The Sword Guy Podcast episode 71
Today’s episode is a bit different to the usual format. Dr Cornelius Berthold, who is a well-known historical fencing instructor in Hamburg, Germany, contacted me because he is doing a series of YouTube videos on the topic of tempo and had some questions for me.
We had never met or spoken before, but Cornelius very kindly agreed to have the discussion in the form of a podcast, so that you all can listen in to two absolute tempo geeks geeking out about tempo.
You can also support the show at Patreon.com/TheSwordGuy Patrons get access to the episode transcriptions as they are produced, the opportunity to suggest questions for upcoming guests, and even some outtakes from the interviews. Join us!
GW: OK, so what is it about Capoferro’s tempo? What are your thoughts?
CB: It started with this video series where you talk about tempo and timing issues in martial arts or in fencing, we have very simple stuff, like, for instance, your opponent raises their weapons and you go in with a thrust in that moment. So there's a simultaneous action. That's pretty easy. Most of us have experienced that. But then if you have only this basic idea about it and you tackle Capoferro and he says stuff like, “The motion of my adversary with his blade measures the stillness of the point of my sword.” This reads a bit wacky at first. A bit fuzzy or where it's really better to come to grips with it. And so I made a video where I try to unravel this and try to get behind, let's say, the terminologies of individual systems that each have their own ideas of how they define tempo, how they deal with rhythm or simultaneous actions, consecutive actions and so on. And so find out why we have these terminologies and these systems in the first place. And in a way, I promise to sort of explain what Capoferro means with these apparently very cryptic descriptions. OK, and for this I mean, at this point, I've basically finished the second video and I thought, OK, now I have to sort of squeeze in a short section to finally explain this because I promised it. And I think I got the gist of it. And so my take on this would be, he explains, tempo is something that happens either when someone is moving or someone is still. Probably not when both are still. But until that point, this is pretty much what you find in other Italian Renaissance rapier books about how they define this basic unit tempo.
GW: Have you read Viggiani’s Lo Schermo?
CB: Viggiani, no.
GW: OK to get to grips with how Capoferro is describing tempo, it really helps to have read Viggiani because in it he makes it absolutely explicit that the idea, the form, the framework is coming from Aristotle's books, Physics Seven and Eight, in which basically time is measured by motion and a body is either at rest or is in motion, and you measure the time between two units of rest. So you have the body at rest, then it moves, then it rests again. And that movement is the measurement of time, like maybe a pendulum with a pause at the end of each swing. And so that's where the idea of it being measurements of motion and stillness come from and where Viggiani explains how gaurds and blows relate. So a guard is a moment of stillness and a blow is a motion between two moments of stillness. And so, as Viggiani says, between two guards lies a blow and between two blows lies a guard. So that's the foundation behind what Capoferro is talking about.
CB: Yeah, this is also the reason why I assume that, in theory, if you have both fencers that are resting, then you have no effective tempo that is happening.
GW: Precisely. To my mind, we're talking about an Italian word which has multiple meanings when you translate them into English. One of them is “rhythm”, which you said before. Another one is “time”, absolutely. But it is not unreasonable to translate tempo in some places in Capoferro as a “motion done in measure”. And also as an “opportunity to strike” so there is tempo means there is an opportunity to strike. There is no tempo out of measure. So as soon as you're outside of measure, motions are not tempi because you can't take advantage of them. So when you look at it like that, a lot of his explanations become a lot more straightforward.
CB: It's actually quite interesting that Fabris is the one who explains that is called tempo like time because it's actually referring to duration, to the duration of an action.
GW: Although Capoferro explicitly contradicts that. He explicitly says it doesn't matter how long it is in real time, so long as if my opponent is standing still and I am in measure and I strike, if you remain still within that time, then my motion is done in tempo. Let me see if I can find it. I'm using Tom Leoni’s translation.
CB: I have to get a hold of it, I have one of the free ones.
GW: Yeah. You've using Swanger and Wilson.
CB: Exactly that one. The neatly formatted version.
GW: Yeah. Let me just dig that up on my screen because I do have it of course. My computer needs restarting, I think. Here we go. OK, so this is paragraph 50.
CB: Exactly, the square where he starts talking about tempo,
GW: This is the Swanger and Wilson transaction. “Chiefly it signifies a just length of motion or of stillness that I need in order to reach a definite end for some plan of mine without considering the length or shortness of that tempo, only that I finally arrive at that end.” So he is explicitly not talking about a certain number of objectively measured seconds or minutes. They didn't have milliseconds back then, but you get the idea. It's explicitly in relation to my opponent's actions. So if my strike arrives before the parry, my strike was done in time, whether it took seven minutes to do or whether it took three tenths of a second.
CB: That is correct, but I don't think there's any disagreement to Fabris here, because he explains that the word itself comes from duration. So he doesn't say it is an absolute duration either, so he also ties it to the kind of motion you do. And there is this interesting and not always solved discrepancy between explaining tempo first as defining the beginning and end of a motion that I do. And on the other hand, correlating that to what my opponent does. So basically, it's defined in a subjective way sometimes.
GW: It is subjective. Yeah.
CB: And on the other hand, what actually matters in a fight is that how my opponent can exploit it. So as a way to try to tackle this, I introduced this this concept of having like the subjective idea of a tempo. So how long I take for a certain action. So because of the biomechanics I use, the weapon I'm using, the kind of motion or weapon movement, for instance, it is, and what my opponent can do in the same time. So we actually have this, you can be stuck in a very long action, which is just one single movement to yourself. But if the opponent is able to do like two quick separate movements in the same time, then you have the problem of subjectively you have one tempo, but objectively and what matters in the fight, could be two tempi. And this is what Fabris does with his special kind of lunge.
GW: Capoferro talks about there are the tempi of your motions, like the half tempo, which is the strike to the sword arm, the single tempo, which is the lunge of the fixed foot. And then waht he calls a tempo and a half, which is what we would think of as a normal lunge with a front foot that is moving. I think Capoferro is unique in using tempi that way because theoretically, according to his own definitions, if a lunge is done in one motion, it is a single tempo. But he calls it a tempo and a half, basically when he's talking about your subjective motions, not when he's talking about your motions in relation to your opponent. And there are several places in the practical section of the book where he says, and you strike him with the increase of the foot, i.e. with a lunge or with a fixed foot, either way. And so, in other words, in that tempo that your opponent has given you, you have time to do either your one tempo lean, as I call it, or the one and a half tempo lunge. And you do the one that you need to do to get the job done. So yeah, you're right, there is this distinction between movements I do the measured only in relation to themselves and movements that I do that are measured only in relation to my opponent's actions.
CB: And the interesting thing is Fabris does have a two tempi lunge, as I’ve coined it. We can talk about it later. The interesting thing about Capoferro and how I think I now understand you, as an expert on Capoferro, you're probably able to correct me if I'm totally off, but this is the idea of he uses this example, so I'm approaching the opponent, I think I'm trying to get into a narrow measure. That's the example he uses, and my opponent fixes himself. So he's resting. He does nothing.
GW: He’s standing still.
CB: And this is why he uses this example. So with his resting body, the opponent measures my approach from the point of my sword that is moving forward. And it makes sense to me if you really understand it, as this is what tempo is as long as they are resting and I'm moving this one tempo, as soon as they start to do something, this tempo has to end. And in this sense, the resting body has measured my coming forward and now it has ended. If I now continue moving forward, I have the problem that if they react to what I'm doing, which is the reason why they are not resting anymore. Now there's the chance that they do something that I cannot react to if I just continue whatever I was doing. So the end of the resting period basically is the interesting thing, because he says, OK, my tempo of moving forward has to end there as well. And then it's a just tempo because of these two tempi lining up, basically. And if theirs end and they start to do something, I have to end my tempo, too, and have to adjust to whatever they're doing. And this is how I interpret this relatively cryptic sounding statement. So I think it’s a way of expressing that tempi, actually I have a problem with this theory, Fabris does the same thing, but they have this theory that tempi have to line up. So I only can use so much time as the opponent is giving me. And one of them has ended and the other has to end as well. And then you do something else for it to make sense and for it to be martially reasonable.
GW: The thing to remember about Capoferro is that he is not the clearest writer in the world. He really isn't and honestly, I would have to say he's probably not the clearest thinker in the world either. So it's tempting to get kind of sucked into the theoretical implications of what he may have meant. What he actually says is relatively straightforward, if my opponent is standing still and I take that tempo in which to strike them, if they start moving during my tempo, in other words during my attack, then I'm going to have to do something else. And when you explain that to a class full of fencers, it's perfectly straightforward and obvious. It's when he phrases it in this long and complicated way that it becomes a little bit obscure. But I think that's the phrasing, not the idea behind the phrase.
CB: But there was the nice challenge, I thought, like there must be something behind the phrasing. I would think probably you agree it would be totally cheap to just dismiss it as overly convoluted.
GW: Can you dig up the exact passage? And I will also dig up my scans of Capoferro and I will make sure that the translation is correct. Because I should have got this ready before, but I didn’t.
CB: Oh, no problem. Well, I think it sort of makes sense to me now. There was one section in the Swanger translation where I wasn't really sure about the phrasing in English. If we stay in the first half of paragraph 50, of section 50, where we have this example and I'm just going to read it out loud. “We posed the example that I moved myself to seek the measure and that I go very slowly to find it.” So there’s this point saying, OK, it doesn't matter how much speed actually is involved. So it's just about beginning and ending with the opponent does. “And then my adversary is as much fixed of body so that I find it.” So that I find it probably meaning he is fixed with his body until I found it.
GW: No, he's moving himself to seek the measure and he goes slowly to find the measure and his adversary is as much fixed of body that I find the measure. OK.
CB: Yes, but the process of finding the measure is like, so when this is finished, the adversary must not have moved.
GW: That's right. So the adversary basically stands still while you get into measure, which people do all the time. So that’s clear enough so far. So it continues.
CB: And then he basically gives this explanation that we already discussed.
GW: “Although I've arrived somewhat late, nonetheless, not at all can it jeopardise my plan because I have arrived in tempo, considering that as much the length of time as I am myself in motion. Precisely so much that my adversary fixed himself.” So basically this is a complicated way of saying my opponent stands still and I walk towards them until I'm in measure and they stay still right until the point where I am in measure. So their standing still is equal to the length of time that I took to get into measure.
CB: Yeah, pretty much.
GW: I'd say exactly.
CB: And I think in this respect, he doesn't get any more complicated than that. I mean, he does give the examples that you already mentioned of one and a half tempi and the one tempo and so on.
GW: Yeah, that's later on though.
CB: Getting closer to the opponent and then he takes up this stillness and motion example once again in paragraph fifty three, where you almost have basically the same example a second time.
GW: Again, Capoferro is definitely of the opinion that if it's worth saying once, it's probably worth saving three times. Don’t get me wrong, I love him. It's one of my favourite treatises of them all, but one of the things I like about it is he's a somewhat kind of quirky and indirect writer sometimes.
CB: What I actually find very likeable about him is this concept, if I understood it correctly, because it's not the main source I'm working with for Italian rapier, but that he is aware of, if you have a theory of fencing where things work in a certain way because everyone is doing the right thing. Which also means certain things cannot work. Like feints, for instance, a feint is a motion, it’s a tempo. So theoretically, it shouldn't work.
GW: Yeah. A feint is a motion done in measure and therefore a tempo. And therefore if my opponent feints I hit them and if they're in measure, I just hit them. And of course I would never fall for a feint because I am a theoretically perfect fencer. But then of course, throughout the rest of the book, I mean, people bang on about this a lot, it’s one of those oh, Capoferro is an idiot because he says you can't feints and then he shows you a bunch of feints. But no, he shows you the theoretically perfect art in which people do not make mistakes. And then he shows you the practise or the practical use in which people do make mistakes and therefore are vulnerable to things like feints. So it's not a contradiction at all, it’s the two sides of the coin. It's the theory and the practise.
CB: And I think that's what I like about him, because my approach to fighting in general is relatively systematic. So what I like about it is it's like coming up with a system of this idea of fighting. I mean, a martial arts system is like an idea of how you fight. So it's very theoretical or ideal anyway in the first place. And so, getting all these categories and things in place and being aware of it and having the clarity, at least in your mind, whatever you do practically is another cup of tea altogether. But so having this is something that I really like. So I totally sympathise with this approach, quite frankly.
GW: Yeah, and it's normal. Every fencing system is a rationalisation of what actually happens. So people fight and you then take your experience of being involved in that fight or watching that fight. And from that you work out how it works and then you take that theory and go, hang on, if I did this instead, that should work better. And then you apply that to the fight. And sure enough, it works better, although it doesn't actually work better because you didn't take these other things into account. But there's a useful definition of art, as probably used by people like Fiore up until quite late in Italian history, where art is natural human actions ordered into a system so they can be studied and taught. And so they're always after the fact, they’re rationalisations after the fact. So you've got Capoferro describing this theory of tempo and how it works. So we all know that very few people just stand completely still, ever. But the thing is, are they standing still enough for that to count as a stillness from Capoferro’s point of view? Probably. Or possibly. Well, it depends on the example, but what counts as a movement? Well, their breathing doesn't, necessarily, because it's just the chest moving up and down. It's a movement done in measure, but it's not a tempo.
CB: Unless, of course, you have an opponent who manages to exploit your breathing.
GW: And there's a wonderful description in Josh Waitzkin’s book, The Art of Learning, he's a world class push hands player. By world class. I mean, he won the World Cup in push hands in his weight division in both the fixed foot and the moving foot variations. There are two kinds of push hands, and he won them both at the same competition, which is very unusual. Anyway, he describes exploiting the tempo of a blink. Because you're that close and as their eyes start to close, there is less information going into their brain and you can do stuff while their eye readjusts to the light as the blink ends. You could say that was bullshit, but actually I have never heard a world class push hands person say that was bullshit. I've never exploited the tempo of somebody’s blink, but at that level of competition, that's certainly not impossible. But I think what Capoferro is getting on about is a motion done in measure is a tempo if it is sufficiently large that it can be reasonably exploited. So twiddling your little finger of your left hand while you're doing single rapier with the right hand doesn't count as a tempo, because you can't reasonably exploit it. So even though we have this kind of theory as to what exact actions or lack of actions fit into that particular box, I think we have a bit of wiggle room. What counts as a tempo to a really experienced fencer is probably not a tempo to beginner as they have no hope of exploiting such a small action, but a more experienced person does.
CB: And this is one of the things that has become like a hobby horse. So I could talk about this tempi and timing stuff for hours. So it's pretty annoying to anyone else I imagine.
GW: You're in the right place, because I have nothing else to do today, you carry on.
CB: That's great. Well I still got some work to do later. I'm totally fine to do it now. Probably I'm going to start with asking you about a Capoferro’s one and a half tempi, because if the idea is that a single action is one tempo and the opponent could be doing something in that same time frame, for instance, this also implies that as soon as a tempo ends, you adjust, or as soon as you do more than one tempo, you have a resting phase again because you come to an end with one motion. And preferably you will tailor this in a way that you're not in a motion when the opponent does something, but instead when they do something that could be dangerous to you, you're in a position where you can act and react, preferably in such a motion of stillness. So to do a cross strike, does Capoferro indicate what you do if something happens in these one and a half tempi, or does he just assume that you only do one and a half tempi actions if the opponent is giving you more than one tempo to act in? Or does he use the example that you can do something, that you can start one and a half tempi action and when the opponent does something in the middle, you change plans, which, of course, means that whole thing you did was not one long tempo, but it was subdivided.
GW: I don't think that there is any reasonable subdivision of the lunge, as in the attack with the moving front foot. In the sense of yes, OK, he describes it as tempo and a half because it's longer, but in that paragraph, which is paragraph fifty one, I believe. Let me just check that.
CB: Yeah, this is the one.
GW: He's talking about the extension of my arm is a half tempo. The attack of the fixed foot is a full tempo. And the lunge, because it's longer, is a tempo and a half. But strictly speaking, according to the rules of tempo, all of those are actually just one tempo of varying lengths. Because it is sometimes useful to think about how long a tempo will take or how long a motion will take he divides it that way. But there is nowhere in the book that I found that he uses a lunge explicitly because it takes more time and therefore you can do other things while you're doing it. In modern fencing with much lighter weapons, there are plenty of examples of, for example, with an accelerating lunge doing a feint one-two with a foil. And you're doing all of that while the front foot is in the air. That sort of thing is just never done with the rapier. I mean, I'm sure it can be done in theory, but it's not in any of the sources I've encountered because the weapon is longer and heavier, the lunge tends to be a much shorter motion, even though the lunge itself travels as far as it reasonably can, your front foot is only in the air for the shortest possible period of time, with Capoferro. It is different with Fabris. Fabris has a much longer movement of the front foot. But I think it's useful to separate his half tempo, full tempo, tempo and a half when he's describing your body motions, separate that out from how he's using terms like single tempo, two tempi and half tempo and contratempo later on when he's talking about doing things to the opponent, because he only lunges when he has a tempo in which to strike. And there is no indication anywhere in the book that you have a special extra big tempo in which you do a lunge. Because most of the actions are done with some kind of moving forward and the foot is either fixed or it's not.
CB: I mean, if I remember correctly, most examples he gives are when the opponent lunges. And this automatically means that you have time for a lunge yourself. Right? If I remember that correctly.
GW: Yeah. I mean, the general pattern of the book is your opponent is in guard, you stringer them on one side or the other, forcing them to act in a certain way. And that action is usually to attack by disengage. And when they attack by disengage, you counter it with your prepared counter, which is usually done in a single tempo. I mean, he talks about in plate seven, you stringer on the inside, so after they disengage and attack over your arm and you parry and riposte in one single motion and in solo tempo, parry and riposte in a single motion to strike them through the left eye. But if they're being a clever person, they would have disengaged by way of a feint and as you came to strike, they would parry and riposte in two tempi. So because they're already committed to a motion, their disengage with their feint. As you act, you can't counterattack into that action, you have to then parry and riposte in two tempi.
CB: The disengage in itself would be too short as a motion for a full thrust.
GW: Yeah. His explanation then of his primo tempo is you are in measure and you strike. His due tempi, two tempi, is you do two actions and he never goes further. I mean, some fencing sequences are a lot more than two actions, but he never defines anything as more than two actions. The half tempo is just when your opponent is coming forward and you stab him in the arm as you step back. Which again, is Capoferro being, shall we say, idiosyncratic in his use of terminology, because for Viggiani, a half tempo is a half blow. So instead of it going from, for example, second ward down to third, it stops in fifth. I need to revise my Viggiani, obviously, because I can't remember his numberings for the guards. But the point is, if it comes above your right shoulder to down to your left hip, if you stop in the middle, there is a separate guard. But the half blow that goes from above the shoulder to the middle is called a half tempo. And Vadi uses the term differently too. It is not unusual for there to be variations to how, particularly mezzo tempo, but for some reason, mezzo tempo is one that everyone does differently. Pretty much everybody agrees on what a tempo is. But half tempo is the kind of bastard stepchild that gets fiddled about with by whoever's writing the book.
CB: Actually, it reminds me of this. I think there's a little joke or a riddle thing you do with children when you say, OK, a man needs two hours to dig a hole. How many hours will he need to dig half a hole? This absurd idea that half a hole is not a hole. So if man deals half a blow, I mean, it's also tempo, sure it’s a tempo.
GW: Yeah. So the phrasing can catch you out at that point because we as modern people with scientific training and what have you, when you're writing an explanatory text, we like a single word to mean a single thing and only that thing. But half tempo can mean several different things. Tempo means several different things. And Capoferro was not writing at a time where that sort of level of absolute consistency would be expected.
CB: Although I would give him credit for being aware of it, because especially in this paragraph fifty one where he's making this division between like half a tempo, one tempo, one and a half tempi. He is talking about it right at the beginning, that this concerns like understanding tempo in a sense of quickness. So not just the abstract idea of everything between beginning and end of a single motion.
GW: But he's aware that in that sense, yes, he's talking about tempo, as in the tempo of a piece of music. How fast is it played.
CB: Sort of absolute. No, not entirely just relative.
GW: Yeah. Well like modern tempo in music usually has a beats per minute typed out on top of the stage. So you set your metronome and that will tell you exactly how fast that composer or the arranger wants you to play that bit of music. They didn't do it quite that way back in the day. Actually, I really want to get Andrew Lawrence-King onto my podcast to talk about tempo because he's a baroque and historical harpist, seriously into the academic side of it, he is a professor with a PhD and all that kind of stuff. And he's also seriously into the playing side of it because he's actually a professional musician who goes around the world giving concerts. And that's how he actually makes his living. But he has gone into insane depths. He's one of us, he can literally talk about rhythm in say, 16th century music, he can talk about it for an hour straight without drawing breath. And it's entirely listenable to. It's entirely interesting and it's entirely coherent and consistent. Maybe I should also introduce you because the two of you could have a chat about tempo.
CB: Oh, absolutely. One of my colleagues is a musicologist. Like music historian, more working with the Italian trecento music. So a bit of what Fiore might have listened to. I actually don't know what the English term is for this historically informed musical practise.
GW: Historically informed performance or historically informed practise.
CB: Something like that. And in terms of methodology they're pretty close to what we do. So they have this elusive goal or a subject that they're studying. They have sources that could be considered incomplete by today's standards and then they have to analyse them, analyse the language, crosschecks with different sources, have the problem of how much can I take from another source if I don't have anything to fill the gaps in my own source. How far as that's feasible, when it is dangerous, and they had like 20 years head start or something on the HEMA community.
GW: Hang on, hang on a second. I need to find my PhD. If I remember rightly, I got a quote from Andrew basically saying that we do it better than they do. Andrew said something about how the way we go about it in historical martial arts is a lot more systematic and formalized, than, he says, the historically informed practice folk do. And. I probably shouldn't spend time leafing through this wretched thing, you've written something and published it and got it out and you just forget absolutely everything about it.
CB: It's like one of the academics and for sort of a fun thing we have in Germany, Erik Burkhart, for instance, he wrote a few pieces on the epistemological problems of researching lost martial arts and so on and about not being too comfortable with this idea of “recreating the art of my ancestors” and stuff like that. And he just pointed out that even in music, for instance, they have become much more careful in how they describe their practise of what that is, like a modern idea of doing something very much inspired by research and so on, and not just reviving or reconstructing something and using these very, very sincere terms, if you will.
GW: Yeah. And of course, historically inspired music, if you're using accurately reproduced instruments and you're doing your best to follow the music as it was written down and you figured out how that notation works and so on, and it sounds like the descriptions of the music that you've read or whatever, I mean, no one has a recording from the 14th century or whatever, but you can probably get pretty close. Anyway, I found the quote from Andrew, OK, “As Professor Andrew Lawrence-King wrote in Links to Early Music…” I just love this bit, it’s on page forty three of my thesis, “As in historically informed performance of music, actions in historical swordsmanship are based on period treatises. Best practise in the teaching and performance of historical swordsmanship is rather ahead of today's early music in evidence based teaching, in uniting academic theory with practical performance, in the use of historically precise terminology and in the detailed study of specific sources.” That’s so cool, and he goes on to say, “While early musicians studies say early 17th century style in general, swordsmanship scholars will base an entire practical method on one specific source distinguishing between fighting Capoferro style or Fabris style. The comparison would be to distinguish between the fundamentals of continuo playing for Caccini and Monteverdi. There you go. So, yeah, it's nice to know that some academics in the historical music side of things are actually noticing what we're doing and going, that's pretty good.
CB: And it's probably not easy to answer if we have it easier, because we could say we have one more criterion that whatever we come up with has to work marginally. But even that is a very blurry area.
GW: Sure. But is less blurry than does it sound nice or not, you know, if I play my harp like this and I think it sounds wonderful and everyone else thinks it sounds like absolute shit, then it could still be accurate because taste changes. But if every time I do this technique this particular way I get stabbed in the face, then it's probably not exactly what the source intended. We have that sort of objective testing ground.
CB: Certainly, if you have these strong examples, then absolutely, yes, but I think it's more like a question of spectrum and not of like actually different. But it's great that you mentioned Capoferro and Fabris because then I can pull you back into the lunge discussion.
GW: Sorry, I’m easily distracted.
CB: No, that is absolutely fine. Are you familiar with a lunge being two tempi, according to Fabris? Does it ring a bell?
GW: Honestly, I haven't read Fabris for a while. Do you have the source there?
CB I can summarise it, because it's one of my favourites.
GW: By all means do summarise it. I assume that you are using the Tom Leoni translation? It helps if I'm looking at the same book because sometimes a word here or there makes all the difference.
CB: Yeah, I think it's the chapter on measures. It's one we have on a double page on the right hand side, lower side. He has a list of points, one, two, three. I think it's very much at the beginning.
GW: Explanation of the two measures, the larga and the stretta, on the way to gain one and the other with little danger. Chapter five.
CB: And then somewhere on the bottom right corner, there should be a list of three things. If you had said I've never heard of a two tempi lunge in Fabris, then this would be perfectly fine because it's really, really hard to find any footage of rapierists from our community who fight according to Fabris who actually do that. So you will read that he says something like if you are in the mesura larga, the wide measure, and you want to go to a close measure, stretta measure, and the opponent is resting the danger is considerable. So this is Tom Leoni’s wording. And the basic explanation is, even if you have controlled their blade, you have gained their blade with the stringer. If you then try to do one of those like cliche classical lunges, like lifting your foot, pushing your body forward and landing and so on. And he says that this is actually two tempi, lifting the foot is one tempo, putting it down is another. So when I first read this, I thought this was just rapierists being extra fussy and trying to be very precise, and I don't know if this has any relevance for a fight. So the question is, of course, is there a way to check that, to come up with an experiment. If you have someone in wide measure. So obviously, what exactly wide measure is can change a bit depending on the person using it and the weapons and so on. Then there's always a bit of leeway.
GW: For our purposes we’re talking you’re in measure to strike with the lunge.
CB: Yeah, it basically means you put your foot forward. If you go by the image it's actually not that much. It's a foot length to one and a half foot lengths forward and they lean in with your body and then you work in a way that the tip of your rapier at least exits the opponent's body. So it's interesting because for instance, for a while we trained with only making contact. But you always have rather significant penetration lengths.
GW: This is the thing. This is the hardest thing about rapier fencing to reconstruct, in my opinion. What you're supposed to do is run your sword through their body or through their head. So there's like palmos sticking out the back. And we just can't do that. Basically I think the compromise we come up with is we use blades that are a little bit too short and we hit perhaps a little bit harder than we really should. And that's kind of where we compromise. But it is really, really hard to practise in the proper measure. Same with smallsword. Smallsword is fought really close in the books and everyone fences it like in foil, really far away. Because again, they are going for a touch not to actually slaughter their opponent. Oh, I found your section, shall I just read it out?
CB: Oh, please, go ahead.
GW: OK, so this is Tom Leoni’s translation of Fabris: “If you are in the mesura larga and want to gain the mesura stretto while the opponent is static in his guard, the danger is considerable. As soon as you lift your foot to move it forward, the opponent may use that as a tempo in which to wound you while pulling back out of danger in the mesura larga, thus nullifying any advantage you try to take. The reason for this is that a foot cannot be moved in less than two tempi. One to lift it and the other to put it back on the ground, some, to get around the shortcoming slide the foot forward without lifting it. This may be easily performed in the salle, but in the street would cause you to stumble on one of the many impediments. Thus, it is better to always lift it carefully, making sure that nothing will trip you up.” OK, that's the paragraph you're talking about, right?
CB: Exactly, and he actually continues to try to give these examples, I think what you can do and what options you have once the foot is in the air. And if you want, you can read that as well, because this is one short section in the introduction to Fabris, so you have all these hundreds of practical plays. And I'm not sure if he ever comes back to this and ties his actual instructions back to this, but I think this is, in my opinion, one of the most important parts in his introduction, because it says a lot about how he understands certain body movements like foot movements.
GW: Yeah, OK. So I'll just read the rest of that section: “The safe way to gain the mesura stretta is to first ensure that you are in a strong counter posture, then establish the weight of your body upon the left foot, cautiously lifting the right one to move forward. At that point…” In other words, you're hovering with the foot in the air.
GW: “…if the opponent takes that tempo to strike, you can use the contratempo to parry and counter, while the right foot and the body will stretch forth, farther than you had originally intended when you first move forward. This may even allow you to reach him in case he breaks the measure.” Next bullet point: “If, while you are moving your foot forward, as described above, the opponent does not move, you arrive in the mesura stretta while keeping your body completely over your left foot so as to maintain it in the same location as before you stepped in from the mesura larga. Once you are in this situation, you can strike any opening the opponent offers you with just bending your body forward. At this point, it does not even matter if the opening originates from a slight movement of the opponent or not.” And last bullet point: “Lastly, if the opponent breaks the measure after you gain the mesura stretta, you would still be within the mesura larga. You should therefore wound by bending your body and shifting the weight on the outstretched right foot, then retreat by pulling back with both feet, one after the other.”
CB: So this is the crucial point because it actually says a lunge is two tempi. And this is contrary to even what you would find in Olympic fencing. But it's a clear manifestation, I think, of this awareness of what the opponent does while you move is something that you really have to take into consideration. To do a cross check basically, he says that if you gain the opponent's blade and you're so far away in the mesura larga that you just have to move one foot forward slightly by a foot’s length, for one and a half foot’s length, and then lean forward and strike and have a healthy penetration with your blade, so to speak. And so if Fabris was wrong, it would mean that I couldn't take any fencer or give them this instructions, OK, if the other one starts lunging at you, you just defend. Because the defence might be like one tempo of like just pushing the blade aside, like a windscreen wiper basically, and then you have a bit of reaction time going on. So basically, if have gained someone’s blade and they do nothing, you should be able to hit if Fabris is wrong.
GW: No, if he's right.
CB: No, no. If he's wrong about this, then your thrust should be fast enough, like in one tempo the lunge should be fast enough that you just hit someone who's blade you've already controlled by having a counter posture. And you will find that actually even an unexperienced fighter can displace this lunge easily.
GW: Except no, because if you stringered the blade properly, they really can’t. Up against somebody of my own level, yeah, that's true, but if I'm up against a beginner, if I have control of the blade and I'm close enough to lunge. And I’m a Capoferro person and my feet are further apart and my front is only moving its own length when I’m lunging, in theory, at least if I'm doing it properly. There is no way they can establish a dominant position in my play strong enough to parry while I'm doing that. And in fact, most advanced fencers can't do it either, because if your initial starting position is sufficiently strong, then the motion that is required to gain control of your opponent's blade actually takes longer than the lunge. Sounds counterintuitive, but that's been my experience.
CB: The thing is, I've experienced it certainly the other way around, and it was one explanation. If I just take you up on this “how quickly can I move this and that part” example, I would say if I want to displace something, I just pull my blade backward to get back into the foible, the weak part of the opponent’s blade and just push it aside. And actually, I think that movement, which is basically just arm movement, is quicker than this lunging forward.
GW: It should be. It absolutely should be. But firstly, if your position is correctly structured, if my position is correctly structured over your blade, it is difficult to move my point aside because I'm supporting the edge of my blade with my position. So that's the first thing. Second thing is reaction time. If you are lying in wait to parry my lunge then yes maybe. But if we have to take your two tenths of a second reaction time into account, a well executed lunge, which doesn't take very much time as it doesn't travel very far right should land before you have a chance to parry.
CB: The thing is, this can work to some extent if you have a lunge that actually like hits before the foot touches the ground.
GW: Yeah. Normally the lunge will hit slightly before or as the front foot hits the ground.
CB: So this is basically like you would experience it in modern Olympic fencing as well.
GW: Yeah, but it's a much shorter lunge, so it takes less time.
CB: Yeah, they're different. You have a few ways to tweak things here and there. Like the step length, as you mentioned, is one thing, if you take a step at all, because if you do Capoferro you also can lean back and then just push your body forward without moving stuff. This quite a quick thing. But the interesting thing is, if you do a lunge that basically hits and thereby finishes the tempo before the foot lands counts, maybe only just as one tempo until the hit, but it has the second tempo where you actually land, a tempo of recovery, if you will, or something like that.
GW: OK, well, I would say the tempo of recovery is what happens when you come back. OK, it’s worth just thinking about the theoretical tempo of rest in between two motions. So in the theory of tempo, that is kind of popular in the early 17th century, right between two motions lies a tempo of rest, which means that there's no such thing as a parry, riposte and two tempi because there's a parry, a tempo of rest and then a riposte. But anyone who's actually done it knows that the parry and riposte, even if it is two tempi, there is no moment in which the sword is actually stationary. It's not in one tempo because it goes left and then it goes forward, or it goes right and then it goes forward, as opposed to going diagonally forward, as you would with the parry and riposte in a single tempo. If you got a really high spec slow motion camera, there may actually be technically a tempo of rest, but I don't know. But the subjective experience of it is it is two motions. And there is no tempo of rest in between. And that's exactly what's described by Capoferro where he says there’s the parry, which is one motion and the riposte, which is a second motion. He doesn't say it's a parry and riposte in three tempi, it’s a parry and riposte in two.
CB: In my experience, even if I try to be really, really fast with my lunge and I think I really have control over the opponents weapon so the stringer shouldn't be a problem. I’ve found that even if I go really, really fast, really explosively leaping forward, almost, like harnessing all what I've learnt in Olympic sabre fencing, basically. It still might not be enough. And to me, this made absolute sense, what Fabris says. So he says that the danger is considerable. I can't do it in one motion because it would be too long. In the way he does a strike, from the measure he describes and with the idea of, for instance, finishing the lunge with the touch and the foot making contact, for instance, as opposed to having first to touch and then the foot landing. He says that the opponent would still have time to do something against it, and this is my interpretation of my approach to martial arts, I should only commit to an action if I'm very much certain that it will succeed so I shouldn't be lunging at someone if there's a chance that they destroy it or even to do suicide.
GW: Yeah, and this is why the usual thing is once you've got into measure when you’re stringering, your opponent is forced to move. And it's that motion that is your tempo to strike. So in Capoferro it is usually your opponent’s disengage.
CB: But this is the easier option. So I think the interesting thing is how does the system work? If you have this lurking fencer, who's just waiting for you to lunge so he can just displace you.
GW: OK, here's something else that's worth taking into consideration. People holding sharp swords tend to be a lot more hesitant than people holding blunt ones, wearing fancy masks, right? Not always true. Sometimes the fear makes people rash, but it is not uncommon for people who are holding a sharp sword and facing a sharp sword to be much more cautious about whether they commit to anything or not, and when they do commit, they tend to commit to a shorter action. Because the consequences of failure are death. So that actually makes Fabris’s stuff even more interesting. Before I forget, this section from Fabris that reminded me of Plate 17 and 19 from Capoferro which are the Scanso del pie dritto and the Scanso della vita. The Scanso del pie dritto, your opponent attacks your stringer on the outside. They disengage and strike on the inside. As they do that, you step your front foot sideways out of the way and you stab them. And in a Scanso della vita, it has the same beginning, and when they disengage and attack, for all intents and purposes, the same way. You, instead of moving your front foot out of the way, you move your back foot after the way and stab them in the throat or wherever at the same time. Which begs the question, why would you do one or the other? Because there's nothing in the text to tell you to do one or the other. But here's the thing. Getting into measure involves stepping, which is done usually front foot, back foot, front foot, back foot. And here's the thing. If your opponent disengages to strike as your front foot is in the air or moving, as the front foot lands, it's the back foot that is free to move. And so you're going to hit them with this Scanso della vita. But if they are either significantly earlier or significantly later and your back foot is in the air, as you as your back foot is coming up to finish the step, as the back foot hits the ground, it is fixed. It's very, very difficult to move a foot in the middle of a step, but instead, your front foot is free to move out of the way. So that, to my mind, is a related idea to what Fabris is talking about. Because what you can do as your front foot is coming up off the ground is different to what you can do when it is on the ground. And how your opponent can use that, because both of these techniques have counters, and if you if you want your opponent to do a Scanso del pie dritto, you better damn well time your disengage so that their front foot is free to move.
CB: So from how you describe it makes absolute sense to me then. And the interesting thing is Fabris’s speciality of this proceeding with the resolution, like walking with natural steps, even though most of my students don't call this natural, but towards the opponent and then just running the rapier through them because you are able to actually take all the time.
GW: You’re talking about book two?
CB: Yeah, book two. This is also like basing this on this idea. So every time one foot is in the air, you have these short resting periods or the motion is so slow that it basically counts as resting and then you just put one foot down and simultaneously put the other one up. So you just have a very quick, short duration, where actually something like ground contact works and then you have the foot in the air, which means you're able to react and the principle is used also in his fixed foot lunge. The stesa di pie fermo which refers to the left foot, I think, in this case.
GW: You know when I said Capoferro was idiosyncratic? Capoferro the strike of the fixed foot, the front foot is fixed, neither the foot moves and you basically just throw your weight onto the front foot, but in Fabris and in Giganti, the strike of the fixed foot, the back foot is fixed. Instead of passing as a normal person would walk down the street, your back foot is fixed and your front foot moves. Because that's a slightly unnatural action or some kind of artificial action it is called the strike of the fixed foot. Capoferro is again using a term differently to his contemporaries. I love Capoferro. He's great. He is not afraid to be different.
CB: Sorry I didn't point that out. So Fabris is referring to the left foot. And these are basically the two modes of attack he describes like passing, which is again, getting very, very close and wrestling the opponent down if necessary. Which I like, by the way, because it makes it abundantly clear that rapier fencing is not just Olympic epee fencing with heavier weapons. And this thing with the floating foot. This principle of keeping the front foot so spesa in aria is something that is used also in a German language book from the Fabris tradition probably written by Heinrich von Felder and was recently edited and translated by Reinier van Noort and Jan Shaeffar. And they use this principle a lot. So you can easily overread it in Fabris, because it's just this short section in the introduction. But they actually use it a lot and they still use it in the second half of the 17th century. Transitional rapier lessons, basically. So things like you secure the opponent’s blade, you lift the front foot and then either nothing happens, you thrust or immediately after lifting the foot, they do something. You react a certain way. Or quite late after lifting the foot off immediately for thrusting, they do something, you do something else. And so they basically have three different possible actions and not even considering the opponent breaking measure to do.
GW: That absolutely depends on you lifting that foot relatively slowly and doing it deliberately. OK, I'm lifting my foot up, I'm thinking about lunging. So this is not an explosive, exploiting a tempo kind of lunge. This is this is a lunge intended to draw some kind of specific counter response.
CB: In a sense, it has to be so for it to be manageable. I mean, obviously, you can still do this quickly because I think the making your decision is a pretty straight forward thing. So either have your plan A and if they do something, you just do plan B, but you don't have to wait. That's the interesting thing. So you still proceed. But you have this short floating phase, basically. The foot is literally floating, but you still have this sort of transitional phase where you're resting and something happens, you react to it or not. So you can do it very quickly. But you are absolutely correct. It's not like you can do in Olympic fencing where you do a very long explosive lunge. And of course, the weapon is so light and you can handle them with your wrist easily. You can do like a last second defence thing in between, that wasn't planned. So that's the interesting thing. And in this Heinrich von Felder text, which itself is, I think also like early or first half of the 17th century, they call this particular secret in fencing, keeping the front foot in the air. And I think this might have an understanding why I've never seen any other Italian rapier teacher do it like that. So they suggest that this way of fighting, this way of preparing an attack, is nothing that you find everywhere.
GW: Well, sure. It requires a very high level of skill and it requires you to be completely in control of yourself. And one of the hardest things about teaching, particularly modern sport fencers how to do rapier is getting them to get all of that weight on the back foot and the thing is you can't do any of that floating foot stuff if your weight is 50/50, you have to have your weight entirely on the back foot.
CB: It sort of depends. If you if you flip into to the glossary of the Tom Leoni translation of Fabris, he does give an illustration of how he interpreted that. There are two photos of it and he actually really leans back when lifting the front foot.
GW: But, yeah, I wouldn't do that.
CB: The thing is, it is like 15 years old or so. But I think you don't really do that because you make this decision in a split second and basically you can already fall forward and just react depending on situation so we don't really move anything else. What is important is, of course, that the rest of the body remains still. That is something we find in the sources. So you just move from foot first and then you react.
GW: Both Capoferro and Fabris bang on about your weight being on your left foot.
CB: But in Capoferro, it's much more weight on the on rear foot, so perhaps you have it partially.
GW: He explicitly talks about it here in this section.
CB: Yeah, yeah, you have it more. But it's the other thing. It's still more severe in Capoferro, for instance, judging by the illustrations.
GW: OK, I think what it is, is that in Capoferro, it's done all the time and in Fabris, it is done specifically for this. So, for example, the safe way to gain the mesura stretta is to first ensure that you are in a strong counter guard, then establish the weight of your body upon the left foot. So it may not already be there in your counter guard but you have to get it there before you can cautiously lift the right foot to move forward before you can pick up your front foot. Now, with Capoferro, of course, it is already on the left foot.
CB: This could be an explanation. I mean, in general, Fabris is very easy on the knees and much more intense on the back.
GW: Yeah, Fabris doesn't help my lower back any, but my legs are used to Capoferro now.
CB: OK, well, I'm lucky I got my legs trained in like 15 years of sports fencing and having forty five minutes of footwork each session and so on.
GW: That really does help. OK, so are there any other Capoferro uses of the term “tempo” that you need to discuss before we finish up?
CB: I'm pretty confident that we've covered it, or at least I think that I sort of got the gist. And to come back to the original idea of why I wrote to you in the first place, I think the explanation I've written together for my video makes sense. And if not, then future scholars of Italian Renaissance rapier are free to criticise it and come up with other ways to do it. So basically I wanted to have, because I'm not a Capoferro person, I wanted to make sure that I'm not talking complete nonsense or do one of those typical mistakes of not having read the last but one chapter where these things are explained in more detail. And so I asked one person that I knew was doing a Capoferro and that was you. So thank you very much for discussing this with me.
GW: Oh, my pleasure. You know, I can get together and talk the minutia and arcana of fencing terminology any time. OK, so we didn't we didn't get into contratempo at all. Are you comfortable with that?
CB: It should be fine. I mean, contratempo is like going into the tempo while they do something offensive. If I got this correctly.
GW: Yeah, they attack and you strike, which is really pretty much every action in Capoferro is really kind of contratempo according to his own terms. But he doesn't actually describe them as contratempo. If I remember rightly, he talks about contratempo explicitly on plate 11. Let me just check that, make sure I'm talking bollocks. Yeah, plate 11, I think. Yeah, you are going to strike me, contratempo, during his approach. So it's worth just kind of reading through plate 11 to make sure you've got contratempo nice and solid.
CB: OK, I'll give this a read in a moment. Yeah, I mean, it was always interesting that, basically as a trained fencer. Well, in my understanding and my overly theoretical and you still have to train properly to make it work approach to fighting. I mean, every action you do is in a tempo. So contratempo is just this particular idea of they attack you and you use their tempo to attack them. But if they do disengage, which is not, per se offensive, you can use that as well and steal the idea of using their movement. And if they rest for some reason, you can advance. Resting is a bit difficult, basically because the tempo is as long as their reaction time, if you will. But it also is like going into tempo. That's what I like about it, because nothing in your fencing should be arbitrary or unwillingly done. Theoretically, the ideal fencer does everything deliberately. Every short movement of their weapons, of their body, when they lift a foot, when they put it down, should be done in the right moment with the certainty that it will succeed.
GW: Yeah, and that absolutely is the art. It's not necessarily always the practise.
CB: Yeah, but it’s a nice point of reference, I think, I mean, I have something to strive for.
GW: Yes, exactly. It is a worthy ideal to strive for. Perfect.