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.

Meet them Where they Are

Last night I finished up the penultimate summer intro-to-fencing camp. These short courses are always challenging—they pack a lot (too much) into a handful of days, and the shorter the run the longer each individual class. Managing all that and keeping kids between 12 and 15 engaged is not for everyone. I like the challenge of it, and seeing children enjoy the class, and hopefully learn something in the process of it, makes it worthwhile.

One thing working with kids will demonstrate powerfully is that people learn in different ways. They also have different comfort levels. Being sensitive to these facts is vital. I always have a plan for class, but built into it is a degree of flexibility because once through the door it can all change. It usually does. However well planned, a lesson plan doesn’t determine how a class goes; the class does. It’s not just the class in toto, but individual students, sometimes both, that can mean leaning into that flexibility.

In the last two courses I’ve taught I’ve had a student in each hesitate to join. When it’s clear to me that they aren’t struggling with the oddities of fencing jackets or distracted by gym traffic, but hesitant for some other reason I find a way to get things going and then check in with them. One thing that makes that easier is letting students know from the off that if they need a break, they take it; if they have a question, they should ask. I do all I can to make it a safe environment. No one learns much, or has fun, if they don’t feel safe.

This past week, once the rest of the class was starting footwork drills, I checked in with this student. Just getting them talking can be hard—they don’t know me, they’re in a new class (and often with kids they don’t know), and however interested they might be all of that, not to mention other factors, can weigh into how present they are. The past school year’s stress, the mix of isolation and virtual life, all of that has taken a toll on children. It can be hard to snap back.

A parent had told me that before quarantine this child had advanced pretty far in Tae Kwon Do, so I figured their hesitation was less likely physical. Often a student just wants to get a feel for what we’re doing, so after asking them if they were okay and if I might help them with anything I told them that they could join, watch, or think about it, that there was no wrong answer. Over the course of the week this student mostly watched—each day I checked in with them before as well as a few times during class. The other students were curious, but followed my lead—I told them some people learn by watching, some by doing, etc., and that people join when they feel like it. That was enough for them.

I did my best to meet this student where they were. Having been in classes, having worked with instructors, and having spent so many years teaching I know that it doesn’t always go that way. Just as people learn differently, so too do they teach differently. No matter how hard we try, there will be people we can’t reach, people who just don’t take to us. That is part of teaching. However, we increase the chances of reaching more of them if we are sensitive to the fact that a student’s comfort level and/or learning style may vary.

This doesn’t mean we cater to each student. We can’t teach much of anything that way. I more or less stick to my lesson plan—the difference is that I don’t force students to conform to it as one might in boot camp. It’s an intro class, one designed to give the some sense of what fencing can be, and, for fun. If they take more classes, if they get serious, the necessary discipline will develop.

Of Parries, Precipitation, and Poultry

Photo by Kalisa Veer, https://unsplash.com/@kalisaveer

We can do most anything when it’s important to us. In the sodden pinelands of the Pacific Northwest the pursuit of most everything entails acceptance of weather if not outright preparation for it. Whatever it is, hiking, sailing, running anyone devoted to these activities does them irrespective of weather. Fencing is normally more or less immune to the elements because usually it’s indoors. Here, because of the damp, we may buy and apply more 3-in-1 oil than others, but fencers everywhere must combat the rust that mixing damp kit and steel fosters. The combination of PNW weather and a pandemic, however, means facing unique challenges. Most fencers at this point have either participated in or know people who have attended online classes, posted footage of drills, or who have even worked out together via zoom or google-meet. Because we can’t congregate inside or in large groups, we’ve had to be creative. Many of us studying the Art have to train; it’s not just the exercise, but that it’s part of who we are, our way of understanding the world, even acting in that world, and so we can’t not, if that makes sense.

The group classes I was teaching either collapsed thanks to Covid or have been put off until it’s once again safe to train indoors. The more fencers with whom I speak the more I hear similar tales of woe. Most of us, if we have a space, pull in just enough to pay rent; moreover, the most affordable insurance demands that we operate as non-profits, so it’s very week by week, skin of the teeth staying open. I wasn’t the only one to lose a space and the people who used it. While easy to take that to heart—and one does at least in part—the truth is that most martial arts studios, of any kind, probably have a shorter half-life than new restaurants. My other classes, conducted through a local parks and recreation organization, will (hopefully) return when we’re in a better place with Covid, but otherwise I imagine what I am doing now will continue.

One of several excellent covered spots in the region

Most of this year I have taught a handful of people, individually, once a week, outside, and masked. Living where I do this means navigating months and months of rain. I’ve found a few places, such as public parks, with sufficient covering to keeps us from being soaked, but at various times these have been closed during quarantine.  So, we’ve used porches, garages, one portion of a barn, my backyard, an empty street, and a local basketball court. Focused on the students, and what they need, as well as how best to supply that, it’s easy to ignore the cold or wet (less so the heat for me). It also strikes me, each practice, how dedicated these fencers are. They meet with me every week, and like ancient Persia’s messengers, “are stopped neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed.” [1] Their zeal in turn keeps me going too; I work harder, prepare more, and do all I can to help them improve. I owe them my best.

There are times, though, when just how weird all this is hits me. Probably my favorite example, so far, was having to stop practice to chase a chicken back into its coop. One of my students lives on a small farm just outside of town, and we often meet in a space next to his barn. We had a good laugh about it once that blasted wee dinosaur was back in its cage, but never did I think managing fowl was something I needed to be prepared for. Ridiculous moments like that help make the difficulties in working out of doors easier. Slipping on mud, wet planks or concrete; walking to practice with a giant garbage bag over my fencing gear (not looking at all suspicious, I’m sure); the strange head-bobbing machinations we make to ensure that face-masks don’t become headbands inside our fencing masks; and competing for covered space with any other group who normally trains indoors (high school dance and cheer teams, kids at play, adults meeting to chat so many feet apart) it’s all become part of the equation. In addition to the sad contributions we make to slapstick comedy, there are other benefits.

This farm I visit once a week, for example, has a little concrete, but is mostly gravel where we practice, and so footwork drills in particular are affected. Working without a decent floor creates a number of hurdles. Concrete is nice and flat, but hard; it can also be slick. Gravel is pure rubbish to fence on, but sometimes the only option, especially as what isn’t mud is more than likely a fen in hiding. Grass is slick, but also hides those covert fens until one steps into them and loses a shoe (NB: shoes fill surprisingly fast with mud. It’s worse than chickens). Wood, such as decking or the planks at certain parks (sitting areas, bridges, etc.) are better, but the latter are normally full of benches, picnic tables, or railing. Somehow, wherever we end up each week, we “make it work” (the excellent Tim Gunn, a fencer by the way, would be proud). One unlooked for benefit from all these odd places is that trying to fence on them helps put some of the observations in the sources about terrain into higher relief. For one example, Monsieur L’Abbat, who wrote about smallsword, not only recommends that the lead foot be lifted slightly and set down “flat and firm,” but also that the rear foot, depending on the ground, not turn over too much onto the edge. [2] It also, I believe, helps us learn to adjust footwork to fit the ground—the importance of proper technique with footwork is all the clearer too: if we don’t do it right there is the very real chance that we’ll twist a knee or ankle or end up cap-a-pie in mud. Terrain also affects measure which can affect tempo, and while certainly not an ideal way to work those all-important universals, what we’re learning would be difficult to do otherwise.

In a similar way, attempting to fence in winter clothing can be illuminating. It’s rarely truly cold here, but the damp makes it feel much colder, and balancing layers with exercise is tricky. Like normal outdoor activities we often start with more on and discard layers as we warm up. No one, however, wants a nice winter coat slashed or poked, and so this often means various layers underneath fencing jackets. Mobility can be affected either way. The days where we conduct lessons without rain and roof mean situating ourselves as best we can to avoid the sun (it can refract nicely on the mesh of the mask); if it starts to drizzle we normally keep going, but rain makes it hard to hear and see, never mind the potential danger in slipping. That’s really not ideal even with practice weapons in hand. While additional clothing, because it’s modern, doesn’t necessarily give us a sense of how fighting in a great coat, justeaucorps, or pelisse was, it nonetheless makes us aware of how clothing can affect technique, and, of what we need to do to ensure we maintain good form.

In recent weeks some of this has been harder to juggle. An ice storm last weekend made homework for the epee course tricky; my other responsibilities and various jobs, vehicle failures, changes in school schedules, everything it seems makes coordinating lessons a little more difficult. But I do it. We do it. Because we can’t not. More than anything else this is the fact that comes up for me most when I stand back at look at the past year.

Salute, from Girard, P. J. F. Traité des armes. France: La Haye, 1740.

It’s an honor to meet these students each week. With all that is going on in the world, in their own lives, with all the shared challenges humanity faces, they make time for fencing. Rain, snow, or shine, they make it. Their level of dedication, depth of passion for the Art, and the discipline it takes to do that each week is truly impressive. As their instructor I’m humbled by that, especially given the loss of a school and students, of major plans that had to be postponed, of all the disappointments, because these woes are out front, visible, and quick to clamor for attention. It would be easy to dwell on what I lost.

When the Art is our life, when what we learn in studying it is the lens through which we understand so much of what we experience, when it is for lack of a better expression a way of life, a creed, then these seemingly small victories appear less small. My students are fencers in a long, difficult bout, and they’re not giving up. Covid, online school, sick friends and relatives, job issues, isolation, all that may have points on them, but they’re not forfeiting; they’re still in the fight. That sort of resilience is perhaps the greatest lesson we are learning each week. It’s proof of fudoshin (Japanese “immovable mind”) and its benefits, of the ability to focus despite calamity, poor weather, or chickens. [3] Sharing this time with my students, handing down the tradition handed to me, and seeing them improve, all while things collapse around us… there’s beauty in all that and I’m grateful to be a part of it.

NOTES:

[1] Herodotus, The Persian Wars, 8.98. See for example Herodotus, The Persian Wars, 4 vols., translated by A.D. Godley, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920-1925, available online at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Hdt.%208.98&lang=original

[2] Andrew Mahon, who translated L’Abbat’s book into English, makes a piquant observation about the rear foot and the ways in which it might turn onto the edge:

“Monsieur L’Abbat recommends the turning on the Edge of the Left-foot in a Lunge, as may be seen by the Attitudes. This Method indeed was formerly practised by all Masters, and would be very good, if their Scholars had not naturally run into an Error, by turning the Foot so much as to bring the Ancle to the Ground, whereby the Foot became so weak as to make the Recovery difficult… Therefore I would not advise the turning on the Edge of the Foot to any but such as, by long Practice on the Flat, are able to judge of the Strength of their Situation, and consequently, will not turn the Foot more than is consistent therewith.

It may sometimes be necessary to turn on the Edge, on such Ground whereon the Flat would slip, and the Edge would not, if it were properly turned; but even in this Case, by turning it too much it would have no Hold of the Terrace, and therefore would be as dangerous as keeping it on the Flat.

The chief Reason for turning on the Edge, is that the Length of the Lunge is greater by about three Inches, which a Man who is a Judge of Measure need never have recourse to, because he will not push but when he knows he is within Reach.

Monsieur L’Abbat, The Art of Fencing, or the Use of the Small Sword, 1734, ed. Andrew Mahon (Dublin, IRE: James Hort, Gutenberg.org).

For the lead foot, of note is this passage:

The Foot should fall firm without lifting it too high, that the Soal of the Sandal, or Pump, may give a smart Sound, which not only looks better and animates more, but also makes the Foot firm, and in a Condition to answer the Swiftness of the Wrist.

Care must be taken not to carry the Point of the Foot inward or outward, because the Knee bending accordingly, as part of the Thigh, goes out of the Line of the Sword, and consequently, of the Line of Defence, besides ‘tis very disagreeable to the Sight.


The Feet sometimes slip in the Lunge, the Right Foot sliding forward, or the Left backward; the first is occasioned by carrying out the Foot before the Knee is bent, whereas when the Knee brings it forward, it must fall flat and firm; the other proceeds from the Want of a sufficient Support on the Left Foot.

Il est bon que le pied frape ferme sans l’élever, que la sandale claque avec éclat, ce qui non seulement paroît & anime advantage, mais encore bonifie le peid & le met en état de suivre la Vitesse du poignet; il faut éviter de porter la pointe en dedans ou en dehors, parce que le genoüil ployant sure cette ligne se fort, & une partie de la cuisse de la ligne de l’epée, & par ce moyen de la défense, outre que cela choque extremement la veüe. Les pieds peuvent encore manquer dans l’alongement le droit glissant en avant & le gauche en arriere; le premier vient de ce qu’on porte le pied avant de ployer le genoüil, au lieu que quand le genoüil le deviance il ne peut se porter qu’à plomb, & par consequent avec fermeté, & l’autre se fait par le manque d’apuy sur la partie gauche.

Jean-Francois le Sieur Labat, L’Art en Fait d’Armes ou de L’Epee Seule, 1696 (Toulouse, FR: Chez J. Boude, La Fédération Française des Arts Martiaux Historiques Européens), Ch. 3, p. 18-19.

[3] 不動心(fudōshin) is a concept in various schools of Japanese swordsmanship. My exposure to this concept, for fencing, was via kendo. There are various resources for those interested in this idea. See for example, Taisen Deshimaru, The Zen Way to the Martial Arts (New York, NY: Penguin Compass, 1982); Joe Hyams, Zen in the Martial Arts (New York, NY: Tarcher/Putnam, 1979); Michael Maliszewski, Ph.D., Spiritual Dimensions of the Martial Arts (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1996); Hiroaki Sato, ed., The Sword & The Mind (Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 1986).

Introducing Historical Fencing to Children

La Leçon d'escrime - Alcide-Théophile Robaudi (1850-1928)
“La Leçon d’escrime,” by Alcide-Théophile Robaudi (d.1928)

Children are one of many populations yet to make much appearance in historical fencing. There are a lot of reasons. Lacking decades of tradition few programs have developed specific versions suitable for kids. In a similar way there are fewer resources, from age-appropriate translations to gear that is child-sized; this makes it all the more difficult. In fairness, many clubs aren’t interested in working with kids and of course that’s okay.

Some avenues into the community are arguably safer and more approachable for children than others—sabre and smallsword for example, have workable trainers in terms of size and weight in ways that longsword does not. This said there are options for other systems that are worth considering. [1] Young people are an untapped market, and generally far more curious and excited about fencing, of any kind, than most adults. Working with kids can be great fun too. Their curiosity, enthusiasm, and ability to learn so well through play can make them good students.

There’s much to consider, however, when working with children. Here, I will cover some big-picture considerations that generally follow any activity with kids, and a few suggestions for how to start a kids’ program.

It’s about more than Sport or Recreation—Remember, You’re a Role Model

In a previous post (Oct. 18th, 2019) I briefly discussed a few ways in which instructors are role models. This is particularly true with regard to children, and so everything we do, say, and how we say and do things, must be beyond reproach. We have to be sensitive to the dangers children face, not just in terms of physical danger or harm, but psychologically too. One bad coach can affect a child’s ability and interest in a sport or hobby for the rest of their lives.

Given the delicate nature of working with young people there are a lot of other factors to consider apart from gear. We must consider their safety, our transparency in working with them, and the short- and long-term goals we’re helping them reach. While I have mostly taught adults, I’ve also taught children off and on for years, and in the last two years I’m teaching more and more of them. A number of things have come up for me in the process that might assist others interested in sharing the Art with young people.

Various Aspects of Safety

Safety is one of the top priorities—it should be for adults too, but it is just as much if not more of a concern with children since they are less effective at self-regulation. First, parents tend to need reassurance that their kids aren’t going to be hurt. Second, children, being less focused and more prone to horseplay, sometimes take longer to acculturate to traditional safety protocols. Lastly, there are most often legal issues around working with children that you ignore to your peril.

Safety & Horseplay

450px-Tom_Brown_6th_ed-p35
Single-stick match from Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes, 1857

  Keeping kids safe comes down to several things. As the instructor you set the tone, so with kids it’s important to hit safety hard day one and reinforce it each practice. This can be just simple reminders to carry weapons point down, but quizzing them periodically is a good idea too. All gear must be sized correctly, in good repair, and actually worn. While boring, spending time from the off on safety, on some basic rules, establishes how things will be each class and provides a baseline to return to as needed. I break my approach down into an easy to remember abbreviation/acronym PET:    

P protocols and awareness

E equipment

T technique

Many children have pets and help take care of them, so when I introduce this idea that is the analogy I use. Protocols include not fencing without gear, holding weapons point down, and being aware of one’s place in space as well as that of one’s neighbors, expensive mirrors, etc. With equipment, I teach them to inspect their masks, jackets, and weapons for basic issues, such as large dents in the mask mesh, bad zippers or Velcro on jackets that don’t work, and loose weapon parts or blade burrs. Technique is, after our protocols, the most important—good technique helps ensure safety. Masks, jackets, all that stuff, is there for when our technique fails, or, when we’re playing good partner and allowing our partners to strike us. Each of these elements we constantly apply, regulate, and reinforce.

Horseplay is natural with kids, but potentially hazardous, so it is vital to nip it in the bud, kindly, as it happens. I tend to adopt a light, if firm tone with my students. With horseplay, for example, I might say, with a conspiratorial smile, something like “hey, I don’t remember saying we could start you two…—I love that you’re ready to start the drill, but let me finish explaining it, okay? That will make it easier and I want to be sure you all get it right.” One can’t give children swords and expect them not to swing them about, make cool sounds, etc., so giving them plenty of drills where they can do that helps.

Transparency

Allied to safety, when teaching children it’s best for all concerned if everything you do is transparent and public. It’s sad to have to say this, but because of the problems with crimes against children, even in places where they should be safe, it’s imperative to do all one can to make it clear that one is not a creep. The first step is to make allies of parents, not in word only, but in action. I encourage and remind parents each practice that they are welcome to stay and watch. To be honest, I want them there, for while I know I’m safe, they don’t and if they’re present there is never any question. Think about it—even if you don’t have kids of your own, how comfortable would you be dropping them off with some strange man who plays with swords? Transparency keeps kids safe and removes any remaining suspicions parents might have. I’m a parent myself and no way would I leave my kids in any situation I wasn’t 110% sure about.

Free Fencing Lessons
NOT a good way to advertise…

I teach children either in public venues, such as parks and covered play-grounds, or, in classrooms where there are other adults present. Teaching in back rooms solo is the fencing equivalent of a beat-up old van with “free candy” painted on the side (forgive my hastily produced creepster-van memethis demanded a visual 😉 ). Don’t do that. There is no reason to. Public lessons are free advertising too, and if kids and parents see other kids doing this fun stuff, more than one will approach and ask you about what you’re doing. This can lead to additional work, new people to share the Art with, so it’s an important consideration.

Having parents there and clearly welcome says a lot. There are other benefits too. If children need help getting suited up or down, parents are the perfect choice. Also, parents listen, and more than once I’ve had parents help reinforce basics—one mother told me after practice that she had been on her child to keep his front foot oriented correctly. If you’re really lucky, parents may become interested too, and then you may have an entire family training with you.

Depending on how you’re teaching there are additional steps you’ll either need to take or should to be on the up and up. Many organizations require, rightly, background checks. There are also oversight bodies like Safe Sport and Sport Safety International that have great resources. [2] If you’re male, then I encourage you to check out and get certified with Safe Sport. It’s good information for you to have and being certified with them will only lend more legitimacy to you. It’s not a guarantee of appropriate behavior, I know, but if you work with kids, especially young women, your job as role model not to perpetuate the toxic crap young women face from men is important. Be part of the solution, not the problem.

Goals—They Vary

FUN!

With kids, I make the number one priority fun. Fencing is fun. However, it’s a lot more fun if you know what you’re doing, so finding the right balance, the appropriate amount of what to teach them is vital. Some kids want to put on all the gear and just start wailing, but naturally that is not what we want them to do, so, making lessons fun will make the work seem less like work. Distance and footwork drills, for example, are ideal ways to have them expel all that excited energy, work on fundamentals, and play games. “Glove Tag” and “Foil/Mask Push” tend to be favorites. With group classes turning footwork up and down the floor into “Red Light/Green Light” with various types of footwork, e.g. advances up on green, retreats on red, or, lunges on green, recovery on red, tends to be a crowd pleaser too.

Most children you teach may take a class or two and then move onto something else. You should expect that and not take it personally. This stuff is hard, it’s not for everyone, but even exposure to fencing is valuable. Maybe they tell their friends about the “cool sword” class they took and some other kid signs up, or, maybe they just have a better appreciation for what they see in the next pirate movie. Making it fun is a worthy goal on its own—play is a vital part of being human.

Sharing the Art

One goal, obviously, is to impart some amount of the Art to them. With children start small, focus on fundamentals, not the fancy stuff. When they ask, and they will, remind them that we have to do the basics to do anything advanced. One analogy I use that normally works are building things with Legos—no one builds a giant castle, race car, or space ship right away: they start with a few pieces, follow the instructions, and in time build the super cool creation they want. It’s the same with fencing.

Looking Ahead
Some students will get hooked. This always makes me super happy, but I also realize that it’s important to check in with them periodically about their goals, about what they want out of it. One of my current students only wants to focus on the historical material, so that is what we do. Another, however, is interested in competition and so we’re talking about how that might work. There are fewer historical/classical tournaments than Olympic, so it may be that I introduce him to colleagues on that side. It really comes down to where his interest takes him. I don’t teach the modern game and am smart enough not to try, but I know people who do and my goal as instructor is to guide students as far as I can.

Ultimately, we have to accept that some students may stick around, some may move on, and that this is okay. Even if we are one stop on a much longer journey that’s important. We do our part. Some take this personally, but unless there is a good reason to I don’t see why that should be. The experience we have not only provides them with the tools of the Art, but also with ways to approach, understand, and pursue that Art as they grow. Discussions about their goals from time to time helps both instructor and student—it helps us design training, and, it helps the student develop because they set way-points to reach.

Historical Fencing for Kids—a Primer

In future posts I plan to share more detailed course ideas for kids—sabre, foil, some Armizare, backsword, etc. In addition to foil and sabre, I’ve helped teach some of Fiore’s Armizare to kids before and it’s great fun, but here I’ll provide a few general ideas to aid a seminar or series of short classes. Even if all you have is an hour—the two places I teach now only have that much time for us—you can do a lot. Keep the kids moving, change things up, and focus on fundamentals.

Safety Gear: this is one of the hardest parts. Naturally most people don’t own fencing gear, and it’s not like local sports stores carry it either. To run a decent class you need at the very least masks. Ebay, Craigslist, Fb Marketplace sometimes have gear, but you must be careful. Do your best to discover what shape the masks are in. Jackets are nice, but a stout jacket or sweatshirt can work too provided you emphasize control and not hard-hitting. Smaller work gloves, available in most garden shops, will work too and are relatively inexpensive.

Trainers: Olympic weight weapons, especially sizes 0-4 will work fine for smallsword (foils) and sabre. They can be had for about $30 or so each, so it adds up. The plastic Aramis brand foils and sabres are not bad, but can be harder to find now and will cost about as much.

In a pinch, two to three foot staves of rattan or dowels can work. For point work you’ll need to add a little padding—pool noodles and duct-tape work well. Boffers are another option, and can be made with a little pvc pipe, foam or pool noodles, and tape. My kids have played with these and even when they get rough there is less danger with boffers. They’re not ideal for edge-alignment, but with a little work you can shape a boffer to produce a suitable if not ideal edge.

Classes: Keep it simple, keep it fun. Depending on where you teach you will have to adjust. For parks and rec at present I teach a six week class that meets twice a week; at one area middle school I’m teaching a four week class that meets once a week. In each case I have one hour, which makes it hard to do much more than introduce some fundamentals.

Age is another consideration—younger kids, say 7-10, may not grasp concepts as fast as teenagers, so you may need to adjust your pace up or down. Attention spans are likewise variable, so with kids classes much longer than an hour are not a good idea. Most individual lessons are much shorter.

Drills: Drills as games are your bread and butter. Varying the drills per practice, introducing or removing time constraints, and providing short breaks all help. I rotate distance drills, for example, and switch from called footwork to timed footwork. Here are a few examples:

Distance Drills:

Glove Tag—  each fencer, armed with a glove, tries to attack the wrist or chest with the glove; each is also trying to stay just out of distance to avoid being hit, but not so far that they can’t strike in their turn; in systems using passing steps, which better allow for exploring space, the entire class can take turns: one or two students are “it” and must use proper footwork to “tag” others who then are “it” and chase still other students. [4]

Foil/Mask Push—   suspending a mask or weapon between two fencers, they change the distance between them and can’t drop the mask or weapon

Rope Drill— holding a rope approximately 5ft in length, the fencers hold it with their weapon hands with about 3ft between them; one fencer leads the footwork back and forth, the other must only use their feet to maintain the same bit of slack in the rope (they shouldn’t be using their arms to do this)

Footwork Drills:

Red Light/Green Light—   as mentioned above, on “green” they advance or lunge; on “red” they retreat or recover; or however you want to do it; it can work for forward passing steps, retreating passing steps, side to side movement, etc.

Shuttle Run—   like the old elementary school exercise, fencers line up on one side of the room and “race” to the other side and back; I sometimes have the kids on the waiting side hold a glove for the active fencers to grab and return with; then the other side goes. Rather than timed, this can also work with using particular types of footwork in turn

Timed Footwork—  I normally set the stop-watch for about 30 sec. to 1 min.; in that time, they go up and back with advances and retreats, or lunges and reverse lunges, or advance lunges and jump backs, etc.

Variable Footwork Drill— I use inexpensive sports cones, like one uses for soccer, and set up several lines; at each line students switch footwork. They might start with advances, then lunges when they reach the first cone, then advance lunges when they reach the second; on the way back do the opposite of each one

All of these can be adapted for whatever footwork your system uses.

Other Resources:

One of the best resources you have are your fellow instructors. If they work with kids and you haven’t, ask them for tips, for what they’ve found to work, for any advice they have. Visit an Olympic fencing class for kids—sport clubs are one of the best places you can go as they have a long tradition of working with kids. Moreover, many popular works on fencing include sections on drills that you can adapt.

Vintage-Art-Postcard-Children-Sword-Fight-Fencing-Battle


Working with children demands a lot of preparation as well as flexibility, but it can be very rewarding. There is growing interest in historical fencing among younger people thanks to the usual sources like movies, but as renaissance faires, living history groups, the SCA, and organizations like LARP become more popular,  more children are bumping into historical fencing if only obliquely. If you’re interested in sharing the Art with kids, don’t wait for the need—create it. A seminar, a visit to your local parks & recreation organization, to schools, the scouts, anyone who might have potential interest, could turn into an opportunity to share the Art with enthusiastic people normally left out. It can be great fun too.

———-

Notes:

[1]

There are some decent foam longswords out there with edge enough to make true and false edge made sense. My friend Mike Cherba and I used one version of these to teach some plays from Fiore to kids a few summers ago at the Oregon Renaissance Faire and they worked super well. The Armory Replicas Training Medieval Rampant Lion Practice sword is one example: https://www.amazon.com/Training-Medieval-Rampant-Practice-Longsword/dp/B015YN4LU2/ref=sr_1_12?dchild=1&keywords=toy+foam+longsword&qid=1571431225&sr=8-12

Mike is also the key researcher outside the Republic of Georgia for Lashkroba, a highland folk martial art out of the Khevsureti and neighboring regions, one aspect of which is sword and buckler. We’ve used wooden bucklers and rattan sticks with success. They require a mask, but are still cost effective. Mike is launching a new website for all things Lashkroba and Parikaoba (the more sportive version of the system)–soon as that is up I’ll share the link!

[2]       

Safe Sport https://usagym.org/pages/education/safesport/
Sport Safety International https://sportsafety.com/

[3]       

I must credit and thank my friend and Radaellian sabre mentor Chris Holzman, Sword School Wichita, for his suggestion to try starting with the glide in third for foil rather than the more typical direct thrust. In brief, while a slightly more difficult technique, the glide has a few benefits that in the long run are worth the extra effort. It is easier to thrust with a guide, so in sliding along the opposing steel to target students are less likely to try to “aim” the point to target—gliding along the opposing steel they extend rather than aim. They are introduced to and experience the idea of engagement better, ditto sentiment du fer, and from the glide it’s a little easier to understand the cavazione/disengage. Moreover, I’ve found that students make smaller disengages from the glide than they do fencing in absence. The traditional way still works—it’s how I was taught—but I’ve tried this and find it really useful, so much so that I’ve revamped my beginning foil curriculum.

For the molinelli, I focus on proper structure, and introduce first the descending molinello from the engagement in prima to the head, the rising molinello from fourth to flank, and the descending molinello from fifth to the left cheek. These are easier to do than the molinelli say form third or second, each of which I introduce later with initial preparatory actions.

[4] Mike Cherba’s Armizare classes, which are mostly adults, enjoy this too. Least I do 😉 Mike’s school is one of several here in Oregon that band together during faire season as “The Hawkwood Troope.” They do demos, answer questions, and put several hundred adults and kids through classes over two weekends. Some of my students first discovered historical fencing through this very process.

The Central Place and Importance of the Individual Lesson

deB3

In discussion with a friend and fellow fencer this morning I was reminded of something most of us on the Olympic or Classical side take for granted: the individual lesson. In historical circles one can find this option too, but less often, partly because of the backyard, study-group heritage of historical fencing, and partly because often there’s no one available who can, properly, teach the old, interpreted material super well. This isn’t a dig at my peers, just an observation. The historical community isn’t as venerable, relies less on precedent (and is often outright hostile to it), and is so varied in expression, purpose, and equipment that a standard teaching method, while desirable, is less easy to formulate.[i]

Joinville 2

Why is the individual lesson so important? There’s a lot of literature on this, and much of it written by far wiser heads than mine (so you should check it out), but in summary the one-on-one lesson with an instructor is better because of focus, attention, and feedback. We learn a lot in group classes, but by their nature such classes can only do so much. The instructor, even with an assistant, must survey everyone, all the time, and notice what is going well, what not so well, and step in. Rather than helping one person in a focused way, they notice a problem one student might be having and make a group announcement. Maybe the student not turning that front foot straight during footwork drills realizes that the instructor is talking about them, maybe not. One on one, that student has no question. As students, we should seek out individual lessons if possible, at least if we truly wish to improve. The focused attention, the critical eye, the distinct correction for our specific idiosyncratic movement, all of that is invaluable.

One thing we don’t talk about enough, though, is what it takes for individual lessons to work well. The easy things to list are well, easy: a knowledgeable instructor, an attentive student, clear expression of ideas and techniques with demonstration, etc. But the single most important thing is personality fit. Not everyone learns the same way, not every style works for all. Students seeking individual lessons may need to shop around, and they should. Few things sink a student’s success like a bad rapport with a teacher—this could mean an outright gruff instructor to one that for whatever reason just isn’t a good fit. It’s like that sometimes.

Joinville 3

Instructors need to realize this too. If they’re in this to make money then it especially behooves them to find a style that will work for most people. Traditional approaches to the individual lesson, as still taught at the Coaches’ College or at the Sonoma program, remain the most effective, tried and true way to teach this material. There’s a reason that lessons are still taught as they are after several centuries of development.[ii] For those of us not in the profit game it’s just as important if we truly want to share this wonderful Art with people. For me, when I realize that a student struggles more with my presentation that the skill-set, if I realize that they need something I can’t give them, I recommend friends of mine or other schools who might. If we truly care about the student, then this is what we do. As an instructor, our goal is for students to grow, hopefully with us, but if not then with someone. We’re a small community, and to my mind we collectively gain by recommending one another, helping one another out, and promoting the Art over ourselves.
———-


[i] For complicated reasons many historical fencers outright reject anything smacking of “sport” or “classical” fencing, presumably for being less “martial”—a word over-used and too often poorly—than their more macho historical style of choice. This does their cousins in those other camps a disservice, but it also limits their own growth.

[ii] In brief, traditional lessons one on one start with a short warm up, say lunging a direct thrust or cut to the instructor via cues. Next, the instructor may either introduce a new concept or technique, or, may drill one already shared. Depending on the student there may be a little of both. Lessons often end with a cool-down drill, e.g. parry-riposte or stop-cut drills for sabre. Group lessons often mirror this, but writ large.

Safety Basics

This can be a thorny topic. We talk a lot about safety, it sort of comes with the territory, but ask any gathering of historical fencers what safe-practice means to them and you’ll likely get more than one answer. People come to historical fencing from different backgrounds, with different gear, safety protocols, and expectations. This is an important point to keep in mind. It might be a window into your instructor’s approach, but also it may explain why your training partners have different attitudes toward safety in class.

In some respects, safety is a relative term. For example, I have friends and colleagues who generally wear only an unpadded canvas jacket. This is what they wore at the sala where they started out. The maestro who runs that school is classically trained and his program for Armizare, just as in his traditional fencing classes, inculcates an increasing amount of skill and control over time. Because his fencers have this control, and because they gradually build toward more intense drill, they can wear light jackets in relative safety. Not everyone starts this way—I see people from many backgrounds, classical, Olympic, MMA, Asian martial arts, and SCA. Each typically brings with them the safety protocols they are most familiar with, but naturally they don’t always meet up. Some are far more conservative, some downright dangerous. Combined with varying levels of skill differing ideas about safety can create a potential landmine.

In this clip, for example, my friend Mike Cherba, head instructor at Northwest Armizare, demonstrates that even a normal blow from a feder can wreck the typical fencing mask: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eW1Imv7yHig I know Mike well, and trust me, this is not his hardest cut—strong as he is, Mike’s level of control is equal to it and he’s one of the few people I feel I could fence with in longsword with a normal mask. If you’ve followed any HEMA tourney footage then you’ve seen people hit way, way harder. What constitutes a “hard blow” is relative too.

What can we do to mitigate that? First, we need to be aware of these differences. It isn’t necessarily something people think about it, but they need to. Not just the instructor, everyone. Expectations within any group or school should be explicit. This ensures that anyone new to that school knows what the culture is, what gear requirements are, and armed with that information can decide whether or not it’s the school for them.

Second, people need to have a minimum of protective gear—just because they shouldn’t need it doesn’t mean they won’t. You have to plan for the lowest common denominator with chance of injury, not the best case scenario. A mask is a must, ditto a jacket, solid hand protection, and guards for groin and neck. Chest protectors are not a bad idea for both sexes as well. It will only take one broken rib to convince most people, but better they never get the broken rib. I was never a big fan of the gorget, but I also recently heard about two near-misses that convinced me that they’re a good idea (so that is me overcoming my own background and bias).

Third, the instructor must cultivate, and enforce, a culture of safety. Despite some excellent recent articles about the idiocy and dangers of the “go hard or go home” mentality, there is still a disproportionately large number of people who embrace the idea that only pain teaches. This is macho bullshit at its worst. If that’s your thing, fine, find a club that caters to the fight-club ethos, but it’s on you. If you’re young, just remember this—whatever fun you have now, whatever injuries you incur, they come back to haunt you later and will affect the quality of your life. I was never given to macho b.s. much, but in my twenties I was certainly less cautious and had no mind for the possible long-term effects of injury. Now, comfortably into my forties… I have joint issues all along my right side—knee, hip, elbow, and shoulder—thanks to over-training, fighting while injured, and a few unrelated accidents that compounded these existing problems; I have scar tissue from a stab wound and broken fingers that also compromise my ability to train and enjoy something I love. Be smarter than I was.

In designing curriculum, the instructor needs to assess the potential risk in each drill. This might mean working with another instructor or one of the more advanced students to test it out prior to class. Consulting with other, knowledgeable instructors can help too; there is no reason to go it alone. Stand on the shoulders of giants if you need to.

Lastly, each fencer must take responsibility for safety. They need to wear the right gear, ensure that their friends do, keep an eye out of hazards, help maintain weapons, and if they feel unsafe speak up. There’s no shame in that and it might save someone a trip to the ER.

Most of all, each fencer must work hard to become proficient enough that they have a basic level of control. This does several things. It develops one’s ability to handle the weapon, but in that process one also learns to read situations better; one realizes faster if one’s own attack is going wrong as well as if one’s partner’s is. Collectively this makes for a safer drilling and bouting environment. Every fencer’s first defense is the Art, is good technique well-applied—your gear is there, again, for when this fails.

Some basic guidelines everyone should follow:

  • Keep floors clean and gear out of the way
  • Wear your mask
  • When not engaged in a drill or bout, keep sword/weapon tips down, pointed at the floor
  • Maintain your weapons and safety gear; replace things when they wear out*
  • Refuse to play with anyone not as concerned about safety as you are—it’s not worth your eye
  • Don’t fence when too tired, angry, or otherwise distracted
  • Look out for your mates
  • Follow the rules, those of the sala and those provided with any drill or within a bout

*Romantic notions of the sword-as-heirloom aside, yes, even swords must be replaced in time

Trust & Partner Drills

Badminton 1893Drill is a mainstay of fencing. We do footwork. We practice point control. We make molinelli in the air and at a target. We (should) be doing a lot of drill. In historical fencing we sometimes devise or find ourselves doing drills that are new, concocted out of our source material, and it’s a fair question to ask what might be signs that a drill isn’t up to par or might even be dangerous? What does it take for a drill to be “safe” when we’re talking about hitting people with weapons? Different types of partner drills require different levels of complexity, intensity, and safety-gear. The instructor has primary responsibility for introducing safe drills and monitoring how fighters are managing safety, but there’s an equally heavy burden on fencers performing the drill. They need to exhibit proper control and courtesy or they’ll injure their comrades and injured comrades mean fewer people to fence with.

On the instructor side, it’s often a balance between imparting what a particular skill or play requires and safety. Teaching longsword and sabre, for example, requires modulating what safety means. If one is teaching Fiore dei Liberi’s Armizare, a combat system designed to main and murder people, either in the lists or in the field, then one must be more vigilant in some ways than when teaching sabre. Most if not all of Fiore’s techniques must be modified to make them safe and some of them one can never do at full speed save perhaps in armor (and sometimes not even then). Teaching a sabre class, in comparison, makes for an easier balance of technique and safety. The relative weight, flex, and delivery of the thrust in sabre, though deadly with sharps and in earnest, is likely to do little more than bruise someone, especially if they’re wearing proper protective gear. With a stout jacket, one is rarely marked at all. This is often not the case when thrusting with a longsword—there is more power generation, more mass, and more surface area to the weapon. One thrust against the mask with either weapon will demonstrate the difference. Each weapon was meant to do harm in different ways, in different contexts. Assuming the exact same safety requirements is dangerous–fencing masks, good as they are, were not designed for longsword.

An instructor must understand the dangers inherent in a drill and modify it when and as necessary. This is the first step. The second is monitoring a class to make sure that fencers aren’t doing anything to nullify that modification. There’s no room for leniency with this—if any fencer is acting in an unsafe way they either fix it or one pulls them out of the drill. In some cases the drill itself needs further refining. Safety gear, good as it is, is only a fail-safe, an additional layer after one’s technique fails. No mask, jacket, glove, or pad will make you invincible and it’s stupid to proceed as if they will.

The same heavy burden for safety is shared by the fencers executing the drill. Drills can be complicated and applying sufficient oomph to the play with the control required to ensure no one is hurt is a tough skill to learn. Not everyone, in fact, learns it. I’ve seen experienced fencers fail to exercise control in drills; I’ve seen them fail to pull a blow that had clearly gone wrong. No one should have to “Fence for Two”—it’s the responsibility of both drill partners to proceed in such a way that both fencers are as safe as they can be.

There are several attitudes and skills one needs to cultivate to be the sort of person people want to drill with:

Courtesy: It’s important to be a courteous partner, not just in the sense of polite salutes, hand-shakes, or the blade-smack to the butt or thigh a la American football, but most importantly in the sense of the Golden Rule. Do you want to be injured? Do you want to be fearful of working with someone? Of course not, no one does. Work to be a safe partner and you help everyone, yourself included.

Control: Control is the marriage of skill and awareness. It takes a long time to develop. It means having a full understanding of each move, its direction, intensity, and target, as well as the ability to modulate any of the three at will. It’s a hard-won but crucial skill that requires hours, weeks, months, and years of hard work, drill, and patience to develop. Never stop working to achieve it. Control is not fool-proof, however, as everyone can and will misjudge from time to time. However, once you have it, people will want to drill with you because they know you’re safe and can help them learn whatever technique it is you’re all working on. You will learn more too because you’re both comfortable.

Competence: A certain degree of skill, of the ability to use the weapon, is always to be desired. For beginners naturally this is not necessarily there, but it will develop over time and provided one puts in the time. Within historical fencing there is, unfortunately, this general sense that one can just “dive in” and become proficient. This is not true. Being aggressive and suicidal doesn’t make one a good fighter—have the patience and smarts to do it right first, to put in the time, to learn enough to make actual bouts worth your time. The truth is that those who just jump in do so because it’s fun, and it is, there is no arguing with that, but too often the goal is simply to win, not to learn, and bouts—like drills—are another learning opportunity. As ever, if your ego is driving you, if you’re relying on speed, strength, brutality, etc. alone, you’re never going to get very far, and moreover a lot of good people, better fencers who could help you improve, will avoid you. At my age, I don’t have time for macho b.s. and have no qualms refusing to fight people who don’t have the requisite skill or control. I have old injuries enough to deal with and I don’t care for more.

Consistency: Emerson’s ideas of a foolish consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds holds in fencing as elsewhere, so it’s important to be consistent in the right ways. First, developing the ability to perform the same action correctly and pretty much the same way each time is important. Likewise, the capacity to perform the same action in the same tempo or from a standard distance is helpful. Much of this comes down to practice, but a lot comes down to focus and awareness too. Staying zeroed in on the drill, its purpose, what you need to do to do it successfully seems obvious, but a lot of people sort of go through the motions, especially if it’s a drill they’ve done multiple times. Even the oldest, most basic drill remains useful if approached correctly.

These attitudes and skills work best where there is sufficient trust. When it comes to safety and a successful drill trust is at the very heart of it. Some time ago, in an Armizare practice, I saw a student, one with considerable skill for someone her age, break a drill out of fear. She knew how to do the drill; she knew what the instructor wanted her and her partner to do; but she didn’t trust her partner. In this drill, when she made a mandritto fendente as the initial attack, the defender was to counter by striking into it with bicornu—done right bicornu effectively takes the center-line and breaks the attack.Pisani-Dossi MS 19b-b

What she did was modulate her attack—if her opponent was likely to break her cut, she pulled and beat instead so as not to get spiked in the face. I spoke with her afterward during a break and it was clear she felt awful; in her mind she had messed up. I told her that, actually, she had demonstrated considerable skill in reading her opponent and adjusting things to keep herself safe. These are not bad things. She was just fencing for two because she didn’t want to get hurt. However, it also meant that the drill had failed. There are multiple sadnesses there: first, this dedicated, hard-working student learned less than she might have, as did her partner; second, this drill was a good one, but like anything it required trust to succeed; and lastly, a capable, skilled student left that drill feeling she had failed, when in fact, she had not. Trust is everything. Without it, nothing works or at least it won’t work as well.

Actively cultivating courtesy, control, competence, and consistency will do a lot to dispel fear, because on the one hand it helps train one to do things more effectively, but on the other it also alerts one’s classmates that one is a team-player, that they have your best interest at heart. It helps build trust, and when you’re playing with swords, even blunt ones, you need that. Students who don’t feel safe, who in fact aren’t safe, aren’t going to stay long, and that is a net loss for all of us.


First image, “Parry in Seconde,” from The Badminton Library of Sports and Pastimes,  Walter H. Pollock, E. B. Michell, and Walter Armstrong,  London: 1893.

Second image, sword in two hands, zogho largo/wide play, play of the first master, Pisani-Dossi MS 19b-b.

Fencing Drills and Artificiality

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One question I’m asked about drills is to what degree they’re artificial, how they might set up ideal or unlikely scenarios. A related question concerns whether or not there’s a danger in having partners take turns making actions poorly, say in a stop-cut drill. Taking this last question first the answer is “no” if an instructor is on their game. Students, especially in their early training, shouldn’t be drilling poor actions. Conventional wisdom and practice demonstrate that the instructor should be the one exposing their arm for stop-cuts, holding a poor guard, or making any other action defectively. The question about artificiality, however, requires a longer answer.

In classical and historical fencing our concern is to fence as if the blades are sharp, to hit and not be hit, and so when a drill brings in maneuvers or plays that seem to defy this ethos it’s only natural to wonder about their value. Students often have assumptions about the nature of drill that informs this perspective, and some of those assumptions are incorrect.

There are different kinds of drills. Some we do solo, such as footwork drills or cutting against a pell, mask, or fencing Oscar.[i] Some we do with a partner. Others we do with an entire class. While “don’t be hit” and “hit and don’t be hit” are our guiding principles, applying these notions to every sort of drill, and each aspect of it, is reductionist and can blind students to the value of a drill. All study, drill included, should result in a style and method of fighting that illustrates this guiding principle. However, not every drill or part of a drill need conform to this absolutely all the time.

For a quick example from sabre, let’s examine two maneuvers, the first being a common compound attack, feint-cut head, draw the opponent’s parry of 5th, and cut flank or chest; the second being the riposte to the flank from 5th. Looking at the feint attack first, for it to work each partner has to act a certain way. The attacker must simultaneously work a key offensive action, the feint-cut, with a ton of technical movements designed to make that same attack effectively. The instructor or partner on the receiving end, the defender, must do the same; they must recognize and defeat the feint, and parry.[ii]

In the case of the instructor, and you often see this in their posture, they’re not necessarily mirroring exactly what an opponent would do, but performing those parts that will help the attacker succeed in the drill. If the feint is unconvincing, for instance, the instructor won’t parry and might counter depending on what they’re working and how advanced the student is. Judging a student’s readiness to go beyond a simple drill to a more complex version is one of the more difficult tasks an instructor faces—so much depends upon correct assessment.[iii]

In comparison to the instructor, the case of the partner is more complex. On the one hand, they need to help the attacker, just as the attacker will help them when they switch roles, but on the other they shouldn’t be fencing in such a way that the result is poor technique or tactically dubious choices.

Ideally, each partner is doing their best to make their half, offense or defense, work. The defending partner should use this opportunity to work on parries, specifically reacting to the cut to the head. For the basic set-up, this might be the goal in addition to gauging measure, working the feet, and maintaining the correct posture and hand/arm positions. One step deeper, however, the defender might have other options—they might for example, attempt to parry the actual cut after defeating the feint and then riposte. Drills usually start simply and develop into these more complex, multiple action versions as students advance in skill.

So far none of this is “artificial,” but one thing students have asked me about is the danger inherent in making that flank cut after the feint. Having drawn the defender’s arm up into 5th, the defender’s arm is then poised over the attacker making it possible to cut down onto the head. Isn’t that dangerous, they ask. In a word, no, because the defender should be worried about the fact that they’re about to be cut in the flank. Many fencers, because there is no actual danger decide to attempt a counter as, or just after, they’ve been hit rather than parry. This brings up an important aspect of fencing too deep to go into here, namely the priority of the touch, but for our purposes here is making this kind of attack artificial? Is it safe to assume that the defender will just accept the touch and not counter?

If one is fencing as if they’re sharp, then one should never assume anything, but at all times attempt to cover oneself. One solution is to add a side-step with the cut to the flank. Assuming a right-hander, the attacker can extend the arm to make the final cut and lunge a bit to the left by extending the back leg out and to the left after or as the front foot lands. This does two things: first, it removes one’s head from being just under the opponent’s weapon, and two, it gives one just enough measure to cover in 5th or 1st after the cut in case of counter-attack. This makes more sense after making the feint to head first, because from 5th the defender may still be able to retreat and make a molinello to the head.

On the other hand, for the fencer riposting from 5th to the head, our second example, things change a little—the riposte, having been parried, has lost its momentum, so the fencer riposting to the flank has less to fear from the blade over them. The fencer whose head cut failed now has a choice before them—they can drop the blade on their opponent’s head, which remember has no momentum, or, they can consider that fully developed cut speeding its way to their flank. This is a simple choice if we apply the “fence as if they’re sharp” rubric—the partner with the unsuccessful cut to the head should be considering how they are going to parry that incoming cut. Whatever damage dropping the blade on the attacker’s head might do, it’s likely going to be much less than a fully developed cut to the flank.

The greatest danger of artificiality here is not in failing to account for that blade poised above one’s head, but in forgetting to behave as if both blades are sharp. When we forget that, we too often make actions we would never make (one hopes) were we fighting in earnest. But, if we cultivate the notion that the blades are “sharp,” then we’re more likely to make better decisions; in the example above, as the defender we’re more likely to worry about not getting hit and thus parry rather than go for a counter that will only mean both fencers are hit.

Ideally, the only “artificial” aspect of drill should be our cultivated sense of danger. No drill is worth the name which trains poor technique or tactics. This is especially true with partner drills. There is an inherent argument here, namely that instructors ought to be the only ones to present examples of poor technique. However, this is no less dangerous for them, so it behooves every instructor to continue to take lessons, to remain a student, so that they may not include pedagogical tools like an open line or exposed arm in their own assaults.


[i] This is what we called them, but there are probably other names—an “Oscar” is a mock opponent, often set up on a wooden frame, covered with jacket or similar material, a mask, and often with an adjustable arm to shift a blade to different positions.

[ii] This will vary with the level of the fencer. An instructor or senior student might not defend as effectively if focusing on a newer student learning this attack.

[iii] In his Fencing Illustrated (1670), Ch. XIV, Giuseppe Morsicato Pallavicini discusses this very issue. The first bout a student has should be with the instructor. Even when assigning a new student to work with a more experienced one Pallavicini tells us that the instructor must supervise them. See Giuseppe Moriscato Pallavicini, Fencing Illustrated, Trans. by Christopher A. Holzman, Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2018, 91-98.