By Gregory Mele
n medieval European swordsmanship the greatest commonality of technique is found in the teachings of the one-handed sword. Whether it is a cross-hilted “arming sword”, a falchion-like messer, or the later, complex-hilted weapon of the Renaissance, there is a fundamental substrata of guards, wards and basic actions and tactics that transcend “school”.
In Ms. I.33, our oldest surviving treatise (c.1300), the author writes that there are “seven guards that all fencers uses”, and these seven are nearly identical to the seven presented by Angelo Viggiani, almost three hundred years later. Along the way, we can trace the same positions as fundamental to the one-handed swordplay of Fiore dei Liberi (1409), Hans Talhoffer (fl. 1450s – 1460s), Antonio Manciolino (c.1523) and Achille Marozzo (1536).
There is no real mystery in this; these seven guards, or some variation therein, are the positions that one simply *must* move through with a sword to make full and half cuts, underhand and overhand thrusts. While masters of the rapier would later reduce the number of guards to four, this reduction reflected a new emphasis placed on the thrust, rather than a blance between point and edge.
It is also interesting how these “primordial” guards are prioritized. Emphasis is almost always placed on three positions. The first is a low guard on the left side, point angled behind the opponent. The second guard is carried high on the right side of the body the point aimed at the adverary. In the third, the point is rotated behind the swordsman’s head, threatening a strong cut from above. In fact, these three guards appear because they are the simple action of drawing the sword into an immediate preparation for a thrust or a cut.
Indeed, although most masters show the sword drawn in the first guard, Talhoffer and Viggiani both illustrate the guard with the weapon still sheathed, (although at times Talhoffer also shows the weapon unsheathed).
Fiore dei Liberi writes of the first guard:
This position of the sword is called Coda Lunga; it is very good against the lance and any other handheld weapon… Bear in mind that this guard counters all the blows both on the mandritto and the riverso side, and is usable against right- or left-handed opponents. We will now see the plays of Coda Lunga, from which you always parry as I have described in the first illustration of the guard.
Which brings us to….
The Universal Parry
In his introduction to the section on the sword in one hand, Maestro Fiore describes a single, universal parry that can be used against any attack. In this initial section, his actual instructions on the mechanics of the parry are rather slim; he does not describe the blade action in detail, other than saying that he will cross, beat aside the weapon and uncover the opponent. In basic form, this both the predecessor and same basic action as the “rising riverso” taught by the Bolognese masters and described in great detail by Angelo Viggiani in Lo Schermo (1570):
…hold your wrist in such a fashion while you draw it forth that you do not make a turning; and do it so that your hand rises high, and to the rear on your right side, so that the point of your sword is aimed at my chest, and downwards somewhat toward the ground, and stop it there, with the true edge of the sword facing the sky, and the false toward the ground, taking care in the selfsame tempo that the rovescio travels, that you make with your body a little turn in such a way that your left shoulder is found somewhat more forward than your right, and that your left arm follows the right through the forward side, so that it is found toward the right side; and make additionally a slight turn of your left leg on the point of your foot through the draw, and the heel should be somewhat lifted from the ground; and together with this make your right leg lie extended, with the body somewhat erect: you see how I do it?
The motion is very simple: as the attack is made, the defender cuts up with the sword while shifting his front (right) foot to the right. As the blades intersect he continues to cut into posta di finestra (dei Liberi’s name for the second guard) with or without a pass forward of the left foot. This passes the attacker’s sword across his body to his left, and puts the defender on his outside line, ready for an immediate riposte. This basic action is a thrust, but if the defender over cuts in the deflection, he enters the third guard and can immediately respond with a cut. Sure enough, this is the next technique Fiore discusses:
I’ve found you completely open and hit you in the head with no trouble. And if I pass forward with my rear foot, I can perform some close plays against you, like binds, breaks and grapples.
Fiore dei Liberi was definitely a “keep it simple, stupid” kind of guy, so we shouldn’t be surprised this basic defense with two ripostes, depending on where your point is located, keeps recurring in European swordplay. Talhoffer chooses to illustrate it in several of his books, doing dei Liberi one better by making the first cut an attack to the opponent’s arm (an option that Viggiani drolly calls “a very good parry).
Long after dei Liberi and Talhoffer were food for worms, the “universal parry-riposte” persisted. Viggiani describes it as the foundation of all swordplay, and his “30 minute lesson” on how to survive a duel comprises nothing more than: make a rising parry, followed by an overhand thrust, recover back into a low guard on the left. Wash, rinse and repeat until your adversary is dead. Although Giovanni dall’Aggochie (1570) thought that a swordsman challenged to a duel might wish to know a bit more than this before entering the champ clos, the universal parry and its two possible ripostes still forms the basis of his notes on “Preparing for a Duel in 30 days.
Even the transition to a new style of fencing did not entirely kill the technique: Ridolfo Capoferro chooses to end his Arte and Practice of Fencing with a chapter entitled: A Failsafe Way To Defend Against Any Attack By Parrying With A Riverso And Always Striking With An Imbroccata. Here, he writes:
As I get ready to finish this work, I think it may be useful to end it with a brief dissertation that illustrates the virtues of the prima and quarta guards. The prima strikes the opponent while the quarta defends against him—the beginning and the end of any honorable quarrel. The quarta defends against any attack (feint or earnest), while the prima strikes the opponent.
It is, however, important to remark that these two guards are inseparable companions, and that one ends where the other begins; in other words, they begin and end without an actual beginning or end.
The prima starts high and ends in quarta rather low, and this for two reasons. Firstly, if the opponent attacks you with a thrust or a cut, you can parry with a riverso while passing with your left foot somewhat towards the opponent’s right side; you can then push your right foot forward and strike him with an imbroccata to the chest, at the end of which you would again be in quarta. Secondly, the opponent would only be able to attack your right side, which makes it easy to defend with an ascending cut from the quarta.
Make sure you perform these actions with a brave countenance and an eye quick to spot where the opponent is open and where he is well defended. Also, make sure you have strength and readiness in your legs, arms and hands, swiftness to parry and strike, and agility in your body.
Post Script: Old Technique, New Use
Synchronicity is sometimes an author’s best friend. As I was working on this post, I had thought to include a mention to the Sikh martial art of Gatka, a newer derivation of older, traditional fighting arts. The Sikhs are famed swordsmen, so it is no surprise that a large part of Gatka training involves the sword, sword and buckler, and stick. Since many an enemy has learned over the centuries that the warriors of the Punjab know their way around three feet of sharp steel, it is probably also no surprise that as one watches Gatka sparring and warrior dance demonstrations, some familiar actions emerge.
Enter synchronicity. Jack Chen maintains an excellent website called Chinese Longsword; a site of translations and videos dedicated to reconstructing the lost weapon techniques of China. One section of the site is dedicated to the Da Dao (“Big Saber”), a heavy, two-handed falchion, made famous when the 500 sword-wielding members of the 29th Division of the Chinese Nationalist Army used the sword to hold off the Japanese for seven days and nights at the battle of Xifengku. Before it was done, the “Big Saber Contingent” slew over 3000 men. An impressive head-count, but hard won: only 20 of the swordsmen survived the battle.
A great deal more can be read about this at this blog post, recently discovered by Chen. For our purposes, the most interesting part is this:
“Many Tonbei Quan masters were involved in training the troops. My teacher talked to some of them during the 70′s and 80′s. According to those masters, the techniques they devised and taught to the general troops where no more than 10. In fact most of the time only one technique was used – a powerful upward sweep to knock (磕) the incoming bayonette away, and at the top, reverse course for a powerful cut (砍) downward toward the neck.
So effective were these simple weapons and techniques, the Japanese military actually devised a neck protector – a folding metal collar that is attached to the helmet. But it proved to be too weak for practical usage.”
Jack Chen also notes that this same technique for the Da Dao was taught generations earlier by Yu Da-You, a Ming Dynasty general who defended China’s shores against Japanese pirates. General Yu recorded this technique in the sword treatise section of his book Zheng Qi Tang Ji (Book of Vital Energy). Mr. Chen provides a translation of this training manual and also links to a number of old video clips of the Chinese arm training with the “Big Saber” on his website.
Fourteenth century Germany and 20th century Manchuria might not have much in common on the surface, but they do have this: form follows function, function follows form, and there are only so many ways to both wield a sword and to teach its use quickly and efficiently in a short period of time. Viggiani, Dall’Aggochie and Capoferro knew that, and clearly so did the teachers of the 29th.
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