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I admire people who say what they mean and mean what they say, and I try to be one of them. It’s terribly unfashionable, I know. But I don’t hedge, I don’t euphemize, I don’t newspeak or otherwise tap-dance around an issue. If you’re accustomed to mealy-mouthed folks politicking around trying to please everyone, my tone may feel very blunt. Perhaps even rude.
It’s not my intention to offend anyone or hurt anybody’s feelings.
But if it’s a choice between being liked and telling the truth, the truth wins every time.
Only a fool prefers a sweet lie to a sour truth.
So ask me a straight question and I’ll give you a straight answer, if I have one.
If I don’t know the answer, I’ll just say “I don’t know.”
So here we go.
“Classical Fencing” is getting to be one of those terms that gets used by so many different people to mean so many different things, that it means almost nothing anymore.
Or “national security.”
So a definition of terms seems in order. For our purposes on this forum, here’s what classical fencing is and isn’t:
1. Classical Fencing is, above all, using the sword as if it were sharp, i.e., using techniques,
tactics and strategies as you should use them in a duel, with your life in the balance. That
is a sine qua non of classical fencing. The laws of combat are the laws of combat. They
exist because of the nature of combat itself, and are not subject to fashion, fad or
opinion. It’s as stupid to argue about that as it is to argue about the existence or effects
of gravity. This was and is the “traditional” method of fencing as it was done for a couple
of hundred years before the box. We don’t do anything that is an artifact of the scoring
mechanism. Ever see a real sword with a “pistol grip?” Me, neither. That’s one reason why
we don’t permit them.
Or as one might say: “We’re classical fencers; we just don’t give a flick.”
2. In terms of “form” remember the maxim “forms follows function.” The reason that fencing
techniques are executed a certain way is not because some powdered and bewigged twit
considered them macaroni, but because that’s the way you fight if you want to live. The
notion that “classical fencers” value “form” more than they value “touch without being
touched” is preposterous.
3. Classical Fencing is NOT just fencing non-electrically. It is fencing CORRECTLY, with or
without the electrical apparatus. It is perfectly possibly to fence classically while using it –
we used to do it all the time. It’s just as possible to go non-electrical and fence like a moron
or a brute.
4. Our principle weapon is the foil. The “foil” is based on the use of the smallsword, the 18th
century version of the rapier. It was the last sword commonly carried on the street by
private gentlemen and was the principle duelling sword of the 19th century. Our secondary
weapons, for the more advanced, are the saber, which was popular for dueling in some
circles, and the “epee.” Understand that epee and foil are practically the same weapon.
Indeed, they are more different aspects of the same weapon than they are different
weapons. The foil, sometimes called the “epee du salle” was a training weapon. The
conventions of foil are there because they maximize the fencer’s chances of surviving the
duel with the least possible injury. Note I say “surviving” the duel, not “winning” the duel.
Nobody “wins” a fight. You can only survive it.
5. As befitting the worst possible set of circumstances – a fight for your life – classical fencing
bouts are conducted with the highest possible degree of courtesy, if not downright
gravity. If you absolutely have to kill someone, it doesn’t cost you anything to be polite
about it. As far as I’m concerned, that code of chivalry is a necessary part of it.
6. Some people think classical fencing isn’t “athletic.” Ask what my students think as they
wring their t-shirts out after we fence. Classical fencing can be athletic. What it isn’t, is
stupid. It doesn’t put more of a premium on size, strength and speed than on skill. You
know why? Because lots of big, young, strong, fast lads got themselves killed crossing
blades with smaller, older, weaker, slower – and more skillful opponents. It’s a fight. It ain’t
a track meet.
Just to make it easier on everybody, why not take the Crown Classical Fencing Apptitude Test. It’s quick and it’s painless. Just answer these simple questions.
Assume you are armed with a sharp sword, the kind that can go through you with the ease of a hot knife through melted butter. Your opponent is likewise armed.
1. Would you be content to allow your opponent to stab you with that sword, run you through
and through, as long as you get to stab him at the same time?
2. Would you be content to allow your opponent to stab you with that sword, run you through
and through, as long as you get to stab him first? Let’s say, ¼ of a second before he stabs
3. How about a full second before he stabs you?
4. How about three full seconds before he stabs you?
5. Or are you interested in stabbing your opponent IF and ONLY IF he doesn’t get to stab you
AT ALL, not no place, not no time, not no way?
If you answered “no” to all but the last question, you’ve come to the right place.
CAVEO SED NON NIMIS
Hello Adam, I found your definitions about classical fencing very interesting, and I would like to reply to certain points:
1) All the ways to practice fencing are based, above all, on using the sword as if it were sharp, also if in certain cases it doesn't seem. I mean that also a sport fencer looks to hit without been hit, it's evident, but, his first goal is to win with the FIE rules in that kind of simulated combat, that's all. If you are in combat for life and you are in front of a better fencer than you, it's so strange to sacrificate an arm to hit his chest or head? Or, eventually (and it depends by the motivations of combat) to sacrificate yourself to kill him (the biblic Samson is an exemple)? I agree with you with the research of the pure way to teach and learn, but the hated electric score machine has been, in the minds of his creators, simply a technologic system to develop the way to practice, in the same way the medieval one-handed sword has been transformed in rapier and rapier in smallsword, so is not the tool that corrupts the method, but always the man that doesn't understand its spirit. About pistol grip, well, I have an original catalog of 1933 of Negrini (fencing supplier since 1897) with the pistol grip for duelling epees: it was a modern grip, so not so much used by the fencers of that time, but someone used it for real fight. I just would like to say that with classical or historical fencing I mean a theoric and practice research from the origins to the last way to make fencing that is no more in the FIE rules (also the sport sabre before 1988), and, like you, a spiritual research to the interior development, no matter what is the tool.
2-3) I agree, but the term "correct" is always submitted to a practice judgement: history is full of cases of perfect fighters defeated by morons and brutes, that, after a lot of victories created their own methods and styles of combat (the history of fencing treatises is full of that). Better, "correct" is submitted to the respect of a particular style criteria, based on the experience of someone (the man that has the creative spark to create the style) in fight. I believe, and this is something I love, that fencing is the great life's metafor, so for each goal you want to get there are a lot of ways to reach it, and if all of them can reach it, all of them are correct. The important is to know what is the goal, and you explained it very well (I think you are the most philosophic of fencing masters that I know and I always appreciated this in your work).
4) I agree, and you know that the convention of foil, set to evitate the coup double and to preserve the art from degeneration, is the main cause of sport fencing degeneration (this is common in human history)
5-6) I agree 1000%!!!
Crown Classical Fencing Apptitude Test (Gio's reply)
I replied no to all but the last question, but... if my opponent is Master Crown, as I want to return home with life, and as it's too hard for me to hit without be hit, I could sacrificate an arm or a leg to hit one of his vital target... but in fact I work to dodge real fight at all... so I hope Master Crown and I will be always good friends!
P.S. I hope I'm anyway in the right place!
Thanks for your post, Gio. It’s a pleasure to be in touch with you again after such a long hiatus. Of course, I understand the point of your astute observations, completely. (And thank you for being so complementary! Please don’t make be blush.)
Here are my thoughts on it.
My own teachers’ view was that the “pistol” grip was allowable as far back as the 1920’s for fencers who had a physical incapacity that prevented them from using a standard grip.
I’ve never heard of anyone – or ever heard of anyone who’d heard of anyone – who used such a grip in a real situation. I can see two problems: 1) I’d guess it isn’t something you’d be wearing as a sidearm, so it would be a weapon for “special occasions” only. 2) that brings up the matter of dueling weapons being “matched” so as to provide no advantage/disadvantage. The parties could agree to use whatever weapons they prefer, I suppose. But who would willingly inflict or accept an “unfair” advantage/disadvantage?
Anything’s possible, but it seems to me to assail plausibility just a bit.
If it DID occur, I would very much like to verify that, who, when & where. I think it’s important that out information be correct and complete as possible. I have a few old catalogues and none of them feature such a grip. It would be great if you could dig up that catalogue and maybe an illustration of the grip.
That said, given the paucity of references to it, I would suspect it was still certainly the oddity and not the rule. Would you agree?
On the matter of “sacrifice:”
I believe it is a widely accepted principle in the field of “executive protection” that “anybody can kill anybody.” That is, there is no way to protect your principle (client) from an assassin who is willing to sacrifice himself/herself to get to the target.
Fortunately, in practice, very few people are that prepared to die.
The most dangerous opponent, without a doubt, is the skillful adversary who IS so prepared, and I recommend that YOU be that adversary -- but that’s another tale.
Perhaps I can impose upon Maestro Sullins for his view of our fencing matches together; he may have a different opinion. But for my part, I found the “self-defense reflex” EXTREMELY difficult to manage, despite years of training and many hours practicing counter-attacks. If I may be so bold, I believe John likes “time” actions, too, and I’d say he’s quite good at them. Yet, if I recall correctly, neither of us attempted very many counter-attacks, at least not after the opening minutes (and touches!) of the first bout. With the heavy blades we were using, it was somewhat uncomfortable to be hit, and it’s amazing how the innate survival wisdom of the body takes over, or tries to. When you positively don’t want to be hit, the parry-riposte becomes your dearest friend and counterattacks become yesterday’s estranged lover.
This is consistent with my observations, training and experience in karate, boxing, and a few other odds and ends, as well.
Thus, while it may seem theoretically or intellectually “reasonable” to sacrifice a “minor” wound to score a major one, I’m skeptical about people actually being able to do it, willingly, outside of a Monty Python sketch. First, you have no guarantee that your wound will be “minor.” Second, you have no guarantee that suffering it will enable you to reach your opponent. It does, however, ensure that your ability to keep fighting will be compromised. Your first wound may be minor; the second may not be.
To be fair, in kenjitsu I believe there’s some notion that a “mutual striking down” is an acceptable outcome. And this might seem reasonable for a soldier who sees his own life as have no value except insofar as to lose it for his lord.
As the song goes, “It ain’t me, Babe.”
It’s important to distinguish between a duel, a street fight (we call that a “brawl”) and a battle. Though they may have some elements in common, I believe they must be considered separate and distinct situations. What is reasonable in one may not be reasonable in another.
For example, If I am fighting to protect my family (and I can’t imagine any other reason I’d be fighting) I have to consider what will become of them if I fall. The necessity of providing continued protection may completely eliminate a “mutual striking down” or other such sacrifice from consideration.
When I say “correct” fencing what I mean is technique, tactics and strategy maximally consistent with the objective of “touch without being touched.” There is some latitude in that, naturally, as in different styles of playing the guitar. But I think the similarities in this case far exceed the differences.
Again, my thanks for your excellent comments.
I spend a lot of time mixing between the sport and classical communities and as such I have come up with a diplomatic definition that does not scare away those folks that might be potentially interested in what we do but who have only been exposed to the modern international style.
For me Classical fencing is a lot like classical music/dance. It requires a certain attitude, aesthetic and temperament. The modern international style is a lot like modern music/dance and it too has its own set of attitudes, aesthetics and temperaments. I have become less interested in making the entire fencing world classical but I also resist the notion that the entire fencing world should be dominated by the Olympic style. That would be like forcing us all to listen to one style of music.
Classical fencing, like classical music/dance, requires deep and strenuous study of tradition in a very formal manner, either in the French or Italian school. It has a strong respect for the teachings of those who have come before and is skeptical (but not entirely resistant too) change. It is, however, a living tradition. Some conductors want to play music on original instruments in as exact a manner as those of previous generations did as possible. Others are happy to experiment a bit. So just as a group like “Anonymous Four,” who sing medieval songs with original instrumentation can be found in the classical section of your music shop along with Phillip Glass, so too do I count those who honestly try to recreate historical fencing styles along with those who are still pushing the edges of the classical style. What is important is the maintenance of respect for the weapon as a weapon and not merely as a sporting implement. We do not have to insist one is better than the other. Though, of course I would put my money on a classical fencer over a sport fencer in a real duel, but I would also doubt a classical fencer of today could defeat a real dualist of the period either! We have to remain humble about what we can actually do.
Now to Adam’s question. You are right; counterattacks are not so easy against well-trained opponents. I pull them off at will with beginners but when I fence you I have to rely much more on the parry riposte and a few countertime and feint in time actions. Both of which would look to the audience like a parry riposte and a feint disengagement respectively. By far the most common scoring actions were the parry riposte and the counterparry riposte.
Here in Sonoma County there is a very big fencing gala where quite a bit of money is spent on bringing in Olympic fencers for a big charity auction where all the North Bay hoi polloi pay $300 a plate to watch 4 bouts and participate in a wine auction. I just know that if we could break into that we could do a much better show since classical fencing has a much more appropriate aesthetic for an event like that. The Olympic fencers bounce, prance and shout at each other and honestly, do not take the event very seriously. A few classical bouts interspersed with historical demos would be very impressive.
John, you're such a charitable gentleman. I can see how your admirable talent for diplomacy can enable you to associate with such apparently antithetical groups without impossible discomfort.
While you compare the two things both called "fencing" to two different styles of music, I'd be more inclined to liken classical fencing to playing the guitar, and olympic fencing to smashing your guitar against your amplifier. Both things have had their advocates, and both events create sound, but my eardrums (or is it my heart?) insist that the former is music while the later is noise.
What I mean is that the rules and conventions of real fencing have some rational basis, if indeed anything about any fight can be called "rational." I have nothing against anyone making up a game with arbitrary rules just as a pass-time. Chacon a son gout.
Only please don't strap a monkey to a penguin, send them down a water-slide and call it "horse-racing."
While no such speculation is in any way "provable" I don't see any reason why a properly trained fencer of 2006 would be at any great technical disadvantage facing off against an equally well-trained fencer from any earlier era.
What IS a factor is experience.
No doubt in my mind, a fencing match is to a duel what a child's stuffed animal is to a real lion prowling the Serenghetti. There are psycho-physiological factors that come in to play in high-risk, life-or-death situations that can never, I believe, even be imagined by anyone who hasn't experienced them.
Repeated exposure de-sensitizes you to a degree and I think this is where the experienced swordman would have it over a technically good, but inexperienced fencer.
That Gala sounds like a great venue.
Maybe you should whip up something for them and see what happens.
I have to thank you all for the good and kind replies to mi little provocation and I have to say that, maybe with different words, we are of the same opinion.
I perfectly agree with John for the comparison of fencing with music (classic and modern), but I have some doubt about betting on the classical fencer or on the sport one in a duel. I agree in this case with the Adam's point of vew about the psychological training for a fight with the risk of injury or death. Living and working in Italy I have the chance to know very well a lot of the best sport fencers in the world (the Olympic medals winners) and I must to confess that although I don't like at all the degenerations of the FIE rules, to see and to fence against that athletes it's a real pleasure and a source to improve my method. Their timing, sense of measure, speed and sensibility to their opponents are incredible. What they have not, or in a lesser measure, is the martial artist mental attitude, the philosophical and psychological training for combat. It's anyway very instructive the witnessing of Aldo Nadi about his real duel against a journalist: the first a young and gifted sport fencer, olympic champion, but who never fought a duel, and the other a journalist, used to provocate on the pages of his newspaper, with no sport results but an experience of about 20 duels. What is happened is perfectly described by Nadi and it's a reading I suggest always.
About the pistol grip, Adam, I'll start a new post to reply to your correct comment (above all about the fonts)
P.S. No complimentary, Adam, I said what I think. Perhaps sometimes you are too "drastic", but I like very much your Classicalfencing-do (to say it japanese style!)