The Art of Swordplay in the Renaissance


Lord Aubrey de Baudricourt

Cadet to Don Jeremy James Scurlock


"...I judge that the first and true profession of the courtier must be that of arms; and this above everything else I wish him to pursue vigorously."

--- Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, 1528


I. Introduction.

Period fencing, or rapier combat (or "light fighting") as it is sometimes called, has been an established form of combat in the Kingdom of Ansteorra for almost fifteen years. It seeks: to emulate the art, science and form of swordplay as it was practiced in the Renaissance Europe of the late sixteenth century. Combatants also attempt to recreate the atmosphere, customs and clothing of this very elegant and exciting period of history.

Some Lords and Ladies, stressing the importance of accurate reenactment and replication, have complained that period fencing does not accurate reflect how duello was conducted in the Renaissance. As I shall illustrate in this paper, there is much truth to this charge. But, an exact replication of the art of swordplay as it existed in that time is neither possible nor completely desirable.

Marty of the maneuvers forced upon swordsmen of that time by the weight and clumsiness of their blades are unsafe or downright dangerous, graceless and slow, even with modern fencing weapons. For instance, early Renaissance German fencing included a number of wrestling and grappling maneuvers. And, until the mid-seventeenth the rapier was too heavy to allow it to be used in the parry-riposte fashion used in modern fencing and rapier combat in the SCA. This clumsiness of the blade made rapier fencing in the Renaissance an almost exclusively two-handed game, as we shall see.

Evidence for fencing can be found as far back as 1190 B.C. in ancient Egypt and it is well known that Roman gladiators were trained in the basics of swordsmanship with wooden swords. But fencing as we know it was brought about by the introduction of gunpowder on the battlefield. Most historians date the first "effective" use of gunpowder in such a way to the battle of Crecy in 1346 (though some maintain that the use of gunpowder weapons at Crecy is "a fable"). At first the fighting men of the 14th, 15th and 16th century tried to increase the thickness of their armor to increase their protection. This trend ultimately resulted in Gothic armor and Maximilian Plate.

Yet, at the same time, a trend was also moving the art of war towards lighter swords that were thinner, balanced and more dexterous. These weapons eventually evolved into the rapier. The rapier became a common item of wear in the Renaissance, increasing the chance for dueling and, thus, the need for training in the art of swordplay.

II. The Weapons

"...the Rapier is it which sheweth who are men of arms and of honour, and which obtaineth right of those which are wronged: and for this reason it is made with two edges and one point, and being the weapon which ordinarily Noble men, Knightes, Gentlemen and Souldiers weare by their side, as being more proper and fit to be worne then any other weapon..."

--- Saviolo, his Practise, 1595

The primary weapon in Renaissance swordplay was the rapier. The rapier was normally a flexible highly tempered weapon with beautiful and sometimes elaborate hilts. Early rapiers were edged and pointed but, as they became lighter, the rapier became primarily a thrusting weapon. The best came from Spain. Most sixteenth century rapiers had, in addition to the simple grips and quillons (as the cross guard was called), a complex guard formed from and around a series of metal rings. A skillful swordsman was capable of disarming his opponent with the guard or catching his opponent's blade with the quillons. By 1600 these metal rings were filled in and shaped into a cup of metal that protected the hand in much the same way that the epee bell does today. Because of the weight and clumsiness of the rapier a parrying weapon (or secondary) was often used in conjunction with it.

In Italy where, as we shall see, fencing began, fighting was normally done with a sword in the right hand and a specially constructed dagger in the left. Early daggers had quillions but no handguards. By the early 17th century these weapons had fallen from use. A second type of dagger that was used as a secondary was the main gauche. It was normally about twelve inches to nineteen inches in length and equipped with quillons and a hand guard. It was developed in Spain and its use spread quickly to those nations under Spanish domination and then to the rest of Europe.

In England use of the buckler, or small circular shield (also called a target), with the rapier was retained until after 1570. The English sword used at that time was longer and heavier than the Italian rapier and the buckler was normally equipped with a spike in the center. More often than not, the use of the buckler interfered with the clean use of the sword. By 1580 this archaic means of fighting had been replaced among the aristocracy by rapier and dagger with the use of the buckler being maintained only by the lower classes.

The use of a cloak as a defensive secondary began to become popular in the late 1500's. Two general types were used. The first was the larger and slower cape that, when worn, reached well below the waist level. The smaller and faster cape could be moved quicker to defend the body and parry the opponents attack.

Fighters also could use two rapiers in a style which has come to be known as Florentine within the SCA. It was known as a 'case of rapiers" during the 16th century. One weapon provided a wide area of protection while the other was offensive. The primary was normally a standard rapier. But the secondary was often a specially made rapier, at times shorter, lighter and, therefore, faster than the primary.

III. The Rise of the Italian School

" is good for everie man to be taught and instructed in the Rapier and Dagger, not the rather thereby to grow insolent, or to commit murder, but to be able and ready in case of ... necessitie to defend himselfe..."

--- Saviolo, his Practise, 1595

The first true fencing manual was written in Italy in 1410 by master Fiori dei Liberi and entitled Il Fiordi di Battaglia. But tradition has it that the Spanish established the first fencing schools and made the rapier a triangular blade. Diego de Valera is reputed to have written the first rapier-fencing manual in about 1457. Ten years later a "German school" came into being, with the publication of Talhoffer's Fechtbuch (Talhoffer's Swordbook). The German school differed in it style of fighting from the Spanish school and other later schools. The Germans preferred the long cutting weapons of the late Middle Ages to the newfangled thrusting weapons of the Renaissance. Yet, by 1480 the Germans had begun to establish fencing associations.

By the early 16th century the art of rapier combat had spread from Spain to Italy. Renaissance swordplay was to reach its peak in Italy where several schools were established by 1550. The advent of the printing press made it possible for the fencing masters to publish their manuals and attract large numbers of students from the nobility and gentry. The first such manual by a recognized master was written in 1509.

The first work to contain positions, parries and attacks readily recognizable by the swordsman of the Current Middle Ages was Trattato di Scientia d'Arme written by Agrippa in 1553. Agrippa was an architect and engineer as well as a sword master of such repute that his method was known to both lnigo Montoya and Westley (a.k.a. " the Dread Pirate Roberts") of "The Princess Bride" fame. Agrippa's four positions (two offering protection against high attacks, one against midline attacks and one against low attacks) are related to positions used in fencing today. Parries, while mentioned, were not described but it is believed that they were somewhat similar to direct (or cross body) parries. Agrippa also advocated the use of a mail glove that enabled to swordsman to block or grasp his opponent's weapon. Trattato di Scientia d'Arme also addressed the use of the buckler, dagger and cloak as secondary (defensive) weapons.

The Italian school quickly discarded the buckler in favor of the dagger, which it advocated as a parrying weapon primarily and as a stabbing weapon at close quarters. The dagger could be used alone to parry the attacker's weapon or in conjunction with the rapier. Most combatants fought with the dagger forward in order to catch the opponents’ blade early and then allowing the defender to counterattack with the rapier.

Another refinement in swordsmanship developed and proliferated by the Italian school was the lunge, first emphasized in Di Grassi's Ragioni di Adoperar Sicuramente l'Arme in 1570. The author also emphasized, as did all of the Italian masters, the thrust over the cut. In his True Arte of Defense, first published in English in 1594 Di Grassi states that "... the thrust is to be preferred before the edgeblowe, as well because it striketh in lesse time, as also for that in the saide time, it doth more hurt." With the advent of even lighter blades more varied maneuvers were introduced and swordsmanship began to gain an elegance and grace unlike any that it had possessed in the past.

In England the art of swordsmanship lagged behind Spain and Italy as the gifts of the Renaissance were late in coming to this distant point in Europe. Henry VIII first organized the English fencing masters into an association in 1540. At this time England was a land where the sword and buckler still held sway. The rapier would not arrive for another generation and, when it did, native resistance was to try to tie it to the buckler as well.

IV. Dominance of the Italian School

"...I verily thinke it my bounden dutie, with all love and humilitie to admonish them to take heed, how they submit themselves into the hands of Italian teachers of Defence ... and to beware how they forsake or suspect their owne naturall fight, that they may by casting off of these Italianated, weake, fantasticall, and most diuellish and imperfect fights ... be restored ... unto their natural and most many and victorious fight againe..."

--- Silver, Paradoxes of Defence, 1599

The Italian school was adopted by the French as early as 1550 with the first association of French masters coming into existence by 1570. These new masters modified the Italian methods to French nature, creating a new school in the process. Among the first of the French masters was Saint Didier. His Traicte contenant les secrets du premier livre sur 1'espee seule, mere de toutes les arme was a compilation of the best of the Italian masters. From this humble beginnings French dueling would grow into a monster that would claim the lives of 8,000 French gentlemen in the years between 1598 and 1608.

The English were influenced heavily by both the French and Italian schools. The young English lord either went to France to study swordsmanship or engaged the services of imported Italian masters. Among these imported Italians was the aforementioned Saviolo. Rapier and dagger and, to a lesser extent, rapier and cloak came to be preferred in Elizabethan England. Although the Italian school generally held sway in England through the end of the sixteenth century, some Englishmen such as Silver (author of Paradoxes of Defense published in 1599) formed a "native reaction" against the foreign fencing masters. They denigrated the Italian method and advocated more of a slashing style and a revival of the buckler, this time in combination with the rapier. The buckler enjoyed a brief resurgence but was not generally thought of as an implement worthy of a gentleman. Because of the emphasis that Silver's work placed upon cutting and slashing attacks, he is sometimes referred to as the father of English saber play.

Towards the middle and end of the sixteenth century, the Spanish school began to acquire an almost mystical overtone to the swordsmanship that it taught. The Spaniards emphasized philosophy, mysticism, mathematics and geometry in their style. Caranza and Luys Pancheco de Narvaez were well thought of because of their intricate tricks but their geometric rules were the butt of satire. Caranza was the schools greatest advocate. He codified its tenets in his De la Filosofia de las Armas published in 1569. But, while this school might have emphasized the philosophical and mystical aspects of swordplay, it was considered too far from the mainstream in its own time and had little effect outside of the Iberian peninsula.

The Spanish school was also known for its emphasis of geometrical (or "'Euclidean") principles. The two opponents often circled each other attempting to remain covered while within range of the other weapons. The school centered on three different passes, all based on an attack by movements of the foot geometrically measured. A skillful combination of these passes were supposed to lead to victory. In appearance, fighters using the Spanish style might resemble two dancers involved in a vigorous but deadly circular dance.

V. Swordsmanship in the Late Renaissance

'Without all doubt, the thrust is to be preferred before the edgeblowe, aswell because it striketh in lesse time, as also for that in the saide time, it doth more hurt."

--- di Grassi, true Arte of Defense, 1594

By the end of the sixteenth century swordsmanship was an elegant, graceful and refined art: Five general forms of rapier combat were generally recognized at that time: single rapier, rapier and buckler, rapier and cloak, rapier and dagger and two rapiers. All forms emphasized the use of the secondary (be it gloved hand, cloak, buckler, dagger or second rapier) as a parrying weapon and the rapier as the primary offensive weapon. It would not be until the midseventeenth century that the light short court sword offered the swordsman a weapon with which he could easily parry and riposte, eliminating the need for the secondary.

The single rapier was believed to be the basis for learning all of the other forms. Saviolo called it "the true foundation ... from whence you may learne all things belonging to this art...." In the sixteenth century it was used in conjunction with the gloved hand. The hand parried the enemy's attacks or grasped the enemy's blade or wrist while the rapier was used to cut at the opponent’s head, sides chest or less and thrust at the face, chest or lower body. Early in the century Agrippa's four positions ruled supreme. As

the rapier became lighter a greater emphasis was placed on thrusting and parrying with the blade. Attacks could be delivered while circling, jumping or passing while the defense stressed ducking and jumping as well as hand and blade parries. By the end of the century eight blade parries were in use and counter (or circular) parries were known and practiced as well.

Standard attacks were relatively simple: the mandritta (a cutting blow aimed either at the head or thigh/leg), stramazone (a backhand cutting or slicing blow), punta reversa (a thrust directed outside or between the enemy's weapons coming from the high ward and aimed at the opponents face), or the passado (the precursor of the modern lunge which used footwork to gain reach), to name a few. Beats (the tapping of the opponent’s blade to move it out of line or distract the opponent) were used prior to launching the attack and rudimentary feints and disengagements were used during the attack. The coupe, on the other hand, was not used until the seventeenth century.

Rapier and buckler was practiced and discarded early in the Renaissance in Italy. It enjoyed somewhat more popularity in England where it incorporated many of the ideas of sword and shield. The buckler was used like a shield to block the enemy's sword. If equipped with a spike, it could be used to catch the enemy's blade or to stab at an enemy who had closed in too quickly. But, because of its small size and the greater control that it offered, it could also be used to catch the opponents blade on its edge and move it aside or entrap it.

The rapier and cloak form was used throughout Europe although its popularity varied from country to country and year to year. Di Grassi described two ways in which it might be used. The first called for it to be wrapped completely around the arm with that arm used to parry the enemy's blows. He considered this to be inferior to wrapping the cloak one or twice around the arm and using it to brush aside or catch the enemy's blade. Other masters stated that it could be used as a long flexible cloth club to sweep your opponents blade. The cloak could also be draped over the attackers blade while the defender stabbed him over it. It could also be thrown over the opponents head or face to impede his attack and block his vision.

By far the most popular and some would say the most colorful and intricate form of rapier combat was rapier and dagger. Dagger styles varied from a plain crosshilted weapon to the Spanish shell dagger and main gauche, as mentioned previously. Vincentio Saviolo in His Practice, published in 1595, detailed the following as one of the standard positions for rapier and dagger:

"... right foot formost, with the point of his Rapier drawne in short, and the Dagger helde out at length, bending a little his right knee with the heele of his right foote directlye against the middle of the lefte, causing him to goe round toward the left side of his adversary in a good measure,...."

In SCA terminology this would be called a Shamano position. A second position consists of the same stance with the body "untwisted", the rapier leading hilt tucked at the hip and dagger in a high guard. The third position requires the swordsman to lead with the left foot with the dagger held high and the rapier once again held hilt at the waist and point up. All three of these positions were considered variations of the stoccata guard. Another variant for rapier and dagger was the high guard, which required the rapier to be held in a high straight position with the dagger point out near the left hip. In both cases the dagger was used as a parrying weapon while the rapier served as the offensive weapon. Attacks against an opponent armed with rapier and dagger were not very complex due to the weight of the rapier and the embryonic state of development of the lunge. A stocatta was a thrust directed at the opponent's belly and delivered under his dagger. The foine and the imbrocatta were both thrusts attempted over the opponent's dagger.

In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth fighting with two rapiers came into vogue. A rapier of regular length was held in the right hand and a shortened one was used in the left. Great skill was required to carry out parries and attacks simultaneously but this style of fighting did not see the shortened rapier used as if it were a dagger. Lunges were launched from either foot using either weapon and parries, thrusts and, more rarely, cuts, were executed with both weapons at the same time or alternating as the fighter saw fit. This style normally was practiced only by the most accomplished swordsmen and masters due to its demands for patience, dexterity and balance.

VI. Dueling in the Renaissance

"The time appointed for Duello hath alwais bene twixt the rising and setting of the Sunne whosoever in that time doth not proove his intent, can never after bee admitted the Combat uppon that quarrell."

---Saviolo, his Practice, 1595

The concept of the duel was not a new one to the European, He was familiar with the judicial duel of the Middle A8es which was to determine by trial of arms the rightness of a cause. The Renaissance duel was quite different from the judicial duel in that it would not determine who was right and who was wrong. Instead, it would vindicate the honor of one of the parties involved without seriously damaging the honor of the other party. It differed from the affray of arms in that it was a formal event bound by certain well-defined social precepts.

Sixteenth and 17th century duels were sparked by perceived insults to one's honor. These "slurs" could be an event as insignificant as bumping into someone or looking at them while holding a conversation with someone else. The important point was not whether an insult had actually been given but whether one wag perceived. Doubt cast upon the chastity or morals of a lady, even if true, was always enough to begin a duel.

The challenge was normally entirely verbal. The use of a glove came into vogue in the 17th century. The challenger tried to make the challenge as flowery as possible. This was not always possible since the challenge was most often given in the heat of anger. As always courtesy, while difficult to achieve, was much admired.

After the initial insult and issuance of the challenge, the seconds, normally friends of both parties, met with the primary purpose of finding some sort of arrangement that would satisfy both parties and avoid 'bloodshed. This was often a vaguely worded apology that allowed both sides to insinuate that the other had backed down. If such a compromise was not possible, the seconds determined an appropriate time and place for the duel and were bound to be present to bear witness that honor had been satisfied.

Duels could be fought at any time and were often conducted immediately after the insult and challenge. If the two participants were patient enough to allow their seconds to arrange a time and place, the time was normally at dawn or dusk. Because dueling was often illegal, the duelists tried to meet at an out of the way place. Convents and the secluded grounds of palaces or other infrequently visited areas served best. Parks were often used as duelling grounds. Marylebone Park served admirably as a meeting place between Sir Charles Blount and the Earl of Essex. Even cemeteries served as suitable arena.

Once the time and place were arranged, it was no longer possible for either participants to back out. Blades must be crossed or someone's reputation would suffer. A loser in a duel did not often lose respect--the coward always did. The loser was seen to have demonstrated his courage, if not his skill, in fighting the duel. The coward showed that he possessed neither.

On the Continent, the choice of weapons belonged to the wronged party--the challenger. In England, for some reason, the challenged party chose the weapons. We in the SCA have elected to follow the British example. The two parties must also agree to whether the duel will be to first blood, serious wound or death. Most duels were fought to first blood. Once a wound has been inflicted the victorious party will normally feel vindicated. Only the most serious insults called for a duel to the death. In most countries the Crown considered such duels as murder and charges could be pressed against even the seconds.

During the Renaissance thousands of nobles and gentles perished in duels to settle the most foolish of offenses. Despite pleas and edicts from the Crowns of Europe, the bloodletting continued throughout the Renaissance and well into the so-called Age of Reason. In this the duelists seemed to ignore Saviolo's advice that "...duello was not instituted for the honor of chivalrie, as our late combators have wrested it, but only for the fitting out of the truth ...... "

VII. Conclusion

"... all these abilities and gifts which nature can bestow on a man, are nothing except he have knowledge or arte, for we see that the very things themselves which are brought foorth by nature good and perfect, if they be not holpen by arte, by very course of nature become naught and unprofitable."

---Saviolo, his Practice, 1595

Swordsmanship in the Renaissance was not the relatively simple hack and slash of the Middle Ages. Changes in weaponry and technology required speed, grace and elegance more than strength. Though the goal of sword fighting might remain the same (kill or disable your opponent, and even this was not always the case), the way that it was done was different. The thrust became the dominant form of attack and all but displaced cutting. Though lighter than its predecessor, the early rapier was not nimble enough to allow the fighter the free interplay of attack and defense that rapier combatants of the Current Middle Ages enjoy.

It cannot be denied that we in the SCA have not produced a mirror image of Renaissance swordsmanship in our version of rapier combat. By our standards, late Renaissance swordplay is slow and as much a game of footwork as blade play. Parry-riposte was very limited due to the weight and clumsiness of the early rapier. We have combined many of the features Renaissance single combat with fencing maneuvers of perhaps a half-century later. Once the rapier became light enough to handle easily (as are the foil and epee) the need for secondaries went away. But we have also chosen to retain the use of secondary weapons. This, more than anything else that we do, helps to preserve the Renaissance "feel" to our swordsmanship.

Yet, while the mechanics of Renaissance swordplay cannot be exactly replicated today, the spirit of it certainly can. Instead of fixating on the mechanics of Renaissance rapier combat, the rapier community of Ansteorra has chosen to also resurrect the codes of honor, the feel of elegance, the courtly behavior and the sense of chivalry that epitomized the Renaissance gentleman and courtier. The pageantry and honor will live as long as we care to recreate them. Arid isn't this, after all, more important than the fencing techniques themselves?


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