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Tag: sword texts

I have just created a syllabus for creating a syllabus. You read that right. The end product of my Recreate Historical Swordsmanship from Historical Sources course is a complete syllabus for the style of swordsmanship that you are researching. You can see the spiffy video intro here:

I created this course because many people have difficulty approaching the academic side of HEMA; the original sources can seem daunting, and figuring out how to approach them and develop a live training system from their pages is a major challenge for anyone. The course provides the assistance that beginner researchers need to help them get  a working syllabus out of a fencing manual.

I have been creating syllabi for a long time; the seed of the current Swordschool syllabus was planted in a seminar I taught in Turku in 2001. I followed my instinct and in the course of the day, came up with five core drills. The only one of them that has survived almost intact is the current “Second Drill”. I won’t embarrass myself by describing the rest. They were state of the art in 2001, but in those days historical swordsmanship was developing faster than computer technology. We have come a long way.

While I have created many syllabi, I have never taught syllabus creation as a specific skill before so this has been mind-meltingly hard to pin down. I cracked it when I realised that I needed to define the end-point first, and then create the structure that would lead students to it. This part of the course is in three sections: Create the Cornerstone, Build the Foundation, and Construct the Syllabus. You begin by reducing the material to one key drill, then expand that to a small set of easily memorised drills, then use them as a framework for building the rest of the system. The three sections of the course should have been written in reverse order. As it happens, I began with the first section “Create the Cornerstone”. It covers how drills should be designed, what they are for, and how to figure out which elements of your system should be included in the most foundational drill in your system. But the next stage “Build the Foundation” had me stumped for a long time. I know how to do it, I’ve done it many times. But I couldn’t figure out how to explain it. Then it came to me: start with the end. So I wrote up how to create an entire syllabus (in “Construct your Syllabus”), and then worked back from there to explain how to create the foundation of that syllabus.

The course also covers choosing a source to work from, analysing its context, analysing the source, developing a basic interpretation, fencing theory, and a ton of other material.

I know some novelists who always start with the last scene of the novel, so they know where the book is going. Others who start from the first scene, and have no idea where they’re going, and yet others who plan the whole book out scene by scene and don’t write a line until they have the whole structure. I think that the students on this course will probably have the same mix of personalities as my writer friends— it strikes me as a universal human phenomenon. Clearly, when it comes to creating this course, I’m a start at the beginning, switch to the end, and then fill in the middle sort of person! I also used a completely new (to me) technique: I shot a first draft of the video, sent it off for transcription, then edited the transcription into a script for the video that ended up being published. It seems to work by  engaging parts of my mind I'd had trouble bringing to bear on the problem.

You can see the course curriculum here (scroll down); a lot of it is free to access, so take a look!


The Prudentia virtue, from the Audatia Duel Deck Nikodemus Kariensis.

There are few things that all martial artists agree on, but I think this may be one of them: “it’s easier to fight someone if you know exactly what they are going to do”. To predict their actions. To see the future. This skill is one of the aspects that marks an experienced fighter in any discipline. They can read their opponent and see what they are about to do; but also they can create the situation so that the opponent is lead into a trap. Fiore de’ Liberi knew about this perfectly well back in the 14th century: it’s one of the four virtues he says a swordsman should possess. Avvisamento (foresight) in the Getty ms, Prudentia  (prudence) in the Pisani-Dossi and the Paris mss. For what is prudence if not the ability to foresee danger and avoid it?

Meglio de mi lovo cervero non vede creatura

Eaquello mette sempre a sesto e a misura.

No creature sees better than I, the lynx

And this virtue puts everything in its right place and its measure. (Tr. Tom Leoni)

Foresight is a virtue and a skill, and it can and should be trained. As you probably guessed, I have a well-developed system for doing exactly that. It relies as always on starting very simple, and gradually increasing complexity, while always focussing precisely on the one thing you’re working on. Because the virtue is first discussed in fencing literature in Il Fior di Battaglia, it makes sense to use longsword for my example, but you should be able to apply this to any martial art. This is the bare bones of the three-step process.

Step one: establish the base

1) Set up a basic drill. We’ll use first drill as an example:

2) Set up a simple variation, ideally with the defender responding differently: such as a counterattack, rather than a parry. (Such as in the Stretto form of first drill).

3) The attacker’s job is to counter the defence; either parry the counterattack, or strike on the other side of the parry (as here in our set drills).

At this stage the attacker is just watching the defender, and the defender is just feeding the attacker one defence then the other. No variations. Ok, we have established our base.

Step two: create controlled complexity.

1) The defender now varies their defence, so that the attacker doesn’t know which one he will pick.

2) The attacker’s job is to predict the defence. If she counters it, then great, that’s a bonus. But we’re working on the skill of foresight, not the application of that skill. The attacker makes five attacks, and counts how many times she accurately predicted which of the two things the defender would do.

3) Change roles, 5 attacks, 5 defences. Try to be as random as possible.

4) Use the rule of c’s* to adjust the level of the drill so that the attacker has difficulty predicting the defence.

In a perfect world, you can always predict exactly what your opponent will do, and set things up so that if he does anything else, it will fail naturally, and if he does what you expect, he falls onto your prepared counter.

Step three: reduce their options

1) The attacker adjusts her attack so that the counterattack will naturally fail. In this example, that means aiming the mandritto fendente slightly further over to the left, and stepping slightly across the strada to the attacker’s left. There is no hole to counterattack into. So the defender either parries, or their action will fail.

2) The attacker adjusts her attack to invite the counterattack, by swinging the mandritto fendente round, offline a bit to the right. If the invitation is accepted, the attacker parries the counterattack; if it is declined, and the defender parries, their parry will be wider than usual, making the attacker’s counter much easier.

3) To start with, exaggerate these adjustments to the attack, and co-operate in the responses. Once the idea is clear in both player’s minds, they should ramp it up a bit.

4) Once this is going well, the attacker’s job becomes simply to predict the defender’s actions, and the defender’s job is to respond naturally to the attack with one of the two options. As before, use the rule of c’s to adjust the level of difficulty until the attacker is getting it right about four times out of five.

And finally: add complexity

So far so good. We have a drill in which there is only one degree of freedom; the defender’s action. Everything else is set; the roles of attacker and defender, the attack, the two defences, everything. So now apply the variation engines: “who moves first”, “add a step”, and “degrees of freedom” that you know from Preparing for Freeplay or The Medieval Longsword, to add complexity to the point where the attacker can only get it right three or four times out of five. This might be as simple as step three above, or as complex as full-on freeplay.

Be very clear about what you are training: if you are working on foresight, success = “I predicted exactly what they would do”. It doesn’t matter if you got hit or not. Of course, as your foresight improves, not getting hit should be a lot easier than before.

One more thing:

As you probably know, Audatia is based on Fiore's art. And it totally killed me that we couldn't have Prudentia being used to make the opponent show their hand. The closest we come to that is in this brilliant card, Eye of the Lynx, in the Boucicault deck:


*The rule of c’s is in The Medieval Longsword, and Preparing for Freeplay, and written out in this blog post here.

Yesterday I went to visit my friend Peter Mustonen. He’s an arms dealer; but our kind of arms dealer: gorgeous antique swords, knives, guns, armour, shields; you name it, he has a delicious example. I spent some time playing with swords, you know, as one does.

A Stantler sword, from 1580-1600. Original grip, original everything, beautiful specimen. You could stab it through anything.

While I was there he mentioned finding a book I might have an interest in. Nothing special, just a book.

Just a copy of the 1902 Novati edition of Il Fior di fucking Battaglia.

Let me put this in some perspective for you. My first encounter with Fiore was through fifth generation photocopies of the facsimile section of this book. This was the book that introduced Fiore to the modern world, and lead us to find the Getty, the Morgan, and eventually the Paris copies of the manuscript.

It contains a lengthy scholarly introduction to the work,

From Novati's introduction; a picture of Liechtenauer!

And a complete facsimile of the Pisani-Dossi manuscript (to date the only copy of that manuscript that we know of; the original is yet to re-surface), with a complete transcription.

The facsimile itself.

From a HEMA perspective, this is the book that launched a thousand scholari.

Now it belongs to me.

This means that as soon as I reasonably can, I’ll produce high quality photos or scans and distribute them. I might also produce a paperback reproduction of the whole thing, if there’s a market for it.

Just a short post today, because I have to go change my trousers. And, I have a book to read…

Tell your friends, tell everyone working on Fiore; this book is now OURS!!

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.

Just one of McBane's splendid tricks

I am currently digitising a metric fuck-ton of paper, prior to moving to the UK. If you're interested in the actual process of going more-or-less paperless, then I'll be happy to post it here in detail; let me know in the comments below (here. I don't necessarily see every comment on Twitter or Facebook). This procedure is, as you may imagine, somewhat tedious but there are moments of pleasure that more than make up for it.

Finding this banknote was one such.

I found it in a chest of drawers I was restoring maybe 18 years ago, and it's been following me about ever since. I have no use for it, so I asked if anyone on Facebook wanted it. That generated more than one response, so I was faced with choosing fairly who to give it to. In the end, the most elegant solution I could come up with was to ask for mailing addresses from the people who wanted it, and then randomised who would get it. Three people sent me their addresses, so I wrote out three notes, and put them into three envelopes, one with the banknote too. I then shuffled the envelopes, before writing the addresses on them; I had no idea who would get it. One envelope went to Helsinki, one to Salt Lake City, and one to Vancouver. I'm looking forward to finding out who got it!

[Update: the note went to Jordan Hinckley in Salt Lake City. Congrats!]

I have also come across an essay I wrote in 1995 for Dr Jonquil Bevan's class on the portrayal of character in 17th century literature. I had been working on historical swordsmanship research for a couple of years by that point, and had found a copy of Donald McBane's Expert Sword-man's Companion in the National Library of Scotland. I persuaded Dr. Bevan that it would make an excellent subject for my class essay. For those unfamiliar with the term, “pander” is an old term for “pimp”.

The Gallant Pander

This copy actually has Dr. Bevan's notes on it, which brings up a very worthwhile point. Some of my readers have been kind enough to say I'm a good writer. If that's true, then it is at least in part because I've had legions of good teachers who have read and critiqued my work in the past. You'll notice from this essay that my writing style has changed somewhat, but you'll also notice that there are several places where I make unsubstantiated claims, and Dr. Bevan points them out, as well as correcting some points of grammar.

I'm finding lots of similar things, like articles I wrote back in the nineties, old newspaper clippings from the early days of the DDS, in fact just enough cool stuff to keep me at it.

Alright, it's back to the scanner for me. I hope you enjoy the essay; let me know what you think of it!


I am usually late to any party held on the internet, because I don't go looking for stuff, and I am pretty cavalier about things like facebook. Which means, much to my chagrin, that I didn't even hear about the MIGHTY WIKTENAUER Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for their vital work until after it was all over. All is not lost though; they have taken advantage of Indiegogo's InDemand option to make their campaign open-ended; you can still get in there and buy stuff!

One of the perks on the campaign is a concordance of the four versions of Il Fior di Battaglia, complete with all of the free translations etc currently available. I got sent a copy of volume one, which goes from the beginning up to the end of the sword in one hand section, a couple of days ago because it includes (with my permission, of course!) my transcription and translation of the introduction and 16 chapters of theory of Vadi's De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, as published in my Veni Vadi Vici. I have not even begun to go through this 280 page labour of love, but just looking at it makes me quake at the amount of work that has gone into it.  The idea is to gather all the information from each of the manuscripts about every technique. Here for instance is the page detailing the 11th (in the Getty MS) play of the sword in one hand:

all four images of this play.

Where a given action is in only three, two, or one of the manuscripts, that's what you see. And that by itself is really useful to know.

This is of course extremely useful for practitioners, and absolutely everyone who does Fiore should buy both volumes. Before you rush of to do so though, I do have a couple of caveats:

These volumes do not include the manuscripts in their original order. This means that you get no sense of the book as a whole when using this concordance. In a perfect world, these would come with copies of the manuscripts intact as well; but you can download them (free) from the wiktenauer anyway, or pay a bit extra to get a package of the manuscripts of your choice sent to you. I would not recommend anyone to use the concordance who does not also have access to the un-edited un-altered manuscripts.

There are lots of problems with the translations; the one that jumped out at me when I scanned through the book was Posta Frontale translated as “the guard of the headband”, which is nonsense: frontale has been used to mean the headband on a bridle (see the Vocabolario della Crusca's entry on the word. Go to Lemmi, then to F, then Fronte, and scroll down.) but then it would be “posta di frontale” or something like it. Frontale, used in this way without a preposition is an adjective; this is “frontal guard” or something like it. Like “posta longa” is “long guard” (“extended” in this translation), and “posta di dente di zenghiaro” is the “guard of the boar's tooth”.

It is very easy to criticise, of course. And I can attest from experience that as soon as you put your work out there, especially for free, a whole lot of assholes will come out of the woodwork to shoot it down. But, some of those assholes are right in some of their criticisms. And not all of the critics are assholes. By putting your work out there to be shot at, you can find the parts that need to be fixed. I would strongly recommend anyone who uses this concordance to remember that the translations have been released for free by hard-working members of the community, to further the art. And if you can't read Fiore's words in their original language, then you have no choice but to rely on those who can. So gratitude first, criticism second. I would recommend also getting a copy of Tom Leoni's translation (currently on backorder), which is the most accurate currently available (though Tom and I have had long discussions about certain passages; he tends to modernise and elide more than I care for). But look who's talking! My own Veni Vadi Vici is so sadly riddled with errors that I am working on a second edition with far fewer mistakes (I hope). Expect a version of it to be released in a few months.

I have just bought volume two of the Fiore concordance; it is a mere 50 USD. A lot for an ebook, you might think; but this isn't an ebook. It's a way to show support; it's a useful resource; it's putting my money where my mouth is.

So let me conclude with this: absolutely nobody in the history of the renaissance of historical swordsmanship that we are currently enjoying has done more to further the availability of the manuscripts and other sources that we all depend on for the bit that makes what we do historical than the Wiktenauer team. They absolutely deserve our support. And with these concordances (two volumes on Fiore, one on Liechtenauer), they have produced tools that a generation of medieval combat practitioners will find invaluable. Go! Be generous!

And a very happy New Year to you all!

How to light and throw a grenade, according to Girard. How did you ever get by without this information before now?

I love books, and swords, and books about swords. Especially old books about swords. Through a series of happy chances, I own an original copy of Salvator Fabris' Scienza e Pratica d'Arme from 1606, a third edition of Achille Marozzo's Arte dell'Armi from 1568, and a second edition of P.J.F. Girard's Traité des Armes from 1740. “Bugger off you lucky sod”, you might very well say, and I wouldn't blame you. They are gorgeous, and a solid physical connection between us and the history and sources of arts we practice. They are also works of art in their own right, and as such are part of our common cultural heritage. Which is why I spent all day yesterday, with my friend and amateur photographer Petteri Kihlberg, photographing every page of all of them, at high resolution. The raw files are about 16mb per page, and the resolution is pretty damn good. Just setting up took two hours. You can get some idea of the results here:

Page 56 of Scienza, with a zoom-in on the poor chap being stabbed.


The process illuminated some interesting aspects of the books, such as this error in printing on page 112 of Scienza e Pratica:

Plate 77, covering plate 75.

The original printing had plate 75 repeated in place of plate 77, and so they cut and pasted (with real paste!) plate 77 on top. Over the centuries the paste has weakened a little, and the top corner has come a little loose, allowing us to see underneath.

The end results of yesterday's labours is about 1000 images to process. I will re-order (because we had to shoot all verso pages, then all recto pages, or it would have taken even longer), rotate and crop them, and put them online for you to download for free. Merry Christmas!

Only don't get too excited yet. This is a ton of work, and what with my crowdfunding campaign for the new Longsword book (which runs until December 24th), and my daughter's seventh birthday on Monday, and the whole Christmas thing, and writing the next new book, this may take a while to finish. My intention is to put all of the images up in decent-sized cropped jpgs as soon as I can, and if anyone needs the full-size raw files (for example for printing poster-sized prints, or producing a facsimile edition of any of these books), I'll then find a way to upload them too. They are simply too big (about 4GB per book) to host here or on my webshop.

These are your birthright. I hope you will make good use of them.

Last November I finally made a long-awaited pilgrimage to the antiquarian bookshop Collinge and Clark. They have by a long way the best collection of fencing treatises for sale in London; not one but two copies of Fabris, for instance. And the 1763 first edition (in French) of Domenico Angelo’s Ecole des Armes. I was in there for about three hours, chatting to Oliver Clark. And I looked at everything. Many times.

I was upfront about one thing though; I had promised my wife that there would be no more treatise purchases until after the new kitchen was bought, fitted, and paid for. So I wouldn't be buying anything. Really.

Then Oliver suddenly remembered something… At the back of a dusty drawer was a pile of unbound paper. I held my breath as he pulled them out and laid them on the table. It couldn’t be! It was! An unbound copy of the 1740 edition of P.J.F. Girard’s Traité des Armes, one of my absolute favourite fencing treatises. Not least because Girard was an officer in the marines, and includes such things as how to light and throw a grenade.

That is a man holding a ball full of gunpowder and a length of slow match. i.e. an open flame. Brave?

The pile was missing the title page and the dedication to the king, but other than that was complete.

So I asked him what he wanted for it, and he thought for a moment and came back with a very reasonable offer. But I am a man of my word, and asked him to please not sell it to anyone else until I’d fitted my bloody kitchen.

When I got back to my sister’s, I told her and her husband about my glorious find. And my sister, bless her, in a characteristic fit of generosity, offered to buy the pages for me for a Christmas present! I nearly collapsed in a paroxysm of glee.

But my promise still held; no treatises until after kitchen.

I spent much of May and some of June this year fitting a new kitchen, shiny and open and lovely. Really, it’s a nice kitchen. And I was soooo motivated to get it done. A family event took us back to London in July, and I was off like a shot to Collinge and Clark…

Oliver was unflatteringly surprised to see me. Perhaps he underestimated my kitchen-fitting skills?

I had Oliver send the pages to his preferred bookbinder, Chris Hicks. And it occurred to me that there was an opportunity to make the book whole again. Because in the Helsinki University Library special collection there are both the 1736 first edition, and the 1740 second edition, both in their original bindings. So I asked my friend Jaakko Tahkokallio, who just so happens to be the head of the collection, to scan the missing pages from the 1740, and the front matter from the 1736 (it has an additional one page preface, a snazzy etching of the author, and differs in some other minor details). I sent these scans to Chris, with a note about where they came from. Chris printed them out onto the right kind of paper, and put the title page and dedication at the front, then my note and the front matter from the 1736 at the back.

Then he bound the whole in quarter leather, and, as I asked him to, made it look like the bindings typical of the mid 18th century.

This glorious, restored, rebound book arrived on Monday last week. My goodness, that Mr Hicks knows his craft.

Here are some images from the book.

The cover; quarter leather with marbled paper.

The last page of the 1740, showing some of Chris' repair work.

The facing page is my explanatory text, detailing where I got the book and the missing pages. Classic stuff!

The spine, showing the black labels with gold lettering.

And you can download the complete book, which I scanned in last year for Phil Crawley (who was doing a translation, which you can get here), with this handy button from my webshop:



This project is right on every level. We (Oliver, Chris, my sister and I) have saved a valuable part of our shared martial heritage; we have supported a master craftsman in the practice of his work; we have brought a book back to glorious life.


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…

Thanks to the success of my recent crowdfunding campaign, where I actually got paid for writing one of my books (yes, it is unusual), I had some spare cash. I could have done something sensible, like drop it into the bottomless pit that is my mortgage, but inspired by my recent trip to Verona, I decided to invest it in a 16th or 17th century Italian swordsmanship manual. There was a copy of Achille Marozzo's Arte dell'Armi on sale at Eric Chaim Kline booksellers in Los Angeles, and thanks to the weak dollar, it was actually pretty cheap. For certain values of cheap. More than my car, less than my armour. (Which tells you something else about my priorities in life!)

One of the rationalisations that helped me to buy this book was the thought that my and my colleagues' work on historical swordsmanship actually increases the value of these books; for the same reason that famous paintings are worth more than unknown ones. So I can actually affect the value of this “investment”.

You can believe that if you like: I am certainly trying to.

Anyway, in the grand tradition of the internet, here is the now-obligatory unboxing video. Gosh, I wasn't excited at all!



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Max Your Lunge

I wrote Max Your Lunge in 2007, long before this blog was conceived. It’s past