The Spaniard is now thought to be a better man with his Rapier then is the Italian, Frenchman, high Almaine [German], or anie other countrie man whatsoever, because they in their Rapier-fight stand upon so manie intricate trickes, that in all the course of a mans life it shall be hard to learne them, and if they misse in doing the least of them in their fight, they are in danger of death … This is the maner of the Spanish fight, they stand as brave as they can with their bodies straight upright, narrow spaced, with their feet continually moving, as if they are in a dance, holding forth their arms and Rapiers verie straight against the faces or bodies of their enemies.
The Italians refined and simplified their technique. They came to realise that flexed knees and a more open stance than that used by the Spanish were essential to ease of movement in single combat and that a fight tended to occur along a straight line between the two fencers rather than in circles. Yet, it was an English master, Joseph Swetnam, who first explicitly advocated fighting along this imaginary line in The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence published in 1617. Swetnam reckoned that traversing (ie circling) was useless for taking or giving ground and potentially dangerous.
The evolution of fencing was not a straightforward progression in which new ideas replaced old ones. On the contrary, there was always overlap, regression and, indeed, disagreement between masters over new concepts. Most arguments were over the issue of single or double time when it came to the parry and riposta, and the question of whether the cut was superior to the thrust. Moreover, older styles of swordplay co-existed with developing rapier play during the sixteenth century, particularly in England where the rapier was not universally adopted until the seventeenth. Some Englishmen like Silver, admittedly a diminishing minority, abhorred the influx of the foreign weapon and the alien methods of fighting with it.
RIGHT Swetnam's guard for single rapier. The position of the rapier is quite different from guard for rapier and dagger
Silver regarded the behaviour of some rapier men to be disreputable. In particular, he abhorred that some duellists wore ‘a good shirt of maile upon their bodies’ for protection and that Italian fencers also wore ‘a paire of Gantlettes upon their hands’, implying that gloves or gauntlets were not commonly worn by swordsman off the battlefield. The glove would have protected the left hand when it was used for parrying. Silver also claimed that rapier men ‘are most comonly sore hurt, or one or both of them slaine’. In 1598, the playwright Ben Jonson was wounded in the arm by Gabriel Spencer, one of his actors. Jonson then killed Spencer. Double wounding was common, that is wounds inflicted on each fighter at the same moment. This had many causes but chief among them was bravado at the expense of skill, the use of single time rather than double time, and too much reliance on avoidances at the expense of parries. In the modern sport of épée fencing, a common occurrence is the simultaneous attack in which both fencers land their points; both hits count. Simultaneous attacks certainly occurred in rapier fights but the consequences were more serious than merely losing a point. This highlights another of Silver’s objections: poor timing by rapier men.
From Silver’s diatribe it is evident that some rapier men did not follow the basic principal of hand first, feet second, despite being taught that the hand should always precede the feet. A consequence of feet first, hand second was that the perpetrator tended to run on to the point of the other man’s rapier. As Silver wisely pointed out
the hand is swifter than the foot, the foot or feet being the slower mover than the hand, the hand in that manner of fight [ie when the feet are moved before the hand] is tied to the time of the foot or feet, and being tied thereto, [the fighter] has lost his freedom, and is made thereby as slow in his motions as the foot or feet.
This is a universal truth as applicable to modern fencing as it was to ancient swordsmanship: you attack by extending the sword arm and, hence, the weapon. Moving the feet first is the mistake of the inexperienced or the poorly trained. All this rather suggests that rapier men in London, at least, were not skilled and relied on bravado. In medieval times, swordsmen learned and practised from childhood. This was not the case with the rapier.
Silver implied the rapier men had poor teachers. Such views did not arise merely because he was prejudiced against Italians – indeed, he was no more keen on the French or the Spanish – but from an understanding of what he thought made a good swordsman irrespective of his weapon of choice. There is no question that the Italian masters taught the importance of distance to their pupils as the manuals of the sixteenth century amply prove. A practical understanding of distance has always been fundamental to good swordsmanship. However, the distance for fighting with a rapier was different from the distance for fighting with a sword if for no other reason than a sword being shorter than a rapier by several centimetres.
Silver’s weapon was shorter (about 80 cm) but probably slightly heavier than a rapier (about 1.5–3.0 kg) with a blade suitable for the old-fashioned downright blow as well as for thrusting. He would not have known the lunge. Silver advocated that the fighter should be one step out of reach of the opponent’s blade so that the defender always had time to react to an attack. This also meant that the attacker had to be able to close the distance quickly to land a blow. Considering that several of the guards of the time necessitated having the sword arm extended towards the opponent, the foolhardiness of simply stepping forward to attack is self evident – although the level of danger depended on whether the opponent emphasised the thrust or the cut. Moreover, the temptation was to withdraw the point somewhat first which further compounded the error.
The practicalities of maintaining distance were made more difficult by the extreme lengths of rapier blades and compounded by rapier guards which positioned the sword arm out and away from the body. It was very easy to underestimate the proximity of an opponent and, more importantly, his sword unless the swordsman had good peripheral vision. It is significant that such misjudgments tended not to occur with the smallsword which had a far shorter blade while each of its guards positioned the weapon much closer to the body. Moreover, the great length of rapier blades made their smooth manipulation more difficult to achieve than with shorter swords which led to mistimed attacks and defences and mutual hits.
Silver’s views on blade length were derived from practical experience of fighting with a sword rather than a rapier.
To know the perfect length of your sword you shall stand with your sword and dagger drawn … keeping out straight your dagger arme, drawing backe your sword as far as conveniently you can, not opening the elbow joynt of your sword arme: and looke what you can draw within your dagger, that is the just length of your sword, to be made according to your stature.
In other words, a sword of perfect length reached the out held dagger blade, neither crossing it nor falling short of it. The idea was that a sword of this length could be easily disengaged by withdrawing the point. With a longer sword, the swordsman would have to take a step backwards to achieve the same ends and Silver believed that such a step would forestall an effective attack or counter. He did not, however, advocate that a swordsman should stand his ground come what may. Rather, he should adapt his actions according to those of his opponent.
The English way of fighting was overtaken by events outside Silver’s control. The low social status of English fencing masters led to their fall from grace because the aristocracy desired to learn rapier play from masters of appropriate status, not low-class swordsman. Moreover, when James I ascended the English throne in 1603, the charter held by the Masters of Defence to teach fencing became invalid. Then, Henry IV of France sent French masters to London to instruct Henry, Prince of Wales, in the art and science of rapier play. Swetnam also claimed to have taught Prince Henry who died at the age of eighteen in 1612.
In 1604, the game was finally up for the English masters when one of their number, John Turner, achieved an unenviable reputation for hitting opponents in the eye with his sword and blinding them, John Dun and Robert Crichton (Lord Sanquar) among them. Dun was killed but Crichton survived. Neither incident occurred in a duel but during practice sessions. Turner seems to have been an unpleasant individual whose intent was, indeed, mutilation. In 1612, Crichton took his revenge on Turner by arranging his murder. Turner was shot with a pistol at close range and died but the perpetrators and Crichton were caught, tried and condemned. They were hanged, Crichton with a ‘silken halter’ as was his right as a peer.
There is no question that English swordplay was in some ways more aggressive, more violent than rapier play. After all, strikes had to be delivered with some force and the blow from a sword could sever a limb or decapitate. Silver claimed that rapier play was less dangerous because of the absence of these ‘downright blows’ and he knew of
a Gentleman hurt in a rapier fight, in nine or ten places through the body, arms and legs and yet hath continued in his fight, & afterward slain the other.
Whether Silver was being disingenuous or simply sparing with the truth, the fact is that victims of rapier thrusts often died, although rarely on the field of combat. Indeed, they not infrequently bled to death, especially if the wounds were not dressed quickly or if the stomach was pierced. If the victim did not succumb to loss of blood, he died because his wounds became infected, which promised a slow and agonising death over the following days. Puncture wounds of the abdomen were especially prone to peritonitis.
The transition from an emphasis on sword cuts to rapier thrusts, their relative merits much argued over by fencing masters in their treatises of the latter part of the sixteenth century, was hugely problematical for fencers. Contrary to what Silver would have his readers believe regarding the relative lethalities of sword cuts and rapier thrusts, the thrust was not only more dangerous to life but less easily avoided than a cut. Whereas the wild thrashings of an untutored swordsman could be countered without too much trouble by a skilled swordsman, the same was not so true when it came to a man who rushed at an opponent, wildly stabbing at him. Such a man could only be countered by getting out of his way and waiting for him to tire himself out. Any attempt to parry or counter was almost certain to fail because of his unpredictability, unless the timing of the defence and counter was perfect. Even if one of the defender’s thrusts found its mark on the attacker, he would have been almost certainly stabbed himself in the encounter. This may seem contrary to the whole point of swordsmanship but it is a frustrating truth: the only safe defence against a wild attacker is distance and patience. Rapier men were not renowned for their patience, however. Two similarly wild and impatient opponents were almost certain to kill each other.
In all rapier guards, the knees were flexed with one foot placed a comfortable distance in front of the other, slightly to the side, with the blade held up so as to threaten the opponent’s face from either a low or high line and irrespective of whether the left hand held a dagger or any other defensive aid. Some guards required the rapier to be extended with a more or less straight arm, but others required that it be withdrawn with the hilt adjacent the hip or the head with the hand positioned well away from the body. The fencer’s weight was usually over the back foot which helped to keep the body and head out of striking distance of the opponent’s blade. Leaning backwards also helped but the fighter had to avoid being rooted to the spot as a consequence of putting too much weight through the back leg; he had to be able to move with agility and speed from whichever guard he adopted. Indeed, he should not remain static for a moment as a fight was a dynamic thing not a series of struck poses. He should be constantly changing his position and the distance.
How much faster and more agile were rapier fights than combat with medieval arming swords or, indeed, the longsword? They were certainly different if only because of the different shapes of the weapons and the changing emphasis from edge to point. There are contemporary sources which implied that fighting with medieval swords was hard work and, indeed, so indecisive that frequent pauses were needed to allow the fighters to rest on their swords to catch their breath and even to take a drink. Yet, medieval swords were not heavy nor unwieldy, although fighting in a full harness of armour would have made the effort that much greater but it was not inhibiting to the point of immobility. However, there was a different ethos to medieval swordplay off the battlefield compared to rapier fights. In the latter, anything was acceptable despite the ostensible code of conduct to which all duelists were supposed to subscribe, whereas, in medieval fights, the chivalrous code did, indeed, impose rules that were ignored only at great risk to honour and indeed life. Such rules did not apply on the battlefield, of course.
False notions about the speed at which a rapier fight was conducted, are often derived, it has to be said, from seeing modern sport fencing and stage combat, neither of which reflect the nature of rapiers or sixteenth century fencing. Rapier fights were generally slower than stage combat implies partly because of the risk of death which is largely absent in stage combat. Stage combat is faster because that makes the action more dramatic, audiences expect it and the actors are following a hopefully well-rehearsed routine. There is also the point that no style of fighting, ancient or modern, can be sustained at the highest energy level for a prolonged period without the fighters becoming exhausted. Thus, a fight proceeded in phrases – unless it was decided quickly.
Medieval swordsman were probably fitter than renaissance rapier men as they practised for war not social conflict and had done so since childhood. Many rapier men were little better than dilettantes when it came to learning fencing skills. It was all too easy for a man to pick up a few moves and be persuaded he had mastered the art. Practice and reality are very different animals, however. To be a good swordsman is not merely to be able to perform well in practice but to absorb those skills into your muscles and bones so that action is immediate and appropriate. That took years to accomplish. Medieval sword play was both more skilled and more dynamic than popular myth impugns, while rapier play was both slower and more reckless with a high casualty rate among duelists. Rather than this merely reflecting the skill or speed of duelists, the death rate indicated the high lethality of puncture wounds. Indeed, battlefield wounds due to sword cuts were not usually fatal whereas punctures of the skull made by another weapon designed for that very purpose were the coup de grâce after the opponent had been brought down with a sword.
Although di Grassi grasped the idea of closing a line with a guard, none of this really achieved that. A generation later and Capo Ferro reduced the guards to a single practical one but acknowledged there were at least six others. However, his one practical guard was the antithesis of what became to be regarded as a proper guard in smallsword fencing in the latter part of the seventeenth century in that it closed none of the lines but was a sort of midpoint which actually defended nothing. Smallsword had eight guards, four for the high lines, four for the low ones; or, put another way, four outside and four inside guards. But only one of these guards was practical against a man intent on killing you.
The main difference between the pairs of guards this created was the orientation of the hand: supinated or pronated. Moreover, smallsword guards required the fencer to retain a bend in the sword arm and not extend the blade with a straight arm, unlike in rapier. The reason for this was simple: if a fencer assumed a straight arm posture and did not immediately attack, the defender might take the blade with a prise de fer or beat and hit the straight-armed man before he woke up and did something. A straight arm invited an action called the bind. The defender engaged the extended blade and, a circular movement while maintaining contact with it, moved the opposing blade diagonally from high to low or vice versa thereby moving the opponent’s point out of the way. Similar actions were a crossing action (termed croisé in smallsword) in which the opposing blade was taken and moved vertically in a semicircular movement rather than diagonally; and the envelopment which used a full circle to achieve the same end.
Saviolo described only three cuts, primarily to demonstrate how the English fought with swords à la George Silver. These were mandritta (horizontal from the right, palm up ie hand supinated, using the false edge) aimed at the opponent’s left side; and riversi the converse of this (ie horizontal from the left, hand pronated, using the true edge). He also described the stramazone a quick cut across the face with the tip of the sword which is usually interpreted as a vertical cut to the head but it is hard to see how the tip would do anything except bounce off the skull if it were, indeed, a head cut. Hence, the action was more likely to have been a slash, vertical or diagonal, across the face. Saviolo advocated that cuts had to be made by turning the knuckles towards the target in their execution.
The thrusts advocated by di Grassi and Saviolo included the stoccata (hand supinated), imbrocatta (hand pronated), punta riversa (from the left) and punta dritta (from the right). The stoccata took the attacking point beneath the defending blade, while the imbroccata took it over the defending blade. Hence, a stoccata riversa was a thrust under the opponent’s blade with the palm up. Thrusts were preferred to cuts because, as di Grassi explained, when thrusts enter ‘but three fingers into the body, [they] are wont to kill’. The favoured target for thrusts was always the face or the belly, rarely the chest. Not only were wounds in the face distressing but they were likely to end a fight very quickly. The psychological impact of tasting a steel blade in your mouth after it had gone through your cheeks was considerable, especially if it knocked out a few teeth in the process. Moreover, the blood vessels in the scalp and face bleed profusely when cut so a scalp wound would likely lead to blood dripping into your eyes.
These actions, cut or thrust, had to be made by stepping in with the front foot and drawing up somewhat the back one. That movement was not a lunge but neither was it a pass. There was another action of importance in rapier fencing. In modern parlance, this was the stop hit, a move with which modern épéeists are very familiar. In essence, a stop hit was a counter strike into an attack without blocking or parrying the attack. For it to be successful, the timing of it had to be exact otherwise a double hit was almost certain to be the outcome. A stop hit into an attack gave the appearance of simultaneous attacks. Indeed, simultaneous attacks were also common events in rapier play. There were various ways to execute a stop hit. All required a simultaneous avoidance, the left hand usually being held ready to ward off an attack to the face. Stop hits were most effective against the face as it presented a clear target because the attacker’s focus was on hitting his opponent. Other stop hit actions included slipping. This was a half-step backwards and to the side, simultaneously lowering the body to avoid the attacking blade, while extending your own rapier to the attacker. Alternatively, the back foot was withdrawn somewhat and the front foot pulled back to it while simultaneously extending the blade towards the incoming attacker.
The question of parries depended to some extent on whether the attacker closed to get inside the defender’s blade and, indeed, on whether both men were armed with daggers, a second rapier, a cloak or merely had an open left hand. Parries changed during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They started out as deflections and redirections rather than as blocks. This went to the heart of the issue of single and double time. The emphasis was originally on single time but as blade and footwork became faster and more sophisticated, double time was the only sure way to parry and make an effective riposte. Parries in single time tended to result in redirections of the attacking blade which allowed the attacker to change his line of attack as his blade was redirected. This also resulted in what may be termed yielding parries in which the sword arm was withdrawn without opposing the force on the blade. While these were effective counters to binds, they were less so when defending against direct attacks. Moreover, they also gave rise to disarms, with the aid of appropriate leverage; and, indeed, to exchanges of weapons in which each fencer gave up his weapon to his opponent as each disarmed the other. Double time blocking parries prevented this from happening.
Single-time parries were imprecise because they included a counter strike so that they were more sweeps than blocks. A fight could take on the appearance of a circular tug of war in which blade contact was sustained – ie rapier to hand or dagger – than was necessary simply to block and riposte. With a double-time parry and riposte, the original attacker’s sweeping arm parry would be hit by a thrust from his opponent because the arm was fully exposed by the sweep. Moreover, a disengagement or a feint to avoid a single-time parry would ensure the attacker hit the defender. Indeed, a timed stop hit into the parry would do the job. It was essential that an attacker’s blade was strongly blocked in the line of attack to prevent continuations which were almost inevitable with single-time sweeping parries. A simple direct thrust as a riposte was very effective in double time but impossible in single time. Moreover, single-time parries and counters were likely to pull the fighters close together and make them vulnerable to dagger thrusts or pommel strikes. Double-time parries allowed the fighters to withdraw out of distance after the riposte and assume a guard posture (termed ‘to recover’). Single time persisted with rapier and dagger but double time dominated in single rapier so that when the defensive arm was abandoned with the smallsword only double time was employed.
Capo Ferro insisted that a riposte should always follow a parry and that the attacker should always be ready to parry should his attack be parried and he receive a riposte. He taught that parries, irrespective of whether they were they were made with a rapier or a dagger, should preferably be made with the true edge of the blade, sometimes the false edge but never the flat. Rapier and dagger could be used to parry in unison to stop a cut. For a parry to be effective, the blade had to be angled with the point directed upwards or downwards to ensure that the attacking blade was met by an angled blade; too close to the horizontal and the blades would not make contact. Cut parries had to be strong enough to prevent the attacking blade from coming round the defending blade or forcing it aside and finding a target. Capo Ferro taught the simple parry by which the defending blade was moved laterally from left to right or vice versa. Parries were supposed to be executed with an extended arm.
With rapier and dagger, the dagger parry was accompanied by a pass forward so that the simultaneous riposte (single time) would be in distance and, hence, strike home. When using double time with single rapier, the rear leg was brought up to the front leg on the parry and the right leg carried forward on the riposte. This was a legacy of single time. In reality, moving into an attack, even with a parry, was unwise; it was much safer to step back to parry, then move forward on the riposte. But that sort of movement did not become commonplace until the advent of the smallsword.
With two men, Alfonse and Ben, fighting single rapier, a typical attack and defence might be for Alfonse to step in with a disengagement, threatening Ben’s chest, Ben to counter-disengage and thrust with a croisé or envelopment, forcing Alfonse’s blade upwards; Ben hits Alfonse in the face. A variation on this might be for Alfonse to step in with a feint to Ben’s chest to draw Ben’s parry, then disengage as Ben attempts to parry and step diagonally out and forward with the right foot to cut down on Ben’s face or thrust to his head. Alternatively, Alfonse draws a counter from Ben by threatening with or without a disengagement, then uses a high parry to enable Alfonse to step in under Ben’s blade with opposition (pushing) and thrust into Ben’s chest or belly (hilt high).
All this was to change with the coming of the smallsword in the mid-seventeenth century.