Masks within Masks

Attempting to reenter the world—safely—during a pandemic is nerve-wracking. Unlikespanish_flu_seattle many former plagues, Covid-19 is stealthy: symptoms may appear anywhere in 5 to 14 days; it can appear like allergies or a more run-of-the-mill cold; and it can even hide, like the Danaans in their wooden horse, in people who never develop symptoms but spread it far and wide. Against an enemy so difficult to track it pays to be cautious. For those of us teaching fencing or anything else that requires close proximity, be it dance or BJJ, we must make every effort to keep our students and ourselves safe.

Few things are harder to give up than something we desperately want and which brings us joy. Sometimes, however, we must if only for a time. The jury is still out as to whether we should begin classes as we did pre-pandemic. I’m inclined to think this is a bad idea, at least here in the States, but individual lessons, of a type, are perhaps something we can do under certain provisions. To date, there are several steps we can take generally that will reduce the chance of catching and/or spreading the virus:

  • we work outside
  • we wear masks
  • we keep an appropriate distance
  • we reduce the length of lesson time

I have given two lessons this way so far, and it’s interesting what works, what doesn’t work so well, and what effects these changes in approach can have on the body. 

What Went Well

Hand PositionsParallel drilling works well and easily abides the social-distancing protocols. Yesterday after stretching we started with molinelli. I had this student add a few additional molinelli to the three I started with him (I normally have students begin with a) a fendente from the left to the head from point in line, hand in second, moving through prima; b) with hand in fourth, point in line, an ascending cut to the flank moving through sesta; and c) from point in line, hand back in second, a cut to the left cheek moving through quinta). I also introduced him to the scarto, that is, to shifting the trunk back and forth as one parries/chambers a cut and attacks. It allows one to fine-tune and play with distance, can provide a few more inches of defensive space, and it can feed the cutting dynamic with a little extra oomph.

Next, we ran through a few footwork drills. We started in parallel, just advancing, retreating, and lunging. Then, together, I pushed him back and forth from just out of distance; his job was to maintain that distance. While out of measure, this still works distance and one’s sensitivity to it. Ideal? No, but useful, yes.

The rest of the lesson focused on progressively more complex actions to the forward target. This prevented us from getting too close while still allowing us to work on something of worth. The first was a simple stop-cut drill, e.g. I advance, expose the inside, outside, top, or bottom of the wrist, student strikes to that line and returns to guard. Next, on occasion I would cut after he made the touch to encourage him to cover himself after the cut. Third, I would parry some of the stop-cuts or arrests, riposte, he would parry, then riposte in turn.

What Didn’t go so Well

For more experienced students the footwork we normally warm up with is not enough to push them or have them hone that footwork for tactical situations. Advance, retreat, lunge, passing steps, etc. are important to drill, but on their own only do so much. I may be able to bring a pell out, but this will require working at my home, a choice perhaps less ideal during the pandemic (my pell, such as it is, is an old Wavemaster with additional padding on top and an old, heavy canvas jacket around it). One useful alternative is a softball trainer, the sort of long wand with a ball on the end, but this is a much more restricted target. It is, however, far more portable.

Molinelli too, while a great exercise and one we should all do, suffers withoutMasiello Unmounted XIX application. I include them in warm-up to prime us for more activity, but without the ability to get into distance we lose the opportunity to drill these offensively and defensively. My student today is at a stage where he would benefit from this, but it will have to wait.

Without closer proximity much of what we normally cover is just off the menu for now.

Effects of the Changes

Apart from being hobbled in what we can drill and cover in lessons, the single greatest change has been arm fatigue. Both instructor and student have the arm a bit more extended for longer periods of time working the forward target. Even in terza/third this can be tiring (the Italian third is taken with the arm farther forward). With Olympic weight sabres this is less onerous, but with period weight blades it begins to tell much more quickly.

The answer in both lessons was more frequent breaks. These afford a chance to discuss what we’re covering in more depth, so more breaks aren’t necessarily bad, but it’s not ideal either. As we acclimate to the weight we’ll be able to manage longer exchanges, but day one was proof that we’re rusty and our muscles used to quarantine idleness. So far, we have not taken most exchanges beyond three or four actions. While perhaps closer to how we actually bout, longer phrases are medicine for the hand. We drill in more complexity, strive to improve so that in the simpler actions in a bout we are cleaner, our eye sharper, responses crisper. One positive aspect to this extended target, however, is that focus on the advanced target is more in keeping with the conservatism that should be present in any bout. As I often point out, in surviving footage of duels most opponents seem particularly keen to stay just out of measure. [1]

Looking Ahead

The most common complaint about drill is that it’s boring. If that is all we have, then I agree. We drill as a means to an end, so when it feels like the goal, like it’s all we do, it’s a lot easier for boredom to creep in. It’s boring for me too. Varying lessons while maintaining appropriate distance for health is difficult, but there are ways to jazz it up.

Bayonet En GaurdeI have some less standard material I plan to employ to help. I’m still brainstorming these, but as one example bayonet drill may afford some diversion. As a pole-arm, rifle and bayonet keep us a little further away. Even if I am the only one with the bayonet and the student is defending with a sabre, the distance will remain a little farther out. This means that some of the more fun, crowd-pleasing options are out, for now, but that is not wasted training. While the bayonet may be less often employed in today’s military, it’s extremely useful technique to have in one’s toolbox. [2]

Safety First 

Safety is, and always should be, our top priority. It’s inherent in the very term “fencing,” which derives of course from “defence,” so an added layer of protocol, while annoying, is not so great a step. Face masks under the mask are annoying, but no more so than a pair of glasses (my poor student today has to wear glasses and a face mask, and he does fine). Whinging to the contrary, one can breathe in a face-mask well enough too.

My town, obscure as it is, has had a rise in cases this week, so it is difficult if not impossible to determine how things will look in a week let alone in a month. We cannot fence on a respirator or if dead, so… hard as it may be, financial blow though it be, put your health and that of your students’ first. If you’re potentially ill, if a student is, cancel and postpone. At some point we will be able to fence again, but only if we ensure that we make it through Covid-19, so, be smart, stay healthy.

 

NOTES:

[1] Youtube has a number of early 20th century duels, mostly epee/spada, as well as the performance piece from the 1967 between Serge Lifar and the Marquis de Cuevas, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e68nuAcSuWQ. Other, more instructive examples, may be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a7_ia1UodkI&list=PLMMzUA30gYjhm2faYLiI8w1ViqSv3FLmC

 

[2] The nature of modern warfare has no doubt reduced the need and use for a bayonet, but a number of militaries still teach the rudiments of this important skill. One does, after all, run out of ammunition or find oneself in situations where striking with the rifle butt or stabbing with a bayonet may be necessary. I can’t speak to this myself, but my father and his father related to me how important they found it in combat. Even in Vietnam, my father’s war, he had recourse to it. For civilians, bayonet drill is perhaps the simplest staff/pole-arm to learn and though we don’t walk about with rifles, one never knows when that mop handle, cane, umbrella, or broom may be the only thing between one and an assailant.

 

PHOTOS: to the best of my knowledge these are free to use.

First Image: “Stewart and Holmes Wholesale Drug Co. employees on 3rd Avenue during the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic” (University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, SOC0394) via https://crosscut.com/2020/03/coronavirus-how-seattle-handled-spanish-flu

Second Image: this image of the primary hand positions (as opposed to invitations/parries with the blade) is widely used, including within published works, but I’m uncertain as yet of its first appearance.

Third Image: this is plate XIX from Cav. Ferdinando Masiello, Sabre Fencing on Horseback, Firenze, G. Civelli Establishment, Editor, 1891, trans. by Christopher A. Holzman, Lulu Press, 2015, p. 52.

Fourth Image: this is Fig. 9, page 34, “Position de la garde et engagement,” from Jean Jules Gaston, Manuel d’escrime à la Baïonnette, Berger-Levrault & Cie, 1910. A pdf may be found here: https://www.ffamhe.fr/collectionpalas/Jean_Jules_Gaston.pdf

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).

Progressive Drills & Building Comfort with the Phrase

from _Istruzioni per la sciabola di sciabola_ [_ (Instructions for Sabre Fencing_], by Arnoldo Ranzatto, first published in 1885, Venice; this is from the third edition, 1889.

Like most of my posts nothing I’m writing in this one is earth-shattering or new. Any reader familiar with individual lessons will recognize quickly what I’m talking about and why. Readers on the historical side, however, who often have little experience with this or who less often have a chance for individual lessons, may find this helpful. Regardless, discussing methods for increasing a student’s comfort and improving their ability to see actions and make decisions in real-time is valuable.

Generally, traditional individual lessons employ the same basic structure. A coach’s focus, personality, time-constraints, and student ages and experience weigh into this too, but normally it’s more a question of altering or augmenting the basic structure rather than adopting a completely different approach.

warm-up –> drill or new material –> cool down

Using sabre as an example, we usually start with a warm-up, such as a series of thrusts to the inside line from standing, then via the lunge; or a simple parry-riposte drill up and down the strip; or the “wood-chop” drill or similar. [1] This may be followed by drilling fundamentals—thrust and lunge, add disengage, or cuts to major targets, stop-cut drills, beats, feints—or by the introduction of a new technique or maneuver. To close there is usually a cool-down, often much like the warm-up (parry-riposte exercises, stop-cut drills, wood-chop drill, etc.).

In a sala where students are in class several days a week it’s possible to use the lesson to introduce new material and then have them drill with more advanced students. Assuming an appropriate degree of dedication this can be an effective strategy. If, however, one sees a student once a week, and especially if that student lacks others with whom to practice, it’s more difficult. Instructors are normally the first “foe” one faces, but improvement in fencing comes via meeting and overcoming new challenges, new challengers, not via habit and the familiar movements and tactics of one opponent.

Ideally, that lone student finds a way, either with you or another club, to find opponents and partners with whom to drill. This is always to be preferred, but until that happens what can one do to help them along, especially in terms of increasing their comfort with movement and the phrase? How can we speed them along, in a sense, when they have fewer opportunities to use what they’re learning? How can we get them to move beyond the one-two nature of so many drills?

Beyond the Play

MS Ludwig XV 13, 25 r2 (“The Getty”)

One of the challenges in historical fencing is deriving a useful curriculum from the sources. It’s especially difficult with older sources where more is assumed, the method of expression unusual, and where details we’d expect today are lacking. In Fiore’s corpus, for example, there are illustrations and descriptions, but a lot left unsaid too. Students working on the first master of the longsword wide plays, for example, have an illustration of the master and student crossed at punta spada (the top third of the sword or foible), another of the second option from this crossing, and an explanation:

 Here begins the Gioco Largo (Wide Plays) of the sword in two hands. This Master who is crossed at the point of his sword with this player says: “When  I am crossed at the points, I quickly switch my sword to the other side, and strike him from that side with a downward blow to his head or his arms. Alternatively, I can place a thrust into his face, as the next picture will show.”

Fiore dei Liberi, 1409

After the second image the Master continues:

 “I have placed a thrust into his face, as the previous Master said. Also, I could have done what he told you, that is, when my sword was crossed on the right I could have quickly switched sides to the left, striking his head or arms with a downward blow.” [2]

MS Ludwig XV 13, 25 r3 (“The Getty”)

There’s a lot here to work with, and the images help considerably, but it’s clear that Fiore assumes substantial knowledge on the part of the reader. Notice what is not there: there is no mention of how one gets to this crossing; we’re not told how the scholar might defend himself; while we know this is “wide play” there are no details about ideal distance or tempo; we’re not provided any indication as to which option to choose when, just that there are two. We have, thus, little context for this play, and not surprisingly when many of us learn it we do so as a set-drill. There are more and less effective ways to do this, but one hurtle many students must overcome is how to recognize that they’re in this situation within a bout, and, be prepared for what can happen after one of these options has been exercised. [3]

A similar conundrum faces students working on more recent material. One of my sabre students, for example, asked me how he might improve beyond the initial actions of a particular attack. In this case, he had no trouble making a feint-cut to right cheek, cavazione/disengage with a thrust from second, but if the attack was parried he found he tended to stop. He added that he often felt that way—there was the initial set-to, then he wasn’t sure what to do.

As we drill so we fight

In order to help him, we did the following:

Stage 1: from the engagement of second, cut right cheek (10x)

Stage 2: from the engagement of second, feint right cheek, cavazione/disengage and thrust to the chest (10X) [4]

Stage 3: from the engagement of second, feint right cheek, cavazione/disengage and thrust to the chest, BUT this time I parry the thrust and riposte

The first two stages are set-drills. Stage 1, which focuses on the attack the feint will simulate, is intended to prime the fencer to make as realistic a feint as possible. In Stage 2 they make the same action, this time as a feint, and finish the maneuver with a thrust. So far, the student is the “agent” as older English sources would term it, the instructor the “patient” or receiver. As is, these stages exercise the techniques which comprise this compound attack, but apart from working distance (potentially), they don’t situate the actions within the context of a bout. It’s a set-play focused on technique, distance, and tempo, but all on its own, isolated.

In Stage 3, we add just a little context. The instructor reacts rather than just receive the touch. When I employ this method I make sure that the first few parry/ripostes are consistent and the same, e.g. a half-step back, retake second, thrust, or I take fourth and riposte to the right cheek. After a few rounds of this, I then tell the student that I will vary the target on the riposte. This does a few important things. First, it alerts and prepares them to watch what I’m doing; they can’t just anticipate the same response. Second, it mimics what they’ll have to do in bouts when their opponent doesn’t call their shots. Lastly, they’re primed to continue fencing and not just stop after their attack, a common problem many fencers face starting out. Depending upon their skill level we may take it further with additional actions, especially if focusing on not stopping after the first three stages.

In the next exercise, we turn it around—I make the same attack (the one we’ve been drilling) and they practice the defense. Here too we start small and progressively add more actions. Depending on the student they can vary their defense too.

Approached well this takes a drill into what is, more or less, a bout in miniature. It situates a specific action or drill in context. It adds more movement. Because it’s a drill there is slightly less pressure for some students than a bout. Put another way, rather than face the giant question mark that is all the possibilities they might face in a bout, they face the smaller question mark of what to do following something they know, that they’ve been drilling the whole time. In the example just above, watching to see if I parry second and or fourth is much easier because it’s explicit, it’s limited to one of two responses, but it still trains the eye to watch the response and not anticipate or react blindly. This introduces a level of psychological comfort necessary for learning at the same time that it’s helping them grow accustomed to incorporating new actions into real time and honing observation skills.

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

There are other benefits to this approach. Placing the drill within a more combative context can serve as a pressure-cooker for testing more than how well they’re picking up a technique. If for example the student hesitates after the first few ripostes, encouraging them not to let up is important—if they have the advantage they should never stop before the halt. This said if they persist in the attack when it has failed, and up to that point neither person has been hit, encouraging them to take distance and reset is an acceptable goal. [5] Building confidence with a set of actions makes it that much easier for a student to incorporate them into their repertoire when they’re in the assault.

Progressive Drills in a Group Setting

Progressive drills can work in a group setting too. When I use this approach within a class setting I am careful to explain it at each stage, and check each pair of fencers frequently. This style of drill works best, however, with intermediate and advanced students. These students can help newer ones, but should have sufficient background to be able to notice basic trouble spots. Depending on the size of the class some amount of self-policing is necessary, another reason that it works better with more experienced fencers.

My more advanced students are quick to ask whenever they’re unsure about anything, and these discussions become opportunities to trouble-shoot, explain finer details, and explore variations on that particular drill. Time is often at a premium for many of us—we have barely two hours Sundays—but time taken to explain why we do something is important and isn’t wasted.

For beginners, I only use the progressive approach one on one, because the level of detail and attention required by both student and instructor is so much greater. One can make fewer assumptions, and sometimes we have to dial-back the complexity, something far easier to spot and correct one on one than in a group setting.

Progressive Drills & Curriculum Building

There is potential for this style of drill with our earlier works on the Art too. Returning to Fiore’s first master of the sword in two hands, wide play, the two options the master suggests could be Stage 1. Each partner would take turns attacking to work the two options. Stage 2 could introduce a defensive response—for the thrust, perhaps the defender counters with posta breve or frontale and cuts in turn or with the scambiar de punta (“The Exchange of the Thrust”). For the cut to the left side, one response might be posta fenestra followed by a thrust or a cut-around (or through) of the defender’s own. Stage 3, then, would allow the original attacker a chance to parry riposte, or, perhaps employ a move from the gioco stretto or close plays.

In the case of Fiore, whose exquisitely brutal system seems to have been intended to end a fight in two or three moves, there’s probably less need for long, extended plays (naturally proper safety gear is a must). This said there is value is situating his plays and exploring effective responses to them. Instructors in modern fencing will put students through drills with multiple actions within a lesson—something we rarely if ever need in an assault—because learning to work those multiple actions makes simple actions better. 

For instructors struggling to get their students beyond drill and into effective use of what they’re learning, to move them beyond set plays, progressive drills offer one potentially rich source. For students working without an instructor, say in a study group, this can also be an effective method of practice. It might be especially helpful for those small historical fencing study groups looking for ways to expand their practice and build curriculum.

NOTES:

[1] Wood-chop or Around the Horn Drill: this drill primarily works target placement and the fingers. With a mask as target, either hanging up or on a partner, the fencer makes a cut to the right cheek with a double tap of the fingers, then to the top of the mask, then a single bandolier cut to the bib, and either repeats the sequence or goes through various parry/ripostes before continuing the sequence.

[2]    Cf. http://www.nwarmizare.com/Pocket-Fiore/assets/www/getty_th_longsword2.html

This example is taken from the Getty, but a quick look at the three other known mss. adds little additional information. The Morgan is almost verbatim what the Getty offers and the Paris/Florius and Pisani-Dossi contain much less explanation.

[3]  Drilling First Master: researchers approach it differently, but one of the most sound I’ve seen is that employed by Mike Cherba (Northwest Armizare, Sherwood, OR) and Alex Spreier (High Desert Armizare, Bend, OR), both of whom first studied with Maestro Sean Hayes (Northwest Fencing Academy, Eugene, OR). Mike, for example, will have students start at punta spada, or start of out measure and meet there; if there is pressure against the agent’s sword, they cut around; if there’s not, they thrust through. Though first master of gioco largo doesn’t necessarily require pressure to work, the advantage here is that it provides one possible framework for the play and trains the student’s sentiment du fer.

[4] A look at most 19th cen. and many early 20th cen. Italian works on sabre will demonstrate the importance of having the hand about chin high on     the thrust. With the hand in second position (thumb to the left, knuckles up) or in first in second position a la Barbasetti, the top of the arm is covered by the guard, the hand high enough to prevent an unexpected shot to the face, and the arm is poised to make the parries of first, second, or fifth quickly.

[5]  If defense is the goal, if the goal is not to be hit, it’s better to break off than risk a counter attack or attack into tempo. The longer a phrase continues the more likely one might be hit.

Dealing with Criticism

FENCING published in Harper's Weekly June 1890

It’s a commonplace that criticism is one of the hardest things we face. No one enjoys it, but shared correctly and viewed appropriately criticism is a powerful tool. For the fencer it can help to “unpack” criticism as it applies to us as student. This is as true for the researcher. Just as important as these two situations is an instructor’s ability to offer criticism well.  In each role we approach this differently, experience it a little differently, but in each case—as student, teacher, researcher—we’re in an endeavor that by definition includes correction. So, it’s worth reflecting on some of the ways we give and receive such evaluation.

Despite its etymology “criticism” generally connotes something negative. [1] There are probably multiple reasons for this, but one reason must be that so often people don’t offer these observations well, either in terms of kindness or effectiveness. It’s easy to take criticism personally, as an attack on our character, and when criticism is offered poorly it’s small wonder. One of my instructors many years ago—and since he’s still active I’ll not share his name—was notorious for his meanness in lessons. More than one student left a lesson in tears. He was less liked than he was feared, and while many of us did well, many more of us might have had he been more amiable. For me, having grown up within military culture, it was a little easier to deal with some of what he said (while my father was not draconian, I certainly heard a lot of orders given elsewhere that were brusque). I didn’t take it personally, not that it was easy sometimes. Two of the more memorable comments he made to me were “you move like a bovine,” during a lesson, and in coaching piste-side at one tournament “Grow a pair and hit that guy—my grandmother could do this.” Hardly inspiring.

In comparison to my other instructors, all of whom were task masters in their way, this one sharp-tongued coach stood out. He’s not unique. A friend of mine here in Portland was so scarred by a foil coach as a teenager than he left fencing all together until discovering HEMA. Hopefully your instructor isn’t like this—if so, I encourage finding a better one if that’s possible. If you’re stuck with a lemon, or, if you struggle with criticism generally, there are a few things to keep in mind that might help.

As Student
Looking first at proper criticism, i.e. the constructive, meant-to-help sort, the most important thing to remember is that learning includes getting things wrong. Correction is thus part of the learning process. We make mistakes, we mishear, we struggle, we forget, etc. and a good teacher points these out and helps us get them right. Usually our problem is less being corrected than how we are corrected. This is as true in fencing as it is at school or at work.

This said, even the kindest criticism can be hard to swallow. This is all the more true when we feel like we’re doing our best. We expect results from hard work, and that’s not wrong, but as a working hypothesis it needs refinement. Hard work on its own does little—it needs to be consistent, it needs to focus on the correct things, and hardest of all it takes time. Fencing is difficult. It is a highly technical art. If you’re going to assume anything—and assumptions are generally a bad idea—then assume years of constant, persistent practice. Be kind to yourself and give yourself room to mess up.

No one masters this stuff right away. Being armed with more realistic expectations helps a lot. Knowing that what you’re studying is difficult and time-consuming should temper the impact of criticism. When you expect it, it feels less about you and more about the process. Just keep at it. However dressed the critical assessment of your skill is at that moment looks less awful seen against the backdrop of long-term development. It’s a moment of time—you will learn to do X, and then find some new challenge. All of this requires that your ego is in check, that you’re less concerned with how you look in front of your peers, and that too takes work. Focus on the Art, not the perception others may have of you.

If your instructor is like that one I describe above, then you’ll need to separate out the emotional chaff from the constructive grain. This means ignoring any comment that touches on feelings and focusing instead on those that treat substantive issues. In the case where my instructor referred to my movement as “bovine,” he went on to have me do footwork for the rest of the lesson. I was plodding, not advancing, and so I spent a lot of time trying to make my front and back foot land at the same time (back foot to floor as front toes land). [2] I ignored his nasty comment and just focused on the skill. Easier said than done, true, but with practice and a good attitude it’s possible.


As Instructor

Photos-1858-Victorian-fencer

It’s in our own best interest to be kind when offering advice or criticism. Kind doesn’t mean talking around an issue or walking on egg-shells; it means sharing your evaluation in a way more likely to reach that student. Often the best policy, a la the Golden Rule, is to mix whatever analysis you have for them with encouragement. We know this stuff is difficult, we know it takes time, because we were at the same stage of development once—this should make us sympathetic.

Like anyone we can get frustrated. Maybe you’ve had a bad day, maybe the student doesn’t seem to be trying. Your job is to recognize that emotion, put it in place, and proceed without expressing whatever vexation you’re experiencing (if you are). It doesn’t help your student, and more than likely will only stymie them. As important as criticism is, so too are compliments were appropriate. Initially you may only compliment their effort or an aspect of one action, but with encouragement students are far more likely to press on, because they know you believe they can do it. This support is especially critical as they start—many new fencers quit not because they don’t like what they’re doing, but because it feels impossible. No coach should reinforce that idea. Your own training is proof it isn’t impossible, and with that insight your support is not empty, but informed.

Expect to repeat yourself, a lot, especially with younger students. Expect to repeat the same lesson often. Expect to work at new ways to explain the same thing. Patience is worth cultivating, and, it will help you and your students. Our enthusiasm, patience, our can-do attitude is everything, and it’s not a race: if it takes student X longer to master a specific technique, then it does.

Returning to my gruff former instructor, how else might he have addressed my poor footwork? Here is one approach, least it is close to the sort of thing I have found useful:

Halt! Okay, now when you advance listen to the sound. Good—you’re making a single advance, right? How many steps did you hear? Not sure? Okay, do it again. How about now? Two! Did you feel like you were smooth or sort of    bopping up and down? Correct, kinda bobbing, right? This time try to coordinate  the landing of the back foot with the front toes as they touch the floor. Watch me—I lift the toes, I glide just over the floor, and as my front toes lands so does my back foot. How many steps did you hear? One. And I wasn’t bobbing, right? Now your turn.”

In this example there were no ad homines; no questions as to the student’s simian ancestry, relation to barnyard animals, or quips about the student’s masculinity or femininity. This example focuses on the skill-set, on the specific actions, and explains them. The instructor demonstrates it, and then encourages the student to try again.

There are a lot of ways to do this, but whatever words you choose it’s best to build up, not tear down.

As Researcher

If you’re a researcher or translator you’re going to run into critics. There are different sorts, and happily many you can ignore. The ubiquitous internet “troll,” for example, the dolt who just has to pick something apart or disagree, isn’t worth your time. There are a lot of people in the historical fencing community with over-inflated notions of their own brilliance and/or importance, so chances are good if one of them attempts to heckle you that you’ve somehow put them in touch with their own insecurities. Not your problem. Be above that and avoid the intellectual squalor to be found in the fetid fen of the comments section. [3]

The only criticism worth troubling yourself about is proper, subject-driven, constructive criticism by credible people. You may disagree, or, have information that your reader doesn’t, and the situation may or may not warrant a rebuttal, but if you put your work out there you should expect that some aren’t going to like it or agree with your conclusions. For a quick example, an article I wrote for my graduate advisor’s Festschrift received some decent criticism. Now, the reviewer, since they didn’t deal with the editor of this book, couldn’t know what I did, namely, that the stuff the reviewer wanted to see in my article had been there, but had been excised for length. I wasn’t happy about that, but as the first academic article I had in print I didn’t know to push back, or, time-allowing, edit it so that all that could be there. The reviewer’s point is a good one, and my article would’ve been better with that information still there. We learn.

600px-Libraries_in_the_Medieval_and_Renaissance_Periods_Figure_5

The public nature of this criticism makes it all the harder to take. Where even a decade or two ago a review might only be read by those with subscriptions or access to the periodical that published it, today a quick search of your name and a title on Google allows the entire world to find it. Add social media sharing and that many more eyes are likely to see it.

How we react to criticism says a lot about us, so it’s worth reflecting, even preparing for various scenarios. Good criticism is always nice, and being gracious about it is important. However, dignity, grace, and measured reactions to a bad review or criticism are as important, maybe more so since people are far more likely to notice and remember fireworks than a thank-you. If the evaluation is accurate and fair, if the criticism leveled at your work stands up, then it behooves you to make changes and re-share the work. Own it—there is no shame in admitting we’re wrong when we actually are. If it’s not possible to fix or reshare the work, then you can write something else and discuss it there. I’ve had to do this, even preemptively, when I’ve noticed an issue in my own work. [4] Allowing poor work or a mistake to stand or worse digging-in and trying to justify it are unwise. Maybe you have supporters, maybe you don’t, but if an error you’ve made has been demonstrated sufficiently, the better part of valor (and scholarship) is to own it, then fix it. [5]

Knowing what is fair criticism or not, what is accurate or not, can be difficult. To state the truth not all professional reviewers are as balanced, fair, or objective as they should be. Some have their own agenda and their criticism, as such, is more “you didn’t do what I would have done” than anything substantive about what you actually produced. It’s not fair, but nothing is fair. In cases like these it can sometimes be important to write a rebuttal. One must be careful to separate personal embarrassment in making errors from chagrin with one of these critics. Each situation is handled differently.

Understood, accepted, and used as a tool for growth effective criticism can be valuable. It helps when that criticism focuses on the task, not our character, and when it is shared in a supportive fashion. If you fence, and it doesn’t matter what style, you will have to find ways to handle being evaluated. The good news is that it does get easier over time. With practice it’s far easier to focus on what they’re attempting to help us do than anything else. Pick your instructor well, realize that they’re doing what your hired them to do (teach), and remember that there is “no growth without assistance.” [6]

———-

NOTES:

[1] Our word “critic” derives from Latin criticus, itself a loan from Greek kritikos, “capable of judging.” Context is everything, but as a general rule, for most American speakers of English anyway, “criticism” is a word that most interpret negatively without further clarification.

[2] This is a very useful pedagogical tool. Students tend to make smaller steps, tend to coordinate their feet better, and in time improve their advance as well as retreat. In practice, during a bout, one doesn’t necessarily move as nicely as this, but one will move better for having worked so hard at it.

[3] I’d rather not name the people, one in particular, that seem to make an effort to disagree or undermine anything I say or post on social media or elsewhere, but they’re good examples of insecure people with ego needs that outweigh their ability to reason or play nicely. Unless there is a reason to correct them, I ignore them. Arguing with the village idiot, as the old saying goes, only creates two idiots.

[4] A fun example, and one hard for me not to enjoy given the irony of my interest in historical fencing, is a line that was misprinted in Artifacts from Medieval Europe (2015). On page 32 the line “Like the sword discussed here, they were still broad enough to cut, but also had a strong, rigid diamond shape that enabled the sword to punch through plate like an awl.” The word “plate” should have been mail, for while it is possible to pierce armor with poor heat-treat—a friend of mine has done this with a dull spear-head—swords in the age of plate weren’t used against armor, and when they were, they were used like a pole-arm to stab into those sections not as well-armored, generally of cloth and/or mail.

[5] A good example of this problem is the debate, such as it is, between two translators of the same rapier text. One of these translations, made by a well-respected scholar, is certainly freer in expression in some places, but is far and away a better version than the other. The author of the less successful translation has attacked his rival on a number of occasions, but to little effect outside of his little collection of supporters. I’ve read through the criticism of his work and the complaints hold up. Even when called on it he refused to accept it. Don’t be that guy.

[6] So says the character Li Mu Bai in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000); https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UiuQNFiEmMs

IMAGES:
First — scene entitled “Fencing,” in Harper’s Weekly, June 1890.

Second — “Victorian Fencer, 1858,” https://www.leonpaul.com/wordpress/fencing-history-fencing-in-the-19th-century/

Third– modified image of a print, by J.C. Woudanus, 1610, of shelves in library of the University of Leiden: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Libraries_in_the_Medieval_and_Renaissance_Periods

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

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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.

Conan the Barbarian, Sir Percival Blakeney, and the Cult of Machismo in Historical Fencing

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There are times when our lives in and outside the sala intersect. Recently I experienced this with regard to advocacy for women’s rights, equality, and representation. Whatever one’s politics—mine are apparently less clear than I thought—this is an issue not only as an instructor and fencer, but as a human being, especially one living in the topsy-turvy world of the United States in 2019. There’s no middle-ground—either you believe in equality and fight for it, or, you don’t. There’s no fence-sitting, because by definition—in this case—inaction is tantamount to action: it is to be complicit in those customs, laws, and attitudes that are prejudicial. As a middle-aged white male, though, it’s often difficult to appear to be an advocate; I look like “the enemy,” after all, and though I do my best to support anyone really who’s not an a-hole, only continuous action might convince those who think otherwise.

In fairness, our attempts to advocate for others can fail, we can be taken for what we’re not, but that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try. It’s all the more important to me as an instructor, because in my own, small way I have a chance to make a difference. The adults who train with me are, not surprisingly, on much the same page.[1] Preaching to the chorus is affirming, but it’s work already accomplished. With my younger students, however, I can do a lot of good, or, a lot of harm. I have an opportunity to make a difference, but I also feel I have a duty to make that difference, to create a safe, encouraging, and supportive spot for everyone. This I try my best to do. In part this is a carry-over from parenting—my wife and I are keen to raise our boys to be part of the solution, not the problem—but it also comes of seeing the damage bad coaches can do over a life-time of watching it happen.

From the adults, feedback is constant, and I’m thankful for that. At present we have one adult woman who regularly attends and happily she’s a good gauge for how well we’re doing, how well I’m doing, to create a safe spot. She has suffered a lot of abuse at the hands of men in fencing, from disregard to the actual threat of violence, and it’s a testimony to her strength and passion that she didn’t just quit. A long-time friend, she has been a good guide for me, not only from what I’ve picked up in trying to help her through so much b.s., but also in the fact the she has shared her ideas, experiences, and feedback. She speaks her mind; she will call me on poor choices and then it is up to me to be a large enough human to consider what she says. My younger students, most of whom are between the ages of 9 and 16, are less forthcoming with feedback, less capable of that insight as yet, and so I have to do the heavy-lifting for them.

Conan and Sir Percy

Sir Percy
Anthony Andrews as Sir Percy in the 1982 “Scarlet Pimpernel”

Anyone who spends much time in historical fencing is going to run into the Janus-faced Macho “HEMA Bruh.” He isn’t confined to our community; wherever there are combat-related past-times you’ll find this guy.[2] On the one hand he exemplifies the most facile, shallow notions of western masculinity—one sees this in the focus on victory above all, physical strength and size, his romanticism of violence, and a misplaced sense of his own ability. On the other hand, the second face is often more subtle. It’s homophobia expressed in humorous attempts to belittle other fencers. The math here, such as it is, reads like this: smaller sword = weak, “gay,” lesser, etc. If HEMA Bruh is Conan the Barbarian, then as far as Bruh is concerned smaller men, especially if they fail the big-sword test, are all the public persona of Sir Percy Blankeney-as-dandy, i.e. cowardly snobs who hide their weakness behind fancy dress and witticisms, or in this case, avoid “real” sword-fighting by using less scary weapons.[3] Wimps like that, so Conan thinks, have as much business pursuing “MAN” activities as women do. The 1950s middle-school nature of this thinking is sad, but they’re telling too coming from grown men. For those of us teaching later aspects of the Art, for example, the fact we don’t wrestle or use big swords makes us easy marks. Teach foil or smallsword in HEMA-land and you’ll see what I mean. Among adults it’s easy to see this and avoid such people, but what about for kids?

Instructor as Role Model

Like it or not, if you coach younger people you’re a role model; not the most important one in most cases, but one example of an authority figure that can have significant influence on a young person’s development. Acting the part of Conan the Barbarian, even making room for the HEMA Bruh or similar clowns, are all detrimental to any training program—the best such programs create are future HEMA Bros and considerably more people turned off to the Art. That is a net loss for everyone. I’ve watched this happen. [4]

Instructors must be ever mindful of how they act, what they say and how they say it, of the example they set. One of the ways this is made easier in fencing (of any kind) are the niceties and cult of manners inherent in the tradition. We salute in and out of class, we address people politely, we comport ourselves in the sala with self-respect and respect for others. All these things help but on their own are not enough. Just as old as the salute are double-standards, and though these are less evident today than they once were, they’re still around. For example, there are still instructors out there that either believe or unwittingly apply double-standards to female fencers, who think they can’t or shouldn’t do X. Claptrap. They can do whatever they want, and like anyone who applies themselves, do well.

Is Conan Really so Bad?

Arnie as Conan (1982)

How is the Cult of He-Man detrimental? Starting with the less pernicious effects, focus on facile notions of masculinity—strength, aggression, dominance, power, fame, victory, etc.—undermines the value of these concepts and removes them from what they should be.

  • Strength one develops for health and to practice the Art
  • Aggression, in a sportive context, is better developed as appropriate offensive strategy
  • Dominance of self outweighs any other version
  • Power should be a measure of control over the weapon and ourselves, so modulating not only one’s strikes, but oneself
  • Fame, like anything that serves ego alone, takes one’s attention away from the Art—if you bump into it, fine, enjoy it, but keep it in check
  • Victory is a diagnostic tool for measuring growth, tactics, and identifying areas for work.

I’m not trying to take the joy out of a win or suggest we all meditate in the ring or on the piste rather than fight. I’m suggesting that we get far more out of the Art, out of all our hours and training and hard work, if we look deeper.

Another issue is that these same He-Man values favor only one type of fencer—the larger, stronger, brutal fighter. Is there room for him? [5] Yes, but only if that same fencer is keen to grow beyond what nature provided him. He will be a liability otherwise. The instructor’s job with this fencer is to impart more of the Art to him, to round the corners off him, and teach him to harness and make the best use of those natural gifts (if he’s up for it). This is, in essence, what the instructor should be doing with each student, but that’s easier to do if one’s values extend beyond the physical. Focus on the big guy as a way to gain tourney gold and reputation at the expense of also putting in as much time with smaller, less powerful fencers might bring short-term gains, but at great cost.

To name one current example from one of my kids’ classes, there are two elementary school girls who are picking up technique quickly, but also who understand what they’re doing and why. Will they continue to fence? I don’t know, but my job is to give them all I can to help them find out, to encourage them, improve what they do well, and help them build those parts of the game they are struggling with. I also have a male middle-schooler in that class as tall as I am, and while strong that asset is little use to him in foil. With him my job is to help him channel his size and strength into more effective uses, in this case reach and stamina. Whatever size they are, whatever sex or gender, they’re my students and my task is to share the Art with them, to help them grow.

Put short, whatever a student’s gifts, whatever their challenges, we work with them—we do not favor one type over another. To do so limits us, limits the students, and sets a poor example. The motto of my school is Vis enim vincitur Arte, “For strength is conquered by Art,” because the Art can aid the powerful, but it can make the weak fencer overcome the powerful one.

How I treat them individually, but also as a class, is important too. I’m an adult teaching them something very complicated and difficult to do–that is challenge enough without inane ideas about boys being better at this, girls better at that. To me they’re potential fencers, fellow students only younger, and I must strive to set the best example I can for them.

The Truth about Attribute Fencers

The truth is that one can go far embracing the Conan the Barbarian approach—not everyone responds to them well and they can easily overwhelm many opponents. That doesn’t mean one is successfully expressing the Art, however, and while that can correlate with skill, they’re not one in the same. This is to say just because one is fast and powerful doesn’t mean one has good technique or understanding—you can win through intimidation and power too.

The half-life with this approach is short. If injury doesn’t take one out of things, burn-out will. Some experience that burn-out as frustration when they reach an opponent who’s a better Conan than themselves. Others quit at whatever it is they consider the top of their game convinced there is no one left to beat. The first can be fixed, the second is a sign of deeper problems. This same type of fencer is demoralized or becomes convinced things are rigged if a smaller, but more skilled opponent beats them. This is much the instructor’s failure as the fencer’s, more so for it shows the instructor failed to teach them one of the more important lessons we learn in the study of arms—how to lose with grace and use that loss to improve.

Attribute fencers often do well, for a time, but the longer they stay in the game the more they’ll discover that reliance on their speed or strength is limiting. Skill will win out in the end. One doesn’t stay strong and fast forever. This will sound funny to anyone who hasn’t experienced it, but if you face an opponent over 70 you’re in trouble—no matter how fast you are, how strong, etc., if that person is still fencing at that age then they know something, a lot of somethings, and you’re going to have your work cut out for you. The best losses I’ve experienced were to opponents over 70—they were great lessons. He would be 106 now if he is still alive, but being bagled 5-0 by the then 80 year old Fred Razor in 1993’s Hack und Slasch tournament in Victorville, California, was an indelible lesson for me.

The Deeper Danger of Conan

Robert Mark Kamen as “Johnny” from Cobra Kai in the 1984 “Karate Kid”

The real evil in this Cult of MAN is that it fosters unhealthy attitudes and beliefs. It provides an arena for those to grow. When this happens, people get hurt, but more than that, the same fragile notions of masculinity carry over into other areas of life. If the example we set for younger fencers is that might makes right, that our genitals determine our success or suitability for X, and that the gifts of nature in terms of size or strength outweigh the hard road of study, then we do more than create Cobra Kai fencers—we help shape, even if in small ways, the same monsters who plague our society at large. This is as true if we ignore it–it’s tacit approval.

This is not just “liberal propaganda” either—there is science here (nb: science, contrary to public opinion, is not a liberal conspiracy). Reinforcing pernicious social mores across activities, locations, and populations helps solidify those ideas. With fewer areas of life demonstrating competing views it is easier, especially for the very young, to accept those ideas as normal. Each of us in our own way, to the degree that we can, is responsible for the world we live in; we have a choice in how we engage others, what we accept and reject, and if we truly believe that equality matters, that respect for others and ourselves is worth cultivating, and that these values make for a better society, then everything we do, from how we vote to how we approach a sabre lesson echoes. This isn’t to say a fencing instructor makes or breaks things, but it is to say that it matters—if the Art is more than a body of technique and tactics, if it does relate to our growth as individuals, then it matters. [6]

I’m not an enemy of big dudes–some of my closest friends are big dudes. I also value the role that wrestling and grappling have played in the Art; more than that, I like to dabble in longsword too, and if the chance came up to take a class on spadone/montante, I would. Interest and pursuit of these is fine, perfectly awesome really, but like anything it is how we go about it, how we treat others, and all of these aspects of the Art can be approached sans Conan’s fur speedo.

———–

Notes:

*Photo of Dodgers player Kiké Hernandez and reporter Kelli Tennant. This photo was widely shared and the subject of a popular meme. It’s been cited as classic example of “fragile masculinity,” but there is evidence–in this case–to suggest that Kiké, a notorious prankster, might have been up to something else. At the very least he shared the same photo himself in 2017 as a short-person joke.   For the initial photo–see https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2018/07/13/a-baseball-player-stood-on-a-bucket-and-sparked-an-online-debate-about-masculinity/

See also, https://www.chicagotribune.com/columns/heidi-stevens/ct-life-stevens-tuesday-kike-hernandez-bucket-masulinity-0710-story.html

[1] I’m lucky to work with good people. Among the many civic and socially minded examples of their excellence, one even serves as an escort/guard for any woman fearful of protestors wishing to go to Planned Parenthood.

[2] “Bro” culture is rife in sports as it is in most places. Historical fencing, because it has larger weapons, because so many of the traditions dealt with war as well as the duel, and because physical size can make more of a difference in grappling is perhaps more prone to this sort of machismo where other branches of fencing—saving perhaps Bohurt—are less likely to see it.

[3] For those unfamiliar with the character, Sir Percy is the hero of Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905), a wonderful tale of an English aristocrat who hides his heroic rescue of the French noblesse from the guillotine behind the mask of a dandy among other personas. There are a number of film versions of the book as well (my favorite remains the portrayal by Leslie Howard’s from 1934). There was, it seems, a popular trope in swashbuckling literature of the inept, questionably hetero hero who adopts this persona to hide his more “manly” heroics. The other classic example being Zorro. It is telling that in 1981 “Zorro the Gay Blade” made this suggestion overt. Conan the Barbarian was the creation of Robert E. Howard whose series of stories first appeared in 1932. The most famous film version, recently remade, is the 1982 “Conan the Barbarian” starring Arnold Schwartzenegger. Both big-bad-ass-barbarian and sly-dandy films reflected, and helped cement, ideas about masculinity, sexual orientation, and what was and wasn’t acceptable: modern audiences (hopefully) will experience these older movies differently.

[4] It can be easy to forget how long childhood extends. Teens can look older, present older, but are nonetheless kids; even those in their early twenties have brains still in development. In the few instances where I’ve seen adults forget this, I’ve tried to help both the child and the coach, but sometimes the issues those adults face can blind them to the reality of the situation—kids, even 17 or 18 year olds, do not think or act like adults, so expecting from them what one does from a 30 year old is misguided at best.

There are also schools, some infamous in the States, for encouraging “Bruh” culture, but not so surprisingly they’ve run into more and more trouble. If you don’t play nice, people won’t want to play with you. Guess they never learned that.

[5] Yes, “him.” I try to use gender/sex neutral language as much as possible, but in my experience to date the worst offenders of macho-man syndrome have been male. Naturally there are fencers who identify in other ways that may be just as annoying to deal with.

[6] One standout example of a fencer’s moral choice during trying times is Nedo Nadi who repeatedly refused to join, represent, or work with Mussolini’s fascist regime. See Richard Cohen, By the Sword, New York, NY: Random House, 2002, 326 ff.

NB: My friend, and a gracious Big-Dude, Mike Cherba of Northwest Armizare, is using this post in class, so I have edited some of it, mostly removing excess words, repetition, and trying to tighten up the sentences a bit. What, I’m long-winded, I like long sentences…. I blame Latin. [4-8-2020]

Fencing, Martial Arts, and Self-Improvement

Αισχύλον Εύφορίωνος Άθηναιον τόδε κεύθει μνήμα καταφθίμενον πυροφόροιο Γέλας· άλκήν δ’ εύδόκιμον Μαραθώνιον άλσος αν εϊποι και βαθυχαιτήεις Μήδος έπιστάμενος.

This tomb in grain-bearing Gela covers an Athenian, Aeschylus son of Euphorion, who died here. The famous grove of Marathon could tell of his courage and the longhaired Mede knew it well. [1]

Herma_of_Aeschylus

The Greek playwright Aeschylus (d. 456 or 455 BCE), one of the luminaries of Athenian drama, is remembered today for his poetry, sophisticated plots, and stage-craft. His “Oresteia,” to name one example, has been standard reading in many college literature and classics classes for decades. However, his epitaph says nothing of these accomplishments, achievements for which he was celebrated even in his own lifetime, but for his participation in the Battle of Marathon (490 BCE). Either the poet himself or his family wished for him to be remembered for his military service, not his contributions to world literature. There is a lesson in this for us fencers, for any martial artist.

For many fencers the Art is a game, a sport, and in certain iterations that’s absolutely true. I think it is, potentially, much more than that. As a caveat I should say that my first exposure to martial arts was Asian—my father, who had been stationed in Korea, took up Tang Soo Do while there and began teaching me as a child. In late elementary school I started formal training in Tae Kwon Do. Later, as an adult, I studied Kendo, Gumdo, and Tai Chi (including some sword forms), all after long exposure to western fencing. In short, much if not most of my thinking about the value and purpose of martial arts, any martial art, is “Eastern,” which is to say heavily influenced by Buddhist notions of ego-annihilation, humility, and self-improvement. These values will not appeal to everyone, and that’s okay, but they’ve shaped much of my path as a student and I’ve found them useful even outside of philosophical considerations.

For example, focus on improvement versus more easily-met ego needs, like trophies and rankings, is one such way that this more “Eastern” approach is beneficial. This isn’t to knock those successes, but to see them in their proper light. Sure, be proud of what you’ve accomplished, but appreciate the realities of competition too. What worked? What didn’t? What areas should you work on? What did you learn from your opponents? Too much concern about medaling, fame, all that distracts from study; it’s easy to take these nice things too far and rest on your laurels. When people believe that trophies and notoriety are the best proofs of skill and worth they often start thinking they’re superior fighters and have nothing left to learn. There’s always more to learn, always ways to improve.

Another benefit of cultivating humility is that it makes it easier to work with others, to share information without one-ups-man-ship, and collaborate. For those who think they have it all figured out, others are either dead wrong or mostly wrong; they’re far more quick to criticize what another is doing than consider that there may be lessons there. This is particularly odd in historical fencing, because by its nature reconstruction is tentative. In so many cases there is no proof one way or another, just the best case to be made from the evidence, any product of which might be overturned should new evidence be found. That should engender more excitement than dread, and generally does unless one has a lot riding on a particular interpretation.

Lastly, what is fencing if not a form of self-improvement, a constant process of refinement in action and thinking? The plateaus and peaks we spend so much time on are a lot less rocky knowing that the path goes on, sometimes through rough terrain, sometimes on grass. That one action we believe we do well is always something we can make even better. The sensei with whom I studied kendo briefly told this story—each year he joins his master at a Zen retreat in New York. They train, meditate, train, meditate. Each year his master fixes something “basic” such as his grip on the shinai or boken. In sharing that story Yan Sensei wasn’t complaining, but making a point. We can always do what we do well, better.

If this seems completely foreign, e.g. “non-Western,” it might be worth considering some of the western sources we have on the role that the study of arms plays in developing a person. There are a number of medieval and later works that treat this. The works on chivalry that we have, chivalry as a code of ethics, an approach to life, while they don’t lay out tenets the way some Asian manuals do, nonetheless make a connection between the study and practice of arms and virtue. Why? Was it merely ecclesiastical and royal concern about public violence? Was it just a way to fancy up what was, in essence, the truly bloody business of what today we’d call organized, state-sponsored murder? I don’t think so, not to read Lull, Gower, de Charny, Loyola, and others. It was more than that to them. Some, like de Charny, not only lived by this code, but famously died by it. [2]

Cortegiano.tif

Medieval notions of chivalry in time combined with more urbane concerns about court life, political involvement, and a shift in the way in which some authors, especially renaissance humanists, viewed humanity. Few works exemplify this like Baldassare Castiglione’s Il Libro del Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier). Published in 1528, Castiglione contributed to the idea of the “renaissance man,” that is, a polished, educated, multi-talented individual who was at once self-reliant and a dutiful, skilled courtier. In discussing martial arts, he famously wrote:

 But to come to some details, I am of opinion that the principal and true profession of the Courtier ought to be that of arms; which I would have him follow actively above all else, and be known among others as bold and strong, and loyal to whomsoever he serves. And he will win a reputation for these good   qualities by exercising them at all times and in all places, since one may never fail in this without severest censure. And just as among women, their fair fame once sullied never recovers its first lustre, so the reputation of a gentleman who bears arms, if once it be in the least tarnished with cowardice or other disgrace,  remains forever infamous before the world and full of ignominy. Therefore the more our Courtier excels in this art, the more he will be worthy of praise; and yet I do not deem essential in him that perfect knowledge of things and those other  qualities that befit a commander; since this would be too wide a sea, let us be content, as we have said, with perfect loyalty and unconquered courage, and that he be always seen to possess them.[3]

There is much of interest in this short passage, but for our purposes the emphasis on the study of arms being the “principal” and “true profession” of the courtier is instructive. Here, Castiglione has one foot in the Middle Ages and one in the “Renaissance,” the combined stance of which shaped the idea of the gentleman in western thought for centuries afterward. In some circles today it still does. But what to make of it? If arms are the occupation, how does it relate to a person’s experience of other arts, of knowledge of literature, skill in music, their devotion to a prince and excellence as a servant? What is it that the Art provides that is so important? The more obvious answers, outside the physical benefits, are discipline, tenacity, and focus. Done right, pursuing the Art can do much to improve how we interact with others, from how we assess them and ourselves to fostering respect and a sense of fair play. Cultivating these qualities can extend beyond the ring or piste.


Castiglione discusses this too. He goes on to describe some of the virtues of the study of arms, but of note with balance. Significantly, he doesn’t favor braggarts or thugs:


Therefore let the man we are seeking, be very bold, stern, and always among the first, where the enemy are to be seen; and in every other place, gentle, modest, reserved, above all things avoiding ostentation and that impudent self-praise by which men ever excite hatred and disgust in all who hear them. [4]

Though he doesn’t spell it out in 12 convenient steps, Castiglione suggests that even in the study of arms, as elsewhere, the goal is self-control, balance, and a keen sense of what is appropriate when. In other words: self-improvement.

Yamamoto_Tsunetomo

I’ll confess that The Book of the Courtier is a favorite book, one with great meaning to me, but beyond that there are lessons there that are on par with the best out of Asia. Castiglione would no doubt have found much to like, and dislike, in Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure, but I think he would have understood it well, not only the courtly aspects, but also the emphasis on self-control, humility, and service. [5]

Fencing should be fun, it should provide a work-out for your body and your mind, but it can also be a path to self-improvement. Can be, doesn’t have to be. In historical fencing we’re often worried about “contamination” from other traditions, even other western traditions, and that’s fair. One reason I’m laying this out as I am is to own up to at least one way I commit that sin. However, to my mind there is precedent generally within martial arts, and even specifically within the western tradition, that allows for if it doesn’t outright encourage the study of arms as a way to improve ourselves. Put to it, one can find examples from Greece, not only for the idea of moderation in all things, but also for the place of physical activity, especially martial training, in cultivating the self.

As fencers, we are not warriors, but enthusiasts; serious as we may be we play at fighting. There is value in doing so, value that goes beyond practical skills, beyond historical insight and appreciation, beyond enjoyment. We can find ourselves, test ourselves, and hone the way we approach challenges, other people, and our world. As the example of Aeschylus demonstrates, while to focus solely on martial arts, especially those with less practical utility today, would leave out the other arts, other avenues for growth, we should nonetheless remember, as he did, that there is virtue in the study of arms, something worthy enough for an epitaph.

———-

[1] There is debate about whether Aeschylus or his surviving relatives chose his epitaph, but linguistic studies indicate that the language hails from his time, not the later Hellenistic era as some have suggested. Among other sources, see Todd M. Compton, “Aeschylus: Little Ugly One,” in Victim of the Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European Myth and History, Hellenic Studies Series 11., Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2006, avail. online at https://chs.harvard.edu/CHS/article/display/4923.part-i-greece-12-aeschylus-little-ugly-one#n.4 Regardless, it’s telling that for all his fame that this is what he or his family emphasized as his legacy.

[2] See on this site “Mindfulness and the Illusion of Inclusion,” August 30, 2019, n. 5.

[3] Baldesar Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, I. 17, trans. Leonard Eckstein Opdyke, New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1903, p. 24-25, avail. online at https://archive.org/stream/bookofcourtier00castuoft/bookofcourtier00castuoft_djvu.txt

[4] Ibid, p. 25.

[5] See Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, trans. buy William Scott Wilson, Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1983.

Sabre with Rules, and, Without

Fencing Master (as Morgan Sheppard) 2
Morgan Sheppard, sword-master in “The Duellists”

There is this excellent scene in “The Duellists” (Ridley Scott, 1977) where the sword master, played by Morgan Sheppard, rushes upon the unprepared d’Hubert (played by Keith Carradine) during practice and says “On the watch, sir! Always on the watch… they don’t all fight like fine gentlemen.” A sword master like William Hobbs, who advised and choreographed the various duels in the film, no doubt knew well the reality of the duel—even with rules some people cheat. I’ve always loved this bit scene, because it reveals the reality behind what it takes to fight well (training), and, because it contains so much wisdom. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also packed with historical practice, e.g. duelists working out pre-duel with a master, an officer taking private instruction, a regimental master from the ranks as expert. The truth is that in fencing one must always be on the watch, can trust nothing, and assume nothing. We’re always safer assuming we face a superior opponent whether they prove so or not.

The traditional approach to teaching fencing, be it foil, spada, or sabre, assumes the duel, a battle between two people, on fixed ground, fought within the confines of rules. Even most longsword is taught this way at least as far as normally it’s approached one on one. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s important to remember, because off the dueling ground the experience could be quite different. In studying historical sabre, a weapon that draws greatly from military sources, we see a lot of overlap, but behind the fundamentals of footwork, attacks, parries, and drills is a context much different from that in most dueling codes. Sometimes we’re lucky and see glimpses of this in sources—Henry Angelo mentions several “grips” in the 1845 Infantry Sword Exercise; Rosaroll and Grisetti in the Science of Fencing (1803) list a number of similar maneuvers and their counters; Hutton too in his book The Swordsman explores those that Angelo must have read and that so far as I know go back at least as far as George Silver’s Brief Instructions upon my Paradoxes of Defense (1599).[i] A fencing instructor can teach technique; they can impart tactical reasoning and advice; but one thing they cannot do well is create the context of a fight outside of the duel.

Gladitoria MS_Germ.Quart.16_09v
Gladitoria, MS_Germ. Quart.16 09v

This is important. In historical circles more often than not fencers view the duel as somehow less worthy than a fight on a battlefield, despite the fact that most people actually train as if for a duel. In fairness, this bias really only affects the traditional three weapons and of those only sabre—no one says of Fiore, the Gladitoria, or works on rapier that the lists and Renaissance duels were less important. Why is that? Largely it’s bias against modern fencing—anything too “sporty” is immediately suspect. This is unfortunate, not only because so much of historical fencing pedagogy is borrowed from an Olympic context, but also because as far as competition is concerned, both “HEMA” and “Sport” fencing have more in common than either side is comfortable admitting. There is a lot of throwing out babies with bath-water when it comes to fencing tribalism.

Another, major factor is how difficult it is to create a battlefield scenario. Even small-squad tactics, fun as they are to play around with, often lack the surprises, set-backs, terrain, and chaos that so often attend such engagements historically. Being an agonistic vs. antagonistic endeavor we also lack fear. So, while we can train techniques, learn plays, and study tactics, we do so at an automatic disadvantage when it comes to how all these might have played out in the field. Many of the current venues that attempt this miss the mark—bohurt, for example, is plenty dangerous, but so far as I know no one is really trying to kill anyone or take and hold a position. I don’t wish to upset anyone, but as strong as these fighters are one sees less art than might.

I’ve argued elsewhere that one reason I think that the Italian military sources contain as much as they do was in a part because of the very real possibility that those reading it might be involved in a duel.[ii] Thus, officers needed to know more than what they’d likely need in actual combat. These manuals, however, had to work for rank and file, trooper as well as lieutenant, and so much of what we read there must have had practical applications on the battlefield too. While a solider might not find himself lunging a thrust or cut as he did in the sala or parade ground, what he acquired in learning to lunge were principles he could adapt to differences in terrain and situation. We do have some hints that regimental sword masters provided additional instruction too, often from their own practical experience.[iii] The surviving infantry manuals we have don’t often show one solider pitted against many, but we know they sometimes did; for example, Giuseppe Bolognini touches on this in his Sul Maneggio della Sciabola (1850).

Examining what is more appropriate for the dueling ground or battlefield within these manuals also begs the question—what isn’t gentlemanly? What is more appropriate or acceptable in war? Without rules one isn’t restricted, so pretty much anything you can imagine, like punching or shoving, as well as all the dirty tricks you can think of, from using terrain wisely to throwing dirt in their eyes, were possible. The grips, weapon-seizures, pommel strikes, punches with the bell-guard, and kicks while anathema in most duels were likely not only perfectly acceptable but preferable in war. This being the case, if we wish to train with these options how do we do so safely? Can we?

I believe we can, but with the caveat that safety must come first. By definition we are thus incompletely using the historical repertoire, but that’s okay. It’s important to appreciate this side of sabre, but being combat, life and death maneuvers, it makes sense we hold back. Students of Fiore dei Liberi, for example, are similarly hobbled—to use all that Fiore suggests we use in a fight would leave us without partners and very likely jail time. Even gaining minimal understanding of the options soldiers had will increase our appreciation for the weapon and its use.

The key to practicing these actions is to mix safety and control. Safety means an awareness that what we’re doing is dangerous and could hurt someone. Control means proceeding in such a way that we limit as much as possible the chance of injury. Not everyone has the control required to do this. If you’re sharing this with the inexperienced, I recommend moving at a snail’s pace. When I teach weapon seizures or the grips we start at slow speed, just going through the motions; there are only a few I typically teach and these have proved safe enough to do provided everyone behaves (and I work hard to ensure that). We speed the drill up as we go to instill a flavor of how these might have worked.

MS_Ludwig_XV_13_10r-b
MS Ludwig XV 13 10r-b (a.k.a. The Getty)

For those familiar with grappling from older works, especially medieval fight manuals, wrestling was the foundation for most everything. It makes sense—even disarmed one needs to be able to fight. My friends and colleagues locally who train Armizare and KdF are good examples for how to approach these potentially dangerous actions. The ligadure (It. “binds”) of Fiore, for example, could easily lead to a broken arm, elbow, or dislocated shoulder, so instructors like Mike Cherba and Alex Spreier take students through these moves slowly; even at “speed” the students slow down once the blades have made contact. Focus is on technique and timing. Because this is a partner drill the person turned into a pretzel is compliant; certainly this makes it easier but proficiency is gained through repetition, attention to detail, and making the maneuver, in time, as naturally as possible, not from fully performing the action as written. We do not have the “on the job training” that Fiore and his students did—in their case, this stuff either worked or they were hurt or killed. A lifetime of successful combat, especially against opponents less well-trained no doubt made skilled fighters formidable.

As an example for sabre, I’ll cover the “first grip” as shared by George Silver, Henry Angelo, and Alfred Hutton. Of note, this same maneuver is recommended in a number of bayonet texts. In this action, the attacker makes an attack at the left side of the opponent. Parrying in prima, the defender reaches under their own weapon and seizes the guard or wrist of the attacker and pulls them down and to the left—from here one can deliver a pommel strike, punch, and then cut or stab them after that.[iv] It’s a difficult maneuver to perform at speed, and from experience the seizure can become more of a check to the hand, but so long as one is quick with the follow-up blow it works pretty well.

Blengini, Trattato teorico-pratico di spada e sciabola e varie parate di quest’ultima contro la baionetta e la lancia

The first step I have them do is to practice oblique cuts at the left side of the head while the other parries in prima. Then they switch. Next, they take this move one step further—they parry the blow, step forward with the left-leg, passing the right as they reach under the parry to grab the guard or wrist. When they’re comfortable, I then have them deliver a tap to the mask as pommel strike (some stop short of the tap, which is fine). Lastly, they add a cut or thrust, e.g. a cut down the body from the attacker’s right shoulder to the left hip, and with the back edge of the sabre tip cut the back of the knee on the way back from that initial cut. Another option, if you have mats, is to take them to the floor after the pommel strike. We then go through the defense and grip for the right side (two versions), and follow up with the “Turkish disarm” or similar.

While no one is really punching, kicking, pommeling, or throwing dirt in anyone’s eyes, just moving through the grips can provide students a sense of sabre’s more rough and tumble side. This is usually material wholly unfamiliar to many students, and, it’s fun to learn! A further advantage to these exercises is that some, like that first grip, show up in a number of ways, not only for sword but as defense against bayonet. For students of “military” sabre some experience with the uglier side of the weapon can impart a deeper appreciation for the role the weapon played, for its use in the thick of things, but also for the ways in which traditional technique and combat intersected. Lacking as we do ideal sources for just how these formal techniques were adapted for war, such as a regimental sword master’s diary, we have to work with what we have, and, extrapolate the rest.[v] Any such experiment of course can, at best, reach what was possible, not necessarily what was actually done. This is unfortunate, but even in exploring what was possible we learn, sometimes ruling things out, but sometimes gaining insights we didn’t have before and so it’s worth it. It doesn’t hurt that it’s fun research to do either!


[i] See Henry Angelo, Infantry Sword Exercise (1845), 36ff; Rosaroll & Grisetti, The Science of Fencing, Milano: 1803, translated by Christopher A. Holzman, 2018, pages 219-236; Alfred Hutton, The Swordsman: A Manual of Fence and the Defense against an Uncivilized Enemy (1898), reprint by The Naval and Military Press in Association with the Royal Armouries, Leeds, 2009, 127ff; George Silver, Brief Instructions Upon My Paradoxes of Defence, 1599, Ch. 6, “The mannr of Certaine gryps & Closes to be used at yr single short sword fight Etc,” in James L. Jackson, Three Elizabethan Fencing Manuals, New York: Scholar’s Facsimiles and Reprints, 1972, 601ff.

[ii] See on this site, “‘Dueling’ or ‘Military’ Sabre?” May 16, 2019.

[iii] By the late 19th cen. sword combat outside colonial contexts was increasingly restricted to cavalry engagements. By its nature mounted sabre is more rudimentary; protecting one’s mount, delivering most attacks to right or left or just to either side of the horse’s head, and simple parries that might work best against sabre, lance, or bayonet require ample practice but much less technical know-how than the more complicated actions one might need on foot. It is also telling that regimental sword masters, some of whom must have been seasoned veterans, were responsible for teaching soldiers and troopers any additional “tricks” and skills they might need. See for just two examples Henry Angelo, Infantry Sword Exercise (1845), page 37, last paragraph; see also the Italian Ministry of War’s 1873 Regulations of Exercises and Evolutions for the Cavalry, Book I, trans. by Christopher A. Holzman, 2018,  70; 100.

[iv] See for example Cesare Alberto Blengini, Trattato della Modenra Scherma Italiana, Bolonga: Tipi Fava e Garagnani al Progresso, 1864, 78ff. Against rifle and bayonet this is a slightly easier grip to achieve.

[v] There are some anecdotal accounts that help inform us too. For one valuable collection of these J. Christoph Amberger’s The Secret History of the Sword: Adventures in Ancient Martial Arts, 1998, contains several such recollections, cf. “Battle Scenes from Balaclava” (p. 21) and “The Seduction of Art: Cut vs. Thrust in Military Swordplay” (33) contains several anecdotal snippets. This book can now be found online here [https://fencingclassics.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/the-secret-history-of-the-sword.pdf].