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Review and Commentary

Renaissance Swordsmanship The Illustrated Use of Rapiers and Cut-and-Thrust Swords by John Clements

by

Maestro Ramón Martínez

with additional commentary by

Jeanette Acosta-Martínez

Ramón Martínezbio

Jeanette Acosta-Martínez is a senior instructor at Martínez Classical Fencing and Historical Swordsmanship.


During the past few years there has been an ever-increasing interest in the history of European Swordsmanship. Its origins, development, history, and traditions are as rich and advanced as any other martial culture.

Since the end of the 19th and during the 20th century there have been many fencing treatises written that include brief histories; some of them good and others that are abysmal. In the last years of the victorian era English Fencing Historian/Antiquarian, Egerton Castle wrote and published his famous work Schools and Masters of Fence (1892). It was well received by the fencing community, though not by all. It is still in many places considered to be the definitive work in english on the subject of fencing history and the development of the art of European Swordsmanship.

Recent research and scholarship, have revealed that this monumental pioneering work has some flaws. Some of the theories and conclusions need further investigation along with revision. There have been some attempts at this and the most notable recent one has been the work by Arthur Wise (also an Englishman) The Art and History of Personal Combat (1971). Although containing many more illustrations than Mr. Castle's work, taken from original period treatises, it is nothing more than a re-explication of the work by Castle. These two respected authors gave considerable thought and effort to their works. Even though these contain some questionable conclusions; the scholarship, research and presentation of the material is above any severe critique.

After having come to the subject of this review via a circuitous route I will come to the point. The recently published book by Mr. John Clements, Renaissance Swordsmanship: The Illustrated Use of Rapiers and Cut and Thrust Swords has been received by those of the fencing community with historical interest with some fanfare and accolades. This is understandable and well-deserved by Mr. Clements. He has done a great service in bringing more attention to the western martial tradition and history. I had thought to take issue with the many misleading generalizations and sweeping pronouncements by Mr. Clements point by point, page by page. However after suffering through his amateurish attempt at presenting what he feels are profound discoveries and assertions; I will limit myself to some of the more glaring inconsistencies, inaccuracies, and poor scholarship.

An issue that must be brought out first is whether he truly has read any of the original treatises that he lists outrageously last in his bibliography. It is blatantly evident to anyone familiar with these historical sources that he has not. Some of the very books that are listed as primary sources such as the well respected works of Aylward, Norman, Oakeshott, and Tarrasuk, refute the sweeping erroneous historical assertions that Mr. Clements presents.

Dr. Leonid Tarrasuk refutes the manner in which Mr. Clements asserts that a dagger is held (Page 57 in his book) in a monograph that he wrote in 1987 titled Parrying Daggers & Poinards. In a recent issue of the Hammerterz Forum, Mr. Clements was called on this by a reader who wrote a letter pointing it out. Mr. Clements skirted the issue by saying that it was a mistake in pushing the wrong button and flipping an object upside down. But the caption itself reads; "The usual method of holding the close-hilted parrying dagger places the thumb behind the side ring with the guard sideways". The fact that Mr. Clements while looking at the incorrect illustration, places a matching caption to it indicates that he does not know how a dagger is properly held. If he knew exactly how to use the dagger he would not have allowed this error to go into print.

In Chapter Three (page 21) the author states; "The Renaissance cut and thrust sword is somewhat ambiguous, with no real definition or precise identity."

Then why use this term? The author also says; "The term cut and thrust is very general and can be applied to a whole range of sword forms." Mr. Clements continues; "At the time of the Renaissance, they were just referred to in the generic as "swords".

Mr. Ewart Oakeshott, in his book "European Swords and Armour" (1980) in the chapter on "Swords of the Sixteenth Century" (page 125) in the section "The Reitschwert or 'Sword' And The Rapier" (page 135) does away with the entire notion of "Cut and Thrust Sword" something that is quite ambiguous in Mr. Clements' book. Mr. Oakeshott clearly defines the difference between a sword (reitschwert) and a rapier. In fact in the same chapter (page 126) Mr Oakeshott clearly distinguishes four families of sword. He also presents a very convincing genealogy of how both of these weapons evolved from the mid-fifteenth century arming sword, as well as the origin of the rapier being Spain from the "espada ropera".

On page 6 of his book the author states; "In a sense, the rapier is merely a classification of the Renaissance thrusting sword....The accepted hypothesis is that the weapon is of Italian origin, from sometime in the early 1500's".

Mr. A.V.B. Norman in his definitive book on the subject, The Rapier and Small-Sword 1460- 1820 (1980) also indicates in Chapters Two, and Three, that the carrying of swords in civilian life and the rapier, "espada ropera", have their origins in Spain. In chapter two (page 20) Mr Norman states; "There is in fact, some evidence in paintings that the wearing of the sword in civilian dress was more common in the late Middle Ages in the Iberian Peninsular than anywhere else in Europe".

Mr. Clements has put forth the idea that there have been no serious studies of the accurate and practical use of historical edged weaponry until the publication of his book. This is an extremely self-serving and egotistical, misleading notion that he has placed before the reading public.

Mr. J.D. Aylward in his book titled The English Master of Arms sheds much light on this. Mr. Aylward speaks much on the massive amount of work conducted in the late 19th century by Burton, Castle, and Hutton. Solely for the sake of clarifying the propaganda of Mr. Clements, the refutation of the assertions will be presented by Mr. Aylward's comments on Captain Hutton in the chapter XVIII "Renaissance" which state:

Captain Hutton, who had served both in the infantry and in the cavalry, was an antiquarian imbued with enthusiasm for practice with the sword in all its forms. From 1862 onward he wrote a series of books on the subject, some dealing with the professional forms of the weapon, and others with the history of the art of arms. For lay readers, his principal works were Cold Steel, a treatise on sabre play in which he proposed a combination of the old English back- sword play with modern Italian methods, and included chapters on the great stick, the sword-bayonet, and the dagger as used in the time of Marozzo, and his Old Sword-Play, in which he studied the systems taught by the masters of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth, centuries. Besides these publications, he kept his favorite subject well before the public by means of articles, lectures, and demonstrations with ancient weapons, particularly the rapier and dagger.

The Hutton library of ancient books of fence, collected over many years, and bequeathed by him to the Victoria and Albert Museum Library, is quite unique, containing as it does treatises not found either in the British Museum, and Bodleian, or in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. It formed the material for Mr. Egerton Castle's Schools and Masters of Fence, a standard authority on the subject which has not been supersceded since it was written in 1884.

Furthermore it is quite interesting that in his "secondary sources", that lists six fencing books, there is not one book listed that is a major classical work. This alone indicates that the fencing knowledge that he has is limited to the modern sport and that he is completely unfamiliar with the works of Classical fencing Masters. Mr.Clements does not comprehend that there is a difference between the modern sport and the martial art from which it sprang. It is all too easy for him to ignore or dismiss Classical fencing as it does not fit his agenda. Be that as it may, let us continue.

In the preface to his book (page vii) Mr. Clements states; "It is (his work) intended primarily to dispel the many myths and misconceptions permeating the field of European swordsmanship .... It is meant to serve as a source for all those people who over the years have asked, 'What's a good book on Western swordsmanship?' To which I could only reply that there really wasn't much."

Mr. Clements has been unsuccessful, in that he has mixed apples and oranges adding more misconception to what already exists. His eastern martial arts training bears absolutely no criteria to warrant his mistaken belief that it miraculously renders him an expert in western martial traditions that differ greatly from those of eastern origin not only in weapons, technique, and methods; but more importantly the philosophical, psychological, spiritual frame of reference do not coincide.

In addition, to say that there really isn't much in the way of good books on Western swordsmanship shows that he really has not done his homework. True, that many of the good books are no longer in print, there are many excellent books on the subject (though not free of errors). In addition to Castles' and Wise's books, other notable works by Sir Richard Burton, Capt Alfred Hutton, and a vast list of other works have been produced by foreign writers such as Ferdinando Maseillo, Jacopo Gelli, Dr. F. Moreno, Mansaniello Parise, Arsene Vigeant, Emil Mergnac, to name only a few. Some well spent time and serious research in a library will certainly rule out the statement that "there really wasn't much." A serious researcher would know this.

Also in his Preface (page vii) Mr. Clements states; "For too long swords and swordsmanship have been separated (luckily by authors who were honest enough not to try writing on a subject in which they had no experience)." One wonders who these authors are? Authors such as Castle, Hutton, and Burton to name three of the most well-known English writers were not only expert Classical Swordsmen and/or Fencing Masters; But more importantly they were conducting research, giving lectures, and performing demonstrations of the historical techniques as well.

In addition Mr. Clements says (page viii); "Because there is no definitive reference to turn to, people are free to suppose whatever they want about European swords and their techniques, including making up countless theories that are ignorant of history, archaeology, or practical utility." Given such a statement are we supposed to believe that all of the above mentioned authors were ignorant? Are educated gentlemen such as Burton and Hutton, who were not only skilled swordsmen/Fencing Masters, as well as, military men called upon to use edged weapons in earnest ignorant in practical utility? It is the very fact that they were trained in Classical fencing which was not as far removed from the realities of training in swordsmanship for encounters in earnest, in contrast to today's modern "game", that enabled these gentlemen to have insights that a modern fencer would have no knowledge of, or not concern himself with.

Egerton Castle in his introduction to his work states (referring to the Classical Italian School); "The Italian mode of fencing retains many of the characteristics of the rapier fence of the seventeenth century, and it was the author's purpose, before investigating the all but forgotten origins of modern fencing to become thoroughly acquainted with the theory and practice of the Neapolitan method, the only one which has not been swept away by the now ubiquitous French School". Therefore the grand "revelations" that have illuminated Mr. Clements' have been known for centuries by professional swordsmen.

What Mr. Clements neglects, refuses to admit, or doesn't realize, is that not everything about swordsmanship is in books, nor can it be found through easy experimentation. It is something that he has not experienced, and yes, it is the specialized knowledge (which he says does not exist) that can only be imparted by a Fencing Master. There is a common misconception that after the seventeenth century no one taught or practiced rapier and sword techniques. In reality these techniques were continued and later books such as the fencing treatises by Garcia Alvarez, Manual De Esgrima de Espada y Palo-Baston (1887) and Grandezas del Arte De La Esgrima (1892) included dueling sword, sabre, rapier & dagger, rapier, dagger & cape, stick, and cane technique. The Baron de Bazencourt in his book The Secrets of the Sword (1901) relates of the practice of rapier and dagger. In fact, these weapons and their techniques were still being taught well into the present century, becoming the specialized knowledge that Mr. Clements denies exists. This knowledge was transmitted from master to student in a direct manner and not usually included in treatises. It is the fallacy of modern thinking (of which Mr. Clements is culpable) that by some miracle it is given to people indulging in going back to "recreate" these systems today, that they can disregard what others (Masters and Fencers) of the eighteenth, nineteenth, as well as the twentieth century taught and practiced. The irony is that those involved in this so called re-construction and recreation actually think that they are better equipped to do these practices than their predecessors. To make matters even worse they ignore the fact, that in the turn of the twenty first century there are still professional swordsmen and teachers possessed of such knowledge.

Another issue that must be addressed is terminology. The terminology of rapier is either Spanish or Italian. The terminology used by other nations where rapier technique was practiced such as England, France, and Germany, was adapted from one or both of the aforementioned languages. The description of the techniques of the weapon and the methodology originated within the Spanish and Italian language. This terminology is the language of the rapier and is very specific to the weapon and its usage. Through out his book Mr. Clements persists in using French and English fencing terms that did not exist with the rapier. Rapier terminology in other languages than Spanish or Italian are permissible but only if the language used is fencing terminology that is contemporary to the period. Terms like parry, reposte, redoublement, etc. etc. are not rapier terms but came about with the evolution of the smallsword and the French School which perfected its techniques and methods.

Sophisticated actions like parry and return the thrust (parry-reposte) were not cultivated until the smallsword era and were only possible with the much lighter and shorter weapon. Rapier technique cultivated stesso tempo in which defense and counter offense were one action.

Mr. Clements also persists in using the term "sparring". This clearly comes from his own frame of reference reflecting his eastern martial arts training and experience. In western swordsmanship there is no "sparring". There is practice in the form of prescribed drills (pre-arranged exercises) or fencing. The use of the term "sparring" gives the practice of swordsmanship a very different connotation. To my knowledge in no historical treatise, classical fencing work, or modern fencing book, has the term "sparring" been used. Terminology gives exactitude and precision to what ever endeavor is being addressed. In swordsmanship it is crucial to describe all in minute detail. By using the appropriate terms confusion will be dispelled and misconceptions be corrected. If one is speaking about rapier, then rapier terms must be used, and the same for any other weapon form.

He also goes on to describe in many places in his book, the way in which a rapier, or sword were used in delivering multiple feints. The only way to address this is, that he is just wrong. Multiple feints were in fact discouraged as being useless if not down right dangerous to the swordsman as it exposed him to time attacks. Both Capo Ferro and Fabris devote specific sections in their treatises to explain this.

I could go on for many more pages in a systematic dissection of this recent work but, it will only weary the reader. Suffice to say that it is a badly researched work of a highly opinionated and ill-informed enthusiast. In the words (I hope that my translation does him justice) of Don Jeronimo de Carranza, found in his famous treatises De la Filosofia de las Armas... (1569-1582), the great Maestro comments on the effects of false teaching and false teachers. He does so by putting forth the following commentary on effects of false teaching;

1. Confused understanding.
2. Undesirable and undeserving fame for the teacher.
3. Instruction in lies.
4. Forces man to do more than he is able.
5. Endangers and offends the innocent.
6. Envies and diminishes in their absence, the honor, and the virtue of his legitimate competitors, whom he never remembers.
7. He does this only to give grandeur the vulgar.
8. He ends up being held in bad opinion (or light) in the company of men of honor.

"The vulgar although he professes knowledge of swordsmanship is easy to discover when in times of anger and conflict he forgets his professed skill and commits vulgarity in his manner and action."

Continuing, Carranza finishes by saying; "The unsuspecting student takes these false teachings as authentic and places himself in danger. (Due to his mistaken belief in the infallibility of these false teachings.) This is not the fault of the student but of the teacher who must bear the full responsibility for the pupil's safety, well-being and character."


Additional commentary by Jeanette Acosta-Martínez

The explanations are too general and often misleading.

It is clear he doesn't understand small sword at all and I see no purpose for him to discuss it. He clouds his own points by making references to modern foil, epee and sabre. Modern fencing is so divorced from any actual practical application that it serves no purpose in understanding the use of any type of sword.

Some of his facts are incorrect.

Example; Page 30 He says "Blade lengths were approximately 36 to 40 inches, although even longer ones were known."

This is misleading. Rapier blades were from 34" to 53", with the more common blades being between 39" to 45".

Example; Page 35, " The familiar spanish cup hilt style did not appear until the 1650's. Once sword duels became predominately thrusting fights, cup hilts developed later as a natural progression of defense."

The earliest illustration showing a cup hilt is of Philip IV by Velasquez painted in 1632. This appears in The Rapier and Small-Sword 1460-1820 by A.V.B. Norman (1980). One of Clements own "primary sources". The cup-hilt developed as a consequence of the Spanish school of fencing. The cup-hilt offered the most protection to the extended arm and the hand in a system that stresses both cuts and thrusts. The extra long qullions are specifically designed to protect the sword hand and arm, as well as making it more difficult for the adversary to disengage.

Example; He tells us to parry with the flat of the sword in his cut and thrust section.

What manual does he get this notion from? Why would one parry using the edge in long sword and then all of the suddenly change to the flat in "cut and thrust" and then back again to the edge in rapier? Not being knowledgeable in all western cut and thrust forms I cannot speak in absolutes, however, I have not seen anything about parrying with the flat in later broad sword manuals or sabre manuals.

Page 33 "It is not accurate to talk about a transitional rapier form because the cut and thrust sword itself was the transitional form."

This statement is misleading. The sword which Mr. Clements describes as the cut and thrust sword is in fact the Reitswert or riding sword. This classification can be found in European Weapons and Armour by Ewart Oakeshott (1980). It was mainly military in its function while the rapier was civilian. To understand that sword and its form you must put it into its military context.

Mr. Clements further clouds the issue by using modern concepts and terminology. In order to understand the weapons and the fighting or fencing styles that correspond, it is important to define them accurately within the context of how they were viewed in their own time. This is quite easily done if one reads the period treatises and researches the history and customs of those times. Most of what he describes as the use of "cut and thrust sword" is in fact early rapier technique with some modern sabre mixed in. Again misleading! Yes there is in fact early rapier technique and it owes much of its concepts, classifications and applications to the teachings of Achille Marozzo, Fransico Roman and other contemporaries. It is this form that should be studied as it falls more clearly into the cut and thrust mentality. However it should be understood that this form was not necessarily viewed as being something other then a form of rapier. This is evidenced by how popular Marrozo's book was as it was republished several times. Narvaez in his book Nuvea Ciencia y Filosofia de la Destreza de las Armas, Su Teorica, y Practica (1672), discusses not only the Spanish school but also contrasts it to the Italian school. He sees Marozzo (1536), Moncio (1509), as well as Jayme Pons (1474), Pedro de la Torre (1474), and Fransico Roman (1532), as all teaching the same type of method. This method to his thinking is just simply early rapier technique.

Example: Page 86 His explanation of countercutting by deflecting rather then parrying,sounds more like modern sabre.

Countercutting by deflecting is executed by cutting into the adversary's blade as he cuts, intercepting it. In doing this leverage is created by the intercepting cut. The leverage is used to continue the counter offensive action and land a cut or thrust. This is a concept that originates from the long sword, and is the Stesso Tempo of rapier.


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