Some Observations on Engagement Posture With the Rapier

By Brian Kirk
ARMA Houston, TX

The purpose of an engaging guard is to approach your opponent from a position of relative coverage, a thing particularly important to thrust fencing. With the sword alone in one hand, there tends to be less variance in the nature of this position than in other weapon systems. In this article, I will be discussing specifically the posture of the body, legs and feet in these engaging guards with respect to the development of systems dealing with the rapier in its origin and then decline.

The rapier, as a weapon, was invented sometime in the late 1400s, probably in Spain, but it was not widespread or in common enough use to be discussed in a dedicated manual until ~1550. In this context, the invention of a new dedicated rapier style owes its origin to Italy during the 16th Century. From there, the new rapier style would spread to the rest of Europe, as other countries picked up on the popularity of the weapon, owing to its usefulness in urban self defense and dueling, particularly among the burgeoning middle class.

As I mentioned above, I am only interested in the posture of engagement with the single sword, and so, with that in mind, there are a couple of things to remember as you read this article. Firstly, the concept that a sword alone was sufficient for your own defense was fairly rare prior to the 1600s. Most manuals of the 1500s considered the sword and buckler, sword and dagger, or sword and cape to be the more appropriate self defense model. Secondly, the weapons of the 1500s tended to be better at cutting than the later rapiers, and the amount of cutting that you would like to able to do seems to influence your guard of engagement posture. Thirdly, there are often multiple examples of engaging guards in these manuals, and I am only choosing one example, if I feel like it is representative of the master's intent. Fourth, I am not considering arm and blade position in this analysis, even though, theoretically, they both influence body posture. I have to draw the line somewhere in order to make a fair comparison, and as long as the fighters are in a point forward position, I am basically saying they are "close enough." Fifth, it should also be noted that once swords are depicted as being in contact with one another, a great many of the posture differences fall away showing that once engaged, the requirements of combat shift to a more universal truth. Lastly, my hypothesis presents a line of evidence which seems to promote a mostly linear development of the postures I am presenting, but we know that history doesn't actually work like this and that these developments would have actually been highly regional at times. Additionally, keep in mind that the individual manuals are not necessarily responses to all of the other manuals, so the amount that any given master was even aware of what other people were advocating cannot be assumed.

We cannot begin our discussion of the rapier without first considering the origin of systematized presentation of weapon combat in Europe, the longsword. As shown below, in the guard of Posta Breve, the basis of most engagement postures in the longsword is: The front leg is bent while the back leg is straight.

Fiore, Italian - 1404

Fiore, shown above, represents the oldest illustrated longsword manual, but this posture convention is maintained throughout the entirety of longsword use. For a more dramatic and obvious demonstration of the same posture, we can look to Meyer in 1570 and show the basic configuration of his legs, hips, and spine in the accompanying stick figure.

Meyer, German - 1570

Consequently, it must be remembered that there was a strong tradition of this longsword posture happening at the same time as the rapier system was being developed. This same type of posture was maintained by the first example of single sword that we have (as a dedicated subject for a fight manual), Leckuchner in 1486, where we see the left foot in front, for passing footwork reasons, and the body leaning forward over the lead leg. Interestingly, here we see a very open and wide stance.

Leckuchner, German - 1486

We see remnants of left foot forward theory, even with thrusting swords, for the subsequent 100 years or so. For example Henry St. Didier's French single sword manual of 1573 contains mostly left foot forward engaging guards and passing footwork.

Didier, French - 1573

However, by the early 1500s we see the first examples of a primarily right foot forward guard posture in the Bolognese master Marozzo, in 1536. In this case the right foot may be forward, but the posture is still very much the front leg is bent while the back leg is straight:

Marozzo, Italian - 1536

Marozzo and the other Bolognese masters put forth right foot forward guards quite often, but on the whole, they still advocate mostly passing footwork.

Even with Agrippa and his presentation of the first true thrust-only manual in 1553, we see the same trend for his tertia guard.

Agrippa, Italian - 1553
(ignore the dagger)

Marozzo and the Bolognese school were quite influential in the later part of the 1500s, and so it makes sense to see both Mair and Meyer maintaining this same posture in their presentation of the rapier in ~1540 and 1570 respectively.

Mair, German - 1542

Meyer, German - 1570

During the later part of the 1500s we do see some beginnings of a shift in fighting theory with respect to a single sword. In Italy there were a series of masters who explored alternative guard postures. Most famous of these would probably be Di Grassi, who also in 1570, advocated a much more upright posture with the feet much closer together.

Di Grassi, Italian - 1570

And Vizziani in 1567:

Vizziani, Italian - 1567

Additionally we see Lovino in 1580 also support an upright posture with the feet close together.

Lovino, Italian - 1580

The Vizziani and Di Grassi represent good intermediates to what would eventually become fully established as the most prevalent posture of the 1600s, as does Saviolo in 1595.

Saviolo, English - 1595

Heredia, a Spaniard in 1599, then puts forth an engaging posture that is also very upright, like Di Grassi and Saviolo, but adds a straight front leg, which would seem to be one of the first depictions for this configuration.

Heredia, Spanish - 1599

Lastly, during this time, the Spanish Destreza theory was being developed. It too featured a very upright posture as shown by Narvaez in 1599.

Narvaez, Spanish - 1599

Taken together, we can more or less think of this later part of the 1500s as being the "Upright Fencing Era".

However, even during this period there were still some hold outs to the older posture, as evidenced by Cavalcabo manual from 1597.

Cavalcabo, Italian - 1597

However, in the first decade of the 1600s, two manuals would arrive that would produce lasting change for the rest of the 1600s. Whether or not this was a reaction to the upright posture that I just described is difficult to address, but Fabris and Giganti both in 1606 produced two new and different postures, shown below.

Fabris, Italian - 1606

Giganti, Italian - 1606

In these new postures, the forward leg is fairly straight, like that introduced by Heredia, but now the body posture is quite different, either with a strong forward body lean with Fabris, or a backwards lean with Giganti. Giganti, it should be noted, also completely opens up his foot on his back leg. This one aspect will not be as featured in subsequent depictions, as a more perpendicular foot placement is subsequently commonly advised.

These two postures would thus spread throughout Europe as evidenced by the following:

Huessler, German - 1615 (Fabris style)

Von Dietz, German - 1620 (Fabris style)

Alfieri, Italian - 1640 (Giganti style)

L'Ange, German - 1664 (Giganti style)

Pallavicini, Italian - 1670 (compromised style, i.e., somewhere in between the two)

Villardita, Italian - 1670 (Giganti style)

Bruchius, Dutch - 1671 (Fabris Style)

Marcelli, Italian - 1686 (Giganti style)

Bondi, Italian - 1696 (compromised style)

D'Alessandro, Italian - 1723 (Giganti style)

We do see some alternatives to this:

Koppe, German - 1619

Koppe, shown above, looks very close to Vizziani in that he seems to have the double leg forward bend. It should also be noted that Koppe shows several face level guards, and all of these have the more bent posture of Fabris.

Koppe, German - 1619

However, by 1700, we see a new variant, the smallsword posture which will dominate fencing for the next 100 years. The smallsword variant is from a direct line of the rapier line, it is just subtler. There is less backward lean in the guys who lean back, and less forward lean in the guys that lean forward. We also get an almost universal shift in where the left hand is placed, as shown below.

Touche, French - 1670

Liancour, French - 1686

Porath, Swedish - 1693

Schmidt, German - 1713

Sr C, German - 1715

Doyle, German - 1715

Blackwell, English - 1730

Weischner, German - 1731

Eich, German - 1731

L'Abbat, French - 1734

Kahn, German - 1739

Gerard, French - 1740

Le Perche, French - 1740

Angelo, English - 1763

Roux, German - 1798

There are more smallsword manuals of the 1700s than the above list, but for the purposes of this article, I have shown enough of them above to see the general trends in place.

From this, an interesting observation is how the French smallsword of Touche, Liancour, L'Abbot, and Le Perche all seem to take on the posture that originates from Giganti and the later Italians. In contrast, some of the German smallsworders such as Sr.C, Schmidt, and Roux seem to continue the Fabris line seemingly through Bruchius.

Italian to French progression in time (backward body lean tradition):

Italian to German progression in time (forward body lean tradition):

Actually establishing causality in this hypothesis is difficult, as there are lots of offshoots to each branch, but there are definitely some interesting observations which support this. Firstly, Giganti's work was translated into French [1], and Fabris' manual was extremely popular in German speaking lands, with authorized or unauthorized publications dating into the 1700s. Second, it is thought that Schmidt may have studied under Bruchius, [2] (while Bruchius directly references Fabris as an influence) or been otherwise directly influenced by his work, and Roux's content also contains several bits of direct lineage evidence including the use of Caminiren, which is quite particular to Fabris tradition manuals. We also know that French masters of the earliest order seem to have been trained in Italy.

Finally, the above analysis does not really account for any particular techniques or strategies advocated by these masters, as honestly, the vast majority of the content of these manuals is so similar as to make any slight differences irrelevant and probably a matter of personal preference. The only conclusion that I am proposing here is that in the area of body posture at engagement there seems to have been four main approaches: front leg bent & back leg straight, upright, forward body lean (hollow stomach), and backwards lean, these last two making their first appearance in the same year (1606) by two Italians (Giganti and Fabris), and these two men would seem to have had long lasting influence on the postures at engagement for fighters over the next 100-200 years. The same might also be said of the upright Destreza posture, which also had a good 200 year run; it just seems to have had less success throughout the entirety of Europe.

Furthermore, I find it interesting how little Fabris seems to have influenced Italian fencing in Italy. We see zero evidence that his postures were followed by successive masters, and while he usually receives credit for introducing the four hand turn guard system that would become standard everywhere, the other large part of his work, the Proceeding with Resolution (Caminiren) section is not featured in other Italian sources, as so much as I am I aware.

One last note about the forward body lean posture is that it actively promotes an easier passing step by having the left hip more forward than the backwards lean posture. This makes sense, as Fabris line sources often contain Caminiren, as mentioned above, and this requires much more passing than most backwards lean manuals would prescribe, particularly at the onset. This inclusion of Caminiren, even when occasionally the vast majority of the manual is about more traditional fencing, is interesting because it gives you increased mobility at the expense of often squaring your shoulders more to your adversary, something that we can see the backwards leaning people to be actively avoiding. How much giving more profile to your opponent matters is largely related to how comfortable you are using your own left hand for defense. The less you use your left hand, the more the backwards lean posture probably fits what your fencing goals are, and this is probably why it is ultimately more common than the forward leaning posture.

Additionally, when considering different postures, an interesting observation is made when we look at many of the French smallsword manuals. These often like to make comments about how other nations' fencers fight. What is odd is that almost none of the quite extensive list I have provided above suggests that Italians stand in any way particularly different from the French. This makes me wonder if all of those French comments are just propaganda, owing from a little bit of an inferiority complex that all of their fencing is actually Italian in origin; or if there was just a whole other type of fencer who used this other posture, and they just never really got around to writing any manuals about it. The same can also be said of the French comments on the Germans as well, although somewhat weirdly their descriptions of the Spanish seem to be slightly more accurate.

Liancour, French - 1686 - "Italian Guard"

The only figure from any of the Italian images that I have presented above that even remotely looks like this is Bondi, and he is from after Liancour, although not by much (1696 vs 1686). In fact, to my eye, something like the later Frenchman Girard looks more like the above Liancour posture than any of the Italians.

In conclusion, the use of an "engaging guard" is fairly central to how single-handed thrusting swords are described throughout the literature of the later parts of the 1500s all the way through to the 1800s. It is almost always the first article addressed within these fighting manuals. As such, it reflects a relative constant from which to judge fencing trends across nations, as most of the actual sword techniques themselves are pretty standardized by this point. From this analysis, it is my assertion that the two Italians, Fabris and Giganti, were both successful and wide spread enough with their publications to almost single handedly be the source of engagement posture throughout Europe for the next 200 years. We also see that this trend appears to have been the result in an overall shift in the late 1500s away from the forward leaning legacy of the older fighting lineages. Functionally this makes sense as a more loaded back leg facilitates the lunging thrust that most of these later masters were advocating, while the older posture better facilitates cutting through passing footwork.

1. The French book: Croiser le fer: violence et culture de l'épée dans la France moderne, 2002, Pascal Brioist, Hervé Drévillon, Pierre Serna. also noted the seeming relationship between the posture of Touche and Giganti.
2. Schmidt was in Amsterdam at the same time as Bruchius ( and contains recognizable Bruchius terminology and content. The linked article references an 1808 lexicon which has an entry for Schmidt and his connection to Bruchius.


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