A friend of mine once told me that after spending years reading through historical manuals in search of new techniques to give him an edge over other fencers, he had finally come to the realization that there was no such thing. Ultimately, he said, there is no substitute for hard work, drilling and training. My friend is very wise and I could not agree with him more. There is a fantastic movement towards historical fencing in the SCA right now, but I feel that there are many who have unrealistic expectations as to what historical fencing can offer them. Further, many fencers in the SCA who are not historical fencers assume that historical fencing itself is flawed when they see that things don’t work out for those with unrealisitc expectations. In this paper, I want to look at how to get the most out of historical fencing in the SCA. Specifically, how we should approach historical fencing, what we can expect to get from it, and how to go about training as a historical fencer. Of course, while I think I have good reasons for doing what I do, I don’t pretend to have the only valid approach to answering these questions.
To start with, I want to clarify the context in which I am writing. The bulk of my fencing is done within the SCA in a somewhat competitive environment. For the purposes of competition, defeating my opponent always takes precedence over “staying within a historical form.” It should be remembered that in competition, form and style are means to an end, not an end in themselves. Form has its purpose, but there is a distinction between how one trains and how one competes. When training (drilling, or bouting) form plays an important role because it provides an objective standard to aspire to. The forms and techniques described historically are not arbitrary, so practicing and understanding them will improve your fencing. However, in a competition (or a duel for that matter) too much of an effort to “remain in form” will distract you from the task at hand. A better approach would be to have trained the form so well that you are able to do it without consciously thinking about it.
Assuming that you actually want to do historical fencing (and why you would want to is the subject of another paper), the first thing to determine is what type of historical fencing that you want to learn. There were many different fencing traditions in the SCA’s period to choose from, Spanish, Italian (Bolognese, Florentine, and rapier), English, German, etc… Each tradition has a different approach to fencing and different reasons for this approach. Ultimately, the tradition someone chooses to study is based on personal preference and which approach they find the most interesting. My personal preference for rapier within the SCA is early 17th century Italian rapier, as written about by Salvator Fabris (1606), Nicoletto Giganti (1606), and Ridolfo Capoferro (1610). While their manuals are technically out of period for the SCA, I think that they give us a great description of what rapier fencing would have looked like at the end of the 16th century. As is often and correctly pointed out, these authors are writing after a lifetime of fencing. Further, the system described in these manuals can be easily adapted to the basic SCA rapier rules. The majority of attacks in the manuals are delivered with the point and cuts are used less often. These manuals include very little grappling, the majority of body contact that is described is done against the opponent’s arm when making a passing attack – this can easily by modified to grasping the opponent’s hilt rather than his or her arm. Many earlier manuals have a greater reliance on cutting or grappling, which means that many of their core techniques cannot be used under the SCA ruleset.
If you decide that you are interested in Italian rapier and are trying to determine which master to study, one thing that will help is to realize that the early 17th century Italian rapier manuals are teaching one single, coherent system, and that they were not written in isolation. There are some differences in what they emphasize and they all have their opinions about the execution of certain actions, but a great deal of what they teach is transferable. Even more amazing is that as time goes by, even though the weapons and the techniques change, a great deal remains the same.
The theoretical continuity of Italian fencing means there are a lot of resources that can be used to help us understand the period material. For instance, say my primary research is based on Capoferro. There are gaps in the material that Capoferro presents. And there are nuances within his text that are very difficult to understand without a broader understanding of fencing. I would suggest that both contemporary text (such as Fabris and Giganti) or even more modern texts (Parise, Gaguler) can be utilized to help us understand some of the areas in which Capoferro is less than clear.
One area that could use clarification is exactly what to do in a situation in which you have gained your opponent’s blade. In most of plates, once you’ve gained your opponent’s weapon, they will make an attack with a disengagement. Capoferro is less clear on what you should do if they don’t do anything. He talks about which the tempos in which is is safe to strike your opponent, but this isn’t one of them. Should you stand just stand there in measure until your opponent decides to do something? Fortunately, Fabris is able to shed some light on the situation. as he actually discusses these exact circumstances. He says that the fencer who has gained the opponent’s weapon should attack immediately. The hesitation caused by waiting for the opponent’s tempo would cause you to lose your advantage and would be inexcusable.
Capoferro’s contradictory advice regarding feints is commonly cited as an example of how confusing Capoferro is. In the beginning of the manual, Capoferro advises not to use feints, yet later in his book they show up in many of his plates and appear to be a fundamental part of his system. However, with the help of modern fencing theory, we can see that this is not a contradiction at all and actually represents a complex and nuanced understand of fencing. With an understanding of modern Italian fencing theory (which Maestro Gaugler’s Science of Fencing can provide) you can look back at Capoferro and see that what he’s saying makes a lot of sense. For example, feints are dangerous because they expose you to counterattacks (feints necessarily use at least two tempii: the feint(s) and the final attack. The other fencer, realizing that you are feinting, can attack you safely during the first, feinting tempo of your action). Capoferro advises his students as to the danger of this situation, but also elaborates on how to go one step further by intentionally using feints to provoke the counterattack and then responding to the counterattack with either a parry and riposte or an inquartata. In plate 7, using attacks, feints, and contratempo, he demonstrates a complex understanding of fencing that is remarkably similar to modern fencing theory. After overcoming some minor terminological differences between modern and Renaissance texts, it easy to see the theory they are mutually based on.
It’s also important to understand that everyone fences a little bit differently. The Italian rapier manuals each give one author’s opinion on how he approaches fencing. It would be unrealistic to expect to be able to fence exactly the way the manuals describe. For one, the manuals do not attempt to describe every possible situation in fencing – that’s simply not their goal. Rather, they are meant to illustrate ways in which the theory could play out in practical situations. Attempting to fence while using following only the exact plates, because anything else might not be “Capoferro,” would be a terrible idea. No one fences “Capoferro” anymore than classical fencers can say that they fence “Gaugler,” and Gaugler is still around to answer questions about how he fenced. A better way to think about it, in my own case, is that I fence Italian rapier, heavily influenced by Capoferro. Or that I study Capoferro, or Gaugler, etc.
One of the goals that I have for my own rapier fencing is to be able, while I am fighting, to “think” within the historical system that I am using (my guess is that this is not the same as thinking like a historical fencer – they were probably thinking: “I don’t want to die…I don’t want to die…She’s not worth it…She’s not worth it…”). This means understanding the theory of the system well enough to adapt it to new situations. Every time I fence with someone, I am presented with a unique problem that I have to figure out how to solve. The principles of Italian rapier apply to any fight, but getting them to work in practice might be different depending on who I am fighting.
As a practical example, let’s say that I have particular technique that I want to use – say, the action described in plate 13 of Capoferro. The gist of the action is to engage my opponent’s blade on the outside line. She disengages with an attack to my inside line, I make a nice wide parry that ends with her blocked and to the outside of my blade, and I make a passing step while grabbing her arm and hitting her in the side. Now, to get this to work in a fight, the first thing I have to do is figure out how to get my opponent to attack me with that disengagement. If I’m fencing with a completely new person, they don’t know that they’re supposed to disengage when I close the line and step into measure. So I have a puzzle to solve. My favorite solution is to wind up and make a huge beat against their blade. Once I do this a couple of times, they’ll usually figure it out, and they’ll at least make some kind of motion in order to elude my blade. Sometimes even if they don’t attack with the disengagement, the tempo is enough for me to follow through and do the attack that I want to. Now, how about somoene who has just been taught how to that disengagement? This one’s fun, I can do my action pretty much by the book and they’re going to give me what I want. An experienced Italian fencer is more tricky. If I try to set it up the same way, that disengagement might be a feint, or they’ll do something completely different, like a cut. In order to get my action to work, I have a very different puzzle to solve. I’ve got to figure out how to get the action that I want from my opponent without them being ready for my response. Maybe I add some footwork, or some probing actions to see what their response is going to be. To pull it off, I have to wait for the exact moment to engage my weapon and get them to do a disengagement. In each of these situations, I’m applying my understanding of a system to make the historical action work in a bout. Now in this scenario, my thought process is to pick an action and figure out how to make it work against a given opponent. An even better approach, which would put me closer to my goal of thinking within a historical system would be to choose the action based on the cues my opponent is giving me rather than trying worrying about how to get them to act the way that I want them to.
Training in Historical Fencing
As I’ve said, there’s no substitute for training hard. The trick is really more in figuring out how to train. Again, there are many approaches to this, and there’s no one right way to do it. Here is what I have found useful for me:
This is a long process, and it never ends, but the rewards that it brings are substantial.