Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Styles of Swordplay

During the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, several different styles of sword fighting existed. The times and customs made the sword and swordplay almost common place. Schools and fraternities dedicated to the study of fencing sprang up all over Europe. Vast distances, both physical and political, made the spread of knowledge slow throughout the whole of Europe and so different styles of fighting developed in each country. Knowledge slowly spread and by the middle of the seventeenth century there were basically five styles of fencing. They are: the Old style, the Spanish style, the Italian style, the German style, and the French style. We will briefly examine each of them in turn.

The Old style was the basis of all other fencing styles. It was what remained of medieval sword fighting techniques. The weapons of this style were the dagger, the cutlass, the long sword, the 'hand-and-a-half' or 'bastard' sword, and the two-handed sword. The only defensive item employed with this style was the buckler, a small round shield that was held in the fighter's off hand. The Old style developed from the medieval arts of war with a single sword or a sword and shield. Using wider and heavier swords than the rapier, the Old style depended more upon physical strength than upon dexterity or finesse. It used a combination of attacks with the sharp edge of the blade (slashes), attacks with the flat of the blade (strikes), and attacks with the point of the blade (thrusts).

The Old style endured the longest in England. This is due, in part, to two factors that influenced the English strongly in the art of sword fighting: a book and a law. In 1599, a mercenary named George Silver wrote and published a book on sword fighting entitled Paradoxes of Defense. This book is a tirade against the rapier and foreign styles. It must have been well received by its audience since prior to this book's publication a law was written limiting the length of rapiers that were allowed on English soil. There is a case of a foreign diplomat running afoul of this law and having his blades broken to the proper length by the English authorities. Yet we cannot condemn the English for being non progressive as there were foreign fencing schools and masters teaching the other styles to any Englishman willing to learn.

The Spanish style was probably the first solid fencing style to develop from the Old style. Built upon medieval sword fighting techniques, it relied heavily upon almost full arm extension and footwork to keep the opponent at a set distance. The weapons utilized by the Spanish style were the long sword and the rapier. The style used no defensive tools; a single blade served as both offense and defense. It depended upon quick movements and used both the slash and the thrust as attacks. The slash was the stronger of the two attacks due to the distance kept between opponents.

The Spanish style has been described as "a complicated and mystical affair" due to its extensive use of geometry and its complicated "circle of defense" referenced by a French student of the style named Thibault. It is believed that the Spanish style developed from the teachings of alchemy that stressed perfection of the human form in all things. The difficulty in mastering the style, combined with the rigid laws and customs regarding dueling in Spain, meant that sword fighting did not become as popular in Spain as it did in the rest of Europe. Spanish sword masters and Italian merchants brought the Spanish style of fencing to Italy. The Italians incorporated some of the elements of the Spanish style into the style that they were developing.

The Italian style developed shortly after the Spanish style. It concentrated on the physical and mechanical points of swordplay, such as presenting the smallest possible target to the opponent and always keeping the tip of the blade pointed at the opponent. The weapons used in this style were the long sword, the rapier, and the foil, a long and thin blade with a sharp point and no edge. The defensive items utilized in the Italian style were the buckler and the baton, a cane like stick held in the off hand and used for parrying. Additionally, the Italians innovated the art of sword fighting by introducing the integration of attack and defense in both hands. This innovation was called Florentine fighting, after the city of its birth. Thus swordsmen using the Italian style often carried a dagger for use in their off hand. Some fought with two long blades. This style used two types of attacks: the thrust and the lunge. The lunge was another invention of the Italians, although at first it was basically just a running thrust.

The Italian style is the best documented of all of the styles, as instructional texts still exist written by such masters as DiGrassi, Agrippa, and Capo Ferro. The Italian style spread throughout Europe and influenced all of the other styles. The French style developed almost completely out of it. Additionally, the tenets of the Italian style are also, in a large part, the basis of modern epee and foil fencing.

The German style was developed in Germany and Eastern Europe (The Holy Roman Empire) at the same time the Italian style was being developed. Owing its origins to the Old style, the German style used a viscious system of slashes and cuts aimed at the upper torso and a box like system of parries. These attacks and defenses were based upon the moves that a man fighting from horseback would use. The weapons of the German style were long sword and saber. No defensive items were used in this style, although woodcuts would indicate that a secondary weapon, a sword or a dagger, was sometimes used. The style utilized three types of attacks: the slash, the strike, and the cut, a fast attack somewhere between a shallow thrust and a short slash.

Numerous German fencing texts from the period still exist. The style influenced cavalry fighting and sword fighting in warfare, such as it was in the period, throughout Europe. Much like the Spanish style, the German style emphasized keeping the opponent at a set distance. The style was spread across Europe by the landsneckt mercenaries. Finally, the modern techniques for saber fighting owe their beginnings to the German style.

The French style was the last to develop and was truly a synthesis of the best the other styles had to offer. This style stressed the use of strategy and thinking in combat to make every factor count for you and against your opponent. The style fully incorporated the Florentine method and combatants used long swords, foils, and rapiers for weapons. Defensive secondary items could be nearly anything: a dagger, a buckler, a baton, a cloak, a hat, a mug, a chair, etc. One of the most common secondaries was the dagger. A long daggers was developed for this purpose and took on a name of its own: the main gauche or left hand. The French style had three types of attacks: slashes, thrusts, and lunges.

In 1573, Henri Sainct Didier published the first book on the art of swordsmanship ever written in French. He is held by the French to be "father of their national science of arms", however his work is largely derivative of di Grassi and other Italian masters. The French style eventually achieved dominance over the other styles in the late 17th century. Today, it is the style of sword fighting that people identify with the rapier and The Three Musketeers. This is largely due to Hollywood of course. However, by the end of the 17th century, Paris was the home of numerous fencing schools.

By the 18th century fencing had basically begun to devolve into simply a sport. While duels still occurred in some places, more and more they were being fought with pistols instead of swords. For nearly all people the five distinct styles of swordplay that once existed in Europe have degenerated over time into only a general idea that once people fought with swords. Today, only a very few talented people keep the noble spirit and active study of classical fencing alive. In a future article I will describe some period duels as well as try to give you a feeling of what it is like to cross swords.

Copyright 2001 by Mark S. Cookman

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