“The 1690 Swipe”—A Brief look at Parries in Rapier and Smallsword

Most often I start a new post with some phrase along the lines of “in a recent conversation:” this one will be no exception. There are a handful of fencers I chat with regularly and these conversations, even if they don’t start with us, allow us to explore both issues of the moment and those that transcend whatever particular squabble on social media sparked the latest firestorm. In this case, on some page on Friendface there was a discussion about parries in rapier, and while the discussion there was predictably miserable it prompted some excellent discussion offline and prompted me to return to a few sources.

The issue was whether or not one keeps the point directed at target when parrying, or, if one can parry with the point off-line. It’s a longer subject than I want to dive into here, but in large degree this debate (such as it is) reflects variances in more modern practice and pedagogy more than it does discrepancies in the sources. Many fencers, myself included, who were brought up in the French school of foil, were taught to keep the point on target when parrying—not always, but as a starting place. There are enough of us around that some of “HEMA’s” micro-lineages have inadvertently made this notion canon—it isn’t. [1]

This begs the question: what do our sources say? There are many texts one could consult, but I decided to look at a few where it’s pretty clear one is not expected to have the point on target all the time. Texts from that netherworld between rapier and smallsword, a time of considerable overlap in the use of the two weapons, provide a good starting point. I’d like to look at the parry in three texts which conform to what I’ve opted to call “1690s swipe.” Feel free to use that 😉  The three texts in question are:

–Marcelli, Rules of Fencing (1686)
–L’Abbat, Le art en fait d’armes (1696)
–Wylde, English Master of Defense (1711)

Okay, so really only one of these was from the 1690s, and even it, L’Abbat’s work, is better known from the 1734 edition published in English by an Irishman, but what I wish to demonstrate with these texts circa 1690-1710 is that each in different ways touches on the issue of point-on or not when parrying. It seems likely to me that one reason we see similarities in them is that the foil qua foil was not yet established as an artistic form on its own merit, but still a tool by which to learn to use a sword in earnest. As for “swipe,” by this I mean a motion made to one side or the other, say for parrying third/outside or fourth/inside, versus the same block made with the tip using the nose of the opponent like the apex of a cone, and which generally requires more movement of the arm.

Smallsword ca. 1700: So Basic… so… Gauche

A number of my colleagues do not care much for this period of sources—the less well-known en garde positions, the lack of polish to them, the simplicity, all of it can be off-putting to many people trained in traditional programs. Wylde’s odd diction, his bravado (he claims he was the first to teach the “half-moon parry” for example…*), and relatively uncomplicated system seem to some fencers primitive and lacking in sophistication. How good can it be, so the thinking goes, if it’s that simple?

L’Abbat, while not quite the “Hutton” of the smallsword world, gets short-shrift in part because it too seems simplistic, and, perhaps because it’s easily obtained for free (Dover Thrift generally doesn’t suggest the latest, sexiest scholarship). L’Abbat and Wylde, like Hope, McBane, and a number of other masters writing around the turn of the 18th century were concerned with defense first and foremost. They were not what we’d call “salle fencers” or academicians. Some had spent a lifetime fighting, either on battlefields or in brawls and duels—McBane in particular had a colorful career, spending most of his life as a solider, but as a gambler and pimp too. Sir William Hope’s advocacy for a hanging guard as go-to for smallsword, broadsword, etc. likewise reflects a lifetime spent fighting, so to approach his work with the same assumptions one would Cordelois or Parise will skew the view of his system.

The best self-defense systems even now are simple, practical, and devoid of the fancy acrobatics likely to win points with judges—the hurricane kick, the flourish with a bo staff, they’re fun but are “flashy, crowd pleasing steps.” [2]. A kick to the knee or shin, a simple well-made blow with a staff typically serve one better on the ground. Just so, when one carried a sword ca. 1700, it was likely a smallsword unless one was on active duty or living in places like Spain or southern Italy were the rapier remained popular far longer. While the smallsword was a fashionable item of dress for many, it was also a side-arm, a weapon, and a great number of people lived in contexts where knowing how to use it, even just the basics, might be the difference between life and death.

Marcelli’s Rules of Fencing, on the other hand, is a well-documented, thorough examination; it’s well-written, detailed, and exhaustive. Experienced fencers tend to like it and with good reason: it’s easily one of the best works ever written on swordplay. However, Marcelli is a tough read for people without significant training and a decent grasp on fencing terminology. This isn’t a dig at people new to fencing or who didn’t come up through more traditional training, nor is it gate-keeping: Marcelli’s is a highly technical treatise full of terms and ideas that are difficult even for many experienced fencers to understand right away. [3]

Looking at each source in turn one notices several points germane to the debate over parries. In the passages below the authors do not specify where they want the tip save L’Abbat in one instance. Two caveats. First, it’s important to note a difference between arguments from silence and inference. The former implies that we lack information; the latter implies that we are deducing something from the information that exists. What follows is an example of the latter—I’m reading key passages, “unpacking” them and explaining what they mean, and attempting to demonstrate how theses passages reveal how these three authors, in this period of time, viewed the placement of the tip of the weapon when parrying. In my reading all three do not seem keen to have the point remain on target when parrying.

Second, three sources are hardly representative. I know that. As such, this examination–brief because it’s already too long for most readers–is merely one selection of data, a snapshot. It is suggestive, not conclusive, and if one takes the time to examine works from Camillo Agrippa to Camille Prevost one will see a variety of stances on where one points the tip when parrying.

To Point or Not to Point at Target

Marcelli, who has much to say about parries, discusses them in several distinct sections. The first instance is in the Part I, Book I, Chapter XIII, “The Parry,” where he explains

that in the tempo of the parry neither the rear foot, nor the front foot, must be moved. Instead, he must stay in that tempo with the body in the center, and with the torso composed, as it is found will situated in this guard. Having to parry, only the sword arm must move, which does its duty of defense with the strong, striking the opponent’s sword away from the line of the body, either to the inside, or to the outside, or toward the right, or toward the left side. It is advised, however, to parry precisely, without discomposing oneself from the guard, or the sword being moved too much, because defending excessively, a side is being exposed in that act with great jeopardy of being hit.

nel Tempo del riparare non si deve movere, nè il piè di dietro, nè il piè d’avanti; mà si deve stare in quell tempo co’l corpo in centro, e con la vita composta, come si trova ben situate nella sua guardia: e dovendo parare, deve movere solamente il braccio della Spada, il quale sa il suo officio della difesa co’l forte, urtando la Spada del nemico in fuori la linea del suo corpo, ò di dentro, ò di fuori, ò verso la parti destre, ò vero, verso le parti sinistre. Avuerta però à parare aggiustatamente, senza, scomponersi dalla guardia, ò moversi troppo con la Spada per souerchiamente defendersi, scoprendosi in qull’atto da una parta con molto preguidicio d’esser colpito: [4]

Nowhere in this passage does Marcelli specify what the tip is doing, but the idea of striking the incoming steel is suggestive. Knocking the opponent’s weapon to the side with the strong doesn’t preclude thrusting with opposition; one need not keep the point on target to achieve this. In discussing the direct thrust, which for him is the end-result of every thrust, Marcelli makes it clear that he intends one to thrust with cover. [5]

A later passage makes it even more clear that the blade need not be on target when parrying;

The blow having immediately been parried, and the ending of the action obtained, performing the riposte must be delayed a moment. It must not be extended then, when the opponent is found in the termination and holds the torso forward, because being found in that tempo with the body in profile, there is little, almost no, space to strike. For that reason, it is necessary to wait for when he goes to the rear to withdraw, and in the beginning of taking the torso backward and coming to turn the chest with that movement to offer the target, here (without in any way releasing the weapon once obliged by the parry) the riposte rapidly follows.

Subito parato il colpo, & ottenuto l’esito dell’Attione, non deve trattenersi un momento à tirar la riposta: la quale non deve spiccarsi all’hora, quando il nemico si trova nella terminatione, etiene avanti la vita, perche, trovandosi in qul tempo co’ l corpo in profilo, si hà poco, e quasi niente spatio do colpire. Perloche e necessario aspettare, quando quello si dà à dietro per ritirarsi, e nel principiare, che sa; di dare a dietro la vita, venendo con quel moto a voltare il petto, & ad offerire il bersaglio, qui, (senza rallentarli in modo alcuno l’arme una volta impegnata con la parata), si segque rapidamente la riposta. [6]

Of particular note here is the master’s comment about space to riposte—had he assumed the fencer to remain point-on-target this comment would make little sense. However, if one uses the strong to parry point off-line, and moreover one hasn’t broken ground to defend—as Marcelli advises—then the comment about space to riposte makes complete sense. The riposte too is not immediate, but applied only as the opponent begins their own recovery back into guard.

This is not to say that in those situations where one might simultaneously parry and riposte that one didn’t, but to say that the parry—as Marcelli defines it and consistently uses it through the Rules of Fencing—is made with a short movement of the arm and blade; that the parry is effected with the strong; and that the point very likely is not on target when parrying.

Turning to L’Abbat, this master recommended a “Middling Guard,” here meaning one held in the center. This suggests a lot about his parries as well. He writes

The Hilt should be situated in the Center, that is to say, between the upper and lower Parts, and the Inside and Outside of the Body, in order to be in a better Condition to defend whatever Part may be attacked. The Arm must not be strait nor too much bent, to preserve its Liberty and be cover’ed. The Parts being thus placed, the Wrist and the Point of the Right Foot will be on a perpendicular line.

Le poignet doit être situé dans le centre, c’est à dire dans le milieu du haut du bas du dedans & du dehors, afin d’être plus en état d’en defender l’endroit insulté. Il ne faut pas que le bras soit étendu, ni plié, qu’il tienne également de l’un & de l’autre, pour consèrver sa liberté, & pour n’être point découvert. [7]

From this position, then, one adjusts the wrist and blade depending upon the nature of the attack. For example, if the opponent thrusts to the inside line correctly, that is if their forte (strong) is opposed to one’s feeble (weak), then one’s hand moves up slightly and raises the point so that the opposing steel’s feeble more easily meets one’s own forte. [8]. In tierce, it’s much the same, only there one turns the hand out and up to achieve the same advantage (though the hand stays in third position, not fourth as other masters sometimes recommend).

Moreover, L’Abbat mentions two types of parries, the first which binds, the second which beats, each of which he recommends for specific lines. With regard to the beat, he says

And the Beat, giving a favourable Opportunity of riposting, is to be used when you ripost to a Thrust in Seconde; or when after having parryed a Thrust in Quart within, you an Opening under the Wrist. To these two Thrusts, you must ripost almost as soon as the adversary pushes, quitting his Blade for the Purpose, which is to be done only by a smart Motion, joining again immediately, in order to be in Defence if the Adversary should thrust.

& celles dont le coup sec favorise la risposte, tout devant tendre à sa sin, est lors qu’on risposte au coup de sécondé de l’ennemi, ou qu’on pare son alongement de quarte au dedans des armes & qu’on voit le jour sous le poignet, il faut à ces deux coups risposter presque dans le tems que l’ennemi porte en quitant son fer pour risposter , ce qui ne se peut que par un mouvement sec ; l’on doit immédiatement après le revenir joindre afin de se garantir s’il avoit dessein de pousser. [9]

The combination of making the beat with a “smart motion,” that is a strong knock, and of then immediately closing the line or “joining again immediately” suggests that the point isn’t necessarily on target when one parries. In tierce and quarte, for example, assuming a proper attack to either line one raises the point in order to gain mechanical advantage on the incoming steel.

As a last example, Zachary Wylde provides another instance of a master who favors a middle-guard. Similar to L’Abbat’s guard, Wylde recommends that one:

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… 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. [10]

His parry consists of deviating the point only a few inches. The hand and hilt remain more or less centered, which means that the point by definition is offline when parrying:

The Parr or Parrade at Small – Sword, is perform’d thus, Stand your Line as directed, and if your Opponent makes an Assault or Thrust at you, wave or move your Weapons point Cross-wise, the Compass of four Inch, from the Line downwards and upwards, according as the nature of the Pass is made and so requires; this motion is perform’d by the Wrist, about the Center of your Weapon, your Arm kept in its certain Place; this I call the common Cross way of Parring, and is the strongest Parr that can be made. Observe that you make a Parr against every pretended Thrust, for no Man knows anothers Intention, or whether he designs to make his Pass true or false. [11]

This “Cross-wise Parr” involves moving the point off-line briefly to effect the block. From here, and with a decent extension, one can easily thrust with opposition to riposte. I suspect that it is this last factor, the decent extension, which is causing all the fuss.

The Importance of the Extension

The effort to dispense with all the evils of modernity is to historical fencing what Brexit is for the English: a mistake. It’s an easy mistake to make (easier than Brexit anyway), and to be fair, one often made honestly. It’s important to say that from the off, because just as I do not wish to disparage the smarter set in the sport, so too do I not wish to denigrate the many clever people in HEMA. With this disclaimer, a lot of the problem as I see it is the inability, even the lack of awareness, of how important the extension is in rapier or smallsword when starting an attack. The weapon, which travels via extension, must move first. The student who knows this, who has drilled how to thrust from various lines, can parry point on or off and still thrust effectively.

Even today in a much altered landscape, beginning foilists are still taught this—it’s primary, fundamental, and in no way new. The primacy of the sharp point demands attention—if my attack is parried the very next thought I should have (post sotto voce explicative utterance) is defense. A properly extended arm followed by the rest of us creates that primacy—the defender cannot, should not ignore it. All the hullaballoo about George Silver’s “true times” a few years ago in the end comes down to a failure to understand this universal principle of fight. Marcelli, perhaps more than most, harps on the importance of drilling this action, of working toward the best direct thrust one can, but it’s everywhere implied in our sources when not spelled out, and indeed, must be, because otherwise people will double every time.

There are, however, different ways to do this. The easiest, and indeed the way I teach it initially, is to keep the point on target, at least in smallsword. Rapier I do a bit differently, but it’s a different weapon and the weight and length change things. However, even in smallsword I eventually teach students to parry by beat, because it pays to know both. What makes it easy for students to go from the easier point-on-target to point-eventually-on-target is proper technique, a good extension, and a ton of practice performing it.

Drill is not as much fun as bouting, however it’s vital for fencers if they wish to improve. A bout can test our technique, sure, but it doesn’t allow us to time to ensure that our technique is proper, that all parts are moving as they should, and doesn’t allow us to make the same action the same way each time. Unless we know how to make that extension, or any action, well, we will struggle to use it effectively in the heat of a bout. Pants before shoes: get the technique working well first, then pressure test it and learn to adapt it as needed on the piste or in the ring. More time drilling core actions and less time “sparring” would do much to help HEMA players hone and improve their game.


[1] I’ve mentioned micro lineages before, but increasingly I see the problems inherent in some of them. People learn in good faith and are not capable (at first) or willing to examine this received learning against either the source record or established pedagogy. I feel I need to say this every time, but most of the traditional approach is still taught and taught well; we fail to see it for the excesses and abnormalities so obvious in the sport, and, in HEMA. I’m told people are using the fleche in HEMA…really? Come on… no.

*5ly. Another way of Parring, I call, The Semi-Circular, or half Moon Parr, which is thus, Lie in your Order, according to your first Direction, in a true Line; then lower or dip the Point of your Weapon about two Inch, lying the inside your Opponent’s; then if he Thrusts at you, make a half Circle, which will meet his Thrust, and Parr him. If you lie with your Weapon’s Point the outside his, in like manner as aforesaid, and he Thrusts at you, return your Weapon into its first Place, and you’l reingage him with the Blade of your Weapon, and perfect a Parr. This Parr is the most absolute and compleatest Parr that ever was invented; and without Ostentation, I can truly say, I was the first person that Taught it; and I dare further affirm, that there’s many Proffessors of this Noble Art, that knows no more of the half Moon Parr, than they do of the Man in the Moon. [page 10 in the pdf]

[2] To quote the character Les Kendall in 1992’s “Strictly Ballroom.” If you like Australian movies, dance, or a good laugh, check it out—not quite “The Castle” funny, but close 😉


[3] There is a difference between“gate keeping” and explanation, and, not all explanation is “man-splaining.” As always, I turn to the venerable Urban Dictionary for help here—to explain how something works because one knows how it works is not a) deciding who does or doesn’t have access or rights to a community or identity; or b) isn’t a method (for me anyway) of elevating myself above others as a tool of self-inflation [I’d need more than three readers even to start down that path lol].

In similar vein, I’m not devaluing another’s opinion because they’re not qualified, nor am I setting up arbitrary, subjective rubrics by which to evaluate said opinion. Opinion and fact are NOT the same. “Marzipan is delicious” is an opinion (one I share), a choice based on an individual’s sense of what tastes good or not. There is no objective way to measure that, though arguably there is for evaluating quality of marzipan. “All point-oriented fencing assumes that the point stays on target” is a statement one can evaluate against evidence. It’s a thesis, a proposition, NOT a fact, not unless the evidence bears it out, and thus one can evaluate it. I know this because I’m trained to conduct this sort of research and so have the tools to make that evaluation, and as importantly, was trained in a school of history that put significant value on transparency, honesty, and the humility necessary to concede a position when better evidence and/or an argument demonstrate a superior position.

[4] Always quick to examine precedent, Marcelli provides a brief look at the wisdom of Giovanni dall’Aogcchie, Nicoletto Giganti, and Alessandro Senese, and then remarks that valuable though their work is that he disagrees with the idea that one should move the feet when parrying. Modern fencers, in contrast, are generally taught to take a half-step back when parrying, so this can strike one as odd. However, his reasoning is sound if one considers the context in which Marcelli and his students operated (movement is different when weapons are sharp, there are no rules, and the terrain isn’t set at an official limit).

For the quotations, see Francesco Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, translated by Christopher A. Holzman (Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2019), 55; Francesco Marcelli, Regole della Scherma, (Roma: Nella Stamperia di Dom. Ant. Ercole, 1686); this version, vastly cleaner than the one on Google Books, is from achive.org, 42-43.

[5] See for example 106 in Holzman; Marcelli discusses the importance of the hand in 4th position to inside (nails up, supinated), hand in 2nd to outside (thumb to the inside, knuckles up, nails down).

[6] Holzman, Rules of Fencing,198; Marcelli, Regole della Scherma, 136.

[7] For the quotations, see Monsieur L’Abbat, The Art of Fencing, translated by Andrew Mahon (Dublin, 1734); this edition from Lector House, LLP, 2020, 5; Le Sieur Labat, L’art en fait d’armes (Toulouse, Chez J. Boude, 1696), pdf via FFAMHE – Fédération Française des Arts Martiaux Historiques Européens, 10.

[8] The mechanical advantage imparted by manipulating strong and weak parts of the blade is important in both offense and defense; for the parries of quarte and tierce respectively, see L’Abbat, The Art of Fencing, 10 and 13; L’art en fait d’armes, 22-24; 26-28.

I use the Italian hand position nomenclature here to help illustrate the point—that is not in L’Abbat. The four main positions are first, thumb pointing toward the ground (pronated); second, thumb pointing to the inside line; third, thumb on top; and fourth, thumb pointing to the outside line (supinated). There are typically two mid-way positions, but those go by different names and do not concern us here. One is “first in second” (prima in seconda) where the thumb is at 7 o’clock; the other is “second in third” (seconda in terza) which is close to second position more 9 o’clock where second is 8 o’clock. [Some also include “third in fourth” (terza in quarta) which is just shy of fourth position.

[9] L’Abbat, The Art of Fencing, 21; L’art en fait d’armes, 38-39.

[10] For the quotations, see Zachary Wylde, English Master of Defence (Tork: printed by John White, 1711); via The Smallsword Project, 6. [page numbers refer to those in the pdf] Wylde,8-9; he first describes the parry 6-7.

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.


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.”


[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.

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]


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.


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


[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.

_Fencing Illustrated, Part 2_ by Pallavicini (1673)

Lulu Press is offering 10% off purchases today (Code is FESTIVE10). For any fan of rapier, Neapolitan fencing, and late coverage of weapon combinations such as sword and buckler, rotella, etc. Chris Holzman’s latest translation, Part Two of Fencing Illustrated by Pallavicini, is out and worth your time. This second half provides more than the inclusion of the rest of the master’s repertoire, but a fuller picture of his approach in toto and how it fits in to the Neapolitan system. Other key works from the Neapolitan orbit, also available at Lulu, include Marcelli’s Rule of Fencing (1686), Terracusa e Ventura’s True Neapolitan Fencing (1725), Rosaroll & Grisetti’s The Science of Fencing (1804), and Chris’ edition of the collected works of Parise, The Roman-Neapolitan School of Fencing.

Though not as well-written as Part One (1670), Chris’ ability as a translator makes part two of Pallavicini’s dense, sometimes rambling work accessible and sensible. Like Chris’ other translations, this one offers something too many translations of historical fencing works do not–a well-made, vetted edition by an acknowledged specialist. There are a lot of translations out for historical fencing, and many are quite good, but not everyone has the background to understand these texts well, and worse, many lack the linguistic chops to do the job properly. In addition to possessing the necessary skillset to tackle these works, Chris also has each translation checked over by competent speakers, several of them native speakers of Italian who are also fencers and have training in earlier phases of the language. What Reinier van Noort has done for Dutch, German, and French works on rapier (among other topics), and Tom Leoni has done for 15th and 16th century Italian works, Chris has done for much of the Italian corpus from Marcelli (1686) to Pecoraro & Pessina (1912).

Beyond technique there is still more of interest to be found within Fencing Illustrated. Like many authors of his period, from other fencing masters to more well-known writers like Michel de Montaigne (d. 1592), Pallavicini peppers his study with numerous classical allusions. Some are meant to illustrate, some to bolster a point he wishes to make, but regardless these examples provide a window into the works available to these authors and the uses to which they were put. In a similar way Pallavicini refers to other masters of his time, both Italian and from other lands, demonstrating not only the degree to which ideas traveled, but to the importance placed even then on study outside one’s own tradition.

Lulu is bound to have more sales in future, but ten percent isn’t bad, especially for books Chris prices for much less than he could (I say that as someone who has worked in translation too–you get a lot of quality for the price). Lastly, Pallavicini is a fun read; no, really, he is. His views on fencing are important, but what he has to say of those he admires, and rivals, adds a lot to what might otherwise be a rather droll technical work. It’s a good read.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JBT Emmons

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