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Renaissance Swordsmanship The Illustrated Use of
Rapiers and Cut-and-Thrust Swords by John Clements
Maestro Ramón Martínez
with additional commentary by
Jeanette Acosta-Martínez is a senior instructor at
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
- 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
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
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
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
Page 33 "It is not accurate to talk about a transitional rapier
form because the cut and thrust sword itself was the transitional
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
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.
[ Return to Top ]
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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