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Guy frequently keeps this blog updated with thoughts, challenges, interviews and more!

Tag: form

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

Justice, from Lorenzetti's "Allegory of Good Governance"
Justice, from Lorenzetti's “Allegory of Good Governance”

Training happens in the brain, and in my experience, the biggest barriers to training exist between a student’s ears. One of the most common problems I have seen (and experienced myself), is the tendency to stop and make judgements when things aren’t going well. For example, I’m practising my still-imperfect mandritto fendente, as part of the Farfalla di Ferro. I make a noticeable mistake, so I stop, berate myself (“you bloody fool, couldn’t swing a sword through a wet paper bag, come on, what kind of idiot are you?”) and then get back to practising.

Or for another example: I’m fighting someone for real. I get hit but am not dead. So I stop fighting back, and start criticizing myself for getting hit. Meanwhile my assailant keeps hitting me.

Do you see the problem? Do you ever do this? I have seen this problem so severely ingrained in a student that he actually stopped in the middle of the class and hit himself three times in the head for making the mistake, about five times a session, three sessions a week, until I trained it out of him. This corrective technique has never once in the history of mankind ever been shown to work.

So what does?

At its core, the mistake is allowing your attention to be taken off what you are doing, and on to what you were doing. This is followed by an emotional reaction to the mistake or imperfection, which locks your attention on to what you have done. This is the very opposite of mindful presence. But because it is disguised as paying attention to what you are doing, because you are indeed paying close attention to what you have done, it can feel like something you should do. And if you are not alone at the time, it can feel like you need to indicate to everyone else that you have noticed the mistake. The social pressure to do this is actually quite severe. But think on this: it’s not them that need to fix the mistake, so bringing it to their attention does nobody any favours. If they are not well trained, they haven't spotted the mistake anyway, and if they are, they will be less impressed by your reaction than they would have been by your dispassionate correction of it next time the opportunity arises.

The trick is to notice the mistake dispassionately, and calmly correct it next time round. It should not break your flow, not so much as a flicker of a frown should cross your brow. There should be no emotional reaction clouding your ability to actually enact the correction. Noticing something and reacting to it are two completely different things.

This is a skill, and can therefore be trained. Here’s how:

  • Set up an exercise in which you know you’ll make a natural error. Do a form a bit faster than usual, or do a pair drill at a level of complexity that challenges you.
  • Knowing that a mistake is coming, decide that when it does you will notice it but not react.
  • Pay attention to your emotional state. When the error arises, spot your reaction. Just notice it, and don’t interfere.
  • Keep running this exercise, the point of which is to practice noticing mistakes without judging them. If this is a common problem for you, then every training drill you do should be done as a way of generating natural errors for you to practice noticing without judging.

Beating yourself up about mistakes simply reinforces the mistake. Noticing them dispassionately allows you to correct them much more quickly and easily. It took my head-bashing student several months to change the habit; because his case was so severe, I had him replace the head-bashing with push-ups to change his reaction before getting rid of it altogether. This worked quite well, and no doubt saved him many brain cells.

The image at the top of this post is of Justice, from the “Allegory of Good and Bad Governance” by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, in the Palazzo Publico, Sienna. I saw it last year, and was swept away. Notice that Judgement is necessary, and must distinguish between Good and Evil. But she is calmly seated, dispensing Justice even-handedly. Think on this.

I’m writing this on Wednesday March 30th, and will be flying off to Seattle on the 31st when it goes live. I’ll check in with the comments and whatnot in a couple of days. Looking forward to seeing my Seattle chaps soon! I’m then popping down to visit Sean Hayes in Eugene on Monday, before spending a couple of days in Chicago with Nicole Allen and Greg Mele on my way home. I travel a lot, and yet spend far too little time with my far-flung friends. I’m making a deliberate effort to change that. If you're in any of those cities, I hope to see you too!

I think that training ought to be focussed and goal oriented. The goal in any fencing context is to strike without being struck, so any problem can be thought of as “I’m getting hit” or “I’m not hitting”. Drills are the means by which we fix either of these core problems.

Let’s start with the “I got hit” problem. Here is a snazzy little flowchart:

Yup, it boils down to this: the only reason you ever get hit is because you failed to parry. The hit is never wrong. This is really important. When we are past the point of teaching beginners the absolute basics, we don’t solve the problem of being hit by changing the attack. The attack is supposed to hit.

So whatever your current fencing problem is, here are the steps to fix it:

1) Reproduce the problem. If you can’t reproduce it, it was either a fluke, and so not something that can be trained against, or you didn’t understand what happened. You can’t fix training problems you don’t understand, so if that happens, find somebody to explain what happened to you. Your opponent might do that, or your teacher.

2) Analyse why you are getting hit. You are either doing the right thing, but not well enough, or you are doing the wrong thing. So the problem is either technical, or tactical. These have quite different solutions.

Technical problems are solved by training the technique in increasingly challenging contexts. In short, slow down until it works, then ramp up the speed and power gradually until you can do it at the necessary level. I think of this as solving problems of incompetence.

Tactical problems are solved by choosing a better solution at the critical moment, which you learn to do by using drills with ever increasing degrees of freedom. I think of this as solving problems of ignorance.

So whatever drill you are doing should be solving a specific problem of either ignorance or incompetence making you wiser and better.

(The specific details of how to use pressure and degrees of freedom are in Preparing for Freeplay. They are also described in The Medieval Longsword.)

I have put all this together in another nifty flowchart. The original was done by me in Scapple, which is a great app for thinking with, but doesn't do pretty charts. Several kind and lovely readers have sent me much prettier versions, of which this, by Andrew R. Mizener, is the clearest.


Thanks Andrew! (I absolutely love it when my readers step up and help. Really, it's the best feeling.)

If you’d like specific examples of drills that solve technical or tactical problems, let me know in the comments.

We are in the middle of our annual monster seminar, the Fiore Extravaganza. We began with a day of pollax training from the medieval French manuscript Jeu de la Hache, taught by Lois Forster. Lois flew over from France with his armour and a squire (hi Vincent!). He is conducting an emprise, a feat of arms in which he travels round fighting people in armour, according to the same set of rules and with the same intent as was done in the 15th century. I saw him take on several such fights at Armizare 2015, and of course agreed to fight him while he was here. We used rubber-headed pollaxes, and fought to 30 blows. This is unlike other competitive freeplay, in that it only finishes when the “Lord” governing the fight (in our case Ville Henell) calls halt, which he can do whenever he pleases; there are no breaks, and no winner is declared. You win by taking part. The fight also ends if somebody drops their weapon (for any reason), or is thrown to the ground.
I was so impressed with Lois’ attitude and skills that I allowed two of my students to borrow my armour (yes, really) and fight him too.
You can see our bout here:


The next morning, the Extravaganza attendees and I planned the rest of the week in some detail. All of this pollaxy goodness inspired them to ask for a pollax form, to preserve the material in a trainable medium. So we went over Fiore’s pollax plays, and some stuff from Jeu de la Hache, and I used the next few sessions to teach them how to create a form in a systematic, rational, and useful way. This went so well I thought I'd share it here.
We started by deciding what the form was for, and then what technical content ought to be.
This is what we came up with.

Our initial notes on what the form should be for, and contain.

What is it for?

  • Self-Improvement. This was the first thing mentioned, and is a little vague. But a good base to work from.
  • Memory Guide: The form should make it easier for students to recall aspects of the pollax material.
  • Flow/Mechanics: practising the form should ingrain the correct movement style and habits, enabling fluent and powerful actions.
  • Expandable: the form should be built in a way that allows the various actions to be expanded on, to trigger memory cascades, and create loci for memorising other material.

What should it contain?

Then we thought about what kind of material it should contain. The first thing mentioned was the guards of the axe, so that became our starting point. Around that came grip and handling drills, ways of exploiting armour, strikes, disarms, locks, takedowns, and parries.
Many forms come in two parts; our Syllabus Form, and our Cutting drill are obvious examples, but I have come across the same thing in many other martial arts.
We decided to start with applications, which of course must be trained in pairs. Then it struck me that once we had a curriculum of pair drills, we could make part one the defensive actions (remedies), and part two the offensive actions (attacks and counter-remedies). This would allow us to embed the stimuli for the various actions of the form within the form itself.
So we started with a pair drill, the defence of dente di zenghiaro against posta di donna, and added posta di donna’s counter-remedy. These became step one of parts one and two respectively.
Over the course of a couple of hours, we came up with three solid drills beginning with the following pairs of guards: donna versus zenghiaro, posta breve la serpentina versus vera croce, and coda longa versus posta di finestra la sinestra. As we covered the various aspects of technique, I marked them on our board. You can see the marks in black. And once we had a black mark on every green circle, we had covered everything we had decided on.
So I added the red tactics box, to survey what tactics we had also covered. We had included Attacks, Feints, Yielding to parries (Go Around), Parry-riposte, and Invitations.
But we were not completely satisfied; counter-attacks were not well represented, and neither were crossings of the axe. So we chose to add a fourth drill, with vera croce opposed by fenestra la sinestra, which would include them.
Now we had to put these pieces in order, and glue them together with axe handling drills and references to Jeu de la Hache (the best medieval source for this weapon, I think). The first question was how to tie the two halves together. It was tricky, so we shelved it, and worked on the easier ones.
Ordering the drills was easy enough; we put them in the same order as the pairs of guards shown in the Getty ms. I wrote down the starting guard and finishing guard for each drill, like so:

The start and end of each application in blue; magic glue in red.

The start and end of each application in blue; magic glue in red.

Part 1:
Vera croce, finishes in a one-handed fenestra destra.
Dente di zenghiaro, finishes in Guard of the Cross (from Jeu).
Fenestra sinestra, finishes with your axe in one hand between the opponent’s legs, left foot forwards.

Part 2:
Breve la serpentina, finishes with a takedown, right foot forwards.
Donna destra, finishes in guard of the cross.
Coda longa, finishes in a ligadura sottana with the left hand.
Fenestra sinestra, finishes in posta breve la serpentina. From here you need to be able to go to the end position (whatever that will be), or back to the beginning of the form, or to the beginning of part two.

So we then worked together to make useful and interesting “magic glue” to tie the parts together. I wrote notes on our choices in red. We were careful to practice these together, to make sure that the form could be done in class, in our salle. We added several turns to reduce the form’s footprint.
The last task of the morning was to create the segue between parts one and two. We started out by calling it the butterfly, but I thought that was un-axe-like, and called it the Dragon instead. This was apposite, as one thing the students wanted to include was some of the queue/pedale/tail of the axe material we had done with Lois, and as readers of Veni Vadi Vici know, the dragon strikes by lashing with its tail. The Dragon had to be very clearly not a pair drill though, or we would end up creating another application set, leaving us with a form that would get longer and longer. In the end I came up with an exercise based on my own arm-conditioning drills with a long stick:

Over the course of the seminar, we plan to spend some time every day polishing and refining the form (and memorising it), after which it will be videoed and put up on the wiki.
Once the form was complete, we summarised the process we had used to create it, here:

The Process:
1) Purpose: decide what the form is for.
2) Components: decide what applications and other elements it should include, such as tactics, guards and so on.
3) Survey the components to make sure you have all the necessary aspects covered, and finalise the total content.
4) Order the components.
5) Create the magic glue that ties the components together, taking into account space constraints.
6) Test and bug fix: this requires a feedback mechanism, and is much easier with a group or team.
7) Train the fuck out of it!
This raised the question of how to train the form, and the potential risks of form training. We came up with this diagram:

Which I have recreated for you in Scapple:

In brief, the form can be used for solo practice and with partners to train applications; each step can be expanded to include other elements; it is a memory palace in which to store the things you have learned, and it can be used as a diagnostic. The primary risk of form training can be summarised as “it becomes ballet”. Compliant opponents allow your technique to become sloppy; form replaces function. There is also the risk of over-specialisation, in that you can confuse the content of the form with the entire content of the art. Drilling the applications properly should prevent balletisation, and expanding every step should prevent over-specialisation. But this is not an easy process.

I think the next instalment of my The Swordsman’s Quick Guide (after Ethics, which is due out very soon), will be a detailed write-up of creating and using forms in martial arts training. What do you think?


This form, and to some extent this process, is absolutely not all my own work. This was a team effort, and the team comprises:

Anna Lahtinen, Antti Jauhainen, Gaja Kochaniewicz, Guy Windsor, Ilpo Luhtala, Kliment Yanev, Petteri Kihlberg, Teemu Kari, Tero Alanko, and Zoë Chandler.

When the form is polished, I'll video it in detail and post it to the Syllabus Wiki. In the meantime, if you find this kind of thing useful and you'd like to say thanks, please leave a comment below, sign up to my email list (there's a form below), throw some change in the tip jar, or go buy one of my books!

A good swordsman must be able to handle a range of different opponents, and so must train to face lots of different styles of attack and defence. This is quite difficult to accomplish within a relatively small group of training partners, which is one of the reasons that it’s a good idea to travel a lot to fence new people, and one of the reasons why I encourage my students to attend tournaments even though they are not our focus of study. But travel is time consuming and expensive, so it helps to have ways to shake things up a bit at home. We addressed this problem in last Monday’s class, so I thought I’d write up my class notes for you here.

We started as always with a quick chat about goals; what were the students currently working on? The answers ranged from the moral:

  • Win or lose, do it gracefully

To the general:

  • Closing the line to avoid double hits
  • Be more committed when attacking
  • Maintaining flow and stability under pressure

To the really specific:

  • Generate roverso attacks from my opponent onto my prepared parry-riposte.

They decided to start the class as normal, with breathing training and Syllabus form, and then kitted up for freeplay.

I had them start with our favourite set-up: hold the field. In this set-up, one person holds the field and is attacked in turn by each other member of the class. When they have faced everybody, the next fencer takes their place, and they join the queue to attack. I left them completely free to attack and defend as they pleased. (You can read more about freeplay set-ups in the third instalment of The Swordsman's Quick Guide.)

I then pulled out a deck of Audatia cards (the Galeazzo deck, if you’re interested), and separated out the posta (guard) cards. I used these as a randomiser; the defender had to wait in whatever guard I pulled from the deck. Oh, and of course I took out their usual favourites. This forced the defender to act from a less familiar position, and also the attacker got some variety.

After a round of that, I let the defender choose freely, and took the strike cards (with all the mandritti fendenti cards removed, because why not?) and the attackers had to attack with whatever card I drew for them. This generated even more variety than the guard restriction, and forced the attackers to be much more imaginative.

On the third round I added in the stretto plays cards, and each person (attackers and defender) drew a card; whatever they got, they were supposed to generate the conditions in which they could strike using that action. Mandritto mezano, not so difficult to engineer. Soprana tor di spada? Much more so. Incidentally, as they were all wearing gauntlets, I drew for them, and reshuffled between each draw.

This round was very interesting, and made certain gaps in our training curriculum quite clear. Also, in this round, the fencers could come and choose a new random card at any time.

This was perhaps the most difficult round for them, so we broke up into pairs once everyone had held the field, and they worked on how to generate the necessary conditions for whatever action they were trying to accomplish in freeplay.

Then the last five minutes was spent in freeplay, with the fencers either just letting off some steam, or carefully trying to get the action they had been working on, to work.

This sort of training is really useful (they all agreed, in the after-action review), because not only does it force the individual fencer to change their game a bit and try something different, but it also creates much more variety in opponents, without having to find new people.

Of course, to win fencing matches, you should get very good at a few favourite moves, and then learn how to make other fencers give you the necessary conditions for your move. (What Harmenberg describes as your “Area of Excellence” in Epee 2.0 (that's an affiliate link, BTW).) But it is also true that anything you don’t train against you are vulnerable to. We tend not to attack with sottani blows, because they are less powerful and harder to close the line with than fendente blows; they are less perfect actions for attacking with. But if you never train against sottani attacks, you will get hit by them every time. This may be why Vadi explicitly tells us how to defend against them, but not how to attack with them. (See chapter XV of De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, or pp. 99-102 of Veni Vadi Vici, or here on the wiki, for details.)

This sort of practical, in the salle, sword in hand application is one of the main purposes of Audatia; if it couldn’t be used to train students, I wouldn’t have gone to the effort of producing it. And oh my lord, what an effort it has been. But it was totally worthwhile, because not only does it work, but it has made a small but fierce cohort of seriously dedicated players very happy. I was inspired to use the cards this week in particular by an amazing video, so I would like to dedicate this blog post to its creators, Carlos Loscertales, João “Sig” Gregório, and Paulo Peixoto. I cannot tell you how pleased it makes me to see my game getting this kind of fan feedback.

While I was at the Armizare 2015 event, I had a discussion about Fiore’s first play of the first master of zogho largo with Francesco Baselice. Let me summarise our interpretations, with reference to the text.

The first and second plays of the first master of the zogho largo.
The first and second plays of the first master of the zogho largo.

Qui cominza zogho di spada a doy man zogho largo. Questo magistro che qui incrosado cum questo zugadore in punta de spada, dise quando io son incrosado in punta de spada subito io do volta ala mia spada e filo fiero dalaltra parte cum lo fendente zo per la testa e per gli brazzi, overo che gli metto una punta in lo volto, come vederi qui dredo depinto.

Here begins the play of the sword in two hands, wide play. This Master that is here crossed with this player in the point of the sword, says “when I am crossed at the point of the sword, immediately I make a turn of my sword and strike with a cut from the other side with a fendente, thus to the head and to the arms; or I place a thrust in his face, as you will see depicted next.

The key point for our discussion was regarding on the other side of what? I read the line “I make a turn of my sword and strike with a cut from the other side [of the player’s sword].” Which lead to the interpretation you can see on pages 170-171 of The Medieval Longsword.

But Francesco read it as ““I make a turn of my sword and strike with a cut from the other side [of my body].” So instead of striking on the other side of the opponent’s sword, he was striking to the head with a roverso fendente.

I have shot a quick video of the two versions and uploaded it here for reference. Sorry for the crap quality.

After I got back to Finland, many of my students asked what my cryptic reference on this blog to “a very interesting discussion about the first and second plays of the first master of the zogho largo” was about, and I explained it up to this point. And then began to dig…

Clearly, on the evidence above, it is impossible to choose one interpretation over the other. Both follow the text, and picture (the fendente isn’t shown), and similar actions can be found elsewhere in the manuscript. The first two plays of the sword in one hand show striking on one side of the player’s sword, or the other, after a parry; the first two plays of the second master of the zogho largo describe a cut followed by a thrust, on the same side.

The text of the second play, showing the thrust, was the next place to look for more data.

In the Getty MS, it reads:

Io to posta una punta in lo volto come lo magistro che denanci dise. Anchora poria aver fatto zo chello dise zoe aver tratto de mia spada subito quando io era apresso lo incrosare dela parte dritta. De laltra parte zoe de la stancha io debeva voltare la mia spada in lo fendente per la testa e per gli brazzi, como a ditto lo mio magistro che denanzi.

I have placed a thrust in the face as the master before me says. Also I could have done what he says, so, have struck with my sword immediately when I was near the crossing from the right side. From the other side, thus from the left, I would have to turn my sword in the fendente to the head and to the arms, as my master that is before me said.

Hmmm. That is inconclusive, but it appears that the strike should be done very early; as you get close to the crossing, or immediately that the crossing is made. And he mentions that the blow is done from the left side. “Stanca” in modern Italian means “tired”, and in this period, means “left hand side”. Two pages on from here, in the play of the colpo di villano, Fiore tells us to “await the peasant’s blow in a narrow stance with the left foot forwards”, with “lo pe stancho” for “the left foot”. (You definitely do not want to put your “tired food” forwards!) So perhaps “stancha” here is more likely to refer to the body than the sword, but it’s hard to say. After all, posta di donna on the left, is posta di donna la sinestra.

So let’s go to the Morgan Ms: the text in both paragraphs is identical except for a few variant spellings. No help there then. So how about the Pisani Dossi manuscript?

The same plays in the Pisano Dossi.
The same plays in the Pisano Dossi.

Over the master, the lines are:

Per incrosar cum ti a punta de spada/ De laltra parte la punta in lo peto to fermada.

By crossing with you at the point of the sword, from the other side I’ll strike you with a thrust in the chest.

The differences are obvious, I trust. No mention of the cut, and the thrust is to the chest, not face. But it’s still “de laltra parte”, from the other side.

And the next play, the strike itself:

Per lo ferir che dise el magistro che denanci posto/ in la golla to posta la punta de la spada tosto.

With the strike that the master before me said/ I have quickly put the point in your throat.

[Note, again not face, or chest!]

And the image is basically identical to the strike shown in the Getty ms, as you can see.

So here is the critical point for this discussion; “from the other side” is not being used here to mean the other side of the player’s sword. It is quite clearly describing a thrust that remains on the same side of the sword, so it is probably being used to refer to the way you make the blow. You got into the crossing with a blow from the right, and you leave it with a blow from the left (as all Audatia players should already know).

So, Francesco old chap, you were right. I take my hat off to you sir!

Hat off to Federico :)
Hat off to Francesco 🙂

And as I said on the day, looks like I’ll have to revise that bit of The Medieval Longsword.  Given that the final draft of the book was finished in April 2012, that makes it three years before a change to the interpretation was developed. Dammit, that’s too long; I’d hope for at least one new thing a year! It makes me wonder what other bits of my interpretation are due for review. This is one of those plays that I've been happy with since about 2004.

I should also note at this point that the interpretation we were using is the correct response to the context in which we do it; but that context is not what Fiore is showing us in this play. It seems that in both plays, it's the inside line that is open, not outside for the first, inside for the second. It remains to be seen what knock-on effects this will have to the rest of my interpretation; at present it seems to be fairly self-contained, but who knows what other doors this might open…

Let me summarise the steps that lead to this correction to my interpretation.

1) I published my interpretation. This meant that Francesco, and others like him, could see what I was thinking, and therefore check it against their own ideas.

2) Francesco brought his alternative interpretation to me, and showed me that it did not contradict the source. This was made much easier by our being at the same event; there is nothing like discussing these things sword-in-hand. Thanks again to Mauro and Andrea for organising Armizare 2015!

3) That lead to me re-examining my interpretation in the light of the sources themselves; we are very lucky to have more than one copy of the manuscript.

4) I now publish the corrected interpretation, here (and will update The Medieval Longsword in due course).

Readers of this blog will have seen the same procedure in the way I was totally wrong about the identity of the titimallo flower, used in the poison dust pollax play. I shamelessly published an idea, which generates responses, which lead to the idea being abandoned, confirmed or corrected as needed. That's how the process is supposed to work, folks.

You know you've done something right as a teacher or writer when somebody takes your stuff and recombines it into something new and meaningful. In my latest book, Swordfighting for Writers, Game Designers, and Martial Artists, there are individual chapters for three of Fiore's four virtues; boldness, strength, and speed. (I've yet to write the one on foresight/prudence). They are titled along the lines of “I am weak, so I study strength.” There is another chapter on talent and how it doesn't exist. I never thought to do this, but Lars Johannes was clearly inspired by the book, and put this up on Facebook:

I am fearful, so I study boldness.
I am weak, so I study strength.
I am slow, so I study speed.
I am careless, so I study judgement.
I do not believe in innate talent.

And it just blew me away. It's what I wrote, but better. I'd adjust only the last of the four, to read “I am rash, so I study prudence”. This meme seems to be gaining some traction (though not nearly so much as some kitten videos, of course), so I thought I'd issue an “authorised” version, in the hope that you will not take that authority at all seriously, but hopefully take this and make it your own.

I am fearful, so I study boldness.
I am weak, so I study strength.
I am slow, so I study speed.
I am rash, so I study prudence.
I do not believe in innate talent.

And then, just to take it to its logical conclusion:

Fiorean Creed


I have been stuck in bed with some ghastly ailment for the last week or so, and am still not recovered yet (don't tell my wife I'm working!), so I'll be brief.

The question on many fencers' minds is how to win more matches. The solution is pretty simple: be a better fencer. Good fencers win more matches.
Problems arise when we get this the wrong way round; you don't become a good fencer by winning matches. You win matches when you're a better fencer.

Today's post is inspired by a teaching opportunity that raised its head after rapier class a couple of weeks ago. Three senior students were fencing each other, and getting frustrated by lack of progress. In short, they were trying to win each point, and as a result being too cautious, snipy and generally not very swordsmanlike. So I stepped in to help, with a couple of simple rule hacks.

Firstly, we created a rule that if your opponent disengages, you must attack. This directly led to some obviously foolish attacking, yes, but also bumped them out of their excessive caution.

Then they fenced between two lines on the ground, far enough apart that with their back foot on the line, they were one step out of measure. The winning conditions were now strike, or get your opponent to step over the line. This reduced the tendency to run away! At this stage I had each fencer identify one thing they should be working on. One needed to be bolder, one wanted to work on their attack by disengage, and the third was working on keeping their parries neat under pressure (if I recall correctly).

Then I had them fence normally, but explicitly working on the one specific aspect they were trying to improve. Unsurprisingly, they were fencing much, much better. This is because they were not trying to win points, they were trying to fence better, let the points fall where they may.

So your goal in every match should not be to win it; it should be to improve one specific aspect of your fencing. This might be boldness, speed, maintaining technique under pressure, getting one specific action to work, whatever. If you pursue this consistently, you will inevitably improve, and, as a result, win more matches.

Yes, you caught me. This is just another way of prioritising process over outcome. But it can be very hard to let go of the point-scoring mentality, which is why little rule hacks can really help. Play with them, and let me know how you get on!


Swordfights are resolutely, absolutely, analogue. It is random, chaotic, non-linear to a degree. But for centuries, millennia even, man has been imposing order on the chaos, cataloguing the actions, naming the techniques, systematising the Art of Combat. This begins with taxonomy- such as naming the positions swordsmen use or find themselves in, the blows that they strike, and the various ways in which they defend themselves. Understand this though: there are really no hard and fast rules. If I am in position A, and you are in position B, and I attack with a strike X and you are supposed to defend with action Y, you might do the right thing and win, or do the right thing and lose, or do the wrong thing and win, or do the wrong thing and lose, or do nothing and win, or do nothing and lose, or do any of the above and come to no conclusion.

I have consulted for enough game designers to know that the only accurate answer to any of their questions is “it depends”, but what they need and demand is a hard and fast instruction: if X, do Y. Games are, in their underlying mechanics, always digital. And usually binary. So making a sword fight in a game model a sword fight in reality is basically impossible. It can’t even be done sword-in-hand at the Salle, even if we were using sharp swords, because the critical stress of having someone actually trying to kill you is absent. But we can make the game such that the action sequences in the game model those in the source material precisely. The game can represent the ideal of the Art in a way that cannot be replicated in messy reality. So we cannot be accurate, but we can be true.

Let’s look at the blows of the sword. Fiore describes “seven blows”, six cuts (forehand and backhand, descending, rising, and across the middle) and the thrust. The thrusts are “of five types” (forehand and backhand, rising and descending, and one up the middle). So a total of eleven defined blows. He even goes so far as to determine the paths of the blows: fendente (descending), for instance, “breaks the teeth, exits at the knee, leaving a sign of blood”.

Fiore's lines for the descending blows.
Fiore's lines for the descending blows.

There is our paintbox: the multiple possible strikes broken down into two main types (cut and thrust), further subdivided into forehand and backhand, then again into seven lines. The rising thrust is neither forehand nor backhand. This is a gift to game design, as we can just use these ready-made definitions. And our game has all of the cuts exactly as described. We reduced the thrusts to just forehand and backhand, as we would otherwise be swamped with blow options, and in practice sword-in-hand, the critical distinction to make when defending against a thrust is the side from which it originates.

Every now and then in freeplay, someone will actually use one of the blows, just like in the book. It does happen. Every now and then. But usually the line is a little off, the exact path not quite as illustrated. So then what? When does a mandritto (forehand) become a roverso (backhand)? Where is zero? And how many people have perfect plumb and can see exactly where the line goes? And when does a fendente (descending blow) become a mezano (middle, horizontal, blow)? At five degrees above the horizontal? 15? Of course, in real life, experience and training tell you when you can treat a blow as if it were a fendente, and when you must treat it as a mezano, taking into account a hundred extra details, of which its path is just one. Beginners learn the rules and follow them precisely or fail. Advanced students break the rules successfully all the time. Swordsmanship is a spectrum phenomenon.

So let us think of the light spectrum. It is obvious that purple is not blue is not green is not yellow is not orange is not red. But where exactly does blue become green? In this area only judgement can answer, and it will vary from person to person, without anyone being demonstrably right or wrong. But for the purposes of children playing with paints, or indeed teaching beginners swordsmanship, the spectrum is useless. We take exemplar versions of the thing in question and treat it as the thing itself. The blue in the tube of paint, the line of fendente in the book before us, become the “correct” version, the only true one. And this is what happens when swordsmanship meets game design. Nuance is lost, the thousand thousand subtle variations and shades are forced together under one lump heading. And that is fine, it’s what we do for beginners every day in the Salle.

The over-simplifications we use for communicating the Art to beginners are useful. So while a game based on swordsmanship cannot ever truly replicate the Art, there is no doubt in my mind that it is possible for such a thing to be a fair representation of the Art in another medium. Simulators for flight training are not flying, but they are very useful in pilot training. The difficulty we face when translating analogue swordsmanship to digital gaming is precisely where to draw those lines, how to chop up the spectrum into a paintbox.

The blows were an easy example. Flowcharts of move and countermove are much, much harder. Not least as they presuppose that every technique attempted will be a reasonable facsimile of the technique intended, something which anyone who has ever seen a fencing match, let alone a real swordfight, knows is pretty unlikely. Deriving general rules from the Art to the game is not hard— most swordsmanship styles have at their base a “if he does this, do that” heuristic structure. But any decent game must allow a degree of uncertainty. In our game, when the imaginary attack and parry meet, there is a built-in randomizer that determines whether the attack was beaten wide or remains close— so determining whether the defender can strike freely or must enter in. Neither player can control this, though the defender is in a better position to affect it. (When Samuli, the designer, told me about this over the phone I called him a genius. He did not disagree.)

We also introduce uncertainty by limiting the number of cards in the player’s hands. This reduces the number of blows the players can make, in a way that is not realistic, but it is a necessary condition of the game. If we allowed every player to make every blow, whenever they felt like it, there would be no gameplay. Instead, we would have an endless round of bish-bash-bosh, with no real structure or tactics. It would also be impossible to hold all those cards in your hand at once.

Within the constraints of a card game, there are compromises that have to be made, that are unnecessary when holding a sword. But on the other hand, there are compromises we make in training to avoid killing our training partners that are rendered unnecessary by the non-lethal nature of the cards (we will have killer art, but not killing cards). I will be discussing all these at my Realities of Steel lecture at Ropecon on Saturday 27th July, and we will be demoing the game there on Friday and Saturday from 4-6pm, and on Sunday from 12-2pm. You can also find the game's Facebook page here; we are working on the website even now. At the end of the month we expect to go live with an Indiegogo campaign to raise the funds to finish the game: the mechanics are done, but we will need pots of cash to finish the artwork, and for printing and shipping. Save your pennies, and watch this space!

The core idea behind this post is this: in most cases, it is better to have something that doesn't look right, but does its job, than something that might look better, but fails. (The function of the object or system may be decoration, in which case there is no distinction to be made.)

Swordsmanship offers many concrete examples of this general idea.

For many rapier students, the hand position for the guard seconda is difficult.

oksecondaand it tends to end up looking a bit like this:

So the first question to ask is, what is seconda for?

At this level, it has only one function. To close the outside line. So let's get that line as closed as possible, with a super-stable support system for the sword.

2013-06-19 19.52.432013-06-19 19.54.54

Nothing is getting through Janne's guard now! But it is not really seconda, is it? It is way too wide, and uses both hands. So we take the thing that works, and adapt it bit by bit to its proper form. First, only one hand.

2013-06-19 19.55.16Then bring back the left foot:

2013-06-19 19.55.302013-06-19 19.53.08

Then the hard bit: gradually develop the flexibility of elbow and wrist until the sword comes towards its proper place, without the sword slipping around in your grip:

2013-06-19 19.55.40

They key is to keep checking that the position is still firmly closing the line; all too often beginners will sacrifice its function for the sake of getting the hand in closer to the centre line. If the guard is supposed to be held like so, according to the instructions in the manual (eg Capoferro's Gran Simulacro), then one should work towards that position, once its function is understood.

As in swordsmanship, so in life. Function first, then form: form follows function. Which is why, when teaching form, I always start with applications, then string them together into the form. Form is by definition correct only when it fulfils its function.

If it looks good, that's a bonus.

You can read more about rapier forms here.

(with thanks to Janne Högdahl, whose seconda is pretty good these days.)


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