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.
[2]

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.
[4]

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.
[6]

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, https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1856-0712-639

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.

NOTES:

[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, https://smallswordproject.files.wordpress.com/2016/11/zach-wylde.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, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/6053/6053-h/6053-h.htm . 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.

“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.

NOTES:

[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 😉

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0105488/?ref_=ttfc_fc_tt

[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.

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]

Rotae/Wheels

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.

NOTES:

[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

Smallsword as Gate-way Drug

The lunge as represented in the Règlement of 1908

In the current adult “Introduction to Fencing” class I decided to proceed along more historical lines rather than stick to the form I inherited, traditional foil. Up to this session I’ve used foils (French, as I have more of them than Italian)—they’re inexpensive, light to ferry to and from the center where I teach, and as I teach it the presentation is closer to smallsword than modern foil. At the very least, so my reasoning goes, solid foil is an excellent foundation for the study of any other weapon, new or ancient. [1] The masters with whom I studied foil were “old-school” so we learned a very traditional method. I was not taught flicks, ducking to cover target, or any of the other bizarre ways to game ROW and directors. This said, traditional foil is not smallsword, but it is what I learned, and, learned first, so up to now I’ve taught foil more or less as one sees it in the Règlement of 1908 or Barbasetti [2].

Foil is comfortable, known, a place of comfort. I know I’m competent to teach it, and that confidence helps, not only with how I myself present in class, but also in terms of how students view me and respond. [3] If the teacher is unsure, the students will be too, and worst case scenario may just leave, confidence being one of those all-important traits in the United States (despite the fact confidence as such is often just faked, misplaced, or assumed without cause).

I usually teach smallsword one on one, and I fence it a fair amount. I spend and have spent countless hours studying, researching, and writing about the corpus; the more I work on smallsword the more I like it, and not only because it taxes past injuries less severely than many of the other weapons I teach. I like the mental game, the complexity, navigating all those angles. A question came up the first day of the adult class, about why one holds a French foil as one does in sixth, and sometime between explaining what “carte over the arm,” terza, and “hand in fourth” meant, I decided: next class we’re just going to do smallsword.

Rarely have I taken a chance like this and had it pay off, let alone immediately, but in four classes the four adults in this class have a clearer understanding of rule number one, “don’t get hit,” and are quickly gaining skill with the fundamentals I’ve shown them. It may be that these four are just precocious—all four are athletic—but I’ve worked with a lot of capable people, and with few exceptions have I seen a group take to what I teach them so fast.

I think it is two things. First, I am passionate about the topic and know it well; I appreciate how difficult it can be and so I ensure a lot of room to make mistakes, ask questions, and all without censure or impatience. Enthusiasm is infectious, so present a topic as fun and chances are good it will be fun. [4] Second, as complex as smallsword can be, approached from the point of view of “the point is live,” it becomes very simple.

La pointe d’une épée est une réalité qui fait disparaître bien des fantômes.

Baron César de Bazancourt, Les secrets de l’épée [153]
1862

It’s this second point that has been a revelation. What’s caught my attention is that my emphasizing “don’t get hit” first is not new—this guides every single class or lesson I teach. What’s different is how it’s working.

Critical Rule: Always be Open to Correction

This is, in some ways, a difficult realization, because it suggests strongly that some aspects of my approach have been somewhat more schizophrenic than I realized. As I examine it, as I review old lesson plans and notes, I see it. My approach to smallsword, foil, epee/spada, though not rapier interestingly, mixed elements of foil-as-sport with the sources. This wasn’t true across the board, but it was in certain places. It’s easy to fall into, because there is enough overlap that one can assume that a given maneuver is more or less the same; it likely is, but where it’s less the same, that is the thing on which to focus. A prime example is a simple one-two feint. Classically, in foil, the one-two consists of the following:

  • From sixth/third Fencer A feints inside line
  • From sixth/third Fencer B parries in fourth
  • Fencer A disengages and thrusts to the outside line

There’s nothing wrong with this, and, it can work in smallsword too. However, what is missing in the sporting formulation is the extra caution one needs in historical fencing. Feints are one of the most difficult actions for fencers to learn—they’re not just about technique, but psychology. We must “sell” a feint to make it work. We cannot, however, control what the other fencer does, and responses will vary—this is one reason that probing actions and solid footwork are so important. A feint is not always the right choice.

Girard, Traité des armes, (1740) thrust in fourth

The defender, for example, might parry fourth thereby opening the outside line, but they might also panic and just counter attack. They may just back up. Some will see it coming, parry fourth, then take a half-step back and take sixth/third and riposte. There are solutions to each of these scenarios and more (thanks Newton 😉 ), but for the attacker, some degree of commitment, even if to the false attack is vital or the feint will lack credibility. It must be made at just the right distance, not so close that one puts oneself at even greater risk, but not so far as to look ridiculous and unconvincing.

When one is fighting for points—not to touch and not be touched—some of these concerns are minor or absent. The foilist, so long as they attack with right-of-way and land the touch, will get the point, and this is irrespective of whether the defender counters. Only if that counter arrives in tempo, thus granting the defender ROW, will they score. In this case the defender countering is less concerned, if at all, about whether the initial attacker completes the attack, because they got the point. In this is the entire difference between sport and combat.

A Glizade by Any Other Name (coulé, filo, glide, graze …)

One challenge as an instructor is to instill an appropriate sense of danger, artificial as it will be, in new students. It can be difficult with experienced students too. One of the best solutions I’ve found, and one that at the same time helps develop a proper thrust, was suggested to me by a friend and virtual mentor, Chris Holzman. [5] A while back, while chatting with both Chris and Patrick Bratton about teaching the direct thrust, usually the first attack one learns in foil, Chris suggested starting students off with the glide in third [6]. It’s so obvious how this might help that I felt silly I hadn’t thought of it, but then that is why we consult more knowledgeable people.

Teaching the glide first has done wonders for my youth class, and it has been a boon in this adult class as well, not least of which because the glizade is common in smallsword works, but also because it focuses so clearly on opposition and not being hit. This benefit extends beyond this particular action as well. For example, I decided to set up their first feint as a feint-by-glide. The day we started a look at feints I reviewed the previous lesson, had them do the usual warm up, then footwork, and then had them practice the glide in third against one another. Next we added the defense against it, in this case the simplest, taking a half-step back and reasserting third. To help them set up for the subject of the day, I next had them engage in fourth, and as before, they practiced attacking and defending. [7]

After a short break, I had them complete a simple disengage drill, one in which each partner takes turns making disengages against a static line. In this case, Fencer A stands in guard, in third, and Fencer B disengages from third to fourth, making sure to maintain opposition. This is the critical part, and, a departure from modern foil. Going over just this action helps isolate where students may be struggling, and cements key aspects of the technique.

Coulé or glizade from Angelo, L’École des armes (1763)

From there, we started on the feint by glide in third to force a parry in third, followed by a disengage into fourth and thrust with opposition. Among other notable observations the students made was that they could not leave that glide until/unless the defender reacted. When they made the disengage automatically, before a response, they normally ran into the opposing steel. If they failed to take opposition in fourth, they were hit on their way to target. Finally, we discussed the defense against this attack and practiced it (defender takes a half-step back and parries in third, then follows the disengagement via a ceding parry in fourth, ripostes with opposition).

The exercise, start to finish, was fruitful, not only for what it imparted about offense, defense, footwork, and tactics, but sentiment du fer and a keen sense of the point. Discussion turned to other options, techniques we’ve not yet covered but will, and more than once the students, just via the logic of this play deduced either possible next steps or alternative actions to those we had just covered.

Smallsword as Gate-Way Drug

My nod to 1980’s Nancy Reagan “just say no” propaganda aside, smallsword can prove an excellent introduction to the universals we navigate and employ in all fencing. Foil, traditionally, was meant to do this, and still can depending on instructor, but the advantage of smallsword over foil in this respect comes down to clarity. In the 1860s de Bazancourt was one of those voices lamenting that foil training could prove a liability in duels; foil, for some time, had become more academic, what we often call today “salle fencing.” This was, as I’ve pointed out before, something at least one French official noted about the Italian approach—they learn one system, and the difference between sport and duel comes down not to technique, but the blade. One has a button, the other is sharp. [8] The rise of epee, in many respects, was the French attempt to return foil to the seriousness of smallsword—what they created was different, but the ethos was the same. Don’t be hit.

Alexander Doyle, Neu Alamodische Ritterliche Fecht- und Schirm-Kunst, 1715 [Courtesy of SUB Göttingen, Universität Göttingen, Deutschland]

If one knows foil well, reading a smallsword text is relatively easy—vocabulary is often different, orthography too, but the relationship stands out starkly. This said, the differences (as so often happens) are more important: if we ignore them we risk misinterpretation. We will treat smallsword as foil and they’re not the same. We see foils—the weapon—in many early works, from de la Touche (1670) to Angelo (1763/1787), but the similarity in tool then and now can obscure the intent behind it. The ruleset for foil, much of modern pedagogy, will not work for smallsword, not if we wish to approach it historically, as a weapon.

The grip in tierce is easy for beginners, and no bar to learning how to hold the hand in fourth, something they will learn in due course. There are many extant texts for smallsword, and while one needs to read them carefully and select those more geared to combat, having to read them closely to parse out what is academic and what suitable for on the ground only imparts a better understanding and appreciation for the corpus. [9]

The sense of realism, moreover, adds significantly to a class. It’s a form of time-travel, in a way, because students are wrestling with the concerns those two-hundred years ago had to consider too. At its best, historical fencing not only creates a redoubtable fencer, but also one who appreciates the richness and variety of the Art. The fact it’s possible to work so hard and have so much fun is another lesson worth one’s time.

Notes:

[1] Until recently, most every fencer started study with foil because it encapsulates the whole of the Art, from how to move to lines of attack, from the primacy of the sharp point to the interconnection between distance and tempo. Armed with a knowledge of foil, epee and sabre are easier to learn, but so too bayonet and spear.

[2] This is a note I’ve shared more than once, but I have no idea who may read this or if they’ve read anything on this site previously, and for completeness I like to cite anything I should or what people may wish to know, have questions about, etc. I initially was trained in French foil, and the first master with whom I studied sabre, Buzz Hurst, had been a student at the Naval Academy under the Deladriers, so when making comparisons in sabre lessons to foil it was the French system he referenced. More recently, I studied with the late Maitre Delmar Calvert, again in sabre, but who also referenced foil. He learned to fence in the French army according to the Réglement of 1908. My initial work in Italian foil looked to Barbasetti as outlined in his The Art of the Foil (1932).

[3] Teaching is intimate. Building and maintaining trust depends on a number of factors—I have found that honesty, transparency, and openness account for a lot. No one teacher has all the answers, and the best acknowledge that. If I don’t know, I say so, and then do what I can to find out. This may be off-putting to some, but I think it’s the right course. Students learn best when they can focus, when they don’t have to worry about other issues, and so much as I can I try to make a safe space—they know they will be heard, that they matter, and that no one is going to mock or judge them.

[4] Related to n. 3, people learn better when the topic is less work than it is play, children and adults. None of us are going to be fighting duels; we do this for fun, so, make it fun!

[5] I have had the good fortune to get to know Chris Holzman via the internet. He is a mentor in so many ways, a repository of knowledge, and a skilled fencer, teacher, and translator. One of these days I will make it out to Kansas for lessons, and whatever it is we cover I’ll come back the richer.

[6] The direct thrust is elemental, but it is also difficult. Before students understand that the extension is the key to it, that their posture and position guide the point, they attempt to aim the point. It’s far simpler than that—it’s all in the set-up, but acquiring that skill takes time and considerable effort. Marcelli, in his Rules of Fencing, Book II, Part I, Chapter Vi, remarked that the direct thrust underpins everything. Ripostes, feints, beats, all employ it. See Holzman’s translation, page 105.

[7] One of the major errors I see in “HEMA” is the lack of movement. Fencers enter into measure and duke it out, making very little use of the piste or ring. Varying movement in drills is vital. Using the example above of the 1-2 (feint to the inside line, disengage, thrust to the outside line), this can be performed from lunging distance or from advanced lunge distance. We often start in measure as it’s easier—depending on the action—but as much as possible vary the distance.

In this case, I had them start out in measure and work slowly to get the mechanics down, then we sped it up a bit to test it, and, show how tempo plays into the attack. Next, I had them advance the feint, then lunge the attack. In time, they’ll start out of distance and need to decide when to make the attack; initially I will give them a cue, say raising my blade to guard from a low guard, but as they increase in skill I will hold tierce and they have to pick the time.

[8] There is a lot of work to be done on the difference and nuances between “academic” versus “dueling” with smallsword and foil works. This is one of my current research projects.

[9] A good analogy for all this is the college history course. In some, one is made to memorize all manner of minutiae, then take some type of multiple choice test. It’s as boring as it is pointless. In others classes, one might listen to lectures germane to the topic; with luck these are engaging and explore the themes via something that makes the topic relatable, that touches the experience of being human that transcends time. One usually reads some period sources, some secondary literature about those sources and their context, and is then asked to write analytical essays, both as papers and in essay exams. The second method is far more demanding; some students absolutely hate it. Of the two, however, this is history, this is closer to how we conduct research.

Modern fencing makes next to no use, if any, of source material, books, etc. It’s impossible to study historical fencing without sources—even if one oneself isn’t reading and studying them, the person teaching them ostensibly is (they should be…). One advantage of having a rich source tradition is that it provides additional teaching tools. We have images and illustrations, key passages, anecdotal references to how people were trained and fought, all of which add much to how we teach. It can be a far richer meal.

That’s… Wylde

Two close friends, Alex and Sean, of High Desert Armizare (Bend, OR), have been working through Zachary Wylde’s The English Master of Defence OR, The Gentleman’s Al-a-mode Accomplish (1711). [1] This treatise is, like others from about the same time (e.g. Hope and McBane), typically unpopular with people trained in traditional fencing. The suggested guard, the variety of terms in non-standard spelling, and the tacit if not explicit issue that these works take with then traditional fencing is off-putting. [2] However, as someone who was skeptical at first, time spent with this book and blade in hand will reveal that it’s no joke. Wylde provides a viable system, one not just for smallsword, but broadsword and quarterstaff as well.

Alex and Sean took a look at his section on the flannconade and variations, and, shot video:

http://www.highdesertarmizare.com/2021/08/22/wyldes-flancanade/

NOTES:
[1] Cf. http://www.the-exiles.org/Manual%20Zach%20Wylde.htm

[2] Wylde’s vocabulary underscores the fact that English did not have a standard, authoritative dictionary as yet. Even before Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall (1604), itself derived from other word lists, England had had lexica of different sorts, mostly for other languages, e.g. the Latin-English The Dictionary of Syr Thomas Eliot knyght (1538) and an Italian-English dictionary I still use once in a while, John Florio’s Worlde of Wordes (1598). There were a number of dictionaries produced in England in the 17th century, even specialized ones for slang, but it wasn’t until after Wylde’s time that any dictionary came to command spelling conventions and definitions for the language. Students of Wylde may find James Orchard Halliwell-Philipps’ A Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words, Obsolete Phrases, Proverbs, and Ancient Customs, 2 Vols. (London: John Russell Smith, 1881) useful.

What’s in a Preface?

Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant

Referring to “context” is a commonplace in historical fencing. It means different things in different… contexts. We use it to mean the time and culture of a specific type of practice such as 15th century armored/unarmored combat; we mean the specific instances when such and such a system was applied (following the same analogy in war, the lists, in self-defense, as an instructor); we also use it to discuss the text that relates that same system, in this case everything from the question of author (did the master write it or have it written or did a student write it about them?), their purpose for writing it (as an attempt to woo patronage, as an aid to students, as an official government publication, etc.), how widely that text may have been known and used, as well as the culture of the book in their time. We also mean by “context” the reality of actual fighting versus training, bouting, tournaments, or play. Sometimes we can’t answer all of these questions or those that follow from them, but they’re important to ask regardless. If we don’t consider context(s) then we are likely to go wrong in our interpretations. It’s easy to go wrong even when people try to consider context.

For those who read the sources it’s also important to remember to read more than just the section on technique or plays. Any front matter, from dedications to prefaces, is worth a look if only once, because some questions we should have are often answered there. For example, in a preface an author often explains their purpose for writing, and if we’re lucky, something of their approach. Dedications likewise can tell us for whom they wrote the book, their relation to that person if any, and sometimes other connections we might not expect to see.

Few lessons or classes pass where we don’t discuss context in some way. With my sabre and broadsword classes, for example, we often discuss options as they pertain to the duel or combat. What isn’t allowed on the dueling ground is perfectly okay in the field. Put another way, the options we have say from a parry-riposte vary significantly in this case—following up a parry-riposte with a punch via bell-guard to the face or knocking someone to the ground was okay in combat, but an absolute no-no on the field of honor in most cases.

One analogy that has proved useful in smallsword lessons is to compare a smallsword to a small caliber pistol. There is this tendency to believe that for a weapon to be threatening it must be large, heavy, imposing, obvious, but this makes little sense—a weapon is a weapon, and whether a .32 caliber pocket pistol, switchblade, or kosh only a complete fool would think “nah, not dangerous enough.” No one wants to be shot by a .32 or .22 pistol. Will a .45 or .50 have more stopping power? Maybe, but in context the people who carry small caliber pistols are citizens who do so for self-defense, not soldiers. Peace of mind is the most powerful benefit a citizen gains from carrying a weapon—too often they have next to no practice using it and certainly not against people. The less insane among those who carry pistols hope it will be a deterrent, not overwhelming force. Assuming they have composure enough and time to pull a weapon, aim, and threaten or shoot just producing the gun will make most assailants react: it’s still a gun, .22 or not. Faced with a small pistol the assailant still has to think “is this worth six small bullets in my body?” [1]

In like vein, a smallsword may not be as imposing as greatsword, but it’s fast, sharp, and deadly. It’s easy to assume some brigand seeing a fop with his sword-jewelry might think the dandy is an easy mark, but was he? The guy open-carrying may be a crack-shot or may never have fired the thing, but how many people will take the risk to find out? It’s abnormal to carry weapons in American culture—we don’t need to, not like people do in other areas of the world, and so when we see someone at a grocery store with some giant chimney on their hip we normally assume political posturing, mental health issues, or both. In the 18th century, when men were still carrying swords as a part of dress, seeing a weapon was relatively more common. It was part of the scenery. We can ask the same questions of them that we do of modern open-carry fans today: how much skill did/do they likely have?

The answer to the question is less important than asking it, because it puts us in touch with our assumptions, our bias built from our own context. It’s tricky—one the one hand, drawing analogies can help, but on the other we have to be careful not to equate the two halves of the analogy. It’s analogy—comparing two things in order to clarify or explain something, not equivalence. In this case, there are some important, critical differences between a smallsword and a .22 snub-nose, just as there is between an item of dress as normal as a hat and something that people notice because it’s an exception to normal, to the everyday. In this case, the point of comparing a small caliber pistol and smallsword is that both will ruin your day even though they’re not the M-60 or a montante.

I’ve pulled a few works from the 18th century and excerpted portions of their prefaces to see what they have to say and what we might learn from them. They are:

  • 1702: Henry Blackwell’s The English Fencing Master
  • 1707: William Hope’s A New, Short, and Easy Method of Fencing
  • 1758: Juan N. Perinat’s Art of Fencing with Foil and Sabre
  • 1771: J. Olivier’s Fencing Familiarized
  • 1780: John McArthur’s The Army and Navy Gentleman’s Companion [2]

Taking each in turn, what do we learn?

Blackwell, Henry. The English Fencing Master. London: Printed by J. Downing, 1702.

I could very willingly have sav’d my self the Trouble of a Preface, had I not lain under a Necessity of Apologizing for the Brevity of this Undertaking, which I desire the Reader to accept as follows.

In the first place therefore, I do assure you the Peruser of this small Treatise, that there is scarce any thing needful to the Knowledge of the Small-Sword which is not here laid down, and that in so plain and clear a Method, as will give both Satisfaction and Delight to All Lovers of this Art. An Art so necessary to be known, and so proper a Qualification for constituting a Man a Gentleman, that I had almost said he can be none that is not skill’d therein.

A second Reason I might alledge for the Conciseness of this Work, is, that I have made use but of few Lessons, as judging that way most practicable, many Lessons being rather cloying than Instructive; besides that we too often experience, that Gentlemen are apt to forget one while they are learning another, by which means they scarce ever become perfect in any.

And now, were it any ways Useful to my Design, I might run a large Encomium in praise of Sword-playing, and show you particularly how England of late Years has exceeded all other Countries herein, even France it self, which has long boasted its Preference in this respect; but this being the Work rather of a Panegyric than a Sword’s-Man, I shall wave that point, and conclude with telling you, that if this Edition finds Acceptance in the World, I intend to enlarge on this and other parts of it, and oblige all Lovers hereof with a compleat System in a Second Edition. H.B.

Several things stand out in reading Blackwell’s preface. In the first line he informs us that this work is not long—“the Brevity of the Undertaking” is a florid way to express this, but amounts to the fact he will not be presenting an exhaustive treatment. He reiterates this a second time in the next section by referring to his “small Treatise” and significantly that despite the length the core of the system is present. Blackwell may assume some familiarity with fencing as well—a text he believes will please “All Lovers of this Art” is suggestive at least that some of his audience he expects to have a nodding acquaintance with the Art. Touching on the key aspects of the system the author then informs us that he includes few lessons as he believes these tend rather to confuse than help. In short, Blackwell tells the reader from the off that his work is not complete, but a distillation of key aspects of smallsword laid out in approachable lessons. For the historical fencer today keen to mine this text, this is important: it’s not complete, so while useful and informative, additional reading will be necessary.

Hope, W. A new, short, and easy method of fencing: Or, the art of the broad and small-sword rectified and compendized. Edinburgh: Printed by James Watson, 1707.

[x] A Dexterous Smalls-sword Man, how adroit soever he may be at the handling of his Rapeir in a Duel after the Common School-Method, will, when he comes to Engage at Clos Fight in a Field-Battel, either with Foot or Horse, find himself extremely put to it, and almost as much to seek, as if had no Art at all, if he be Masters or no better  Defence, whereby to secure himself, than the Ordinary School Parades of Quarte and Tierce, which belong only to the Small-sword or Rapier; & whereof the unsuccessful Practice, (even in Duels, laying aside their Insufficiency in a Crowd, or Field-Battel) hath no doubt made many People value less the Art of the Sword, than otherwise they would have done; judging thereby, that there could be no better nor securer Defence drawn for it: For in such a Juncture, I mean in a Crowd or Battel, a Man hath neither Time nor Bounds, nicely to Ward off his Adversary’s Blows or Thrusts, nor to Break his Measure, as he would have, were he Engaged only in a Duel. Here he is a little more at Large and Freedom; but there, perhaps surrounded by two or three Stout and Vigorous Single Soldiers, or Troopers, who are with Fury Sabring, and Discharging Blows upon him.

In this selection from Hope we see a stark contrast to Blackwell. Of concern here is Hope’s recognition that school play and actual combat are not the same. Most smallsword works make great hay of quarte and almost as much of tierce, but to Hope’s mind that is not enough. [3] It may serve in the salle, but on the ground or in combat these two principle parries are insufficient. As he remarks, the distance required to make these parries work well is not guaranteed in combat; the same is true of the ability to break measure. In a duel between two people, there is comparatively more room to act, more options, and fewer restrictions. That concluding line is particularly clear—armed with these more extended parries what shall the poor person with a smallsword do against three soldiers or cavarlymen bearing on him with sabres? Unlike the movies, they’re unlikely to take turns. Hope’s preference for a hanging guard, something one sees less often in smallsword treatises, makes more sense given that Hope’s assumptions are different.

Perinat, J. N. Art of Fencing with Foil and Sabre. Cadiz: Imprenta de la Real Academia de Cavalleros Guardias Marinas, 1758.

Prologue:

The art of fencing, that I demonstrate in this work, is one of the most essential parts of the military, whose object is the defense of our Holy Faith, the king and queen, and the state, and the glory of defeating their enemies. Because of this, in the most political governments special care is always taken that the youth destined for arms are instructed early in the art of fencing, to the end of acquiring agility, skill, boldness, and fearlessness.

In order to be able to perfect this art with more ease, it has been divided into two parts. The first, that one sees only in the play of the smallsword, pertains properly to the officers of war. The second, that one sees in the handling of the sword or sabre, is more commonly for the soldier. These two branches have always been separate from each other, and each one has had its own masters, but as the Marine Officers are destined for work in which it is very useful to be able to use the sabre, and that some have asked me to teach them, I have happily consented to give them this instruction, not withstanding the common worry of the academy masters, that they would lose some of their rights and prerogatives if they would teach the play of the sabre.

It is also true, that not all masters of the smallsword can teach the play of the sabre, and it is necessary to have found, as I have, the occasion of learning it. I confess, that in ten companies that I have done, in which I have encountered various sites and assaults, I would have perished had I not known how to parry a sabre.

In order to make this book more manual and less costly (which is the first brought to light in Spanish on the play of the foil), I have only placed in it the most necessary and subtle of the art. But if the public will receive it with benignity and manifest desire for a more extensive treatise, I will dedicate myself to giving one so complete that it won’t leave any desire for more on the subject.

As it has not been possible to represent in plates all the postures of the art, nor give greater perfection to the drawing, I ask the reader to pay attention more to the explanation than the plates, taking care that in all the thrusts in Fourth and its parries, the body has to be found in the same posture, as well as in those in Third and its parries, and that all the innumerable thrusts and parries that the art encompasses are founded in these four principal points, without the more skillful master being able to alter anything.

Juan Perinat’s treatise, like Blackwell’s, focuses on essentials. He tells us as much in the second to last paragraph, as well in suggesting that one pay more attention to the text than the plates. He suggests that because there are fewer plates that one is going to get more out of the text. Of note, he brings the study of foil (for smallsword) and sabre together in this work, something less common in mid-18th century Spain. As Perinat says, not all smallsword masters know sabre, but in active service he has found it useful, and thus believes that even officers should have some knowledge of it. There is a lot here to consider. As with Blackwell, to appreciate the place of Pernat’s treatise requires additional reading.

Olivier, J.  Fencing familiarized: Or, A new treatise on the art of sword play. London: J. Bell, 1771.

From the dedication:

(xii-xx) The principles laid down in the following treatise are such as have arisen from the most serious attention to all the ordinary, as well as all possible thrusts with the sword rendered plain and easy by example, according to the usage and opinions of the most eminent swordsmen and masters of the academy at Paris.

When I was last in that capital, you are sensible Gentlemen, that the stay I made there, had no other object than our common improvement; and I shall esteem myself happy, if by all my cares, I am enabled to demonstrate the ardent desire I have to render the art of which I am a possessor at once both useful and agreeable.

In order to attain both these aims there can be no other method adopted than that of a theory well founded, such as may serve for a basis to all those movements which an agil and well framed body is capable of practicising, in order thereby to discover their defects or to point out their particular merit: without theory nothing satisfactory can be expected, nor is it possible to act with judgment; for it must not be imagined that to acquire some general notions by dint of practice is sufficient; this is only the out lines of the art, it is going no deeper than the surface, and leaving the subject untouched: the essence and sublime of the art is to draw progressive instructions from one thrust to another; to know how many variations it may be susceptible of, and when to use it with advantage: this is what I have endeavoured in the best manner I could to demonstrate to you.

How far I have succeeded I submit to your determination, happy if it contributes to the only view I proposed by it, your advancement…

From the Preface:

(xxii-xxix) This treatise on fencing will I hope be favourably received by all the lovers of that exercise; it will not only be found useful in regard to execution, the perusal of it from time to time will also serve to recall the principles to mind, and enable one to arrive in some measure at perfection; for it is not enough to preserve a same equality in an exercise, and to practise it now and then, the memory must likewise be refreshed by a revival and thorough examination of the principles; theory being as necessary as practice.

I have expressed myself in as clear and intelligible a manner as I was able, in order to be understood, even by those who may never have learnt this art. I have drawn no comparison between the ancients and moderns, as many have done; it serves only to perplex the learners ideas; of what import is it to me, that the ancients called prime what we term second: the name is of no consequence; it is the manner of pushing the thrust that it behoves us to learn, and it is what I have studied to demonstrate distinctly.

Neither do I speak of disarms, voltes, passes, plungeouns, etc. these are only thrusts of convention, obstructive to the proficiency of the learner, and which the ancients used only for shew, and to lengthen their lessons; now that we are more enlightened, it is found that these disarms, etc. are in reality very dangerous, expose much and impede execution.

I have likewise past over in silence the parade with the hand, which however may sometimes be very serviceable sword in hand; but as it exposes as well as the disarms, I have not mentioned it; my intention being to give none but true principles that lead to perfection: and for this reason I have made the play as simple as possible, to render it the more secure, the more easy, and intelligible.

Olivier was writing in the late 18th century and thus at a time when the sword as a necessary part of a gentleman’s dress was going out of fashion. Nonetheless, he set out to provide the principles underlaying all play with the sword, and significantly, extols the role of theory. What he has to say of theory is worth quoting in full:

without theory nothing satisfactory can be expected, nor is it possible to act with judgment; for it must not be imagined that to acquire some general notions by dint of practice is sufficient; this is only the out lines of the art, it is going no deeper than the surface, and leaving the subject untouched: the essence and sublime of the art is to draw progressive instructions from one thrust to another; to know how many variations it may be susceptible of, and when to use it with advantage

In Olivier’s mind, this work will help refresh a fencer’s memory as to the pertinent theory necessary to fence well while at the same time helping one recall techniques one may have forgotten. On this last note the master advocates occasional if not regular practice. In contrast to Hope, however, Olivier wastes no time, as he sees it, on past practice, especially on the various movements that less than a century before had been standard. This is important. Olivier casts these not as alternatives to the linear actions, but as fodder used by masters to extend lessons and garner more payment. Disarms too he discards as dangerous. Though he admits that the use of the off-hand to assist in parrying might help in some cases, he doesn’t cover them since like disarms it can leave one open. He makes a distinction here between the fencing he is presenting and what “may sometimes be very serviceable sword in hand.” What we see here is an acknowledgment that school play and what one might use on the ground could be different. [4] The historical fencer restricting themselves to this text might wish to read others alongside it if they are keen for more than school play and if they want to see what parts of Olivier correspond to more practical works.

McArthur, John.  The Army and Navy Gentleman’s Companion or A New and Complete Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Fencing. London: Printed for James Lavers, 1780.

[vi-xi] The motives that principally induce me to publish the following Treatise on the Theory and Practice of the Art of Fencing, are, because such Treatises as I have perused, have been published by Professors, or Teachers of that art, and are incomprehensible to young learners; owing to the intricate manner they have made choice of, in describing the different movements, parades, and thrusts, which should be rendered as simple and easy as the nature of the Art would admit; so that young learners might acquire a perfect knowledge of the Theory of Fencing, and be enabled to execute, or put the same in practice, with little or no instructions from masters.

The treatises hitherto published, are entirely calculated for such persons as have a proficiency in Fencing; and not for gentlemen, who might only have the opportunity of a few months lessons. They may indeed be of use to the former, by having recourse to them occasionally, in order that they may recal to their memory what might be acquired during former practice; but can avail little to such gentlemen, as have only been superficially grounded in the principles of the Art.

I flatter myself, that proficient in fencing will find many things new in the following sheets; and young learners, who have a genius for the art, with the assistance of two or at most, three months lessons from a master, will be enabled to acquire a thorough knowledge of it, so as to put all their parades and thrusts in execution, when entering upon assaults or loose play. I will allow, that a great deal of practice is absolutely necessary, before a young learner can execute all his parades and thrusts with that ease, agility, and justness necessary; but, by strict attention to the rules I have laid down, after receiving thereof from a master, he may acquire justness and agility in fencing, equally as much by practicising these parades and thrusts with a learner, who has made similar progress, as if he practicised them with a master; always observing to execute every manoeuvre with minute exactness; and to prevent his contracting erroneous habits, to have frequent recourse to the lessons and instructions here laid down.

McArthur begins his preface by telling the reader that he desired a simple, straight-forward text for new fencers. In his opinion too many of those penned by the masters contained difficult language, unfamiliar terms, and explanations. Though this sounds a little like Ye Olde London Hemabruh, McArthur also has high praise for Olivier and the Paris Academy. Of particular notice is McArthur’s statement that many gentlemen only have a few lessons, and thus that there was a need for a book that would enable such fencers to recall what they had learned between lessons. Moreover, McArthur still sees a role for the master, even if he also claims that a new fencer, so long as they are disciplined and adhere to the principles he lays out, might make as much progress with another dedicated learner. The work closes with a discussion of “serious affairs” and practical advice. Published less than a decade after Olivier’s work, which in some ways reveals the trend toward school play, it’s clear that even in 1780 an English fencer might wind up in a duel.

So What?

So these different authors had different reasons to write and perspectives—who cares? If you’re serious about smallsword then you do. Change the subject to longsword, sabre, or pole-axe and the answer is the same. Each one of the texts here present’s one author’s view; there will be overlap between them, and, there will be differences. Looked at together we get a better sense of the state of fencing and fencing education between ca. 1700-1800. We learn some important facts about context for one:

  • during the 18th century the slow split that led to the division of fencing into academic and practical was already under way
  • similarly, texts like Hope (1707) and McArthur (1780) both cover practical advice for serious affairs where Olivier (1771) focuses on the assault or bout, so rather than a formal split the two extremes coexisted and were often taught under one roof (so, use of off-line footwork, off-hand parries, disarms is no more or less smallsword than not using them)
  • we learn that many gentlemen might have studied fencing, but some only for a short time—this has implications for the average level of skill at the time
  • we read that even someone keen to make things simple like McArthur put great value on theory, because if one grasps the principles then they’re less likely to fall into error
  • that the sabre, often considered a common “soldier’s weapon” (at least in Spain) in the mid-18th century, became as popular if not more so with officers by at least the Napoleonic period if not the last quarter of the 18th century
  • we also realize that while the difference in these works, some more “serious” than others, stand out to us, that reading all of them will give us a better sense of things than focus on one or the other does—neither sort existed in a vacuum

These are just a few quick conclusions after a cursory read. What they tell us, however, is important. If our goal is to produce interpretations that are as accurate as possible, then we have to consider more than one source (where we have more than one). A look at the collective corpus for smallsword, for example, will benefit a student in many ways, from gaining an appreciation for how different authors at the time approached the same problems to how many different ways they describe an action like the lunge. Students of the time often studied with different teachers. Fiore in the 15th century tells us that he did, and the same was true four and five-hundred years later. It’s even true today. What holds for instructors, holds for treatises—it’s in our best interest to spend time with more than one. We will understand our systems better, and so long as we’re careful and consider context, we’ll likely interpret those systems more accurately and effectively too.

NOTES:

[1] I realize that cultists of the gun in my nation may take umbrage with this, but I stand by it. Like many military brats I grew up around firearms and was instructed in their use. Moreover, from those who served in my family to friends of mine serving now I’ve heard ample anecdotal evidence that confirms rather than denies my assertion here. My father, for example, opted for a .45 pistol over a 9mm as he found the stopping power greater and in his context, jungle warfare, taking out one opponent fast meant dealing with the next (maybe unseen as yet) more quickly. A Marine I’ve known since high school favors a 9mm as sidearm, and he has fought in I don’t know how many tours since 2001. Lastly, from my own experience I’ve seen what a small caliber bullet can do. A close friend of mine, my eldest son’s godmother, was shot through her wooden door by a home-made .22 pistol (likely a gang initiation, but no one was talking of course). Had the door been any thinner she would have died—the bullet was slowed by the door so that when it hit her sternum it ricocheted up into her neck rather than shattering or passing beyond the breastbone. The bullet remains there today as not even the excellent surgeons at Baltimore’s shock-trauma felt safe removing a slug so close to an artery.

[2] Titles listed in order of appearance:

Henry Blackwell, The Gentleman’s Tutor for the Small Sword, or, The Compleat English Fencing Master, 1702/1730 (London, GB: J. Jackson, Archive.org.).

Sir William Hope, A New, Short and Easy Method of Fencing: Or the Art of the Broad and Small-Sword Rectified and Compendiz’d, 1701 (Edinburgh, SCT: James Watson, Google Books).

——. New Method of Fencing, 1708, Highland Swordsmanship: Techniques of the Scottish Swordmasters, ed. Mark Rector (Union City, CA: Chivalry Bookshelf, 2001), 89-189.

Juan Nicolás Perinat, Art of Fencing Foil and Sabre, translated by Tim Rivera, 2018 (Cadiz: Imprenta de la Real Academia de Cavalleros Guardias Marinas, 1758).

J. Olivier, Fencing Familiarized: or, A New Treatise of the Art of Sword Play, 1771 (London, UK: John Bell, Google Books). [NB: dual language, English and French]

John McArthur, The Army and Navy Gentleman’s Companion, ed. Philip T. Crawley. “Study,” The Smallsword Project, https://smallswordproject.com/historic-texts/, 2 September 2020 (London: 1780).

[3] Cf. posts such as “Military vs. Dueling Sabre, Revisited, 23 March, 2021.

[4] In some ways it’s likely impossible to determine exactly when this began. De la Touche, writing in 1670, features fencers using foils and in some cases making actions that seem risky, and yet the duel in France—while illegal—had not disappeared. Is his work academic or practical? My answer would be “yes.” It’s both. It’s what one might learn in an academy, but which still had practical use. Most of the 18th century works that I’ve read so far cut both ways (pardon the pun)—many fencers likely engaged in fencing as we do, as a past time, and yet some of their mates may have been called out or called out others. In the study I’m making now the split becomes more apparent in 19th century works; some of these barely touch on footwork, something no fencer can dispense with outside of the most artificial contexts (yes, I realize there are practices such as the Mensur where neither opponent may move, but while a bloody affair the Mensur is as much ritual as it is a duel—no one is fighting to the death with those sabres. The combats are, in a way, a drinking game. There were plenty of duels as we think of them in German principalities, from point-fencing to sabres mit Stich and pistol. See for one discussion Kevin McAleer’s Dueling: The Cult of Honor in Fin-de-Siècle Germany, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994).

From Page to Practice

L’armee Française–Cavalerie Lègère–Trompettes de Chasseurs

If the last few posts were a clarion call against what not to do, then this one, in order to restore a little balance, is more a small bugle announcing more of a what to do. Those who know the oeuvre of Peter Sellers may recall the opening scene of “The Party” (1968) where his character, an actor named Hrundi V. Bakshi, plays a Gunga Din who refuses to die even after volley after volley by both the Thugee cultists and the colonial English army. Tone-deaf and prejudicial issues around cultural appropriation and stereotypes aside, that scene is perhaps an apt analogy for the amount of binary ink I spill about the proper and improper use of our sources. It comes up a lot, but then it’s a major problem within historical fencing and thus a fitting topic to treat. Again, and again.

Of the students that I’ve been able to meet with during the pandemic one is an experienced fencer with whom, until recently, I have worked sabre. In our discussions about it, however, we’ve occasionally discussed parallels with other weapons, chief of which—for my tradition—is foil and by extension, smallsword. The north Italian fencing tradition, because of French influence during the Napoleonic era, was different than the southern Italian tradition as exemplified by masters like Terracusa e Ventura (1725), Rosaroll & Grisetti (1803), and Parise (1882). A good friend and fellow student of fencing both Italian and French, Patrick Bratton (Sala della Spada, Carlisle, PA), can speak to this better than I can as he has been studying the source tradition for specific elements of that influence, but in short there are some parallels in north Italian sabre and foil.

I was surprised, if thrilled, that my friend and student wanted to take a look at smallsword. With the pandemic the need for variety and diversion is perhaps stronger than usual, and so switching over to smallsword for the last few weeks has been a nice break. This has been, parallels notwithstanding, new material for him, and just enough different that it’s been important to go slow so that we build the fundamentals correctly.

Converting Text to Technique

To illustrate this process, and by extension how one can use sources, I’m going to take a look at one of the more complicated actions that we’ve looked at in his lessons to date. It’s important to note a few things. First, this is a quick look at one source, not an exhaustive look at how various works at the time cover the same action. Second, “complicated” is a relative term. For many Olympic fencers this attack, while compound, is relatively simple in the sense of easy (not in the technical sense of simple attacks). However, here one must remember that the art of defense, by definition, is conservative. The more actions one makes, the more tempi, and this means that one’s opponent has more opportunities to disrupt one’s plans and strike.

“Figure of two men in the guard as explained”–Girard (1740)

After having worked fundamental actions, in this case direct thrusts in tierce and quarte both firm-footed with a lean and with an advance-lunge, always with opposition, as well as simple feints, we took at look at double feints. For this drill I looked to P.J.F. Girard and his Traité des armes (1740), Second Part, “Double Feint Quarte:”

To Thrust Quarte

This thrust is done firm footed, advancing & retreating, with or without appels, as is generally the case with all fencing attacks, as has been said before.

Double Feint Quarte

Sword engaged in tierce, I feint quarte while stamping the right foot, hand at shoulder-height, with the nails turned upward & the point near the enemy’s hilt, body back, then feint tierce outside the sword; & when he returns to parry, thrust subtly in quarte inside the sword, the hand leading, to be ready for a parry in case of a riposte, & to riposte as you see fit. [1]

The original French reads thus:

Double Feinte de Quarte

Pour Tirer Quarte

Cette botte se fait de pied ferme, en marchant & en reculant, avec des appels du pied & sans appels; ainsi que généralement tous le coups d’Armes, comme il est déja dit.

Double Feinte de Quarte

L’Epée engagée de tierce, je fais faire une feinte de quarte en frapant du pied droit, la main à la hauteur de l’épaule, tournée les ongles en dessus & la pointe à côté de la Garde ennemie, le corps en arriere, puis la feinte de tierce dehors les Armes; & lorsqui’il revient à la parade, tirer subtilement de quarte au dedans des Armes, la main la premiere dans le principe, pour ȇtre en état de parer en cas de riposte, & de riposte à propos. [2]

There is a lot here and much of it requires familiarity with earlier material Girard covers in Part 1, in particular expressions such as “firm footed” (pied ferme), “sword engaged in tierce” (L’Epée engagée de tierce), or thrusting in “quarte inside the sword” (tirer… de quarte au dedans des Armes). These may or may not be obvious to the reader. Some expressions, such as “firm footed” are not part of modern fencing’s vocabulary, so, a first step is to go back and read the relevant sections in the work that explains these concepts. The master first mentions the idea in his twelve points for the en garde position, point 12 (Crawley, 38; BnF Girard, 7):

12. Finally the left foot is flat & firm upon the ground, presenting the inside of the foot to the right heel.

XII. Ensin le pied gauche à plat & ferme sur la terre, présentant le dedans du pied au talon droit.

Girard begins Part 1 with an examination of actions “against those who always remain firm footed” (Crawley, 48; BnF Girard, 14ff). [3] In simplest terms, he breaks down the assault into two major types, firm-footed (i.e. where they do not get in and out of measure, but remain in it) and those were at least one of the opponents is moving, either advancing or retreating.

I used the same break down to build a drill—initially we would approach this double feint firm-footed, and later employ more movement, in this instance where the student would begin out of measure and advance to engage.

What is Stated, and, What is Not

The concepts of “inside” and “outside” the sword refer to the same concepts today, that is, what we normally term the inside and outside lines. The outside is, assuming a right-hander, to the right of the weapon as one stands on guard; the inside line all that space on the left. To have the sword engaged in tierce, the fencer making the feint assumes the guard of tierce (modern Italian terza or French sixte), and makes contact with or engages the opposing steel so that the opponent’s blade is to the right. In this drill, we initially had both of us in tierce. [4] The feint is made in quarte, so, to the inside line. It is not stated here, but in order to do this one must disengage under the opposing steel, so, moving from tierce to quarte or from the outside to the inside line. Girard’s detail about the hand and place of the sword tip are crucial—this disengage must be tight and performed in such a way that one continues to block the threat of the opponent’s weapon.

Here too, Girard is not specific, but after the feint the assumption is that the opponent will move to parry in quarte thus safeguarding their inside line. As they do so, one feints in tierce or to the outside line—again via disengage—in order to draw the opponent once again into a parry of tierce. When they do, one then disengages a third time and thrusts along the inside line to target, but maintaining opposition in quarte. A student of modern foil with a few months of experience can likely puzzle this out, but even then some of the language is different, not to mention the emphasis placed on closing out the opposing steel.

It may be helpful for some fencers to render Girard’s instructions into modern fencing parlance:

  • From an engagement in third/sixth, disengage and feint to the inside line
  • As they parry fourth, disengage and feint to the outside line
  • As they reassume third/sixth, disengage and thrust in fourth to the inside line
  • *in each case, both feints and the final thrust, are made with opposition, that is, closing out the line so one is not hit
  • Start with both fencers in measure, blades engaged; later, have the student enter into distance and take the engagement

There is no reason one must retain the original wording, but it can help reinforce what one is reading sometimes. If the older expressions trip one up, then convert them to the modern versions if you know them—this exercise alone will force us to make sure that we really understand what it is we’re reading.

Languages

While a short passage, and seemingly clear, there is a lot that Girard assumes the reader will supply. He does not tell us to disengage; he assumes that we understand that we must because we are changing lines from outside to in, from inside to outside, and again from outside to inside. These are the little things that can make parsing historical fencing treatises difficult.

Blow of high quarte inside the swords–Girard 1740

I supplied the original French here for several reasons. First, we rely on translations—especially in the States—for most of our work. This means that we are attempting to recreate, as best we can, systems used in the past and conceived of and understood in a different language. Translation is as much science as art, and it takes considerable skill and training to do well; if you have French or Italian or whatever language your area of study was originally in, then it behooves you to ensure that your translations are solid. Check your English version against the original. If you don’t have French etc., but know someone who does, ask them to give it a once over. Second, because translations mean that the translator is making choices as to definitions, sentence structure, etc., it is useful to take a closer look at those choices. Sometimes, it makes little difference—pied ferme, for example, is pretty clear, “foot firm,” or as we would say in English, “firm foot.” But, if we look at tirer, for example, this is less clear. In modern French tirer can mean: “to pull, to pull to/to close; to draw (as in to draw curtains); to fire or shoot; to print; to take.” Not one of these definitions really works well here. The closest we get is the fifth meaning (according to my Collins French-English Dictionary), “to shoot or fire,” but we would not say that one “shoots a thrust” or “fires a thrust.” Philip T. Crawley renders tirer in Girard as “thrust,” and in context that makes good sense. Further examination into the use of this word in other works on fencing from the time would confirm that this is a good choice of definition. One might even note that the Italian cognate (tirare) was used the same way. [5]

Using Word & Image Together

Feint of quarte, to thrust tierce outside the sword–Girard 1740

Girard included illustrations which aid the reader, but as static images they capture at best a moment in time, a snapshot of action. We can easily see what a guard might look like, or the moment that one fencer is about to act or has completed an action, but we cannot see a disengage. We cannot see the intensity and attitude needed to sell a feint. Here, in Girard’s 8th plate (8 planche), we see the fencer on the right lift his foot to make an appel, and he is clearly in preparation, but unless one can read the French or has a decent translation, it would be easy to conclude–as one example–that he is mid-extension and about to lunge. We cannot see what a lunge looks like as it happens, but we might see one prepare for it. We need to read the caption to realize the difference. We can and should make use of the images if we have them, but always with the caveat that we cannot assume that they are completely faithful to what the author intended and what the fencer should do. Some images supply added material, such as dotted lines meant to capture the movement of a weapon or a limb, but even here these are representational; they’re symbols, shorthand for complex ideas and motion.

Exploring what Girard, or any other master, advocates for a fencer requires that we pay close attention, that we read carefully, compare any illustrations against what we read, and that we remain open to correction as our study continues. Were we only to use Girard’s plates we would not get very far—there is too much he doesn’t depict, too much he couldn’t depict. As the example of the double feint in quarte hopefully demonstrates, even the text which explains an action leaves out key information. It may be covered elsewhere in the work, but it might not, and so taking the time to read closely, to compare the translation in our language against the original, to work via analogy as and when appropriate, and to set word and text side by side is vital if we are to have any hope of successfully recreating the systems of combat that these sources preserve.

NOTES:

[1] This translation is via Philip Crawley’s edition of Girard; P.J.F. Girard, The Art of the Smallsword: Featuring P.J.F. Girard’s Treatise of Arms, trans. by Philip T. Crawley (Wyvern Media, UK: 2014), 95.

[2] P.J.F. Girard, Traité des armes (La Haye: Chez Pieree de Hondt, 1740); available as a pdf or online at Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica, 48, https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k229941w.image . Hereafter, BnF Girard. I cannot express how much I value the hard work and generosity of libraries like the BnF for sharing so much online.

NB: Languages change over time and in the 1740 publication, either because Girard rendered it this way or because the printer decided to, the initial “e” in l’épée is capitalized and lacking an accent aigu where one might expect one in modern French.

[3] Contre ceux qui demeurent toujours de pied ferme. Bnf Girard, 14.

[4] Of note, tierce in smallsword is held nails-down or pronated, thumb at about 8 or 9 o’clock; modern Italian third, hand in fourth position (suppinated, thumb at about 3 o’clock) is more typical of the invitation in third; French sixth, likewise, has the hand suppinated. All three are meant to cover the outside line or defend it, and create invitations to attack the inside line, but it’s important to note that they do this somewhat differently.

[5] I am currently reading through every source for rapier and smallsword I can obtain (and read) looking at some specific elements, and the similarity in language between some of the Italian and French works are striking if not unsurprising. Originally I had intended to produce an article out of this study, but it has grown too large for that and so it will likely live here in some guise.

They Call it “Macaroni”

The Much-Maligned Smallsword and Foil and why it Matters

from Brown University Digital Repository [https://repository.library.brown.edu/studio/item/bdr:244908/]

One of my favorite weapons to fence and teach is smallsword. I started fencing foil—a descendant of smallsword—in the 1980s, and though obviously adapted for safer training and the sport of fencing the fundamental elements of foil impart more than most people in “HEMA” believe. Moreover, my initial training was French, and the smallsword being perhaps the early modern French weapon par excellence there is something familiar and nostalgic (if that is the right word) about it. One benefit of subsequent training in a related, but distinct tradition (in my case Italian with Hungarian elements) is that one gains another view of that previous study, just as studying another language can illuminate one’s native grammar. While modern foil and smallsword are different, it is context more than anything else which separates them. The rebated weapons of two centuries ago, while similar to the tool of today, were used to mimic actual combat safely, not used purely as a game, and in this one key difference everything rests. Because so few people within historical fencing understand or accept this, however, one of the most deadly, sophisticated swords ever devised, and its descendant, is often the object of amusement and mockery. Sad as that is, what is worse is that in discounting smallsword and foil they lose the single greatest method by which to explore the extinct sword arts that do interest them.

Wigs, Lace, and Lorgnettes

“The Macaroni: A Real Character at the Late Masquerade,” (1773), Philip Dawe

The derision that smallsword suffers in “HEMA” reflects several failures within the community. Arguably it reveals a latent and wide-spread species of bigotry. The abuse aimed at this “dainty” or “tiny” or [insert equally facile insult here] weapon highlights the thinly veiled prejudice in HEMA’s macho culture, far too much of which poisons the community and retards its progress. Aside from compensatory attention devoted to big weapons, go hard or go home, and “I gots brusies bruh!” there is the bigoted notion where sophisticated = weak/effeminate/gay, the idiocy and ignorance of which speaks volumes. Second, dismissal of smallsword, just as with its descendants, indicates a complete failure to grasp the depth and importance of the primary means by which one learns the universals of fencing. This is not merely my opinion, but demonstrable on a number of levels, from the wide array of works on fencing published over the past five hundred years to the gulf in quality one sees in the historical community, not only in terms of performance, but also in terms of translation and teaching.

While fascinating, the parallels between modern disdain for smallsword and 18th century censure of the young people of fashion called “Macaroni” and “Macaronesses” goes beyond the confines of this piece. There are better places to go for the exploration of prejudice in the 18th century as well as the on-going discussion of the battle for equality and civil rights today. My stance on all that, for what it matters, should be obvious from previous posts, but I cannot speak to either issue as appropriately as I can to the second failure, that is, the mistake that most of HEMA makes with regard to anything they define—however poorly or inaccurately—as “sporty” versus what they deem “martial.” [1]

I dtir na Ndall [“In the Land of the Blind…”] [2]

As the old saying goes, in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king, and if any one maxim summarizes HEMA it’s this one. Examining the usual allegations against smallsword and foil one sees how poorly they are glimpsed without full vision. First, the chief bias appears to be that smallsword (a weapon), because it is related to foil (a training device), is less a weapon than say broadsword. If foil is for sport, then anything like it must be too. Second, for those who see it as a weapon its size, complex method of use, and “late” appearance make it suspect. The logic here, such as it is, suggests that the older a system is, the more legitimate it is; that lighter weapons must be less “martial;” and that anything related to the duel—save rapier—are again less serious than the “heavier” and more manly longsword, axe, etc. The ridiculousness of each of these assertions is underserving of attention, so to be brief:

  • a foil is a practice weapon, be it the modern foil, a feder, or wooden wasters—that Messer you use? Yep, it’s a foil. Ditto your Albion, Regenyi, or Ensifer
  • puncture wounds, made by triangular bayonets or the often triangular smallsword blades, leave really nasty injuries; before the innovations of 20th cen. medicine there was little one could do to repair these wounds or deal with the infections that often resulted (cf. sepsis)
  • fighting in judicial combats with a pole-axe, sword, or anything else was just as formal and bound by convention as late period duels were by the restriction of ground and etiquette

These are all well-established by histories old and new. In truth the bias really has nothing to do with history at all, but with a strong desire to differentiate oneself from “sport.” Anything that is remotely connected to sport, then, is suspect in the eyes of HEMA-Bro. Late 19th century sabres of 650-800g? Too close to the modern sport sabres. Smallsword? Too much like modern foil. That’s it. That’s really all it comes down to, and such short-sightedness cripples not only their research, if they do any, but their own practice and pursuit of the Art.

Why Later Period Systems and Modern Fencing Matter

Misplaced bias against both later period historical systems and modern fencing means, in most cases, that these fencers lack a firm foundation in fencing universals and pedagogy. This lack is what tends to undermine their study most. For example, because they have no idea what actual fencing fundamentals are, they mistake aberrations for norms. When they see the problems that are easy to spot, such as the whip-like strikes from electric foils behind competitors’ heads or the floor-dragging sabre slap to a guard, they assume that what they see is the system. Wrong. Even now, decades into the worst offenses in foil, students are normally taught that extending the weapon proceeds movement of the foot and the body. This is universal and is reflected in literally centuries of treatises and hundreds of modern schools. Thus, when viewing anything in the Olympics, the World Cup, or the local NAC, one must differentiate between how a fencer performs that extension as well as how a director views and calls that same action, and examine it against what is taught. They’re often different. Competition, like it or not, comes down to successful exploitation of a rule-set. One doesn’t have to be the Chevalier de Saint-Georges or the Chevalier d’Éon to win; determination and skillful use of attributes win more fights than most fencers wish to admit.

“A macaroni dressing room,” (26 June 1772) by I.W.

Not only do they fail to distinguish between what is taught and how it is used, but HEMAland also rejects traditional and sport pedagogy. They lose far more than they gain from this. Open most any decent work on fencing published in our own time and one will see first, that most do not include the ridiculous point-eating techniques, and those that do often with qualification—that is an admission, by the way, that the authors recognize that the technique is not part of the received tradition. [3] A fencing treatise is more than a collection of “moves;” it is an organized program that orders techniques, drill, and lessons in a meaningful way. It also instructs one in a vocabulary shaped by centuries of development, one benefit of which is that it provides a more effective means to discuss one’s study. Most of all, a year of foil—and this is reflected in the better modern works—imparts fundamentals that transcend foil. Knowing, for example, how the chief universals—time, measure, judgment/method—operate, and how one manipulates and achieves those universals effectively through movement, is crucial in examining any other system of martial arts, but especially those from which the modern version derives. [4] That may not seem important, but for the historical fencer it ought to be, because it is far easier to understand the unknown through the known than to come at the former with nothing or some half-conceived theory of one’s own.

In my last post (Sept. 20, 2020) I mentioned the infamous example of the misreading of Capoferro where the untutored surmised outlandish theories about his lunge. Had they had proper training in the modern lunge, done a bit more digging in the sources between now and Capoferro’s time, then the great mystery of Capoferro’s lunge would not be a mystery to them. Armed with even a nodding acquaintance with modern theory and practice would’ve helped those fencers avoid a grave mistake. Put bluntly, throwing out all that modern fencing has to teach, a system built—again literally—on centuries of work, is stupid and self-defeating. Modern fencing no more exists in a vacuum than did early modern or medieval fencing.

The Problem

For the same reason they poo poo later period weapons and modern fencing, HEMA-Bruhs refuse to listen to those who’ve studied them. Only people with the benefit of that training, or who take the trouble to learn about it, can see how all of this is actually a problem and not just sour-grapes or envy. The HEMA equivalent of anti-vaxers are convinced they have it right, refuse even to entertain that there might be something to learn from late period systems (though they’re ready enough to apply Japanese cutting mechanics and poorly understood kinesiology…), and so dismiss it out of hand. This is not a problem limited to the States either, though it’s perhaps particularly entrenched in American HEMA. We see it in the posers who ape the scholars they denigrate, in the sad attacks on established researchers by people who either deliberately misrepresent their position or are too stupid to understand it, in the idea that a few seminars make one an instructor, and in the odd notion that a 12 page pamphlet contains the same depth and sophistication as the works of Rosaroll & Gristetti or Prevost.

If those with respectable experience in Olympic and traditional fencing are ignored, then the only way to realize the value of later period arts or modern fencing is for the SPES-clad fencer to take that painful step and look at it more closely. Few do, and the results to an informed perspective are disappointing—half-baked theories, ill-conceived approaches, flawed interpretations, and a near complete lack of awareness of the importance of drilling fundamentals. [5] Our interpretations of past combat systems are only as good as the effective use of our research tools—studying extinct sword arts without some knowledge of fencing is akin to entering a bout without a weapon. Together, these flaws mean that much of HEMA is getting it wrong, and for a community supposedly interested in producing as accurate an interpretation of these extinct arts as possible, that makes little sense.

NOTES:

[1] I’m male, middle-aged, white, and hetero, and thus should not and will not speak to the experience of women or LGBT people. Friends and family who fall into either category, however, have shared a LOT with me about their own experience with bigotry so concluding that it juuuuust might bother them doesn’t seem too crazy to me. Just saying.

For related 18th cen. views, interested parties may wish to read some of the literature about notions of “masculine,” “feminine,” and the connections to contemporary ideas about sexuality in the Baroque and Georgian eras:

[2] For the person interested in the full Irish version: I dtir na ndall is rí fear na leathshúile.

[3] Compare for example Maxwell R. Garret, et al., Foil, Sabre, and Épée Fencing: Skills, Safety, Operations, and Responsibilities, University Park, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994, p. 134 on the “Flick (Cutover)” and Henry de Silva, Fencing: The Skills of the Game, Ramsbury, UK: The Crowood Press, 1997, p. 23, “The Cut-over or French Coupé.” Maxwell presents the flick as a cut-over, a reflection of how it was treated in competition in the mid-90s, where de Silva, writing a few years later, treats only the cut-over sans “flick.” It’s a subtle distinction, but for those of us competing at the time that remember the controversy over the flick and ROW, this reads a certain way.

[4] The universals always include tempo and measure, but the third term varies. Marcelli in The Rule of Fencing (1686) supplies “method” to the first two terms; Terracusa e Ventura, True Neapolitan Fencing (1725), speaks of velocity, tempo, and measure; de Bazancourt in Secrets of the Sword (1862) refers to judgment, control, and speed; Castello in The Theory and Practice of Fencing (1933) prefers distance, timing, calculation. To understand how these relate, why different masters chose different terms, requires reading them, not only for why they say what they do, but for how these terms relate to one another. Without a handle on the universals one’s ability to make sense of most works on fencing is hobbled—Girard (though see Traite des armes, Part III, “Advice for Good Composure when Fencing,” XI), Angelo, and many others assume the reader understands these or explains them within particular sections, so while not spelled out these concepts underlie all that they discuss.

[5] An informed perspective includes but is not limited to professionally trained fencing instructors, experienced fencers, or credible researchers. These is wiggle-room within these terms and I mean for there to be. There are veteran fencers, for example, who know more than many masters and teach as well or better; amateur researchers (vs. university trained researchers) who help us push the boundaries of what we know responsibly; and there are masters and professional scholars who raise the bar higher for our study of historical fencing. However, there are a lot of people who are teaching and shouldn’t be; there are a lot of people playing scholar who haven’t the least idea how to conduct research; and there are professional academics and maestri who don’t play well with others.

It is telling to me, for example, that while details may be in dispute among the maestri, scholars, and veteran fencers I know, none subscribe to the ridiculous theories that plague historical fencing, such as the silly theory of the lunge where the toe/balls of the feet land first. They are, generally, more open to new interpretations when those interpretations are better; less ready to make firm conclusions, especially for the medieval works; and understand the differences in the types of texts, how illustrations can work, and that the less a source contains, the more careful we must be. Most of all, they possess more sophisticated reading skills and realize that what they read or say must be analyzed, not just taken at face value. As a close friend has remarked, the “plates and plays” approach to HEMA is flawed; it fails to take into account all that is not right there in the image.

Dealing with the Pointy End(s)

Sabre vs. Bayonet & Sabre vs. Smallsword

 

Bayonet En GaurdeWith the disadvantages we face during the pandemic it helps to think outside the piste. Drill is rote even in the best of the times, but lessons often afford us that sense of time moving, of progression. As students we work on something, then next lesson may work on something new as well. Improvement may be slow sometimes, but it still feels more like progress than the same set of exercises month after month with no variation.

When it’s less safe to do much of the usual work, especially that which puts us well within six feet of one another, lessons can become repetitive and dull. In truth, doing the same thing over and over again in attempt to do it better is just part of fencing, but even with that acknowledgement there are only so many ways, for example, to attack and defend the extended target.

I have a few students right now who are at a stage where some attention to tangential material is possible. By tangential I mean aspects of sabre that have disappeared in the modern game. These were, however, once a necessary part of one’s training. It was only last century that competitive bayonet fencing died out; smallsword died out nearly a century before that in most places, but a number of works treat dealing with different types of swords. [1] Sabre vs. bayonet was a key aspect of most military training programs, whether for infantry or cavalry, and still has application today.

Sabre vs. Bayonet

Last weekend I introduced one student to the rudiments of defense against bayonet. Some of the maneuvers one can employ, for reasons of safety, I left out, such as parry, seize rifle, pommel strike with follow-up attack. Everything we did started with the student in seconda/2nd while I adopted one of the basic guard positions with bayonet, in this case what the English called “High Port:”

Bayonet Training for British Forces
“High Port” from Bayonet Training Manual, 1917

As you see here, the left hand grips the rifle and is level more or less with the left shoulder; the right hand is centered above the fork and just in front of the solar plexus; left foot forward. The student might assume the guard of terza/3rd just as easily, but seconda is the preferred guard for several reasons. First, it places one squarely and safely behind the steel, the point threatening the opponent. Second, from 2nd, the shift to quinta/5th or prima/1st is quick. Both of these parries are quick, sweep the line, and set up powerfull molinelli.

My initial attack was to the student’s inside line with the “long thrust,” that is, a thrust Long Thrust Bayonetmade from about 4-5ft away–as with the sword, bayonet and rifle move first. The student takes a half-step back, parries in prima, then steps slightly to their right and delivers a cut to the arm or down the barrel to the attacker’s hands (this second riposte must be made carefully, one reason that this is not a drill I run with beginners). There are other options, such as a cut to the head via molinello, but we were doing our best to maintain the requisite distance in light of Covid.

The next drill started the same way, but as soon as I saw the student shift to prima, I made a cut-over the parry to the outside line. The student then had to take a second half-step and sweep back to seconda or terza. From there they stepped slightly to the left and delivered a cut to the forward hand on the rifle., before detaching and delivering a thrust with cover.

It was a valuable exercise for a number of reasons. First, because we were on grass, it mean having to be careful with footwork. Given the length of the bayonet trainer the student had to move–to plant and attempt to defend would mean a best we both got hit. Best of all, seeing the versatility of the first triangle parries–1st, 2nd, and 5th–cemented why we focus on them so much. Lastly, it was fun, and that is important.

Sabre vs. Smallsword

Yesterday, in a another lesson, I had a different student defend against smallsword.

angelo smallsword vs sabre
D. Angelo, School of Fencing, 1765

This particular student has considerable experience, and at this stage of his training it’s possible to incorporate more and more of the more advanced, less standard material. Among the traditions he has studied is long experience with KdF (Kunst des Fechtens), which means that dealing with a variety of weapons is not new to him, and, that use of the weapon for defense as well as strategies for coming to the grapple are second-nature. He is far more comfortable with grappling/stretto play than I am, but I am learning a lot from him in the process (what little I’ve studied comes down to a few years studying Fiore’s armizare and weapon-seizures in sabre and smallsword or spada).

Here too we were keen to maintain “social distance,” so as per current custom attacks were mostly to the forward target. My initial guard was Girard’s high tierce/3rd, his was his choice of 2nd or 3rd. As with the bayonet drill, I focused first on attacks to the inside line, mostly toward the wrist; he countered with 1st or 4th depending on where he was as my lunge completed. Ripostes were generally to the arm, or, with a diagonal forward step right, to the head. Next, I performed a simple disengage/cavazione moving from the inside to the outside line. He countered with 2nd or 3rd, again, depending on where our relative distance was and how time affected the choice.

Finally, I adopted Girard’s guard of high quarte/4th, and attempted a variety of thrusts

Girard feint from quarte
Girard, Traité des armes, 1740

with opposition or via a feint. My student countered these as before, either attempting a stop-cut or arrest with a parry-riposte, or, when unsure of the tempo just parry/riposte.

I was surprised, but thrilled he enjoyed this exercise as much as he did.

 

The quickness of the smallsword and the fact that the point was always on him meant that he had to be conservative. Any attack, as he put it, had to deal with that preeminent fact. A little over a century after Girard another Frenchman, Baron César de Bazancourt, remarked in his Secrets of the Sword that

La pointe d’une épée est une réalité qui fait disparaître bien des fantômes.

“The sharp point of a sword is a reality which quickly makes illusions disappear.” My translation is a bit free, and less eloquent than de Bazancourt’s translator, C. F. Clay, but I think illustrates the lesson well. [2]

In the attack, this same point had to be dealt with safely before anything else. A decent sforzo or expulsion was effective, but had to be measured well since the lightness of the smallsword makes recovery to line a little easier. Since his weapon is heavier–he was using Castille Armory’s 16mm blade in a Radaellian guard–feint via cut was less safe than a feint followed by a thrust. This is yet another reason that the guard of 2nd is so excellent.

He did well in both offense and defense; his key concern was not to be hit, and so, if there was the slightest chance of mishap, he regrouped or attempted to provoke me to attack. I am really happy with how well he has taken to sabre, how skillfully he adapts to different and often difficult scenarios, and how much he enjoys it.

What’s Next?

I plan to continue the inclusion of both bayonet and smallsword on occasion. It’s fun, diverting, and forces the student to apply what they know to a new situation. As my student and I discussed yesterday, exercises like this force one to look at their toolbox and figure out how to make a hammer perform like a screwdriver, or, vice versa. Against the advantage in reach offered by a bayonet, one must adapt to handle that; against the lighter, faster, and more nimble smallsword larger actions and those to deeper target are dangerous, and so to achieve either option one must plan well or be hit.

I do not yet have a smarra, but I have an Italian epee that will perform the job until I do, and I may pair that with an off-hand dagger. I have not explored off-hand options with these students yet, and we have a lot to choose from, from cape (one of my favorites since a jacket, towel, or blanket remain similarly useful today) to buckler to dagger. In each case, it’s important to note, much of what we are doing is examining how we use the fundamental science within sabre to tackle non-standard scenarios. It’s a good mental exercise, forces the student to consider those fundamentals from a different perspective, and it’s a ton of fun.

 

NOTES:

[1] The one I had in mind as I typed this up was Domenico Angelo’s The School of Fencing, first published in 1765. In the edition I have he treats the use of the smallsword against various nationalities of fencer, Spanish, German, and Italian, and against a variety of weapons and off-hand accessories, dagger, dark lantern, cloak. A few other works of note that deal with multiple weapons include Pierre Girard’s Traité des armes (1740), which likewise pits his student against various European foes and their “favorite” guards; Charles Roworth’s The Art of Defence on Foot, 2nd ed. 1798, includes directions for sabre or broadsword against smallsword, spadroon, and musket and bayonet; and Nicola Terracusa e Ventura, True Neapolitan Fencing (1725), which includes defense against sword and dagger, buckler, rotella, and cape (an excellent English translation of this was made by Christopher A. Holzman in 2017 (available via LuLu Press).

[2] The English translation of C. F. Clay, originally published in 1900, was reprinted by Laureate Press in 1998. It was first published, in French, in 1862, and then again in 1875.

Conan the Barbarian, Sir Percival Blakeney, and the Cult of Machismo in Historical Fencing

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There are times when our lives in and outside the sala intersect. Recently I experienced this with regard to advocacy for women’s rights, equality, and representation. Whatever one’s politics—mine are apparently less clear than I thought—this is an issue not only as an instructor and fencer, but as a human being, especially one living in the topsy-turvy world of the United States in 2019. There’s no middle-ground—either you believe in equality and fight for it, or, you don’t. There’s no fence-sitting, because by definition—in this case—inaction is tantamount to action: it is to be complicit in those customs, laws, and attitudes that are prejudicial. As a middle-aged white male, though, it’s often difficult to appear to be an advocate; I look like “the enemy,” after all, and though I do my best to support anyone really who’s not an a-hole, only continuous action might convince those who think otherwise.

In fairness, our attempts to advocate for others can fail, we can be taken for what we’re not, but that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try. It’s all the more important to me as an instructor, because in my own, small way I have a chance to make a difference. The adults who train with me are, not surprisingly, on much the same page.[1] Preaching to the chorus is affirming, but it’s work already accomplished. With my younger students, however, I can do a lot of good, or, a lot of harm. I have an opportunity to make a difference, but I also feel I have a duty to make that difference, to create a safe, encouraging, and supportive spot for everyone. This I try my best to do. In part this is a carry-over from parenting—my wife and I are keen to raise our boys to be part of the solution, not the problem—but it also comes of seeing the damage bad coaches can do over a life-time of watching it happen.

From the adults, feedback is constant, and I’m thankful for that. At present we have one adult woman who regularly attends and happily she’s a good gauge for how well we’re doing, how well I’m doing, to create a safe spot. She has suffered a lot of abuse at the hands of men in fencing, from disregard to the actual threat of violence, and it’s a testimony to her strength and passion that she didn’t just quit. A long-time friend, she has been a good guide for me, not only from what I’ve picked up in trying to help her through so much b.s., but also in the fact the she has shared her ideas, experiences, and feedback. She speaks her mind; she will call me on poor choices and then it is up to me to be a large enough human to consider what she says. My younger students, most of whom are between the ages of 9 and 16, are less forthcoming with feedback, less capable of that insight as yet, and so I have to do the heavy-lifting for them.

Conan and Sir Percy

Sir Percy
Anthony Andrews as Sir Percy in the 1982 “Scarlet Pimpernel”

Anyone who spends much time in historical fencing is going to run into the Janus-faced Macho “HEMA Bruh.” He isn’t confined to our community; wherever there are combat-related past-times you’ll find this guy.[2] On the one hand he exemplifies the most facile, shallow notions of western masculinity—one sees this in the focus on victory above all, physical strength and size, his romanticism of violence, and a misplaced sense of his own ability. On the other hand, the second face is often more subtle. It’s homophobia expressed in humorous attempts to belittle other fencers. The math here, such as it is, reads like this: smaller sword = weak, “gay,” lesser, etc. If HEMA Bruh is Conan the Barbarian, then as far as Bruh is concerned smaller men, especially if they fail the big-sword test, are all the public persona of Sir Percy Blankeney-as-dandy, i.e. cowardly snobs who hide their weakness behind fancy dress and witticisms, or in this case, avoid “real” sword-fighting by using less scary weapons.[3] Wimps like that, so Conan thinks, have as much business pursuing “MAN” activities as women do. The 1950s middle-school nature of this thinking is sad, but they’re telling too coming from grown men. For those of us teaching later aspects of the Art, for example, the fact we don’t wrestle or use big swords makes us easy marks. Teach foil or smallsword in HEMA-land and you’ll see what I mean. Among adults it’s easy to see this and avoid such people, but what about for kids?

Instructor as Role Model

Like it or not, if you coach younger people you’re a role model; not the most important one in most cases, but one example of an authority figure that can have significant influence on a young person’s development. Acting the part of Conan the Barbarian, even making room for the HEMA Bruh or similar clowns, are all detrimental to any training program—the best such programs create are future HEMA Bros and considerably more people turned off to the Art. That is a net loss for everyone. I’ve watched this happen. [4]

Instructors must be ever mindful of how they act, what they say and how they say it, of the example they set. One of the ways this is made easier in fencing (of any kind) are the niceties and cult of manners inherent in the tradition. We salute in and out of class, we address people politely, we comport ourselves in the sala with self-respect and respect for others. All these things help but on their own are not enough. Just as old as the salute are double-standards, and though these are less evident today than they once were, they’re still around. For example, there are still instructors out there that either believe or unwittingly apply double-standards to female fencers, who think they can’t or shouldn’t do X. Claptrap. They can do whatever they want, and like anyone who applies themselves, do well.

Is Conan Really so Bad?

Arnie as Conan (1982)

How is the Cult of He-Man detrimental? Starting with the less pernicious effects, focus on facile notions of masculinity—strength, aggression, dominance, power, fame, victory, etc.—undermines the value of these concepts and removes them from what they should be.

  • Strength one develops for health and to practice the Art
  • Aggression, in a sportive context, is better developed as appropriate offensive strategy
  • Dominance of self outweighs any other version
  • Power should be a measure of control over the weapon and ourselves, so modulating not only one’s strikes, but oneself
  • Fame, like anything that serves ego alone, takes one’s attention away from the Art—if you bump into it, fine, enjoy it, but keep it in check
  • Victory is a diagnostic tool for measuring growth, tactics, and identifying areas for work.

I’m not trying to take the joy out of a win or suggest we all meditate in the ring or on the piste rather than fight. I’m suggesting that we get far more out of the Art, out of all our hours and training and hard work, if we look deeper.

Another issue is that these same He-Man values favor only one type of fencer—the larger, stronger, brutal fighter. Is there room for him? [5] Yes, but only if that same fencer is keen to grow beyond what nature provided him. He will be a liability otherwise. The instructor’s job with this fencer is to impart more of the Art to him, to round the corners off him, and teach him to harness and make the best use of those natural gifts (if he’s up for it). This is, in essence, what the instructor should be doing with each student, but that’s easier to do if one’s values extend beyond the physical. Focus on the big guy as a way to gain tourney gold and reputation at the expense of also putting in as much time with smaller, less powerful fencers might bring short-term gains, but at great cost.

To name one current example from one of my kids’ classes, there are two elementary school girls who are picking up technique quickly, but also who understand what they’re doing and why. Will they continue to fence? I don’t know, but my job is to give them all I can to help them find out, to encourage them, improve what they do well, and help them build those parts of the game they are struggling with. I also have a male middle-schooler in that class as tall as I am, and while strong that asset is little use to him in foil. With him my job is to help him channel his size and strength into more effective uses, in this case reach and stamina. Whatever size they are, whatever sex or gender, they’re my students and my task is to share the Art with them, to help them grow.

Put short, whatever a student’s gifts, whatever their challenges, we work with them—we do not favor one type over another. To do so limits us, limits the students, and sets a poor example. The motto of my school is Vis enim vincitur Arte, “For strength is conquered by Art,” because the Art can aid the powerful, but it can make the weak fencer overcome the powerful one.

How I treat them individually, but also as a class, is important too. I’m an adult teaching them something very complicated and difficult to do–that is challenge enough without inane ideas about boys being better at this, girls better at that. To me they’re potential fencers, fellow students only younger, and I must strive to set the best example I can for them.

The Truth about Attribute Fencers

The truth is that one can go far embracing the Conan the Barbarian approach—not everyone responds to them well and they can easily overwhelm many opponents. That doesn’t mean one is successfully expressing the Art, however, and while that can correlate with skill, they’re not one in the same. This is to say just because one is fast and powerful doesn’t mean one has good technique or understanding—you can win through intimidation and power too.

The half-life with this approach is short. If injury doesn’t take one out of things, burn-out will. Some experience that burn-out as frustration when they reach an opponent who’s a better Conan than themselves. Others quit at whatever it is they consider the top of their game convinced there is no one left to beat. The first can be fixed, the second is a sign of deeper problems. This same type of fencer is demoralized or becomes convinced things are rigged if a smaller, but more skilled opponent beats them. This is much the instructor’s failure as the fencer’s, more so for it shows the instructor failed to teach them one of the more important lessons we learn in the study of arms—how to lose with grace and use that loss to improve.

Attribute fencers often do well, for a time, but the longer they stay in the game the more they’ll discover that reliance on their speed or strength is limiting. Skill will win out in the end. One doesn’t stay strong and fast forever. This will sound funny to anyone who hasn’t experienced it, but if you face an opponent over 70 you’re in trouble—no matter how fast you are, how strong, etc., if that person is still fencing at that age then they know something, a lot of somethings, and you’re going to have your work cut out for you. The best losses I’ve experienced were to opponents over 70—they were great lessons. He would be 106 now if he is still alive, but being bagled 5-0 by the then 80 year old Fred Razor in 1993’s Hack und Slasch tournament in Victorville, California, was an indelible lesson for me.

The Deeper Danger of Conan

Robert Mark Kamen as “Johnny” from Cobra Kai in the 1984 “Karate Kid”

The real evil in this Cult of MAN is that it fosters unhealthy attitudes and beliefs. It provides an arena for those to grow. When this happens, people get hurt, but more than that, the same fragile notions of masculinity carry over into other areas of life. If the example we set for younger fencers is that might makes right, that our genitals determine our success or suitability for X, and that the gifts of nature in terms of size or strength outweigh the hard road of study, then we do more than create Cobra Kai fencers—we help shape, even if in small ways, the same monsters who plague our society at large. This is as true if we ignore it–it’s tacit approval.

This is not just “liberal propaganda” either—there is science here (nb: science, contrary to public opinion, is not a liberal conspiracy). Reinforcing pernicious social mores across activities, locations, and populations helps solidify those ideas. With fewer areas of life demonstrating competing views it is easier, especially for the very young, to accept those ideas as normal. Each of us in our own way, to the degree that we can, is responsible for the world we live in; we have a choice in how we engage others, what we accept and reject, and if we truly believe that equality matters, that respect for others and ourselves is worth cultivating, and that these values make for a better society, then everything we do, from how we vote to how we approach a sabre lesson echoes. This isn’t to say a fencing instructor makes or breaks things, but it is to say that it matters—if the Art is more than a body of technique and tactics, if it does relate to our growth as individuals, then it matters. [6]

I’m not an enemy of big dudes–some of my closest friends are big dudes. I also value the role that wrestling and grappling have played in the Art; more than that, I like to dabble in longsword too, and if the chance came up to take a class on spadone/montante, I would. Interest and pursuit of these is fine, perfectly awesome really, but like anything it is how we go about it, how we treat others, and all of these aspects of the Art can be approached sans Conan’s fur speedo.

———–

Notes:

*Photo of Dodgers player Kiké Hernandez and reporter Kelli Tennant. This photo was widely shared and the subject of a popular meme. It’s been cited as classic example of “fragile masculinity,” but there is evidence–in this case–to suggest that Kiké, a notorious prankster, might have been up to something else. At the very least he shared the same photo himself in 2017 as a short-person joke.   For the initial photo–see https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2018/07/13/a-baseball-player-stood-on-a-bucket-and-sparked-an-online-debate-about-masculinity/

See also, https://www.chicagotribune.com/columns/heidi-stevens/ct-life-stevens-tuesday-kike-hernandez-bucket-masulinity-0710-story.html

[1] I’m lucky to work with good people. Among the many civic and socially minded examples of their excellence, one even serves as an escort/guard for any woman fearful of protestors wishing to go to Planned Parenthood.

[2] “Bro” culture is rife in sports as it is in most places. Historical fencing, because it has larger weapons, because so many of the traditions dealt with war as well as the duel, and because physical size can make more of a difference in grappling is perhaps more prone to this sort of machismo where other branches of fencing—saving perhaps Bohurt—are less likely to see it.

[3] For those unfamiliar with the character, Sir Percy is the hero of Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905), a wonderful tale of an English aristocrat who hides his heroic rescue of the French noblesse from the guillotine behind the mask of a dandy among other personas. There are a number of film versions of the book as well (my favorite remains the portrayal by Leslie Howard’s from 1934). There was, it seems, a popular trope in swashbuckling literature of the inept, questionably hetero hero who adopts this persona to hide his more “manly” heroics. The other classic example being Zorro. It is telling that in 1981 “Zorro the Gay Blade” made this suggestion overt. Conan the Barbarian was the creation of Robert E. Howard whose series of stories first appeared in 1932. The most famous film version, recently remade, is the 1982 “Conan the Barbarian” starring Arnold Schwartzenegger. Both big-bad-ass-barbarian and sly-dandy films reflected, and helped cement, ideas about masculinity, sexual orientation, and what was and wasn’t acceptable: modern audiences (hopefully) will experience these older movies differently.

[4] It can be easy to forget how long childhood extends. Teens can look older, present older, but are nonetheless kids; even those in their early twenties have brains still in development. In the few instances where I’ve seen adults forget this, I’ve tried to help both the child and the coach, but sometimes the issues those adults face can blind them to the reality of the situation—kids, even 17 or 18 year olds, do not think or act like adults, so expecting from them what one does from a 30 year old is misguided at best.

There are also schools, some infamous in the States, for encouraging “Bruh” culture, but not so surprisingly they’ve run into more and more trouble. If you don’t play nice, people won’t want to play with you. Guess they never learned that.

[5] Yes, “him.” I try to use gender/sex neutral language as much as possible, but in my experience to date the worst offenders of macho-man syndrome have been male. Naturally there are fencers who identify in other ways that may be just as annoying to deal with.

[6] One standout example of a fencer’s moral choice during trying times is Nedo Nadi who repeatedly refused to join, represent, or work with Mussolini’s fascist regime. See Richard Cohen, By the Sword, New York, NY: Random House, 2002, 326 ff.

NB: My friend, and a gracious Big-Dude, Mike Cherba of Northwest Armizare, is using this post in class, so I have edited some of it, mostly removing excess words, repetition, and trying to tighten up the sentences a bit. What, I’m long-winded, I like long sentences…. I blame Latin. [4-8-2020]