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Tag: capoferro

Creating a working syllabus is hard. Where do you start? What comes next? How do you know when you’re ready to move on to the next thing? I find it helps to remember that there is no one correct answer, because the optimum structure for the syllabus depends on its goals, and the specific aptitudes and experience of the student. 

The latest instalment of my Rapier workbook series (Rapier Part Two: Completing the Basics) contains the following technical content:

  • Plate 8: voiding the front leg
  • Plate 9: passing to attack (off-hand forwards)
  • Plate 10: dealing with cuts to the head
  • Plate 11: voiding low, and acting in contratempo
  • Plate 17: voiding with the front foot
  • Plate 18: passing to attack (off-hand back)
  • Plate 19: voiding with the waist
  • Capoferro’s three tempi (half, full, and one-and-a-half)
  • Changing direction

That is a lot of material, and hard to remember, so I used the structure of the Rapier Footwork Form to organise it. This way, by the end of this book, you will have a series of actions clearly stuck in your head, which will act as an aide-memoire for all the plates that you know (including everything in the previous book: plates 7, 13 and 16). By running through the Form at the beginning of every training session, you will cover every major action in the system, and be reminded of the areas where you are strongest, and those that need most work.

You can see the form here:

I have also included some essential repetition from the previous book, notably the discussion on safety, and advice on how to use the book, because I know from experience that some readers will ignore “you need to read part one first”, and those things must be read before training. 

Some people just want to learn how to sword fight. Others want to learn how to do the academic research side of historical swordsmanship. And some want to do both. These workbooks are obviously directed towards the “just teach me to sword fight” crowd, but I encourage all my students (and that includes you!) to at least be familiar with the primary source for your art, in this case, Gran Simulacro. 

So what is form? and what it is for? Fundamentally, form is the mechanism we use for creating a narrative of the system within the students’ brains. You can think of a form as a string of pearls. In the beginning, each pearl is just one technique or action. It’s a tiny little seed pearl. But with practise, and a broadening understanding of the Art, each pearl becomes the locus for other concepts and actions to be stored. A single action acts as a trigger for a cascade of related actions. Form is therefore a set of chapter headings, under which you can store everything you ever learn about swordsmanship with the rapier; and once you have filled out each chapter, you have an index to your entire knowledge base.

I cannot state this too strongly: the Form is just the beginning. It is not the be-all and end-all. When you write your own chapters, it becomes The Book of your rapier knowledge and skill. Once that is established you can simply run through the Form at any time and identify the weakest link. Start working on that link, using the “attached” training material, then re-run the Form to see whether what you have been working on is still the weakest link. The Form is therefore a diagnostic tool, an aide-memoire, a mechanics exercise or a guide to the system; in fact, it is the core of your practice. This workbook is about writing those chapter headings, and then filling in those chapters.

The major pitfall of this approach is that the organisation of the material in the Form has more to do with training space constraints and what felt good when designing it (“where do I want to go from here?”) than it does with any overtly logical structure. It does not, for example, follow the order of the plates in Gran Simulacro. Nor is it arranged according to difficulty. You may find yourself wanting to re-arrange things. That’s fine: the structure is (as with all forms) at least partly arbitrary. You only need to have this canonically correct if you are following my school’s syllabus and intending to grade within it. Otherwise, take this and make it your own! 

When I was a kid, I spent some time casting little lead soldiers. It was magic: you heat up the lead in a pan until it melts, pour it into the mould and wait for it to cool down, and out comes a cavalry officer, rifleman or whatever. We then had to trim off the inevitable little leaks and the rather large riser (the extra bit where you pour the metal in, called a “sprue” in the US). Then the figures were ready for painting. You can think of the Form in a similar way. The actions of the person doing the Form are moulded by the actions of the (imaginary or real) opponents, as well as by the overall training goals. As with the casting process, there are artefacts to be taken into account: little bits of metal that don’t really belong, or some turns or steps that you wouldn’t normally use but are necessary to keep the Form in the right shape. So long as you know what the Art should look like and what the applications are, or what a Royal Horse Guards trooper from 1815 is supposed to look like, the Form is useful. As soon as the mould (your understanding of which actions do what) gets sloppy, the Form becomes a shapeless, pointless mess. 

So here is a rule to be followed whenever you think about any kind of Form: 

Application first, Form second. 

We do this in class. When teaching the Form to students, we absolutely always do pair-drill (or handling drill) first, then the same actions solo, and then we add it to the Form. We never, ever, have students practising actions that they don’t know at least one application for, and we distinguish very clearly between a play or technique and a handling drill or skill-development exercise.

This post is an adapted extract from the new workbook. You can find the whole book here.

Or if you prefer learning from video classes, you should try my free Rapier Beginner's Class mini-course.

If you find the ideas here interesting, you may also like this post:

The Dragon: how to write forms or kata for martial arts training

I was recently contacted by a reader asking about teaching left handed students. It’s a common and relatively complex problem, so rather than confine my answer to an email I thought I’d post it here.

The Question

How do you teach left-handers?

Why it’s a problem

Left handers are relatively rare (about 10% of the population, including my dad and my sister), and most of the historical martial arts treatises we work with don’t say much about them. Capoferro has one plate of rapier and dagger showing how to murder a leftie:

Fiore mentions that the guard of coda longa on horseback works against right or left handers (click on the image to expand it, and you can read the text and the translation by Tom Leoni):

Perhaps the biggest section of any treatise dealing explicitly with lefties is in Jeu de la Hache, but it’s still a small proportion of the overall material.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that many of the techniques we recreate from the sources simply don’t work the same way as shown in the books when done cross handed. In addition, right handers don’t see many left-handers, so in combat sports generally, left handers tend to be far more common at the top levels than they are in the general population. This is entirely due to familiarity. Everybody knows how to handle righties- we see them all the time. (For an interesting book that also addresses this in some detail, see The Professor in the Cage, which is well worth reading if you have any interest in martial arts…)

The question is about teaching lefties, not fighting them, so I’ll address that. (If you want my best advice for fighting left handers it’s this: fight them a lot. You’ll get better at it.)

What difference does handedness make?

In blade on blade actions, not much. Principally, inside and outside are not symmetrical [For those unfamiliar: if the sword is in your right hand, everything to the left of the blade as you see it is ‘inside’, and everything to the right is ‘outside’.] If we are both same-handed and our blades are crossed, we will both be either on the inside or on the outside of each other’s blades. But when one of us is differently handed, if you are on my inside, I’m on your outside, and vice-versa. This means that some targets are different, and the angles of attack may be different. But usually, the rules regarding how to attack remain the same. For example, I would only push your elbow if I’m on the outside of your arm. That doesn’t change; what changes is how I would get to your outside, and which of my hands may be able to reach your elbow.

In wrestling at the sword, it makes a great deal more difference.

Tricky to pull off cross-handed. Trans. by Tom Leoni.











This wrap, for instance, only works well using the opposite arm (eg left against right) and from the inside of the wrapped person’s arm. Because this is over both arms, it can be used cross-handed, but you won't get the same control of the sword arm.

Likewise this counter rarely occurs cross-handed at the longsword, because the preceding wrap would have to be done by the sword arm, which is unusual (though you can see it in I.33, f.18.v).

Ligadura sottana, 15th play of the zogho stretto. Trans by Tom Leoni











I include specific examples of techniques adapted from symmetrical drills to cross-handed versions in chapter seven of The Medieval Longsword. In case you don't have it to hand, I've extracted it for you here:

Medieval Longsword sample Cross-handed

So that's the problem. What's the solution? There are several approaches you can take:

Approaches to the problem:

1) make everyone train right handed. I think this is a bad idea if your goal is to produce great practitioners, but if your goal is to perfectly reproduce the plays of a specific treatise, in which everyone is right-handed, then it makes sense. When Christian Tobler began researching German medieval sources, he switched from his natural left handedness to do everything right handed because it was much easier than converting everything.

2) make everyone train both sides. I think this is advisable up to a point- I would expect all my senior students to be able to do all our basic drills and actions with either hand, and any professional instructor to be able to demonstrate anything within their art with either hand. But it’s probably not the best way to train beginners.

3) create specific ‘cross-handed’ variations of every major drill or exercise you use. I think this is essential. The basic drills usually assume two right-handers. Two left-handers can do exactly the same drill, it’s just mirrored. The problems only start when there are a right hander and a left hander training together. I include set forms for the cross handed version of every basic drill in my syllabi.

Advice to instructors:

  • If your syllabus is lacking cross-handed drills, create them. You can do this by setting up the drill and seeing where you (as a lefty) get stuck. Then following the basic principles of the art, solve the problem. When the problem is solved, incorporate that solution into the ‘cross-handed version’.
  • When you have a lefty in class, it’s your job to make sure that they learn the standard form of the drill (i.e. with a fellow left hander, which may have to be you), as well as the cross handed forms. Also, you should take advantage of their presence to accustom your other students to dealing with cross-handed situations.
  • As the instructor, you can always require the senior students to reverse their handedness (so lefties become righties, and vice versa), which gives  everyone else the chance to face the less-common situation.
  • Start with the simplest drills- make sure that you can do all the solo drills in your syllabus with your left hand, and can see what they should look like in your students when they are left handed.
  • Set up a basic pair drill, and see what happens. At any given point, the left-hander should be behaving normally for them. Never ask them to attack differently or switch hands for the convenience of the right hander (unless they are very experienced and the righty is a beginner).

I hope that's helpful! Feel free to make any suggestions or ask questions in the comments below.

For more on how to teach, you may find these posts useful:

How to get started teaching historical martial arts

How to teach a basic class

Perhaps the most famous fencing treatise of the 1600s, Ridolfo Capoferro's Gran Simulacro is a wonderful book, and an essential read for all fencing scholars. Characteristically, he spells his name as both Capoferro, and Capo Ferro, in the book itself; just one of it's many interesting quirks! It covers fencing theory, rapier alone, rapier and dagger, rapier and cloak, and rapier and shield. You can download your free copy of the treatise from here.

You are welcome to the RAW image files too (at about 25mb per image), just contact and we'll arrange to share them with you. The book is free, but you are welcome to drop some money into the (virtual) tin; once the book has raised enough money to pay for production costs, we will gladly produce an affordable printed facsimile. Please note that this book is in Italian.

Further reading:

Translations: William Wilson and Jherek Swanger (free):  Capoferro

Tom Leoni, The Art and Practice of Fencing.

ed. Jared Kirby: Italian Rapier Combat

For an instruction manual on how to fence in Capoferro’s style, please my The Duellist’s Companion.

Last weekend I attended the excellent Smallsword Symposium. I am unusual amongst HEMA instructors in that I do lots of different styles; Armizare, of course, but also I.33 sword and buckler, Capoferro rapier, and even the glorious smallsword. The smallsword was my first historical fencing love, way back in the early nineties, and the first treatise I found and distributed was Donald McBane's Expert Swordman's Companion in the National Library of Scotland. My first two books, The Swordsman's Companion and The Duellist's Companion  were named in its honour.

Anyhow, I digress. The point is, smallsword is bliss, and much under-appreciated in the HEMA world, so it was an especial pleasure to attend an event given over wholly to its elegant viciousness. The event was well run, and well attended, with people coming from Norway, Canada, Germany and even Ipswich, as well as the local contingent from (mostly) the Black Boar Swordsmanship School, which organised the symposium. The Black Boar was founded by two ex-DDS members, Phil Crawley and Ian Macintyre, who I had a hand in training back in the bad old days. My (fencing) kids are all growed up! And having kids of their own…

The format of the event was interesting; just two tracks, beginning with a very basic introductory class for newbies, well taught by Sue Kirk, with a more advanced ‘let's get cracking with a bunch of skills training' class run by Phil running at the same time. This got everybody off on the right foot, and paved the way for the classes that followed. These were mostly ‘have a go at this cool new system' type classes, such as Tobias Zimmerman's survey of Schmidt, and Ragnhild Esbenson's survey of McBane. There were also a few concept classes, such as Milo Thurston teaching proprioception using blindfolds, Martin Dougherty (author of several swordy books) teaching attention to technical detail, and my own ‘how to find and fix any technical problem' class.*

The event included a tournament, and I must say it was amazingly well organised. Simply, the contestants are randomly split into four pools and told to establish a winner in 90 minutes by whatever means they agree on. Absolutely no top-down requirements, just tell us who won. Then the four finalists fence off in pairs. The two losers fight for third place, the two winners for first and second. It worked incredibly well, and I saw some lovely smallsword fencing.

One additional highlight for me was meeting Marco Danelli, the swordmaker. I have often been asked about his swords, and have had to reply ‘they look nice in the pictures but I've never handled one'. Now I can say “dear god, buy one!” No wonder he has a two-year waiting list. I also got to see a couple of Andrew Feest's swords, though sadly not Andrew himself, and oh my, they were both extremely pretty and handled delightfully. Mm-mmm, swordmaking is alive and well in Brighton, I can assure you.

All in all, an excellent weekend, and I look forward to coming back next year. On the Monday we went to Glasgow to handle antique swords, but that's a story for another blog post. One of the swords had HORNS! Stay tuned…

*For the benefit of those that were there (or even those that weren't), let me briefly summarise my class:

  1. Run a diagnostic, find the weakest link. E.g. I'm vulnerable to attacks below the sword arm.
  2. Fix the weakest link, using the method below.
  3. Run the diagnostic again.

The method for fixing the weakest link goes like this:

  1. Distinguish between technical and tactical problems. Technical = I did the right thing but it failed. Tactical = I did the wrong thing. This was a technical class so this process is for technical problems.
  2. Model the problem: recreate it with a partner.
  3. Slow it down until you can get the action right.
  4. Gradually increase the pressure/complexity/difficulty until it starts to fail.
  5. Train it at the level where it works 8-9 times out of 10. 10 out of 10, increase pressure; 7 or less, reduce pressure.
  6. If you can't get it to work, then analyse it in terms of a) timing b) measure c) grounding/structure d) flow/movement. The weakness will be in there.

This class was largely unfamiliar with grounding so we covered that in some detail, with the net result that most of them shifted the way they hold their swords. Success!

In the last 15 minutes we looked at applying the process to tactical problems. It's not much different, it just requires selecting the correct action. For example, learning to identify a feint.

  1. Model the problem: recreate it with a partner.
  2. Slow it down until you can use the correct action (in the case of a feint, a second parry).
  3. Gradually increase the pressure/complexity/difficulty until it starts to fail. Complexity is created by the ‘coach' in the drill either feinting or doing a real attack, forcing you to adapt your actions to theirs.
  4. Train it at the level where it works 8-9 times out of 10. 10 out of 10, increase pressure; 7 or less, reduce pressure


A spot of rapier and cloak in the morning?

I have the enormous privilege of owning an original copy of Salvatore Fabris’s Sienza e Pratica d’Arme, printed in 1606. I bought it from Sr. Roberto Gotti, of Brescia, in 2014. It is in incredibly good condition, and an excellent, clean print. It is still in its original binding. The value of the book comes from two things: the information it contains, and the artefact itself. I own the artefact, it is mine, mine, mine, and woe betide anyone who tries to take it from me. But I believe the information it contains belongs in the public domain. This book is yours. So I asked my friend Petteri Kihlberg to photograph it, and I am releasing those photos (with his permission) free and with no strings attached. If you choose to use them for some commercial purpose (such as printing an edition for sale), then I ask as a matter of courtesy that you give credit where it’s due, but I do not insist on it. I've set it to “pay what you want”, and would be grateful for any donation you choose to give; the more money I have, the more fencing treatises I'll buy, all of which will go online for free.

I want this!

I own this book, but the information it contains is part of your birthright as a human being. I hope you will enjoy it, share it, and make something beautiful with it.

Please share this post so that everyone who wants a copy of the book can get one.

And don't miss my other free books! Marozzo's 1568, Girard's 1740, Seven Principles of Mastery, and many more.

Image courtesy of Elisa Hyvärinen.
Image courtesy of Elisa Hyvärinen.

As you may know, I am in the process of videoing everything we do in the salle, and putting it up online for free. This project is called the “Syllabus Wiki“. One of the many benefits of this is that informed commentators can see what we are doing and make constructive criticisms, which leads to improvement in our interpretations and methods. Not all criticism is well-meant, or well-written, but I do my best to stick to the facts, and ignore any agenda the critic may have. The truth of the Art should outweigh any other factor.
We have been putting a lot of Capoferro rapier material up lately; we have recently uploaded the last of the plays of the sword alone, shown on Plate 20. Bear in mind that these videos are intended to show a co-operative, choreographical rendition of the contents of the plate; they do not go into hard and fast applications of the lessons of the plates, or show anything against a non-compliant opponent.
One anonymous blogger, who goes by “Grauenwolf”, has recently taken issue with quite a few of our videos, and in some cases he has a point. [There is actually quite a lot of interesting material on his blog, which has been going since 2008.] I would find the criticisms more useful if they were accompanied by video examples of Grauenwolf himself doing the same actions his way, but at least he is quoting from the sources, and seems to truly care about historical accuracy. One such critique is here, in which he states his opinion that we are using blades that are much too short. He doesn’t actually tell us how long our blades should be, but does quote from Capoferro’s passage (using Wilson and Swanger’s translation without attribution):

“Therefore the sword has to be twice as long as the arm, and as much as my extraordinary pace, which length corresponds equally to that which is from my armpit down to the sole of my foot.”

He includes this screenshot from our video (again without attribution, but at least in this case anyone who checks the video link will find out whose video it is), with lines added to indicate his point of disagreement (if only all disagreements were so clearly stated!).

Henry and Janne blade length

As you can see, Henry's sword is clearly shorter than the distance from his armpit to the floor. But the passage is not quite as straightforward as all that. The arm is presumably measured from the armpit; but to the wrist, or the fingertips? The “extraordinary pace” is measured from where to where? The only apparently simple measurement is from armpit to the sole of the foot, presumably while standing (and incidentally is the same length of sword that Vadi recommends). The problem is that it would make for a sword that is much longer than most surviving examples, and much longer than the ones that are apparently illustrated. I have addressed this problem in print twice before, in The Duellist’s Companion, and in Choosing a Sword. To quote from the latter:

In my opinion, Capoferro’s system works best with a sword that weighs between 1kg and 1.6kg (2.0—3.5 lb), with the point of balance between 6 and 15 cm (2.5—6 inches) in front of the crossguard, a complex hilt that allows you to put your forefinger over the crossguard safely, and a blade length from crossguard to point of at least 97 cm (38”) (for short people), up to a maximum of about 114 cm (45”).
Capoferro himself tells us, in Chapter III: The Division of Fencing That is Posed in the Knowledge of the Sword, section 36:
“Therefore the sword has to be twice as long as the arm, and as much as my extraordinary pace, which length corresponds equally to that which is from my armpit down to the sole of my foot.” (Translation by William Wilson and Jherek Swanger).
I have never met anyone for whom those three measurements were the same, and in my The Duellist's Companion I worked them out like so:
“My arm is 52 cm, shoulder to wrist; my lunge about 120 cm from heel to heel, and it is about 140 cm from my foot to my armpit when standing. When standing on guard, it is about 115cm from foot to armpit. When in the lunge, it is about 104 cm from foot to armpit. Also, it is not clear whether he refers to the length of the blade, or of the whole sword.
If we resort to the unreliable practice of measuring the illustrations, in the picture of the lunge, the sword blade is 73 mm, the arm from wrist to armpit 37 mm, and the line G (front heel to front armpit) 55 mm. The distance between the feet is 67 mm.
So, the measurement most consistent with the text would appear to be the length of the arm, from wrist to armpit, as it approximately correlates to half the length of the blade.
 Given this as a guide, my blade ought to be 104 cm or about 41” long from the guard to the point.”

Henry, the chap in the illustration, has the following measurements:

  • Arm from armpit to wrist: 49cm. From armpit to fingertip, 66cm.
  • In guard, armpit to sole of the foot: 122cm; standing, 150cm.
  • His lunge is 100cm heel to heel, and 130cm from the back heel to the front toes.
  • His sword has a blade length of 107cm (a touch over 42”), and a total length of 122cm.

For what it's worth, modern manufacturers of rapier blades tend to offer them between 40 and 45″ (102cm- 114cm); a 150cm rapier would have a blade of about 135cm, or 53″.
So, given these measurements, I would be very interested to hear how long Henry’s sword should be, based on Grauenwolf's interpretation. I would also like to know Grauenwolf’s measurements, and the length of his sword, and see how he has solved the knotty problem of reconciling three quite different measurements.
[“Grauenwolf” goes on to criticise the way we beat the sword, apparently completely oblivious to the fact that Janne is co-operating in a way that the combatants illustrated in Gran Simulacro are not, and also oblivious to the purpose of the video. But that’s a whole other story. At least our videos are doing what they are intended to do: making it easier for people to get to grips with the source material; in this case, providing the impetus for a whole list of blog posts. Sure, I’d rather they were a bit more constructive, but anything that gets the sources talked about has to be a good thing.]

I have a strict policy on the internet: I never link to bad things. In other words, if somebody has annoyed or disgusted me, I don't reward them with traffic. So you might wonder why I am sending traffic Grauenwolf's way. Simply, it's because

a) I'm not annoyed or disgusted; if nobody ever disagreed with me, I'd never learn anything;

b) his blog has a lot of good and interesting stuff on it;

c) while I obviously don't agree with him on this point, and think he could be better at attributing his sources, I think his critique is an attempt to serve the Art, not to advance a personal agenda, and

d) I really do want to know how he solves the problem of the three incompatible measurements.

We often duck and dive to avoid something, when our interests would be better served by meeting it head on. Sometimes it's better to just take the hit.

By the time they are a few weeks old, most babies have mastered the art of the double-dump. Inexperienced parents react to the first load: a stinky nappy (diaper for my American friends) requires immediate attention. So we jump up, change the nappy, and then with a smug little grin, the infant fills the fresh one too. With experience comes patience; leave the nappy on for another 5 or 10 minutes, just to make sure she’s done, then change it.

My eldest daughter was a master at this pretty much from birth. On one particular occasion though, aged about 3 months, she excelled even herself, with a perfectly timed double-dump. I was changing her nappy, on the changing table in her room. With her legs in the air, all cleaned up and right before the clean nappy went on, she let go a squirt of liquid baby-shit, right at me, from a range of less than a foot.

Only my trained swordsman’s reflexes saved me.

There is a technique in swordsmanship, which is especially common with thrust-oriented weapons like the rapier or smallsword, of swinging your back leg round behind you to void your body out of the way.

Ridolfo Capoferro calls it the “scanso della vita”,  the avoidance of the waist.


(You can see the action on video on my School's Syllabus wiki page here.)

Domenico Angelo calls it the “Demy Volte”, or half turn.

I have been training to use this kind of avoidance for many years, but have only ever pulled them off in freeplay a handful of times. It’s really hard to get the timing just right, and it depends on a full, deep attack from the opponent.

But somehow, my deep lizard brain reacts better to a stream of shit than it does to a sword-thrust, and even at that close range, I effortlessly, immediately, and perfectly, avoided the attack, while keeping my right hand on the baby. (You never, ever, leave a baby on a changing table without contact. Because if you do, that’s the moment they’ll learn to turn over, and roll themselves off.) Not a drop of the vile stuff touched me. No, it went everywhere else but on me. At that elevation, under that much pressure, it travelled about 6 feet.

So instead of only having to change my t-shirt, I had to clean the floor, the wall, and the armchair.

I should have just taken the (s)hit.

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…


This instalment of the Blog of Guy is coming to you from beautiful Italy, a land where historical artefacts of astonishing antiquity are just left lying around! I shit you not, this is a place where the new buildings are anything less than 500 years old. And people seem to live and work in buildings that you would imagine American museums would be falling over themselves to disassemble stone by stone, and reconstruct inside a hermetically-controlled special exhibition space. It’s unreal. Ever since University days (in Edinburgh, with lots of old buildings everywhere), I have been involved in antiques restoration in one form or another; first restoring furniture, then restoring European swordsmanship. And now everywhere I look there are antiques: in stone, wood, iron and paint, many of them crying out for some tender loving care, all of them quietly glowing with the residue of the love their makers put into them centuries ago.

As no doubt you know, I do a lot of researching and recreating of Italian medieval and renaissance swordsmanship styles. Especially those of Fiore dei Liberi, Philippo Vadi, and Ridolfo Capoferro. So you would be forgiven for thinking that this move to Italy was all part of a deliberate plan to improve my grasp on Italian, further my research interests, and so on. But it didn’t happen that way.

In the beginning, there was plumbing. Now, let it be said that Finnish plumbing is a miracle to behold. They do central heating better than the Romans (and that is really saying something!). But one side-effect of this is that they seem to do a lot of plumbing. To whit, every 50 years or so, they rip it all out and do it again, in a process known to all as the putkiremontti. Fear it. Dread it. It is not for the faint-hearted. This means that the average dwelling is uninhabitable for a period of perhaps 3-6 months, at a cost of about 7-900euros per square metre of floor (which is how the costs are divided among the building owners). Our apartment’s turn came this year, and we got our exact dates about 6 months ago; January 12th to May 13th. Given the vast cost of the work (hello, remortgage), we immediately set about finding ways to make this affordable. The average cost of a furnished flat for 4 months in Helsinki was about 1800e per month. This is simply not within our reach, especially when the usual mortgage, service charges, and so on, are going out as before. So what to do?

Go somewhere cheaper was the obvious option. We looked at Cyprus (cheap, not great to get to though), Bali (cheap, once you get there, but very expensive flights especially at this time of year), and various other possible locations, when my oh-so-excellent wife found us an apartment here in Lucca, Italy, at a silly-cheap off-season price. I hadn’t thought we could afford Italy, of all places on the planet, but we got very lucky…

And Lucca, for a medievalist like me, is just perfection. We are inside the walls of the old town, and these are serious, keep those fucking Pisans out, walls. Round every corner there is some staggering work of art, of staggering antiquity, and just strolling around (which I am doing a lot of, as I made the very sensible decision to treat this as a proper sabbatical, and do no work that I don’t feel like, blog posts, writing and most definitely teaching included) is like being in a great architectural museum. This is helped along by the fact that a) that’s how the Lucchese have chosen to maintain their city, bless them, and b) neither the Allies nor the Axis bombed the shit out of it in WWII.

It’s also incredibly cheap, to eat, to live, to get around. We went to Pisa last Sunday, birthplace of Vadi; it cost about 20e for the four of us (my wife, two kids, and me) to go there and back on the train. We saw the tower. It leans. A lot.

Note the two little artists in the foreground, supervised by Mrs Guy.
Note the two little artists in the foreground, supervised by Mrs Guy.


We saw the medieval old town, and the Duomo, and the Battistero, and all sorts. Getting the kids excited about going into the Duomo was easier than I expected; I told them there was a real dead body in it, and they were super-keen to see it! San Ranieri to the rescue…

Dead bodies in glass coffins are apparently perfectly kid-friendly. Who knew?
Dead bodies in glass coffins are apparently perfectly kid-friendly. Who knew?

I was in Florence this week, which will get a blog post all of its own. There and back for 15 euros. And the trains run on time, with no help from il Duce. And here’s the kicker; when we take into account the costs of renting, of food and wine (dear god, drinkable wine at under 4e for a 1.5 litre bottle! I’ll be perfectly round, and a complete alcoholic, by the time we come home), and our flights here, it works out that we are saving about 2000 euros on our living costs over the three months we are here. (We are coming home 6 weeks before the putkiremontti ends so that our eldest daughter can get back to school for a month or so before the summer break.)

And what of income? I have been self-employed now for fifteen years, and never really let go of business, which has never been more than two weeks from bankruptcy. (Really. I hear that it’s a good idea to have about 6 months operating expenses in reserve. I have never, ever, had more than a fortnight’s, until this last year). My wife has been telling me for ages that she’s worried about me getting exhausted, just as my friends were telling me a decade ago. I need and deserve no sympathy; I have the best job in the world. But it is still a job, and lately, it has been starting to feel like one. I have been teaching way too much, and not unwinding properly. It’s a curse and a blessing that there are so few people out there with my specific skill set. So taking a three month break from teaching felt at every level like a really good idea, confirmed by the way I spent almost all of December floored by a cold turned into bronchitis.

But if I am not at the salle teaching, nor doing weekend seminars (and I have deliberately not looked for teaching opportunities here) where’s the money coming from? Well, for starters, the biggest monthly cost is the salle, which the SHMS pays for separately from my teaching time. So that’s covered. The actual teaching of classes is covered by my excellent senior students; I have been thinking for a while now that my constant presence can act as a cap on their development, so I’ll be interested to see how they are getting on when I get back. And in the meantime, a huge hat-tip and thank you to the ladies and gentlemen who have stepped into the breach and are running things in Helsinki while I’m away.

But salary? Aha, my friends, that’s the secret. The books that I have self-published over the last couple of years (re-issues of The Swordsman’s Companion and The Duellist’s Companion, Veni Vadi Vici, plus the all-new The Medieval Longsword) are bringing in enough royalties that we can actually get by for a few months without any teaching gigs. I cannot tell you what a relief that is. It’s incredible, to be able to take some real time off and not go bankrupt. And that’s down to every one of you that has bought one of my books in any format over the last year. Thank you. You may just have saved my life. And you have certainly allowed me to convert what would have been an impossibly hard problem into a glorious opportunity.

Warning: major sword geekery alert. What follows is exactly the 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. What am I 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 (2014), 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),

Plate 5: the lunge!

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. 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.

Posta Longa

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).

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