Using Historical Fencing Treatises, Text & Subtext

Teaching from early fencing sources can be daunting. On the one hand, their organization, language, and lack of details can impede interpretation. There are also the challenges we face in using images, not to mention dealing with sources that lack them. On the other hand, we cannot always guess what assumptions the author had about the reader’s knowledge or even what they intended with the work. For the period in which the smallsword was popular (roughly ca. 1615 to 1800), some treatises were likely meant for public consumption, others were written in an attempt to solicit patronage, still others to challenge existing custom and/or defend a new approach. All on some level were meant to immortalize a particular author’s views and put their name on the rolls of influential masters. Some are mere tracts, others replete with a host of actions and maneuvers. Even when a source is less difficult to understand there remains how one should use it. Both deciphering challenging texts and deciding what to use from them (and how) are things we must consider when teaching from them.

As someone averse to anything remotely smacking of Bourdieu, Derrida, or Foucault, my use of the term “subtext” here is meant to convey the implications within our sources, not some hidden meaning or the imposition of some anachronistic, fashionable theme into the past. There is, plainly, what a book says, and, what it doesn’t, and we can learn a lot from both.

“Barcelona,” 1994, by Whit Stillman

Explicit vs. Implicit

When we’re lucky an author is explicit. They provide details as to the individual movements and positions that make up a stance, technique, or action. Sir William Hope, for example, is one of our chief sources for knowing that one should not insert the fingers through the annulets, those rings, descendents of a rapier’s pas d’âne, found on many smallsword hilts. In his Scots Fencing Master (1687) he wrote

You must hold your Sword after this manner; hold your Thumb upon the broad side of the Handle with your Fingers quite round it, as in the second Figure of the first Plate marked F. and not as some do, who their foremost and middle Fingers thorow to two arms of the Hilt, thinking that by doing that, they hold their Sword firmer, some use onely to put their foremost Finger through, which the Spaniards did of old, and many even to this day do it; but both ways are most ridiculous, and dangerous.

Presented in the much-used trope of master and student in discussion, the corresponding student comments that one is at risk of having one’s fingers broken should one come to grips. Details like this are critical in our interpretations as the presence of the annulets naturally suggests they are there to secure one’s grip.

The granularity of instruction, generally, is less precise than it is in more recent works. One reason for this is that the sword, being a feature of culture at the time, something carried, seen on stage, and of course discussed within treatises, meant that readers possessed better familiarity with the topic than most people today. This is, perhaps, why so many of the smallsword works appear deficient in specifics. There is still, however, much we can learn from them. For example, many suggest or list a series of lessons. De Liancour (1686/1692) and Wylde (1711), for example, both suggest lessons within their treatises, the former in a series of “games” a master might take a student through, the latter via a suggested lesson. [3]

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

When we find ourselves left with less detail than we’d like, we must find a way to bridge text and subtext, that is, connect what is explicit with what is implied or assumed. There is an inherent danger in this, however, so we must apply precedent when available, analogy where applicable, established fact when known, and always the faculty of reason. An example I’ve often cited before is how to step. Whatever the word used, “step,” “pass,” “advance,” there are certain things we know (or should) about how humans walk. Given how long our species has been walking upright we can safely assume that people in the 17th and 18th century did too.

As another example, Wylde suggests that

The most absolute and truest way of thrusting Cart and Ters, is to perform your Pass as close to the Fort of your Opponents Weapon as you can; for in so doing, it will in a great Measure preserve you, if he happen to Counter Tang: but if your Push fails hitting, besure to make your recovery strongly engaged upon his Weapon, or spring your self backward withal the Celerity imaginable out of his distance, in a true Line.

If one is familiar with the parts of the blade, this may sound odd. Close to the “Fort” (forte/strong) of the blade seemingly goes against what most fencers know about the respective mechanical advantages and disadvantages of strong and weak. Placing the weak of our blade near the strong of theirs provides the opponent more leverage. To attack in such a way is to hand the opponent a parry. So, what does Wylde mean?

It will help to revisit Wylde’s division of the blade. He separates it into three sections, but one is more a point than a section:

The Blade, I likewise divide into Three Parts thus, From the Shell to the middle, I call the Fort or Strength of the Weapon: The middle is the equal Part betwixt the Shell and the Point: From the middle to the end, I call the Feeble or Weak. [5]

So, the “weak” here is really middle to tip, the “strong” middle to guard, and the middle merely where they meet. Armed with this notion of blade division Wylde’s admonition that one keep as close to the opponent’s forte makes more sense. The thrust isn’t tip to forte, but made so that the middle of one’s weapon is more or less along the middle of the opposing steel. He also provides reasons for this close thrust—it can help protect one from a counter-attack, and, should one’s attack fail, then it is easier and safer to retreat having already closed off the line. Wylde doesn’t remind the reader here what he means by forte and feeble; he assumes the reader knows.

Further clarification derives from Wylde’s guard position:

Stand upon a true half Body, or edge wise, which I call, lie narrow your leading or right Foot, two Foot or more distance from the left, being in a direct Line from the same, then your right and left Foot will resemble a Roman ‘I’; your Hand fast gript about the hand of your Foil or Rapier, then put your Thumb long ways or forward upon it, your Arm quite extended from the Center of your Body, the Point of the Weapon being directed in a true Line against your Opponent’s right Pap, sinking somewhat low with your Body, your right Knee bowing or bent over the Toes of your right Foot, (tho’ some Masters teaches a strait Knee,) your left Knee more bent, inclining towards the Toes of your left Foot; lying in this Order is the Posture, which I call, Stand your Line, the Medium Guard then is fixt.

This guard, sometimes called a middle guard, has the arm midline, not to the right or left depending on handedness. To thrust in Cart (quarte) or Ters (tierce) one is moving off that midline, so without attention to the opponent’s blade as one thrusts, without some opposition there is an increased chance of being hit as one strikes. We’re not dealing with right of way here, or foils, but sharp swords, and thus Wylde’s recommendation makes good sense.

Subtext & Using a Treatise

Moving from micro to macrocosm, there are times we must look to assumed or implicit knowledge to use a treatise effectively. The progression of techniques, for example, in P.J.F. Girard’s Traité des armes (1740) might seem a logical approach for introducing more complicated actions. In part this is true, however some distinction should probably be made between what we call today bread-and-butter techniques, those we use most of the time, and those that are “medicine for the hand,” those more complicated actions, especially compound actions, which are less viable in actual combat. It’s not that a double or triple-feint can’t work, but that the effective use of it assumes an opponent of considerable skill, more so than most people possess. One is likely to face a counter-attack using so many actions—the more parts to a maneuver, the more time, and thus the more opportunity for it to go wrong, for the opponent to take advantage or disrupt one’s plans.

This does not mean that one shouldn’t incorporate Girard’s excellent section on feints, but that the instructor should know, and be clear in teaching, that some of these drills we do to push skill forward, to hone it. [7] If one can make complex actions well, then one can make simple actions well. The importance of this, in a bout, is that we not only tend to find the most success with relatively simple actions, but also that in any arena in which nerves, fear, or excitement is likely our ability suffers. [8] So, the more effective and solid our technique is, the less far it is likely to fall off and hurt our chances. This is why effective teaching and constant drill are so vital.

Outside research, particularly into accounts of duels, as well as practical advice from those masters active when duels were prominent, can do much to fill in the missing context. Girard does not say that his more sophisticated actions are medicine for the hand. At a time when more people learned the sword and might use it in earnest it’s likely that a double-feint proved effective; not against every opponent, but against those well-trained it likely did. It remains an open question just how expert the average fencer in the age of the smallsword, or any age for that matter, was; our sources suggest much, but confirm little. There are enough references to fencers of “natural” skill and little training to suggest that many who carried a sword either hadn’t received instruction or at least not very much. A good analogy my friend Ken Jay has made in this regard is to the number of people in the U.S. who opt for concealed carry of firearms—many if not most have shot a pistol before, but the vast majority have little to no formal training in how to shoot in self-defense or combat scenarios. Maybe they’ve taken a class or series of classes, but here too the analogy holds up well with the Early Modern Period: for all the solid, experienced instructors teaching “tactial” handgun techniques, there are a multitude of charlatans and well-intentioned, but unskilled people offering training, just as there were when dubious sword masters set up shop and took in the credulous.

Oblique references, for example, indicate a wider knowledge of fencing, at least among those sections of society eligible to wear a sword, but also suggest that not all were particularly good students. We see extremes in the literature. Máire Anna MacNeill begins her doctoral dissertation with the example of cavaliers in England attending a performance of William Davenant’s “The Unfortunate Lovers” in 1660. The play included two dramatic sword fights in acts four and five which these same attendees, post show, mocked at a local tavern. They also drew their swords to show how the choreography failed. [9]

Satirical Print, 1814, The English Fencing Master and his Student, courtesy of the British Musuem,

Against this example we have, again for England, references to the curious fashion of wearing a sword but it being rude to use one save in extreme situations. Aylward cites the example of a character in Fanny Burney’s Evelina (1778) grabbing his sword hilt—he remarks that this was “an unseemly gesture pardonable only in an excitable foreigner.” These two examples are separated by a century, but it’s important to note that works closer in time to that of Davenant echo similar sentiments. Aylward also cites Andrew Mahon’ 1734 translation of L’Abbat’s L’art en fait d’arms (1696), where Mahon remarks one should only draw a sword in service to the crown, for one’s honor, or in self-defense. [10] Between the poles of sword-as-fashion-accessory and sword as sidearm there is a vast middle ground. Likely, most people had some modicum of training, but like today’s concealed-carry types, extremely little chance of having to use that weapon.

For the instructor, examining a treatise in light of not only what it says, but when it was written and what prevailing views of the time suggest will improve their interpretation and teaching. Some works seem clearly more self-defense oriented—Hope, L’Abbat, de Liancour, McBane, and Wylde read very differently from de la Touche, Domenico Anglo, Olivier, and de St. Martin. The former are more clearly concerned with optimizing a guard for most situations (Hope and Wylde especially perhaps), one to two tempo attacks, and the importance of opposition. The latter cover much of the same material, but add some techniques more salle than on the ground friendly. We can learn a lot from both types of sources, and we should read and use both, but always with a keen appreciation for what they reflect. By the mid­-18th century, the foil play originally intended to create a slightly safer style of practice (key in a time before masks were standard) became a game in its own right. Domenico Angelo, writing in 1763, in some ways spans both worlds—he wanted all touches targeted to the chest, a fact that speaks on the one hand to his eschewing masks and on the other to an interest in fencing as an elegant exercise and ideal way to cultivate grace becoming the status of his many elite students. [11] His inclusion of smallsword versus various other weapons, “ethnic” guards, and weapon-seizures recall earlier works, like Girard’s, but the mix of smallsword and foil in his School of Fencing, not to mention the success of his London salle as the premiere academy, we must note too.

In terms of lesson-planning, one approach is to compare how several masters treat a specific action, say the thrust from tierce or quarte. What is different? What the same? Given the instructor’s own perspective, what does it make sense to emphasize? For those more concerned about smallsword as weapon, a more conservative approach makes sense; for those whose interest is tournaments, a mix of solid self-defense and salle fencing is appropriate. Of course, one can teach both as well. The point (no pun intended) is to be mindful about what we are teaching, how we teach it, and to keep the textual basis, explicit and implicit, before us as we plan, devise lessons, and teach them.


[1] Clip from “Barcelona” (1994), by Whit Stillman

[2] Sir William Hope, Scots Fencing Master, 1687, pp. 11-12. See also J. D. Aylward, The Small-Sword in England, its History, its Forms, its Makers, and its Masters, London, UK: Hutchinson & Son, LTD, 1960, 134-135. As an argument for reading the sources, one work from 1982, concerned only with the tool, makes the mistake of listing fingers through annulets as correct. Doubtless some fencers did. See Anthony North, European Swords, London, UK: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1982, 19.

[3] See de Liancour, Le Maistre d’armes (1686/1692), p. 69/78; 119/128 in the BnF 1686 pdf); see Wylde, English Fencing Master, 15 in the pdf,

[4] Wylde, p. 13 of the pdf.

[5] Wylde, p. 5 of the pdf.

[6] Wylde, p. 6 of the pdf.

[7] See for example P.J.F. Girard, Traité des armes, 1740, pp. 47-51 (p. 80-86 in the BnF pdf).

[8] For a more recent historical example of this within the context of a duel, Aldo Nadi’s account of his duel in 1924 against Contronei in Milan is instructive. The few photographs of the engagement reveal the typically plate-perfect technique of Maestro Nadi drastically changed when confronted by a sharp spada. The goal—don’t get hit—changes everything. See Aldo Nadi, On Fencing, Sunrise, FL: Laureate Press, 1994 (originally published 1943), 24-35.

[9] See Máire Anna MacNeill, “The Sword as Didactic Tool on the London Comic Stage, 1660-1740,” PhD Dissertation, Royal Holloway, University of London, 2016, pp. 9ff.

[10] Aylward, The Small-Sword in England, 20; cf. Fanny Burney, Evelina, 1778, Letter 23, . Aylward on Mahon and L’Abbat, 20; cf. L’Abbat, The Art of Fencing, Dublin, 1734, p. 72 in the edition by Lector House (2020).

[11] Aylward, The Small-Sword in England, 108-112.

One Method for Curriculum Building in Fencing

Among the many challenges we face as instructors is how to organize lessons and classes, what to emphasize when and how best to accomplish that. What follows here is not new, nor is it any invention of mine; this is just how I conceive of a well-known process and one possible way we can use this approach to teach historical fencing. I refer to it as the “recursive model,” because each lesson incorporates key elements of the one preceding it. [1]


I’m intensely visual as a learner and so tend to chart a lot on a white board and paper. I like to be able to see ahead and see how things interconnect; it can be especially useful when managing both the micro- and macro-views of a topic, say something as finite as an individual technique and each part which comprises it as well as something as large as a series of classes which explore that technique in different ways. One method to capture this visually is with intersecting circles.

As I’ve worked with these I referred to them as “circles,” “rounds,” or rotae, but whatever the terminology the idea is that each circle represents say a new lesson that also returns to core material from the previous lesson. [2] This reinforces what students learn by repeating core actions and ideas, but at the same time increases the awareness of how everything works together. It’s also a great way to build or plan ready-made drills. All of it is scalable—it works for a technique or action, say the lunge, as well as a system, such as Girard’s approach to smallsword. One lesson rolls naturally into the other, and builds off what one has covered previously, so we increase complexity as we proceed. In a glance we have a model in which we can shift elements of a lesson, examine the interval between those examinations, and isolate individual themes actions, plays, or techniques to cover.

In my last post I discussed smallsword as a “gate-way drug” for historical fencing—that class is an experiment in using this approach in a formal way. For example, here are my initial notes for this class for the first three sessions, each an hour long:

First Three Lessons example*

In the first, we cover moving from first position into the en garde position; the extension of the weapon from guard, the guards/parries of tierce and carte; we then cover the advance, retreat, lunge and recovery out of the lunge (backward initially). Offensively I start with the glide in tierce. Each of these we can depict in the round as well, most especially those maneuvers like stepping into guard or the lunge which involve multiple steps:

Use of Rota to Breakdown the Lunge**

If one looks at the second circle (in green), one will notice that some of the first lesson (in black) starts that session off; it’s followed by the logical steps that proceed from that first lesson. Thus, in green ink, we see the “glizade” or glide in 3rd and the glide in 4th; moving from the outside to the inside engagement means covering the disengage. Students drill these attacks with special focus on the point landing before the front foot; the lesson portion concludes with teaching the basic defense against these glides (stepping back and taking tierce or carte) and reemphasizing the importance of closing the line.

Each new lesson incorporates review of the critical actions necessary to take on new material. However, if a class is struggling, then it’s easy to stop, work the same material from the previous lesson, and try the new material again in the next class. Thus, if in the third lesson (red) students are struggling to make the feint by glide in third, one can have them drill the glide in third minus the feint. Perhaps have them work on tight disengages, then the glide; time permitting, I have them advance lunge the glide. This will help them hone the necessary skills to start working on the feint.

How this Works

There are a few important considerations in using this method. First, the instructor must have a decent command of the material or they cannot delineate what is fundamental, what composite. If new to the material, then sitting down with the source and organizing it is the first step; this recursive rota approach can help one do that. Perhaps in reading the source one notices that the author covers movement first, then defense, then offense in increasing complexity. If one outlines each of those areas, what are the first things the author covers in each section? What cross-over is there between them? One will notice, for example, that the first attack likely starts from a position of defense covered in the second theme and uses movement from the first. Taking the initial steps in each section—movement, defense, and offense—is not a bad way to start a first lesson; at the very least it’s a decent goal to set for it as it will mean covering fundamental actions and thinking required for that system.

Second, the instructor must have at least an approximate sense of how difficult each new element typically is for new students, that is, how easily or not they can acquire a given skill. The advance and retreat, for example, are generally something students get quickly; there will be refinements to make to them, but the basic concept of stepping forward and backward one foot following the other shouldn’t be a major hurdle, but the feint-1-2 might be a lot harder as it will require coordinating hand, feet, and eye. The sequence within each circle should proceed from simple to more complex—this is not only easier to teach and to learn, but helps students see more effectively what each technique, action, or concept involves.

Third, and related to the second point, the instructor must know how to assess problem areas and be willing to stop a lesson and focus on those When necessary. This can be done without haranguing a class or student; it can be as simple as noticing they’re really struggling to extend first and deciding to make that the focus for the day. Depending on the class, one can ask them directly if they’re struggling as well—this tends to be safer with adults than with children. For example, the advance is simple, but there are common problems one must be on the lookout for and correct, such as not pointing the front foot towards the front. Critical as it is to point the foot, correcting it doesn’t require shutting down all footwork until they point their feet—students should continue to work on footwork, drill, but the instructor will make corrections as they do so. It doesn’t have to be perfect to start—it just needs to work effectively enough. As students grow in comfort and stability,  the instructor can make adjustments as necessary. If on the other hand no one is extending the arm before they lunge, then it is critical to correct that before moving to the glide or they’ll develop a dangerous habit that will affect their entire game.

Rotae and Recursive Learning as Continuing Program

Depending on one’s source material one may run through the circles in short time. It’s important to note too that going through some of the same material more than once is not only an option, but recommended. Using Girard as an example, one might get through most of his program in a few months (assuming say a few lessons a week and students who are dedicated). Fencing, any fencing, is about practice, drill, using the system; it’s not go through it once and done.

After an initial run through Girard’s system one might return to specific elements, say his section on beats. The choice comes down to a number of considerations. After one run through the circles, the instructor may notice areas the students are weak or where they struggled—that might be an ideal place to start for the second run through the circles. Once the students have acquired some familiarity and enough skill, it’s possible to mix up some of the circles, use them out of order, so that things stay “fresh.”

Girard, Broadsword vs. Smallsword (1740)

With some manuals, going through them the same way again and again will get old fast; boredom is the bane of learning (and teaching), so mixing things up, throwing in something different, can help. Returning to Girard, maybe peppering the lessons with attention to his sections on weapon-seizures or facing different weapons or national/ethnic guards will add a little “pop” and interest. For more advanced students, comparative analysis of Girard’s advice for facing a broadsword fencer or odd farm weapons with that of another master can be both fun and an effective way to widen and deepen their understanding of smallsword.

D. Angelo, Broadsword vs. Smallsword (1763/1787)

Multae Viae

There are many ways to learn, and instructors should use what works best for them and for their students. The recursive model is simply one method and one I find works well for teaching fencing. Most of us, I suspect, use a variety of methods; we adapt for different types of students, different contexts. Our goal as instructors is to share a body of knowledge and technique, to pass it on, and whatever helps us achieve that has merit.


[1] Online searching comes down to the terms we use, and I have to guess that I’m just not using the correct ones as I can’t find a formal name for the process I describe in this post. “Recursive learning,” “education,” and “model” all bring up a lot on machine languages and programming; I had much the same problem with the terms “reinforcement learning,” “rota learning method,” and similar iterations. A wider search for “curriculum design” or “styles” was likewise unhelpful. SO, if someone reading this knows what this approach is called, please let me know.

[2] Traditional fencing lessons work this way, at least they should. Students acquire new skills over time, but much of the lesson will incorporate or drill what they already know.

* My chicken-scratch is infamous, so here is a transliteration:
–1. Black Circle: starting with 1st position, en garde, extension, guards/parries 3 and 4; movement: the advance, retreat, lunge, recovery out of the lunge; concept of opposition; glide in 3rd and defense
–2. Green Circle: starting with review of 1st position and the en garde, guards 3 and 4, and opposition from first lesson; then the glide in 3rd, in 4th, and the disengage; importance of weapon-arm-foot; importance of recovering behind the point
–3. Red Circle: review of 1st. pos. and en garde, guards 3,4, glides in 3/4; feint by glide in 3rd and 4th; flanconade; parry 2; drills building off of Fencer A makes feint by glide to outside line; Fencer B parries 3; Fencer A disengages, thrusts in 4th with opposition–> Fencer B receives the touch; then, same set-up, but Fencer B parries 4th and ripostes by flanconade [this sets up a future lesson were Fencer A will parry in 2nd]

**Key Components of the Lunge viewed as Depicted via Rota:
–starting from 1st position; front foot extends out about two shoe lengths or so (Fr. deux semelles); position of arms; bending the knees; weight on back leg traditionally, but today often equi-weighted; balance and stability the goal so that en garde facilitates an explosive lunge; head position; importance of relaxing the shoulders; where to point the weapon; guard of tierce/3rd