Renaissance Swordsmanship:
The Illustrated Use of Rapiers and Cut & Thrust Sword

2nd Edition Comments from the Author


The first edition of my Renaissance Swordsmanship has been so well received that I must first pause and pay thanks to those many colleagues and fellow swordsmen (some of whom I know only through correspondence) that have been so gracious in their praise. The book seems to have been exactly what many enthusiasts have wanted for so long, and I thank them for their numerous compliments. Despite my having some expectations of disapproval, even those among the sport fencing community and the "Society for Creative Anochronism" have been appreciative and flattering. I am gracious to all those who provided feedback and have shared their insights.

My Book was first published in March of '97, but actually written in spring '96 and researched primarily in '95.  Since then, I've continued my studies and training and acquired several valuable contacts.  I feel very confident about the book in spite of wishing to add even more material as well as modify minor deficiencies.  Some of that is now presented here.

The Study and Replication of Renaissance Martial-Arts:

Swordsmanship of the renaissance and its practice today has a distinct character. Its unique martial-spirit is neither that of modern fencing with its game-like sporting conventions and refined etiquette, nor that of Asian fighting arts with their cultural and metaphysical components. As a Western martial-art form, it also differs from its Asian counterparts in many ways. It is much less structured, involves no ritual, less etiquette, and has no established hierarchy. It historically focused on utility rather than philosophical intangibles. However, it by no means lacks any of the modern humanistic ideals which are usually associated (artificially) today with the modern practice of popular Asian martial-arts. Being concerned far more with the practical use of archaic weapons, it can also probably be argued that it has only a small application to modern unarmed self-defense or street situations. But of course, that is not its purpose. It is a martial-art form which can and should be viewed within its own context.

For some practitioners of renaissance swordsmanship, it is somewhat irritating that the English phrase "martial art" has now become virtually synonymous for the definition "Asian fighting art". Tell traditional martial-artists (i.e., students of Asian systems) that your style is "Elizabethan" for instance, and you can watch the perplexity come over their faces. Even stating that one is a "swordsman" rather than a "fencer" -a word which now denotes the modern sport form, is an unusual statement to hear any martial-artist make today. However, given that by definition renaissance fighting systems do indeed constitute true martial-arts, the phrase must not be allowed to be exclusive. Indeed, the very term martial-art was used in the West for a considerable time. Its first probable recorded instance is likely from the Pallas Armata of 1639 (a much undervalued book on rapier and sword). In it, a poem by a student to his Master of Defence contains the following lines:

"Thou herein to the Reader dost impart
In a plain way that famous Martial art
Of fencing, which by charge and toylesome payne
Thou hast attain'd, and thriv'st to make us gaine"

It was during this time and into this environment that swordsmanship in Europe became "this Noble Science of fence." Indeed, in the Middle Ages there is no record of swordsmanship itself being considered as a separate, independent skill of its own, but rather one of many from the art of war. But the sword, unlike other weapons such as axes, spears, bows, and daggers, which all had hunting applications, was always exclusively a weapon of war. Battle was its very reason for being (with the possible exception of trials-by-combat). This was to change in the renaissance. Swords transcended their use as weapons of war to also become civilian tools of personal self-defense, and with that, keepers of personal honor. This was not the case in previous centuries. An edict from as early as 1286 in England had forbade private schools of fence within the city of London -ostensibly to "control villainy" and "prevent criminal mischief" often seen to be "associated" with such activities. The renaissance however, saw rise to legitimate and in many cases, more respected schools of the "Noble Science".

Symbiotically, there was an immense rise in the number and frequency of both street-fighting and private dueling. As has been well documented, the years between 1500-1700 alone saw thousands of nobles killed in private duels. The rapier, being so formidable in this, was to come into fashion as the weapon of dueling. Unlike more traditional military cut & thrust swords, it was ill suited to the battlefield and developed for other reasons. The nature of urban encounters and dueling surely changed with the introduction of the rapier. Rather than satisfy bravado and honor through a "stout exchange of manly sword blows", it became far easier to slay an opponent outright with a quick, short stab of the rapier. This had a profound effect on both the attitude one approached such encounters and the application of techniques in a fight. One could no longer engage in brawls or "swashbuckling" without risking quick death at the hands of the calculating, systematic methodology of the rapier.

The esteemed George Silver makes this point in his famous works on swordsmanship from the late 16th century when he states a cutting sword's virtue over the stabbing rapier: "Also, such a sword with a single blow may so wound an opponent that they are no longer a danger; and in fact a death may not be necessary to decide a fight." We should keep in mind that the possibility of death by infection, even from a slight wound, was very real during the period. Infection could set in easily during a time when there was no knowledge of germs, little conception of cleanliness, and "bleeding" was often a common treatment for a wounded party! Obviously, when one chose to fight or was forced to, great effort made to not receive any injuries. The later idea of fighting only to "first blood" so as to "satisfy honor" was not an immediate development nor always present. In a true renaissance spirit, the primary reason for learning the use of weapons, rather than for training soldiers or warriors for battle, was to improve the worth and character of the individual. Like the ancient Greek Hoplomashi weapon instructors, or the Roman's Lanestae gladiator coaches, the renaissance Masters were chiefly concerned with teaching the skilled use of a weapon for essentially personal defense. But accordingly, they also taught what constituted the appropriate time, place and circumstance under which it was honorable or right to draw and use your weapon (the "code duello"). Still, for every School of Defence, it can be surmised that there always existed a certain number of "raffines"-swordsmen bullies who would provoke duels on the slightest pretext ("giving the lie").

It has also been suggested that what existed in the schools, whether for commoner or aristocratic, was almost two separate traditions, both concerned with the techniques of using the sword for personal self-defense, bu t under different social circumstances. Within these socio-economic classes there were rival instructors, competing guilds, and opposing schools. As a martial-art form, the modern replication and practice of historical renaissance sword skills as of yet cannot really be clearly separated into different "styles" (i.e., the Italian or Spanish schools, the German or English methods, etc.). While there are certainly very clear differences in the teachings of various masters from differing countries, insufficient knowledge and detail so far prevent a true reconstruction of any one, entire system that would then enable a full-fledged style of fence to completely re-emerge. Until such a time, there is instead a more or less general body of knowledge that includes techniques and principles that, in themselves, may be of any one individual school or master. Like the founders of Asian martial systems, the renaissance Masters to one degree or another occasionally contradicted one another's theories (and even their own). Yet, even as they differ their martial sciences present, for the most part equally valid alternatives.

If we wish, we can instead refer to renaissance swordsmanship as a combative system. A combative system, as once defined by the Hopology Society, is: "A body of organized, codified, repeatable movement patterns, techniques, behavior, and attitudes, the primary intended function and planned design of which is to be used in combative situations". By this definition there can be no doubt that what is being studied from the historical manuals and what has been discerned through training with historical weapons, constitutes a legitimate martial-art. There can be little doubt that in their methods of fighting the various renaissance masters each had there own personal styles, and even regional or ethnic techniques as well. Though they differed, they did so only with the parameters of what was both reasonable and functionally possible for the weapons they employed and for the adversarial conditions under which they were used. When we consider the great diversity among Asian fighting arts, with their dozens and dozens of styles and sub-styles, this is not at all surprising. Each of the many forms of Asian martial-arts can for instance have its own method of dealing with a side-kick or defending against a basic round-punch. In contrast however, the range of styles within our contemporary Western arts today such as boxing, Greco-Roman wrestling, or even sport fencing is quite narrow. To a noticeable degree, modern sport fencing itself now shows little distinction among schools or nationalities. As a result of internationalized rules and competition sta ndards it can easily be argued that there really is little variation among, for example, Hungarian, French, Polish, Italian, Russian, or American fencers. What differences that do exist are subtleties of form, training, and attitude more so than any obvious fundamental techniques.

There are many issues to the martial-art of the rapier, and to swordsmanship of the renaissance as a whole, that still remain unanswered and open to free debate. There is still some confusion and debate over the development of the rapier and its early use of cuts. The rapier's development was not simply about masters such as Saviolo and di Grassi taking the same swords as Agrippa and Marrozo and just handling them differently. There was also more to it than merely advocating the use of point and thrust over edge and cut. The Italian and Spanish fighters were using blades which because they were purposely designed for a thrusting style of fight, were less capable of effective cutting. Therefore, they would naturally advocate fewer cuts and those they did use would have to be simpler by virtue of their employment (if not the blade itself). Incidentally, what can very often appear in a reenacted rapier fight to be attempts at cutting blows or wild slashes, are in reality only forceful beats to knock the oppo nent's blade off-line. Historically, there was at first no real need to distinctly identify what was considered a "standard" sword and what had now become a true "rapier". That would have been unmistakably clear by handling the weapon in question, if not by its very appearance (i.e. the blade). When a civilian sword was made that could no longer kill a man with a simple cut, but only by stab, that was when the rapier was born. It is not a matter so much as earlier rapiers being "wider for cutting", but rather that later ones were made narrower and lighter for faster thrusting.

Another question that arises is in regard to the practice of fingering the ricasso. Some manuals of the period do at times show both swords and rapiers being gripped without use of fingering (even thought the weapons illustrated are clearly seen equipped with finger-rings). This should not be interpreted that some masters did not employ fingering at all (as later small-sword instructors were to do). Rather, that the practice was an option. If a swordsman has a strong, skilled hand, not fingering the hilt can frequently provide that crucial extra inch or two of reach. Anyone who has fenced for enough time to developed considerable grip strength can certainly conceive of how this is done. Not employing fingering can also allow for some cuts to be delivered with more force (not surprising considering the technique was used to gain point control not edge control).

There are many historical manuals and worthwhile sources still remaining for practitioners today to investigate, such as some of the early Spanish texts and German manuals like Duerer's of 1512. There are still many un-translated Italian works which are rich resources such as Giovanni Dell `Agochie's "Del `Arte de Scrimia" from 1572, d'Allessandro Senese's "IL Vero Maneggio di Spada" from 1660, or the earlier work on use of the great sword by di Liberi in 1410, the "Flos Duellatorium". There is the very useful and underrated "Pallas Armata", an anonymous English manual from 1639 on both rapier and sword use. There is "Mars, His Field", another manuscript on the use of the sword from 1625. There is also an anonymous medieval manuscript in the Tower of London on the 13th century sword & buckler, as well as the Sloane manuscript offering valuable details on the London Masters of Defence. Other works (many so far only rumored to be available) include Diego de Valeria's "Treatise on Arms" from the late 1400's, Pietro Monte's work on weapons from 1509, and Girolamo Muzio's treatise from 1550 on the code of dueling, "Il Duello".

Very recently it has come to light that literally tens of new, previously unrecorded and unknown manuscripts on swordsmanship and weapon use from the renaissance have been discovered. These "lost" works are essentially un-translated or at least remain unanalyzed. Researchers and sword scholars are greatly excited at this new development. So far, until they become more widely read and disseminated we can only wait and wonder what these various fighting manuals contain. Fortunately, the historical swordsmanship-community is often quick to share research experiences and compare insights.

Despite the nearly obvious reality that the modern sporting version of fencing is far removed form the art of renaissance rapier; there are some that still do not seem to grasp this. Many enthusiasts insist upon using sport epees and foils for pretend rapier practice. It seems that when it comes to reproducing rapier skills today, many longtime Olympic/Collegiate sport fencers do not wish to believe that their years of foil and epee experience could prove to be somewhat inappropriate and hindering (or even irrelevant, in some instances) for studying renaissance swordsmanship. Despite the significant differences in the gripping, weight, handling, and functioning of modern epees and foils from a true rapier, there are those who insist on using them for its practice. This is like doing ping-pong to pretend your playing tennis.

Rapier fighting cannot be accurately understood or practiced merely by adding in a few historical stances and theatrical moves to modern sport fencing. Changing the rules you fence und er is one thing, but changing the weapon used has a far greater effect. Epees and foils are simply not renaissance rapiers, no matter how hard we pretend otherwise. If you want to enjoy modern sport fencing, then do modern sport fencing. If you want to learn to use a rapier, use a rapier. There are a few sport fencing maestros today who, after spending 30 or 40 years using light epees and foils, believe that this somehow gives them the credibility to make authoritative pronouncements on the use of the historical rapier & dagger and even on all manner of medieval arms & armor. This is all the more annoying given the magnitude of people now out there actively training with the real weapons as a true martial-art form and not merely sport or theatrical ballet (granted, there are a wide assortment of costumed theorists and juvenile fantasy role-players not helping much either).

For students of historical-fencing now to believe that by using modern sport epees they can somehow simulate rapiers, does a disservice to the genuine reconstruction of the Art. Doing so serves only to further cloud understanding of the true historical weapon and its significant differences from the modern sporting versions (as well as from stage-combat). Epees and foils, even wider theatrical ones with historical hilts, just do not handle or perform in a way that closely approximate true rapier blades, and in fact lead to improper techniques. Pretending an epee is a rapier is a sure way of deluding yourself into misunderstanding the real rapier (as well as its cut & thrust predecessors). Using them even in some modified manner only misrepresents rapier combat. Epees are designed for epee fencing they are not rapiers. Although worthwhile on their own, practicing foil, epee, or saber fencing is not going to teach you the use of real rapiers, let alone historical cut & thrust swordsmanship. When we consid er the words of Joseph Swetnam from his "Noble and Worthy Science of Defence" written in 1617, we can see this problem is nothing new:

"Then he is not worthy to be called a Master of Defence, which cannot defend himself at all weapons,__and therefore greatly wronged are they which will call such a one a Fencer, for the difference between a Master of Defence and a Fencer, is as much as between a Musician and a Fiddler, or betwixt a Merchant and a Peddler;_"

But because of the close relationship between sport fencing and the small-sword from the late 17th century, and because of the small-sword's relationship to the rapier, many modern fencers have misjudged each. The small-sword's linear style (standard in fencing's modern version) developed from the rapier's gradual shift to a true side-stance and from the adoption of shorter, lighter blades due to social pressures and fashions, not technical superiority. This has become but one more part of the mythology of modern sport fencing. The adoption of a more sideways posture followed from the need to maximize one's reach with such quick-thrusting weapons. Thus, a stance that did not utilize leading with the rear leg or rely on passing and traversing moves became more prominent. This development also resulted in daggers falling out of favor and the free hand held back. The discarding of daggers may have possibly been due to changing social customs as well. To make the necessary parries and still riposte in-line, small-swords began to be made much thicker at the forte' than rapiers. This was achieved primarily by altering their blade`s cross-sectional shape to a hollow, triangular one (keeping them very light, but making them stronger).

This brings us to the issue of how to proceed with learning and training of renaissance swordsmanship today. Given that fighting is too dynamic and unpredictable to be reduced to preset patterns or pre-arranged motions, no choreographed rehearsing is necessary for martial practice. Although for instructing beginners, a useful training aid for fundamental movements can be through solo drills. Repetition of "routines" of cutting & blocking actions with emphasis on strength, speed, and precision can be useful, but they should not be viewed as an end in themselves. Such practice routines, consisting of only the very basic cuts, parries, and stepping movements, are no substitute for the understanding of principles acquired through sparring and training. Such solo drills are also not the equivalent of the "forms" or "kata" of Asian martial-arts, nor should they be made so. Remember that solo drills or routines are not the art itself, merely a temporary tool. A swordsman must be unrehearsed and free from pred ictable patterns if they are to fluidly apply concepts and use techniques.

Swordfighting is not an overly complicated matter, nor should it be made so. Choose a strong, light, well-balanced sword that you can wield easily. Stand with your weapon in a reasonable and comfortable position, have a training partner repeatedly attack, and simply defend yourself. Have your partner increase the aggressiveness of the attacks and, over time the most efficient and effective ways which to respond will become clear. Further, it will become obvious that the best defense is a good offense, for the adversary can make themselves vulnerable when they attack. Of course, this works both ways (and for defending, as well). Therein lies the fight. The initiative for an attack may be of our own choice of time and place, or prompted by the adversary's action. On a higher level the two can be indistinguishable. Strength and speed are certainly obvious factors, but they are limited ones, which still must be guided and directed by the principles and concepts of fighting. Even measure can be reduced to simplicity -there are really only three types of distance: out of, within, and too close.

But to grasp the correct martial attitude for training, we must practice in earnest. Attacks must be committed with enthusiasm, and speed, and strength. They cannot be made "lightly", "theatrically", or just semi-fast. Of course, to do this requires safety equipment. Serious fencing practice requires much more than drills and exercises. It requires forceful, full-speed free-sparring to the full body target -i.e., contact-sparring. It has been said that the very value of contact-sparring is precisely in the spontaneous, unrehearsed application of realistic techniques by counter-timing -that is, against the sincere actions of an adversary rather than with their active cooperation.

To think we can go in this subject from first doing mock combat sparring based on some limited preconceptions, to then understanding what the real Art was all about, is misguided. This is an ass-backwards approach. What we should and must do, is first redevelop renaissance swordsmanship as a true martial-art. We must reconstruct it as legitimate fighting skills first before we attempt to simulate it with any limited set of pretend rules. Obviously, we cannot (nor should we want to) engage in lethal combat with real weapons. But there are alternatives to just play-fighting. Imagine what the state of traditional Asian martial-art forms would be today if there were no surviving schools or instructors, no Karate or Jujitsu, no Tae Kwon Do or Kung Fu, but only people dressing up and playing with sparring gear. What would be the nature of their skills? Could these people with their narrow understanding be realistically expected to reformulate actual, lethal combat techniques by just pretending at it? Could they go on from this to recreate historical killing arts? Hardly. However, such is the state of much of the stylized sparing that currently passes for renaissance (as well as medieval) fighting skills today.

The efforts of some living-history organizations and historical role-play groups through their emphasis on the romance and fantasy of historical-reenactment have at times, retarded the interpretation and replication of renaissance (and medieval) fighting arts. Similar criticism can be lobbied against the stage-combat community with its traditional misrepresentation of elements that have little or no place either in fighting or in the practice of a true martial-art. But, all this is something that each student of the subject must deal with. Whether as an individual or as a group, the sincere, earnest practice of any martial-art must be at its core a very personal undertaking.

As a fighting tradition in Europe, renaissance swordsmanship became virtually extinct and today, no direct lineage back to historical schools or instructors survives. But through the efforts of scholars and students of the sword our heritage of this Noble Science can and is being recovered. In promoting the art of renaissance swordsmanship today (whether cut & thrust sword or rapier), it encounters three distinct communities: students of traditional Asian martial arts who are predominately unaware of their Western martial heritage; theatrical-combat performers who apparently need to understand how much more there is to the Art than costumed theorizing and role-playing; and modern Olympic/Collegiate fencers who must often be educated that the refined techniques of their sport are not "superior" to the brutal viciousness of the historical art. Modern fencing is a sport, theatrical-combat is an illusion, but Renaissance Swordsmanship is a martial-art. This is the task now challenging practitioners dedicated to recovering and reconstructing renaissance swordsmanship. That we can begin now to fully appreciate and study their works as they meant them is for many a new and exciting prospect. That we can respectfully replicate and practice their skills is the challenge.

John Clements
June, 1997

"-words should be answered with words, and that if things are more serious-there are courts wherein to seek satisfaction. A gentleman must use his sword to defend himself or his property or his Prince and not for any kind of murder. By seeking satisfaction by violence when other courses are available, and by inciting friends to indulge in such violence, we become brutish men, no better than beasts."
"A swordsman should not be so interested in the destruction of his opponent that he disregards his own defence. A Master of Defence is he who can take to the field and know that -he shall not come to any harm."

George Silver Paradoxes of Defence 1599

*A Final Note on Training Today: Many people have asked me for advice on what tools and weapons to best practice with. My answer is that it depends upon what your goal is and the level of commitment you are willing to give it. Typically, I refer inquiries to the ARMA free-play/sparring method. For rapier, I always tell enthusiasts to obtain a quality replica blade. However, these are not always affordable and certainly not very practical for safe sparring. I therefore advocate for sparring the use of schlager blades with historical hilts and advise strongly against the use of sport foils, epees, and sabers. Schlager blades of 37" to 40" are recommended. Archery "rabbit blunts" can be used for safety tips. Several companies now market a range of good schlagers as rapier simulators. For training with cut & thrust swords, once again I say get a good reproduction weapon. This is crucial for the all-important test-cutting practice. In the mean time, an ordinary oak wood dowel of 1.25" diameter makes a good practice stick. Get one that is long enough to reach from about your hip to the ground. If you can obtain an actual wooden practice sword they are ideal. Ones of excellent quality and price can now be purchased. Similarly, stage-combat blunts are also very useful. Both wooden swords and blunts are good for exercises, solo-routines, and semi-contact drills. Finally, for the vital element of contact-sparring, the ARMA padded contact-weapon designs I believe are unsurpassed. After years of training, I sincerely feel that the combination of drilling with wooden swords or blunts, along with padded weapon contact-sparring, and then test-cutting with sharps can give a well-rounded and firm understanding of historical renaissance swordsmanship.

Recommended Equipment for conducting safe rapier fencing:
Absolute required minimum: regulation fencing mask
Strongly advised additional: fencing jacket or padded/quilted jack, gambeson, aketon, etc., weapon-hand glove, shoes or boots, mask/bib tie cord,
Highly recommended additional: free-hand glove, groin protection, knee pads, elbow pads, under mask hood, chest protectors for females.
Optional equipment and clothing: any appropriate period historical armor.
Unallowable and unacceptable items: Loose belts, ties, hangers, slings, straps, loops, rings, etc. Bucklers with prongs, hooks, or bars. Uncovered blade tips.

For cut & thrust contact-sparring (not full-contact) using either wasters (wooden swords) or blunts (dulled, unedged, stage-combat weapons), the following minimal protection is most strongly suggested:
Regulation fencing mask or steel helmet with wire-mesh face
Padded coat/jacket
Metal or leather gorget
Leather weight belt/kidney belt
Padded gloves or armored gauntlets
Metal or leather knee and elbow pads, and groin protection.

* Sparring using padded contact-weapons may also be done without helms or padding, or with them for full-contact.

Suggested Sparring Guidelines (as taken from ARMA): As with other forms of weapon sparring, choice of target areas and effects of thrusts/wounds are a matter for the individuals involved to agree upon prior to sparring. For rapier fencing it is strongly suggested that the full body target be used (including the hand and foot). All thrusts to the torso, head, and neck should be counted as lethal. For true rapiers, slashes, slices, and draw-cuts should not be considered incapacitating or lethal. Thrusts to the arms, shoulders, or hands should be considered to disable the limb. However, no official "time-out" should be set for allowing opponents to switch their weapon from a disabled arm. Wounds to the legs (thigh/knee/shin/foot) should not require the fighter to fight from their knees or from the ground, but should realistically inhibit their freely moving, stepping excessively or lunging. Contest bouts should be decided by either single-hit "kills", or end after 3 consecutive unanswered hits. Fighters sh ould begin sparring at a distance where neither can hit without first having to move to engage. No official delay should be required for following up one legitimate wound with another (you should be free to make multiple hits). Also, the event of simultaneous exchange of hits is a matter of subjective agreement (would either have prevented the other? etc.). Grappling (seizing arms & hilts) should be kept to a minimum, and restricted to light contact above ground (no wrestling, kicking/punching). Touching the mask or head is prohibited except when making a light, open-hand slap to the face in order to simulate that a blow or punch could have easily been delivered. If used, keep the grip very light and very brief to prevent any blade bends or breaks. Actual grabbing of blades should be discouraged or prohibited entirely. Finally, at any time a participating fighter calls "halt" or yells "stop!" all action should cease immediately.


 
 

Note: The word "ARMA" and its associated arms emblem is a federally registered trademark under U.S. Reg. No. 3831037. In addition, the content on this website is federally registered with the United States Copyright Office, © 2001-2016. All rights are reserved. No use of the ARMA name and emblem, or website content, is permitted without authorization. Reproduction of material from this site without written permission of The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts and its respective authors is strictly prohibited. Additional material may also appear from "HACA" The Historical Armed Combat Association copyright © 1999-2001 by John Clements. All rights are reserved to that material as well.

 

theARMA@comcast.net