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A student question on the mezani blows.

I get asked a lot of questions about the nitty-gritty of swordsmanship mechanics, and interpreting historical sources. I recently received a very long and involved question about the mezani blows in Il Fior di Battaglia from Dustin Jones. In short, he believed that I’ve read the manuscript incorrectly, and these horizontal blows should be done with the false edge from your forehand side, and with the true edge from the backhand side. He came to this conclusion from getting stuck with a specific technique: the breaking of the thrust from the left.

This was one of those times when it’s really tempting to retreat into authority: “I’ve been doing this for 20+ years, this is how it is, shut up and stop bothering me”. I have absolutely no doubts about my interpretation of these blows and which edge comes from where in terms of the written sources, and I have tested pretty much every imaginable way of doing them, so I am 100% satisfied with my position on this. We hashed all this out in depth and detail many years ago, and have tested it with hundreds of students over the last decade-plus. 

And that’s really, really, dangerous, on two fronts. Firstly, it’s simply wrong for a teacher to answer in that way. Any student (someone who is working from my books and/or courses) is entitled to at least a considered response, explaining why I think it is the way it is. Sometimes that is something along the lines of “check pages x-y in book z”, sometimes it’s something I haven’t covered in detail elsewhere so I need to write it up. And secondly, as soon as an interpretation becomes unquestionable it becomes dogma, and the learning process grinds to an abrupt halt.

Examining your assumptions, and the parts of your interpretation that have become so ingrained they are assumptions, is an essential part of continuing to grow in the Art.

But of course, there is a limit. Having listened to their side, and explained my views in depth, my obligation ends. I have on occasion had to block a person’s email address because they behaved like a five-year old with the ‘but whys’, or insisting on a definitive answer to a question that doesn’t have one. 

Dustin’s original email included a 1,450 word explanation of his point of view, which is too much to quote in full, but referred to the mechanical difficulties he was having with the mezani as I do them, and laid out his position drawing on his reading of the Italian, and mentioning the zwerchau which indeed is a horizontal blow done with the true edge from the backhand side, false edge from the forehand side.

I wouldn’t normally read such a long question- I have been known to reply with a request for the edited highlights- but the tone of his request felt appropriate, and understanding his position did require the background he was providing.

So here is the answer I sent:

Hi Dustin,

Thanks for getting in touch. You’d be surprised how many questions I get from folk who haven’t bothered to read my books, so it’s nice to hear from someone who has.

This is a pretty long and detailed reply, so I’ll work it up into a blogpost- you’re probably not the only person out there who’s had trouble with this. Would you like to remain anonymous, or should I mention you by name?

It seems to me that you’re having mechanical difficulties with the forehand mezano, and extrapolating from that to ‘the interpretation is wrong’. Let’s start with the language issue. Let me quote you:

“When it comes to Fiore’s instruction for the colpi mezani he does say “E andamo cum lo dritto taglo de la parta dritta”. Which you interpret as “and we go with the true edge from the forehand side”, but it seems this can be interpreted as “and we go with the true edge from the right” and you could then read “E de la parte riversa andamo cum lo falso taglio” as “and from the left side we go with the false edge”.

Fiore does not explicitly say “from my” or “from your” or “from your opponents” right or left. This does kind of leave this up to interpretation.”

There I’m afraid you’re simply wrong. Dritto can mean ‘right’, of course. But ‘roverso’ does not ever mean ‘left’. It means ‘backhand’. A left-hander would strike a roverso from their right hand side. (Left hand side would be lato sinistro.) And the blow goes from you to the target. “Andare….de” means “To go…. from”. Not “to.” So you cannot reasonably interpret Fiore’s instruction as going with the true edge “to” the right side. This is standard Italian usage, and is consistent across all sources I’ve studied. Viggiani even goes off on a riff about how the forehand blow is more noble because it hits the left side of the opponent where his heart is. (Never mind his poor understanding of anatomy- the usage is consistent and clear.)

The cut to the throat after the break is a mezano simply because a sottano would get caught on the shoulder. To get to the throat, you have to cut horizontally. And the mezano is clearly illustrated as a horizontal cut to the throat. 

So the next step would be to have a look at why you’re having the trouble. You can see me doing a basic version of the breaking of the thrust from the left in this video:

You can of course flick the false edge across the throat from your right side- it works just fine. But mechanically, the true edge is stronger and more stable from that side. It’s also true that the roverso tondo described in the eighth play of the master of coda longa on horseback, done to the back of the opponent’s head, would be done with the true edge. But Fiore doesn’t call it a mezano.

I should also say that I can make perfectly good false edge cuts from left-side high guards (I’m a right-hander). And while it’s true that the zwerch is done the other way round, it’s only ever done with the hands above the head, and the sword opposing the opponent’s weapon from above, which changes the mechanics considerably.

I’ve shot a video for you of me doing the mezani from the break on both sides, and from posta di donna. You can find it here:

Please don’t share it at this stage. I made it with the blog post in mind, so it’s not addressed to you directly.

If that doesn’t sort it out for you, send me a short video, shot from the front (max 30 seconds, no talking required), of you doing the mezano the way I describe in the book, and I’ll trouble-shoot it for you.

It’s always a tricky moment when you have to point out a clear error in the student’s line of thought (in this case the translation of ‘roverso’ as ‘left’). It’s a test of their character. I’m glad to say that Dustin took it like a champ, and replied back saying that the technique is working much better now. He also mentioned that the key to making the forehand throat cut after the break from the left work properly for him was seeing how it related to the first part of the motions for the break and/or exchange from the right. I shot the video off-the-cuff, before breakfast, and threw that bit in because it just occurred to me at the time- and it turned out to be the most useful moment! You never can tell what will work for any given student.

So here are the takeaways:

1. For any interested Fiorista: “This is how Guy does mezani

2. For students who have done the reading/training/reasonable due-diligence: this is the sort of response you can reasonably expect from your teachers, and an insight into what they might actually be thinking when they do respond.

3. For teachers: beware the instinctive retreat into authority. It’s a chasm you may find it hard to climb out of.

[Update:] One reader of this post, Jukka Salmi in Finland, who has been a student of mine for many years and knows a lot more about mounted combat than I do emailed me with this comment:

I wholeheartedly agree with your interpretation on mezzani strikes, but I'd argue that even the tondo on horseback should be done with the false edge. If I recall correctly Fiore doesn't specify the edge used and a false edge cut would be more consistent with the overall mechanics regarding horizontal strikes in his system. But more importantly it has some significant advantages in said situation. With a false edge cut you can reach further and having the palm up you're not limiting the rotation of your sword arm. One can easily test how far behind them they can reach with raised arm palm down versus palm up. This makes a tangible difference when riding past one another and not stopping – a true edge cut easily falls short of the target. This can also be easily tested on a pell while walking or slowly jogging.
He raises a very good point. We have abundant examples of true-edge roverso tondo blows in the Bolognese, and it can certainly work, but Jukka's observation about measure does suggest that it's likely that this particular tondo should be done with the false edge.

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

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