What's our problem?
The main purpose of any fencing art is to keep the fencer safe from the hostile intentions of his opponent(s), i.e. defense. However, in all of these arts it is recognized that through defense alone, a fencer will eventually lose, because as his opponent continues throwing attacks, inevitably some attacks will pass through the fencer's defenses. Therefore, the fencer is taught to attack his opponent, in order to prevent them from continuing their offense. Such an attack, however, can only be made if the fencer can safely come into range, execute his attack, and then move out of danger safely. The central problem in any fencing art thus concerns how (and when) to make such a safe attack.
Different fencing styles emphasise different solutions to this problem, depending on a range of factors as varied as the weapons (and armour) used, cultural background, and personal preference. In this article we will take a closer look at how the problem is seen, and what solutions are preferred, in 17th century rapier fencing, as practiced in for instance Italy and Germany (i.e. what could perhaps be called the common style of rapier fencing). My main source here is the treatise written by Bruchius, Scherm- ofte Wapen-konste, which was published in Leiden in 1671, However, in this discussion I will also touch upon the works of Fabris (De lo Schermo, Copenhagen, 1606), Giganti (Scola, overo Teatro, Venice, 1606), Capo Ferro (Dell'Arte e dell'Uso della Scherma, Siena, 1610), Alfieri (La Scherma, Padua, 1640), L'Ange (Adelichen und Ritterlichen Freyen Fecht-Kunst, Heidelberg, 1664), Marcelli (Regole della Scherma, Rome, 1686), and Schmidt (Leib-beschirmende und Feinden Trotz-bietende Fecht-Kunst, Nürnberg, 1713).
Rapier fencing is an interesting style of fencing to use as a basis for this discussion, as within rapier fencing our problem is very explicitly defined, analysed and then dealt with. During the 16th century, fencing masters increasingly ascertain that the thrust is faster than the cut. This assertion itself is worthy of an entirely different discussion. However, considering that most rapier masters used mainly (or only) guards in which the arm and weapon are kept extended forwards, and that making a cut therefore first required the arm and weapon to be withdrawn, the thrust can certainly be faster than the cut in rapier fencing. The resulting focus on thrusting over other modes of attack means that, in rapier fencing, control of the centre line becomes of great importance.
Our problem, as it is encountered in rapier fencing, therefore is the following. As a fencer steps into the range from which he can start making an attack on his opponent, via a long extended thrust known as a stoccada, or lunge, he also steps into the range at which his opponent can make such an attack at him. Worse, the fencer's act of stepping into this range yields a Tempo, an opportunity, to make an action such as an attack, to his opponent. In his treatise, Bruchius defines three different measures. The first measure is the most relevant here (1). This is the lange Mensuer, or long measure. “[This is the range] at which, when you approach and bind your opponent from afar, you can just hit him with the point of your blade, with a long thrust.” (translation by me). Therefore, if a fencer simply steps into this long measure, he should expect to be hit before he can finish his step. This is essentially the problem that any fencer has to solve.
The solution, as it is given in the treatises
Bruchius calls the solution strengeren, or attaquéren, and he defines these terms as follows: “This means so much as touching or seizing his opponent with the sword, with a good advantage.” The words used (aentasten – “touching” and aengrijpen – “seizing”) do suggest that in Bruchius's art, contact with the opponent's blade is made. Clearly, strengeren is an action on the blade by which an advantage is gained. Unfortunately Bruchius's definition does not provide any clarity as to how this is achieved. Therefore, we will consider what other authors on rapier fencing have written.
Fabris first defines the principle of forming a counter-posture, which “means situating the body and the sword in such a way that, without touching the opponent's blade, the straight line between the opponent's point and your body is completely defended”. Later, he defines trovare di spada – “finding the sword” – as “occupying it. Although this technique is similar to the counter-posture, there are some differences, because it is possible to find your opponent's sword without covering the exact line between his point and your body. However, you still have the advantage of the sword because the opponent cannot wound you without passing through your forte. And your forte is so close to his point that the latter is “found” in the Tempo that the opponent uses when he moves for the lunge” (all translations by Tom Leoni, 2005).
Giganti similarly describes contraguardie (“counter-guards”). “To set yourself against the opponent's guard, stand out of measure, with the sword and the dagger high, strong in your body-placement and with your stance firm and secure; then, examine the opponent's guard and slowly proceed to gain his sword by just about resting your blade over his, as if covering it. In this manner, he won't be able to perform an attack without first performing a cavazione.” (2) Furthermore, he uses the term stringere, of which he says: “Before you perform an action, you must gain your opponent's sword out of measure, assuring yourself of his weapon by placing your blade over his so that he can only strike you by employing two Tempi: one to perform the cavazione, one to deliver the attack.” and “Again, your goal is to take away the opponent's ability and opportunity to strike you in a single Tempo. To this effect, you must ensure that his blade is not pointed at your body so that he may not strike you with a sudden strong thrust.” (all translations by Tom Leoni, 2010).
Capo Ferro likewise uses the term stringere. When discussing how to seek the measure to attack your opponent, he writes “Nevertheless the stringere of the sword, when I cannot do otherwise in seeking the misura in my guardia, it is only necessary that I stringa in a direct line the debole of the enemy's sword with the forte of mine and ride it without touching, but only in striking shove the debole of the enemy's sword with the forte to the inside or outside according to the occasion of striking.”. (translation from Jared Kirby (ed.), 2012).
Contraguardie are described by Alfieri as “These comprise simply of an artful positioning of the body and sword, to impede and disturb our enemies' designs in attack.” Additionally, Alfieri says “You should take great care however that in finding his blade your sword should be stronger, which usually means that a greater length of your sword covers a lesser length of his, above all ensuring that you take your opponent's point out of presence.” (translations by Stewart, Marshall and Terminiello, 2012).
The term stringiren is further used by Jéann Daniel L'Ange, as well as engagiren - “engage” and gewinnen - “gain”. In 1664 L'Ange wrote: “Above all things one should note well, that when one wants to gain the enemy's weak, he should push with his strong on the enemy's weak with great caution. One should not, then, stringiren the blade too hard, so that one does not give too great an opening, by which the enemy is given an opportunity to both disengage and thrust in the occurring opening.” (translation by me) In the above quote, L'Ange very clearly advocates making contact between the blades, as the enemy's weak is pushed aside with the strong of your own somewhat. In his treatise, he also makes clear that this stringiren or engagiren is performed when one wants to advance into measure, i.e. it is used to close the line so that a safe advance into the measure where an attack can be made becomes possible.
Marcelli described something very similar in 1686: “And after having gained or attacked the enemy’s sword by bringing his true edge over the adversary’s blade, he shall endeavor to divert it from his presence. And then he shall proceed by stepping by small increases, one feet after the other, until he will be near enough to the correct measure as to perform some action, either with firm foot or flowing step.” Again, contact between the blades is made, and used to push the enemy's blade off line. Marcelli further declares that “when somebody has gained the advantage of engaging the enemy’s sword, he is forcing his foe to perform a cavazione in that Tempo, and during that cavazione he is going to wound him.” (all translations by Francesco Lanza, 2013).
Schmidt, finally, wrote the following about stringiren: “when the opponent has placed himself in guard, you interpose your blade on his weak, so that you can work the tip of his sword from you, and for better clarity this is named Anbinden (binding) in German”. He further specifies that “Stringiren is actually named binding, or finding the blade. Going against the adversary's weak with either the half strong or with the full (3). He who has bound the opponent's blade has a great advantage, because the enemy must give him a Tempo when he wants to go forth and free himself. From the bind one can then thrust.” (all translations by me).
Synthesis – strengeren, or gaining the blade
If we now pull together all the above descriptions, we see that the rapierist’s solution to the problem is to take up a position from which the enemy can be advanced upon or even attacked, while the fencer is safe from a direct attack over the centre line. Effectively, control of the centre line is achieved by a placement of the fencer's blade and body in such a way that, relative to the opponent's blade and body, this centre line is covered. This usually involves the fencer placing a stronger part of his blade close to or against a weaker part of the opponent's blade. Through this gaining of the blade, the opponent's primary attack is essentially parried (4) before he can make it.
The fencer is then safe to advance further into a measure from which he can safely attack, or alternatively, the fencer can react to any Tempo his opponent might yield (most likely through a cavade) by attacking him. A safe attack is usually made by thrusting in opposition (5). However, there are also some differences in how the gaining of the sword is executed. The main difference lies in whether contact between the blades is made or not.
Some of the early 17th century authors (Fabris, Capo Ferro) clearly state that such contact should not be made. Later authors, however, are either less clear, or clearly indicate that contact is made (L'Ange, Marcelli). Fabris states that contact should not be made between the blades as this will allow the opponent to realize the fencer's intentions. Such intentions can be felt through the blades. Furthermore, touching blades may cause the fencer's form to be disrupted, which Fabris states can make him miss a Tempo, for instance when the opponent makes a cavade.
That these objections are not as important in later times likely relates to the evolution of the rapier during the 17th century, with rapier blades generally decreasing in weight. This decrease in blade weight resulted in increasingly faster blades, though at the expense of a less powerful cut. This for example resulted in increasing use of double or even triple feints and more significance being placed on the parry-riposte as a reaction to an attack. With these faster blades, the disruption of the fencer's form that Fabris described would be less important than the advantage gained through sensing the opponent's blade, allowing the fencer to react faster to changes in blade pressure that inform him of his opponent’s intentions, rather than sight.
A second variation in the execution of the strengeren lies in which edge is placed at the opponent's blade. Whereas some authors very clearly specify that the blade should be gained with the long edge (Giganti, Marcelli), other authors use either edge. Especially on the outside line, the short edge is often used as well as the long edge (e.g. Fabris, Bruchius). This variation appears to be a personal preference, and does not seem to represent an evolution in the style.
Finally, Marcelli clearly specifies that the finding of the blade should be done without taking a step at the same time, though he advances again immediately after gaining the blade. Other authors, however, do not show this concern. As Marcelli is more elaborate than most other authors, they might have intended the same. Alternatively, this might be related to the weight and fastness of later rapier blades, or it might represent a personal preference of Marcelli's.
How to use this gaining of the sword to your advantage is nicely illustrated by Bruchius's first three lessons. In his first lesson, Bruchius essentially describes the ideal situation, where your opponent does not react to any of your actions. The opponent stands in his posture, yielding an opening on the inside line (6) (note that all of the lessons discussed here could be executed starting on either the inside or the outside line). The fencer gains his blade, and then advances. This advance brings the fencer from long measure into the middle measure, where he can confidently attack his opponent. After gaining the middle measure, the fencer thrusts and hits the opponent.
In the second lesson, we explore one of two possibilities for a cavade that the opponent has. The opponent again stands in posture (this time yielding an opening on the outside line), and as before, the fencer gains his blade and then advances into the middle measure. This leaves him with approximately the middle of his blade against the three-quarter point of the opponent's. When the fencer advances, his opponent chooses to make a cavade, which gives our fencer a Tempo in which to attack and hit him, whilst closing the line with his strong.
In the third lesson, the opponent makes a cavade right after his blade has been gained. If our fencer takes this Tempo well, he can use it to make an advance into the middle measure while also making a cavade of his own (a concavade) to retain control of the bind. If the opponent then attempts another cavade, the fencer can easily take the Tempo and hit him as in lesson two. If not, the fencer can also attack as above in lesson one.
These lessons illustrate the advantage obtained by gaining the sword. A well-executed gaining of the sword generates a threat to the opponent, and forces the opponent to yield a Tempo to escape this bind. At the same time, gaining the sword gives the fencer a relatively save position from which to advance, or even attack, and to react to his opponent. After the fencer has made an attack, the same principles should be used to again find a safe position from which to observe the opponent, and, if required, make another attack. This is often achieved by a safe retreat, though a second option is to close with the opponent whilst immobilising him.
In all fencing arts, the practitioner has to deal with the same problem. If he wants to stop his opponent from attacking him, which would eventually lead to him being injured, he himself has to attack his opponent. However, such an attack can only be made if the fencer can be certain of his own safety. This problem is explicitly dealt with in rapier fencing, and the solution preferred by rapier masters in the 17th century was to use a principle named strengeren, or “gaining” of the opponent's blade. This strengeren can be defined as “placing your blade (and body) in such a way relative to your opponent's blade (and body) that you cover his most direct line of attack, whilst keeping your own direct line of attack open. In this way, you effectively parry his primary attack before he makes it, and create an opportunity for yourself to assault your opponent.”