Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Interpretation of Historical Swordfighting: Beyond the Practical (Part 1)

Fencing practice last night: my Don and I took time to go over some questions I've had about some historical sword-fighting techniques.

1: Some people who practice an Italian style of fighting advocate a stance that modern fighters would consider unusual. The stance involves a stretched-out (some would consider it hyper-extended) front leg, with the knee seemingly locked in place. Some students look at plates in Capo Ferro's manual, and claim that as a guard stance. I've tried it, and I can see how it might be used that way, if the opponent is fighting the same way. The lunge you perform from that stance involved flexing the forward knee a great deal (until its in front of the foot, according to the plate), and and leaning forward. When I was first taught to do it, I was taught you can either take a short step into the lunge, or forgo the step, and lunge from the stationary position (and still gain considerable distance).

The plate in the manual shows a straight leg, with the body tilted back, so that you could practically draw a line up the direction of the leg, up the body (when Guy Windsor demonstrates the stance in The Duellist's Companion, he seems to have his front knee bent very slightly). Most of the weight should be on the back leg (70%, one teacher explained to me), until the lunge (at which point, the majority of the weight would be on the front leg, obviously).

My first weekend practicing this technique, my knees hurt to such a point, I could barely walk. Teachers usually respond to that criticism by reminding us students that swordfighters in the 1500's and 1600's were practicing this every day, and were likely much more flexible, and physically fit. That is absolutely true, but I still had some misgivings about the stance.

When Justinian and I went to see John Clements do a demonstration at the Philadelphia Museum, we started seeing things differently. Clements reminded the audience that the plates in the manuals aren't meant to be taken as gospel, necessarily. They are a point in time, a demonstration of the position you are likely to find yourself in when confronted with a particular situation. Very rarely do we see step-by-step movements (the way you may see with a modern instruction manual, for instance).

The plates and manuals are tools used to aid instruction, not meant to be used in place of an instructor. This seems obvious to us, but its an easy thing for hobbiest-historians to forget when we're caught up interpreting movements and texts for modern audiences. We may be afraid to wander out of a recordable jurisdiction, wanting to stay in a place where we can document every possible movement, so we can defend our thesis.

We saw clements do a demonstration of longsword fighting, and during the demonstration, he took a step back, avoiding an attack, and his stance was exactly that "guard" stance of Capo Ferro's. It was used as a void, just before making a counter-attack.

So, we move to our discussion last night. Justinian and I discuss that guard position. We go into stance, and he encourages me to attack. I lunge in quarte to his shoulder. He leans back, assuming that exact "guard" stance (leg stretched out forward, body back), voiding out of the way of my attack; he then counter-attacks in terza to my chest, avoiding the point of my blade.

So, we seem to have validated the use of that stance as a prelude to an attack, certainly...but not as a guard. He used it the same way Clements seemed to use it with the longsword: as a transitional stance (in this case, as a void), before a counter-attack.

We moved to the manual itself, Capo Ferro's Gran Simulacro. One interpretation of the instructions along with plate 7 seems to verify some of what we were discovering. The description of how an opponent ("C.") should avoid a lunge to the eye:

Yet I also say that if C. should be a wise person, when he cavo [moves the point of the blade in a disengaging-type motion] to finta [feint] with the vita [body] held back somewhat, and D. will surely proceed to strike C. C., having parried by falso [the "back" side of the sword] or by edge from outside of the enemy's sword, will give him a dritto to the face or an imbroccata in such an end he should retire in low quarta.

The above description matches, very closely, that guard/void position we'd been trying to interpret.

2: We expanded our discussion to how to make practical use of the plates. The descriptions with the plates assume very specific, but not uncommon, conditions. The introduction to this series of plates, for example, spells out a particular supposition: "always presupposing the stringere on the inside, and the cavar of your Adversary's point to strike."

Initially, this seems like an almost-useless set instructions. If the plates are only useful showing the particular defenses to a very specific set of conditions, then what use are the plates and instructions themselves? To answer this question, we consider the value of the instructional text as a whole.

Earlier in the essay, I mentioned the notion that instructional manuals are best used as tools, meant to augment instruction. If this is the case, what other attributes does the manual carry? Most instructors will remind students of historical sword-fighting to not fall into the trap of using just the plates for instruction; they are an incomplete set of instructions. Without a solid foundation of certain principals, attempts at instruction from plates are doomed to failure.

The Gran Simulacro is the Master's treatise about misura (measure), tempo (time), and how they relate into movement and striking. Without misura and tempo, none of the movements in the plates have any value. They are elements to which he constantly returns, whether talking about guards, movement, or striking. The plates, and their descriptions, are examples of how to best utilize tempo and measure. They aren't meant to stand on their own; rather, they exist as something of "laboratory testing" for the methodology in the text.

(For my notes on basics of misura and tempo, see my notes from "An Introduction to Italian Rapier," published on the Tadcaster Militia website: http://www.tadcastermilitia.com/publish.html

3: We move from the practical, to the philosophy behind the the technique and manual, to its practical application in the reenactment community.

Consider the Italian master, residing in London, in the late 1500's. The Italian style of sword-fighting is in fashion. The London Masters are not completely pleased by the emergence of so many Italian teachers in London. English masters argue that the Italians are not even teaching a true technique; rather, they are teaching young nobles how to murder each other (Silver writes, "neither the Italians, nor any of their best scholers do never fight, but they are most comonly sore hurt, or one or both of them slaine").

So, here is the equation: young nobles, wrapped up wanting to be in fashion, go to Italian sword-masters. Perhaps they are not there to learn the "true art" of rapier, but rather to learn technique and tricks useful in surviving an impending duel. The Italian, being paid handsomely for his knowledge, obliges. The Italian technique quickly develops a reputation as a series of tricks, as opposed to a true style (such as the more "nationalistic" English techniques of wrestling, staff-fighting, long-sword or halberd, all of which were taught by the London Masters of Defense).

So what does that mean for myself, portraying an Italian master in London? My persona may develop a sense of pride, something of a lower-class celebrity (despite being a rapier-man and an instructor, he is still Catholic...not a notion necessarily favored England at the time). I might participate with the London Masters (or the East Kingdom's loose equivalent, the League of Rapier Academies), merely for my own survival. I would certainly expound upon the mastery of the thrusting-form, as opposed to cutting. And I would demonstrate the mastery of the form by performing in expositions, and perhaps duels.

Practice last night was a full night of examples of historical technique, and how to interpret the technique for both practical rapier instruction and personal development. My hope is to build each lesson in the same manner: move from practical fighting applications to other ways technique can be applied to the reenactment community.

Lorenzo Gorla. CSC. AoA. QHD. Companion of the Silver Gauntlet (Iron Bog). Captain: League of Rapier Academies. Proctor and co-founder: Hawkwood Academy of Arms (an academy of the East Kingdom LoRA).

(c) W. Michael Goodman. 2008.


Larissa Gordon said...

way cool!!!!!! I like this :)

Please include pictures, if not in your blog post in any final draft of this essay.

I have one or two comment to make, but i want to do so after reading it over a few times.

Make sure when its finished you get Ian to post it and Antonio to add it to the East Kingdom Fencing webpage.

Duncan said...

Well written. Good starting point. My only 'criticism' would be the addition of the discussion regarding your persona.

Granted, the two are related. But, as an essay (with the multiple parts), that can stand alone and reach a wider audience.

I would almost like to see two entries. The first being the essay on the interpretation itself, and then a second being reflective of how that work relates to your persona.

Does that make sense?

Take it with a grain of salt, this is just one opinion.