All posts by gregm

The Perfect and Imperfect Schermi of Angelo Viggiani

Robert Rutherfoord (c) 2015

[Editor’s Note: Quite some years ago now, Jherek Swanger translated Angelo Viggiani’s Lo Schermo, and gave a short analysis of its contents, which he found somewhat disappointing. In response to that, I wrote a rebuttal article, arguing for a reassessment of its contents as providing the clearest insight into tempo and body-mechanics we have for the Bolognese tradition, as well as providing a particularly lucid explanation on the “Universal Parry” by rising riverso, which first appears in the work of Fiore dei Liberi (1409), and remains as lately as the rapier texts of Marcelli and Bondi di Mazo (1696).

However, as they say, the student outstrips the teacher, and in the following article, CSG scholar and Bolognese swordplay instructor Rob Rotherfoord takes an even closer look at Lo Schermo, and finds that there is both an offensive and defensive application to the system, and the distinctions between the two speak specifically to the Three Advantages Viggiani details earlier in his text.

Gregory D. Mele ]

I tell you that this is my schermo, composed of the most perfect offense, and of the most perfect guards that there are, namely the guardia alta, offensiva, perfetta, and the punta sopramano, offensiva, perfettissima. There you have also the riverso tondo, a good defensive blow, and the guardia difensiva larga.

When we think of the techniques of Angelo Viggiani, we think of his one, perfect Schermo, or defense (literally “screen”).  But, to illustrate the perfection of his single defense, made with a single blow, in a single tempo, he first presents the “common” parry with all of its deficiencies.

A Common and “Imperfect” Defense
This common parry “that all the Master teach, and the greatest part of combatants use,” is formed by making a mandritto, but in such a way that the point stays high, above the hilt, holding the arm extended, so that the blades meet true edge to true edge.  What Viggiani seems to be describing is the common Bolognese position Guardia di Testa (Head Guard) held to the inside.  Fitting, because to demonstrate the imperfection of this parry, he uses a dritto-fendente from Guardia Alta (an imperfect blow) striking to the opponent’s head.

What follows here is are a synoptic charts of the laundry list of ways to defeat such a parry found in Viggiani’s text (cap. 115-117).  To make these techniques understandable to a broader group of students of the Bolognese art, I’ve decided to substitute the terminology used by Giovanni dall’Agocchie to those of Viggiani, as they are more universal to 16th century swordsmanship in general and the Bolognese tradition in particular.

Agent Patient
Deliver a dritto fendente from Guardia Alta Parry Guardia di Testa
  Turn the point to the left and cuts a riverso inside the blade
The cut which was still in descent, strikes the head

NB: Viggiani seems to be ignoring the response from the Guarida di Testa parry, possibly to demonstrate how cutting inside the blade does not keep the patient protected.

Agent Patient
Deliver a dritto fendente from Alta Parry Guardia di Testa
  Strike with a riverso stramazzone
Turn the true-edge out, parrying and striking in Guardia d’Intrare OR turn a roverso, striking to the arm

Agent Patient
Deliver a dritto fendente from Alta Parry Guardia di Testa
  Pull away from the bind and strike mandritto to the leg
The cut which was still in descent, strikes the head

NB: Viggiani again ignores the response from the patient’s parry to demonstrate that it does nothing to deter the initial blow which is still in descent towards the head.

At this point, Viggiani goes on to explain how not only the responses from such a parry are faulty, but the parry itself is easily deceived.  While delivering the dritto fendente from Guardia Alta, Viggiani transforms the original cut into a different attack in order to avoid the di Testa parry all together.

Agent Patient
Deliver a dritto fendente from Alta Parry Guardia di Testa
Avoid the sword, continue the cut to strike to the arm or leg

Agent Patient
Deliver a dritto fendente from Alta Parry Guardia di Testa
Turn the dritto into a riverso as the cut is still descending and strike the head on the other side of the sword

With gathering steps:

And on a pass:

Agent Patient
Deliver a dritto fendente from Alta Parry Guardia di Testa
As the cut is descending, turn the hand up to deliver an Imbrocata under the opponent’s sword to his chest

A More “Perfect” Defense
After presenting how this “perfect” strike defeats this “imperfect” defense, he then moves on to his “perfect schermo”.  However, this is not the first time he has presented it, but rather the third.  The first, is in his explanation on how to form the guards which comprise the Schermo (cap. 65-69):

You are advised that all seven guards must be done with the right foot and the right side advance toward the enemy; because they are less mortal and have greater strength and faculty than the left, as much in the offending as well as in the defending. Watch, therefore, Conte, now I hold this sword at my left hip; if I wish to avail myself of it, and use it against you, either to offend you or to defend myself, it will be necessary that I put my right hand here at the hilt of the sword, in order to draw it forth, whereby I do this riverso ridoppio with strength, and this is the first blow, originated from the left side, guardia prima, et difensiva imperfetta [Ed: guardia sotto il braccio].

The second, is how to use the Schermo if you are to be the first to attack (cap. 102-109).  And the third, he presents as a defense in contrast to the common parry (cap. 118-119). The Schermo changes in subtle ways in this second and third explanations.

When applying the Schermo as the Agent, or the first to strike, the Schermo starts with the agent forming Guardia Alicorno.  From there, once in measure, an imbrocata is delivered with a large step on the forward, right foot.  It is implied that if the Patient is a smart fencer, he will be in a perfect guard, either also in Alicorno or one of the stretta guards, and thus to the Agent’s inside.  While this high thrust moves forward through space, the true edge is turned to the inside, so that when it strikes it resembles Guardia di Faccia.

And so that you can understand this safe Schermo of ours well, behold, I repeat, and say, that finding yourself with your right foot forward in guardia alta, offensiva, perfetta, and with your weight on your left side, and wanting to execute the punta sopramano, and do it perfectly, you must always accompany the sword hand with the right foot together with the entire body, as much with the upper parts as with the lower, and not allow the lower right parts to go forward without the company of the upper right parts.

CON: Why?

ROD: In order that you be able to put all the strength of your body to your service; butwhen you have in mind to do the punta sopramano, make the right foot move itself, and go forward a big step, and immediately make the left arm begin to descend, and the right shoulder to propel the arm forward, dropping with the point from high to low, taking aim at my chest, without making any turn of your hand, pushing it so far forward and so long as you are able. In this tempo the heel of the left foot will follow the right, not moving, however, the point of the left foot from its place, then turning the wrist of the sword hand together with the true edge toward the left side, and immediately descending down to the ground, withdrawing the right foot somewhat back, and making the point of your sword draw a line on the ground and travel behind you on the left side, and after the right foot finally is a span from the left foot, the right shoulder then will find itself very low, and the left arm will be behind, and high, and extended forth toward the left side; the feet remain even, but the point of the right foot will point out toward the right side, and the point of the left foot out toward the left side, your shoulders will be looking at the enemy more than your forward side, and your weight will be placed on your left side; thereby you will find yourself in this guardia difensiva, larga, imperfetta.

Any number of thrusts could be delivered from any number of guards that would oppose the patient’s blade by turning the true edge against it, so why does Viggiani choose this high thrust that turns mid-way through its action to only oppose at the moment it strikes?  The answer lies within a previous chapter discussing “advantages”, which I’ve discussed in a previous article.

Because Alicrono lies high and away from the centerline, it is relatively safe from being molested by the opponent’s weapon.  This means that he who forms this guard will be able to keep their point as a threat, and thus maintain the first advantage (see my previous article on Viggiani’s Three Advantages).  The natural attack from here is a thrust from above (Imbrocata or Punta Sopramano).

As Viggiani himself alludes to, this strike is simply an extension of this guard, and thus maintains the same properties as the guard itself. As the guard is difficult to oppose, so too is the strike.  Only until it is vitally important to oppose or make contact with the opponent’s weapon, the true edge is then moved to meet it for the safety of the agent.  From this Guadia di Faccia position, Viggiani has the agent suppress the weapon down and to the left by forming a defensive guard (Porta di Ferro larga or stretta).  What follows from here is the return to Alicorno, and without mentioning any sort of parry, Viggiani describes a defensive cut that sets up his third explanation of the Schermo.

We can find “proof of concept” if not “proof of interpretation” by looking at a near-contemporary source from across the Alps. Since the 19th century, fencing historians have drawn connections between the masters of the Bolognese school and the last major source of the Liechtenauer tradition, Joachim Meyer;  Jacopo Gelli evn going so far as to call Meyer and Viggiani condiscepolo (“classmates”) under Achille Marozzo (albeit, without a shred of evidence). Whatever the precise connection, part of what most distinguishes Meyer is introduction of the Renaissance cut & thrust sword (German: rappir), whose  guards, techniques and pedagogy seem like a tidy fusion of older, German longsword teachings and the spada solo of late Bolognese masters, such as Viggiani and Giovanni dall’Agocchie. Indeed, it is Meyer who illustrates Viggiani’s punta sopramano, and sure enough, he has the exact same offensive use of the Italian master’s Schermo, which he describes thus:

Position yourself in the High Guard of the right Ox, concerning which you have already been instructed. Raise your right foot for a step forward, and as you raise your foot, pull your hilt back behind over your right shoulder to gather for a forceful thrust. From there, thrust at his chest with a broad step forward on the foot you have raised; but just as this thrust shall hit, turn the long edge down toward your left in the manner of a slice, so that at the end of the thrust your front knee is flexed well forward, and your upper body leans well over it forward toward the ground after the thrust; and so that after completing the thrust you bring your blade with extended arm long in front of your foot in slicing down toward theground. From there, recover your foot and go with your long edge back up into the right Ox, just as you stood in the beginning

What Viggiani leaves out, but Meyer clarifies, is that because this high thrust does not provide opposition to the inside, just as the thrust hits, the true edge is turned inside (to the left), to protect the attacker.  From there,  both Viggiani and Meyer cut down to the left, etc.  So, the question can be asked, why start it as a high thrust, if it is to be turned in at the last moment?  The high thrust is difficult to oppose (which is why it is used over and over), and it’s only folly is the lack of opposition to the inside.  There’s no question that it provides all the opposition one would need to the outside, and when Viggiani describes the Schermo as a defense (cap.118-119) the thrust is indeed to the outside, which is why he recovers in Coda Lunga, and not Porta di Ferro.  So, then why use it to the inside? Because just as the guard, Alicorno, is difficult to oppose because it creates a strong angle to the inside, the thrust from Alicorno is also difficult to oppose for the same reason.  So, when the true edge needs to be employed to keep the attacker safe, the true edge is turned in, and if it’s done just as the thrust hits, it will look like di Faccia.

Using the Schermo as a defensive action (cap. 118-119), Viggiani has the patient begin in Porta di Ferro e Stretta.  When the attack is delivered, the sword is turned over, with the point directed to the left, resembling an extended Guardia di Sotto il Braccio.  This position sets up a roverso tondo where the patient’s forte meets the agent’s debole during the defensive cut/parry.  At the end of the cut, he tells the reader that the hand and point will be no higher than the shoulder and the true edge will be directed to the right.  Once the parry has been completed, the true edge is then turned up to the sky, locking the agent’s blade in place, and returning the patient to Guardia Alicorno:

While my mandritto is beat aside by your rovescio tondo, it will go by your right side; lift up your sword hand somewhat, and turn the true edge toward the sky, and make the point of the sword drop somewhat, and move yourself toward me with your right foot forward with a big step, and then immediately drop your left arm, and make your right shoulder throw your right arm forward, declining toward me from high to low, with that punta sopramano offensiva, accompanying it in all of the said manners; and if I do not give you a response with some blow, do not halt there, but lift your sword, and going with it a span forward of your right knee, you will fix yourself in guardia stretta offensiva, perfetta; this is a perfect offense, which you must do following the insult received from me, and following your defense. But if I turned to some other blow in order to offend you, then you, with the same rovescio tondo, will always be able to beat back my sword toward your right side, and return to offend me in the chest with the same punta sopramano, offensiva, perfetta; and thus after you defend yourself, you will always [83R] be able to offend me again in the chest with the punta sopramano perfetta; therefore it is the most perfect and secure blow that can be found, and to express it succinctly, this  is called “Great blow”

The following action, or resposta, must now differ from the previous description of the Schermo because now the blade engagement is to the outside.  The same high thrust is delivered, but there is no cork-screwing action because opposition has already been achieved, and the Agent’s debole remains on the patient’s forte.  And because the attack is being made to the outside line, he does not have the patient suppress the blade to the inside, but rather he has the patient fall into Coda Lunga e Stretta.

So despite subtle variations, Viggiani’s Perfect Schermo, whether being used as the Agent or the Patient, can be simply summarized as defend by roverso tondo, attack by imbrocata turning the true edge of the blade into the opponent’s when his weapon becomes a threat.  All that differs is that when you are the Agent, you begin with the imbrocata and finish in a position where, should you have failed to land your thrust, you are now Patient and thus are prepared to defend by roverso tondo and risposta with an imbrocata, so that the two actions endlessly flow from one to the other.

The perfection and imperfection of the actions he describes are argued throughout this period and no two masters fully agree on the one best.  Dall’Agocchie admits there is no one perfect technique, or else he’d be out of a job.  Each of the 16th c masters has a preferred “universal parry”: Manciolino advocates a falso-manco (a false edge roverso), Dall’Agocchie prefers a roverso squalembrato (a descending true edge roverso) and in Lo Schermo, Viggiani advocates a roverso tondo (a horizontal roverso, with a slight rise), but each follow with the same response: the over-hand thrust. So we can see that in Lo Schermo Viggiani’s advice falls neatly in line with what other swordsmen of the time advocate:

  1. it is better to allow the opponent to strike first,
  2. thus be in a defensive guard,
  3. parry by making a roverso,
  4. respond with an over-hand thrust.

Which method is best? All three variations have differing strengths and weaknesses, but this is a different discussion for a different time….

Bibliography

Primary Sources
Manciolino, Antonio, Opera Nova, dove li sono tutti li documenti & vantaggi che si ponno havere nel mestier de l’armi d’ogni sorte novamente corretta & stampata; Venice, 1531.

Marozzo, Achille, Opera Nova. Chiamata duello, o vero fiore dell’armi de singulari abattimenti offensivi et diffensivi; Modena, 1536.

Viggiani, Angelo, Lo schermo; Venice, 1575. Translated by Jherek Swanger: http://celyn.drizzlehosting.com/jherek/Schermo.pdf  sourced: 23/3/2015.

Secondary Sources
Castle, Egerton, Schools and Masters of Defense: From the Middle Ages to the Eighteenth Century; London, 1885.

Gelli, Jacopo, L’arte dell’armi in Italia; Bergamo, 1902.

Mele, Gregory, Understanding Viggiani’s Lo Schermo, in Western Martial Arts Illustrated, Vol. 1, 2007.

Norling, Roger, Meyer’s Masters, http://hroarr.com/meyers-masters/, sourced: 23/3/2015

 

 

Using Angelo Viggiani’s Three Advantages to understand initiative  in 16th century, Italian Swordplay

by Robert Rutherfoord  (c)2015

In Lo Schermo (c. 1550, published 1575) Angelo Viggiani dal Montone defines three “advantages”,  the Guard,  Step and Strike, as the most basic means to gain a more favorable position over your opponent.  Viggiani, and his contemporaries, though their reasons differ, prefer the thrust to the cut.  As a result, guards that naturally delivered a thrust were also preferred.  Thus, the importance of placing oneself in a guard with the point in presence – a guardia perfetta – while denying the same to the opponent is defined as the Advantage of the Guard.

Viggiani gives us three methods to gain and maintain the Advantage of the Guard.  The first is to make half cuts in order to displace your opponent’s blade while keeping your own in presence.  The second is to make feints, or sfalsata, in order to thwart your opponent’s attempts at gaining the centerline in the same way.  The third is to step offline to reposition the center more favorably to your advantage.

The last method of gaining the Advantage of the Guard should also be understood alongside the second advantage, the Advantage of the Step, which is to place the non-dominant foot (the left foot for us righties) in a position that enables a long and powerful extension of the dominant foot during the attack.  Viggiani states this happens when the rear foot is gathered forward to the front foot.  With the understanding that stepping offline is a method of gaining Advantage of the Guard, however; one could satisfy both action in a single step.  By taking a step with one’s rear foot both offline and somewhat forward, one can reposition the center in his favor while also gaining Advantage of the Step.

If you step into measure while you have Advantage of the Step, you also have Advantage of the Strike. This final advantage is the ability to launch an attack in a single tempo.  If you have already established the first two advantages, while also stepping into measure with the rear foot, then a single step on the dominant foot can be made to bring the body and sword forward safely.

The three advantages are Viggiani’s general guidelines on how to proceed safely against an opponent.  But any proactive motion takes time, and while one attempts to make a motion — a tempo — to gain one of the advantages, that tempo can be exploited by his opponent.  Viggani tells us that each of these advantages can actually become disadvantages if the opponent decides to act within the tempi of each action.  Here’s how it works.

Gaining any Advantage requires one to make a tempo.  Delivering a half cut requires one to move from one guard to another, falsing requires the point to leave presence, and stepping offline requires the entire body to move.  Each one of these movements (and especially any combination of them) is a perfect opportunity for the opponent to strike.  Because the one attempting to gain the advantage is required to leave the safety of his guard and move into another, he is momentarily susceptible to an attack, which is what an opponent should look for when making a strike.

With the Advantage of the Step, especially into a narrow pace of the feet, the same issue exists with the side step.  The Agent — the one gaining the advantage — must move a foot to do so, a long tempo that creates substantial opportunity to be struck. Conversely, if he remains with his feet together, he is less apt to receive a blow.  The same is also true with the advantage of the strike.  To strike one must commit sword and body (with a step) and “be the first to leave the safety of his guard.”

The contemporary master, Giovanni dall’Agocchie breaks these “disadvantages” down into five categories detailing when it is best to attack:

  1. You parry the attack of your opponent.
  2. An attack at you traverses outside of your presence.
  3. Your opponent raises his sword to attack you.
  4. Your opponent injudiciously changes guard, before he settles in the new guard.
  5. Your opponent, standing still in guard, raises or moves his foot to change his pace or to move towards you.

Of these, the best time to attack your opponent is when he moves (gives you a tempo).  Conversely, a fencer should expect to be attacked if he makes one of these five actions.  However, to gain the advantages, one must first move.  The advantages come with their liabilities, and may not seem like advantages at all if they are also perfect opportunities for the opponent to strike. The key, however, is that one should expect to be struck at  while moving to take advantage.  Thus, they are invitations for an opponent to strike.  By making a half cut to gain the Advantage of Guard, and a half step to gain the Advantage of the Step, one can entice his opponent to make a full blow, and this large tempo can be exploited in turn with a parry and counter in a single, shorter tempo.

In Lo Schermo, which is written as a dialogue, Viggiani is asked by the hypothetical student why it is not prudent to be the first to attack, knowing that the defender will be forced to deal with the oncoming blow.  His response is that this would be true if it were not for the fact that a parry can be made in a single tempo; by using a counterattack a fencer can parry and strike in the very moment the first mover meant to land his blow.  However, to make a parry succeed in both diverting the blow and striking in a single tempo, one needs to note when and where that blow is meant to be delivered. Rather than simply striking to force a response, seeking to gain the Advantages puts the fencer in a stronger mechanical and tactical position with both sword and body by closing and opening the lines of his choosing, thereby limiting where he can be struck.  For example, if the fencer closes the inside line when gaining the Advantage of the Guard, in that instant he is only vulnerable to outside.  Having this foresight enables him to reduce his opponent’s decision tree: there is one place he can strike, which means that the fencer only has to worry about closing one open line during the parry, thus dramatically increasing his chance to respond with a single-time parry-counter.

With this, we can say that Viggiani’s Three Advantages are also a form of provocation, forcing an attack by our opponent to a specific line in a specific tempo that we will be ready to close and respond to in that instant. The ability to force the actions of the opponent when and where a fencer wants is how you control the initiative in fencing, and control of initiative is at the center of how you excel as a swordsman.

Longpoint and Missing the Point

It has been a strange week in HEMA-land; at least from my little corner of the world. On the one hand, it has been a great week for getting the word out into the mainstream that there is something called Historical European Martial Arts; on the other, what should have been a fascinating attempt at a deed of arms bridging practitioners of two different martial traditions turned into an unnecessarily violent attempt at a “smackdown” and much of our community has responded to this by showing a profound ignorance of what the event was about,  combined with putting the blame almost squarely on the injured party; largely, I suspect, because he’s the outsider.

ANY PRESS IS GOOD PRESS, BUT GOOD PRESS IS BETTER

Folks in the HEMA-Sport world are rightly a-glow with the positive New York Times Article on the popular Longpoint event, and justly so: it was a well-done article that nicely portrayed the international efforts to create a modern combat sport focused on unarmoured longsword fencing — only in modern safety gear — deriving from late medieval German martial arts; in essence, European kendo, complete with a standardized look, rigorous and complex judging, resets after every blow (but not fought to a single blow, as a real match with sharp steel would likely transpire) and a set number of points to win the match. Indeed, much like kendo, points are even conveyed by the judges using colored flags  or batons in semaphore-like actions. Unlike post-WWII kendo, but much like its predecessor, limited degrees of grappling and unarmed striking are also allowed. The article did a nice job of covering this, and showing that this is a serious attempt at creating a new sport by normal folks, not a bunch of Highlander-meets-Game of Thrones rejects. (Well, the original article did; MTV and some of the other less “newsy” outlets had to work GoT in there somehow.)

I haven’t been to Longpoint, but colleagues have, and I have had a lot of talks with Ben Michels, one of the organizers, and think that they have tried  very, very hard to take their sport and keep it reasonably well-tied to the source art by creating an event where the specialists can compete in their thing (forms, cutting, sparring), just like in most martial arts tournaments, while there is also a more pentathalon approach. Basically, it combines what in Asian martial arts would be completely separate combat sports (kendo, batto, judo, etc) and goes them one better, combining them into an omnibus event that is something like an Olympic pentathlon. In a nod to the diversity of HEMA, Longpoint even featured demo bouts of areas outside tournament interest, such as armoured combat and Polish saber.

So the story is getting a lot of play which is great news and I cheerily shared it; to the perplexity of some of my more traditional-minded friends (those who know myself or the Guild will know that I’m a fan of competition but not formal combat sports, for reasons I’ve articulated elsewhere at length). It’s been a weird conversation, that can be summarized like this:

THEM:  “Why would you think this is a good thing? Doesn’t the article just point to the idea that there is this modern tournament sport?”

ME: “Yes, that was definitely the point of the piece: to cover a tournament that is promoting a new sword sport.”

THEM: “But what about the more holistic look at the art? Not just besides longsword, but actually training in techniques that don’t show up in tournaments?” (By which they mean things like the German *schnitt* or *Abschneiden*, polearms, dagger combat, armoured combat — all the stuff that makes the “knightly art” a composite art.)

ME: “That wasn’t the point of the story, nor is it the point of Longpoint or the HEMA Tournament folks — it is to have a competition derived from historical material with mostly longswords and some dabbling in other swords and wrestling.  The article makes that clear, and I am not sure how many times Jake, et al had to use the word “sport”, “competition” or “tournament”, or refer to “clubs” (vs. schools) or “coaches” (vs. instructors) to get that across.”

THEM: “Well, yeah, but that isn’t what we do.”

ME: “Nope”

THEM: “So what makes that good for us?”

ME: “Truth? Not much, except that people want to learn to “swordfight”; whatever that means to them. So if you see this story and type in “medieval swordfighting Chicago” you get the CSG. If you show up and find out that some of our folks go to tournaments, but we don’t all dress in black Absolute Force gear, use feders and focus on judged tournament fighting and that is a turn-off, no harm done.”

THEM: “Yeah, but….”

ME: “Look, two of my friends [Jake Norwood and Ben Michels] have worked their asses off for several years to build this thing and their community. Can’t I give them an attaboy?”

THEM: “I guess….”

And so on. Stupid, right? If this were some kendo buddies or sport fencers whose event got notice and I plugged it, no one would care. But this is “HEMA” (whatever that means to each reader) and we have to pretend that:

a) it is a singular, monolithic “thing”;

b) we are all training for or trying to do the same singular, monolithic thing,

c) if you don’t do it my way you are either a lily-livered wimp OR just a sport fencer who wouldn’t know a medieval manuscript from a piece of old toilet paper.

The truth, of course, is rather different:

a) as an activity that covers the research, reconstruction and on-going interpretation of martial arts from Europe and her colonies over a 600 year time period, even if we all had the exact same methods and goals, “HEMA” would hardly be a singular thing;

b) when you train to compete in a sport, you learn how to train to maximize your performance, which leads to some very effective competition techniques [see Axel Peterson’s victory described in the NYT video slow mo at 3:19] that simply do not show up in historical sources, or are even directly advised against, but make perfectly good sense in a bout where as soon as the hit is made a judge throws a flag and the fight either halts (no need to worry if your fight killed him), or an “after blow” scores and potentially negates the low hit. Thus it is no surprise that this same strategy is common in modern kendo and has a specific name: nuki do, often done dropping to one knee.

c) the truth is that some folks both compete and study the holistic art, but we all have to choose where our focus is. If it is competition, then you are going to need to pare down what you do to the weapons and rules that will work best in that environment — you *must* if you wish to be competitive — and if it is the latter, you train broadly and try to adapt what you know to the given ruleset and equipment you are presented with.  The problem only comes when you start believing that a tournament is a measure of real combat effectiveness anymore than is doing partnered drills or politely fencing with your mates in the salle. This is as true of is HEMA as it is to mistake boxing or MMA for Combatives and urban defense.

So congrats to Jake, Ben and all of the other xKDF folks for landing their 15 min of fame: while we have different focus and interests in the larger HEMA-umbrella, you worked hard, it’s paying off and more people know that there even were historical arts to learn in the first place. Good on you!

MISSING THE POINT

Sadly, what one hand giveth, the other taketh away. Remember that last point of mistaking what you do for being “real” or indicative of “the way?”  Because combat sports are by nature meant to be large, unifying endeavors, they are particularly bad at this, and many practitioners, immersed in their sport’s culture, quickly forget that not all similar activities are meant to be a new take on their sport, and are not done for “competitive” reasons.

This takes us to the second part of this weird week, which was the video, reports and discussions on my friend Dr. Manoucher Khorasani’s 100 Man Fight in Prague this past weekend. Firstly, Manoucher is not a HEMA person at all, but rather has taken a parallel path in reviving Persian martial arts, which he has written upon extensively and maintains a large Youtube library of videos of his work. What’s this have to do with modern HEMA? Read on…

As Dr. Khorasani writes:

Persian sources talk about the legendary hero of one thousand man “Hezarmard” a hero who survived one thousand fights.  In the same spirit japanese kendo has tachikiri/tachigiri no seigan as a test of courage, endurance and stamina.  As a former Kyokushinkai and an admirer of Soke Mas Oyama I have been admiring the one-hundred man fight kyokushin test. Only few blackbelts worldwide have passed the test. Many tried but failed.  Everyone who knows fullcontact knows how hard the Kyokushin as a bare knuckle fight is.  Although one hundred man fight is very hard and fullcontact its goal is not to destroy the candidate and to knock him out as it is done in the Kyokushinkai world championships or selection tournaments.  Moreover one wants to test the courage, stamina, determination and willingness of the candidate.  

As a researcher I wanted to see how a person can handle that type of fighting with unsharpened training swords and weapons.  My team and I trusted Mr. Herbert Heissler, the head of the Czech Stuntsfighter association with choosing the opponents and weapons.  

It Probably Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

This should also hardly be a new concept to people who have been in the martial arts world for any appreciable time. As Dr. Khorasani mentions, this contest exists in the Kyokushinkai and is quite famous. It also exists in kendo, in the form of tachigiri and in more contemporary martial arts in the “Beastings” of the famous Dog Brothers. This latter is described as:

The “Beasting” is an initiation tradition taken from the UK Training Groups. If a Dog Brother Tribe member wishes to become a DBMA Group Leader he/she has the choice to undertake a “Beasting”.  The initiate has to fight continuously for 8-12 mins, every minute facing a different (and fresh) Dog Brother (aka ‘a Beast’).  The Beasting is totally voluntary, and is not required to become a GL, but is done by those who want the Kudos…

You don’t go into a Beasting to win, but to survive. The ‘Beast line’ should be composed of fighter who are your peers or better. Any one of them has the capacity to end your day. The purpose is to push rather than break, after 3 or 4 minutes the initiate is usually exhausted and battered. At this point it’s all about balls and determination.

So far so good, and really this should not be considered “weird” to a HEMA person: after all, Playing the Prize; which was how the historical guilds in many countries bestowed rank, and has been used by many modern HEMA schools was just such an event. Although 100 men exceeds the numbers recorded by 16th century Guilds such as the London Masters of Defence, those prizes were also played without any real safety gear besides blunted weapons, and some basic safety rules: no pommel strikes or grapples, no hits below the belt, no thrusts to the face (sometimes no thrusts, period).  Likewise, staking out a location for a set time to fight all comers did not originate with the Guilds — it was an aping of a tradition already established by knightly combatants in the 14th century — nor did it end with them; such activities continued with English “stage gladiators” until well into the 18th century was the origin of modern prize fighting.

Unfortunately, things didn’t go very well.  As Dr. Khorasani reports, from the moment he arrived the rules changed, making him underequipped and his opponents with a very vague notion of what “full contact” meant:

He assured us that all weapons were aluminum besides Fechtfeders which were made of steel.  We were assured that they were light Feders as used in longsword championships.  My main instructor Mr. Heiko Grosse pointed out to me that I should make sure that they should be flexible enough as our armor was light for steel weapons. I have always admired longsword fighters as they are very technical.  We figured my light armor which was meant to absorb the shock of fullcontact aluminium sparring weapons could also do the same with very flexible steel feders.  We agreed that the fights would be fullcontact and contnuous.  In spite of the fullcontact nature of the bouts, the event was to test my stamina and willingness to fight.  We asked couple of times to change the date from Thursday September 11 to a weekend so that both my staff members could accompany me at least and even some other team members from Razmafzar.  However we were reassured by Mr. Heissler couple of times that was the only day where all participants including fighters, doctors and organizers could come…. I was relaxed and not nervous but to my surprise I realized that some of the participants were nervous and were speaking loudly to Herbert in Czech.  I  did not understand anything but I figured they were discussing the rules.  I did not care about the rules as my intention was not to score neither count points.  My biggest challenge and enemy there were not my opponents as I looked at them as my helpers.  My biggest challenge and enemy were my stamina and dehydration.

He was clearly wrong about that, since:

There were a professional surgeon and a medic there who advised that after ten rounds the fights should be stopped as they had to check me and my possible injuries and I had to drink due to the danger of dehydration in armor.  That meant stoppage after twenty minutes of continuous fighting. I agreed with them.  At this stage I would like to thank both gentlemen for their professionalism and their help during the entire event. 

Although Dr. Khorasani was polite in his analysis of the fight, he makes it clear that the feders were not the lighter flexible feders he was familiar with, nor where his opponents really trying to “press him”, they were trying to break him. Which they did, with four broken ribs, two cracked ones and several broken fingers, one requiring surgery.

Now, as you can see in the report of the event from one group of challengers, they feel they did nothing wrong and “were fighting as they always do”. Indeed, they state expressly:

Members of Digladior did not fight brutally. Conversely they tried not to attack stronger than was necessary in acute situation. The aim was not to knockout dr. Khorasani but to fight him for 3 hours and 20 minutes. (Most illustrative is video of the 8th fight – dr. Khorasani and Vladimír Nerandži? of Digladior. Dr. Khorasani has already no energy to defend himself and V. N. is attacking and hitting him but without speed and power.)

Maybe so, and from the video, I would agree about the 8th fight. But it didn’t start that way. I don’t know a single member of Digladior, but I can at least compare the video of the challenge fight with the videos they post of them fighting amongst themselves. As a good example, look at the end of the second fight and the transition into the third. I understand that the rules were “full contact”, by which I would assume that it was meant with sufficient force to deal with an unarmoured foe with sharp blades — no playing tag. Those hits, while fairly typical of many tournament hits for sure, were far harder than necessary to the task. More so, the mad rush to attack Dr. Khorasani by the sword and dagger man, without so much as a salute or even a pause for him to catch his breath, was just coarse and set the tone for the entire fight which was wild and brutal. To be blunt, those weren’t sword cuts, they were stick fighting strikes with a blunt, steel stick. The sixth and seventh fights weren’t much prettier than the third, but at least most opponents offered a salute and moment to catch your breath.

I can’t comment on the idea of letting a guy with an axe and shield fight, and I won’t dignify a number of the non-Digladior fights with the term “HEMA”, other than the gentleman with the dussack and buckler, who seemed to the only guy actually trying to use technique and fence, rather than “beat down the foreigner”. Since it happened in Europe, and it was martial (that is what you call it when someone is trying to beat your head in), so maybe we can just call it EM.

HEMA-tic Naval-Gazing (Or, Not All Feats of Arms are Sporting Events)

Of course, folks on the Internet will never miss a chance to pass judgment, even when they continue to miss the point. So, we have a group of HEMA folks, mostly European, who are quite content to lambast Dr. Khorasani. Here are a few:

1) This is what happens when a Battle of the Nations guy decides he is going to play in light gear with HEMA people.

2) This is such an embarrassment for our sport, and misses the entire point of why we do this.

3) This is why you have referees calling hits!

4) The event itself was a chest thumping exercise coupled to an ego trip the result of which is something akin to a pissing contest. I have little or no respect for that kind of event or the self serving nature that really underpins it … it reflects poorly on the wider community and is nothing I would ever want any part of. My two sous …

Unfortunately, these comments are myopic. Perhaps, just perhaps, this entire martial challenge had nothing to do with a) HEMA or b) a sporting event? Just taking these four comments, look at the logical rebuttals:

1) Dr. Khorasani recently taught some Persian wrestling to a BotN team; he is not a Battle of the Nations fighter. (For those not in the know, Battle of the Nations is another type of “medieval combat sport” — essentially submission fighting with steel weapons in full armour. It is very rough fighting, although as the rules expressly ban thrusting, it negates the principle historical method of combating armour, and consequently most BotN fighters have little interest in the historical arts themselves.) He *does* own a full suit of Persian armour, just as I own two suits of European harness. However, most HEMA folks — especially those focused on tournaments — have no interest in armour or armoured combat and consider it “dress up” or “reenactment”. An odd position for folks studying ‘the knightly art’ perhaps, and not true — there was even an armoured demo at Longpoint — but the larger point here is that the poster clearly didn’t read either the challengers or challenged description of what the event was, and just assumed that Dr. Khorasani must be engaged in “that other sport”, one that has no love lost with the HEMA tournament scene.

2) It can’t be good or bad for “our sport” because a) “HEMA” does not unilaterally equal “tournament fighting”, b) Dr. Khorasani does not study HEMA, and not all of the participants were “HEMA” people, c) wait for it….this was not a sporting event, but a martial arts test, as was made clear from the get-go. Why a man studying Persian martial arts is now responsible for the reputation of HEMA tournament combat is beyond me.

3) Referees defeat the entire purpose of a test of character and endurance. Indeed, part of the reason for referees in competition is an inherent suspicion that the fighters will not be honest in calling blows. Further, many forms of HEMA competition today do indeed have people call their own hits, or at least refuse points for blows they think they improperly landed. This is simply purged from the competitive tournament circuit because it “puts too much pressure on the combatants”. That right there is the difference between a martial art as a test of character and a combat sport as a way to win some sort of trophy. Both are correct in their own place and time, but the post shows a complete ignorance as what this event was.

4) If any chance to hold the field is just arrogant chest-beating, I would presume that this poster would frown on things like this:

Willyam Pascall shalle stand againste all Maisters with the following weapons, vis Axe, Pyke, Long Sword, Backesworde, Two Hande sworde and Rapyr & Dagger

or this:

Robert Grene and William Browne shall play against all alyens and strangers beinge borne Without the king’s Dominions in Axe, Pike, Rapyr, Dagger and Rapier and Targait.

Which are only two of the many challenge matches fought by members of the London Masters purely as a public test of arms, and have clear analogs throughout the 14th and 16th centuries, throughout Europe. Likewise, I am sure that modern challenges such as Guy Windsor’s two-hour holding of the field at WMAW 2009, or Bob Charrette’s celebration of his 60th birthday by fighting 60 minutes in full harness at WMAW 2013 are just marks of hubris, rather than a personal test?

I don’t know that last poster even by name, so I confess that it is a bit unfair to make him a strawman in an argument, but it speaks to what discussion on social medial regarding the 100 Man Fight has really left me feeling appalled by: the length to which the self-referential nature of HEMA Sport fighting has made it impossible for so many students of western sword arts to even “get it” when confronted by something that doesn’t involve referees, flags and points — items that our ancestors would themselves have been largely bewildered by.

Take this comment, by one of my colleagues and a respected, “up and coming” teacher of European swordsmanship, who has a very detailed and active blog:

There is very little in this event for the HEMA tournament organizers to learn from in my opinion, but it does enforce what is already common knowledge. As a singular event there may be something to learn from this — mostly what not to do — and the main point I wish to emphasize is that for a swordsman, or a fencer, it is a requirement to be brave and tough, but doing something like this is not necessary nor is it beneficial for anyone. This should be true to those who were part of it too, as it seems that no one had intended for the event to finish this way.

That would be reasonable if only a) this sort of thing had *anything to do with tournament fighting in the first place* — as Dr. Khorasani had stated repeatedly, and as the Digladior report makes clear they also understood, at least in theory, b) what the test was meant to be and what happened are not the same thing — again as made clear, c) these sorts of tests of character already occur in many martial arts, and indeed in HEMA groups — almost any that use Prize Playing.

Again, from the same poster:

there is no glory in getting bruised by a sword. There is some, but very little being tough. Each one of those bruises probably stands for a lost limb and a fatal injury. Also there already exists decades of testing of protective equipment, and riot vests and hockey gloves have been seen as inadequate years ago. It saddens me too someone walk the path of broken fingers just because of ignorance.

While I agree with the statement in general, I would point out this is comment is somewhat disingenuous as the specialty HEMA gloves worn by tournament fighters did not stop not one, not two, not three, but four broken fingers at WMAW, one of our own members from getting a broken hand in the tournament at CombatCon, and on-going complaints after every tournament about broken fingers or hands. Further, as Dr. Khorasani states, he went there expecting to use aluminum swords and light feders, and that is not what he was greeted with. Events like the Dog Brother Beastings demonstrate quite clearly that one can fight in very, very little gear very hard and not get overly injured if everyone understands what they are trying to do.

I would really like to write the challengers a pass and say that they didn’t understand, their own words state that they knew why they were there.

This same poster goes on to post:

These things have been discussed before, but the notion of full-contact swordfighting is strange. Due to the paradoxically impotent but dangerous nature of the blunt weapons leads to an emphasis in effectiveness of unarmed close quarters techniques and at times overly hard hits with the weapon. The latter is due to the need to get physical effect on the opponent with the weapon that is essentially deprived of its capability of causing this effect: the sharp bits. In the video the fights were not stopped on hits, which is exactly the things that leads to escalation unless the fighters have a proper mutual understanding and good communication during the fight. Again something that has been established during the years in various tournaments, hence leading to rules where maximally one “after-blow” or follow-up strike after initial hit is allowed.

Again, what seems reasonable at first, makes sweeping assumptions about how fencing occurs throughout the HEMA-verse and assumes that tournaments have been designed to address this “problem”. They have not. Not least of which being the one-hit and stop, reset, nature of HEMA tournaments is highly artificial. As a great deal of forensics data, not to mention historical accounts of swordfights and the advice of the masters themselves, unless the head or hands come off, very little in a swordfight is guaranteed to be an instant fight-ender. Having a judge call HALT does not simulate this in any way — nor was it thought to do so historically; the “afterblow” as used in modern tournaments is entirely anachronistic from its use in the 16th century fencing Guilds and is at best based on a very liberal read of a very short passage on fencing competitions by the Bolognese swordsman Antonio Manciolino. Indeed, German Fechtshule seemed to have been much more like knightly deeds, consisting of counted blows, where the fight just continued until the set number of blows had been thrown.

While some folks complained  that there was “too much grappling” (again, assuming that any one hit is guaranteed instant incapacitation) on Khorasani’s part, they ignore that the hard blows were being delivered by the guys in the HEMA gear. Which, of course, is another myth: that HEMA tournament fighting is “unarmoured combat”. Sure, the same way kendo is — fought in modern armour. When the tournament circuit was first beginning, mostly with nylon swords, many of us were criticized for being overly armoured by wearing helmets, gambesons, gauntlets and forearm guards. But now that steel is in play, the average tournament fighter now wears a functionally heavier set of equipment:

  • A heavily padded jacket, a gambeson by another name, which is designed to incorporate plastic armour plates on the inside should the wearer choose;
  • Heavy plastic/foam gauntlets or lacrosse gloves of varying design;
  • Hard joint protection for the elbows
  • Forearm guards
  • hard knee and shin guards
  • throat protection
  • And a number of them wear additional protection under their jacket or trouser.

The end result of heavy kit is that people aren’t terribly afraid of getting hit and throw themselves into fights. Anyone who wants to say that HEMA tournaments avoid “full contact hitting” because it really isn’t necessary to hit that hard with a sharp weapon (a point on which I agree), or that allowing takedowns on a hard surface is unusual just need watch the messer finals from Longpoint to see that clubbing-masquerading-as-swordsmanship is hardly something that was invented for the 100 Man Fight.

The idea of calling a halt at each hit ignores that continuous, flowing fights is common in many schools, particularly during Prize Playing, and yet injuries, escalation and other problems are rare. Why? Because the challengers aren’t there to win, only to give a good, clean fight. But as this sort of engagement is not a part of his own sparring culture, nor does he have any background in martial arts that have these sorts of initiatic challenges, he assumes it cannot be done and that a style of combat sport that has been invented over the last decade must provide the one, true, working model for testing oneself with swords.

This post ends with the sage advice that seems to run through many of the discussions on social media:

Likewise, if a full contact armored fighter wants to study – or compete in – a historical sword art simulating unarmored duel with sharp swords, he has to somewhat adjust his mentality and equipment.

And it should not require anyone getting beaten half-dead to realize the above.

Again, the only terms I can use are myopic, because the assumptions on this post, and others, is that they are in a position to sit in judgment on the “outsider” who was messing with their sport, and thus any problems must have been almost entirely Dr. Khorasani’s. Over and over the discussion since last week has circled around the following:

  1. There is an assumption that Dr. Khorasani was a BotN fighter, when a simple read of his webpage and watching his videos (also at least one of the posters was just at a seminar with the man), would make it clear that what he meant by full-contact, and that the gear he stated he would fight with is what he does most of his bouting in. You don’t have to know the man at all, you just need to go to Youtube. Persian Martial Arts are just like their European counterparts of the period — meant to be used in and out of armour, and originally developed for warfare. The fact that so many modern HEMA people want to study a 15th c art while ignoring a major part of the context, does not mean those who do differently are engaged in “crash and bash” fighting.
  2. There is a hypocritical contradiction here, where Dr. Khorasani must be a BotN guy looking to duke it out in heavy gear, but then he is held to task for being the guy too lightly armed and armoured. Now, whether or not he should have trusted the organizer to communicate this is another matter, but then again so is the question of why his opponents felt a need to come after him with kicks thrown while wearing plate armour, an axe or throwing blows that frankly were way harder than necessary for a friendly challenge, particularly one where there was nothing to win.
  3. No one was “beaten half-dead” — although the injuries are far more than they should have been, broken fingers and hands are quite common in HEMA circles, and broken ribs, etc not terribly uncommon in many other martial arts. The fact that one poster feels “the reason we fight with swords is because we don’t particularly like black eyes” may be true for him, but has little to do with martial arts in general.
  4. Nor was the intention to try and prevent being “beaten half dead”. As stated clearly:  In the same spirit japanese kendo has tachikiri/tachigiri no seigan as a test of courage, endurance and stamina. What he got was a group of more heavily geared guys who, whatever their claims, were quite clearly batting for the fences.
  5. This was not a tournament, it was not meant to inspire tournaments. Dr. Khorasani wished to test himself in a type of deed of arms that is part and parcel of both our historical, European tradition, and his Persian one, and which has been part and parcel of a number of armed and unarmed combat arts, as already stated. This was a personal test, and the challengers are meant to push and test, not try to crush — which is far too easy to do as they are fresh and the challenged grows progressively wearier.
  6. Nor was it a HEMA event. If one of us wished to do this — as has been done in a variety of ways — it would be quite simple; there are now HEMA events all over the world. Dr. Khorasani and his small team represent the sum total of Persian swordplay researchers. So, rightly or wrongly, he  trusted someone he knew to help him arrange such a test vis a vis the help of swordsmen he felt shared a similar interest in reconstructing their traditional martial arts. I would assume he came that conclusion based on the HEMA events in Italy, Malta and Germany he had participated in. He was clearly wrong.

I want to be very clear. I think Dr. Khorasani was ill-advised to do this. The reason is that all of these other challenges, from Guild Prize Playings to Dog Brother beat-downs, occur “in house” — within one’s tradition, with fellows on the same path. Because he does not have other folks in his tradition to do this, he of necessity had to go outside his tradition. But in that case, he would have been better-served working more closely with a group of HEMA folks he knew well, perhaps at one of their events, where he could have had more control over the events. When the organizer would not move the date, and it was clear that the standards of weapons and gear were wildly different, it was late in the game to back out.

I also look at the recommendations made by both Khorasani and Digladior for moving forward and agree that the matches should have been shorter (a set number of blows, IMO), the exact specific gear noted and required and mass weapons banned on less the fighting was to be done in armour. Those things were poor choices on everyone’s part.

But having said that, as HEMA person, what I find depressing is not the “effect on HEMA” of this event, but the sure inability of people to understand that fights like this can and should be conducted in a tough, but friendly manner, and that while a safety marshal is necessary, fighting shouldn’t need a referee to constantly call hits: the ability to fight with control and to acknowledge hits ought to be well-within the means of anyone who calls himself a “martial artist”. The constant discussion about sports conventions, refereeing, a need to stop after every hit and so forth points to the largest problem when combat sports and martial arts collide: one finds worth in collecting points, trophies and medals, one through challenging oneself. One relies on external factors and people for control, one is about controlling oneself. One is concerned with knowing the rules and playing to those rules; one is concerned with understanding the spirit of the rules and what they are meant to challenge. Neither is “right”; they exist in a context, and both differ dramatically from combat, which is about, as Fiore dei Liberi said, “fighting without rules to the bitter end.”

I fully expect and accept that as HEMA has grown, specialization has occurred, not just by art, by what aspects of that art to practice and in what environment. We can agree or disagree on various points as to the virtues and flaws of our particular approaches, we can even agree to disagree. What we cannot do as serious researchers, teachers and students of HISTORICAL EUROPEAN MARTIAL ARTS is to ignore these differences, or insist that it is impossible or undesirable to move from one modality to another. Doing so already destroyed the diversity of fencing, and exterminated the first HEMA Renaissance in the early 20th century, in the push for standardized rules and focusing on referred competition as the “measure of the man” comes the real problem of dismissing any who are interested in something different as aberrant; it also rapidly removes us from the martial ethos of our ancestors, and makes this the pursuit of creating just another contact sport like rugby or football.

I wish Dr. Khorasani the very best in his recovery and hope the 100 Man quest will someday see light again, just more carefully planned, with folks who get its purpose and in an environment that will be respective of what all deeds of arms in chivalric cultures were meant to do — to assert one’s willingness to put themselves out on the line and test themselves in public to their utmost.

 

Wide and Close Play in Armizare, the Martial Tradition of Fiore dei Liberi  

Gregory D. Mele,  ©2014

[N.B: This article greatly expands and upon an earlier one “Understanding Wide and Close Play in the Martial Tradition of Fiore dei Liberi”,  first presented in 2008 and later published with photo interpretations in In the Service of Mars, Proceedings from the Western Martial Arts Workshop (1999 – 2009), Vol. I. In addition to a new introduction that is about a third of its entire length, substantial revisions and citations extend throughout the article, so those familiar with the earlier work will still want to read this in its entirety.]

INTRODUCTION

I first discovered the works of Fiore dei Liberi in 1995, with a poorly photocopied, badly-translated edition of the Pisani-Dossi manuscript. I soon found a copy of Novati’s original facsimile, and over time learned that a wide variety of Italian authors, from Giacopo Gelli to the famed fencing master, Luigi Barbasetti, had written on the man and his work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Further a new generation of Italian researchers, most notably Massimo Malipiero and Giovanni Rapisardi, were also working with this “father of Italian fencing”, building on the work established by Novati almost 100 years earlier.[1]

What all of these authors agreed upon was that control of distance was critical to how Fiore dei Liberi conceptualized his techniques, or “plays”, which he divided into two categories, one meant to maximize range, and one meant to collapse it. These two distinctions were:

Zogho Largo (wide play) only appears when discussing long weapons, such as the sword, spear or axe. At this measure, combatants may use the weapon’s edge and point, bind or grab the weapon’s head and, depending on the weapon’s length, make long-range unarmed attacks, such as kicks. Grabs will not reach any deeper than the opponent’s elbow; body-to-body contact is not possible.

Zogho Stretto (close or narrow play) is the measure at which dei Liberi describes abrazare (grappling) and dagger combat occurring. When fighting with longer weapons, it is the range at which one uses those same techniques: hilt/shaft strikes, grabs of the opponent’s sword arm, body, or head and includes body-to-body contact such as throws.

We second-generation researchers blissfully accepted this notion of wide and close play, picked up our swords and daggers and set to work. However, as we struggled to make sense of dei Liberi’s text, discovered the much larger and better explained Getty Manuscript, and wrestled with mastering a slightly archaic form of a new language, it became clear that sometimes, the more you learn, the less you are sure what you know.

Consequently, an ever-present bugaboo in the historical reconstruction (HEMA) segment of Western Martial arts is the need to interpret old texts, written in slightly (or very) archaic forms of modern languages, often by non-native speakers. While this is the daily trade of historiographers, and has been for centuries, very few “HEMAtists” are necessarily even truly fluent in those languages, let alone academics trained to analyze a text paleographically, linguistically and contextually.  Some seek to educate themselves accordingly, while others embrace a sort of textual isolationism (“I study Master Z and I don’t need to know what Master Y said or how that relates to  Thomas Aquinas” ) in a manner that is probably best reserved for the reading of sacred scripture by those comfortable with geocentrism or Young Earth Creationism.

But whatever the methods – or intentions – the end result is that we make mistakes, over-analyze or try to force-fit one language into another, blissfully unaware that neither modern Germans and Italians, nor academics trained in the medieval forms of their languages, need amateur scholars armed with dictionaries, Google Translate and good intentions to explain to them how these languages work!

CLOSE OR NARROW? CRAMPED OR CONSTRAINED? YES!

The Italian word stretto is precisely one of those words that infuriates English-speakers new to la bella lingua, because it can translate as several related, but distinct, words in the English language: “close”, “narrow”, “cramped” or “constrained”. In the context of fencing, all convey a sense that the distance between the opponents is “tight”, but the  devil is in the details, as they say. That is where we run into a perpetual host of problems:

Fiore dei Liberi has plays of largo and stretto, as do the Bolognese masters, but then the latter also tell us that guards can be larga or stretta, defined by whether the point is off-line (larga) or in-presence (stretta). The matter becomes even more confusing as we look at the rapier, wherein the old distinction of zogho/gioco largo and stretto is replaced by misura (measure). Here the fencer either needs to move his foot to strike (misura larga) or he is close enough to strike without stepping (misura stretta). Likewise, rapier fencers are told to put the opponent’s sword into the stretta (and from which we get another  Italian word, lovingly mangled by modern swordsmen: the verb stringere).  Then, in a linguistic equivalent to a photo-bomb, we have Bondi di Mazzo in the late 17th century mentioning that as all rapier play occurs in the gioco stretto it is useful only to discuss the misura! Huh? Does it add clarity if I tell you that a century earlier, Giovanni Dall’Aggochie sharply criticizes masters who only teach gioco stretto and avoid gioco largo? No, I didn’t think so.

Although these definitions and codifications of the terms largo and stretto have merited a fair bit of reinterpretation, debate and careful reconsideration over the years — the current author having engaged in all three of those propositions at various points over the years — in truth the most  perplexing thing is who is perplexed by all of this and who is not. For while this vagary of language drives swordsmen from North America, Australia, the UK, Germany or Finland mad, it seems to trouble Italians not at all.  There’s a lesson to be learned here and it is a simple one:

Don’t try to force-fit a word or concept from one language into a single word in your own.

It can’t be that simple can it? For the purpose of understanding how to classify the nature of largo and stretto within Armizare — the school of Fiore dei Liberi –it actually can. Distance can be “close” and a guard held with its point “narrow”, the enemy’s blade can be “constrained”, and a small area “cramped” — because while the term has become jargon to non-native speakers, it really is just a common vocabulary term that cannot, and should not be unilaterally translated with a single English term.

What’s more, when we look at the broad concept of largo, stretto and mezza spada, it turns out that dei Liberi might be among our first surviving sources, but his use of the terms is almost pedantically mainstream, not just in Italy, but in Germany and England as well! By looking afield, can we comfortably define what Fiore dei Liberi meant?

THE MAESTRI OF TECHNICAL JARGON: THE BOLOGNESE TRADITION

Obviously, our first stop should be Italy, where a second great fencing tradition was born in the city of Bologna — little more than two day’s journey by horse down the road from Ferrara —  shortly after our master penned The Flower of Battle. The Bolognese masters use a very specific technical vocabulary that heavily overlaps with Fiore dei Liberi’s, but is more directly based on the sort of academic jargo one would expect of a tradition from a University city, ostensibly founded by a professor of mathematics. It includes Aristotelian concepts of mechanics, time and motion, including actions described as “true” and “false”, an Agent (initiator of action), Patient (receiver of action),  and a classification of motions as “full” or “half”.

This last concept is the most relevant to us here, since  the mid-point of a full-cut is a half-cut, and two combatants both in measure that strike at one another will have their sword cross with a half-cut, at the half-sword (mezza spada) position. The half-sword is further defined as being achieved true-edge to true-edge or false-edge to false-edge, two of the principle outcomes for the parries or deflections shown by dei Liberi.

Although Bolognese plays (giochi)[2] also refer to largo and stretto they seem to emphasize the idea that the mezza spada marks the transition to a new form of fight, so that half-sword plays are  normally called strette di mezza spada. A specific definition is given for neither term; however, by analyzing their plays and pieces of advice that weave throughout the various texts in the tradition we can draw the following broad definitions:

Gioco Largo is the kind of play that involves wider distances, full cuts and whole tempi, and is performed with the sword-arm extended.[3]  Because it starts well out of measure, and admits the use of wide (largo) and high (alta) guards. Most sequences begin with provocations and feints to unsettle the opponent, since starting at a wider distance also means that a stationary opponent has a better chance to react successfully, and there are few prese (grapples) described out of wide play.

Gioco Stretto, or Strette di Mezza Spada begins[4] after you and the opponent arrive at a crossing of the swords with neither of you having an advantage — meaning that either of you may initiate it.[5] It occurs at shorter distances and involves half cuts and half tempi. Bolognese authors make it clear that this is a distinct type of play, often taught separately from the Gioco Largo.[6] Because it starts in a closer measure and it involves shorter tempi, it favors the use of guards that close the line or are held narrowly (Guardie Strette) by keeping the point in-line. Stretto plays rarely use provocations, but instead initiate simple attacks by cut or thrust, compound attacks starting with a feint, or a close into grips, disarms,  strikes with the buckler or hilt, and so on.[7]

Manciolino offers the following advice on largo and stretto:

As you play with the two-handed sword in the gioco largo, you should keep your eye on the part of the opponent’s sword from half-blade to the tip.  However, once you are at the half-sword, you should look at your opponent’s left hand, since it is with it that he may come to grapples. The art of the half-sword is necessary to the curriculum of anyone who wishes to become a good player.  If you were only skilled in the gioco largo, and found yourself in the stretto, you would be compelled with shame and danger to pull back, thus often relinquishing victory to your opponent – or at least betraying your lack of half-swording skills to those who watch. [Translation by Tom Leoni]

We will revisit this advice again when we return to dei Liberi’s own use of wide and close play. In the meantime, while there is a great deal more than can be said on the nature of close play in the Bolognese tradition,[8]  as our purpose here is to look at what other traditions may tell us about largo and stretto play in Armizare, these general definitions should suffice.

WAR, GERMAN STYLE

Figure 1: "War Work" from Hans Talhoffer, Wurtemburg Ms. (1467). The "war" (Krieg) phase in German swordsmanship was analogous to the crossing at the mezza spada in the Italian tradition.
Figure 1: “War Work” from Hans Talhoffer, Wurttemburg Ms. (1467). The “war” (Krieg) phase in German swordsmanship is analogous to the crossing at the mezza spada in the Italian tradition.

The same place that Italian masters define as mezza spada or “the half-sword”, the German masters call either Krieg (“war”) or Handarbeit (“handwork”). The concept is largely identical: the blades meet in a bind, crossed in the middle, and ensuing actions can occur instantly, often without so much as a step of the foot — a principle that makes techniques such as the Winden on the same side of the sword, Duplieren or Mutieren so swift and deadly.

Like their Italian counterparts, how to safely come to this place and what to do from it forms the vast majority of the technical repertoire of the German art.  Ironically, it is the last master of the tradition, Joachim Meyer, who gives the best tactical descriptions of Handarbeit at the beginning of his 1570 manual:

This (fencing) can primarily and justifiably be divided in three parts, that is the beginning, the middle and the end. / The middle (is) the secondary or handwork, when someone remains in the bind or longer in his work against his adversary and presses him with all his speed.[9]

Meyer further clarifies that any and all actions occur in the hand-work, and it is the sum of all fencing knowledge. This is the only phase in which Meyer says the entire catalog of actions are possible.

The secondary or handwork encompasses the greatest art and skill and all the speed that can occur in fencing….Den sie zeigt nit allein an / wie man das Schwerd anbinden / Winden / Wechseln / Verfüren / Nachreisen /Schneiden / Doplieren / Ablauffen sol lassen / oder wölcher gestalt man umbschlagen / Schlaudern /Vorschieben / Absetzen / Zucken und Rucken /Verstellen / Ringen / Einlauffen / Werffen und nachtringen soll.[10]

Interestingly, as the German masters almost always come to the bind with both combatants’ right feet forward, the moment they reach the half-sword they have achieved what we will see as Fiore dei Liberi’s crossing of Zogho Stretto, and their actions, including the principle objective of threatening with the point to force a wide parry by the defender, closely follow the sensibilities of the Bolognese Masters and their strette ala mezza spada. Not surprisingly, as there are so many ways for primates with sharp lever-arms to harm one another, when they use closing techniques, such as those favored by dei Liberi, they use nearly identical plays with identical footwork.

WHY DOES IT ALWAYS COME BACK TO THAT ENGLISHMAN?

Back in the dark ages of the 1990s, when the term “HEMA” was not a twinkle in Western Martial Artists’ eyes, it was a common trope to use the two works by the 16th century Englishman George Silver to elucidate and explain other systems, particularly as the then Anglophone community had limited understanding of how German and Italian masters conceptualized their arts. With the sudden growth of the community in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, Silver fell out of fashion, and in many circles is considered “idiosyncratic”, an “outlier” or somehow “not relevant” to compare to other systems for developing greater context of how Renaissance fencers thought about their arts.

This is unfortunate for a variety of reasons, but not least of which is that in the process, very few note that Silver uses the exact same technical jargon as the Bolognese Masters and for the same reasons: he was educated in Renaissance Europe and thus hard a working knowledge of the Quadrivium and Trivium and knew his Aristotle. So he also has an Agent and Patient performing his Plays, guards can also be True and False, and sure enough he uses Wide and Close…except when he uses Narrow. And that distinction is crucial to our discussion here.

Silver builds his entire conceptual paradigm around the management of distance (Brief Instructions, Cap.1):

The four grounds or principals of that true fight at all manner of weapons are these four, viz. 1. judgement, 2. distance, 3. time, 4. place.

The reason whereof these 4 grounds or principals be the first and chief, are the following, because through judgement, you keep your distance, through distance you take your time, through time you safely win or gain the place of your adversary, the place being won or gained you have time safely either to strike, thrust, ward, close, grip, slip or go back, in which time your enemy is disappointed to hurt you, or to defend himself, by reason that he has lost his place, the reason that he has lost his true place is by the length of time through the numbering of his feet, to which he is out of necessity driven to that will be agent.

Everything for Silver is about managing distance and finding how to win a safe place to strike. Not surprisingly, pressing in or receiving an attack in the seeking of the Place, often brings us to a position he expressly calls the Half-Sword:

Yf ij fyght & that both lye vpon the true gardant fyght & that one of them will neede seek to wyn the half sword by pressinge in, that may you saflye do, for vpon that fyght the half sworde may safflye be woon. [11]

And the Half-Sword itself relates directly to a position known as Close Fight:

Close fyght is when yõ Cros at ye half sword eyther aboue at forehand wardyt is wt poynt hye, & hande & hylt lowe, or at true or bastard gardant ward wt both yor poynts doun. 

Close is all mannr of fyghts wherin yõ have made a true Cros at the half sword wt yor space very narrow & not Crost, is also close fyght.[12]

In other words, at the half-sword, you are crossed from a pair of half-blows or a parry of a blow. This is Close (stretto) Fight, which is described in part as the space between your weapons being narrow (stretto). Although Silver states that the half sword “may safflye be woon”, he goes on immediately to warn of the dangers of winning it, writing:

but he that first cometh in, Must fyrst go out, & that presently, otherwise his gard wilbe to wyde aboue to defend his hed, or yf fyt for that defence, then wil it be to wyde vnderneath to defend that thrust from his body which things the patient Agent may do, & fly out saf[13]

At the half-sword you may still cut and thrust freely, but any attempt at pressing inwards results in an immediate grip. Thus, the half-sword is the position at which both ends of the sword, and grips (prese), may be used:

yf yõ are both ?o cro?t at ye ba?tard gardant ward, & yf he then pre?s in, then take the grype of him as is shewed in ye chapter of ye grype, Or wt yor left hand or arme, ?trike his ?word blade ?trongly & ?odainly towarde yor left ?yde by wch meanes yõ are uncro?t, & he is di?coured,, then may yõ thru?t him in the body wt yor?word & fly out in?tantly, wch thinge he cannot avoyd, nether can he offend yõ. Or being ?o cro?t, yõ may ?odainly vncro?e & ?trike him vpõ the hed & fly out in?tantly wch thinge yõ may ?afly do & go out free[14]

There is one unifying qualifier in the entire chapter on grips (Cap 6) – you have come to the half-sword. If he does not press in, you may still uncross and hit him with the pointy end of your sword (Ground 6), and you can use your free hand to press his blade or wrist (Grounds 2 – 5).[15] Alternatively, you may pass in to the outside with the left foot and envelope his arm in a wrap (ground one). As with grips, hilt strikes can only occur after achieving the half-sword, just like his grips:

yf he com to the clo?e fight wt yõ & yt yõ are both crost aloft at ye half ?word wt both yor points vpwards, then yf he com in wt all in his Cro??ing bere ?trongly yor hand & hylt ourhis wri?t, clo?e by his hylt putting it ouer at yeback?yde of his hand & hylt pr??inge doune his hand & hylt ?trongly & ?odainly, in yor entring in, & ?o thru?t yor hylt in his face, of ?trike him vpõ ye hed ?word, & ?trike vp his heeles, & fly out.[16]

In Silver’s “workaday” swordsmanship we have a style of play quite different from the flowing sprezzatura of the Bolognese school, yet both couch their art in the same technical jargon, not because it is fencing jargon, but because it is the language of the educated. And whereas the Italian language provides one word – stretto – to mean multiple things, Silver, writing in English, is able to use two words to distinguish what he means. When one crosses distance, they are moving into a Close-Fight, which begins at the position of the Half-Sword. When a guard has the points in presence then it is Narrow-Spaced, when the sword is carried low, aloft or otherwise is not closing the line, it is Wide Spaced.

A great deal of digital and real ink has been spilled over the last seven years by non-native speakers of Italian trying to parse a singular translation for largo and stretto into English, when a 16th century English swordsman had already demonstrated how it was to be done. But where’s the fun in that?

FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION, OR TECHNIQUE FOLLOWS MEASURE: LARGO AND STRETTO IN ARMIZARE

The irony is that all of those 19th and 20th century authors were correct all along: Zogho Largo and Zogho Stretto are distinctions of how measure affects technique, not a definition of how or when you first come into distance, and not a definition of line. For example, all dagger combat is part of Zogho Stretto, since even the longest range knife attack occurs in grappling range, regardless of whether the opponent steps in to strike.

Prior to the ascendance of rapier fencing, European masters-at-arms conceptualized combat into a series of phases. The first began with breaking measure from out of distance and ended when the swords crossed mid-blade, such as when two combatants struck at one another, or one struck and the other parried. At this distance, both long distance and close quarter combat was possible, whereas if one pressed in closer, the combat progressively shifted to in-fighting or wrestling. This transitional place was extremely dangerous, since each combatant could threaten the other with the same techniques. Finally, some masters further elaborate how, having come to the half-sword, a combatant might wish to remain in wide-play, using a variety of strategies to drop back and retreat.  How each tradition of 15th and 16th swordsmanship applied these principles is in large part what defines their particular art, and this level of analysis is beyond the scope of this essay. Instead, having a working model of  the concepts of Zogho LargoZogho Stretto and Mezza Spada, we can analyze how it relates to a specific discipline, l’arte dell’armizare of Fiore dei Liberi.

COMING TO THE CROSS

The best way to understand when you are in Largo and when you are in Stretto is to understand what happens in the bind. Fiore dei Liberi defines three types of parry, based on a crossing at one of the three parts of the blade the tutta (forte), mezza (middle third) and the punta (debole):

These two masters are here crossed at full-sword. And each can do what the other does, that is, that one can make all plays of the sword with the crossing. But the crossing is of three types which are full-sword (tutta spada) and point-of-sword (punta della spada). And the one who is crossed at full-sword cannot stay long. And the one who is crossed at mid-sword (mezza spada) can stay less. And the one who is at point-of-sword cannot stay at all. [Morgan Ms – translation mine]

The play of Zogho Largo is taught by three magistri (masters), the first two of whom are related to the three crossings: the first shows the crossing at the punta, the second shows the crossing at the mezza spada, and the third master is a contrario (counter), showing how to transition into close-quarters. Zogho Stretto is taught by only one master, who crosses at the half sword in the Getty Ms and at the tutta in the Pissani-Dossi. The crossings at Zogho Largo are shown with the left foot forward. Although Fiore is silent on the matter, Vadi specifically addresses this foot placement, when discussing how to parry a strike:

When you parry the backhand, keep forward / the right foot and parry as said / when parrying the forehand / then you will have the left foot forward.[17]

The most likely reason for the left foot crossing throughout wide play is not best described by Fiore or Vadi, but by the Bolognese master, Antonio Manciolino, whose description of the relationship between largo, stretto and the mezza spada is worth revisiting:

As you play with the two-handed sword in the Gioco Largo, you should keep your eye on the part of the opponent’s sword from half-blade to the tip.  However, once you are at the half-sword, you should look at your opponent’s left hand, since it is with it that he may come to grapples. The art of the half-sword is necessary to the curriculum of anyone who wishes to become a good Player.  If you were only skilled in the Gioco Largo, and found yourself in the Stretto, you would be compelled with shame and danger to pull back, thus often relinquishing victory to your opponent – or at least betraying your lack of half-swording skills to those who watch.[18]

By crossing with the opposite foot forward, the Scholar completely closes the opponent out of his inside line, can freely use his sword’s point and edges, and keeps his dominant hand further from his opponent’s left hand, forcing him to pass in if he wishes to grapple. Conversely, having the left leg forward allows the Scholar to quickly make his own grabs to the opponent’s sword or sword arm without having to step at all. Finally, the Scholar can still pass in with his right foot as he makes a follow-on attack and only if that fails has he moved into close play.

Conversely, the crossings at Zogho Stretto are shown with the right foot forward, and this is confirmed by Fiore dei Liberi in the first play:

The first play I execute derives from my Master’s crossing with his right foot forward. [Getty Ms. 28r]

Although the master does not overtly discuss this, the reversed stance changes the relative measure between the combatants’ dominant sides, and affects which line is open.

ZOGHO LARGO

There are twenty techniques of Zogho Largo, arranged as follows:  a lesson on how to counterattack by striking so that the swords engage in the last third, or punta. 

Figure 1: The First Crossing of the Sword in Wide Play: The Cross at the Point
Figure 2: The First Crossing of the Sword in Wide Play: The Cross at the Point

The bind is very weak in the crossing of the punta (‘the one who is at the point cannot stay at all”) and as such there are only two possibilities, based on who is more forceful in the bind. If the Scholar (defender) wins the bind, he presses through the opponent’s strike, striking him in the head or “stands the point to his face”.  However, if he loses the bind he simply lets the opponent’s blow push through his guard and strikes him with a backhand to the side of the head. Essentially, the “bind” is nothing of the sort – the sword’s meet and if the Scholar has done his work he either kills the opponent on the inside line in one tempo, or on the outside in a second, almost instantaneous one.

Figure 2: The Second Crossing of the Sword in Wide Play: The cross at the Half-Sword
Figure 3: The Second Crossing of the Sword in Wide Play: The cross at the Half-Sword.

Most of the techniques of wide play are taught by the second master, whose measure relates to a crossing at the mezza spada. His initial plays are based on the same lessons of blade pressure in the bind taught by the first master, only from a different, stronger crossing on the blade. The first play is the Master himself. In the second play, the Scholar wins the bind, opening the inside line to a risposta. The third and fourth plays are a continuum: in play three the blades bind with the points in presence, so the Scholar grips the opponent’s punta  and rispostas with a cut. The fourth play gives us a variation of what to do should the attacker try to cover his head when his blade is grabbed: kick him in the shin and then cut him!  The fifth and sixth plays deal with being weak in the bind and are the first time the Scholar moves to the outside; this a is called the Colpo di Villano (villain’s blow).

It is worth noting that while the plays of the Second Master are at the measure of the half-sword, not all involve a direct crossing, anymore than do all of the Bolognese largo plays, the German Zufechten (approach) or Silver’s three other fights besides Close Fight.  In fact, this is a defining trait of “wide play”! In dei Liberi’s case we see two such actions. The first is the defense against a cut to the leg (See Fig 4). Against this attack, the master tells us:

When the opponent attacks your leg, withdraw the foot you have forward or pass back, and deliver a fendente to his head as shown here. However, with the two-handed sword you should never attack below the knee, because it would place you in too much danger, since it leaves you wholly uncovered. If you had fallen on the ground, striking the opponent’s leg would be fine, but not in any other circumstance, when you are fighting with a sword against a sword. [Getty 26r]

Figure 4: Leg Slip against a low-line attack.
Figure 4: Leg Slip against a low-line attack.

Generally called a “slip” in English, this is a staple of European swordsmanship[19] and simply uses geometry to defend by distance – since our arms attach at the shoulders, not the hips, which means that the swordsman is able to overreach the attacker with a cut to the head, by counterattacking while pulling back his leg.[20] While the play is straightforward, what is it doing in a section on crossing at the mezza spada?

The key is understanding its position in the section. Thus far, the master has shown us a direct counterattack against a fendente (First Master of Zogho Largo), and then a series of plays that determine what happens when two attacks to the high-line bind (plays one through six of the Second Master). The next logical step is to show what happens if the attack is made to a low target instead. Sure enough, we only have one further technique versus a cut, a kick to the testicles (play 8). This is the logical counterpart to the leg cut, as it demonstrates how to use a low line in defense to counter an attack to the high line. Having addressed cuts, the master is ready to move on to thrusts (plays 9 – 14)before moving on to using a prese at wide-distance (plays 15 and 16) and finally a feint to break distance and its counter (plays 17 and 18). We will look these plays, and what they tell us of moving from Zogho Largo to Zogho Stretto, a little later.

Note not only what techniques in the Largo section focus upon — cuts and thrusts with the last third of the blade — but what they do not — hilt strikes, throws or body to body contact. They do contain two kicks and an elbow-push. This reflects an issue of measure, rather than line, because the two stomp kicks are long-range unarmed techniques — almost equivalent in reach to a sword cut from the bind.

Finally, note that the Zogho Largo plays principally occur on the inside line, with the Scholar only stepping to the outside in five instances. As we shall soon see, by understanding when and why four of these five plays move to the outside, we can get a clear understanding of the relationship between wide and close play in the dei Liberi School.

ZOGHO STRETTO

Figure 3: The Mezza Crossing of Zogho Stretto
Figure 5: The Mezza Crossing of Zogho Stretto

The second division of combat is Zogho Stretto, which is best defined by Fiore dei Liberi himself at the end of the Zogho Largo section:

We will now start the close play of the sword in two hands, and look at how to break every manner of cut and thrust.We will see every kind of parry, strike, bind, dislocation, grapple, disarm and throw. We will also see the remedies and the counters to each action needed to attack and defend. [Morgan Ms; compare to the less complete Getty 27v, caption four]

The master demonstrates twenty-five plays of Zogho Stretto, all of which come from a crossing with the right foot forward. (Fig 5) While this crossing seems more “natural”, as it often arises from two simultaneous blows, it does not close the Scholar’s inside line as strongly, making him susceptible to follow-on attacks in the same line. It also brings his sword arm closer to his opponent’s grappling hand. Dei Liberi has already introduced this concept earlier in his manuscript, while teaching how to use the sword one-handed”

I’ve found you completely open and hit you in the head with no trouble. And if I pass forward with my rear foot, I can perform some zoghi strette against you–like binds, breaks and abrazare.[Getty 20v]

Remember, the principle importance of the half-sword is tactical.  Note that in the above passage, the master himself is specific as to what defines plays of zoghi stretti: at the half-sword, if he passes forward he will perform “binds, disarms and grapples”. This is reiterated in the final play of Getty Ms. 28v:

When I am crossed, I enter into close play.

The other known master of the Armizare tradition, Filippo Vadi, introduces this idea in chapter three of his treatise, where, after discussing how to “hammer him with blows”, the master demonstrates that the half-sword is the range in which we move from wide to close play:

When he comes to the half sword / close towards him, as reason requires/ leave the wide distance and assail him.

Finally, if he wishes to pass in with the rear foot the swordsman must pass to the opponent’s  outside, thereby winding to his (the opponent’s) strong side, and collapsing measure. While the Scholar can now grapple, he is also vulnerable to being counter-grappled, as we are warned at the beginning of the section:

We have crossed our swords: this is the crossing from which we can make all the plays that follow. Both of us could perform each of them. These plays will follow one another, as I have explained above. [Getty 28r]

Thus, as we’ve seen previously with the definition of Krieg and Close Fight, the half-sword is our moment of transition – we can make any action at this position and should we press in, we make close (note I am not calling it “narrow”!) plays that involve grappling man or weapon.

COMPARING TECHNIQUES OF WIDE AND CLOSE PLAY

It is a gross simplification to say that Zogho Largo involves cuts and thrusts, whereas Zogho Stretto involves grips or disarms, as these are found in both types of play. The difference is where and how these plays occur. This is best explained by comparing a few specific examples of techniques that appear in both types of play.

GRABBING THE OPPONENT’S SWORD

Figure 4: Grabbing the sword in Zogho Largo. From the cross at mezza spada, the Scholar grips the sword’s punta and cuts the Player in the head. Should the Player try to cover by turning to left posta di finestra, the Scholar may also execute a shin stomp as a distraction.
Figure 6: Grabbing the sword in Zogho Largo. From the cross at mezza spada, the Scholar grips the sword’s punta and cuts the Player in the head. Should the Player try to cover by turning to left posta di finestra, the Scholar may also execute a shin stomp as a distraction.

One of the first plays of the second Master of Zogho Largo involves grabbing the opponent’s sword when the weapons bind. As the blades cross, the pressure is more or less even in the bind, and the opponent’s point threatens the Scholar; he cannot safely leave the bind without being hit. Therefore, the Scholar releases his sword’s hilt with his left hand and grasps the Player’s blade by the punta. He then immediately uncrosses and makes a one-handed cut to the Player’s face. (See Figure 6.) By keeping the right leg refused, the Scholar’s sword hand remains completely out of reach of the Player, and he can freely uncross and cut the Player in the head or the left hand, should he attempt a grapple. Conversely, in the corresponding play of Zogho Stretto the Scholar comes to the half-sword with his right foot forward.

Figure 5: Grabbing the sword in Zogho Stretto. From the cross at mezza spada, the Scholar passes in, gripping the Player’s wrist, trapping his weapon and threatening with a thrust.
Figure 7: Grabbing the sword in Zogho Stretto. From the cross at mezza spada, the Scholar passes in, gripping the Player’s wrist, trapping his weapon and threatening with a thrust.

He then passes in with his left foot, as he reaches between the opponent’s hands with his left hand, in the position of 12 o’clock (little finger up). He grasps the wrist of the Player’s sword arm and makes a short, counter-clockwise rotation of his hand, as he draws his sword back into posta di finestra. (See Figure 7).  Note that when the combatants cross with both of their right feet forward at the mezza spada, i.e.: the Master of Zogho Stretto, that the forward pass of the left foot will bring the Scholar much closer to the Player. Consequently, he must retract his sword in order to threaten him with a thrust, as he is too close to execute an extended blow.

ELBOW PUSH

Another recurring technique throughout dei Liberi’s treatise is the elbow push, which occurs both in the crossing of Zogho Largo and Stretto.[21] By comparing them, we can again see how the subtle difference of which leg is forward during the crossing at the half-sword affects the final measure of the play. In the Largo version of the elbow push, the Scholar and Player again come to the bind. The Scholar immediately releases his hilt with his left hand, and does an elbow push to the Player’s sword arm, spinning him away and to his own left. From here, he pursues with a pass forward of the rear (right) foot, and cuts him across the back of the head. (See Figure 8.)

Figure 6:  An elbow push from the crossing of Zogho Largo drives the Player away from the Scholar, requiring him to pass in and make a fully-extended cut.
Figure 8:  An elbow push from the crossing of Zogho Largo drives the Player away from the Scholar, requiring him to pass in and make a fully-extended cut.
Figure 7: An elbow push from the crossing of Zogho Stretto. Although the Player is still turned about, he is in virtual, body-to-body contact with the Scholar.
Figure 9: An elbow push from the crossing of Zogho Stretto. Although the Player is still turned about, he is in virtual, body-to-body contact with the Scholar.

Conversely, in the Stretto version, the Scholar and Player come to the cross, with their right feet forward. As the Scholar parries, he passes forward with his rear (left foot) and makes the elbow push, spinning the Player away and to his own left. From here, the Scholar throws his sword about the Player’s neck and cuts his throat. (See Figure 9.) Despite both being the same basic technique, performed from the crossing at the mezza spada, the relative positions of the body in the cross changes the nature and measure of the play. Whereas the first play required him to pursue his opponent to even reach him with a fully extended cut, the second play immediately puts the combatants in body-to-body contact.

TRANSITIONING FROM WIDE TO CLOSE PLAY

Although grapples in wide play focus on long-distance actions such as grabbing the sword or kicking the knee or groin with a straight leg, there are two grappling techniques that do appear in this section, where they occur as follow-on techniques. In both, the technique that precedes them has the Scholar pass forward with his right foot, putting him in the position of the master of Zogho Stretto!

The first of these techniques is called the scambiar di punta (the exchange of thrusts). The Scholar assumes tutta porta di ferro, posta di finestra or posta di donna. The opponent enters into measure with a thrust to the Scholar’s face. The Scholar strikes with the true-edge of his sword as he steps forward left with his left foot, stepping into the line of the attack, and parries the blow with his arms well-extended from his body and his hands low, at about the height of his groin. Passing forward with the right foot, he thrusts the Player in the throat. However, should the thrust miss the target, glance off of any armour, etc., the Scholar is now in a bind on the tutta of the sword, with his right foot forward. This is the position of the master of Zogho Stretto. Applying this master’s lesson, the Scholar immediately passes to the outside with his rear (left) foot and grips the Player’s hilt between his hands. Locking down the opponent’s sword, he thrusts under his arm to his face. (Fig. 10)

Figure 8: The Scambiar di Punta and the prese of Zogho Stretto made as an immediate follow-on technique, should the exchange of thrusts fail.
Figure 10: The Scambiar di Punta and the prese of Zogho Stretto made as an immediate follow-on technique, should the exchange of thrusts fail.

The second play that leads to a transition from wide to close play is another thrust counter, the rompere di punta (breaking the thrust). The Scholar begins in tutta porta di ferro, posta di finestra, or posta di donna. As the opponent passes in with a thrust to his chest or face, the Scholar makes a small traverse with his left foot to his forward left while striking up with his sword into the attack. Making a mezza volta (a passing step that rotates the Scholar’s body to face the other side of the centerline) with his right foot, he presses down with his sword, driving the opponent’s weapon into the ground. He then immediately cuts up with his false edge to the opponent’s throat. He finishes with a descending backhand to the opponent’s head as he passes back with his right foot, and then withdraws from measure.

However, if the opponent is prepared when his sword is driven into the ground, he can parry the false-edge cut by pulling his hands up into a left posta di finestra. As before, the Scholar now finds himself in an incrossada with his right foot forward.

As the opponent parries the false edge blow, the Scholar releases his left hand from his hilt and hooks it over his opponent’s wrist. Passing to the outside with his left foot, he grabs his blade in his left hand and presses it forward into the enemy’s neck, as he wrenches back with the hilt. The pressure of this bind is then used to bear him to the ground. (Fig 11)

Figure 9: The Rompere di Punta and a follow on technique of Zogho Stretto, should the opponent defend against the rompere di punta.
Figure 11: The Rompere di Punta and a follow on technique of Zogho Stretto, should the opponent defend against the rompere di punta.

Throughout the Getty Manuscript, dei Liberi uses a bridging technique that leads from the end of one section into the next. For example, abrazare ends with the use of a small stick in a way that relates to dagger combat, while the dagger section ends with plays of the dagger vs. the sword, leading into the instruction on swordsmanship.

In the same way, the final play in the section of Zogho Largo is the punta corta (shortened point) and its counter. This time the Scholar is the attacker, and he closes measure with a pass of the right foot as he makes a horizontal blow to the left side of his opponent’s head. The opponent passes in with his right foot and attempts to parry. But as he does so the Scholar’s blow falls short, just touching his blade. The Scholar instantly cuts around to the other side and passes in with his left foot. He grasps his blade in his left hand and thrusts the opponent in the face.[22]

To counter this technique, the opponent waits until the Scholar begins to pass to the outside. He simply turns his hand to his right side, letting the Scholar run onto his point. Passing in with his left foot, the opponent grabs his own sword by the blade and completes the thrust. Considering the use of bridging techniques and repetition used throughout the manuscript, it is likely no coincidence that the punta corta is the link between wide and close play, nor that the follow-on to the exchange of thrusts is also the first play that dei Liberi teaches in his section on Zogho Stretto!

Figure 10: The Transition from Wide to Narrow Play:  The Punta Corta and its Contrario. As the attacker closes measure from the crossing of Zogho Stretto with the punta corta, the defender responds by using a play of Zogho Stretto himself.
Figure 12: The Transition from Wide to Narrow Play:  The Punta Corta and its Contrario. As the attacker closes measure from the crossing of Zogho Stretto with the punta corta, the defender responds by using a play of Zogho Stretto himself.

CONCLUSION: WALK DANGEROUSLY

In analyzing the organization of the plays we find that our original definition still holds:

Zogho Largo (wide play) only appears when discussing long weapons, such as the sword, spear or axe. At this measure, combatants may use the weapon’s edge and point, bind or grab the weapon’s head and, depending on the weapon’s length, make long-range unarmed attacks, such as kicks. Grabs will not reach any deeper than the opponent’s elbow; body-to-body contact is not possible.

Zogho Stretto (close or narrow play) is the measure at which dei Liberi describes all abrazare (grappling) and dagger combat occurring. When fighting with longer weapons, it is the range at which one uses those same techniques: hilt/shaft strikes, grabs of the opponent’s sword arm, body, or head and includes body-to-body contact such as throws.

Further, the crossing of mezza spada assumes prominence, for it is both the divider and unifier of the two types of play. Based on the three crossings of the blade and how he orders them, Fiore dei Liberi shows us that at the crossing of the punta, the swordsman can only play in Largo; while at the tutta he can only play in Stretto. But at the mezza spada, the swordsman can use both types of play.

When these plays are taken as a complete set, and we analyze how to flow from one to the next, we find a simple pattern: Left – Right-Left. Defend by crossing with the left foot forward (Zogho Largo) and win with either a counterattack (First Remedy Master) or a parrata-risposta (Second Remedy Master). If this technique fails and you are still in the bind, your right foot is forward. Since this is the crossing of Zogho Stretto, use a play of Zogho Stretto, by passing to the outside with your left foot.  From the moment you draw your sword and enter into a measure, you are simply walking forward until the opponent is dead![23]

Although line appears to have a role in these techniques, with Largo techniques favoring the inside line, and Stretto techniques favoring the outside line, it is actually a secondary concern to the issue of measure.  Instead, as with the German, Bolognese and English sources of the 15th and 16th centuries, it is the crossing at the half-sword (mezza spada) that assumes prominence in Armizare, for it is both the divider and unifier of the two types of play, wherein all of the technical diversity of medieval swordsmanship – cuts, thrusts, grips, kicks, disarms, pommel strikes and throws –  becomes possible. By using its particular leg position in coming to the cross, the dei Liberi School sought to maintain maximum distance in wide play, and allow the strongest, fastest closing of distance in the narrow.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Over the last decade I’ve had the chance to discuss, debate and analyze this topic with a number of excellent colleagues, all of whom, whether we agreed then (or now!) or not, have made my analysis a) necessary, b) possible and c) forced me to delve much more deeply into the structure and organization of Fiore dei Liberi’s sword plays to ferret out what he was trying to convey and how he was doing it. This list includes Devon Boorman, Bob Charrette, Bob Charron, Matt Easton, Matt Galas, Ilkka Haritkainen, Sean Hayes, Steve Hick, Mark Lancaster, Tom Leoni, Rob Lovett, Steve Reich, Jason Smith, Christian Tobler, Guy Windsor, Gianluca Zanini and Nicholas Zeman. My thanks to them all.

BILIOGRAPHY

PRIMARY SOURCES

Anonymous: MSS Ravenna M-345 & 346; reprinted by Rubboli, Marco; Cesari, Luca in  L’Arte della Spada: Trattato di scherma dell’inizio del XVI secolo. Rome: Il Cerchio Iniziative Editoriali, 2005.

Dei Liberi, Fiore: Fior di Battaglia; Italy, 1410; J. Paul Getty Museum (Ms. Ludwig XV 13) 83.MR.183

____________: Fior di Battaglia; Italy, c.1400; Pierpoint Morgan Library (MS M.383)

____________: Flos Duellatorum; Italy, 1410; reprinted by Novati, Francesco,  Flos Duellatorum, Il Fior di Battaglia di Maestro Fiore dei Liberi da Premariacco;Bergamo: Instituto Italiano d’Arte Grafiche, 1902.

Manciolino, Antonio: Opera Nova; 1531, translated by Tom Leoni in The Complete Renaissance Swordsman; Freelance Academy Press, Wheaton, IL 2010.

Marozzo, Achille: Opera Nova; Venice, 1536.

Meyer, Joachim: Gründtliche Beschreibung der Kunst des Fechtens; Strasbourg, 1570

Silver, George: Brief Instructions on My Paradoxes of Defense; London, c.1602,  unpublished until Cyril Mathey, The Works of George Silver; London, 1896

Vadi, Fillipo: De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi; c.1482 – 87; translated by Luca Porzio and Gregory Mele in Arte Gladiatoria: 15th Century Swordsmanship of the Italian Master Filippo Vadi; Chivalry Bookshelf, Union City, CA 2002.

SECONDARY SOURCES

Anglo, Sydney, The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000.

Charrette, Robert N., Fiore dei Liberi’s Armizare: The Chivalric Martial Arts System of Il Fior di Battaglia, Freelance Academy Press, Wheaton, IL 2010.

Malipiero, Massimo, Il Fior di battaglia di Fiore dei Liberi da Cividale: Il Codice Ludwing XV 13 del J. Paul Getty Museum. Udine: Ribis, 2006.

Leoni, Tom, Art of Dueling: Salvator Fabris’ Rapier Fencing Treatise of 1606. Highland Village, TX: Chivalry Bookshelf, 2005.

Mele, Gregory, “Understanding Wide and Close Play in the Tradition of Fiore dei Liberi” in Mele, Gregory (ed), In the Service of Mars, Proceedings from the Western Martial Arts Workshop (1999 – 2009), Vol. I, Freelance Academy Press, Wheaton, IL 2010.

Tobler, Christian Henry, Secrets of Medieval German Swordsmanship, Chivalry Bookshelf, Union City, CA 2002.

Tobler, Christian Henry, In Saint George’s Name: An Anthology of Medieval German Fighting Arts, Freelance Academy Press, Wheaton, IL 2010.

Rubboli, Marco; Cesari, Luca, Flos Duellatorum. Manuale di Arte del Combattimento del XV secolo. Rome: Il Cerchio Iniziative Editoriali, 2002.

Zanutto, D. Luigi,  Fiore di Premariacco ed I Ludi e Le Feste Marziali e Civili in Friuli. Udine: D. Del Bianco, 1907.

Windsor, Guy, “Crossing Swords: an analysis of the crossings of the sword in Fior di Battaglia”, digitally self-published, 2009. Available at http://www.scribd.com/doc/104773013/Crossing-Swords (sourced 10-4-2014)

Windsor, Guy, Mastering the Art of Arms, Vol 2: The Longsword, digitally self-published, 2014.


[1] See, for example Francesco Novai,  Flos Duellatorum, Il Fior di Battaglia di Maestro Fiore dei Liberi da Premariacco;Bergamo: Instituto Italiano d’Arte Grafiche, 1902; Jacopo Gelli, Scherma italiana, Milano, Hoepli, 1901 and L’ arte delle armi in Italia, Bergamo, Istituto italiano d’arti grafiche, 1906; Carlo Bascetta, Sport e giuochi: Trattati e scritti dal XV al XVIII secolo (Classici italiani di scienze techniche e arti), Il Polifolio, 1978; and Giovanni Rapisardi, Fiore de’ Liberi Flos Duellatorum – in armis, sine armis equester et pedesta, Gladiatoria Press, 1998. 

[2] A conceit of the modern Western Martial Arts community is the belief that using an antique or dialectical/regional spelling of a word makes it more “pure” to the art. Thus, we students of Italian fencing find ourselves cheerfully referring to dei Liberi’s Zogho Largo and Zogho Stretto, and the  Bolognese Gioco Largo and Stretto, blissfully ignoring that the former’s spelling is nothing more than consonantal drift wherein “g+i” or “c+i” becomes a “z”. This gioco becomes zogho,  embracciare becomes abrazare and cengiaro becomes zengiaro. On the other hand, since our Italian colleagues also seem content to maintain these various ligatures and “Lomardisms” when referring to dei Liberi’s art, who am I to break with tradition?

[3] See Anonymous Bolognese, p. 17V.

[4] If, after a crossing, you do not wish to enter the gioco stretto, you may simply retreat one step and continue playing in the gioco largo.

[5] The emphasis on parity is as crucial component of defining the stretto in Bolognese fencing as is its beginning at the half-sword, as we are constantly reminded throughout the writings of the Anonymous Bolognese, Manciolino and Giovanni Dall’Aggochie.

[6]  Achille Marozzo speaks to this directly in chapter 162 of his Opera Nova. “Let’s say there are two fencers, one of whom has learned both the wide and narrow play, while the other only knows the wide. The latter will be retreating his way through the salle, with the fencer who knows both plays chasing him around. This is why you should tell your students to learn both types of play, as long as they do not mind the payment. For the wide play with the two-handed sword (used against a similar weapon as well as against polearms) I charge seven Bolognese pounds; for the narrow play (also used against a similar weapon as well as against polearms) I charge another seven, making it fourteen Bolognese pounds total.” Translation by Tom Leoni.

[7] There are notably fewer of these actions in Bolognese fencing than there are in Armizare, but this likely reflects the nature of sword and buckler or sword and dagger fencing; those masters who include the two-handed sword, such as Marozzo and the Anonymous Bolognese, have a variety of grapples, hilt strikes and throws, many of which are directly analogous to those taught by Fiore dei Liberi.

[8] An excellent, short summation and musings as to how the Bolognese notions of gioco stretto does or does not relate to Armizare can be found at Ilkka Hartikainen’s blog: http://marozzo.com/tag/gioco-stretto/

[9] Meyer, Iv. Translation by Jorg Bellinghausen.

[10] Ibid., IIv.

[11] George Silver, Brief Instructions Upon My Paradoxes of Defense, Cap. 4.13

In modernized transcription (by Steve Hick):

If 2 fight & both lie upon the true guardant fight & that one of them will need seek to win the half sword by pressing in, that may you safely do, for upon that fight the half sword may safely be won, but he that first comes in must first go out, & that presently, otherwise his guard will be too wide above to defend his head, or if fit for that defence, then will it be too wide underneath to defend that thrust from his body which things the patient agent may do, & fly out safe, & that agent cannot avoid it, because the moving of his feet makes his ward unequal to defend both parts in due time, but the one or the other will be deceived & in danger, for he being agent upon his first entrance his time (by reason of the number of his feet) will be too long, so that the patient agent may first enter into his action, & the agent must be of force an after doer, & therefore cannot avoid this offense aforesaid.

[12] Ibid., Cap.3.3 – 4.

In modernized transcription by Steve Hick:

3. Close fight is when you cross at the half sword either above at the forehand ward that is with the point high, & hand & hilt low, or at the true or bastard guardant ward with both your points down.In modernized transcription by Steve Hick:

4. Close is all manner of fights wherein you have made a true cross at the half sword with your space very narrow & not crossed, is also close fight.

[13] Ibid., Cap.4.13

In modernized transcription by Steve Hick:

but he that first comes in must first go out, & that presently, otherwise his guard will be too wide above to defend his head, or if fit for that defence, then will it be too wide underneath to defend that thrust from his body which things the patient agent may do, & fly out safe, 

[14] Silver, Cap. 4. 24

In modernized transcription by Steve Hick:

If you are both so crossed at the bastard guardant ward, & if he then presses in, then take the grip of him as is shown in the chapter of the grip. Or with your left hand or arm, strike his sword blade strongly & suddenly toward your left side by which means you are uncrossed, & he is discovered, then may you thrust him in the body with your sword & fly out instantly, which thing he cannot avoid, neither can he offend you.Or being so crossed, you may suddenly uncross & strike him upon the head & fly out instantly which thing you may safely do & go out free.

[15] Compare these grips with dei Liberi’s plays of zogho largo — such as the hilt grab at 26v (Getty Ms) and the elbow push on 27r (Getty Ms); the latter of which we will look at later.

[16] Ibid.. Cap 4. 23

In modernized transcription by Steve Hick:

23. If he comes to the close fight with you & that you are both crossed aloft at the half sword with both your points upward, then if he comes in withal in his crossing bear strongly your hand & hilt over his wrist, close by his hilt, putting in over at the backside of his hand & hilt pressing down his hand & hilt strongly, in your entering in, & so thrust your hilt in his face, or strike him upon the head with your sword, & strike up his heels, & fly out.

[17] Filippo Vadi de Pisa, De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, Chapter 11. Translation mine.

[18] Antonio Manciolino, Opera Nova (1531), Book I, Chapter I. Translation by Tom Leoni in The Complete Renaissance Swordsman, Freelance Academy Press (2010), p.77.

[19] See, for example, the German technique Überlaufen in Ringeck (1460s), 39v and von Danzig (1452), 30r;Silver Cap Cap.4.22 ; the Bolognese technique levare di piedi (for example, Manciolino, Book 1, Cap. 6, 10 and 12); Nicoletto Giganti (1606), plate 14, etc, through to the 19th century.

[20] [20] My colleagues Guy Windsor and Bob Charrette argue for a more literal interpretation, that this blow must come after a crossing is made. While we often accord, in this case I cannot agree for two reasons. The first is the commonality of the technique, and the second iz expressed in fencing theory. From a bind at the half-sword, a cut to the leg is an action in the time of the hand. SO is a cut to the head. I can just hit him without slipping the leg. However, Fiore is express on the slip. While the defender can easily strike his opponent in the head in the same tempo, trying to slip the leg is an action in time of the hand, body and foot. If the reader is familiar with the notions of true and false times the issue here is that it takes longer on a stop watch to move three parts of your body the length of a passing step then it does one. Relative to the speed of moving a meter to a meter and a half long sword, that is too long. Structurally, I understand why they hold their view, and thus have tried to explain why I believe the plays are ordered as they are and thus a bind is not implied in the action.

[21] In this case, the stretto play is found in the section on the sword in one hand.

[22] This play is another recurring technique, particularly in the Italian tradition, appearing in Marozzo’s spadone (Third Assalto), and sword and buckler (Second Assalto) with the sword and gauntlet (Anonymous Bolognese, ) and even the rapier (see Salvatore Fabris, plate)! Within the German tradition, it usually appears in the teachings on the Vier Versetzen (Ringeck, 36v). Although each master clearly has his preferred variation — for example, the rapier relies on two thrusts, not a cut — the principle remains the same: a feinted attack on the inside line to collapse measure and close on the outside line.

[23] If this seems simplistic, consider that this was considered by the rapier Grandmaster Salvator Fabris to be the absolute highest expression of the art of fencing, to which he dedicated the entire second half of his monumental  Lo Schermo, overo Scienza d’Arme (“On Fencing, or the Science of Arms”). See Tommas Leoni, Art of Dueling: Salvator Fabris’ Rapier Fencing Treatise of 1606. Highland Village, TX: Chivalry Bookshelf, 2005.

Dekoven School of Arms Class Roster

ITALIAN SWORDSMANSHIP

THREE HOUR WORKSHOPS

Agrippa’s Ball, or Rolling with the Rapier: On using the whole body and its aspects in guard
Instructor: John O’Meara
Italian rapier is a linear art, but the rotational aspect of the system is often overlooked. We will look at integrating sword, body and left hand to create a fluid, “rolling” offense and defense in the style of Salvatore Fabris. (Bring your favorite companion weapon — dagger, cloak, or buckler.)

Bolognese Sprezzatura: Must-Know Fundamentals of Bolognese Sword and Buckler
Instructor: Tom Leoni
Do you really think you know the fundamentals of Bolognese sword and buckler? And even if you do, does your body? For the more experienced swordsman ambitious to firm up his basics, as well as the beginner wanting to start on the right path, this class is an intensive on what you must know to successfully tackle the actions of Manciolino and Marozzo. From precise formation of the guards to efficient, martial-looking steps; from powerful cutting and thrusting mechanics to building intent in your actions; from positive, sure parries in all lines to accurate ripostes; from entering a crossing to safely performing a take-off; from provoking tempi from the opponent to exploiting them successfully–these are the basics you will drill in this class.

In addition, you will learn how to use your off-hand weapon (the buckler) as taught by the great Bolognese masters.

The main goal of this class is to let you develop a sense of mechanical precision, outward elegance (looking like the book), and effortless sprezzatura in the style of the men who invented the word.

Gioco Largo (Wide Play) to Gioco Stretto (Narrow Play) in Bolognese Swordsmanship–with Single-hander, Longsword or Spadone
Instructor: Tom Leoni

In this class, you will have a chance to bring your favorite weapon and truly understand the concepts of gioco largo and gioco stretto. Bring your single-handed sword with or without buckler, and  your medieval longsword or spadone — you will be using them both!

We will use the universal rules taught by Manciolino and Marozzo to:

  • Understand, hands-on, the nature of either play, as well as their differences
  • Learn multiple ways to safely arrive at and enter the narrow play
  • Visualize the main decision-tree of narrow-play actions
  • Develop a feel for the type of crossing with the opponent, and to choose your action accordingly
  • Learn the fundamental actions of wrestling at the sword

As the masters say, failing to understand the narrow play may put you in the position of being chased around by the opponent, while you flee across the salle fearing what lies beyond the safe confines of wide play.

FOCUS CLASSES (90 Min)

Keeping the Sword Free (Rapier)
Instuctor: John O’Meara
It’s not enough to find and control the opponent’s sword, we also have to keep control of our own. And what if he finds us first? Here’s how to keep the advantage in the Italian rapier fight, regain it once it’s lost, and avoid the “contendere di spada” (aka the “death bind”).                                                                                                                                                                  

Rotella and Sword: With Great Cover Comes Great Responsibility (Bolognese)
Instructor: Devon Boorman
Students in this workshop will explore the tactical environment of the larger rotella and how to maximize the benefit of its cover while accommodating for the greater constraint it puts on the maneuverability of your sword.

Partisan without Tears (Bolognese)
Instructor: Greg Mele
It was only late in the 17th century that fencing began to separate into the ars militarie and those of self-defense; the well-rounded swordsman of the 16th century was expected to have proficient with all manner of arms. This included the sword used with a variety of companion weapons, but also the two-handed sword, polearms and at least the basics of close combat.

In this short class we will look at one of the most common, useful, and for modern students – fun – polearms of the Bolognese tradition – the partisan. A massive, winged slashing spear, the partisan, whether used alone or with the rotella, was a both a common weapon of the battlefield and routinely appeared in the lists for use in a judicial duel.

In this short class we will look at the fundamental guards and defenses of the weapon, how it combines cuts and thrusts in a way similar to the sword alone, and learn several plays taken directly from the works of Antonio Manciolino and Achille Marozzo.

Please bring either a partisan or a 7 – 8′ spear, with the last 18″ (Including the point), marked to represent the cutting edge. We will have some additional weapons on hand for those traveling by plane.

Stringere: Are You Truly Constraining Your Opponent, Or Do You Just Think You Are? (Rapier)
Instructor: Devon Boorman
Many Italian practitioners are making mechanically and tactically weak choices in their positions but are not having those positions challenged in a manner that leads to the development of truly effective technique.  In this class we will explore the mechanical and tactical side of stringere, how to make positions that are truly sound and how to view and exploit positions that are weak.

 

 

IBERIAN SWORDSMANSHIP

THREE HOUR WORKSHOPS

Something Old, Something New, Destreza Common, and Destreza True (Destreza and Esgrima Comun)
Instructor: Tim Rivera and Puck Curtis

For years, Carranza has been called the father of Spanish fencing.  Recently, estranged uncle Godinho has returned to shed some light on the tales that brother Pacheco has been telling about his vulgar cousins and grandparents, and it turns out they’re a much closer family than previously thought.  The similarities and differences between the “true” destreza and the “common” destreza will be explored in order to understand the state of Spanish fencing from which Carranza created his method, as well as its possible origins.  Recognizing the relationship between these styles will lead to a broader understanding of what Spanish fencing really is.

The Spanish Sword and its Companion Arms: Shield, Buckler, and Dagger (Esgrima Comun)
Instructor: Tim Rivera
In 1599, maestro Domingo Luis Godinho wrote that although the three double arms (sword and rodela, buckler, or dagger) are distinct, their play is not.  This class will be in two parts; the first will build the necessary foundation of sword alone in the common Spanish style, and the second will integrate your companion weapon of choice: rodela, buckler, or dagger.  Bring your favorite and learn how to fight in the common Spanish style, or bring them all and learn how the use of one translates to the use of the others.

 

Tactical Showdown: Italian vs. Spanish
Instructor: Devon Boorman vs. Puck Curtis
Starting from the initial approach, to crossing safely into measure, tactically controlling the opponent, finding the right moment to strike, and concluding with a safe exit. Students will explore the fundamental flow chart of the Italian and Spanish tactical approach to the rapier at each stage and readily conclude that the Italian masters had a far better handle on what they were doing.

FOCUS CLASSES (90 Min)

Atajos: Making them, Breaking them, and the Naughty Attacks That Love Them (Destreza)
Instructor: Puck Curtis
In this class students will enjoy a crash course in the Atajo within a variety of contexts from simple to extreme.  In addition, we will examine ways to escape and reverse the atajo in order to open up a new tree of fencing actions taken from an initial position of disadvantage.  All of these actions will be coupled with a friendly dose of violence certain to delight your friends.

No experience required.  Bring mask, single-handed training sword, gloves, and a padded jacket.

Figueiredo’s Destreza sword and dagger (Destreza)
Instructor: Puck Curtis
From Portugal comes a Carranza-based form of Destreza which challenges Pacheco’s authority while also integrating beautifully with his work.  In these pages we see a simple and effective sword and dagger system to complement the existing single-sword material.  What happens when you pull out a dagger for your left hand in the streets of Madrid at midnight?  Find out here.

Montante vs. the World
Instructor: Tim Rivera
According to maestro Luis de Viedma, the montante is a weapon of little courtesy, and with it a man is forced to defend his life without having respect for anyone.  Forget fighting in narrow streets.  Forget breaking up fights.  Forget guarding a lady or your damn cloak.  This weapon is for driving your adversaries before you.  Outnumbered?  Surrounded?  Facing shields and polearms?  You’ve got a montante; time to show them what it was built for.

Trading Places: Parry-Ripostes and Counteroffense in Destreza
Instructor: Puck Curtis
The true mark of an experienced martial artist is excellent timing and La Verdadera Destreza’s method of stealing the place from your adversary is the diestro’s playground.  In this class we will use the adversary’s movements and footwork against him to develop our assaults at his expense.  This class will be particularly useful if you often fight with a reach disadvantage.

Some beginner level experience recommended.  Bring mask, single-handed training sword, gloves, and a padded jacket.

Spanish Use of Two Swords, in Rules
Instructor: Tim Rivera
The Belgian nobleman Jehan L’Hermite, during his time in Spain, learned the use of two swords from the maestro mayor Pablo de Paredes in 1599, recalling that it consisted of very beautiful turns in good order and step, with which one defends himself and offends the enemy, learned in rules.  The same year, maestro Domingo Luis Godinho wrote a manuscript containing rules for two swords which match that description.  Students will learn some of these rules and their applications against being surrounded, guarding a cloak, and others.

 

Giraffes with Swords: Join Us at Buccaneer Blast – March 7th

Arrgh and Avast!

The Guild has been asked to present demonstrations of Renaissance Swordsmanship at Brookfield Zoo’s “Buccaneer Blast at the Brig” on March 7th!

We will be doing a series of late afternoon and evening demos at what looks to be a lighthearted, fun event aimed at everyone. The 3:00-6:00 PM scheduling is primarily child-centric, and admission is FREE.  The adult action gets rolling after six with the 21+ Swashbuckler Soiree.

So join us for the clash of rapier and dagger, the clang of sword and buckler and a little of that old-fashioned longsword fightin’ .

 

Dekoeven School of Arms Date Change

 

28

Mark your calendars for September 2014!

The Chicago Swordplay Guild and the DeKoven Foundation – the same team that have brought you WMAW for over a decade – are please to present an event for students in the Noble Art and Science of Defense: The DeKoven School of Arms. After years of attendees decrying a two-year wait between WMAW’s, in 2009 we hosted The 600: Prepare for Fiore – a celebration of the 600th anniversary of the Flower of Battle. This was followed by last year’s Armizare Academy.

In 2014, we turn to the Mediterranean Renaissance and the art of the duel! This full, three day event will feature:

  • A roster of leading instructors and experts in Renaissance Swordplay, including Devon Boorman, Puck Curtis, Tom Leoni, John O’Meara and Tim Rivera
  • Introductory and in-depth classes in early 16th century swordplay, including Iberian “Esgrima Comun” and Bolognese swordsmanship;
  • Expert instruction in the jewel in the crown of Renaissance Italian swordplay: the elegant rapier;
  • A chance for extensive training in the mysteries of LaVerdadera Destreza;
  • Lectures and demonstrations;
  • A Contest of Arms with sword, rapier and their trusted companions, the buckler and dagger.

Located at the picturesque DeKoven Center, home to the Western Martial Arts Workshop, the conference is a retreat with attendance limited to the 60 students that DeKoven can host. Your registration fee  includes entry, lodging and all nine, hot meals.

This is a unique event and a unique opportunity to train in a private environment with some of the finest modern teachers of the Art of Defense. Act now, because spaces will go fast. We look forward to crossing swords with you!

DETAILS:

Dates: September 5 – 7, 2014

Location:

The DeKoven Center
600 21st Street
Racine, WI 53403

(Details for getting to Racine can be found on the WMAW website)

Accommodations:

On campus; all rooms have two single beds. You will be able to request the roommate of your choice when you register, and we will make every effort to accommodate you. Lodging is from Thurs to Sat.

Nine hot meals.

Costs:

$300.00 inclusive before March 1st; $375 thereafter. (Almost a 25% savings for early registration!) No cancellation refunds after July 1st, 2014

Registration Contact Info:

Please note that the Dekoeven School of Arms event has moved two weeks earlier to September 5 – 7, 2014. Watch this space for event details!

Western Martial Arts Workshop 2013 – After Action Review

28

Mark your calendars for September 2014!

The Chicago Swordplay Guild and the DeKoven Foundation – the same team that have brought you WMAW for over a decade – are please to present an event for students in the Noble Art and Science of Defense: The DeKoven School of Arms. After years of attendees decrying a two-year wait between WMAW’s, in 2009 we hosted The 600: Prepare for Fiore – a celebration of the 600th anniversary of the Flower of Battle. This was followed by last year’s Armizare Academy.

In 2014, we turn to the Mediterranean Renaissance and the art of the duel! This full, three day event will feature:

  • A roster of leading instructors and experts in Renaissance Swordplay, including Devon Boorman, Puck Curtis, Tom Leoni, John O’Meara and Tim Rivera
  • Introductory and in-depth classes in early 16th century swordplay, including Iberian “Esgrima Comun” and Bolognese swordsmanship;
  • Expert instruction in the jewel in the crown of Renaissance Italian swordplay: the elegant rapier;
  • A chance for extensive training in the mysteries of LaVerdadera Destreza;
  • Lectures and demonstrations;
  • A Contest of Arms with sword, rapier and their trusted companions, the buckler and dagger.

Located at the picturesque DeKoven Center, home to the Western Martial Arts Workshop, the conference is a retreat with attendance limited to the 60 students that DeKoven can host. Your registration fee  includes entry, lodging and all nine, hot meals.

This is a unique event and a unique opportunity to train in a private environment with some of the finest modern teachers of the Art of Defense. Act now, because spaces will go fast. We look forward to crossing swords with you!

DETAILS:

Dates: September 19 – 21, 2014

Location:

The DeKoven Center
600 21st Street
Racine, WI 53403

(Details for getting to Racine can be found on the WMAW website)

Accommodations:

On campus; all rooms have two single beds. You will be able to request the roommate of your choice when you register, and we will make every effort to accommodate you. Lodging is from Thurs to Sat.

Nine hot meals.

Costs:

$300.00 inclusive before March 1st; $375 thereafter. (Almost a 25% savings for early registration!) No cancellation refunds after July 1st, 2014

Registration Contact Info:

 

The Dulelists at Dawn. A few were surprised to find out that we really meant dawn....
The Dulelists at Dawn. A few were surprised to find out that we really meant dawn….

Whew! As is a decade-old tradition, eight days after it began, Sean Hayes was the last to board the plane, officially turning out the lights and locking the door on the Western Martial Arts Workshop.

WMAW 2013 was our most packed event ever, not just in terms of classes, but with an armoured Deed of Arms (actually, a Deed within a Deed – more on that later), an on-going Challenge Tournament, an early-morning Duel at Dawn and more lectures than we have ever had before. Based on early feedback, I think it all worked, or mostly worked, but the downside was that many of the special events required special planning meetings on site, so as part of the event staff, I saw less of the actual classes than I normally do.

 

NEW INSTRUCTORS

Roger Norling teaching Meyer's longsword. (c) Ed Toton
Roger Norling teaching Meyer’s longsword. (c) Ed Toton

We try to change out about 1/5 of the instructor roster each WMAW, bringing in new folks from both the US and abroad. This year our new faces included Tim Rivera (Esgrima Comun, USA), Roger Norling (All-Meyer-All-the-Time, Sweden), Mishael Lopes Cordoza (German longsword, Holland) and Roberto Laura (Traditional Italian Stick and Knife, Germany).

Despite by best efforts, it proved impossible for me to get to Tim’s Spada e Rodella (sword and round shield) class, although it received rave reviews from my students, as did Lopes’ Dutch dagger fighting class, which one my students dubbed: just like Fiore, only meaner and more vindictive. Fortunately, I *was* able to take most of Lopes’ longsword cutting patterns class and to audit Roger’s short staff class.  Neither disappointed. “Techno-Viking” moniker aside, Lopes is an articulate instructor with fantastic body-mechanics who was able to relate why the patterns he was teaching were not just mechanically efficient, but tactically preferable in terms of tempo and line. It was a great class, even if I got pulled out to go deal with some administrative issues about 2/3 of the way through.

Roger Norling and I share a love of polearms, so when I invited him to come, I of course insisted he teach a class on Meyer’s staff. This three hour workshop was a real highlight, not just because I think Meyer has left us a brilliant, elegant and powerful system of staff-fighting, but because Roger’s pedagogy was equally brilliant. Ably assisted by new friend, fellow Illinoisan and brother-at-arms Chris Vanslambrouk of the Meyer Freifechter, from the moment he began his warm-up, everything Roger taught was designed to initiate students in the body mechanics and broad motions of the art. The Gothenburg Historical Fencing Society is known for its physicality and conditioning, and Roger brought this to his teaching: the first hour of the class would have been a fantastic stand-alone class in relating warm-ups and conditioning to your martial arts practice. Fortunately, there was two more hours of solo and paired work and people got a great work out, exposure to an art most of them had never seen before and I suspect an eye-opener as to the power of the humble staff….

Speaking of sticks and staves, I have already talked at length about my teacher Roberto Laura’s dedication and mastery of the traditional staff and knife arts of Italy, but I was eager to share his knowledge with the larger HEMA community. For those who do not know Roberto Laura, after many years in traditional Asian arts, he has spent the last twelve years traveling back and forth from Germany to Italy to research, document and train in traditional Italian arts. At WMAW, he presented a class on the shepherd’s staff from the Scuola Fiorata of Sicily, and a 3 hr workshop on the dueling knife both the Fiorata and Calvieri d’Umilita schools. These were some of the first classes to fill up in registration, and I don’t think anyone was disappointed. I think they also learned what I mean when I say that Roberto demonstrates what “sprezzatura” looks like in action. I suspect these old folk arts may gain some new students here, thousands of miles from their home…

As a side note, I will add that my good friend Jorg Bellinghausen has told me to invite three people to WMAW over the years: Roland Warzecha, Christian Eckert and Roberto Laura, and his recommendations have always become event favorites. Moral of the story – listen to Jorg. Well, maybe not after hours, after a few beers and smokes, but otherwise…

 

THE USUAL SUSPECTS

CSG's John O'Meara teaching Italian rapier in the style of Salvatore Fabris
CSG’s John O’Meara teaching Italian rapier in the style of Salvatore Fabris

Speaking of Jorg, he also taught a brilliant class toward the end of the weekend (what the instructors named “the Graveyard Shift”) called “The Sword Comes from the Messer”, that demonstrated adaptations of messer play to longsword, rather than the other way around. This became was one of tidiest, most concise lessons I have seen, equally useful for experienced practitioners as well as a short immersion course for newcomers to the German tradition.

Dr. Les Moore has become synonymous at WMAW with American Catch Wrestling (the colonial inheritor of English Catch-as-Catch Can), and he did not disappoint this year. But he also told me early on that he wanted to focus on beautifully illustrated, but slender self-defense work by Nicholas Petter. I confess I was a bit skeptical – not in Dr. Les, but in whether or not there was enough there for the class he was proposing, but since I hadn’t looked at the text either seriously or in over a decade, I said OK. Apparently, that was a good move! I could. I could tell you my thoughts on the class, but I’ll instead quote Jesscia Finley, herself no stranger to grappling: “I think I am in love with Dr. Les. Holy Crap that was good!” There you have it.

Jessica herself taught both a class on how to “spar” with historical wrestling and a 3-hour workshop on the work of Ott and Von Auserwald which also included a significant component on how to actually enter into wrestling: an area that many HEMA folks without prior knowledge of grappling, judo, etc are usually fairly weak. I only got to audit about half of the class, but I loved what I saw and my selfish solution will be to have her here for a private workshop.

Roland Warzecha has long been an advocate of slow-motion, free-form training, and this year he refrained from participating in coached fencing to instead teach an evening mini-class in his methods and principles. I cannot express how much the attendees loved this: I was cornered by almost every attendee and told “why can’t we have him do an entire 3-hr workshop on this?” OK, OK, I get it – I’ll talk to Roland… or at least, his alter-ego, The Dimicator.

"I'm not Tom Leoni, but I can still stick you in the head with a spear!" (c) Ed Toton
“I’m not Tom Leoni, but I can still stick you in the head with a spear!” (c) Ed Toton

Unfortunately, my dear friend Tom Leoni took ill and had to drop out of the event, and combined with Devon Boorman’s induction into the Dolorous Order of the Dislocated Digit (see below), I suddenly found myself picking up an extra 4.5 hours of teaching duty. I certainly didn’t mind – it meant an excuse to play with polearms! – but it did sadly happen to coincide with exactly the remaining class slots I had left myself the freedom to attend. Damn! It also means that I was suddenly teaching first period Sunday morning – double damn! But I went to bed early(ish) like a good boy, and I hope that everyone enjoyed the workshop, which built off a pair of classes on Italian spear, and sword vs spear that I had co-taught with Devon One-Arm the day before. (How does a one-armed man teach spear? Through a body-double, of course, in this case Roland Cooper.)

I know there were other classes, and I know a lot of them were great: “Wow, Sons of Hauptgames was even better than the first! That was a really great rapier mechanics class! The Sneaky Stuff class really was…sneaky.” But I didn’t get to see them. (How *does* one get to be a guest at his own event?) I *did*get to see some of the lectures, from Elizabethan Sea Dogs to Spada da Popolo (the history of the Italian knife arts) and an intriguing lecture by Ben Roberts on the English longsword tradition. Mark Lancaster began the event with a lecture on A Hidden Tradition – a rumination of the “common art” of the Middle Ages which the various masters were improving upon or countering; essentially “what did most combatants know”? It was well-received and Mark is still working on the topic, so hopefully I’ll see version 2.0 someday.

 

THE CHALLENGE TOURNAMENT

That's gotta hurt! A near-miss by Roland Cooper ends in his beheading by Mishael Lopes Cordoza during the longsword finals.
That’s gotta hurt! A near-miss by Roland Cooper ends in his beheading by Mishael Lopes Cordoza during the longsword finals.

There has long been a great deal of discussion, interest and debate in the virtues and methods of competition in refining and testing martial arts skill, and a strong divide between traditional martial arts and combat sports. In recent years, this same interest, debate and specialization has become a part of  the Historical European Martial Arts community, with various sub-communities ascribing different levels of importance, emphasis and virtue to formalized competition.

My own views on the subject are similar to those eloquently expressed by new WMAW instructor Roger Norling in “The Wreath or the Cash” at his HROARR website: http://www.hroarr.com/the-wreath-or-the-cash-on-tournament-fighting/  and the WMAW Challenge Tournament, derived from a proposal by Maryland KdF member Ben Michels, was an attempt to put some of these ideas in practice. The tournament has  been developed with the following precepts in mind:

  1. Competition should be a good test of physical skill as well as character; If combatants don’t have a chance to fail both physically and personally in a match, you do not have a martial arts competition, you have a sports competition.
  2. Judged combat can lead to awarding technically better fencing, but it also reduces the character test on combatants, as they are absolved from calling hits and learn to “sell” points. Fencing is the Art of Defense, and we see far too many double-hits in sparring;
  3. The current emphasis on the After Blow in all fights, rather than the original “king of the hill format” has actually encouraged double-hits as people game the After Blow to negate an attack.
  4. No one likes to be eliminated in “sudden death”, one-hit fits, but that is the reality of a lethal fight with sharp swords. As Fiore dei Liberi wrote: “in one missed parry lies death”.
  5. Most fencing tends to be like vs like weapons, whereas the various masters all assert that their art works in all manners of combat, against all weapons.
  6. No set of rules can accurately reflect real combat, only reward realistic tactics and deemphasize unrealistic ones.

With these rules in mind, Ben and I conceived the WMAW Challenge Tournament.  Here is how it worked.

The tournament was fought in two rounds – an open Challenge and invitational Finals. The Challenge Round was open to all attendees with the requisite equipment, began during Thursday night free-fencing and ran all through Friday classes, concluding with Friday night free fencing. Fights were conducted privately and judged on the honor system, based on the stated Scoring Conventions (see below).

  • Overall Victor received 2 pts;
  • The person who scored the first blow received 1 pt;
  • If there were any double hits during the match, both parties lost 1 pt.
  • Therefore, in any match a combatant could score between 3  and -1 points.

These rules were not meant to be “realistic”, simply to prioritize drawing first blood and avoiding double-hits. No matter how many double hits, for the sake of simplicity, only 1 pt was lost.

Finally, Combatants could choose to fight in any of the following categories (and could participate in as many as they like): Longsword, Cut and Thrust Sword (inclusive of sword alone, sword and buckler, or sword and dagger), Thrusting Sword (Inclusive of rapier, rapier and dagger, rapier and cloak or smallsword). What defined which category you were fighting in is what you are armed with, not your opponent. Thus, if two combatants wish to meet in the field with longsword vs. rapier and dagger, they are welcome to do so – with one person receiving a score in the Longsword category and the other in the Thrusting Sword category.

After the Challenge Round ended, total scores for each combatant in each Weapon Category were totaled, and the top two combatants for each round moved to the finals, to be fought as an exhibition during Sunday’ s lunch period. The Finals were a formally judged match, based on the rules designed by Sean Hayes for VISS. You can find those rules at http://chivalricfighting.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/tournament-rules/

The finalists in each round were:

  • Longsword: Mishael Lopes Cordosa and Roland Cooper (victory to Lopes)
  • Cut & Thrust: Bill Grandy and Doug Bahnick  (victory to Bill)
  • Thrusting Sword: Kathleen Gormanshaw and Nat Ward (victory to Kathleen)

So Did it Work?
Good question! The answer is: parts did and parts didn’t.

The scoring conventions and open format of the Challenge round worked very well, not least of which because combatants were sometimes annoyed or frustrated by the results. “What do you mean I got zero points? I WON!” Yes, but you got hit first and double-hit. Look at it this way, your opponent got nothing, too! What was interesting was that in some cases, he who fought most and won most clearly dominated – Lopes had more points in longsword than the second and third place finish combined – at other times the two finalists had not fought that many bouts, but had managed to win, score first blood and avoid double-hits, as happened in the Cut & Thrust round.

The honor system worked just fine, but in part because we put in a caveat: if you couldn’t agree on the results of the bout you went to the recorder and were forced to play Rock, Paper, Scissors. The victor in the Rock, Paper, Scissors was to be announced at Saturday’s dinner. Act like a child, get treated like one. The RPS Solution was never invoked.

Now, a few people gamed round one – both parties scored poorly and decided not to report their results – and that’s probably no better or worse than any other problem in tournaments, from poor or biased judging to gaming the After Blow. In this case it really didn’t matter, because there was no prize to be won – as we made clear at the start, this was just an experiment to try various scoring and judging conventions with a heterogeneous audience.

The finals, IMO, and even within my own school it seems I was a minority, were a mixed bag. I appreciate what both the Longpoint rules and Sean Hayes’ modifications to them seek to achieve, and I think they work well to train fighters, but within a tournament I think they take too long to score, make the action too staccato and make it hard for the audience to understand what they are seeing. I think that the idea of the system, including priority, which worked well, is good and can be refined and perhaps slimmed down for actual competition. In any event, you can see the system at work here, in the well-fought messer finals:

The major flaw with the tournament was that participation was lighter than anticipated and as I asked people why they weren’t trying their luck, I heard a common refrain, even from those who like to compete: it was hard to move back and forth from a competitive mindset to a free-play mindset, from focusing on trying new things or being highly-technical to relying on “what worked”. I hadn’t really considered that, but in retrospect it makes good sense. I *was* happy to see that a number of folks did try mixed weapons, and that added some diversity and variety to the fighting.

At its core, WMAW is a teaching, research and networking event, not a tournament event, of which there are a growing number. I don’t know that we’ll do much with refining the model at WMAW itself, but those lessons will plug in to what we do with our off-year events. I will say that if I were to carry the experiment further forward, I would make phase one of the tournament focused on a single, three-hour evening block, probably advance the top four to the second phase, and perhaps have the two highest-scoring finalists of whatever weapon bout for the overall victory. But it was fun to try and it did reinforce my feeling that if your goal is to use competition as an adjunct to training, rather as a focus for a particular event, the rules can be quite minimalistic, and a lot is gained by not placing all responsibility in the hands of the judges. I look forward to chatting more with Ben, Jake and Sean about refinements in the days to come.

 

THE ARMOURED DEED OF ARMS

Our numbers grow...the 2013 combatants in the Armoured Deed of Arms
Our numbers grow…the 2013 combatants in the Armoured Deed of Arms

In the last few years a reconstruction of an Armoured Deed of Arms has become one part martial exercise, one part extended exhibition match. It is not meant to be a “reenactment” (although I certainly caught a few snickers about that), but rather an homage: if you are going to go the trouble of wearing $3 – 10K of armour and reconstruct armoured combat the best way to pressure test that is the same way as the people who did so originally. My model for this has been the modern jousting movement, where the competitors are in historical kit, using a modernized set of historical rules (generally for safety), with a ground crew in historical kit, but with no pretensions by the competitors or announcers that it is an historical event, anymore than dressage, fox hunt or rodeo riders pretend it is the 19th century, despite wearing a traditional ‘costume’.

We must be doing something right, because from a meager handful of guys at the first Deed, there were nearly combatants this year, most in full, homogenous harness! Among the new faces were Christian Cameron, Marc Auger and Dr. Ken Mondschein.

Nicole Allen has long been the sole representative of the “armoured ladies who kick ass” contingent in these Deeds, but this year she was joined by Jessica Finley of the Old Dominion Fechtschule.  In fact, Jessica was chosen First Among Equals and invited to join the Companions of the Seven Swords. You can watch Jessica hand me my ass here:

Although I was disappointed with some of this year’s Free Fencing (including the handful of pick-up bouts I managed to get in myself), I think we saw some of our best armoured combat matches, with everything from dagger to poleaxe. Judging of a good kit was a bit uneven – I generally required a more solid blow than Devon did – but we’ll work that out, and I believe that all of the combatants felt “well-satisfied”.

The Deed also had a second Deed with in! Last year, Bob Charrette, a founding member of the Seven Swords and a participant in all of the Deed we have hosted, asked if there might be a time and place to allow him to do a feat of arms in honor of his 60th birthday: to fight in harness for one minute for each year of his life. How could we possibly say no to that?

So in between each bout, Bob met a challenger with their their choice of dagger, sword, axe, short spear and long spear. Bob fulfilled his Deed and could have stood a few challenges more (although I suspect he was content not to have to do so) – an inspiring model for all of us to emulate! At the end of the Deed, he awarded each person he fought with a token: a figurine of the Master of the Segno, carved by his own hand. In turn, and to his great embarrassment, the Companions of the Seven Swords awarded him with a token of our own: a tournament sword in the style of Rene d’Anjou, made by Companion Scott Wilson of Darkwood Armoury, and inscribed with both Fiore’s four virtues and a crowned 60. A fine end, to a fine deed!

The day could not have come to completion with the Dawn Stiers and her “squire team” who where indispensable in the running of the deed. Dawn is a master of organization who stepped in last year with my student Cooper Braun-Enos to whip the flow of the event into shape. This year, she and her crew made things move so smoothly that we finished half an hour early! A huge thanks to all of the team, especially Erin Fitzgerald, who was always on hand to help me with my armour, hand me water and make sure I knew where I was going and what I was doing.

 

SATURDAY NIGHT FIGHTS

Welcome to the Party! A rogues gallery, courtesy of Ed Toton.
Welcome to the Party! A rogues gallery, courtesy of Ed Toton.


Saturday night’s feast – an old-school pig roast – has become a tradition at WMAW. Every year we’ve had a different theme. One year was a costume party “celebrating 600 years of Western martial arts”, another year was medieval, and last year was Victorian, in keeping with the entertainment: a reconstruction of a 19th c Assault of Arms, such as might have been seen at the Bartitsu Club. This year was modern formal.  Every year, Dr. Bill Ernoehazy, as master of ceremonies, takes on the persona of the theme and weaves that into his presentation style. But what do you do with modern formal?

Why, you do a 1940s-style Night at the Fights, of course! There might not have been quite enough sweat or cigarette smoke, but we did have a bell! (Some remarked that it looked suspiciously like the dinner bell Dekoven rings. I can only say that while it did have a certain resemblance, all I know is that I told Spark that “we need a bell” and a) a bell appeared and b) the dinner bell was in place at breakfast the next morning. What happened in between is a mystery.) We also had what was, beyond a doubt, some of the best demo bouts we have ever hosted, of which the one that must take special note was the messer bout, wearing only mensur-style googles and gloves, fought by Roland Warzecha and Jake Norwood:

This was one of the cleanest and finest martial displays I have *ever* had the privilege to watch. It also revealed Roland and Jake’s alter-egos, as can also be seen from the photo at the bottom of this article…..

Standing in for both an injured Devon Boorman and John O’Meara, CSG’s Rob Rutherfoord met Bill Grandy in an Italian rapier bout that was, bar none, the most technically clean we’ve ever had, while also being quite athletic. I don’t think Rob needs to ever worry about being the “stand in” again!

Finally, the Demo Bouts have always featured swords, but this year we also had knives. Roberto Laura opened the demonstration with one of the elegant solo forms of the Italian knife schools, and there was a bout with American Bowie knives; a spirited display by Keith Jennings (CSG) and Thayne Alexander (RMSG). I think next time we need to chalk their blades….

All-in-all it was a great night of food, fencing and merriment, and a great capstone to the event.

 

THE DOLOROUS ORDER OF DISLOCATED DIGIT
Every event has its flaws. Although there were notable, and inspired exceptions (Jake Norwood and Keith Jennings, I am thinking of part two of your bout!), the freeplay quality was lower this year than at last WMAW. But the decided downside was an increased number of injuries, particularly to thumbs and fingers.  The two worst injuries were Sean Hayes’s little fingers, broken by a pollaxe during the armoured Deed of Arms, and Mishael Lopes Cordoza’s thumb, which we thought suffered a bad jam during the Challenge Tournament, but which in reality has a complex fracture (damn, damn and triple damn).

We’ve tried to look at the injuries that were recorded, what the combatants were fighting with and what, if anything could have been done to prevent the injury. Here’s a little after action review:

Injury
Sean’s finger was broken in a pollaxe bout with a new pollaxe  design. The weapon behaves really nicely – indeed, just like a pollaxe, which was the problem. The axe head was likely too narrow to distribute force, particularly against someone wearing finger gauntlets.

Solution
The solution is two-fold: 1) the weapons need to be redesigned and 2)combatants can consider wearing mitten gauntlets or additional finger bucklers when fighting  with the axe. Other than this, there isn’t much to be done – the weapon is a mass weapon and the hands will always be vulnerable; just as was discussed historically;

Injury
Devon Boorman shoulder was injured during a throw, also during the Deed of Arms, which rendered him out of combat for the weekend and a lefty for teaching purposes for the next two days. At first I thought he might have dislocated the shoulder, but it proved to be just deep tissue bruising.

Solution
There really isn’t one.  Grappling is inherently dangerous, and in harness the higher center-of gravity and lack of sensitivity often takes both people to the ground. In reviewing video, no one really did anything wrong, nor was the throw particularly dangerous – one combatant simply landed hard on the other. This injury probably falls into the realm of “things will happen in full-contact sports”.

Injury
Lopes’s thumb was broken at the middle joint during the first round of the Challenge Tournament. Of course, Lopes being Lopes, this in no way stopped him from fighting and winning the longsword finals, so I doubt most people realized how complete the fracture was until he got home and posted x-rays to Facebook.

Solution
During the particular bout where the injury happened, Lopes had complained about his opponent hacking needlessly hard. This may have been a matter of too much blow force (it is a sword, not a mace, people), and in a judged tournament the judges might have been there to step in, but in addition to this, I think this sort of injury is in turn a combination of training and culture issues and combatants being willing to say “Dude, quit hitting so damn hard.”

Injury
We had three other notable hand injuries that I know about: a thumb that had its nail pulled back, a severely jammed thumb, a dislocated finger and a broken thumb. In talking to the combatants about how they happened, when, what they were fighting with, etc, here is what we were able to determine:

  • All of the injuries happened in longsword bouting;
  • All of the injuries noted above happened to practitioners of German longsword;
  • None of the combatants were wearing plate gauntlets, but what they *were* wearing varied from the custom gloves at Sparringglove.com, the cheap Absolute Force knock-offs and lacrosse gloves.
  • There was no consistency in the swords used in the injuries, but they included an Atrim I-beam sword, a Regenyei  feder, and an Albion Meyer.

Solution
We discussed this a lot with the instructors who stayed afterwards at the event, and I don’t        really have one, in part because I don’t think the injuries were because of a singular issue, but         rather a “perfect storm” of a variety of issues.

  • Swords – I can’t say anything for certain, but I will note that each of our last three events someone has gotten a part of their hand mashed by the Atrim I-beam swords. I love Gus, but I really think he’s recreated a crowbar, not a sword, with these weapons, and I think the use of this weapon in inter-group fencing and competition needs to be evaluated.
  • Blow force – I will say that I saw people hitting harder and relying on far more safety gear than in previous years. This was particularly true of those who come from a tournament-focus. More gear, more force, and while higher level combatants were good at modulating their power, lower level fighters emulating them clearly were relying on the armour to get the job done. The end result was that I saw a lot of what was familiar from my SCA days – a reliance on safety gear over control, and a lot of *hitting* with swords, as opposed to cutting – with the same sorts of injuries.
  • Safety-Gear: the problem clearly went beyond safety gear, but I do think that in some cases that exacerbated the problem. As I said in my review when the Absolute Force gloves came out, they do not have the shaping, dexterity or strength of the Fechtschule Gdansk gloves they knocked off. I particularly noted that the thumbs were flimsy, particularly at the joint, and the way they fold over the glove, instead of to tucking in (as seen in historical mitten gauntlets) made thumb injuries likely. I was told by the manufacturer “oh, everyone loves them”.  Maybe so (although I think what they love is the price-point), but between WMAW and Armizare Academy I have now seen five significant thumb injuries to people wearing these gloves, and as blow force goes up, I suspect more will follow. If you have $120 hands, by all means wear $120 gloves, I guess.
  • Style: All of the thumb injuries happened to people who practice German arts. I don’t think that is a critique of the style, but I do think that since it uses slipping in and out of the thumb grip, it is worth investigating how people are using that grip under adrenaline pressure, and with different sorts of hand protection, to determine if they are over extending or hyper-flexing their thumbs, making them more susceptible to being hit.

Shameless Personal Editorial: When the debates over historical gear vs. non-historical gear went through the community, one complaint was that the gambeson, gauntlets and helmets that some of us favored were “too bulky and too heavy” for unarmoured combat.  Indeed, that was the rationale behind many of the nylon swords, such as the Rawlings line. That argument may or may not be true, but the overall amount of kit that I saw the modernists wearing – full shin, knee and instep guards,  full arm guards over an Axel Petterson jacket (a gambeson by any other name), reinforcing gear *under* the jacket, sometimes black, plastic reinforcing gear (shaped, I might add, like medieval armour) the arms of the jacket, compression pants with protective plates, and so forth, was astounding. It also actually weighs notably more (and in the case of the hand protection, clearly protects less) then what I was told was too heavy to simulate “unarmoured combat”. I think the virtue is it’s modern and black. In any case, I think too much armour + blunt swords comes to less fear of closing and more percussive use of the weapon, making it more like stick-fighting than swordfighting. YMMV.

 

IN CLOSING
2309_128738205173_9961_n
This was our most ambitious WMAW and I think our most successful; not just because the event was sold-out, but because attendees had a vast choice of activities, there was plenty of friendly blade-crossing, and I think the overall spirit and nature of the event was the most upbeat, warm and positive I have seen. WMAW was designed as a way to showcase research, try new things and build bridges, and I hope that was achieved with some of this year’s new faces.

Of course the event only happens because of the tireless work of the WMAW event staff: Nicole Allen, John O’Meara, Jacques  Marcotte and Christina Bailey, and the hair-pulling efforts at ride coordination and equipment transportation by Davis Vader, whose job I would not do at gun-point.  Our staff’s efforts only get us to the day of the event; after that it is the legion of Blue Shirt volunteers and drivers who make us pull the event off. Thank you, each and every one. And thanks to all of the students who make this worth doing time and again.

You can find additional WMAW reviews from Jake Norwood on the HEMA Alliance forum and a variety of instructors and attendees at the WMAW Facebook page.

Here is a rare collector's post card from the early days of HEMA superhero geekdom, showing the Dimicator and Captain America. At the time, critics were still undecided if the Dimicator was to become a superhero or supervillain.
Here is a rare collector’s post card from the early days of HEMA superhero geekdom, showing the Dimicator and Captain America. At the time, critics were still holding out hope that the Dimicator would become a superhero.

The DeKoven School of Arms: A Weekend of Renaissance Swordsmanship

28

Mark your calendars for September 2014!

The Chicago Swordplay Guild and the DeKoven Foundation – the same team that have brought you WMAW for over a decade – are please to present an event for students in the Noble Art and Science of Defense: The DeKoven School of Arms. After years of attendees decrying a two-year wait between WMAW’s, in 2009 we hosted The 600: Prepare for Fiore – a celebration of the 600th anniversary of the Flower of Battle. This was followed by last year’s Armizare Academy.

In 2014, we turn to the Mediterranean Renaissance and the art of the duel! This full, three day event will feature:

  • A roster of leading instructors and experts in Renaissance Swordplay, including Devon Boorman, Puck Curtis, Tom Leoni, John O’Meara and Tim Rivera
  • Introductory and in-depth classes in early 16th century swordplay, including Iberian “Esgrima Comun” and Bolognese swordsmanship;
  • Expert instruction in the jewel in the crown of Renaissance Italian swordplay: the elegant rapier;
  • A chance for extensive training in the mysteries of LaVerdadera Destreza;
  • Lectures and demonstrations;
  • A Contest of Arms with sword, rapier and their trusted companions, the buckler and dagger.

Located at the picturesque DeKoven Center, home to the Western Martial Arts Workshop, the conference is a retreat with attendance limited to the 60 students that DeKoven can host. Your registration fee  includes entry, lodging and all nine, hot meals.

This is a unique event and a unique opportunity to train in a private environment with some of the finest modern teachers of the Art of Defense. Act now, because spaces will go fast. We look forward to crossing swords with you!

DETAILS:

Dates: September 5 – 7, 2014

Class Roster:
Download the  Class Roster

Location:
The DeKoven Center
600 21st Street
Racine, WI 53403

(Details for getting to Racine can be found on the WMAW website)

Accommodations:
On campus; all rooms have two single beds. You will be able to request the roommate of your choice when you register, and we will make every effort to accommodate you. Lodging is from Thurs to Sat.

Nine hot meals.

Costs:
$300.00 inclusive before March 1st; $375 thereafter. (Almost a 25% savings for early registration!) No cancellation refunds after July 1st, 2014

Registration Form:

DKSoA registration form

Contact Info:

How Do You Tell a Friend Their Baby is Ugly – The Problem with the USFCA Program

by Gregory Mele,

In the 14 years since the Chicago Swordplay Guild was founded, I’ve sought to keep martial arts politics off of its website, even when I’ve been in the thick of things myself. When we redesigned the website to include a blog, we’ve focused on event notifications, reviews, demos and training material. But the broo-ha-ha in the last two weeks over the creation of an Historical Fencing Master program by the United States Fencing Association (USFCA) is sadly killing that 14 year streak.

The short strokes are simple: after an on-again, off-again attempt by the USFCA to create a program for certifying teachers of historical swordsmanship, led by Maitres des Escrime Walter Green (for those not in the know, MdE is the title given to modern fencing masters), Dr. Ken Mondschein approached the USFCA about joining the project.  Ken has explained his rationale in an open letter, best summarized as:

It has long been my belief that to grow and flourish, the study of Historical European Martial Arts needs both greater professionalism and recognition from established organizations. Being an academic, I live in a world where credentials are very necessary. Many others have seen how such recognition would be beneficial to their own efforts.

Now, before I say one more word – I personally think that while Ken’s role was a well-intentioned, but misguided effort, I don’t think the program was viable, I don’t think the USFCA were the people to do this, and I don’t think their motives are particularly pure. Further, at this point, the likelihood of anything good coming from it is probably somewhat less likely than using an alembic to turn lead into gold.

OTOH, if the USFCA was going to attempt this, Ken’s qualifications were good ones:

  • He has been a student of classical and modern fencing for about 20 years, having already achieved both a moniteur (instructor) and prevôt (senior instructor) license from the USFCA;
  • He is a student of la canne and grand batôn, one of the other surviving weapon arts of Europe;
  • He has been a student of French smallsword, Italian rapier and Italian longsword for nearly as long as he has fenced, trains and fights in armour and is learning to joust.
  • He is a PhD in Medieval studies and Fulbright Scholar, who discovered the fourth Fiore text and paid with own grant money to have it photographed;
  • He reads French, Latin and Italian in their modern and medieval forms;
  • He has published three works on historical swordsmanship and has two more in the works;
  • He has organized and presented papers and sessions on HEMA at the premier medievalist conference in the United States.
  • He has taught classes on applying classical fencing pedagogy and interpretive classes on rapier, smallsword and longsword at various HEMA events in the United States.

In short, he’s not a hack, this isn’t a passing fad with him, and there is very, very little reason to suspect his agenda was anything more than what he claims it was. I can add that he approached a number of HEMA folks in the US to participate in the program, and was soundly refused. (I will explain why in a later post.) Last year, several American and European swordsmen found out about the program and decide to launch a series of accusations on that most serious of academic fora – Facebook – upset that they weren’t consulted. All I can say to that is “Boys, get your knickers out of a twist and consider that in some cases a) you aren’t in the US – so the USFCA frankly wasn’t interested in what you had to say, anymore than the FIS in Italy or AAI in France cares what I have to say, b)maybe Ken doesn’t know you, or maybe your street cred isn’t as good as you thought, c) he was one triad of a committee and the junior member at that.”

HOW TO DESTROY A CERTIFICATION PROGRAM IN TWO EASY LESSONS

Regardless of how it got there, now the program is live, and as the USFCA usually does things, they made a hash of it. Besides Ken, the other two members on the committee are not well-known in HEMA circles. One is Jerry Benson, a fencing coach of some reputation who has students deeply involved in HEMA practice – I do not know if he saw this as a way to work with his students to create something better or if they approached him, but he does not deserve to be called “Jerry the Salesman” because he had the gall to give a lecture on how to develop successful fencing programs; anyone who has to pay rent to keep a studio open for a large club, rather than train with four buddies in the park gets that reality.

Sadly, the third member is more problematic – another sport-fencing master who has a “pedigree” of credentials that set off every Bad Budo warning buzzer, from mail-order ninjutsu, to an 8th dan in a system of his own devising. I am sure he got his USFCA credentials legitimately, but his centrality to the program at least shows the organization’s lack of understanding of martial arts, and martial arts politics. (Go figure, they train teachers in an Olympic sport.)

To have had any hope of legitimacy with the “community” they were hoping to attract, the program’s first candidates should have had to publicly go through all three certification stages themselves, publicly. Instead, the USFCA chose to promote the three members of the committee directly to Maitres des Escrimes Historiques, thereby giving them the authority to run the program. Their choice, but an incredibly stupid one.

So in the end, Ken’s idea was laudable but dead-on-arrival in my opinion (I will explain why in a separate post) even before politics got involved, but once they emerged there was no hope whatsoever.

THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARILY CATTY FENCERS
And so we have the digital gnashing of teeth, the tearing of breasts, and the prophesized end of civilization as we know it, as legions of electric foil-wielding fencers line up in order of their tournment seeding to plug in their longswords and lead us down the brimstone path to martial arts hell….

(Sorry, I got lost in my own hyperbole for a moment there – the discussions about tournament seeding and electric longswords came from within the HEMA community! )

But you would think that was precisely what would happen as various corners of the HEMA world exploded in rage over a certification by the Sideshow Bob of American Fencing, calling Ken Mondschein the self-crowned Napoleon of historical fencing, a liar and all sorts of the charming things oft cited by emboldened, digital warriors. I am not sure that a debate about gay marriage between Bill Mahr and Rush Limbaugh on Pierce Morgan’s show could have more shamelessly played for the low blow. (Sigh… sure, I got my licks in there, too. The flesh is weak.)

While Jerry is now the traveling snake-oil peddler,  Ken is the traitorous cuckoo in the nest, and apparently, all good Dead Fechtmeister-Fearing Men must roast him and tear his flesh, because he “was warned” – by no less than the Godfather of HEMA himself, who said “thou shalt have false Masters before Me “. He also vowed to never adopt such a title himself, which seems noble and bold, until you realize that as it is a teaching title, and he has neither a school nor students, that isn’t saying much.

(About this point you might be wondering why it is morally wrong to try and create a certification program that no one is compelled to join, but OK to personally attack someone because they defied your wishes , when you are not their teacher, nor the head of any certifying body, nor even a researcher with a substantial published body of work. If you are wondering that, it is probably because your parents probably raised you right. But I digress.)

What is fascinating, and disheartening, to me, is that while these men in their 40s and 50s engage in what is little more than internet hazing and bullying they seem to ignore the obvious:

  • some of these same folks were victimized by rumor-mongering, innuendo outright lies and similar attacks by John Clements, the ARMA director, directly leading to the formation of their own clubs and organizations;
  • another subset of these folks have thought it in poor taste to call out those problems with the ARMA director, and felt that as Europeans “that is the Americans’ problem”;
  • some of these same folks criticized myself and others when we revealed that Andrea Lupo, the founder of both the Federazione Italiana Scherma Antiqa e Storica (FISAS) and the International Master at Arms Federation (IMAF) was a fraud who had made up his entire martial pedigree,  and most of his personal background, inventing the name of one master and claimed false credentials from another, because it was “no one’s business but the Italians” – even though Mr. Lupo had been trading on those credentials at seminars in the USA, Canada and UK as well.
  • some of these same folks thought it was shameful and “bad for the art” to “publicly air dirty laundry” when it was revealed that the owner of the now-defunct Chivalry Bookshelf had defrauded his authors of their intellectual property and their royalties to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, now see no problem in spending hours publicly ridiculing, personally attacking and mocking a man who never did them a lick of personal harm – and whom they never once tried to talk to privately.
  • at the same time that they were lambasting the USFCA for appointing its first masters with a lack of transparency, some of them were instituting a certification program in which the first instructor was certified out of the public eye.

STRAWMEN OR DOMINOES?
Now, so as not to paint with too broad a brush, there are also legitimate concerns being raised with measured thought, polite language and an honest attempt to present the position without crucifying anyone. The best summary of this is Roger Norling’s blog post. If you’ve cared enough about this subject to read my post, you should read his for counterpoint.

At the center of the more reasoned arguments is a fear of the size of the USFCA and its creating an immediate cadre of “sport historical fencers” who will outnumber the rest of us. I have heard the argument, and I encourage you to read Roger’s concerns, rather than my paraphrase. All I can say is that I think these concerns are born from a misunderstanding of what a genderless, toothless entity the USFCA really is. It’s not going to happen, and the reasons are simple:

  •  Most fencers could care less about martial arts of any stripe – they are engaged in a sport;
  • The USFCA has no authority over the USFA and little influence;
  • The USFCA failed to even take over classical fencing in America, which at least ostensibly is related to modern fencing;
  • The certification, even if successful, has no unilateral curriculum attached to it, and thus still does not impact what people teach;
  • There are hosts of fencing coaches – modern fencing coaches – today who are not certified by the USFCA, and the USFCA has had no ability to prevent them doing what they do.

“I’M (MAESTRO) SPARTACUS!”
Beyond the fear of a domino effect, the other problem is apparently using the tile of “Master”, probably the most over-discussed and over-valued word in our community. We know that this was a title used by trade guilds to mean someone qualified to teach his art to others, under his own auspices and no more. We even have the qualifications used in Germany, England, Spain and the New World, and frankly, at least the German qualifications to that vaunted titled are not all that impressive once you read them. Yet the idea persists that somehow the Master at Arms profession degenerated in the 18th and 19th century, whereas their 15th and 16th century counterparts were living engines of death and destruction. As such, certainly no one would ever use that term today….

Or maybe, as most HEMA folks seem to have become involved in the activity in the last decade, they just don’t know their history. You see, we have plenty of modern masters of HEMA:

  • Terry Brown reconstituted in the Company of Maisters of Defence in the 1990s, teaching a strictly English curriculum of martial arts, and requiring his students to go through the traditional grades of Scholar, Free Scholar, Provost and Master, with the required years spent in each.  Terry has long said that you can’t create a provost without a master, so when recreating the Guild, he listed his research and accomplishments and played the prize against all of his other students, stating that this was done “for want of other Masters to play against”;
  • Alberto Bomprezzi received instruction from a variety of sources, including the aforementioned Andrea Lupo, but adopted the title based on his accomplishments in establishing the Asociación Española de Esgrima Antigua, a federation of schools throughout Spain teaching a single, unified curriculum and including some of the leading lights of research into Iberian swordplay. He is a regular teacher at British and continental European HEMA events;
  • Although he does not use it externally, Devon Boorman’s title with Academie Duello is Maestro d’Arme. Devon runs the largest HEMA school in the world, with a comprehensive curriculum, an weekly video lessons for students who are training alone or with one or two friends, and has traveled around the world teaching and fighting.
  • Maestro Francesco Loda also was taught by Andrea Lupo, before going his own way, developing his own curriculum and heading the well-regarded Academia Romana d’Armi, which has since become affiliated with the Italian Fencing Federation (FIS). Maestro Loda is also apparently welcome at European historical fencing events.
  • Maestro Massimo Malipiero was made a Magistro Re and Maestro di Scherma Antiqa by the Italian Accademia Nazionale di Scherma in 1999, as was Giovanni Rapisardi, and the program has gone one to create several other masters or submasters – “Magistri”.

I only have met the first three men on this list in person, but what all of them have in common is that:

  • they use the title because that is what they do: they are teachers of martial arts, trained fighters, and teachers who have developed a method to teach other teachers;
  • none of them seem neurotic or even particularly concerned about the title, usually going by their first names;
  • all of them can do in practice what they show in class, and research, fight and teach at a high level of effectiveness.

Consequently, to my mind, they are welcome to call themselves Masters at Arms, because they fulfill that function and they have proven their abilities to fight and to teach – even when self-taught or when some of their own teachers were dicey. But they are still using the sacrosanct title of Master at Arms, so why aren’t swordsmen gathering in the streets, longsword feders and torches in hand? Why do those most upset about the USFCA also seem to grant them a pass? This has been explained to me that the USFCA case is “different”, because the USFCA is a major sports body (one might ask, major relative to what) and therefore could easily “appropriate HEMA” in the USA and create a chain reaction

IF A TREE FALLS IN A FOREST, AND YOU LIVE ON THE PLAINS, DOES IT REALLY MATTER?
Unfortunately, global warming is real and will probably alter life on this planet radically in the next century. Fortunately, whether or not there is credible Historical European Martial Arts still on the planet when that happens will probably have less to do with the USFCA then it does climate change. You see, fencing in the USA is not governed by the USFCA, but by the United States Fencing Association (USFA) – the actual American branch of the Federation International Escrime (FIE). The USFCA can’t dictate what the USFA does and the two organizations don’t get along terribly well. OK, I am being kind: remember I said that the USFCA was toothless and neutered? Well, most sport fencers who are even aware that it exists consider it something of a joke. On the other hand, the Accademia Nazionale di Scherma is the Italian equivalent to the Coache’s Association and much more closely aligned with the Federazione Italiana Scherma (FIS)which  is the Italian USFA equivalent.

And guess what?

No, they aren’t going to follow the USFCA’s lead and create an historical fencing program, because they already have a Maestro di Scherma Antiqa program, with multiple ranks –  founded under Giovanni Rapisardi and Massimo Malipiero in the 1990s. And just like the USFCA program, you pay for certification and certification training, with set course books and specific required reading, which just happen to be editions of the core texts (Fiore, Marozzo, Capoferro, Scorza e Grisetti and Parise) created by Rapisardi and Malipiero.

The first Maestro rank was granted in 1999 and I lived through the hue and cry. “Oh no, the Naples Fencing Academy is now licensing historical fencing, and they are part of the FIE – this is the end of historical martial arts in Italy. Then France will follow, and Germany, and …”. I would point out that somehow the Accademia Nazionale now  also licenses kendo in Italy, so if anyone was going to make a power grab, this would have been the guys to do it. And yet, fourteen years later,while there are probably far more people licensed by FIS’s historical fencing program then the USFCA will ever see, FIS isn’t even close to owning historical fencing in Italy. Sala d’Arme Achille Marozzo is clearly larger, so is Nova Scrimia, and ironically, so is FISAS – an organization founded by Andrea Lupo – the man who made up a mythical master and his entire martial arts biography, which is far beyond any of Walter Green’s mail-in certificates.

Where’s the outrage? There is none, because a) this all happened 15 years ago, when most of those so upset didn’t know about HEMA and b) it has had zero influence on anything – HEMA has grown vigorously and in a variety of directions, including in Italy itself. In fact, some of the folks in Europe most terrified and outraged by the USFCA program on Facebook have those FIS salles listed on their “likes” page.

So perhaps the problem is that Ken and Jerry have the wrong friends, or perhaps the real issue is that all of these other masters have been engaged in Italian, Iberian or English swordsmanship, whereas the bulk of the HEMA community crowds around the Liechtenauer tradition. But since the USFCA program is tradition agnostic and separated from Europe by 5000 miles, now someone might get that diploma and call themselves a….Fechtmeister!  Quick, save the Fatherland…er…even though we’re American, Belgian, Dutch, English, Swedish, French, or…

Maybe that is why I don’t care about this – there have been people claiming the title of master at arms in my given focus for over a decade and a half – some rightly so, at least in my opinion, and some laughably so. But neither good nor bad has had a lick of impact on what I do, how I do it, or who I do it with. Fiore dei Liberi wrote:

I, Fiore, know how to read, write and draw, and have books on our subject, a subject that I have studied for over forty years. Yet, I don’t consider myself to be a perfect Master of it, although I am held to be such by some of the great lords whom I taught. Let me just say that if I had spent the same forty years studying law, jurisprudence or medicine as assiduously as I have studied the art of arms, I would be a Doctor in each of these three disciplines. And I have undergone great pain, labor and expenses in being a good student.

That’s the most I can do, and accept that the path to mastering an art is just that – a path – that was never mean to end with a title, merely acknowledge that you could initiate others on that journey.

Despite my honest disgust at how Ken has been treated, and despite my ribbing here of some of my friends who study German martial arts, I cannot recommend, endorse or anyway accept the qualification or the program offered by the USFCA, and I truly wish that my friend Ken had not wasted his time, efforts or own hard-won credentials on a program that really could never do what it needs to do, even in a perfect world. Respect is earned, so someone being a USFCA “Master of Historical Fencing” means as much or as little to me as how they behave on the mat, and what they bring to the classroom. Ken’s motives were honest, his behavior consistent, and while I declined to be involved and continue to believe the effort was misplaced, he is a friend, a fellow-worker in the mines, and an honest member of the community. I cannot say the same about some of his most vocal critics, who have accomplished less, produced less and yelled the loudest, using personal attack, mockery and invective as a diversion from the obvious question of “and your authority to speak ex cathedra or sit in judgment comes from….?”

By their fruits shall ye know them. A lot of plants have been planted in the last few weeks and we’ll be seeing some misshapen bulbs for some time to come. But I know this much, when Ken wrote:

First, it has been my hope that the USFCA certification could establish both an impartial credential and an invitation into a collegial community outside the politics and divisions that so plague HEMA.

The last two weeks have just shown him what a charming delusion that was.

FURTHER READING
As the tempest swirls in its teapot, the curious might want to see a few other points of view:

Guy Windsor’s blog discusses both the controversy and why the program was flawed from the onset.

In an effort to create something good out of the madness, Jens Kligman has created the Marxbruder Facebook group to humorously – and yet seriously – discuss the old German fencing guild, its testing requirements and to debate how the Guild could be recreated in the modern day.

As the lightning rod for the debate, Ken Mondschein has tried to explain his position in an open letter.

While most of the debate has swirled about Facebook and other social media, as I said Roger Norling has tried to present the other side’s arguments sans diatribe or personal attack on his blog. He and I agree about the program’s flaws, not the threat it represents, but his positions are worth reading and considering.
Answer: Sometimes you just say it.

My last post was about the hullabaloo regarding the recently instituted Historical Fencing certification program being developed and promulgated by the United States Fencing Coaches’ Association (USFCA). I focused on a need to separate the character assassination of the members involved from a critique of the program itself (as was also done in counter-point here), and to express why I disagree with the idea that the program is a “threat” to other folks studying and teaching HEMA in the USA.

At the end of that post, while defending Ken’s motives in being involved, I also stated: “I cannot recommend, endorse or anyway accept the qualification or the program offered by the USFCA, and I truly wish that my friend Ken had not wasted his time, efforts or own hard-won credentials on a program that really could never do what it needs to do, even in a perfect world.”

Ken knows I don’t like the program, and he knows I don’t support it, so that wasn’t a surprise, although probably a disappointment. I didn’t expect that just a few hours after posting, I’d be getting a ton of private emails about why I think the USFCA program is a non-starter, but fortunately, I was already preparing a post to explain just that. Add a little insomnia and you get your follow-on post.

Full disclosure: Ken approached myself and several others to participate in this program, or at least provide insights and feedback, and we turned him down. So I can’t claim that we didn’t have a chance to participate. I won’t speak for others’ motivations, but my personal reasons for not being involved were simple, and fall upon three basic rationales:

1. I don’t Believe in Generic Certifications.
Creating a Master of Historical Swordsmanship license is like creating a Master of Kali or a Master of Kenjutsu license.  Which tradition of those arts? Under whose authority? With what weapons? But in some ways it is even worse, as Western arts cover centuries of development and innovation in which not only the weapons, but the culture,  mindset and combat context radically changed. Yes, duels were fought in the 15th century and the 18th, but they were fought with radically different tools, radically different rules, and often for radically different objectives. Mastery of one weapon does not convey mastery of the other, before we even begin to discuss the particulars of tradition.

Further, when we do move into the realm of pedagogy, we still have some problems. Although we can argue that at a very real level an attack is an attack, a parry-riposte is a parry-riposte, etc., that does not mean that the tactics of those techniques are the same, era to era or tradition to tradition. The French tradition, from which modern fencing primarily derives, for example, favored the parry-ripsote as the foundation of good fencing, while the contemporary tradition continued to make stronger use of counterattacks, as had been used with the old rapier. Take a walk backwards four centuries and cross into Germany and you have five key blows, the so called Meisterhau, of which at least four are indisputably counterattacks and a teaching paradigm that builds on what happens when the opposition has been successful, but the attack did not land. Nevertheless, the intention is to immediately take the initiative with an action in-tempo, forcing the attacker onto defense. Is such a thing unknown in modern fencing? No, of course not! But it is given different priority. Change the emphasis and you change the art.

Simply put, just because it is a sword doesn’t mean it is used the same way every other sword is, or even the exact same way that the same sword is used in every tradition. The devil is in the details, and saying that “using a longsword is using a longsword” is like saying that using a katana is using a katana, and since it and a longsword are both two-handed swords, they must be precisely alike it is only true at the broadest level.

Now, there is an obvious work around to this – a USFCA “generic” historical longsword, rapier, etc curriculum, meant to be used as a modern lingua franca for students. Honestly, if I have to explain why that is a phenomenally bad idea, or why it directly plays into the concerns of the programs harshest critics, you can probably stop reading this post now – we’re talkin’ different languages. But try this: find a nice old-school Kyukushin Karate dojo and ask them what they would think of a pan-karate teaching certification, that included not only Okinawan Karate of all styles, but Japanese styles and Tae Kwon Do (which originally derives from Karate). If you are worried about getting kicked in the head for your troubles, try it with something safe like Aikido or Tai Chi and just suggest the certification apply equally to all flavors of that one art.

(Hey you OK, buddy? Need an ice pack? Oh, you thought I was serious when I said that was a safe idea? Yeah, people are kinda proprietary about their art – funny that. Good thing you didn’t talk to the guys with the bolos….)

2. The USFCA isn’t Qualified to Create a Certification in Medieval or Renaissance Swordsmanship
I will let those who study 18th c backsword, broadsword, smallsword and sabre determine how well a coaching program for Olympic fencing can be applied to their arts, which are the direct antecedents of classical fencing, which in turn is the antecedent of the modern sport, and speak to the arts I study. Simply put, although the famed Lugi Barbasetti was correct when he compared the martial art of Fiore dei Liberi to “Japanese wrestling or Roman pancration”, his inability to also recognize the relationship of those arts to fencing speaks directly to our point. Barbasetti was a true fencing master, learning and teaching in an era where the sword was still being used in the duel, in highly-watched, high-stakes exhibitions, and occasionally, on the battlefield. Even so, he could see little in pre-rapier fencing that was fencing and not just wrestling and bashing – something with which he had no experience.

Now imagine his modern descendents, trained to view fencing as an Olympic sport, fought for points, assessing the longsword – a weapon used with extensive disarms, grapples and hilt-strikes, all built around a foundation in grappling and dagger-combat. How can the USFCA possibly ascertain the quality of that wrestling or its instruction? How can they assess it for being taught safely? Short answer – they can’t; it is well beyond their skill set. So any certification for a Maitres des Escrime Historique would need to either a) be done in conjunction with a second organization, such as one of the state Collegiate Wrestling associations or b) restrain itself to looking at only simple wrestling techniques made at or on the blade, such as hilt grabs, disarms and envelopments of the blade with the arm.

Of course, the former solution won’t happen – it was probably hard enough to engage one Olympic/collegiate sports association, good luck engaging a coordinated program with a second, especially when they are currently more focused on not being phased out of the Olympics, not to mention an increasing number of American high schools. That leaves the second option; just keep the wrestling to actions done against the blade. Problem is, the moment you do that, you just neutered the “H” in your Historical European Martial Arts (granted, large parts of the modern HEMA “community” do that, too, but that is another can of worms).

So we already have a major disconnect before we ever consider that, prior to the 1650s, there was an assumption that a swordsman would be well-versed with not only the sword, but the dagger, basic unarmed defense and possibly a polearm or two. Meanwhile, before the 1550s, the art was incomplete without at least a working knowledge of the sword, dagger, wrestling, some form of staff weapon and armoured combat – all of which are well beyond the USFCA’s expertise or qualifications to judge.

You simply can’t study 15th c swordsmanship and understand it at a teaching level without include wrestling, dagger, polearms and at least some understanding of armoured combat. Likewise, you can’t study 16th c German martial arts and ignore the staff, dussack or messer or rappir, or train in Bolognese fencing without moving beyond sword and buckler. That is not how the arts were designed and not how they were meant to be understood or taught. Put another way, you can study whatever you want, but you can’t master these arts without doing that and you certainly can’t certify someone to teach it.

3. You Can Certify “Good Teaching” Without Knowing About the Particulars of Someone’s Art
The pushback to the first two points I have raised is that “we are developing good pedagogy and using the exemplar weapon as a way to promulgate that pedagogy”. This seems almost as reasonable as the “non-denominational” certifications for instructors given out by HEMA organizations such as the British Federation of Historical Swordplay or the HEMA Alliance. While I have good friends in both of these organizations, in many ways I find their certifications even worse than the USFCAs. Consider this: the USFCA at least does have a standard, professional system for developing instructors, pan-HEMA groups are associations of clubs, many led by home-grown instructors who may or may not have had a lick of formal martial, sports or pedagogical training, and whose member bodies usually cover a diverse array of arts. The British Federation seems to have gotten around this by “a fixed set of criteria that are in line with the UK Coaching Certificate “. I have no idea what that means, exactly, and not living in Britain, it really doesn’t matter much to me, but like the HEMA Alliance program, you still have the idea that you don’t have to teach a particular art or have an accepted interpretation (how egalitarian!); you just need to publicly present your curriculum, teach it, answer some tough questions, and meet some sort of agreed upon “standard”. (I presume this is where being in line with a Coaching Certificate comes in.)

This sounds brilliant – the guys who care about the art are certifying the people teaching the art! Woo-hoo, we’ve done it!

Too bad in reality you are right back to the problem of point one, only now, with potentially a new problem: the self-trained certifying the untrained in arts they know nothing about. This falls under a fallacy of “I know good teaching when I see it”, which is true on the surface, but the problem is, good at teaching of what? And that is the next place where any pan-tradition certification goes directly to hell, minus its handbasket.

Example One: contrary to what everyone things, the Italian rapier really did grow out of classical Italian fencing. Now, add the community’s love with Capoferro, a man with pretty pictures but in want of a pedagogy, lesson plan or frankly, anything resembling coherence, and if you are trained in the Italian tradition, how hard is it to swap out swords, work in a few of Capoferro’s plates to your epee curriculum, adapt for the heavier sword and – voila! – Italian rapier ala Capoferro!

Example Two: there are many similarities between the German Messer and Filipino Kali, how hard is it for a kali instructor to repackage his art with the German guards and terminology, drop the double stick or stick/knife work and convince a board of English backsworders, Bolognese sword and buckler fighters and Spanish rapier students that what he is doing is “authentic German Messer *as I interpret it*”?

Seeing as I have seen both of these very things done, the answer is: not very hard at all. After all, the instructor moves well, runs a class well, has good mechanics and seems to know what he’s talking about. Plus, he’s your buddy, who’s a loyal part of your federation, has helped it grow and well, you don’t really know that much about that art, and everyone seems to think it is accurate, and he’s very good at it, so maybe you are just being pedantic….

At least it will probably be good martial arts; I have also seen charismatic, dynamic and physically gifted instructors give presentations in armizare that fly in the face of not only the direct words of Fiore dei Liberi himself, but immediately fail against a non-compliant partner. So, we have a good teacher, teaching, as the renowned founder of Ameri-Do-Te might say: Bullsh!t!!!!

So the USFCA program fails my particular sniff-test on all three points. Like the dubious *cough, cough* IMAF program before it, it places importance in the sword in isolation and across the centuries, creating some sort of curriculum in which one learns “longsword” or “rapier” and so forth, at least as a moniteur. Since we know that the top rank is Maitres des Armes Historiques, not  period specific, not tradition specific, we can only assume that the later degrees will follow the modern fencing weapon and just add weapons. So perhaps longsword and rapier for provost, and Lord knows what for master.  Even where this not true, no one in the USFCA, or in the masters they have appointed to oversee the program, have the depth of knowledge in one tradition to certify in a single tradition, nor the experience in close-quarter combat or polearms to create any credible “Master” of early English, Italian or German martial arts.

COULD THIS IDEA HAVE WORKED?
Where such a program could have had merit for those looking to refine their teaching would have been to simply run workshops for now on how to apply modern fencing pedagogy, sports coaching and training to historical swordsmanship – which is essentially what the upcoming Moniteur d’Escrime Historique clinics purport to do.  Problem is, these clinics, supposedly designed to “prepare fencing coaches interested in taking the historical moniteur examination of the United States Fencing Coaches Association” are two-day workshops. You take several of these and then take your test.

I guess if this was just to be approved as a teacher, that might be OK (OK, I am not convinced at all, but I am trying to be open-minded – work with me), but seeing as a number of the people coming in the  door may have zero to no training in the art, what exactly are they learning? How can you teach what you do not already know? And if the program is non-denominational, how could the USFCA possibly provide pre-instructor training.

In contrast, it takes about 1 – 2 years for an Armizare student in the CSG to play their Prize for the rank of Scholar, which is not any sort of teaching rank at all. And yet, my students would read a question like:

Distance is generally recognized in Medieval, Renaissance, and Enlightenment fencing as  falling into:

a. 5 areas – out of distance, long distance, medium distance, short distance, and infighting distance

b. 4 areas – out of distance, two step distance, lunge distance, and stabbing distance

c. 3 areas – footwork distance, arm distance, and grappling or disarming distance

And ask me “um…according to whom”, because when we discuss distance and time they learn that there are related but different ways of conceptualizing it just within the 16th century.  (Based on the options, let’s hope the answer was “c”.)

WHAT SHOULD A CERTIFICATION PROGRAM INCLUDE?
Well, that is the 10 million florin question, isn’t it? (Don’t worry, I was being currency non-denominational:  florins were used as a standard measure of currency in various parts of Europe throughout the 14th – 16th centuries.) By now, you probably know that I just love lists, so here is one more.

1. Tradition Specific
I have some knowledge of English and German martial arts, but I have spent most of the last 15 years with me head buried in 14th – early 16th century Italian traditions. That is what I know. I have no business telling someone how to certify a master of English martial arts or Spanish Destreza, nor do they have any business telling me what makes “good Armizare”. In short, any certification, to have any real intellectual and traditional legitimacy need to be “by xyz tradition, for xyz tradition”.

2. Historical
As I said in my last post, we have the details for a number of different fencing guilds from multiple countries, the weapons they required, the number of grades, the amount of time spent in each and in some cases, the specific curriculum of what a provost or master was expected to know. It seems to  me that if our goal is HISTORICAL European Martial Arts, then our model must begin and be deeply rooted in those models are we’ve already fallen off the map. By all means, let’s make good use of modern sports psychology and methodology, knowledge of kinesiology and so forth, but in the end, you want to study Old School, then you need to test Old School.

3. Multi-Disciplinary
I am not talking about weapons types,  but rather diversity in instructor skills. Being good at hitting someone in the head is a great skill for a swordsman, only one of several skills for a good swordsmanship instructor. Even so, while good instructors are not always the best fighters, they must be good fighters. They need to be able to teach, to develop lesson plans, and to adjust to different types of classes and different types of students. But they also need to be scholars, possessing a strong knowledge of the source material and fidelity to it, with enough scholarly ability to research on their own and refine their own understanding of the art.

4. Transparent
Whatever standards a group establishes, whether that is internal to their school, across schools or within an accrediting body of some sort, their requirements should be clearly detailed, easily explained, verifiable by the stated source-material, and without mysterious “backroom promotions”. The idea of combined public and private examinations, public contests of arms and approval by a committee, rather than a simple “laying on of hands” by one’s Master has been the way Western instructors at arms have been made for at least 600 years – it is supposed to be the part of the tradition that modern fencing bodies have diligently maintained. In any case, the best path to legitimacy is through a high quality of work, and an open and transparent process, whatever that process might be.

This is just a general outline of what I would consider the four foundation stones for building any certification program; they are what I have tried to use internal to the CSG, but they are also what I would encourage folks to look to more globally, much as is going on with Jens Kleinau’s Marxbruder thought exercise.

Whatever the case, the respect any certification program garners, and how much its coin will be worth, can only be measured by the quality of the product it produces. Right now the USFCA program has created its de facto board to mint its own coins, we’ll see what comes out of it, but the metal seems fairly debased, no matter how good the intentions of those involved.