Ten Reasons Why Longsword Fencing Differs
...So Much from Modern Fencing


By John Clements
ARMA Director

The distinctions between the wielding of a long two-edged doubled-handed sword compared to that employed with the shorter, far lighter, single-hand sporting tools of modern fencing---foil, epee, sabre---are largely self-evident.  However, as a historical swordplay expert the question is occasionally asked of me how exactly they differ. The answer I typically offer is that the difference is quite simple, yet also both profound and subtle in consequence. I also find the question itself an opportunity to address several significant issues within historical fencing studies and the modern practice of Renaissance martial arts.

Part of the reason in the first place for the question of how the two styles differ is, perhaps, because so much perspective has been lost on the subject of swords and swordsmanship. People are unable to place either historical or modern fencing in their proper context. The popular conception of fencing today comes from exposure to the classical styles of the modern sport and the pervasive influence they have had for decades as the basis of most all swordplay in popular entertainment. 

This is a testament to how little is presently understood about authentic Renaissance swordplay and how far there still is to go in reviving the craft. While a comparison can be made between most any types of historical swords, this specific question likely comes up because most people are more familiar with a conception of historical European swordplay through the collegiate/Olympic version of fencing game. In light of the ignorance many modern fencers hold about Renaissance era swords and sword combat, honest attempts to offer contrast and comparison can frequently take the form of criticism.  The effort here a will be in addressing the question as an academic exercise.

Despite the universal elements of timing, range, and perception (of both leverage and action) that underlie all styles of fencing, there are at least ten major reasons why the longsword differs so much from modern fencing’s foil, épée, and sabre. The disparity revealed in this contrast underscores their considerable dissimilarity. Spotlighting these differences I believe can go a long way toward helping understand the place of Renaissance martial arts study today.


There is no question that when exposed to the authentic methods and techniques of the longsword people are very often surprised at how unique its actions are. Its distinct manner of use is then easily discerned in comparison to what they know from modern fencing, regularly witness from choreographed scenes in popular entertainment, or experience in familiar displays of stunt fencing. Any sound attempt to address this topic must therefore begin with one incontestable fact: modern fencing includes no equivalent system of fighting to that of the longsword --- a weapon that is arguably the foundational tool of Renaissance martial arts.

Setting aside factors of associated exercise and drill, what can we note of the major differences between the practice of the late Medieval and early Renaissance longsword compared with that for the tools of modern fencing? In the first instance we are referring to what is now known of the martial practice of essentially German and Italian warswords of the 14th to 16th centuries. In the second case we are referring to the post-Renaissance style of Baroque foil, epee, and sabre dueling sports refined in the 19th century and formalized in the early 20th. Each of these sword groups and their individual manner of use developed under particular military and civilian self-defense environments, with their own particular social and cultural components. Without intending any value judgments, in one instance we have a weapon of war that, in several forms, was intended for self-defense in battle and judicial combat. On the other side we have versions of swords designed strictly for unarmored fighting that are now pseudo-weapons devised exclusively for a sport of gentlemanly mock-duel.  Neither group of swords was ever employed against the other historically (or competitively). They are separated by centuries of change in military technology and self-defence needs.

To best understand the technical and methodological differences between these fencing styles some context is necessary. It is no difficulty to understand that the military and social changes that occurred over the generations influenced designs of swords and affected occasions for sword combat. Longswords, by necessity, faced polearms, shields, two-weapon combinations, daggers, hard and soft armors, in group and individual encounters.  A prerequisite of this time was the ability to both cut and thrust forcibly as well as grapple effectively, whether armored or unarmored, mounted or on foot. In the face of substantially different war technologies, by the 18th and 19th centuries military swordplay deteriorated considerably and atrophied into near vestigial forms from that of past ages. At the same time the sword declined in its battlefield utility, fencing styles became focused more on aristocratic duels of honors emphasizing the mere drawing of blood over the delivery of lethal killing blows in instances of general self-defense.

As greatswords, two-handed swords, and bastard-swords, the long double-handed European sword varied from wide parallel-edged blades suited to powerful cleaving blows, to acutely tapering ones intended for thrusting at stronger armors. Their design was never uniform but varied only within certain limits and their blades came in several cross-sectional geometries that might be flanged or squared. Their hilts might be of a simple cruciform design with long handle or any manner of elaborately ringed bars and contracting grip. (Some version of longswords were even single-edged with clipped points) In their variety they were much like their single-hand cousins, the common arming sword.  But regardless of their form or geographic region of use, over centuries longswords followed a closely similar method of use (the singular styles of immense two-handed great-swords of the 16th century not being in consideration here).  Study of the longsword was historically accomplished by swordsmen working with “sharps,” using wooden practice versions, and relying on special blunt training blades.

In contrast, the three current tools of modern fencing (foil, epee, and saber) have for more than a century existed almost exclusively as sporting versions --- mock-weapons almost incapable of lethal injury. Their highly flexible featherweight forms (two descended from the later rapier or smallsword and the third from a type of light dueling broadsword or cutlass) are far removed from their historical counterparts. They were intentionally devised for scoring safe points in a mock duelling game and serve for all aspects of practice. They were never real swords used for any actual close-combat self-defense. Their system is based exclusively on a regulated single-combat encounter against the same identical weapon. Their limited style of play is restricted to formal actions that at times reward what would otherwise be suicidal to attempt in life or death fights. Even if given sharp points these tools would be difficult to be put into lethal use under open conditions.  It is these distinctions that then bring us to the major ways they differ.

Ten Central Reasons

Here then are ten fundamental reasons I offer for why longsword fencing differs so much form modern fencing:  

    1. Two-handed Actions:  By its nature, using two-hands on a weapon obviously permits (and encourages) more powerful blows that can be instantly deadly. Using two hands on a longer weapon also teaches the fencer almost instinctively to use greater body leverage. This in turn cultivates finding different leverage points against an opposing two-handed weapon than those occurring with a single-handed weapon (especially a slender foyning---thrusting---sword). But beyond this, double-handed control of a weapon affects the way in which it can be torqued around, and thus, the range of symmetrical motions that are permissible. This further influences the ideal form of stances, manners of stepping, and the diversity of fighting actions. Far more so than with actions performed with one arm (or the mere fingers of a single hand), the whole body and the full arm becomes involved to nimbly wield the weapon symmetrically with proper strength.  Correspondingly, the fencer immediately learns to deal with the onslaught of forceful cuts and thrusts deliverable with two-hands on any nearly kind of weapon. Of course, even when training with two-hands on a longer sword the fencer still learns to effectively use the weapon in one hand when necessary. Permitting only one hand on a sword---any kind of sword---eliminates a whole dimension of possible application, as well as the best way to defend against such action.   

    2. Two-Edge Striking: Most straight two-handed sword blades were double-edged. Though this may seem obvious, it is a crucial element in fencing. The significance of this has been horrendously overlooked among modern sword enthusiasts and arms historians. Two edges permit twice as many cuts as a single edge. This goes far beyond mere chopping and hacking. With a long double-hand sword, especially, many cuts are performed with the back of the sword (the “short” edge). It multiplies the strikes possible as well as alters the way leverage and other actions can be employed.  This allows a more versatile combination of techniques to be rapidly delivered. With the longsword either edge may be used symmetrically for any action. There are no similar two-edge actions in modern fencing. With the exception of minor actions by the short false edge on the back the sabre all cuts are performed with the forward leading edge. There are no true doube-edge strikes possible with it given its assymetrical manner of gripping, while the foil and epee do not use any cuts in any form whatsoever.  This removes another whole dimension of application.  (There are also no “slicing actions” in modern fencing whereby an edge is pressed forcibly against a target to produce a slashing wound.)    

    3. Use of the Second Hand:  Another obvious element of fencing with a longsword is that because two hands are used, either hand is employed as needed. This means that as the primary-hand grips the weapon the second hand may let go to thereby knock aside threats, strike blows with the palm or fist, grip the opponent or seize his weapon. Aside from interfering with their freedom of action or even disarming them, the whole arm may be employed in this way to gain a leverage advantage. Such offensive and defensive techniques are integral and intrinsic to Medieval and Renaissance close combat in general. Made with quick and coordinated motions they lead to a diverse and sophisticated repertoire of grappling and disarming moves that make up a considerable component of overall martial prowess. It is impossible to understand Renaissance fencing without skillful use of the second hand in this way. (To do otherwise would be akin to attempting to box with one hand against a boxer using two.)  Modern fencing, by contrast, does not permit any contact of the second hand with the weapon or the body of either combatant. The reasoning for this has nothing to do with combat effective swordsmanship. It instead reflects the later etiquette that grabbing and slapping at weapons, seizing one another’s garments, and striking with the empty hand was unseemly for a gentleman’s duel or “civilized” sport. Though lost to later fencing styles and long misunderstood, actions with the free-hand are especially germane to the longsword. 

    4. Half-Swording: As a weapon, the longsword was never just held by the handle (as is so ubiquitous in modern depictions of historical sword combat within popular media and games.) A common technique with most all Medieval and Renaissance swords was that of “half-swording” --- the grasping of almost any portion of the blade with one or even both hands. Whether for a wide or a tapering blade, a considerable portion of longsword technique in both armored and unarmored fighting consisted of this. Blades were gripped in such a way as to prevent the palm or fingers being sliced open.  In this manner the sword could be instantly shortened for quick forceful thrusts, ward with greater coverage, and held for increased leverage when close in. Managed in such a way the longsword could be easily manipulated as if it were a short staff to press, hit, and trap with either end as well as with the point. It could also be wielded as if it were a spear, a warhammer, or a polaxe, striking (or defending) with the pommel or cross. Quickly transitioning back and forth between such actions provided for a powerful and fluid form of fencing that permitted a dynamic use of leverage. There is no equivalent to half-swording in modern fencing, wherein for reasons of etiquette and sportsmanship participants are forbidden in anyway from touching either their own blade or that of their opponent.

    5. Displacing of Strikes: The historical source teachings on the longsword are unanimous that defensive actions are best accomplished by offensive actions. They recommend the optimal defense as bring a single-time action---a counter-strike that displaces (or breaks) the oncoming cut or thrust. What is most difficult for modern fencers and sword enthusiasts to grasp is the concept of defense found throughout Renaissance fighting literature: simultaneously delivering a strike while in the same motion closing-in to stifle an attack by encountering the opponent’s weapon near its hilt using your blade near its hilt. This action takes into account the force of the strikes that must be opposed as well as the understanding that closing against an attacker is frequently an ideal option. Where counter-striking a blow is not always possible, warding off or setting aside a cut (by receiving it on the flat of the blade, not the edge) is then proscribed. However, passively catching oncoming strikes with a rigid block (common practice in modern fencing) was never advised.   This is the opposite of the simpler “parry-riposte” theory of swordplay that dominates so many forms of fencing now. Statically taking a blow edge on edge, as became standard operating procedure throughout the post-Renaissance broadsword and cutlass play of the 18th and 19th centuries, was simply not taught. Modern fencing, by comparison, relies almost solely on this “double-time” defense with a separate intentional parrying action (derived from the Baroque smallsword, and even deemed a progressive idea). With the modern fencing sabre, whose blade is a mere thin vestigial rod, any portion of the edge may even suffice for blocking cuts. Counter-cuts that displace, whether by meeting hilt to hilt or by striking to the flat of the opponent’s blade, are entirely unknown except for those minor ones that can naturally occur with body motion. The profound change in dynamic that occurs between fencing concerned not with static blocking but with counter-striking and closing in to prevent the opponent’s freedom of action cannot be emphasized enough. 

    6. Binding and Winding: The willingness to aggressively enter in to bind and wind against the opponent’s weapon was a chief characteristic of close-combat in the Medieval and Renaissance eras.  The longsword did not utilize the deliberately restrained parry and riposte so common in modern depictions of swordfights and illusory swordplay found in popular entertainment. Instead, the longsword’s length and inertia were utilized to actively intercept against and around the opponent’s wards, striking to their openings or forcing their defense, the whole time gaging their pressure and controlling leverage blade on blade. All the while, every opportunity was taken to exploit the entire inventory of actions available to a swordsman---forcibly delivering cuts, thrusts, and slices with either edge as well as freely entering in close to use the hilt, grip the blade, and use the second hand. The physical attributes of the longsword and the context of its fighting was not focused on simply gaining range and timing while feinting back and forth in rapid linear attack and parry exchanges without body-to-body contact, as conducted in fencing now.  Rather, binding and winding requires intentionally seeking close contact with the opponent’s weapon and/or body.

    7. Full-Body Action: Full-body action in striking at targets and affecting balance is crucial to all aspects of a fighting art, whether armed or unarmed. In practicing the longsword it is assumed that blows are to be delivered in a lethal manner. Although, it is recognized that due to the quality of strikes, the location of wounds, and differences in physiology and temperate among fighters, not all blows are always immediately debilitating or incapacitating. It is also understood that though blows are to be performed with full speed and force (practiced as if for lethal intent), for reasons of practical safety in training this is not possible at all times.  Nonetheless, there is constant awareness in the longsword fencer of the opponent’s entire anatomy as a valid target and cognizance of what techniques to what locations will produce lethal results. No part of the body is ignored as an invalid target or one that a blow can be received upon without serious consequence. Additionally, an inherent appreciation is developed for how the head-to-toe workings of key joints and muscles relate to leveraging the opponent’s balance at all points of contact. A longsword fencer must always act with purposeful consideration for the mutual use of forceful body contact to gain leverage. To strike with necessary force, the longsword fencer employs passing, traversing, turning, leading with either leg, forceful arm and leg motions, and maintaining a lower stance. The longsword fencer cannot allow his leg to be swept out from under him, his foot or thigh to be stomped on, his knee, groin, or stomach to be kicked, his face struck by a hilt or hand, or his arm and weapon to be grabbed. None of these elements are a concern whatsoever in fencing with the foil, epee, or sabre, where any hit is as good as any other and no awareness of body-to-body leverage (or body to weapon leverage) is cultivated. In modern fencing blade-on-blade play is the exclusive focus of all action. 

    8. Grappling: That grappling (wrestling or unarmed moves) was long an integral component of fencing skills is indisputable. Body contact involving leveraging with both hands and even the weapon itself is an important aspect of armed combat that cannot be separated from the reality of Medieval and Renaissance swordplay. At the closest range disarms, throws, take downs, kicks, hand blows, and seizing and trapping, are employed in conjunction with whatever sword or hand weapon a fighter has. These actions were removed from later fencing only as aristocratic gentlemen came to consider grabbing at one another, tearing at clothing, or franticly clutching at each other’s weapons to be uncouth and ill-suited to a refined activity of mannered deportment. To “hit and not be hit” does not mean to never touch the other person’s body or weapon in the process. Holding and seizing, pushing and pulling, leveraging with arm, knee, leg, and foot are neither primitive nor crude. To employ them safely and effectively demands considerable fencing skills on the part of the swordsman. Excluding them is not an “improvement” of fencing skill but a narrowing de-evolution. Indeed, fencing is at its most expert when these things augment and extend the utility of a sword.  But modern fencing does not involve coming to the ground at any time. The fencers at no time ever learn to fall or to make someone else fall.

    9. Hilt and Gripping: The composition of the hilt on a longsword (typically a simple cross-guard or cruciform shape) is a direct factor of how the weapon is used. The longsword’s hilt was employed as much for offensive as for defensive actions. Its function is more sophisticated than has been commonly presented in choreographed fight scenes and stunt fighting performances. The longsword’s hilt is in no way inferior or less developed than the compound bars and cups attached to later swords. Additionally, such hilts sometimes had side rings and sloped bars, which facilitated in actively catching and guarding against other blades and hilts. Further, there are also several versatile manners of gripping a longsword that permit different actions or allow various techniques. These may involve the placement of the thumb on the cross bar or the flat of the blade, wrapping the index finger around the cross, grasping the pommel in the palm, shifting the grip toward the center of the handle, shifting the weapon to one hand, or holding the weapon by the blade itself. The blade may even have flanges (small protruding spikes) above its cross that assist in binding, winding, and trapping.  None of these central elements is known or of any significance with the style used for modern fencing.

    10. Weight of the Weapon: Longswords were never usually more than 3 or 4 pounds. This was a factor of the need at the time to “use force” and “strike strongly” in close combat. The longsword’s size and mass would seem the most obvious area of difference between it and the tools of modern fencing. Yet, this is easily the least noteworthy consideration. Whether for the tapering thinner form of blade (i.e., a spadone or espée bastardo) or the wider parallel-edged design (a warsword or espée du guerre), the longsword was required to face other diverse weapons and armors, and even multiple opponents. It was expected to find use under any conditions and on any ground, not merely encounter an identical copy of itself in unarmored single combat. The weapon’s weight therefore gives it a distinctly different sense of maneuverability and force, compelling transitions from warding to cut and thrust as well as crossing to close in. This is in turn obliges different stances than the linear L-shaped one of modern fencing.  Contrary to many modern misrepresentations, longsword footwork hardly employed the same identical stepping and lunging of the modern style. As an athletic craft of disciplined violence, the deadly force required in earnest encounters with such robust weapons demanded training to strike with speed, accuracy, and deception. All actions are optimized for incapacitating and debilitating impacts. At no time does a longsword fencer contemplate executing a suicidal attack because they will score a hit a millisecond sooner than their opponent.  Rather, if at any time an adversary is considered still capable of continued lethal resistance, then the fight has hardly ended. The longsword fencer does not drop his guard because he knows he has made an effective hit under a set of rules. It is always assumed a mortally wounded opponent is still entirely capable of striking back. In modern fencing, however, once having made a valid hit on the opponent, with a flexible weapon weighing mere ounces, no effort is made to immediately avoid being struck afterward by an otherwise lethal blow. Such blows are simply ignored.

Contrast in Consideration

The ten points described here combine to reveal something that may serve to summarize the fundamental underlying difference at work: The nature of longsword fencing is about the practice of fighting skills---the study of a martial art. This is self-apparent but it bears clarification.  As in the study of other Medieval and Renaissance weaponry, bouting (or free-play) with the longsword is conducted not as an end in itself but for purposes of developing skill in the craft. As opposed to skill being directed toward a game of scoring points in a mock duel, a large repertoire of the actions in fencing with the longsword consists of techniques which are actually too dangerous or too brutal to safely use in mock combat, but nonetheless must be trained in and prepared for. 

The significance of this distinction, in terms of both the mindset and application of fighting discipline, cannot be understated. It directly affects how a student of the subject approaches its study today. It also shatters the assertion that post-Baroque fencing can serve as a basis for modern study of the longsword. Just as a you would not want to try to fence with the method of the longsword using the weapons of modern fencing, neither would you want to try to wield a longsword with the style of the foil, epee, or saber (though, many have tried and some shamefully still do).

The comparison here, then, essentially comes down to comparing a respected sport with a recovered martial art --- that is, a tactical and athletic competitive game on one hand with a close-combat system for a weapon of war and single-combat on the other. As ideally pursued today, the method employed with the longsword is taken from the direct historical source teachings of Masters of Defense from an era for which the weapon was readily employed in all manner of brutal and savage close-combat.  The fencing style of the modern sport, by contrast, largely descends from those contrived for gentlemanly duels, developed in an age unmolested by the challenges of diverse arms and armors on and off the battlefield. This was then modified into an artificial game.  Whereas the longsword is currently undergoing its own reconstruction process of interpretation and revival, modern fencing has already undergone a considerable process of “de-martialization” (i.e., ritualization, civilianization, and sportification). 

These significant differences help explain why the longsword has in modern times been poorly considered and almost wholly misunderstood, and thus also why its lost art remained for so long unrealized and un-recovered by modern era fencing masters and sword enthusiasts.  With no one who retained its teachings, and few who were attempting to credibly pursue it as a true martial art along in appropriate manner, it is no wonder its distinction from modern sporting styles has been so little understood. 

While the fencing of foil, epee, and sabre have been well-established as casual combat sports for more than a century now, to be legitimately studied again today the rich but entirely forgotten tradition of the European longsword must be approached from the perspective of its historical practice---as a true martial art, not a recreational game.  This fact is all the more obvious when we fully realize the incontestable differences between the two. (This certainty also renders more clearly the reasons why modern fencers have long failed to reproduce the lost teachings of Renaissance combatives.)

Modern styles of fencing originate from those developed during the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, in which defending aristocratic honor and the punctilios of gentlemanly etiquette were the larger concern. The longsword, by contrast, is a product of a Medieval and Renaissance warrior ethos. They each are the product of two very different fencing cultures. This is reflected in the significant difference by which both are practiced.

While modern fencing’s conceptualized gentlemanly duel is a great competitive sport and athletic game with its own respectable lineage, it is not a martial art. It is a version of mock-dueling far removed from its far more sophisticated Renaissance ancestors. While the specialization of fencing actions down into just a handful of possibilities necessary to score a point with flexible practice-weapons in a safe sport can seem like an evolutionary refinement, it is rather an attempt to control the chaos of close combat by minimizing it into a game that can be prescribed rules and boundaries. To elide in this way makes sense when reducing techniques to the specialized needs of a martial sport or the narrow context of a ritualized combat. 

But the commensurate loss of self-defense knowledge that then takes place is the very antithesis of the martial skill required in a broader combat system. It is only because the craft of the longsword has only recently been reconstructed with any accuracy (entirely outside of the community of modern fencing, we must note) that these differences of form (and bio-mechanics) can now be clarified. Such then is the difference between the sport of modern fencing and the historical martial art of the longsword. Understanding this context will permit practitioners of either craft to better appreciate the place of the other in the modern world.

See also:

The Centrality of the Longsword in Renaissance Martial Arts Study


January 2009

 

 
 

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