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Tag: general principles

Boldness is a key virtue in swordsmanship. Perhaps the key virtue. Under the Lion on the famous segno page, Fiore wrote “Piu de mi leone non porta core ardito. Por di bataglia fazo a zaschun invito”. Nobody has a bolder heart than I, the Lion. I call everyone to battle.

It is a key virtue, and one which can be trained for. I cover it in breadth and depth in my book Swordfighting, but didn’t include there the specific exercises we use in class to begin the study of boldness. In the women’s class I lead in Seattle recently, the participants explicitly requested boldness as a topic, so I took them through the following sequence. This was a longsword class in which most of the participants were relatively inexperienced, so these exercises were done relatively slowly.
The first step, always, is decide what you’re working on. In this case, boldness. So the only thing that matters (other than “everyone finishes class healthier than they started it”) is whether you are embodying that virtue in the constraints of the drill. It’s ok for technique and other things to suffer.
The flinch is the enemy. Your body’s instinctive jerking away from threat needs to be brought under control. For many people, simply having their personal space invaded is enough to make them flinch, but to train martial arts effectively, you have to get comfortable with people getting right up in your face. So we began with the standing step drill, in which two players face each other square on in a wide stance, touch wrists, and then try to make the other player take a step. Move a foot, you lose.

This involves pushing and being pushed, some arm locks, and once the first level is comfortable, you can introduce things like gentle face-slaps. Anything that does not threaten your position can be ignored, so it’s remarkable how quickly incidental contact, that would have created a flinch before, becomes something the players can simply choose not react to. It also gets everyone playing together in a useful way. The next level is to allow one step, in either attack or defence; you lose when you make a second foot movement.
This drill is all about standing your ground, grounding, tactics, misdirection, wrestling, locks, throws… it’s a very good way to get beginners into the game. It also caused a lot of hilarity in the class, which in the circumstances was a good thing; it broke the ice, and made being brave easier. I also covered what to do if you are much bigger and stronger, or more experienced: take it to the very edge of your balance, and play from there.
After this, we did some basic sword handling, so I could assess the level of the class as a whole, and then we got started with step one of first drill: defender on guard in tutta porta di ferro, the attacker strikes a mandritto fendente (controlled, of course) to the head. The defender does nothing.

That is hard. Don’t blink. Don’t flinch. Don’t even change your breathing. Stare over the attacker’s shoulder and do absolutely nothing as the blade touches your mask. We also do this exercise with no masks and no contact. It’s harder, for most people. The exercise should be done at the rate that maintains the difficulty for the defender, so long as that doesn’t take the attacker past the point where they can properly control their strike.
Now we have identified the problem, flinching, we have to set up exercises in which it will happen naturally, allowing you to practise preventing it, in circumstances of ever increasing complexity. Remain calm and dispassionate. It’s really better to get hit in training than to practise flinching, because every time you flinch, you are ingraining that response in your nervous system.
Once you can remain impassive against the attack, you can defend against it with much better precision, so from here, move on to the second step of the drill; actually defending yourself. Now it’s the attacker’s turn to be impassive about being struck.
Boldness is also about moving forwards against the threat. In the Lonin loft they have two car tyres hanging from the ceiling, which act as pells and striking targets, so from here we moved on to hitting the tyres: approaching boldly, striking hard and moving away under cover. This was fun, and should be trained regularly, not least to make you aware of just how hard you can hit.
We then went back to the pair drills, and worked on the attacker’s bold entry. During this time, I prepped one of the students, and then gave orders for the class to go as hard and fast as they could, with no masks, to really hit each other. A dangerous, stupid, thing to do with a class at this level. But the teacher was telling them to… and the student I had prepared beforehand said, quietly but firmly, “no”. I said “what the hell do you mean, no?”, and she replied “no, it’s too dangerous.”
It takes boldness to stand up to authority figures when they are not acting in your best interests, and as with all necessary skills, it can and should be trained for. Roleplaying the scenario can really help. So what the class saw was one of their own (boldly) saying no to a dangerous exercise, in defiance of my authority. That was probably much harder, required more boldness, than simply not flinching when a friend gently approached with a sword.
Training for boldness only works if the situation is one in which it is hard to be bold, but you can just manage it. It is especially important to emphasise that success is defined only by whether you manage to act in a way that demonstrates the virtue of boldness according to the scenario of the drill. No other factors are important. This is the key to successful training. In weightlifting, you either lift the weight the prescribed distance, or you don’t. Success is easy to define. When training for virtues, success is more difficult to pin down, which is why I like controlling the flinch as the starting point; it’s the easiest way to check on physical courage. We can take this out into the wider world too; let’s say you have difficulty talking to strangers, so you set yourself a task of asking one stranger for directions every day on your way to work. It doesn’t matter if you stammer, or if you forget what they tell you, or if they are rude, or any other thing; you did it if you went up to someone you don’t know and asked. Success is making the attempt.

Good morning, and Happy Monday.

When I got back to my salle last week, after a 3 month absence, I found two rather hastily constructed Marozzo stars on the floor, left over from Ilkka Hartikainen's Bolognese swordsmanship seminar. I have always liked the design (readers of my The Swordsman's Companion will remember there's a reproduction of it on page 82) and it makes teaching some footwork patterns much easier.

from the 1536 edition, in the Corble collection.
from the 1536 edition, in the Corble collection.

Plus, I love geometry.

So I decided to start by ripping up the crappier of the two stars (in peeling electrician's tape, not centred according to any logic, nor put together to within any identifiable tolerances, and clearly knocked up in 10 minutes at the beginning of a seminar), and redoing it to my standards. We started by drawing a straight line from one side of the salle to the other, parallel to the longest wall, and located by centering it on the wall pillars. This line was 629″ long [Europeans: 1 inch is 2.54 cm. Do the maths! When working with proportions, I always think in inches.], so we ran a tight string from one point to the other, and then I went along with a 4′ straight edge [1 foot is approx 30 cm] and an indelible marker.  Then Zoe, Janne and I spent nearly an hour deciding on exactly where the centre point of the star should be. We eventually settled on siting it so that the North point and the East point were both accurately aligned with the two thrusting targets fixed to the pillars. (The original was placed any old how.)

Marking the large circle

From there, using a trammel beam, my large self-made dividers (in ash wood), and a long straight edge, we drew the perpendicular line from the centre, and, most difficult, drew the large circle. It has a radius of 51″, because my inside leg measurement is 34″, and my long pace guard position varies between 32 and 37″ depending on circumstance. 34 x 3 = 102. 102/2=51. The inner, smaller circle has a radius of 17″.

I finished the star the next day. Marking the diagonals and so on was very simple. [If you would like me to write up full geometrical instructions, let me know and I'll shoot a video.] At the moment it is just in indelible pen. I will buy some floor paint and paint it in one day soon…

Anyhow, last Thursday I was in the salle, in a geometrical mood, when I got talking to Ville Tilvis (who readers of The Swordsman's Companion will know from the photos on pp 125-7) about the volta stabile. I do it as a 135 degree turn. That got Ville (a maths teacher) thinking… and he came up with a very elegant and (as he is the first to say) rather useless but (I think) extremely cool proof regarding the optimal ratio between guard width and guard length, for a perfect volta stabile. It's 1:1+√2, or approximately 1:2.41

Ville's triangles. Read the pdf if all is not perfectly clear!
Ville's triangles. Read the pdf if all is not perfectly clear!

So, given a guard length of eg 34″, measured from ball of the foot to ball of the foot, your feet should be 14.1″ apart.

You can download Ville's article here: volta-stabile geometry.

One of the mysteries surrounding German (i.e. Liechtenauer) and Italian (i.e. Fiore) unarmoured longsword combat (and I’m sure it keeps you awake at night too) is the different responses to a crossing at the middle of the sword (meza spada) in the two systems. At Fiore’s crossing of the swords in zogho stretto we see lots of entering with grips, pommel strikes and the like, whereas from the same starting point (swords crossed at the middles, some pressure in the contact, points threatening) Liechtenauer would have us wind, bind, or cut around (such as the twitch, zucken). My theory (and is it only a theory) is that the systems are optimised for slightly different weapons. Fiore’s longsword appears to be a little shorter than that used in the German manuscripts. (If you don't have examples to hand, you can find them at the  excellent Wiktenauer.)

It is is difficult to establish the size of the weapons from the illustrations in the manuals, but fortunately one Italian master, Filippo Vadi, explicitly determines the proportions of the sword in Chapter 2 of his De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi (Folio 4)

La spada vole avere iusta misura
Vole arivare el pomo sotto el brazio
Come qui apare nella mia scriptura.

The sword should be of the correct size,
The pommel should come under the arm
As it appears here in my writing.

(Translation here and below mine, from my The Art of Sword Fighting in Earnest)

Using Vadi's stated proportions, my sword should be 133cm (my floor-armpit measurement). If we measure the illustrations, we find that the longest sword (relative to the man holding it) is 1.31:1. I am 175cm tall: keeping this ratio, my sword should be 133.6cm long, and my floor-armpit measurement is 133cm. Pretty close: but this is the longest sword in the sample. In contrast, the swords in Fiore appear to be a bit shorter. (There is no hard evidence for this.)

In Vadi’s explanatory chapters on the art of the sword, he makes several references to techniques that re clearly Fiorean, but also many to techniques that appear to be very similar to Liechtenauer. For instance, he describes at length the way to play at the meza spada, and includes the following:

On folio 11V
Ragion de giocho de spada. Capitolo XI
Theory of Swordplay chapter XI

Qvando tu sei amezza spada gionto.
Facendo tu el diritto o voi el riverso.
Farai che piglie el verso.
Di quel chio dico poi che sei al ponto.

When you have arrived at the half sword,
Making a mandritto or roverso,
Be sure to grasp the sense
Of what I say, because it is to the point.

Si tuui steggie tien pur lochio pronto
Et fa la uista brive con coverta.
Et tien la spada erta.
Che sopra el capo tuo le braccie gioche.

When you feint keep a sharp eye out,
And make the feint short, with the cover,
And hold the sword up,
So your arms play above your head.

So when crossed at the meza spada, we leave the crossing to strike. Lifting your hands up at this point seems to indicate exactly the kind of winding action we see in the Liechtenauer material.
We can even feint on one side and strike on the other:

On folio 12V

Ragion de mezza spada.. C. XIII
Theory of the half-sword.

Essendo tu pur gionto ameza spada
Tu po bem piu et piu volte martelare
Da un sol lato trare
Da laltra parte le tue viste vada.

Having then arrived at the half sword,
You can well hammer more and more times,
Striking on only one side,
Your feints go on the other side.

The problem is of course that all this is being done in circumstances where as Fioreans, we would only enter because the leave the crossing would mean being immediately struck (the defining feature of zogho stretto). But here’s the thing: with the longer swords, the situation is different. The extra length, only a few inches at most, nonetheless changes the game completely. To illustrate this I shot a short video with my student Ilpo Luhtala. The swords we used for the Fiorean crossing were an Arms and Armor Fechterspiele, at 123cm (48 1/2”) and a 117cm (46”) Pavel Moc Embleton (old version, the new ones are longer). We then switched to longer swords, about the right length for Vadi: a Peter Regenyi fechterspiele at 135cm (53”) and an Angus Trim sharp at 130cm (51”). As you can see in the video, with the shorter swords, crossed at the meza spada in measure to strike without stepping, it is easy to enter in, and very dangerous to leave the crossing, even for an instant. The points are very close to our faces. With the slightly longer swords (about 10-12% longer), the game changes completely, and there is time to safely cut around, provided you make a small motion, a “turn of the wrist”:

El mzzo tempo est solo uno suoltare
De nodo: presto et subito alferrire
E raro po falire
Quando le fatto con bona mesura

The half tempo is just one turn
Of the wrist: quick and immediately striking,
It can rarely fail
When it is done in good measure.

And we must close the line and strike with a single motion, as Vadi demands:

De tucta larte questo sie el givello
Perche inun tracto el ferrissi et para
O quanto e coxa cara
A praticarlo con bona ragione
E facte portar de larte el gonfalone.

Of all the art this is the jewel,
Because in one go it strikes and parries.
Oh what a valuable thing,
To practice it according to the good principles,
It will let you carry the banner of the Art.

You can find the rest of the translation free here:

Or even buy the book! The Art of Sword Fighting in Earnest

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