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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 Paul 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, Paul 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 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 June 3, 2021.
The fencing salle, or school or club, if you will, is a hall of mirrors to the soul, and if not to the soul, then at least to fundamental character. It is a magical place whose special sights and insights are enriched by a special language accented with the unmistakable sounds of blade on blade.
Perhaps Rafael Sabatini put it best 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.”
And with the fencing salle come a few rules for honorable deportment, as suitable today as they were in the past. And, as the lessons of fencing are apt for the world beyond, so too are the core of its courtesies and other appropriate behaviors.
Many have been recently eroded, at least to a greater degree than in the past, among modern or “Olympic” fencers, largely due to the Federation Internationale d’Escrime’s rather abject submission to the International Olympic Committee’s desire to have Olympic sports present [melo]dramatic “spectacles” designed solely to increase viewership and therefore income from advertising. National fencing bodies typically willing to go along with almost anything as long as it means that fencing will remain an Olympic sport, no matter in what form, play a significant role as well.
Even so, all styles of swordplay are seeing rules of fencing etiquette debased by the competing egos of many fencing masters, teachers, coaches, and fencers themselves, in addition to the general degeneration of civility, including the practices of honor and humility, these days.
N.B. I am by definition a “modern” fencer, although I also practice classical and historical fencing. Any criticisms therefore are not those of an outsider attempting to disparage modern fencing or other forms of swordplay.
Here therefore are a few rules and guidelines of recommended behavior in the salle, from recent years to past centuries, with some of my own thrown in near the end of the post. I am intentionally avoiding excessively in-depth commentary on the behavior of many fencers today, for it would probably quickly turn into a near-rant. Thankfully, the majority of fencers today, in all forms of legitimate swordplay, still behave with excellent deportment on the strip–but it doesn’t take too many bad apples to spoil the reputation of a sport or other organized skill.
I’ll make two important points up front. First, the best way to teach good behavior in the fencing salle, and everywhere, is by example. Younger fencers are far more likely to behave with courtesy and dignity if they have the good examples and associated expectations of their fencing teachers, veteran fencers, and experienced peers. It starts at the top. Unfortunately, some of the most egregious violations are often found here.
Second, I don’t want this to turn into an “Olympic” or sport fencers versus classical and historical fencers. I’m ecumenical when it comes to fencing. I’ve practiced many forms of swordplay over the past forty or so years, and I’ve seen plenty of poor behavior in the form of various violations of the following rules and guidelines among members of all three groups, and among others as well. But to repeat, most fencers, no matter their preferred form of swordplay, still manage to behave well on the strip.
Muriel Witte in American Fencing magazine, 1966
Regarding number 6, some fencers past fencers would ask for or accept odds, and some today do so as well, either by having the weaker fencer’s touches count for more, or by setting a goal the weaker fencer much reach in a five, ten, or fifteen touch bout. For example, the weaker fencer wins if he gets to five touches before the stronger gets to ten. This was never a practice in the salles where I learned to fence, and I have never engaged in it. The odds are rarely well-balanced, usually favoring one or the other of the fencers.
A better practice is to avoid setting odds or a handicap, and instead set a goal of touches against your opponent, averaging them over time and working to score above this level if you’re the weaker fencer, or to improve the distance if you’re the stronger (and if you’re significantly stronger, just fence and don’t worry about the distance between scores). Too often the more experienced fencer suggests odds that will push him or her, but such odds often don’t push the weaker fencer enough. For example, a balance of 15 to 5 strong to weak may be good for the stronger fencer, but a better balance might be 15 to 8 in order to push the weaker fencer more. Further, the setting of odds by the stronger fencer can often come across as patronizing, even arrogant, at times.
Number 7 dates to the days of gyms which made much use of natural light through high windows, and which some poor sports among fencers would take the side of the strip with better light (although in bouts for touches with dry weapons, fencers swapped sides after one fencer scored three touches or half the time expired). In fact, an old dueling tactic was to place your adversary on disadvantageous ground, for example with the sun or wind in his (or at times her) face. Dueling practice in the late 19th and 20th centuries tried to minimize any advantage one adversary might have over the other by way of terrain or weather.
Outdoor fencing is not done often enough these days, although some of us still enjoy it. Unfortunately, it’s no longer permitted as a format for earning ratings in epee by the USFA. (Or as it’s now called, USA Fencing, and prior to that US Fencing. It’s hard to keep up with the name changes. In fact, it was the AFLA–the Amateur Fencers League of America when I started fencing more than forty years ago.) And with the addition of relatively new ratings (D’s and E’s) plus a direct elimination format that vastly increases the likelihood of earning a rating as compared to the old pool system (which unfortunately produced a large percentage of under-rated fencers), we find a flood of rated fencers these days. As such, modern fencing has unfortunately become for many fencers “all about the rating,” with the result that there are far fewer “fun” tournaments than in the past. Nonetheless, there’s no reason not to hold outdoor epee tournaments on occasion, ideally set in picturesque or historic venues. I have fond memories of an outdoor epee event held on the grounds of a Florida beach hotel, for example.
“Decalogo Dello Schermidore” by Aldo Cerchiari and Edoardo Mangiarotti
From their book La Vera Scherma (Milan: Longanesi & Co, 1966). The commandments are also posted on the website of the famous Milanese Mangiarotti Fencing School. Edoardo Mangiarotti was easily one of the few truly great epeeists of the past century. All fencers should strictly abide by these precepts of fencing honor and fair play:
1. Remember that you are the representative of the noblest of all sports. It unites fencers from around the world in the same ideal.
2. Practice your sport unselfishly and with absolute loyalty.
3. Be a gentleman or lady on the strip and off, from sport to social events.
4. Do not discuss fencing if you have not learned fencing and its rules.
5. Learn how to lose with dignity and win with honor.
6. Respect your opponent at all times, whoever he or she is, but try to overcome him or her in combat with all of your energy.
7. Remember that until the last thrust your opponent has not yet won.
8. Serenely accept a defeat rather than take advantage of a victory obtained by deception.
9. Do not step onto the fencing strip with defective weapons or with the white uniform in disarray.
10. Honor, respect and defend your name, the prestige of your master, the colors of your club, the flag of your country.
“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
“Never lose on purpose, you must always fence to win for your honor!”
—Lajos Csiszar, quoted by student Roger Jones, former member of the US 1955 and 1957 epee teams, alternate to the 1956 US Olympic epee team, member of both the AFLA (i.e. USA Fencing) and FIE rules committees, in an article dating to 2000, and in later conversation with me. The quote itself dates to the 1950s, and probably earlier. Csiszar was one of Italo Santelli’s three protégés (assistant fencing masters).
Roger himself best describes how Csiszar came to tell him this:
“The first time I fenced in Europe, I learned that cheating was part of the sport, unlike in the U.S. It was common for countrymen to throw bouts to the favorite during the early rounds, in order to improve his seeding for subsequent rounds. Csiszar hated this, as did I. He told me, “Never lose on purpose, you must always fence to win for your honor!” In the 1957 World Championships, an Austrian approached me just before our bout, which was the last one in the round. He pointed out that I would be eliminated even if I won, but that if he won, he would go on into the next round. He asked me to lose, saying “You speak German, therefore, we must stick together.” I refused, and then defeated him 5-2. Afterwards, I told Maestro about the incident, and he hugged me, saying “I knew you would always fight for your honor.” He made me feel so proud.”
—Roger Jones, “Fencing Generations,” manuscript, November 2000. Roger was an outstanding swordsman, business executive, writer, former naval officer, and gentleman who deplored the notion of gamesmanship and cheating in fencing. He passed away a few years ago.
“Your complete swordsman must be one who can place his hits with a gallant good grace, but one also who will not allow a clumsy opponent to prevail himself on any hap-hazard thrust.”
—Egerton Castle, “Swordsmanship Considered Historically and as a Sport,” 1903
“Gallant good grace” is too often forgotten today.
“Don’t flatter yourself in your Lessons, and still less in Assaults.”
“Be not angry at receiving a Thrust, but take care to avoid it.”
“Be not vain at the Thrusts you give, nor shew Contempt when you receive them.”
—Jean de Labat, L’Art en Fait d’Armes, 1692, as translate by Andrew Mahon, 1730
Labat has lots of good advice still relevant today.
“‘I have never,’ says M. [Ernest] Legouvé, ‘met a single fencer who would not–say once a year–deny that he had been touched when the hit was palpable. It is so easy to say ‘I did not feel it,’ and a hit not recognised does not count.'”
—H. Sutherland Edwards, “Fencing Schools,” Old & New Paris, vol. 2, 1894.
To summarize the quote above: You should always declare all touches against you when are fencing ‘dry’ in the salle!
That said, some masters will suggest that in the case of a competitive bout you leave it to the director and jury. I in turn leave this to your discretion and sense of honor. Personally, I would declare an obviously good touch unremarked by the judges.
Of course, not all touches are always obvious to giver or receiver, and allowance must be made for the possibility that the adversary did not feel a particular touch. In epee it is common for many of us to let our practice partner know that he or she hit, but that the touch was either late or flat.
There remains a vestige of the practice of declaring touches, or not declaring them, today in modern electrical epee fencing. In competitions on non-electric strips, I believe a fencer should declare a solid obvious touch on his foot in the case where the referee or floor judges have no opinion or state that no such touch was made. If, however, the fencer is unsure whether the touch was valid—when it might be just a scrape along the floor, a light touch, and so on—he or she should not declare it and leave the determination to the referee (who may overrule the floor judges). Even so, many coaches direct their fencers to never admit to a foot touch, or to any possible error that may favor the adversary, often justifying this on the premise that “It all evens out in the end.” I will always inform my adversary if, for example, I think his or her weapon is not working, and so forth. No victory in art or sport is worth anything if it is obtained through active or passive chicanery.
It is also a too-common practice, this not declaring of touches on occasion, among some classical and historical fencers today, and would be among modern fencers as well were it not for the electrical scoring apparatus. Certainly it was in the past when both saber practice and competitions were dry, and foil practice was typically conducted dry in order to suppress the “pig sticking” tendency induced by the electrical scoring apparatus. Over the past forty-two years I’ve met a number of fencers who were notorious for not declaring valid hits, over and above the possibility that they simply didn’t feel them. Of course, in saber there was a remedy: slowly escalate your hits, making them harder and harder until your adversary has choice but to declare them, if only by rubbing his arm… This was, and is, also the solution to saber fencers who consistently hit too hard.
And More Variety
“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
Regarding Barbasetti’s third statement, it’s unfortunately far less common today to see fencers practicing this: many are unwilling, often solely for the sake of ego, to forgo even a few touches in the name of good sportsmanship. Another practice less often seen today is that of subtly “throwing” your opponent a touch to make up for a touch awarded against him or her due to a bad call by the director (known today as the “referee” in a bid to make fencing more “audience friendly”—I kid you not). Technically an illegal practice, its honorable intentions more than compensate for the breaking of the rule that the fencer must always fence to win.
Barbasetti’s first statement is now written into the rules due to the unsportsmanlike behavior in the past of a few fencers. See also Félix Gravé below.
“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
More proof that not much has changed over the centuries.
“If you aren’t modest but show off your swordsmanship, you’ll be hated by people and be embarrassed.”
—Yagyu Muneyoshi, 17th century, translated by Hiroaki Sato.
“Though there are People of bad Taste in every Art or Science, there are more in that of Fencing than in others…”
—Jean de Labat, L’Art en Fait d’Armes, 1692, as translated by Andrew Mahon, 1730.
This is a sentiment I’ve heard more than once from much-experienced fencers over the last four or so decades, often expressed more narrowly: “There are more charlatans among fencing teachers than among any other sort of teachers.” Again, it’s more proof that not much has changed. The answer is simple: be of good taste, of good behavior, and of good knowledge, and let your behavior in the salle demonstrate this, whether you’re teaching or fencing. Or whatever, whenever.
“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.”
“The use of the unarmed hand to parry an attack would be an incorrect movement; the use of the unarmed hand to make signs or attract the adversary’s attention would also be incorrect, whilst talking or conversing during the fight would be unruly.”
“[R]efuting a decision or arguing about the verdict of the judges would be considered bad form and ill-mannered.”
“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
You may, of course, politely challenge the referee on the misapplication of a rule or the failure to apply a rule. Both occur far more often than they should, by the way, perhaps due in part to the modern “guild of referees” that values simple examination (and testing fees!) over experience in the practice and spirit of swordplay (and hasn’t improved refereeing at all). So know the rules, follow them, and be prepared to see them properly applied.
Even so, the best solution to bad refereeing/directing/judging is often the classic one: become good enough that the referee’s incompetence, bias, or, rarely, cheating, is irrelevant. In foil the old electrical scoring solution, and still a valid one today in foil and now saber too, was to make single-light touches, stripping the referee of the act of determining right-of-way.
As for shaking hands and saluting, the requirement has been written into the FIE and USFA rules due to repeated violations by a small number of fencers.
A Few of My Own
These aren’t quite as eloquent or pithy as those above, but to quote Horace from his Ars Poetica in my defense, when I’m brief I’m often misunderstood.
1. My more modern take on Sir William Hope above: Do not give unsolicited fencing advice unless you’re an instructor giving it to one of your students, in which case it is by definition solicited. The principal exception is that of an experienced fencer politely suggesting a correction to an egregious error committed by a beginner. The fact that fencers often appear to accept such advice can be deceiving: it may simply be politeness or mere uncertainly as to whether the novice should tell the advanced fencer to please just be quiet and fence.
2. Given that many beginners are avidly seeking fencing knowledge, and can thus be easily misled, it is incumbent upon fencers giving advice to ensure that such advice is not only solicited and correct, but useful and appropriate to the recipient. Provide only what you know for certain from experience, never what you think you know. Importantly, make sure your advice is suitable the fencer you’re giving it to. Too often, fencers assume that what is good for them is good everyone. Further, many fencers have not yet reached the level at which all good advice may be of use. In other words, don’t provide advice that’s over the fencer’s head or inaccessible due to the level of technique required. And if you’re giving advice to show off: Don’t! In sum, don’t be a know-it-all. (See also Cerchiari & Mangiarotti #4 above).
3. For a stronger fencer to constantly shout “I missed!” when fencing a weaker fencer, or any fencer for that matter, is not only rude and patronizing, but ignores the fact that his or her adversary is probably missing often too.
At the very least it can be an annoying distraction.
“I missed!” is often shouted by some advanced fencers when hit by weaker fencers, as if to excuse the touch as an accident. In fact, advanced fencers often rely on the fact that weaker fencers often do miss–thus making an advanced fencer who shouts “I missed!” a double hypocrite.
Is it OK to occasionally shout “I missed!” when in spite of setting almost everything up perfectly you miss, perhaps because your point control was sloppy? Sure, but don’t overdo it. Is it OK do do so when fencing a friend who understands your frustration? Of course. But it’s never OK to do so in order to [arrogantly] dismiss a weaker’s fencer’s touch.
The fact is, if you get hit, you did something wrong and the other fencer something right.
More simply and more broadly: keep quiet when fencing so your adversary can concentrate.
4. Related to number 3: Don’t be the fencer who is insufferable both in victory and defeat. Or in either. Or ever.
5. Avoid “showboating” and “grandstanding.” A particularly egregious example is that of a more experienced fencer moving close and opening the line widely, as if to say, “I’m wide open and even then you probably can’t hit me!” It’s an insulting practice, one that indicates insecurity on the part of the fencer doing it, and one the experienced fencer would never attempt with another fencer of the same or greater ability. It’s OK to move closer to a weaker fencer and open the line a bit more in order to work on developing one’s speed while simultaneously giving the weaker fencer the opportunity to score more in practice. It’s not acceptable to do so in a grandstanding or patronizing manner.
6. If you’re waiting alone on the only empty strip for someone to fence and a pair of fencers comes up to use the strip, you must turn it over to them. Most fencers waiting alone on a strip for someone to fence understand this and will automatically yield the strip to a pair of fencers who need it. Occasionally though, there are strip hogs. Fencers new to the sport are often uncomfortable asking a solitary fencer, waiting for no one in particular, to yield the strip. If you notice this, invite them both onto the strip immediately. And don’t be afraid to ask, even politely demand, a strip hog to yield the strip!
7. For coaches and parents, and especially, fencers: No cheating!
In particular, neither give nor, for fencers on strip, accept advice during a competition bout except during the one minute breaks in direct elimination. Strictly speaking, these breaks are the only time coaching or other tactical assistance is permitted during a bout. All other tactical aid during a bout is in fact cheating, including hand signs, “secret language,” and so on, not mention overt coaching. Don’t tolerate it! If you do, you have a personality flaw, plain and simple.
N. B. Before I continue, I must note that the USFA, or as it now terms itself, “USA Fencing” (marketing, marketing), permits coaching from the side of the strip by coaches or spectators as long as it doesn’t interfere with the bout. This is a US rule: try it in many places internationally and you’ll still get in trouble, as you should. Of course, the USFA now complains that such coaching is getting out of hand (surprise, surprise) and is now at work on a coaches code of conduct. In other words, the USFA is complaining about a problem it created, but won’t take up the appropriate solution, that of eliminating strip-coaching (and won’t admit it caused the problem, either).
So, to continue, and operating under the assumption that strip-coaching is and should be illegal…
Over the past two decades I’ve seen a new practice by a certain type of fencer in competition: the “whiplash,” that is, the head snapping around to look at the coach whenever the fencer is unsure about a touch or the progress of the bout, even in epee. Some fencers do this after each touch awarded to their adversaries. Should I challenge the call? Should I change my tactics? Should I do this again?
Sorry, but your coach is not permitted to respond in any way, notwithstanding that some coaches have trained their fencers to seek such advice during a bout. The sad fact is that many competitive fencers today are uncomfortable, some even to the point of near panic, if their coaches are not at the piste during their bouts.
A fair number of fencing coaches will “test the waters” during a competition by coaching during an early bout to see if the referee or bout committee will put a stop to it. If not, they’ll continue. Others will only try this during a challenging bout (that is, one in which one of their students is losing) during the direct elimination.
One of the most egregious violators I’ve seen was a coach who constantly decried the “cheating” by other coaches and clubs, including the giving of advice from the side of the strip during a bout, yet he was one of the most active practitioners I’ve ever seen, both as a coach on the sidelines and as a referee, although he “wisely”—if a cheater can be said to be acting wisely—limited it to critical bouts if experienced fencers and referees were present. However, he engaged in it nearly always if only inexperienced or easily intimidated fencers and referees were present—at least until someone showed up who would call him out on it.
And, on a related issue: No, the modern era of gamesmanship and cheating in fencing was not started by the Soviet Union’s entry into competitive fencing, some commentators notwithstanding, nor did this begin the general debasement in deportment on the strip. I’ll save this conversation for another day, but will note two things now: (1) there are plenty of early examples of these bad behaviors long prior to the Soviet Union entering sport fencing, and (2) it was notable how quickly nations other than France and Italy began regularly winning medals in epee and foil after the introduction of the electrical scoring apparatus–French and Italian judges could no longer pretend not to see touches.
In sum, if your child’s coach or teacher engages in any of these behaviors, tell him or her it’s unacceptable and that you’ll remove your child from the club if it continues. Many, perhaps most fencing coaches these days unfortunately follow a business model, which inevitably requires an emphasis on youth fencing: they’ll change their attitudes if a significant number of parents quit writing checks.
I’m a bit cynical about progress in this area, though, having watched for decades how often many parents, living a vicarious second lives via their children, will accept or turn a blind eye to all sorts of egregious, even outrageous, behavior from coaches and teachers in sports and performing arts on the remote chance that their child will win nothing more than a local title or become a briefly notable local performer. And when greater rewards are at stake, far too many parents will turn a blind eye to almost anything.
Put plainly, a fencing bout should be a contest between two fencers and no one else.
Fencing’s best lesson is independent decision-making under stress.
Fencing & Wine
Or, how fencing shows character and why this matters. Again I quote from H. Sutherland Edwards (1894) who is quoting dramatic author, not mention fencer and promoter of women’s rights and child education (and whose name was given to a perhaps phantasmagoric reef in the South Sea), Ernest Legouvé:
“Fencing has, moreover, its utilitarian value. It teaches you to judge men. With the foil in hand no dissimulation is possible. After five minutes of foil-play the false varnish of mundane hypocrisy falls and trickles away with the perspiration: instead of the polished man of the world, with yellow gloves and conventional phrases, you have before you the actual man, a calculator or a blunderer, weak or firm, wily or ingenious, sincere or treacherous… One day I derived a great advantage. I was crossing foils with a large broker in brandies, rums, and champagnes. Before the passage of arms he had offered me his services in regard to a supply of liquors, and I had almost accepted… The fencing at an end, I went to the proprietor [of the fencing salle] and said: ‘I shall buy no champagne of that man.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘His wine must be adulterated–he denies every hit.'”
Yes, character matters, then and now. And fencing reveals it better than anything other than the dire life-threatening circumstances of man and nature. A person who cannot be trusted on the strip should not be trusted off the strip.
Copyright Benerson Little 2018-2020. First posted July 20, 2018, last updated March 28, 2020.
For your perusal, a list of a handful of swashbuckling historical novels–pirates, musketeers, various spadassins and bretteurs–with engaging swordplay, even if not always entirely accurate in its depiction. If you’re reading any of my blog posts, chances are you have friends who might enjoy reading some of these books, thus my suggestion as Christmas, Hanukkah, or other gifts this holiday season.
Three caveats are in order: all of the following are favorites of mine, all are set in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and all are not “all” in the sense that the list, even narrowed strictly to my favorites, is quite incomplete. Without doubt I’ll add to it every holiday season. And maybe one day a list of swashbuckling films, another of table and board games, maybe even of video games too…
Upon reflection, perhaps a fourth caveat is in order as well: simply enjoy the stories and their swordplay for what they are. Don’t be too critical, especially of the latter. Except for the case of the reader who is an experienced fencer with a strong understanding of period fencing terms and technique (far more rare than you might think), complex historical fencing scenes cannot be written simply and just as simply understood. Nor can technique and actions in general be explained sufficiently for the neophyte to understand, at least not if the writer wishes to keep the action flowing. The writer must strike a middle ground, one that won’t lose the tempo and thus the reader. This is not so easily done.
It’s possible the Moby Dick technique would work–explain and teach prior to the event–but it’s just as likely that many readers would shun this, unfortunately. For what it’s worth, Moby Dick is by far my favorite novel and I consider it the greatest ever written. It is not, however, a book for readers who cannot step momentarily away from the narrative. As I’ve discovered after the publication of two of my books in which narrative history is interspersed with analysis and explanation, there are quite a few such readers, some of whom become plaintively irate and simultaneously–and often amusingly–confessional of more than a degree of ignorance when the narrative is interrupted for any reason. To sample this sort of reader’s mindset, just read a few of the negative reviews of Moby Dick on Amazon–not those by obvious trolls but those by apparently sincere reviewers. Put plainly, using Moby Dick as a template for swordplay scenes would probably be distracting in most swashbuckling novels.
In regard to acquiring any of these enjoyable titles, note that some are out of print except perhaps as overly-priced modern print-on-demand editions. Even for those still in print, I highly recommend purchasing earlier copies from used or antiquarian dealers–there are plenty of highly affordable copies, just look around for them. Abebooks is a great place to start, but only if you have no local independent used or antiquarian bookstores available to try first. And these days, alas, there might not be any…
Why an older edition? Because the scent of an old book helps set the period atmosphere. Add a comfortable chair, a sword or two on the wall, a fireplace in a reading room or a fire pit on the beach nearby, and, if you’re of age to drink, perhaps some rum, Madeira, or sherry-sack on a side table, and you’re ready to go. Or Scotch, especially a peaty single malt distilled near the seaside, it will evoke the atmosphere of Sir Walter Scot’s The Pirate. Scotch always works.
So just sit back and let the writer carry you along. Don’t forget to imagine the ring of steel on steel and the sharp smell of ozone after an exceptionally sharp beat or parry. And if you really enjoy scenes with swordplay, there’s no reason you can’t further your education by taking up fencing, whatever your age or physical ability. If you’d rather begin first by reading about swordplay, you can start here with Fencing Books For Swordsmen & Swordswomen. And if you’re interested in how swashbuckling novels come to be–romance, swordplay, and all–read Ruth Heredia’s outstanding two volume Romantic Prince, details below.
Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini
Better known by its short title, Captain Blood, I list this first even though there’s really no significant description of swordplay, not even during the duel that is one of the best parts, of many, in the 1935 film version starring Errol Flynn. You must imagine the sword combat, yet in no way does it detract from this great swashbuckling romance that has inspired readers and writers worldwide, not to mention two major film versions (1924 and 1935). It is truly a modern classic. If you really want to judge the quality of the prose, read a few passages out loud: they’re wonderfully lyrical and evocative.
Captain Blood Returns by Rafael Sabatini
If it’s a description of swordplay in a tale of Captain Blood, you’ll have to settle for the “Love Story of Jeremy Pitt” in Captain Blood Returns, also known in UK editions as the Chronicles of Captain Blood. Great Captain Blood fare, follow up it with The Fortunes of Captain Blood.
The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini
One of the greatest of swashbucklers whose plot leads, line after line, to a dueling climax. The 1942 film of the same name, starring Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara, doesn’t do the book justice, not to mention takes great liberties with both plot and character.
Fortune’s Fool by Rafael Sabatini
An embittered former Cromwellian officer reassessing his life during the early days of the Restoration–and proper use of the unarmed hand in a sword fight too!
Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini
A novel evoking many of the elements of my Hungarian fencing masters’ own history: spies, duels, intrigue, war, revolution, narrow escapes, and above all, courage. Plus Venice!
“With delicate precision he calculated the moment at which to turn and face them. He chose to do it standing on the lowest step of the bridge, a position which would give him a slight command of them when they charged. As he spun round, he drew his sword with one hand whilst with the other he swept the cloak from his shoulders. He knew exactly what he was going to do. They should find that a gentleman who had been through all the hazards that had lain for him between Quiberon and Savenay did not fall an easy prey to a couple of bully swordsmen…”
Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini
“He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” Add a sword and you have Scaramouche.
To my mind, a tie with The Black Swan in regard to a novel built around swordplay, and far superior in its scope. Easily has the best–most evocative, that is–description of a fencing salle, hands down.
To Have and To Hold by Mary Johnston
Listed here primarily as representative of the genre at the time (the late nineteenth century) and because it influenced Rafael Sabatini, the novel has most of the classic clichés of the genre, including the duel for command of a pirate ship, something that never actually happened. A gentleman swordsman, pirates, Native Americans, a damsel incognita in distress… The duel takes place, as best as I can tell, on Fisherman’s Island off Cape Charles, Virginia.
Adam Penfeather, Buccaneer by Jeffery Farnol
The prequel to the following two novels, you may either love or hate the style in which it’s and the rest are written, the dialogue in particular. Even if you don’t much care for the style–I don’t much–the series are worth reading anyway for the adventure and swordplay, often including sword-armed women in disguise. Farnol will never come close to replacing Sabatini to me, but this doesn’t stop me from enjoying Farnol’s swashbucklers. And at least Farnol’s dialogue doesn’t sound like, to paraphrase a friend of mine, suburbanites chatting inanely at a PTA meeting–a problem with much dialogue in modern historical fiction and television drama.
As for swordplay, Farnol often takes the evocative approach, providing broad strokes to give a sense of the action without providing detail which might confuse non-fencers:
“Once more the swords rang together and, joined thus, whirled in flashing arcs, parted to clash in slithering flurry, their flickering points darting, now in the high line, now in the low, until Adam’s blade seemed to waver from this line, flashing wide, but in that same instant he stepped nimbly aside, and as Sir Benjamin passed in the expected lunge Adam smote him lightly across broad back with the flat of his blade.”
Non-fencing authors take note of the critical vocabulary for swordplay scenes: rang, flashing, slithering, flickering, darting, flashing…
Black Bartlemy’s Treasure by Jeffery Farnol
Great swashbuckling fare, the first part of a two novel series.
Martin Conisby’s Vengeance by Jeffery Farnol
This quote alone sells this sequel to Black Bartlemy’s Treasure: “So-ho, fool!” cried she, brandishing her weapon. “You have a sword, I mind—go fetch it and I will teach ye punto riverso, the stoccato, the imbrocato, and let you some o’ your sluggish, English blood. Go fetch the sword, I bid ye.”
The Pyrates by George MacDonald Fraser
Enjoyable parody of swashbuckling pirate novels and films, much influenced by the works of Rafael Sabatini and Jeffery Farnol. Fraser, an author himself of wonderful swashbuckling adventure, was a great fan of Sabatini.
The Princess Bride by William Goldman
Requires no description. The swordplay, like that in The Pirates above, is affectionate parody, and much more detailed than in the film.
Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott
Excellent if mostly, if not entirely, historically inaccurate tale of Rob Roy MacGregor told through the eyes of a visiting Englishman. It has a couple of excellent descriptions of swordplay, ranging from a duel with smallswords to action with Highland broadswords.
Le Petit Parisien ou Le Bossu by Paul Féval père
I’m going to pass on Alexandre Dumas for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I’ll eventually devote an entire blog to him. If, however, you feel he should be represented here, The Three Musketeers series is where to begin, but you must read the entire series of novels. Be aware that many such series are actually abridged. For a slightly different Dumas take on the swashbuckler, try Georges (an exception to the seventeenth and eighteenth century rule, an almost autobiographical novel in its focus on race and prejudice) or The Women’s War (or The War of Women, in French La Guerre des Femmes). Both are favorites of mine.
Instead, I’ll suggest a great swashbuckler by one of Dumas’ contemporaries. Le Petit Parisien ou Le Bossu is a true roman de cape et d’épée (swashbuckling novel) of revenge from the which the line, “Si tu ne viens pas à Lagardère, Lagardère ira à toi!” (“If you will not come to Lagardère, Lagardère will come to you!”), has passed into French proverb. The novel has been made into film at least nine times, plus into a couple of television versions as well as several stage versions. Unfortunately, I’m aware of only one English translation, and it is excessively–an understatement–abridged. Alexandre Dumas, Paul Féval, Rafael Sabatini are the trinity who truly established the swashbuckler as a significant literary genre.
Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand
Not a novel, but mandatory reading nonetheless, with one of the two greatest stage duels ever written, the other being that in Hamlet. Wonderful drama, philosophy in action, and sword adventure, including a duel fought to impromptu verse. Like Captain Blood, it is one of the truly inspirational swashbucklers. To be read at least every few years, and seen on stage whenever available. There are several excellent film versions as well.
The Years Between &c by Paul Féval fils & “M. Lassez”
Two series of novels of the imagined adventures of the d’Artagnan of Alexandre Dumas and the Cyrano of Edmond Rostand, filling the twenty years between The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After in the first, and immediately following Twenty Years After in the second. The books are filled with the expected enjoyable affrays and other adventures of the genre, including the usual improbable circumstances and coincidences. The first series consists of The Mysterious Cavalier, Martyr to the Queen, The Secret of the Bastille, and The Heir of Buckingham, published in English in four volumes. The second includes State Secret, The Escape of the Man in the Iron Mask, and The Wedding of Cyrano, published in English in two volumes as Comrades at Arms and Salute to Cyrano.
The Devil in Velvet by John Dickson Carr
Fully enjoyable read about a modern history professor who travels to the seventeenth century via a bargain with the devil. The professor discovers that his modern swordplay is superior to that of the seventeenth century–a wonderful idea for a novel but otherwise flawed in reality. At best, if the professor were a “modern” epee fencer, there might be parity. But who cares? After all, who can travel back in time anyway except in the imagination? If you’re a fencer well-versed in historical fencing versus modern (again, not as many as you might think, including some who believe they are), suspend your disbelief. And if you’re not, just enjoy the novel for what it is.
Most Secret by John Dickson Carr
Pure genre by the famous mystery writer, this time entirely set in the seventeenth century. Cavaliers, spies, and a damsel in distress!
The Alatriste Novels by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
Leaping forward almost two hundred years, the Alatriste novels are a highly recommended recent series by one of Spain’s great novelists, although some critics note that the books are a bit dark. I’d call them realistic. Unfortunately, the latest of the series, El Puente de los Asesinos (The Bridge of the Assassins or The Assassin’s Bridge) has not been translated into English and doesn’t appear likely to be anytime soon, if at all, an apparent casualty of insufficient sales of the previous volumes and a reflection upon the state of the genre at the moment. That the genre should not have a larger readership given the times we live in is curious, but perhaps the audience awaits a few real-life swashbuckling heroes to reappear first. I have read The Assassin’s Bridge, but in French, and enjoyed it. My Spanish is simply not up to the task. The first six volumes are available in English translation. I also suggest The Fencing Master (El Maestro de Escrima) by the same author.
Romantic Prince by Ruth Heredia
For readers seeking to understand how written romances come to be, you can do no better than to read Ruth Heredia’s two Romantic Prince volumes: Seeking Sabatini and Reading Sabatini. The first is a biography of Rafael Sabatini, the second a guide to reading his many works, including some discussion of swordplay. Ruth Heredia is the preeminent expert on all things Rafael Sabatini. Long an officer and significant contributor to the Rafael Sabatini Society, she is a gifted writer in her right, and, in my own experience, an eloquent voice for sanity, empathy, and justice in a mad world. Originally published in now hard-to-find soft cover, her two volumes are now available in revised editions for free for personal use by requesting them from the author. You can find details at attica-ruth.
Fortune’s Whelp by Benerson Little
Last, a blatant effort at self-promotion, although I honestly did enjoy writing the swordplay scenes (not to mention working them out sword-in-hand), and I do enjoy re-reading the associated passages, or at least as much as I’m able to enjoy my own writing (the urge to revise and improve, even after publication, is quite distracting). A sequel, Fortune’s Favorite, is forthcoming, and at least another after it. Then, if all goes well, a series of prequels.
Copyright Benerson Little 2017. First published December 14, 2017. Last updated April 14, 2020.
“This subterfuge is termed a Night-Thrust; being a short method of deciding a skirmish in the dark.”
–Andrew Lonergan, The Fencer’s Guide, 1777.
But Edward was no longer there, or at least not where Lynch expected. Completely covered by the inky darkness, Edward had lunged backward, his left hand dropping to the ground, his body bending inward, his blade shooting forward at Lynch’s belly: the Italians called this passata soto, but some of Edward’s English contemporaries called it the “night thrust” for its utility in the darkness.
Benerson Little, Fortune’s Whelp, 2015
The Classic Passata Soto or “Night Thrust”
A staple of many Western fencing texts since the Renaissance, the passata soto, or passata sotto, also known variously as the sbasso, sottobotta, cartoccio on occasion, the various dessous of the French masters of the smallsword and the passata di sotto of the modern, is usually defined as a counter-attack made by lowering the body while simultaneously thrusting, extending the rear foot in a reverse lunge, and placing the unarmed hand on the ground for support. Occasionally the technique is recommended as an attack with a true lunge, rather than a reverse, made. Andrew Lonergan provides an eighteenth century definition and exercise of the passata soto under the name of night thrust:
“On Guard in Quarte; and disengage a Quarte-over-the-arm [modern sixte]. I now batter [beat] with a Tierce; and begin to advance my left foot to form my Pass upon you in Tierce. Now when you see my left foot move, slip your left foot back, so as to pitch yourself on that knee; stoop your head so that your arm now turned into a Segonde may cover it, hold your left hand extended toward the ground, that it may sustain you, in case you should totter; thus my point will pass over your head, and I shall fall upon yours.”
And his reasoning why such “athletic” techniques should not be abandoned:
“Though these methods of Disarming, and Passing, Volting, and that of the Night Thrust, seem to be almost abolished by the refiners of these arts; I cannot conceive why a man, who is naturally strong and active, should not avail himself of such advantages, especially when improved by our athletic exercises, so engaging to an English subject, and forbidding to all others.”
In the old Italian schools, the body was usually bent at the waist. In some of the old French, the body was lowered by a very low reverse lunge. The adversary may be hit either with the extending arm or by impaling upon it, or both.
In terms of the modern French school, the “passata di sotto” is classified as an esquive, specifically une passe dessous with the back leg extended or both legs deeply bent.
With real weapons, the adversary is ideally impaled, usually in the belly which is, were the swords real, a good place to hit because are no ribs and cartilage to potentially prevent the point from entering or otherwise diminish its penetration. There is also some anecdotal evidence to suggest that in some cases belly wounds may be more quickly incapacitating.
A very long low lunge which made going forward might slip under the adversary’s guard, as in Rafael Sabatini’s novel The Black Swan (1932), and which made in reverse might serve aid a counter-attack by lowering of the body. (An analysis of the duel in the novel may be found here: The Duel on the Beach, Part II: The Black Swan.)
Long low lunges like this are often identified with, or confused with, the passata soto. Note, however, that fencing language is highly malleable and definitions vary: one master’s passata soto might include only the classic reverse lunge with a bend at the waist, while another’s may include any lowering of the body in attack or counter-attack. Most masters, however, consider it to be a counter-attack with esquive, the body lowering in place or with a reverse lunge, and not a long low lunge forward.
The passata soto is not without significant drawbacks, which is probably why Lonergan recommended its use at night and nowhere else. Foremost, it must be well-timed. Too late, and the fencer attempting it may get hit in the face, neck, or upper torso. Too soon, and the fencer attempting it throws away the advantage of the surprise mandatory to its success. Used too often, and the adversary may learn how to trigger it with a feint, and then take advantage of the poor position the classical passata soto leaves the fencer in.
And it is this poor position that is the major drawback of the passata soto, in particular with real weapons. With the unarmed hand on the ground, the torso bent sideways, and the rear leg extended well behind, the fencer is in a bad position for defense after a failed attack or, even if the swords were real, after impaling the adversary. Few wounds are immediately incapacitating, including ultimately fatal wounds: many duelists and battlefield swordsmen were wounded or killed after giving an adversary a fatal wound. Even with a mortal wound to the heart, an adversary may live as long as ten seconds. Even assuming an average of four, that’s plenty of time to even things up.
In the case of dry (non-electric) weapons, the judges and director (referee) will determine whether a hit was made, whether it was in time, and whether a hit on the fencer who ducked is valid via rules regarding replacing of target. In the case of electrical weapons, the machine will make the determination in epee, and the machine and director in foil and saber.
For the fencer armed with a rapier on poniard, placing the poniard-armed hand on the ground is giving up half of one’s offense and defense, to be replaced by almost blind trust.
From the position of the passata soto, a prime or lifted sixte/septime beat or bind, or a St. George parry or opposition (modern saber quinte) accompanied by the use of the unarmed hand to help ward off the adversary’s blade, plus an urgent recovery forward or backward, all performed near-simultaneously, is the only viable option if the passata soto has failed to hit or otherwise halt the adversary.
Such recovery, however, is invariably slow, and a loss of balance may ensue if the unarmed hand is removed from the ground too soon to assist in parrying or opposing, for example. Further, the long low position leaves the fencer vulnerable if the arrest fails, whether by missing the adversary or failing to immediately incapacitate him. In particular, the head, neck, and subclavian area are exposed. Fatal thrusting wounds can be given in any of the three areas. It’s likely that execution at night might alleviate some of these weaknesses in the technique, but it would need to be a dark night with little ambient light.
Historical Techniques Similar to Passata Soto
There are better methods, past and present. In particular, these methods, while not reducing the target quite as much, leave the fencer in a much better position should the counter-attack fail, or, with real weapons, should the adversary be hit but not be immediately incapacitated. Some masters, Sir William Hope for example, believed also that a lowered position better-protected the torso.
In general they consist of a lowering of the body to a lesser degree, often with a parry or beat first, or with a thrust in opposition. Below are a series of images depicting this in various forms over time.
The Passata Soto in Film
The passata soto is seldom shown in film, unfortunately, but here are two of the very few associated examples:
The Passato Soto in Modern Fencing
In modern competitive fencing, the technique is still occasionally seen in its classical form, in particular against a flèche, but more often is seen in the modified form of “squatting.” This is not a new technique! It was noted by Jean Joseph-Renaud more than a century ago. He correctly–as expected–notes that the latter form is easier.
In the spring of 1978 I saw it well-used by a University of Southern California epeeist–I made up the weakest third of the USC epee team, having fenced for less than a year–at a large collegiate meet at the University of California San Diego. The score was la belle (4-4), with no time limit for the final touch as I recall. (It was a nice rule that, of no time limit for the last touch! It’s long since been sadly abolished in the name of expediency…)
Suddenly both fencers stopped and pulled off their masks, but for no reason other than that they had heard the bell on the adjacent strip and, their adrenalin up for the la belle touch, mistook it for theirs. The young director… Hold on for a moment. Today the director, from directeur de combat, the person who “directs” a duel, is called a “referee,” solely because the foolish powers that be thought it would make fencing more spectator friendly… Seriously.
But back to our anecdote. The young college-age director, rather than enforcing the halt and putting the fencers back on guard, said “I didn’t call halt!”
You know what surely happened next. Without putting masks back on, immediately the opposing team’s fencer flèched while ours dropped into a beautiful passata soto. We got the touch and the bout. Neither fencer, thankfully, was hit in the unprotected face. Or at least that’s how I recall it happened.
In modern usage, although infrequently seen, is a form known as the “turning” passata soto. The description is best left to R. A. Lidstone:
In competitive use, the modern form most often takes the form of ducking or squatting, shown below. Ducking has been used for at least seventy-five years in modern fencing.
Copyright Benerson Little 2017. Last updated April 13, 2021.
The content in this post is more background on than digression from the general subjects of this blog–swordplay and swashbucklers–, for what is either without fencing technique? The following fencing books are my recommendations for fencers across the spectrum, from early modern historical to “classical” to modern “Olympic” competitive. It includes sections on the modern Olympic weapons, classical fencing, rapier, smallsword, various cut & thrust, theory, Japanese texts, and more.
The list below, although quite long, is not exhaustive—there are many good fencing books not listed (and some more bad than good as well). Some are not listed simply because I have not yet read them. The history list in particular is abridged due to sheer volume, but less so than in past years, and I have not yet begun to include much in the way of mid-19th century works or of books on swords as opposed to swordplay. Fencing books can be very useful, but are no substitute for proper instruction and diligent practice. See the end of the list for suggestions on acquiring the books listed here, or for that matter, many books in general.
The first fencing book I ever read, in 1975 or 1976, was Bob Anderson’s All About Fencing, along with a beginning text by Nancy Curry or Muriel Bower, I can’t recall which, probably the former. These were followed by, once I started fencing in 1977, either Curry or Bower’s book (the latter I think, or so my faulty memory suggests), then Charles Selberg’s Foil (and when it was published, his Revised Foil), Michel Alaux’s Modern Fencing, Marvin Nelson’s Winning Fencing, and, in 1980, Imre Vass’s Epee Fencing, soon followed by Szabo’s Fencing and the Master. From that point my interest in fencing texts exploded. My earliest years of fencing education, however, were dominated by fencing lessons, verbal instruction, and oral histories, not fencing books. Notably, my epee instruction in technique was derived from Vass, and its general method of instruction was derived directly from Szabo, his master Italo Santelli, and other notable Hungarian masters such as Gyorgi Piller–yet never for four years were the works of Vass or Szabo recommended to me. They were, in essence, above my ability at the time.
As Italo Santelli put it, fencing is something you do, not something you write (and therefore read) about! Thus were my early years filled with learning to fence not by reading but by fencing, fencing, and more fencing. That said, the study of fencing texts does have an important place in learning to fence: it broadens one’s knowledge of the subject. Fencing books provide a map to the world of swordplay.
Essays on Fencing & Life
So rare are these essays that I’ve found only one to list so far, although occasionally the subject is touched upon in prefaces to fencing books. Arguably, Bazancourt’s Secrets of the Sword and Burton’s The Sentiment of the Sword occasionally connect fencing to life in general, and Gravé’s Fencing Comprehensive has a sense of this as well. All three are noted below.
L’Escrimeuse by Emma Lambotte, 1937. A delightful essay on fencing, on being a woman fencer, on fencing’s connection to and reflection of life, and on the characters of various fencing nationalities, among many other brief subjects. Mme. Lambotte was a noted Belgian poet and the muse and patron of painter James Ensor.
Why have I placed Modern Epee—that is, epee as fenced from the 1930s to the present in its various forms—first among books on technique? Because it’s the best starting point for most budding fencers today, even if their ultimate goal is classical or historical fencing. It is by far the most popular modern competitive weapon (it looks like swordplay, its judging is simple, it much more resembles sword-fighting with sharps than either modern foil or saber, it is very “democratic” in that the weaker fencer always stands a chance, as some have put it), and—if taught appropriately via a classical foundation as it should be—is an excellent foundation for historical and classical fencing. Modern competitive foil and saber have become largely useless for this, both as fenced and as taught, for they’ve given up the classical notion derived from combat that attacks in invitation–with the point non-threatening and the arm not extended or extending–would be suicidal with real weapons.
It should be noted that some modern epeeists consider not only classical epee technique (point d’arrêt technique, especially non-electrical, and true dueling technique), but also “modern classical” (electrical pre-Harmenberg, so to speak) technique to be obsolete. This narrow view has no basis in fact except to some degree in the case of some elite (world class, that is) epeeists. Purely classical and modern classical epeeists can, and often do, fence as far as a solid A, or national, level, and classical technique is the foundation of elite epee technique. In fact, elite women’s epee retains a significant amount of so-called classical technique, and the compiler of this list is well-acquainted with a Greek-American epeeist some 70-plus years old whose classical, very old school straight arm dueling technique can still give even young elite epeeists fits.
Note, however, that the definition of classical fencing has changed over time and continues to change today. Even so, one need only read Achille Edom’s 1910 book on epee fencing (see below) to realize that much of what is considered new in epee is in fact more than a century old. In other words, epeeists should not consider older epee texts, nor any epee style of the past century or more, as unworthy of practical study.
Fencing with the Epee by Roger Crosnier, 1958. A thorough description of modern classical epee technique, still very useful today. Prof. Crosnier’s book on foil fencing (see the Foil section) should be read hand-in-hand with his epee text.
Epee Fencing: A Complete System by Imre Vass, 1965 in Hungarian, 1976 1st English edition, revised English editions 1998, 2011. The most thorough epee text ever written. That said, highly recommended for epee coaches at all levels, recommended only with caution for intermediate to advanced fencers (at least three to five years or more significant experience)—but not for beginners. There is much useful, often profound, material, but some sections can be skipped entirely by fencers and others require sufficient epee fencing experience in order to profit from them. The revised editions were edited by fencer and publisher Stephan Khinoy, and amplify and supplement the original text in places.
The latest edition suggests the need for such classical training today, in spite of the so-called “new paradigm” (see Harmenberg below, his book is also published by Khinoy). I agree; in fact, my fencing master’s thesis (soon finished I hope, albeit delayed by fiction and non-fiction projects, and overwhelmingly by a pre-kindergartner and his younger sister) is based on the same premise. Even for those relatively few fencers (as compared to the entire body of epeeists) who wish to and are able to emulate Harmenberg’s sport methods, a solid base of “modern classical” epee training is still necessary. For most epeeists, even superior amateurs, modern classical technique is all they’ll ever need.
Again, caution is advised when studying the book; it’s best to have a solid understanding of fundamental epee technique and theory before reading it. Vass trained international medalists József Sákovics and Béla Rerrich, both of whom went on to become leading epee masters and national coaches, the former in Hungary, the latter in Sweden, with numerous international champions to their credit. He also trained four-time Olympic gold medalist in epee Győző Kulcsár, who later as a fencing master trained two-time Olympic gold medalist in epee Timea Nagy. József Sákovics, considered by many to be the first “modern” epee fencer, died in 2009, Béla Rerrich in 2005, and Győző Kulcsár in 2018.
La Spada: Metodo del Maestro Caposcuola Giuseppe Mangiarotti by Edoardo Mangiarotti, the Comitato Olimpico Nazionale Italiano, Scuola Centrale Dello Sport, and Federazione Italiana Scherma, 1971. Epee as taught by the famous Guiseppe Mangiarotti: a thorough exposition of his method. Beginner-friendly, too, at least if you read Italian or have a working knowledge of fencing technique and language along with a background in Romance languages other than Italian. Includes excellent illustrations of blade positions, better perhaps than in any other epee text. (Side note: the book even includes illustrations from the works of Vass and Szabo. Kingston and Cheris in this section also have excellent illustrations of blade positions.)
Prof. Mangiarotti, who studied under Italo Santelli as well as under other masters Italian and French, was an Olympic fencer, seventeen-time Italian national epee champion, father of famous champion Edoardo Mangiarotti as well as of noted fencers Dario and Mario Mangiarotti, and founder of a famous epee school in Milan, still in existence, that blended the French and Italian schools and produced champions for decades. Edoardo won 13 Olympic medals and 26 World Championship medals, and was known for his fluid, very Italian footwork as well as for his strategy of attacking hard and fast early on to get touches, then playing a defensive game. Highly recommended. See also Mangiarotti and Cerchiari in the “Combined Modern Epee, Foil, and Saber Texts” below. For the French school, see Alaux and Cléry in the same section.
Epee Combat Manual by Terence Kingston, 2001, 2004. Highly recommended beginning to intermediate text. Should be required reading for new epeeists. Pair with How to Fence Epee by Schrepfer (below). Unfortunately, Kingston’s book is unavailable in the US anymore, and his web store ships only to the UK and EU (or I suppose he still ships to the EU after Brexit–a lot of small businesses are having issues doing so).
Fencing: Steps to Success by Elaine Cheris, 2002. Actually an epee and foil text, but the epee stands out more to me, and is very useful to both recreational and competitive fencers. Includes training drills as well as excellent illustrations of technique, including from the fencer’s point of view. The book is a good companion to Kingston’s book above. Cheris is one of the great US fencers in both epee and foil.
Epee 2.0: The Birth of the New Paradigm by Johan Harmenberg, 2007. For advanced epeeists and coaches only. There is a second edition–Epee 2.5 I think–that I have not yet read, therefore some or all of the criticisms below might be valid for the new edition. Importantly, the book is suited, in Harmenberg’s own words, only to truly advanced fencers, although this has not stopped many insufficiently experienced epeeists, and even their coaches, from foolishly assuming they can emulate its technique and tactics—and in doing so, impale themselves by repeatedly running onto their adversary’s point from distance much too close. This is often quite funny to watch, especially in the case of exceptionally tall epeeists, with their naturally slower tempo, who throw away their height advantage.
Although there is very useful material in the book, some of Harmenberg’s recommendations are controversial and not all masters agree with the described training regimen, except, again, perhaps in the case of elite epeeists. Further, Harmenberg at times appears to take more credit than he deserves, albeit innocently, given that other epeeists were also knocking at the door of his new style, and had been for some time. Harmenberg, however, was arguably the first elite epeeist to succeed with it at the Olympic and World Championship levels. That is, the first to use “outstripping” attacks—beating the double touch timing by a hair—to the body as a primary technique and tactic, although others, the Soviets notably, had already been using the fleche in renewed attacks to great effect in an outstripping rather than conventional tempo. (Vass calls these sorts of touches “combat” techniques.) It was also common to see some epeeists below the international level in the 60s and early 70s use technique similar to Harmenberg’s, but they were unable to succeed with it against elite modern classical, aka conventional, epeeists.
Additionally, some of his criticisms, even though thoroughly honest, of the modern classical technique are not entirely valid. For example, his objection to epeeists who use, and their masters who teach, attacks with a fully extended arm prior to the lunge is somewhat misplaced: although some fencers and masters did adhere to the technique (and some, unbelievably, still do), the lunge with near-simultaneous extension (likewise, “progressive attacks”) was commonplace three or more centuries prior, and also in use again by many masters and fencers beginning a few decades prior to Harmenberg’s era, and some lineages of masters had never taught otherwise. (“Historical” fencers, please don’t bother to argue with me on this smallsword history, simply open up and read the first two dozen period smallsword manuals you lay your hands on.)
Even so, many early epee masters did teach that the attack via lunge, almost always to the arm, must be made with the arm fully extended first, although others argued correctly that simultaneous or near-simultaneous extension and lunge was faster, as Harmenberg likewise deduced (as did masters in past centuries). Indeed, if you intend to hit the body with an attack, you’d better not extend first then lunge! If you do, you’ll lose a tempo, warn your adversary, and probably get successfully parried or counter-attacked. Early epee masters generally avoided recommending attacks to the body due to the increased risk of double touches—and the increased risk of jail time for murder or manslaughter. (Roughly seventy percent of modern epee touches are made to the body thanks to the flat tip of the epee which is less effective to the arm when compared to the old jacket-tearing points d’arret which were highly analogous to the sharp point of a dueling epee.)
The argument remains as to whether Harmenberg’s described techniques and tactics are truly revolutionary, or merely one of the final steps in the evolution of sport epee, in that the “paradigm” takes complete advantage of the 20th to 25th of a second tempo provided by the electrical apparatus, and entirely disregards any consideration of classical tempo. Put plainly, the book is Harmenberg’s exposition of how HE fences. Tellingly, whenever I ask elite European fencers and masters about the book, they shrug their shoulders. If they do happen to know who Harmenberg is, their answer is something on the order of, “Well, if it worked for him, good, but there are many other ways to fence epee…” That said, far too many epee teachers in the US have adopted his theory, all too often too early for their students and quite imperfectly, although lately I see this fad–and there are many fads in fencing–fading.
The book is based on the Swedish epeeist’s experiences leading up to his 1977 world championship and 1980 Olympic gold. In other words, however profound the book may be to sport fencing, its author’s ideas were not new in 2007—only their publication was.
Epee Fencing by Steve Paul et al, published by Leon Paul, 2011. A very useful text for the modern competitor. Positive criticisms: thorough and well-illustrated. Negative criticisms: 100% emphasis on epee as pure sport (as opposed to epee as dueling swordplay or martial art modified for sport) and a magazine-style layout (or in imitation of a badly-designed webpage?), including a thin magazine-like cover that will not hold up to much wear.
How to Fence Epee: The Fantastic 4 Method by Clément Schrepfer, 2015. Translated from the original French edition, Faire de l’épée: La méthode des 4 fantastiques, by Brendan Robertson. Not a manual of technique per se, but suggestions on how to use it. A very useful book, with only little to find disagreement with, and mostly in terms of style or tradition and not practicality. Highly recommended, especially for beginning to intermediate epeeists. An excellent companion volume to the Epee Combat Manual by Kingston (above).
See also the “Combined Modern Epee, Foil, and Saber Texts” section, especially Alaux, Barth/Beck, Cléry, de Beaumont, Deladrier, Lidstone, Lukovich, Mangiarotti/Cerchiari, and Vince, as well as the “Epee de Combat” section in general, and Castello and Gravé in the “Classical Fencing” section.
The Epee de Combat or Dueling Sword:
Epee for Actual Combat, In Other Words
All of these works are of use to the modern epeeist, and all demonstrate that there is, overall, little new in modern epee fencing. Even the pistol grip was growing in popularity in France by 1908, although its use in dueling was prohibited and it would be the Italians who found in it the perfect replacement for their rapier grip. Only the tactics and techniques of “out-stripping” (of trying to hit a 25th to a 20th of a second before one gets hit), and of the unrealistic abomination of flicking (and arguably, of foot touches), are new. (Strictly speaking, the flick is only new to epee: it was used by a fair number of foilists in the 19th century.) Flicks and foot touches are too dangerous to attempt with an epee de combat: they would cause little damage while leaving the user vulnerable to more damaging, even fatal, thrusts, not to mention that the blade of a real dueling epee is too stiff to permit the flick. On the other hand, double touches have long been the bane of the salle or sport fencer, even long before the advent of electrical scoring and its too short timing–there have always been fencers trying only to get the first hit, however they may, as if playing tag.
Le jeu de l’épée by Jules Jacob, as reported by Émile André, 1887. Lessons of the fencing master who essentially created modern epee in the 1870s. By the third quarter of the19th century the foil had become a “weapon” of pure sport, although it had been heading in this direction since the late 17th century. M. Jacob adapted smallsword technique to create a form of swordplay suitable to surviving a duel with the 19th century épée de combat, or mere epee, as its modern descendant is called. The technique emphasized longer distance and hits to the arm—and thereby also reduced convictions for manslaughter and murder.
The book outraged many foil purists, who subsequently went into sophistic denial when his epee technique proved far superior to foil technique in a duel: Jacob’s less technically proficient epeeists were deadly against even highly skilled foilists, who maintained that the only difference between the technique of the salle and of the duel was the accompanying mental attitude. (If true, attitude was clearly deficient among the fleurettistes who fought duels with Jacob’s épéistes.) The book plainly points out the difference between the jeu de salle (sport fencing) and the jeu de terrain (swordplay of the duel), and reminds us that many of the best duelists were usually not “forts tireurs”—good sport fencers, that is. The same would doubtless be true today. Highly recommended. There is, I believe, an English translation now available.
L’Épée by Claude La Marche [Georges-Marie Felizet], illustrated by Marius Roy, 1884, reprinted 1898 or 1899; also The Dueling Sword, an English translation edited and translated by Brian House, 2010. Very thorough, and in its translation was for a long time the only early French epee and epee dueling manual available in English. Real swordplay, in other words, and useful even to epeeists today. To a degree the book is a somewhat foil-based response to the purely epee-based technique of M. Jacob (see above). M. La Marche differs from M. Jacob on some points, particularly on the value of attacks to the body, of which M. La Marche is in favor, as were smallswords-men (and smallswords-women).
The modern trend in epee, at least at the elite levels, and among instructors who train less skilled fencers as if they were elite fencers, emphasizes attacks to the body. Where to emphasize attacks—arm or body—has been an ongoing re-argument ever since the flat electric tip was introduced to replace the much superior “pineapple” tip in the early 1960s, rendering arm shots more difficult. The epee fencing argument over arm versus body derives from late nineteenth century dueling practice—arms hits could easily settle honor in the modern age in which killing a man in a duel would surely send the perpetrator to prison, and the longer distance that facilitated them was simply safer. For reasons that would take up too much space here in discussion, the body was also the primary target in the smallsword era—but the dangers of this distance were mitigated by the use of the unarmed hand to parry and oppose as necessary, and by the extensive use of opposition and prises de fer. Similar varying perspectives are seen in sport epee today. Notably, and often forgotten by some fencing teachers, roughly thirty percent of epee touches today are to the arm, not the body, even with the emphasis on the body as the better target for the flat modern epee point. A highly recommended book, and useful even to modern competitive epee fencers.
Manuale Teorico-Pratico per la Scherma di Spada e Sciabola by Giordano Rossi, 1885. A manual of the Italian dueling sword and dueling saber, very practical, very classically Italian although it does include some “modern” usages, including a choice of Italian spada with a curved grip, akin to a later French grip, with a significant set to the blade, although it doesn’t seem that this style of Italian grip won many fencers over–but did it perhaps influence the French to increase the curve of their grip? I haven’t seen any French foils or epees circa the 1880s with such a severe curve. The book demonstrates a technique quite useful to epee, and in fact the influence of the Italian school would become a significant part of modern epee.
L’Art du Duel by Adolphe Eugene Tavernier, 1885. Advice on dueling. Suggests tactics and techniques for the epee duel, including how to deal with the inexperienced adversary, the average one and, of course, the expert swordsman. Of interest to the student of fencing history and the duelist, and one of the few books to deal with the subject of tactics against fencers of various levels of competence.
L’Escrime a l’épée by Anthime Spinnewyn and Paul Manoury, 1898. Excellent work on the epee de combat, with much practical advice on epee fencing, training, and teaching applicable even today. Among the many worthwhile admonitions is that the recovery from the lunge is just as important as the lunge itself–both must be as fast as possible, especially if the epees are pointed.
Les secrets de l’épée by Baron César de Bazancourt, 1862, published in English as Secrets of the Sword in 1900, reprint 1998. Practical advice on hitting and not getting hit from the mid-19th century. Much of the advice sounds quite modern. Likewise highly recommended.
L’escrime, le duel & l’épée by Achille Edom, 1908. A remarkably prescient and practical work, one of my favorites, and one that demonstrates plainly that there is little new in epee fencing today. In particular, M. Edom, a Frenchman, recommends the more physical Italian style over the French, prefers the Greco offset guard and the pistol grip, and bemoans the rise of sport technique such as wide angulations to the wrist—thrusts that with dueling epees (with sharp points, that is) would not stop a fully developed attack to the body, leaving the attacker with a wound to the wrist, and the attacked with a possibly fatal wound to the chest, neck, or head.
The origin of these angulations was due much in part to the single point type of point d’arrét used by many at the time: a small ring was soldered to a real pointed blade a centimeter or so from the tip, then wrapped with heavy thread to act as a barrier to full penetration. Unfortunately, this heavy wrapping prevented hits at the shallow angles a real point was capable of, thus a new emphasis on unrealistic wide angulations. The three point “dry” and four point electrical, and later “pineapple” electrical points d’arrét greatly corrected this, but the subsequent modern flat point (brought into use in the early 1960s in order to quit tearing up the new nylon jackets perhaps?) inspired the popularity of severe angulations once more. In fact, almost any stop thrust to the arm would not arrest a fully developed attack, although you might have the satisfaction, as your adversary’s attacking blade penetrates your chest, of pinning his (or her) arm to his (or her) chest as he (or she) runs up your blade. Highly recommended.
L’Escrime by J. Joseph-Renaud, 1911. One of the best of a number of outstanding epee books published during the Golden Age of epee and books on the subject, by far. The author does a by far superior job explaining the faults in French foil for dueling, comparing French foil to Italian (thus explaining why Italians successfully trained with their foil for the duel with the spada or epee de combat but the same could not be said of the French), and explaining a wide variety of epee technique, both that which is correct and that which is faulty but commonly seen. Thoroughly illustrated with photographs, the volume is of great use to the modern epeeist, historical or classical epeeist, and fencing historian and theorist. Joseph-Renaud is a member of the community of epee masters for whom the lunge must always be preceeded by a fully extended arm, and he does not recommend attacks to the body. Much of the reasoning for this is to protect the duelist from a potentially mortal wound in himself or in his adversary, the latter of which would result in criminal prosecution and the former of which, well… In fact, as smallswords-men of past centuries, and even the author himself, knew, the lunge with the arm extending near simultaneously (just a hair ahead, that is) is the fastest attack by lunge, and mandatory if one is attacking the body, not the arm.
Tratto Pratico e Teorico Sulla Scherma di Spada, by Eugenio Pini, 1904. Excellent and thorough practical treatise on swordplay with the Italian spada or dueling sword by the Italian master who epitomized a form of swordplay that emphasized physical strength and speed–no, this emphasis isn’t new to fencing, nothing really is, in fact. At the time the book was written, the school of the Italian dueling sword was based on the fioretta or foil, which was used for training instead of the spada itself. Pini points out correctly that at the time the French schools had separated foil from epee, and epeeists were now taught with the epee rather than the foil, although this would soon change as French foilists, unhappy at being usurped by the “modern school” of epee and its epeeists, would attempt to reassert their dominance via a foil-based school of epee. For a long time the Hungarian school, via the Italian, kept up this tradition of training epeeists first as good foilists. In fact, it’s how I was trained more than forty years ago. However, the modern divergence between foil and epee has made this almost impossible.
The Sentiment of the Sword: A Country-house Dialogue by explorer, adventurer, linguist, scholar, writer, and swordsman Sir Richard Burton, 1911. As with Bazancourt’s book which inspired this Anglo version, not strictly an epee manual, but still useful for understanding swordplay in the sense of the need to hit and not get hit, as opposed to hitting according to conventions which deny touches not made in accordance with said conventions, but which in a duel would be quite real, and in many cases fatal. (Thus the practical and, if in a duel, fatal flaw in foil fencing.) Burton’s book also has some quite modern advice on learning to fence. Burton had used a real sword many times in bloody combat, and was known as an extraordinarily fierce warrior. Highly recommended.
Épée, par J.-Joseph Renaud, 1913, in L’Escrime: fleuret, par Kirchoffer; épée, par J. Joseph Renaud; sabre, par Léon Lécuyer. Excellent advice on training, competition, and dueling, including a technical argument and diagram describing when to use sixte and its counter, and when to use quarte. This latter matter is more important than it seems, for most fencing instructors teach the usual parries and imply that any of the two classical French parries can be used in their appropriate quadrants in any circumstances (true in theory but not in practice) and should be varied in order to keep the adversary guessing (true in both theory and practice, but often difficult given that most fencers under stress have a preferred parry).
There are instances in which only a single parry—even in epee and smallsword, in which low line parries may be used in the high line as well, often providing several possibilities in each quadrant—is viable. For example, quinte (low quarte) against a powerful wide-angled attack, especially if directed toward the abdomen. Any other parry will often be forced or will fail to defeat the angulation. In fact, this is why the parry was introduced. Or, against a wide, high, powerful, angulated thrust to the body in the high outside line (same handed epeeists), in particular when delivered via flèche by a tall strong fencer, a circle-sixte or even a circle-tierce will likely be forced even if timed well. A true prime will not defeat the angulation, and a common septime (Italian prime, mezocierco) must be taken too far out of line, exposing the arm to a simple disengage over the top. Octave and seconde cannot be taken effectively, for they too are likely to be forced. Only quarte or quinte (really just a low quarte) taken high with the point out of line, with a riposte to the head or possibly the neck or shoulder, is viable in most cases. A modified prime (high sixte/septime) can work but can be difficult to execute if the attacker is tall and strong. Best to stop such attacks on their preparation.
The book includes a discussion of the Italian school. Although M. Renaud grudgingly admits that Italian foilists are equal to their French counterparts, he disparages Italian epee and by implication its rapier origins, stating categorically that the French invented epee fencing and the Italians were no match for French epeeists. In fact, the Italian epee school would soon rise to equal prominence with the French, with Edoardo Mangiarotti becoming one of the great epeeists of the 20th century. (These include Frenchman Lucien Gaudin of the early 20th century, Hungarians József Sákovics and Győző Kulcsár of the mid- and late century. Johan Harmenberg (1976 – 1980) should probably make the list as well. Were I to include possible twenty-first century epee greats as well, I’d suggest Timea Nagy and Géza Imre of Hungary, and Laura Flessel-Colovic of France. Doubtless other epeeists could join this list.)
Naturally, M. Renaud avoids any discussion of what might happen were French epeeists to trade their epees for Italian dueling spadas. Compare his comments on the Italian school to those of Achille Edom above. Side bar: he notes that most French epee schools of the era had outside gardens for practice, in addition to the indoor salle. Pity we don’t have these today…
“Technique du Duel en Une Leçon Suivi des Règles usuelles du Combat à l’épée” by Georges Dubois, published in La Culture Physique, 1908. Excellent work based on the author’s experience preparing would-be duelists for the duel, including those who have never held a weapon before. Disposes with many myths regarding dueling, including that most duelists weren’t fencers, and that the epee was designed to help keep both combatants alive and thereby avoid the charge of manslaughter or murder. Never was a weapon so well designed to keep adversaries from killing each other, the author notes.
See also the “Classical Fencing” section below.
Combined Modern Epee, Foil, and Saber Texts
The Art of Fencing by R. A. Lidstone, 1930 and Fencing: A Practical Treatise on Foil, Épée, Sabre by R. A. Lidstone, 1952. The second significantly revised book is more thorough, with a very useful, clearly written epee section with plenty of exercises for master and pupil. Discusses tactics, unusual epee en gardes, and, in the foil section, unusual displacements, most of them Italian. It even describes Professor Guissepe Mangiarotti’s “jump back”—an epee counter-attack made while leaping back and landing on the front foot. The second edition is an excellent practical work drawing from both the French and Italian, highly recommended. In fact, along with Szabo’s work, one of the most useful books on fencing on this entire page. For fencing historians, a comparison of the first edition to the second edition shows how much, and how quickly, modern fencing changed during the first half of the twentieth century.
Fencing by Joseph Vince, 1937, 1940, revised edition 1962. Illustrated by US saber champion, designated Olympic team member (until he suddenly abandoned competitive fencing for the stage), and swashbuckling actor Cornel Wilde. Vince was a US national coach and national saber champion who kept a salle in Beverly Hills for decades, and, until 1968 when he sold it to Torao Mori, owned Joseph Vince Company, a fencing equipment supplier that provided, among its complete line, classically dashing fencing jackets of a fit and style unfortunately no longer seen. In fact, my first fencing jacket was a “Joseph Vince, Beverly Hills” made of a heavy, high thread count cotton with silver-colored buttons. The left, that is, unarmed, sleeve was lighter and cuffed. An elegant style truly to be found no more.
Fencing for All by Victor E. Lawson, 1946. The front cover gives the title as How to Fence. A very short basic text, only slightly more than a pamphlet, notable only to the fencing historian, particularly him or her interested in the history of women’s fencing. Lawson’s book actively promotes women fencers, although most appear to be aspiring actresses and models, and the caption of one photograph strongly suggests that Lawson’s goal is to promote his fencing salle in NYC as a means of attaining poise &c for actresses (I use the now generally discarded feminine of “actor” here because “female actor” sounds a bit stilted, and in Lawson’s day he appears to have been recruiting women primarily, not men). Notwithstanding his purpose, Lawson’s little book does actively promote women fencers, and has several useful photographs of women in fencing attire of the 1940s, quite different from today. It also has a good summary of fencing rules at the time. Other titles in the series include Police Jiu Jutsu, Scientific Boxing, and How to Be a Detective–everything to to prepare the reader to be the dark sword of a film noir.
Modern Fencing: A Comprehensive Manual for The Foil—The Epee—The Sabre by Clovis Deladrier, 1948, reprint 2005. Strong epee section. Includes exercises, lesson plans, and excellent practical advice. Readers should not be put off by some terms and practices that seem dated, for example Deladrier’s use of the classic older terms low quarte for septime and low sixte for octave, and his preference for the center-mount epee guard. The epee section is worth serious study. The teaching advice and lesson plans for advanced epeeists called upon to teach at times is also a useful review for experienced epee coaches. Deladrier was the fencing master at the US Naval Academy.
Fencing Technique in Pictures, 1955, edited by C-L. de Beaumont, assisted by Roger Crosnier, with contributors Léon Bertrand, Bela Balogh, and Raymond Paul. Basic foil, epee, and saber instruction by a who’s who of UK fencing masters of the past century, in line drawings and photographs, the former of which look a bit like the robots in the old comic book, Magnus, Robot Killer. Useful information, still applicable today. The book is one of three on this page attempting to show action in sequence in more than two or three steps using photographs or illustrations, the other two being Bertrand and Anderson. I suspect the format of the images and size and color of the book may have influenced Bac Tau’s excellent edition (see below) which in some ways might be an homage. “Dedicated by permission to The Rt. Hon. Sir WINSTON CHURCHILL K. G., O. M., C. H., M. P. First Honorary President of The Amateur Fencing Association.”
Fencing: Ancient Art and Modern Sport by C-L de Beaumont, 1960, 1970, revised edition 1978. Solid “classical” text on electric foil and epee, and dry saber by a noted British master and Olympic fencer. Excellent, perhaps best anywhere, description of the character and characteristics of epee fencing (de Beaumont was an epeeist). Good chapters on tactics and training.
Escrime by Raoul Cléry, 1965. A thorough, practical text, absolutely one of the best, by one of the great French masters. Highly recommended. The epitome of the French school in foil and epee, but the saber is Hungarian.
La Vera Scherma by Edoardo Mangiarotti and Aldo Cerchiari, 1966. A very useful book for all three weapons, although I’m naturally more disposed to its epee section, particularly given Mangiarotti’s fame in the spada. Exceptionally well-illustrated. In Italian, and the modern classical Italian school, of course. An excellent beginning to intermediate text on all three weapons. One of the virtues of this book are photographs of technique in action, showing what fencing actions actually look like as performed by elite fencers. Most fencing books use posed photographs or otherwise idealistic illustrations, providing elevated expectations of the often unattainable except at slow speed with a conforming partner. There is nothing wrong with illustrating the ideal, providing it is pointed out that it is exactly that, an ideal, seldom to be seen in practice even by elite fencers. The book also includes line drawings of ideal technique.
Modern Fencing: Foil, Epee, and Saber by Michel Alaux, 1975. A thorough introduction to all three weapons by one of the great French masters who taught in the US. Short but good sections on bouting tactics, lessons, and conditioning. Excellent beginning text for the novice fencer. The French school, of course.
Fencing: The Modern International Style by Istvan Lukovich, 1975, 1986. By the author of the noted Electric Foil Fencing. Excellent if brief epee section, very useful to both epeeists and their teachers in that it covers and explains most of what most epeeists will ever need to know. The Hungarian school. Highly recommended for all three weapons.
L’Escrime by Jacques Donnadieu, Christian Noël, and Jean-Marie Safra, 1978. Solid introductory to intermediate text, quite well-illustrated with many photographs of fencing technique, including of technique in competitive action. I’m also somewhat partial to the book given that its images, taken as they were at the time I began fencing, are nostalgic.
Fencing: Techniques of Foil, Epee and Sabre by Brian Pitman, 1988. Solid beginning to intermediate text.
Fencing by Bac H. Tau, 1994[?]. Includes thorough sections on training, tactics, and weapon repair. Excellent section on physical training for fencing. Deserves more attention than it has received. Highly recommended. The book size, cover color, design, and illustrations may have been influenced by–in homage to?–Fencing Technique in Pictures, edited by C – L. de Beaumont, 1955.
Foil, Saber, and Épée Fencing by Maxwell R. Garret, Emmanuil G. Kaidanov, and Gil A. Pezza, 1994. A very useful beginning to intermediate text.
Fencing: What a Sportsman Should Know About Technique and Tactics by David A. Tyshler and Gennady D. Tyshler, 1995. Good information but a very poor, almost unintelligible at times, translation from Russian. Supplement with the Tyshler DVDs (available from many fencing equipment suppliers), or better yet, simply refer to the DVDs. David Tyshler is a Russian master and Olympic and world championship medalist; Gennady Tyshler is a leading Russian master.
The Complete Guide to Fencing, edited by Berndt Barth and Emil Beck, 2007. The German school. A thorough, up-to-date text. Good sections on theory, performance, and athletic training (with a useful emphasis on high rep exercises). Good epee section, much derived from the highly successful Tauberbischofsheim school of epee founded by the largely self-taught Emil Beck.
The technique described in the books in this section is based on the 20th century rule that a foil attack consists either of a fully extended arm with point threatening—aimed at, that is—the valid target, or the later rule which permitted an extending arm with point threatening relaxed, and correctly so, in order to accommodate the highly useful and historically proven progressive attack. These rules—even the original requirement of an extended arm before the lunge, which is not ideal in combat— were rooted in dueling practice and therefore made more sense than the modern interpretation of an attack which is, frankly, often indecipherable and which under the original conventions of attack, not to mention in engagements with “sharps,” would be easily invalidated by a counter-attack. In other words, an attack should not consist of a bent, non-extending arm at any point, especially one with the point aimed at something other than the valid target. Attacks in invitation or otherwise with a bent non-extending arm are quite simply not in the spirit of staying alive. In other words, were the swords pointed, the modern attack would be simply suicidal. Or, put even more simply, fence epee until foil is fixed—if ever it is. The same for modern saber too.
Fencing with the Foil by Roger Crosnier, 1955. One of the best expositions of modern classical foil of the French school ever written in English. Excellent explanations of practical theory, including on tempo and the progressive attack. Frankly, excellent throughout. Epeeists should read it together with Crosnier’s epee text, foilists together with Lukovich’s foil text.
Foil Fencing by Muriel Bower [Muriel Taitt], 1966 et al. Numerous editions, prefer the latest (1996, Muriel Taitt). Solid beginning foil text, used over the four decades by thousands of beginning fencers, including in 1977 by the compiler of this list of books in a beginning class taught by Dr. Francis Zold. Or at least I think it was this text. Perhaps it was Curry’s instead? The second editon of Bower’s version includes as co-author Torao Mori–a noted competitive fencer and fencing master–who took over the Joseph Vince Co. fencing supplier on Crenshaw Blvd (and where I purchased my first fencing mask, jacket, and glove in 1977).
Fencing by Nancy L. Curry, 1969. Solid beginning foil text although dated in terms of “modern” foil technique and rules. Even so, a good text on core technique. The book is clearly intended to accompany a college-level beginning fencing class and here it succeeds, describing in basic terms the fundamentals that can be covered in a single semester. As with a few other texts, it has useful images of fencing technique taken from above in order to show correct relationships. Nit-picking here: in the acknowledgements, a reference to the famous Castello fencing supplier is written as Costello, a typo and surely not a hat tip to Abbott and Lou…
All About Fencing: An Introduction to the Foil by Bob Anderson, 1970, 2nd printing 1973. The book is unique in that the reader can, by flipping pages, see properly executed technique, and in a manner superior even to much of the modern fencing video available. There is a hint of two of sexism common to the era—Anderson states that only men can cope with the epee and sabre, for example, which is nonsense—, but few fencing books of the first seven or eight decades of the 20th century do not take such a view. Some might disagree with some of his brief fencing history as well, but the history in many fencing books is open for debate, based as it often is on common understanding as opposed to rigorous analysis.
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. (His book is also one of the first two books on fencing the compiler of this list ever read. In fact, the book was in the Mount Miguel HS library—seldom anymore will you find fencing books in high school libraries.) Mr. Anderson died on January 1, 2012, and was inexplicably and inexcusably snubbed by both the 2012 and 2013 Oscars during the In Memoriam segment.
Electric Foil Fencing by Istvan Lukovich, 1971, 1998. Perhaps the most thorough electrical foil text, with excellent sections on fencing theory and requirements. Valuable even today, in spite of being written and published prior to the modern debasement of right-of-way conventions (i.e. attacks in invitation or “bent arm” attacks legitimized), although foil and saber were already inclining in this direction when Lukovich wrote his book.
Foil and The Revised Foil by Charles Selberg, 1975 and 1993 respectively. Thorough and very useful, with a good section on tactics. Highly recommended, but prefer the 1993 Revised Foil. Selberg also produced an extensive selection of instructional videos. Now on DVD, they are available from Selberg Fencing at http://www.selbergfencing.com/.
Basic Foil Fencing by Charles Simonian, 2005. A solid introductory text.
Foil Lessons With Victor by David A. Littell, 1994. A twenty-three page foil monograph far more useful than its brevity might suggest. It’s based on the author’s lessons from fencing master Victor Bukov. Useful in all three weapons, it presents a variety of tactical methods of attack, heavily distance-based. Readers familiar with Hungarian theory and practice (and thereby Russian and general East European) will recognize the descriptions.
Modern Sabre Methodology by Zoltán Beke and József Polgár, 1963. Translated from the Hungarian. Not “modern” in the sense of the most recent form of saber fencing, but “modern” in the sense of twentieth century Hungarian saber before saber’s debasement via the electrical scoring system and the degeneration of the interpretation of right-of-way. Worth acquiring if you can find an affordable copy, but if you do it will likely be by accident, unfortunately. Mine was. A very thorough exposition of every technique in the Hungarian saber repertoire. Not for beginners! One of my favorite passages is its excellent, simple definition of tempo, along with the very useful discussion following, all suitable to all three weapons—or to all swords in all places in all eras, in fact. It is also, from a historical perspective, easy to see how Hungarian saber influenced Hungarian epee, and therefore modern epee.
Fencing With the Saber by Roger Crosnier, 1965. Excellent, thorough work on “Hungarian” saber, second only to that of Beke and Polgár above. A suitable companion to Prof. Crosnier’s works on foil and epee. Note, however, that the terminology and categorization of technique is of the classical French school, not the Hungarian. The fundamentals are still useful today. Naturally, Prof. Crosnier does not permit the attack with the arm in invitation or otherwise bent…
Modern Saber Fencing by Zbigniew Borysiuk, 2009. Only if the modern “weapon” known as electric saber appeals to you. Still, a very good book, and the only thorough one on the subject in print in English. Unintelligible conventions plus attacks with the unextending arm held low in invitation while leaving the body nakedly exposed plus awkwardly cramped footwork plus hitting with the flat of the blade do not saber fencing make. The flat merely chastises: it’s the edge that cuts. The rest is simply too tiresome to debate.
The Cléry and Lukovich titles in the “Epee, Foil, and Saber” section have excellent instruction on Hungarian saber. Cléry also includes some detailed history of the origin of the Hungarian school. The Beck/Barth text includes excellent information on modern post-Hungarian saber. The famous Hungarian saber technique was destroyed principally by the electrification of saber, said by knowledgeable world class fencers and FIE sources to have been a compound decision based on the likelihood that the obvious flaws in electric saber would permit a less strict technique, particularly when aided by a debasement of right-of-way, and would thereby open international saber medals to more than the handful countries with the critical mass of elite saber coaches and sabreurs able to master in-depth the clear, clean technical repertoire of the Hungarian weapon; such technique was mandatory for correct judging.
For half a century Hungary reigned over twentieth century saber, and maintained a strong grip on it even after a number of sabreurs defected during the Melbourne Olympic Games in response to the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union. Recent US gains in modern electrical saber were based in part on the early willingness of US coaches to embrace the new “weapon,” while some of their European counterparts, who had previously excelled in saber, attempted to continue the use of traditional Hungarian technique.
Theory, Tactics, Teaching, and Training
Fencing and the Master by László Szabó, 1977, 1997. Forward by Dr. Eugene Hamori, a student of Szabó’s (and my second fencing master), in the 1997 edition. The best book ever written on the subject of teaching fencing: the fencing coach’s vade-mecum. Highly recommended. Excellent material on theory and other aspects of fencing, besides the practical. Intermediate to advanced fencers will also find it useful, in particular for its sections on tactics, preparation, drilling, and stealing distance. Szabó, who trained a number of Hungarian champions, was one of Italo Santelli’s three protégés and a close friend of Dr. Francis Zold, my first fencing master.
László Duronelli and Lajos Csiszar were the other two Santelli protégés. Csiszar was master for many years at the University of Pennsylvania after emigrating to the US. Among his students were Dr. Eugene Hamori and Roger Jones, the latter of whom one day contacted me about writing a review of one of my books; during our conversation we realized we had the same ultimate fencing roots and identical views, understandably, on honor in fencing. Duronelli was master for many years at the fencing salle at Semmelweis High School, run by Semmelweis University, in Budapest. This delightfully old school salle, which has produced many champions, is still in existence, with László Szepesi, who helped bring saber gold to France, as its current master. Eugene Hamori along with Krisztina Nagy (a very talented fencer in both HEMA longsword and modern Olympic saber) escorted my wife and me on a visit to the salle not too long ago.
A Dictionary of Universally Used Fencing Terminology by William M. Gaugler, 1997. A well-researched fencing dictionary.
Escrime: Enseignement et entraînement by Daniel Popelin, 2002. In French. The theory and practice of teaching fencing and training fencers. Rather than use the typical pyramidal view of fencing from its base to its competitive elite at the point, M. Popelin suggests a truncated pyramid, whose range is from beginner to national level, to indicate the majority of fencers, and a cylinder on top of this to indicate international and aspiring-to-international fencers. He astutely notes that the majority of fencers do not seriously train to become elite fencers, for many reasons, and thus fencers should be trained differently according to their needs. In other words, the training of the “club” fencer, no matter how talented, should be different from that of the elite competitor. Or put another way, simply because a technique, classical or otherwise, is not used at the elite level is no reason for non-elite competitors to abandon it or, worse, never learn it.
Understanding Fencing by Zbigniew Czajkowski, 2005. Highly recommended for fencers and coaches interested in practical theory. Czajkowski is a leading Polish master whose students in all three weapons have earned gold at the Olympics and world championships.
One Touch at a Time by Aladar Kogler, 2005. The psychology and tactics of competitive fencing, by an Olympic fencing coach and noted sports psychologist.
Theory, Methods and Exercises in Fencing by Ziemowit Wojciechowski, 1986(?). By a world-class fencer and master. Foil-based, but still an excellent book for fencers and coaches of all three weapons. Good information on evaluating and dealing with an opponent’s tactical style, especially in foil, although, again, still useful in epee and saber.
See also Joseph Roland, The Amateur of Fencing, in the “Historical Fencing” section below.
(Modern Non- Electrical Technique)
Some of the books below (Barbasetti, Gaugler) use one of the several classical Italian parrying systems and numberings, as opposed to the French or modified French systems and numbering preferred by most teachers today. (There are also several French-based numbering systems, each differing slightly in the naming of a parry or two, or in the use of a parry, for what it’s worth.) All of the books below are useful to the modern electrical game, epee particularly, and to foil and saber at their fundamental level. At some point foil and saber may return to a more classical standing, rather than their present sport-dominated extreme artificiality, notwithstanding that foil has always been highly artificial, at least for the past 150 to 200 years, and moderately artificial prior to that. See also the texts listed in the “Epee de Combat” section.
Réglement d’Escrime by the Ministère de la Guerre, France, 1909 and other editions. A short treatise on foil fencing for the French military that provides a detailed look at the classical French school. Useful for classical fencers and historians, and, frankly, any fencers interested in French technique given that it remains sound today, at least as a foundation. Oddly, one would have expected the French military to have adopted the new epee technique rather than foil at this time, and even more so, would have emphasised the saber instead of either, given that it was still in use as a practical military arm at the time.
The Fencer’s Companion by Léon Bertrand, 1934 to 1958 and possibly later. A delightful little book, hardcover but pocket-sized, with enough information on all three weapons to substantially educate fencers from novice to intermediate-advanced, with fundamental lessons required at all levels of fencing. The book also includes useful advice on teaching fencing. Prof. Bertrand, son and grandson of famous British fencing masters of French descent, was one of the most influential masters in the history of modern fencing in the UK.
Among Prof. Bertrand’s useful advice is to learn to fence from the beginning with both hands, starting with the weak hand first for balance. It’s advice unlikely to be followed often but it has excellent virtues, and will likely be the subject of a blog post one of these days. Twenty-five years ago I began learning to fence left-handed in order to give left-handed lessons as well as right. Two years ago I seriously incorporated left-handed footwork, drills, and fencing into my regimen, equal those of my right-handed, with quite useful results. Prof. Bertrand also has advice for fencing against classical Italian fencers, in which the counter-quarte and Italian prime (a high septime) dominate. (Note for readers of Imre Vass: his “destructing parries” in quarte and septime correspond to–are equivalent to–these two classical Italian parries that in combination “cut the line” or “destroy” feint attacks in the high line and will parry high-low and low-high feint attacks in the inside line.)
I’d not be surprised to find that The Fencer’s Companion influenced All About Fencing: An Introduction to the Foil by Bob Anderson, in particular the images of technique in action. Whereas Prof. Bertrand includes a series of photos depicting various actions as shown above, Anderson took this a step further so that by flipping pages the reader can see the technique in action, similar to a primitive film. See also Bob Anderson’s book on this page.
The Book of Fencing by Eleanor Baldwin Cass, 1930. The book is particularly noteworthy as it was, and remains, one of only a handful of fencing texts written by a woman, even including modern texts. Ms. Cass was an American, and the book was, not surprisingly, published in Boston, birthplace both of conservative American Puritanism as well as liberal progressive thought. The epee section is sparse, as is often the case with many three-weapon texts, but the foil section is classically thorough. The book is also a great source on much of the fencing history of the day, and thus quite useful to the fencing historian.
The Art of the Foil by Luigi Barbasetti, 1932. The Italian foil. Includes a succinct but thorough history of fencing, a good section on tactics, and a glossary of fencing terms in English, French, Italian, and German. A useful book for epeeists as well. Barbasetti was one of several Italian fencing masters who carried Italian technique to Hungary and Austria, including to the Austro-Hungarian Normal Military Fencing School of Wiener-Neustadt in 1895 where he re-organized it. (Alfred Tusnady-Tschurl, one of my “fencing grandfathers”—the fencing masters of my own fencing masters—was a graduate and had studied under Barbasetti.) Italo Santelli was the most notable of these Italian immigrant masters. Santelli famously said that fencing is something you do, not something you write about—thus there is no book by Santelli in this list.
The Theory and Practice of Fencing by Julio Martinez Castelló, 1933, & Theory of Fencing, 1931. One of my favorite dozen or so fencing books. The author was trained in the early 20th century Spanish school, which was based on the best of the French and Italian, including a modified modified French grip that gave it the (theoretical) point control of the French grip with the strength of the Italian grip. (This grip is illegal in modern competition, although a pistol grip variation without an external weighted pommel exists that is legal, if you can find it.) The Neapolitan Italians were the first to formally attempt to combine the French and Italian schools on any scale, followed by the Spanish and, via the Italians, the Hungarians, although fencing “schools” have always adopted technique from each other and adapted it to their own methods. However, in both editions the author notes that the book, which he wrote to help “young men and women in the many schools and colleges” in the US, including those without a teacher, is not based entirely on any particular system, although he says the foil is mostly French, the saber Italian, and the duelling sword (epee) from his own experience.
The author notes that at the time he wrote his book the French school predominated in the US, and this remained largely true at least until the 1970s, in foil and epee especially, in spite of an influx of elite Hungarians in the 50s and 60s. (I was often told in the late 70s and early 80s that I fenced epee like a pentathlete, rather than conventionally, French, that is: in fact, I fenced like a Hungarian, although notably my lessons from two Hungarian masters and one French master–the famous Michel Sebastiani, French-Corsican, and a former pentathlete–were seamless and very similar.) Saber in the US was by the 70s largely Hungarian, at least among the best sabreurs. Castelló also writes that the predominant saber school circa 1930 was Italian, but in fact by then the Hungarian school, based on the Italian but modified to suit Hungarian attributes, was dominant. But this is a quibble, yet I’ll add one more: Castelló repeats the canard about the saber target being limited from the waist up because it was a cavalry weapon, i.e. one didn’t hit the horse. This is arrant nonsense, still repeated today. The target in saber is based on an old Italian rule that limited the target to the area above the waist in order to protect a duelist’s manhood. This is noted in numerous late 19th century Italian texts.
Castelló had also self-published a smaller volume, Theory of Fencing, in 1931. Copies could be ordered from the author himself for $2. The more detailed 1933 version was released by noted publishing house Charles Scribner’s & Sons. Both books–the later book is simply an expansion of the first in both text and illustration–are excellent sources of fundamental fencing theory and technique, knowledge often far too lacking in many fencers today. Castelló included an excellent description of the two most classical epee styles–“straight arm” and “bent arm”–and associated technique and tactics. (See Lidstone’s later edition above for others.)
Among Castelló’s students was Joseph Velarde, the West Point Military Academy fencing master whose stand against racial discrimination opened US collegiate fencing competition to black fencers. By coincidence I once worked with Velarde’s son, a former US Marine Corps officer, many years ago. A decade before that I had fenced with and competed against the founders of the old M.A.R.S. Fencing Club at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, most of whom were among the Apollo engineers who put humankind on the Moon. (The fourth was and is a brilliant Byzantine iconographer.) One of these veritable musketeers, Joe Dabbs, who has since passed away, had trained for years under Velarde. I have remained friends with all of these old M.A.R.S. fencers for almost forty-five years, and most were active fencers until recently as age and old injuries restrained them, although I still fence with one of them regularly (Elias Katsaros, with French grips and true “hit and not get hit” dueling practice only!). John Jordan and Donny Philips—the other two members of the Four Musketeers—are also still with us.
The Art of the Sabre and the Epee by Luigi Barbasetti, 1936. By one of the great early twentieth century masters. The epee section is quite sparse, and refers the student to the foil for much technique, a quite common practice in many of the Italian schools. Castello’s book (see above) has a far more thorough epee section.
Fencing Comprehensive by Félix Gravé, 1934. A delightful and, too my mind, too short fencing treatise covering foil and epee, filled with pithy fencing wisdom that has never been out-of-date. The author’s general observations are also noteworthy. For example, the truly classical fencer in form and technique is born, not made. (Not to worry, those of you in the majority who weren’t born to fit into the classical mold–even in the days of “classical fencing” such fencers were rare, and one need not fit this mold in order to be a great fencer. Anyone who tells you otherwise is ignorant and probably, to quote The Princess Bride, selling something.) Gravé has good advice for teaching, on dealing with some of the more common types of fencer, on tactics in general, and for conducting a duel. For the fencing historian, he has several drawings of period fencing grips, the French interchangeable epee system (l’épée démontable), various guards (coquilles), pommels, points d’arrêts, the development of the fencing mask, &c. Interestingly, he mentions women epeeists, and has an illustration of the clothing they should wear (“men’s,” basically) long before epee was permitted to women in competition, a fact that pleases me immensely.
On Fencing by Aldo Nadi, 1943, reprint 1994. A famous Italian fencer’s thoughts, pompous, patronizing, and otherwise, on technique and competition. For Nadi, there was only one correct way to fence: his. Held up as a god by many modern “classical fencers,” Nadi despised the French grip as much as many of the same “classical fencers” today despise the pistol grip and advocate the Italian and [Nadi-despised] French grips. Let no one claim that blind self-irony and hypocrisy, often humorous, even hilarious, never reigns among pseudo-experts, or for that matter, among quite a few true experts.
The Science of Fencing by William M. Gaugler, 1997. A thorough modern description of purely classical Italian foil, epee, and saber technique. Pedagogical, as one would expect, and almost old school military in its technical presentation. Professor Gaugler, a student of Aldo Nadi and other great classical Italian masters, passed away in 2011.
That Is, To Hit and Not Get Hit (At Least in Theory)
Rapier & “Transitional” Rapier
Libro de Jeronimo de Carranza, que trata de la filosfia de las armas y de su destreza, y de la aggression y defension Christiana by Jeronimo de Carranza, 1582. Add to this the works of his student, don Luis Pacheco y Narvaez. The book is the exposition of la verdadera destreza, or true art, and as such is necessary for understanding one of the major schools of Spanish rapier. The style is based much on complex geometric forms derived from the simple theory that discovering the shortest safest path in attack or defense is the basis of speed (in fact, it is but one component). From this proposition the school became wrapped in unnecessary esoterica including elements of mathematics and philosophy that have little if any practical bearing on practical swordplay. Yet it was this esoterica that made it surely lucrative for fencing masters whose students were, as many are today, eager for “secret knowledge.” The system was scathingly and brilliantly lampooned by famous poet, swordsman, and Spanish national treasure Francisco de Quevedo in El Buscón. Quevedo once humiliated Narvaez in a duel: with his rapier he removed Narvaez’s hat. In fairness, it can be argued that the verdadera destreza was an early effort at scientific or rational fencing theory that, albeit with different emphasis, would come to dominate the smallsword in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Part of my bias against attaching philosophy, metaphysics, “secret knowledge,” and other such “floral appendages” to fencing is that the allure is primarily to make fencing lucrative to some fencing teachers’ bank accounts and all too often to enrich the teachers’ egos as well as their wallets. I’ve seen a number of modern teachers practice this in Olympic, classical, and historical fencing. It is a pompous, pretentious, and, often to many students, ultimately disappointing practice. Fencing has more than enough fascinating allure, and its lessons easily applied to life: it need not be wrapped up mysteriously and excessively in mathematics, philosophy, and, to be plain, alchemy. Or, more generally, in esoteric bullsh*t.
That said, one of the best ways to look at the destreza verdadera form may be to consider it as the truly Spanish Baroque style of swordplay, caught up in all that was good and bad in the excesses of the Spanish Baroque period.
Escuela de Principiantes y Promptuario de Questiones en la Philosophia de la Berdadera Destreça de las Armas by Don Pedro Texedo Sicilia de Tervel, 1678. As with the Destreza Indiana below, the author’s name alone is quite evocative. Add to this the author’s image in the front papers, evoking the aloof, Roman-nosed Spanish don (not quite a myth by any means), and we have a book right out of a Hollywood swashbuckler. It has everything for the fencer enraptured by the destreza verdadera, including excellent illustrations of swashbuckling swordsmen—Spaniards, we assume, although their Spanish dress includes baldrics rather than the narrow sword-belts worn by Spaniards at the time except when in military dress, which was basically French—holding classic cup-hilt rapiers and standing on “magic” geometric circles. Discusses rapier and dagger, single rapier, and rapier and target.
The author’s image page includes references to theologia, obtica, practica, astrologia, speculativa, arismetica, matematica, musica, and philosophia, which is quite an education: only by reading the book is the question answered as to whether some or all apply to the destreza verdadera. “All,” I imagine Texedo would say. Further, I am unsure who the audience was: the book was published in Naples, under Spanish rule at the time; the clothing and baldric are a bit curious (perhaps of Spaniards in Naples? Or in Sicily? Or of Italians in Spanish dress?); and the dedication is to His Majesty the King of Spain, of course.
The book’s purpose is clear, though, according to Texedo’s motto: Omnia Contra Tela is shorthand for “unum omnia contra tela Latinorum” from Virgil’s Aeneid, book VIII. The complete phrase translates as “alone sufficient against all the weapons of the Latins” (Benjamin Apthorp Gould, 1826; Latin translation should always be left to serious scholars). Given that destreza is written beneath the motto, it’s pretty certain that Texedo held his practice of philosophical swordplay in high regard.
I imagine Don Pedro Texedo, whom I rank among my favorite Spanish swordsmen, as equal to “John de Nardes of Seville in Spain, who with the dagger alone, would encounter the single rapier and worst him.” (William Higford, 1658. “Juan de Nardes” of Seville is probably Juan Domínguez, noted by F. Moreno in Esgrima Española, 1904.)
Las Tretas de la Vulgar y Comun Esgrima, de Espadas Sola, y Con Armas Dobles by Manuel Cruzado y Peralta, 1702. My many thanks to Pradana who corrected my description of this book. When I reviewed it ten to fifteen years ago, I simply read the title and scanned the text for examples of “common” Spanish rapier, and so I assumed it was a book on the comun technique. Pradana pointed out that the text is in fact a criticism of the common bad. Mea culpa! Thankfully I do a more detailed review and re-review of sources prior to formal publication. In regard to “comun” texts, Pradana recommends Domingo Luis Godinho. Although I’m aware of this author I haven’t yet reviewed the book, but will post a summary when I do.
Illustracion de la Destreza Indiana by Don Francisco Santos de la Paz and Capitan Deigo Rodriguez de Guzman: Lima, 1712. Noteworthy primarily because it was the first fencing book, to my knowledge, published in the Americas. The authors’ names alone conjure assignations and affrays fought with rapier and poniard, or capa y espada, at night, not to mention the myth of duels on deck between noble pirate captains and treacherous Spaniards, although to be accurate we should drop the “noble” from pirate captains all of the time unless fictional (for example, Captains Peter Blood and Charles de Bernis), and “treacherous” from Spaniards most of the time. Trust me on this, I write books on the subject. See also Edward Blackwell in the “Smallsword” section below.
Gran Simulacro by Ridolfo Capo Ferro, 1610, 1629. A beautiful 2004 hardcover edition, Italian Rapier Combat: Capo Ferro’s ‘Gran Simulacro,’ edited by Jared Kirby, is available, as is a 2012 softcover reprint.
L’Arte di Ben Maneggiare la Spada by Francesco Ferdinando Alfieri, 1653. Beautifully and graphically illustrated treatise of the Italian spada, both of single sword and sword and dagger. Highly recommended.
Regole Della Scherma by Francesco Antonio Marcelli, 1686. Detailed, practical study of the Italian spada, including single sword, sword and dagger, and sword versus other arms and vice versa, for example the saber or scimitar versus rapier. A very practical book with sound, practical advice useful in rapier, smallsword, and epee. Dedicated to Queen Christina of Sweden, who had abdicated her throne and now resided in Rome. Greta Garbo starred as Queen Christina in an excellent film of the same name.
Grondige Beschryvinge Van de Edele ende Ridderlijcke Scherm-ofte Wapen-konste by Joannes Georgius Bruchius, 1671. A Dutch text presaging the persistent influence of the rapier into the age of the smallsword in Northern European schools—the Dutch, the various German, and others. Notably, in spite of the date and obvious transitioning to a lighter weapon, the book still uses much Italian rapier terminology. Solid technique for the duelist, soldier, and brawler, much of it looking remarkably similar to modern epee. The author references various illustrations throughout the book, in order that the reader may put them together in different described sequences. Clever, but unfortunately cumbersome too, as one might expect.
The book illustrates one of the most practical uses of what Alfred Hutton, in saber, would refer to as “high octave”—used, that is, as a yielding parry from quarte to exclude the adversary’s blade after running him through. Immediately closing the distance and commanding the adversary’s blade was vital. An adversary is seldom dead or disabled immediately, after all, and this technique would prevent him (or, rarely, her) from making a killing thrust in revenge, assuming a perfect world of course. Not everything goes according to plan, or so Fortune is said to say and without doubt often proves. Some nineteenth century saber masters recommended its use to counter-parry a quarte riposte made in opposition, suggesting that it was the only parry that could be made quick enough, which at the distance of direct riposte may be true. Hollywood is occasionally enamored of the technique, but it’s usually cringeworthy to watch the lovefest, so stilted, weak, and inappropriate in execution—unbelievable, in other words—it usually is.
See George Silver in the “Broadswords…” section below for a passionate argument against the rapier.
Les Vrays Principes de l’Espée Seule by the sieur de la Touche, 1670. The establishment of the modern French school of the smallsword, whose principals went largely unchanged for more than three centuries, and remain much in place today. Fencing for the French court. Although the technique is practical as described, or at least what would soon be considered conventional, and later classical, the illustrations show a lunge absurdly long, one that could hardly be recovered from in good time or in good defense. Perhaps it was to please Louis XIV and his tastes in elegance and dance.
Le Maître d’Armes ou L’Exercice de l’Epée Seule dans sa Perfection by Andre Wernesson, Sieur de Liancour, 1692. An excellent study of the smallsword, albeit in some ways more suited to gentilshommes of the French court than to adventurers in the field. Julie d’Aubigny, aka Mademoiselle la Maupin, the opera singer and duelist, among other occupations and pastimes, may well have studied under Wernesson, maître en fait d’armes to the Petit Ecurie, given her swashbuckling father’s position at court as the secretary to the comte d’Armagnac. (She might also have studied under Jean or François Rousseau, maîtres en fait d’armes to the Grande Ecurie.)
La Maupin, among her many adventures, was convicted and subsequently sentenced in absentia to be burned to death by the Parlement d’Aix for seducing a novice and burning a corpse in the associated convent. The verdict, however, was delivered against the sieur d’Aubigny; La Maupin’s masculine disguise apparently fooling, or perhaps pretending to fool, the right people. The criminal seductress’s former protector, the comte d’Armagnac, petitioned Louis XIV to overturn the decision, which he did, doubtless given his strong inclination toward attractive talented women. Clearly, independent women were hard to come by—and apparently hard to spot when dressed as a man fleeing a convent and prosecution.
L’art des armes by le sieur Labat, 1696. English translation, The Art of Fencing by Andrew Mahon, 1734. Another excellent study of the smallsword, although Labat, like de Liancour, was not quite as practical-minded regarding the smallsword in sudden rencontres, street fights, and the battlefield as some authors, McBane for example, were. From his work, as well as Hope’s below, it is easy to see the origins of sport fencing, aka foil fencing. In fact, I suspect that most fencers of this era far preferred “school play” to the possibility of injury or death in a real rencontre.
The Compleat Fencing-Master by Sir William Hope, 1692, 1710. Largely a reprint of Hope’s earlier work, the Scots Fencing Master, or Compleat Small-Swordman, 1687. An excellent work, highly recommended. Hope was an astute amateur, and his observations on fencing concepts are valuable to both the historical and modern fencer. Additionally, he has much practical advice for fighting with “sharps.”
The Sword-Man’s Vade-Mecum by Sir William Hope, 1691, 1694, 1705. Excellent advice for surviving a fight with “sharps.” That is, practical considerations for dueling and “rancounters” (rencontres) or street fights.
The Fencing-Master’s Advice to His Scholar by Sir William Hope, 1692. Rules and advice, including technique, for “school play”—that is, for sport fencing. Ever wonder where foil conventions and rules come from? In spite of most historical texts noting that conventions originally derived for reasons of safety, it is clear that sport, convenience, and appearance also played a major role, perhaps even the greater one, starting in the late 17th century, if not much earlier.
The Art of Fencing Represented in Proper Figures Exhibiting the Several Passes, Encloses, Disarms, &c. by Marcellus Laroon, various editions suggested to date from the 1680s to circa 1700. Illustrations and single line descriptions only, very useful to the historian not only of fencing but of period dress. (I’ve relied heavily on these images for Fortune’s Whelp, for example.) Figures are in a variety of fencing positions, most with smallswords, some with buttoned foils. Worthy of much study. A number of images are suggestive of, or even imitated from, 17th century rapier and “transitional rapier” illustrations, making it at quite possible, or even probable, that the French school was not yet entirely in full force even in the English smallsword, or that the Dutch immigrant illustrator Laroon, who bore a facial scar from an affray with swords, was showing his Dutch influence. (See Bruchius in the “Rapier & Transitional” Rapier section, for example.)
The English Fencing-Master: or, the Compleat Tuterour of the Small Sword by Henry Blackwell, 1702. A short text thereby suggesting that “Compleat Tuterour” is hyperbole, with decent illustrations showing wounds with spurting blood for emphasis. Includes more proof that the modern sixte thrust aka “carte over the arm” was well in use much earlier than some fencing historians suggest. Charming spelling of seconde: “Sagoone.” But the spelling of carte, tierce, and prime are conventional. Blackwell includes a good but brief discussion of flanconnade, one of my favorite thrusts in its several varieties: it secures the adversary’s blade, is perfectly placed for additional opposition with the unarmed hand (were this still legal), and, thrust low, avoids the ribs and their cartilage which might impede the thrust (assuming the adversaries are fencing with “sharps” of course). Blackwell’s recommended en garde is with the arm mostly extended, as is the case with many smallsword texts—it’s simply a safer guard with a real thrusting sword than the common foil guard of the past two centuries. See also Edward Blackwell below!
Der Geöffnete Fecht-Boden by B. Schillern, 1706. German text showing the influence of the rapier even with the smallsword into the 18th century. Compare with Doyle’s French-influenced German text below and with Bruchius’s Dutch text in the “Rapier” section above.
Advertisement, Especially to Fencing Masters by Sir William Hope, probably 1707. An advertisement with argument for Hope’s new book detailing his new method of fencing using the hanging guard. Excellent, if brief and not entirely complete, discussion as to why swordplay on the battlefield is different from that of the duel. (He doesn’t provide reasons why cutting weapons, or cut and thrust, are preferred: cuts may not kill but often disable more quickly that thrusts, it is easier to change direction and defend while doing so with a cutting weapon, thrusts may stick in the adversary and thereby be problematic for mounted troops–many have been dismounted by a thrust stuck in an enemy.) Hope is less convincing when it comes to his argument that his method is new, and not merely a restatement of one of the Walloon or German styles.
New Method of Fencing by Sir William Hope, 1707, 1714, et al. Hope’s exposition of his conversion to the hanging guard, known by many as the “falloon” (from Walloon) guard, as opposed to the more common guards in quarte and tierce, for the smallsword, sheering sword, and backsword. The book has been reprinted in Highland Swordsmanship, edited by Mark Rector, 2001. Among his excellent advice for swordplay on the battlefield, Hope recommends a stout gauntlet on the unarmed hand for parrying.
The English Master of Defence: or, the Gentleman’s Al-a-Mode Accomplishment by Zackary Wylde, 1711. A difficult read at times, especially for those without a strong base in classical fencing, smallsword, and backsword/broadsword technique, not to mention in English syntax and phrases circa 1700, but the language is colorful, the writer charmingly self-confident, and his descriptions—once deciphered—proof that there is little new in “modern” fencing. Covers smallsword, broadsword, quarterstaff, and wrestling.
Neu Alamodische Ritterliche Fecht- und Schirm-Kunst by Alexander Doyle, 1715. An Irishman introduces Germans to the French school, with plenty of parries and oppositions with the unarmed hand, plus disarmings, grapplings, and trips/throws to satisfy advocates of the native German schools. Almost as well-illustrated as Girard below, and in some ways I almost prefer Doyle’s illustrations. An excellent reference for the practical-minded swordsman.
Expert Sword-Man’s Companion by Donald McBane, 1728. McBane was a Scottish soldier, swordsman, fencing master, duelist, prize fighter, and collateral pimp whose deeds and escapades began in the late 17th century and continued into the 18th. Highly recommended, almost certainly the best text on practical swordplay for the duel, affray, rencontre, street fight, &c, based as it is on his own extensive experience wetting his blade with the blood of adversaries, and occasionally wetting theirs with his own. Literary connection: in The Princess Bride the author refers to McBane as “McBone.” The book has been reprinted at least three times in recent years: a 2015 edition edited by Keith Farrell in Scotland, a 2017 edition edited by Jared Kirby, and a 2001 edition edited by Mark Rector in Highland Swordsmanship (readers of this last edition may choose to disregard the photographs of McBane’s technique and refer instead to McBane’s descriptions and original illustrations which are unfortunately not reproduced in this edition).
A Compleat System of Fencing: or, the Art of Defence, In the Use of the Small-Sword by Edward Blackwell, 1734, in Williamsburg, Virginia. The first fencing text published in North America and the first in English in the Americas as well, sub-titled Wherein The most necessary Parts thereof are plainly laid down; chiefly for Gentlemen, Promoters and Lovers of that SCIENCE in North America. Given the last names plus the similarity of titles and technique, Edward Blackwell is surely related to Henry Blackwell, most likely as father and son. The book includes a good introduction as to why one should fence—Americans, take note! It’s apparently long been a problem promoting swordplay in British-derived North America!—as well as solid descriptions of swordplay, including how to deal with a low guard, in “Master and Scholar” format (Sir Wm. Hope has used this format too).
As with Henry, the book has a good description of the flanconnade, and the likely son has corrected the likely father’s spelling of “Seconde.” Good discussion of time and counter-time, along with a reminder that foilists have long been inclined to impale themselves by attacking into an attack (so have many epeeists, too, but foilists tend to regard double hits as imaginary). Like his likely father, the son prefers a more extended guard, and not the scandalously “crooked Arm” so popular with foilists since the 19th century—but at least most of them extended from beginning to end during their attacks until recently—and also with aggressive “ignorants” of the smallsword era who did not extend during their attacks. Yes, attacks with a bent arm are those of the fencing illiterate, thus one might argue that both modern foil and saber fencers are quite unlettered (and some epeeists are too). See also Henry Blackwell above.
Traité des Armes by P. J. F. Girard, 1737, 1740, et al. Possibly the best book on the smallsword ever written. Not only beautifully illustrated, the book describes smallsword technique in detail, including its use on the battlefield against other weapons. It emphasizes practical swordplay for the duel as well as for the affray or rencontre, even against foreign fencing styles, and for battle. Girard was a naval officer. Highly recommended.
A Treatise Upon the Useful Science of Defence, Connecting the Small and Back-Sword, and Shewing the Affinity Between Them by Capt. John Godfrey, 1747. Practical book on smallsword and backsword, including a very useful analysis of backsword prizefighters, and some notes on boxing as well.
L’Art des Armes by Guillaume Danet, 1766. Excellent work on the smallsword, with practical exposition of the theory and practice, along with useful associated exotica, including how to break up a duel (grasp the shell of one adversary’s sword and direct your point at the other). However, the Internet being what it is—as useful to the lazy in their laziness, fools in their folly, and idiots in their idiocy, as it is to those largely unafflicted with these defects of behavior and intellect—the illustration is unfortunately reproduced on occasion to demonstrate, quite incorrectly, how to fight two adversaries simultaneously.
Among much useful commentary, Danet demonstrates his functional knowledge of fencing history and texts; decries commanding the blade (seizing the adversary’s sword) and disarmaments, but discusses them anyway because the fencer should know how to defend against them; discusses and decries volts and the passata soto (under another name); and wishes that parries with the unarmed hand had never been invented, although he distinguishes between parries with the hand and opposition of the hand, the latter of which he approves.
Danet provides the modern definition of fencing time: the time it takes to perform any single action of hand or foot. On the other hand, his renaming of parries is confusing to modern fencers, and was to his contemporaries as well. La Boëssière père, via his son (see below) was highly critical of Danet in general (not unusual in itself for fencing masters to criticize each other, often pompously), although it is easy to see from both that the “practical” swordplay of the smallsword was in danger of descending into near-complete artificiality, which in the next century it did.
In spite of its many virtues, my fondness for the book is actually based much on Rafael Sabatini’s affection for it, on which he founded much of his description of French swordplay, particularly in Scaramouche. Danet’s style of fencing is very much in keeping with the style of Sabatini’s logical intellect, and therefore of Sabatini’s swashbuckling heroes, although Sabatini, being half Italian, did not shrink from occasional cunning, nor did he object to his swordsmen partaking occasionally from the Italian school. From Danet is the inspiration for Andre-Louis Moreau’s new theory of swordplay, although in reality it would be nullified by an arrest, not to mention difficult to execute even with a cooperative adversary. But don’t let this spoil the excellent novel, which among its many virtues great and small is an evocative description of a fencing lesson that stirs me to this day. And in many ways Sabatini’s theory was correct at its core: the fencer should force his or her adversary into a pre-selected avenue of no escape.
Sabatini also used the historical person of Danet in the short story, “The Open Door” in Turbulent Tales (1946). For more details on Sabatini and Danet, not to mention, and far more importantly, on Sabatini’s works in general, I highly recommend Romantic Prince: Reading Rafael by Ruth Heredia, 2015. I am honored to have assisted Ruth on the subject of swordplay in Sabatini’s works.
The Fencer’s Guide by Andrew Lonnergan, 1771. Practical smallsword-play described with some occasionally uncommon fencing language: the practices of whirling, wrenching, and lurching, for example, which are synonyms for three conventional techniques. A more scholarly and readable update on Wylde is one way of looking at the book. Lonnergan also includes a very useful discussion of the backsword and spadroon, as well as some very practical advice for and against the cavalry, dragoons, and Hussars or light horse—whether the adversary wears breastplate and helmet determines to a great degree the swordplay used. He has brief useful advice for the fencer armed with a walking stick (it must be wielding a bit differently, having no edge or point), and sees no reason that an athletic fencer cannot use the various volts, night thrust (passata soto), grapplings, &c, which by now many masters had lost favor with. However, see Danet above.
The Army and Navy Gentleman’s Companion; or a New and Complete Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Fencing by John McArthur, 1784. Solid exposition of the smallsword, with conventional language—McArthur doesn’t use Lonnergan’s romantically descriptive flourishes when naming some techniques. Again, here is yet another book proving that there is really nothing new in modern fencing. As with many fencing books, it includes some useful and some not so useful tidbits, for example, the deflecting of a pistol with a smallsword, something I suggest should not have been tried except in extremis and was probably most successful when used with a strong cutting sword—a broadsword, backsword, saber, or cutlass—that, rather than deflect the pistol, severed some of the fingers or the hand holding it instead. Very much worth reading, as for that matter are all the smallsword texts listed here, in order to expand one’s perspective on the theory and practice of Western thrusting swords.
The School of Fencing by Domenico Angelo, 1787. Several modern reprints available. The height of the 18th century French school, though by now the smallsword was mostly an accoutrement of dress, occasional dueling arm, and for some military officers, a badge of office. Fencing for the gentleman. The book is not my favorite, even though it was also published under “Escrime” in Diderot’s famous encyclopedia. Perhaps it’s the illustrations: I cannot image any serious swordsman or swordswoman posing so delicately. For the latter part of the 18th century I much prefer Danet, Lonnergan especially, and even McArthur (whose illustrations are likewise a bit too delicate to represent the soldier and fighting seaman in my opinion).
The Amateur of Fencing by Joseph Roland, 1809. Highly recommended for all fencers. Although the technical material is quite useful to the smallsword fencer and worth reading by the modern fencer. In particular, Roland, first quoting McArthur above, recommended the study of fencing to navy men, for “they are more frequently at close quarters with the enemy than the military are.” But the book’s real value lies in his philosophy of teaching fencing and learning to fence. Specifically, he attempts to go beyond the mere mechanical practices of teaching fencing and of fencing itself, practices still far too common even today. In fact, such mechanical description is the entire content, or nearly so, of most books on fencing, then and now. Roland wished to go beyond this and develop a sense of tempo, tactics, awareness, and independence in the student.
Most valuable are several of his admonitions, for example, “[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.” Although there are masters who have embraced this philosophy today (including mine), the majority do not appear to have done so and remain instead “mechanical.” Of these, too many reign at the center of a cult of personality, with the result that their students are anything but independent on the piste or, unfortunately, in life.
Traité de l’Art des Armes by La Boëssière fils, 1818. An explication by the son of the school of the father (a contemporary of Angelo and Danet, among others). Highly recommended, especially for the student of the smallsword or of fencing history and theory in general. A superb text, with useful observations (practiced too little today, both in the making and the study of) for teaching students, including the young, the old, and women too, along with practical tidbits, for example an early discussion of the use of the fencing mask (masque de fil-fer, that is, iron wire), instructions on how to mount and button a fleuret d’assaut, and a criticism of the quality of the “new” foil blades, something common throughout the history of fencing it seems: I’m old enough, for example, to have used the superbly-balanced, light, long-lasting non-maraging Prieur foil and epee blades forged in the 1970s (there were no maraging blades back then).
Traité de l’ Art de faire des Armes by Louis-Justin Lafaugère, 1820. Perhaps, along with the only secondarily-described method of Jean-Louis (see below), the last of the great treatises of the smallsword. After this date, and until the development of the épée de combat, we find mostly foil fencing in the form of what was once known as “school play”—sport fencing, or worse, le jeu de salon, in a form unsuitable for combat with sharps. Lafaugère, a redoubtable fencer and swordsman (there is a difference), wrote in detail of the many variations of feints and their many combinations, making the book, to some, overly complex. The only modern text comparable in similar complexity is Imre Vass’s grand epee book (see the “Modern Epee” section above) in which he details feint attacks in similar fashion.
Un Maître d’armes Sous la Restauration : Petit Essai Historique by Arsène Vigeant, 1883. Strictly speaking, a biography of one history’s most swashbuckling and talented swordsmen and fencing masters, Jean-Louis. Like Alexandre Dumas who gave us some of the greatest swashbuckling and historical novels ever written, Jean-Louis was of mixed black and white French Caribbean descent. The book is listed here because Vigeant includes a detailed description of Jean-Louis’s teaching method, along with many of his drills, quite modern and still useful today. In any case, Jean-Louis’s story alone is a magnificent read. His daughter, if I recall correctly, was a quite talented fencer, too. For those of you who don’t read French, Michel Alaux includes a detailed biography of Jean-Louis (see the “Combined Modern” section above). Jean-Louis’s salle survived into the 20th century, and Alaux was its master for some years.
Backsword, Broadsword, Saber, &c.
Paradoxes of Defence by George Silver, 1599, reprint 1968 et al. A vigorous defense of English cut-and-thrust swordplay for dueling or battle, and excoriation of the rapier and rapier play. Contains perhaps the best description ever put to paper of the virtues of fencing, as well as the best examination for qualification as a fencing master or expert. Yes, if you want to be an expert swordsman or swordswoman, you must be able to routinely defeat unskilled fencers and not be thrown by their irregular technique and tactics! If you can’t, you’re merely a common fencer best suited to engaging others of your ilk. The fencing may not be pretty when you engage the unskilled, the hack, the ferrailleur, or the extremely unconventional, but you must be able to defeat any inferior fencer, not just those with conventional technique and tactics. Further, you must be able to hold your own against your equals, no matter their style, and force superior fencers to work hard for their victories—and occasionally, defeat them by doing so.
A Treatise on Backsword, Sword, Buckler, Sword and Dagger, Sword and Great Gauntlet, Falchon, [&] Quarterstaff by Capt. James Miller, 1738. Plates with a column of descriptive notes on the front page. Half a dozen or more of the fifteen plates apply to the basket-hilt backsword, and two to the falchion, and therefore to the cutlass. Excellent illustrations of positions poorly illustrated or described in other cutting sword texts of the period. Sir Wm. Hope was a fan of the “great gauntlet,” particularly on the battlefield. Miller was a soldier, later a stage gladiator.
The Use of the Broad Sword by Thomas Page. Norwich, England: M. Chase, 1746. 18th century broadsword technique, including that of the Scottish Highlanders, applicable also to the backsword and cutlass.
Highland Broadsword, edited by Paul Wagner and Mark Rector, 2004 (1790 – 1805). Five late 18th and early 19th century broadsword manuals (Anti-Pugilism by “a Highland Officer,” 1790; MacGregor’s Lecture on the Art of Defence, 1791; On the Use of the Broadsword by Henry Angelo, 1817; The Art of Defence on Foot with the Broad Sword and Saber, by R. K. Porter, 1804; and Fencing Familiarized, by Thomas Mathewson, 1805). Practical cut-and-thrust swordplay.
The Broad Swordsman’s Pocket Companion, “Designed by Capt. Wroughton,” ca. 1830. One of the last real English broadsword manuals of the era of Empire—actually, a book of plates only—before cut and thrust began to be absorbed by the rise in popularity of saber, not that there was actually much difference. Short, well-illustrated with colored prints of military fencers wearing fencing masks and armed with singlesticks. The book is exactly what it says.
The Art of the Dueling Sabre by Settimo del Frate explaining Guiseppe Radaelli’s saber method, translated and explained by Christopher Holzman, 2011. Del Frate’s original works were published in 1868 and 1872. Indispensable, along with the Wright/Masiello/Ciullini work below, for understanding Radaelli’s method of saber. It changed Italian saber fencing forever, and is the root of the Hungarian school.
Lessons in Sabre, Singlestick, Sabre & Bayonet, and Sword Feats; or, How to Use a Cut-And-Thrust Sword by J. M. Waite, 1880. Superb text on practical swordplay, highly recommended.
The Broadsword: as Taught by the Celebrated Italian Masters, Signors Masiello and Ciullini, of Florence, by Francis Vere Wright, Ferdinando Masiello, and [first name unknown] Ciullini, 1889. An English text on the Italian school of the light or dueling saber established by Guiseppe Radaelli in the 1870s. Maestro Masiello was a student of Radaelli; Ciullini probably was as well. Soon this Radaellian school would be transformed by Italo Santelli (a student of Carlo Pessina, who was a student of both Radaelli and Masaniello Parise) and László Borsody into the Hungarian saber school that would lead to Hungary’s half century reign in international sport saber competition. For those interested in the debunking of fencing myths, the book clearly states why the modern saber target is restricted to the area above the waist (and no, it has nothing to do with sabers once having been used on horseback): it was considered “unchivalrous” to hit below the belt. That is, the Italians wanted to keep their manhood undivided.
Cold Steel by Alfred Hutton, 1889, modern reprints available. Practical swordplay for the light saber (sorry, Star Wars fans, it’s not what you think) or even backsword, and also the “great sword” and stick. Highly recommended.
Broadsword and Singlestick by R. C. Allanson-Winn, 1890, reprints 2006, 2009. Excellent work on practical cut-and-thrust swordplay, most highly recommended. Quite English in its pragmatism.
See also Wylde, McBane, Godfrey, and Lonnergan in the Smallsword section above.
In spite of the popular—and correct—association of the cutlass with piracy, privateering, and naval boarding actions of the 17th through early 19th centuries, there are for all practical purposes no cutlass texts prior to the late 18th. Even Roland (see the Smallsword section above), who recommended fencing in particular for naval officers and crews because they had the most need of it given the prevalence of boarding actions, and Girard and McArthur who were naval officers, do not really describe it—Girard not at all, McArthur only briefly by identifying its guards and cuts as those of broadsword, and Roland largely by quoting McArthur.
Cutlass play, at least as described in cutlass manuals, of the later era was based almost entirely on the broadsword and saber technique of the time. However, given the cutlass’s useful abilities at close distances (those of riposte and of grappling), there were doubtless techniques used in earlier periods but not noted later, for example grazing parry-ripostes made in a near-single tempo, short powerful cleaving cuts, plus a variety of techniques suitable when grappling, not the least of which would have been pummeling. F. C. Grove in the introduction to Fencing (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1893) wrote: “One of us once saw a sailor of extraordinary strength seize a cutlass close to the hilt, where the edge is blunt, and break it short off.” Quite unconventional even by 17th century standards, yet for the seaman armed with a cutlass in action, not at all surprising. Marcelli (see the “Rapier” section above) notes something I’ve not seen elsewhere but becomes quite obvious when practicing cuts with a cutlass: the weapon is capable of fatal strokes at grappling distance.
Besides the study of backsword, broadsword, and saber texts, I recommend those of the dusack as well. Practice with a knowledgeable partner is also required, as is cutting practice in order to get a good feel for the weapon. The very few texts below are merely representative of saber technique of the later period: it is by no means a complete list. I have described late 17th century cutlass technique, or at least what we know of it, in The Sea Rover’s Practice, The Buccaneer’s Realm, and The Golden Age of Piracy, especially in the last book. Additionally, those interested may want to review my blog post, Buccaneer Cutlasses: What We Know, as it includes some information on technique. Marcelli and Girard have some discussion of opposing a saber against a rapier or smallsword, and Marcelli also vice versa, much of which is applicable to the cutlass. Likewise Captain Miller in the “Backsword” section has two plates showing falchion or hanger guards (inside and outside) applicable to the cutlass.
Naval Cutlass Exercise by Henry Angelo, 1813. A detailed illustration of footwork, cuts, and “words of command.” Based entirely on the broadsword, it might as well be broadsword, so why bother—except that Angelo was paid for it by the Royal Navy. In his defense, McArthur (see the “Smallsword” section above) agrees that cutlass and hanger guards and cuts are the same as those of the broadsword. Nonetheless, there are techniques one can use with a cutlass at the distance of “handy-grips” that cannot be used with a broadsword or other longer cutting sword.
Naval Cutlass Exercise “For the Use of Her Majesty’s Ships,” 1859. Includes a good general illustration of cuts and guards, as well as well-regulated military-style (naturally) drills for cuts, guards (equivalent to parries), and points (thrusts, that is). The brief “Concluding Observations” include a vital one for combat: “…but he must ever be “on guard” to meet the impromtu [sic] hit of such as cannot help returning [riposting], whether hit or not.”
The Ship and Gun Drills of the U. S. Navy, by the Naval Department, Division of Militia Affairs, 1914. Seaman’s manual with brief instruction on the USN “Sword Exercise.” The attacks and parries are simple and functional, and the illustrations useful.
British Naval Swords and Swordsmanship by John McGrath & Mark Burton, 2013. Includes a couple of good chapters on British naval swordsmanship, but as can be expected given the source material, the discussion is by and large of the late 18th century and afterward. Includes a description of British naval fencers as well. Required background reading for the student of cutlass swordplay and required technical reading for the collector of British naval swords.
La Bibliographie de l’Escrime Ancienne et Moderne by Arsène Vigeant, 1882. Not as complete as the bibliography below, but highly useful nonetheless. M. Vigeant had a thorough understanding of both swordplay itself and its history.
A Complete Bibliography of Fencing & Duelling by Carl A. Thimm, 1896. A very useful, largely complete bibliography through the late 19th century. Reprints from 1968 and 1999 are available, though often pricey. Look instead for the free pdf on Google books unless you find that fortune generally favors you or you have plenty of money to spend, the latter, of course, being one way or another proof that fortune has favored you at least once.
The History of Fencing & Swordplay
Schools and Masters of Fence by Egerton Castle, 1885, reprints 1968, 2003. European fencing to the late 19th century. Highly recommended.
Old Sword Play by Alfred Hutton, 1892, reprint 2001. A brief description of European fencing technique over the ages by a noted English fencing master.
The Sword and the Centuries by Alfred Hutton, 1901, reprint 1995. A history of European fencing and swords.
IIIe Congrès International d’Escrime, Brussels, 1905. For those interested in the arguments and squabbles that created modern sport fencing rules—and how sport interests came to dominate in epee competition, rather than having epee competition emulate dueling or the jeu de terrain as closely as possible.
The English Master of Arms: From the Twelfth to the Twentieth Century by J. D. Aylward, 1956. Excellent work covering not only English fencing masters, but necessarily the development of fencing in the British Isles as well. One of my favorites. Aylward’s book on the smallsword in England is also highly recommended for anyone with an interest in smallswords or late seventeenth and eighteenth century fencing or dueling.
Swordsmen of the Screen: From Douglas Fairbanks to Michael York by Jeffrey Richards, 1977. The history of swordsmen and swordswomen in film to 1977. Swashbuckling actors and the fencing masters who doubled for them. Worth the read if you’re into film swashbucklers.
Martini A-Z of Fencing by E.D. Morton, 1988. Not a book on fencing history per se, but a compendium that includes much fencing history, as well as fencing terms, concepts, and trivia. One of Mr. Morton’s entries is Rafael Sabatini. I disagree with most of Mr. Morton’s criticisms of Sabatini, including his claim that much of what he wrote about ships &c is in error. Sabatini did make errors, but they’re not nearly so egregious as Mr. Morton claims, with the exception of presenting a ship’s stern to cannon-fire in order to minimize damage (in fact, this would, as Mr. Morton notes, be more dangerous). Vanity aside, I hesitate to note that I am in fact an expert in this area, and can easily point out where Mr. Morton is incorrect. Notwithstanding that the majority of Mr. Morton’s entries are valid, readers must take the Sabatini entry with a grain of salt.
En garde: Du duel à l’escrime by Pierre Lacaze, 1991. Well-illustrated popular history of mostly French fencing and swordplay.
The History of Fencing by William M. Gaugler, 1998. A detailed history and analysis of the Italian schools into the first half of the 20th century, with a fair, if quite limited, discussion of French schools. The modern schools, including the revolutionary Hungarian (or Hungarian-Italian) saber school, are unfortunately not described.
Escrime by Gerard Six, photography by Vincent Lyky, 1998. “Coffee table” fencing book covering everything from history to technique, albeit briefly, and mostly French. Well-photographed.
The Secret History of the Sword by Christoph Amberger, 1999. By a veteran of the Mensur, also known as fighting for scars—which is by most definitions the purpose of macho male one-ups-man-ship. Most of us, just like Tom Sawyer, are proud of our scars. Highly recommended—the book that is, but we can include scars as well, as proof of a life well-lived and of a fortunate one also, in that we’re still alive to show off our scars.
Croiser le Fer: Violence et Culture de L’épée dans la France Modern (XVIe-XVIIIe Siècle) by Pascal Brioist, Hervé Drévillon, and Pierre Serna, 2002. Excellent scholarly study of swordplay and dueling in France from the 16th to 18th centuries. Highly recommended.
By the Sword by Richard Cohen, 2002. A history of fencing, including the modern schools, by a British Olympic fencer. Highly recommended.
Reclaiming the Blade by Galatia Films, DVD, 2009. A mostly well-intentioned attempt to “reclaim” authentic Western swordplay and historical fencing, but unfortunately marred by the heavy-handed, ideological manner in which it attacks sport fencing and some other forms of swordplay, not to mention by its egregious overuse of Hollywood references and interviews—Hollywood depictions of swordplay are usually divorced entirely from reality, thereby undercutting the argument. At its best, the documentary extols Western swordplay. At its worst, it further divides rather than unites the several major fencing communities.
To pick a bone with—or perhaps cross swords with?—the film’s makers, although many modern competitive fencers often do not practice the ideal of “hitting and not getting hit,” there are plenty, epeeists especially, or at least veteran epeeists, who do understand the concept well, can execute it exceptionally well when necessary, and are happy to argue the point, weapon in hand, with any fencer of any sort. In fact, some of us trained entirely under masters who fenced when dueling was still practiced and the saber was still a military arm—and who understood that it was entirely acceptable to practice both forms of swordplay, that is, sport or recreational, and practical training for combat with real weapons. To promote the so-called reality of historical and classical fencing is double-edged and often cuts hypocritically: excessive “contre-temps” or double-touches have been the bane of fencing for centuries, and modern “historical” and “classical” fencers are no more immune to them than were the fencers of the past whom they seek to emulate.
Useful Japanese Texts
Tengu Geijutsuron (The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts) by Issai Chozanshi [Niwa Jurozaemon Tadaaki], translated by William Scott Wilson, 2006. Includes the famous story illustrating the psychology of swordplay, Neko no Myojutsu (The Mysterious Technique of the Cat). Originally written in the early 18th century.
Heihō Kaden Sho (The Sword and the Mind) by Kamiizumi Hidetsuna, Yagyū Muneyoshi, and Yagyū Munenori, translated by Hiroaki Sato, 1985. Originally compiled in the 17th century.
Go Rin No Sho (A Book of Five Rings) by Miyamoto Musashi, translated by Victor Harris, 1974. Completed in 1645, shortly before the author’s death. Numerous editions available, including an excellent translation by William Scott Wilson. A classic on swordplay, strategy, and tactics.
The Unfettered Mind by Takuan Sōhō, translated by William Scott Wilson, 1986. Three essays on swordsmanship (Fudōchishinmyōroku, Reirōshū, and Taiaki) by a Zen master and contemporary of Musashi. Written in the early 17th century.
Suggestions on Acquiring the Books Above
Several of the listed titles (Borysiuk, Czajkowski, Harmenberg, Holzman, Kogler, Lukovich, Szabo, and Vass) are available directly from the publisher, Swordplay Books Online (http://www.swordplaybooks.com/), and delivery may be quicker than in going through a third party vendor who orders the title from the publisher. Other titles may be ordered from various online retailers, and occasionally may be found in bookstores. Most of the titles listed are out of print. Some of the older titles are in the public domain and are available as .pdf files on Google Books, archive.org (an excellent site but for its practice of making some books still under copyright available), and other electronic book sites. College students may be able to access some titles digitally or in traditional print via their university libraries.
Some of the seventeenth and eighteenth century titles in English are published as fairly inexpensive reprints by Gale ECCO and EEBO (Early English Books Online), along with similar cheap—in the sense of cheaply reproduced from mediocre quality digital scans or old microfiches—facsimile reprint publishers, and are available via Amazon and other online bookstores. However, please note that most of these versions DO NOT INCLUDE FOLDOUT PLATES thanks to Google and other publishers’ “get them copied as fast as possible” practice, so if you’re looking for the illustrations you’ll usually have to look elsewhere. Some of these and other old fencing texts may be found in various national digital libraries, often of much better quality, and with complete foldout plates.
A reader of this post, Pradana (see Cruzado y Peralta in the rapier section above), recommends Freelance Academy Press https://www.freelanceacademypress.com/, Fallen Rook Publishing http://www.fallenrookpublishing.co.uk/publications/, and AGEA Editora http://ageaeditora.com/en/ as sources for modern reprints.
Bookfinder.com compares prices of books in and out of print among online retailers, including independent booksellers. Fetchbook.info compares prices among online retailers and some of the major independent bookstores, but appears to be down at the moment, permanently perhaps. Abebooks.com and Alibris.com permit title searches through the stock of thousands of independent booksellers. Search these sites to get an idea of price range before searching on eBay: although some books on eBay are good, even great, deals, some are grossly overpriced or over-bid. My general preference is for Abebooks.com if you don’t have a local independent brick-and-mortar store carrying fencing books (unlikely). Those of you who never had to rely twenty-five or more years ago on book vendors for online searches won’t quite appreciate how useful and cost-effective Abebooks &c. are: “back in the day,” booksellers doing searches for customers would typically mark up the price of a book found at another vendor by one hundred percent—plus shipping. Naturally, they didn’t inform you of this practice.
Some fencing books can be found on Amazon.com, but ALWAYS price compare first, especially with used or antiquarian editions. Many Amazon book vendors have a bad–if not entirely unethical–practice of listing out of print volumes at ridiculously high prices. I’ve seen a used copy of one of my books listed for about $300 by an Amazon vendor, when it could be found on other sites for as little as $25 in the same condition. Similarly with fencing books…
Many fencing suppliers carry fencing books in stock, although the number of titles may be limited. Some libraries carry fencing books, but the selection these days is usually slim. Compare to my high school library which had three or four books on fencing, and we didn’t have, and never had, a fencing team.
Most of the sport fencing books listed above are dated in regard to modern competitive rules, practices, and uniform and equipment requirements. Always refer to the current USA Fencing rule book and USA Fencing operations manual, or other appropriate national fencing regulations for HEMA, historical, classical, and other organizations, for competition rules and regulations. USA Fencing rules, such as they now are, are available for download at USA Fencing’s website.
Copyright 2008-2021 Benerson Little. Last updated June 4, 2021.