was more worried about what the instructor would think of me, that I might earn a larger letter “H,” than just demonstrating via that homework what I’d do in that instance. That rabbit hole leads to crazy town and interior monologues such as “Maybe it’s a test of sorts to see what we know or how we think? If so, then it’s okay to focus on that alone… or is it…” repeat. It’s a horrible place to be. The solution was simple, but I was too worried to think of it: it’s a class on teaching, so, if I gave a student A and B, what might they do with them?

More wisdom from “Blackadder II” BBC

Coming up with two options as the student recovered was not the problem, but in worrying more about getting it right I neglected the most important aspect–why do it at all, so what, why does this matter? The most important question was to consider why the maestro assigned this, what it was meant to impart. Even in the midst of feeling bad about it that irony wasn’t lost on me.

Part of the assignment was to take video of these actions. My eldest son, a wiz at all this technology stuff, helped me, as did my spouse, and I put together option one and option two. This is where another layer popped up–trusting our gut. It felt like a really weird place to stop: if it’s just me showing the option, then the student is hit, and well, that’s not really what we do. We set things up for the student to make the touch properly. I was afraid to trust myself, reassured myself that this is what he asked for, and submitted it. But, the rest of the afternoon I just kept thinking about it. It bothered me.

Later, in chatting with a friend in the class, he showed me what he and his student had done. It was all there. He shared his two options, and significantly, what his student might do to counter them. I knew it! Panic set in. Every scenario blitzed through my head, and in each one I was hounded out of class, the look of polite disgust of my fellow students blatant in their zoom boxes, the maestro shaking his head slowly, the mean jailor from “Games of Thrones” pointing at me and saying slowly “shame…. shame….”

What could I do? Maybe nothing this time, but I needed to do something to change my mindset. I asked my son if he’d be willing to add an additional move; he was; so, we made another short video and I explained in it that I’d left out the most important part, where the student defeats those two options. The maestro saw it, and in discussion about it was kind, generous, and full of helpful feedback.

Teacher, Teach Thyself and Be Taught

I’d broken my own rule, the one by which I do most everything now, which was to leave ego out of it. I was so worried that I’d put it a poor showing, that I would mess up, that I would look stupid, etc., that I fulfilled the fear or at least felt that I did. Anyone who has weathered disappointment or failure ideally is better able to handle them the next time, and while it took a while to shake off the feeling of embarrassment, of letting myself down, and all the rest, when I could finally see it objectively I was glad it had happened. Having screwed up, what could I learn from it?

Too much concern over how we’ll be received or viewed, of what others will think, not only can taint an experience, but also prevent an experience from happening. Fear of censure or failure, worry about making a mistake or looking stupid, all of that can prevent us from doing the things we need to do, things we like to do, things we should do. Not the karmic burden I would have picked, but it’s hardly unique to me. Many if not all of us suffer this at one time or another.

We need to give ourselves, and sometimes be reminded…, that it’s okay to be new to something, to mess up, to be vulnerable. If we stumble, we get back up; if we fall again, we get back up. Ever forward.

If there is one thing more I learned it’s that being in this class, learning new things, and well… re-learning some of these same lessons again…, is precisely where I’m probably supposed to be. I’ve already learned a lot, and I’ll learn more, and really, that’s the point.

NOTES:

[1] The exception to allowing the touch is when a student performs the action incorrectly; in this case the attack may fail or we ensure that it does, and then examine why. All of that is geared toward helping them perform the correct action the right way and gain the touch.

[2] It’s a long story and not particularly interesting, but I had all but completed the initial ROTC courses at my first college and the commander met with me to figure out the next step. When I told him my major, he paused then said “Huh… well… um… let’s put down ‘undecided’ for now” and I realized then and there I was going to be a poor fit.

[3] These are three people I respect a great deal and whose friendship I value. The master in California is equally at home in Olympic, HEMA, and the SCA, and a super cool chap on top of it all; the local instructor, an old friend I’ve fenced with off and on for over a decade, and I were going to start on our certs together, but things happen and he started last year; and last, a good friend of mine and fellow devotee of Italian fencing is the one who told me about this class–he has taken a variety of courses, at Sonoma, in the USFCA, and in Europe.

They Call it “Macaroni”

The Much-Maligned Smallsword and Foil and why it Matters

from Brown University Digital Repository [https://repository.library.brown.edu/studio/item/bdr:244908/]

One of my favorite weapons to fence and teach is smallsword. I started fencing foil—a descendant of smallsword—in the 1980s, and though obviously adapted for safer training and the sport of fencing the fundamental elements of foil impart more than most people in “HEMA” believe. Moreover, my initial training was French, and the smallsword being perhaps the early modern French weapon par excellence there is something familiar and nostalgic (if that is the right word) about it. One benefit of subsequent training in a related, but distinct tradition (in my case Italian with Hungarian elements) is that one gains another view of that previous study, just as studying another language can illuminate one’s native grammar. While modern foil and smallsword are different, it is context more than anything else which separates them. The rebated weapons of two centuries ago, while similar to the tool of today, were used to mimic actual combat safely, not used purely as a game, and in this one key difference everything rests. Because so few people within historical fencing understand or accept this, however, one of the most deadly, sophisticated swords ever devised, and its descendant, is often the object of amusement and mockery. Sad as that is, what is worse is that in discounting smallsword and foil they lose the single greatest method by which to explore the extinct sword arts that do interest them.

Wigs, Lace, and Lorgnettes

“The Macaroni: A Real Character at the Late Masquerade,” (1773), Philip Dawe

The derision that smallsword suffers in “HEMA” reflects several failures within the community. Arguably it reveals a latent and wide-spread species of bigotry. The abuse aimed at this “dainty” or “tiny” or [insert equally facile insult here] weapon highlights the thinly veiled prejudice in HEMA’s macho culture, far too much of which poisons the community and retards its progress. Aside from compensatory attention devoted to big weapons, go hard or go home, and “I gots brusies bruh!” there is the bigoted notion where sophisticated = weak/effeminate/gay, the idiocy and ignorance of which speaks volumes. Second, dismissal of smallsword, just as with its descendants, indicates a complete failure to grasp the depth and importance of the primary means by which one learns the universals of fencing. This is not merely my opinion, but demonstrable on a number of levels, from the wide array of works on fencing published over the past five hundred years to the gulf in quality one sees in the historical community, not only in terms of performance, but also in terms of translation and teaching.

While fascinating, the parallels between modern disdain for smallsword and 18th century censure of the young people of fashion called “Macaroni” and “Macaronesses” goes beyond the confines of this piece. There are better places to go for the exploration of prejudice in the 18th century as well as the on-going discussion of the battle for equality and civil rights today. My stance on all that, for what it matters, should be obvious from previous posts, but I cannot speak to either issue as appropriately as I can to the second failure, that is, the mistake that most of HEMA makes with regard to anything they define—however poorly or inaccurately—as “sporty” versus what they deem “martial.” [1]

I dtir na Ndall [“In the Land of the Blind…”] [2]

As the old saying goes, in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king, and if any one maxim summarizes HEMA it’s this one. Examining the usual allegations against smallsword and foil one sees how poorly they are glimpsed without full vision. First, the chief bias appears to be that smallsword (a weapon), because it is related to foil (a training device), is less a weapon than say broadsword. If foil is for sport, then anything like it must be too. Second, for those who see it as a weapon its size, complex method of use, and “late” appearance make it suspect. The logic here, such as it is, suggests that the older a system is, the more legitimate it is; that lighter weapons must be less “martial;” and that anything related to the duel—save rapier—are again less serious than the “heavier” and more manly longsword, axe, etc. The ridiculousness of each of these assertions is underserving of attention, so to be brief:

  • a foil is a practice weapon, be it the modern foil, a feder, or wooden wasters—that Messer you use? Yep, it’s a foil. Ditto your Albion, Regenyi, or Ensifer
  • puncture wounds, made by triangular bayonets or the often triangular smallsword blades, leave really nasty injuries; before the innovations of 20th cen. medicine there was little one could do to repair these wounds or deal with the infections that often resulted (cf. sepsis)
  • fighting in judicial combats with a pole-axe, sword, or anything else was just as formal and bound by convention as late period duels were by the restriction of ground and etiquette

These are all well-established by histories old and new. In truth the bias really has nothing to do with history at all, but with a strong desire to differentiate oneself from “sport.” Anything that is remotely connected to sport, then, is suspect in the eyes of HEMA-Bro. Late 19th century sabres of 650-800g? Too close to the modern sport sabres. Smallsword? Too much like modern foil. That’s it. That’s really all it comes down to, and such short-sightedness cripples not only their research, if they do any, but their own practice and pursuit of the Art.

Why Later Period Systems and Modern Fencing Matter

Misplaced bias against both later period historical systems and modern fencing means, in most cases, that these fencers lack a firm foundation in fencing universals and pedagogy. This lack is what tends to undermine their study most. For example, because they have no idea what actual fencing fundamentals are, they mistake aberrations for norms. When they see the problems that are easy to spot, such as the whip-like strikes from electric foils behind competitors’ heads or the floor-dragging sabre slap to a guard, they assume that what they see is the system. Wrong. Even now, decades into the worst offenses in foil, students are normally taught that extending the weapon proceeds movement of the foot and the body. This is universal and is reflected in literally centuries of treatises and hundreds of modern schools. Thus, when viewing anything in the Olympics, the World Cup, or the local NAC, one must differentiate between how a fencer performs that extension as well as how a director views and calls that same action, and examine it against what is taught. They’re often different. Competition, like it or not, comes down to successful exploitation of a rule-set. One doesn’t have to be the Chevalier de Saint-Georges or the Chevalier d’Éon to win; determination and skillful use of attributes win more fights than most fencers wish to admit.

“A macaroni dressing room,” (26 June 1772) by I.W.

Not only do they fail to distinguish between what is taught and how it is used, but HEMAland also rejects traditional and sport pedagogy. They lose far more than they gain from this. Open most any decent work on fencing published in our own time and one will see first, that most do not include the ridiculous point-eating techniques, and those that do often with qualification—that is an admission, by the way, that the authors recognize that the technique is not part of the received tradition. [3] A fencing treatise is more than a collection of “moves;” it is an organized program that orders techniques, drill, and lessons in a meaningful way. It also instructs one in a vocabulary shaped by centuries of development, one benefit of which is that it provides a more effective means to discuss one’s study. Most of all, a year of foil—and this is reflected in the better modern works—imparts fundamentals that transcend foil. Knowing, for example, how the chief universals—time, measure, judgment/method—operate, and how one manipulates and achieves those universals effectively through movement, is crucial in examining any other system of martial arts, but especially those from which the modern version derives. [4] That may not seem important, but for the historical fencer it ought to be, because it is far easier to understand the unknown through the known than to come at the former with nothing or some half-conceived theory of one’s own.

In my last post (Sept. 20, 2020) I mentioned the infamous example of the misreading of Capoferro where the untutored surmised outlandish theories about his lunge. Had they had proper training in the modern lunge, done a bit more digging in the sources between now and Capoferro’s time, then the great mystery of Capoferro’s lunge would not be a mystery to them. Armed with even a nodding acquaintance with modern theory and practice would’ve helped those fencers avoid a grave mistake. Put bluntly, throwing out all that modern fencing has to teach, a system built—again literally—on centuries of work, is stupid and self-defeating. Modern fencing no more exists in a vacuum than did early modern or medieval fencing.

The Problem

For the same reason they poo poo later period weapons and modern fencing, HEMA-Bruhs refuse to listen to those who’ve studied them. Only people with the benefit of that training, or who take the trouble to learn about it, can see how all of this is actually a problem and not just sour-grapes or envy. The HEMA equivalent of anti-vaxers are convinced they have it right, refuse even to entertain that there might be something to learn from late period systems (though they’re ready enough to apply Japanese cutting mechanics and poorly understood kinesiology…), and so dismiss it out of hand. This is not a problem limited to the States either, though it’s perhaps particularly entrenched in American HEMA. We see it in the posers who ape the scholars they denigrate, in the sad attacks on established researchers by people who either deliberately misrepresent their position or are too stupid to understand it, in the idea that a few seminars make one an instructor, and in the odd notion that a 12 page pamphlet contains the same depth and sophistication as the works of Rosaroll & Gristetti or Prevost.

If those with respectable experience in Olympic and traditional fencing are ignored, then the only way to realize the value of later period arts or modern fencing is for the SPES-clad fencer to take that painful step and look at it more closely. Few do, and the results to an informed perspective are disappointing—half-baked theories, ill-conceived approaches, flawed interpretations, and a near complete lack of awareness of the importance of drilling fundamentals. [5] Our interpretations of past combat systems are only as good as the effective use of our research tools—studying extinct sword arts without some knowledge of fencing is akin to entering a bout without a weapon. Together, these flaws mean that much of HEMA is getting it wrong, and for a community supposedly interested in producing as accurate an interpretation of these extinct arts as possible, that makes little sense.

NOTES:

[1] I’m male, middle-aged, white, and hetero, and thus should not and will not speak to the experience of women or LGBT people. Friends and family who fall into either category, however, have shared a LOT with me about their own experience with bigotry so concluding that it juuuuust might bother them doesn’t seem too crazy to me. Just saying.

For related 18th cen. views, interested parties may wish to read some of the literature about notions of “masculine,” “feminine,” and the connections to contemporary ideas about sexuality in the Baroque and Georgian eras:

[2] For the person interested in the full Irish version: I dtir na ndall is rí fear na leathshúile.

[3] Compare for example Maxwell R. Garret, et al., Foil, Sabre, and Épée Fencing: Skills, Safety, Operations, and Responsibilities, University Park, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994, p. 134 on the “Flick (Cutover)” and Henry de Silva, Fencing: The Skills of the Game, Ramsbury, UK: The Crowood Press, 1997, p. 23, “The Cut-over or French Coupé.” Maxwell presents the flick as a cut-over, a reflection of how it was treated in competition in the mid-90s, where de Silva, writing a few years later, treats only the cut-over sans “flick.” It’s a subtle distinction, but for those of us competing at the time that remember the controversy over the flick and ROW, this reads a certain way.

[4] The universals always include tempo and measure, but the third term varies. Marcelli in The Rule of Fencing (1686) supplies “method” to the first two terms; Terracusa e Ventura, True Neapolitan Fencing (1725), speaks of velocity, tempo, and measure; de Bazancourt in Secrets of the Sword (1862) refers to judgment, control, and speed; Castello in The Theory and Practice of Fencing (1933) prefers distance, timing, calculation. To understand how these relate, why different masters chose different terms, requires reading them, not only for why they say what they do, but for how these terms relate to one another. Without a handle on the universals one’s ability to make sense of most works on fencing is hobbled—Girard (though see Traite des armes, Part III, “Advice for Good Composure when Fencing,” XI), Angelo, and many others assume the reader understands these or explains them within particular sections, so while not spelled out these concepts underlie all that they discuss.

[5] An informed perspective includes but is not limited to professionally trained fencing instructors, experienced fencers, or credible researchers. These is wiggle-room within these terms and I mean for there to be. There are veteran fencers, for example, who know more than many masters and teach as well or better; amateur researchers (vs. university trained researchers) who help us push the boundaries of what we know responsibly; and there are masters and professional scholars who raise the bar higher for our study of historical fencing. However, there are a lot of people who are teaching and shouldn’t be; there are a lot of people playing scholar who haven’t the least idea how to conduct research; and there are professional academics and maestri who don’t play well with others.

It is telling to me, for example, that while details may be in dispute among the maestri, scholars, and veteran fencers I know, none subscribe to the ridiculous theories that plague historical fencing, such as the silly theory of the lunge where the toe/balls of the feet land first. They are, generally, more open to new interpretations when those interpretations are better; less ready to make firm conclusions, especially for the medieval works; and understand the differences in the types of texts, how illustrations can work, and that the less a source contains, the more careful we must be. Most of all, they possess more sophisticated reading skills and realize that what they read or say must be analyzed, not just taken at face value. As a close friend has remarked, the “plates and plays” approach to HEMA is flawed; it fails to take into account all that is not right there in the image.