wpe378.jpg (23990 bytes)The Myth of Edge-On-Edge Parrying in Medieval Swordplay

By John Clements 

Some may consider the so-called “edge versus flat parry debate” to be a non-issue and merely beating a dead horse. I disagree. Considering the frequency by which the question is still raised and the countless examples of edge-on-edge blocking found within stage combat, as well as the ubiquitous examples provided everywhere from modern saber fencing to sport kendo and even Star Wars light-sabers, the issue is more an undead zombie horse perpetually rising from the grave. 

Many historical fencing enthusiasts do not grasp the concepts of parrying against cuts with cutting swords as described in numerous Medieval and Renaissance fighting manuals.  These texts teach the concept of defending by counter-striking or by receiving blows on the flat portion of the blade. As will become clear, edge-on-edge parrying was not taught as doctrine.  In fact, defense, or warding of cutting blows, is described in many ways in 15th century fencing texts by many masters and never as a direct resistant block of deliberate opposition of sharp edge on sharp edge (so common in stage-combat and sport fencing and derived from 18th and 19th century methods of swordplay). 

There is a tremendous, if not outright complete, lack of any support for doing so that can be found within any of the source literature (at least prior to the 17th century).  While in contrast, all the assorted fighting manuals on long-swords which we have make it quite clear how to defend against cutting attacks by using intercepting and redirecting counter-blows, or else by covering so that cuts land upon the flat (not edge) of the blade.  As we will see, it isn’t any clearer than that. 

In much of my previous writings on this very subject I have tried to offer an amalgam instruction using a distillation of teachings from various historical sources. Parries in Medieval fencing are not those of either rapier fighting or later forms of European swordplay.  This is probably why, despite hundreds upon hundreds of illustrated pages of longsword fencing, the source manuals show nothing like the direct edge parries depicted and described so clearly in much later fencing styles.  However some enthusiasts remain unconvinced, and this generalized approach is no longer justifiable.  More specific citations and description on parrying from the historical manuals is thus called for.  Without going into great detail here, I will try to offer a small portion of this large volume of often ignored and misinterpreted evidence. [without footnotes or endnotes in this online version] 

I’ve described elsewhere before how defending against cuts was done essentially:

  • By voiding blows through dodging
  • By deflecting blows by hitting them
  • By stepping in to stifle them, or by receiving them on the flat 

durrflt1.JPG (30006 bytes)Parries can be defined as the deflecting or deviating of the opponent's blade before it reaches its target. With Medieval and Renaissance cutting swords this was primarily achieved not by receiving it so that it impacts your own weapon (especially on its edge), but by hitting or beating at the oncoming weapon to knock it off line and away.  The difference is one of defense by counter-striking rather than a rigid blocking or direct obstruction of their sharp edge with yours.  Doing the latter not only leaves you vulnerable and less able to attack, but damages your sword so that it will cut poorly and it produces stress and fracture lines that will eventually cause it to break. 

Nowhere in the Medieval German fencing manuals do we encounter words that mean parry or block as it is defined in later fencing. Rather, we find the word “displace”, Versetzen, as in intercepting and deflecting attacks.  While in the Medieval Italian manuals we see similar terms (for example, coverta or “covering”) meaning essentially, deflection, redirection, and protection. 

In his systematic work of 1410, Flos Duellatorium in Armis (“Flower of Battle”) the Italian master, Fiore Dei Liberi, offered no evidence of any edge-on-edge blocking of cuts for his method of defending with the long-sword.  All his parare’ (“parries”) as we will see, are counter-strikes. In Master Fiore’s system he described impaze as any defensive action to impede, stifle, or bind the opponent’s blade before their blow is completed.  While he called any counter-technique used as a defensive action, a Remedio (i.e., a remedy) or Contrario. 

The later Italian master Filippo Vadi declared, “The art of the sword consists only in crossing, putting both strikes and thrusts in their right place” (Chapter 3, Doctrine of the Sword, Liber de Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, c. 1480).  Vadi makes no mention of opposition blocking of edge blows and like Fiore before him writes expressly to parry a blow with another blow (striking to deflect), even stating that “blows are used to defend” on “both the left and right”.  In the works of both Fiore and Vadi we find the parata di croce or “cross parry” as a counter-strike which defends against the opponent’s blow by hitting their blade on its forte. Yet, what must be understood is that this blow is made with the defender's edge on the flat of the attacker’s blade. Of course, as stated earlier, the ideal “defense” is where you can simultaneously avoid an attack and return a blow at the inherent opening the opponent creates by his own attack.  This is something best understood by observing competent fencers performing it live. 

Like the various German masters, Filippo Vadi described three essential types of parare’.  One type is to strike off their attack with a fendente blow (downward cut). The second, and more challenging, is to do the same when striking upward by raising the sword from a low position and “crossing” their weapon.  His third type of parry is made against thrusts or downward cuts by hitting them with a horizontal sideways blow.  Vadi also described the use of half-swording (mezza spada) techniques as a form of “crossing” parry by closing-in to suppress the opponent’s strike. 

Like Fiore, whose work influenced him, Vadi instructed that with the long-sword you should make parries with a fendente (downward blow).  This makes perfect sense.  Such an action is in keeping with nearly identical German conceptions of counter-striking. Whether to a vertical cut at the head, a diagonal cut at the collar or arms, a horizontal one to the mid-section, or even a low cut to the knee or shin, all of these attacks can be warded with a forceful downward counter blow.  In this manner, neither of the defender’s own edges strikes the opponent’s edge, but rather hit at an angle on his flat (or even vice versa, your flat against his edge).  Again, seeing this demonstrated with steel blades and quick, powerful strikes is entirely convincing. 

For defense, Vadi also stressed the concept of mezzo tempo (“half time”) blows. These were counter-attacks (typically to the hand or arm) thrown in the middle of the opponent’s attack.  When we consider his instructions carefully, we can reasonably understand there is really no other way such counter-strike “parries” could be executed other than in the middle of the opponent's action.  Throwing them either before or after their strike would not be a parry at all but rather a preemptive or a follow-on strike.  Again, his method is consistent with the defense teachings of the German masters.  Vadi did however, also say that left to right upward cuts should all be made as false/back edge blows–which when thrown in proper timing would also deflect an opponent’s own strikes by hitting them aside upon their flat.

In his commentaries from the early 1400s on the grand Fechtmeister, Johannes Liechtenauer’s late 14th century Fechtbuch, Sigmund Ringeck taught, “Beware the parries which only poor swordsmen use” or “Beware of those show-fighters who parry and fight using wide, sweeping motions”.  Following Liechtenauer, Ringeck described the four techniques of Versetzen or Versatzung (“displacement” or “to displace”).  As opposed to an opposition block, this is the concept of a defensive action to put off an attack by a deflecting blow or counter strike employed with evasive stepping.  Fechtmeister Ringeck stated, “you shall get to know the four displacements, which are four strikes”.  Abwenden and Absetzen are two examples of Versetzen. Absetzen was the principle of timed counter attack to deflect a thrust or parry a cut. Essentially, you put the attack aside by a small deflecting motion. Ringeck described the Absetzen or Absezen (“setting aside”) as being: “You shall learn how to set aside strikes and thrusts skillfully, so that his thrust is ‘broken’ and yours hits.”   This simultaneous parry and riposte is the whole idea of Abnemen, or intercepting attacks with your weapon.  These ideals on defense permeate all the Medieval German fencing texts.  Fiore dei Liberi used the term rebatter (or rebatir) to mean essentially the same thing as Absetzen.  Abwenden, or “warding off”, in contrast, can mean a parry by literally striking against the attacking blow to hit it away, but in a manner where your own strike continues on to hit the opponent.

FLAT151.jpg (45574 bytes)Despite what some enthusiasts imagine they see, there are also no edge-on-edge blocks in the various editions of Hans Talhoffer’s fencing texts (c.1443-1467).  As researcher-practitioner Mark Rector notes in his modern version of the 1467 Talhoffer Fechtbuch, “Talhoffer never shows anything resembling static, blade on blade blocks. His setting aside techniques are fluid and dynamic, and naturally lead into counter-attacks.” (p. 12).  In its section on the Langenmesser (“large knife”), the Von Bauman version of the mid 15th century Codex Wallerstein more than once specifically instructs to defend by setting aside blows mit der flech (or mit de Flache) – that is literally, “with the flat”.  For example, plate 65 of the Codex instructs: “If he blows you, deflect with your messer to the side with your flat and on your crosspiece”, while plate 69 states: “one blows you in your head, so set aside with your flat and on your crosspiece, and push his messer on the side”. As modern translator and researcher Grzegorz  Zabinski points out, “Although the phrase versecz mit der kurczen sneid ("deflect with the short edge") appears in the [Codex Wallerstein plates 9, and 10] …it should be understood as deflecting done on the opponent’s flat performed with one's own edge, although one cannot exclude an accidental edge-to-edge contact there.”  (Zabinski, p. 5).  Other instructions in the Codex teach to deflect downward cuts by receiving a stroke on the blade while holding your weapon at half-sword, something only possible by taking the impact on the flat.  Explicitly clear examples of this can be found illustrated within several manuals. 

A 1555 edition of Der Alten Fecter an fengliche Kunst (“The Original Art of the Ancient Fencers”), a Fechtbuch compilation by Christian Egenolph, instructed that with a longsword from the middle position of the Pflug (“plough”) guard you should “displace quickly with the flat so that his sword slips down”.   Thus, the very posture of the Pflug guard is itself a parrying position.  The same can be said of the Ochs (“Ox”) posture, called Finestra ("Window") in Italian. 

According to Egenolph’s material, the high or “roof” guard of Von Tach (Vom Dach) is described as a deflecting counter-strike made from the low Eisern Pforten (“Iron Door”):  “If somebody strikes at you from above take his blow from above with the short edge then step and strike with the true edge.”  By this it means a rising reverse strike that knocks the opponent’s blade out of the way before coming back down to hit them (Vadi’s Rota is a similar technique). When done correctly, the angle it is delivered on will allow it to impact edge on flat.  At one point the text states that if the opponent strikes from up high impetuously (like a Püffel, or “buffalo”), you should then “displace quickly, so that his sword slips down on the flat of your blade”.   It further adds, “If you could not hit him, move your pommel upward and you are protected, too. Let his sword slip down as well and use your advantages.”  Such slipping cannot occur in this manner if the edge is used to receive a blow in this “hanging position”.  The longsword material from Egenolph’s Fechtbuch compilation also described the application of the Hangend Ort (“hanging point” position), the text states: “To execute the hanging guard put the right foot in front, step with the flat of the blade under the face, displace strikes from above short and high, let [it] run down your blade and make a long step with a strike.”  The instructions make clear that the attacker’s blow is to be received on the flat of the blade as part of a counter-cut. 

mf11.jpg (31296 bytes)A significant amount of evidence for defense by counter-blow and deflection in medieval fencing as well as for the use of the flat over edge comes to us from Joachim Meyer’s immense fighting treatise of 1570.  Like earlier German masters, Meyer emphasized that the standard defensive action was Austretten (“stepping out”) –the action of moving away and voiding oncoming blows by either reverse or traversing steps.  In his Chapter 5 on parries, Meyer referred to the traditional methods of Versatzung (displacement) as being Absetzen (“setting aside”) a counterblow with the true edge to knock the opponent’s sword out of the way; and Abwenden (“warding off”) as a cut that simultaneously deflects and counterattacks in the same action.  Meyer also noted which specific strikes were used to ward off attacking blows, stating the diagonal Zornhaw cut, the horizontal Mittelhaw, and the diagonal rising Underhaw (if delivered powerfully with a step forward) could all be used to set off high descending blows. Meyer also noted that the Scheitelhau (vertical downward cut) with the true edge was itself a common opening attack that itself could also be used to ward off diagonal, horizontal and rising cuts. 

This idea is nearly identical to Filippo Vadi’s own volarica in the 1480s –a counter-cutting technique which he called the “jewel of the art”.  This vertical downward cut to the head simultaneously deflected the opponent’s own oncoming strike so that, “in one time it hurts and parries”.  Vadi advised these strikes as among the most important and stressed they required both timing and practice in order to be used.  This timed-strike defense is a familiar action throughout Medieval fencing literature.  In a clear acknowledgement of the difficulty some fencers have of using a downward counter-cut as a simultaneous parry and riposte, Vadi said of the volarica: “Hardly any understand who never did it” and that it brought out the highest “banner of the art.”  It would appear Master Vadi was correct; not much has changed today in that regard. 

Modern students of the craft need to understand that without practice in the ability to deliver correct cuts –not whacking, clubbing hits, or soft, exaggerated, out-of-range swings, but shearing blows with proper edge placement and full-arm extension –they are not going to be able to parry by making intercepting timed-strikes on the appropriate portion of the adversary’s oncoming blade.  (This is yet another reason why in the ARMA we stress realistic intent in our practice). 

PHMflat.jpg (62406 bytes)Most tellingly however, is how Joachim Meyer also described in his text a third form of defense, Auffangen or “Catching” (i.e., a direct static block).  According to Meyer, this was a simple block wherein the opponent’s attack –rather than ideally being deflected off or struck down –was instead stopped by directly interposing your weapon in its path.  Essentially an edge parry of desperation, Meyer acknowledged it was sometimes necessary, yet he clearly recognized that it conferred no particular advantage and even specifically recommended against doing it.  It is this very thing, which he says not to do, that is so frequently employed by unenlightened students of the longsword today. 

Meyer, in his description of the Hengen (or hanging point) technique, an action wherein the oncoming attack is deflected through the rising motion of a cut, described how as “your adversary cuts at you, move up your hilt, so that the blade hangs slightly to the ground, and receive his attack on the flat of your blade”.  Additionally, he instructed,  “Adopt Plow; as your opponent strikes, lift your hilt to catch the blow with your flat.”  As well, for the action of Verschieben he advised, “Adopt Wrath; when your opponent strikes, lift your hilt over your head and catch the blow with your flat.” If edge parries were indeed valid and acceptable as a common way of parrying cuts with cutting swords, we might surely expect that with a technique like the hanging guard they would be advocated.  Yet, here we have at least two different texts specifically saying that the flat of the forte is used with the hanging guard. 

Joachim Meyer ended his section on the long-sword by giving several examples of exchanges of techniques between a student and a master where he specifically cites use of the flat in receiving or setting aside blows as well as striking them down by hitting the opponent’s Starck (forte).  Yet, Meyer never says to hit the edge of the opponent's Starck (in fact, doing so would actually allow the opponent more resistance than if the counter blow were thrown on his flat thereby forcing his wrist to turn).  These unequivocal examples clearly illustrate what is meant today by the concept of “parrying with the flat”.  They are the “smoking gun” of flat parries. 

Meyer’s manual also gives clear examples of several techniques where an attacking strike is received either on the ricasso or cross-guard while closing-in.  For example, in the Kronhaw (“crown cut”) –a form of back-edge blow executed from a high position –he teaches to catch the incoming attack with your true edge with the ricasso: “Stand in the Plow; as your opponent strikes from above, catch him with the Crown; as it hits, push your pommel up to hit him on the head with your false edge.” In the Glietzhaw, or “Clashing Blow”, he teaches to make a right to left counter-cut whereby the right hand comes in pronated (knuckles up) to catch an opponent’s oncoming strike on the flat. You then immediately roll your blade counterclockwise and deliver a false-edge blow.  However, it should be understood that while Meyer’s style did change somewhat from that of earlier schools, his teachings on parrying with the long-sword were not new at all and most go all the way back to Liechtenauer’s in the late 14th century.

Another area that must be addressed is that there are repeated instructions in the Medieval Fechtbuchs to “displace” with either the long (forward) or short (back) edge.   But, as has been described previously, this form of displacement/parry is a counter-strike, not a block and not a blow delivered against the adversary’s oncoming edge. 

DuererFlat2.jpg (32587 bytes)When instructions to “parry” with one edge or another are seemingly given within the source manuals, certain thoughts come to mind. The foremost being, that such action consists of raising the sword into the path of the incoming attack to thus obstruct and stop the oncoming blade. Doing this would certainly result in the blades hitting edge upon edge --obviously not a deflection. This would be an incorrect interpretation. It assumes any instruction to parry by using either the forward or else the back edge means not only a blocking (rather than deflecting) action, but that must somehow mean to also hit the opponent's blade on their edge as well.  Yet, there is no indication we have found of this being the case in any manual and such an interpretation would be inconsistent with all the other teachings to simultaneously hit while parrying with one action.  Trying to deflect by intentionally using the sword-edge aimed at the opposing edge substantially reduces the effectiveness of such an action. While blades may contact at an almost infinite number of possible “angles”, anything like a 90-degree sharp edge against sharp edge obstruction is far from the most efficient. Whereas in comparison, a parrying counter-blow that in one motion dynamically deflects or counters the attacking blade by impacting upon its flat is frequently able to continue on to strike.   

In his section on great-sword in his 1536 fencing text, Opera Nova, the Bolognese master Achille Marozzo also gave instruction to “parry” with either the true or false edge. But with a careful reading it can be seen that he means to counter-strike rather than defend by static resistance and it must be pointed out he does not specify which part of the opponent’s blade should be struck, edge or flat. There does not seem to be any actual edge-to-edge parry in his great-sword teachings. Instead, consistent with earlier works, all his “parries” can be interpreted as defensive actions to maintain the edge or point towards the enemy so as to allow a riposte.   Marozzo also often uses the verb spingere, which means “to push”, hardly a rigid type of block.  In fact, many of Marozzo’s teachings for his light, single-hand, cut-and-thrust, side-sword (spada di lato) only make sense when we understand his counter-strikes are not “one, two” movements but single actions that allow him to simultaneously deflect and cut back.  Marozzo wrote that, “the art of striking is but little in comparison with a knowledge of the parries, which is a fine and more useful thing.”   But just being able to block would not be of much use …unless of course his parries were also simultaneous counterstrikes. 

But still other examples of flat parrying and counter-striking defense can be found in the cutting swordplay of the 16th century.  For fighting with short tapering cut-and-thrust swords there are two forms of defensive actions or parries (parare/schivare) described in early 16th century Italian fencing manuals. One defense is to intercept and deflect an oncoming strike by hitting it with the true or false edge against its forte –but the texts never specify that the attacking blade be struck on its own edge of the forte.  The other defense is to step into the oncoming strike and close with it in order to greet and stifle its blow with your own forte (just as found in Medieval longsword texts). But in no way is this about holding a blade out to receive a hit on its edge.  The parrying instructions found within these manuals, instructing to counter-cut at the opponent’s blade in order to deflect and intercept it, often get misinterpreted to mean allowing them to hit your edge with their edge.  This problem may arise from trying to apply 18th and 19th century methods of fencing with broadswords, sabers, cutlasses, and spadroons to Renaissance weapons. Teaching use of a light tapering short sword, Di Antonio Manciolino in 1531 advised parries be accomplished as quick counterattacks that should be done only with “the half of the sword toward the hilt” (the forte of the blade) and using the falso filo (the false or back edge). He further stated they needed to also be done while advancing so that contact is made against the forte of the adversary’s forte.  By moving forward in this way the oncoming blow is met before it has speed and force.  But, as with other masters, he did not specify at all that this counter-cut parry be on their blade’s edge.

In his 1570 fencing text, Giacomo Di Grassi stated that for the two-hand sword, “It is a general rule, that the true defense of all blows is the low ward.”  This makes sense when we consider it in light of earlier Italian masters teaching parry by fendente blows –all of which end in low wards. In 1579, Heinrich Von Gunterrodt writing on the fencing method within a 12th century German sword and buckler text (MS. I.33, later called the Walpurgis text), noted that ancient fencers “taught protections of every blow or cut, which must be made with counterblows.”  Describing a method suited to any cut-and-thrust sword, George Silver in his much later, Brief Instructions Upon My Paradoxes of Defence, of 1599 wrote repeatedly of “breaking” or “warding” of blows and thrusts.  Silver stated in his Rule 3 that: “the warder has true space before the striker or thruster is in force or entered into his action. Therefore always do prevent both blow & thrust, the blow by true space, & the thrust by narrow space, that is true crossing it before the same come in to their full force…”.  By this he means a defender can step in to close the distance against a cutting blow and stifle its force before it is fully in motion, and to do this by opposing (crossing) your sword against his –something ideally done ricasso to ricasso.  Silver did not use the term “cross” to mean blocking by literally forming a perpendicular intersection with the two swords.  In chapter 8 of George Silver’s 1599, Brief Instructions, he describes under Instruction 25, “Of the short sword & dagger fight against the long sword & dagger or long rapier & poniard” a parry that is completely familiar from medieval manuals.  Silver, who nowhere in his works describes edge parries or direct blocks, states:  “if you ward his blow with the edge of your sword your hand and knuckles as aforesaid, casting out his sword blade towards your left side, this may be used at short or long sword fight.” To ward a blow in this manner as he describes is not a static parry at all, but the usual method of striking away the opponent’s blow with your edge on his flat.  It is no different from similar instructions by Achille Marozzo some 60 years earlier.

In his 1617 backsword and rapier fencing text swordsman Joseph Swetnam also makes no mention of the word “block” or “parry”, but only talks of defending and receiving blows.  In Chapter XII of his, Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence he  “Showeth of seven principal rules whereon true defence is grounded” which states succinctly the principal of counter-striking over blocking: “thou must defend and seeke to offend all at once, for thou must not suffer thy enemy to recover his guard, for if thou doe thou looseth thy advantage.” (p. 74).  In referring to the “true guard for the defence, either of blowe, or thrust, with Rapier and Dagger”, Swetnam just as with other masters, advised to use its edge to parry –since, the true rapier being a narrow rigid blade with little edge, can do this.  Swetnam wrote: “Carrie the edge of thy rapier upward, and downward, for then thou shalt defend a blow upon the edge of thy rapier, by bearing thy rapier after the rule of the Backe-sword, for this is the strongest and surest carriage of him.” (Swetnam, p. 86).  This “rule of the backsword” that Swetnam refers to bares explanation.  Just what it is he never explains or addresses.  But common sense tells us there must be some reason why he specifically refers to a parrying rule for the “back” sword and not simply a rule for “a sword” or “all swords”.  What is it that is special about a backsword?  It has a back.  Unlike double-edged swords it has one side that is thicker and dull and not used for striking cuts (…similar to a rapier).  Thus, it can be used for parrying and likely was employed in this manner similarly to later cutlasses and sabers.

For example, we can consider that Alfred Hutton in his 1889 treatise, Cold Steel, on the use of the sabre (based on 18th century backswording ‘combined’ with the method of Italian foil), advised the following in regard to parrying: “Cut 2 at the right cheek is parried by tierce or sixte, in the later case the blow is received on the back of the sword” (p. 34).  He also added, “From the guard in sixte, drop the point in octave and receive on the back of the sword” (p. 37). 

A proper understanding of parrying with Medieval longswords can thus give a different take on just what later 16th century fencing writers were really saying on the subject of defending against cuts with a cutting blade. 

pkDisplace2.JPG (54900 bytes)As I’ve addressed before, a last area of confusion is that much of the artwork within Medieval longsword manuals can appear to the untrained eye to be two fighters with their weapons crossed or in opposition, one “blocking” the other.  When in fact, the case is invariably that one fighter has attacked and the other is shown in the midst of executing his counterstrike.  At other times, one fighter has stepped in and shortened the range in order to close with the adversary, thereby stifling any strike before it has fully committed.  In this case, it is something that is indeed done with the edge of the sword precisely because it prevents rather than meets a full thrown blow head-on.  For this very reason sword edges at the ricasso were often made extra thick. There are numerous times in Medieval swordplay where pressing edge to edge is used in this way (or even to control the adversary's blade any time you are pressing against it), but these should not be confused with actual parries of forceful cuts. One such technique like this is the Kron, where the fighter steps into the attack and raises his ricasso to intercept and receive the opponent’s downward cut on his edge near the cross guard.  Master Fiore described a counter of this type by stating how “my sword that has received a blow …with the pommel I hurt you in the face”.  In other words, he lifted his blade as he stepped in and closed the distance to stop the blow early and was immediately in range to hit.  But like other masters, he never considered such an action as a parare’, let alone one of sharp edge upon sharp edge. 

mh3flat.JPG (24540 bytes)Finally, it’s important to understand, swords are valuable and sharp edges are fragile, and you don’t and can’t slam two thin, sharp edges together without severely damaging them.  It's simple physics and there is no escaping it.  Perhaps it’s something that is not fully appreciated by enthusiasts today until you've tried it yourself using sharp edges on accurate replicas to see how easily the edges are horrendously gouged and ruined.  After too much of this they will cut very poorly. There are in fact a good number of accounts within historical literature describing this very phenomenon as something bad to be avoided since it destroys fine swords.  Sword expert Hank Reinhardt adds, “If you still can’t understand why a [cutting] sword uses its flat to block, simply go take two large, sharp hunting knives and bang them together full-force on each other’s edge and you’ll quickly see why.”  Not surprisingly, the respected modern Italian replica-sword maker, Fulvio Del Tin, offered this on the subject:  “…It is improper to bang swords edge to edge…it is better to deflect the opponent’s sword.  These people that perform swordfighting in the wrong way…they use swords with full strength edge to edge…I wish that in (the) future many people (will) learn how to do swordfighting correctly, instead of imitating Hollywood heroes.” 

It can’t be ignored of course, that while it is true later 18th & 19th century styles of fencing with broadsword, saber, cutlass, and spadroon did indeed teach to block with the edge of the ricasso on the forte, they tellingly however did not teach to block using the sharp portion of edge on the rest of the blade (significantly, most all of these styles of fencing were also based obstensibly on smallsword fencing, not on Medieval methods).  Yet, H. Blackwell, in his 1705, English Fencing Master wrote, “The ancients parried with their bucklers.  They never parried with their blade.”  Later, he added, “it is [against the] Thrust that I esteem the Parrade [parry] on the Edge, and for no other.” (p. 35).  As well, in the English army’s 1796, Rules and Regulations for the Sword Exercise of the Cavalry, we have a clear examples of a later method that used the flat and not the edge to parry with: “The utmost attention must be paid not to oppose the edge to the enemy’s sabre when it can be avoided.” (p. 28). Further, Frederick Wroughton’s 1830, The Broad Swordsman’s Pocket Companion, instructed that a vertical cut to the head was guarded by a side cut hitting edge on flat, while a cut to the wrist was guarded by receiving it on the flat of the ricasso, and a cut to the left side was guarded by receiving it on the unsharpened edgless back of the blade. 

In considering the parrying methods of later fencing systems, we might well wonder why it is that, while 18th and 19th century fencing writers were so adamant in specifically instructing to parry with the edge, earlier Medieval fencing masters make no mention of doing this?  We should perhaps also further wonder why it is that Medieval fencing masters were very clear in teaching to parry by counter-striking yet this concept is all but entirely missing in methods of these later centuries?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines parry as to “repel, fend off, turn aside”.  Arthur Golding’s 1571 translation of Calvin’s commentaries on the Psalms mentions “Too put backe a stroke by striking it upward, according as wee say in English I had warded his blowe”, while Sir John Harington’s 1591 translation of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, refers to how “As good fensers use to ward and strike at once.”  Yet, reflecting the changing styles of fencing, by 1834 the Encyclopedia Brittanica (7th edition) changed its definition of parry to:  “A parade is a defence of the body, made by an opposition of one's blade to that of an adversary.”

Yet, the issues involved in just why most all later methods of cutting swordplay either lost or abandoned the older methods of parrying defense is a complicated tale and one not possible to properly address here in the manner it deserves.  Suffice to say, it should be fully understood that most all 18th and 19th sabre or broadsword methods were developed for cavalry that had neither armor nor shields, where footwork is irrelevant, and were required to protect the rider as well as the horse. This would naturally entail using direct opposition blocking. 

jw2fltlow.jpg (28155 bytes)As can be seen, this is a complex subject –which explains why modern language composite explanations are often useful. Even a brief outline of parrying in Medieval swordplay such as this can barely avoid having to also begin discussing attacks and basic fighting techniques as well as footwork and stances.  This makes the issue of parrying edge or flat a much more complex one than simply saying, don’t do it because it unnecessarily damages your weapon, or is inferior to more efficient methods of counterstriking that don’t leave you exposed.

Finally, consider that while the details of the descriptions above may change as we acquire clearer translations of the source manuals or amend our interpretations with new insights, the essential core of ideas remain the same: Parries are done by counter-blow deflection or close interception, either edge on flat or flat on edge. There’s no special “wrist turning” involved to use a cutting sword’s flat side in parrying nor do cutting-swords “wobble” or bend when defending in this way.  Indeed, it could be persuasively argued that when proficiently using the correct guards and defensive counter-blows as described within Medieval fighting manuals, it isn’t even possible to deliberately and consistently use a sword’s edge for static blocks (–at least not without actively going out of the way to expose yourself to counter-attacks as well as losing the opportunity for efficient ripostes). 

If a student still doubts that the flat of a Medieval sword was used for receiving blows, it is suggested they try to make a half-sword block by using the edge against a full-force, full speed attack. They will injure their palm in the attempt.  But tried with the flat of the blade they will easily deflect the attacking blow.  If a student doubts that a strong cut can be displaced by another cut thrown a split-second afterwards so that it knocks the other blade away and hits back, they just need to practice harder and longer.  But, without opportunity to offer instruction in sword defense to students in person, all that can be really done is to document the evidence until the coffin of the edge-parry myth with Medieval longswords is hermetically sealed and a stake driven through this undead horse. 

While we continue to look and to revise findings, we’ve found nothing so far in our research and interpretation that supports edge blocking of strong cuts for the use of cutting blades in Medieval and early Renaissance fighting. There is no technique we can find that cannot be performed as a strike edge on flat or flat on edge or as an Einlauffen (closing and pressing) with the forte / edge of the ricasso. It’s been said, you can never really “disprove” something. In this case, the existence of counter-striking defense and flat parrying is not in question. The burden of proof is on those making a claim for edge parrying as a viable action of the historical methods. Unless unequivocal, undeniable proof from the source manuals can be presented for blocking a strong cut with the edge of a cutting sword, I think in light of the evidence, specifically Meyer’s clear statement not to use Auffangen, it pretty much closes the case

As the various terms for parries and concepts of defensive actions within Medieval swordplay can become confusing to enthusiasts, many practitioners start to ask where are the blocks we see in the movies or we learn in modern fencing?  The fact is, they aren’t there!  In their place is something better, something more ingenious, at once more sophisticated and yet far simpler…and therein lies its beauty. In conclusion, I offer the advice that students keep in mind one obvious truth about longswords: The edge is the sharp part for inflicting cuts and delivering blows, not for blocking.  


END NOTE: In a new book on historical fencing (due in late 2002) I include an extensive 45-page article (at last count with 109 footnotes) documenting the evidence from the historical source manuals and literature for parrying by counter-striking or flat blocking.  The preceding material was taken from that larger in-depth article. 

© Copyright 2002 by John Clements.

See also:

On The Edge Of Knowledge - Parrying With A Cutting Sword


On Parrying: Go to Part I, Go to Part II, Go to Part III



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