Sources & the Lesson

In a recent discord discussion one participant asked a series of insightful questions about how we use sources in lessons and classes. [1] Specifically, they asked:

So as an instructor, do you prefer referencing texts right away, or introducing technique in a more generic way until your students have some foundation?

It’s one of those obvious questions that is in the background of most lesson planning, but for me at least not one I’ve asked aloud, and, it’s an important question. To what degree should we discuss the sources during class? How much should we quote from a text? Do we merely cite a source? Do we share a brief summary of how we’ve used the source before or after a lesson? Do we avoid mentioning, citing, or quoting the sources we use during lessons and classes? How much should one incorporate sources if at all in the actual business of teaching?

Here I’d like to share some of the salient points others made as well as my own take on this. Starting with my own view, how much I mention or include sources in class or an individual lesson depends a lot on purpose and context. We teach in different ways, so it follows that we might incorporate our sources differently depending on the audience, goals, and topic.

In a seminar where I’m introducing people to a general area of study, say Radaellian sabre, I normally begin with a brief explanation detailing critical information (who, what, when, and where) as well as its significance (why). The rest of the time we spend more or less on the “how,” that is, exploring the system in such a way that participants gain an idea of what distinguishes this sabre school from others. In the course of a seminar people may ask questions about the system or the sources for it, and that’s fine, but focus remains on actually working on the material sword in hand. Often, there is either a formal chance at the end to go into more detail, or, an informal chance afterwards to chat about things in more depth.

In a more focused seminar, say a particular aspect of a source or tradition, I may say a bit more, because I must. Radaellian molinelli, for example, require some explanation. It’s not just what they were used for, which one could wax upon at length, but also detailing and explaining the mechanics behind them. The nature of close study is normally a decent place to cite sources or passages within them directly. That’s not always the case. In a general seminar I may say that Del Frate, Masiello, and Rossi all say this about the molinelli, but in a more focused class I might just zero in on what one master says. In this case, not using what Del Frate or whomever said makes little sense: ostensibly the people attending are there because they want to know more about this author and their take on the topic. [2] There is often overlap. The last time I discussed the molinelli, for example, I drew heavily from Del Frate but brought in Barbasetti and others as appropriate. My class was one of two that day and we had ample time to spend using these circular cuts in different ways.

For a regular class, say one with 5 to 10 people that meets once or twice a week, I normally save the bulk of the source discussion for post-class review sheets. This said, there are times when in order to explain how or why we do something I do reference the texts. These snippets can be diverting and can eat up time, so I try to keep them to a minimum. It’s a judgment call in many cases—will sharing what Girard or Rossi or Marcelli said here help the student understand or introduce a speedbump to the learning process and pace of class? Sometimes I get that wrong. Few things let you know that like a student turning to look at a clock or shuffling impatiently because they’re eager to jump back into activity.

Individual lessons, by their nature, tend to mean that we spend very little time discussing source material. This too, however, can vary by student, skill level, and the length of the lesson. It also varies by age. One on one lessons are the best way to learn and an opportunity to go through material with focus. Much as I can, I try to stick to the meat of the lesson and less so everything underpinning it. Yes, it’s often relevant, but there are better ways to share all the substrata and more appropriate times.

But you Harp on about Sources all the Time? What Gives?!

True, I do, and I will continue to do so, but using sources doesn’t necessarily mean consulting the sacred tomes between each action. For historical fencing, the sources should guide and inform what we teach, but how we do that is another matter. I look at it this way:

One way to visualize text to teaching [3]

I start with the source. Maybe it’s Del Frate, maybe Girard, but regardless I read through the work or works and see what they say. Next, I consider what I know about the passage I’ve read and its context. Del Frate was writing for the cavalry and a close friend, Giuseppe Radaelli; this system went on to transform sabre most everywhere via the Radaelli’s students and their students. As someone trained within that lineage, I can compare what I was taught with earlier iterations, and then interpret what I want to do with that topic. If I plan to cover feints, I again compare what the source tradition says with what I was taught, and devise a lesson plan.

My lesson plans follow a traditional format—we start with a warm up, jump into the topic, then cool down. How much we do in the main lesson depends on the student, but I introduce the topic and then we explore it via drill, and importantly, by varying the drill. This is where pedagogical concerns come in—is the student new or experienced? What weight of weapon are they using? Where are they strong, where weak, and what balance do I strike so that they build confidence in what they find easy and improve in what challenges them? What kind of lesson is it? Is it a teaching lesson where they’re learning a new skill? An option lesson where we explore actions or tactics in different ways? A bouting lesson where one is preparing a student for a match?

Lastly, there are the nuts and bolts of delivery—how do I introduce the topic, drill, etc.; what language makes it most clear? What examples, analogies, or previous study will aid the student? In what order should we cover the material? For an experienced fencer, I can normally state things generally, such as we’ll be working feints, give them direction to feint by thrust, molinelli to the head, and we start. There will be more variation of movement, tempo, and the order of actions. For a newer student, we may just work on making that thrust convincing, or starting from the right distance. With a new student, I spend more time on basic mechanics; perhaps we just work on the extension or a convincing feint.

Macro vs. Micro

One approach, and what I’ve more or less described above, is to adjust source-inclusion according to the follow logic:

General points/summary/introduction = more source inclusion

Teaching specific movements/actions/technique = less source inclusion

The use of the comparative adjective “more” here is intentional, because so much depends on whom it is one is teaching, and what one is teaching. A seasoned, experienced fencer new to a specific tradition may need less explanation of how to make the action and more of what this particular source says about it. In contrast, a newer fencer, someone very young, generally needs far less explanation of why de Liancour advocated X or Y and way more time spent trying to do X or Y.

As should be evident, this places a considerable burden on the instructor to know, understand, and be able to use the sources. It goes beyond that: it also means the instructor must be able to assess audience, experience, and attentiveness in various contexts, and with luck, be able to adjust on the fly. Much of this depends on an instructor’s goals and what the club is there to do. [4] In some degree, however, if the school is “historical” in focus than there should be some attention to the sources regardless of what one does with it.

Incorporating Sources into Lessons

Specific examples never hurt, so below I’d like to provide a screen shot of one of the ways in which I do this. This selection is a portion of some post-class notes from a smallsword class. As one can see, I provide a scan of the original text, and in this case a transliteration as these students are less used to 18th cen. English orthography and typesetting. Within the transliteration I provide a few explanations and definitions. A few notes follow.

Of note, these explanations follow a lesson in which I mention but do not spend much time on the text—with only an hour in class I focus on technique and its application. This often consists of something like “Today we will cover the glide from third. In the sources this is often called a ‘glizade,’ and in modern works there are more terms still.” That’s it. If someone asks me which text I tell them, but again the focus is to learn how to make and use the action, not a history lesson. Most of my time is taken up setting them up to learn the drill, reviewing the weak and strong portions of the blade, what an engagement means, what opposition entails, and how measure and timing play into this action. That’s a lot of information, and, a lot to do.

D. Angelo, _The School of Fencing_, p. 50, on the glizade

[50] Of the Motions made on the Blade Standing Still, called Glizades, and the Glizade from Carter over the Arm, to Thrust Carte.

If you are engaged in carte [4th], and are in distance, you must have a flexible arm, your body singled [profiled], and entirely on the left hip:* in this position you must make a beat** on the adversary’s blade, with an intent to stir his wrist [get them to parry]; if he should come to the sword [parry], you must disengage lightly carte over the arm [in third, but nails up], with your wrist high, and your point in line to his face; and, the moment he closes the blade [parries], disengage in carte, and thrust directly straight. If, after this, he should not return [riposte], but only force your blade [stay in the parry], you may reiterate a second thrust***, by turning your wrist in tierce, on the blade, without leaving it, and recover to his sword in carte.

*in the day, most masters recommended keeping the weight on the rear leg while in guard

**we have not covered this yet, but will; it’s a quick, powerful wrap against the opposing blade with your own to open the line

***this is called a remise; it’s to make the attack a second time, in the same line, often by redoubling or double-lunging

There are other ways I use texts, but this is a common one and useful for introducing the “what” and “why” behind what I teach. It’s sort of bite-sized, and for people more keen to use swords than read about them, this is a decent happy-medium. I cite my sources so to speak and provide them information that might help them should they wish to practice on their own, but the choice is theirs–they can read or ignore these sheets as they wish.

On the course and lesson-planning side, having the word and pdf copies of these notes does much to help me revise or correct material as I continue. Each class, each student is a different, so I tend to recycle the historical portions but update and tailor the explanations and comments. I’ve also found it useful to compare my interpretations against the sources from time to time, because colleagues provide insights that change things, as do students. One of the best things about teaching historical fencing is that it can be collaborative—students will question why we do X or Y and each time there is the chance that they may see something I’ve missed. It happens more often than one might think, particularly if the students have a martial arts and/or fencing background. As a last point, for instructors who aren’t quite sure how to engage the sources, this is one way—pick a topic, say the glide, and sit with what a source or two says about it. Work it out in real time, sword in hand, and devise drills if they’re not provided. With practice, it gets easier to do and increases not only the usefulness of these texts, but also our enjoyment of them.


[1] the conversation took place within the local historical fencing Discord 12 Dec. 2022 run by Northwest Armizare’s Mike Cherba.

[2] Usually seminar and class titles are announced ahead of events, so my own operating assumption is that if someone is in that seminar they have at least a nominal interest.

[3] The sources codify, preserve, and help create a tradition, school, or style. There are often particular features in technique that distinguish one style from another, such as footwork, guard, the axis of rotation for cuts, etc. Teaching a particular tradition combines the body of technique with that tradition’s approach to delivery as well as the specific concerns that come with teaching, both individually and in groups. All of that informs how we deliver this material, how we share it, teach, and transmit the tradition.

[4] One issue inherent in this, and a bit of a bugbear in “HEMA,” is the place of the sources and by extension what we mean by “historical.” As the same participant noted in Discord, in re sources and faithfulness to them

What’s tricky though is that even the “H” in HEMA is still a bit vague … Someone might interpret the “Historical” as having an implied “accuracy” associated with it, whereas someone else might interpret “Historical” as just broadly drawing from a past time period…And even if the latter doesn’t mix in any modern technique, a combination of historical techniques is still technically historical to some people.

Maybe the least divisive way to handle this is for each instructor and group to determine what it is they want to do, that is, what “historical” is going to mean to them. It will seem passively relative to say this, but I stand by it—I can hold one definition of “historical” and seek to abide it while at the same time recognizing that not everyone will agree.

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:


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]


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.


*For Christian’s club, see 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.]. 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.