Trust but Verify—the Perils of Translation

This week’s smallsword class presented a piquant reminder of the caution required in using translations, even good translations. In this instance the translator and author were the same person, Domenico Angelo. One can usually assume that anyone wearing both hats has a firm idea of what they want to express—how well, consistently, or accurately they convey that in another tongue, however, is another matter. We can be too close to a topic, it can be too familiar, and since it makes sense in our heads we may unwittingly proceed as if all we have to do is put pen to paper (or hands to keys). This is just as true for the reader nowadays (as my own example, alas, will show below).

I often harp on the importance of reading the text and not just relying on images in our interpretations, and without meaning to sing the same old tired song, the topic here concerns one nuance of this theme. As my own example will show, what we’ve read can bias us in viewing images too, and so, as ever, we need to be cautious and read closely even if we “think” we know what a passage or illustration means.

Half Circle, Circle, Circular…
Angelo uses the terms “half circle” and “circle” in several ways and there is some potential confusion possible in his English version. I don’t know and thus am hesitant to suggest what Angelo was thinking as he wrestled with the French and English in producing the respective copies of his The School of Fencing, but as someone who mines his work today if I had to guess, I’d imagine that it was oversight on part of the author/translator, or, a printer’s error.

On the face of it, some of these issues with language are self-explanatory, but syntax, punctuation, and translation can complicate some of these terms, and deserve a closer read. Call it due diligence. We lose nothing in checking our reading, and in some cases, as I discovered comparing Girard and Angelo, we not only might correct errors we’ve made in interpretation, but also gain new insights into the sources.

As I discovered recently, study of Girard and some similarities in terms skewed my reading of Angelo. I fix these things as I find them (or as they are pointed out to me), but this is a good example because I do my best to do things as accurately as I can and still screw up sometimes. It can happen to any of us.

In what follows, I’ll present the French from the 1763 edition and the English from the 1787 as these are the two copies I have on hand. The story of the evolution of L’Ecole des Armes/The School of Fencing has been well-covered by others, so those interested in the editorial history of the text should refer to the works in the notes, at least as a place to start. [1] While variations in edition are important, I’m working with the versions to which I have access and focusing on a single, practical concern: navigating some issues of translation in making use of the work.

Examples: Demi-cercle
Angelo first covers this parry for plate 19, or, page 97 in the pdf provided by the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s Gallica. [2] He writes:

De la Parade du Demi-cercle sur le Coup de Quarte basse
Voïez la Dixneuvieme Planche

La parade du demi-cercle doit être formée au dedans des armes par un coup ferme sur le foible de la lame de l’advesaire, avec le trenchant du dedans & du fort de l’epée. Il faut tourner les ongles en dessus, tender bien le bras, tenir le poignet a la hauteur du menton, & la pointe de l’epée basse & soutenuë du fort au foible.

The English reads thus:

Of the Half Circle Parade, or the Parry Against the Inside Thrust under the Wrist, called the Low Carte
Plate XIX

This parry of the half circle should be made within the sword, by a smart beat on the feeble of the adversary’s blade with your inside edge; your nails must be upward, your arm strait, your wrist raised to the height of your chin, and the point low, but well opposed from fort to feeble. [3]

The accompanying plate accords well with the explanation provided here. Much like the modern parry of 7th in French foil, the fencer on the right has the hand in fourth/supinated, the arm is straight, and opposes the adversary’s thrust with the inside edge (one can just make out the knuckle-bow). This parry is made higher than modern 7th, but covers more or less the same line only more conservatively since the arm is extended to parry farther from oneself. [4]

De la parade du demi-cercle sur le coup de quarte basse

The second mention of the term “demi-cercle” is used not to describe this parry, but the arc of the yielding parry made against a flanconade. The second paragraph of the section relating to the 20th plate reads

Le liement d’epée se fait aussi dans le tems qu’il tire le coup de flanconnade. Il faut ceder la pointe sans quitter sa lame, en forte que la pointe forme un demi-cercle en passant par dessous son poignet; & lorsque la parade sera formée, les deux poignets & lames se trouveront dans la position de quarte, comme on êtoit avant que le coup fut tiré, avec cette difference, que le poignet se trouvera plus bas que dans la garde ordinaire.

The English:

The second parade mentioned, called the binding of the blade, is made at the time the adversary attempts to thrust his flaconade. In order to [do] this, you must yield your point, and suffer your feeble to be taken, so as to let your point pas under his wrist, without quitting his blade in the least, that your sword may form a demi-circle; and, gathering his blade in carte, you will find that the two swords, and wrists, are in the same position as when the attack began, with only this difference, that the wrists will be a little lower than in the ordinary guard. [5]

In this instance, Angelo clearly means this descriptively, and so while the same term the context helps prevent confusion.

With the text for Plate 24, however, there is a potential problem. The French reads:

De la Risposte en Tierce sur le Coup de Tierce
Voïez la Vingt-quatriéme Planche

Dans le tems qu’on pare la tierece, en tendant le bras & baissant la pointe de l’épée au corps de l’adversaire, il faut lui risposter le coup de tierce le main tournée en tierce & le poignet cavé, faire en forte que la main parte le premiere en soutenant son épée dépuis le fort jusqu’à la pointe, puis se remettre en garde en prime, ou en demi-cercle. On peut aussi risposter en seconde et se remettre en garde en seconde, en tierce, ou en demi-cercle.

De la risposte en tierce de pied ferme sur le coup de tierce.

And the English:

Of the Return in Tierce, after the Tierce Thrust
Plate XXIV

At the time that you parry the tierce with a strait arm, and your point a little lowered to the adversary’s body, you must return the same thrust, only your wrist a little inclined to the outside. Take great care that the hand moves first, and oppose his blade well, from feeble to fort; to recover your guard in prime, or demi-circle parade.

You may also, after your tierce parry, return the thrust in seconde, and recover in seconde, demi-circle, or in tierce. [6]

Significantly, the punctuation is the same in the relevant section; both read “puis se remettre en garde en prime, ou en demi-cercle/to recover your guard in prime, or demi-circle parade.” Early on I had mistaken these clauses as appositive, but closer reading and practice have illustrated that this was an error. Angelo is referring to two, distinct parries.

Part of what threw me was Girard—I have spent more time with that text, and his “circular parry,” parries rather, are redolent of Angelo’s half circle parry, and, prime visually. Plate 19 in Girard looks like Angelo’s “half circle” but there is called “circle.” Plate 19 illustrates a circular parry with the hand in fourth or “nails upward; Girard has ensured that the off-hand check is depicted as well.

Plates 21 and 22 in Girard might be taken as if they represent one parry from different angles, but these are two, different parries. The images may appear similar, but each parry is made a little differently. Prime, generally, is made from tierce sweeping left (assuming a right-hander); circle, on the other hand, is achieved via a clockwise circle to gather up the incoming steel.

The parry in plate 22 could be the same “nails down” parry as 21, just seen from the other side and with the addition of the off-hand check, but 22 is Girard’s “prime,” 21 another version of “circle.” They’re not the same.

Parade of Circle with nails on top

Girard writes:

Parade du Cercle,

La main tournée de quarte, les ongles en dessus, le poignet haut & la pointe basse. Avec cette parade on pare la quarte haute, la quarte coupée, la seconde, & la flanconnade.

Pour parer lesdits coups, je fais lever le poignet à la hauteur de la bouche & tourné de quarte les ongles en dessus, le bras droit tendu, la pointe de l’Epée basse parant du cercle, en frapant d’un coup ferme sur le foible de sa lame avec le fort du trenchant pour jetter le coup au dehors des Armes, en opposant la main gauche à son Epée, crainte qu’elle ne vous offense: Et le coup paré, lorsqu’il a le pied levé pour se retirer en Garde, lui riposte de quarte droite dans les Armes; ayant toûjours la main gauche opposée à sa lame, & sans la quitter redouble la main bien soutenuë, puis se retirer dans la Garde ordinaire.

Voyez pour l’opposition de la main gauche, page 39.

Voïez la Figure de la parade du cercle les ongles en dessus [35]

Philip Crawley’s translation for this passage makes the action clear. He renders it thus:

Circular Parry

The hand turned to quarte, nails upward, wrist high & the point low. With this parade one parries high quarte, quarte coupe, seconde & the flanconnade.

To parry the above said attacks, I raise my wrist to mouth height & turned to quarte, the nails above, the right arm outstretched, the sword point low parrying in a circle, firmly hitting the weak of the sword with the strong edge of the blade to push out the attack, opposing with the left hand on the sword, for fear that they will hit me: And having parried the attack, when he raises his foot to return to guard, riposte him with a straight quarte inside the sword; always opposing his blade with your left hand &, without quitting, redouble using a well-supported hand, then return to the ordinary guard.

See the opposition of the left hand [, page 39]

See the figure on the circular parry the nails upward
[7]

The image in plate 21, as I read it, captures the moment that the defender (on the left) has described the circle and met the incoming steel. Note that his hand is in tierce/nails down–a key difference from plate 19. If one took the image without the text, always a danger in historical fencing, this might be taken for seconde.

Parade of Circle with nails underneath
Parade of prime, with opposition of the left hand

Read sans the filter of Girard, with whom I’m more familiar, Angelo’s passage in either language is much clearer: one can recover into guard and use a number of sweeping parries as one does so to ensure safety.

Example: Cercle or Half Circle?!
Lastly, there is section entitled “De la Parade du Cercle” [134] in the French text, and, what Angelo renders “Of the Half Circle Parry” [42]. It may be an error on either Angelo’s or his typesetter’s part, but regardless the English wording is, on the face of it, confusing. The description, however, makes it clear that this parry is not the same as the half circle parry covered earlier on page 29.

The French reads:

De la Parade du Cercle

Cette parade, qui est la principale des armes, pare non seulement tous les coups, mais aussi dérange toutes les feintes qu’un adversaire peut faire. Pour bien éxécuter cette parade, il faut bien tender le bras, tenir le poignet sur la ligne de l’epaule les ongles tournés in dessus, & par un movement ferré & vif du poignet la pointe de l’épée doit former de la droite a la gauche un cercle assez grand pour être a couvert depuis le tête jusqu’au genou. De cette maniere, en doublant le cercle jusqu’a ce qu’on ait arresté la lame de son adversaire, la parade sera formée.

Pour arrester cette parade du cercle, quand même il la doubleroit avec la plus grande vivacité, il faut arrester tout court sa lame en soutenant le poignet à la hauteur de l’épaule & tenant la pointe basse, comme dans la parade de quinte, & revenir promptement â l’épée en quarte.

Il faut s’exercer, autant qu’on peut, le poignet aux parades du cercle, au contre-dégagement, & du contre-dégagement au cercle. On peut prendre cette leçon tout seul, soit avec un fleuret, soit avec une épée. Cette exercise fortisie le poignet, le rend souple & le délie, & procure insensiblement le plus grande aisance & adresse pour se défendre dans le besoin.

The English:

Of the Half Circle Parade

This parade, which is the chief defensive parade of the sword, parries not only all the thrusts, but also obstructs all the feints that can be made; and, to execute it well, you should straiten your arm, keep your wrist in a line with your shoulder, your nails upward, and, by a close and quick motion of the wrist, the point should form a circle from the right to the left, large enough to be under cover from the head to the knee; in this manner, by doubling your circle till you have found the adversary’s blade, your parade will be formed.

And now, in order to stop this circle parade, notwithstanding its being redoubled with great vivacity, you may stop his blade short, by keeping your wrist the height of your shoulder, and lowering your point, as in the quinte parry; and, recovering, bind and gather his blade in carte.

You should exercise and practice these circle parades, from the counter disengages to the circle, and from the circle to the counter disengage. You may practice this lesson yourself, either with sword or foil: this will strengthen and supple your wrist, and will insensibly procure great ease and readiness to defend yourself upon all occasions. [8]

Of note, both Girard and Angelo’s parries of circle include a circular motion, something difficult to capture in the plates. We catch the action upon completion, at its start, or somewhere in between. Angelo’s “half circle,” on the other hand, does not include a circular motion, and thus, here, as ever, reliance on the plates alone will confuse one unless one is careful.

The Take-Away

This short examination of one term, whatever the reason for the discrepancy, hopefully serves as an example for why caution, even in a well-translated work, is sound. If, like me, you read a lot of different, contemporary sources, then this caution is all the more critical. It’s a truism of fencing old and less ancient that different authors, different masters will sometimes use the same terms to mean different things. Due appreciation for these nuances only aides us in our interpretations.

NOTES:

[1] See especially Ashley L. Cohen, “Fencing and the Market in Aristocratic Masculinity,” in Sporting Cultures, 1650-1850, Daniel O’Quinn and Alexis Tadie, eds., Toronto, CN: University of Toronto Press, 2018, 66-90, especially 69-72. See also Zbigniew Czajkowski, “Domenico Angelo—A Great Fencing Master of the 18th Century and Champion of the Sport of Fencing,” in Studies in Physical Culture and Tourism 17: 4 (2010): 323-334, esp. 327-328 for the circle parry and other content of the work; 329 for a quick look at publication; Jeannette Acosta-Martinez, “Domenico Angelo in History,” in The Fight Master 28:2 (Fall/Winter 2005): 12-15, esp. 13-14.

[2] The French edition I’m using is: Mr. Angelo, L’Ecole des armes, London, GB: Chez r. & J. Dodsley, 1763, found at the wonderful site provided by the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s Gallica site, cf. https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k15198162?rk=21459;2

[3] This is page 29 in this edition, The School of Fencing, London: 1787. I have a facsimile, in print, from Land’s End Press, New York, 1971, but also use the pdf available at The Smallsword Project, found here https://smallswordproject.com/historic-texts/  

[4] Zbigniew Czajkowski, “Domenico Angelo—A Great Fencing Master of the 18th Century,” 328, suggests the modern septime/7th was a result of “’diminishing’ quinte and circular parries,” but I’m less convinced that this is so. Angelo’s “half circle” is, extended arm notwithstanding, clearly meant to do the same job, and, in the same plane. The difference, as I read it, is that Angelo’s fencer may have had to do this to preserve their life, not just their placement in the pools. The extended arm parry, the rear-weighted stance, and attention to measure all imply a conservative game, one meant to maintain the uneasy compromise between one’s safety and still being able to reach target. In similar vein, though not called “sixth,” smallsword’s “carte over the arm” is the clear antecedent to the chief guard in the modern French school. We have ample evidence from our texts not only of thrusts made carte-over-the-arm, but of fencers adopting a guard that is more or less sixth, that is, arm on the tierce side, but supinated/hand in fourth.

[5] French, 101 in the pdf; English, 29-31.

[6] French, 117; English, 38 .

[7] See P.J.F. Girard, Traité des Armes, La Haye: Chez Pierre de Hondt, 1740; the French text is, again, from the pdf made available by the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s Gallica site, page 35 in the text/page 62 of the pdf, cf. https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b8626151m?rk=21459;2

The English I borrowed from the translation of the smallsword portion of Girard, Philip T. Crawley, The Art of the Smallsword: Featuring P.J.F. Girard’s Treatise of Arms, Wyvern Media, UK, 2014, p.77.

[8] French, 134; English, 42-43.

Who’s on First? Francesco Marcelli’s Guard of _Prima_

Agrippa, “Prima,” 1553

A comparative look at Italian rapier texts will reveal how Francesco Marcelli’s prima differs from the guard of first advocated by most other masters. First is an iconic guard/parry, and dramatic in most depictions. We see it, amongst many works, in:

  • Camillo Agrippa, ca. 1553 (born Milan, active in Rome)
  • Fabris, 1606 (Padua, Denmark)
  • Giganti, 1606 (born Fossombrone, central Italy, active in Venice)
  • Capo Ferro, 1610 (born Cagli, central Italy; active in Seina, Tuscanny)
  • Alfieri 1640, (Padua, under Venetian power)
  • Pallavicini (1670, Sicily)
Alfieri, “Prima,” 1640 (figure 2)

I asked Christopher Holzman, who translated Marcelli into English, why Marcelli’s prima is effected so differently, and he suggested that the master’s choice of “prima” as the term for his preferred guard likely reflects its importance. That’s certainly plausible. It stands out against the choice of other Neapolitan masters, especially Pallavicini. This master, who was not one to miss a chance to take shot at his rivals, complains about modern masters breaking tradition. Though he appears to have respected the elder Marcelli, he didn’t think much of some of his later students. He seems especially to have had it in for Francisco Antonio Mattei (author of Della Scherma Napoletana, 1669). Mattei, like Giuseppe Villardita (1670), was a student of Mattei’s older brother, Giovanni, who was taught by the elder Marcelli, Giovanni Battista. [1] Set side by side, the works by both Mattei and Villardita pale in comparison to those by Pallavicini and Marcelli—they’re not particularly eloquent, well-organized, or as comprehensive. It’s possible that Francesco Marcelli’s guard of first he learned from his father, but at the time of this post I’ve not yet discovered whether that is so or not.

Parry of Prime

Setting aside the questions of origin and development, for the instructor teaching Neapolitan rapier there are some considerations to manage prior to the lesson. Prima, as Marcelli presents it, reads and functions much differently than the prima/prime of more recent schools. Anyone trained in foil in the late 20th century, for example, likely learned either the French or Italian parries for first. The French school’s parry, in the United States, is probably better known, but the Italian is as venerable. Neither of these assists one in understanding, using, or teaching Marcelli’s version. [2] If the instructor is familiar with smallsword treatises, then they may know the two key versions found within that corpus, the earlier false-edge parry of prime and the later, true-edge parry that gave birth to the guard of the same name of the modern French school. [3]

Compared to any of these iterations the low, almost-flat third or oddball second of Marcelli’s prima seems strange. Preconceptions about what first is must thus be abandoned and The Rules of Fencing’s advice taken instead. The hand and blade are held lower than third, and too low for more recent versions of second. Marcelli provides us an illustration, but as always one must consider any image against what the author says. Of prima Marcelli writes:

Marcelli, _Rule of Fencing_, Bk 2, Ch. 2, p. 64

La Prima Guardia, la dimostra il Cavalier I. nella presente figura; & ella si fà, quando (situato sù la pianta accennata,) si porta avanti il braccio della Spada, tenendo la mano di mezza quarta; e la punta di essa, fermata in angolo retto, starà equalmente alta del pugno, che la sostiene; e tenendola così bassa, si porta sempre per sotto la lama del nemico.

In the present illustration, Cavaliere 1 shows the First Guard; it is made when (situated in the indicated stance) the sword arm is brought forward, keeping the hand in half-fourth, and the point is in the right angle, equally as high as the hand that holds it. Keeping it so low, it is always carried below the opponent’s blade. [4]

Charles Blair remarked that “Marcelli [Giovanni Battista] was known for a lightning-fast lunge: before one realized what was happening, one was hit; therefore, one could not craft a defence.” [5] Hyperbole aside, though seemingly open this guard is effective and difficult to confront, and it’s possible to launch a quick attack from it. This should not, to any student of modern epee, be all that surprising. This is essentially the guard often used in that weapon.

While knowledge of modern epee might help, rapier is different enough in weight, length, and context to change a few things. This is not to say that one can’t use modern epee technique in rapier—the SCA’s “Black Tigers” do a bang-up job of using modern fencing in this way, complete with an assumed ROW if the lack of concern about being hit is any guide. However, if one is working from the textual evidence in rapier works, it makes sense to note the parallels with today’s epee and then set them aside.

Warm-Up Drills from Prima
I often start rapier lessons with stop-thrust/arrest drills. It’s a nice way to loosen up the arm, work some point-control, and practice closing the line simultaneously. Typically, I have the student in prima (or whichever guard we’re working on) and make the arrest to my arm as I make purposefully poor attacks. [6] I start these from various guards and attack in different lines. We start slow, but the purpose is to increase the pace so that we end up in situations the student might face in a bout at speed. They will encounter fencers who attack poorly as well as those who attack properly, and must be prepared for both.

A second warm-up drill is simple parry-riposte. In this case, however, I leave out the purposeful mistakes and increase the difficulty as we proceed. For example, student is in prima; I’m in terza or third. First, I may make a direct thrust to the inside line; the student, from prima, parries in quarta or fourth and ripostes with opposition. Depending on the student, this takes two forms; with my advanced students, for example, they work this as both a one-tempo action and as a two-tempi action, meaning that in the first instance the parry and riposte are simultaneous, in the second the parry and riposte are distinct, sequential actions.

Lessons with Prima

Marcelli, like many masters of his time, breaks some maneuvers into those made with a firm-foot and those made advancing. I use this distinction as well to organize the lesson. For example, firm-footed, I may have the student work on gaining the blade from a specific starting position. Marcelli, in Ch. VII of Part One, Book II, cautions us wisely on the dangers of seeking to gain the blade—if done poorly the opponent will see it and disengage to strike in tempo. Working this action from different distances helps a student learn to make taking the blade effectively and with less danger to themselves as they do so—were we only to practice this in measure the student would have less success outside that specific distance (which is, after all, somewhat relative to the opponent).

From prima, which is below the opponent’s blade, engagements or gaining the blade take, initially at least, specific forms. It is a fantastic guard to adopt against an opponent interested in gaining the blade too—the arm is withdrawn so the point is less easy to defy and secure. Offensively, however, it is fantastic. I usually have the student keep the blade still part of the time, then shift it from guard, constantly shifting aim both to increase the difficulty it taking their blade and to keep the opponent (in this case me) guessing. It is not difficult to effect engagements, beats, or feints from prima. As Marcelli commented, one is well situated:

La Prima Guardia è più secura dell’altre due; e si rende padrona della propria spada più di quello, che sà la Seconda, e la Terza. Poiche in essa, tenendosi il braccio dritto dolce, e curuato, si mantinene anco ritirata la punta, che non stia molto soggetta alla discrettione del nemico. E da questa situatione ancora nascono molto veloci le stoccate, per lo spirito, che naturalemente si prende da quella incuruatura del braccio, il quale, à guise d’un arco, scocca con violenza nel partire.

The First Guard is more secure than the other two, and makes him master of the his sword more than that which the Second and Third do. Since in it, keeping the right arm soft and bent, it also keeps the point withdrawn so that it would not be very subjected to the opponent’s discretion. The thrusts also occur very quickly from this situation, due to the spirit that is naturally taken from the curvature of the arm, which like a bow, lets fly with violence in the beginning. [7]

Prima is also useful for helping students ensure that they are moving everything in the proper sequence. For example, if making the finta scorsa, the advancing feint, the student must be careful to minimize the danger to themselves. Marcelli, unlike some of his contemporaries, remarks that one should feint a thrust to thrust, a cut to cut, versus a cut to thrust or thrust to cut. The actions are larger and more prone to counters.

In essence, the student is making an advance-lunge and performing a half-thrust on the advance in coordination with the front foot. The disengage (cavazione) is made as the rear foot moves, and the action finishes with the completion of the extension as one lunges. Importantly, the student must then break measure, moving the head and body first and staying secure behind the weapon, which retracts last. To increase the difficulty, I will sometimes defend, sometimes not, so the student must stay on their game and be vigilant. Normally we change roles as well so that the student can practice the counter to the finta scorsa.

Sample Lesson Plan:

Warm up:
S, from prima: arrests to arm as I. (Instructor) attacks from various lines/guards
Parry riposte: simultaneous, two tempi

Lesson:
●Direct thrust from prima
●Direct thrust from prima parried by I., counter parry-riposte from S.

●Firm-footed, feint direct to inside line; I. parries 4th, S disengages
●Firm-footed, feint direct to inside line; I. parries 4th, S disengages, I. parries and ripostes, S. counter-parries and ripostes

Finta Scorsa, feint direct to inside line; I. parries 4th, S disengages
Finta Scorsa, feint direct to inside line; I. parries 4th, S disengages, I. parries and ripostes, S. counter-parries and ripostes

*I. alters guard, S. feints to a different line
**switch roles

Cool Down:
●Three point bout (I. sets up situations for S. to work, in real-time, the material of the day)
●Arrest drill or Parry-riposte to close

Prima, Seconda, Terza, Quarta

While keen to share some thoughts on Marcelli’s prima, the process described will work for any of his guards, and indeed, those he advocates when rapier is paired with dagger. The more a student works the actions found within the text, and faces them from various positions, the more robust their game will prove. We are fortunate that the Rules of Fencing is as well-written and clear as it is—I have found it to be a thorough and exciting font of knowledge, as full of technical brilliance as tactical sense. Moreover, spending so much time on this text has made the others in the Neapolitan orbit clearer. Next to Marcelli I like Pallavicini’s work best, but I have found it more opaque in sections; similarities with Marcelli do not necessarily explain those sections in Pallavicini, but they can provide a more solid starting place to attempt to unravel them.

NOTES:

[1] See Charles Blair, “The Neapolitan School of Fencing: Its Origins and Early Characteristics,” in Acta Periodica Duellatorum 2: 1 (2015): 9-26 [published online 2015 and available at ADP, https://bop.unibe.ch/apd/issue/view/1082]; see especially pages 9-10. See also the brief history by Chris Holzman in his translation of Marcelli’s Rules of Fencing, xi-xiv (similar coverage can be found in his translations of both Pallavicini and Terracusa e Ventura). Blair’s article provides a solid overview, but for guards he focuses on rapier and dagger versus those used for sword alone.

[2] The images explain it better than I probably can, but French prime sweeps from outside to inside, hand about temple height; Italian prima in Del Frate is much the same, but we see a different parry in some works, mezzocerchio, which is sort of quarta with the blade tip dropped, somewhat akin to French septime.

Parise, mezzocerchio, 1904

[3] As smallsword transformed into foil play, a game all its own, the necessity for the false edge parry of first, which helped keep one farther away from the incoming steel and which set up the offhand parry well, gave way to the faster prime with the true edge. The latter is an all or nothing parry, one that should it fail to sweep the line leaves one horribly open.

[4] Cf. Marcelli, Regole della Scherma, 64; Holzman, Rules of Fencing, 88. In his note for that passage Chris explains that in “half-fourth, or 3rd in 4th position, the true edge is turned diagonally downward to the inside. What Marcelli calls First Guard, we would probably call a guard of 4th today.” I would add that later smallsword texts that have one hold the blade in fourth, but framed on the right, somewhat like modern French sixte, get close to this, the key difference being the height of the hand and direction of the point.

[5] Blair, ““The Neapolitan School of Fencing: Its Origins and Early Characteristics,” 9.

Poor Rob Childs will, I’m sure, be sad to discover that he didn’t invent the invincible thrust (exploitation of his “critical angle,” i.e. selecting an open spot and hitting it from the right distance and at the right time…). But, hey, he still has his jump-lunge (oops, no…, that’s a balestra), and his “vertical” and “horizontal” (dang, no, those words first appear in English in the 16th century). Well… he still has is hand-puppet distractor… no, dang again, Joseph Fiennes did that best in “Shakespeare in Love” (Miramax 1998)…

Joseph Fiennes, “Shakespeare in Love,” 1998–fight scene with Wessex. Notice the fool’s marotte in the off-hand.

Good-natured teasing aside, for those interested in HEMA’s competitive side time spent with Rob’s videos will help—though he might footnote some of what he shares, the fact is that he provides the “historical” fencer with solid modern technique and ways to exploit the rule-set.

[6] Purposeful mistakes are not something I have students make with one another. That burden is on me. I don’t advocate having students working on anything that requires one of them to fence poorly on purpose. As the instructor, and as someone whose competitive days are behind him, I have less to worry about. Those actively competing or fighting should learn how to exploit mistakes, but not make them.

[7] Marcelli, Regole della Scherma, 66; Holzman, Rules of Fencing, 89.

Pants before Shoes: Skill Progression in Fencing

from the genius of Gary Larson and his “Far Side”

In fencing some skills are difficult by nature, some because we make them so. For the former, one must put in the time, sweat, and sometime frustration—there is no other way. For the latter, however, there is much we can do to limit the ways in which we make skill acquisition harder. As much as this applies to any student, it applies all the more to the instructor, for they plan the lessons and set the pace. It’s their responsibility to present material in a logical, progressive way so that shoes are not donned before pants, so that equines are not placed before carts. We do this in most things, and fencing is no different.

Culture & Approaches to Learning

So much of what we study is exciting and people can’t wait to dive in—deep—but the fact is that fencing, any fencing, requires considerable coordination, skill, and experience to do well. For the clubs (especially here in the U.S.), which are various takes on Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, often newcomers are handed a weapon day-one and ten minutes later are bouting. It should be obvious why that’s a bad idea, but given how widespread the practice is, it’s not.

Often those running such clubs probably don’t realize how short-sighted this is; it might be the way they themselves got involved, so it seems normal. In addition, most clubs struggle to stay afloat, and the tired adage of “give the customer what they want so that they come back” may underpin this get-them-playing-right-away practice. It’s a tough spot for any club—we want people to stay, but the fact of the matter is that most people are there to play. It’s recreation. By and large “HEMA” consists of people in their late teens to those in their thirties, so college students, adults with jobs, people with time and just enough money to pursue this expensive hobby. It makes sense that many if not most folks don’t want to spend the little free time they have doing thirty minutes of footwork drills, working on point control, or exploring this play or that from technical aspects.

A caveat: I am not dogging play-time; however, I think it’s important to ask the question, to be mindful of what it is we offer, and why. If a club wishes to be the “HEMA” equivalent of fight-club meets theme-park, fine, but admit it; have the integrity to own that what you’re doing is less “martial” than it is playtime with a few historical “tricks” thrown in. There is room for this, and in my experience, that in fact is what most people actually want. This is to say that the numbers are telling. Those groups who focus more on technique, on building depth within the Art, not only tend to be far smaller than others, but also get people bouting at full tilt slowly. Between the length of time to learn enough skill to bout effectively and the fact that there is a lot of work up-front, few people stick. To reiterate: this is perfectly understandable. That doesn’t make it any less unfortunate.

The Difference between “Do this” and “Here is how to do this”

For those interested in comprehensive technical skill acquisition the old way is still the best way. Ideally students do this one-on-one with an instructor, but it also works in a group setting if slightly less well. In short, this approach takes “do this” and expands it to “this is how you do this.” For example, one could demonstrate how one stands in posta di donna in Armizare, ask the student to copy it, and when it looks right enough, say well done and continue. Alternatively, one could start there and then make the micro-adjustments that will save the student problems later. The instructor could speak to how far apart the feet out to be, what direction they’re pointing, and where one’s weight should be—between the feet? Front-weighted? Back-weighted? There is also more than one way to adopt posta di donna—one can adopt this stance with the sword over the right shoulder, over the left; one can stand in posta di donna pulsativa, which is more back-weighted, and, in the same way but with the sword on the left (posta di donna la senestra pulsativa). [1] The student might be wielding a longsword, a longsword as pole-arm, a spear, or a pole-axe, and while the stance is more or less the same the length and heft of the weapon change critical aspects, such as measure and tempo. Each one of these positions is useful for some instances, less so for others, and so it’s not enough to say “stand like this;” we also have to explain when and why to stand this specific way. If the student is shown one version of this posta they’re getting short shrift, and, it’s not going to work well for them.

An Argument for Slow & Steady

What’s the risk in not learning how to fence via a method which introduces complexity one step at a time? There are a few things. First, if their level of understanding is shallow, the student’s ability to add to their repertoire is affected. Lacking basic comprehension makes learning permutations for that skill or related ones harder. This is all the more true with fundamental actions. For example, if the student learns to lunge without ensuring that the front foot is pointed at their opponent/along the line of direction, there are cascading consequences. They increase the risk of injury to knee or ankle. They inhibit their ability to advance quickly or perform maneuvers which employ the same foot orientation, such as the advance lunge, jump lunge, or redoublement. In the worst cases the misdirected foot misdirects the body and thus the weapon.

Second, hard is it may be, the acquisition of skill in a logical, progressive sense builds confidence. Having mastered how to lunge, for example, the student is more inclined to use it, and often, more amendable to learning other methods of moving that employ it. Confidence—sensible confidence—is everything in fighting. Without it one is immobile, potentially at the mercy of a more confident opponent. Proper education instills proper confidence, because it is built on more than luck or the myopic reality of having something work in specific situations like tournaments where most people are at the same skill level. If one has learned to lunge well, and with it, when to lunge and from what distance, there is science in play—it’s adaptable, not tied to the conditions of any one situation. This is important, and, not only for the more source-driven, history-minded folks, but tournament folks too—fight long enough, in tournaments of different types, and one learns quickly whether their toolbox is as replete with tools as one thinks.

This brings us to a third reason the slow and steady approach to learning is important: resilience. When the tournament fighter reaches the day where their bag o’ tricks lets them down, the countdown to their quitting starts. They have nothing to fall back on; the more passionate among them seek out new tricks, but since these “tricks” are misapplied or misunderstood fundamental actions or composites of such actions, they are ultimately a dead end. This fighter doesn’t know how to recombine them. This is one reason, judging by local numbers, people jump into “HEMA” for two to three years, then leave. For the fighter, however, who possesses skill and understanding in the fundamentals, there is a built-in approach to analyze and problem-solve what went wrong in that bout or this tournament. So armed the student is less likely to hang up their mask and feder, but examine what went wrong and why, because they have the tools and technical vocabulary to do so.

Related to resilience, but perhaps more germane to the let us say the “mature” fencer…, a solid grounding in technique, not just in its use but in understanding, will allow them to keep fencing when they can no longer, or should no longer…, engage in some branches or fight with certain weapons. Call it adaptability. I work or have worked with fencers older even than I am, and the ones who are still fencing have been able to continue because their understanding isn’t shallow. Even moving say from KdF to smallsword wasn’t the speedbump some might think because they were well-trained in KdF. Their instructor at that club—one I knew and have a lot of respect for—taught them correctly. I didn’t have to teach them how to move, just adapt what they had been doing; I didn’t have to teach them to attack with the weapon first, because they already understood that; I didn’t have to introduce them to tempo because they’d learned this as well. All I have done is help them adapt the lessons they learned studying Liechtenauer, Dobringer, and the rest to new tools. With other fencers, in contrast, who have not received decent instruction, who, poor souls, were just thrown in the pool and told to swim, two things generally happen: they struggle in the first lesson where we go over basics, then in frustration they leave and I don’t see them again.

Further Examples

Specific examples help, so here I’d like to explore two. The first is from rapier, the second smallsword. I’ve not chosen these at random either—I see these very problems all the time. Seeing what sorts of issues these examples cause fencers has served to bolster my position on taking the time to learn to do things properly. The first example, from rapier, concerns adding too much too soon. The second, from smallsword, focuses on a complicated action as if it were simple.

Rapier and Dagger

One of the most popular combinations in historical fencing is rapier and dagger. Not going to lie, I love it too, and in fact it’s now difficult for me using any thrust-oriented weapon held in one hand not to want a dagger in the other. That defense-in-depth is a game-changer. Happily, we have a large number of rapier treatises that cover using an off-hand dagger, among other options, which means that we have comparatively less guess work than we do in so many areas.

If one examines a random selection of rapier works, it is worth noting when the source covers dagger, that is, where it is within the book. For example, I pulled these four from my shelves:

  • Camillo Agrippa, Trattato di Scientia d’Arme, 1553
  • Vincentio Saviolo, His Practice, 1595
  • Francesco Alfieri, La Scherma, 1640
  • Francesco Marcelli, Regole di Scherma, 1686

Agrippa is one of the oldest rapier texts, Marcelli arguably one of the latest, and so though brief this gives us some notion of changes over time. I also considered different translators as a sort of double-blind or check that I wasn’t favoring one (I have my favorites like anyone else).

from Agrippa’s _Trattato di Scientia d’Arme_

Agrippa’s Treatise on the Science of Arms features the pairing of sword and dagger from the off, and, in most sections. It is safe to assume, then, that working these in combination as one starts study of Agrippa makes some sense. In contrast, Saviolo covers sword alone first, then sword and dagger, then returns to sword alone. Likewise, Alfieri turns to sword and dagger later, in the twentieth chapter, in On Fencing. Marcelli’s Rules of Fencing covers the span of a bible before getting to sword and dagger—he begins coverage of it in part two, book one, chapter 1. [2]

Going by these four, and granted this is a tiny sample, starting with sword alone makes sense. There is another reason to study sword alone first—it’s hard enough studying one weapon without adding an additional set of positions and actions, never mind coordinating them both. Proper control of a single weapon is difficult, especially at first, so unless there is good reason to do so, why double that difficulty? [3] Put blunty, if the student can’t make a decent direct thrust or perform the most basic parries yet, then the addition of a second weapon isn’t going to help them: they’ll just have two tools with which they must struggle. Moreover, pairing sword and dagger changes one’s position—from a slightly profiled guard positon one adopts one that is more square, because the offhand weapon now provides some measure of security. To remain profiled limits if it doesn’t prevent one from using that offhand weapon. Thus, if a student’s footwork for sword alone isn’t decent, the addition of variations will only complicate things.

Smallsword

Turning to smallsword, a number of works discuss the demi-thrust, sometimes in English called a “half-thrust.” The term is deceptive—taken literally it might be mistaken for a thrust made half-way or perhaps some manner of in-fighting action, but it’s actually a species of false attack made by the defender. Girard’s Traité des armes (1740) illustrates this action well.

Demi-Botte de Quarte

Au dedans des armes pour tirer tierce, ou quarte dessus les armes

Ayant paré un coup de quarte au dedans des Armes, au lieu de riposte droit de quarte sans dégager, je fais level la main & la pointe plus basse, en frapant du pied droit, comme pour achiever le coup au dedans; & lorsque l’ennemi vient à la parade pour fraper l’Epée, dans le même-temps je fais dégager subtilement & tirer ferme au dehors, soit de tierce ou de quarte dessus les Armes, la main la premiere dans le principe, puis redouble de second sous la ligne du bras, ensuite faire retraite l’Epee devant soy. [4]

The defender, having parried in quarte, feigns a riposte in the same line (fourth), but as the opponent moves to parry in quarte, the defender makes an appel and disengages and thrusts in tierce with opposition. Seems simple, right? It is, if one has already a good command of the key actions that make up the demi-botte.

Girard covers this later in the text, well after discussion of the thrusts in tierce and quarte, the parries of the same number, how to move, and importantly, after explanations of feints, beats, and compound attacks in various tempi. Organized as it is, The Treatise on Arms proceeds from less to greater difficulty, so, if the demi-thrust is covered after these other complex actions, there is likely a good reason. There is complexity there.

An indication beyond placement within the treatise, Girard does not explain how to perform the specific actions that make up the demi-thrust; he just describes the action. He assumes that the reader, hopefully possessing at least a modicum of instruction, will supply the required skills and ideas. As it’s laid out, the demi-thrust reads like yet another technique employing a disengage, but it’s more than that. It recalls the section on feints, though it isn’t one, but it also assumes excellent timing and a keen sense of measure. [5] All of these must work in concert to make this defensive option viable.

Girard 1740, _Traité des armes_, plate 39

An instructor must know what each action within the text entails, and, plan what to cover (and in what depth) according to a student’s level. Following this example, if one wishes to cover the demi-botte, then the student needs at least to have a solid grasp on movement, the key lines of tierce and quarte, and the ability to use these techniques in more than one tempo.

Thanks Capt. Obvious

Often, most often really, I feel like my posts state the obvious, things people already know. I have my biases too, my blind spots, and that cuts both ways—I may assume people know something, or, I may assume they don’t. Apart from the handful of people who read this that I know, and who chat with me about things, I have no idea to what extent any of this is helpful, but the goal with these posts is to provide anyone who might need it some help. It’s offered in my role as a fellow-traveler, someone who’s been studying all of this for decades, and without any expectation or need for thanks, recognition, or anything else. Importantly, I’ll be the first to say I don’t know everything, and the longer I spend on the Art the more I realize how much greater what I will never know truly is (too large to measure).

Teaching is difficult, despite the sad maxim popular among my own people, and I’ve been fortunate to receive a LOT of training as a teacher, not only in fencing, but in higher education. [6] Lately, as I’ve been nursing injuries, teaching more than I’m bouting, I’ve been thinking it might be useful to share some of these things. Hopefully, it’s helpful, but if not, and you’ve read this far, thanks for reading it anyway.

NOTES:

[1] Online, cf. http://www.nwarmizare.com/Pocket-Fiore/assets/www/index.html

[2] See Camillo Agrippa, Trattato di Scientia d’Arme, see Ken Mondschein, ed., Fencing: A Renaissance Treatise (New York, NY: Italica Press, 2009); Vincentio Saviolo, His Practice, see James L. Jackson, Three Elizabethan Fencing Manuals (Delmar, NY: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1972), 197-247, 247-298, 298-310; Francesco Alfieri, La Scherma, translated by Tom Leoni (Lulu Press, 2018); for Marcelli, see Francesco Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, translated by Christopher A. Holzman (Witchita, KS: Lulu Press, 2019), cf. p. 267.

[3] There are exceptions. Agrippa assumes a dagger in much the same way that Georgian Laskhroba assumes a buckler (pari) when using a sword (khmali). In the latter tradition, sword and buckler work together, and at least as I have learned it while one can separate the hands, and in some cases absolutely should, but that is a lot easier to do if one has learned how to keep the together first.

[4] P.J.F. Girard, Traité des armes, La Haye, Chez Pierre de Hondt, 1740; the BnF pdf features this action on page 109. Finishing the action in tierce is one option; one can also complete this with quarte over the arm, that is in the line of tierce but hand supinated/in fourth position. Moreover, one can redouble and strike in seconde as well, before retreating behind the point.

[5] Arguably one could call this a compound parry-riposte, a return that employs a feint to draw a counter-parry and then which changes lines. Regardless, like the demi-botte in Girard, the compound parry-riposte is normally taught after a student has good command of the basics of single tempo parry-riposte.

[6] The quip in question is “those who can’t, teach,” easily one of the stupidest phrases yet uttered, and a deep window into the anti-intellectual culture gaining prominence in the United States. If this seems like the bitter thing a former academic might say, well, consider how our movies and television programs, many popular world-wide, portray professors, scientists, and scholars—almost universally they’re villains or clowns. Mine is the only nation I’ve visited, so far, where more than one person has referred to a PhD as “post-hole digger,” a remark that shows at once the disdain for higher education, the glorification of manual labor (which is perfectly fine and necessary), and the fact that with a glut of PhDs and MAs running around many are in service jobs.

Russ Mitchel on Timmlich

As someone who regularly points out how daft it is to use a trooper-weight sabre for foot combat (tough to make any complicated action well), I feel it only right to share this lovely video from Russ. Timmlich’s excellent treatise provides the historical fencer into BIG sabres a way to use them, on foot, effectively. Check it out!

Russ Mitchel on Textual Criticism vs. Ad Hominems

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

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

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

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

Russ Mitchell, response to Pope in re Hutton

Using Historical Fencing Treatises, Text & Subtext

Teaching from early fencing sources can be daunting. On the one hand, their organization, language, and lack of details can impede interpretation. There are also the challenges we face in using images, not to mention dealing with sources that lack them. On the other hand, we cannot always guess what assumptions the author had about the reader’s knowledge or even what they intended with the work. For the period in which the smallsword was popular (roughly ca. 1615 to 1800), some treatises were likely meant for public consumption, others were written in an attempt to solicit patronage, still others to challenge existing custom and/or defend a new approach. All on some level were meant to immortalize a particular author’s views and put their name on the rolls of influential masters. Some are mere tracts, others replete with a host of actions and maneuvers. Even when a source is less difficult to understand there remains how one should use it. Both deciphering challenging texts and deciding what to use from them (and how) are things we must consider when teaching from them.

As someone averse to anything remotely smacking of Bourdieu, Derrida, or Foucault, my use of the term “subtext” here is meant to convey the implications within our sources, not some hidden meaning or the imposition of some anachronistic, fashionable theme into the past. There is, plainly, what a book says, and, what it doesn’t, and we can learn a lot from both.

“Barcelona,” 1994, by Whit Stillman

Explicit vs. Implicit

When we’re lucky an author is explicit. They provide details as to the individual movements and positions that make up a stance, technique, or action. Sir William Hope, for example, is one of our chief sources for knowing that one should not insert the fingers through the annulets, those rings, descendents of a rapier’s pas d’âne, found on many smallsword hilts. In his Scots Fencing Master (1687) he wrote

You must hold your Sword after this manner; hold your Thumb upon the broad side of the Handle with your Fingers quite round it, as in the second Figure of the first Plate marked F. and not as some do, who their foremost and middle Fingers thorow to two arms of the Hilt, thinking that by doing that, they hold their Sword firmer, some use onely to put their foremost Finger through, which the Spaniards did of old, and many even to this day do it; but both ways are most ridiculous, and dangerous.
[2]

Presented in the much-used trope of master and student in discussion, the corresponding student comments that one is at risk of having one’s fingers broken should one come to grips. Details like this are critical in our interpretations as the presence of the annulets naturally suggests they are there to secure one’s grip.

The granularity of instruction, generally, is less precise than it is in more recent works. One reason for this is that the sword, being a feature of culture at the time, something carried, seen on stage, and of course discussed within treatises, meant that readers possessed better familiarity with the topic than most people today. This is, perhaps, why so many of the smallsword works appear deficient in specifics. There is still, however, much we can learn from them. For example, many suggest or list a series of lessons. De Liancour (1686/1692) and Wylde (1711), for example, both suggest lessons within their treatises, the former in a series of “games” a master might take a student through, the latter via a suggested lesson. [3]

from Sir William Hope’s _New Method_ (2nd Ed., 1714)

When we find ourselves left with less detail than we’d like, we must find a way to bridge text and subtext, that is, connect what is explicit with what is implied or assumed. There is an inherent danger in this, however, so we must apply precedent when available, analogy where applicable, established fact when known, and always the faculty of reason. An example I’ve often cited before is how to step. Whatever the word used, “step,” “pass,” “advance,” there are certain things we know (or should) about how humans walk. Given how long our species has been walking upright we can safely assume that people in the 17th and 18th century did too.

As another example, Wylde suggests that

The most absolute and truest way of thrusting Cart and Ters, is to perform your Pass as close to the Fort of your Opponents Weapon as you can; for in so doing, it will in a great Measure preserve you, if he happen to Counter Tang: but if your Push fails hitting, besure to make your recovery strongly engaged upon his Weapon, or spring your self backward withal the Celerity imaginable out of his distance, in a true Line.
[4]

If one is familiar with the parts of the blade, this may sound odd. Close to the “Fort” (forte/strong) of the blade seemingly goes against what most fencers know about the respective mechanical advantages and disadvantages of strong and weak. Placing the weak of our blade near the strong of theirs provides the opponent more leverage. To attack in such a way is to hand the opponent a parry. So, what does Wylde mean?

It will help to revisit Wylde’s division of the blade. He separates it into three sections, but one is more a point than a section:

The Blade, I likewise divide into Three Parts thus, From the Shell to the middle, I call the Fort or Strength of the Weapon: The middle is the equal Part betwixt the Shell and the Point: From the middle to the end, I call the Feeble or Weak. [5]

So, the “weak” here is really middle to tip, the “strong” middle to guard, and the middle merely where they meet. Armed with this notion of blade division Wylde’s admonition that one keep as close to the opponent’s forte makes more sense. The thrust isn’t tip to forte, but made so that the middle of one’s weapon is more or less along the middle of the opposing steel. He also provides reasons for this close thrust—it can help protect one from a counter-attack, and, should one’s attack fail, then it is easier and safer to retreat having already closed off the line. Wylde doesn’t remind the reader here what he means by forte and feeble; he assumes the reader knows.

Further clarification derives from Wylde’s guard position:

Stand upon a true half Body, or edge wise, which I call, lie narrow your leading or right Foot, two Foot or more distance from the left, being in a direct Line from the same, then your right and left Foot will resemble a Roman ‘I’; your Hand fast gript about the hand of your Foil or Rapier, then put your Thumb long ways or forward upon it, your Arm quite extended from the Center of your Body, the Point of the Weapon being directed in a true Line against your Opponent’s right Pap, sinking somewhat low with your Body, your right Knee bowing or bent over the Toes of your right Foot, (tho’ some Masters teaches a strait Knee,) your left Knee more bent, inclining towards the Toes of your left Foot; lying in this Order is the Posture, which I call, Stand your Line, the Medium Guard then is fixt.
[6]

This guard, sometimes called a middle guard, has the arm midline, not to the right or left depending on handedness. To thrust in Cart (quarte) or Ters (tierce) one is moving off that midline, so without attention to the opponent’s blade as one thrusts, without some opposition there is an increased chance of being hit as one strikes. We’re not dealing with right of way here, or foils, but sharp swords, and thus Wylde’s recommendation makes good sense.

Subtext & Using a Treatise

Moving from micro to macrocosm, there are times we must look to assumed or implicit knowledge to use a treatise effectively. The progression of techniques, for example, in P.J.F. Girard’s Traité des armes (1740) might seem a logical approach for introducing more complicated actions. In part this is true, however some distinction should probably be made between what we call today bread-and-butter techniques, those we use most of the time, and those that are “medicine for the hand,” those more complicated actions, especially compound actions, which are less viable in actual combat. It’s not that a double or triple-feint can’t work, but that the effective use of it assumes an opponent of considerable skill, more so than most people possess. One is likely to face a counter-attack using so many actions—the more parts to a maneuver, the more time, and thus the more opportunity for it to go wrong, for the opponent to take advantage or disrupt one’s plans.

This does not mean that one shouldn’t incorporate Girard’s excellent section on feints, but that the instructor should know, and be clear in teaching, that some of these drills we do to push skill forward, to hone it. [7] If one can make complex actions well, then one can make simple actions well. The importance of this, in a bout, is that we not only tend to find the most success with relatively simple actions, but also that in any arena in which nerves, fear, or excitement is likely our ability suffers. [8] So, the more effective and solid our technique is, the less far it is likely to fall off and hurt our chances. This is why effective teaching and constant drill are so vital.

Outside research, particularly into accounts of duels, as well as practical advice from those masters active when duels were prominent, can do much to fill in the missing context. Girard does not say that his more sophisticated actions are medicine for the hand. At a time when more people learned the sword and might use it in earnest it’s likely that a double-feint proved effective; not against every opponent, but against those well-trained it likely did. It remains an open question just how expert the average fencer in the age of the smallsword, or any age for that matter, was; our sources suggest much, but confirm little. There are enough references to fencers of “natural” skill and little training to suggest that many who carried a sword either hadn’t received instruction or at least not very much. A good analogy my friend Ken Jay has made in this regard is to the number of people in the U.S. who opt for concealed carry of firearms—many if not most have shot a pistol before, but the vast majority have little to no formal training in how to shoot in self-defense or combat scenarios. Maybe they’ve taken a class or series of classes, but here too the analogy holds up well with the Early Modern Period: for all the solid, experienced instructors teaching “tactial” handgun techniques, there are a multitude of charlatans and well-intentioned, but unskilled people offering training, just as there were when dubious sword masters set up shop and took in the credulous.

Oblique references, for example, indicate a wider knowledge of fencing, at least among those sections of society eligible to wear a sword, but also suggest that not all were particularly good students. We see extremes in the literature. Máire Anna MacNeill begins her doctoral dissertation with the example of cavaliers in England attending a performance of William Davenant’s “The Unfortunate Lovers” in 1660. The play included two dramatic sword fights in acts four and five which these same attendees, post show, mocked at a local tavern. They also drew their swords to show how the choreography failed. [9]

Satirical Print, 1814, The English Fencing Master and his Student, courtesy of the British Musuem, https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1856-0712-639

Against this example we have, again for England, references to the curious fashion of wearing a sword but it being rude to use one save in extreme situations. Aylward cites the example of a character in Fanny Burney’s Evelina (1778) grabbing his sword hilt—he remarks that this was “an unseemly gesture pardonable only in an excitable foreigner.” These two examples are separated by a century, but it’s important to note that works closer in time to that of Davenant echo similar sentiments. Aylward also cites Andrew Mahon’ 1734 translation of L’Abbat’s L’art en fait d’arms (1696), where Mahon remarks one should only draw a sword in service to the crown, for one’s honor, or in self-defense. [10] Between the poles of sword-as-fashion-accessory and sword as sidearm there is a vast middle ground. Likely, most people had some modicum of training, but like today’s concealed-carry types, extremely little chance of having to use that weapon.

For the instructor, examining a treatise in light of not only what it says, but when it was written and what prevailing views of the time suggest will improve their interpretation and teaching. Some works seem clearly more self-defense oriented—Hope, L’Abbat, de Liancour, McBane, and Wylde read very differently from de la Touche, Domenico Anglo, Olivier, and de St. Martin. The former are more clearly concerned with optimizing a guard for most situations (Hope and Wylde especially perhaps), one to two tempo attacks, and the importance of opposition. The latter cover much of the same material, but add some techniques more salle than on the ground friendly. We can learn a lot from both types of sources, and we should read and use both, but always with a keen appreciation for what they reflect. By the mid­-18th century, the foil play originally intended to create a slightly safer style of practice (key in a time before masks were standard) became a game in its own right. Domenico Angelo, writing in 1763, in some ways spans both worlds—he wanted all touches targeted to the chest, a fact that speaks on the one hand to his eschewing masks and on the other to an interest in fencing as an elegant exercise and ideal way to cultivate grace becoming the status of his many elite students. [11] His inclusion of smallsword versus various other weapons, “ethnic” guards, and weapon-seizures recall earlier works, like Girard’s, but the mix of smallsword and foil in his School of Fencing, not to mention the success of his London salle as the premiere academy, we must note too.

In terms of lesson-planning, one approach is to compare how several masters treat a specific action, say the thrust from tierce or quarte. What is different? What the same? Given the instructor’s own perspective, what does it make sense to emphasize? For those more concerned about smallsword as weapon, a more conservative approach makes sense; for those whose interest is tournaments, a mix of solid self-defense and salle fencing is appropriate. Of course, one can teach both as well. The point (no pun intended) is to be mindful about what we are teaching, how we teach it, and to keep the textual basis, explicit and implicit, before us as we plan, devise lessons, and teach them.

NOTES:

[1] Clip from “Barcelona” (1994), by Whit Stillman

[2] Sir William Hope, Scots Fencing Master, 1687, pp. 11-12. See also J. D. Aylward, The Small-Sword in England, its History, its Forms, its Makers, and its Masters, London, UK: Hutchinson & Son, LTD, 1960, 134-135. As an argument for reading the sources, one work from 1982, concerned only with the tool, makes the mistake of listing fingers through annulets as correct. Doubtless some fencers did. See Anthony North, European Swords, London, UK: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1982, 19.

[3] See de Liancour, Le Maistre d’armes (1686/1692), p. 69/78; 119/128 in the BnF 1686 pdf); see Wylde, English Fencing Master, 15 in the pdf, https://smallswordproject.files.wordpress.com/2016/11/zach-wylde.pdf)

[4] Wylde, p. 13 of the pdf.

[5] Wylde, p. 5 of the pdf.

[6] Wylde, p. 6 of the pdf.

[7] See for example P.J.F. Girard, Traité des armes, 1740, pp. 47-51 (p. 80-86 in the BnF pdf).

[8] For a more recent historical example of this within the context of a duel, Aldo Nadi’s account of his duel in 1924 against Contronei in Milan is instructive. The few photographs of the engagement reveal the typically plate-perfect technique of Maestro Nadi drastically changed when confronted by a sharp spada. The goal—don’t get hit—changes everything. See Aldo Nadi, On Fencing, Sunrise, FL: Laureate Press, 1994 (originally published 1943), 24-35.

[9] See Máire Anna MacNeill, “The Sword as Didactic Tool on the London Comic Stage, 1660-1740,” PhD Dissertation, Royal Holloway, University of London, 2016, pp. 9ff.

[10] Aylward, The Small-Sword in England, 20; cf. Fanny Burney, Evelina, 1778, Letter 23, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/6053/6053-h/6053-h.htm . Aylward on Mahon and L’Abbat, 20; cf. L’Abbat, The Art of Fencing, Dublin, 1734, p. 72 in the edition by Lector House (2020).

[11] Aylward, The Small-Sword in England, 108-112.

What’s in a Preface?

Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant

Referring to “context” is a commonplace in historical fencing. It means different things in different… contexts. We use it to mean the time and culture of a specific type of practice such as 15th century armored/unarmored combat; we mean the specific instances when such and such a system was applied (following the same analogy in war, the lists, in self-defense, as an instructor); we also use it to discuss the text that relates that same system, in this case everything from the question of author (did the master write it or have it written or did a student write it about them?), their purpose for writing it (as an attempt to woo patronage, as an aid to students, as an official government publication, etc.), how widely that text may have been known and used, as well as the culture of the book in their time. We also mean by “context” the reality of actual fighting versus training, bouting, tournaments, or play. Sometimes we can’t answer all of these questions or those that follow from them, but they’re important to ask regardless. If we don’t consider context(s) then we are likely to go wrong in our interpretations. It’s easy to go wrong even when people try to consider context.

For those who read the sources it’s also important to remember to read more than just the section on technique or plays. Any front matter, from dedications to prefaces, is worth a look if only once, because some questions we should have are often answered there. For example, in a preface an author often explains their purpose for writing, and if we’re lucky, something of their approach. Dedications likewise can tell us for whom they wrote the book, their relation to that person if any, and sometimes other connections we might not expect to see.

Few lessons or classes pass where we don’t discuss context in some way. With my sabre and broadsword classes, for example, we often discuss options as they pertain to the duel or combat. What isn’t allowed on the dueling ground is perfectly okay in the field. Put another way, the options we have say from a parry-riposte vary significantly in this case—following up a parry-riposte with a punch via bell-guard to the face or knocking someone to the ground was okay in combat, but an absolute no-no on the field of honor in most cases.

One analogy that has proved useful in smallsword lessons is to compare a smallsword to a small caliber pistol. There is this tendency to believe that for a weapon to be threatening it must be large, heavy, imposing, obvious, but this makes little sense—a weapon is a weapon, and whether a .32 caliber pocket pistol, switchblade, or kosh only a complete fool would think “nah, not dangerous enough.” No one wants to be shot by a .32 or .22 pistol. Will a .45 or .50 have more stopping power? Maybe, but in context the people who carry small caliber pistols are citizens who do so for self-defense, not soldiers. Peace of mind is the most powerful benefit a citizen gains from carrying a weapon—too often they have next to no practice using it and certainly not against people. The less insane among those who carry pistols hope it will be a deterrent, not overwhelming force. Assuming they have composure enough and time to pull a weapon, aim, and threaten or shoot just producing the gun will make most assailants react: it’s still a gun, .22 or not. Faced with a small pistol the assailant still has to think “is this worth six small bullets in my body?” [1]

In like vein, a smallsword may not be as imposing as greatsword, but it’s fast, sharp, and deadly. It’s easy to assume some brigand seeing a fop with his sword-jewelry might think the dandy is an easy mark, but was he? The guy open-carrying may be a crack-shot or may never have fired the thing, but how many people will take the risk to find out? It’s abnormal to carry weapons in American culture—we don’t need to, not like people do in other areas of the world, and so when we see someone at a grocery store with some giant chimney on their hip we normally assume political posturing, mental health issues, or both. In the 18th century, when men were still carrying swords as a part of dress, seeing a weapon was relatively more common. It was part of the scenery. We can ask the same questions of them that we do of modern open-carry fans today: how much skill did/do they likely have?

The answer to the question is less important than asking it, because it puts us in touch with our assumptions, our bias built from our own context. It’s tricky—one the one hand, drawing analogies can help, but on the other we have to be careful not to equate the two halves of the analogy. It’s analogy—comparing two things in order to clarify or explain something, not equivalence. In this case, there are some important, critical differences between a smallsword and a .22 snub-nose, just as there is between an item of dress as normal as a hat and something that people notice because it’s an exception to normal, to the everyday. In this case, the point of comparing a small caliber pistol and smallsword is that both will ruin your day even though they’re not the M-60 or a montante.

I’ve pulled a few works from the 18th century and excerpted portions of their prefaces to see what they have to say and what we might learn from them. They are:

  • 1702: Henry Blackwell’s The English Fencing Master
  • 1707: William Hope’s A New, Short, and Easy Method of Fencing
  • 1758: Juan N. Perinat’s Art of Fencing with Foil and Sabre
  • 1771: J. Olivier’s Fencing Familiarized
  • 1780: John McArthur’s The Army and Navy Gentleman’s Companion [2]

Taking each in turn, what do we learn?

Blackwell, Henry. The English Fencing Master. London: Printed by J. Downing, 1702.

I could very willingly have sav’d my self the Trouble of a Preface, had I not lain under a Necessity of Apologizing for the Brevity of this Undertaking, which I desire the Reader to accept as follows.

In the first place therefore, I do assure you the Peruser of this small Treatise, that there is scarce any thing needful to the Knowledge of the Small-Sword which is not here laid down, and that in so plain and clear a Method, as will give both Satisfaction and Delight to All Lovers of this Art. An Art so necessary to be known, and so proper a Qualification for constituting a Man a Gentleman, that I had almost said he can be none that is not skill’d therein.

A second Reason I might alledge for the Conciseness of this Work, is, that I have made use but of few Lessons, as judging that way most practicable, many Lessons being rather cloying than Instructive; besides that we too often experience, that Gentlemen are apt to forget one while they are learning another, by which means they scarce ever become perfect in any.

And now, were it any ways Useful to my Design, I might run a large Encomium in praise of Sword-playing, and show you particularly how England of late Years has exceeded all other Countries herein, even France it self, which has long boasted its Preference in this respect; but this being the Work rather of a Panegyric than a Sword’s-Man, I shall wave that point, and conclude with telling you, that if this Edition finds Acceptance in the World, I intend to enlarge on this and other parts of it, and oblige all Lovers hereof with a compleat System in a Second Edition. H.B.

Several things stand out in reading Blackwell’s preface. In the first line he informs us that this work is not long—“the Brevity of the Undertaking” is a florid way to express this, but amounts to the fact he will not be presenting an exhaustive treatment. He reiterates this a second time in the next section by referring to his “small Treatise” and significantly that despite the length the core of the system is present. Blackwell may assume some familiarity with fencing as well—a text he believes will please “All Lovers of this Art” is suggestive at least that some of his audience he expects to have a nodding acquaintance with the Art. Touching on the key aspects of the system the author then informs us that he includes few lessons as he believes these tend rather to confuse than help. In short, Blackwell tells the reader from the off that his work is not complete, but a distillation of key aspects of smallsword laid out in approachable lessons. For the historical fencer today keen to mine this text, this is important: it’s not complete, so while useful and informative, additional reading will be necessary.

Hope, W. A new, short, and easy method of fencing: Or, the art of the broad and small-sword rectified and compendized. Edinburgh: Printed by James Watson, 1707.

[x] A Dexterous Smalls-sword Man, how adroit soever he may be at the handling of his Rapeir in a Duel after the Common School-Method, will, when he comes to Engage at Clos Fight in a Field-Battel, either with Foot or Horse, find himself extremely put to it, and almost as much to seek, as if had no Art at all, if he be Masters or no better  Defence, whereby to secure himself, than the Ordinary School Parades of Quarte and Tierce, which belong only to the Small-sword or Rapier; & whereof the unsuccessful Practice, (even in Duels, laying aside their Insufficiency in a Crowd, or Field-Battel) hath no doubt made many People value less the Art of the Sword, than otherwise they would have done; judging thereby, that there could be no better nor securer Defence drawn for it: For in such a Juncture, I mean in a Crowd or Battel, a Man hath neither Time nor Bounds, nicely to Ward off his Adversary’s Blows or Thrusts, nor to Break his Measure, as he would have, were he Engaged only in a Duel. Here he is a little more at Large and Freedom; but there, perhaps surrounded by two or three Stout and Vigorous Single Soldiers, or Troopers, who are with Fury Sabring, and Discharging Blows upon him.

In this selection from Hope we see a stark contrast to Blackwell. Of concern here is Hope’s recognition that school play and actual combat are not the same. Most smallsword works make great hay of quarte and almost as much of tierce, but to Hope’s mind that is not enough. [3] It may serve in the salle, but on the ground or in combat these two principle parries are insufficient. As he remarks, the distance required to make these parries work well is not guaranteed in combat; the same is true of the ability to break measure. In a duel between two people, there is comparatively more room to act, more options, and fewer restrictions. That concluding line is particularly clear—armed with these more extended parries what shall the poor person with a smallsword do against three soldiers or cavarlymen bearing on him with sabres? Unlike the movies, they’re unlikely to take turns. Hope’s preference for a hanging guard, something one sees less often in smallsword treatises, makes more sense given that Hope’s assumptions are different.

Perinat, J. N. Art of Fencing with Foil and Sabre. Cadiz: Imprenta de la Real Academia de Cavalleros Guardias Marinas, 1758.

Prologue:

The art of fencing, that I demonstrate in this work, is one of the most essential parts of the military, whose object is the defense of our Holy Faith, the king and queen, and the state, and the glory of defeating their enemies. Because of this, in the most political governments special care is always taken that the youth destined for arms are instructed early in the art of fencing, to the end of acquiring agility, skill, boldness, and fearlessness.

In order to be able to perfect this art with more ease, it has been divided into two parts. The first, that one sees only in the play of the smallsword, pertains properly to the officers of war. The second, that one sees in the handling of the sword or sabre, is more commonly for the soldier. These two branches have always been separate from each other, and each one has had its own masters, but as the Marine Officers are destined for work in which it is very useful to be able to use the sabre, and that some have asked me to teach them, I have happily consented to give them this instruction, not withstanding the common worry of the academy masters, that they would lose some of their rights and prerogatives if they would teach the play of the sabre.

It is also true, that not all masters of the smallsword can teach the play of the sabre, and it is necessary to have found, as I have, the occasion of learning it. I confess, that in ten companies that I have done, in which I have encountered various sites and assaults, I would have perished had I not known how to parry a sabre.

In order to make this book more manual and less costly (which is the first brought to light in Spanish on the play of the foil), I have only placed in it the most necessary and subtle of the art. But if the public will receive it with benignity and manifest desire for a more extensive treatise, I will dedicate myself to giving one so complete that it won’t leave any desire for more on the subject.

As it has not been possible to represent in plates all the postures of the art, nor give greater perfection to the drawing, I ask the reader to pay attention more to the explanation than the plates, taking care that in all the thrusts in Fourth and its parries, the body has to be found in the same posture, as well as in those in Third and its parries, and that all the innumerable thrusts and parries that the art encompasses are founded in these four principal points, without the more skillful master being able to alter anything.

Juan Perinat’s treatise, like Blackwell’s, focuses on essentials. He tells us as much in the second to last paragraph, as well in suggesting that one pay more attention to the text than the plates. He suggests that because there are fewer plates that one is going to get more out of the text. Of note, he brings the study of foil (for smallsword) and sabre together in this work, something less common in mid-18th century Spain. As Perinat says, not all smallsword masters know sabre, but in active service he has found it useful, and thus believes that even officers should have some knowledge of it. There is a lot here to consider. As with Blackwell, to appreciate the place of Pernat’s treatise requires additional reading.

Olivier, J.  Fencing familiarized: Or, A new treatise on the art of sword play. London: J. Bell, 1771.

From the dedication:

(xii-xx) The principles laid down in the following treatise are such as have arisen from the most serious attention to all the ordinary, as well as all possible thrusts with the sword rendered plain and easy by example, according to the usage and opinions of the most eminent swordsmen and masters of the academy at Paris.

When I was last in that capital, you are sensible Gentlemen, that the stay I made there, had no other object than our common improvement; and I shall esteem myself happy, if by all my cares, I am enabled to demonstrate the ardent desire I have to render the art of which I am a possessor at once both useful and agreeable.

In order to attain both these aims there can be no other method adopted than that of a theory well founded, such as may serve for a basis to all those movements which an agil and well framed body is capable of practicising, in order thereby to discover their defects or to point out their particular merit: without theory nothing satisfactory can be expected, nor is it possible to act with judgment; for it must not be imagined that to acquire some general notions by dint of practice is sufficient; this is only the out lines of the art, it is going no deeper than the surface, and leaving the subject untouched: the essence and sublime of the art is to draw progressive instructions from one thrust to another; to know how many variations it may be susceptible of, and when to use it with advantage: this is what I have endeavoured in the best manner I could to demonstrate to you.

How far I have succeeded I submit to your determination, happy if it contributes to the only view I proposed by it, your advancement…

From the Preface:

(xxii-xxix) This treatise on fencing will I hope be favourably received by all the lovers of that exercise; it will not only be found useful in regard to execution, the perusal of it from time to time will also serve to recall the principles to mind, and enable one to arrive in some measure at perfection; for it is not enough to preserve a same equality in an exercise, and to practise it now and then, the memory must likewise be refreshed by a revival and thorough examination of the principles; theory being as necessary as practice.

I have expressed myself in as clear and intelligible a manner as I was able, in order to be understood, even by those who may never have learnt this art. I have drawn no comparison between the ancients and moderns, as many have done; it serves only to perplex the learners ideas; of what import is it to me, that the ancients called prime what we term second: the name is of no consequence; it is the manner of pushing the thrust that it behoves us to learn, and it is what I have studied to demonstrate distinctly.

Neither do I speak of disarms, voltes, passes, plungeouns, etc. these are only thrusts of convention, obstructive to the proficiency of the learner, and which the ancients used only for shew, and to lengthen their lessons; now that we are more enlightened, it is found that these disarms, etc. are in reality very dangerous, expose much and impede execution.

I have likewise past over in silence the parade with the hand, which however may sometimes be very serviceable sword in hand; but as it exposes as well as the disarms, I have not mentioned it; my intention being to give none but true principles that lead to perfection: and for this reason I have made the play as simple as possible, to render it the more secure, the more easy, and intelligible.

Olivier was writing in the late 18th century and thus at a time when the sword as a necessary part of a gentleman’s dress was going out of fashion. Nonetheless, he set out to provide the principles underlaying all play with the sword, and significantly, extols the role of theory. What he has to say of theory is worth quoting in full:

without theory nothing satisfactory can be expected, nor is it possible to act with judgment; for it must not be imagined that to acquire some general notions by dint of practice is sufficient; this is only the out lines of the art, it is going no deeper than the surface, and leaving the subject untouched: the essence and sublime of the art is to draw progressive instructions from one thrust to another; to know how many variations it may be susceptible of, and when to use it with advantage

In Olivier’s mind, this work will help refresh a fencer’s memory as to the pertinent theory necessary to fence well while at the same time helping one recall techniques one may have forgotten. On this last note the master advocates occasional if not regular practice. In contrast to Hope, however, Olivier wastes no time, as he sees it, on past practice, especially on the various movements that less than a century before had been standard. This is important. Olivier casts these not as alternatives to the linear actions, but as fodder used by masters to extend lessons and garner more payment. Disarms too he discards as dangerous. Though he admits that the use of the off-hand to assist in parrying might help in some cases, he doesn’t cover them since like disarms it can leave one open. He makes a distinction here between the fencing he is presenting and what “may sometimes be very serviceable sword in hand.” What we see here is an acknowledgment that school play and what one might use on the ground could be different. [4] The historical fencer restricting themselves to this text might wish to read others alongside it if they are keen for more than school play and if they want to see what parts of Olivier correspond to more practical works.

McArthur, John.  The Army and Navy Gentleman’s Companion or A New and Complete Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Fencing. London: Printed for James Lavers, 1780.

[vi-xi] The motives that principally induce me to publish the following Treatise on the Theory and Practice of the Art of Fencing, are, because such Treatises as I have perused, have been published by Professors, or Teachers of that art, and are incomprehensible to young learners; owing to the intricate manner they have made choice of, in describing the different movements, parades, and thrusts, which should be rendered as simple and easy as the nature of the Art would admit; so that young learners might acquire a perfect knowledge of the Theory of Fencing, and be enabled to execute, or put the same in practice, with little or no instructions from masters.

The treatises hitherto published, are entirely calculated for such persons as have a proficiency in Fencing; and not for gentlemen, who might only have the opportunity of a few months lessons. They may indeed be of use to the former, by having recourse to them occasionally, in order that they may recal to their memory what might be acquired during former practice; but can avail little to such gentlemen, as have only been superficially grounded in the principles of the Art.

I flatter myself, that proficient in fencing will find many things new in the following sheets; and young learners, who have a genius for the art, with the assistance of two or at most, three months lessons from a master, will be enabled to acquire a thorough knowledge of it, so as to put all their parades and thrusts in execution, when entering upon assaults or loose play. I will allow, that a great deal of practice is absolutely necessary, before a young learner can execute all his parades and thrusts with that ease, agility, and justness necessary; but, by strict attention to the rules I have laid down, after receiving thereof from a master, he may acquire justness and agility in fencing, equally as much by practicising these parades and thrusts with a learner, who has made similar progress, as if he practicised them with a master; always observing to execute every manoeuvre with minute exactness; and to prevent his contracting erroneous habits, to have frequent recourse to the lessons and instructions here laid down.

McArthur begins his preface by telling the reader that he desired a simple, straight-forward text for new fencers. In his opinion too many of those penned by the masters contained difficult language, unfamiliar terms, and explanations. Though this sounds a little like Ye Olde London Hemabruh, McArthur also has high praise for Olivier and the Paris Academy. Of particular notice is McArthur’s statement that many gentlemen only have a few lessons, and thus that there was a need for a book that would enable such fencers to recall what they had learned between lessons. Moreover, McArthur still sees a role for the master, even if he also claims that a new fencer, so long as they are disciplined and adhere to the principles he lays out, might make as much progress with another dedicated learner. The work closes with a discussion of “serious affairs” and practical advice. Published less than a decade after Olivier’s work, which in some ways reveals the trend toward school play, it’s clear that even in 1780 an English fencer might wind up in a duel.

So What?

So these different authors had different reasons to write and perspectives—who cares? If you’re serious about smallsword then you do. Change the subject to longsword, sabre, or pole-axe and the answer is the same. Each one of the texts here present’s one author’s view; there will be overlap between them, and, there will be differences. Looked at together we get a better sense of the state of fencing and fencing education between ca. 1700-1800. We learn some important facts about context for one:

  • during the 18th century the slow split that led to the division of fencing into academic and practical was already under way
  • similarly, texts like Hope (1707) and McArthur (1780) both cover practical advice for serious affairs where Olivier (1771) focuses on the assault or bout, so rather than a formal split the two extremes coexisted and were often taught under one roof (so, use of off-line footwork, off-hand parries, disarms is no more or less smallsword than not using them)
  • we learn that many gentlemen might have studied fencing, but some only for a short time—this has implications for the average level of skill at the time
  • we read that even someone keen to make things simple like McArthur put great value on theory, because if one grasps the principles then they’re less likely to fall into error
  • that the sabre, often considered a common “soldier’s weapon” (at least in Spain) in the mid-18th century, became as popular if not more so with officers by at least the Napoleonic period if not the last quarter of the 18th century
  • we also realize that while the difference in these works, some more “serious” than others, stand out to us, that reading all of them will give us a better sense of things than focus on one or the other does—neither sort existed in a vacuum

These are just a few quick conclusions after a cursory read. What they tell us, however, is important. If our goal is to produce interpretations that are as accurate as possible, then we have to consider more than one source (where we have more than one). A look at the collective corpus for smallsword, for example, will benefit a student in many ways, from gaining an appreciation for how different authors at the time approached the same problems to how many different ways they describe an action like the lunge. Students of the time often studied with different teachers. Fiore in the 15th century tells us that he did, and the same was true four and five-hundred years later. It’s even true today. What holds for instructors, holds for treatises—it’s in our best interest to spend time with more than one. We will understand our systems better, and so long as we’re careful and consider context, we’ll likely interpret those systems more accurately and effectively too.

NOTES:

[1] I realize that cultists of the gun in my nation may take umbrage with this, but I stand by it. Like many military brats I grew up around firearms and was instructed in their use. Moreover, from those who served in my family to friends of mine serving now I’ve heard ample anecdotal evidence that confirms rather than denies my assertion here. My father, for example, opted for a .45 pistol over a 9mm as he found the stopping power greater and in his context, jungle warfare, taking out one opponent fast meant dealing with the next (maybe unseen as yet) more quickly. A Marine I’ve known since high school favors a 9mm as sidearm, and he has fought in I don’t know how many tours since 2001. Lastly, from my own experience I’ve seen what a small caliber bullet can do. A close friend of mine, my eldest son’s godmother, was shot through her wooden door by a home-made .22 pistol (likely a gang initiation, but no one was talking of course). Had the door been any thinner she would have died—the bullet was slowed by the door so that when it hit her sternum it ricocheted up into her neck rather than shattering or passing beyond the breastbone. The bullet remains there today as not even the excellent surgeons at Baltimore’s shock-trauma felt safe removing a slug so close to an artery.

[2] Titles listed in order of appearance:

Henry Blackwell, The Gentleman’s Tutor for the Small Sword, or, The Compleat English Fencing Master, 1702/1730 (London, GB: J. Jackson, Archive.org.).

Sir William Hope, A New, Short and Easy Method of Fencing: Or the Art of the Broad and Small-Sword Rectified and Compendiz’d, 1701 (Edinburgh, SCT: James Watson, Google Books).

——. New Method of Fencing, 1708, Highland Swordsmanship: Techniques of the Scottish Swordmasters, ed. Mark Rector (Union City, CA: Chivalry Bookshelf, 2001), 89-189.

Juan Nicolás Perinat, Art of Fencing Foil and Sabre, translated by Tim Rivera, 2018 (Cadiz: Imprenta de la Real Academia de Cavalleros Guardias Marinas, 1758).

J. Olivier, Fencing Familiarized: or, A New Treatise of the Art of Sword Play, 1771 (London, UK: John Bell, Google Books). [NB: dual language, English and French]

John McArthur, The Army and Navy Gentleman’s Companion, ed. Philip T. Crawley. “Study,” The Smallsword Project, https://smallswordproject.com/historic-texts/, 2 September 2020 (London: 1780).

[3] Cf. posts such as “Military vs. Dueling Sabre, Revisited, 23 March, 2021.

[4] In some ways it’s likely impossible to determine exactly when this began. De la Touche, writing in 1670, features fencers using foils and in some cases making actions that seem risky, and yet the duel in France—while illegal—had not disappeared. Is his work academic or practical? My answer would be “yes.” It’s both. It’s what one might learn in an academy, but which still had practical use. Most of the 18th century works that I’ve read so far cut both ways (pardon the pun)—many fencers likely engaged in fencing as we do, as a past time, and yet some of their mates may have been called out or called out others. In the study I’m making now the split becomes more apparent in 19th century works; some of these barely touch on footwork, something no fencer can dispense with outside of the most artificial contexts (yes, I realize there are practices such as the Mensur where neither opponent may move, but while a bloody affair the Mensur is as much ritual as it is a duel—no one is fighting to the death with those sabres. The combats are, in a way, a drinking game. There were plenty of duels as we think of them in German principalities, from point-fencing to sabres mit Stich and pistol. See for one discussion Kevin McAleer’s Dueling: The Cult of Honor in Fin-de-Siècle Germany, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994).

Research & Criticism

In the last few weeks I’ve had frequent occasion to ponder the role criticism plays in research. I take it for granted that criticism is a part of research, start to finish, but this is something I’m finding I need to be more aware of when engaging those who are coming to research from other paths. No one likes being told that their hard work needs attention or revision, but it’s as necessary to effective research as having sources.

Evaluating a position is built in—it has to be if research is to work. We are fallible, all of us, no matter how much training we’ve had. We will make mistakes. Good researchers, good students, take those and use those mistakes to improve their work. Sometimes that means accepting the hard fact that a line of reasoning we’ve been working on is flawed and should be abandoned. It sucks when this happens. But, this is the way. It’s how we reach a vaccine that works instead of one poisoning us or having no effect whatsoever; it’s how we know the Egyptians built their own pyramids and not some fanciful space visitor; it’s how we know that Fiore, de Saint-Didier, and Aldo Nadi followed the same universal principles of fence.

Giving criticism is difficult, receiving it even harder, but it’s part of the process and so it makes sense to talk about it in more depth. [1] A decent analogy for the process is to consider refining an iron ingot to make steel. The smith heats then hammers it, reheats it and hammers again. In the process the dross drops to the floor and one ends up with steel suitable for work. Fire burns, hammer strokes hit hard, but they’re necessary. The smith doesn’t use fire or the hammer out of hatred for iron, but to improve it. It’s the same with “constructive criticism,” least it should be.

Elements of Research

Framing the Question

To conduct research well requires sufficient grounding in the topic. A student new to a subject is often given a question to answer or issue to explore. This is what teachers do in secondary school and college. With those new to Roman history, for example I used to give them a prompt because I couldn’t expect them to have command of the events, people, and issues of the time. When we covered one of Rome’s most lasting contributions, naturalized citizenship, I selected relevant works for them to read, and then gave them a question that had them use those selections to answer it. For freshmen, this might be relatively straight-forward, but for upper-division students I could take this one step deeper, such as focusing on one text or an aspect of the larger issue. For a graduate student this goes deeper still—they might read Tacitus, portions at least in Latin, and then familiarize themselves with the relevant scholarship about Tactius’ stance on Roman citizenship. Some upper-division students might do this too depending on ability, major, etc. It’s important we meet students where they are and then push them, gently, to the next step—sometimes we meet them at the door, sometimes sitting at the table in a large room. Assessing ability is part of the job, and, it’s something that test scores are next to useless in helping us do. Teaching someone new to sabre, for a different example, one starts with the most basic material, how to stand, move, and extend the arm, not with second intention attacks, compound parry-ripostes, and advanced tactical use of tempo.

Evaluating the Argument

Once that paper is drafted, or more usually now just turned in, the teacher evaluates it. Did the student answer the question? Did they support that answer using evidence, and, did they do so appropriately? Did they show me how that evidence supports their conclusion or merely state that it does? If they used any theoretical frameworks did they do so accurately? Are there logical fallacies or other errors in reasoning? A major portion of this, and easily the most disliked by students, is simultaneously assessing their grammar and syntax. Clarity is the goal, so extra verbiage, three-dollar words sprinkled for effect, and other distractions are important to excise. Just as we correct a fencing student to use only what they will need in a bout, so too do we correct excesses in writing that undermine a researcher’s thesis.

HOW we make this assessment, however, is everything. Effective editing with kindness is, in my view, one of the most difficult skills to learn. With sentences that are awkward, for example, writing the abbreviation “Awk” in red pen next to the offending line isn’t very helpful. Instead, I resort to “Perhaps rephrase? Maybe something like this: ….,” and now I do this even with seasoned writers. This is a gentler way of pointing out a problem area, but it also helps steer them toward what they need to do to fix it. When one of my fencing students moves their foot before the weapon, I don’t shout them down, but point it out and have them do it again. If the student is sensitive, I remind them that this stuff is really hard to do, that they don’t move like this 99.9% of the time, that we all go through this, and have them do it again, and again, until they get it right.

Term Paper vs. Research Article

The way one evaluates a peer’s research paper is similar to the process that one uses with a student paper, but more rigorous and approached with the assumption that the author has learned how to take criticism. This is a dangerous assumption, however, when working with amateur researchers (“amateur” here meaning not professional scholars). It is likely that an amateur scholar is not used to the process. This is one lesson I have learned painfully this year.

I do a fair amount of editing for colleagues, some professional, some amateur, both generally researchers of skill that know that I’m not blasting them for mistakes, but only trying to help them make their work stronger. It’s part of the job. We assist one another. In a talk I’m delivering this very week I have asked the host and a trusted researcher I know to go over my slides and notes. Each has given me useful feedback that will only help me. Now, I could feel bad or embarrassed that I didn’t think of some of these things, but why? This is why I sent them my work. Research, never mind sharing it, is hard! There is no shame in getting help—that goes for any stage of expertise. They are helping me increase the chances that my talk is a success. I am grateful to them for that. I will also be sure to announce their contribution.

Research Reserved is like a Broken Rapier

Research, if it is to have any meaning, must be shared. Even when I was teaching college courses and trying to publish on the side I embraced this idea. It’s one reason that teaching at junior colleges was important to me; it’s also why most of my publishing to date is what too many of my colleagues consider “soft publishing.” [2] It’s why I took the most important part of my dissertation and shared it for free on academia.edu: more people will see it via google than will read it as a monograph collecting dust on the handful of libraries that might buy it. All this work is useless and self-serving if the only people who benefit from it are other academics.

Scene of Hy Brasil sinking in “Erik the Viking” (1989)–an image that often comes to mind watching academia eat its own.

Of course, this is also one reason I don’t have a tenure-track position or why I am not writing reference works at the moment. It’s an imperfect analogy, because this example is more exalted than my own, but when Prometheus shared fire with humanity the gods felt that he had broken the rules. For those academics whose response to attack has been to hole up in the ivory tower and look down on the supposed rubes assailing them, those of us actively passing out research (or worse trying to teach people how to do it better without collecting a cent) are turn-coats. There’s not much they can do but keep us out of the mix and insult us from afar. Dying industries tend to entrench.

Donning the Big-Kid Pants

In sharing research, however, one must be prepared for criticism. If any prospect of that is repellent, then don’t write and share your work. Forget your friends and/or fans, forget the colleagues miles away who are likely to agree with you—they’re easy; consider only the person who wants to see you fail, because sad to say they sometimes exist. Normally it’s not personal, but it will feel that way. If you’re prepared for that clown, one you’re unlikely to meet, then you can handle anything. There was, in the 1990s, a notorious academic in medieval history, who delighted in shredding graduate students at the Huntington. His work is good, and I’m guessing his classes were, but fellow graduate students who delivered papers at that conference dreaded his responses. He took perverse delight in tearing them down, the way a deranged boxer might in punching a toddler. I never had to deal with him, lucky for me (and him—I was a different person in the 90s sad to say), but I ran into his type more than once. [3] Navigating failed humans like that guy, which no one should suffer, will toughen those up who survive it. Today, were I to deliver a paper and receive grief from this loser I’d be only too happy to engage–he attacks because he is weak.

Research & Responsibility

I can only speak for myself, though I think it holds for many people, but the longer one spends in research the harder it is to embrace arrogance or denigrate others who do this too. There is more out there to explore than we have life to live; producing an argument and then sharing it, globally, is not for the faint of heart. We gain nothing in being mean or beating on someone. However, when an argument is weak, flawed, or in some other way deficient it’s not only proper to say so but also to point it out how. Research may be conducted individually, but done right the product is collective—conclusions, right or wrong, affect the whole. They affect us all. By implication this means we have a shared responsibility, to ourselves, to one another, and to those who read us to do our best work. It’s a collaborative process, really.

It is best not to take it personally; after all, it’s rarely personal. More often that not we do not know or barely know others in the field when it comes to “HEMA.” Social media, unfortunately, has proved an ideal vehicle for “trolls,” half-wits, and those who having been bullied at some point feel they can retaliate anonymously and somehow get their own back. It shouldn’t be hard to tell the difference between a troll and someone pointing out a potential issue with our work. Some people are blunt, a personality aspect hard to detect in writing or online, but well-meaning; some are so apologetic they never get to the point; some are kind and just list the issue, and if we’re lucky, provide some help; and then there are the trolls. Analyzing the comments on your paper, blog, Youtube video, etc. will help you figure out who is who, and, whom it is worth listening to. To be honest, on social media and Youtube disabling comments is the best bet–legitimate critics can contact you in other ways.

Just as there are many ways to give a critique, there are many ways to respond. I’ve witnessed most in this context, and while many are acceptable, the best combines listening humbly and responding graciously. If it helps, fake it; pretend. Imagine that Capt. Red-pen is one of your friends just eager to help you improve your argument. In fairness, criticism, where it isn’t a case of right and wrong, sometimes comes down to style and preference. One editor may not like fancier turns of phrase; one may love it. It’s important to distinguish between substantive issues, which we should always consider, and stylistic ones, which we can examine and then decide if it merits further attention. For example, outside of the US there are countries where use of the “historical present” is acceptable if not normal. This is where the author writes about past events as if happening now, e.g. “Colum Cille visits Brude. They talk. The Pictish king is unconvinced, but polite” versus “Colum Cille visited Brude. They discuss various matters, but the Pictish king, while polite, was unconvinced by the missionary’s message.” If the paper you’re editing or reviewing is written this way ask your writer who the audience is and where they plan to publish it. If they are aiming at a North American market, suggest they revise and use a past tense; if for a journal in Europe suggest they check with the editor of that serial as it may be perfectly okay. For a more common example, some writers enjoy a good turn of phrase, some do not. You can suggest that the paragraph-long sentence might be broken up, but the writer doesn’t necessarily have to change a thing—that may just be the way they write. If they’re publishing, then the editor will have better call to make a case for brevity.

If however, your reader points out a misreading, a missing piece of evidence, an important article you haven’t referenced that should be there, or a misstep in reasoning, then set your ego aside and reread your work. Look at it plainly, as if reading someone else’s work, and see if they’re correct. If they are, thank them and revise; if not, and there is a back and forth, explain it. They may not agree, but at least you’ve had the conversation. There are times when we will make the wrong call, put our work out there, and realize that we should have revised. It happens. [4] It can also be avoided, and it gets easier too, especially if you’ve made that mistake and learned the lesson. Some people have to fall before they realize they can get back up. Some, however, will refuse to stand up, remain prone and fight to the death that they were correct when they’re not. [5] People are people.

A Figurative Glove cast in the Hazard

The excellent Maestro Giovanni Rapisardi (photo via fb)–his approach to historical fencing has much to recommend it

Do your best work. If someone with appropriate training comments on work you’ve shared publicly, have the good sense to consider it—thank them even if you decide to ignore it. You lose no face in being gracious and it will indicate that you are someone who knows how to play nicely with the other kids. A poor defensive response reads a certain way to professional researchers, and if you are going to play their game, then it behooves you to know the rules. They’ll hold you to them whether you like it or not.

I tell my fencing students that they should never, ever underestimate any opponent: treat each one as the most dangerous person that they’ll ever face. We practice, we drill, we train so that under pressure, when it counts, our technique and tactics will be effective. This often means working far more complicated actions in practice—that effort helps refine our game so that when we use the typical, less complicated maneuvers that we do in a bout they are that much crisper.

The same principle works in research—anticipate potential issues and correct them as best you can before sharing your work; read, reread, and verify; share your draft with people trained to evaluate both the material and process. Consider any suggestions. Once that paper is in print or posted online, it is exposed to the world and by extension, so are you. Be prepared for a variety of responses, some great, many more a near silent “meh,” and then a few that seem tailor-made to make you feel as small as possible. Answer each with calm, grace, and confidence—ignore fools, but cultivate a response to legitimate criticism that is measured and open-minded. A lot of researchers fail, some through fraud, some through hubris, some through just being too stupid to listen, and some because they quit when they get a bad review. Every successful scholar abides the dictates of the methodology of research and knows how to take criticism—they use the latter to make their position stronger. You should too.

Notes:

[1] See entry on this site entitled “Dealing with Criticism” 28 Oct. 2019.

[2] Academia is a brutal place. The rewards are few and small, so those lucky enough to find a position or who lick enough boots to land one tend to guard those hard-won prerogatives tenaciously. As with any organization composed of rigid hierarchies, there is a sense that those at the top deserve it, and that those who work below decks, as adjuncts, lecturers, and at junior colleges are where they are because they lack the genius and gifts their tenured peers must possess. It’s bullshit, but between poor pay and the fact that Americans dislike intellectuals their arrogance is unsurprising. What goes for teaching goes for publishing, and even now a monograph and second book are considered “real” work where publishing for the masses is considered less rigorous.

[3] I’ll not name this buffoon, but will say that his two volume medieval reader and work on the Merovingians remains popular. Smart as he might be, important as his work might be, he’s the perfect example of someone who believes their own painful path to full-time teaching entitles him to be abusive. I was far luckier—most of my PhD committee were older scholars, well-respected in their fields, and far too kind and intelligent to indulge in such behavior. The one exception was the guy who tested me on Greek history during my oral exams. It was disgusting enough to prompt my Celtic professor, the wonderful Jószi Nagy (then at UCLA), to ask me the next time I was down there for a class “So, what gives with the macho Greek professor?” He shared the story with the rest of the small class and they were horrified, and this was at UCLA where t.a.s received more comments about how they dress on student evaluations than anything else. Classes with Jószi were some of best I ever took; it didn’t hurt that he is Hungarian and I love sabre either 😉

[4] For a personal example, I contributed to my graduate advisor’s Festschrift, a collection of articles by students and colleagues celebrating his career and contributions to the field. My friend, the late Tom Sizgorich and I, were sort of outliers—Tom focused on early Islam, I focused on early Ireland—but if anything we serve as good examples of just how nimble our advisor, Hal Drake, can be. My submission was on the blending of Mediterranean and Irish narrative motives in the vita of the saint I worked on the most and whose life I translated in my dissertation, St. Áed mac Bricc. The editor requested that I remove the Latin portions of the quotations I used from my notes, and excise some of the examples I used for the nods to Celtic ideas of the “Otherworld” in the paper. I did. The review that came out in Bryn Mawr Classical Review was kind enough, but mentioned in re my paper that more examples from Irish texts would have helped. He wasn’t wrong. Nowadays I would have politely disagreed with the editor and left them in, but we live and learn.

[5] I’d rather not use an example from HEMA here, not after the most recent encounter with this, so I’ll stick to another academic topic. There’s a scholar in my field, a nice enough guy, and well-trained, but whose analysis tends to suffer from a propensity to make tenuous connections. I’ve seen him do this with both linguistics and historical topics. For the latter, he delivered a paper at one conference that would make a decent movie, but which was poor history. Taking three attestations of the name “Patricius,” instances separated geographically and in some degree temporally, he posited that each referred to the same man. Responses were polite, as they usually are at Celtic conferences (it’s a really small field), but they were to the point too. One of the audience asked “—-, a simpler explanation is that these three pieces of evidence refer to three, perhaps two different people, right? Is it likely that the one Patrick we all know traveled this extensively, and, had time and inclination to put his name on a brick?”

Academic Rigor, Accountability, and “Gate-keeping” in Historical Fencing

Disagreement makes most people uncomfortable—it forces even the most narcissistic to pause, if only briefly, and confront where they stand. If there is an audience, it’s even more painful. There are good and bad ways to handle this. Whether criticizing or receiving the critique compassion should temper the message. Well-intentioned criticism is important, from politics to dealing with fencers who disagree with us, but of late—in the U.S. anyway—holding people accountable has become taboo. Even when warranted, even when it can literally affect lives, the American response is “ain’t no one tells me what to do!” followed closely by “who the hell does his a-hole think they are?!” One doesn’t have to be Dr. Fauci to appreciate this.

In historical fencing anyone critical of the errors we make as a community is at best considered a clown, at worst a “gate-keeper.” Regardless they’re considered a pain in the ass. The nail that tells you this was a bad place to sit, however, is just a nail, and assuming one looks where one plans to sit that same nail is easily avoided. In the rush to sit, however, our collective bottom has planted itself on a number of nails and now, in pain and bleeding, we ignore it. Worse, some maintain that there are no nails, and anyone who says so is a meanie or deluded.

I have no interest in gatekeeping in the sense one can find in the august lexicon that is the Urban Dictionary, e.g.

Top Definition: When someone is an asshole enough to tell you that you don’t have enough qualities to like what you want to like or be what you want to be, solely based on their opinions and experiences, even if  they don’t know as much about what said person aspires to like / be.

or

2

Gatekeeper

1) One who devalues other’s opinions on something by claiming they’re not entitled to the opinion because they’re not qualified, the rightful decision-maker, a part of a particular group, etc. [https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Gatekeeper]

In re the top definition, to dress someone down for what they like is stupid. People like what they like. Similarly, to tell someone that they lack the qualities to become something is, on its own, stupid. If it is additional training, then they can get that. The second definition, the one I think applies in most of the cases in which I’ve heard it, is more problematic. There are times this applies, and times when it doesn’t. What do we do when someone qualified attempts to point out something they’re actually qualified to point out? If HEMA is any guide, they get roasted on social media—middle schoolers can’t bully half as well.

We do not like expertise (again, mostly referencing my own nation here), but we apply this hatred unequally. Few people I know would be okay visiting a dentist who picked up the practice for fun and who had not been to school, but when it comes to many other fields, we tend to be more circumspect. The number of times as a teacher I had to refute pseudo-history that a student had learned on the “History Channel” (aliens and giants loom large) made it clear that my training mattered far less to them than what some asshat t.v. personality like the “Naked Archaeologist” (who is not an archaeologist by the way) said. I see the same issues in our community.

In historical fencing there is functionally no difference between a well-supported argument and opinion. But these are different. I can’t stand mushrooms in any form; my opinion is that dung flowers are best left out of meals. That’s an opinion. I cannot back that up with evidence apart from my own sense of revulsion and taste buds. Most people I know love mushrooms, so lucky them, they get mine should I have the misfortune to see them on a plate. I don’t judge them for it, though I may tease them, and they me. Conversely, the statement”vaccines save lives” is not an opinion—this is something we have hard data to back up, a lot of it, and that goes double for the staying power of the special species of idiocy that thinks they cause autism.

Returning to “HEMA,” the phrase “I love Messer, it’s the best!” is an opinion. That person enjoys it more than anything else, and there is nothing wrong with that. Cool, Messer person, do Messer. However, saying “one never retreats in the Liechtenauer tradition” is an argument that one can evaluate by an examination of the available evidence. In cases where there is a paucity of evidence one might be able to argue either pro or con; unless more evidence comes to light, we may be unable to say for certain. In such cases we follow the interpretation that makes the most sense to us given the evidence, and since this isn’t vaccine formulation or designing car brakes that’s okay. Historians still argue over Alexander of Macedon’s ultimate plan for his conquests.

One of the greatest assets within HEMA, as well as its greatest pitfall, is that we are an amateur-driven community. On the plus side, we get a multitude of views, skill sets, and experience helping drive our research. This is good. On the negative side, the amateurs who have made names for themselves are often less inclined to listen to experts, less because those experts might help than the fear they might steal the limelight. We need to remain an amateur pursuit. If academics overran HEMA it would become fossilized, prey to the same b.s. that has long stymied academia and helped make it the supposed den of baddies most people believe it to be. What we need, and don’t have, is better cooperation between amateurs and experts. A middle way.

To some degree we see this collaboration, but it is cliquish, not universal. This past year I meandered into an old, tired debate (lesson fucking learned there) that highlights this powerfully. The battle lines in this particular debate are revealing—on the one side is a group of ambitious up-and-comers who want to make a name for themselves, and on the other is a collection of people who in one way or another have been at this a lot, lot longer. Since I’m not a principle in the debate, just a bystander, it’s easier for me to see some things. This doesn’t mean I don’t get things wrong, I do, a lot, but if the various pieces I’ve read by both sides are any guide there is a gulf in understanding with the up-and-comers, paramount of which is how they approach both information and those whose profession it is, in whatever guise, to analyze that information.

The problem is that nothing is automatic. In this contest, for example, the long-time researcher under attack remembers the first iteration of this particular debate, but the fact that his own side emerged the victor in it apparently means nothing to those who weren’t there twenty years ago. Were this almost anything else but fencing research it’s hard not to conclude that the current group attacking a well-proven position would have either avoided the mistake or conceded defeat when it inevitably lost again. Getting them to see this, however, hasn’t worked, because their basis for authority is different. It’s a painful analogy to use, but apt—like Plato’s people in the cave mistaking shadows for reality, these fencers are either unable or unwilling to see how feeble some of these theories are and how unqualified in some instances those devising those theories are. They don’t see it, because if they do then the illusion of authority is brought into question—if one’s experience in HEMA is based off the view of that authority, it raises uncomfortable questions. No one enjoys being in the wrong or realizing that they have approached something with a faulty interpretation. It isn’t fatal, but can feel like it. Once we realize it, we set about trying to do it better; with something like reconstructing extinct fighting arts we are going to get it wrong sometimes. That experience, however, doesn’t need to have been a waste—we learn a lot through mistakes.

I have to wonder if this isn’t so much about research or a quest for the best interpretation, but about making a name for oneself by any means necessary, even at the cost of credibility outside their claque, that drives some of this. This is, anyway, how it looks to those of us trained to conduct research. When faced with damning evidence that defeats a cherished theory, we have but two recourses—quit, which is sometimes the best thing to do, or take that criticism and improve our position if we can. But if we can’t recognize damning evidence as such, then what?

I don’t have an answer to that. Nor do I see any viable solution, because the requirement is humility and that is in short supply in historical fencing. It’s apparently harder to acknowledge another’s training, skill, time in, or anything else unless that person somehow passes whatever the litmus test is for popularity and acceptability. Watching a recognized authority within the community face such deep disregard is both heart-breaking and embarrassing. It should be to everyone.

Should things continue along the same lines within HEMA’s research side it is only a matter of time before a split similar to the one that took place in Olympic fencing occurs. It likely has already. By the time it is obvious it is usually too late.

Note: Concerning George Silver and the Notion of a “Slow Hand”

The recent discussion about George Silver that caused such a hullabaloo within historical fencing was, to my mind, answered in full by Stephen Hand in his paper “Will the Real George Silver Please Stand Up (available free, here: https://stephen-hand.selz.com/ ).”

In a post I shared here [“’Silver’ as Trigger Word,” 30 Dec. 2020] I mentioned that nothing I had seen by Hand suggested that he advocated the “slow hand” as described by those promoting the “alternative interpretation.” Having just purchased Mr. Hand’s English Swordsmanship: The True Fight of George Silver (2006), which I had not read at that time, I was finally able to see if Hand uses the term and if his opponents’ reading of it is correct. Yes, Hand does mention a “slow hand,” but no it doesn’t mean what that alternative camp thinks it does.

Page 11 of English Swordsmanship contains the “slow hand” discussion. Hand’s detractors have missed the point of the entire chapter. His approach to explaining this difficult concept uses hypophora, a well-known rhetorical device, in which the author asks questions and then answers them. For example, he asks “So how is it, that in an attack, the swift hand can move before the slow foot and yet both arrive together?” This is a device; it’s a way of setting up his explanation of Silver’s approach by guiding the reader to ask the right question.

The next sentence makes this even more clear, e.g. “Why isn’t it better to start moving with the slower foot and reserve the action of the swifter hand until the last possible moment?” This isn’t Hand asking the question but anticipating the sort of question that a reader without much training might ask. The last sentence in this first full paragraph ties it all together. Hand says, as a teacher might, that these are important questions, and that their answers—which he hasn’t discussed completely as yet—are “fundamental to an understanding of Silver’s true fight.” After all, this is what Hand is doing, explaining a key concept of fencing as Silver expressed it.

In truth, Hand provides the answer early in this section, but for those without a solid grasp of fencing theory they might miss it. Hand writes:

In any attack involving a foot movement, in any art, the attack should arrive at the same time as the stepping foot. This is so that the strength of the entire body can be transmitted through the arm into the weapon, to maintain correct balance and finally, because the attack should land as soon as the movement of the foot has brought the attacker (the Agent) close enough to hit. This is when the foot lands or possibly very slightly before.

That last line is critical. Silver is not talking about a lunge, but a step. In a lunge the true times apply as well—weapon/hand precedes foot and body—but the mechanics of the attack mean that the weapon, ideally, lands just before the front foot comes to rest. It often arrives at the same time. What cannot happen, however, is for that foot to start first. Why? The foot is slow and telegraphs the fact that an attack is coming, information that the defender can then use to decide whether to defend or attempt a counterattack. The weapon moving first puts the opponent in danger—they must deal with the advancing weapon or be injured.

Where a lunge is a compromise between safety and maximum extension of the weapon to target, a step or pass is shorter, the body closer to target as one closes. For example, if one is in Silver’s guard of Open Fight (similar to Ital. guardia alta), a guard where the weapon is poised above one ready to strike and intends to make a head-cut, letting the blade simply fall at the opponent won’t work. The arc is slow. If however one drops the fist down and out this projects the weapon between one and the opponent, increases the momentum, and makes it safer to step and finish the blow. When Hand refers to “slowing the hand, so that the attack arrives as the foot lands,” this is what he’s talking about. It’s a question of sequence—as he explains in the very next sentence:

Moving the hand first creates a threat (the weapon) before the target (the body) is brought into distance. In order to be safe, one must make a threat before one creates a target.

This doesn’t defy Silver’s admonition that the hand being tied to the foot is a false time, because the hand precedes the foot. It starts before the foot, it interposes the weapon before the foot moves, and that is the important part. Whether the blade lands at the same time or just before the foot is another issue, one that takes place after the attack starts. So long as the hand starts first—assuming everything else is in place—then one is observing the true times.

Should anyone think Silver is up the pole about this hand first business, a quick look at Marcelli’s Rule of Fencing (1686) makes an illuminating comparison:

From this presupposed termination, I take note of that which I have said until now, for the precedence of the hand in the beginning of the thrust. Since it is a certain maxim in fencing, that, in finishing the thrust, all the movements of the body have to finish together and in the same tempo, being in a single tempo firm and well situated with the body in the termination. For that reason, to effect accomplishing that, the hand must necessarily move before any other part, since this, having to make a longer path, and a greater movement, it is necessary that it would advance first of all. [n.]

However expressed, the concept can be difficult to grasp let alone perform. Hand does a fantastic job setting up this discussion and clearly took his time to do so because he knows full well how subtle a point this is: it may be a concept foreign to non-fencers or new martial artists and thus needs careful explanation. Despite the effective use of rhetorical devices to guide the reader, some will still trip up, especially if they don’t understand the principle of weapon-first. As Hand says, this is universal to martial arts. For a quick example, if I step into distance before launching a punch I may be punched first; if I kick from out of distance an opponent may trap my leg. Each of these examples distills the complex relationship between measure, tempo, and judgment, that is, knowing one is in the right place to attack.

It is exceedingly difficult to capture the complexities of movement in words. This said, Hand makes it very clear what he means by “slow hand:”

So, leading with the hand creates a threat before creating a target and allows for far greater tactical flexibility. The hand must be slowed, but does not have to remain slow. This natural by-product of attacking in the third or fourth true times can be used as an instrument of great tactical subtlety. I sometimes refer to this as attacking with the slow hand but perhaps a more useful term is broken time. A single time, by definition a single action, can be broken into two or more parts. These parts are not actions in their own right, but are distinct parts of a single complex action.

Anyone with a background in fencing should understand what this means. It’s a very old idea and one common to all fencing. For example, a direct lunge in foil is one tempo; an attack with a disengage is one tempo. However, if I feint or beat, that is two tempi. One might assume that a disengage is two tempi because the blade moves from one side to the other, but this motion happens—to quote Hand—as “distinct parts of a single complex action.” If a reader doesn’t understand this, however, then they are going to find Silver’s true times, especially in Silver’s English, challenging or nonsensical.

“Broken time” is more complex still. I tend to use similar language when I explain this to students. In fencing we often talk about breaking tempo. It is an advanced tactic that experienced fencers often use. The reason is that performing any action in single tempo is difficult enough. It takes time to do it well. As one improves one adds compound attacks and actions of multiple tempi, and then when these are well understood one learns how to break tempo.

This can be done a variety of ways. One can break tempo by changing the speed of one’s footwork, and, by changing the speed of one’s hand. In each instance, however, this only works if the elements of fencing are present, that is, if one is abiding the universal principles which govern it. For example, if I wish to change the tempo of a riposte, I might set up an opponent the first few exchanges to expect an immediate riposte. Then, the next time, I might a) hold the riposte for a second then make the return (an indirect riposte) or b) feint to the same line, but then cut to another (a compound parry-riposte). In that first instance, the indirect riposte, I’m playing with the tempo, I’m slowing my response so that my opponent will parry to the same place they did previously so that I can attack in a new line. That is using a “slow hand.” Of note, my hand still starts first—I do not advance and then strike (having just attacked me it is far more likely that I took a half step back to parry). If I hold an indirect or the first feint of a compound parry/riposte too long I increase the chance of my opponent making a remise (the renewal of an attack after its been parried by attacking to the same line as the original action). All of this, moreover, takes places in nanoseconds, so “slow” is extremely relative.

Most of the confusion should be resolved if one distinguishes between when the weapon/hand starts (it should be first) and when the weapon/hand lands. Manipulating tempo like that, breaking it, is not easy to do well and it can go wrong quickly. It is also a difficult skill to acquire if one hasn’t put in the time to master fundamental actions first. Generally, if a student is still learning the basic rules, if they are still working to grasp the order of operations for an attack, then they’re not ready to work on breaking tempo.

NOTES:

[n] Francesco Antonio Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, 1686, translated by Christopher A. Holzman, Lulu Press, 2019, 111. The original Italian reads: Da questa presupposta termination, prendo ragione di quell che sin’hora hò detto, per l’anticipatione della mano nella partenza della Stoccata. Poiche è Massima certa nella Scherma, che nel terminare la botta, si hanno da terminare unitamente, & in un’istesso tempo tutti I moti del corpo, restando in un tempo solo fermo, e ben situate con la vita nella termination. Perloche, ad effetto di conseguire ciò, necessariamente si deue movere la mano prima d’ogn’altro mēbro; se questa, dovendo fare camino piu longo, e motto più grande; accio si trovi à tēpo nel terminare insieme con gl’altri, è necessario, che camini prima di tutti. [Marcelli, Regole della Scherma, Libro Secondo, Ch. 6, 80, available via Google Books]. NB: “ē” here is an old abbreviation for “em,” thus mēbro is membro, tēpo tempo.