Using Historical Fencing Treatises, Text & Subtext

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

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

“Barcelona,” 1994, by Whit Stillman

Explicit vs. Implicit

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

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

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

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

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

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

As another example, Wylde suggests that

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

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

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

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

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

Further clarification derives from Wylde’s guard position:

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

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

Subtext & Using a Treatise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOTES:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attempting to Realize “Realism”

In historical fencing we place significant weight on the concept of “realism,” here defined as fencing as accurately as we can both in the sense of treating the blade as if sharp and in attempting to fight as closely as one can to the dictates of the system we study. However, outside the lunatic fringe, we also fence as safely as possible. One of the frequent observations I’ve shared here is that our sense of safety affects how effectively we accomplish this. Without fear we are prone to make actions we might not were we fighting in earnest. Short of expensive medical bills, law suits, and jail time, however, there is only so much we can do about it. It’s daft not to wear gear—as I tell kids “eyes don’t grow back”—so we are left with cultivating a strong sense of awareness. It’s not an ideal solution, but the effort isn’t wasted. The proper mindset, and awareness of how our study is hobbled, only improves our understanding and hopefully our interpretations. This subject popped up again for me recently during a rapier lesson and got me thinking about all this in more detail.

To date, I’ve covered this in a general way, mentioning the problem and suggesting that we would do well to keep it in mind. However, a natural question is how; how is one to cultivate this sense and where? Do we think this way all the time, just with certain maneuvers, or only in certain contexts?

‘Tis but a Scratch!

King Arthur and the “Invincible” Black Knight from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” 1975

Arguably one of the more serious failures we make in historical fencing is downplaying the effect, physical and psychological, even a non-lethal wound has on a person. More than once I’ve mentioned the kitchen or craft-knife accident, but a shot to the face by a hard ball, the lacrosse stick that misses pads and jabs an arm, the toe that meets a furniture corner, and the car-door that smashes a finger all ought to remind us that even “minor” injuries can ruin our day. I’m not the only person who believes we need to remember this—just his past week Matt Easton of Schola Gladitoria posted a video that discusses a number of examples of how non-lethal wounds can affect us. [1]

Somehow, however, once we don a mask we can forget this. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone say “oh that was just my arm” or “meh, you only stabbed my hand,” and yet were we to have a finger smashed or an arm broken or cut-deeply I doubt we’d brush it off so casually. Having broken most of my fingers at some point, having had a near-compound fracture in my dominant arm, and having had stitches for deep wounds I know myself that sometimes one can keep going, and, sometimes one is rendered hors d’combat. I’ve fought on, twice, after having a finger smashed so badly it was bleeding, but only because I didn’t realize how bad it was. Once I did realize it I stopped fighting. I’ve also been bruised hard enough to stop a fight: I literally couldn’t hold the weapon after that hit. The context is important.

We cannot know, in many cases, how we would react in these situations, but even so we need to be mindful of the fact that even a so-called minor wound might stop a fight, incapacitate us, or freak us out enough that the fight would effectively be over. We forget this to our peril if we’re truly trying to fence as realistically as we can. While “HEMA” talks a lot about the after-blow, a shot made after one’s own that lands, we ought to be just as concerned about the incontro, the double, about being hit as we make our attack.

The Role of Teaching

Everything we teach should be in accordance with the source tradition we work in, but it also must abide the reality principle. If we are teaching anything without a concomitant concern for self-preservation, then we’re doing it the wrong way. It’s not just about making the touch, but doing so in such a way that one is not hit in the process. This will feel and present very differently than much of what we see today in historical fencing. It requires us to be more conservative, less aggressive from the off, and far more cautious.

To illustrate this I want to take a look at a few common aspects of most fencing: for offense, feints and beats; for defense the parry/riposte and attacks in tempo. Some of these I’ve mentioned before, but not in one place nor in this specific context. Regardless of consideration of technique or its application, however, we need to revisit what “don’t be hit” means as a guiding principle when making these common actions. How we teach them is everything.

Offense: Feints

Feints are what we often call “fake-outs” in colloquial American English. They are actions we make to force an opponent to move their blade out of the way so we can strike them in a specific line. They are not easy to do. On the one hand there is the technical aspect, the individual motions the fingers, hand, and arm make, the changing of lines, the false strike and real one, but on the other are the critical issues of measure and timing. When we teach feints we focus first on finding the right measure from which to start the feint—in brief, it needs to be made close enough to get the opponent to react, but just far enough out that one can change the line. Depending on the instructor the fine-tuning with this can be extremely specific. For a feint to work it must be convincing, but our sense of safety with a mask and trainer versus no mask and a sharp begs the question of whether we’d react even to a poor feint if it was close enough.


In examining two of Marcelli’s guards, mezzaluna and porto di ferro, last week, my friend Ken Jay and I realized something that might temper the specificity we normally apply to feints. [2] These guards, hallmarks of the Neapolitan School according to Terracusa e Ventura (ca. 1725), are stout positions. [3] Mezzaluna forces an opponent to the low line; porto di ferro, on the other hand, forces them to the high line. Rapier and dagger, deservedly, represent some of the best expressions of western swordplay, and these two guards, in our experience anyway, force one to pay close attention not only to distance and timing, but also to the nature of the attack: a simple attack will rarely succeed, and a compound one, while more likely to meet with success, can likewise be defeated thanks to the defense-in-depth provided by the dagger.

Ken observed, after I made a feint from slightly out of distance, that were my weapon sharp he might still have attempted to parry. This statement really got me thinking. In jackets, with masks, and armed with rebated rapiers neither of us is trying to be hit, but we’re not worried about what happens if we are either. We are not afraid.

This is a point worth long consideration—how perfect does a feint have to be if the weapon is sharp, the person wielding it keen to do us harm, and our own natural aversion to pain in play? Certainly training helps, but more so would experience. By the latter I mean having faced similar situations and having emerged from them unscathed. To do so would, with good reason, build confidence in one’s ability as well as a sense of how far out one can make a feint. However sure of oneself, a sharp point is a sharp point and so unless completely sure the prudent thing to do would be to react, in this case perhaps to take a half step back or off-line and parry, knowing that what looks like an attack might in fact be a feint or vice-versa. Would we take the chance and guess or play it safe? This is where experience and drill can make all the difference.

Beats

If one has spent time in Olympic fencing then one has likely learned a few different ways to effect beats. A beat is a sharp knock to the opposing steel using one’s weapon to deviate it from the line. Where a feint forces the opponent to open the line themselves, a beat is a way for us to force them to shift lines. In Olympic fencing, however, the concern is less over removing the steel from a specific line than it is in establishing right of way (ROW). This is a major difference, and for those of us who came up initially in the sport, it means a shift in view when using beats with period weapons. In the sport, making the beat regardless of shifting the weapon is sufficient to establish ROW—it’s symbolic.

Returning to Marcelli and rapier, facing an opponent in mezzaluna one can beat the rapier, but it’s not enough to make contact and strike. We may or may not have removed the steel: the opponent might replace it quickly after the beat; and of course they have the dagger waiting to intercept too. A beat from the retracted terza/third used in mezzaluna, against the inside line of a similarly held weapon, may move the weapon, but chances are high that one’s opponent will replace the line easily and quickly and thus negate the effort. Significantly, Marcelli touches on this issue in Part II, Book I, Ch. 12, “The Beats with the Sword” in Rules of Fencing.

I have not found a better occasion for making the beats than that, which is encountered in the Fourth Guard, in which the opponent’s point is found convenient for making this action. Although it can be practiced against all the other guards, nevertheless it is made more securely against this, or against any other that keeps the point of the sword forward. So then, he is always found ready to beat the opposing sword, with it standing forward, it stands separated from the defense of the dagger and stands more apt for this action. This cannot be done with such ease in the other, narrower and more united, guards because in those the opposing sword’s point is found defended by the dagger, and going to beat it, the opponent can easily be given the opportunity to take the Cavaliere’s sword with the dagger and would him with the time thrust.

[Occasione migliore per far le Toccate, Io non trovo di quella, che s’incontra nella Quarta Guardia, nella quale si trova commode la punta del nemico per farli questa attione; e benche contro tutte le alter Guardie si possa pratticare, con tuttociò più sicuramente si fà contro di questa, o contro di qual sivoglia altra, che tenga la pūta della spade avanti. Posciache all’hora si trova la spada nemica sempre pronta à toccarla, mentre con lo stare avanti, stà disunita dalla disesa del pugnale, e stà piu adattata per questa attione. Lo che non può farsi con tanta facilatà nelle alter Guardie più ristrettte., e piu unite, per che in quelle la punta della spada nemica so trova disesa dal pugnale, e con l’andare a toccaria, si potrebbe facilmente dar occasione al sopradetto di precarli la sua Spada co’l pugnale, e di offenderlo con li suoi Tempi.] [4]

Marcelli’s Fourth Guard (fig. 2, left) and First Guard or Mezzaluna (fig. 1, right); 274, Holzman, 204 in the pdf

Time spent working this sword (and dagger) in hand proves the wisdom in Marcelli’s caution. His Fourth guard, being more extended, is a safer bet for a beat than either mezzaluna or porto di ferro—with those, the beat may be a decent preparatory action, but on its own it’s not likely to succeed, not without one also being hit.


Marcelli goes on to explain that just as with feints, the strike must follow immediately after the beat is made. There is the danger that the opponent’s dagger will intercept, so any delay only increases the chances the beat-attack will fail. The beat may disorient, but that is not enough—it must clear the line sufficiently or one risks getting spiked making the attack. The most successful beats we have found were against the sword, but then delivered to the dagger hand with a shift to the side, or, followed by a feint. With the layered defense provided by rapier and dagger compound attacks are crucial. It’s not that simple attacks can’t work, but that against a skilled opponent they are harder to achieve. We have also found that beats from the outside line which drive an opponent’s rapier toward the inside line tend to work better—not only does it open the line more securely (there is no dagger), but also it’s easier to make the thrust and close-out the opposing weapon. Conversely, those beat-attacks we made on the inside to the inside were far more likely to be parried or earn us a spike as we closed the attack.

Defense: Parry/Ripostes

In teaching people to parry, we are attempting to impart to them an action which has a lot of moving pieces, all of which must work in concert, and which not only must begin at the right distance, but start at the correct time. The concept is simple—“stop the other sword”—but the execution is complex. A parry by itself might preserve one, but on its own does nothing to offend the opponent, and so we generally make a riposte afterwards. There is, in short, a lot that can go terribly wrong before one ever sets foot on the piste or in the ring.

Of all the ways to parry, simultaneous parry-ripostes, which block and strike at the same time—what Marcelli calls the “parries in tempo” (Parate in Tempo; 267pdf)—represent a sort of Platonic ideal of a parry for thrust-oriented systems. Marcelli writes:


The parries in tempo are none other than direct thrusts performed in the tempo that the opponent performs his; therefore, the method of making those must be learned well in order to then have more ease in the execution of these. In performing them, it must be advised that the parries in tempo can be made in all the guards, as much as in the guard below the weapons, as outside the weapons, inside the weapons, and in that of the sword forward.

[Le Parate in Tempo non sono altro, che Stoccate dritte tirate nel Tempo, che l’nimico tira la sua; perciò si deve imparar bene il Modo di far Quelle, per havere poi più facilità nell’esecutone di Queste. In opra delle quali si deve avertire, che in tutte le guardie si possono fare le Parate in Tempo, così neall Guardia sotto l’armi, come in quella di for a l’armi, in quella di dentro l’armi, & in quella di spade avanti.] [5]

Parries in tempo or what we might call simultaneous parry-ripostes take considerable time to learn to use effectively. The precision, sense of timing, and fortitude required demand consistent, dedicated training, and time to perfect.

Outside of thrust-oriented systems, however, we usually think of a parry as a block, an action which stops an attack by adopting a static opposing position. Weapon weight, measure, timing, and skill all affect how successful either version will be.

One of the worst mistakes we can make in teaching students how to parry and riposte is to fail to cement in their minds what a parry means. A successful parry is a sign that an attack has failed. This doesn’t mean that the defender is out of danger, but it does mean that the attacker should have one thought in their head: defense. The entire logic behind Olympic “right of way” rests on this principle. [6] Both fencers, early on, can misread this situation. The defender, having parried, may strike with zero regard for the fact the other person is still armed; the attacker, their first attempt stopped, may continue to target with no regard for the riposte screaming towards them. Both children and adults have commented to me in drill “but I hit them,” which is true, but only half-true. Yes, you hit them after or as they riposted, but was that the wisest, safest choice? No. You got hit too.

Marcelli’s Third Guard or Fianconata (left) and Porta di Ferro (right); 277 in Holzman, 208 of the pdf

The defender must do more than parry and strike—they must do so with the awareness that there is still a sharp point out there. The riposte must follow quickly lest the opponent use the extra tempo to remise, and ideally the defender will riposte as much as possible in such a way that a smart attacker will not try to take tempo, but parry in turn. The attacker, on the other hand, having been parried, should realize the attack failed and immediately go on defense. Sure, there are times the defender’s response is slow and a remise an option, but here too one must do what one can to renew that attack safely and cover.

Attacks in Tempo/Counter-Attacks

As mentioned just above, attacks made in tempo against an attack, versus a defensive response, are often an option, but they are dangerous to make. Fencers with an excellent sense of timing—which can be improved dramatically via drill—can avail themselves of this option with more success, but what holds for the less skilled holds for them too: they must consider their own safety in making such an attack.

The standard stop-cut drill in sabre is a good model for this. Ditto arrest drills in epee. In sabre, the instructor attacks poorly, usually in three main ways: cutting to the inside exposing the inside forearm; cutting the outside exposing the outside forearm; cutting to the head with a bent arm exposing the bottom of the forearm. The student makes a counter attack in tempo, either making a cut or an arrest to each of the exposed targets, as they step back, then parries the blow as it terminates in that line, and ripostes. Here, the student employs counter-offense, a blow in tempo, but also covers in case the attempt fails.

Cultivating Caution

None of what I’ve shared here means much unless one’s goals are to fence as “realistically” as possible. Any set of competition rules, by definition, has to make allowances for deviation from realism if for no other reason that the challenge of effective judging, and it’s competition, a game, so that is okay. One should be forthright about it, own that fact, but assuming one realizes the limitations, fine. In teaching, however, in drill, in all we do as learners we need to cultivate a proper sense of caution and do what we can within a given system to avoid being hit. To own the truth, being hit is historical too—sword combat crippled a lot of people and put a lot of people in the ground—but unless one is keen to emulate that, it’s probably wise to consider how our training, in every sense, supports or undermines the guiding principle of “don’t be hit.”

NOTES:

[1] Cf. Matt Easton, “How do you incapacitate someone with a sword?!” 18 March 2022, https://youtu.be/zqADQyPBZmw]

[2] NB: while beats can be made against these guards, they are far less susceptible to beats than say when facing sword alone or against Marcelli’s Fourth Guard with rapier and dagger.

[3] See Nicola Terracusa e Ventura, True Neapolitan Fencing, 1725, trans. Christopher A. Holzman (Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2017), 70. Google Books, p 66 of La vera scherma napolitana rinovata dal signor Nicola Terracusa, e Ventura, Parte II, Ch. III, “Del modo di tirare le stoccate, e delle tre guardie,” or page 68 in the pdf after download. Link: https://books.google.com/books?id=PYcpqbY0e2sC&pg=PA63#v=onepage&q&f=false

[4] Part II, Book I, Ch. 12, “The Beats with the Sword” in Francesco Antonio Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, 1686, trans. by Christopher A. Holzman (Witchita, KS: Lulu Press, 2019), 313; the pdf available on Google Books is p. 29 of Parte Seconda, Libro Primo Cap. XII online, but p. 231 of the pdf after download. Link: https://books.google.com/books?id=yOVEAQAAMAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false

[5] Part II, Book 2, Ch. 2, “Method of Making the Parries in Tempo,” Rules of Fencing, trans. Holzman, 369; Google Books p. 65 of Libro Secondo Cap. II, or p. 267 in the pdf after download.

Of note, Marcelli explains earlier in his work that he does not advocate moving anything other than the weapon and arm that wields it to parry. The fencer should stand firm, in guard, and use timing, a solid guard position, and just enough movement to block or deviate the incoming attack. [Part I, Book I, CH. XIII, p. 53ff in Holzman]. In many systems, including among many Italian masters later, the feet are often the first to move, even if a short half-step back. Given a weapon of the weight and length used in Marcelli’s period, however, there is less necessity for using the feet as one does in modern foil or late period sabre.

[6] My go-to example of this is the riposte to the flank delivered by lunge after parrying 5th in sabre. Students young and old have shared concern over the Damoclesian sword poised above them as they riposte. It’s an excellent observation. This said, while one can side step to the inside line if they so choose as they deliver the riposte, the initial attacker should be more worried about that riposte than in dropping their blade to bonk the opponent on the head. The blow was stopped, its energy is spent, so an extended arm grasping a sabre that can do nothing but drop is a poor trade for that fully developed riposte heading for their ribs.

On Covering, Part II: Teaching Students about Covering

[Part I, 2 June 2020, “On Covering, or, The Difficulty in Hitting and not Being Hit,” covered much of the background and context for the problem—I don’t wish to rehash that here, but reading it first will help: https://saladellatrespade.com/2020/06/02/on-covering-or-the-difficulty-in-hitting-and-not-being-hit/

One of the aspects of working with new people I most value is their fresh perspective—it’s all new to them, so they ask the questions we should all keep in mind but tend to forget. Fencers take a lot for granted. It’s one reason that even the most expert fencers should continue to drill basic, fundamental actions and study. While most everything is challenging at first, among one of the more difficult conceptual hurdles for many fencers—new and old—is how to keep oneself covered, not only in defense but also and more critically in offense. The artificial nature of what we do combined with cultural influences tend to cloud our reasoning about this. There have been a number of attempts to manage this problem, most famously perhaps the idea of “right of way” (ROW) in Olympic fencing, but no rule-set or explanation will do the job on its own. We need to cultivate an acutely conscious if artificial sense that the blunted weapons we use are sharp. If we do not, then we run the risk of failing to teach our students how not to be hit. 

What follows is a quick break-down of how I’m tackling this. Cultivating a sense of realism in practice is a topic I mention often, I know, but it’s because it’s something I struggle with like many instructors and it’s a problem I see at play in most clubs. I don’t have all the answers, but can share what I’ve found to work, and especially, the holistic approach I’m trying to implement. 

Start with the Weapon 

1873 Cavalry Sabre, Italy

From the outset I try to instill a sense of weapon-as-live in class. Normally, especially with kids, I have a period piece (unsharpened) on the first day to compare it to the modern versions. For sabre or foil, for example, seeing the blade profile of a period sabre, smallsword, or epee d’combat, and feeling the weight of each can do a lot to increase their appreciation of the difference in the tools we use versus what people used in the day. With adults or older children using historically inspired trainers this is easier because they are using weapons that better approximate those early tools. In both cases, however, I explain the parts of the blade that are sharp. For those that have held heavy blades, say the cheap overly ponderous facsimiles out of India or the HEMA-Bruh weight of a trooper sabre, the easy heft of a 650-800g sabre can seem unimpressive. Depending on audience I relate either contemporary, analogous examples or cite one of the recorded battles in which one of these “light” weapons proved just as nasty as anything twice its weight. 

The kitchen or hobby knife mishap is a suitable modern analogy for children. IF they ask about how dangerous this sabre or smallsword/foil was, I ask them if they’ve ever had a bad cut from some accident in the kitchen or in making crafts. Most have had some manner of accident or witnessed one. This makes the danger a little more immediate. For that one kid in Toughskins who plays it off as no big deal, I remind them that the slice we give ourselves in the kitchen or the toothpick that pokes into our hand as we make some craft, are accidents—with swords, the person threatening another with it intended to hurt that person. It makes a difference. I add that we of course do not want to hurt anyone, but that we need to remember that this is what swords were for, because if we forget then we take chances we shouldn’t. 

Reenforcing the Idea of Defense First 

Del Frate, 1868

Teaching affords us many opportunities to remind students about the nature of the weapon they are studying. Repetition of an idea as they repeat actions helps cement both thought and action in their minds. For example, when I teach them the guard position in sabre I have them in 2nd. This was typical of the Radaellian approach, but I also explain why it was the preferred guard. It directs the sharp point at target, and since the arm is somewhat extended this puts us a little farther behind the guard— as a compromise between presenting a threat and staying away from one ourselves it’s thus an ideal place from which to start. [1] When they make a direct thrust from 2nd, I explain that the dangerous bits, the point and edge, must move first and for the same reasons: it ensures that we are threatening the opponent and staying as far away as possible at the same time. If we fail to threaten them, they may counter attack. 

One of the places this is most difficult for students is in learning to parry and riposte. For example, in the last two classes I took them through this simple phrase

1. Fencer A: from 2nd, thrusts to inside line 

2. Fencer B: parries in first, then ripostes via molinello to the head 

3. Fencer A: parries 5th, makes molinello to left cheek 

4. Fencer B: parries in 6th, makes a molinello to the right cheek 

[*assuming two right-handers

This is a progressive drill, one we work up to over the course of the class, and instructive on several levels [2]. That third step, however, tends to go awry, because Fencer B in step 3 or 4 will sometimes remise rather than parry. [3] 

Parry of 5th against a cut to the head, Pecoraro & Pessina, 1912

I stop them at this point and ask them to explain the action. When they get to step four, I ask who got hit and who got the touch. They should see that they were both hit… It can be a subtle point, because if A holds that parry too long or takes too long to riposte there is sometimes a tempo in which B might remise. However, once an attack has been parried the very first thought we should have is “my attack failed and my opponent is likely to riposte, so, I need to think defense first.”  

It’s not an accident that traditionally we don’t teach the remise week one. It’s a maneuver that requires the fencer to have sufficient understanding and an adequate sense of timing and measure to pull it off successfully. New students struggle to see where the blade is going in a direct thrust or cut, so it’s best to hold off teaching them attacks into tempo until they have a decent command of elementary attacks. Even explaining what went wrong in step 3/4, many students will scratch their heads and doubt. 

Two Dead Samurai 

What tends to hang students up in step 3-4 is that they know they “hit.” B, for example, will often counter “but I hit them.” This is another instance in which I remind them that if the blades were sharp then they would be both be hit, and that since the goal is not to be hit, that the better decision is to parry and riposte. In class with the kiddos I usually refer to this as “two dead samurai”—mixing metaphors here but the words of Anthony Hopkins as Don Diego de la Vega in “Mark of Zorro” (1998) spring to mind, “Oh, yes, my friend, you would have fought very bravely, and died very quickly.” Because they’re masked, wearing jackets, and using blunt swords they feel safe; because the class they’re taking is voluntary and for fun they are excited instead of afraid; and, movies, books, and tv have cemented an impression of sword-fights that are great for stage but not necessarily accurate. Thus, it’s sometimes an uphill battle to keep the past-reality around the current one. If our goal is to mimic as best we can swordplay as it was/would be, then we must keep that earlier reality in mind. 

The entire question of who got the real hit explains why ROW, HEMA’s fetish for the after-blow, and other peculiarities within rule-sets have developed. We’re always trying to find a way to highlight, as accurately as we can, just who won an exchange. ROW emphasizes the priority of the attack where HEMA’s after-blow rules are meant to encourage one to cover. Both punish obvious mistakes; they just focus on different problems [4]. Neither, however, is perfect and interpretation not only over what the judges see, but also what a rule actually means are issues which can further complicate officiating. The inclusion of “off-target” in Olympic scoring and the lack of concern over who starts an attack in HEMA (it does matter) are good examples of where our various rule-sets fail us. 

The Logic of Sharp Things 

In simplest terms, and the way I explain this to younger fencers, is that we want to stay away from an opponent’s sharp point while at the same time threatening them with ours. If both opponents do this, then at least they start at a stand-off, each relatively safe, each facing the question of how to get to target without being hit themselves. We are safest behind the point, steel in front of us, and the moment we change that, even to attack, we increase the risk of being hit. 

Imagining the danger can be difficult, so depending on the age I change the threat. For example, with the current crop of intro students, all of whom are 11 or younger, I tell them that the point of the foil and the point/cutting edge of the sabre contain “Great Stink” and if they’re hit then they’re “skunked.” They laugh, but for this age group especially the threat of smelling bad is more approachable. It can also add to the fun. 

The goal with this is to help students learn to react and plan appropriately. With younger students, so many of whom are ready to wield a foil in two hands like a lightsaber, jumping into a fencing class is play, a chance to pretend, and even when we structure classes well and keep them busy with games and drills, they will still find ways to act out the famous battles they know from movies. As one example, in my last p&r class I had them repeat the same drill above, and when it opened up after those three initial actions one pair set-to blade banging against blade with no thought to making the touch. It’s an age group that requires constant corralling, and each time is an opportunity to ask them “would you do this if the other blade could hurt/skunk you? How open are you using that foil in two hands? You’re gunsta stink Hoss…” 

Why this Matters 

I’m all for fun and do my best to make classes enjoyable for the younger set, but at the same time I want them to learn to fence properly. All this early focus on the reality of the sharp point is critical—without this all we’re doing is playing tag. Ensuring that students learn this helps them understand why we do what we do, why technique developed as it did, and if we’re lucky serves as another connection point in retention of new information. At the same time, the sooner we set them on this path the less likely we may need to correct some of the common faults we see as they progress.  

Much of what and how we teach comes down to goals. It’s not my intention to disparage any one rule-set or fencing culture; people pursue what appeals to them and that’s fine. If tag is your thing, go for it. What I will say, however, is that for those of us ostensibly teaching historical fencing, a major goal is approaching everything as best we can as if the weapons were sharp, so we must pay some attention to inculcating an awareness of danger however artificial. It’s sort of, well, the point (pardon the pun) of what we’re doing. [5] 

NOTES: 

[1] The modern preference, and indeed historical preference in some sabre systems, is for what the Italians refer to as terza bassa, but which most people think of as third in Olympic. This version of third (outside guard for fans of English broadsword) derives from Hungarian practice. Both work, but they set up different expectations. A guard in second is at once defensive and offensive; Hungarian third is defensive: the guard and blade are held closer to the body, so parries are made closer to the body and set up speedy direct cuts well. Second, on the other hand, presents a sharp point from the outset to discourage someone from rushing in; parries are taken a little farther out and the hand moves less far in transitioning between second, first, and fifth, the first triangle of parries. 

[2] There are many types of drills and ways to structure them. Progressive builds like this one take an action and build upon it. For beginners I lay out each step—this makes it easier as they don’t have to read and decide what to do the same way as when unscripted, and yet still gives them good practice in watching and reacting with one set of appropriate responses. They develop confidence and feel like they are fencing, which given how complex coordinating all these movements is helps them continue working. Adding additional movements within the phrase, changing the actions, adding different footwork, and either limiting responses or adding unscripted portions are all ways to add complexity. With this particular drill, we’ve not moved beyond being in guard and lunging back and forth. Next, they will do this with movement back and forth, advancing and retreating; then I have them start from farther out, out of measure, and work the distance to complete the drill. 

[3] The remise is the renewal of an action/attack after it has been parried or while the defender is preparing to riposte. Some refer to this as a reprise, but this normally includes a return to guard (forward or backward) before repeating the action/attack. 

[4] Doubling, or the incontro, is one of the most common faults we make, and often it’s because we have a plan and follow it through without considering how facts change in the moment. Rule-sets can support this. Outside of epee, where a double penalizes both fencers, one need only make sure they land with priority, with ROW, to score—if they’re hit, it doesn’t matter, because they had right of way. In HEMA, which generally doesn’t consider who started an attack only who was hit, doubles are particularly thorny. Was it a double or an after-blow? This is cart before the horse. The first consideration should be who presented a credible threat first and how did the other fighter respond? If the defender chose to double or just reacted, they goofed up. Sure, the attacker should do all they can to cover, but that second fencer didn’t observe the don’t-get-hit rule, the primary rule, and shouldn’t be rewarded for it. 

[5] In HEMA competitions, for example, a lot of exchanges are deemed doubles that highlight this problem. In fairness to the fencers, the director has significant responsibility for seeing and interpreting what they’re doing, and the quality of directing varies considerably. To illustrate these reasons, we can examine—for the first—something as simple as how we extend the blade, and for the second the gulf we sometimes see between what we think we are doing in a bout and what we have actually done. In terms of technique, we see the reality of the sharp point in how we make a direct thrust: from 2nd in sabre or from tierce in smallsword, the hand is shoulder high and slightly outside the shoulder, because this helps close the line. Held directly in front, stiff-armed—which many students adopt at first—the arm is likely vulnerable. When I correct this, I remind them why we hold the hand the way we do, where we do. Regarding the second idea, that plan/execution don’t always match up, many fencers in bouts, be they practice or in competition, assume they’ve made the touch when in fact they haven’t or have doubled. It can be hard to see this—after all, they had a plan, they executed the plan, and thus are confident that they did what they were supposed to do. However, for anyone who has felt this way and then seen video footage of themselves… well, it becomes easier to see how intent and execution don’t always align perfectly or do but at the wrong time. 

Mastery, Revisited

Mastery. It’s a word that conjures a variety of emotions and images. In fencing the word means different things depending on context. For most Olympic fencers the word refers primarily to a teaching position, that of “master,” and second, in a more abstract sense, to a high degree of skill. Often these are considered to go hand in hand. Outside the Olympic fencing world, however, it’s more difficult to define. On the one hand, because there are certified masters who dabble or contribute considerably to historical fencing and martial arts, we do have some masters in our midst, but on the other there is no single governing body within the historical community itself with the power to confer the title. [1] I’ve discussed this before (cf. post “Of Medals and the Illusion of Mastery” May 24, 2019), and will try not to rehash the points I made there, but instead will focus on the topic from a different angle, one that comes up frequently. What is “mastery” in historical fencing? Does it even make sense to discuss “mastery” in historical fencing? Is it possible to have “masters” in our corner of the fencing world? [2] 

Master Ken

Though the topic of mastery can be a red herring, there are important lessons to be learned from examining the notion sans dreams of grandeur or aggressive McDojo-style marketing. It can help to unpack what “master” and “mastery” mean, because we use these words in different ways and they can mislead us if we aren’t careful.

“Master” as Occupational Title 

There are ample resources that discuss master-as-instructor, so I’ll only briefly state here what that means in terms of a maestro di scherma or maître d’armes. [3] Fencing masters, with some variance by accrediting body, generally have demonstrated to other masters that they possess a thorough understanding of theory, a command of both fundamentals and advanced skills, ample grounding in tactics, and some degree of skill in execution: at the very least they must be able to impart their knowledge and skill to students correctly. They must demonstrate not only knowledge and skill, but an ability to teach, and much of their training from moniteur to master consists of OJT. This means something. It doesn’t mean everything, but variance by person notwithstanding that training has worked for close to two-hundred years if not longer. Masters are first and foremost teachers, concerned with fencing education. In most ways this is not new. For all the famous masters named in the history of dueling or competition there were ten times the number of them quietly working in the background. 

Maestro Barbasetti

Some masters (extremely few) may know more history, but for the most part their focus has been the competitive sport and running a business. Historically, maestri were of humble station—a marquis or colonel might employ them, but they were not social equals. It wasn’t really until the modern Olympics and the birth of national competition that much of that changed. [4] Outside of world, national, and collegiate competition many maestri struggle to stay afloat. It is not an easy career path, and it’s not uncommon for fencing masters to hold down other jobs. [5] 

What separates a certified master from others is the fact they have undergone and succeeded in a program managed by those who did so before them. In truth, anyone who puts in the time, and has good teachers, might learn as much and develop the necessary skill level, but without the approval of certified peers they will never be a master, not in terms of professional title anyway. In a recent lecture by Dr. John Sullins online at Sala della Spada, the maestro explained that there are people who are masters in all but name; the example he cited was a fellow student he knew in the Italian program whose knowledge, ability, and teaching were excellent, but who never took his master’s certs. In this case, that student was recognized by his peers as equivalent to a master, but he isn’t in terms of accreditation. This doesn’t mean that the title is meaningless or that anyone can do the same thing, but to say that from time to time there are people out there who can and sometimes do the same job as a maestro. Hopefully they have the decency to avoid the title not having earned it, but that doesn’t mean one can’t learn from them. 

Historical Fencing & the Master 

Maestro Alfieri (fl. 1640)

For the most part the term “master” within historical fencing refers to an ancient title and job description. We speak of Master Fiore, the Bolognese Masters, Master Girard, Master Santelli, etc. Ideally, we recognize that while all these fencers may have shared this title that the title itself, the responsibilities that went with it, varied over time and by context. It’s a convenient term for “past experts.” Outside of modern, accredited masters working within historical fencing the idea of master as expert from the past is the safest, least problematic use of the title. This is true even when we use the term for experts who didn’t hold a certification as we normally think of it. 

Periodically the question of creating modern masters of historical fencing pops up, normally within the confines of social media, YouTube, and like ilk. There is something of the how many angels to a pinhead about this question—it’s decent navel-gazing, philosophical fodder, but functionally tends more to distract than inform. Our time would be better spent doing footwork drills. Where “master” as ancient title causes few issues, the discussion of creating modern masters of dead arts is a minefield. Opinion varies a lot as to the answer; here are my two cents. 

Master of a Dead Art vs. Master of Historical Fencing 

First, I’d make a distinction between master of a past art, say the Liechtenauer tradition or the Dardi School, and a master as it were of historical fencing. It may disappoint some of my associates, but I believe creating a master along the lines of the first definition is impossible. These are dead arts; the line was broken and in most cases a long, long time ago. Not only do we lack critical information about these past systems, but also our context is entirely removed from those of 15th century Germany or 16th century Bologna. It’s hubris to think we can do anything more than create a version of those arts, and, a version extremely modern and lacking much of what underpinned these ancient systems in their heyday. To name one example, the International Armizare Society (IAS) might create a neo-Armizare, but they cannot revive Armizare as Fiore taught it. Thus, they cannot create masters of Armizare per se, only masters of a modern take on Fiore’s teachings. [6] 

A master of historical fencing, theoretically, might be possible to create, but this title or position would be akin to earning a master’s degree in the history of medicine versus earning the MD and becoming a practicing physician. The requirements would demand command of the universal principles underlying all hand-to-hand combat, at least a working knowledge of several areas of historical fencing, demonstrated skill across those areas, and sufficient understanding of fencing pedagogy to teach effectively. The board reviewing this would consist of those fencing masters who work on historical topics, historians or similar experts who work on the regions and periods under question, and a few carefully selected people from the historical fencing community whose ability and insight would temper both the perspective of maestri created in modern programs and historians who more than likely have never held a sword. I have often thought about what such a panel might look like, even down to course of study and whom I would pick for the committee, but in truth the wide divisions within the community, communities really, suggest that if such a program were to arrive it won’t be any time soon. 

For now, I would suggest that the closest one can get to being a master of historical fencing is either to study formally the period in question and obtain training as a fencing instructor, or, become a fencing master and focus on the source tradition. This would mean attending an accredited program with ample attention paid to traditional technique.  There are already maestri doing this. [7] Some of these masters may be associated with “HEMA,” but in the US this is less often the case—here the hoi polloi in “HEMA” shun sport or traditional fencing. The few masters I know who work on things historical by and large work in small cohorts independent from mainstream HEMA. The scarlet “M.d.S/E.” applied to their plastrons isn’t lost on them; it makes little sense to waste time on a community where one is unwelcome.  

This is less a problem in Europe—fencing is venerable there where it has remained novel and exceptional State-side. To name only two examples, Maestro Francesco Loda, who also holds two PhDs in history, can navigate between historical and Olympic fencing easily. There is less of a stigma attached to the latter in Italy. Likewise, in Prague, Czechia, the Barbasetti Military Sabre since 1895 school actively works with maestri from Club Riegel. Prevot Michael Kňažko, who runs this program, has a classical focus intimately connected to the Radaellian tradition as expressed by Luigi Barbasetti, but works with fencers from a variety of backgrounds too, everything from historical to Olympic to actors working their way through The Academy of Performing Arts (HAMU) in Prague. Leonid Křížek and Michael Šolc, maestri at Riegel, also work with Barbasetti Military Sabre and I’ve seen how effective the combination of traditional pedagogy and attention to the sources is firsthand. [8]

HEMA & the Masters of the MiniVerse 

“I said no grappling HEMA-man!”

As often as the topic comes up, and as badly as some obviously wish to be considered masters, the chance of a viable accreditation program in “HEMA” worth anything is slim. At present the likely outcome of any such effort would be a self-promoting society of vanity-degree holders. Even collectively, from every branch of the community, there is likely neither enough aggregate ability or agreement as to what this would look like or how to evaluate candidates. There is generally a poor understanding of theory where it’s not outright rejected, a shallow level of source knowledge except sometimes in the case of one’s particular focus, and by and large the average level of skill is mediocre.[9] Most importantly of all, there is no dedicated work toward improving teaching, and worse, even less interest in enlisting the help of people best situated to help correct, trained fencing maestri. 

There are other issues around creating “masters” in HEMA. Outside the community would this certification mean much? Would traditional maestri consider them as well-trained as themselves? I don’t have an answer, but I think it would be a hard sell if the only actual teachers in the field weren’t involved in some respect. We can ruminate as to what qualifications such a “master” ought to have, but while perhaps a fun exercise no amount of boxes checked would likely make Person X a master in the eyes of most people. 

Masters by Popular Acclaim 
Another possibility, one rife with issues, is the potential to become a master by acclaim. How this wouldn’t descend into trouble is hard to imagine: there would be the big fish in small ponds who are the best in their pond, but unremarkable outside it; there would be those desperate to be seen as masters and angle for it, but who aren’t remotely qualified or interested in the actual job; there are also people of sense who, if named, would wisely say thanks but no thanks. Off the top of my head I can think of two people right now, both less connected to HEMA but involved in historical fencing, who to me embody the best aspects of mastery—they’re truly skilled, but they’re also dynamite teachers. Neither I think would be comfortable with the title, honored though they might be, and it’s hard not to blame them. [No, I’m not one of the two—one lives in Kansas, the other in Texas, and that’s as much as I’m willing to say 😉] 

Mastery—Goal or Approach? 

Master Pai Mei, “Kill Bill” Vol. 2 (2004)

Leaving aside the traditional notion of a person capable of passing on a body of knowledge effectively, especially to other instructors, what about the concept of “mastery” itself? Most people mistakenly supply the idea of a superior fighter to the label. A master in this sense is more akin to the white-haired, long-bearded kung fu master in B movies, wise somehow and utterly capable of humiliating any foe. It’s a lovely fantasy. The reality is that some masters died fighting, others never had to fight—it was not their job. They were primarily teachers. 

We’re conditioned to view a master through the lens of fiction and cinema. The scenes of challenge in films like Bruce Lee’s “The Chinese Connection/Fists of Fury” (1972) or its updated version “Fist of Legend” with Jet Li, where school rivalries lead to murder and additional challenges in vengeance, we unwittingly apply not only to Asian martial arts but others too. It’s present in the western canon of film as well—Prince Humperdink, remember, as he surveys the ground where Inigo and the Man in Black fought, concludes that they were both “masters.” I’ve yet to meet a master, of any kind, who has had to live or had any wish to live the life of Mister Miyagi; and while I’ve met more than one John Kreese of Cobra Kai, they stand out and in time bully themselves out of a job. “The Karate Kid” (1984; 2010) is not reality; it’s just a good story. 

It is true that many western masters, from Fiore to Pini, fought duels. Many more did not. Many also lost. One examination of Talhoffer, for example, suggests that he lost to another fighter. [10] This was likely more common than we think. The context of these duels is important too, especially since we have nothing remotely related to them today. Competition between masters has often been more about attracting students and staying in business than beating rivals; how they do that today is just different. Where Fiore had to fight, sometimes without armor no less, because he might lose his following otherwise, today’s masters fight it out with sale memberships, ad campaigns, and hopefully offering the best program they can. For masters in Italy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, professional rivalries might spill out onto the dueling ground, but not all the duels these masters fought were over teaching turf. 

Masteries 

Ron Burgundy, “Anchorman,” (2004)—I’ve seen too much of this attitude in “HEMA”

We define “mastery” different ways in fencing because in truth there are different aspects of it one can attempt to chase. Some fencers, probably most, look at mastery as a goal, as something they can attain by being the “best” fighter out there. Others, might focus on the most accurate knowledge and demonstration of technique. Still others might aim to possess near bardic knowledge of the sources. Then, there are the fencers who wish to possess all three. There are pros and cons to each of these, but the focus on “mastery” as a goal, as something we can work to achieve often leads us to the wrong places if not bad ones.  
 
This is not to say that one shouldn’t strive to do one’s best. Nor is it to say that one shouldn’t try to win bouts, develop gorgeous technique, or an impressive knowledge of the sources, but it is to say that mastery is perhaps best used as a carrot. After all, “best” is a relative concept—the “best” fencer in Bigcity USA may lose to the “best” fighter in Pigsty Village. This is another area I’ve said far too much about, but it’s true. One adage to keep in mind in re the question of superiority is the anecdotal remark that the finest fencer in France doesn’t fear the second best, they fear the worst. The second will, as soon as they take guard, reveal the fact that they’ve been trained if the fact wasn’t widely known; the worst fencer, however, is unpredictable and therefore in many ways far more dangerous. 

Tae Kwon Douglas, “Disjointed” (2017-2018)

Excellence, one’s best, is a good goal to work towards, but we do that work best when we realize that the concept of mastery itself is relative at best, chimerical at worst. Mastery, in many ways, is perhaps better viewed as more of a journey, an approach, than a destination or attainable goal. We can strive to improve, grow, and become better fencers and fighters, and with luck, better people. This focus does much to help rid of us the usual suspects that affect our growth and improvement. If our fiercest competition is ourselves; if the person we most want to beat is ourselves yesterday, then we’re more likely to see our fellow fencers as fellow travelers on the same journey. We will be more likely to view them as our partners, as our fellow guides. While we strive to beat them in bouts, we do so recognizing that ultimately they are helping us overcome ourselves and grow as fighters and people. [11] 

Take Aways 

I believe historical fencing would benefit from having something akin to a master of historical fencing program, but it’s hard to see that working out to the satisfaction of the majority. Perhaps one day we might see such a thing materialize. Until then, it behooves us to give credit to what today’s masters have to teach us. In like vein, I’d urge the masters, and especially the accreditation programs, to include more of the source material that informs today’s fencing than they do. Even the Italian program State-side doesn’t avail itself of the rich corpus that created it. [12] 

For us as individual fencers, if we focus on mastery as something to reach for, but which we can never attain we’re more likely to focus on what we should and improve. The line between the urge to grow and the ambition to be seen a certain way can be a slippery slope; it’s far easier to seek public acclaim because our culture idolizes fame, even fame where a handful of people comprise the audience. The Art is difficult, it is demanding, and distractions that pander to our egos rather than support our practice we should avoid. 

NOTES

[1] There is an option in the USFCA for focus in historical fencing, but I’m not sure if this is a dead letter. Some unfortunate political ugliness entered the picture and so far as I know no additional fencers have been so certified. 

[2] Facebook has been one platform of discussion, see especially Jay Mass, post Dec. 19, 2018; and Da’Mon Stith, post/video, July 10th, 2020. 

[3] In short, masters are custodians of the tradition, not only as instructors in their own right, but as those who certify new instructors. Provosts/Prévôts do much the same work as masters, but focus more on training fencers vs. other teachers. Moniteurs are able to teach all the fundamental actions and techniques and some tactics. Among treatments of the occupation, see Sydney Anglo, The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000); J. D. Aylward, The English Master of Arms: From the Twelfth to the Twentieth Century (London, UK: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1956); though dated and requiring caution, Egerton Castle’s Schools and Masters of Defense (Mineola, NY: Dover Books, 2003), originally published in 1885, remains useful; Richard Cohen, By the Sword (New York, NY: Random House, 2002); Zbigniew Czajkowski, “Domenico Angelo—A Great Fencing Master of the 18th Century and Champion of the Sport of Fencing,” in Studies in Physical Culture and Tourism 17: 4 (2010): 323-334; William H. Gaugler, The History of Fencing (Bangor, ME: Laureate Press, 1998); Jacopo Gelli, Bibliografia Generale della Scherma con note Critiche, Biografiche, e Storiche, Testo Italiano e Francese (Firenze: Tipografia Editrice di L. Niccolai, 1890);  Michael Julian Kirby, “From Piste to Podium—A Qualitative Exploration of the Development of Fencing Coaching in Britain,” MPhil, Universty of Birmingham, UK, 2014. 

[4] The social position of maestri historically was relatively low. In the Middle Ages fight-masters might be men of some degree of rank or an experienced commoner. Depending on where one was and when, some military training for young aristocrats might be obtained from extended family, friends of the family, or in some cases acquired living abroad. Local masters might be hired as well. Patronage was important and remained so into the 19th century. As the aristocracy increasingly transformed into the officer class, and as their time opened up for other pursuits, fencing started to become a “class” pursuit as well as important training. In time, fencing, like dancing, equitation, and good manners were considered proper elements of education, and this helped elevate those teaching these young people. Some, like Domenico Angelo, became minor celebrities, but for each Angelo there were just as many masters whom we only know by name or who had to rely on other avenues to stay afloat. James Figg, for example, a well-known instructor in early 18th century England is best remembered as a prize-fighter. 

[5] Many of the masters I know or have worked with hold a “day job” in addition to teaching fencing. We used to joke that as formidable as Maestro Couturier was as a fencer and coach, the fact that he worked for the IRS made him twice as scary. 

[6] As of this date the section on certification is under construction, but cf. https://armizare.org/  

[7] There are a number of certified maestri working in historical fencing—to name only a few there are David and Dori Coblentz, Adam Crown, Puck Curtis, Sean Hayes, Leonid Křížek, Francesco Loda, Kevin Murakoshi, and Giovanni Rapisardi. 

[8] The quality of teaching at Barbasetti Military Sabre is extremely high. There is a direct correlation between the fact that the instructors are all well-trained in fencing as well as in other branches of martial arts. They recently lost a dear friend and maestro, Jan Kostka—though he has passed on I didn’t want to mention the instructors at the school without mentioning his important place and contribution to their program. 

[9] Experience is a relative concept and has to be viewed against several other important considerations. One might spend a lifetime fencing and have little to show for it; one might spend a few years and become a paragon of technique and application. However, these tend to be exceptions, poles of the spectrum, and most people fall somewhere in the middle. So, the HEMA player with five years’ experience in say KdF may know a bit about “The Zettel” and even more about Meyer, but will have little reason to weigh in on things Olympic and vice versa unless they’ve spent suitable time on them. 

[10] See for example: https://talhoffer.wordpress.com/2012/12/03/1444-two-fencing-masters-in-rothenburg/ 

[11] For the cinematically inclined, the discussion about tea/martial arts in “Fearless” 2006) provides a nice example of the idea that “through the competition we can discover and get to know one’s true self” https://youtu.be/ZVkI0vbHcz4 

[12] I have great respect for the Fencing Master’s Certificate program at Sonoma State University, California, but at last check they were using only the works penned by Maestro William Gaugler. It was Gaugler who brought the program to the US and established it in San Jose. Given the talent there, I’m unsure why they would limit themselves to Gaugler’s works when there are so many more, and many better, than those of the late maestro. Since the focus of the program, as I have understood it anyway, is both traditional and focused on pedagogy, it’s puzzling that they don’t rely on László Szabó’s Fencing and the Master or avail themselves of the translations made by Chris Holzman. 

What’s in a Preface?

Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking each in turn, what do we learn?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prologue:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the dedication:

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

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

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

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

From the Preface:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So What?

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

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

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

NOTES:

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

[2] Titles listed in order of appearance:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

On Covering, or, the Difficulty in Hitting and not being Hit

PART I

ROW and SPORTFor a while now, I’ve been working hard on an issue we talk about all the time, but which we struggle to manifest: coverage. How to hit and not be hit. For historical fencers this is supposedly the guiding principle in how we approach the Art, and, what ostensibly separates us from our cousins in the Olympic world among others. This isn’t to say that the sport ignores proper coverage completely—ROW assumes it—but as often interpreted, taught, and scored “hit and don’t be hit” is less important than who made the touch with right-of-way, regardless of off-target or near simultaneous strikes. Historical fencers, particularly within their own sporting wing, struggle with the exact same issue only under different terminology. Considerable gymnastics form some answers to the problem, from over concern about “after-blows” to peculiar understandings of the angles for “effective” cuts, and to be fair similar gymnastics in rule-sets with point values by target…, so looked at honestly sport-HEMA faces the same challenges the Olympic world does. [1]

What exactly do we mean by “coverage?” In short, to quote Molière, it is “to give and not to receive” when fencing. This maxim derives from a line in a ballet by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin Molière (d. 1673), usually referred to only by his surname. He was a French dramatist whose work captured key social issues of the Ancien Régime. In his 1670 “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” often translated as “The Would-be Gentleman,” Molière explored the ridiculousness of a social climber keen to take on the activities of his social superiors, something obvious to everyone but poor Monsieur Jourdain himself. Among those he employs to better his situation is a fencing master who, in an oft-quoted line in traditional fencing circles, remarks “As I have told you, the entire secret of fencing lies in two things: to give and not to receive.” [1] In the 1990s when “classical” fencing was quickly establishing itself in reaction to the excesses in the sport, this line was often the battle cry.

On its own, it’s a clear, simple, and direct notion—hit your opponent, but in doing so don’t be hit. This is far easier to say than to do. Why is that, and for those of us looking at period manuals, why is it that we still struggle to achieve this? What gets in our way? Does it even matter? [2]

Working backward, it doesn’t have to matter; that depends on one’s goals. Anyone purporting to pursue historical fencing should care, but there’s a spectrum within “HEMA” and naturally not everyone agrees. Assuming that not being spiked or slashed does matter, however, there are probably multiple explanations for why it is so difficult today. This first discussion of coverage will discuss a few of the big picture issues.

Through a Glass Sporty

Much of our way of thinking about “real” swordplay has been framed within a sportive context, so we often unwittingly apply this sportive filter to our look at works from the past. This particular blindness is born of working in a context so divorced from the original environment of the Art. One result of this is that we have nothing against which to compare our interpretations, progress, or effectiveness other than parallels within our context, and all of these are sportive. We can get close to more accurate interpretations, maybe be dead-on in some cases, but much if not most of what we build, especially for older systems, will remain tentative. It’s inescapable since we no longer use swords in war or fight duels. The emphasis many place on tournament bouts doesn’t take into account this filter, but it must—by definition a tourney bout is sportive. This has serious ramifications not only for how we train, but also for the value so much of the community places on medaling.[3]

It is easy to underestimate the importance of this. In the past, when the sword was still an active weapon, final proof of readiness and skill was pass or fail, something one only discovered in combat, in whether or not one survived. Setting aside the issues of infection resulting from wounds or a stray musket ball on a battlefield, one’s skill either effectively dispatched the enemy and saved one’s life or it didn’t. Confidence accrued over time as one continued to survive until one either retired, met one’s match, or was killed by some non-primary assailant. This is a perspective and style of confidence that we cannot really know. Modern military people with combat experience may better appreciate this psychologically, especially if they have experience in hand-to-hand combat, but even for them the nature of warfare is different in significant ways.

The Role of Fear

MartialThe confidence gained in “on the job training” didn’t mean a lack of fear, only the ability to put that fear in check. More than anything else, it is the lack of fear, the lack of dire consequences which most affect our approach. Some historical fencers assume that because the system they study is “martial,” by which I believe they mean either for the battlefield or as a synonym for “effective,” that they are  more or less automatically approaching it the same way as people did in the past. One may move much the same way a treatise suggests, but movement is mechanical however much informed by intent and to move the way a master recommends does not mean the mindset is the same. We can’t even be sure we’re moving the right way much of the time.

This is an old problem, one at least as old as fencing for sport, and there have been many proposed solutions. ROW in Olympic fencing, for example, is meant to reflect the reality of a duel—in short, if one is being attacked, one must defend, or, counter-attack in enough time to have hit the opponent before one is hit. The inclusion of “off-target” and poorly timed touches affect everything. The most important complaint about ROW is the fact that there is not enough emphasis on not being hit at all. If, for example, my opponent attacks me and I decide to attempt a counter-attack, ideally I do that in the correct tempo and cover myself on the retreat. However, by the rules, I just have to strike one tempo before my opponent to nullify their attack—this doesn’t mean that I’m not hit, just that I hit first, in sufficient time, and thus rob them of the touch and score one myself. As Olympic fencing is a sport this is perfectly sensible, but if we’re talking fencing as a martial art then it is a problem.

Rule sets in historical fencing have to make choices too, but for the most part they’re just as artificial. Anytime we game a combat system we introduce artificiality. Some suggest that only certain angles of cut, for example, are sufficient to do any damage and thus only cuts made at those angles count. This flies in the face of actual cutting practice, however, as even a tip cut with a longsword is going to do some serious damage, never mind weapons designed to cut that way. Other rule sets, and I’ve made one myself, try to introduce either benefits or punishments for bad tactical decisions. Some award points to “after-blows” in the belief that one should have covered, others attempt to promote better attention to defense by weighting the initial point more.

None of these are perfect and each have advantages and disadvantages. None, however, solve the problem of mindset. If cuts must be made at certain angles, then cuts that might have damaged someone but aren’t at those angles are ignored—”tippy” cuts to the hands, to name one example, aren’t considered “martial,” but the hands and forearms are common targets in the sources and as I learned from one sabre coach, if you remove the arm’s ability to wield the weapon, the rest of them is a lot easier to hit. The thorny issue of the “after-blow” likewise presents difficult choices—what is more important, responding properly, defensively to that initial attack or cutting into it to lessen its point value despite the fact both opponents are hit? Weighted point-systems set up similar challenges. For example, in my rule set I reasoned that weighting the first touch in a bout would make fencers more cautious and defensive, but the point advantage led more people to attack in hopes of being a point up from the start. These artificial attempts to infuse some species of “fear” and/or better fencing vary in quality, but none does the job super well.

So, if we cannot replicate the context and fear of actual sword combat, what can we do?

Interestingly enough, some dubious individuals have decided that the only way is to fight with sharps; I don’t mean in a drilling sense, but in a bouting sense. However, fighting with sharps “to the bloom” among fringe elements within the community is not the answer. In addition to the legal issues inherent in such idiocy, this activity resembles more some rite within a cult of machismo than anything else. Moreover, some of these groups are known alt-right, white supremacists with mixed up ideas of valor in addition to their ahistorical and unscientific notions of “race,” nationalism, and everything else. Their lack of credibility belies their approach to most things and one must remain suspicious that they even understand what they’re reading (assuming that they can read and do). [4] From the context perspective these dangerous fights are more ritual than a species of duel or battlefield combat. Groups like that in Hamburg do this by choice, with their friends, and while no doubt afraid in some degree, like the older institution of German student dueling at certain universities, this is more social than “martial.” Did I mention it’s stupid?


Cultivating “Fear”

zazenAt the risk of sounding too Pacific Northwest and as crunchy as organic granola, one thing we can do is cultivate a sense of danger, that is, be mindful from the moment we pick up a weapon that it’s a weapon. Blunt, not blunt, treat that sword like it’s dangerous. By analogy anyone who owns firearms knows to treat that rifle, pistol, or shotgun as if it is loaded. Always. Though clearly more critical for gunpowder, the same mind-set can help us approach our drill and bouting with more awareness of what it is, in theory, we’re doing. Employed appropriately our fencing will change. We can become more cautious. We may reconsider how that tip cut to the hand might have ended the fight. We can second guess an attack that puts us at too much risk even though we’re sure we’ll land the touch.

In itself this is not the answer. It’s a useful approach I’ve been trying experimentally, but I’m optimistic about it as a training aid for two reasons. First, the mindset of “all swords are sharp,” if we apply it well, puts us one step further from fencing for points. Second, the more sources I read—irrespective of system or time period—the more I notice the emphasis on avoiding being struck, on attacking wisely and whenever possible with cover, opposition, or room to maneuver away.

 

In the Part II of this discussion I will examine a few sources, from the 14th cen. to the 20th, and how they treat these issues.

 

NOTES:

[1] In the two years we used versions of the rule set I put together it has changed. Most of this change came from the insight and experience of those who competed and officials. Their input improves the rule set far greater than trying to do so on my own can, and it’s long past time for me to reexamine and improve it again. One major change will be taking away the weighted first touch.

[2] Hitting and not being hit includes a lot, from effective parries to attacking from the right measure and in the right tempo. It includes trying whenever possible to thrust with opposition to returning behind the point or under guard on our recover after attack. In Part II I will explore these in more detail.

[3] As another nail in the coffin of tournaments being “martial,” all of them are set up as duels, a fight between two individuals.

[4] For one example, see https://mindhost.tumblr.com/post/143979980172/iamafencer-fencing-to-the-bloom. For an example of the ultra-nationalist variety, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y237mTaexrs. Rumor holds that they’ve had two people die. They also wear clothing directly associated with neo-Nazis. See https://www.reddit.com/r/wma/comments/6xma13/idiots_fight_shirtless_with_sharp_blades/.            

The Importance of Reading the Sources

One of the hallmarks of historical fencing vs. other branches is the central place of the sources. Olympic fencers may never crack open a book about fencing, let alone an old one, because they don’t need to. This isn’t to say they shouldn’t, but that it’s not required. The high level of teaching in Olympic fencing, the focus on individual lessons, and the crucible of the tournament experience all work well together to produce capable fencers. Historical fencers, however, can’t really pursue the Art without recourse to the texts, images, and tools that comprised parts of it. There is a spectrum within historical fencing—at one pole are the handful of academics focused on the texts, at the other are those who receive all they know through an instructor who (ostensibly) does the reading for them, and then there is a wide variety of approaches in between those poles. Wherever one may be along this spectrum they should, at least on occasion, read the sources that inform their study.

To use an appropriate cliché, reading the sources is a doubled-edged sword, because while diving into the source might illuminate a lot, it also requires reading skills most people don’t apply day to day. That can be daunting. Unlike a novel or magazine piece we can’t be passive; we must be active. We must apply close-reading skills, and many people haven’t exercised those since secondary school or college; some never have. Don’t worry: the good news is that one doesn’t normally have to do this in the detail sometimes required of many historical documents.[1]

It’s important to read, if only on occasion, to check that the interpretation we’re using or learning is still valid. In much of what people normally think of when someone says “HEMA,” for example, people rely on ideas and techniques which, if one looks further into, are flawed. One of the places this is most evident is in cutting dynamics. There are false equivalencies guiding much of current practice as well as a fundamental misunderstanding of fencing universals. The trouble is that those crowing loudest have gained what notoriety they have on these faulty foundations, so there’s little incentive to own it. There’s a direct analogy here with the FIE officials, coaches, and fencers who either made their way via dubious, non-traditional actions like the “flick” or allowed such actions to count in the 1990s. Vested interest and concern for reputation above all tend to work to undermine not only better work, but also actively seek to discredit it. That’s a problem. [2]

I’ve discussed this before, but there are many ways to cut a mat—cutting the mat, on its own, doesn’t mean that one has cut that mat as one’s chosen source or style has dictated. This is a false equivalency. It won’t register as a problem unless one knows the sources, however, so that means it’s on each of us to read. It’s especially incumbent upon those responsible for teaching cutting to get this right—not all of them do. Some of the loudest voices are using techniques more in common with certain Japanese schools than with KdF or other European systems. Anyone who dares suggest this, though, is assaulted with ad hominem attacks, even home-made memes featuring the offender’s photograph. Childish responses like this should be raising serious questions about the attacker’s credibility; it’s not just the lack of maturity and fair play displayed, but the unwillingness to counter with better research. In some part the name-calling is meant to mask the fact that some of these supposed experts don’t know how to do proper research. [3]

For those concerned with approximating as best they can their chosen branch of the Art it’s vital to gain a basic understanding of the source material. It’s as important as finding a qualified, informed, and open-minded instructor. Any instructor worth the name should be open to reevaluation in light of more information or a better interpretation. Just as one shouldn’t follow Deepak Chopra for medical advice based on t.v. spots, book sales, or wishful thinking, so too shouldn’t one take the advice of any HEMA luminary at face value.

Cutting can be a good litmus test for our practice, but only if one has at least a nodding acquaintance with the source and what it says, and importantly doesn’t say, about how to cut. It’s not enough to use the right tool, or to have read a source the way one does a magazine article—one must understand as much as is possible what the text advocates. [4]



As an example, here is one of the molinelli as described by Settimo Del Frate:

47. Molinello to the Face from the Left in Three Movements

The execution of the molinello to the face follows the rules given for the molinelli to the head. The instructor gives the preparatory command and then the command of execution. For the molinello to the face from the left [hereafter, “external face”] from point in line, at the commands:

One! –turn the hand from right to left by rotating the forearm. The edge of the blade should point to the left (N. 18).

Two! –lift the sabre with the forearm, and straighten the body, carry the hand to the right of the head, approximately ten inches distant from the same. The sabre should be vertical, with the edge turned back diagonally, and the weight of the body equally squared between the legs (N. 20).

Three! –with arm power coming forward from behind, tighten the fist and give power to the movement of the sword with the body. The sabre should describe a horizontal semicircle at the height of the shoulders, so as to return the body and the sabre to the position of point in line. [5]

A fencer new to Del Frate’s seminal work on the Radaellian sabre method should have questions as they read this. Assuming they’re familiar with the term “molinelli” or “moulinets,” the French rendering being more common in the States, the next question might be “What did DF say about molinelli to the head?” The author assumes that the reader is familiar with these and indicates that they are either necessary or helpful in understanding what he’s about to share. If the reader hasn’t read that portion, they should now.

The reader should also notice that Del Frate breaks this particular action into three chief parts. Starting from a position, in guardia, of point in line (DF assumes the reader knows what this means), the fencer then:

1) turns their right hand from the right to the left (this means going from the hand in “first in second position” where the thumb is between 7 and 8 o’clock to the hand in fourth position where the thumb is at 3 o’clock); for reference one can reference Del Frate’s plate No. 18

2) from here the fencer bends the arm at the elbow and brings the weapon up by their ear; for reference examine Del Frate’s plate No. 20

3) from here, the fencer moves the sabre forward turning the hand to strike the opponent’s right cheek; this is powered by tightening the grip, using the elbow as axis of rotation, and putting the force of the body behind the blow; when the cut lands one should be more or less in the same position as 1), and then recover into guard

In broad outline this molinello is comprised of preparation, chambering, and the strike. The specifics of movement, however, require some attention. For those terms or ideas the reader doesn’t know, a glossary or reference work on fencing is useful, but so too is time spent actively thinking about each term, how they apply, and then putting them all together.

There are also things Del Frate doesn’t specify in this passage that one must know from the earlier section of his work. One assumes the point in line from guard, and upon completion of the cut, where one ends up in the same line, then reassumes guard. Of note, Del Frate simplifies the section on turning the hand; many Italian works not only break down the guards by number, but use specific positions of the hand too. Del Frate, for whatever reason, did not, neither in the section on sabre or spada. Likewise, the reader only realizes the thumb should be on top the backstrap if they’ve read Del Frate’s explanation of the grip.

Even for an experienced fencer the first attempts at this molinello might be a bit daunting. This is an older form, all but vanished in modern fencing, and much larger and more powerful than the direct cuts made today. It can make one feel vulnerable, and this is important because this is where personal experience and learning to date bumps into a seemingly less viable method. One of the complaints made against Radaellian sabre is that the fencer is more vulnerable in making these cuts. From a sport perspective that is true, but this assumes a sporting context which is very modern. When Del Frate wrote down his master’s ideas he wasn’t thinking about points, but about making cavalrymen more effective. This context is everything (cf. the last website post, “Sabre, Saddle, and the Vital Importance of Context,” 4-6-2020).

Most of us, however, are not fencing from the saddle, so the next question is “how do I make this work on the ground?” In this one passage on the molinello to the external cheek there is no explicit mention of how to cover. What do we do? We need to read more, and, perhaps dwell on those points, research them, and discuss them with more knowledgeable people. This is hard work, and it’s a lot less fun than bouting is most of the time, but it’s the work that separates a skilled fencer with deeper knowledge from a decent fencer who relies more on attributes and limited understanding. Without this work it is easy to assume that one knows better than the text. Even if that is true, a truly debatable point, IF one wants to cut the way Master X suggests, then one needs to give that master’s advice a fair try. Not one of the Radaellian masters suggests one rush into danger making wheeling cuts and exposing themselves, so, clearly they had thoughts about defense. Discussions of footwork, measure, timing, and parries all inform this, as do the molinelli themselves. A key aspect of the molinelli that’s easy to miss is how each of them moves through a particular parry. That’s not an accident.

Before a cutting target many people focus on cutting the target; that’s the goal, right? Yes, and, no. Yes we want to sever the bamboo, bottle, or tatami, but ideally we want to do so according to our chosen system. If possible, select a weapon suitable for that system. For these Radaellian cuts, for example, a sabre between 650 and 850g is perfect. Next, forget the goal and focus on the technique: think back to those three commands. From guard, establish a point in line, bring the arm back to chamber, and then cut. Use no more force than suggested.

One may not cut successfully through the target the first time. That’s okay. In time one will. This is why we do test-cutting, to help us figure out the system, to test our interpretations. Ideally, one cuts at target precisely as they make the same cuts in a bout—there is no reason one should cut differently just to sever the target. We are likely to undermine our hard work if we treat them differently. Approaching test cutting as an adjunct to our other modes of practice can be extremely valuable when conducted with the right frame of mind. There’s also nothing in shooting for accuracy within a tradition to make the exercise less fun.

Notes:

[1] In graduate school I once had the chance to take a class with Naphtali Lewis, a renowned papyrologist. He took us line by line, word by word, through the “Res Gestae” of the Emperor Augustus, a tour de force of propaganda. I have found that with most fencing works while it can help to focus on a single word, it isn’t always necessary. He impressed upon me, however, that starting out asking the question “Do I need to read in depth X” can often save us time and pain later.

[2] By “HEMA” here I mean, generally, those most associated with the sport side of HEMA (especially State-side). It is a spectrum, however, and many groups are “doing HEMA” without falling prey to the facile interpretations championed by this crowd or hobbled by their knee-jerk reaction to anything vaguely Olympic. The over-riding concern to distance themselves from Olympic fencing suggests they too see the similarities between themselves and our Olympic cousins just as the rest of us do.

[3] If fb is any guide the jealousy with which these individuals guard their view is matched only by their inability to play nicely with others. One learns a lot about anyone who’s first reply is an insult. So long as these people have a cult following, however, they’re unlikely to evaluate their own positions fairly. The recent mess of an attempt to reevaluate George Silver only last week is a case in point. On the one hand, there was a respected researcher, Stephen Hand, and a disparate, varied group of people voicing support or supplying corrections about aspects of this new theory, and on the other were the authors of the piece and their fans. The new theory doesn’t hold up well for several reasons, not least of which is that they failed to understand Hand’s position correctly. More than one researcher, myself included, concluded that this piece was less about Silver than it was about attempts to justify a) what the authors are already doing in tournaments and want to see the rules validate, and b) to fit the sources to their own interpretations. Watching this debacle of a debate was another reminder of why most serious researchers have so little to do with mainstream, sport HEMA.

[4] In fairness to those working with much earlier sources it’s often much harder to interpret how to cut. Many people view medieval and renaissance images as if they were photographs; this is generally unwise. The artist or author may have intended a realistic rendering, but that wasn’t always the case. See post “Using Period Manuals in Historical Fencing,” Sept. 18, 2019 here, and, “Transcription of Lecture delivered at the Thundermark Deed, March 20, 2019,” on my profile at academia.edu.

[5] Settimo Del Frate, Istruzione per La Scherma di Sciabola e di Spada del Prof. Giuseppe Radaelli, Scritta d’Ordine del Ministero della Guerra, Milano: Litografia Gaetano Baroffio, 1876, 43-44; for the English, see Christopher A. Hozlman, The Art of the Dueling Sabre, Staten Island, NY: SKA Swordplay Books, 2011, 34. The images from the 1876 are from the plates in Chris’ translation.

Sabre, Saddle, and the Vital Importance of Context

Unable to train with others during quarantine we make do. Solo drill is one avenue, but so too are discussions that allow us to dive deep into the Art. I had the pleasure this morning to chat a few moments with my friend Patrick Bratton, instructor at Sala della Spada in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, USA, [1] about a crucial fact we forget to our peril in studying Italian sabre: our tradition was born in the saddle. Radaelli and many of his students were cavalrymen, and if we forget this, then there are aspects of our practice that may have us scratching our heads.

This is a well-established and well-known fact, and one we pay lip-service to frequently, much as one mentions smallsword in the context of foil or that ROW (right-of-way) is meant to mimic the conditions of a duel, but the fact that we began as a cavalry method is something we need to dwell on from time to time. Why? In brief, ruminating on the cavalry elements within our technique and tactics not only informs our understanding of the history and development of Italian sabre, but also helps explain how the shift from saddle to foot occurred, and, what differentiates each method. Moreover, awareness of the differences can aid us in making the best use of both mounted and unmounted aspects of the weapon.

For example, the molinelli as presented in Del Frate and other key Radaellian texts are meant to do two things. First, the molinelli are exercise meant to build the muscles and responses needed to use the weapon effectively. In addition to edge-alignment, we work power-generation, timing, measure, and hand-eye coordination. Second, the molinelli teach us about parries. We talk about them as powerful cuts, and they are, but as Patrick mentioned today they are defensive in nature. Our mentor for all things Radaellian, Chris Holzman, sees it this way—here I quote Patrick from our earlier discussion: Ours is both a conditioning exercise and made to teach parry ripostes, the other systems are conditioning, but teach attacks not parry-ripostes. So as Chris stresses we don’t attack first intention with them, we use the point or an action on the blade. Naturally there are offensive applications for the molinelli too—our texts make this clear from Del Frate to Barbasetti—but if we ignore the fact that these fundamental exercises were meant for defense too, then we miss something important.

[addendum: counter-offensively, the molinelli can be used much like the cavazioni, that is to change lines; using them this way is a species of action on the blade. For example, from second one might make a molinello moving through prima as the opponent’s blade thrusts to the inside line, and cut a fendente/descending cut to the head. Thank you Chris =) ]

There are two points I’d like to follow up with in Chris’ summation. The first, is the defensive aspect, the second the importance of preparatory actions. In the saddle a fencer’s range of motion is different; timing is different too since the speed and size of the mount affect movement. The molinelli, because they sweep through each parry, also assume that parry in their arc; this means that they can be used as “active parries,” something valuable when range of motion and even sight are limited. They can be used this way on foot as well.

The second point, the importance of preparatory actions, is critical for anyone using these chambered cuts. They are larger cuts, so potentially open to counters, especially as those made from certain guards, such as third, mean a momentary exposure of the wrist. As such, we don’t normally use molinelli in direct attacks; instead, we set them up using a feint with the point, a beat, or some similar action to increase our safety. The goal here is to get the opponent to move (by feinting) or to move their steel for them (actions on the blade), both of which then clear the way for the chambered cut. [2]

For those of us who came up through a much later iteration of the tradition, like I did, this subtle difference can hit like a shock when it finally does.[3] However, it’s liberating too. One of the best questions I’ve had from students is how to make molinelli “work,” that is, how can we use these effectively and without opening ourselves up. This question has been at the heart of my own journey with earlier Italian sabre, and it’s revealing to me just how much my own understanding has changed, and, how that has informed my approach in class.

Early on, I used the molinelli primary as warm up, partly because they’re great for that, and partly because I didn’t feel completely comfortable incorporating them yet save as ripostes from certain parries (e.g. from prima or fifth). These days I will have students work the molinelli to warm-up, but we cover them tactically too. We’ll even cover them as direct attacks, but this latter exercise is more technical than tactical. It’s sort of a baby-steps approach toward making them a normal part of their game. Accustoming oneself to using the elbow as the axis of rotation takes time and practice; there is technique involved, from the way our fingers shift on the grip to the way we lean in and out slightly when cutting and defending. Likewise, I will have them play with measure to see from what distance they can safely chamber and still make the touch. It’s not easy. It’s also not immediately obvious to all what the value of this is.

Because these drills are not always obvious to students, I do my best to explain why we are drilling say a chambered cut from 3rd when we don’t normally attack with it. Normally I use a progressive approach, explaining at each step how it will lead into the next, e.g.

  • from in guardia, chamber and cut from 3rd to head or chamber from 2nd and cut right cheek
  • same drill, only with a lunge against a partner, working on what each person’s safe distance is to make this attack (NB switching partners is vital here as that measure changes)
  • finally, we add a preparatory action and mix the molinello into it, e.g. feint with thrust from 2nd to draw their fourth, then cut over with a molinello to the head

Before quarantine, I was including more and more work with molinelli both in class and in individual lessons. They’re an important part of our heritage as fencers of Italian sabre, but more than that they allow for a more powerful cut, something ostensibly important in historical sabre where our focus is nuanced–after all, presumably we’re not after points alone, but may be cutting bamboo or, more typically, explaining to new students why we see these larger cuts in the texts. For students from other traditions, and especially from the Olympic world, the shift from direct to chambered cuts can be off-putting. Direct cuts are faster, travel more efficiently, and made well tend to close off the line (the fist/guard often remains in the plane of third when cutting to any line, at least for many cuts, and can effectively block or set one up well to parry).

The molinelli, however, were a fundamental part of Italian sabre on foot after Radaelli’s reforms, and it is telling that his students retained them for so long, and more than that, that other nations saw the merit in this approach, most famously England (the 1895 Infantry Sword Exercise is largely based on Masiello’s work, though there are some errors of transmission that confuse a few things, the molinelli in particular). These cuts were more effective, because they’re more powerful and–importantly–made in a way to maximize defense so long as one has decent footwork and timing (thus the importance of drill). This does not mean hitting hard or with maximum force, but developing a controlled, powerful blow for when it is important to use one.

Herein is a major quandary for many within historical fencing. There is a cult around the word “martial” that seems to hold that only a hard, game-ending blow is legitimate. Hard-hitting was and remains a sign of poor training and/or attitude. Anyone can hit hard if they want, but hitting effectively with the force actually required in that instance, having that demonstrable control is the hallmark of a skilled fighter. The fact is that these more powerful cuts can be made safely—it just takes training and practice. Each drill, solo or paired, that we do with molinelli is ostensibly building this skill.

One of the exercises Patrick takes students through is the unmounted drill from works such as Masiello’s Sabre Fencing on Horseback and the 1873 Cavalry Regulations. This is such a fantastic idea, and one I am working on implementing on occasion myself. On the one hand students see, as they’re doing the very drill, how this might work in the saddle, but on the other they are afforded an opportunity to ponder how they might make use of this drill for fighting on foot. Thinking about and trying to make all this work in real time helps us develop skill, and with it, control. For fencers like me, who learned some molinelli, but spent more time on direct cuts initially, this sort of training makes all the difference. The ability to make both cuts is, I firmly believe, important, for even if one chooses one style over the other one must be able to counter whatever is thrown at them.

For me, this is in keeping with the spirit if not letter of the law. After all, many of these works were intended to assist a soldier not only in the field or saddle, but to prepare officers unfortunate enough to find themselves facing a duel. In this way, many of these works were not just cavalry drill, but sword drill meant to cover all the bases. It is, arguably, one of the facts that make Italian sabre so dynamic and flexible, and why it came to define sabre at its apogee as military practice was transformed into sport.

[1] For a little more about Patrick and Sala della Spada, see https://www.saladellaspada.com/. He also maintains a facebook page.

[2] One can use molinelli as direct attacks, but it’s more difficult and dangerous. One way is to cut in such a way as to close the line. For example, from the guard in 2nd, one can chamber a cut in third, then cut to the chest, but more across the chest closing the line. Rather than cutting through and rolling back to guard in the same plane, one would cut in such a way that one ends up more or less in fourth.

[3] Understanding something doesn’t equal confidence in it. Having learned a few molinelli from Al Couturier and his assistant coaches, and having used them for a long time, made it easier to pick up the others, but using them as Del Frate and others recommend took me longer to feel confident about. In some ways, my experience with historical sabre has been a long, slow process of stripping away layer upon layer of habit and outlook acquired from decades in mid-century sabre. Tactical reasoning in particular is so tied to ROW that it can be difficult to get around the short-comings in it, and for a while I was trying to use Radaellian maneuvers as substitutes for the mid-century ones I originally learned, but that is not always a one-to-one correspondence. More of it is than not, but even so, some actions, like the sforzi di cambiamenti went out of favor after Rossi (1885), and so these were not actions we drilled. To me, to be a teacher means one is always a student, and happily research into Radaelli’s system means I have a lot to look forward to, a lot yet to learn.

IMAGES: these images are from Cav. Ferdinando Masiello, Sabre Fencing on Horseback, trans. Christopher A. Holzman, Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2015 (orig. published 1891).