Among George Silver’s many gripes about the Italian fencing masters of his day was that “Wardes and Gripes, they have none”. Even if the masters did teach grappling, Silver argues, the weapon would be wholly unsuitable for them, “a childish toy wherwith a man can do nothing but thrust, nor that neither, by reason of the length” (Silver, 32). After all, what could one possibly be expected to do with a 40+ inch rapier when one closes? Silver’s condemnation displays more of a lack of imagination on his part than an innate flaw in the rapier, however. Disarms and hilt grappling were common in Destreza and are called movements of conclusion (Curtis). While earlier authors in the Italian tradition often included wrestling and grappling actions, they are relatively sparse in late sixteenth century Italian manuals. As this paper demonstrates, we should not assume that these actions were unused or forgotten, however.
The famous Paduan fencing master, Salavtor Fabris (1544-1618), acknowledges the usefulness of grappling, but he describes it as belonging more to the realm of wrestling than to fencing. He says that he prefers to focus on “the proper defenses, the attacks, and in the advantage of the sword” than in coming to grips (Leoni, 14). Fabris’s seeming dismissal of wrestling techniques is at odds with the actual emphasis of his book, however. For someone who claims to feel his book would have been complete without a discussion of grappling and disarms, Fabris spends a considerable amount of time on them, dedicating the final section of his book to the topic (Leoni, 263). Fabris’s interest in the topic is consistent with a long, though often overlooked, tradition of grappling in Italian rapier fencing.
Surprisingly, one of the best sources that we have for grappling in Italian rapier fencing is actually from a German master. Johann Georg Pascha (1628-1678) is connected to the Italian tradition through the teachings of a noble named Heinrich von und zum Felde. According to one of Pascha’s manuscripts, one of his friends was a student of zum Felde, who was himself a student of Fabris and other Italian masters. 1 Pascha incorporated zum Felde’s teachings into lessons he’d learned from his university for his book, Kurtze iedoch Deutliche Beschreibung handlend von Fechten auff den Stosz und Hieb (Short Though Clear Description Treatment of Fencing on the Thrust and Cut) published in 1661 in Sachsen. 2 Pascha’s book consists of a series of sixteen lessons. There are eight lessons on fencing with the thrust only and eight lessons on fencing with cuts. Each lesson contains fifteen to twenty actions, and most have a theme that builds on elements introduced in previous lessons.
In a previous article, I discussed how the first four lessons can be used to form the basis of an entire rapier curriculum and I explored their connection to the Italian tradition. This article will analyze Pascha’s fifth lesson, which focuses primarily on grappling. For our purposes, I define grappling as any fencing action that takes place at extremely close distance and uses the off hand to control an opponent’s blade or arm in order to gain an advantage. Pascha’s grappling typically terminates in a thrust, a pommel strike, or a disarm, and often uses a pull forwards to throw an opponent off balance. 3 In December 2015, Maestro Kevin Murakoshi and I filmed an interpretation of each of the actions taught in lesson five. This article will use images from our video to provide insight into the use of grappling in Italian rapier fencing.
I have divided the lesson into three parts. Actions 1-6 serve well as an introduction for a lesson with a few simple actions to begin with and then exercises that introduce some of the concepts that will be revisited later in the lesson. Actions 7-10 each follow a pattern where the student uses an attack to provoke a parry and set up a secondary action. Actions 11-19 focus on using parries to set up holds, disarms and pommel strikes.
The first six actions in lesson five can be viewed either as warm up exercises or introductions to some of the actions used later in the text.
The first action in the lesson is a simple attack similar to the ‘fourth revers’ (also referred to as a flanconnade) introduced in lesson one, but combined with a blade action that expels the opponent’s blade during the attack. Like the fourth revers, it starts with an engagement in fourth. As the arm is extended, the tip is directed to the flank below the opponent’s guard. As the image shows, the blade contact is not maintained during the action. Rather than maintaining opposition to the inside as in the fourth revers, the hand is moved to the inside during the extension, palm up so that the opponent’s weapon is “thrown” to the side.
The second action in the lesson is what is usually referred to as a passata sotto. It is a counterattack against an attack to the high line where the upper body is lowered out of the path of the incoming weapon. It is usually performed with a lunge. 4 The off hand is either placed on the ground, or held forwards near the chest. In modern fencing, this is usually taught with a backwards lunge.
In actions three and four, the weapon is held in both hands in order to make a beat against an opponent’s weapon. Placing the off hand on the blade is often referred to as half-swording, and while not particularly common in rapier, both Capoferro and Giganti include examples of its use in their texts. While earlier texts tend to recommend grasping the weapon after an opponent’s attack has been parried, Pascha’s usage is unique because he initiates the attack by grabbing his own weapon and making a beat with it. In a later lesson, he introduces a guard where the weapon is held in both hands – especially useful if you are tired.
These actions also introduce a pattern for finishing an attack that is used extensively in the rest of the lesson and through the rest of the book: once an opponent has been hit and your off hand has found the weapon, step back with your front foot and keep your point aimed at your opponent. Stepping back while holding the weapon has the added benefit of throwing your opponent off balance and onto your weapon, while maintaining a stable position.
Action five uses a hanging parry of second to defend against a thrust in third to the outside high line. This parry is typically used against attacks to the low line, and its use in this context is difficult to perform. The parry is returned to later in the lesson to set up several different holds or strikes. It may help to raise the hand above the shoulder to ensure the parry is successful. The image in the text appears to show a riposte to the outside highline by detachment, rather than a riposte by glide.
This action is less straightforward than the rest as it specifies making several beats in a row – we viewed this as a more of a training exercise than something that would be used in actual fencing. Classical Italian sabre uses exercises where a student makes a parry several times in a row, working from larger to smaller movements in order to help “fix” the position of the parry. We interpreted this as a similar “fixing” exercise where the student continuously makes a beat in fourth until the instructor steps back and triggers the lunge. The exercise helps the student to both practice the correct movement and placement of a beat as well as to respond with a lunge the instant the instructor pulls distance. A similar choice is used later in the lesson where the student must correctly choose whether to initiate a hold if the distance is close, or to riposte with a lunge if the instructor attempts to recover out of measure.
Actions seven through ten each follow a similar pattern. The student attacks with a thrust to the inside line, the instructor makes a beating parry of fourth, and the student continues with a new action. It is tempting to read these as either counter-parries or renewed attacks since they are used in opposition to a parry, but the timing and distance become too tight to reliably perform the actions safely. Another option is to view the initial movement as relatively tentative initial attack meant to draw an early parry that can be defeated by immediately moving to a new action before the opponent can riposte. This interpretation is also consistent with Pascha’s earlier advice: when you want to thrust at the adversary, this must be done with half force, and you must see to it that you direct your strong straight in front of you, and that you thrust in long at the adversary in his weak. But when the adversary parries, which happens without doubt, inasmuch as he is engaged unforeseen or against his will, then pay attention whether he parries high or low, to the inside or to the outside as you retreat, thus go with your blade on the adversary’s blade, which must always be done.” (Van Noort, 6) Instead of needing to defend against the instructor’s riposte, the timing of the actions anticipates the parry and prevents the riposte from happening.
Actions eight and nine also follow the same recovery action first described in lesson four where the opponent is pulled forwards onto the fencer’s point.
In his 1671 manuscript, Pascha defines a hold as a parry followed by a half pass. The last part of the lesson introduces six holds, three holds begin with a parry of fourth, two begin with a parry of hanging second, and one begins with a parry of third. While these are flashy techniques that may impress an observer, they are difficult to use against an experienced opponent. Pascha writes they are useful “against those who have not learned fencing, or who do long, slung thrusts. But against those who can do what they want with their blade, they are somewhat unsafe.” 7
It is important that the parry and half pass are timed so that the opponent’s weapon is controlled with the off hand before passing forward, otherwise a fencer risks running into the opponent’s point. The further away the opponent is after the parry, the more risky it is to try to make the hold. An opponent’s deep, committed attack can often expose them to a hold, or a parry with a step forward can be used to close the distance as well. Pascha recommends a parry with an advance in order to set up a hold, but notes that if they opponent feints, then “you will run into it splendidly.”
Pascha’s fifth lesson provides valuable insight into an often overlooked area of the German and Italian rapier traditions. Though these techniques were considered risky and suitable for use only against untrained fencers, the depth of technique is surprisingly well developed, with six different holds and a variety of methods for closing to grappling distance, suggesting that perhaps these techniques were as fun to practice in the seventeenth century as they are today.
Curtis, Mary, and Puck Curtis. “The Destreza Glossary.”Concluir/Conclusión. Ghost Sparrow Publications. Web. 8 Jan. 2016. http://destreza.us/glossary/terms/c/concluir.html.
Leoni, Tommaso. The Art of Duelling: Salvator Fabris’ Rapier Fencing Treatise of 1606. Highland Village: Chivalry Bookshelf, 2005.
Silver, George. Paradoxes of Defense. London, 1599. Accessed from http://www.umass.edu/renaissance/lord/pdfs/Silver_1599.pdf, 8 January 2016.
Van Noort, Renier. Private correspondence. 15 November 2015.
Van Noort, Renier. Fencing on the thrust and cut: A translation of Johann Georg Paschen’s “Short though clear description treating of fencing on the thrust and cut” (1661). Bruchius.com, 8 January 2016. http://www.bruchius.com/docs/Paschen%201661%20translation%20by%20RvN.pdf.