The Art of Well Meaning Error

By J. Clements

It is strange how those who do not study killing arts with real weapons, but only athletic civilian dueling games, will often give "professional consultation" on historical martial arts outside of their own sporting specialties. Often one does not know that one does not know, after all. The following thoughts try to shed some light on this phenomena:

In 1932, Italian fencing maestro Luigi Barbasetti wrote his now famous The Art of the Foil (recently reprinted by Barnes & Noble). While this work by a respected classical fencing expert (who lived in an age where occasionally still lethal dueling was not all that infrequent) has been largely influential to modern sport fencers, it is interesting to today's historical swordsmanship students for other reasons entirely. Barbasetti includes an entire section on historical swordsmanship at the end of his excellent instructions on foil. To those readers who may encounter this re-released book, this essay is a strong word of caution.

Which fighting skills would seem to reflect a more inclusive "martial art"? The gentlemen's dueling sport or the warrior combat craft?

Barbasetti's work certainly holds a trove of fascinating tidbits for the student of historical fencing. But his one hundred-page final chapter entitled, "A Short History of Fencing," is largely the typical denigration of earlier European fencing methods—which were in fact for the most part more sophisticated, diverse, and inclusive martial arts of a much more brutal and demanding era.

In some ways Barbasetti's book is more inclusive than earlier works on fencing history such as those by Egerton Castle and Alfred Hutton. At first, Barbasetti's insights show a fairly progressive understanding and tolerant view towards those systems of swordsmanship from the Middle Ages and Renaissance which by his time were entirely nonexistent. He even goes out of his way to state: "We must beware of applying our standards to an age when the weapons were so different…when one employs the elegant epee, for instance, both the theory and practice of battle differed greatly from the method used in combat with swords." (p. 179)

This obvious, yet no less profound, understanding displayed here is significant and untypical. Additionally, on the same line of thought he later writes: "We cannot emphasize enough that one should consider the customs and institutions of ancient times alone, uncolored by modern usage, while keeping the historical viewpoint in mind."

He rightly continued with: "The duel takes on a totally different character depending on whether the epee, the sabre, the broadsword, the dagger, or even the pole or club is used." (p. 202)  But then, Barbasetti begins to deteriorate into the now familiar 19th century clichés and tired stereotypes about earlier fighting methods of Europe. His broad-minded understanding quickly erodes to be replaced with a series of overly generalized observations on Medieval and Renaissance swordsmanship that are wholly without merit in light of current information on historical weaponry and understanding of fighting manuals. On Medieval fighting Barbasetti revealingly yet erroneously declares: "We have almost no evidence concerning their weapons; and that which we do have is so vague that it is difficult even for one in the profession to decide from their structure and form how they were manipulated." (p. 206)

That these comments were made by a respected fencing expert without study or practical experience with the very weapons, styles, and methods from the varied historical texts he comments on is something that cannot be excused. Just how someone can believe that practicing the epee/foil/sabre game grants some universal understanding of all things surrounding personal self-defence, let alone of large double-handed cutting swords, armor usage, or dagger fighting, is something that would take considerable effort to explain. Still, even today it is an all too common occurrence.

His above statement is a surprising and honest admission of ignorance on his part that reveals a wealth of both his understanding and misunderstanding. Yet, despite this astounding admission, he proceeds anyway to dissect the manuals of Renaissance Masters of Defence as being more or less unsophisticated and crude. His opinion is all the more sad when, in his most extraordinary example of martial ignorance, he later goes on to call the German grandmaster Liechtenauer's influential Fechtbuch "arrant nonsense." (p. 208) Here we have a 20th century sportsman ridiculing a 14th century fighting knight and master of martial arts (who surely fought and killed in war and duel)—a master who's methods and very weapons Barbasetti earlier admitted to finding incomprehensible. This can be likened to a modern Judo coach declaring the samurai Musashi's respected Book of Five Rings nonsense.

As was common for fencing masters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he refers to Medieval single-combat as "undisciplined bouts mixed with wrestling." (p. 210) Interestingly, Barbasetti shows that he did indeed grasp earlier manuals are rare and valuable works on fighting and he realized they espoused a brutal, violent system of fighting which included many useful unarmed techniques. Nonetheless, he offered an array of incorrect statements such as Fiore dei Liberi's manual of 1410 being the "oldest known to us" (odd since on the same page he references Liechtenauer's Fechtbuch as being from 1348). Of Fiore's systematic teachings Barbasetti then admits how to him they seem a "rather complicated manner of combat." (p. 208)

Inexcusably, at one point he also wrote: "We must repeat that fencing equipment had not changed since time immemorial." (p. 201)  Even worse he later he added: "During nearly the entire Middle Ages the weapons and harness seem not to have changed from those of the preceding centuries." (p. 208)  On the one hand then, he seems to declare ancient Rome to have been true martial experts and that nothing changed during the Middle Ages. Yet, on the other contradictorily states that the deadly personal fighting of previous ages was not nearly as distinguished as today's classical sport version.

So, here we have someone who we would expect to know better defining Western "fencing" not as skill in the art of sword fighting or even as a martial art of weapons and unarmed skill, but only in the narrowest terms of what he understands can be done with a modern foil, epee, or sabre. This is bizarre given Barbasetti's prior statements about how he apparently understood how social, military, and technological conditions historically dictate what weapons and armors are used, and in turn produce their own distinct skills. Unfortunately, his tolerance degenerates into a wide array of inaccurate, and in modern hindsight, downright false statements about Medieval and Renaissance sword combat. For instance he declares: "While there was no dearth of masters, they certainly were not of a school that followed precise and general methods." (p. 202)

Despite acknowledging his incomplete information, despite admitting his inexperience with the use of earlier weapons, he nonetheless feels confident enough—as a master of the modern sport fencing tools—to make authoritative pronouncements on the actualities of methods of Medieval and Renaissance sword combat. But even more revealing is how this 19th century fencing master then admits about the techniques of using Medieval and Renaissance weaponry "that which we do have is so vague that it is difficult even for one in the profession to decide from their structure and form how they were manipulated"(!) (Barbasetti, p. 206).

Again, the sad, familiar view appears of modern fencing (i.e., anything after the Baroque smallsword) as somehow being an end-all linear progression to a "higher form" and "truer science" of sword fighting. He further states: "It is easy to understand how this state of affairs prevented the practical development of fencing during the Middle Ages"—as if to Barbasetti "fencing" only means what can be accomplished with a featherweight sporting weapons under limited rules. (p. 204) When he finally discusses swordplay after the 1600s, he is naturally more forgiving of those styles as he now begins to recognize elements familiar to his own craft.

At one point in trying to explain how sabre fencing was not something new, he traces it to older methods of "heavy weapons" (p. 244). We might guess Barbasetti never bothered to actually compare the weight of 19th century sabres with their Medieval counterparts. But then, even as he admits these methods were ones he does not understand he states as matter of fact that the sabre was an "improvement" over them (no doubt because the battlefield conditions were so much "alike" in the 13th and 19th centuries).

One could easily imagine that had Barbasetti more detailed information or experienced fighters at his disposal he undoubtedly would have revised his understanding of historical European martial arts. Had he been able to make use of greater reference material or been exposed to serious students of historical swordsmanship such as practicing today, he would surely have had even greater respect for the fighting skills and teachings of earlier times. He would also very well have been able to place them in greater context with his own refined sport. The sad part is that there are those now, who like Barbasetti in 1932, hold very similar views inspired more by pervasive Hollywood fantasy than by the actual reality of history.

Even for a fencing master writing a short history of Western swordsmanship in 1932, there was a good deal of reliable material on Medieval weapons at the time for those who were genuinely interested. Given his own access to historical weaponry and the information on arms and armor already then available, there is little cause to excuse Barbasetti's prejudices. They are only understandable when we grasp the insulated and limited martial experience surviving in the West which had long been represented solely by the classical sport fencing of foil, epee, and sabre. It is remarkable that this fencing master, after studying the historical manuals and despite so much experience and insight, was unable to discern how older methods represented entirely different and self-contained fighting arts effectively adapted to far more challenging environments. It speaks volumes about the narrow and limited view that a modern fencer often has when faced with anything that is not his familiar style of contrived sport.

Barbasetti was essentially of the view (standard at the time) that modern fencing was a superior and more "evolved" version of swordplay—beyond anything of cruder centuries where professional warriors actually fought one another with an immense variety of arms and armor. Modern fencing has been refined above and beyond the past methods of mere "tricks" supposedly without "fixed rules." By examining the historical treatises, he writes, this "process of progressive transformation may be followed". (p. 224)  Indeed, the idea of pursuing the craft of fencing not for duel anymore but as anything other than as a sport simply did not occur to men like Barbasetti.

In this regard, Barbasetti's condescending remarks on historical swordsmanship seem self-righteous and almost vindictive to one with the vantage point of being a student of Renaissance martial arts. Reading his views one gets the absurd feeling that Western sword arts must have somehow advanced only after everyone finally stopped fighting for real.

We can imagine the notion of practicing historical fighting systems as a "martial art"—that is, with an armed and unarmed self-defence component, a self-improvement and ethical element as well as physical exercise aspect, and an emphasis on heritage and historical exploration all without competitive contests—was apparently just not sportsmanlike enough. (After all, those "tricks"—the things that real fighters typically did in real combat—would be just so "unfair.")  Fencing either had to be for ritual duel of honor or for classroom play; there was nothing conceivable in between.

What is most striking in the opinions of a classical fencing master such as Barbasetti (and if anyone was ever a "classical fencer" it was certainly he) is the implication that earlier Western fighting arts have so little to offer. While we would never hear a Western fencer comment that by comparison their sport was far more sophisticated or refined than the traditional sword styles of Asian martial arts, they have typically not hesitated to say so in regard to antique arts of European heritage. Yet, we know without any doubt that Medieval and Renaissance fighting methods were indeed true martial arts every bit as sophisticated, effective, and highly developed as any of their now popular East Asian counterparts.

So, we can forgive Barbasetti his ignorance on matters wholly outside his knowledge and area of specialty as a "modern" fencing master. However, he is hardly alone in his bias. Today, his legacy continues with a great many proponents of modern fencing sports holding similarly unenlightened views. Of course, given the even greater factual information now available to Barbasetti's heirs and successors, holding some of these opinions is far worse. Why do individuals, such as Barbasetti, presume that expertise in a gentleman's sport of civilian dueling (practiced very differently from its street-fighting roots and incidentally, devoid of the grappling and wrestling intrinsic to such skills) can grant authority to evaluate historical martial arts? This attitude is indicative still today of many experts in forms of classical Western sport fencing. We may wonder what causes this seemingly endemic frame of reference among them. Is it merely because their craft derives from Baroque ancestors that in turn came from Renaissance forebears?

Men like Barbasetti were certainly products of their age. As fencing became more sport-focused in the 19th century, it increasingly lost its military or self-defence value, and those maintaining the "duelling art" did so under conditions increasingly less and less lethal than those of their forebears. They pursued a far more narrow and specialized form of gentlemanly fencing directed toward duels of honor with single identical swords. Increased ritual and sportification happened to fencing as its self-defence and military aspects declined—at the same time the craft became more and more concerned with aesthetic form, ritual, etiquette and competitive pastime. Perhaps understandably, perhaps not, swordsmen such as Barbasetti came to dismiss, denigrate, and ridicule older fencing skills—a craft that they actually no longer practiced, taught, or retained in any significant manner or any preserved tradition. Thus, they simply failed to recognize the true character of earlier fighting arts. As a result, they came to erroneously believe shortcomings in their understanding of it arose only from the deficiencies of the source material itself.

In a certain way, Barbasetti's chapter on historical swordsmanship serves better now to document the origins of modern fencers' own misunderstanding. Since this book is so often cited as influential and important among instructors in the classical and sport fencing community today, then it is no surprise that so many of them hold such dim and uninformed views of historical fencing. The gulf between edged weapon theory and practical reality is always widened whenever historical fighting skills are transformed into rule-enshrined sports. This is no truer than in Barbasetti's views on earlier fighting skills.  For the student of Renaissance martial arts, his questionable chapter is a sobering reminder of how much work still lies ahead.

Originally posted 1998. Revised March 2006.

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