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Fencing and History Nut Extraordinaire. While I am tending toward 16th century at the moment, I am and have been interested in history for a long time. Hence the fencing focuses more on the Renaissance period than the modern. This explains two out of three of my blogs. The third is a more personal one focusing on fibromyalgia. What I write in these blogs, I hope will be of use to people.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

On the Subject of Cutting


As you can see by the subject line this blog is about cutting. It is a subject which has been debated long and hard, both in the Renaissance period and the modern period. For the purposes of this blog I will be mainly focusing on cutting from a Renaissance perspective and also specifically focusing on the use of the rapier. One of the most important things about this discussion is that it is necessary that it is done from an open-minded perspective in order to get the greatest benefit from it, as such there will be some points which will raised which may cause some arguments. Please bear in mind as you read that I am attempting to give the most event-handed discussion of the subject possible and that possibly some of the points raised should be considered as such.

Various organisations have performed test cutting experiments with regards to the use of the cut with the rapier and this will be the first subject for discussion. It is the methods of these test cuts that will be the focus of the discussion. One of the most important things that needs to be taken into account for proper test cutting is the proper method of performing the cuts. If the cuts are not performed properly the test can in no way be valid. This has to be balanced with various other factors in order that the test cutting itself is representational.

Not only does the method have to be valid but this also needs to take into account the weapon being used and the various variations on the weapon possible. In essence a sample of weapons should be taken rather than one single form being taken as representational of all of the forms of that weapon. A perfect example is the rapier in this case. The classification of the weapon is difficult as it came in many forms. Some had longer blades. Some had thicker blades. Some had edges which would be suitable for cutting and others did not. Unless this is taken into account the test cannot be truly valid for all weapons of that particular type.

Next it is important to balance this to the combat situation in which the weapon was used. In order to be valid the test must be performed in a manner which at least resembles the action and situation in which the cut would be performed. This also must take into account any preventive equipment or lack thereof, such as clothing that would have or not been worn at the time. If a cut would most likely have been aimed for example at the body then the target should be placed in a particular way that it would reflect such and placed in such a manner that it would represent a human body. This means that there needs to be some way to prevent it from moving and also allow the action to be performed against it. Without these factors being taken into account it is impossible to say that the test is representational.

The method of performing the cut does need to be taken into account in order that the test can be valid. The test will be invalidated if the cut is not performed as it would be in the situation where it would be used. This means that the correct technique needs to be used applying the correct amount of pressure against the target. If either of these is missing then the test cannot be seen to be valid. This requires research into how the cut would have been performed using a real weapon against a real human being. In this, it is here where personal bias has the most effect. If the tester does not think that a method is valid there is no way to guarantee that the cut will be performed correctly as sub-consciously if they do not think that the method is valid they will want it to fail the test. This means that the tester needs to be open-minded throughout the test in order that it can be valid through proper performance of the actions required.

There are various reasons why a particular form of cut may or may not be used by a particular group or organisation. This may be based on various different factors that need to be taken into account when examining what is being done. One factor is the weapons being used in the bouting. If the weapons are not suited to the performance of a particular cut it can be easily expected that that form of cut will not be used by that group. This can be based on the make or design of the weapon being used. Another factor that should be taken into account is the school of thought behind the organisation using the weapon. The late Italian schools of fence did not use the cut particularly much and this will influence the type of cut that is being used, how much it is practiced, and the situations in which it is or is not used. This will be different to a more German approach where the cut is more important to the style being performed and thus its use will be more prevalent. Finally there are administrative and safety issues that may be present in the organisation which prevent certain types of cut being used. These are typical to the organisation or group and will determine which cuts are considered valid and which ones are not.

With regards to cuts the most important thing of all types of cuts is the correct method for their use in order that they are effective. Without this it is impossible to be able to perform them properly or effectively and there are various factors that need to be taken into account. Technical detail needs to be considered in the performance of all kinds of cut, and these technical details are best expressed in the various factors highlighted below.

First there is the question of hacking in comparison to cutting, this relies upon the purpose and method used for the particular type of cut. Simply bashing away at the opponent with the edge of the weapon is a waste of time and thus the cut must be performed properly and with purpose, the purpose being to cut the target. This purpose must be realised and paramount for the individual even where the damage is only simulated as it will be for most modern martial practice.

The next thing that needs to be taken into account is that the method is appropriate for the weapon itself. This is important as the wrong type of cut performed with the weapon can lead to all sorts of problems not to mention potential damage to a weapon which money has been invested. This means that the method of cutting is very much dependent on the weapon being used. It is useless to attempt to perform cleaving cuts with a weapon for which it is not the purpose.

Finally comes situational importance. The cut must be appropriate to the situation in which the combatant finds themselves in. This must factor in various aspects such as distance, leverage and pressure. There are cuts which are best performed close to the opponent and there are those which are best performed further away, these aspects need to be taken into account in the consideration of which cut will be performed. If the distance is wrong or the leverage is not adequate or the pressure of the blade against the target is not correct then there is no way that the cut will be able to be performed correctly or properly in that situation. Thus situational importance is vital in the correct performance of the cut, or any attack for that matter.

The weapon has been discussed briefly, now it is important to go into more detail. There is a great impact on cutting from the design of the weapon. It must be remembered that there are many different weapons which were called rapiers, and several different forms in which they came, some of which were elucidated above. Obviously the thing that has the greatest effect is the blade design. The width is important in determining the types of cut that will be valid for it. This needs to be balanced with the edge itself, and whether it has a real one or not, whether it is sharp or would have been sharp. This also needs to be balanced with the angle of the edge to see how well it would cut using different methods. This needs to be considered along with whether the weapon is suited to the particular form of cut chosen. Some weapons will be able to perform several different types of cut well and others will be more restricted in their proper use. This may, and often does even come down to the individual weapon.

Various historical sources describe cutting in their texts and describe the manner in which the cut should be performed. It is important to examine these important documents in order to find how the cuts should be performed. Of course, the interpretation of these texts will also have a great impact on how the cuts will be performed. Some give clear examples of how the cut should be performed and others merely hint that cuts were performed but give no description at all. The important thing here is that due to the fact that cuts are mentioned in various texts with regard to the use of the rapier, Di Grassi and Saviolo being only two examples, the idea that the cut is not a valid attack or technique in the use of the rapier is ludicrous.

The most debated forms of cut for the rapier which are argued about by modern theorists and practitioners are the push cut and the draw cut. Some believe that they are a by-product of some forms of fencing performed, others believe that they are legitimate methods which have been changed in order to suit the current age. The question that would be posed is that if they are such a non-technique for the use of the rapier, why have they travelled down and been described in so many manuals? This goes back to some of what was said before.

These are slicing cuts performed with pressure against the target. The blade is not merely placed against the target and then drawn or pushed. This comes back again to the correct method for their use and also the weapon. A draw or push cut will only work particularly well with a weapon which is sharp on its edge, and sharp in the form of a razor as the cut is designed to slice.

In test cutting for this particular form of cut the target, method and weapon are important. The target would be presumed to be an individual wearing a light shirt as may be worn for a duel, thus the preventative measures are important. The position of the target is also important that it will represent such an individual standing up. The weapon needs to be sharp on the edge in order that the weapon will actually cut using this method, thus it needs to be suitable for this form of cut. Finally the cuts must be performed correctly with the correct amount of pressure and leverage against the target. Only once all of these elements are brought together will it be seen whether or not this is a valid method for cutting, and there may be some who will be surprised by the results.

There are various methods of cutting, the impact cut, tip cut, push cut and draw cut. The only way that we will ever know what is or isn't a valid method is for test cutting to be performed where discovery of new information rather than the debunking of a particular method is the aim of the experimentation being performed. The debates about various methods of cutting with various weapons will be debated in the future along with many other elements of fencing that present themselves. This is due to the many different points of view that are available in the modern world. The most important thing with regard to this is that we keep our minds open to these different points of view as they can only enrich our understanding of fencing. Debate is healthy as it allows us to examine various subjects and hopefully come up with some answers in some situations, but always with different points of view. This is healthy for all practitioners and to close our minds to these possibilities is to close our minds to a wider world of different options.