SabreSlash 2022, October 1-2

Sala delle Tre Spade & Barbasetti Military Sabre since 1895, Partners in Fencing

This weekend our sister-school, Barbasetti Military Sabre since 1895, based in beautiful Prague, Czechia, will host its annual event: SabreSlash! Day one consists of classes; day two presents a cutting event, the Zabłocki Sabre Tournament, and the highlight of the day, the Moustache Challenge, easily one of the more difficult historical fencing contests.

This year Michael Kňažko of Barbasetti Military Sabre is joined by another close friend, the excellent Patrick Bratton (Sala della Spada, Carlisle, PA). Patrick will be exploring Radaellian actions on the blade. They are joined by several other instructors, including Maestro Leonid Křížek (CZ), and Leonardo Britto Germoglio (D). Here is the full program:

SabreSlash 2022 program:

Saturday, October 1st
– ”Actions on the blade in Radaellian sabre”, workshop led by Patrick Bratton, Sala Della Spada, Carlisle, PA, USA.

– “Akademische Fechten”, workshop led by Leonardo Britto Germoglio, Germany.

– “Molinelli in Barbasetti sabre”, workshop led by Leonid Křížek, Barbasetti Military Sabre (since 1895), Prague, Czech Republic.

– “Sciabola in Mano, controlled and conserved strength for cuts and thrusts”, workshop led by Michael Kňažko, Barbasetti Military Sabre (since 1895), Prague, Czech Republic.

Sunday, October 2nd
– “SabreSlashing with light sabres”, test-cutting workshop 😊

– “SabreSlash Moustache Challenge”. All gentlemen are encouraged to attend the event wearing a fully grown Ferdinando Masiello style moustache. The wearer of the most classical moustache will be awarded a very special prize.

– „ Zabłocki Sabre 2022“. The biggest Barbasetti sabre fencing tournament since the legendary 1895 Prague military fencing tournament organized by k.u.k lieutenant Dominik Riegel. The winner of the tournament will receive a brand new Swordsmithy practice sabre.

[cf. https://www.facebook.com/events/415973570345249/?ref=newsfeed]

Sala delle Tre Spade & Barbasetti Military Sabre since 1895

Curriculum Building & Teaching via the Universals

In an earlier post [9 Aug. 2022] I covered recursive cycles of instruction as one approach to curriculum building. Implicit in this schema, and hopefully in any methodology, is the central place of the universal principles, that is, those elements that underpin all hand-to-hand fighting. [1] While many works touch on these vital concepts, it can be difficult to find discussion of them in one place.

This post will attempt to sketch the salient points of one list of universals. [2] Lists vary, but most include the following:

  • measure or distance
  • tempo
  • judgment

To these I’d like to add several that Maitre Robert Handelman includes:

  • speed
  • initiative
  • tradecraft [3]

Measure or distance is the area of play, the space between two fencers. Typically this is divided into pedagogically useful segments. In Fiore’s armizare, and even in many later Italian works (Marcelli for example), the divisions may be largo and stretto, wide and close. Early modern sources down to today tend to divide the space between two fencers into three: out of measure (where neither opponent can hit one another); in measure (where one can lunge to target); and close measure (where either opponent need only extend the arm to reach target). There are variations by master, further refinements, but these three serve well.

Tempo is perhaps best defined as the time of a single simple fencing action. So, an advance, the extension of the arm, a beat, all of these equal one tempo. Simple and compound attacks, for example, are separated by the number of actions and thus the tempi in which they happen. A direct thrust on a lunge is one tempo; a feint-disengage is two tempi (feint + disengage/thrust = 2).*

Judgement, or decision, is the faculty by which we decide when to attack, from where, and how. We develop this through trial and error, over time, and improve as we grow in skill.

Speed is different than tempo, though they’re related. It’s helpful to think of speed as how fast or slow an action is or is made. We often refer to manipulating tempo, such as a compound attack that is slow-slow-fast, or, slow-fast-slow, etc. Strictly speaking, this is manipulating how fast or slow we make an action. It’s subtle, a bit hair-splitting perhaps, but to illustrate this imagine someone making a thrust on an advance, but then as soon as the opponent parries doubling the speed of the disengage and lunge to target. Speed also refers to reaction time, how fast we respond to stimulus. Like measure, we can break speed down into maximum, necessary (what speed is required to make an action), and slow.

Initiative refers to who starts an action, who moves first, and it can be defensive or offensive. In certain types of lessons we also talk about “student initiated” versus “instructor initiated” actions; this much like “Agent” and “Patient” in some historical fencing circles.

Tradecraft refers to the various ways in which we use rules, psychology, and bluster or bluff to outwit opponents, and importantly, officials. The most successful tournament fighters, whatever branch of the Art they pursue, typically “play” to the director and judges as much as anything else. This requires a good grasp of the rule-set and especially how those rules are viewed and enforced.

Historically speaking, tradecraft describes the gathering and exploitation of intelligence gleaned from interacting and/or observing an opponent. Sizing up an opponent, making probing actions to see what they do, how they react, all are part of tradecraft. It can be as simple as the early modern categories some masters used to describe types of fencers, from the reckless to the timid combatant, from the phlegmatic to the composed fencer, from the large, tall fighter to the smaller, shorter one. [4]

The many springs which flow from the font of these universals are too vast to cover, but for one, easy example the extension of the arm and weapon before the body illustrates well how general principles relate specifically to technique and tactics, even position.

  • The common guard that has the lead foot forward, body slightly forward, weapon arm leading attempts a compromise between safety (distance from the opponent) and target (reach to target).
  • The weapon and hand/arm lead the attack because this continues the compromise to the degree possible: the sharp thing races toward the opponent, something they should be thinking very hard about, while exposing as little of the attacker as one can
  • The positioning, method of extending the weapon, all make the best use of distance and tempo (tempo here, again, equally one fencing action)

Why the Universals are Important

Without meaning to court the exciting world of being “canceled,” if one is teaching or fencing without some intentional inclusion of the universals, then one is not really fencing. One might be fighting, sure, and maybe one has some success, but what makes the Art an art is not bravado, enthusiasm, physical attributes, speed, or luck. There is science involved, study, a set of principles and techniques that made this training worth one’s time back when it actually mattered, and, makes us more effective now.

Colpi di Vilano

Lest one think I’m making this up take a look at those sources from Fiore on that discuss fighting the untutored—the better masters knew this was possible if not likely and explained how to use the Art to counter the clod with a weapon. [5] I’ll be the first to admit that the attribute fighter full of confidence will collect a lot of medals, but success in a game is not the same thing as effective self-defense. We should be far more concerned with not being hit at all, and that means when we attack too.

The universals are important for a number of reasons. First, because these principles underpin any hand-to-hand combat system, they provide a vocabulary for understanding the sources and lessons which impart these systems. If your instructor stops you after an action and asks you about the measure just employed, or what action or actions one of you made; if they ask you why you chose a specific tactic over another; if they ask you to break down the action; they are discussing the universals as applied to what you’re learning. The universals, then, are behind every action and technique we tend to make, so it pays to know what they are.

Second, a solid grasp of these principles will “open up” or unpack a lot of sources. One can look at Meyer, Marcelli, Rossi; one can look at Jack Dempsey’s book on boxing; one can watch a lesson at BJJ dojo; one can watch some MMA match on television and analyze any one of them according to the universals. For the historical fencer the value of this knowledge can make all the difference in how effectively they’re using a source.

Lastly, a thorough grounding in the key concepts behind every action and tactic not only make it possible to take a student deeper into the Art, but also and as importantly help the instructor identify problem areas. How can we correct what we don’t understand? Moreover, the universals provide a nearly inexhaustible supply of lesson options.

How to Use the Universals in Lessons

There are different types of lessons, but no matter what type they are they should work from the universals. Warm up, teaching, option, and bouting lessons all work from the core principles. [6] Here I’d like to focus on option lessons, that is, having a student use material they know in different situations and set-ups. Generally, one is not introducing new concepts or techniques in an options lesson, but exploring that which the student already knows and/or does well.

The simplest way to create options for the student is to start with the universals. By varying what we do with these we help the student develop wider and more sophisticated applications of particular actions. As an example, the simple feint mentioned earlier, can be changed in myriad ways:

Ex. 1: Smallsword/Spada/Foil

Simple Feint (feint-thrust, disengage and thrust to target):

Measure:
–in measure (the student can reach target with a lunge
–out of measure (the student must advance or redouble to reach target with a lunge)
–close measure (the student can extend the arm to target)

Speed:
–attack executed at necessary speed
–attack executed with a fast feint, slow disengage/thrust
–attack execute with a slow feint, fast disengage/thrust

Initiative:
–instructor provides cue for student to begin action
–student provides cue for beginning action

Roles:
–instructor is defender, student attacker
–student is defender, instructor attacker
–both I and S can attack, a question of who sees the opportunity first

Putting all this together, the lesson might look like this:

3-5 min.           warm-up

direct thrusts from standing; lunging; with an advance; on the march; parry-riposte inside high and low/outside high and low

15-20 min.       OptionL:           working simple feints

Feint direct (inside/outside line)—student lands touch
–from standing
–with lunge
–with advance/cross-step lunge

Feint direct (outside/inside line)—Inst. parries; S p&r
–from standing
–with lunge
–with advance/cross-step lunge

Feints on the March
–Instr. provides cue, e.g. raising weapon from 8 to 6
–S. picks moment to attack (should look for neg. bal.)

Feints with Change of Tempo
–S. uses feet
–S. uses varies weapon’s movement

5-10 min.         Cool Down

Instr. attacks with open line, S makes arrest
–top of arm
–inside of arm
–outside of arm
–under the arm/wrist

This is just a quick sketch of one way to do this. The student and instructor could switch roles; they could each be confined to responses in a particular tempo; the Instr. or S., depending on skill level of the S, might introduce random actions in the midst of the topic. So long as these choices are made with the universal principles in mind, it is hard to go too far wrong.

Ex. 2: Fiore, Sword in Two Hands, from Punta Spada [7]

First Master of Longsword

Measure:
largo [wide]
stretto [close]
–passing steps into measure
–using accrescimenti to advance into measure

Tempo: 
–one tempo [thrust to face]
–two tempi [cut over to head or arms]

Speed:
–necessary speed
–slow-fast [slow step into measure; quick strike]
–fast-slow [quick step into measure; cut-over]

Initiative:        
–Instructor provides cue by stepping into measure and crossing swords
–Student provides cue by stepping into measure and crossing swords

Putting all this together, the lesson might look like this:

3-5 min.           Warm Up

7 Strikes of Segno; Meyer Square
–solo, in air or against pell
–with partner who adopts opposing posta
–from standing; with passing step

15-20 min.       OptionsL:          Working from the Bind in Longsword

I initiates action, crossing punta spada (1st master L gioco largo)
[I applies little pressure to bind]
–S thrusts to face
–from standing with step

I initiates action, crossing punta spada (1st scholar 1st Mstr)
[I applies pressure to bind]
–S steps to right with cut over to head or arms
–with pass right or left

I initiates action, crossing mezza spada (2nd master of L g.l.)
[I applies little pressure to bind]
–S drops sword to cuts hands (1st sch 2nd mstr)
–from standing with step

I initiates action, crossing mezza spada
[I applies pressure to bind]
–S steps to right with thrust to the chest
–with pass right or left

I initiates action, crossing mezza spada
[I applies little pressure to bind]
–S steps in, grabs point and cuts to the face (2nd sch 2nd mstr) [8]        

To make this more dynamic, one can have the student initiate the action; the student could add a defensive response; at close of lesson, the student must select the appropriate action based on sword placement, measure, and pressure on the blade, all of which the instructor changes at random.

Nuts & Bolts

The examples above hopefully illustrate the basic method. Armed with a grasp of the universals, and assuming decent familiarity with the subject, the instructor can select an action, class of actions, or actions and responses to create lessons that explore whatever the topic is beyond its simplest expression. One can scale up or down using the universals to create different permutations, all of which incorporate the basic action, be it a feint, working from a bind, or using the head and tail of a pole-axe. [9] Changing measure, tempo, speed, or initiative allow what is too often a limited action to became far more useful. Because such lessons build up from solid fundamentals, they not only help a student drill those elementary, foundational actions, but also teach them how to expand what is possible with them.

None of this, however, is easy, especially if one wasn’t taught this way. Like anything, though, it’s a question of putting in the time, taking lessons from someone who can impart these concepts, and then going through the sometimes clumsy process of making it all work in class. Each student is different, so flexibility is important too.

Curriculum Considerations & the Universals

Devising a curriculum requires sufficient subject knowledge, teaching skill, and experience enough to know where the progression of lessons should lead. Historical fencing, because it is (ostensibly) source-based and not just learned on-the-job, adds an additional layer of challenge. Often what clubs do is start on page one and proceed through a source start to finish. That can work, and some of our texts are set up to do that, but some are not organized the way we normally organize things now. Mnemonic verse, interleaving actions and options through masters, scholars, and remedy masters as Fiore does; incomplete works, notes, or outlines; difficult language, poor preservation, and obscure analogies or references all work against us. I’ve stated before that modern fencing vocabulary, while dangerous to apply one-to-one to many ancient works, nonetheless gives us a way to talk about these things. For example, I’ve described the action that  Fiore’s first scholar of the first longsword master makes as a cut-over; it is not made the same way one is in smallsword, sabre, or rapier, but if one knows what a cut-over is—moving from one side of the blade or engagement on that blade to the other by bringing the sword over the opposing steel—then it helps one figure out what to do. The differences are crucial—from punta spada I should not make that cut-over if the opponent is not pressing against my blade: I should thrust through and thus maintain opposition reducing the chance I get hit as I attack. In smallsword there are similar considerations, but I’m not worried about a cut, so the mechanics, the angles of a cut-over are different.

From Amazon (not making this shit up)

If new to the universals in a formal way, start small, start slow. Take a simple action or basic play and analyze the ways measure, tempo, or speed play into it. Even changing one thing will add to your student’s toolbox. From experience I know that it gets easier to devise lessons along these lines with practice, and to be candid, with failure. We have to give ourselves room to screw up or we will never advance. I’m not a fan (at. all.) of trite maxims, the sort best left to decorate the walls of some Trimalchian pilates trophy spouse’s home studio—life is hard, often cruel, a constant attempt not to drown in disappointment: the only way through it is to do what we do in a bout, to fight on regardless of the outcome. So, if using the universals doesn’t go well at first, break down what happened, adapt, and try again. It will deepen not only appreciation for the intricacies and beautiful variety within the Art, but also make us better instructors.

NOTES:

[1] With a grand statement like this one might easily take issue, but there is some consensus in the martial arts community’s research side that there are universal principles to hand to hand combat. Humans can only move so many ways, weapons can only be used in so many ways, and given these limitations and the typical contexts in which people fight hand to hand they tend to arrive at similar conclusions. See for example, Wojciech J. Cynarski, Martial Arts & Combat Sports: Towards the General Theory of Fighting Arts, The Lykeion Library Series, Vol. 25, Gdansk, PL: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Katedra, 2019.

[2] Many early modern and modern works on fencing discuss theory, variously defined, as well as technique. Where the universal principles are not mentioned, however, they are normally implied. One difficulty is that the community’s understanding and expression of theory has changed over time. The best interpretation of Fiore’s cutting mechanics for longsword I’ve yet seen seeks to project the weapon out quickly, efficiently, and with force—at its simplest, to make a mandritto fendente (downward blow from the right) from posta di donna, one drops the hands to chest height and out to target. Fiore doesn’t explain why—he assumes the reader knows. For a more explicit example, George Silver’s “true times” clearly list the chief considerations around measure, tempo, speed, and initiative and judgment.

[3] See Robert Handelman and Connie Louie, Fencing Foil: A Practical Training Guide for Coaches, Parents and Young Athletes, San Francisco, CA: Patinando Press, 2014

[4] For a prime example, seeFrancesco Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, translated by Christopher A. Holzman, Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2019, 63-79.

[5] Fiore, in the 4th scholar of the Second Master of Longsword, Wide Plays (Getty MS), discusses the Colpi di Villano, “Peasant’s Strike.” Cf. http://www.nwarmizare.com/Pocket-Fiore/assets/www/getty_th_longsword2.html

[6] This division of lessons types is modern, and not all concern each branch of fencing the same way, but the divisions remain useful for teaching.

[7-8] Unfortunately the most recent editions of Fiore’s surviving copies, published by Freelance Press, are expensive. Eric Miller, whom I met at Mike Cherba’s club (Northwest Armizare), put together a very handy app for Fiore. See http://www.nwarmizare.com/Pocket-Fiore/assets/www/index.html [9] I’ve only dabbled in pole-axe, chiefly via Fiore’s corpus and the late 15th century Burgundian work, Le Jeu de la Hache. For the latter, see Olivier Dupuis and Vincent Deluz, “Le Jeu de la Hache,” A Critical edition and dating discussion,” Acta Periodica Duellatorum 5: 1 (2017): 3-62. In fact, the very first portion the author of the this work lays out an option lesson for the tour de bras, folio 3r, Rubric 2, Section 4, 2.1 ff.

Review: Rossi’s _Sword and Sabre Fencing_ (1885)

Giordano Rossi. Sword and Sabre Fencing. Translated by Sebastian Seager. Melbourne Fencing Society, 2021. 275 pp. $17.99 US as of May 2022. [https://www.blurb.com/b/10846545-sword-and-sabre-fencing]

Cover, Rossi’s 1885 Scherma di Spada e Sciabola

I’ve long been a fan of Sebastian Seager’s excellent blog, “Radaellian Scholar,” since first discovering it a few years ago. His articles and posts there do much to fill out the story of the Radaellian school specifically and the Italian school generally, and are, as I see it, necessary reading for anyone serious about the study of 19th and early 20th century Italian fencing. His coverage of major figures, ideas, techniques, and sources, all gathered in one spot, is hard to beat. As a researcher myself I value his approach and shared fondness for footnotes.

Rossi is not his first translation. There are various posts that include some translated portions, but of particular notice is his edition of Del Frate’s 1868 manual on Radaellian sabre, Instuzione per maeggio e scherma della sciabola. Christopher Holzman’s translation of the 1876 edition is better known, but it is useful for any scholar of Radaellian sabre to read them both. With Rossi, Seager has added another critical work in this tradition for the English-speaking world.

Sebastian’s introduction (xi-xvii) will provide a far better and more succinct summation of Rossi and his place than I can here, but in short Rossi was a student of Radaelli’s and one of those, the first in fact, to write (1885) and issue an update to the master’s program. Rivalry between southern and northern masters, and the political clout of the former, led to a flurry of works designed to show the superiority of Radaellian (northern) sabre. Some of it makes for entertaining reading as Gelli and Masiello’s many remarks demonstrate well, but all in some ways were responses to criticism from the Neapolitans. This is one reason we see inclusion of spada, the sword (epee) as well as sabre.  

Rossi’s Sword and Sabre Fencing starts with a short history and coverage of the duel, and then general concepts. Larger sections on spada and sabre follow, each with synoptic tables outlying actions and counters. One of the reasons that Rossi is important is that within his sabre section, for example, he covers types of molinelli in more detail than Del Frate had earlier, in particular the molinelli ristretti or “restricted” molinelli (see 166ff). In addition, Rossi is the last to include the sforzi di cambiementi or as Seager lists them, “change-sforzi,” which went out of fashion not long afterward.

Seager’s translation of Rossi is clean, easy to read, and well-rendered. A list of terms at the close of the book and useful footnotes help explain both vocabulary and concepts, and will be especially helpful for those new to this period of Italian sources. Blurb, the p.o.d. company that produces the book, is fast as well. Not sure what it is about Australia and books, but in many years of collecting books no country has been as quick with the turn around as Australia. This translation is a volume that one should have in their fencing library.

Who are you? With what authority do you speak thus?

She ordered Charles to have the horses put to. Holst understood this, which was said in French, and begged her for the love of God not to set out; he had orders not to let her depart. “You,” said she, in a somewhat haughty tone, “who are you? With what authority do you speak thus?” He said he had no written order, but by word of mouth, and that his governor would soon arrive…

From Memoirs of Leonora Christina, Daughter of Christian IV of Denmark, Written during her Imprisonment in the Blue Tower at Copenhagen, 1663-1685, translated by F. E. Bunnett, London, UK: Henry S. King & Co., 1872) [https://www.gutenberg.org/files/38128/38128.txt]

Last week I had a chance to discuss the Radaellian school of sabre with a distant colleague in Germany, Dr. Manouchehr Khorasani, on his channel Razmafzar TV. There is one topic we didn’t discuss in detail, and which in part I dreaded despite its importance, but which I shall try to address more fully here. This is the place of Italian sabre in “HEMA” and one of the major challenges within it. [1] Late period Italian “HEMA” is an archipelago of tiny islands scattered so widely that they are a related island chain in theory only.

There are several reasons for this. On the surface, and understandable, is the fact of geography. When pockets of interest are separated by miles, countries, and oceans naturally it’s hard for the inhabitants of these islands to visit one another. Beyond that, however, there is a less obvious reasons for division. There is an unfortunate cliquishness born of both a lack of familiarity with other, related groups, and some variance in concepts of authority.

When possible I prefer to build rather than burn bridges, and because I’ve met few of the people in the field in person, I can’t know how they will react. How one appears online is not a sure guide. The internet is notorious for skewing intent and meaning. It is not my wish to call anyone out or set fire to yet another bridge, but only to call out the elephant in the room. My sense, knowing what I do know about the inhabitants of some of these islands, is that they may take umbrage with someone they consider an unknown, an upstart daring to discuss topics which they believe belong only to them. If any do, then they do, and I can only hope they reach out to me to discuss it.

Cliques writ Large

“Mean Girls,” 2004

People, being social (least most of them—we introverts unite, separately, in our homes…), tend to congregate around those they identify with, who share their interests, and in some degree who provide some measure of external validation. These benefits of association are intensified when the group in question, for whatever reason, is actively under siege or feels as if they are. How one responds to attack, or the perception of one, varies. Some seek to adapt in hopes of crossing whatever barrier exists between themselves and the clique. Others seek to undermine that clique, to besiege the besiegers as it were. Still others solidify their own position and contend with their rivals as best they can. Some leave the contest all together.

Cliques writ Small

For my part, I lament the reality of the cliques I see within the conglomeration of Italian schools. We’re few enough as it is. No one in HEMA balks at mention of Fiore, Marozzo, or Giganti—to name only three popular Italian masters studied in historical fencing—but bring up Radaelli, Masiello, or Pecoraro and Pessina and suddenly one is categorized as “other.” The kinder sort relegate one to “classical” fencing (never well-defined); the nastier sort lump one in with the modern sport, HEMA’s favorite bugbear. I recognize, thanks to age and experience, the ways in which some of this is natural, but as a life-long student what I notice most acutely is that all of us lose more than we gain in maintaining these boundaries. Sad as it is to be the red-headed step-child in the larger community, it’s sadder that those who should be natural allies, our fellow late-Italian enthusiasts, should follow suit and treat their family members as poorly.

Outside geography and isolation, the hard lines seem to fall along the fault-lines of notions of authority and recognition. For example, those who have worked hard to obtain certifications sometimes believe that anyone who has not is, by definition, unqualified or certainly less qualified than they are to expound upon that subject. Sometimes this is true, but sometimes it needs adjustment: in “HEMA” certifications within modern traditions, while valuable, do not grant automatic authority for past systems, not even to those extinct branches which created one’s own.

While definitions of authority are often shared between cliques, there are often operating differences that work to demarcate one group from another. Credibility is important, but it doesn’t belong exclusively to the provosts and masters. This is an especially important fact for anyone believing that they themselves are an authority, because one of the unwritten rules of expertise is responsibility to manage it appropriately, and, to recognize just what “authority” entails. What is it, specifically, that grants authority? Is it the organization that grants it? The piece of paper declaring it? Is it the internal ability and knowledge? Some combination?

Just as important, however, and far, far more difficult for many established or certified individuals, is recognizing expertise or skill outside such certification. It takes more than memorizing rules, definitions, and regurgitating them to recognize and honor other capable folks. There are people within the Italian orbit who have done significant, important work, and yet don’t warrant an invite to major conferences, teaching seminars, or invitational tournaments (no, I do not mean me). Why is this? It’s not lack of skill, because in print, video, and in person they have demonstrated not only their grasp of the pedagogical tradition, but also proven their ability to teach it and fight it. Professional jealousy and fear, both outgrowths of ego, likely explain this “ghosting.” If one has worked hard to obtain a certification, but has done so without the proper sense of humility such a course should entail, it’s easy to fear the person outside that system that might show one up.

To be fair, comparatively speaking there are many masters and provosts in the Italian branch of “HEMA,” both from and in Italy as well as outside it, who are keen to work with lots of people, not just other masters. There are, however, some notable exceptions in North America who appear not to want to work with others save on their own terms. However much they believe they are guarding their sacred, occult tradition, the inability or unwillingness to provide more than that when it is readily available is a sure-fire way to sink a program. It leads to stagnation, cultic adherence to received learning as one learned it, and unless students of that program can hold their own against others, as fencers, teachers, or scholars, that program is going to atrophy. Certification programs should include the necessarily flexibility to adapt and adopt new ideas and approaches when those novel ideas might improve the course.

“The Adventures of Robin Hood,” 1938–in this scene Little John beats Robin and worries that the famous outlaw will be upset. Robin replies “On the contrary, I love a man who can best me.”

True confidence, true ability, recognizes that students can benefit from such experts, even if they are not card-carrying maestri. Not to enlist the aid of such people when the goal is learning and improvement is horribly short-sighted and limits one’s own program. It’s narrow-minded, the worst sort of conceit. It takes a degree of mental toughness to acknowledge an expert, let alone invite one in, but if one’s goal is learning, then this is the way it should be done. My model for this is the old-school model I learned as a graduate student in history: one doesn’t go to a school because it’s a “name school,” but instead applies to a person, to the people most qualified to guide one in one’s study. If they’re worth their repute, they will encourage one to see other experts too. That person might be at Turnpike Tech, not necessarily Oxford or the Sorbonne.

In an arena as varied and complex as historical martial arts it’s perhaps best to conceive of authority in the plural, as authorities, and recognize that while a master’s cert indicates significant training, that it’s not the only path. Patrick Bratton, in one of our chats, provided a few rubrics by which we might measure authority or credibility:

–can they teach effectively?

–are they a competent fencer in the system they are teaching?

–do they know the history/context and theory, AND can they effectively convey it to others?

Within these three broad categories are subsets of questions important to ask. In terms of teaching effectiveness, are they able to explain each technique, idea, or tactic in its most elemental specificity, from the position of the hand to the pressure exerted by control fingers, from the placement of the arm to the timing with which the technique is made in relation to the feet? Can they then incorporate that level of detail and build up? If they can, do they? There is a LOT of video out there, and so much of it is shared without any hint as to why. Teaching vids are some of the worst offenders in this regard. If one is sharing a teaching video, at least include what it is one is doing and why. With regard to fencing competency in the system in which they were certified, how adept are they? How often do they exercise and test this skill? Do they do so only with friends, or, do they venture out? When it comes to history and theory, how well do they know it, and, do they avail themselves of available resources?

Certification—What is it?

What the modern schools are supposed to teach is the current body of knowledge as handed down, and depending on rank, how to teach it. [2] This is as true of the USFCA as it is the Sonoma program. Masters emerging from either program should be able to teach anyone, at any level, and most importantly help train new teachers. What history they study, if they do, is generally minimal and/or tailored to the specific needs of their program. The USFCA, for example, is focused on the sport, not its development; the Sonoma program, which does cover some history, does so only within the confines of the work of their founder, Maestro William Gaugler. [3] What either program should provide is first an understanding of the universal principles in fencing, what Matire Robert Handelman refers to as “the elements of fencing.” [4] Second, they should impart technique and tactics, the first in fine-grained specificity, the second following logically from what it is possible to do with those techniques oneself, and, what one does when they’re used against one. Needless to say that all of the above must reflect the elements or universal principles. For the maestri, provosts, etc. who do study past systems, what gives them an edge is the fact that they are armed with a solid foundation in the application of the universals, technique, and tactics. It’s a lot easier to look at historical versions of this if one has a firm grasp on today’s systems.

Nothing in the purpose of modern fencing certification equates to expertise in historical fight systems. In fact, possession of the lanista’s rudis is not the only way, and in fact, might not be the best way. It depends on the person. There are other paths by which one may accrue both knowledge and skill. I will argue whenever I have the chance that everyone should take at least a year of foil or sabre, preferably in as traditional/classical as one can, before diving into HEMA, but beyond that I think it’s important to separate what one learns in becoming a provost or master today from what some certified teachers purport or suggest their sheepskin means.

A Challenge

For my colleagues within the late Italian sphere of fencing, especially those with the certifications of master or provost, I challenge you to reach beyond your clique; I challenge you to embrace discomfort and seek out those individuals who can best aid your students. Why pass up a good chance to improve your program? I challenge you to look beyond your certs and at what these individuals have to offer, humbly, without recourse to ego, fear, or envy. Put those aside, put what is best for your students first. It will be good for you too.

As a student myself, I seek out the best teachers I can, because I want to improve. My skill is never good enough for me; sure, it may be fair enough to impart basics to someone new, but for me myself the climb is eternal, the journey the point; it’s what I learn along the way more than it is any trophy, award, gift, or certification. The benchmarks we reach, such as certifications, signify key moments in study and growth, but are not destinations in and of themselves, least they ought not to be. [5] These honor my effort, and I appreciate them deeply, but I want to work with those who can best help me grow, certification or not.

NOTES:

[1] This is a topic I covered briefly in an earlier post, 22 March, 2021 “Italian Sabre & HEMA” https://saladellatrespade.com/2021/03/22/italian-sabre-hema/

[2] Ideally, any certification program, moniteur to master, is teaching one how to teach. This goes beyond watching and emulating, but down to actual discussion, instruction, and on-the-job training.

[3] Maestro Gaugler established a military masters’ program in San Jose, California, under the auspices of Italian programs like the Accademia Nazionale di Scherma in Naples and The Fencing Masters’ Preparatory Course at the National Institute of Physical Education, Rome. His works, A Dictionary of Universally Used Fencing Terminology (1997), The History of Fencing (1998), and The Science of Fencing (1997), perhaps with the addition of his articles, comprise the course reading at the program’s new home at Sonoma State University. Gaugler’s books are important additions, late ones, to a venerable corpus, but no replacement for the original sources or classics like Szabo’s Fencing and the Master.

[4] See for example Maitre Rob Handleman and Maitre Connie Louie, Fencing Foil: A Practical Training Guide for Coaches, Parents, and Young Athletes, San Francisco, CA: Pattinando Publishing, 2014, 308-312; see also Fencing Sabre: A Practical Guide for Coaches, Parents, and Young Athletes, 2010. The epee course I took in 2021, which is available in full via Fencing Metrics, takes the place of his book on epee. I’ve had the honor to take two courses with Maitre Handelman and he emphasizes over and over that everything we do, anything we teach, must emerge from the elements. The old masters would agree.

[5] My eldest son, when he completed his black belt, did so at a do jang with the right attitude. There is a poster hanging in the school that sums up what the students are meant to learn in acquiring that well-known symbol: a black belt means that they are now ready to start learning. I would suggest that our fencing certifications might be best viewed in a similar light.

A Short Discussion on Radaellian Sabre

Yesterday I once again had the pleasure to chat with Dr. Manouchehr Khorasani on Razmafzar TV. This time we discussed the sabre system of Giuseppe Radaelli (d. 1882) and its legacy. I was lucky to have Mike Cherba from Northwest Armizare present to help demonstrate some of the key features of the system. In part 1 of the interview we discuss Radaelli, the works on his system, and his period. Part 2, coming soon, will share the demonstration portion.

https://youtu.be/7V1BZBNBs6s

Attempting to Realize “Realism”

In historical fencing we place significant weight on the concept of “realism,” here defined as fencing as accurately as we can both in the sense of treating the blade as if sharp and in attempting to fight as closely as one can to the dictates of the system we study. However, outside the lunatic fringe, we also fence as safely as possible. One of the frequent observations I’ve shared here is that our sense of safety affects how effectively we accomplish this. Without fear we are prone to make actions we might not were we fighting in earnest. Short of expensive medical bills, law suits, and jail time, however, there is only so much we can do about it. It’s daft not to wear gear—as I tell kids “eyes don’t grow back”—so we are left with cultivating a strong sense of awareness. It’s not an ideal solution, but the effort isn’t wasted. The proper mindset, and awareness of how our study is hobbled, only improves our understanding and hopefully our interpretations. This subject popped up again for me recently during a rapier lesson and got me thinking about all this in more detail.

To date, I’ve covered this in a general way, mentioning the problem and suggesting that we would do well to keep it in mind. However, a natural question is how; how is one to cultivate this sense and where? Do we think this way all the time, just with certain maneuvers, or only in certain contexts?

‘Tis but a Scratch!

King Arthur and the “Invincible” Black Knight from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” 1975

Arguably one of the more serious failures we make in historical fencing is downplaying the effect, physical and psychological, even a non-lethal wound has on a person. More than once I’ve mentioned the kitchen or craft-knife accident, but a shot to the face by a hard ball, the lacrosse stick that misses pads and jabs an arm, the toe that meets a furniture corner, and the car-door that smashes a finger all ought to remind us that even “minor” injuries can ruin our day. I’m not the only person who believes we need to remember this—just his past week Matt Easton of Schola Gladitoria posted a video that discusses a number of examples of how non-lethal wounds can affect us. [1]

Somehow, however, once we don a mask we can forget this. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone say “oh that was just my arm” or “meh, you only stabbed my hand,” and yet were we to have a finger smashed or an arm broken or cut-deeply I doubt we’d brush it off so casually. Having broken most of my fingers at some point, having had a near-compound fracture in my dominant arm, and having had stitches for deep wounds I know myself that sometimes one can keep going, and, sometimes one is rendered hors d’combat. I’ve fought on, twice, after having a finger smashed so badly it was bleeding, but only because I didn’t realize how bad it was. Once I did realize it I stopped fighting. I’ve also been bruised hard enough to stop a fight: I literally couldn’t hold the weapon after that hit. The context is important.

We cannot know, in many cases, how we would react in these situations, but even so we need to be mindful of the fact that even a so-called minor wound might stop a fight, incapacitate us, or freak us out enough that the fight would effectively be over. We forget this to our peril if we’re truly trying to fence as realistically as we can. While “HEMA” talks a lot about the after-blow, a shot made after one’s own that lands, we ought to be just as concerned about the incontro, the double, about being hit as we make our attack.

The Role of Teaching

Everything we teach should be in accordance with the source tradition we work in, but it also must abide the reality principle. If we are teaching anything without a concomitant concern for self-preservation, then we’re doing it the wrong way. It’s not just about making the touch, but doing so in such a way that one is not hit in the process. This will feel and present very differently than much of what we see today in historical fencing. It requires us to be more conservative, less aggressive from the off, and far more cautious.

To illustrate this I want to take a look at a few common aspects of most fencing: for offense, feints and beats; for defense the parry/riposte and attacks in tempo. Some of these I’ve mentioned before, but not in one place nor in this specific context. Regardless of consideration of technique or its application, however, we need to revisit what “don’t be hit” means as a guiding principle when making these common actions. How we teach them is everything.

Offense: Feints

Feints are what we often call “fake-outs” in colloquial American English. They are actions we make to force an opponent to move their blade out of the way so we can strike them in a specific line. They are not easy to do. On the one hand there is the technical aspect, the individual motions the fingers, hand, and arm make, the changing of lines, the false strike and real one, but on the other are the critical issues of measure and timing. When we teach feints we focus first on finding the right measure from which to start the feint—in brief, it needs to be made close enough to get the opponent to react, but just far enough out that one can change the line. Depending on the instructor the fine-tuning with this can be extremely specific. For a feint to work it must be convincing, but our sense of safety with a mask and trainer versus no mask and a sharp begs the question of whether we’d react even to a poor feint if it was close enough.


In examining two of Marcelli’s guards, mezzaluna and porto di ferro, last week, my friend Ken Jay and I realized something that might temper the specificity we normally apply to feints. [2] These guards, hallmarks of the Neapolitan School according to Terracusa e Ventura (ca. 1725), are stout positions. [3] Mezzaluna forces an opponent to the low line; porto di ferro, on the other hand, forces them to the high line. Rapier and dagger, deservedly, represent some of the best expressions of western swordplay, and these two guards, in our experience anyway, force one to pay close attention not only to distance and timing, but also to the nature of the attack: a simple attack will rarely succeed, and a compound one, while more likely to meet with success, can likewise be defeated thanks to the defense-in-depth provided by the dagger.

Ken observed, after I made a feint from slightly out of distance, that were my weapon sharp he might still have attempted to parry. This statement really got me thinking. In jackets, with masks, and armed with rebated rapiers neither of us is trying to be hit, but we’re not worried about what happens if we are either. We are not afraid.

This is a point worth long consideration—how perfect does a feint have to be if the weapon is sharp, the person wielding it keen to do us harm, and our own natural aversion to pain in play? Certainly training helps, but more so would experience. By the latter I mean having faced similar situations and having emerged from them unscathed. To do so would, with good reason, build confidence in one’s ability as well as a sense of how far out one can make a feint. However sure of oneself, a sharp point is a sharp point and so unless completely sure the prudent thing to do would be to react, in this case perhaps to take a half step back or off-line and parry, knowing that what looks like an attack might in fact be a feint or vice-versa. Would we take the chance and guess or play it safe? This is where experience and drill can make all the difference.

Beats

If one has spent time in Olympic fencing then one has likely learned a few different ways to effect beats. A beat is a sharp knock to the opposing steel using one’s weapon to deviate it from the line. Where a feint forces the opponent to open the line themselves, a beat is a way for us to force them to shift lines. In Olympic fencing, however, the concern is less over removing the steel from a specific line than it is in establishing right of way (ROW). This is a major difference, and for those of us who came up initially in the sport, it means a shift in view when using beats with period weapons. In the sport, making the beat regardless of shifting the weapon is sufficient to establish ROW—it’s symbolic.

Returning to Marcelli and rapier, facing an opponent in mezzaluna one can beat the rapier, but it’s not enough to make contact and strike. We may or may not have removed the steel: the opponent might replace it quickly after the beat; and of course they have the dagger waiting to intercept too. A beat from the retracted terza/third used in mezzaluna, against the inside line of a similarly held weapon, may move the weapon, but chances are high that one’s opponent will replace the line easily and quickly and thus negate the effort. Significantly, Marcelli touches on this issue in Part II, Book I, Ch. 12, “The Beats with the Sword” in Rules of Fencing.

I have not found a better occasion for making the beats than that, which is encountered in the Fourth Guard, in which the opponent’s point is found convenient for making this action. Although it can be practiced against all the other guards, nevertheless it is made more securely against this, or against any other that keeps the point of the sword forward. So then, he is always found ready to beat the opposing sword, with it standing forward, it stands separated from the defense of the dagger and stands more apt for this action. This cannot be done with such ease in the other, narrower and more united, guards because in those the opposing sword’s point is found defended by the dagger, and going to beat it, the opponent can easily be given the opportunity to take the Cavaliere’s sword with the dagger and would him with the time thrust.

[Occasione migliore per far le Toccate, Io non trovo di quella, che s’incontra nella Quarta Guardia, nella quale si trova commode la punta del nemico per farli questa attione; e benche contro tutte le alter Guardie si possa pratticare, con tuttociò più sicuramente si fà contro di questa, o contro di qual sivoglia altra, che tenga la pūta della spade avanti. Posciache all’hora si trova la spada nemica sempre pronta à toccarla, mentre con lo stare avanti, stà disunita dalla disesa del pugnale, e stà piu adattata per questa attione. Lo che non può farsi con tanta facilatà nelle alter Guardie più ristrettte., e piu unite, per che in quelle la punta della spada nemica so trova disesa dal pugnale, e con l’andare a toccaria, si potrebbe facilmente dar occasione al sopradetto di precarli la sua Spada co’l pugnale, e di offenderlo con li suoi Tempi.] [4]

Marcelli’s Fourth Guard (fig. 2, left) and First Guard or Mezzaluna (fig. 1, right); 274, Holzman, 204 in the pdf

Time spent working this sword (and dagger) in hand proves the wisdom in Marcelli’s caution. His Fourth guard, being more extended, is a safer bet for a beat than either mezzaluna or porto di ferro—with those, the beat may be a decent preparatory action, but on its own it’s not likely to succeed, not without one also being hit.


Marcelli goes on to explain that just as with feints, the strike must follow immediately after the beat is made. There is the danger that the opponent’s dagger will intercept, so any delay only increases the chances the beat-attack will fail. The beat may disorient, but that is not enough—it must clear the line sufficiently or one risks getting spiked making the attack. The most successful beats we have found were against the sword, but then delivered to the dagger hand with a shift to the side, or, followed by a feint. With the layered defense provided by rapier and dagger compound attacks are crucial. It’s not that simple attacks can’t work, but that against a skilled opponent they are harder to achieve. We have also found that beats from the outside line which drive an opponent’s rapier toward the inside line tend to work better—not only does it open the line more securely (there is no dagger), but also it’s easier to make the thrust and close-out the opposing weapon. Conversely, those beat-attacks we made on the inside to the inside were far more likely to be parried or earn us a spike as we closed the attack.

Defense: Parry/Ripostes

In teaching people to parry, we are attempting to impart to them an action which has a lot of moving pieces, all of which must work in concert, and which not only must begin at the right distance, but start at the correct time. The concept is simple—“stop the other sword”—but the execution is complex. A parry by itself might preserve one, but on its own does nothing to offend the opponent, and so we generally make a riposte afterwards. There is, in short, a lot that can go terribly wrong before one ever sets foot on the piste or in the ring.

Of all the ways to parry, simultaneous parry-ripostes, which block and strike at the same time—what Marcelli calls the “parries in tempo” (Parate in Tempo; 267pdf)—represent a sort of Platonic ideal of a parry for thrust-oriented systems. Marcelli writes:


The parries in tempo are none other than direct thrusts performed in the tempo that the opponent performs his; therefore, the method of making those must be learned well in order to then have more ease in the execution of these. In performing them, it must be advised that the parries in tempo can be made in all the guards, as much as in the guard below the weapons, as outside the weapons, inside the weapons, and in that of the sword forward.

[Le Parate in Tempo non sono altro, che Stoccate dritte tirate nel Tempo, che l’nimico tira la sua; perciò si deve imparar bene il Modo di far Quelle, per havere poi più facilità nell’esecutone di Queste. In opra delle quali si deve avertire, che in tutte le guardie si possono fare le Parate in Tempo, così neall Guardia sotto l’armi, come in quella di for a l’armi, in quella di dentro l’armi, & in quella di spade avanti.] [5]

Parries in tempo or what we might call simultaneous parry-ripostes take considerable time to learn to use effectively. The precision, sense of timing, and fortitude required demand consistent, dedicated training, and time to perfect.

Outside of thrust-oriented systems, however, we usually think of a parry as a block, an action which stops an attack by adopting a static opposing position. Weapon weight, measure, timing, and skill all affect how successful either version will be.

One of the worst mistakes we can make in teaching students how to parry and riposte is to fail to cement in their minds what a parry means. A successful parry is a sign that an attack has failed. This doesn’t mean that the defender is out of danger, but it does mean that the attacker should have one thought in their head: defense. The entire logic behind Olympic “right of way” rests on this principle. [6] Both fencers, early on, can misread this situation. The defender, having parried, may strike with zero regard for the fact the other person is still armed; the attacker, their first attempt stopped, may continue to target with no regard for the riposte screaming towards them. Both children and adults have commented to me in drill “but I hit them,” which is true, but only half-true. Yes, you hit them after or as they riposted, but was that the wisest, safest choice? No. You got hit too.

Marcelli’s Third Guard or Fianconata (left) and Porta di Ferro (right); 277 in Holzman, 208 of the pdf

The defender must do more than parry and strike—they must do so with the awareness that there is still a sharp point out there. The riposte must follow quickly lest the opponent use the extra tempo to remise, and ideally the defender will riposte as much as possible in such a way that a smart attacker will not try to take tempo, but parry in turn. The attacker, on the other hand, having been parried, should realize the attack failed and immediately go on defense. Sure, there are times the defender’s response is slow and a remise an option, but here too one must do what one can to renew that attack safely and cover.

Attacks in Tempo/Counter-Attacks

As mentioned just above, attacks made in tempo against an attack, versus a defensive response, are often an option, but they are dangerous to make. Fencers with an excellent sense of timing—which can be improved dramatically via drill—can avail themselves of this option with more success, but what holds for the less skilled holds for them too: they must consider their own safety in making such an attack.

The standard stop-cut drill in sabre is a good model for this. Ditto arrest drills in epee. In sabre, the instructor attacks poorly, usually in three main ways: cutting to the inside exposing the inside forearm; cutting the outside exposing the outside forearm; cutting to the head with a bent arm exposing the bottom of the forearm. The student makes a counter attack in tempo, either making a cut or an arrest to each of the exposed targets, as they step back, then parries the blow as it terminates in that line, and ripostes. Here, the student employs counter-offense, a blow in tempo, but also covers in case the attempt fails.

Cultivating Caution

None of what I’ve shared here means much unless one’s goals are to fence as “realistically” as possible. Any set of competition rules, by definition, has to make allowances for deviation from realism if for no other reason that the challenge of effective judging, and it’s competition, a game, so that is okay. One should be forthright about it, own that fact, but assuming one realizes the limitations, fine. In teaching, however, in drill, in all we do as learners we need to cultivate a proper sense of caution and do what we can within a given system to avoid being hit. To own the truth, being hit is historical too—sword combat crippled a lot of people and put a lot of people in the ground—but unless one is keen to emulate that, it’s probably wise to consider how our training, in every sense, supports or undermines the guiding principle of “don’t be hit.”

NOTES:

[1] Cf. Matt Easton, “How do you incapacitate someone with a sword?!” 18 March 2022, https://youtu.be/zqADQyPBZmw]

[2] NB: while beats can be made against these guards, they are far less susceptible to beats than say when facing sword alone or against Marcelli’s Fourth Guard with rapier and dagger.

[3] See Nicola Terracusa e Ventura, True Neapolitan Fencing, 1725, trans. Christopher A. Holzman (Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2017), 70. Google Books, p 66 of La vera scherma napolitana rinovata dal signor Nicola Terracusa, e Ventura, Parte II, Ch. III, “Del modo di tirare le stoccate, e delle tre guardie,” or page 68 in the pdf after download. Link: https://books.google.com/books?id=PYcpqbY0e2sC&pg=PA63#v=onepage&q&f=false

[4] Part II, Book I, Ch. 12, “The Beats with the Sword” in Francesco Antonio Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, 1686, trans. by Christopher A. Holzman (Witchita, KS: Lulu Press, 2019), 313; the pdf available on Google Books is p. 29 of Parte Seconda, Libro Primo Cap. XII online, but p. 231 of the pdf after download. Link: https://books.google.com/books?id=yOVEAQAAMAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false

[5] Part II, Book 2, Ch. 2, “Method of Making the Parries in Tempo,” Rules of Fencing, trans. Holzman, 369; Google Books p. 65 of Libro Secondo Cap. II, or p. 267 in the pdf after download.

Of note, Marcelli explains earlier in his work that he does not advocate moving anything other than the weapon and arm that wields it to parry. The fencer should stand firm, in guard, and use timing, a solid guard position, and just enough movement to block or deviate the incoming attack. [Part I, Book I, CH. XIII, p. 53ff in Holzman]. In many systems, including among many Italian masters later, the feet are often the first to move, even if a short half-step back. Given a weapon of the weight and length used in Marcelli’s period, however, there is less necessity for using the feet as one does in modern foil or late period sabre.

[6] My go-to example of this is the riposte to the flank delivered by lunge after parrying 5th in sabre. Students young and old have shared concern over the Damoclesian sword poised above them as they riposte. It’s an excellent observation. This said, while one can side step to the inside line if they so choose as they deliver the riposte, the initial attacker should be more worried about that riposte than in dropping their blade to bonk the opponent on the head. The blow was stopped, its energy is spent, so an extended arm grasping a sabre that can do nothing but drop is a poor trade for that fully developed riposte heading for their ribs.

The Value of Historical Fencing for the Olympic Fencer

Two posts ago [31 Ja. 2022 “Further Tales in Continuing Education”] I outlined a few ways the historical fencer might benefit from Olympic fencing’s pedagogy, terminology, and their well-established use of the universals in most aspects of their approach. Here, I’d like to do the same for the Olympic fencer and suggest a few ways they might take advantage of the historical approach. [1]

This post will read differently from the previous one. It’s not that there’s nothing the Olympic fencer can learn from historical fencing, but that what they might learn is more theoretical than practical or tied to specific applications useful in their game. This isn’t to say that time spent on (the better) historical interpretations won’t improve an Olympic fencer’s understanding of technique, even their fencing, but to say that where modern understanding can help “unpack” the sources, the knowledge and practice that emerge from the sources will not help one earn ratings or trophies. The contexts are too different: the rules that govern the sport, while still tied in some ways to the logic of the sharp point, are divorced enough from the original purpose that between the rules and electrical scoring apparatus fighting “historically” will only lose one points. This is something I’ve covered often, too often probably, so for brevity this time I leave that discussion in a note. [2]

Historical Fencing’s Value for the Sport: The Short Answer

More than anything else the modern fencer spending time in historical fencing should gain increased appreciation for the sport. I say “should” because if the Olympic fencer spends time on “bad HEMA,” then they’ll likely experience the same revulsion they normally do. So, assuming they find decent interpretations sans tin-foil hat thinking they should return to the piste with more awareness of their own game. It’s genealogy in a way. It’s time spent looking through a family tree, seeing connections, and ultimately how one’s own story fits into the larger one.

Few modern fencers need be told how complex and sophisticated the Art is, how difficult to acquire and how much more difficult to use effectively (never mind gracefully). On the other hand, most may not fully appreciate how much more to fencing there has been historically, how varied the tools were, or how nimbly people developed weapons and systems for unique contexts. They may also learn how the three modern weapons happened to be the three that “survived” to form the modern sport. It’s easy to assume no other outcome was possible, but even within more recent history there are examples that remind us of this rich past and that modern foil, epee, and sabre might have included other, now extinct branches. [3]

There are also, under the umbrella of appreciation, more specific benefits the modern fencer might acquire as well.

Increased Insight into the Hows and Whys of Technique

Olympic fencers, more so than their cousins in historical, pay careful attention to technique, to the proper use of and positioning that makes an attack or parry succeed. From the first day of instruction this awareness is inculcated; it’s a key aspect of teaching one how to fence. A day-one fencer learns why the sword and hand move first, why the lead foot points straight ahead, and how far the blade needs to move to defend against attacks in various lines. Everything, from the distance the elbow should be from the body on guard to where the knee should be over the foot, is taught as a matter of course. Depending on the club, an instructor may not have much time to explain each aspect in depth, but they rarely teach without this high degree of specificity. Typically students receive instruction, work on it with the maestro or instructor, and then drill it with other students. The average fencer doesn’t need to know how a technique developed, only how to perform and use it effectively. That is the goal, after all, movement streamlined to achieve a specific goal. It’s really only if those students get into teaching that some sense of the development of technique is important, but even here the goal is not history but effective transmission of what students need now.

Del Frate, 1876

To illustrate this one can look at a modern method of taking parry five, the head parry, in sabre. Few students are taught sixth, seventh, or first as alternatives, only fifth. Of note, the blade is turned out toward the opponent, not up, the reason being that so turned one’s parry is more easily taken farther out and has a better chance of defeating whip-over. [4] The mid-century method I learned was closer to what it was at 1900, that is, the thumbnail faces down, the blade is angled up, and then turned slightly forward and out. Earlier Italian practice was farther out even than this.

The Olympic fencer doesn’t need to know why they take 5th the way they do, but if they take the time to examine how the head parry has developed over time they will come away with greater insight, not only into what they are learning, but also into the changes demanded by different weights and balances of weapons and how rulesets affect technique. As I often remind students, there is no Platonic ideal of a parry—we have a starting place, but exactly where we take that parry in a given bout can vary in actual practice. [5]

Improved Appreciation for the Role the Universals Play

ROW (“right of way”) revolves around universal principles of fight. As I’ve mentioned before, ROW assumes the same logic we apply in historical fencing, which is to say that the attack takes precedence. If a sharp blade is racing toward us we had best defend. The application across schools, styles, and forms of hand-to-hand fighting may vary, but this principle is always in play. The difference in Olympic is that so long as one has ROW nothing else matters (save in epee where there is no ROW). This means that being hit at nearly the same time or just after, or off-target in foil and sabre, doesn’t mean much. It’s not that the rules don’t govern these incidents too, because they do, but that one is not concerned about being hit, only that one hits with priority.

What historical fencing offers the Olympic fencer is a stricter view of this principle. Our rule is “don’t get hit.” Ever. Whether defending or, importantly in this instance, on the attack, the goal is not to be struck. It’s not enough to hit first or start first; one must land the attack and not get hit while doing so. This doctrinaire approach to universal principles is useful. The reason the weapon and arm move first, also necessary for establishing ROW, is that when the swords were sharp this was primary: we are safest behind that sharp point and threaten best when it moves first. This way the dangerous bits reach target faster and are more likely to get a reaction from the opponent. It’s efficient motion—none of it is superfluous. One benefit of weapon-first is reducing the degree we telegraph an action. Add nerves in the mix and efficiency becomes all the more important; it’s one reason why we drill simple actions over and over again.

The historical approach, because it doesn’t have ROW or off-target, means that it’s unforgiving. A hit is a hit unless passé or flat. Like it or not, much of competitive fencing is performance; sure skill and tactics are vital, but the most successful competitors also know how to play to the director, judges, and audience. It’s as true in “HEMA.” If an Olympic fencer applied the same logic we do in historical, imagine how much more strongly that drama might read. [6] Few things send a clear message to director and opponent like stop-cutting the opposition and then parrying and striking them a second time. Whipover aside it reads a certain way—it implies control, calm, confidence. If anything, given the horrific issue of whipover even to achieve such a close-out once is significant and worthy of note.

Greater Understanding of the Origins and Development of the Sport

Returning to the genealogy of fencing, the Olympic fencer spending time in the average HEMA group will likely feel incredibly grateful for all that the sport has to offer. I don’t wish to rail against the historical community, but it’s a patchwork of clubs, groups, and schools of varying quality, and only a handful of which are able to offer much in terms of solid teaching. Most Olympic fencers will find the “fight club” nature of HEMA off-putting, the lack of drill foreign, the misuse of sources bizarre, and the inconsistency in pedagogy rightly concerning. Most ills in HEMA derive from these problems.

The Olympic fencer seeing the positive aspects of historical fencing will view their own training with new appreciation and awareness. It’s that learning a second language vantage point. With luck—and I confess this is a selfish wish—that fencer may also come to see their ruleset with new eyes. There are logical inconsistencies that make zero sense, which might be solved easily, and which vested interest and inertia ignore. My favorite example is the fact one can score with the flat of the sabre—the Olympic fencer, concerned with ROW, seeks to get the steel on target with little thought to which part of the blade. Needless to say with a live blade striking flat isn’t going to do much and certainly isn’t going to render one’s opponent hors de combat. We have blades now that could easily solve this problem, something a few of us were advocating twenty years ago but lacked decent tools for, and the investment would be worth it. Castille’s 16mm, Darkwood’s sabre blade (provided Scott increases the width and thickness of the tip), and a few others are all light enough that they don’t require a body-builder to wield, are flexible enough to be safe in the thrust provided the usual safety equipment and control, and still allow for complex actions. The net gain is worth the risk or trying something new that is, actually, old 😉 [7]

Case Study: Circa 1900 sabre at 755g vs. Olympic Sabre at 325g

Ferdinando Masiello, 1887

For a specific example of this awareness, a modern sabreur who picks up a sabre with the weight and balance of period originals will find it heavy. Of the three surviving weapons sabre, oddly enough, is the lightest of the three. [8] If they attempt to play the game they do today with yesterday’s weapon they will quickly appreciate how much has changed.

Luigi Barbasetti, 1899/1936

Direct cuts are made much the same with either weight of weapon, but some of the ripostes will initially feel slow, large, and dangerous. The molinello we make from the head parries of 5th or 6th, to name one example, requires more elbow. Weight affects distance too. The feint thrust to the inside line, disengage and thrust or cut to the other line, is slightly slower with a heavier blade, so where one starts that feint must be correct; moving the weapon faster in a pinch won’t work like it does with the s2000. Weight and balance affect speed. A beat made from third, for instance, may displace the point from the line, but it might be easier for the opponent to replace that line too—this defeats the purpose of the beat and can make this maneuver dangerous. This is rarely an issue with the s2000.

Pecoraro & Pessina, 1912

The nature of the blade changes things too. The fact one must hit with a cutting or stabbing portion of the blade with each blow will likely make an Olympic sabre fencer pause when trying to make a banderole cut the current way (flat). As nonsensical as it is with the s2000, seeing the wider flat of a 16 or 20mm sabre on target highlights how silly an idea it is. This same fencer will find the curve on copies of period sabres foreign too—modern sabre blades are all straight. This affects how one makes a point in line, how one targets a thrust, and how one makes certain actions on the blade.

Joseph Vince, 1940

Moreover, weapons built along historical lines can immediately explain some of the vestigial artifacts that survived into 20th century if not modern sabre. One reason we turn the hand out slightly in parrying third, which is still taught, is that it puts the edge out to receive the incoming steel. We have the elbow about a fist away from the body in Hungarian third/Italian terza bassa (low third) too. Why? The blade is best supported with one’s thumb behind it, and the forte on sabres wasn’t sharp—it was meant to block. So positioned, if the parry collapses, and depending on the weapon one is facing it can, then the arm is pushed directly into the body, but in a straight line and one that still, if all goes right, keeps one safe and keeps the edge aligned to riposte. A panic-parry made close to the body is possible with an historical blade; with the s2000 chances are high there will be whipover and one will receive a touch.

And, Lastly

Using copies of the weapons which originally informed the system one fences is fun. That’s reason enough to try it out and see how they play. Paired with a decent historical source—I list some on the site in both the “About Us” and “FAQ” pages—makes it all the more rewarding. It’s can be a slippery slope, though, so be warned. You might find you like it, and some of the best fencers I know have a one foot in Olympic, one in historical. It just means more fencing and when is that ever bad?

NOTES:

[1] As quick reminder, I use the term “Olympic” and less often “sport” as short-hand; I do not mean them pejoratively. These are descriptive terms and serve only to delineate their branch of the tree from historical. I’ve long been on record for the issues I have with the FIE’s handling of certain problems, and I stand by those complaints, but it’s important to clarify that one can take issue with rules and their interpretation and yet still value the culture those rules govern.

[2] The chief difference between Olympic and historical fencing is purpose. Though intimately related, the former seeks to score points, the latter not to be hit. Both, odd as it may seem, prioritize the initial offensive action, but they do so in different ways. In the sport, right of way (ROW for short), dictates that the first fencer to start an offensive action has “priority,” that is, will score unless the opponent successfully defends and ripostes or successfully attacks in tempo. If anyone is hit after that exchange, indeed if one is hit at nearly the same time, it doesn’t matter—the point goes to the person with ROW. This is meant to reflect the reality of the duel, and does in that one respect, but the lack of concern over near simultaneous strikes and “off-target” touches undercuts this reality significantly. Only in epee does a simultaneous attack automatically penalize both fencers.

In historical fencing, the priority of the attack is supposed to reflect the reality of a sharp point: if the point or edge is thrusting or arcing toward one, then prudence dictates one defend oneself lest one be (metaphorically) wounded or killed. Ideally, one makes that attack and is not hit on the way in, or, hit immediately afterward. There is no “off-target” in historical fencing.

On the face of it this understanding should have obvious appeal to the Olympic fencer, but however much it should help them the nature of their equipment is such that it doesn’t translate. For one example, the s2000 blade too easily wraps around defense to score, and while “one-light” touches happen, more often than not who struck first is determined by the box. It’s common for both fencers to be struck, and more likely in sabre since any portion of the blade, even the flat, may score.

[3] Victorian “HEMA,” such as the longsword and rapier work Alfred Hutton experimented with, is one such example (cf. his Old Swordplay: Techniques of the Great Masters, Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2001; see also Egerton Castle’s Schools and Masters of Fencing: From the Middle Ages to the Eighteenth Century, Mineola, NY: Dover Books, 2003). The man behind the revival of the Olympic Games, first held in 1896, was a fencer and had written a book on mounted fencing (cf. Baron Pierre de Coubertin et Louis Pascaud, Traite d’escrime equestre, Auxerre, FR: 1906) The 1904 Olympics had single-stick and in 1908 there was “three-cornered sabre,” see Richard Cohen, By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions, New York, NY: Random House, 2002, 213). There were also oddities, such as the like longsword games constructed along the lines of Meyer, practiced by some of the Hitler Youth in World War II (see J. Christoph Amberger’s discussion, page 235ff, in The Secret History of the Sword, Burbank, CA: Unique Publications, 1998).

[4] Two posts ago I alluded to some differences in culture between historical and Olympic fencing that came up during a coaching clinic. One such example was the parry of 5th. During an exam, Maestra Connie Handelman asked me to demonstrate and explain 5th, which I did, and this started an interesting conversation about changes in the culture. I do things the old way, partly as an artifact of my own training (which was pre-electric) and partly because of the amount of time I’ve spent in classical/historical fencing with heavier sabres. She explained that the change in 5th had proved better defense against the nature of whipover.

[5] As a newer fencer, I had this mistaken idea that there were Platonic ideals of each parry, that is, a sort of ultimate, perfect example of each. Issues with Plato’s metaphysics aside, the parries as we learn them are a starting place, that spot where we need them most often, but they can and do shift. We see this in the literature, e.g. fourth and low-fourth, but in practice we see it too. We use a low version of prima to protect the inside line of the leg, a higher version to protect the upper body or cheek.

[6] In the 1990s when sabre was electrified in NCAA tournaments one of my coping mechanisms was to obtain the first two points. I didn’t care what happened after that. One of my go-tos was this combination of stop-cut/parry riposte; another was to strike, then cover and strike again. I could not beat the box, however, as the director officially cannot overrule the box, but I felt better for doing something I knew had merit.

[7] A look at earlier sabres used for competition will demonstrate that we have not always used the slight blades we do now.

[8] The official rules for the FIE/USFA (according to the Aug. 2020 version, https://cdn2.sportngin.com/attachments/document/f840-2248253/2020-08_USA_Fencing_Rules.pdf#_ga=2.35042337.1612075356.1646537642-1943816898.1646537641) list weapon weight and length limits:

foil: total weight must be under 500g; maximum total length is 110cm; maximum length of blade is 90cm

épée: total weight must be less than 770g; total maximum length is 110cm; maximum length of blade is 90cm

sabre: total weight must be less than 500g; total maximum length is 105cm; maximum length of blade is 88cm

Since smallswords were, on average, between 350-450g, and sabres 680-800g, it’s significant that the modern versions must both be less than 500 and are usually much, much lighter than that. The Olympic sabre I use most often for lessons with kids weights 340g.

On Covering, Part II: Teaching Students about Covering

[Part I, 2 June 2020, “On Covering, or, The Difficulty in Hitting and not Being Hit,” covered much of the background and context for the problem—I don’t wish to rehash that here, but reading it first will help: https://saladellatrespade.com/2020/06/02/on-covering-or-the-difficulty-in-hitting-and-not-being-hit/

One of the aspects of working with new people I most value is their fresh perspective—it’s all new to them, so they ask the questions we should all keep in mind but tend to forget. Fencers take a lot for granted. It’s one reason that even the most expert fencers should continue to drill basic, fundamental actions and study. While most everything is challenging at first, among one of the more difficult conceptual hurdles for many fencers—new and old—is how to keep oneself covered, not only in defense but also and more critically in offense. The artificial nature of what we do combined with cultural influences tend to cloud our reasoning about this. There have been a number of attempts to manage this problem, most famously perhaps the idea of “right of way” (ROW) in Olympic fencing, but no rule-set or explanation will do the job on its own. We need to cultivate an acutely conscious if artificial sense that the blunted weapons we use are sharp. If we do not, then we run the risk of failing to teach our students how not to be hit. 

What follows is a quick break-down of how I’m tackling this. Cultivating a sense of realism in practice is a topic I mention often, I know, but it’s because it’s something I struggle with like many instructors and it’s a problem I see at play in most clubs. I don’t have all the answers, but can share what I’ve found to work, and especially, the holistic approach I’m trying to implement. 

Start with the Weapon 

1873 Cavalry Sabre, Italy

From the outset I try to instill a sense of weapon-as-live in class. Normally, especially with kids, I have a period piece (unsharpened) on the first day to compare it to the modern versions. For sabre or foil, for example, seeing the blade profile of a period sabre, smallsword, or epee d’combat, and feeling the weight of each can do a lot to increase their appreciation of the difference in the tools we use versus what people used in the day. With adults or older children using historically inspired trainers this is easier because they are using weapons that better approximate those early tools. In both cases, however, I explain the parts of the blade that are sharp. For those that have held heavy blades, say the cheap overly ponderous facsimiles out of India or the HEMA-Bruh weight of a trooper sabre, the easy heft of a 650-800g sabre can seem unimpressive. Depending on audience I relate either contemporary, analogous examples or cite one of the recorded battles in which one of these “light” weapons proved just as nasty as anything twice its weight. 

The kitchen or hobby knife mishap is a suitable modern analogy for children. IF they ask about how dangerous this sabre or smallsword/foil was, I ask them if they’ve ever had a bad cut from some accident in the kitchen or in making crafts. Most have had some manner of accident or witnessed one. This makes the danger a little more immediate. For that one kid in Toughskins who plays it off as no big deal, I remind them that the slice we give ourselves in the kitchen or the toothpick that pokes into our hand as we make some craft, are accidents—with swords, the person threatening another with it intended to hurt that person. It makes a difference. I add that we of course do not want to hurt anyone, but that we need to remember that this is what swords were for, because if we forget then we take chances we shouldn’t. 

Reenforcing the Idea of Defense First 

Del Frate, 1868

Teaching affords us many opportunities to remind students about the nature of the weapon they are studying. Repetition of an idea as they repeat actions helps cement both thought and action in their minds. For example, when I teach them the guard position in sabre I have them in 2nd. This was typical of the Radaellian approach, but I also explain why it was the preferred guard. It directs the sharp point at target, and since the arm is somewhat extended this puts us a little farther behind the guard— as a compromise between presenting a threat and staying away from one ourselves it’s thus an ideal place from which to start. [1] When they make a direct thrust from 2nd, I explain that the dangerous bits, the point and edge, must move first and for the same reasons: it ensures that we are threatening the opponent and staying as far away as possible at the same time. If we fail to threaten them, they may counter attack. 

One of the places this is most difficult for students is in learning to parry and riposte. For example, in the last two classes I took them through this simple phrase

1. Fencer A: from 2nd, thrusts to inside line 

2. Fencer B: parries in first, then ripostes via molinello to the head 

3. Fencer A: parries 5th, makes molinello to left cheek 

4. Fencer B: parries in 6th, makes a molinello to the right cheek 

[*assuming two right-handers

This is a progressive drill, one we work up to over the course of the class, and instructive on several levels [2]. That third step, however, tends to go awry, because Fencer B in step 3 or 4 will sometimes remise rather than parry. [3] 

Parry of 5th against a cut to the head, Pecoraro & Pessina, 1912

I stop them at this point and ask them to explain the action. When they get to step four, I ask who got hit and who got the touch. They should see that they were both hit… It can be a subtle point, because if A holds that parry too long or takes too long to riposte there is sometimes a tempo in which B might remise. However, once an attack has been parried the very first thought we should have is “my attack failed and my opponent is likely to riposte, so, I need to think defense first.”  

It’s not an accident that traditionally we don’t teach the remise week one. It’s a maneuver that requires the fencer to have sufficient understanding and an adequate sense of timing and measure to pull it off successfully. New students struggle to see where the blade is going in a direct thrust or cut, so it’s best to hold off teaching them attacks into tempo until they have a decent command of elementary attacks. Even explaining what went wrong in step 3/4, many students will scratch their heads and doubt. 

Two Dead Samurai 

What tends to hang students up in step 3-4 is that they know they “hit.” B, for example, will often counter “but I hit them.” This is another instance in which I remind them that if the blades were sharp then they would be both be hit, and that since the goal is not to be hit, that the better decision is to parry and riposte. In class with the kiddos I usually refer to this as “two dead samurai”—mixing metaphors here but the words of Anthony Hopkins as Don Diego de la Vega in “Mark of Zorro” (1998) spring to mind, “Oh, yes, my friend, you would have fought very bravely, and died very quickly.” Because they’re masked, wearing jackets, and using blunt swords they feel safe; because the class they’re taking is voluntary and for fun they are excited instead of afraid; and, movies, books, and tv have cemented an impression of sword-fights that are great for stage but not necessarily accurate. Thus, it’s sometimes an uphill battle to keep the past-reality around the current one. If our goal is to mimic as best we can swordplay as it was/would be, then we must keep that earlier reality in mind. 

The entire question of who got the real hit explains why ROW, HEMA’s fetish for the after-blow, and other peculiarities within rule-sets have developed. We’re always trying to find a way to highlight, as accurately as we can, just who won an exchange. ROW emphasizes the priority of the attack where HEMA’s after-blow rules are meant to encourage one to cover. Both punish obvious mistakes; they just focus on different problems [4]. Neither, however, is perfect and interpretation not only over what the judges see, but also what a rule actually means are issues which can further complicate officiating. The inclusion of “off-target” in Olympic scoring and the lack of concern over who starts an attack in HEMA (it does matter) are good examples of where our various rule-sets fail us. 

The Logic of Sharp Things 

In simplest terms, and the way I explain this to younger fencers, is that we want to stay away from an opponent’s sharp point while at the same time threatening them with ours. If both opponents do this, then at least they start at a stand-off, each relatively safe, each facing the question of how to get to target without being hit themselves. We are safest behind the point, steel in front of us, and the moment we change that, even to attack, we increase the risk of being hit. 

Imagining the danger can be difficult, so depending on the age I change the threat. For example, with the current crop of intro students, all of whom are 11 or younger, I tell them that the point of the foil and the point/cutting edge of the sabre contain “Great Stink” and if they’re hit then they’re “skunked.” They laugh, but for this age group especially the threat of smelling bad is more approachable. It can also add to the fun. 

The goal with this is to help students learn to react and plan appropriately. With younger students, so many of whom are ready to wield a foil in two hands like a lightsaber, jumping into a fencing class is play, a chance to pretend, and even when we structure classes well and keep them busy with games and drills, they will still find ways to act out the famous battles they know from movies. As one example, in my last p&r class I had them repeat the same drill above, and when it opened up after those three initial actions one pair set-to blade banging against blade with no thought to making the touch. It’s an age group that requires constant corralling, and each time is an opportunity to ask them “would you do this if the other blade could hurt/skunk you? How open are you using that foil in two hands? You’re gunsta stink Hoss…” 

Why this Matters 

I’m all for fun and do my best to make classes enjoyable for the younger set, but at the same time I want them to learn to fence properly. All this early focus on the reality of the sharp point is critical—without this all we’re doing is playing tag. Ensuring that students learn this helps them understand why we do what we do, why technique developed as it did, and if we’re lucky serves as another connection point in retention of new information. At the same time, the sooner we set them on this path the less likely we may need to correct some of the common faults we see as they progress.  

Much of what and how we teach comes down to goals. It’s not my intention to disparage any one rule-set or fencing culture; people pursue what appeals to them and that’s fine. If tag is your thing, go for it. What I will say, however, is that for those of us ostensibly teaching historical fencing, a major goal is approaching everything as best we can as if the weapons were sharp, so we must pay some attention to inculcating an awareness of danger however artificial. It’s sort of, well, the point (pardon the pun) of what we’re doing. [5] 

NOTES: 

[1] The modern preference, and indeed historical preference in some sabre systems, is for what the Italians refer to as terza bassa, but which most people think of as third in Olympic. This version of third (outside guard for fans of English broadsword) derives from Hungarian practice. Both work, but they set up different expectations. A guard in second is at once defensive and offensive; Hungarian third is defensive: the guard and blade are held closer to the body, so parries are made closer to the body and set up speedy direct cuts well. Second, on the other hand, presents a sharp point from the outset to discourage someone from rushing in; parries are taken a little farther out and the hand moves less far in transitioning between second, first, and fifth, the first triangle of parries. 

[2] There are many types of drills and ways to structure them. Progressive builds like this one take an action and build upon it. For beginners I lay out each step—this makes it easier as they don’t have to read and decide what to do the same way as when unscripted, and yet still gives them good practice in watching and reacting with one set of appropriate responses. They develop confidence and feel like they are fencing, which given how complex coordinating all these movements is helps them continue working. Adding additional movements within the phrase, changing the actions, adding different footwork, and either limiting responses or adding unscripted portions are all ways to add complexity. With this particular drill, we’ve not moved beyond being in guard and lunging back and forth. Next, they will do this with movement back and forth, advancing and retreating; then I have them start from farther out, out of measure, and work the distance to complete the drill. 

[3] The remise is the renewal of an action/attack after it has been parried or while the defender is preparing to riposte. Some refer to this as a reprise, but this normally includes a return to guard (forward or backward) before repeating the action/attack. 

[4] Doubling, or the incontro, is one of the most common faults we make, and often it’s because we have a plan and follow it through without considering how facts change in the moment. Rule-sets can support this. Outside of epee, where a double penalizes both fencers, one need only make sure they land with priority, with ROW, to score—if they’re hit, it doesn’t matter, because they had right of way. In HEMA, which generally doesn’t consider who started an attack only who was hit, doubles are particularly thorny. Was it a double or an after-blow? This is cart before the horse. The first consideration should be who presented a credible threat first and how did the other fighter respond? If the defender chose to double or just reacted, they goofed up. Sure, the attacker should do all they can to cover, but that second fencer didn’t observe the don’t-get-hit rule, the primary rule, and shouldn’t be rewarded for it. 

[5] In HEMA competitions, for example, a lot of exchanges are deemed doubles that highlight this problem. In fairness to the fencers, the director has significant responsibility for seeing and interpreting what they’re doing, and the quality of directing varies considerably. To illustrate these reasons, we can examine—for the first—something as simple as how we extend the blade, and for the second the gulf we sometimes see between what we think we are doing in a bout and what we have actually done. In terms of technique, we see the reality of the sharp point in how we make a direct thrust: from 2nd in sabre or from tierce in smallsword, the hand is shoulder high and slightly outside the shoulder, because this helps close the line. Held directly in front, stiff-armed—which many students adopt at first—the arm is likely vulnerable. When I correct this, I remind them why we hold the hand the way we do, where we do. Regarding the second idea, that plan/execution don’t always match up, many fencers in bouts, be they practice or in competition, assume they’ve made the touch when in fact they haven’t or have doubled. It can be hard to see this—after all, they had a plan, they executed the plan, and thus are confident that they did what they were supposed to do. However, for anyone who has felt this way and then seen video footage of themselves… well, it becomes easier to see how intent and execution don’t always align perfectly or do but at the wrong time. 

A note on Francesco Marcelli’s _Stoccata Annervata_

One of the hallmarks of the Roman-Neapolitan school of fencing is the stoccata annervata or annervated thrust. A fencer today examining the illustrations in Marcelli or Pallavicini’s works may find this particular action odd as it looks so stiff and awkward in comparison to the bent-leg lunge of today (a.k.a. a stoccata if to the inside line, imbroccata if to the outside line/outside the arm). Wiser and more-knowledgeable heads than mine have explored this variety of the lungish attack far better than I can. [1] Thus, while I cannot add much to their conclusions I must, like anyone else wrestling with a source, figure out how to perform this maneuver and teach it. What follows is my working interpretation at present, and I share it less because I’m convinced I’m correct than because it illustrates another example of a fencer working closely from a source.

The translation I rely on is Christopher A. Holzman’s–his is the first translation into English and perhaps one of his greatest contributions to the historical fencing community. This is not to denigrate in any way his Del Frate or other offerings, but to say that Marcelli’s Rules of Fencing (1686) is easily one of the finest works on fencing ever written. It’s value extends beyond the weapons he covers (chiefly rapier and associated side-arms)–for his coverage and explanation of universal principles alone Marcelli is a must-have source. Much as I hate the parlor-game question–“if you were on a desert island and had only one X, what would it be?”–I can answer it for works on fencing: it would be Rules of Fencing. [2]

My academic training urges me to find the best translations I can, but never to forget the original source. Thus, while I rely on Chris’s excellent Marcelli, when it comes down to anything I must investigate closely I make sure to read the Italian next to it. I provide the original Italian after quotations in English below. Note: I am not fluent in Italian. I have only a functional get-the-gist-of-it ability and only for things like fencing or ancient and medieval history. Wine-lists, menus, Dante, yeah, can’t read those (yet). Like many historians working in early European topics I must have a working command of some languages in order to identify if not read key secondary works in languages other than my own. [3]

Here, I will share some key passages for the annervated thrust, then share how I’m reading them and why.

Pallavicini (1670/1673):

Giuseppe Moriscato Pallavicini, in his Fencing Illustrated (2 vols., 1670 and 1673), provides useful depictions of this annervated attack:

Pallavicini, _Fencing Illustr._, Vol. 2, p. 2

The explanation Pallavicini offers for the first illustration (p. 2) explains how one launches the attack:

The present figure shows the visual line with the assigned letter A, so, at the point of standing in stance, the the first thing is of the right arm going out, then tensing the left knee (which is bent) and in tensing it, extending it, the right foot is made to advance on the ground performing the thrust in 3rd.

[Figura mostra la linea visuale per la lettera assegnata, A, al punto cosí standon in piāta, la prima cosa e d’uscire primo il braccio destro, è doppo annervare il ginoccho sinistro, in cui stando curvo, & in annervandolo disteso, fà avanzare il piede destro in terra, e tirando la stoccata di terza…] [4]

We see a similar completed attack on page 7 where the author describes the drill of thrusting against a hanging ball:

Pallavicini, _Fencing Illustr._. Vol. 2, page 7

For the sake of comparison, here is the same maneuver from another contemporary master, Giuseppe Villardita, author of A Compendium of Sicilian Fencing/La Scherma Siciliana ridotta in Compendio (1670):

Villardita, _A Compendium of Sicilian Fencing_, 1670, 28-29

Franceso Marcelli (1686):

While other works within the Roman-Neapolitan orbit I find useful for context I focus mostly on Rules of Fencing/Regole della Scherma (1686). Like others within this tradition Marcelli employs an annverated attack, but importantly spends as much time or more on a version of the lunge ancestral to the modern iteration.

Marcelli, _Rules of Fencing_, Bk I, Part II, Ch. V,, p. 15, fig. 4

Accompanying this image Marcelli writes:


All the movements that I have proposed to be made in performing the thrust are seen marked with the numbers in the present illustration. The number 1 signifies that the aforesaid Cavaliere has started the sword hand first. The number 2, marked near the left knee, denotes that after having brought the hand forward he has violently extended that knee, which was bent. The number 3 that stands at the right foot indicates that it was the third movement of the body, and that after having advanced the hand and extended the knee he has advanced the foot, which is the last movement, because it has to do the least travel of all.

[Tutti i moti, che hò proposto da farsi nel tirar la Stoccata, si veggono segnati co’i numeri nella presente figura; dove il nu. 1 significa, che il sopradetto Caval. hà partito prima la mano della spada. Il num. 2., segnato vicino il ginocchio sinistro, dinota, che doppo haver anticipate la mano, hà disteso con violenza quel ginocchio, che stave piegato. Il num. 3., che stà nel pie destro, signitica, che quello e stato il terzo moto del corpo; e doppo haver caminato la mano, & annervato il ginocchio, ha caminato il piede, il quale e l’ultimo moto, perche hà da far camino meno di tutti.] [5]

Interpretation:

Standing “heroically,” Hugh Laurie as the Prince Regent in “Blackadder the Third,” Episode 4, “Sense & Senility,”1987

Looked at alone these images, as useful as they are, can be misleading. Taken literally one is likely to jam the knee, slip, or split one’s pants. No matter how well rendered we must be cautions with images. We must read them with any accompanying text, and, consider how the fencer gets to this position. Put another way, what does the guard position one is in prior to launching the attack look like? Placed side by side what can we deduce about moving from guard to annervated thrust?

Here is one example from Pallavicini, Vol. 1, for the guard position:

Pallavicini, _Fencing Ilustr._, Vol. 1. Ch. XVIII, illus. 4, p. 39

And here is an example from Marcelli:

Marcelli, _Rules of Fencing_, Bk 2, Ch. 2, p. 6

The guard position is back-weighted, body upright, rear arm up and out of the way (if unarmed), front foot toward the opponent, and weapon directed to target. The rear shoulder, so Marcelli remarks, should be over the bent rear knee. The weapon hand should be about belt high (cf. Marcelli, CH, 83ff).

Critical to understanding this style of attack is how one most easily shifts from this rear-weighted guard position to the annervated thrust. As Marcelli states the right or lead foot doesn’t move very far, and both Pallavicini and Marcelli are explicit about the speed and force used in snapping the left or rear leg into an extended position forcing the right foot forward.

This is less a lunge per se than a quick step made by shifting weight from the rear leg to the front. It is shorter than than lunge as we know it, and must be because landing straight-legged on the front foot is not something comfortable or safe to do if the step is too long. The Roman-Neapolitan masters took time to explain just how far one should stand in guard.

Pallavicini, for example, explains

In order to know how large the man’s stance must be, the proper distance is a third part of the man’s height, counting from the left heel to the narrowest part of the right foot, as my Figure shows, marked with a straight line from the point of the left heel where the right foot is placed over the same line, since it shows a distance of three and a half palmi [approx./ 8.5-10 inches/20-25cm], in which the man comes to stand more comfortably in the proper proportion of the stance. Since this Figure stands with the point of the sword in the ground, I have made it easier for the student to know how to find the proper length of the stance, which is made by bending the left knee, and advancing the right foot on the straight line. In order to know how much the right foot must be advanced, the sword point is placed on the ground, and keeping the left knee bent, and the right knee extended, the body stays in the center, as my Figure shows, and the right foot must advance as much as needed to touch the sword point.

[e così per sapere la quantità quanto l’huomo deve star largo di passo, la guista distanza è la terza parte dell’altezza dell’huomo, numerando dalla punta del Tallone sinistro per insino alla legatura del piede destro, come mostra la mia Figura segnata con la linea retta, della punta del tallone sinistro dove posa il piede destro sopra la medesima linea retta benche mostra la distanza delli tre palmi e mezzo, nella quale l’huomo viene à stare più commodamente nella giusta proportione della pianta, e benche stia questa Figura con la punta della Spade in terra, l’hò satta per più faciltà dello Scolaro, per sapere trovare la giusta distanza della pianta, la quale si fà curvando il ginocchio sinistro, e doppo avanzare il piede deitro per la linea retta, e per sapere quanto deve avanzare il piede destro s’abassa la punta della Spada in terra, e tenēdo il ginocchio sinistro piegato, & il ginocchio destro difesto, & il corpo che stia in cētro, come mostra la mia Figura, & il piede destro deve avázare táto quanto hà di toccare la punta della Spada.] [6]

Pallavicini illuminates this notion thus:

Pallavicini, _Fencing Illustr._, Vol. 2, illustration 2, p. 5

Marcelli’s treatment of the type of steps and guard position are separate, but the latter assumes the former. For example, in explaining how ones comes into guard he writes

having first planted the left foot on the ground, he should bring the right foot forward as much as is necessary to form a correct and proportionate stance, in relation to the distance of the step with which the blow must be extended, in order to be able afterward to easily recover with it (a thing so necessary, and of such consequence, that upon this depends the good or bad outcome of the operation).

[Impugnata in tal maniera la Spada, e piantato prima in terra il pie sinistro, porri avanti il pie destro, tanto, quanto basta a formare un passo giusto, e proporionato, respetto all distanza del passo, co’l quale si deve distendere il colpo, per potersi doppo con esso rihavere con facilita (cosa tanto necessaria, e di tanta conseguenza, che da questa dipende il buono, o cattivo successo dell’operatione).] [7]

This makes far more sense when one recalls the earlier passage on the types of steps. For brevity these are:

  • the straight step: made when one moves along the line of direction
  • the traversal or oblique step: made when we leave the line of direction and go left or right
  • the mixed step: a good example is the inquartata
  • the curved step: made when gaining, passing, or seizing the opponent’s weapon vs. returning to guard

[Quattro forti de’Passi si possono formare nel caminare à fronte del suo
nemico. Il primo è’l Passo Retto. Il secondo, è’l Passo Trasversale, or vero
obliquo. Il terzo, è’l Passo Misto. È’l quarto e’l Passo Curvo.

Il passo si fà, quando si camina per linea retta incontro del suo nemico, e
si move à dirittura per quella medesima linea nella quale stà situaro il suo
contrario. Questo si dice, caminar retto.

Il Passo Trasversale, ò vero Obliquo, è quel passo, il quale si forma,
quando uscendo dalla linea retta si camina a man destra, ò à man sinistra del
suo contrario…

Il Passo Misto, è quel passo, che si fà con l’Inquartata, quando che si
hanno da sfuggire le stoccate che son tirate di dentro…

Il Pass Curvo si fà solamente, ò nel guadagno, ò nelle passate; benche in queste non si finischi di terminarlo, con tutto ciò da questo passo si guidano… [8]

This is, as Marcelli himself remarks, a “natural and composed posture of the body” and easily adjusted to navigate measure and set the stage for one’s choice of footwork. We unconsciously manage this all the time whenever we’re on guard; we adjust measure, we shift our feet, we shorten or lengthen steps based on what it is we need or wish to do.

Conclusion

The necessity for (relatively) easy movement, combined with a guard position designed to keep the weapon out and oneself as far back as possible, makes little sense if one of the primary methods to deliver a thrust is awkward. Just as one doesn’t serve up popsicles on fine china, so too does one avoid a stilted, jarring attack from an efficient, sophisticated guard. It needs to work.

These masters, Marcelli especially, were not simple-minded. Their students might be wounded or die if their teaching included some walk-like-an-Egyptian-lunge. It doesn’t follow. If in our interpretations we find ourselves landing with pain on the front leg, if we are off balance, then likely we are missing something.

So, what is this annverated attack then? It’s a from of half-lunge. Like the bent front-leg lunge this version uses the rear leg to propel the body forward. Nothing, however, happens until that weapon moves first. The lead foot is lifted a short way and set down with a straight leg. It’s this last portion that is different and a little tricky at first.

A natural question is why use such an attack? Part of the answer is about the context in which the Roman-Neapolitan school developed, one in which Spanish destreza played a significant role. Many of these masters quote from Carranza, Narváez, and Pacheco just as they do the luminaries of the Dardi School and others (see for example Pallavicini, Vol. 1, p. 78, in Holzman’s translation). [9] Another reason is the reality of a sharp point. In an age when most people learned to fence to protect themselves defense was foremost. Our study, however dedicated, is removed in time and purpose from the very real danger of being spiked, and so we are accustomed to taking chances we likely wouldn’t were our weapons sharp. This is a point I make a lot and I won’t belabor it here, but in sum the annervated attack is less extended, easier to recover from, and a compromise between reach to target and the dangers of over-extension.

I’m still working on this attack, but as I read and reread the sources, as I try out this annervated thrust with students, the one thing that comes to mind each time we work on it is that this had to work at least somewhat well to have appeared in works from at least 1670 to 1725 (give or take some years). Chris Holzman suggests in his translation of Nicola Terracusa e Ventura’s True Neapolitan Fencing (1725) that this interesting form of attack seems to have gone out of fashion by the time Rosaroll & Grisetti penned their magnificent The Science of Fencing (1803).  The bent front-leg lunge we see in Marcelli, and which we see little of in Terracusa e Ventura, is the precursor of the lunge that most of us have learned since. [10] 

Why did the annervated attack disappear? One reason may be that by 1800 fencing, while still important–especially in Italy and France where the duel survived longest–had also long been transforming into a past-time and sporting pursuit. The conservatism of the annervated thrust is less well-suited to the speed necessary in agonistic fencing, ditto the less aggressive reach to target. So much of rapier has analogues in modern epee and foil, but this attack, this odd somewhat stilted looking thrust, is an exception that allows us a unique look into the Art’s more serious past.

Marcelli, _Rule of Fencing_, Part 1, Bk I, Ch. VI

NOTES:

[1] See especially Francesco Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, Trans. by Christopher A. Holzman (Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2019), and Francesco Loda, Historical Fencing Manual: Rapier-Fencing in the 17th and 18th Centuries (Wheaton, IL: Freelance Academy Press, 2019).

[2] Feel free to disagree. The two works that I have found comprehensive, not only for technique but theory, are Marcelli and the later Science of Fencing by Rosaroll & Grisetti.

[3] European colleagues are often at an advantage in language acquisition. Living so close to other language populations and a longer tradition of language study make a difference. Outside of Latin, Middle Welsh, and Classical Irish, the three languages I spent the most time on, as a late Romanist/early medievalist I needed to be able to read some Greek, German, French, and Italian. With the exception of Latin and perhaps Middle Welsh, where I’m arguably semi-literate, I consider myself functionally illiterate in the other languages outside the extremely restricted works on history and fencing that have been my focus.

It should be obvious, but for any long passage and certainly anything I publish I always have someone expert in the language check my translation and/or interpretation of what I read. I do this even with the Latin translation work I do because it’s due diligence; it’s equally important to mention this expert help as well. 

[4] Pallavicini, Fencing Illustrated, Vol. 2, p. 2; Holzman, The Second Part of Fencing Illustrated by Giuseppe Moriscato Pallavicini (Witchita, KS: LuLu Press, 2020), 1. The image of the fencer thrusting at the ball is on page 7 in Pallavicini, and page 11 in Holzman’s edition of Vol. 2. See also Giuseppe Villardita, A Compendium of Sicilian Fencing/La Scherma Siciliana ridotta in Compendio (Palermo: Imp. Cuzol. G.V.G. Imp. de la Torre R.P., 1670), image between pages 28 and 29 in Google Books.

[5] Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, Bk I, Part II, Ch. V, p. 15, fig. 4; Holzman, 288.

[6] Pallavicini, Fencing Illustrated, Vol. 2, 5; Holzman, 7.

[7] Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, 62-63; Holzman, 84.

[8] Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, 31-32; Holzman, 37.

[9] See for example Pallavicini, Fencing Illustrated, Vol. 1, Trans. Holzman, xi-xiv; Loda, Historical Fencing Manual: Rapier-Fencing in the 17th and 18th Centuries, 1-12; 38, n. 49. Dr. Loda notes that the upright stance of the annervated thrust recalls the upright stances common to much of destreza.

[10] See Nicola Terracusa e Ventura, True Neapolitan Fencing, Trans. by Christopher A. Holzman (Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2017); Rosaroll & Grisetti, The Science of Fencing, Translated by Christopher A. Holzman (Witchita, KS: Lulu Press, 2018).

POST SCRIPT: I need to get better photos with the measuring tape, but I did an experiment this morning [9 Nov. 2021] to test out the proportions of the guard and annervated thrust. Using the method mentioned above where one uses the sword to step toward when I’m in the Neapolitan guard there is approximately 18″/45.72cm distance between my left/rear foot and the heel of my lead/right foot. Depending on the degree of bend in the rear leg this can extend to 2’/61cm distance between my feet. This accords pretty well with the proportions Pallavicini lists, that is, that the space between my feet is about a third of my height when on guard. An annervated thrust from this stance is super short in terms of how far forward the front foot extends.

SabreSlash 2021

I will share more once I settle in—the flights home were not conducive to sleep and jetlag is fierce coming back to the US, least it is for me. As a quick preview of just how wonderful Sabre Slash was: