Confronting Difficult Textual Passages

Read enough and inevitably one will encounter one of those passages that for one reason or another seem tailor made to confuse us. Sometimes we’re just tired and need to take a break, sometimes translation or transcription issues are behind such problems. However, there are also instances when a passage, in any language, remains cryptic. The sentences are grammatical, the topic is in a logical place within the source, but somehow despite our best efforts we can’t unravel what it is the author meant.

Recently, a colleague in Passau, Germany, Christian Olbrich (Fechten Passau)* and I discussed one of the latter examples in a source we both value greatly, Maestro Luigi Barbasetti’s The Art of the Sabre and Epee (1936), itself a translation of the 1899 German edition Das Säbelfechten. [1] My friend asked me for my two cents on several passages in Barbasetti that even on second glance tend to make us scratch our heads. The first question, and my example here, concerns the molinello from an engagement in third. Here is the passage in question, both in English and in German:


English:

After Your Own Engagement

In Tierce—(a) With the aid of a horizontal molinello from the left to the right side, you can perform inward to the face, chest, or abdomen’

(b) If your adversary does not respond to your engagement by pressing your blade, you can, with the aide of the coupe, pass your blade to the inner opening and touch his head. [32-33]

Deutsch:

Aus der gegnerischen Bindung

In Terz, a) Mittelst einer wagrecht geführten Schwingung gelangt man von rechts auf die innere

Seite des gegnerischen Gesichtes, auf die Brust oder auf den Bauch.

b) Auf den Gegendruck der feindlichen Klinge rechnend, kann man mittelst Coupé – Bewegung auf die Innenseite übergehen, um mit einem Kopfhiebe zu enden. [57-58]

This particular action, a horizontal molinello from one’s own engagement in third (Terz, tierce), has popped up as a source of consternation several times. Some years ago, the sabre group at Indes WMA (now Indes Ferox Gladio, see links) brought this action up, and more recently Christian and I explored it via email. If one isn’t sure why this action seems odd, it may help to illustrate it.

Engagement in 3rd–a little exaggerated and at too extreme an angle, but both “fencers” here have their opponent’s blade to the right/outside, and are in third

By “my engagement” we mean that I have sought my opponent’s blade and made contact with it, in this case, “in tierce” or on the outside line, “outside” here meaning to the right of a right-hander. To perform a molinello, that is a circular cut using the elbow as axis, I must detach the weapon from my opponent’s to cut. Easy, right? Yes, but, there is an important question this raises: if one has control over the line by taking the engagement, and then leaves it to make a cut, what happens to the other blade? It is still out there, pointing at us, and threatening. From the sound of it, Maestro Barbasetti seems to be suggesting that we leave a place of security to attack without first removing the threat, a threat that we ostensibly had control over at the start. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially given how well-trained the maestro was and how well put-together his books are.

There are a few ways to make sense of this passage. A first and crucial step is to reread the passage, and, those which inform it. For example, I have defined “molinello” as a circular-cut employing the elbow as its axis of rotation, but earlier on page 29, where the master discusses cuts generally, he says

If you execute a circular movement ending with a final touch, the blow is called “cut by molinello.” The object of this preparatory circular movement is to disengage your blade from that of the opponent.

You must perform all cuts at the moment you detect an opening, retaking the position of guard immediately after. [29]

The German text says much the same, but is more specific:

Geschwungene Hiebe werden angewendet, wenn sich die Notwendigkeit ergibt, der Klinge des Gegners auszuweichen oder die eigene mittelst einer Schwingung von der gegnerischen Bindung zu befreien.

Hiebe sind zu führen, sobald der Gegner eine Blosse und die Zeit bietet, sie zu benützen; sodann muss die Waffe wieder in die Auslage zurückgeführt werden. [52-53]

My German is not great, but as I read this the 1899 edition explains that one uses these circular blows (Geschwungene Hiebe) either to elude (auszuweichen) or to separate (befreien) one’s blade from that of the opponent. [2] In either tongue, however, we are told that the “molinello” for Barbasetti involves disengaging one’s blade from that of the opponent. This is a subtle point, but an important one, because this is only one use of the molinelli. They are used as the maestro suggests, but also alone as exercises, as offensive actions, and—significant in this instance—as defensive actions.

We read “from our engagement” in a section on cuts and often assume we are on the offensive, but this can just as easily mean we are on defense. A parry, after all, involves engagements too; cuts include riposte options. Making a horizontal molinello from third makes the most sense to me as a riposte, which is to say that having parried in third one can reply with a horizontal molinello toward the right.[3] There are, however, not many instances in which I would choose this cut as a riposte from that parry—as a drill, however, as a way to practice this molinello, there is some merit, but as a riposte I would couple it with offline movement to the right and forward. The sketches I add here suggest rather than demonstrate, but hopefully provide some visual sense of what I mean:

Shifting right and diagonally forward with the riposte
Same idea, different view–here the idea of shifting the line of direction a few degrees is a little more clear

Read, reread, make sure of each term, and ask for help. There is no shame, ever, in asking other qualified people for their thoughts. When the people at Indes WMA asked me, we worked on it, but once home I sent a message to Chris Holzman to get his take as well. As Christian and I explored it this past week I once again checked in with Chris and Patrick Bratton. I wanted to be sure my own thinking wasn’t too far out before replying to Christian. Due diligence is important, and with something as odd as this one little passage, it pays to be cautious.

In the end, how we use the action and what the maestro intended may differ. In part this is down to context. Barbasetti, like many others of the Radaellian school, put his approach to paper, but as a working instructor he knew, as we do, that a book can inform but cannot teach. Fencing was and is, primarily, something one does. We learn it in person, individual to individual and/or group, and IF reading is involved it’s supplementary. Generally, a fencing book collects information, explains it, and serves as reminder and reference. [4] While Barbasetti offers his book as a pedagogical tool, he also assumes one has some knowledge of fencing. In the sala, when a question like this pops up, it’s far easier to manage because one can physically explore it with guidance. It’s far harder on one’s own. [5]

In classical and historical fencing not everyone has the same amount of experience, so seeking help is a logical step. This said, it is worth our time pondering these more challenging passages; the effort is not wasted, we learn something in the process, and our understanding deepens. It especially behooves an instructor to wrestle with the text—it forces close-reading, helps us avoid being cavalier with information that is actually rather complex, and better prepares us and students to tackle the material.

NOTES:

*For Christian’s club, see https://www.fechten-passau.de/ They do a lot–sport, classical, and theatrical–be sure to check out the photos and videos for the latter!

[1] The German language text is Cav. Luigi Barbasetti, Das Säbefechten, übersetzt von K.u.K. Linienschiffs-Lieutenant Rudolf Brosch und Oberlieutenant Heinrich Tenner (Wien: Verlag der “Allegemeinen Sport-Zeitung,” 1899. The English text is Luigi Barbasetti, The Art of the Sabre and Epée (New York, NY: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1936).

[2] NB: what follows stems from the German I learned in graduate school for reading—the class was tailored per field, and one of several I had to learn but which I am in no way expert.

For auszuweichen (infintive), I looked to ausweichen, v., the primary meaning of which in my basic Langenscheidt Standard German Dictionary, rev. 1993, is “to make way for (with the dative),” “get out of the way of,” “dodge,” but which may have a meaning specific to fencing my little dictionary does not contain. Jeffrey Forgeng, in his glossary of German terms in historical fencing, cites the use of this verb in Meyer (1570, 2.18v, 86v), and supplies “evading” [cf. https://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Fechtkunst_Glossary_(Jeffrey_Forgeng)#Glossary]. Befreien, however, is a little more straight-forward. This verb typically means to “free, liberate; release.”

As for Geschwungene Hiebe, the term here for “molinelli,” initial denotations are not much help. Geschwungen is an adjective meaning “curved,” but also the past participle of schwingen, ‘to swing, wave, brandish.” Hieb (m), means a “stroke, blow, punch.” To render this as “curved blow” seems clumsy, and I’m not much happier with “swinging blow,” though that perhaps gets closer. 

German readers are encouraged to assist this thick-tongued Yank if they would be so kind (Danke an alle!)

[3] I am not alone in seeing this as really only viable as a riposte; Chris Holzman does as well. The logic here is that if one has stopped an attack, parried it, one has robbed it of its force, and while it’s true the point remains there (and must be considered), the opponent’s first thought should be their own defense, NOT a remise or counter-attack. This is the difference between the more sportive idea of ROW and approaching the weapons sans rules.

[4] Fencing books have served many purposes. Some were attempts to impress a patron and gain preferment or a job, others were vehicles to lambast opponents and explain the “true” way, and still others were meant to share a particular school’s view on the Art. Most modern works, and by modern I mean 19th and 20th century texts, assume some degree of familiarity on the part of the reader. True, some do not, but most maestri writing these books write them to help students and share their take on things, not as substitutes for lessons with themselves.

[5] Historical and classical fencers, unlike their cousins in the sport, rely far more on sources. How much differs widely, but reliance upon the source tradition and fencing’s early purpose is what tends to define these two branches. On the one hand, books are the primary way by which we know anything at all about pole-arms, sword in two hands, and rapier. On the other, later books help us peel back the layers accrued over the 20th century. It is still interpretive more often than not, but without books, without the sources, it would just be make-believe.