Did the people of the past know how to fence?
One of my many projects I may never get to is, “You know little of this art,” which would be a compilation of all the bad fencing from a variety of historical treatises. The concept derives from a question that arises in HEMA, “Did people of the past know how to fence?”
Looking at a period between 1350 and 1750, which includes the majority of arts of interest to HEMA, the answer varies because of the large amount of time covered.
Focusing on the 17th century and the rise of the rapier, the masters themselves give an answer- at first most people did not know how to use a sword even if they owned one. However, by the end of the 17th century things had improved so much so, that one master claimed that people were reaching the apogee and perfection of fencing!
The clear disdain of most people’s ability to fence in the early 17th century dispels the myth that because everyone’s lives could be at risk, and people were generally more armed than they were not, that therefore they were well-versed in the use of the weapons that they carried. While it is common sense, it is contradicted by the historical record, with Giganti and Swetnam both explicitly noting that people did not know how to use the weapons they had swinging in sheathes at their sides.
What is bad fencing though? This is a trickier question because at times, masters discuss how unskilled most people were, other times they reference common techniques that were clearly trained, yet in their view bad, or perhaps a better word is, inefficient. Then the issue arises that the masters contradict one another. What was good fencing against an experienced fencer for Giganti, was mortally foolish according to Fabris. While Giganti says most had no idea how to fence, Fabris implies that they do, he just knows a better way.
The following masters give their insights, both on the state of fencing as a whole, as well as what they saw as bad techniques.
Docciolini was a Florentine whose fencing was developed in the 16th century, at the end of a fifty-year long career he wrote down his methodology in 1601. His dedication gives some insight into the state of affairs of fencing at the time. He is almost apologetic, noting that while fencing was not the first thing of importance in the military arts, it was still important. An issue that may have led to the decline of fencing the 16th and 17th century was the gun. Cities in the 16th century swapped out their swords and poelarms for guns. The popular fencing guilds saw attendance drop in favor of shooting clubs. The 16th century masters such as Mair and Meyer lamented a waning interest in swordplay. Docciolini, echoes this.
The first hint that people are not skilled in swordplay is a common saying Docciolini quotes. When fencing he says some withdraw their sword,
“This opinion is founded on saying, “my sword will not be found”, without realizing that the sword must travel much further than if it were held in front of them.” (Treatises on the Subject of Fencing, Steven Reich and Piermarco Terminello, pg 32)
He echoes this later,
“You should not believe as some say, that holding your arm further away intimidates your opponent more, believing that this demonstrates greater ferocity. On the contrary, I say, it leads to greater disorder…” (Treatises on the Subject of Fencing, Steven Reich and Piermarco Terminello, pg 36)
Docciolini has more bad advice that he wishes to dispel, when discussing the imbrocatta (a thrust from above) he says,
“Take care not to act as some do, by delivering the imbrocatta all the way to the ground…” (Treatises on the Subject of Fencing, Steven Reich and Piermarco Terminello, pg 38)
On a motion called a sfalasta (disengage), he notes it is a common technique of the inexperienced fencer.
“It is practiced by those without much skill, who employ it more out of fear and lack of ideas than anything else.” (Treatises on the Subject of Fencing, Steven Reich and Piermarco Terminello, pg 41)
“There are many who sometimes use the sfalsata to disorder their opponent, which is not likely to end well against the experienced fencer.” (Treatises on the Subject of Fencing, Steven Reich and Piermarco Terminello, pg 41)
Later masters would somewhat disagree, noting that the disengage could be used as a feint, or might be necessary if the sword was gained by the opponent. However, from Docciolini’s perspective, it was a common maneuver performed by inexperienced fencers. He hedges his bets later saying he is not against feints, but prefers them done a certain way.
On feints, a subject the various masters were at odds with, Docciolini is firmly in the camp that they are a bad idea when done poorly, which he claims most were. Of feints he says many persist in using it and,
“These feints are employed in the following manner, by hinting to attack in one place only to deliver it knavishly elsewhere, being a mark of someone without experience in the practice of arms.” (Treatises on the Subject of Fencing, Steven Reich and Piermarco Terminello, pg 43)
When discussing the use of the cape, he says,
“This notion of throwing the cape is a deceit devised by men of little experience.” (Treatises on the Subject of Fencing, Steven Reich and Piermarco Terminello, pg 66)
His opinions are contradicted by other masters, such as Gigant and Fabris. This makes knowing what is a ‘bad’ fencer and a ‘good’ fencer more difficult to understand. Still, taking Docciolini at his word, a great many fencers were inexperienced and fought in an unsafe manner.
Giganti was an early 17th century fencing master who wrote two books, the first covering the basics of rapier fencing, the second is more insightful to the question at hand because it covers subjects outside the salle.
After explaining how to cavazione (disengage) and thrust, as well as how to gain the sword and lunge an opponent before they cavazione, Giganti says this,
“To be good at this type of play, you need much practice, because it is from this that your learn to parry and strike with great agility and speed.” (Venetian Rapier, Tom Leoni, pg 9)
He also describes how bad habits can be found in the salle,
“There are many who, in the salle, attack the opponent with full intent and deliver thrusts, imbrocatta and cuts without any respect to tempo, but always throwing blows with fury and vehemence. This is the kind of play that will unsettle every good fencer, which is why it is important to know what to do against it.” (Venetian Rapier, Tom Leoni, pg 24)
When describing the salle, Giganti appears to indicate that steady practice is needed and that many will ignore all of his teachings and try to use relentless attacks to unsettle the better fencers. The implication is that even in a training school, not everyone was particularly a good fencer.
A deceitful guard is depicted as a guard using the rapier and dagger that purposefully exposes the fencer to an attack. Giganti notes that this guard is useful against the proficient and the non-proficient. Of the non-proficient he says,
“This type of guard is optimal against opponents who are eager to attack and don’t have the patience to wait to strike in the correct tempo and measure. These opponents will gleefully attack whatever opening they see without considering what you could do to them- which is why they often end up in danger.” (Venetian Rapier, Tom Leoni, pg 43)
Giganti’s second book looks at things outside the salle and the use of the sword single-handed and with the dagger. It covers topics that might be found in a more self-defense situation and in this he is more explicit about the state of general swordsmanship in the early 17th century.
Giganti specifically mentions that most do not know how to use the sword, yet they are dangerous.
“This is because someone who can thrust and pass well, but is flawed in countering them, can be said to know nothing. If he fought someone who could pass and thrust as well as he, they would both be wounded.” (The Lost Second Book of Nicoletto Giganti, Joshua Pendragon and Piermarco Terminello, pg 25)
He goes on,
“Furthermore a gallant man who can thrust, pass, and in addition knows how to counter every sort of pass and feint, but who has difficulty delivering and parrying cuts, should hold himself to know nothing. If he has to contend with someone who does not know how to use the sword, which today you will find in the majority, he will need to know how to parry cuts. This is because such people, not knowing otherwise, by natural instinct perform many cuts.” (The Lost Second Book of Nicoletto Giganti, Joshua Pendragon and Piermarco Terminello, pg 25)
The indication here is that although many men were armed with rapiers, they did not use them correctly and instead of thrusting performed cuts and that this was quite common. Giganti does not dismiss these men as easy to contend with, but rather unsafe to fence.
“If someone who knows how to thrust faced another who does not ,even if he lands his point, his opponent will deliver a cut in the same tempo, and so they will both strike each other.” (The Lost Second Book of Nicoletto Giganti, Joshua Pendragon and Piermarco Terminello, pg 25)
He goes on,
“It is therefore little wonder that some good fencers, facing an untutored opponent, are quite often hit. This is because they have not practiced against those who know nothing…” (The Lost Second Book of Nicoletto Giganti, Joshua Pendragon and Piermarco Terminello, pg 26)
When it comes to a series of four grappling techniques, Giganti warns his readers that they are not to be done by someone with little experience, which again, he noted was most people.
“These four grapples are only useful to those who have practiced them. They should not be attempted by someone with a month or two experience, because they would not work…” (The Lost Second Book of Nicoletto Giganti, Joshua Pendragon and Piermarco Terminello, pg 105)
When discussing the cape, Giganti again warns his readers about most other fencers.
“wind it (the cape) twice around your arm, so it can resists the effect of cuts. Since most men do not know how to fence, they attempt a lot of cuts.” (The Lost Second Book of Nicoletto Giganti, Joshua Pendragon and Piermarco Terminello, pg 125)
Breifly, Giganti wonders why people do not practice the use of the dagger alone, and notes that great captains have been killed by them- implying assassination. As to why it is not known by most, he says,
“Perhaps masters no longer know how to teach it, or do not wish to. Or else it stems from the lassitude of men, ignorant of how important the play of the dagger is, who neglect to learn it.” (The Lost Second Book of Nicoletto Giganti, Joshua Pendragon and Piermarco Terminello, pg 129)
Fabris and others have a different reason, noting that the dagger and other possible to hide weapons were banned in parts of Italy by various rulers.
Giganti is quite clear in his opinion that, not only did most people fence badly, they often knew nothing of swordplay at all. He is also quite clear that this lack of knowledge did not make them easy to defeat, quite the contrary. Bad fencers, in his view, were entirely dangerous, both to their opponents and themselves.
Fabris was a much celebrated fencer who wrote his treatise in 1606, and for many decades later was copied, praised and referred to by other masters. His treatise on the rapier and some of its complementary weapons, such as the dagger and cape, is incredibly thorough.
Fabris thought that most fenced in an inefficient manner, not necessarily that people did not know what they were doing. This differs from Giganti, who points out people did not know how to fence at all.
Fabris first discusses a bad technique- of flinging the sword,
“There are some who, wanting to execute a thrust, fling their sword-arm forward with force in order to give it more momentum. This is a bad technique for the following reasons…” and he then lists five bullet points and several pages of text to hammer his point home. (The Art of Italian Rapier, Tom Leoni, pg 8-9)
When discussing guards, he depicts the standard four guards of the rapier, prima (first), secunde (second), terza (third) and quarta (four). He explains and illustrates them, and then proceeds to show how by using his low and bent body position, the guards were improved upon. Fabris also lists guards that he thinks are so bad that he apologizes for mentioning them including, keeping the point low to the ground, or the sword wide and to the side, or using the off-hand to fortify the blade for a beat. Here, other masters disagree, but Fabris saw it as poor fencing.
Example of the posture and guards from Giganti.
Compared to Fabris
Fabris describes four types of cuts and which are superior and which are not. In all of these cases he does not say how common it is for people to use the inferior guards or cuts, but we can assume that enough were using them to entice him to write about them.
Fabris says that many people use their left hand to grab or bat away a sword. He was not entirely pleased and saw this as bad fencing.
“Since there are many fencers who, although armed with the sword alone, base their defense on the bare left hand rather than the sword, I see it is necessary to spend a few words on this technique … Then I consider this way of parrying a bare hand to be a truly abysmal way to defend. But I will talk about it in order to show you how to operate against those who use it.” (The Art of Italian Rapier, Tom Leoni, pg 14)
Of feints, as with cuts, Fabris presents inferior methods that are for the inexperienced, including, stomping the foot, jabbing the sword one way and then the other without presenting a threat and so forth. As with his description of inferior cuts and guards, it can be surmised that he spends so much time on bad techniques because they were commonly done.
Fabris’ second book brings forth a new way of fencing that he believed was highly criticized by the fencing community. Here he calls them out as,
“Perhaps wishing to palliate their own skill, these fine gentlemen would have made an effort to refute these techniques and hide behind the commonplace.” (The Art of Italian Rapier, Tom Leoni, pg 163)
Indeed, all of Fabris’ prior teachings are the commonplace, and his second books discusses something unique, the aggressive move towards the opponent without waiting for a tempo called, proceeding with resolution. Here it can be hard to determine if Fabris saw all prior fencing as poor, or perhaps just common. He says that it was important to learn how to wait for a proper tempo and learn the defenses against an attack, but that once mastered, his proceeding with resolution would lead to a superior form of fencing.
When furthering his point, he calls out other theories. Of those who get within measure and try to provoke a response, either by feints or invitations, such as seen in Giganti. Fabris is not thrilled by this.
“They may be possible against inexperienced opponents, but it spells mortal danger against the experienced opponent.” (The Art of Italian Rapier, Tom Leoni, pg 163-164)
Is this bad fencing though? Giganti says the exact opposite, that when faced against a skilled opponent, feints and deceits are vital.
“…happen upon someone who understands fencing as well as you or better, is stronger than you, or more agile, you must employ the art of deception … When two masters fence, they do not exchange thrusts or cuts, but rather wiles and new deceits.” (The Lost Second Book of Nicoletto Giganti, Joshua Pendragon and Piermarco Terminello, pg 74)
We are once again posed with the problem of, did people not know how to fence, as Giganti is explicit about, or did they have differing ideas, some of which were bad, which Fabris alludes to?
Fabris helps answer the question when he tells his reader who his audience is. Fabris says he will only write in passing about weapons other than the rapier and dagger because his art is for honorable gentleman with matched weapons and that the ramparts are far away from his writing, as are the common masses. Giganti, on the other hand, discusses what to do when jumped at night by three men, or getting in an argument with someone and having to draw daggers in the heat of the moment, or facing an armored opponent when you are not! Giganti’s audience is much broader, and indeed, perhaps the majority of people did not know a thing about swordsmanship in his world, while Fabris, with a much more elite and smaller clientele, was more interested in correcting inferior, but serviceable methods.
Joseph Swetnam was an English Master of Defense who thought the Italian methods were dangerous. Yet, he said it was necessary to learn to use their weapons. He wrote in 1617, by which point the Italian rapier was becoming the weapon of choice for people, even in far away rainy England. Swetnam explains what had happened to the traditional weapons of the isle and why Englishmen had to learn to use the rapier.
“Because old weapons lie rusty in a corner,” (Swetnam, interpreted by Richard Marsden)
And that people were not practicing with the Italian weapons leading to problems.
“It behooves every man to be well instructed in this weapon, the rather, and for because it is a weapon which for the most part all outlandish men do use; therefore being unprepared you may be the better able to answer them at their own weapon either in single combat or otherwise, but if you delay your practice till you have need, then I say at the very time of need it will be too late, and little available to you, for being learned in such haste it is soon forgotten, and he which never learned, but does trust to his own cunning may soon lose his life…” (Swetnam, interpreted by Richard Marsden)
From Swetnam’s point of view, not only did people not know how to fence, those that learned were often getting bad advice from Italians. Swetnam was sure that he could take the devilish weapon and make better use of it.
While some men trained, Swetnam found this could create not better fencers, but worse, and that many waited too long to learn to fence, and regretted it later when in a duel.
“Also in playing with sticks, without buttons, many (for want of skill) may lose an eye, as many have done before. Many a man will say, that skill in weapons is good, and one of the most principled things that belong to a man, yet themselves are altogether without skill; in their youth they think it too soon to learn, and in age too late, yet when they are wronged, they would give anything, that they were able to answer their enemy without fear or hurt, as he were as skillful as his enemy.” (Swetnam, Interpreted by Richard Marsden)
Swetnam spends a good bit of his writing noting how men who saw fencing or practiced it occasionally, when called upon to use it, could not successfully mimic what they saw, nor remember what they lightly practiced. This, he saw as a common problem in the populace.
Soldiers were no better, having put aside what he saw as decent weapons and instead taking up new ones, and yet not knowing how to use them.
“But of late years they (people in general) have changed all weapons for muskets, Harquebus, and Crossbows, Cavaliers, Pikes, Swords, and Rapiers, and such like manly weapons of great dangers, especially unto the ignorant and unskilled.” (Swetnam, Interpretation by Richard Marsden)
Swetnam’s audience was similar to that of Giganti and dealt not just with honorable gentleman, but the masses. Swetnam in particular goes at length to discuss how to be cautious when drinking, fighting and dealing with cowards and murderers- hardly the same crowd Fabris rubbed elbows with. Giganti and Swetnam indicate a general lack of knowledge of swordsmanship in the general populace.
Later masters spend less time on bad techniques or decrying the lack of skill in swordsmanship. L’Ange from the 1660s and Bruchius from the 1670s, do not discuss inexperienced fencers or fencing. That doesn’t mean they are without their elite techniques. L’Ange for example not only discusses how to break necks, some things he won’t write down to prevent them from being commonplace! Of several techniques, L’Ange says,
“I did not want to place this and similar secret applications here at this time, as they should not become all too common.” (Lessons on the Thrust, Reinier Van Noort, pg 153)
The newness of the rapier had come and gone, while many did not know how to use it or were not well-read on the subject at the start of the 17th century, things changed by the mid 17th century and by the 18th century,
“Rapier or Small-Sword, which is the first Subject I design to treat on: We find it according to some Historians, has its original from the proud Spaniards, stately Italians, modish French, or truly I know not who, however we borrow it from some Forreign Place or other. And now ‘tis become so common, that I suppose it is practiced throughout Christendom, all Nations making such a wonderful improvement of the Art, that I believe ‘tis grown near to perfection” (English Masters of Defense, Zach Wylde)
At the start of the 17th century the rapier was a new weapon, whose use was spreading quickly, leading to a variety of masters with differing ideas on how best to use it. People as a whole, if Docciolini, Giganti and Swetnam are to be believed, had no skill at all- but were still dangerous to themselves and others.
The elite, to whom Fabris directed his works, were trained, but he felt inefficiently. He describes not so much the sad state of affairs in fencing, but how his way, though controversial, was better than what was commonly taught.
The state of fencing had much changed by the mid 17th century, with Bruchius and L'Ange, not saying much of poor fencing. L'Ange went as far as to hold back techniques, that were deadly, so as to prevent them from becoming common knowledge.
And by the 18th century, perhaps a level of arrogance had descended on the masters, who like Wylde, indicated that fencing was quickly reaching its zenith. Arrogant or not, one gets the sense that in 1600, few knew how to fence at all, but by 1700, it was commonly practiced.
Leoni, Tom, The Art of the Italian Rapier
Leoni, Tom. Venetian Rapier
Pendragon, Joshua and Piermarco Terminello, The Lost Second Book of Giganti
Reich, Steven and Piermarco Terminello, Treatises on the Subject of Fencing