Friday, October 12, 2007

Victorian Culture: Fencing

Austrian Woman's Fencing team
A while back, I had read Miss. Laval’s entertaining entries on the Loch Avie Academy of Arms…

I got to thinking about the background regarding fencing styles. Much is common knowledge about Japanese Samurai techniques and Chinese Wusha styles, I frankly knew little about European sword styles. So, during my continual efforts at unpacking, I fortunately located the source that I wished to use, therefore…

Styles of European Fencing

"The Old School"
The old combat styles didn’t instantly shrivel up and blow away before the rapier. For example, the manuals of old-style military combat published in Italy by Marozzo and Dell’Aggochie at the end of the 16th century were in print nearly to the end of the 17th century. The combat they taught wasn’t as de mode as the rapier, but their battlefield pragmatics earned them a place among men who lived by the sword. Contrary to the claims of Victorian antiquarians, this was a mobile style that relied heavily on active footwork, not just standing and bashing.

It tended to be a composite of techniques taught by older schools, as would be found across Europe to the end of the 16th century. By the end of the 17th century, this would be much rarer – although nations on the "fringe" (of Europe) (e.g. Scotland, Russia, ect…) might still prefer it.

Italian School
Unlike the English, who squabbled over whether or not the rapier belonged in their country (much less in the same school as older weapons), the Italians saw it as a natural outgrowth of older swordsmanship. Thus, the Italians often taught the rapier side-by-side with older weapons. The practice was carried across Europe by Italian masters and their students.

The Italian school is daring, emphasizing stresso tempo, counterattacks in "one time", over dui tempi, or parry-riposte combinations. It also favored thrusts over cuts. This style was popular in Italy until the end of the 18th century, and could still be found up to the middle of the 19th century in some places. The Italians preserved the used of secondary weapons (dagger and cloak) for longer than any other European country.

La Destreza Verdadera
The Spanish were the first to recognize that civilian combat was a world unto itself, with features distinct from military conflicts. Combined with the Spanish sensitivity regarding personal honor, this led Spain to develop one of the earliest schools of rapier and refine their techniques specifically for civilian encounters. They called their art La Destrenza Verdadera – "The True Skill." Students were required to learn geometry and natural philosophy, deemed vital for understanding efficient timing and methods of attack and defense. They were also taught to read their opponent’s every cue, moving precisely at the best moment. Finally they were trained to maintain contact with their opponent’s blade, and were given access to defensive techniques purported to be effective even in the dark of night.

In combat, a Diestro (as practitioners called themselves), was to remain detached and project dignity and grace. Extreme movements were to be avoided, as was any "vulgarity" in form or technique. The Diestro held himself perfectly erect, his point always upon his enemy. Attack would occur only when he had obtained deviso: redirection of – or possibly indifference to – his opponent’s weapon.

Transitional French School
As the 17th century passed, rapiers grew lighter and shorter. Masters emphasized the use of the sword alone for offence and defense. Likewise, armor fell out of use by Europe’s major armies, removing the need for the lance and other heavy military weapons. The era between the long Italian rapier and the 18th century small sword is now known as the "Transitional Era". At the time, it was simply seen as an improved way to use the rapier.

French Maites d’arms led the way in developing this style, which appeared around 1640. It emphasized defense over offence and was more academic than the Italian School. Elegance of execution was as important as technical effectiveness. Nevertheless, the earnest duel was still the object of study. In France, this school was completely replaced by the Smallsword style by 1720.

Nothing succeeds like success. Duellists of the Transitional school realized that a lighter weapon was easier to use in the new ripose-oriented style. The ultimate end of this arms race was the small sword, which appeared in the 18th century. It was a short, stiff sword, barely larger than a small knife. The style associated with ti emphasized elegance above all, although proponents insisted that its defensive technique could be applied to all forms of combat. The smallsword era was the heyday of academic fencing. Masters of the day were still expected to train cavalry in the use of the saber, and some also taught the use fo the cutlass. This style lasted unitl circa 1830.

Infante, V. (1999) - Gurps Swashbucklers, pg. 28-30, SJG:Austin
[edited for removal of game specific content]


Mrs. Widget said...

I've seen the picture before but never really looked at it. It clicked, "Sword and dagger, two handed..."

The book By the Sword has a lot on the history of sword play, and fencing.

Dr. Rafael Fabre said...

Ty, madam!