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#1 2006-04-16 12:20:21

Maestro di Scherma
From: Mill Valley, CA
Registered: 2006-04-06

Reconstructed Fencing

RHogg wrote:

> Suffice it to say that it's the line of instruction that makes GOOD > reconstruction possible,

When I say that the line of instruction is not broken I mean that there has been no interruption (and consequent loss) of what has been handed down physically, in real time, on the pedana, from generation to generation.  I see this process of continued instruction as one of "replication."  At this time in fencing history the line of instruction for foil and saber remains unbroken, although it surely is in danger of breaking because there exist so few fully trained, qualified individuals able to pass it down.

When the line of instruction is broken, as it is for rapier, the process of passing on that which has been taught physically, in real time, on the pedana, is interrupted.  Consequently, tactile interplay, timing of actions, control of measure, and all else that passes between master and pupil when working together on the floor is forgotten.  The process required to restore it is necessarily one of retrieval, or "reconstruction."  Unfortunately, the only way to do that it is to return to the original texts and glean from scribbles of ink, frozen in time, and fixed on a two-dimensional surface a train of physical movement that passes uninterrupted through a span of real time, in a three dimensional space.  It is a daunting challenge which, at best, necessarily yields results that are incomplete.  At worst, such results can be gotten altogether wrong.

How very wrong things can go is exemplified in a discussion of a particular attack described in a 16th-century treatise on rapier play by Camillo Palladini.  Roughly a decade ago a rapier reconstructionist took issue with Maestro William Gaugler's  description of this attack, published in "The Sword" magazine.  The attack featured a simple beat in second followed by a straight thrust.  After looking at illustrations depicting the attack, the reconstructionist concluded that Gaugler's description was in error.  Attempting to add weight to his position, he went on to say that what Gaugler described was extremely rare in rapier fencing, a bold (not to mention curious) presumption given the contrast between this individual's age and the centuries of rapier play that had come and gone so long before his birth.

Professing to have weighed evidence in the form of "data" available to him, and drawing upon his own "experience" (doubtless as a 17th-century swordsman in another life) our rapier scholar forged ahead to make his "own interpretation" of the attack.  One can only wonder what "data" he examined, but one thing is certain — it had no relevance to Palladini's manuscript.  What did have relevance was what Palladini wrote in his treatise, and it is a certainty that our rapier reconstructionist never read a word of it as, at that time, only one known issue of the manuscript existed.  It lay hidden in a private collection, and only two xerox copies had been made, of which Dr. Gaugler had access to one. 

Undaunted by this apparent triviality, and armed with what would appear to be several centuries of personal experience at rapier fighting, our learned scholar courageously rushed in where angels fear to tread. With pride he published over the Internet his conclusion that the university professor expert in the skills required for bringing to light with accuracy the history of ancient peoples, and the experienced fencer facile in English, German, and Italian (including the archaic Italian of Palladini's time), and more than passingly familiar with French, Latin and Greek — was in error.  What the poor, misguided Doctor had "analyzed" as a beat followed by a straight thrust was, in the sage opinion of our gifted rapier reconstructionist, a counterattack in the form of a time thrust.

In fact, Gaugler had not "analyzed" anything.  All he did was translate what Palladini wrote.  Those of us not well versed in 16th-century Italian cannot intelligently comment on the precision of Dr. Gaugler 's translation, but my personal knowledge of the man and his reputation as a scholar leads me to believe that there are few, if any, who could have done a better job.  That aside, it is safe to conclude that if Palladini wrote that there was to be a "beat," then it is more than likely that this is what he meant.  He did — and he did! 

Perhaps this example of reconstruction run amok is extreme.  The "scholar" in question would appear to be driven more by ego and motives arising from emotional issues than by a genuine desire for academic excellence, but his case is hardly unique.  We have all seen this sort of thing before in far too many people whose skills at research are familiar to all of us who, before we were able to read, entertained ourselves on the steps of our front porches on hot summer afternoons, following the exciting adventures of Batman and Robin simply by looking at the pictures.

It is difficult to judge the validity of much of the "reconstructed" material that exists to date without knowing the credentials of those whose work it is, and it would be unwise to use it as a source upon which to base further work.  I would add that despite his outstanding qualifications, Maestro Gaugler himself has misgivings about the value of reconstructed fencing, for the same reasons I have given.

Frank Lurz



#2 2006-04-16 17:33:07

Adam Adrian Crown
Maître d'Armes
From: Ithaca, New York
Registered: 2006-04-04

Re: Reconstructed Fencing

Well said, Frank. I wish we had the benefit of a few more scholars of the calibre of Dr. Gaugler.

I run into this very thing quite a bit, I'm sorry to say.
It seems there's a very popular belief in some quarters that there was no such thing as a parry-riposte with the older rapier; rather everything was all "stesso tempo" counter-attacks.
Treatises aside, I can't imagine how this view could be held by anyone who's ever attempted to do this. That is, I understand how, THEORETICALLY, the perfectly timed counter-attack may be as sweet as it gets. But it seems to me that if I base my approach to a fight on a presumption of my perfection, I'd better have a really good Plan B.
Boxing  (pugilism and fencing are like peas in a pod) has a parallel in "counter-punching." While many people rather loosely refer to a boxer's "riposte" or new attack as a "counterpunch," a true counterpunch is a "stesso tempo" action exactly like the counter-attack in fencing.
Any real fan of the sweet science will tell you that good counter-punchers are few and far between, even though THEORETICALLY, it is THE superior boxing skill.
Because it is a tremendously difficult skill to learn. It takes patience, impeccable timing, agility and a profound understanding of boxing as a science --  and if you're a little imprecise in the execution, you can get tagged in a most unpleasant fashion.

Shakespeare wrote a line about folks who "jest at scars that never felt the wound."
I wonder how much of the confusion in fencing comes from armchair "swordsmen" who've never tested out their little theories against real, well-trained fencers.




#3 2006-04-18 11:44:42

Registered: 2006-04-03

Re: Reconstructed Fencing

Maestro Lurz --

I agree with you completely on this matter; your story reminds me of Dr. Gaugler's rebuttal to the largely irrelevent criticisms of "experts" regarding his history of fencing...

I especially like your point about the line of instruction involving the continuation of a certain type of interaction between teacher and student.  You can almost always tell the difference between fencers who've been trained within this milieu of "replication" and those who haven't.  I've fenced with a bunch of people who are purely "reconstructionist" fencers (or who have learned from reconstructionists) and, though they may have read the treatises backwards and forwards, they almost universally lack an internalized understanding of the fencing itself...

The arrogance of some people never ceases to amaze me -- everyone wants to be an expert, but no one wants to humble themselves as an apprentice first.  This is why I never go to Swordforum and CFML anymore.

But to go back to the subject of reconstruction itself, I do feel that it's a valuable experience to try and understand other forms of fencing.  The different applications of theory can make a great contribution to the understanding of theory overall -- my understanding of  tempo improved drastically with some instruction in Italian rapier, where things suddenly became much clearer to me than they had been with years of foil and epee.

The more dedicated, qualified masters you have working on things the better they'll get with time.  Granted they'll never be "complete," as you point out -- Capo Ferro and Carranza are long dead and "ain't nothin' ever gonna bring 'em back," as one might say where I grew up, but you can develop highly sophisticated understanding.  The idea is to build a new line of instruction, this way the problems are minimized with time -- though doing it right takes generations, it's a worthwhile effort.

The trick is getting the qualified people to do it intelligently, rather than these ferrailleurs who have been bugging Maestro Gaugler and everyone else for a decade now.  I know I'm not qualified, which is why I don't bother -- I've got too many things to learn from the living, breathing masters in front of me to worry about the dead ones too much yet... and the only dead ones I do look at are those that comment on the weapons I've been doing for 13 years: foil and epee.

This whole conversation reminds me of a Daoist idea from the Zhuangzi: The thoughts in books are nothing more than the dregs of dead men's ideas.  VERY tough to build a fencing system from dregs...





#4 2006-04-22 20:37:54

Adam Adrian Crown
Maître d'Armes
From: Ithaca, New York
Registered: 2006-04-04

Re: Reconstructed Fencing

On the matter of "reconstructing" and self-ordained experts (and some other-ordained  ones, too) I can't resist recommending Kruger & Dunning, "Unskilled and Unaware of it:How difficulties in Recognizing One's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessment," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77, no. 6 (1999) 1121-34.
The gist is that those who are LEAST accomplished MOST overestimate their ability.

But we all knew that, right, Mr. President?




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