The Practical Saviolo - Part 2
This is the second in a series of annotated sections of Vincentio Saviolos His Practise. In Two Bookes. It was originally published in Hammerterz Forum Vol. 4 No. 2. For those who missed part 1 Saviolo published this rapier fencing manual in 1595, it being the first rapier manual written in England. Saviolos manual is written in the form of a dialogue between the Master, Vincentio and his prospective Scholar, Luke. All the moves described here have been repeated with authentic replica rapiers by members of The Stoccata School of Defence, a process that has resulted in numerous revisions of the original interpretation. I have no doubt that we are still ignorant of some of the subtleties of Elizabethan rapier play but this interpretation will hopefully provide a framework for those seeking to resurrect this style of fencing.
I would like to offer my particular thanks to my fellow instructors at Stoccata, Andrew Brew and Peter Radvan whose help has been invaluable in reconstructing these sequences. I would also like to thank Julian Clark of the Finesse Academie of Fence who provided useful comments on my interpretation, particularly of Elizabethan English, and Chris Amberger, Editor and Publisher of Hammerterz Forum, who published the original version of this article.
The action commences as Vincentio has just finished describing the fourth sequence commencing from the extended Low Ward.
L. I praie you therefore tell me if there be any other points in this ward.
V. With all my heart, and therefore I must tell you of an imbroccata in manner of a stoccata, which is verie good and excellent, as well for practise of plaie, as for fight, but they must be most readie both with hand and foot that use it: therefore when the scholler shall find his masters Rapier in this ward, that it bee helde upright or toward his face, then the scholler shall winne ground a little with his right foote, beeing mooved somewhat aside, and withall let him remove with his left foot, that it be toward the right foot of the teacher, and that your right foot be against the middest of his left, as I have said before, and in removing let him turne his Rapier hand, that the pointe bee conveighed under his masters weapon, which being done, promptly and readily his point will be towards the belly of his master, which must bee followed with the left hand, & let the scholler lift up his hand to the ward that his fist be somewhat high, and let him take heed that he loose not his point, because the teacher may give him a stoccata or thrust in the belly or face, for that he hath lost his time.
My initial interpretation of this passage assumed that the word upright meant vertical or near vertical. This assumption made the remainder of the interpretation difficult and it was also difficult to envisage how a rapier could at the one time be held with the point up AND "toward his face". An alternative definition of upright, one used in the 16th century is at full length (OED). Using this definition the remainder of the passage becomes far easier to interpret.
It is unclear whether the Scholar is intended to win ground on the Masters right or on the left? If he moves to the Masters left then his attack will be a punta riversa with opposition. This does not adequately explain the remove with the left foot or the reference to the left hand. If the ground is won on the Masters right then there are two ways that the Scholar can "lift up his hand to the ward that his fist be somewhat high". Firstly he can turn his hand into quarta. I consider this unlikely because it does not close the line. The other alternative, and the one which I favour is that the Scholar raises his hand into an imbroccata position, probably with the hand in seconda. This gives opposition and explains the phrase "loose not his point". If the Scholars "fist be somewhat high" then his point will be "conveighed under his masters weapon" and "his point will be towards the belly of his master". The point will be below the Masters rapier hand an imbroccata "in manner of a stoccata".
Saviolo uses the term "remove" in reference to the movement of the left foot. He only uses the word remove to refer to passes. Therefore it would appear that the Scholars footwork is a step to the left with his right foot followed by a pass forward with his left foot. The reference to the left hand could be referring to a half-sword technique (the hand braces the sword about 3/4 of the way down the blade.) identical to one which Saviolo uses later (24V (19V)) and a technique perfectly suited to a forward pass to a left-leg forward stance. Alternatively it could refer to the Scholar simply raising his hand and guarding his face.
L. But I pray you, cannot the teacher then defende himselfe?
V. He may do the self same, which I told you before, when I spake of the imbroccata delivered above the Rapier, and certainly this is a verie good play when it is performed with good measure, and great agilitie and readines.
"The self same, which I told you before". In other words the Master must use a technique previously described by Saviolo. The last mention of the imbroccata is on 19V (13V). "the scholler must bee readie and nimble to remoove with his left foote, that the point or ende thereof bee against the middest of his masters right foot, turning his Rapier hand, and that his point be in imbrocata-wise above his teachers Rapier,". But this is almost identical to the technique that the Master is opposing. I believe that Saviolo is telling us to use the same response against the Scholars "imbrocata in manner of a stoccata" as he used against the last imbroccata he described. Therefore we need to look to Saviolos response to the technique on pages 19V (13V) which is found on page 20R (14R). "When the schollar removeth with his left foot, the master must steppe backe, but yet in such sorte, that the left foote be behinde the right, and that he remove to the right side, and shall strike a mandritta at the head of the scholler," So the Master pass-traverses back and to the right, striking a mandritta fendente or squalambrato at the head of the Scholar.
So to recap, the entire fifth sequence would be, the Masters rapier is horizontal or near horizontal, held out at length towards the scholars face (essentially a Spanish ward). The Scholar steps forward and to the left with his right foot and then passes forward, thrusting an imbroccata in seconda, possibly at the half-sword. The Master pass traverses back and to the right, striking a mandritta fendente or squalambrato at the head of the Scholar.)
But besides this, I will now shew you the manriversa in this ward. Therefore when the scloer shal find his teacher with his point somewhat at length, that is not towards his face, but towardes his belly, then must the scholler with his left hand beat aside his masters rapier, not at the point, but in the strength and middest of the weapon, and withall must remoove with his lefte foot, both which must be done at once: and let the same foot be against the right foot of the master, as he did before in the foine or imbroccata, delivered above and under the rapier: and the teacher at the same time must doo the like, remooving with his right foote, as I have sayd before. And as the scholler removes and beates aside the weapon, let his left hand be sodainly uppon the ward of his teacher, and in giving the sayde riversa or crosse blowe, let the scholler skilfully turne his Rapier hand, that the knuckle or joynt may be toward the head of the teacher, for otherwise he may give him a slicing or cutting blow, which we call Stramazone: therefore let him perform those things skilfully and at once, and especially let him beware that he doo not beate aside his teachers weapon toward the point, because he shoulde be in danger to receive a thrust or stoccata either in the face or belly. Besides, the scholler, so that he find his teacher in the same ward, that his Rapier bee somewhat at length, & not directly upon the face, may strike the said riversa or crosse blowe at his legs: but beating aside the Rapier with his hande must bee done readily, and hee must remove with his hande in such sorte, that his Rapier when the lefte hand beates it by, may be betweene his owne hand and his teachers weapon: and with this readinesse must he strike this riverso, but withall, his lefte hand must bee uppon the warde of his teacher.
If the Master holds his point extended but too low the Scholar should pass circularly forward and to the left with the left leg so that his toe points at the middle of the Masters right foot. The Scholar will beat the Masters rapier away to the right, striking near the mid point of the rapier. The Master will attempt to pass back with his right leg but the Scholar will try to prevent his pass by instantly stepping forward again with his left foot and grasping the Masters hilt. As he does this the Scholar will raise his hand into the open ward. This will free his blade, which would otherwise have been masked by his own body. From the open ward the Scholar delivers a riverso squalambrato. It is important that the Scholar turn his hand into Seconda as he makes his riverso to parry a possible stramazone countercut by the Master (this presumes your grip was unsuccessful or has been broken.
An alternative action is for the Scholar to allow the Master to pass back and to strike a riverso at the Masters leading leg as he does so - the left. To do this the Scholar must remove his hand to the left immediately upon beating the Masters rapier aside and deliver his riverso on a forward pass with his right foot.
L. But tell mee I praie you, is it not all one if I take hold of the arme of my teacher or adversarie, in sted of laying my hande uppon his warde?
V. No in deede, for if your enemie were skilfull in this art, whilest you catch him by the hand or arme, hee might with his lefte hand seize upon his weapon & put you in danger of your life. So that you must take heed to have all advantage of your enemie, that hee may not in anie sort do you anie harme: in dooing of which, you shall alwaies be to good for him. (In this technique the Masters hilt must be gripped, not his wrist or arm. The Masters hands are close together when the grip is made and he may be able to swap the rapier to his left hand. It is possible to grip the hilt without injuring your hand because it is stationary.)
L. But tell me of friendship, if you take this ward to be good, as well for the fields as the schoole.
V. This ward which I have shewed you, in my opinion, is verie profitable to bee taught, because it breeds a judgement of the time, and a readinesse and nimblenesse as well of the hand as the foote, together with the body: and from this you come prepared to learne other wards with more facilitie, and to have a greater insight and understanding in many things, so that for many respects it is verie commodious, good, & necessarie. Now also for fight, this ward is verie good to bee understood, and to bee fullye had and learned with beeing much practised therin, and made verie readie as well wyth the hand as the foote without loosing anie time: and so much the rather for that we see many Nations use this ward in fight verie much, especially with the single rapier, both Italians, French-men, Spaniards, & Almanes. Wherfore I advise every one to seeke to understand it, learne it, and acquaint himselfe with it, that hee may come to that readinesse and knowledge to doo all at once, without making anie fault or false point in the said ward: by reason of many inconveniences which have chaunced, and which daily chance, which I will speake of when time serveth: but in the meane while we will go forward with this second ward, in which the scholler shall learne to give the stoccata and imbroccata.
L. I thinke my selfe very fortunate that it is my hap to finde you at this time, in so pleasant and convenient a place, where we may passe the time in some discourse under the shade of these delightfull trees, and therefore according to your promise, I praye shewe me your second ward, which I shall be attentive to marke.
V. M. Luke, if all men were lovers as vertue as your selfe is, these things would be helde in greater account, but thorough the love of vices, wherewith men are carried away, they are little regarded, wherefore I wil doo my best endevour to instruct you and all other that are lovers of vertue, imparting unto them that knowledge which God hath given me. Therefore for your better understanding, I will first shew you how this warde is good, either to offend or defend, and cheefelye with the single Swoorde and the glove, which is most in use among Gentlemen, and therefore I advise you and all other to learne to break the thrustes with the left hand, both stoccataes and imbroccates, as I purpose to shewe you.
L. But I praye you tell me, is it not better to breake with the Swoorde, then with the hand? for (me thinketh) it should be dangerous for hurting the hand.
V. I will tell you, this weapon must bee used with a glove, and if a man should be without a glove, it were better to hazard a little hurt of the hand, thereby to become maister of his enemies Swoorde, than to breake with the swoord, and so give his enemy the advantage of him.
Moreover, having the use of your lefte hand, and wearing a gantlet or glove of maile, your enemy shall no sooner make a thrust, but you shal be readye to catch his swoorde fast, and to command him at your pleasure: wherefore I wish you not to defend any thrust with the swoorde, because in so dooing you loose the point (This is a significant passage which emphasises one of the major differences between late 16th century rapier fencing and the smallsword or modern foil. Saviolos favoured method of breaking a thrust is by beating it aside with the off hand. In fact attempting to parry-riposte with the rapier rather than counterattacking gives your opponent an advantage. I believe Saviolo to be correct. In order for parry-ripostes to work you must be able to do two moves with the hand in the time it takes to do one with the feet (i.e. before your opponent can withdraw from his lunge.) This is not possible with a rapier so any response to an attack must be in single time.)
L. But I pray you, is it not good sometimes to put by a thrust with the swoord?
V. I will tell you when it is good to use the swoord: but now I will tell you how to use your hand in that case, and cheefelye in this warde wherewith I will beginne. (Saviolo foreshadows exceptions to the rule):
Therefore if the maister desire to make a good scholler, let him begin in this sorte, causing his scholar to place his right legge formoste, a little bending the knee, so that the heele of his right foote stand just against the midst of his left foote, holding his swoord hand close on the outside of his right knee, with his swoorde helde in shorte, least his adversarye should gaine the same, ever keeping the poynte directlye on the face or bellye of his enemye, and the maister shall dispose of him selfe in the same manner, as well with his foote as with his poynt. (This is Saviolos second ward, henceforward referred to as the Short Ward, another variation on the low ward. This is the older style seen in Di Grassi etc. where the fencers hold their swords close to the body with the right arm almost straight down. The fencers do not have their rapiers crossed in this ward, the main difference between this and the Extended Low ward).
Moreover, you must observe just distance, which is, when either of you stand in such place, that stepping forward a little, you maye reache one another, and then the maister shall make a stoccata to his scholler, going aside somewhat with his right legge, and following with the other in manner of a circular motion towarde the lefte side of his scholler: and so hee maye have the advantage if hee take it, within distance, and the scholler shall remove his right legge in counter-time, after the same order that his maister dooth, answering him with a stoccata to the belly: but hee must take heede not to remove too much aside, or retire too farre backewarde, for so the one shall never hitte, and the other shall never learne.
This is the almost the same as the first sequence in the Extended Low ward. The difference is that the blades are not crossed (it is doubtful as to whether the crossed rapiers are actually engaged in the extended ward) and a cavatione or circular disengage is not necessary. The Master steps forward and to the right with his right foot, followed by a larger step with his left. Simultaneously he extends his arm to strike the Scholar in the belly with a stoccata. The Scholar steps to the right with his right foot, followed by a larger step with his left and counterthrusts with a stoccata to the belly of the Master. The Scholar should take care not to overstep. If he does so his counterthrust will fall short.
Moreover, hee must beware of comming too much within his just distance, because if he hit is adversary, hee may bee hitte againe by his adversarye: wherfore I will teache you how to offend and defend in the same time. As the Scholler parteth in the counter time, hee must in the same instant breake the stoccata with his lefte hande, and aunswere againe with an other: also the Maister to make his scholler quicke and readye, shall use to aunswere him in the same time that his scholler delivereth his stoccata, going aside with his right legge, and following with the other toward the left hand of his scholler, breaking the saide stoccata with his lefte hand, and shall aime the imbrocata at his face, and the scholler must parte also with his right foote toward the lefte side of his maister circularlye, beating the thrust with his lefte hand outward toward the left side, and then he shall in like sort make an imbrocata to the face of his maister, and the maister parting againe with his right foote aside toward the left hand, breaking the saide imbrocata with his lefte hande, shall thrust a stoccata, as I saide before, to the belly of his scholler, and the scholler in the same instant shall parte with a counter-time with his right foote aside towards the lefte hand of his maister, breaking it with his left hand downward, and shall make a stoccata againe to his master, and the maister therewithall shall retire a little with his body, breaking the saide stoccata outward toward his right side, parting with his right foote backward to the left hand, and shall answer with a punta riversa, to the head of his scholler, wherewhithall he shall parte sodenlye, stepping forward with his left legge before his right, turning his point quickly to the belly of his maister, bearing vp the dagger hand, that he be not hitte in the face with a riverso, and so he shalbe well garded: then the maister shall parte with his right leg, offering him a straight stoccata to the head, as in the first ward. As the Scholar counterthrusts at the Master he should parry the Masters stoccata to the left with his left hand. The Master uses the same footwork as before and simultaneously breaks the Scholars stoccata to the left with his left hand and thrusts an imbroccata at the Scholars face. The Scholar circles to the right with the same footwork, again beating the point aside with the left hand and thrusts an imbroccata at his Masters face. The Master moves to the right and breaks the imbroccata with his hand and thrusts a stoccata at the belly of the Scholar. The Scholar again moves to the right, breaks the thrust and launches a stoccata at his Masters belly. The Masters next move is not entirely clear. He may pass back and to the left but that creates problems in interpreting the remainder of the phrase. If we assume that the Master has not taken the second step with his left foot he can instead take a large step back and to the left with his right foot, in effect reversing his last step. He breaks the Scholars stoccata out to his right, counterthrusting with a punta riversa. The punta riversa is chosen for two reasons, to target the unprotected right side of the Scholar and to clear the Masters rapier away from his own hand and the Scholars rapier. The Scholar shall pass forward with his left leg, turning his hand into seconda and thrusting an imbroccata "in the manner of a stoccata" at the Master. The Scholar bears up his dagger hand to guard his face. Finally the Master responds to this attack by traversing to the right with his right foot. Simultaneously he circles his rapier point over the Scholars rapier and thrusts a stoccata at the Scholars face.
L. But I pray you why doo you use so many stoccataes and imbroccataese?
V. Because they may learne the just time and measure, and make the foote, hand and body readily agree together, and understand the way to give the stoccata and imbroccata right: so that these principles are very necessarye, and will serve for the Rapier and dagger, therefore whosoever will make a perfect sholler, let him shew the principles in this warde.
L. I perceive very well, that these things which you have spoken of, are to be doon with great agility and quicknes, but especially by the maister, if he entend to make a perfect scholler, because the maister often putteth himself in danger, and the scholler regardeth him not, neither is his hand firme: and therefore the maister must be respective two waies: in saving him selfe, and not hurting his scholler: but (I praye you) are these thinges as good in fight, as necessary to be practised?
V. I have taught you already how to place your self in this ward, with the just distance and time belonging thereunto.
L. But I pray you instruct me a little further concerning time.
V. As soone as your Rapier is drawne, put your selfe presently in garde, seeking the advantage, and goe not leaping, but while you change from one ward to another, be sure to be out of distance, by retiring a little, because if your enemy be skilfull, hee may offend you in the same instant. And note this well, that to seek to offend, being out of measure, and not in due time, is very dangerous: wherefore as I tolde you before, having put your selfe in garde, and charging your adversarye, take heed how you go about, and that your right foot be formost, stealing the advantage by little & little, carrying your lefte legge behinde, with your poynt within the poynte of your enemies swoord, and so finding the advantage in time and measure, make a stoccata to the belly or face of your enemy, as you shall finde him ungarded. (General strategy: As soon as your rapier is drawn adopt a ward; dont jump around; retire a little out of distance in order to change wards, if you dont a skilful opponent may attack you in the instant of changing ward; if you intend to attack make sure you are in distance and therefore will deliver your attack in time; always manoeuvre with the right foot leading; threaten the inside line of your opponent and attack with a stoccata once you have gained an advantage of line or distance).
L. Are there many sortes of times?
V. Many are of divers opinions in that pointe, some hold that there are foure times, other five, and some six, and for mine own parte, I thinke there are many times not requisite to be spoken of, therfore when you finde your enemye in the time and measure before taught, then offer the stoccata, for that is the time when your enemie will charge you in advancing his foot, and when he offereth a direct stoccata, in lifting or moving his hand, then is the time: (When your opponent is in one of the low wards the best opening attack is a stoccata. The stoccata is most effectivewhen your opponent offers a stoccata of his own, or when he lifts or moves his hand) but if hee will make a punta riversa within measure, passe forward with your left foote, and turn your point withall, and that is the time: (If your opponent thrusts a punta riversa at your right side you should pass forward with the left foot, counterthrusting with opposition. Your counterthrust should be an imbroccata. To do this you should raise your hand and lower your point as you pass forward. You may use your left hand to brace your rapier blade, placing your hand about 3/4 of the way down the blade or you may use your left hand to grip your opponents hilt) and if he put an imbroccata unto you, answere him with a stoccata to the face, turning a little your bodye toward the right side, accompanied with your poynt, making a halfe incartata: (If your opponent thrusts an imbroccata at you then you should traverse to the right with your left foot - a half incartata - striking him in the face with a stoccata.) if hee strike or thrust at your legge, carrye the same a little aside in circular-wise, and thrust a stoccata to his face, and that is your just time: (A cut or thrust to the leading leg is answered by stepping back and to the right with your right leg so that it is level with your left leg or slightly behind it and counterthrusting with a stoccata to the face. Do not draw your body back with the foot, allow it to lean forward as you draw back your leg.) and if he offer you a Stramazone to the head, you must beare it with your swoord, passing forward with your lefte legge, and turning wel your hand, that your point maye go in manner of an imbroccata, accompanied with your left hand, so that your poynt respect the bellye of your adversary, and break this alwaies with the point of your sword, for of all stoccataes, riversaes, and Stramazones, I finde it the most dangerous. (A riverso stramazone to the head is warded with the rapier. As your opponent cuts horizontally at your right cheek you should pass forward with your left leg, raising your rapier into the high ward. However your sword hand should be at head level so that your blade is sloping down at approximately 5-10 degrees. You should brace your rapier with your left hand which should be about three quarters of the way down the blade towards the point. The cut should be borne between your hilt and your left hand and on the edge of the rapier, not the flat. If the ward is done perfectly you will strike your opponent above his sword arm, in the chest or belly with an imbroccata simultaneously with the ward. If the ward is not perfect you should still have time to strike your opponent with an imbroccata immediately after completing the ward. If your opponent strikes vertically at the top of your head your ward should be higher and your point will tend towards your opponents throat.) And remember, that whilste your enemy striketh his madritta, you deliver a thrust or stoccata to his face, for the avoiding of which, hee must needes shrinke backe, otherwise hee is slaine: (If your opponent strikes a mandritta you should thrust at his face with a stoccata which will make him draw back.) and how little so ever your enemie is wounded in the face, he is halfe undone and vanquished, whether by chaunce it fall out that the blood cover and hinder his fight, or that the wound be mortall, as most in that parte are: and it is an easie matter to one which knowes this play, to hit the face, although every one understands not this advantage. And many there are which have practised and doe practise fence, and which have to deale with those which understand these kinde of thrustes or stoccataes, and yet cannot learn to use them, unles these secrets be shewed them. Because these matters are for fight and combat, not for play or practise: but I wil come back where I left. Therfore, when your enemye maketh as though he would strike at your head, but in deed striketh at your legges, loose not that oportunity, but either in the false proffer that he makes, hit him, or carry your foot a little aside, that his blow may hit the ground. (If your opponent feints a fendente at your head and then strikes a riverso squalambrato at your legs you can do one of two things. If you pick his feint you can hit him as he feints, almost certainly with a stoccata. Otherwise you can step back and to the right with your right foot so that his stroke will miss.)
So when you deale with those which thrust their pointes downeward, at the same time strike you at the face: (Against an imbroccata you can reply with a cut to the face - Saviolo uses the word strike which he only uses for cuts - in this case a traverse right accompanied by a mandritta stramazone would seem the most likely.) and when you find the point of your enemies weapon on high, get your point within his, and when you have gotten this advantage, immediatly give him a stoccata or thrust, or else let it be a halfe incartata: and take heed when you deliver your stoccata that you come not forward with both your feet, because if he be skilfull at his weapon, he may meete you with counter-time, and put you in danger of your life: and therfore seeke to carrye your right foot together with your hand, being a little followed with your left foote. (If your opponent lies in the imbroccata ward then maneuver so that your point is threatening his inside line and then launch a stoccata without overcommitting yourself. Saviolo also mentions a half-incartata. As this gains no distance it is likely that he intends this to be used if your opponent thrusts. Alternatvely he could actually mean a full incartata. In either case, the extension offers opposition to a possible imbroccata counterthrust.)
Di Grassi, Giacomo. 1594. His True Arte of Defence, London
Stephen Hand is one of the instructors of The Stoccata School of Defence, a group formed to re-create western swordplay as practiced in fencing schools of the late middle ages and the Renaissance. All swords and rapiers used are blunt, but otherwise accurate replicas of surviving examples. For more information, or to discuss this article please contact
The Stoccata School of Defence
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