Why Study Classical Fencing?|
Art Or Sport?
IFV Classical Fencing Method
Raoul Clery, Maitre d'Armes
translated by Mary Anne Stevens
This article, written by one of France's leading Fencing Masters, first appeared in the Feb-March 1983 issue of Escrime magazine and was later published in American Fencing magazine with whose gracious permission we re-print it here.
Everyone still remembers how the Soviet champion Vladimir Smirnov met his death last July , during the world championships in Rome. [Memory of this death has since long faded in much of the fencing world, if the incident is remembered at all.] Everything, or almost everything, has been written about that dramatic episode in fencing history. Curiously, however, the fencing masters were the most discreet in their appraisals. Raoul Clery has just filled in this blank by writing us a text with the double merit of offering new considerations and of emphasizing that a thorough reform of fencing is mandatory at all levels and in all categories: officials, masters, fencers, and directors.
At the October 2, 1982 meeting of the governing committee, F.F.E. President Roland Boitelle opened the session by paying tribute to the Soviet fencer Smirnov, mortally wounded during a bout in the world's team foil championship. It was a highly merited tribute, as much by the champion who will leave the memory of an exceptional foilist: Olympic champion, winner of the World Cup, as by the man, whose dignity and conduct on and off the strip were exemplary.
This tragic loss plunged the little world of fencing into consternation and fed the news reports on the sport for some time. People tried to understand what had happened, where the responsibilities lay, and how to avoid the recurrence of such happenings.
People feared (though it is not established at this writing) that the horrible nature of the accident might have repercussions in our recruitment, especially among children. Some parents have, indeed, said that they had not thought such an accident possible. Let us reassure them at once. No such accident -- or even a less serious one -- has ever been recorded in the young children's categories. The reason for this [is] that the children have neither the body weight, nor the strength, nor the aggressive violence that we see more and more among adults.
In this regrettable affair, one would have liked the French Academy of Arms to take a stand. There was nothing. However, in France, 500 fencing masters teach several thousand pupils each day. Above a certain level of competition, we fear the responsibility of the former and the safety of the latter are not fully assured.
A journalist wrote, "it would not be realistic always to blame fate" in fencing accidents. We share this opinion to the fullest when we notice that in a modest regional league, within just a few years, the following accidents have occurred:
It seems urgent then to consider all the problems which contribute more and more toward endangering the safety of fencers. Among those that come up most frequently are:
Let us review these various elements.
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Its responsibility in accidents is undeniable. Above all, this is what makes fencing dangerous. Of breakable steel, fragile because of the too-weak portion of the tip, unpredictable either in its resistance or in the shape it will take at the instant of fracture. When it breaks at an angle, depending on the force of the thrust, it can penetrate all fabrics currently in use, as well as the mask -- as the accident of the unfortunate Smirnov demonstrated.
The first idea that comes to mind is to find out whether the time has come to make modern blades heavier or to give them more "body" in order to increase their resistance. The power and speed of the contemporary champions, the evolution of their game toward greater and greater violence, are clearly superior to the strength of the equipment they use. This explains on one hand why accidents hardly ever happen among children and at the same time explains why they are becoming more and more frequent and serious among adults: the former are using equipment whose strength exceeds their own physical force; with the latter, their physical force dominates the equipment. Heavier blades would not break or would break less; the speed of the actions would be reduced; directing would be facilitated; it is even possible that fencing so practised [sic] would be cleaner, better technically. Obviously, such a reform would upset many preconceived ideas and taboos, from which modern fencing seems quite incapable of freeing itself.
The second solution one thinks of is to find out whether some process could eliminate or at least reduce the power of a steel blade to penetrate at the instant of breaking. Since the accident, some have imagined that it might be possible to have at the base of the blade, near the guard, a sort of "pre-break" capable of releasing the entire blade when its flexibility exceeds a pre-determined threshhold [sic]. That is one solution, though we may still fear that the weak part of the blade near the point, might break at a lesser pressure than that set at the base. Thus, we must suppose that a blade would sometimes break into several pieces. Besides, we can wonder where the commercialization of such an item might lead, and what reactions -- justified or not -- it might provoke among the clientele.
Another solution might consist in inventing a device allowing both parts of the blade not to separate at the moment of breaking, but to remain joined together and thus form a "plug" -- a little like the way fiber-glass blades break. This plug would considerably lessen the power of penetration; blows received under these conditions could no longer go through a mask, and they would be more like bruises than dagger thrusts. How to get this result? Perhaps by means of an "unbreakable" wire, soldered to the back of the blade in a groove like the one used for the electric wire. Not being a technician, I do not know whether this can be produced, nor what the cost might be.
All the suggestions elicited have, above all, the object of trying to retain the use of the metal blade while eliminating the danger that it presents in itself, all while satisfying the taste of certain fencers who insist that only the "contact of steel" stirs within them "tactile," "visual" and, indeed, "auditory" sensations. That is a reflection that leaves us skeptical: on the one hand, because modern foil fencing -- with only a few exceptions (French) -- seems to us to rely more on articulation of the shoulder than upon that of the fingers; the role of sight has not much to do with the consciousness of steel; that of the ear can be considered as entirely negligible; and on the other hand, because everything is a matter of habit and adaptation.
Fifty years ago, for example, all the tennis players in the world uniformly used racquets [sic] of wood, strung with cat-gut. Today, without wood being completely abandoned, nor cats on the road to extinction, they manufacture tennis racquets [sic] (as well as fishing poles, skies, ski-poles, etc.) of metal, of carbon fibre, or of glass/resin fibre, and the strings are sometimes nylon or sometimes altogether different. This evolution in equipment does not seem to have harmed the quality of the modern tennis champions, who have preserved all their "sensations" and their "touch."
Then wouldn't it be possible, simply, to support a development of this sort, researching the manufacture of a blade of synthetic material, presenting the same qualities (weight, stiffness, suppleness) as the steel blade, without its drawbacks? Even if the production of such a blade were expensive, which is not certain, this expense should quickly be amortized it could last (as has been said) several years. Knowing that at present a competitive fencer breaks, year in, year out, an average (very approximate) of a dozen blades, this should not be, in average terms, too costly for the fencer.
Everyone knows, too, in our profession, that, depending on the individuals and their personal styles, certain fencers break twice as many blades as other. Which corresponds exactly to the indication of danger they constitute on the fencing strip.
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It was the mask that let the broken blade reach the unfortunate Soviet fencer. Could it have stopped it? That is the question.
A violent blow, after the breaking of the blade, can push apart or divide the mesh of the present-day mask, especially if it has already been weakened from sweating and wear. When one fences a lot and sweats abundantly, the mask can deteriorate quickly. In the big competitions, an equipment check is expected. We have no reason to doubt that this indeed took place under the conditions stated in the Rules (Art. 5 -- par. 27) with the aid of the spring punch. If this is the case, then we must agree that the thrust which went through Smirnov's mask exceeded in violence the norms and the pressure stated in the Rule.
A daily paper published a photo of Smirnov's mask, clearly showing a round fresh hole about the level of the mouth, the mesh appearing neither pushed in or dented. To produce such a clean break would require (if photo is authentic) that the continuing thrust be executed with prodigious force, or else that the speed of the forward movement of the one who received it (Smirnov) must have been very great, or that the two fencers must have been right in front of each other.
These various observations lead us to think that the solidity of the mask today is insufficient to insure the safety of high-level fencers. And this is in the very element of its structure: the mesh. This is so true that before 1914 Maison Souzy had made a so-called rational mask, constructed of two perforated sheet-iron plates (one for the face, the other for the head and sides). Much stronger than the woven mask, the "rational" one perhaps had the inconvenience of being a bit heavier (and we know that fencers have always preferred lightness to safety), which increased sweating. Perhaps too, its price was too high? I was too young at the time to know. Anyway, I used a mask of that type for several years. I can certify that I tolerated it without any discomfort, and I was not the only one! I retain the private conviction that, with a mask of that kind, Smirnov would still be among us today.
As for the plexiglass mask, made of "lexan" (motorcycle type) of American origin, we must try it before rejecting it. Why can cyclists endure it for several hours sometimes without discomfort, yet fencers would be traumatized after a few minutes? Annoyance provoked by lack of ventilation, by the steam of sweat? This problem must be studied more seriously than has yet been done.
Besides, it is evident that if such a mask were ever adopted, the glances (visible) which the fencers might exchange would open up new sensations to them, not in progression of the opposing blade which is approaching but in the direction it is going to take and which the glance might betray.
It is however possible that the plexiglass might more or less distort the image seen by the fencer and interfere with the exact judgement of distance, an absolutely indispensable notion for the fencer.
One might not forget, in constructing a fencing mask, that it must, imperatively, protect the nape of the neck much more than present masks generally do.
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THE ORTHOPEDIC GRIP
The first measure we heard discussed following the Russian champion's accident was the banning of the orthopedic grip. This measure was demanded by the F.I.E. medical commission the very night of the accident. By returning to the straight (French) grip, they think the pressure of the hand (and of the arm) on the blade would be weaker at the moment of the touch, and that the said hand would be released more easily in case of a frontal shock and breaking of the blade. This is True! But the truth compels one to say that certain grave -- and even fatal -- accidents have happened (in three weapons) between fencers who did not use the orthopedic grip.
More than 20 years ago, when the orthopedic grip began to florish [sic] in all the salles d'armes in France under the pretext that the electric blade did not have the same balance as the old blade, F.I.E. President Commandant Bontemps -- no man for half measure -- decided to prohibit its use by fencers under 20 years of age "except when medical certificate prescribes its necessity." He had to renounce this project quickly before the avalanche of medical certificates that piled up on his desk. Then freedom was left to everyone to use the grip of his choice, and we observe today that a very clear majority of fencers, in France and in the world, uses the orthopedic grip.
To ban the grip, of whatever sort, seems excessive. It is not at all proven that the grip was at fault in Smirnov's accident.
The grip makes the weapon, the weapon influences the style, and often determines the method or school. Formerly, the two fundamental schools of foil, Italian and French, founded their principles on the use of weapons of different structure.
The Italian foil with crossbar, with a very short grip, requires holding the pommel against the wrist by means of a strap. There still exists caricatures of the illustrious knight Pini, at the end of the last century (at encounters with his French rivals Merignac and Prevost) carefully wrapping his wrist with a sort of ribbon of impressive length. To my knowledge, neither Eugenio Pini nor the great Italian fencers of the period preceding the last war, who used the Italian foil, ever killed anyone when they broke a blade. If I'm wrong, people will certainly let me know. And if that had happened, would they have banned the crossbar grip and destroyed the Italian school with the same stroke? It is not so much in the grip that we must intervene, but rather in the manner of execution, which has considerably evolved since electric scoring came into use.
On this subject, it is with much interest that I read the declaration of Carlo Brusati, President F.I.E., regretting the nature of today's fencing: "heavy, without style, without standards (mesure), and the masters and teachers, contrary to what was done in (his) time, no longer require the primordal [sic] quality, that is, bringing the blade (toward the target) with suppleness."
All this to say that it does not seem necessary -- even with an electric weapon -- to put considerable force into "carrying" a touch. One should be able to find among the great fencers of this end of the 20th century what one admires among their counterparts in tennis or among great pianists, an exceptional "touch". We are far from this! Fencing is neither boxing, nor wrestling, nor weight-lifting; one can be effective in it without being brutal. In case of mediocrity, it's not the grip -- whatever it may be -- that must be blamed, but the one who holds it and animates it. For that, perhaps we must rehabilitate the working of the fingers and the wrist, and the suppleness and relaxation of the arm, notions which passed into the background a quarter-century ago.
The combativeness of a fencer should rest on science and technique, not on violence. Do not confuse, either, the "physical condition" necessary to any competitor and the "physical force" which is not indispensable in fencing.
Sometimes in the past they characterized the talent of the great masters by the expression, "hand of iron, arm of rubber." Perhaps later, to classify the fencing of our period, they will need to use the term "hand of steel, arm of concrete."
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There is the habit, in sports, in the case of an incident, or alas! an accident, to blame the officiating. The accident of Smirnov was no exception to this rule. There were even harsh words with the directors after the world championships, but certain qualifications used were excessive.
If a case is to be made on the matter, it must be about directing in general, rather than about particular directors. Let me explain. In whatever sport it may be, the rules of the game are set by an international governing body which defines them and explains them in order to make them known to all, and charges the officials to watch over their application. If something is wrong in the application, the international body has the imperative duty to convene the officials and to explain its thoughts on the disputed points, in order to arrive at a unity of doctrine. This is absolutely indispensable to trainers and instructors so that training and instruction may support each other and conform well to the texts.
At present, in the absence of any reaction of the international organization against excesses (corps-a-corps, running, violence, dangerous play, attacks with bent arm, lack of discipline, etc.) which trainers and masters complain of more and more, one has the right to think that the F.I.E. is satisfied with "conventional" fencing as it is practiced, and with the way it is directed. Why then should the officials judge otherwise than they do?
However, it is evident that a certain laxness has set in, led by electric scoring. Though the rules have absolutely not changed, and on certain points they have even been stated precisely, one cannot deny that today's fencing differs more and more from yesterday's. It is possible that there may be a sort of tacit agreement among officials to leave the apparatus alone, in order not to seem to be nitpicking. If today an international official had the fantasy of strictly applying the rules, he would probably be rejected by the community (directors, colleagues) and pointed at as interfering with good directing; and, probably, stuck with the label they lately have hung on a candidate for national director at his examination: "too severe".
In the first analysis (or in the last, as you like), it is up to the F.I.E. to set things straight. For the following reason, the observance of the rules which should bring about an improvement in the game, making it more attractive, more spectacular, more comprehensible to the public, can only be achieved by starting at the highest level. It must set an example. The observance of rules can then proceed toward the lowest levels (where learning takes place), passing through instructors whose teaching must follow the rules. It is an illusion or, rather, a mistake to hope to reach a solution from the other direction. Everyone knows (at least among those who are familiar with the problem) that the young fencer copies the champion (often more than he listens to his master!) in what he does well, but also in his mistakes. These can run counter to or even destroy all that has been taught him.
On another plane, that of morale for example, the non-application of the rules governing conventional weapons -- or an only partial application -- brings a considerable prejudice against correct fencers or against those who have been wronged. The essential reason is that in fencing every penalty is preceded by a warning, which has been subtly modified -- rendering it a little ridiculous, but certainly not more rigorous. In effect, our sport is the only one that tolerates errors without penalizing them immediately; errors that put one fencer at a disadvantage without any reparation. It is even possible physically to assault an opponent, in the course of a violent action which might send him to the hospital without being otherwise penalized than by a SPECIAL warning! In other sports, warning accompanies a penalty and precedes a more severe penalty in case of repetition; in fencing, the warning always precedes the penalty.
One could write a volume on the anomaly and the derision of fencing penalties, for they exist only in the books! The responsible people in the F.I.E. think they are doing their whole duty by adding one article to another, without supervising its application. For a good quarter-century, they have been playing this little game which is causing the spirit and the quality of conventional weapons to disappear. To take just one example, several years ago they added to the rules precise directives about the correct execution of attacks, in which the extension of the arm must precede the advancement of the foot. However, people continue to give right of way to an action forward, with the arm pulled back during its entire development, while along the way the opponent attacks "on preparation". We have been able to see this recently in the gala women's tournament at the famous "centenary" of the Federation. With such errors in directing, how are instructors supposed to teach? It is true that they are practically never consulted.
Finally, to finish this chapter, it is perhaps not useless to dwell on one other aspect of directing which D.T.N Oprendek raises in his report on the 1982 world championships. This is the matter of certain high-level fencers conducting themselves toward international directors likely to be active in the course of competition with a sort of conciliatory behavior based on flattery, on admiring praise, to dispose them in their favor in case of need. Oprendek has used as reference in this type of seduction operation the former Olympic champion Drimba.
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It is evident that in the past quarter of a century the nature of the game, the very character of conventional fencing, has changed. The fencer in general no longer presents entirely the same silhouette; his game no longer has the same clarity or evenness as before. Very recently, during a retrospective on Italian sport, rebroadcast on television, two fencers of thirty years ago were contending in a world championship final. Elegant bearing and position, displacements in measure with the strict minimum required by distance, practically perfect mastery and ease of movement, left arm in the air, rounded not to "look pretty" but for the role it has to play in balance, and respect for the rule which prescribes implicitly that the valid surface of the trunk must be unconcealed. It was hard not to compare this immediately with the picture presented by today's fencer, whose back arm -- its action denied and denigrated -- hangs down, most often between the legs like the trunk of an elephant, whose armed hand is everywhere and nowhere, and whose leg movements are wide and crazy leaps. The announcer gives the names of the antagonists: d'Oriola, Mangiarotti. Evidently it is another time, another fencing, even if combat still remains combat if the "rules of the game" are still exactly the same.
Is this view of things personal, or is it shared by other personalities? To find out, let's let several fencers of different generations express themselves.
Didier Flament, an active fencer toward the end of his career, declared "I think that referees must show themselves more vigilant and exacting toward fencers who tend to profit from their physical qualities, to the detriment of technicians respecting the true spirit (of foil)...This is no longer classic fencing, but sabre for boarding ships!" Thus, Flament regrets the disappearance (or the impossibility of doing) classical fencing, that is fencing "which does not depart from the established rules".
Christian d'Oriola, Olympic champion thirty years ago, does not formulate a precise criticism, but he recognizes that "physical engagement is pushed more and more, especially among high-level performers." He estimates that one does not actually violate the rules, though one follows them a little "energetically", and thinks that by "armoring" the fencers a little more, one might protect them against accidents.
J.Leal, in Figaro, is practically the only one, with Flament, to consider that it "is urgent to review the rules of directing, so that fencing does not become still more dangerous."
Finally, I recall the already-cited opinion of Carlo Brusati, President of the F.I.E., international fencer before the last war: "Today's fencing is heavy, without style and without standards." It is well said. It is also an observation that coincides with our own. But M. Brusati has added an explanation to this state of things which will be appreciated in varying degrees by the instructors: "the masters and the instructors no longer require of their pupils the primordial quality of bearing the blade with suppleness, contrary to what was done in my day."
I do not share Carolo Brusati's opinion on this point at all. As I have already said, the influence of the top-level fencers on the style of young fencers is considerable, and probably stronger than the lessons given by their own masters. This is human, and this is not peculiar to fencing: in sport, style is often a fashion. For example, a whole generation of tennis players has forced itself to play using top-spin like Borg and Vilas, because they were at that moment the best. And, in a little while (retreat of Borg, success of MacEnroe), we are present at an evolution in another direction, the effects of which we already see among the constellation of talented young players that France possesses at this moment. But as for fencing, there is added to that the existence of an important gap between the spirit (that is, the rules of conventional fencing) and the letter (the manner in which they are interpreted on the strip.)
People can, evidently, disagree; that is, furthermore, that people do won't stop us from continuing to fence. But what kind of fencing? Do we think to attract a vast public by showing it an often incomprehensible clashing of blades? People are too quickly satisfied by this excuse, which is beginning to lack originality: "The uninitiated don't understand anything because it goes too fast." That is not correct. Anyone can follow the play -- even very fast -- if the exchanges alternate. This is the very essence of foil. But no one can take any interest in it if the exchanges are simultaneous. Scientific deficiency in a spectacle has never unleashed enthusiasm. A beautiful attack, a lightning parry-riposte, a prolonged exchange, are understood by everyone. We are scarcely spoiled in this respect today!
Electric scoring has meant a two-edged sword for fencing. It has brought a certain indisputable progress in the realm of materiality of the touch. It has also, unhappily, allowed foilists to risk unknown actions or, rather, actions impossible to accomplish in real combat (whence the rules and conventions stemmed): attack into the attack, double touches, simultaneous actions, or actions rarely attempted before: remises against direct ripostes, which partakes of poker.
The electric scoring has allowed the sport of foil to break away from its rules and to put into use actions "not seen" or "not accepted" previously by a human jury.
It is more precisely the excessive use of the counter-attack in all its forms which evolution has influenced. These actions have progressively gained on classic defense. At the same time there has arisen a new state of mind: a sharp watch for the moment to act -- before the opponent.
Simultaneously -- alas! the mortal accident of Smirnov has shown it -- the intensity of training of modern champions, their physical strength, their speed, introduced into actions where the opponents are advancing toward each other, are added; sometimes these clearly exceed the norms of safety for fabrics and masks.
The thrust into a thrust (long ago, they used to call it "the thrust of two widows") is, I believe, the most harmful, unfortunate, and also the most dangerous action in contemporary foil fencing. An unusual action formerly, it is now ancient in the minds of more and more fencers; it quickly reaches the minds of the young as soon as they enter competition...and God knows they start early these days! Can one remedy this, and how?
In sabre infighting, the state of affairs is somewhat comparable, but less dangerous because the cuts (the most often employed) slide along the target, whereas frontal thrusts with the point break blades. The sabre has invented a procedure to reduce the number of simultaneous actions which were literally destroying the game. At a given moment, this system obliges one of the fencers "to forbid himself to provoke a simultaneous action." This method has been in use for several years, and it must be agreed that since then the technical quality of the actions has been improving. Perhaps one could get for foil a similar dissuading effect on simultaneous actions if, in an analogous case, one simply counted a touch against both fencers, as in epee: first, because the fencer on his mark would have an interest in avoiding these: then, because in case of tie at 5 in a pool, it could be decided as either a "nul" or a "double defeat", which is not advantageous to the two fencers. Finally, these new conditions of attack, which every fencer would confront, might perhaps provoke in the course of training at the salle a more careful study of hand technique: parries, ripostes, counter-time.
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As is seen, the accident that cost Vladimir Smirnov his life can have useful consequences if it leads us to reconsider all the problems that concern the classic weapon. This would constitute a homage to him.
Without wishing in any way to force the hand of the responsible international people, it would seem that the principal points to examine might be, for example:
It is certain that a profound reform of fencing is needed at all levels, and in all categories: officials, masters, fencers, directors. It is not normal that in half-century of two sports about equal in public favor, one -- tennis -- should have made the development that we see, and that the other -- fencing -- continues to mark time. Perhaps we might also make comparisons with equitation. There are reasons for that. It would be necessary to collect and discuss them to understand them.
But let's end on an agreeable note, for we still have our defenders and friends. In a book dedicated to the memories of his youth (La Mansarde, Editions France-Loisirs), the great explorer and scholar, Paule-Emile Victor, has given two pages to fencing and to his maitre d'armes: "It is in a big windowless room, cluttered with cardboard cartons, boxes, empty sacks, it's there that my sister and I, once a week, took our fencing lessons. My parents thought -- with reason -- that this sport would develop precision and speed of reflexes, suppleness and firmness of muscles, and fair play...The maitre d'armes was called Andre Krestovozdvijenski, adjutant with the 44th Infantry (Lons-le-Saunier). He was an excellent instructor and very much the psychologist..."
It is comforting to read that!
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The Naked Truth | If I Had a Hammer
The Sabre's Edge | Swordfight at the OK Corral
How to Defend a Monopoly | A Propos d'un Accident
The Dubious Quick Kill part 1 | The Dubious Quick Kill part 2
Review and Commentary | Duels with the Sword | Starting with Foil
Liancour's Tercentenary | The Manuel d'escrime of 1877 | The Military Masters Fencing Program
Analysis of the Patton Fencing Manual | The Red Court Fencing's Royal Connection
| The Practical Saviolo part 1 | Saddle, Lance and Stirrup
Demystification of the Spanish School 1 | Demystification of the Spanish School 2
Demystification of the Spanish School 3
| A Brief Look at Joseph Swetnam
| Ithacan Retains Title | Third Time's a Charm
Cross-Training Not Cross-Purposes | Riposte Direct | Use of the Word "Sparring"
Chivalry Makes a Come-back | Teachings of Marozzo |
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