Yesterday, Dori and I approved the final proofs for our new book, Fundamentals of Italian Rapier, which should be available on Amazon and other distributors within the next few days. Today’s post is not fencing specific, but I wanted to talk a little bit about the technical process that we used to write our book. In my day job, I work as a Software Engineer for Dell, mostly focusing on GUI development. When we started working on the project, I couldn’t resist doing some exploration to see if I could come up with a better process suited to what I need. Now, our project has a git repository, a supporting docker image, build scripts, continuous integration, and a very tolerant co-author.
First, some background on how we ended up with this approach. In 2013, Dori and I posted our Introduction for Italian Rapier on this site. Initially, we did a lot of the work in Google Docs, then moved to Word once we were close to being finished. After we released the PDF, I reformatted everything for a 6×9 layout in InDesign as an exercise. This end up being the most updated copy of the file, so a few years later when we started work on expanding it, the InDesign file was our most current file.
A few years later, Dori and I started getting more serious about expanding our curriculum and turning it into a proper book. From a technical perspective, we had a couple of things that we wanted to be able to do:
We ruled out some of the major options:
So I looked around and found Scrivener, which seemed pretty interesting:
We moved all of the content from our old InDesign file into Scrivener and started working. Eventually, we ran into issues that made me start looking around some more
Around the same time, I got the idea to publish the posts from this blog as a book and started working on Lessons in Italian Rapier Fencing. I needed a way to transform all of the posts from this blog into a usable format. So, I exported the contents of the site to xml, split out all of the posts into separate files, converted the markup to asciidoc and manually downloaded the images that I needed for each article. Asciidoc can output to DocBook, which can then be converted to PDF using Apache FOP. There were a number of guides for this and creating some initial styling wasn’t too difficult. The big thing about this approach was using a markdown language for editing – as a programmer this is my preference anyway, and I had been looking around for something that might let me work this way reasonable well. I decided to go with Asciidoc for the following:
I initially did a quick run as two separate books, one of articles and one of lessons, and then went back to work on a combined version. Since the ultimate output was an XML file that could be run through Apache FOP to create a PDF, most of the styling changes were done through writing XML transformations. The overall process is: Asciidoc -> DocBook -> FO -> PDF. This was a bit of a learning curve, but I perservered and managed to come up with something reasonable after a few weeks of working on it and published the book through CreateSpace.
After finishing the other book, I was pretty happy with the overall approach – we could write in a text editor (with extensions for Asciidoc that lets us preview our work), run a script, and have a book. All we need to do is add it to git (I used gitlab because it allows you to have private projects for free) and we can get all of the benefits of source control. The styling options were still limited though – it turns out that Apache FOP has not implemented all of the features of the FO spec, and certain options, like floating an image were simple not possible without switching to a commerical (and extremely expensive) rendering engine. Any other complex image layouts were difficult and required writing XML code directly into the source files. At this point, I am sure someone reading this (if anybody is even reading it still) is ready to tell me to just use LaTeX. Asciidoc -> DocBook -> LaTeX -> PDF is possible, and I did experiment with it. I also hated it more than the previous option which I didn’t think would be possible. (I also went down a pretty long rabbit trail trying to get drop caps to work)
I mentioned earlier that I work as a GUI developer. It would be nice if I could use some of the same tools for formatting our book that I use in my job. I started experimenting with a new rendering process: Asciidoc -> HTML -> PDF. CSS supports the basics of page number, margins, etc… A commerical rendered, Prince XML, adds additional features that are not supported by CSS such as page numbers in a table contents, footnotes, settings for widows and orphans, line breaks and other features. It is also free for non-commercial use, so I could use it in development, and then use a subscription service, DocRaptor (which uses Prince as its backend) to create the final, production files.
The new toolchain let me use Chrome for a lot of basic layout debugging (paragraph formats, spacing, etc…), and Prince for page numbering, margins, footnotes, etc… This approach vastly simplified the layout work I was doing and let me work with familiar tools. Instead of writing XML transformations, I could just SASS. I could do most of it with the styles that Asciidoc generated, but it is also easy to add a style in Asciidoc that will be present in the generated html. Now, instead of having to write custom XML into our source files for any complex layouts, I could just add a style name and figure it out in css. The new approach made it possible to quickly style things that I would never have been able to do in the previous approaches.
As we continued working with this approach, there were a couple of new things to consider. While the HTML generated by Asciidoc was pretty good, it wasn’t quite what I needed. I found another set of templates that got it closer to what I wanted, but even then I had to customize it. I was also working on the project from multiple computers and I needed a consistent environment to build the book with. It was also getting difficult keep track of the latest copy of the PDF. I solved the environment issue by creating a docker image with all of the tools and templates I needed in order to build the book. I also used GitLab’s pipeline feature to set up an automatic build for the project – any time we push our changed, a new PDF (and a smaller, compressed one that was easier to share), would be created.
I did most of this work as a hobby and wasn’t really expecting to use this for our final book. In the end though, we did decide to go with it and I’m fairly happy with the overall results (and appreciative that Dori was willing to put up with all of this). Like any project, there are always things that can be better, and I’m sure I’ll look at parts of the book and wish I’d done something differently. Hopefully I’ll be able to make some progress with whatever we work on next!
I taught this lesson to a student at an SCA practice recently. The student has been fencing around 6 months and has recently started taking classes with me. This is first time we’ve worked together in an individual lesson. My goal in the lesson was to reinforce some of the technical concepts we’ve been working on in class – hand positions, placement of parries, opposition, etc… as well as to introduce some tactical thoughts. I used actions 17 and 18 to demonstrate scenarios where it makes sense to parry vs counterattack in rapier, and to introduce the idea of controlling the timing of an opponent’s attack by provoking actions in tempo. My student did a great job of keeping up with this lesson, and now that I’m thinking back over it to write it down, I’m rather impressed with how much material we were able to cover:
Two weeks ago in class, I taught a lesson on actions on the blade – these are attacks which make contact with the blade to remove it from its position in line either prior to, or during the attack. For instance, a glide begins with domination of the blade and progressively forces it further out of line during the attack, while a beat strikes the opponent’s blade to the side so that it is momentarily out of control (Capoferro describes both kind of actions as dominating the opponent’s blade). Last week’s group lesson was an exploration of some of the kinds of beats that can be used in rapier. We practiced: simple beats, false-edge beats, change beats, circular beats, and grazing beats.
Last week in class, I gave an individual lesson based on the cutover (coupé). A cutover is a disengagement over the opponent’s blade, where you lift your blade and draw it back just enough to clear the opponent’s blade before extending to thrust. Done correctly, the entire action occurs in a single, continuous movement. Cutovers are relatively rare in rapier fencing (though Giganti does have a few examples), both, because the movement is much larger than a normal disengagement, as well as that drawing the blade backwards can be a good tempo for an opponent to attack. Nevertheless, they can be quite useful.
The other reason that I wanted to focus on cutovers in this lesson was because Bondi di Mazo’s “Thrust below” reminded me a lot of the cutover to the low line that I was taught in foil. The cutover to the low line is one of the larger actions in Italian foil and is executed against an engagement in fourth. The weapon is drawn back, and in a circular movement, not unlike an ascending circular cut, the blade is brought back in line for a hit to the opponent’s flank below the arm. di Mazo describes an action where you feint an imbrocatta to your opponent’s face, and as he lifts his guard to pary, you make a thrust in second via a downward cutting angle, ending with your hand in first. Looking back over this, there may be less of a connection than I’d thought – it may be a stretch to interpret the thrust as an action where you pull your weapon back for a wide circular movement, though it does end with a thrust very similar to what is shown in the text. Anyway, here’s the lesson that I taught:
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.
These are notes from a class that I taught a few years ago on how to go about reading source material and translating it to practical knowledge. Learning how to fence from a book is difficult. The class was meant to give an overview of the process of reconstructing a fencing system from a historical text.
The process is divided into four parts: learning the techniques, understanding theory, training the system, and refining your interpretations.
“As the explanation of the following illustration, you (D) gain the blade of your opponent (C) to the inside. He performs a cavazione to attack you with a thrust to the chest, and you strike him with a thrust to the left eye, either with no step or with an accrescimento (as shown). A prudent opponent would act as follows. He would feint the cavazione while keeping his body somewhat back. When you come forward for your attack, he would perform an outside parry (with the false or true edge), and give you a mandritto to your face or an imbrocatta to the chest. He would then recover in a low quarta.” (Trans, Tom Leoni)
Here are some of the techniques from this plate:
|Against an attack||Against a counterattack||Against a parry and riposte|
|Simple parry in third with the true edge||Thrust to the chest||Plate 7|
|Below the sword with a low pass||Plate 11|
|To the chest by detachment while grabbing the sword hand||Plate 14||Plate 14|
|With a pass while grasping the sword in both hands||Plate 12|
|Beating parry to the outside with the false edge (falso manco)||With a cut to the face||Plate 7|
|Circular parry in third||To the chest by detachment while grabbing the sword hand||Plate 13||Plate 17|
|Simple parry in fourth||Thrust to the chest in fourth||Plate 20|
|Thrust to the chest in second with a pass while grabbing the arm||Plate 20|
|Beating parry in fourth (mezzo mandritto)||thrust to the chest||Plate 10|
|riverso to the face||Plate 10|