Trust but Verify—the Perils of Translation

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

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

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

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

Similarities in Girard, in this case, likely skewed my reading of Angelo. I fix these things as I find them (or as they are pointed out to me), but this is a good example because I do my best to do things as accurately as I can and still screw up sometimes. It can happen to any of us (and will on occasion).

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

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

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

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

The English reads thus:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The English:

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the English:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parade of Circle with nails on top

Girard writes:

Parade du Cercle,

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

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

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

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

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

Circular Parry

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

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

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

See the figure on the circular parry the nails upward

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

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

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

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

The French reads:

De la Parade du Cercle

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

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

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

The English:

Of the Half Circle Parade

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

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

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

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

The Take-Away

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


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

[2] The French edition I’m using is: Mr. Angelo, L’Ecole des armes, London, GB: Chez r. & J. Dodsley, 1763, found at the wonderful site provided by the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s Gallica site, cf.;2

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

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

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

[6] French, 117; English, 38 .

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

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

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

“I Only Read it for the Pictures”—Images & Interpretation in Historical Fencing

For the past few weeks I’ve been working on an article that treats an issue I seem to return to again and again—the challenge of using images in interpreting historical fencing sources. If this amounts to the proverbial flogging of deceased equines, then in my defense this particular horse is a zombie. It just won’t die. The deeper into this current project I dive, the more I see the ways that we can go wrong in interpretation. It’s tricky work. It’s one reason that professional scholars and researchers spend so many years acquiring the skills, contextual knowledge, and tools required to do this sort of work.

No one is immune or safe from a poor interpretation. It’s not an accident that scholars worthy of the name also learn to remain open to new evidence and interpretations better than their own. No one enjoys discovering that their conclusions have turned out to be incorrect or missing something important, but sometimes it happens and the best response is to meet the news with a becoming grace. Thank them for their insight and for alerting you to it, then revise and cite their contribution.

For those of us working with and from treatises with images we must always be careful. Modern life is awash in imagery and most of it we see without noticing it, from billboards to commercials on tele. We apply, again without conscious thought much of the time, an impressive array of reading skills as we encounter ads, instructions, news articles, and street signs. We are good at this. However, our relationship to images is often different from the ways people approached them in the past. We have to be aware of our assumptions and how we assign meaning to what we read.

IKEA’s wee question man

To approach a period treatise on fencing the way we do furniture instructions from IKEA is often unwise. With the exception of the abstract figure with the speech bubble and question mark, the instructions for assembling your new cabinet are intended to be as simple and realistic as possible. No matter what language one speaks or reads those images should make sense. They need to 99% of the time if that product is going to be successful. In contrast, while it is possible that the author (or artist they hired to illustrate a fencing manual) desired a one-to-one relationship between image and reality, we shouldn’t assume that.

Capo Ferro’s lunge, p. 49 in _Great Representation of the Art and Use of Fencing_ (1610)

As a case in point the famous image of the lunge in Capo Ferro’s Great Representation of the Art and Use of Fencing (1610), Plate 4, page 49, has been subject to debate as to how one lands on the front foot.

Looking at this image alone, what do we see? Is the figure in motion? Is this a snapshot of one action? How do we answer that?

From the image alone it’s not clear. This is a two-dimensional figure. The use of perspective is lovely, but while it informs us the figure is in the foreground, it doesn’t helps us much as to whether we are seeing a moment within a series of movements or a static pose. Is this a guard? The conclusion of an attack? To a fencer this looks to be a lunge, specifically, the conclusion of a lunge (to modern eyes the placement of the front knee would inspire a grumble). Taken alone we have little to go on, so, since we have text for this image it’s best to turn to that next.

Capo Ferro supplies capital letters in this image to help us “unpack” it.

A The left shoulder while in guard
B The left knee while in guard
C The sole of the left foot while in guard
D The regular stance while in guard
E The sole of the right foot while in guard
F The thigh and sloping leg while in guard
G The right hand while in guard
H The extension of the arm (equal to its length)
I The extension of the right knee (almost equal to your stance)
K The extension of the stance (a little over a shoe-length)
L The extension of the left foot and the turn it makes
M The extension of the left knee (equal to half your stance) [1]

Two things emerge from the list even before we look to see the placement of these letters in the image. First, A-G denote various positions of the limbs and body while in guard, H-M the various positions of the limbs and body after one has lunged. Second, we know that this image captures both a static moment (the conclusion of the lunge) and serves as a short hand to express movement from guard, through space, and into the lunge.

Even armed with this information we need more information. Capo Ferro, unlike most modern authors, explains movement in various places within his treatise. In the caption to this plate he says “Figure that shows the guard, as shown in our art, & the incredible increase of the long blow, compared to the limbs, which all move to wound.” [2]

The botta longa, often translated merely as “lunge,” here requires us to read more than the image and its accompanying legend. For example, in Chapter 13, section 11, Capo Ferro discusses walking. He says one must keep the right shoulder forward, and that one should step naturally, but that moving left or right (compassing) to move the left foot first, and in a straight line that one foot should follow the other. In discussing Plate 14 (p. 67) the master tells us that Fencer D, having gained the inside line, faces a disengage (cavando, i.e. cavazione) from C to his (D’s face). So, D drops the body and steps forward with the right leg wounding C in contratempo without parrying.

Plate 14, Capo Ferro, Gran Simulacro dell’Arte e dell’uso

Here as before we see a static image, but one that serves to illustrate movement–none of that comes across without reading the accompanying text.

Reading period manuals can be difficult. Even an experienced modern fencer will struggle because the vocabulary is often unfamiliar or used in a way different than they are accustomed to. To illustrate just how powerful this can be there are fencers within the historical community who refuse to call an obvious lunge a “lunge” simply because the word they expect, that defines the motion for them, is absent. It doesn’t matter that the treatise explains the exact same action, though it should. To expect each author, in different lands, at different times, to use a single term assumes a unity of fencing practice that did not exist until the 20th century. It also ignores what the author explicitly states. That’s a problem.

Our interpretations of these manuals mean little if we ignore what they say, what they describe and advise. It is worth the time and often painful effort to figure out what a master is saying. We may get it wrong, but that’s okay. We try again. We ask people who have sat with the text longer. We keep at it. Just as we should not assume people of the 17th century or any other had the exact same understanding of visual media we do, so too should we not assume that these texts are simple or easy to understand. Most often they’re not. The authors make assumptions about their readers then that do not hold for us now. So, we are translating more than just words and images, but a world-view too.

Returning to Plate 5, the lunge, and how the front foot lands, we have to go to the text. The foot is flat in the image. If Capo Ferro, who describes stepping “naturally” is to be taken at his word–a reasonable approach given that he is the author…–then the safest conclusion is that he wanted us to step as we normally do. From this figure that step is small, the distance between E and K (or if it helps think of this as KE = D or The extension of the stance (a little over a shoe-length) – The sole of the right foot while in guard = The regular stance while in guard). There is no reason to conclude that one must step in any other way. Next, we try it out–can we make a short lunge with the heel first, barely lifting it? Yep. Can we be 110% sure that Capo Ferro, for some reason, desired us to tippy-toe? No, but it is far from likely too, and given that he is specific about so much but felt no need to describe what a “natural” step is, we’re on firmer ground (pardon the pun) if we don’t second-guess him.

Post Script: I’ve delivered a few lectures on this topic, i.e. historical fencing and how we use images, the transcripts of which can be found here:


[1] Capo Ferro, Gran Simulacro dell’Arte e dell uso della Scherma, Siena, IT: 1610, p. 48-19 [cf. ]; translation of A-M, Tom Leoni, Ridolfo Capo Ferro’s The Art and Practice of Fencing, Wheaton, IL: Freelance Press, 2011, page 32.

[2] Text, Capo Ferro, Gran Simulacro dell’Arte e dell uso della Scherma, 48. This is my loose translation, but I checked it against Tom Leoni’s and while less eloquent it captures the sense.

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.


[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

[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.