The value of classical fencing in historical fencing interpretation

To be truly successful, attempts at reconstructing historical European systems of swordsmanship must be informed by classical fencing.

It’s an unfortunate trend today that the overwhelming majority of European swordsmanship enthusiasts, whether they classify themselves under the name HEMA, WMA, historical fencing, or any number of names, either ignore the classical weapons (at best) or scorn them (at worst).  There are of course a myriad reasons for this.  Many individuals are only interested in medieval or renaissance arms, and classical 19th century teaching just doesn’t get their blood moving.  Why bother spending time on it?  Others argue that medieval and renaissance swordsmen didn’t need training in French foil to learn to use an arming sword or a rapier (or whatever), so why should someone bother today?  It’s not “historically accurate.”  Yet another reason is that, on the surface, the weapons and the systems are so different across time that the standard sword enthusiast does not believe that one can inform the other.  For others, their experience of classical fencing is tied inextricably with modern Olympic-style fencing, which has lost almost all of its martial validity.

But all of this overlooks the simple fact that classical fencing is the true, legitimate descendant of medieval swordsmanship, connected to it in an unbroken line – and that this connection bears tremendous importance.  Following just the Italian school, for example, medieval systems such as those of Vadi evolved and changed into Renaissance systems which have their pinnacle of expression in works such as that of Marozzo, and those Renaissance systems in turn changed and evolved as master taught pupil and pupil became master until we see Baroque systems, and as master taught student those Baroque systems in turn evolved into the Classical Italian systems.  From medieval to classical and to today, master has taught student and student has passed on their knowledge to their own students, adding their own wisdom as weapons themselves change, but always knowledge of one generation is gained in descent from the previous one.  So again we can say that Classical fencing is a true, unbroken descendent of Medieval fencing – there was never pure reinvention, just modification of what was already there – addition here, subtraction there, one piece at a time and one generation at a time.

Emphasis on the word descendent – Classical fencing is not the same thing as Medieval fencing, in the same way that I am not a small nocturnal mammal hiding from dinosaurs as was my great, great…. great grandfather.  But just as my small nocturnal ancestors and I share hordes of genetic, cellular, physiological, and anatomical features through descent (we both have four-chambered hearts, hair, a bony separation between our mouth and nose, etc., etc.), many aspects that are foundational to classical fencing represent things that can ultimately be traced back to its medieval ancestors.  There are also universal principles that apply to all weapons and times: particularly distance, timing, and proportion.  The application of these principles differs from weapon to weapon and across time, which is why we have different schools and systems of fence.  This is true within the classical realm as well as when comparing classical to medieval and renaissance systems.  Therefore, comprehensive classical training allows you perceive how distance, tempo, and technique change across a variety of weapons such as the long Italian foil and the comparatively shorter Italian dueling sabre, which also have a diversity of technical differences in terms of targets, types of blow that can be delivered, mechanics of weapon use, etc.  Moreover, because the classical weapons are relatively light and fast (excluding broadsword and backsword teaching of the classical era), the tempos and proportions required to use them successfully are very tight.  There is no weapon more unforgiving of errors in tempo, distance, or proportion of actions than the late 19th century dueling sword, or epee de combat — anyone who disagrees has never really used one properly.  The emphasis on the extended arm target and on counteroffensive action means that the slightest errors in judgment and technique will be punished.  Proper training with the classical weapons therefore not only gives you deep insight into universal principles that apply just as well to the longsword as to the foil, it hones you into the most efficient possible applier of those principles.  It also teaches you how the most subtle changes in body mechanics can lead to either a successful or unsuccessful application of technique.

It is also a fallacy to think that one can recreate 100% or even most of a historical fencing system based on texts and texts alone.  This thinking is increasingly flawed the further back in time one goes, and the sketchier the source material is.  As the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi says, books by dead people are the dregs of those people’s thoughts and knowledge.  The dregs.  You can never fully access their meaning – at best you can only glimpse fragments.  Any reading of I.33, Meyer’s fechtbuch, St. Didier, and essentially any fencing treatise makes it evidently clear that there is much information left out about those fighting systems that it is left to us to fill in.  Some have much more dregs to go on; compare Danet’s voluminous smallsword treatise to the I.33 sword and buckler manuscript, for example – the latter leaves out more of the system than it includes; this extends to footwork, names and delivery of cuts, use of tempo, etc., etc.  Even when it describes something, we are often left with no real idea as to the real underlying meaning.  What did the author really mean when he used the latin terminology “exprimere gladium deorsum “ (usually translated by I.33 enthusiasts into English as “push the sword downward”)?  Why is this different from another usage, the verb “subprimere” for an action which on the surface seems similar, and which can also be translated as “push downward?”  Is the first a technical term and the second descriptive? Vice versa?  Are they both descriptive, and describing different blade techniques?  Or is it just two ways of saying the same thing?  There is really no way of knowing, and these kinds of vagaries abound in the text.

The consequence of this is that if you look at the forums or go on YouTube, you will see as many interpretations of any given treatise as there are reconstructionists working on it.  Each of these will have techniques or actions that people have constructed that don’t actually resemble the way it was done originally, as the author intended.  In other words, EVERYONE is wrong, in some way or another, and some are likely to be more wrong than others.  Each reconstruction, drawing entirely on contemporary or near-contemporary sources, is bound to contain inaccuracies and misinterpretations.  It is inevitable.  But if one is well-informed and well-trained in universal principles of fencing, this becomes less problematic.  Even though it can never go away entirely, one can at least trim the errors down and make even errors at least be martially valid.  We will still make errors with regard to historical accuracy; that is unavoidable, and when we are looking at sources such as I.33 it is truly impossible to “recreate” or “reconstruct” the system.  There is just not enough there.  One can only create one’s own interpretation of the system, understanding that if the author were alive today he’d likely look at you and say “What the hell are you doing?  That’s not how we do it!”  But, even understanding this, it is worthwhile to interpret these texts, and in so doing, resisting the treasure-trove of information that classical fencing has to offer the reconstructionist is an insupportable position.  Since classical fencing is a valid descendent of medieval and renaissance fencing systems, I would argue that the techniques, theories, and use of tempo and distance that classical fencing teaches us actually yield BETTER, MORE historically accurate results when interpreting historical fencing texts.

To take the argument further, it is also obvious that the closer your target system is to the classical era, the more direct connections will be available to you.  It is a lot easier to reconstruct a Neanderthal by comparing it to me than it is a tiny nocturnal mammal ancestor, because the Neanderthal is closer to me in time and relatedness.  At the risk of sounding harsh, it is pointless arrogance to try and reconstruct French smallsword without training in classical French foil and dueling sword first.  The connections are so close, YOU CANNOT hope do it right unless you are classically trained, or unless your smallsword teacher is.  It takes years of work in foil and dueling sword to be ready to reconstruct a smallsword system, and unless you put that work in first, you are de facto stating that you know more about fencing than several generations of fencing masters.  It is folly, much like it would be folly to try and understand Neanderthal biology without first having an understanding of modern humans.  If you really want to learn to fence with a smallsword, you should WANT to learn classical fencing first, and to find the best classical fencing teacher that is available to you.

But this argument doesn’t just apply to smallsword, it also applies to earlier systems, even though the time gap is greater.  To see how the classical repertoire is a vital component of reconstructing historical fencing systems, let’s apply the metaphor of linguistic reconstruction to martial reconstruction.  First, remember that we do not have any complete European medieval fencing systems extant, whose proponents were fully trained and fluent within the full flower of those systems – at least none that are commonly known and readily accessible.  We are reconstructing these systems largely through the use of their dregs, their skeletons – scant words and a few pictures left behind by dead people who cannot answer our questions.  So let’s say I have a rather scanty collection of texts in Latin, and that I want to try to reconstruct the Latin language from them, assuming a situation where full knowledge of Latin has been lost and there are no extant translations or anyone alive who understands the language.  I have some labeled illustrations in some of the texts and maybe a few contemporary translated sentences that give me an idea of the meaning of many words, but by no means all of them and I can never be sure what percentage.  What I DO have available are the descendent languages of Latin, which are extant and alive, and readily learnable from people who are willing and happy to teach them to me: modern French, Italian, Spanish, etc.

Yes, French, Italian, and Spanish have many many differences from Latin such that we can say they are different languages – if you went to Julius Caesar’s Rome speaking French they would have no idea what you were saying.  Just as classical fencing systems are different enough from their medieval and renaissance forebears that we can say they are different, distinct systems of fencing.  But the descendent languages follow many of the same rules that applied to Latin, and feature an extensive core vocabulary that is held in common with the ancestor language and each other.

So the rhetorical question is, who will have a better chance at creating a faithful representation of the original Latin?  Someone who is trying to do it just from the books, or someone who takes the time to learn the descendent languages, as different as they may be?  Someone who understands their nuances, and can compare them to see where they connect to Latin as well as where they differ from the ancestor and each other?  Even understanding just one of the descendent languages puts you in a far better position.

Paleontology gives us another analogy – in this world, scientists are trained in the anatomy and physiology of modern, living organisms so that they can apply this knowledge to reconstruct the biology of organisms in the past.  If I have a fossil primate from 50 million years ago, I absolutely must use comparative knowledge of its living relatives (such as humans and gorillas) in order to learn about what the extinct critter was really like.  To understand dinosaurs, I must understand birds, which are descended from them.  I can try to do this without, but I will end up wasting a lot of time and traveling down many wrong paths.  This is not to say that an eagle is the same thing as a T. rex, but that they have common principles of construction and biology such that if I know the eagle first, I will be much more confident in my reconstruction of the T. rex.  I need complete understanding of the living flesh to put flesh back on the dead fossil bones.  So yes, classical fencing is not historical fencing, but they share the same fundamental core based on their common heritage and their shared foundations in geometry, physics, and human function.

“Well, maybe for smallsword or 17th century rapier fencing,” you say, “but surely not medieval fencing.  It is just far too different, you can’t claim that classical fencing has inherited anything from it that is of value for understanding medieval swordsmanship.  There is no point to me learning classical fencing if I want to reconstruct the system of _______(insert manuscript name here).”  That’s a common thought, but we can refer to even the earliest known fencing treatise, Royal Armouries MS I.33, and show direct connections of theory and application that reveal the importance of classical training for rebuilding older fencing styles today.

The first example where we can see the medieval-to-classical connection in I.33 is actually on the first page where an action sequence – or phrase d’armes – is presented in the manuscript: that of the half-shield counter to first ward.  The anonymous author of I.33 warns that whoever stands in first ward should not deliver any blow against an opponent in half-shield, because he can only reach the low line and in the act of attacking that low line, he would leave himself open to a counterattack to the head.  To say it another way, we are told not to make an attack to the low line without preparation, and the author is implicitly instructing anyone who receives such an attack to launch their own counteroffensive against the high line.

The reasoning for this is entirely geometrical.  In attacking to the low line, the attacker’s line of action is on a hypotenuse of a right triangle.  The defender, by countering to the head, has his sword horizontal on one of the shorter sides of the triangle.  It is a simple matter for him to remove his leg and make a clean hit on the forearm or face of the attacker, who is delivering the target to the defender.

Gee, where else can we see such instruction?  Both classical French dueling sword and Italian dueling sabre contain this exact prescription.  In both weapons, fencers are taught that if an attacker launches an attack without preparation to the low line, there is no need to defend: the best option is to remove the target in a movement called rassemblement in French, and extend your weapon for an easy hit to the forearm or face, depending on distance and how much you dislike your opponent.

Classically, we call this a coup d’arret or a type of uscite in tempo – in English, we would often say stop-thrust or stop-cut (with a sabre).  I.33 doesn’t use these words, but it doesn’t have to – we see exactly why it works based on geometry, and our classical fencing knowledge reinforces our understanding of the action.  Classical fencing represents the advanced evolution of a terminology that developed over centuries to describe these principles more precisely.  Unsurprisingly, there are multiple videos on Youtube of modern I.33 reconstructionists presenting this very tactic as if it were a novel rediscovery, without any reference or credit to the classical and even baroque fencing masters who have been teaching this concept for hundreds of years in a direct line and didn’t need a treatise to tell them about it.  E.g., I learned about this from my own fencing master, who learned it from his, etc. — not from a book.  Even sport epeeists still teach and use this.  This tradition is clearly continuous through the centuries, for example we can see it in the treatise of Ridolfo Capo Ferro in the early 1600’s, which clearly spells out the geometrical principals behind the concept.

Another tactic we can see in I.33 has changed almost not at all down through to the classical period, such that classical training gives you the best possible chance of replicating its use in the older weapon: the bind against an extended weapon arm, where the point is threatening the opponent.

Folio 6v and 7v of MS I.33 both depict a “middle” longpoint (or langort) guard being used as an opposition to first ward.  With the exception that a buckler is involved in this case, this is a defensive posture that is common throughout fencing.  In Spanish rapier systems, for example it is the default position of the arm; in the classical period, the Italians would say that a fencer standing on guard with their weapon arm extended straight forward this way, has the weapon in the line of attack (in linea di offesa).  The classical French school does not name the posture, but it regularly employs it: It can be a useful defensive position because one’s adversary cannot safely attack until the threatening point has been neutralized – it creates a very real and immanent threat of a counterthrust.

The only way to safely attack someone standing with their sword thus – whether that is an arming sword or a classical dueling sword – is to control the opponent’s weapon with your own, neutralizing the threat.  Classically, we may opt to do this in one of several ways, two of which involve direct control of the opponent’s weapon.  First, a transport (prise de fer in French, there are different terms used by Northern vs. Southern Italian schools) can be employed to derail the threat, or second a beat or expulsion (attaque au fer) can be used to knock the threatening point out of line.  These may be followed by a direct attack or a feint.  The I.33 text tells us to bind the opponent’s weapon, so we can see this is in direct correlation with classical methods.  The best option, the manuscript says, is to bind from above and then leverage the opponent’s weapon downward, where we can then execute a shield-strike (i.e., stifle their sword and buckler with an impact from our own shield, timed simultaneously with a sword-blow to the head).

Both the terminology describing this action (ligare, or bind) and the action itself could have been pulled from an eighteenth or nineteenth century fencing treatise – or just as well a lesson with Maitre Cabijos.  The set-up, the tactical choice, and its execution will all be immediately recognizable to a classically trained fencer – this because the classical response to this threat inherits it as part of the tradition of western swordsmanship.  This medieval solution to a common sword-fighting problem is so effective, we see it essentially unchanged over hundreds of years, and extended across countries.  Early and late rapier treatises, smallsword treatises, and classical treatises continue to exhibit it down to the present classical schools.  Moreover, French, Italian, Spanish, and German systems all employ it.  And since we see it in I.33, it clearly has as deep a set of medieval roots as we can get.

Let’s look at this a bit further, starting with the term “bind.”  This term, in several different linguistic variations, is ubiquitous in the fencing literature.  I.33 uses the latin verb ligare, classical French has the verb lier (its noun form is liement), and classical Italian has legare (and its noun form, legamento).  English has “bind” and German binden or winden – all of these have a literal meaning of tying something up or securing it, or wrapping around it.  In fencing, all of these terms denote an action that involves sustained contact between one’s own weapon and that of the opponent, typically made with one’s forte against the opponent’s foible (we can see this in the Illustration showing the priest executing the bind on folio 7v of I.33, for example).  The sustained contact and leverage you gain from the bind allows you to control the opponent’s weapon and move it where you will.  In the classical period, when we see a liement or a legamento (at least in the Northern Italian classical school) this incorporates not just the contact but also the transport of the blade to another line.  This does not seem to be the case in I.33, where the bind seems to indicate the simply the sustained forte-to-foible contact; the transport is typically (though not always) described as a subsequent action.  This approach to the term is more similar to that of the Southern Italian classical schools.  In the French school the generic term liement initially signified all bind/transport combinations, but in the classical era the term developed a more specialized definition referring to a particular category of bind/transport action.  In this instance, the term prise de fer came to replace liement as the generic term.  As noted above, between the Northern and Southern Italian schools there is a difference as to whether the term is signifying a bind/transport or a binding action that is more of an engagement, but in all schools the root form of the term still refers to an action involving sustained contact of forte to foible which is used to control the adversary’s weapon.  In short, the point stands that the classical, baroque, and renaissance fencing traditions all passed variations of the term “bind” or ligare to one another, fully intact, from the origin of this term in the medieval era – even though, as we would expect, different traditions began to place their own subtle spins on the term as fencing terminology grew increasingly specific with time.

Outside of the terminology, we can see pervasive commonality in the technique itself.  In both I.33 and classical systems, we see an adversary presenting an extended arm and level weapon, with the point threatening our target.  I.33 tells us to bind the adversary’s weapon – indeed use of binds to control the adversary’s weapon and neutralize their options of counterattack is a repeated theme in the manuscript.  It does not say to oppose your strong to their weak (your forte to their foible), but the illustrations repeatedly depict this.  Although I do not think the illustrations in I.33 are 100% reliable in all details and that great care needs to be taken interpreting them, binds in the book are commonly enough illustrated this way that we can assume it is intentional within the illustrations (the only exception seems to be the action referred to as “falling under the sword and shield,” which has its own unique set of parameters as the adversary’s foible in this case is inaccessible).

In classical French and Italian schools, in all 3 weapons, we are taught likewise that a valid tactical response to an extended weapon arm is to seize our opponent’s foible (which is conveniently extended toward us as in I.33) with our forte.  In both I.33 and in classical fencing, this contact gives us leverage we can use to defend ourselves should the adversary decide to continue with an attack by thrust – it’s a parry waiting to happen (or a deflection of the adversary’s weapon, if you don’t like my use of a classical term).  And to emphasize the continuity, we see the same maneuver in treatises that fall in between classical and medieval eras, such as that of Nicoletto Giganti, again in the early 1600’s.

But wait, there’s more!  Both I.33 and the classical systems take an active approach with this blade dominance, not just a passive one.  We don’t wait for our opponent to attack, we take our newfound control of their weapon and use it to drive their weapon out of the way as part of setting up our own attack.  We use the bind on the OFFENSIVE, if the opponent doesn’t attack us first.  How do we do this?  Well, in both systems, we can use our leverage to turn the hand and take the opponent’s weapon to the low line as we close the distance, putting them at a disadvantageous position.  So we follow bind with transport, whether your particular school considers the transport and the bind one and the same or not.  And now with their point offline, you are free to shield-strike to maintain dominance of their weapon while your sword is freed to strike high targets (I.33), or to continue to drive forward with your thrust and hit in the low line (classical).  And again as an example of the continuity of it all, see the same type of action displayed in Giganti, with regard to the transport and thrust to the low line following the bind against the extended weapon in high line.

And the connections continue: one of I.33’s frequently applied answers to this bind and transport combination, on the part of the person who has been bound and had their sword transported low, is to slip the weapon over that of the binding sword and catch it on the other side, which action the manuscript refers to as “changing the sword” (mutare gladius).  As it happens, this very medieval response is also a classical one: this is one of the same responses a classical French foilist can give to defend against a liement.  And classical foil teaches us that the timing of this action is critical – if performed too late in the adversary’s tempo, it allows him or her to counter the action very easily.  If performed too early, it just won’t work.  The window of opportunity for correct execution is pretty tiny.  And it is due to a lack of classical training with regard to this tempo that preparators of Youtube videos of mutare gladius must present actions which are far behind the tempo and are easy to defend.  And even granting that in teaching demonstrations (which some of these are) we may slow things down, if this is the case classical training would help them maintain the proper tempo despite the slow-down and help guide students toward better execution.  It is also my opinion that the actions and techniques many folks demonstrate in these videos are not true to the intent of the text because of the underlying tempo problem, and that the interpretation overall is going too far off the mark.  But of course this is just an opinion, as the treatise is too vague on many of these points for me to say anything else.

Anyhow, pulling back to look at the overall picture, between I.33 and the classical schools of fencing, each core principle of this sequence is the same, and we know it works with cutting weapons as well as thrusting since we can do it with a foil or epee just as well as a rapier, sabre, or arming sword.   Is this similarity coincidence?  Of course not – classical fencing ultimately gets it as part of its ancestry.  Some mechanics will differ of course because of differences in the way the weapon is held and the attack that is subsequently delivered (there was no lunge invented yet at the time of I.33, for example, and classical foil doesn’t involve shield-strikes), but this does not change the fact that the tactic is the same and the application very nearly so.  And I can vouch personally for the fact that having had the Maestri Martinez constantly pushing me and nudging me and sometimes berating me to get my transports with foil, dueling sword, sabre, etc. to exact timing and proportion of motion – as well as my answers to these transports – this helps me to properly execute the transport with the arming sword, not the opposite.  Classical training gives me the economy of motion I need, and in all fencing a lack of economy of motion will get you killed.

“Yeah, but medieval fencers didn’t use foils to teach them economy of motion!” you say.  “They did it with real swords!”  Yeah, and they walked uphill both ways to school in winter.  Of course that is the case, but we can’t compare the process of reconstruction now to the way it was back then, when we are trying to recreate artificially something that developed organically and naturally over time for those people.  They had scores of real medieval fencing masters like Fiore dei Liberi and Liechtenauer to drill the economy of motion into them, and a bloody process of natural selection to weed out the “uneconomic” schools, teachers, and fencers, which we don’t.  On top of that, they had complete living systems, whereas all that remains to us direct from the medieval tradition today are a collection of hints in books that were not designed to TEACH fencing, but which were designed by and large as a memory aid to masters and students who were part of the tradition.  Dregs.  The living systems we DO have are the classical systems, a few of which lineages also retain teaching of occasional historical weapons such as the rapier.  Conveniently, these extant living systems are descended from the medieval systems, with all the intact connections we have looked at and more.  So, the best way to get the appreciation of theory, tactic, and application of medieval weapons in the twenty-first century is to study living classical fencing first, which IS a complete system and legitimate descendent, or to train in your medieval fencing with a teacher who has.  Otherwise the process will take a LOT longer, and lead down many more false paths.  Again, if you want to reconstruct Latin, wouldn’t you want to learn French and/or Italian first?  It takes a lot longer, but it yields better results.

So, to return to the bind sequence from I.33, the most substantial difference from classical fencing, beyond the footwork, is that the buckler in I.33 allows a shield strike and head blow following the transport, whereas using only a smallsword or dueling sword the attack would typically terminate in a thrust to the low line, as this is required to maintain the control over the opponent’s weapon.  That’s ok, we acknowledge that different weapons have different properties, and that’s why it’s so fascinating to reconstruct historical systems.  Classical fencing is NOT medieval fencing and vice versa.  I have a LOT in common with my tiny nocturnal ancestors, but if you put us next to one another you would acknowledge we are still different types of critters.  It’s important for me to state this, because I don’t want people going out and getting mad at me because I said “classical and medieval fencing are the same.”  Clearly they differ in many crucial ways.  So if you get mad at me, get mad for other reasons. J   But more importantly, they are SIMILAR in many crucial ways.

These phrases from I.33 are about as screamingly obvious an example of how an understanding of classical fencing is so important to historical reconstruction as I can conjure.  A classically-trained fencer is better prepared to look at the I.33 text and readily place it into a broader theoretical context, and also be trained in the tempo and distance and proportion to make it work with maximal efficiency.

Trying to reconstruct an ancient fighting system without studying its descendants is less efficient and creates redundancies.  A reconstructionist with no classical training would look at the I.33 manuscript and put this bind thing together and think they had rediscovered this lost secret, vanished these 700 years, when we’ve actually always known that secret and continued to teach it to the present day.   If you really, really want to do these ancient systems justice – which I think most HEMA and WMA people do — classical fencing training is indispensable.



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