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Archive for the ‘Renaissance Martial Arts’ Category

by Christian ToblerImage

Alphabet - At the Pennsic War event this year, I taught a suite of four classes treating the use of the German longsword, dagger, sword and buckler, and, finally – messer. During that final class, someone asked me why the cleric/fencing author Johannes Lecküchner, in his mammoth treatise on the messer, had at once repeated so much of his predecessor Liechtenauer’s verse for the longsword, but had changed the names of most of the signature strokes with the sword, and for all of the guards.

“Perhaps he [Lecküchner] wanted it clear that the techniques varied a bit when performed with the messer and so named them differently”, I answered with little conviction.

I’ve given that stock answer for several years now, with progressively less confidence each time. After all, there’s a major flaw with that reasoning: the messer version of the Zornhau (Wrath Stroke) is done a bit differently than its longsword analog, and yet Lecküchner retained that particular name.

It was during the drive home from the event that it struck me: Lecküchner’s names are “toughened up” versions of the old names for the strokes and guards of the longsword; his sound more aggressive, geared more toward war and the hunt, rather than agriculture.

The “Wrath Stroke” sounds menacing enough, so it is so-named in the messer Zettel (epitome). But let’s look at what happens with the other strokes:

The Krumphau, or Crooked Stroke, becomes the Weckerhau – the Awakening Stroke.

The Zwerchhau, or Thwart Stroke, becomes the Entrüsthau – the Disarming Stroke.

The Schielhau, or Squinting Stroke, becomes the Zwingerhau – the Constraining Stroke.

The Scheitelhau, or Scalp Stroke, becomes the Geferhau – the Endangering Stroke.

Each of these new names sounds more aggressive than the longsword antecedent. All this focus on surprise, restraint, and danger is tough talk to be sure!

With the four primary guards, the effect of the change is even more profound. The two “closed wards” for the longsword, Ochs (Ox) and Pflug (Plow), are stripped of their bucolic tranquility and in the messer become , respectively, Stier (Bull or Steer) and Eber (Boar) – clearly, far more brawny names.

The open wards – Vom Tag (From the Roof, or From the Day, depending on your interpretation…), and Alber (Fool), are similarly toughened up. The former becomes Luginslant (Watchtower), while the latter becomes Pastei (Bastion). If the agrarian names for the closed wards have been changed to please the bull fighter or huntsman, here the appeal must be to military sensibilities, in both vigilance and stout defense.

It is impossible for us to know the mind of Johannes Lecküchner in full, but seen through this lens, it seems he altered Liechtenauer’s language to project a more muscular sense of the art – a valuable distinction when attracting noble eyes.

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Alphabet - Happy New Year!

Now that the holidays have passed, we thought that we’d bring you a Twelfth Night present to keep your mind occupied as you recover from a month of heavy food, family gatherings and office parties: three new, free articles.

In Ancient Swordplay, Tony Wolf not only brought readers to the “Elizabethan Swordsmanship” revival of fin de siecle London, he also introduced them to the little remembered – or in Anglophone circl es, unknown – work oftheir “spiritual heir”, George Dubois (1865 – 1934). Dubois wrote and published extensively, and we celebrated his pioneering work last year with a blog post on the man, and making his Cemment du Defendre, Le Point d’ Honneur et le Duel, and Essai sur l’Escrime: Dague et Rapiere freely available on the Freelance website as downloadable PDFs.

Of these varied works, Essai sur l’Escrime: Dague et Rapiere (1925) is perhaps most interesting to students of Historical European Martial Arts. In this short work, Dubois and his associate Albert Lacaze presented an innovative system of competitive fencing with rapier and dagger, marrying historical technique to French classical fencing. Although Dubois became the better known of the two men, it was through Salle Lacaze that this tradition continued and survived to this day.

This combination of historical swordplay and living tradition is the sort of thing that medievalist, Francophile and Prévôt d’Escrime could not resist. Ken has spent time researching and studying this system of “modern French rapier”, and in the article Lacaze Sword and Dagger he supplies a short training curriculum to jump into a fast and furious style of sword and dagger fencing. Modern/classical fencers will find the method a logical adjunct and new twist to their training, while students of historical swordsmanship will get an interesting glimpse into how the ancient traditions were studied and adapted a century ago.

Ken is also working on a full translation of the original Essai sur l’Escrime, coming to a certain publisher near you…

Whether you are historian, martial artist or enthusiast, privately ask yourself how many of you firs found a love for times past through fiction? Be it Ivanhoe or the Hobbit, many of first felt wonder of another era portrayed through the words of favorite author. Of course, no matter how vivid that author’s portrayal might be, it doesn’t mean that portrayal is accurate – particularly when the world is not even our own.

Over the holidays, Ken decided to tackle this very topic. Hanging up his provost’s epee for his historian’s pen, he turns to Westeros, the mythical world of George R R Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. Martin’s works are blockbuster bestsellers, the basis for an ongoing television series, and has been an entree for a number of folks to find out “just how do swords work”? In Down and Out in Westeros, or:Economy and Society in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire Ken decides to reverse that question and ask, “Does Westeros really work as a medieval society?” You might be surprised!

Finally, our titles on armizare, the medieval Italian martial art recorded by Fiore dei Liberi, were among our most popular titles in 2012. Dei Liberi himself is a bit of a shadowy figure – a man whose existence is provable, but who is better known through whom he taught than the scant details of his own biography. Gregory Mele, Freelance’s co-founder, publisher and sometimes author takes a look at the life of Galeazzo da Montova, perhaps the most famous of these students.

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Alphabet - E

arlier, we brought your attention to a number of unique, European arms and armour titles that have been largely unknown in the USA and are now being distributed by our friends and Peregrinus Publishing.

Here is another interesting development in the sword arts community that Freelance Academy Press readers should find of interest: Katsujinken Magazine, A Sword Arts Journal. It has been a hard two decades for magazines, as consolidation, reduction in newstand space and an increasing emphasis on digital newsources – from online editions to blogs – have led to a dramatic reduction in the number of titles, and building enough circulation to survive. In an era where the venerable Newsweek could no longer find enough readers to maintain a print edition and even fanzines have been forced to become all but entirely digital, the Katsujinken team has had a bold ambition: a glossy, full-color, lavishly illustrated journal dedicated to the sword arts. Now entering its second volume, Katsujinken has been both visually and conceptually exquisite, covering Japanese, Chinese, European and Persian martial traditions.

Rather than tell you more about it ourselves, we thought we’d let the magazine’s editor and owner, Jason Lee Hatcher explain where this idea came from, and what he hopes to achieve.

Q: Can you tell us a little about Katsujinken? How did the idea come about? What is the scope of the magazine?

Our official title is, Katsujinken Magazine, a Sword Arts Journal. The word Katsujinken is Japanese for ‘life giving’ or ‘life sustaining’ sword. Much of this ideal was explained in Volume One, the premiere launch issue of our publication. You can understand Katsujinken in this sample scenario: an individual has to draw his sword in defense of an innocent person under attack. He or she isn’t be using the weapon with ill intent, rather to protect and sustain the life of the innocent. This is one thought and it can delve much deeper. Personally, for me, the reason for choosing this name for this magazine has to do with the entire concept of training with edged weaponry and all related facets it brings forth in the lives of each of us individually. As practitioners, we are all sustained in some way by the sword and edged weaponry arts. This is where we bond with friends and build life long connections, test the limits of of our training, and attempt to create a goodness with-in our communities. It is also where we find such great solace and return so very often, all the while we continue to replenish life in arts that date back hundreds of years. This is yin and yang.

Keep in mind, most people outside of our personal sword circles have no idea of what is going on in regards to sword arts. It’s the weirdest thing to tell someone, “I train in the sword arts.” It’s like there are no exact words to express practicing sword arts. Everyone responds with a puzzled look, unless they have an existing interest or former history with sword art training. Katsujinken Magazine is here to bridge these gaps. Not only these gaps, but those that exist between all of us as practitioners. We all have had things we’ve wanted to share with one another, whether it be poetry, stories, gatherings, tutorials, competition results, upcoming events, training halls, articles on lessons learned, the latest arms or newest products on the market etc. Katsujinken Magazine provides us with a reoccurring canvas, which transforms all of this information into a tangible masterpiece for reader entertainment every four months.

Q: You’ve produced a really, visually beautiful magazine – did you already have a background in magazine production or design?

Thank you for saying so, we really appreciate your kind words. Katsujinken’s flavor comes from so many different aspects, first of which has got to be that we are not used to seeing such wonderful substance on sword arts in a printed medium. This is an awakening on its own. This magazine and the likes there of has been missing from the sword arts scene for a very long time. Secondly we have a wonderful arts director named Kent Jensen who does a phenomenal job on cover design, Kent has been there since I first announced Katsujinken’s creation and his work is captivating. After that, the articles, layout, and photography are responsible for bringing life to the magazine as a whole. I would go further in attributing the look of our publication to the work of our publisher Donna Quesinberry of DonnaInk.com, Donna has been phenomenal in assisting Katsujinken along its journey, were it not for her the magazine would not exist.

To answer your second inquiry, no I did not have a prior experience in magazine production. Everything you are presented with in Katsujinken a Sword Arts Journal has been on a learning curve. We are all getting better at producing this publication, but it is definitely a nurturing ambition. I personally have learned so much since day one and feel this is reward in itself, but the desire to push forward and learn more is always present.

Q: Katsujinken means “the Life-Giving Sword” and is a term that comes up often in Japanese martial arts. Obviously, that is your background as well, so most people would assume this is a magazine on Japanese sword arts, yet you’ve made a concerted effort to reach out to students of all traditional weapon arts. What prompted you to branch out into other Asian and Western sword arts?

We are attempting to bridge gaps between Eastern and Western Arts. Personally, I attribute some of this to my years spent at the Capital Area Budokai Dojo here in the Washington DC area. We held a yearly event called, “Swordfest.” At this event all types of arts converged and demonstrated their perspectives styles and lineages. Arriving at Swordfest from a Japanese mindset of the arts I always discovered and learned interesting takeaways from the Western styles. This ideal was surely applied in a vice-versa fashion for those practitioners of Western styles.

Q: As you’ve worked with students and teachers of these other disciplines, what has been the biggest revelation? The most unexpected?

First, let me say that it has been a huge privilege and honor to have gotten to know so many senior Sensei and Instructors of the arts. Not to forget all the other individuals that make training in swords possible for us. The practitioners out there are but only one side of a coin, we need to always remember those that work hard on forging blades and ornamentation, producing armor and period clothing, the wonderful members who run the forums in which much discussion and learning occurs, those that pull events together along with resources, and basically anyone that contributes. There are so many people in our communities that help give life to our training and it is exciting to meet all of them.

I think I touched on the “biggest revelation” in an earlier question, but definitely the relevance of techniques and teachings across the sword arts. Yes, some techniques are weapon related and sensitive, but a person can gain a lot of understanding from watching other arts. This is true also between the Japanese Arts alone. You can never gain a whole picture by only training in one art, you need to occasionally reach out and verify what you are doing compared to that of others. Example, I used to sit in the dojo early before my Meishiha Mugai Ryu class and watch the Kendo guys and gals run through exercises and varied training techniques. I would then find myself using those same techniques while training on my own. This is a mild example and the whole ideal about viewing and learning from all arts can be very enlightening as a whole.

Q: As you come to the end of your first year, what’s been the biggest lesson?

I would say that running a magazine is the job of a mad man. It was impossible to understand what was involved in creating a magazine until I was doing it. You have to be prepared to work tirelessly around the clock. There are deadlines to meet, sales charts to keep track of, (customers, advertisers, and article writers to keep happy and enthusiastic), emails to write and questions to answer, not to mention the countless nights where only 3 to 4 hours of sleep are awarded, plus so much more that goes on behind the scenes. It drains you, it can beat you down and make you pull your hair out, but just when you can’t take anymore the printed copies arrive and your heart beat slows a bit and everything becomes euphoric.

I love working on this publication and watching it grow. There are so many facets of growth we can pursue with Katsujinken, the sky is the limit for sure. I have no plans on giving up on this venture regardless of how hard things can become. There is a vision here and we all see it, so to reiterate on the biggest lesson learned, I’d say that we need to push through and move forward. We already have a readership of hundreds across the globe, but how cool would it be to grow that readership into the thousands and beyond. Imagine how many untrained practitioners out there are looking for what we do. They are looking for a window into the true arts that we all maintain and love. Lets spread the word.

Q: Year two is on the horizon – what can we expect in 2013?

Is year two here already? Man where has the time gone? Really though, year one was great, we have our forth volume arriving just in time for this Christmas and next we are working on a Western Arts dedicated edition for early Spring. After that, we’ll probably mix things up again and eventually we’d like to hold a Women of Edged Weaponry edition. There are some wonderful women out there holding there own within all the arts and its inspiring to have them train beside all the men. Not to mention they tend to brighten the scenery, if I can say that. The ladies deserve their due.

With 2013, we can expect bigger and better. Lets build our audience up and spread the news. There is a lot going on in the world with swords and edged weaponry, let’s bring it all together in the pages of Katsujinken a Sword Arts Journal.

Thank you for giving me a chance to answer some of these questions, it has been an honor. ~ Jason Lee A. Hatcher

Subscriptions and back issues of Katsujinken, A Sword Arts Journal are available at the magazine’s website: http://www.katsujinkenmagazine.com/

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lthough the pioneering work of Alfred Hutton and Egerton Castle is well-known to students of Historical European Martial Arts, far-fewer are aware of the expansive, and longer-lasting, efforts of their “spiritual heir”, George Dubois (1865 – 1934).

Dubois was a professional sculptor and Olympic athlete, who had studied savate and fencing since childhood, and became inspired by a display of “Ancient Swordplay” involving Hutton and Castle, which he saw in Brussels in 1894. By 1906, Dubois had become interested in the intellectual and physical challenges of reviving archaic systems of fence. His first project was the reconstruction of Roman gladiatorial combat between a retiarius (net and trident fighter) and a myrmillo (sword and shield fighter), to be demonstrated at an “ancient sports” festival in Tourcoing.

Myrmillion vs Retiarus – Dubois’ method of reconstructing gladiatorial combat prefigured the “living archaeology” movement by almost seven decades.

For the next several years, Dubois continued to combine his interests in the fine, performing and martial arts. In 1916 he produced a book, Comment se Defendre  presenting a notably realistic fusion of Japanese and French self-defence techniques, reminiscent of Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu. His daughter, Mathilde, played the role of the defender in several of the book’s forty-eight instructional photographs.

Two years later, Dubois published his “Essai sur le traité d’escrime de Saint-Didier, publié en 1573,” a brief but insightful analysis of the rapier fencing text produced by the 16th century master-at-arms, Henri de Saint-Didier.

But it was rapier fencing was that truly inspired Dubois, how found the “doubled” art of rapier and dagger to be the height of fencing exercise; beneficial both in terms of physical culture, because it encouraged a more symmetrical muscular development, and also in terms of intellectual engagement. During this period he collaborated with another French fencing master, Albert Lacaze, who shared Dubois’ interest in historical fencing techniques.

In 1925 Dubois published a further work on rapier and dagger fencing. Essai sur l’Escrime: Dague et Rapiere is particularly interesting by way of contrast to L’Escrime au Theatre, which had been published some fifteen years earlier. Dague et Rapiere was not a book of stage combat techniques, but rather presented an innovative system of competitive fencing with double weapons.

 Introducing his own work, Dubois explains that:

 “Employing Fifteenth and Sixteenth century fencing terms creates something of a complication for the modern reader. A didactic book should present all of its explanations as clearly as possible. Therefore I shall employ, in this essay on ancient fencing, terms that are familiar to masters-at-arms and to their students at the foil and epee, using the classical grammar of the modern French school.

“Moreover, I would appreciate it if the reader would adopt my conviction – based on studies within the historical oeuvre – that even if the terms employed by the old Masters are not the same ones that we use today, then the methods that they described are as our own; they taught many of the same skills, since the guard of the sword was furnished with transverse branches that we all utilise scientifically.”

Thus, in Dague et Rapiere, Dubois presented a historically-inspired double-weapon fencing system intended to complement the classical foil and epee fencing of his own era. He wrote that the system was based soundly upon the mutual study, by himself and Master Lacaze, of their collective fencing libraries, which included the works of Thibault, Capo Ferro and Fabris.  Rather than a strict revival of ancient swordplay, it was a modern system adapting historical practice to the contemporary art. In several respects it is very much the type of manual that Captain Hutton might have produced on this subject, had he been inclined to popularize “ancient swordplay” beyond his own small clique.

For those interested in a glimpse of Dubois’ “modern rapier” in practice, in October of 1927, the Pathe film company recorded an outdoor training session in the method of double-weapon fencing described in Dague et Rapiere. The footage was then edited into a silent newsreel item entitled Fence and Keep Fit!”, which runs for a little over three minutes.

A second film clip from 1934, records a visit to Salle Lacaze by the famous Italian fencer Aldo Nadi, and shows students engaged in rapier and dagger training, and in the final shot shows Nadi decisively winning a fast epee and dagger bout:

That same year, George Dubois died at the age of sixty-nine. Through his books and essays, historical fencing displays and theatrical fight choreography, he had been at the cente of the escrime ancienne movement for three decades. It was largely through his efforts, and latterly those of his colleague, Master Albert Lacaze, that the work begun by Alfred Hutton, Egerton Castle and their peers was perpetuated into the new century, and in isolated pockets, such as the Salle Lacaze, has continued to the present day, creating its own living tradition of “modern rapier and dagger”.

You can read more about Dubois and the French HEMA movement in Tony Wolf’s Ancient Swordplay. For Francophones, we are pleased to celebrate this early pioneer by making his Cemment du Defendre,  Le Point d’ Honneur et le Duel, and Essai sur l’Escrime: Dague et Rapiere freely available as downloadable PDFs on the Freelance website.

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n late Victorian England, swordsmanship experienced a unique revival, even as the sword was being rendered useless on the battlefield. The precise origins are murky, but likely began with the Romantic movement of the later 18th century, which created a new interest in medievalism, and captured the popular imagination when Sir Walter Scott published Ivanhoe in 1819. Throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries there were a series of “Grand Tournaments” – often lavish medieval spectacles and festivals, often featuring jousting competitions.

An Assault at Arms: the Islington Tournament (1880)

How serious most of these efforts were is hard to say, but they, in turn, were one of the influences on the Assaults-at-Arms, displays of skill-at-arms performed as public entertainment. Originally conceived by the military as a way to exhibit fencing, horsemanship and athletics, civilian counterparts soon followed. Many of these events combined competition with showmanship; some were strictly competitive and others little more than farce.

(For a deeper look at the tradition of the Grand Tournaments and the Assaults-at-Arms, see A Grand Assault-at-Arms” Tournaments and Combative Exhibitions in Victorian England at the Electronic Journal of Martial Arts and Sciences.)

Yet, by the 19th century, fencing was becoming an endangered species in England. While romantic adventure novels, and the exploits of real explorer-swordsmen like Sir Richard Francis Burton captured the imagination, it did not fill fencing salles. As a pastime or sport, fencing had never had the same popularity as boxing, and was perceived by many Englishmen as “elitist” and “Frenchified”. With the sword’s prominence as the soldier’s sidearm swiftly being supplanted by the revolver, by the 1880s the future of the art of the sword looked rather grim.

In an effort to recapture the public’s fascination with swordplay, Captain Alfred Hutton and Egerton Castle, both devoted fencers and amateur historians, led a systematic study and reconstruction of combat with all the weapons of the Elizabethan arsenal – the elegant rapier, deadly sword and buckler, and the massive two-handed sword. In a world without the Internet, digital reproduction or inter-library loan, as men of means they had the resources and education to locate – and – read old fencing texts, and the martial training to begin interpreting them. Finding a sympathetic host in the enigmatic Edward Barton-Wright, whose Bartitsu Club would become the center of their efforts, these two men launched the revival of  “ancient swordplay” in England.  Throughout the waning decades of the 19th century, and into the early years of the 20th, their work found practical expression in classes, exhibitions, academic lectures and theatrical combat, for audiences as diverse as school children, soldiers and the Prince of Wales.

Alfred Hutton also had a practical – and political – motivation in drawing public attention to Elizabethan swordplay. Military instruction in swordsmanship had long been based on the French system, which Hutton found artificially academic, and ill-suited to fighting out of the salle against Berbers, Zulu and Indians, all of whom were well-versed in their own methods of sword and spear combat. Never a blushing violet, Hutton lobbied for a new system of swordplay, invigorated by traditional English backsword practice. In 1899 he demonstrated what such a system might look like, when he published Cold Steel, a curriculum for his own system of sabre fencing, combining the Italian sabre school with that of the English backsword. Not only did Cold Steel make use of 18th c English backsword, but Hutton also included lessons on the great stick, the dagger (or un-mounted bayonet) and defense against the same. The latter two subjects were not of his own devising, but rather were taken directly from the instructions of Achille Marozzo’s Opera Nova (1536).

When Hutton’s student, Capt. Cyrill Matthey, published The Complete Works of George Silver in 1899, he noted bitterly that “I suggest sword-fighting is not taught, and it ought to be.” His solution? A return to the practical, combative approach of George Silver, most especially his use of grips. Like his teacher, Matthey was calling for a radical reversion to a method of swordsmanship not seen in 150 years. Like Hutton, his appeals were not heeded.

Although Hutton and Matthey’s efforts to change British military swordsmanship failed, the entire matter was soon made irrelevant – the sword’s days on the battlefield were numbered in years, not decades. But it was their interest in the applicability of historical swordplay to practical, modern swordsmanship that brought Silver’s unpublished Brief Instructions Vpo My Paradoxes of Defence from obscurity into print, which in turn would become one of the first texts to be studied diligently by the second historical swordsmanship revival in the late 20th century.

A Lecture on Fencing - 1891

In 1892, Hutton published a slim volume of fight sequences with the two-handed sword, sword and buckler, rapier, rapier and dagger and smallsword, called Old Swordplay. His audience was clearly the theater, and while the sequences he describes show some relationship to the manuscripts they draw from, they lack the practical martiality of his sabre and stick instructions in Cold Steel. This was because the historical sequences served a very different purpose; to inform actors and directors as to the flavor of historical swordplay; not to turn them into historical swordsmen, per se. Here, Hutton and Castle had great success – until his death, Hutton would continue to stage fights on the London stage, and receive rave reviews for the realism of his fights; being amongst the first fight directors to insist upon correct weapons, armour and technique for the play’s setting. Although this may seem obvious or passe to modern readers, for London theater audiences of the 1890s, this was the first time that the great Tybalt -Romeo duel had rung to the clash of real rapiers and daggers, rather than flimsy foils.

Yet for all of their efforts and public acclaim, Hutton and Castle did not establish a tradition of historical swordsmanship that survived their own generation. Instead, their books and essays were largely forgotten until the second revival of ancient swordplay in the late 20th century. Today’s researchers now often view these early efforts with a cavalier or dismissive eye. In Ancient Swordplay: the Revival of Elizabethan Swordplay in Victorian England,  Tony Wolf, 19th c martial arts scholar, theatrical fight director, and reviver and instructor of the “lost” fighting art of Bartitsu, reexamines Hutton and Castle’s work, both through their own words and those of their enthusiasts, students and critics alike. Tony has unearthed a bevy of rare newspaper illustrations, photographs, play bills and bookplates, many of which can be found in the book’s gallery, and which help fill in the picture of the English revival, and its place in what came both before and after. Every student of historical European martial arts, especially those who believe they know what Castle, Hutton and their circle thought and taught will be in for more than one surprise:

  • A tradition of Medieval fests and swordsmanship – some of very dubious derivation – had already become popular throughout Europe and Canada;
  • Nearly a generation before Hutton and Castle, Maestro Gregorio Villaamil had already attempted to save La Verdadera Destreza from extinction by reconstructing earlier methods;
  • Castle’s views on medieval fencing evolved considerably over the years, and the dismissal of “the rough, untutored swordsmanship” written by a 26 year old prodigy did not reflect those of the mature man;
  • If Hutton and Castle had a true “heir” it was not an Englishman, but rather Maitre George Dubois, whose reconstruction of Gladiatorial combat prefigured the field of “Living Archaeology” by over 60 years, and whose syncretic system of modern rapier and dagger fencing would survive into the late 20th century;
  • Although the Ancient Swordplay movement failed to survive its founders, they would have considered it to have served its purpose – the preservation of modern fencing.

But what this look into a world of top hats and rapiers best shows is that the modern view of the Victorian revivalists as earnest but misguided amateur scholars is both unfair, and a bit arrogant. Instead, they are revealed as the inventors of a systematic study and practice of lost fighting arts that has only been exceeded in recent years, worthy of being celebrated as the true pioneers in the field.

With Ancient Swordplay, we are very pleased to bring the old boys (and girls! wait until you read about the swordswoman-actress-suffragette-role-reverser Esme Beringer!) back into the limelight, and in the weeks to come we will be uploading a number of images and manuscripts that couldn’t make it into the book. Keep watching this space!

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tudents of historical swordsmanship often ask me which Italian rapier treatise they should get, and how they should study it to improve their fencing skills. The first question is easily answered: with both Capoferro and Giganti available in English, as well as my older Fabris translation still circulating, you can get the most representative rapier treatises of early-seventeenth-century Italy, complete with their original illustrations.

The answer to the second question is a bit more complex, since it can be restated this way: how do I learn a physical discipline from a written work?

There are three components to take into consideration:

1 – The theory – Rapier fencing is, to be sure, a physical discipline–but it is a physical discipline that hinges on very precise theory. How many guards are there? How many hand-positions? How many lines of attack? How many types of attack? How many parries? How many voids? When do I use which? Etc. The good news is that Italian rapier treatises contain this theory, and there is a fair amount of consistency between authors. The not-so-good news is that this theory must be parsed from texts organized not as comprehensive training manuals, but as either treatises on the art of fencing (e.g., Capoferro) or as pithy syllabi on the main actions (e.g., Giganti). It is for this reason that in the introductory material to both books, I have included a rapier fencing primer on theory, which can serve as a basic template to be filled by the reader as he absorbs the information from the original author.

2 – The fundamentals – The fundamentals of rapier fencing apply to the way you stand and move, even before you face your opponent. These are how to stand in guard, how to advance and retreat without disordering your body, how to lunge powerfully and accurately and recover safely, how to perform various voids (such as the girata) without losing your balance, etc. The key for a historical fencer is not only to know how to perform these, but to also be consistent with the style of swordsmanship you are trying to learn. As trivial as it may sound, here is when the illustrations in the books have a great pedagogical value–if you know how to “read” them. In other words, you should know what you must pay attention to, and whether the illustration(s) agree with the text or with what you know about theory–in which case it is best to follow the text.

3 – Drilling the basic actions – Theory, if understood correctly, lays out a set of basic actions and counter-actions (or, simply “counters”) that make up the essence of Italian rapier fencing. These must be memorized, practiced slowly to perfection, and continually rehearsed, no matter how “old hat” they feel. For instance, theory teaches you that when the opponent gains your blade while in measure, you should perform either a cavazione or a feint by cavazione. A drill should consists in fencer A gaining fencer B’s sword while in measure; upon a command, fencer B should perform a cavazione while extending his arm, closely followed by the completion of the lunge and a hit with good opposition, and lastly by the recovery in guard. Then, after the right amount of repetitions (and switching roles), B can provide the counter in the form of either a contracavazione, a parry-riposte, a single-tempo counterthrust or a void. In general, these actions are the first to be described and illustrated in historical fencing texts, so you have the advantage to also see how they should look at the point in which you score the touch.

The goal here is not just to learn the fundamentals and the actions until your body knows them; it is to keep them fresh and in constant refinement for as long as you intend to fence within your lifetime. If you are used to just eyeball the fundamentals and then spend your practice session free-fencing, the best outcome may be improvement in your point-scoring, but not in your historical fencing. Using a rapier simulator to fence strip-mall modern epee is like using a Renaissance lute to strum a Joni Mitchell tune; you may strum really well, but you can’t call yourself a Renaissance lutenist.

One last piece of advice: when reading a historical rapier text for practical purposes, do not attempt to read it like some sort of Da Vinci Code. Obscure writing–both in the middle ages and Renaissance–was generally considered a liability. So go with the most obvious meaning, even though that takes some of the fun out of the process. And if in doubt, ask someone who knows via one of the many forums or, better yet, by attending a historical fencing venue such as WMAW, VISS and many others. (I have listed some of these resources in both my Giganti and Capoferro books.)

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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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