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.

Military vs. Dueling Sabre, Revisited

In discussion with a local group studying Insular broadsword [1] the topic of what makes sabre “military” or “dueling” came up, again. We explored the place of context and how it’s the key to the distinction, such as it is. This may seem a pedantic topic, and it’s one I’ve covered before [see n. 10 below], but because of the popularity of works for infantry drill it’s an important one. If accuracy in our practice is at all a concern, then we need to view all the myriad videos, fb pages, pdfs, and seminars carefully. Many instructors are, without realizing it, instilling an inaccurate distinction between military and dueling sabre. They are not so much different species as they are siblings who chose different MOSes in the army. [2] Failing to realize this results in poor recreation of past fencing systems.

“Military” Sabre

Often synonymous with “sabre” in “HEMA,” the idea of “military” sabre is a term that is generally used only with reference to European systems developed for and used by various branches of period militaries. English sources are arguably the most popular, though Dutch, German, Spanish, and Portuguese works are also in wide circulation. Preference is for earlier sources, and thus the 18th and 19th century English works, particularly those for broadsword as penned by Roworth, Page, Angelo, and others enjoy great popularity. It was not until after the Napoleonic Wars that the English government issued regimental manuals, so prior to that various treatises written by military men, such as Charles Roworth, provided the necessary instruction. While less popular within HEMA, for reasons I’ll share below, most French and Italian sources used in HEMA are also military works or were produced by military men.

In commonwealth and former colonial countries there is a parallel and sometimes dual fascination with Scottish “highland” broadsword, particularly in Canada and the United States. These fencers look to Henry Angelo, Sir William Hope, Thomas Mathewson, Donald McBane, Archibald MacGregor, G. Sinclair, and other sources, such as the Penicuik Drawings. The romance and reputation for ferocity associated with the highland clans of Scotland is as powerful now as it was in the late 18th century, a fact not lost on those, like Henry Angelo Sr., whose use of exotic adjectives and nods to exotic warriors helped popularize his system. [3] After all, in some ways the ’45 was just history enough to the generation writing fencing treatises in England ca. 1775-1800 to have accrued legend and wonder, similar in a way to what World War II was for interested children (not to mention adults) in the 1970s and 1980s. It helped too that the enrollment of Scots into the English army as “ethnic” units meant that kilt, bagpipe, and broadsword remained fixed in the minds of English people. Broadsword, however, was not unique to Scotland, but widely used in the Isles from at least the time of The-Englishman-What-Shouldna-be-Named, George Silver. It was during the 17th century rebellion against the crown that the broadsword came into its own, particularly with cavalry, both Cavalier and Roundhead.

The military connection with this collection of works is obvious. However, because fencers often read these texts shallowly, without understanding the context, they form conclusions that are incorrect or at best incomplete. One result of this is that military sabre has become associated with interpretations that are not wrong per se, but which place undue importance on certain elements common to most infantry sword manuals. [4] There are two examples I will cover here. First, is the widespread practice in HEMA of always fighting in close measure. There is a notion that one doesn’t retreat or recover out of the lunge in defense. This is sometimes the correct action, but it is not a rule written in stone, and in fact is sometimes exactly what someone should not do. We are meant to use measure even if it means retreating. Second, there is a fetish for attacks to the leg in much of HEMA sabre; it’s not that leg cuts and defense weren’t part of these systems, they were, but that too much focus is given to them in a context where they make less sense, a bout between two opponents.

Hug Me, No, Closer Brother

One of the most common features of HEMA bouting is sticking to close measure to fight. There are a few reasons for this. On the one hand, one must be close enough to strike, so on a simplistic level the closer one is, the more likely one can strike—conversely, the more oneself is at risk. On the other, because there is a tendency to take images in our sources at face value many fencers, with the best intentions, assume the same distance they see in these images.

A further complication, and a critical consideration of context, is the attention paid in infantry manuals to both footwork and measure. Henry Charles Angelo, in his Infantry Sword Exercise (1845), remarks that his work is intended as

the surest and quickest mode of forming Swordsmen; and the Drill Officers are to understand clearly, that when Recruits have completed their Preparatory and Drill Practices, without and with the sword, they need no longer be required to remember the precise order in which they are here given; nor to repeat them, if sufficiently instructed to go through the Review Exercise effectively, where every Cut, Point, and Parry is shown. [Introductory Remarks]

The language here explains that the goal was forming competent, not expert swordsmen. Further reading illustrates that Angelo assumed that the men trained together, in ranks, and assumed this position or that attack on command (see for example page 28). This is not close, individual training, but training writ large—corrections were made, but not as a maestro might working one-on-one with a student. Given the fact the men were in “Files” (rows) and thus close together, there is little discussion of footwork or measure.

Angelo mentions the advance, retiring (the retreat), and the lunge (36), and further specifies that there can be no set distance for how large the step is, but that the men should shoot for a step of about six inches (11-12). In Section VI Angelo expands slightly upon measure, mentioning both the line of direction (36) and seeking the most advantageous position so that one may effect “a decidedly quick movement in that direction where your opponent has the least means of resistance (35).” What detail he provides pertains to which guard is best against which attack, not how one might move. There is discussion of shifting the leg against leg attacks (cf. 30), but also attention paid to the issues the men will face in rows. Taken together, there is very little to go on in terms of movement and manipulating distance. Angelo mentions “proper distance” (e.g. 30), but doesn’t elaborate. While the regimental swordmaster’s knowledge aided the men in learning that all important information, no such aid is available to those exploring this text. Angelo assumed that his professional readers knew that information. Today’s fencers are left with the barest descriptions.

from Henry Angelo Sr.’s “Ten Divsions of the Highland Broad Sword,” 1799

This paucity of explanation, coupled with images from works like Henry Charles Angelo’s father’s (Henry Angelo Sr.) “Ten Lessons of Highland Broad Sword” (1799), suggest that fencers are more or less always in close distance to strike. Without study of traditional fencing theory, or of the first Angelo’s The School of Fencing (1763/1765), any fencer working from this collection of sources is at a disadvantage. One should not stay in measure all the time. Traditionally, depending upon which source one reads, there are three critical measures—out of distance, where one must advance and then lunge to target; in measure, where one can lunge to target; and close measure, where either party may strike the other. [5] Knowledge of measure and how it works, for offense and defense, means that one should be able to get in and out of distance, even if that means making a small tactical retreat to give oneself more room and time to defend. There is nothing cowardly about that at all—it’s tactical. A retreat is not the same thing as turning tail and running.

Ankle-Biters and Eating Thrusts

Why do so many regimental works include leg defense? Training soldiers en masse was not intended to create expert swordsmen, only effective swordsmen, as Angelo remarked; in most cases the focus was and remained on the effective use of firearms. Second, because soldiers might easily find themselves in situations where their legs were vulnerable, leg defense was included. This is one reason there is so much focus on the head and the leg. The question today’s fans of regimental broadsword need to ask, however, is why?

19th cen. engraving depicting Colonel Wm. Prescott in the redoubt on Breed’s Hill, Battle of Bunker Hill, 17 June 1775.

There are no rules when it comes to fighting with a sword in war. Any polite, genteel nicety picked up in a gentleman’s salle is inapplicable in such chaos. Attacks from multiple directions, punching, kicking, grappling, the mix of bayonet and rifle-butt, not to mention musket and cannon-balls flying amidst the combatants make that impossible; likewise the noise, blood, mud if it is present, smoke, uneven or challenging terrain, and minimal control over distance also affect everything. In such a context it is far more likely that one may have to defend the legs, and all the more so if one is defending a high position such as a bastion or redoubt. Without considering this vital piece of the puzzle fencers today wishing to recreate Napoleonic era sabre will put undue emphasis on a target that in their own context is more likely to earn them a double or counter-attack in time. Too many fencers take these ideas out of context and use them as a litmus test for how “martial” a tradition is—that doesn’t follow, not if examined in context. Put another way, attacking the legs doesn’t make one’s approach more “military,” though arguably knowing how to defend the legs might. Even the authors who cover leg cuts are quick to advise against the practice—it is a prime way to east a thrust al la Calvalotti.

With the exception of reenactors, most of HEMA does not engage in mock battles, and if so, these are more performance piece and living history than accurate reproductions of those battles. They can’t be otherwise, because people would be hurt. Just like the best options today for steel swords, bayonet trainers are dangerous; the introduction of cavalry is a force-multiplier that would make a lawyer drool. This isn’t to knock these events, not in the least, only to state that our ability to stage period “battles” will lack the very things that make the difference: horror, fear, and the threat of death. Most people, whatever it is they study, are—whether they like it or not—fighting in conditions that are closer to the duel than to combat. A few of us cover multi-opponent scenarios, but even these tend to read more like kung-fu theater than the reality, that is, where each of the “baddies” waits their turn rather than doing what they would really do if it were safe, flank or stab from behind. [6] Most HEMA bouts are one on one, or, a duel, however “military” the approach.

“Dueling” Sabre

The complex nexus of relationships around the duel of honor, from its civilian and military contexts to the length of time it remained important (which also varied by culture), make it less easy to “unpack.” There are a few such relationships that one must consider and which temper the attempt to see “dueling” sabre as some completely different species. It would be better to refer to dueling sabre, if one must separate it out, as a subset of military sabre, and one for the most part confined to officers.

Within HEMA one reason that dueling sabre is believed to be “other” is the connection it has to modern fencing; this, combined with the fact that modern weapons are lighter makes modern (or anything smacking of modern fencing) immediately suspect. The poor logic behind this is that “modern” equals “bad” and that lighter weapons are unrealistic or worse, effeminate and unmanly. [7] The issues here should be obvious, but won’t be unless someone has spent some time studying traditional or modern fencing, has done their homework as to weapon weights, and admits that the somewhat Freudian obsession with big, heavy weapons has less to do with historical fencing than it does immature notions of masculinity and unsophisticated locker-room notions of sexual and gender politics.

Most fencers can relate that the duel of honor started in the “Renaissance” and survived into the twentieth century, but what they often fail to mention is that this odd adjunct to European manners didn’t have a linear trajectory. Its practice varied by nation, culture, and time period. For example, while the duel survived a long time in Italy and France, it was actually less long-lived in England more or less ending in the mid-19th century. Some look to 1852, others 1845, in marking the end of the duel in England. [8] The duel in German states began to shift toward a preference for legal proceedings in some cases, and into ritualized student combats, the Mensur, in another. In some places the duel never really took off, the New England region of the United States being one such example. [9] In some areas, like Ireland, dueling enjoyed a violent if again relatively short tenure, and there, as in the US, the preference was more often than not for lead rather than steel. These differences are critical in understanding why works on fencing from countries like France and Italy not only were written and published more often, but also why modern fencing owes so much of its methodology and technique to them. In both nations, though it was usually illegal, duels continued to take place well into the twentieth century, and for several decades one might study with a maestro for a duel in either country who was also training Olympians.

This is important on several levels. First, the general disregard within HEMA for later Italian and French fencing owes much to the connection to modern fencing. Second, because the duel lasted so long in Italy, and because it was especially prevalent within the aristocracy, government, and military, the manuals for sabre reflect as much concern for the duel as the battlefield. This is a critical aspect too often glossed over in the critiques of Italian sabre. As I’ve stated before, the demands of the duelist require more than the demands of a soldier relying on a sabre as a side-arm he may rarely or never use.

Death of Felice Cavalloti, 1898–he died via a thrust from a less-experienced fencer that entered his mouth and pierced an artery as it passed through the back of his head.

Third, most of the influential works on sabre produced in Italy were either written by military men or were intended for use in the military. From Del Frate’s distillation of Giuseppe Radaelli’s revolutionary new method onward nearly every work of note has some connection to the military. Dueling, though certainly well-attested in the civilian world, was perhaps most prevalent in the military. It was one of the Napoleonic era’s most lasting legacies in Italy. Thus, the officers and soldiers who wrote these works knew that in addition to having to provide basic instruction for the soldiery, these works might also be used to teach officers who might, like it or not, be called out to fight. The inclusion of synoptic tables for lessons in Del Frate, Masiello, and others offer far more than the short tracts on basic sabre for the infantry and reflect this very concern. A duelist might face a complete duffer, or, an accomplished fencer, so preparation for the duel demanded more than what an infantry private needed.[10]

So What?

Does any of this matter. It can. It sort of depends. For fencers who see the larger picture everything mentioned here will earn a “yeah, and…?,” but for those who have not yet studied outside their chosen tradition or who think it is a waste of time there’s at least one take away. If these fencers reject Italian or French fencing because it is “only dueling” sabre, then they may wish to reexamine that position. The military sources for sabre produced in France and Italy, because their officers might have to fight duels, include more than infantry manuals, because one needs more in one’s toolkit to fight one-on-one. No comrade is going to flank and spike the enemy focused on you; no stray musket ball is going to remove the soldier behind that enemy. It is one on one, and there is as much if not more danger fighting the unskilled as there is fighting an expert.

If you find yourself fighting in close distance; if you realize you never really move a lot; if you are obsessed with your opponent’s juicy armor-clad thigh; then there is a lot you might mine from French and Italian military sources. You lose nothing in doing so, and here is why—if not exactly contemporary, you will find fuller discussions of footwork in Italian works back to the 17th century, and thus “period” justification for more sophisticated movement. None of this material existed in a vacuum. Moreover, Domenico, Henry Angelo Sr, and Junior ran a salle in London that taught more footwork than the bare-bones infantry manuals. More attention to the richer sources, even within one’s own tradition, will aid rather than undermine your “military” sabre.

NOTES:

[1] I use this as a collective term for those works, mostly Scottish and English, written for the use of sabre or broadsword from the 18th to 20th centuries. It’s a handy way to refer to these popular works. At present I’m meeting with this group to help them with interpreting the texts.

[2] MOS: in the US Army this acronym stands for “military occupational specialty,” e.g. Combat Engineer (MOS 12B) or Cannon Crewmember (MOS 13B).

[3] Angelo, for example, wisely termed his broadsword method “Highland” and “Hungarian.” Like highland Scotland, the influx of Hungarian hussars who revolutionized light cavalry and fashion alike loomed large in popular imagination.

[4] Of note, not all of the Insular works are as skimp on details as to measure and movement, and again context helps us. If one examines Charles Roworth’s The Art of Defence on Foot with Broad Sword and Sabre (I’m looking at the 1804 edition), to name one example, one will see that the author spends more time discussing these vital considerations of fencing (distance, 37ff; the advance, 39; the retreat, 40; various forms of traversing, 41-43). Unlike later official publications, which were written for professionals teaching soldiers, texts like Roworth’s, though written by military men, covered more ground as readership might include non-professionals. For those keen to stick to works like the Infantry Sword Exercise, adding a study of Roworth, McBane, or Hope will provide much needed elucidation as to footwork, measure, and tempo, and, from the same group of islands.

[5] See Nick Thomas’ nice explanation in his edition of the Infantry Sword Exercise of 1817, here http://swordfight.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Infantry-Sword-Exercise-Angelo-1817.pdf , for more on the Angelos.

Today, these three critical distances are still taught, though sometimes with further divisions, at least for coaching. In the French school, for example, coaches employ six distances for epee. There are nuances I glossed over as well. For example, depending on distance and reach, a fencer in distance to lunge to the body might be able to reach out and hit the extended target/arm without a lunge.

[6] Armored combat is an exception, but in most cases our safety gear doesn’t encourage the realities of multiple opponent attacks. The back, for one, if it is protected is normally only covered by a jacket however heavy, and the back of the legs probably never. Thus, it’s not that we can’t have people avoid kung fu theater queuing, but that we shouldn’t. There are ways to teach multiple opponent scenarios, and they add a bit of flavor to the usual fare, but much of what we will do will mimic rather than recreate out of safety concerns.

[7] HEMA, like most things, is no stranger to what people now call “toxic masculinity.” This is a notion that gets thrown around a lot, sometimes without justification, but it is accurate as it pertains to big man/big sword dick-measuring stupidity and its attendant vices. It will be clear that I have little patience for this business—aside from the idiocy of it, it gets in the way. Fencing is difficult enough with adding onto it.

[8] See for example Martyn Beardsley, “England’s Last Duel,” 8 July 2019, https://www.historyanswers.co.uk/people-politics/englands-last-duel/ ; Jeremy Horder, “The Duel and the English Law of Homicide,” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 12: 3 (Autumn, 1992): 419-430; R.B. Shoemaker, “The Taming of the Duel: Masculinity, Honour and Ritual Violence in London, 1660-1800,” The Historical Journal 45: 3 (2002): 525-545.

[9] There is a lot of work on American duels, and to repeat, I’m not saying we didn’t have them. We did, clearly. But culturally the idea was less “native” to the US, and didn’t survive long, because our people have historically had few qualms about shooting without ceremony those we don’t like and because of an unfortunate and unbecoming love of litigation, two problems we are, alas, still infamous for world-wide and for good reason. For some of the works on dueling in the Americas, see for example Baldick, The Duel: A History (1970), Freeman, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (2002), Holland, Gentlemen’s Blood (2004), and Murray, The Code of Honor: Dueling in America (1984) are informative. See also Stevens, Pistols at Ten Paces: The Story of the Code of Honor in America (1940), Williams, Dueling in the Old South: Vignettes of Social History (1980), and Burchfield, Choose your Weapon: The Duel in California, 1847-1861.

[10] I discussed this early on this page, see “Dueling” or “Military” Sabre, May 15th, 2019. It should be obvious why an infantryman, relying on his rifle and bayonet more than a sabre or hanger, would require less training, but for those who don’t see that then a side-by-side comparison of Roworth or Angelo set against Del Frate, Masiello, or Rossi should make it pretty clear even if one is only counting techniques per source. I also believe that competition among military fencing masters for the honor of running the national school meant that they approached their treatise writing almost like a resume. Chris Holzman has been working on some juicy bits from Jacopo Gelli that provide additional details about the rivalry between southern and northern Italian masters for control. I’m not sure when that will be available, but I’m eagerly awaiting it.

Emus & Fences

Approached correctly every bout, win or lose, is a lesson. What we get out of it depends on our awareness, experience, and humility. However poetically one might view it ultimately there’s a direct correlation between what we learn and honest self-awareness. If the latter is lacking the lesson is likely lost. It’s the same with disagreements.

The minor furor over a post on this site (“‛Silver’ as Trigger-word in HEMA” 12-30-20) has had me pondering its lessons. Much of that exchange, sadly, proves the wisdom of both La Rochefoucauld, who said “we hardly find any persons of good sense save those who agree with us,” and Thomas Paine who remarked “To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason… is like administering medicine to the dead, or endeavoring to convert an atheist by scripture.” [1] Witnessing such a deep degree of intractability after the presentation of proof debunking a theory is painful, but with widespread examples of similar cognitive dissonance—“Q-anon,” anti-vaxers, the ancient aliens crowd, etc.—it should probably be less of a surprise if no less a disappointment.

It’s unfitting and small to celebrate anyone’s humiliation, especially when it’s public, obvious to all but them, and as divisive as it is amongst common associates. Just as one doesn’t deride and mock an opponent they’ve soundly beaten, so too should one refrain from crowing over another person’s embarrassment. The tired and pointless debate over George Silver’s “true times” etc. will persist as long as there are those who don’t understand what he said and how it conforms to the same bloody principles fencing masters with half a brain have espoused for centuries. To kick someone who has failed to grasp that is akin to scolding a child for not understanding calculus when they haven’t completed a basic study of algebra. It’s not nice and it’s counterproductive. In this case, and following the same analogy, too many children apparently skipped algebra and dove into calculus before they were ready. Called on it, they cross their arms, pout, and retort that math is stupid and so are we not only for pointing it out, but also for trying to help.

This issue with Silver isn’t a case of opinion, but of demonstrable fact, and yet no piece of evidence, no argument, nothing made the slightest impression. Research is difficult, more so than most people realize, and it’s easy to fall into one of the myriad pitfalls that await the unwary. These are pitfalls one must navigate or pull oneself out of in learning how to practice history—significantly, this is training that one never really completes, because the pitfalls remain. There are always pitfalls to avoid. As a professional researcher (among other jobs) I thought I might be able to help my wayward colleague. He had no interest in my help, called my ability into question, and then kindly offered to help me if I ever get “serious” about the topic. Not much one can do in such cases but Gallic shrug.

Fish Slapping Dance, Monty Python’s Flying Circus

I can’t explain why someone would staunchly defend a position so thoroughly undermined, but I worry about it because this problem goes beyond one hapless researcher. There are numerous examples of research gone wrong in most facets of “HEMA” study. Some would be relatively easy errors to correct, but as so often happens what should be about the material is really about ego. For example, there’s a glaring translation error, one that should have been obvious from the title page, in a smallsword text that came out in 2019. The mistranslation suggests the use of translation software, which is bad enough, but also of failure to have anyone expert in French review the finished product. Readers who asked about it were shut down by the “translator.” How the translator and his pals reconcile themselves to de St. Martin’s advice in using a “swordfish” instead of a sabre I don’t know—if I had to guess maybe they believe the French called sabres swordfish. Regardless, it’s it’s a poor translation. [2] This by itself reveals that the transcriber’s background is probably insufficiently deep to tackle this project. Few seem troubled by it, but it matters because he isn’t the only one producing shoddy translations.

Questionable translations tend to lead to questionable interpretations. At the very least the former call into question both translator’s skill and reader’s sense. In multiple cases I’ve witnessed a translator double down on their mistake, publicly—this reveals an attitude toward scholarship that defies reason. They either don’t know that they should be embarrassed or are incapable of feeling it. Quintilian supposedly remarked that “There is no one who would not rather appear to know than to be taught,” and in HEMA this apparently proves to be the rule rather than the exception. That’s a problem. From these shoddy translations to the misapplication of cutting mechanics borrowed from various Japanese sword-related ryū, from blind faith in images to a lack of familiarity with elementary fundamentals in fencing, HEMA scholarship is a patchwork composed of the finest linen and the most threadbare fabric. Bad as this is, the deeper concern is that too few people care, and that those with a stake in things, who enjoy their status, are quick to denounce any detractors however sensible their objections are.

Any parallel drawn between inferior HEMA research and a well-known parable by a famous Attic lover of wisdom concerning a cavern is likely to upset a lot of people, but it’s an easy parallel to draw. Less familiar, but far more succinct, are the words of another sage:

τί πρῶτόν ἐστιν ἔργον τοῦ φιλοσοφοῦντος; ἀποβαλεῖν οἴησιν: ἀμήχανον γάρ, ἅ τις εἰδέναι οἴεται, ταῦτα ἄρξασθαι μανθάνειν.

What is the first business of him who philosophizes? To throw away self-conceit. For it is impossible for a man to begin to learn that which he thinks that he knows. [Epictetus,  Διατριβαί‎ /Discourses, II.17] [3]

This is, I think, the major stumbling block in “HEMA,” too much unfounded belief in one’s own ability, be it knowledge, skill, or both. Second only to this is the collective failure in giving the floor to those so deluded. Unchallenged it’s hard to see that the shadows one takes for reality are illusory—after all, so many people make the same mistake. They go hand in hand and reinforce one another. As a community’s members begin to self-identify and are viewed as “those in the know” it becomes all the harder to see the problem or take criticism. When someone does eventually question them it goes poorly, because in so many ways it’s not about the subject, but about how they view themselves and how they believe others see them. External validation is powerful, but it’s dangerous. Acclaim can exist on falsehood just as much as truth. For HEMA, it has become more important to be seen as an expert than in fact to be one.

Authority & HEMA

Sunday! Sunday! Sunday! George Silver Theater!!! Ok, clearly quarantine has gotten to me too…

In an endeavor as multifaceted as ours, as broad in subject and timespan, there is no one expert, but a diverse collection of different experts. Authority, such as it is, should derive from informed consensus, not merely what is popular or because some swordy celebrity said so. That same authority should make logical sense, should be based upon the best each category of expert can supply in light of the evidence, and should be demonstrable to the degree possible. This demands an acceptance for what is logically sound and what is and what is not decent evidence or argument. If the recent episode of George Silver Theater is any guide our community can’t agree on the most elementary facts and struggles to apply the most basic reason—not much point in discussing anything when that’s the case.

We have multiple sources for authority in historical fencing. Many of them are worthy sources too. One of the strengths our community has is that so many skilled points of view inform it. We are less hidebound as a result, more open, and this is a good thing. The motley collection of artifacts (e.g. period weapons and armor), manuals and treatises, anecdotal evidence (e.g. accounts of duels and battles), legal proceedings, commentary (e.g. Brantôme or Gelli), artistic depictions, and fragmentary miscellanea of all kinds present us with a giant puzzle missing numerous pieces. We can get a general idea of what the image would be upon completion, but we can never assemble the whole. [4]

In light of this having different perspectives is vital. A sword-maker like Gus Trim has insights into more than the geometry necessary for balance, impact, and effectiveness in swords, but also perception into use because of those insights (not to mention long experience in Chinese swordsmanship). Kaja Sadowski of Valkyrie Western Martial Arts Assembly assists police in learning how to handle attackers—real-life experience as a martial arts instructor adds something to Kaja’s examination of rapier that most of us lack. The images produced by Roland Warzecha, a trained illustrator and artist, capture details that many of us miss. Examples are too many to count, and from most conceivable fields—archaeology, art history, dance, data analysis, engineering (of all sorts), equitation, history, linguistics, military experience, teaching, writing, and a wide variety of skilled trades. Most of all, there is passion for the topic, a love of swords, and much as we disagree this unites us. It should anyway.

Fencing Competition diploma, Milan

However, in assigning any one of these voices authority we must be careful—are they, in their field, up to the task? What qualifies them as an authority? Sometimes it’s easy to determine. Fencing masters who are certified to teach, who know the languages necessary, and who—importantly—have studied fencing history are one example. There are many who have proven their ability within the historical community, maestri such as David and Dori Coblentz, Puck Curtis, Sean Hayes, Francesco Loda, Kevin Murakoshi, Giovanni Rapisardi, and Gerard Six to name only a few. Certifications are not everything, but they are a measure, and so it follows that those possessing them might have some insights by virtue of that specialized study.

At other times, credibility is less obvious, and this is where we tend to get into trouble. Training, good sense, and demonstrated ability as defined by a person’s field seem good places to start when considering credibility, but this requires us to have some familiarity with the specific discipline. How much knowledge is enough to do that adequately? At a minimum we need to know to whom to go for help, and in a community with as many talented people as ours someone we know is bound to know the right people if we don’t. It’s important to ask the obvious questions too–if, for example, someone has put forth an edited version of an old master’s work, then we should look into their suitability for the task. What training have they had? How are they qualified beyond interest and self-confidence? Who backs their project, if anyone, and what are their qualiifications?

With respect to fencing we have to consider any training they’ve had, not only in terms of how long they’ve studied, but also the quality of that training. We must consider their strengths and weaknesses within this background—one may be a fabulous teacher, but a mediocre competitor or vice versa. There is a difference in training, most of the time, between someone who studied with a maestro for a decade and someone who worked with an instructor who has one year more experience than the student. If nothing else it is depth of material and established pedagogy; a maestro, by virtue of the process of certification and teaching, typically draws from a deeper pool than the amateur who has memorized all of Henry Angelo’s Infantry Sword Exercise or who has attempted to wrestle with “Die Zettel” and associated glosses.

In terms of scholarship, someone like Jeffrey Forgeng, who has both the academic credentials and demonstrated ability to handle historical fencing sources well, is a good guide. Not everyone need be as skilled as he is, but he’s an excellent role model, and if one is going to attempt something beyond a short essay, then examining carefully how Forgeng treats evidence, builds an argument, and supports that argument will be valuable. There is no shame, incidentally, in realizing that a project is beyond our skill. However, when one attempts an academic paper and proves that they have no idea what they’re doing those who do are likely to find issues with it. In that case, the sensible thing to do is put ego aside, listen, consider what they have to say, and see if it can improve the project. If something is more complex, find help, contact a scholar—there are a lot active in HEMA—and see if they might be interested in collaborating. [5]

ΓΝΩΘΙ ΣΑΥΤΟΝ—Know Thyself

The most difficult part of this process is assessing ourselves. We must know our limitations. This doesn’t mean we settle for them, but that we’re aware that we don’t know everything, we don’t have all the answers, and that none of us has a monopoly on skill. We should strive to improve always. It’s far easier to start the long road to improvement when we take honest stock of where we are now. We need to do so without censure or pride or we skew that assessment. This means that there will be times when we’re not good at something. Everyone is a beginner at some point—have the courage to be a beginner or at least to cultivate a beginner’s mind.

At the same time, we need to have the strength of character to recognize another person’s gifts. If we’re smart, we’ll lean on them and their expertise. This doesn’t mean playing the sycophant or using people, but doing what we do unconsciously all the time when we seek a new doctor, tattoo artist, or vacuum repair shop. Expertise, in most cases, includes an unending, continuing education—any credible expert knows that. Likewise, credible experts know that they make mistakes too, but the better ones acknowledge and correct them.

Cultural bias to the contrary, skilled researchers normally spend years acquiring the tools of their trade, not just those of analysis but also familiarity with the discipline and its scholarship. [6] A violinist, by analogy, must learn the instrument, how to produce vibrato and slide as well as familiarize themselves with the corpus of music they wish to pursue. This same violinist, if they work at it, may be able to play both the Capriccio No. 23 of Locatelli and “The Longford Tinker,” but it will require a great deal of work and not everyone has the discipline, time, and degree of talent necessary to achieve such virtuosity.

If we’re honest with ourselves it’s a lot easier to be honest with others, and, to appreciate their gifts. It will fall hard on some ears and hopes, but the truth is that the branches of the Art we study—with few exceptions—are extinct, so no one can master them. “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” [7] I don’t wish to go into the issues around the idea of “mastery” or the specific meaning that goes with maestro d’armi, but if the historical record is incomplete then any study of it is too. We are all apprentices when it comes to historical fencing. We cannot be otherwise.

NOTES:

[The title of this post is a nod to a fact my first-grade teacher, Ms. May, shared with us from her time in Australia. She related that emus, when they want to get through a fence, have been known to keep butting it with their heads until the fence gives or they do. I leave it to Aussie colleagues to verify that, but it’s a good metaphor for how nonsensical HEMA’s approach to research can be]

[1] See reflection #347, La Rouchefoucauld, Reflections, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/9105/9105-h/9105-h.htm. For the French, “Nous ne trouvons guère de gens de bon sens, que ceux qui sont de notre avis,” see http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/14913/pg14913.html

Thomas Paine, “The American Crisis,” V. March 21, 1778; (the series of pamphlets ran from 1776-1783, cf. https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_307972); see also https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3741/3741-h/3741-h.htm#link2H_4_0002

There is a difference between building a case on limited evidence that is sound and one that mishandles that evidence or ignores it. Roman historians who study Julius Caesar rely on the same set of sources, but draw different conclusions based on them, especially with regard to Caesar’s goals in pushing change in the government. We cannot know absolutely what he meant to do, but we can devise reasonable possibilities. The question is important, even when our answers are imperfect, and we learn something of value even when a theory is incorrect but well-built.

[2] There are times, especially with older works, where the current, first option in a dictionary isn’t correct. Translations programs tend to provide the most common, current definition. So, when presented with espadon in French, and the work in question is from 1804, it’s smart to look beyond the first entry. My edition of the Petit Larousse (1961), provides the following:

ESPADON n., m. (ital. spadone, grande épée): Grande et large épée qu’on tenait à deux mains (Xve – XVIIe s.). Zool.  Poisson des mers chaudes et tempérées, atteignant 4 m de long et dont la mâchoire supérieure est allongée comme une lame d’épée (p. 398).

Helpful as this is, we can be sure that de St. Martin wasn’t talking about long- or great-swords, so, we keep looking. Cotgrave’s A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611) likewise defines espadon as a “short two-handed sword,” so it too is little help, though he includes espade which he defines as “a broad short sword” which gets us a little closer (http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/cotgrave/397.html). The University of Chicago has an excellent, searchable database that looks to several period French dictionaries. In Le Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, Sixième Édition, 1835, there is a definition that makes more sense in re de St. Martin’s usage. It reads:

ESPADON. s. m. Le Dictionnaire de l’Académie française. Sixième Édition. T.1 [1835]

ESPADON. s. m. ESPADON. s. m. Grande et large épée qu’ on tenait à deux mains. Jouer de l’ espadon.

Il se dit, en termes d’ Escrime, Du sabre dont on apprend à se servir. Maître d’ espadon. Apprendre l’ espadon.

Il se dit, en Histoire naturelle, d’ Une espèce de grand poisson dont le museau est armé d’ un os plat et allongé comme un glaive.

[https://artflsrv03.uchicago.edu/philologic4/publicdicos/query?report=bibliography&head=espadon]

The second definition refers to the usage of espadon with regard to fencing where it means “sabre.” The 5th edition of this lexicon, published in 1798, six years before de St. Martin’s work came out, does not provide this definition. Like my Petit Larousse it offers only the late period two-handed weapon and the fish as suggestions. Significantly, the Academy dictionary at least as early as 1694 included the term sabre as we typically think of it. Any translator faced with a less common word must thus move beyond a dictionary and see how other contemporary writers used the same term; if that comes up short, then one must go by context. The images in de St. Martin’s treatise clearly depict a sabre, not a fish, and so one would be safe translated his espadon as sabre.

For de St. Martin, the safest source to use is the original, a copy of which can be found via Google books. Cf. M. J. de St. Martin, L’art de faire des armes, réduit a ses vrais principes (Vienne: de l’imprimerie de Janne Schrämble, 1804). In addition to the “translation” mentioned above, there is one that has been put out by P. T. Crawley and Victor Markland, The Art of Fencing Reduced to True Principles, Lulu Press, 2014).

[3] Perseus at Tufts University has a good translation, as well as the Greek text, on site: see http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0236%3Atext%3Ddisc%3Abook%3D2%3Achapter%3D17 . The English text they provide, and quoted above, is Epictetus, The Discourses of Epictetus, with the Encheridion and Fragments, trans. George Long (London: George Bell and Sons, 1890). See also Epictetus, Discourses, Books 1-2, Translated by W. A. Oldfather, Loeb Classical Library 131 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1925).

[4] For Pierre de Brantôme (d. 1614), see Duelling Stories of the Sixteenth Century from the French of Brantôme, George Herbert Powell, Ed., London: A. H. Bullen, 1904 (available on Google Books); J. Sambix, ed., Mémoires de Messire Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur de Brantôme, contenans les anecdotes de la cour de France, sous les rois Henry II, François II , Henry III et IV, touchant les duels, 1722.

For Jacopo Gelli (d. 1935), see his Bibliografia generale della scherma. Con note critiche, biografiche e storiche, Firenze, L. Niccolai, Firenze: Tipografia Editrice di L. Niccolai, 1890.

[5] Jeffrey Forgeng, in addition to non-HEMA related topics, has produced excellent editions of both Ms. I 33 The Walpurgis Manuscript and of Meyer’s system. Russ Mitchell, author of Hungarian Hussar Sabre and Fokos Fencing (2019) and translator of Leszák’s Sabre Fencing (1906), is another excellent example of how one might approach difficult sources effectively. His Hussar Sabre is particularly well-designed for HEMA.

[6] Historians in my field, for example, spend considerable time on secondary literature and the most recent evaluations of the topic because things change, we find new evidence or fault with older theories. Sometimes those changes are dramatic (we know far more about Stonehenge now than we did even ten years ago), and sometimes they’re slow (medieval historians in recent decades have realized there’s not only evidence for once neglected segments of the population, such as the poor or women, but also good reason to study them).

[7] Ernest Hemingway, The Wild Years, is a collection of articles from the Toronto Star collected by Gene Z. Hanrahan in 1962 after the writer’s suicide. It was published in New York by Dell Publishing Co. At least one scholar believes this collection was put together to capitalize on popular feeling concerning Hemingway’s death. See Frank Stewart, “Hemingway Scholarship and the Critical Canon in American Literature,” 広島修大論集/Studies in the Humanities and Sciences 41: 1 (2) (2000): 305-345.

Arguments Argentine

If you’ve followed the comments for the post “’Silver’as Trigger-Word” then you may have seen this, but if not I wish to share it here. Stephen Hand kindly reminded me that his response–far better to read than anything I might have to say–is free to view on his site:

https://stephen-hand.selz.com/

Thank you Mr. Hand.

I have read this paper–it’s very good–but neglected to link it–mea culpa! If you enjoy the ongoing saga over HEMA’s favorite Bogey man, The-Englishman-What-Shouldna-be-Nam-ed, then give this a read.

NB: As I explained in my comment yesterday my stake in this is general, more concerned with how research is conducted in historical fencing, the state of it, than with Silver per se. One does not have to be a card-carrying academic to do research; in fact I think our discipline would suffer were that the case. We’re stronger for a variety of views, but the value of this multifaceted view is only strong as the rigor we apply to this research. Like it or not, agree or not, there are standards in most research one ignores at one’s peril, least if they wish to be taken seriously.

Much of my career I’ve spent as a teacher and that tends to come out in situations like this–if my criticism appeared harsh that is unfortunate, but I stand by it. I do my best to express any criticism compassionately, and believe it or not that was my goal yesterday as well. I bear Mr. Winslow no ill will (we’ve never met) and sincerely hope he will continue to dive into the material–no one puts in as much time into a project as he clearly did unless they love it. This said, the rules that apply to anyone writing a research paper apply to him too. If we lack tools, we can acquire them and/or enlist the aid of someone who possesses them. There was, at last check, at least one fb page populated by various scholars who work on topics in historical fencing. That might be a good place to start.

“Silver” as Trigger-word

A few weeks ago the excellent Paul Wagner (Stoccata School of Defense, Australia) posted a video as his answer to a… paper that attempted to reimagine the fight system of George Silver (ca. 1599). [1] I read the paper when it came out, promptly wrote a response, and decided not to do anything with it–to do so would suggest that the paper in question was worth the time and effort of a point-by-point response. It’s not. Save yourself the trouble and just watch Paul’s video.

The authors had asked for Paul’s response, so with his usual step by step process and humor he did, at least the main point of it. To address all the issues would take far too long, and what is more would be an utter waste of time. Here is a link to Paul’s video:

From what friends still braving facebook tell me Silver has once again worked his magic as HEMA’s favorite “trigger-word” in the aftermath of Paul’s review. There are the people who understand universal fight principles backing Paul, and then those who are quick to rush to the defense of their Dunning-Kruger demagogues. The sadness in this is that the latter are fighting an unnecessary fight–the only people likely to lose respect for them in taking the time to learn something of the universals, to acquire basic, fundamental understanding of fencing, are fools.

Like Paul, I don’t want to waste time–mine or anyone else’s–giving the red pen treatment to the paper, but it’s only right I share why I found it lacking. I don’t know the authors of the paper, and from what I’ve seen of them online, in video, and in this paper, I doubt they’d give two figs for what anyone outside their bubble thinks. But when my own students used to see me about a paper that was sure to fail or earn them a D I did all I could to help them, and so on the very off chance that they’d see this and/or care here are a few of the major red flags.

Sources Analysis

The chief criticism is that the authors drew selectively from Silver (and others) in order to support their thesis. One rule of research is that if you set out to find something, you will, meaning that it’s easy to find only what you’re looking for and leave out those aspects that fail to meet that goal. All the evidence must be addressed, especially any evidence that undercuts your thesis. Think of the “Ancient Aliens” crowd–they focus on superficial similarities and ignore evidence or logic against them. In a similar way both what this paper looks at and how affects the outcome. It’s best, hard as it is to do, to let a theory arise from the evidence, and if an old theory, say Hand’s in this case, doesn’t hold up to a reader, then they have some work to do, because the entire argument in this paper rests on some convoluted English that, once broken down, is pretty clear in what it says. Hand has explained it well and more in line with how the text reads. This is to say that it’s clear if you understand universal principles in fencing the way they’re normally imparted and used in fencing sources anyway. To put it bluntly, this paper wrestles with a concept that any first day foil student learns, to wit, that the weapon and hand proceed the feet.

In fairness, M&C think they have done this, and they tried to some degree. Rightly, they contacted Stephen Hand to make sure they understood him correctly. That is to be applauded. There are, however, some underlying assumptions even there that they didn’t address. Hand’s theory has changed over time with his continued study, and in my experience not one person working Silver has advocated this “slow hand” idea they attribute to him [see https://saladellatrespade.com/2021/03/29/note-concerning-george-silver-and-the-notion-of-a-slow-hand/ for the updated discussion about this]. This idea of the hand moving first and then slowing down, for example, is not a notion I’ve heard from anyone, Hand included. Maestro Sean Hayes, among others, doesn’t see it that way, and he’s a fan of the “True Times” model; it holds up just fine with the Italian iteration. Nathan Barnett likewise did not teach it that way the last time I took his class (first year at SwordSquatch, 2016). So, while including Hand’s supposed old theory, which they needed to do, they also needed to examine and consult more current devotees/theories of Silver. Paul Wagner and Nathan Barnett are only two they might have consulted. I’ve not had a chance to see Hand’s 2006 English Swordsmanship: The True Fight of George Silver as yet, so I’m not sure if he actually included the “slow hand” idea or not. No where in his videos on Youtube does Hand say anything of the kind.

Time, Tempo, and Tangents

Second, they introduce a discussion on timing that would be better as a stand-alone paper. They attempt to show the Italian position on timing etc. in Silver’s era, but examine works not necessarily representative of the Italian school or those branches of the Italian school most applicable. Some of the texts were written by Italians, sure, but do they represent some monolithic Italian position or that one author’s view of these ideas? Since the Italian masters disagreed with one another on points large and small, a monolithic “Italian” position isn’t tenable.

For the masters they do mention, the period between 1570 and 1600 is arguably as much “sidesword” as it is rapier so Fabris and Capo Ferro aren’t great examples. Both wrote after Silver–Fabris published in 1606, Capo Ferro in 1610, and while both discuss cutting the core of their systems was the thrust. That’s important to note since Silver, while he employs the thrust, cannot be said to typify a thrust-oriented school. “Downright blows” are his bread and butter. Thrusts are faster than cuts, something Silver tried (and failed) to disprove, so one can compare the two sides as it were in a general way, but one has to realize too that there are significant differences there, just as there are between an onager/catapult and a howitzer. There were contextual differences too.

There is not, oddly, a single mention of Marozzo or anyone else in the Bolognese tradition/Dardi School, easily the closest thing out of Italy to Silver. There is, likewise, no mention of contemporary French authors who treat cut-and-thrust fencing such as St. Didier (1573) and Peloquin (late 16th cen.). The authors also seem to have issues with the Italian school generally; it almost appears in their paper as it does for Silver, as a bugbear, and while I think the goal of gaining a better appreciation for “native” English ideas is a fair one, between mishandling Silver and misrepresenting the Italians they don’t succeed. [2] Some grappling with the fact that Silver includes guards with Italian names might be worth consideration too.

Beyond what Silver’s texts tell us of time, which is precious little save as applied to a fight, we must be careful. Silver’s concern was not an explication of Aristotelian ideas of time, nor that of anyone else, but how to fight according to his principles (in contrast to Thibault, who does discuss Aristotelian time in his 1626 Academy of the Sword, and Camillo Agrippa, Treatise on the Science of Arms, 1559, who spends several chapters discussing time–this last, being Italian and only preceding Silver by 40 years, might have been worth examining too on this specific topic…). [3] Silver doesn’t define time in his work, but uses the word in reference to when one does X or Y. I’m all for examining prevailing theories of time and how that might have influenced his work, but there’s not enough in his texts to do more than suggest what was likely in the big picture. As valuable as understanding the worldview is for understanding Silver’s time, the discussion about concepts of time adds little to the discussion and does even less to illuminate Silver’s use of the word. It throws in big names which sound impressive but have nothing to do with the issue at hand.

Fight Universals

Third, while the Italians and to a lesser extent the French distilled the concepts of measure, timing, and judgment most succinctly, the concepts they so well explained are universal to all fighting. This is to say that whether discussing boxing or using a pole axe, a katana or kris, these factors apply. These ideas aren’t ethnic in and of themselves. To suggest that is akin to saying Newton’s three laws only pertain to physics in England. Maybe that wasn’t their intention, but if so that sort of language needs to be tightened up to make it clear they’re not saying that. This is to say that while there’s a difference in how these concepts (tempo, measure, judgment, speed, etc.) are expressed, that any version will nonetheless reflect these universals. M&C ostensibly accept this since they bring in Japanese swordsmanship briefly as support.

Their treatment of Silver with regard to what moves first, and the “True Times,” illustrate these problems well. They talk around the universals, I think to avoid “Italian” ideas, but again these are not purely Italian. The idea of moving into attack distance is just stating the obvious—you can’t hit someone from 10m away. Every system has ways of navigating that. In this case, the Italians used both passing steps, as did Silver, as well as movement that in time became the advance and retreat of more recent fencing. The salient part, indeed the only part perhaps worth addressing, is which moves first, the hand/weapon or foot. To me, it’s not shocking that they don’t understand this well, since in most areas of US HEMA students lack the benefit provided in even short-term formal study of traditional or Olympic fencing. The general disdain if not outright hatred of both tends to mean that proverbial babies get thrown out with the bath-water, one effect of which we see here, failure to understand elementary fundamentals of distance/measure in fencing.

But, do we mean “first” getting into distance, or, “first” when in distance to strike? Do they believe that Silver’s rivals were advocating sticking the sword out there from forever away and then walking in? That’s hard to believe, especially as not one Italian source advocates throwing the point out half a mile from the opponent before starting to get close. The advance and the attack are not the same thing, though they may coincide. They prove nothing in suggesting one needs to be in distance; of course one does. Water is wet.

So, one passage in question they discuss, here taken directly from Jackson’s Three Elizabethan Fencing Manuals, p. 582/Silver’s p. 82-83 of his Brief Instructions upon my Paradoxes of Defense, Ch. 1, reads thus:

The reason wherof these 4 grownds or prnciples be the syrst and cheefest, are the followinge, because through Judgment, yō kepe yor dystance, through Distance yō take yō Tyme, through Tyme yō safly wyne or gayne the Place of yor adursarie, the Place beinge woon or gayned yō haue tyme safly eyther to stryke, thrust, ward, cloze, grype, slyp or go backe, in the wch tyme yor enemye is disapoynted to hurt yō, or to defend himself, by reason that he hath lost his true Place, the reason yt he hath lost his True place is by the length of tyme through the numbg of his feet, to wch he is of necessytie Dryven to yt wilbe Agent.

In modern English:

The reason why these four grounds or principles are the surest and chiefest, are the following, because through Judgment, you keep your distance, through Distance you take your Time, through Time you safely win or gain the Place of your adversary, the Place being won or gained you have time safely either to strike, thrust, ward, close, grip, slip or go back, in the which time your enemy is disappointed to hurt you, or to defend himself, by reason that he has lost his true Place, the reason that he has lost his True place is by the length of time through the numbering of his feet, to which he is of necessity Driven to that will be Agent.

[I checked my take on this via Nathan B’s site https://backsword.com/bi-trans.html and an older one by Greg Lindhal http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/brief.html; I also double-checked their use of “yt,” an abbreviation for “that,” and “wilbe,” a way of saying “will be,” and both check out]

Borrowing from Nathan Barnett’s page, here is the next section:


The 4 governors are those that follow

1. The first governor is judgment which is to know when your adversary can reach you and when not, and when you can do the like to him, and to know by the goodness or badness of his lying, what he can do, and when and how he can perform it.

2. The second governor is Measure. Measure is the better to know how to make your space true to defend yourself, or to offend your enemy.

3. The third and forth governors is a twofold mind when you press in on your enemy, for as you have a mind to go forward, so you must have at that instant a mind to fly backwards upon any action that shall be offered or done by your adversary.

[https://backsword.com/bi-trans.html, ch. 2]

Theories to the contrary, there is no great mystery in these passages in terms of movement, or, what comes first, weapon or foot. In short, all that Silver says in the Brief Instructions distills down into manipulating distance cautiously and at the right moment. No specific instructions on how to move are provided there, only general guidelines. The “Place” that M&C make such hay about is just Silver’s equivalent of what today we normally refer to as being “in distance,” that is, where either opponent might hit one another. It’s merely his wording for the same idea that other authors mention too. In this instance it means that so long as one does this right, one will be so situated as to take advantage of that fact, of the ability to strike first. The English is Early Modern and a mouthful, and that last sentence is a mess, but that’s what this section amounts to. Are there nuances within that depending on what an opponent is doing? Sure, but nothing Silver advocates is so divorced from his contemporaries as to comprise a wholly separate theory of fight.

M&C also quote from Silver’s polemical Paradoxes of Defense, section 14:

Of the difference between the true fight & the false. Wherein consists (the Principles being had with the direction of the four Governors) the whole perfection of fight with all manner of weapons.

14

The true fights be these: whatsoever is done with the hand before the foot or feet is true fight. The false fights are these: whatsoever is done with the foot or feet before the hand, is false, because the hand is swifter than the foot, the foot or feet being the slower mover than the hand, the hand in that manner of fight is tied to the time of the foot or feet, and being tied thereto, has lost his freedom, and is made thereby as slow in his motions as the foot or feet, and therefor that fight is false.

[http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/paradoxes.html]

Silver’s line from the Paradoxes is no different from anything the Italians or others said. He says the “true fight” (i.e. the one that wins) is that wherein the fencer extends the weapon first. Again, a day-one foilist learns this. The false fight, in contrast, is to tie the hand to the actions of the feet, because they’re slower. Thus, assuming both opponents are in range to strike, the one who extends the weapon first, will hit first; the one who moves his hand with his feet is less likely to strike first. It may be somewhat difficult to read, but to suggest that this passage means the opposite or that the feet should precede the hand or even move with the hand are incorrect. One’s opponent may make these mistakes, so Silver provides suggestions for how to exploit them.

Due Diligence

Important in all this is the fact that Paradoxes was published in 1599, but the Brief Instructions, so far as we know, was not published until 1898 when G.R. Matthey found it in the British Museum. [4] As far as we know no one at the time read this work. M&C do not mention this. On this note, the “Additional Notes” they consult, found on the Wiktenauer selection for Silver, appear to have been added by a person named “Thornborow,” but it’s not certain when these were added or how. Are they present in the 1599 edition of Paradoxes? The 1606? The Leuven transcription (1800?) listed on Wiktenauer? [5] As Wiktenauer explains, unless someone can see the placement on the actual manuscript we’re not even sure to which work the “Additional Notes” pertain, Paradoxes or the Brief Instructions. That’s an important point, especially if one is building an argument using them–even a note that one is aware of the issue is important, because it shows one has been as thorough as one can without a trip to the British Museum. Had M&C’s paper been an academic one, it would be prudent sans such a trip to contact the BM and ask for help.

For all the discussion of the Brief Instructions, and important as they are in understanding Silver’s method, since it wasn’t published at the time we can’t be sure how widespread or representative of “native English fencing” it may have been. As a window into Silver, it’s great, but as a window into English fencing we need to be a bit more cautious. In a similar way, Paradoxes of Defense was a polemic written by a guy who was sort of the MAGA dude of his day, an Englishman upset about losing business to people he saw as upstart foreigners (the fear of it anyway). One can sympathize easily with Silver’s disgust with the duel (a portion worth reading), and, with the fact that there was a connection between the practice and Italy, but in large degree his book was a litany of personal woe and attempts to prove his rivals false; it was a proverbial case of sour grapes.

The success of Italian teachers in England no doubt did help popularize the blight of dueling, but few systems last long in any society that fail to work. However good Silver’s fight might be, there was something to be said for di Grassi, Saviolo, and other Italian masters or people would not have joined their ranks. After all, we are talking self-defense systems of that time, how to preserve one’s life, a very different context to our own where the sword is a sport/hobby/research past-time. We can approach the sword as a martial artist, and many of us think we all should, but the mindset, the need to know how to use one, all of that is so removed from our context that we must be careful not to apply our own situation to that of the past. [6]

NOTES:

[1] The paper in question is by Cory Winslow and Michael Edelson, “An Alternative Interpretation of the True Fight of George Silver,” April 13th, 2020, available on a website entitled historicalfencer[dot]com. CAVEAT: you should know that this page, so far as I can tell, is hosted by a known right-wing nationalist/apologist. Make of that what you will, but it does little to bolster the authors’ credibility, at least among anyone of sense or ethics.

[2] I have often wondered if much of the anti-Italian sentiment in HEMA is on account of the importance of Italy in the creation of modern fencing. Were those who take issue with the Italian school to read any of its sources, from Fiore (ca. 1410) down to Pessina-Pignotti (1972) or even Gaugler (2000), they’d see this bias is misplaced. Issues with the modern sport aside, it’s self-defeating to reject such a rich corpus of work because of excesses that really only took deep root in the 1990s.

[3] M&C do bring in Capo Ferro in their “Universality of Theory” portion, but not in CF’s discussion of time. Moreover, they mistake Italian ideas of contra-tempo for basic defense–they’re different.

[4] Matthey’s version is available via Google Books, and is worth a look for what he says about the Ms. history, its discovery in the BM in 1890, and the role Alfred Hutton played in verifying it as having been written by Silver.

[5] Wiktenauer, under the entry for Leuven Transcription, suggests the Brief Instructions were written ca. 1605, but I have not attempted to verify that and the editor of the page does not cite a source. Cf. https://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Bref_instructions_upon_my_Paradoxes_of_defence_(MS_1086)

[6] The idea of weapon-hand-then-feet is not mine, but a widely accepted and well-demonstrated and accepted theory concerning universals in using a sword, from the Walpurgis Ms. and Fiore on down to late 19th, early 20th century military manuals. It’s in pretty much every work on fencing, but we see it in Asian martial arts, boxing, etc. These universal principles of fight are elements that are always there, but which are expressed in different ways according to need, situation, context, time, ability, mindset, and purpose.

It’s also worth noting that the duel was relatively short-lived in England. The practice thrived longer in Ireland, but there too died out before it did on the Continent. France and Italy retained the duel far longer, one reason for the number of works on fencing produced in those two languages, and so it is little wonder that so much of what became the sport was influenced by the two nations where a fight between two opponents to first blood or death was still a possibility into the 20th century.

Romance & the Ridiculous—Historical Fencing, Realism, and the Fringe Element

Last month I set to beating a favored Bucephalus, safety. Important as I think the discussion is—safety features in blade design—I was unhappy with the way it turned out, with my mode of expression. There was too much ire and not enough constructive criticism—while rants sans useful feedback may be de rigueur in modern American social and political life, they shouldn’t be. When we err, we can try to fix it and so this post is my attempt to cover some of the same concerns, but in a more appropriate manner.

We never lack for examples when discussing safety. The issue that came to my attention this week was alarming. It didn’t concern equipment per se, but behavior and outlook. Having left fb I would never have seen it, but my friends still managing the “Military and Classical Sabre” page on fb, a page I used to help admin, were debating what to do about a problematic post. I’m still in that chat group and long story short was asked to weigh in; I had earlier written one of those “oh that sucks, yikes, good luck” messages to show support, but no longer active on fb I didn’t want to usurp anyone. Clever people, they can easily manage without my input, and my butting in would be inappropriate. But the next morning a few of them approached me about strategies for writing a response, so I did my best to help.

When I was working as an admin I spent most of my time doing two things. First, I attempted to establish and foster a culture where polite, evidence-based debate was possible, and where a truly international community could meet and discuss the wonders of the sabre family safely. Second, I handled most problems, not only dealing with whatever the issue was (and the author at times), but also in using such occasions to reenforce the expectations for behavior. It takes a lot of time and energy to do all that, and it’s often unpleasant work. I won’t lie, really relieved I’m not handling this one.

The post in question asked the 6,000 members of the page if they would be interested in seeing live bouts, with sharp swords, and whether they’d be willing to pay to view these gladiatorial tragedies.  Issues of fb policy about such questionable posts aside, this rightly raised concerns for the admins. It seems impossible that anyone would fail to see what a superbly bad idea this is, but judging by the comments the misguided poster has supporters. Maybe it was hypothetical, but the poster admitted that he would watch such a fight, lethal or not, and that he had watched people fight with sharps, though he shared no details. I don’t believe these are bad people. I want to believe, least I hope, that the majority aren’t sociopaths. Most likely they’re simply naïve and apply what they know from an agonistic context to an antagonistic one. [1] This doesn’t make this idea any less dangerous, but it might help explain why some members were all for it.

Romance & the Sword

People get involved in fencing, any fencing, for many reasons. Somewhere in that mix, usually, is a wish to live out or experience, even at a distance, what d’Artagnan, Rassendyll, Scaramouche, Zorro, and Luke Skywalker bring to life. Literature, film, t.v., comic books, most any way we enjoy story has so often involved fencing. It’s as true of Rafael Sabatini’s novels—so many of which became movies—as it is more recent tales like “Star Wars.” The sword is universal; most every culture has some example of it. Richard F. Burton, in his The Book of the Sword, remarked that “The history of the sword is the history of humanity.” [2] Much as Burton got wrong, I suspect he wasn’t too far off with this conclusion.

I have yet to meet anyone who got involved in fencing because they believe they look sexy in tight white polyester and enjoy the sound of buzzers as pretty lights flash. Similarly, no one I’ve met in historical circles joined up because of their love of thick black jackets, loud socks, and the masochistic thrill that is taking multiple Zwerchhaus to a mask not designed for that sort of battery. Okay, so I do know a few who dig the socks, but otherwise, what draws all these fencers—regardless of preference—is the romance around the sword. This is fine, of course, and for some maybe it is a way to live out some fantasy as Lancelot or Captain Blood, but no matter what every fencer should realize the difference between romance and reality.

A German student is patched up post Mensur

This said, because we no longer use swords we have little idea of what life was like when they were typical weapons. Most newsworthy events involving sword injuries are either freak accidents or crimes committed by those with severe behavioral pathologies. The few other modern examples stand out as exceptions—they’re anything but normal. There are the right-wing morons in Hamburg who slice one another up, there are religious sects like the subset among some Shia Muslims who flagellate themselves with sharp swords, a few isolated examples of fencers who thought they’d give it a try in varying degrees of seriousness, and then the one stand-out example with a venerable history regardless of how one feels about it, German fraternity duels, the Mensur.

The sword belongs to the past, and the past can have deep connections to fantasy. This is why it’s perhaps easier for people to ascribe what they’ve read or seen in novels and movies to what was, in truth, a bloody business. In a similar way many fencers view what they’re learning with more wishful thinking than honest assessment. The reality behind “swordfighting” is anything but pretty. Anyone who has experienced accidents from a kitchen or craft knife will understand this. Somehow, though, there can be a disconnection between any such injury and what swords can do. The gulf is widened even farther by the fact that modern safety equipment, most of the time, does keep people safe, even at full speed. Fencers are thus conditioned to fight with a false sense of security all the time.

One outcome of this for some fencers is too great a confidence in their skill set. This is a hard fact to demonstrate, especially to those who believe themselves so dangerous, because the few avenues they have to “test” those skills are false positives. The worst cases are often found among some who win gold medals, but fail to appreciate the contextual differences between mock and actual combat. They are not the same. The weapons may be similar; that trainer may be as real as can be save for an edge, but at the end of the day there is one fact that is inescapable: our psychology pre-match and our psychology pre-dangerous fight are not the same. There is similarity, but only on the surface. Many competitors experience jitters before a match, but what do they worry about? They worry about doing well, about advancing; of disappointing themselves, their instructor, or teammates; they worry they will be embarrassed if they score too few hits or mess up or lose; but what they’re not worried about so much is the very real chance they may be seriously injured, disfigured, crippled, or killed.

To demonstrate the difference, look up most any fencing bout on Youtube. Take your pick of Olympic or historical footage. Note how quickly and from the off one or both fencers rush at the other. Notice how little caution they display. Now, check out the various footage of late period duels, most between 1900-1920, that schlager7 has shared on Youtube:

https://www.youtube.com/user/schlager7/videos

Duel between Jean Gung and Georges Tinet, 1911–still image from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=czTKm8v-s4U

This was early 20th cen. film, so the speed will be a little quick and the action somewhat staccato, but notice the difference in how most duelists move. Notice the hesitancy, even as each makes small false attacks in hopes of finding an open line. Their hands move fast, but their feet do not, and it isn’t until the feet move that one of the duelists has decided they have a shot. In these duels—most with epee/spada—the concern not to be hit is obvious. One can laugh all one likes at the size of an epee blade, but the damage one can do to a body is anything but laughable, particularly when the person wielding it means to and wants to do harm. Like its ancestor the smallsword, that 30-35 inch spike rushing toward one is powered by the weight, ire, fear, and power of the opponent, and is hardly something to laugh at.

The Ridiculous

This fb post, even if hypothetical, was a bad idea if for no other reason that it will fuel the fires of fools. [3] The well-known maxim “from the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step” enjoys too many manifestations in historical fencing. A few standout examples of the silly include the toe-first lunge (a result of misreading text and image and of misapplying semi-related works, chiefly from dance); the baseball grip for longsword as the one and true way to hold the weapon (despite a legion of period images arguing for a wide variety), the idea that “military” and “dueling” sabre are different (both look to military sources and the difference, such as it is, is one of context), and the idea that all feints are bad (contrary to a plethora of sources where masters cover them and mention the potential dangers). There is a lot of ridiculousness in HEMA. A lot. The interpretative examples just mentioned can be set side by side with similar gems from the tourney world (too much concern about afterblows, not enough about initial strikes), some of the books produced on various topics (from poor translations that are popular to expensive photo-rich works that blind the unwary to how little of substance lies within), and in the unfortunate turn that cutting contests have taken (the goal is to cut through the matts, not to cut within the mechanics of a given text or system). The idea of bloody prize-fights, of what amount to snuff-films, is a step beyond foolish: it is irresponsible, unhealthy, and potentially criminal. No one with any sense should want anything to do with it; those who do need help.

Hieronymus Bosch, “Ship of Fools” (ca. 1490-1500)

As a wise student of mine reminds me often, we all have staterooms on the ship of fools, no exceptions. I will be the last to deny it—if anything I feel my stateroom expands a little too much too often. The saving grace is perhaps realizing our propensity for the foolish and doing what we can to mitigate it. This can be challenging, especially given the degree to which the Dunning-Kruger effect is in play when it comes to martial arts. One aspect of this effect are assorted types of over-confidence. Among these classifications the one most germane here is overestimation,

the discrepancy between someone’s skills and their perception of those skills. People who overestimate themselves frequently engage in wishful thinking with harmful consequences. If someone overestimates their capabilities, they may take dangerous risks and overextend themselves beyond their limits, like an athlete pushing themselves to the point of injury. [4]

Fencers perhaps suffer from this more often than we might think, especially because of the pervasive values in the culture. Among these perhaps the most pernicious is the sense that tournament victories reveal the superior fighter. Winning a match can reveal true skill, but it is not automatic, a fact long recognized before tournaments existed.

For example, Andrew Steinmetz in The Romance of Duelling (1868) wrote “I mention this affair to show that something more than skill is necessary when using a naked weapon or shotted pistol; and the most able fencer and the first-rate shot are not always the best men in the field (61).” The duel in question was between a young officer, known for his skill with the foil, who fell to a “hardy, active, thickset youth, with the eye of a hawk and the nerve of a lion.” The kid had no training, but had nerve. [5] Mark Twain, who wrote about the duel on several occasions, also commented on this fact with his usual humor:

But, don’t you know, there are some things that can beat smartness and foresight? Awkwardness and stupidity can. The best swordsman in the world doesn’t need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn’t do the thing he ought to do, and so the expert isn’t prepared for him; he does the thing he ought not to do; and often it catches the expert out and ends him on the spot. [6]

Even a seasoned duelist who survived multiple, even numerous duels could fall prey to some duffer scared out of their wits. To name one such example Felice Cavallotti, an Italian politician who had fought some thirty duels, died when he failed to be cautious. Aldo Nadi relates the duel in On Fencing, and though short, the description is gripping:

They met. After the usual instructions, the duel began. Seized by the fire of battle, Cavallotti jumped forward, shouting and swinging his sabre. Overwhelmed by this outburst, Macola froze. Instinctively, he stiffened his arm. Cavallotti’s weapon found no target. Macola’s blade passed through Cavallotti’s open mouth and out of the back of his neck. Cavallotti died on the spot. Macola wrote a beautiful obituary. [7]

The advantage the experienced duelist has is more a species of nerve than superior skill. Steinmetz, in referring to the young veterans in France post-Waterloo who sought out young, visiting Englishmen to exterminate, reminds the reader that these men had been “accustomed from their earliest years to face danger in every form, they had the advantage, even when their antagonists were equally skilled in handling the weapon.” (66) He adds that

Few sensations are more delightful than those we enjoy upon finding ourselves secure after our lives have been placed in imminent peril, and men who have once known the pleasure of escaping danger often seek it, or are, at least, careless about exposing their persons, hoping again to experience similar gratification. (66)   

I have known a number of modern veterans who have struggled with this very phenomenon. They got to enjoy combat, the challenge, the risk, the excitement of facing a foe and living another day. Nice as gold medals and trophies are, whatever we feel upon having an award handed to us is nothing like what those exposed to life and death combat experience upon surviving, particularly those who come to enjoy it. [8]

Reality

I have spent most of my life at this point, in some respect, fencing. Teaching fencing and researching its history is currently my daily work, well, one of several jobs, and from experience, research, and observation I am concerned about people who wish to play warrior or duelist when they are grossly unprepared for what that means. It doesn’t matter if one is fencing Olympic or historical—the truth is that neither trains one for actual fighting the way say Krav Maga or boot camp do. In historical fencing, ostensibly, we are trying to be as accurate to fencing-as-a-combat-system as possible, but by the definition we can only do this to a point. [9] We must take safety precautions for reasons of good sense if not potential legal trouble, and mostly so that we don’t kill off the people interested in learning about it or they us. Historical fencing is a past-time. The corners we cut, which we must, do not prepare us for the reality of a naked blade in hand and another pointing at us. It’s a question of mindset, and while we can, and arguably should do all we can to cultivate an artificial awareness of how serious all this would be, by no stretch of the imagination should we train or proceed in such a way that people increase the chances of being hurt.

Bruce Lee, “Enter the Dragon,” 1973

All fencers—instructors, students, whoever—have a responsibility to one another as comrades in arms, as fellow people, to keep one another safe and demonstrate the virtues that the Art can bring out in us. If one works with children this is all the more important. We are not gladiators, and we should never be assassins—if we have learned well then we should know that the best martial artists do what they can to avoid a fight. They find ways to resolve an issue peacefully, and only call upon their skill when this fails. We should all endeavor to be ideal seconds, not duelists, and as such condemn needless danger. This particular danger, if realized, would do more than alarm authorities unlikely to sit idly by as people square off with sharp swords, but very likley damage or end lives. Horrible as this to contemplate for anyone, the damage collectively is worth considering too. Most authorities would condemn any such notion, and so should we.

NOTES:

[1] J. Christoph Amberger, a well-known researcher of fencing history, was the first I read to use this helpful distinction between antagonistic combat, where the potential for hurt is present and one purpose, and agonistic combat, or sport fighting, fencing as a pastime. There is a spectrum between these two poles, however, and I suspect that Amberger, who fenced Mensur in college, might list fencing with sharp schlagers as sort of a mix. The context for the Mensur is different than this pay-per view bloodsport—traditionally the university students who belong to the dueling fraternities observe strict rules and safety precautions. It’s a form of ritual combat, and while injuries are part of it, the target is limited and the action stopped after a hit by the seconds.

[2] Richard F. Burton, The Book of the Sword, London: Chatto and Windus, 1884. Reprint, New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1987, xv.

[3] This quotation has been ascribed to a number of people. For a fun discussion about it see https://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/06/24/sublime/

[4] “Dunning-Kruger Effect,” Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/dunning-kruger-effect, 12-19-2020. See also Dunning, D., Johnson, K., Ehrlinger, J., & Kruger, J., “Why people fail to recognize their own incompetence,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 12: 3 (2003): 83-87; “Studies in Swollen Heads: What Causes Overconfidence?” March 19, 2018, APS: Association for Psychological Science, https://www.psychologicalscience.org/publications/observer/obsonline/studies-in-swollen-heads-what-causes-overconfidence.html. The seminal article by Dunning and Kruger came out in 1999, J. Kruger and D. Dunning, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77: 6 (1999): 1121-1134.

[5] Andrew Steinmetz, The Romance of Duelling in All Times and Countries, Vol. 1 (London: Chapman and Hall, 1868), 61.

[6] Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, 344 [New York: Harper Brothers, 1917; Google Books]. In A Tramp Abroad Twain wrote much about German student dueling. Chapter VIII, “The Recent Great French Duel,” is a tour-de-force of humor if unfair to the valor of the French. The first line sets the tone well: “Much as the modern French duel is ridiculed by certain smart people, it is in reality one of the most dangerous institutions of our day. Since it is always fought in the open air, the combatants are nearly sure to catch cold.”

[7] Aldo Nadi, On Fencing, Sunrise, FL: Laureate Press, 1994, 21. Originally published 1943. The New York Times covered the story March 7, 1898, see https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1898/03/07/102086820.pdf

[8] Out of respect for these warriors, young and old, who struggle with simultaneously enjoying combat and living in a culture that, supposedly, decries violence, I will mention no names. My heart goes out to them as I’ve seen how this emotional Janus tears them apart. My first encounter with this phenomenon outside my own family was with a young retired marine who was taking my ancient history class. Comments I had made about the motivations of characters like Achilles caught his attention and he stayed after class to ask me about it. I didn’t know he had served, but he shared with me how much it meant to have someone speak about the joy these characters took in fighting, something he had come to like too and really struggled with. His plans were to work for the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration, USA) on storm ships, chasing hurricanes, etc. because he missed the risk and danger. I’m not alone in finding this theme in works like “The Iliad” where we see the eagerness of Achilles and the hesitation of Hector. See Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, New York, NY: Scribner, 1994.

[9] Were those who study Armizare, for example, to approach Fiore’s delights more realistically the number of broken elbows and smashed teeth alone would quickly send people packing. Those of us teaching later period systems would run considerable risks were we using sharps. It just doesn’t make any sense. There are those, like Roland Warzecha/Dimicator, who use sharps to train at slow speed and within strict boundaries, but he too is an exception. Most people aren’t Roland and moreover have not trained in environments that prepare them for using sharp weapons.

Exhuming Radaelli

Anyone expecting a tale of disinterred bodies, zombies, or revenants a la the Acallam na Senórach is going to be disappointed by my use of “exhume.” Here I mean exhume as in attempting to resurrect an idea or practice. Instructors within my tradition face an interesting dilemma when it comes to looking at the past. The Italo-Hungarian school is a lineal descendant of the Radaellian school, so our emphasis in examining the earlier history of our tradition looks less to mining archives for lost sources and attempting, almost from scratch, to recreate them than it does stripping away a century of accretion from the modern sport. This is not to say, in any sense, that familiarity with classical or Olympic fencing fails us in looking at rapier, longsword, or anything else—not at all—but it is to say that where those looking at Thibault or Dobringer face extinct arts we face an altered one.

Students of mine can no doubt relate (perhaps with some impatience) at least one story of my tangential forays into sources and history during lessons. It’s not that I relish any comparison to Polonius, but that context is everything, and while not necessary to learn technique or tactics having some of that context helps. Knowing why we do something matters. In attempting to strip away modern cutting dynamics, for example, one needs to understand how the modern direct cut works and developed. If that is missing, then the chances of understanding how Radaellian molinelli work and why will be that much more difficult. This applies more to experienced fencers looking to study the earlier system than it does students completely new to sabre. Regardless, and to borrow a favorite analogy, like learning a new language sometimes we learn what we know better via something new. Even if one decides they favor the restricted molinello or direct cut, study of the larger, elbow-driven cuts will broaden their understanding.

Molinello, Molinello Ristretto, and Direct Cuts

What is a molinello? Etymologically, the term comes from Italian mulino (“mill”) as in mulino a vento (“windmill”). Like its cognate in French, moulinet, from moulin (“mill”), both look to Latin molinum. The diminutive endings suggest a “little” mill, in this case to rotating the sabre in circular fashion reminiscent of a windmill’s sails or watermill’s wheel. In a Radaellian context, molinelli refer to elbow-driven cuts. Some authors, such as Giordano Rossi (Manuale Teorico-Practico per la Scherma di Spada e Sciabola, 1885), also refer to a molinello ristretto or “restricted molinello,” a form that makes a smaller circular rotation. The elbow is still the fulcrum, but the shoulder and upper arm have less work to do.

Direct cuts, which are pushed at the opponent, are quick and performed correctly can arrive with more force than one might think possible. Much of this is achieved by the fingers which sort of snap the cut to as it arrives to target (cf. post 11-14-20 on Leszák’s Sabre Fencing). Direct cuts are impracticable for cavalry because they rely more on the extension of the arm and use of the fingers; from the saddle reaching to either side, to the front, or more especially down one must use more of the torso. A direct cut can be delivered with more of a lean, but they are not often taught that way. Many sabre systems employ the wrist to rotate cuts; this was true of many cavalry programs as well. Radaelli’s major “revolution” was to substitute the elbow for the wrist then in vogue–battlefield experience had shown that wrist molinelli were less telling.

Looking to sources, the first to share Radaelli’s ideas was Settimo Del Frate. In his Instruction for Fencing Sabre and Sword Fencing (1868/1876) Del Frate explains that the molinello is

the circular movement the sabre makes when striking a blow… The objective of the practice molinello is to acquire flexibility and agility in sabre-handling, to learn to move it firmly and well-balanced in the hand, and to direct the blows with proper edge-alignment, as well as with force and speed… The totality of practice of the molinelli enshrines the practical application of every blow and every parry. This is because in the execution of various molinelli the sabre passes exactly through all the movements and positions pertinent to the various blows and parries.

The elbow is the main fulcrum for the arm and sabre in every molinello. The body must always aid the movement of the weapon in order to achieve the necessary flexibility, to develop a long and accurate blow, as well as to be able to s top the sabre and recover in guard with the greatest balance and effortlessness.

Per molinello s’intende in generale il movimento di rotazione che fa la Sciabola vibrando un colpo… Scopo del molinello d’esercizio, si è quello di far acquistare scioltezza ed elasticità nel maneggio della Sciabola, di fare imparare a ruotarla ben ferma ed equilibrata nel pugno e dirigerne i colpi con esatta direzione del filo con forza e velocità… Nel complesso delle esercitazioni dei molinelli si trova la pratica applicazione d’ogni colpo e d’ogni parata, perchè la sciabola nell-esecuzione dei diversi molinelli passa appunto per tutti quei movimenti e per tutte quelle posizioni che sono proprie ai diversi colpi e parate di scherma.

L’articolazione del gomito deve essere il perno principale del movimento di rotazione del braccio e della Sciabola in ogni molinello. Il corpo deve sempre assecondare il movimento del ferro per acquistare la necessaria elasticità e per imparare ad allungare, dirigere, fermare il colpo, e ritirarsi in guardia con maggior equilibrio e facilità. [1]

The key term here, in terms of a major shift in cutting mechanics for many sabre fencers, is the use of the elbow (gomito). Those trained in the mid-century school, even those trained in modern Olympic sabre, attack in many of the same lines, require the same parries, and ultimately wish to achieve the same goal, at least in part, but how each executes this varies. [2] One way to illustrate the difference is by imaging the cone of defense as becoming ever narrower from Radaelli’s time to our own. As a system originally developed for cavalry, a fact we should never forget, the sphere of action is larger. In the saddle, one reaches to target, but must do so with security, and be able to recover quickly. On the modern piste, and especially with the role that speed has taken in competition, the sphere of action is very compact and linear. The modern sabre guard position has all but left defense aside in order to ready the fencer to pounce. The two images below, the first from Del Frate, the second from the 2012 Olympics, illustrates this:

Del Frate, 1876 Guard of 2nd ; cut scene from 2012 Olympic sabre final, Korea vs. Romania

Defense, the purpose of fencing, has given way to scoring points, and thus less attention is paid to one’s own safety in attacking. Where Del Frate’s example projects a sharp point, the modern fencer faces forward, back arm limp at their side, and is all but ready to use a starting block. Olympic rules of ROW (right of way) and HEMA’s various rulesets both suffer from people too ready to jump in and strike, not enough concern about not being hit at all. The weapons might be different, but the sense of invulnerability is the same.

Radaelli’s system was aggressive. Cavalry were put to best effect in quick attacks, in over-running positions, and though it undercuts the customary romance that attends the world of Radaelli and the Comte de Lasalle, at chasing and cutting up retreating infantrymen. This said, it is harder to defend oneself in the saddle, because one must also maneuver the mount. This is why the defense is elementary when mounted, and secondary to the effective use of mounted troops in offense. Supposedly Radaelli remarked that the parry does not exist—a well-planned and executed attack means one doesn’t need to parry.

On foot, however, one must adjust. While one can retain the lean often made with the molinelli in the saddle, measure and tempo work differently, as does how we move. The men who were taught as a platoon performed drills mounted and unmounted, but they did not always train one-on-one or have provisions for such exercise. Practice varied by nation, but for Italy, cavalry training focused more on maneuvers en masse and making the most of point and edge through drill. [3]

These “Molinelli” sound Cool—how do I do them?

Fencers who learned direct cuts within the late Italo-Hungarian tradition or within the modern game sometimes find the adjustment to the larger cuts unsettling. They seem so large, so prone to counters, and that is true. They are larger, and must be used in such a way that one is as safe as one can be when attacking. Any attack puts one at risk. However, were they as risky as these fencers think then they would not have been taught for sabre for foot as well. While some of Radaelli’s students, such as Ferdinando Masiello, continued to teach mounted combat, others like Luigi Barbasetti and Italo Santelli, taught this same cutting dynamic to men who never spent time (or very little of it) in the saddle. Of note, it was Radaelli’s students who, with colleagues in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, fused Italian and Hungarian principles to create the grandfather of the modern sabre game. Like it or not, chances are good if one has made any formal study of sabre that one has worked in a milieu influenced if not created by the Radaellian tradition.

Exploring an Example: Molinello to the Head from the Left

One of the least difficult molinelli for most people is the molinello to the head from the left as described by Settimo Del Frate.

Head cuts are easily the most common attack in sabre. Modern preference for the guard of third more easily facilitates a direct cut to the head—it’s more, well, direct, linear, and thus fast.

The Radaellian school and the generation which succeeded it preferred second as a guard position. There are solid reasons for this. First, second provides the fencer a greater degree of safety because the blade is extended closer to the opponent. It presents a clear threat; one is less likely to rush forward with a sharp blade pointed at them. Second, from the guard of second it’s short work to parry first, which covers the inside line, and fifth, which covers the head. Lastly, it provides a safer starting place to start larger cuts. Where third will expose the arm, and all with minimal protection as one does so, second keeps the opponent farther away and allows one to start the rotation (provided one does so at the right time and in the right situation) more safely. The opponent must move in to hit one as that arc begins—they must decide between a chancy arrest against the far more definite giant cut speeding their way. Take away the competitive mind-set and this choice becomes no choice.

Del Frate lays out this molinello in three movements:

42. Molinello to the Head from the Left in Three Movements

Molinello to the head from the left, from point in line, one the commands:

One!—turn the fist from right to left by rotating the forearm, so that the edge of the sabre is turned up without raising the first (N. 15).

Two!—bend the arm, lowering the blade top toward the ground, and carry the sabre along the left flank with the edge turned to the left. The grip is to the left of and at head height approximately eight inches in front of the head; the body is balanced as in the guard position (N. 16).

Three!—with power from the arm and body movement, the sabre describes three-quarters of a circle from high to low, starting above and behind the head, bringing the sabre and the extended arm to a horizontal position in front of the body at head height with the edge turned toward the ground (N. 17).

42. Molinello di Testa da Sinistra in Tre Movimenti

Pel molinello di testa da sinistra dalla posizione di finta puntata al commando:

            Uno—con un giro di pugno da sinistra a destra eseguito per rotazione d’avambraccio, si volge il filo della Sciabola in alto senza alzare il pugno (fig. 15).

            Due—piegando il braccio si abbassa la lama colla punta verso terra, e si porta la Sciabola lungo il fianco sinistro, il filo rivolto a sinistra, l’impugnatura a sinistra ed all’altezza della testa e 20 centimentri circa più avanti; l’avambraccio all’altezza e in direzione della fronte; il corpo equilibrato come nella postura di guardia (fig. 16).

            Tre—con slancio del braccio dall’avanti indietro, alzando il pugno e assecondando col corpo il movimento del ferro, si fa descrivere all Sciabola ¾ di circolo dall’indietro in avanti e dall’alto in basso, riportandola col braccio disteso in posizione orizzontale davanti al corpo ed all’altezza della testa col filo verso terra (fig. 17). [4]

The plates provide a stop-motion illustration of these three steps.

Figures 14-17, steps of the Molinello to the head from the Left

This descending molinello from the left is here described as both exercise and as offensive action, however it moves through the parry of first as well. The second step, as Del Frate points out in section 45, is the same as the parry of first. [5]. For the classical or modern sabreur most of this should be familiar—point in line, rotating the arm to move the blade to new lines, even the position taken in step two which recalls the parry of first.

What will seem new is the use of the elbow. Cutting to the head from first in contemporary sabre is tighter. From the parry, one starts the cut by rotating the wrist so that the blade begins its arc, then one drops the first to interpose some opposition as one pushes a cut to the head. [6] It’s a very linear vs. circular cut. The arm, as the cut finishes, returns to the plane of third and from there back to guard. So, for the fencer used to this dynamic, the first step is often just getting comfortable with the use of the elbow.

Getting Comfortable with Using the Elbow

Gross Motor Skills Drill

Drilling the gross motor actions of the molinelli will help. It can be easiest to start from first position (so, standing) and begin from a point in line. All one does is make rotations at the elbow, doing their best to keep the upper arm and shoulder relaxed and as motionless as possible. The goal is to isolate the elbow and forearm. Start in the air and when comfortable make the same strike against a mask or pell. It’s important to know how the cut lands, because the change in force, even before one adds the use of the body, will be different. Depending on the sabre one is using, one can still employ the fingers to finish the cut—one with a grip intended for a thumb along the back will do this easily; one requiring a racquet or hammer grip will not.

From Guard

Next, one can start the molinelli from guard. It’s easiest to start it from a point in line at first, but in truth the molinelli can be made from guard, on the march, as parries, or as part of a compound attack. [7] I normally have students use a point in line until they’re comfortable, then have them start from en garde and in second. This is an easy shift. As before, one executes the molinelli trying to isolate the elbow and forearm, only now one is shifting from a guard to do so rather than straight from a point in line.

With an Attack

One practical way to set this up as an attack is to take turns with a partner or instruct the student to begin with a feint thrust to the chest (inside line) from second. Made well, this feint should draw the opponent’s parry of fourth. [8] Rather than disengage with the point to the outside line and thrust, the attacker disengages under the guard only enough to then start the rotation along the left side of the body to complete the attack, the molinello from the left to the head.

Masiello, Sabre Fencing on Horseback, 1891, fig. III–this image depicts the scarto to the left, unmounted drill

When sufficiently comfortable, I then have them try the same attack, on its own or with a feint, using the body to assist the cut. This action employs the scarto, an evasive action where one draws the trunk back and chambers the sabre. Performed correctly the opponent’s attack falls short, and then using the potential energy gained in the scarto, one begins the return. The blade still moves first, the body still follows. In the example we’re examining, from second, the student shifts their weight and trunk backwards and as they do so they start the rotation along the left side of their body. At the furthest point back the blade is nearly perpendicular to the ground. The blade arcs overhead and the body follows—it can help to think of it as being pulled by the sabre forward. The trunk leans into the cut helping drive it to target. All of this can be done from guard, just shifting the trunk back and forth; it can be a very useful drill.

Adding the Lunge

Del Frate, 1868: while rendered rather extended, as the red lines I’ve drawn indicate the trunk should be no farther than the angle of the rear leg.

Next, I mix the lunge and scarto. There are several critical observations about the combination of lunge and lean to make. First, as always, the weapon leads the way, so one does not begin the lunge until the arm is all but extended. The lean follows the lunge. In terms of steps, it helps to break this down into two portions. First, from second, begin the rotation, extend, lunge, and finally lean into the cut, but no farther than the angle the of rear leg. Beyond that it is difficult to recover out of the lunge, forward or backward.

Next, practice this with the rest of the scarto. One way to do this is to have one fencer attack and force the other to parry first, and as they do so shift their torso toward the rear. Then execute the molinello as before.  

Great, but when and how should I use these molinelli?

I’ve touched on several ways already. The molinelli constitute a drill on their own, but are also a good way to warm up—they incorporate more of the upper body than the woodchop drill does, for instance. They’re an ideal daily exercise.

One can use them to attack. This is most often, and certainly most safely done, after a preparatory action that clears the line. The example above employed a feint, but one can use beats and other actions on the blade to set them up too.

Defensively, each of the molinelli move through the principal parries, so they are an option for the riposte. [9] Moreover, with practice, one can use molinelli more defensively as a sort of active-parry, that is, performing them against the incoming attack. This is, more or less, the Italian version of “cross-cutting;” it’s a way of intercepting versus blocking an attack that uses the force of that blow to drive the return.

Molinelli or Direct Cuts?

This question, for me anyway, is in the same category that seeks to compare every sword against the Japanese katana: pointless. Context, damn it, context. Is a hammer better than a screwdriver? It is for pounding nails, less so for turning screws. In short, there are times where one might use molinelli and times when either molinelli ristretti or direct cuts are a wiser choice. [10] We limit ourselves if the only thing in our toolbox is a wrench, so why restrict ourselves to one style of cut?

It makes more sense to learn as many effective methods as possible if for no other reason than to know how to counter whatever one might face. Sun Tzu remarked that “Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing.” [11] The analogy of water is old, more recently made famous by Bruce Lee, and it’s an apt one–where water must shift around or over rocks, logs, and navigate ever-shifting banks, so we fencers must cultivate a similar flexibility. In addition to honing our own technique, we must understand more than its sum; we must be ready to deal with the unexpected, the unforeseen, and that is far more easily done if we have some idea of what all we might face. This doesn’t mean we can’t have favorites—I’ve come to prefer the molinelli to direct cuts—only that learning all three versions has its merits.

So, molinelli or direct cuts? In answer the word that first come to me are the words of two other sages, Tulio and Miguel, who together said “Both? Both? Both. Both. Both is good.” [12]

“Road to El Dorado,” Dreamworks, 2000

NOTES:

[1] The English translation here is from Chris Holzman’s The Art of the Dueling Sabre: A Translation and Explanation of Cav. Settimo Del Frate’s Award-Winning Textbook on Giuseppe Radaelli’s Sabre Method for the Fencing Masters School of Milano, Staten Island, NY: SKA Swordplay Books, 2011, 10-11.

The Italian is from the Google Books pdf of Del Frate’s 1876 edition—the one Chris translated—Istruzione per la scherma di Sciabola e di spada del professore Giuseppe Radaelli Scritta d’ordine del ministero della Guerra, Milano, IT: Litografia Gaetano Baroffio, 1876, 16-17.

[2] The goal of making the touch is the same, but understanding, appreciation, and attention to execution in making that touch without being hit differs. Right of way (ROW) is meant to capture the spirit of hit and don’t be hit, but functionally is scored and taught as hitting legitimately with priority.

[3] See for example Ministry of War, Regulations of Exercises and Evolutions for the Cavalry, Book I, translated by Christopher A. Holzman, (Rome: Carlo Voghera, Printer Publisher of the Military Journal, 1873; Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2018).

[4] Holzman, The Art of the Dueling Sabre, 31-32; Del Frate, Istruzione per la scherma, 40.

[5] Holzman, The Art of the Dueling Sabre, 33; Del Frate, Istruzione per la scherma, 42.

[6] Fascination with coverage can get silly. I’ve seen some interpretations have fencers gyrate in crazy directions all to cover their ripostes. In this instance to drop the wrist and push forward would stop the arc mid-way and rob of it power.

[7] Cf. Holzman, The Art of the Dueling Sabre, 101.

[8] When the defender parries in first it changes things. Disengaging under is less sure as one is likely to run into the opposing steel, so making a disengage over, or cut-over, makes more sense, but this will mean making a molinelli to a different line. One option is to make the same feint, but when the defender parries first cut-over, and moving through sixth parry make a molinello to the outside cheek.

[9] Main molinelli vs. more advanced. Some of the molinelli are difficult. Barbasetti, for example, does a wonderful job describing the ascending cut from the right, but even his explanation makes it clear that how one contracts the back to make this cut is a lot harder than the example above.

[10] It may make my stricter Radaellian colleagues uncomfortable, but I think direct cuts have their place. In certain contexts they are appropriate. They’re just not Radaellian. For a long time I was more on the fence about this, but cutting practice using both styles of cutting has demonstrated for me that both can be pretty nasty. There is no question that elbow-driven cuts are more powerful. Using a 20mm blade I have no trouble sinking the blade a quarter to half-way through a pumpkin with a direct cut; a full molinello, however, easily severed the gourd and unless I was careful sunk into the wood beneath as well. This is to say that a direct cut, while it arrives with less force, would not be something someone would wish to receive in a duel.

[11] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, translated by Lionel Giles (London: Luzac & C0.,1910); The Internet Classics Archive, http://classics.mit.edu/Tzu/artwar.html , VI. 31.

[12] “The Road to El Dorado,” Dreamworks Animation, 2000. What? Sometimes “both” is a solid answer 😉

From Page to Practice

L’armee Française–Cavalerie Lègère–Trompettes de Chasseurs

If the last few posts were a clarion call against what not to do, then this one, in order to restore a little balance, is more a small bugle announcing more of a what to do. Those who know the oeuvre of Peter Sellers may recall the opening scene of “The Party” (1968) where his character, an actor named Hrundi V. Bakshi, plays a Gunga Din who refuses to die even after volley after volley by both the Thugee cultists and the colonial English army. Tone-deaf and prejudicial issues around cultural appropriation and stereotypes aside, that scene is perhaps an apt analogy for the amount of binary ink I spill about the proper and improper use of our sources. It comes up a lot, but then it’s a major problem within historical fencing and thus a fitting topic to treat. Again, and again.

Of the students that I’ve been able to meet with during the pandemic one is an experienced fencer with whom, until recently, I have worked sabre. In our discussions about it, however, we’ve occasionally discussed parallels with other weapons, chief of which—for my tradition—is foil and by extension, smallsword. The north Italian fencing tradition, because of French influence during the Napoleonic era, was different than the southern Italian tradition as exemplified by masters like Terracusa e Ventura (1725), Rosaroll & Grisetti (1803), and Parise (1882). A good friend and fellow student of fencing both Italian and French, Patrick Bratton (Sala della Spada, Carlisle, PA), can speak to this better than I can as he has been studying the source tradition for specific elements of that influence, but in short there are some parallels in north Italian sabre and foil.

I was surprised, if thrilled, that my friend and student wanted to take a look at smallsword. With the pandemic the need for variety and diversion is perhaps stronger than usual, and so switching over to smallsword for the last few weeks has been a nice break. This has been, parallels notwithstanding, new material for him, and just enough different that it’s been important to go slow so that we build the fundamentals correctly.

Converting Text to Technique

To illustrate this process, and by extension how one can use sources, I’m going to take a look at one of the more complicated actions that we’ve looked at in his lessons to date. It’s important to note a few things. First, this is a quick look at one source, not an exhaustive look at how various works at the time cover the same action. Second, “complicated” is a relative term. For many Olympic fencers this attack, while compound, is relatively simple in the sense of easy (not in the technical sense of simple attacks). However, here one must remember that the art of defense, by definition, is conservative. The more actions one makes, the more tempi, and this means that one’s opponent has more opportunities to disrupt one’s plans and strike.

“Figure of two men in the guard as explained”–Girard (1740)

After having worked fundamental actions, in this case direct thrusts in tierce and quarte both firm-footed with a lean and with an advance-lunge, always with opposition, as well as simple feints, we took at look at double feints. For this drill I looked to P.J.F. Girard and his Traité des armes (1740), Second Part, “Double Feint Quarte:”

To Thrust Quarte

This thrust is done firm footed, advancing & retreating, with or without appels, as is generally the case with all fencing attacks, as has been said before.

Double Feint Quarte

Sword engaged in tierce, I feint quarte while stamping the right foot, hand at shoulder-height, with the nails turned upward & the point near the enemy’s hilt, body back, then feint tierce outside the sword; & when he returns to parry, thrust subtly in quarte inside the sword, the hand leading, to be ready for a parry in case of a riposte, & to riposte as you see fit. [1]

The original French reads thus:

Double Feinte de Quarte

Pour Tirer Quarte

Cette botte se fait de pied ferme, en marchant & en reculant, avec des appels du pied & sans appels; ainsi que généralement tous le coups d’Armes, comme il est déja dit.

Double Feinte de Quarte

L’Epée engagée de tierce, je fais faire une feinte de quarte en frapant du pied droit, la main à la hauteur de l’épaule, tournée les ongles en dessus & la pointe à côté de la Garde ennemie, le corps en arriere, puis la feinte de tierce dehors les Armes; & lorsqui’il revient à la parade, tirer subtilement de quarte au dedans des Armes, la main la premiere dans le principe, pour ȇtre en état de parer en cas de riposte, & de riposte à propos. [2]

There is a lot here and much of it requires familiarity with earlier material Girard covers in Part 1, in particular expressions such as “firm footed” (pied ferme), “sword engaged in tierce” (L’Epée engagée de tierce), or thrusting in “quarte inside the sword” (tirer… de quarte au dedans des Armes). These may or may not be obvious to the reader. Some expressions, such as “firm footed” are not part of modern fencing’s vocabulary, so, a first step is to go back and read the relevant sections in the work that explains these concepts. The master first mentions the idea in his twelve points for the en garde position, point 12 (Crawley, 38; BnF Girard, 7):

12. Finally the left foot is flat & firm upon the ground, presenting the inside of the foot to the right heel.

XII. Ensin le pied gauche à plat & ferme sur la terre, présentant le dedans du pied au talon droit.

Girard begins Part 1 with an examination of actions “against those who always remain firm footed” (Crawley, 48; BnF Girard, 14ff). [3] In simplest terms, he breaks down the assault into two major types, firm-footed (i.e. where they do not get in and out of measure, but remain in it) and those were at least one of the opponents is moving, either advancing or retreating.

I used the same break down to build a drill—initially we would approach this double feint firm-footed, and later employ more movement, in this instance where the student would begin out of measure and advance to engage.

What is Stated, and, What is Not

The concepts of “inside” and “outside” the sword refer to the same concepts today, that is, what we normally term the inside and outside lines. The outside is, assuming a right-hander, to the right of the weapon as one stands on guard; the inside line all that space on the left. To have the sword engaged in tierce, the fencer making the feint assumes the guard of tierce (modern Italian terza or French sixte), and makes contact with or engages the opposing steel so that the opponent’s blade is to the right. In this drill, we initially had both of us in tierce. [4] The feint is made in quarte, so, to the inside line. It is not stated here, but in order to do this one must disengage under the opposing steel, so, moving from tierce to quarte or from the outside to the inside line. Girard’s detail about the hand and place of the sword tip are crucial—this disengage must be tight and performed in such a way that one continues to block the threat of the opponent’s weapon.

Here too, Girard is not specific, but after the feint the assumption is that the opponent will move to parry in quarte thus safeguarding their inside line. As they do so, one feints in tierce or to the outside line—again via disengage—in order to draw the opponent once again into a parry of tierce. When they do, one then disengages a third time and thrusts along the inside line to target, but maintaining opposition in quarte. A student of modern foil with a few months of experience can likely puzzle this out, but even then some of the language is different, not to mention the emphasis placed on closing out the opposing steel.

It may be helpful for some fencers to render Girard’s instructions into modern fencing parlance:

  • From an engagement in third/sixth, disengage and feint to the inside line
  • As they parry fourth, disengage and feint to the outside line
  • As they reassume third/sixth, disengage and thrust in fourth to the inside line
  • *in each case, both feints and the final thrust, are made with opposition, that is, closing out the line so one is not hit
  • Start with both fencers in measure, blades engaged; later, have the student enter into distance and take the engagement

There is no reason one must retain the original wording, but it can help reinforce what one is reading sometimes. If the older expressions trip one up, then convert them to the modern versions if you know them—this exercise alone will force us to make sure that we really understand what it is we’re reading.

Languages

While a short passage, and seemingly clear, there is a lot that Girard assumes the reader will supply. He does not tell us to disengage; he assumes that we understand that we must because we are changing lines from outside to in, from inside to outside, and again from outside to inside. These are the little things that can make parsing historical fencing treatises difficult.

Blow of high quarte inside the swords–Girard 1740

I supplied the original French here for several reasons. First, we rely on translations—especially in the States—for most of our work. This means that we are attempting to recreate, as best we can, systems used in the past and conceived of and understood in a different language. Translation is as much science as art, and it takes considerable skill and training to do well; if you have French or Italian or whatever language your area of study was originally in, then it behooves you to ensure that your translations are solid. Check your English version against the original. If you don’t have French etc., but know someone who does, ask them to give it a once over. Second, because translations mean that the translator is making choices as to definitions, sentence structure, etc., it is useful to take a closer look at those choices. Sometimes, it makes little difference—pied ferme, for example, is pretty clear, “foot firm,” or as we would say in English, “firm foot.” But, if we look at tirer, for example, this is less clear. In modern French tirer can mean: “to pull, to pull to/to close; to draw (as in to draw curtains); to fire or shoot; to print; to take.” Not one of these definitions really works well here. The closest we get is the fifth meaning (according to my Collins French-English Dictionary), “to shoot or fire,” but we would not say that one “shoots a thrust” or “fires a thrust.” Philip T. Crawley renders tirer in Girard as “thrust,” and in context that makes good sense. Further examination into the use of this word in other works on fencing from the time would confirm that this is a good choice of definition. One might even note that the Italian cognate (tirare) was used the same way. [5]

Using Word & Image Together

Feint of quarte, to thrust tierce outside the sword–Girard 1740

Girard included illustrations which aid the reader, but as static images they capture at best a moment in time, a snapshot of action. We can easily see what a guard might look like, or the moment that one fencer is about to act or has completed an action, but we cannot see a disengage. We cannot see the intensity and attitude needed to sell a feint. Here, in Girard’s 8th plate (8 planche), we see the fencer on the right lift his foot to make an appel, and he is clearly in preparation, but unless one can read the French or has a decent translation, it would be easy to conclude–as one example–that he is mid-extension and about to lunge. We cannot see what a lunge looks like as it happens, but we might see one prepare for it. We need to read the caption to realize the difference. We can and should make use of the images if we have them, but always with the caveat that we cannot assume that they are completely faithful to what the author intended and what the fencer should do. Some images supply added material, such as dotted lines meant to capture the movement of a weapon or a limb, but even here these are representational; they’re symbols, shorthand for complex ideas and motion.

Exploring what Girard, or any other master, advocates for a fencer requires that we pay close attention, that we read carefully, compare any illustrations against what we read, and that we remain open to correction as our study continues. Were we only to use Girard’s plates we would not get very far—there is too much he doesn’t depict, too much he couldn’t depict. As the example of the double feint in quarte hopefully demonstrates, even the text which explains an action leaves out key information. It may be covered elsewhere in the work, but it might not, and so taking the time to read closely, to compare the translation in our language against the original, to work via analogy as and when appropriate, and to set word and text side by side is vital if we are to have any hope of successfully recreating the systems of combat that these sources preserve.

NOTES:

[1] This translation is via Philip Crawley’s edition of Girard; P.J.F. Girard, The Art of the Smallsword: Featuring P.J.F. Girard’s Treatise of Arms, trans. by Philip T. Crawley (Wyvern Media, UK: 2014), 95.

[2] P.J.F. Girard, Traité des armes (La Haye: Chez Pieree de Hondt, 1740); available as a pdf or online at Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica, 48, https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k229941w.image . Hereafter, BnF Girard. I cannot express how much I value the hard work and generosity of libraries like the BnF for sharing so much online.

NB: Languages change over time and in the 1740 publication, either because Girard rendered it this way or because the printer decided to, the initial “e” in l’épée is capitalized and lacking an accent aigu where one might expect one in modern French.

[3] Contre ceux qui demeurent toujours de pied ferme. Bnf Girard, 14.

[4] Of note, tierce in smallsword is held nails-down or pronated, thumb at about 8 or 9 o’clock; modern Italian third, hand in fourth position (suppinated, thumb at about 3 o’clock) is more typical of the invitation in third; French sixth, likewise, has the hand suppinated. All three are meant to cover the outside line or defend it, and create invitations to attack the inside line, but it’s important to note that they do this somewhat differently.

[5] I am currently reading through every source for rapier and smallsword I can obtain (and read) looking at some specific elements, and the similarity in language between some of the Italian and French works are striking if not unsurprising. Originally I had intended to produce an article out of this study, but it has grown too large for that and so it will likely live here in some guise.

They Call it “Macaroni”

The Much-Maligned Smallsword and Foil and why it Matters

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

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

Wigs, Lace, and Lorgnettes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Later Period Systems and Modern Fencing Matter

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

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

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

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

The Problem

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

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

NOTES:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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