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Classic Medieval Fencing

Accolade, by Edmund Blair Leighton, 1852-1922.
Accolade, by Edmund Blair Leighton, 1852-1922.

But it is to the keen swordsman who looks upon foil fencing as the key to all hand to hand fighting, that the historical development of the art offers naturally the greatest interest. It shows him how many generations of practical men were required to elucidate the principles of fencing, and adapt them in the most perfect way to the mechanical resources of the human anatomy, and how utterly unknown many of those principles, which are now looked upon as the A B C of sword-play, were still, in the proudest days of the sword’s reign.

Egerton Castle, Schools and Masters of Fence, p 5.

With this paragraph, Mr Castle unfortunately infuriated an entire generation of historical fencers. His seminal work, which should be read by anyone interested in the art of swordsmanship, is coloured by his belief that swordsmanship evolved from “the rough untutored fighting of the Middle Ages” (Schools and Masters of Fence, p 6) into the perfectly understood ideal form of the foil. I chose Edmund Blair Leighton's famous painting, The Accolade from 1901, for this post because it's a good example of the way the Victorians saw and misunderstood the medieval period.

It is patently absurd to view the foil as the “key to all hand to hand fighting”. No MMA competitor has ever needed it. Neither did the knights of old. But, and this is a big but, we can look back on the entire period of recorded historical swordsmanship. Unlike, for instance, one of Capoferro’s students, we can also see what the rapier developed into, and make some kind of educated guesses as to why that happened. We can also use the tools of analysing fencing that were developed to their peak in the 19th century, to aid us in our studies of earlier systems.

This week in our rapier class, I persuaded the students to do a foil class instead, for the purpose of showing them how useful it can be to be able to analyse fencing actions to the degree that it is expected in foil. Modern (and classical) fencing theory allows us to describe what has occurred in a bout with an astonishing degree of precision. For instance:

I prepare my attack with a beat and a step forwards. As my opponent engages my blade, I do an indirect feint, followed by a disengage and lunge, in progressive time. My attack is parried, the riposte is direct, I parry it and attempt a compound counter-riposte with a remise.

And so on.

This system of analysis is summarised here, in the British Academy of Fencing’s Summary of Fencing Theory and Terminology, from 2002.

The structure of foil fencing theory. © British Academy of Fencing
The structure of foil fencing theory. © British Academy of Fencing

This is an incredibly useful structure and toolkit. But it has some major risks when we are studying historical sources. By importing this language, we can unwittingly distort the author’s intentions to a horrible degree.

A good example of this is the term “contratempo”, or, “counter-time”. Capoferro is explicit:


In more manners can one strike in contratempo, but I do not approve of other than two, which will be: finding yourself with your sword in quarta, with its point facing toward your right side, and your adversary coming to gain it, in the same tempo in which he moves his right foot in order to lay his sword upon yours, you will push a thrust from the said quarta, passing forward with your left foot, or with your right instead; alternately, finding yourself in terza, and he coming to gain it from the outside, you will thrust him in seconda while passing as above.

(Gran Simulacro, 1610, trans William Wilson and Jherek Swanger.)

As we can see, as the enemy approaches, we use the tempo of his gaining the sword to strike him.

But in modern fencing theory, countertime describes the timing that I would have to use if, as I attacked, you counterattacked, and I took advantage of your counterattack (or at least parried it). In Italian classical fencing, the term is “contratempo, used in the same way.

So, when studying Capoferro, it is extremely useful to be able to describe the timing of your defence against the opponent’s counterattack; but if you use the term “contratempo” you’ll have to use the same term for two completely different things.

Leaving aside the appalling Victorian arrogance that assumes that the “principles of fencing” were somehow less understood than the people who depended on them for their lives, we have to ask the question of why the theory of fencing was less explicit, analysed to a lesser degree, than it became in the 19th century. I have two answers:

1) it wasn’t. Read Thibault if you don’t believe me.

2) in sources that are less pernickety, it is probable that a simpler set of theory was more useful in the context of duelling, than in the post-duelling-era fencing salle.

It might be helpful at this stage to consider language itself. Different languages are structured differently, which affects what concepts can be expressed. For instance, in English, we can say “the car”; “a car”; “from the car”, “from a car”, and so on. In Finnish, “the car” would be “auto”. “A car” would be “autoa”. “From a or the car” would be “autosta”. Finnish cannot easily make the distinction between “from a car” and “from the car” that we English speakers do so naturally. But Finns seem to have no difficulty in making themselves understood to their fellow Finnish speakers. And only a fool would suggest that English is somehow superior because of it. We don’t even have a proper word for the steam that comes off a sauna stove when we’ve thrown water on it!

One of the ways in which we can identify the origins of non-native speakers a language is the way that they import words and grammar into their new language. Or use words that sound similar but mean something completely different, with occasionally hilarious results. Most English speakers who learn Spanish make the “embarrassed” mistake at some point. “Embarazada” means “pregnant”. I vividly recall a group of Peruvian friends falling about laughing when I tripped over that one.

Having the language of foil in our heads can be very useful in analysing what may be going on in a historical source; but it can also introduce all sorts of baggage, and lead you to try to force a different language into the grammatical structures of the one you already know.

So what brought all this on? This email, from my friend M. Harold Page.

Dear Guy

Where do you see “attacking an inviting opening line in tempo” fitting in Medieval Longsword? Is it a technique, or the underlying principle of fighting?

(In lay terms I mean, e.g., “You drop into a low guard as a deliberate invitation to me to attack high. I try and hit you as you change guard. You try to respond to my attack which hopefully you predicted.”)

This seems a common concept in approaches inspired by classical fencing.

However, in the earlier German texts — e.g. Goliath, Danzig, Ringeck, — in tempo attacks to opening lines are called “travelling after” (Nachreisen) and relegated to a later section. Most of the text talks in terms of “if he stands in this or that guard”. Also, the Dobringer text has passages like “If you only strike after, you will have little joy of the art”, “do not strike to the sword” and “a good fencer will always win the first strike”. In a similar vein, doesn't Fiore identify some guards as good to wait in?

So, what do you think is going on?

Let’s deal with the easy question first: yes, Fiore does identify some guards as good to wait in; specifically tutta porta di ferro and coda longa.

“Attacking the opening line” is a fundamental principle of all fencing, as I see it; it’s just common sense. If the line is closing, don’t attack it. If the line is closed, the attack will fail. If the line is open, you might attack it. If the line is opening, you have the best chance of making the strike. But if it is an invitation, be wary of accepting it, there will be a prepared response waiting for you.

Making an invitation to attack is a tactic, that we can see in play all the time, but is rarely addressed in medieval sources. The only one I can think of off-hand is in Vadi’s De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, folio 28R, where he wrote:

Per corta lanza aspetto asto partito. 

ACorta elonga tenero linuito. 

With a short lance I’ll wait in this way,

I invite you to come with long and short.

(Translation mine, from Veni Vadi Vici p 155)

But this example is of an open line, not an “opening line”. The tempo is different.

Vadi Spear Guards, f28R
Vadi Spear Guards, f28R

We do see the deliberate creation of opening lines in the use of the concept of breaking the guards, and in the use of feints, both of which are common in medieval sources. I can dig up references from Fiore and Vadi if needed. Liechtenauer too. But this is explicitly not the deliberate invitation of an opening line. The agent is forcing the patient to create the opening.

The invitation with an opening line is clearly described in at least some of the Bolognese sources I have read. Ilkka Hartikainen summarises it well here.

So, I would describe it as a tactic, not a technique, and I’d say it is probably but not certainly part of medieval swordplay, and certainly part of renaissance swordplay. But it is also a good example of a classical or sport fencing background interfering with a clear reading of the sources. Using this terminology to describe medieval fencing actions is fraught with opportunities for misunderstanding.

I hope this helps…

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

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