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Each media–the written word, the illustration, the motion picture–has a unique ability to convey action. A novel can not only describe but explain swordplay in action; an illustration can bring a moment in time to life and make an entire action timeless; a motion picture can show action as it unfolds and as we might see it were it real.
Of all three, by turning the written description or static illustration into moving action, film may have left us with our most indelible memories and tropes of the duel on the beach. Or so I argue tenuously, for several written descriptions and illustrations come to mind that likewise bring forth indelible memories.
With fiction we must imagine the duel, even when when well-described (but almost always imperfectly nonetheless) and accompanied by the paintings of Howard Pyle or N. C. Wyeth. Written descriptions may suggest extraordinary action, yet even if it’s described accurately and in detail it’s likely that only those who’ve studied swordplay can picture it well in their mind’s eye. Written explanations almost always slow the action down, providing a false tempo and, in the worst cases, a distraction.
Accompanying illustrations can only suggest action. But don’t get me wrong! Often a written description or a painting is far more evocative than a poorly choreographed film duel.
But in film we get to see the duelists move before our eyes. They lunge, parry, and riposte. They plot and execute, they snarl and rejoice. They are living swords actively arrayed in combat before us. And they are often even more dangerously and joyfully inspiring than their descriptions in fiction or accompanying paintings!
This is part three of a five-part series on the duel on the beach in fiction and film. Part one discusses the duel on the beach in fiction, part two the duel in The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini. It’s worth reading both before this post, but this isn’t absolutely necessary. In this post we’ll take a look at an overview of the duel on the beach in film, with some commentary as well on film duel choreography and especially on one vital aspect of it and all swordplay: tempo.
Actors as Fencers
The actual filming of a duel can take days, and the preparation is typically extensive, beginning with a detailed written play followed by, usually, exhaustive rehearsal. I’ll provide more details on this process in the Golden Age of Film in part four, and look at actors as fencers and at tempo here instead.
Only rarely are actors actually also skilled fencers. From the Golden Age of Film just two come to mind: Cornell Wilde, a Hungarian-born US national saber champion and Olympic qualifier who just prior to the Olympic Games gave up competitive fencing for the theater and soon film, and Basil Rathbone, a studious British amateur who enjoyed swordplay and studied for five years under famous film fencing master Ralph Cavens, after having studied under famous fencing masters Félix Gravé and Léon Bertrand in the UK.
Others have managed to look the part well, with actual skill ranging from none to a little, including Danny Kaye in The Court Jester and Gene Kelly in The Three Musketeers. It surely helped that both were dancers, although for real swordplay, as opposed to choreographed, re-enacted, or fake, it helps even more to be able to sense tempo or rhythm and then break it, by which means one may steal distance and time on one’s adversary, setting him or her up to be hit at the precise moment he or she is least prepared.
I’ve had students who were both excellent dancers and excellent fencers, but also those who were excellent dancers but awful fencers, entirely unable to do anything but follow their adversary’s rhythm or a simple rhythm of their own, to their great peril. A number of them could only imitate, not tactically improvise. And to be fair, I’ve had some students who were excellent fencers but awful dancers, unable to keep to a rhythm for more than a few beats–they had long been taught not to. (I’ve even been accused of this.) They could easily sense the rhythm but only with effort could they maintain it, for by training, even instinct, they wanted to break it.
Errol Flynn, famous alongside Douglas Fairbanks as the most swashbuckling of film swashbucklers, admitted in his autobiography My Wicked Wicked Ways that he was no swordsman:
“I don’t know much about fencing, but I know how to make it look good. You only have to stand still and look forward, your head proud, and let the sword point straight out, you and the sword both unmoving, and it is dramatic. Let the sword point dip two inches, and the gesture can look very clever and dangerous.”
Our five-year-old has already, quite naturally, mastered this en garde. An old school epeeist, close friend of mine, retired Byzantine iconographer, and portrait artist at present, Elias Katsaros,* still uses this en garde, often with the point dropped a couple inches as Flynn described; it’s highly effective for him and although approaching eighty years old, he can still give elite fencers fits with his old school dueling style of epee fencing. Flynn’s comment reflects the following description by William Higford in his book Institutions: Or, Advice to His Grandson, 1658:
“The bravest gentlemen of arms, which I have seen, were Sir Charles Candis, and the now Marquis of Newcastle, his son, Sir Kenelm Digby, and Sir Lewis Dives, whom I have seen compose their whole bodies in such a posture, that they seemed to be a fort impregnable.”
At the opposite extreme is the admonition of Dr. Eugene Hamori, my fencing master of many decades: in the en garde one should appear as if always in motion, always attacking, at all times. It goes without saying that one can appear simultaneously as both a fort impregnable and constantly on the attack. But I digress.
The reality is that, then and now, most actors were not fencers but imitators who followed a carefully choreographed routine. This is vital not only for the logistics of filming but for safety too.
Fencing Tempo: Reality Versus Cinema
If there’s one aspect of cinematic duels that often drives me crazy, it’s the obvious overuse of what might best be termed the “false tempo of choreography” in film swordplay. Some background first, so please bear with me. If you find this too technical or tedious, you can just skip straight to the films themselves.
Classical tempo, or, more accurately, true tempo, sometimes called timing, is the most vital of all aspects of swordplay. Every fencing master has his or her own definition, but basically it can be defined as the most opportune time to make a fencing action, usually an offensive one–that is, the moment when my opponent is for a brief moment helpless–without my also getting hit. False tempo or false time is any other tempo. Not getting hit means exactly that: not getting hit at all. Hits excluded by the rules of fencing or by the timing of a scoring machine would still be hits if the swords were real.
Fencing tempo may be divided into physical and psychological tempo, the latter consisting of moments of inattention, over-attention, or distraction, either by the adversary’s own action, or induced–“putting the opponent to sleep” for example–in him or her. Closely associated with tempo is cadence or rhythm.
Zoltan Beke and Jozsef Polgar’s definition of fencing tempo in The Methodology of Sabre Fencing (Budapest: Corvina, 1963) is one of the best I’ve read and is what I was taught, far more often unconsciously through lessons than consciously through lecture, by both of my Hungarian masters:
“In fencing, under the concept of tempo we include that suitable moment, at which the opponent is helpless against our fencing action. It is not enough just to recognize the moment which favours the surprising of our opponent, it must be felt. Seeing in itself is not enough, because by the time we perceive it and make our decision to act, the actual moment may have passed or the position of the opponent may have changed to our disadvantage. // In practice, we also interpret tempo as a unit of time [one cadence, or one unit of fencing time]… // In the instruction of tempo attention should be devoted to both these interpretations.”
Physical tempo is often divided into hand tempo and foot tempo, particularly in the early stages of instruction. For example, a very simple instance of hand tempo: my adversary moves hand and sword laterally from the sixte position outside to the quart position inside. Anticipating this, I attack with a disengage into the opening sixte line at the moment the hand and sword begin to move, so that my point lands as my opponent’s hand and sword arrive in the quarte position. If I wait until my adversary’s hand and sword are in the quarte position to attack, he or she has the tempo–a full cadence–in which to defend against my attack. Or, I make a simple attack as my opponent starts to lower their hand, opening the line. Again, I don’t wait until the line is entirely open.
In practice, hand and foot tempo go–forgive me–hand-in-hand. One must time them both, although often one or the other predominates. For example, I may have superior blade-work against a particular adversary, leaving me to concentrate largely on finding the foot tempo with which to make the attack, and vice versa.
In sum, I want to attack in anticipation of my adversary’s movements, keeping a full cadence ahead, resulting in his or her inability to defend in time. Again, vitally, this tempo must also aid in protecting me so I don’t also get hit, and leave me in position to recover quickly or secure my adversary’s sword so I’m not hit immediately afterward (Sir Wm. Hope called such “double” hits exchanged hits).
True fencing tempo is not the tempo of a game of tag!
Similarly foot tempo. Ideally I will attack when my adversary begins his or her advance, because for a moment there is nowhere to go while the foot is in the air. The opponent is temporarily helpless to escape. Further, if my adversary is preparing an attack, they may be over-focused on it, providing me with psychological tempo in addition. They’re distracted, in other words, by their preparation. Or I can attack with an accelerating movement (usually an advance-lunge) if my adversary fails to retreat as I advance, or retreats too slowly. Again, for a brief moment my opponent is helpless to escape. Or, I can attack during my adversary’s recovery from an attack, for here psychological tempo also plays a significant role–the recovering adversary is not only typically slower than the attacker, but they tend to believe they are safer during the recovery than at the exact moment the attack has failed, and tend to let their guard down, particularly if their opponent has not previously attacked during recovery.
But there are other forms of tempo, the rules of each weapon creating them. Although classical or true tempo still applies to a degree, modern foil and saber are also governed by an artificial or false tempo of convention, also known as “right of way” rules, in theory derived from reality and true tempo but in practice suicidal, given that they now permit attacks in invitation (with the sword in a non-threatening position, that is) which with a real sword would often result in impalement.
In modern epee, the timing of the scoring machine creates a false tempo that often takes priority over true tempo, turning it into a game of hit at least a 20th to 25th of a second before getting hit, rather than hit and not get hit. Often the majority of epee touches would be double hits were the weapons real. Again, although true tempo still plays an important role in all three weapons, it is often, unfortunately, overshadowed or even superseded by the tempos created by the rules governing the weapon.
This has long been a problem even in the days in which swords were worn and duels were fought: “…because whoever will be but at the Trouble to visit the Fencing-schools, shall scarcely see one Assault of ten, made either by Artists against Artists, or Artists against Ignorants, but what is so Composed and made up of Contre-temps [double touches resulting from an attack into an attack, or from simultaneous attacks], that one would think the greatest Art they learn, and aime at, is to strive who shall Contre-temps oftnest…” (Sir William Hope, The Sword-Man’s Vade-Mecum, 1694.) Even three centuries ago, fencers in schools tended toward tag rather than true tempo.
There is also the false tempo of the fencing master whose goal is to get hit, unlike the fencer whose goal ideally is to not get hit. The fencing master, in other words, provides opportunities for the student to hit: he or she uses false tempo–often via exaggeration, hesitation, other error, or all of these–to train true tempo. (But he or she also uses true tempo when necessary, for example to surprise a student making a repeated error.) As an old friend, an outstanding foilist in his youth, an outstanding epeeist later, now also a retired French army colonel, put it when he first met me: “I love to fence fencing masters and teachers, they always fence like they’re giving a lesson: they hesitate and I hit them!” He was quite correct. Even so, he never won more than half his bouts against me, in spite of my teaching handicap, for the tendency to hesitate can, with practice, be suppressed, not to mention that friendly competitive Gallic arrogance can motivate an opponent. I fenced some of my favorite bouts against him.
Last, we have the false tempo of film fencing choreography, best described by famed film fencing master Fred Cavens:
“For the screen, in order to be well photographed and also grasped by the audience, all swordplay should be so telegraphed with emphases that the audience will see what’s coming.” (Fred Cavens quoted in “Swordplay on the Screen” by film historian and film swordplay commentator Rudy Behlmer in Films in Review, June-July 1965.)
But if the audience can see it coming, so in reality can the adversary, and far more easily!
At its best, with great action and editing, this false tempo of choreography is less noticeable. At other times it is awful and drives fencers like me crazy as we spot numerous opportunities in which we would have attacked or defended had we been in the duel ourselves. Worse, the clearly weaker fencer often wins per the script (watch The Spanish Main, for example). In such choreography’s defense, much of this has to do with safety, the lack of skill of many actors (although the unskilled were often doubled as much as possible), and as Cavens noted, to help the audience understand what’s going on.
Even so, film swordplay can be exciting without resorting to this false tempo–but this takes skilled actors, skilled fight choreographers, and skilled editors, not to mention willing directors. In most cases these days, in spite of a fair number of capable fight directors, film swordplay is of the “hack and slash, make it look rock and roll” variety. Trite and lazy, in other words, if exciting at times to the uninitiated.
Or, as one well-experienced Hollywood stuntman, swordsman, and film swordplay choreographer put it, “You do what the director wants, however ridiculous, or you get fired.” Fred Cavens once walked off the set after a director insisted on filming a swordfight with one of the actors standing on a table: in reality, the swordsman would be unable to defend himself adequately from adversaries cutting and thrusting at his feet and legs. Sometimes even Hollywood antics are too much.
Most directors these days don’t seem to care about exciting, accurate swordplay. Even so, we can hope and dream, and enjoy those few films that do still occasionally elevate swordplay to the degree those of us who follow the sword desire.
Now to the film duels on the beach!
To Have and to Hold, 1922
Based on the novel by Mary Johnston, a writer who had significant influence on Rafael Sabatini, this 1922 Paramount version is lost as is the 1916 Paramount version. Remakes were as common then as now–why not beat a dead horse if it’s profitable? We have no cinematic details on the duel on the beach in either version to my knowledge.
This fictional duel is perhaps best-known today for Howard Pyle’s painting of the duel for command in the novel, between gentleman hero and the last of three pirate villains he fights one after the other, on what is known today as Fisherman’s Island off Cape Charles, Virginia. Clearly, the duel was filmed somewhere on the California coast rather than upon a flat Virginia islet. Santa Catalina Island is often considered the likely suspect location, but such scenes were more often filmed on the California coast itself or even on studio sets. See The Duel on the Beach, Part I for more general details, including paintings by Howard Pyle and Frank Schoonover.
Captain Blood, 1924
Several years prior to 1924, Douglas Fairbanks–actor, director, writer, producer (auteur in other words)–had already established the swashbuckling film genre as we know it today (and usually poorly imitated now) in The Three Musketeers and The Mark of Zorro. Film permitted him to carry swashbuckling adventure beyond the constraints of reality. His swashbuckling heroes could fight and defeat a half dozen or more enemies at once, climb buildings and do stunts like Jackie Chan before Mr. Chan was born, and swing from every chandelier in sight.
But he had yet to make a pirate film. In 1924, Vitagraph produced Captain Blood based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini, a mere two years after the book’s publication, and beating Fairbanks by two years to his own pirate film. The movie was intended to be, and was, everything we’ve come expect of a blockbuster even if it’s star, J. Warren Kerrigan, had once said the following to a Denver Times reporter in 1917:
“I am not going to war. I will go, of course, if my country needs me, but I think that first they should take the great mass of men who aren’t good for anything else, or are only good for the lower grades of work. Actors, musicians, great writers, artists of every kind—isn’t it a pity when people are sacrificed who are capable of such things—of adding to the beauty of the world.”
No real Captain Blood he, clearly, nor anything resembling an honorable person, but then, actors, with some notable exceptions, are for the most part actors imitating heroes, not heroes playing heroes. Still, we expect more even from actors.
Unfortunately, only thirty minutes of the original film survive, and the duel footage is not found among them. In the image above, note the Howard Pyle-inspired arrangement of duelists and spectating pirates. Beyond this, we’re left now to our imaginations.
Historically-speaking, such duelists may have stripped off coats, sword-belts or baldrics, and, in the case of Peter Blood, periwig, for which we have historical evidence, although not all swordsmen stripped down. Whether they did or did not depended largely on the circumstances of the fight and personal inclination. In the novel, there is no indication but that the two men fought as they were dressed, given the hasty development of the rencontre and drawn swords.
In fact, lighter dress was the norm in the tropical climate: a scarf instead of a periwig and a waistcoat but no coat over it, except on the most formal of occasions. And no boots, except on horseback, even if Rafael Sabatini permitted them on sandy, dune-ridden dueling shores. 🙂
In the novel, the duel was fought on Virgin Magra, Sabatini’s joke on Virgin Gorda–the island isn’t actually fat but more or less skinny, depending I suppose on your perspective. There are one or two possible beaches on Virgin Gorda where the duel, as described in the novel, could have been fought, but more on this in part four when I discuss the 1935 film version in detail in part four.
The Black Pirate, 1926
Released in 1926, The Black Pirate starring Douglas Fairbanks set the parameters and even more importantly, the expectations, for one of the three major forms of the swashbuckling pirate genre for the next century: the semi-historical pirate romance-adventure in traditional form, of which Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk are the finest examples; the semi-historical or “sort of historical” pirate adventure, any of the versions of Treasure Island for example, and the television series The Buccaneer and Black Sails (full disclosure: I was the historical consultant on Black Sails); and the purely pirate fantasy, usually with a bit of romance on the side, filled with pirate myth and trope, of which The Black Pirate is the original, and still the finest, example, although honorable mention goes to The Crimson Pirate and perhaps–and only perhaps–the first of the Disney pirate films.
The Disney pirate films carry the pirate fantasy to extreme with occult and mythological nonsense, if entertaining at times. Many pirate films, particularly the generally inferior B versions, straddle the genres between romance-adventure and pirate fantasy, generally leaning more on the latter. Except for some of the pirate historical romance adventures such as Captain Blood, all have been more or less, usually unsuccessfully, based on the genre formulated by The Black Pirate. Even the Disney pirate films owe not only their origin but their Peter Pan fantasy and tongue-in-cheek atmosphere to this Douglas Fairbanks film.
By his own admission Fairbanks was inspired as much by Peter Pan (thus Fairbanks’s costume) and Howard Pyle’s paintings as by Alexander Exquemelin’s buccaneers, making The Black Pirate is a straightforward pirate fantasy adventure marked by the swashbuckling derring-do of Fairbanks himself. And it’s entirely enjoyable because it doesn’t pretend to be anything else.
The swordplay is the film reflects the genre Fairbanks was creating, or rather, reflected the style of swordplay Fairbanks had already designed and set in motion in The Three Musketeers:
“For here, plainly, is a D’Artagnan that not even Dumas ever dreamed of. He is the personification of all the dashing and slashing men of Gascony that ever fought their way through French novels, all for the smile of a lady. He never fences one man if there are six to fence instead, he never leaves a room by the door if there is a window or a roof handy, he never walks around any object (including human beings) if he can jump over them; he scales walls at a bound, carries prostrate damsels over roofs, hurls men one upon another, rides no horse save at a gallop, responds to the call gallantry at the drop of a hat, and general makes himself an incomparable D’Artagnan.” (New York Times review of The Three Musketeers, August 29, 1921.)
The duel on the beach between the pirate captain (Anders Randolf) and the shipwrecked Duke of Arnoldo (Fairbanks), bent on avenging the death of his father was choreographed by Fred Cavens rather than Fairbanks’s usual Belgian master H.J. Utterhore (Henri Joseph Uyttenhove). Cavens ultimately choreographed the swordplay in more than fifty films by my count.
Fairbanks’s character is a revenge-seeking, pirate-hunting Spaniard who comes to be known as the Black Pirate, so cup-hilt rapier and parrying dagger are appropriate arms. However, it’s unlikely the real pirate captain would himself have carried these weapons. But no matter–it’s fantasy entertainment after all.
The duel setup is a classic one derived from pirate myth, particularly as depicted in To Have and to Hold by Mary Johnston, a novel illustrated by Howard Pyle and influential in the writing of Rafael Sabatini: a man wishing to join a pirate crew proves himself by fighting a duel with the best swordsman (or swordsmen, in the case of Johnston’s novel), and it seems that the pirate captain is always the best or one of the best. Pyle’s illustration (see part one) clearly influenced the film duel’s arrangement.
The 25 cent oversized film program–$3.64 in present dollars which was quite a good deal actually, given that most similar programs typically cost $10 to $20 today, the modern practice of gouging fans being what it is–was written, illustrated, and published in the style of a Howard Pyle, Charles Johnson, or Alexandre Exquemelin sea roving journal (or all three!). At one point it describes the duel with lines by its pretended pirate-author “Sandy MacTavish” (actually screenwriter Lotta Woods who wrote several screenplays for Douglas Fairbanks but not The Black Pirate), of which the following are examples:
“Another step backward and the Captain was in the lagoon, while the stranger, with punctilious ceremony, waited for his recovery. The Captain was like to burst a blood-vessel. He scrambled to the bank and made a powerful thrust that backed the stranger toward the line of our men.”
However, in spite of the Black Pirate’s “punctilious ceremony,” he ends the duel by causing the pirate captain to trip and fall backwards onto the point of a parrying dagger the Black Pirate had placed there beforehand just for the purpose and somehow entirely unnoticed by the entire pirate crew.
According to Tracey Goessel writing for the National Film Preservation Board at the Library of Congress, Anders Randolph’s rapier cut Fairbanks’s arm during filming, causing the swashbuckling star to curse. She also notes that he was injured again, this time when fencing with Fred Cavens who was standing in for Randolph. A cut close to the eye was a result, but guests were present, so Fairbanks smiled and said, “Pirates always were a bloody lot.”
The duel is magnificently choreographed, easily one of the most exciting of any Hollywood film and one that certainly ties with 1935 Captain Blood duel (also choreographed by Cavens) as the best of any pirate movie. Although there are numerous Hollywood flourishes, the swordfight comes across as realistic. Given the speed of the actions and the technique involved, it’s easy to see how Fairbanks was injured.
Of course, the less-than-honorable and probably impractical-except-in-film trick of fence is arguably entirely permissible when a pirate is the adversary, not to mention when the adversary is the man who murdered your father long before (in cinematic years) Inigo Montoya sought similar revenge:
“As if a man that lies at the mercy of common Pirates [praedonibus: of the robbers or plunderers], should promise them a certain Sum of Money for the saving of his Life: ‘Tis no deceit to recede from it, tho’ he had given his Oath for the performance: for we are not to look upon Pirates [pirata] as Open and Lawful Enemies: but as the Common Adversaries of Mankind [communis hostis omnium]. For they are a sort of men with whom we ought to have neither Faith, nor Oath in common.” (Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Officiis 3:29.107, in 44 BC. Translated by R. l’Estrange, 1720.)
Although the story is entirely fictional, we can do a little sleuthing and intelligently imagine where the duel might have taken place. Given that the tale in set in the “Southern Seas,” we know that this is the South Sea, aka the Pacific coast of the Spanish Main, and probably takes place in the 1680s when most of the great South Sea buccaneer expeditions took place.
Looking at the map in the film program, there is only one area that orients this way: the Isthmus of Darien. Therefore Panama, and therefore Isla Chepillo would be the prime candidate. It’s even shaped a bit like the island on the pirate chart! It’s not a perfect fit, but no matter: Panama and Chepillo will serve, and there are plenty of “pirate coves” to the west.
Chepillo, however, was not entirely a desert isle, making buried treasure a bit more difficult. That said, given that buried pirate treasure is a myth, we can just as easily fantasize that the island was uninhabited, or that the inhabitants were unlikely to find the treasure.
In fact, true desert isles were hard to find even in the seventeenth century. Most islands, even small ones, had inhabitants, and the rest, if they had any resources at all, were visited from time to time. In 1681, English buccaneers landed on Chepillo and took aboard good fresh water, plantains, two fat hogs–and fourteen black and mulatto prisoners. Whether free or enslaved, the buccaneers would doubtless have kept them as slaves.
Captain Blood, 1935
Not only my favorite of all film duels, and not just of those on the beach or in pirate films, but also one of the best to watch and enjoy. So notable and influential is it to the film swordplay that followed that I’m not going to discuss it here, but in a blog post to follow, one entirely devoted to the duel! My apologies to anyone (temporarily) disappointed; I promise to make it up to you!
The Queen of the Pirates (La Venere dei Pirati), 1960
An Italian pirate film dubbed into English, starring Gianna Maria Canale, queen of Italian costume films, as Sandra, who with her father flees to sea to escape a false accusation and, naturally, become pirates. The film has plenty of pirate tropes, and two years later Canale would reprise her role as a pirate queen in The Tiger of the Seven Seas. She wields a rapier quite well and quite aggressively, if Hollywood-style, in both films, including in a tavern duel in the latter. Coming from a family of circus performers, she has an obvious athletic grace.
In fact, I am impressed with her swordplay, having previously only seen Maureen O’Hara, Binnie Barnes, and Jean Peters of this era swashbuckle well sword-in-hand. Canale compares well with these three film swordswomen and might be fiercer than all three, including even Peters.
In the film, Sandra and another pirate captain agree to settle their differences “con la punta de la spada,” which happens to be represented by cup-hilt rapiers. Assuming the pirates are intended to be Italian as described in the film’s description, the swords are then for once appropriate: cup-hilt rapiers were common in Spanish-held regions of Italy in the 17th century. I’m unsure what century the film is actually set in, though: the film advertising pretends the 16th, but the pirates look quite 17th century Hollywood Caribbean.
What follows is, if too short, a respectable if theatrical film duel with single rapiers that ends in Sandra disarming the other pirate captain with a disarm that actually can work in real fencing, at which point they laugh and make friends again. Canale displays some tight technique, including quick disengages against attempted beats and binds. Unfortunately, given the duel’s short length, there isn’t much opportunity for movement across a wide setting. The movie was filmed on location on the shores of Tuscany, although the sea settings were intended to represent the Adriatic on the eastern coast of Italy. The film’s “master of arms” was fencing master, actor, and stunt performer Franco Fantasia. See also Rage of the Buccaneers below.
Morgan the Pirate, 1961
Starring pre-Schwarzenegger muscleman Steve Reeves as Henry Morgan, and a largely Italian cast dubbed into English (there are several “Spaghetti pirate” films in fact), the film is reasonably watchable if you’re a kid with nothing else to do on a Saturday afternoon. It has most of the usual tropes: escaped servant-slaves, sea fights, shore fights, forts, evil Spaniards, Conquistador armor, cup-hilt rapiers, “exotic” women, &c. The color is lavish and the settings beautifully tropical.
And the duel? The usual Hollywood hack-and-slash filmed on an Italian beach (Procida Island off Naples, I believe) standing in for Basse Terre, Tortuga, with backgrounds clearly influenced by the paintings of Howard Pyle: ships at anchor, pirates watching in rapt attention, and palm trees.
The swordfight, Henry Morgan versus François l’Olonnais, begins in a tavern (another film duel trope possibly due a blog post), fought in triplicate over a desire to join the buccaneers, a need for supplies, and the protection of women. At first, l’Olonnais intends it to be a fight with daggers, clearly inspired by the famous Howard Pyle painting. However, upon seeing Morgan’s muscles, he chooses swords–cup-hilt rapiers, of course, even if historically incorrect–instead. Still, Reeves’s bulk was a lot of target for a knife, and l’Olonnais might have used Butch Cassidy’s technique in addition. But no matter, swords it is because by now the duel on the beach with rapiers is a trope.
The duel continues outside in Captain Blood versus Levasseur (1935, of course) style up and down the shore and dunes. But it’s nowhere near as well-choreographed or filmed as the famous 1935 film fight, even if it has a moment or two.
Mostly, it seems a set piece intended primarily to showcase Reeves’s muscles. In fact, it wouldn’t be out of place in a beach party film of the era, at least as a fantasy dream scene, if a bit serious. What swordplay Reeve’s seems to know appears to have been picked up while rehearsing fights in some of the “Sword and Sandal” films he starred in. The duel ends when Reeve, clearly the underdog in swordplay, throws away his rapier, grapples with l’Olonnais, and disarms him.
The swordplay was choreographed by famous Italian fencing master Enzo Musumeci Greco, of the even more famous Aurelio and Agesilao Greco family of fencers dating to the mid-19th century. The two just-mentioned Greco brothers highly influenced the Italian form of epee fencing for both dueling and sport. Time to train students and student aptitude limit even the best of masters (not to mention being limited by a film director’s “vision”) so I certainly don’t blame Maestro Greco for the inauthentic nature of the swordplay in Morgan the Pirate.
Greco also worked with Errol Flynn in Crossed Swords, with much better swordplay, and Burt Lancaster in The Crimson Pirate, which really didn’t have much in the way of swordplay although the fencing-with-fish bit is enjoyable. The Greco Academy of Arms in Rome still exists and still trains world class fencers. It also has a nationally-recognized fencing museum, the Casa Museo Accademia d’Armi Musumeci Greco that I’ve been told is well worth visiting.
To my knowledge, the soundtrack by Franco Mannino, including the track accompanying the duel, has never been released.
Rage of the Buccaneers (Gordon, il Pirata Nero), 1961
Also released as Gordon, the Black Pirate; The Black Buccaneer; The Black Pirate; Gordon, the Knight of the Seas; Pirate Warrior; and possibly other names if I’m not mistaken, the film stars Ricardo Montalbán as former slave and now pirate captain Gordon, and Vincent Price as Romero, a wealthy slave trader. It’s another “Spaghetti pirate” movie with a largely Italian cast dubbed for UK and American release, and it missed an opportunity to have these two notable actors fight a duel on the beach! Instead, Gordon fights the eye-patched Captain Tortuga who prefers not to fight fair, throwing sand in his adversary’s eyes, and engaging in other disreputable acts–perhaps because judging distance is difficult when fencing with eye (true, in fact). Gordon fights him again at the finale.
The backdrop of the duel is Howard Pyle-inspired, but lacks the sense of romantic adventure. Andrea and Franco Fantasia (see The Queen of Pirates above) are credited as fencing masters. The duel is largely Hollywood hack-and-slash, with large movements, cuts and slashes especially, quite untypical of rapier play, although there are a couple of tighter movements. The swords are cup-hilts, as usual and similarly anachronistic, assuming these aren’t Spanish pirates, which they might be, their names notwithstanding. Montalbán makes a fair attempt at a Flynn-like smirking composure, but is no fencer, often making the bent-arm stabs or pokes common to those who’ve never been taught to fence.
The movie is trope-filled, as the genre seems to require. Gordon is out to stop Romero from trading slaves, something no Caribbean pirates ever did or would have, unless to steal the slaves to sell themselves. In fact, the film opens with the duel on the beach. Captain Tortuga, it turns out, has been slave trading, something in reality pirates did quite regularly, capturing them at sea and on shore and selling them afterward.
The movie was filmed on the shores of Tuscany, probably in the same locations Queen of the Pirates was. The films were both directed by Mario Costa.
Starring Robert Shaw as Captain Ned Lynch, more or less reprising his former role as Dan Tempest in the television series The Buccaneers, and Genevieve Bujold as gentlewoman Jane Barnet, the film’s duel on the beach is as much or more titillation than plot development. One need only watch it or view the images below to recognize this immediately. Arguably, it does put the duelists’ personalities on display, but this we already have from other scenes. Still, who doesn’t enjoy watching swordplay on a tropical beach? And it is an important trope for the genre! The Swashbuckler duel was filmed on a beach near Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, to represent one somewhere on Jamaica.
The film indulges in numerous pirate tropes caricatures, including the myth of siding with a rebellious populace against an unjust government, and is filled with as many anachronisms as a Disney pirate film, ranging from “pirate boots” to the Blarney Cock (the replica Golden Hinde I once visited in San Diego), a tall ship almost a century out of place–but at least it was a real ship and not a studio set! Even so, the film does (as my friend Antón Viejo Alonso reminded me) showcase Black actors–James Earl Jones as Nick Debrett and Jeffrey Holder as Cudjo–in prominent positions, including the role of Jones as what is essentially the ship’s quartermaster, or second-in-command, aboard pirate ships of the era. No other pirate films have done this so well, not even Black Sails. (The latter series did, however, do an admirable job showcasing African slaves in rebellion and allied with pirates, even if the latter is a myth. Full disclosure: I was the historical consultant for the show.)
Accepting the film for what it is–a 1970s update on The Black Pirate and The Crimson Pirate (in the UK it was released as The Scarlet Buccaneer) and a bit of an improvement on the old B-movies of the 1950s–it’s entirely enjoyable, or mostly so. All three leading actors–Shaw, Bujold, and Jones–take their roles seriously in spite of the occasional campiness and strange diversions (seriously, bath torture fetishism?) of the script.
The duel is fought with historically inaccurate swords as is common in Hollywood: Ned Lynch is armed with a cup-hilt rapier (with the classic Hollywood-issue modern epee blade instead of rapier blade), which commonly was used only by Iberians and some Italians at the time (1718) and almost out of style, and Jane Barnet with, for whatever imponderable, silly reason, a late 19th to early 20th century Radaelli fencing saber. The swordplay was choreographed with input from the film’s fencing consultant Tom Greene, a fencing student of Ralph Faulkner and a Hollywood writer and producer.
There are two other notable, if inauthentic, fencing scenes. In the first, the evil governor (played by Peter Boyle) and preening fetishist fences and defeats three Black fencing masters, killing one of them after he wounds the governor. If these Black fencers were of the standard of some of those on Barbados, I doubt the governor would have survived the encounters.
As Richard Ligon wrote in the 17th century, “I have seen some of these Portugal Negroes, at Collonel James Draxes, play at Rapier and Dagger very skilfully, with their Stookados, their Imbrocados, and their Passes: And at single Rapier too, after the manner of Charanza, with such comeliness…they were skilful too, which I perceived by their binding with their points, and nimble and subtle avoidings with their bodies. For, in this Science, I had been so well vers’d in my youth, as I was now able to be a competent judge.”
The final fencing scene is of the obligatory duel between Shaw and the governor.
Although as Hollywood goes the fencing in the duel isn’t entirely awful (it’s of the common standard, in other words, with lots of moulinets and the tierce-seconde, tierce-seconde action that’s simple to do and looks good on screen), and although there is little realism, Shaw does an excellent job giving a patronizing, chauvinistic air, and Bujold in return the rage at being outclassed and patronized. Both give spirited performances sword-in-hand. In fact, their relationship as revealed during their swordplay is more believable than during their romantic encounters although doubtless some readers will point out that adversarial engagements often stimulate romance. Or sometimes just lust.
The expanded original motion picture soundtrack (Quartet Records, 2 CDs, 2020), composed and conducted by John Addison, includes the duel track, “Fencing Lesson” (a mere 1:28 long).
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, 2007
I hesitate to include this film because the scene is not a duel but a comical affray with swords on the beach, and soon gets even sillier. I won’t even mention but in passing the duel on the waterwheel scene. Yes, the scene is amusingly choreographed, and yes, it’s a fantasy film with pirates in it, not a pirate movie per se. Even so, the swordplay, such as there is, is the least memorable imagery of the entire scene. In fact, the comic reactions of Elizabeth Swann (played as everyone knows by Keira Knightley) are the most entertaining aspect of this romp with swords and treasure chest. Looking at the film credits, I’m unsure who choreographed the swordplay. As far as I know, the scene was filmed on St. Vincent in the Caribbean. I’ll say no more but to censure the screenwriter and director for not letting Miss Swann in her pirate garb get in on the action. It would have been quite something to have watched her swordfight-and-swashbuckle successfully against all three with her refined panache.
I skipped a few films that qualify, or might. The Princess Bride’s duel above the beach probably deserves its own post. There is a Russian version of Captain Blood, but the quality of available video is terrible and, if I recall correctly, the duel on the beach looks rather bland. I’ve also skipped a number of generic pirate sword battles on the beach. Well, with one mystery exception below of an affray or beach brawl, not a duel. 🙂
Next up, this series at least, a post devoted entirely and in depth to the famous duel in Captain Blood starring Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone!
*You can find portraits painted by Elias Katsaros on his Facebook page.
Copyright Benerson Little 2021. First posted 24 August 2021. Last updated 25 Auguste 2021.
I’m not going to pretend to write a pretentious analysis of pop cover art and imagined social implications, nor any other nonsense. I’m neither an art historian nor inclined to see things that aren’t really there. Suffice it to say that these covers are intended to be eye-catching, often titillating, and always bordering on near-lurid, entirely to lure potential readers to buy the book. The accompanying cover copy, the blurb especially, is almost as over the top as the art. This isn’t a criticism, for similar art and copy is often found on the covers of far more notable works.
As for the text inside? Suffice it to say that it’s not comparable, in spite of the cover copy claims, to that of Rafael Sabatini or any other notable writer of romantic adventure. Pirate pulps are almost always extremely light on literary substance and historical accuracy, and quite heavy on cliché. Trope writing in other words. Sheer fantasy in the sense of “never happened.” Pure swashbuckling pirate genre in the form of the twentieth century version of dime novels. Enjoy!
Copyright Benerson Little, 2021. First posted May 20, 2021.
Originally I’d intended to write a post entitled, “Whither Modern Fencing?” and illustrate it with some of my favorite inspirational fencing images. However, the likelihood of the subject turning into a lengthy near-rant was too strong, particularly if the draft of the first few paragraphs was any indication, so in the end I’ve decided to let the images speak for themselves. The accompanying commentary may be read or ignored according the reader’s inclination. Enjoy.
1. Untitled by Aaron Siskend, from “The Most Crowded Block”
Quite possibly my favorite swordplay image other than personal ones of friends and family fencing, and if not my most favorite, then surely one of my top three. The swashbuckling adventure of youth, exactly what swordplay should always be at any age!
The lure of fencing is to fight with swords, not to participate in mere sport, at least not for most of us drawn to fencing. We want to fight one-on-one for honor, for romance, for the clash of steel-on-steel. We want to sword-fight for fun, for adventure, and, importantly, for the “All for one and one for all!” camaraderie fencing in the right circumstances can bring. These days, the purely sport mentality of too many fencing coaches, administrators, and parents often misses this fundamental truth. To paraphrase my first fencing master, Dr. Francis Zold, “Fencing is not sport: fencing is swordplay!”*
At the end of a lecture I gave more than a year ago–has it been that long?–on the history and practice of modern Western swordplay for a local continuing education program whose students were mostly retired persons, several came up afterward and, pointing to the photograph above which was still showing on the projection screen, excitedly and animatedly agreed that it conveyed exactly how they felt about fencing, even to depicting how they themselves had played at “sword-fighting” in their childhoods.
For what it’s worth, during the practical sessions on the two following weekends, these retirees proved to be some of the most apt pupils I’ve ever had, learning far more quickly and easily than much younger students. Many had wanted to learn to fence since they were kids but had never had the opportunity. Life can make dreams difficult to come true, but this is no reason to stop dreaming, much less stop trying to make them come true.
And if you can do nothing else, improvise some swords and let your inner swashbuckler take over, no matter your age!
2. Douglas Fairbanks Fencing With Kids on the Set of The Three Musketeers
Evocative not only of the silent film era swashbuckler, but also of children’s fascination with swashbuckling heroes, then and now. Who of these children would not today still tell the story of he once fenced with Fairbanks as d’Artagnan! Fairbanks created the modern swashbuckler film genre, with its over-the-top tongue-in-cheek antics, best described–other than by viewing!–in the following New York Times review of The Three Musketeers, August 29, 1921:
“For here, plainly, is a D’Artagnan that not even Dumas ever dreamed of. He is the personification of all the dashing and slashing men of Gascony that ever fought their way through French novels, all for the smile of a lady. He never fences one man if there are six to fence instead, he never leaves a room by the door if there is a window or a roof handy, he never walks around any object (including human beings) if he can jump over them; he scales walls at a bound, carries prostrate damsels over roofs, hurls men one upon another, rides no horse save at a gallop, responds to the call gallantry at the drop of a hat, and general makes himself an incomparable D’Artagnan.”
A perfect description of our four-year-old, almost five now, son, too. 🙂
I still recall my first fencing master, Dr. Francis Zold, telling me how Fairbanks and his entourage came to watch the Hungarians in the final round of the saber fencing at the 1932 Olympic Games, and saw Gyorgi Piller (one of my fencing “grandfathers,” in fact) win the gold. A few days before the Hungarians had been invited to Picfair, the famous eighteen acre estate he shared with his wife, Mary Pickford, for a large Olympic Games dinner party which featured two hundred invited guests including Charlie Chaplan, Clark Gable, and Constance Bennett.
3. The Duel Between Peter Blood & the Villain Levasseur in Captain Blood, 1935
What a difficult choice from among the wonderful publicity stills of this duel! It remains my favorite film swordfight by far: it’s from the best film version of my favorite novel of youth (and still one of my favorite books, so much so that we’re publishing an annotated edition): it’s a pirate duel on the beach; it’s for the hand of one’s beloved (although not so in the novel); the villain, Basil Rathbone, deserved to be run through for his gaudy French accent (nothing personal, Rathbone, you’re one of my favorite villains and Sherlocks, and you actually could fence well); the duel is wonderfully choreographed; and even the accompanying music is great, although Erich Wolfgang Korngold was upset that he didn’t have time to compose it himself, and was forced to use Liszt’s Prometheus at the last minute. Last, Three Arch Bay near Laguna Beach, California, here made up to look like a Caribbean island, reminds me fondly of my many days spent on Southern California beaches in my youth and as a young Navy SEAL officer.
It is films like these, and novels like those written by Rafael Sabatini and his like (Sabatini wrote Captain Blood: His Odyssey) that inspired many of us to become fencers. They also inspired a number of true swashbuckling swordsmen and swordswomen of real-life adventure, the majority of whom from the early to mid-twentieth century have already passed away, and there are sadly far too few replacements.
Just as sad, the number of true swashbuckling fencer-writers is severely diminished. Even so, I’m happy to see a few today who are following in their adventurous footsteps. “Books are good enough in their own way but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life,” as Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in his excellent essay of advice on life, “An Apology for Idlers.” Likewise with movies and television too. Why not “take a walk on the wild side” and pick up both pen and sword as you head out the door for real adventure?
I’ve even written two of a planned five blog posts on The Duel on the Beach, greatly inspired by this duel and the one in The Black Swan. Here’s the first of the series: “The Duel on the Beach, Part I: In Fiction.”
4. Famed Fencing Master Fred Cavens Training Binnie Barnes for The Spanish Main
One of the last great pirate swashbucklers before the genre descended into B-movie purgatory (arguably almost elevated again to A-level status by the Disney Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, although the overweening element of fantasy disqualifies the films in my opinion), The Spanish Main’s best swordplay was not that of the star, Paul Henreid as Capt. Laurent Van Horn (combining the names of two real Dutch buccaneers, Laurens de Graff and Nicolas Vanhorn who actually fought a duel on Isla Sacrificios), but of his adversary Paul Emery as Capt. Mario du Billar, and equally that of Binnie Barnes as the anachronistic Anne Bonney. To this day I recall the first time I saw a passata soto: Binnie Barnes executed one in this film.
Fencing master Fred Cavens and his contemporaries, along with those who followed, gave us the film swordfights that have imprinted themselves indelibly on our swashbuckling psyches. Although swordswomen were in the minority, and still are, in swashbuckling films (actual history itself unfortunately tends to preclude sword-armed women except in rare circumstances), their were several worthy ones in this era, and often their swordplay was as good, or better than, the best of the male actors: Maureen O’Hara, Binnie Barnes, and Jean Peters all did superbly creditable fencing scenes. Reportedly, Bebe Daniels was a masterful swordswoman in Senorita (1927) playing a Zorro-like character, but only two prints of the film exist and apparently neither has been digitally transferred. Not surprisingly, Cavens trained all four of these women actor-fencers and choreographed their swordfights.
And Fred, or formally, Frédéric Adolphe, Cavens? He set the standard for sword choreography in film, largely unmatched these days although through the first decade of the 21st century his descendants followed worthily in his footsteps (or rather, footwork?). And for a fact there are sword choreographers and fight directors today who can arrange exciting swordfights that evoke a sense of the reality of swordplay–if only their directors would let them.
5. The Climactic Duel in The Spanish Main
I honestly can’t claim that this image from The Spanish Main (see image and notes above) is one of my absolute favorites, but it perfectly illustrates more than one swashbuckling trope, and, more important to me, I recall complaining excitedly to one of my fencing masters, Dr. Eugene Hamori, when I was nineteen years old that John Emery on the left above (though doubtless I didn’t recall his name at the time) was a much better swordsman than Paul Henreid on the right–but he had to lose! It bothered me as a fencer that a skilled swordsman must ignore so many tempo opportunities with which to skewer–to pink, to use the 17th century expression–his adversary. But scripts are scripts for a reason and far more “winners” of Hollywood duels were inferior fencers as compared to their adversaries. I’ve been unable to find anything out about where Emery learned to fence, unfortunately.
The tropes? There’s the swooning or near-swooning heroine watching two men duel to the death, although not always over her; the swordfight in the dungeon (similar tropes are the duel on the beach already noted in this post, and the swordfight in the tavern); and, above all, the duel to the death between hero and villain, often but not always at the climax.
Readers will notice one thing in common with many of these images: the fencers are often in an en garde position with swords crossed, or more correctly, with blades engaged. Inaccurately, fencers are often in a modern sixte guard rather than the much more historically accurate tierce, a reflection of their modern training. Notably, John Emery is en garde in tierce, not the usual modern sixte as his adversary is, although Emery’s tierce is probably that of saber, not historical smallsword. But no matter, it’s surprisingly correct for a genre swashbuckler.
6. Maureen O’Hara Engaging the Cardinal’s Guards in At Sword’s Point
Yet again, a difficult choice among a number of swashbuckling film stills of Maureen O’Hara, one of classic Hollywood’s greats. Here she comes en garde against several of the Cardinal’s Guards. She does a credible job taking a fencing lesson early in the film, and holds her own with the male lead, Hungarian-born Cornel Wilde who was not only a US National Champion in saber fencing, but also was selected to the US Olympic Fencing Team–until he chose to take a stage role instead!
Here O’Hara fences in riding boots, that costume accessory–“fetishwear,” a UK journalist described it–so alluring to painters, writers, and costume designers of swashbuckling flare. Here at least it’s historically accurate, for she had been riding. But if her boots are as stiff as those of the cavalry, she won’t be able to move well. In fact, cavalrymen dismounted in action would often abandon their boots in order to make their escape afoot, for the boots hindered running to an extreme degree.
O’Hara also thrusts and parries in the 1952 film with Errol Flynn, Against All Flags, really a B-level pirate flick but still fun and still better than most of the B pirate genre. Women running around with swords, women as pirate captains, women as erstwhile musketeers is nothing new in fiction or film, although some would have us believe this today. If anything, the older films–Against All Flags, The Spanish Main, At Sword’s Point, Anne of the Indies, among others–have more redoubtable women sword-adventurers than many films do these days (although some video games have rectified this in that medium). Admittedly, though, there is an unfortunate tendency for the sword-bearing female lead to either give it all up for love, and by implication, marriage, or to die unrequited so that the male protagonist can marry his true love, naturally non-sword-wielding and often demure and largely obedient to her husband-lord-and-master. I prefer independent sword-wielding women myself. I married one, after all.
7. Jean Peters in Anne of the Indies, 1951
One of a pair of well-posed publicity stills showcasing Jean Peters engaged against Blackbeard the Pirate. It’s a favorite of mine, one of three common poses in images like this: blades crossed, or one adversary attacking while one parries, or one adversary running the other through. I’m torn between the two, the other showing Peters running Blackbeard through. But this one shows her spirit better, I think.
Jean Peters, known not only for her films but, in popular star worship and gossip, for her marriage to Howard Hughes, for which she left her short but notable acting career behind, plays Anne Providence, really Anne Bonny, or at least Anne Bonny as imagined in the popular mind. I remain both astounded and bored senseless with the mindlessness with which novelists, playwriters, and filmmakers continue to elevate Anne Bonny over Mary Read, assuming anything Charles Johnson wrote about them is actually true, for most of what he wrote about the two women cannot be verified. But even if partly true, why runaway girlfriend Anne Bonny over the martial Mary Read? Anne Bonny as described by Charles Johnson’s account makes her a dilettante along for a brief piratical ride. But, if the account has any merit, Mary Read had been a soldier and fighting seaman in disguise as a man. Yet it’s Bonny who gets all the attention, which says much about what readers and viewers are interested in. A few more details on the subject can be found in The Women in Red: The Evolution of a Pirate Trope.
The film, in spite of its many pirate clichés and bad Hollywood history, is still quite enjoyable and often more serious than the usual pirate film. But it’s the swordplay I enjoy most, brief as it is, or perhaps second most–the fierce female pirate captain remains a favorite. Peters is as good as any of her male contemporaries when fencing Blackbeard with sharps in a tavern duel, more or less, a common trope albeit probably not one in reality. Brawling in taverns, sure, even murder in taverns, but dueling was typically conducted outdoors and out of sight.
Her duel is one of the better film affrays with swords, even if Blackbeard is stoutly barrel-chested rather than tall and lean as he was in reality, and even if both adversaries are wearing those damn Hollywood boots. Peters carries off her swordplay with élan and well-focused cold-blooded anger, which can actually be quite useful for a fencer. Hot blooded anger often has poor results, but cold blooded fury can lead to victory.
As an aside regarding Howard Hughes, Disney’s film The Rocketeer portrays a Howard Hughes-like character, along with a swashbuckling actor-swordsman based on Errol Flynn and unfounded rumors that he was a Nazi sympathizer.
8. D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers in the Eponymous Film, 1974
Yes, I know it’s not an image of swordplay per se, but it perfectly captures not only the camaraderie of fencers but also the moment these musketeers bond immediately prior to their fictionally famous combat against the Cardinal’s Guards. This 1973-74 film ranks high among the best, in my opinion, of The Three Musketeers and related films. It and its second part, The Four Musketeers, both starring Michael York, Raquel Welch, Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, et al, rank among the finest and is hands-down my favorite. I saw them when they first arrived in theaters in Los Angeles, well, Northridge to be precise, in a twin theater in the local mall. And nothing excited me more than at the end of the first to see a teaser for the continuation! (It’s not a true sequel, the film was cut into two parts due to length, for which the actors rightfully sought and got more money.)
York was perfect at the young swashbuckler d’Artagnan. Reed was probably playing himself as Athos, a perfect fit. Chamberlain was, I believe, starring in a Shakespeare play (Richard III?) I saw in the sixth grade in Seattle a half century ago, although it might have been his understudy. (“It’s Dr. Kildare!” the girls, and probably a teacher or two, gushed as we stood in line.) Decades later I saw him starring in Spamalot. (“Run away! Run away!” I still joke from the film to beginning fencers when teaching them that the retreat is their first line of defense after a good en garde.) Frank Finlay as Porthos was far too short (the character, based on Dumas’s father, was a giant) but certainly had the right attitude, and Raquel Welch was surprisingly good as Constance. Faye Dunaway was perfectly alluring, cold, and frightening as Milady de Winter. And the Cardinal? Like Reed, I imagine Charlton Heston was playing a bit of himself in the role, and flawlessly. Last, the swordplay, if often inauthentic (novelist and screenwriter George MacDonald Fraser admitted this to me in a letter) was well-choreographed by William Hobbs and perfectly suited the mood of the film. Yes, Hobbs was perfectly capable of historically accurate choreography, just watch The Duellists, it’s the gold standard.
The 1935 version of The Three Musketeers, starring Walter Abel and Paul Lucas, is also quite creditable. The aforenoted notable Fred Cavens choreographed the swordplay, with a young Ralph Faulkner doubling some scenes. Faulkner would go on to become one of Hollywood’s leading fencing choreographers, largely succeeding the retiring Cavens. Faulkner was still teaching in Los Angeles in the late 70s when I first learned to fence: in his 90s, I believe, his legs and eyesight failing, he taught admirable lessons from a chair, and was the inspiration and early master of at least one Hollywood fencer-choreographer gentleman I’m acquainted with. Sadly, I never was able to get away to get a lesson from Faulkner, if only to say I’d had one.
The 1939 comedy-drama version of The Three Musketeers with Don Ameche, Binnie Barnes (previously noted in The Spanish Main), and the Ritz Brothers is quite good as well, the Ritz faction providing laughs even while staying true to the core of the story. There were laughs in the 1973-1974 version by director Richard Lester and novelist-screenwriter George MacDonald Fraser as well, although these two films cannot be classified as comedies. I have great fondness for Douglas Fairbanks’s 1921 version (see photo above), given its role in helping create the modern Musketeer genre, and similarly for the 1948 overwhelmingly much too bright Technicolor with almost gaudy stage costumes version starring Gene Kelly, mostly because it was played at the Pacific Coast NCAA fencing banquet in Los Angeles in 1978, in old school fashion with a 16mm projector set up in the room.
I still to this day can’t bring myself to watch most, perhaps all, of the modern film and TV versions, spoiled as most are by a juvenile brat pack mentality or by hyper-exaggerated melodrama, not to mention their steampunk- and video game-inspired costumes. (Will swashbuckling costume designers ever return to historical accuracy, not that it’s often been a priority anyway?) And, frankly, the swordplay is usually terrible as well, both in authenticity and, worse perhaps, basic choreography.
While on the subject, I should add the two most notable film versions of Cyrano de Bergerac, given that Cyrano is a cadet in a guards company, much akin to the musketeers of the King and Cardinal (in fact, there are even a series of novels by Paul Feval fils placing Cyrano and d’Artagnan together): the 1950 version starring Jose Ferrer (in English) and the 1990 version, which I first saw in a small theater in La Jolla, California, starring Gerard Depardieu (in French). Both are outstanding versions of the play, each with its own style. I might prefer the French version just a touch more than English, but it’s a difficult choice to make.
One day I want to watch the play from a box, as Cyrano does in the play. And like Cyrano, I’ll be sorely tempted to call down to the stage if the acting is bad, although this was in fact just a pretext for the large-nosed swordsman. A duel on the stage and grounds immediately afterward would complete the daydream. For fans of the play or films based on it, try Cyrano, My Love (Cyrano, Mon Amour), its a comedy in the vein of Shakespeare in Love (that is, not historically accurate but enjoyable to watch) about Edmond Rostand writing his famous play. As of the original date of this post, it’s streaming on Amazon Prime. Also check out Roxanne starring Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah: the swordplay, of tennis racquet versus golf club, in well-choreographed and enjoyable.
9. Obi-Wan Kenobi Versus Darth Vader in Star Wars, 1977
I first saw this film in the summer I graduated from high school. I’d seen the full page color ads in the Sunday LA Times entertainment section, and was already well-enticed. A substitute teacher saw it the week it was out and his description, something to effect of “Entertaining if lightweight, generally pretty cool” only increased my desire to see it. And it did not disappoint, at least not to a seventeen-soon to be eighteen-year-old romantic adventurer in the making.
I don’t recall where I saw it the first time, either in San Diego, California or Huntsville, Alabama. I saw it once or twice again that fall of 1977 at the long-since demolished Plitt Twin Theaters in Century City, LA, with its, for the time, state of the art sound system: you could hear the sounds of Vader’s ship above as it docked, just as the defending soldiers look up in the film. Already fans in the theater had lightsabers that lit up slowly from hilt to tip as in the film, which gives some idea of the effect on pop culture the film was already having. I was entranced with the film! It was, and remains, escapism at its best.
All this said, as enjoyable as the film was and is (and to hell with Lucas for not releasing the original version on Blu-ray, but instead the updated version with awful added special effects), I’ve never regarded it as anything more than what it really is: a space opera, which is nothing more than a Western set in outer space. It’s the updated version of the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials–Westerns in space–from the 1930s I watched as TV reruns when I was around eleven years old. The science of Star Wars is bad, the tactics are ludicrous (suicidal on all sides), the dialogue in any other setting often silly or even cringeworthy. Didn’t Harrison Ford tell Lucas something to the effect of, “You can write this sh*t but you can’t say it!”? Still, I suppose it’s better than the modern dull suburban party conversation, as a journalist acquaintance put it, that passes for dialogue in costume TV and film these days (and in too many historical novels too).
So, not for me arguments over canon, which is in any case nonsense given how popular films and sequels are written (on the fly, to maximize profit, and to some degree satisfy or gratify egos), or whether which sequels are great and which terrible, or misogynistic whining about any of the versions celebrating women. I’m a fan of strong women, therefore of the last three of the series, not to mention that our four-year-old sees his mother as the sword-fighting Rey. I could add a rant here about sexism in action films and their audiences, but there are plenty of writers who’ve already done it better.
I could also rant at length about the idea of the “hero’s journey” given that I find it unrealistic: the ideal Joseph Campbell gives us, and which influenced Star Wars, or so I hear, gives us villains as well as true heroes. Further, in my experience this is not how heroes and heroism are made. The hero’s journey is a device of fiction, not fact. It may make for good storytelling, but it also helps prop up autocrats of all sorts, including the worst of them. After all, to their supporters they’re heroes whose hero’s journey validates their autocracy and other misdeeds.
But back to swordplay! In the film it’s pure well-choreographed Hollywood, but no matter: the swords and swordplay are flawed fantasy that match the film well. And the idea of the old master facing his student is something of a trope too, but it’s done well in this film, if not quite so in the sequels, even given the mystical silliness of the Force. For me, I was soon introduced to someone who might be a real Jedi master, in the form of my first fencing master whose adventures and escapades could rival those of Obi-Wan Kenobi–and Dr. Zold’s were real. Likewise those of my second fencing master, Dr. Hamori. Mysticism and magic swords are always appealing but it’s long study, practical ability, and character, plus a good dose of good Fortune, that really make the difference in swordplay, and for that matter, life.
Today, modern “Olympic” fencing in the US and France, and probably other places, have showcased “lightsaber” fencing to some degree, primarily as a recruiting lure. Modern fencing, as noted above, has forgotten why most fencers want to fence. Star Wars and its fans have not. Modern fencing needs a strong return to its swashbuckling roots, although I’m cynical about the prospect. I don’t like the term “Olympic fencing” but it’s apt, for the FIE (the international governing body), not to mention USA Fencing, will do almost anything to keep fencing in the Olympic Games, even if it means turning fencing into little more than a game of audience-friendly tag. If fencing or any sport can’t draw an audience–pay the bills–it’s out. And the governing bodies are unwilling at any cost to lose the cachet–and money–that being an Olympic sport brings, sadly.
The best that can be said of the swordplay of the Star Wars franchise is that it’s exciting to watch and, importantly, inspires swashbucklers as once the old costume historical swashbucklers did (and still do for those who watch them). For this alone it can be forgiven its flaws.
10. The Duel on the Cliffs in The Princess Bride
There’s no need to describe this image, nor even the accompanying dialogue, so well is this film known among romantics and swordplay enthusiasts. I doubt any of the hundreds of beginning fencers I’ve taught in more than twenty years have not recognized any reference I’ve made to the film. (And for that matter, to Monty Python and the Hold Grail, too.)
No, the dialogue references to fencing masters don’t actually reflect the swordplay of the moment, and yes, it’s all entirely Hollywood fencing. But it’s beautiful Hollywood cinematic swordplay! Perfect for a fantasy film. I’m still hopeful to see–even influence or have control over–historically accurate swordplay in remakes of some of my favorite films, but such accuracy is not required for all films.
As for fencing left-handed? (If you’re reading this blog and haven’t seen the film you’re probably an unlikely exception, but to help you out, the dialogue associated with the film above refers to left-handed fencing. “I’m not left-handed either…”) There are a number of reasons to learn to fence with the off or non-dominant hand. Foremost, it helps keep the body balanced. Fencing is a notoriously one-sided sport, with obvious imbalances in strength and flexibility that develop within a year or two. Spending a third to half of one’s time fencing opposite-handed will prevent this, for the most part. Second, it helps “rewire” your nervous system, creating new pathways. A more balanced body and mind, in other words. Third, if your dominant hand or arm is injured, you can easily switch to the other side while healing, short-term or long-term. Last, if you ever become a fencing teacher, it will enable you to give lessons with either hand to the benefit of your students. The downside? It limits your practice with your dominant hand, with which most fencers prefer. And it may take a few years before you become near-equally proficient with your non-dominant hand/side.
Most importantly, you can join the ranks–indeed, the trope–of ambidextrous fencers! I’ve only known one truly ambidextrous fencer (Dr. Ted Cotton of Loyola University in New Orleans, he’d wear two gloves and choose which hand to fence with based on which might prove stronger against his adversary at the time), and only a few who could fence nearly as well with the offhand as with the dominant.
11. Swordplay in Le Bourgeois Gentilehomme
There’s probably far more choreographed swordplay in the theater than in film, simply due to volume, but we seldom recall theatrical swordplay the way we do film swordplay, no matter how well done–and often it’s quite excellent. Like the theater itself, theatrical swordplay tends to be highly stylized, with larger, slower actions the audience can follow.
A few years ago when my wife and I visited my old master, Dr. Eugene Hamori, in Budapest, he took us to an outdoor performance of Hamlet by the Royal Shakespeare Company on Margit Island. Subtitles–or rather, overtitles?–were in Hungarian, although most Hungarians in the audience probably spoke English. That said, Shakespeare is difficult for most native speakers, and usually frustratingly obscure to English as a second language (or third or fourth) speakers. Only Americans seem to hold the arrogant position that one need ever know only one language. We were a bit disappointed in the duel in the final act, for it was over far too quickly. Perhaps as fencers we expected more, perhaps we were conditioned by the Laurence Olivier film version to expect more. Still, it was an enjoyable evening. By chance we also ran into Kristina Nagy, a noted HEMA longsword and modern saber fencer, during intermission. Only a day or so before she had shown us around the famous fencing salle at Semmelweis University.
The image above, illustrating the fencing scene (Act III, scene 3) between M. Jourdain and Nicole the maid in a nineteenth century production of Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilehomme (1670) is a favorite of mine not because it illustrates stage swordplay, but because it captures Molière’s satire on swordplay (and of course, the bourgeoisie) in general. A few lessons do not a fencer make, much less a combat swordsman or swordswoman capable of effective swordplay in duel or battle. Further, arrogance can lead to defeat, can even be fatal were the swords sharp. Here, M. Jourdain is easily hit by Nicole. I’ve seen a lot of fencers fall victim to the “magic sword” fallacy: a few small victories and they forget that fencing requires patience and focus always. You can’t just walk out and wave your sword around and expect it alone to hit your adversary or achieve your victories just because you believe you’re more skilled. “But I’m better than he is!” is one plaintive excuse I’ve often heard from losers, along with, “But I take so many lessons a week from so and so!” (FYI, you don’t need that many lessons.)
In fencing as in warfare arrogance can be fatal. A single mistake is enough. An old SEAL Master Chief I worked with at SEAL Team THREE used to say that, “Even a toothless old man sitting in an outhouse and armed only with an old muzzleloader can still kill you if you’re not careful.” And that “ignorant” with a sword? Beware, for he or she is likely to ignore all the conventions you’ve been taught to expect–and hit you in spite of all your lessons, skill, and previous successes.
Francisco de Quevedo has a similar hilarious scene in his picaresque novel Historia de la Vida del Buscón, Llamado Don Pablos, in which a student of La Verdadera Destreza (The True Art: Baroque swordplay insufferably infused with geometric circles and other esoterica unnecessary to the teaching of swordplay but much beloved by those seeking “secret knowledge”), with his angles and arcs, is comically defeated by a soldier lacking in the true art. Quevedo himself, one of Spain’s greatest literary icons and treasures, was a proponent of the Destreza Común, or common swordplay. Quevedo once humiliated Don Luis Pacheco y Narvaez, the leading master at the time of the school of La Verdadera Destreza, in a duel: with his rapier he removed Narvaez’s hat.
An end note on the play: many years ago I would disparage the patronizing use of “Bourgeois” by social elites, including in the play which is nonetheless quite funny. I found the attitude offensive: I don’t believe in social castes, including the nobility de facto or merely perceived. Today, after decades of dealing with certain elements of the middle and upper middle class–many of whose members are socially elitist, the American bourgeois, so to speak–, I’m much less sympathetic, equal now to my antipathy toward all social elites and social climbers. That you’re the “Director of Pomposity at Such and Such Corporation” has no bearing on how I’ll regard your behavior or your teenager as a fencing student, nor will it make your teenager a better fencer–or you a better person. There is a positive side to such bourgeois behavior, however: the comic relief is never-ending. Or, put another way, a wonderful font of material for a writer.
12, 13, 14, & 14a. Three by Howard Pyle
Here I simply couldn’t choose only one of Howard Pyle’s famous paintings of swordplay, so well do they depict swordplay not only in the popular mind, but often in the my mind of fencers themselves. For those of us who grew up on swashbucklers, they evoke how we see ourselves. Pyle’s influence on swashbuckling film, including pirate films, is enormous. His iconic images are imitated even today.
The scenes are similar: one adversary lunging, the other parrying, easily the most evocative of fencing actions, and easily posed, even if fencers seldom look so good. Spectators are inevitably in the background, although many duels were fought without witnesses in the late 17th century. We imagine the Dominican friar kept largely quiet during the duel in the first image (in fact, he tried to stab John Blumer in the back after the duel), likewise the gentlemen in the second which has a rather unusual arrangement for the era, more typical of duels in the late 19th century in Pyle’s era. Would pirates have kept silent during a duel? We don’t know, in spite of all my research into the subject of piracy. The only similar duel was between the aforementioned Dutchmen and was over so quickly that it’s unlikely anyone had to time to say much of anything. We do know that in the late 17th and early 18th century some public duels, particularly among soldiers, had noisy spectators: some chided Donald McBane for retreating so much. His retort was to imagine what they’d do in his place.
Until recently, anything more than polite applause from spectators, and silence from fencing masters or coaches, was mandatory in fencing. Today it’s often noisily noisome. Spectator comments are distracting to both fencers, as for that matter is coaching, not to mention that coaching also informs the adversary, not just the coach’s student, and flies in the face of the tradition that fencing should be a single combat between fencers alone.
Of course, fencers remain forbidden to talk to each other during a fencing bout, although often they do in fiction and film, and should–at least if the dialogue is well-written!
The story accompanying the first image does have fairly detailed swordplay, as does the third. The first, “In the Second April,” is apparently set in the late 18th century although the historical allusions the author tosses about are eclectic and often anachronistic or fanciful. The story opens with a reference to a 1670 treaty as if it has just been signed, then transitions to references to George Guelph, who might be George I, II, or III. John Bulmer–the Duke of Ormskirk–claims to have studied under late 18th century fencing master Angelo, then tells his adversary that he is clearly of the school of Boisrobert, strong in attack but weak in parry. (A possible inspiration for the exchange in The Princess Bride?) Boisrobert (also Bois-Robert) and Berthelot are two fencing masters named by Alexandre Dumas in Sylvandire, a romance set during the reign of Louis XIV, and also in Le Chevalier d’Harmental (co-authored with Auguste Maquet) set in 1718. In the latter romance a character is recommended to change fencing masters, giving up Berthelot for Boisrobert, with accompanying advice on giving ground when necessary and parrying in time, suggesting an emphasis, French school-wise, on parrying. James Branch Cabell more or less reversed the teaching of the fencing masters. Boisrobert and Berthelot appear in no records of fencing masters I have reviewed.
15. The Duel on the Beach by N. C. Wyeth
Perhaps the most evocative image of imagined pirate swordplay, in particular the duel on the beach. Given that I’ve already written an extensive blog post about this image and the story and book it illustrates (The Duel on the Beach, Part II: The Black Swan), I’ll keep my comments short. So much a favorite of mine is it, that I’ve a copy on canvas nicely framed. The image above is taken from the short story that soon afterward was turned into the novel The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini. The painting was not commissioned for the story, however.
In spite of its historical inaccuracies, I can’t imagine a more romantic image of swordplay!
Now, on to a few historical images…
16. A Pass in Tierce, with the Unarmed Hand Used for Opposition, Late 17th Century
I’m including a sample or a few of my favorite historical fencing images, although again there are far too many to post them all. Up first is perhaps my most favorite, or at least is tied for the top three, that of a pass made while thrusting in tierce while using the unarmed hand to oppose the adversary’s blade. The thrust was probably preceded by a bind in tierce. The reality of swordplay is that the unarmed hand should be brought into play to minimize the possibility of an “exchanged thrust” or double touch, notwithstanding the argument of many masters of the past two to three centuries that the sword alone is sufficient to both attack and defend. But enough of technical issues.
Beyond its swashbuckling imagery, I particularly like that the fencer on the left is black, for black fencers were far more common than is generally known. I even wrote an article for American Fencing magazine on the subject some years ago, “The Black Fencer in Western Swordplay (Spring, 2011).” The scarf on the black fencer’s head is typical of a gentleman when not wearing a wig, and not, as some have suggested, an indication in this instance of piracy or African culture. The fencer on the right is a fop, easily discovered by the comb fashionably tucked in his wig, and perhaps by the two pigtails of his wig as well. Both men have discarded their scabbards in order to fence more unencumbered, although their rencontre is clearly hasty enough that they have not discarded their coats. Or perhaps they hope their coats will prove a bit of protection against thrusts. Certainly it was advised to keep one’s coat on when engaged with an adversary armed with a cutting sword.
The image is one of a number in a series by Marcellus Laroon, a Dutch artist in London who was proud of the scars he bore from his own dueling. He’s best know for an exceptional series of detailed images of the working London poor, The Cries of London.
17. A Duel Somewhere in France, by Louis François du Bouchet circa 1670.
For two or more decades this classic swashbuckling image churned quietly in my fencing subconscious until one day recently I realized, as I was rereading The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini, that it quite probably inspired the scene for the duel on the beach in the finale. I even wrote a blog post about it, “The Duel on the Beach, Part II: The Black Swan.”
The drawing is by Louis François du Bouchet, marquis de Sourches (1645 – 1716), circa 1670. Bouchet is best known for his Mémoires du marquis de Sourches sur le règne de Louis XIV, publiés par le comte de Cosnac et Arthur Bertrand (Paris: Hachette, 1882-1893).
If nothing else, the image provides the wishful swashbuckler with hours of inspiration in swordplay, including imagining exactly what the two swordsmen are doing. I’ve discussed this elsewhere, but the extreme position of the sword-hand of the swordsman on the right strongly suggest an attempted angulation (cavé) after being parried, although the hand in supination (quarte) would be more common and more functional in most cases, although a bit slower going from full pronation to full supination. Of course, we assume they’re swordsmen: perhaps one is a pre-Mlle. La Maupin, the famed opera singer and duelist…
18. The Fencing Master, late 17th Century
Although as little as ten percent of a fencer’s development might be laid at the feet of the fencing master (this point was originally made to me by noted fencing master Kaj Czarnecki in 1980), it is a critical ten percent that lays the foundation for everything else, including independence on the strip, and, ideally, in life. Many of my fondest fencing memories are of lessons in which I was taught not only technique, but also tempo, tactics, strategy, patience, perseverance, focus, and strength of will. Lessons from my masters, Dr. Francis Zold and Dr. Eugene Hamori, also advanced my already romantic swashbuckling inclinations. Rafael Sabatini captured the romance of the fencing lesson in Scaramouche (1921):
“From a room beyond, the door of which was closed, came the stamping of feet, the click and slither of steel upon steel, and dominating these sounds a vibrant, sonorous voice speaking a language that was certainly French; but such French as is never heard outside a fencing-school. “Coulez! Mais, coulez donc!…So! Now the flanconnade—en carte…And here is the riposte… Let us begin again. Come! The ward of tierce… Make the coupé, and then the quinte par dessus les armes… O, mais allongez! Allongez! Allez au fond!” the voice cried in expostulation. “Come, that was better.” The blades ceased.”
It’s little different today, at least in traditional clubs and salles.
The French fencing master above is wearing a padded (with horsehair, probably) leather plastron to prevent bruising from repeated thrusts. One may fence for hours with scarce a bruise, but a student hitting the same spot repeatedly during the same exercise will bruise even the thickest skin eventually, often sooner than later. His shirt is tied at his waist, outside of his breeches rather than being tucked inside, probably so the shirt doesn’t ride up. Both hands are gloved, possibly for giving lessons with either hand, but certainly for protecting the off-hand when using it to parry or oppose. His shoes are of a sort used by fencers and masters for at least two and a half centuries: the toe of the lead shoe is open to prevent jamming or bruising the toes or toenails when lunging (a problem even today if shoes are ill-fitting and the floor has a good grip). Likewise the thick short socks worn over the stockings are to prevent blisters and other injuries to the feet. In the master’s pocket is a handkerchief, its use obvious. His wig, or possibly hair, is tied at the nape of the neck to keep it out of the way. Hats were often worn while fencing indoors, and were formally doffed and donned as part of the salute. Note that sword saluting was a practice only of the fencing salle, not of the duel, or at least not among the French and those who followed their practices.
19. A German Salle d’Escrime
An 18th century exhibition in a German fencing salle. It captures much of the allure of swordplay, and more than hints at the sound of blade on blade. My blood has always quickened with excitement at that sound, especially when heard from a distance. There is no other like it! The entire atmosphere of a fencing club is electric. In fact, parry strongly enough or get hit hard enough on your mask, and you’ll even smell ozone.
Multiple weapons are at play in the image: long- or great sword, smallsword, sword and dagger, German dusack, halberd, and quarterstaff. Given the directors or marshals (aka referees in modern fencing parlance), it is clearly a competition. The boxes and grandstands are filled with spectators, and there’s even a drummer, probably to assist with announcements such as the beginning and ending of bouts. Notably, there are no fencing masks, which would not come into regular use until the 19th century. Some of the participants are taking refreshment. Such a display today is more akin to a HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts), sometimes known as WMA (Western Martial Arts, whose name cynics claim was created by North Americans so they wouldn’t feel left out) tournament, with its broad variety of historical weapons, even if the greatest focus is on the longsword. Frankly, although HEMA is still sorting itself out (and learning that a lot of things, competitions and judging, for example, are not as easy as its members originally thought, and that the theoretical and practical foundations of modern fencing are actually quite sound), its participants seem to be having a lot more fun than many modern fencers who tend to take themselves and their sport far too seriously. O parents! Why must you spoil swordplay for your children! Perhaps that’s the key: parents seem largely absent from HEMA, at least by comparison to modern Olympic fencing…
20. A Family of Fencers
A family, certainly, the likely father holding a rapier or transitional rapier, the boy holding a dagger or toy sword, the mother holding a set of keys. Does she fence too? I hope so. As much as I love fencing and teaching fencing, I’ve probably had as much or more fun fencing for fun with my four children over many years, particularly when they’re little and fully embrace the swashbuckling fun of swordplay. And my wife? The best bouts I’ve ever fenced were with her. One went eleven minutes of intense fencing before the first touch (she got it). Club members stopped fencing to watch! The FIE be damned: fencing doesn’t need a touch or more per minute to be interesting.* It just needs bouts consisting of focused fencing that leads to moments of furious fencing. How many touches are scored is immaterial. The anticipation of touches alone is far more alluring to audiences than attempts to force fencers to score quickly. Ah, “what fools these mortals be!” Or certainly some of them.
*A relatively new rule penalizes fencers during direct elimination bouts if a touch isn’t made within each minute. The rule is almost universally loathed. It was created to force fencers to be more aggressive, epee fencers especially, on the theory that aggressive fencing is more likely to draw the audience fencing needs to remain an Olympic sport. Frankly, the IOC is ruining sports and sport. Think the IOC isn’t all about money? Just take a look at its attitude toward the Tokyo Olympic Games during the pandemic, last summer and at present. Why do sports put up with this? Money, prestige, and, to paraphrase Casanova, most people are feckless when push comes to shove.
21. Women Gladiators, 17th Century
A painting I enjoy because it shows women gladiators, or duelists, or fencers (depending on the interpretation), and because my wife and I saw it in the Prado, an art museum that should not be missed by anyone visiting Madrid. Women have fenced and otherwise fought with swords not only for centuries, but likely millennia. Surely Atalanta, or at least the women who inspired her creation, fought with a sword at times on the voyage of the Argo!
What the painting depicts remains up for debate. Early interpretations suggest a rendering of the famous 1552 duel in Naples between Isabella de Carazi and Diambra de Petinella. Later analysis suggests this to be unlikely. Another theory is that the painting is an allegory of the conflict between Spain and Naples. Another theory is that it is an allegory of “Counter-Reformation feminine virtue over courtly vice.” The Prado considers it most likely that the work was part of series of paintings depicting scenes of the ancient world. Women gladiators were relatively common in ancient Rome, after all. The Prado has a second 17th century painting with the same title, Combate de Mujeres, attributed to Andrea Vaccaro, for the the History of Rome series for the Buen Retiro Palace in Madrid.
22. Sport Epee a Century or So Ago
Another image I’ve done a blog post on, so I’ll likewise keep my comments short. Why one of my favorites? Because it shows that little actually ever changes in fencing or in life. Criticisms of modern fencing notwithstanding, epee of more than a century ago looked a lot like it does today. And the drawings–caricatures–are so accurate they make me laugh. “Plus ça change…” See “Sport Epee Humor” for more details and translations, including comments that might otherwise go here.
23. Le Duel Guillou-Lacroix, 1914
Dueling, the origin and foundation of modern competitive fencing (even if modern fencing is in the process of forgetting this) and the inspiration for most stage and film sword combat, not to mention much of our swashbuckling dreams, is really, or was really, an absurd practice that proved little more that the courage to engage in single combat. A critic once pointed out that the most common soldier in combat faced more dangers and proved to be of far greater courage. Nonetheless the practice of dueling persisted for centuries and the romance of dueling still persists.
In reality most fencers never fought a duel even when the practice was prevalent, epee duels were often fought by men with little or no fencing experience, and most of the best duelists were not the best sport or “salle” fencers. Still, dueling still attracted a fair number of skilled swordsmen, and occasionally swordswomen, even among those considered rational and well-aware that the practice was ultimately a perverse one, my first fencing master included.
The photograph above is by far my favorite among images of real dueling. The tension is clear: these men are fighting with weapons capable of killing, even if they hope to avoid that end and settle the affair with a minor or wound or two, as epee fencing was largely designed to do. Both men are skilled fencers, yet, as is common in photographs of actual fencing, they don’t have the look of posed images of fencing technique.
The duelists are Robert Guillot (left) and René Lacroix, and the reason for the combat a “polemique de presse“–an opinion piece that attacked an individual or institution. Such writings were in fact the most common source of duels in the early twentieth century. This encounter was one of those almost joyously celebrated in the press: expert swordsmen; a large audience; famous fencers and fencing dignitaries in attendance, assisting, and officiating; and a lengthy duel exhibiting “sang-froid” and expert technique. One expert fencer in attendance claimed it was one of the most beautiful duels he had ever seen.
The duel lasted five reprises or periods, each apparently directed by a different directeur de combat. By the end of the third reprise, M. Lacroix had twice wounded M. Guillot in the arm. Even so, M. Guillot continued for two more reprises until, unable to hold his epee anymore, an end was called by the attending doctors. The technique of the duel was classic: counter-attacks, doublés, envelopments, esquives du bras, beat attacks, straight attacks, dérobements, and conventional parry-ripostes. If M. Guillot persisted in his low guard, it’s not surprising he was hit twice in the arm.
Most nobly, the duelists, in a practice that continues among a few of us in sport fencing today, used their left hands to point out their adversaries near misses where the point put a hole in the shirt or brushed the skin. Many fencers I find will not do this today, fearing to give their adversary any advantage. But it’s a noble practice indeed to point out how close your adversary came to hitting you, as it helps their fencing. “Plaqué!” one should shout when the adversary’s point hits flat, meaning, “Almost! You hit flat! Adjust your point control! Next time you’ll hit me!”
In many ways this duel epitomizes what many of us would like to see return in modern fencing: a wide variety of technique, a “hit and not get hit” mentality, and a strong sense of honor and fair play. In fact, most modern epee touches are double touches, even if the machine indicates only a single; the other touch is simply “late” but would in reality still make a wound. The tendency to turn swordplay into a game of tag rather than of “hitting and not getting hit” has been the bane of fencing for millennia.
24. New Orleans Nostalgia
I debated whether to include any personal images in this post, but in the end decided that a few are appropriate. If I regret not posting any in particular, it’s group photographs showing the strong camaraderie of fencing over more than four decades. Some of my best friends and best times have been associated with fencing. But group photographs in the context of this blog might be less meaningful except to those in them, so I’ve somewhat sadly omitted the images.
The photograph above is one of my favorites for several reasons beyond that it’s an early image of me as a fencer. (O vanity, O vanity!) Cool old school uniforms were still around, including the classic “Joseph Vince, Beverly Hills” high thread count canvas jacket with silver buttons I’m wearing, and the leather and canvas glove as well. The former are no longer authorized for wear (a blade might slip between the buttons, the authorities say) and the latter are no longer made, although Prieur still makes a beautiful leather finger-and-palm glove of exceptional quality, and also an all leather coaching glove of similar quality. The mask the fencer on the right is wearing is an old school three weapon mask. Similar masks today are worn only by some fencing teachers and HEMA fencers. The extra leather on the mask above is there to absorb saber cuts. It’s been replaced today by synthetic materials. Three-weapon fencers were common back then, and by that I mean three-weapon fencers who could fence one weapon exceptionally well and the other two very well. A rare thing today, indeed.
I also love the photo because it illustrates how unique en garde positions are: to this day I can recognize each of the fencers by their en gardes alone.
Further, a couple things are missing from the photograph, and I wish they were missing today: obnoxious parent spectators and strip-coaching coaches. With the emphasis on youth fencing today has come the parent spectator, often annoying, too often distracting. And with coaching now permitted during fencing, at least in the US, has come the loud-mouth ego-centric coach driven to make his or her presence known. ANY form of coaching during a bout was illegal back then, and coaches–more often than not they were legitimate fencing masters–had better things to do than hold their students’ hands. In fact, those two gentlemen on the strip? They would have adamantly refused any assistance even were it legal.
Still, I remain hopeful! Tournaments in which the modern fencing-as-business, win-at-all-costs to keep the parents’ checks coming coaches, not to mention “fencing parents,” are absent run quite smoothly, there is little if any coaching–everyone wants to win or lose on their own merits and fortune–and fencing’s roots, of swordplay for swordplay’s sake, for one-on-one competition without outside assistance, remain intact.
As for the city in which the photo above was taken? There is no place in the US more romantic than New Orleans to fence.
25. A Fencing Lesson in New Orleans
Certainly a favorite of mine: my wife taking a lesson from my–and in many ways, now her–fencing master, Dr. Eugene Hamori, during a visit to New Orleans a few years ago. For me, it was an opportunity to watch and learn, and also to be critiqued and learn as I gave lessons under observation. In fact, after a long lesson from him, Dr. Hamori had my wife take a lesson from me under his watchful eye. No independent study can ever teach as well as such hands-on instruction and practice under the eye of a great teacher.
I was taught by example and by direct lesson that the fencing master’s ultimate purpose is, beyond instilling mere fencing skill, to set the student free: to endow the student with the ability think and act independently under pressure. Unfortunately, today too many modern “coaches” have abandoned this noble duty, instead binding students to themselves to the point that many are unable to fence skillfully without their coaches at their sides. Whiplash might even be the most common fencing injury today, so quickly do some fencers’ heads snap to look at their coaches after each touch. Modern fencing was originally based on the idea of single combat in a duel, in which assistance was forbidden and spectators and fencing masters were expected to remain silent. Not so today in sport fencing where bouts often seem to be as much a duel between coaches’ egos as between two fencers, to quote Dr. Hamori.
Much of the fault lies with the governing bodies and their ready acquiescence to coaches and parents, the former often engaging in loud antics designed to reassure the latter that they’re getting their money’s worth, and of course, to ensure that those checks keep coming. USA Fencing, for example, in recent years has actively promoted coaching during bouts, as noted above, in spite of the obvious problems–interference with referees and fencers, &c–this would create, not to mention that it’s against the rules in international competitions, and was until recently in US competitions. This forced USA Fencing recently to issue a Code of Conduct for Coaches, but without acknowledging its significant role in the problem, of course, nor even with a hint of irony. But codes of conduct work only as well as they are (1) taken sincerely to heart, and (2) strictly enforced.
Traditionally, a fencing teacher acquired teaching skill either through a university-level fencing master’s program or via a formal or informal apprenticeship under an accredited fencing master, usually with some years experience as a successful fencing student and competitor as a prerequisite. Fencing-teachers-to-be were typically selected for their combination of fencing and teaching aptitudes. I’ve known more than one Olympic fencing medalist who has admitted to me that he was a terrible fencing teacher and wanted little to do with the practice. Such honesty is unusual these days.
This traditional teaching-training format is often truncated or even ignored today; anyone can call themselves a coach, after all, and many do in spite of their lack of education or ability. And where it was once considered worse than rude to give unsolicited advice, and if solicited, to give advice beyond one’s understanding, such is commonplace now, although accounts from past centuries suggest it’s always been something of an issue, given human nature and the foolish arrogance and insecurity it often produces. Doubtless the Internet’s culture of “know little or nothing experts” and “my opinion is as good as anyone’s” has bled into this area today.
Even so, worldwide the traditional form of training fencing teachers, up to and including masters, still runs strong, and in the US the United States Fencing Coaches Association is doing what it can to support this important method, although it too is under siege, in part by apathy, in part by the logistics of time and money, in part by the ascendancy of “the coach” rather than “the maestro.” Now to answer the question that must be popping up in some readers’ minds: how did I learn to teach fencing? I was mentored for twenty years by Dr. Eugene Hamori, my second fencing master, after I’d been a fencer for twenty-one. I teach much as he did and also a bit as my first master did, although doubtless less skillfully, in a style derived from Italo Santelli, his proteges László Szabó and Lajos Csiszar, and from Gyorgi Piller via László Borsody. It’s a heritage to proud of.
26. Singlestick Without Jackets!
Practicing singlestick at full speed with a very old friend! For protection we wear only masks (we don’t really want our heads broken), gloves, and light elbow pads (mostly to avoid chipping the humerus or ulna). Why so little protection? Because, even if we do our best to limit ourselves to light and moderate blows, we’ll still often get hit hard enough not to want to get hit. It’s a good way of training, of trying to hit and not get hit. We prefer singlesticks even though some of the modern synthetic backswords are better training weapons, because this was the traditional method of training for backsword and broadsword in the 17th and 18th centuries. Oddly, many practitioners today of smallsword and backsword use replica weapons, albeit blunted, rather than period foils or singlesticks even though this was not the practice in the era of these arms. In other words, their “authentic” practice is inauthentic.
Modern fencers could learn much from practicing with less protection, in particular about not getting hit. Some masters in past decades, and probably some today, had some or all students take lessons without jackets. Some fencing teachers object to this, because it’s useless unless you hit the student when he or she makes a mistake. But that’s the point! These old masters did hit the student who made an egregious error. And they hit hard! And the students remembered it! Such students make few errors. Still, although the practice has merit if not abused, at least for some fencers, it is generally considered unsafe at full speed by many Olympic style fencing teachers today. I’ve only used it regularly with one student, a former member of the Polish national epee squad (his master was Bohdan Andrzejewski, the 1969 Epee World Champion) who had always received his lessons without a jacket, and insisted I give him lessons this way. He made the fewest errors of any student I’ve ever had. I’ve also decades ago seen noted epee master Kaj Czarnecki, who recently passed away, hit unjacketed Army pentathletes hard on the breastbone if they flèched without taking the blade or having a full tempo over their adversary. They didn’t make many mistakes either.
The practice does have its limitations: some of us with thick skin or heads will soon start slipping into bad habits as our concern over hard hits diminishes. For a similar reason did we, when I was a Navy SEAL, train 80 to 90 percent with live rounds. They’re not only more realistic training for real combat, but they make you pay attention in a way non-lethal training cannot. Similarly, old masters training students for duels often had the students remove their shirts. The master, whose epee had a point d’arrêt with one or more sharp prongs, would hit the student if he made an egregious error. One fencer, training for a duel, set up a practice sword, sharp-pointed, and practiced his beats and binds against it so that he would lose his fear of a naked point, something sport fencing had never conditioned him too.
Amusingly, a few of the boldest fencers with a heavy saber or backsword I’ve ever met melted into timidity when asked to fence without their heavy fencing jackets. A couple declined to participate. Another said he was cold and put a fairly heavy street jacket on, then ignobly proceeded to fence against those wearing only T-shirts. Protection against hard blows is necessary for regular practice, but it also inspires an unrealistic forwardness–aggressive attacks that hit hard while ignoring the possibility of getting hit–in some fencers.
I also recall an old fencer whom I knew for decades, Joe Dabbs, who told me about traveling with, I think, the Swedish CISM (military) Fencing Team through Europe back in the 60s. While practicing with the French Team, I think it was, two of the French fencers had a disagreement. Their coach or officer ordered them to strip to their jockstraps and put on fencing masks and gloves. Then, armed with fencing sabers, they fought a “duel” of sorts. I’ve seen what a skilled fencer can do with a saber through a fencing jacket (a nasty welt from shoulder to gut that dropped the recipient to the piste). I can imagine what one could do to bare skin. Hopefully the two French “duelists” made friends again over a bottle or two of wine or one of brandy afterward.
27 & 28. Fencing Before & During the Pandemic
One of fencing’s great joys is fencing with friends and family. I’m still fencing with a friend I first fenced in 1979, and my wife and I have had some of our best bouts fencing each other over the past dozen or more years. It usually takes five or more minutes for the first scored touch between my wife and me–we disregard competitive fencing limits on time for our bouts–and once it took eleven minutes. My old Greek friend Elias Katsaros, just noted, and I now fence each other fun, with French grips and in true “hit and not get hit” form, seeking clean, clear single touches as if we were dueling. We also often go a few minutes without a single touch, often also drawing spectators, so focused and active is the fencing: I with my beats and binds, he with his straight-arm counter-attacks and occasional coups de chat. No score is kept, nor necessary.
The pandemic put a stop to much of this for a year. Yet the year off was a sabbatical of sorts, a time to review theory and teaching methods, redevelop and renew footwork, update fencing equipment, rediscover old swashbuckling novels, write letters and send books to old fencing friends, and more. I’ve written already (“Of Sacrifices Great and Small”) that fencers should not bemoan the year off: fencers have for millennia had to absent themselves from swordplay for reasons of national or international crisis, war and pestilence predominant among them. Fencers I know in Europe and Latin America seem to have handled this better than fencers in the US have on average, surely for cultural reasons.
A few years ago while visiting my fencing master and old friend in New Orleans, I mentioned that getting some of our students to try competition was somewhat difficult. I don’t push competition on those who aren’t interested, but competing occasionally is good for the fencing soul, at least during the early years. “No, Ben,” he replied with a friendly sternness. “Fencing is foremost about friendship and camaraderie. If they want to compete, fine. If not, fine. Let them enjoy fencing and fencing friendships first.” This advice came from an Olympic gold medalist and one of the last of the the thirty-odd Hungarian fencers who for half a century won almost every major saber medal in the world. I see fewer and fewer clubs these days with this traditional sense of camaraderie and, frankly, great parties, we had “back in the day,” but enough of us are still around to carry on the tradition. And do.
29. Raising a Swashbuckler!
So, you want to raise a swashbuckler? Or as likely, have no choice? Well, there is a tried and true method. Start them early on fencing lessons, surely? Nay! Not at all!
Rather, let them run and jump and climb and swing from ropes from their earliest years! Play games with them: tag, chase, and hide-and-seek! Let them throw and catch balls, right and left-handed–practice both! And catch coins and marbles for dexterity. Let them climb stairs and walk on balance beams–and fence on balance beams! (Or at least such as you and they safely can.) Encourage them to play (safely) with sticks, the most natural of pretend swords. They’ll need little encouragement except for safety!
Let them play in forts and treehouses, and imagine them as pirate ships and spaceships! Using a foam sword, teach them the Princess Bride sword trick of tossing a sword into the air with a foot and catching it in the hand. It’s actually an ancient trick, but one that even a three-year-old (our son above proved it) can learn to do well–and especially, have fun doing it. And swordfight with them using the same safe swords! Let them experiment, let them leap and spin and try out all the sword techniques they’ve seen on TV and in film–it won’t hurt them at all.
Fencing lessons? Wait until they’re at least ten. Although children can be taught to fence earlier than ten, it must be done carefully, slowly, and most importantly, it must be fun! Not, as is common, merely as part of a process that’s little more than a cash cow to fund a fencing business. If your child does start before the age of ten, make sure the program is one that emphasizes rudimentary fencing skills, exercises, games, and, especially, fun, and is taught by a kind and gentle teacher.
And competition, if they’re interested? Wait until they’re at least thirteen or fourteen with a year of instruction and practice behind them and limited expectations their first year. And parents, listen well: leave those wagging fingers, stern looks, and shouting at home. A child’s love of fencing, not to mention the development of fencing skill, is easily lost if competition is introduced too early or overemphasized. “Yes, you often are,” I once told a huffy, quite arrogant, and visibly annoyed helicopter parent in answer to her question, “Oh… So parents are the problem?”
Equally important, encourage your children to read anything they please. And while they’re at it, introduce a few books of adventure with swords: Dumas, Sabatini, Cervantes and their many descendants down to the present. Every culture has a form of noble courageous swashbuckling trickster adventure, often sword-in-hand. Let your children discover it!
And while you’re at it, take a look once more at the first photograph in this blog: it’s what fencing is all about, after all.
*What he actually said to me in 1977 was, “Fencing is neither art nor science: fencing is fencing!”
Copyright Benerson Little 2021. All rights reserved by the creators of the personal photographic images above: written permission is required before any use. Blog first posted May 20, 2021. Last updated July 8, 2021.
I distinctly recall first learning of Richard Lovelace’s poetry in Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini (“Stone walls do not a prison make, // Nor iron bars a cage…”), and three years later spending a fair amount of time on the Cavalier Poets as taught at Mt. Miguel High School, San Diego, by the wonderful Mrs. Louise Simpson, easily the finest and my favorite of several outstanding English teachers I’ve had.
What barely post-pubescent adolescent male doesn’t, or at least some of us didn’t decades ago, wish for a moment he could write lines as Cavalier Poet Robert Herrick did–“That brave vibration each way free, // O how that glittering taketh me!” in “Upon Julia’s Clothes”? Yes, it’s surely classified as an objectifying poem today but I didn’t recognize this at the age of seventeen, I simply found such brave vibration quite attractive. I still do. Lovelace’s poems I regarded at the time, and may still, as purely of my definition of the romantic ideal–of the combining of the physical and metaphysical, second only to the poems of John Donne.
Richard Lovelace (1618 – 1657) was an English cavalier, poet, and soldier. At sixteen he wrote The Scholars, a comedy performed at Whitefriars. The son of a soldier who died in battle when the poet-to-be was nine years old, Lovelace became a soldier too. A devout follower of the Royalist cause, he worked loyally with both pen and sword to sustain the reign of King Charles I. The young poet fought as an ensign against Covenanting rebels in Scotland in 1639, and in 1642 he was imprisoned by Parliament after presenting it with the “Kentish” petition for restoring the rights of the king. During his confinement he wrote what might be his most finest poem, “To Althea, from Prison.” Its most famous line is quoted above.
The terms of Lovelace’s parole and bail prevented him from engaging in the first fighting of the Civil War and also ran him into debt. He joined King Charles I at Oxford in 1645, and after the city’s surrender he went formed a regiment and went abroad as its colonel. In 1646 he was wounded in French service during the siege of Spanish-held Dunkirk. In 1649, after a delay caused by a second imprisonment upon his return to England in 1648, he published a collection of poems, Lucasta, and a decade later his brother published a posthumous edition of his poems. It is generally held that Lucasta was Lucy Sacheverell, who married another upon a false report of Lovelace’s death caused by his wound at Dunkirk. Lovelace died depressed and in poverty, surely due in part to the beheading of his beloved king, and perhaps the loss of his love as well.
Other than the poems below, I could find nothing on his experiences as a fencer, although given his social standing and military career, he would doubtless have been instructed in fencing and probably experienced, at least on the battlefield (a far more dangerous arena than the field of honor), in the swordplay of deadly combat. His poem, “The Duell,” which I include at the end, clearly proves his familiarity with the process of the duel and technique of swordplay.
I’ve gone back and forth over the years, as I have with much poetry and fiction, on whether I agree or disagree with Lovelace’s apparent worldview in his poems, compared as it were with my own life experiences. Stone walls do and do not a prison make, and my senses of honor and love simultaneously agree and disagree with Lovelace’s: “I could not love thee (Dear) so much, // Lov’d I not Honour more.” I thought often on these and similar lines during my naval service, attempting to reconcile them with my reality. Honor, I found, is a concept too often distorted, abused, and even in its purest sense, of standing up for justice and equality, too often entirely absent. And some of those I’ve often heard prate about their personal honor had none at all. I balance this internal conflict by finding that honor, like love, is shaped by the vessel.
Further, I’m no monarchist, much less a pining one. Politically I’m anti-authoritarian rule, including anti-monarchy, unlike Lovelace who was willing to suffer in prison for his loyalty to his king. I’m even suspicious of the lesser sort of modern constitutional monarchs. Democracy, as they say, is the worst form of government, except of course for all the others.
At best it’s little more than recreational speculation, no matter how intelligent, to predict how one of us today might have believed and behaved in centuries past, but in the seventeenth century I’d hope to find myself a reasonable progressive, who, while grudgingly, even sadly, accepting the popular violent overthrow of an unjust king who unlawfully usurped his parliament to rule without it, would yet try to prevent the excesses the act might lead to, particularly the replacement of a king-in-fact with a king-de-facto–of one tyranny with another. Too often rebellion or revolution via civil war against tyranny leads not to political revolution but to mere status quo–more tyranny–under a different name. And I’ve never been a fan of Puritans or any extremists of faith or flag any more than I have of monarchs and autocrats no matter their politics.
Likewise, perhaps I’d have been a Whig who would have encouraged the arrival of William and Mary to take the English throne in order to strengthen Parliament, but would not have supported the Monmouth adventure three years prior, even quoting Horace as Rafael Sabatini’s Dr. Peter Blood did: “Quo, quo, scelesti, ruitis?” I would have had to imagine true democracy, given the era. Or join the buccaneers, making the trade-off of accepting a local democracy in return for the government-encouraged predation on others, often innocent Spaniards.
In today’s political landscape, I find myself a left-center independent who stands against all attempts to undermine American Democracy and replace it with autocracy. Our wannabe autocrat is mostly quiet for the moment, but his enablers high and low, lacking in both honor and respect for democracy, have yet to admit defeat. The eternal fight for justice and equality, of trying destroy the ancient, ugly, ruthless ideology of “might as right” coupled to “those who are different are by definition enemies,” goes on.
But none of the forgoing has stopped me from reading and enjoying Richard Lovelace’s poetry to this day, even if I don’t entirely agree with it on all points. I’d find little to read, not to mention few friends, were I to demand agreement in all areas.
Last, as a swordsman I’m delighted to read any poetry associated in any way with swordplay. Art and arms once went hand-in-hand, letters and arms in particular, and a fair number of fencers, male and female, have been adept with both pen and sword. This seems less so today, unfortunately, perhaps due these days to the heavy emphasis on fencing as a sport rather than as a practice or accomplishment as part of a broad education in the humanities.
But no matter. On to the poem!
First, the original version in Pallas Armata: The Gentlemen’s Armorie. This fencing book ostensibly includes a treatise on rapier play, but it’s really an early treatise on an incipient new school of fence, French-based, that would be developed in depth over the next few decades. The treatise was written just beyond the end of the rapier era in France, England, and other, but not all, countries as shorter, lighter “transitional” (a modern term) thrusting swords, and an associated transitional technique that retained some of the old, came to be. Already the incipient new swordplay, based as it was on the new fashion in swords, was on display in the form of an emphasis on “single rapier” rather than on rapier and parrying dagger, and with an emphasis on some two tempo techniques (the beat-thrust, for example) in addition to the common single tempo techniques that made up much of rapier technique. Although the author “G. A.” makes much use of Italian terms–stringere/stringered, cavere/cavering, for example–his technique appears to be largely French-derived, noting of course that all schools of fence steal from each other, and likewise also develop similar techniques via parallel evolution.
The book also includes instruction on the “sword”–the broadsword and backsword, that is. The straight-bladed cutting sword, the backsword in particular, was in fact the traditional English sword and far more useful on a battlefield than the rapier which was really more of a gentleman’s badge of status and walking or “street sword,” as its successor the smallsword soon would be as well.
The dedicatory poems, all by friends associated with Oxford, Cambridge, or Gray’s Inn (one of the four Inns of Court for the care and feeding of lawyers and the even more annoying species, lawyers-to-be), are inscribed to the author, “G. A.,” whom historian of the sword and sword masters J. D. Aylward identifies as most likely Lovelace’s friend Gideon Ashwell.
I’m going to take a pass on writing anything remotely resembling literary criticism in regard to the poem other than what I’ve already done above. These days, in reviews or criticisms you’re likely to learn far more about the critic than the writer or their writing. Perhaps it’s always been this way, but amplified now by the Internet and various associated social media. I know too well how difficult it is to write and publish anything these days, at least via a traditional press, so I tend to give most writers a pass, at least on their writing itself (their ideas may still be fair game), and ignore their critics. And for that matter, mine as well.
So, finally (you say), the poem:
To the Reader.
Harke, Reader, would’st be learn’d ith’ Warres,
A Captaine in a gowne?
Strike a league with Bookes and Starres,
And weave of both the Crowne?
Would’st be a Wonder? Such a one
As would winne with a Looke?
A Schollar in a Garrison?
And conquer by the Booke?
Take then this Mathematick Shield,
And henceforth by its Rules,
Be able to dispute ith Field,
And combate in the Schooles.
Whil’st peacefull Learning once agen
And th’ Souldier do concorde,
As that he fights now with her Penne,
And she writes with his Sword.
A. Glouces. Oxon.
As J. D. Aylward notes, in spite of Lovelace’s mention of mathematics, Pallas Armata’s instructions actually avoid the mathematical–i.e. geometrical–convolutions of some earlier French and current Spanish (destreza verdadera) forms of rapier swordplay. Although there is nothing revealing about swordplay per se in the poem, it does make an excellent comparison of the overlap between arms and letters (provided, of course, that one actually applies one to the other). Lovelace’s “The Duell,” an allegory on a combat with love, has more references to the technique and process of swordplay and dueling than the poem above in fact.
The poem, with minor but notable revisions, was reprinted in 1649 in Lucasta by Richard Lovelace, but oddly not in the posthumous 1659 edition:
To my truly valiant, learned Friend, who in his
booke resolv’d the Art Gladiatory
into the Mathematick’s.
HEARKE, reader! wilt be learn’d ith’ warres?
A Gen’rall in a gowne?
Strike a league with Arts and Scarres,
And snatch from each a Crowne?
Wouldst be a wonder? Such a one,
As should win with a Looke?
A Bishop in a Garison,
And Conquer by the Booke?
Take then this Mathematick shield,
And henceforth by its rules
Be able to dispute ith’ field,
And Combate in the Schooles.
Whilst peaceful Learning once againe
And the Souldier so concord,
As that he fights now with her Penne,
And she writes with his Sword.
Poetry of the sword is difficult to find, but thankfully not poetry by those who practice the sword. The romance of the sword itself –or perhaps the romantic notions that lead one to the sword, among other passions–has long inspired poetry and prose, not to mention film. May it yet continue to do so.
Finally, because it alludes to swordplay and its traditions, not to mention to the Spanish novel Don Quixote by Miquel de Cervantes, here is Lovelace’s poem, “The Duell,” an allegory. Note the language of the duel and swordplay: affront, challeng’d, the choyce of equal lengths and points, pass, falsify, true distance!
Love drunk, the other day, knockt at my brest,
But I, alas! was not within.
My man, my ear, told me he came t’ attest,
That without cause h’d boxed him,
And battered the windows of mine eyes,
And took my heart for one of’s nunneries.
I wondred at the outrage safe return’d,
And stormed at the base affront;
And by a friend of mine, bold faith, that burn’d,
I called him to a strict accompt.
He said that, by the law, the challeng’d might
Take the advantage both of arms and fight.
Two darts of equal length and points he sent,
And nobly gave the choyce to me,
Which I not weigh’d, young and indifferent,
Now full of nought but victorie.
So we both met in one of’s mother’s groves,
The time, at the first murm’ring of her doves.
I stript myself naked all o’re, as he:
For so I was best arm’d, when bare.
His first pass did my liver rase: yet I
Made home a falsify too neer:
For when my arm to its true distance came,
I nothing touch’d but a fantastick flame.
This, this is love we daily quarrel so,
An idle Don-Quichoterie:
We whip our selves with our own twisted wo,
And wound the ayre for a fly.
The only way t’ undo this enemy
Is to laugh at the boy, and he will cry.
Plenty of collections of Lovelace’s poems are available, particularly in reasonably priced used or antiquarian editions. My favorite, and perhaps most complete, is Lucasta: The Poems of Richard Lovelace, edited by William Carew Hazlitt, 1864 or 1897 (and later) editions. There are numerous small editions of Lovelace’s most famous poems, and Scolar Press (1972) has a facsimile reprint of the original 1649 edition.
Copyright Benerson Little 2021. First posted March 2, 2021. Last modified March 10, 2021.
As can be seen from the illustration, not much has changed!
But a little history first before I translate the captions. Modern sport epee is the direct descendant of a form of dueling swordplay created largely by Jules Jacob in the 1870s. Jacob, recognizing that foil as it was practiced at the time had become largely useless for actual combat, took what was essentially smallsword technique, along with what useful dueling practice that could be derived from classical foil fencing, itself descended from smallsword practice in both of its forms (for the duel and for “school play”), and created a dueling technique focused on longer distance and attacks and counter-attacks to the arm. Thus the epee de combat or dueling sword, as it was usually termed, was born. Or, as some described it, there were now both the modern school (epee) and the classical (foil).
By focusing on longer distance and attacks to the arm, this new technique had the quite useful advantage of minimizing the likelihood of killing one’s adversary. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in which law and society might look the other way if someone were killed in a duel, were long past. By the mid- to late nineteenth century, dueling was not only unlawful but a duelist who killed his adversary (duelists were nearly always male, thus the masculine pronoun) was almost certain to be prosecuted for murder or manslaughter, military officers sometimes excepted thanks to the rather insular world of military law and command. In fact, one early epee master noted that no sword was better designed to avoid killing one’s adversary!
Within a decade or two, though, a sport version of dueling swordplay was introduced and soon rivalled the foil, at least in France and Great Britain. This new fencing weapon, based as it was on the duel as devised for gentlemen, was paradoxically democratic. Only pools in which all fencers fenced each other to determine the winner–the potentially best duelist–would suffice! We can thank early epeeists for the pool system that was, sadly, largely done away with a couple decades ago except for early seeding rounds, replaced by our direct elimination system that in the early twentieth century was denounced as anathema. “A lottery!” detractors cried.
And indeed [digression warning!] the direct elimination system is a lottery, or at least a half-lottery in which the two best fencers in a tournament often meet before the final, leaving the gold medal bout often rather dull. The excuse for the elimination of the pool system was cheating, and in fact there often were fencers who threw bouts for countrymen or even for money once they had won enough bouts to ascend to the next round. The real reason, though, was the IOC’s desire to have a competition that would lead to a final of two rather than six or eight. This is more dramatic, or so goes the reasoning. But, as I warned, I digress!
Early sport epeeists attempted to emulate the duel as much as possible. Unfortunately, with sport epee came the advent of the “poolist”–the fencer for whom technique unsuitable to the duel, gamesmanship in other words, was all that mattered. With stiff blades that would stop an adversary’s advancing arm, coupled with an emphasis on counter-attacks, angular ones in particular, the poolist used technique that in a duel would be suicidal. The French governing body, composed largely of foilists with a disdain for practitioners of the dueling sword, quickly sided with the sport fencers against epeeists promoting a purely dueling form of swordplay.
The reality is that counter-attacks to the body are unlikely to stop a fully developed attack: the blade will usually pass into and even through the body rather than arrest it, making a double touch, possibly fatal, likely, unless the counter-attack has been coupled with stout opposition or a displacement. Worse, angular counter-attacks to the arm will almost never stop a fully developed attack with a real sword: here again there is the near certainty of a double touch, except in this case the attacker receives a wound to the arm while the counter-attacker receives a possibly mortal thrust to the body.
Notably, most of the best duelists with the epee were not the best sport fencers. Dueling required a sang-froid which sport fencing did not and does not.
So, on to the translations! Reading left to right from the top:
The power and the grace. These are typical forms seen even today. Grace on the left was a common style based on counter-attacking with a straight arm. Seldom seen anymore, its finest practitioners were always very difficult to deal with. My old friend Elias Katsaros, who’s also an artist and recently retired Greek iconographer who took 2nd at the Greek nationals in the early 1960s, is easily the best I’ve ever seen in this style. He used to give nationally-ranked epeeists fits long after he had abandoned serious competition. We still fence occasionally, French grips only (with fine Prieur leather-palmed and -fingered gloves), and he’s as difficult a swordsman to defeat today as he was when I first fenced him in 1979.
The [punny] parry of “cocsyxte.” “Pouce!” here means “Truce!”
The flèche. Yes, the flying or “Polish” flèche has been around for a long time, probably centuries. I have references to two forms of flèche from the late 17th to early 18th century, in fact.
M. Brandanloeil, Judge: “If you’ve passed your opponent, Monsieur, don’t fart!”
The offensive and the defensive. Again, two types still seen today.
The offensive caricature is of the “croucher” who primarily uses angular attacks and counter-attacks to the arm, usually as the opponent attacks or upon the opponent’s preparation. The technique would be foolish with real swords for it would not typically halt the attack. The croucher is still around, although he (I’ve rarely, perhaps never, seen women using the technique, although I’ve seen some use low angular attacks as part of a broader technical range) is less common than when I first learned to fence forty-three years ago. It is most often a style of epeeists without much formal training or those who lack the focus to be taught formally. Second intention via a false attack to draw the angular attack or counter-attack, followed by a parry-riposte or bind thrust in octave, or a powerful beat in seconde followed by a high thrust with fleche, have usually worked well for me against crouchers, as has a fleche in tempo, often made as a second intention action, to the body as the croucher withdraws his arm after a failed attack or counter-attack. I’ve had less success with counter-time (a counter-attack against a counter-attack) due to the severe angulation crouchers use, and their extensive experience against counter-time.
Fencers tend to forget that the common counters to a technique often don’t work against fencers who are expert in the technique. Many times, for example, I’ve heard fencers claim that so and so has a strong quarte, therefore a feint to quarte and disengage to sixte is the solution, only to find themselves hit anyway–because the adversary is quite familiar from experience with this solution. Similarly, attempts in epee to use compound binds made in opposite directions against an expert straight-arm counter-attacker often don’t work because, again, the adversary is quite familiar with these obvious tactics from experience. In many cases, it’s what they want you to do!
The defensive form depicted is commonly adopted by very tall fencers who generally counter-attack with body displacements and long retreats. This technique is a bit more suitable to dueling as well, provided the fencer immediately follows his or her counter-attack with a quick retreat and a parry. Unfortunately, many practitioners of this style simply remise rather than parry, which would, again, often lead to a double-touch in the case of real swords.
More fencing history and technique posts to follow… 🙂
Copyright Benerson Little 2020. First posted December 21, 2020. Last updated December 30, 2020.
Perhaps the only swashbuckling novel whose narrative arc rests entirely upon the near-certainty of a duel at the climax, Rafael Sabatini’s The Black Swan epitomizes the duel on the beach: a desert isle and a ship careened; a pair of expert swordsmen who hate each other; a damsel’s safety, even her life, depending upon the outcome; an audience of pirates as Howard Pyle or N. C. Wyeth painted at their finest; and, above all, at atmosphere of tropical romance amidst danger.
Famed novelist George MacDonald Fraser, in his introduction to Captain Blood: His Odyssey (Akadine, 1998), referred to The Black Swan as “an almost domestic story of the buccaneers.” The only other novel to come close to such “domesticity” is Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne Du Maurier–but it has no climactic duel.
Let me note right now that (1) this blog post is not a review–I thoroughly enjoy the novel, it’s one of my favorite “summer” reads, especially at the beach–but more of an abridged annotation. Further (2), this post is divided in two sections: background and annotations, so to speak, regarding the novel itself, followed by a detailed dissection of a singular technique employed in the duel itself.
The first section has some spoilers, but not so many as might ruin the first-time reading of the novel. Even so, if you haven’t read the book, you might still to choose to read it now and then return here. And then re-read the novel, it’s certainly enjoyable enough to deserve a second time around.
However, if you haven’t yet read the novel, PLEASE DON’T READ THE SECOND PART ON THE DUEL ITSELF! Read the novel, then return. I’ll place a second warning just prior, just in case. Reading Part One of this Duel on the Beach series is also helpful but not required.
Background & Annotations
The Black Swan was based on a short story, likely written simultaneous ly with the novel itself, by Rafael Sabatini, called “The Duel on the Beach,” published in the Ladies’ Home Journal, September 1931. Sabatini’s short stories, excerpts, and “pre-novels” were published widely in both “men’s” and “women’s” magazines. “The Brethren of the Main,” upon which Captain Blood: His Odyssey was based, was serialized in Adventure magazine, for example, for a largely male audience.
The Famous Wyeth Painting
The novel is often closely associated with N. C. Wyeth’s famous painting, shown above and below, used on its US dust jacket. Secondarily, and unfortunately, it is often also associated with the 1942 film of the same name, which takes such extraordinary liberties with the novel as to be the same story almost in name only. The film deserves little if any further discussion here.
Wyeth’s painting evokes the action of the climactic duel, if not entirely accurately. The close parrying of hero Charles de Bernis and the animal-like aggressiveness of villain Tom Leach are graphically represented, but the actual technique of both depicted fencers leaves something to be desired for expert swordsmen. It’s more representative or symbolic than accurate, although–as I will be the first to point out–one could argue that the swordsman on the left may have just made a close, shortened parry as he stepped forward into an attack. But no matter, at least not for now.
More importantly, a couple of principal characters, whom we would expect to be in the painting, Major Sands in particular, are missing. Further, it is difficult to tell the color of the clothing of de Bernis on the left–is it the “violet taffetas with its deep cuffs reversed in black and the buttonholes richly laced with silver” (and apparently with claret breeches) which Sabatini early on confuses with a suit of pale blue taffetas worn by this “tall, slim, vigorous figure of a man”? De Bernis, for what it’s worth, wore the violet at the duel.
Still, the woman in the painting might be Priscilla Harradine, the love interest, wearing “lettuce” green as she does at all times, duel included, in The Black Swan other than in the opening scene, although the bright orange doesn’t fit. Further, the woman in the painting has the correct “golden” hair, and pirate Tom Leach, on the right, wears the scarlet breeches of his faded scarlet suit, as in the novel, including at the time of the duel.
Still, it’s not as accurate a representation of the novel’s duel as we would expect from a commissioned painting, even though most dust jacket and frontispiece art is often inaccurate.
And there’s a reason for this: the painting was commissioned neither for the 1931 story nor the 1932 novel. Rather, it was commissioned in the mid-1920s by Carl Fisher, a wealthy American entrepreneur. N. C. Wyeth completed the painting in 1926. Two of Fisher’s friends are depicted as pirates watching the duel, one of whom is John Oliver La Gorce of The National Geographic Society (more details here) and into whose hands the painting passed, and from his eventually to the Society.
Some suggestions have been made that Sabatini may have written the duel scene to somewhat correspond to the painting. This is entirely possible, but I don’t think it is necessarily so except in broad strokes, as we’ll see momentarily, and also later in the discussion of the duel itself. The trope of pirate duels on the beach leads all of them to look much alike, in other words, thanks in large part to Howard Pyle. (See Part One for other examples.)
The positions of the swordsmen in the “Duel on the Beach” painting are almost identical to those in an earlier N. C. Wyeth work shown immediately above, also named, or at least captioned, “The Duel on the Beach.” Wyeth painted it for Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1924), a swashbuckling romance of Elizabethan privateering.
I strongly suspect Wyeth’s later “generic pirate sword-fight on the beach” painting that become the cover of The Black Swan was originally intended, at least in part, to suggest the duel in Captain Blood: His Odyssey. The clothing of the figure on the left might even be the “black with silver lace” of Captain Peter Blood.
Wyeth’s dust jacket and frontispiece for Captain Blood: His Odyssey, shown below, bolster my argument, as do the two single lines describing the duel in it [SPOILER ALERT]:
“It was soon over. The brute strength, upon which Levasseur so confidently counted, could avail nothing against the Irishman’s practised skill.”
Even so, again there are details lacking that we would expect: the buccaneers are not divided into two groups representing the two crews (Blood’s and Levasseur’s); Cahusac and the pearls-before-swine do not figure prominently among the spectators; Governor d’Ogeron’s son is missing; two ships rather than one show up in the background (the Arabella was anchored out of sight); and most importantly, Mademoiselle d’Ogeron and her lustrous black hair is missing–as already noted, the woman in the painting has blond hair.
Even more to the point (pun half-intended), perhaps Sabatini re-clothed his hero from sky blue to violet to match the painting–and then he and his editor forgot to correct all instances. It wouldn’t be the first time harried writers and editors have let errors go uncorrected.
Thus, at best, in spite of my best hopes and desires, the painting may have merely been inspired to suggest the duel in Captain Blood. The original “Duel on the Beach” painting, by the way, an oil on canvas 48 by 60 inches, was sold at auction by Christie’s in 2012 for $1,082,500.
The Duelists: Charles de Bernis & Tom Leach
The novel’s hero is Charles de Bernis, former buccaneer and close companion of Henry Morgan. Sabatini biographer Ruth Heredia, author of Romantic Prince: Seeking Sabatini and Romantic Prince: Reading Sabatini, considers the character to be ultimately an iteration of Captain Peter Blood, probably Sabatini’s favorite of all those he created.
De Bernis is more or less a French gentleman, if a bit of a fortune hunter or adventurer originally, which all flibustiers by definition were. And indeed a fair number of flibustier leaders were gentlemen, most notably Michel, sieur de Grammont, who played so commanding a role in many of the great French buccaneering actions of the 1680s.
Barring the boots Sabatini and so many authors of his era dress buccaneers in–a trope or myth, there were no horses to ride aboard ship, thus no need for boots of “fine black Cordovan leather,” nor any evidence that seamen, including buccaneers, wore them–Charles de Bernis in real life would have otherwise dressed much as the author described him.
It image above is a near-perfect fit for Charles de Bernis. Please note that the cavalier is wearing “stirrup hose,” not boots. Stirrup hose was variously popular from the 1650s in the Netherlands to as late as the 1680s in parts of Spanish America. In France, it seemed largely, if not entirely, out-of-style circa 1680, and de Bernis likely no longer wore it.
Sword-belts were also common by this time, although many gentlemen did still wear baldrics as Sabatini’s hero does, of purple leather stiff with silver bullion. That said, eyewitness images of 1680s buccaneers (they do exist, I discuss them here) shows sword-belts, not baldrics. But this is a mere quibble.
So perfect is this illustration that I suggested it to Firelock Games (likely with the fictional Charles de Bernis in the back of my mind), and Miami artist Peter Diesen Hosfeld then used it as the basis for the French flibustier commander for its tabletop war game Blood & Plunder.
Popular illustrations and covers for the novel are rarely accurate, although this one for the 1976 Ballantine Books mass market paperback (the first I read, in fact), comes closer than most, and could have taken its inspiration from the author’s description along with images such as the one above:
As for red-suited Tom Leach, the villain, there are two likely 1680s candidates for his real inspiration, both of whom Sabatini, an avid researcher, was probably aware of, given that their exploits are well-documented in the Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and West Indies.
The first candidate is Joseph Banister, an indebted English sea captain turned pirate who slipped away at night with his 36-gun Golden Fleece, a former merchantman, under the cannon of the forts at Port Royal, Jamaica, escaping with little damage due to his surprise escape. But his piratical adventure would be relatively short-lived.
In June 1686 while careening his ship at Samana Bay, Hispaniola he was discovered by the pirate hunters HMS Falcon and HMS Drake. The men-of-war expended nearly all of their powder pounding the pirate ship to pieces. Banister’s temporary shore batteries (which [SPOILER ALERT] Tom Leach should have erected at the Albuquerque Keys) returned fire but failed to stop the men-of-war.
His ship lost, Banister and a few of his crew set sail with the French flibustier crew of a nearby flibot (the French term for a small flute) of one hundred tons and six guns. Parting soon afterward aboard a captured sloop, Banister was soon run to ground by the Royal Navy and hanged from the yardarm of the HMS Drake in sight of Port Royal, Jamaica in 1687.
As a noteworthy aside, the flibustiers Banister briefly consorted with soon set sail for the South Sea (the Pacific coast of South America), plundering until 1693 and leaving behind a journal of their escapades. In 1688, while attacking Acaponeta, Mexico, these French pirates unfurled a red flag of no quarter–the pavillon rouge, the pavillon sans quartier–of special interest: the red flag bore a white skill with crossbones beneath, the only instance of the skull and bones being flown by late seventeenth century buccaneers or flibustiers. It is possible, even likely, though, that it was flown at other times as well.
However, no matter his piracies, Banister was nowhere near the villain that Tom Leach is. Leach murdered captured crews, but not so Banister. But there was a 1680s pirate villain who was a closer match to Leach in villainy: Jean Hamlin.
In desperate need of extra time for numerous projects, I’ll cheat and quote, with some paraphrase and revision, from the original draft of The Buccaneer’s Realm (Potomac Books, 2009):
In 1683 Hamlin, a Frenchman commanding two sloops, captured the merchantman La Trompeuse (The Deceiver) from a French Huguenot, conman, and thief named Paine, and embarked on a piratical rampage. He next captured an English ship, informed the crew he was a pirate–not, mind you, a buccaneer or flibustier–, tortured some of the crew, impressed some, plundered the ship, and let her go. He soon captured several other English vessels, then sailed to the Guinea Coast and captured eleven slavers and three boats, plundering them all.
At Cape St. John the pirates divided the spoil, and, quarreling, separated into two companies, part remaining with Hamlin, part choosing to serve under an Englishman named Morgan (no relation to Sir Henry and probably a false name). Hamlin’s usual tactic was to fly an English Jack and commission pendant as if he were an English man-of-war, come alongside as if seeking a salute, and fire a broadside. Indeed, Hamlin’s strategy and tactics were identical to those of the early eighteenth century Anglo-American pirates who flew the black flag: attack weaker merchantmen, preferably by ruse. Most significantly, Hamlin and his crew referred to themselves openly as pirates, not buccaneers, filibusters, or “privateers.”
Hamlin was noted for torturing prisoners and otherwise brutalizing them, and for cutting men down “left and right” when he boarded ships. The violence often seemed in retaliation for any resistance.
Throughout his piracies he was protected by the corrupt Danish governor of St. Thomas, although after one return to St. Thomas, the HMS Francis entered the harbor and burned his ship in spite of being fired upon by the Danish fort. Some of Hamlin’s ship-less crew volunteered to serve Captain Le Sage, others Captain Yanky (Jan Willems). Soon enough, the governor of St. Thomas sold Hamlin a sloop with which he captured a Dutch frigate of thirty-six guns, renamed her La Nouvelle Trompeuse (the New Deceiver), manned it with sixty of his old crew and sixty new men, and continued his depredations.
Reportedly, the ship was outfitted in New England, a colony well-noted for its Protestant piety and hypocritical support of piracy. Hamlin captured a Portuguese ship and carried her into St. Thomas where he forced some of her Dutch crew to serve with him, even as the governor of St. Thomas forced some of the captured crew to draw lots and hanged the losers. Hamlin, who can rightly be called the first of the true pirates of the Golden Age–only the black flag was missing–, was never captured.
Make Hamlin an Englishman, and we almost have Tom Leach.
The Swords: The “Rapier” aka The Smallsword
In the novel, the duel is fought with rapiers. This is mildly problematic, as by this time the true rapier was still carried only Iberians–Spaniards and Portuguese–and by some Italians in areas under Spanish rule. The smallsword, with its shorter, lighter blade and smaller hilt, was the common dueling sword among gentlemen and those so pretending.
However, word usage comes to our rescue: Sabatini’s “rapier” remained in use in the British Isles as a word for smallsword. In fact, the English tended to refer to the Spanish rapier as a “spado,” from espada.
Although the cutlass was the common sword of late 17th century mariners, there are a few accounts of those who carried smallswords. Given that Charles de Bernis is something of a gentleman, and Tom Leach prides himself on his swordplay, we can imagine the duel, historically and realistically, as Sabatini described it.
[BRIEF SPOILER ALERT!] Charles de Bernis prepares for the duel by secretly practicing with the pompous Major Sands. In the book, the men use their real swords for practice, each with a pear-shaped wooden tip added to blunt the weapons. This is historically inaccurate, and almost certainly Sabatini, with his experience of fencing, knew this, but went with a simple plot device instead to keep the narrative clean and simple.
Read sword blades were never intended for practice with blade or target contact. They are tempered differently than practice blades, the latter of which are designed to flex many times before breaking, as well as to flex in order to take up some of the energy when hitting.
Real blades are usually much stiffer in order to maximize penetration–a too flexible blade might not penetrate thick clothing, cartilage, or otherwise deeply enough to cause a serious wound. Further, the use of real sword blades for practice will severely nick the sharp edges (if sharpened–not all smallsword blades were, but the nicks will still eventually damage the integrity of the blade) and significantly increase the risk of breaking a blade. In other words, such practice will ruin a fighting sword blade.
Practice swords called foils were used instead of real thrusting swords, and there were several styles in use at the time. The French “crowned” style was prominent in many schools. Pierre, the servant of Charles de Bernis, could easily have hidden the foils beforehand, making the scene more historically accurate. Hopefully the island was large enough, or the pirates busy enough, not to hear the clash of steel on steel–it travels far and there is no other sound quite like it.
The Dueling Ground: Maldita Key
The duel and much of the rising conflict leading to it takes place on the northernmost of the two Cayos de Albuquerque while Tom Leach’s pirate ship the Black Swan is being careened there. The islands do exist, although their geography doesn’t entirely match that described in the novel, which for reasons of plot must take certain liberties. It might also have been quite difficult for the author to get accurate details of these small out-of-the-way keys.
There is, however, plenty of beach for dueling on the real island.
Located off the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua and Belize south of Santa Catalina (Providencia, Old Providence) and San Andres Islands (roughly twenty-five miles SSW of the latter), the two small principal Albuquerque keys are actually part of Colombia (with a small military presence on the north key). The keys are ringed with reefs: technically, the islands are part of an atoll with a large lagoon at its center. Some old English charts list them as the S.S.W. Keys. The keys are roughly 250 to 300 yards apart, and Cayo de Norte is perhaps 200 yards across. Passage to its anchorages is difficult. Both keys are covered in coconut palms.
Cayo del Norte, where the action takes place, is named Maldita Key in the novel, meaning cursed or damned, probably a name of Sabatini’s creation given that I’ve not found the name referenced anywhere else. This isn’t the only time he invents or changes a place name. Similarly, Sabatini has imagined the island as larger, with higher elevations in places than the roughly 7 feet maximum elevation of the real island, and with a hidden pool of fresh water large enough to swim in.
Having once lived on Old Providence Island until the Spanish sacked it and forced the interloping settlers from it, buccaneer Charles de Bernis would have been familiar with the keys to the south.
The Duel Itself
LAST WARNING! SPOILER ALERTS! If you haven’t yet read the novel, you should stop, read The Black Swan, and then return.
The duel as described by Sabatini is about as well-written as a sword duel can be: exciting, well-paced, and largely rooted in reality. As such, I’m not going to comment further except to discuss and dissect the singular unconventional technique used by Charles de Bernis to kill his adversary.
Several years ago in a long-running conversation with Sabatini biographer Ruth Heredia as she prepared her second volume, Romantic Prince: Reading Sabatini, we had numerous discussions about swordplay in his novels. One point of discussion was what the de Bernis technique might actually have been.
I was never satisfied with the answer, discussed below, I gave her. Then one recent evening, while rereading the duel as part of some research into my annotations for Captain Blood, the answer struck me. I realized I had been mistaken in every analysis I’ve done on the duel, and knew immediately what de Bernis had done—and where Sabatini almost certainly found his inspiration. It was right under my nose all along, a purloined technique lying literally in plain sight for two decades or more, but my mind had categorized it such that I had not yet made the connection. Please excuse my excitement and fencing vanity as I make my argument.
For what it’s worth, this separate blog on The Black Swan was inspired by a recent long e-letter to Ruth Heredia on the subject.
The pertinent details: at the end of the duel, Leach makes a sudden and sneaky (sudden and sneaky are expected in swordplay) long low lunge in the “Italian” style, snake-like, with one hand supporting him, to slip under the guard of de Bernis. This was in fact both a French and Italian technique in the late 17th century, although by Rafael Sabatini’s era it was largely confined to the Italian and was generally considered as such. Sabatini notes in the novel that no “direct” parry could deflect this attack once fully launched. While this may not be entirely true (see below and also the note at the end of this blog), a very low attack like this is quite difficult to parry, making an esquive (see also the discussion below) of some sort highly useful in defending against it.
Further, an attack made with the body and hand so low can only have as its torso target the lower abdomen or the groin, making it a ruthless, dishonorable attack when this is the intended, as opposed to accidental target–an attack suitable to Tom Leach’s venomous character.
As Leach lunges, de Bernis disappears from the line of attack. “Pivoting slightly to the left, he averted his body by making in his turn a lunging movement outward upon the left knee.” It was a “queer, unacademic movement” that “had placed him low upon his opponent’s flank.” De Bernis then passed his sword through Leach.
We require six conditions for the answer:
- A pivoting movement that averts the body.
- It must outward upon the LEFT knee (we assume almost assuredly that de Bernis is a right-hander).
- It must be a “queer, unacademic movment.”
- It must place him low upon his opponent’s flank.
- It must put de Bernis in position to pass his blade “side to side” through Leach.
- It must require TWO tempos, one for the pivoting movement, and one for the thrust into Leach’s flank.
As already noted, I was never satisfied with any conclusion I’ve come to. Of course, it could be that Sabatini left his description somewhat vague on purpose, and I’ve considered this as a possibility. However, my best guess was some form of intagliata, a term used by some nineteenth century Italian masters for an “inside” lunge off the line. In other words, if you’re a right-hander, you lunge toward the left, or inside, removing your body from the direct line of attack or riposte and placing yourself upon your adversary’s flank.
The intagliata is a member of a group of techniques known in French as esquives, or in English, dodgings or body displacements for lack of a more elegant word. The two principal esquives are the inquartata and the passata soto, both of which are primarily used as counter-attacks in a single tempo, designed to avoid the adversary’s attack while simultaneously thrusting, preferably in opposition (closing the line to prevent the adversary from hitting) or with bind (pressure on the adversary’s blade to prevent it from hitting) and removing the body from the line of attack.
They may also be used in two tempos, parrying and displacing in the first tempo, and riposting in the second. Single tempo counter-attacks without esquive often result in double hits, even when opposition is attempted, for the fencer often fails to predict the correct line or uses inadequate opposition. Body displacement increases the protection. It’s a backup, in other words.
Other esquives include the cartoccio or forward lunge while lowering the upper body; the rassemblement or very old school “slipping” as it was called; the “pass” or crossover forward bringing the rear foot forward in front of the lead foot; the simple backward lean; the various leaps or voltes to the side noted by some late 17th and early 18th century masters (seldom used now due to the narrowness of the fencing strip); and the lunge to the outside (to the right for a right-hander) off the line.
I considered and even tested all of these. None entirely met the conditions. In particular, none were considered then as un-academic, although it could be argued that the leaps to the side are considered so today and likewise in Sabatini’s era. But the leaps met few of the other conditions. Compounding the problem was Sabatini’s use of the word “outward” which I, with nearly 45 years fencing and studying swordplay past and present, and 25 teaching both, took at first to mean “outside,” which in fencing terms means, for a right-hander, to the right. In fact, Sabatini appears to have meant the word conventionally–outward rather than inward. One problem solved!
Yet the major problem still remained. In the 1935 film version of Captain Blood there is one option depicted, probably drawn from an interpretation of The Black Swan is my guess—a volt to the left with the leading right foot, followed by the rear—but this too is actually an academic movement, a form of intagliata, again really nothing more than “lunging off the line.”
I remained distracted by the question: what other possible, conceivable two tempo movement—a pivot and lunging movement outward upon the left knee, followed by a thrust, probably via a lunge—would fit? What esquive could it be if not an intagliata? What might work yet be unorthodox? Importantly, what might be documented—not imaginary—in this category? In other words, how did Sabatini develop this scene, what was his inspiration?
I think almost certainly right here:
On the right a swordsman has made a very long low lunge. His hand is not on the ground as it commonly was, but this is immaterial. On the left is a swordsman slightly off the line, bending inward slightly, WITH HIS LEFT (REAR) LEG BENT IN A SOMEWHAT LUNGING MANNER.
This left fencer’s position appears bothersome to fencers not well-versed in fencing history (most aren’t, in fact). What does it depict? It might well be just a lean backward onto the rear leg to avoid a sudden low attack, or a failed retreat—the 17th century French school advocated keeping most weight on the rear foot, forcing most retreats to be made by crossing over, front foot moving first to the rear, passing the rear foot en route. Or, it might be something more conventional, which we’ll discuss in a moment.
What’s important is what Rafael Sabatini might have thought it was!
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that it depicts a fencer who has just pivoted off the line slightly in a lunging fashion in order to avoid a long low attack, as described by Sabatini. If so, to execute this, de Bernis need, as described, only pivot slightly to the left on the right or lead foot as he simultaneously leans back into a lunge on the left leg. This places him out of the direct line of attack and also out of range—and he has a tempo to do this as the low attack is made.
In fact, the parry shown in the detail above is a natural one against a long low attack, and would help protect de Bernis as he made his next movement, by providing some opposition–but it would almost certainly not have stopped the attack, or at least such conclusion might be drawn from the image. The exceptionally low attack might easily “force” most parries.
In other words, parrying with the hand held at the usual height of the en garde position makes it difficult to apply forte (the strong third of the blade nearest the hilt) against the middle or, preferably, foible (weak third of the blade at the tip end), so necessary for an effective parry. In the detail above, the foible or middle of the parrying blade has been applied against the forte of the attacking blade, rendering the parry largely useless. It is likely that Sabatini’s statement to the effect that there is no direct parry that can stop such an attack once fully launched was inspired in part by this image. (See the technical note at the end of this blog for more detail, including on at least one unconventional parry that can deflect such an attack.)
But let us return to the unusual esquive. Because Leach is now subsequently off-balance—for a full second, fortunately—de Bernis has a second tempo in which to run him through, almost certainly with a conventional lunge. In fact, such long low lunges have a distinct disadvantage: they’re slow to recover from conventionally, that is, to the rear, leaving the fencer in danger. Likewise, if the fencer recovers forward, he (or she) may be at dangerously close distance. As well, poor balance is typical of this long lunge although there are some rare fencers who can manage it well, at least on hard floors.
Importantly, does the technique of Charles de Bernis work?
I’ve tested it–and it does! It is also historical, it is also unorthodox—and its imagination by Sabatini from the drawing, brilliant. It would only require that the fencer using be familiar with lunging with his left leg—having experience fencing left-handed, in other words, would help. And a fair number of fencers, although probably not a majority, did practice at times with the off-hand.
In fact, if the technique were deliberate, it would fall into the category of “secret thrusts,” which were nothing more than legitimate, if unorthodox, technique that was known to but a few fencers and was useful only in rare circumstances. And once it’s found useful, the unorthodox becomes the orthodox, in everything, not only in fencing.
The inspiring drawing is by Louis François du Bouchet, marquis de Sourches (1645 – 1716), circa 1670. The small collection of his drawings is well-known to historians of seventeenth century France. More importantly, there are some thirteen volumes of his memoirs, dating from 1681 to 1712, first published in the late 19th century: Mémoires du marquis de Sourches sur le règne de Louis XIV, publiés par le comte de Cosnac et Arthur Bertrand (Paris: Hachette, 1882-1893). Sabatini would doubtless have run across these volumes of memoirs of the French court in his researches, and from them his drawings, if not otherwise. I’ve found copies of the swordplay image in both the British Museum and Rijksmusem.
So, there we have it! Or do we? I think almost certainly this is Sabatini’s inspiration. But does the drawing actually represent what the author described?
Almost certainly not.
The two images below are from Les Vrays Principes de l’Espée Seule by the sieur de la Touche, 1670. The first shows the long lunge in use, or at least promoted (it requires great flexibility), at the time, although not as long as the extreme lunges above, along with the en garde. The second also shows the common French en garde of the 1660s and 1670s, with most of the weight on the rear leg and the lead leg almost straight.
Vestiges of this en garde remain in some of the French schools today. A few years ago, although Olympic gold medalist Dr. Eugene Hamori had been mentoring me as a fencing teacher for two decades, he had not given me a fencing lesson since 1981. As I came en garde very upright, almost leaning back, a position I’d picked up from years of giving fencing lessons, he immediately said, “That’s a beautiful French guard, Ben. Now lean forward a little bit, like a Hungarian.”
We find this unbalanced French en garde not only in de la Touche’s work, but in other images as well, as shown below. The guard does have the advantage of keeping the body well back and even permitting one to lean back even farther–the first commandment of swordplay is (or should be) to hit and, especially, to not get hit. But the guard has the disadvantage of limiting mobility, including a slower attack (but then, that’s not what the French school was most noted for anyway at the time).
Most French schools would soon place less extreme emphasis on this heavy rear foot position, although it would remain in use to a lesser degree for another century.
So there’s an end on it, yes? Sabatini’s inspiration and its reality?
Or is there more?
In my experience there always is. Below, from Alfieri, here’s a swordsman leaning backward, weight on his rear leg, to avoid a thrust while thrusting in turn. It doesn’t take much to imagine the addition of a small lunging movement off the line with the rear leg. In this case, though, the fencer on the right has made a single tempo movement, thrusting as he simultaneously evades an adversary who has rashly ventured too close, or has been tricked into doing so. Tom Leach provides no such opportunity. 🙂
Still, I think we have Sabatini’s original source above in the du Bouchet drawing, and therefore the “queer, un-academic” technique of Charles de Bernis as well.
However, the most useful lesson, at least fencing-wise, from the novel may be the admonition derived from the following lines:
“…and that, too confident of himself, he had neglected to preserve his speed in the only way in which a swordsman may preserve it.”
In this time of pandemic, fencers may improve their footwork, increase their flexibility and strength, study strategy and tactics, and so forth. But it takes free fencing–practice with an adversary–to maintain the most important components of fencing speed: the sense of tempo and the ability to react without hesitation. Without these, raw speed is worth next to nothing sword-in-hand.
Next up in the series: the duel on the beach in film!
Technical End Note on Parrying Leach’s Low Attack: Arguably there are five parries that might possibly deflect Leach’s blade: septime, octave, seconde, quinte (low quarte), all by different names in the 1680s and some not really even in much use at all; and a largely unfamiliar vertical parry made straight down, noted in some of the old Italian schools, and in particular by Alfred Hutton in his famous fencing text, Cold Steel. He describes the parry as being effective against an upward vertical cut toward the “fork” aka the groin.
Such vertical and other below the waist cuts are the reason, by the way, that the modern saber target is limited to the body from the waist up. This is due to the Italians who made the rules more than a century ago, intending by them to protect their manhood. Yet the myth of the saber target “being limited to above the waist due to the saber being a cavalry weapon, and you wouldn’t want to hurt the horse,” persists in spite of being arrant nonsense. In fact, the modern “Olympic” saber derives from the light dueling saber of the nineteenth century, and it was used in duels afoot. As for not hitting the horse or below the waist? Such blows were commonly permitted in duels among many various schools and peoples, and always in warfare.
Below the waist attacks, especially to the knee, have long been common with cutting weapons, but somewhat less so with thrusting weapons, at least when the legs are target (the area below the ribs is in fact an excellent target with real thrusting weapons), due to the fact that a thrust to the legs is rarely incapacitating, unlike a cut, and leaves the attacker’s head and torso wide open for a possibly fatal counter thrust. Thrusts to the groin, besides generally being considered dishonorable when intentional, may easily miss and slip between the legs, leaving the attacker open as just noted. In my experience, fencers hit in the groin by thrusting weapons are usually at fault, having parried late or insufficiently, or used a yielding parry incorrectly, and in both cases thereby carrying the attacking blade to the groin.
This vertical downward hard beat-parry is used unknowingly by some epee fencers today, at least among those who know how to use beats and beat parries (many these days can’t use them effectively), who if asked would probably define it as an incomplete seconde. I use it and find it highly effective against hard-driven low attacks.
In order for any of the first four of these parries to be effective against a low thrust, the parrying hand must be lowered significantly in order to bring forte to foible, making for a slow parry. If the parry is begun after the attack has developed, instead of at its initiation, often by anticipating it, it will likely prove ineffective.
However the last parry described, if correctly timed and made with a powerful beat with the middle of the blade on the attacker’s foible or middle, can be highly effective against such attacks, capable of being forced only with great difficulty. Even so, Sabatini is correct when he writes that such a low powerful attack is not easily parried, at least not conventionally.
Hutton notes that septime is also effective against low vertical upward cuts. I have not found this to be the case with low thrusts made by lighyer weapons such as the foil, epee, and smallsword, but he is surely correct in the case of cuts with the cavalry saber, or even the nineteenth century dueling saber, with their heavier blades.
Copyright Benerson Little, 2020. First published 10 September 2020. Last revised 30 September 2020.
It’s all too easy to imagine a duel on the beach between pirates or, as fiction and film often have it, between pirate captains. A sandy beach, palm trees, spectators often including both pirates and a woman in distress, a tropical sea and sky–a duel is mandatory in the genre if only because the setting demands one.
This blog post is part one of a likely five part series on the classical piratical duel on the beach, a pirate trope too evocative to pass up and one based to some degree in reality too. Only the trope of the tavern sword brawl is as prevalent, but not as romantic.
Up first is a look at the sandy duel in fiction. Part two examines the duel described by Rafael Sabatini in The Black Swan, in particular the origin of the hero’s singular technique. Part three reviews the duel on the beach in film, part four takes a close look at the most famous fictional duel on the beach, that depicted in Captain Blood (1935) starring Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone, and part five discusses the historical reality of the duel on the beach.
In particular, we’ll look not just at some classic swashbuckling episodes, but also consider how genres and tropes are created, and how misinterpretation often not only leads us astray, but also, at times, to authentic historical discoveries.
It’s entirely likely that I’ll also throw in a blog post each on the inquartata, the flanconnade, and also the intagliata and similar techniques of “lunging off the line,” given their prevalence in swashbuckling fiction and film (not to mention their utility in historical and modern fencing). I’ve already written one for the same reason on The Night Thrust; or, More Politely, the Passata Soto. I’ll likely also write a brief post on Dutch knife fighting for reasons noted just below.
The series is also part of an effort to encourage outdoor fencing, especially at the beach or seaside. (Don’t worry, any light rust is easily removed from blades! In fact, two or three hours in a sea breeze will start to rust carbon steel.) Not too long ago the FIE (the international fencing body) in its infinite [lack of] wisdom did away with outdoor tournaments in epee, at least as sanctioned events, and national bodies followed suit. Given the Covid-19 pandemic, sanctioned outdoor fencing tournaments should seriously be reconsidered, not to mention that they’re also a lot of fun for their own sake. Some of my fondest fencing memories are of outdoor swordplay, both competitive and recreational, and their associated celebrations.
So where to begin? It seems almost too easy. At least half the blame lays with the highly enjoyable illustrator and writer of out-sized piratical myth, misconception, and trope, Howard Pyle, several of whose students–N. C. Wyeth and Frank E. Schoonover in particular–followed closely in his swashbuckling illustrator footsteps.
Although he painted several sword duels, two of them by the seaside, it’s Pyle’s “Which Shall Be Captain?” that may be the significant culprit. In it, two pirate captains struggle against each other with daggers to determine who will command. The notion of dueling for command is false, however, to be discussed in more detail in part five (or if you can’t wait, you can read about it in The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths). Put simply, captains and quartermasters were democratically elected. Even lesser officers required the approval of the crew. Dueling was never considered or acted upon as a means to gain command.
Likewise false, or at least uncommon as far as we know, is the use of daggers in duels on the beach. In fact, among buccaneers the musket was usual weapon although some fought with cutlasses. However, there may be a possible exception among Dutch and Flemish seamen, who like many of their adventurous compatriots ashore had a habit of knife fighting, often using their hats in the unarmed hand for parrying. The style of fighting appears to have been more cut than thrust, notwithstanding the Dutch term “snickersnee,” which means to stick or stab and thrust, which Lewis Carroll turned into the snicker-snak of the vorpal sword. (See Buccaneer Cutlasses: What We Know for more information on cutlasses, including a bit on dueling.)
Even so, the only authenticated duel between buccaneer captains was between two Dutchmen–and they used cutlasses. Again, more on this in part five.
A duel on the beach between Dutch pirate captains is likely not what Pyle intended though, unless they were Dutch buccaneer captains of which there were in fact a fair number, more of them in service among French flibustiers than among English buccaneers. Their names are legend: Laurens de Graff, Nicolas Van Horn, Michiel Andrieszoon aka Michel Andresson, Jan Willems aka Yanky, Jacob Evertson, and Jan Erasmus Reyning among many others.
No matter his original intention, Pyle’s scene-setting has been imitated as homage, sometimes even copied, in numerous films as well as in illustrations for swashbuckling tales.
However, Pyle’s painting can only ultimately be said to have inspired the trope to far greater prominence, for a decade earlier, in 1899, Mary Johnston’s To Have and to Hold was published, a romantic novel of ladies, gentlemen, settlers (or invaders), Native Americans, and pirates. Notably, Howard Pyle painted the frontispiece, and, more on this later, Johnston’s works were a significant influence on Rafael Sabatini, author of Captain Blood and many other great romantic, often swashbuckling, novels.
Pyle’s painting of the duel for command, between gentleman hero and the last of three pirate villains he fights one after the other, takes place on what is known today as Fisherman’s Island off Cape Charles, Virginia. All three duels are described not in terms of fencing technique but via the hero’s thoughts and emotions as he fights–and easy way to avoid describing actual swordplay. Side note: the hero’s second adversary is a Spaniard (the best blade in Lima) and the third is the “man in black and silver”–almost as if the duel takes place in The Princess Bride. I won’t add the duel in The Princess Bride to this post, although I’m sorely tempted, as it takes place not on the shore but on the cliffs high above.
The entire composition of Pyle’s painting has been copied by many illustrators and filmmakers, including Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate (1926) and Michael Curtiz in Captain Blood (1935).
As for the action itself, duels in fiction and film require high drama. It helps if the hero and his adversary are equally matched, although often the hero ends up hard-pressed but prevails in the end, often by stratagem. Occasionally we see the hero who is always in control, whose swordplay is so exceptional that the villain comes soon to realize he (villainous duelists are almost always a he, thus the pronoun) is entirely outmatched. Here the drama derives from the villain realizing he’s going to lose and be rewarded as he so richly deserves.
Depicting swordplay in fiction can be difficult, or rather, is actually quite difficult. Explain too much and you lose drama and tempo. Explain too little, and the duel is reduced to vague nonsense, even if dramatic. Using a few modern fencing terms has been the refuge of many novelists–but modern terms lack the flavor, and often the correct historical technique, to adequately depict a historical duel. And even in this case only fencers will actually understand what’s going on. In other words, to understand fencing you must be a fencer (and this is part of the reason, in spite of the FIE’s attempts at dumbing down fencing, why it will never be, and frankly should not be, a great spectator sport). But writers often cheat and describe swordfights only in vague terms or through the protagonist’s mental state.
In related fashion, writers often forget, or far more likely haven’t learned, that fencing on a shoreline causes changes in footwork and agility. Fencing in sand tends to slow the action down a bit, footwork in particular. Lunges are slower because the foot slips even in the best-compacted damp sand. Of course, if the beach is rocky, as in Captain Blood (1935), or covered in various beach and dune plants, this may help prevent the foot from slipping although it may also increase the risk of tripping and falling. Fencing in shallow water can diminish the lunge or even negate it.
Further, sand gets in the shoe, which can affect footwork. Sand is also readily available for villainously throwing in the adversary’s eyes. And, as in the case of all outdoor fencing on uneven ground, there’s always the chance at taking a special form of tempo, that of the brief surprise when the adversary accidentally steps in a hole or runs into a bush or trips over driftwood, or is maneuvered into doing this. Distraction, however brief, can be fatal.
There are partial remedy for these hazards, which I’ll discuss in part five, and, like running in the sand, you’ll at least in part naturally adapt to the best technique over time. (Thanks Bear Mac Mahon for your brief comments and reminders on fencing in the sand. 🙂 )
Sadly, seldom does any of this make it into fictional accounts of duels on the beach. But not matter! It’s the ring and spark of steel on steel while the sun glints off sand and sea we’re after. Which, by the way, is another issue with fencing on the beach: glare, which can easily be used to advantage by maneuvering the adversary into position with his face facing sun and sea, or even a sandy sea breeze…
The duel on the beach also makes its way into pirate pulp fiction, as in these novels by Donald Barr Chidsey (the rhythm of whose name makes me think of Simon Bar Sinister):
The duel on the beach has had a fair amount of depiction in other print media as well, including trading cards and comic books:
A duel over buried treasure below, with daggers, clearly inspired by the famous Howard Pyle painting.
Below, a duel for command–a myth, as is the duel or affray over buried treasure.
The trading card above probably owes as much to Douglas Fairbanks’s The Black Pirate (1926) as it does to Howard Pyle and various fiction, as shown below–but then, The Black Pirate owes much to Howard Pyle, purposely so according to the film program. We’ll discuss the duel in this film in more detail in part three.
Of course, one of the great duels on the beach is depicted in Captain Blood: His Odyssey (1922) by Rafael Sabatini, in particular the dramatic build-up and famous dialogue. But alas, the duel itself is described in only two lines:
“It was soon over. The brute strength, upon which Levasseur so confidently counted, could avail nothing against the Irishman’s practised skill.”
In part four we’ll look further into this most famous of duels as it was depicted in the 1935 film starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Basil Rathbone.
Numerous illustrators have tried their hand at the duel, some more successfully than others, historical accuracy (and even fictional accuracy) often to be desired.
This is a good opportunity to segue to several tobacco card illustrations of duels on the beach. Up first is Captain Blood, although based entirely on the duel in the 1935 film.
The purportedly authentic duel between Mary Read and a fellow pirate who was threatening her lover (or at least Charles Johnson so claimed, but he lied often in his 1724-1726 chronicle of pirates) shows up in an Allen & Ginter Cigarettes trading card, circa 1888. I’ve included it here as the account may well be fictional.
Norman Price illustrated this duel in The Rogue’s Moon by Robert W. Chambers (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1929), yet another prolific (roughly one hundred novels, short story collections, and children’s books) popular genre writer already forgotten less than a century later. The story is enjoyable enough even given its light genre and Chambers’s style. It is action-filled and interspersed with scenes of mild titillation, and includes several major characters of the era (Blackbeard among them) in prime appearances, with pirates as the story’s villains. The protagonist is a cross-dressing, seeking-revenge-against-pirates, older teenager named Nancy Topsfield. The novel pretends to a background of historical accuracy, which is in fact, as with most of the genre, only superficial at best.
The duel is brief but exciting, and follows the manner described by Charles Johnson as in use by the early eighteenth century pirates of the black flag: pistols followed by cutlasses. Read’s sword is a “Barbary” or “Arab” blade, which might be a nimcha (of which were some naval captains who owned these swords, usually as trophies) but which the illustrations suggest is more likely a scimitar (or shamshir if you want to be pedantic–but scimitar was the common word in use by Europeans at the time). In either case her blade looks curved enough that she needs to hook her thrust. The duel ends with a near-decapitation.
Although Price’s drawings and paintings of men in the story are reasonably historically accurate by the low standard of popular illustration, he takes pop culture liberties with the leading female characters. He and Chambers dress Mary Read as a typical 1920s/1930s Hollywood starlet-type of pirate, sometimes termed “pirate flapper” and derived most likely from Douglas Fairbanks’s style of dress in his 1926 The Black Pirate. Female pirates were commonly depicted in this fashion during this era, ranging from magazine ads for sterling flatware to Hollywood studio portraits.
Given the rarity of known pirate duels, it’s not surprising that so few are depicted in various literature. However, at least one is. The famous duel, familiar if you’ve read the French edition of Alexandre Exquemelin’s The Buccaneers of America, or other related French texts (or even some of my books), between Laurens de Graff and Nicolas Van Horn at Isla Sacrificios near Veracruz in 1683 is also depicted on a cigarette card. However, given that this duel actually occurred and we have period accounts of it, we’ll save further description for part five. Whoever illustrated the duel below had not read the rare eyewitness account (unsurprising at it is neither easily found nor easily deciphered) although he or she may have read a secondary account, possibly Exquemelin’s.
All of this rather meandering exposition of the duel on the beach in fiction is leading us to a single novel that epitomizes it above all others: The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini. And, given its role and singular technique, I’ll devote part two of this series to it entirely.
I’d have to do a more detailed survey of recent fiction to adequately note any other significant renderings in fiction of duels on the beach. At the moment, only one comes to mind, that depicted by famous Spanish novelist Arturo Pérez-Reverte in El Puente de Los Asesinos (2011), part of his excellent Capitán Alatriste series. Alas, there is no English translation. The first six were translated, but not the seventh due to low sales, an indication of where the genre–especially “upmarket” swashbucklers–is today, replaced largely, and sadly, by fantasy.
The swashbuckling fiction that does make it print today tends to fall into the “writing by trope” category with inaccurate historical detail (a problem with much historical fiction in general today) and “dialogue as might be spoken by suburbanites” (likewise a common problem as a journalist friend pointed out), or is sadly relegated to small ebook and print-on-demand presses with little if any access to brick-and-mortar chains and independents. I remain hopeful that this will change. And if I bother to dust off Fortune’s Favorite, the sequel to Fortune’s Whelp, I’ll let you know–it has a duel on the beach in it. In the Caribbean. Naturally. 🙂
On a more positive note, I’ll close with two watercolors of pirate dueling on the beach, by one of the most famous American painters of all: Andrew Wyeth, son of illustrator N. C. Wyeth, around the age of twenty.
And last, well, just because it’s a beautiful beach painting in the pirate genre by Andrew Wyeth…
A couple of notes on the duel at Teviot beach by Howard Pyle: Aficionados of fencing history will note that Pyle clearly took his inspiration from late 19th and early 20th century epee duels, many of which were photographed, and some even filmed. In the late 17th century it would be unusual for there to be a directeur de combat (someone who monitors the fight, in other words, and ensures that no villainy is perpetrated). Further, seconds often fought too, and spectators were absent more often than not.
Even more critically, both swordsmen are in sixte rather than tierce (although one might argue that the fencer on the left is actually correctly in carte, perhaps having just been parried to the outside line by a circular parry). Sixte, not yet called by this name, was not unknown but was disregarded by most masters and fencers in spite of its utility in closing the “light” (hole, open target) revealed in tierce. Sixte is a weaker position and requires more blade set and wrist angulation (some of the latter was later relieved by modifying the way the grip was held) than tierce, which is a stronger position physically and whose point falls naturally toward the adversary’s shoulder. The guards shown in the painting are more typical of fencers in Pyle’s day (and in ours as well).
POSTSCRIPT for members of the Huntsville Fencing Club: post-pandemic we’ll [finally] host a rum tournament on the beach. 🙂
Copyright Benerson Little 2020. First published September 1, 2020. Last updated May 12, 2021.
“Nous avions autre chose à faire durant la mortelle épreuve que de croiser le fer ‘pour rire.'”
[“We had other things to do during the deadly ordeal than to cross blades ‘for fun.'”]
—Poet and muse Emma Lambotte writing of the disbanding of “the Ladies’ Fencing Club of Anvers” at the beginning of WWI. Many of the fencers volunteered to serve as nurses during the war. The club was never reinstituted. From Lambotte’s essay L’Escrimeuse (Paris: Éditions du Nord, 1937).
Some reflections for those who have been unable to return to fencing, or to any passionate pursuit for that matter, or are disappointed that things are not the same.
Put plainly, this is not the time to bemoan any temporary loss or abatement in fencing practice, however passionate you feel about swordplay.
Worldwide, we’re living amidst an obvious historical moment that affects everyone. In the US, we’re amidst an even greater one: a pandemic combined with great social change and political consequence. It is a time of great personal, moral, and political danger.
This isn’t the first such moment in modern history, nor for many of us not the first in our lifetimes. And for many of us it probably won’t be the last.
For fencers who are missing the sport, or have had their participation reduced, it’s a time to remember that swordplay is not going away, no matter that its principles have long been under siege by a sport mentality. If you haven’t already returned to it to some degree, you will be able to one day.
Further, you should remember that no matter how much swordplay means to you, there are more important things in life–and what’s most important about fencing is its connection to these important things.
I came of fencing age in an era in which, for many of us, swordplay was still strongly associated with a sense of honor and associated duty, unlike today in which many competitors and their coaches regard it as pure sport where winning at almost any cost is expected. (Happily, though, many “average” competitors still prefer to view it traditionally.)
It was this traditional sense that drew me when I first started fencing more than forty years ago. Many of our fencing masters back then, not to mention many of the veterans we fenced with, were true swashbucklers who, although they competed in fencing, saw swordplay as something beyond mere sport.
A few had actually fought duels, while others had trained duelists. Some had served in the military in the final days of the sword on the battlefield. Many had lived through the trauma of two world wars. Some had fought in them. Others had escaped or fought against repressive regimes in the manner of adventures as might be found in a novel by Dumas or Sabatini.
At the very least, most had been trained by those who had come of age in an era where the sword was still a weapon both of the military and of the duel. Many were true adventurers with a powerful sense of duty and honor, of moral, rather than legal, right and wrong.
Many had proved themselves of great moral and physical courage, though none ever mentioned this. You had to learn it from those who had long known them.
All understood that fencing competition was ultimately a mere substitute, not an end in itself. Medals, although fun to compete for, were in many ways secondary, and their value ultimately illusory. A drawer filled with dusty old fencing medals is in its essence exactly that, nothing more. It is only the acts that earned them, and the context in which they were earned, that matter.
My first fencing master, Dr. Francis Zold, pointed this out to me more than forty years ago when he noted that most people only remember who came in first place, and then usually only in regard to the Olympics and World Championships, and then often not for long. Aladar Gerevich was one of the world’s greatest athletes, yet most sports fans have no idea who he was. Nor, sadly, do most fencers.
In other words, not only were we expected to fence honorably and regard medals as the ultimate illusions they are–mementos of transient fortunate, often happy, moments–but we were expected to carry this expectation of honor and duty far beyond the strip. Camaraderie, derived from mutual respect and shared experience, bolstered this.
Even today one can easily judge a fencer’s character off the strip by their behavior on the strip. If a fencer, coach, or referee will game the system or cheat on the strip, they’re likely do so everywhere else they think they can get away with it. Those you can trust on the strip under pressure can probably be trusted off the strip.
In practice, this associated sense of honor and duty meant that some of us, as I did, gave up promising competitive potential for military service, or the Foreign Service, Peace Corps, medical volunteerism, or even simply to provide for a family or care for loved ones.
Several fencers I know had to give up significant competitive potential due to injuries received in the line of duty. Others had their participation upended by war, revolution, natural disaster, economic failure, accident, or disease. Similarly for aspiring fencers: I’ve had many beginning students in their sixties and seventies whose delay in learning to fence was commonly due to decades of circumstances beyond their control.
Some fencers fared even worse for their open embrace of service. I still recall a poignant story Dr. Zold, a Hungarian, told me forty or more years ago, about an American epeeist he knew well. When war was declared, the American fencer volunteered for military service and was commissioned as a naval officer. He was killed in action aboard a destroyer in the Pacific. He was not the only such fencer.
Dr. Zold, who was no stranger to dueling and its associated sense of honor, himself put aside active swordplay for an even more dangerous, and far more noble, practice, which was to assist Raoul Wallenberg in helping Jews escape Hungary after the country was annexed by Nazi Germany in 1944. To have been caught doing so would have resulted in torture and death at the hands of the Gestapo. Wallenberg himself was abducted by the Soviet Secret Police at the end of the war and, two years later, reportedly murdered in custody.
Today, right now, some fencers are taking leave of their beloved sport, and even of family, to risk their well-being, possibly their lives, in support of others in peril from disease or injustice.
Again, we all need to remember that fencing will not be diminished forever. Our passion and practice will return in full measure. Many of us have often had to miss fencing for months or even years at a time for a variety of reasons. We always came back to it, and it to us.
In the meantime, if it’s not yet safe or practical for you to return to fencing, there’s still much you can do. You can read and study, stay fit, do footwork, practice if you have a partner at home.
One of the great lessons I’ve learned both from fencing and from particularly hazardous naval service was to be prepared for change. You may have expectations, you may have a plan, but in a fencing bout as in life our expectations and plans are often thwarted. We must always be prepared to adapt, and especially to carry our experience forward with us as life changes.
Fencing, if you pay attention, has many lessons useful in life’s trials.
Thus there is always more we can do. Simultaneously, as fencers past have done and some at present are already doing, we can seize upon fencing’s great virtues–honor and duty, camaraderie and respect, risk-taking, the courage to stand and fight alone–and via them try to make this world in danger a better place.
We need heroes today and everyday, and fencing, at its best, helps make them.
Copyright Benerson Little 2020. First published July 2, 2020. Last updated (Lambotte quotation) October 14, 2020.
Set amidst the 1665 London plague, Fortune’s Fool by Rafael Sabatini spins the tale of an English officer, Colonel Randal Holles, too often abandoned by the goddess Fortune.
It’s not Sabatini’s best work, but it’s an enjoyable read and, in particular, it clearly show’s his worldview: one romantically cynical, in that he understood well the foolishness and fecklessness, even the depravity and cowardice, of much of humankind, while simultaneously asserting that good can, and often does, triumph in the end.
Sabatini understood that to succeed honorably, even nobly in such a world, one needed not only courage, but wit as well. And it never hurt to have a sharp sword too.
In particular, the novel, whose details are almost certainly drawn from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) and the Diary of Samuel Pepys, shows numerous parallels with today’s Covid-19 pestilence. After all, people don’t change. They lie, they deny, they seek supernatural counsel, they indulge in quackery, they hoard, they exploit, they scapegoat, they profit from the death of the members of some groups over others.
And yet, many rise above the baser nature of humanity, and behave nobly, with great courage and sacrifice.
And, romance though it is, Fortune’s Favorite shows this hopeful, uplifting side of humanity amidst death and the panicked fear of it. Even so, and sadly, our modern experience with the Covid-19 pandemic has proved Sabatini, not to mention historical chroniclers, too accurate in their descriptions of humanity in time of a deadly pandemic.
The protagonist is based on Gervase Holles (1605 – 1675) and his family. Plot details concerning widows and profane exchanges appear to be based on those of his father, Frescheville Holles (1575- 1630), but Randal himself is likely based on Gervase’s son, Sir Frescheville Holles (1642 – 1672). Sir Frescheville, originally an officer of militia and afterward a privateer captain, was, similarly to the narrative in the book, appointed to the navy thanks to the patronage of George Monck, Duke of Albemarle. Sir Frescheville, commanding the HMS Antelope, lost an arm at the Four Days Battle, was knighted afterward, became Member of Parliament for Grimsby, later mayor of Grimsby, and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was killed in action in 1672 while commanding the HMS Cambridge at the Battle of Solebay. There was no real Randal Holles by name. Futher, no Holles appears on the death warrant of King Charles I, unlike in the book, given that the real Holles family were supporters of the royal prerogative, not Parliamentary rebels against the king.
Finally, and notably, the novel has an excellent description of swordplay in action too!
Copyright Benerson Little 2020. First published March 30, 2020. Last updated February 18, 2021.
Associated with our announcement of the creation of Treasure Light Press and the forthcoming publication of its first title, Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini, The 100th Anniversary Annotated Edition, here’s a look at Captain Blood dust jackets over the years!
In a future post I’ll cover trade and mass market paperback covers.
The dust jacket of the first hardcover edition above is iconic, if not entirely historically accurate, but then, fiction book cover illustrations almost never are. Artist and illustrator N. C. Wyeth–a student of Howard Pyle–does, however, well-conveys the color and swashbuckling adventure of the novel.
Notably, as in many of the dust jackets below, Captain Peter Blood is sporting a mustache. However, only in the magazine serial, “Brethren of the Main,” published prior to the release of the novel, does he wear one. In the novel he does not. The Wyeth illustration has been used in numerous subsequent editions.
Also notably: according to authors Jesse F. Knight and Stephen Darley (see below), Captain Blood did not reach the bestseller list the year it was published. (See the end of the blog for a few notes on identifying true first editions.)
In 1924, Vitagraph motion picture studio released a silent version of Captain Blood, of which only thirty minutes unfortunately still survive. Starring J. Warren Kerrigan–a poor choice if his personal character were to be compared to that of the fictional hero of the book, for he was no Peter Blood nor even an Errol Flynn–the film did much to further promote the novel. In fact, the novel was printed in full or in part in hundreds of newspapers as part of the studio campaign.
The illustration above is not a dust jacket, but the cover of the Astor Theatre program for the 1924 version of Captain Blood, starring J. Warren Kerrigan. The program art is based on the design of the novel’s 1922 US edition.
A UK photoplay edition associated with the 1924 Vitagraph film. Again, Peter Blood sports a mustache he doesn’t have in the book. His costume, however, maintains a fair degree of historical accuracy. The cover illustration is the same one used in the original UK (Hutchinson) first edition. As with the Wyeth illustration, this one has been used in full or in part for numerous subsequent UK editions.
In 1927 a Riverside Press edition (Houghton Mifflin) was published with the dust jacket above, and remained in print for at least twenty-five years. Both the dust jacket and the four illustrations inside are by Clyde O. Deland, the most impressive being that of the cover and perhaps of Col. Bishop being forced to walk the plank, and the least being that of the famous duel on the beach–it looks rather stilted and lacks the dynamism of Howard Pyle and N. C. Wyeth duel impressions. The illustrations are above average for historical detail. I’ve seen a simple drawing in black, based on the illustration, on the front hardcover of some library editions.
In 1929 a German edition was published. Mine has small notes in pencil regarding historical personages and such–Rafael Sabatini’s books have a knack for inspiring the study of history. I’ve often wondered how this reader, assuming he or she read it prior to WWII, regarded the rise of German authoritarianism and dictatorship–and the rise of the Nazi party–in light of the very opposing values of the novel.
A quasi-photoplay edition was published in 1935, timed with the release that December of the famous film that also made Errol Flynn a star. By quasi I mean that its end papers are illustrated with scenes from the film. There are no images placed within the pages, however. The cover is copied from a hard-to-find publicity still from the film, shown below.
An identical dust jacket, lacking only the film information, was also released around 1935 or soon after. I’ve seen this dust jacket on Grosset & Dunlap editions with and without the end papers from the film. Notably, all Grosset & Dunlap editions with this jacket have a statement on the front flap or back cover that it is a reduced price edition, made possible by using the original plates and the author accepting a reduced royalty. I’ve also seen library editions (no dust jackets) with a simple drawing in color, based on the image above, on the hardcover, and I’ve seen the full image itself also used.
Newspaper ad for the 1935 film, showing a US edition dust jacket with Errol Flynn. This jacket was never actually produced.
Hutchinson in the UK also published an edition timed with the release of the “new talkie film.” It has no images from the film in the book itself.
Appropriately, given that Peter Blood was half Irish and considered himself an Irishman, an Irish language edition was published in 1937. The text font is beautiful. Sabatini, as did and do many writers, put his pirate hero in boots. In fact, mariners in this era did not wear riding boots–which is what the myth has pirates wearing–aboard ship, or even ashore–unless mounted on a horse.
A rather youngish-looking (definitely not in his thirties) Captain Peter Blood on the dust jacket of the 1973 edition published by Hutchinson Library Services Ltd in the UK. Purists will note the incorrect grip on the smallsword.
Given that both of my fencing masters (Dr. Francis Zold, Dr. Eugene Hamori) were Hungarian, it’s appropriate that I’d have at least one copy in Hungarian to honor these swashbucklers!
There are numerous Russian editions of the novel, many of them well-illustrated. This is not a dust jacket per se, but the printed cover of a hardcover dual edition: Captain Blood: His Odyssey and The Chronicles of Captain Blood (aka Captain Blood Returns in the US).
The cover of the Easton Press leather edition. The ship is of a later period and Peter Blood is wearing boots, as in the novel but not as he would have in real life–again, unless he were about to mount a horse or had just dismounted…
Last, my favorite recent hardcover edition. In Spanish, it’s well-illustrated with line drawings, and its design does justice to the story.
Dust jacket illustrations, collectible and evocative as they are, are there for a reason: to induce the potential reader to buy the book. And no matter how appealing they are, they pale when compared to the actual text. A battered old library copy sold for a buck at a yard or library sale is still a great read.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped me from collecting a variety of editions with dustjackets!
Captain Blood First Editions
A quick word of warning to those of you who collect books, especially those looking for first editions. Later editions or printings of Captain Blood are often listed, sometimes mistakenly, sometimes purposefully to deceive, as true first editions. It is easy to mistake later editions for firsts, given that many editions list the original publication year–1922–but not the year of the later edition or impression. For example, both the 1922 first and the 1924 US photoplay state 1922 as the year, but I’ve often seen the 1924 listed as a true first, as I have later editions. I’ve even seen the 1924 photoplay with dustjacket listed as a first for over $1,700–a terrible ripoff, were anyone to pay this much. I acquired both of my similar copies for under $50, and at the time the over $1,700 priced edition was listed (January 2021), so was a $40 edition with dustjacket and in similar condition. Unfortunately, even editions published in the 1930s typically list only 1922 as the year of publication.
Notably, true firsts have the first dust jacket shown above, and list both the year 1922 AND the month and the year of all impressions, except for the first impression, up to the date of the published edition. For example, the eleventh impression of the first edition lists the dates of the second through eleventh impressions, the last given as “ELEVENTH IMPRESSION, OCTOBER 1924.” The dust jacket spine lists the printing, for example, “Twelfth Printing” for the eleventh impression.
For more information on identifying firsts, see The Last of the Great Swashbucklers: A Bio-Bibliography of Rafael Sabatini by Jesse F. Knight and Stephen Darley (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2020), and also “Collecting Rafael Sabatini” by Jesse F. Knight in Firsts: The Book Collector’s Magazine (March 2001, Vol. 11, No. 3).
True firsts in fine or near fine book and dust jacket conditions (very rare!) command large prices, so if you’re looking to buy one, make sure that’s what you’re actually getting. Especially beware of firsts whose dust jacket is actually a modern–and usually so noted–reprint. They’re typically much over-priced. For example, I’ve seen a near-fine original first without dust jacket, which can often be found for $25 or less if you’re patient, combined with a $25 reprint dust jacket–and listed for a few hundred dollars. It’s a ripoff. It’s the original dust jacket, or author signature, or both, that command the great prices.
Copyright Benerson Little 2020-2021. First published February 12, 2020. Last updated January 25, 2021.
Cutthroat Island finale, Morgan Adams (Geena Davis, right) versus Dawg Brown (Frank Langella). Carolco, 1995.
In advance of my forthcoming series on “The Duel on the Beach,” a fun look at the Hollywood trope of swordplay in the rigging.
We can probably blame Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island for the trope’s ultimate inspiration. In the novel [Spoiler Alert!], Jim Hawkins climbs aloft aboard the schooner Hispaniola to escape the murderous pirate Israel Hands, ultimately burning the salty thug’s brains with a brace of pistols. Why the hungover, perhaps even still-besotted, sea-thief didn’t simply use a musket to murder the lad is unknown. Perhaps he was too fogged by rum to think of it, or he didn’t have a musket at hand, or knew he wouldn’t be able to hit the bold lad. More likely, it’s simply a much better scene to have a murderous pirate armed with a knife slowly climb aloft while his victim waits at the extreme point of retreat.
“One Step More, Mr. Hands” by N. C. Wyeth for the 1911 Charles Scribner’s Sons edition of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Doubtless inspired by Treasure Island, Charles Boardman Hawes includes a scene of fighting aloft in his Newberry award-winnning novel, The Dark Frigate.
But the primary origin of the trope, whether for Mr. Stevenson or Hollywood in general, is almost certainly the simple fact that the masts and rigging are too enticing not be used: a vast network or “jungle gym” overhead with boundless possibilities. It’s simply impossible to ignore the setting towering aloft above a vessel’s decks. It’s a nautical gymnasium begging to be used! And so it often has.
Before going further, we should quickly examine what sailors did, and still do, aloft. They set, take in, and furl sail. They hoist spars and masts aloft, and strike the same as necessary. They stand lookout. They man the tops in battle, enabling armed seamen to fire on the enemy below. They make repairs. They skylark.
Although fighting aloft was routine–men firing from above at men below–there’s no evidence of anything other than with firearms, grenades, and sometimes swivel guns occasionally fired at the enemy also aloft. No swordplay on yards, in other words. Note that in the painting below, no one aloft is wielding a sword, nor are there lines rigged from which to slide down or swing across (another popular but false Hollywood pirate trope).
Actual fighting aloft would look something like this:
The painting just above, although it has many accurate details (including the grappling hook hanging by chain from the yardarm (although it should have two lines attached), appears to be rather romanticized, with seamen sliding down a forestay, another with his cutlass between his teeth, details lacking in the previous two images.
But when it comes to film, The Black Pirate (Vitagraph, 1926) starring Douglas Fairbanks set the standard for action aloft–but not for swordplay aloft, of which it alas had none. The film included circus-like aerial stunts and a famous scene in which Fairbanks slips a sword or dagger into a sail and slides down its face, cutting the canvas as he does. The stunt was repeated in The Goonies (Warner Bros., 1985).
In Captain Blood (Warner Bros., 1935) starring Errol Flynn, the action aloft is more mundane, although it does include some brief swordplay, and includes a lesser trope: pirates sliding down on ropes during boarding actions, swinging from ship to ship, and occasionally from yard to yard, none of which actually occurred to ship to ship combat. Still, it’s fun.
In Against All Flags (Universal International, 1952) Errol Flynn as Brian Hawke climbs aloft via the lubber’s hole (for shame!) to cut down the main-yard. He’s lucky the pirates were lazy, otherwise the yard would’ve been slung with chain in time of battle and his rapier of little use in cutting through. When he sees pirates coming at him from aloft and alow, rather than fight them he escapes instead, using Douglas Fairbanks’s famous technique. The film was remade, almost scene for scene, as The King’s Pirate (Universal, 1967), but an acrobatic escape was substituted for the sword-in-sail trick. Against All Flags was one of Flynn’s last films, certainly one of his last good ones (arguably a tie among these last films with Crossed Swords, The Master of Ballantrae, and a more serious film, The Warriors). Against All Flags also starred Maureen O’Hara in her last swashbuckler. She’s as dashing as Flynn in the film, and as good if not better with a sword.
The Crimson Pirate (Warner Bros., 1952) showcased Burt Lancaster’s acrobatic skills aloft, but lacked swordplay:
Disney’s Peter Pan (1953) had plenty of action aloft, including an homage to Treasure Island:
But the real action was between Pan and Hook on the main-topsail yard:
And also in Return to Neverland (Disney, 2002):
The action is included on the Disney theme park attraction:
And even in the Disney theme parks Fantasmic! show:
The trope also made it into a series of Dominica Peter Pan postage stamps in 1980, shown below as a Disney pin:
But it was Cutthroat Island (Carolco, 1995) that did it’s best to include a sword fight in earnest on a yard aloft. The film was a box office bomb. Even so, Geena Davis did a creditable job, and the soundtrack is excellent.
Not to be beat, Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End included swordplay between Davy Jones and Jack Sparrow on a yard aloft during a storm while dueling ships were whipped around at the edge of a giant maelstrom:
The Adventures of Tintin (Columbia Pictures et al, 2011) featured animated if improbable-but-exciting swordplay aloft:
Swordplay, or at least swords, aloft has continued in recent pirate films. Below is Son Ye-jin as Captain Yeo-wol in The Pirates (Harimao Pictures, 2014), engaging in aerial swashbuckling.
The trope made its way even into the recent Thugs of Hindostan (Latina Pictures, et al, 2018), a pirate-ish, Bollywood, stick-it-to-the-English Indian film:
Action aloft also made its way onto television in the form of the final episode in season four of Black Sails, in a scene in which I as historical consultant had some input.
But the trope has found its way into more than just film. A significant but largely unstudied contribution to pirate culture is that of various collector’s cards: tobacco, bubble gun, and arcade. Typically inspired by popular illustration, film, and general cliché, the cards often include images of swordplay and other fighting aloft, invariably via contrived circumstances often involving pirates or merchant seamen attempting to escape aloft. In the 1930s card just below, failed mutineer-pirates retreat aloft to little avail.
Below, in a 1930s Holloway Pirate Treasure trading card, merchant seamen flee aloft to make their last stand, again to no avail.
Below, a Swedish/French bubble gum card dating to the 1930s. This time it’s not a merchant seaman retreating aloft, but a duel over the plunder on a night “full of stars, the air calm, the sea tranquil.” One of the pirates, Mulrooney, has hidden a brace of pistols in the rigging. He drops his cutlass and climbs aloft, followed by his armed adversary Hawkins. Mulrooney, in most dishonorable fashion–even for a pirate–arms himself with his hidden pistols and shoots Hawkins dead.
Comic books are another significant source of modern pirate culture, and like the cards above they typically reinforce existing tropes. Here the sword fight is on the bowsprit, one man armed with an anachronistic rapier (unless he’s an Iberian or perhaps an Italian under Spanish rule) with quillons in the wrong place, the other armed with an anachronistic “soup ladle” cutlass.
And it’s even made it to a book cover!
But just how easy would it be to fence aloft on spars? It wouldn’t be. By way of experiment I’ve attempted footwork on a balance beam, much as in the photograph below but with much less danger. At first it’s not easy to maintain balance and any “fencing” done is best done by way of slow choreographed movements. Put simply, I fell often, more even than the time a friend and I fenced with sabers at midnight in New Orleans under live oaks on a carpet of acorns (it was a mast year). Still, after a bit of practice one can move conditionally well on a flat beam–but still not sufficiently to prevent a likely fall. A rounded spar would be much more difficult to fence upon.
Aerial fencing, usually on rooftops or on beams or scaffolding attached to them, and usually as stunts or photo opportunities, is not uncommon:
Any real fencing on a beam or spar would obviously quickly result in a fall. Many years ago I saw a fencing high wire act performed at the Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Circus: it was composed of simple choreographed movements, as expected.
In similar fashion, the modern aerial troupe Pirates of the Colombian Caribbean performs a tightrope fencing act on tour, including this past summer at the Miami Seaquarium:
But could swordplay aloft have happened in reality? Even rarely? The answer is akin to that of the myth of buried pirate treasure. Did pirates bury treasure? No, although it’s possible to find a rare instance of a couple of shipwrecked pirates burying their plundered shares to keep other pirates from stealing it. Further, it’s possible to imagine a rare similar but more significant exception, for example the shipwreck of pursued pirates who bury their plunder to prevent a pirate hunting landing party from finding it. But there’s no evidence anything like this ever happened. Similarly, there’s no evidence of swordplay aloft among pirates or anyone else at sea, as thrilling and pregnant with possibility the prospect is. Even so, it’s possible to imagine a rather contrived, but still possible, circumstance. Hollywood does it all the time.
Copyright Benerson Little, 2019-2021. Last updated June 17, 2021.
Useful advice and commentary, by category, for swordsmen and swordswomen. I’ve collected these over almost fifty years from a variety of sources, ranging from books published over several centuries to fencing masters and even to my own observations.
Some of these quotations are repeated in my post, Fencing Salles & Fencing Commandments, along with other advice and commentary. Please note that the list below is not complete, and never can be. I will, however, update it as convenient.
Except where noted, the English translations from the original French are mine.
A long detailed list of fencing books can be found here.
On the Virtues of Fencing
“And moreover, the exercifing of weapons putteth away aches, griefes, and difeafes, it increafeth ftrength, and fharpneth the wits, giuith a perfect iudgement, it expelleth melancholy, cholericke and euill conceits, it keepeth a man in breath, perfect health, and long life. It is vnto him that hath the perfection thereof, a moft friendly and comfortable companion when he is alone, hauing but only his weapon about him, it putteth him out of all feare, & in the warres and places of moft danger it maketh him bold, hardie, and valiant.”
—George Silver, Paradoxes of Defence, 1599
“If you master the principles of sword-fencing, when you freely beat one man, you beat any man in the world. The spirit of defeating a man is the same as for ten million men.”
—Musashi Miyamoto, Go Rin No Sho (A Book of Five Rings), 1645. Musashi, Japan’s kensei or “sword saint,” fought and won more than sixty duels before retiring as a hermit to write his famous masterpiece on swordplay and strategy. Of course, what readers often miss is the implication: that you don’t have to have a brilliant understanding of the “Way” in order to fence well—Musashi himself admits that he didn’t understand the true Way until after he had fought all of his duels—but certainly it would help.
And in the West, a similar sentiment:
“J’asseureray que celui qui est instruit dans les armes, ayant du cœur, réussira contre cent mal adroits; j’entends l’un après l’autre, nullus Hercules contra duos.”
“I will assure that he who is instructed in arms, having a stout heart, will succeed against one hundred clumsy swordsmen; [yet] I hear often that there is no Hercules against two [other swordsmen].”
—André Wernesson, sieur de Liancour, Le maistre d’armes: ou, L’exercice de l’epée seule, dans sa perfection, 1686. My translation. The admonition that no one is a Hercules against two adversaries is often written as “No Hercules against the multitude.” But see just below…
“[B]ecause, when a vigorous and brisk Officer, hath perhaps Disabled or run one Enemy thorow, and is actually commanding [grappled with] of another; there steps in a Third, who endeavours to knock him on the head, or Cleave him down; for, Ne Hercules quidem contra multos.”
—Sir William Hope, A New, Short, and Easy Method of Fencing, 1714. Here Hope takes the opposite–and certainly more correct view, swashbuckling films notwithstanding–view that it is difficult, if not impossible or at least highly unlikely, to succeed against multiple adversaries attacking at once. Unlike in Hollywood where enemies are trained to attack one-at-a-time per the script, multiple adversaries tend to attack simultaneously. Hope suggests that the hanging guard might defend against two adversaries while a thick leather gauntlet in the non-dominant hand might defend against a third. But with offense comes at least one opening for the several adversaries…
“When you count all the benefits of swordsmanship, there are so many, encompassing the virtues of heaven and earth.”
—Yagyu Muneyoshi, 17th century, translated by Hiroaki Sato.
“So doeth the Art of Fencing teach us to defend our Bodies, from the Assaults and Attaques of all Adversaries, whether Artists or not, who in respect of the cruel designe they have against our Bodies, may in some sense be accounted Devils, it also teacheth us not to be deceived by the fallacious Quirks and Tricks of Artists when we are engaged with the which do represent the cunning subtile Allurements of the World.”
“[Y]et all Gentlemen should practice it, & have an esteem for it, if it were for no other reason but this, that it is a most pleasant divertissement, and an Innocent, Healthful, and Manly Recreation and Exercise for the Body, and although a Man could reap no Advantage by it for the Defence of his Body; yet that its very keeping a Mans joynts and members nimble and cleaver [clever], and in a ready trime [trim], as it were, for any other Divertisement or Exercise, as Tenice, Dancing, Riding, &e. should make it Esteemed and Practised by all who are above the rank of Clowns.”
—Sir William Hope, The Sword-Man’s Vade-Mecum, 1694
“Nothing can give a greater Lusture and Enoblement to the most Excellent and Bravest Persons, than an absolute and perfect Qualification in the true Knowledge and Skill in Weapons.”
—Zachary Wylde, The English Master of Defence, 1711
“Indeed I am perfectly of opinion, which is corroborated by numberless persons who have experienced the utility of fencing, that for the navy it should be considered as one of the most essential branches of a nautical education, and ought to be encouraged by Captains and Commanders as much as possible. The ship’s company should, every one of them, be compelled to understand the use of the sword familiarly, previously to their going abroad, and should continue practising it at all times on board; for they have, if possible, even more occasion for fencing than the army, because, in general, they are more frequently at close quarters with the enemy than the military are.”
—Joseph Roland, The Amateur of Fencing, 1809
“Glancing fearfully about, I took up the weapon, finding it play very light in my grasp for all its size; and having wielded it, I held it that the moonbeams made a glitter on the long, broad blade. Now as I stood, watching this deadly sparkle, I trembled no longer, my side fears were forgotten, a new strength nerved me and I raised my head, teeth clenched in sudden purpose so desperate bold indeed as filled me with marvelous astonishment at myself; and all this (as I do think) by mere feel of this glittering sword.”
“There remains then always your sword, friend Adam; with this you may win the fame, the fortune—or the grave so honourable. Ha, it is true, when all other fails, there remains always—the sword!”
—Jeffery Farnol, Over the Hills, 1930
Defining Fencing & Swordplay
“Fencing is neither art nor science. Fencing is fencing!”
—Dr. Francis Zold, personal communication, 1977
Eugenio Pini, quoted in László Szabó, Fencing and the Master, 1977
“The use of arms doth much differ in these times. I hear now the single rapier is altogether in use: when I was young, the rapier and dagger. And I cannot understand, seeing God hath given a man two hands, why he should not use them both for his defence.”
—William Higford, Institutions: Or, Advice to His Grandson, 1658
Mr. Higford makes an excellent point: the reality of real combat with thrusting swords is that the unarmed hand must come into play, if only in opposition in order to prevent angulations and other continuations of attacks and ripostes, not to mention to use in extremis as a parry or by grasping to defend oneself. Only in highly regulated formal duels—those of the 19th and early 20th century epee de combat, for example—may this practice be proscribed (and, of course, in sport fencing). See also Sir Wm. Hope immediately below.
“That if a good and dexterous Sword-man have no other design but Defence of his own Person, and not the Destruction of his Adversary’s also, that then his Sword alone, assisted by a judicious Breaking of Measure [retreating], is…sufficient to defend him: But again, if he design to Offend [attack] as well as Defend, then there is an absolute Necessity to make use of his left Hand for his Assistance; otherwise his Adversary, continually redoubling his Thrusts irregularly and with Vigour upon him, he shall never almost have the Opportunity of Thrusting, his Sword being in a manner wholly take up with the Parade, by endeavoring to make good his own Defence…”
“There is a vast difference, betwixt assaulting in a School with Blunts, for a Man’s Diversion, and engaging in the Fields with Sharps, for a Man’s Life; and whatever latitude a Man may take in the one, to show his Address and Dexterity, yet he ought to go a little more warily, and securely to Work, when he is concerned in the other: For in assaulting with Fleurets [foils], a Man may venture upon many difficult and nice Lessons, wherein if he fail, he runs no great Risque, and if they take not at one time, they many succeed at another: But with Sharps, the more plain and simple his Lessons of Pursuit [attack] are, so much the more secure is his Person; whereas, by venturing upon variety of difficult Lessons, he very much exposes himself, even to the hazarding of his Life, by his Adversary’s taking of Time, and endeavouring to Contretemps [an attack into an attack or a simultaneous attack, often resulting in a double touch], which are not so easily effectuat [sic, “effectuated,” i.e., “executed”] against a plain and secure Pursuit [attack].”
“[T]hat it clearly appears, that what goes under the Name of Graceful Fencing, is for no other use, but only for such, as, for Divertisement, counterfit a Fight with Blunts, who only Assault in the Schools with Foils.”
—Sir William Hope, A New, Short, and Easy Method, 1714
“And, though none might suspect it from his clumsy bearing, he is a noted swordsman.”
—John Dickson Carr, Most Secret, 1964. Many excellent fencers appear clumsy or ungraceful, or lack classical form.
“Briefly, our method could be expressed in this sentence: ‘The best parry is the blow.'”
—Luigi Barbasetti, The Art of the Sabre and the Épée, 1936.
“The most efficacious means of fighting are offensive actions—above all attacks. In all weapons the majority of fencers score the largest amount of hits by attacks…”
—Zbigniew Czajkowski, Understanding Fencing, 2005
However, according to many of the French and derivative schools, old and new, note the following two quotations…
“…but also procures to himself the advantage of playing from the Risposte, which of all Methods of Fencing is the most commendable, and safest, but then, as I have said, it is only to such as are Masters of the Parade; which is a quality rare enough to be found, even amongst the greatest Sword-men.”
—Sir William Hope, A New, Short, and Easy Method of Fencing, 1714. In other words, the method of relying foremost on the riposte is ideal—but only if you have the rare ability of mastering it. My own preference is for a patiently aggressive balance of offense and defense, added to judicious use of second intention actions which provide the opportunity to both attack and riposte. See especially the quotes on patience below.
“It is more dangerous to attack than to parry. Instead of waiting you let yourself go. And the great difficulty is to know how to let yourself go far enough without going to far.”
—Baron de Bazancourt, Secrets of the Sword, 1900 (English translation by C. F. Clay of the original 1862 French edition.)
“Dans les salles on discute la valeur des méthodes; qu’il s’agisse de radaellistes (école réformée d’Italie) de méridionaux (obscurantists de l’antique école napolitaine) ou de pinistes, on donne á notre école cet avatage de ne pas exiger une musculature extraordinaire: un tireur italien doit être un hercule, un tireur français peut être…une femme.”
In the salles the value of the methods is discussed; whether they are Radaellists (the reformed school of Italy [named for the famous Radaelli]), or Southerners (obscurantists of the ancient Neapolitan school), or Pinists [named for the famous Pini], we argue that our school has the advantage of not requiring extraordinary musculature: an Italian fencer must be a Hercules, a French fencer can be…a woman.
—”Rapière,” “L’Illustration,” 28 May 1892
The genius of the French school is, of course, opportunist. In theory, every move of the adversary is acted on as it is made. The Italian fencer relies more on deductions from what has passed, and on premeditated schemes of attack and defence. Hence the diversity of the spirit in which the systems of opposition are conceived.
For the practical realist there is the duelling sword [the epee]; for the stylist there is the foil; for the imaginative and the artistic there is the saber. But some sense of reality, some sense of style, and some sense of artistry is essential to the practice of any one of the three weapons.
—Percy E. Nobbs, Fencing Tactics, 1936. One might add the Hungarian school to his description of the Italian, given its heavy Italian influence and similar attitude toward tactics.
“La scherma, come l’aritmetica, no sopporta opinioni; essa è un fatto governato da leggi sicure, fisse, esperimentate, le quali se pure tollrano qualche leggera variante all loro forma esteriore, sogliono rimanere integre nella sostanza, perchè conducono sempre allo stesso, allo identico resultato. Insomma: la scherma nostra è come una bella signora la quale muti d’abito: la persona resta sempre la medesima.”
“Fencing, like arithmetic, does not tolerate opinions; it is a fact governed by sure, fixed, tested laws, which, even if they tolerate some slight variation to their external form, usually remain intact in substance, because they always lead to the same, identical result. In short: our fencing is like a beautiful lady who changes her dress: the person always remains the same.”
Eugenio Pini, Tratto Pratico e Teorico Sulla Scherma di Spada, 1904
“L’escrime est une science expérimentale, soumise à des lois immuables comme las physique et la chemie. Chaque movement y a son importance, sa signification, et on peut en verifier les consequences, les avantages et les inconvénients. L’escrime est une art; certaines natures, particulièrement douées, y sont parfois prepares, predestines; mais il faut s’appliquer assidûment pour atteindre à la perfection.”
“Fencing is an experimental science, which operates under immutable laws just as do physics and chemistry. Each movement has its importance, its significance, and one can verify the consequences, advantages, and disadvantages. Fencing is an art; certain natures, particularly gifted, are sometimes prepared, predestined, but it is necessary to apply oneself diligently to achieve perfection.”
—Dr. Achille Edom, L’Escrime, le Duel & l’Épée, 1908. My translation.
“L’art des armes ne consiste pas, contrairement à ce qu’a dit Molière, “à donner et à ne pas recevoir”; mais à ne pas recevoir d’abord et à donner ensuite, si l’on peut.”
“The art of arms consists not, contrary to what Molière said, ‘to give and not to receive,’ but at the outset to not receive and to give subsequently, if one can.”
“Il ne doit y avoir qu’une école d’escrime, celle qui prepare le tireur aussi bien pour l’assaut public que pour le terrain. En un mot, j’estime que l’escrime doit rester un art, mais il ne faut pas qu’elle demeure sans utilité pratique.”
“There must not be but one school of fencing, that which prepares the swordsman as well for the public assault [sport] as for the terrain [duel]. In a word, I deem that fencing must remain as an art, but it must not remain without practical use.”
— Anthime Spinnewyn, L’Escrime à l’épée, 1898. My translation.
“[I]l y a deux escrimes, l’escrime du fleuret et l’escrime de l’épée, l’escrime de la salle et l’escrime du terrain.”
[T]here are two forms of fencing, foil fencing and epee fencing, the swordplay of the club [sport fencing] and the swordplay of the [dueling] ground.
“N’est-ce pas là une indication de plus qu’il y a deux escrimes, l’escrime du fleuret, sport admirable, mais exercice de convention, et l’escrime à l’épée, méthode de combat?”
“Isn’t this more of an indication that there are two forms of fencing [with thrusting weapons], foil fencing, an admirable sport, but an exercise of convention, and epee fencing, a method of combat?”
—Arthur Ranc in the preface to Le Jeu de l’épée by Jules Jacob, 1887. My translation.
“Gallant bearing, disdainful valour, all that is very well in its way, ‘but the thing, Sir, is to hit your man without being hit yourself.’ That is the wisdom of ages.”
—Egerton Castle, “Swordsmanship Considered Historically and as a Sport,” 1903.
“But delightful as good foil-play is, both to performers and lookers-on, it is neither the real sword-fight nor even a reasonably complete preparation for it.”
—Charles Newton-Robinson in “The Revival of the Small-Sword,” 1905, in The Living Age.
“‘Henry Durie,’ said the Master, ‘Two words before I begin. You are a fencer, you can hold a foil; you little know what a change it makes to hold a sword!'”
—Robert Louis Stevenson, The Master of Ballantrae, 1889
De Meuse. — “L’assaut à l’épée de combat doit être l’image la plus complete possible du duel. Or, dans un duel, on ne donne jamais qu’un seul coup d’épée.”
Berger. — “Quelquefois deux et trois. Après une petite blessure on ne s’arrête pas.”
De Meuse. — “The dueling sword bout ought to be the closest image possible of the duel. However, in a duel, there is never only a single epee thrust [wound].”
Berger. — “Sometimes two and three. After a small wound one does not stop.”
—From the Troisième Congrès Internationale d’Escrime, 1908. The Congress was called to determine rules for fencing as sport. Unfortunately, the argument of M. De Meuse failed due to the opposition of foilists who dominated the Congress. They believed epee—the “modern school”—was largely degenerate as a separate weapon and that no special preparation was necessary. These gentlemen had already long since accepted the argument for sport fencing, based on foil fencing as an exercise in technique (much of it useless in actual combat), as something beyond combat and unnecessary to emulate it. In fact, foil had long been proved inadequate for actual combat. See the next quotation.
Renard. — “Nous avons tort de nous mettre dans l’idée que l’assaut est l’image du combat. Je fais de l’escrime comme sport et non pour me batter (marques generals d’approbation) et, autant que possible, pour faire quelque chose de bien. Il ne s’agit pas seulement de toucher.”
Renard. — “We are wrong to put forth the idea that the assault is the image of combat. I fence for sport and not to get battered (general marks of approval [from others]) and, whenever possible, to do something to benefit myself. Fencing is not only about getting the touch.”
—From the Troisième Congrès Internationale d’Escrime, 1908. M. Renard is correct that no bout or assault can be the image of actual combat; no training or practice can. However, from this point forward the idea of all fencing as entirely a sport pastime began to take root and was the death knell of sport fencing as the emulation of actual combat as opposed to sport fencing as pure sport. It’s only grown worse a century later, with foil and saber now entirely artificial. Epee too has it’s artificialities–all forms of swordplay do–but it remains far closer to actual combat than foil or saber. My translation.
“In competition many irregularities occur in connection with the attack. More and more competitors abuse and exploit the incorrect attitude of the judges, who qualify as an attack every advance of the fencer done with invitation or blade lowered, that is, without a threat, although with great speed. Their judgement goes against the fencer who keeps distance to avoid a fleche, although he begins the actual attack with the threat of his weapon. This decision releases a very dangerous, evil “spirit from the bottle”, because–on the basis of the “end justifies the means” principle–more and more competitors depart from the correct, learnt path and abuse the situation. This endangers the entire foundations of fencing, especially of sabre, which rests on realistic conventions.”
“Education, persuasion and the setting of examples and even severe lessons must be used to put an end once and for all to these deviations which threaten the existence of fencing.”
–László Szabó, Fencing and the Master, 1977
The spirit and deviations are unfortunately, and almost unconscionably, long since out of the bottle, and have turned foil and saber into a mere game of tag, and even epee too. The solution is to enforce the convention of legitimate threats with the blade in foil and saber (as opposed to the ludicrous sophistry that substitutes today, permitting attacks in invitation aka “bent arm”), and in epee to lengthen the time within which a double touch may be made, the last of which would force epeeists to focus once again on the ideal of hitting and, importantly, not getting hit.
“The answer is easy. The great art of swordsmanship consists in laying successful snares, such as making your opponent expect the attack exactly where it is not intended. To deceive his expectations, to break up what he combines, to disappoint his plans, and to narrow his action; to dominate his movements, to paralyse his thoughts, represent the art, the science, the skill, and the power of your perfect swordsman…”
—Sir Richard Burton, The Sentiment of the Sword, 1911. Burton was a swordsman, explorer, linguist, scholar, spy, and translator of The Arabian Nights. He was the first non-Muslim to make the Hajj to Mecca, doing so in disguise. As a swordsman he was known as a fierce fighter, with numerous combats in the field.
“C’est une mine si féconde que cette lutte d’adresse, d’habileté, de science, de coup d’œil, d’énergie, de jugement, où toutes les facultés intellectuelles et physiques s’emploient à la fois et se viennent mutuellement en aide.”
“And after all the art of fence does furnish a most interesting fund of conversation—the art of skillful fighting at close quarters, which implies a knowledge of theory combined with a trained power of execution, which taxes eye and hand, vigour and judgment, and brings into play every faculty of mind and body, each doing its part, and each in turn supplementing and reinforcing the other.”
—Baron César de Bazancourt, Les Secrets de l’Épée, 1862. The translation is from the English edition, Secrets of the Sword, 1900, translated by C. F. Clay.
“[Early epeeists] were realists who preferred the romantic to the classic.”
—R. A. Lidstone, Fencing: A Practical Treatise on Foil, Épée, Sabre, 1952. Ever have I been a romantic realist.
“The real fun of fencing is in working out one’s own ruses: sometimes by inspiration on the spur of the moment in a hotly contested bout; and sometimes at leisure, in the watches of the night, for the discomfiture of some difficult opponent who has had the better of it during the day.”
“After a friendly bout is over one carries away the recollection of a few good things well done. It is easy, often too easy, to forget one’s discomfitures. Incidentally, both fencers have revealed their characters to one another, as well as their physical abilities and mental powers. To know is to understand; thus friendships are made.”
“The essence of the game [looseplay, free fencing] is to interest, not to overpower, one’s adversary, and to outwit with a well executed and theoretically fatal cut or thrust. Then, there is a good laugh; whether at one’s own expense or at that of one’s adversary, does not matter. It is by finding out how a hit was made, as much as by trying to make hits, that one learns what fencing means.”
—Percy E. Nobbs, Fencing Tactics, 1936.
“Not so, Anthony, my faith—no! Your murdering tool is cowardly pistol or blundering musketoon whereby Brutish Ignorance may slaughter Learned Valour and from safe distance. But, as Mind is greater than mere Body so is the rapier greater than any other weapon, and its manage an exact science calling not only for the strict accordance of hand, eye and foot, but for an alertness o’ the mind also.”
—Jeffery Farnol, Adam Penfeather, Buccaneer, 1940. Farnol was a fencer and his descriptions of swordplay are accurate.
MAÎTRE D’ARMES: …tous le secret des armes ne consiste qu’en deux choses: à donner et à ne point recevoir; et, comme je vous fis voir l’autre jour par raison demonstrative, il est impossible que vous receviez, si vous savez détourner l’épée de votre ennemi de la ligne de votre corps; ce qui ne dépend seulement que d’un petit mouvement de poignet, ou en dedans or dehors.
JOURDAIN: De cette façon donc, un homme, sans avoir du coeur, est sûr de tuer son homme et de n’être point tué?
MAÎTRE D’ARMES: Sans doute.
MASTER OF ARMS: …the entire secret of arms consists but in two things: to give and not to receive; and, as I demonstrated to you the other day, it is impossible that you will receive, if you have turned your enemy’s sword from the line of your body; and this depends only on a small movement of the wrist, either inside or outside.
JOURDAIN: In this fashion, then, a man, with no courage, is sure to kill his man and not be killed?
MASTER OF ARMS: Without doubt.
—Molière [Jean Baptiste Poquelin], Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, 1673. One of France’s most famous playwrights, Molière is poking fun at both the bourgeois and at anyone gullible enough to believe that swordplay is a simple matter.
“…because whoever will be but at the Trouble to visit the Fencing-schools, shall scarcely see one Assault of ten, made either be Artists against Artists, or Artists against Ignorants, but what is so Composed and made up of Contre-temps [double touches resulting from an attack into an attack, or from simultaneous attacks], that one would think the greatest Art they learn, and aime at, is to strive who shall Contre-temps oftnest…”
—Sir William Hope, The Sword-Man’s Vade-Mecum, 1694. True then, true later, true today in all forms of swordplay. Notwithstanding modern idealistic classical and historical fencers who believe, via an imagined nostalgia, that the swordplay of past eras was more correct and useful for the encounters with real blades, Hope, not to mention close study, dashes this notion. Double hits are the bane of swordplay, and it is difficult to eradicate them entirely in both play and competition. And, given the large number of accounts of duels in which both antagonists were wounded in contre-temps or “exchanged thrusts,” it was clearly a problem in actual combat as well.
“It is a prejudice to think that swordsmanship is meant solely to slash an opponent. It is meant not to slash an opponent, but to kill evil. It is a way of allowing ten thousand men to live by killing a single evil man.”
—From the Heiho Kaden Sho (Family-Transmitted Book on Swordsmanship), seventeenth century, translated by Hiroaki Sato, 1985.
“The accomplished man does not kill people by using his sword; he lets them live by using his sword.”
—From Taia Ki (On the T’ai-a), seventeenth century, translated by Hiroaki Sato, 1985.
Far more courtesies and expectations of behavior than are given below may be found here: Fencing Salles & Fencing Commandments.
“The salute is an usage established in all the fencing schools, in order to preserve the politeness that we owe to one another.”
—J. Olivier, Fencing Familiarized /L’Art des Armes Simplifié, 1771. Note the phrase in all the fencing schools; the salute was generally not used in a duel or rencontre, at least not among the French and their disciples.
“It is a polite custom to salute your opponent with your blade before the bout, and to offer him your hand at the end.”
“Once the fencer has taken the guard position, he must be considerate of his opponent. Neither fencer must talk during the bout. Fencing requires the greatest possible attention, and this may not be diverted in any way or for any reason except by fencing tactics.”
“In fencing against an opponent who acknowledges your superiority, sportsmanship demands that you do not make the most of your advantages; rather should you assist his swordplay as much as possible, and avoid placing him in a painful or ridiculous position by over-emphasizing your superiority.”
—Luigi Barbasetti, The Art of the Foil, 1932
“Don’t show any sign of bad temper if you are the loser.”
“Don’t get conceited, or be haughty, if you are the winner.”
“Don’t forget always to be modest and courteous.”
“If your adversary should prove far superior to you, do not show discontent or bad temper; do not be disheartened, keep up your style and do your best, no matter how badly you may be beaten. Take your defeat in the right spirit, it will help to improve you; take it as a lesson you needed. Remain always the ‘correct gentleman.'”
“Not shaking hands with an adversary after a match or a rencontre is a great lack of courtesy, and should be reprimanded. Saluting an adversary previously to the beginning of a bout should be done before placing the mask on the head.”
—Félix Gravé, Fencing Comprehensive, 1934
“Une simple observation pour terminer: à l’épée comme au fleuret, le silence est de rigueur. La parole est aux armes, dit-on; c’est-à-dire que, seules, la tête el la main doivent agir.”
“A simple observation to end with: at epee as at foil, silence is mandatory. One lets the weapons speak; that is to say, the head and hand must act alone.”
—Claude La Marche [Georges-Marie Félizet], Traité de l’épée, 1884.
“No Scholar nor Spectator without a licence from the Master, should offer to direct or give advice to any of the Scholars, who are either taking a Lesson or Assaulting…First, because without permission they take upon them to play the Master; And secondly, because they reprove oft-times their Commerads for the same very fault they themselves are most guilty of, although perhaps not sensible of, which when By-standers perceive, they smile at them (and with just reason) as being both ignorant and impertinent; therefore it would be a great deal more commendable in them, to be more careful in rectifying their own faults, and less strict in censuring others.”
—Sir William Hope, The Fencing Master’s Advice to His Scholar, 1692
“Upon their first appearance upon the Stage, they march towards one another, with a slow majestick pace, and a bold commanding look, as if they meant both to conquer; and coming near together, they shake hands, and embrace one another, with a chearful look. But their retreat is much quicker than their advance, and, being at first distance, change their countenance, and put themselves into their posture; and so after a pass or two, retire, and then to’t again: And when they have done their play, they embrace, shake hands, and putting on their smoother countenances, give their respects to their Master, and so go off.”
—Richard Ligon, A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados, 1673. Ligon is describing Portuguese African slaves brought to Barbados, who are fencing expertly with single rapier and rapier and dagger in the manner of Jeronimo Sanchez de Carranza. But for the respects to their “Master”–their owner–the description is a perfect one of how fencers should comport themselves during a bout, from beginning to end.
On Becoming a Fencer
“The way is in training.”
“The essence of this book is that you must train day and night in order to make quick decisions. In strategy it is necessary to treat training as a part of normal life with your spirit unchanging.”
—Musashi Miyamoto, Go Rin No Sho (A Book of Five Rings), 1645.
“For Fencing is an Art which depends mainly upon Practice, and who ever thinks to acquire it any other way, is I assure him mightily mistaken, and the more a man practice and with the more different humors, so much the better for him…”
“[S]o that let the greatest Artist in the World forbear but the Practice of it [fencing] for a twelve month, although I confess he can never loss [lose] the Judgement he hath acquired, yet he will certainly when he cometh to practice again, find his Body and Limbs stiffer, and his Hand and motions both for Defence and Offence, neither so exact, nor by far so swift, as if he had been in a continual Practice, I mean at least once a Week or Fortnight…”
“[T]here is as much difference betwixt taking a Lesson, or playing upon a Masters breast, and Assaulting or performing the same Lessons upon your Commerads, as there is betwixt the repeating of an eloquent Discourse already penned, and the composing of one.”
—Sir William Hope, The Fencing Master’s Advice to His Scholar, 1692
“Finally, Practice is the Marrow and Quintessence of the Art, for without that, a Papist may soon forget his Pater-noster; but by frequent Practice, a Man gains much experience daily, and is continually improving his Skill. This being the last Observation, and one of the chief, no Opportunities of Practising ought to be neglected.”
—Zachary Wylde, The English Master of Defence, 1711
“This being done, place yourself on the position of the guard, with a graceful, but unaffected appearance, animated with a brave boldness; for nothing requires a man to exert himself more than sword-defence, and it is as difficult to attain such an air of intrepidity without much practice, as it is difficult to become perfectly expert in the art.”
—Joseph Roland, The Amateur of Fencing, 1809.
“Si vous voulez devenir un véritable tireur, certainement il vous faudra de longues années de travaux, de méditations sévères, d’exercices incessants.”
“If you would be an accomplished swordsman, you will certainly require years of hard work, close application, and incessant practice.”
—César de Bazancourt, Les Secrets de l’Épée, 1862. The translation is from the English edition, Secrets of the Sword, 1900, translated by C. F. Clay.
“It was soon over. The brute strength, upon which Levasseur so confidently counted, could avail nothing against the Irishman’s practiced skill.”
—Rafael Sabatini, Captain Blood, 1922
“…and that, too confident of himself, he had neglected to preserve his speed in the only way in which a swordsman may preserve it.”
—Rafael Sabatini, The Black Swan, 1932
“[A] man can never be called a compleat Sword Man, untill he can Defend himself with all kindes of Swords, against all sorts his Adversary can choose against him.”
—Sir William Hope, The Compleat Fencing-Master, 1710.
“L’escrime est une maîtresse capricious et frivole; elle résiste longtemps à ses adorateurs, mais, à ceux qui ont su la posséder, elle reserve des joies incomparables.”
“Fencing is a capricious and frivolous mistress; she long resists her suitors, but, to those are able to possess her, she reserves incomparable joys.”
—Dr. Achille Edom, L’Escrime, le Duel & l’Épée, 1908. My translation.
“For double hits are misfortunes, verging on crimes, and it is not in the lesson, but in friendly looseplay that one must learn to avoid them; or at least not be to blame when they occur.”
“One wastes one’s time and opportunity in going fast with them and piling up a score of hits. If one resolves to give only hit for hit, but to be careful that all the hits one gives have been worked for with due preparation, the bout with the less expert can be very fruitful indeed.”
—Percy E. Nobbs, Fencing Tactics, 1936.
“Another advantage which single-stick possesses is that you may learn to play fairly well even if you take it up as late in life as at five and twenty; whereas I understand that, though many of my fencing friends were introduced to the foil almost as soon as to the corrective birch, and though their heads are now growing grey, they still consider themselves mere tyros in their art.”
—R. G. Allanson-Winn, Broadsword and Singlestick, 1911
“Look at what a lot of things there are to learn—pure science, the only purity there is. You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six. And then, after you have exhausted a milliard lifetimes in biology and medicine and theocriticism and geography and history and economics—why, you can start to make a cartwheel out of the appropriate wood, or spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your adversary at fencing. After that you can start again on mathematics, until it is time to learn to plough.”
—Merlin speaking to Wart, in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, 1958
“The more you understand fencing, the more you will enjoy it. This particularly applies to the novice for, like all highly skilled games, it is easy to be put off by the chore of having to begin right at the beginning.”
—Bob Anderson, All About Fencing, 1963. Mr. Anderson was a British Olympic fencer and Olympic coach who became Hollywood’s leading swordplay choreographer, following in the footsteps of Fred Cavens and Ralph Faulkner. The fencing in Star Wars, The Princess Bride, and Alatriste are but three of his many film works. He died in January, 2012, and was inexplicably and inexcusably left out of the In Memoriam tributes at the 2012 and 2013 Oscars.
“The next exercise that a young man shall learn, but not before he is eleven or twelve years age, is fencing…”
—Lord Herbert of Cherbury, 1624, quoted in J. D. Aylward, The English Master of Arms, 1956. The stated age at which to begin fencing is valid today. Although children can be taught earlier, it should be done as fun physical preparation for learning to fence, not instruction in fencing itself with the goal of competition. Unfortunately, youth fencing, often beginning as young as six years (or even younger!), is modern fencing’s cash cow; it pays the bills, and as such children are pushed into competition before they’re physically or psychologically prepared, leading to burn out. Over-pressured by parents living vicariously through their children and coaches looking for “champions,” they lose their love for swordplay or never come to love it at all.
“[G]enerally speaking, few persons, except those of liberal education, ever think of, much less learn, the Art of Fencing, and they, of course, are understood to be familiar with the French language.”
—Joseph Roland, The Amateur of Fencing, 1809
“To be in possession of what you know, you must be in possession of yourself.”
—le sieur Labat, L’art en fait d’armes, 1696, from Mahon’s translation entitled The Art of Fencing, 1734
“For, Anthony, he that would be a true sword-master must first be master of himself, then of his blade, so shall he be master of his adversary. You follow me, I hope?”
—Jeffery Farnol, Adam Penfeather, Buccaneer, 1940
“Well, a man is as he is trained.”
—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Micah Clarke, 1894
“Fencing, like other sciences, cannot be degraded to a mechanical art, that may be infallibly practiced by a receipt; nor can it be thoroughly and completely acquired by only reading a book on the subject.”
“At the same time, I earnestly caution the intelligent young amateur, before he adopts any of these new methods of executing the different movements, &c. in Fencing, to submit them to the test of the strictest examination, and to determine, if possible, how far they appear to be consistent with reason and practicability.”
“[T]he pupil, who I wish at all times to make use, but not too hastily, and without partiality, of his own judgement, and not upon every occasion to take for certain evidence any proposition upon the authority alone of a master, merely because he is a master, or that the same may be found in print.”
“They are shown both methods, and after a proper demonstration of their respective merits, I always leave it to their own judgment, to practise that which they find by experience to succeed best. It is on this principle alone I wish all my observations to be weighed. I detest the maxim of acting upon mere authority, without any convincing proof.”
—Joseph Roland, The Amateur of Fencing, 1809
“This is what made him a great coach: he taught strategy and tactics, not just attacks and parries. He taught you how to analyze your opponents, get inside their heads, figure out what they would do, what were their strengths and weaknesses. He taught you to have confidence in yourself, to work hard, to settle for nothing less than the best you could do. He knew how to coax, insult, and inspire his students to achieve ever greater heights of success.”
—Roger Jones, describing Lajos Csiszar in an article, 2000. Csiszar was one of Italo Santelli’s three protégés, and coached Dr. Eugene Hamori after he defected to the US during the 1956 Olympic Games (and after the Hungarian saber team won gold). From an article by Roger Jones, 2000. Jones was one of Csiszar’s US students as well as a member of the 1955 and 1957 US epee teams, an alternate to the 1956 Olympic team, a longtime AFLA/USFA official, a strong opponent of gamesmanship and cheating, and, of course, like many male students of Santelli, Szabo, Csiszar, Zold, and Hamori, a gentleman and a swordsman.
“While training, the pupil should naturally practice and experiment ignoring for the time being the question of his powers of hitting, so that he can constantly enrich his knowledge and skills.”
“Fencing lessons built up systematically, practice under bout-like conditions, exercises “au-mur”, conventional exercises, exercises designed to parry attacks, bouts, systematic free fencing, unlimited bouts, bouts fenced until 5 or 10 hits [and today, 15] and competitive fencing constitute the framework within which the fencer can grow to the stature of a competitor.”
—Imre Vass, Párbajtörvívás, 1965, from the first English translation, Epee Fencing, 1976
“American fencers and coaches should understand and build their program on the fact that the coach’s role is only 10 percent of the total effort. Fencers must rely on themselves in training and in competition. Coaches should not try to ‘sell’ themselves to the students. Students must become independent.”
“[Smaller competitions are] ‘practice competitions,’ where the fencer does not necessarily have to win, rather, he should use a wide variety of his moves while checking and following his progress. On major competitions, the fencer should always try to win, and go all out to win, ‘even if he only has one move…'”
—Kaj Czarnecki, American Fencing, Jan/Feb 1980. Maitre Czarnecki, who passed away in 2018, was a Finnish Olympic epee fencer and fifteen time Finnish and Scandinavian champion, winning in all three weapons. He was a leading coach in Sweden, helped train Johan Harmenberg, and eventually became one of the epee coaches at the US Modern Pentathlon Training Center at Fort Sam Houston. I heard him make similar remarks during an epee clinic at the Mardi Gras Fencing Tournament in New Orleans that spring. Too few coaches take these views today, with the result that many fencers are anything but independent on the strip or elsewhere. Many coaches prefer to have their students bound too closely to them–and to take credit for their victories, if not always their losses.
“Always combine footwork with techniques being practiced.”
“Footwork and more footwork. Speed and more speed.”
“Develop these qualities
1. Smoothness 2. Ease 3. Accuracy”
“To find stillness in movement, not stillness in stillness.”
—Bruce Lee, from his notes on “Incorporating fencing principles,” quoted from Jeet Kune Do: Bruce Lee’s Commentaries on the Martial Way, compiled and edited by John Little, 1997. Bruce Lee studied both Western boxing and Western fencing, and incorporated some of their principles in Jeet Kune Do.
“[I]n the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
—Shunryu Suzuki. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, 1970. That is, keep your mind open and don’t fall victim to your knowledge or success.
“Bonus homo semper tiro.”
“A good person is always a novice.”
—Derived from Martial XII.li.2. See Suzuki above.
The En Garde: Three Not Incompatible Opinions
“The bravest gentlemen of arms, which I have seen, were Sir Charles Candis, and the now Marquis of Newcastle, his son, Sir Kenelm Digby, and Sir Lewis Dives, whom I have seen compose their whole bodies in such a posture, that they seemed to be a fort impregnable. They were the scholars of John de Nardes of Seville in Spain, who with the dagger alone, would encounter the single rapier and worst him. This exercise is most necessary for you, and also excellent for your health.”
—William Higford, Institutions: Or, Advice to His Grandson, 1658
“This being done, place yourself on the position of the guard, with a graceful, but unaffected appearance, animated with a brave boldness…”
“In whatever attitude you may think it necessary to present yourself facing your adversary, if your mind is prepared to attack and defend, you will be, properly speaking, ‘on guard.'”
—Joseph Roland, The Amateur of Fencing, 1809
“In your en garde you must lean forward slightly and thereby appear to be always in motion, as if you are always attacking. When your opponent looks at you, he or she must believe you are constantly attacking no matter what you are doing.”
— Dr. Eugene Hamori, as best I recall, to me forty years ago, to my wife within the past five.
On Patience as a Fencing Virtue: Epeeists, Take Heed!
“’Prevail by patience,’ is the motto of my house, and I have taken it for the guiding maxim of my life.”
—de Bernis, in Rafael Sabatini’s The Black Swan, 1932. The novel builds to a duel at the climax.
(Patience conquers, to conquer or prevail via patience.)
—Old motto and the likely Latin version of the motto of Charles de Bernis, Sabatini’s hero in The Black Swan. Used by the Huntsville Fencing Club until replaced with the motto below.
Patientia ferox vincit.
(To conquer or prevail via a fierce or warlike patience.)
—Modification of patientia vincit based on my experience fencing and teaching fencing, for the Huntsville Fencing Club and Salle de Bernis, 2012
“Patience need not be passive!”
—To my fencing students, circa 2005 to the present.
“L’assaut en un coup demande de la prudence, mais non de l’inactivité.”
“An assault for one touch demands prudence, but not inactivity.”
—J. Joseph Renaud in L’Escrime: fleuret, par Kirchoffer; épée, par J. Joseph Renaud; sabre, par Léon Lécuyer, 1913. Compare with Patientia Ferox Vincit and “Patience need not be passive!” above. I discovered this quote in April 2013, proving, yet again, that there is little original in fencing, and none of us are as original as we think we might be.
“Errors of distance, overeagerness, foolhardiness and impatience, are faults for which every épéeist of experience is on the look-out in his opponent’s game. More, they are faults which the épéeist will try to bring about in the unwary swordsman.”
—Roger Crosnier, Fencing with the Epee, 1958. As or more important, in my opinion, than watching for or inducing these errors in the opponent, is preventing them in oneself.
“Patience is the first virtue of an épée fencer.”
—Luigi Barbasetti, The Art of the Sabre and the Épée, 1936
Notwithstanding the necessity of aggressive patience in epee, or in any dueling sword, with the introduction of a severe modern “non-combativity” rule that forces epeeists to fence aggressively–put simply, there must be a touch scored within a minute or there is a penalty–, the often foolish and feckless fencing powers-that-be are undermining the very essence of swordplay itself. Action in fencing is not composed of touches but of physical and intellectual maneuvering. Some of the most exciting bouts I’ve ever fenced or watched have had few touches scored. My wife and I often go eight or more minutes without a touch (eleven minutes once), and an old friend of mine, a truly classical epeeist, and I often go several minutes without a touch–and in both of these examples other fencers typically stop to watch. A lack of prodigious scoring doesn’t equate with spectator boredom. If it did, no one would watch baseball or soccer, or for that matter, golf. Why the rule change? It’s pressure from the IOC: if sports don’t draw enough spectators (i.e. advertising dollars), they’re out. Fencing officials, elite coaches, and elite fencers are abandoning fencing’s core values for the sake of the cachet of the Olympic Games, which in fact field only a small number of fencers as compared to the World Championships.
“A l’épée, il faut savoir attendre.”
“In epee, one must know how to wait.”
—Claude La Marche [Georges-Marie Félizet], Traité de l’épée, 1884. The translation is by Brian House from his excellent English version, The Dueling Sword, 2009
—Dr. Francis Zold, personal communication during a lesson, 1978
Fencing Qualities, Techniques, & Tactics
“La fortune aidait souvent la valeur un peu téméraire.”
“Fortune often aids valor that is a bit reckless.”
—Capt. René Duguay-Trouin, Mémoires, 1741. Duguay-Trouin was a famous late 17th and early 18th century French privateer and naval officer who once captured a ship by boarding it, then engaging the enemy captain single-handedly, sword-in-hand, forcing him to surrender in the style of the great Hollywood swashbucklers. He was a duelist (bretteur) when young, and later brought at least one fencing teacher (a master’s assistant) aboard his ship in order to improve his crews’ fighting ability. He later had a rencontre in the street with the fencing teacher, a fight that was anything but academic. The quotation may derive from audentis fortuna iuvat, later written by Virgil as audaces Fortuna iuvat (Fortune aids the bold). Similar is the SAS motto, ‘Who Dares Wins.'” My translation.
“Dans le noble exercice des armes, ce n’est pas aux audacieux que sourit la fortune, mais aux persévérants.”
“In the noble exercise of arms, it is not the audacious that Fortune smiles upon, but on those who persevere.”
—Anthime Spinnewyn, L’Escrime à l’épée, 1898. My translation. Compare with Duguay-Trouin above, and with the admonitions of Francis Zold and Nobuo Hayashi below.
“Joignez dans le combat, la valeur à la prudence, la peau du Lion à celle du Renard.”
“In battle let valour and prudence go together, the lyon’s courage with the fox’s craft.”
—le sieur Labat, L’art des armes, 1696. The English is from Andrew Mahon’s translation, The Art of Fencing, 1734.
“The man in the periwig, whose every movement was as swift and light-footed as a cat’s, lowered the sword point.”
—John Dickson Carr, The Devil in Velvet, 1951
“Fencing without Judgement, is just like a Watch without a Spring, a Neat piece of Work with a great many fine Wheels, but without any Motion, the want of which maketh her useless.”
—Sir William Hope, The Sword-Man’s Vade-Mecum, 1694
“[T]he true Art of Sword-defence depends, in great measure, on judgement in deceiving the adversary’s motions, and in not being deceived by his.”
—Joseph Roland, The Amateur of Fencing, 1809
“For what are all strategems, ambuscades, and outfalls but lying upon a large scale?”
—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Micah Clarke, 1894
“Perhaps it would not be an exaggeration to say that the fencer’s skill in tactics is displayed to a large degree by the ability to mislead an opponent, to recognise the opponent’s intentions and to discern any attempts to be mislead.”
—Zbigniew Czajkowski, “Fencing Actions—Terminology, Their Classification and Application in Competition,” n.d.
“Double-dealing is the basis of swordsmanship. By double-dealing, I mean the stratagem of obtaining truth through deception.”
—From The Death-Dealing Blade, Yagyu Munenori, 17th century, translated by Hiroaki Sato.
“A duel, whether regarded as a ceremony in the cult of honor, or even when reduced in its moral essence to a form of manly sport, demands a perfect singleness of intention, a homicidal austerity of mood.”
—Joseph Conrad, The Duel, 1908. Conrad’s story was based on the actual tale of a long-running series of duels between two Napoleonic officers. It was later made into an excellent film, The Duellists, 1977.
“Be simple, be smart. Don’t move your weapon until you are ready to use it… then SHOOT! Let the younger fencers become eager and make mistakes. Against the older ones, use your speed and strength. Remember, mano de ferro, braccio di gomma—have a hand of iron and an arm of rubber.”
—Italo Santelli, quoted by Lajos Csiszar quoted by Roger Jones, [1950s] 2000.
Ratón que se sábe mas de un horádo, présto le cagé el gáto.
The cat soon catches the rat that knows but one hole. [More literally: the mouse who knows more than one hole soon escapes the cat.]
—proverb quoted in John Stevens, A New Spanish Grammar, 1725
“Rouse me not.”
—The Conisby family motto, from Jeffery Farnol’s swashbuckler Martin Conisby’s Vengeance, 1921. Some fencers, myself included, fence well when “roused” or angered, at least for a while, although historical the usual advice has been to keep one’s anger and temper reined in. If one is to fence angry or in fury, let it be cold-blooded rather than hot-blooded. See also Dr. Eugene Hamori’s advice to me below.
“One last bit of advice for the strip: Get MAD at your opponents, at the director, at the world, etc., when you fence and quit apologizing for yourself.”
“But if it works for you, then do it.”
—Dr. Eugene Hamori, personal correspondence, 1995
Anger is not recommended for hot-tempered fencers, but for cold-blooded ones who can focus their anger–and it won’t last forever, this focused anger. You’ll still have to rely on cool-headed technique most of the time.
“Your opponent, when struck, is bound to transform himself. When struck, he thinks, ‘What’s this! I’ve been struck!’ and may get angry. If he gets angry, he becomes resolute. If you relax at that moment, your opponent will strike you down. Regard the opponent you’ve struck as a furious boar.'”
—From The Life-Giving Sword, Yagyu Munenori, 17th century, translated by Hiroaki Sato. I’ve warned cocky fencing students not to anger they’re opponents unless they know beforehand that the opponents will lose control. Many, as noted above, will not. It’s a fine lesson for a cocky student to be soundly beaten by an adversary he or she has angered.
“And, remember, there is nothing bad in fencing, provided that it succeeds.”
—Sir Richard Burton, The Sentiment of the Sword, 1911. See also Eugene Hamori above. It should be noted that Burton is, in the case of salle fencing and dueling, speaking only of honorable fencing, certainly not the gamesmanship and “cheating within the rules” far too many fencers, albeit a minority thankfully, consider fair play.
“[The epee or duelling sword] is a democratic weapon in that the less skillful fencer always has a chance to win; but it is an exacting task for a fencer consistently to achieve distinction in duelling sword unless he combines a fundamentally sound technique with the instinct of strategy.”
—Julio Martinez Castello, The Theory and Practice of Fencing, 1933. The same may be said of the smallsword or any dueling sword.
“Épée fencing requires a special technique, courage, opportunism and concentration of effort in the highest degree. It is the highest expression of the art of fencing, because it alone is based on the conception of hitting the opponent without oneself being hit… Litheness, agility and speed, which are the essentials for the successful épéeist, are largely based on his footwork… Épée fencing is par excellence a game of timing, tactics and bluff… Subtlety, bluff and courage are salient features of this game… While caution is essential with the duelling weapon, the best devised moves will come to naught unless the épéeist possesses courage to risk everything when the right opportunity presents itself.”
—C-L de Beaumont, OBE, in Fencing: Ancient Art and Modern Sport, 1960
“There is in steel a subtle magnetism which is the index of one’s antagonist.”
—Rafael Sabatini, The Suitors of Yvonne, 1902
“Here was a man whom much and constant practice had given extraordinary speed and a technique that was almost perfect. In addition, he enjoyed over André-Louis physical advantages of strength and length of reach, which rendered him altogether formidable. And he was cool, too; cool and self-contained; fearless and purposeful. Would anything shake that calm, wondered André-Louis.”
—Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche, 1921
“NOVEL: Pshaw! Talking is like Fencing, the quicker the better; run ‘em down, run ‘em down; no matter for parrying; push on still, sa, sa, sa: no matter whether you argue in form, push in guard, or no.
MANLY: Or hit, or no; I think thou alwayes talk’st without thinking, Novel.”
—William Wycherley, The Plain-Dealer, 1674. The lines are satire. Captain Manly is an honest plain-speaking fighting seaman who serves “out of Honour, not Interest,” while Novel is “a pert railing Coxcomb,” or in other words, an ass, and clearly no swordsman either.
“Be not over elated at the thrusts you hit with, nor despise those by which you are hit.”
“Never set any value upon any thrust you give, before you examine whether it was well given, without any danger attending it.”
“Study the danger and advantage of every thrust you make.”
—Andrew Lonnergan, The Fencer’s Guide, 1771.
“We consider being in tune bad, being out of tune good. When you and your opponent are in tune with each other, he can use his sword better; when you are not, he can’t. You must strike in such a way as to make it hard for your opponent to use his sword well… The point is to stay out of tune with your opponent. Out of tune, you can step in.”
—From The Death-Dealing Blade, Yagyu Munenori, 17th century, translated by Hiroaki Sato. In other words, don’t match your opponent’s rhythm. And if you do, you must be prepared to strike just before your opponent intends to strike, breaking tempo in this manner. This principle–“Fence out of tune!” is one I constantly instill in students’ practice.
“C’est une chose si difficile à prendre que lest temps, l’épée à la main, que je ne conseille a personne de s’y trop hasarder.”
“Taking tempo is such a difficult thing to do, sword-in-hand [i.e. with a real sword], that I do not recommend anyone risk it too much.”
—André Wernesson, sieur de Liancour, Le maistre d’armes: ou, L’exercice de l’epée seule, dans sa perfection, 1686. My translation.
Such tempo actions, seldom recommended by duelists, make up much of modern epee. My first fencing master, who had fought at least one duel, once pointed out to me the dangers of tempo actions with real swords, particularly in counter-attacks: they will not stop fully developed attacks. Even a time thrust to body might stop the forward motion of an attack only if it strikes the breastbone, base of the ulna, or possibly forehead, targets to small to risk. The danger is even greater with counter-attacks to the arm when the adversary has launched a strong attack. Nonetheless, even in the 17th and 18th centuries, many swordsmen used time hits. See immediately below, and also all quotes by Sir Wm. Hope.
“I bound his Sword and made a half Thrust at his Breast, he Timed me and wounded me in the Mouth; we took another turn, I took a little better care, and gave him a Thrust in the Body…”
Donald McBane, Expert Sword-man’s Companion, 1728. Time thrusts, in this case a disengage from a bind, when used wisely in this era were made in opposition and typically with the unarmed hand closing the line as well, in order to ensure maximum safety. Mouth wound notwithstanding, McBane killed his adversary, a boastful Gascon.
“This last fault of drawing back the hand on the attack, or in plain terms, stabbing, deserves a word by itself. It is perfectly fatal to good fencing…Before delivering his point, the stabber checks the onward movement of the blade by drawing back the hand, and therefore loses all the space and time wasted in first withdrawing the hand from the starting-point and then returning to it. While this process is going on, all the opponent has to do is to straighten, which is clearly quicker, as it is all on the way. No sane man would dream of laying himself open in such a way if he were engaged in fighting for his life…”
—Henry Arthur Colmore Dunn, Fencing, 1899. Unfortunately, this technique of “stabbing” (i.e. “bent arm attacks”) and the dangers it holds to the user were swords real, is now considered an acceptable form of attack—in fact, it is the most common—in modern foil and saber fencing, to the point [pun half-intended] that neither weapon much resembles actual combat anymore, but are more akin to a game of tag with steel rods, all governed by a set of esoteric rules pandering to an imaginary audience.
“The flexibility of the foil will enable an expert fencer to produce effects that may dazzle the uninitiated, while they are well understood, and known to be mere sleight-of-hand tricks by those familiar with the exercise… If an expert fencer makes a rapid pass over his opponent’s guard, striking his foil near its centre, with force, against that of his opponent, he can spring the point of his foil from ten to eighteen inches, according to the flexibility of his blade; whereas if he makes a cut with a sword, using equal force and striking with the edge of his blade, he can not spring the point of his weapon the hundredth part of an inch.”
—Matthew J. O’Rourke, A New System of Sword Exercise, 1872
In other words—take note, those of you who belong to the significant sub-set of classical fencers whose understanding of fencing history is of the cherry-picked and ideologically pure variety—the flick has been around a long time. For good reason did foilists in the 19th century, and even into the early 20th, wear fat fencing gloves thickly padded with horsehair. In fact, it’s impossible to entirely get rid of the flick, given the need for practice weapons to have flexible blades. Many of the 19th century foil blades I’ve examined, including some in my collection, have ridiculously flexible blades.
I’m no fan of the flick, for it’s a purely sport technique that has no place in real combat or in swordplay intended to emulate it as much as possible. I’ve included the quote above primarily to note the failure in common knowledge of fencing history: the use of the flick in modern fencing (a bit less so in foil now but still common in epee) is often cited by “classical fencers” as a reason modern fencing is “impure.” Well, so then was 19th century foil…
“Never give up!”
—Dr. Francis Zold, personal communication, 1977-1978. This was one of his admonitions to all of his students.
“A man never gives up! A man dies first!”
—Nobuo Hayashi, my judo and jiujutsu teacher, 1979. Sensei Hayashi was brought up before and during WWII in the old jiujutsu, had trained to become a Kamikaze pilot, and won the Japanese university judo championship in the late 1950s. He made this comment after a student, attempting to escape him on the mat, gave up. He also, as I recall, ordered the student to leave the dojo/gym.
“Ne tirez l’épée que pour servir le Prince , conserver vôtre honneur ou défendre vôtre vie.”
“Draw not your sword, but to serve your king, preserve your honor, or defend your life.”
—le sieur Labat, L’art des armes, 1696, from Andrew Mahon’s translation, The Art of Fencing, 1734
“Never lose on purpose, you must always fence to win for your honor!”
—Lajos Csiszar, quoted by student Roger Jones, 2000. The quote dates to the 1950s, and probably earlier.
“To paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, ‘the things that will destroy American fencing are victories at any price, prestige at any price, expenses first instead of honor first, and love of subsidies and the state-supported athlete theory of ‘amateur sports.'”
—Roger Jones, “Poor Technique?” in American Fencing, March 1966
“It is happily true that in England we no longer curb the indiscreet utterance of undisciplined lips with cold steel, nor adopt the crude method of letting in light upon the mind through a hole in the body.”
—Henry Arthur Colmore Dunn, Fencing, 1899
“So in their own sense Duelling cannot properly vindicat[e] any opprobrious epithet, but that of a Coward.”
—Wm. Anstruther, Essays, Moral and Divine, 1701
“I mention these to caution you on all occasions to be on your Guard, and not to trust any man whatever who is your adversary. For many have been deceived by not taking care of themselves in these cases, tho’ their adversaries have been men of strict honour, as they thought, and that they would not be so base and villainous as to be guilty of any thing below the character of Brave Men and Gentlemen. Experientiæ Docet.”
—Donald McBane, Expert Sword-man’s Companion, 1728. McBane, a Scot, was a veteran soldier wounded several times in action, as well as a swordsman, duelist, fencing master, occasional pimp, and prize fighter. He is also the man for whom “Soldier’s Leap” is named in Scotland. Good advice not only for a duel, but for life in general. Experientiæ Docet is an abbreviated form of Experientiæ Docet Stultos: Experience Teaches Fools. McBane appears to be making a subtle joke at his own expense.
“The honor of some adversaries can never be relied on safely. In a selfish or revengeful spirit, many persons might be disposed to commit assassination, for which reason, friends and time are always indispensable.”
“No boast, threat, trick, or stratagem, which may wound the feelings, or lessen the equality of the combatants, should ever enter into the contemplation of a gentleman.”
—Joseph Hamilton, The Approved Guide Through All the Stages of a Quarrel, 1829. The first quotation is in the vein of McBane, above. Many have honor in the mundane, when there is little risk to life, limb, property, money, or reputation; far fewer have honor where there is much risk or peril.
“Eh bien! les duellistes poitevins qui ont laissé à bon titre le renom d’adversaires dangereux, Bourbeau (un cousin de l’ancien ministre), Lemaire, le fameux de Pindray — jen passe — n’étaient pas classés parmi les forts tireurs. Je le tiens de mon vieux professeur, le père Nerrière, un maître de l’école de Lafaugère que M. Legouvé a peut-être connu et qui m’a répété plus d’une fois que de Pindray, redoutable, terrible sur le terrain, n’avait travaillé sérieusèment à la salle qu’après ses duels les plus retentissants.”
“Well! The duelists of Poitou who have left good title to being renowned as dangerous adversaries, Bourbeau (a cousin of the former minister), Lemaire, the famous de Pindray—I pass over others—were not classified among the strongest fencers. I learned from my old professor, Nerrière the father, a master of the school of Lafaugère that Mr. Legouvé has perhaps known and who told me more than once that de Pindray, deadly, terrible on the field of honor, trained seriously in the salle only after he had fought his most sensational duels.”
—Arthur Ranc, in the preface to Jules Jacob’s Le jeu de l’épée, revised by Émile André, 1887.
In other words, the best sport fencers did not usually make the best duelists.
“I mention this affair to show that something more than skill is necessary when using a naked weapon or shotted pistol; and the most able fencer and the first-rate shot are not always the best men in the field.”
—Andrew Steinmetz, The Romance of Duelling, 1868.
“To avoid those Desperate Combats, my Advice is for all Gentlemen, to take a hearty Cup, and to Drink Friends to avoid Trouble.”
—Donald McBane, The Expert Sword-Man’s Companion, 1728. Again, good advice in general.
More From the Latin
Forwarned is forearmed.
—quoted in Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini
Recognize an opportunity.
Seek the truth.
Make haste slowly.
Aut inveniam viam aut faciam.
Either I shall find a way or I shall make one.
Pen & Sword
“Pour un oui, pour un non, se battre, —ou faire un vers!”
“For a yes, for a no, to fight, —or write a verse!”
—Edmund Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, 1897.
“La plume s’associe fréquemment á l’épée…C’est que la littérature est une escrime intellectuelle et la polémique, á plus forte raison: arguments et objections y cliquettent autant que lames d’acier.“
“The pen is frequently associated with the sword…This is because literature is an intellectual fencing and controversy, even more so: arguments and objections click and clatter as much as steel blades.”
—Emma Lambotte, L’Escrimeuse, 1937. Mme. Lambotte was a noted Belgian poet and the muse and patron of painter James Ensor—and a fencer as well.
“Tomando ora la espada, ora la pluma.”
“Now taking up the sword, now the pen.”
—Garcilaso de la Vega, Égloga III (v.40), early 16th century. Garcilaso was a 16th century Spanish soldier-poet and true Renaissance man. He died in 1536 of wounds suffered in battle at Le Muy, France. Armas y lettras—arms and letters—is a common theme in 16th and 17th century Spanish literature.
“Nunca la lanza embotó la pluma ni la pluma la lanza.”
“The lance never blunted the pen nor the pen the lance.”
—Sancho Panza in Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
“I’ll make thee glorious by my pen,
and famous by my sword;”
—James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, “I’ll never love Thee more,” 1642 or 1643. Sir Walter Scott reversed glorious and famous, apparently not appreciating the attachment of glory to the pen. Montrose, a Scottish hero, led a guerrilla campaign through the Highlands against Cromwell’s forces. In the end he was hanged, instead of being beheaded as was due given his rank. His body was decapitated after his death, and his head was piked at the Tollbooth in Edinburgh.
To the Reader.
Harke, Reader, would’st be learn’d ith’ Warres,
A Captaine in a gowne?
Strike a league with Bookes and Starres,
And weave of both the Crowne?
Would’st be a Wonder? Such a one
As would winne with a Looke?
A Schollar in a Garrison?
And conquer by the Booke?
Take then this Mathematick Shield,
And henceforth by its Rules,
Be able to dispute ith Field,
And combate in the Schooles.
Whil’st peacefull Learning once agen
And th’ Souldier do concorde,
As that he fights now with her Penne,
And shes writes with his Sword.
A. Glouces. Oxon.
—Richard Lovelace, the famous cavalier poet, in the preface to Pallas Armata: The Gentlemen’s Armorie by G. A. (probably Gideon Ashwell according to sword scholar J. D. Aylward), 1639
“…the penny siller [silver] slew mair souls than the naked sword slew bodies.”
—Sir Walter Scott, Rob Roy, 1818. Not the pen, but something like it in that it can be used for both good and evil.
“[H]ow much more cruel the pen may be than the sword.”
—Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621
“Pen and sword in accord.”
—Japanese, 17th century or earlier.
—Literally, “Hey there!” Often shouted during a vigorous exchange ending in a successful touch, or at least it once was until recently. More embarrassingly, it is sometimes shouted in expectation of a touch that ultimately fails. In Cyrano de Bergerac is the shout “Hé! Là donc!”—that is, “Hey! There thus!” Many old French masters and fencers believed in absolute silence during swordplay, while many Italians permitted some expressions. An occasional Hé là! or similar ejaculation is acceptable in my opinion; anything else is boorish.
“Hé là, Pamela!”
—Dr. Francis Zold, in lessons he gave throughout his life. I once asked Chaba Pallaghy, an elite Hungarian and US fencer and international official who knew Dr. Zold well, what it meant, he said it was simply something that the gentleman, scholar, and swordsman said. So many times I heard him say this in my lessons when I did something well. It is as imprinted upon my fencing soul in the same manner as, “One more, one more, yes, very nice,” as spoken by Dr. Eugene Hamori in his lessons to me.
“When a young Country Gentleman comes to Town, and Steps in to a Fencing-School, and hears a Master desire his Scholar to Play Feint a La Teste, Botte Coupe, Flancanade, Under Counter; or to Dequarte and Volt; he is amazed at these Terms, and is perswaded, that there is a kind of Conjuring Magick in the Art…”
—Sir William Hope, A New, Short, and Easy Method of Fencing, 1714
“Mardieu, depuis le temps je me serois mis en garde, j’aurois gagné la mesure, je l’aurois rompue, j’aurois surpris le fort, j’aurois pris le temps, j’aurois coupé sous le bras, j’aurois marqué tous les batemens, j’aurois tiré la flanconade, j’aurois porté le coup de dessous, je me serois allongé de tierce sur les armes, j’aurois quarté du pied gauche, j’aurois marqué feinte à la pointe et dedans et dehors, j’aurois estramaçoné, ébranlé, empiété, engagé, volté, porté, paré, riposté, carté, passé, désarmé et tué vingt hommes.”
“God’s Death, in the time it would take to put myself on guard, I would gain the measure, retreat a step, surprise the forte, take the tempo, make a coupé beneath the arm, make all the beats, make a flanconnade, make a thrust below, lunge in tierce in opposition, make an inquartata, feint with the point inside and outside, make a cut, concuss my enemy, invade, engage, volt, thrust, parry, riposte, chase, pass, disarm, and kill twenty men.”
—Chasteauforte, in Cyrano de Bergerac’s Le Pedant Joué, 1654, written in 1645. Chasteauforte takes a beating while he talks about his prowess as a swordsman. The character probably derives from Plautus’ Miles Gloriosus, the boastful cowardly soldier, and from experience as well. As the Spanish might put it, He who boasts of it did not do it. If you want to be taken seriously, prove yourself with deeds, not words.
Mardieu is an exclamation deriving from mordieu or mort de Dieu = God’s death. Surpris le fort is to be found nowhere else in the literature of sword; it may be intended to indicate grasping the adversary’s blade at the forte with one’s hand, a common technique when grappling. It may also indicate a prise de fer or even simply a proper thrust, fort against foible. Or, it may be satire, suggesting that Chasteauforte is so foolish a fencer as to attempt with his own blade to seize the fort of his adversary’s, rather than the foible.
The real Cyrano de Bergerac was a redoubtable swordsman who fought literally dozens of duels and affrays, and reportedly once singlehandedly routed a mob of a hundred or more. He also had a large nose, and was a famous French writer whose work includes the story of a trip to the moon, one of the first science fiction and fantasy novels. Rostand’s Cyrano is a Gascon, based on his name, de Bergerac. However, the real Cyrano was a Parisian. My translation.
“Enter Petro drest like a French Fencing Master.
Pet. Signior Barberacho has sent me to teach you de Art of Fencing.
Sir Signall Buffoon. Illustrissimo Signior Monsieur, I am the person who am to learn.
Tickletext. Stay Sir stay,—let me ask him some few questions first, for Sir I have play’d at Back-Sword and cou’d have handled ye a weapon as well as any man of my time in the University.
Sir Sig. Say you so Mr. Tickletext, and I‘faith you shall have about with him
[Tick. Gravely goes to Petro.
Tick. Hum—hum—Mr. Monsieur—pray what are the Guards that you like best?
Pet. Monsieur, eder de Quart or de Terse, dey be both French and Itallian; den for your Parades, degaements, your advancements, your Eloynements, and Retierments: dey be de same;
Tick. Cart and Horse, what new found inventions and words have we here,—Sir I wou’d know, whether you like St. Georges Guard or not.
Pet. Alon—Monsieur, Mette vous en Guard! take de Flurette.
Sir Sig. nay faith and troth Governor thou that have a Rubbers with him.
[Tick. Smiling refuses.
Tick. Nay certo Sir Signal,—and yet you shall prevail;—well Sir, come your ways?
[Takes the Fluret.
Pet. Set your right foot forward, turn up your hand so—dat be de Quart—now turn it dus—and that be de Terse.
Tick. Hocus Pocus, Hicksius Doxius—here be de Cart, and here be de Horse—why, what’s all this for, hah, Sir—and where’s your Guard all this while?
Sir Sig. Ay, Sir, where’s your Guard, Sir, as my Governour says, Sir, hah?
Tick. Come, come, Sir, I must instruct you, I see; Come your ways, Sir.—
Pet. Attende, attende une peu—trust de right hand and de right leg forward together.—
Tick. I marry Sir, that’s a good one indeed: What shall become of my Head then, Sir? what Guard have I left for that, good Mr. Monsieur, hah?
Pet. Ah, Morbleu, is not dis for everyting?
Tick. No, marry is not it, Sir; St. George’s Guard is best for the Head whilst you live—as thus, Sir.
Pet. Dat, Sir, ha, ha—dat be de Guard for de Back-Sword.
Tick. Back-sword, Sir, yes, Back-sword, what shou’d it be else?
Pet. And dis be de Single Rapier.
Tick. Single-Rapier with a Vengeance, there’s a weapon for a Gentleman indeed; is all this stir about Single-Rapier?
Pet. Single-Rapier! What wou’d you have for de Gentleman, de Cudgel for de Gentleman?
Tick. No, Sir, but I wou’d have it for de Rascally Frenchman, who comes to abuse Persons of Quality with paltry single Rapier.—Single Rapier! Come, Sir, come—put your self in your Cart and your Horse as you call it, and I’ll shew you the difference.”
—Aphra Behn, The Feign’d Curtizans; or, a Night’s Intrigue, 1679. Satire on a fencing lesson and fencing language, in other words, with sallies against French masters and backsword versus smallsword or, as it is called here, single rapier. Aphra Behn was the first professional woman writer in the UK. She was also briefly a spy.
“For at Broad-Sword, all the Blows, Chops, Strokes, Pitches, Thro’s, Flirts and Slips, are perform’d over the Point of the Sword, unless you fall to the Leg: But at Small-Sword, all Thrusts, Passes, Pushes, Assaults, Essays and Passages, are commonly made under the Shell, (unless it be Cart or Ters over Arm,) close to the Fort of your Opponents Weapon, with a Longe, or you cannot reach to do Execution.”
“The next thing I shall proceed to, is to the Terms of Art and Variety of Assaults, Pushes, Thrusts, Essays, Passes and Passages, all which are lodged under the Notion of True and False Play. True Play is a clean made Pass, Push, Assault or Thrust, directly perform’d, without change or alteration of the Point of your Weapon at any part or place of your Opponent you discover lies most open, or in answering your Opponent from his Assault. False Play or Falsifying, I call Quibles, Dazzels, Feints, Fallacies, Shams, Decoi’s and Enganuo’s, all which I shall explain in their Order.”
—Zachary Wylde, The English Master of Defence, 1711. Much of Mr. Wylde’s charming fencing vocabulary is his, and his alone.
“From a room beyond, the door of which was closed, came the stamping of feet, the click and slither of steel upon steel, and dominating these sounds a vibrant, sonorous voice speaking a language that was certainly French; but such French as is never heard outside a fencing-school. “Coulez! Mais, coulez donc!…So! Now the flanconnade—en carte…And here is the riposte…Let us begin again. Come! The ward of tierce…Make the coupé, and then the quinte par dessus les armes…O, mais allongez! Allongez! Allez au fond!” the voice cried in expostulation. “Come, that was better.” The blades ceased.”
—Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche, 1921
Revenge with a Sword
“Honor and revenge have no alliance; therefore, reparation for offence or injury, is all that can be fairly sought for, or conceded.”
—Joseph Hamilton, The Approved Guide Through All the Stages of a Quarrel, 1829. In other words, a duel must be fought for the sake of honor alone. A combat for the sake of revenge is a mere single combat, yet should, paradoxically, still be fought with honor, at least until the villain, Hollywood style, betrays his honor, which is probably why the rencontre is being fought in the first place.
“Oui, s’écria-t-il, voici la fille de Nevers!….Viens donc la chercher derrière mon épée, assassin! toi qui as commandé le meurtre, toi qui l’as achevé lâchement par derrière!… Qui que tu sois, ta main gardera ma marque. Je te reconnaîtrai. Et, quand il sera temps, si tu ne viens pas à Lagardère, Lagardère ira à toi!”
“Yes, cried he, here is the daughter of Nevers!….Come therefore and search for her behind my sword, assassin! You who have commanded murder, you who have achieved it by backstabbing cowardice! Whoever you are, your hand has my mark. I will recognize you. And when the time comes, if you will not come to Lagardère, Lagardère will come to you!”
—Lagardère, in Paul Feval’s Le Bossu, 1857. Feval, along with Dumas (who probably inspired him) et al, helped establish the swashbuckling genre in literature. He also wrote a series each of vampire and crime detection novels. The phrase, “Si tu ne viens pas à Lagardère, Lagardère ira à toi!” became proverbial in France. My translation.
“In both men the same grim determination prevailed. The opponent must be killed; there could be no half-measures here.”
—Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche, 1921
“The next morning, Inigo began the track-down. He had it all carefully planned in his mind. He would find the six-fingered man. He would go up to him. He would say simply, “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die,” and then, oh then, the duel.”
—William Goldman, The Princess Bride, 1973
“I shall write villain upon him with my rapier’s point.”
—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Micah Clarke, 1894
“Then I’ll take her when you’re dead.”
—Peter Blood, in Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini, 1922. Captain Blood engages Captain Levasseur in a rencontre on the beach of Virgin Magra, Sabatini’s joke on the name of Virgin Gorda. In the novel the duel is but briefly described, but is one of the highlights of the 1935 film version with Errol Flynn. The film duel appropriates for its finale the trick of fence described in Sabatini’s The Black Swan. The duel was filmed at Three Arch Bay, just south of Laguna Beach. Naturally, the duel, only briefly described, is over a woman’s honor on the one hand, and over her possession on the other.
“He jests at scars that never felt a wound.”
—Wm. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2.
“MERCUTIO O calm, dishonourable, vile submission!
Alla stoccata carries it away.
Tybalt, you rat-catcher, will you walk?
TYBALT What wouldst thou have with me?
MERCUTIO Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine
lives; that I mean to make bold withal, and as you
shall use me hereafter, drybeat the rest of the
eight. Will you pluck your sword out of his pitcher
by the ears? make haste, lest mine be about your
ears ere it be out.
TYBALT I am for you.
ROMEO Gentle Mercutio, put thy rapier up.
MERCUTIO Come, sir, your passado.
“MERCUTIO Zounds, a dog, a rat, a mouse, a
cat, to scratch a man to death! a braggart, a
rogue, a villain, that fights by the book of
—Wm. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, Scene 1. The “book of arithmetic” reference is to forms of rapier play emphasizing geometry, the extreme form of which was the Spanish verdadera destreza mocked by poet and playwright Francisco de Quevedo.
“HAMLET This likes me well. These foils have all a length?
OSRIC A hit, a very palpable hit.
LAERTES A touch, a touch, I do confess ‘t.
HAMLET Come, for the third, Laertes: you but dally;
I pray you, pass with your best violence;
I am afeard you make a wanton of me.”
—William Shakespeare, Hamlet
More from Swashbuckling Literature & Film
“Villain, unhand the Lady, and defend thy self. [Draws
Have at thee—St. George for England.”
—Lovewell in Love and a Bottle by George Farquhar, 1698
“Un pour tous! Tous pour un!”
“One for all! All for one!”
—Alexandre Dumas, Les Trois Mousquetaires, 1844. The lines are often misquoted or poorly translated as “All for one and one for all!”
“Les coquilles tintent, ding-don.
* * *
Prince, demande á Dieu pardon!
Je quarte du pied, j’escarmouche,
Je coupe, je feinte…
Hé! Là donc!
(Le vicomte chancelle; Cyrano salue.)
A la fin de l’envoi, je touche.”
“The shells ring, ding dong.
* * *
Prince, ask God for pardon!
I thrust in fourth, I skirmish,
I cutover, I feint…
Hey! There thus!
The viscount staggers; Cyrano salutes.
At the end of the refrain, I touch.”
—Edmund Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, 1897. My translation. The phrase “Je quarte du pied” is not found in fencing language, at least I haven’t so far. Translated directly, it might mean “I put the foot more in fourth position” which is meaningless, or “I parry [or thrust] in quarte standing still” (du pied [ferme]), which makes much more sense. A reasonable translation might also be that of making a quarter turn, or inquartata. The verb quarter is only found in French in late 19th century fencing language as far as I can tell, meaning to place the arm or sword more in the fourth position. Escarmouche means to skirmish–to aggressively reconnoiter, in other words.
“He heard them, wheeled about, flung off his coat, and disengaged his sword, all with the speed of lightning and the address of the man who for ten years had walked amid perils, and learned to depend on his blade.”
“‘You fence skillfully,’ said he, sneering, ‘too skillfully for an honest man. Will you now tell me without any more of this, precisely what the Princess Sophia was doing here with you?'”
—Rafael Sabatini, “The Tragedy of Herrenhausen” in The Historical Nights Entertainment, 1917. The story concerns the Swedish Count of Konigsmark and his affair, physical or otherwise, with the Princess Sophia Dorothea, wife of the unfaithful and crude yet intellectually enlightened Georg Ludwig, ruler of Hanover in Germany and the future George I of Great Britain. Most historians believe the Count was murdered on the order of Georg Ludwig. His brother is credited with inventing the colichemarde blade although the form was around before him. If the brother had any part in its more modern invention and use, the inspiration may have come from some of the by light, well-balanced Spanish rapier blades thick at the forte, or even from some of the rapier-style colichemarde blades found in some Dutch or German transitional swords.
“He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”
“Oh, you are surely mad! M. de La Tour d’Azyr is reputed the most dangerous sword in France.”
“Have you never noticed that most reputations are undeserved?”
“The slender, wickedly delicate blades clashed together, and after a momentary glizade were whirling, swift and bright as lightnings, and almost as impossible to follow with the eye.”
—Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche, 1921. The gift of laughter quote was added to a Yale dormitory during construction in the 1930s, then ordered covered over with ivy when it was discovered by Yale dons that the quote was from a “mere” popular novelist. It has since been restored.
“The light of guttering candles fell upon the two small-swords where they lay, the one glittering brightly, the other its murderous steel horribly bent and dimmed…”
—Jeffery Farnol, Sir John Dering, 1923
“Clash and ring of vicious steel that flickered in close and deadly action; stamp of feet and hiss of quick-drawn breath; skill and scorn of death against murderous craft and imperious will. To and fro, up and down, back and forth, they fought with no stay or respite now, changing their ground with nimble volts and dexterous passes, while slowly yet surely, Adam compelled his enemy in the one direction.”
“Sir,” he sighed, “as one swordsman and maître d’armes academique to another, I do here acknowledge a palpable hit and cry: ‘Touché!’ Indeed, you have tongue nimble and unexpected as your sword. Sir, I can appreciate wit, I can admire swordcraft, but though you possess both, I regret to say you prove yourself so extreme detestable that I propose to rid myself of you once and for all.”
—Jeffery Farnol, Adam Penfeather, Buccaneer, 1940
“Rash, you think? Precipitate on both sides? Absolutely, the pair of them going off at half-cock like that, in a place where both were imposters and liable to have to do some awkward explaining–aye, but when two such as Black Bilbo and Long Ben Avery cross swords, d’ye see, then sense and reason take wing, wi’ a wannion, and naught’s to matter save the bright eyes and whirling point o’ th’adversary. There isn’t an instant to draw a breath, or spit a curse (like “Ha, villain!” or “Government ponce!”), or mess about with the furniture, for this is world title stuff, from prime to octave, high lines and low, wi’ imbroccata, stoccata, alongez, and all that jazz, the two lithe figures shuffling, gliding and lunging with what looks like a bright buzz-saw flickering and clashing between them, too fast for the eye to follow.”
—George MacDonald Fraser, The Pyrates, 1984
“Inigo Montoya: You are using Bonetti’s Defense against me, ah?
Man in Black: I thought it fitting considering the rocky terrain.
Inigo Montoya: Naturally, you must expect me to attack with Capo Ferro?
Man in Black: Naturally, but I find that Thibault cancels out Capo Ferro. Don’t you?
Inigo Montoya: Unless the enemy has studied his Agrippa… which I have!
* * *
Inigo Montoya: You are wonderful.
Man in Black: Thank you; I’ve worked hard to become so.
Inigo Montoya: I admit it, you are better than I am.
Man in Black: Then why are you smiling?
Inigo Montoya: Because I know something you don’t know.
Man in Black: And what is that?
Inigo Montoya: I… am not left-handed.
Man in Black: You are amazing.
Inigo Montoya: I ought to be, after 20 years.
Man in Black: Oh, there’s something I ought to tell you.
Inigo Montoya: Tell me.
Man in Black: I’m not left-handed either.”
—Dialogue from the film The Princess Bride, 1987. The fencing masters named are real, but the associated tactics are mere Hollywood, likely intended as homage or just mere color. The duel was choreographed by Bob Anderson. In the novel, this dialogue does not exist. Instead, the masters and tactics are part of the narrative description. Author and screenwriter William Goldman also mentions “McBone,” a likely deliberate alteration of, or error for, Scottish swordsman Donald McBane.
Truly ambidextrous fencers are rare. In more than forty years I’ve met only one, Professor Ted Cotton, although my wife Mary Crouch could likely become one if she so chose, one of the founders of fencing in Huntsville, John Jordan, could also fence left-handed, two of our current members routinely switch hands, and I myself can fence tolerably well with my offhand and have begun to use it regularly. Professor Cotton would wear a back-zip jacket and had a body cord down each arm, and would fence his opponents left or right as he thought best. Italian epee great Edoardo Mangiarotti, a right-hander, was taught to fence left-handed by his father in order to give him a competitive advantage, but it is said that he could fence just as well right-handed.
Copyright Benerson Little, 1977-2021. First posted December 19, 2018. Last updated August 30, 2021.