A Bar Raiser

Chateau South, Atlanta, Texas

Super late last night I returned from a weekend of instruction, teaching, discussion, bouting, and all manner of swordy fun at the St. George’s Day Exhibition of Arms held at the beautiful Chateau South, Atlanta, Texas. The event was put on by Russ Mitchell and the excellent people at Winged Sabre Historical Fencing, and hosted by the generous owner of the Chateau, Raoul, who not only trusted us to honor the integrity and safety of this property, but also who grilled a feast for us. If you’re in eastern Texas, “Piney Texas,” and need a venue for any event–wedding, family reunion, business retreat, you name it–I can’t recommend Chateau South enough (https://www.chateau-south.com/). Raoul and the family who take care of the property and are helping to restore it, Shawn and Rebecca, put the hospitality in southern hospitality. Seriously nice and generous folk.

Learning, Camaraderie, and Cross-Fertilization

I hope that the St. George’s Day Exhibition of Arms will become a regular event, because it needs to be. We have tournaments, we have seminars, conferences, and in some rare instances a mix of the three, but in some cases the dates are tough to make, the cost prohibitive, or the environment/attitude less than welcoming. Russ Mitchell and the fine folk at Winged Sabre put together a fantastic event–it was friendly, open-minded, and welcoming, but more than that the classes and discussion, the chat over meals or between sessions, all were informative and thought-provoking.

In addition to my two classes, there were a class on movement and balance by Russ that has changed not only my understanding of footwork, but also how I will teach it from here on out; there were two by Francois Perrault (Montreal, CAN), first on French foil as a way to understand the second topic, contre-pointe (the French approach to sabre ca. 1800-1908); and two by Jonathan Carr (Dallas, TX), one that made more sense of Hutton’s sabre than anything I’ve read, seen, or heard until then, and then a fascinating lecture on Sir Richard Francis Burton’s 1875 sword system.

Some of the Attendees late Saturday, 22 April 2023 (photo by Annamarie Kovacs)

Discussion between classes, over meals, and especially at the end of the instruction-day, were as valuable. They were also a chance to get to know one another, share ideas, and increase understanding on the various tangents covered in the topics. For someone as introverted as I am, and who normally has to bow out to recharge, the fact I wasn’t once in need of that recharge should suggest a lot.

Tired, but still in for chatting–Aaron, Michael, and myself

Exhibition of Arms vs. Deeds of Arms

Both have their place, but what an exhibition of arms seeks to do is share a particular style or tradition’s uniqueness within the Art, that is, what makes it what it is. While I cannot say to have represented the Radaellian school particularly well in my own bouts, I will say that my compatriots did a wonderful job. Russ’ students have been studying hussar sabre, which is very different than the profiled styles that predominate; Francois’ early French approach and Jonathan’s debt to English sabre and broadsword were clear as well. The focus in our bouts was to do our best to fight within the body of techniques and tactics of our specific traditions, and, to have fun doing it.

We also had time to explore a venerable Hungarian weapon, the fokos, a shehpard’s axe that the Magyars brought with them from the Steppes in the Early Middle Ages and which was used in the trenches of the Great War. Never have I faced a more challenging weapon sabre in hand than I have that wee axe. Russ made a few converts among us, I’m sure; least, I’m looking into the more than academically now.

Russ arresting a cut with a fokos

Raising the Bar

Winged Sabre’s “St. George’s Day Exhibition of Arms” raises the bar for what we can and should be doing more often in historical fencing. Each of the classes had students drilling. There, I said it, the “d-word,” drill. It’s become a dirty word in “HEMA,” and to the detriment of that community. The garbage posted so often on Youtube as championship sabre is a case in point. The hop and chop, simultaneous single-tempo cuts lauded as the end-all be-all of sabre are to Plato’s cave what shadows on the wall are to the sun outside the cave that creates them.

Drill. Hard work. Effort, time, and sweat. These are what make a decent fencer. One can spend weeks, years even, in study, but if intentional, well-designed drill is missing, there is only far someone will go in that time. Another way to say this is that much of HEMA is doing it wrong, and should seek better methods, better instructors. I’ll not go so far as to list myself among their number, but I will say that I know some people you should talk to.

Russ Mitchel on Timmlich

As someone who regularly points out how daft it is to use a trooper-weight sabre for foot combat (tough to make any complicated action well), I feel it only right to share this lovely video from Russ. Timmlich’s excellent treatise provides the historical fencer into BIG sabres a way to use them, on foot, effectively. Check it out!

Review: Arlow’s _Sabre Fencing_ (1902)

Sir Gustáv Arlow. Sabre Fencing. Austro-Hungarian Military Sabre Series Vol. 3. Edited by Russ Mitchell. Translated by Annamária Kovacs. Irving, TX: Happycrow Publishing, 2022. 243pp. $25 US as of 11 May 2022.

While there is much to say about Sir Gustáv Arlow’s Sabre Fencing, the most important thing I can say is that it’s excellent and you need a copy. If you valued Russ Mitchell’s edition of Leszák’s Sabre Fencing (orig. publ. 1906; see review here 13 Nov. 2020 https://saladellatrespade.com/2020/11/14/leszak-_sabre-fencing_-1906/), then chances are exceedingly strong that you will absolutely love his edition of Arlow’s Sabre Fencing. Russ and his translator, Annamaria Kovacs, have provided the fencing community with perhaps the most important work out of Hungary on the fusion of Italian and Hungarian fencing traditions. Where Leszák reveals some of the synthesis, Arlow specifically addresses it. In this volume the reader sees an Hungarian master specifically addressing his take on the blend of traditions, and importantly, what he has decided to adopt that is Italian, retain that is Hungarian.

Having come up in this tradition myself I’ve long wanted access to the small Hungarian corpus that promised some answers–thanks to Russ all of us can realize that promise. The value of Arlow’s Sabre Fencing goes beyond history, though it is a must-read for any student of Radaellian, Austro-Hungarian, or Italo-Hungarian fencing; this text is one of the best works on sabre I’ve had the pleasure to read, and I have read many, taught with the help of many (mostly Radaellian). The level of description, the well-thought out organization, the breadth, and the description of technique (Hungarian and Italian) are impressive. For one example, Arlow’s breakdowns of the types of cuts, and his notes about type and origin, nomenclature in Italian, Hungarian, or German, all do much to help both student and instructor in understanding.

Each section provides clear exercises in much the same way synoptic tables do minus the table. There are additional gems as well, from some novel advice in fighting lefties to how to deflect specific types of feints. Of particular interest for the historical fencer is his section on bouts with sharps (i.e. duels). This is a difference Arlow more than once highlights; after all, the duel was still a reality in Hungary, which is one reason for discussion of sharps, but also Arlow clearly saw little point in fencing as a mere game. For him

great care must be taken to ensure that the cuts fall either with the true or false edge, but never flat. Flat cutting is worthless in both duels and sport fencing. A well-trained fencer will never intentionally cut with the flat. He who contends on his over-flexible blade to whip around the opponent’s blade does not deserve to be called a fencer. (61)

I’ve looked forward to and enjoyed each work in Russ Mitchell’s series, but none so much as this. It’s a must-have for every sabreur.

Cf: https://www.amazon.com/Guszt%C3%A1v-Arlows-Sabre-Fencing-Austro-Hungarian/dp/B09X3NZ2P5?asin=B09X3NZ2P5&revisionId=&format=4&depth=1