Marsden's Ring of Steel
Historical fencing is not level based. I wish it were! If that were so, I would be well ahead of the game in nearly every situation unless someone came along who had been fencing longer than I have. Alas, it is not a level based system. I can out-fight people with more years in HEMA than me, and I can be defeated by someone with little experience at all.
As an old German proverb goes about fencing, "Just like a strong swimmer can drown, a master can be defeated by a novice."
The sources, such as Hutton (detailing duels) and Monte (detailing combat experience) discuss this with some explicit examples of unready masters being killed by a novice, or a master calmly waiting in guard, only to be struck by a dedicated opponent.
So, you will not level up in fencing, but you will learn more techniques and stratagems. As in war, the wrong strategy at the wrong time will lead to defeat. The German blitzkrieg into France had great results, the one into Russia's Kursk salient- not so much.
I parse fencing into three rough categories. Basic techniques, Advanced techniques and Lesser techniques. I also teach them in that order. The lines between the three categories are soft. This is because a very experienced opponent could attempt a very bad technique, and a novice may just be really good at something advanced. The masters sometimes, though not always, explicitly tell us who the techniques are for.
Basic Techniques - These are the basic techniques from whatever source you are reading. In Giganti's rapier, it is most of his first book. In Fiore, he doesn't say, but I interpret it as information he already assumes the reader knows. Fiore depicts the cuts and thrusts and footwork, but does not deeply elaborate on any of these concepts.
Advanced Techniques - These are techniques to be used against a superior opponent. Giganti, directly tells his readers that when facing a more skilled opponent, feints, deceptions and invitation will determine the winner. For Fiore, I interpret that most of his treatise is advanced techniques meant to defeat and outwit the common fencers of his day. This is why he wanted his art a secret.
Lesser Techniques - These are techniques to be used against a less skilled, wild, timid or unpredictable opponent. Giganti references opponents who have not sense of tempo and measure, as well as opponents who recklessly charge forward. Fiore's deflections invite a basic or even clumsy attack and deflect it aside for a counter. So confident is he, he believes he could face a hundred men, one by one, and deflect their strikes away. He also shows what to do against a heavy strike from a peasant or villager, what he calls a villain's blow and the German sources reference as a zorhnhau- the master strike even peasant's know.
Wrong Tool- Using the wrong technique for the wrong opponent will see you defeated. For example, in Giganti's rapier, his solution to a reckless opponent is to create distance and cross-cut and cross-cut and thrust. However, if this was tried against an opponent who knew how to properly lunge, cavazione, and had a sense of tempo and measure- this technique would not work.
Conversely, a feint or invitation is meant to challenge a superior fencer. Against a novice, they may ignore the threat of the feint and invitation and wildly thrust, not caring or perhaps even being aware they may be struck as well.
A majority of Giganti's book I (and arguably most of book II) is a series if techniques meant to be used against someone who has a basic understanding of how a rapier is to be used.
Different Masters Had Different Views - I wish the masters were all very clear and concise in what techniques were basic, advanced and lesser. They are not. Fiore sometimes gives hints by suggesting an opponent is using the techniques of a villain (villager) or that an opponent knows little of the art. However, it can be quite easy to talk yourself into labeling his techniques one way or another. And remember, the separation of techniques into categories is fuzzy. The situation may determine what to use and when.
If the master doesn't say what is advanced, basic, or lesser than its up to you to determine it. However, even if the master does say, that doesn't mean what they believe was universally accepted.
Fabris is an example of a rapier master who knew the same things Giganti did, but disagrees on what is basic and what is advanced. Fabris, like Giganti, agrees on the basic guards. Fabris shows the common guards used, and Giganti discusses an easy way to form guards (counter the opponent with the true edge). Here, the two are very much in line with one another. However, Fabris has his own guards and movement that is different and thus advanced. Fabris has a whole second book dedicated to fighting in a way that others did not- again advanced. So, the two masters are different in what they see as advanced. Furthermore, what they see as lesser is different. Fabris calls out bad behaviors and ways to defeat them. Giganti only has a few contextual examples of a reckless fighter.
How Do I Use This? - If you are a teacher or a student it can be handy to categorize techniques. How you do that is up to you. I have examples in this article and visually depicted, but you may disagree with my interpretation. That's quite normal! Still, you should consider dividing techniques and concepts into categories for different situations.
For new and regular students, I spend most of my time on what I see as basic techniques. This is the core material from the sources I use. It includes footwork, parries, thrusts and cuts and so on. Things so simple that Meyer apologizes for bringing such things up, in what he calls, "Things you learn in the marketplace." Basic!
As a student is able to not only perform and use the basic techniques, I then have them teach it to others. This allows them to have a more full understanding of the techniques, how to use them, and any adjustments that need to be made.
During this time I sprinkle in advanced techniques. While all of my students are exposed to them, it is those who understand the basics that I want applying them. One of my students for example started working vigorously at half-sword counters at the close. That's fairly advanced material to be used against a skilled opponent and unlikely to be needed against lesser ones.
Students who are competent and know their basics and some advanced techniques are then encouraged to fence those better than them- such as the instructors at the Phoenix Society. You can't get more challenging than the co-founder John or someone with a decade or more experience who is fit or in the case of some of my instructors, downright giants! Against these opponents, the basics just won't work! The students will have to use tricks, counters, measure-games and deception as well as know when to be simple and when to be complex, when to wait and when to go.
You would think that students at this level are ready to take on all comers. But no.
The last thing I teach is how to fight the unskilled. When someone new comes to the club, if they are willing, I have them spar after giving them only a little bit of training. This is to get them used to fencing but also so my students can face someone dangerous and unpredictable. One of my rapier students on day one sparred everyone. He won few fights, but he doubled plenty. This novice took down some very good fencers, never mind it was at the cost of his own life. The lesson was learned! Today, a few years later, that reckless student is now one of my top rapier guys and he remembers well that a new fencer is just as deadly as an experienced one.
I have unskilled techniques that have to be practiced. For example, I'll tell one of my instructors to be a reckless bad guy, or to be overly timid, or to cut heavily and always cut first or to try and double. They fight in a way I would not want them ever fighting. But, to make my students fully well-rounded, I need them to fight all types of opponents, including those who are using poor (but still deadly) technique. So, perhaps in a bit of irony, my last step in teaching a skilled person to fight very poorly so they can train others on how to deal with it.
Results? For years, the Phoenix Society of Historical Swordsmanship has produced top quality fighters. They win or place in tournaments, do well in free-play with all comers, and many of them have grown up to be instructors at the club or even their own schools!
Some of the reason I find my fencers, no matter the weapon they are using, to be so good is they know how to fight against those who are ok, good, and really bad!
So- how does your source material fit into my Ring of Steel? Is Meyer all advanced? What about basic military saber? What about contradictions between sources? That, I leave to you to interpret and debate!
Marsden's Ring of Steel