Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Rotella: Considerations of Form and Size


Considerations of the form and size of our companion items tends to be relegated to secondary discussions. In this discussion there will be a short investigation of the rotella, with these considerations in mind, it will be one of my more formal posts.




          A fencer needs to consider the size of their companion item as much as their primary weapon. The discussion that follows addresses the size and form of the rotella directing the investigation toward the proportion of the rotella in reference to the individual who uses it. This investigation is derived from extant images from different sources including martial art treatises, to found these ideas in the period in which the rotella was used, and to give the discussion some practical consideration.


          When the rotella is considered by many, there is the consideration of a ubiquitous round shield which is used by the combatant to perform various actions. There is rarely any consideration of the form of the rotella or its size. When the form is considered, small things such as its strap configuration and how the combatant holds the rotella make a difference. When size is considered the size of the rotella can determine whether or not the rotella is effective in protecting the combatant who is using it or is too cumbersome for the combatant to use it as effectively as it could be. For the examination of the rotella there will be an examination of images from period eight period pieces, including five treatises from Renaissance martial art treatises. From this it is hoped that a greater understanding of the rotella in its form will be gained.


          The first is an image by Bernat Martorell Sant Celoni, from 1452, an altarpiece of Saint Vincent, referred to as MNAC 15797.[1] This piece depicts several armoured individuals, but the one in the foreground is armed with a round shield, so is of great interest to this study. This is the earliest piece and gives a preview of the rotella, rather than its final product.

Chronologically, the next two images come from Marozzo’s treatise of 1536[2] and represent the rotella in its more usual situation, in a civilian context, or the context in which many know it from. What is most interesting is this form is actually more a military than a civilian form intended for use in pike formations, adopted for civilian use. This depicts the rotella as it is more commonly known.

Next are three images which come from Agrippa’s treatise of 1553[3] and present three situations with pairs of combatants in civilian attire combating with sword and rotella. The images are quite clear about the actions and the form of the rotella is quite established by this time. Again it is the civilian use of this form.

Following after this is the first of the images from Giacomo di Grassi’s treatise. First there is the image from his original treatise of 1570.[4] This is from the original treatise. This should not be confused with the later treatise by the same author as this is the translated treatise of 1594.[5] Both depict an individual with arm extended holding a sword in one hand and a rotella in the other, strapped to the arm.

Lovino published his treatise in 1580[6] however the images which were used for this discussion were sourced from a different location.[7] This was to get better images so the detail could be seen more clearly. The rotella which are present in these images are somewhat different to the others which are present in the others which make an interesting difference, even if it is only slight.

An image from the British Museum of an individual standing with a sword and a large round shield was used, the original image made by Jacques de Gheyn II in 1587.[8] This is clearly a military figure with the line of soldiers marching past behind him. It demonstrates that the shield, and sword, had not been completely outmoded on the battlefield, it also gives a good example of a shield of the period.

Next are two images from Capo Ferro’s treatise of 1610,[9] which depict two civilian combatants fighting with rapier and rotella. The rotella are very plain having only the essential details that are required of them for the image to make sense and for their effect to be known. It gives the reader enough of an impression to know what’s going on but not so much to be distracted.

Finally there is a portrait of Alessandro Farnese from 1611.[10] This depicts an interesting round shield with a very large spike on the front of it. The shield is one of the ones which will be made note of in the discussion as it has features which stick out as different from the more standard format, more discussion will be made of its distinct features. The portrait depicts the individual in a military situation, which places the rotella firmly at the cross-roads of civilian and military use as is known of it.

The Form of the Rotella

          The two prime elements of the rotella which have been presented through the examination of the images which have been presented are that the rotella has two straps on the back of it and that it is primarily convex in shape. The first strap is held by the hand and the second strap goes about the arm. The convex shape is important, it is not merely a round, flat shield, the convex shape is important as this shape serves to deflect the incoming blade of the opponent.

          While the face of the shield in MNAC 15797 cannot be seen, from the back of the shield and the shape present, it is likely that this shield is flat. This makes it more likely that it is in fact merely a round shield rather than an actual rotella. It can be seen as the precursor to the rotella as it possesses the other elements found in the later forms of the rotella.

          Later additions such as the shoulder strap seen in the Jacques de Gheyn II example and the portrait of Alessandro Farnese are examples of how the weight of the shield was taken up to relieve the individual who may be carrying the shield for an extended period of time or to move it out of the way, but again, do not appear to be a standard form of the rotella, likewise the spikes seen on both of these examples can likewise be seen as additions to the form rather than standards of the form.

          There is also noted in the di Grassi 1570 and Lovino 1580 examples where the straps seem to be mounted rather than in the middle of the rotella, but slightly lower on the rotella. This may enable the fencer who is using the rotella to more easily be able to protect their head, again this is not a standard form found in all examples. Further on the di Grassi 1594 example the straps seem to be mounted more toward the “back” of the rotella, giving more distance from the hand at the front, pushing the rotella forward. This could be to give the fencer an additional advantage, or it could merely be a mistake in this woodcut example in copying the 1570 during translation to the 1594 edition.

          Further on the location of the straps, some have the strap for the arm located on the forearm, while others have it located in the crook of the elbow. This may be from the artists’ impression or, it may be deliberate to change the effect of using the rotella. All seem to have a similar location for the strap, however which makes this location more likely dependent on the individual who is using the rotella rather than the make of the rotella itself, or by design. Such considerations are important when considering the size of the rotella, especially in proportion to the user.

Size and Proportion of the Rotella

          The size of the rotella, especially in proportion to the user is significant as this determines the best size of rotella for the individual, and will determine such things as how much room there is between the hand and the edge, and also where the second strap sits across the arm. Further the proportion of the rotella to the individual in regard to its size will also determine how effectively an individual will be able to use the rotella, especially considering specific rotella actions. Too large and the combatant will not move it effectively, too small and the rotella will not sufficiently cover the combatant.

          In regard to the size in proportion to the individuals depicted some interesting results have been gained. Five results where the rotella measures from shoulder to the middle of the thigh, six results where the rotella measures from a fist in front of the hand to the mid-bicep, two results where the rotella measures from shoulder to waist, or a little in front of the hand to mid-bicep, and a single result where the rotella measures from the shoulder to the top of the thigh.

          In the images supplied by Agrippa 1553, there is an equivalence gained where the rotella is determined as above the shoulder to mid-thigh, or one fist in front of the hand to about half the bicep, or one fist behind the elbow strap. This could mean that the two highest results could be combined together to form a single result due to the equivalent measurement presented.

          The proportion of the rotella to the fencer is important as it will determine how the fencer can use the rotella. A rotella which is smaller in proportion to the user will move more freely, while a larger one will cover more easily. The fencer has to make a decision about what approach they will be taking, indeed which treatise they are studying and whether the rotella is appropriate in size and proportion to themselves for the actions described.


          The rotella is a most interesting a useful device when used properly. To use it properly the rotella itself has to be of the correct form, strapped correctly, and of the correct proportion to the user. The consideration of what proportion to use will depend on the approach taken, thus the particular treatise which is chosen. Particular attention should be paid to the form and proportion of the rotella which is depicted in the treatise as this will make a difference.

          There have been examples presented of various round shields from the simple round shield in the earliest example to later military examples of shields with extra additions made to them to create different effects in their use. The attempt has been made to cover various different forms so that examples are present of the widest range and the greatest variety. This was to find the proper form and proportion of the rotella. The result was that there was a general idea of what the rotella form was, and a couple of ideas about the proportion, but these are dependent on the use of the rotella as determined by the particular treatise which is being followed.



Agrippa, Camillo (1553) Trattato di Scientia d'Arme, con vn Dialogo di Filosofia,,_con_vn_Dialogo_di_Filosofia_(Camillo_Agrippa)


Capo Ferro (1610) Gran Simulacro dell'Arte e dell'Uso della Scherma,


de Gheyn II, Jacques (1587) British Museum No: 1864,1114.465,


di Grassi, Giacomo (1570) Ragione di adoprar sicuramente l'Arme,


di Grassi, Giacomo (1594) His True Arte of Defense,


Kirby, Jared (ed.) (2004) Italian Rapier Combat: Ridolfo Capo Ferro's 'Gran Simulacro', Greenhill Books, London


Lovino, G. A. (1580) Traite d’Escrime and


Marozzo, Achille (1568) Opera Nova,


Martorell Sant Celoni, Bernat (1452) Altarpiece of Saint Vincent, Museo Nazionale di Arte della Catalogna - MNAC, Barcellona, MNAC 15797 (Photo by Andrea Carloni (Rimini)),


Mondschein, Ken (ed.) (2009) Fencing: A Renaissance Treatise, Italica Press, New York


van Sichem, Christoffel (1611) Portrait of Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma,

[1] Bernat Martorell Sant Celoni, 1452 Altarpiece of Saint Vincent, Tempera and gold on wood with gold leaf. Museo Nazionale di Arte della Catalogna - MNAC, Barcellona, MNAC 15797 Photo by Andrea Carloni (Rimini),

[2] Opera Nova, images are from the coverplates of the 1568 edition,

[3] Trattato di Scientia d'Arme, con vn Dialogo di Filosofia, the modern version is available translated:  Agrippa, Camillo (2009) Fencing: A Renaissance Treatise, Italica Press, New York (Edited by Ken Mondschein)


[8] British Museum No: 1864,1114.465; Date: 1587; By: Jacques de Gheyn II,

[9] Gran Simulacro dell'Arte e dell'Uso della Scherma, a translated version is available Capo Ferro, Ridolfo (2004) Italian Rapier Combat: Ridolfo Capo Ferro's 'Gran Simulacro', Greenhill Books, London (Edited by Jared Kirby), or

[10] Portrait of Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma, by Christoffel van Sichem, before 1611,

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Against Strength


In a person's fencing career, they will always come up against an opponent who will want to use strength as their primary method to force their way through an engagement. Over the past months I have been dealing with this problem with some of my students, thus how to deal with an opponent who uses strength. This article deals with questions relating to the use of physical strength and where it originates.


To understand where the idea of a person using strength, it is necessary to understand where this individual is coming from, where they get the idea that strength is the most advantageous method. This often comes from a couple of main sources: a) skill compensation, b) improper grip on the sword, and c) simple size advantage over their opponent. Each will be addressed in turn.

1. Compensation

The first is skill compensation. Often a fencer will compensate for a lack of skill with a weapon by using strength against an opponent. They will compensate for a lack of finesse in their actions by using strength, forcing the action through rather than using the correct blade engagement or Timing. This often happens when a person has not practiced the individual elements enough, or has not spent enough time honing their skill, as a result they use strength in their blade-work to force the weapon through. This results in actions which rely on strength for success.

2. Improper Grip

The next is an improper grip. If the weapon is gripped tightly or even simply incorrectly, a fencer will not be able to use an even grip on their sword. This will prevent the use of senso di ferro or sentiment du fer. This means that they will rely on a heavy pressure against their opponent's blade and will not  feel a lighter pressure against it. This will cause the fencer to force their way through an engagement rather than reading through feeling and applying the appropriate pressure for the action which they want to use. An improper grip on the weapon can cause a fencer many issues, and not just this one.

3. Size/Strength Advantage

Finally there is size advantage. A larger opponent will often use strength against an opponent who is smaller or weaker than they are believing that strength and speed are the best ways to deal with this opponent. This is often seen with larger male opponents against female opponents, but is not necessarily restricted to such. The same larger male combatant will also use strength against a weaker male opponent as well. This is simply using an aspect of physical strength against another. It is a very unsubtle approach and the weaker combatant will be surprised and defeated by the stronger opponent and will not see a way around them. But the stronger combatant can also be defeated by the weaker opponent as will be demonstrated below.

With all the discussions of the reasons that strength is used in an over-compensating way, it is now possible to discuss how to defeat a combatant who uses strength in this method. It should be noted, there is a place for strength in swordplay, but it needs to be applied with knowledge of the situation at the correct moment for the greatest effect. Much of this relies on a correct reading of the situation and thus good senso di ferro.

Against Strength

There are two prime methods of dealing with an opponent who uses strength: avoidance and using the strength against them. These two methods have a similar approach to them but are also different and thus must be explained separately. Each uses an aspect of the use of strength so that the fencer who is subject to the strength of the opponent to gain an advantage.

1. Avoidance

You can use avoidance to compensate for an opponent using strength. There are a couple of ways to do this. The first is through Absence of Blade. If the opponent is strong on their engagements and is using strength to control or move the weapon away so they can control or strike, simply do not give them the opportunity. Avoid contact with their weapon. This way the opponent will not be able to apply their strength to your weapon because they will not connect with it.

Another method is diversion. Rather than seeking solid contact with the opponent's weapon, which they can then use to gain strength against your weapon. Use your weapon to divert their attacks when they are made; divert their weapon when they want to make contact with yours. Such is achieved by angling your weapon so theirs always deflects off your weapon so it never maintains contact. Using disengages and slips with the weapon are prime methods in the arsenal for diversion.

2. Use the Strength

You can use their strength against them and also strength that they cannot resist. These are two different approaches which are based on a similar approach. The first is an approach using the Strength/Weak dichotomy. It is known that strength has the advantage over weak, because it can force the weak, but the weak can also have the advantage over the strength because the weak can slip from the weak and remain mobile and put the strength out of place. For example: The opponent engages hard with strength on the blade pushing forward, the combatant uses weakness and uses the strength to turn their weapon out of the way and back on-line so an attack can be made. This approach is similar in approach to the Avoidance approach above but uses the strength of the opponent's weapon use against them.

You can also use mechanical advantage to your advantage to create strength. Ensure that when the opponent applies strength to your weapon that you always ensure that you have mechanical advantage or can angle your weapon so theirs, through their strength, is always moved to your forte. Regardless of how strong they are, when their debole (or foible) is at your forte you have a clear mechanical advantage and their strength does not count for much. This uses some of the idea of diversion, which was discussed above.

There are aspects of strength which even the smallest and weakest can use against the largest which they cannot resist. The first of these is foot placement, if yours is better, with your feet lining up with one another, you are in a better and stronger position, especially if this lines up between theirs. This is enhanced if the forward foot lines up with your forward hand. The last part of this is what di Grassi calls the "Agreement of Foot and Hand", the previous element comes from Fiore and is noted in the foot positions of his plays. 

Added to this is skeletal alignment, any time that you can line up aspects of your skeleton, in a thrust, parry, or any other action you form a position which the strongest opponent cannot force through. They will be fighting with their muscles against your bones. So long as you keep your bones aligned you will have the strength. If you add this to the two previous elements, you will be in the position of strength.


In regard to recommendations of which skills to use against a stronger opponent, I would recommend those which do not try to match your strength against theirs. If they want to use strength, turn it against them. Show them how the use of strength is not an approach which will be effective against you. I teach these techniques to every student of mine who has issues with those who use strength against them. Like all skills they need to be practiced. Find the skills that suit how you fence, but be warned that applying these new skills may take a change in approach.

A fencer who only uses strength in their game is missing out on a lot. They are missing out on the finer aspects of swordplay and will not go as far as a fencer who spends the time to learn these finer aspects. Spend the time, learn proper blade engagement and all the other skills of fencing so that you have a complete skill-set to use against your opponent. A fencer with a diverse skill-set is a much greater opponent than one who relies on any one skill-set. 



Friday, November 13, 2020

Fence Like Wile E. Coyote



The most important thing that a fencer can do is fill themselves with fortitude and strength, because the path that they have chosen is not going to be easy. From this perspective there are lessons that can be learned from the character of Wile E. Coyote and his struggle to catch the elusive Road Runner. It is necessary to look within ourselves to find the strength to carry on.

Anyone who has seen animations involving Wile E. Coyote chasing the Road Runner will have seen him use ever more extravagant devices to gain an edge to catch the Road Runner. These devices most often result in him getting blown up, or falling off a cliff, or some other end, clearly not catching the Road Runner. These chases are amusing and many of us have watched and been amused by his antics, but there is something to learn from him. He never quits. He is back in the next frame chasing his prey again. We should be the same in the pursuit of our Art, never quitting. (You can forget about the extravagant devices they won't help you either.)

Looking deeper into the subject, it can be seen that in his long career there is only a single instance where the coyote manages to catch the Roadrunner.[1] He manages to catch his prey once, in the many years of trying; once in so many attempts. This shows much grit and determination, and even then he does not get his prize. One could claim that this is a pointless struggle and he should give up, of course this would ruin the premise of the cartoon. Such would be the approach seen in the Wisdom of Silenus.


“There is an old saying to the effect that King Midas for a long time hunted the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, in the forests, without catching him. When Silenus finally fell into the king's hands, the king asked what was the best thing of all for men, the very finest. The daemon remained silent, motionless and inflexible, until, compelled by the king, he finally broke out into shrill laughter and said, 'Suffering creature, born for a day, child of accident and toil, why are you forcing me to say what is the most unpleasant thing for you to hear? The very best thing for you is totally unreachable: not to have been born, not to exist, to be nothing. The second best thing for you, however, is this: to die soon.'”[2]  


According to Silenus the best thing for man is to never be born, because he will never reach his goal. So the next best thing is to die soon. Related to the current discussion of the fencer, the best thing would be to never start fencing because a fencer will never learn all there is to learn and never perfect all the techniques that are possible, the next best thing is to quit soon. Needless to say, this is not an approach which is presented here.

Conversely, the fencer should rejoice that they can never learn everything, because it means that there will always be something to learn. They should be happy that they can never perfect all of their skills, because it means that they can always learn and always keep practicing. Rather than a negative, the Wisdom of Silenus, for the fencer should be seen as a boon.

There will be times in your fencing career where things will not go your way. There will be times where you feel that you are going nowhere. There are explanations for this. Often you do not notice when you are improving because you are basing this on those around you, rather than your previous self. Likewise in learning and improvement, everyone reaches plateaus. The better a fencer gets, the longer they will be and more often they will occur.

The essential thing is to keep going with what you are doing. Do what Wile E. Coyote has been doing for the past 70-odd years, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and have another go. No need to call Acme and get the Rocket Skates, or other devices, they will not really help with your fencing.



[2] Nietzche, F. (2003) The Birth of Tragedy, Blackmask Online (, Translated by Ian C. Johnston, para.3

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

On "Stupid" Questions

"Carl Sagan, in his work The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark said: "There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question"." (Wikipedia (2020) “No such thing as a stupid question” in Wikipedia,, [accessed 31/5/2020])
In training there will be elements which we do not know. There will be questions which arise from training which we need answered for us to go on with our training. There are different options available: ask another student, ask the trainer, or go see if you can find the information yourself.  In many situations people will opt for the last one until there is no other avenue, for fear of having to ask a question in the group. This fear can cripple not only the individual's learning but also the group's learning. This is primarily caused by the nemesis of the "stupid" question.

When a so-called "stupid" question is asked, the group usually responds with derision, and sometimes the trainer does too. This does not encourage the asking of any question within the group at all. It creates fear that the same sort of social rejection will occur. As a trainer it is something that we should fight against, it is something we should fight against even as fellow students. Each question should be treated with respect.

Some will claim that a question about something that has already been answered or explained should not be asked and is a "stupid" question. Is it really? What if the individual did not understand the explanation? If the information is useful, what is the harm of hearing it again? Is it not better that they hear the information again than make a mistake later and have to re-learn?

Some will claim that questions about things which are obvious should not be asked and are "stupid" questions. If the question is being asked, clearly it is not obvious to the individual who is asking the question. Such approaches do not take into account different paths to the same situation, different cultural or social situations, or people who may be new to the group.

The concept of the "stupid" question closes the mind off to chances for learning. The simple question seeks to the heart of a matter and can open new ways and new ideas about things. It can even give simple solutions to complex problems which people who are too embedded may not see. Questions in every group need to be encouraged.

Questions allow people to learn about their environment. We ask questions all of the time without realising it. Questions should be encouraged so members of a group, or school, can all become familiar with its operations. A person who is new to a group or school is not going to know how things operate and through questions, they can learn. We should always be encouraging questions from our students and our classmates.

For a much more in-depth discussion of the subject of "stupid" questions, their effect and how questions should be encouraged see one of my other blogs If you are interested in a pdf of this discussion, please contact me via e-mail.



Sunday, September 13, 2020

"There can be only one." Monolithic training environments and the fallacy of competence


Before I start with the discussion of this article I would like thank Nic Harrison for his assistance with ideas and direction in this article. His ideas and formulations have been most useful in describing this subject more fully and also directing the discussion in the direction that it needed to go. This is an important subject that each student and instructor should examine for their own part in the participation in, and rejection of monolithic training approaches.


The discussion which follows will be broken up into various parts so that the material can be discussed succinctly and with direction. This will allow the greatest and most accurate discussion of the subject. The subject itself is designed to address the subject of monolithic training environments, those which are seen as the be all and end all of the fencer's training. These structures are inward looking limiting outward and contrary views of the subject of swordsmanship.

To begin with will be a discussion of the subject of competence and what it means both in the sense of definition and also in technical sense in operation. This will lead to the discussion of the problem of monolithic training environments and give reasons why they do not work, and that they do exist, but in effect should not, especially in our information-rich contemporary society. Various influences upon this situation will be addressed to delineate the problem as it stands.

The second part will discuss the reason that taking the opportunity to learn more, especially from different systems of swordsmanship, and in different methods, will give advantages to the fencer. These advantages will be presented in contrast to the monolithic approach. Further will be given examples how the monolithic approach can be broken, but this can only be achieved with effort on the part of the participants.

These discussions will be summed up in the final part of the discussion. Monolithic structures are difficult to break down due to their nature, but it is possible. It takes people to influence them with new thoughts and ideas from external sources, and to challenge them and to demonstrate the advantages of other approaches. These challenges need to be applied with intelligence and demonstration of the advantage of the new approach to training and swordsmanship in general.

On Competence

The online dictionary (via Google) defines 'competence' as: "the ability to do something successfully or efficiently". In fencing terms this means the ability to stay personally safe fencing while not causing harm to the partner. The implication of this is to remain safe fencing anyone you cross swords with.

Some of those people may be better, or worse than you. Some may have entirely the wrong idea and be out to 'get' you, 'beat' you or are nervous and jittery with a sword in their hand under assault. It may be a competition or social sparring. In any or all of the above cases, a competent fencer will be able to stay safe. This is not to say that only incompetent fencers get injured. We know that this is not true, but it is rare for a competent fencer to act in such a manner as to cause injury to themselves, (sometimes, but not always using their partner to do it).

Competence is developed over time through learning skills and practicing those skills. It is also developed in fencing through facing different opponents so that the fencer can develop an understanding of the different ways in which people fence. This is an element which needs to be taken into account in the consideration of competence. A competent fencer is also one who can deal with the approach and tactics of an opponent, regardless of what they might be, and regardless of the length of their weapon. The only way to gain the knowledge how to deal with different sorts of opponents is to fence them and experiment with different approaches, not limit the fencer to a single method.

The "One True Way"

Fallacy of the Single Method

There are those who believe that there is “one true way” for training in particular weapon forms of a particular style. They also believe that the weapon should only be learnt in that particular style in that particular method and that any deviance from this is a “pollution” of the style and a deviance and should be avoided. For these individuals the weapon is taught and learnt the same way without any input from outside to change any facet of the process.

The approach above may sound appropriate to a more Oriental point of view but it also has presence in some Occidental schools as well. There is a notion that if the students learn something from somewhere else then it will somehow taint what they know and by them using this knowledge it will affect all the other students who come into contact with them in a negative way. This approach to the study of swordsmanship is flawed.

The single method of training to the exclusion of all others limits ideas. It does not allow the student to experience any new ideas from other areas, nor expand their own ideas because they are limited to what is found within the school. This limitation of ideas means that the fencer, should they take their skills out of the school to a tournament, will not be prepared for different approaches to using the sword, and thus will have no way of dealing with them.

Of course there will be an answer to this and other failings.

The answer that will be given in response to questions about other approaches is that the method which is being taught is “all-encompassing” so there is no need for other methods to be examined. This response is designed to tell the student that there is no need for them to go elsewhere because the teacher at the school can teach them all that they need to know, and that the method that they are learning will deal with anything that another swordsman can throw at them. Most often this is not the case, and there will be failures.

Failures in practicing the art as described by the school, especially against other schools, will be attributed not to a failure in the art, but due to a failure in practicing by the student. The student will be instructed that if they had practiced more that particular attack would have been defeated. In this way, the blame for the failure experienced is shifted from the methodology to the student.

Worse still, in tournaments run by the school cheating may be involved to prop up the school’s method. Officials will be affiliates or members of the school and their calls will be biased toward the school. Thus through the tournament the method is “proven in combat.” Complaints about issues with officials and how the tournament was run will be put down to individual perceptions rather than any real issue.

On an individual level in single method training, once a trainee completes a training course, there is sometimes the perception that is all that there is to be learnt, that their training is now complete, because they have completed the training course. Most of the time the initial training course gives the student of swordsmanship the basic “language” of swordsmanship, thus it teaches them how; to move, to defend and how to attack. These skills are necessary so that the student can now understand the more complex elements of swordsmanship which come after.

The Trainer Influence

Trainers influence students. They must otherwise they have no ability to teach. This influence can have a positive or a negative influence on the career of the fencer, depending on what sort of influence they are and how they influence the student.

For some trainers, they guard their schools as they would have been in the Orient. In some cases this is because there has been an Eastern tradition which has had an influence on the trainer in their career. What this means is that they have an old traditional approach. The method they teach is one which they feel is a personal method which they teach to their students. This method is not to be spread among other swordsmen but kept within the school. Within these schools loyalty to the school is of great importance and to train with another school. The student should seek permission first, and to not do so is seen as a breach of faith, which is sometimes punished, if not explicitly then implicitly.

In other cases, there is no previous Eastern tradition to somewhat explain this motivation, but the same attitude is taken and many of the same elements are also adopted. This idea of the personal method can be pushed even further. Here, the trainer is seen as the only voice of reason as it is their method which they have developed over an extended period of time. Pushed far enough these become a cult of personality, with the head trainer at the top.

These monolithic training structures, both the Eastern traditional approach and the cult of personality are not healthy. These approaches heavily discourage cross-training with students of other schools for fear that the students may pick up something new that they might show the other students which deviates from the method. Further, the students may find in their cross-training that there are questions that have no answers.

One of the fears which monolithic structures have is questions which have no answers, thus a fear of the discovery of a flaw, or flaws in the method which is being taught. How can the method be one which is “all-encompassing” if it has flaws? If all the students are following the method then they are not likely to find the flaws, but if they go outside the method they are more likely to, thus cross-training training is discouraged for fear of new discovery and finding something that the method has no answer for. Of greater concern is when these ideas spread to a wider community.

Group Influence

Groups will also influence how the individual trains and whether or not they are open to outside influences. Just like the influence of the trainer this influence can be of benefit or it can be a detriment to the advancement of the individual in their training. In this regard, it is often a question of whether the group is outward looking or inward looking.

The outward looking group will seek other opportunities to learn and different points of view to enhance their view of swordsmanship, and through this gain a greater understanding of it. The inward looking group will not. The inward looking group will have a method which they stick to which suits their rule-set and it will be a method and a rule-set which they will claim is their own, and which is the only correct one.

The same group will influence the individuals within the group through its culture to feel the same way about the method and the rule-set so that they have a common belief-system, and anyone who disagrees will be more than likely ostracised. They will believe that other methods are incorrect because they are not like theirs, and because they are not taught in the same fashion as they are.

The monolithic nature of the style will be most exposed when questions are asked about the style of swordsmanship and it is vigorously defended. There is a great fear that flaws will be discovered in the method and this will be covered up with bluster about the “superior” nature of the method. The questions will even be deflected to other places and avoided.

In defence of their method and to prove that it is better than those about them tournaments will be arranged. Of course, the tournament rules and the officials will be biased toward any member of the group and find in favour of them should a dispute arise. This idea will extend even further to the scheduling of events. Events will be cross-scheduled with others to ensure that members will only attend events of their own group, to ensure that they are exposed only to the correct culture. Of course, this will be hidden behind training program requirements.

Of Weapon Forms and Historical Masters...

There are those who will claim that they do not look outside what they are doing because what is happening at a particular conference is not relevant to them because they only study rapier and only from Capo Ferro, or only do German longsword. There are issues which arise from this approach in any way that it is viewed.

Taking the point of view of those who only study rapier and only from Capo Ferro as an example, this master did not invent the weapon form. He was not even the first to present the theories which are expressed in his treatise. Even if the individual wants to look at late-Italian rapier, Giganti is a better foundation from which to move to Capo Ferro, and there are theoretical elements within Fabris which are also useful as well. Further, even investigations into Agrippa’s principles can assist as well.

In an even broader context, there is the important element to note that all forms of swordsmanship are united by the same two primary principles of Time and Distance regardless of the sword’s form. So even by studying the longsword, there are elements which one can learn about the rapier, and vice versa. Indeed di Grassi approaches the use of his two-handed sword with the same principles as he does with his single sword. So approaching the examination of swordsmanship focusing on only one weapon also denies all the associative learning which occurs.

Further there it is historically inaccurate. There is evidence through the treatises of the theorists and masters themselves that they did not learn their arts from a single individual but learnt it from several. They learnt it from whoever would teach them something which would be of use to them. This is the same approach that all should approach swordsmanship in our current age.

Then there is the argument, “I’m only starting, I need to understand [insert weapon form] properly before doing something new." This is a false argument as only by learning something new will it be possible to understand what is being studied, and possibly not even then. The issue here is that in the beginning it is difficult to understand what the possibilities really are and also the theory involved. Only through even an examination of some other weapon or approach to the same weapon is it possible to have a glimpse of other possibilities and theory.

Unknowingly Guilty

Of course when a person decides to learn a skill, or train in a weapon form, or pursue a course of study, in swordsmanship, there are the best of intentions. The same can be said when a person takes it upon themselves to train others in the same. From the outset the intention is to approach the subject to gain the greatest understanding of the material, this is not always the result.

People start with open eyes and as they become involved in various aspects of training they become more closed to opportunities and approaches, due to various reasons. The issue becomes when these avenues which are closed are closed for no good reason at all. The issue is further increased when these avenues cannot be opened because some sort of conviction has been formed that these avenues were closed and should not be opened, even when good reasons are presented. This is where the monolithic training structures are formed along with the concept of the “one true way”. Validation should always be sought and re-sought for every approach.

“The only sure knowledge is that I know nothing.” Plato

While Plato’s statement is somewhat disingenuous, in that even the beginner after their first lesson has some knowledge, it is an approach that can be taken and is a healthy one when examining outside ideas. This approach allows us to examine new ideas with the perspective of the benefit of new knowledge that will always benefit our knowledge of swordplay, regardless of whether it is the same form of weapon or not.

When the opportunity is presented to learn something new, or even learn something which is familiar from a different point of view, the opportunity should be taken with both hands. This will broaden your experience and your horizons. Only through learning new things and re-examining what we already know will we really understand what is possible.

Swordplay Universals

The essential fact is that even with a different type of sword, there are elements which are related. This is because all swordplay is related. It is related because the human body can only move in a certain set of particular ways, and because all swords carry similar characteristics which cannot be divorced from one another.

Clearly, all swords have a handle. All swords have two edges, regardless of whether one is blunt or not. All swords have a pommel of some description to hold the rest of the sword together, in most cases this also acts as a counter-balance to the blade. The balance point of a good sword is somewhere just beyond the extent of the hilt of the weapon. All of these characteristics of the weapon mean that there is commonality in the method of their use.

Masters’ Words

The masters’ treatises have a bad habit of not explaining everything. This is for two main reasons. The first is assumed knowledge, things that a student of the period the treatise would know. The second is concealment, things that the master would conceal so that the student would have to come to him for an explanation, thus pay him to teach him. This second one is found especially in the works of earlier period masters. The concealment was so people had to come and get lessons and also so only students of the master could use the treatise alone to train. In regard to the first reason there are simple concepts which were assumed knowledge because this is what was taught as a part of the education during that period. Some of this has been left behind in our modern education system so these elements need some explanation.

Learning another system adds to experience and knowledge of swordplay and this can only enhance the ability of the fencer. This experience and knowledge can be used to extend and enhance the performance of other weapons due to the common foundations and also to enhance similar weapons due to the greater understanding. There is also a prime tactical reason for learning another system.

Learning another system allows a person to examine it from the inside. To take it apart and see how it works. To discover what the essential elements are. So then the same system can be defeated through this knowledge. This means that the person who learns more systems knows better how to defeat other systems because they have a greater understanding of them.

Further the understanding of other systems can assist in understanding the development and history of the system which is the primary study of the individual. While they are not directly linked, there is evidence for foundation elements found in earlier works that is also found in later works. Similarities in formation of action and movement which are too close to be coincidence, especially when geographical considerations are taken into account. The history, while some find it unnecessary, explains why weapons and styles developed the way that they did.

Study for Understanding

Through the study of material which binds your interest in terms of time and geography can aid in understanding of the overall teaching method which a person studies under. Study is an essential part of learning, and while the beginner’s study is primarily mechanical in the beginning, they should have intellectual elements to their study as well. The more experienced student should be studying treatises and other theoretical elements to better understand what they are being taught.

There must be a reason why the instructor is teaching. There must be some sort of foundation from which they have built themselves to a position where they are able to teach and some experience and knowledge. The reason needs to be established for a person’s ability to teach and the reason that they are teaching. This reason needs to be examined, especially if the reasons seem spurious.

The clever student of the sword will learn from everyone. The teacher will learn from their students as much as the students will learn from their teacher. Everyone has something to teach, even if they do not realise it themselves. The important thing with regard to this is the approach: for the student it is learning better ways to learn; for the teacher it is learning better ways to teach.

Giving Back

The new teacher should bring something new to the school at which they are supposed to teach. A new teacher should always be adding to the curriculum not just repeating the old curriculum as it has been previously presented. Even a different perspective taken on the old curriculum is better than simply teaching it the same way. Updating the curriculum with the latest knowledge is always a good thing.

In those schools which have a ranking system similar to that of the London Masters of Defence, i.e. Scholar, Free Scholar, Provost and Master, the rank of Free Scholar should mean something. It should not be just another rank. This rank should mean that the student is “free” to learn new things. There should be an expectation of new learning and exploration placed upon individuals of this rank. This is to encourage them to find new things to study, to find different perspectives. This is a way to enhance a school and to prevent it from stagnating.

Moral of the story? Don’t make mountains, there are enough mole hills already.

The monolithic training structure is difficult to break down due to its nature. It is one solid block and those who are within it often do not see what is without it. They also do not see any issue with their approach. The nature of the structure is that the students have been taught that there is a single way to do things and it is by the structure that they have been taught. The teachers have been taught the same from their teachers, and it is in this fashion that the structure gains and maintains its rigidity. It is because the people are so invested in the structure that it is so hard to break down.

The influence to change needs to come from within the structure, but external sources need to show the flaws in the structure to elements within it for this to occur. This is where there are always issues. The external sources are external so they have little impact upon the structure unless they can influence those on the inside. Once individuals on the inside have been influenced, they need to exert influence on the inside from the inside to achieve change.

The most important thing is that this influence and challenge must be achieved through the use of demonstration and intelligence. Intelligence needs to be demonstrated in the alternative approaches along with demonstration of the use of these alternative approaches otherwise there will be no effect. Battering away at the monolith with one or the other singly will have no effect, they must be performed together. Persuasive arguments will be fended off by blunt statements without demonstration; demonstration will be fended off without intelligent argument.

Monolithic training structures believe that they have the one true path toward achievement of the way of swordsmanship. Unfortunately there are quite a few of these structures out there, even worse is that many of them can’t even identify themselves as such. There needs to be flexibility for a school or other organisation to grow with the knowledge which is being made available, this allows the organisation to remain healthy. Healthy interaction with other groups can only assist with this and can only benefit swordplay overall.



Thursday, August 13, 2020

Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle Applied to Fencing

Some first things that need to be established. I am not a physicist, I have not studied physics save for a little dabbling in Aristotelian Physics to greater understand Renaissance thought. So with this in mind my approach to using Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle is going to be a little "popularist" and a little "generic". Please do not try to argue the physics of the situation, I am taking something from one field and applying it to another where I believe it fits.

"[Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle] is any of a variety of mathematical inequalities asserting a fundamental limit to the precision with which the values for certain pairs of physical quantities of a particle, such as position, x, and momentum, p, can be predicted from initial conditions. Such variable pairs are known as complementary variables or canonically conjugate variables, and, depending on interpretation, the uncertainty principle limits to what extent such conjugate properties maintain their approximate meaning, as the mathematical framework of quantum physics does not support the notion of simultaneously well-defined conjugate properties expressed by a single value. The uncertainty principle implies that it is in general not possible to predict the value of a quantity with arbitrary certainty, even if all initial conditions are specified."

"I thought this was a fencing blog. What am I doing reading about physics?" This is probably what's going through your mind as you read the previous quote. The thing that needs noting about Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle is that it can be applied to fields outside those of quantum mechanics and even physics. Or at least a certain basis of the Principle can be applied to these things. It is that last part which is most interesting, "it is in general not possible to predict the value of a quantity with arbitrary certainty, even if all initial conditions are specified."( Here, it is used as a "framing device".

In regard to fencing there are details given about techniques. These are based on the actions of what an opponent will do in response to the action of the fencer. Indeed, other actions are established on what the fencer is only able to do from that particular position. 

Other techniques are detailed, these are based upon how a weapon will move. Others are founded on actions of the opponent. Some actions are established on the action of the fencer, intended to make the opponent move their weapon, thus produce the moving weapon. 

Further admonitions assert, a fencer will act from a particular position in response to the action of the fencer and will move their weapon in a particular way. So prediction is made based upon both the position and the action. Indeed the same can be said that a fencer can be predicted to move in a particular way from a particular position with or without stimulus, according to what the texts teach us.

According to the Uncertainty Principle, none of this is possible. As it has been previously presented,  such predictions cannot be made based upon such initial conditions when they are specified. A fencer may not execute the action predicted by the text, so the fencer has to respond in a different way. The fencer actually had no idea how an opponent will respond to any action they might make. All they can do is assess the probability of the response of the opponent.

The fencer must work on a probability matrix based on what they have observed of the opponent, but they can never be 100% sure of any action of the opponent, regardless of what information they have. Reading the opponent is vital in assessing this probability of what an opponent may do. The fencer should never be so sure that they think they know exactly what the opponent must do. The opponent always has options which are not planned for.



[Edited for clarity: 20/08/2020]

Monday, July 13, 2020

On Respect for the Point


The following article discusses the respect given to the weapon which is being used in a martial context, something which seems to be being lost in some HEMA (Historical European Martial Art) situations. The original weapons, and the idea of the original weapons, is being lost the result is this art is beginning to turn into another sport which happens to involve swords. Of note, originally this article was going to discuss the "fear" of the point, but fear is not what is required. It is a healthy respect of the weapon that is being used.

The fencer needs to respect the weapon that they are using not fear it.

If the fencer has fear of the weapon they are not likely to engage with the opponent with their full being and thus actions will be performed sloppily and without intention. This will result in inaccurate actions, bad form and bad practice on the part of the fencer. Further, the same actions engaged with fear are actually more likely to get the fencer hurt than if they engaged with them properly and fully and not holding back.

There needs to be respect for the weapon that is being used. This means that the original use and capabilities of the weapon need to be acknowledged and kept in mind when performing actions with the weapon. Having a sharp point of a sword pointed at a person will change what they will and will not do as compared to having even merely a blunted one, let alone one which is blunted and has a tip on it, regardless of whether protective gear is worn or not. The fencer must acknowledge that the weapon and techniques that they are using were once used to decide life and death struggles.

The lack of respect for the weapon is demonstrated in actions of "exchanged thrusts" or "double-kills" or "trading targets" in each of these instances the fencer is not respecting the weapon of the opponent. A person facing an opponent's sharp weapon would not willingly allow them to strike them just so that they could strike their opponent, especially with the state of medicine when these weapons were originally used. A fencer should be aiming to avoid being struck at all, thus "striking without being struck" as is the aim of all fencing.

The "double-hit" and "double-loss" in a bout today resulted in injury and death in the past. "Double-hits" should not be accepted as good fencing in any way shape or form. In all instances the safety of the fencer, thus the defence of the opponent's action should be most important, followed by the striking of the opponent; this demonstrates respect for the weapon being used. Having tournaments run in a single-kill, single-elimination format, begins to make people realise the importance of this, having people carry their wounds through the tournament also emphasizes this as well.
"For there are few nay there is no man at all, who (perceiuing himselfe readie to be stroken) giues not back, and forsaketh to performe euerie other motion which he hath begun." - Giacomo di Grassi (1594) His True Arte of Defence
Here di Grassi states quite clearly that a person who is about to be struck will give up the idea of striking to defend himself, rather than being attacked. So one of his defences against a slower action of the cut is to present the point to the opponent, who seeing it will not complete the cut. This does not work in many current HEMA bouting because there is no respect of the point which is being directed at the fencer. So, the cut will be completed and so will the thrust, resulting in a "double-hit".

If fencers are supposed to recreate these texts as they were performed. Is it not also required that the individuals who use them also have the same sort of respect for the weapons which they are using? Is it not also required that they have a healthy respect for the point and edge of the weapon, regardless of whether they can actually do damage, but what they are simulating? If this is not the case what is the difference between what is being performed with these weapons and those of sport fencing aside from some electronics, history and formalisation?

In any form of weapons use, be it swordsmanship, archery, or shooting, there must be respect for the weapon. This is necessary because the capabilities of the weapon must be recognised by the person using the weapon, regardless if the person ever actually wanted to use these capabilities. This respect is necessary for safety to ensure that the weapon is treated properly and that those around them are kept safe. In the case of fencing it is also necessary so that the art of fencing can be performed properly with the intent of the treatises that the art is based upon kept intact through its practice.