Renaissance Swordsmanship
and our Western Martial Heritage


Adapted from Renaissance Swordsmanship: The Illustrated Use of Rapiers and Cut & Thrust Sword (Paladin Press, 1997) by John Clements

When it comes to our Western martial heritage there is a high degree of common myth, misconception, and error that needs to be addressed.  This is the case particularly in reference to Renaissance martial arts and its forms of historical swordsmanship.

At the time, there arose in Europe a distinction between those swords intended for war and those for personal self-defense.  Social forces had begun to allow commoners to not only be able to afford and legally own their own swords, but to wear them in the crowded and expanding cities.  Additionally, the transformation of warfare by firearms and the breakdown of the old feudal order limited the avenues for both redress of personal grievance and exhibition of martial skill.  The result was an explosion in the popularity of dueling.  This in turn caused a renewed interest in the personal "Art of the Sword".  Combined with the new "sciences" then coming into vogue, a systematic approach to studying swordsmanship swept Western Europe.  This was to climax later in the methods of the "cut & thrust sword" and the development of its cousin, the thrusting "rapier" with its unique manner of fence.

Based on earlier Medieval traditions, new schools of swordsmanship sprang up all across Europe in the Renaissance.  Many schools of fence had unsavory reputations as hang-outs for "ruffians and hoodlums".  Still, many well-respected and highly sought-after instructors, or "Masters of Defence" as they were known, became well respected.  In Germany there were numerous "fectmiesters" (fight masters) and long-lived fighting guilds such as the "Marxbrueder" and the "Federfechter".  They specialized primarily in long-swords and two-handed swords and later, rapiers.  Henry the VII made official a consolidated school of fencing (primarily for sword & buckler) as a legal guild in 1540.  Following the tradition of the old English masters-at-arms, it was known as the "Corporation of the Masters of the Noble Science of Defence" (or just the "London Company of Masters").  It specialized in a range of weaponry and had four levels of student: scholar, free scholar, provost, and master.  Italian and Spanish rapier instructors were eventually also among the most admired across Europe.

It is a myth that Renaissance sword fighting used entirely a brutal, artless approach.  Examination of the historical texts and artwork of the period clearly dismisses this prejudice.  Few individuals, outside of historical-fencers and Medievalists, are aware that literally dozens of rare and obscure manuscripts on swordsmanship and fighting arts by European masters still survive.  During their age, Masters of Defence such as Agrippa, Morrozo, Capo Ferro, George Silver, Joseph Swetnam, Fabris, Saviolo, di Grassi, Sutor, Alfieri, and many, many others were highly regarded experts.  They published their methods and teachings in numerous illustrated technical manuals.  These invaluable works present a highly developed and innovative aspect of Renaissance martial culture.  They reveal swordsmanship at the time to be a systematic and highly dynamic art, far from being uniform.

Among the most famous and influential of the works on the earlier cut & thrust method are those of the Italian Masters such as Castiglione in 1528, Mancolino's in 1531, Achille Marozzo in 1536 and Altoni in 1550.  Some of the earlier Medieval German fechtbuchs ("fight books"), such as Talhoffer's of 1443, and Lebkommer's of 1530, also contain elements of cut & thrust techniques in their instructions.  Among the most noted practitioners of the cut & thrust method was the Englishman George Silver, who wrote books in 1598 and 1599 ("Paradoxes of Defence" and "Brief Instructions...").  Silver and his brother, like many Masters of Defence of the time, also taught wrestling, use of the two-handed sword, dagger-fighting, staffs, and pole-arms.  Techniques for grappling and disarming had been a common part of the curriculum in any school of arms since the Middle Ages.

A number of the cut & thrust Masters reveal in their methods the thrusting techniques which were to later develop into the specialty the thrusting or "foining" rapier.  Indeed, many of the early rapier masters must surely have been adept with common cut & thrust swords in the first place. Among the most famous and influential works were some of the first to fully define the new rapier method and it is with it that the greatest Masters are more closely known.  These include Agrippa's treatise in 1553 and Carranza's in 1569, Di Grassi's "His True Arte of Defence" from 1570, Saviolo's 1595 work "His Practice in Two Books", and Francesco Alfieri's "La Sherma" and "La Spadone" of 1640 and 1653.  Some of the most useful dealing with the development of the true rapier are Fabris' "Sienz e Practica d'Arme" of 1606, along with Capo Ferro's "Gran simulacro..." of 1610.  There are of course more than a dozen others, some of which have become favorite influences of practitioners today. Reflecting the diversity of styles and approaches, the Masters of Defence are not always clear in their ideas and even contradict one another.  Yet each offers unique insights.

Most if not all of these works are generally unknown and not commonly available.  Most reference works that cite them in some way interpret their techniques and principles through the distorted bias of modern sport fencing. Other notable works by period masters are to numerous to mention.  Space prohibits doing justice to the individual contributions and unique approaches of all these swordsmen or describing details of their various styles. Sadly, due to historical and social forces, their teachings and skills fell out of common use and no traditional schools of instruction survive today. What is left now of their knowledge in the somewhat overly refined sport of modern fencing, is so far removed from its martial origins as to perhaps only remotely qualify as "swordsmanship".  Modern fencing itself owes far more to the later "small-sword " style of the early 1700's than to anything that came before it.  The small-sword was a viscous little tool descended from the rapier.  It developed a formalized, elegant manner of swordplay that leads directly to today's Collegiate/Olympic sporting form.  Much of modern sport fencing's formalities and etiquette arose in the 1800's and were not even fully established until the turn of this century.  Historical swordsmanship, whether of the cut & thrust form or the rapier, should never be studied exclusively from the limited perspective of modern sport fencing.

Understanding the weapons the Renaissance Masters were using is key to studying the progression of their concepts and techniques of their fighting arts.  The various manuals describe fighting stances and guards (or wards), attacks, evasions, and counter-actions.  They also instruct on targets and parries, and on concepts such as recovery, timing, distance, and judgment. It is vital to point out that historical records do make distinctions between those weapons called "swords" and those versions later called rapiers. Examination of period fencing manuals clearly reveals the transition process from the military cut & thrust sword to that of the urban thrusting rapier. Through exploration of the cut & thrust method, a deeper understanding can be gained of not only the development of the rapier (its descendant and contemporary), but of the cut & thrust sword's Medieval ancestors.  Study of the different forms compliment one another and lead to a broader understanding of the ideas found in the manuals of the great Masters.  The Renaissance cut & thrust sword is a distinct, commonly misunderstood and often ignored style. They were close-hilted "transition" swords that had "evolved" from wider Medieval blades.  The cut & thrust method is a distinct and commonly misunderstood form of sword & buckler and sword & dagger fighting.  It is invariably confused with the rapier as their hilts are very often identical and the transition between them is not completely definite or precise. Fundamentally, they have very different blade shapes.  The rapier at first developed in response to the use of cut & thrust swords, and only later did it find use against other rapiers.

Renaissance cut & thrust swords are a somewhat blurry area with no precise demarcation.  The term "cut & thrust" itself, is a very generalized one, as most swords can fall into this category.  The cut & thrust sword was basically a military weapon.  It can be distinguished from those swords of the earlier Medieval period and from the later slender, thrusting rapier.  They were straight, usually double-edged blades that allowed for a highly underrated form of swordsmanship (against generally unarmored targets).  Its method consists of a versatile and well-balanced combination of penetrating stabs and drawing slices with more classical cutting strikes.  It developed into a methodical style during an age when swordsmanship on the battlefield had begun to lose its dominant role.

The cut & thrust sword is often considered the "transition" weapon (from the Medieval cutting form to the thrusting rapier).  It is essentially a style of sword & buckler and sword & dagger fighting that formed the basis of the rapier's thrusting form.  Although they have different blade shapes than rapiers, they are very often confused with them due to their often identical types of hilt.  Many books on swords routinely misidentify them.  The distinctions between them are invariably overlooked, ignored outright, or else confused with the rapier.  Many modern historical-fencing enthusiasts will train in either a "heavy" Medieval style or else a "light" rapier form, omitting the cut & thrust form in the process.  Often it is just incorrectly considered an early "cutting rapier" and somehow incorporated into it.  While a cut & thrust blade can be used somewhat like a rapier, a true rapier can't be used like a cut & thrust blade.  They were separate weapons with distinct methods. 

The cut & thrust sword also utilized the unique gripping method of "fingering" the ricasso, in which the index finger wraps around the guard to allow forsuperior point control and agility as well as ensuring a better hold.  This highly effective manner of gripping followed from of the ring-hilts developed on late Medieval swords and was also crucial to the later use of the rapier. With its practicality, the renaissance cut & thrust form presents an effective and well-reasoned approach to swordsmanship.  However, while it continued to find use as a field-weapon in war, it was to be eclipse as a personal weapon of urban self-defense by the dueling tool par excellence, the vicious and elegant rapier. 

The rapier was a distinct new form of sword as much as it was a new method of fighting.  Its introduction as a weapon was a gradual process that was highly controversial at the time and often violently disputed. It is considered to be of Hispano-Italian origin and was the first true civilian weapon.  It was itself an offshoot of the cut & thrust sword and became the premier weapon of urban self-defense and private duel from roughly 1550 to 1680.  It was surpassed in this only by the widespread use of handguns.  The rapier was an innovative, sophisticated, and highly effective form of personal combat vicious and elegant in its lethality.  It was strictly a personal weapon, never used or intended for war or battlefield. For most sophisticated gentleman it became a popular martial skill to study.  At first, the rapier developed in response to cut & thrust swords and only later did it find use against other rapiers.  In fact, an understanding of the cut & thrust method is really necessary in order to fully appreciate the significant technical differences between the two.

The depth of the misunderstanding that many now have about the innovative, highly effective and fully developed Renaissance Arte of rapier defence is staggering.  The rapier is extremely fast and its extensive reach is formidable.  Some blades could be as long as 50 inches.  Its powerful, quick thrust is lethal in its penetrating power and can accurately puncture to the face, throat, and especially the hands. A simple stab wound of only a few inches could prove instantly fatal and it intentionally targets the eyes, the heart, and the lungs.  A rapier's thrusting attack is difficult to parry and can not simply be knocked aside.  It has the unique capacity to make incredibly deceptive and agile attacks and the dangerous capacity to renew continued attacks at unpredictable angles, even after parrying slashes of wider cutting swords.  The rapier is quite sturdy and fully capable of blocking heavier swords with either its blade or its particularly strong hilt. Its blade is by no means fragile nor vulnerable to being easily broken or cut. It is able to make strong parries against heavier cutting blades (but for efficiency this is avoided).

Metallurgical technology in Europe had improved to allow for slender, more flexible, yet superbly tempered high-carbon steel blades.  As a sword that emphasizes agile stabbing attacks, the rapier has virtually no edge and cannot be used for the silly slashing despite what is notoriously depicted in film and stage performance fighting.  Doing so would get a fighter killed rather quickly.  It is a thrusting sword.  A few could make simple lacerations, but not lethal cuts. The rapier's blade was usually a narrow hexagonal or flattened diamond shape, incapable of the angle necessary for holding a particularly sharp or deep cutting edge. 

A rapier was virtually always used in conjunction with the free-hand, or either a parrying-dagger, buckler, or cloak.  There was a great variety to parrying-daggers or "main-gauche".  Unlike in the Medieval period, the dagger was held tip and used for thrusting attacks.  The dagger's large guard was held sideways in order to parry or catch blades. A formidable method of dueling with two rapiers, sometimes referred to as "Florentine", also developed.

The nature of rapier fencing does not leave the user vulnerable to oncoming cuts.  Instead, many cuts are intentionally out-maneuvered or out-timed.  As with cut & thrust swords, a rapier duel was fought "in the round" and not linearly as in modern sport fencing.  In back alleys, taverns and street brawls, anything was acceptable (i.e., kicking, punching, grappling, etc.). The rapier produced a lethal method of personal swordsmanship that emphasized agility and finesse over strength and ferocity.  Its practice requires careful practice, aggression, cool-headedness, and quick cunning.  In a skilled hand it is a highly formidable weapon, particularly against those unfamiliar with its virtues.  The rapier also represents one of the most innovative and original aspects of European martial culture.  As a weapon for personal single-combat, it was unequaled for almost 200 years until the advent of the dueling pistol.

Eventually, the long rapier lost favor and declined, as times grew more civilized and orderly.  By the late 1600's and early 1700's it was slowly superseded and replaced by the shorter small-sword, a sort of "rapier-light", more suited to urban wear.  The small-sword was a refined, formalized, aristocratic dueling weapon. As basically a "rapier-jr.", the simple small-sword (court-sword or town- sword) became the gentleman's weapon of choice in duels of honor during an age when the sword as a weapon of war was well pass its prime and an exclusively thrusting-style of swordsmanship (for personal use) had become a form all its own.  The small-sword was much more of a formalized, aristocratic dueling weapon.  This was to later transform into the refined and gentlemanly "art of fence", from which a century later the light, flexible, modern sport versions were first derived. 

The classical small-sword though often disregarded as a weapon of martial study, is a fairly nasty little tool, exceptional quick, accurate, and easy to underestimate.  It was intended more or less for codified dueling and not for facing other weapons (although this did occur).  It is the triangular or lozenge bladed small-sword, and not the rapier, which leads directly to modern sport fencing.  Modern sport fencing has far more in common with this humble weapon than it does with any earlier Renaissance swords.  Understand rapier fighting is about as far from modern sport fencing as Japanese Kendo is from feudal samurai Kenjutsu.  Being heavier, stiffer, and sturdier than today's sporting versions, true rapiers cannot be used in the same flimsy manner as modern sport fencing (and vice versa).  The practiced of rapier fencing today cannot proceed along the lines of modern sport fencing.  Nor should the cut & thrust method related to the modern sport saber, which is itself based only on the use of 19th century cavalry blades.

Modern fencing's pseudo-weapons are much lighter, softer, and faster than their historical counter-parts.  Their contrived rules of play have very little to do with any elements of Renaissance swordsmanship.  The modern fencing foil was never a weapon.  It was invented in the last century as a practice tool for the epee'.  The modern fencing epee' is a 19th century dueling version of the earlier small-sword. Their familiar cup-hilts were also a rarity on Renaissance swords (where they actually did not even first appear until around the 1660s).  While modern sport fencing instruction can indeed teach historical-fencers today useful physical mechanics of movement and form, it is by no means a "higher" form of sword fighting.  It is a specialized sport which observes its own rules and constraints.

Considering the magnitude of false assumptions and general ignorance that most Americans and Westerners have about their European martial heritage, these facts about Renaissance martial arts need to be noted.  It seems a good deal of what people generally believe with regard to Renaissance or Medieval fighting is inaccurate fantasy and Hollywood inspired cliché'.  As well, most of what's commonly presented at Renaissance festivals is notoriously inaccurate and invariably only a form of exaggerated theatrical-combat.  Few historical re-enactment troupes utilize much more than standard sport fencing techniques adopted for heavier stage-combat weapons.  Historical-fencers reconstructing and practicing forms of Renaissance swordsmanship today learn and train though full-contact sparring and through the handling of (and test-cutting with) historically accurate replica blades.  It is far more involved than either the illusions of theatrical stage performances or the limitations of modern sport fencing.  It is important to discern between the practices of costumed theorists or role-players, and earnest students and scholars of the sword.

This brief examination cannot possibly do any more than touch on a subject as diverse and complex as Renaissance swordsmanship.  The numerous historical manuals on the cut & thrust form and the rapier are invaluable sources for techniques and insights into authentic Renaissance fighting skills.  Study of the different sword forms compliment one another and lead to a broader understanding of the ideas found in the texts of the great Masters of Defence. As a fighting tradition in Europe, Renaissance martial-arts became virtually extinct  and today, no direct lineage back to true historical schools or instructors really survives.  But through the efforts of scholars and students our heritage of these "Noble Sciences" can and is being recovered.  For some time, there has been growing movements to actively replicate the skills of the European Masters as legitimate martial arts and help rediscover and promote our rich Western martial heritage.  Today, practitioners of historical renaissance swordsmanship, or "the Arte of Defence" as it was known, are reviving and reconstructing our knowledge and skills of these once sophisticated and highly effective martial arts.  They are not trying to reinvent or merely interpret, but to replicate and rebuild them.  In the process they have succeed in creating a new standard for scholarship and study.

 
 

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