Swordplay & Fencing
Fencing Salles and Fencing Commandments: July 20, 2018
Blog post on fencing salles past and present, and commentary past and present on appropriate behavior within. And considering that fencing behavior is a reflection of character, on appropriate behavior without as well. Click the image for the link.
The Night Thrust; Or, More Politely, the Passata Soto: July 24, 2017
Historical and practical notes on the passata soto for historical, classical, and modern fencers.
Fencing Books: May 25, 2017
Updated list of fencing books covering most modern periods, includes brief descriptions and commentary: Fencing Books for Swordsmen & Swordswomen.
Buccaneer Cutlasses: January 1, 2017
New blog on buccaneer cutlasses, providing additional information to chapter 8 of The Golden Age of Piracy: Buccaneer Cutlasses: What We Know. The eyewitness image shows a French buccaneer with two Spanish prisoners.
Married...with Swords! March 21, 2015.
Article on the Huntsville Fencing Club: November 1, 2013
The article begins on page 36.
More Sea Rovers and Smallswords: September 19, 2013
In honor of Talk Like a Pirate Day, two street fights with swords in 1693 from the English translation of the memoir of famous French corsaire René Duguay-Trouin. Besides being a brilliant naval tactician known for his prowess in boarding actions, he was also a skilled fencer and occasional duelist, and brought fencing instructors aboard his ships to instruct his officers and volunteers. A couple of notes: In the first fight, note the use of sword and dagger. Although uncommon by the this time, it was not unknown, and fencing illustrations of the time often show their use. Duguay-Trouin was probably armed with a “rapier-bladed” smallsword, common among military and naval men because it would be used to both thrust and, to a degree, cut. In the second fight, the fencing master “Coq” is probably the son or grandson of Jean Lecoq or Lecocq, “maître d'armes des pages de la grande écurie du Roi,” who died in 1670. The term “pump-dresser” is short for “sweeper and pump-dresser,” a derogatory English term for a fencer master’s assistant--someone useful only for sweeping the floor and keeping fencing shoes in order, or at least someone who earned his keep this way while learning to teach fencing. In the French edition, the term used is Prévôt de Salle, which, along with Prévôt d’Armes, is the correct title for a fencing master’s assistant.
The first: "While I lay in this harbor a very unlucky affair befell me; for my gunner running away from the ship, I met him a few days afterwards at a place near the sea-side. I would have laid hold on him; but he jumped back, and had the impudence to draw his sword and dagger; I fell on him [attacked him, that is], and presently wounded him in two places, whereupon he took to his heels, but I should soon have overtaken him, if a parcel of Portuguese had not drawn upon me, and offered to stop me. I shortened my arm, and running on them, forced a way through them, and came up with the rascal: my arm was lifted up to cut him down, when at the instant I struck my toe against a stone, which as I ran full speed, threw me upon my nose with such violence, that my face and hands were all bloody; I got up again, and pursuing him, saw him go into a church, which is a sure asylum in that country; and the Monks, according to their laudable custom, protected him from me."
And the second: "The influences of this vexatious trip followed me on shore: I had shipped a young man, who had been pump-dresser Coq, a fencing-master at Paris, for whom he gave lessons to the officers and volunteers of my ship, and diverted me with the same exercise, which I was very fond of. This young fellow having acted the mutineer whilst we were at sea, I chastised him, and put him twice into irons; whereupon he boasted (as I was afterwards informed) that he would take revenge on me for that affront when we came to land. In effect he had the impudence to declare at St. Malo, that he had endeavoured to make me draw my sword, and that I dared not. A lieutenant of foot belonging to the garrison was imprudent enough to acquaint me with this; and asking him if he could inform where the braggadocio lodged, and he replying yes, I went that minute to ferret him from his hole. He saved me that trouble, for I met him with two other bullies in the middle of the high street; I made towards him, intending to cane him, but he perceiving my design, jumped back, and drew his sword. I ran upon him, and forcing him between a wall and a cart, which stood there; I was so transported by my passion, that I broke my sword half a foot from the point, without perceiving it, and drove on at him, and did hit him several times, but my sword would not enter. While I was thus employed, one of his companions came and ran me in behind, which I neither saw nor felt; and by this time a good number being gathered about us, they parted us, and dragged me home. In coming into the house my mother was the first that saw blood upon the back of my coat, which was spotted by it, and a minute afterwards I felt my wound, which did not prove dangerous."
Sea Rovers and Smallswords: June 11, 2013
One of only a handful of detailed accounts of smallsword duels of the late 17th and early 18th centuries is quoted below, and is particularly notable for the exceptional honor displayed. The victor, le comte de Forbin, went on to become one of France's greatest commerce-raiding naval captains. One of his contemporaries was René Duguay-Trouin who was a swordsman and bretteur (a duelist, a brawler with a sword) in his youth, and who once Hollywood and Errol Flynn-style captured a ship by forcing her captain to surrender at sword point. Duguay-Trouin also brought fencing masters aboard his ships to train his crew in swordplay.
The account of Forbin's duel with le chevalier de Gourdon:
“After having recruited a little, I was resolved, before I went to Brest, to go to Toulon, to take Leave of one of my Brothers, and an Uncle. The very next Day after my Arrival, who should I meet there, but the Chevalier de Gourdon, who was now an Ensign of the Marine, and, as Time had ripened his Courage, he remember'd how I had affronted him by taking his Sword from him, and was resolved to have Satisfaction. We fought before the Bishop's Palace: I gave him one Thrust in the Belly, and another in the Neck, where, by a Parry, my Sword rested. Being thereby disarmed, I received a Wound in my Side, which made me retreat a few Paces, and, just at that Instant, my Sword, which was thrust in the Chevalier's Neck, dropping to the Ground, he took it up, and, as I was rushing in upon him, he presented the Points of both Swords to me; bidding me keep off; you are disarm’d; there, take your Sword ; you have run me through; but I am a Man of Honour. He had no sooner spoke these Words, but he fell down dead; upon which I immediately thought of nothing else but how to get off, by making my way thro’ the Populace that were assembled.
"As much disturb'd in my Mind as I was at that Juncture, I cou'd not help admiring the Generosity of the Chevalier, who spar'd my Life when it was in his Power to have taken it; and who had so much Honour as to moderate his Passion in his last Moments. And as I now write this in cool Blood, I actually think it so gallant an Action, that it doubles the Concern I always had for having taken away the Life of so generous an Enemy, tho' in Defence of my own.”
More Fencing Commandments: April 29, 2013
And an 11th: Do not give unsolicited fencing advice (see Mangiarotti #4 below). When you do give advice, provide only what you know for certain from experience, never what you think you know.
Commandment 7 dates to days of outdoor fencing (mostly epee) and of gyms lighted by large windows.
By Muriel Witte, American Fencing, March 1966.
Fencing Commandments: April 17, 2013
Ten Commandments of the Fencer by Aldo Cerchiari and Edoardo Mangiarotti, from the website of the famous Milanese Mangiarotti fencing school, http://www.mangiarotti-scherma.it/. All fencers should strictly abide by these precepts of fencing honor and fair play:
1. Remember that you are the representative of the noblest of all sports. It unites fencers from around the world in the same ideal.
2. Practice your sport unselfishly and with absolute loyalty.
3. Be a gentleman or lady on the strip and off, from sport to social events.
4. Do not discuss fencing if you have not learned fencing and its rules.
5. Learn how to lose with dignity and win with honor.
6. Respect your opponent at all times, whoever he or she is, but try to overcome him or her in combat with all of your energy.
7. Remember that until the last thrust your opponent has not yet won.
8. Serenely accept a defeat rather than take advantage of a victory obtained by deception.
9. Do not step onto the fencing strip with defective weapons or with the white uniform in disarray.
10. Honor, respect and defend your name, the prestige of your master, the colors of your club, the flag of your country.
USACFC Nationals--Congratulations Again! April 3, 2013
Congratulations again to Emily Stewart, member of the Huntsville Fencing Club and Indiana Fencing Club and Team, this year for taking second in women's epee at the United States Association of Collegiate Fencing Clubs national championships. See also the entry of April 18, 2012.
M.A.R.S. 50th Anniversary: March 21, 2013
The Huntsville Fencing Club recently held a 50th anniversary dinner celebrating the founding of the MARS Fencing Club and fifty years of fencing in Huntsville. The MARS club was founded in 1963 by John Jordan, Joe Dabbs, and other NASA Apollo Program and Marshall Space Flight Center engineers. Elias Katsaros, who had recently taken second place in the Greek nationals, joined a few years later. In 1971 Emil Luft and others, including the MARS fencers, formed the first Huntsville Fencing Club, and soon after, Donnie Phillips joined the MARS fencers. These clubs, as is the HFC today, were amateur clubs, in the best sense of the term: their members were fierce, typically victorious competitors; they had real lives outside of fencing; and they valued camaraderie and the fencing traditions of honor and fair play. The present HFC is proud to honor these original Huntsville fencers.
University of Montevallo Fencing Club? December 3, 2012
Clever ad for a potential University of Montevallo Fencing Club, likely in some ways to be affiliated with the Huntsville Fencing Club, at least informally. It's never too late to start a fencing club, and college is a great time and place to start!
The Leon Paul Sugru Grip: November 29, 2012
Leon Paul has just introduced its "Leon Paul Evolution Pistol Grip" for pre-order at roughly $55 each, quite expensive when you consider that a competitive fencer typically has at least four weapons. The grip will be to some degree form fitting, although it's based on a form of medium Visconti. This is not the first form-fitting grip ever introduced, however. In the first decade of the 20th century, Dr. Doyen of France introduced a pistol grip made from the cast of one's hand, making it unique to the user. Doubtless many fencers will see the new Leon Paul grip as a panacea for their fencing, only to be surprised that a grip alone is insufficient to make one a good fencer, much less a true swordsman or swordswoman. Even so, the grip may go a long way to assist those fencers who have been unable to find a grip that doesn't cause blisters or otherwise injure the hand.
Douglas Fairbanks, The Original Hollywood Swashbuckler: October 7, 2012
Too few filmgoers these days realize that every classic Hollywood swashbuckler owes it sense of costumes, adventure, tongue-in-cheek humor, athletic antics, and sparking swordplay ultimately to one man: Douglas Fairbanks. Even the Disney Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is rooted, albeit imperfectly, in the films of director, actor, and swordsman Douglas Fairbanks whose series of silent swashbucklers laid the foundation of the genre, including its long bouts of epic, if often unrealistic swordplay. Criticisms of film swordplay aside, Fairbanks knew how to handle a sword, although to what degree is debated. Walter Littlefield in a 1929 New York Times article praised his onscreen swordplay, but fencing master and screen swordplay choreographer Fred Cavens did not consider him an "outstanding" fencer. A quote from a 1921 New York Times article describing Fairbanks's role as D'Artagnan may also best describe him as filmmaker, man, and swashbuckler as well: "For here, plainly, is a D'Artagnan that not even Dumas ever dreamed of. He is the personification of of all the dashing and slashing men of Gascony that ever fought their way through French novels, all for the smile of a lady. He never fences one man if there are six to fence instead, he never leaves a room by the door if there is a window or a roof handy, he never walks around any object (including human beings) if he can jump over them; he scales walls at a bound, carries prostrate damsels over roofs, hurls men one upon another, rides no horse save at a gallop, responds to the call of gallantry at the drop of a hat, and in general makes himself as incomparable D'Artagnan." My first fencing master, Dr. Francis Zold, described him more simply: "He was a gentleman and a swordsman."
How Not to Be a Fencing Parent: August 17, 2012
One of several unfortunate changes the sport mentality has wrought in fencing over the past two decades is the appearance of the “fencing parent” attempting to live vicariously through his or her children. At the risk of sounding like I’m engaging in tirade, here’s some advice for this all too often pestilential breed, based unfortunately on actual behavior I've witnessed over recent years:
No, parents, we’re not interested in hearing how great your child is, other than in the common instances every proud parent engages in. So please, never send us a division-wide mass email telling us how great your child is because he or she earned his or her A. Don’t clutter our inboxes with this irritating broadcast, no matter how wonderful it may make you feel: such emails are vehicles of the ridiculously vicarious parent, not to mention that we probably don't even know who your child is.
And no, we’re not interested in your “helpful advice” at a tournament when you tell us that a youth fencer is too young to compete in an open event or that we’re doing something else wrong, because frankly you’re always wrong no matter how well-intentioned you might think you are. Many of us have been around a long time and know the rules. Simply following your child around from tournament to tournament doesn’t make you an expert.
And no, we’re not going to argue a rule with you during a bout simply because you think you know all about fencing because you tell us your child is “going to one day be one of the best fencers in he US” because he won a junior event somewhere sometime. We don’t care, not even enough to point out that a great many excellent youth fencers burn out and drop out because of parents and coaches like you, so just sit down and be quiet or we’ll have to give you a black card. Likewise, don’t bother to coach your child except during the one minute breaks—if you coach otherwise during a bout, we’ll card you for that as well.
And no, your visiting “B12” daughter, whose rating you proudly announced, did not defeat the club coach at practice as you gleefully thought she did, but only a good fencer you mistook for the coach and who was trying not to be too hard on her. Another fencer, female, un-rated, and unrestrained by your daughter’s age and sex, soundly defeated her. You had no comment on that bout.
And no, we’re not interested in hearing at the beginning of a tournament that your A-rated son is doubtless the best fencer registered at the tournament. He isn’t, he’s easily knocked out in the round of 8 by an unrated fencer who doesn’t make the final. In fact, he might well have lost to any of the fencers in the round of 8, and even to some who didn’t get this far. And by the way, parents: ratings are as often as not overinflated these days, sometimes grossly so, due to the direct elimination system. Many coaches, at least those who’ve been around a while, are well aware of this but do not comment publicly on it because they like ratings. Fencing ratings make coaches look good and encourage students, not to mention encourage vicariously-living parents who pay the bills that make up the coaches’ fencing income.
And by the way, that’s also why you’ve unfortunately come to plague fencing: your children are now where the money’s at in fencing, and in too many clubs fencing’s all about money now. Want some advice on ratings? Don't take them seriously, or better yet, ignore them. Your child should concentrate on fencing itself. Ratings will come as a byproduct. You should also be advised that there are a great many unrated or lower rated adult fencers who have superior skill nonetheless. It's both sad and amusing to watch a parent complain about their A or B rated child losing to an "unrated fencer" who is in fact an excellent fencer, unrated simply because he or she rarely competes. Most fencers have lives beyond fencing, and compete only occasionally, if at all.
And last: if you're unwilling to listen to your child's capable instructor, then find one who'll tell you what you want to hear--namely, that of course your child will be a great fencer, and other such related nonsense intended to relieve your wallet of cash in support of fencing-as-business. Good teachers have no patience with foolish parents, especially those who've decided they know what's in their child's best interest as regards fencing. You'll learn eventually or you won't (probably the latter), but a fencing teacher's time is better spent on students, no matter their aptitude, who are willing to listen, practice, and learn. Parents, it doesn't matter what your education, social standing, or professional accomplishments are: you aren't truly knowledgeable on fencing unless you've been fencers yourselves for a couple of decades, and often not even then. If you come between your child and his or her instructor, perhaps it's best that you train your child yourself. Good luck with that.
In sum, vicarious fencing parents (and also your incestuous relatives, vicarious fencing coaches), you need to sit down, keep quiet, and, especially, quit holding your children’s hands. Let them grow up! Fencing's great virtues will keep them young in the sense of the great virtues of youth, just as it will paradoxically mature them. The best lesson fencing teaches is self-sufficiency under pressure. In other words, stay out of the way. Let your children make mistakes, let them learn and mature. Let them feel the thrill of independence on the fencing strip, a thrill that exists only if no one is holding their hands. And while you’re at it, take some time, reflect, and grow up a bit yourselves.
For those fencing parents who don’t live vicariously through their children and who don’t engage in the aforementioned behavior, you have my apologies for this near-tirade, and my thanks and regard as well, for you are doing a great service to your children, yourselves, and probably the world at large.
A Persistent Saber Myth: August 13, 2012
If you happened to watch Olympic fencing on MSNBC recently, you may have heard Mr. Jeff Bukantz, a USFA representative, state that the saber fencing target is limited to the areas above the waist because cavalry only hit above the waist. This is arrant nonsense, although oft repeated nonsense. The target area has nothing to do with cavalry swordplay. Rather, the modern saber, purely a sport "weapon" now, is descended from the Italian dueling saber developed by Guiseppe Radaelli in the 1870s. It was never intended as a cavalry or battlefield weapon, but strictly as a fencing and dueling arm to be used afoot. It was made to be a very light weapon in order to emphasize fencing technique. As such, it was useless as a battlefield arm. Modern fencing sabers are even lighter.
The target, both in duel and competition, was determined by the Italians (it was their weapon after all), and they preferred not to have their "manhood" made the target of an edged weapon. Other practitioners at the time, such as the English, did consider the legs to be target. Although there is plenty of primary source confirmation, a quote from the text from which the adjacent image is taken should suffice: "The blows in fencing are confined to the head and body above the hip bone. It is not considered 'cavalleresco' [noble or chivalrous] to strike at the lower parts."
Mr. Bukantz went on to describe saber as a weapon in which both the point and "flat" of the blade are valid for scoring, "like swashbuckling." Sorry, Mr. Bukantz, one strikes with the EDGE with real weapons, not with the flat except to chastise someone. Unfortunately, modern saber does permit hits with the flat, a further departure from real swordplay.
USACFC 2012 Nationals: April 18, 2012
Congratulations to Emily Stewart, HFC member and representing Indiana University, on winning the United States Association of Collegiate Fencing Clubs National Championship in women's epee! And congrats for helping promote swordswomen and for keeping the spirit of La Maupin and several Hollywood women swashbucklers alive!
On the subject of collegiate fencing itself, given the lack of wherewithal or interest at the university administration level, much if not most collegiate competition is at the club level. The USACFC goes far to rectify this. Even many collegiate fencing teams that are members of the NCAA are poorly supported financially. The situation has improved little, if at all, since I fenced in college from '77 to '81. At USC we were NCAA but poorly funded. At Tulane we were a club sport and fenced university fencing teams in similar circumstances, such as Vanderbilt, LSU, UNO, and several Texas schools.
All fencers headed to colleges that lack an NCAA fencing team should seriously consider competing in the USACFC.
In Other Words, Thou Shalt Not Impale Thyself: March 18, 2012
A brief, excellent analysis of the principal flaws in foil conventions or "right-of-way," by Louis Rondelle in Foil and Saber: A Grammar of Fencing, 1892. Until recently, foil rules allowed for most if not all of these exceptions, but no longer. Today, a typical foil attack violates all of these exceptions, and as such modern foil, and for that matter, saber, are seen by many, myself included, as having given up any pretense to any resemblance of swordplay. A typical modern foil or saber attack would be suicidal with "sharps." In M. Rondelle's words: "By means of the first of these rules [that the fencer attacked must parry] it was hoped to prevent the occurrence of the double hit by obliging the attacked party to parry before riposting; but the rule is in error, as in fact it is not always necessary to do so. When the attack is badly made, as for example, too wide, too slowly, without opposition, when the assailant draws his arm back, the party assailed may be warranted in omitting his parry and proceeding instantly, upon seeing the opening made by the above errors, to execute a Stop-Thrust." Today, "bent arm attacks" (ill-formed attacks made with a bent arm, as opposed to an extending, target-threatening arm), as well as similar slow, wide, non-threatening, ill-formed attacks, are common and are permitted by a modern sophistry that has unreasonably reinterpreted the rules. The stop thrusts that should negate these attacks are typically disallowed. Again, the IOC's apparently rabid desire for rapt audiences and the FIE's apparent fecklessness (the FIE is apparently willing to make almost any concession in order to keep fencing as an Olympic sport) rear their ugly heads: part of the reason to disallow the stop hit and permit the "bent arm attack" is to simplify the sport for the audience (for the sake of $, that is). On the plus side, such nonsense has guaranteed that epee--the "dueling sword"--has become the most popular of the modern fencing weapons, assuming modern foil and saber (that is, of the past two decades) can legitimately be referred to as weapons anymore.
Hints of Swordplay: February 21, 2012
In this image from Studio Ghibli's recent release, The Secret World of Arrietty (Kari-gurashi no Arietti), Arrietty "fences" with a cricket, and later "borrows" a straight pin which she immediately slips through her dress and wears as a sword. Practical swordplay, in other words, even if in an animated film set in a world that can exist only in our imaginations.
Epee Fencing, Published by Leon Paul: February 17, 2011
Given that epee is now or is rapidly becoming the most popular sport fencing weapon, it is no surprise that more books on the subject are now being published. Historically, although epee has the broadest range of technique, epee books have been few and far between. The latest addition, as with all fencing books, has its positives and negatives. On the plus side, it is thorough and exceptionally well-illustrated. It also points out correctly that modern foil is bad for modern epee. (Once upon a time a fencer could learn foil then transition fully to epee, but no longer. Right-of-way has been so bastardized that modern foil and saber bear little resemblance to fencing with real weapons, and swordplay based on modern right-of-way rule interpretations would be suicidal for epee as both sport and as real combat, if the latter were still practiced. No longer does a foil or saber fencer have to defend against a realistically threatening point or edge, but merely against a theoretically threatening one. Of course, foil parries have long been largely theoretical as opposed to practical.)
On the minus side, the book is devoted 100% to epee fencing as sport as opposed to a Western martial art, thus losing some of the romance of swordplay. This is actually a problem fencing-wide, but to be fair, the book's sub-title is A Step-by-Step Guide to Achieving Olympic Gold. The book's organization comes across as random at times, and, perhaps most egregious of all, it is published magazine-style, including an often distracting layout and a binding whose cover stock will not hold up for long and which should be considered entirely unsatisfactory, even more so given the price ($29). Readers will need to strengthen the cover--which is nothing more than a typical light-stock paper magazine cover--with clear adhesive vinyl or other other product designed to protect maps, charts, soft-cover books, etc.
There are several "neutral" points about the book, that is, points that some fencers will see as positive, others as negative. It discusses "pommelling" or "posting" in detail, for example, and by implication promotes it. ("Pommelling/Posting" is a purely sport technique in which fencers "fly fish" with flicks and absurd angulations. The former are impossible and the latter suicidal with real "sharps." In the world of "sharps," flicks would cause little damage and "pommelling" in general would do little to protect against a late hit, something the box excludes but reality would not. In fairness, the technique of holding the epee by the pommel after taping it heavily to make it easier to hold, then using the epee to make sharply angular shots is over a century old, and was criticized at the time as a purely sport technique. Absent a century ago was the addition of the "flick.") Of course, given the number of "posters" out there, epeeists do need to know how to deal with them, even if they scorn the practice. Some may quibble with various descriptions of technique, for example of the on guard (sixte, as opposed to a sixte-octave, the latter of which still has many practitioners at all levels, or as opposed to a guard with forearm parallel to the piste and point threatening the advanced target, wherever it might be) and of the blade position in the sixte parry (point in line with the adversary's shoulder, Vass also recommends this, but some other masters recommend the point in line with one's own shoulder to help prevent a grazing counter-parry in sixte and angulation). Even so, the book's technical advice is solid. Others may quibble with some of the fitness recommendations. The book does not recommend sit-ups, for example, although, performed properly, sit-ups do not cause back problems for most athletes. (My only criticism of sit-ups is that they often give me a "raspberry" on my tailbone. On the other hand, the recommended crunches do little for my abs as compared to some other ab exercises.) I would argue that the "Elite Fencer Profiles" can be dispensed with, although in fairness, fencing is following the route of other sports in trying to create star athletes with a popular following in order to generate interest in the sport. Readers of any fencing book should be mindful that fencing has its fashions which come and go: many a modern fencer trained according to principles similar to those in this book still fall at the hands of "classically trained" epeeists. Much of fencing these days, besides changes dictated by the IOC in the interest of generating audience interest (changes often not in the true spirit of swordplay), seems to be directed according to a template successful in other sports, but which may in the long-term diminish much of fencing's romantic appeal. The book, as good as it is, appears to be following this template, perhaps unconsciously.
No matter any negative criticisms, the book--er, book published as a slick magazine--does belong in the modern epeeist's library. Still, given a beginning fencer's choice between this title and Kingston's Epee Combat, I'd recommend the latter first (also pricey at $27.50), and buy the former later--and don't forget to strengthen the cover.
The Madrid of Alatriste: February 16, 2012
Excellent documentary, featuring comments by Arturo Pérez-Reverte and others, views of old Madrid, and even a discussion of period and theatrical fencing, including comments by Bob Anderson. In three parts. Part one is linked below.
Non-Combativity Commentary: January 20, 2102
From commentary I wrote for the recent HFC newsletter:
Fencers and referees need to be aware of the recent change to the already ridiculous non-combativity rule:
4. When both fencers make clear their unwillingness to fence, the Referee will immediately call Halt!'
If one of the two criteria below is present, there is unwillingness to fight.
a) Criterion of time: approximately one minute of fencing without a touch.
b) Absence of blade contact or excessive distance (greater than the distance of an advance-lunge) for at least 15 seconds.
5. a) If during the first two periods of a direct elimination bout both fencers make clear their unwillingness to fence, the Referee will proceed to the next period, without the minute rest.
b) When both fencers make clear their unwillingness to fence during the third period of a direct elimination bout, the Referee will proceed to a last minute of fencing. This last minute, which will be fenced in its entirety, will be decisive and will be preceded by a drawing of lots to decide the winner should the scores be equal at the end of the minute.
[My comments:] Although ostensibly designed to prevent fencers from mutually running the clock down, it's principle purpose is to make fencing exciting for the audience. Some years ago the FIE determined that the best way to keep fencing an Olympic sport is to conform to IOC desires and provide long 15 touch bouts in a direct elimination format that leads to a long 15 touch final between two fencers. ("Back in the day," fencing finals were conducted in a round robin format, typically of six fencers, and each fencer in the final had to fence everyone else in the final.) The non-combativity rule is an addition to this mentality and is designed to force fencers to be active, and thus provide excitement during these bouts. However, the rule flies in the face of modern fencing's dueling origins as well as in the face of swordplay itself. One may fence aggressively for several minutes or more without a touch, and also for much longer than fifteen seconds without ever engaging the adversary's blade. This is particularly true in epee, which remains the weapon closest in nature to actual dueling combat. The rule is not likely to be an issue in typical bouts in which nervous fencers often rush to get touches when they should be more careful, but will be a major issue in hard-fought bouts in which fencers are doing their best to do what fencing is all about: to hit and not be hit, the latter being more important than the former. The rule turns the spirit of fencing on its head.
How to avoid being penalized by this rule? First, fence at proper distance, never out of distance for long, and ensure that you make periodic blade contact, even foible to foible. Second, fence actively even while being patient, and use second intention actions (or feint-in-time) as necessary to draw out your adversary if it is obvious that a minute may pass without a touch. This is implicit in the club motto, by the way. In other words, be patient but not passive, and hope that the director (referee) is too busy watching what is obviously an active bout to notice that there's been no touch for a minute or no blade contact for 15 seconds. Frankly, most referees at local tournaments will be too busy to keep effective track of these times. I know I will. Or better, hope the director understands the spirit of fencing and thus will not act on the rule unless it is patently obvious that the fencers are refusing to actively engage each other. There's not likely to be much complaint from epee fencers against referees who refuse to enforce the rule except in the case of fencers clearly refusing to fence. Reports from fencers who attended recent NACs indicate that the rule is extremely unpopular.
January 2, 2012: Rest in Peace, Bob Anderson
Mr. Anderson, a British Olympic fencer, was perhaps most famous for choreographing the swordplay in the first series of Star Wars movies, although my favorite choreography of his was that of The Princess Bride. He worked on a number of other films, including the Spanish film Alatriste and the first Pirates of the Caribbean, always giving Hollywood what it wanted, whether the purely theatrical sword fights in the great tradition of the early film swashbucklers or the historically accurate swordplay demanded by more serious films. His was the first fencing book I ever read, a neat little paperback whose pages you could flip and see basic fencing actions in play. I still have a copy. At CombatCon last summer I met and had a chance to talk to Nick Gillard, his successor on the later Star Wars films. Nick had wonderful words for Mr. Anderson, who, as my first fencing master Dr. Francis Zold might have described him (as indeed he described Douglas Fairbanks), was a gentleman and swordsman. The nytimes obituary can be found here.
December 11, 2011: Quevedo versus Góngora
I'm no fan of Luis de Góngora's florid, purple poetry, nor indeed is my girlfriend, who is both fluent in Spanish as well as a student of Spanish and Hispanic cultures. Still, the ny times Sunday Book Review today has a good article on the poet and on a recent English translation of his Solitudes. Perhaps the best part of the review by David Orr is a line about poet-swordsman Francisco de Quevedo, who despised Góngora and his poetry: "This approach [overly, even ridiculously ornate poetry] earned Góngora the enmity of perhaps his most talented contemporary, Francisco de Quevedo, whose own work was distinguished by its wit, plain diction, and fencer's balance." See also the post on Quevedo below (July 11, 2011).
December 7, 2001: The War That Changed Navies and the World
With the attack on Pearl Harbor seventy years ago today, not only did the world change but also navies, including their tactics and technologies, and even some of their traditions. The photos, of fencing aboard a US warship in the last decade of the 19th century, and aboard a Japanese warship in the first decade of the 20th, are some of the last of sword training aboard modern warships. (The photographs, in very high resolution, are available for free download via the Library of Congress.)
December 6, 2011: The Three Musketeers Series
Alexandre Dumas's series of musketeers novels begins with [English titles listed only] The Three Musketeers, originally published as The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers. This was followed by Twenty Years After and then by The Vicomte of Bragelone or Ten Years Later. The last has been published in a variety of forms, including in five or even six volumes, sometimes divided into four titles: Ten Years Later, The Vicomte de Bragelone, Louise de la Vallière, and The Man in the Iron Mask. Today, the last book is often divided only into the last three listed titles. Also of note is Courtilz de Sandraz's three volume more-fiction-than-fact "biography" of d'Artagnan, The Memoirs of Monsieur d'Artagnan, from which Dumas took his inspiration. It is a good read, if often slow, given its digressions into period politics. I also suggest the non-fiction d'Artagnan: The Ultimate Musketeer by Geoffrey F. Hall and Joan Sanders, and The Four Musketeers: The True Story of d'Artagnan, Porthos, Aramis, and Athos by Kari Maund and Phil Nanson. The swashbuckling novels of nineteenth century author Paul Feval, featuring d'Artagnan, Cyrano, and even Lagardère are related and fun to read. For more information on related literature, see "The Lives of the Three Musketeers" here.
December 6, 2011: Pet Peeve
I'll pass on a critique of Syfy's Neverland except to note once more an issue or two with the swordplay. (Viewers interested in reviews should check out those in the New York Times and the LA Times.) I've already commented below on the idea, promoted in Neverland, that a fencer should look into his adversary's eyes, a proposition most fencing teachers past and present, myself included, do not agree with, for reasons already noted. My real peeve is with the way Rhys Ifans as "Jimmie" Hook is holding his sword--in sixte, that is. Granted, if "Jimmy" learned his swordplay in Victorian England he would be well-familiar with sixte as the common en garde with the hand in the outside position--for a thrusting weapon, that is. Although sixte is noted in saber and other cutting sword texts of the nineteenth century, it's use was sorely limited, particularly in opposition to other cutting or cut-and-thrust weapons. There is a mid-18th century reference to an old Irish "gladiator" named Perkins who from the stiffness of age and inability to move much used the sixte guard, wrist raised, effectively with the backsword in gladiatorial prize fighting on stage, but he was the rare exception. (See Godfrey, 1747). His guard differed from "Jimmy" Hook's in that it was carried well to the outside with the basket turned inside, and certainly not in full supination, impossible if the hand is positioned wide. In the illustration, Hook is holding a "mortuary" sword, that is, a broadsword from the English Civil War era. Tierce (third), as well as what today is known as second, and also the "hanging guard" are the proper outside guard positions with a broadsword, cutlass, saber, or "cut-and-thrust" sword. With all the serious study of historical swordplay going on, is it too much to ask for Hollywood to get this right? The same issue cropped up in the recent Three Musketeers, with rapier-wielding musketeers coming on guard in sixte as if they were modern foilists.
On a positive note, in line with commentary on swordswomen below, Anna Friel as "Elizabeth Bonny" was by far the most convincing actor in the show, providing a realistic sense of a pirate captain who could and would indeed gut anyone who stood in her way. Her demise in the final episode was anticlimactic: her character and acting deserved better.
November 7, 2011: Swordplay No More
An example of why modern fencing may be doomed (and I do love the sport, at least epee fencing, that is):
"Non-combativity: If one of the two criteria below is present, there is unwillingness to fight.
a) Criterion of time: approximately one minute of fencing without a touch.
b) Absence of blade contact or excessive distance (greater than the distance of an advance-lunge) for at least 15 seconds." (From the USFA Rule Book)
Some of the greatest fencing bouts have few touches, little blade engagement, and periods much greater than a minute without a touche. This rule, which ultimately derives from the need to impress the non-existent audience, is a travesty, is in no way in the spirit of fencing, and is the sort of nonsense that will ultimately doom modern fencing as a form of legitimate swordplay. Fencers may move aggressively without blade contact and without a touch and still be fencing. To recall an old curse, may the lives of the FIE rule makers who made this rule, and those of anyone who agrees with this rule, be filled with lawyers forever. Or better yet, may they all fall upon their broken swords. (The illustration is for Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.)
October 17, 2011: The Cat and the Sword
Very likely, but almost certainly enjoyably as well, the forthcoming Puss in Boots will display more accurate swordplay, period or otherwise, than the forthcoming Three Musketeers, promotional comments on the accuracy of the new musketeer swordplay notwithstanding. That being said, most viewers aren't interested in the quality or reality of screen swordplay. Fencers of all ilk interested in cats and swordplay should read Neko no Myojutsu (The Mysterious Technique of the Cat) in Tengu Geijutsuron (The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts) by Issai Chozanshi [Niwa Jurozaemon Tadaaki], translated by William Scott Wilson, 2006.
October 2, 2011: La Fille de d'Artagnan
AKA "D'Artagnan's Daughter" or "The Daughter of d'Artagnan," released in the US as Revenge of the Musketeers, an unfortunately incorrect title. The film is a swashbuckling romp, as only the French can make, focusing on Eloïse, the daughter of aging musketeer d'Artagnan. The French are still producing the best swashbucklers, or films de cape et d'épée. Eloïse, put into a convent by her protective father, departs, hoping to solve the mystery of an attack on the convent and of the murder of the Mother Superior. Along the way are enjoyable, well-choreographed swordplay, inside jokes about fencing, running jokes about aging, plus good fellowship and witty verbal engagements, the latter especially in regard to the war between the sexes. Appropriately gratuitous bared flesh is present as well. After all, it is a French film. The 1994 film Stars Sophie Marceau as Eloïse, and Philippe Noiret as her father.
September 30, 2011: On the Positive Side...
Although it's still too early to judge the quality of the forthcoming version of The Three Musketeers, already the aerial combat (ships with balloons instead of sails) and other liberties taken have understandably come under criticism. I've already noted apparent issues with the film's swordplay, not that many viewers care all that much about historical authenticity in an action film. Recent trailers do nothing to dispel the impression that the swordplay in the film is all flash and nothing real. Nor do recent trailers do anything to dispel the notion that we have to put up with yet another of a recent spate of d’Artagnans defined largely by their insipid arrogance, reminiscent of a teenage video gamer’s ideal self, which is, alas, that of a pixel warrior who has no concept of the real world—of real violence, of real sweat and blood, of real consequences. The Brat Pack mentality infected The Three Musketeers in 1993 and, unfortunately, remains, although there are modern exceptions, most notably the 1994 La Fille de d'Artagnan (more on this film in the next post) and the flawed but well-intentioned and watchable 1998 The Man in the Iron Mask. Doubtless Hollywood is playing to a specific demographic, rather than giving the audience the d'Artagnan Dumas intended. As ever, Hollywood often underestimates the film viewer. Still, the film may turn out to be an enjoyable distraction, and on the positive side, it does put a swordswoman, however Hollywood, in the forefront. For this, all non-chauvinists among lovers of the sword can be thankful, and, given that this swordswoman is Milla Jovovich, the chauvinists probably won't mind either.
August 25, 2011: Photography & Swordswomen
The title notwithstanding, it's really two separate issues I'm discussing here. Regarding fencing photographs, they are in fact difficult to take, and we're lucky to have one of our fencers, Amy Hitchcock, to shoot photographs at our tournaments. Fencing action shots are difficult to take, and Amy does an excellent job, both of capturing action as well as the classical beauty of the sport. Most photos in fencing books are posed, and for good reason: not only is it difficult to capture fencing action shots, but most fencers are not nearly so "classical" in form as they'd like to believe. (Not even "classical fencers" are as gracefully classical as most would like to believe.) Fencing is best viewed in motion, and a photographer who can capture its grace in a still shot is an excellent photographer indeed. Of the few other fencers at our club who can shoot decent fencing photos, they're invariably fencing or directing. ("Directing" = "refereeing" to those of you relatively new to fencing, the name change came about because--wait for it--the foolish powers that be determined that fencing would be more audience-friendly if we called the director a referee instead. The term derives from dueling: the directeur de combat "directed" a duel, ensuring fair play.)
Regarding women's epee, when I started fencing in 1977 there were only four weapons: foil, epee, saber, and women's foil. (Many men considered there to have really been only two: men's epee and men's saber, given that these are the dueling arms.) As women's epee was added to the panel of modern fencing weapons, there was the usual chauvanistic concern over whether women could handle the stiffer epee, which is both heavier and which often inflicts respectable bruises. Even supporters considered that women epeeists needed a critical mass of women epeeists, given that many epeeists, especially younger males, tend to emphasize physical strength and speed rather than technique, especially when fencing women, fearing to lose to them. This being said, today many women epeeists are holding their own with men, especially those swordswomen brought up on the epee, as opposed to converting to it from foil later in life. Our HFC women epeeists not only do not want to be coached during 15 touch bouts (but then, neither do our men), but want to be judged not as women fencers, but simply as fencers. We've done away with the practice of awarding a "highest placing woman" medal for this reason. At our recent La Maupin, one of our women fencers placed 5th of 25 in a tournament more than two thirds male. I'm sure we'll soon see one or more of our woman winning some of these tournaments. La Maupin routinely defeated swordsmen; I have no doubt that her spirit still lives.
August 22, 2011: Julie d'Aubigny, Mlle. la Maupin
This past weekend the Huntsville Fencing Club held its second annual La Maupin Open in celebration of women's fencing. Mlle. d'Aubigny, better known as La Maupin, was selected as our namesake, given her well-noted proficiency with the sword, not to mention her swashbuckling inclinations. Primarily an opera singer, she was active during the late 17th and early 18th century, and learned to fence at the court of Louis XIV, thanks to her father. She took numerous lovers, both men and women, including a novice, a musketeer, a fencing master, and the Elector of Bavaria. She was fond of dressing as a man, and even fought and defeated three men, one after the other, when they challenged her for having the affrontery to kiss a woman they were courting. She died in 1707. She was immortalized in Théophile Gautier's early 19th century novel, Mademoiselle de Maupin, scandalous at the time, at least to the French bourgeoisie. The best available biography is La Maupin (1670-1707): Sa Vie, Ses Duels, Ses Aventures by G. Letainturier-Fradin (Paris: Ernest Flammarion, 1904), available for free at Google Books.
August 12, 2011: The Swords of d'Artagnan's Era
Military swords from Gaya's 1678 work. From A to G, "Epee dans un baton" used primarily for beating peasants while foraging; an "epee de rencontre" or smallsword; a Swiss broadsword; an "estoc" or rapier; a Spanish cuphilt rapier, still in use in 1678 by the Spanish, Portuguese,and some Italians; a "braquemart," knife, or short sword; and a hunting hanger. In another illustration, Gaya shows a saber and a scimitar. Note that the smallsword has a blade, per Gaya, of roughly 34 inches, and that he notes that the rapier has been out of use in France for three decades. D'Artagnan would have begun his military life bearing a rapier, but by the time of his death, and for 25 years prior, he carried a lighter sword, ranging from what is today known as a transitional rapier to a true smallsword. Doubtless the smallsword he carried in the field was a heavier-bladed weapon that what he may have worn at court.
August 5, 2011: The Real d'Artagnan
D'Artagnan was made world famous by Alexandre Dumas and his musketeer novels, but was in fact famous during his lifetime, and became even more so soon after by the highly fictionalized purported Memoirs de d'Artagnan written by Courtilz de Sandraz. Dumas based his famous series of novels on this memoir, thankfully altering the details as necessary, and thankfully especially for only using "the good parts."
Charles de Batz-Castlemore, seigneur d'Artagnan, commonly known as d'Artagnan, commanding the First Company of the King's Musketeers, known as the Gray Musketeers for the color of their horses, was killed in action by a musket ball to the throat at the siege of Maestricht in 1673. More than 80 of his musketeers were killed in the siege, and 50 more severely wounded. Four were killed while carrying his body from the field after the entire company searched under heavy fire for him. His death was immortalized in Le Siege de Maestrik par le Roy, published in 1674. "Artagnan digne Chef des braves Mousquetaires" is proclaimed a hero: "Dans ce combat sanglant, Artagnan ta vaillance / Te fait trouver un tombeau glorieux; / Mais ta mort, qui te fait encor des envieux, / Loin d'étonner les tiens les porte à la vengeance, / Chacun de plus en plus void croiftre son ardeur..." Biographer Geoffrey F. Hall quotes a line from the Journal du siège et prise de Maëstricht: "D'Artagnan et la gloire ont le même linceul."
August 5, 2011: A New Take on The Three Musketeers.
Aerial 17th century ship-to-ship combat, from the new trailer to The Three Musketeers, perhaps more Steampunk or Jules Verne (or the real Cyrano de Bergerac) than Alexandre Dumas. I've already commented on the film's apparent swordplay below. Stars Milla Jovovich among others.
August 2, 2011: Books, Swords, and Adventure
Most of us who fence, no matter in what form of swordplay, were originally inspired by swashbuckling literature and film, by the ideas of “sword fighting” and honorable swashbuckling. Not by sport aspects of modern fencing were we inspired (a rant for another day) but by our imaginations. We grew up on books and movies in which heroes with swords battled enemies for justice and, usually, a lady’s hand. (Only recently has the literature of swordswomen come of age.) Discovering old books of adventure and swordplay remains an pastime for many of us, and my love for digging through bookstores has been passed on to my daughters. One of them, Courtney, returned from Canada yesterday with an old book for my birthday: With Drake on the Spanish Main by Herbert Strang, illustrated in color by Archibald Webb, a story much in the mold of Charles Kingsley's Westward Ho! Part of a series of Strang’s stories for boys, the book, published in 1908, has a beautiful cloth color cover with a surely Pyle-inspired illustration of a rover approaching the stern of a galleon, plus two maps, and several color illustrations—novels are seldom put together like this anymore. The inscription reads “W. Williamson / Prize for Latin / Xmas Term 1907 / Elenhurst. St. Marychurch / J. F. W. Little M.A.” Courtney found the book in a small bookstore, Reeve & Clark Books, Glen Williams, Ontario, Canada.
Flipping through the pages (here comes a more notable swordplay angle) I found the illustration depicted here, with a written description proving the author did his homework. He describes the Englishman, on the right, wrestling with his Spanish adversary who hasn’t time to shorten his long rapier—a description surely based on George Silver’s Paradoxes of Defense, published in 1599. Silver loathed the long rapier and excoriated the Spanish and Italian styles of rapier play. He pointed out the dangers of long swords at close quarters, and considered that “true play” consisted of everything: not only attacks and parries, but wrestling, disarming, pummeling, and so forth. He reflected the English mentality, one entirely suited to a sea dog like Francis Drake.
August 1, 2011: Alexandre Dumas
I meant to post this a week ago on the Dumas birthday (July 24) as an excuse to recommend two of his lesser-known works, The Women's War and Georges. The former takes place in the 17th century during the French civil war commonly known as the "Fronde" and the latter in the early 19th century. In the first, a swashbuckling gentlemen loves two women, leaders in the civil war, and in the latter, a swashbucking mixed-race gentlemen returns to the plantation island he grew up on. Dumas was of mixed-race ancestry, and today would probably be referred to as African-American or black. He is best known for his series of books featuring the musketeers d'Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. Dumas was also a fencer, and makes brief homages to swordsmen and swordplay in many of his novels.
August 1, 2011: Baldric
A quick plug for a friend of mine, Jim Cromwell aka "Sutler John," and his 17th century baldrics. For re-enactors as well as those who suddenly, like myself, find themselves having to create a pirate costume, the baldric is perfect. Hand-sewn, the baldric is copied from 17th century examples, and is the sort typically seen as well in swashbuckling films such as Captain Blood. This baldric appears to have been taken from an English Civil War example, but the style remained common from then until 1690. Re-enactors should note that, with a few exceptions, the baldric was being phased out by the 1690s, replaced by a belt, and had apparently been replaced by buccaneers by the early 1680s, if not before. Baldrics were considered too cumbersome for infantry, especially at close quarters. This being said, baldrics did provide some protection to soldiers on the battlefield, especially against sword cuts. The image links to the Sutler John website.
July 29, 2011: "Pirate" Cutlasses
Cutlasses depicted in most pirate films are typically anachronistic. Although there were a variety of hilts used during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the shell hilt, as depicted here in the hand of Rock or "Rocky" Brasiliano, was likely the most common. It typically consisted of a single shell, curved quillons/knuckle guard, and often a thumb ring on the inside if the hilt had only a single shell. Some had shells inside and out, some only on the outside, and some single shell hilts lacked a thumb ring entirely. Blades tended to be short and heavy, and many were clip-pointed, as is Rocky's blade. The cutlass--an original--worn by Captain Teague (played by Keith Richards) in the 3rd and 4th Pirates of the Caribbean films is similar. Loyalist Arms sells a replica shell hilt cutlass.
July 26, 2011: Pirate Boarding Tactics
Currently scheduled for Saturday, September 17, I'll be lecturing in St. Augustine on pirate boarding tactics. The lecture will include a broad overview of pirate and sea rover tactics in general, followed by specific tactics used in boarding, a short discussion of pirate swordplay in fiction, film, and reality, and the debunking of a few related myths, ranging from pirate flags to dueling for command. St. Augustine is, of course, an ideal location, being not only the target of pirate raids but also the place of execution of a noted filibuster as well. The lecture will last almost two hours and is, as far as I know, open to the public as well as to Talk Like a Pirate Day / Hot Pirate Babes Calendar Release party attendees. See here for details.
July 26, 2011: Pirate Swordplay
On Sunday, September 18, as part of the Talk Like a Pirate Day / Hot Pirate Babes Release Party in St. Augustine, is the "Cutlass Boarding Action Seminar" taught by maritime combat expert John Lennox. If you want to learn how to fight at close quarters like a buccaneer, here's the place to do it.
July 25, 2011: Robert Heinlein's Lady Vivamus
FilmSwords (see below) is also forging Robert Heinlein's Lady Vivamus, made famous in his novel Glory Road. See this link for a John Carter of Mars/Barsoom related quotation from the book, as well as much more information on the (pricey) sword. Heinlein, a prolific science fiction author whose works ranged from those intended for young adults to those entirely adult, was also a fencer at the United States Naval Academy, where he was awarded the Epee Medal in 1927. He graduated and was commissioned into the U. S. Navy in 1929. The sword's name is taken from an Epicurean motto: "Dum vivimus, vivamus," or "We must live while we live." I'd say it's an obvious statement, yet far too many forget that it's too late to live after you're dead. One need not be an Epicurean to appreciate the motto. A life of adventure, hazard, and hardship quickly reminds its participants to cherish and enjoy every moment, for each might be the last--not to mention that such a life provides a lifetime of enjoyment in itself.
July 15, 2011: John Carter [of Mars]
Forthcoming, March 2012, based on Edgar Rice Burroughs's century old novels about a Confederate soldier who finds himself sword-in-hand battling exotic races and wooing a scantily-clad princess on Mars. Regarding swordplay (this is a swordplay page, after all), Mr. Burroughs's character in at least one of the novels notes that he does not parry with the edge, therefore preserving it. This is an area of disagreement--whether the edge was used in parries or not--among a number of historians of swordplay. I cannot speak expertly of swordplay prior to the 17th century, but there is, based on numerous documents, not to mention on swordplay of the past century, descended as it is from the past two, no reason to believe that parries were not made with the edge. Parries, by all evidence, were typically made with the edge at the forte, where the blade was thicker and the edge typically unsharpened. Note also that it is virtually impossible to prevent damage to the edge even in attacks--the adversary's parry, with whatever part of the blade, will strike the edge. Indeed, there are numerous accounts, going all the way back to the age of the Viking, of blades terribly notched along the edge from long hard battle. This being said, I am aware of parries in Filipino arts being made with the flat.
July 11, 2011: Don Francisco de Quevedo
Francisco de Quevedo, whose full name was Francisco Gómez de Quevedo y Santibáñez Villegas, was a renowned Spanish poet, perhaps the greatest of his age, and also a politician and writer who went in and out of royal favor. He was also a swordsman, and a critic of the popular destreza verdadera (true art) style of Spanish rapier play, in which mathematical circles and philosophical wanderings that played on a student's desire for "secret knowledge" and "secret thrusts," had a prominent role. The "true art" was based on the works of don Jeronimo de Carranza and don Luis Pacheco y Narvaez, the latter of whom Quevedo fought a duel with, using his rapier to remove Narvaez's hat in the process. Quevedo apparently preferred the destreza común (common art). Although surely unnecessary to become a redoubtable swordsman, the destreza verdadera was doubtless quite lucrative for fencing masters. Quevedo lampooned the "true art" in his famous picaresque novel El Buscón or Vida del Buscón (The Swindler). He was in many ways true to the ideal of "pen and sword," using both to advantage. He also led a swashbuckling lifestyle, smoking and drinking much and seeking women in brothels. Yet he was not without a certain Quixotic honor: he once attacked a man for slapping a woman in front of a church. Each drew his sword: Quevedo ran his adversary through, killing him, for which Quevedo was forced to seek protection against charges of murder. The swordsman-poet was born on September 14, 1580, and died on September 8, 1645. He is featured prominently in Arturo Perez-Reverte's excellent Alatriste novels.
July 11, 2011: The Viper Vixens
A plug for the Viper Vixens--"Topless Girls, Dangerous Weapons"--who both gave a demonstration at CombatCon, and helped sponsor the convention as well. The most dangerous part of the five women, one man act is not with swords but with a powerful crossbow (no cheating here), in which husband and wife make risque shots at each other. At O'Shea's Monday though Saturday.
July 5, 2011: CombatCon 2011 Post Op
Overall, CombatCon 2011, organized by Jared Kirby (longtime student of the rapier and of swordplay in general, as well as translator and editor of the excellent 2004 edition of Capo Ferro's masterpiece), succeeded very well in bringing Hollywood fight choreographers together with other experts in Western martial arts. Participants spending two solid days there could only sample the large number of demonstrations, expert panels, and classes. Perhaps most comforting to me was the fact that Hollywood choreographers, altough bound by the conventions and requirements of film, are indeed excellent swordsmen, and not mere imitators. I was also very pleased to see so many serious students of traditional Western martial arts, swordplay especially. Although modern competitive foil and saber fencing (and in some cases, epee as well) have deviated too far from practical swordplay, "real" swordplay, whether Medieval, Renaissance, or early modern, is in no danger of disappearing. In particular, I'd like to thank Jared Kirby and Steve Huff for inviting me, Steve Huff and John Lennox for our discussions and especially for the outstanding work they're doing in Age of Sail close combat, and David Baker (prop fabricator for Deadliest Warriors), Steaphen Fick (Davenriche Martial Artes School), Luke LaFontaine (fight choreographer and swordsman, including during the filming of Master and Commander), and Nick Gillard (Star Wars fight choreographer for films I, II, and III) for our conversations and especially for all I learned from them. Here's hoping that there will be a convention next year--I highly recommend it to all swordsmen and swordswomen, and to those who so aspire. Modern fencers should especially attend, so that they may be reminded of what swordplay should be, and perhaps then help rein it in from its lost path. As an addendum I should add that the convention included a demonstration by the Viper Vixens--"Topless Girls, Dangerous Weapons"--and the Time Traveler's Ball.
As a footnote, all three members of the panel shown above strongly agreed--and without hesitation--that women warriors are by nature the deadlier of the two sexes.
July 6, 2011: Some Useful Links
An incomplete list of useful links derived from CombatCon 2011:
Art of Combat Historically accurate combat for stage and screen.
Cold Steel Excellent, reasonably-priced, combat swords and knives, not to mention instructional DVDs.
Davenriche European Martial Artes School Western martial arts taught by Steaphen Fick.
Historical Martial Study Society 17th to 19th century Western martial arts.
Hollywood Combat Center Prop, training, and battle-ready swords by Deadliest Warrior prop-maker David Baker.
Kult of Athena The best prices and service for quality swords on the market.
Lennox Studios Historical swordplay, including martime swordplay and close combat during boarding.
Martinez Academy of Arms Classical and historical fencing instruction and research, including in the Spanish rapier (destreza verdadera as opposed to destreza comun).
Pirate Fashions N Photos Hot Pirate Babes calendar, pirate fashions, photography and more by Tiger Lee.
Purpleheart Armoury Excellent wooden and other training swords.
Rancho Indalo Private action training by fight director and swordmaster Anthony De Longis.
Rockwell Classical Fencing Equipment Italian foils and epees, even points d'arrêt!
War Studios Fight choreography and weapons training by Luke Lafountaine.
July 5, 2011: Spanish Pirate
A romanticized image of a 17th century pirate, surely Spanish, armed with a rapier, which indeed many were, although the cutlass was also a common Spanish weapon at sea. Seamen, however, did not wear riding boots, although doubtless some Spanish soldiers at sea did. Note the similarity to the images from the forthcoming Puss in Boots (see below) and also to the images in the Spanish film Alatriste. The rapier hilt appears to be a Norman type 83, similar to that used in Alatriste. During CombatCon 2011 (see above), I sat on panels that included discussion of pirate boarding tactics and swordplay, and Ramón Martínez and company gave demonstrations and lectures on Spanish rapier play. The illustration is of the painting "The Pirate" by Irishman Arthur David McCormick (1860-1943).
July 5, 2011: Puss in Boots
Forthcoming, November 4, 2011, well in time for the Thanksgiving holidays. Of course, the original Puss, well-booted and as described by the late 17th century Perrault, was clever but not a swordsman, or swordscat to be more correct, although his cleverness was certainly suitable to swordplay. In the film will also be Kitty Softpaws (voice of Salma Hayek), a thief and swordskitty, so to speak, armed of course with a sword, although not a cup-hilt rapier as her amante is. Perhaps Puss will rank among my favorite Spanish swordsmen, fictional and real: Diego Alatriste, Francisco de Quevedo, and Inigo Montoya.
June 20, 2011: "Real" Hungarian Saber
Eugene Hamori (Olympic gold medalist, team saber, Hungary, 1956) forwarded some photographs of Hungarian saber fencers from the era before Italo Santelli introduced the Italian dueling saber to Hungary, changing Hungarian saber forever, not mention sending Hungary on to dominate international saber fencing for half a century. Note the heavy realistic blade, and especially the heavy gauntlet and mask necessary for protection. This was saber fencing for the battlefield! The modern fencing saber introduced by Santelli was, in its bloodletting capacity, purely a dueling weapon. It was too light for anything else but sport. The Hungarian style is gone now, destroyed by the electrification of the saber (even hits with the flat of the blade are now allowed), which in turn was the result of a desire by some FIE officials to destroy Hungarian fencing, which, due to its strict but beautiful technique, limited the number of nations who could successfully compete in it. That is, it was too difficult to acquire the sufficient level of technique without a "critical mass" of expert masters and fencers. The IOC, and thus the FIE, wants the Olympics to draw audiences, and an easy way to draw audiences is by increasing the drama, for example by making it less certain who the likely winners will be.
A photo from a history of Transylvanian fencing.
June 19, 2011: Non-German Admitted to the Mensur
A BBC article reports on the controversary surrounding the admission of an Asian student to a German "dueling" society. Many of the societies are opposed to the admission, but claim they are not being racist, but nationalist, although the member in question did in fact serve in the German army. Known as the mensur, the German collegiate duel consists of cuts aimed solely at the head. The schlager blade tip is blunted, and "duelists" are well-padded and their eyes protected. The principal aim is to gain a "dueling" scar, ideally on the cheek or forehead.
June 18, 2011: 2nd Annual Joe Dabbs Open and HFC 40th Anniversary
Besides the virtues of competition and cameradery found at fencing tournaments, one can add those of history and of honoring veteran fencers. At the 2nd annual Joe Dabbs tournament, the Huntsville Fencing Club honored the founders of fencing in Huntsville, encouraged younger fencers to meet them and learn from them, and encouraged the old veterans to write their fencing memoirs, which the HFC in turn will publish on its website. (One of these memoirs, by John Jordan, is already posted.) The knowledge--and adventures!--of veteran fencers should not be lost. Naturally, we followed up with an anything-but-dull party.
June 15, 2011: Fencing Books
Although fencing cannot be learned well from reading fencing books--proper instruction and diligent practice are mandatory--much about the subject can be learned from them, ranging from footwork and technique to tactics and tempo. In general, fencers should not rely solely on a single fencing book. For those with an interest in historical fencing, texts, preferably the originals as opposed to modern interpretations (unless the complete original text is also included, the exceptions being cases in which there essentially are no period texts, as with the cutlass and other armes blanches used at sea for example), are mandatory, as is a solid foundation in "modern classical" fencing--that is, fencing as it was routinely taught prior to the past two decades. The Huntsville Fencing Club maintains a thorough, albeit incomplete, list of fencing titles, ranging from modern fencing to classical fencing to historical fencing, here. (The club does not sell fencing books, it simply maintains a list of suggested titles. Information on acquiring fencing books is given at the foot of the books page.)
June 14, 2011: Barlois Vs Flessel, 1996
Excellent technical epee fencing, brought to my attention by Danielle Green. The principal difference between this bout and a typical male bout are the absence of powerful "macho" prise de fer and actions on the blade, and the occasional use of exceptionally long lunges, facilitated by the generally greater flexibility of women fencers. But don't be fooled in regard to powerful actions: these women make powerful beats and oppositions during this bout!
June 13, 2011: Good Advice for Epeeists and Duelists
"In epee, one must know how to wait."
"'Prevail by patience,' is the motto of my house, and I have taken it for the guiding maxim of my life."
"Patience is the first virtue of an épée fencer."
This being said, note the words of Dr. Francis Zold to me during a lesson in 1977: "Never hesitate!"
Note also, in my words, that patience need not be passive! Far too many fencers equate patience with passivity. One may fence aggressively yet patiently, and in epee should.
Note also that patience was often precluded on the battlefield or during a boarding action.
June 12, 2011: Game of Thrones.
Although more Hollywood than realistic, Arya Stark's fencing lessons nonetheless capture the wonder, even thrill, of receiving a good fencing lesson (and, in my case, of giving lessons to my daughters as well). However, I can't judge the book's descriptions of her lessons, not having read the series in spite of the strong suggestion to do so from my older daughter as well as from several employees at the Jones Valley B&N (several of whom say they want me to lead them on a venture of modern piracy, the sea-going kind, of course).
June 12, 2011: The Dueling Sword
A late 19th century work by Claude La Marche, translated and edited by Brian House, the book is worth reading by all epeeists. As the translator noted to me in an email, one can fence classical epee today even to the highest levels, although it is probably unlikely--as Imre Vass pointed out--that one can win internationally using classical techniques alone. ("Outstripping" is the problem--many elite fencers are interested only in hitting first, rather than "giving and not receiving.") The popularity of "modern" interpretations notwithstanding, the foundation of epee remains classical. (The most notable "modern" interpretive work is Epee 2.0, which, although an interesting and occasionally controversial work, doesn't reveal anything truly novel except in the minds of epee fencers grasping at any straw or "secret thrust" in the hope of improving their game. Also, the technique described in the book is suitable largely to a "hit first" mentality, not a "hit and don't get hit" mentality.) La Marche reads well, and the translator has done an excellent job. The technique, of course, is classical French: a good companion piece would be a book on the Italian dueling sword or spada. Highly recommended.
June 12, 2011: Swordplay in Neverland
The recently released trailer for the Syfy channel mini-series Neverland looks good, with what appear to be good acting and high production values--and even Kieira Knightly as the voice of Tinkerbell. Naturally, we have to ignore its Hollywood plot devices inconsistent with Barrie's original work--Neverland, for example, is entered as one falls asleep, and not via a crystal ball as in the series.
Of course, this being a swordplay page, I have to note my disagreement with the fencing instructor's admonition not to watch your adversary's blade. Hollywood, ever in love with a good-sounding line (the truth is less important than the story), probably approves of the line, however. And, in the writers' defense, there have been a few notable fencing masters, East and West, who recommended focusing one's central vision on the adversary's eyes. (Of course, the line may well be linked to later plot development as well. Note also that a similar line is used in HBO's Game of Thrones during one of Arya Stark's fencing lessons, see above.) Even so, most masters past and present recommend focusing central vision on the weapon hand/hilt or the point, and not on the eyes. Critics will suggest that the eyes can't be seen through a fencing mask (though they typically can), but the advice against looking into the eyes comes not only from masters in the past when there were no fencing masks, but also from modern teachers quite familiar with fencing with lexan masks. (By the way, the real reason for lexan masks is so the non-existent audience can see fencers' faces--in other words, the masks appease the IOC.) Although the eyes might be the window to the soul, they are also easily deceptive--and the real threat comes not from the eyes but from the point or edge of the sword, thus from the hand holding it. Fencing master John Godrey, a practical man, considered the issue settled in 1757: that is, don't watch the eyes. Watch the weapon hand or the weapon point, use your peripheral vision to pick up everything else. (The mini-series will be released on TV in December 2011.)
May 26, 2011: Fencing at the 1956 Olympics
Eugene Hamori, friend and my second fencing master, was a member of the Hungarian saber team depicted in this Olympic summary. (In the brief gold medal saber team footage, he is fourth in line, wearing black shoes.) In general, note the clean fencing and its exceptional speed--by no means are fencers quicker today. Epee looks little changed, foil right-of-way (although still artificial) makes sense and is easily judged, and saber technique is impeccable, not sloppy at all, unlike the often ugly mish-mash of modern technique. This video was brought to my attention by Julio Cesar Montoya Polanco.
March 15, 2011: The Three Musketeers and Swordplay on the Screen
(Originally posted January, 2011.) New photos from the forthcoming film The Three Musketeers, directed by Paul W. S. Anderson (Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil). To date, no recent film versions of the book have managed to live up to Richard Lester's 1973-1974 version, released as two films, the second entitled The Four Musketeers. One of the two photos from the forthcoming film shows d'Artagnan and his musketeer friends surrounded by the Cardinal's guard. Unfortunately, for those with an interest in authentic swordplay, the three visible musketeers, not to mention the Cardinal's guards, are all on guard in sixte. Tierce, with the hand in pronation, is the appropriate position with the rapier in an outside guard. All look more like 19th or 20th century foilists, rather than rapier-wielding musketeers. None even has his parrying dagger drawn. This may seem a small matter, yet in terms of history and swordplay is egregious. Let's hope the film itself will overwhelm such inaccuracies.
In reality, few films correctly depict period swordplay, although this rarely detracts from the viewers' enjoyment. Most accurate is probably that depicted in The Duellists (1977). The swordplay in Alatriste (2006) and Rob Roy (1995) is fairly accurate, expertly choreographed, and thoroughly engaging, although the light blade on broadsword actions in the latter film do not quite ring true (no pun intended) to anyone versed in historial swordplay. The swordplay in D'Artagnan's Daughter (La Fille de D'Artagnan) and On Guard (Le Bossu) is well done, and often tongue-in-cheek in the former. Surprising to some, the smallsword play in Casanova (2005) was quite well done. For another recent decent depiction of historical swordplay, see the Russian film 1612 (2007).
Film itself imposes some limitations, particularly that the viewer must be able to follow the action, thus, as fencer and actor Cornel Wilde pointed out, screen swordplay actions must be made larger and slower. Similarly, famous Belgian fencing master and screen swordplay choreographer Fred Cavens noted that all movements must be "magnified." Screen swordplay is not real swordplay, but choreographed swordplay intended to convey drama via action to the audience. Each fencing phrase is carefully rehearsed, both for safety as well as to get the shots necessary for the scene. Actor Basil Rathbone, the fencing nemesis of both Errol Flynn in Captain Blood and Tyrone Power in The Mark of Zorro, noted how long it takes to film a swordplay scene: five minutes of swordplay might take two days to film.
The photos can be viewed here. For a thorough, if abbreviated, list of books on swordplay history, as well as of historical manuals of swordplay, see the Fencing Books page at the Huntsville Fencing Club website. Update, July 11, 2011: A new trailer is available online.
March 14, 2011: Donald McBane
"I mention these to caution you on all occasions to be on your Guard, and not to trust any man whatever who is your adversary. For many have been deceived by not taking care of themselves in these cases, tho’ their adversaries have been men of strict honour, as they thought, and that they would not be so base and villainous as to be guilty of any thing below the character of Brave Men and Gentlemen. Experientiæ Docet [Experience teaches]." —Donald McBane, Expert Sword-man’s Companion, 1728.
Good advice for all areas of life even today, not just for the now unlikely circumstance of a duel with sharps. McBane, left, was a soldier, swordsman, duelist, fencing teacher, prize fighter, and pimp, as well as the man for whom “Soldier’s Leap” is named in Scotland.
March 1, 2011: The Sword of Doom
I finally got around to watching this famous, engrossing film. Although for the sake of storytelling it falls into the myth of depicting large numbers of assailants as incapable of attacking simultaneously, it remains an excellent depiction of the "homicidal austerity of mood" required of the duelist, as Joseph Conrad put it in "The Duel." Regarding attacks by multiple assailants, two adversaries is one too many, as the saying goes. Similarly, "there is no Hercules against the multitude." As far as samurai films go, The Seven Samurai remains perhaps the finest of the genre, as well as one of the best films ever made. One of the most evocative cinematic samurai duels is that depicted in the finale of Goyokin. It takes place amidst sea, fire, and snow.
March 1, 2011: CombatCon--Where Fantasy Meets Reality
As the organizers put it, "The times that were, the times that are, and the times that may be...and how to kick butt in all of them!" Western martial arts, pirates, fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, and horror, with classes and presentations by experts in their fields. I'll be presenting as a 'Featured Guest' on the subject of piracy. In Las Vegas, June 24-26, 2011. Check out the CombatCon website and see also the posts above, including a post op for 2011. The convention covered everything from Medieval techniques to those of the Renaissance and Early Modern eras, and even, as shown left, modern techniques, little different from those of past eras.
February 21, 2011: Black Swordsmen
"The Black Fencer in Western Swordplay" by Benerson Little, forthcoming, in American Fencing magazine, Spring 2011. The illustration is "A Pass in Tierce With the Knuckles Up," from The Art of Fencing. Represented in Proper Figures..., circa 1750. Similar illustrations of black fencers date to circa 1700. The fencer on the left is making a pass in tierce, and is using the unarmed hand to parry or oppose his adversary's blade.
January 30, 2011: On Ancient Swordplay
"It is a prideful and patronizing modern myth that all forms of Western swordplay prior to the Renaissance were inferior. Rather, their technique was much simpler, given the weights of their various swords and that defense was usually provided primarily by a shield. However, to learn any of their forms demanded just as much diligent practice, and in their timing, tactics, strategy, courage, and cunning of use, all of these forms were almost certainly as sophisticated as Western swordplay of the past four centuries. Evolutionary changes in swordplay have primarily occurred with the introduction of new forms of sword that arose in response to changes in warfare or social customs, to improvements in metallurgy, or to take advantage of a weakness in existing arms, armor, or tactics, and seldom because a better way was found to wield an existing sword." From Pirate Hunting: The Fight Against Pirates, Privateers, and Sea Raiders from Antiquity to the Present, chapter 2.
January 29, 2011: The Rafael Sabatini Society
For anyone with an interest in Rafael Sabatini's historical and swashbuckling works!
Update, March 1, 2011. The Society it seems is not particularly active, and recommends the Rafael Sabatini discussion group.
January 21, 2011: Blackbeard's Sword...Not Likely
Numerous articles appeared this week regarding the release of a photograph of a sword hilt from the likely wreck of Blackbeard's Queen Anne's Revenge. The hilt, given the shape of the handle and the quillons, is that of a hunting hanger, a form of short-bladed sword used not only by gentlemen during the hunt, but often by gentlemen at sea, including naval officers and subordinates. It would be a fairly common pirate sword, or at least fairly commonly available. The sword indicated here would have had only a chain for a knuckle guard, poor protection in a fight. Given the size of crew when the Queen Anne's Revenge was lost (often estimated at 150, although the precise figure is uncertain), it is unlikely the hanger belonged to Blackbeard. Certainly, it is not the sword he carried when he was cut down in action by Lieutenant Maynard and his doughty naval seamen. Given that the wreck was probably deliberate, Blackbeard probably escaped with his sword and pistols intact. (Also posted on the Sea News page.)
November 29, 2008: More Fencing Gripes, Some Also Ultimately Courtesy of the IOC
Over the last three decades we participants in modern fencing have seen quite a few rule changes, many of them purportedly designed to make the sport of fencing easier to comprehend to audiences--in the Queen's English, to make them "televisual." Many of the following rules changes are directly or in part due to
attempts to make the sport more appealing to an ignorant or naive audience. To date, all have failed to make the sport more appealing to the spectator. Epee and saber strips have been shortened from eighteen to fourteen meters, making them equal with the foil strip--epee and saber, being dueling weapons, were originally granted more ground to maneuver on. Five touch bouts have been shortened from six minutes to three minutes in an effort to reduce competition time and to force fencers to be more active and aggressive. The double defeat in epee has been eliminated, taking the weapon further away from the duel it was designed to emulate. Non-violent contact in epee now draws a halt (another step away from the emulation of the duel), although thankfully not (yet at least) a yellow card. Pool competitions have been eliminated, primarily due to cheating at the elite level, and have been replaced by a fifteen touch DE table, which can give skewed results. At the Olympic level, the size of the competitor field has been reduced to such a degree that it is no longer a truly broad international field (the US qualified only one epee fencer this past Olympics, for example). The world championships are now the best indicator of a nation's fencing prowess, as they permit a much larger, broader field. The rules changes and right-of-way interpretations in foil and saber deserve their own separate rant, saved for another day.
Update, January 30, 2011: It appears that the excuse of cheating in 5-touch round robins was a mere pretense, and in fact the 15-touch bouts and DE table were put in place solely to build drama toward a final of two fencers, with a bout long enough to engage television audiences (a vain attempt in fencing). The fact that the DE table often gives skewed results is not seen as a detriment, but as building even more potential drama, in that weaker fencers have a chance of making it farther along than in the round robin format. (More on this subject later!)
November 30, 2008 11:58 PM EST
It seems more and more things these days are being shortened and changed in ways that harm their quality. Sorry to hear fencing is part of this trend. Rant on!
- Ann Marie
November 29, 2008: The UIPM, Under Pressure from the IOC, Alters the Modern Pentathlon
In yet another bid at making sports more appealing to a television audience, pressure from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has once again diminished the original nature and spirit of a sport. In the case of the Modern Pentathlon (riding, one touch epee fencing, shooting, swimming, and cross country running), the Union Internationale de
Pentathlon Moderne has combined the shooting and running events, primarily in order to sustain the sport at the Olympic level. Recently the IOC has been considering eliminating the event, which has been in every modern Olympics since their inception, and the UIPM's action is doubtless in response. Read the sordid details at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/27/sports/olympics/27pentathlon.html.
The "Questions" section that previously appeared on this page is archived at the foot of the "Commentary & News" page.