John_ClementsThe Classical View of Swordsmanship Becoming Sport

By John Clements
ARMA Director

In 1898, Captain Cyril G. R. Matthey, a volunteer in the London rifle brigade and fencing enthusiast, delivered a biting indictment of the martial value of then modern fencing practices by stating bluntly: “The method of instruction as at present… is so closely allied to the dueling system as to be practically indistinguishable from it and… has seen fit not only to neglect all instruction respecting either the attack or defence of the lower limbs, but has actually gone so far as absolutely to prohibit the attack and defence of any part of the body below the hip.” In his introduction to his reprint of master George Silver’s works on the art of defence, which he had then rediscovered and brought to attention, Captain Matthey forcefully and unequivocally declared of fencing at the time: “I suggest that sword fighting is not taught and that it ought to be. Fencing should be encouraged to the utmost, but fighting should be regarded, as a distinct subject, and of much greater importance in the majority of cases.” (Matthey, p. xviii).

Matthey felt so strongly that fencing in his time, or at least the quality within the British military which was formulated by continental teachers, was no longer a martial art that he suggested: “Why not, having decided upon the pattern of a regulation sword, have drawn up, or have caused to be drawn up, by one of our well-known swordsmen... a simple, common-sense method of swordfighting suitable for service requirements... That such a system can be drawn up, and that there are those who are thoroughly qualified to do it well, there is no doubt.” (p. xiii) That last was undoubtedly a reference to the Kernoozer’s Club of Alfred Hutton and Egerton Castle —the grandfathers of today’s historical fencing studies.

Arguing for creation of a “modern” self-defence method of military “sword-fighting” (in contrast to just classroom and parade-ground fencing), Captain Matthey stressed the necessity: “to dismiss all that to any unnecessary extent savours of the dueling school, and then to teach the smallest number and the simplest of parries that will protect a man from head to foot, and the correct and quickest way of delivering a cut or thrust, coupled with the careful instruction in the judicious use of the left hand in defence, which is now and has long been totally ignored.” (p. xiii)

In an indictment of how much Victorian swordsmanship had declined from the pragmatic and sophisticated martial skills of the Renaissance, he reasonably concluded that Silver’s method “can be still used with great effect, almost without modification, to suit our modern sword.” (p. xvii) In directing the British infantry officer to realistically prepare himself for the possibility of facing natives armed with serious cutting blades —something they had been doing with regularity for decades— Matthey urged a study of the combat tips found in George Silver’s late 16th century works. He advised, “to thoroughly master the simplicities of sword fighting, and on no account to try to persuade himself that an intricate and possibly faulty dueling school will keep his skin whole in hand-to-hand fighting, unless he be already an expert fencer.” (p. xix)

Captain Matthey stated forcefully his disdain for the “complicated parries and movements, which even if practicable with feather-weight dueling sabre, and in the fencing room, become utterly impossible with the regulation sword, and in a fight of the “rough and tumble” order. Such is easily experienced today in practicing Renaissance cut-and-thrust styles with accurate reproduction training weapons and engaging in earnest free-play. The British saber method had been long adopted from Italian styles, and Matthey went on to say, “Given the present infantry regulation sword of sufficient weight and strength to render it as really serviceable weapon, it would be impossible for any man to put into practice the principles which he is now supposed to be taught.” (p. xii) Matthey was not talking about the increasingly vanishing private duel to “first blood” with its associated frequent etiquette and urbane ritual, but the battlefield encounters of British soldiers against what he called “savage native contingents.” Matthey even believed Silver’s Elizabethan teachings would have been of value to officers fighting in the Boer War, if any place, certainly one where they would have proved their close-combat utility.

The esteemed swordsman-historian, Captain Alfred Hutton, himself declared it most accurately when, in his 1898 text on sabre, bayonet, and arm seizes, The Swordsman - A Manual of Fence and the Defense Against an Uncivilised Enemy, he similarly stated, “Those old masters taught fighting, we teach nothing but fencing nowadays.” (p. 129). These sentiments are of course very nearly the same again as George Silver’s centuries before in his critique that the dueling style of the rapier did not prepare Englishmen for the needs of the battlefield. Hutton’s work ends by stressing the need among British colonial soldiers for realistic fighting skills for facing an “uncivilised enemy.”

In his introduction to Captain Alfred Hutton’s acclaimed 1901 work, The Sword and The Centuries, Colonel Matthey declared the old rapier and foyning fence “the most picturesque and most deadly form of fence ever attained.” (Hutton, p. xv)  How he figured it could be deadlier than swiftly lobbing off someone’s limbs with a bastard-sword or shearing completely through their collar and rib cage with a great-sword or war-sword is not explained. Yet, it is consistent with the view that developed in later foyning fences and the pride and prejudice of his times, and we must look at it in light solely of the idea of single combat man-to-man.

Matthey further argued that, “our officers generally would learn properly to understand, and to form a more correct estimate of the value of the weapons they wear as a fighting arm, than with certain almost rare exceptions is at present the case.” (p. xiv) But Matthey was certainly no opponent of traditional fencing, indeed, for he wrote: “As a means simply of promoting health, and as a recreation, fencing of the classic schools, whether French or Italian, cannot be too highly commended, and with simply such objects as these in view all the stringent etiquette of the duel and the extreme niceties of the art of fence should be strongly insisted upon in the fencing room.” (p. xi)

Profoundly, Matthey further declared, “The fact that so little distinction is now made between the swordsmanship of the duelist and that of the soldier must be incomprehensible to the majority of fencers who have given any consideration to the matter as thus defined. Fencing as now taught throughout Europe is made, and always has been, entirely subservient to ‘the duel’, with all its attendant etiquette. This distinction is demonstrated by almost any work (whether of ancient or modern date) upon the art of sword-fencing, and it is moreover a rule to which there are few exceptions.” (Matthey, p. x-xi)  In his 1590 military discourse on weapons, Sir John Smythe had also complained of the unsuitability of rapier blades for the battlefield. noting how being too narrow and hard of temper that with any blow upon armour they did “presently breake, and so become unprofitable.”
Again, we may note that if Matthey made such observations about the relation of sport saber fencing to the real thing back then, at a time when actual weapons were still being issued and experienced soldiers still fencing, it is no difficulty to imagine how greater that gulf is now more than a hundred and twenty years later.

While modern sport fencing, or its “classical” fencing precursor, are each highly athletic and tactical games which anyone interested in historical fencing should participate in at sometime, they are not martial arts. They are recreational. They are not concerned with and do not claim to teach self-defense. They neither use nor study actual historical weaponry as used in battle, street, or duel. They are not focused upon prowess in armed and unarmed fighting technqiues, but on scoring points in contest bouts. Well over a century ago they transitioned away from any actual concern with real fighting with real weapons and they have never looked back. They are not concerned with understanding actual close-combat methods of the past. No one today can seriously argue that sport fencing —with all its artificial restrictions on contact, force, leverage, target areas, spacing, and movement— is even a form of “historical swordsmanship.” No modern source on the sport dares assert now that it is a “martial art” form or that it is ever approached from that perspective.

For further evidence of how 19th century authorities distinguished the reality of military fencing needs, as well as fencing for the duel in contrast to the newer sport for the sallé, one need only consult such works as Bazancourt’s Secrets of the Sword (1862), Burton's rewrite of it asSentiment of the Sword (written in the 1880s, but not published until 1911), Alfred Hutton's Old Swordplay (1892) and The Sword and the Centuries (1901), Matthey's 1898 introduction to George Silver’s reprint, and Egerton Castle’s article on “Swordsmanship Considered Historically and as a Sport” (1904). It is plainly evident in their opinions and observations that their generation of experienced military fencers —who had literally witnessed the emergence of sport fencing— held no delusions about what worked in cordial athletic play as opposed to what real life-and-death encounters required. An 1894 article from The Saturday Review entitled “Fencing and Fighting Circa 1600” went as far as to describe, “That difference between fencing and fighting, between the use of arms in practice and their practical use.” It cited how Johan Jacobi Wallhausen’s, Ritterkunst, of 1616, “a work on the use of arms in battle, not in the fencing school and written by a soldier, not a fencing master… is valuable as illustrating the method of fighting adopted by reiter and dragoon, musketeer and pikeman, at the close of the sixteenth century.” The author then referenced George Silver’s views in adding, “all learning and refinement of these [fencing] schools had to be laid aside in war, and Wallhausen shows us what took their place.” (September 1, 1894, p. 234-235) And he was writing during a time which saw traditional fighting skills with older arms and armor transform in light of new military methods, even as civilian swordplay was changing along with it.

This evidence may appear “Anglocentric,” and that is because it entirely is. In contrast to its continental neighbors of the 19th century, it was the British Empire that was sending its armies all over the globe to engage indigenous inhabitants –who, unlike Europeans, were still fighting effectively with traditional swords, knives, spears, clubs, and bows. The British army’s experiences in East Africa, South Africa, India, Afghanistan, and Asia taught them well the lessons of ill-preparing men for earnest sword fighting by using the “dueling school” approach. As the saying goes, if you don’t use it, you lose it. As did so many that later followed, the pioneering researchers of Asian fighting arts, Donn Draeger and R.W. Smith, criticized the sportification of traditional martial arts as far back as 1968, noting: “Rules and regulations enabling a fighting art to become a competitive sport tend to reduce… combat effectiveness. With this watering-down process combat values weaken, often disappear, and elements unrelated to real combat creep into the exercise patterns.” (Asian Fighting Arts, p.92)

None of this should really need to be explained in the 21st century given the tremendous advancements that have been made in understanding authentic teachings of Medieval and Renaissance swordsmanship. But, despite the considerable advancements made over the past two decades in reviving these martial arts, a new sporting approach concerned with referees and winning points has emerged to complicate their reconstruction. It is worth heeding then the classical view of how swordsmanship was previously turned into a sport and what was lost in the process.



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