I’ve been compiling my notes for a small instruction book, geared to helping new students as they begin their studies in historical swordsmanship. The work below includes portions of other papers I’ve done. The eventual final work (hopefully completed at the end of this year, will be a full instruction manual.
The intent behind this publication is to give the modern student of historical arms the basic tools to help introduce them to the study.
The study of historical arms involves learning the social context in which they were used, the intentions and prejudices of the author, as well as the practical use of the weapons themselves. A fight book, to the modern interpreter, offers different resources about their period of history. The study of the fight goes hand in hand with the author’s personal philosophy, which is born from the author’s social experiences.
A Critical Approach to the Manuals
A complete analysis of a fighting manual can be done with a “New Historicism” style of analysis. The New Historicism is style of literary criticism, forwarded by Stephen Greenblatt, in which the critic looks at the historical context of a literary work. The literary value of the work has to be looked at through the lens of history. In this sam way, we can investigate the text of a fighting manual by looking at its historical and social context.
Look at the time period in which the manual was written. What particular aspect of culture had an impact on the wearing of arms? Who was allowed to use that particular type of weapon? At the time the manual was written, was there a war? What are the intentions and prejudices of the author? Was there an agenda in the publication? All of these factors are going to have an impact with the author.
For example, consider the time period in which the rapier holds popularity. Was there anything about the laws, the people, or the culture that contributed to the weapon’s popularity? And when we talk about the popularity of the rapier, are we talking about the weapon itself, or are we talking about the popularity of violence, of dueling, of schools of defense, or even the popularity of the sword as fashion?
By Elizabeth’s era, the study of arms among civilians had become part of daily fashion and culture. When Rocco Bonetti opened his fencing school in London in the 1570′s, he decorated it “lavishly, clearly attempting to attract the fashion-conscious,” according to Stephen Hand’s background of George Silver’s works (published in Paul Wagner’s collection, Master of Defense. The Works of George Silver). According to Neil MacGregor’s, Shakespeare’s Restless World, ”To be fashionable in the sixteenth century you needed to carry a sword.”
If we know that swords were a part of fashion, then does that influence how the sword may have been used? What can we find in the text of fighting manuals that shows that the fashion of the rapier had an impact in the fight?
Can we surmise that, since masters such as DiGrassi, Capo Ferro, and Fabris showed how to defend oneself with a sword and cloak, that the defender wa expected to be a civilian in a social environment?
Does the fact that “prime,” the first position in Italian rapier, is so named because it is the first position the sword comes to upon being drawn from the scabbard (CapoFerro 42), or that the following plate from the same manual shows fighters, upon meeting, in clothes of an upper class?
Read as well about what George Silver said of fencing in England, at the time of his authoring of Paradoxes of Defense: “…is like our fashions, everie day a change, resembling the Camelion, who altereth himself into all colours save white: so Fencing changeth into all wards save the right.” (202) Silver was criticizing how the styles of fighting in England were affected much like fashion was at the time.
So, by examining some of these pieces of evidence from those few manuals, we can find some evidence that there was some relation between fashion (or at least, some type of class identification) and the use of the weapon.
Antonio Manciolino’s intention can be interpreted in Book Five of his Opera Nova. He asserts that his instruction is for the purpose of defense, as opposed to plain philosophy or legality of dueling. “There is one regard in which fencing is similar to medicine; medicine starts where philosophy ends, just as fencing begins where jurisprudence ends” (131). He intends to produce a practical volume for the duelist, as a tool to defend oneself. Talk of philosophy or law is left to those who are experts of those disciplines. “It is clear that the subject of our art is nothing more than the knowledge of fencing actions.” (132)
Compare this with Joachim Meyer’s treatise, in which he discusses “knightly art” of war, as opposed to the use of “the ignoble gun.” He writes about the value of arms and armor, and especially their practice. “For daily experience shows that for many a man his armor, weaponry, and arms are more detrimental than helpful in protecting his body and life, no matter how well equipped he is, if he does not know how to conduct himself in it, nor to defend himself judiciously with it” (37) He later goes on to describe the single combat as a microcosm of greater conflicts, “…single combat is a fine image in miniature of how a war leader should conduct himself against the enemy” (43).
Both authors write about the practical value of their art. Manciolino eschews philosophical discussion in favor of teaching about surviving a duel. Meyer takes a practical approach to the instruction as well, but keeps referencing the military. He does not reference the duel as Manciolino, but refers to combat. It is a “knightly art.” Meyer can be seen to elevate his study as something greater than the style of combat being put forward in his time. Manciolino offers his art plainly. “To hell with your laws; leave those to lawyers! If you know what fencing is, speak only of what pertains to our art…” (130)
A person looking for a plain, practical approach to civilian arms may be more interested in looking towards the Manciolino text. Someone looking for instruction in a technique that elevates military arms may choose to look into Meyer. Their initial decisions can be made by not yet investigating the technique, but by reviewing what each author says about their study.
A Practical Approach to the Study
The first thing to understand, and it may sound ironic…you cannot learn to fight by reading a book.
The book is a voice from the past. It is more than just the steps of a dance. The manual contains the philosophy of the author, reflects the values of both the time and the community of fighters it is meant to serve.
Understanding a manual’s text is a collaborative process. The actions depicted in the plates involve at least two figures. The descriptions of the plays involve a give-and-take from the opponents; very often a series of “if/than” statements that can create long strings of actions and counter-actions. Armed combat cannot be learned in a static environment without an opponent. Studying plates involves an exchange of postures and actions.
Working directly from manuals was best done in teams of three: two actors and one director. The director, with manual in hand, describes the actions of each play, and each actor performs based on the provided description. The actors are the fighters represented in the plates. One is the active agent (the one who will win the exchange), and the other will be the receiving agent (the one who will lose). At the director’s instruction, each actor performs their part (as described in the text and plate). After several attempts, the group rotates (the director becomes the acting agent, the acting agent becomes the receiving agent, the receiving agent becomes the director). The same play is performed again. Then they rotate again. Each student should experience each role at least once. Now, each student has experienced the set of actions from each others’ perspectives.
The Practice of Arms
In Renaissance Swordsmanship, western martial artist John Clements wrote, “It is only through contact sparring and live-weapon test-cutting, not costumed theorizing and playing, that we can speculate on what appear to be practical defense and offense with a sword” (2). The best way of learning how a weapon works is to use the weapon as it was intended. Clements’ comment was in relation to different weapon analogues used by practitioners at the time (boffer, rattan, foils and epees, for example). The practical value of a weapon is discovered in its proper use.
One assumes that a fighting manual, by its very nature, will show the weapon’s use in a practical, martial manner. This is another time in which the purpose of the manual should be examined. Joachim Meÿer’s manual’s purpose, for example, was to show an academic form of swordfighting that could be done in the academies. The techniques eschewed thrusts as too dangerous.
One truth that can be difficult to face is that much of the art being taught in these manuals is for the specific purpose of ending a fight with the death of the opponent. It is not uncommon for those in the reenactment communities that have a “sport” component may forget that fact as they try to interpret historical swordsmanship. Joel Thompson of the Virginia Medieval Arts Association talks about his early experiences with reenactment arms study, that emphasis on either safety or theatrics, encouraging grand flourishes with weapons or making grunting sounds on contact (for the crowds), or teaching techniques such as “pulling blows” or attempts to lessen contact (for safety). He takes away from these experiences that this is not the study of a martial art. “But all these re-enactments of fighting can be grouped together as “something other” than a martial art. The European martial art of fencing or Medieval and Renaissance swordsmanship is a completely different entity. The martial art may have had a mock combat or sparring component, but its purpose and method of practice was very different. The two methods can be mixed together for authenticity, but when done the practice of the martial art should come first.”
A martial sport’s objective is not the recreation of the historical fight, as outlined in the manuals. A martial sport contains rules to prevent injury. The rules include safeguards such as a limited choice of weapon analogue (blades that pass a specific flexibility requirement, or made of a specific material), and limitations on how to strike one’s opponent (delivering only light contact, or “positive pressure”). The Italian master Antonio Manciolino pointed out the differences between sport and self defense in his Opera Nova, “Just as striking the opponent’s hand is not counted as a hit in a friendly match (as the hand is just the foremost exposed limb), in a real encounter this type of strike would be most effective” (73).
Modern interpreters of historical swordsmanship are aware of some of the techniques that reenactment groups do to stay safe. In The Duelist’s Companion, Guy Windsor warns against those techniques when studying the rapier. “A common mistake is to allow the wrist to “break.” Or the hilt to lift. The point of the lunge is to drive the sword through the target.” The technique that is designed to keep an opponent from getting hurt (breaking the wrist or raising the hilt on a lunge, in order to mitigate the amount of force being transferred from the weapon into the opponent, and instead transfer that energy back into the attacker’s arm) encourages poor technique (70).
The practical value of the weapon and its proper instruction should be done outside of a sports setting, where victory by assignment of a point by a referee or by touch is the main objective. The objective of the student of historical arms in this context should be an understanding of the historical, practical use of the weapon, as exemplified by the author of the manual.
An Example of the Practice
A practical example: a study group attempted to interpret and recreate this plate from Salvator Fabris’ Art of Dueling:
We established our objective: use Fabris’ instruction to defeat the opponent.. One fighter served as the aggressor, the person doomed to die in our experiment. The defender would strike the killing blow with the appropriate technique (I initially had that honor). One person was the director, a choreographer who, using clues from the plates and the texts, put us into our positions and guided our movements. The three of us became a cooperative troupe, each discovering the validity (or lack thereof) of each action from our unique perspective. We each communicated with each other, and shared what we learned through our own eyes of aggressor, defender, and director.
The first thing I did as defender was to go into position and sit there, like it was a passive guard. The contortion felt ludicrous. It wasn’t stable. There didn’t appear to be any more value in this guard as opposed to an upright guard. I didn’t feel particularly vulnerable, just uncomfortable. I couldn’t imagine that this was a position I’d want to maintain in a fight.
And that was just it…it wasn’t. The plates are snapshots that serve a particular purpose. In this case, the movement described on the plate is the position one would put oneself in shortly before one strikes. The text helped with that discovery:
“Begin forming this guard as you are still upright. As you see your opponent approaching, gradually lower your body and withdraw your sword; once your opponent is within the measures, he will find your body as low as possible and your sword as withdrawn as you can possibly keep it without taking it out of line.” (p. 38)
So we followed that advice. I started upright, in a second guard (knuckles upward, sword straight out at almost shoulder-height). As the aggressor slowly stepped forward, I slowly pulled my body down into a crouched position, elbow up, sword forward, until my opponent was close enough for me to strike. I made myself look as much like the figure in the plate as I could.
It still felt like something was lacking. Would my opponent advance slowly? Would I, slowly and deliberately, draw myself down and contort myself into position, and wait for a moment to strike? According to the text, once my opponent was in range, I would, “quickly unleash an attack to the inside in fourth.” It seemed possible, but seemed like a long way to go for the action. It felt contrived…like a bad self-defense class that would teach, “Okay, if I grab you just like this, then you do this…”
“What if they don’t grab me just like this?”
“Well, I have another technique for that…”
It didn’t seem right, that a fencing manual that has survived this long, that has been interpreted, shared, and copied for the last four-hundred years would be reduced to plain, black-and-white instructions. There should be movements that would be familiar to anyone who was learning to fight. We should be able to identify the value in the guard and the actions, just from entering into the positions from the plates. Fabris was teaching students how to fight for their lives in a time when young men armed with both sword and ego travelled together in the same social circles.
So we did it again, and looked for more clues in the text or the art. The director wondered why, “cuts are more easily parried from this guard” (a line from near the end of the description of the guard). The aggressor then changed her attack. As I coiled down, she moved forward as if she were delivering a cut downward to my head. We found that, if the timing was right, the attack was thwarted by my “withdrawn” blade and my head was out of the way of the attack. From there, I could deliver a killing retaliatory blow (precisely in fourth, with my arm crossed across my body, palm up…just like the text said I should).
It all came together when we decided to move at greater speed, delivering our attacks with more sincere intent. The aggressor rushed me, swinging her sword down to the top of my head.
I reacted appropriately, by yelling in fear and ducking. It seemed like the most rational reaction.
Look back at the plate. Imagine yourself in the position of the fighter presented in the artwork. Imagine someone swinging a sword down on your head. The subject there is ducking out of the way, voiding the body, parrying the downward-striking attack with the outstretched blade. From that position, it seems like the most natural action to stretch your arm forward, like a spring-driven trap, and thrust in fourth to kill your opponent.
It was like we’d just unlocked some arcane secret. We switched roles, over and over, so each of us in our little study group could see the action from their own perspective. Each of us agreed that, when done full speed, with intent, this technique seemed not just effective, but natural. One could even say it seemed like the most rational thing to do.
We could not have deciphered the value of the plate without several key elements. We each had to see the action from our own perspective. We each had to know the basics of how to fight…our guards, footwork and bladework. We had to trust the author and his material. We had to believe in its value.
Approaching the study of arms does not involve trying to impersonate plates or wood-cuts. The fight book is a tool that shows not only how one could fight, but also why they fought. Investigating the text is vital to knowing how to use the manual. The authors of these manuals wanted the readers to value everything that was published, both the practical instruction and their intent behind making their technique available to the public.
The modern practitioner should surround oneself with like-minded individuals. Interpreting the instructions that surround the plates involves multiple perspectives. A complete understanding is best accomplished by all of the practitioners sharing their perspectives. Understanding a weapon and its use involves having to use it as it was intended. This involves test cutting, and practicing with the weapon as it was intended.
Studying historical arms is a means of showing respect to the practitioners of arms that came before. The best purpose for their use may have been described by George Silver in his introduction to his Paradoxes of Defense:
…for as Divinitie preserveth the sould from hell and the divell, so doth this noble Science defend the bodie from wounds & slaughter. And moreover, the exercising of weapons putteth away aches, griefs, and diseases, it increaseth strength, and sharpneth the wits, it giveth a perfect judgement, it expelleth melancholy, cholericke and evill conceits, it keepeth a man in breath, perfect health, and long life. It is unto him that hath the perfection thereof, a most friendly and comfortable companion when he is alone, having but only his weapon about him, it putteth him out of feare, & in the warres and places of most danger it maketh him bold, hardie and valiant.
“Approved Rulers for the Study and Education of Historical Combat Techniques within the SCA”. A and S Martial Rules.moas.eastkingdom.org/docs/a_and_s_martial_rules.htm
Capoferro, Ridolfo, and Jared Kirby. Italian Rapier Combat: Ridolfo Capo Ferro. London: Greenhill, 2004. Print.
Fabris, Salvator, and Tommaso Leoni. Art of Dueling: Salvator Fabris’ Rapier Fencing Treatise of 1606. Highland Village, TX: Chivalry helf, 2005. Print.
“Introduction to Stephen Greenblatt, Module on History.” Introduction to Stephen Greenblatt, Module on History. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2017.
Leoni, Tommaso. Complete Renaissance Swordsman: Antonio Manciolinos Opera Nova 1531. Wheaton, IL: Freelance Academy, 2010. Print.
Meyer, Joachim, and Jeffrey L. Forgeng. The Art of Combat. London: Frontline, 2015. Print.
Thompson, Joel. “Historical Fencing and Re-Enacting.” Association for Renaissance Martial Arts. Association for Renaissance Martial Arts, n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2017.
Wagner, Paul, and George Silver. Master of Defence: The Works of George Silver. Boulder, CO: Paladin, 2003. Print.
Windsor, Guy. The Duellists’s Companion: A Training Manual for 17th Century Italian Rapier. Highland Village, TX: Chivalry helf, 2006. Print.