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Riposte Direct

by Adam Adrian Crown ©1999

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It was with great interest that I read the article, "Reflections on Fencing's Golden Age," by Mtre. Buzz Hurst, which appeared in the Spring '99 issue of American Fencing. He raised some interesting points, to be sure. Yet, with all respect, I must say that he misses entirely the most essential one: what is "classical" fencing?

I may not have been the first to use the term "classical fencing" to distinguish what I teach from whatever the latest popular antics happen to be, but I'm certainly one of those who makes the distinction, so I thought it proper for me to respond. This places me in rather the same unenviable position as one who is obliged to defend the virtues and value of classical music against the onslaught of those who would crowd it from the airwaves in favor of an exclusively "punk" or "rap" or "pop" repertoire.

I began using the term "classical fencing" in order to be polite. For me "classical" fencing is simply "correct" fencing. I thought it more courteous to refer to the current hyper-stylized fad as the "olympic style" of fencing, as if it had its own sort of validity, rather than just calling it "stupid fencing." Classical fencing is simply fencing which is true to the spirit of the duel, that simulates as closely as possible a "frank and courteous encounter," a real fight with real swords. Not long ago this was everyone's definition of fencing.

Like "classical" in music, "classical" in fencing carries with it connotations of "traditional, authoritative, authentic, enduring. Serving as a standard or model of excellence. Of recognized value. Adhering to simplicity, restraint and proportion. Having characteristics of poise, balance, proportion, simplicity, formal discipline and craftsmanship, with universal and objective (rather than idiosyncratic and subjective) expression." (Harvard Dictionary of Music)

From Mtre. Hurst's article, I suspect that he doesn't quite understand what we mean by classical fencing. He alludes to the non-electrical foil being called a classical foil, which is completely off the mark. Simply because one is fencing non-electrically, it does not necessarily follow that one is fencing classically. Classical fencing is not a type of equipment or a tournament format. It has little to do with the "dancing academy"—though I do find it interesting that my colleague should cast derision toward those who labor so to cultivate perfect technical precision in their art.

The technical repertoire of classical fencing stems from the premise that the swords are sharp and excludes those artifacts that could not be done with a sharp, or should not be done with one, at least not by anyone outside the Salle de Kevorkian. We do not score touches that wound only the fabric of the opponent's jacket. We do not "flick" at the target, an action that however irksome, but would do no appreciable harm to the adversary, with the possible exception of the poor soul suffering a hernia from laughing too hard. We consider throwing oneself onto the opponent's point a laughable, not laudable tactic. Nor do we consider it sufficient to touch your opponent a fractional sliver of a second before he touches you.

In short, we treat the sword as a sword, as a potentially lethal weapon, and not as some mutant offspring of a tennis racquet and a fly-fishing rod. We treat the bout as a fight. Not an untutored brawl, mind you, but a fair fight between very skillful gentlemen, carried out in strict accordance with rules, both written and unwritten. It isn't at all a struggle "between a lion and a wildebeest," as Mtre. Hurst suggests. It's a struggle between two lions.

Amongst gentlemen there is a notion of fairness and decency—dare I say, gallantry. This has something to do with values that provide a man with a moral compass no matter what the situation may be. It includes a belief in a fundamental level of decency that one would never violate, even under the most adverse circumstances. Even if it means your life. You might say that these values are quite archaic, completely impractical in today's world, no longer relevant, if they ever were. And you would probably be correct. But, if so, the demise of personal honour hardly seems something to celebrate.

When I was learning this science, we needed no rule to oblige us to salute each other, or to shake hands afterward. Honour, someone once noted, has no need of rules. This is something more than going through the motions of "good sportsmanship." It is a deep respect for what you are doing, for your opponent and for yourself. Our honour obliges us to be gracious and dignified in defeat, and humble and gentle in victory.

I know very well this is the age of smart-bomb overkill. Damn the "collateral damage" full speed ahead. Shoot first, sort it out later. Kick him when he's down. I suppose the notion of having respect, let alone compassion, for your opponent—even if that opponent is your sworn enemy—is probably as alien to some folks as marigolds on the moon.

Mtre. Hurst implies that he is comparing sport fencing with classical fencing, but he isn't really. He's comparing the current sport with the sport 20 or 30 years ago. This is tantamount to having a political debate with the spectrum of opinion limited to Strom Thurmond, representing the right, and Jesse Helms representing the left.

One of Mtre. Hurst's main points is that there are a lot more fencers now, and a lot more competitions. I imagine he's correct about that. But when we discuss the skills of some of the best blades of the past—when swords were treated more like swords—we're considering the quality of the fencing, not the quantity of it. "More," as we all should know, is not necessarily "better." What generally happens to the quality of something when it starts being mass-produced? I'd say that having an abundance of maggot-infested meat to eat, is not necessarily better than having a small amount good food. But that's just me. Chacon a son gout. But I do know that to win in the high jump you're better off with one fellow who can clear 8 feet, than with 8 fellows who can each clear 1 foot.

Mtre. Hurst suggests that the quality of fencing instruction today is better than in past decades, thanks to the efforts of the Coaches College. While I esteem those colleagues highly, and sincerely applaud their efforts, I would hazard to say, from what I've seen on the strip, that their work is far from finished. In recent times I've even run into fellows who were "prevosts" who had about as much moral right to that title as my Great Dane—possibly less. If the "flick," for example, were dis-invented, these lads wouldn't have the vaguest notion what plan B might include. We are desperately in need of good fencing teachers. Teachers, not just "coaches." We've always been short on them. And I'm fully in support of anyone who's trying to create some. But we do have an awfully long way to go on that score.

I'll concede that my colleague has probably participated in more competitions than I. I was a poor kid and didn't have the resources necessary to participate as much as I would have liked. But I cannot recall a tournament that was as he described. It always seemed to me that most of the fencers deeply appreciated the efforts that the hosts put out, and everyone more or less pitched in to make it work. I can recall a foil event that became a midnight ordeal— -- thanks to the electrical equipment going down repeatedly. We finally fenced the last round non-electrically. Not only did eliminated fencers stay to judge, but someone organized a run to a nearby McDonald's for food and coffee!

There was then, as now, the question of directors. Some were good, some not very good. Some dyed-in-the-wool Italian fencers interpreted things a bit differently than those of the French School. But it didn't much matter because your objective was to touch without being touched, not to create a guessing game for the officials. At least all the directors I encountered seemed to understand that the attack was made by moving the point of your sword toward your opponent's body, not by moving your body toward the point of your opponent's sword. The idea of deciding anything by tossing a coin, was not something I ever ran into.

I'm sorry to hear of the injuries Mtre. Hurst and his fellows suffered. I've never suffered any. I've never inflicted any. I've never witnessed any inflicted—though I do remember one very close shave resulting from some fool doing a clumsy "fleche." Mtre Hurst says that safety standards for equipment are better now than in past times.
No doubt.
I'm all in favor of safety, which is why I do not allow awkward, uncontrolled, brutal or dangerously unorthodox actions on the piste. No one should. The best safety mechanisms we have are the skill and judgement of the fencers and the officials. If they are either knaves or fools, fencing can be hazardous no matter how many layers of kevlar you wear.

I receive a fair number of inquiries each week from disillusioned fencers unsatisfied with the "sport" of fencing and from not-yet-fencers who haven't any interest in the sport they have seen, all looking for a "classical" teacher. There seems to be an increasing population interested in the archaic, unfashionable, low-tech notions of classical fencing. It may be that the pendulum has swung as far as possible away from real swordplay and is starting to swing back toward it.

I think it would be foolish to ignore these people. And I think it not very gracious to pelt them with such wholly undeserved ridicule.

Adam Adrian Crown, Maitre d'Armes
In Ferro Veritas
Ithaca, New York

This article originally appeared in Vol5 No1 June 2000 of Fencers Quarterly Magazine.

Back issues and subscription information can be found at http://users.townsqr.com/ale/fqm.htm.

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Saddle, Lance and Stirrup: The Irish/Roman Connection
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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