Warning: major sword geekery alert. What follows might interest about 1% of my readership, and about 0.000001% of the world’s population (that’s 60 people). But it’s exactly this kind of nit-picking pedantry that in the end makes this the right job for me; because this is the only area in the world where I care this much about such apparently trivial or minor details. And what to you may seem a minor change is, to me, a huge and fundamental shift in my thinking.
What am I babbling about? The position of my tailbone when holding a rapier.
Those of you that have trained with me know that I am anal about my tailbone. Which makes sense, when you think about it. But what I mean is that the tailbone is the keystone of the arch of which your hands form one end, and your feet the other. It is where things often go wrong when grounding. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, this video may help.
About four years ago, my friend and colleague Puck Curtis and I were discussing Spanish and Italian rapier systems, when he used a term I immediately adopted and put in capital letters: Primary Axis of Defence. This is just the default way any system of swordsmanship tends to organise its parries. In Angelo’s smallsword system (for which see his School of Fencing, 1787), it is abundantly clear that the Primary Axis of Defence is left-right, the shift between tierce and carte, or carte over the arm and carte.
In Fiore’s Art of Arms, it is very clearly the fendente-sottano line; attacks are almost always beaten up or down. (I won’t justify this here, but suffice to say that if you disagree with that statement, you and I are so far apart in our interpretations that discussing them is probably a waste of time.) Puck said back then that the Spanish rapier sources he studies suggest something similar; the Primary Axis of Defence is up-down, along about the same diagonal lines as Fiore is using.
In 2005 I’d have said the same about Capoferro’s rapier system. But somewhere along the line since then, I slipped away into thinking of Capoferro’s Primary Axis of Defence as being like Angelo’s; left-right, between seconda and quarta. I don’t know how that happened, because in the text it’s pretty clear that this is not really the case. There is abundant evidence to suggest otherwise, not least the final chapter (A secure way to defend yourself against all sorts of blows). But this lead me into conceiving of the stringering as primarily left-right, not up-down.
One of the secrets of my success, if not the secret, is that I hire in lots of external instructors, whom I may agree with or not, but who always show me other ways of thinking about the things that I am doing. In this year alone, we have had Jörg Bellinghausen teaching the messer; Devon Boorman teaching rapier; Roberto Laura teaching Italian knife; and we have Jessica Finley coming here in a couple of weeks to teach German medieval wrestling.
I cannot overstate how important this is; bringing in new ideas, new ways of doing things, and insights into other systems, are utterly critical to the development of my understanding of my Art.
And Devon’s rapier seminar is an excellent case in point. While we will probably always disagree about exactly how the turn of the back foot specified on plate 5 should be done (he rolls, I pivot on the ball),
his seminar emphasised a vertical Primary Axis of Defence (though I don't recall him using that term), so the stringering is about getting on top of your opponent’s sword, not keeping it off to one side. He also reminded us of the body-lean that I bang on about in The Duellist’s Companion but had let slide gently out of practice in the intervening 8 years. We are doing it a lot more now!
These are related, in that the body lean, and the vertically oriented Primary Axis of Defence lead us to a different orientation of the tailbone. Simply put, against vertical resistance (such as gravity acting on a barbell), your tailbone should be in neutral. Against horizontal resistance, such as someone pushing on your chest from in front, your tailbone should be tucked. (Go watch the video again if this is not clear.) Devon’s mechanics, and this is so important, allow us to retain a neutral tailbone position throughout. Which is better, easier, less fatiguing, and looks more like the pictures. Damn. That was money well spent!
This has had a knock-on effect; I am now looking at Fiore’s posta longa of the abrazare in a new light; he seems turned, and to lean, and in other words able to absorb incoming pressure with a neutral spine. Damn again.
By finding ways to treat horizontal pressure as coming in from the side, not the front, you can get away with an awful lot of neutral spine positions, that otherwise you’d need to tuck for.
In case it’s not clear; when it comes to the study of my Art, I live for this shit. Apparently tiny tweaks that have major, major ramifications. So major that it’s taken me four months to absorb and digest them. So here you are. The take-home lessons are:
1) get as many second opinions as you can afford. I hire on average 4 external instructors per year, and have done since I opened the school.
2) always go back to the book. Check everything, because drift is inevitable.
3) The fundamentals (mechanics, timing, measure) do not change; they are like the laws of physics. But how they are expressed by any art may change hugely (planes and submarines are both governed by the same laws, but behave very differently).