Historical Fencing Pedagogy, a Few Guiding Principles

IMG_6222 (2)In watching several recent historical fencing events friends and I got to chatting about effective (and ineffective) teaching methods, and, of the difficulties that tentative endeavors such as interpreting extinct fight-systems presents any instructor. In so many ways we lack a blueprint for how to teach some of these past arts. Many of us draw from the venerable advice and time-tested techniques of established fencing programs, such as the Scuola Magistrale Militare di Roma [Military Fencing Masters School of Rome] and its North American Counterpart or the USFCA.[i] We consult other instructors, our own or colleagues, and between the collective wisdom of the schools, other instructors, and our own experience we can do a lot. We also mine the pages of works like László Szabó’s Fencing and the Master and adapt ideas and drills to our own context. Happily, this is a problem all of us share, and increasing the issue of pedagogy is coming more into the larger dialogue.[ii] There’s a small, but growing corpus of literature about pedagogy making the rounds in historical fencing circles too.[iii] These are important conversations for us to have, and as the community grows we can expect discussions of pedagogy to garner more attention. That’s a good thing.

There are a few principles that I want to share here, ideas we discussed post-event, but also some which I’ve learned as a professional teacher. I don’t claim to be novel, I don’t want to reinvent the wheel (the ones we have work fine), but these principles might be handy to others pondering the place of pedagogy in historical fencing. What follows might be a solid collection of discussion topics if not a nice primer on some simple ideas every teacher should embrace.[iv] Some I’ve covered before, many others have treated far better, but for any set of drills, exercises, and the other elements of a successful curriculum attitude about them, about teaching, is everything.


Victory of Humility over Pride from Jungfrauenspiegel ca 1200
Victory of Humility over Pride, from _Jungfrauenspiegel_, ca. 1200

No one can learn anything who lacks humility. Those who believe they have it all figured out are fooling themselves; don’t let them fool you. The texts we work with are often difficult to interpret, no one has all the answers, and that’s okay. It’s the fact that we do not know, but wish to that drives us to study.

Historical fencing is unique in that there’s no official certification program, not yet anyway, for creating a master and this means a number of things. Given the nature of the evidence, the fact that most extinct arts have no surviving tradition, it’s highly probable that the nature of any such program will be different than say a fencing master’s schooling when we finally develop such a certification. Until then, and arguably after then, even the best interpretation will only stand until a better one comes along, so, take heart, be honest, and do your best. Don’t worry about mastery—that isn’t really a concern here in the conventional sense. We’re going to get things wrong, and a humble person will more easily handle that and change.

Collaboration & Sharing

This seems like a no-brainer, but it isn’t; not everyone wants to play nicely with the other kids. Sometimes this unwillingness stems from fear—perhaps one is working on a beloved project and doesn’t want anyone else beating them to the punch in publishing. Sometimes this fear stems from insecurity about one’s approach, interpretation, ability, or effectiveness in teaching (imposter syndrome is a common issue for many instructors). Whatever might stop you from reaching out, make the effort—there’s no shame in learning from others, in asking for help, from working together.

At the event that first sparked this conversation about pedagogy there was an impressive assembly of talent, from those working in the medieval Italian and German traditions, to classical Italian, to eastern martial arts, to everything in between. Such opportunities are ideal for exploration, for presenting what one’s been working on and getting valuable feedback from people as jazzed as you are about the topic. Working together benefits everyone. Also, it’s fun—how often at work or in other social settings can you discuss the finer points of a parry? How often do you get to take swords in hand and work out some play? Talk, share, make friends—it will only help. Don’t make the mistake of working in isolation.

55a4eae5a90f78e4a119c3531a75aa77--fencing-lessons-fencing-gearCultivate a Willingness to admit “I don’t know”

Not having all the answers is okay. No one in their right mind will ever assume you do. Not knowing is what spurs us to learn. Saying “I don’t know” is never the wrong answer, however terrifying it is to say, and once said puts you on the path to changing an “I don’t know” to an “I’m going to find out to be best of my ability.”

I offer the following somewhat humorous and embarrassing example. In the oral portion of my doctoral exams, one professor, a stand-in for the Greek expert my school never seemed to be able to keep (allusions to Spinal Tap’s drummer have often been made…), turned out to be one of the two types of examiners one will face in such exams, in this case, the person who wants to see what you don’t know. His first question, of a sort, was to shoot a clay tablet to me across the table and ask “what is that?” I looked at it, replied that the clay was modern, that the script looked to be Linear B but that I wasn’t completely sure (I spent far more time on Latin and Celtic). I thought crap, this is going to be some everyone-knows-this-inscription and I’m screwed. He said it was the first line from Homer’s “Iliad.” I raised an eyebrow in disbelief, said that was impossible as Homer post-dates the Mycenaeans by a good stretch, and waited for the hammer to fall. Satisfied, he then proceeded over the next half hour to ask me random questions about Greek history from Troy to the fall of Greece to the Romans. I cannot tell you how many times I said “I don’t know.” If I seemed to know anything, he quickly changed the topic. I left feeling that I’d failed, that I was washed up, that I’d embarrassed myself, shamed my advisor, and should find a nice heavy rock to crawl under. Despite this emeritus jackanapes’ glee in stymying me, I passed, and only passed his section because what I could answer I answered well, AND, and this is the important part, because I was smart enough not to bullshit, but to admit “I don’t know.” That’s hard to do under pressure—I know, believe me—but it’s sometimes the only answer you can and should give.

Cultivate a Willingness to Remain a Student

I used to teach college courses, mostly working adults in community colleges, and it’s seriously one of the most dynamic arenas in which to learn or teach. Where a room of 18 year olds will have some decent conversation and insight, a room of 16 to 75 years olds, many of whom have acquired expertise and experience in fields from mining to combat, from factory floors to homemaking, is so full of knowledge and experience that discussions are usually richer, more full of insight, debate, and fun.

I firmly believe that the best teachers never stop being students. Good teachers learn from their students, from other teachers, and from anyone whose line of work involves instructing others, be they foremen, former drill sergeants, mothers of six kids, or farmers. My students make me a better teacher, yours will too if you listen.

Own your Expertise

József Keresztessy, around 1892
József Keresztessy, around 1892

This can be a tough one, least it is for me, and it’s because it must jive with humility. No one wants to be that insufferable know-it-all or be taken for one. If you’re teaching then chances are good that you have enough experience to do so, are the only option, or are spear-heading a study group and by default have to lead. Maybe you have more formal training, and/or certification via accredited fencing programs. If you’ve earned it, own it.

We can err the other way and undermine ourselves too. If you’re too quick to point out shortcomings, things you don’t know, then that is what people will hear—people are more likely to question you if you question yourself. It can be a fine line. I learned this lesson as a first-time college teacher. I was teaching on an army post and decided not to list my name as “dr” or “name, PhD” on the board, and at the end of the first term an older man, a sergeant, approached and asked me about it. I told him something to the effect of wanting to create an open room where they felt free to talk, to disagree with me, etc. His reply was awesome and a powerful: “Sir, this is an army post—everyone has a rank. You earned those credentials, you earned your rank—don’t be afraid to share that. Whether people feel free to chat or not doesn’t depend on your rank, but how you use it and how you show respect to them. There is room for both command and respect.”

Own your expertise, but do not wave it in people’s faces; share it with them through appropriate means, through scholarship, through teaching, and by living the example. If you are out there reading this Sgt. Bond, again, thank you.

Be Open to Revision as Necessary

With an endeavor as tentative as research into historical martial arts one must be willing to revise any interpretation, no matter how good, should new evidence come to light or a more logical interpretation enter the picture. There’s no shame in ceding place to a better interpretation, only in pig-headingly holding on to one that’s been superseded.

This should drive all of us to work even harder at drawing conclusions that follow from the texts and which make sense logically, in terms of body-mechanics, and fit the historical context. None of this work is wasted. So your conclusions about Fiore have been bested by a new theory, don’t fret—scholarship doesn’t happen in a vacuum and it may be that Jane Schmoe relied on your work to devise her own interpretation (if Jane is a good scholar she will admit that too).

Give Credit where it is Due

Following closely on the last point, always cite your source, and, always give proper credit to the scholars, researchers, and fencers whose hard work, dedication, and passion have helped your own path of study. This goes beyond leaving a paper trail or protecting oneself from plagiarism—it’s just the right thing, dare I say it the chivalric thing, to do. Everyone gets a kick out of seeing their name in a footnote, dedication, acknowledgements, or Facebook post. It honors them, and, in honoring them you honor yourself for you demonstrate that you’re a team-player, an ally, someone who is working to provide the best research, teaching, and interpretation of these martial arts as you can. Stay chivalrous my friends.

Have FunMarozzo (2)

Why do we pursue historical fencing? Why do we spend so much time pouring over the often cryptic passages in old fight manuals? We do this because it’s fun, it makes us happy, and fun is good for us. Don’t lose sight of the value of play—historical fencing exercises your mind and body, and done right, can give your spirit a workout too.


[i] See http://www.fencingmastersprogram.com/about.html

[ii] László Szabó’s Fencing and the Master, Staten Island, NY: SKA Swordplay Books, 1997; see also, among many others, Zbigniew Czajkowski, Understanding Fencing: The Unity of Theory and Practice, Staten Island, NY: SKA Swordplay Books, 2005; Ziemowit Wojciechowski, Theory, Methods and Exercises in Fencing, Datchet, Berkshire, UK: Amateur Fencing Association, 1993.

[iii] For a good place to start (in fact, just read this, it’s fantastic ) see Roger Norling, “HEMA Pedagogics Part 1: The Pedagogics Pioneers & The Role of a HEMA teacher,” at HROARR, November 21st, 2014, http://hroarr.com/hema-pedagogics-part-1-the-pedagogics-pioneers-the-role-of-a-hema-teacher/ (part 2 is here http://hroarr.com/hema-pedagogics-part-2-the-implications/ , part 3 here http://hroarr.com/hema-pedagogics-part-3-how-to-create-a-good-learning-environment/ ); see also a breakdown of a typical practice at The Phoenix Society for Historical Swordsmanship in “How we Train” by Richard Marsden, http://phoenixsocietyofhistoricalswordsmanship.webs.com/apps/blog/show/31776335-how-we-train-by-richard-marsden .

[iv] Pedagogy is a giant subject—here I will discuss some general ideas, but in the next installment on this I will discuss some real-time strategies for teaching.

What to Look for (and Avoid) in HEMA Instructors

early hema

In the world of sword-arts, HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) occupies a unique place as it is, by and large, an amateur pursuit. “Amateur” here is not a put-down, just the appropriate word to use, because apart from the few accredited fencing maestri out there who represent living traditions and work on the older stuff, most everyone else comes to HEMA as an interested enthusiast. Many if not most of us started in sport or classical fencing or other martial arts (e.g. Asian martial arts), but unless you’re young and a more recent student of historical fencing, chances are good that you learned from someone who has just been working on something longer than you have. That is okay, it’s just how it is, but not all instructors are equal and it pays to do your homework.

This is an important consideration as there are increasingly more people setting themselves up as instructors and without a viable certification program how is one to know if they’re worth visiting? While in time some qualification process might be in place, and as nice as a certification program might be, it would still be wise to have some guidelines for judging potential teachers as even some qualified instructors, no matter the field of study, can be stinkers. [1] One needs to have some measure by which to evaluate them as well as a handy list of red-flags.

The following check-list is a place to start—you may have individual concerns to add to the basic list. However, if a person or school fails most of this list, I’d recommend you keep looking:

School/Group Culture: The general feel of a place can tell you a lot about the person or people running a school. How open and friendly are they? When you call, email, or visit them, how quick are they to respond and how openly? How inclusive is the school—are there women there, younger students, older students, people in different states of fitness? What is the school’s focus? Does it tend toward the scholarly (source-driven, play oriented); is it purely tourney centered, is it a mix?

A lot comes down to what you want. If your interest is to fight in tourneys, then you should look for a school that does that and an instructor who has that as one goal for their program. There’s no wrong answer in terms of what you want—some people just want to fight, some people want to build a more complete skill set and understanding regardless of tourneys, and still others want the SCA without all the rules. Find the culture that appeals to you. This said, any version of these schools is probably going to be a better fit if they’re friendly and open to a diversity of students.

Personality: Tied to culture, the instructor’s personality has a lot to do with a school’s culture—people gravitate to people they relate to. Whatever an instructor’s focus within HEMA there are some things to look for and not surprisingly they’re tied pretty closely to the same openness, friendliness, and sense of community mentioned above. Is the instructor arrogant? Do they build students up or tear them down? Do they praise and encourage when making corrections or embarrass students? How do they respond to questions? You’re spending time and money, and unless being abused is your thing it’s probably best to keep looking.

Forgeng I 33

Experience/Qualifications: This is one of the hardest things to assess and because of the diversity of sources, not to mention instructor experience, it will vary. A lot. This said, there are again some general guidelines. Some instructors may know a lot, but be poor teachers; others may be good fighters, but know little of the source material; still others might be a decent mix of both. Many think they know a lot or have a lot of skill, but are really little more than attribute fencers with deep ego needs. If you can find a healthy balance of knowledge and skill, great, but you may need to compromise and that is okay. It may take a few visits to see what sort of person you’re working with too.

If you have no previous background in fencing or related arts, it can be extremely difficult to judge an instructor’s knowledge and skill. But there are some tells—any instructor who has spent serious time studying martial arts will have a degree of humility and will acknowledge the skill of his or her peers. Generally, they are cautious and tentative in presenting new material—all HEMA is interpretation and some interpretations are better than others.  Anyone telling you “no, this is how they did it” without decent evidence is someone to avoid.[2] Likewise avoid anyone pretending to have learned something in secret–more often than not this is going to be pure bull-shido.

If you find someone who is at constant pains to brag while putting down their peers, that’s not a good sign. A good instructor will be able to explain where something comes from, say a particular move, why we do it, and how. They’re open to questions and different points of view. They should be able to point to the sources they use too. A good instructor will also admit when they don’t know something; even better instructors will then help you find an answer. A good instructor will push you to improve, but will be supportive and encouraging in doing so. This stuff is hard enough without some jerk making you feel bad about it.

Akademia Szermierz still
Some of the crew from Akademia Szermierz, Poland–they clearly approach Fiore dei Liberi’s _armizare_ as a martial art. See http://www.akademia-szermierzy.pl/

Approach: Since we’re talking HEMA, there should be a fairly large emphasis on the H and the MA side of the acronym. Ostensibly any instructor in HEMA is looking at the sources—if not, I’m not really sure what they’re doing.

We know the little we know and we build our interpretations of past combat arts from surviving sources.

The martial arts aspect is important too—the goal should be “don’t get hit” followed by “hit and don’t be hit.” If either of these is missing, you’re in the wrong place.

Remuneration: Different schools and instructors have different rates. Comparative shopping is important. Most schools struggle to stay open, so what you pay generally goes to rent and gear. Few people make a living teaching historical fencing.

Look at their pay structure against what they teach. Do they have options for payment? HEMA is expensive, make no mistake, and many instructors will work with you to find a way to make dues less onerous. Floor fees are common, but many schools will also give you a first visit or two free. That can be a good indication of what to expect. If someone offers individual lessons, ask them how they run their lessons, what they generally teach, and how much they ask.

Safety: Better instructors will have a culture of safety and enforce it; they will seek to prevent injury, not encourage it. There’s a fair amount of macho, HEMA-bro-culture out there, sadly, so if you’re into that nonsense, go for it. It won’t be hard to find. It seems silly to have to list this, but given the general machismo when it comes to safety it needs to be said: find someplace safe. Does your instructor require the basic safety equipment? Do you see people fencing without it? How well do they take care of the masks, gloves, jackets, etc.? How courteous are fencers with one another? How courteous is the instructor?  Are they using insufficient equipment for the weapons they train, and if so, do they have protocols for how to do that safely? [3] Do they have insurance? Have you signed a waiver?

Everyone wants to get fighting as quickly as possible, but jumping in, full bore, on the first day is not wise. Learning how to fight with swords takes time, drill, patience, and dedication—you don’t make progress over night, but over years. Be wary of any program ready to throw you into the mix with no to very little training. The truth is that any fencing school must consider the lowest common denominator when it comes to safety, not the best case scenario.

In summary, here are the basic red-flags. If you see any of these, walk. Your time, money, and safety are worth more.

Common Red-flags:

  • arrogance
  • poor ability to take criticism or correction
  • narrow-minded, bigoted, or predatory
  • lack of qualifications (this includes appeals to secret knowledge or training or connections to dubious “experts”)
  • incapable of or unwilling to work with others
  • incapable of or unwilling to appreciate student ability/gifts/credentials/questions
  • problem child in larger community
  • dangerous and unconcerned with safety
  • discomfort with students visiting other schools or instructors; cultish possessiveness

To be honest, sometimes you can’t see all the red flags right away, especially if you’re an occasional visitor and/or if the problem instructor is good at hiding it, but it will out. The community, wherever you are, generally has a decent notion of where not to go.

All of this assumes you want to learn swordplay in earnest and well. It’s a long, difficult path to proficiency, and you have to be willing to put in the time. Find an instructor who can not only impart technique and passion for this complex field of study, but also one who will be there to help you and keep you going when you’re ready to quit. Any such instructor is, by definition, not going to have a lot of these foibles.


[1] The HEMA Alliance has such a program, but not everyone in HEMA is part of the alliance and their program is not universally accepted. See https://www.hemaalliance.com/instructor-certification

[update 10-4-19: There are some organizations I forgot about and share here. One is AIMA (Associazione Italiana Maestri d’Arme) and the other is one branch of the sport org AIMS (Associazione Italiana Maestri di Scherma), which has certified a number of Maesti di Scherma Storica (historical fencing).

[2] There’s a difference between “this is how we interpret this passage” and “because I say so.” Context is everything, and some sources are much more difficult to work with, and thus, force us to be more tentative.

[3] Most clubs use normal fencing masks. They’re the most available, most affordable option, but they’re not designed for anything heavier than epee most of the time. So, if your interest is longsword, overly heavy sabre (i.e. trooper weight meant for use in the saddle), pole-arms, etc., be sure to ask how the school mixes these weapons with fencing masks. It can be done more safely, but any mask can fail. One of my favorite examples of just how easily a fencing mask can be crunched is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eW1Imv7yHig

The Central Place and Importance of the Individual Lesson


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

Joinville 2

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

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

Joinville 3

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

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

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

Gang Affiliation or Natural Allies? Fencers and their Camps

fencer-delmar-calvert from west coast fencing archive
Maitre Delmar Calvert, 1924-2019; photo from Westcoast Fencing Archive

This past weekend I attended the memorial for one of my instructors, Matire Delmar Calvert, and among the many thoughts that assailed me while there was a realization that despite the fact I was surrounded by mostly Olympic fencers I was with “family.” I didn’t expect that. These are all people I like, but I’ll be honest, I often have felt like I don’t belong with them.

More often than not I’ve felt like an outsider in fencing. When I stopped competing, many of my fellow fencers thought I was over-reacting or was just full of sour grapes, and when I started doing research into fencing, technique, etc. the kindest thing I was called was “nerd.” When I started trying to find and use more historically appropriate blades a fair number of people thought I was crazy (the historical community as we know it didn’t exist then). Working from books was bad enough. It didn’t get better.

1801366_10203266909176461_1837749499_o (1)
Jon Tarantino and I doing a photo-shoot, Oaks Park, Santa Barbara, for a friend in 1997–aside from schlager blades, these crappy Indian-made repro cavalry blades were all we had, and yes, they were rubbish.

I left the competitive world in 1996—I was disgusted with the band-aid vs. cure approach of the FIE/USFA to the issues in electric sabre. It just wasn’t fun anymore, not for me, and so I left. I began pursuing “Classical” or “Traditional” fencing, but understand that in saying that I don’t mean the artful dance variety—I wanted to return to sabre pre-electric, and that led me further and further back, ultimately to the core texts that created what I knew as sabre. Labeled “too sporty” and failing to pay homage to what has become the established “Classical” community, there was no welcome there either. It’s just as cliquish as the Olympic world, maybe more so for being smaller, though I’m happy to say that in more recent months I’ve had the pleasure to get to know more people within that community and hope it’s a sign that we’ll communicate more.

Time in historical fencing has proved just as difficult, if in different ways. The first historical club I attended, off and on, I entered at a difficult time for me and my family. I needed an out, something that wasn’t standing uselessly next to a pregnant spouse undergoing treatment for cancer and trying to keep a four-year old’s world as normal as possible. I should’ve done more research. I knew of Maestro Hayes’ school in Eugene, but with my schedule at the time I couldn’t make that drive. I did what anyone might do instead—I saw the need at the club I was in and decided I’d try to help. It was an utter and complete failure—fragile egos too often see help as a threat. This proved the case at this school.

abject failure of a seminar
Alex Spreier of High Desert Armizare, vs. Velah Gilbert (Military and Classical Sabre page, FB), with Christopher Bigelow (Northwest Fencing Academy) in green and Mike Cherba (Northwest Armizare) in blue, both in the background, 2015, at the ill-fated seminar on Angelo’s sabre and broadsword I put together

My last event there, one I put together to help them, but which ended up being micromanaged by the guy in charge of sabre there (first by planting his student in the seminar to keep an eye on me, and then, at the last minute, by showing up himself and taking over the seminar), was the last straw. After sharing my thoughts about it with him, I left and never looked back, though happily and ironically, became the best of friends with his student, and, met two people better connected with the larger historical community. I visited one of their schools, one super close to my house as it turns out, and was there for several years.

Swordsquatch 2017, class I co-taught with a friend, covering Parise’s “On the Ground”

Having spent time in each camp’s turf, having fought side by side with each gang, hearing what they have to say about one another, themselves, all that, is illuminating. More than ever I think that despite the differences there’s more that we have in common that we think. This is a hard sell—group identity, misunderstanding, envy, ignorance, all work together to prevent more interaction. We are all the sorrier for it.

Fencing at- Dickels Academy, by Frederic-Remington

One of my goals with Sala delle Tre Spade is, to the degree possible, to bridge these divides. ALL fencers, whatever gang affiliation, are welcome—our turf is their turf. We are all united by study of the sword, and, we might learn a lot from one another. It makes me happy to know that in our tiny group we have historical, classical, and Olympic fencers; some have been or are in the SCA; some pursue several “styles” of fencing at different times in the week. We’re a small school, and so have very little influence in the larger fencing world, any of those worlds, but it’s a worthy goal trying to get people together to share what they know, because it builds ties and expands the parameters for what we might learn. We’re the richer for it, and while it’s anyone’s guess how long we’ll last, I know in a way that I know few things that it will have been worth it. We’ll all keep fencing regardless.

Rev. of Chris Holzman’s translation of Marcelli’s _Regole della Scherma_ (1686)

Marcelli, Francesco. The Rule of Fencing. Translated by Christopher A. Holzman. Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2019. Originally published, Rome: The Press of Domenico Antonio Ercole, 1686. 520pp. ISBN 978-0-359-71908-2. HC $42; Pb $32.99.

Francesco Marcelli’s Regole della Scherma (Rule of Fencing), published in 1686, is arguably one of the most important fencing treatises in the Italian tradition. On the one hand, it’s one of the core works on Neapolitan fencing, not only in terms of how thoroughly Marcelli explains the particularities of the southern school, but also as a book which retained its significance far after the author’s time. His influence is obvious from Terracusa e Ventura’s True Neapolitan Fencing (1725) to Rosaroll and Grisetti’s The Science of Fencing (1803), and even down to Masiello’s Italian Fencing (1887).

Francesco Marcelli was one of several masters within this tradition who codified the art of the Neapolitan school. There are differences between these authors, and it’s clear there were serious rivalries. Pallavicini, for example, refers to Francesco Mattei as a “modern” master, but receives a few barbs from Marcelli in turn. Their differences notwithstanding they have more in common than not and have long been considered proponents of the same regional style.

In some ways Rule of Fencing bridges older models of fencing manuals with those which came after—like earlier works, say by Marozzo, Marcelli covers additional weapons of his time (rapier, smallsword, dagger, and sabre), but the specificity and thoroughness of his system, while often peppered with Classical allusions or extended metaphors, reads more like works of the 19th and early 20th century. This holds true both in outline and precision. Marcelli’s coverage even includes discussions of terrain, fighting at night (with and without a lantern), and what it takes to be a good instructor.

Chris Holzman, as Tom Leoni, the author of the forward and a distinguished translator in his own right, remarks, is ideally suited to tackle the monumental task of translating Marcelli for an English audience. Where his training and deep knowledge of Italian fencing opens up the material, Chris’ language ability and sensitivity to nuances in Italian allow him to unpack the author. Rule of Fencing is not an easy read. Marcelli assumes a familiarity with Classical authors and fencing masters that few contemporary readers possess. His prose is complex, it’s fancy, and much of it expressed in a grammatical mood that doesn’t work well in English.

Chris’ approach here, as indeed in all of his translations, seeks to provide as much of the author’s ideas, language, and expression as possible. Keeping as best he can to what the original writer wrote is difficult, and can ring a little oddly in modern ears, but the advantage of Chris’ method is that he gives the reader a closer approximation of the original, and, with far less chance of the translator’s ideas creeping in. It is always clear if and when Chris’ voice interjects—this is important for anyone keen to keep clear what is Marcelli, and what is not. To assist us further there are notes, a short overview of the context in which Marcelli wrote, and brief explanations of the guard positions, Marcelli’s take on targeting lines (e.g. what he means by inside line), and less common terms such as the “scommosa.”

As important as Marcelli’s Rule of Fencing is for students of Italian fencing, it is equally important for any fencer truly interested in the concepts of the Art. Devotees of rapier will have more to chew on than most, but any fencer, Olympic or Classical, historical or SCAdian, will appreciate the degree of specificity, the completeness of Marcelli’s presentation, and the author’s use of illustrations. The connection between Neapolitan and Sicilian fencing with that of Spain is here, as it is in Pallavicini, everywhere evident, so students of destreza have yet another work to consider that touches on their own focus. Marcelli cites a number of earlier and contemporary Italian masters as well, opening a valuable window into how early modern masters looked back at their own, and other, fencing traditions and sources.

Perhaps one of the most valuable features of the Rule of Fencing is the way in which Marcelli breaks down complex ideas. As a quick example, in Ch. VI of Book I, Marcelli treats tempo. He starts with a short statement about when a student should learn it and why, then explores what other authors have said, from de Carranza to Alfieri, and finally provides his own insights into this core universal of fencing. There is a lot there to consider, and this is as true of Marcelli’s notions of universals (timing, distance, judgment) as it is in his explorations of particular techniques, their application, and the various contingencies that arise between fencers of different temperament and skill.

If you buy one book on rapier, or one book on Italian fencing, or even one book on fencing theory and application, let it be this one. One can and will return to it again and again, for there is more to mine here, to consider, to attempt within one’s own training than in most other works. You needn’t be a rapier fencer to benefit—there is something here, a lot of somethings, for every fencer.

JBT Emmons

Sala delle Tre Spade

Fencing Drills and Artificiality


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hewing Blow in Historical Fencing

Talhoffer Fechtbuch (MS Thott.290.2º) 1459 CE, 123 recto

The historical fencing community is increasingly fascinated with and implementing cutting exercises. This is a good thing. Cutting is a common adjunct to the study of the sword, but increasingly it’s used by some as a method of measuring readiness for fighting with steel in tournaments. There are problems with this, and in fact there are problems generally with the understanding, approach, and use of cutting, but these less often come up in discussion. First, the assumption behind test-cutting as proof of one’s ability to wield steel safely and with sufficient control in tourneys is flawed.[i] Second, the notion that a hewing blow was or is the ideal attack doesn’t hold up well in light of the sources or historical accounts. Hewing blows are there, yes, but among other options and hardly chief among them. Lastly, a lot of fencers are only concerned with cutting through the mat, not in doing so according to recorded, historical mechanics; many claiming to study “western” fencing are in fact using Japanese mechanics in making their cuts. If cutting is intended to be a part of historical fencing practice, then it should be in line with the techniques and mechanics of whatever specific branch of fencing one is doing, be it KdF or 19th cen. sabre.

Begging the Question

Cutting as a test for tourney-readiness with steel is akin to judging a car mechanic’s ability to change a transmission by how well they use a screwdriver. They’re both important skills, both relate to making the car work, but there’s a lot more that goes into replacing the transmission. It’s the same with tournaments. The ability to cut a tatami or similar target well might demonstrate a fencer’s edge-alignment, but it’s a poor measure for many other critical aspects that make up a good, safe tourney fighter.

Control, for one, is different against a moving target than a static one—tatami not only doesn’t hit back, it doesn’t move. An opponent does. The nerves and excitement that are often present in fighters are generally different than they are when cutting a target. Tournaments also require one to operate within a defined space and according to a host of rules, there’s noise, there are time constraints, and there is stress and exhaustion, never mind two people trying to hit one another.

Lastly, one is not making the same sort of cut against an opponent that one does against a cutting-target: no one in the ring is trying to cut through anyone (hopefully), and so power-generation is by definition restricted. Newer fencers might hit hard, macho a-holes do too, but where the former is excusable because they’re still developing control, the latter has no excuse. For all the blather about “martial” blows few people who recite that mantra have really considered what it means, or, how and whether it should apply in a tournament setting.

Extant Sources and the Hewing Blow

Surviving sources rarely encourage the fencer to deliver hewing blows with each strike. If one thinks about it, it would be silly to do so, because it requires more energy to do and thus is more taxing; it means the possibility of over-extension and thus exposure to counters; and lastly it isn’t necessary—the human body is pretty easily cut by less of a blow than one uses trying to fell a tree or that a headsman uses at the block.

For brevity, here are two examples, one medieval the other Victorian, in other words, one from each pole as it were of the span of extant historical fencing sources. First, the fendente or downward strike of Fiore dei Liberi is instructive. He was active ca. 1409 CE and was an experienced solider, policeman, mercenary, and fencing master. The four known texts detailing his Armizare or “art of arms” reveal a system that is uncompromising and brutal. The intention is to maim or kill, precisely the skills that his audience, professional fighting men, required in the field and in the lists. In the Getty (Ms. Ludwig XV 13), Fiore says:

We are the cuts named fendenti (cleaving blows). In this art, our trade is to part the opponent’s teeth and to reach all the way down to his knee. We can easily transition from a guard to another, through a low guard. We also craftily break the opponent’s guards, while our strikes leave a trail of blood. We fendenti are not slow to strike, and recover in guard with each step.[ii]

Now, did Fiore mean that each time one made this cut that one was trying to cut a person in half, or, did he mean that this is the angle one should make in performing that cut? Which is more likely? Such a cut, against a static target, might divide a person from the jaw to the opposite knee, but it’s hard to imagine any fighter attempting a cut that powerful each time they swing. Fiore also says “our strikes leave a trail of blood.” The line reading either “trail of blood” or “sign of blood” (it varies by translation) looks to the same two words, sangue segno. Sangue, or “blood” is cognate with our “sanguine” and “sanguinary” and is pretty clear, but segno… that is trickier. If you look up the Italian today segno can mean “a sign; a mark; a scratch; a sign or indication;” it can also meaning “shooting target.” The word it comes from, Latin signum, means much the same (e.g. sign), but took on some more abstract meanings during the Middle Ages, such as “miracle,” “statue,” and even a specific type of medieval bell-tower. Yet, several of these translations used “trail” for segno. Trails suggests more of a slicing wound, a deep cut, not the severing of a thorax.

In context—context is everything—Fiore is saying the fendenti are downward strikes made at a sharp angle, roughly jaw to opposite knee, and depending upon how hard and at what distance one hits it might cut deep or leave a really nasty slice. The images accompanying this show two men out of armor. To cut through linen, cotton, or wool one doesn’t need to hew the same way one does straw or wood. Significantly, in the armored portions of his work Fiore discusses the longsword in its guise as short pole-arm, something for thrusting, not cutting. Fiore, thus, advocates a blow that is likely to hit something given the angle, that can cut deep or tear someone up nicely, but taken together is not meant to hew limbs each time.

A second, much later example comes from the Radaellian sabre tradition. Giuseppe Radaelli’s major innovation was to implement the elbow rather than the wrist as the axis of rotation for cuts. Another Radaellian fencer, Maestro Ferdinando Masiello, related in a letter to Lt. Gen. Achille Angelini that Radaelli, having seen how ineffective wrist-generated blows were from the saddle, decided to substitute the elbow as axis. This produces a more powerful cut, but one still under control.[iii] Looking at the corpus of works on Radaellian sabre, from Del Frate (1868/1873) to Pecoraro and Pessina (1912), nowhere does anyone advocate trying to cut anyone in half; nowhere does one master suggest that a hewing blow is the goal.[iv] An argument from silence isn’t worth much, but additional evidence supplies information that does much to fill in the picture.

One such example comes from the same Lt. Gen. Achille Angelini mentioned above. In his work on dueling, the Italian Chivalric Code, published in 1883, he states that if something was important enough to fight about, then the duel over it should result in a serious wound or death. Anything less was a mockery. Angelini states:

In the duel with the sabre neither the thrust, nor the cut to the head may be excluded. Duels with such exclusions, other than being ridiculous, are harmful, since the number of duels instead of decreasing would increase when a dandy could play the braggart with only the risk of getting a scratch of little consequence.[v]

Of note here, the choice of potentially less lethal targets, such as the arm, are not bad choices, but ones less likely to keep to the serious tone Angelini advocates. A cut to the arm would not necessarily end the fight. Significantly, the arm doesn’t need to be severed to make it useless; a nasty cut across the right ligaments, or which lacerates an artery, or that hits bone, can render that fencer hors de combat. Even a good bruise can. The arm was thus often wrapped to prevent this from prematurely ending the fight. The arm was and is a primary target in sabre and with good reason: take out the arm and the opponent can no longer fight.

The take away lesson here is that in the context of the duel in late 19th century Italy, a context in which truly nasty wounds were positively encouraged!, no one advocated a hewing blow. Even with powerful molinelli from the elbow the emphasis wasn’t lopping off limbs or cutting people in half—it would have been too dangerous for any duelist to so commit and expose himself.

The last concern is the goal in cutting—what is it exactly? Is it merely to sever the mat, or, to sever it according to the sources of one’s preferred tradition? This is an important question. There are many ways to cut a mat, but if one is performing this exercise as part of studying a specific sword system, then ideally one is doing all one can to use the mechanics advocated within that system to the best of their ability. Anything else is, well, sort of pointless. Call it fun, call it cutting, but if divorced from the techniques of one’s tradition, then it isn’t really informing that practice. Used correctly, cutting can actually be a good measure of what is possible within a tradition if not exactly what say Fiore or even Radaelli would have done. One young fencer I know, her first time cutting, easily sliced a tatami using the mechanic she had learned from her instructor, one she had used in drill and in bouts for years. Is her success proof of exactly what Fiore intended? No, but it suggests that the interpretation of the cutting mechanic at that school is a valid one given both the evidence from Fiore’s works and her success with that cut. It’s valuable feedback.

There is a lot of video out there of cutting, and if you’re just watching for the mat to slide off its base after the cut, it’s easy to miss red flags like fencers leading off with the legs, with elbows, or pushing their hands out before the blade. There is also heavy influence from Japanese practice, some better than others, and it shows in stance, in execution, even in the number, sequence, and direction of cuts. Will this cut a mat? Sure, and there are people making their reputations on this, medaling, etc., but that doesn’t automatically mean they’re in line with the traditions they claim to represent. Maybe that doesn’t matter, but it might if you are trying to cut according to the rhymes of the “Zettel” or Liechtenauer glosses and you’re using the wrong techniques. If you’re going to include cutting in your practice, do so honestly, do so in accordance with the dictates of your tradition as best you can. It’s a lot of fun to do, and it can be good practice, but it should be about more than just whether you cut the mat or bamboo. It should be about how you do so.

[i] In origin the tameshigiri from Japanese swordsmanship—where this practice in HEMA originated—was not intended to test so much the swordsman as the sword. It is arguably better for that than as a test for one’s ability to use steel, though many Japanese schools have competitions for test-cutting in their own right which are about cutting ability, not the sword, so the carry-over into HEMA is understandable. For more on tameshigiri, see for example Victor Harris, “Japanese Swords,” in Swords and Hilt Weapons, ed. Michael D. Coe, et al., New York, NY: Barnes and Noble Books, 1993, 148-171, see especially 168; Kazuhiro Sakaue, “A Case Report of Human Skeletal Remains Performed ‘Tameshi-giri (test cutting with a Japanese Sword),” in Bulletin of the National Museum of Nature and Science, Series D, 36 (Dec. 2010): 27-36; John M. Yumoto, The Samurai Sword: A Handbook, Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1978, 74, 81-82.

[ii] Fiore de’ Liberi’s Fior di Battaglia, Fiore’s 1409 Martial Arts Treatise from the Getty Manuscript, rev. 4, Trans. Tom Leoni [Ludwig XV 13]. For the manuscripts, their history, and relation, Tom Leoni’s translation of Fiore de’ Liberi, Fior di Battaglia, 2nd Ed., Wheaton, IL: Freelance Academy Press, 2012, is a standard work; it can be had, minus illustrations, via Lulu Press. Work continues on a new examination by Tom Leoni and Ken Mondshein, Flowers of Battle: The Complete Martial Works of Fiore dei Liberi, A Master of Arms and at the Turn of the Fifteenth Century, 4 Vols., Wheaton, IL: Freelance Academy Press, two of which have been published. Vol. 1 covers the Getty, Vol. 3 The Florius or “Paris.” Some translations and transcriptions are available online at Wiktnenauer, http://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Fiore_de%27i_Liberi , though caution is required with this site. A far more useful and reliable digital resource is “Pocket Armizare” available for Android. See also Robert N. Charrette, Fiore Dei Liberi’s Armizare: The Chivalric Martial Arts System of Il Fior di Battaglia, Wheaton, IL: Freelance Academy Press, 2011; Ken Mondschein, The Knightly Art of Battle, Los Angeles, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011; Guy Windsor, The Medieval Longsword, Mastering the Art of Arms Vol. 2, The School of European Swordsmanship, 2014.

[iii] See Christopher A. Holzman, The Art of the Dueling Sabre, Staten Island, NY: SKA Swordplay Books, 2011, xxvi.

[iv] In addition to Del Frate (n. iii), see for example Luigi Barbasetti, The Art of the Sabre and Epee, New York, NY: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1936 [an English translation of his original 1899 edition in German]; Lieut. J. Betts, The Sword and How to Use It, London: Gale & Polden, LTD, 1908; Ferdinando Masiello, La Scherma Italiana di Spada e di Sicabola, Firenze, IT: Stabilimento Tipografico G. Civelli, 1887; Masiello, Sabre Fencing on Horseback, Firenze: G. Civelli Establishment, 1891, Translated by Christopher A. Holzman, 2015; Salvatore Pecoraro, and Carlo Pessina, Sabre Fencing: Includes Spada Fencing: Play on the Ground, 1910, Translated by Christopher A. Holzman, Lulu Press, 2016; Giordano Rossi, Scherma di Spada e Sciabola, Manuale Teorico-Pratico, Milano, IT: Fratelli Dumolard Editori, 1885.

[v] Lt. Gen. Achille Angelini, “Of the Duel with the Sword or Sabre,” Italian Chivalric Code, XI: 2; trans. Holzman, 2016.

Of Medals and the Illusion of Mastery

With our tourney coming up—an invitational sabre match—I’m always conscious of how difficult these things are to do. I’ve either fenced in or judged a lot of tournaments, both Olympic and HEMA, and with each new historical tourney I’m struck by a disturbing fact—pound for pound, a tournament in HEMA and one in Olympic circles are not so very different. In both, too many fighters are playing the system, and worse, too many have zero regard for being hit. In both tournament worlds there is also a tendency to take medaling as the litmus test for excellence. Placing well can correlate with skill, but it’s not a sure thing. There are a number of reasons why this is so.

Everyone likes to win. Emerging the victor in a bout, or better still a tournament, is a nice feeling. It’s validating. It is important, however, to put any such victory in context and remember that however well one does, victory on its own does not mean mastery. There are several reasons for this and if you’re serious about your development as a fencer you need to know this. You ignore it at your peril, at the risk of further improvement, and it can easily lead to a false sense of ability with all the ego problems that creates.

There is always someone out there better than you are. This is just true. Theoretically, out there somewhere, there is one fencer who truly is better than everyone else, but see point two 😉  A prime example of this is a close friend of mine—we’ll call him “Dennis.” He’s a beautiful fencer, tactically brilliant, graceful, powerful, the kind of fighter who makes you look even better than you are when you fight him and he’s destroying you. Yes, that good. In the early 00’s, he entered an epee event open only to fencers ranked B or higher; most everyone there was an A-rated fencer. As this was epee, that ranking actually meant something too–epee is the only weapon of the three to have retained much of its martial ethos. No one there knew Dennis, and they expected to clean the floor with him. He beat every single one of them, badly, and they were really ticked when they realized that this was just something he did for fun, that he wasn’t a “normal” tournament guy; he fenced enough to keep his rating, but otherwise he’d just as soon be working on other hobbies. Dennis is a good example of the unknown ego-check, of the truly gifted fencer out there who is, quite literally, better than you or me.

Great fencers have bad days; poor fencers good days. No matter how good someone might be, even the best fencers have an off day. If this day happens to be on a tournament day, chances are good they may not clear the pools. In like guise, the poorest noob may end up taking the day. It just depends. Maybe they just had more fire and the better fencers either underestimated them or misapplied their skill. Maybe the directing was crap. Maybe it was a combination. One can’t take anything for granted.

Tournament victory is only as good as the quality of the pools. Not all gold medals are the same. Medaling in a minor tournament with twenty fencers of basic skill is not the same as medaling in a tournament where half or more of the fifty competitors are truly skilled. Herein is one major problem for WMA—what defines skill? Many people equate tournament victory with it, but that’s a false equivalency, one only embraced by people who don’t know better or who benefit from the fallacy. This is hard to combat because the same egos that benefit from this, who derive their value from it, are quick to say any naysayer is suffering sour grapes. Sort of makes discussing and fixing that, demonstrating the problem, difficult.

Skill vs. Attribute Fencing One of the elephants in the ring is the issue of attribute fencing versus a more comprehensive skill-set well-applied. To be fair, most attribute-fencers have skill, but often this is a specific set of skills that exploit their reach, speed, etc. to the exclusion of a more comprehensive game. The thing is it works. If you’re fast, if you have reach, if you hit harder and intimidate people, it will take you pretty far. People medal and win tournaments all the time armed only with a few tricks that they have optimized. The confidence that comes with that cannot be underestimated. The test though, for those fencers, is what happens when they run into someone whose skill-set is broader, whose experience is deeper, and who knows how to nullify the advantages their opponent’s attributes offer. If attribute fencers are lucky, they’ll meet that opponent; if they’re smart, they’ll learn something from it.

Gaming the Tourney is another major issue. This isn’t new and it’s not confined to WMA, but a major problem for Olympic fencing as well other sports. There are advantages to winning, and so, some people are willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen. For just a few examples, be wary of anyone hosting a tournament that only enlists directors and/or judges from their school or who stack staffing in their favor.[i]

Related tactics include attempting to intimidate officials and other competitors, arguing for rule changes that favor one’s approach and fencers, and hard-hitting. These kids don’t play with others, and worse, can give a tournament, even a region, a bad rep. You don’t want that.

I’m not saying don’t fence in tourneys—you should if you want, they’re fun, but, you should go into them with your eyes open and for the right reasons. Not to wax too Miyagi, but primarily a tourney is a place to test, in real-time, your skills and tactics; it’s a lesson, a chance to learn, an opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t. It should also be fun. The illusion of mastery, and especially of tourney gold as evidence of it, is a problem for any fencer who truly wishes to improve. Mastery is less a destination than it is a goal which pushes our training, which keeps us honest, which keeps us striving.[ii]

This doesn’t mean don’t do your best, that you’re not trying to win—you can’t test what you know if you’re going through the motions. The pressure, the chance to think on your feet, to adapt, and all within seconds is a fantastic way to see how well we apply what we’ve learned. If it all works, and you grab that trophy, great! It is healthy, maybe after celebratory beers, to reflect on the nature of the competition, to weight that against the heft of the medal around your neck. That awareness shouldn’t detract from victory, but merely inform it, and, better prepare you for the next one.

[i] This isn’t universally true of course. In small tournaments, especially where there is no one else to staff, one has little choice but to use who is on hand. Whenever possible, SdTS tries to enlist friends from other salas to help direct–our judges are pulled from the competitors.

[ii] A black belt in TKD, for example, has demonstrated that they are now ready to begin to study in earnest; a fencing master, in a slightly different way, isn’t necessary the best fighter, but a teacher, someone who has command of a particular pedagogical approach and is capable of teaching other teachers.

“Dueling” or “Military” Sabre?

[NB: My friend Jay Maas, a student of and instructor in Insular Broadsword, suggested I make a few things more clear than I did. His advice is sound and so I have made a few changes. It was never my intention to denigrate the British/Insular school; I merely chose texts from it as an example because like the Italians they have a rich source collection, the texts vary considerably, and because I know it best after Italian. I thought it was clear from my discussion below of the House of Angelo and its fame, as well as my comments about Roworth, that I know and acknowledge that there was a fully developed system in place and taught in 18th/19th cen. Britain, but it doesn’t hurt to make that more explicit. May 16, 2019]

[See also 23 March 2021, “Military vs. Dueling Sabre, Revisited” https://saladellatrespade.com/2021/03/23/military-vs-dueling-sabre-revisited/]

There’s considerable misunderstanding and a lot of misleading information out there about “dueling” and “military” sabre and how they relate. Some students ask me if what we’ll be doing is military sabre as opposed to “dueling” sabre, but this is a false dichotomy—they’re making a distinction based more on perception than fact, on specific application vs. body of technique. In large part both camps (not to mention sport fencing ultimately) draw upon the same material, the same sources, so how are they different? To what degree the same? It comes down, in part, to how we define each term. The quick answer is that there is no difference in technique, only in amount and purpose. Moreover, the duelist normally follows rules, a soldier normally operates in a theater without them.

When someone says “dueling” sabre what they mean, by and large, is “classical” sabre, that is, sabre as defined and intended for the dueling ground, and which in time led to the modern sport. Defining classical sabre, however, is as easy a task as defining classical fencing. A few examples. Columbia Classical Fencing, LLC‘s website, for example, defines classical fencing as “fencing as it was practiced in the West during roughly the late 1700s and into the 1800s.” [i]

Salle Green LLC in Virginia has a lot more to say, and suggests that classical fencing is:

fencing for sport or the duel, conducted in the manner of fencing in the years between 1880 and 1939, as reflected in the rich variety of fencing manuals in  English, Spanish, Italian, and French that survive from this period.  It is defined by the transition from a common set of weapons for civil and military use to a distinct set of weapons for primarily sporting and civil use, and ends with the development of the sports factory approach to training and the conversion to electrical scoring after World War II.  The classical period is important in the history of fencing as it makes the transition to the set of weapons we still use in modern fencing and establishes the form of footwork and blade technique that is the foundation for modern fencing skills.[ii]

These both situate classical fencing within a largely late 18th and 19th century context, though Green would push this, rightly in my opinion, into the first half of the 20th century. What’s missing in Maestro Green’s definition is what comprises “fencing manuals” in this period. Significantly, at least up until the 20th century (and indeed after 1900), many of these sources for sabre were military sources or written by military men.[iii] Often they were writing for a military audience, and in some cases, producing official government manuals on fencing. There are, of course, many exceptions, but if one looks at some of the more popular works per tradition the connection between military manuals and what tends to comprise classical fencing stands out starkly.

The supposed dichotomy between “military” and “dueling” (or “classical”) sabre is an issue more within the historical community than the classical. Many fencers within WMA/HEMA have desired to differentiate what they do from anything remotely resembling sport fencing. For them, classical fencing is too close to sport, and thus automatically suspect. Many within the classical camp use the same weapons as sport fencers, only with modified rules, and rather than address technique and purpose, which would show how much historical and classical fencers have in common, these same historical fencers reject them out of hand for using foils or S2000 sabre blades. The fact that the modern game derives from Italian and French fencing, that classical technique developed in these two lands, tends also to produce a quick reaction against things classical, especially given the popularity of English infantry manuals in HEMA. This is all guilt by association and ignores the salient fact: the classical tradition, especially for sabre, derives more from military than from civilian sources.[iv]

This bias, however understandable, is misguided. Ultimately it can be limiting too. Some proponents, for example, of English broadsword/sabre, often seem at pains to distinguish what they do as somehow more “military” than sport or classical, but here as elsewhere it comes down to definitions and how one applies them. What they fence is certainly closer to what an infantry private learned with his regiment, but it’s a far cry from what the officer in charge of that regiment likely learned. The texts of C. Roworth and Henry Angelo, for example, are no more military than those by Giordano Rossi and Ferdinando Masiello.[v] These English texts give us a window into sabre intended for the infantry between say 1800 and 1850, but while Roworth includes a comprehensive examination for sabre/broadsword, Angelo does not. Unlike Roworth or his Italian counterparts, Angelo’s sword exercise is hardly representative of the entire system he taught at his own sala. Henry Angelo, author of the Infantry Manual of 1845, was the grandson of Domenico Angelo Malevolti Tremamondo, author of the exquisite L’Ecole des Armes or The School of Fencing (1763). Very little of the sophistication the Angelo’s were famous for, and which is illustrated so wonderfully in Domenico’s book, made it into the 1845 Infantry Manual. It did not need to be there. It is almost as if some fans of Angelo and Co. find it more legitimate because the infantry manual is so bare-bones, so devoid of the sophisticated maneuvers they associate with artful, sport fencing. This is not to say it wasn’t there, that it didn’t exist, but to remind the reader that they won’t see much of it in that source.

The context for these various texts is on its own instructive. If, for example, one compares the works of Settimo Del Frate and Henry Angelo, the former contains a lot more instruction. Angelo’s goal was to provide a minimum of basic instruction, not a complete program. By and large the key Italian works present much of the state of the knowledge at the time, not just the fundamentals. One reason for this is that in the newly formed Republic of Italy, military fencing masters were vying for preference and position, so their works intended for the army were not just drill manuals, but books intended in part to reveal the author’s expertise over that of his fellows.[vi] Taken together, the corpus for Italian sabre is thus more exhaustive and sophisticated. This reflects a difference in context, in purpose for many of these treatises, and as students we need to keep that in mind.

The difference in context explains a lot, everything from why say Del Frate or Masiello’s works are longer and full of details, even lesson plans, and, why Angelo’s pamphlet on infantry sabre is so rudimentary. The rank and file did not need a complete course in swordsmanship. [vii] After the volley their next step was the bayonet. If the fighting came down to sabres, something had likely gone very, very wrong. They needed enough to be effective in the context of war, not thoroughly tutored in all the options required for combat mano a mano. The requirements of an infantry private are different from those of the duelist. That private, because of his rank, will not be fighting duels, and thus has little need for more than basic instruction, good as it might be. The duelist, on the other hand, only benefits from possessing a larger selection of options even if, and this is critical, they never use them. They must be able to recognize them, and, undermine them. In short, a duelist needs more than an infantry soldier.

The duel is a critical consideration in understanding why some sources are more detailed than others. While it had all but disappeared in England, dueling culture was still alive and well in Italy at the time these works were written. Though illegal, as it was in England, provisions were made within the military and several military men, most notably Achille Angelini and Giordano Rossi, wrote dueling codes.[viii] Many within historical circles thus equate “classical” and “dueling,” and this isn’t wrong, but they misspeak in saying that these are somehow separate from “military” sabre. They are one in the same, just presented in different ways for different audiences, for different purposes. Because the officer ranks were the only ones allowed to duel, in so much as anyone was, it is little wonder that the officers writing these manuals included more within their work, that is, included those maneuvers that any one of them might have occasion to call upon should he find himself called out. It should be noted that British officers, like their brothers most everywhere else in Europe, typically contracted a master for more complete, advanced training.

For students interested in military sabre, some notion of this historical context must be taken into consideration. This should go without saying, but for all the discussion of the “H” in HEMA, too often it is ignored. Many new fencers learn about military sabre from Youtube videos or social media, and if they see that one school of sabre uses the term “military” more often than others then perhaps it’s more understandable that they fail to see how other national texts on sabre were also largely codifications of military systems. It is also one reason they think that dueling and military sabre are different animals—few people ever talk about the connection between them.

Students of sabre should pay some attention to the wider corpus. Regardless of the tradition they favor, even a basic acquaintance with other national military programs, not to mention different applications for the same body of technique, can only benefit them. This is true for those interesting in “dueling” and those interested in “military” sabre—these are just different applications of the same material. At the very least it may prevent them from grossly misunderstanding what it is they are studying.

[i] See https://columbiaclassicalfencing.com/fencing-terms/#c. Accessed 3-5-18.

[ii] See https://www.sallegreen.com/programs/classical-fencing/. Accessed 3-5-18.

[iii] A master I worked with in Portland, Oregon, the late Maitre Delmar Calvert, was trained in the French army (he was a Foreign Legionnaire) at a time when they were still using the revised Règlement d’escrime issued to the French army in 1908. For more on Calvert’s early training and military career, see Bernard Coliat, Vercors 1944 des GI dans le Maquis, Imprimerie Jalin à Bourg-Les-Valence, 2003. See also http://usfencinghalloffame.com/wp/calvert-delmar/

[iv] As a quick example, Italian works from ca. 1850 on were largely produced by military men for a military audience, from Del Frate in 1868 to Pecoraro and Pessina in 1912. The French Reglement (1877), likewise, codified fencing for the French military. This is not to say that works dedicated to sport were not beginning to appear, but that even these, ultimately, looked back to these military sources.

[v] In fairness, Roworth’s 1804 treatise is a thorough work, providing more than Angelo’s later infantry manual. He entitled it a “complete” system for broadsword for a reason, and one examination will demonstrate why. Not only did Roworth lay out his approach to the use of the weapon, but he also covered defense against smallsword, spadroon, and bayonet.

[vi] For a good discussion of the competition between military masters in the newly unified Italy, see William M. Gaugler, The History of Fencing: Foundations of Modern European Swordplay, Bangor, ME: Laureate Press, 1998, 166-167; 216-217. A more recent, complete examination, and some of the key documents, can be found in several of the translations of Chris Holzman. See especially his The Art of the Dueling Sabre, xxv-xxxii; in The Roman-Neapolitan School of Fencing, Holzman includes some discussion of the Northern and Southern Italian rivalry (xxi-xxii) as well as the report of the Hon. Paulo Fambri to the commission dedicated to choosing which manual, and thus which region North or South, would define the official military program (xxxiii, ff.); for some sense of the vehement opposition to Parise and the Southern school by Radaellian devotees much can be gleaned from the observations about Masiello’s strong feelings in Holzman’s translation of Sabre Fencing on Horseback (1891), ix-xiv.

[vii] Masiello’s manual for cavalry, for example, is not a complete work on sabre, just sabre as applicable for fighting from the saddle.

[viii] See Lt. Gen. Achille Angelini, Italian Chivalric Code, Firezne: 1883, translated by Christopher A. Holzman, 2016; Giordano Rossi, “Concerning the Duel,” In Capt. Settimo Del Frate, Instruction in Fencing with the Sabre and the Sword, 1873, translated by Christopher A. Holzman (2011), 222-230 [this is a chapter from Rossi’s Scherma di Spada e Sciabola, Manuale Teorico-Pratico con Cenni Storici Sulle Armi e Sulla Scherma e Principale Norme pel Duello, Milano: Fratelli Dumolard Editori, 1885]. See also Masaniello Parise, “Fencing on the Ground (1904),” In The Roman-Neapolitan School of Fencing: The Collected Works of Masaniello Parise, Maestro di Scherma, translated by Christopher A. Holzman, 2015, 295-319 [revised in Carlo Pessina and Salvatore Pecoraro’s “Spada Fencing: Play on the Ground (1910),” In Sabre Fencing, 1912, translated by Christopher A. Holzman, 2016, 175-197.] It is important to note that McBane, who wrote works on smallsword and broadsword, was not only a fencing master and soldier, but a duelist.