Sunday, September 13, 2015

On Winning


Sorry about the lack of a post last month, I had an event on which I help run every year and then I moved.

Everyone likes to win. Everyone likes the feeling of defeating an opponent and feeling the sense of victory. This is a positive feeling that surpasses many. It is highly addictive as many will attest to. What needs to be noted, and will be demonstrated in this post is that there are really two paths to victory and greatness, and these two paths result in two different results. We should all consider what path we are on and whether or not we are willing to live with the consequences of this choice.

Two Paths to Greatness

To describe these two paths to greatness I will use the philosophies and use the names and headings of two great writers of the Renaissance. The first is Niccolo Machiavelli, and in this I will focus on his famous book The Prince. The other is Baldassare Castiglione, the writer of the famous book of etiquette The Book of the Courtier. Each one will be used to present a different set of principles and a different approach to victory.

1) Machiavelli

"Lisa: ... Ralph Wiggum lost his shin guard! Hack the bone! Hack the bone."
("Lisa on Ice" - Episode 6, Season 6 - "The Simpsons")
The general reading of Machiavelli's The Prince is about a sanguine individual who will do anything to keep his principality alive. Machiavelli is a very practical man and for the most part is about survival. I would encourage all to read his insightful book. However, using the generally accepted view, this discusses anything for a win. The Machiavellian combatant will find the opponent's weakness any way that he can and use it against him regardless of what it is. This combatant is often brutal in his attacks and will exploit weaknesses in armour as well as in defences.

The Machiavellian combatant will be noted for his practical manner of his fighting rather than finesse. While having skill in his method, there will be a lack of flair in his method, and there will be little satisfaction fighting this combatant as his methods will always be focussed on the gaining of victory rather than the pleasure of crossing swords with an opponent. This combatant will be respected for his ability to win, and his fighting prowess, but not respected as an honourable combatant, thus for the most part he will earn notoriety rather than renown for his exploits.

2) Castiglione

"The art of fencing is about gaining control over your own actions. It is about self-discipline. It is mastery of form and technique, which leads to the effective maneuvering of body and weapon"
Maestro Nick Evangelista
Baldassare Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier was heralded as the book of etiquette for the Renaissance gentleman, and is often still referenced for opinions with regard to the subject of gentlemanly qualities. It presents an individual imbued with qualities which will make him the flavour of the upper crust of society, and an all-round generally pleasant individual to be around. I would, as with Machiavelli's book, encourage you to read this book. The Castiglionian combatant will seek a quality engagement with all of his opponents, regardless of their skill level. His focus is not primarily about winning but about the presentation and performance of his skills. This combatant will use timing and precision to defeat his opponents.

The Castiglionian combatant will be noted for his finesse in the manner of his fighting, along with his timing and application. There will be flair and also the correct application of skill, there will be lots of satisfaction in fighting this combatant as his methods will focus more on the performance on skill rather than winning the engagement, and the pleasure of the encounter. This combatant will be respected regardless of whether he wins or loses due to his application of skill, and his method. He will be respected as an honourable combatant and for the most part will earn renown for his exploits.


I have drawn a stark contrast between the Machiavellian and Castiglionian combatants, however at times we will all drift between the two of them. We should all, however, do our best to focus more on the Castiglionian and the gaining of renown as this will last regardless of our victories. Take care in your actions as there is always someone watching. This counts as much in our training and social bouts as it does for tournaments and public events.



Monday, July 13, 2015

How Many Times This Week? A Question of Practice


Practice is something which has been mentioned time and again to us all in many different activities. I have no doubt that if you were to go back through the posts that I have made on this blog that I will have mentioned it many times. For the most part these articles have been focused more upon how a persons should practice and what they should practice. This post will focus on a different point of view on the same subject, frequency.

The first thing that must be said about the frequency of practice is that regular practice is great. It gets your body and mind into a pattern that it can work with and work to. This enables the body and the mind to prepare for the practice and thus be prepared to learn and enhance skills which have already been attained. However regularity is not the only key, there is the question of frequency.

Regularity of practice is only the first step, frequency is also important. Some will decide that only one session a week is all that they can do. This will result in a truly slow rate of progression unless they are doing some substantial work at home. In reality three sessions are required to really improve, more sessions after that are only improving on that. For the most part, many schools run two sessions a week which students are expected to attend. One of these will focus on the learning aspects while the other will focus on the more practical aspects. The third session, the students are expected to make up in solo drills on their own at home.

What you will find is that if you attend one session a week and do no work at home, you will often have to do repeats of skills to truly learn them. If you do one session a week and then go home and do some sort of solo practice on the new skill this will establish this new skill in a rudimentary form in your skill-set. To really establish a skill you will need three sessions and one of these being drills with a responsive partner to find action and reaction. If your school does not have the sessions in the week to do this then it is up to you do make the time.

We all get homework from school and other learning institutions, this is to encourage us to practice what we have learnt so that it will make connections in our brains. Fencing is no different. You need to do work at home between practices to establish skills for yourself. There are some very simple things that you can do to practice fencing at home.

1. Sitting in Stance - Sit on a chair in your usual on guard stance and do whatever that you were normally going to do with the upper part of your body. I have found this usually works best on an office chair in front of a computer.

2. Footwork in the House - Use your fencing footwork to move around the house. This will make the movements natural to you so that you do not have to think about them.

3. Hand and Foot - Move your hand before your foot. This adds on to the previous one, always remember to move your hand before your foot in your actions. Approach the fridge, extend your hand, step closer to it. Approach a bookshelf, extend your hand, step closer to it. Do this consciously.

4. Hanging on a String - Hang a piece of string, attach a tennis ball to it, have a stick the same length as your sword next to it. Every time you pass the stick, pick it up and strike the ball 5 times from proper distance on guard. Once you are striking it more times than not, change it to a lunge. Then shrink the target and repeat.

5. Stationary Target - Cardboard box flattened approximately the same size as your torso. Hang it on a wall. Divide it into quadrants. To start, simply thrust at the box from on guard. Once you can hit the box without missing aim for each individual quadrant. Add footwork once you can strike each quadrant and strike each quadrant on the move, including on a lunge.

These are five simple physical practice elements that you can do so that you can practice solo at home. If you do not have a sword, the weapon can be swapped for a stick of the same length that you would normally use. These drills are simple and apply to all fencers regardless of their level. While the footwork drills are less applicable, we can all use a brush-up now and then.

Exercise the Mind
"Accidents happen", an unfortunate but true fact of life. Regardless of how we protect ourselves injury and illness are only a step around the corner. The result of these is often time off where we cannot do the physical practice which the art of the sword requires, however, there is not an end to it. There is always the mind to exercise.

Studies have shown that individuals who exercise their minds as well as their bodies do much better than those who just exercise their bodies. Reading about the actions of fencing and practicing them in our minds actually goes some distance to assisting us in our training. It familiarises us with the ideas of fencing and the theoretical aspects and these explain the physical. If you cannot go out and actual do fencing your should be at least reading or thinking about it.



Saturday, June 13, 2015

What's In A Name?


We need to be careful about our naming conventions in order that we do not misname our sources. This can become more difficult when we are dealing with foreign names, be they of a different nationality, from a different time period, or even both. This particular issue can result in a misnaming of a source over a long period of time. There are two examples I would like to cite a this point in time, one French, and the other Spanish.

The first is an author who is often referred to as "Liancour". His name is Andre Wernesson, Sieur de Liancour. Someone has taken the last part of his name and thought that this was his surname or family name, because it was the last bit of his name. Incorrect. Liancour, or Liancourt, is a geographical location. Andre Wernesson is the Lord of Liancour. So the author should be referred to in the text as "Wernesson", sometimes spelt "Vernesson".

The second author is often referred to as "Narvaez". His name is Don Luis Pacheco de Narvaez. Once again someone not knowing naming conventions has simply taken the last part of the name and used it as the surname. Once again, incorrect. Again Narvaez is a geographical location. Luis Pacheco, is from Narvaez, and has the title of Don. So the author should be referred to as Pacheco.

In our research into various martial arts and the use of the sword we need to examine the sources carefully, but we also need to look at the authors carefully to make sure that we are naming them correctly. This allows anyone who would follow our research later on to find the same sources and gain the same knowledge that we have gained. Misnaming sources by their authors can cause all sorts of issues in finding the sources for other readers and researchers. This could lead them to believe that the source does not exist and even question the research. Take care in your research, and give credit where credit is due, and to the correct author.



Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Watch Your Assumptions


We all come to fencing through different paths and from different backgrounds. Some come from sport fencing backgrounds, some come from oriental martial arts. The result of this is that well all carry a certain amount of "baggage" with us. A certain amount where we read something and rather than going off exactly what is read we assume that we know what is being said based on our previous knowledge. This can lead us into issues.

We must remember to read the manuals that we are reading and read them with a similar perspective to the one which the writer wrote them. For example: in the case of an Elizabethan manual, it is important that late Italian knowledge is not read into it, or even later. This can often happen as a result of our history and our background and thus our assumptions. The classical fencer, with his foil and epee has four distinct parries which he remembers. The rapier combatant may use actions which may in part be similar to these but the actions may not be named or used in the same way. If the classical fencer reads these parries into a rapier manual then he can find himself horribly confused. We must ensure that we do not put anachronistic terms, theories and practices into a manual as it will cause problems with the interpretation.

This particular situation became most evident for me when teaching a class on di Grassi, and more to the point his single sword. This would seem to be relatively simple except my own assumptions got the better of me and began to cause issues. Giacomo di Grassi states:
For the defence whereof it is needefull that he ſtand at the lowe warde, and as the thruſt cometh, that he encounter it without, with the edge of the ſword, and increaſe a ſlope pace forward, with the hinder foote at the verie ſame time, by which pace he moueth out of the ſtraight line, and paſſeth on the right ſide of the enimie. And he muſt remember to beare alwaies the poynt of the ſword toward the enimie: So that the enimie in comming forwardes, ether runneth himſelfe on the ſword, which may eaſely happen, and ſo much the rather, when he commeth reſolutelie determined to ſtrike, or elſe if he come not ſo farre forwardes that he encountereth the ſword, yet he may be ſafelie ſtroken, with the encreaſe of a ſtreight pace:
So my first reading, all assumptions engaged stated this: Parry the sword in third with a slope pace forward with the hind foot with the point toward the enemy, which he should run upon. If he does not move forward to strike if he does not. Easy, right? Wrong. Problem here is that with a parry of third, the point tends to be a little high, so there are hilt issues with the opponent's weapon coming in at the downward angle from the High Ward. This did not result in the nice clean execution that di Grassi describes at all. Working through it again, if the thrust from the High Ward is encountered with the blade of the sword in the fashion of a cut, a mandritta tondo, not a parry, the action works much more cleanly.

Be careful about when you are reading and interpreting the manuals and figure out what your assumptions are before they make a mess of things. Or at least be aware of them so that you can understand them and so that you can fix them. Manuals need to be evaluated from the point of view of the time in which they were written and using the terms from when they were written. Mistakes such as these were made by many fencing historians, it would be best for us not to repeat them and gain a greater understanding of these works.



Monday, April 13, 2015

The Myth of Speed


Interested in learning how to be amazingly fast, performing actions faster than your opponents? Do you want to know the secrets? Unfortunately the secrets are not really secrets. In fact, there are no secret methods or practices to make you faster. It comes from practice.

Now, it is true that muscle use does have a part to play and this has an effect upon the skill being performed, but where the muscles end the hard work begins. There is only a finite amount of power that can be added to an action before it starts to be a problem. Too much power added to the action can actually decrease the efficiency of the action. Practicing the action allows control to be added to the equation thus the right amount of power is added.

The reason that the more experienced combatant seems to move faster is that they have had more practice. The result of the practice is that the actions of the combatant become efficient thus making the action seem faster. So practicing the skills is one of the most important elements in becoming more efficient, however there is also one more element which a fencer can only develop over time and through experience, and that is timing.

Timing is about knowing when to perform an action, when to defend, when to strike, even when to move and when to stay still. Timing is developed through engagement with other opponents, thus through fencing. This is a comparative scale worked out in the mind between the actions of the fencer and the actions of the opponents, this builds a record of patterns of actions and reactions, and the time it takes for these to occur. Timing is about using the correct action at the correct time.

All of these elements will build together to create a fencer which will seem to be faster to other combatants, but as can be seen, it is actually the result of practice and experience.



Friday, March 13, 2015

Proper Fitting Armour


            The purpose of this article is to address the question of the proper fit of armour on combatants. Proper fitting armour is one of the keys to safety of combatants. While this is primarily designed for the combatants participating in “Swordplay 2015”, held in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, it is also useful for other combatants involved in Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA). One of the prime issues that will be addressed is that of the proper fitting and constructed gorget. This is a subject which has emerged both locally and in the wider HEMA community of late. It is a subject which will be addressed in some detail due to its importance. Armour in general will also be addressed in a general sense to complete the picture.

Proper Fit

            Wearing armour is one thing but wearing armour with a proper fit is another. Armour which does not fit properly can impede a combatant’s performance as it may rub against the combatant or restrict certain movements. More to the point, armour which does not fit properly can offer negligible protection, and in some instances can actually cause safety issues.
            Armour is very individual and in most cases needs to be fitted to the individual. Even “off the shelf” armours often need some modification and wearing-in by the combatant before they fit properly. The armour must fit the individual and should be fitted to the individual, borrowed armour will never be the same and never fit, nor be effective, as your own armour. This is primarily due to body shape, but there are other factors which can affect this such as age of the armour itself. All new armour needs some time to “wear-in”. To be really safe, you need your own armour, and you need it fitted to you. As the article below progresses, more will be said of the proper fit of armour along with what the armour should be protecting. These two elements work hand in hand as often armour which does not fit properly will not cover what it is supposed to protect.

What Needs to Be Protected?

            Vital areas are the highest on the list in the answer to this question, but more detail is required. The following will examine what needs to be protected both from a general point of view and also more specifically for weapons of note. It will also address the idea of minimum armour, areas of importance and some recommendations also.

Minimum Armour

            Each HEMA group will, or should, have a document somewhere, or a known standard, which describes the minimum armour which each combatant requires for participation in free-sparring and most forms of bouting in their particular club. The same can be said for HEMA events, once again these describe the minimums required to participate in these events. In the case of Swordplay 2015, the armour requirements are displayed below in an appendix.
            These rules, regardless of where they originate, describe the minimums required to participate. What is important is that they are not necessarily the same as a person’s personal minimums. Each individual should consider what they require to be safe and if this is above and beyond the minimum, they should feel no issue in wearing such armour, it should be encouraged.
            The foundation of a minimum armour standard is that the armour is designed to protect those areas most significant with regard to significant amounts of damage to the individual. The armour is designed to prevent serious injury as a minimum standard. In this there are areas which are common to all weapons and these are the ones where the most significant amount of damage can occur should they be struck.
            The armour needs to be appropriate to the weapon, and thus there will be differences in armour standard between weapons. This is due to the nature of the weapons being used and the potential damage that the weapon may cause. In this particular case some weapons will require more armour, some will require less armour, and the armour may focus on different areas of the body to be protected. The weapon needs to be taken into account when considering armour.

Areas of Importance

            There are some areas of importance which need special attention paid to them when considering armour. These are the focus of the minimum armour requirements. Depending on what weapon is being used will decide how much armour is required.
            First of all is the head and neck. Of all the areas of the body this is the most significant. Improper protection of the head can cause serious and lasting injury. The importance of this area will be highlighted in a focused discussion below.
            The groin for males is a special consideration for males, as is the breasts for females. Females should also have some consideration with regard to groin protection also. These special areas need to be protected as the damage to these areas can also be long-lasting.
            The next area to look at is the limbs and more specifically the elbows and knees. These joints are particularly exposed to damage and need to be protected from percussive hits as they can be damaged relatively easily. The entire joint in the case of both elbows and knees need to be protected.
Protection for the hands and wrists are also important and should be a significant consideration. This is most important for longsword use however the same can be said for any weapon of significant cutting ability. This is less important for the rapier however the hands should still be covered. Suitable hand protection should be a serious consideration for any combatant. Damage can occur to hands and fingers quite easily where proper protection is not being worn. The entire hand and wrist needs to be protected and covered.
Finally, there are feet and ankles. For the most part this can be protected by the correct kind of footwear. Many combatants underestimate the importance of footwear which is suitable to their activity. A lack of decent footwear can lead to damage to both foot and ankle.


            While the following are only recommendations, they are some which should be considered seriously, regardless of the weapon being used. While a puncture-proof jacket will protect against a broken blade penetrating the torso, it is also recommended that some supplementary armour be worn on the torso for simple impact protection. This is especially aimed at the protection of the chest, fractured ribs are no joke. The other recommendation is for lower leg protection. The upper leg is mostly protected by muscle however the shin is quite exposed to damage.

Skin Coverage

            The final recommendation that will be made is with regard to skin coverage. This is for protection against burrs and the like from damaged blades. While these lacerations may be small they can be quite significant and have the potential for infection. It is therefore encouraged that all skin is covered at least by a simple layer of material to protect against this. This coverage can also do something to protect against other types of damage to the combatant.

Armour Coverage

            A piece of armour is designed to cover a specific area of the person wearing the armour. Needless to say, it is important that the armour covers the area properly for the area to be protected properly. Needless to say, in the case of those areas mentioned above indicated to be of importance, it is vital that the armour can do its job properly.
            The head and neck will be covered by some combination of gorget, mask or helm and coif. This combination of armours will be discussed in some detail later on. For now it is important to highlight that the entire neck and head need to be covered in some fashion, and the most vulnerable parts in rigid material. Groin and breast protection need to be fitted properly, and any lack of coverage here or lack of fit will be noticed very quickly.
            Knees may be covered by a simple covering, but it is important to ensure that the entire joint is covered this is the same for elbows. Often the protection will protect the tip of the elbow or knee very well, but will leave the sides of the knee or elbow exposed. The same can be said for the upper and lower parts of the knee or elbow. Proper fitting armour in both cases will cover all of these areas.
            Like the elbows and knees, special attention needs to be paid to hands and wrists. In some cases the hand will be protected well but the wrist will be exposed to damage. With regard to this coverage it is important that the entire hand is protected properly. In this particular case, special attention needs to be paid to the tips of the fingers and thumbs, and also the knuckles. When examining the hands protection do not forget about the sides of the fingers as well.


            Next in this topic, is the discussion of overlap, it is more useful if armour overlaps as this provides better protection and ensures that there is no exposure. This is especially significant when examining skin exposure. Each place where a piece of armour joins up with another should be inspected to make sure that when the combatant is stationary and moving there is no exposure and no gapping. In some cases this should also be inspected for individual pieces of armour, especially where they are made from multiple parts.

Head and Neck Protection

            With regard to the protection of the head and neck there are three pieces of armour concerned, the gorget, the coif and the mask or helm. In the discussion of these three there needs to be certain things discussed, individually and how they fit together. For the most part the helm or mask is a relatively simple item, so most of the discussion will be on the coif and the gorget, two items which are surprisingly often forgotten. There will, however be some discussion of the mask and helm.

Mask or Helm

            When discussing the mask and helm, it is often that the front of the head is the focus of discussion, so much so that the rear of the head is an after-thought. For the most part this is covered by a fencing mask or similar steel covering, and is often the first piece of armour bought. The back of the head needs to be protected by rigid material. This is something that will not flex when it is struck and can take the impact of a weapon. A simple rigid covering would seem to be enough, but padding is also highly recommended for any contact with the rear of the head. This is enhanced by the presence of a coif.


            The coif is a simple cloth covering which is designed most often to go under the mask. This is best made from either abrasion or puncture resistant material for the best effect. Frequently this piece of armour is disregarded as excessive or supplementary, however it is highly recommended that the combatant obtain one. Its purpose is to prevent abrasion of the mask against the combatant’s head. It also supplies extra padding for the back of the head, and also coverage for the skin on the head and the neck. As a piece of convenience this item is also good for soaking up sweat. Purpose-made ones can be bought which are made of the same puncture resistant material that is found in fencing jackets.


            The subject of the gorget has been particularly topical of late and in this particular case will occupy quite a large amount of the discussion. This simple piece of armour can decide the difference between a combatant being seriously injured or even killed or not. In order to address this properly, this particular piece of armour will be discussed in and of itself.


            The first thing that needs to be stated is what qualifies as a minimum and what does not. A simple padded collar is not enough. A stiffened jacket collar is not enough. The gorget needs to be rigid and padded on the inside in order for this piece of armour to do the job properly. This is a very simple description for the requirements of a gorget, more detail is obviously required.


            First is the question of rigidity and what qualifies under this particular heading. With regard to the concept of rigidity, it is a material which will not bend when put under a certain amount of stress, following the safety standards of the fencing mask that would be a 12kg pressure. In this particular instance it would have to withstand the blow of the weapon being used without bending. Materials which would qualify under the concept of “rigid” in this particular case would be: 0.8 mm stainless steel, 1.0 mm mild steel, 1 layer of hardened leather (8oz, 4mm), or their equivalent.

Necessity of Rigid Material

            The rigid material is necessary to prevent penetration and crushing damage from a weapon. Penetration is most likely going to come from a broken weapon or one which has had a tip punch through. Crushing damage would be the standard damage which would be caused by the tip or edge striking the target. Such damage applied to the neck can be severely damaging or even lethal.


            Something has already been said about armour coverage with regard to the other armours discussed and also with regard to the head and neck armours. In the case of the gorget and what it is supposed to cover, this is especially important. The entire neck needs to be covered. It is a simple as that. There are areas of special importance which need to be noted.
            The front of the neck is especially important and needs to be covered. This includes the hollow of the throat which sits a little lower than the typically considered “neck”. This is the first reason why the simple collar gorget is simply not enough. It needs to be extended downward to cover this area at the front, and far enough that a blade cannot slip up underneath it. Usually a simple flap is added to cover this, however it should be considered that something substantial should be added to cover this area.
            The back of the neck also needs attention to be paid to it. In this case it is the vertebrae which need to be protected. The protection should extend down to below the shoulders to cover all of the cervical vertebrae, the second reason why the simple collar gorget is not enough. Once again, often a simple flap is added to cover this but it should be covered by something more substantial.
            This covers the two really obvious areas which need to be covered. The sides of the neck should not be ignored. While the sides of the neck are protected by substantial muscle, this does not mean that rigid protection should be missed. A substantial hit to the side of the neck can cause quite an issue for the combatant and as such rigid protection should be used for the sides of the neck as well.


            In the combination of gorget, coif and helm or mask the combatant needs to make sure that the armours combine properly and still cover the required areas, both stationary and in movement. This is especially significant when considering the gorget and the helm/mask combination. In some instances there will be a gap left between and this can leave an area of serious vulnerability. The combatant should put all three of the armours on and then have them inspected by a buddy to ensure that they are covered in all areas. Of all the times to ensure that you are covered, the head and neck are the most important.

Appendix: Swordplay ‘15 Armour Requirements

6 Armour Requirements
6.1 The minimum armour levels (for all weapons) are as follows:
6.2 Three-weapon fencing mask (often known as 12kg masks) or masks / helmets of full metal construction, similar to ‘That Guy’s’
6.2.1 Fencing Mask is fitted with a reinforcing bib. Any non-standard (custom made) mask must have a bib or some construction to stop sword tip reaching the neck or face
6.2.2 It is strongly recommended that fencing masks have an external (padded) protective layer
6.2.3 A basic coif / cap must be worn such that the mask cannot directly impact scalp.
6.2.4 A back of head / neck covering is to be minimum rigid material (hardened leather, plastic or metal).
6.3 Fencing jacket of padded material construction of no less than 10mm in the uncompressed state with outer materiel to be of durable material (ie: drill cotton / canvas / wool blend / gabardine); commercially available HEMA / fencing specific padded jackets are also suitable for rapier and sword;
6.4 Neck protector (gorget), puncture proof and specifically including rigid plates to cover front, sides and back of neck;
6.5 Groin protection and/or breast protection as appropriate;
6.6 Simple gloves when using any complex hilted sword
6.7 All longsword competitors must wear additional protective gloves, IE padded with hardened leather, plastic or steel plating. These can be custom made or otherwise, but must cover entire hand and wrist. Motorcycle gloves are not sufficient. Lacrosse gloves are not sufficient. Any non-standard (hand-made) gloves are at the discretion of Safety Marshal and Event Coordinator. Gloves should have no uncovered areas on the back of the hand / fingers / wrist (including fingertip coverage).
6.8 Hard knee and elbow protection is highly recommended, especially for longsword.
6.9 Enclosed footwear (with ankle support highly recommended); and
6.10 Arms and legs are also to be covered (however kilts are acceptable)
6.11 All competitors armour will be checked at the start of the Swordplay 2015 weekend by the Safety Marshal(s) at same time as weapon checks.
6.12 Any competitor not wearing minimum armour will be refused entry to any tournament
6.13 Competitors are encouraged to wear additional protective gear for their own comfort level. Some form of rigid torso is recommended for Longsword. The level of protective gear described is the MINIMUM required to participate in the Swordplay 2015 and all participants are encouraged to adopt additional safety gear if they feel inclined to do so. However please note that minimum or additional armour does NOT reflect an increase in any tempo or power of strikes delivered in combat.
6.14 The Swordplay 2015 Event Coordinator may delegate any responsibility to Swordplay 2015 Crew for weapon & safety requirements but retains veto power over any decision made thereunto.
6.15 Competitors must provide own weapons and safety equipment. Equipment will not be supplied by event organisers. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

What is a Rapier?


The question which is asked in this article is one which needs to be considered by anyone who would consider using a rapier, talking about rapiers, or indeed having an interest in rapiers. For the most part the question itself belies the complexity which is involved in such a discussion. There are many elements which need to be discussed to have a complete discussion of this particular topic, and what is presented are some of the arguments toward that discussion.

            What is a rapier? This is a question that has been posed by curators and historians alike, and contrary to some beliefs, it is not exactly the easiest question to answer. The biggest problem is, “it is hard to define something which comes in many shapes and sizes.” (Anglo, 2000:99). This is one of the greatest problems associated with answering the question. The fact that the rapier came with many different hilts, blades of different lengths and widths makes defining exactly what a rapier is a very difficult prospect. There are types of rapier which contradict one another in their form as well.

“the ambiguities of the rapier are, however, in a class of their own. As A.V.B. Norman puts it, with masterly understatement: ‘the evidence for what is meant by the word rapier at a particular period is confused’. This would matter little had historians of fencing not tended to equate scientific swordsmanship with the Renaissance,” (Anglo, 2000:99)

            What historians of fencing feel is that the rapier is an evolutionary step toward the perfection found in the foil and epée found in modern fencing. From their point of view, the arts found in the Middle Ages and Renaissance were not particularly well formed and required development. In order to circumvent this particular problem in many areas it is best to go back to the original sources, but in the case of the rapier, this is not particularly helpful as contemporary definitions are hazy at best, even those which had practical experience with the weapon (Anglo, 2000:101). This creates a real problem in the definition of this particular weapon. The word itself does appear in period, but its presence is very limited.

“there never was any general agreement as to what a rapier might be. It was only in England and Germany, around the middle decades of the sixteenth century, that rapier came to be used to denote a long sword which, though designed both for cutting and thrusting, placed emphasis on the use of the point rather than the edge: and in neither country has it been possible to establish a conniving etymology.” (Anglo, 2000:99)

            What this means is that there was only two countries and only for a short period of time where the word “rapier” was actually used in a period context. Of course there have been many who have decided that to establish the meaning of the word it is important to look at its origin, and thus establish an etymology of the word and thus find its origin nationally. This would seem to be a great idea, but it has led many curatorial experts and fencing historians along a very interesting path. One of the many sources cites this as the origin.

“The origin of the term “rapier”, first noted in 1474 in a French document, is believed to be from the Spanish words for costume sword – espada ropera. By the early 16th century the term had come to mean a sword for use by gentlemen; and shortly after the middle of the century is was accepted as meaning a long, pointed and slender fencing sword for use by civilians.” (Valentine, 1968:7)

            The French term found was “epee rapiere” and this was compared to the Spanish term which has been cited for re-emphasis and legitimisation. What will be noted later on is this is not necessarily the case, and that calling this the origin is not necessarily accurate. Of course through searches of etymological data, several ideas have been expounded. Bull (1990) gives three different origins for the word rapier; from the German “rappen” meaning to tear, from the Spanish “raspar” meaning to scratch and finally from the Spanish “espada ropera” meaning robe sword (Bull, 1990:96). If an examination of the period documents is done, the results put some of these discoveries and theories in a bad light.
            The best source currently available for this information about the rapier is Anglo’s (2000) The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe, in which he states that the French and Spanish never used espee rapier or espada ropera (Anglo, 2000:100). Further in the English translation of many manuals from the period of the popularity of the rapier, especially in England, and later, Italian manuals in which the word spada, meaning sword, was used, this is often interpreted as “rapier” (Anglo, 2000:100). This is how such manuals which were translated into English in the Renaissance period such as Di Grassi’s His True Art of Defence of 1594, were the word spada is used and it is translated as “rapier” as this was the weapon commonly used in the period and also the one which was most popular at the time.
            What is also important to note is that even in the case of the places where the practice of rapier-play originated, “Italian, French and Spanish authors had several words indicating different types of sword; but rapier was not one of them.” (Anglo, 2000:100). This gives us pause for thought at this point in time. Had some other word been used in the English translations, would that be the one that was used now? It is not to say that some of the original words proposed were not used, this is not the case. There is a rare occurrence of rapiere in French Renaissance account, keen edge, alludes to cutting sword (Anglo, 2000:100). This is exactly what the rapier was not, truly it could cut but it was not primarily a cutting sword.
            The Italians did have a different word, which does appear in period texts, for a primarily thrusting sword, but it is not “rapier”. This weapon which is described is also often mistakenly said to be the precursor of the rapier, where actually it is not.

“the only weapon given a specific name was the estoque... occurs only twice in the Valencia documents to indicate on of a number of long, sharp, narrow-bladed thrusting swords” (Anglo, 2000:100)

            These long, sharp, narrow-bladed thrusting swords were designed to be used from horse-back against armoured opponents. They were often used as a substitute for the lance or as a sword when the other had broken. This weapon was designed to puncture through the gaps in armour something that the rapier was certainly not designed to do. Also the fact that this was a military weapon and not a civilian one also removes it from contention as the father of the rapier. Some of the reasons for this evolutionary history of fencing have already been given, but in order to understand this issue, more detail is required.

“central issue for nineteenth-century historians and their followers was the development of the rapier - a notion which they used to denigrate the medieval masters and, indeed, most swordsmanship prior to the seventeenth century. Nowadays the word rapier conjures up visions of a long, thin-bladed, sharp-pointed weapon capable of being wielded with virtuosic speed and dexterity to delude and, ultimately, to run through an opponent.” (Anglo, 2000:99)

            Historiographically, especially with regard to the nineteenth-century historians, they had a particular thought in mind when writing these histories and this needs to be taken into account. The fact that they were attempting to show the medieval and Renaissance masters in a less pleasant light than the later ones who worked with the small-sword and later weapons demonstrates the idea of an evolutionary point of view with regard to the weapons used. The estoc evolved into the rapier, which evolved into the small-sword, which evolved into the epée and other modern weapons. With new research that has been done of late this problem is being addressed, of course problems still persist.

“the polyglot nature of fencing literature further complicates matters; and, for anyone interested in how people used swords for fighting, curatorial concerns (more with hilts than with blades) are of limited value. It is self-evident that, in order to understand sword play, one must understand the types of sword used.” (Anglo, 2000:99)

            The multiple different languages of fencing literature make the discovery of the “true rapier” problematic to say the least. Even in translations of other languages into English the bias of the interpreter needs to be taken into account. For the more practical angle for the Renaissance fencer, studies of hilt types are less useful as how the sword was used is vastly more important. Even where a curatorial study is made, hilts are more the focus, rather than the blades, this gives an incomplete description and often mislabelling of weapons occurs.
            Even in the use of the weapons if that is to be the primary delineation as to what a rapier is and is not there are issues to contend with, “for most of the period with which we are concerned, cutting was as important as thrusting.” (Anglo, 2000:99). If the point is the focus, as it was in histories of fencing, those weapons which could also cut effectively were often discarded, even though they may fill the criteria perfectly in other areas. For the purposes of description of the period rapier, it is to the manuals which actually used the weapon where some answers lay.
            How the weapons are described along with those illustrations found in these manuals can give a doorway into discovering an accurate description of the weapon and therefore some answers (Anglo, 2000:101). Of course, in the case of pictures this relies upon the artist depicting the weapons as they actually were and not an interpretation of their own, and in translation it once again relies on the person who actually wrote the book. For those translated into a different language it again relies upon the actual translation.

“The blades of the single-hand sword shown in Marozzo’s Opera nova are all fairly wide at the hilt and generally provided with a side ring and finger ring, while the edges, although not completely parallel, are more or less straight until they suddenly taper to a point.” (Anglo, 2000:102)

            This would describe a weapon which has utility for both cutting and thrusting. The hilt design is something close to an earlier rapier also. Of course this is contradicted by the fact that Marozzo describes many cutting actions with these weapons which would eliminate them from being rapiers according to some interpretations. This is one example of the problems associated even when dealing with the weapons from one manual, but this problem actually exists across manuals also. Many different rapiers are depicted by different masters, in some cases different within the same treatises. There is however, a distinct change from broader blades to narrower blades as time progresses, but still there is no uniformity. (Anglo, 2000:102).

            The result of the above description could be the question of whether or not the rapier in the classical sense actually existed at all. It is important that in the discussion of a weapon assumptions are disregarded and the facts of the matter are stuck to in order to get the most accurate answer presently available. 
            What needs to happen for any discussion of the weapon to occur in any sort of reasonable way is a common understanding of what this most perplexing weapon is. For the most part this will be dependent on the point of view of the people discussing the weapon. For my own purposes I assume that the rapier is a long-bladed, single-handed weapon, designed for civilian use, which may be used for either cutting or thrusting, but is primarily designed to thrust. This gives a general form of the weapon and how it is used, both of which are significant, needless to say it is vital for a common definition to be made for people to discuss this weapon.


Anglo, S. (2000) The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe, Yale University Press, London, UK

Bull, S. (1990) An Historical Guide to Arms & Armour, Victoria and Albert Museum Press, London, UK

Valentine, E. (1968) Rapiers: An Illustrated Reference Guide to the Rapiers of the 16th and 17th Centuries, with their Companions, Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, USA